Architecture

Dear Simon Jenkins, please stop moaning about developers

London's Bedford Square and Regents Park show beautiful city planning is possible

26 October 2013

9:00 AM

26 October 2013

9:00 AM

When architectural preservationists meet at the tedious conferences and grim councils of despair that feed oxygen to their nihilistic and unventilated ‘heritage’ world-view, the word ‘developer’ is spat out with contempt. It is as though they are speaking of Satan and his diabolical agents, who used to appear in the horror novels of Dennis Wheatley that I so enjoyed in my youth.

To hear Simon Jenkins, for example, refer to a ‘developer’ is to appreciate the impressive range over which the human voice can express contempt. To Jenkins, a ‘developer’ is a loathsome thing bent on profaning all that is sacred. ‘Developers’ despoil the countryside and debauch the city. They are cruel and ignorant exploitationists whose motivation is greed and whose business is corrupt and corrupting. They are merchants whose trade is ugliness.

I wonder if this is altogether true. Surely there is a more generous view of what a developer might be? The Town and Country Planning Act of 1990 offers a forensic definition: ‘the carrying out of building …or the making of any material change to a building’.  These seem admirable and inoffensive objectives. True, keeping the company of Alfred Taubman, Harry Helmsley and Harry Hyams might have brought even Mother Teresa into disrepute, but are there not other more positive examples?

The Ideal City, the optimum design for an agglomeration of buildings, has been a preoccupation of civilised life since Plato.  It was best realised, perhaps, in the Italian Renaissance. The rustic Tuscan town of Corsignano, near Montepulciano, was rebuilt according to this vision by Pope Pius II. It became known as La Città del Pio and is now called Pienza. With its elegant spaces and fine architecture inspired by Alberti, it can reasonably claim to be one of the most beautiful man-made environments on earth. Wasn’t this property development?

In London, a persuasive champion of high-density new-build was Nicholas Barbon. The author of A Discourse of Trade (1690) made his fortune from rebuilding London after the Great Fire. It was a speculative and daring property development and most of us who admire Red Lion Square are grateful for his efforts. Barbon, confident rather than afraid of change, wrote that new buildings are ‘the most proper and visible distinction of Riches and Greatness because the expenses are too great for Mean Persons to follow’.


Of course, too many ‘Mean Persons’ have been snared by the profitable lure of spec-building. Whether it is a builder-boyfriend knocking through a shabby late-Victorian two-up two-down with lots of plasterboard and Ikea cupboards or a gross plc putting degrading features on stupid boxes to lure credulous rubes with architectural crapola, without question some of the nastiest, most artless and heartless kitsch, some of the most inhuman and cynical travesties of architecture have been made by developers.

Then, again, you have Bedford Square in Bloomsbury. You have the legacies of Portman and Cavendish. Here is the apogee of great city-building and it was what Sir John Soane called the very ‘spirit of speculation’.

What was John Nash if not an inspired property developer? Regent’s Park is one of the planet’s most wonderful urban spaces and it was property development of a spectacular sort. It was built on a scale and with a conviction which, if imitated today, would excite deafening keening and moaning from the heritage lobby.

The problem with demonising contemporary property developers, as the heritage lobby insists on doing, is that the consequence is the same as in the case of the scolding wife. If you are routinely called a lousy, drunken, two-timing, useless bastard there is little incentive for you to be anything better.

Moaning is intellectually lazy and counterproductive. A better attitude is needed.  For example, most cities have a ‘development control’ function in their planning departments. This, as the architect David Chipperfield says, makes development seem the equivalent of the vermin and criminals that also need controlling. Positivism will get a better result than negativism.

Currently, most anti-developer rhetoric is directed at the South Bank littoral between Lambeth and Chelsea, where itinerant ‘foreign’ investors are buying apartments that will stay dark and lifeless owing to their owners’ incessant global excursions. But maybe, just maybe, that is the way world cities will develop. And if London wants to remain the leading world city, it needs to negotiate terms with the psychological and practical realities of that status.

If there is a nomadic class of investors, let’s build them the best possible investment-grade properties, not sit around gnashing and mewling about the lost days of wassailing, honey and crumpets or cider-soaked dancing in felt leggings around maypoles. We need an articulate engagement with developers and investors so as to force up standards. We do not want frivolous, mis-placed sentiment or terminal Nimbyism.

That first developer, Nicholas Barbon, created a ‘new method of building’. And it was speculative. It created a ‘super-foetation of houses in London’. Jolly good.  We now daily thrill to the enduring results of his new methods. Only the most hopeless pessimist would deny that great developers’ architecture is a future possibility. Besides, property development is the ‘chiefest Promoter of Trade’. That’s jolly good too. We don’t need less property development. We just need better. Ideal Cities are not made by moaners.

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  • tjamesjones

    Yes, I think this is right, we are going to have new building so let’s have it on the best possible terms. It is possible even today, although there are plenty of horrible developments post war, I think the City of London itself, from St Pauls through to Moorgate, has been largely rebuilt in this last few decades, tastefully, up-to-date, and largely in sympathy with the Guildhall and other ancient buildings.

