Will Alsop: We can all design our future

The best way to revive our inner cities is to make them beautiful and to listen to the people who live there
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The Independent Online

There was a time when we could rely on entrepreneurs and philanthropists for wealth, wits and better facilities. Not any more. These fine things, so vital to improving urban life, were spoilt by a lack of investment, a lack of imagination and an increase in social mobility. And since the mid-Eighties, when Mrs Thatcher was photographed picking her stilettoed way across a derelict wasteland in Middlesbrough, politician after politician has tried to revive run-down Britain.

There was a time when we could rely on entrepreneurs and philanthropists for wealth, wits and better facilities. Not any more. These fine things, so vital to improving urban life, were spoilt by a lack of investment, a lack of imagination and an increase in social mobility. And since the mid-Eighties, when Mrs Thatcher was photographed picking her stilettoed way across a derelict wasteland in Middlesbrough, politician after politician has tried to revive run-down Britain.

Last week the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, was the latest to promise new initiatives to regenerate the inner cities, with his cut in stamp duty on property transactions in depressed areas, tax relief for clean-ups of contaminated land, refurbishments of flats above shops, and other assorted tax benefits. Good for Gordon, you might say. But there is a depressing sense of déjà vu about the whole list of initiatives. The trouble is that the inner cities of Britain have been subject to so many projects, so many specialist agencies. And few of them have made any real difference. Instead we have all seen the result: acres of land covered in red-brick roads lined with spherical lights, and unspeakable architectural mediocrity. Few have had the guts or the imagination to do something more adventurous, or to do anything that would make a real difference.

It is not that roads are unimportant. To my mind, there are three elements that are key to sustainable regeneration, and one of those is infrastructure. But the other two are just as important, and they are the ones that seem as elusive as ever. One is beauty, and the other is imagination.

Take, for instance, the homes that are built in Britain, the majority of which are constructed by the big-volume housebuilders. These companies hide behind the lie that their pathetic products are what people want. In fact they give people no option but to buy their tacky boxes of nostalgia erected on our flood plains. We have all seen the problems that this leads to in the past few weeks.

But how on earth did we allow these homes to be built in the first place? One reason is that the local authorities who connive in these environmental disasters use land agents as their advisers, while the big financial institutions that provide financial backing for the projects are also being advised by these agents. But the advice that they give - on the kinds of homes that society needs, for example - is often 20 years out-of-date, so we end up with homes of a size and a kind no one wants or needs.

Then there are the superstore chains which in their ruthlessness kill our high streets, diminish our town centres and destroy any notion that living in the middle of an urban area can be enjoyable. They are matched by the local authorities that think that the solution to inner-city dereliction is attracting investment in the shape of 24-hour superstores and 40-screen cinema complexes. But these do nothing for run-down town centres - indeed they are nearly always out of town - and they depend on parking and the anti-social activity of car usage. These disasters are not happening by chance; we are constantly let down by officials who fail to present cogent arguments to planning committees. In turn, the lamentable inability of our local politicians to seize really exciting initiatives is frightening. There are far too many areas of Britain that are suffering from paralysing parochialism.

If we are to change our society and enjoy urban life again, then we must find new ways of working together. The future of our cities must lie in the hands of the people who live in them and use them, and so they must be involved. But the various agencies which have been given responsibility for urban areas are often remote and are not trusted.

But what can make a difference is beauty. Architects can create beauty - that universal quality which gives pleasure and subsequently comfort. Of course, it is difficult to define or agree on and is subjective, but I believe that it is that very subjectivity which offers us a way forward.

I call this collective creativity. I am currently working in West Bromwich in the Black Country, which is but a shadow of its previous self, and yet statistically could have a successful economy and few problems. It is well-connected by road and rail and metro, making it an attractive location for the predatory supermarket chain - but not much happens. My project for an organisation called Jubilee Arts is a community arts centre called C-Plex. As the appointed architect, I am involved in workshops with various interest groups to discover what the building should be like. By encouraging people to describe, draw and paint their thoughts and dreams it is possible to arrive at a design which is genuinely beyond both people's expectations and my own. This is a new form of consultation which gives "ownership" of the project to far more people, and therefore offers hope. It also changes the role of the planner who traditionally protects the people from the likes of me. If the authorship is shared and the people like it, who is the planner protecting?

The C-Plex project contains spectacle, training, lifelong learning opportunities, surprise, workshops with schools, and links to the health authority. In other words it lies at the heart of the community and the heart of the town. Through careful planning and evolution of the project it has become the largest single drive as a catalyst for regeneration in West Bromwich. This workshop method is also being used for our community and health centre on the Stonebridge Estate in west London. The emerging architecture is a delightful surprise - even to the architect!

Single buildings have the power to re-establish the idea of a town centre and to encourage further investment. I first noticed this with my Cardiff Bay Visitor's centre which was built with the expectation of 25,000 visitors a year. After the building was complete it had 125,000 visitors a year in the first year, rising to 450,000 by the third. Cardiff Bay has since made significant progress in extending the idea of the city to the waterfront.

In run-down Peckham in south-east London, the council decided to regenerate the town centre by establishing a series of civic buildings, rather than superstores and parking lots. The process started with the Peckham Arch and continued with the health and fitness centre and the library. There is other work to do, but the success of this ensemble lies in the form of the architecture as well as the enlightened management and the facilities. Evidence of that success is plain to see - the library, which we designed, has gained 3,000 new members in the past year.

In the 10 years between building the Cardiff Visitor Centre and Peckham Library, we have seen some welcome changes in the way cities have been revived. A new type of socially responsible development has emerged, as well as a few investment funds that will back more adventurous developments. Now we need local authorities to become more imaginative too. More good work has been stifled by councillors than has ever been achieved.

 

Will Alsop won the Stirling Prize for architecture last week for Peckham Library.

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