The Opposite View Corridors of London

Lately there has been a lot of talk about the view of St. Paul’s and how the construction of Renzo Piano’s Shard tower is ruining the view from from Parliament Hill– one of the sacred view corridors of London (defined in Protecting London’s strategic views).

But what about the opposite view? Instead of looking AT St. Paul’s, what about the view looking AWAY from St. Paul’s? The path that takes one to the Thames from St. Paul’s is a highly-designed affair that leads down Peter’s Hill to the Millennium Bridge and the Tate Modern beyond. It’s a beautiful axial relationship reinforced through a clever landscape design by Charles Funke Associates that creates a variety of well-used public spaces. The long straight sightline afforded by this relationship allows the sort of visual alignment not often seen in London’s organic street pattern. Let’s take a look now- what is in this view?

The View to the Tate Modern from St. Paul's
The View to the Tate Modern from St. Paul's, now with Strata Tower

Yes. Strata Tower is directly the Tate. Not just any tower but a building voted as Britain’s worst of 2010. I’m not sure how I didn’t notice this before but I was quite disappointed when I did.

On Notetaking and Thrilling Wonder Stories II

Yesterday I attending a portion of Thrilling Wonder Stories II at the Architectural Association. The Cautionary Tales segment I sat in on included author Jeff VanderMeer, author Will Self and artist-author Paul Duffield.

Will Self made a habit of walking from central London to Heathrow Airport and then walking from his destination airport to his final goal. His most recent book titled Walking to Hollywood is a product of the activity of taking long walks, and in title alone points to the somewhat ridiculous nature of the project: nobody walks to Hollywood, except for Will Self.

His reading from this book was a segment that takes place in San Francisco, my home for six years, and was an internal dialogue of a man walking to the Golden Gate Bridge from his Union Square hotel room. Vividly described from the perspective of a person who has clearly been there and done his research, it was a thrilling account of the lure of the bridge (and large objects in general).

When Liam Young, one of the organisers of the event, asked for questions via Twitter I responded perhaps a bit too quickly, asking if Self took many notes while he was walking. I assumed he did take notes about his journeys and I expected him to use this as an opportunity to discuss his process for recording a long walk. Instead, he somewhat flippantly blew off the question and said “well, duh…. of course I take notes, I am a writer” and ridiculed the asking of the question- which resulted in most of the audience being too intimidated to ask anything else.

The brevity of Twitter certainly does not allow for the sort of question I was trying to get at. What I should have asked is “what is your process for creating a record of your long walks? Do you walk and write at the same time, or do you take photos and stop to compile notes every so often? Do you make a timeline?” Those are the sort of things I was hoping he would delve into.

The Thrilling Wonder Stories event itself is the perfect illustration of how the process of note-taking and recording has changed dramatically in recent years. While the presenters sat in the middle of the room, the gathered crowd took video and photos with cameras and mobile phones, some took notes and made sketches on paper, while others live-blogged on their iPads or sent cryptic Twitter posts that described the event in real time on a multitude of screens set up around the venue. All of these events created a worldwide feed of multi-channel information that presented the event from a multitude of perspectives. Many people no longer take traditional notes but rely on a combination of these new technologies to set up their own multimedia records of their experience, which may or may not be translated into a more traditional written record at a later date.

I admire Will Self as a writer and think he missed a good opportunity to expand upon his thoughts on how technology has changed the way people process and record the world around them. I should have guessed he is a traditionalist is his own writing practice seeing that he has derided the introduction of the internet to public libraries (and I must admit I did enjoy his rant about gadgets on his blog). He started yesterday’s talk by asking how many people in the room had been to the mouth of the Thames, and very few hands went up. Many more had viewed photos of it. He then conveyed the importance of walking and of actually experiencing the 360 degree reality of visiting places and seeing them at a slow pace, yet I am more interested in how you translate those experiences for your own record and for others.

FAT Saturday: Thornton Heath Library & The Museum of Croydon

Thornton Heath Library

Facing a weekend with nothing to do for the first time in ages, yesterday I set off to see the newly refurbished Thornton Heath Library by FAT Architects (or, more formally: Fashion Architecture Taste). It was also a good excuse to venture south of the Thames, something I don’t often do. Thornton Heath is close to Croydon’s town centre, accessible by rail after a long Tube journey from where I live in Northwest London.

