Disasterville in the Cotswolds

I was looking at the town of Moreton-in-Marsh on Google Maps and discovered this area of strange-looking streets that clearly looks like an airport. It turns out this was a base for Wellington Bombers during World War II, and after the war it was converted into the Fire Service College where fire brigades from around the UK can go for training. The facilities guide on their website is great- it provides a 3D view of the site with various incident-training site identified, simulating almost any disaster you can imagine. Facilities include a ship, a high-rise, a stricken Boeing 737 and the M96 motorway- a fictional motorway for “simulated large vehicle incidents.”

Fire Service Training College
Photo by Chris Juden on Flickr (Some rights reserved)

In the heart of the Cotswolds, there is a new disaster brewing every day.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh meets summer skiing in Glasgow

House for an Art Lover

Adding to the growing worldwide trend of building works by famous architects long after their deaths, Glasgow has a relatively recently-built version of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s “House for an Art Lover.” Designed in 1901, and built between 1989 and 1996, the project was originally designed for a German ideas competition but was disqualified for being submitted late.

House for an Art Lover

With many of the interiors built from perspective sketches done by Mackintosh, the building presents an opportunity to experience a famous historical building that never existed (until now). What I found most interesting about the project was its context. While it is set in a lush park, the most obvious feature of the site is the artificial ski hill across the parking area.

Fake ski hill, Glasgow

Snowboarding on fake plastic “snow” at the side of a damp car park within the city limits of Glasgow is no more strange than touring a building constructed from competition sketches 60 years after the architect’s death. Both experiences require a similar suspension of disbelief and a willingness to admit that authenticity is not necessarily important if one accepts the limitations of the simulation.

Favela Chic, Gothic High-Tech or The Suburban Ideal: Bruce Sterling & Sean Griffiths on the Future

After reading Kazys Varnelis’ syllabus for the fall semester at Columbia, I was compelled to go back and read Bruce Sterling’s lecture given at Transmediale 10 in Berlin earlier this year, as published by Wired, titled Atemporality for the Creative Artist. I also read an essay by Sean Griffiths, of FAT Architecture, on the future of housing in the UK titled Back to the Future: Staying with the Suburban Ideal (link opens as a PDF) written in 2004 with revisions in 2007.

Bruce Sterling lays out atemporality- we are at the transition into a new era. At the close of postmodernism, advanced societies are slowly collapsing (Gothic High-Tech) and others are chaotically rising (Favela Chic). This passage sums it up perfectly:

The situation now is one of growing disorder. A failed state, a potentially failed globe, a collapsed WTO, a collapsed Copenhagen, financial collapses, lifeboat economics, transition to nowhere. Historical narrative, it is simply no longer mapped onto the objective facts of the decade. The maps in our hands don’t match the territory, and that’s why we are upset.

Society is treading water. People will look to a variety of pasts, which Sterling points out we can see in fashions today like steampunk, and collage them with the present and the future. Atemporality will last ten years, and then expire- as something new will come along to replace it. Sterling’s point in this essay is that we should have fun with the era while it lasts. Why not live out your own future? Why not decorate your house like it’s 1750 or pretend you are an astronaut? You’re probably going to spend time unemployed as the economy goes through a massive restructuring and the jobs never come back anyway.

Sean Griffiths’ essay looks at 2024 and the state of housing in the UK. This prediction conveniently happens after the 10 years Sterling has allocated for atemporality are up. His predictions are based on a very similar scenario of advancing network technology and the partial collapse of the systems we have grown used to: travel has become prohibitively expensive, privatisation has taken over all aspects of government, and those that can afford to flee the city have done so as they no longer http://onhealthy.net/product-category/sleeping-aids/ need to be there to work. Climate refugees have arrived from other parts of the world that have become uninhabitable.

Local communities become more tightly knit as people spend more time socialising in their neighbourhoods. The English front yard becomes a more social space, thanks to traditions borrowed from immigrant groups. The suburbs become far more diverse, and at the same time the loft developments and open plan living spaces built in inner cities in the 1990s and 2000s become filled by recent immigrants with multigenerational families who run home-based businesses: favela chic comes to the urban bachelor pad. Everyone is plugged into the network, yet technology doesn’t define peoples’ lives or surroundings. In fact, the housing of the 2020s incorporates many historical English traditions like half-timbering, shingles and bay windows while still accommodating subtle hints of immigrant cultures. Network culture is collaged with architectural ornament that references the Middle Ages.

What does all of this mean for your life? For architecture? We are already in middle atemporality now, as the pre-crash era was the first phase (Kazys writes about this here and it includes a video of Sterling’s talk). With the “age of austerity” already upon us, we are seeing the effects of massive unemployment and underemployment. Tonight the chairman of the US Democratic Party was on Jon Stewart’s show trying to spin the idea that we we’re in an economic recovery while Stewart repeatedly pointed out that unemployment is still over 10%. California, New York (and many other US states) are on the verge of insolvency, and a large part of Europe is still facing financial crisis. Dubai is littered with abandoned construction sites and record-breaking heat caused massive forest fires that rendered Moscow uninhabitable for most of the month of August. We are in for an interesting seven years, at least.

