Tuesday, 26 November 2013

New Blog Page

Our blog has moved and is now part of the Rooflight Company website. Please click here to be redirected to the new page.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Sainsbury's is victim of its own success

The decision to demolish the 'green' Sainsbury's store in Greenwich, east London is both disturbing and fascinating. This award-winning building by Chetwood Associates has reached the end of its usable life just 14 years after completion, not through any fault of the architect or architecture but because it is now too small for Sainsbury's and not suitable for use by the new tenant IKEA. IKEA has pledged to use as much of the demolition material as possible, but one can be sceptical about how significant that can be, given how formulaic IKEA stores are. A little hardcore perhaps? Twenty years ago, we would probably have seen the demolition of this store as part of the cycle of replacement and renewal. Although it won prizes, deservedly, it is not amongst the most stunningly beautiful buildings and will probably not be greatly missed apart from by those who enjoyed shopping there. If it had hung on another 16 years of course, it would have been eligible for listing, in recognition of its unusual typology - but that will not happen now. What has changed in the past 20 years, and most particularly in the last five, is a concern with embodied energy. As buildings become more energy efficient in use, so the significance of that grows. Throwing away a building, even with a little bit of token recycling, is just so wasteful. The irony is that it may be the very elements that made this building so striking that hastened its demise. An anonymous, modular box is easily extended or adapted, but the Greenwich Sainsbury's had character which is both laudable and difficult to adapt. Let's hope that the lesson learnt is not that we should revert to an unending diet of the bad-neighbour boxes that blight so many of our high streets and out of town areas.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

It's a long way down ...

Thanks to the Think Tank Blog for pointing out the Roof Topper series of photos by a photographer who likes to get into scary places and take even scarier photographs. I'm not quite sure where the photographer is in the shots, but they certainly make for unusual views and - for those of the vertiginous persuasion - stomach turning ones. Rather than celebrating tall buildings as a sign of business success or decrying them for desecrating the city, Roof Topper sees them as a playground and a challenge. He brings back the excitement that even the dullest building can offer when it is still under construction, when visitors can go up by ladder, travelling in a juddering goods hoist or, as once you could do and I did, be taken up in the bucket of a tower crane.

Monday, 11 November 2013

You shouldn't try to be right all the time.

I was in Cornwall at the Eden Project this weekend. It was, to my shame, my first visit. I was interested to see how the ETFE panels on the biomes were faring. The answer was, not fantastic, but well enough. They mist up a little, and you can also see some lines of discolouration where strips of the material have been joined to make up the hexagonal panels. Building these panels up from strips was not ideal, but it is the sort of thing that you do when you are a pioneer. When Grimshaw designed the biomes, really wide strips of ETFE were not available - now they are. Should the architect have shied away from the material, because it was just too early in its development cycle? I don't think so. ETFE was the solution to achieving transparency and insulation without the weight that glass would bring. And if it had not been for Grimshaw's bold move, the technology of the material would never have advanced so far. Eden was a brave project and there were all sorts of things that didn't quite work at the beginning and had to be put right or adapted. These problems change. This year for instance rabbits devastated the vegetable garden. But it is still a resounding success, both as a visitor attraction and as an educational proponent of sustainability. The beauty of the masterplan has been compromised by a 'temporary' structure in front of the biomes which has become permanent, housing ice skating in the winter, but that is a way of generating much-needed revenue in a recession and offering a facility to local people. Eden is being asked to consult on developments all over the world. The BRE Solar Centre is about to move there, and Eden is hoping to pioneer the use of geothermal energy in the area. It is lively, dynamic and interesting, and that does not always go with perfection. We should hail the courage of such projects which have the vision to get most things right and the pragmatism to cope with those that go wrong.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Stay at home and trim the fat

There are many interesting aspects to the new building for the WWF in Woking, designed by Hopkins Architects and aiming for BREEAM Outstanding, and most of them relate to the emboded energy.
Atelier Ten has combined a number of techniques to make the building as effective as possible, but these, although the practice pioneered many of them, are no longer new. Which is not a criticism. But by driving down the energy in use, it has made the embodied energy far more significant. Working with Sturgis Carbon Profiling, the team has managed to greatly reduce the embodied energy by techniques such as using low-carbon concrete in the piles, but the most exciting area is the way in which the sheer volume of material in the building has been cut. Some of this is through clever engineering - Expedition Engineering has managed to make the columns impressively skinny, adding elegance, improving sightlines and reducing the volume of concrete. But perhaps the most impressive is that, by working with Alexi Marmot Associates, WWF has managed to reduce the number of desks it needs and hence the overall building envelope. We hear a lot about flexible working etc etc, and sometimes this just sounds like a way for companies - quite legitimately often - to save rent on city-centre sites. But I had never thought about the effect on carbon before. By doing a careful analysis and introduced hot desking and informal spaces that can be used both to improve experience and to provide some 'flex', WWF has shurnk the overall envelope of its building. This both reduces embodied carbon and cuts the amount of energy needed to run the building. And it looks like a great place to work. Win win.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Why disasters are less disastrous today

The worst of the storm is over, and for most it was quite exciting rather than life threatening. Obviously for the few people who died it was a tragedy, but these small tragedies happen all the time with road accidents in particular. And for those without power, it is very inconveniencing.

What has struck me is that nobody is writing about the cost to the country in terms of lost employment - so many people who couldn't get to work, etc. etc. This has been the usual refrain with such storms in the past. I think the reason is that so many people now have the technology to work at home, and the umbilical to the office is stretching more and more.

But of course not everybody can work from home. School teachers for instance have to go in, and one reason that there is less outcry this time is that so much of the country is on half term, which means there are no stories about closed schools, and the concomitant impact on parents' working arrangements.
But there are still a lot of people whose jobs require physical presence. It is interesting to think in how many cases that is essential. Carers, nurses and waiters are irreplaceable. Shop staff can of course be replaced in internet shopping, but you still need people in warehouses, and to make deliveries. And what about other tasks which we think are essentially face to face? You may need to visit your doctor to have your temperature taken or that lump on your leg examined, but could you then discuss the test results on Skype?

A lot of universities already use distance learning. Are we heading towards a society where only the carer, the nanny, the cleaner, the gardener and the road mender will actually have to work in the physical world? It might seem scary but it would reduce pressure on our transport system. Perhaps we won't need HS2 after all.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

A lot of cool air?

I hadn't heard of SheerWind until they started following me on Twitter. They offer, they say, a 'better way to harvest wind'. Their technology, which seems to be to do with accelerating wind down a tube, and using the Venturi effect before it goes through a generator, claims to work at relatively low wind speeds, and not to need huge wind turbines but just some relatively low interventions. I don't know if birds could fly in. I don't know how much electricity would be generated and if it is significant.

All I know is that they are American, that their apparatus looks a bit Heath Robinson, and that they have some great testimonials and supporters - and that it sounds exciting. Does anybody know any more?

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Still a place for the word and reading? Most definitely

I chaired a great discussion at BDP's offices on Thursday evening, on the subject 'In the image-driven world of architecture, is there still a place for the word?' The answer, to mine and most people's resounding relief was 'yes'. It came from two directions - the research that BDP had carried out among its own architects, and the experiences and research of some leading architectural publications.

