Last edited 04 Aug 2017

Peter Barber - interview

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Peter Barber is one of the UK's most distinguished housing architects, who has been highly praised for his attempts at tackling the pressing social issues of the day - lack of homeless shelters, lack of social housing provision - in a way that aspires to well-designed urbanism.

After setting up his practice, Peter Barber Architects Ltd. in 1989, Barber's breakthrough came with his European-style street-based design for Donnybrook Quarter in east London [see image below], which won several awards and was shortlisted for the 2006 RIBA Stirling Prize.

Since then he has designed and built numerous domestic, healthcare, commercial and educational buildings, as well as lecturing at the University of Westminster.

Barber is also not adverse to grand speculative designs, with his recent proposal for the '100-mile city' garnering widespread attention for its ambitious attempt at tackling London's chronic housing shortage by wrapping a 'belt' of dense urbanism around the edgelands where London's suburbia comes to an end.

Designing Buildings Wiki talked with Barber about the 2017 general election, the challenges of confined sites, the common pitfalls for architects, and radical ideas for breaking up property ownership...

[N.B. Our interview with Barber took place several days before the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017, hence the lack of any mention.]

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Designing Buildings Wiki (DBW):

What inspired you to follow a career in architecture?

Peter Barber (PB):

I loved buildings when I was a kid and worked on a building site for a while. I probably felt at the time that it was something very creative at a point when industrial production was going overseas. This was a wonderful creative process that was actually making physical things.

Then I went to Africa and worked at a school, involved in classroom building and other social projects. Some people want to be an architect from about 13, but it wasn't like that for me, it was something that came later on, it was a slow burn.


DBW:

Do you think there is the problem that architects seem to have become stereotyped as an Ayn Rand/Rourke-like hero character fulfilling their grand and ambitious visions, rather than having a more utilitarian purpose for social good?

PB:

There are all sorts of traps. For some people the vanity - the Rourkian thing - is a pitfall, for others its money, for others it’s forgetting about design. You have to try and retain the balance between highly speculative work, making a business which can sustain itself, trying to be creative, and so on. All of these different components of making a successful environment in which to make buildings, you have to keep them all going.

There are 3 things that I’ve always tried to do and if anyone of them disappeared I’d close the office – to be doing good buildings, making enough money out of it, and having a good time.

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DBW:

Similarly, do you think that more high-profile architects should be doing more to tackle pressing social issues as you attempt to do?

PB:

There was a culture in the 1980s/90s of Grands Projets and the lottery projects, sometimes beautiful and effective, other times pretty vacuous.

Some people say ‘young people aren’t interested in politics’, but the result of the election goes to show, and I know from the students I teach at Westminster – there’s a real anger about what’s been going on and a passion for trying to do something about it through architecture. They’re the future, not the previous generation.

When I first started doing housing it was the most uncool and uninteresting thing, and it’s not like that anymore. The architecture schools are full of people trying to think about what a city might be, but that wasn’t the agenda 20 years ago. So I feel optimistic about it really.

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DBW:

What do you say to those who dismiss high density social housing - perhaps with Brutalism in mind - as having been, on the whole, a failed experiment in urban design, that the same problems tend to recur?

PB:

It’s a question of good design. You allude to post-war housing - I’m not sure that a great deal of it is high density, but I think some of it is beautifully designed and some is not so well designed, so that’s the main issue for me.

I don’t think density is a question of choice, it’s a necessity. How that density manifests itself is much more of an issue. We can’t sustain low density suburban neighbourhoods anymore, it’s not a choice, we have to address the issue.


DBW:

It would seem that Generation Rent rallied to Labour in the recent general election. Do you think Labour should make housing/social housing more of a defining issue moving forwards, and do you worry that focus on those issues will be lost as the Tory government struggles to move forwards?

PB:

I think people realise now that it’s a major issue. Even Theresa May in her panic is now referring to housing.

