Sunday, 18 December 2011
Prizes going to the 'wrong' people always seem to cause ill feeling that is out of kilter with the spirit of the awards, and for the journals at a time when there's not much interesting news - and the images in the film look a lot more interesting than the rather stolid type of architecture BD now favours - it must be like, well, Christmas.
As ever, there's not much new in all this. Archigram, anyone? But of course their work was mostly optimistic and Tavares' satire is pessimistic. Back in the good old days we had Tomorrow's World, Concorde and men on the moon - now we have English Heritage and Downton Abbey. My 3 year old daughter said the other day - possibly after watching Wallace and Grommit - 'Dad, men haven't really been to the moon, have they?'
I think the real reason I like Tavares' images is that they remind me of the 1950s Dan Dare strips I used to read.....when they were already 10 years old, in the 1960s.....I rest my case. Happy Christmas.
Friday, 9 December 2011
One consequence of this strange obsession is that new buildings are often expected to 'step down to respect the scale of the neighbouring buildings'. Since in most cities that I can think of, not all buildings are the same height, it might be thought inevitable for some buildings to be taller than their neighbours. But this apparently self evident proposition is not accepted as readily as you might think, and all over London you can see recent buildings where chunks have been lopped off somewhere between the original idea and the granting of planning consent.
Here in Wigmore Street, in the days before we had planning departments, a thoughtful architect noticed that his new building would be taller than its neighbour and decided to make it step up, not down, at the party wall, by making something special of the chimneystack. Most new buildings today are a lot cruder than this, and architects get fewer fun elements like chimneystacks to play with than they used to - but you have to wonder whether our townscape might be better served by planners insisting on architects having a bit more more fun, rather than 'stepping down'.
Here is a warning about 'stepping down' from the CABE / EH guidance 'Building in Context':
'...when a tall building meets its lower neighbour at more or less the same height and then gets higher in steps as it moves away along the facade. Unless the change in height arises out of the requirements of the brief, this can produce a lop-sided appearance in the new building and merely emphasises the difference in height between the two. Unless it is done with great finesse it does the older building no favours at all...'
Friday, 2 December 2011
It was suggested by several people that a strategy was a necessary starting point but one that didn't get you anywhere without heavyweight political support and a sustained effort to deliver, but I suspect that a strategy is a nice-to-have rather than a necessary, let alone a sufficient, condition for design to flourish. There appears to be little correlation between countries that have such strategies and the achieving of design excellence, and a strategy could just be a time-wasting alternative to getting on and doing things (see Yes Minister passim).
We went away with a few good soundbites: the idea that liveability is all very well in placemaking, but what about loveability; and Ben Page of Ipsos Mori on the 'cognitive polyphasia' of the public when it comes to design.
In the end, fine words butter no parsnips etc etc. When it comes to the role of Government, it was agreed that one of the most useful things they could do, when public procurement remains a significant part of economic activity in spite of everything, is to lead by example and simply behave as if design matters when it comes to its own procurement decision making. This would require a more risk-averse mind set in the public sector, as well as some senior ministers who actually cared about design. Achieving that will take more than another half-day talking shop, worthwhile and enjoyable as this one was.
Tuesday, 1 November 2011
A visit to St Paul's Cathedral on a weekday lunchtime to see the anti-capitalist protest camp - protestors, sightseeing workers and sightseeing tourists all very well behaved - prompts some thoughts about public space and private space in the city. The protestors' original target was said to be nearby Paternoster Square, home of the Stock Exchange, but what is called a square, and one might think is 'public' space, turns out to be private land. Normally full at lunchtime, today it is empty, fenced off behind temporary barriers guarded by the police. But as I understand it, the protestors only get to stay where they are now because they are on a different bit of private land, but owned by the C of E rather than a (secular) property company - presumably if they were in the middle of the road they would be moved on.
The landowners' 'control' of the Paternoster Square turns out to offer them less control than they might have thought, since the protestors' action has effectively led to its closure in any case.
The question of the private control of apparently public spaces has been discussed extensively in recent years, in Anna Minton's book Ground Control and elsewhere. As ever, it is nothing new - several of London's residential squares were 'gated communities' with controlled access in the nineteenth century.
The Government's urban design guidance By Design refers to the desirability of public and private spaces being clearly distinguished. This is simple (though still often messed up) when it comes to the 'fronts and backs' of traditional urban blocks when contrasted with the ill defined spaces of postwar planning, but more complex when it comes to spaces like Paternoster Square. In the traditional city, we find spaces like the Inns of Court where one is in no doubt that although one can visit, one is there on sufferance and could be excluded - with their gatehouses and doors, arguably a more 'clearly distinguished' arrangement than that found in Paternoster Square, which look invitingly public but turns out not to be. But then we have been reminded only this week that we still live in a feudal society....
What would Jane Jacobs do?
Monday, 31 October 2011
A trip to the north of England took in two recent projects, one from each side of the Pennines - each an excellent and widely published building: David Chipperfield's Hepworth gallery at Wakefield, and Adam Khan's Brockholes visitor centre next to junction 31 of the M6.
Le Corbusier called architecture the 'masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light'. Many projects don't offer much opportunity for that kind of thing, and nor are most clients necessarily seeking it, but here, in both cases, the opportunity has been taken for 'shapemaking' on an impressive scale.
Wakefield and Brockholes both bring together assemblies of variations on a single form - an implied 'house' - to form a powerful and memorable composition. Each has a watery site that is both difficult (gritty regeneration context at Wakefield, reclaimed gravel pits at Brockholes), and also full of promise in the dramatic opportunities offered.
