Category Archives: Architecture

Concrete Concept

Brutalist buildings around the world
Christopher Beanland

Packing case lettering, thick stiff card cover, no frills like a dust jacket and an A to Z of Brutalist Architecture from Jonathan Meades. What more could you want?

Christopher Beanland introduces his subject with the usual questions.

“Why brutalism?….why do you like these ugly buildings? Where the bloody hell did they come from? The answer to the first is easy as pie; the second -well how long have you got….”

Unfortunately the answer to the first is so personal that it only confirms my suspician that “brutalist buildings” are more about style than substance.

Brutalism was all the rage when I started studying Architecture. A first year project included an assessment of the South Bank complex, which rightly appears in this book (Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room). We didn’t think of it as “architecture”. We ignored or at least we’re not conscious of the discipline of creating the concrete materiality, the interiors and their functional requirements. We concentrated on the external spaces, terraces, the movement and the drama of the forms. We enjoyed photographing it and printing our own photos in black and white. Our project turned into a graphic production.

Only later did I realise that in Concrete buildings there is often no façade. Concrete is a rigorous task master. If I had done my year out working for Lasdun I would have learnt more about the discipline of the material, maybe my appreciation of its qualities would be deeper. Concrete became a means to an end not an end in itself. A malleable, invariably structural material with lots of great qualities but usually hidden because to expose it was too tricky, expensive and prone to all sorts of failures.

Meades and Beanland are not architects. This is no disqualification but as enthusiasts who love the material for its imagery, drama and robustness, they risk becoming advocates for something far more complex and challenging than they perhaps appreciate.

The 50 selected buildings are an example of the dangers of these thematic and luxuriously illustrated books. They seduce and avoid the pitfalls, the failed details, the cold bridges. There are many more that could equally deserve to be included. One of the great pities is that some are no longer with us or are actually being demolished, as I write.

If this can add to the record before it is too late, it is all to the good. Whether Brutalism and concrete can catch hold of the imagination of more than just the cognoscenti is another matter.

The Bristol Arena

Making a place – master planning and architecture.
Design Team
Populus: Architects and lead consultant
Fielden Clegg Bradley Studios: Architects
Buro Happold: Engineers

The Arena provides a flexible internal entertainment space for a wide variety of events with a maximum capacity of 12,000. Outside the Arena itself the site will initially include surface parking which in a second phase be developed providing up to 19,000 sqm floor area of mixed uses. Outdoor spaces for events and accessible parking will also be provided. The design teams’ aims to create a cutting edge multi-event destination- ‘a ‘Colosseum’ for Bristol. The Bristol Arena has recently been granted planning permission.
The Arena concept developed most often in the USA has most often been developed on sites outside the City Centre. As such these large internalized entertainment spaces are a challenge to the urbanist, (even in Rome). Locating the Bristol Arena on the Diesel Depot site next door to Bristol’s Grade 1 Listed Temple Meads Station, has also been a long journey, with the trials of recession and the virtual freezing of development outside London. Now that it has received planning permission it can move on to prove that all the effort was worth it.
The constrained “island” site faced many challenges, both practical and qualitative. How can the site accommodate competing demands of access for visitors, the audience as well as service vehicles and a river to cross? Can the topographical challenges of a flat site with a virtually shear wall to the south and steeply sloping and busy road along the south west? Will activities attract during the day as well as the evening? Will the site offer more than just a one stop shop based around entertainment. In answering all these questions, the client, operators and design team has done an excellent job
Site access is difficult, the choice of options is limited. The Avon has to be crossed and it is unfortunate that the first bridge for vehicle access to the site has been less than inspired. It is not a dramatic gesture, which would be the wrong move, but is not restrained and simple. It falls between the two, a missed opportunity. The pedestrian and cycling bridge which will follow soon is remote from the main action, requiring a long ramp for cyclists. Pedestrian and cycle routes join to become a shared pedestrian and cycle bridge. This is not the optimum option as it could lead to pedestrian and cycle conflicts. Given the green credentials and importance of cycling in Bristol this is an unfortunate decision.
One of the main challenges for Arenas is the servicing and access for large trucks required for get in and broadcasting. With the access restrictions to the site all types of vehicles including large trucks for shows as well as cars to the car park use the same bridge access. This will call for very careful management to avoid conflicts. Could the surface car park provided in the first stage have provided for more creative meanwhile uses before the second phase comes forward? Were other locations for vehicle parking considered? Could disabled access be provided by a shuttle service rather than an on site car park? It seems to me that all these questions could have been answered by more radical solutions but I guess the business plan and economics ruled the day.
The client and consultant team have high ambitions…
“the extraordinary setting of Arena Island be brought to life through dynamic landscapes and a series of terraces that flow from river to park, and through village to a new public square, providing
 the platform for a whole range of outdoor events and community activities.”
The success of the Arena as a destination will depend on the range of other activities at all times of day and in the evening. This will help determine the character of the place and the challenges relate to the island nature of the site. This site has special qualities. I would have expected more have been made of the public spaces around the building. Hard landscaping predominates but the historic references are lost. Quieter spaces and more soft landscaping and tree planting would be welcome. The old Diesel Depot site had distinctive dramatic qualities. It is to be hoped that the art interventions will draw from the history and add to the sense of place.
Many of these challenges will only be fully answered as later phases of development come forward. But in the first stage, the creation of the Arena as a new venue will begin to answer these questions. Ultimately, will the Arena and its surroundings become part of the City? Given its location and the fast evolving Bristol Temple Quarter, the future looks very promising. Bristol is benefitting from the vision of Mayor George Ferguson and the Government and other Agencies promoting the South West of England over many years. Without their commitment and vision the Arena development would not have reached this stage.
The visuals of the building are dramatic and promise much, a beacon at night. As the winner of a well worked design competition, the Arena deserves to be a great success and with a team that combines Populus, FCB Studios and Buro Happold, it has the credentials and track record to deliver it.

