Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

Saffron Modern

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Britain’s popular image of itself has always been so intimately connected with its past that it has always struggled with the concept of Modern. Even when the ripples of the Bauhaus belatedly hit these shores, those buildings that emerged in that style were largely built using traditional techniques, and failed to adopt the forward-looking philosophy that it represented.

The Brutalist experience of the 1960s and 1970s hardly endeared modern architecture to popular opinion either – and the interventions of Prince Charles and others caused a definitive move back towards pseudo-traditional architecture across the country. While modern design has since enjoyed something of a re-birth of interest, as always, bulk developers responded slowly to changing tastes, and we have been left with a four-decade legacy of pastiche, a mish-mash of superficial, confused historic references only made worse by the pressures to build both at higher densities and to accommodate high car ownership.

The effect, far from enhancing the country’s traditions, has been to blight every place it touched with a sprawl of cloned, characterless, flimsy, disneyesque fake-heritage. And its effect is not only visual: by creating a imagined past, one effectively distorts the population’s sense of rootedness in its real past: a toothless re-engineering of a false arcadia that only devalues the real thing.

There is plenty of good modern architecture in Britain; it is just not generally accessible to the public. But things are slowly changing again, and the bulk developers are gradually realising that the public is more open than hitherto, to a type of contemporary design that takes its very human inspiration from experiences particularly in The Netherlands and Scandinavia, to create modern environments that are human in scale and still respect their heritage settings. I would go further, and suggest that it is far more respectful to genuine history not to imitate it badly, but to have the courage to build something ‘of its time’ in the way all those historic buildings were in their day.

I recently visited an excellent test-case of this theory. In the search for inspiration for the large development pending in my own small, historic town, I visited The Avenue in Saffron Walden. SW is a very attractive East Anglian town in north Essex, about 25km south of Cambridge. It has a fine collection of medieval buildings and an extensive conservation area. Into this, Pollard Thomas Edwards architects inserted an imaginative development of 75 homes, on a mature site in the south of the town. They chose to produce a range of apartments, terraced and detached housing and sheltered housing that is contemporary while strongly echoing the local vernacular. It won an RIBA regional prize in 2016.

The architects have made great use of the avenue of mature lime trees on the site to provide a public path through the development, while grouping many of the houses round courtyards that diminish the dominance of road vehicles within the setting. The buildings are credibly eco-sensitive and have provided a popular new residential district which even this self-avowedly traditionalist town has welcomed openly. A short film about the development can be seen on the architect’s website here.

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The clever use of standardised components in a variety or permutations reduced costs, while not compromising the observed individuality and distinctiveness of the buildings. Walking through the development, one gains a sense of continuity with the ancient town around, and a strong sense that a characterful ‘place’ has been successfully created – the lack of which is often a criticism levelled at modern designs.

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If such a development can work in a place like Saffron Walden, I don’t see why it shouldn’t work anywhere – and one is left with a strong sense that this is an architectural intervention that will stand the test of time, to become an integral part of the town’s evolution and heritage, unlike the pastiche shoe-boxes that remain developers’ more standard fare. It would be great to see this kind of imaginative thinking being used more widely in Britain. It might even start to persuade the general population that modern design is not inevitably terrible.

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Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Eco-litism

bwt

I’ve just ‘treated’ myself to this year’s Lacoste polo shirt. I buy one each year, and never one to neglect good value, I always buy from the outlet shop which I’m fortunate to have five miles down the road. The outrageous for the merely pricey; last year’s colours, but who cares?

I like this item because the colours are much more appealing than the dull navy-blues, maroons and taupes that one finds in British shops. I don’t know how they do it, but the French seem to have an eye for just the right shades. These polos are 100% cotton, they last well, too, and for me are a nod to a certain kind of Euro-chic that brings back memories of happy times – for they seem to be as close as continental men come to a summer uniform. It’s the only item of outwardly-branded clothing that I will wear.

But what they don’t do on the continent, it seems, is make a social statement, which is the main purpose of wearing brands in Britain. I haven’t come across anywhere else where using the ‘right’ brand supposedly makes you a superior person – or where a certain sector of society has needed to adopt certain brands (think Burberry) as a counter-statement. While there is definitely respect for quality, I just don’t get the impression that the continentals attach social status or exclusivity to them in the  way the British do. What we are seeing here is yet another expression of Britain’s still class-bound society, that just doesn’t seem to exist in quite the same way elsewhere in Europe.

One might argue that it doesn’t matter too much when it comes to a polo shirt. But it seems there is nothing that the British will not misappropriate in order to make a class statement. The latest is eco-credentials. I have got into the habit of buying Enki magazine, a new-ish interiors thing, which is full of floaty, scandi-blond cool flaunting the ultra-eco-chic that is definitely to-die-for – with the death in question coming to the bank account of anyone who isn’t a fully-subscribed member of The One Percent.  It portrays a very appealing lifestyle, with a generous side-helping of clear conscience, flaunts products gorgeous in every way except the price tag.

What’s more, a planning application has just gone in to build such a property in the grounds of the large house next door. I’ll be excited to see it go up (they are nice people who are building it), should it survive local conservatism and Britain’s sclerotic planning process. What bothers me about this is not the ideal (let alone the aesthetic, which really is lovely) – but the fact that sustainability is being turned into just another ultra-expensive fashion accessory for the very privileged.

A week ago, I sat opposite regional executives of the national conglomerate that is going to build a new housing development on the edge of our historic town. Given that it was forced upon us, we are trying to ensure that it is as positive a thing as possible. We presented them with a vision for an eco-friendly, contemporary-styled new quarter for the town, complete with ideas for renewable energy, water recycling, passive solar heating and reduced car use. I hope I’m wrong, but the expressions on their faces  suggested that we are not going to get it.

So we see a situation where the wealthy can blow vast budgets (as several have in this neighbourhood recently) buying the latest in earth-friendliness, but when it comes to providing the same for the mere mortals who buy mass-produced housing, what is on offer is the same boring, resource hungry boxes, where the nearest thing to sustainability is a power lead to the garage to allow the owner-to retro-fit a charging point for an electric car if they wish, before they drive out and add to the local congestion. At the end of the day, it seems the bonuses of the executives of such companies trump the need  to address the green agenda on a mass (and hence more cost-effective) basis.

And so something that ought now to be delivered as an essential to the whole population has become a cachet-statement for the small elite who can afford domestic geothermal heating systems and smart energy management tech in their minimalist weekend homes in Suffolk. I wouldn’t mind a bet that some of those executive bonuses in the construction industry are being used to install just such systems in their own homes.

Yet again deeply embedded British social attitudes conspire to maintain not only material but also attitudinal differences between the haves and the have nots, even when it comes to something that should be as egalitarian and universal as the green agenda. Unfortunately, despite the easy-living ethos of Enki, this is morality for the very wealthy.

Sprezzatura is all about the good things in life – of which I consider green living to be one. But its aspiration is democratic. This kind of elitism it most certainly does not support, and I’m heartily tired of the way our society misuses such things as statements of social superiority. For all our protestations of equality, this is still a nation deeply divided not only by its £2000 boiling-water taps – but more profoundly by the snobbery that misappropriates them.

And yes, I know 100% cotton polo shirts are ecologically-dubious too…

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Jerusalem?

There’s nowt like a bit o’ hardship to make you appreciate the good life… which, as I’ve written before is, in a way, where Sprezzatura came from. When your back is against the wall, it certainly does make life’s more pleasant experiences seem all the sweeter, even if (or perhaps because) they may presently be unattainable.

England’s North was built on such prospects – though it’s of course debatable whether shares in muck and brass were distributed as fairly as they should have been. Our first stop outside Leeds was Saltaire, a short train-ride away. Now a World Heritage Site, Titus Salt’s model village is one of Britain’s better-known examples of Victorian philanthropy: appalled by the general living conditions of the time, the wealthy mill-owner built a residential quarter for the thousands who worked in his immense premises next-door.

Titus Salt’s enormous mill.

It is difficult to imagine how the neat grid of stone cottages was received by those who lived in them; much is made of Salt’s munificence – but I found myself mulling the contradiction set up by the knowledge that for many in Victorian times, the most basic elements of a decent life were almost completely at the discretion of private individuals – who in many cases did not care as much as Salt apparently did. But with the improved conditions came a dictated, morally-upright way of life (down to the number of baths one was required to take). Salt himself lived in considerable grandeur, with a private entrance to the mill. The work for the rest was still hard; egalitarianism, this was not.

There is also an irony, however, in that the Trades Unions which were a response to Victorian conditions would presumably have been quite happy to see Salt deposed from the position in which he was able to administer to his flock. Would that have been a victory? I think in the long run, people’s wellbeing should not rest on the discretion of more powerful others, and listening to the views of certain political figures even today, it is not clear that such lessons have been learned even now.

But we should still be careful not to cut off our noses to spite our faces.

Saltaire today is a slightly strange assemblage of Italianate and other buildings somehow rather too grand for their rural setting. It works, but still feels somewhat contrived. The vast mill itself is now a combination of business units, apartments, shops and a gallery largely devoted to the works of local artist David Hockney. His ‘The Arrival of Spring’ series, drawn on iPad and turned into large prints was an interesting and likeable expression of the creative potential of digital media.

Much of the nearby town seems contentedly inhabited, and there are a number of the chi-chi galleries, craft shops and cafes that tend to cluster in such places. Nowadays, it’s the strictures of listed building and World Heritage status that are the overlord. It’s all quite pleasant, if a little self-conscious.

Above and below: The mannered streets of Saltaire.

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We moved on further up the Aire valley, to Keighley and thence by Worth Valley steam train to Haworth, another famous location that majors on high Victorian drama. When it comes to dour Victorian novels, I very rapidly find that a little is too much, but the home of the Brontë sisters is picturesque – another place that I hadn’t visited for many years. All along the valley, the harshness of the industrial decline that rather horrified me when I first visited as a child is being mellowed as buildings are re-purposed and the profuse greenery returns. Some may yearn for the days of heavy industry, but in my eyes the removal of so much polluting harshness is a (qualified) good thing.

Above: KWVR steam train leaving Haworth. Below: the attractive and steep main street in Haworth.

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Haworth too is rather overdosing on Victorian sentimentalism these days – nearly every shop seems to be some form of nostalgia-laden giftware emporium. But again, I suppose one shouldn’t scoff – they are, in the end, a means for locals in an area that has seen its share of hardship, to make a living from the million visitors it receives each year… In general though, I have many reservations about the still-strong tendency in this country, to wallow so heavily in the past. We all know where that world-view has led, which may only restrict opportunities in the future…

The third stage of the trip was by bus over the moors to Hebden Bridge. The rather cringe-worthily-named ‘Brontë Bus’ turned out actually to be bright and modern, with USB sockets and satellite tracking, and it was interesting to do the circuits of the distinctly non-tourist parts of the area – many of which do look much better cared-for than last time I visited. I suspect that there is a fair amount of commuting to Leeds and Manchester now taking place.

That is certainly true of Hebden Bridge, which we reached after a pleasant bus-borne amble over the moors. This small town of 4500 has become famous as the ‘least cloned town in Britain’. Again it is picturesque, helped (when not being hindered by flooding) by its dramatic location deep in the valley of the Calder. The Rochdale Canal runs through, and the Pennine Way long-distance footpath is nearby, both of which no doubt feed tourism.

But the town’s main claim is the assertive localism of its residents, many of whom are creative types who came here in the seventies when property was cheap, and inadvertently turned the place into a kind of eco-mecca and focal point for the LGBT community.

The town centre has been sympathetically restored, while the presence of both an independent cinema and a highly successful arts venue are somewhat unexpected. Swanky interiors shops suggest that there is money around. Lessons can be learned for my own small town in Essex, which is of a similar size and which equally needs to seize the initiative for its own destiny at a time when the pressures of large-scale commercialism are taking their toll.

Above: Rochdale Canal, Hebden Bridge Below: The attractive streets of the town centre.

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A different kind of enlightenment from Saltaire? Certainly: this is one that is self-directed, even if the actual mechanisms by which Hebden has come to thrive are not entirely clear, intentional or controllable.

Maybe that is the secret of a genuinely good life?

Arts, Architecture & Design, Food, Travel

Leeds by example

The silence was noticeable. Several times, when I told people we were taking a holiday in Leeds, the response was slow coming. “Well, I’m sure you’ll have a lovely time… ”

We, however, were reasonably confident in expecting more from the city at the heart of Britain’s fourth-largest conurbation. We have been working our way through visits to all of the country’s big cities, to see what these places, still often despised in popular opinion, are really like today after several decades of urban renewal. In only one case were we disappointed – and Leeds was the last big place on the list. I think it is fair to say that after several decades in the doldrums, Britain’s city centres are now generally worthy of the nation’s civic pride.

It was about 25 years since I had last visited Leeds, briefly, for a friend’s wedding, so I had few recollections of the city – but I knew that it had stolen a march even on Manchester in being quick out of the blocks of urban renewal. Even some of the new waterside developments are nearing thirty years old. It is now the largest financial and legal centre in England, outside London. Its high productivity has generated income whose consequences have had time to bed in, and have had a lasting effect on the city. There is still quite a lot to do when it comes to the areas just outside the city centre – but we observed the early stages in the creation of a new city park, alongside which, in a decade or so, will eventually rise the new High Speed 2 rail station, thus extending the already impressive new districts to the south of the River Aire.

For once, I had been organised, and booked our visit several months in advance. As a result, we had a room in a 42 The Calls Hotel, an early conversion of a grain warehouse into an attractive hotel, even if its early-nineties decor is now in need of a lift (forthcoming, we gather). A room upgrade saw us installed with a river view, and the roof trusses and machinery of the former hoists to look up at in bed each evening. The rest of the building is an attractive blend of Victorian beams and pillars and modern interventions.

The area around the former wharves on the River Aire is now redolent of similar dockland-style schemes across the country, but no less interesting for that. The backstreets just to the north seem to be doing a good impression of Shoreditch or Hoxton in London, with many creative businesses and bearded types in evidence… Edgy – but just sufficiently so.

Above and below: mixed modern and restored architecture on the Aire waterfront.

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In fact, that is a good summary of the rest of the city, which has cleaned and restored many of its fine Victorian buildings, while making some appealing modern interventions and reinterpretations. The city has not been ‘over-cleaned’ – or perhaps the process has now been going on for long enough that the patina of reality is re-settling. Some rejuvenated places can feel just too pristine…

Much of the centre has been pedestrianised, with a number of new arcades being added to the very fine Victorian ones for which the city is known. As a retail centre, it now ranks with the best in the country, having Harvey Nichols as well as a large new ‘statement’ John Lewis. These have been the anchors around which many lesser known brands and a fair number of independents have clustered.

Above and below: Leeds’ famous arcades – old and new – in the Victoria Quarter.

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The city centre is a pleasant place to walk around, though I gather Friday evenings can still be “interesting”… There is an ornate Victorian indoor market, while the beautiful Corn Exchange now hosts a selection of esoteric independents.

The Corn Exchange

Leeds has a lot to offer culturally too, with Opera North being homed here, as well as the Yorkshire Playhouse repertory theatre. Unfortunately, there was a lull in the programme during the days of our stay. The visual arts are perhaps slightly less well represented; the city Art Gallery is not on the scale of that in Manchester or Birmingham, though it does hold a significant collection of 20th Century art. Unfortunately this too was largely closed in preparation for the forthcoming Yorkshire Sculpture Festival – as was the Tetley Contemporary Arts Centre. Sculpture is perhaps the one visual art that bucks the trend: West Yorkshire has become something of a centre for it, on the back of the area’s associations with Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth (in nearby Wakefield), together with the well-regarded Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

We still find that many British towns and cities’ Achilles’ Heel is their eateries. Leeds does have Michelin starred restaurants – but for more ordinary mortals, the choice seems to be very largely restricted to the usual chain suspects. We try to escape these wherever we can. On our first night, we found a well-reviewed Italian not far from our hotel in another nicely-restored warehouse near the river. Unfortunately, the food was ordinary to say the least; we are not fastidious, but we do know our Italian food, and we can do better than this at home. More indicative, if this is considered locally to be outstanding, then expectations cannot be very high… Much renovation of British cities has found inspiration from the continent – and while there are now some very pleasing public spaces and architecture, it is a shame that the regular gastronomic offerings still mostly don’t come near our experiences of a place, for example, like Lille – let alone those further south.

We were able to see most of central Leeds in a day – it is fairly compact and easily walkable. The redeveloped areas along the river are extensive and attractive, though the main museum offering – the national Royal Armouries Museum was not really our cup of tea. Interesting building though.

Canal basin with the Royal Armouries Museum on the left.

On our second day, we travelled out of the city to some of the smaller places nearby – of which more another time.

As expected, Leeds proved to be a very successful choice for a short city break. It has a big-city feel without being overwhelming, and has made very successful use of its assets to emerge as another fine British city, whatever lagging public opinion might still be thinking. We’ll be back.

Arts, Architecture & Design

CONTEMPORARY HOUSING DEVELOPMENTS IN CAMBRIDGE 2: EDDINGTON AND GREAT KNEIGHTON

2. Eddington.

This is an entirely new urban quarter being developed initially by the University on land on the north-western edge of Cambridge. It is adjacent to a park-and-ride bus terminal, but has also been given additional transport links to the city in the form of cycle ways and a car sharing scheme. The site has been occupied for around 18 months but there is still much construction to be done.

The newly designed primary school (overseen by the University) has attracted attention, and the community centre is a candidate for the Stirling Prize. A new supermarket has opened, and other shops will follow in the central ‘market place’ in the near future, along with a hotel.

The quality of the architecture and construction is high, and perhaps unsurprisingly it has something of the feel of a university campus.

Once again, consideration has been given to the entire urban environment, with broad boulevards, numerous pedestrian routes on an engaging variety of scales and a sequence of open squares and courtyards. Mature trees have been widely imported and imaginative planting laid out, though it will of course take time for this to reach maturity.

Sustainability is integral to the plan: for example, many buildings have high-quality communal bicycle parking and refuse is dealt with by banks of communal bins in the street. These appear small, but in fact empty onto large underground receptacles which are periodically lifted out and emptied by lorry. A very neat solution.

Build-quality appears high. Many of the buildings are in the form of terraces and apartment blocks, which while not to everyone’s taste, do make for very efficient use of space, and the retention of privacy while building at high density – unlike many more ordinary modern, high-density housing estates. Perhaps part of the matter here is challenging people’s preconceptions of these matters – probably somewhat easier in a relatively liberal place like Cambridge.

Some of the architecture has classical overtones, while some of the open spaces and avenues offer reminders of some of the spaces that many find attractive in continental towns, but which the traditional British model rarely produces.

Eddington streetscape. Note the high quality of ground finishes. Something of a Georgian terrace here, too.
Above and following two: public spaces in Eddington. Varying scale. Once again, attention paid to materials and finishes. The dark coloured screens conceal segregated vehicle and cycle parking.

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The provision of walking routes is good. Again there is a range of scales, and cut-throughs such as this offer something of the enticement to explore that is a characteristic of many appealing traditional towns.
Good to see design attention being paid to public buildings. The primary school is circular, around a central green space. The metal gate sculpture is an attractive touch.
Efficient recycling: the bins empty into underground receptacles, demarcated by the white squares on the ground. The whole thing lifts out to be emptied.
Brickwork detail on the community centre. Use of traditional materials in a new context ‘grounds’ the development in its locality.
Poster detailing the scope of the development.

3. Great Kneighton

On the south side of Cambridge, a huge development is occurring near Addenbrookes Hospital. This has taken the Accordia concept several stages further, as mass-housing developers seek to cash in on the attractiveness of the model to the Cambridge market. Again this is on the edge of the city, but is served by another nearby park and ride terminus, while Cambridge’s malfunction-troubled guided busway penetrates the site.

I was expecting this site to be disappointing: the usual dilution of a great concept in the name of fast profit, but in the event I found it significantly better than that. There is a clear master-plan to the site, and its huge scale does not seem to detract greatly as a result. There are spine roads, but many discrete neighbourhoods, laid out on varying patterns but with frequent reference to the same principles of shared street space and the creation of an strong sense of place. This, to my mind, is successful, unlike the many anonymous clone-estates seen in much of the rest of the country.

Several bulk-builders are construction on the site, which has led to a variety of styles, though the quality is perhaps less consistent than in the previous two developments. Conversation with the representative of one company confirmed that it has tried to ‘raise its game’ in this location, which is encouraging – but it begs the question why there appears to be little intention of offering the same approach elsewhere in the country.

First impressions suggested a coarsening of the architecture, the usual fate of overtly commercial developments. But the public square and planting is well above average.
Above and below: enough of the spirit of Accordia remains to make this a successful development. The use of decorative brickwork is appealing without recourse to pastiche. There is again something of a Dutch overtone to the buildings below – the eastern counties of course have a long history of such influences.

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Efficient use of space in a high density development: garages are integrated, and the space over them used for living rooms and roof terraces. Planting is starting to mature nicely.
Culs-de-sac are kept short, and they mostly have pedestrian through-access (see below). This reduces the number of areas not publicly frequented. The use of dropped kerbs and varied paving creates a successful shared space.

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Terrace by Bovis. Attractive streetscape details, not dominated by roads. The use of high density makes this achievable. Again, space over garages well used.
This is aesthetically less successful, but it may mature. The spaces over the car ports could surely have been better used at minimal added expense.

Conclusions

All in all, this was an inspiring day. It shows that the potential exists for Britain to produce residential quarters significantly better than the usual bland Lego-box pastiche estates – and they will sell. Perhaps the most reassuring (and surprising) point was to see that even the quantity builders can use these principles without completely bastardising them.

My county has long had design guidelines for new development – a reaction to its blitzing with low-grade suburban development in the twentieth century. The latest incarnation of the Essex Design Guide is not hostile to contemporary architecture, but it makes the very good point that great architecture is not only about landmark buildings. The quality of ordinary ones – and the streetscapes between them – makes a far more significant contribution to the quality of people’s lives, and it is encouraging to see that the country is not beyond getting this right.

We now just need to do it much more widely.

Arts, Architecture & Design

Contemporary housing developments in Cambridge 1: Accordia

I have long been envious of the quality of housing in continental countries such as Switzerland and Germany. As with many things, a more controlled construction sector, coupled with a greater discernment on the part of clients and perhaps less aversion to modernity has produced new housing stock of a quality far superior to that in this country.

It may seem mundane, but given the centrality of home in most people’s lives, the quality of fixtures and fittings, the sound-proofing of floors and walls, the adaptability and ease of maintenance of those spaces can make a significant impact on the quality of life. And that is before we consider the psychological effect of the spaces we inhabit.

