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.