Estate and Context – two books – one subject

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Reviews first published by Building Design December 2015

Until I had “read” both books it would have never occurred to me that they could be talking about the same complex and indefinable term that architects and urban designers use so loosely – “context”.

I write “read’ because so much of Estate is visual. Estate is a photographic record of a place as it was at one very specific time 1991. It doesn’t show the emergence of a place, its design, construction or the continuing story of it. Of the nine original tower blocks only three remain. Why these three are retained, they also happened to be the smaller ones (13 storeys against 16) is not part of the story.

Jonathan Meades has set it in a written context and as one would expect it goes beyond the immediate images and goes straight to the political context, racialism, public housing before it became “social” housing and by 1991 the advent of Thatcherism and the right to buy. Interestingly according to Hugo Young quoted in James Meek’s Private Island, Thatcher had to be talked into right to buy by Edward Heath as a populist policy and as Meek says one that violated basic Thatcherite principles – self reliance – good / state handouts – bad. But perhaps that is a point that doesn’t fit into the Meades narrative.

Laura Noble in her essay deals with the more detailed aspects of the subject, interiors and exteriors, materiality, landscape and above all the subject matter, the people living on the estate. The photographs almost suggest being staged or set up. They look studied as indeed some were but others had to be captured quickly in an age long before digital media allowed for multiple images. At the end one wonders what exactly the photographs have to say. As with so much photojournalism it is perhaps only with the passing of more time that the relevance becomes clear. At the moment the images could almost be contemporary and that to me means that we have not progressed. Sad but true.

“Context” on the other hand is an ambitious attempt at defining the qualities that make places and specifically an urban place. The field of architecture and urban design proliferate with such terms but rarely are they defined. Eric Parry has attempted this in relatively short but esoteric sections dividing the subject into 5 chapter subjects. He has further enhanced his subjects by reference to his approach to building design as well as other well-known practitioners in Europe. By relating his approach to very specific situations he has the advantage of using real life to explain his approach to this complex subject without recourse to generalization.

With headings of Pavement, Horizon, Simultaneity, Kinetics and Artifice he walks us through the qualities of a place in a manner that only the most thoughtful of designers can. Illustrated by sketches, photographs and maps, the qualities of urban environment in its physical, historical and changing character through the day is brought to life through reference often to projects and studies done in his office.

In the second chapter he teasingly shows his 2006 sketch of the skyline including the site of his recently revealed 1 Undercroft tower with on the following pages a discussion of the detail of the cenotaph with its celestial radius of 1000 feet now referenced in the Tower design. How these thoughts fed into the design and what part they might have played are for the future no doubt.

Whether this is a valuable reference book for the aspiring designer or a good story told to promote a successful and creative office is the question. In the hands of Eric Parry the subtlety and sophistication of context is clear. Unfortunately in the hands of lesser designers too much sophistication can be a handicap to achieving good quality design.

Knightsbridge Barracks

To list or not to list? Demolish or retain, tall building or mid rise street. If you want a good case to reveal the full complexity of the listing process, the debate over tall buildings, heritage and the distinctiveness of place and its impact on development, it is hard to think of a single better case than the Knightsbridge Barracks.

