Sunday, 23 December 2012

Beware of bearing gifts

A long discussion has been running on The Architects' Journal's LinkedIn page about the Yunnan Kunming Wenhua Technology Co in China. The thread started six months ago, and is still active.
This is a company that is scamming aspirant architects by dangling potential contracts in front of them, and then asking for presents - cigarettes, mainly, but a lot of them - and also asking for money up front to defray bank charges before transferring funds.
The sums seem relatively small for the effort that goes into them - for instance the company has laid on lavish banquets - and gulled architects' seem mostly to suffer lost time and travel costs rather than having their accounts plundered in a serious way. Which makes it all a bit mysterious.
This is at another level from those international lottery wins and transfers of inheritances to which we have all become wise on the internet. China is a promising market, and architects know that it does not operate in the same way as the UK, so are ready for things to seem a little strange. They may not have suffered much financially, but pride must be dented at the very least, and it is not nice to see hopes of work evaporate.
Let's hope this scam dies out in 2013.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

No hard sell at Christmas

Blogger Lucy Mori has written about how architects should remember still to market themselves at Christmas. She illustrates her blog with  pics of family Christmases replete with the kind of festive jumpers  no self-respecting architect would be seen dead in - certainly not when marketing themselves.
And that is the problem.
Mori is not suggesting a hard sell - in fact only what she calls a soft version of the elevator pitch. But she says that friends and family include potential clients and that the architect should both make them aware of what he/ she does for a living, and sound confident and optimistic. No potential client wants to meet somebody self-denigrating or lacking in confidence.
That is undeniably true but what that means is that the architect who obeys Mori's dictum is always 'on'. Obviously non-stop moaning doesn't make for good company, but if an architect has had a hard year, who can they be frank with if not their nearest and dearest?
PR Leanne Tritton wrote a piece in last week's BD entitled 'In hard times a break is more vital than ever'. Part of this was about the importance of the office party but she also discussed the importance of switching off and recharging at Christmas. With all offices shut, this is probably the only time of year when there is no need to keep responding to emails and texts (I know Tritton is keen on holidaying beyond reach of either). But it will hardly be a break if you have to be on your best, cheery, positive, elevator pitching form just in case you encounter a potential client. Maybe at Christmas even those with secret or not so secret doubts should let their fronts slip and just be themselves.

Monday, 17 December 2012

My first tweet up

Last week I went to my first tweet up, organised by Building Design and held at the offices of Feilden Clegg Bradley. I'm not sure that I came away able to tell the difference between a tweet up and a booze up, but it was certainly a good evening. I guess the difference is that it is a self-selecting group of common interest, rather than an invitation list that somebody had decided to compile. So more democratic - in the spirit of Twitter.
I was there specifically to give a brief talk about the white paper How to Win Work which I wrote for BD (with case studies written by staff members). This looks at everything an architect should do from determining their business plan and marketing strategy, to appraising competitions and deciding which to enter, right through the PQQ process and presentations to how to make the most out of a near miss.
It isn't the sexiest subject but really important and fascinating once you delve into it. So much of it seems like commonsense, but so few architects apply this commonsense. Interviews showed that many submit 'last minute' CGIs, don't research potential clients properly, and even seem bored at interview. I was shocked to learn from a survey BD carried out as part of the research that a third of practices employing more than 15 architects don't even know how much they spend on entering competitions.
The best lessons for me? That it is vital to get to know potential clients before entering a competitive situation, and that not publicising the work for which you don't want to be known is as important as publicising the jobs you do want to be known for.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Let's be sensible about housing

 Michele Hanson's latest 'A certain age' column  in today's Guardian is a corker. After telling us about her friend Clayden being attacked by cows on Hackney Marshes, she says she thinks she is trying to make herself think of urban life as rustic to compensate for the fact that planning minister Nick Boles wants to concrete over most of the countryside.
'How I wish I was planning, and housing, minister instead of Bolesy,' she writes. 'My plans are more sensible: use all brown-fill sites [I think you mean brown-field Michelle], fill all couuncil voids, cap rents, sto VAT on renovation of existing dwellings, and decriminalise squatting. That should help.'
It certainly should. And seems like plain common sense. Someone else who is advocating common sense is Piers Taylor in The Architects' Journal last week touched a nerve when he wrote a column 'An architecture of circumstance would help local character evolve'. OK, the title isn't all that catchy but he was arguing for planners to stop 'meddling and micro-managing' the appearance of housing. Britain should be more like Almere in The Netherlands, he argues, where builders have certain restrictions on volumes, space between buildings etc and then can build what they like.
The interesting thing is that the illustration he shows from Almere is of houses that all look like a family - as did streets of Victorian houses built in pairs by speculative builders. There might be an argument for more restrictions if the result, over the last few decades, had been lots of lovely houses. But it hasn't. Most houses have been ugly, shoddy, small and inflexible. Looser planning restrictions wouldn't necessarily put an end to that. But if they allowed us to build more houses, the market might kick in and people would no longer buy the worst. So here's to more freedom - but not to build over all our green land.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Hooray for the highways engineer

There are few jobs more derided than that of the highways engineer. Architects, landscape architects and urban designers all love to complain about highways engineers' lack of foresight and imagination, their box-ticking approach, the way that they litter the environment with unnecessary and ugly street furniture and with ill-considered signs. And often these criticisms are valid.
So it is worth considering the other side of the coin, what happens when this work isn't done at all. There is a salutary article in this week's Observer magazine about a road in Bangladesh that has been built with none of the correct considerations. Headlined in the print edition 'Is this the most dangerous road in the world?' the shocking piece strongly suggests that the answer is yes.
Funded by the World Bank, the road runs from Dhaka to Sylhet and replaces an older road on which there were constant delays. Now traffic moves much faster, but the side effect is a horrific toll of deaths, largely of pedestrians and of rickshaw users. There are no crash barriers, there is no central reservation and, with a river running alongside the road, a significant proportion of the casualties (government figures say that there are 180 deaths a year but the actual figure is believed to be much higher) die by drowning.
Doubtless in this country we could have a more imaginative approach, and successful projects such as the Exhibition Road shared surface in west London have only been achieved in the teeth of opposition from the unimaginative.
But Exhibition Road is appropriate (although some argued strongly that it was not). The enormous shared surface of the Dhaka-Sylhet is a shared surface too far, that is not only inappropriate but lethal. We have a government that seems to think that the only way to promote development is to tear up regulation. Bangladesh's death highway is a salutary reminder of what happens when you do so in an inappropriate manner.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Make yourself at home

