Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Happy holidays for the Lords

The House of Lords had a real tidy up before they set off for their holidays yesterday. On their very last day, they announced the plans for changes to the Building Regulations - already delayed but at least this time there is a date for their introduction, next April. And although some of the proposals have been watered down, not all.

There are planning changes as well, which will probably make wind farms and solar farms a little more difficult to get through.

End of term report - could be worse, could do better. But what is depressing for those involved in construction and the environment is the implication that this is just 'any other business' to be tidied up at the end of term, rather than, as is the case, vitally important.

Let's hope they are all a bit more engaged after the holiday.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Fracking hell for Sussex?

I felt outraged when I heard that they are planning to explore for oil in Balcombe in Sussex, and that if successful they may consider fracking.

I have always been uncomfortable about the idea of fracking, not least because we really don't need to find ways to extract more greenhouse-gas emitting fossil fuels. But although I was unhappy when I heard this was happening in the northwest, I felt furious about Balcombe.

Why the difference? Part of it is the NIMBY effect. Although Balcombe is definitely not my backyard - I live in south London - it is somewhere I know. But then I started thinking about how I know it. It is on the London to Brighton line, and just after the station the train goes over a viaduct with lovely views. So lovely that once I went on a circular walk from the station that took me under that viaduct. But it was only once and a long time ago. So in many ways Balcombe is more of an idea than a real place for me.

I think that this shows that the idea of places is as important sometimes as actually being there. Unspoilt wildernesses (which Balcombe certainly is not) need relatively small numbers of visitors if they are to stay unspoilt. But we can enjoy their existence without actually being there - and I don't mean by watching television programmes, just by knowing they are there.

The other point is that the southeast is affluent and has relatively good employment. It probably doesn't need the kind of jobs that fracking would bring, and the wages that it would pay (apart from a couple of consulting engineers) wouldn't help anyone to buy a house nearby. So it does seem inappropriate.

If you think about how you feel about proposed developments, you will probably find a similar mix of logic and emotion. But since we are both logical and emotional beings, this just may be an appropriate response.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Is today architecture day?

It seems as if occasionally there is a day when all the news is about architecture. Of course it helps that today is the day that the Stirling Prize shortlist was announced. It was interesting that the radio news focused on Park Hill being on the shortlist, in a 'from loathed to loved' kind of way. Always frustrating though when they focus on one story to the exclusion of the rest.

There were also people talking about Nimbyism and a group fighting to preserve a view of London simply because Canaletto once saw it.

And, on the BBC website, its light-hearted piece about dealing with the heatwave veered away from the now standard 'keep cool by keeping your pillow in the fridge' to a list of 10 ways we aren't prepared. Point one is 'The design of modern flats' with reference to the RIBA's campaign about small flats (no room for a fridge big enough to have spare pillow space, then) and Ellis Woodman of Building Design talking about the problem with single-aspect flats that don't allow cross ventilation. In fact the whole story is pretty construction related, bemoaning the lack of air conditioning, swimming pools, outdoor seating and water fountains.

For one day at least there seems to be an acknowledgement of the importance of the built environment. If this is architecture day, wouldn't it be good to extend to a week, a month or, whisper it, a year - to the realisation that the places we build and inhabit have a profound influence on the quality and even the quantity of our lives.

But rumour has it there is a royal baby due and that will knock everything else off the news agenda. Enjoy architecture in the media while you can.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Solo performance stars at theatre

I had a great night at the theatre yesterday. It was not so much the play, a surprisingly old-fashioned three hander called Daytona that was watchable with some longueurs, as the environment and the company.
Consultant Hoare Lea had invited a group to the new Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, 15 minutes from central London. This is a new theatre, only a couple of months old, created through donations and grants and sheer bloody-mindedness by artistic director Jez Bond. It is still hard to work out how it will make money, but the 200-seat main house was fairly full, and the bars were buzzing.

As a new theatre director, Bond decided he did not want to work with an established theatre architect and instead appointed theatre neophyte David Hughes.As with so many specialist areas, there is no real exclusive mystique to theatre design, just some special things you need to know. And there are consultants who can help. In this case, Hughes worked with top theatre consultant Charcoal Blue and, as the result of their advice, he claims that the theatre now has the best sightlines in London.

What is really extraordinary is that Hughes is effectively a one-man band, working only with his wife who is an interior designer. He has worked in bigger practices in the past, including Branson Coates and Assael, but is now a fan of being a loner, bringing in collaborators when he needs them.

