While I’ve been slacking over here, I’ve been talking real estate over at the Toronto based blog – BlogTO. I’ll be back soon, but in the mean time here you are, if you’re interested.
While I’ve been slacking over here, I’ve been talking real estate over at the Toronto based blog – BlogTO. I’ll be back soon, but in the mean time here you are, if you’re interested.
That’s right, its the return of I’d Live There, where Izzy and I talk about real estate we can’t afford, often in places we don’t live. Real estate has been a frequent topic of conversation with us lately, because she’s looking for a new place, my husband wants to buy a house, and friends are looking in New York. Naturally its the place in New York that has already sold that appeals to me the most. It’s in an old clock factory! And those bookshelves along the staircase just kill me.
I also like the Eames chairs.
The images come from Streeteasy.com.
I want to go to there.
This is the last in a series of three posts about Swindon, a small city where My Friend Lauren grew up. The other two entries stemmed from the disagreements Lauren and I had as we explored Swindon together (she as a native, and me as a pedantic polymath interloper). While the other two entries have been point-counterpoint, this one is more just…reflections on the Railway Village, a historic and troubled neighbourhood downtown.
Swindon experienced a populations explosion in the 19th century (specifically 1841-1842), when it became a hub for the Great Western Railway. This was accompanied by a colossal railway works and an associated worker’s village, both of which stand today in substantially altered form. Railway yards are not necessarily organised in a way that lends itself to adaptive reuse; the scale is enormous; the buildings are not organised at right angles and they tend to be extremely long (you know, like trains). There’s too much space in between the buildings for traditional streets but not always enough for more buildings – and how much plaza space can you have? Plus, the Swindon Works – seminal as it is to British rail history – is a protected monument.
The Swindon Works can be divided into two parts, one of which is the historic railway yard, the other of which is the village built simultaneously to house all the workers. Lauren’s mother works for the Swindon housing authority, and reported that the railway village has a reputation for being dangerous and especially low-income – today, the entire village is social housing. A long tunnel connects the village (and the rest of Swindon) to the old rail works, which now also houses an event space, an English Heritage office, and a giant shopping centre, plus some new construction. This is really two separate posts – first, its about the railway worker’s village, a perfectly picturesque urban scene if ever there was one. Second, there’s an assessment of the old Railway Works, the place where the trains were manufactured.
The worker’s cottages are just the cutest damn things you’ve ever seen. Stone cottages arrayed along narrow streets with generous setbacks (by English standards) and wide sidewalks, the houses look like something out of a movie. Small pedestrian pathways intersect the terrace houses and the corners have little three-story towers to add visual interest. Mature trees in the back create a domestic scene that delineates private space without closing the neighbors off from each other. The cottages are small – it was housing for poor people, after all – and the ceilings look low, but the experience of the railway village reminded me of some very successful social housing projects I’d visited in the US. Furthermore, it didn’t seem like it should be social housing at all. It was historic housing an easy walk to the train station, shopping, and a park…I mean, these things are just adorable. And while they may be the product of another era, there are literally hundreds of thousands of Victorian terrace houses that have been modernized and appeal to the middle class – I live in one.
The only thing this place didn’t seem to have was any people. We were there on August Bank Holiday Monday – not typically a busy time – but I don’t think we saw a single person walking through the community. I’m hoping Lauren will contextualize Swindon for me a bit – why isn’t this place full of yuppies? Shouldn’t it be a prosperous place? The workers’ village is the little grid to the right of The Park – you can see how close it is to the station (the red hash mark)
The Swindon Designer Outlet is sandwiched into a corner of the railroad, and you can see how huge the scale is from the size of the streets around it. Up close it looks like this:
The eastern (right-hand) side of the railworks is weirdly empty. Although the scale of the buildings is low and reasonably human-scale, the space between them is enormous, and the wayfinding through the site is awkward, especially when you approach as a pedestrian (as I did). There is plenty of room for new construction – even on a busy shopping day, many of the car parking spaces were vacant – but those new buildings that are there are, um, ugly. It was surprising to me that a country that is so meticulous about conserving its historic landmarks should be so lackadaisical about what gets built next to and within those same landmarks. There was one piece of new construction – a brick condo building with a blank facade. It was obviously brand-new (some of the windows still had stickers on, and there was a sales sign outside the door). Density is a good first step, but the place just felt sort of windswept and empty. Like there should be tumbleweeds blowing across the plazas.
