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August 11 2012

The inescapable power of architecture

In an extract from his new book, our architecture critic deconstructs the mysterious ways in which buildings shape our lives

An architect used to tell a story. Invited by a couple to design an extension to their house, he dined with them, listened to their needs and desires, heard his and her versions of what they wanted. At the end of the evening, he gave his professional advice. "You don't need an extension," he said, "you need a divorce."

It is advice that could have saved the software entrepreneur Larry Dean tens of millions of dollars. Dean is a man who grew up in a house without indoor plumbing, overcame his early poverty and went on to become a millionaire many times over. In 1992, he and his wife, Lynda, completed the biggest house in Atlanta, Georgia, a mansion of 32,000 square feet, the colour of salmon mousse. According to its architect, Bill Harrison, each square inch of it was given the attention to detail of "a Fabergé egg". The interiors were designed by their son, Chris, then a design student aged 21. The Deans' dream, it would later be reported, "was to raise their four children here in an atmosphere like Dynasty, only happy".

It is hard to do justice to the extravagance of Dean Gardens, as it was called, and the promiscuity of its inspirations and appropriations. To use the words of others: "Inspired by the dome of Florence, Italy's Brunelleschi Cathedral, the Rotunda is perhaps the mansion's most dramatic element. Three and a half storeys high and capped with a circular skylight, the Rotunda sets an elegant tone for this exceptional home." Or: "At the end of this east wing of the main floor is the octagonally shaped Peacock Room. With its baby grand piano and cappuccino bar, this unique space is perfect for entertaining large groups. The room has 11ft x 15ft arched windows which weigh some 12 hundred pounds each. From the centre of the ceiling, 43 feet above the floor, an eight-foot tall 'pendant' lighting fixture is suspended. The ceiling mural was painted by James Chadwick of Atlanta. The table in the centre of the room is carved from English limestone and weighs four thousand pounds. It sits atop a steel beam buried in bedrock under the home."

And these are only a few plums from the feast that was Dean Gardens. There were also the Moroccan rooms, the Egyptian suite, the Oriental suite, the Hawaiian art gallery, the games room got up as a 1950s diner, the malachite bathroom, the silver suite, the raspberry-coloured kitchen, the Old English bedroom, whose en-suite bathroom "is quite masculine, with fixtures reminiscent of a fine locker room".

Dean Gardens is a variation on the theme of Citizen Kane's Xanadu, or its real life inspiration, William Randolph Hearst's Hearst Castle. Like them, it is a compendium of lootings across history and geography. Its architecture reaches across millenniums and continents to assemble a microcosm, an image of the world for the personal enjoyment of its owner. The only parsimony shown by Dean, relative to Kane and Hearst, is that he did not seize whole chunks of historic buildings and have them imported bodily to his home. He only had them mimicked.

A distinctive feature of Dean Gardens was the contribution of young Chris, the interior designer, whose appointment echoes less Xanadu than Kane's purchase of an opera house as a showcase for the singing of his mistress turned second wife. Familial love eclipsed clear perception of talent. For Chris could no more make a room than Susan Alexander could hold a tune; Dean Gardens, the first of two commissions before he wisely ended his design career at the age of 24, proceeded arhythmically and out of key.

Cliches of opulence mingled with spasms of student surrealist angst. It was oysters in ketchup, double fudge caviar and Tabasco ice cream. There were tritons unicorns dolphins jukeboxes waterjets topiary astrolabes chinoiserie tassels flounces marble damask leather abstraction trompe l'oeil statuary four-posters leopardskin zebraskin pediments corinthian ionic doric palms stars moons mosque lights neon globes stripes peacocks pianos chandeliers chandeliers chandeliers gold gold gold royal blue putti lions and a decorated camel. In the games room, a giant anthropomorphised cone of french fries gave a sinister wink. The parental bed, "crafted by North Carolina artist Jane Goco", was engulfed by writhing turquoise vegetables, with terminations like crab claws and by gooey blossomings the colour of vulvas.

With the benefit of hindsight, one can guess that Chris's designs were an unconscious commentary on the state of his parents' marriage. It turned out that Lynda would be only the first of Larry's three– to date – ex-wives. She and he separated in 1993, shortly after moving into the house, and there followed a 17-year struggle to sell the place. In 1994, Michael Jackson was said to be interested. Perhaps sensing that this was a temple to problematic matrimony, he wanted to buy it as a surprise present for his fiancee, Lisa Marie Presley, until news leaked and his plan was ruined.

The house cost $25m to build and a further $18m in upkeep. In 2010, it was finally sold, with the help of the estate agents' encomiums quoted above, for $7.6m. The contents were auctioned for charity. Larry Dean, to his credit, frankly admitted that he had made a mistake, while telling the New York Times that he still considered himself happy and successful.

