The Duties of an Architect: Regeneration and Gentrification in New Mildmay

‘In carrying out or agreeing to carry out professional work, Architects should pay due regard to the interests of anyone who may reasonably be expected to use or enjoy the products of their own work. Whilst Architects’ primary responsibility is to their clients, they should nevertheless have due regard to their wider responsibility to conserve and enhance the quality of the environment and its natural resources.’

– Architects Registration Board, Architects Code: Standards of Conduct and Practice, 2002

‘Whilst your primary responsibility is to your clients, you should take into account the environmental impact of your professional activities.’

– Architects Registration Board, Architects Code: Standards of Conduct and Practice, 2010

‘Where appropriate, you should advise your client how best to conserve and enhance the quality of the environment and its natural resources.’

– Architects Registration Board, The Architects Code: Standards of Professional Conduct and Practice, 2017

Under Section 13 of the Architects Act 1997 the Architects Registration Board (ARB) was required to ‘issue a code laying down the standards of professional conduct and practice expected of registered persons’ (i.e. as architects). It further specified that although failure to comply with the provisions of this code ‘shall not be taken of itself to constitute unacceptable professional conduct or serious professional incompetence’, such failure by the architect ‘shall be taken into account in any proceedings against him’ before the ARB’s Professional Conduct Committee. The code itself, which was first published in 1997, specified that architects are expected to be guided in their professional work not only by the letter but also by the ‘spirit of the code’. However, where the 12 constituent standards typically have 4 and up to 8 codes, section 5.1 is the single code on the standard architects should meet when ‘considering the wider impact of their work’.

1. Regeneration

Photo ©Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

On Friday night I passed the old George and Dragon pub on Hackney Road, the former gay venue to which punters used to withdraw from the straight bars of Shoreditch to consider whether they would be good and go home or have one last drink in the Joiners’ and the beginning of another weekend to forget in Fire, Beyond, Duckie and (oh, go on then) Orange. A former stomping ground of mine, I wouldn’t be seen dead in Shoreditch these days, and was surprised to see that the pub has been closed down; or rather, not closed down, for it wasn’t boarded up, but that it had undergone a sea change into something that is not, unfortunately, rich and strange, but mundane and all to common. Though the pilasters and carved capitals on the ground floor were still there, the former windows had been filled in, and the whole thing painted those tasteful shades of Regency green and cream piping that yell ‘Gentrification!’ A quick online search confirmed that, following an unaffordable increase in their leasehold, the owners had sold the pub in 2015, and subsequent attempts to have it listed have come to nothing. In this respect the George and Dragon has followed in the wake of the dozens of gay venues closed down in London, including the Joiners’ Arms just up the road, Chariots in Shoreditch, the Black Cap in Camden, Turnmills in Clerkenwell, First Out in Covent Garden, and Barcode, Manbar, Madame Jojo’s, the Green Carnation, Candy Bar and The Yard Bar in Soho, among many others, with the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, despite gaining status as an ‘asset of community value’, still threatened with redevelopment. But its closure is also part of the wider assault on London’s music venues and pubs, with over half of the former (220 venues) having closed in the last decade, and a quarter of the latter (2,295 pubs) closed since 2001, largely as a result of the increases in business rates, which in turn have been driven by the even larger increases in London property prices. And with developers eager to cash in on the prime locations occupied by these venues, the smoking ban imposed by the government in 2007, the 19 per cent increase in the price of alcoholic drinks since then, the legislation introduced in 2013 and made permanent in 2015 that allowed developers to convert commercial spaces into residential premises without planning permission, and the noise abatement orders and licensing restrictions issued by councils on behalf of their residents, have all contributed to shutting down London’s nightlife.

