Monday, 29 April 2013

Is the Orbit really too small?

The most contentious statement at a seminar that I chaired last week came from Clive Dutton, executive director for planning, regeneration and property at the London Borough of Newham, host borough for the Olympics. 'The only thing wrong with the Orbit is that it should have been three times as big,' he said about one of London's most contentious and least-loved landmarks. Few would think of this twisted red metal object as 'landscape' but that was how Dutton defined it, in a discussion entitled 'Why invest in landscape?' The event took place at the offices of architect Patel Taylor, whose work includes the recently opened Eastside Park in Birmingham. Andrew Taylor, one of the founders of the practice, explained that for him 'landscape is the medium that brings buildings together'. The design codes for the athletes village were mostly related, he said, to how they helped to define the external spaces. there was a divide between the speakers, with Dutton and Mark Davy, founder of culture and placemaking consultancy Future City talking about special landscapes that can add excitement, often in a temporary manner. In contrast Sue Illman, president of the Landscape Institute and urban geographer Jonathan Smales,founder of Beyond Green, were more interested in having good landscape everywhere. Illman outlined the advantages that water sensitive urban design (WSUD) can bring, not only creating nicer places to live but tackling the triple whammy of floods, pollution and the urban heat island. Smales is a firm believer in densifying cities, but said that this can only work with great landscape design. There was a lively discussion from an audience of design professionals, developers and local authority members, particularly over who would actually pay for and maintain such schemes. Ceding control to private developers may in some cases be undesirable but, given current finance, can local authorities be trusted over maintenance?

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Remembering the ever-youthful Rick Mather

It was sad to see on the AJ website today that the architect Rick Mather had died. Sad because one never likes anybody to die, sadder because he had done and was still doing some excellent work. And somehow even sadder because, although he was in fact 75, he seemed so young. I remember that when Mather was elected to RIBA council in 1998, we ran a news story in the AJ saying how nice it was to see some new younger faces. Simple arithmetic tells one that Mather must have been 60 at the time. A fact that was pointed out to us by Sam Webb, the campaigning architect who was the most fierce critic of the large panel systems that led to the Ronan Point collapse in 1968. Webb was already a veteran of RIBA council and, by implication, a member of the old guard. Yet he was in fact, he said, a year younger than Mather. What a shame that Mather's youthful countenance couldn't guarantee him a longer life.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Antarctic proves a great school for design

Last week's AJ published my review of the Halley Research Station in the Antarctic, a curious piece to write, not least because I haven't been there. Normally the rule when writing a building review is that you have to visit to see for yourself, but Halley is so remote that a visit would take several weeks and cost thousands of pounds. Instead, I had to make do with talking to members of the winter team on the telephone, a surreal experience since you simply dial a Cambridge number (that is where the British Antarctic Survey is based) and find yourself talking to people at the bottom of the world. I had a long discussion with the cook about how long he keeps eggs for - around 14 months is the limit, but before you try this at home, you should know that he has a top-class fridge and turns the eggs every few days to stop the yolk from settling. It's more bother than you could face, but then he doesn't have the option of ordering a curry or buying a ready meal. Hugh Broughton, the architect for the project, has stepped into another league by winning and executing this building. Along with the team at AECOM (individuals who were also untried in Antarctic design, although members of the practice in the US had considerable experience), he has become the go-to designer for similar projects. But evidently these are few and far between. Broughton is interested therefore in exploring the relevance that this design may have to work in less challenging environments. There is a superficial resemblance of his buildings on stilts to Ron Herron's 1960s walking city, but the wider lesson comes from his careful analysis of what people need in order to live well, effectively and happily. One can see this careful approach transferring to other enclosed communities, such as a residential school, a hospital or a prison. Both architect and engineer rediscovered the roots of their professions on this project, thinking from basics, experimenting to come up with solutions that work, and not being bounded by regulations. It was an odd combination of the most sophisticated thinking and planning, with a return to first principles. Whether it wins them more work or not - and it certainly deserves to - it has enriched the professional experience of all those involved.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Small is not beautiful - when it comes to homes

In the latest blast in its campaign to see more spacious and lighter homes, the RIBA has issued the results of a poll by IPSOS Mori showing that natural light and space are the most important consideration in our homes. 80% of the public would be more likely to choose a home with minimum space standards and, damningly, wanting more space and light is the main reason why people in new homes would consider moving. This is part of the RIBA's HomeWise campaign for better homes and coincides with its launch of a new and rather snazzy website. The kneejerk response is of course that we can't afford anything better than the minimum. But this is madness. Despite the very real financial crisis, by most measures this country is more affluent than at almost any time in history. Some of Victorians were horribly overcrowded in slum dwellings. We should not go back to that way of living. It is no coincidence that mean residences so quickly can become slums - it only takes a small change in the way we live to make such a dictatorial residence (only one way of using it) uninhabitable.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Shanghai is bund to get better

Yesterday on the AJ's Footprint eco blog, architect Rab Bennetts reported from Shanghai. His reason for going was to visit the nascent Ecobuild. For which he deserves my respect - I couldn't even face the trek to Excel, let alone halfway round the world, although the tiny event that he reports sounds less daunting than London's behemoth. But what I found really interesting was his description - with accompanying photo - of the transformation of Shanghai's famous Bund. Bennets writes, 'The public realm has been transformed with beauty and flair at great speed; most of the eight-lane highway has been relocated underground, the ugly flyovers have gone, and the waterfront has been extended to reconnect with the piers and jetties that thrust towards the new Manhattan on the other side of the river - at least it would be a new Manhattan if it had streets rather than desolate gaps between the towers.' Way to go then, but certainly an encouraging sign.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Space really is the final frontier

There is a fascinating and only slightly belated obituary in the New York Times of an architect called Danforth W Toan. He was, apparently, one of the first to think about designing for space, coming up with simulations of the way that space could be used in a constricted space station. And I mean space. What is fascinating is that he realised that the three dimensional thinking in which architects specialise becomes really valuable when people are in zero gravity. Whereas on earth high ceilings mean simply that we have more air above our heads, in space when we are weightless we inhabit the entire volume. Thinking about space itself rather than in plan or section becomes vital. Toan was having his insights 45 years ago, but space continues to fascinate. A team of space architects at TU Vienna are publishing a book on their latest project, a deployable shelter for Mars. Will we ever get there? Who knows? But the images are certainly seductive.