Barber cuts it at the NLA

Monday 8 August 2016

New London Awards overall winner Peter Barber was at the NLA last week to talk through his distinctive, public-spirited projects and philosophy on life.

Barber, introduced by friend, collaborator and long-term band mate Heinz Richardson of Jestico + Whiles, as having ‘raw talent in abundance’, presented Holmes Road Studios, Camden, this year’s Overall Winner; the Mount Pleasant Studios scheme, winner of best built project in the Conservation & Retrofit category, and the Employment Academy scheme which received a commendation in the Education category.

The Holmes Road project showed ‘just what is possible in the public sector’, said Barber, and it would be great to see significant amounts of social housing being built despite the ‘chaos’ caused by Right to Buy and the ‘disaster’ of the Housing Bill. The ideas which run through Barber’s work start, he said, with Walter Benjamin’s views on the complex relationship between people and architecture. Architecture and the way we design our cities can influence the way we behave – ‘they can constrain us in certain ways and they can liberate us in certain ways’, said Barber, ‘and that lies at the heart of our approach and the ideology of our practice’. Public space is also important – it belongs to everybody and nobody, said Barber, and Marrakech is a particular inspiration in the way that the architecture is of the people, ephemeral architecture that is not created by monuments but about the ‘incredible scene, which unfolds each night.’ And streets form the basis of Barber’s successful city, well-designed ones aiding navigation, sustainability, and helping to create a coherent and cohesive – and safe – social scene.

Showing his work in Haggerston, Barber commented that it was very hard to generalize what people want from housing, and that this was the problem with design standards. ‘They assume that everybody’s the same, and people aren’t the same’. But what did emerge from that work was people’s desires to have their own front doors and a piece of outside space, and Donnybrook unlocked the possibility of creating relatively high density, street-based housing.

The award-winning Holmes Road hostel project involved creating a courtyard of almshouses for vulnerable homeless people, a more ‘benign’ and sociable scheme ‘which could lift the spirits’. The practice created 14-16m2 houses without wasting money with corridors or lifts, instead creating a courtyard and garden to look after people whose lives had become ‘chaotic’.

And the Mount Pleasant hostel created another courtyard scheme, while ideas projects in the practice include ‘Hundred Mile City’, creating a 200-metre wide strip around London to ease the housing crisis with a low-rise solution, connected by monorail, and to the ‘frayed ends of the transport network’. ‘It’s street based housing in a strip around the city’, said Barber. ‘It’s a linear Barceloneta, a circular Rome, a stretched Porto; suburbia reprogrammed, hybridized, compressed. A kind of catalytic urbanism.’

 By David Taylor, Editor, New London Architecture

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