Hugh Pearman, editor of the RIBA Journal, explained the work carried out prior to the recent relaunch. Most readers want a hard copy, he said, especially in an institution magazine since it is the hard proof that they are getting something for their membership fee. But in general, they like hard copy.
And while some said that there were too many words, there was also a hunger for long-form writing, particularly among younger architects. Pearman speculated that this was because they had less work and more time for reading.

Catherine Slessor, editor of The Architectural Review, which had its own major rethink a couple of years ago, stressed the importance of curation in the days when every image is instantly available on the internet. News sites such as Dezeen and World Architecture News are great ways of seeing what is going on, but then readers appreciate thoughtful writing and a magazine which chooses which elements to discuss - as well as a lovely object that they can keep.

Michael Hammond, founder of World Architecture News, stressed that he believed his service complemented and would not replace the printed titles.

BDP's research showed that while users used print magazines and online services equally, if they had to choose the most important, they mostly plumped for print. While the majority used LinkedIn professionally, only a third used Twitter, and Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram did not score significantly. The majority said that they would give between five and 15 minutes to something that really interested them.

As if on cue, at the end of the evening a young architect who had been working late at BDP joined us. She was offered a spare copy of RIBA Journal. 'Yes please,' she said eagerly, obviously off for some long-form reading.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Why nature is not just nice but necessary

Fine autumn days are a great time to get outside and enjoy the natural world, walking or running or maybe just looking around at changing colours. We all enjoy being in nature, but recent research by mental health charity MIND indicates that this can have an actual effect on our mental wellbeing. Being in nature, it seems, makes people with mental health problems better, and makes the mentally well more resilient. There has been research before, but this is a particularly sturdy piece of work.

The event at which this was mentioned, the launch of the People's Choice of best Green Flag park, also had as speaker the deputy chief medical officer from the Department of Health. He stressed the virtue of open space - it is true that we can exercise, which is good for us, but even without exercise, he said, these places are good for us.

Getting outside and interacting with nature is not just a matter of having some decent parks, although of course these are essential. We also have to get to them, and be encouraged to get to them, which means having streets that we can cross and cities that we can navigate - an integrated piece of urban design. And, of course, the natural experience does not have to be confined to parks. Street trees and even front gardens can play their part.

It may cost a bit to plant a few trees but as a health measure it is laughably inexpensive. Local authorities now have responsibility for public health. Anything that can help reduce illness, cutting down on attendance at GP surgeries and hospitals, reducing drug bills and, crucially, getting people back to work, is vital. It may not quite be the magic bullet, but the magic tree could save lives and money. Let's just hope the parks departments and public health are talking to each other.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Long live the straight line

On Monday I was at the Building Centre for the judging of the IBP Awards. The judging was in the basement, which is now pretty hard to get too, because the front staircase has been shut. You have to go to the back of the building, down a kind of processional stair and then work your way forward again.
The reason is not hard to guess. Following that route takes you past many of the exhibitors' displays, and doubtless they were complaining before that they were not getting enough footfall.

So I can grasp the commercial argument, but it is really wrong. Buildings are meant to work - you are not meant to be directed off in a direction you did not want. Where else does this happen? At airports of course. When I was at Heathrow Terminal 3 recently, it was necessary to walk through an enormous maze of duty free before reaching a spot where you could sit down or have a cup of coffee. Again, the commercial imperative is overriding common sense. Terminal 3 is also interesting because half of the shops have ceased to be useful stuff (somewhere to buy a cheap holiday top, top up on sunscreen, buy a paperback) and become designer outlets. I guess this is a representation of the global trade in high end shopping.

When I got to Singapore a friend pointed out that the low-end visitor who has a few meals and drinks and maybe buys a present from the family is neither common nor the target audience. Instead most people are there to do SERIOUS shopping - thousands and thousands of pounds worth.
So we are not only in the kind of world we want, but we are not allowed to travel in straight lines either? It was good to see though that even in law-abiding Singapore, outside Marina Bay Sands people had created a 'desire line' through the vegetation to cross the road more directly. It had been fenced off but the damage had been done.

Buildings and landscapes need to serve the needs of users. We should not be manipulated either into travelling in ways we don't want, or to spending money we don't need to or can't afford. Long live the straight line.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Talking architecture in Singapore

This year's World Architecture Festival is heading towards its conclusion in Singapore, with the announcement of the World Building of the Year due in a few hours' time. It is a truly international event, with delegates from 68 countries and a great spread of projects yet, like last year, the greatest interest comes from Singapore itself.

This is not just in terms of the many excellent projects that have been submitted from the city state, but also in the insight offered into the way it works. With its dense population, Singapore is determined to preserve and enhance quality of life. So, in new areas like Marina Bay, there is a policy of 100% minimum replacement of ground - in other words, at least the footprint of vegetation that has been destroyed by construction has to be replaced on the building's roofs and balconies.

The Singapore Sports Hub, now taking shape,is extraordinarily compact for such a facility, yet still manages to have a stadium that is a bravura feat of engineering, with the world's largest spanning opening roof, and local cooling of seating that can be zoned so that only those areas that are actually used will be cooled.

The funding is equally innovative, a public private partnership into which the government will inject operational money for community sports.
What an amazing place Singapore is . Now all it needs to do is sort out the ferocious nature of the air conditioning, which seems to give the lie to all the claims for sustainability.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Stirling, Lubetkin and Singapore

There is always something nice about confounding expectations, and presumably a few lucky punters cleaned up when Astley Castle, unexpectedly, won the Stirling Prize. It is, by all accounts, a superb project and in a sense relatively democratic, since anybody who wants to stay there can rent it - if, of course, they can afford it, which seems to be pretty much our government's definition of democratic.

What Astley Castle does not have is an obvious social agenda. It was not a way for the judges to make, as they have been accused of doing before, a political point about the importance of public funding.Neither this, nor Niall McLaughlin's chapel, which was the bookies' favourite, is in any sense a social project. Which is fine - this is a prize for architecture, not for social impact. Astley Castle does, however, address the romantic feelings that the British have about old, and particularly ruined, buildings, while doing so in an innovative manner.

Witherford Watson Mann, the architect for Astley Castle,  was on the shortlist for Stirling for the first time. A lot of its work is strongly about place - for example, it developed the idea of the Bankside Forest, a kind of virtual - but not entirely - forest around Tate Modern, the former Bankside power station. This sense of place-making is visible most strongly in Gardens by the Bay, the project by Wilkinson Eyre and Grant Associates that has won the Lubetkin Prize, the equivalent to Stirling for projects beyond Europe.One of the many extraordinary things about this project, which is actually the creation of a new piece of city land, is that, with the exception of the greenhouses themselves, it is free to visit.

Last year it won first prize at the World Architecture Festival set, appropriately enough, in Singapore. This year's festival is in Singapore again, starting on Wednesday. I will be heading there, revisiting the wonderful Gardens by the Bay and, with luck, seeing a little more of a place that is fascinating, both loveable and loathable in equal measure, and doubtless with lessons for the UK, but ones that are very difficult to translate because of the difference in size, governance and climate.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Underground writing

I have just got round to reading one of the best pieces in a weekend newspaper that I have read for a long time. It was Robert Macfarlane writing about urban exploration - the coupling of a superb writer with a fascinating subject.

