Friday 11 August 2017

Making a mess of Exhibition Road

The shared surface streetscape scheme for Exhibition Road in London's museum quarter, designed by Dixon Jones and completed in 2012,  looked great when new and was hailed as a success

Now, though, it is being messed up.  First, the beautifully worked out patterned paving (constructed, it seems, on a proper sub-base, unlike the sightly, but collapsing, block paving schemes in St Martin's Lane and Cowcross Street - another lost art) began to be replaced by repairs of the messiest kind, tarmac in some places and concrete in others, according to the whim of the perpetrators...

More recently, ranks of huge new blocks of granite have been placed on top of the paving, presumably as an anti-terrorist measure...

..located according to some sort of notional plan, but only approximately, with most pieces a bit off square, not quite lining up, and not aligned with the paving pattern.  They are not fixed, but perhaps were too hard to shift once they had been unloaded.

It seems crazy to spend the money on honed granite blocks and not place them properly - better to do it in concrete, and spend the money saved on some more diligent builders - or supervisors.

You can't fight entropy, I guess.  Ordered systems inevitably become disordered.  Reading Stewart Brand's 'How Buildings Learn' should be enough for anyone to get over the idea that you can make a project perfect on day one and hope to keep it that way.  But like most architects, I hanker for a built environment that is better organised than the one we are given.  The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, of course, now have more important things to worry about - and it now looks as if the money spent on paving Exhibition Road would have been better spent on refurbishing tower blocks properly.

But here as at Grenfell Tower, this is not just about money - it is about doing things thoughtfully and carefully once the resources have been committed.

Thankfully, you can raise your eyes from the streetscape and cheer yourself up at either end of Exhibition Road, with two recent projects.

At the V&A Museum, AL_A's project to connect Exhibition Road to the central courtyard succeeds in that main objective, and as with so many public projects, it is good that it has happened at all in these straitened times -  but it is done via some odd moves along the way.  The project's new entrance courtyard shares with the practice's MAAT museum in Lisbon a white tiled paving that produces enough glare to be uncomfortable without sunglasses on a sunny day - here, it would be good to find the ravages of time taking a bit of gloss off.

Francis Kéré' s Serpentine Pavilion, at the other end of the road, is one of the best of that series - joyful but rigorous,  masterly in its control of geometry, and free of the whimsy of some of the gallery's offerings of recent years.

Serpentine pavilion architects, of course, don't have to worry about entropy - the project is taken down before it can set in.

Monday 6 February 2017

Quality, 'quality', and fashion - the beauty of black

Usually, you'd think of granite as a high quality material for the outside of a building, and consider paint to be lower down the scale.

But in the current makeover of a tired office building next to Farringdon Station, deeply unfashionable 1980s granite cladding is being painted black - what was conceived of then as a wannabe city office (but in slightly less smart Clerkenwell) reimagined now as a wannabe Shoreditch co-working hub (but in slightly less grungy Clerkenwell).

Derwent London's sales website for the project seems to suggest some different, more complex, and dare I say more po-mo, versions of the elevational makeover; but with the scaffold now down, I'm hoping it will remain in the simpler version seen above.

There's nothing inherently cheap looking about paint - context is everything.  Nash and Cubitt put up acres of painted stucco buildings in London where they would have used stone if they could have afforded it, as the architects of Georgian Bath and Edinburgh did.  Nash's terraces are always described as stucco, but what you are actually looking at is paint*.  The result is, nevertheless, classy - partly because the paint is well maintained.

The Farringdon building, on the other hand, though granite-clad, was ghastly - 'Early Learning Centre' architecture according to Hugh Pearman - and in a post a few years ago I suggested that it was a shame that it had not been demolished when so many other buildings in the area were coming down.

I remember the architect Irena Bauman, in a talk a while back, referring to the inability of some clients to distinguish between quality and 'quality' - a magpie like fondness for shiny expensive materials, splashed all over (ironically) as if with a brush, being symptomatic.  Gold lift car interiors, anyone?

The new version of this building looks classier, to my eyes, than the old.  I can see the point of the makeover - in 2017.  But here we are really in the world of fashion and kerb appeal rather than quality vs. 'quality'.    With a reference back to some interesting Georgian buildings such as 10 Downing Street allowing architects to claim that black paint is an established part of London's rich palette of building materials, projects from Adjaye Associates' Dirty House (2002) in the East End (which may have kicked all this off) to Squire and Partners' 5 Hanover Square (2012), and now this makeover by AHMM for Derwent in Farringdon, suggest that black elevations have become the new, well, black.

