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Issue #1740      July 20, 2016

Shape of things to come

Last week the Holmes Road Studios in north-west London, designed by Peter Barber Architects (PBA), won the New London Awards.

The terrace of studio flats in Camden for 59 homeless people.

The terrace of studio flats in Camden for 59 homeless people was given the award by New London Architecture, a discussion forum which aims to bring people together to “shape a better city.”

Barber and his uniquely focused and principled collaborators – in a sense the Robin Hoods of architecture – have been doing precisely that for some time now.

“We think that space conditions, and is in turn conditioned by, society and culture and that architecture can create the potential for social action and activity,” is the firm’s declared aim.

In 2015 it won the Royal Academy Grand Prize for Architecture, of which the UK Guardian wrote – hopefully prophetically – that “come the revolution” they should be entrusted with the new council housing.

In 2010 it carried off the Building Design prize for Spring Gardens, a rehabilitation centre for homeless people in south London, described as “a radical new concept in homeless [housing] provision … an emblem of a better world.”

Barber told the Morning Star that the New London prize is encouraging because “it vindicated our long-standing commitment to a social housing architecture that is respectful and generous to its occupants.

“By providing a real sense of belonging, empowerment and self-worth it will enable them to find their feet whenever possible. I wouldn’t mind living in one of those units if I were alone.” Barber is canny enough to know that one swallow does not a summer make but he believes that such individual efforts will have a cumulative effect.

He likens PBA and other similarly committed practices to “guerrillas fighting for change in a hostile environment and trying to retrieve and give an edifying meaning to any small space that is available.”

This is one area where, he believes, the former Labour government made a difference by funding a program of hostel building, equipped with a comprehensive support infrastructure, and he praises Camden Council’s commitment to making this happen.

Although Holmes Road Studios will not open its doors for another two months, Barber, ever the perfectionist, has concerns about the immediate care of the gardens that are central to the development as recreation and leisure spaces, with areas where vegetable cultivation is envisaged.

Not surprisingly, he favours the involvement of local volunteers rather then some corporate outfit.

PBA has also won two other New London awards for its Mount Pleasant Studios near King’s Cross, described as “a beautiful new sheltered housing project for homeless people, set within a secluded and peaceful courtyard.” Again, the wellbeing of the most vulnerable is the core focus.

And its Employment Academy Scheme, a state-of-the art training and advice centre in Southwark offering skills training and support services for the long-term unemployed, which helps them back into sustainable employment, also won an award.

But however laudable PBA’s initiatives are, they are an oasis in a capital crying out for a major program which can resolve the housing crisis for the homeless and those struggling to rent.

Barber’s advice on the issue to new London Mayor Sadiq Kahn is as unequivocal as it is blunt: “Build more social housing.”

Morning Star

Next article – Theatre review – Revival of a 1930s polemic

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