Thursday, 28 February 2013

Plumbing the shallows of Twitter

One of the ways that you may have come to read this story is because I have tweeted it. I wouldn't say I have a love-hate relationship with Twitter - more a blowing hot and cold one. Rather like those annoying people in relationships who sometimes are all over you and at others just can't be bothered and would rather tidy their flat or drink with their mates, I have days of great activity and others of ignoring twitter altogether. Mostly I like it, although I am still not sure what it is FOR.
Anyway, Building Design has recently published a list of its top 10 architecture critics and journalists on Twitter. There is an unsurprising and acceptable degree of nepotism. The list includes executive editor Ellis Woodman and online editor Anna Winston, as well as former staffer Oliver Wainwright and regular contributor Owen Hatherley. Interestingly news editor Andrea Klettner didn't make the cut, although Peerindex placed her higher than Winston. And top of the list is Hugh Pearman, who edits rival publication the RIBA Journal.
Lists like this are always fun, and there is always a wistful moment of thinking 'could this have been'. My first reaction was to tweet a link to the story accompanied by 'Could try harder'. But of course the strength of Twitter lies in its diversity. Just as we don't all want to see the same films or eat the same food, so we should follow those who help, inspire, amuse or perhaps irritate us. In fact one rule may be that you should follow at least one person with whom you disagree profoundly.
For some Twitter is crucial - for instance the winning team of the recent Flitched competition who met through Twitter. For most it is fun, as long as you don't let it take over your life, and occasionally enlightening. And, like so many things, the best way to find out what it is for is to engage. You have nothing to lose except a few minutes a day.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Can we shed light on reform of rights to light?

The AJ and BD have virtually identical headlines on the proposed reforms to rights of light. 'Architects welcome right to light move' says the former, while the latter goes for 'Architects hail light laws reform'. But BD is intriguing. Its story is on page 3, and opposite on page 2 is its second leader. Its headline is 'Don't put out the light in our cities' and it argues that 'Changing the light legislation is a threat to the renaissance of Britain's urban centres'.
Why such diverging views? The legislation, dating back to 1832, is over 180 years old. It predates the electric light, and refers to very different cities from those that we have today. the news story quotes Andrew Beharell of architect Pollard Thomas Edwards, well know for its housing, saying, 'We know of projects which have suffered years of delay because adjoining owners have known how to manipulate the system, not for the legitimate protection of the enjoyment of their properties, but in order to negotiate large cash settlements.'
So why the opposition? The concern is that we may lose not only tiresome red tape but the spirit of the regulations - and those were to protect a fundamental human right and pleasure. We all want light in our buildings. We know how important daylight is to our well-being, and how much we want to be able to see out. The technology of artificial lighting is advancing rapidly, but it will never be a substitute for the real thing. Increasingly we are keeping light out deliberately to avoid overheating - but we want as much 'good light' as possible.
When we talk about the needs to densify our cities, I always agree, but find myself whispering under my breath 'but not to Victorian levels'. Of course some of the worst of the rookeries, where the poor lived in overcrowded, insanitary and dark conditions, were created after the rights to light were introduced. Sometimes we have to have faith in the spirit not the letter of the law. But how many of us are confident doing that today?

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Temporary becomes permanent again

It is pleasing but unsurprising that the 'temporary' Skyroom built on top of the Architecture Foundation's home near London Bridge is to become permanent, as BD reports today. From the Eiffel Tower onwards, there is a long tradition of so-called temporary structures acquiring a permanent life. In London of course the most prominent example is the London Eye.
The Skyroom is far more modest, although it was designed by David Kohn, who subsequently went on to design the far higher profile rooftop pod 'Room for London'. Owner Roger Zogolovitch is hoping that he will get planning permission to turn the Skyroom into a flat.
It all seems eminently sensible, and Zogolovitch made no secret about wanting this to be permanent from the outset. it fits with the British sensibility which hates to see anything new, and then hates to see anything disappear. I just have one little concern - if so many temporary uses become permanent, will councils become wary of allowing 'pop up' interventions to go ahead?

