Place is key to Peace

Liz Peace
15 May 2009

CABE commissioner Liz Peace, the chief executive of the British Property Federation, says the major lesson from CABE’s first decade is that creating great buildings is not enough in itself – we must create great places.

Liz Peace

No developer wants to produce a badly designed building, says Liz Peace, even though that is exactly what they sometimes do.

‘Anyone who’s a responsible investor in property takes a close interest in design because they can see that design adds value,’ she says. ‘Everybody would like what they build to be well regarded because that makes it more valuable.’

As chief executive of the British Property Federation, which represents the companies behind most of the landmark developments completed over the last decade, Peace is in a good position to know why we do still get bad design.

She puts it down to ‘cock-up rather than conspiracy’, and clients failing to keep very closely involved with their architects and urban designers. ‘An architect may produce a fantastic design but it may be unbuildable or it may not fit well with the purpose of the building or the environment around it. Just hiring a brilliant architect doesn’t guarantee you the best solution for an area.’

The key lesson Liz draws out is that development is about creating great places – not just great buildings. ‘I believe very strongly that a building is made by its location and its surroundings. You cannot look at buildings in isolation. You should be looking at the broader urban design experience – particularly how buildings interact with the open space, the roads, the pavements and the other structures around them.’

The message about creating great places has just been re-iterated in the government’s important new strategy for improving the quality of places, World-class places. It sets out the practical steps needed to create more prosperous, attractive, distinctive, inclusive and sustainable places. (The strategy’s launch in May 2009 was celebrated by Ian McMillan in his poem ‘Welcome to a world-class place’)

‘Take Victoria Street in London,’ Peace says. ‘It is vastly improved outside Cardinal Place because Land Securities built it further back from the road in order to create wider pavements where people can walk in a more leisured fashion without being jostled.’

Peace says that successful buildings must be both functional and sustainable. She praises Calthorpe Estates’ 19 George Road development in Birmingham, one of the first schemes in the city to achieve a BREEAM excellent rating. ‘It is very functional, it isn’t wildly fancy architecture but it is a comfortable building to be in. There’s not much point having a building that appears fantastic if it doesn’t meet its primary purpose – what does it feel like to work in? Does it make you feel happy?’

By contrast, she believes, one of the most iconic London buildings of the last decade was not designed with users at front of mind. ‘I love the appearance of the Gherkin - I think it’s stunning from an external architecture perspective,’ she says. ‘But people who understand office buildings will tell you it is not a very practical building. The office space is the wrong shape and layout, the reception area is a bit constrained, it’s not terribly obvious where the entrance is, and you invariably end up walking 3600 to find it. I think that’s a classic case of where people looked at the architectural trophy and didn’t think about how it was going to be used, how people were going to approach it and how it related to the streetscape outside.’

Thinking about the developments she loves, like Spinningfields in Manchester, Brindleyplace in Birmingham and Broadgate and Canary Wharf in London, Liz believes they have one thing in common. ‘They’ve been promoted by organisations that cared deeply about creating an environment. If you look at Spinningfields or Brindleyplace there aren’t - with one possible exception - any particularly architecturally significant buildings that stand out. It wasn’t about incredible iconic shapes; it was about creating an interesting and pleasant place to be in.’

Achieving that kind of result means developers need to work very closely with their architects and urban designers. ‘Being a client is a very big responsibility. Unless you’re there every inch of the way and make it a real integrated project and a partnership, then you get the mess you deserve in the end.’

Regardless of the quality of the design, though, few developments make financial sense at the moment. ‘The stream of big schemes that we’ve come to expect has effectively dried up. All the big companies have got lots of interesting stuff in the pipeline but it is sitting in there until we’re out of this recession. So places like Bradford now have an extremely large hole in the middle, and it’s going to stay like that for a long time’ 

In the meantime, public building projects should be viewed as opportunities. ‘It is more important than ever that projects which are part of major initiatives like Building Schools for the Future are designed with broader economic and community benefits in mind.’

Liz Peace is a CABE commissioner and the chief executive of the British Property Federation.