*Originally, much London stucco was intended to be painted to resemble stone. According to an essay 'Stucco' by Frank Kelsall in 'Good and Proper Materials' (London Topographical Society, 1989), oil painting of stucco (as found today) had become general by the 1840s, but was probably unknown to Nash. 

Monday 9 January 2017

RFAC 2.0 in 2017?

Older readers may remember the Royal Fine Art Commission or RFAC, the architecture quango which was abolished and replaced by CABE in 1999.  Could it now be on the way back?

The patrician ethos of the Commission, under its Chairman Lord St John of Fawsley, didn't find favour with the Cool Britannia mindset of Tony Blair's New Labour administration elected in 1997. But what goes around comes around, and so when the coalition government arrived in 2010, CABE, probably now in turn seen as a Labour oriented outfit, lost its government funding and was nearly killed off in the over-hasty 'bonfire of the quangos'.

A body called the Royal Fine Art Commission Trust has however carried on quietly since 1999.  For a few years it ran an annual architecture award, as it had when the RFAC was extant - then after the death of Lord St John in 2012, things went quiet - but it has recently been upping its profile, perhaps considering that the circumstances are right for a re-founding of the Commission.  The Trust has eminent names listed as advisers and trustees, such as former Tory minister and grandee Lord Carrington, architecture patron and developer Lord Palumbo, and Lord Foster - and for political balance, Labour MP (but a posh one) Tristram Hunt.

In November Lord Foster delivered a lecture organised by the Trust, 'Designing the Future: Starting in the North' - in Manchester Town Hall - suggesting an alignment with government 'Northern Powerhouse' policies - although as reported by the AJ, this was undermined a bit by the headline grabbing part of the talk being devoted Foster's Thames Hub scheme for an estuary airport...

And for the last year, an @RoyalFineArt Twitter account has been tweeting prolifically on things architectural and urbanistic - and significantly, with the odd hint that there might be a need for a new Royal Fine Art Commission.

Full disclosure - I worked for the RFAC and then for CABE.  Both organisations offered good advice about major project proposals - and in spite of the shift in tone and style from meetings chaired by Lord St John (until 1999) to those chaired by Paul Finch and his successors (after 1999), the content and quality of the advice given didn't change much.  Though each organisation had the odd blind spot (e.g. things royal in one case, certain 'starchitect' schemes in the other), in general terms good schemes were still good schemes, bad schemes were still bad.

CABE's role and status, in its post-2010 guise as part of Design Council CABE, are rather diminished.  The quality of advice offered is still good, but the lack of political support and the lack of public funding have considerably reduced its capacity and its influence - as has the significant growth in the number of local design review panels.

It is good for architecture if there is at least some evidence of senior politicians thinking that the subject is important.  There is no sign of this whatsoever in the present administration - the one minister considered sympathetic, Ed Vaizey, lost his job last May.  A case can be made for a strong and authoritative independent voice to speak up for architecture in national discussions - but with no minister likely to take an interest, one wonders how successful the Trust could be in reviving the RFAC to fulfil this role, if it is serious about this.  The tone of the May administration is more Rotary Club than Bullingdon Club, so from that point of view the Trust's friends in high places may not be of quite the right kind.  But before long we could have an architecture buff as our king - perhaps that is where they are setting their sights?

I scanned my copy of the RFAC's 1999 'Final Report' for a hint of an intention to return.  I could find nothing.  But considerably stranger things have happened in the last twelve months.

Monday 28 November 2016

London's new Design Museum

London's new Design Museum, newly open to the public, is a bit of a curate's egg, to say the least. The Grade II* listed former Commonwealth Institute building, converted by John Pawson to house the new museum, now sits behind two new blocks of flats designed by OMA, which have helped fund the project.

The good bits first.  As so often, one shouldn't overlook, before moving on to the detail, what an excellent thing it is that the project has happened at all; that the Commonwealth Institute building has been rescued from redundancy (and possible demolition - remember Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell's dodgy scheme ten years ago to get a special law passed to allow this?); that the project was put in the hands of two first rate architects, OMA and John Pawson (not necessarily the right architects for the task at hand, but never mind), and has been executed to a high standard; and that the importance of design to a country trying to reinvigorate manufacturing industry gets some welcome promotion.

