Celebrating the best of building sights

Modern architects have learnt to dodge the slings and arrows hurled by an unhappy public.

A rash of towering glass skyscrapers and unapologetically contemporary office blocks may have been given planning approval in recent years, but it takes more than a rubber stamp to convince many of those who live near them they are anything other than a blot on the landscape.

It's not just the hoi polloi who've had a problem with modern design. Prince Charles has carved out a niche as a full-time thorn in the side of those he sees as vandalising the few remaining unspoilt areas of Britain's cities.

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It's 25 years ago since he raised hackles by describing one development planned for London as a "monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved old friend" and his references to "pockmarked skylines" and "crumbling eyesores" have kept on coming.

Yet without modern architecture, cities like Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford risk becoming open-air museums to the Victorian age and, if tradition is prized above all else, it will be a missed opportunity for this generation to leave a legacy in bricks and mortar.

It's a problem which has fascinated Leeds-based architect Irena Bauman throughout her long career. A champion of contemporary architecture she is determined to show that as well as the grand 19th-century public buildings and corn exchanges, Yorkshire's towns and cities also have a more modern, but equally interesting story to tell.

"In the past I think there was a fear of contemporary architecture," says a founding director of Bauman Lyons Architects.

"Developers didn't want to rock the boat, but the result was a glut of uninspiring and ugly buildings.

"The truth is that if it's well done, the public are willing to embrace modern design. What they don't want is to be palmed off with second-rate developments.

"Yorkshire has much to be proud about when it comes to architecture and if we are to do justice to its history we have to continue building new iconic developments which not only contribute to civic pride, but which also boost the entrepreneurial spirit of our towns and cities and, ultimately, their economic growth."

While in the last couple of decades, Irena could have been forgiven for feeling like something of a lone voice, she will now get the chance to stand on a much more public platform.

Today sees the official launch of the Regional Design Review Service an organisation of which Irena has been appointed chair. The idea is to provide free independent advice to developers in charge of the county's major schemes and in doing so improve the quality of design and raise the profile of those buildings which already meet the ideal creative blueprint.

Yorkshire is the last region in the country to set up a panel and after a tough 18 months for the property sector when many schemes have been mothballed or abandoned altogether it might not seem like ideal timing for the launch.

Irena admits the last few years have not been kind to many skylines, particularly Leeds, but insists the recession may ultimately lead to a new wave of iconic designs.

"The country needed more housing and the last 20 years have seen an unprecedented boom," she says. "However, quantity doesn't necessarily equate to quality and in some areas there has been a lack of creative thinking.

"When it came to the residential sector, many developers were happy to throw up uninspiring apartment blocks of small studio flats without thinking of the surrounding area and when it came to major development there seemed to be a determination to go down the potentially disastrous route of building identikit cities. It was almost like a return to the 70s when there was a rush to build great big shopping malls.

"The recession forced the pause button to be pressed. A large number of developments didn't go ahead and it means that quite a lot of land has once again become a blank canvas."

As all those involved in the construction industry take stock, Irena says that a quick glance up and down Yorkshire's streets shows just what can be achieved with a little imagination. One of her aims is ultimately to produce a map showcasing the region's best buildings, a 21st-century version of the traditional heritage trail.

"Sheffield is a prime example of how modern architecture can successfully sit alongside the traditional.

"The key was that those who spearheaded the development had a clear strategy as to what the city stood for long before any proposal was given the go ahead. As well as a series of impressive office developments which have turned the city centre into a creative hub, there has also been a lot of investment in the public realm which provides a sense of continuity between the new and the old.

"Crucially there has also been a focus on high quality and everything cheap and nasty has been rejected."

It's the latter that the new Regional Design Service Review has at its core. Backed by Integrate Yorkshire and Yorkshire Forward, the panel will meet monthly to scrutinise details of proposed projects and it hopes to show that investing more money into good and sustainable designs is better value for money in the long term.

"It's about raising people's aspirations and actually when the economy is struggling it is more important than ever to have good design as those buildings tend to be more successful economically and socially. Developers must learn to talk to the public; working in a bubble only leads to problems.

"From my experience when you ask people what improvements they would like to see, they are full of good ideas and most of what they want is very simple to achieve."