The Smithsons – transcript

February 23rd, 2009

AS: Society at the moment asks architects to build these new homes for them but I

0:22

mean this may be really stupid we may have to rethink the whole thing it may

0:26

be that we should only be asked to to repair the roofs and add the odd

0:31

bathroom to the old industrial houses and just leave people where they are to

0:36

smash it up in complete abandon and happiness so that nobody has to worry

0:41

about it anymore

0:43

PS: We still feel under an obligation to give the absolutely that the to provide

0:50

the best possible quality irrespective of what people expect and what treatment

0:57

it it’s going to get.

1:02

Narrator: Yet another building site in the East End of London. An East End rebuilt almost

1:08

out of recognition to those who knew it before the war but this site is

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different there are no tower blocks for one thing. It’s by allison and peter

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smithson virtually the only british architects to have an international

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reputation and whose influence on architecture since the war’s been out

1:25

of all proportion to the relatively small amount of their work to be built.

1:28

their school at Hunstanton Norfolk and the economist office building in St

1:33

James’s London embodied significant innovations but their chief interest

1:37

is housing and they’ve done much important theoretical work on it. This

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site at Poplar however represents the first opportunity they’ve had to put

1:45

their ideas on housing into practice and inevitably perhaps it’s very far from

1:49

being just another lot of council flats.

PS: We regard it as a demonstration of a more

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enjoyable way of living in an old industrial part of a city it is a model

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an examplar of a new mode of urban organization and we think we have here a

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site big enough so that when it’s finished you’ll be able to smell feel

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and experience the new life that’s being offered through your full range of

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senses.

AS: A general objective when we get a new site is to knit together what is

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good in the surroundings by the insertion of a new building to inject

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thereby new life even to buildings and things that are old and tired. Right from

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the start we began to identify with a site to put down mental roots hooking

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onto rosebay willowherb, the children overturning wrecked cars, the smell of

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curry on the stairs, rejected tenements, oddments of past character or obvious

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large identifying fixes of the district or the city or even the region in our

3:11

case, the big power stations. In the late forties and early fifties when we first

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started thinking about housing the lack of identity and the lack of a pattern,

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any pattern of association we used to talk of objects as found, that is

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anything and everything can be raised by association to become the portrait of

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the ordinary and in this way an industrial site is very easy to identify

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with compared with a semi detached housing estate a site on an industrial

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blight or ones industrial heritage depends how you look at it can very

3:59

easily be used to renew a district to re-identify and become a real piece

4:07

of urban renewal. This is something to do with urban scale and that industrial

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sites are somehow forthright and honest. This may be a personal thing as coming

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from the Northeast we see the ships as connectors of people to their district

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and to the world outside. On this side the ships can be a decoration to the

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urban scene – the ships on the Thames approach the Isle of Dogs turn at right

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angles and go past. The river is the biggest fix of all a big geographical

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fix there are also two historical fixes which affect our site. The East India

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dock of 1806 and the 1844 railway.

5:04

AS: When we started work three and a half years ago and you could still walk up to

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the fifth floor the now-demolished tenements you could look over the

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upcoming roar the tunnel traffic into the East India dock. Calm sheet of water a

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few ships. Now when we’ve reached the fifth floor level again it’s being

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filled and when you should be able to see it from the houses you won’t be able

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to. We’ll be left with a handful of China shards on the site maybe ballast from

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the East Indiaman, maybe cargo fallout used locally

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This is not to say we relied on the East India dock or any other fix for

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support.

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We realize you’re in a situation of flux and change. The life has gone from the

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two historical fixes on site and the ships on the terms are literally passing

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either down to TIbury if the container port opens or to Antwerp and

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Delta port if it doesn’t. We realize you have to be strong enough to be

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self-supporting. Big enough to be self-supporting, that you have to carry

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the full responsibility for renewal of your part of the district and ultimately

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of the city

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PS: The site is bounded on three sides by very heavy traffic on the left the

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northern approach to the Blackwall tunnel at the bottom the east in your

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dock road which shared you to grow from a four-lane to a six-lane highway and on

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the right by Cotton street the main feeder road to the Isle of Dogs.

