Thursday, 30 August 2012

The irony of Open House

This year Open House London celebrates its 20th anniversary with a fuller and more diverse programme than ever before. Although it is not until 22-23 September, the ballot (an innovation)  has already closed for the most popular sites. There are emphases on landscape and engineering, and there are tours, as well as the usual opportunities both to access grand buildings that are normally inaccessible and to nose around in your neighbour's rear extension.
The irony is that this festival of openness, that is predicated on openness, happens when much of our capital is more closed than ever before. Edwin Heathcote touches on this in the introduction to the brochure when he writes, 'Not every change in London has been for the better. Argument still rage about the privatisation of public space...' The arguments about public space received a closer focus in the run up to the Olympics. Before the nation was subsumed into a great love-in and celebration of wins, the heavy-handed security pointed up how little of 'our' space was really 'ours' and how restricted we can be.
But this kind of privatisation, revealed in Anna Minton's excellent Ground Control and emphasised by the photographer Grant Smith in his battle to take photos where he wishes, is not the only thing excluding us from London. Money is doing it as well, as parts of the city become so expensive that even the 'normal rich' can't afford to live there. The idea of 'trickle down' wealth has long been discounted, but there is a sort of trickle-out effect in London where the hyper rich push out the merely rich, the rich push out the comfortable, and London becomes an onion of different layers of wealth, with many simply unable to afford to live in the capital. It would be a bit much though, to expect Open House to solve all those problems. Happy birthday!

Monday, 27 August 2012

Remembering a devastating fire

There was a fascinating programme on Radio 4 this morning about the Summerlands fire in the Isle of Man, in which around 50 people died in 1973. Summerlands was built with high hopes in 1971 as an indoor entertainment centre for an island with an uncertain climate, trying to counter the new allure of cheap continental holidays.
Clad with Oroglas, a new acrylic glazing, and with climate control, it was in its way a precursor of resorts like Center Parcs, although more urban and doubtless more raucous. It was disturbing to hear from witnesses to the fire and also from a woman who was caught up in it as a child of five, suffered burns and still has nightmares.
What was clear was that there were many causes for the scale of the disaster - lax fire codes, poor management, locked doors, a failure to alert the fire brigade early and the fact that parents and children were attracted to different levels of the building which meant that, when fire broke out, instead of evacuating immediately, they went looking for their loved ones.
There have been major fires since then, both in the UK and abroad, and sadly locked fire doors are often a culprit. At least we understand more about human behaviour now and have much stricter codes.
For architects designing against fire is often a drag - it spoils beautiful soaring space, and the green running man exit signs are ugly. It is worth being reminded that this is not 'elf and safety gone mad'. Fire can and does kill, and we need to be vigilant in design, construction and operation if our buildings are not to become death traps.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Could we enjoy the Olympic Park in September?

It is ironic that, as Building Design reports, Rogers Stirk Harbour is having to abandon plans to exhibit a prefabricated house during September's London Design Festival because of the knock-on impact of the Olympics and Paralympics. “We identified two or three sites but we ran out of time finding the right site,” a spokeswoman said. “A lot have been taken up with Olympics things such as sites to store crowd barriers.”
The irony is that it would be easy to name some empty sites - those 'meanwhile uses' such as the Pleasure Gardens that have shut down because of lack of visitors. Their business plans have failed and everybody is very upset. Making them temporary venues for the LDF and putting the prefab house on one sounds superficially attractive - but in fact nobody will want to go to east London in September. The Olympic site will not only be shut, but will be crawling with contractors, involved in demolition.
Unless ... wouldn't it be great to keep it open in September, allow people who didn't get tickets to gawp at the venues and enjoy the planting, and put in some temporary uses for the LDF? Of course it would cost money, but without the international athletes, dignitaries and world press, a much lighter hand would be needed for security. What an end to a fabulous summer that would be.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Lost in Nottingham

