Useful info for the mayor and leader of Royal Greenwich Borough Council

Stupid landscape architecture and mediocre architecture in Woolwich, London

Dear Councillor Angela Cornforth and Councillor Chris Roberts
Respectfully, I draw the following points to your attention:

    • You were elected to represent the people of Greenwich
    • The people you represent do not want to pay for mowing useless grass

. They prefer gardens.

  • The people you represent wash their clothes. After that, they want to dry them – but not in a communal space (inset photo, bottom right)
  • The people you represent ride bicycles. They and do not want them to be stolen and they do not want to hang them from the Juliet balconies you have allowed to be built (inset photo, top right).
  • Your council’s riverside path is 36 feet wide (=10,973m). It has hardly any users. This is a waste of land. The heavily used riverside footpath in Maritime Greenwich is called the Five Foot Path and is 5′ = 1.524m wide.
  • The buildings your council allowed to be built c1995 look like relics of the 1930s with double glazing. I believe Councillor Roberts was in charge of Planning at that time. Past errors should be rectified
  • Your council still employs a lot of town planners. They have powers which could be used to secure good urban and landscape design. Since they continue to permit unustainably bad urban landscape design, you should sack them.

The reason your Council should have landscape architects on its staff is not to do design work. It is to ensure that planning applications have appropriate landscape conditions attached to them – so that public goods can be secured through the planning process. The town planners who do this work at present do not have the  necessary skills in design, construction, planting or the social use of small outdoor space in urban areas. Think about it: if either of you has a heart attack, do you want a gynecologist to look after you? If your car needs to be repaired, would you take it to a vet? If your house has subsidence, would you cal for a decorator?  I guess not, so why not employ landscape architects for landscape architectural work?

Yours truly


18 thoughts on “Useful info for the mayor and leader of Royal Greenwich Borough Council

  1. Christine

    Could Greenwich Council in the 1990s have possibly employed an architect for the design review before approval?

    Maybe the people responsible for the architecture got this design from a pattern book of speculative building designs? Is it from 1995? You are right it looks somewhere between a 1980s and 1930s inspired creation.

    It exhibits a number of problems with scale and proportion. For example the floor to ceiling relationships however look really odd and not typical of any era? Why is the lower floor the smallest and the next three floors identical in height? It seems a very strange inversion of the ‘piano nobile’. [ ]

    Tom – does the path go anywhere? Could you cycle to Central London via it?
    Here is a pathway going past riverside residential development in Brisbane. [ ] The river walkways are well used both by pedestrians and cyclists.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      The type of design review they do comprises (1) what tend to be nimby comments from local residents (2) what tend to be technical comments from overworked officials in the planning department (3) what tend to be vacuous comments from elected officers with no background in design. My impression is that your comments on the architecture are much wiser than any comments they are likely to have received. What they need is advice from a wise group of ‘city fathers and mothers’.
      Good question about the path. It forms part of several long distance routes (including the Thames Path and the Capital Ring). They are most welcome designations but do not attract many users. There is an interesting comparison with the South Bank section of the Thames Path between Westminster Bridge and Tower Bridge. In 1999, having taken about 50 years to make, it was very little used. Since 2000 it has been one of London’s main tourist attractions BUT some sections of it are only a couple of meters wide. This seems perfectly adequate and I cannot see that the section of path in my photograph will be busy for a long time. Maybe in 2099?

  2. Christine

    Your 1-3 of Greenwich design review is very interesting. My feeling is they are somewhat on the right track:

    I am personally in favour of NIMBY comments because there is nothing like something occurring right next to you to sharpen your powers of perception! NIMBY responses have assisted me in advocating to government clients for better design outcomes. A win for everyone really. The department included even though they fained reluctance at the time.

    Ah yes. Technical comments from overworked planners. From my experience they like saying no first and then having you talk them around by meeting all their objections and hence satisfying all their criteria. Again, this results in a more robust design.

    Vacuous comments from elected officials with no background in design. Nice to know they are interested. Here is a wonderful opportunity for a little design education. Before you know it they will be doing your design advocacy for you!

    And yes of course to wise city mothers and fathers. Always good to throw into the mix some challenging and interesting perspectives.

    Do you know what precipitated the change in useage patterns for the Southbank section of the Thames path? Do you know whether the residents of Greewich use the pathway at all? Could you use the pathway to access ferry facilities in either direction?

    Are there any public spaces which are linked along the pathway? If so, if might be possible for the Council to hold events in two connected public spaces to promote walking and cycling between them.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I am a professional NIMBY in my local area but, obviously, against other people having the same attitude in their local areas!
      I agree with your appraisal of the three stage UK assessment system but it does not seem to be working well. My impression is that its weakness used to be that good projects were stopped and that its present weakness is that most projects are delayed and then permitted – which seems pointless.
      Another issue is professional assessment. Re buildings, I have not been impressed by architects-assessing-architects or by planners-assessing-architects. My proposal, above, is not meant to be ‘landscape-architects-assessing-architects’ it is for landscape architects examining the ‘public goods’ and ‘common goods’ aspects of development projects. This is what the planning profession should be doing. The problem seems to have been that they do not have sufficient ‘design imagination’. Coming back to the pathway at Woolwich, they were absolutely right to require a riverside walk. The problem is that it is too big and too ugly and too un-ecological and a waste of land. It links to the ferry and it gets some use for leisure walkers and commuters.
      The big change in the use of the walkway running east on the south bank from Westminster Bridge came on 1st January 2000. They opened the London Eye and suddenly the whole walkway was understood to connect points of attraction, including Tate Modern, the Globe Theatre and a new public space by Tower Bridge. It is thronged with people but the width keeps varying and some parts of the walk are only a couple of meters wide. It is hard to see how the walk at Woolwich could ever rival these attractions. Some casinos and clubs would help but dull residential blocks will never generate heavy traffic.

