The Realtime Manifesto

The architectural manifesto defined the modern era. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto started the ball rolling, and Adolph Loos’ Ornament and Crime, Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture and De Stijl followed. All of these are recognized as being amongst the most important pieces of architectural writing of the last century. While it is tempting to think that we may be living in a golden age of manifesto writing now that anyone can start a blog, the carefully-considered architectural manifesto itself doesn’t fit the paradigm of network culture. As editor Justin McGuirk correctly observes in Icon magazine’s “Manifesto Issue” (Icon #50) that “in the early 21st century, there are as many potential manifestos as there are people.” A manifesto is something else entirely when instead of defining the rigid foundations of a movement it attempts to start or join a conversation.

The Absolutist

Patrik Schumacher recently re-presented his “Parametricist Manifesto” of 2008 in The Architect’s Journal. In this manifesto, he makes the claim that “Parametricism is the great new style after modernism” by arguing that it “aims to organise and articulate the increasing diversity and complexity of social institutions and life processes within the most advanced centre of post-Fordist network society.” His attempt to say that there is a given architectural solution to the complexity of network society is naive and is not much more than an update of the modern functionalist approach to design. The communication and collaboration made possible by the network itself solves many problems that previously would have called for architectural solutions. As people spend more and more time living within devices (i.e smart phones, augmented reality applications, online social networks etc.) the need for heavily differentiated physical spaces will continue to decline- particularly as the spectacular cost of these types of architectural spaces continues to rise. By laying out a manifesto in 2008 and attempting to present it again in 2010, it already appears impossibly dated.

The Contrarians

Another publicised manifesto that gained notoriety in the mast few years was promoted by a group known as “Mantownhuman” and published online under the title “Manifesto: Towards a New Humanism in Architecture” with the authors listed as Alastair Donald, Richard J Williams, Karl Sharro, Alan Farlie, Debby Kuypers, and Austin Williams. Page three sums up the general approach:

we must seek a new humanist sensibility within architecture – one that refuses to bow to preservation, regulation and mediation – but instead sets out to win support for the ambitious human-centred goals of discovery, experimentation and innovation.

Later, in accusing architects of allowing “the needs of humanity have become secondary to nature” (p. 4) while at the same time trashing the formalist side of the profession on page 8:

Today’s ironic decadence delights in self-definition: creating a self-referential architecture of amorphous shapes, algorithms and fractals that reinforce the anti-humanist, pseudo-religious notion that truth is a mathematical…

And then, of course, on page 9: “The time has come to break free of an architecture of limits.” While Schumacher’s manifesto is intensely prescriptive, which makes his text look dated, this manifesto takes an opposite track by attempted to play Devil’s advocate to nearly everyone while being completely unspecific as to an outcome. Mantownhuman’s overwhelmingly idealistic, yet negative, outlook comes off as a childish rant- limits are what architecture is made of, and it is not a new “problem”. Society’s complex nature today makes it especially difficult to imagine practising architecture in a world where “discovery” is the end goal, consequences be damned.

These two poles of manifesto writing illustrate the problem inherent in undertaking such a project. Unceasing change and rapid communication allow ideas to be publicly critiqued within minutes of being published. Proposing a finite and declarative statement on what architecture should be, and how the world should work, no longer makes sense. That being said, what comes next?

The Collaborators

Network culture’s new version of the manifesto is is found most easily in social media (Twitter specifically) rather than in on a typeset document distributed by post. With hashtags and @ replies binding user updates into conversation, Twitter has allowed instant manifestos to take shape as ideas are circulated amongst a circle of architects, critics, writers and architecture enthusists. De Stijl is remembered in nearly every architectural and art history textbook as a seminal publication and movement of the early 20th century, yet it most avid users of social media have as many (or far more) followers on Twitter or Facebook as van Doesburg had subscribers without much effort and zero expense. It is easy to write-off a medium that limits contributions to 140 characters as flippant or reactionary, but the networks formed through social media create a variety of possibilities. The process of sharing links and blog comments continues the discussion, and in many cases the collaborative process leads to real-world collaboration as well.

As an example of the collaborative future we can look at the Mammoth Book Club. Published on Stephen Becker and Rob Holmes’ blog Mammoth, the Mammoth Book Club was inaugurated earlier this year with a reading of the book “The Infrastructural City” (2008, edited by Kazys Varnelis). Consisting of blog posts discussing each chapter of the book on an approximately weekly basis, the blog format allows for an editorial viewpoint on the part of the authors, and also allows the readers to interact both with the authors and each other. In turn, everyone is having a public dialogue with the original authors that contributed to the book in the first place. While not a manifesto in the traditional shouty and declarative sense, it functions to advance a set of ideas in a productive way that constantly improves from the feedback.

The architectural design process no longer resembles the ideal depicted in Any Rand’s “The Fountainhead” (though I’m certain it never really did). The world has become too complicated for one person working alone to manage entire projects through the force of his or her creative genius alone. Similarly, the world is too complex for a one-size-fits-all theory promoted by Patrik Schumacher.

