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My American and Continental readers will know what I mean when I say that London is not a Planned city, it is a Regulated one.

Yet the British 'Planning system' is, arguably, the best thing that happened to the British lifespace in the 20C. The reason is that although instituted, in the mid 1940's, as a 'Top-down' Socialist 'central-planning' strategy run by Whitehall via Municipal Planners, by the end of the 1960's it had been hijacked by the Public and their Pressure-Groups and become a typically British 'Bottom-up' system of governance. That is to say that, instead of being 'planned', the British lifespace, by the 1970's, acquired the means, and relatively elaborate and sophisticated means, to be 'self-regulating'. All building projects must apply to their locally-elected Planning Committee for permission to be built.

This permission is far from merely technical - indeed technical regulation is dealt with by a separate, technically staffed Building Regulation Officer, whose codes are issued from Whitehall, but who can equally well be over-ruled by Whitehall. The Planning Committee decides, with an extraordinary amount of administratively legal freedom, whether it really 'likes' what it is proposed to build. Not only that but any 'affected party' which virtually means anyone at all, and especially the myriad of naturally and locally-constituted pressure groups and societies, can lodge an objection. Every such objection is carefully considered and given a weight that in cultures with a tradition of 'formal planning' would be found entirely incredible. But that is the British way to a consensus position.

This 'planning system' is now so ingrained into British culture, and its politics, that it is hard to imagine a time when a Developer only had to apply, as they still do in parts of the USA, for a purely technical building permit administered by unelected officials. It was a carry-over, in Britain at least, from the time of Noblesse Oblige and the burden of the Aristocrat to be always mindful of the 'lower orders'. When Noblesse became no longer noble, or obliging, people had to learn to fend or themselves. The reclusive tribe of 'blue-blooded Marxists', that was the Planning Profession of the 1950's, gave way to the publicity-seeking special interest pressure group of the 1970's.

There is, however, another tradition, which is that of, in fact, the rest of Europe all the way to the Pacific! This is the tradition of 'planned projects'. Without going into the various sorts of cultural and political foundations for this version of 'planning' it is clear to see that Britain only instituted 'planned' urban complexes in either colonial situations, like Edinburgh and New Delhi, or in 'themed' recreation cities, like Bath. Even these, apart from New Delhi, seem devoted to a level of conception that goes no further than 'styling' and a picturesque, literary, theming - a romantic gloss of High, 'Western', Civilisation. The more typical British urban foundation has been, from its post-Roman decline and Mediaeval re-invention, up until its present state, a largely 'unplanned' (but highly-regulated) object.

The point of this Introduction is not to preface an history of British urbanism. It is to introduce the idea there is a territory of 'formal design' that lies beyond a system of regulation around 'typical models'. Such models, of what constituted a 'typical' street, or a typical house, for various contexts, became very exactly and adequately defined in Britain over many centuries. These 'model-regulations' created the urbane lifespaces of considerable charm and convenience (and continuing high value) that still remain, all over Britain, from the 18C and 19C.

The relatively simple legal controls, and the urbane design-culture that 'filled them out' and made them' real', ended in the 1950's and were dismantled by the 1970's, at just the time when the Planning system itself left the control of the Planners and fell into the grasp of the 'democratic process'. We can say that the reign of 'typical' solutions ended, 'conceptually', with the introduction of Socialist 'rational' central planning (in the mid-1940's) and ended, 'practically'. when that system was hijacked, thirty years after its installation, by 'democracy'.

Over the last thirty years a situation has arisen whereby legal and political control is effected, more and more, by a form of 'direct' Public Opinion (now fast collapsing into Focus-groping), while the 'models' of what was a City, or an Urbane Building, have been abandoned by the Design Culture and the Development Industry. All Projects are argued from 'first principles', or last focus-Poll, on an ad-hoc basis. The effect of this is to make it almost impossible for professional Planners, and even technical Building Control Officers, to administer development applications. Especially is this the case in large, innovating projects, where teams of free-thinking Professionals invent designs calling upon advanced ideas in many different disciplines. The 'Wobbly' bridge is a good case, wherehte pressure to make the thing 'invisible' led to a massive under-design

Indeed the position has now been reached where no 'design', as such, can be considered 'authentic' unless it is predominantly 'authorial'. What this means is that no design is considered 'authentic' that is 'merely' exemplary, merely literate or merely novel, within the defined ambit of a Medium - such as City-Planning. Any design that 'merely' seeks to extend the received culture of its Medium into the future such that the past and future meet in a present that is 'made authentic' by reference to this conjunction, is considered a slavish abandonment of Artistic probity!

