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Remaking cities

RUTH SLAVID

ROBERT TOWNSHEND

When he gave the Jellicoe lecture in Birmingham last month, Robert Townshend, founder of the eponymous landscape architecture practice, compared two great urban regeneration projects and also touched on More London, contemporaneous with Brindleyplace.

London may like to see itself as the city that sets the trends for the country, but as far as Robert Townshend is concerned, it was the innovations that were made in Birmingham in the 1990s that paved the way for one of the most exciting recent developments in the capital. The Birmingham project was Brindleyplace, and the London one is King’s Cross Central, so far largely manifested in Granary Square.

Both were carried out by Townshend Landscape Architects, the practice that Townshend created. Both are for the same client, Argent. And both, says Townshend, were ‘based on doing the public realm first’. The other link between them is that they formed the basis of the Landscape Institute’s second Jellicoe lecture which Townshend delivered, appropriately, in Birmingham last month. Entitled ‘From Brindleyplace to King’s Cross’, it compared and contrasted the projects. In both, the landscape architect was what Townshend describes as ‘one leg of a stool’, working with two very different architectural practices, Allies & Morrison, exponent in its buildings of a cool modernism, and the far more traditionalist Porphyrios Associates. Another shared characteristic is the length of the association. At Brindleyplace this has lasted for nearly 20 years, probably coming to an end now as Argent has sold the development. At King’s Cross, Townshend started working with Argent in 2000 and the collaboration should have plenty of time to run.

Both these sites were urban areas that for various reasons had been neglected and unloved. Brindleyplace was the former home of small industries that had been superseded, and the site had been cleared leaving almost nothing apart from an old school which subsequently became the Ikon Gallery. The site had the Birmingham to Wolverhampton Canal running along one side and Broad Street, a major street, running along another. King’s Cross also had rail and water. It was locked in behind railway lines, and had been a major depot for the transfer of goods from rail to canal. In retrospect the solutions to each looks obvious, so it is worth remembering that each had suffered a long period of blight.

Brindleyplace had passed through several hands and had planning permission for an earlier masterplan when Argent acquired the site. The most radical decision was to make the main frontage of development on a new square, Brindley Square, rather than on Broad Street, which would have seemed the ‘obvious solution’. The danger with concentrating on Broad Street would have been that everything behind it could then have seemed like a low value ‘backlands’. With the new square, the next important decision was to use a variety of architects, and not to allow any single building to dominate. The plot sizes were set up so that they could be developed as single, relatively modest buildings, or as double plots. The urban form would work in either case. Later another smaller square, Oozells Square, was developed.

It was the detail of the thinking that made the project work. For instance, the design and project scheduling ensured that there were good routes in to the areas to be developed, and enough depth in the development sites to allow some flexibility. Ideas that seem run of the mill now were revolutionary at the time. For example, putting retail at the base of office buildings, which almost all new developments have now was, says Townshend, ‘considered brave’. And so was putting a café in a square, although Townshend feels that this has become a bit of a cliché now and is often not the best decision, since they can prove expensive and unrewarding to operate.

Brindleyplace has come full cycle, with all buildings complete and the practice recently revisiting one of the early ones as the tenancy had come to an end, to change the access arrangements — it is no longer necessary, but was considered essential first time round for executives to be able to drive to the front door!

The long association with Brindleyplace — and of course its success – has fostered great affection in Townshend. ‘I am very fond of it,’ he said. ‘We all cut our teeth there.’ Doubtless the same affection will develop at King’s Cross, even if all the team members are well established. ‘We started with Argent in 2000 when they entered the competition for King’s Cross,’ Townshend said. ‘It was all about creating a new part of London, not an estate. We submitted the planning application in 2004 and won permission in 2006.’

The conversion by architect Stanton Williams of the former Granary Building and transit sheds into a home for the Central St Martin’s art college has received universal acclaim. Argent has also been praised for making its first building such an unusual type, using art students to animate the space, and give a feeling to the area that will encourage further development. The new square in front of it, Granary Square, which steps down to the canal is both noble and relaxed. Townshend was the landscape architect for this, but it is only a relatively minor part of the work that it has done and is doing.

Options were created for every zone within the development, and architects tested these to see if they would work with trial designs. ‘About 20 architects were appointed to do these tests,’ said Townshend. These fed into the parameter plans which set the maxima in terms of height, and determined where the roads would go. At the same time, explained Townshend, ‘The landscape was trying to establish the character and quality of the space.’

There are two large open spaces within the masterplan. One is Granary Square, which was always intended to be a piece of hard landscape, and the other is Long Park which is an elongated square with planting at its centre. Not only has the masterplan to create a range of different spaces, and to open the scheme to the water, it also has to deal with different heights of development. So the tallest item, a tower of student housing, is going at the northern end. Too often, says Townshend, developers put a tower at the southern end of an important element and it then overshadows everything to the north of it.

Many materials will reflect those that are used throughout Camden, the borough within which King’s Cross sits. This both makes it feel like a part of the borough, and means that if the council adopts the roads in future, it will be dealing with materials with which it is familiar. At Brindleyplace there was less integration, mainly because the design team disliked the brick paving which had been adopted in that part of Birmingham, and did not feel it would be appropriate.

In King’s Cross, Townshend is not designing all the spaces. ‘One of the lessons I have learnt,’ said Townshend, ‘is that the longer I have worked on King’s Cross, and the more people have become involved, the richer in terms of diversity the scheme has become. The place can’t be created by one single mind or group of minds. King’s Cross is big enough to accommodate a lot of ideas but some over-riding ideas about the public realm will always be there.’

This relatively relaxed attitude is one derived from the confidence that the practice now has in itself and in its client, knowing the commitment not just to letting landscape lead the development but also to making the landscape of the highest quality. The project is demanding not just because of its size, at 302ha, but also because of its limited access and the fact that many services are having to be introduced for the first time. Townshend’s practice is involved in many different ways, sometimes sitting on juries for instance to select other designers.

The sense that one gets from these two projects is of a 20-year relationship with a developer who, although evidently determined to make a profit, wants to do so through a long-term approach which is of benefit to the two cities, to the landscape — and to the landscape architect.

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