Architecture for Humanity (AFH) has a clear-cut agenda of providing high-quality design for all. Working in many of the world’s neediest regions. Their Open Architecture Network was created as a way for designers, builders and clients to collaborate around the world by providing the infrastructure for uploading, coordinating projects and sharing designs with other users. With 15,000 active users and 50,000 visitors a month, the site has been a success. Working far outside the confines of the traditional architectural practice, Architecture for Humanity has put its strong idealogical stance to work- the Open Architecture Network shows how divergent design vocabularies can come together under the guise of a project without prescribed outcomes.

In the end, Architecture for Humanity has been more successful in “organis(ing) and articulat(ing) the increasing diversity and complexity of social institutions and life processes” (to use Schumacher’s words) than Zaha Hadid’s office. By providing a network and an operating system, instead of a rigid stylistic definition, the Open Architecture Network has moved away from the linear thought processes of modernity and truly embraces network society.

Book review: Visual Planning and the Picturesque by Nikolaus Pevsner

Visual Planning and the Picturesque

While not truly a “lost” Pevsner book, this represents a monumental effort by editor Mathew Aitchison to pull together a huge amount of material compiled for a book on Picturesque town planning by Nikolaus Pevsner. While Pevsner intended to publish the material as a book, he never finished the manuscript and much of the material was published as short pieces in the Architectural Review instead.

Visual Planning and the Picturesque is divided into three sections. Part I is titled “mostly presented in pictures” and consists of the analysis of English townscapes through Pevsner’s photographs, historical sources and maps.  His focus alternates between Oxford, London and Bath. Part II is titled “mostly presented in quotations” and includes a variety of historical sources on townscape with commentary by Pevsner. Part III, titled “occasionally submitting solutions” was assembled from materials compiled by Pevsner. The Editor’s notes indicate his intent for this section was less clear, though it is established Pevsner intended to addresses 20th century issues through the lens the English Picturesque tradition.

Parts I and II were nearly completed during the 1940s, concurrent with the Architectural Review‘s “Townscape” campaign. Pevsner worked for the AR during the period and ended up publishing a large portion of the material for this book in the magazine. Part III includes many of the photos indicated for inclusion in his notes but without specific indication and an assortment of texts that are on topic, but as Pevsner had not written a draft for this section Aitchison’s interpretation of his intent is responsible for its composition. The heavy reliance on interpretation for Part III is definitely the book’s Achille’s heel. While the material in the section is, on many occaisions, fascinating, its inclusion is mostly conjecture on the part of Aichison. He does his best to interpret Pevsner’s intent but at the same time, it feels most like assembled notes than a completed chapter.

What is particularly striking about the book, and what makes it timely today, is Pevsner’s appreciation for historic principles while at the same time being a strong proponent of modern architecture. His analysis looks at the picturesque principles of planning but does not prescribe the literal insertion of picturesque buildings into the landscape. This is spelled out in some detail in John Macarthur and Aitchison’s section at the beginning titled “Pevsner’s Townscape.” Pevsner’s view allows for the appreciation of contemporay buildings in the context of the old and is separate from both the high modernists, who preferred to work from a cleared site, and the historicists of today who make up the New Urbanist movement. This point of view allows him to alternately praise the pedestrian nature of central London and hold up LCC housing in Roehampton (contemporary at the time of his writing) as a “masterpiece of post-war residential design” that sits squarely in the Picturesque tradition.

Pevsner’s book is not for everyone. It gives a look into his working process (many of his notes are included in the book) and sheds light on a movement and era that is somewhat forgotten today. For those who are already partial to Pevsner’s work this is an essential volume to complete a collection of his writing. Alternately, it is a good source for thinking about contemporary planning in the UK. Revisiting the ideas of the Townscape movement and the Picturesque as conveyed in this book could be a way out of the dead-ends planning has run into in the past decade. Incorporating traditional ideas of English planning need not result in Poundbury.

Nineteenth Century Landscape Urbanism at the Brent Reservoir

The Welsh Harp Reservoir
The Welsh Harp Reservoir from Woodfield Park

Within a short distance of where I live there is a large urban lake, The Brent Reservoir (or commonly known as the Welsh Harp, after the pub that used to stand next to it) that supports one of the most important bird habitats in southern England. Covering 110 acres, the reservoir is surrounded by mostly undeveloped land to the north and the bordered by playing fields, industrial buildings and the North Circular Road to the south. On the approach from Golder’s Green, it seems like an unlikely find (Google Maps link) after navigating the pedestrian-unfriendly territory surrounding the Brent Cross Shopping Centre and the walkways over the North Circular Road. The only hint of water is the garbage-strewn, concrete-lined River Brent that flows next to the car park at the mall.

If you travel slightly further to the southwest, you will cross the M1 motorway (the very beginning of it) and  Edgeware Road. From there it is a short walk downhill to Cool Oak Lane, a one lane road controlled by a signal to let cars through one direction at  a time. The open water of the Reservoir is to the left, usually dotted with sailboats and the right is marshier looking and there are often people feeding ducks and geese.

Cool Oak Lane
Cool Oak Lane

While the Reservoir today is a site of recreation and now appears to be a natural feature in the landscape of the area, it was created for utilitarian reasons. In the early 1800s, the canal network in London was rapidly being expanded to move cargo both around the city and north to Birmingham. More water was needed for both the Grand Union Canal and the Regent’s Canal, so the Regent’s Canal Company elected to dam the River Brent. Under a 1819 Act of Parliament, the reservoir was completed as a source of water for the Paddington Basin.

