Monday, 30 April 2012

Learning from errors in a sylvan setting

I spent a glorious day on Friday at Hooke Park, the patch of forest in Dorset that was once run by furniture maker John Makepeace as the School for Woodland Industries and is now a teaching facility for the Architectural Association. To my embarrassment I had never been there. It was a joy to see the three original buildings, a workshop and a refectory designed by ABK with Frei Otto, and an accommodation building by Cullinan. All three buildings were constructed using roundwood thinnings from the park, and though the anticipated wider-scale use of this material has never taken off, the buildings are magnificent built examples of innovative thinking.

The newest building, called the Big Shed, is rightly a very different beast, like its predecessors very much of its time. It uses roundwood but for rather pragmatic reasons - the superior structural properties, and also because there were no sawing facilities on site. The first outcome of the AA's new Design and Make MA, it uses some innovative fixing technology. This did not work first time - there were lessons learnt along the way. There can be few cases where errors in buildings are positively to be welcomed, but in this case it was very much a part of the education process.

It was an unalloyed pleasure to see work that combined intellectual exploration with practicality and real 'hands-on' experience. And the fact that it was an unexpectedly sunny day and the wood was filled with bluebells was no hardship either.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Flight of the footprint

I was recently given a charming document by Edward Cullinan Architects - its annual sustainability report for 2011. It talked abut green projects but also about the practice's own environmental behaviour, detailing, for example, how its own carbon footprint has reduced over the years. It also showed the individual carbon footprints of all members of the practice, in a graphic designed as ... a pair of footprints!

Despite listing the individual actions that members of staff have taken to reduce their footprints - draft-proofing sash windows, installing solar panels, growing fruit and veg, and taking staycations - the figures aren't that impressive. Many were well over the UK average of 5.5t CO2e, with the highest a whopping 13.4. The clue lies in a footnote which says that this includes long-haul flights, which have a disproportionately enormous effect.

Of course, these flights are largely in the service of creating green architecture around the world, and any decent architect would argue, quite rightly, that they could not design a building without understanding the site at first hand. Doubtless other flights are in the service of winning work. It is a real dilemma and an ironic one for a practice where cycling to work seems to be part of the DNA.

And of course the only reason that I can draw these conclusions is because the practice has taken the laudable step of measuring and publishing the carbon footprints. I don't have a clue what mine is - do you?

Monday, 23 April 2012

On women without men

It was delightful to see the winners announced of the AJ's Women in Architecture Awards, and to see that they received such a positive reaction. One thing that made the results so good was that none of these women - Zaha Hadid, Cindy Walters & Michal Cohen, and Hannah Lawson - are in practice with husbands. We don't need to know about their personal circumstances in order to explain their professional lives.

There is a great tradition of women architects setting up in partnership with their husbands, and it has much to recommend it, melding private and personal lives seamlessly. And these women certainly don't necessarily play second fiddle. In many cases they are the more outspoken, more public figures - fit your own names in here. And of course, many architects work so hard that they never have a chance to meet anybody beyond architecture school or practice. Even Jane Drew (it was the Jane Drew Prize that Zaha won) was in partnership with not one but two husbands.

So the husband and wife model can be admirable, even if tough for other members of the team. But in awards designed not just to recognise women, but to make life more manageable and hence the profession more attractive to women, to help women succeed in what is still a shamefully male world, then it is great to applaud those women who are doing it without men - whatever the support structures may or may not be behind the scenes.

Friday, 20 April 2012

BIM, sustainability and hope for the future.

I was at a fascinating talk at Cullinan's office yesterday about sustainability organisations, at which the main speaker was Gary Newman from the Association of Sustainable Building Products who believes that there should be a very different approach to defining sustainability than that in the BRE Green Guide - that individual products should be assessed, rather than having generic categories.