Smugness is not attractive so like everyone sensible I try to avoid it. But if I were to be smug about anything it would be about where I live. My small, not terribly convenient flat is in an inner London suburb where, if I were buying now, I would not be able to afford to live. There has been a ripple effect in London where successive waves of buyers talk wistfully about areas that their elders found barely acceptable. Now it has reached the point where first-time buyers, even in well-paid jobs, cannot afford to live in the capital at all unless subsidised by serious rich parents.
Housing starts are at an all time low, much of which is built is ugly and cramped because housebuilders can build anything they like, knowing it will sell. This despite the fact that potential buyers still find it hard to get loans, and even those living in social housing in London are being priced out. There was a touching interview on Radio 4 yesterday with a woman who is working part time and having her benefit cut. She is looking at moving to Birmingham or Glasgow but this would mean giving up her job and becoming even more dependent on the state. In The Guardian yesterday, Steve Rose wrote a feature headlined 'Squatters are not home stealers,' saying that the government has misrepresented their position in order to pass its laws on squatting.
In fact everything the government is doing in regard to housing seems to be driven by either rigid ideology or blind panic. Not enough housing? Let's tear up the Building Regulations. Still not enough housing? Let's allow people to build everywhere and disregard the green belt. House builders are not short of sites, and are not prevented from building by Building Regulations. Instead the situation is far more complex, tied up with the market and, it is true, by planning problems in dense areas.
In this dense tangle, what can architects do? According to The Architects' Journal, quite a lot. One of the comments on the launch of its More Homes, Better Homes campaign says that what we need are not more homes but fewer people and a redistribution of employment across the country. Maybe, but that is a big ask. In the meantime what we need are homes built now (or converted from existing buildings) in places where people want to live and, crucially, homes that people want to live in now and in the future. This means decent space standards for activities we can't yet contemplate, higher ceilings to retrofit fans that can cope with climate change, and the creation not just of reasonable individual homes but of proper functional neighbourhoods. It is a big ask, but the special intelligence of architects should help unravel it. The AJ is planning to publish a manifesto. It should be fascinating and, one hopes, influential.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Does twitter make you absent?

The IBP awards last week, which recognise the best in the construction and property press, were a really enjoyable occasion. I should declare an interest, since I judged two of the categories. The guest speaker was Daniel Moylan who is now Boris Johnson's airport expert, arguing for a single hub airport to the east of London. He was an ideal after dinner speaker, passionate about his subject but also very funny, whether dissing the current disaggregated nature of London's airport provision, saying 'bring it on' to any more architects who want to punt airport ideas, or confessing that 'I can't really see the point of the countryside'.
There was great jubilation among the winners of the awards - a particularly good harvest by Building, Property Week and The Architects' Journal - and some disappointment from those who were not successful.
In a taxi on the way home I caught up with what those present had been saying on Twitter. They were generally pithy, relevant, sometimes funny and sometimes moving. But I wondered if they were truly present? I did not tweet from the event because I wanted to chat, cheer and enjoy the atmosphere and it really doesn't seem possible to do both.
Years ago I used to feel that one could either experience a holiday or photograph it but not both. Is the same now true of Twitter? And who exactly follows those live tweets? I don;t know the answer but I think the question is important.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Learning from Norman

Olly Wainwright has a great blog for the Guardian in which he describes the presentation process by four starchitects pitching to design a New York tower. Foster was the winner and we can see his pitch on video. Whether you love or hate his architecture, it is an object lesson in presentation. Wainwright praises him for using 'practical no-nonsense terms'. And he is right. But what really struck me was his abundant use of the word 'you'. He talks to the client all the time about 'you want', 'what you would like'. And there is very little use of the word 'I'. It is almost as if the design has happened as a natural concomitant of the client's needs - as interpreted by Foster.
It is of course a riskier strategy than it looks. If he gets those needs wrong, the client may think 'no this is not what we want'. But Foster is a consummate professional and this is a video every architect should watch.
There is a sting in the tail. Wainwright has some criticisms of the three unsuccessful bidders and their approaches. Originally their videos were available too but the client has taken them down - presumably under pressure from the architects. So viewers can learn from good practice - but not from bad.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Why websites are so important

After I wrote last week about the problem with architects' websites, somebody pointed me to the appropriately named Websites for Architects. Set up by Australian architectural photographer Nic Granleese and written in a week, it functions in the form of a 'bootcamp'. You sign up and it pushes a chapter at you each day. I haven't read it all yet, but I like the sentence from his first chapter: 'It's not the editors of magazines holding you back because in many ways you are now the editor.' Granleese's point is that the amount of content generated online vastly exceeds printed content, and that bloggers and tweeters are looking for established content that they can plunder or link to. 'If you are not providing the core content then you won't exist online,' Granleese says.
And existing online is crucially important for architects. Work opportunities come to those who are known, and when competing for work familiar names will have a natural advantage. Architects just cannot afford not to have decent websites. After I wrote last week's post, variously people kindly pointed out the sites that they thought were the very worst offenders. There are some sites that are worse than I could possibly have imagined - talented architects whose imagination fails them when they come to think about their websites. True there are one or two practices that are already so famous and successful that they don't have to bother. But they really are just a handful. Everyone else should have a good look at their site, be dispassionate and, if it isn't working, do something about it now.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Why websites can be so wrong