I’ve recently read a new book which deals with Vienna post-WWI when they spent tons of money on infrastructure in the form of transport and controlling the river, etc., but then suddenly realised that the urban population was very unhappy because there was a housing crisis going on. So they suddenly invested in lots of amazing social housing projects like Karl-Marx-Hof.

I think we may see a parallel here, with the Crossrail and HS2 projects, with a realisation that housing is infrastructure too. What happened in Vienna, the realisation amongst politicians that they’d have a revolution on their hands if they didn’t sort it out, could be what’s happening here a little bit and I think it will be sorted out.

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DBW:

Very often you design for confined sites - do you enjoy the particular challenges that these present, and do you visualise the basis of a design solution fairly easily, or is it more a case of fitting the pieces of the puzzle together over a more prolonged design process?

PB:

I do like the quote from Rem Koolhaas – ‘if you don’t like constraints, don’t be an architect’.

I really love complicated sites, they drive interesting quirks. You can do the repetitive Donnybrook thing but there are always local conditions where it has to respond to particularities, and those are really fun.

That said, the types of housing typologies that we develop on those sites would be brilliant on larger sites, and because we’ve done lots of small sites, developers make the mistake of thinking that’s purely ‘what we do’.

I’m for street-based housing. Just because a scheme gets bigger doesn’t mean the blocks need to get bigger, you can have a fine-grained city, like Barcelonette, where the street is the basic structure and the housing fits in around that and is very often highly devolved. The default at the moment is for great big blocks and I think that has attendant problems.

I spend half my life in Brighton, probably one of the densest cities in the country, but to me it’s a great example of what dense housing could be like - terraced housing of different sizes, great big mansions which have now been converted into flats, little cottages about 4 m wide and no back garden, and anything between those extremes, but really coherent socially, spatially, and a real pleasure to move through. That’s what I think the built environment should be like.


DBW:

You've expressed admiration for Jane Jacobs and the idea that 'public space belongs to everyone and no one' - does the increase in privately-owned public spaces, particularly in London, cause you concern?

PB:

It does, it’s a real shame. People are very enthusiastic about what Argent have done at King’s Cross, and in some ways its impressive, but I don’t see why those streets couldn’t have been adopted instead.

I don’t like the idea of a private police force which is what they’ve got up there. We’ve heard of homeless people being kicked off and that’s not right, but it’s happening all over the place. It is a shame, especially when you think that was effectively public land before it was ceded.

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DBW:

Your ‘100-mile city’ has gained a lot of attention. Obviously it is speculative and perhaps quite tongue-in-cheek, but do you honestly believe that a project on that kind of scale is really required to tackle the current problems and meet the needs of the future? And, with current progress in mind, have you any confidence that these will be met?

PB:

I always try to be positive. The future is in densifying suburbia in a way that is benign. Very often town centres are seized on with big buildings put up around stations – it might be an easy one to do because of land ownership, but if you stepped back from the situation it would be clear that something which created low-rise, street-based sociable urbanism in suburban locations is what we have to do.

If it weren’t for private land ownership it would be a really obvious thing to do. This project is designed really to stimulate that discussion, but other ideas – ending Right to Buy, rent controls – are part of the equation, as well as needing to build housing. I don’t think it should be happening in the Green Belt, we shouldn't be demolishing Soho as we have been, we shouldn’t be knocking down social housing as we have been.

We’re working on projects at the moment that are sowing new social housing in and around existing buildings to create more houses but also to make sense of some of the design problems that you encounter in some of these estates.

The 100-mile city is an example of a very big site, and one which I think would be beautiful if it was designed using the typologies which have come through working on the small sites.

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DBW:

Numerous construction reports are published from a variety of groups and committees yet nothing much seems to really happen or change dramatically. What more do you think the industry could do to push the issues that you tackle in your work further up the agenda?

PB:

I don’t think it is a matter for the industry. I think it’s a matter for government. The industry which is reliant on a marketplace, has shown itself to be spectacularly inept, not just in London but country-wide. Town after beautiful town ringed by little Noddy-boxes with 3 cars parked outside each of them - that’s what happens when you leave it to the market.