Some of this was a bit esoteric, but it was interesting to see the weight that he and the other speaker gave  to the potential of BIM to make our buildings greener. 'With BIM we can really engage with resource efficiency and responsible use of materials,' the said. 'We can really understand the inputs we are making.' we are certainly not there yet - precisely because everything is inter-related in terms of sustainability, it seems that the algorithms available for use in BIM cannot really cope with these issues in a sophisticated  way at present. But this confidence should drive development.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Sad time for publishing

I have only just caught up with the fact that highly respected architectural publisher Birkhauser has gone into administration. Like all aspects of book publishing, architectural book publishing is going through difficult times, but Birkhauser had a great reputation, with seriously considered books. Architecture and reading my be considered as polar opposites by some - the prevalence of dyslexia is not only a fact, but in some cases a source of pride - but knowledge and ideas are important. Let's hope for a Phoenix-like reappearance.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Spanish disarray and the role of the architect

Anybody with an ounce of sense would not consider moving to Spain just now, with the economy in disarray and 25 per cent unemployment. Who is to blame? This question could spark a lengthy debate, particularly about the pros and cons of the Euro. But, according to an article in The Guardian on Friday, architects, or at least architecture, are partly to blame. It castigates the extravagance of regional governments saying 'Regional politicians are behind some of Spain's biggest and most costly white elephants. From Valencia's huge, spaceship-like City of the Arts and Sciences to Santiago de Compostela's vast, half-empty City of Culture, loss-making monuments to their vanity abound.
'A race to construct flashy public buildings by cutting-edge architects, combined with a taste for under-used infrastructure projects, has helped push up debt and deficit. '
In Valencia at least, the array of buildings alongside the dry bed of the Rio Turia, including Calatrava's City of Arts and Sciences, (which by the way was completed ten years ago) have helped revitalise the city and reconnect it to the sea. What should architects do? Say no to some of the most exciting work they are offered.
If well designed, these buildings may still be standing when the memory of the current economic crisis has faded. And an interest in good architecture also nurtures talent. A high proportion of the winners and commendations in last year's ar+d Emerging Architecture awards (sorry, this is behind a subscription barrier) came from Spain. One cannot expect such a happy outcome in the years to come.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Danger, men at work

Apologies for the sexist headline, but it is still mostly men who work at the dirty end of the construction industry, and that is where the danger lies. I was reminded of this by the latest story I saw on Construction Enquirer. This website, aimed firmly at the contracting community, only runs about five stories a day, and most days one of them is about an accident or injury. The latest headline seems like good news - 'Workers survive 250 tonne concrete collapse' - until you read on and find out that the 'lucky' workers who fell 10 metres into wet concrete 'only' suffered cement burns and broken bones.

A few years ago I remember an architect telling me that what he found most worrying about his job was that he was designing buildings whose construction could result in a worker dying on site. This is not the way that most architects think about their work, but it was refreshing. For most, the idea of offsite construction is appealing because of accuracy, lack of errors and elimination of waste. It is worth remembering though that cutting down on the amount of site work should mean reducing the risks in what is still a very dangerous area of work.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Is architecture criticism dead?

The Arch Daily website has a long piece about architectural criticism today. Titled 'The Architecture Critic is Dead (just not for the reason you think)'  , it looks at changes on the scene in New York, where traditional critics have gone from the main titles. The piece concludes that there is still a role for the critic but they need to be much more of a social activist, rather than just analysing buildings as objects or works of art.
This is an interesting contrast to the scene in the UK, where architectural critics certainly have engaged with social issues. Of course, their lives have not been easy either, as newspapers are increasingly cash-strapped with the rise of the internet which may increase audiences but is not good for cashflow. Tom Dyckhoff has gone from the Times, and Jonathan Glancey from the Guardian.

Traditionally American papers have written very long pieces and there is a school of thought which argues that, with the prevalence of bite-sized easy to digest dollops online, print media should distinguish itself by longer, more closely written pieces. The London Review of Books takes this approach, and the latest redesign and rethink of The Architectural Review follows a similar path, with some heavyweight theorising. Good luck, and let's hope it works.

But just when you think everything is changing, and must change, along comes a piece like Rowan Moore's review of the restored Villa Tugenhadt in Brno. This is an old-fashioned piece of writing, looking at the history of this magnificent building, its social significance and the work that has been done to bring it back. Old fashioned, but so good. Architectural criticism is not dead yet.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Boat race protester's negative take on urbanism

Trenton Oldfield, the protester who disrupted the Boat Race this weekend,  is of interest to many people beyond those who care about the world of rowing fast and hard.  As one of the two founders of This is Not a Gateway, which on its website says that it  ‘creates platforms for critical projects and ideas related to cities’ , he has been engaging with our cities in relatively positive ways.