All of which made a stark contrast to the actual shops, which were jam packed. My expectations for the mall were pretty low, because the rest of it was so awkward, but the interior of the mall struck me as an incredibly sensitive and intelligent adaptive reuse. And the entire place was bumping – you’d have thought it was December 23rd – so clearly its popular.
Basically its a pretty standard shopping mall – but a really nice one, made cooler by the fact that its a historic building.
Lauren has her say:
The points that Franny made in this blog are difficult to address directly; I think the best way to give the reader a view of how the Railway Village is now is to give some context of what the Railway Village was.
Without going into too much detail of the works’ history, its rise and fall is a beautiful and direct parallel to the trajectory of industry in the rest of the UK. From ‘glorious’ industry in the Victorian era, to thrilling modern designs in the early 20th Century it reluctantly closed in the 80’s.
Figure 1 GWR c 1930 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GWR_map.jpg
When the works and village were built (in 1841 to provide the trains and track from Brunel’s Great Western Railway from London to Bristol), the worker’s facilities were world leading; the Mechanics’ Institute held classes and housed the UK’s first lending library, there were 3 pubs (including one of my favourites, the Glue Pot), the Medical Fund offered health care (attributed as being the inspiration for the NHS) and houses were of good size and quality (testified by the fact that they still stand today).From its origin the GWR expanded rapidly into an efficient and prosperous industry and in the early 20th century produced thrilling designs (City of Truro was the first locomotive in the world to travel at over 100mph on 9th May, 1904). Its peak of 14000 employers was in 1920 and from there it declined (in 1960 Swindon produced British Railways’ last steam locomotive (Evening Star, number 92220)) and then reluctantly closed on the 27th March, 1986.
I have to mention the Mechanics’ Institute, (1853-55) which is by far the most beautiful building in Swindon. Today it is in ruins: it was nominated as in the top 10 most endangered Victorian Buildings, according to the Victorian Society. http://www.victoriansociety.org.uk/news/mechanics-institute-swindon/
Working in the railway works was a given for lots of men. My grampy (see Point Counterpoint #2) was fortunate enough to have an alternative. When he was leaving school his father posed him the question:
‘Now boy, you can either work in GWR for pittance a week, or come flog fish down the market with me for £30 a morning.’
And even stinking of fish with frozen hands and chasing live crabs around he was glad not to have the fat controller as a boss.
Figure 3 The Fat Controller, Thomas the Tank Engine http://christmas-specials.wikia.com/wiki/The_Fat_Controller
There was always social unrest in the village: Daniel Gooch, Superintendent for GWR said in 1859 “It having come to my knowledge that many of the boys of New Swindon are very unruly and mischievous in their conduct, especially during the evening when property is frequently damaged and (as on a recent occasion) life endangered, I hereby give notice that any person in the service of the company reported to me as being disorderly, firing cannons, or making an improper use of firearms in the Village be discharged (…) ”
Figure 2 Workers leaving c 1910 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GWR_map.jpg
I recently went to a gig by the Unthanks and their melancholic song Black Trade really captured the concept of underappreciated workers: ‘all you welders and riveters… you’re just black trade…’ These men put all their energies into producing the magnificent engines, tracks, carriages, but individually they are not given much recognition.
Today, ironically, the village has a low employment rate and is 95% owned by the local housing authority. The social problems that plagued the village in the 19th century still do today. I’ll illuminate this with a couple more anecdotes from a local housing officer: The electricity meters are in large cabinets; it’s usually fine and easy enough to read the meters, but on this occasion the door opened to a waft of smoke: among the drug paraphernalia and sleeping bag poked the head of a homeless man smoking a fag! Another time the officer was taking photographs of a pile of dumped rubbish when another homeless man started shouting abuse and vitriol, thinking his drug stash was disturbed he started throwing objects, when the officer turned around she saw he’d thrown chocolate bars at her!
Swindon has always been an innovative town: more recently we were the first to have a cable TV channel in the UK, and I think it is the history of the Railway Village that puts the ‘yuppies’ off the Railway Village. I can imagine an aspiring professional thinking ‘No matter that these houses are cute, there’s still poky ex-council houses in a dodgy area.’ For those that can afford them, there are plenty of modernized Victorian terraced houses in Old Town, or as we saw in an earlier blog, fashionable new-builds in the suburbs.
