Sunday, 28 October 2012

Water water everywhere

Here's an idea that is worth promoting. Landscape architect AREA has come up with a proposal called London Tap, a network of freely available drinking water around the capital. The idea is that it would remove the need for carrying/ buying all those expensive and non eco-friendly plastic bottles of water.
Free drinking water is not of course a new idea. Parks traditionally have drinking fountains, and there were free supplies of water within the Olympic Park as visitors had to pass through airport-type security and ditch their own supplies. Similarly airports are increasingly supplying water stations on the airside of security although some of them are laughably difficult to use - which probably delights the retailers.
AREA has come up with an idea that looks elegant although a little short on detail, and suggests an appropriate first location would be in the new Meridian Square outside Stratford station.
It is hoping that Boris will take up the idea - and it is certainly appealing. Maybe a water fountain by every Boris bike stand?

Friday, 26 October 2012

Is it too good to be true?

Can it be possible? The RIBA's Future Homes Commission has proposed a means for local authorities to invest in new housing using money that, effectively, is just sitting around.
Its idea is that they can set up a housing fund from part of the money that they are holding in their pension funds. Of course this money is not 'doing nothing'. It is invested elsewhere. What the RIBA is suggesting is that they invest in their own future. It would take an accountancy expert to work out what exactly would happen to the value of those assets - presumably at some stage the local authority would have to sell them on to a housing association in order to realise the money for its pension pot? But it is a really exciting idea. It gives a central role back to local authorities, it gives them a vested interest in making sure that the housing they produce is well designed, appropriate and well-maintained. It is the localism that the government claims to want, although not in the form that it foresaw.
Will it happen though? That, I fear, is the hardest question of all.

Monday, 22 October 2012

In praise of surprise

Several architects have recently cudgelled their brains to produce carefully designed bird hides - perky structures that are an ornament to their environment and sit well in the landscape. But that is not always what you want.
I was recently at Fowlmere Nature Reserve near Cambridge and came across a most mundane structure, a kind of supersized garden shed blocking an area of not very special path. Step inside however and what you saw was this - a most wonderful view across water - and a couple of minutes after this photo was taken the bright blue of a kingfisher skimming across it. 
Sometimes the mundane can deliver more pleasure than the carefully considered, because it conceals the delights that will come next. How many great buildings can lead you into a new world in the way that this very ordinary one does?

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Little cause for discontent in Dundee

Building Design says that the V&A has wasted the time of architects who entered the competition for its new outpost in Dundee, given that winning architect Kengo Kuma has been asked to redesign to fit the budget. But how outraged should they really be? Not very, I suspect.
Competitions are notorious for not producing workable designs, because how can they? There just isn't the mechanism for establishing the close relationship needed between architect and client, particularly when the architect comes from a different continent. And budget overruns are not unusual in this process either. Think of Zaha's competition winning Aquatic Centre for the Olympics, which had to be changed drastically. In that case there was an interim solution that wasn't great, but everyone seems to feel that the completed building, once the temporary add-ons are removed, will be a stunner.
Kuma is a very talented architect, who doesn't seem to have done a bad building yet (let's hope that the UK does not have the depressing effect on his talents that it seems to have done on Piano's skills). It is exciting to have somebody of that level of ability working in the UK for the first time.
The obvious comparison is with Turner Contemporary in Margate. Like Kuma's first effort, Snohetta's original design was in the water - in that case entirely in the water, and not a gentle river but the violent sea. When that proved too risky the client jumped ship (appropriate metaphor) to the safe hands of Chipperfield, with impressive results. Presumably they felt that there was nothing to be salvaged. And presumably the V&A believes the opposite - that Kuma's initial vision will work with the trimming and change of aspect.
We must wait to see the results. I believe - and hope - that they will be pretty good.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Congratulations - again - to Cambridge