The area’s recreational appeal was obvious. William Parker Warner, owner of the nearby Welsh Harp Inn, turned the area into a fashionable socialising resort in the late 1800s (he was so influential, the Reservoir is often called the Welsh Harp today).  As a result of the area’s popularity, the Midland Railway built a Welsh Harp Station, which operated from 1870 through 1903. The body of water also became an attraction for Victorian naturalists, and was featured in the 1866 book The Birds of Middlesex. Today, it is recognised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Landscape Urbanism has, to a large extent, been focused on post-industrial remediation.  At its core it represents the blending of engineering and landscape design in a synthesis that satisfies a variety of disparate criteria. In describing the work of West 8, Charles Waldheim describes their work as “imaginatively reordered relationships between ecology and infrastructure,”* which I think could similarly be used to describe the Brent Reservoir. On one hand, it made possible a key industrial transportation network, and on the other it created a spectacular habitat for wildlife and a recreational outlet for the rapidly growing city of London.

What is unfortunate about the site is that latter infrastructural investment in was focused on monofunctional improvements, mostly to the road network. The North Circular Road was built close to the south edge of the lake in the 1920s and the M1 was later built to the East. Both function as barriers to residents in the surrounding neighbourhoods and make it difficult to visit the lake and surrounding parkland. While there are walkways in the vicinity of these roads, they are clearly an afterthought- they are often hard to find and unsafe to use.  The image below is taken not far from where the Welsh Harp Station once stood.

The North Circular Road at the M1 Motorway
The North Circular Road at the M1 Motorway

What this part of London desperately needs is what Bruce Mau describes as a “radically different idea of the city- one that presents a synthesis of both man-made and the natural.”** We need more of the spirit of the Welsh Harp injected into the Brent Cross Shopping Centre, the M1 Motorway and the North Circular Road.

*Waldheim, Charles. “Landscape as Urbanism” in The Landscape Urbanism Reader (Charles Waldheim, editor), Princeton Architectural Press 2006, p. 45

**Mau, Bruce. “Design and the Welfare of All Life” in Design Ecologies (Lisa Tilder & Beth Blostein, editors), Princeton Architectural Press 2009, p. 24.

London WildWeb page about the Brent Reservoir

Castle Overload: a trip to Cardiff and Swansea, Wales

Wales has a slogan that is something along the lines of “Wales has more castles per square mile than probably anywhere else in the world.” While they do use the “probably,” (to avoid a lawsuit I’m sure) I did manage to see four of them on a three day trip last week.

The trip began with a short (about two hour) train ride from Paddington to Cardiff Central last Wednesday evening to meet up with my wife who had already arrived to attend a conference. Our hotel, cleverly named “Sleeperz” could not have been any closer to the train line running into the station:

Trains Near Cardiff Central Station

The hotel was actually very nice, and the location near the station is well-situated for walking around Cardiff. The windows were nearly soundproof, so the trains weren’t an issue and allowed me to see a wide variety of passenger trains that seemed to be far more eclectic than what you’d typically see in London.

I ventured to Cardiff Castle on my first full day in town. The first line of its Wikipedia entry summarises its history beautifully:

Cardiff Castle (Welsh: Castell Caerdydd) is a medieval castle and Victorian architecture Gothic revival mansion, transformed from a Norman keep erected over a Roman fort in Cardiff, the capital of Wales.

The Castle also has a small museum where a portion of the original Roman wall has been excavated, and there is a Welsh military museum in the basement. On the castle ground, the keep was (quite literally) the high point of my visit. It was once connected at high level to the outer wall, but when landscape architect Capability Brown was hired to re-plan the grounds approximatley 200 years ago he had many of the ancient structures on the site dismantled and had the moat around the keep filled in (it’s since been re-watered).

The Keep, Cardiff Castle

Moving indoors, the house at the Castle has seen the most drastic changes over the years. While Henry Holland made changes in the late 18th Centrury, it was the Third Marquess of Bute and his architect William Burges that reinvented it during the Victorian era. The lavish interiors have recently been restored to most of their original beauty. This tightly-cropped shot shows the ceiling in the “Arab Room,” which was often used as a guest bedroom:

Arab Room, Cardiff Castle

For a more complete history of Cardiff Castle, there is an excellent archeological summary here, provided by Cardiff University.

I spent most of the rest of the day wandering around Cardiff. It’s hard to miss Millenium Stadium by Populous Architects (formerly HOK Sport)- it’s wedged between the Taff River and the city. I’d probably like the stadium more if it weren’t for the fading coloured panels that encircle it, it already looks dated. In any case, here it is poking out from behind a number of other buildings:

Millenium Stadium

The rest of the day was a whirlwind tour of Victorian and Edwardian arcades:

Arcade in Cardiff

Followed by a trip to Cardiff Bay:

Millenium Centre and Surroundings

While nearly every photo of the Millenium Centre (designed by Capita Architecture) shows only the enormous front facade with Welsh lettering cut out of metal panels above the entrance, I think it’s important to show the surroundings. The area surrounding the development at Cardiff Bay is pretty decrepit, and I question spending so much money building a shopping/culture/entertainment area when there are numerous underused older buildings standing literally across the street. The Millenium Centre is not impressive as Architecture, it’s poorly detailed and built from a cacophony of external material that come together awkwardly at the corners:

Millenium Centre detail

The back of the building is a sea of red brick and security devices:

Security at the Millenium Centre

The high security is owing to it’s location next door to the Senedd, the National Assembly for Wales (by Richard Rogers):

National Assembly of Wales

I’ll reserve judgment on this building for now. I am sure it looks better in nicer weather, and I didn’t get to go inside.

