Imaginative pocket development will bring public benefit, but will set a dangerous precedent say old-school developers.
By Theodore Hook
A new building development taking shape on the former Middlesex Hospital site in Fitzrovia is already reaping praise for its design and environmental credentials, and it’s not even been officially announced yet.
Hidden behind the hoarding and lost in the rumours and conflicting reports which have been circulating for the past months you’d be forgiven for not noticing it.
The three acre site in the heart of London had been vacant for the past few years and was dogged by financial troubles and marred by over-ambitious development plans.
Then in December 2010 the consortium, of Kaupthing, Aviva Investments and Exemplar, who own the site announced that they had plans for a mix of homes, shops, a school and a medical centre.
But last week the Financial Times reported that the cafe and hotel group Hard Rock had struck a deal with Exemplar Properties to build it a 250 room hotel on a site somewhere in central London. Exemplar are the appointed developer for the former Middlesex Hospital site. The FT reported that Hard Rock and Exemplar had declined to comment, fuelling speculation about where the hotel would be built.
However, only days later residents noticed construction activity on the site. A single-storey building is quietly taking shape and more speculation has arisen as a result. It is possible that it is based on The Jicwood Bungalow; designed in 1944 by Sheppard Robson it utilised an innovative prefabricated concept to deliver fast, efficient housing in response to the social needs of the time.
While the owners of the property have recently been silent, there are rumours of a “pocket development” with a large amount of public open space. A parkland site with vegetable gardens, an orchard, an environmental education centre complete with horticultural workshop, and zero-carbon affordable housing. The tallest building will be the Grade II* listed chapel at the heart of site.
Residents groups were pleased with the news. “We’ve yet to see details of the plans but what we can see over the fence is something we are likely to favour. A small, single-storey development is a surprise to us all after we feared that there would be a huge hotel built, masses of retail and hardly any public open space. We’ve spent a lot of time being very critical of developers and Westminster City Council. And I’d have to admit we’d got very cynical,” said a spokesperson.
Urban designers have said that there is an emerging “cultural shift” where a wave of anti-consumerism has now penetrated mainstream thinking about cities. Against the backdrop of government austerity measures and the campaign against the cuts, architects, planners and property developers are now looking for new and creative ways of using land in urban areas. And it seems that profit is not the prime motivation.
“Its modesty is its strength,” said architect Norman Forester. “Space is the new high-density. What we’ve experienced until now has been a trend where architects have been constrained by the demands of developers for high returns. That’s led to high-density developments, with large floor plates and lots of glass and steel. We now know that’s not credible and it is not what people want.
“Open space, greenery, a place to relax, space for recreation, and somewhere to grow your own food is the future of our cities. Architects and developers who can deliver these social spaces are the ones who will stand out,” said Mr Forester.
However, the scheme has been heavily criticised by conventional property developers who see the scheme as overly idealistic.
“This sets a very dangerous precedent where a huge site which could return millions is squandered on a ‘concept’ scheme like this. They’ve caved into residents’ demands for open space and community benefit,” said Sean Matlock of Fitzrovia-based Drake Architects. “No-one’s going to make any money on a development like this. They are living in cloud cuckoo-land,” he said.
But Matlock’s arguments were dismissed by Forester who says that the days of boom and bust in building have forged an emerging new breed of young designers and developers who are thinking “outside the box” and are more concerned with quality of life rather than quantity of financial return. And architects like Sheppard Robson are proudly boasting not only sustainability but also a social conscience. Creative architectural collectives are not going to be pushed about by rapacious developers.
“If you look at the many other building works in central London you see the desecration of the historical fabric of the city,” says Forester. “The Crossrail project has torn a scar across the heart of London and large retail units have destroyed the small-scale vernacular architecture that gave London its character. But while the government has given the go-ahead for Crossrail to continue, and planners have consented to large retail schemes, Crossrail and its associated regeneration projects will be the last of their kind.
“The new architecture is conservation-led, environmentally-conscious and above all, economically sustainable. Developers are realising that a dog-eat-dog attitude and exponential growth is no longer feasible. What we will see is a more thoughtful, long-term vision for cities emerging. Cities as social networks where urban designers are taking the virtual concept of ‘social capital’ and putting it into practice. That is what is happening here on the Middlesex site. And despite what the doubters say, they will in the long run make a lot of money out of it,” said Forester.
An official announcement on the future of the former Middlesex Hospital site is expected in May.