  3. Christine

    It seems Woolwich is located between the Greenwich marshes and the Plumstead marshes with some interesting dock areas across the river in North Woolwich.[ ]

    I am wondering how much of this still exists? For example it would be good to be able to catch the cross river ferry to visit the Royal Victoria Gardens. If Central Station exists in North Woolwich this would also be an opportunity for some great transit oriented urban development dockside if it hasn’t already occurred. Woolwich, Greenwich and Plumstead residents could perhaps commute to work and/or into central London quicker?

    It seems Richard Rogers did a Masterplan for the area in the 1980s.
    [ ] And Terry Farrell has done one more recently.

    The idea of developing this area to a higher density certainly seems to be a good one. But yes,
    it will have a big impact on the Greenwich side of the Thames for better or worse so it is well worth getting as involved as possible.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      The ferry still operates and, thankfully, is free. ‘North Woolwich’ describes the north bank and ‘Woolwich’ the south bank. The water bodies in North Woolwich survive and the land is being developed on a scale and to a standard well below the opportunity they presented when the docs closed in 1980. Tom Heatherwick did a much better scheme for this area than Rogers Stirk Harbour and, in fact, seems to be doing much better landscape architecture work than landscape architects. It makes me wonder whether education in architecture and landscape should be dropped and replaced by a range of specialised courses in 3D design
      Interesting about the beer festival. One day, perhaps, beer will return to London’s public open space.

  4. Christine

    Great to hear the ferry is still free London always continues to surprise me with gems like this. Perfect for getting to a revived boutique beer festival.

    It seems the Farrell scheme is one a much smaller scale than the earlier 80s masterplan by Rogers.

    Yes, 3D visualisation skills would certainly be useful in the context of the LA institute’s ideas competition for the Royal Docks. But architectural and landscape skills are still necessary for the ideas before you come to presenting them. [ ]

    Tom Hardwick’s Shanghai UK pavilion is so compelling it would be worth a flying to Shangai just to touch it! [ ] Although it is amazing to think what it would have been like if it was made of plant matter which would ripple in the breeze and perhaps even had a perfume?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I was not thinking of 3d design as a software course. Heatherwick studied three dimensional design at Manchester Polytechnic and at the Royal College of Art. The curriculum seems to hover between sculpture, ceramics, furniture design, jewelery and product design.
      One of my criticisms of the kind of design programme I have long taught on is that they proceed from big ideas to small ideas. This is a perfectly OK thing to do but there is an equally good case for working from small ideas to big ideas and I believe that some projects and some designers are better suited to this approach. I have not read about how the Shanghai Pavilion was conceived but guess that the ‘master plan’ was the last thing to come into being.
      The Woolwich ferry is a pleasure to use either on a bike or when there is no queue. The view is great and the boatmen are friendly. One is taken back to the days of Joseph Conrad. – as on this video after the first two and a half minutes

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I agree! I cycled another stretch of the Thames recently (Vauxhall to Putney) and was, as politicians say after a natural disaster, ‘shocked and horrified’ by the low standard of most of the architecture. Foster’s offices and the adjoining housing are a case in point: his designs have the sleekness of Sony’s hi-fi equipment but this is not what the Thames needed and they look more like old hi-fi kit in a municipal dump than gleaming goodies in a shop window. Maybe the Thames frontage is not quite as bad as the road into Athens from the old airport but it is in the same league. Yet the developers were wealthy, the planners well-qualified and the architects talented. Whatever went wrong?

  5. Christine

    There is a famous chair designer here who is proceeding from that basis into interiors and architecture. You can see that each transition of scale requires the application of new skills. Scaling up is still difficult as the relationships that require careful consideration change with scale.

    Of course there is a long history of these skills in scale transfer in evidence in Robert Adam and Leonardo, so it is entirely doable. Walter Burley Griffin was almost a master of the chair and the city. [ ]

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I love the idea of working ‘from the bottom up’ – from chair design to city design – and in fact one could put the brilliant Tadao Ando in this category (since he began as a wood-worker). Amazing that Griffin did this. Was his plan well-adapted to local circumstances? I admit to disapproving of the fact that he disobeyed the First Law of Site Design: visit the site and consult the genius of the place.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Good for Griffin. I think it is possible to understand a lot about sites without visiting them – providing one wants to understand contextual factors and has ideas about how they should figure in the design process.

  6. Christine

    Gosh, I am pretty sure it wasn’t the Foster’s scheme that caught my attention in the video.

    Wealthy developers certainly do not guarantee a good scheme.

    Perhaps the experience of the planners with approving highrise developments may be part of the problem as London has historically been a low rise city as you say. Going highrise and skyrise presents significantly different issues. Accelerate the rate of development and the quantum of changes to the skyline and you can start to understand the difficulties they might have in understanding the cumulative impact on the skyline and thames side experience.

    Architects by the nature of their role usually only consider one site (and often one building)at a time. Perhaps they too are not so experienced with the (relational rather than qualitative dimensions) new nature of the development of the London skyline and waterfront?

    It would be interesting to know if insights from the planners from cities which are traditionally or predominantly highrise could assist. Of course it would be important to understand the impact of different topographies and city types. (ie New York is a grid city and Surfers Paradise is a strip city. Both of them have a predominantly flat topography.)

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Probably not. I point to Foster because of his undoubted design talent. When both client and designer for a Thames-side building one could expect him to do a really good job. I will see if I can find a photograph and comment further on what merits cause célèbre status for Thames-side design. My hunch is that his heart is in the right place but his head in the wrong place. This fits with your comment on the nature of the architect’s role. But it is a self-chosen role and Utzon showed how to step outside it, as have many other architects.


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