Monday, 24 November 2014

Ciao Biennale di Venezia 2014

The Biennale - Venice's international architecture festival, which takes place every two years - ends this weekend after five months in situ.

As trips to the Mediterranean coast go, for London architects, MIPIM (where architecture is a sideshow to the world of commercial property) might get you more work - but the Biennale offers a lot more inspiration and food for thought.  Quite apart from the relative merits of Venice and Cannes as places to visit.

This year's Biennale - the best I have been to - was directed by Rem Koolhaas under the rubric 'Fundamentals'.  The Central Pavilion in the Giardini was divided up according to the 'Elements of Architecture' - subject headings related to elements or components of which buildings are made - stairs, facades, roofs and so on.

Unfairly satirised as 'a bit like being at B&Q', what each of the different sections offered - admittedly in a slightly random way, since each was curated by a different group - was constant stimulation and provocation.  What they had in common was an understanding that the present can learn from the past, and that architecture, though to succeed it needs to be more than the sum of its parts, will not emerge without an understanding of the parts, considered individually at the practical level of craft and science as well as at the level of culture and history.  Some examples of what stuck in the mind:

In a hidebound culture, deciding how to deal with new needs that have no obvious precedent is a challenge.  The architectural fantasist Piranesi (1720-1778) was excited in his day by the design of fireplaces - a 3D print of one of his designs, above, shows also his drawing of the fire in the grate - precisely because there were no classical precedents and therefore invention rather than conformity to a pattern was called for.   He might have sympathised with the problems that environmentally sound projects today may have in gaining acceptance if they don't fit with the established (energy-profligate) look of a place.

In the section on stairs - where one learnt of Prof Mielke who, if in fact he has not been made up by Rem Koolhaas, was founder of the Institute of Scalology in Regensburg, has written 31 books on stairs and, if one is allowed to say this, could not possibly be anything other than German.  Typical of the exhibitions thought provoking approach was a section that considered the slope of stairs - a technical /geometrical / ergonomic consideration that all architects have had to deal with on a daily basis - in relation to the social status of those who would be using stairs, through the course of history.  As with a lot of research of this kind, you can guess the results, but it's still worth doing the exercise.

The entirely separate 'Monditalia' section in the Arsenale was terrific as well - one of many highlights was the story of the 60s new town of Zingonia, brainchild of Renzo Zingone - with superb contemporary accounts of its conception and partial realisation.  On reflection, it also looked suspiciously as if it the whole story could be completely made up - but then most of the 60s does now.

Venice will be even better next time if the Comune di Venezia ( the city council) brings in its proposed ban on luggage on wheels.  That is a relatively easy one, though - will they be brave enough to tackle the blight of the giant cruise ships as well?

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Thiepval and Vimy Ridge

Lutyens’ Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval in France is one of the great works of interwar British architecture, and along with other sites such as the Menin Gate at Ypres (by the less highly regarded Blomfield, but here as good as Lutyens) and Herbert Baker’s Tyne Cot cemetery, makes a tour of the Great War battlefields of France and Belgium a worthwhile architectural pilgrimage, whatever other reasons one might have to visit. 

The architect Adolf Loos claimed that 'Only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument. Everything else that fulfils a function is to be excluded from the domain of art.'  Loos was an interesting architect and writer but I suspect Lutyens, a man of fewer public words, was smarter.  At first glance one might think of Thiepval, a sort of fractal version of a triumphal arch, as an example of what Loos meant.  But when one sees the extent of the panels with the names of the 72,000 missing dead recorded, one can see it quite another way, the multiple piers at the lowest level of the memorial maximising the wall surface to provide the necessary surface area – a practical response to a brief, raised to a higher plane.  In architecture, that is the domain of art.

The Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge, designed by Walter Seymour Allward, is mentioned less often (and harder to convey in an amateur photograph) but it is more prominent and better sited, and arguably as great a work of memorial design.  This memorial and Lutyens’ at Thiepval share one of the qualities often found in the greatest works of art: strangeness.   Neither is really quite like anything else.

It is harder – it seems – to do memorials well today.  Commissions exist, but most designers lack the skill or the will, and the mood of the times may be different.   Maya Lin’s 1982 Vietnam memorial at Washington DC shares the power of the best of the First World War memorials but done with a modernist, more abstract sensibility, and is also popular; but it seems to be harder to reach these heights as the years go by, as evidenced, for example, by London's ludicrous ‘Animals in War’ memorial in Park Lane (inscribed, mawkishly, ‘they had no choice’ – true, but what about the human conscripts?).