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We’ve tried to overcome the problems of this high level of traffic noise in a

7:15

number of ways. At the edge of the back line of payment as near as we can get

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the source of noise we put an acoustic wall which is higher than motorcars

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which throws the noise back towards the road instead of allowing it to pass

7:30

through towards the building. But to stop it looking like a prison, the wall panels

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have angle gaps between them – so if you walk along you can seek keep seeing

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through but there is no direct path for sound to pass through. Inside this a line of

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trees helps to break up the sound of traffic, and the building’s themselves

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have been deliberately organized to create an area in the center of the site

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protected from noise. A stress-free zone. The buildings are not organized like

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filing cabinets one after the other.

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The site has been split like a kipper with the same functions on the inside in

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each building on the outside we put the noisy next to the noisy that is the

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walkways or decks and the living rooms – but the living room themselves are

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protected by these vertical pieces which stop noise traveling across the face of

8:29

the building and by designing the windows so that they can check in a

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position that admits air at the top but present prevents the entry of direct

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noise at the bottom. With these various devices we can get the noise level in

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the living rooms down to a reasonable level. On the inside away and protected

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from noise we place the bedrooms and the kitchen. The kitchens are so planned that a

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mother can keep an eye on a two to three year old child playing out on the access

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deck on one side and also from time to time

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look down on the other side into the into these play spaces which are

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intended for the somewhat older children. In the middle of the stress free zone

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the ground is modeled upwards to discourage people from playing football

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and so making excessive noise though provision for

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football is made elsewhere on the site. The mound doesn’t look very large on the

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model but it is in fact two stories high and it will be surprising eminence

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within the flat landscape of the site. There is already in London one place

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that has a central stress-free zone and that is Gray’s Inn. Gray’s Inn is still an

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extraordinarily civilized place. It has become more livable as traffic has got

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worse by contrast to the areas surrounding it.

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Its little pool of calm in central London is one of the real discoveries

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almost of the last 10 years. The idea that one could having rooms,

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chambers there looking out onto this quiet central tree-filled area is marvellous.

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AS: London has these simple good spaces but above this scale there’s virtually nothing.

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London really has never faced up to being more than a collection of villages.

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PS: No, the idea that you could have a collection, a scatter of events

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as a city it is quite acceptable to us providing of course that the

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communication systems work well. But, when the city becomes big when the city

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becomes an urban region the scale of the parts, the scale of these events that the

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pieces of the scatter, the scale of them’s got to be increased so that it

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matches the scale of the urban region and that the scale of the communication

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systems the scale of its leisure areas the scale of the zones of operation of

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the city all about to get bigger and more obviously structured and inter

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related to one another

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Structured and interrelated so that they can be read as easily by ordinary people

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as we hope our building will be read. This site is just big enough for us

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to say and for people to read a whole sentence in the language of architecture.

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The language of architecture is something that can both explain and

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enhance the use of a building.

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Thus in an old building you recognize where the door is because it

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is identified by portico. In a new building we have to produce equivalent

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symbols which indicate where you’re supposed to walk in, where you drive, where you bring

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the dust cart and so on.

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On this site we’ve cut moats in the ground on the traffic side of the buildings and

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there all vehicular movement and garaging take place. So coming to the

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building as a walker from a bus stop

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you never come into contact with vehicles and conversely the driver of the

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dust card has no fear of knocking down an old lady.

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Similarly the building’s themselves explain how they are intended to be used.

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These long horizontal recesses can only be decks for walking along, and the entry

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points to them by way of lifts and stairs the vertical movements are clearly

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indicated by the change of scale and volume. On the decks there are what we

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call “eddy places” outside the front doors where the dwelling takes a piece

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of the deck for itself so your doormat is not kicked aside by the passers by

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and you can put out a few pots of plants or leave parcels. This “eddy places” is out of

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the general flow of movement along the deck. The deck itself is wide enough for the

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milkman to bring his cart along, or for two women with prams to stop for a talk and

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still let the postman by, and the building also explains its use in that

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wherever you need to take hold of something or move around some woodwork

