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If these walls could talk

Amanda Levete wants to remap London as a city for people not buildings

What is it that makes cities thrive? What are the biggest drivers for success and prosperity in the city, the agents for change? Where does the real power and capital reside? People. Not individuals, not corporations but the connectedness of people. Cities wouldn’t exist were it not for the strength that comes from human collaboration and from that civilisation.

We have a tendency to see our cities through the prism of their buildings – admittedly architects more so than most – but that is to misunderstand an essential truth, that the real city is made not of concrete but flesh.

The history of humanity is revealed in architecture, nowhere more so than in Rome. But there Nolli’s 18th-century map gives a different reading, where public spaces within buildings are described as part of the urban fabric. From that you understand a network that mediates between public and private, one that makes connections between people possible. Rome offers a sequence of scenographic spaces where you drift from public square to semi-public courtyard to a space more private.

We love to wander around that city not just because of the magnificence of its structures but because of its spatial interconnectedness. The network of Rome is the result of centuries of reuse and reappropriation. Finding the right balance between preservation and change will never be easy – but too little change and the engine for prosperity stalls. The key then is to create leverage from those spaces that can change. At a modest scale, our scheme for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London extracts maximum value from a new public place. It is a response to a visionary brief from the museum, to create a new courtyard on the Exhibition Road site, previously to be the destination for Daniel Libeskind’s Spiral extension.

The recent landscaping of Exhibition Road, giving it a kerb-free single surface, has already significantly increased the number of pedestrians who use it but that is just the start of a more ambitious intention to make the road a place where culture and learning are accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds.

To unlock this potential to bring in new audiences, we have proposed a more open relationship between museum and street. The stone plinth of the Aston Webb screen currently forms an opaque barrier on to Exhibition Road but by negotiating this threshold and altering the screen to reveal previously hidden views of the museum’s historic facades, we have re-imagined the dialogue between museum and street, one that invites pedestrians to drift in off Exhibition Road to a place for potential appropriation by the public.

Most of London’s places for public interaction are not so planned or designed, be they food markets, garden squares or the insane urban density of Soho’s narrow streets – but they create tangible benefits for large numbers of people, reflecting the diversity and vibrancy that makes the capital so pleasurable. But there are many more lost opportunities, bad projects created somewhat cynically as part of a payback to the city in return for permission for profit-driven development.

Every borough has its specific needs that can be met in part by financial contributions in return for these consents, but where there is a need for more public space it’s not good enough to create a plaza or forecourt and hope that people will use it. There needs to be some coherence, a strategy for connectedness, expressive of the tension between planned and organic that links and gives meaning to places, however small.

An audit of public places, a 21st-century Nolli mapping exercise, would be a start – it would cost almost nothing but begin to recognise the value of unbuilt spaces where wealth rubs up against poverty, where friction generates energy and excitement, creating places where chance human encounters lead to the kind of breakthroughs we need.

Any downturn challenges a city so we should be focused on creating places where collective intelligence will gather and eventually produce another boom.

Amanda Levete is the director of  the architecture practice AL_A which recently won the international competition to design a new gallery, courtyard and entrance for the V&A


This article first appeared in the 16 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Crisis

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.