In an age when the ephemeral and the pop-up seem to reflect uncertain times, it is good to be reminded by the memorials of Lutyens and his generation of the virtues of solidity and permanence in design – and artistic quality.  If a monument has that quality – as we can see from all chapters of architectural histories, starting at the beginning - then it will last beyond the time when its purpose and those it commemorates have been forgotten – ars longa vita brevis. 

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

London's skyline debate - lessons from New York

A trip to New York last month to meet fellow professionals was a fascinating chance to find out about attitudes to tall buildings in their spiritual home. 

What was surprising, perhaps, was the extent to which most of the questions raised by tall buildings in London are also debated in similar terms over there (as are other questions such as how to provide 'affordable' housing for the less well off; and how to provide affordable housing, not in quotation marks, for middle income groups).

NY's Muncipal Arts Society's Accidental Skyline report concerns the effects of a wave of very slender, very tall new towers under construction and planned, mostly near Central Park, which will change the views from the park dramatically, and, the report suggests, overshadow it unacceptably.  Generally these new towers are as built 'as of right', the planning parameters - including the transfer of developable area from one site to another to allow ever taller and thinner towers - being established by the zoning system.  There are opponents of tall buildings over there as there are over here - but there is no way to prevent the schemes being built.  There as here, the fact that the accommodation is for the super-rich seems to exacerbate the opposition.  One example, 432 Park Avenue, designed by Rafael Vinoly of Walkie-Talkie fame, is under construction and appears to have reached its full height (that is the whole tower in the photo below, not just the lift and stair core) - and there was plenty of unfavourable comment from New Yorkers that we met. To build a tower in one world city that no one seems to like, though, may be regarded as unfortunate - to be responsible for two...

I didn't entirely buy the objections - it's no more out of scale with its surroundings than the Empire State building, and there are far worse architects than Vinoly - but the objectors may have a point about the cumulative effect of the many towers that are planned.  

The quality of new architecture over there varies from terrific to dire, just like in London. And just as in London, one can't help feeling that at least part of the opposition to new tall buildings is because many of them are not much good - although New York, perhaps because of the discipline of the grid, has not suffered quite as much as we have from the Architecture of Funny Shapes.  And unlike us, they have world class and world famous exemplars that they are proud of, from the Woolworth Building to the Seagram Building, to compare the new ones with.  

One of those, the Rockefeller Centre, may just fail to make the cut of world class architecture, but it represents world class urban design, and that - together with the fact that you can now admire the city from its top level - is undoubtedly one reason why it remains popular.  Recent attempts to do 'towers as placemaking', such as the planned Hudson Yards development, struggle to add up to more than the sum of their parts, and fail to come anywhere near the coherence and quality of the Rockefeller Centre.  

It was a surprise to me to learn that there is at least one protected view in New York. Their approach is different from ours, though, and arguably more sensible.   The  Brooklyn Heights Promenade, laid out in the 1940s for pedestrians at an elevated level above the Brooklyn Queens Expressway which runs along the shoreline, has views out across the water towards Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty.  The protected view - put in place when the promenade was built - controls development of the land immediately in front it at the lower level next to the water - now being laid out as the Brooklyn Bridge Park.  The protected view doesn't affect the way Manhattan on the other side of the water can develop, but it ensures you will still be able to see it from a place that was designed to take advantage of a view.  Protecting foreground rather than background was the original idea of protected views in London too, but as so often with UK planning, there has been mission creep.  

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

No garden cities please, we're British (and scared of UKIP)

Here is a piece that I wrote for last week's AJ ....


The promoters of the 2014 Wolfson prize, for new ideas about garden cities – and the winners Urbed – deserve praise.   But it has been criticism of the winning entry from the Government’s housing and planning minister, Brandon Lewis, that has attracted most attention. 

The episode is symptomatic of just how hard it is promote large scale development in the UK that is underpinned by anything that looks like an idea or a proposition.

At the scale of individual buildings, it can be harder to gain planning approval for something interesting than for something mediocre.  Keep below the radar, don’t frighten the horses and you will stand a chance.  Come up with a bold idea and you are likely to be in trouble.  Sadly, the same applies to solving the country’s housing crisis.  Most of the new housing built by the volume house builders is dire, but as it’s the same all over the country, it’s hard to find a convincing reason to resist any particular example, and schemes are waved through with little discussion about their quality.