Thornton Heath Library

Like many parts of outer London, Thornton Heath has a scrubby (yet bustling) high street that tapers off into nondescript semi-detached housing as one walks away from the station. The library is located in the fringe area where commercial has tapered to residential, yet is positioned so that FAT’s cast-concrete supergraphics are visible through the forest of shop fronts on the high street (see photo above).

Thornton Heath Library

The original building was constructed as a Carnegie Library in 1914. Like most of these libraries, it was built with a formal front entrance and raised off the ground by a flight of stairs. FAT’s design reorients the building around a new glass-enclosed entrance pavilion with a highly visible public reading room inside. The accessibility of the entrance is made into a design statement, as the new wheelchair ramp intentionally cuts off the original entrance which now sits behind it and is stranded above ground level (cue up a Colin Rowe-inspired discussion of phenomenal versus literal transparency here). If I had one criticism of this part of the building, the glass balustrade combined with white concrete makes all of the leaves and rubbish trapped between them incredibly visible from the street.

Thornton Heath Library

The extension of the reading room allows the interior of the building to feel much more spacious that it must have in its previous incarnation. People were actively using this area, taking advantage of the comfortable and well-selected furniture to enjoy a newspaper and watch the world go by. The windows themselves are huge and divided by wood mullions that are sympathetic to the oak furniture and hardwood flooring. They are much nicer than what it typically installed on public design-build projects.

Thornton Heath Library Interior

While the original entrance has been permanently sealed, the interior finishes and skylight have been restored to their original glory over what was originally the entrance lobby and is now a reading and browsing area. The incorporation of the original detail within the context of a vastly improved plan and circulation strategy shows the value of a carefully-considered renovation over a new-built library.

Thornton Heath Library Interior

Aside from the well-chosen stand alone furniture, the furniture integrated into the shelves in the library stacks was a fantastic touch and very much in-tune with the way people look for books. I’m surprised this sort of arrangement is not more common, because it is ideal for browsing.

Thornton Heath Library Interior

The children’s library and public meeting room are both located on the lower level, accessible by a delightful light-filled stair that hugs the original exterior wall. The children’s reading room opens on to a deck with a grassy yard beyond. Rather than simply denoting the space for children with primary colours and a ‘fun’ carpet, the room is well-proportioned and the access to the outdoors makes it a special space separate from the rest of the library. It was incredibly well-used on the day of my visit. I did not photograph the children’s library because, being an adult man with no child in tow I was certain it would raise some sort of alarm.

Thornton Heath Library Interior

The one strange thing about the rear of the building was an American suburban-style picket fence that I can only guess was a Health & Safety inspired addition to keep kids from climbing the lush and inviting hill beyond:

Thornton Heath Library

Many older public buildings do not meet modern needs, but the sort of careful (yet not timid) approach shown by FAT both reinforces both the importance of building re-use and of the necessity for the involvement of talented architects in making great public buildings. Education Secretary Michael Gove’s attacks on architects for creaming off ‘huge’ fees on school design and refurbishment projects seems particularly off-target when one encounters a public building such as this that has benefited immensely from good design.

The Museum of Croydon

The Museum of Croydon is tucked away inside the Croydon Clocktower, a Grade I listed building built in the 1890s and designed by Charles Henman Jun. It holds a variety of cultural amenities and is adjacent to the Croydon Town Hall.

The Museum of Croydon

The museum tells the story of Croydon as told through objects. It doesn’t have many timelines, pictures or detailed maps (aside from one introductory display on land ownership and key roads) but instead is organised into rooms by era with corresponding items from the collection. FAT humorously labelled the entrance ‘then’ and ‘now’ which implies (unlike many museum displays) that there is no correct order in which you should view the displays.

The Museum of Croydon

The interior of the museum is very dark, which is accentuated by the grey matte plastic surfaces that mimic a variety of other materials like gilded picture frames or fabric. The objects are typically displayed in single item clear enclosures with a small and very difficult to read tag on each item. The descriptions border on cryptic in many cases. There is also a touch-screen display that accompanies each small group of objects, but the information on the computer mimics the minimal content of the wall tags.