I was talking to an architect recently about his work and he told me not to rely on what I saw on his website as it was so out of date. Then when I decided to email him, he told me that the spelling of his name (and hence his practice's name) on the email address given on his website was wrong. Websites are meant to be a communication tool, but sometimes they can be more of a miscommunication tool.
Recently Sutherland Lyall and I revived an idea we had a few years ago for appraising and improving architects' websites. Originally we developed a sophisticated matrix for scoring and found some shocking examples, even among the big names. This time we carried out a simplified version, giving a quick fire assessment of six practices' sites in 15 minutes total at the Guerilla Tactics conference for small practices at the RIBA.
Full marks to the six who bared their strengths and weaknesses. And there were some elementary errors: the website with no email address, the site where it appeared at first glance that the practice had built nothing, the practice where none of the work came up on Google. Not to mention the blogs and news sections where most content was a year old.
A good website can be a vital tool in a practice's marketing armoury. A bad one is useless at best and a turn-off at worst. Setting up a website requires commitment. So does maintaining it. But it is an effort worth making.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Unlocking China with a team of five

There was some inspiring content at the RIBA's Guerilla Tactics conference this week, particularly in the session on working overseas. Guerilla Tactics is a conference on small practices, and those participating in the session were not the international behemoths from which one expects to hear. Instead they were representatives from surprisingly small practices that have found a niche.
Sybarite, for example, has become a specialist in high-end retail design and does much of its travelling with its clients as they open stores in new spaces. It overcomes the problem of local contractors wanting to dumb down its fine finishes by prefabricating as much as possible. And, very intelligently, it warns potential clients how much its jobs are likely to cost before embarking on them. It also wherever possible (which seems to be everywhere but China) insists on working with UK contracts.
China is the country where the real star of the show Ibbotson Architects is working. Founder Helen Ibbotson set up the practice just a few years ago. It is based in the Peak District just outside Sheffield and carries out a range of smallish and sensitive work here - plus massive masterplans in China.

Yet its core team is only five people (including a Mandarin-speaking architectural assistant who can make vital phone calls to China). The practice has done this by seeing opportunities as they came along, originally being introduced to the country by a developer who then decided not to proceed further. It has seized opportunities while taking care to have top legal advice. Ibbotson now speaks a little Mandarin, enough to make opening remarks in meetings, and her website is bilingual. She has been wondering about exploring opportunities in Brazil...
An inspirational story for any small practice.

Monday, 5 November 2012

When one sculpture means a lot

In the Observer yesterday, Rowan Moore dedicates his page to the fate of a single sculpture. But if anybody thinks that that makes it a rather peripheral piece, they would be wrong. It would be hard to pack a larger number of pressing issues into a single piece.
Moore writes about a Henry Moore sculpture which is owned by Tower Hamlets in east London and which the mayor wants to sell because, he says, it is uninsurable, and of course to raise money. At the end of his piece Moore scotches the story about it being uninsurable - Queen Mary College (which is in Tower Hamlets) has offered to take it and put it in a publicly accessible place, and has been quoted just £2,000 a year for the insurance.
Moore also points out that if the statue were sold, it would probably raise £20 million which, although substantial, is not a vast amount in terms of council budgets. As he says, what they need is revenue, not sticking-plaster injections of capital.
One of the big issues, he argues, is that Henry Moore sold the sculpture to the council for well below market price, and if this sale goes ahead other artists are unlikely to do the same. I do wonder how many artists would be that generous now in any case. We have lost so much of our goodwill towards public institutions - particularly governmental ones rather than say art galleries - that I suspect it would be unlikely even without the latest brouhaha.
But Moore's most important point is that this sculpture was donated in order to provide something special for local people - and that if you think this is of no value then you could in the end stop spending any public money on the arts at all. This would be very wrong. The specific argument in each case - food or art - would always be won by the more visceral need. But government - including local government - must spend its money on a range of things. We need both bread and circuses.
The ironies in the story come from the history of the sculpture. When Tower Hamlets bought it, it sat at the centre of the Stifford Estate. It had to be moved from there, not because of any unsuitability of the sculpture but because the estate itself was demolished in 1997. It went to Yorkshire Sculpture Park 'until a new home could be found' and is still there.
So art has outlasted architecture, which is a sign of its importance, but obviously the residents of Tower Hamlets do not feel that they are getting much benefit from a sculpture at the other end of the country. Queen Mary College's offer sounds like an excellent solution.
Today, Building Design announces a competition in which the Mayor of Tower Hamlets announces that he wants the world's best architectural practices to apply to masterplan the regeneration of Whitechapel (which will certainly cost a lot more than £20 million). How ironic in the same week to set out to get world-beating architecture and decide to lose a world-rank sculpture.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Water water everywhere

Here's an idea that is worth promoting. Landscape architect AREA has come up with a proposal called London Tap, a network of freely available drinking water around the capital. The idea is that it would remove the need for carrying/ buying all those expensive and non eco-friendly plastic bottles of water.
Free drinking water is not of course a new idea. Parks traditionally have drinking fountains, and there were free supplies of water within the Olympic Park as visitors had to pass through airport-type security and ditch their own supplies. Similarly airports are increasingly supplying water stations on the airside of security although some of them are laughably difficult to use - which probably delights the retailers.
AREA has come up with an idea that looks elegant although a little short on detail, and suggests an appropriate first location would be in the new Meridian Square outside Stratford station.
It is hoping that Boris will take up the idea - and it is certainly appealing. Maybe a water fountain by every Boris bike stand?

Friday, 26 October 2012

Is it too good to be true?

Can it be possible? The RIBA's Future Homes Commission has proposed a means for local authorities to invest in new housing using money that, effectively, is just sitting around.
Its idea is that they can set up a housing fund from part of the money that they are holding in their pension funds. Of course this money is not 'doing nothing'. It is invested elsewhere. What the RIBA is suggesting is that they invest in their own future. It would take an accountancy expert to work out what exactly would happen to the value of those assets - presumably at some stage the local authority would have to sell them on to a housing association in order to realise the money for its pension pot? But it is a really exciting idea. It gives a central role back to local authorities, it gives them a vested interest in making sure that the housing they produce is well designed, appropriate and well-maintained. It is the localism that the government claims to want, although not in the form that it foresaw.
Will it happen though? That, I fear, is the hardest question of all.