The ‘no ideas please, we’re British’ problem is not specific to garden cities – a similar reaction is likely to greet anyone who promotes a coherent, organised way of expanding a settlement - as opposed to just throwing up more boxes in whatever fields have been made available.  

Yet just as we will only have enough energy to meet our needs in future if we use a bit of everything available to us, so we would improve the chances of building new homes in the numbers needed, and providing a variety of solutions to what is not a uniform demand, if we welcomed specific, well-considered proposals – premiated by a well-informed judging panel – rather than indulging in grandstanding criticisms.

‘Choice’ is something the present administration promotes in health and education – but judging from the minister’s reaction to the Urbed scheme, not in how new housing is brought forward – although his government’s NPPF specifically calls for a ‘wide choice’ in housing provision, and says that large settlements including garden cities may be part of the answer. 

The Tories’ line is that the days of the top-down, ‘imposed’ solution are over – with the likes of Urbed cast as the heirs of the amateur Ebenezer Howard or the statist technocrats of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation. 

Holding on to the rhetoric of localism, the minister wants to see instead the bottom-up, locally generated plans that were meant to emerge from neighbourhood planning.  Schemes promoted by local people do exist, but they are rare, and typically involve small numbers of homes – of little use in meeting the nationwide need.  The bulk of what actually gets built has nothing at all to do with localism.  What Urbed offer, characterised by Lewis as sprawl, is in fact specifically conceived as an alternative to the sprawl that is happening everywhere now.

The timeframes of big projects are a problem for politicians.  Lewis has a small majority in one of UKIP’s top target seats, and there’s a general election next spring.  Objections to any big proposals typically arrive before there is even a scheme to object to, and the benefits of big ideas such as Urbed’s wouldn’t materialise for a decade at least.

Meanwhile the planning system churns out dreary documents that no one reads in the name of ‘managing development’.  There is no appetite, and few mechanisms, for the public sector to put forward big, positive, sophisticated propositions such as Rudlin’s.  The private sector, also plagued by short-termism, has learnt that doing the same thing as last time is best for this year’s balance sheet.

A constant stream of UK practitioners undertake study tours to admire exemplar developments such as Hammarby Sjöstad in Sweden or Vauban in Germany, and return depressed at our inability to match what is done in such places – not because of lack of talent, but because of stultifying institutional and administrative arrangements.

The brief for the Wolfson prize was “How would you deliver a new Garden City which is visionary, economically viable, and popular?”.   The first part of my answer would be: go abroad.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

At Dunkerque: Lacaton and Vassall's FRAC and the 'quartier excentric'

Dunkerque - half an hour from Calais, and though a historic port, almost entirely rebuilt after (Allied) bombing in the Second World War - had more going for it than I expected.

Just east of the docks (and just west of the sandy beaches from which over 300,000 troops of the British Expeditionary Force were evacuated in 1940) is Lacaton and Vassall's recently completed FRAC gallery.  The south part, a redundant dockyard building on a heroic scale, is a giant shed, made sound but at present left largely empty, enclosing a single interior volume; to the north, its new conjoined twin, to the same profile and dimensions, clad in corrugated polycarbonate, houses a regional contemporary art gallery.  In the foreground in the photo above, under construction, a new pedestrian bridge will connect to the shore on the other side of a canal.

Lacaton and Vassall's building is excellent - spatially rich, with great views out to sea and along the coast from the upper levels, and clever in its deployment of cheap materials and simple details to make something strange and memorable. 

Not far away was some new  housing in a docklands regeneration area that, at least as seen from the outside on a brief visit, put most of our equivalents to shame...

A bit eccentric, perhaps - but not as much as the 'quartier excentric', an area of 1920s housing in Dunkerque's southern suburbs, the brainchild of local 'maçon, artiste décorateur, inventeur', François Reynaert, a peculiar collection of terraced houses each 'pimped' in an individual manner, many vaguely moderne or art deco, with varying degrees of skill and success; adding up to a sort of amateur league Weissenhofsiedlung. Parts of the area are now gently decaying, but with enough evidence of gentrification for it to seem that the houses, which I think are listed, have a viable future; and indeed some empty corner plots have been filled recently with fancy modern villas. 

The catering offer at FRAC is rudimentary - the icing on the cake in Dunkerque came in the form of a great menu-express lunch at the jolly and friendly La Cambuse bar-restaurant, in an unprepossessing and hard to find spot behind the Port Museum.