The following day, I traveled via train to nearby Caerphilly where I saw Caerphilly Castle:

Caerphilly Castle Model

That’s not the real Castle, it’s a model that stands across the moat from the “real” thing:

Caerphilly Castle Water Defenses

The word real is in quotes because much of the castle was built in the 1930s as part of an extremely ambitious restoration (reconstruction) process funded by several of the Marquesses of Bute- the same family behind the work done at Cardiff Castle. Replica siege engines have been built, and the Great Hall has been restored. Not only were demolished buildings at the Castle rebuilt, a large part of the town that had grown up around the Castle walls was torn down in order to re-water the moat in the mid 20th Century. The Castle was originally built in the 1200s, and is one of the largest in the UK. It’s an early example of a concentric castle- the combination of outer walls and lakes would have made the castle very difficult to approach.

Caerphilly Castle

The next day, my wife and ventured over to Swansea, an hour from Cardiff by train. The remnants of a castle site next to a fountain and central square which had a temporary merry-go-round set up:

Central Plaza in Swansea

Note the exceptionally hideous BT Tower that sits directly behind the castle. It appeared that some condos were under construction about four metres from the side of the ruins as well, but it was hard to tell whether they’d been stalled by the recession or not.

We also ventured to Mumbles by bus. Mumbles (don’t you love the name) was a Victorian seaside resort and has the requisite pier to prove it. Too bad they couldn’t install some Old-Timey wrought iron CCTV cameras:

Mumbles Pier Entrance

Mumbles, in reality, has a history that stretches back far beyond the 1890s- the area has been inhabited for about 3,000 years. Neighbouring Oystermouth contains the ruins of a castle (aptly named Oystermouth Castle). We saw people in costumes running around inside and assumed they had broken in to play a role-playing game, but I later discovered that they were most likely rehearsing for one of the open air Shakespeare productions that take place inside during the summer.

Oystermouth Castle

I’ll leave you with a final image of “The Big Apple” in Mumbles, tragically damaged by a reckless driver (according to the bus driver who dropped us off there). It is supposedly under repair:

The Big Apple near Mumbles Pier

The House of the Future is in Your Pocket

In their short essay “But Today We Collect Ads” of 1956 Allison and Peter Smithson make the case that architecture has become irrelevant in the face of advertising:

“Gropius wrote a book on grain silos,
Le Corbusier one on aeroplanes,
And Charlotte Periand brought a new
object to the office every morning,
But today we collect ads.”

They incorporated the spirit of mid-century advertising into their work through their plastic “House of the Future” they prepared for the “This is Tomorrow” exhibit of 1956 (while proposed a seamless plastic home,  in reality it was even less substantial- the mockup was built by a contractor out of bits of wood and plaster and covered over with glossy paint).

Beatriz Colomina, in her essay about the House of the Future titled “Unbreathed Air 1956” quotes Allison Smithson:

“A house designed like a car is at some disadvantage, for the appliances would be so closely integrated into the structure, that to change the refrigerator would be like getting a larger glove compartment in a ‘Volkswagen’ dashboard—it would be simpler to get a new car.” (Colomina 37)

Colomina correctly points out “the house becomes expendable, a throwaway object” because it would be impossible to adapt it as the occupants’ needs changed. Architecture is now, in 1956, seen as a mass-produced commercial product. They were ready to move beyond the age of the monumental grain elevator and into a glossy, disposable future. The 1950s were a time of increasing prosperity in Britain as rationing came to an end. Colour magazines and television were available, and American consumer products were being imported along with the American idea of planned obsolescence (Andrew Jackson talks about this era in his Designing Britain series here).

Critic Reyner Banham was  similarly seduced by successful consumer goods- particularly American ones. Even more specifically, he is in love with self-contained gizmos like the outboard boat motor, transistor radios and portable welding kits. His essay “The Great Gizmo” goes as far as to praise Americans for one-upping Archimedes because “the American gizmo can get by without any infrastructure.” Banham praises devices that “leave craftsmanship behind at the factory” and attributes Sears and Roebuck to making the West “habitable and civilized.” This is all coming from a man who spent a large portion of his career writing about infrastructure, from grain elevators to the Los Angeles freeway system. “The Great Gizmo” was written in 1965, about a decade after the Smithsons’ piece.