It was particularly pleasing at Wakefield to find that the new footbridge across the river had been delivered as part of the project to provide the main pedestrian link from the town centre, avoiding the horrors of the main road - because there have been countless regeneration projects on cut-off sites all over England that have been predicated on 'aspirational' new bridges over road, railways or rivers, that are left to someone else to pay for and which never appear. Brockholes is approached over a bridge too - what was most pleasing here was the lack of guarding to stop you falling in the water - surprising to find in our nervous, cossetted, risk-averse age. But each of these projects as a whole is challenging and risky compared with what might have been done - the clients deserve prizes as much as the architects.
Wednesday, 19 October 2011
As the major structures in the park get close to completion, you'd hope that the visual clutter of the construction site would be starting to resolve itself into a beautiful series of set-piece elements in the landscape.
But that's not what is happening in this view (you can click on the image to enlarge):
1. The original clean lines of the stadium roof are lost below the ill-judged visual clutter of the lighting pylons. You'd think the lights could be in the main part of the roof as has been done elsewhere (e.g. at Arsenal) but apparently this was not possible. If the lights had to stick up above the roof, it would have been better to make them more clearly independent structures, rather than a confusing continuation of the visual logic of the main structure.
2. The original clean lines of the outside of the 'real', curvy Zaha Hadid aquatics centre are almost impossible to make out amidst the crude and ill-judged visual clutter of the huge wings of bolted-on additional seating that is needed in games mode. The smaller legacy structure will probably be great - a shame it won't be apparent, from the outside, when the eyes of the whole world are on it next year (although I suppose there's something rather nice about the fact that East Enders will get to enjoy the elegant version and the IOC won't, rather than the other way round as the Olympics normally work out).
3. The original design of the ArcelorMittal Orbit tower - arguably a bit of a mess in the first place, but at least all of a piece - has now been utterly messed up by visual clutter resulting from the addition of stairs, lifts, platforms etc. - a textbook English muddle, adding a post-hoc functional brief to a public sculpture to produce a design challenge that was probably impossible to satisfy successfully. Not so much Tatlin as tat.
Beginning to see a pattern? None of these three structures will look remotely like the neat and compelling images that we the public were originally sold.
I'm all in favour of the London Games and I hope they will be a success; I'm pleased that the public money that has gone into it has been spent wisely for the most part; and I believe it will all be good for East London in the long term. But next summer, I fear that a lot of what you will see in the park - which has been bigged up as a showcase for British design talent - is going to look rather disappointing by comparison with the CGIs.
Monday, 26 September 2011
For example, he suggests that if conservationists were a bit more logical (a bit more like economists, I think he means) they would argue for buildings not in conservation areas (I'm translating from American into English here) to be as tall as possible, not as short as possible, to reduce future pressure to redevelop the things they are trying to protect. Conservationism is fingered as having the direct effect of keeping property prices high and excluding the less well off, in respect of jobs as well as homes. NIMBYs are revealed as the unthinking slaves of the combined effects of two well-understood psychological syndromes that apply to reactions to change generally: the status quo bias (over-attachment to the present state of affairs) and impact bias (over-estimation of the impact that a negative shock will have on one's happiness).
Glaeser is for density and against sprawl, while being honest enough to explain why he and his family moved from downtown to the suburbs (schools etc., just like London). He hopes that India and China will avoid the perils of new cities growing at low rather than high densities as they mature, and speculates that 'in the long run, the twentieth century fling with suburban living will look, just like the brief age of the industrial city, more like an aberration than a trend'.
The title of the book might suggest you are in for some urban boosterism, but Glaeser is a lot more thoughtful than that, and he provides a powerful ethical as well as an economic basis for promoting densification.
Sunday, 18 September 2011
One can't help wondering how much of the visual confusion and discord that has resulted would go away if they could just have straightened the things out. It is common for 'look at me' architecture to try to be different in as many different ways as possible, but the loss of the prevailing Cartesian order of horizontals and verticals seems like one degree of difference too far. In the future, when the style war debates have been forgotten, the funny shapes may be the things that above all else result in a disagreeable degree of disharmony.
Prince Charles, in his notorious 1984 intervention on architecture at the RIBA, asked 'Why has everything got to be vertical, straight, unbending, only at right angles - and functional?'. I doubt whether this kind of outcome is what he had in mind, but it reminds us that you should be careful what you wish for.
Thursday, 15 September 2011
One member, Which editor Martyn Hocking, made the point that as a consumer, he would buy a new TV or car in preference to a second hand one, but would only buy a second hand home and would not expect to find a new home on offer that he would want to buy.
At the Q&A, an aggrieved representative of the Home Builders Federation asked why they should be expected to take part, since it appeared that everyone had decided to gang up on them- and attributed the profession's downer on the housebuilders, effectively, to snobbery. The HBF will generally claim that there isn't a problem, since their members sell all the homes they build, and surveys show that a very large majority of buyers are happy - though it was pointed out that someone who has made the biggest purchase of their life is unlikely to admit very readily that they have made a ghastly mistake (it would be interesting to compare surveys after say 6 months and 5 years).
Problem or no problem?
The average product of the average housebuilder (characterised by Alan Bennett as a f***-hutch) is not big enough and not much good, and there is a problem, whatever the HBF think. There was a massive response, in the form of comments on the BBC website story about the launch, which makes it clear that it is not just architects who think this. But is this market failure or is it regulatory failure? Housing supply is rationed because of the planning system - that is not the stated aim of the system but it is the practical effect. If it was de-rationed, a freer market might operate, and we might get better homes. But since that is unlikely to happen, it would be better to increase the amount of regulation and find ways of making the housebuilders improve their product - both in size (easier to achieve) and in the quality of the design (much harder). I suggested to the Commission members that they steer well away from questions of what new homes look like (awful for the most part, but the issue is a mare's nest) and stick to how people are meant to live in them - a more important consideration where the present market is failing to deliver.
