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Opinion: In My Heart I Knew It Was a Forlorn Hope

Published on: 22 Aug, 2022
Updated on: 26 Aug, 2022

Not much traditional about the style of the proposed Friary Quarter.

By Martin Giles

I really wanted to like the proposals for North Street, or at least find them okay, but I knew it was unlikely.

The problem was height.

Without a town centre height restriction the monetary value of the site is uncapped and drives buildings upwards so that developers can feel that they are maximising profit or at least getting sufficient return. The more floors, the more units and the more units, the bigger the profit.

It matters not what they paid for the site or how long it has been left undeveloped. And it matters not what most residents of a town want. It doesn’t even matter what local councillors or the local Planning Committee wants.

If developers don’t get the planning permission they want they can take their application to appeal where a single planning inspector can overrule a unanimous decision taken at a full council meeting, as we saw with the widely-hated Solum development of the railway station, now being built.

At the developers’ exhibition of their proposals the display boards were attractive. It was a selling operation. They were selling a vision. Fair enough. One could not expect them to be in anyway negative about their own project.

And there was a video giving a “fly-through” view of how it might look for someone passing through the new quarter on the pedestrianised “streets”.

But I noticed the view never looked up. Whether intentional or not, this minimised any feeling of imposing height. And for me, high buildings on every side can make an area feel hostile, especially at night.

I asked the project manager what happened to the traditional styling that was preferred by most of those who responded to an earlier consultation. He said that their preference was for mixed styling.

I have subsequently checked. A clear majority said they preferred traditional but there is precious little evidence of that in the proposed buildings.

For a start, all the roofs are flat. I asked why. “We did have some pitched roofs but the GBC planners told us to take them out,” said one of the team.

I found that incredible. Why should the GBC planners arbitrarily make such a decision? Who are they to make it?

It reminded me of the Waitrose development. I had asked an architect, at a similar exhibition held before it was built, why they had decided on the contemporary style and the incongruous building materials. “We were going to do something more traditional but this is what the GBC planners wanted,” he said.

And GBC planners and the architecture fraternity generally seem to share an antipathy for anything traditional which they often disdainfully and pejoratively refer to as “pastiche”.

Of course, many of our best-loved buildings are pastiche from earlier periods. Tunsgate Arch was not built by the Romans. The Victorians shamelessly copied the classic style and I am very glad they did. It is now an icon of Guildford.

Of course, we all have our subjective personal taste. One is not more valid than another. But when the public are asked to express a view it should be respected, even if we have had a track record, under previous administrations, of doing the opposite.

Not quite ready to give up, I asked the pleasantly-mannered landscape architect if they had considered using some bargate stone anywhere, just as an echo of North Street’s more graceful past.

North Street in 1896. Image – Guildford Institute collection.

“What’s Bargate?” was the response. I think I managed to hide my incredulity and asked if he had seen photos of North Street in Victorian times with its Bargate frontages on the north side of the street and the tree lining. He hadn’t but he had the grace to sound interested.

The North Street Post Office in the early 1900s in Bargate stone-fronted bulldings known as the Borough Halls.

An enthusiastic young man from Edinburgh stepped in to explain that as the development was outside the historic town boundary it was not felt that it had to respect the character of Guildford’s historic core.

I bit my tongue again. He was not to know that as one of Matthew Alexander’s students I had a fairly good grasp of Guildford’s history and knew, for instance, that the Friary which gave this development its name and which we might now treasure if Henry VIII had not been such an asset stripper, once stood deliberately outside the ancient town boundary so the Dominican Black Friars did not come under the town corporation’s rule. Perhaps it’s a shame things have changed?

I know it is all too late. As I said at the outset, without a height restriction in Guildford a low-level development was never on the cards.

I believe, having spoken to hundreds of Guildford shoppers over the years, that it’s Guildford’s historic character that attracts many of them to the town It is also what has attracted and kept many residents here, so why don’t we look to extend its coverage?

So what if it is pastiche, if it is attractive? Surely that would be better than this rather bland, too high development that, could, let’s face it, be anywhere, Woking for instance.

The Am Sande in Lüneburg

As a footnote, according to Wikipedia, after the Second World War the dilapidated state of the buildings in Lüneburg in north Germany, led to various plans to try to improve living conditions. One proposition that was seriously discussed was to tear down the entire Altstadt (old town) and replace it with modern buildings.

The ensuing public protest resulted in Lüneburg becoming the focal point for a new concept: cultural heritage conservation. Since the early 1970s the town has been systematically restored.

