Sunday, 18 December 2011

Robots of Brixton - back to the future

Reflecting the true spirit of Christmas, the architecture family is engaged in a row.  Building Design magazine this week covers the controversy over whether the RIBA were right to award their Silver Medal for student work to Kibwe Tavares' animated vision of a dystopian Brixton of the future, said by those against the award to be all animation and no architecture.

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

How tall is your building?

Buckminster Fuller used to ask architects 'how much does your building weigh?'  It's still a good question, but it's not one heard often down at the planning department, where the overriding obsession is always 'how tall is your building?'.  Other questions that you might think more interesting, about whether buildings are useful, durable, beautiful etc., languish way down the list of priorities.

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

Should government have a design strategy?

To a debate on this subject at Design Council CABE yesterday.   Given a roomful of people - from the Design Council's traditional territory as well as its new built environment constituency - who all pretty much agreed with the proposition, there was a surprisingly lively and interesting discussion. One of the main speakers, ex RIBA President Ruth Reed, made the unanswerable point that in times like these, for a group like this to conclude that the answer was 'no' would send out a pretty dumb message to the government - and unsurprisingly, the answer at the end was 'yes' by a substantial majority.

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.