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Architecture Week: Interview with Panos Tzortzopoulos and Tom Morgan

Panos Tzortzopoulos and Tom Morgan are recent graduates of Goldsmiths’ BA Design programme. Their final project — which featured in the Goldsmiths degree show - ‘Hyphen’ (16 June - 19 June 2017) — explores the notion of community within the dichotomous contexts of the Isle of Dogs and the Isle of Grain. The project interrogates the relationship between established communities and the ambitions of developers and suggests that collaborative, human-scale approaches to urban planning should be implemented to strengthen communities and allow residents to retain ownership over the areas in which they live. In this interview we discuss the methodologies behind their project and their ideas about ‘Hub Planning’ and its applications.

Image courtesy of Panos Tzortzopoulos and Tom Morgan

MP: What initiated the project, and why did you choose to focus on the Isle of Dogs?

PT&TM: We began our project with Michel Foucault’s concept of ‘Heterotopias’. Described as ‘places of otherness’, Heterotopias are places that exist outside all other places, making them other than the ordinary, but in comparison to utopias they exist in reality. We therefore began our project looking specifically at the Canary Wharf estate as we found it to be an extreme of the urban environment: a ‘place of otherness’ and an entirely insular social structure with a modular purpose. We then looked to find a rural extreme with which we could juxtapose Canary Wharf; the Isle of Grain became this site, a small village isolated on the Eastern most point of the Medway Peninsula in Kent. The Isle of Grain occupies a similar geographical footprint as Canary Wharf, though in contrast with the estate it has seen little change over the last few decades. With little in terms of transport, and a single road in and out, the village is tranquil with few visitors.

We began by creating visual juxtapositions of the two extremes of the urban and rural; one of the images we created we found to be reminiscent of the view from the Isle of Dogs towards Canary Wharf. This image became a definitive turning point in our project as we subsequently came to look at the Isle of Dogs as a mediatory site where elements from both the urban and rural extremes of Canary Wharf and the Isle of Grain coexist in a single location.

We documented all three sites utilising the same first hand methodologies and processes that we had generated over the course of the project, however, we saw the Isle of Dogs to be unique in comparison with the other two areas. Having attended the ‘Ask the Mayor’ session (8/2/2017) on the Island we found that it is home to the biggest development in Western Europe and soon realised that the opposition to development in South Quay* was the commonality that brought the community together; we therefore saw the area as the perfect location to question the relationship between community and development.

*The South Quay development is a residential-led housing development currently being undertaken on the Isle of Dogs. The scheme is being developed by Berkeley and is designed by the architectural firm Foster + Partners. The development includes three towers, one of which will be the second tallest residential skyscrapers in Britain upon completion.

Image courtesy of Panos Tzortzopoulos and Tom Morgan

MP: Could you explain further how your research of community centres and spaces manifested in your work at the Hyphen show? I was particularly interested in the book and the film that you had produced.

PT&TM: ‘Community’ is one of the most repeated words in planning documentation and development proposals. Its repeated use and the lack of its definition brought us to question this immaterial concept and its relationship with the built environment.

When we attended the open panel discussion with the Mayor we posed the simple question: what is community? The Mayor of Tower Hamlets was the first person we asked, and from this point onwards we asked the same question to those that we talked to for the remainder of the project; this culminated in the film What is Community?.

Post the ‘Ask the Mayor’ session, we turned our attention to the places and spaces in which this immaterial concept existed, the most prominent of these being the community centre. By documenting the community centres we soon realised that there was a lack of publicly available information. One of the things that was highlighted during the ‘Ask the Mayor’ session was the lack of infrastructure to support such a vast amount of growth in population. Subsequently we began mapping the areas: health services, education, community centres, pubs and playgrounds in order to understand the spread of services compared with that of development.

The book responsive methodologies is a complete collection of our utilised methods and processes over the course of the project from our original photographic documentation of our two chosen environments, to our collaging that led us to look at a third, as well as the mapping, workshops, etc.

Image courtesy of Panos Tzortzopoulos and Tom Morgan

MP: In responsive methodologies there are comparisons between the colour palettes of inner-city urban areas and suburban areas. Do you think that this is significant beyond an aesthetic difference, or could it be viewed as a metaphor for a difference between urban and suburban/rural communities?