Monday, 22 October 2012

In praise of surprise

Several architects have recently cudgelled their brains to produce carefully designed bird hides - perky structures that are an ornament to their environment and sit well in the landscape. But that is not always what you want.
I was recently at Fowlmere Nature Reserve near Cambridge and came across a most mundane structure, a kind of supersized garden shed blocking an area of not very special path. Step inside however and what you saw was this - a most wonderful view across water - and a couple of minutes after this photo was taken the bright blue of a kingfisher skimming across it. 
Sometimes the mundane can deliver more pleasure than the carefully considered, because it conceals the delights that will come next. How many great buildings can lead you into a new world in the way that this very ordinary one does?

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Little cause for discontent in Dundee

Building Design says that the V&A has wasted the time of architects who entered the competition for its new outpost in Dundee, given that winning architect Kengo Kuma has been asked to redesign to fit the budget. But how outraged should they really be? Not very, I suspect.
Competitions are notorious for not producing workable designs, because how can they? There just isn't the mechanism for establishing the close relationship needed between architect and client, particularly when the architect comes from a different continent. And budget overruns are not unusual in this process either. Think of Zaha's competition winning Aquatic Centre for the Olympics, which had to be changed drastically. In that case there was an interim solution that wasn't great, but everyone seems to feel that the completed building, once the temporary add-ons are removed, will be a stunner.
Kuma is a very talented architect, who doesn't seem to have done a bad building yet (let's hope that the UK does not have the depressing effect on his talents that it seems to have done on Piano's skills). It is exciting to have somebody of that level of ability working in the UK for the first time.
The obvious comparison is with Turner Contemporary in Margate. Like Kuma's first effort, Snohetta's original design was in the water - in that case entirely in the water, and not a gentle river but the violent sea. When that proved too risky the client jumped ship (appropriate metaphor) to the safe hands of Chipperfield, with impressive results. Presumably they felt that there was nothing to be salvaged. And presumably the V&A believes the opposite - that Kuma's initial vision will work with the trimming and change of aspect.
We must wait to see the results. I believe - and hope - that they will be pretty good.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Congratulations - again - to Cambridge

What an interesting choice the Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge, designed by Stanton Williams, was as winner of the Stirling Prize. It was a kind of stealth winner. While the Olympic Stadium was heralded as the popular choice (the choice of the Populous?), architectural pundits mostly argued that the winner would be Chipperfield (again) for the Hepworth in Wakefield, or O'Donnell and Tuomey for the Lyric Theatre in Belfast.
Rory Olcayto wrote in the AJ about Mark Jones' hints about front runners, 'Jones can’t mean Stanton Williams’ Sainsbury Lab, even if it sends a message that architecture can affirm the strength of British scientific research. This argument is wrong-headed. Scientific talent is not so much drawn to smooth render and York stone paving as it is to the best equipment and the best scientific minds. CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider and where staff accommodation is bog standard, is proof. And at five grand a square metre, the architectural achievement at Cambridge looks less convincing.'
The argument about scientists putting up with rubbish accommodation is exactly the one that Lord Sainsbury was trying to lay to rest - and there is an argument that the great surroundings will also attract the best brains. Journalists after all also love their jobs and are prepared to put up with bad environments - but does that mean they should?
Another reason that this seems like a 'stealth choice' is that this is not the Stanton Williams building that has received great popular attention - that distinction has gone to its new home for Central Saint Martins in King's Cross.
One factor that has received little notice is that this is the second building in a particular quarter of Cambridge to win the Stirling Prize. The first was the very different Accordia housing development which took the award in 2008. Both these are away from the magnet of the historic colleges, but both house the brainpower that defines the best work of the university - one as living accommodation and the other as a working environment. One can't imagine that Lord Sainsbury would have made this donation to an institution that was struggling in the research assessment stakes.
Brains obviously draw money and with it the ability for good design to flourish. This government doesn't seem to set much store by learning and positively wants to keep foreign brain power out. The  Stirling judges evidently did not choose a building that was on message for a political agenda, since other choices would have made a stronger point. But there may still be a lesson here.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Mushrooming excitement about green infrastructure

Fletcher Priest won the Landscape Institute's green infrastructure ideas competition for London on Monday with a proposal that was more brown than green. Rather than looking at ways to green the ground level, or even to work above ground, it chose to tackle the disused mail tunnels below Oxford Street and turn them into a linear mushroom farm.
It is a fantastically ingenious proposal, a new take on the concept of 'multi-layered landscape' and an eye-opener for those who thought that they new what green infrastructure was all about
In fact, the whole event could be seen as an eye-opener. It was a green infrastructure day held at the Garden Museum and piggy-backed on a weekend celebrating that new but already iconic piece of green infrastructure, the High Line in New York.
The designers were there on the Monday (and helped judged the competition) and talked inspirationally, not least about their can-do approach to fundraising. Equally impressive were talks from a major developer and from the teams behind the Nine Elms development and the American Embassy that will form the centrepiece. All are embracing green infrastructure because it makes sense financially, environmentally, and in planning terms. Mushrooms tunnels, while exciting, would be largely hidden. But green infrastructure it seems is set to rapidly become more visible.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Singapore provides a different angle on liveable design

The World Architecture Festival has been taking place in Singapore this week and it has been eye-opener in terms how a country with limited space deals with housing and the desire for greenery. At half the size of London and two-thirds of the population, Singapore sounds as if it should be denser - but not that dense. The difference though is that there is no hinterland - no wider country to which to escape.
So Singapore has to provide all its greenery and open space within its boundaries. And it has done this remarkably successfully.Between 1986 and 2007 the population grew by 70 per cent yet across the same period the proportion of green space actually increased from 35.7 per cent to 46.6 per cent.
A small amount of this growth was the result of land reclamation - the fabulous Gardens by the Bay are in one such recent area. But mostly it has come from a deliberate densification of construction. The brief for the recent Pinnacle@Duxton for example asked for the amount of accommodation to be trebled. In the UK we would be horrified to see families living in a 50-storey building. But the residents love it. Great attention has been given to the ground plane and there are also 'flying gardens' - communal spaces at upper levels. Other projects are even more radical, and there is an increasing trend to green the exteriors of buildings.
Designing for a tropical climate, where you usually want shade and designing to increase wind flow is crucial, is evidently very different to more temperate environments. But Singapore evidently feels that it has no choice but to build upwards. The approach it takes to it is surprising, stimulating and admirable.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Doom and gloom or a new way of working?

