While architects work overtime to protect their images it is the local communities that are, as ever, overlooked

Building Design magazine have today exposed the architectural community’s rounding on local resident and designer, Thomas Heatherwick, for his criticisms of the Mount Pleasant proposal.

In a joint letter the four RMG’s four practices – AHMM, Allies & Morrison, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and Wilkinson Eyre – claimed Heatherwick had not bothered to get involved with the “extensive dialogue” they carried out in the run-up to submitting the application and “the architects involved were chosen in competitive interview because of their willingness to engage in a criticial (sic) discourse.”

What we are seeing here is a really nasty piece of architectural posturing and the deliberate public humiliation of a local resident who has done more to engage with his community than the four firms combined. What is resoundingly absent from all of this architectural bravado is any care for the local community who will have to live with their designs for generations. Echoing Mr Gafsen (RMG) in recent press statements, the four architectural practices offer the same empty assurances that they engaged in “a well-publicised extensive dialogue with local bodies and stakeholders.”

Absolutely no attempt has been made by the four architectural practices to engage meaningfully with the local community despite our ongoing and strenuous efforts to engage them and the RMG in exactly the type of critical discourse they claim to have undertaken, albeit in our absence.

Nearly half a century ago, the landmark Skeffington Report (1969) emphasised the importance of public participation in planning: ‘Participation involves doing as well as talking and there will be full participation only when the public are able to take an active part throughout the plan-making process.’

At Mount Pleasant, the local communities have experienced nothing even approaching the proper levels of engagement that were being proposed decades ago, let alone today with all this talk of localism, third sector involvement and public participation. If we use Sherry Arnstein’s seminal Ladder of Participation, we are somewhere around the bottom rungs of ‘manipulation’ and ‘therapy’.

We have engaged with many architectural and planning professionals to not only critically assess the scheme, but to propose alternatives, which we have publicised in two films (first and second) that have been watched by thousands of viewers in just a few weeks. It is no exaggeration to say that from this pool of professional talent, the universal opinion has been the proposed scheme is seriously flawed and not of the quality expected from the firms appointed by the RMG.

The hands of the more than capable architects involved in this scheme must have been tied by a poor brief and an overly constrained masterplan that arbitrarily carves the site into four portions and retains the dangerous rat-run of Phoenix Place through the centre of the site. Only Heatherwick has been brave enough to voice criticisms and when you read the pages of BD recently, it’s no wonder the other professionals wish to remain anonymous.

While Mount Pleasant has become a battle ground for architects, planners, politicians and the landowner to protect and serve their own interests, the local communities, who will ultimately be the most affected by the outcome, have been and still remain overlooked.

What is increasingly baffling to us is that we believe we have an alternative proposal that could more than serve the needs of all these stakeholders and make a profoundly positive impact on our capital more widely. The idea focuses on reviving the spirit of the River Fleet – London’s most famous lost river by turning the redundant Phoenix Place into a linear park on public land – quite unlike the private land either side. Linking two schools at either end, this green lung following the Fleet’s course would give people a reason for coming into the site and embracing it as a space and a destination. It would also allow the whole scheme to look outwards and link into the local communities surrounding the site, not turn its back on it like a fortress as the present scheme does.

By claiming a road as the principal open space, it does away with the concrete precinct cynically called ‘The Garden,’ and could even give more land for more housing. It would at the very least allow the presently high and generally massive blocks to be lower and sensitively sewn into the surrounding urban fabric.

The Mount Pleasant Forum was established 18 months ago to encourage public dialogue and debate in this scheme. Neither the RMG nor the professionals that serve them have made any attempt to meaningfully engage with us, despite our invitations. The offer will always remain open, but we cannot allow anyone to claim we have been properly engaged in the process. That is simply not true, though we would be the first to welcome a change of heart. Perhaps now that the GLA has intervened, they will embrace our ideas and together we can achieve something truly inspirational for Mount Pleasant that can be home to even more homes and more properly public space than the present scheme offers.

It is profoundly regrettable that in doing what was right for his local community, Mr Heatherwick has been exposed to the most unpleasant side of architecture – yet another episode in the grim saga that has become Mount Unpleasant.

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