Friday, 11 August 2017

Making a mess of Exhibition Road

The shared surface streetscape scheme for Exhibition Road in London's museum quarter, designed by Dixon Jones and completed in 2012,  looked great when new and was hailed as a success

Now, though, it is being messed up.  First, the beautifully worked out patterned paving (constructed, it seems, on a proper sub-base, unlike the sightly, but collapsing, block paving schemes in St Martin's Lane and Cowcross Street - another lost art) began to be replaced by repairs of the messiest kind, tarmac in some places and concrete in others, according to the whim of the perpetrators...

More recently, ranks of huge new blocks of granite have been placed on top of the paving, presumably as an anti-terrorist measure...

..located according to some sort of notional plan, but only approximately, with most pieces a bit off square, not quite lining up, and not aligned with the paving pattern.  They are not fixed, but perhaps were too hard to shift once they had been unloaded.

It seems crazy to spend the money on honed granite blocks and not place them properly - better to do it in concrete, and spend the money saved on some more diligent builders - or supervisors.

You can't fight entropy, I guess.  Ordered systems inevitably become disordered.  Reading Stewart Brand's 'How Buildings Learn' should be enough for anyone to get over the idea that you can make a project perfect on day one and hope to keep it that way.  But like most architects, I hanker for a built environment that is better organised than the one we are given.  The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, of course, now have more important things to worry about - and it now looks as if the money spent on paving Exhibition Road would have been better spent on refurbishing tower blocks properly.

But here as at Grenfell Tower, this is not just about money - it is about doing things thoughtfully and carefully once the resources have been committed.

Thankfully, you can raise your eyes from the streetscape and cheer yourself up at either end of Exhibition Road, with two recent projects.

At the V&A Museum, AL_A's project to connect Exhibition Road to the central courtyard succeeds in that main objective, and as with so many public projects, it is good that it has happened at all in these straitened times -  but it is done via some odd moves along the way.  The project's new entrance courtyard shares with the practice's MAAT museum in Lisbon a white tiled paving that produces enough glare to be uncomfortable without sunglasses on a sunny day - here, it would be good to find the ravages of time taking a bit of gloss off.

Francis Kéré' s Serpentine Pavilion, at the other end of the road, is one of the best of that series - joyful but rigorous,  masterly in its control of geometry, and free of the whimsy of some of the gallery's offerings of recent years.

Serpentine pavilion architects, of course, don't have to worry about entropy - the project is taken down before it can set in.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Quality, 'quality', and fashion - the beauty of black

Usually, you'd think of granite as a high quality material for the outside of a building, and consider paint to be lower down the scale.

But in the current makeover of a tired office building next to Farringdon Station, deeply unfashionable 1980s granite cladding is being painted black - what was conceived of then as a wannabe city office (but in slightly less smart Clerkenwell) reimagined now as a wannabe Shoreditch co-working hub (but in slightly less grungy Clerkenwell).

Derwent London's sales website for the project seems to suggest some different, more complex, and dare I say more po-mo, versions of the elevational makeover; but with the scaffold now down, I'm hoping it will remain in the simpler version seen above.

There's nothing inherently cheap looking about paint - context is everything.  Nash and Cubitt put up acres of painted stucco buildings in London where they would have used stone if they could have afforded it, as the architects of Georgian Bath and Edinburgh did.  Nash's terraces are always described as stucco, but what you are actually looking at is paint*.  The result is, nevertheless, classy - partly because the paint is well maintained.

The Farringdon building, on the other hand, though granite-clad, was ghastly - 'Early Learning Centre' architecture according to Hugh Pearman - and in a post a few years ago I suggested that it was a shame that it had not been demolished when so many other buildings in the area were coming down.

I remember the architect Irena Bauman, in a talk a while back, referring to the inability of some clients to distinguish between quality and 'quality' - a magpie like fondness for shiny expensive materials, splashed all over (ironically) as if with a brush, being symptomatic.  Gold lift car interiors, anyone?