The third Barracks on the site, completed to the designs of the significant mid 20th century architect Sir Basil Spence, from the start controversial, of undeniable significance architecturally, historically and of great importance  as a group of buildings on a severely constrained site, the complex, according to participants at the New London Architecture breakfast meeting , John Allen in particular, was pretty clear, it deserved listing.

If a similar scheme with a tall element were proposed today, John Walker of Westminster City Council Planning, was clear it would not be approved. Indeed he mentioned the removal of the tower as being an improvement to the skyline. Whilst not an advocate of tall buildings around the park, the Barracks unlike the Hilton or Lancaster Gate Hotels is a significant and distinctive landmark and its removal would be a step too far. However it is contrary to policy for development around the listed Park and conservation area no more tall buildings will be developed unless that policy changes, but of course this has no bearing on the question of listing.

But the listing aspect is only one part of a larger issue. The location of the monarch’s personal guard, the Blues and Royals the Household Cavalry within 30 minutes of the Queen is a critical part of the development equation as clearly pointed out by John Walker. To replace the existing Barracks requires a new location somewhere close by, in the most expensive real estate in London. This has been the stumbling block for every potential applicant discussing their proposals with the planners in Westminster.

So what is likely to happen? Perhaps some amendment of the rules and requirements set by the Government in terms of distance and riding time or a continuation of the barracks on site within a listed or unlisted complex? If the complex is listed, how will this affect the potential for change, the appetite of the development industry and the site’s value? John  Walker also said the City Council do not want another 1 Hyde Park with very few residents and apartments.

The campaign being run by the 20th Century Society ‘Say neigh to demolition’ has a long way to run and this is just the start.

London’s Council Housing

New London Architecture run a great and very well attended series of Breakfast meetings to discuss issues of interests Architects, Planners and other Built Environment professionals.

On Tuesday a full agenda with contributions from Council representatives and their designers presented inner and outer London Borough approaches to new models for more affordable homes and the revival of council housing.

Changes to regulations have helped Councils to start redeveloping their estates. Options of borrowing against the HRA or General fund, GLA/HCA subsidies and external European sources of funding and joint ventures were all outlined. Within the relatively short time for each presentation these inevitably had to be simply presented, the detail is far more complex.

Similarly delivery models ranging from direct developments where funding is available, joint ventures and outright disposal of non-core assets as a means of raising funds were discussed and outcomes presented.

Design responses to individual challenges in the Boroughs represented both in Central London areas (Camden, Westminster), and outer London (Barnet, Barking and Dagenham, Ealing), were, sensitive to place and good sense. Hilary Satchwell of Tibbalds working collaboratively in the Bourne Estate demonstrated the complexity and opportunities that exist in the centre of London, whilst Andrew Beharrel working in Barking and Dagenham, explained that their work impproving post-war mono cultural council estate housing was in the DNA of PTEa, who have been doing this sort of thing for years.

All schemes presented had to suffer the delays caused by the financial crisis which had no doubt put great strain on these relatively small businesses. All demonstrated that housing that provides long term quality and management is possible.

What lessons are there for the future roll out of affordable housing in London? The further loosening of financial constraints on development are needed from central government specifically the Treasury. As Stephen MacDonald, representing Barnet Re (part of a Council/Capita regeneration organisation – questions of how that works would take a separate meeting) said, If Council’s are to deliver more, whilst having to bear current 25% and future 25% cuts in central government funding, then lobby your MP not the Council.

NLA Director Peter Murray talks tall buildings

Peter Murray talks tall buildings.

Peter Murray’s New London Architecture has organised an excellent exhibition at the Building Centre, Store Street on the future of London’s skyline focussing on the 240+ existing and planned tall buildings in the capital. Presenting the subject earlier today, Peter stressed that it seemed that nobody elected and in authority (though GLA planners dispute this) knew there were so many buildings of over 20 storeys planned, where they were and how they will impact upon the skyline and the ground level of the city.

Recounting the many changes over the recent past two aspects struck me as being critical.

First – buildings evolve and adapt to changing demands over time. Will the tall residential development may offer little flexibility for the future of living in the city? The best residential buildings can update themselves (Trellick Tower) , the worst (system built – Ronan Point) fail catastrophically or are demolished. However many recent developments have been poorly constructed, of no architectural quality and without an overall master plan that considers the immediate locality, streets, environmental conditions. Commercial buildings are now being converted through permitted development rights without due consideration of their suitability. Commercial space is being lost and designs originally conceived for one form of occupation has throughout time had to adapt. The Gerkin, Natwest tower being two example quoted. What is the long term fate of these many new tall buildings?

