Unity of Habitation
January 16, 2009
October 13 2008: It feels like a new dawn to see the Stirling Prize for Architecture awarded to a housing project, Accordia in Cambridge. Well, let’s be accurate: it’s not exactly hard core social housing, more like a pleasant renewal of the leafy garden suburb ideal with some affordable housing integrated. But it absolutely does not pull iconic stunts and appears to keep its guiding principles modest but firm: a restricted range of materials, nice warm ones we know and love – brick, oak. It privileges access and a kind of porosity, front confounds with back. It amazingly has a lived-in feel for something so new.
Houses have featured before, but not housing. There’s been the spectacular re-re-designing of the Leonard Manasseh house at Highgate belonging to Sir John and Frances Sorrell. The extraordinary, elemental Brick House by Caruso St John stealthily claiming an awkward plot between speculative Victorians in Bayswater and turning it inside out. But nothing that an ordinary, non-wealthy person can imagine owning or inhabiting. Of course the best private houses breed lessons for how architecture might progress more generally, but I wonder if Accordia breeds lessons, converse lessons, for how the wealthy might live with everyone else. By giving a model of integrated society, does it invite us to consider the virtue and romance of cohabiting with our fellow men; a set of quasi-urban blocks, explicitly rejecting the dream of detachment. Is that what le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation did for AHMM as their inspiration for the rather swanky Unity Building at Liverpool’s Pier Head? Or are the deluxe city centre apartments – and moreover the two exclusive penthouses atop – a perverse, formalist interpretation of the original? Does the latterday fashionability of Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower contain any evidence that we want to live in unity?
So Glasgow is one of the world’s top cities to visit, at least for readers of the Lonely Planet Guides. The Guardian makes more than one explicit allusion to the role and metaphor of Design in this triumphant rating. “ Scotland’s biggest city has shaken off its shroud of industrial soot and shimmied into a sparkling new designer gown”. “cocktails, cuisine and designer-chic”. How pleasing to see virtue rewarded: this is the city with the country’s most dynamic, multifarious and properly ambitious design centre, the Lighthouse . More visitors to Glasgow will bring more visitors to the Lighthouse and take the message and model out into the world. A significant old building refurbished and given a new purpose, a programme that busily integrates design and architecture as subjects in their own right with the wider pressures of business and policy; a Director who shrewdly assesses what Glasgow can and cannot claim as a world centre for design. It may be the place that nails the value of the regional in design.