An act of faith or folly?

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Images and text © Albertina McNeill 2014 except comments quoted from the design and access statement © Stuart Callf 2014 and the transport assessment report © C M Veasey CMILT MCIHT 2014. Please do not reproduce without permission on each occcasion. All rights reserved. Do not add any of these images to Pinterest or similar sites as this will be regarded as a violation of copyright.

The landscape in the area of Oldfield Lane South may take on a more exotic appearance in the future. The trustees of the Shree Jalaram Mandir, Greenford’s Hindu temple, have applied (PP/2014/4385) to demolish the present structure in order to replace it with something larger and purpose built. According to the design and access statement (provided by SC Design Associates) “they feel very strongly that the time is right to have their own new Temple that will meet all their needs as well as provide a Building that can be used and enjoyed by the whole community.” The shree in question is housed in a former synagogue, constructed in 1955, a small, modest, brick building which has been extended and altered, both in its time as a synagogue (1955 – 2000) and since then, in fact during its time as a shree its trustees have notched up five recorded contacts with the borough’s planning department.

The latest planning application epitomises the difficulties faced by some Greenford residents, affected by persistent campaigns by neighbours intent on imposing their planning choices upon them. It includes examples of obfuscation typical of an attempt to get an unpopular application past the planning committee. It’s odd that those seeking to provide a building that will serve “the whole community” haven’t done more to consult with that wider community or even provide it with sufficient visual imagery to help it decide whether it wants such an unusual structure to be built in Greenford. I want to make it clear that I’m not suggesting that the shree should not be there. Those who attend it have every right to a place of worship in the area. What is at issue is the visual and environmental impact the proposed building will have on Oldfield Lane South.

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I doubt that anyone living in its vicinity would argue that a replacement for the building currently in use, one that would be more useful, sustainable and attractive, wouldn’t be an asset. However, is anyone surprised that they have problems with a structure they consider so large, eccentric and out of place that its presence may render their homes unsaleable to anyone outside the section of the community with which it is associated? That section is a relatively small one. According to a report produced by Ealing Council in 2012, “State of Ealing: Population (Amended 24 March 2014)”, the proportion of Hindus in the borough dropped from over 10% in 2005 to just under that in 2010.

Those involved in judging a building that will have a profound impact on their neighbourhood are being asked to do so with very little information that might be understood easily by the average resident. I wanted to know whether the person responsible for this design had worked on anything similar. To that end I phoned and emailed SC Design Associates to find out if I could see images of other projects online but I didn’t get a response. I agree entirely with the design and access statement that “The prominence of this potential Building in it’s location set in the Street scape of Oldfield Lane South between numbers 37 and 47 requires that the proposal must be of high architectural quality design with attention given to it’s, bulk, form, appearance and detailing.”

Unfortunately, given the paucity of visual information provided with the application and the lack of evidence of other work I have no confidence that it will be delivered as a consequence of this application. There is no architect’s illustration of what the completed building will look like in situ, no drawing in colour, no photographic mock-up. The best we can do is to take note (as suggested in the design and access statement) of another building in the same street, the Neem Tree care home, “a rendered building with feature Brickwork.” The colour of the brickwork will only be determined once the application is agreed but no photographs of samples of potential colours have been provided.

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Having looked at the plans presented with the application, I feel that the designer has used an architectural language that most local residents will be familiar with. We’re being offered something along the lines of an updated Gothic Revival church, painted white with decorative brickwork, that will have Hindu decorative elements taking the place of the faux medieval around the windows (“The proposed triple glazed windows and arched heads are to reflect the Hindu style of fenestration which are set in Stone quoins ad head feature. This is to give the windows a high visual impact.”). Designing a building for the British environment inspired by a different culture and climate is a considerable challenge for any architect expected to follow in the footsteps of John Nash. It’s a lot to expect from someone who is not a UK registered architect, which is the case on this occasion. If he gets it wrong we will end up with a clumsy parody of the real thing, seaside architecture that is more fairground attraction than Royal Pavilion. The rejection of designs with turrets that were a feature of earlier applications have at least spared Greenford a building reminiscent of a fairy tale castle. If the proposal was limited to the two storey structure I don’t believe most residents would have anything to complain about. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

The impression of height is a concern and is addressed in the design and access statement. “There is a rendered spandrel panel at 1st floor level which runs through with the existing fascia boarding. This is to give the Building a horizontal emphasis and in return helps reduce the height emphasis.” They will have to do a great deal to “reduce the height emphasis”, as the building will be surmounted by the most controversial element, three “Shikhar spires” (“purpose made in India using fibrous plaster with a white finish and gold detailing”) that are usually a feature of Hindu temples. According to the design and access statement “The new Building needs to blend into its environment and not be over bearing.” How can any building with such ornamentation placed on it be anything but overbearing, especially when sited in a modest residential street? Their placement takes the full height of the building to above that of surrounding properties, setting a precedent that could allow another floor to be added in the future, perhaps within a mansard style roof space. Shikhar spires are often set against a wall, and could be placed in niches incorporated into such a roof. To see just how prominent and eye catching these spires can be you’ve only to take a bus from Greenford Broadway to Lady Margaret Road in Southall, the location of the nearest temple of this kind.

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An attempt to justify the inclusion of the spires in the Greenford proposal is made by comparing them with two examples of towers that form part of buildings in Oldfield Lane South, Edward Betham Church of England School and the Neem Tree care home. In both cases the towers are functional, unlike the proposed spires. The first supports a working clock, one of the few ways of knowing the time when it was built in the nineteenth century, the second is formed of substantial rooms. Apart from that, they are towers, not spires! Shikhar spires are not essential to the practice of the Hindu faith. The Greenford shree has managed without them for ten years and could do so in future. A compromise could be the inclusion of representations of the spires in stained glass panels in the large windows.

