Small things can matter greatly. Yet too often it’s no one’s job to care about them, writes Martyn Evans
Every day I cycle down Monmouth Street in London’s Covent Garden to and from my office. It is one of London’s loveliest shopping streets and you can tell, from the care with which they decorate it often, that its retail occupiers really enjoy its character and beauty. For quite some time now the surface of the street, laid with lovely granite sets, has been a ghastly mess caused by utility repairs, the laying of commercial cable infrastructure and temporary remediation of potholes with ugly black tarmac. It is easy to think that there are more important things to worry about at this time of pandemic strife but I’m afraid I want to find room.
A tweet I wrote about it with a picture I took on my way to work one day was liked, re-tweeted and commented on over 1,300 times – more than anything I have ever tweeted. Most of the tweets suggested reasons for why it was in such a state: cost of repair at a time of economic uncertainty, laziness of those doing the digging-up, lack of care on the part of Camden council to compel those making the mess to clear it up. Whoever is at fault, it’s a perfect example of what happens when the detail is forgotten.
Often the detail in the broth gets spoiled because there are too many cooks. Whose job is it to make sure the guttering is the right quality, or the doorknobs on the houses are as beautiful as those originally specified by the architect? Is it the new delivery architect hired under the design-and-build contract or the client who, under the same contract, does not have the direct commercial relationship with that architect? Is it the contractor, whose imperative is to minimise cost? Or is it the planner, whose job is to ensure delivery against the original consent? The answer is somewhere in the middle of all that and consequently nowhere at all.
One architect friend of mine who will remain very carefully anonymous told me an eyebrow-raising story recently about repairing to the equivalent of a public phone box to report her own client’s contractor to the local planner because the detail on the delivery of the scheme was so woefully in breach of the consent as a result of value-engineering butchery.
What’s important here is that everyone who has any capacity to impact on the delivery of a built environment project of any nature has to understand – or, if it doesn’t come naturally to them, to be made to understand – the experience of the end user and how important those people think details are.
My heart sinks every day as I cycle down Monmouth Street, but I’m a cynical old Londoner. What of the super-crucial tourists who are coming back to London? What do they think? That we don’t care about the beauty of our streets? If we don’t care, why should they? And what about people who buy the houses we design and build? There is nothing more dispiriting than cheap, nasty fittings that feel as if they are going to break under the slightest pressure. Flimsy door handles that we use every day, ugly hand rails on staircases, headache-inducing door bells that the specifier has clearly never listened to. These things are important.
Being shown around an Urban Splash development by Jonathan Falkingham or Tom Bloxham is to take a lesson in the importance of detail. It is clear that they think about the end user from the moment they sit down with their designers and a blank sheet of paper. Where do I put my keys when I come in and shut the front door? Where do I hang my bike? Is the light switch on the intuitive side of the door? Where will I put my clothes if a second bedroom is a little too small to fit a wardrobe (who ever thought that was a good idea, by the way?)?
The Bartlett’s Matthew Carmona, in a report published last week, identifies a massive hole in the provision of design support for planning authorities. Robert Jenrick is determined that we embed beauty in our developments, but so much of what delivers that beauty, on the ground, every day, comes from attention to detail and the capacity to demand that it be cared for. How are our planners able to police delivery detail when they are so starved of resources that they lack even the most basic design advice and support?
As with most issues like this, of course, the answer is not regulation and policing, it’s about everyone involved in a project accepting joint and several responsibility for the small things that really matter. In trying to find out who was responsible for the mess at Monmouth Street all I encountered was a sea of shrugs. “Not my responsibility.” Except, of course, it is.
Martyn Evans is creative director of U&I