Article by Cecilia Ferrari*

As I left Manchester on a train, I couldn’t help but notice how the narrow rows of terraced houses thinned out into a flat, wide horizon of green fields and scattered villages, in a succession of images that nostalgically evoked traditional postcards of the North of England. This journey, framed at its end by the appearance of the River Ribble as the train approached Preston, served as the background landscape for the third annual RIBA North West Design Charrette.

Northern Soul flyer 2015 Preston

Like the first and second charrettes that took place in Manchester and Newcastle, this intensive design workshop gathered architecture students from Sheffield, Liverpool, Preston, Manchester, Huddersfield and Newcastle, who were presented, on the day, with a brief constructed around the vernacular context of the city. In addition, and reinforcing the inherent challenge of a charrette, students were made to work in small teams to produce sensible, creative proposals in response to the site and design requirements.

The brief for the 2015 charrette was initially developed from an analysis of the cotton manufacturing history of Preston, an industry upon which 80% of the city’s population in the nineteenth century depended, and which consequentially was cause of migrations and riots during the post-industrial era.

Covering predominantly the northern section of the town centre, the chosen site demonstrated the scarring consequences of Preston’s industrial decline, marked by large cemented grounds and abandoned warehouses. The brief addressed such historical aspects by assigning three stages to the design process: to redefine the conditions of Preston as a whole in relation to the restrained site, to rediscover its urban potential, and to recreate the conditions for affordable and sustainable living.

Photograph by Lobna Elagouz

Photograph by Lobna Elagouz

As expected, the eight teams approached the site differently, taking into consideration the circulation grid of historical and new roads above an underground labyrinth of disused pedestrian passages. The event’s format allowed only for a short, on-site brainstorming session, from which a series of different themes was raised.

Whilst rationalising the brainstorming outputs, each team referred back to the site visit through a visual medium that embodied the city as a whole. This image allowed Preston to move from the state of unknown, circumscribed space to become the subject of discussion with localised landscape interventions, pedestrianized areas, and affordable urban living.

“Collaborating with other students enabled me to expand my views and understand my strengths and weaknesses. Taking this experience outside the context of the design workshop will help towards our own studio projects, and, personally, it has led me to understand what I am really capable of when working under pressure.” Jeffrey Lau, Second Year, University of Sheffield

The difficulty of working in a team became its own strength in those groups that produced enough constructive self-criticism towards each design idea, morphing them into a potential proposal and testing them against the actual conditions of the site. The apparent obstacle of having different design approaches surprisingly allowed for a more thorough consideration of the site conditions, creating strong reasons behind the details of each proposal.

“I think the short timescale of the charrette helps develop time management and organisation skills as we are forced to distil and abstract the information and focus on what is essential. In a way, the concept of collaborative team work between people who have just met is very similar to the work environment of the architectural office, where you are required to cooperate and get on with colleagues as well as with engineers, clients or planning officers with whom you do not necessarily have a personal relationship.” Ecaterina Stefanescu, Part 1 graduate University of Huddersfield, architectural assistant at DLA Architecture Leeds

By the time each project was finalised and started to become illustrated through a series of models, diagrams and sketches, the charrette was ready to wrap up with the final presentations. Each group started by addressing the issues observed on site, then moved onto their proposal and visuals. Given the size of the site, most teams tended to focus on landscape interventions which reached and connected the boundaries of the town centre, and potentially created positive economic and social repercussions on the peripheries.

Photograph by Ecaterina Stefanescu

Photograph by Ecaterina Stefanescu

From suggestions to connect unused, narrow streets with the main circulation routes through a physical thread, to proposals for a centralised community amphitheatre to empower and bring locals together, the charrette turned into a collection of colourful, vibrant projects that turned Preston into a city with the potential to be reborn from its industrial ashes. Proposals evolved around ideas such as the creation of a self-sustainable community that would repopulate the many empty buildings and create new trades across disused circulation routes, the expansion of the possibilities for the town centre to attract tourists and reunite locals, or the potential for small businesses to improve selling trades by providing localised educational structures that attracted more students and employers from within and outside the region. But ultimately the proposals generated a strong sense of belonging to the history and present days of Preston.

“The whole Charrette was a valuable experience for me because I saw the necessity of being able to produce fast and confident sketches that clearly illustrate my design ideas. That is perhaps the most important lesson I have taken from the workshop and it will be something to build on from here onwards” Nikola Yanev, Second Year, University of Sheffield

The winning team was selected because of how it looked at the site with the intention of producing a landscape intervention to recreate a communal identity and give a definite answer to the town’s most urgent question – ‘Why stay?’. The team achieved this by drawing inspiration from one of the town’s landmarks, Avenham Park, from which a series of typologies of different nature within the urban location (underground car parks, skate parks, playgrounds, etc.) provided safe spaces to expand current existing activities.


* Cecilia Ferrari is currently in her third year of the BA in Architecture at the Manchester School of Architecture. Born and bred in Italy, she has conducted literary and architectural studies in English, French and German, and has studied in Europe and the USA.


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