Thursday, 28 February 2013

At the Crystal

Wilkinson Eyre's Crystal sustainability centre in the Royal Docks is worth a visit (or actually I would say ** vaut le d├ętour rather than *** vaut le voyage) - especially while you can still get there by the Emirates Air Line cable car over the Thames, also well worth doing in its own right, and worth doing soon before they take it down and relocate it to an Alp - since user numbers are plummeting, and it seems to be used only by tourists.

This example of the Architecture of Funny Shapes does however share a difficulty that occurs in many more straight-down-the-line modernist projects - that of making it clear where the front door is.  The newsagent-style sandwich board seen in the photo above, not I think designed by Wilkinson Eyre or included in the original specifications, reads 'Welcome' - a polite way of saying 'Entrance this way'.

You don't have this kind of difficulty spotting the front door at the National Gallery.  On the other hand, if you're pushing a baby buggy, you can't get to the front door of the National Gallery (yes I know there are other ways in, but I like the one in the middle) - whereas at the Crystal there is no problem once you have found it.

So maybe not everything is going to the dogs.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Why buy a well planned home when you can have one that looks normal?

The quality of architecture is usually all of a piece - the awful-looking bog standard homes available everywhere are usually badly planned as well.

review by Rowan Moore in yesterday's Observer featured new houses at Harlow by Alison Brooks, which looked interesting and sounded as if they had had more thought put into them than most.  Referring to planning minister Nick Boles' stated wish to improve on the 'pig ugly' housing that homebuyers are normally offered, the review points out that well-designed housing like this is mainly about providing practical, liveable homes, and that architects as much as anyone else prefer to avoid discussions of difficult words like 'beauty' - 'some will find these houses beautiful, some not... but looks are not the main point.'

The point, surely, is that while the offerings of many volume housebuilders are indeed pig ugly, good projects such as this one at Harlow, by skilled, prizewinning architects, tend to look interesting rather than beautiful - and they are also quite likely, as these do, to look enigmatically 'different' (or 'Other') -  in a way that the housebuilders' commercial directors are likely to feel will actually put off some of their buyers, depending on the likely demographic.  They know the pig ugly stuff sells (only, in fact, because supply is rationed, but that's another story).

It takes a skillful architect to design a decent house layout within the minimal floor areas offered in this country - and a persuasive one to get the housebuilder to dump the default layouts 'based on something someone designed in 1958' that Alison Brooks rightly bemoans.  But on the whole, an architect worth their salt won't be content with sorting out the practical stuff without also leaving their personal mark on the looks of the thing - it is a complete package that is on offer.  Here at Harlow, the result is definitely a something rather than a nothing - but not one that every Essex buyer would be comfortable with.

Francis Bacon (the seventeenth century one) wrote 'Houses are built to Live in, and not to Looke on; Therefore let Use bee preferred before Uniformitie, Except where both may be had.  Leave the Goodly Fabrickes of Houses for Beautie only to the Enchanted Pallaces of the Poets, Who build them with small Cost.'   This Elizabethan politician's view persists virtually unchanged, four centuries on - albeit expressed today sourly, rather than wittily - in the views held by most politicians (e.g. Mr Gove), civil servants and housebuilders in our new Elizabethan age.

Nick Boles is out on a limb.  His call to arms is made even less likely than one might hope to be effective because today's architects, unlike Bacon's contemporaries, do not for the most part think that beauty is really the aim of architectural design.  The minister might be better advised to complain about the fact that many new homes are badly planned, and take little account of how family life has changed since 1958 (as well as being pig ugly).

Good housing design is the whole package - not Beautie only.  The houses that have been thoughtfully planned - in respect of everyday things like proper provision for multiple recycling bins for example - nearly always look better too.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Is this what you want? - a blunt instrument from the nimby toolkit

This flyer seen on a recent trip Brussels appears to be a protest about some planned new buildings.  Presumably the buildings won’t actually be bright red, though.  

The ‘protest montage’ is a now familiar ploy of those who oppose projects. Every effort is made to make schemes look as daft and offensive as possible (equal and opposite, of course, to the efforts of the promoters, which can be equally misleading).  The technique was used in London by opponents of the alleged ‘steel and glass tower blocks’ that Richard Rogers planned for the Chelsea Barracks site (for which read: ten storey buildings much the same height as nearby 1930s mansion blocks, with big windows made of that futuristic material ‘glass’ because even rich people deserve daylight). 

I don’t know who started all this, but the architect planner Thomas Sharp was certainly at it in his 1968 book Town and Townscape.  

These intriguing images of an abandoned scheme for university buildings in the centre of Cambridge, images which Sharp prepared and described as not showing ‘any actually proposed architectural treatment’, can be compared with the real designs of Lasdun (whom Sharp, oddly, cannot bring himself to name in his book).  A provocative photomontage provided by Lasdun himself can be found in William Curtis’s monograph.  While the his scheme for the New Museums site (where the buildings by Arup Associates are today) is pretty shocking to today’s sensibilities, they look absolutely nothing like the banal blocks in Sharp’s drawing, being highly articulated into vertical components, like a compressed and over-energetic version of Kahn’s Philadelphia laboratories, to achieve a rich skyline which clearly echoes the older buildings in the foreground – an approach more explicitly responsive to context than many similar projects of that period  including some of Lasdun’s that were built.

Protests of this kind call to mind the catchphrase of one of Harry Enfield’s Middle England moaners: ‘Is that what you want? – because that’s what you’re going to get…’  Usually, what the nimby flier show you is not what you’re going to get. The detail matters – and the difference between a dumb box and a complex, articulated building proposal is a lot more than a matter of detail.