Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Don't forget the drainage

Congratulations to Wilkinson Eyre, whose Guangzhou International Finance Centre is one of the projects to make it onto the shortlist for the Lubetkin Prize, the RIBA's award for buildings outside the EU.
Not only is the tower the tallest building by a British architect, but it is also a proper, decent piece of architecture - otherwise it would never have been shortlisted. It is however representative of much of the architecture in China's biggest cities, in that it reflects a desire to be bigger, newer, taller and smarter than its neighbours.

This attitude may have implications for the overall urban design of cities, but today journalist and China specialist Isabel Hilton spoke on the Today programme about a much more immediate concern. This interest in bling, she said, may be at the expense of vital infrastructure. She was talking about the recent dreadful floods in Beijing, to which official figures attribute more than 60 deaths. While most of her report was about the way that social media are allowing citizens to contradict the official line, she mentioned that a contributing cause is believed to be a simple lack of drainage. Much of Beijing has been paved over to accommodate the rush to develop, and no new flood drains have been built to compensate. Victorian London, famously, became livable through the attention to water supply, drainage and sewage. Beijing's experience is a timely reminder that we neglect infrastructure at our peril, especially in our increasingly volatile climate.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Architecture gets an Alping hand

Luca Gibello, editor of Italian magazine Il Giornale dell'Architettura, has put together an exhibition, currently running in Udine, northwest Italy, on the design of Alpine buildings. Many Brits may primarily think of the Alps as a place for winter holidays, but of course there are plenty of summer visitors and they in particular need refuges such as this one:
 We may not be able to rival the Alps in the UK, but the building type is fascinating - the buildings have to be largely self-sufficient, elements have to be small enough to be transported easily, they have to cope with cold and high winds, and they have to be an ornament not a detriment to the landscape. For this reason, there are some great examples, and others that are shamefully bad. 
For all these reasons, Alpine buildings were among the most interesting that I covered when I wrote a book on Extreme Architecture. And I never fail to be excited when I see another good example - it helps of course that they are in photogenic, even if inaccessible, surroundings. 

Friday, 20 July 2012

Can Michael Caine teach us about architecture?

Last night, after the opening of Phil Coffey's lovely new library at the BFI, guests were invited to a special showing of Get Carter, the film in which Michael Caine famously throws a villain off the top of the since-demolished Owen Luder designed car park in Gateshead. It really is a great film, even if it does make you wonder how Caine's character can remain so athletic on a regime of cigarettes, whisky, sex, late nights and violence.
There is a funny vignette with the two architects who are designing a restaurant to go at the top of the structure. They are horrified by their client's lack of aesthetic appreciation (we have seen his house, which they haven't, so no surprises there), and on his bad manners in suddenly disappearing. Then as they see the mayhem on the street, and the police arriving, one says to the other 'I don't think we will be getting our fee on this project'.
In a week in which it has been made clear how little the role of architects is understood, does this help or hinder?

Thursday, 19 July 2012

What is architecture all about?

Christine Murray, editor of The Architects' Journal, has written an open letter to the public trying to explain what architecture is for. This is in response to a survey that shows, shockingly, that the public has very little understanding of what architects do.
Murray's explanation is that architects design buildings that really work, and that will continue to work over time. 'A builder will build you a home, an architect will make you a home,' she concludes. It is a brave attempt to tackle a definition that can never be fully resolved, especially in a world where there is increasingly a difference between qualifications and the roles that people play. Non-architects are designing buildings (pace Thomas Heatherwick); architects and landscape architects are carrying out urban design; everybody is having a go at products. It definitely needs doing, even though no solution will be perfect. Good architects bring a certain magic and rigorous thinking projects that is hard to define but important to recgonise.
I have tried to tackle the problem from a different angle in a book with the rather hubristic title '10 Principles of Architecture'. It looks at what the defining considerations are in the design of buildings.
It's out in September.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

All about the infrastructure?

The government's announcement about its planned investment in the rail network is welcome for several reasons. Firstly, government investment in current circumstances is a good thing. Secondly it is going to rail, which is relatively non-polluting, and will be even more so with electrification. And thirdly, the government has resisted the desire for another 'show off' project and has decided to spend its money on making existing services better - conceptually this is only a couple of notches up in status from fixing potholes in the road.
Of course, nothing is perfect. A large chunk of the money had already been allocated, so Government is trying to make more political capital than it really deserves - but what's new? There is some doubt about where the rest of the money will come from although it is amusing to hear pundits alternately complaining 'Does this mean the taxpayer will pay?' and 'Will rail fares go up?' Surely one or the other is inevitable, unless we find a fairy godmother - and we may have more urgent calls on her largesse than rail electrification. Thirdly, not everywhere will benefit equally. Cornwall, for example, one of the least advantaged regions, is not only worried about not receiving any benefit, but also that its services may actually be cut.
Finally, does a government that sees most buildings as an unacceptable luxury unless they are so basic that they are scarcely usable have less of a problem with infrastructure? This bias would not be great. Outdated railways need an upgrade but so do failing schools. Perhaps the coalition partners could talk about that when they need an announcement to make up their next tiff?

