92. ‘Right’ analysis, wrong conclusions 2. A School of Place

In the first blog of this pair, it was argued that we run the risk of planning by think tank if we choose to divert precious national resources and Ministerial and executive bandwidth to ideas that, while conceptually interesting, have not been tested through research and may anyway not be necessary because the outcomes being sought are already being delivered by other (existing) means.  

A second right field idea (to repeat my earlier joke) from The Policy Exchange, a right-of-centre think tank, can found in the report – A School of Place – released in the dead period between Christmas and New Year 2022.  A curious time to release a curious report that comes to the curious conclusion, as articulated in its sub-title, that a new school of architecture can revitalise Britain’s built environment.  Like previous reports in the series the prescription seems to be based on little concrete evidence and the conclusion is somewhat wide of the mark.

A School of Place, contains some interesting, and, in my view, often correct analysis.  It argues that:

  • the public consistently reveal their dissatisfaction with new housing development and better quality design has a role to play in helping to make it more acceptable to the local communities who will need to live with it
  • better quality urbanism could deliver new development that is more responsive to its setting, particularly when built in or near historic environments;
  • the quality of the built environment is not even and is often inequitable in how poor quality design impacts on those already suffering economic and social disadvantage; and 
  • the quality of places (as opposed to buildings) has been marginal in much architectural education while planners, more-often-than-not, are inadequately trained to fill the gap.  

All this leads to a correct conclusion that striving to achieve a well-designed built environment should be an explicit part of the national levelling-up (regeneration) agenda, everywhere.

A not so subtle sub-text

Unfortunately, the report’s solution to all these problems, and many more, that a new Government funded (or otherwise private) architecture school be founded seems, at best, wildly optimistic, and, at worst, misplaced.   And alarm bells get all the louder when the sub-text of the report is revealed that existing architecture and planning schools have failed to deliver because they have failed to offer a sufficiently ‘traditional’ syllabus and are instead too wedded to Modernist development which remains unpopular with the public and is therefore resulting in the rejection of new housing development. 

In a foreword to the report, the Secretary of State for Levelling-up, Michael Gove, endorses the analysis, although interestingly does not endorse its central conclusion that we need a new School of Place.  Perhaps mindful of his time as Secretary of State for Education and the challenges of introducing a new traditionally-minded (in teaching terms) national curriculum into schools, he seems shy of backing the call for some form of nationally approved architectural curriculum (perhaps neo-Georgian) in this very different type of school.  To be fair to the report’s author, he goes out of his way to suggest no stylistic preference should dominate in the proposed School of Place, which would instead focus on bringing architecture and planning together around a new focus on place.  At the same time, the report clearly builds on a sequence of Policy Exchange reports that do explicitly call for a return to traditional architecture, and sets an objective that a new School of Place would “wholeheartedly revive traditional architecture”.  Its cover, an image of the wonderful (genuinely Georgian) Halifax Piece Hall, also tends to give its sub-text away.

The work promised by A School of Place as suggested in its cover image

The underlying narrative is clearly that all our existing schools of architecture and planning, many of which (including my own) are held in very high esteem internationally, are doing something wrong.  But the picture it paints is a caricature of every school of architecture and every school of planning doing and teaching the same thing.  This fundamentally mis-understands universities, departments within universities, and academics, who are all fiercely independent, resulting in a huge diversity in what is taught, how, to whom, with what crossovers (between disciplines) and with what outcomes.  Some architecture schools are more focussed on being experimental and advent-guard and others are more traditional, for example in the way they teach construction.  Likewise, some planning schools are very focussed on the physical nature of place, while others have strong social science leanings, and many try to find a middle way.  On top of this, there are specialist providers such as The Prince’s Foundation with its well-established courses in building arts and crafts.

But as I have argued before in this bog, not all is rosy in the garden of academe.  For my part, I would certainly agree that a greater focus on urban design as a common foundation for the education of our built environment professionals is highly desirable, and bringing architecture and planning most closely together has to be good.  But early attempts to create a joint architecture and planning programme at The Bartlett have revealed how challenging it is to work across the accreditation requirements of The Architects’ Registration Board (ARB), RIBA and RTPI in order to get something that ticks all boxes.  I have also long argued that it was a mistake, in a break with practices around the world, to move the UK from a two year post-graduate model of educating planners to a one year model where, quite simply, there is not enough time to do justice to subjects like design where the iteration of projects to build design skills is so important.

Curiously, this report comes at a time when the accreditation requirements in both architectural and planning education is already under scrutiny, with the Architects Registration Board and the Royal Town Planning Institute both currently engaged in education reviews.  Perhaps the ARB can consider how to make its criteria more flexible so that urbanism as well as building design is a legitimate route to accreditation; perhaps the RTPI can consider ways to give planners greater credit for doing a real post-graduate specialism, including in urban design, maybe through an extra year of study; and perhaps the two organisations (and the RIBA) can talk to each other?

The elephant in the room

But there is a further elephant in the room of The Policy Exchange analysis who are in the habit of pointing to their own polling that purportedly tells them that there is “widespread public dissatisfaction with the quality of much contemporary architecture”, sentiments that, apparently, are “disproportionally concentrated within the housing sector”, making communities oppose new development.  If this is the case, then it is also a fact that the standard product of the housing industry is (and has long been) traditional in nature.  Outside of London and our metropolitan centres, where public sentiment is arguably less negative about new housing, I would estimate that 90% of new housing is in one or other pseudo-traditional style, and it is this that communities really seem to fear.  

Most new housing is already ‘traditional’ and it is this that is opposed by communities

Why is this?  A major reason, to repeat earlier arguments, is that so many of these pseudo-traditional schemes are laid out at haste using standard products and inappropriate highways standards, and involve only the most minimal of design time.  By contrast, those that take a more contemporary direction, tend to be denser and involve an architect and/or urban designer engaging in a careful design process to create a contextually sensitive yet distinctively modern scheme.  Well known examples include Derwenthorpe in York and Eddington in Cambridge.  Often they are encouraged by planners who want to see something better than the standard poor or mediocre products that have been so destructive for decades across large swathes of the country.

So is the answer to our collective failure to build enough new houses of a quality that communities can embrace likely to be solved through government (or anyone) setting up a new School of Place?  Probably not.  Planning has long been a target of The Policy Exchange, and in that they have helped to shift the national agenda to one where design quality is now firmly seen as a non-negotiable aspect of the national planning remit, they have played an important role.  But if we are to go the next stage and routinely deliver this locally, then we need to stop bashing planning, stop bashing architects and urban designers, stop thinking in narrow stylistic terms, and instead invest in a world class planning service that can routinely require that the very best design, whether traditional or modern, is delivered, everywhere.  There are no easy fixes or work arounds, and anything else is just a distraction.

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL