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OSA Reviews: Peter Barber at the Barbican, Architecture on Stage

Peter Barber entertained a very full house at the Barbican Centre on Tuesday night, and showed how thoughtful, people-centred architecture can be produced within the confines of a public-sector project. Unusually for a major practice, almost all Barber’s proposals are for affordable mass housing in London. This local approach has allowed the practice to fully understand the cultural, political, and socio-economic complexities of such a diverse city and, as Barber admits, has resulted in him becoming “an architect with a style.” It’s a style that could be labelled as ‘quirky’ or even ‘fun’, with a focus on complex elevations and details that draw the eye. Yet the projects always remember the most essential element – the user – as evidenced by the numerous post-occupancy photographs that detail residents taking ownership of their space in a way that is aided by the design.

Barber begins the talk with some sobering facts. Before 1977, over 50% of London’s population lived in social housing. That percentage now stands at just 15%. He highlights the huge wealth inequality in the city with a photograph taken by a homeless man that shows his bare mattress laid out on the street, contrasted with a shot from the interior of a flat in West London that sold for £15 million. To tackle this disparity, Barber calls for three simple changes:

- An end to Right to Buy, which deteriorates social housing stock under the guise of helping the individual whilst playing into the hands of private landlords.

- private sector rent controls.

- a major boom in the construction of true social housing.

It’s this final point where architects can make the greatest impact. If we can demonstrate that fantastic architecture can be achieved in projects such as homeless hostels and social housing, regardless of budget, then the existing attitude to publicly funded projects can be altered. Social housing has become synonymous with poor-quality, unhealthy, and undesirable architecture in the UK, which is an unfair categorisation as many projects are ingeniously designed to navigate the tricky web of tight regulation and limited budgets. It is here that Barber demonstrates what can be done within these confines.

Figure 1: McGrath Road, Newham Barber utilises former housing typologies, but he reworks them to iron out the shortcomings from the past. Back-to-back, which were used to quickly and cheaply house the huge influx of industrial workers that flooded into industrialising British cities in the 19th century. For a development of 26 houses in Newham, Barber has created a modern version of the back-to-back (see Fig. 1). The houses line a central communal square, but also benefit from their own private roof terrace. Beautiful brick arches from stoop-like area where the houses meet the street, allowing for an engagement with the local area. Barber also noted how much the bricklayers enjoyed the construction of these, allowing them to demonstrate their skill – something I feel that is often overlooked in construction. He also applies this historical sensitivity in a growing number of retrofits that keep existing elements that work well but renovates or removes those that have caused past problems.

As Barber goes through these projects, a common theme emerges. He directs his focus on the boundary between public and private – the street, doorways, front gardens – and spends little to no time on the interior spaces. That’s not important to us as the public, that’s just for the users. He revels in “the public social life of the streets” where people from many different walks of life are pushed together by the architecture and are forced to interact. Architecture should invite discussion and collaboration, something which is reflected in the practice’s shopfront-style window display of models which draws people in off the street, be they prospective clients, tourists, or locals.

Figure 2: Mud Village - A rough draft for a decent neighbourhood This mindset is perhaps best exemplified in the practice’s paper projects – the ones that never made it to site. A huge concept model for the redevelopment of the Mount Pleasant Mail Centre presents a wonderful patchwork of little alleyways and narrow streets that wind through tiny clay houses emblazoned with bright glazes that encourage people to interact and share in their common space. Perhaps my favourite is Barber’s final slide entitled “Mud Village” (see Fig. 2). A small suitcase opens to display a model that could be an archaeological dig of an ancient settlement. It demonstrates a concept for a small farming co-operative in Wiltshire, built from the mud found on-site and through this ingrained with a truly ‘local’ sense of place. In his built projects, Barber demonstrates his ability to navigate around regulations. The Village in a Box demonstrates what could be achieved if we just ripped up the rulebook and opened our minds to the possibility of a truly communal way of living.

Of course, solving an issue like the housing crisis involves (amongst others) policy change, discourse with the government, and sympathetic public opinion. Yet it also involves designing and building housing, something which architects are really good at! Barber demonstrates how, if architects fully utilise the tools at their disposal, they can play an important part in solving tangible problems. To call him a ‘traditional’ architect is perhaps unhelpful as it conjures up images of conservative design and a reluctance to innovate – something which Barber most certainly ain’t. Yet his projects are consistently underpinned by key elements of what has always made for good architecture: user-led design, meticulous detailing, and fantastic construction. The thing that makes his work unique is that these elements are offered to those who are so often overlooked.

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