opinions are solely my own

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

UEL at Ecobuild

Congratulations to our Year 1 students who won the most sustainable stand prize at Ecobuild!  Obviously there is something worth seeing there after all.  Now where did I put that ticket.....


I had a ticket to go to a well-known sustainability trade fair yesterday and had booked the day out of my diary.  But then I remembered the depressing experience of my last attendance at this show.  In its original incarnation it had the 'hairy hippy' feel about it, which at least made it different, if slightly eccentric.  Now it has been fully main-streamed, to use the management-speak noun-to-verb conversion.  My last experience could not be differentiated from any other construction industry event: the narrowly-defined demographic; decontextualised, heavy-handed product marketing (bolt-ons); and uncritical, rhetorical talks.  It should simply be renamed 'Build'.  

Having worked through the weekend to clear the decks, I had a day free and simply couldn't bring myself to spend it in an artificially-lit cattle-shed, so I cycled out to see this building instead.

Erected in 645AD by St Cedd on the eastern edge of Essex, overlooking the sea, it fulfills Christopher Alexander's notion of building typologies arising mainly from a recognisable set of relationships.  He gives the example of a church as a general proportion of space (width, height length), rows of seating and a hierarchical structure, etc.  This building emphasises the point, being little more than a brick barn (the apse has long since gone and the building truncated), punched with small windows.  Inside, though its  remarkably light and a simple, but beautiful space.  Overlooking the Dengie nature reserve: a shifting cockle-shell 'beach' providing highly important habitat; it seems to say more about sustainability than I'd be likely to uncover in a trade-fair brochure.  If any of my buildings are still standing in 1,369 years time I'll be very surprised.

Time to update my CPD record

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Production of Architecture (or is architecture getting easier?)

The recent preoccupation with bespoke automated production processes, like 3D printing and other forms of CADCAM could lead to the conclusion that Architecture is getting easier.  For sure, it is easier than ever to produce a model of just about any form that can be imagined.  Brick-laying machines make no differentiation between a flat wall and the three-way curving brick forms that pushed the craft of bricklaying during the 'Amsterdam School' period of the early 20th Century, for example.

Wall, A. Robot

In Architecture school, model-making is a key pedagogical tool, but 3D printing is becoming so fast and cheap, it is a fair question as to why we still bother making models by hand. Working with a material, finding its limitations and responding (either by changing material, or adjusting the spatial idea) pushes an individual interest in spatial forms where the process of production is inherent in the architectural form.  This results in engaged Architecture: that which has a conversation with the world.  Its not to say that unconstrained form-making doesn't have a role in this; it does, but always as part of a wider conversation, otherwise its merely rhetorical.


Plaster cast of the ceiling of a Boromini church by UEL Diploma student.  More here

I recently started learning Rhino after having spent a lot of time struggling with 3D studio, AutoCAD and even Sketchup, which I find perversely difficult to use.  Rhino is like a breath of fresh air: its so easy and quick, one wonders why other software even exists.  Literally anything seems possible and when it becomes as easy to draw a non-uniform curve as a straight line, the choice between the two becomes a decision; there is no longer a default (and I haven't even started with Grasshopper yet).  Nonetheless, a line still represents something: normally a material set in space toward a given function (which may be purely architectural).  The conversation between these two positions is what makes new capabilities exciting.  What leaves me cold is when one drives the other.  To pick an obvious example, Zaha's buildings tend to incorporate furniture also designed by her, because ordinary furniture is the wrong shape (or is it the building?).  Its clear when you step into (at least some) of her buildings, that they inhabit another world and this is the vision that many enjoy in her work.  For me, it lacks tolerance though and it feels like an architecture of disengagement. Zaha is surely enjoying these new capabilities and for her, architecture does seem to be getting easier.

