Show & Tell II: Experiments in Freedom / David Knight

aandd: Birth of a Staircase

“Somehow, everything must be watched; nothing must be allowed to be commonplace in the way that things just are commonplace: each project must be weighed, and planned, and approved, and only then built, and only after that discovered to be commonplace after all.”

Banham, Barker, Hall, Price, ‘NON-PLAN: An Experiment in Freedom’. New Society 20.03.1969

Since 1947’s Town and County Planning Act(s), we in the UK have assumed that planning is something that local authorities ‘do’ for us. In the current context of financial cuts and the ideology of localism however, that looks set to change dramatically: planning departments are shedding staff, piloting premium rate streamed services, and outsourcing case officer roles to private consultants. There will be a net reduction in the amount of planning ‘done’ by local authorities.
The very notion of planning as a long-term, strategic practice is therefore up for negotiation: a situation both frightening and exciting. Frightening because of the very real danger that big business rather than the big society will fill the void, prioritising short term profit over long term worth, and exciting because the way we produce the built environment has not been this up for grabs since 1947.

To better understand this new world, it seems useful to explore spatial and material processes that do not arise out of conscious planning- things or places that derive from the ad-hoc more than the pre-planned (one of the definitions of the ad-hoc is ‘inadequate planning’). In doing so we might derive some strategies for coping with less planning and/or for working out new ways of doing it. Could it be that planning gets more efficient, better even, by knowing its own inadequacy?

The following examples form a mini-exhibition of what ‘inadequate planning’ might look like. Some are examples from history derived from research I am currently undertaking at the Royal College of Art; others are chance encounters with chance phenomena drawn from the blog aandd, which I co-author with the designer Asif Khan. Together they propose a more gradated understanding of the forces – beyond the preconceived – that shape the built environment.

Exhibit A: aandd: Slow-Strikethrough

A public message is cast in brass and set into a prefabricated panel on the pavement. After a few decades of footfall, the letters wear down so that the underlying structure of the message reverses its intended meaning. (City of London)

Exhibit B: Garden City Garden

Built versions of Ebenezer Howard’s ‘Garden City’ were mocked for the ‘dull doctrinairism’ of their large vegetable-plot gardens and their sprawling, health-giving avenues. However, in a perfect example of what Vincent Lacovara has called ‘the law of unforeseen planning’ they and their many copies proved perfect to accommodate the rise of the private car and of the garden as leisure space. (Letchworth Garden City)

Exhibit C: aandd: Polka-dot services

Many Portuguese houses have ‘Aguas’, water service points on their front facades, usually close to the main door. These service points are a built compromise between inside/outside and the forces of gravity. (Évora, Portugal)

Exhibit D: Al-Fina

Al-fina is the Islamic legal term for the space outside a home within which water from a gargoyle or water spout must fall. When a fina is on the street, what happens there is governed by individual judgment and neighbourliness, making it a legal and literal space for negotiation, a precise limit of planning control and a contributor to the ‘soft’ grid of the Arabic-islamic city. (Muharraq, Bahrain. Images via)

Exhibit E: aandd: Shops + Scaffolding = Arcade

An urban ‘arcade’ resulting from remedial works to a new city office building and a few already-occupied shops. A collateral spatial product which, for a limited time only, will be the a very popular destination in this part of the city and an accidental resurgence of the arcade type.

Exhibit F: Nobody’s Land

Headington Quarry was a village that grew out of a quarry. Many of its houses were built on ‘nobody’s land’ – landforms created by the quarrying process. The shape of the village therefore derived from individual opportunism in relation to an industrial process, also revealing the limits of two dimensional plot boundary drawings. Headington Quarry provided much of the stone that built Oxford and is now a suburb and conservation area. Not far away is the infamous Headington Shark, another intriguing bit of planning history. (Headington Quarry, Oxfordshire)

Exhibit G: aandd: Conjoined K8’s with double pitch / Miesian corners

Just as the cultivated designer can derive formal languages of architecture, so can accident and necessity. On South Kensington station, two Modernist K8 telephone boxes regain the classical Soanian grandeur of the original by gaining a pediment for drainage purposes, whilst the wear and tear of the public realm adjusts two planters until they suit Mies van der Rohe’s obsessive interest in turning a corner. (Both examples taken in London)

Exhibit H: Permitted Poundbury

Poundbury, Leon Krier and Prince Charles’ urban extension to Dorchester, is a built rebuttal to modernist town planning in favour of the, er, organic growth of the ‘traditional’ village. However, Poundbury shares the pre-emptive quality of the urban planning it critiques, as it is entirely built within a grand, phased masterplan and its design code explicitly prohibits ‘permitted development’ (PD), what that can be built without needing planning permission. If it revoked this code, and the citizens of Poundbury collectively pushed their PD rights to the max, the urban extension would grow by 30% volume and would begin to approach the organic, incremental and democratic shape it approximates but denies. (Speculative Project by David Knight, Finn Williams and Ulf Hackauf. Poundbury, Dorset)

Exhibit I: Gum thrower & Gum Cleaner Collaborate on Pattern

In an example of unintentional public realm collaboration, vast numbers of thoughtless chewing gum users throw their unwanted gum onto the Broadgate pavement, and then a specialist gum cleaner with a jet washer turns up to remove it, in the process creating a haphazard pattern derived from daily life. Human failure transformed into ornament. (Broadgate, City of London)

About David Knight:
David Knight is an independent designer based in London. He is currently working on research at the Royal College of Art. David has made a name for producing critical and speculative projects about the built environment, teaches architecture at Kingston University and is a senior lecturer at the University of East London. David is the co-author of SUB-PLAN: A Guide to Permitted Development, author of Wallpaper* City Guide: Porto, and has taught, lectured, and exhibited internationally.

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  1. am says:

    how exotic

Pings to this post

  1. […] the second in a series of guest posts on Sam Jacob‘s blog Strange Harvest. My post, ‘Experiments in Freedom‘, is a mini-exhibition of ad-hoc planning, inspired by the fact that one of the definitions […]

  2. […] book SUB-PLAN: A Guide to Permitted Development, as well as Knight’s recent guest post on Strange Harvest). The following image, taken from that book, is just one example of the type of […]

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