This does seem to be a rare example - if the warning above is heeded - of an important issue where the profession can be at one both with the general public and with ministers, who can fairly often be heard to bemoan the quality of new homes. A new Parker Morris standard is not said to be on the cards as part of the RIBA's campaign, presumably because they know the Government want less regulation, not more. The trick will be to think of some fairly irresistible 'nudges' that can be said to stop short of regulation. Best of luck to the campaign and the Commission.
Monday, 12 September 2011
Much talk, amongst those I spoke with, about the increasing demands of the job. The two-year Presidency is unpaid, and the demands on the President's time have increased to the point where there are few who are in a position to be able to commit to it if they wanted to. One has to admire those who are prepared to take it on.
The leading figures in the profession - for example, to be objective, UK-based RIBA Gold medal winners from recent decades - have not (with some honourable exceptions) chosen to have much to do with their institute, and have generally not served as President - though most of them are in a position to do it if they chose to. But who better to put forward the case for the importance of architecture and architects than the architects with the most admired track record of projects?
Perhaps the Presidency needs to be shared between a high-profile figurehead who can be wheeled out a few times a year when it really matters - the most outward facing part of the present role - and a second person who would chair the RIBA Council and undertake the many days of visits around the UK and abroad that are required of the President.
Both roles would need political skills, and there are plenty of good architects who are not so adept at politics, but they are not mutually exclusive qualities. Angela Brady talks good sense and can be expected to be a good President, but why would we not expect to see the names of the likes of Rogers, Hopkins or Chipperfield on the panels in the RIBA entrance hall?
Friday, 2 September 2011
There are many benefits:
- There are lots of sound and attractive old public buildings, many listed, that do not have an obvious viable use, and town halls are a prime example.
- Most of these are in the hands of local authorities, and the evidence suggests that many local authorities are not fit and proper organisations to be in charge of nice old buildings.
- Most new hotels look awful - it is the building type least likely to generate good new architecture (competing for the title with student housing, but that is the building type most likely to generate bad new architecture, not quite the same thing). So putting a hotel in an old building is probably to be preferred.
- The old town halls are in town centres where hotels should be - whereas the default option for operators is to stick them on the ring road.
- As a building type, a hotel is as much a public building as a private one; and hotels are likely to be able to make use of the grand public spaces found in town halls from the days when they built proper ones.
More please - there's only so many Wetherspoons that a city can take.
Thursday, 1 September 2011
We had an interesting day and saw some good projects. Isis find themselves in the happy position of being able to choose between competing schemes of good quality, as a result of having chosen decent firms in the first place.
This is how procurement should work. Set a high quality threshold, and let in only those architects who are likely to give you a good building. A client should then be able, if they wish, to chose the cheapest amongst competing schemes - as opposed to the more usual choice in public sector procurement, between a cheap scheme and a good one - a situation that has predictable results.
Getting a good building is not easy, but it's not as hard as some people seem to make it. Write a good brief and then get a good architect. CABE were making this simple point to the Government all through the boom years of PFI, but with little success, and the landscape is now littered with tacky public buildings as a result (there are a few good ones too).
There has also been recent press coverage of criticism of the 'box ticking' procurement culture that is the prime cause of the poor outcomes referred to. The problem is still widespread. Clients like Isis seem to be light enough on their feet to avoid it - not a slapdash approach or one that ignores due diligence, but the application of intelligence to the task at hand, focused on a high quality built outcome - rather than on pleasingly completed spreadsheets.
Tuesday, 30 August 2011
London is apparently to be visited shortly by UNESCO - or possibly their representatives on earth, ICOMOS, the 'International Council on Monuments and Sites' - who are to determine whether the world heritage sites of the Palace of Westminster and Tower of London are 'at risk'.
At risk from what, you ask? Flood, fire, dodgy foundations or inappropriate interior decoration? No - at risk from that great curse of the big modern world: big modern buildings. There is anxiety, it seems, that large-scale new development may be taking over our world city (that's our world city, by the way, not UNESCO's) and ruining its unspoilt Norman (or should that be Victorian plus Victorian sham-Norman knock-off) cityscape.
The UK has signed up to international treaties, promising to look after our heritage, so UNESCO and ICOMOS do have a legitimate locus, and on the face of it they are only doing their job in coming to London. But like so many in the heritage industry, once the fabric of important heritage is no longer at risk, as it generally isn't in this country, they do like to expand their remit - without any invitation to do so - to everything for miles around the thing they are supposed to be paying attention to.
The language of world heritage and the associated international treaties, and the explanations that one finds on these bodies' impenetrable websites, are distinctly offputting. It all has a ghastly bureaucratic pomposity to it. The sites, to qualify, have to have something called 'outstanding universal value', which once designated, sounds about as unchallengable as the Ten Commandments. But the documents explaining the values tend to lack the pithy and compelling rhetorical qualities found in the Old Testament. And it is not at all clear what the limits of 'outstanding universal value' are in a large metropolis. But safe to say that they are a lot more bounded than this lot think.
