It’s now 13 years since I wrote that infamous article about mass housing in the Independent and coined the phrase “The Wimpeyfication and Barratification of Britain”. My tirade about how ill conceived some of Britain’s housing developments were taken up by Newsnight. My new found voice about urban design was given an airing and my views somewhat supported by Jeremy Paxman.
Peter Johnson, the then Chairman of Wimpey Homes (now Taylor Wimpey) agreed with some of my comments and we ended up leading the vision on a 750 plus homes development on a long term unused brownfield site in Dunston, a largely unloved, but brilliantly located part of Gateshead.
In the 24 month design period before work started, and during land reclamation period, Gerardine and I immersed ourselves in urban design and toured the world looking at great and not so great examples. The inspiration we found in northern Europe and the Nordic countries, the urban designers Klas Tham (Western Harbour Malmo) and Jan Gehl (Copenhagen) we met, and the “human” developments like Vauban in Freiberg and Almere in the Netherlands that inspired us to put landscape, play and homezone streets ahead of architecture proved to be a stimulating education.
Our own experience of where we grew up in affordable housing in Lancashire and the experience of the team that was assembled to deliver the Staiths with us. Mark and Jane Massey from IDP, the Glen Kemp team (who had worked on Byker), Tanya Garland and the team from CoolBlue, Gordon Mungall from Arups, a Gateshead Council planning department who really showed a sense of ownership and a truly enlightened team from Wimpey North East, proved to be a “dream team”.
Those early years were full of debate and arguments over “secured by design”, “homezones”, communal barbeques, the table tennis tables in the streets, “shared pocket parks”, cycle routes and restrictions on car ownership. We really were questioning accepted practice and Gerardine and I were also being questioned by many architects and planners as to our suitability for the project. “Q…What could a couple of fashion designers know about housing ? A…We have bloomin’ well lived in them for 4 decades each and we care about the quality of life!”
But we stuck to our guns and fought like we have fought so many times in the past. The Staiths South Bank got off to a great start; people queued to buy the first homes. The Arts Council came and researched the residents and produced the affirming “The Power of The Barbeque” showing how the generosity of the landscape was a key to the good feeling that the “pioneering” new residents were experiencing.
The Staiths went on to win many awards, is visited by international groups and has continued to be in demand in terms of sales right the way through the housing downturn.
We completed the design a couple of years ago now and are not on site that often. However at the end of April 2013 Gerardine and I were passing through Newcastle and popped in to the site. We left happy. To their credit Taylor Wimpey have kept up the standards set in phase 1.
The Staiths is maturing wonderfully and judging by the amount of residents who came out to say how much they were enjoying living there and the emails that positive that keep coming in, the development is certainly a liveable one.
Is this our greatest achievement in our 30 odd years as designers? It could just well be.