PT&TM: The comparison of colour palates began with observing common infrastructural elements that exist in both the Isle of Grain and Canary Wharf, this boiled down to bus stops and bins - two prime examples of public infrastructure that exist in both extremes. This came as an extension of the architectural vernaculars we had collected from both locations. The aim was to document each area based on the repeated colours and therefore unveil the colour agenda that represents each place. Now, that could be viewed in many ways: for us, it became clear how the comparison of the urban and the rural portrays the general materiality of each place. For example, the colour palettes collected from Canary Wharf give the impression of a ‘cold’ environment, materials such as concrete, steel, aluminium, glass and marble, connecting the environment to the high-rise ‘luxurious’ business district. On the other hand, the village of Grain has an earthy colour palette, giving the impression of an environment surrounded by nature and materials such as bricks, representative of the post-war and old-fashioned architecture that can be found in the village.

MP: In your film What is Community? a number of the residents voice their concerns about the effects of high-rises on communities. As London — and other cities — continue to become more densely populated and high-rises proliferate, do you think that established communities are inevitably going to be damaged as a result?

PT&TM: What’s interesting about community is that everyone says that they want to feel part of a community, though in an inner city area like London it can become quite a fuzzy definition of what community actually is. What’s happening in a place like London is that what people see as a traditional sense of community is being destroyed by the scale of growth, and also by the fact that we have large transient populations. With areas of impermanence, established communities are at risk of becoming depleted or lost in the crowd. This being said, we feel that they are able to co-exist with newer communities. In the face of large developments it is a matter of integration that is key. With great increases in population, established communities should be willing to converse with newer communities as, at the end of the day, it really can be as simple as providing the platform for neighbours young and old to come together in communal spaces that ensures long established communities do not diminish in the face of change.

MP: Do you think that a sense of community possible within a high-rise?

PT&TM: With high-rise living meaning that we are living closer than ever before, the unfortunate irony is that we are living evermore separate lives, with many of us not even knowing the name of our neighbours. With the design of high-rise blocks not promoting a natural convene of residents, a sense of community is left almost solely to residents to pursue if it is something they desire. The big question is: do people today really want to be part of a community? In recent years there have been initiatives looking to instigate neighbourhood revival to rebuild aspects that have been lost in urbanisation: a sense of belonging, trust and protection associated with a small society. Needs, emotions and activities that until now have taken place within the home are moving outside of it, extending the home in the process. Claiming public spaces as our own private ones gives us access to the city for more people. So therefore high-rise living may not promote a sense of community, through its design, but with a large number of residents living so close together, it does provide the platform/opportunity for the creation of strong communities, though its the lack of initiation that means a degree of separation remains between residents in tower blocks.

Image courtesy of Panos Tzortzopoulos and Tom Morgan

MP: Could you explain the concept of ‘Hub Planning’?

PT&TM: Hub Planning is effectively neighbourhood planning at a human scale, directed by residents themselves. To be parked outside of/on construction/meanwhile sites, to draw attention to the spaces of change. In these spaces, the ‘Hub’ would present and give handouts regarding communal information to those in attendance as well as offering residents to take part in ‘Hub Planning’.

Residents are to share disposable cameras with neighbours and document spaces they feel to be redundant or under-utilised in the vicinity of the new development at which the hub is located. This first hand research will be collated when the Hub returns to the space, at which time a resident committee can then present their proposals for selected redundant spaces to the local council, developers and the neighbourhood planning forum.

MP: Do you think that your ideas about ‘Hub Planning’ are transferable to other contexts outside of the Isle of Dogs, and even outside of London?

PT&TM: For us, it was one of our main aims for this project to create a system that would be not only functional in the Isle of Dogs but transferable to areas inside and outside the UK. We see the method of Hub Planning to be applicable in any location that is to see large scale development. The research we have conducted could easily be applied to different locations. The mapping of communal/public assets is something that seems to be severely lacking, and old and new cities could benefit greatly from. Allowing residents to have better access to this information and then allow them the opportunity of directing actual change of even the smallest of spaces will give back populations genuine ownership of their local vicinity.

You can watch What is Community? here:

Over my time at Goldsmiths, I have come to find that my practice revolves around photographic documentation of the material environment and specific human interactions within. It is only in doing this over a period of time, in similar though differing situations, that opportunities in which to design come to light. Once certain opportunities are made clear, conversations with individuals and groups that are effected or affect said situations allows for an integral understanding of what exists and why, whilst uncovering possibilities as to what could be if change were to be implemented.

I like to think that the built environment, in all of its complexity, is a creation of humans. A vibrant composition consisting not only of physical forms – buildings, streets and infrastructure – but also the users and the people that interact within those spaces. It is the idea that people and the built environment become inseparable. As a designer I like to seek for new methodologies of looking at this aspect while recording the built environment and seek for design opportunities within it. The question that I am trying to explore is how our behaviour as humans is shaped based on the architecture and the purpose of a building or an interior serves.

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