Tuesday, 31 January 2012

London's tall buildings

Several large new tower buildings are under construction in central London - not just the Shard at London Bridge, but also in the City and at Vauxhall.  As they come out of the ground, and as more towers are planned for central London, we can expect continuing debate, probably intemperate at times, about the wisdom of the planning decisions that have been taken and have yet to be taken; and the architectural merits of the buildings. This blog will cover that debate - and you can come here for a measured view at all times.

To kick off, it's interesting to consider the merits of some of the many towers London has already.

At each end of London's Tottenham Court Road is an office tower building  - Centrepoint at the south end, the Euston Tower at the north end.

Of the first wave of such towers in London, from the 60s and 70s, these are two of the most prominent outside the City.  In terms of how sites are considered suitable or otherwise for tall buildings today, they are both in locations that would be thought suitable in that they mark significant points in the townscape, at major road junctions - but it is hard to imagine them getting permission today if they didn't exist already. Yet neither does any particular harm - and Centrepoint, controversial when built, is a now a listed building and accepted by most as a positive landmark.

If you ask people to name some big towers in London (I've done this - try it), many will think of Centrepoint and few will think of the Euston Tower.  The difference between them is one of architectural quality rather than location or prominence. Centrepoint, designed by Richard Seifert's practice, is sophisticated and architecturally ambitious.  With its tapered plan and muscular exoskeleton, it is designed to be a 'something' in the townscape, and succeeds, except in the way it connects with the streets around it at the lower levels.  Euston Tower, by contrast, by architect Sidney Kaye, is deliberately neutral in its appearance, but without any of the classiness of a Mies van der Rohe skyscraper. Euston Tower is highly visible, but not very noticeable.  Mostly, it is just a bit dull - its most interesting aspect is its pinwheel plan, allowing shallow plan accommodation in four blocks spinning off a central core - but this cannot be seen clearly except from directly above it.

The present wave of tower designs for London has, except at Canary Wharf, tended towards the attention seeking rather than the neutral, but you have to wonder whether this strategy has made life harder for those proposing them.  Euston Tower suggests you could build a large tower without anyone noticing. Centrepoint, more interestingly, suggests that you can have an architecture that makes its mark without being attention seeking.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Tatlin's transparent tower

The model of Tatlin's 1920's tower project was one of the highlights of the excellent 'Building the Revolution' exhibition at the Royal Academy.  The project is a famous one and an inspiration to architects ever since, but I'm ashamed to admit that I'd forgotten, if I ever knew, that the 400m structure that you always see illustrated as transparent was in fact designed to contain a great deal of accommodation, in the form of four large rotating structures, one on top of the other and going round at different speeds.  These were represented by the flimsiest of wire cages in the RA model, as they presumably were in the 1920s - diaphanous enough for the orthogonal lines best suited for floors, walls and suchlike not to interfere with the visual drama of the twisting structure.

Selling your project with an compelling image that is a bit different from what you will actually get is nothing new.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Olympic Village

To the Olympic Village housing to have a look round as it nears completion, as a guest of Prof. Pankaj Patel whose practice Patel Taylor were the architects of some of the blocks.  Recent reviews of the project as a whole have mostly been fair to middling but I found more to admire than some of the accounts might lead you to believe.  In particular - having been involved peripherally in the design process as a member of the review panel - I was concerned that things that we had fought for would have been stripped out through the exigencies of 'value engineering', time and budget pressures etc.   There's a bit of that - on the later blocks in particular - but rather less than one might expect, and much of the housing passes the test of 'more to see when you get a bit closer', which so many new buildings fail.

 Some of the criticisms have made unfair comparisons with East European public housing and you can see what they mean in certain views from a distance.  But the Olympic Village succeeds in resembling recent high quality housing elsewhere in Europe that has inspired some of what has been done here - such as Hammerby in Stockholm and Parc de Bercy in Paris - much more closely than the desolate public housing of the mid-century.  This is because of the attention to material and detail on most of the blocks  - and the quality of the hard and soft landscape and everything that you experience as a pedestrian - which should ensure that the completed development is a success.

