The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read
Around the corner from Kings Cross station in London the Peter Barber practice nestles in what was once a modest print shop dating from Victorian times.
The ground floor acts as a meeting room where, through the large shop window, the outside world can keep a watchful eye on proceedings.
That transparency reflects Barber's manifesto which borrows from Marxist critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin's One Way Street, his 1924 study of Naples in which he declares that buildings should be used as "a popular stage, divided into innumerable, simultaneously animated theatres. Balcony, courtyard, window, gateway, staircase, roof are at the same time stages and boxes."
Those observations have since 1989 been diligently and imaginatively turned into reality by Barber's practice, which has been showered with innumerable accolades and dozens of awards ever since.
He has a coherent vision of what cities should be like and how their topography affects the quality of life of their inhabitants. The classes he teaches at Westminster University receive a strong political component engaging with the social responsibilities of the architect.
Barber, profoundly aware of the reciprocity in the relationship between people and architecture, is at heart a Situationist. He seeks to establish early on in each project an aesthetic and dynamic that aims to awaken and nourish a sense of wonderment, attraction and pleasure by stimulating the spirit of discovery.
In his cityscape the eye is drawn to space, punctuated with distinct Barber towers and their characteristic "random" balconies and different size windows that give an impression of a Piet Mondrian composition. Evoking the 18th-century church spires by Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor in the capital they present a topography that intrigues, orients and informs.
Barber's practice is unique in its focus on social housing and has a client base comprising dozens of housing associations, trusts and local authorities. It shot to international prominence with its landmark Donnybrook Quarter, designed and built in 2006 for Circle 33 in London's Hackney.
The project, which won five major British and an international architecture awards, is a dense mixed-use scheme and consists of living units as well as community, work and retail spaces.
It's configured as a terrace-courtyard hybrid typology, reminiscent of a north African kasbah.
"Mixed use" is the key descriptor in Barber's constant celebration of the "public social life of the street" in which all have a stake and all are protagonists.
Central to his designs is the courtyard - "an underused architectural typology in Britain" - the form and social application of which he studied extensively when he worked in Saudi Arabia and later during travels in north Africa.
Taken by their minimalist and humble aesthetic solutions and social practicality he has ingenuously adapted them to small-scale housing solutions, much as he has the application of brilliant white facades reminiscent of Mediterranean holiday lets.
According to Barber, housing associations retain vestiges of welfare state idealism, which allows the practice to achieve what would have been impossible within the remit of large house-building organisations.
A confirmed socialist, he sees the Tories and new Labour espousing the belief that the housing crisis solution can only be delivered by large construction firms as perilously short-sighted.
He dismisses the fallacious new orthodoxy of housing as a commodity, pointing out that it will only further deepen inequities when high-value prime locations expected to generate high value rental or sales returns will undergo a form of social cleansing.
As a result of these trends his latest realisation - the much-lauded Hannibal Road Gardens in Stepney for the Southern Housing Group - might soon be out of reach of those it has been designed for.
He's a passionate advocate of heterogeneous cities that mix people from different economic backgrounds and in which a long-standing social housing tradition is woven positively within the fabric of the city, as evidenced by the Cook period in Camden and the council estates of Chelsea or Westminster.
"The architects of large-scale housing projects struggle to make meaningful connections with individual householders," he emphasises.
"This is due to systemic failure and not a lack of will among designers. It will take a revolution in the means of production to remedy the situation."
Cities have stopped evolving organically and became ringed and subsequently suffocated by new and often characterless developments in the commuter belt.
The present real estate organisation and the structures of private and public finance in Britain effectively stand in the way of self-governing co-operatives, Barber adds. Smaller developers and housing associations offering viable, sustainable and flexible housing solutions are left out in the cold.
"Government bodies should favour individuals, small developers and co-ops who are often excluded in the sale of public land," he suggests. "Reform could start with a breaking-up of the vast institutions, bureaucracies, corporations and quangos which have us in a strangle hold."
Unexpectedly, he cites Uruguay as a beacon of hope. There 60 per cent of social housing is built by groups of householders who run the design and construction process in a creative dialogue with their own directly employed consultants.
"No middlemen, no generic housing standards - just the homes as people want them."
Plenty to ponder in that statement for Tory Housing Minister Mark Prisk and his Labour counterpart Jack Dromey.
And plenty too in his views on sink estates, whose problem he contends is not primarily social but arises from the anti-urban, introverted planning which results in ghetto monoculture.
For Barber, such estates stand "with their backs turned to the city, social cul de sacs segregated from the plurality of use that occurs down the road, where perpetually regenerative energy offers communities new and vibrant leases of life."
To prove his point we look at the impressive, though not to be implemented, Haggerston West scheme in Hackney, a regeneration master plan linking a network of streets, the veins to a central, linear artery of an elongated park running south to north along Hackney Road.
Its aim is to weave together adjacent neighbourhoods, promoting a thriving street life while housing well over 2,000 in 600 separate dwellings with work spaces, shops and community facilities.
That theme of regeneration is there too in Barber's interest in adopting a creative approach in designing hostels for the homeless. He is full of praise for Labour government policies that set new standards of commitment to getting people off the streets and seriously addressing their health, employment and education needs.
Spring Gardens, Holmes Road, the Endel Street hostels and the Redbridge Night Shelter and others - all in north London - are edifying and eloquent realisations of that policy.
Here the most vulnerable in society are placed in homely, elegant surroundings that respect the dignity of individuals. They offer a high-quality physical environment perceived even today as the sole entitlement of the well-to-do.
Gone are the tortuous, labyrinthine corridors and claustrophobic living spaces. Courtyards, atriums and mini parks encourage socialising but also offer a restful environment with a strong sense of protection and safety.
Floor-to-ceiling windows unite the outdoors with the indoor and cafes, libraries, study and meeting rooms offer a sense of normality, empowerment and inclusion.
And then Barber conjures a final surprise - an enchanting sketch of the transformation of the Holmes Road homeless hostel in Kentish Town, which is about to begin.
Reminiscent of Victorian alms houses it will comprise 60 individual micro units with mezzanines that surround a central allotment where residents can develop marketable horticultural skills.
It provides a communal place of rest and contemplation and is being developed in partnership with Camden council.
Barber is a passionate and lucid advocate of peoples' participation in the decision-making that shapes everyday life, including housing. As we part, he invokes Karl Marx's observation on alienation, that "we become a stranger to the things that we make."
A stark warning if ever there was one against complacency and social and political docility.
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