New London Architecture

Five minutes with...Gerard Maccreanor, director, Maccreanor Lavington

Monday 12 July 2021

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor  
Hi, how are you? 
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
Very good. Yes. Nice morning – sun's out! 
 
David Taylor  
Are you in Rotterdam at the moment? 
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
I am. I'm in Rotterdam. I can't get back into the UK! I thought 10 years of travelling regularly every Tuesday morning and back every Thursday morning would make me a regular traveller. But because I didn't travel for the last six months: 'Oh, well, you're not regular anymore, are you?' (laughs). It's like Monty Python! (laughs)
 
David Taylor  
(laughs) Only not as funny, clearly! So how are you? And what are you up to at the moment, Gerard?
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
Well, as practice, we're extremely busy. I think we thought, at the start of this pandemic, that our industry would be very severely hit. That has not been the case at all. In fact, we've been busier in the last 18 months, than in a number of years before that. So that's been quite a surprise.
 
David Taylor  
What do you put that down to? You are recruiting as well, I think, on both sides of the North Sea?
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
Yes, we're recruiting, both within the London office and the Dutch office. The Dutch office has about 20 people in it who work specifically in the UK market, and in a way, we see that as a combined office with London. I think about 12 or more are English people. And our London work is very robust. I think there's still a lot of confidence in the market. Still a lot of activity. Maybe clients are a little apprehensive if they are going into construction contracts at this moment, given the inflation on construction prices, but most people are seeing that that will peak; supply chains will get up to speed again and those prices will start to drop. There may be a modest inflation rather than maybe what we're seeing at the moment. There’s definitely some worries about with inflation, but with new projects starting, there seems to be a lot of confidence in the market.
 
 
David Taylor  
Before we talk about specific projects you're involved in in London, I wondered if anything has changed in your approach to masterplanning as a result of the last weird period of pandemic conditions? Has anything markedly changed in your response to masterplanning as a principle?
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
Yes. I would say that the catchphrase you hear a lot at the moment is the 15-minute city. That's not a particularly new concept. It was around in the 1980s, I believe, but what you've seen in this period, is that a lot of people are capable of being very productive, and working from home, and that as we come back out of that, many people are saying, ‘well, we want to keep some of that flexibility. That is just people realizing that they were spending such a large part of their life commuting. And what a waste that is! I think that, therefore, you will see what more people want, at least part time, is continuing to work at home. And you see that influence. I think that there's very interesting. In the last year in London when they had the Eat Out to Help Out, actually, it didn't really affect the centre of the city. But the edges of the city, the other town centres within London, saw a real uplift, because that's where a lot of people are living. And they were starting to use those places more locally. So I think this will lead to a much more polycentric city if I'm talking about London, and that was the direction the city was going in anyway. This is just speeding that process up.
 
David Taylor  
…And happily so, given that you're involved in places like Old Oak Common, Meridian Water and the Old Kent road, which fit into that general principle, don't they?
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
Yes, they do. Absolutely. But even further afield like Romford; we're doing the town centre masterplan for Romford. And again, you can see that, actually, I think the expectations of growth and success in Romford have significantly increased given these tendencies over the last year.
 
David Taylor  
So: a big, broad question, but what makes what makes a good masterplan?
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
Yeah. Um… A good masterplan? Yeah, that's a very broad question.!
 
David Taylor  
Yeah!
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
I suppose it's... what we try to instill is that there is a tendency which we see in the UK, which is that masterplans tend to deal with almost like the picturesque, and the politics of the masterplan, first. Then, once you get through that stage, everybody has a sigh of relief. And then they realize, actually, this plan doesn't work at all! And you have to start over again. That causes quite a lot of frustration. And actually, we're trying to do a much more solid piece of work that has enough flexibility in it, with enough certainty in it and it has the viability dealt with at a very early stage. I mean, I have sat in so many meetings where someone wants a land bridge over something, you know? You spend six months discussing it, and then it's just not going to happen, even though it sounds like a really nice idea. So we're being quite pragmatic, but I would say visionary and pragmatic. And actually, in a way, trying to get to the next point, rather than just solve that political question. Some of our clients see that and they like that and they prefer that approach because ultimately, they can see that you will achieve an end result quicker by taking this approach.
 
David Taylor  
So where are we in terms of your work at the Old Kent Road?
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
We're one of three or four practices that have been doing various pieces of masterplanning work for Colin Wilson's team. And Colin, I think, operated a very nimble, fast, clever way of dealing with the masterplanning. He kept it very fluid, he kept it all up in the air, he didn't let it grind down into long policy debates. He involved everyone and got everything put together and stood back and scratched his head and asked everybody: 'that doesn't quite look right, does it?' (laughs)
 
David Taylor  
(laughs)
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
 'And so, let's get on and sort this out!'. It was a very inventive way, and a very fast way of doing the masterplanning and actually very dynamic. And I thought extremely successful. So I think he's achieved a lot of buy-in. Therefore we were not, in a way, commissioned to stand aside and do this piece and then hand it back to the local authority. It was very much working with Colin and his team to help him navigate and steer through this process. So that was quite exciting.
 