Griffiths’ predictions are interesting because they are so contrary to what we’re used to see architects predict for the future, yet they are also incredibly plausible. I can’t help but agree that the future will be filled with far more half-timbered suburban houses than it will be with descendants of the Burj Khalifa and the Guggenheim Bilbao.

East Sussex/West Sussex Road Trip

Coming from America, I assumed there must be a huge East Sussex/West Sussex rivalry of the 2Pac vs. Notorious B.I.G. variety, but upon visiting I was proven wrong (or else I was looking in the wrong places). The trip was a brief (2 day) excursion, but we were able to see far more than I imagined in such a short amount of time.

Arundel

The first stop was Arundel, located in West Sussex. A small market town, it is located on the lovely River Arun. It is famous for being the location of Arundel Castle, which is the home of the Duke of Norfolk. The castle was built by the Normans in 1068 to protect the coast from invasion from the continent, but much of what you see today has been reconstructed since the 1700s. In fact, a large portion of the accommodations were built solely for a Royal Visit by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1846.

Arundel Castle

The view from the keep:
Arundel Castle

The high point of the visit, for me, were the extensive gardens. Despite some rain, they looked fantastic and included greenhouses and outdoor plots where a large portion of food consumed by the Duke’s family is grown. The ornamental and water gardens were spectacular too. Most of the garden had been a car park since the 1950s, and only in the last five years has it existed in its current form.

Arundel Castle Garden

The water gardens were bordering on excessive. I loved them.

Arundel Castle Garden

One of the stranger things in the tour is the “Dancing Crown” fountain. The fountain is inside Oberon’s Palace, a building built in 2006 from a set design by Indigo Jones. The design of the “Dancing Crown” dates back to the Renaissance.

Upon leaving the castle, this family of swans passed by in the river just outside the wall:

Arundel - swan family in the river

Littlehampton

After leaving Arundel, it was on to Littlehampton. In comparison to the picturesque quaintness of Arundel, Littlehampton looked rough around the edges (though more in a Weatherspoons way than in an inner-city Detroit way). There was a pedestrianised area in the middle of town, with ample cheap parking, and this decrepit arcade:

Littlehampton Arcade

There was also a regenerated area, of sorts, that held a number of particularly unattractive buildings that face a marina Note the requisite pun in the name of the exhibit.

Littlehampton Marina

There is also a run-down looking amusement area, with a castle that is slightly less impressive than the one down the road in Arundel:

Littlehampton Castle at the Pier

The following morning, before leaving town, we checked out the “Longest Bench in Britain” by Studio Weave. It is part of a seaside regeneration project, and apparently some people were not happy about its approximately 1 million pound cost.

Longest Bench - Littlehampton

It is incredibly uncomfortable if you actually decide to sit on it because the little blocks of wood are too far apart. The ends of it turn into small pavilions:

Longest Bench - Littlehampton

Worthing (The War Pigeon Memorial)

From there, it was on to Worthing. The only thing I knew about Worthing was that there was supposed to be a pigeon memorial to the birds that took part in World War II, many of which didn’t come back. The memorial is in the middle of Beach House Park, and it is actually a small fenced off garden for use by birds (how appropriate). The inside of it looks like this, from the other side of the fence:

Worthing War Pigeon Memorial - Beach House Park

This is the matter-of-fact sign that lets you know it’s not for you, it’s for the birds:

Worthing War Pigeon Memorial - Beach House Park

Beachy Head

From there, it was on to East Sussex and to Beachy Head. We stopped at a car boot sale on the way, where I purchased a ceramic owl-shaped planter and a coloured glass vase (perhaps a post of its own someday). The setting was gorgeous, especially if the weather had been better:

Boot Sale in Peacehaven

The cliffs of Beachy Head were spectacular, the path was moved in recent years when the old one went over the edge as the cliff face eroded.

Beachy Head cliffs

Eastbourne

Not much to say about Eastbourne, except that there was nice brickwork everywhere and there was an airshow going on while we were walking through town. Here’s the entrance to a building that formerly housed the “Eastbourne Artizans Dwellings”:

Eastbourne - Brickwork

Lewes

From there, it was back to London with a quick stop in Lewes on the way. It was also very quaint, but there was nothing particularly photogenic though I did capture the Argos next to the river in the dead centre of town:

Lewes - Bridge

Gehry’s Art Gallery of Ontario is Retro Frank Gehry at His Finest

Art Gallery of Ontario

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) completed an extensive renovation in 2008 that transformed its building on Dundas Street in Toronto. Work began in 2004 and cost $276 million. Led by Frank Gahry, Instead of starting afresh, Gehry took the existing building and its somewhat chaotic slew of previous expansions and unified it into a functioning whole. The expansion was a controversial strategy, with many people concerned that a large amount of money was being spent without obtaining a signature Gehry building.