The Railway Village, while being cute, it is not the calm, quaint village it appears. It is a place fraught with social problems, and either despite or perhaps because of this, it still has one of the best pubs in Swindon.
Figure 4 The Glue Pot http://www.flickr.com/photos/majorclanger/2260255446/
Here’s something for those of you with a case of the Mondays: The Guardian’s slideshow of unknown spaces in London, from a book recently published by English Heritage.
There are 17 images of really beautiful spaces in London, none of which you’d know were there without some inside knowledge. Totally exciting, especially for someone looking to spend more time in the city.
It makes me want to do a best spaces tour of my life – the Andover dining hall, the Milwaukee Athletic Club restaurant, the top floor of Maggie Mo at Carnegie Mellon.
What are your favourite spaces (shameless participation plug!)? Seriously, though, places (and pictures/links) would be appreciated.
During August bank holiday, I went on a tour of Swindon, population ~200,000. Its a town (not a city – cities in the UK have cathedrals) in between London and Oxford in the southwest of the UK. A friend of mine grew up there, and when she organized a birthday-weekend camping trip outside her hometown, I made the trek and was rewarded not just with a weekend of hiking but also with a tour of Swindon’s architectural highlights. It was great to tour the city with a native, who showed me the best (and worst) of the new and the old. Not only did she ferry me around Swindon all day, she agreed to do a point-counterpoint on some of the schemes we saw.
We decided to start with The Triangle, a development I first encountered on the internet. I was really excited to see the project, which was built into a triangle of land that had been a truck parking lot:
Point: The parking lot was replaced by 43 social/affordable units with low environmental impact and some beautifully considered details. As you can see from the aerial above, the houses are jammed in to the existing neighborhood, and its amazing to realise how constrained the site actually is – because when you’re there, the corners feel awkward but the whole development feels spacious and open. In addition, the Triangle has kind a shtick – there are allotment gardens at the points of the triangle and every resident gets a recipe book when they move in.
The site has a central plaza with drainage and play space artfully worked in; there is a large community garden at one of the points of the triangle, and wooden details in front of every door add visual interest to the houses.
There are definitely some redeeming features of the development, which makes use of what was formerly overlooked land; has visible and beautiful drainage features; and the housing is all eco-sensitive and low-carbon.
So what’s the problem? Simple: U-G-L-Y. The open space, at least the central open space, is beautiful. But the houses are boring and awful. The whole place is painted slightly variable shades of beige in a repeating pattern, and the facades are totally unbroken except for a dull gray panel below each window that I think is intended for air-conditioning units (in the UK?).
The other issue I have with the site is also a challenge to the whole ethos of the project. I have nothing against gardens; they’re great. but the gardens at the points of the triangle are jammed into overlooked space. One corner has a bank of raised beds with no indication what belongs to whom; there were tons of delicious-looking vegetables but it wasn’t clear who owned them, if anyone. The other corner had a couple of awkwardly arranged, mostly-empty greenhouses without any overlooking windows or lighting:
The area was also gated and locked. I was not impressed.
IN SUMMARY: I appreciate that the architect, Kevin McCloud, did what he could with a constrained site, and I fully endorse the garden and environmental components of the project. I just wish the houses weren’t so boring.
Dear readers of this wonderful blog, so far you’ve seen my face and my gingerbread biscuits and now, you lucky things, you’re about to get some of my words too. Unlike Franny’s educated and considered entries, mine will be mostly opinion with a slight tinge of conjecture. Please enjoy:
Swindon is my hometown, so of course I have strong feelings about it. Having not lived there since 2004, my nostalgia is now greater than the desperate frustration I felt when I decided to leave. I still love it even when I return home to find the Old Town Corn Exchange has been set fire again and the Town Gardens Bandstand lead roof has been stolen by gypsies. Swindon occupies so much of my mental map that it comes up a surprising amount in conversation with Franny. It seemed that for every traffic-calming scheme she’d studied or drainage system she’d designed I had an example in Swindon. After a few months it was clear I had to show her this maelstrom of town planning initiatives. A rainy bank holiday Monday was the perfect day for us to do our Grand Town Planning Tour of Swindon!