Macfarlane writes about the international fraternity of people who like to get onto, into and under parts of the city where they are not meant to go, Some like to dangle from cranes, others to penetrate sewers. Macfarlane's piece is the opposite of that inspirational writing which makes you think 'I'd like to do that'. Here the response is far more probably 'I'd hate to do that'. And that is what makes the piece so gripping.

In the end, although fascinated by the scene, and in particular by its chronicler, one Bradley Garrett, a fearless academic who has written a book that is, says Macfarlane, like no other. ' Intercut with the helter skelter storytelling is heavy duty analysis of, among other subjects, the politics of UE, the affective role of photography and video, and the phenomenology of urban flow.'

In the end Macfarlane, although seduced by the topic (and led into an abandoned tank in north London), is not sure what urban exploration is for, or what it achieves. Me neither. But it is a useful reminder that there is more than one way to explore our cities, and that the intentions of architects and engineers about how we use their designs can easily be subverted by someone who is willing to step over a handrail or pick a lock.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Light, lies and ... video next?

There are plenty of very competent journalists around in the specialist press, and some who are very perceptive, knowledgeable or persistent. But there aren't all that many who are funny. One who is, is Ray Molony, publisher of Lux magazine, and one of the best informed people writing about lighting today. I shared an office with him for a while, and he ploughed genially through an enormous workload. But it was not until I saw him presenting at an awards ceremony that I realised what a sense of humour he had.
He had collected examples of bad lighting from around the globe (apparently this was a regular party piece and so people sent him examples) and had the audience, admittedly fuelled by cheap fizz, in stitches.
Now he is at it again, not in a London hotel but on a LinkedIn group. He has put up a post entitled 'Yeah, right, the 12 biggest lies in lighting'  Some require a certain amount of technical knowledge (ie I don't entirely understand them), but you get a flavour of his approach from point 6:

‘This PFI streetlighting scheme provides value for council taxpayers’
In the same way that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the bailout of the banks and the Millennium Dome gave such a handsome return to taxpayers. 

and from number 12:

 ‘I promise to return the sample’

If you're serious about getting your £900 Foscarini designer luminaire back, you'll have to come to my house and prise it from my cold, dead fingers.

The response has been enormous, and acts like a mini tutorial on what the major concerns are in the lighting industry.

Come on Ray, we deserve the YouTube version next.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Let's table a change

If you were looking for inspiration for a new dining table, you could do worse than go to 100% Design, the interiors show in Earls Court that is looking sprucer and more 'designy' than in years. You would probably not decide however to by 'Worldscape' by Atmos Studios, although it is for sale.
Crucially, it is designed by an architect not a furniture designer. Although not 'practical' in the usual sense, it has been used, since Atmos designed it amazingly fast to host 'world dinners' in the run up to the Olympics last year. It is a representation of a map projection of the world, with all important heights and depths represented, and depressions of varying sizes to represent cities.
It is a work of imagination and enterprise, and yet was really a sideshow in the life of an already busy architect, with some award-winning buildings. You may have to be almost insanely dedicated to undertake a project like this, but it certainly makes life more interesting, and beats sitting around waiting for the work to come in. I really wish I had been to one of the dinners. Perhaps the new owner would like to stage some more?

Thursday, 5 September 2013

How we all missed the blindingly obvious

What is not to love about the Walkie Scorchie story? An already funny name - the walkie talkie - transformed into an even better one. The kind of disaster that we can all enjoy almost guilt free - what could be more pleasurable in terms of hubris than the melting of a car, a rich man's plaything, a disaster that causes no damage to health or general happiness. It is a summer story by definition, although it would be interesting to see an analysis of the impact of different sun angles at different times of day/ year. And it has all happened to a building that has inspired little affection and where, back to money again, the unusual shape was partly at least to maximise the valuable lettable space on the upper storeys.

What really struck me though was that although people have been pointed out how obvious it is that a concave mirror facing south would focus the sun, it was not obvious enough for anyone to notice at the design stage. The architectural press (I include myself - mea culpa) were all too interested in what it looked like and the planning rows that went on. The design team may have felt the same way and were too busy dealing with all the technical issues to ask a fundamental question. And all those people whose job it is to appraise buildings for permissions would have been too busy ticking boxes to think in a major way.

The light from the Walkie Scorchie may have been blinding, but the process seems to have blinded us all to an obvious truth. Unless of course it was a deliberate act of parking control, probably the most expensive ever. Fried egg, anyone?

PS Thanks to HAT Projects and Su Butcher for pointing out that the Skyscraper City blog had actually predicted this in 2010. Even less excuse for the rest of us, then.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

A new perspective on Birmingham.

There was a gratifyingly intelligent discussion of architecture on the radio this morning, coinciding with the opening of the new Birmingham library. Much of it dealt with the contents of the building, and the treasures in the archive, which was perfectly appropriate.
But there was also talk about how it worked spatially, and how the new and adjacent older building were knitted together with giant escalators. What there was surprisingly little of was discussion of how the building actually looked, contravening the usual complaint that too much architectural criticism is just a beauty parade. Was this because it was on the radio? Did it reflect the fact that BD's Ellis Woodman, in his lengthy discussion of the building, argued that the exterior was the least successful element?
The story also included an interview with the architect, Francine Houben of Mecanoo. When describing the terrace at the top of the building, she said how struck she was by the greenness of the city, and how she wanted to make the most of views of the hills around. Houben of course is Dutch, and they don't have a lot of hills. Does it take a foreigner to see Birmingham as beautiful? Most natives are pretty negative about the city's aesthetic qualities however fond they are of it. It reminded me of the way that Japanese practice Sanaa extolled the quality of light when designing the Louvre in Lens, another area that few residents find glorious.
We hear about the globalisation of architecture, and there is a fear that it is just fashion and snobbery that jets architects around the world. But sometimes the outsider can see more clearly.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Right idea, wrong time?

Historian Vernon Bogdanor was talking about Keith Joseph on the radio at the weekend, on his series on people who have changed the political weather. Joseph introduced many of the ideas that later became known as Thatcherism. Indeed, if he hadn't made an ill-advised speech about feckless single mothers, he might have become leader of the Tory party, and we might refer to Josephism not Thatcherism.
When Joseph came up with these ideas he said he realised that he had never been a true Conservative before, because he had wanted government to do too much and interfere too much - from which he now recanted. One of his early roles had been as housing minister, and they played a clip of him saying that, to provide more housing, we needed more industrialised systems, with bigger and bigger components being made in factories. At that time of course it all went wrong, with large housing schemes that became dumping grounds for the poor, and poorly built projects leading to the tragedy of the collapse of Ronan Point.
It was interesting to hear a politician sounding so confident, and with such faith in technology. Now they are all far more backward looking. Yet the construction industry is looking very seriously this time at offsite construction - this time as a way of guaranteeing quality and safety as well as bringing down cost. So in a way the old-style Keith Joseph was right when he thought he was wrong and when he seemed so wrong. He was just half a century too early. Which is a pretty good metaphor for a lot of politics.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Learn to love sprawl?