Allison and Peter Smithson’s experimentation with a plastic future only lasted a brief moment, they returned/continued with Brutalism  (a term they had created just a few years earlier in 1954). This essay shows them struggling with societal change and architecture’s response by embracing the new. However, their resulting architectural output, their House of the Future, was nearly forgotten. The work that became best known and subsequently defined their place in architectural history were the heavy concrete buildings of the 1960s and 1970s:

Robin Hood Gardens, by Allison & Peter Smithson
Robin Hood Gardens, by Allison & Peter Smithson

Banham differs in his approach, as he deals with the consequences of technology in his essay. He points out the weakness of American domestic architecture when compared to industrial architecture conceived for production, and discusses the shortcoming of contemporary American cars built for the newly expanding freeways. In this instance, he accuses the infrastructure (the freeways) of causing the gizmos (the cars) to become dependent on them and therefore, worse. He points out that the temporary and unrefined nature of American homes may be a temporary phase until a “definitive shape… emerges to fix the style of the gizmo-residence.” He recognizes that the gizmo itself is intrinsically related to the rest of society.

While Banham readily admitted that there would ultimately be a form housing would take that would be complementary to technology, the Smithsons suggest embracing all that is new immediately and making a home that responds to the very minute. “Collecting ads” seems in actuality to be a call to embrace the consumerist impulse of the moment and build a world out of it.

The buildings the Smithsons built did not lend well to adaptation, and a lack of commitment to long term maitenance and government policy changes prevented Brutalist housing from living up to its potential. The Smithsons’ own Robin Hood Gardens is under threat of demolition and other Brutalist landmarks (the movement they named) have already been torn down. In some cases, they are being ‘regenerated’ by developers  (Own Heatherley tackles the regenerationof Park Hill in Sheffield in an excellent piece for The Gaurdian). In the end, the housing Allison and Peter Smithson built because as disposable in the eyes of the mass public as the House of the Future they suggested in the mid-1950s (though most people think Brutalism is fine for the wealthy and nobody is calling for the demolition of the Barbican). Many of the grain elevators they saw as relics of the past inthe 1950s will outlast Robin Hood Gardens.

Today, there is little discussion about what a House of the Future would look like- in fact, the most famous example (by Monsanto at Disneyland) dates from the 1960s and resides at The typical home of today in both Britain and the United States is still a traditional-looking shell (though often made of vinyl and fake brck) and enabled by technology. The gizmo has won out over the building and the “gizmo-residence” is anywhere with WiFi or 3G wireless service.

The iPod is the (present) ultimate in self-contained gadgets- it requires no hard-wired infrastructure connection, mouse, keyboard or peripherals. In fact, it doesn’t even provide you with a method for connecting them. While the Evinrude outboard motor that Banham loved may have allowed you to mount a motor on any boat with  little in the way of skill or tools, the iPhone is limited only by what software developers create for it (and manage to get approved by Apple, of course).  Banham focused on mechanical devices that did specific tasks and failed to see that in the future you wouldn’t need a “precise gadget” to deal with a variety of tasks- one gadget can now function as your phone, camera, research library, file cabinet, Rolodex and more. Social networked and augmented reality applications allow another world to be created on top of the physical one.  Banham believed the most futuristic home (circa 1965) was the recreational vehicle that allowed its residents to be endlessly mobile. Instead of needing a traveling home, we live our lives in virtual space enabled by a gizmo that fits in your shirt pocket. I think Reyner Banham would approve.

Today, you don’t need a new environment to live or work in. You just need a new application.

1. Alison and Peter Smithson, “The Appliance House,” Design (May 1958): 47. Reprinted in A. and P. Smithson, Changing, 116 cited in “Unbreathed Air 1956”  by Beatriz Colomina, MIT Press Grey Room Spring 2004, No. 15: p. 37. K. Beckman et al. ed.


Timber Frame Construction: What’s wrong in the UK?

I spotted this article in Building Magazine about insurers threatening to pull cover for timber frame buildings.This, combined with highly publicized recent fires in London on building sites in Camberwell and Peckham. While investigations are ongoing, the whole thing seems a bit strange to me. Nearly all non-high rise apartment buildings in California are timber frame, due to the high seismic performance, low cost and environmental benefits of this form of construction. At the job I worked at prior to moving to London, I was did construction administration on a site composed of 15 timber-framed buildings in Oakland, California. Despite the its location in a statistically high-crime, urban area, nobody considered building in timber a high-risk proposition.

Why is there paranoia about fire on construction sites in the UK, whereas it is not a problem in California?  I have a feeling it is because large construction sites in urban areas in California have security on the job site 24 hours a day. It is very common for large buildings to be constructed on tight urban sites up to five stories tall entirely out of timber. While arson may be more common in the UK, it seems that with proper alarm systems and supervision it is entirely possible to prevent these sort of incidents from happening. The benefits of timber construction seem too great to rule out the method due to poor implementation so far.The biggest part of the problem seems to be that timber is unfamiliar to many contractors, and proper precautions are not taken because the disconnect between timber frame contractors and the general contractor (on many jobs in the US, the lead contractor is responsible for the timber frame).

Timber Frame construction at Tassafaronga Village, Oakland CA
7 acres of Timber Frame construction at Tassafaronga Village, Oakland CA

Hopefully, many of these problems can be worked out. Interest in this type of construction in the UK is high in light of the desire to reduce CO2 in construction- it seemed that innovative methods of timber construction were everywhere at last week’s Ecobuild conference here in London.

