On retrofitting Cambridge’s ugly new buildings


On covering Cambridge’s ugly bland ‘could-have-been-built-anywhere’ buildings with green walls – once the developers have cut and run off with all the money

I’ve had a number of exchanges online and offline with people who know more about working with developers on a day-to-day basis than I do. With that in mind, it’s worth watching the short talks at the AGM of the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations, who commissioned me to film the meeting.

Speeches by Emma Fletcher of Smithson Hill, and by Stephen Kelly & Joel Carré of Cambridge City Council.

Shall we look at some bland ugliness drawn by profit-guzzling developers and their financiers who care nothing about the future of Cambridge?

Hell yeah!

It’s like the developers and their senior staff remembered this teeny-bopper number from the Year 2000 and thought! ***Oooh! Let’s take some inspiration from this!!!***

Actually, it’s not as harsh as that. After all, two of the buildings in that series above are over 40 years old. The post-war era was also a time when nice buildings were flattened and replaced by blocks to meet growing demand for new office space. Hence Hills Road on the north side looking like it does. Interestingly, in the most recent study of the quality of buildings by Cambridge City Council, it’s the post-war buildings that now ‘detract’ rather than add to the character of the road.

But…in too many places, blandness and greyness is going up.

We’ve got so many ugly new buildings in Cambridge that Dave Jones even wrote a book about it!


So brilliantly written and photographed and so appalled at what developers are doing to Cambridge that The Spectator shortlisted it as one of their books of the year in 2013! What no one told them was that it was the policies of their political party of preference that made it a doddle for developers to game the planning system. Even when the city needs a decent piece of transport infrastructure that doesn’t take up much space…

The so-called ‘piazza’ is actually just a big taxi rank.

They’re still working on it…

Finally, we had the point made by Landscape Architect Kim Wilkie at the AGM of the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations that architects should want to showcase their work – which goes against what I’ve seen with recent planning applications where developers are saying they will plant trees in front of new buildings to screen off the ugliness. So any developer trying to use the trees argument as a mitigation against poor and lazy design is a stick we (locals who want better buildings built to higher standards) can beat them with…metaphorically.

“Not all developers are bad – and what’s this got to do with Retrofitting?

Oh – absolutely – Emma Fletcher of Smithson Hill mentioned above is one of the very few developers I’ve met who actually has a track record of getting things right and working with communities. Developers that don’t have any women on their board and/or senior management team automatically make me suspicious. Such #DiversityFail is unacceptable in a city such as Cambridge and on this planet in the 21st Century.

Green walls

The Sir David Attenborough Building recently opened in Cambridge has got an indoor green wall.

Personally I’d like an outdoor one.

The reason why green walls and retrofitting existing buildings matter, is because between 66% and 74% of the 2050 housing stock has already been built by 2006. And building new industrial buildings doesn’t come cheap either. This means that at some stage all of the new buildings going up in and around Cambridge will have to be retrofitted at some stage – not least because observing some of the materials being used to build them, going against the wishes of John Maynard Kenyes who for me, set the standard for Cambridge to aspire to with his bequest to Kings’ College – a bequest (using the Bank of England’s inflation calculator as being worth about £20million in today’s money).IMG_0558

A screenshot from this book by Lord Skidelsky on Maynard Keynes.

Despite their ugliness, the medley of photos and snapshots featuring various buildings I don’t like in Cambridge (Hey – my blog, my rules, if you disagree feel free to set up your own blog and praise those developments to the hilt), actually have a lot of potential for green walls. See? There ***is*** environmental and ecological potential in all of that blandness! Even more important given Cambridge’s poor air quality.

“Are the developers really as evil as you seem to portray here?”

Actually, no.

My real criticism is for the economic system that we live in, and the inability of our current political system to get us out of the mess that we are currently in. The system of global finance is one that provides immense financial rewards and incentives for people to behave in a specific way. There is no financial incentive for architects and designers to be truly radical, creative and to meet the needs of people, let alone inspire the public, because the system is hot-wired to create maximum short term profits.

In particular, with a system that allows short-lived companies with limited liabilities to be created for the purposes of development, once the development is completed, the company can be liquidated – along with the liabilities of those that financed (and profited from) the activities of the developer. The system is hot-wired to encourage large developers to game the system and avoid/wriggle out of commitments to local communities and local councils – the latter of whom are starved of resources and legal power by ministers who have acquiesced to policies that benefit wealthy developers who have been able to commission the professionals to write ministerial policies for them. The fault with ministers and politicians is that none of them have the courage to think outside of their very narrow political ideologies. Again, the political system only encourages ministers to think of their next promotion rather than wanting to stay in a ministerial post for an extended period of time to deliver something socially, economically & ecologically useful for the many.

It’s one of the reasons why for all of mine and others’ vocal complaints about how ‘orrible too many developers are, the real roots of the problem are much, much deeper.

Back to those women heroes of Cambridge again

One of the things that strikes me about the many women I’m writing about on Lost Cambridge is how even the most wealthiest of them interacted with people from across our towns social matrix on a regular basis. They got to see the whites of the eyes of even the poorest of society – in particular with their charity work. They’d give help to the poor through the Cambridge Charitable Organisation Society during the day, then during the evening ask very powerful and influential visitors over dinner at one of the colleges why the poor had no food and what the politicians were going to do about it – given that women were back then barred from politics (this was before the ban on votes for women was lifted). That within 50m of Florence Ada Keynes house on Harvey Road was the neighbourhood of another hero of Cambridge, working class wartime diarist Jack Overhill (whose home had been condemned by the council as unfit for human habitation) and not so much as even a front gate separating the stroll from one house to the other also speaks volumes. I can’t help but think that seeing this poverty on a day-to-day basis (and meeting the people living in it) was one of the things that drove those women to do something about it – and win. In fact we know it did – as Cambridge primary school teacher and later Labour parliamentarian Dame Leah Manning MP wrote so powerfully in her autobiography

Above – Dame Leah Manning writing in 1970 how early on in her teaching career in Cambridge just before World War I, one of the small children in her class died of malnutrition. The New Street School building is now home of Anglia Ruskin University’s Music Therapy Centre – and also where my music group rehearses some 100 years later.


Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s tribute on hearing of Leah Manning’s defeat after 20 years as an MP in 1950.

I don’t get the sense that those at the top of big corporations have even that experience. The furore around former Chancellor George Osborne’s decision to take on the role of Editor of the Evening Standard (despite having no journalistic or editorial experience of training – but hey, privately educated Oxford graduate ex-Bullingdon boy in an industry where there are so few women at the top of the media…) is a reflection of the divide between the have yachts and have nots. Oh, and I’ve not even mentioned the conflicts of interest.

This separation and segregation bodes ill for our collective futures.


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