Do architects need to design more sensitively?

An insight into the detriment the proposed Ouseburn Tower will have on local communities.

Maud Webster
18th February 2022
Image credit: Free Trade Inn Twitter

Plans for a new 18-story tower have been met with concern from neighbouring businesses and residents in Newcastle’s Ouseburn area. The Free Trade Inn pub has been particularly vocal about the issues this massive development will cause in the area, offering objecting points for those wishing to comment on the planning application. They highlight how the scale of the proposed building is “totally out of keeping with the surrounding area” and how the lacking quality of its design - there’s “very little merit in a beige 18 story tower block in such a prominent position”. The pub also cites issues with parking and accessibility which overall show the architects creating the proposals have very little sensitivity for the area in which they are designing for. 

This whole palaver shines light on a wider issue affecting architectural practice, stemming from many institutions of architectural education. Architecture is inescapably contextual. When designing projects for the built environment, where the site considerations must be a top priority; this is essential for making sure you are designing sensitively.

Recognising the importance of contextuality is the first step. But it begs the question: how can architects actually keep this in mind in their practice?

Architects can make educated guesses about how their design will impact residents - whether that’s something tangible like their accessibility to space or housing prices getting pushed up as an area gets more gentrified, or even something as abstract as the enjoyment of a skyline scene.

There are tons of ways to respond to this issue of working sensitively, but one key step in the right direction is for architects to ensure they are working with local people, businesses and community groups to ensure that designs aren’t going to disrupt their day-to-day lives. If we take the Ouseburn Tower debacle, for example, we can see how important it is to create designs which work for the communities local to the site. The uproar response from the community, opposing the proposals clearly show this is something existing residents and businesses don’t want, due to the detrimental impact it will have. 

This leads us onto another key consideration: architects must understand the specific impacts of their design. Though for a building of this size [the tower will be the tallest in the surrounding area and have a huge dominance of the landscape] more community consultation would’ve clearly been ideal, sometimes - for smaller projects - there’s simply not time for this. Architects can make educated guesses about how their design will impact residents - whether that’s something tangible like their accessibility to space or housing prices getting pushed up as an area gets more gentrified, or even something as abstract as the enjoyment of a skyline scene.

Image credit: Geograph

An area like the Ouseburn valley has many historical intricacies and a cultural background which makes it pretty tricky to design for. Ash Sakula, when designing the Mailings development north of the site the tower is proposed for, did a pretty good job designing sensitively for a difficult area. But a massive, looming tower, as the Free Trade Inn puts it, “does not fit in with the surrounding area, including the historic and repurposed industrial buildings of the East End of the Quayside and Ouseburn”. It’s a big “fuck you!” to local businesses, like Free Trade Inn which uses a beautiful quayside view (threatened by the tower) as one of its USPs, and juxtaposes the gradual and careful redevelopment of a very unique area over the past few decades. When designing, architects need to notice the character and intricacies of where they’re designing for, and ask themselves: “does my design actually fit in with what already exists?”.

The final deadline for comments on the Ouseburn Tower plans is the 17th February, so there’s more time for local residents to have their say on the designs. The planning system is notoriously complex and often stupid but it is a tool we, as citizens with a desire for well-designed environments, have in our arsenal for preventing insensitive projects from actually becoming reality.

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AUTHOR: Maud Webster
she/they | third year architecture & urban planning student @ newcastle | co-head of culture for the 21/22 academic year

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