NIGHT SCHOOL CRIT CLUB: The Post-Retail Town Centre Review

by Manijeh Verghese, AA Dipl(Hons) 2012

24 May 2013
Second Rear Presentation Space, Architectural Association

 

Night School, which launched this month, aims to return to the origins of the AA. The Architectural Association was founded in 1847 as a series of evening sessions where young apprentices would meet to discuss architecture. It gave them respite from the professional environment to be able to come together and discuss architecture in an academic setting. Divided into clubs, the 2013 version of Night School launched with a Book Club where each pair of sessions focused on a different theme to read architectural theory as well as fiction through a common lens. The next club was the Crit Club, which did exactly what the original AA students came together to do – discuss professional projects in an academic format.

The Night School neon sign
Image Credit: Manijeh Verghese

On the evening of 9 May, the second floor rear presentation space was packed with faces, most of whom were new to the AA Community – proof that Night School was reaching out to new audiences by offering this type of event. On the far wall, posters and presentation boards were pinned up, each displaying different ways of dealing with the night’s overall theme: The Post-Retail Town Centre.

 

Sam Jacob, Director of Night School, welcomed everyone to “the first of what we hope will become a fixture” and explained the format for the event. Each of the firms in attendance: Studio Egret West (SEW), David Kohn Architects, We Made That and 5th Studio would present for 10 minutes followed by a discussion with a longer discussion at the end. The jury panel was led by Martyn Evans from Cathedral Group (who helped organise the event) along with Nick Johnson, the former Deputy CEO of Urban Splash, Claer Barrett, Deputy UK News Editor at the Financial Times, Amanda Baillieu, Editor-in-Chief of Building Design (who were the media partners for the event) and Sam Jacob.

Sam Jacob and Amanda Baillieu welcome the audience and introduce the jury
Image Credit: Valerie Bennett 

Amanda Baillieu and Martyn Evans made additional introductions to elaborate on the theme of the event. The Post-Retail Town Centre, as Evans explained, is a recurring theme amongst developers today with the growth of franchised shopping centres and the reduction of local industry. The task faced by architects is not to re-imagine high streets but to develop them as key mixed-use sites that can subsequently regenerate the surrounding town centre.

 

Christophe Egret from SEW began the presentations by taking us through a few of their recent projects to regenerate different areas within the UK. SEW has tailor-made solutions for specific areas, choosing to either truncate or extend the high street depending on whether the town has lost its centre or needs more jobs and amenities. Egret’s strongest and most provocative statement was, “the future of the high street is cultural not retail-based,” while presenting a project in Clapham for a library and health centre. However, the following discussion focused on how realistic the proposal was to get rid of chains like Tesco in favour of a more French-style market place. This led to Egret reiterating the seriousness of the problem – the dependence on big supermarket chains will lead to the death of the high street. For many smaller towns in the UK that are isolated, this will mean limited access to any sort of retail or amenities.

Martyn Evans of Cathedral Group introduces the theme of the Post-Retail Town Centre
Image Credit: Valerie Bennett

Next to present was the team from David Kohn Architects who had a more interactive presentation. With such a large crowd, boards are often hard to see so they solved this by handing out booklets with excerpts of text and drawings from the presentation. They also went a step further and started to write a list of the main points that their projects address: people, history, context, infrastructure and theatre. Through two projects in Hounslow and St. Ann’s Road, Kohn explained how to improve the high street through a series of simple gestures. By removing the bottom sections of trees to enhance views of the shop frontage, visitors to the high-street made multi-stop rather than targeted visits while creating fixed public spaces like markets and performance areas make the high-street a destination in which to congregate. This was my favourite presentation, not just because of how engaging it was but also for how emphatically Kohn rebuffed the suggestion that he should be responsible for programming the events within the performance space. Architects often fall into the trap of trying to do everything without realising their limits. Kohn should be respected for realising that the council should provide not just 18 years worth of materials but also 18 years worth of events to revitalise the high street. He provides the infrastructure, which in turn enables the town centre manager to create events to draw in the local community.

 

Holly Lewis from We Made That was next, presenting a series of beautiful documents each making a powerful statement. From a series of posters that defined the high street as: “Never just retail,” “Complicated and resistant to big ideas” and “The most popular shared space” to newspapers chronicling activity along High Street 2012 to a brief description of their current undertaking – a five-week residency at the Architecture Foundation, Lewis described each project in simple terms, using hard hitting facts to drive the point home. Here, the role of the architect was portrayed as a communicator between groups. She explained the difference between the “hardware” of building versus the “software” of groups and users and how the architect mediates between the two. The presentation was well-received by the audience who hailed We Made That as a “facilitator of form” by helping people articulate their ideas about the built environment. Amanda Baillieu also highlighted the pub’s crucial role in creating a space for social engagement yet raised the issue of the difficulty in listing a pub as a community asset.

 

Last to present was Tom Holbrook from 5th Studio. He related the urban environment to the economy, looking at how land is valued according to market demand – “Put a site signboard up and see what the market says its worth.” He returned to points from the first two presentations, highlighting the need for infrastructure but also explaining through specific figures how for every £1 spent on local industry, 60p goes back into the community as compared to 5p in the case of a chain store. Looking at projects dealing with coastal town slack and housing enclaves, Holbrook proposed an intensification of edge: intensifying land-use and finding the economies, like knowledge, which could be a product of that.

 

The event ended rather abruptly as they ran out of time, which was disappointing since everyone seemed to be enjoying the discussion after each presentation. There was barely a chance to debate the salient topics from the final presentation nor the opportunity to have a wrap up discussion to conclude where the future of the high street and the post-retail town centre lay. But maybe more discussion wasn’t really necessary. The questions posed throughout the evening were intriguing but it didn’t seem as though the answers had been found just yet. Each architect seemed to be presenting the first steps towards an answer. What could be taken away from the evening, however, was the success of the Crit Club format: drawing new faces into the AA, encouraging lively debate, asking provocative questions and putting professionals back in the academic setting of a jury all seemed to be in keeping with the aims of Night School – a contemporary version of the original Architectural Association.

Christophe Egret from SEW presents
Image Credit: Valerie Bennett

The jury debates the issues raised during Christophe Egret’s presentation
Image Credit: Valerie Bennett

David Kohn presenting through drawing/ writing
Image Credit: Manijeh Verghese

Holly Lewis from We Made That presents
Image Credit: Meneesha Kellay

The jurors and audience inspect 5th Studio’s boards
Image Credit: Valerie Bennett

For more information:

Night School Programme Brief

Night School Microsite

Night School Book Club: Satire & the City

Studio Egret West

David Kohn Architects

We Made That

5th Studio