A leading figure in this initiative since the late 1960s has been Curt Pomp: against much opposition from politicians and councillors he founded and championed the Lüneburg Altstadt Working Group (Arbeitskreis Lüneburger Altstadt) for the preservation of historic buildings.

His engagement was rewarded with the German Prize for Cultural Heritage Conservation and the German Order of Merit. Today Lüneburg is a tourist attraction as a result of the restoration and important sectors of the town’s economy also depend on tourism.

Guildford was hardly scratched in the Second World War; we have done all the damage ourselves.

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test 10 Responses to Opinion: In My Heart I Knew It Was a Forlorn Hope

  1. Jim Allen Reply

    August 23, 2022 at 7:15 am

    A simple explanation of why flat roofs are preferred by planners it is easier to extend upwards later. Tradional roofs would cost more to convert and extend upwards “by mistake”.

  2. Stuart Barnes Reply

    August 23, 2022 at 9:03 am

    This is a brilliant article by Martin Giles. Perhaps GBC should co-opt him on to the planning committee?

    The only requirement for new buildings seems to be to make them as ugly and hated as possible.

    I remember when Guildford was a beautiful town but the planners and developers have destroyed it gradually over the years and now want to finish the job with the current appalling proposals.

  3. Ben Paton Reply

    August 23, 2022 at 9:55 am

    Why do developers love flat and mono pitch roofs?
    They are cheaper and they make more money.

    Profit trumps aesthetics every time.

    You have to ask:- is the planning department (or GBC for that matter) working for the people who live here or for the major developers?

  4. Valerie Thompson Reply

    August 23, 2022 at 10:24 am

    These proposals are just boring; a repeat of the characterless building seen during the 60s and 70s as councils up and down the country “modernised” their town centres with endless dull developments.

    One would never know what town you were visiting. They all looked the same. Why are the Guildford planners refusing pitched roofs? They are so much more interesting. GBC planners have no imagination. This plan should be refused.

  5. Barbara Ford Reply

    August 23, 2022 at 11:06 am

    I understood from the charming developer spokesman that the flat roofs are all “green” roofs. He couldn’t say why they weren’t going to put solar panels on them, which would presumably be even “greener” – might help one forgive the appearance?

  6. M Durant Reply

    August 24, 2022 at 12:39 am

    I agree with Martin Giles people come to Guildford for the character, the Castle Grounds, the High Street.

    Also, no mention in the North Street proposal with so many flats being built will there be sufficient car parking, if so where? It’s already difficult to park in Guildford.

    The locals refused the tall buildings along the station.

    The building in the proposal looks exactly the same as the student halls along Walnut Street Close you would think the centre of town would deserve something with a bit more character.

  7. Sue Warner Reply

    August 24, 2022 at 7:13 pm

    Disappointed that more hasn’t been “designed”, they have just taken the stock blocks that are being built in the town and everywhere else, with no originality. We said we didn’t want tall buildings but that’s just what we’ve ended up with.

    I showed them a photo of how the bus station floods, they blamed it on an underground chamber – so what? They didn’t seem to be interested in ensuring adequate drainage or adequate space for buses to exit the bus station so they don’t ride over the pavement as they currently do.

    Also what happened to the provision of social housing? None included because the council is spending so much money on developing North Street.

    Whilst I’m keen that improved use should be made of that area it could be much better and greener.

  8. Jan Messinger Reply

    August 25, 2022 at 12:27 am

    An excellent article from Martin Giles. Please someone read and take notice.

    The North Street proposal is too high as is St Mary’s Wharf proposal. Has no one looked at Woking or other local towns? They are awful.
    Please don’t make mistakes like other places.

    Yes, development where necessary but look at how awful areas are looking already. Have readers been past the station and in Walnut Tree Close recently?

    I will be interested to see what a friend who lived here many years ago has to say. I think I already know the answer before they see it tomorrow.

  9. Graham Richings Reply

    August 29, 2022 at 3:20 pm

    This whole development proposal would be a disaster for Guildford. It will ruin its character.

    If heat pumps are to generate heat in all of these buildings will there be noise from it? How will that affect people’s health and sanity and what is the comparative cost compared to conventional heating?

    I urge those making the decisions please do not go ahead with this development design. There must be better designs out there, more in character with Guildford as a country town with character.

  10. Niels Laub Reply

    August 30, 2022 at 10:25 am

    What an excellent article on the North Street Development. I heartily agree. It’s very disappointing. Bland architecture and far too tall.

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