The Invisible Hand

14/08/19

Who actually makes cities? How do they come about? And who makes sure the buildings we create for our cities actually work the way they are meant to?

Designing and making buildings, neigh-bourhoods and cities is the ultimate social act. It makes us who we are. To build cities is to be civilised. Cities are civilisation. And most of us today, all over the planet, live in cities. 

Yet architects, engineers, developers, builders and clients tend to attract the plaudits because their work is so obviously tangible – you can see it! – but today, it is the cost consultant, the project manager, sometimes an organisation that provides both services, that ultimately advises on the key decisions around a project’s prospects. It’s all about time and money. In addition statutory roles under Construction Design Management (CDM) Regulations, which oversee health, safety and welfare and manages a project team’s wider, longer term responsibilities - have also emerged as one of the key skillsets at play in the art of citymaking. 

Open House partner Jackson Coles is one such company doing all of these things. The firm has a rich portfolio of projects that includes two Stirling Prize winners, a pioneering co-working hotspot in East London; an old tea warehouse in the heart of Shoreditch, an experimental workplace with a running track on its roof and, although it is yet to open, a ‘cooking community’ building in the New Covent Garden Market in Nine Elms. 

This year, two Jackson Coles buildings, the White Collar Factory (of running track fame) designed by architects AHMM, and Congress House, designed in the 1940s and built in the 1950s for the TUC, and refurbished more recently by Hugh Broughton Architects, are featured in the Open House programme. The first of them, the White Collar Factory, is a construction industry favourite, inspiring the professionals who worked on it – including the Jackson Coles team. As the firm’s Ruth Lees says, “It’s more than a building; it’s a neighbourhood”. It’s often seen as a single tower but is in fact a group of buildings (Old Street Yard) that includes restaurants and homes. And the new public space creates new pedestrian routes – it’s proper city-making.” 

Nestling on a side street in Bloomsbury, Congress House, says the 20th Century Society, is one of the most important British buildings of the 1950s. This was recognised in 1988 when it was listed (Grade II*) but by that point it was already falling into disrepair. Maintenance and restoration work began in the late nineties overseen by Hugh Broughton Architects and by 2016, with Jackson Coles’ involvement, a transparent ETFE roof – a translucent polymer ‘sheet’ that transmits more light than glass and insulates better too – was installed over the internal courtyard. This facilitated the reinstatement of the original glass roof over the conference hall below and the conservation of original fabric, including an important sculpture by Sir Jacob Epstein. 

Ensuring these projects are built safely, that they comply with an array of building regulations, that they are costed properly and to the specifications agreed by the design team and client – this is the reality of citymaking. Architecture, after all, is a pragmatic art, it provides a function, it needs to work – and to cost what you thought it would before you dug the foundations. Projects really do stray from their original design intent under time or cost pressures. Jackson Coles approach is to maintain the joy in the projects they advise on, working so the whole delivery team can stay true to a shared vision. It’s hard work, and even harder to see. But without these skills we’d struggle to be sure that the buildings we create for our cities are actually fit for purpose.