What an interesting choice the Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge, designed by Stanton Williams, was as winner of the Stirling Prize. It was a kind of stealth winner. While the Olympic Stadium was heralded as the popular choice (the choice of the Populous?), architectural pundits mostly argued that the winner would be Chipperfield (again) for the Hepworth in Wakefield, or O'Donnell and Tuomey for the Lyric Theatre in Belfast.
Rory Olcayto wrote in the AJ about Mark Jones' hints about front runners, 'Jones can’t mean Stanton Williams’ Sainsbury Lab, even if it sends a message that architecture can affirm the strength of British scientific research. This argument is wrong-headed. Scientific talent is not so much drawn to smooth render and York stone paving as it is to the best equipment and the best scientific minds. CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider and where staff accommodation is bog standard, is proof. And at five grand a square metre, the architectural achievement at Cambridge looks less convincing.'
The argument about scientists putting up with rubbish accommodation is exactly the one that Lord Sainsbury was trying to lay to rest - and there is an argument that the great surroundings will also attract the best brains. Journalists after all also love their jobs and are prepared to put up with bad environments - but does that mean they should?
Another reason that this seems like a 'stealth choice' is that this is not the Stanton Williams building that has received great popular attention - that distinction has gone to its new home for Central Saint Martins in King's Cross.
One factor that has received little notice is that this is the second building in a particular quarter of Cambridge to win the Stirling Prize. The first was the very different Accordia housing development which took the award in 2008. Both these are away from the magnet of the historic colleges, but both house the brainpower that defines the best work of the university - one as living accommodation and the other as a working environment. One can't imagine that Lord Sainsbury would have made this donation to an institution that was struggling in the research assessment stakes.
Brains obviously draw money and with it the ability for good design to flourish. This government doesn't seem to set much store by learning and positively wants to keep foreign brain power out. The  Stirling judges evidently did not choose a building that was on message for a political agenda, since other choices would have made a stronger point. But there may still be a lesson here.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Mushrooming excitement about green infrastructure

Fletcher Priest won the Landscape Institute's green infrastructure ideas competition for London on Monday with a proposal that was more brown than green. Rather than looking at ways to green the ground level, or even to work above ground, it chose to tackle the disused mail tunnels below Oxford Street and turn them into a linear mushroom farm.
It is a fantastically ingenious proposal, a new take on the concept of 'multi-layered landscape' and an eye-opener for those who thought that they new what green infrastructure was all about
In fact, the whole event could be seen as an eye-opener. It was a green infrastructure day held at the Garden Museum and piggy-backed on a weekend celebrating that new but already iconic piece of green infrastructure, the High Line in New York.
The designers were there on the Monday (and helped judged the competition) and talked inspirationally, not least about their can-do approach to fundraising. Equally impressive were talks from a major developer and from the teams behind the Nine Elms development and the American Embassy that will form the centrepiece. All are embracing green infrastructure because it makes sense financially, environmentally, and in planning terms. Mushrooms tunnels, while exciting, would be largely hidden. But green infrastructure it seems is set to rapidly become more visible.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Singapore provides a different angle on liveable design

The World Architecture Festival has been taking place in Singapore this week and it has been eye-opener in terms how a country with limited space deals with housing and the desire for greenery. At half the size of London and two-thirds of the population, Singapore sounds as if it should be denser - but not that dense. The difference though is that there is no hinterland - no wider country to which to escape.
So Singapore has to provide all its greenery and open space within its boundaries. And it has done this remarkably successfully.Between 1986 and 2007 the population grew by 70 per cent yet across the same period the proportion of green space actually increased from 35.7 per cent to 46.6 per cent.
A small amount of this growth was the result of land reclamation - the fabulous Gardens by the Bay are in one such recent area. But mostly it has come from a deliberate densification of construction. The brief for the recent Pinnacle@Duxton for example asked for the amount of accommodation to be trebled. In the UK we would be horrified to see families living in a 50-storey building. But the residents love it. Great attention has been given to the ground plane and there are also 'flying gardens' - communal spaces at upper levels. Other projects are even more radical, and there is an increasing trend to green the exteriors of buildings.
Designing for a tropical climate, where you usually want shade and designing to increase wind flow is crucial, is evidently very different to more temperate environments. But Singapore evidently feels that it has no choice but to build upwards. The approach it takes to it is surprising, stimulating and admirable.