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.

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