Do we really need a market?

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I review architectural projects all the time.

I’ve been fortunate enough to sit on national, regional and local design review panels, reviewing the work of other architects on major projects. It’s a privilege to be able to do this, and consequently, I put effort and considerable thought into it. Sometimes it’s possible to make a difference because you’re not as close to the project as the design team, sometimes because they’re working to a specific brief and you have the luxury of being able to question the brief itself.

Of course, I get to review the projects of my own practice. And like other designers and creatives, I have developed critical techniques for evaluating my own work too. As a designer, you have an idea for something, you design it, and then you sit back and consider whether it’s any good or not. In this sense, criticism (or critical comment as I prefer to call it) is not a negative thing. It’s merely a tool for achieving better outcomes.

Over the years, the critical techniques I’ve developed for myself have been influenced by other people’s approaches.

In the early 90’s I was lucky to have a crucial role in Norman Foster’s team (no relation) designing the terminal building for the new airport in Hong Kong. My involvement was with the roof which was the building’s principal architectural feature. As a single building some 1.6km long and being hugely complicated, the project was exciting and daunting in equal measure.

Given the roof’s size, complexity and importance, we held regular design reviews where the team would gather to report on progress, illustrate developments and explain issues that needed to be overcome. One thing that has stayed with me from that experience is that the team leader began all of our design reviews with the same question: ‘do we really need a roof’?

On the surface, this was an odd question to ask. At the time, the UK was in recession, and we were all grateful to be fully employed on this vast project. Why would she want to rock the boat and call in to question the very thing that was providing us with work? And anyway, you don’t have to be in Hong Kong very long before you get to experience monsoon rainfall and typhoon wind conditions. Of course, we need a roof! Stupid question. Duh!

So there would be a collective rolling of eyes and some mild tittering in the ranks, and then we’d press on with the review.

But actually, deep down, we all knew why the question was being asked. She was giving us permission to question the unquestionable. She was encouraging us to ask seemingly daft questions. She was reminding us that we would get bogged down in detail and that we would lose sight of the wood because of the number of trees. She was telling us that as things became difficult, it would be increasingly easy to make decisions that we’d later regret. She was saying, ‘let’s make this roof the best it can possibly be’. And she was saying ‘remember why we’re doing this…you do know why we’re doing this, don’t you?…remember why.’

Yes, that little question, 'do we really need a roof?’, gently humorous yet deadly serious, was code for all of those things.

Right now in Chester, the most significant public project is Northgate Phase 1. Through my role as a board member of Chester Growth Partnership, I’ve had the opportunity to comment on the initial designs for the project. As in all other instances when I’m reviewing other people’s work, I consider it a privilege that I don’t take lightly.

As I write, the public consultation is underway, and everyone is invited to review the current designs and provide their responses.

In a large mixed-use scheme like this, where all elements of the project appear to have equal importance, even experienced professionals can find it challenging to navigate a helpful, yet critical course. One strategy that I have used over the years in these instances is to consider ‘the one thing’. That is the one thing about the project that, above all else, is the most important thing. The one thing that needs to be right. The one thing that, if other aspects of the scheme were to turn out only partially successful (heaven forbid), this thing would be safeguarded.

My 'one thing' for Northgate Phase 1 is the arcade approach from the town hall square, the market square and the market itself. Yes, I know that’s three things but a) this is my article, and b) they were conceived as a self-supporting unit, so I see them as one thing.

Your ‘one thing’ may be different from mine, and that’s ok. It might not be about a particular building or use. It could be, for instance, to do with the project’s approach to sustainability or inclusivity or public art or something else. The important thing is that once you’ve settled on your ‘one thing’, you can begin to understand the overall project in a new light. And you can start to prioritise and structure your thinking.

Because my ‘one thing’ is all about making the market the engine of the scheme, I think that the arcade, the square and the market hall should all be the best they possibly can be. And they shouldn’t be compromised by any other components of the scheme which I regard as less important.

Of course, I can’t talk about the new market without mentioning the remarkable rebirth of the existing market. This has shown that with the right people, support and care, a vibrant market can be developed even when the conditions are significantly less than optimal. Everyone involved should be congratulated.

But I have sympathy for the new architects of Northgate Phase 1 since the renaissance of the old market has only served to raise the stakes. Now the new market, to be developed at great expense, will be compared with the revitalised old market, made successful on a shoe-string. Northgate Phase 1’s return on investment will need to be significant if it is to avoid being deemed an extravagant waste of public money.

And therein lies the conundrum. Most of the new wave of popular markets are relatively low cost, utilitarian affairs. Think of Borough (ad hoc industrial structures), Altrincham (re-purposed Victorian market hall) and Preston (steel and glass retro-fit). In the clamour for much-needed investment and bold decisions, it is still necessary to get the development equation right. Right for people, that is. We now know what you get for £60 million. I also want to see what you get for £45 million, £30 million or £15 million. I’m convinced there is a sweet spot which would render the project both cheaper and better.

But Northgate Phase 1 is a train that has already left the proverbial station. And the doors were closed to paying passengers some time ago. As a consequence, the current public consultation is not particularly meaningful since all of the critical, strategic decisions have already been made, and we are left to choose the colour of the wallpaper. However, as far as I am aware, no decisions have been made regarding the future of Northgate Phase 2. I hope that this will provide an opportunity to explore more intelligent ways of delivering large public projects in the place that we call home. For this to happen, there will need to be a seismic shift in the way that the public and private spheres come together. That’s a plea to both sides.

Architecture can be made to sound quite high-brow at times. And architects are guilty of developing their own language to try to keep the domain to themselves, which doesn’t help. But at its heart, architecture is quite simple. Together, we hold collective ideas of what an arcade, a town square and a market hall should be like. There is always room for new interpretation and innovation, but it’s never wise to stray too far from the accepted models.

And because my ‘one thing’ is all about the market, my earlier Hong Kong experience makes me want to ask the question, do we really need a market?

Yes, of course, it’s a stupid question. And, yes, of course, I think we really do need a market. But the question is code for a host of follow-on questions: Do I have permission to question the unquestionable? Can I ask seemingly daft questions? Why do we need a market? What’s it for? How will it help to put Chester on the map? What’s it going to do for residents? What’s it going to do for visitors? What kind of market is it going to be? How can we make it the best market it can be? How can I help shape and support it on the way to it being built? How can I continue to help shape and support it once it opens? It’s my market, how can I be involved?

Remember why we’re doing this…you do know why we’re doing this, don’t you?…remember why.

‘If you chase two rabbits…you will not catch either one’.

Russian Proverb quoted in The One Thing by Gary Kellar.

Article originally published in Issue 07 of Tortoise Magazine.

Artwork by Helen M. Docksey @helenmdocksey

Further resources:

A Tale of Two Towns
BBC Radio 4 in Business, 4th April 2019

In an era of brutal cuts, one place has the imagination to fight back
Aditya Chakrabortty, The Guardian, 6th March 2019