IKEA, I love it. Who doesn’t? When this pre-fab, affordable furniture store landed near me in 2006 I became its biggest fan. I can spend hours there and my whole apartment is furnished by it. So you can imagine my reaction when I heard LandProp, IKEA land developers, were designing a neighborhood as part of the 2012 Olympics’ site legacy. Saying I was excited was an understatement. The question everyone is asking is Will this be a new era in Urban Design? My questions in response are Do we really need a new era? and Will their one size fits all approach to housing be healthy for a community?
Certain professions within the built environment require a New Era. Planning? Absolutely. We always need to be thinking of more creative solutions in land use and environmental sustainability, bringing equality to housing and community facilities, and learning the best ways to monitor development. Architecture? Absolutely. Architects should always be looking to establish new designs that challenge the way people experience their visual environment. Urban Design? It’s arguable.
For centuries places were designed the same way. When people needed some buildings they built some more next to the ones already built. Since cars hadn’t been invented everything was compact, accessible, and organized neatly in a clear network of roads and paths. After all, because you had to walk, there was no reason to go further than you needed to. The most loved public spaces and cities in the worlds are like this. People spend thousands of dollars to visit them and love them for their vitality and culture. Since the early to mid century and the boom of the automobile we changed the way we’ve developed land. Social inclusion and community, the environment, and economic sustainability of place have all suffered. Now through movements like New Urbanism we are trying to create the places that we so quickly go rid of. So its begs the question, “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?”
Of course we can not judge IKEA now on this project because the design really will be in the details: how buildings meet the street, how different users are allowed to use the spaces, how public space is integrated and how the street network connects with its urban context. But I do think its safe to say- Let’s not get too excited. While there are exciting elements of this project, such as waterside living for most of the residents in London’s “Mini-Venice,” the 130 foot sculpture featured in the second article is hugely out of scale and possibly inappropriate for a neighborhood. However, it’s the one size fits all approach to IKEA’s affordable housing shown in the examples below that are the most worrying.
First and foremost, this cluster of housing is designed to cater to the automobile, not the pedestrian. Instead of the building addressing the street they are focuses around an auto court, which takes activity off the public streets and therefore away from the community. This along with the unclear distinction between public and private space prohibits the overlooking of land, which can lead to more crime. The confusion over what land belongs to who could lead to poor management in the future. The architecture design of the buildings could land them in absolutely any part of the UK, or Europe even. They wouldn’t even look too out of place in America. By looking at the conceptual site plan above here’s hoping this housing model won’t be present, but the fact that IKEA’s LandProp chose to highlight this as their crowning success of housing stock doesn’t inspire high hopes for attention to detail in how their buildings will meet the street.
Creating a “Mini-Venice” in this part of London where a historic canal system is a predominant feature is appropriate and celebrates the heritage of its industrial past. This development has the potential to create a legacy of the 2012 Olympics that will be socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable for centuries. I just hope that the managing director of LandProp, Harald Muller, will worry less about creating “a new hot spot in London” and more about designing a neighborhood that respects its culture and surrounding heritage while creating its own identity and strong community. Remember Harald…design is in the details!