Second – tall buildings and specifically those that contain numerous privately owned, often rented flats are likely to have to stand very much longer than commercial developments which can be removed for higher value opportunities. If the market rules, truly affordable homes, at affordable not unaffordable rents are no longer developed save in very limited numbers. The heart of London is being hollowed out so that London can ‘compete’ in the global economy, but that hollowing out will be the death of an attractive city.

Lessons from abroad in unduly conservationist Paris, or in New York where rights are being traded across plots so that extremely tall, high value apartment buildings trading on the values that height brings can be built are not encouraging. It is probably too late to adopt Vancouver’s planned approach ‘Vancouverism’ that both limits height to specific areas but encourages a visually coherent and environmentally positive city.  It would also require a political and culture shift.

So where does that lead. Opportunity areas of which there are so many that one wonders what is not an opportunity seek a planned solution. The evidence from the largest is that planning is taking a back seat in the face of overwhelming development pressure.

Rowan Moore in his recent excellent articles for the Observer has opened up an issue that won’t go away. It has drawn to the attention of politicians the impact that piecemeal decisions are making to our city. Trying to square development that funds so much of the city’s infrastructure, achieving quality of design and environment, fighting ever increasing competition for land with soaring values, whilst trying to provide homes for a rapidly increasing population who want to live and work in a successful city whose  global city status is a big ask.

One which demands solutions that are more radical than what is currently on the menu.

London Housing Report: the Princes Foundation

With an introduction  “The enduring popularity and desirability of London’s Sloane Square, Mayfair and Notting Hill neighbourhoods speaks to the strengths of mid-rise as a form”  I wonder if this is really going to be a fruitful read.

However amongst and beyond the quotes from three interviewees, Ben Denton, Ben Derbyshire and Eliot Lipton, there are snippets of value amongst the rather confused structure of the report.

Housing in the UK is no small subject to cover in roughly half a report of 34 pages. Categorise it by historical and current development, policy context, tenure types and current industry recommendations (increase investment, make more land available, empower communities, financial reforms) and conclude with:

“we need to build differently” is to say the least inadequate.

Come to page 24 and we get to the meat of the report, a definition of mid-rise housing, 5-8 storeys. Not up to 10-12 storeys which might have been thought a more acceptable proposition for some of the higher value and better served areas of a world city.

The potential locations and context for mid-rise revealed at the beginning are key routes, small/medium infill sites, large scale new build and estate regeneration.

An important consideration is the so-called “right of way” (R.O.W.). Mid-rise developments can be defined as those buildings not taller
 than the R.O.W. of the streets onto which they face. This is not taken any further as a definition but begs the question “what about buildings overlooking large open spaces, parks, rivers?”

The four separate contextual or typologies are then discussed and throughout the three interviewees make comments for example:

Ben Derbyshire decries the low density of suburbs

“It’s so low the density of suburbia…it’s ridiculously low… it’s got the most enormous density capacity to supply housing. 2/3rd of London is at suburban densities,
and therefore it’s essential to look at the capacity of that 2/3rds as a whole, from the point of view of what it can yield up by way of additional supply. The number that I bandy about is: that if you double the density of only 10% of the footprint of suburban London, you supply all of the housing London needs for the next 20 years…”

Are suburbs unpopular?

but he also states without any evidence to support it

People don’t want housing estates…they
 don’t want that kind of physical and social disjunction between the city that they own 
and privatised space with weird built form… they just don’t want it anymore, and there’s no reason why they should have it.”

Ben Denton acknowledges London’s role as a world city

“London’s attractiveness is as a global city so therefore its market is not just the UK, it’s the world and that brings some quite unusual pressures. So in terms of demand, you’re talking on a world stage rather than just a country stage and so not just the flow of the number of people, but also the flow of money into places creates unusual market circumstances.”

But his role as Strategic Director of Housing Regeneration and Property is also expressed when coming up with ideal options for mid-rise housing…

“…….If you look at some of the great examples of mid-rise across London, historic examples like Maide Vale, they work fabulously well, they had communal outdoor space…that model works really, really well. Everyone would aspire to grow up in Maide Vale and in places like that.”

Not more than 500m away from Maida Vale in Westbourne Green, there is a very different and successful model, mixing estate renewal with new build additions to intensify the density of the area.

Eliott Lipton surprisingly says of the London housing market:

 “London residential is an inefficient market, with customers at either end of the earnings spectrum getting homes – – if you’re rich or in need of support, then 
the state system works for you…it’s the people in the middle that the system works less well for and that is fundamentally caused by a lack of supply.”

No doubt those at the top get what they want but at the bottom too?

The report paints a reasonably realistic picture of the challenges that London is facing……

“While the bulk of demand can be identified at the lower end of the market…….., new developments continue to target wealthier buyers……. The current model of investment into luxury, typically high-rise, residential developments is risking oversupply in the Prime market, while failing to deliver where
 the bulk of future demand lies.