Upon entering the building under an expressive glass-clad cantilevered upper gallery (see above) one enters a low ticket hall. Passing through this area and into the Walker Court at the heart of the building, this well-lit atrium space shows one of Gehry’s most dramatic interventions in the old fabric of the building:

Art Gallery of Ontario

In order to reach the stair, shown above, visitors must walk upstairs to the upper level of the atrium and walk around the perimeter. The new portion of the construction is finished in light-coloured wood and touches the existing early 20th Century building very lightly:

Art Gallery of Ontario

The insertion and interaction of the new within and attached to the old looks strange when compared to most of Gehry’s recent highly sculptural work, but when looked at in relation to his work from the late 1970s through mid 1980s it clearly references an important part of his tradition.

Frank Gehry's House
Frank Gehry's House, photo by Kristo

His own home in Santa Monica is the best example from this period. By taking a “Dutch Colonial” home in a typical Santa Monica neighbourhood and  building an armature around it, while also strategically removing portions of the old house, Gehry deconstructed the experience of home life itself (see a collection of photos and drawings on Arch Daily here). He also collaged together many of the building blocks of suburbia in an unexpected juxtaposition- one that disturbed his neighbours. They obviously had no problem with corrugated metal or chain link fences (they were common on other homes in the area) until Gehry decided to get creative with them.

Moving up further into the AGO via the curved stair shown earlier,visitors move through the exposed structure (most original steel) of the atrium and then through the roof, where the outside of the stair has a glazed strip that runs at eye level.The views open up when you get above the original atrium, giving you a view of the jumble of parts that make up the building.

Art Gallery of Ontario

At the top of the stair, the modern/contemporary galleries are spread over two floors with high ceilings and glass walls to the north and south. The south wall is protected from the sun by exterior shading that appears to be operable.

Art Gallery of Ontario

Moving back down the building requires you to go down a similar stair to the one on the north, except the view is better here as you descend into a park with the CN Tower in the background:

Art Gallery of Ontario

There are also views of Will Alsop’s building for the Ontario College of Art and Design next door:

Art Gallery of Ontario

The stairs, clad in grey metal, do reference the Bilbao/Disney Concert Hall side of Frank Gehry. They also go back a bit further in his career, specifically his Vitra Design Museum of 1990 in Germany. The Vitra project was not conceived entirely as a sculptural object, as I would argue works like Bilbao are, but was designed equally as an experience. The Vitra is also formally similar, one only has to look at the enclosed twisting stair to see the lineage:

Vitra Design Museum, photo by Rory Hyde
Vitra Design Museum, photo by Rory Hyde

The other impressive interior spaces in the refurbished AGO is the Galleria Ilalia. It cantilevers over the sidewalk on the front of the building and it is attached to the old front wall of the museum. Unlike other Gehry buildings I have been to, it is very well-detailed and well-proportioned.

Art Gallery of Ontario

The weakest part of the building is its unfortunate exterior on the south side. Hovering over the adjacent park and facing downtown, the façade is a particularly obnoxious shade of blue metal that looks more like a roadside office park from the 1980s than an urban museum. The sight of the AGO next to Alsop’s OCAD building reads like an obnoxious “battle of the starchitects”:

Art Gallery of Ontario with Ontario College of Art & Design

It’s a shame they succumbed to the use of coloured titanium on the exterior of the building, which reminds me of Gehry’s equally obnoxious Experience Music Project in Seattle. That aside, I think it is a fantastic building and a sensitive and sensible re-use of an existing asset. I would like to see more renovation projects from Gehry’s office- they rose to the challenge in Toronto in a way that is far more nuanced and effective than on many new-build projects.

Ranking Architectural Academics: Suspect Methodology

I came across a link to a paper titled “Rating the Architecture Professors in Research: 2010 Report” by Garry Stevens, PhD from the Key Centre for Architectural Sociology this morning on Twitter by David Neustein (@dneus). Stevens compiled this report by obtaining lists of the faculty in every architecture department in a variety of predominantly English-speaking countries (see the report for details). It covers approximately 3,000 faculty members at 160 architecture schools. The academics are rated in percentiles, from the 90th down to zero. The rankings are entirely based on the number of time the academics are found in two databases: The online catalogue of the RIBA Architectural Library and The Avery Index.

While the author went to great lengths to avoid double-counting and to search for multiple spellings of the same name, I am not sure the methodology really gets to his goal of identifying “excellence in research.” Some of the academics that hold top (90th percentile) ranking are not a surprise: Annmarie Adams, Beatriz Colomina , Kenneth Frampton and Kazys Varnelis all have published a large amount of writing as active university faculty members. On the other hand, there are big-name architects in this top list (Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne  for example) who would clearly come up frequently in a database search but are not known for prolific academic-quality writing.

I did a search of the RIBA catalogue and found many journal articles that referenced Thom Mayne, but I couldn’t find a single one he had actually written himself. I am sure Mr. Stevens spent more time on this than I did this morning, but if the entire point of the project was to identify the strongest architectural research academics in the English-speaking world, I’m not sure a bunch of “starchitects” belong on the list.

This is not to say the list is completely useless- I actually found the method of ranking rather interesting. I have seen somewhat similar rankings of entire departments in the past, but never individual faculty members ranked top to bottom like this.

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