Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Plenty of room on top?

What is it about London Mayors and buses?

Boris's decon/recon Routemaster, launched this week, looks like a mixed blessing, but at least it takes up less room than Ken's hated bendy buses.

In their approach to London's limited supply of land, Ken's and Boris's housing and transport policies offer an interesting set of contrasts.

Ken wanted the housing piled up high to save space, but the bendy buses took up twice as much road as their predecessors and consequently blocked junctions (as well as offering big savings on rides up and down Kingsland Road to the youth of Hackney, who christened one route the '2-4-free' as there appeared to be no need to buy a ticket).

Boris's phasing out of the bendies frees up the roads, but he's less keen on high density and high rise housing.

Probably the effects will cancel out. There may be some sort of scientific Law of Conservation of Open Space at work here.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Modernity and tradition on the Suffolk coast

This extraordinary concrete church, St Andrew in Felixstowe (1929-31, listed at Grade II*) was designed by Hilda Mason in collaboration with Raymond Erith. It mixes modern architectural themes and modern construction with clear references to the medieval churches of East Anglia.

Erith, born in 1904, went on to become a leading classical architect in the postwar period when classical architecture was completely out of fashion, and in due course was the mentor and partner of Quinlan Terry.

I don’t know who Hilda Mason was. The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford on Avon by Elizabeth Scott was, I seem to remember, cited as the only major or listed pre-war public building by a female architect. It seems this is not the case. And the church looks more interesting than the theatre.

St Andrew’s made me wonder whether Erith could have gone on to be a much more interesting architect had he taken a different path – maybe in the vein of George Pace, or William Whitfield in his later buildings.

Robert McCrum, in today’s Observer, reflects on the difficulty that writers and other artists find in remaining creative as they age. No problem for geniuses such as Picasso, but not so easy in the lower tiers. One can’t help noticing that the second half of the average ‘best of’ CD isn’t worth listening to. The late novelist Simon Raven remarked that ‘as people get older they get more conservative and more boring’ – I think we’ve all noticed that. The architect Tony Fretton, giving a talk at the RIBA’s Small Practice conference a couple of years ago, observed that the visual language of architecture is renewed by small young practices. We seldom see anything new from the ‘great’ or leading architects today, once they are established – we have to seek it out elsewhere.

So Erith starts out, aged 25 or so, with an association with a building that is still startling today, and ends up pursuing a kind of architecture where originality is not so highly admired. Leon Krier’s trajectory is similar: early modernist-influenced work while working for James Stirling rejected in favour of a conversion to traditional ways of thinking about architecture and urbanism.

So might the conversions of Erith and Krier to traditional design be no more than examples of the syndrome that Raven articulated? If creativity dries up in middle age, then a philosophy that regards creativity as overvalued sounds like an expedient strategy to adopt at about that time.

I wish I knew more about Hilda Mason.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Poundbury - back to the future

On a trip to Dorset recently, we drove past Poundbury on the Dorchester bypass.

Overcoming various prejudices, I quite admire the first bit of Poundbury to have been completed. Ok, it's not Hammerby, but compared with most of the pitiful products of the volume housebuilders, it's admirable, at least in terms of built form. As a place to live, it's probably weird - The Prisoner meets The Archers. Check out the Forelocktuggers Arms in the village square, for example.

Poundbury is evidently growing, though - and, I fear, not in a good way. The view from the bypass of the more recent parts reminded me of one of those Leon Krier polemical projects from about thirty years ago. His thinking underpins much of what has happened here. In spite of his unfortunate association with Prince Charles and the latter's strange ideas, Krier's influence, which has been signficant, has in my view done more good than harm over the years. But the sheer oddity of the view from the bypass illustrates the difference between polemic and what should ever be built (compare Le Corbusier and the Ville Radieuse). Whatever the way to build urban extensions is, it's not this.

Happily, we drove on and found the Hive Beach Cafe.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Herding cats at Portland Place

Nominations are open to stand for President of the RIBA. It's not an easy job. Trying to lead architects is like herding cats.

Consider comparisons with other professions. I doubt you would get much consensus from architects on how to complete this table:

Answers might include:

Beauty ( / truth )
Meeting the requirements of the client’s brief
“Design quality”
I don’t understand the question
What a stupid question…

Having served on the RIBA Council for a few years now, I’d say that we’ve been quite lucky with our presidents in recent years (Jack Pringle, Sunand Prasad and Ruth Reed). I suspect the trick is just to be yourself rather than take it upon yourself to represent the whole profession.

Who’s next? Papabile candidates are thin on the ground. Nominations close on 14 May; white smoke later in the summer.