First stop on the tour bus was the Triangle.
“You two better watch out wearing those anoraks in Pinehurst; someone’ll do you in!” Thanks, mum, for those words of wisdom. Childhood memories flashed through my mind: driving through ‘tin town’ with my dad and he central-locks the car doors; my postcode-challenged schoolfriend complaining that no-one would visit him because he lived in Pinehurst… Hey, mum, the Triangle’s not even in Pinehurst!
Walking off the main road into the Triangle was like walking into a different country. No more double -fronted semis with pebble dashing: there are balconies on the flats and wood on the houses; we can’t be in the UK! I like the Triangle. Unashamedly. It was quiet. It was pleasant. There were children’s bicycles. We saw a few people talking to each other. There were trees and greenery in the central common. It wasn’t dominated by cars. There was no litter or graffiti or broken things. Then we poked our noses into the corners and there were greenhouses, with things growing in them; and allotments, with things growing in them; and an unused space with nothing growing in it (I was expecting needles and nappies). It was nice.
I consider Franny’s criticisms a bit unfounded. As they say in Swindon ‘you’re not from round ‘ere are you?’ She says the houses’ repetitive pattern is boring. All terraced housing in the UK is like this. I’m used to it. I even said that I liked the different shades of grey! (Ahem…) And it didn’t occur to me that the window-panels might be for air-con because we don’t do air-con in the UK. She then complained that the gardens are not overlooked by anyone. I think this relates to the fact that the end terraced houses do not have windows on the outer walls. But not many end terraces do; it wouldn’t be fair to those in the middle! And as for the point that there is no indication of who gardens which plot of the allotment: so what if it wasn’t clear to us whose are the massive pumpkins and who’s pruning those apple trees; the residents clearly know because it’s in order. I was just amazed that the allotments were being used at all.
In fact, that sums up my feelings about this site. I’m amazed that Swindon is the site of an award-winning eco-development and I’m even more amazed that people are using it as it is intended.
To balance these unsubstantiated observational comments, I must include some tenuous anecdotal evidence. A friend of a friend actually lives in one of the houses (that means she probably saw Franny and I playing on the decorative log-and-water-pump sculpture). She says they are nice houses (it’s not just me!), despite a few simple design no outside handles on the patio doors so you get locked out easily and the eco paint comes off when you clean marks off the walls. My favourite oversight is that the lovely cork floor insulates so well that the underfloor heating system has to be cranked up to 11 to work! Her heating bills are huge!
Despite these small teething problems (which are being sorted out) I think this housing project was a success. Perhaps this is an indication of my low standards, but I thought it had a good atmosphere. In my opinion, the buildings didn’t look boring or ugly or fashionable enough to date quickly (however Franny thinks they are already dated). The communal use of the allotments impressed me. I wish more building projects were built to these environmental standards (obviously not with insulated flooring and underfloor heating). And at least it’s not Pinehurst.
Thanks so much to Lauren, both for the day and for the thoughts. If I can prevail on her to keep this up, this will be the first in a three-part series, since we also visited Wichelstowe, a new town on the edge of Swindon, and the old railroad works (now a shopping mall and a low-income neighborhood, because it covers a huge area).
Last month, my friend Jaime visited from Israel and I had five days to give her a peek into my exciting (not so exciting) UK life. Jaime and I met in planning school, so I particularly wanted to take her to see a really cute, quintessential British seaside town. We settled on Southwold for 2 main reasons: 1, there is a new Ash Sakula housing development there that I wanted to see and 2, Adnam’s Brewery is there. Holler!
The scheme, as you’ll see from the movie, is a small development – 26 houses – just off the main drag in Southwold, near a cemetery, a playground, the beach, and a whole bunch of super cute seaside-y houses. It was built on some land owned by Adnam’s, and the architects also designed an adjacent pavilion, cafe, and shop owned by Adnam’s.
For the most part, I really liked the development. In the video, the architects talk about trying to mimic Suffolk vernacular (which is something I’ve heard a lot about, in design reviews in Suffolk). They tried to do that by using referential materials, incorporating lots of small-scale cut-throughs, and including small-scale green spaces into the development. All the houses have access to some outdoor space, which is nice, and (as promised in the video) none of the building heights are the same. There’s also a flatiron building in the middle of the development that I think is particularly cute.
