Meet the man behind the designs that have regenerated Plymouth’s most historic areas

Graham Lobb is passionate about Plymouth. It’s why he’s spent most of the past 44 years doing all he can to make the city a better place for people to live, work and play in.

Plymouth-born Graham is an architect and one of the key figures behind the regeneration designs of some of the city’s most historic sites, such as The Barbican, Sutton Harbour, Devonport, and the Stonehouse Peninsula including the main approach to the Royal William Yard.

His work also includes innovative projects that are designed around the concepts of community and sustainability. Designs such as the Genesis Building for the Millfields Trust in Union Street, the self-build Nelson Project providing 24 homes for service veterans and social housing residents in Stonehouse, and the George House Homeless Shelter, also in in Stonehouse. You’ll spot the Genesis Building – it’s the one with 18,600 plants on the outside, helping to keep the Union Street air clean.
Graham is loving his job every bit as much as he did when he launched his company, Form Design, in 1974, initially working with three college friends from Plymouth School of Architecture.

It’s fitting that his latest project is Oceansgate, the huge marine enterprise development at South Yard, because Devonport Dockyard is where it all started for Graham, when his firm was invited to help with the design work for the submarines facility on behalf of the MoD.

The firm’s growing reputation was such that in the early 1980s, after winning a national housing award, it was asked to do some of the design work at London Docklands: “This was before Canary Wharf, but I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do,” said Graham. “I’m a Plymothian and I wanted to be working here and in the West Country. And I felt I could take the experience I’d had at the Docklands in London and use it in Plymouth.”

So Graham, by now the sole owner of the company, set about making a difference in some of the city’s most iconic but neglected areas.

Probably the biggest transformation took place around the Barbican in the 1990s, when the then MD at Sutton Harbour Holdings asked Graham to draw up a regeneration strategy. It needed an Act of Parliament to change the existing statute which barred any development that didn’t support activity on the water.

Part of this necessitated a lock to prevent the floods that were a frequent occurrence on the Barbican, and the fish market was moved and replaced by the Barbican Glassworks building for Dartington Crystal.

The regeneration strategy was built around the desire to bring people back into the city, which was why flats and offices were integral to the mix of uses. Graham and his team designed 11 buildings over 28 years around Sutton Harbour – buildings such as Pinnacle Quay, Salt Quay House, North Street Offices and Mast House.

“The Abercrombie Plan after the war took people to the outer areas of Plymouth, away from the city and the waterfront,” said Graham. “Plymouth’s waterfront is 13 miles long and for a long time, people didn’t have easy access to it. Our strategy was designed to open these areas up again. This was pioneering and what we’re seeing now in Millbay, bringing people back to the water and close to the city centre.”
Graham was also behind the design to regenerate the Stonehouse Peninsula in the 1990s, including Cremyll Street and the main route into the Royal William Yard: “That work paved the way for the regeneration of the Royal William Yard. It would never have been possible otherwise. The regeneration had to be done in a way that had the support of local residents, it needed a caring intervention, which is what happened.”

Graham says the job of regenerating Plymouth has been and remains tricky because the wartime devastation and subsequent rebuilding created “clusters” of communities in “small pockets”, cut off from each other.

The solution, he says, will take decades: “This is where David Mackie’s vision to reconnect and open up areas is so good. He has highlighted how to make the city more cohesive again. It’s never just about the building. It’s helping to stitch the city back together with humane public realm spaces and sensitive interventions.”

Although Plymouth has been transformed in the past 20 to 30 years, with neglected areas being turned into honeypots where people want to live and visit, Graham is concerned that “a lack of self-confidence” about the city is leading to mistakes: “We’re still in danger of making poor decisions, of having a culture where every building has to shout. Buildings don’t always have to be iconic. It’s about understanding that small, high-quality interventions can make a big difference.”

He also fears the large volume of student accommodation is “unbalancing the economy of the city”. Graham wanted to see a hotel built at a reconfigured railway station site, with a public square linking to the university and a walkway down Armada Way, through the city centre and up to the Hoe. It could eventually also provide a connection to Central Park and Home Park, linking major areas of congregation and easing movement though the heart of the City.

“Plymouth has tremendous potential because of its location and how the layout could be. When you approach the Hoe from the city centre direction and it unfolds and you get that whole theatre of The Sound … it’s spectacular. And it brings people in.”

Graham has every intention of continuing to play a role – and he’s looking forward to the firm’s 50th anniversary in 2024: “I don’t claim to have all the answers but in everything we’ve done, we’ve attempted to have a positive impact. The place gets under your skin.

“I’m still passionate about our work, I’ve got a good team and as long as people want to keep commissioning us, I’ll keep going. And there’s still such a lot to do!”

 

First published in the Plymouth Magazine – April 2018

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