Design for London’s Mark Brearley talks about shaping the city

In his role as the leader of Design for London, Mark Brearley has a huge influence on the capital’s built environment. Clare Dowdy talks to him about shaping the city’s future as it continues to expand

Mark Brearley is hoping to make things better. ‘We see ourselves as a group of people with a design culture, and an understanding of the importance of having a clear direction for physical things. We define what’s desirable and what’s wanted. We focus on getting the overall and the detail right, and worrying about quality,’ he says.

As head of design at the London Development Agency, he leads Design for London, where 20 or so design professionals deal with more than 200 projects around the city. Despite the enormity of the task, Brearley seems undaunted.

DfL’s focus is on built aspects of London, and how, as it changes to accommodate the million extra people expected to live here in the next two decades, those involved can make the effort to change it for the better. So in effect they’re shaping the capital’s growth.

But what is ‘better’? Some of it is about tangibles/ improving the quality of housing (hence DfL’s lead role in preparing London Mayor Boris Johnson’s new housing design guidelines), and suggesting how the network of public spaces can work together. That includes checking that they have the right public offer, like facilities, spaces for sport, places to go to the loo and have a cup of tea.

Then there are the intangibles. ‘It’s a matter of opinion what spirit and style London should develop in. As design professionals, we support straightforwardness,’ says Brearley, who is an architect by training. So with the design of public space, he’s encouraging ‘a trend away from over-enrichment. A simple, modernish, decent background is the best way’.

And as for architecture, ‘We embrace the need to be catholic style-wise, but to also encourage greater calmness. We’ve come through a period of over-wroughtness, and architecture which attempts to create richness through complexity, multi-materials and complicated forms. But an excess of add-on bits and pieces doesn’t always seem helpful,’ he says. The upshot, he claims, has been a lot of disappointing housing over the past ten years.

An example of where DfL’s input has been successful, he believes, is in helping some East End industrial businesses relocate from the London Olympics site. ‘We’re very happy with the pattern of cladding on Kesslers’ factory (designed by Robinson, Kenning and Gallagher) at the Royal Docks. That development allows housing to join it, and the working end of the building relates to the street as well as its truck yard and car park,’ says Brearley.

Another is the long-running work at Barking. ‘It’s been about figuring out how Barking could change, and how change could be ambitious, encouraging the best use of designers, and being there for the discussion of projects and helping make the case for money to appear,’ he says.

He’s pleased with the quality of what’s going on there, from the new housing, hotel, shops, health centre and public library to the new town square (by Muf Architecture). ‘The architecture around the square is good and it’s generated a lot of enthusiasm from the council and the public. There’s a sense of pleasure,’ he maintains.
It’s not the quantity of projects that concerns Brearley, but the quality of practitioners. ‘In the world of urban change [meaning urban and landscape design], there’s a worrying skills shortage. We see a lot of rubbish projects from businesses that should be ashamed of themselves,’ he says.

This throws up some opportunities for designers from other disciplines, Brearley believes. ‘There’s a great untapped potential for crossovers and challenging the occasionally mediocre performers of some of the organisations which dominate the design of the city,’ he says.

Sometimes, effective cross-migration does happen. ‘We have seen interesting art-type people getting involved,’ says Brearley, citing artist Mark Pimlott working with East Architects on the public spaces of Rainham Village in Essex.

‘We’ve seen fewer product designers getting involved, and it feels like more could happen there. And branding people could be a lot more useful in urban change, intervening in the culture of places,’ he says. But he admits that ‘they probably can’t see their way in – it’s a difficult world’.

However, such crossovers require a change in mindset from clients, as much as from the designers themselves. ‘There’s not enough client-side awareness of what’s possible,’ he says. This surely is the sort of challenge that designers are glad to rise to. And if so, Brearley might find himself the recipient of one or two approaches from unexpected quarters.

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