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of concrete element then there’s a smooth rounded corner. Its form will

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respond we hope to the way people want to live now with their equipment, their

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domestic appliances, and their cars. In a way it would be like the first Georgian

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Square in london it will be to outsiders something that they can, they can

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immediately see is a new form and to the people who live in it it’s it offers a

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a place with a special character that in which will release them and change them

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and be capable of being lived in generation after generation. At the turn

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of the century architects dreamed of garden cities and in every town and village in

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England we see council houses built, built, and building right up till

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today which are the children of the garden city idea – and in the twenties in

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the heroic period of modern architecture the models, the prototypes, developed on

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the continent for a simple clean sun giving architecture are now being built

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in England in the Sixties. What we have now is people living in these clean

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sun-drenched boxes with fitted carpets inside and vandalism outside.

AS: The

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realities of our working life are going to be traffic, noise, air pollution,

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vandalism, lack of quality.

PS: And the theory developed in the twenties and thirties

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the simple architecture in which there will be few cars. This, this dream this

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model has been overrun. Overrun by the glut of the supermarts and the glut

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on the roads.

AS: The accuracy of the brief given to architects makes for the reality. It

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aids the architect’s accuracy in pinpointing the dream.

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The brief given to our outside architects by the Greater London Council

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is continually being revised by feedback from tenants and from their own

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maintenance people. The GLC are probably the world’s best briefers of Architects

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in this sense certainly I, I’ve never heard of any better. But although this is

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done very responsibly the building of this mutated dream by all the people

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concerned, it seems that the GLC really got very small thanks from Society for

16:18

this because when we take foreign visiting architect around these sites

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they’re literally horrified at the amount of vandalism we see.

PS: But

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funnily enough that doesn’t seem to change one’s own attitudes towards

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building. That is that we we still feel under an obligation to give the absolutely

16:39

that the – to provide the best possible quality irrespective of what people

16:47

expect and what treatment it it’s going to get,

16:50

nevertheless it’s very depressing for the contractors and the buil, the

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builders, the contractors, the subcontractors and the architect to feel

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that all the effort they’re putting in is going to be – much of the effort that

17:05

that they put in is going to be smashed up.

17:07

AS: I mean society at the moment asks architect to build these new homes for

17:14

them but I mean this may be really stupid we may have to rethink the whole

17:20

thing it may be that we should only be asked to to repair the roofs and add the

17:26

odd bathroom to the old industrial houses and just leave people where they

17:31

are to smash it up in complete abandon and happiness so that nobody has to worry

17:36

about it anymore. You know we may be asking people to live in a way that that

17:43

is stupid. They may be just want to you know be left alone.

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PS: One of the men are inside said that this

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what we were trying to do with too good for the people that were going to live

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in it and we find this a unacceptable but to say that it’s too good but one

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wonders why that’s what why one feels like that and I suspect that it’s partly

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historical, that is that architects have always felt the need to build not for

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the occupying generation but for, to sort of body out the ideals of their period in a

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way that they could be felt by the by generations that follow. In the East

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London there are five or six very famous churches. One of them is close to this

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site St Annes Limehouse by Nicholas Hawksmoor. Now Hawksmoor couldn’t have

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cared I suspect why he was asked to build these churches. They were built

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buy having a coal tax with which the program for building them

18:59

was abandoned halfway through

19:00

in fact the things that happened him, the way the money was raised very similar to

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the situation now, but he built in the best possible way and the building has

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lived on through 10 or 15 generations into the present carrying the kind of ethos

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of the early 17th century to us now and we feel in the same way an

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obligation which is outside of the present financial or economic situation

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to build for successive occupying generations.

AS: Unless a building outlasts

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its first users we get no body of choice that is there’s no pool of housing from

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which people can choose how to live, where they want to live

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and more important you get no buildup of a comparable body of quality. This was

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the situation we stepped into after the war completely vandalised environment of

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anything will do, make do, you know there were no possible standards because

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there was nothing – nothing decent to compare things to. Therefore maintenance

20:19

of quality objects is a real cultural necessity. Londoners are not particularly

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good at this I don’t think they really know about it, that is if culture of cities was a

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criteria for joining the common market, any African state would have as good a

20:37

chance as Londoners have.