An article on Australia's ABC, highlighted on Twitter by Tim Waterman, asks 'Is there such a thing as good urban sprawl?'. The argument is that sprawling suburbs have plenty of space for solar generation and if that solar energy is then used to power electric cars, transport would be green as well. The piece is based on research in Auckland, New Zealand, that shows that the average suburban home can produce enough electricity from the sun for its domestic needs and to power an electric car. If solar energy is to be the main source of power, the researchers argue, then a 'dispersed city' will be more efficient than a concentrated one.
My gut feeling is that no power is really 'free' and that places where people can walk and cycle will always be preferable. But maybe this is post justification, a dislike of the idea of a spreading suburban rash.
I have been thinking about the edges of cities recently because, unusually for me, I have been doing a certain amount of travelling by car. And as we have driven in and out of various cities mine has been the plaintive voice asking 'Did anybody actually design this? Is it possible to design it better?' The nadir was lunching in the foyer of an Odeon cinema on a retail park on the edge of Dumfries - certainly not recommended.
It is very hard when you look at those nowhere places to really imagine how they can be sorted out, and to realise that much of our country is designed, if that is the word, to be driven through and used, rather than experienced and enjoyed.
A discussion thread on The Architect's Journal's LinkedIn group asks 'Are architects to blame for ugly towns as suggested by the public'? This references the recent Crap Towns survey, the one that had Hemel Hempstead taking top position. Asked who was most to blame for crap towns, the largest number of respondents said 'architects'. On the AJ group the usual responses are made, largely that most buildings are not designed by architects. But somebody certainly plans those out of town horrors, someone gets planning permission. And I suspect a lot of the buildings have architects, even if they are not the ones who feature much on the pages of the AJ. Architects could I suppose just regard themselves as guns for hire, giving the client what they want. But most have or should have a wider sense of responsibility. It's a tricky problem. We have some really great architecture and great architects. Yet much of the country really is 'crap' particularly away from the centres that the survey considered. Is there anything that architects can, or should, do about it?

Friday, 16 August 2013

In a pickle over bins?

Earlier this week I visited a small social housing project that was using some innovative techniques. Most of these were hidden, and the housing association had requested a conventional layout and appearance.

Nevertheless, the architect had managed to select solar panels that looked elegant rather than garish with the roof tiles. But when we went to the small back gardens they were dominated by the ugly array of wheelie bins. Recycling may be noble, but these bins are becoming a blight.

Many developers, of private as well as social housing, do not want to spend money on bin stores. properties Well-designed bin stores on older properties are probably too small for modern wheelie bins.

Does this matter? I think it does. Good housing with a rash of bins outside is rather like wearing a great dress with laddered tights or smeared lipstick - the small error masks the greater good. But it is not an easy problem. Eric Pickles decision to ask councils to demand bin stores is a good start. But I was talking to an architect a couple of years ago, who said that the trouble was that the bin lorries are very prescriptive about where the bins are placed. Living Streets is campaigning less on aesthetic grounds and more on the hazard to the blind, the mobility impaired and parents with buggies. If we can get something done about this blight, it will vastly improve our cities. Wheelie bins may look like a silly season story, but the issue is important.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Egg with everything

I have been following the blog of artist Stephen Turner since I had the pleasure of visiting him last week in his temporary home, the Exbury Egg.
This extraordinary structure has caught the attention of the world's media (apparently Vogue magazine is interested) and it is as seductive in practice as in the photos - although very different.

It is a far more rough and ready structure than it appears, and has even sprung a few leaks. Nevertheless, Turner plans to live in it most of the time for a year, despite having no insulation - he will wear a warm cloak cum blanket designed for him at the local art college.

The idea is not to have an elegant piece of urban living but for Turner to live and work on this disappearing piece of salt marsh on the edge of the Beaulieu River. His blog documents the finds he is making, and he will be launching mini eggs onto the water, like modern day ships in a bottle with messages and objects - the first will contain a squirrel skull.

Designed by local practice PAD Studio, the project is the brainchild of SPUD, a group set up when the local architecture centre folded. This is the only one of three planned artist/architect collaborations that has come off so far.

The Egg is not intended to receive many visitors, since they would damage the delicated environment that Turner is there to react to. But his time there will be documented by webcam, and at the end of the year the Egg and his work will go into a gallery. It is a fascinating, enterprising project - and my admiration is only increased by my relief that it is Turner, and not me, who will be spending the cold, dark days of winter there.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Can architects ever retire?

The current successful celebratory exhibition in honour of Richard Rogers' 80th birthday, coupled with the incredible vigour of his former colleague Norman Foster, could make one think that architects never get old.

They are not the only examples of architects being vigorous and professionally engaged well into what many would consider the twilight years. While few are likely to match the late Oscar Niemeyer, who continued working into his eleventh decade, eventually becoming as famous for his age as for his buildings, it is an admirable and cheering prospect. Retirement after all is meant to be about doing what you like, and what many architects like best, particularly at the peak of the profession, is doing architecture.

But there is a downside as well, as the current story about the possible prosecution of two nearly nonagenarian architects shows.

Sir Andrew Derbyshire and Vernon Lee, both former directors of RMJM and definitely retired, are being pursued in respect of an asbestos claim. The story is tangled, with much debate about who actually holds the responsibility. And the contraction of a fatal disease is of course much worse than living under a leaking roof. But the fact that architects can never entirely slough off responsibility is the obverse of the joy of working as long as you wish.

It is interesting that Derbyshire and Lee's cases are being handled by their sons, both successful architects as well. Architecture, as we know, runs in families. And despite the gloom about the current state of the profession, many architects when asked in the interview on the back of BD what they would say to a child contemplating the profession say that they would encourage them to go for it.

Maybe this will make them think again. Especially with current earnings and the cost of living, many younger architects could still be working at 89 - not because they want to but because they have to.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Happy holidays for the Lords

The House of Lords had a real tidy up before they set off for their holidays yesterday. On their very last day, they announced the plans for changes to the Building Regulations - already delayed but at least this time there is a date for their introduction, next April. And although some of the proposals have been watered down, not all.

There are planning changes as well, which will probably make wind farms and solar farms a little more difficult to get through.

End of term report - could be worse, could do better. But what is depressing for those involved in construction and the environment is the implication that this is just 'any other business' to be tidied up at the end of term, rather than, as is the case, vitally important.

Let's hope they are all a bit more engaged after the holiday.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Fracking hell for Sussex?

I felt outraged when I heard that they are planning to explore for oil in Balcombe in Sussex, and that if successful they may consider fracking.

I have always been uncomfortable about the idea of fracking, not least because we really don't need to find ways to extract more greenhouse-gas emitting fossil fuels. But although I was unhappy when I heard this was happening in the northwest, I felt furious about Balcombe.

Why the difference? Part of it is the NIMBY effect. Although Balcombe is definitely not my backyard - I live in south London - it is somewhere I know. But then I started thinking about how I know it. It is on the London to Brighton line, and just after the station the train goes over a viaduct with lovely views. So lovely that once I went on a circular walk from the station that took me under that viaduct. But it was only once and a long time ago. So in many ways Balcombe is more of an idea than a real place for me.

I think that this shows that the idea of places is as important sometimes as actually being there. Unspoilt wildernesses (which Balcombe certainly is not) need relatively small numbers of visitors if they are to stay unspoilt. But we can enjoy their existence without actually being there - and I don't mean by watching television programmes, just by knowing they are there.

