Sunday, 31 July 2011

Ministers support outstanding architecture shock

The draft National Planning Policy Framework has been well received by those who want to get things built, and criticised by those who don't want things to be built.

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

A load of rubbish - paladins and Palladio

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

TheTsunami Memorial

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

Summer at the Serpentine - Zumthor goes creosote

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

Temporary insanity

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.