New London Architecture

London as seen from New York, Ben Prosky

Thursday 05 November 2020

Benjamin Prosky

Executive Director
AIA New York

Ellie Pile

Ellie Pile

Programme Manager

Hi Ben, firstly, how are you?
 
I’m good, thank you, adjusting to these strange times!
 
This is your first time judging the New London Awards, how did you enjoy the experience? 

It was great, I always enjoy being part of something like this. We saw many projects that I’ll want to visit on my next trip to the UK. There was a great range across so many categories, from more modest in scale to mega-sized and high budget. I really enjoyed seeing the variety of projects. Plus, the jury worked really well together, I like that we had some members who had participated before and the other jurors like myself and Andreas who were brand new to the process. I thought this created a good balance.  
 
Unfortunately, we weren’t able to have any of the International Jury in London for the judging this year due to COVID. Did the pandemic effect how you viewed at the projects?
 
Assessing projects on Zoom has challenges, as someone who has done quite a number of juries, I have learned to read the room, and get a sense of other juror’s reactions before they speak, but you can’t do that on Zoom! 
Luckily as a jury, we had similar design sensibilities so it was rare that somebody said, “How could you possibly think that!” However, one of the things that we missed the most by being remote, was that we were not able to visit the sites. We had to rely solely on the architect’s descriptions and their photographers’ images of the project. Your perception is really controlled. You aren’t even able to peer around a corner and see what the ugly side of a building might look like!  

By the way, one of my favourite lectures was given by Peter Cook, of Archigram fame, titled ‘Peering Round Corners’. It’s always stayed with me because it reminded me to look around corners and see what’s there and how buildings are resolved (or not) from every angle. So, I missed peering round the corners and seeing how these buildings meet other buildings, meet the site, what the finishes are like and what might have been neglected.
 
Were there any key themes within the projects that stood out to you throughout the judging?
 
I felt that there was a great commitment to bring good design into a range of communities and to show how design can be equitable. Even the lower budget projects, though they didn’t have as many refined finishes or extra bells and whistles, I could see they benefited from design thinking. I believe design thinking is a key skill for architects to employ in their understanding of a space and its challenges and advantages. Sometimes simply using space well, eliminates the need for too many design enhancements. I felt that many of these projects demonstrated a great faith in design. They were the result of working effectively with communities to create spaces they needed, within budget. I liked that many of the projects, whether they were adaptive reuse, such as the International House or brand-new projects, exhibited a real sensitivity to context.   
 
When we spoke to Dominique, she mentioned that over the past 10 years, she has seen a growing quality in the re-use and retrofit projects, as well as acceleration towards flexibility with the schemes. What trends do you think we can expect to see over the next 10 years?
Well firstly I would agree with Dominque, I think we’ve seen a lot of retrofitting and reuse that is really well done. And within these retrofit projects, we saw an emphasis on adaptability and flexibility. Many of these retrofit projects, resolved problems without making perfect the enemy of good!
 
Looking forward, I do believe that sustainability is going to continue to be a necessity, rather than an add-on. I think that we’re going to see sustainability wrapped into well designed projects in a way that we don’t notice it, but that really makes buildings perform well. I’m definitely looking forward to that. 

A sustainable building doesn’t need to look ‘green’, it doesn’t need to have a green aesthetic, to actually be green. It should be a well-designed building that happens to be fantastically sustainable and perform really well. 

I think some of the challenges for juries like ours is accessing the data and analysis we need to understand how the building preforms in a sustainable way. We need to be wary of the visual tricks that make us think that a building is sustainable rather than just green washed!  
 
What was important to you when deciding the winners?
 
I think quality is always important, and that’s not only obvious in the finishes, but it’s the quality of the design thinking and the designer’s ability to respond to a client’s or community’s needs. It’s thoughtfulness. Again, it’s not just the building itself, but how it responds to the existing conditions and surroundings. It’s about how a building gives back in many ways, that was really what we were all looking for. We saw a lot of retrofits. In many ways we were drawn to these because they present complicated problems that need to be cleverly resolved; such as dealing with an existing building that was either decaying or damaged or built for a distinctly different purpose. I think it’s a lot harder to tackle this than to build something new where you can create a programme from scratch.  
 
Can you give us any insight in how urban development in London compares to New York?
 
Starting with similarities, I think both London and New York have been actively filling in all the crevasses of their centres, increasingly with tall buildings. Even in London now, there many more tall buildings, and that used to be a difference between our cities. New York has had tall buildings for generations, but now we’re finding all the tall buildings are getting closer to each other because we keep filling in all gaps. In London, of course, you’re seeing tall buildings emerging for the first time in decades. In a similar way, we’ve seen both cities clear space for new mega developments. Identifying industrial, or former industrial areas like the Dock Lands in London and Hudson Yards in New York; which is pretty much the last mega development to happen on Manhattan. Both cities have been identifying these remaining swathes of open land closer to their centres and trying to figure out how they can be developed. However, I think if the economy tanks, we will see a sudden drop-off in some of these mega developments… then both cities will have a new set of challenges to resolve.
 
I think that similarly in both cities we see a tremendous concern with gentrification as more affluent people move to outer boroughs, both in London and New York.  

Of course, there are vibrant existing communities already in outer boroughs and we’re seeing many of the people that live and thrive in these neighbourhoods, being really squeezed and in some cases forced out. So, I think each city is asking questions about how to support these vibrant communities in tandem with the influx of new residents. To keep our cities diverse and interesting, it is absolutely necessary to figure out how to help all communities thrive, existing and new, and I hope designers can help resolve, rather than exacerbate, these challenges
 
As an American, I tend to have more faith in the design decisions and funding processes set forth by the UK government! I think many local UK councils are making better decisions, than their US counterparts. 

Through several years of participating in AIA New York’s joint programme with New London Architecture: The New York London Dialogues, I’ve learned how both cities tackle many planning and design issues. For example, I’ve even seen recent successes with well-designed social housing that’s been developed in the UK by councils. Whereas, in the US, the government no longer commissions public housing or social housing, but instead relies on private developers to produce affordable housing incentivised solely by subsidies and tax breaks, but not by quality or design. And this has proven to be a bit of a mess, the quality of our affordable is often not great and not enough of it is produced. 
 
Without giving the project away, can you describe the overall winner of the New London Awards 2020 in one word?
 
Optimistic! 


Benjamin Prosky

Executive Director
AIA New York

Ellie Pile

Ellie Pile

Programme Manager


New London Awards 2020

#NLAwards20


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