Dunkerque, close to Calais, is well worth a detour if you have any spare time on a trip via the Channel Tunnel. 

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

East London's Oval

All over inner East London are sites and areas that remain stubbornly resistant to improvement. Several stretches of Hackney Road looks as if they are recovering from some kind of disaster - sites have decayed steadily over the last thirty or forty years, resisting the tide of gentrification (or renewal, take your pick) that has gone on all around.

Between the east end of Hackney Road and the Regents Canal is an extraordinary area called The Oval. This is the relic, or rather trace, of a housing development laid out in the nineteenth century as two crescents of terraced houses facing each other across a small oval-shaped green, yards from the Regents Canal which was built in the same period.

Today all that remains is the plan form, apparent both in the shape of the central space, occupied by cars tidily parked within the oval kerb in the photo above, and the line of the frontages of the surrounding buildings on either side, now a motley collection of run down, low grade light industrial buildings together with one, apparently abandoned, construction site.

The open space is protected by the London Squares Preservation Act; and the space, but not the buildings, is in a conservation area. 

The area has been allocated for redevelopment by the local authority, Tower Hamlets, but what prospect is there of anything happening? And if anything does happen, what prospect is there of it happening to a coherent pattern, which is what is needed.  Virtually none on both counts, would be my guess. 

Another guess is that there are lots of individual freeholds.  Hope value is presumably high for landowners, but yards from a regeneration (/gentrification) hotspot like Broadway Market, nothing happens - except for one site, and even that seems to have got stuck halfway through -  and a blot on the landscape sits there decade after decade.  

In the ghastly Newspeak of heritage policy, there is some 'heritage significance' that could be 'better revealed' here.  Or in English: the best thing to do would be to build a matching pair of crescent shaped buildings, bigger than the nineteenth century ones to suit modern densities, facing each other across a green, and with views of the canal - the Victorian Oval reinvented for twenty first century London.   If I hadn't just read The Banned List, I'd ask - what's not to like? 

A case for some sort of public agency (best not Tower Hamlets, probably) to undertake land assembly, if ever there was one - along the lines promoted fifteen years ago by the Urban Task Force. Remember that?  

Or if that is a bit interventionist for present political tastes, could it be possible to devise an incentive for landowners to cooperate in a coherent joint venture that is hard to resist?  

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

London's pressing need for parks

London badly needs more housing, but it also needs more parks, particularly where large new areas of high density housing are proposed.  This is one of several pressing practical matters that appear to take second place to consideration of the beauty of the city's skyline - which is important too - when the question of tall buildings is discussed. 

Here is a piece I wrote for the Architects' Journal on this subject, published in the 18 July 2014 issue.


London’s ‘tall building problem’ is more to do with planning and urban design than architecture; and for residential towers, but also for office towers, the problem is more to do with density, plot ratio and over-congestion of built form than it is to do with height per se.  We want our city to look beautiful, but we also need it to work in a civilised way, and for that we need public space as well as buildings – public space that is not being delivered in most of the tall building projects currently proposed.

In Marsh Wall / South Quay on the Isle of Dogs, there is massive development pressure, and very dense and tall residential projects are coming forward on a plot by plot basis, in the absence of any overall plan.  At Nine Elms, where there is similar development frenzy, the problem is just as bad. 

There are no clear overall masterplans for these areas, and only the sketchiest of planning frameworks to guide even those who are minded to take a collaborative approach.  And because proposals are coming forward concurrently, there is no mechanism for showing what they will look like as a group of projects, let alone for assessing the consequences.  Designs for each site are prepared on the basis of what may be vague or rapidly changing information, or no information, about massive schemes on immediately adjacent sites.
It is the visual consequences of this lack of planning that have attracted much of the attention. There has been less focus on the practical problem of how public open space can be delivered within this free-for-all.  With fragmented ownerships and competing interests, there is no mechanism for providing public space of any substance.  In areas where very dense developments with very tall buildings are proposed, the provision of significant, usable open space should be part of the package.  

At Nine Elms, development has come forward in the context of a GLA framework which suggested a linear park - better than nothing, but not really much more than a wide street.  The biggest open space will be around the new American Embassy, but that is predicated on planning for terrorist attacks, not residential amenity.  