The other point is that the southeast is affluent and has relatively good employment. It probably doesn't need the kind of jobs that fracking would bring, and the wages that it would pay (apart from a couple of consulting engineers) wouldn't help anyone to buy a house nearby. So it does seem inappropriate.

If you think about how you feel about proposed developments, you will probably find a similar mix of logic and emotion. But since we are both logical and emotional beings, this just may be an appropriate response.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Is today architecture day?

It seems as if occasionally there is a day when all the news is about architecture. Of course it helps that today is the day that the Stirling Prize shortlist was announced. It was interesting that the radio news focused on Park Hill being on the shortlist, in a 'from loathed to loved' kind of way. Always frustrating though when they focus on one story to the exclusion of the rest.

There were also people talking about Nimbyism and a group fighting to preserve a view of London simply because Canaletto once saw it.

And, on the BBC website, its light-hearted piece about dealing with the heatwave veered away from the now standard 'keep cool by keeping your pillow in the fridge' to a list of 10 ways we aren't prepared. Point one is 'The design of modern flats' with reference to the RIBA's campaign about small flats (no room for a fridge big enough to have spare pillow space, then) and Ellis Woodman of Building Design talking about the problem with single-aspect flats that don't allow cross ventilation. In fact the whole story is pretty construction related, bemoaning the lack of air conditioning, swimming pools, outdoor seating and water fountains.

For one day at least there seems to be an acknowledgement of the importance of the built environment. If this is architecture day, wouldn't it be good to extend to a week, a month or, whisper it, a year - to the realisation that the places we build and inhabit have a profound influence on the quality and even the quantity of our lives.

But rumour has it there is a royal baby due and that will knock everything else off the news agenda. Enjoy architecture in the media while you can.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Solo performance stars at theatre

I had a great night at the theatre yesterday. It was not so much the play, a surprisingly old-fashioned three hander called Daytona that was watchable with some longueurs, as the environment and the company.
Consultant Hoare Lea had invited a group to the new Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, 15 minutes from central London. This is a new theatre, only a couple of months old, created through donations and grants and sheer bloody-mindedness by artistic director Jez Bond. It is still hard to work out how it will make money, but the 200-seat main house was fairly full, and the bars were buzzing.

As a new theatre director, Bond decided he did not want to work with an established theatre architect and instead appointed theatre neophyte David Hughes.As with so many specialist areas, there is no real exclusive mystique to theatre design, just some special things you need to know. And there are consultants who can help. In this case, Hughes worked with top theatre consultant Charcoal Blue and, as the result of their advice, he claims that the theatre now has the best sightlines in London.

What is really extraordinary is that Hughes is effectively a one-man band, working only with his wife who is an interior designer. He has worked in bigger practices in the past, including Branson Coates and Assael, but is now a fan of being a loner, bringing in collaborators when he needs them.

'Arts buildings' are the field that most architects are keen to get into, and notoriously difficult to break into. Hughes has managed it - and done a great job of converting a former office building. He has even introduced rooflights into both theatre spaces, making them more attractive for daytime non-performance. They are blacked out in the evening. And he has used his recent background in residential design to create flats at the top which have been sold off to help fund the development.

Hughes now has a great calling card if he wants to jump through the OJEU hoops in the future. But he is already discussing another arts project, again by negotiation, so perhaps he won't need to.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Will all our cities have a Taksim Square?

It seems that Istanbul's Taksim Square has been saved, at least for now, from development. The AJ reports this, along with an eye-witness report on recent developments from one of its team, who happened to be there last weekend. The battle may be over, but the fight goes on, with the park shutting just after opening because of further riots, as Al Jazeera reports.
So was the riot in Taksim Square just a flashpoint for generalised unrest? To an extent, yes. But as Rory Olcayto wrote in the AJ just over a month ago, the park is important for simple health reasons as well. Istanbul has grown incredibly fast, and for it to lose its green space is almost unbearable. If we want to learn this lesson we need look no further than China, where reports today say that air pollution in the north is cutting average lifespans by more than five years.
There is enormous pressure on development around the world. It is worth remembering that open spaces and clean air are not some old-fashioned luxury that we can dispense with in our progressive, money-driven age. Their absence can threaten lives, and governments.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Willow sparks imaginations in Waterbeach

In last Friday's glorious sunshine, I was standing in a wood in Waterbeach between Cambridge and Ely. It was hard to believe that this was a millennium wood, planted only 13 years ago, as the trees soared overhead and the cottonwool from the willow catkins filled the air.
It was the willow that was the reason for being there. Engineer Simon Smith of Smith and Wallwork had worked with architecture students at the University of Cambridge to design and build a footbridge across a land drain in the wood. They used a locally over-abundant source - willow, which nobody seems interested in coppicing any more.
The extraordinary thing about willow is its fertility. Cut it down, stick the end in the ground, and it starts to grow. This has been known for centuries and willow has been used for 'living' shelters and even for growing pieces of furniture - an approach that requires considerable patience. What Smith and his students were doing though was designing a footbridge that the public could use, and so was safe and could carry loads.
It was a tough job. We may have visited in the sunshine, but the hard work was done in winter, when the willow is least likely to be damaged by coppicing.
Having calculated the loads, and designed and constructed a simple arched structure, they then 'wove' a deck from slimmer willow. This was both to provide a walking surface and to prevent the arch elements sliding past each other. It was, admitted Smith, hard work, requiring strong forearms and a specially designed tool. One of the interesting things about projects like this is that volunteers will undertake work freely that most paid workers would refuse to do.
Health and safety required both the addition of a willow handrail, and the addition of a softwood deck to prevent people slipping. Sadly both in some way compromise the initial simplicity of the design.
The bridge is sprouting impressively.
The next challenge will be renewal of the woven deck. Since this is not rooted it will eventually rot. Smith is trying to weave in the new shoots, but this may prove too difficult.
So this is not a perfect solution, but it is a great research project - lots of learning, and vision of new potential for a neglected material. It is great to know as well that a love of learning will galvanize people to undertake arduous work in demanding conditions. And there are even poppies growing on tbe bridge to lift the heart a little further. 

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Latin joke carved in stone

I was in Amsterdam last week, at the Rijksmuseum which was fantastic. The most surreal experience was when they opened the glass roof to one of the courtyards. Not sure if they were testing the fire strategy or just ventilating as the place gets hot and stuffy. It was a very noisy process so nobody could miss it. We were sitting in the cafe and there was a collective 'aah' as the fresh air came in. Then a couple of minutes later a kind of nervous laughter, as it started to rain. They closed the roof, but it took a few minutes, and it was odd sitting indoors with rain pattering on the cafe table.
But then Amsterdam is odd, in an endearing way. Near the museum and the Leidesplein I spotted this colonnade, with its cod Latin inscription carved in the stone:

It reads 'Homo sapiens non urinat in ventum' which translates as 'A wise man does not piss in the wind'. Apparently it was built in the 1990s. Unlike most architectural jokes this one works, I think because it does not look funny until you concentrate on it, and you can just let it fade into the background. And opposite this there are some exotic creatures:

As I said, funny place, Amsterdam. Long may it continue to be so.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Britain is not a gateway for Trenton Oldfield

Trenton Oldfield is irritating. In fact, if you met him (I never have) he would probably tell you that one of his aims is to be an irritant. He is one of the founders of This is Not a Gateway which describes itself as an organisation that 'creates platforms for critical projects and ideas related to cities'. He is also the man who swam into the Thames to disrupt the boat race. Which I thought was pretty silly. But not silly enough really to send him to jail.
Oldfield is also Australian, and that is relevant. Because the British government has decided he can no longer stay here. True, he has cost this country rather a lot of money. But that was mostly because of the cost of keeping him in prison. This country used to have a great tradition of dissent. It still does in some corners. But it seems you have to be properly British if you want to misbehave.
Oldfield has set up his own website which says 'In 2007 Trenton founded This is Not a Gateway to "create platforms for critical projects and ideas related to cities", which is just another way of saying he drinks a lot of lattes and hates the concepts of hard work and property ownership. Trenton is a weirdy beardy.' Schoolboy, irritiating but also quite endearing. Comments on it (not that many) are a mix of supportive and vitriolic.
Perhaps though he has had his most radicalising effect yet, by showing that if you are not born British - even if you are privileged, white and English speaking - the amount of freedom you have to behave even a little badly is constrained.

