Friday, 10 July 2009

We don’t see things as they are...

Anais Nin, the American writer said, “We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are”. This distinction describes one of the problems faced by the London View Management Framework (LVMF), and townscape assessment in general.

The LVMF assumes a view-centric rather than a people-centric London without offering a reasonable evidence base. Without demonstrating a methodology to rank places and views more highly than others, the document defines positions from which we are told we can/should recognise and appreciate landmark buildings from. There is no methodology to demonstrate that an empirical study of relative ‘view’ attractiveness or desirability has been undertaken, nor any analysis of viewer motive or visual attention in London.

The LVMF makes assumptions about the viewer’s ability to ‘recognise and appreciate’ landmarks.The primary motive when visiting Primrose Hill is to see and create a mental map of London from afar, to enjoy the opportunity to feel orientated, and to experience distance (many Londoners focus less than a mile each day). Our work has shown that people do not visit Primrose Hill to look at, locate, or find the Palace of Westminster (POW), yet the LVMF persists with geometrically defined development restrictions based on the assumption of recognition and appreciation of this building. Ask people if they can find actually locate this ‘landmark’ building in the view and very few can. In fact many will tell you they didn’t even know it was in the scene. The LVMF makes equally unsupported claims about recognition of ‘landmarks’ from other viewing places. There are very serious implications in this; we should remember that in the past LVMF guidance has been used to shape proposed London buildings on the basis of the ‘recognition and appreciation’ of landmarks that research now shows in many cases viewers cannot actually find, identify or remember.

The LVMF would benefit from a better understanding of visual perception. It seems to support a rather coarse assumption that separation between buildings heightens appreciation - and equates to 'protection'. Likewise that a building in the backdrop to a landmark is potentially harmful to appreciation. Technical issues are also apparent: there are limitations to the amount of detail the human eye can resolve, and it is concerning that the LVMF continues to employ artificially enlarged long-lens photography, distorting/ ignoring the very significant effects of visual acuity and ‘real scale’ viewing. In doing so the LVMF suggests status that is not perceived when viewed at the correct visual scale.

The ‘protected views’ are for the most part a relatively modern construct. The scenes that the landmarks are part of are not delicate ‘historical’ compositions but the by-product of a successful growing city. Few of us truly remember the protected views of London as skylines. We are not psychologically tuned to be as sensitive to skylines as the many presume. While we recognise some aspects of these scenes, it is a very different reaction we have to say, a human face; where the smallest change to an eye is instantly noticeable. The LVMF appears not to understand that what we see is not necessarily what we notice or what we remember. To assume such delicacy of meaning and compositional balance in a few special ‘views’, when in fact we perceive in a much more granular way, denies us planning emphasis and opportunity elsewhere.

Visual appetite changes over time, and it would be helpful if the LVMF analysed/ tracked these changes and stated its position on the issue. Are we to assume/impose a historic visual appetite rather than a contemporary one? Contemporary visual appetites frequently enjoy the visual juxtaposition of old and new. Without recognising these changes, the LVMF appears out of step and may be preventing opportunities for views that many now actively seek.

The LVMF continues to adopt the easily manipulated vocabulary of the skyline debate. Many opposed to tall buildings in London expediently adopt a now well worn lowbrow but politically effective vocabulary. Constant references to a ‘skyline battle’ reflects the fondness amongst those ‘defending’ against development to suggest a fight being waged, however the logic employed is weak; ‘Endangered buildings’…’Once these historic views are changed, they are gone forever’…‘This building threatens x and will damage the skyline for generations to come’…None of these statements stand up to any reasonable examination; they are a hazy mish-mash of assumptions and fear; no doubt masking one simple, not unreasonable fear; that new buildings might spoil London’s old buildings.

The LVMF has a responsibility wherever possible to remove vocabulary that grants the opportunity to abuse semantics. The word ‘view’ has implications of a frozen moment. The word ‘impact’ suggests harm, violence, destruction. If we substituted the words ‘experience’ or ‘scene’ for ‘view', and ‘effect’ instead of ‘impact’ perhaps we would be forced to discuss our senses, how they compare to others, and how they change through time. The word ‘protect’ is defined as ‘to cover or shield from injury, damage or destruction’. The obligations implied in ‘protecting a view’ are onerous but in use dangerously open to interpretation. While ‘the historic skyline’ does not and can never exist, we see the ‘defenders’ of the skyline (and those who grant them this remit) confusing the responsibility to ‘protect’ buildings with a curious logic that a skyline can/should also be ‘protected’. Through this confusion we may be asking the wrong questions of the wrong people - and London may be suffering as a result. Even the GLA describe the LVMF as “a key component of the Mayor's strategy to preserve London's character and built heritage”. It sounds good, but it would be help to know exactly which parts of the ‘built heritage’ we really are preserving.

The LVMF says little but implies a lot about visual meaning. The power of church and state meant that often their buildings were designed aslandmarks, and to be the tallest structures in view as visibility from afar was important. But while some would wish to be reassured of their existence, others would not. Visibility and derived meaning produce different emotions in different people. Are we right to presume that the landmarks have the same visual meaning as they once did? We can all agree that they are useful ‘orientation markers’, but in an increasingly secular, devolved and multicultural society it seems uncomfortable that there should be an assumption that we all need to be reminded of state and church over all else as is suggested in the LVMF. (What about the Arts? Sport? Educational establishments?) Tying the rights to long distance visibility to meaning is complex, and highly political - it is always easier to run with the historical status quo, but in time we run the risk (again) that the city does not reflect its citizens. How many would trade a building in the background to St. Pauls, or even a partial obscuration as seen from a distant vantage point - for better local planning of the great building’s immediate environs? A hierarchy of how we might better apply attention and energy to the ‘protection’ of landmarks might be;

• The building itself: as the priority
• Its locality / surroundings: whenever possible.
• Its relationship to other buildings and visual meaning from distance: retained only if visual meaning and visual appetites remain unchanged.

There is a key underlying philosophical question. From the distant vantage points, should we observe London or should we control London? These are vantage points where we can watch our precious city grow, but however tempting it might be, perhaps we should consider that it would be wise not to interfere too much, knowing that our energies are better applied elsewhere. Rather than watching nervously from afar like the parent scared to let go, maybe our attentions are best placed in the streets, the squares, and the plazas; where the people and city meet and where planning really matters.

The LVMF appears to be built on received ‘wisdom’; an inheritance of assumptions, and whichever way ‘views’ are examined; whether they be through site research / behavioural / photographic / commercial analysis, the LVMF, and the assumptions that it seems based on fall short. As the LVMF does not demonstrate an evidence base we must presume it simply represents ‘The Mayors Wishes’.

But is planning guidance that limits a cities development through the protection of ‘views’ the wrong answer to the wrong question? Instinct says that there should/must be a better way...

Alan Davidson, Hayes Davidson July 2009

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