The Museum of Croydon

The displays are well-designed, and as an ensemble the interior of the museum is gorgeous to look at. Unfortunately, I don’t feel like I learned much about Croydon from my visit. While there was some information about the Blitz, it was very general and didn’t go beyond the information you could learn about many other British cities during World War II. Similarly, the Commodore computer from the Croydon library looks remarkably like every other Commodore computer sold around the world during the same era. While I conceptually get the point about telling the story of a place through objects, I think its unfortunate that so little of the story of the place is really told here. Croydon’s high-rise skyline makes it a peculiar place and I’d like to know more about why it turned out that way.

The collection of the museum is not a shortcoming on the part of the architects, I think the Museum staff should have considered more effective ways to tell the story of the city through these objects. The abundance of computer technology within the exhibition spaces could allow for a much richer experience if more information was provided.

Additional photos for both the library and museum can be found on my Flickr stream.

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

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

Brian Sewell: I don’t care what Clement Greenberg thinks about Arshile Gorky

In an article for today’s London Evening Standard titled Mother’s Boy art reviewer Brian Sewell discusses the new show at the Tate Modern, Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective. In a review that reveals far more about Sewell’s artistic preferences than the contents of the show, he states that Gorky, who escaped the Aremenian genocide as a young man by fleeing to New York, “was neither well-taught in the technical sense nor exposed to long traditions and established stimuli that could convert him from provincial fumlber into metropolitan genius.”

Basically, if you weren’t part of the European aristocracy, why bother? Stating that Gorky was “aware of Picasso, presumably from illustrated magazines rather than direct experience” shows the height of Sewell’s ignorance, as European modern art was frequently shown in New York during the 1920s and 1930s. The Museum of Modern Art in New York was founded in 1929, and private galleries were regularly showing cubist work during this era. I have a hard time believing a young painter living in the city at that time would not have sought out a single Picasso painting by the mid 1930s.  By 1937 a major show of twenty years worth of his paintings was on view at Jacques Seligman & Co., and in 1939 MoMA mounted a large retrospective of his work.

Sewell also goes to great lengths to criticise Gorky’s work as being derivative, going as far as calling his earlier canvases “dim-witted imitations.” I think the same could probably be said of the early work of many painters, and for a man his early twenties at the time I don’t think it’s unreasonable for his work to show the influence of the great painters of the day.

The review condescendingly goes on to say of his experience being promoted to mentor at the Grand Central School of Art “I suspect the school was less grand than its name suggests.” The school was an artists’ cooporative, and was run out of New York’s Grand Central Station for twenty years starting in 1924. Founded by John Singer Sargent (one of the finest portraitists of the early 20th century) and Daniel Chester French (sulptor of the Lincoln Memorial and designer of the Nobel Prize medal), students included as diverse a crowd as Norman Rockwell, Stuart Davis and Willem de Kooning.

Gorky is given credit for his drawings in the review, but it certainly gets under Mr. Sewell’s skin that he is regarded as a painter in any way. In fact, he blantently says Gorky did not know what he was doing and credits his fame to the “jabberwocky-driven critic Clement Greenberg.” Sewell’s antagonism towards Greenberg leads him to dismiss the importance of the influence Gorky had on the art world of the 1940s and 1950s (including de Kooning and Jackson Pollack), which alone in itself makes Gorky’s work worthy of a major retrospective.

In his 1964 essay “The Myth of Originality in Contemporary Art”  in the Art Journal, David Hare writes:  “To my mind, Gorky became at the end of his life, far more original than the Abstract-Expressionists that followed him” and then goes on to say “Gorky’s was not as original as the work of Jackson Pollack, but much more interestingly so, since Gorky became original in the face of art history, which he loved.” This is key to understanding the importance of his work: he successfully negotiated his way out from under the weight of the baggage of pre-war art and created something that was almost unbelievably new. It is unfortunate that it took him a long time to do this, and that he departed from the world at the age of 44.

Arshile Gorky’s late work is amazing in the way it dissolves surrealist imagery into beautifully composed non-figurative gesture. I was transfixed by one of his finest works, “The Liver is the Cock’s Comb,” which I used to stare at on every visit to the Albright-Knox Art Museum in Buffalo where I grew up. I have no doubt you won’t regret that you “paid a tenner” (to use Mr. Sewell’s phrase) to see the show, I am very much looking forward to it myself.