In his own time, however, he has been far more nihilistic. The blog that he set up in preparation for Saturday's madcap swim, calledElitism Leads to Tyranny’  calls for acts of civil disobedience, most of which look pretty childish. They include the idea that plumbers could ‘store up’ a problem in the offices of a conservative think tank, that taxi drivers could deliberately take posh passengers a long way round, and that cyclists could chain their bikes to a rack of corporate cycles.

This is Not a Gateway describes itself as Critical, Rigorous, Independent, Productive, and Oldfield has an impressive pedigree, having previously been coordinator of part of the Thames Strategy and a community development worker in North Kensington. One must assume that he just became utterly frustrated with actually getting anything done. Perhaps he would have felt better if he had attended Ash Sakula's planning breakout, and seen work that was impressively productive. It may not have smashed the elite, but it was certainly helping to improve life for the less privileged. Would that have been enough for him?

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Planning for better days?

Architect Ash Sakula held a really interesting event related to planning this week. Although it was billed as being about 'Grabbing the agenda before the dust settles' in fact what was most exciting was learning about the things had been achieved either in spite of or at least alongside the system.

Finn Williams, an architect turned planner who also works for Croydon Council, talked about a project to regenerate Arnold Circus, a space in the east end of London which had been the first internal garden surrounded by social housing. Despite its historic importance, it had become very overgrown, and hence threatening. Williams was one of a group which helped the local community reclaim the space, first through one-off events such as picnics, eventually turning it back into an appealing place which can not only serve as a local amenity but also be used for events organised by outside groups, generating revenue.
Jess Steele of Locality talked about the importance of creating 'self renovating neighbourhoods' and about allowing people to be the agents of change, based on collective self-interest. Kelvin Campbell expounded his idea of 'massive small' and Tim Stonor of Space Syntax described the fact that movement in itself is not a goal - it should only be in the service of transactions.

We are living in difficult times, but this meeting was a reminder that there are enough people committed to making things better to provide some grounds for hope.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Sustainability in the fast lane

Today's post is a blatant plug for a book by my friend Hattie Hartman, who is sustainability editor of The Architects' Journal and has written a book called London 2012 Sustainable Design. It has been out for a while, but I have only just received my review copy. Even for somebody who hates sport and is still not entirely convinced that bringing the Olympics to London was a good idea, the book looks fascinating. It looks at each of the venues and facilities, at the competition process, at design and delivery, and offers facts and figures. The joy of this is that there is so much real data, in contrast to the sea of greenwash in which we risk drowning.

How relevant is this to other projects? It is true that we are not likely to build many more Olympic scale stadia, although the lessons on flexibility are important. But temporary facilities? Energy centres? Schools? Housing? Parks? Most certainly. The ODA may be horribly controlling, but this tendency does at least mean it can gather data properly. How encouraging to read a paragraph such as 'Park-wide savings on embodied carbon associated with the Olympic Park's concrete strategy are approximately 24 per cent compared to the industry average. The two key factors determining these savings were cement substitution and the use of sustainable transport.' The industry should read, and learn.

Monday, 2 April 2012

David Shrigley the city planner

I saw the David Shrigley exhibition at London's Hayward Gallery yesterday. Shrigley is best know for his drawings - whimsical and charming and yet with a bite. But there is just more than just these at the exhibition - strange objects and animations, and also an untitled installation that fills half a room. Made of some black stuff, it consists of elements that look nothing like people, but have a definite human quality, and other elements - long tubes, spheres and a kind of exploded spidery mass - that look nothing like most buildings but feel like buildings.

The impression is that definitely that you are looking at a city, where some areas are calm and harmonious, others are bustling and others rather menacing. It is a worthwhile reminder that our cities depend not so much on the details of architecture as on the disposition of buildings, on the spaces between them and on the people who occupy those spaces and the ways in which they behave. Maybe some urban designer should offer a role to Shrigley?

If you do make it to the exhibition, it is worth finding time for the Jeremy Deller display that is downstairs. Also fascinating in a different way.