Things can't be good if you can encapsulate the state of the construction industry in a tweet, as Simon Rawlinson of EC Harris did a few days ago. He wrote: 'Workload has fallen in real terms in 5 of the past 8 quarters. Value of work awarded over last 12 months back to pre-1980s boom levels.' There is no way you can spin that to be positive.
Yet it is notable when talking to architects that many of them are desperately busy - often too busy to talk. For some this means that they have found their niche or have a fantastic reputation and are bucking the trend. For others it is a rather febrile busyness - a lot of pitching for work, doing the same jobs for less money, or replacing bigger jobs with smaller ones. Staff numbers may have shrunk, and they are trying to keep the output going with fewer people. One architect I visited recently started giving the team free lunch in the office to make up for cutting wages (although they had subsequently reinstated the wages - and kept the free lunch!).
The struggle to survive is not always successful. One of the latest failures, as reported in the AJ (sorry, subscription barrier) this week, was Manchester based MBLA, a multiple award winner with a 24-year track record, so scarcely naive or inexperienced or untalented. It was sunk, apparently, by a bad debt.
Yet the magazine also reports every week on the establishment of new practices, of which there seems to be an inexhaustible supply. Some of these may be 'virtual' practices, with no offices and the principals also doing  other things to make ends meet. Anybody setting up a full-on practice is creating a hungry animal that needs constant feeding. Even a small office and a couple of staff rack up the costs, and there is inevitably a gap between establishment and receiving fees.
I was talking to somebody this week who has been analysing some of the larger practices' figures and reckons that many of the 'successes', the ones we would never doubt, have worrying levels of debt.
Young architects are willing to duck and dive; an increasing number of the more experienced are becoming independent consultants, lending their expertise to projects with no risk. But what about those who should be mid-career, growing an office, or progressing through one? These are difficult times.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Hooray for PV

According to a report by the European Commission, two thirds of the new PV panels installed in 2011 were in Europe. Enough, in fact, to power the whole of Austria, although spread around the continent the effect is rather less impressive.
Still, it is good news. China is apparently the fastest growing manufacturer of PV, but European countries are at least exporting manufacturing equipment there. And growth rates of between 40 and 90 per cent a year worldwide since 2000 are encouraging. We may not be doing much that is right in relation to the environment, and PV may not be the best solution all the time,but at least we are taking it seriously.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Exceptional effort reaps results

The village of Vernazza in Italy's Cinque Terre looks picture postcard perfect. Its multi-coloured houses tumble down to a tiny harbour, framed by the hills that surround them which stretch to the sea in a mix of wild plants, vineyards and olive groves. It is linked to its neighbours only by boat, by footpaths and by a railway that, boring through the rock, is a triumph of engineering.
Life is not always idyllic however. Last autumn there was exceptionally heavy rain which led to landslides rushing through the narrow streets, wrecking homes, taking down power lines and killing three people. Their bodies were eventually washed up somewhere near St Tropez in France.The entire village was evacuated for clean-up and restoration of power and water.
So you might expect to see a pretty devastated place. Not at all. There is the occasional building still undergoing work, but the village is pretty near pristine. This evidently is the result of a lot of effort, and money. This is even more surprising, given that Italy does not have an ideal reputation for clearing up after disasters. The earthquake at L'Aquila, for example, abandoned many to temporary homes for an unforgivably long time.
So how did Vernazza do it? It is a small, relatively contained community. And it lives on tourism, with most visitors in rented rooms rather than massive hotels - for which there is no space. Footpaths are maintained to a high level (although one, between Manarolo and Corniglia was destroyed by another landslide three years ago and has not yet reopened, forcing visitors onto a longer and even more picturesque route). Visitors are charged 5 Euro a day to use them. If Vernazza, often described as the jewel of the Cinque Terre, had not got its act together, the results would have been far more devastating for the economy than the initial disaster.
The UK has just achieved the near impossible with the Olympics. The inhabitants of Vernazza have done something similar on a far smaller scale. Both deserve congratulation.

Friday, 21 September 2012

What use is architectural education?