The project's main flaw is a fundamental one - the approach sequence for visitors, from the street to the front door, is muddled and compromised, through space carved out from under one of the blocks of flats; and the more obvious route to the retained building, between the two new blocks, is occupied by a service road leading to a loading bay - with unattractive sliding vehicle gates interrupting what is otherwise a lavish landscape scheme.  Lots of lovely materials and fine detailing - but the basic moves are a mess.  'Where to put the front door' and 'how to get to the front door' have been fundamental aspects of designing a building for ever; 'how to get the lorries in and out' is a problem that arrived more recently, but increasingly it is one that has the potential to mess things up badly if you fail to sort it out.  This project is hardly alone in getting the route to the front door wrong - where the precepts of modernism replace the language of the traditional city, this is one of the babies that often seem to go out with the bathwater.  But then Palladio etc. didn't have to design for lorries - nor did they have to put up with being told what to do by highways engineers.

Once inside, one is presented with a clear contrast between (1) the dramatic sweeping form of the original hyperbolic paraboloid roof, together with its raking support structures, with slightly rough and ready details and (2) the new museum created inside this space by Pawson, arranged as galleries around a central space which rises to the roof - all blond wood, right angles and minimal, sophisticated detailing.

To my eyes, the clarity of the underlying idea, which reinforces the contrast between old (curves, funny shapes and angles) and new (straight lines and right angles) , is undermined by diagonal lines of the strongly expressed staircases, part of the new architecture, which rise - each different and each at a different angle - through the central void.  They are clunky when compared with everything else, old and new - but very prominent.

However, at least you can see very easily how to get from one floor to another - unlike say the V+A, where you can spend a long time trying to find a staircase.  Perhaps it is unfair to criticize Pawson for prioritising function over high concept, since he is just the sort of architect who gets castigated for doing the opposite.

The Twentieth Century Society were very cross when this project came forward, claiming that it was harmful to this important mid century building.  But in a case like this, if no one is offering to sort the site out to the satisfaction of those with a purist conservation vision, surely it is better that the site should be secured in this compromised form, as they would see it, rather than running the risk of continuing decay.  When the project was at the planning stage, I had the pleasure of going round the site on a visit attended by the original architect Roger Cunliffe, and my memory is that he was far more pleased than not about the prospects for the site's future - putting the objectors, not for the first time, in a 'purer' position, with regards to conservation of a modern building, than the project's architect.

The highlight of my visit, though, was not an architectural one - it was discovering The Maker's Bill of Rights - which should be passed into law.

Tuesday 27 September 2016

Architects' Bake Off - Biscuit or Blancmange?

The scheme for the 'Olympicopolis' project in the Olympic Park, by Allies and Morrison and others, was - along with the continuing saga of the Garden Bridge - a top architectural story of the summer silly season, when the scheme for a new cultural quarter was publicly criticised by Peter Cook and others, basically on the grounds that it is boring.

Rowan Moore's piece in the Observer, well argued as ever, described the spat as 'biscuit vs blancmange' - Cook having characterized the peddlers of the bricky New London Vernacular architecture as the 'biscuit boys'.

This was all argued out in similar terms over a decade ago, in the New Labour heyday of the lottery funded wow-factor 'icon' - the apotheosis of the debate in those days being Graham Morrison's memorable talk at the Royal Academy in 2004, with icon projects such as Will Alsop's Liverpool 'Fourth Grace' in the firing line.

Once upon a time it was obvious which were the important buildings in the city - churches, town halls on so on.  They were the most noticeable, and usually the biggest, buildings, and the best architects got to design them - the 'icons' of their day.

Now the best architects - including the ones who want to do showy buildings - don't generally get churches to do, and even cultural projects are rare - so they give us showy blocks of flats or offices.

The agents and marketing people who are tasked with shifting new office space and flats want pretty much everything to be unique, iconic - or at the very least a landmark or a gateway.

But not everything can be an eye-catching, look-at-me building.  Some architects are much more likely than others to offer you one - but did anyone except the client want one?  Some argue that in an age where consensus about anything is rare and deference is seldom found anywhere, the city is no worse for a few new eye-catchers. And certainly a city where the only things that can go ahead are those to which no one objects is not going to be a very interesting place.

But there is room for a lot more thought, and explicit discussion, at the beginning of a project concerning how far the 'look-at-me' dial is to be turned up in any particular instance.  It is a question that relates to the uses of the building and its place in the city - and the answer might influence the choice of architect, and what the brief asks them to do.

In London, where the cityscape is becoming, in places, a bit of a mess - part glorious mess, part inglorious - there is a clear need for more and better planning - in the sense of ordering the city, through spatial planning, rather than writing more and more and longer and longer documents - and for more quality control.

That means debate both about the basic question of whether building proposals are any good or not, but also questions about what form of expression is appropriate in any given situation: biscuit or blancmange, plain or fancy, straight or curvy.  Both sorts of consideration are important to the future of London's cityscape.