Research estimates that 28,500 new homes are needed at the lower end of the market each year, while only 18,500 will be needed in the mid and upper core markets52. Of the 42,000..(current Mayor’s housing policy target), 15,000 affordable homes are to be developed each year – 40% of which will be for lost-cost ownership, and 60% will be for affordable rent. These targets, given the mere 17,000 homes built in London last year, only 6,000 of which were built by housing associations and councils, have been praised as ambitious, if not unrealistic.”

Social housing as part of a mix is barely considered in any detail.

Fundamental to the report is the desire to paint a single form and possibly visual image for the future of London. Mid-rise has its role but so too the lower densities of inner and outer suburbs. The arterial routes in and out of the city could with improvements to air quality provide fertile ground for higher density mid-rise developments but like so much of city planning this requires joined up thinking and not a single limited solution.

Google Kings Cross HQ

In the week that Twitter went public and doubled its share price in a day (journalistic exaggeration), what was Google up to? It decided to reconsider its design for the new HQ in Kings Cross.

Simon Allford of AHMM crossed the world for a 10 minute meeting with Larry Page, according to BD Boots, that’s 550 miles travel for every minute of the meeting. This is an opportunity to open up the larger questions of connectivity across King’s Cross and beyond and an opportunity for Google to demonstrate  local as well as global contributions to society. To show some of that old but not dead concept of patronage.

Following the 19th and 20th century philanthropists, what will Google’s response be? What will a redesign do? It may move a limited market forward, but does it provide anything of lasting value. A new park constructed over the railway tracks, green space in an area of green deprivation, pedestrian and cycle links from the Regent Quarter to the fast emerging Argent developments between the tracks of St Pancras and Kings Cross could do.

Someone suggested a new Exchange Square. Twitter was at work here, thanks to Michael Edwards for starting the debate. But Exchange Square is a glorified private office court masquerading as a public space. A new local park is a gift that has lasting value.

The images are from a competition entry for Luxembourg Gare  – a park over the tracks linking two sides of the City. Urban design by Matthias Wunderlich and Simon Carne (Urban Initiatives team)


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Retrofit and the RIBA President

The AJ Retrofit award should be a highlight of the architectural year. First it deals with the bread and butter of an architectural practice as well as the large scale projects. It is all about context, constraints and lasting solutions. This year the winners are no exceptions to these challenges and whilst they lack the really big projects of recent times, there is so much to learn from them.

Stephen Hodder has just taken up his role as President of the RIBA. He knows about Retrofit. Retrofit is all about giving a building a second or maybe third chance. The first initiative of his two year position seem to be seeking evidence for “good design improving lives” as a justification to sell the services of architects to a possibly disbelieving client. This is not a new area of research as others such as the Useable Buildings Trust have pointed out. And if Stephen Hodder is not aware of this I would be amazed.

Whilst there are design deniers in some departments of Government, is this the best way to promote good design? Paul Morrell, at a CABE event a couple of years ago, said that the Government wanted design to a standard that was not excellent, but “good enough”, effectively endorsing Michael Gove’s agenda for schools. Coming from someone with Paul’s track record and experience, this was a powerful and depressing message. I hope it will not be the result of the President’s initiative.

Zaha Hadid

Do we need a new vocabulary to do justice to Zaha Hadid?

Last week saw the Imagine programme with appearances from the lady, her business partner Patrick Schumacher and Alan Yentob wandering through many of her great and not so great works across the globe. If this is architecture then we need to reconsider what is involved in the “discipline”. Does the computer generating forms to order qualify? Is there a place for the economical use of space and materials?

Unsurprisingly the commentators and fellow architects and teachers were all expressing their approval of the work. There is no doubt that the Peak would have been extraordinary, the Phaeno Science Centre at Wolfsberg amazing and the Cardiff Opera House was one of the missed opportunities of all time.  But I came away with Piers Gough’s Frank Gehry quote as summing up the whole design conundrum of her work. Flat piece of something $1, single curve $2, double curve $10. With enough budget extraordinary things are possible, but they are generated by what? And they are constructed using vast quantities of steel, designed by the 3D capability of computers operated by exceptional engineers like Hanif Kara.

The Festival Hall is over 50 years old, St Paul’s Cathedral over 400 years, the Pantheon 2,000 years…. Will the “organic, rolling, slipping and sliding” cultural centre in Baku be the ultimate Zaha experience?

Alan Yentob sums it up as “…one of the most remarkable structures I have ever seen” Give it a few more years Alan.