New London Architecture

Five minutes with...Helen Misselbrook, associate, shedkm

Monday 22 November 2021

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David Taylor catches up with shedkm’s Helen Misselbrook to find out what lessons London can learn from U+I’s new Circus Street project in Brighton, how to avoid cliched references - and about getting a fireman’s lift on the opening night party dancefloor.

David Taylor  
Hello, Helen.  How are you?
 
Helen Misselbrook 
I'm really well. Exhausted and happy after the end of Circus Street!
 
David Taylor  
(laughs)
So, Circus Street is what I wanted to chat to you about. It's a mixed-use project for U+I, the developers, down in Brighton on the site, I think, of an old fruit and veg market, and involves things like facilities for South East Dance, a load of residential of mixed types, and workspace. Are those the chief elements, or are there other elements that I should be describing?
 
Helen Misselbrook 
Yeah. So, we've got Kaplan student accommodation, and as part of the original competition and planning application, we had a new library for the University of Brighton as well. That was taken out of the project due to some development they were doing elsewhere in Brighton, and their needs as an institution had changed. So, where you see the big 'X marks the spot' on site, the big new meanwhile use – that would have been the site of that library as well. That was the academic spine along the eastern boundary - student accommodation and the library. And then you're absolutely right, we have 142 residential units 30,000 square foot of office use, and then the South East Dance space.
David Taylor  
What would you say is special about the project that sets it apart from others that you've worked on?
 
Helen Misselbrook 
What I respect most about the project is its integrity, and the integrity of the team, the people, the design, the architecture, the ethos, and the intention. Obviously, with a project that lasts a while - for me personally eight or nine years - it would be easy for something to feel outdated. And maybe if you just designed for fashion, or you designed for the Overton window of the day. But this project has borne the test of time and has still got the heart and soul in it, on its completion. And the success for me is that people that visit it who worked on it, say, a decade ago, say: “ah, it looks exactly as I imagined it”. And that, for me, is the success of it. And I think it's just such an already embedded part of Brighton. For something of its size, completely new build, to be already integrated and sort of loved in the area, I think that's a massive success.
 
David Taylor  
What do you think are the key lessons that perhaps London could learn from this project?
 
Helen Misselbrook 
I think in today's political climate, placemaking can be slightly controversial, if there's, say, a large masterplan development that has got a controversial history or something like that, I think, especially with Brighton. Brighton is an incredibly rebellious, and I would say, politically charged city. It knows what it likes. The city was our client, almost, and it was a tough city to please. I think we took all of our own egos and our own world views out of it, and we literally drew on the motif of Brighton so that this design was of Brighton. It was not of one individual. It wasn't of the architect; it wasn't of the council. It was a genuine collaboration, borne out of the evolution of that city. And I think some other places get that right, some get that wrong. I think you can't be too prescriptive and authoritarian with a vision for a place. You've got to build it, and then let it get inhabited. And almost not be too constrictive about various groups of people mixing. You know, we've got students, we've got workers, we’ve got dancers, we've got residents. You've just got to trust and have faith in the original intention of creating fantastic places specific to the context that you're building in. And that is the lesson that I've learned specifically from Circus Street and would then now take that to a site in London. It is listening and eking out what the specific context is. And who are the people? And why are you doing it? Getting that belief system right in the first place is the foundation of the project.  I think when you're trying to make a place, the foundation is almost the ideology behind what you're doing, and who you're doing it for. And if all of that is congruent with the context, then you're onto a winner. But I think people think the architecture comes first, and I think it's way before that. It's before you put pen to paper.
David Taylor  
There are contextual elements, aren't there, that relate back to the site's history as well in terms of the green spaces and the fruit and veg? Residents being allowed to grow fruit and veg in the pockets of soil on their doorstep, which harks back to the fruit and vegetable market that stood on the site? To what extent is it easy to avoid being trite in references? It's a difficult pitch, isn't it, sometimes? There's also the tightness of the street patterns there that I suppose harks to the Lanes, does it? 
 