Friday, 13 July 2012

Artist spreads light

It is delightful to read in The Guardian that the artist Olafur Eliasson (the man who put a giant sun in Tate Modern) has co-designed a series of portable affordable solar-powered lights for use in developing countries. It should give the one in five people who live off-grid up to five hours of actual light, much safer, brighter and environmentally responsible than the kerosene lamps that are currently the only option for many.
Eliasson believes it is important that these lights are designed by an artist because 'people want beautiful things in their lives'. Yet his project is in its simplicity reminiscent of another invention that also brings light into people's lives - but this time in daytime. This is the plastic bottle filled with water that has been introduced to many tin roofs in the Philippines, allowing the sun to filter into their homes for the first time.
Great inventions both.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Water out of thin air

I love this project devised by the ever-resourceful Architecture + Vision. The practice, which specialises in interesting looking forms that do amazing things in hostile environments, has come up with 'WarkaWater' which it will exhibit at the Venice Biennale.
Looking like a giant bottle shaped basket, a couple of storeys high, and made from bamboo or reeds, it is intended to harvest water from the air, and specifically from fog. The architects designed it for northern Ethiopia, where fetching water is a huge and onerous part of daily life for women and children. Instead the WarkaWater (named after a local sheltering tree) can be built on the edge of a village, using local skills, and can gather and store water. A prototype has already been built in Ethiopia, and another in Venice. The one for the Biennale will be the third.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

London's East End and Middle East

Yesterday's Observer Review section had a special focus on the East End of London, as a slightly quirky preview of the Olympics. It covered everything from the best clubs to an interview with artist Rachel Whiteread who not only lives in the area but whose latest installation will be on the front of the Whitechapel Gallery. At its heart though was a piece by Rowan Moore, who is not only the paper's architecture critic but also a long-term resident of the East End ( I suspect he spends his weekends in the country).
Moore discusses the perennial problem of gentrification, that the undoubted changes for the better in the physical environment and in facilities bring with them rising housing prices and a danger of not catering to long-term residents. This contrast is accentuated by the presence of Canary Wharf, the new financial district which houses some of the country's richest (and most reviled) bankers. Moore talks about a 'lumpy' social fabric that echoes the lumpy physical fabric.
He doesn't have many kind things to say about the Olympics either, arguing that it does not work as a coherent whole. Elsewhere in the paper there is a long article about the growing influence and ambitions of Qatar, which has bought the Olympic Park, and is of course a major investor in the Shard which had a fancy completion celebration last week. It certainly was Qatar's week - there was also a large conference in London called Qatar Infrastructure Projects 2012 looking not at how the Qataris could further invest here, but at how the British could win work over there. It is a reminder of how truly international property and construction are. But there is still a slight uneasiness about the level of Qatari investment in London's property scene. This is not I think any particular dislike of the Qataris but just because it is a blatant reminder that so much of our infrastructure is seen as an investment opportunity rather than a way of improving the well-being of residents - whichever country they come from.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Wacky is great in small quantities

Architect Mobile Studio has designed an exhibition for the Royal Academy in London with the title 'The Weird, the Wacky and the Wonderful', and it looks as if their exhibition design lives up to the name.  It sounds a really intriguing exhibition, as we are all seduced by weirdo architecture - at least if we don't have to live in it or opposite it. It would be interesting to know whether buildings like Vienna's Hundertwasserhaus become more appealing or more irritating over time, or simply nearly invisible.
Much of the work in the show predates the rise of the 'icon', and is likely to be either wilfully naive, or a deliberate reaction against a prevailing orthodoxy. But however much we enjoy these buildings, they actually tell us a lot about what we don't want our buildings to be. The occasional maverick is intriguing and charming - but a whole city of them would be like living inside a perpetual migraine. We need the transgressive to remind us what normality should be like - it really is the exception that proves the rule.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Ay ay boson

How encouraging it was to hear a physicist talking last night on Radio 4 about the (probable) discovery of the Higgs Boson at CERN's Large Hadron Collider. Her enthusiasm was infectious but even more so was the fact that it was accompanied by a real thirst for knowledge. It would be wonderful if the Higgs Boson was proved to exist she said; even better if it were proved not to exist. Both options would contribute to knowledge and open up new avenues of enquiry.

She also stressed how many developments had arisen as a byproduct of the quest for knowledge, and how many more (unimaginable) would come from further investigations. In other words, she was an excellent proponent of the importance of pure research. Buildings of course have been beneficiaries of the quest for knowledge, whether we are talking about ETFE, or photovoltaics or even BIM which could be seen as a 'byproduct' of the growth in computing power.
The Large Hadron Collider cost and costs a lot of money, but its purpose was not to make more money but to enhance human knowledge. In a week when the latest revelations from Barclays and Bob Diamond remind us just how toxic the pursuit of money for its own sake can be, it is worth remembering that spending money can serve other purposes too. All buildings cost money - how great if more of them could be in the service of human wellbeing rather than of mammon.

Monday, 2 July 2012

In praise of quiet winners

I am delighted to have been asked to judge the Wood Awards this year, and spent much of the weekend going through the late entries which, in time-honoured tradition, almost equalled those that were received on time. There is some wonderful work, ranging from tiny follies, artworks and extra rooms up to substantial schools, healthcare and cultural buildings. But it is no criticism to say that there are no blockbusters this year, nothing to compare to the Velodrome, a building which has already achieved high visibility and will have far more over the summer. We just aren't building on that scale now, and even the largest buildings submitted don't play that part of 'objects in the landscape' perfected by the Velodrome and also by one of last year's winners, Brockholes.
The recently announced RIBA awards showed a similar trend away from scene stealers. The Olympics represent the last hurrah for 'big architecture' for some time to come, and the few schools that are feeding through represent the end of the pipeline for Building Schools for the Future, before the cost-cutting future in which government representatives have stated firmly that the new commissions will not win architecture prizes. Architecture is in a state of flux, but the news is not all bad. New practices are forming and, surprisingly, making a living as well. And whereas the very special surroundings of the Velodrome and Brockholes make it right that they should stand out, buildings that relate to their neighbours are what we all need more of, even if they are not so photogenic.
We can be quietly confident of seeing some great, quiet buildings rewarded in the years to come.