Monday, 18 February 2013

Zaha Hadid on page 3

A week of unexpected news (who could have predicted that we would be discussing the damage caused by meteorites, the resignation of the pope and the death of Oscar Pistorius' girlfriend?) ended with an architecture story in a hugely prominent position in the Observer.
Zaha Hadid was talking about misogyny in the profession, following up on the disappointing but unsurprising results of the AJ's Women in Architecture survey. Hadid told the newspaper, 'I have noticed it is easier for me in European countries than it is here. There is a different dynamic. In the UK it is more difficult. They are very conservative. There is a scepticism and more misogynist behaviour here. Although, while there were people against me, there were also people living here who were incredibly supportive.'
The irony is that, if Hadid had not become so successful and high-profile, there would not have been a poster-woman for the paper to interview, and so there would not have been a story - or at least not such a prominent one. But the statistics are sobering, particular in terms of bullying and pay discrepancies, and it is great that Hadid was willing to give this interview. She after all has forged a pretty successful career, despite all the difficulties. It is cheering that she is not pulling up the ladder behind her.

Friday, 15 February 2013

What's in a name?

When I worked at The Architects' Journal, the news editor used to take especial pleasure in finding sobriquets for the latest tower proposal (he probably still does, but I don't see him so regularly). He was particularly proud of the 'can of ham', a title that was subsequently taken up by the Daily Mail. And no less a figure than Peter Rees of the Corporation of London claimed to have named the 'cheesegrater', Roger Stirk Harbour's Leadenhall building.
Rees may have been more aware of the significance of these names, but at the AJ we certainly thought of this as an amusing game. But according to the cultural critic Owen Hatherley, writing in the Guardian earlier this week, there was a sinister underlying purpose. The country, and particularly the left, has been suckered into promote tall commercial buildings, Hatherley argues,
Where once they championed the vernacular and 'community architecture' they came to love the idea of tall buildings with commercial sponsors, partly Hatherley believes, because Thatcher's government had taken away local authorities' spending powers, and this was the only way for them to make their mark. The ideas were promoted by Richard Rogers' report on cities, and by the formation of organisations such as CABE. And, Hatherley believes, the funny names helped us all to accept them.
'The Gherkin was clearly the first of these new cuddly skyscrapers,' he writes. 'Its originally much-vaunted green technologies barely worked, but its accidental masterstroke was its very name – its shape eliciting a cabbie's affectionate monicker. Subsequent towers all came ready-nicknamed – Helter-Skelter, Walkie-Talkie, Cheese Grater, Shard. Typically, they weren't much more public – the days when the tallest buildings could be council housing, like the Trellick Tower, or NHS hospitals, like Guy's Hospital Tower, neighbouring the Shard, were long gone – but they were definitely more populist.'
Hatherley is a very clever and passionate writer, with a strong agenda - he loves much of the brutalism that many decry - and his arguments need a careful unpacking. But like the towers he derides, they are seductive - and who knew that the poor AJ news editor had been suckered into a conspiracy of brainwashing?

Sunday, 10 February 2013

What is a reasonable way to work?

There is a discussion on the AJ's LinkedIn page about methods of working that can reduce the long hours culture. It was kicked off by the decision of architect Baumann Lyons to start working 38 hours in a four-day week, and shut the office on a Friday.
The thinking, presumably, is that most people will feel after they have done a solid 9.5 hours that they cannot give any more and will simply go home - that the extended day will not be able to stretch any further and so overwork will vanish - and presumably will any presenteeism which leads people to hang around doing not very much, or extending their work over a longer period just so that they look better.
The intention  is certainly admirable. But can it work in practice? There are several things against it. First, as commenters on the thread have pointed out, is the fact that clients are unlikely to be happy that the office is not manned on a Friday. Will project architects be picking up so many calls on their iphones that they would prefer to have gone in?
Secondly, my point above about 9.5 hours being 'enough' is probably not true for architects. Having come through an education system that encourages the 'all nighter', it is a habit that many are likely to fall back into, particularly when entering competitions.
The other problem is with flexibility. This week's AJ is a special women's issue, showcasing the shortlisted practices for its second Women in Architecture awards and also providing the results of a survey. It is no surprise, unfortunately, that many women are still overlooked and underpaid, nor that the biggest impediment to the success of women comes from the difficulties of marrying work and childcare. And of course this should not be a women-only issue. The best employers, such as Walters and Cohen, acknowledge that parents of both sexes benefit from flexibility.
I am sure that Baumann Lyons has thought about this and has an answer, but on the face of it working four long days looks extremely inflexible. This inflexibility of course is necessary if people are to be 'prevented' from overworking. For everybody - not just architects - work and leisure are creeping into each other's spaces. The real challenge is to offer flexibility yet still prevent overwork.