Large and small open spaces are needed.  The Olympic Park is a rare example of a major new public space – if London was properly planned, new residential towers should have been built around the park rather than along the benighted environment of Stratford High Street.

The Royal Parks have in the past suggested a strategy for controlling building heights that involves contours rising away from the parks, in other words the further you are from the park the taller your building can be.  This is the wrong way round.  A modern Nash would ring Regents Park with towers, not terraces.
At a smaller scale, the Smithsons’ Economist complex in St James remains an exemplar of how to arrange tall-ish buildings around an open space.  The Rockefeller Centre in New York does the same thing on a massive scale, in a way that has hardly been possible elsewhere in that city, let alone in the City of London.  Canary Wharf is successful in this respect because of the huge land area available and the gridded layout given by the docks allowed a private sector developer to bring forward a rational plan – the large buildings are carefully arranged and the docks mitigate against a feeling of overcrowding in a way that will not be matched in the City when the Eastern cluster is built out. 

Because of fragmented ownerships, open space cannot easily be delivered by the private sector in Marsh Wall or Nine Elms - the area that would be needed to provide proper open space is more than can generally be found in one ownership.  

There has been little positive spatial planning for tall buildings in London since Canary Wharf was planned thirty years ago, other than some rather hopeful suggestions that some sites in development areas might be given over to open space, but without any explanation of why Greedico Properties on one site should get to build a large tower while Muggins Development Company on the adjacent site should dedicate their land to the park to service it.

Today, there seems to be no public sector appetite for land assembly or rationalisation even though legal measures exist.  It needs a Development Corporation or a similar mechanism  – or in the spirit of Tory ‘nudge’ theory, incentives for private owners to cooperate that are so compelling that they cannot be ignored.

Many planning authorities in London see it as their job to suppress the ambitions of developers to build tall. Once pre-application discussions are under way, and in the absence of projects starting off under the guidance of a positive plan, this sometimes has the perverse consequence of spreading projects out across a site and reducing the amount of open space that the developer had originally been prepared to offer, if allowed to build tall.  Clearer rules from the outset could avoid this outcome.

But we should of course remember that Le Corbusier thought that Manhattan had been developed in the wrong way – without adequate planning – and that the towers should have been much bigger and spaced further apart.  The Manhattan that we got is lot more palatable than the Manhattan he envisaged.  The issue is one of urban design – arguably not Corb’s forte.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Smithfield inquiry

The latest proposals for the disused west end of Smithfield Market have been turned down by the Government after a planning inquiry - six years after an earlier scheme for the same site was also turned down. The buildings continue to decay - buddleia on site continues to flourish.

The market hall at the centre does indeed look as if it could be a good space for a new market, as proposed by the project's opponents, but there is need in this area for office space, not market halls.  Of the thousands of people who will be arriving at the new Crossrail station at  Farringdon when it opens, some will be looking for scented candles, but I think rather more will be looking for jobs. 

It's hard to get as worked up about the existing buildings as the main objectors Save did, but they must be feeling pleased with themselves.  The self-appointed provos of UK heritage protection, they operate in an system where with more and more of the built environment protected in various ways, they have to turn to more and more mediocre buildings to campaign about.  Clever of them, therefore, to find one only two minutes' walk from their office, saving on travel costs and handy for London-based journalists to cover. Some might think their efforts would be better directed to things that really are worth saving in more benighted parts of the UK than London EC1. 

The publicity that Save attracted was remarkably effective, particularly in the way they persuaded (possibly lazy) journalists to illustrate stories about the market 'under threat', misleadingly, with pictures of the nice, well-known, listed, larger part of the market which is not presently 'under threat' and is unaffected by the project (below), rather than the rightly unlisted west part of the market which was the subject of the rejected scheme (above).

As I suggested in a previous post, it is the life and activity of Smithfield that gives it is distinctive character as much as its buildings.  If the meat market goes, as it probably will eventually, it may be hard to replace that vitality in a way that sustains the parts of the market that are presently in use.  The scale of development that logically ought to follow in the wake of the massive increase in transport capacity resulting from the Crossrail station would help provide the critical mass needed.   Where will that development go?  One of the best sites has just been ruled out by a bad decision.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

A view from the bridge

Today's Guardian questions the wisdom of Thomas Heatherwick's garden bridge project, which has now been submitted for planning permission.

Though anyone who stands in the way of a project that has Joanna Lumley's support has to think carefully, not least because you may have the gurkhas to contend with, I share the view that the undoubtedly multi-talented Heatherwick is overreaching this time.

