Do we know what makes for Good Design?

by Nick Blake

In theory, our city is protected from bad design by the City Council’s Planning team, including t Heritage /Conservation officers. A further control is the Planning Committee of, usually, 12 councillors. Sometimes that Committee is more critical, than Council officers but if they dare to differ from the officers’ report, they are often bullied to change their stance.

Unfortunately officers do not negotiate even the simplest improvements to submitted schemes to improve their appearance and limit the loss of amenity to adjacent property and the city as a whole.

The adopted Local Plan includes policies to ensure “good design” and “local distinctiveness” but sadly the plan was written with more care than is its implementation. Standard, bland, designs by developers, which are identical throughout the country are accepted without comment.

TheCanterbury Society makes comment on many Planning Applications within the city area attempting to raise standards.

In addition we hold design awards. Entries are assessed by a panel of professional people including, oddly enough, an officer from the city Heritage team. He has approved some of the worst submitted schemes upon which the Society has often made negative comments.

The latest Design awards were made in December 2021. One of the top awards was given to the new accommodation block for The Kings School, just off St Stephens Road. It is next to the well- converted mill building adjacent, which justifiably received another award.

It is clad in Corten Steel, which develops a rusty coating which does not lead to the degeneration of the material. It was developed in the USA for rail wagons with the benefit of not needing to be painted. Some architects seized upon it as an “honest “(sic) material which could be used for cladding buildings. Were they right? To most people, rust is alien, indicating decay, but not for the first time, some architects think they know better.

The City Council officers and the Canterbury Society judging panel, thought Corten steel complemented the vernacular architecture of the old mill buildings. Is that an overly academic approach or just plain inappropriate?

The judges complemented the creation of a pleasant square between the old mill building and the Corten block. I can understand that but an architect should always consider the effect his building has on its pre existing neighbours. In this case they are the Victorian and 1930’s houses in St Stephens Road and the new three storey building dominates them, thrusting its aggressive material and its repetitive elevational treatment, into their rear gardens.

On the site before were just single storey structures but it appears that nobody took account of the loss of amenity of the large number of homes.

With the development of the old school site on the ring road, a different architect was arrogant enough to describe the adjacent houses he was about to dominate, as “low quality”. They were peoples’ homes as are the ones at St Stephens. Some architects are so obsessed with their personal ambitions that they forget their other duty of considering neighbours.

So I strongly question the merits of this design award.

Another scheme that achieved an award was the housing off Hollow Lane Wincheap. The judges admired its innovative and unusual design.

Its layout is not unusual, starting with a completely unnecessary roundabout , which was not needed on this low traffic area. It stands as an awful icon of entry, with its nasty plastic bollards. Roundabouts increase vehicle speed, exactly what is not needed in a residential development. This is the worst highway design and should have been resisted by the developer and the City Council. Within the site there are the pointless residual and useless open grassed spaces left over by a layout which is not innovative but typical of 20th century suburbia.

The development is called “The Observatory” because of its high level glazed lumps added to the roofs. From the outside one might imagine that these additions give a view out but they are just functionless, unless you have an eight foot ladder in your bedroom and lower your head when you have climbed it. Observatories normally sit on the tops of hills bit this one sits at the foot of the slope up to the downs.

Another curious aspect, is that other architectural cliché, windows in bedrooms facing roads, extending to the ground and thus denying residents privacy unless they are exhibitionists!

The buildings themselves have an uneasy mix of flat and pitched roofs as if the designers were unsure which genre they inhabited.

So, two, certainly unusual, schemes got awards but to be different, in itself is not a virtue.

The sad thing is that most new development in our city is very ugly and boring and go unchallenged by our planners.

So what do other members think?

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