Monday, 28 November 2016

London's new Design Museum

London's new Design Museum, newly open to the public, is a bit of a curate's egg, to say the least. The Grade II* listed former Commonwealth Institute building, converted by John Pawson to house the new museum, now sits behind two new blocks of flats designed by OMA, which have helped fund the project.

The good bits first.  As so often, one shouldn't overlook, before moving on to the detail, what an excellent thing it is that the project has happened at all; that the Commonwealth Institute building has been rescued from redundancy (and possible demolition - remember Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell's dodgy scheme ten years ago to get a special law passed to allow this?); that the project was put in the hands of two first rate architects, OMA and John Pawson (not necessarily the right architects for the task at hand, but never mind), and has been executed to a high standard; and that the importance of design to a country trying to reinvigorate manufacturing industry gets some welcome promotion.

The project's main flaw is a fundamental one - the approach sequence for visitors, from the street to the front door, is muddled and compromised, through space carved out from under one of the blocks of flats; and the more obvious route to the retained building, between the two new blocks, is occupied by a service road leading to a loading bay - with unattractive sliding vehicle gates interrupting what is otherwise a lavish landscape scheme.  Lots of lovely materials and fine detailing - but the basic moves are a mess.  'Where to put the front door' and 'how to get to the front door' have been fundamental aspects of designing a building for ever; 'how to get the lorries in and out' is a problem that arrived more recently, but increasingly it is one that has the potential to mess things up badly if you fail to sort it out.  This project is hardly alone in getting the route to the front door wrong - where the precepts of modernism replace the language of the traditional city, this is one of the babies that often seem to go out with the bathwater.  But then Palladio etc. didn't have to design for lorries - nor did they have to put up with being told what to do by highways engineers.

Once inside, one is presented with a clear contrast between (1) the dramatic sweeping form of the original hyperbolic paraboloid roof, together with its raking support structures, with slightly rough and ready details and (2) the new museum created inside this space by Pawson, arranged as galleries around a central space which rises to the roof - all blond wood, right angles and minimal, sophisticated detailing.

To my eyes, the clarity of the underlying idea, which reinforces the contrast between old (curves, funny shapes and angles) and new (straight lines and right angles) , is undermined by diagonal lines of the strongly expressed staircases, part of the new architecture, which rise - each different and each at a different angle - through the central void.  They are clunky when compared with everything else, old and new - but very prominent.

However, at least you can see very easily how to get from one floor to another - unlike say the V+A, where you can spend a long time trying to find a staircase.  Perhaps it is unfair to criticize Pawson for prioritising function over high concept, since he is just the sort of architect who gets castigated for doing the opposite.

The Twentieth Century Society were very cross when this project came forward, claiming that it was harmful to this important mid century building.  But in a case like this, if no one is offering to sort the site out to the satisfaction of those with a purist conservation vision, surely it is better that the site should be secured in this compromised form, as they would see it, rather than running the risk of continuing decay.  When the project was at the planning stage, I had the pleasure of going round the site on a visit attended by the original architect Roger Cunliffe, and my memory is that he was far more pleased than not about the prospects for the site's future - putting the objectors, not for the first time, in a 'purer' position, with regards to conservation of a modern building, than the project's architect.

The highlight of my visit, though, was not an architectural one - it was discovering The Maker's Bill of Rights - which should be passed into law.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Architects' Bake Off - Biscuit or Blancmange?

The scheme for the 'Olympicopolis' project in the Olympic Park, by Allies and Morrison and others, was - along with the continuing saga of the Garden Bridge - a top architectural story of the summer silly season, when the scheme for a new cultural quarter was publicly criticised by Peter Cook and others, basically on the grounds that it is boring.

Rowan Moore's piece in the Observer, well argued as ever, described the spat as 'biscuit vs blancmange' - Cook having characterized the peddlers of the bricky New London Vernacular architecture as the 'biscuit boys'.

This was all argued out in similar terms over a decade ago, in the New Labour heyday of the lottery funded wow-factor 'icon' - the apotheosis of the debate in those days being Graham Morrison's memorable talk at the Royal Academy in 2004, with icon projects such as Will Alsop's Liverpool 'Fourth Grace' in the firing line.

Once upon a time it was obvious which were the important buildings in the city - churches, town halls on so on.  They were the most noticeable, and usually the biggest, buildings, and the best architects got to design them - the 'icons' of their day.