Timber frame under construction in Oakland
Timber frame under construction in Oakland

A Seaside Weekend: The Isle of Wight and Portsmouth, in Photos

Southsea, near Portsmouth

The first stop on our weekend getaway was the last stop on the National Express coach, Southsea. After a brief stop at Portsmouth (which is only about a 10 minute drive away, at most) where all of the other passengers except for my wife and me disembarked, the coach pulled up in front of a vaguely futuristic but well-worn strip of buildings with a small amusement park behind them. While the overall aesthetic is mid-century futuristic, I was most impressed by the “Jurassic 3001” sign that looked to be in an advanced state of decay and was adorned with a CCTV camera:
Jurassic 3001

Because the pier at Southsea isn’t very big, its certainly not an attraction in itself (for more thorough coverage of English seaside decay, take a look at this post on Fantastic Journal or this one at Mondo a-go-go). The real attraction in Southsea is the hovercraft! I was thrilled when I discovered it was possible to take a hovercraft to the Isle of Wight, and it is quite a bit cheaper than the other ferry. Unfortunately, the interior of the hovercraft left a lot to be desired and made the National Express coach seem fairly luxurious in comparison. It also reeked of diesel.

Aisle of Wight Hovercraft

Still, floating on a cushion of air across the sea at high speed is pretty cool.

The hovercraft lands in the town of Ryde. It is the largest town on the Isle of Wight, with a population of around 30,000. The hovercraft, being the technological marvel that it is, sets you down on dry land and bypasses the adjacent pier (in the background above). It’s the 4th longest pier in the UK and also one of the oldest, which has earned it listed status. It’s from this pier that you can take the “train” (yes, it’s actually part of the National Rail network) 8 1/2 miles around the eastern part of the island:

Island Line Train

You may recognize the carriages, they are retired 1938 London Undground stock. They run two at a time on a single track to 8 stops.

Disembarking in Sandown, many shops seemed to be closed. There are lots of tourist gift places, shoe stores, and restaurants that I wouldn’t want to eat at. There was also this person trying to sell their dogs via a sign on the door of a shop:

Dogs for Sale, Isle of Wight

After an unfortunate experience with the B&B we booked, we ended up at the decidedly non-luxurious but clean Sandringham Hotel. It faces the beach and the staff members have to wear nautical uniforms while serving breakfast, so it was nearly perfect (despite the avocado green bathtub with a spot of duct tape and the lack of a shower). There was a cover band playing to a very small crowd at the bar, the whole scene pulled from a yet-to-be-made Christopher Guest film.

The best thing to do on the Isle of Wight, now that the Wax Works/ Brading Experience has closed, is to either visit English Heritage sites, go hiking or watch documentaries in your hotel room about thatched cottages. We did all of these things. Osborne House, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s gorgeous island home, was spectacular:

Wrapped Statues at the Osborne House

I was particularly impressed with the wrapped statues, as I have started to collect photos of them. If you are interested in going to Osborne House in the winter, make reservations ahead of time. You must be a guided tour and they are limited to groups of 20. The upstairs was closed for repairs. There are more of my photos of the house here on Flickr.

Then it was on to Carisbrooke Castle in Carisbrooke, near Newport. It was restored in the Victorian era and is also an English Heritage site. Located at the top of a hill, the castle offers spectacular views of the surrounding towns and countryside.

Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight

One of the things it is best known for is the well that is powered by a donkey walking on a wheel. There are a few demonstrations each day. Here is the obligatory photo:

Carisbrooke Castle Donkey

From there it was off to the west of the Isle for a hike across Tennyson Down, where the poet used to walk on a daily basis. There is a large monument to Lord Tennyson at the highest point on the walk, which is particularly impressive late in the day. This photo could be straight out of a Christian inspirational calendar:

Tennyson Down, Isle of Wight

We continued walking to the end of the Island and saw the famous Needles:

The Needles, Isle of Wight

On the way out of the park after seeing the Needles, I couldn’t resist this amazing front yard display. Note the many messages to visitors:

Front Yard Display, near The Needles

The following day was less cooperative, as far as the weather was concerned. After a brief stop at the Brading Roman Villa it was back to the mainland. Portsmouth, which has accurately but not very creatively chosen to call itself “The Waterfront City” (as if it were the only one) has attempted to re-brand itself with a massive seafront regeneration project known as Gunwharf Quays:

Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth

That tower in the background is a tower that you can’t miss, mostly because it is so ugly. One of many oval-shaped residential towers with blue glass to sprout up around the world in recent years, it is known as “No. 1 Gunwharf Quays” and was designed by architects Scott Brownrigg to resemble a funnel (I can only imagine the crit you would get in architecture school with an idea that brilliant). The other tall thing in the regeneration area is the Spinnaker, a ridiculous folly that attempts to compete with Dubai (at half-scale) and has had a broken lift since its opening nearly five years ago:

The Spinnaker from Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth

As if going the Cadbury (Kraft?) and Marks and Spencer Outlet shops wasn’t exciting enough, you can sip your Costa cappuccino while admiring this jauntily-painted World War II torpedo:

Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth

While Gunwharf Quays has been branded as a total success, it is hard to see what it is doing for the rest of the city. It’s not well connected to the city center for the pedestrian, and the massive underground car-park promotes the overall suburban feel. Most of the shops are interchangeable with what you would find at any other similar mall elsewhere in the world. I am sure it’s been a financial success for the developer, though I’m not sure 2009 was the best time to open a high-end residential tower in a struggling city. While the overall development has opened up the waterfront to the public (it was formerly a naval base) you never escape the feeling that you are in a shopping mall.