Friday, 21 June 2013

What the Heatherwick row tells us about attitudes to architecture

Apparently the story about accusations of plagiarism against Thomas Heatherwick crashed The Guardian's website, because there was so much interest. It was amazing to see it on the newspaper's front page. In the world of architecture, such stories happen fairly frequently, sometimes with justification from the aggrieved, sometimes not.
The difference of course is that Heatherwick has become so high-profile, and the Olympic cauldron even more so. It may have been a quietish news day, but it is interesting to see how far up the news agenda the combination of a charismatic designer and a design that has been watched by millions can get. The cauldron may only have existed for a few weeks, but it looms larger in the public consciousness at present than almost any building.
The other odd thing is the timing of the story, driven by the ban on publicity, which prevented Atopia from speaking out until now. And one of the ironies is that the accusations against Heatherwick were made against someone whose entire career is built on thinking differently. An architect may design similar rooms and spaces and details over and over again - and borrow from the past - and be none the worse for this. Heatherwick, however, relies on thinking from scratch on every occasions, which is why his objects (including tiny buildings) tend to be more satisfactory than his major incursions into architecture.
Perhaps what this really tells us is that, even for a most original thinker, there are only so many ideas available. If Heatherwick, as seems probable, came up with a similar solution to Atopia's without having seen the architect's proposal, it does not make his achievement any the less. Even for somebody who trades on his originality, being able to sell and execute his ideas so triumphantly is a great achievement as well.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

When conservationists fought battles

'The Gentle Author' writes a blog that sounds so parochial one would hardly expect any one to read it and yet he has, quite rightly, built up a huge following. He posts daily from Spitalfields, a characterful area of east London, looking at his local area and beyond.
I say 'he' for convenience but, although the creator has been interviewed by several newspapers, he/she insists on maintaining anonymity, including of gender.
Anyway, like many people, I subscribe to the daily updates from the blog and, also like many, I often don't find the time to read the posts. But I read the latest one where the author (sorry, gentle author) interviews the renowned architectural historian Mark Girouard. Girouard talks, not about his writing career but about his time as an activist, fighting to save houses in Spitalfields that were threatened with demolition. A member of the Spitalfields Trust, he was one of a group who staged sit-ins - and also bought threatened buildings.  'If any building that was important to us came up for sale,' he said, 'we bought it irrespective of whether we had the money, in the hope that we could find the money – and we always did.'
Part of the appeal of this post is to read about the courage and foresight of the members of the Spitalfields Trust. It also makes you think about how bad developers can be at predicting future attitudes. Spitalfields is now one of the gems that adds charm to London.
Girouard also reminisces about how nice the atmosphere was in the early days, with houses bought and occupied by people without much money. Now of course, thanks in part to his efforts, it is fast becoming gentrified and unaffordable - something that I am sure he would not have predicted.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

A salty story

There was an item on the radio last night looking at the desalination plants that China is building on its east coast. Its fast-growing cities are hungry for water, springs are drying up - so what to do? The answer, for China, is to throw technology at the problem.
There was an interview with the manager of a desalination plant, still only one-fifth built. As such plants go it is, apparently, fairly green. It uses the waste heat from electricity production (mark however that it is electricity from coal, the most polluting and greenhouse-intensive fuel source) in the desalination process. And rather than throwing away intensely salty water as a byproduct, it dries it out and sells the salt for industrial use.
So at least good points there. But they also interviewed an environmentalist. (I suspect that criticising such a policy is a brave thing to do in China). He talked about the energy consumption of such plants, which is likely to be an issue - I cannot imagine that with huge expansion it can all  come from CHP), and the cost of pumping the water. That, I suppose, depends how far it has to go, since all water has to be pumped unless you live on top of a spring.
And he said the answer is to learn to use water more wisely. Wise nods. But I am sure that our per capita consumption is way higher than China's. Of course installing massive desalination plants is a bad idea. But if we want to condemn it, we need to think more seriously about how we are dealing with water in this country. It's time to get a water butt.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Time to do your homework - and what about health and happiness

June is of course exam season for many, but if you are a fully qualified working professional you might feel that those days are behind you. Of course you may spend a hideously disproportionate amount of time filling out PQQs. But they are more about what you do than what you know. Surely those days of desperately searching for the 'right' answers and the evidence to back them up are long gone?
Not if Terry Farrell has his way. The Farrell Review on architecture has just issued its call for evidence in a form of a set of questions. Members of the profession owe it to themselves and colleagues to try to contribute. And the answers seem relatively easy until you try to back them up. Why do we have great architects but some lousy architecture? (I paraphrase, but only a little). How can we promote design quality? What is the value of our historic built environment? These seem to be the subject of many late night discussions, not to mention letters to the specialist press. Proving your arguments though is harder.
And the questions seem to focus very much on buildings, with only passing reference to 'places'. And while there is talk of economic value and of tourism and of education, all of which matter, where are those two key issues of health and happiness?
Exam questions never were ideal though but that wasn't a reason to walk away. Sharpen your pencils, don't write on both sides at once and remember, for once, this is a test where you can choose how many questions to answer.

Friday, 31 May 2013

A little rant about percentages

Sorry to go a bit off-piste, but I am going to talk about the weather. The Independent reported the Met Office saying that this has been the coldest spring for 50 years. It is a story we are all interested in as we continue to shiver in our thermals.
The paper gives some figures - that the average temperature for the past three months has been 6.0C which is 1.8C below average. This, it says, means that the temperature has been nearly 25% below average. My first thought was that it was more than 25%, since 1.8C is more than 25% of 6.0. But they had been careful, and worked out that 1.8C is nearly 25% of 7.8C. But they have missed a larger point. Zero Centigrade is an arbitrary point - it is for instance different to zero Farenheit. It is 273 degrees above absolute zero. So I suppose if you wanted a percentage figure it would have to be 1.8/ 280.8 - which is definitely not anywhere near 25%.
There are two points to learn. One is the problem that so many people who are skilled with words in this country are innumerate and technically ignorant. The other is that the construction industry, which loves to bandy round statistics with little basis, needs to be careful. Increasingly there is a desire for measurable benefits to justify expenditure. If the basis for these figures proves to be flawed, it may result in a significant setback and loss of confidence.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Kew gets a Corten House