I wasn’t surprised, then, when the next morning I opened the latest edition of The Architects’ Journal to find the usual breathless celebration of another luxury development in Shoreditch located immediately behind the former George and Dragon, in the angle between Hackney Road and Austin Street, with Columbia Road to the north. Falling within the planning authority of Tower Hamlets Labour council, this new development, titled New Mildmay, is listed as a ‘regeneration’ on the council website. For once, however, it hasn’t been built on land cleared of a council housing estate, but on land previously occupied by the demolished Mildmay Mission Hospital, which occupied the bulk of the site, the demolished Shoreditch Tabernacle Baptist Church and a demolished Family Care Centre. Built around the Grade II-listed Tab Community Centre, the only building remaining from the site, in addition to the new church on Hackney Road and smaller facilities to replace the nineteenth-century hospital, the housing development, commissioned by Genesis Housing Association, provides 139 new homes. However, despite the fact that the London Plan specifies that 35 per cent of new housing developments should be for social rent and 15 per cent intermediate, New Mildmay provides 25 properties for private sale, 69 flats for private rent, 14 properties for shared ownership, and 31 social homes, 6 of which are in a separate block over commercial facilities facing directly onto Hackney Road: a tenure split of 22 percent social and 10 per cent intermediate. It is not clear from the Genesis Housing website whether ‘social homes’ means for social or affordable rent, but given the public statements made by Neil Hadden, the CEO of Genesis, about the lack of government funding for social rent homes, it seems more likely to be the latter. As is typical of such documents, the planning applications by both Tower Hamlets council, which allocated £784,790 to the regeneration, and the Greater London Authority, use both ‘social rent’ and ‘affordable rent’ interchangeably. Interestingly, an earlier planning application, made in July 2006, for a 100 per cent affordable housing development of 371 homes, of which 73 per cent would have been for social rent and 27 per cent intermediate, was refused by the council on the grounds that the bulk of the residential units were contained in a 23-storey tower deemed inappropriate in the neighbourhood.

None of this information, of course, is included in the 15 pages dedicated to the project in The Architects’ Journal, which contains its usual fetishisation of materials and rhapsodic description of forms but, also as usual, says nothing about the social uses and impact of the development. Instead it seems more intent on dismissing the architecture of LCC estates, making no less than four derogatory references to council housing in the brief article by George Kafka, who describes the neighbouring estates along Columbia Road as ‘defensible spaces’, as having an ‘institutional feel’, as ‘much-maligned’, as ‘isolating’ and – most cynically, as this term describes the anti-homeless designs used by councils to deter rough-sleepers from finding shelter in their borough – as ‘defensive architecture’. Of course, since the early 2000s Columbia Road has been a finger of gentrification into the formerly working-class neighbourhood of Bethnal Green (the George and Dragon opened in 2002), and these statements are clearly made to pre-empt the charge of social cleansing levelled against architects complicit in ‘regeneration’. So it’s not surprising that the article says nothing about the sale and rental price of this development that will, according to the article, ‘help integrate this site into the surrounding neighbourhoods of Hackney and Tower Hamlets’. But a quick look on the Genesis Housing website shows them renting 1-bedroom flats from £1,775 per calendar month, 2-bedroom apartments from £2,200, 3-bedroom maisonettes and townhouses from £3,250, and 4-bedroom maisonettes from £4,000. If you’re looking to buy on the shared ownership scheme, £160,000 will get you an assured tenancy on the two remaining £640,000 2-bedroom properties that were still on the market in January. While Savills is currently advertising 1- and 2-bedroom properties for between £580,000 and £855,000. So Genesis Housing have got their work cut out if they’re serious about integrating the demographic that can afford such prices with the local council estate tenants – unless, of course, by ‘integration’ they mean ‘gentrification’.

Neither The Architects’ Journal, The Architectural Review, Architecture Today or Building Design, nor the websites of Genesis Housing, Matthew Lloyd Architects, FCBS Studio or New London Architecture, mentions the apparently inconsequential fact that his development was part-funded by Tower Hamlets council, the Greater London Authority and the Homes and Communities Agency, even though 78 per cent of its housing provision is for the private rent or sale of homes and properties marketed at the middle and upper-middle classes, the residency or investment of whom in these grossly overinflated properties is effectively being subsidised by the state, not only through the public investment in this largely private development, but also in the Help-to-Buy shared-ownership schemes available to households earning up to £90,000 per annum and the Rent-to-Buy schemes available to households earning up to £60,000 per annum. Nor do they mention that the equally inflated profits Genesis Housing will make from this overpriced development are also, therefore, being subsidised by the state.