The proposed location - South Bank to Temple - is not a bad one (the 1944 Abercrombie plan suggested a bridge here).  But does a new bridge need a new design?

The Millennium Bridge opposite Tate Modern does the job well, now that the wobbling has been sorted out, and is as elegant a structure as any that emerged from the boom years of lottery projects - its deck structure is almost unbelievably slender from some angles.  The design approach evokes, more evidently than some other Foster projects of recent decades, the pre-peerage Norman Foster's interests in economy of means, and in Buckminster Fuller's associated question 'how much does your building weigh?' - also brought to mind by a BBC documentary yesterday about tents and tent structures, in which Frei Otto (still with us, and entirely lucid, at age 89) reminded us of a recent past where there was a great deal more optimism about the future.  Heatherwick's heavyweight, loam-freighted offering, by contrast, has something of the folie de grandeur: more Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire than Tomorrow's World.

There are other places in central London where a new Thames footbridge could usefully be provided - most notably, Nine Elms to Pimlico.  Why not dust off those Foster and Arup drawings and build a couple more Millennium Bridges? Like the Georgian house and unlike Mr Gove's schools, if it's a great idea it will bear repetition.

Heatherwick's bridge will offer good views, undoubtedly, but it will block other views that we enjoy already - that's why the pigeon's eye view, as seen in the Guardian, is preferred by the promoters.

The new Blackfriars station where it crosses the river, above, shows what can happen - from points on the south bank of the river, the low-rise nirvana of the City of Westminster to the west is blotted out almost entirely.

This just at a time when those promoting the putative 'skyline commission' for London are suggesting that the open quality of the central London reaches of the Thames should be protected from further encroachment. Large trees in the middle of the river will encroach on it a lot more than a few tall buildings in the backdrop.

But Heatherwick and Lumley have the advantage that the English prefer trees to buildings, even in the heart of their metropolis.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Olympic Park revisited

Off to see the Olympic Park, on the weekend that the south part of the park opens to the public on completion of the work that transformed it from 'games mode' to 'legacy mode'.

There is plenty to admire and a few things to carp about, but in general terms the two most striking aspects of what has been achieved are (1) the fact that it has happened at all, and (2) the fact that it has been carefully designed and properly funded, with no obvious signs of 'value engineering' (but neither is there pointless extravagance).

With London under huge pressure to grow within its borders, it is very hard to find opportunities for new open space of any size, let alone such a large expanse as this - and it only happened here because of the enormous funding made available to clean up a century's worth of pollution, ill considered infrastructure and then neglect over much of this area - which in turn only happened because of the Olympics, but which has delivered a major public asset in a place where it is needed, and effectively in perpetuity, in a way that has not often been achieved as a result of Olympic games elsewhere.  Compare the scale of what has happened here with the open space on offer in other regeneration areas - usually at best a 'linear park', for which read a slightly wider than usual street with some shrubs in it.

My principal general criticism of the approach taken here to the design of the new park is that it appears over-programmed and over-designed, with not enough space left as simple expanses of grass and trees available for quiet enjoyment (and relatively cheap to maintain) - a mistake avoided at one of the first and still one of the best of a new wave of 'regeneration parks', the Parc Andre Citroen in Paris, where the more complicated and programmed elements are arranged around a big lawn.   At the Olympic Park it feels as if they have put too much thought into just what kind of fun you ought to be having.

It is pleasing to see Zaha Hadid's Aquatics Centre as it was meant to be seen at last, without the bingo wings that it displayed during the games. The nearby helter skelter - presumably, I hope, temporary - did make me wonder at first why she couldn't have been persuaded to turn her hand to a version of this funfair attraction.. But when you compare her Aquatics Centre with Hopkins Architects' Velodrome, you can see that it is they who should have been asked to handle the pure geometry of the helter-skelter; Hadid would be your choice for the Big Dipper.  Horses for courses is an important subject in architect selection.

It was disappointing to find that while the roads through the park, some quite busy, have been engineered in the modern, enlightened, pedestrian-friendly manner, with no barriers and straight line crossings, one finds as one gets close to the Westfield shopping centre to the east of the park that things change within the space of a few metres.  Here one finds oneself in a zone where a completely different set of old-school highways rules have been applied, with a forest of posts and clutter denser and more instantly mature than any of the new planting in the park could hope to be - and the pedestrian relegated to second class citizen, as they used to be.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Sense of PLACE at the Grosvenor Estate, Page Street

'Place' is meant to be important now - so important that it has been promoted to capital letters in the Farrell review.