The happy visitors to the Olympics praised not only the games and the volunteers, but also the efficient running of London - something that, as a native, I of course love to criticise. It was interesting therefore to hear a Brazilian journalist on the radio talking about Rio, where the games are going next, and reminding us how much bigger the logistics problems are there.
But you don't have to go as far as South America to find somewhere that is less easy to use than London. I was in Nottingham yesterday, visiting a building relatively close to the city centre and decided, with two colleagues, to walk back to the railway station. It was doubtless our fault, or that of the person who gave us directions, that we went the wrong way. When we stopped a passer-by he set us on the right path, said it was about 15 minutes walk but suggested we might prefer to take a taxi. We ignored his advice, but soon realised why he had given it. We were skirting the absolute core of the town, but by no means on the periphery. Yet it was almost impossible to cross the road. There were barriers, and hardly any crossings. Those that did exist all took you in the wrong direction. Cars roared past, there were scarcely any pedestrians, and the buildings, a mishmash of offices, industrial properties and residential, made almost no effort to address the street. I know there are good buildings in Nottingham, but we didn't pass any of them. The city was once famous for its lace - but the coarse filigree of its road network is certainly nothing to be proud of.

Friday, 10 August 2012

The campaign against Olympic gagging

I can't stop smiling at the photograph of Hattie Hartman, sustainability editor of The Architects' Journal, sporting the Olympic protest dress.
The absurdity of the ban on designers promoting the work they have done on the project becomes more obvious by the day. I was with the several members of the landscape team on the Olympic Park yesterday. Visitors to the site have been stunned by just how gorgeous the landscape is, and it will be an indisputable treasure of the legacy - in an area starved of outdoor space it will be a tremendous asset, and it is also a pathfinder for sustainable design. Yet they, like the architects and engineers, have been subjected to these ridiculous gagging orders. Only now are some of them starting to relax their constraints a little.
Let us hope that by the time we get to the Paralympics we can celebrate everybody - athletes and also the design teams without whom none of it could have happened.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Save our concrete spaces

Yesterday in the Observer Rowan Moore launched a diatribe against proposals for London's South Bank, specifically the Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall. They will, he says, involve 'thrusting commercial space into almost every spare void'. Nature, we are told, abhors a vacuum and so, it seems, does commerce.
Moore, who does have form as a complainer, is worried that the South Bank will be turned into another airport terminal or shopping centre, albeit with some fresh air. His worries have some justification. There was a lot of fuss when shopping started creeping into railway stations that it would somehow spoil the pure experience of travel. But they seem an ideal venue for shops, which are either convenient or help to kill time, or both. Similarly at airports - what do you do if you don't shop or eat? Hunch over your laptop?
But the South Bank is very different. It already has some shops and eating places, as Moore points out. The British Film Institute, after many false steps, has transformed itself into a permanently buzzy venue. Gabriel's Wharf nearby has maintained an alternative feel to its retail, probably because its temporary status - stretching out wonderfully in the recession - has discouraged the chains. But the outlets under the Festival Hall are, as Moore points out, all chains, and we could expect more of the same. They are often reliable, but they don't give an individual character - and the South Bank is a concrete oasis with some great cultural buildings.
The problem may be that we just don't appreciate it as open space. When we think of open space and landscape we think of parks and planting. Which are admirable, and to be encouraged. But the South Bank is a very different kind of landscape - a concrete landscape on several levels, with places to gather, for temporary events, and a great balcony onto the river. It is worth preserving.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Homes need neighbourhoods

I received a message on LinkedIn from an architect asking all its contacts to vote for its design in The Sunday Times British Homes Awards 2012. While we can all be cynical about awards, this request shows how important publicity is to architects,particularly in these difficult times.
The category highlighted (there are six finalists) is the smart home of the future. There are many common features. Not surprisingly they are all highly insulated and use next to no energy. Several are modular, and most look for a flexibility in the design which allows walls to open up, and voids to be filled in. Parking the car under the house is a common theme, At first sight this seems sensible, as ground-floor space is among the least popular - nobody for instance wants to sleep at that level. But I do worry that this is a move to progressively cut people off from the street, and so from their community. In contrast, several designs have roof gardens at first floor level, and these could surely cause problems with overlooking, particularly if the houses are adjacent to existing properties.
Several of the designers have shown their houses existing either as one-offs or within terraces or arrays of semis. In most cases, they show dully repeating streets, like an echo of the most uninspired suburb. Of course this is not the major concern of this competition, but it does point up the fact that the biggest problem with housing design is often not the house itself but designing the street and the neighbourhood - 'a place to live' that extends well beyond the four walls, however carefully considered.