Sick building syndrome was identified some decades ago, where large artificially-lit and poorly ventilated office buildings were literally making people unwell. I think this is evidence enough to support the theory that the quality of our built environment is of major significance for our well-being.

Perhaps a little more contentious is the aesthetic impact of such spaces. I find that having a home which is pared back and calming is beneficial to the state of mind – and the use of pleasing materials and forms brings a daily uplift to my state of mind. While many in Britain still apparently see modernism as bleak and unwelcoming, I find well done modern design hugely optimistic and buoying. The freedom it presents from out-dated social forms releases the designer to respond to the needs of the present day without being a slave to convention.

I recently spent a day touring some of the recent residential developments that have been built around Cambridge. This city has long been associated with architectural innovation, and still today it seems willing to entertain visions not welcomed elsewhere. The presence of a highly-educated population no doubt helps.

We toured three developments, which I describe in this and the subsequent post.

1. Accordia.

This development of 378 dwellings was completed in 2008 on a Ministry of Defence-owned site near the University Botanical Gardens. The master-plan was developed by Felden Clegg Bradley architects, and it won the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2008.

It includes a mix of types, both private and housing association properties in a range of contemporary styles. Much care was put into developing a pedestrian-friendly street plan, energy-efficient buildings, and well-landscaped grounds. The retention of a large number of mature trees helped in this respect.

The principal practice designed about 65% of the buildings, but several other architects were commissioned to provide an input, which has resulted in an eclectic range, mostly of terraces and apartments.

Inspiration was imported from the Netherlands, from where high-quality bricks were sourced, in a colour not dissimilar to the local brick colour. Much use was also made of shared street space communal facilities such a play areas for children, as widely seen in Dutch towns and cities.

In contrast to many modern British developments, the houses are mostly positioned right on the street, thus providing strong street lines and a good ‘sense of place’. Roads are mainly straight, though with chicanes to slow traffic and provide dispersed parking spaces. The corners of many side roads are blind, which in effect forces drivers to proceed slowly. Street furniture is high quality, and the traffic management is subtly done.

Cars in general are subordinated to pedestrians, with parking largely integrated within buildings, or beneath apartment blocks. Vehicular access is often at the rear of the properties, with the front doors giving onto well-planted pedestrian streets. There is a car-sharing club, which seems made for dense inner-urban developments like this. There is a range of street widths, from a generous main spine road to narrow mews-like off-shoots.

I have watched this development from its late construction stage as my sister in law has her home there. Ten years on, the development is well into the maturing stage, with the buildings increasingly softened by climbing plants. Accordia has been so successful that it spawned a number of other developments in the Cambridge area, all of which are apparently in great demand. These will be shown in the following post.

It is quite unnerving to see something of this quality in the U.K. I can’t pretend I like all of the individual buildings – but that is of course fine. The really impressive thing is the coherent master-plan for the site, which has successfully created a new residential quarter not far from the historically sensitive core of the city – in a style that is ‘of its time’ and yet which will hopefully enhance the city’s architectural inheritance rather than – as is so often the case with new-build  houses – the opposite.

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Above and below: a range of Accordia streetscapes.
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On-street parking is sensitively integrated
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Signature building at the entrance to the development. Garage to rear, off mews side-street. Note blind exit which slows traffic successfully.
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Redolent of Georgian terraces, this building has duplexes on floors 1-2 and 3-4. The upper ones have roof terraces.
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Above and below: non-car streetscapes.

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Much use is made of balconies and roof terraces to afford outdoor space to all.
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One of several children’s play areas – all overlooked for safety.
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Much car-parking is integrated into buildings thus decluttering the streets and avoiding compromise to the architecture.

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Food, Opinion & Thought, Sartoria, Travel

Anti-sprezzatura

fabric

Anhedonia is a word that does not seem to be widely known. This is perhaps not surprising as it is a medical term, relating to the inability to feel pleasure: a kind of anti-sprezzatura.

