Kevin McCloud and the Big Town Plan, Channel 4

Did we like it?
Urban planning and modern housing is becoming a larger issue in the UK with designers and architects seeking to find ways of improving living conditions and society in general. This experiment in Castleford backed by C4 should be an interesting series and this wasn’t a bad start.

What was good about it?
• The troupe of architects that came to visit Castleford swarmed around the town like fascinated scientists exploring virgin rainforest. We thought they might want to take samples of Castlefordians home to study in their labs.
• The first project was to build a new footbridge over the River Aire, linking Duck Island to the town and hopefully leading to a regenerated riverside area in the future. Great idea, and it was interesting to see the early wranglings between the two female local campaigners and the council. The locals demanded a complicated ‘floating bridge’ design, while the council wanted the more practical (and arguably more attractive), curved high bridge. The locals won out – and that’s where the problems started.
• The finished bridge was quite fantastic, a beautiful S shape that swirls across the Aire like a serpent, allowing people to enjoy the torrents of water below (especially now the Environment Agency has cleaned it up).
• It could be that rare thing – a TV show that makes a genuine difference. If things succeed in Castleford, perhaps more towns will follow and make a mockery of the idea published this week that the North is dying.

What was bad about it?
• There was little wrong with the actual programme (as long as you can bear Kevin McCloud’s earnest, lofty presentation methods – and opinion is divided at thecustard on that issue) but plenty was wrong with the project itself.
• The winning design by Renato Benedetti, an architect who had never built a bridge before, was a floating bridge that had never been tested before, let alone on an unpredictable river like the Aire. Yet the local champions managed to bully it past the helpless councillors who were perhaps cowed by the TV cameras, eager to be seen to be listening to constituents.
• Yet eight months later nothing had been done • not even any surveying of the river and the surrounding areas. There were huge problems over land ownership, not to mention the safety of a floating bridge. So, getting on for a year later, Benedetti designed a much better looking bridge for much more money. In total it took about 5 years to get the thing built, a fairly ridiculous amount of time. There wasn’t much time in the programme to go in depth into all the delays, but while early on everyone agreed that a bridge was a good idea, no one seemed to have done any groundwork or feasibility studies.
• As a result, the cost rose from an initial mooted figure by Benedetti of £120,000 (he even mentioned half that figure at one point) to a figure quoted by McCloud in the programme of £3.2m. An online search suggested that figure was closer to £4.8m. Astonishing money for a town of less than 40,000 people.
• These gigantic figures made McCloud’s early trumpeting of C4’s ‘brave’ commitment of £100k towards the entire project look like a trifle. Which, if you know anything about TV budgets, it is, really.
• McCloud claiming total success at the end, offering the bridge as evidence that architecture can change towns and people. Except the bridge was opened only last month. It’s just slightly early to be making such grand statements, despite the undeniable beauty of the bridge.

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