But the endless blethering about 'sense of place' that fills today's planning documents can be tiring, because no one is able go on to explain what on earth it might be - or, for example, how you could hope to provide it in a new social housing scheme.

There's no question that it's important, though.  And you know it when you see it.

One of the weirdest housing developments in London can be found at Lutyens' Grosvenor Estate housing around Page Street in Westminster, only 500m or so from Parliament.  Weird and wonderful, that is.  Built in 1929-35, well into Lutyens later, more classical / imperial phase, it provides one of the most surreal streetscapes in London.  Long, repetitive, parallel U-shaped blocks, end on to the street, have deck access around the three inner faces. The surreal quality comes from the combination of severe repetition of the blocks themselves and of the chequerboard pattern applied to their outer faces.

Between the wings of housing along the street frontages are elegant single storey pavilions, containing shops and other facilities; these are given fancy classical detailing that is largely absent from the housing itself, a nice touch  - while such embellishments might have been pompous on the housing, they are charming on the pavilions, elevating them several notches above the mundane  - and rendering them just about strong enough to accommodate the exigencies of later commercial signage...

Spend some time here on a quiet, sunny day - or even a rainy one - and you can experience at least one example of how a sense of place has been achieved.

It probably won't help you achieve it anywhere else, though.

Friday, 7 March 2014

The Campaign for Better Elevations

The dozens of consultants appointed to take part in the design of a major project now include 'facade specialists', but these people don't presume to design the look of the elevations - that is one of the few jobs still left to the architect.

However, a quick walk round many new developments suggests that some architects aren't much good at designing elevations. I don't offer any examples, but you can picture your own at this point.

Is there a need for a new specialism?

The handsome immeuble Lavirotte (or immeuble d'Alexandre Bigot) in Avenue Rapp (two great names there), in Paris near the Eiffel Tower, has a sign explaining that it won 'le prix des facades de la Ville de Paris' in 1903.

The design of elevations was also taken seriously as a discipline in its own right in London in the first part of the twentieth century.  In the Survey of London one can find two typical examples of interwar buildings in Mayfair getting facade upgrades at the request of the Grosvenor Estate, presumably because the original architects weren't thought quite up to the standard that the estate saw as appropriate.  At no. 8 Upper Grosvenor Street, the design for a 1920s refronting of the elevation in stone was taken out of the hands of the leaseholder's architects and given to the Estate's consultant Sir Edwin Lutyens...

...and on the other side of the street, the elevation of a block of flats being put up by Messrs Edifis Limited of Pimlico (yet another great name - aren't they in the Honeywood file?) was taken by the Estate out of the hands of the builder's jobbing architect and given to establishment architects Wimperis, Simpson and Guthrie.

Today, when architects have 'value engineering' attack dogs set on them the morning after the planning consent is granted, we get dumbing down, rather than this patrician sounding smartening-up.  But for many central London projects, the front elevation of a new building between party walls is the only important outward and visible aspect - one that is often got terribly wrong, as the architects' waking hours are dedicated to optimising the core layout rather than fine tuning the window proportions.

Of course architecture is more than elevations. But elevations are all the public get to see or care about with many buildings, and they deserve more attention than they get.

The Campaign for Better Elevations needs a prize sponsor.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Still waiting for the modern world

Saturday's Guardian profile of EH boss Simon 'It's absolute nonsense to say that I'm a fogey!' Thurley notes that his new book The Building of England has been criticised for ending at 1940, and cites The Times's Richard Morrison's claim that 'he stops his survey after 1930...but most of us live and work in an England built since then.'

Which made me wonder whether (depending on who the 'us' in 'most of us' might be) the latter claim is in fact true.

There must be a date such that half the buildings in the country were built before that year, and half after.  What is that date?  Quite a lot was built during the 1930s - for example major suburban extensions to many towns and cities - and my guess is that the answer lies around 1930-1940 - certainly a significant amount of the country's building stock is from the interwar period.

But there are many places where you see very few buildings built since the Second World War; and many small towns and villages where little has been built since the nineteenth century.  You can travel for many miles through much of England and see nothing built in your lifetime.  In such places, anything new comes as a surprise.

