Tuesday, 28 February 2012


To the launch party for Farrells' new book Continuum, which charts the last ten years' work of London's pre-eminent urban design practice - where we learn from Terry Farrell a word new to me and others there, 'urbiculture' - the culture of placemaking that they aspire to.

Earlier in the day I'd undertaken a tour with colleagues of large recent projects each of which had major elements of what we have learned to call 'public realm' (an awful bit of jargon that fails the 'would your mother have any idea what you were talking about' test - but is called by that name with a straight face during the planning process) which is in fact revealed to be 'private realm', when on site after site we were told, by the usual characters in hi-vis tabards, 'you can't take photographs here, this is private property'.  They were polite enough - but if the public 'offer' is part of the planning deal for these projects, being ordered around doesn't feel in the spirit of the thing - a far cry from the welcome that the Victorian sponsors of Brompton Cemetery provided at their gates:

 When you raise the issue of 'real' vs 'pretend' public space with developers, they will say that they don't want their investment in landscape handed over to a local authority who may or may not look after it properly.  That's fair enough, but it's an entirely separate point from whether or not a visitor is made to feel that they are somewhere genuinely public.

The various and admirable self-generated projects instigated by Farrells - Marylebone Road and others - have more in common with the Victorian generosity of spirit suggested by the sign at the cemetery than with the bizarrely paranoid and unpleasantly over-protective attitudes found in the 'public but not really' parts of so many new developments.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

New Boring the new Zeitgeist

We've had the New Boring in architecture for a while now, but according to reports of yesterday's Brit Awards, it is just as big in the world of pop.  Triumphs for Adele and Ed Sheeran are both offered by commentators as examples of this trend.  Diligence, subtlety, craftsmanship etc. are rewarded in preference to shoutiness, showmanship and attention seeking.  Evidently there is a Zeitgeist thing going on here.

Townscape and cityscape can work well when there are a few attention seeking buildings but not too many, set amongst 'good ordinary' background buildings.  That doesn't quite make sense for the pop charts, but the Brits suggest you can attract attention, and achieve recognition, without seeking attention in that noisy or hotel-room-trashing tradition. But we'd all miss that tradition if it went away altogether.  You need a few Pete Dohertys and Will Alsops to stop you nodding off.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Culture vs. commerce in Venice

Trouble in Venice, reported in today's Guardian, as a scheme to convert the historic Fondaco dei Tedeschi near the Rialto bridge into a shopping centre, designed by architect Ippolito Pestellini working with Rem Koolhaas, is criticised by heritage interests.

Mixed feelings about this, but surely there is scope for bringing some C21 commerce to a city that could only afford the cultural heritage that we now enjoy there because of its commercial activity back in the day.  Trying to make it work the other way round is not sustainable for somewhere this big.

Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright both designed projects for Venice that did not see the light of day; Carlo Scarpa fared better with some masterly but less in-your-face projects in a number of places in the city.  Scarpa's work is hugely admired in the UK and a model for tasteful yet characterful intervention in historic buildings of a kind that I suspect doesn't really interest Koolhaas, so it will be interesting to see how this project, a few years in the making already, gets on.

There are already lots of ironies to enjoy and probably more to come -  Fondaco dei Tedeschi was the medieval HQ of  Venice's German merchants - today, presumably, euros of German origin are helping to keep Venice afloat through the tourist economy, and if Italy follows in the footsteps of Greece, a lot more will be needed, and not just from tourists.  I wouldn't turn down the chance for them to spend a bit more in the city.

I can't remember if Italo Calvino's multiple versions of Venice in Invisible Cities included 'Emporio, a city of shopkeepers and bartenders who have forgotten that once they were merchant adventurers...'.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Dreaming lift shafts on London's skyline

Demolition in central London often reveals something interesting.  Here in Fitzrovia there is a new view of the lift tower of Lyons Israel and Ellis's brutalist 1960s buildings for Central London Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster).

Once we could decorate the skyline with spires and towers and cupolas, but today's clients' enforcers, the project managers and 'value engineers', frown on that kind of thing even if the architect has the appetite for them.  Instead we are expected to pile up the roofscape with chillers and suchlike - and then hide them with screens.

Where opportunities for vertical expression present themselves, it is good to grasp them. This is one of great achievements of Richard Rogers / Rogers Stirk Harbour's best buildings, which are up to much the same game as  Lyons Israel and Ellis were - to take things that you can't be told aren't needed, such as stairs and lift shafts and ducts, and play with them to architectural effect.

But this kind of robust expression has fallen out of favour and has tended to be replaced by a thinner kind of 'skin' based aesthetic, which cuts out unnecessary articulation, reducing the surface area to volume ratio of buildings, saving both money and energy in the process, compared with a more complicated alternative.  It would be hard to reverse this trend in an age of austerity (the end condition being that all buildings will be spherical).

But the various paraphernalia of 'green' buildings present new opportunities for articulation - such as the chimneys of Portcullis House, memorably described on completion by the late Sir Philip Powell as resembling 'a smelting plant in Belgium', but now with the passage of time regarded as an ornament, if a rather chunky one, to the Westminster skyline.  Architects may need to work below the radar to turn building into architecture, but this has always been true.