The bigger questions that remain - and on which it is hard to comment while the village remains a high security compound - concern connections with the surroundings, inherently hard to achieve because of the site's geography.  The new housing is not very near any existing housing, and will be separated from the rest of Stratford, Leyton etc. by some rather challenging gaps after the fences come down.  Edinburgh New Town was built on the other side of a big gap from the existing town too, so lack of continuity - even with railway lines inbetween - is not an insuperable problem, but Stratford 'International' Station is not Waverley (nor is Westfield Princes Street) , and there's a bit of work to do at Stratford to make the gaps a plus rather than a minus. Who will do that; and how; and when?

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

At the top of the Shard

The top of the Shard is almost there, and presumably there will be excitable media coverage when it is put in place, accompanied by references to the battle for 'highest spire' between the Empire State Building and Chrysler building in 1930s New York (just as the recession kicked in - an issue also in the news this last week, when we were told that a wave of tall buildings is an indicator of impending economic collapse - which since skyscrapers are always planned in boom times, and bust always has followed boom, seems about as outstanding a statement of the bleeding obvious as you could hope for.)

Since the top of a tall building is the part that is most visible from a distance, and it is visibility from a distance that tends to be the most contentious aspect of tall buildings when they are proposed, the design of the top is of particular interest.  The Shard and the Heron Tower (view from the west above) offer two possible models - simple and much the same from any direction, vs. more complicated / fragmented and different from different viewpoints.  There are pros and cons for each approach - the main problem with the latter being that if you make it look great from some directions, it may not look so great from others (you can also have 'complicated but symmetrical' (Chrysler) and 'simple/singular but asymmetrical' (Cheesegrater)).

Because tall buildings that few people like, such as 1960s council housing blocks, tend to have particularly dumb tops, there is a tendency to think that 'interesting' tops are to be preferred; and certainly the skyline of Canary Wharf would be poorer without its central pyramid.  But dumb vs. interesting is not the same as simple vs. complicated  - if the Chrysler building is the apotheosis of the 'good complicated' top, Mies van der Rohe's Seagram building might be that of the 'good simple'.  The challenge for today's skyscraper architects is to match the quality of buildings like that - not much sign of that happening in the second half of most books on the history of the skyscraper to date, but on the evidence of the Shard and Heron, London will be better served that most of the Middle East and Far East.  Maybe our planning system isn't so bad after all....

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

London's missing motorway box

Trouble with the Hammersmith flyover - currently closed for repairs after what look like pretty major defects were found in the structure - makes one ponder on London's major motorway infrastructure, or rather the lack of it.  Paris got its Peripherique in the 1960s.  Equivalent plans for London were drawn up at that time, but only small parts of a proposed inner motorway box were ever implemented, such as the West Cross Route spur road next to Westfield in West London, and the East Cross Route at Hackney Wick.  These, together with the Hammersmith flyover and the elevated part of the A40, are among the few big-scale postwar road structures that were built close to the city centre.

It's not hard, looking at a map of London, to join the dots between the bits that were built and work out where to put most of London's peripherique, but there are a few places where there's no obvious way through.  You can draw your own route and check your work on a rather wonderful website for road enthusiasts, www.cbrd.co.uk, which tells the story and provides a link to a map, overlaid on Google maps, showing in some detail where all the roads would have gone.  Camden Lock, for example, would have benefitted from an east-west flyover with a massive and complex grade separated junction, just north of the canal, much more substantial than anything built at Hammersmith.

It's hard to imagine anything on this scale coming forward today in London - and interesting to speculate on how people would react if it turns out to be necessary to rebuild the Hammersmith flyover from scratch.   Roadbuilding is even more disruptive than railway building, and even rail lines bring the out the nimbies in force, and we have seen this week with the reactions to the HS2 proposals.  But if you lived in Hammersmith, would you rather have a replacement flyover, which would probably turn out to be bigger than the one that is there now, or a lot more traffic through your town centre?  It may be a good time to invest in tunnelling companies.

Finding oneself stuck in traffic on the London road network that we ended up with instead of the motorway box - say on Warwick Road - with several lanes of one way traffic directed through a residential street network that in places is pretty much as built in the nineteenth century - leads one to wonder whether London or Paris came out better off from the 1960s roadbuilding boom.  The two systems, of course, are near perfect mirrors of their respective countries: Cartesian rigour and Napoleonic dirigisme vs. English compromise and muddling through - or do I mean pragmatism?