Now the best architects - including the ones who want to do showy buildings - don't generally get churches to do, and even cultural projects are rare - so they give us showy blocks of flats or offices.

The agents and marketing people who are tasked with shifting new office space and flats want pretty much everything to be unique, iconic - or at the very least a landmark or a gateway.

But not everything can be an eye-catching, look-at-me building.  Some architects are much more likely than others to offer you one - but did anyone except the client want one?  Some argue that in an age where consensus about anything is rare and deference is seldom found anywhere, the city is no worse for a few new eye-catchers. And certainly a city where the only things that can go ahead are those to which no one objects is not going to be a very interesting place.

But there is room for a lot more thought, and explicit discussion, at the beginning of a project concerning how far the 'look-at-me' dial is to be turned up in any particular instance.  It is a question that relates to the uses of the building and its place in the city - and the answer might influence the choice of architect, and what the brief asks them to do.

In London, where the cityscape is becoming, in places, a bit of a mess - part glorious mess, part inglorious - there is a clear need for more and better planning - in the sense of ordering the city, through spatial planning, rather than writing more and more and longer and longer documents - and for more quality control.

That means debate both about the basic question of whether building proposals are any good or not, but also questions about what form of expression is appropriate in any given situation: biscuit or blancmange, plain or fancy, straight or curvy.  Both sorts of consideration are important to the future of London's cityscape.

The Olympicopolis Bake Off affair is the reverse of the more common sort of objection that building proposals are showy when they should be quiet.  Peter Cook has a point: if you can't be a bit flash in a cultural project in a regeneration area, where can you?

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Planning (in) the digitised future

One of the suggestions made by the Skyline Campaign is that there should be better, and publicly accessible, digitised modelling of project proposals.  I don't agree with a lot of they say about tall buildings, but I do agree with this.   Citizens should be able to find out for themselves what is being put forward, and the technology exists for them to be able to see images of what it would look like from a viewpoint they are interested in.  If you can make a film like Gravity, then you can certainly make a system like that without inventing any new technology. It wouldn't be cheap, though; it raises tricky questions of open access to data; and it also makes you think about just how accessible such a system is likely to be for everyone, as opposed to  IT literate bien-pensants.  Here is a piece on this subject that I wrote for the RIBA Smart Cities programme:

If you were excited by the digital world created in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, then looking up a planning application on a local authority website is likely to bring you back down to earth with even more of a bump than Sandra Bullock’s landing. What are the prospects for better and more sophisticated digitisation of the planning system?

It’s not hard to imagine amazing possibilities for spatial planning in a digitised world, given the continuing exponential growth of computing power and capacity.  The kind of imagery we are used to seeing on Time Team, with successive phases of building on a site presented digitally in ‘fast forward’ fly-throughs, could readily be applied to project proposals, and brought up, as standard, for consultees to review on a local authority website – rather than some badly drawn plans scanned at poor resolution, as we might be able to find today if we are lucky.  A dynamic digital imaging app could allow you to hold up your iPad in front of you on site and view a new scheme overlaid on reality, as it would appear from that viewpoint.

But today, it feels as if we are still in the Stone Age.  The applications suggested above wouldn’t need any technology we don’t have already (and probably exist already in some form) - but they are not very likely to become standard practice soon.  The reality is that digitisation of the planning system is in its infancy – and for the most part it is in the hands of local authorities, who are generally not at the bleeding edge of technology.

But even if the physical reality of buildings proposals could be presented in more and more sophisticated ways through computer modelling, will this bring about better planning?  The many problems of the UK planning system are not mainly to do with lack of access to data.  

Digital exclusion, too, should be a major concern in a system that is supposed to be democratically accountable.  Your 80 year old mother might want to say something about the Wetherspoon planned to open on her doorstep (mine did), but the average council website will not make it easy for her.

In an optimistic version of the digital future, planning authorities will be able much more readily to receive data as well as disseminate it.  Do we still want a few councillors deciding what will happen – why not ‘open source’ decision making?  Compared with a digital city model, the digital system that would allow citizens to vote on planning applications and strategies would be pretty straightforward.  But there is little appetite anywhere for rule by plebiscite rather then by representative government – which might lead you to wonder what the point would be in providing citizens with increasingly sophisticated data concerning things they are not being asked to decide on in any case.