Photograph by Will Pryce

The architecture, by Matthew Lloyd Architects and Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, is drawn from the limited palette of the New London Vernacular with which we’re wearily familiar, with its obligatory freckled brickwork, irregularly-spaced tight-lipped windows and Benetton colour schemes – which I guess is appropriate to the birthplace of the British hipster, whose tortoise-shell glasses, checked shirts, trimmed beards and tattoo sleeves were a uniform more than a style. But it’s ironic that the Milmay Hospital, Europe’s only centre for the rehabilitation of people with HIV Associated Neurocognitve Disorder, was where Princess Diana famously embraced patients with HIV and AIDS at the height of the epidemic in 1989, showing an attitude to the gay community at odds with the Marigold-gloved police who beat them up: ironic, because given how developers cut deals with councils (which is to say, with the developer’s hand very firmly around the knife handle), it seems likely that one of the conditions of Genesis Housing investing in the regeneration of the site was that Tower Hamlets council shut down the George and Dragon public house, which stands at the tip of the angle between Hackney Road and Austin Street. Property investors in an ‘up-and-coming’ area might be proud of the association with the Princess – with Genesis having held a ‘Mildmay Diana Tribute Event’ this January to promote the new development – but the City boys and Silicon Roundabout geeks at which more than half the properties have been targeted don’t want a backstreet of queens, queers and muscle Marys on their doorstep every night (except, of course, when they’re looking to score); not when they’re paying over £1,000 per month plus service charges and council tax for bedrooms whose dimensions might charitably be described as ‘mean’.

Compulsion isn’t necessary when the incentive of profit is enough. With the blessing of the Greater London Authority, planning permission for New Mildmay was granted by Tower Hamlets council in June 2010. The following June, planning permission was sought for the refurbishment of the existing building at 2-4 Hackney Road to create a 15-bedroom hotel and guest-house, designed by Clements & Porter Architects, while retaining the George and Dragon public house below. This was granted by the council in August 2013. By August 2015, following what the owners described as a ‘dramatic’ rent increase in their leasehold, the pub was put up for sale. In 2016 the pub reopened under new management and completely refurbished. Instead of a gay venue, the website now promised a ‘traditional pub experience’, and described itself as an ‘ideal venue for after-works drinks’, with the décor ‘an eclectic mix of Scarf and Hogarth’, and boasting that its furniture was sourced from ‘Le Puce in Paris’ (see the photograph below). The pub was also available for private hire. I never visited this hipsters version of the George and Dragon, which sounds like an identikit compilation of every overpriced gastro-pub in London, but by the end of 2017 the pub had closed again, just in time for the completion of the New Mildmay development and the announcement that Genesis was merging with Notting Hill Housing to form one of the largest housing associations in the UK, with 54,000 properties across London alone and an annual turnover of £700 million.

2. Gentrification

The gentrified George and Dragon pub.

Which is where the ARB’s Standards of Conduct and Practices come in, and the gradual erosion, through the revisions to Standard 5 over the past two decades, of the duty of architects ‘to consider the wider impact of their work’. I said it was ironic that the regeneration of a site famous for a turning point in public attitudes towards the gay community should result in the closing down of a gay venue; but ironic doesn’t describe the process by which a neighbourhood like Shoreditch – which has become emblematic of this process across London, with first Dalston, then Peckham, then New Cross, and now pretty much any working-class neighbourhood in Inner London being described as ‘the new Shoreditch’ – is marketed at a class of people who are drawn to an area by the very thing their relocation to it will destroy. Shoreditch, now the world’s most expensive technology and creative district, stopped resembling the descriptions of it in the brochures of estate agents and property developers (or articles in architecture magazines) years ago, and whatever working-class authenticity the middle classes came in search of has long since upped sticks and gone. But then, as that other socially-cleansed gay icon with a fondness for rough trade once wrote: ‘All men kill the thing they love’.

