Architecture: Stitching back the Georgian threads, the Victorian patches: Rowan Moore reports on a firm that has brought a new dignity to city-centre housing

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The Independent Culture
IN THE reporting of architecture, a certain distortion tends to take place. Acres of newsprint and miles of videotape are expended on a very few, conspicuous projects by undoubtedly talented celebrities, while the work of prolific but less spectacular practices by and large goes unreported. Sir Norman Foster, for example, has, for all his fame, still been responsible for only half a dozen or so schemes in London, while the discreet firm of Pollard Thomas & Edwards executes more than 50 a year in the capital.

Yet the work of such firms, which build new homes and convert unpromising abandoned old buildings into imaginative housing, has a direct influence on the lives of thousands. In the Fifties and Sixties public housing was at the forefront of architectural experiment, and was designed by the stars of the day. But, with the well-known failure of some of these experiments, star architects have turned to offices, museums, airports and factories - to anything, in fact, but housing. This trend has been accelerated by local authorities' almost total inability to build new council housing, no matter how great the need.

Yet people still need houses. Over the past 15 years, it has been Pollard Thomas & Edwards and like-minded architects who have given city- centre housing its latest form. This was governed by a reaction to the overbearing bureaucratic rigidity and drab architecture that had, by the Seventies, replaced the idealism of the Modern movement and the welfare state.

Much of Pollard Thomas & Edwards' work is for housing associations - autonomous, locally based bodies subsidised by government - which, ever since the Conservatives came to power in 1979, have represented a politically acceptable alternative to council housing. Housing associations, however, lack the means and the will to erase and rebuild the large tracts of housing that were rushed up in the Fifties and Sixties. Their sites tend to be irregular, constrained and hedged with circumstances both positive and negative; by, for instance, existing buildings and street patterns or even a motorway, such as the one that bounded an early Pollard Thomas & Edwards scheme in Shepherd's Bush. They do try, however, to respond to the opinions of tenants and local residents.

The resulting architecture is everything that the stereotypical Sixties block is not. It is straightforwardly built out of materials that require little maintenance, which usually means brick. It accommodates whimsy, even mild eccentricity. It commonly consists as much of restored buildings as new ones. It is intimate and accessible. Most important, it seeks to erase boundaries between 'social housing' and the rest of the world. There is not the sense that one is entering a special compound for those who cannot afford a mortgage. The same approaches and attitudes apply in Pollard Thomas & Edwards' private housing projects. Its warehouse conversions near Tower Bridge, for example, created some notable exceptions to the generally dismal speculations of the Eighties boom in Docklands.

The fruits of this approach can be best seen in housing schemes such as Royal Free Place, Islington. This is a redundant hospital which has been turned into a mix of flats and houses. Calmly and with dignity, threads and patches of Georgian and Victorian London have been stitched back into the fabric of the city without recourse to the usual orgy of 'traditional' detailing. If one guesses instinctively that this is a housing-association development rather than one for a private-sector developer, this is largely because the housing is superior to the average speculative development.

Pollard Thomas & Edwards is part of what is now a tradition of rehousing people left homeless by the decline and fall - literally in some cases - of the tower block. Yet this young tradition is already under threat. The Government, in its relentless quest for 'value for money', now favours housing on suburban sites built and designed by the most basic methods of private sector housebuilders.

On a simple cost-per-flat calculation, such housing is indeed cheaper. But such a calculation overlooks the fact that the work of firms such as Pollard Thomas & Edwards contributes more than just so many roofs over so many heads. It renews the inner city, preserves and repairs its historic fabric, and resists the atomisation of the city into public and private ghettos.

An exhibition of work by Pollard Thomas & Edwards is at Blanc de Bierges Gallery, Business Design Centre, Upper Street, Islington Green, London N1 until 13 November 071-288 6217.

(Photograph omitted)