The new version of this building looks classier, to my eyes, than the old.  I can see the point of the makeover - in 2017.  But here we are really in the world of fashion and kerb appeal rather than quality vs. 'quality'.    With a reference back to some interesting Georgian buildings such as 10 Downing Street allowing architects to claim that black paint is an established part of London's rich palette of building materials, projects from Adjaye Associates' Dirty House (2002) in the East End (which may have kicked all this off) to Squire and Partners' 5 Hanover Square (2012), and now this makeover by AHMM for Derwent in Farringdon, suggest that black elevations have become the new, well, black.

*Originally, much London stucco was intended to be painted to resemble stone. According to an essay 'Stucco' by Frank Kelsall in 'Good and Proper Materials' (London Topographical Society, 1989), oil painting of stucco (as found today) had become general by the 1840s, but was probably unknown to Nash. 

Monday, 9 January 2017

RFAC 2.0 in 2017?

Older readers may remember the Royal Fine Art Commission or RFAC, the architecture quango which was abolished and replaced by CABE in 1999.  Could it now be on the way back?

The patrician ethos of the Commission, under its Chairman Lord St John of Fawsley, didn't find favour with the Cool Britannia mindset of Tony Blair's New Labour administration elected in 1997. But what goes around comes around, and so when the coalition government arrived in 2010, CABE, probably now in turn seen as a Labour oriented outfit, lost its government funding and was nearly killed off in the over-hasty 'bonfire of the quangos'.

A body called the Royal Fine Art Commission Trust has however carried on quietly since 1999.  For a few years it ran an annual architecture award, as it had when the RFAC was extant - then after the death of Lord St John in 2012, things went quiet - but it has recently been upping its profile, perhaps considering that the circumstances are right for a re-founding of the Commission.  The Trust has eminent names listed as advisers and trustees, such as former Tory minister and grandee Lord Carrington, architecture patron and developer Lord Palumbo, and Lord Foster - and for political balance, Labour MP (but a posh one) Tristram Hunt.

In November Lord Foster delivered a lecture organised by the Trust, 'Designing the Future: Starting in the North' - in Manchester Town Hall - suggesting an alignment with government 'Northern Powerhouse' policies - although as reported by the AJ, this was undermined a bit by the headline grabbing part of the talk being devoted Foster's Thames Hub scheme for an estuary airport...

And for the last year, an @RoyalFineArt Twitter account has been tweeting prolifically on things architectural and urbanistic - and significantly, with the odd hint that there might be a need for a new Royal Fine Art Commission.

Full disclosure - I worked for the RFAC and then for CABE.  Both organisations offered good advice about major project proposals - and in spite of the shift in tone and style from meetings chaired by Lord St John (until 1999) to those chaired by Paul Finch and his successors (after 1999), the content and quality of the advice given didn't change much.  Though each organisation had the odd blind spot (e.g. things royal in one case, certain 'starchitect' schemes in the other), in general terms good schemes were still good schemes, bad schemes were still bad.

CABE's role and status, in its post-2010 guise as part of Design Council CABE, are rather diminished.  The quality of advice offered is still good, but the lack of political support and the lack of public funding have considerably reduced its capacity and its influence - as has the significant growth in the number of local design review panels.

It is good for architecture if there is at least some evidence of senior politicians thinking that the subject is important.  There is no sign of this whatsoever in the present administration - the one minister considered sympathetic, Ed Vaizey, lost his job last May.  A case can be made for a strong and authoritative independent voice to speak up for architecture in national discussions - but with no minister likely to take an interest, one wonders how successful the Trust could be in reviving the RFAC to fulfil this role, if it is serious about this.  The tone of the May administration is more Rotary Club than Bullingdon Club, so from that point of view the Trust's friends in high places may not be of quite the right kind.  But before long we could have an architecture buff as our king - perhaps that is where they are setting their sights?

I scanned my copy of the RFAC's 1999 'Final Report' for a hint of an intention to return.  I could find nothing.  But considerably stranger things have happened in the last twelve months.