Vested Development

by ben spencer


Have you been to Wembley recently? A couple of weeks ago I was working on some pop-up screenings there. It was – how can I put this politely…somewhat dispiriting. The stadium devours the sky like a colossal spaceship from Independence Day, blinking gigantic commercial messages at the human ants below (it is, apparently, connected by EE). Its huge white arch straddling the stadium is not beautiful or even visually arresting but it is the ‘longest single span roof structure in the world’, an accolade as meaningless as it is desperate. You can almost hear the project committee booming at the cowering architect: ‘OK, the iconic twin towers have gone, what the f*ck are you going to replace them with?’

But it gets worse. Around the stadium and arena and (the genuinely iconic) Wembley Way is a massive ongoing development of retail and residential monoliths, an overbearing hodgepodge of steel and glass structures promising high-end luxury residences, concierge gyms and every possible consumer desire gratified. Walking through this bewildering labyrinth one feels dwarfed and insignificant. In the heart of it is a library and Civic Centre but these seem like lip service and the latter’s gaping marble lobby which accommodates nothing more than an over-sized Starbucks is an ingeniously created metaphor for its gaping spiritual void.

Does it have to be like this? Well yes, probably. Development on a grand scale can presumably only happen with the help of powerful, calculating commercial interests: no wonder the resulting environments these interests create are so imbued with the spirit of money. The need for profit shapes the design: from the outrageous quantity of rentable retail units to the oversized billboards, the overbearing advertising screens, the vertiginous apartment blocks, the sprawling car parks.

This is why such large-scale building projects tend to feel so soulless. It is not just that their formulaic design lacks character or individuality, or that they are so large and anonymous it is hard to relate to them. It’s that they seem to pre-define the relationship between the people in the place and the place itself, narrowing it down to one of mere monetary exchange. It’s as if the place exists for no other reason than to foster financial transactions between tenants and landlords, consumers and retailers, advertisers and advertising space owners…

Big developers must know that their creations are a little lacking in je ne sais quoi because they hire people to make them feel less ghost-townish and empty and more vibrant and happening. Admittedly the language they use for this exercise is not promising – creating a destination, adding value etc – but at least it’s a start. However, as urban designers have known for a long time, the thing that really makes a place is a community. And therein lies the rub: a meaningful, active, neighbourly community requires the people in it to relate to each other and to the place where they live in other ways than merely fiscal. It is a paradox gnawing away at the concrete foundations of the big new-build place-making schemes.

So big developers, what can you do to make your designs a little more conducive to the cultivation of authentic communities? Here’s a suggestion. It’s by no means the only thing that needs to happen, and it’s certainly not going change things overnight. But on the plus side it’s almost free and really won’t get in the way of your profit-making priorities. The suggestion? Put up some community noticeboards.

Simple, eh? Of all the big new-build residential complexes I’ve experienced recently – East Village in Stratford, the Streatham Tesco, Wembley – I haven’t once spotted a good ol’ fashioned public noticeboard for residents and locals to share information, tell others about activities they’re organising, and publicise their get-togethers. It wouldn’t hurt to put a few up around the place, would it? Go on developer, you know it makes sense.