There’s a widely accepted misunderstanding of what the term ‘gentrification’ means. Coined in the 1960s by the British sociologist Ruth Glass, it described the influx of the suburban middle classes into working-class urban neighborhoods, in the process displacing the existing residents and workers in the same way that the George and Dragon has been – through increased rental prices, mortgage repayments and business rates for small businesses, allied to the closure of shops and amenities the working-class population can afford. Since then, however, gentrification has become a contested term, with the middle classes arguing that their greater disposable income brings much-needed investment into neighbourhoods abandoned by the state, and which only capitalism – so the argument goes – can revivify. Such a self-serving narrative, of course, is based on that well-known theory of ‘trickle-down economics’ which, despite all the evidence to the contrary, has been revived over the past decade in order to justify huge corporate and personal tax cuts for the wealthiest percentile of our population balanced – and largely paid for – by equally huge cuts to public spending, social services and welfare benefits for the poorest.

What has been forgotten in this recuperation of gentrification, no longer as a social phenomenon to be studied but as an ideological model to be implemented, is that its economic effects little resemble the entirely fictitious trickling down of wealth described by advocates of the equally fictitious ‘invisible hand’ of the market, and have far more in common with the jets of high-pressure water miners use to strip a hillside of every indigenous plant and soil to reveal the nuggets of gold beneath, occasionally rising to a tidal wave that sweeps all before it, leaving a wasteland of abandoned projects and empty homes. If the newly-gentrified neighbourhoods of Shoreditch, Dalston, Hackney Wick, Peckham and New Cross resemble the former, then the later describes such tsunami regenerations as Olympic Park, Greenwich Peninsula, Elephant and Castle, and the Vauxhall, Nine Elms and Battersea ‘Opportunity Area’. All of which raise the question: whose opportunity is being served by these so-called ‘regenerations’? And more particularly for the architectural profession: what are the duties of the architect in this tidal wave of corporate land-grabbing and asset-stripping dressed up with the genteel name of ‘gentrification’?

Photograph ©Genesis Housing

Notwithstanding its removal from the 2010 and subsequent editions of the Architects Code, the 2002 edition’s standard for architects ‘to pay due regard to the interests of anyone who may reasonably be expected to use or enjoy the products of their own work’ raises the following questions:

  1. Can gentrification can be considered a ‘product’ of the architect’s work?
  2. Who is encompassed by the ‘anyone’ that may reasonably be expected to use that product?
  3. What due regard should the architect show for the ability of the existing community to ‘enjoy’ the products of their work?

Are we to assume that the removal of this standard from the Architects Code was a result of this ambiguity in its phrasing, effectively allowing the substitution of the architect’s ‘regard’ for people with, first, ‘taking into account’ the impact of their work on the environment, and, finally, ‘advising the client’ on how to conserve the environment? The English have always cared more about their gardens than their neighbours, but the erasure of any human presence for consideration other than that of the client from the duties of an architect, and the decline of those duties from responsibility for the use of their work to the considerations of an accountant and a consultant, tells us a lot about what ground – both moral and statutory – has been yielded by the profession.

If we can’t look to the ARB for a definition, and still less to the RIBA – whose own duties seem confined to the distribution of prizes to the worst offenders in the profession – what, then, are the duties of the architect today? Is it the architect’s duty to design developments that channel millions of pounds of public funds into the hands of property developers, private investors and home buyers? Is it the architect’s duty to contribute to the further gentrification of an already gentrified area that has seen thousands of working-class families priced out of their neighbourhood? Is it the architect’s duty to accept a developer’s brief without asking what impact it will have on the local community, including the closing down of the valued assets of that community? From the absence of any consideration of social context in architectural journals one would be forgiven for thinking otherwise (which is, of course, the point), but there are few if any ‘blank canvases’ in Inner London on which architects can practice their trade; there is only the history of the site, its contemporary use and the future it will serve. Beyond entirely fictitious predictions of ‘vibrant new communities’ and the other expressions of bad faith with which architectural discourse is rife, what are the duties of an architect when ‘considering the wider impact of their work?’

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

Architects for Social Housing is a Community Interest Company (no. 10383452). Although we do occasionally receive minimal fees for our design work, the majority of what we do is unpaid and we have no source of public funding. If you would like to support our work, you can make a donation through PayPal:

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