There is hardly anyone who now thinks that the the conjunction of the Tower of London and the Swiss Re tower, seen from the tourist honeypot of Potters Fields on the South Bank and now one of the notable sights of London, is a mistake to be regretted. The whole is clearly greater than the sum of the parts, and says all sorts of interesting and positive things about what London is. But UNESCO look at things differently and may think they can see evidence of two Norman conquests here - (1) a ruthless tyrant and his feared henchmen imposing their iron will on the skyline and changing the city for ever with a built symbol of their power, and (2) the Tower of London.
No doubt times are hard for international organisations funded by indebted national governments (i.e. us, ultimately). UNESCO can save the cost of their trip - neither of these World Heritage Sites is 'at risk'. Londoners are proud of these sites, but they are buildings in a world city, not exhibits in a museum. There are plenty of places in the world where heritage is actually at risk, that one might think would be a higher priority - but such places may not be quite as agreeable, or safe, to visit as London is.
Wednesday, 24 August 2011
Assuming the coalition government remains in power, there is the prospect, by this time next year, of a Labour Mayor in conflict both with Tory councils at a local level and with a Tory minister at the Communities department at the national level. The Mayor has a power - used at least once by Boris Johnson - to 'call in' big planning applications for his own decision where he doesn't like the local authority's view; and the Communities Secretary has a similar power at the national level. The power resides in the Mayor personally, not the GLA.
Livingstone has never been averse to provocative political point-scoring. He proved himself surprisingly pro-development last time around, and it is not hard to imagine him calling in a big scheme which he supported but a local authority didn't, on the basis that it is of London-wide importance (for example in respect of its ability to contribute to Crossrail funding). The Government would then have to decide whether to override him in turn. We could then look forward to some fancy spinning on who is the 'localest' of them all, with Ken telling the Government to back off, and the Government claiming that it is only using its national-level powers to support the local council....
Mrs Thatcher's Government abolished the Greater London Council, under its then leader Ken Livingstone, in 1986, in a controversial act of political spite which left London rudderless for over a decade. The present Government supports the idea of elected mayors, but it may come to find that it likes some mayors more than others - even those that are in the same party are not proving entirely problem free.
Could history repeat itself if Ken returns?
Sunday, 31 July 2011
This suggests the Government has got it about right.
But what about those who would like to see things getting built - but only things that are any good? Everyone has anecdotes of how well designed schemes get bogged down in the planning system while mediocrities are waved through - it is a commonplace of what passes for 'planning' in England.
The NPPF, perhaps surprisingly, offers some hope. At clause 121, it states that '...significant weight should be given to truly outstanding or innovative designs which help raise the standard of design...'. This is, in effect, a version of the PPS7 'country house clause' (or 'Gummer clause' after the Environment Secretary who brought it in), but applied to all development everywhere. The wording doesn't go as far as providing a free pass to schemes that pass the test, but the clause can be seen as a very positive and specifically anti-bonehead-nimby measure that pulls, like a lot of the draft, in the opposite direction to the likely consequences of localism.
It's good that schemes can be either outstanding or innovative to qualify, rather than having to qualify under both counts as in the present country house clause - innovation is a great thing, but you don't want it everywhere and at all times - and in any case, when it happens it happens, and it can't be willed into being at the command of ministers - and architecture can of course be outstanding without being innovative, so even the 'traditional architects' should be happy.
But who will decide whether something is in fact 'outstanding', if that is what you are claiming (as presumably everyone now will)?
The answer is found in the preceding clause in the draft, which refers to design review as the way to 'ensure high standards of design' - another welcome provision. While many architects have mixed feelings about design review panels, most can be eventually be persuaded that if they must put up with someone else opining about the merits of their designs, they would on balance prefer this to happen through peer review rather than on the basis of the opinions of planning officers or planning committee members.
If all this gets through the consultation - particularly what may become known as the 'Clark clause' - then localism minister Greg Clark who is responsible for the draft can - unlike his colleague Michael Gove - expect an Hon FRIBA to follow shortly.
All in all, there is a fair bit to like in the NPPF. You can register your support here.
Monday, 25 July 2011
It's unsightly to have a collection of rubbish bins right next to your front door - and unpleasant, and smelly - but many homes in London have to put up with this. Here is a terrace of houses on a main road in north-west London - Finchley Road in the London Borough of Barnet - where outside every door there are several bins - on a permanent basis, as far as I could tell.
'Dignity never been photographed', according to Bob Dylan - it certainly hasn't been here. This is no way to live, and I bet refuse was dealt with in a more dignified way fifty years ago. Getting rid of waste and sewage is one of the basics of civilised city life - it is common to hail Bazalgette as a greater hero of Victorian building than any mere architect - but here is an area where progress has gone into reverse. Across much of Hackney, massive plastic bins sit outside the fronts of houses right next to already obtrusive but now redundant purpose-built bin enclosures that are not high enough. Bins permanently on the street have become a commonplace sight as methods of collection have been reorganised, and no thought appears to be given to the consequences for people's homes or home lives.
Any half-decent architect could come up with a solution that would suit the requirements of the collectors while providing the amenity that a householder ought to be entitled to. Local authorities do not seem prepared to make any effort - but is it likely that the people in charge would think of it as a design problem, and if they did, would they think of architects as the people to sort it out?
Might architects be seen as (1) having loftier things on their minds and (2) not much good at the practical stuff? Probably - and if so, they should be doing something about this image problem if they want to survive. One of the pleasures of design review meetings is to see a concept-heavy presentation followed up by a Q and A which begins with a question about the bin store is. The ideas merchant looks affronted - but he shouldn't. A greater readiness on the part of architects to pay attention to problems that are lower down the hierarchy of needs might result in a greater readiness on the part of clients to let them spend their time on things that are higher up. Architects need to understand paladins as well as Palladio - if they could show that they did, they might get more work, and the world might be a better place in all sorts of little, practical, everyday ways that taken together, make a big difference as to whether city life is civilised or brutish.
