Aldgate ambitions

Aidan Walker takes a look at the very challenging task set students by the London Metropolitan University’s Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Media and Design, as part of its Aldgate Project. It invited them, through architectural and design schemes, to address the issues faced by this largely underprivileged district of London

During the Clerkenwell Design Festival I chaired a panel of judges deciding which second-year interior design student at the Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Media and Design at London Metropolitan University would win a work placement at BDG architecture + design. The judging took place at Humanscale.

I've talked a lot and written less (mostly in these pages) about both the Sir John Cass interior design course, led by the estimable Kaye Newman and Janette Harris, and also about Humanscale, whose products (as well as the company's extra-curricular activities, such as holding an annual auction for the World Wildlife Fund) demonstrate a profound and mature understanding of what I believe we can these days call 'good design'.

In my view you can pack pretty much all that matters into the great 'S' word - sustainability - which includes not only the usual closed-loop, cradle-to- cradle thinking but also factors such as the quest for the minimum number of components and, perhaps most important of all, the 'human/humane' element, in other words the longevity, usability and overall quality of delight in a product. Let's remember the basic meaning of sustainability is 'ability to be sustained', that is, last a long time. And if something's going to be around for a while that makes it all the more important that a chair or light or whatever delivers delight as well as function. Niels Diffrient, the originator of the original Humanscale chair, understands this to his core, and the philosophy is equally embedded in the company's DNA.

I came across the John Cass course through academic leader Michael Upton, with whom I worked last year on its project Living Bridges. This year Newman and Harris put their students to work on Hidden Spaces as part of the Aldgate Project. This project, devised for architecture and interior design students at The Cass, invites architectural and urban design initiatives to address the various issues facing this uniquely historic - and largely underprivileged - area of London; overarching themes include faith, gender, trade, super-local and philanthropy, which in part can translate into proposals on what to do about St Botolph without Aldgate church, about Braham Street Park, about the large number of empty properties and the high levels of unemployment in the area, about creating links across Commercial Street to the prosperous City of London, and about the impact of the Olympics and the development at Stratford on its poorer but more central neighbour.

Hidden spaces is an attempt at one level, explains Newman, to persuade Tower Hamlets and the property development industry that unlikely spaces and 'gaps' between buildings are more fruitful ground for development than big new-build schemes plonked down on patches of cleared cityscape.

One can see the business problems with this idea, but it demonstrates the social engagement that the London Metropolitan faculties of Architecture and Spatial Design (FASD) and the Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Media and Design (The Cass) are striving for and puts design in the sort of context that I think it needs as the world grows older.

As the university's own description of the Aldgate Project says, it is 'an approach to design where the importance of socially engaged forms of practice [is] a primary concern'. It sounds very good to me, always banging on as I am about the human/humane aspects of sustainability/design itself.

That said, it's no easy task for a judging panel to absorb such a context as distinct from the actual drawn (and written) work they're looking at, and the explanation of the project (too long to be reproduced here) was lamentably missing when we assembled at Humanscale to apply our experience and wisdom, ha ha.

The schemes on show displayed imagination, bravery and resourcefulness, but I for one felt that the designers were still struggling to make sense of the social factors. To the credit of Newman and Harris, the judging panel included some heavy-hitting non-designers, notably Paul Etherington, a vice president of the Bank of New York Mellon, who manages the bank's planning and development team on an international scale, and Tony Miller, the director of the Whitechapel Mission, one of London's oldest charities for the homeless. (It was founded in 1876, sees as many as 300 people a day with no statutory funding, and has strong links with the City - BNY Mellon is one of its supporters, for instance.)

While applauding the initiative and its background context, I think this year's work shows there is still quite a way to go for second-year interior design students to develop a sense of in what unfamiliar ways people and communities actually behave, and to arrive at a research method that isn't intimidating and uncomfortable for designer and 'subject' alike.

The students' schemes, which anyway were trying to connect three different locations round Aldgate, all seemed, as far as they went, to be aimed at taking the Whitechapelians towards the City, whereas Miller will tell you that it is the other way round - the privileged come from EC4 to do their bit in E1. He describes an occasion when a group of Whitechapel women were invited into the glass and steel towers west of Commercial Street to put their point of view about community development; it was an abject failure because they just didn't belong there and felt it acutely.

I'm not remotely trying to be snotty about the charity impulse among the comparatively prosperous, just pointing out that if the students had talked to Miller for their research, they would have produced very different work. I put this to Newman, who agreed it would, but who also pointed out that it was early days, and that London Met's relationship with the Whitechapel Mission was in its infancy at the start of the project, so they had no idea that it might be a useful research tool, and that the members of her group were themselves mostly from outside the UK and had their own multi and cross-cultural issues to deal with.

For a young Finn to approach a saree-clad Bangladeshi mother who speaks almost no English in Brick Lane and ask her about East London's social and economic development as expressed through its built environment is to ask for trouble. Or for no result, anyway. A very difficult challenge then, one that I suspect even the faculty didn't fathom at the outset just how difficult.

There's a long tradition of urban, architectural and even interior design being harnessed for social engineering, but this is different ground, and to that extent new; it's kind of 'reverse engineering', an attempt to make the built environment suit a population which is different in every imaginable way from the one for which it was originally built. Every way but one, that is - most people in Whitechapel were poor then, and they still are.

All power to the joint architecture and design faculties (they merged at the beginning of this month) of London Met for concocting and developing such a powerful and tricky brief, and all power to the interior designers for making such a good fist of it in a limited 12 weeks. But there's much more to be done, much of it calling for a deeper understanding of what design means in the 21st century. Making places for people is all very well, but it isn't going to work unless we understand the people.

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