A huge headline on the front of yesterday's Evening Standard, the London local paper,  reads 'A degree in architecture ....but all I can get are menial jobs'. The paper highlighted the plight of 24-year old Debo Ajose-Adeogun who found that his architecture degree from Birmingham University was of no help in finding a proper job. On graduation he returned to his home in Newham and, inspired by the Olympic construction, applied for jobs with developers but without luck. He had an eight-month contract with a housing association but is now a sales assistant in Stratford mall.
'I've made more than 250 applications for an entry level job as a designer, architect's assistant, surveyor or something in the housing construction sector but all I've managed is three unsuccessful interviews,' he told the paper.
The interview is part of a larger article about graduate unemployment, and another interviewee is Bradley Bloom, who studied architecture in Glasgow. After the housing development on which he was to work ran out of money, he searched for months and finally found a job in Holland. 'If I want to work at what I was trained for and develop my career, I have to leave London and go abroad,' he said.
Of course, if the paper has the details right, neither of these graduates has been trained for anything. They have architecture degrees which, with further study and experience, could lead to them passing part 2 and part 3 and becoming architects.
In easier times, architecture degrees were seen as a good introduction to a subject and, if students did not wish to go on to become practitioners, could suit them to find related work in the built environment. There was some discussion about whether those who failed to take qualifications were in fact 'failures' and 'dropouts' or whether an architectural degree could be regarded as a valuable piece of education in its own right, before going on - probably - to do a targeted qualification in something else.
What an architecture degree was never intended to be was a vocational qualification in its own right. The tragedy for these two young men is that it seems that nobody told them this. They may not have wanted - or had the resources for - further study. Instead they have had three years of intellectual stimulation and hard work, and have doubtless improved their spatial awareness and imaginative abilities. But they have not been fitted for the jobs that they so desperately want and need.
Another article in the paper, this time in the recruitment section, is called 'It's all about the face value'. This says that you don't only need to be seen in order to progress at work - you also need to be around to get the work in the first place. It gives the example of a woman who found herself a job after networking like mad while on work experience. The paper does stress that this was paid work experience. But this does seem to be another example of the truism that it is not what you know but who you know that counts. And if you have money behind you to allow you to dip into unpaid work, it helps.
I suspect that the disillusioned architecture graduates were never told any of this. Architectural education is demanding and expensive and produces too many graduates for a profession that is perilous and often poorly paying. Nobody should be discouraged from following their dreams but in this case it seems that the dreams have become more akin to a nightmare. What a shame that these two graduates were not given some insight into the true state of affairs. It might have helped them to make different decisions about the courses of study that they followed.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Extensions are not easy

Despite a headline reading 'Industry backs Cameron's home extension plan', a story in BD this week was ambivalent about this proposed relaxation of planning. It stressed both that this was unlikely to make much difference to the overall health of the industry or provide a bonanza for architects, and also that it is important to retain design quality.
Domestic extensions - even entire new houses - are the way in which architects have traditionally started their careers. And the successful and established then often turn their back on this work, passing it on to colleagues who have just set up for themselves. The reason is that domestic work is so difficult and, properly budgeted, does not earn money. If you are a sole practitioner, with few overheads and plenty of time (ie not much work) then you can certainly earn something from it. But for a larger practice, with running costs that are substantial, it is likely to be at best a loss leader. The degree of complexity may be as great as in a project of five times the value, the client cares passionately and so is likely to change their mind, and their are likely to be unexpected discoveries plus all the difficulties of working with the small end of the building trade.
On the other hand, architect-designed extensions can be great, transforming not just the new space but the whole feel of a house. The best deal with levels and the all-important question of light. I saw a really good one yesterday, albeit on a house of a scale to which most could not aspire, which replaced a terrible off the shelf conservatory. Those conservatories are already a blight, and for larger extensions one could envisage other ill-conceived off the shelf solutions - perhaps going the other way, and being under- rather than over-glazed. Rooms which are currently well-lit could become poky and dark.
There is also the issue of paving over gardens, which may have serious implications for drainage on the larger scale if there are too many of these extensions.
Quick fixes are rarely simple.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

A roundabout tale

I love this inspirational story - and the ability to use the word 'inspirational' without referring to Paralympians. The prolific and wonderful blogger who runs Spitalfields Life posted this gorgeous image of a late summer garden.

Nice - but so what? Lots of people have slightly unruly but charming collections of flowers at this time of year. What makes this special is the context:
This 'garden' is in the middle of a roundabout in Hackney, east London. According to Spitalfields Life, the woman who gardens it started doing so on her own initiative 10 years ago, before the advent of the guerilla gardening movement, because she was so depressed by the state of the roundabout. Later she came to an accommodation with Hackney Council which means that her work is officially sanctioned.
She still has to find a gap in the traffic to dash across with extracted weeds - not your typical health and safety approach. 
Best of all, there is an annual lavender harvest, with which locals help. The gardener then makes lavender bags and sells them to fund the purchase of new plants.
This is not only an inspiring story, but a great example of the way that interventions by dedicated individuals can help make our cities better places.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

The irony of Open House

This year Open House London celebrates its 20th anniversary with a fuller and more diverse programme than ever before. Although it is not until 22-23 September, the ballot (an innovation)  has already closed for the most popular sites. There are emphases on landscape and engineering, and there are tours, as well as the usual opportunities both to access grand buildings that are normally inaccessible and to nose around in your neighbour's rear extension.
The irony is that this festival of openness, that is predicated on openness, happens when much of our capital is more closed than ever before. Edwin Heathcote touches on this in the introduction to the brochure when he writes, 'Not every change in London has been for the better. Argument still rage about the privatisation of public space...' The arguments about public space received a closer focus in the run up to the Olympics. Before the nation was subsumed into a great love-in and celebration of wins, the heavy-handed security pointed up how little of 'our' space was really 'ours' and how restricted we can be.
But this kind of privatisation, revealed in Anna Minton's excellent Ground Control and emphasised by the photographer Grant Smith in his battle to take photos where he wishes, is not the only thing excluding us from London. Money is doing it as well, as parts of the city become so expensive that even the 'normal rich' can't afford to live there. The idea of 'trickle down' wealth has long been discounted, but there is a sort of trickle-out effect in London where the hyper rich push out the merely rich, the rich push out the comfortable, and London becomes an onion of different layers of wealth, with many simply unable to afford to live in the capital. It would be a bit much though, to expect Open House to solve all those problems. Happy birthday!

Monday, 27 August 2012

Remembering a devastating fire

There was a fascinating programme on Radio 4 this morning about the Summerlands fire in the Isle of Man, in which around 50 people died in 1973. Summerlands was built with high hopes in 1971 as an indoor entertainment centre for an island with an uncertain climate, trying to counter the new allure of cheap continental holidays.
Clad with Oroglas, a new acrylic glazing, and with climate control, it was in its way a precursor of resorts like Center Parcs, although more urban and doubtless more raucous. It was disturbing to hear from witnesses to the fire and also from a woman who was caught up in it as a child of five, suffered burns and still has nightmares.
What was clear was that there were many causes for the scale of the disaster - lax fire codes, poor management, locked doors, a failure to alert the fire brigade early and the fact that parents and children were attracted to different levels of the building which meant that, when fire broke out, instead of evacuating immediately, they went looking for their loved ones.
There have been major fires since then, both in the UK and abroad, and sadly locked fire doors are often a culprit. At least we understand more about human behaviour now and have much stricter codes.
For architects designing against fire is often a drag - it spoils beautiful soaring space, and the green running man exit signs are ugly. It is worth being reminded that this is not 'elf and safety gone mad'. Fire can and does kill, and we need to be vigilant in design, construction and operation if our buildings are not to become death traps.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Could we enjoy the Olympic Park in September?

