Policy bias for materiality over form in planning guide, United Kingdom building advice, New Dunblane footbridge

Policy Bias For Materiality Over Form In Planning

23 Sep 2021

The railway station (about 1848) in the Scottish burgh town of Dunblane, famed for its medieval cathedral and Victorian spa, has just got a new footbridge.

The new bridge’s distinctive lift towers are designed as simple stone volumes. The designer has gone to great lengths to make them read as ‘perfect’ cuboids, with no detail or coping to detract from their uniqueness. How is this method remotely acceptable for its environment, given that they are erected in a Conservation Area of a historic town? Every other structure on the street exhibits various levels of detail on classic form pitched-roof buildings, from the butressed Victoria Hall to the vernacular cottages to the modern church over the road.

Trossachs National Park – Dunblane, Scotland:
Policy Bias For Materiality Over Form In Planning

Policy Bias For Materiality Over Form In Planning in Scotland, UK

The designer has utilized ashlar blonde sandstone at significant expenditure to resemble the surroundings, probably at the request of Planners, but no attempt has been made to match in language, syntax, or form. This is odd because the neighbouring structures are made of a variety of materials, including brick, render, rubble stonework, dressed red sandstone, and wood. Several structures stand out for their use of two or more contrasting materials to create aesthetic interest.

A perfect example of a historical and modern fusion can be seen in the outlines of the Stadt Casino in Basel. The St. Magdalen Convents were dismantled to make way for what is today known as the Cultural Mile, which runs along the southern edge of Basel’s Old Town. The urban and architectural perspective of the time is reflected in these developments and is now seen as a bonus to the Swiss town.

Planning Policy’s bias in managing context is exemplified by this technique of matching local materials while neglecting local form. The design adheres to a status quo that does not exist in terms of materiality but violates consistent contextual precedence in terms of language and detail. Why? Because authorities are not permitted to prescribe a style for a new building under Planning Policy (and hence also language and detail). As a result, in instances where local character preservation is required, prescribing or restricting materials becomes the primary instrument to be employed.

Furthermore, current conservation legislation frequently mandates that when a historic structure is renovated or extended, the new construction be represented separately so that the old and new are not confused.

While the goal of this approach is to prevent later alterations from muddying our historic record, examples include St Albans Abbey, which underwent such a thorough Victorian makeover that it is now nearly hard to tell what is medieval and what isn’t.

The unfortunate by-product of these two policies: era differentiation and material prescription for the sake of congruence, is that, rather than being style-neutral, Planning policy has an inherent bias towards the type of Modernist and reductionist design that we find in Dunblane’s footbridge.

As a result of these constraints, rather than a nuanced approach of real knowledge of context and creative reaction, a token tick-box answer to preserving local character is produced. I do believe that in order to create a good quality design that preserves and enhances our historical places, there must be conscious and intelligent handling of language and aesthetic detail, as these elements often mean as much to local character and identity (and arguably to beauty) as materials.

Comments on this guide to policy bias for materiality over form in planning article are welcome.

Scottish Buildings

Glasgow Architecture Designs – architectural selection below:

Paisley Town Hall regeneration
Architect: Holmes Miller
Paisley Town Hall Transformation

Candleriggs Square Apartments Merchant City
Candleriggs Square Apartments Merchant City

Merchant City boutique hotel
Merchant City Property

Comments on this guide to policy bias for materiality over form in planning advice article are welcome