A Modest Masterpiece

A Modest Masterpiece

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This year’s Stirling Prize, the highest accolade in British architecture, has unusually been won by a housing scheme; even more unusually, affordable housing. A dozen years ago Mikhail Riches and Cathy Hawley won the commission from Norwich City Council for 105 affordable houses and flats, now known as Goldsmith Street. The homes have been designed and built to the rigorous Passivhaus standards; it is hard to achieve such a high level of energy efficiency on a local authority budget. Residents will enjoy a 70% reduction in energy costs.

The scheme at Goldsmith Street is deceptively simple. A series of 2 storey terraces with 3 storey bookend flats. The spaces between put people before cars, creating safe communal landscaped
garden and play areas at the heart of the layout. Parking is towards the perimeter with a series of parallel terraces broken by a central pedestrian cross route. The architects had to convince the planners that a 14metre wide space between rows would be acceptable. Sun path diagrams, day and sunlight angle sections illustrated how effective this spacing would be. Perhaps, the planning officers should walk around more historic streets, lanes and mews to understand that 2 storey terraces just 14metres apart provide better densities with plenty of daylight and most importantly, human scale. Many planners have adopted a guideline [regulation] of 20m between blocks which destroys efficient density, is car scale rather than human; all in the assumption of preventing overlooking. At Goldsmith Street, the architects have front doors facing front doors and avoided overlooking by carefully placed windows. That is good design, not rocket science.

The portrait shape windows needed to be comparatively small to achieve Passivhaus standards and by adopting vertical proportions have provided effective daylight penetration to the interiors. Again, a design principle refined and perfected for our climate in urban Georgian architecture. Learning from past exemplars is not a bad idea. Here, the addition of small brise soleil shading screens above the window heads limit solar gain. Every dwelling has its own front door with space for bikes or prams. They all have a private terrace or small outdoor space. Bin stores are used to define front gardens acting as a buffer between the public footpath and the front door as threashold to the privacy of the dwelling. The sequence and hierarchy of public to semi-public to semi-private to private space is one of the key principles of good residential architecture. This applies equally to the scheme layout and the flow of the interior plan. The sequence and practicality of small spaces. Beyond this, it is the simple economic repetition and rhythm of intimate scale, built forms that create the spaces between buildings. The sense of arrival and shared outdoor experience for people to meet and children to play. The domination of the car in estate planning has pushed too many developers and their architects to miss the point. “Placemaking” is the current buzzword, but so many new house-builder schemes more closely resemble car parks interspersed by standard house types with token trees and hedges. The presence of pitched roofs and bolt-on porches does not make good domestic architecture. The simple clarity and deep understanding exhibited by the Goldsmith Street scheme has created excellent placemaking and genuine architecture; not house bashing.

It is very good that the project was commissioned by a local authority. It is equally depressing that few market developers aspire to similar understanding of placemaking and design quality. Residential architecture, whether it be market or affordable, should be creating places and homes where people can enjoy living. It is not about icons whether they be celebrity starchitects or iconic computer designed indulgent ego statements; nor is it the outpouring of standardised Noddy houses. On the outside, residential architecture is more about the courage of well detailed, practical background buildings that embrace space for human interaction. On the inside, it is practicality, adaptability, light, flow, connection and choice that makes for liveability. Design from the inside precipitating the outside envelope, not the internal layout forced into the idea of an iconic or standardised image.

It is excellent news that the Stirling Prize has been awarded to this modest masterpiece that illustrates a profound understanding of the underestimated art of residential architecture. The sad news is that such an exemplary scheme should have taken 12 years to deliver. It is not surprising that the UK has a housing crisis when the process of planning, funding and construction is so tragically inefficient. The system is broken and unless government begins to understand the extent of the fractures, we will remain in crisis. Congratulations to all involved with Goldsmith Street, it is great that your skill, courage and, most of all, perseverance has been rewarded.

By Squinch

Photo-copyright Tim Crocker

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