It is ironic that, as Building Design reports, Rogers Stirk Harbour is having to abandon plans to exhibit a prefabricated house during September's London Design Festival because of the knock-on impact of the Olympics and Paralympics. “We identified two or three sites but we ran out of time finding the right site,” a spokeswoman said. “A lot have been taken up with Olympics things such as sites to store crowd barriers.”
The irony is that it would be easy to name some empty sites - those 'meanwhile uses' such as the Pleasure Gardens that have shut down because of lack of visitors. Their business plans have failed and everybody is very upset. Making them temporary venues for the LDF and putting the prefab house on one sounds superficially attractive - but in fact nobody will want to go to east London in September. The Olympic site will not only be shut, but will be crawling with contractors, involved in demolition.
Unless ... wouldn't it be great to keep it open in September, allow people who didn't get tickets to gawp at the venues and enjoy the planting, and put in some temporary uses for the LDF? Of course it would cost money, but without the international athletes, dignitaries and world press, a much lighter hand would be needed for security. What an end to a fabulous summer that would be.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Lost in Nottingham

The happy visitors to the Olympics praised not only the games and the volunteers, but also the efficient running of London - something that, as a native, I of course love to criticise. It was interesting therefore to hear a Brazilian journalist on the radio talking about Rio, where the games are going next, and reminding us how much bigger the logistics problems are there.
But you don't have to go as far as South America to find somewhere that is less easy to use than London. I was in Nottingham yesterday, visiting a building relatively close to the city centre and decided, with two colleagues, to walk back to the railway station. It was doubtless our fault, or that of the person who gave us directions, that we went the wrong way. When we stopped a passer-by he set us on the right path, said it was about 15 minutes walk but suggested we might prefer to take a taxi. We ignored his advice, but soon realised why he had given it. We were skirting the absolute core of the town, but by no means on the periphery. Yet it was almost impossible to cross the road. There were barriers, and hardly any crossings. Those that did exist all took you in the wrong direction. Cars roared past, there were scarcely any pedestrians, and the buildings, a mishmash of offices, industrial properties and residential, made almost no effort to address the street. I know there are good buildings in Nottingham, but we didn't pass any of them. The city was once famous for its lace - but the coarse filigree of its road network is certainly nothing to be proud of.

Friday, 10 August 2012

The campaign against Olympic gagging

I can't stop smiling at the photograph of Hattie Hartman, sustainability editor of The Architects' Journal, sporting the Olympic protest dress.
The absurdity of the ban on designers promoting the work they have done on the project becomes more obvious by the day. I was with the several members of the landscape team on the Olympic Park yesterday. Visitors to the site have been stunned by just how gorgeous the landscape is, and it will be an indisputable treasure of the legacy - in an area starved of outdoor space it will be a tremendous asset, and it is also a pathfinder for sustainable design. Yet they, like the architects and engineers, have been subjected to these ridiculous gagging orders. Only now are some of them starting to relax their constraints a little.
Let us hope that by the time we get to the Paralympics we can celebrate everybody - athletes and also the design teams without whom none of it could have happened.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Save our concrete spaces

Yesterday in the Observer Rowan Moore launched a diatribe against proposals for London's South Bank, specifically the Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall. They will, he says, involve 'thrusting commercial space into almost every spare void'. Nature, we are told, abhors a vacuum and so, it seems, does commerce.
Moore, who does have form as a complainer, is worried that the South Bank will be turned into another airport terminal or shopping centre, albeit with some fresh air. His worries have some justification. There was a lot of fuss when shopping started creeping into railway stations that it would somehow spoil the pure experience of travel. But they seem an ideal venue for shops, which are either convenient or help to kill time, or both. Similarly at airports - what do you do if you don't shop or eat? Hunch over your laptop?
But the South Bank is very different. It already has some shops and eating places, as Moore points out. The British Film Institute, after many false steps, has transformed itself into a permanently buzzy venue. Gabriel's Wharf nearby has maintained an alternative feel to its retail, probably because its temporary status - stretching out wonderfully in the recession - has discouraged the chains. But the outlets under the Festival Hall are, as Moore points out, all chains, and we could expect more of the same. They are often reliable, but they don't give an individual character - and the South Bank is a concrete oasis with some great cultural buildings.
The problem may be that we just don't appreciate it as open space. When we think of open space and landscape we think of parks and planting. Which are admirable, and to be encouraged. But the South Bank is a very different kind of landscape - a concrete landscape on several levels, with places to gather, for temporary events, and a great balcony onto the river. It is worth preserving.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Homes need neighbourhoods

I received a message on LinkedIn from an architect asking all its contacts to vote for its design in The Sunday Times British Homes Awards 2012. While we can all be cynical about awards, this request shows how important publicity is to architects,particularly in these difficult times.
The category highlighted (there are six finalists) is the smart home of the future. There are many common features. Not surprisingly they are all highly insulated and use next to no energy. Several are modular, and most look for a flexibility in the design which allows walls to open up, and voids to be filled in. Parking the car under the house is a common theme, At first sight this seems sensible, as ground-floor space is among the least popular - nobody for instance wants to sleep at that level. But I do worry that this is a move to progressively cut people off from the street, and so from their community. In contrast, several designs have roof gardens at first floor level, and these could surely cause problems with overlooking, particularly if the houses are adjacent to existing properties.
Several of the designers have shown their houses existing either as one-offs or within terraces or arrays of semis. In most cases, they show dully repeating streets, like an echo of the most uninspired suburb. Of course this is not the major concern of this competition, but it does point up the fact that the biggest problem with housing design is often not the house itself but designing the street and the neighbourhood - 'a place to live' that extends well beyond the four walls, however carefully considered.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Don't forget the drainage

Congratulations to Wilkinson Eyre, whose Guangzhou International Finance Centre is one of the projects to make it onto the shortlist for the Lubetkin Prize, the RIBA's award for buildings outside the EU.
Not only is the tower the tallest building by a British architect, but it is also a proper, decent piece of architecture - otherwise it would never have been shortlisted. It is however representative of much of the architecture in China's biggest cities, in that it reflects a desire to be bigger, newer, taller and smarter than its neighbours.

