US30 - Urban redesigners with a passion for history, place and people
George Clarke has been a long-time friend of Urban Splash, first collaborating with the team in 2017 when he designed the FAB House concept at the Smith’s Dock neighbourhood in North Shields. Here, George talks about shared values and a shared vision for better quality housing.
I first met Tom Bloxham 20 years ago. Back then, I was fresh out of university and randomly found myself redesigning a house in the South of France – the region that plays host to the annual MIPIM property festival.
If I’m honest, I didn’t even know what MIPIM was back then, but one of my friends who was an associate at a big UK practice invited me to one of the event’s many parties. As it turns out, Tom was in the same room, and the fan boy in me was delighted to see him there.
Even back then I was a massive fan of Urban Splash; while many of my friends at architecture school seemed to be hugely obsessed by architects, I was slightly too obsessed with what Urban Splash were doing.
This was a brand that disrupted – with a rebellious attitude that I loved. They wanted to make change and transform urban environments to make neglected or abandoned parts of our towns and cities more exciting places to live. They loved converting old buildings into vibrant places for people to live, eat, work and play.
So many architects see their buildings as objects, but Urban Splash saw them as positive-change-making elements of cities whose effects could ripple out to other surrounding buildings beyond their own sites.
They were urban redesigners with a passion for history, place and people and that really appealed to me. I put Tom way ahead of the architects other admired.
So, back to that room in MIPIM. Sadly, I wasn’t confident enough to go over and say hello to Tom, but thankfully my confidence had grown when I met him properly 10 years later, enjoying drinks together in 2012.
I’d also in that time met Urban Splash cofounder Jonathan Falkingham. We met just after I’d presented series called ‘The Great British Property Scandal’ – focusing on the vast number of empty homes in Britain.
I was appointed by the government to be an Empty Homes Advisor and managed to get an Empty Homes Loan fund off the ground to help bring empty homes back into use. The government wanted me to put a panel of experts together and suggested Jonathan. He was brilliant. He was already heavily involved in several Empty Home areas, particularly in Liverpool and made a massive difference to the panel, to those communities affected by the scandal of empty homes being created through failed regeneration programmes.
Together, with government, local authorities and the Empty Homes Loan Fund we managed to bring 9,000 empty homes back into use, and Jonathan’s been a close friend ever since.
Committed to collaboration…
In the decade since, our friendships have grown, very much underpinned by a shared love of history, old buildings, conversion projects, urban re-design, while at the same time being radical.
Tom and Jonny have always had a shared passion with me for design and understood the power of great design to genuinely transform towns and cities and to provide very cool, contemporary homes for people who appreciate design as much as we do. Urban Splash took risks with buildings and places that so many other developers weren’t brave to take on. Even their company name jumped out as something different. Like the great music that has come out of Liverpool and Manchester over the last 30-50 years they were game-changing.
In 2017 we got to work on a joint project in the North East, an amazing opportunity for me to work with my friends close to where I grew up. That project, and the closeness that’s followed have helped me get to know many more amazing members of the Urban Splash family. We know how to have a lot of fun together at work and a lot of fun together outside of work. In fact, now I come to think of it, there isn’t really a boundary line between work and play. Somehow it all seems to happen at the same time!
There’s still much to be done…
I’ve learned so much over the years – both through my own work, and through projects with the likes of Urban Splash, but we’ve still got lots to do as we strive to create even more new homes.
I hope that UK housing in the coming years becomes the most beautiful and sustainable housing the country has ever seen. We need to build amazing homes that make us happy and keep us healthy both mentally and physically.
Our homes have the potential to be so much better, more intelligent and more life-changing than they are now. I also hope we come up with different ways of financing housing with new, disruptive economic models, particularly when it comes to land and tenure, that make homes affordable for young people.
I suppose I’m dreaming for an end to the housing crisis; that isn’t going to happen in the next few years unfortunately, but we can take steps in the right direction by focusing on what we build, instead of focusing on quantity.
Housing targets are a waste of time in my view, but most of the time we fail to meet the targets, so don’t set them in the first place. It really should be about quality over quantity. Unfortunately, when it comes to the very big housebuilders who are responsible for the design and construction of most of our housing stock at the moment, it’s the other way round. Quantity comes before quality and that must change.
So, what can be done? A new generation of super green New Towns would be a fantastic way to make a real difference at scale. I’m a New Town boy and would love to see an amazing new generation of 21st century new towns that would genuinely make a difference to housing across the country.
Imagine Urban Splash leading the way on an international design competition with some of the best architects, urban designers, highways, landscape designers, health and well-being specialists, ecologists. Together that’d be the greatest team of New Town consultants on the entire planet – and would be pretty amazing, no?
A bitter sweet conclusion
The song that best reminds me of Urban Splash is ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ by The Verve – themselves North West of England revolutionaries. It’s a great rock n’ roll track that captures the beautiful and painful battles Urban Splash has faced in the last 30 years.
This is a business that’s taken on the property sector – an industry that’s stuck in an old mould – so here’s to the next 30 years and the changes that are yet to come.
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