Helen Misselbrook 
Yes
 
David Taylor  
So to what degree is it easy to avoid pastiche or appearing trite in references?
 
Helen Misselbrook 
I mean, that sort of judgment call and the subtlety to that is (laughs) our purpose! It's our role on the project. In terms of the landscaping, we work with JL Gibbon. So, the first thing I would say to any architect that wants fantastic public realm is: hire a fantastic landscape architect, because you're not the expert; they are. And that collaboration at ground floor level, I think, has reaped benefits. I also think the roofscape of Circus Street was incredibly important. We've obviously got the tall marker buildings, but when you look at the site from Valley Parade, you've got the original Regency buildings and that roofscape we just sort of continued that up the valley. It really helped to knit the buildings in, next to a conservation area. So that was a main challenge. I think you're right; you can easily get into pastiche. I think that's a subjective judgment call. And I think that is our role. You get a real instinct and a gut feeling for what is an authentic piece of inspiration, rather than you forcing an idea or a narrative.
 
David Taylor  
I suppose it comes down to what your colleague Hazel Rounding has described as being 'design guardians' for this project, as well as being masterplanners and architects. Could you elaborate on that role? How you see yourself as design guardians? I've not seen that phrase mentioned before...
 
Helen Misselbrook 
Yeah, it was the first time I had taken the role on. I joined the project after the competition was won, basically take it to planning. I fell in love with it, and then took it all the way through. We weren't novated. But U+I did want us to flip to client side, so that we would become the design guardians. To then be the person in the room that was, when everyone is under stress and you're thinking about time and you're thinking about money, you have someone there that is yeah, defending is probably a strong word (laughs). But representing quality, and reminding people of the long-term vision again, and getting people back on track with why you're doing it. Because I do think that can get lost, especially with a D&B contract. So yeah, my role was to deliver on the original promises, really. The original planning scheme: the visuals, the computer visuals that everyone had been seeing, for nearly a decade! That's an intention. That's a promise to the city. And the planners had faith in us to develop that. My role was to get us as near to that original intention as possible within the frameworks of development - and amidst a global pandemic…
 
David Taylor  
My penultimate question is about the public private partnership, I suppose. How key was that to this scheme in terms of lessons for London?
 
Helen Misselbrook 
Absolutely key. It was people like Alan Buck at the council who really let South East Dance - which is just a tenant really – he allowed them a voice in the process, because the building is being designed for them. So, I respect the role that the council has played, in having complete faith in the dance space as a tenant. I think that the financial partnership worked for everyone, and South East Dance was raising its own funds at the same time; I don't know how else South East Dance would have actually got their own specific building, their own dedicated building, if it wasn't for that procurement for them. There was there was a really strong relationship between the council, South East Dance and then U+I, the developer, because we always saw that dance space as a cultural gem in the middle of the scheme. It really gave the masterplan this cultural currency and value that other schemes I don't think have. I mean, we are going to have the big four-meter high bifold doors opening, and dancers spilling out into the central square. I can't wait for that day! And I think that gave it a real sense of heart and soul and life in the middle of the scheme.  I think we won the original competition because we separated all the building uses into dedicated buildings. And I was absolutely over the moon that, because we had won the competition, they were going to have their own standalone dedicated dance space.
 
David Taylor  
Yeah. And lastly, speaking of dancing, U+I don't half throw a good party, don't they, to open this? (laughs), Were you there, because I was...
 
Helen Misselbrook 
Yeah, I was there. And yes, I did get a fireman's lift from Richard Upton [of U+I] on the dancefloor (laughs).
 
David Taylor  
(laughs) I didn't see that. Okay, right. 
 
Helen Misselbrook 
I'm glad you didn't see that.
 
David Taylor  
I shall wait for the photos.
 
Helen Misselbrook 
They are in existence. But, yeah, I'm going to need convincing to release them!
 
David Taylor  
(laughs) Lovely to speak to you. Congratulations on the project.
 
Helen Misselbrook 
Oh, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure to speak to you, David. 
 
David Taylor  
Cheers. Bye!

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