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.