Friday, 15 July 2011
A short walk from Zumthor's 2011 Serpentine Pavilion is the new Tsunami Memorial, to be found in the grounds of the Natural History Museum and designed by Carmody Groarke.
Carmody Groarke are architects, but this is a a highly successful work of abstract sculpture - they were clearly not tempted by Adolf Loos's observation that memorials and tombstones offer the only opportunities for true, pure architecture untainted by the mundane requirements of a functional brief - though they probably still had a job persuading the QS and project manager of the necessity of transporting a single piece of granite weighing more than 100 tonnes to the site.
The memorial strikes just the right notes of dignity and seriousness of purpose, its weight and permanence a poignant contrast with the fragility of many of the coastal settlements that were swept away by the wave.
The only criticism I would make is that the only way to get to it is by pushing one's way through the dinosaur-fancying hordes in the museum to the back door of the Darwin wing. This is an unsatisfactory way to get to a public memorial to an event that happened on the other side of the world, and anyone intent on quiet contemplation for personal reasons might find it disturbing. There is a simple solution since the memorial can be seen from Queen's Gate at the side of the museum, down a path with an existing gate, as can be seen in the photo above - all that needs to be done is to open the gate to provide proper public access, which seems likely to have been the designers' original plan. The problem is presumably supermarket-style access-control-freakery at the Museum - they should speak to their more relaxed colleagues at most of our other great collections in London who allow multiple access points to their sites.
The memorial is as good as the same designers' 7/7 memorial in Hyde Park. Between them they provide a refreshing contrast to the ill-considered nature of some other recent memorials in London, such as the Animals in War memorial in Hyde Park, which is tacky and mawkish, and the Women at War memorial in Whitehall, which is OK by comparison, but strangely visually aggressive in its setting, distracting from the power of the Cenotaph. More representational designs such as Charles Jagger's magnificent Royal Artillery memorial at Hyde Park Corner worked in an earlier age, but today seem much harder to achieve successfully; and a more abstract artistic approach, still unloved by much of the public in architecture and painting, seems to be accepted more readily in this field.
Quality control of this kind of enterprise is difficult because of the sensitivities involved, but it was precisely because of the poor quality of so many proposed memorials to the First World War that the Royal Fine Art Commission was set up in the 1920s. It was still reviewing such projects up to its replacement by CABE in 1999. CABE chose to concentrate on other matters and gave up this role - I think it is a role that is missed, and I seem to remember that there was an Act of Parliament that requires that such reviews for central London sculptures and memorials - was it repealed or is it forgotten?
These are not the most important projects in London but they have meaning and resonance that a new office building, whatever its 'visual impact', does not; they are worth the time and attention to get right. If they would unlock that gate, the Tsunami memorial would be an exemplar.
Tuesday, 12 July 2011
To this year's Serpentine Pavilion, Hortus Conclusus, which was designed by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, a man that many would put on their 'greatest living architect' shortlist.
Hortus Conclusus - 'enclosed garden' - didn't do it for me (though if you are interested in architecture you should go and see it). As an idea, a garden within a garden in central London is a bit odd, since arguably people not already in a nice park, for example in large areas of Tower Hamlets where there aren't any, might benefit rather more from the planted space offered by the project - which was a nice enough bit of planting, but hardly memorable. But even if you accept the idea of an inner sanctum space for quiet contemplation away from the frisbee throwing throng in the park, unfortunately, everyone and their dog had gone there at the same time as us, and opportunities for contemplation were limited.
As a building, this seemed to me one of the less interesting or inspired manifestations of this annual event in recent years. The 'all black' finish - same on roof and walls and floor - was another nice idea in theory, but the reality - thick black paint on scrim tape on ply - just looked a bit cheap, and to an English viewer, strongly reminiscent of a creosoted garden shed - not sure if they do that in Switzerland. You could see the joints but not very clearly, and I couldn't work out if the intention had originally been to suppress them or celebrate them, the result rather falling between the two. The result was a bit like a rapid in-house mock up of a structure meant to be made properly in due course.
Of course there are architectural ideas underlying all this and there are connections with other projects by Zumthor and others like him - the interest in 'materiality' (architect-speak for 'materials', or perhaps 'materials with added theory'), and in the enigmatic quality of the simple building form. But Magritte could make a real garden shed look more enigmatic than this, by painting it in the right light and, crucially, detaching it from the hubbub of the everyday. You can get that effect up an Alp too, but it's harder in W2.
All rather disappointing, and it made me ponder on what you do as a client if you have sought out a great architect and you don't think much of what they come up with. Let's hope the Serpentine is better served by Zaha Hadid who is designing their new Sackler Gallery nearby.
Thursday, 7 July 2011
A stroll along Chelsea Embankment this week brought on a double take as Wren's Royal Hospital appeared to have been moved 100m towards the river and undergone a moronic and visually distressing PoMo makeover. No long term harm done, except probably to the grass not yet recovered from the Flower Show, since this turns out to be a temporary tented city housing 'Masterpiece', an event billed as the 'best of the best from around the world' - best of what, I couldn't work out, but the punters were being greeted by cab-door-opening flunkeys in top hats, moonlighting, I suspect, from door duties at a 'gentleman's club' (of the E1 rather than SW1 variety). Things are generally all of a piece, and the general mismatch between aspiration and what you could see was at least consistent.
Aside from the question of the marketing wisdom of claiming that you could find the best of anything inside here, this bizarre sight prompted a couple of other thoughts.