If it is not manifestly the work of a Very Unique Architect, a building loses its 'truth-value'. This design strategy has its uses in a planning and building regulation culture that has lost all conviction of how to regulate lifespace-construction around a series of commonly accepted 'models'. The 'mad artist' Author is presumed to be as irrational as he, or she, is self-centred, eccentric and superficial. The Development Industry believes that such rootless and inward-looking personalities are easily manipulated. They can be used to cloak a development that breaks every civilised rule of urbanity.

Liebeskind's proposed 'corkscrew' extension to the V&A, for example, gives the Museum around twice as much floorspace as it could conventionally expect to build. The professional Planning Officers advised against giving it Planning Permission. The elected Planning Committee of Kensington and Chelsea, a 'Conservative Native Reserve', if ever there was one, over-ruled them. They could forsee that the New Labour Administration in Whitehall would over-rule them, accusing them of blocking progress towards the 'New'. They might even have to compensate the V&A for an unreasonable and vexations refusal - thus helping to subsidise the monstrosity.

Liebeskind's design breaks the street-line, the sky-line, and every other previous model-criterion of what an Urbane Building ought to be. But its comprehensive architectural contra-formality is its 'political' strength. In a situation where no one knows, any more, what they should be doing, the 'mad genius', like the epileptic shaman of old, is the only one with the 'foresight' to divine the future. The problem, as one knows, is that all 'prophecies', if put into effect, become 'reality'. This is nothing but the way History happens. But it would be good to make a history that progressed Architecture, and theory, beyond the level of Mumbo Jumbo.

The British System of Planning retains its self-regulating structure, but the 'umpires', ie. the Professional Planners and the Planning Committee and even the Pressure Groups, having lost their 'models' of what constituted the 'right' solution, are in free fall, or free flight - depending on your point of view. The field is open as never before and the dawn of the 21C undoubtedly marks the commencement of a genuine 'free-for-all' in British Lifespace Enginering.

Yet, looking at the projects of the year 2000 a markedly embryonic quality seems patent. 2000 will be known, I suggest, as the 'Year of the Embryo, Egg, or Blob'. The Millenium Dome is round, the London Eye is roundelay of glass eggs, the frontispiece of the RIBA Directory of Practices, Winner of the Stirling Prize, is the blob-shaped media pavilion at Lords. 2000 is pregnant with ovulating buildings. What will hatch from them? Or will it all, as does the London Eye, merely go round and round and up and down?

My proposition is that, in order to break out of this manifest regression into the womb-like comfort of these intellectualy undemanding eggforms, British Planning needs to reach out into unfamiliar territory. It needs to learn about the region that lies beyond, even, its abandoned rule book of 'traditional' models. It needs to learn about 'formal planning'.

Before Planners rush off to Italy, or Paris or St. Petersburg, they should know that, although they will find examples of formal planning, they will find little living formal planning culture worth studying. Even the books they may find will be of little intellectual help to them. The whole business has to be reconstituted from its deepest roots. This means going far beyond Western Europe, even though, as I believe, the West is its intellectual guardian.

The first last and over-riding thing to be known about formal planning is that although it is a game like chess, to be played for pleasure and edification, it is, at root, the technique that adds the intellectual dimension to the human lifespace. Formal planning exists to invest the human lifespace with a structure of meanings, turning it from a merely material construct into a conceptual landscape. Formal Planning therefore implies a level of lifespace culture that can both invest the lifespace with meanings as well as read and conjure with them, adding and subtracting them in a long and dynamic process. Indeed it should be stressed that it is the intellectual activity contingent upon formal planning that is its aim and justification. Without such a lifespace-culture formal planning is mere tidyness and tiresome regulation to accord with seeming trivialities. Without a lifespace culture that can discourse upon the Hypostyle, a planning grid is ontologicaly trivial. Without an understanding of the wider and deeper meanings of the Entablature, the idea of a cornice-height is irritating to an Engineer who can easily build higher than it.

The total lack (at the highest levels of 19C and early 20C Urban and Architectural Theory) of such a tough intellectual underpinning to the Building Regulations that created the great city, that London became between 1850 and 1950, was a not merely the reason why they were so easily abandoned, but, more importantly, the reason why they were not reinvented and modernised in such a form as to extend the 7,000-year-old lifespace culture that was 'hidden' inside the 'traditional' urbane models - all of which used terms such as 'island-block', 'court', 'facade', 'window', 'base' and 'cornice'.