    • Pip

      But it wont be on the best possible terms, housing estates will be erected on green belt sites all over the country with little regard for the local residents or the surrounding area. This articles is using the best examples which will having little bearing on the reality for most.

  • black11hawk

    Mmmm, I have some sympathy for your argument, but it must be said that the identikit housing estates which are springing up in large swathes of the countryside are hideous and look out of place when plonked at the end of a road where all the houses are different having been built over many centuries. Also the buildings in city centres, with the exception of some outstanding sky-scrapers, often quickly become eye-sores, the new Birmingham City Library is a prime example of this. That being said we do need lots of new houses and workplaces, it’s just a shame that modern architects and developers seem to be incapable of designing and producing these buildings with beauty in mind, as our antecedents once did.

    • Pip

      The only reason we need lots of new house is because of massive Immigration which has been allowed without mandate from the people.

      • black11hawk

        What if there had been no mass immigration, but instead we had had a baby boom among white British people, in that instance would it have been objectionable to build more housing?

        • Pip

          Yes I would be calling for birth control and limiting the number of children to 2 per couple by incentives and education. There are too many people in the world and in the UK and it is this that is slowing destroying the environment and making us all poorer. Problem is our Political Class serve corporate and banking interests not ours and they are scared to even debate the real issues.

          • black11hawk

            Pip, how would you propose that kind of policy is enforced? Perhaps the same way it is in China, where local party chiefs dash to hospitals to administer lethal injections to babies. This policy has resulted in massive imbalances in the population, with some regions of China currently experiencing a 10:1 boy to girl ratio. It also creates a top heavy society with large numbers of old people, who have to be supported by an ever decreasing pool of young. Apart from these practical considerations it is also morally reprehensible. The instinct to reproduce is a natural human urge, whether you are an atheist and believe the scientific reasons for it or you believe what the Bible says: “And you, be ye fruitful and multiply; Bring forth abundantly in the earth.” Having a child is a joyous and auspicious occasion, if anything the fact that Westerners no longer have children demonstrates the selfishness of the current generation and the utter disinterest in one’s legacy and the future. Building a career and amassing wealth are laudable goals, but ultimately it is through our children that we leave an indelible mark on this world.

          • george

            That last comment is a parental delusion, I’m afraid.

          • black11hawk

            George, evidence please….

          • george

            I don’t see the self-evident truth of ‘ultimately it is through our children that we leave an indelible mark on this world’ — either the ‘ultimately’ or the ‘indelible mark’. I don’t have children and can’t see how they would be any more indelible than I am or my parents were. We live, we die, we are forgotten. For most people, that’s it. Very few leave ‘an indelible mark’, and those that do, do so through their works, inventions, causes, leadership. I know an internationally famous scientist who told me that he ‘reproduces’ himself far more effectively through teaching generations of students than he would have done by going the biological route. When we rue the lost works of Aristotle or of a great composer, we don’t give a thought to the children they didn’t have, and don’t care about the ones they did have.

          • Terry Field

            Travel around the world, idiot, Just go to Indian cities, South American Cities. Closer to home, how much life other than human is there in England, and a great majority of that lives in squalid un-natural deprivation. The BBC wildlife lot have a collective orgasm when they come across a hedgehog eating an earthworm. It is a dreadful place, except for the deranged. Like you I suspect.

          • Terry Field

            The indelible mark is poverty, devastation of all other species, greed, misery, desolation of – literally – whole regions of the globe. You are a deranged idiot living in a soggy dream. And the bible also talks of subduing the earth – you don’t quote that do you you little bigot.

      • Terry Field

        What an idiotic thing to say.

  • george

    Cough (or boo). You’re not apologizing for most ‘development’ such as can be seen in Harlow, are you? I’m for truth, beauty, and the American dream of freedom, but if we can’t have the first and third, I at least would like the second.

  • Terry Field

    “With its elegant spaces and fine architecture inspired by Alberti, it can reasonably claim to be one of the most beautiful man-made environments on earth. Wasn’t this property development?”

    Not in a modern sense, no it was not.
    It was an intellectual construction long before it was made real by builders – and these were not self-directing ‘developers’.
    Paris is beautiful in pat because of the strictures of Haussmann within which framework the building was done.
    In Britain it is near anarchy – control without vision; structure to no end, planning deliberately avoided. Piecemeal personal profit making – rough and ready; London style is like this. It always has been. After the Great Fire, the little owners simply rebuilt what they had before, but in stone. No great plan, no attempt at beauty. Mostly function, with a bit of isolated muscular grandeur thrown in.
    The great patronage of the Church has a heritage of fine church buildings in abundance – a subject on Mr Jenkins has written well. But the patronage of princes and kings has been subordinated in modern times to traders; people who learn by their mistakes; and their architectural mistakes are the horrors we have to endure.
    As in most aspects of life, anarchy and personal power rule; the result, predictably, is almost unbearable ugliness and mediocrity, with only rare beauty, form and elegance found.
    Things are getting worse as the little island fills with ever more sweaty little ‘achievers’ who inflict yet more horrors on the now largely disappeared beautiful island.
    Glad I left.
    We are very far from the beauty of Georgian England. Why? People of excellent taste are replaced by barbarians.

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