The market is now trying very hard to demolish and build on some of the most precious bits of urbanism we have, but also build out into the Green Belt. Money isn’t an idea, it doesn’t move with ideas, its arbitrary, so the industry has to be directed and possibly quite radically overhauled.

If the housebuilders and developers can’t get it right, then let’s let someone else do it - government should be doing it.


DBW:

Is there a country in particular that you admire in terms of social housing design, from which the UK could draw lessons?

PB:

I was in India earlier this year and there was a slum resettlement programme on the outskirts of Delhi that was quite amazing. This place looked like it was about 100 years old but it was only about 10. In India and other developing parts of the world where there isn’t very much money from central government, slums like that are gridded up in a really simple way, with people given tiny plots of land – 4 x 8 m – and are able to do whatever they like with it, as long as it’s no more than 4 storeys high, they get given the money. I thought that was pretty magic actually.

The government had laid this place out, probably put the infrastructure in, and decided what form this city should take, but the actual production of houses had been devolved to individuals, so within the constraints of the plot and height sizes it gave incredible variety - people were working there, there was a market, it looked like it had been occupied for decades.

That’s an outlier, but housing in Porto, and Borneo-Sporenburg [see image below] was one we always used to go to quite a lot for inspiration, and other places in Holland.

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I have a slight problem with Scandinavia always being held up, I find some of those places so boring. Generally they seem to be a bit of a mono-culture in terms of housing dominating and nothing else being there, densities being quite low, and in places it doesn’t feel very urban at all.

People are always trying to legislate housing policy but if you looked at other areas of policy it would affect housing. Rather than the government selling off land at a knock-down price to Barclay Homes for instance, why not grid it up like the Indian example and sell it to individuals who could then build their own homes?

Break up property ownership, think about housing finance, force lenders to make it easier for people to borrow money to build their own house, which is almost impossible. Reform real estate agencies that are so corrupt, it’s impossible to buy a site. Developers can buy sites so there’s obviously dodgy deals going on. Why couldn’t I go down to Battersea and buy a little piece of land, I’d have made a better job than they have down there!

In Uruguay, maybe 60% of social housing is not produced by government but by groups of people applying for funding to build their own houses, which is amazing. It’s sometimes difficult to think outside the immediate environment you’re in.

Those are areas – property ownership, real estate, housing, finance – where if you changed them suddenly a new kind of devolved co-op housing production might be possible.


DBW:

What advice would you give to aspiring young architects?

PB:

Keep on sketching, drawing and designing. People think that they’ve done 6 years and that’s the end of it. It’s actually just the start. I didn’t know shit when I left college.

In fact, the sorts of things I was interested in when I left college – I went to work for Richard Rogers, Will Alsop, people like that – and the work I’m doing now bear no real relation. While I was working for them, drawing bolts and connections and so on, I was also sketching ideas about architectural solidity and mass and permanence, whereas they were all about lightness. So those jobs are quite demanding but you still have to find time to think about your own ideas.

That’s translated now into me, one day a week, finding time to teach. It started as a necessity because I needed the money, but now I think it’s very important to keep teaching whenever possible, just to keep the mind nimble.

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DBW:

What project are you most excited about looking forward?

PB:

I’m really excited about the 100-mile city and the interest people have shown. We’re going to make a film about it, based on a five-day cycle around the edge of London, through the strange edgelands. It’ll be collaged with images of the model used as a screen to project images of suburbia onto it. It’ll be very thought-provoking I hope.

We’re doing a project for Barking council, a variety of miniature houses for homeless people round a whole series of quadrangles. Then there’s a back-to-back housing project we’re working on for the council in Stratford.

Very often people expect a 50-unit project to be proposed as a block of flats, and we come along with rows of little houses, which they weren’t expecting. Those are the ones that are unusual, the ones that step outside the parameters which are given to us in an exciting and challenging way.

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