Back in the studio, though our students are developing extraordinary conversations between new and traditional capabilities and techniques.  Diploma Unit 6, run by Isaie and Gilles are exploring the interactions between different systems of production: 3D printing, plaster casting, sculpting and layering; Degree Unit C (Klara and Satoshi) are using 3D routers to develop brick moulds for traditional casting that explore these new capabilities at the component scale; Diploma Unit 11 (Jamie and Colin) are using traditional plaster casting to understand the form and articulation of Lutyens' buildings in a way that still can't be achieved with a 3D printer.  In all of these, the uncertainty of outcome is key to the process: the process learns from its product and vice versa.

Degree Unit C

Diploma Unit 6

Diploma Unit 11

All this takes us back to the likes of Karl Marx, William Morris, Henri Lefebvre: we cannot escape our social relationship with the making of our environment.  New capabilities are both a blessing and a curse: they allow new modes of production, but also offer tempting refuges from the real world.  Architecture can absolutely transcend function, materiality, time and place, but it only serves a polemic purpose when it engages with these fundamentals in conversation; ignoring them is just pointless, or purposeless.  A more interesting avenue for me is the potential for these capabilities to allow a more dispersed production of architecture: a 21st Century self-build.  That somehow seems more radical and engaged with the contemporary social context.

Greg Henderson said cycle racing is like fighting a gorilla: you don't stop when you get tired, you stop when the gorilla gets tired.  Architecture is the same: it shouldn't get easier, you can just go further. Fight that gorilla...

Monday, 4 November 2013

OMA in Shenzhen

There's a brilliant review in this month's Architectural Review of the new stock exchange building in Shenzhen, written by Austin Williams.  He seems to be an interesting and outspoken character and although I've not seen this building, much of what he writes rings true with most of OMA's recent work.  In many respects it seems like a dumb building, lacking the overt expression of power and optimism (real or pretend) of its peers, apart from the elevated podium which appears a diagramatic, rather than architectural move.

We always tell students a diagram alone doesn't make architecture, but here the diagram is the architecture, mainly because the diagram is so architecturally provocative.  The statements Koolhaas makes about this building are typically diversionary: giving over the ground plane to public space (which means what in China, exactly?) could be achieved in so many simpler ways; but of course the real architectural issues being played with lie elsewhere and as usual Koolhaas will probably talk about them at another time, maybe in relation to another building.  It is this 'dumbness' in which the sophistication of the work lies.  Unlike any other globally-known architectural practice I can think of, OMA respond to the utterly bizarre and alien postmodern contexts in which their buildings are located and occupied.  That they manage to make an architecture linking at once the ironic, divisive and unpredictable dynamics of contemporary capitalism with physical materials, structural and functional performance for real clients is an extraordinary achievement and it seems best realised yet in this building. Like most radical movements, this architecture will only properly be understood in the future, with the benefit of hindsight.  Now, most people argue about whether its any good or not.  This is totally beside the point.  As with postmodern society, good or bad doesn't come in to it. 

Monday, 28 October 2013

The Smithsons in Norfolk

A weekend spent in Norfolk is always a great way to unwind, but as usual there's always a busman's holiday element to any break, so we went slightly out of the way to visit Hunstanton school.  Designed by the Smithsons and completed in 1951 its a stunning building.  The photos don't really do it justice, but I'll show a couple anyway.

There is something pivotal about this building in the way it manages to carry the rigour and rationality of Modernism with the subtle scale and softening of the edges that was characteristic of the late '40s and early '50s.  Having seen photos before, I expected it to feel truly brutal and unforgiving, but the black glass surprisingly has the opposite effect; giving a lightness and playfulness to it, especially in the setting sun.  The grid is absolutely rigid and resolved, but within it, the different scale and function of spaces seem to hang perfectly (as far as I could see through the windows, anyway).  Of course I'm sure its problematic as a modern school, with all that single glazing, but for a building that is 65 years old, it feels remarkably fresh.  When set against some of the well-regarded Modernist schools one finds in London and elsewhere, it suggests that something was lost in what came after.  Our more recent crop of academies seem to have generally either been desperately shortchanged by the procurement process, or lack both the simplicity and the subtleties of this building.  