The first is that this was more evidence that PoMo, like that other 1980s icon Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, may not be quite as dead as we thought, and as suggested previously in this blog, a revival may be on the cards. Stake through the heart time?
The other question raised is: for how long you are allowed to defile an important location with tat like this without anybody telling you that you can't? Anything permanent built within view of the Royal Hospital (e.g. Chelsea Barracks) is gone over with a fine-tooth comb and every last inch argued over, but it seems you can block an entire frontage of a Grade I building completely as long, as the blockage goes away again before too long. A visiting Wren enthusiast from abroad on a short break to London last week might have been a bit upset - and surprised? - to find 'Masterpiece' in situ for the duration of their visit.
Could there be a formula that planners apply whereby something very long lasting has to be very beautiful, something only there for a week can be any old rubbish, and something middle of the road, like a new office building that will be there for thirty years and then be recycled can be, well, middling? That would suggest we should pay more attention to the design of housing than office blocks, which doesn't happen, so it can't be quite like that, but there is clearly a natural logic to something along those lines.
As a more general point, at places such as the Royal Hospital, Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square, places that are meant to be open are occupied for more and more of each year by large scale temporary events, the paraphernalia of which are generally of no better quality than those of 'Masterpiece'. Much of Hyde Park is presently shut off by a high temporary fence that not only deprives people of much of their park but looms aggressively (together with the concomitant 'security' goons) over the space that remains, and a park where one might expect to go for 'quiet enjoyment' has become a showground for much of the year. Trafalgar Square is a mess most days...
Application of the formula suggested above would mean that the longer we have to put up with this kind of stuff, the better looking it should be. If such 'temporary' structures are in fact there more often than not, then the thing should be done properly - for a modest outlay you could get Hopkins Architects to design you some tents that would be a pleasure to look at, rather than yet another example of public squalor in our supposed world city.
This is the approach being taken for the Olympics, where for all the complaints about what is to happen in Greenwich Park, for example, we can expect it all to look pretty good on the day. But it is not the general rule - rather like the difference between the 'impressing the foreigners' procurement philosophy applied to building new embassies, contrasted with the likes of the ghastly new Royal London Hospital building being foisted on Londoners in the East End. Of which more later.
Thursday, 16 June 2011
Run down public housing estates are an example. 'Estate regeneration', in London at least, seems to start with consideration of the building stock, but often it is everything between the buildings that is really the problem. Some publicly or RSL-owned post-war housing estates have appallingly neglected 'public' realm where every (generally undesigned) intervention that does take place, from the location of bins to the erection of barriers, seems to say to tenants 'you don't matter and we don't care'.
But it's not easy for the landlords, even if well-intentioned - compared with more traditional layouts, such estates are full of too may acres of 'space left over after planning' that no one takes responsibility for. And there's no money.
At the Abbots Manor Estate in Pimlico, for example, (pictured above), there is an area of greenery where the space between the buildings has been filled with areas of well maintained planting that has the look of something that tenants are involved in, and didn't need a design competition. Whether or not this is the case, it suggests that there is a good way of dealing with all that pointless space on estates that no one loves, by digging up the (already potholed and time-expired) tarmac and getting the people who live there to grow things. There are so many pluses to this that surely it should be encouraged everywhere, but particularly on 'problem' estates:
1. It will make the place look better, and might provide some flowers and fruit and veg.
2. Gardening is good for you and the gardeners will be healthier and happier.
3. If there are people there with nothing to do, this is something for them to do.
4. It provides a good reason for people who are not up to no good to occupy and take ownership of the public space: eyes on the street.
5. Without wanting to get all 'big society' about it, it ought to be a good thing for people who live together in a place to have the opportunity to do something together that is so self-evidently beneficial.
- but anyway, a worthwhile target for 'big society' funding if ever there was one.
One could parody the difference between 1960s public housing and present day mass market private housing as having somehow flipped from, then, decent well planned flats built to Parker Morris space standards but set in a dystopian wasteland of decaying external space - to, now, nasty, gloomy, badly laid out hutches designed for 3/4 size furniture, set in lush, buyer-friendly 'public realm' of shrubberies and Marshalls shared surface paving. The problems of the first may be easier to sort out than the problems of the second.
Friday, 10 June 2011
In fact, the Tories have over the years been better than Labour at getting on with big infrastructure projects, at least as far as transport is concerned. They need to rediscover that bit of their heritage, particularly as the debate over High Speed 2 reveals all the predictable political tensions, made more problematic by the tenets of localism ('local high speed trains for local people'). And while they are sorting out the water and the trains, how about some new parks for new housing too?
Wednesday, 8 June 2011
....whereas in their earlier, equally clever makeover of Olivers Yard (by ORMS), the 1960s cladding was kept.
There were probably all sorts of reasons for the respective decisions, but one imagines that fashion - in respect of kerb appeal to likely punters - was a factor. Just as James Bond's suits in the 1960s films look a lot classier than in the 70s and 80s, and we look back more fondly on the Beatles and Kinks than on Mud and the Rubettes, so 1960s cladding seems more in tune with today's aesthetic interests than the 1980s versions.
But English Heritage is starting to think about what from the 1980s is worth listing, as their recent (rather surprising) recommendation to list Broadgate demonstrates. Part of the idea of listing is that it can be contrarian - if Brutalism is out of fashion, all the more reason to save some prime examples so there are some left when it comes to be appreciated again - remember that St Pancras was nearly demolished 50 years or so ago. Could that 1980s PoMo look, so deeply unfashionable now, come back? What would you list from the 1980s? I would start with James Stirling's No. 1 Poultry, designed in the 80s though built a decade later - its excesses being not blameworthy but precisely the point, the built representation of the fat city boys in red braces of the Thatcher years.