Tim Lucas of Price & Myers is one of the most talented structural engineers around. So you would hardly expect him to live in a boring house. And indeed he does not - or will not. Working with architect Piercy & Co, he is building a house for himself in one of the loveliest areas of London, Kew (yes, home to Kew Gardens). And he is doing it in CorTen steel, one of the materials that divides opinion sharply. Architects tend to love it because it is an 'honest' manifestation of a material with no external coating. Many other people think 'why is that steel rusty'? In fact the warm orange-y patina that it can develop sits well with a natural environment, especially as it is never pristine, or too crisp.
Lucas is using it for his house partly because he can, I suspect, and also because steel allows a degree of prefabrication that means that the need for access is limited on what is a restricted site. The site is of an unusual shape, which meant that a conventional shape of house would not have made the most of it. All these reasons must have helped the Lucas family get planning permission despite, for example, objections from local MP Zac Goldsmith. But so did a charm offensive - including a barbecue for the neighbours.
All this is detailed in a blog, kept mainly by Lucas' wife, Jo. Well worth a look - as will the house be, once complete.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Remembrance and future in the Olympic Park

I went to an event on Saturday that was both enjoyable and sad. It was the celebration of the life of John Hopkins, the landscape client of the Olympic Park who had much of the responsibility for making it so wonderful. He died suddenly earlier this year, aged only 59.
The event was held at the Olympic Park, on the north lawn, part of the northern part of the park that will re-open in July. it is still a busy construction site, and access was very limited (we had to be bussed in), but even the small part we could see looked splendid. Nicholas Serota, one of the stellar cast of speakers at the event, quoted Christopher Wren's memorial plaque in St Paul Cathedral 'If you want to see his monument, look around you.'
Visitors when the park re-opens will be able to walk on the Hopkins Meadow, which will include an American oak planted in his memory.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Harsh financial truths about architecture

Last week The Architects' Journal published the AJ100, its annual survey of the UK's biggest practices. Much of it is a celebration of success, with awards, new entrants and even the respondents feeling reasonably upbeat about the future. But it also contains some sobering truths.
I found the most sobering aspect to be the table that showed the architectural fees delivered out of UK offices per member of architectural staff.
At the top was Populous with a very respectable £271,000 per architect. Foster and Partners, which everybody sees as a high earner, was in fourth place at only £171,000 per head but one must remember that much the work delivered out of the UK is built overseas and so was not eligible. What was really worrying was the bottom end, with several practices reporting earnings of less than £60,000 per architect, and the lowest, Reiach and Hall, scoring only £50,000. What makes this really disturbing is that, while Reiach and Hall has 21 architects, it employs a total of 37 staff - a fairly average ratio. So the fee earnings per member of staff are just over £28,000 per staff member - a figure that is certainly not sustainable, given that accommodation, tax, national insurance, computers etc all have to be paid for.
If this were a one-off it could be seen as a criticism of an individual practice and of bad management. But the other low-earning practices are in a similarly difficult position - and these are the UK's biggest practices and, by some measure at least, the most successful.
If you want an indication of just how quickly things can go wrong, then read BD's interview with Ian Simpson. His is a practice that was seen as, and really was, hugely successful. Yet the interview is headlined 'How I lost millions in unpaid fees'. Simpson describes how his world 'caved in' in one week in summer 2008, as he was, ironically, celebrating the practice's success. Jobs just stopped and on some he never saw the fees again.
He survived by cutting fees to the bone. 'We didn’t want to be discarded because we were too expensive so we always do a really detailed analysis of time and resources so we can determine where the money’s going,' he said.' I even know what we spend on pencils,'
These are hard times, and it is not surprising that we are seeing a rash of business failures. It is heartening though that Simpson, back on his feet, is now helping another practice that ran into trouble.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Should we be allowed to get up to no good?

Horticulture Week reports that Richmond Council in southwest London has rethought its new policy of leaving parks unlocked overnight. Apparently it introduced the policy on 1 April, only locking one particular garden after that date. But it has now bowed to pressure from residents (and no less a figure than local MP Vince Cable) and is to start locking three parks again.
The concerns were about antisocial behaviour, noise and litter. Richmond Council says it has done this because it is a 'listening council'. And fair enough. But it does raise questions of how polite we want our public spaces to be - not to mention whether they are truly 'public' if they are locked at night. Litter is of course an issue that can be dealt with by more frequent collection and clearing. Noise? well, city streets are already noisy, and if people are misbehaving in a serious way they can be dealt with. The interesting issue is antisocial behaviour. I live near two commons and I am not sure that I would walk over them alone at dead of night. Quite a few antisocial things go on there. But it does not mean I think they should be fenced off. If people know the risks and are willing to run them, so be it - and if they want somewhere to cruise or misbehave in other ways, then the semi no-go area of a darkened park or common seems a reasonable choice.
Of course nobody wants to have to avoid discarded needles in the morning, but locked parks also usually are locked to early morning exercisers. And cities are a mix of types and activities - even the law-abiding may have had a less than upstanding period in adolescence. Shouldn't we accommodate everybody and allow there to be some less than perfect places in our cities?

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Could biogas be the answer?

There is something very appealing about the use of biogas to generate energy. Animal waste is a great source of pollution (not least with methane, which is a terrifyingly potent greenhouse gas) and yet it could be a 'free' source of energy.
The idea is not new.350 homes in Cirencester, Gloucestershire, for instance, receive their electricity thanks to the excretive efforts of chickens.  As so often, once one gets beyond the pilot plant the difficulty is cost. A report by YourIs. Com, the European research media centre, looks at the impact of the EU's Farmagas programme, which finished in 2011.
The purpose of the programme was to disseminate information to farmers, particularly in Eastern Europe, about Biogas. But, the study finds, take-up has been low in Hungary, Romania and Poland despite these largely agricultural countries having considerable potential.
The problems it identifies include high intial costs, the relatively low price of electricity, and the regulatory framework. And its recommendation? Government subsidy. We know this can work. Germany built its PV market in this way, and subsidies here had an enormous impact as well, even if they did skew the market somewhat. Whether in these straitened times those subsidies can happen remains to be seen. But the cause is such a good one - not only generating 'free' energy but also removing a pollutant, that we have to hope it will. Unlike growing crops for biomass, biogas production works in tandem with food production, not against it.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Is the Orbit really too small?

The most contentious statement at a seminar that I chaired last week came from Clive Dutton, executive director for planning, regeneration and property at the London Borough of Newham, host borough for the Olympics. 'The only thing wrong with the Orbit is that it should have been three times as big,' he said about one of London's most contentious and least-loved landmarks. Few would think of this twisted red metal object as 'landscape' but that was how Dutton defined it, in a discussion entitled 'Why invest in landscape?' The event took place at the offices of architect Patel Taylor, whose work includes the recently opened Eastside Park in Birmingham. Andrew Taylor, one of the founders of the practice, explained that for him 'landscape is the medium that brings buildings together'. The design codes for the athletes village were mostly related, he said, to how they helped to define the external spaces. there was a divide between the speakers, with Dutton and Mark Davy, founder of culture and placemaking consultancy Future City talking about special landscapes that can add excitement, often in a temporary manner. In contrast Sue Illman, president of the Landscape Institute and urban geographer Jonathan Smales,founder of Beyond Green, were more interested in having good landscape everywhere. Illman outlined the advantages that water sensitive urban design (WSUD) can bring, not only creating nicer places to live but tackling the triple whammy of floods, pollution and the urban heat island. Smales is a firm believer in densifying cities, but said that this can only work with great landscape design. There was a lively discussion from an audience of design professionals, developers and local authority members, particularly over who would actually pay for and maintain such schemes. Ceding control to private developers may in some cases be undesirable but, given current finance, can local authorities be trusted over maintenance?