The Liver is the Cock's Comb
The Liver is the Cock's Comb, by Arshile Gorky (1944); Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo NY

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

Recent Books: Leadville, Concrete Island & The Architecture of Happiness

I haven’t posted on here in a long time, so what better way to get back into my blog than with a brief recap of three books I’ve read this month.

Leadville by Edward Platt – This book was suggested to be back when I was living in San Francisco when I told someone in London where I was going to be living. Little did I know how fitting this would be.

Leadville is subtitled “A biography of the A40” and tells the story of Western Avenue in London. Edward Platt, the author, looks into the lives of the people living beside this extremely busy commuter road. As he begins to interview the residents, he quickly realizes that he has stumbled into the tail end of a decades-long project to move the residents out of their houses to accomodate the widening of the road. While to an outsider it may look like a vision of hell, living practically on top of a motorway, as he talked with many of the long-time residents he realized that many of them were not in a hurry to leave. He also encounters squatters and a variety of other more transient residents, including temporarily-housed council tenants who don’t know where they will go when they are finally forced to leave. Platt also delves into the history of development in West London and looks at how it differed from the development of similar communities in the United States. All in all, an excellent book to read if you want to learn about the development of suburban London in the 20th Century and the politics of roads. My own existence in London is centered very close to a number of roads that closely resemble the A40, as does the residential architecture of my neighbourhood.

The North Circular Road in London at dusk
The North Circular Road in London at dusk

Concrete Island by JG Ballard – I had never read Ballard before picking up this book at the local library. I realized that if I was going to be an architect and live in the UK, I needed to read Ballard as he has been a huge influence in understanding the urban built environment. Ballard has never been as popular in the US as he is in his native country, though I’m still surprised at myself that I hadn’t picked it up.

Concrete Island tells the story of a wealthy 35 year-old architect (okay, you can already tell it’s a work of fiction) who goes off the road on his commute home from Central London and finds himself trapped on a traffic island.

Influenced by the recent development of urban motorways (the book dates to the early 1970s) and Ballard’s childhood love of Robinson Crusoe, the book reads as plausible, despite the unlikeliness of it actually occuring, due to the visceral style in which it is written. This was the perfect follow-up to Leadville because it gets at many of the same points dealing with the alienation caused by the modern vehicular landscape created in the second half of the 20th Century. The psychological implications of being trapped in this landscape are explored in a fascinating and sometimes disturbling manner.

The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton – I should start this off by saying that this is the type of book I never would have read, had they not happened to have it at the library down the street. It was actually one of the only books in the “Architecture” section that wasn’t about remodeling your kitchen. While I’ve seen this author’s name all over the place for the past few years, I hadn’t actually read anything of his save for a magazine article.

This book was a definite counterpoint to the other two. Platt and Ballard spend their entire books essentially describing the design of dystopia, while Alain de Botton seeks to find the secrets to what makes people happy in architecture.

The main problem with the book is its very premise – it’s not really a building’s job to make us happy. In fact, after studying architecture as an art student in undergraduate art history classes, attending graduate school to study architecture, and spending several years practicing architecture, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word “happiness” used in the context of architecture, except for this book.

De Botton likes the English city of Bath, some modern houses (if they have a touch of the traditional), and staying at historic Japanese inns. He dislikes Corbusier’s urban planning, fake Tudor houses with plastic beams, and poorly-proportioned residential skyscrapers. He never posits much of a theory as to what the “architecture of happiness” actually is. He also fails to recognize that for a variety of reasons, not all of the world should be designed to be happy.

While de Botton wishes London could have been as beautiful as Paris, he never mentions the immense upheaval caused by Hausmann as he forced his boulevards through the city (nor the alternative motives behind their creation). As nice as modern-day Paris may be (and as happy as it may make the author) happiness had very little to do with the redesign of the city in the 19th Century.This is same fault that I found throughout the book – it doesn’t dig very deep and relies on a fairly simple understanding of architecture and architectural history.

The book fails on many levels, but it may be a good introduction to architecture for someone browsing the library for a book on remodeling his or her kitchen.