The image above shows some of the pros and cons of the scheme. The pros I think I’ve already established: its cute, it clearly takes Suffolk as its inspiration, its visually interesting, its porous. All good stuff. The pros outweigh the cons, but there were two things that I really, really noticed that I would have done differently: first, as you can see from the image above, the space to the left of the flatiron building is devoted to cars. Every house has its own space, which I understand it necessary from a real-estate perspective. The amount of asphalt may have been a requirement for fire truck turning radii or something – but the edges of the development have a fine-grain, intimate feel; its weird that the middle of the thing is basically a parking lot.
The other complaint I have is with one of the housing styles (despite the variety, there were three or four house themes and palettes that were repeated throughout the development):
This is where I think the commitment to vernacular references broke down. But I don’t object to this house (there were several of them) because they’re modern; I object to them because they’re ugly. I think the windows are awkwardly set into a boring facade. The thing that I really hate, though, are these semi-enclosed parking spaces. I think they are the worst sort of faux-modernism; I think they destroy the intimate pedestrian feel that the architects worked so hard to cultivate in the rest of the project, and I think they aren’t even that useful – there’s no storage; there’s no extra living space; the half-garage has a larger surface area than two surface parking spots – its just stupid. It made me angry.
I think at heart my biggest objection to the scheme – which I did find quite lovely – is that the architects smushed together the car space and pedestrian space without really reconciling the two. The alleys through the little neighborhood are dominated by pedestrians, but (especially around the flatiron building), people on foot feel like interlopers – a feeling reinforced by the architecture, planning and landscaping across the site.
Since moving to Cambridge, I’ve heard and read about the award-winning Accordia development in Cambridge, 300-some units of housing built in 2004 and designed by architecture heavyweights Feilden Clegg Bradley (plus some others). I was lucky enough to tag along on a tour led by Peter Carter, who worked for the Cambridge planning office as one of the point people when the development was given planning permission.
I was really blown away by some of the development (which is large enough to constitute its own neighborhood), and really disappointed by other parts. There are three green corridors running through the neighbourhood, which pre-date the development; the houses are snuggled in between the trees and on a beautiful sunny day are dappled with sunlight and shot through with green open space and greenery. Toward the back of the development, the trees peter out, and there are some big open spaces mixed in with higher-rise development, but the relationship of building and open space is vastly different. At one end of Accordia, the scale is perfect – three-story buildings along narrow streets with greenery and balconies at all three levels (on the ground, first-floor terraces and second-story balconies, all of which have dense planting).
At the other end, the buildings are larger, and the design quality is equally high, but there’s a serious drop-off in the quality of the landscape architecture. The space opens up – but too much; the slight step-up in density doesn’t correspond to the large increase in circulation space, and the lack of green space means that the space just looks unfinished.
I have some quibbles with the layout but the architecture is, for the most part, amazing. The UK requires that 30% of all new developments be affordable units, and a good chunk of them are seamlessly incorporated into the fabric. Another chunk of them are included in larger apartment buildings, the tallest of which is 8 stories. There is a row of houses at the back that look a little worse for the wear, and many have wood doors that have weathered differently and shabbily. On the other hand, the houses at the front are amazing and there are two taller buildings that I would love to live in, if they didn’t front onto an awkwardly-scaled public square.
A couple of caveats: the Accordia development is still in development; the last few houses are just being complete now. There was evidence of construction in some corners of the space that will be removed in the next couple of months. The atmosphere in one corner was seriously affected by a “historic” bunker that still stands, disused and surrounded by seriously ugly fencing – obviously through no fault of the developers. And finally, we were there on a Wednesday afternoon in August, which is not historically the busiest time of year in a residential development in the UK, when everyone and their mother is on vacation.