The Olympicopolis Bake Off affair is the reverse of the more common sort of objection that building proposals are showy when they should be quiet.  Peter Cook has a point: if you can't be a bit flash in a cultural project in a regeneration area, where can you?

Thursday 25 February 2016

Planning (in) the digitised future

One of the suggestions made by the Skyline Campaign is that there should be better, and publicly accessible, digitised modelling of project proposals.  I don't agree with a lot of they say about tall buildings, but I do agree with this.   Citizens should be able to find out for themselves what is being put forward, and the technology exists for them to be able to see images of what it would look like from a viewpoint they are interested in.  If you can make a film like Gravity, then you can certainly make a system like that without inventing any new technology. It wouldn't be cheap, though; it raises tricky questions of open access to data; and it also makes you think about just how accessible such a system is likely to be for everyone, as opposed to  IT literate bien-pensants.  Here is a piece on this subject that I wrote for the RIBA Smart Cities programme:

If you were excited by the digital world created in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, then looking up a planning application on a local authority website is likely to bring you back down to earth with even more of a bump than Sandra Bullock’s landing. What are the prospects for better and more sophisticated digitisation of the planning system?

It’s not hard to imagine amazing possibilities for spatial planning in a digitised world, given the continuing exponential growth of computing power and capacity.  The kind of imagery we are used to seeing on Time Team, with successive phases of building on a site presented digitally in ‘fast forward’ fly-throughs, could readily be applied to project proposals, and brought up, as standard, for consultees to review on a local authority website – rather than some badly drawn plans scanned at poor resolution, as we might be able to find today if we are lucky.  A dynamic digital imaging app could allow you to hold up your iPad in front of you on site and view a new scheme overlaid on reality, as it would appear from that viewpoint.

But today, it feels as if we are still in the Stone Age.  The applications suggested above wouldn’t need any technology we don’t have already (and probably exist already in some form) - but they are not very likely to become standard practice soon.  The reality is that digitisation of the planning system is in its infancy – and for the most part it is in the hands of local authorities, who are generally not at the bleeding edge of technology.

But even if the physical reality of buildings proposals could be presented in more and more sophisticated ways through computer modelling, will this bring about better planning?  The many problems of the UK planning system are not mainly to do with lack of access to data.  

Digital exclusion, too, should be a major concern in a system that is supposed to be democratically accountable.  Your 80 year old mother might want to say something about the Wetherspoon planned to open on her doorstep (mine did), but the average council website will not make it easy for her.

In an optimistic version of the digital future, planning authorities will be able much more readily to receive data as well as disseminate it.  Do we still want a few councillors deciding what will happen – why not ‘open source’ decision making?  Compared with a digital city model, the digital system that would allow citizens to vote on planning applications and strategies would be pretty straightforward.  But there is little appetite anywhere for rule by plebiscite rather then by representative government – which might lead you to wonder what the point would be in providing citizens with increasingly sophisticated data concerning things they are not being asked to decide on in any case.

Monday 14 December 2015


My commentary on Eric Parry's Undershaft project for a new City of London office tower, from last week's AJ

Eric Parry’s design is a good and pleasingly modest proposal for the new peak of the City’s ‘Eastern cluster’ of towers.  Recent skyscraper building in central London has seen a rather attention-seeking crowd of starchitect designs accumulating within the jumbled medieval street layout – curvy in the case of Foster and Viñoly, angular for Rogers and Piano.  In its contingent messiness, it is a very London cluster, in spite of this international provenance, which contrasts with the calm, orthogonal approach to tall buildings raised on a north American-style masterplan grid at Canary Wharf. 
Parry has matured into an acknowledged master of the high end, contextual city building.   Here, this approach is taken to new heights, but in its response to its surroundings, it exhibits the same thoughtfulness at seventy storeys as seen at a tenth that height in other projects by this practice which are set within traditional city block contexts.  There isn’t room for another trophy here, and the relative straightforwardness of what is proposed can be read as an implied rebuke to some of its predecessors.
The limits of the Eastern cluster are largely determined by London’s protected heritage views, and new towers here need to be squeezed into an area of about one tenth of the Square Mile.  The cluster is getting denser, not bigger, with several other very large towers in the same area planned but not yet built.  It may soon begin to call to mind a crowd of lanky shipwreck survivors huddled together on an island not quite big enough for them - as the tide rises.  Thank God for what we used to know as the CU Plaza that will, in an improved form, provide at least some sort of setting for these huge buildings.