Christophe Egret: on the future of London housing

Paris-born architect Christophe Egret has put his stamp on London. But he tells Phillippa Stockley that the most important thing to tackle is the scarcity of housing - and it's time to reinvent the high street
Christophe Egret
© Daniel Hambury
French-born architect Christophe Egret thinks London needs to learn to mix community and commercial space
Speaking at a dinner in March 2013, Labour leader Ed Miliband singled out Clapham's new library as an example of how architecture can add to the urban environment. The library, in Lambeth, is part of a development called Clapham One, a curvy, friendly looking building with 136 flats that has won local praise and a growing pile of awards, including Development of the Year.

The scheme is the work of architect Christophe Egret and planner David West. Since they set up Studio Egret West in 2004, they have scooped these and many other housing and master-planning awards for projects across London, and in 2012 won the Sunday Times Architect of the Year prize.

They designed the Stratford Shoal sculpture, a huge screen of iridescent titanium fins, as part of Stratford's redevelopment. At Clapham Library they mixed residential and commercial for a public-private partnership between Lambeth council and the two developers.

"Lambeth gifted the site of an 11-storey Sixties office block," explains Egret. "The borough wanted a library and a home for its health centre. It got those things, at no cost to the public purse, as well as 136 new homes."

A striking feature of the bright new library is its pavement-level floor-to-ceiling windows, so people sitting on sofas in the airy space inside can watch the world outside stroll by, and street and library, unusually, feel connected. Streets are important to Egret.

Christophe Egret
Clapham Library was given big windows to encourage Paris-style people watching
"One of the main problems to tackle in London is the reinvention of the high street," he explains. "From Mary Portas to Alain de Botton, everyone is trying to come up with ways to reinvent it. It's topical because high streets are dying. I see it everywhere I go, but I'm not too sad about it because at the moment there are too many national chains stripping away the flavour of the local community and not adding much back.

"I want a city of diversity. The more Hackney is different from Clapham and the more Clapham is different from Peckham, the better.

"The more community hubs we can create, sharing things, the better. Shops and streets will become less about shopping and much more about making, sharing, leisure, learning and health."

Egret thinks that in the past 40 years London has been too heavily zoned into different areas by planners and developers. "It comes from laziness," he says. "The zones were convenient for commerce, residential, leisure, education. Canary Wharf — commercial, Maida Vale — residential, and so on. But now, the good developers are doing mixed tenure. The Grosvenor Estate, for example, rents out flats but also has offices and shops. It successfully tackles mixed use. The developer Cathedral goes further and does it all in one building.

"In Paris, where I grew up, the doctor was on the second floor of your apartment block and the solicitor on the fourth. But because England is so attached to having freeholds and leaseholds it is very difficult to switch from residential to commercial use, or vice versa.

"If we stop thinking like that, so that leases can be converted easily from one to the other, then it's not a problem. It never was a problem in Georgian or Victorian London. On the Continent they all embrace mixed use. Berlin, Paris, and Istanbul are all more flexible about tenure than London."

He says that a mixed city is safer, too: "Take the City of London. At night, it is threatening and empty. A 24-hour city is better.

Christophe Egret
© Gareth Gardner
Egret West has created great landmarks in London including Stratford Shoal
"Another benefit of combining residential and commercial in the same place is that you don't need to take the car. You just walk. Look at Westfield, which relies on out-of-town shoppers. It's an absurdity. "I came to London when I was 19, and all I saw was pubs, with little curtains over the windows, hiding the drinkers from the street. There was nowhere to have a coffee except Bar Italia, in Soho. There was nowhere to watch the world go by. In Paris, you sit at the café and there's an unspoken theatre going by.

"In the Paris I came from there was the pleasure of wandering, but when I first came here, there were all these roads to cross all the time. Traffic engineers used to dominate cities. It was all about the car, so there were signs and barriers everywhere. But over the past 10 years there's come an understanding that what is between the buildings — the public realm — is the DNA, the structure.

"That is the place where people meet and bond, live and have leisure. Now, things are changing, and I find elegant routes, and cafés. London has embraced outdoor living.

David West
© Daniel Hambury
David West is the masterplanning half of Egret West
"But the most important thing to tackle is the scarcity of housing, which is artificially inflating prices. That is rotten. We need to build more. But the good news is that developers are also going into renting. The game of developers, which used to be all about selling houses, is also now about looking at a longer horizon.

If you design buildings to be rented out for a long lifetime then you have to design them well, with a lifetime of use built in to the design. So suddenly, they are putting in really good quality: better kitchens, better bathrooms, because for the rental market, houses need to last and keep looking good. So that's a good by-product of our current housing shortage."

Up goes the neighbourhood
David West, the masterplanning half of Egret West, says that what matters is creating neighbourhoods for real people to live in. Egret West is currently working with two other architectural practices on a £250 million masterplan for the old EMI record factories at Hayes. This will create a neighbourhood with bars, restaurants, a museum and a cinema.

"No one's been thinking about the mums and dads and babies," says West. "As designers we're constantly looking at how to inject the ingredients to make a neighbourhood. At the moment we're also masterplanning Millharbour, immediately south of Canary Wharf, with Galliard.

"We're injecting a new primary school, a Montessori school, a dance academy, and a cluster of workshops, bars and restaurants. We're creating it as a place. It doesn't take much to do that — it takes one or two special things, like a good butcher, a good grocery store, and yes, coffee, but not just coffee. It's coffee-plus! People expect that now."

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