PS: If we’re not to be torn apart by our differing

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individual natures as makers and destroyers society has to to to to make

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a framework so that the that the the makers can get ahead of the destroyers.

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AS: Although it’s not the architects business to talk about, think about up mechanisms

21:03

for changing the responsibility for housing in order to combat vandalism it

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is our duty to speak about it in order to safeguard the architects dream of what

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housing could be like and there are obviously understood ways, such as giving

21:26

a tenant full responsibility for keeping the house and the outside the

21:30

door step and the grounds in perfect condition to hand onto the next

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generation who after all are an extension of ourselves they’re not some

21:42

nebulous character

PS: At the moment there is a terrific lack of fit between those

21:50

things which people own, the way people treat things they own and the, the way

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they think about and treat what is in the public

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area of ownership.

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This is reflected terribly obviously in the, when you go to any, any dwelling

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any house in any part of the country the inside is almost always well-kept well

22:15

furnished, clean. The outside, particularly in state housing. Broken lifts, smashed-up

22:24

glass in entrance halls, all the things we all know, know about. The architect is in

22:31

a strange situation, but he can recognize that the peoples aspirations about how

22:37

they wish to behave.

22:41

That’s a funny way of putting it, are

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changing that is in spite of the vandalism, that people are learning to

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expect a style of life which has more quality, and in a sense more control

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and this is most clearly seen in the leisure pattern.

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Ironically enough an opportunity to extend this leisure pattern on a huge

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scale is being missed not far from our site.

AS: The scale of the London Docks is the

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sort of scale we’re talking about this is an area equal to medieval London and

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yet it’s a tiny area scene in the whole greater london in region. A few water

23:32

parks at that scale not needing grass-cutting no trouble with

23:36

footballers wearing the surface off. This water as leisure pleasure structured

23:44

housing groups is the european fashion at the moment. For Tower Hamlets such a fashion

23:51

is an economic bonanza like having an oil well in the back garden, or backyard

23:57

in their case. France has a regional plan

24:01

which is Rousillon to Languedoc virtually Marseille to the Spanish border

24:06

of water pleasure structured towns. As well as this there’s development all

24:17

along the coast, and architects Spoerry has built his dream of what housing could be

24:26

like in relation to water using for this town traditional provincaI materials

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and the peasant language of architecture, but his dream was of a pedestrian town

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and the house owners in Port Grimaud take the cars into load/unload but take them

24:48

outside to park. Therefore this town is a pleasure to use, it works it’s a real

24:56

economic success the sort of place you can take your children to to the beach

25:01

and they can go get an ice cream and you just don’t have to worry about it – and it

25:06

only started in June 1966. We, we could allow ourselves such

25:14

pleasures in London we needn’t be so puritanical about the fact that

25:19

the dock water is right next the River Thames and so near the Lea Valley leisure

25:25

pleasure grounds. Venice sinks in the mud, they’ll be round collecting to save it.

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Prop it up. We could have a a new Venice in London. It’s virtually the same size if

25:42

you take from St Katharine’s dock by the tower to East India Dock which is by

25:49

our site.

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The people who will live in Robin Hood gardens will use this way out of London

25:56

in their cars. They’re the privileged few in our society they enjoy the welfare

26:06

state they don’t have heavy taxes to give them angst and it’s not for them to

26:13

worry about the quality of the motorway, the fact that the fences are inconsistent the

26:20

lampposts are ugly or there are too many signs the bypassed and the bypasses are

26:29

unprotected, the generation younger than ours extremely depressed about the lack

26:36

of quality in the road program, considering so

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many roads are being built in Germany and in America. It’s as if we were a country of

26:48

ostriches but our attitude to motorways, ring ways is at last, a chance of a great reversal.

PS: A chance

27:01

at last to get all traffic out of domestic environments. We are longing for

27:08

the day in which the motorway pattern and the mass transit system lines can settle

27:15

down so that we can get on with the job of rebuilding a quiet more humane living

27:22

environment.

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