I couldn’t possibly say it better than this CABE case study: It is a collection of experiences that brings together various types of housing in a carefully considered, safe environment…

As soon as you leave the front gate it’s back to reality:

Portsmouth- view from the Hard Interchange

Housing Showdown: Donnybrook Quarter and Robin Hood Gardens

Donnybrook Quarter is a recent award-winning low-rise scheme in Bow, London (map) by Peter Barber Architects, seen by many as as the antidote to the modernist tower and built as mixed-tenure housing for a social landlord. Robin Hood Gardens is a well-known and oft-disparaged brutalist structure from the 1970s by Alison & Peter Smithson, stretched out over a huge site in two imposing concrete blocks. While the proposed demolition of Robin Hood Gardens has set off a controversy that became more about ideology that the merits of the building itself, how does it compare to a Stirling Prize shortlisted housing scheme of the past five years? I visited both East London sites this past weekend and took a look around.

Donnybrook Quarter Axo
Donnybrook Quarter, drawing by Peter Barber Architects
Robin Hood Gardens axo by Kenny Baker, courtesy NY Times
Robin Hood Gardens drawing by Kenny Baker, courtesy NY Times

While Donnybrook Quarter is often called “high density” (one example is in this award statement from the AIA) it’s interesting to note that Robin Hood Gardens is facing demolition for not being dense enough (compared to the proposed redevelopment), yet both projects have a very similar unit count per acre: 45 units per acre at Donnybrook (published figure) and approximately 50 units per acre at RHG (calculated density). The first thing one notices upon entering the Donnybrook Quarter site is its density, it may be low-rise but it definitely feels tightly packed:

Donnybrook Quarter central street
Donnybrook Quarter central street

Front windows are on the pavement, and aside from some sparse planting strips there is no transition at the building facades, in contrast to many traditional terrace house typologies in England (though Victorian terraces are often built right at the street edge) or townhouses in US cities like New York where there is usualy a stoop or small front garden. This lack of transition in front of the houses means that people have done little to personalise them as the public zone starts at your front door. The private space provided on the small balconies  play into Barber’s frequent quoting of Walter Benjamin and his ideas about using building as a stage, but I would be surprised if they are ever actually animated by human activity as they are extremely small and exposed. The shops at the main street edge are a welcome feature and they help to give more personality to scheme as a whole through their signage and window displays.

Density at Robin Hood Gardens is created by concentrating the housing units in two residential blocks, which flank a large central green space to shelter it from the surrounding traffic. The site is essentially a large traffic island, with the Blackwall Tunnel approach on one side and a multi-lane road with buses on the other (Google Map). Open space was required in the program given to the the Smithsons, and their solution was a very effective way to achieve it while still maintaining a high enough unit count to meet the design brief. The original program also called for maximum sound levels of 50 DBA during the day and and 35 DBA at night, which resulted in a street edge that looks like this:

Robin Hood Gardens, Cotton Street elevation
Robin Hood Gardens, Cotton Street elevation

Another element called for in the brief was parking, which is located in a “moat” behind the concrete sound wall and beneath the building:

Parking at Robin Hood Gardens
Parking at Robin Hood Gardens

A solution that put the parking entirely under the buildings would have been preferable, as the current layout makes it difficult to approach the building from the sidewalk. Visitors need to walk to one end or the other to cross the sunken parking area and then walk around the blocks to reach the open space at the centre of the site. The central garden is enormous, and welcome considering the amount of traffic the surrounding area. A massive flock of birds took to the air as I approached the constructed hill at its centre- I can’t stress what an impression this makes when you walk into the garden from the south. The hill and trees planted on it create a third edge for the courtyard and make it feel secluded from the surrounding city. The site would be improved by incorporating more programmed space in the courtyard like a picnic area, better play areas, and allotment gardens for residents, as it doesn’t seem to be very heavily used at present.

Robin Hood Gardens open space
Robin Hood Gardens open space

Looking back to Donnybrook Quarter, I was expecting to be blown away by its pristine whiteness based, as most of the published photos of the project seem to emphasize this contrast with the surrounding brick construction. In reality, after a four years of exposure to East London air quality and visits by neighbourhood taggers, a bit of the shine has worn off.

Donnybrook Quarter street view
Donnybrook Quarter street view

Most of the paint has peeled off the steel balcony rails, and some of the render has been painted over and/or damaged, resulting in a uneven surface finish. When I saw this project published a few years ago, I questioned how a white render exterior finish would survive at street level in London. The answer? Not well. The colour is attributed to a desire for light to reach deep into tight corners in Ellis Woodman’s review of the project in Building Design, but I think it’s a purely stylistic choice for Peter Barber, as it is a frequently recurring theme is his work and he speaks of the influence of Alvaro Siza in shaping his design sensibilities. While this colour scheme and material choice may work well on a Portuguese hillside, it is inappropriate for a high-traffic site in the middle of East London.