'Arts buildings' are the field that most architects are keen to get into, and notoriously difficult to break into. Hughes has managed it - and done a great job of converting a former office building. He has even introduced rooflights into both theatre spaces, making them more attractive for daytime non-performance. They are blacked out in the evening. And he has used his recent background in residential design to create flats at the top which have been sold off to help fund the development.

Hughes now has a great calling card if he wants to jump through the OJEU hoops in the future. But he is already discussing another arts project, again by negotiation, so perhaps he won't need to.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Will all our cities have a Taksim Square?

It seems that Istanbul's Taksim Square has been saved, at least for now, from development. The AJ reports this, along with an eye-witness report on recent developments from one of its team, who happened to be there last weekend. The battle may be over, but the fight goes on, with the park shutting just after opening because of further riots, as Al Jazeera reports.
So was the riot in Taksim Square just a flashpoint for generalised unrest? To an extent, yes. But as Rory Olcayto wrote in the AJ just over a month ago, the park is important for simple health reasons as well. Istanbul has grown incredibly fast, and for it to lose its green space is almost unbearable. If we want to learn this lesson we need look no further than China, where reports today say that air pollution in the north is cutting average lifespans by more than five years.
There is enormous pressure on development around the world. It is worth remembering that open spaces and clean air are not some old-fashioned luxury that we can dispense with in our progressive, money-driven age. Their absence can threaten lives, and governments.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Willow sparks imaginations in Waterbeach

In last Friday's glorious sunshine, I was standing in a wood in Waterbeach between Cambridge and Ely. It was hard to believe that this was a millennium wood, planted only 13 years ago, as the trees soared overhead and the cottonwool from the willow catkins filled the air.
It was the willow that was the reason for being there. Engineer Simon Smith of Smith and Wallwork had worked with architecture students at the University of Cambridge to design and build a footbridge across a land drain in the wood. They used a locally over-abundant source - willow, which nobody seems interested in coppicing any more.
The extraordinary thing about willow is its fertility. Cut it down, stick the end in the ground, and it starts to grow. This has been known for centuries and willow has been used for 'living' shelters and even for growing pieces of furniture - an approach that requires considerable patience. What Smith and his students were doing though was designing a footbridge that the public could use, and so was safe and could carry loads.
It was a tough job. We may have visited in the sunshine, but the hard work was done in winter, when the willow is least likely to be damaged by coppicing.
Having calculated the loads, and designed and constructed a simple arched structure, they then 'wove' a deck from slimmer willow. This was both to provide a walking surface and to prevent the arch elements sliding past each other. It was, admitted Smith, hard work, requiring strong forearms and a specially designed tool. One of the interesting things about projects like this is that volunteers will undertake work freely that most paid workers would refuse to do.
Health and safety required both the addition of a willow handrail, and the addition of a softwood deck to prevent people slipping. Sadly both in some way compromise the initial simplicity of the design.
The bridge is sprouting impressively.
The next challenge will be renewal of the woven deck. Since this is not rooted it will eventually rot. Smith is trying to weave in the new shoots, but this may prove too difficult.
So this is not a perfect solution, but it is a great research project - lots of learning, and vision of new potential for a neglected material. It is great to know as well that a love of learning will galvanize people to undertake arduous work in demanding conditions. And there are even poppies growing on tbe bridge to lift the heart a little further. 

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Latin joke carved in stone

I was in Amsterdam last week, at the Rijksmuseum which was fantastic. The most surreal experience was when they opened the glass roof to one of the courtyards. Not sure if they were testing the fire strategy or just ventilating as the place gets hot and stuffy. It was a very noisy process so nobody could miss it. We were sitting in the cafe and there was a collective 'aah' as the fresh air came in. Then a couple of minutes later a kind of nervous laughter, as it started to rain. They closed the roof, but it took a few minutes, and it was odd sitting indoors with rain pattering on the cafe table.
But then Amsterdam is odd, in an endearing way. Near the museum and the Leidesplein I spotted this colonnade, with its cod Latin inscription carved in the stone:

It reads 'Homo sapiens non urinat in ventum' which translates as 'A wise man does not piss in the wind'. Apparently it was built in the 1990s. Unlike most architectural jokes this one works, I think because it does not look funny until you concentrate on it, and you can just let it fade into the background. And opposite this there are some exotic creatures:

As I said, funny place, Amsterdam. Long may it continue to be so.