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Catch-up: Safety minister shoots himself in foot

Words:
Simon Aldous

Stephen Greenhalgh clutches at safety straws as he over-endorses offsite construction during housing block evacuations. Meanwhile diversity takes an all-too-familiar tumble with Lesley Lokko leaving New York College, and failure to agree a legacy strategy closes down Dixon Jones

There have been great hopes for modular high rise, as with HTA’s two towers in George Street, Croydon.
There have been great hopes for modular high rise, as with HTA’s two towers in George Street, Croydon. Credit: HTA

Minister Stephen Greenhalgh believes he knows how to make buildings safer – by using offsite construction.

Greenhalgh, who has ministerial responsibility for building safety and the repercussions of Grenfell, told the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee that modern methods of construction meant ‘inherently there is very minimal risk’.

The credibility of his remarks was somewhat undermined by the fact that, at the very moment he was making them, nearly a thousand residents were being evacuated from six west London tower blocks, built in 2006 using offsite construction, but now deemed too dangerous to live in.

The buildings form part of the Paragon Estate in Brentford designed by architect Carey Jones Chapman Tolcher. The estate won Building magazine’s Major Housing Project of the Year award and included a 17-storey block that was, at the time, the tallest modular building ever built. The bulk of the housing is now used by students at the University of West London.

But following the Grenfell fire in 2017, the estate’s owner, Notting Hill, announced it was spending £8 million removing dangerous cladding and replacing missing fire breaks at the blocks. The following year, it launched a legal action against the architect and three other subcontractors relating to ‘an unacceptably poor level of design and workmanship’.

Since the issues emerged, the buildings have been patrolled by fire wardens on 14-hour patrol. But a new survey now suggests the blocks are too dangerous to remain occupied.

None of this means offsite construction is inherently dangerous. But it does emphasise that when it comes to making high-rise housing safe, it is foolhardy to think there can be one simple magic-bullet solution.

Striking the wrong notes

Meanwhile this week, the Grenfell inquiry was rocked by the revelation that a project manager working for Kensington & Chelsea’s tenant management organisation binned notes relating to the tower’s refurbishment.

Claire Williams said she had thrown away all but one of her notebooks when she left the job in 2018. She said she assumed the information in them was all available elsewhere as it was largely minutes of meetings others had attended.

‘There was nothing underhand about it; I was clearing my desk,’ she told the inquiry, adding that no one had asked her to keep any documents.

Some might suggest Williams did everyone a favour; reducing the amount material the inquiry has to wade through, while providing the media with some click-baitey headlines about evidence being destroyed.

The inquiry does not, however, see things that way, and is referring the matter to the Metropolitan Police so it can assess whether her act constitutes a criminal offence.

Amid the months of evidence of negligence and recklessness, it would indeed be ironic if throwing away some arguably superfluous notes led to the first criminal prosecution relating to the fire.

Lokko down

A woman is appointed to head an architecture school. She plans far-reaching changes but meets resistance and leaves her post – sound familiar?

There are striking similarities between the short directorship of Eva Franch i Gilabert at London’s Architectural Association and Lesley Lokko’s deanship at New York’s City College.

While Franch i Gilabert was sacked following a series of no-confidence votes in her strategy and leadership, Lokko has resigned as dean of the college’s Spitzer School of Architecture. Among the reasons, she cited her inability ‘to deliver her vision for change’.

Lokko, who was born in Scotland and grew up in Ghana, was appointed to the post in June last year, having previously spent five years setting up and running the graduate school of architecture at the University of Johannesburg, the first such postgraduate school of architecture in Africa. She is also a successful author.

Speaking to The Guardian, Lokko described her New York experience as a textbook ‘problem woman of colour’ scenario – a phenomenon so prevalent it has its own flowchart. ‘The black woman arrives in an organisation and everyone is so enthusiastic, she explained. ‘Then she begins to question the organisation and hold people accountable for their actions, and soon she’s targeted and made out to be the problem.’

The university has said it accepted her resignation ‘with deep regret’, saying it would have been thrilled to see her ‘expansive and ambitious’ vision seen through to its completion.

Earlier this year, when Franch i Gilabert faced dismissal from the AA, more than 150 top architects and academics signed a letter opposing her dismissal, saying: ’Every new administration, particularly those very few who have only recently come to be led by women or people of colour, deserves patience and support as the inevitable realignments unfold.’

Dixon Jones’ buildings included work on the RIBA Award winning Westgate Shopping Centre in Oxford as well as Oxford Said Business School, and, in London, King’s Place and the Royal Opera House.
Dixon Jones’ buildings included work on the RIBA Award winning Westgate Shopping Centre in Oxford as well as Oxford Said Business School, and, in London, King’s Place and the Royal Opera House. Credit: Gareth Gardner

Dixon Jones directors fail to pass the baton

Celebrated practice Dixon Jones has revealed that it went out of business last month having failed to agree a legacy plan.

The practice was founded in 1989 and designed a string of prestigious cultural projects, notably the rebuilding of most of the Royal Opera House, as well as schemes for the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery.

But its two founders, Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones, are now both in their 80s and told the AJ that ‘for various reasons’ they had not been able to reach a succession plan with younger colleagues.

They described the six months prior to shutting down as ‘a very unhappy period’ and that they had recently ‘stopped getting on lists’ drawn up by clients.

The practice had been 15-strong but with several architects leaving the practice over the year, only a small number are being made redundant.

The closing of a relatively small but well-regarded practice as its directors retire might seem a natural conclusion and a time to look back and celebrate – but for the fact that this is evidently not the way Jones and Dixon wanted things to end.

Instead, it perhaps provides a cautionary tale about getting your legacy planning in early if you want your practice to last beyond your day-to-day involvement.

Movie-set house in running for best architectural design

The shortlist has been announced for year’s Beazley Designs of the Year, awarded by the Design Museum. Featuring in the architecture category is the Oscar winning South Korean film Parasite.

Many aficionados of modernism will have admired the sleek two-storey residence of the wealthy family featured in the film and wondered if it was a genuine building.

In fact it turns out the house existed only as a series of separate sets with its two storeys digitally grafted together for the exterior shots, which would certainly make it an interesting winner.

Meanwhile, the products shortlist includes the K-Briq – a sustainable construction material made from 90% construction and demolition waste, which takes 24 hours to manufacture without requiring fossil fuels or firing.

More life in the office yet

There has been much talk of the pandemic’s likely long-term effect on architecture with more people working either from home or from a local ‘third place’ rather than commuting to a central office. This could mean a dramatic fall in demand for some of the office tower blocks that have been springing up over the country.

But such talk doesn’t seem to have troubled Hong Kong developer Tenacity (wasn’t it one of the teams in The Apprentice a few years ago?). It has hired Fletcher Priest to design a 32-floor tower in the City of London, with 25 floors of office space.

The scheme at 55 Gracechurch Street will replace a 1992 eight-storey building designed by Sheppard Robson.

Or it will if it can brave the objections of Historic England, which says the skyscraper represents ‘tall building creep’ in an area ‘characterised by buildings of seven or eight storeys’. It also claims it will damage views of both the Tower of London and Tower Bridge – an argument that helped put pay to Fosters’ much-derided Tulip tower last year.

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