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Remembering the ever-youthful Rick Mather

It was sad to see on the AJ website today that the architect Rick Mather had died. Sad because one never likes anybody to die, sadder because he had done and was still doing some excellent work. And somehow even sadder because, although he was in fact 75, he seemed so young. I remember that when Mather was elected to RIBA council in 1998, we ran a news story in the AJ saying how nice it was to see some new younger faces. Simple arithmetic tells one that Mather must have been 60 at the time. A fact that was pointed out to us by Sam Webb, the campaigning architect who was the most fierce critic of the large panel systems that led to the Ronan Point collapse in 1968. Webb was already a veteran of RIBA council and, by implication, a member of the old guard. Yet he was in fact, he said, a year younger than Mather. What a shame that Mather's youthful countenance couldn't guarantee him a longer life.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Antarctic proves a great school for design

Last week's AJ published my review of the Halley Research Station in the Antarctic, a curious piece to write, not least because I haven't been there. Normally the rule when writing a building review is that you have to visit to see for yourself, but Halley is so remote that a visit would take several weeks and cost thousands of pounds. Instead, I had to make do with talking to members of the winter team on the telephone, a surreal experience since you simply dial a Cambridge number (that is where the British Antarctic Survey is based) and find yourself talking to people at the bottom of the world. I had a long discussion with the cook about how long he keeps eggs for - around 14 months is the limit, but before you try this at home, you should know that he has a top-class fridge and turns the eggs every few days to stop the yolk from settling. It's more bother than you could face, but then he doesn't have the option of ordering a curry or buying a ready meal. Hugh Broughton, the architect for the project, has stepped into another league by winning and executing this building. Along with the team at AECOM (individuals who were also untried in Antarctic design, although members of the practice in the US had considerable experience), he has become the go-to designer for similar projects. But evidently these are few and far between. Broughton is interested therefore in exploring the relevance that this design may have to work in less challenging environments. There is a superficial resemblance of his buildings on stilts to Ron Herron's 1960s walking city, but the wider lesson comes from his careful analysis of what people need in order to live well, effectively and happily. One can see this careful approach transferring to other enclosed communities, such as a residential school, a hospital or a prison. Both architect and engineer rediscovered the roots of their professions on this project, thinking from basics, experimenting to come up with solutions that work, and not being bounded by regulations. It was an odd combination of the most sophisticated thinking and planning, with a return to first principles. Whether it wins them more work or not - and it certainly deserves to - it has enriched the professional experience of all those involved.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Small is not beautiful - when it comes to homes

In the latest blast in its campaign to see more spacious and lighter homes, the RIBA has issued the results of a poll by IPSOS Mori showing that natural light and space are the most important consideration in our homes. 80% of the public would be more likely to choose a home with minimum space standards and, damningly, wanting more space and light is the main reason why people in new homes would consider moving. This is part of the RIBA's HomeWise campaign for better homes and coincides with its launch of a new and rather snazzy website. The kneejerk response is of course that we can't afford anything better than the minimum. But this is madness. Despite the very real financial crisis, by most measures this country is more affluent than at almost any time in history. Some of Victorians were horribly overcrowded in slum dwellings. We should not go back to that way of living. It is no coincidence that mean residences so quickly can become slums - it only takes a small change in the way we live to make such a dictatorial residence (only one way of using it) uninhabitable.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Shanghai is bund to get better

Yesterday on the AJ's Footprint eco blog, architect Rab Bennetts reported from Shanghai. His reason for going was to visit the nascent Ecobuild. For which he deserves my respect - I couldn't even face the trek to Excel, let alone halfway round the world, although the tiny event that he reports sounds less daunting than London's behemoth. But what I found really interesting was his description - with accompanying photo - of the transformation of Shanghai's famous Bund. Bennets writes, 'The public realm has been transformed with beauty and flair at great speed; most of the eight-lane highway has been relocated underground, the ugly flyovers have gone, and the waterfront has been extended to reconnect with the piers and jetties that thrust towards the new Manhattan on the other side of the river - at least it would be a new Manhattan if it had streets rather than desolate gaps between the towers.' Way to go then, but certainly an encouraging sign.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Space really is the final frontier

There is a fascinating and only slightly belated obituary in the New York Times of an architect called Danforth W Toan. He was, apparently, one of the first to think about designing for space, coming up with simulations of the way that space could be used in a constricted space station. And I mean space. What is fascinating is that he realised that the three dimensional thinking in which architects specialise becomes really valuable when people are in zero gravity. Whereas on earth high ceilings mean simply that we have more air above our heads, in space when we are weightless we inhabit the entire volume. Thinking about space itself rather than in plan or section becomes vital. Toan was having his insights 45 years ago, but space continues to fascinate. A team of space architects at TU Vienna are publishing a book on their latest project, a deployable shelter for Mars. Will we ever get there? Who knows? But the images are certainly seductive.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

It's time to ask for help

As we approach the end of the financial year, it seems a good time to talk about business matters. Running a practice is difficult , especially a small one, or even as a sole practitioner - the way that many architects start out. Some may blame inadequacies in architectural education for their problems, but actually the demands are enormous: designer, manager, marketeer, business strategist, office manager, all rolled into one person. Even the most able would struggle. But there is a solution, or at least help at hand.
I have been talking to professionals and their consultants recently about these issues. And there is one common strand - the best way to succeed is to ask for help. Some of this help may be paid: an accountant, an IT expert, possibly some admin and, at some point, some business training or even consultancy. But there are also a lot of people who will provide advice for free. These may be your peers, those a little ahead of you in experience, or chosen mentors. Most people like to be asked, and like to help. And now of course it doesn't have to be a phone call - you can ask questions on Twitter, or in forums on LinkedIn. The only guarantee of failure seems to be believing you know it all, and not asking for any assistance. Just remember, if you do get help, and your practice does succeed, be willing to 'pay it back' in future by helping someone else. Being too busy is not an excuse.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Life isn't always simple

In the run up to April Fool's day, it is worth remembering that even the wisest can make errors of judgment sometimes. Step forward veteran PR Giovanni Forte, who despite having moved away from this area of work was tempted by one last trio of charming clients, who had a brilliant idea for a modular home.
Despite her savviness and experience, she was strung out for months by these gents who didn't have the wherewithal to pay, as she details amusingly on her blog.
It is worth reading for enterntainment value, and brings a few surprises. The first is that Forte was actually paid in the end, which the saga does not lead one to expect. The second is that, especially in hard times, it is perhaps not surprising that 'charming' and 'chancer' share the first three letters. And finally, as always in these cases, there is astonishment about the amount of work people will put in to not paying what was probably a fairly modest debt. Wouldn't they - couldn't they - have found the money in the first place and saved themselves the trouble? One has to accept that they probably rather enjoyed this process. Incomprehensible to me.