This attitude may have implications for the overall urban design of cities, but today journalist and China specialist Isabel Hilton spoke on the Today programme about a much more immediate concern. This interest in bling, she said, may be at the expense of vital infrastructure. She was talking about the recent dreadful floods in Beijing, to which official figures attribute more than 60 deaths. While most of her report was about the way that social media are allowing citizens to contradict the official line, she mentioned that a contributing cause is believed to be a simple lack of drainage. Much of Beijing has been paved over to accommodate the rush to develop, and no new flood drains have been built to compensate. Victorian London, famously, became livable through the attention to water supply, drainage and sewage. Beijing's experience is a timely reminder that we neglect infrastructure at our peril, especially in our increasingly volatile climate.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Architecture gets an Alping hand

Luca Gibello, editor of Italian magazine Il Giornale dell'Architettura, has put together an exhibition, currently running in Udine, northwest Italy, on the design of Alpine buildings. Many Brits may primarily think of the Alps as a place for winter holidays, but of course there are plenty of summer visitors and they in particular need refuges such as this one:
 We may not be able to rival the Alps in the UK, but the building type is fascinating - the buildings have to be largely self-sufficient, elements have to be small enough to be transported easily, they have to cope with cold and high winds, and they have to be an ornament not a detriment to the landscape. For this reason, there are some great examples, and others that are shamefully bad. 
For all these reasons, Alpine buildings were among the most interesting that I covered when I wrote a book on Extreme Architecture. And I never fail to be excited when I see another good example - it helps of course that they are in photogenic, even if inaccessible, surroundings. 

Friday, 20 July 2012

Can Michael Caine teach us about architecture?

Last night, after the opening of Phil Coffey's lovely new library at the BFI, guests were invited to a special showing of Get Carter, the film in which Michael Caine famously throws a villain off the top of the since-demolished Owen Luder designed car park in Gateshead. It really is a great film, even if it does make you wonder how Caine's character can remain so athletic on a regime of cigarettes, whisky, sex, late nights and violence.
There is a funny vignette with the two architects who are designing a restaurant to go at the top of the structure. They are horrified by their client's lack of aesthetic appreciation (we have seen his house, which they haven't, so no surprises there), and on his bad manners in suddenly disappearing. Then as they see the mayhem on the street, and the police arriving, one says to the other 'I don't think we will be getting our fee on this project'.
In a week in which it has been made clear how little the role of architects is understood, does this help or hinder?

Thursday, 19 July 2012

What is architecture all about?

Christine Murray, editor of The Architects' Journal, has written an open letter to the public trying to explain what architecture is for. This is in response to a survey that shows, shockingly, that the public has very little understanding of what architects do.
Murray's explanation is that architects design buildings that really work, and that will continue to work over time. 'A builder will build you a home, an architect will make you a home,' she concludes. It is a brave attempt to tackle a definition that can never be fully resolved, especially in a world where there is increasingly a difference between qualifications and the roles that people play. Non-architects are designing buildings (pace Thomas Heatherwick); architects and landscape architects are carrying out urban design; everybody is having a go at products. It definitely needs doing, even though no solution will be perfect. Good architects bring a certain magic and rigorous thinking projects that is hard to define but important to recgonise.
I have tried to tackle the problem from a different angle in a book with the rather hubristic title '10 Principles of Architecture'. It looks at what the defining considerations are in the design of buildings.
It's out in September.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

All about the infrastructure?

The government's announcement about its planned investment in the rail network is welcome for several reasons. Firstly, government investment in current circumstances is a good thing. Secondly it is going to rail, which is relatively non-polluting, and will be even more so with electrification. And thirdly, the government has resisted the desire for another 'show off' project and has decided to spend its money on making existing services better - conceptually this is only a couple of notches up in status from fixing potholes in the road.
Of course, nothing is perfect. A large chunk of the money had already been allocated, so Government is trying to make more political capital than it really deserves - but what's new? There is some doubt about where the rest of the money will come from although it is amusing to hear pundits alternately complaining 'Does this mean the taxpayer will pay?' and 'Will rail fares go up?' Surely one or the other is inevitable, unless we find a fairy godmother - and we may have more urgent calls on her largesse than rail electrification. Thirdly, not everywhere will benefit equally. Cornwall, for example, one of the least advantaged regions, is not only worried about not receiving any benefit, but also that its services may actually be cut.
Finally, does a government that sees most buildings as an unacceptable luxury unless they are so basic that they are scarcely usable have less of a problem with infrastructure? This bias would not be great. Outdated railways need an upgrade but so do failing schools. Perhaps the coalition partners could talk about that when they need an announcement to make up their next tiff?

Friday, 13 July 2012

Artist spreads light

It is delightful to read in The Guardian that the artist Olafur Eliasson (the man who put a giant sun in Tate Modern) has co-designed a series of portable affordable solar-powered lights for use in developing countries. It should give the one in five people who live off-grid up to five hours of actual light, much safer, brighter and environmentally responsible than the kerosene lamps that are currently the only option for many.
Eliasson believes it is important that these lights are designed by an artist because 'people want beautiful things in their lives'. Yet his project is in its simplicity reminiscent of another invention that also brings light into people's lives - but this time in daytime. This is the plastic bottle filled with water that has been introduced to many tin roofs in the Philippines, allowing the sun to filter into their homes for the first time.
Great inventions both.