Many of the most frequent criticisms of Robin Hood Gardens involve issues of maintenance that are out of the realm of the architect’s responsibility, and the Tower Hamlets council has been accused of avoiding work on the building to encourage residents to move out. Upon visiting the site, the building itself doesn’t look  bad considering the obvious lack of care it has received over the years. While some people may not appreciate concrete, it is certainly more durable and retains most of its original appearance more than thirty years on. Many of the painted bits obviously need care, and the interior public spaces have always been problematic (see Nicolai Ossolouf’s piece in the NY Times for more on this) but overall the complex has not aged poorly, all things being considered. It is easy for people to point at trash or graffiti and claim that it was somehow the fault of the architecture, but this is usually symptomatic of social and economic issues not design choices. In fact, it even happens at celebrated and progressive new mixed-tenure developments:

Trash-filled stairway at Donnybrook Quarter
Trash-filled stairway at Donnybrook Quarter

Both projects approach housing design from a very different standpoint, both theoretically and materially. With proper maintenance and upgrades, Robin Hood Gardens could be made viable for generations to come. The density could be increased without compromising the original design (or tearing it down completely) through careful architectural intervention. Donnybrook Quarter has some obvious shortcomings, but overall it is a welcome change from most of the other housing that has gone up in the area. Peter Barber has created a new typology that still needs some fine-tuning, but is otherwise a smart update to the traditional terrace house.  I think each of these projects could have stood to incorporate pieces of the other within their designs- a smaller garden with more intimate spaces would have helped at Robin Hood Gardens and more durable materials and some permeable landscaping would have been nice to see at Donnybrook.

Full photo set of both projects on Flickr

The Euston Arch, Po-Pomo and Japan

A recent discussion on Twitter led me to think about the practice of reconstructing buildings that have been demolished. There are currently discussions about rebuilding the Euston Arch in London. It once stood as a gateway to the North, as Euston Station was the terminus of the London and Birmingham Railway, and it mirrored a similar arch at the other end of the line in Birmingham. Demolished when the station was rebuilt in the 1960s, it has been a sore issue amongst architectural preservationists for the past fifty years. Many people actively tried to save the Arch at the time, but were unsuccessful as British Rail was determined to move forward with plans for the new station and relocating the Arch would have cost them far more than demolishing it.

Interest in rebuilding the arch gained favour after Dan Cruickshank, an architectural historian, professor and BBC television presenter, discovered its remains in the River Lea in the East End. Cruickshank founded the Euston Arch Trust. This organisation’s goal is to rebuild the arch at Euston, most likely as part of the planned station redevelopment. There is a heavily produced video (with music) of the proposed redevelopment of the area by Sydney and London Properties here.

Proposed Rebuilt Euston Arch (image: The Euston Arch Trust)

My initial reaction to the idea of rebuilding the arch was that it was an absurd waste of resources- let the past be the past, accept that it is gone and move on.  In the aforementioned Twitter discussion, Will Wiles went even further- he’s proposed a counter-campaign to re-demolish the arch, complete with T-shirts.

Rebuilding the arch  Post-Postmodernism to me: a piece of non-ironic yet nostalgic pastiche that takes liberties while framing itself in an air of authenticity. It is symptomatic of what Raoul Eshelman defines as performatism in his essay “Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism“. While Eshelman’s sole architectural example is Sir Norman Foster’s Reichstag in Berlin, I believe a reconstructed Euston Arch would fit the bill precisely because it is being promoted as “real” – and not merely a historicist recreation of the past. By dredging the river and incorporating actual stones, the rebuilt arch results in exactly the type of  “perfomative, authorial framing” Eshelman refers to in his essay. I am not particularly a fan of Post-Postmodernism, so this certainly does not swing me over to the side of the rebuilders.

On the other hand, there is a precedent for recreating buildings that I have always found fascinating. The Ise Shrine in Japan is rebuilt every twenty years, in exactly the same manner and materials each time. The new shrine is built adjacent to the old one and then the old one is dismantled when the new one is complete. The present shrine is the 61st iteration, and a new one is due in 2013. By rebuilding, the shrine is always new yet is ancient at the same time.

Main shrine building - Naiku, from Wikipedia
Main shrine building - Naiku, from Wikipedia

Perhaps the Euston Arch is operating on a slightly different cycle, and instead of the overlap experienced at Ise, there is a lag where the Arch disappears only to make a triumphant return after a lengthy absence?  The Euston Arch could always be new upon its appearance, and watching it be demolished would be part of its rebirth.

On a final note, I am somewhat sympathetic to rebuilding because I admittedly enjoy a number of buildings that have been built out of their proper historic context. This Frank Lloyd Wright-designed boathouse in Buffalo, New York was built long after FLW passed away. Designed for a site in Wisconsin in 1905, it was built in Buffalo in 2007 (and it’s not the only Wright reconstruction in the area) and my wedding reception was held here last summer. Architects don’t build their buildings, architects produce drawings for someone else to use to construct a building. This mediated relationship to the final product means that you don’t really need to see the artist’s hand in the work- rebuilding a building, if done properly, is not much different than building the original and is far different from recreating a painting or sculpture which is dependant on the presence of the artist. Perhaps if Preston’s gorgeous brutalist bus station is demolished, we could rebuild it at Euston as well?

The FL Wright-designed boathouse in Buffalo
The FL Wright-designed boathouse in Buffalo