A 1930s building such as Peter Jones in Sloane Square (pictured above) might, according to my estimate, sit in around the fiftieth percentile of buildings by age.  But it still looks strikingly 'modern', and would be described as such by many (and might still struggle to find favour with Kensington and Chelsea's planning committee if put forward as a new project today - too big, out of character with its heritage setting, untested young architect, monotonous curtain walling, surely Chelsea deserves better than this drone drone etc etc).

The proportion of buildings in most parts of the metropolis, let alone elsewhere, that look 'modern', is still very small.   To architects, designing a 'modern' building is to conform to a model that has existed for about a hundred years or so; but to civilians, such buildings are still not seen as the norm, because the pace of change is so slow; and 'modernism' is still seen by many as a foreign import, as it has been ever since it appeared.  Classicism was a foreign import too, but like the Normans and then the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas, it has been around long enough to have been accepted. Modernist projects today can find themselves subject to the xenophobic, or worse, 'you're not from round these parts, are you?' strain of thinking that can still be found all over England (admirers of John Landis' An American Werewolf in London (1981) will recall the scene set in the Slaughtered Lamb).

But the pace of change in the world of 'heritage protection' has been quite different.  While the idea of listing postwar buildings was seen as pretty controversial only two or three decades ago, now almost anything built more than thirty years ago must be fretted over as a potential 'heritage asset' (neither word in this ghastly but cunning term was used in relation to old buildings a few decades ago - they were just old buildings, the best of which were listed).

There is very little evidence of popular interest in preserving postwar buildings - the attendees at an average Twentieth Century Society meeting are a bit, well, specialist - but then Georgian and Victorian architecture needing saving by zealots when it was under threat a few decades ago, and we can thank them that we still have St Pancras.  The problem is in keeping focussed on the good stuff, rather than objecting to the demolition of almost anything.  Conservation areas and listed buildings are meant - by law - to be 'special' .  If more than half of the country's building stock is, or is part of, a 'heritage asset', we are in danger of devaluing the whole thing (as paragraph 127 of the National Planning Policy Framework, for example, warns local authorities to avoid).  If it's 'modern' it might indeed be heritage; the corollary, in danger of being overlooked, is that if it's a bit old, it nevertheless might not be heritage.

The Guardian article considers these tensions between the old and new in 'heritage', and observes that Thurley, the 'ostensible English brutalism's greatest champion'.

In this country, planning judgments about design and heritage are made in theory on the basis of policies and guidance that their promulgators like to claim are rigorous and objective, but in practice are made up on the hoof and on the basis of whimsy, and not a great deal of knowledge or sound judgement.

It is in the area of 'coming to terms with the modern' - with which the English have been struggling for about 100 years - that this is most apparent of all.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Blank looks at Debenhams in Oxford Street

A current makeover of Debenhams department store in Oxford Street involves overcladding the very dull 1960s elevations of a building described in the Pevsner guide as 'big and dispiriting' with a 'kinetic facade' of suspended aluminium panels, which are intended to ripple in the breeze.

When I walked past, there was drizzle but no breeze, and not much rippling going on - the effect was plain and static, rather than lively as indicated in the publicity - no doubt it will be better on a day that is both sunny and windy.

When a dull building that one has walked past many times has gone, it's hard to remember what it was like. The wonders of Street View (which the idle who use it for virtual site visits should always remember illustrates the recent past, not the present) show the old elevations of windows in vertical strips, alternating with strips of concrete cladding - pretty dispiriting even to a concrete enthusiast, and clearly a candidate for a makeover.

But while this project has given Debenhams a bit of bling, it's taken away the windows.  Was that such a good idea?  Many 1960s department stores that are even more dreary than the old-look Debenhams were built without windows altogether, but all of London's best stores, whether trad or modern - Harrods, Selfridges, Peter Jones - have elevations that are fully fenestrated.  Of course not much use is made of the windows, but that's not really the point - they are there just to give the illusion of the possibility of views in or out. From the outside it is generally not possible to tell whether they are used as 'real' windows or not, and I think that where you can see in through one or two windows, you are fooled into thinking you can see in through the rest. In fact, of course, windows don't generally afford much of a view into houses, flats or offices.

Windows at the upper levels make department stores into civilised, neighbourly city buildings.  You don't get sham windows on a retail park.

A city can take the odd store without windows - Birmingham's Selfridges is the highlight of an otherwise bland collection of retail buildings.  But Oxford Street has many big stores - what if they all followed suit? We know by now that form following function is not such a great precept.