Thursday, 2 June 2011
The section on design reads well. The heritage section attempts to rewrite PPS5 in plain English and reduce it to three pages, again pretty successfully. It introduces one or two interesting new ideas too, and the following caught my eye:
This is a reference to an aspect of conservation creep that is common (conservation creep is a syndrome and not, it should be made clear, a type of individual). Conservation areas are meant (by law) to have special architectural or historic interest and are not meant (according to current guidance) to be designated just to stymie development, but both of these requirements are flagrantly ignored as more and more second rate or unremarkable areas are designated by local authorities, often to keep residents' assocations happy. In a rare legal challenge to designation, a conservation area designation by Tower Hamlets was recently thrown out by the courts.
Another inappropriate, and rather paradoxical, reason for designation is (or was when there was money around) to secure heritage funds for renovation and improvement in decaying and neglected areas.
It will be interesting to see if this admirable piece of drafting in the new document makes the final cut after consultation.
In the longer term, the measures in the Localism Bill may make it easier for residents' association-type interests to say 'no change round here please', but that will at least be a bit more honest than pretending that some humdrum Victorian terraces have special interest.
( You can read find my comment piece for the RIBA Journal on the challenges for the NPPF, written before the draft referred to above had appeared, here. )
Tuesday, 31 May 2011
Monday, 30 May 2011
One interesting question from the audience came from Tory MP Peter Bottomley - as is common on such occasions, it was more of a proposition than a question - who suggested that senior EH staff should be taken regularly to Eltham Palace for an awayday, with a view to reflecting on whether a wealthy businessman would be allowed today, as happened there in the 1930s, to revive the remains of an important but decaying medieval palace by grafting on to it an enormous art deco mansion.
The resulting ensemble is now an EH property, which is well worth a visit. The EH website draws you in with talk of '1930s Art Deco decadence' before mentioning the older stuff; whereas the South London Pevsner, from 1983, majors on the medieval parts, and clearly doesn't fully approve of the Art Deco addition, which is by Seely and Paget - evidence of changing tastes, and / or the difference between scholarly and popular interests in the past.
Bottomley's question referred to a view of EH's mindset that many architects who try to do interesting things with old buildings - plenty of whom were there at Apsley House - would subscribe to. EH would, I imagine, protest against the the lazy, cartoon-like dichotomy between tweedy, elbow-patched conservationists who would list anything pre-Beatles, and black polo-necked progressives who would bulldoze the lot. But imaginative responses to what Lewis Mumford called the 'usable past' are still considerably less likely to find favour than safe solutions that frighten no horses, but could never be used in a few decades to bring the visitors in.
Budget cuts at EH may well reduce the chances of an enlightened approach if everything is reduced to a tick box exercise, as is usually the way in the public sector. A better outcome would be for EH to let well alone in cases where projects are in competent hands, and concentrate on things that are actually falling down.
Friday, 13 May 2011
The proposal to demolish two 1980s office buildings at Broadgate in the City of London, and replace them by a new HQ for Swiss Bank UBS, designed by Ken Shuttleworth's practice Make, is making waves in London architectural and development circles. The Twentieth Century Society is lobbying for the existing buildings to be preserved.
In an interview with the Architects' Journal, Shuttleworth is quoted as saying that 'office buildings are commodities not monuments'. This is consistent with what the City of London's head of planning Peter Rees has been saying for years: that the City needs to churn its building stock to suit what businesses need, and that the last thing it needs is to be filled up with new buildings that can't be knocked down when their time is up.
An obvious question is begged by the objections to demolition: if an important business like UBS wants a big new building in the City, where do the objectors suggest that they go? The building stock in central London, out as far as somewhere between zone 1 and zone 2, has ossified to the extent that the number of possible development sites is severely limited. Anything older than the Second World War is now as likely as not to be proclaimed a 'heritage asset' unsuitable for demolition and redevelopment, even if not listed or in a conservation area. Until a couple of years ago, my rule of thumb for the cut-off point was the First World War; from this latest news, it appears the pace is accelerating, and the new age limit may be the First Iraq War.
In practice, the only substantial sites in central London that are unquestionably plausible for large-scale redevelopment are those that have big post-war buildings on them that no one loves. Usually these buildings are bigger than their surroundings already, and development economics suggests a new building bigger than what is there - with the attendant planning difficulties.
Make's proposed building has been likened to 'a piece of kitchen equipment'. Presumably this is meant to be disparaging about its looks, but it is an interesting observation in another regard. It tends to be the very oldest kitchen equipment that is replaced by the new - that sounds like the natural order of things. But with buildings in central London, it has become the other way round - only the newest buildings are allowed to be replaced.
Broadgate is a special place, and a special case - it would be a shame to see some of the original buildings go. But the controversy is symptomatic of the fact that as the pressure for the preservation of old buildings (and their 'settings', and the settings of their settings) has had more and more success, 'conservation creep' has gone too far.
The Barclays Cycle Superhighway is coming soon to an arterial road near you – the example above is at Millbank near Tate Britain.
That Bob Diamond certainly earns his money. Any advertisement more than about half a square metre in size needs planning permission. Any new development that affects the ‘setting of a listed building’ is pored over endlessly and in minute detail by the planners to decide if it is appropriate. But I doubt whether consent of any kind was needed for this scheme, which covers several square miles of premium London highway, no doubt passing through a few conservation areas on the way, with Barclays' corporate colours. Money well spent for them. It might have been worse if it had all been sponsored by Orange, but what happens when Barclays pull the plug? Let’s hope there is a bond covering the cost of scraping it all off.