It is a symptom widely reported in people suffering from depression, and they often describe it as feeling ‘flat’, when none of the things that normally give pleasure any longer does so. It goes hand-in-hand with a loss of motivation, and an ability to find life worth living, which is perhaps not surprising either when one thinks about what does motivate people in more normal circumstances.

It is extremely difficult to describe such experiences to those who have not had them. With anhedonia, one simply has no feelings for anything. One is left just staring at the music, food, places, possessions, experiences – and people – that one loves without any feeling of warmth, or indeed any feeling at all. But it is not the detachment of the critical thinker, more a sense that a handful of sand has been chucked into the gears of one’s mind. It is deeply unpleasant.

And at that point, one easily starts to wonder whether life is even worth living: it is bad enough not being able to feel those normal emotions, but it is compounded both by a sense of loss, and an utter inability to do anything about it. There is no point in trying to ‘jolly along’ someone in this condition, let alone telling them to ‘snap out of it’. It just can’t be done, and forced merriment is only likely to make matters worse.

I started Sprezzatura during just such an episode, which has lasted formally (i.e. diagnosed) for over two years, but which I think was incipient for a good while before that. It may seem strange to have started a blog dedicated to living well at such a time – but while the basic appreciation has always been there, amongst all the irrational things that happened during my illness, I developed a renewed appetite for all of the good things discussed in this blog. I was largely not able to derive much pleasure from them at that time, but that somehow made it all the more important to focus on them, to remind myself that they were still there – and starting this blog helped to do that.

I made significant efforts to overhaul my wardrobe (not necessarily a wise thing at a time when one is susceptible to splurging), to revisit certain recipes that I had not used in a long time, and to remind myself about the places (such as Italy) that were normally a source of great pleasure for me.

I’m pleased to say that matters have improved greatly in the last few months: I’m back playing music, making models, and enjoying most of the things I used to, though I feel the path has still not been fully travelled yet. What’s more, finally biting the bullet and making myself travel to Italy again in September proved to be a great tonic. I started to realise that forcing myself to immerse in those things may have been hard work, but it was also part of the recovery process – perhaps a form of re-wiring all of the disrupted mental circuitry.

Indeed, in some ways my appreciation is all the greater for now knowing what life is like without these things. But I also started to wonder whether there is a bigger pattern here. For all that one can catch Stendhal’s Syndrome in Italy, statistics suggest that reported incidence of chronic depression is significantly lower in Italy than in Britain. (There may of course be all sorts of cultural, as opposed to medical reasons why this is so). But listening to a group of British men a few days ago trying to out-bid each other in the bargain-basement stakes, I wondered again what it is about our national mentality that does this.

The active avoidance of anything with refinement or quality – of consciously ‘living well’ – seems to be almost a badge of honour. I suspect it has something to do with inverted snobbery and the social order in Britain, where any form of apparent ‘show’ can seem pretentious.

But eschewing things that can genuinely lift the spirit doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea to me. Ultimately, life is what you make it, and I can’t see much benefit in rejecting an honest appreciation of the better things in life, however they are defined. It need not be a matter of money: one does not have to own things in order to appreciate them, and an appreciation of quality is more a matter of how you approach things than the size of your wallet. In any case, it is quite possible to find ways around budgetary constraints – and remember, sprezzatura is as much about what you do as what you have. I am deeply puzzled by a country that sets such store by working hard and earning money, but which generally seems to have little time for appreciating the fruits of its labour.

While ironing a pair of trousers earlier today, no less, I found myself appreciating anew the fineness and craftsmanship of the Italian fabric I had chosen. It is nothing to do with show: it was (until now) an entirely private moment, a minor epiphany and reminder that the good things in life are still there, if only we can remember how to see them.

For people suffering from anhedonia, I would suggest that refocusing on your personal sprezzatura is as good a therapy as it is possible to find, even though it is hard work. And all the more reason to discover in the first place.