David Taylor  
And you're doing an Area Action Plan there, aren't you, along with three particular schemes. Is that right?
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
We are. We're building two schemes at the moment, which is a project in Ruby Street, which has a church. There are a lot of churches along the Old Kent Road.  The church is being re-provided. It has a certain amount of workspace, over three or four floors; 20 storeys in total with residential above it. We're now just doing the construction information on that. And then there is a further one on Ilderton Road, which is about 250 units above an industrial space. And that industrial space is likely to be a last-mile delivery centre. It's an area where Colin has really been looking to bring industrial type uses and residential type uses together. And this will be one of those first projects to be built which will have that mix.
 
David Taylor  
Ruby street is residential above a church? Wow!
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
...and a workspace. It's a really interesting mix of uses. 
You get small businesses, you get a church, a community group and you get residential above. What I'm seeing across London is that many of our projects have this complicated mix of uses. There's always residential on top of something – whether it's a school or a shopping centre, or a church. I think one of our most interesting projects is the Decathlon at Canada Water. I don't know if you've been to see that?
 
David Taylor  
I've been to see the Decathlon a while back, yeah. It's massive!
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
It's massive! I mean it's a Tardis!
 
David Taylor  
It is my favourite shop!
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
 You go into this rather genteel building and just go: ‘bloody hell!’ (laughs).
 
David Taylor  
I actually rode some bikes around it. It's amazing. You can try cycling around the store!
 
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
I think Decathlon didn't quite realize what they were getting, either. We came up with this wonderful concept to, instead of just having more shelves to buy stuff, let everybody just use it. And it's been a major hit. It's full of young kids trying out skates and hockey sticks and whatever. (laughs) But that space in there, of course, you know, that's a retail type space, but it could have many other types of uses as well. It has deliveries for articulated trucks; it has a loading bay on Surrey Quays road, which everyone finds really acceptable. And a lot of people from Southwark, other boroughs, and the GLA have all been to see that as a model for industrial intensification with other uses. 
David Taylor  
So, last question – we're about to hear about some restrictions about mask-wearing etc being released in the coming weeks. What's the situation like in Rotterdam where you are right now, vis à vis masks and generally on the streets?
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
Well, I think there's two things that are quite different and that maybe relate back to masterplanning as well.  Rotterdam is a relatively small city. Everyone who works in the office – I'm in the office today – about 50 or 60% of the people are in; we give them some flexibility, if they want to work at home, or they want to come in. They tend to come in just because they like the social environment. But it's a 15-minute city – everybody walks or cycles and comes into the office. Some people come in for the morning and go home for lunch, etc. There are all the other things that you would expect; the cafés, the bars, the restaurants, the sandwich shops, you know. You can walk a short distance and you have a cinema or a theatre. You have major shopping – it is the 15-minute city. And I suppose what that has meant is that people have drifted back into the office much more easily and much more naturally. Whereas, in our London office, because there's still a lot of people who need to travel by the Underground, they don't particularly feel comfortable about doing that. And therefore, the commute is much longer. And therefore, there's a tendency that they'd more want to stay at home, either because of the distance or because of using the Underground. So that's a very, very simple impact of what the 15-minute city can do, in that it does give you that much more flexibility. 
But one of the other things – I was speaking to an American friend; we speak almost every day, you know, about the politics between America and Europe and Britain – and we came to the conclusion that the Anglo-Saxon world does like to exaggerate things within the press. They always dramatize things and pick the most dramatic line. And what we see is that there's definitely much more concern – maybe I wouldn't go as far to say ‘worry’ – but maybe we're more concerned in the UK. And people are more concerned personally, than there would be in the Netherlands where there's a pretty relaxed atmosphere to this pandemic, compared to the UK. And I think that's because the press just doesn’t sensationalize things in the same way – the message is delivered in a much calmer way. 
I think it's also got something to do with trust in government. You know, we can see that, particularly in America and Britain, also with a two-party system that's very confrontational, and also a populist upswing, that there's quite a distrust in government or much higher distrust than, say, in the Netherlands, which has a very high level of trust. Therefore, the uptake of vaccines here is reported to be around 87%, where I think if the UK get above their 70%, that we're doing extremely well. And it's probably likely to be less than that. America is showing that they're having difficulties – I think they've been around about 60%; things are tailing off. And there's a lot of people who are who are against getting vaccinated. I think that's a government trust issue, which we hear a lot about in the press. But ultimately, we're not sure whether to trust our government as much and we don't trust our government as much, which may well be a press issue. But it is something that is definitely different here in the Netherlands. You sense that trust in government, which means everybody queues up quietly and gets vaccinated and does what's required, and there’s less panic and less worry about it.
 
David Taylor  
Yeah. Well, perhaps there are some lessons for us there as well. It sounds a very civilized place to be right now.
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
It is also very interesting that, the Netherlands is part of Europe and started off with vaccination, very slow. There was quite some criticism about why we were going so slow and the UK going so fast. But actually, you now see that those decisions that were taken were very sensible, because they were spread across all of Europe. So the vaccination rates are almost similar everywhere, they only vary a couple of percent. And the speed-up has been incredibly quick. So, the Netherlands are now doing 8 to 9% of the population per week. The curve is still rapidly going up, so I wouldn't be surprised if the Netherlands is at 85% vaccination rates and the UK doesn't get anywhere above 70% and maybe opens up a bit too quickly. Who knows?
 
David Taylor  
But they got knocked out of Euro 2020 early. So there is that!
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
No, there is that!
 
David Taylor  
Thanks, Gerard. That's really great. And hope to meet up with you again soon in London. When you're back. 
 
Gerard Maccreanor  
Okay, very good! Thanks a lot. Bye!

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly


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