This intellectually- dimensioned formal planning culture has to be created out of the ruins of 20C inventions, many of which were useful, but the totality of which has been a lifespace catastrophe.

It is for this reason that the Battesea Project interested us.

I recall a medical man saying, of a Friend, that his was "a most interesting case". My friend subsequently died of Leukaemia contracted in Japan. I have learned, since then, to be wary of the phrase 'interesting case' issuing from the lips of a Professional, for it can presage bad news for the Patient. Yet I repeat, in this context, that Battersea was 'extremely interesting' to me.

How did the Patient 'present' - back in May 1997?

We were enormously attracted by the fact that the power Station is bordered on its West by a sea of clattering railway lines at high level, elevated on arches high above ground. To the south lay two of Londons biggest gasometers, veritable sky-scrapers of combustible marsh gas - as well as the occasional canine wails from the Battersea Dogs Home. To the East lay a refuse-crushing station, where London's rubbish was compacted and loaded onto river barges, giving off a scent like cheap perfume. Across the river Thames, to the North, brilliantly lit by the sun, where the white hulls of an armada of Workers Flats. These are, admittedly Workers Flats of superior design, and have recently been awarded the prize of being the Listed Buildings of all 20C Listed Buildings. But they are still white, boxy strip-windowed cement Arks either waiting for the Flood of Revolution to carry them to the Communist Land or a proletarian navy that has missed its Ararat and landed bang up against Belgravia where live the toffiest of toffs.

In any case, the 32 hectares of Batterea had nothing that one could even begin to call a 'view'. It therefore failed miserably the 'Crack' test devised by Le Corbusier for Rio de Janiero. No amount of sitting in leather armchairs and speaking the magic word was going to bring the Sugar Loaf Fairy into view with her magic 'pan de verre' transforming all into a primordial jungle of "rolling fields and rushing rivers". Any development on this site had to look inward upon itself, and learn to love what it saw - as did all cityscapes until the 'civic cemetery' of the Ville Radieuse.

But what, in fact, lay at the centre of this site, recently one of the numerous red-light districts that bordered this 'wrong' bank of the Thames? It was the biggest piece of Architectural Ruin in Britain - perhaps in Europe - a monstrous single room, with negligible windows, cornered by four chimney-columns so vast that carrier pigeons used them to steer for Europe! Selwyn Gummer, the Minister of the Environment of the last Administration, craning his neck up to look at the open sky that now roofs this giant catafalque exclaimed; "But why have we listed this?". It was a silly thing to say, for the answer is obvious to anyone. It is the biggest, most primeval, Architectural gesture going. The Egyptians themselves never dreamt of anything so sublime as to actually build, in one simple form, the whole of the scaffoldiing which they conceived as prising apart the Earth and the Sky in order to allow 'created space' to come into being.

Demolish the chimneys of Battersea and an Ancient Egyptian would expect the sky to fall down and Created Space to be squeezed so flat it would cease to exist. Of course we know better today. But the usefulness of such tools, however seemingly atavistic, having been invented, is not to be despised, only to be well understood and turned to practical use, as required.

To admit that we still carry the 'primitive' around inside ourselves, and inside our culture, is to admit to the very precondiiton of Modernity. To refuse such admission is to remain in the pre-Freudian, pre-Everything-Modern, 19C, wedded to the twin illiteracies of formalism and period-style. The one project that Modernity established, before the 1914-18 War, was to institute Functionality, in the sense of a mechanical 'working'. This was to be mediated, in Fine Art, by Warburg's 'new science' of iconography. In this sense the British Architectural Establishment remains firmly 19C and anti-Modern, with its insistence on the functional irrelevancies of 'formalism versus 'contra-formalism', and the iconographic banality of pursuing a merely 'New', more Modern, kind of Style.

Could, therefore, anything be more 'interesting' for our JOA lifespace design culture than a site with no outward prospects and a gigantic 'Monument' at its centre? Those who have read the 'Empire of the Forest', 'A Decipherment of Western Space', 'Claude's Key' and 'Cram's Campus', will understand when I say that I saw the Battersea Case as an excellent Patient for the JOA regime of treatment - one that had already succeeded with big projects in Cambridge, England and Houston, Texas. In short we believed that if our Method could 'bury' the Power station, turning it into an 'occluded temple' we would have 'proved' our technique at an altogether uprecedented scale - one capable, even, of re-urbanising the giant freeway landscapes of, for example, the USA, where we had been working for the past four years.


To be continued.




End of "Beyond Typology - Assault on Battersea",

Return to "Battersea Project ®". .






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