The Smithsons always had that playful subversive undertow to their work, but to see it applied so masterfully here, it even embarrasses their own later work, in my view.  

Thursday, 26 September 2013


Today I attended a Cisco 'Telepresence' meeting, thanks to an invitation from Social Life to join a discussion about innovation in the regeneration of a housing suburb of Malmo in Sweden.  I've used videolink conferencing facilities before, but this was definitely a step up.  High-definition cameras pick up the attendees, who sit round similarly shaped tables, with similar backgrounds.  The Screens are arranged as an extension of the table and the cameras are voice-activated.  The link is absolutely instantaneous with no perceptible lag.  It does actually feel like you are in the same room, to the extent that you can hear if people are whispering to each other.

People joined from Brussels, Seoul, New York, Chicago, Malmo and London and it was an interesting debate, though I think more ideas were expressed than fully explored, but there will be follow-ups.  The criticism of these things is normally that you don't feel like you've actually met the other people, which is necessary to develop a kind of professional bond, that then allows you to work effectively at a distance.  With high-definition cameras and zero lag, it does actually feel like you've met, though.  If I'm right, then this has pretty big implications for the future.  At the moment, the main problem is there is only one Cisco office with these facilities in each city and several people had to travel right across town to make the meeting.  Obviously its easier than flying to Malmo, but when this technology proliferates, it will really change things.  Broadband capacity is presumably the limiting factor, but when that improves, maybe we'll never need to leave the house again, to meet, go to school, or down the pub?

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Sustainability and the city

introductory text to our MAASD course, 2013/14

Sustainability is an under-theorised notion.  The Brundtland definition of sustainable development, proposed and internationally adopted in 1987 contained inherent antagonisms, that continue to play out today: which human needs (or desires) should be met?  Whose future should be protected?  are sustainability and development (as currently realised) mutually inclusive or exclusive?  The scientific method is giving us greater insights into the likelihood, impacts and proximity of risks we face and whilst it has also delivered technical solutions, our societal capability to apply these appears to be frustrated by the very processes that produce them.  Einstein said that you don't solve problems using the same thinking that created them; he also said, 'the environment is everything except me.'  Via sustainability, we have reduced the environment of 'everything' to 'everything physical' , thus excluding the role of human relations from the discussion. Science and technology are only produced through human relations, however and this disjunction lies at the heart of the environmental conundrum.  

Some of the authors in the reading list propose that the problem of sustainability is primarily a social, not a technical one.  In their view a sustainable world is not only also a socially just world; social justice is a precondition of it.  (Un)fortunately, the (post)modern processes identified by Berman and Beck have already set to work on the under-theorised notion of sustainability, hollowing it out, so that the terminology has become a set of empty symbols, devoid of meaning; yet at the same time these processes continue in powerful, reflexive modes according to Beck.  Modernity may yet provide the radical energy to re-invent the world.  This leaves us the challenge of identifying  the roots of sustainability, as a fundamentally Modern process.  If we go back to the city at the turn of the century and follow Simmel, one of the founding fathers of modern sociology, we gain an insight into the Modern processes at work on society as it rapidly shifted from the rural to the urban.  We understand the city as a mental construct, as much as it is a physical one and we trace the roots of these antagonistic forces that continue to shape all of our lives.  If as Lefebvre proposes, the city is a social product, then a sustainable city requires first a sustainable society.  The immediately apparent inequalities of the city lie in stark contrast to this vision.  Minton's writing identifies this contradiction within contemporary urban development and in doing so, only through words, makes it tangible and possible to challenge through architecture and design.

During the first semester, we will focus on this theoretical reasoning, sharpening our critical tools and building our understanding of the history and etymology of an under-theorised idea.  Observation is key and we will learn to look again at the city around us.  Locke's twin modes of engagement with the world: sensation and reflection, will be separated once more so that they can usefully inform one another.  The skill of writing will be developed, so that in 5,000 words, a final report will build the basis for intervention in the city, to be undertaken in Semester B. 

Roland Karthaus, Alan Chandler & Anna Minton