The design and access statement suggests that the building will be set in a more urban situation than is actually the case: “The site is located in a town street environment with housing, shops, schools, care centre, library, park and public house in close proximity.” Oldfield Lane South is a quiet, suburban residential road and is very different in character from Greenford Broadway. I assume this is where the public house that the statement refers to is sited. It would take around twenty minutes to walk along Oldfield Lane to the Railway pub, to the north of the A40. Originally a winding country lane, some of the nineteenth century buildings of Ravenor Farm can still be seen there. There are only two shops in Oldfield Lane South, an undertaker and a newsagent. The address for commercial premises opposite the war memorial at the end of this road is Greenford Broadway. Oldfield Lane South is not a busy metropolitan environment, into which an exotic building can be subsumed.

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There are four buildings associated with faith within walking distance of this shree, a mosque and three churches (Catholic, Methodist and Church of England). These are the ancient church of Holy Cross, which sits alongside a newer, larger but equally traditional building, the interwar Greenford Methodist Church and the post war Church of the Visitation. The mosque is in an office building, in a location so discreet that a sign post is required to indicate its presence. All these buildings are more pigeon than peacock with little or no embellishment, so the new shree could come as a shock to those who’ve no experience of this kind of structure. The additional lighting won’t help: “In the soffit to the first projection, down lighting will be installed to give a gentle wash of light down the external wall construction to make the Temple come alive at night”. I would expect this of a cinema on a high street, not a place of worship on a residential road.

I am not just concerned about the design. There’s no point ensuring “that this Development is of the highest possible quality Design to blend in seamlessly with green technologies to create an ‘ECO Friendly’ Building” when those using it are notching up a substantial carbon footprint by arriving in cars. This is, quite clearly, a concern for the borough’s planning officers as well. The design and access statement refers to planning advice: “The Executive Summary states that this development will be acceptable subject to a suitable Design and scale being presented so that it does NOT impact adversely on neighbouring occupiers and the local highway network.” If anything the presentation reveals a disturbing fondness for the combustion engine on the part of those attending this shree.

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At a time of increasing concern for those who suffer the consequences of living in a polluted environment it seems extraordinary that any council would entertain the notion of allowing the construction of a building that would draw even more car users to a particular area. A requirement that the development includes sufficient soft landscaping simply isn’t enough to mitigate the impact of such high levels of car use. The transport impact statement that accompanies the application mentions that road marshalls already patrol the area on days when the current building is at its busiest to persuade those parking in nearby streets to go elsewhere. It makes it clear that the Shree Jalaram Mandir is heavily reliant on the use of public car parks, including the one providing one hundred and forty-nine spaces to the rear of the Tesco Metro store in Greenford Road which is likely to disappear for some time if its enlargement to superstore status goes ahead. Permission for it has been granted and the project has only been put on hold until Tesco’s fortunes improve. If they don’t there is no guarantee that the premises won’t be sold to another chain, along with planning permission.

The shree even has an arrangement with a local school to allow for the parking of almost one hundred cars. The transport assessment made the point that Oldfield Lane South tends to be at its busiest during peak commuting periods but I’ve seen for myself how traffic in this narrow road can be held up whatever the hour when car passengers are dropped off at the temple. I’m nearly always obliged to wait for some time to cross the road at Croyde Avenue which feeds traffic to and from it, whatever the time of day. The information presented with the application describes the minibus service that takes people to and from the supermarket car park and other collection points, including Greenford Station. As part of my research I contacted the mosque, the Catholic church and the Methodist church who confirmed that they do not provide similar transport support. I haven’t come across an arrangement like it before and wonder why it’s necessary in an area with such a considerable provision of public transport. If someone has managed to reach Greenford Station under their own steam why can’t they take a regular bus to the shree from there? Central Greenford is a hub for bus routes, in many cases the buses making those journeys have wheelchair access. Why is it necessary to increase the number of short vehicular journeys, and therefore emissions, by providing it?

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The fact that the minibus service even exists suggests a high attendance by infirm older people which begs the question – how long will this building be viable for? Will the users die out or move away? If it cannot be reused or sold will we be stuck with a white elephant? On the other hand, if it is a success and is extended will a larger, more user-friendly shree bring even more car drivers and emissions to Oldfield Lane South? A search of Ealing Council’s planning site revealed that the shree in Southall has had three extensions since 2002, including one for a basement extension which required retrospective planning permission. Is this what will happen in Oldfield Lane South? It is clear that, even in its present state, Greenford’s shree already draws people from a very wide area, much wider than Greenford, because it necessitates a level of car use that I’d associate with a facility such as a supermarket. Is it really for local people?

As I said at the beginning, by raising this matter I’m not suggesting that the shree shouldn’t be in Greenford. I want the outcome of this to be a viable, environmentally sound building, an asset to Greenford, whoever uses it. I’d like to see those who worship at the shree take a more responsible attitude to transport and environmental issues. This should not have become a battle of wills and wits but a coming together to create something that we can all benefit from. A more open, consultative approach would have prevented this and I hope that it is not too late to achieve a positive outcome.

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Images and text © Albertina McNeill 2014 except comments quoted from the design and access statement © Stuart Callf 2014 and the transport assessment report © C M Veasey CMILT MCIHT 2014. Please do not reproduce without permission. All rights reserved. Do not add any of these images to Pinterest or similar sites as this will be regarded as a violation of copyright.

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