Sunday, 8 May 2011
It would be great if public money could be spent on sorting out a few of the most outstanding, and most longstanding, examples in time for the Olympics. Here are three suggestions. Each is something that when I moved to London as a student about 30 years ago, I naively assumed was work in progress at that time, since they looked so decrepit then - but in each case, they remain as bad today as they were then.
First, the Hungerford car park on the South Bank. SIXTY YEARS after the Festival of Britain, parts of the site of that great event remains a cat's cradle of public realm confusion - and at its heart the Hungerford car park: in 1951 the Transport Pavilion, but today, after endless squabbles that have got nowhere, a shabby mess and a visual embarrassment at the heart of one of the capital's principal destinations for visitors.
Secondly, the entrance to Highbury and Islington tube station - used by millions every year, now an interchange with the Overground too, at the heart of a lively and prosperous area. The entrance area has the feel and visual quality of the back entrance to something unimportant, with a prefab style station facing a prefab style back elevation of a post office building, the two given a certain coherence by the accumulations of decades of mechanical and electrical equipment installed with maximum thoughtlessness. The sad remains of a single pilaster of the grand Victorian station, seen above to the left of the entrance, offer a poignant reminder that caring about the look of everyday infrastructure used to be more than a minority interest.
Thirdly - the Hogarth roundabout flyover at Chiswick, the west London road network's answer to a Thorpe Park ride, ideally located to impress foreign visitors on their way in from Heathrow. Apparently made of Meccano and roofing felt, it looks like something the Royal Engineers could be half proud of - if they had put it up in a day or two with a view to using it for a week or two. It was built in 1969 as a temporary measure. Presumably someone tightens up the bolts occasionally, but it certainly makes me nervous when I drive over it. Sorting it out has obviously been in the 'too hard' tray on someone's desk for a few decades.
Not all of London can look spiffy, and a big city needs places for tattiness - such as the lower Lea Valley as it was until 2005, when few people went there and businesses unknown to HMRC could carry on in peace and quiet. The places described above are different - they are used or seen by tens of thousands of passers by every day.
A good use of public funds is to lift the look of places by tackling messes in prominent locations like these that can never be sorted out by the private sector. In time for the Olympics please.
Wednesday, 27 April 2011
Loads of Union Jacks in the Mall today, probably something to do with the Royal Wedding. But only a couple of weeks ago, traders in Covent Garden were being told not to display Union Jacks, apparently because they were being shown on 'low quality products'. Low quality products of other kinds seem not to have been forbidden. Rum. One can see why the owners of Covent Garden wouldn't want it to end up looking like the east end of Oxford Street, but can it really be the national flag that is lowering the tone?
About 30 years ago, a UK-based American Playboy executive , Victor Lownes, had the tops of the railings to his Mayfair mansion picked out with gold paint - only to be told that this was not acceptable and that they would have to revert to the usual black. Why? Because it was 'vulgar'. He pointed out that the Queen had them around Buckingham Palace. That, he was told, was an entirely different matter.
Taste, it seems, is all about context.
Tuesday, 26 April 2011
To Margate on a hot and sunny bank holiday Monday to see the newly opened Turner Contemporary (no 'The', no 'Gallery'), designed by architect of the moment David Chipperfield ('Chippo' to the Architects' Journal).
Chipperfield's project replaced a more ambitious and more obviously 'iconic' proposal by Norwegian architects Snøhetta for a new pebble-shaped gallery building rising out of the water just off the stone pier - a perfect reflection, one might think with hindsight, of pre-credit crunch extravagance (the pebble scheme was abandoned amidst stories of spiralling costs) giving way to the 'new austerity', of which Chippo's architecture is said to be representative.
Some reviews have expressed disappointment with the building's reticence, but I found the approach refreshing. Along the coast at Sheerness is a famous example of the 'Functional Tradition' from which so many English architects have drawn inspiration - the 1850s Boat Store, built for the Admiralty. One could place Chipperfield's building in the tradition of 'knowing' architecture inspired by that earlier tradition - doing what is appropriate, in this case without the rhetoric found in some of his cultural projects abroad. His sketch diagram of the project, available as a postcard in its shop, is so banal as to make you wonder just how hard architecture can be. But if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.
On our visit a lively and varied crowd were enjoying themselves in the galleries and social spaces inside and outside. It felt like it could become a real local institution, living up to the implication of the website's description of Turner Contemporary as an organisation rather than a gallery. Margate has its problems, which are plain to see on a day trip, but you don't need to agonize about whether or not there could ever be a 'Bilbao effect' here, to have an optimistic view of the potential for a place like this to help a town like this improve itself.
At the other end of the beach there is a surprising work by another well known architect - a Beaux Arts 1920s railway station designed by a young Maxwell Fry, later a prominent purveyor of white modernism. Its listing description, more colourfully than many such, says 'Fry went on to loudly embrace the international modern style, one of the first native-born architects to do so in England. He later became coy about his years with Southern Railways.'
If you sailed more or less due north from here across the Thames estuary, you would come to Felixstowe where last year I came across a similar case - but in reverse - of a tyro work showing stylistic interests rather different from what you might expect - the young classicist-to-be Raymond Erith involved, also in the 1920s, in a strikingly modern church design.
Nothing wrong with changing your mind. But the architectural profession tends to rather tribal stylistic allegiances, now as then, so stories like this are particularly pleasing.