I was cruising the annual Housing Design Awards website recently, where they have beautiful high-def videos of the recent nominees. I was so impressed that I went through all the archives, and I was amazed by how many of the winning entries were in Manchester, and in the North in general. The Accordia housing development in Cambridge won a Stirling Prize a few years ago, and as far as I can tell, no one in Cambridge has stopped talking about it since, but in Manchester they’ve been racking them up for years. I’m hopefully taking a tour of the Accordia development this week, and I’m pretty excited about it, but that’s one in a sea of distinctly average housing developments around Cambridge (it is also worth noting that the CBG is one of the only cities in the UK not officially in recession, and there are at least 4 major, prize-free real estate projects underway at the moment, plus a huge volume of smaller-scale development). Anyway. I kept noticing all these amazing projects, particularly in Manchester, and I was particularly excited to realise that Urban Splash developed Chimney Pot Park, a project I’d salivated over from the states. Finally, I realised that the common thread is that most of the projects I liked were the work of a single developer, Urban Splash. In the intervening weeks, I’ve developed a massive crush on this company: I think all their work is amazing, and I’ve been monitoring their website for jobs even though their offices are all in places I can’t possibly commute to. You can see a full gallery of their work here, but I’ve included some highlights below.
I have to say, I was a little disappointed to realise that many of their projects were former industrial buildings. I mean, I find a loft space as sexy as the next girl, but lofts have high ceilings and big windows – its kind of low-hanging fruit. Chimney Pot Park was a neighborhood of derelict tenement terrace houses before it was built, with a whole bunch of attendant challenges. Terrace houses often have low ceilings, cramped rooms, and a constrained footprint. Furthermore, terraces compose a third of the UK’s housing supply, and Chimney Pot Park provided a complete re-imagining of this incredibly common vernacular. I think its a revolutionary project.
I have a master’s in urban planning from an American university, but relocated to the UK a few months after graduating. The planning system is very different here, so it was a challenge trying to find a niche. Ultimately, I ended up at Shape East, the centre for the built environment in the east of England. I started working for Shape East as their Design Support Manager in February, a job with a description that continues to evolve as I learn to think more and more expansively about what Design Support can entail.
“Design support” is broken down into two broad categories – design support and design review. Design review is a particular process of peer review, wherein we provide a panel of built environment professionals (architects, planners, engineers, landscape architects) to offer their commentary on a scheme that is about to be submitted for planning permission. Usually, the planners at the relevant office will suggest to the architects or developer that some peer review would be beneficial, or a controversial project will undertake it voluntarily with the understanding that it will help quell opposition. Design review is a formal meeting with a particular protocol, and Shape East is part of a national network of design review providers, each with their own discrete reservoir of panel members. Many of the architects on the panel are Kind of a Big Deal; others have a particular specialty. The idea of design review is that a higher level of scrutiny will result in a higher degree of design quality, a premise I believe in. My role is to organise all the design review meetings, take notes, and then summarise the recommendations for the local authority and the design team – the finished product is a letter, usually about 1000 words long, that is an official record of the 2-ish hour meeting (including a site visit) and the suggestions made by the panel of architects Shape East provides.
Design support is less specific. It can happen at any time during a project’s development, up to the point where it receives planning permission. Recently, we held a meeting with some important people in a small seaside town to help them develop a brief for a new public square. We also helped a design firm work with a local town council to redesign the facade of an economic regeneration project.
The best part of my job is that I’m a believer in the value of our product. Design review isn’t always helpful, but in many cases it makes a huge difference in the finished product and almost always results in positive changes to the design. And design support is even more important, because it typically involves getting people outside the design and planning community involved in the process.
Design support, which typically focuses on a single development, is one half of what Shape does. The other half is more general education – we offer walking tours, public lectures, and other resources (many of them web-based) to help people learn about architecture and design. Historically, Shape had done lots of outreach in schools and with young people, and at present we’re collaborating with Kettle’s Yard, a local art gallery, on outreach related to the construction of a new gallery space.
To my mind, the opportunity to get constructive criticism is one of the few pros of a planning system that is painfully vague and subject to personal opinion. The UK is fairly unique, I think, in having providing so many opportunities for designers to get input from a “critical friend,” often from big-name design professionals and, at the very least, from designers that have been vetted and selected for their suitability for the project. At Shape, about one in four applicants to the panel were ultimately chosen, and the competition for the position of chair and vice chair was stiffer. My job is to try to convince people to avail themselves of this expertise.
I just found out about a website called Cabin Porn, a website of user-submitted photos of – you guessed it – cabins. I’ve included a sample below, but there are forty pages, which is enough to waste a lot of time at work and start planning your next trip to Washington state/New Zealand/Switzerland/Norway. The one below is a hut in the mountains of Chogoria, Kenya