One can also guess that whatever brought down the Dean marriage was already incubating when the house was conceived and developed, that the house was intended as some kind of remedy but exacerbated the ills it was supposed to cure. The frenetic accumulation of motifs can be seen as a way of covering a void. In which case, Larry and Lynda would be very far from the first people to imagine that homebuilding can fix relationships and be proved wrong. In the early 19th century, for example, Sir John Soane conceived his house in Lincoln's Inn Fields as an ideal environment, laden with archaeology and art, for the edification of his sons. He fell out with them violently, but persisted in creating what is now a preserved, venerated and indeed mesmerising work of domestic architecture.

At the heart of this enduring syndrome is the double meaning of the word "home". It means physical residence, but also the family that inhabit it. It means building, people and relationship. It is easy to imagine that, by fixing the bricks and mortar, one is also fixing the flesh and blood, the more so as buildings seem easier to sort out than people. The results are more tangible, measurable, demonstrable. Because they are expensive and effortful, construction projects offer the appearance of serious attempts to fix something, even if they are irrelevant to the matter in hand.

Dean Gardens, like Soane's house, is a personal cosmos, an image of a world its maker would have rather had than the one in which he found himself.

The idea of home as cosmos can be expressed abstractly, as a geometrical order underlying all things, or physically and explicitly. It is present in Renaissance theory and in the fantastical structures hand-built out of broken china and other debris by untutored obsessives that occur rarely but persistently around the world. It is in the gathering of family photographs and mementoes on a mantelpiece, and in the promise made by interiors magazines: choose the products shown in articles and advertisements and you can form them into your own universe.

The common wish is to dream up a world of which the maker is master, where everything is as he or she would wish it. The same wish drives children to build homes out of cardboard boxes and impose strict entry conditions, and it is a powerful reason why, functional questions apart, clients commission and architects design buildings. As people and cultures learn more, the ambitions of these cosmos-makers increase, to include in their spheres as much knowledge, history and geography, science and religion as they can.

But, if homes aspire to the cosmic, they can also be nomadic. If one desire is to create a static, rooted image of perfection, another is to migrate, colonise and adapt different places, to make a home out of a city or a landscape. If Larry Dean and John Soane wanted to gather the world in one place, others roam it, seeking to make sense of it through the patterns of their wanderings.

A significant portion of humanity lives or lived on the move: Bedouin, Maasai, Roma, peddlers, salesmen, migrant workers, the ever-airborne businessman played by George Clooney in Up in the Air. People live in tents, boats, caravans, igloos, boarding houses and hotels. For sailors, according to Joseph Conrad, "their home is always with them – the ship; and so is their country – the sea". Many in cities have come from somewhere else and are, or hope to be, on the way to another place. It is normal for most city-dwellers to have several different homes during their lives.

People who inhabit through motion include desert-dwellers, obliged to move with herds in search of feeding grounds and markets, and 19th-century flâneurs, gentleman strollers in search of fascination. Some distinctions should be made. There is a difference between the desert nomad or economic migrant who wander to survive and the dandified poet in search of diversion, between necessity and choice, and between escaping hunger and escaping boredom. But all show an ability to construct space out of the tracks they follow and the landmarks, whether a shop window or a sand dune, that they see. They do not need a house to make a home.

In south-east Amsterdam, an enormous housing development called Bijlmermeer, or the Bijlmer for short, was planned in the late 1960s. It aimed to be the ultimate example of the internationally recognised Dutch genius for planning and an attempt to apply with breathtaking consistency and determination the theories of the time. Homes for 100,000 inhabitants were created in almost identical 10-storey concrete blocks, whose walls and windows were mass-produced in factories, laid out on a hexagonal grid. Parks and lakes filled the spaces between the blocks and roads were built on viaducts, to separate cars from pedestrians and people.

The architects, inspired by Soviet models, planned collective facilities – bars, daycare centres, hobby rooms – to stimulate communal life and serve the new society of almost limitless leisure time that modern technology would soon create. Five-room flats, of reasonably generous dimensions, were designed for the needs of a typical Dutch family. An overriding principle was the avoidance of danger or discomfort: covered walkways meant you could get from car to flat without getting wet; vehicular traffic was separated from people; flats were designed to catch the maximum of sunlight and fresh air.

Although it attracted optimistic and idealistic early residents, problems arose. A promised metro line to central Amsterdam did not materialise, leaving the Bijlmer cut off. Nor did the provision of adequate shopping come to pass. No one had worked out who would pay for the communal facilities and the maintenance of the parks, meaning that the latter degenerated. The former stayed closed, except when opened by residents' initiatives. The construction cost more than expected, so rents went up to recoup costs. Flats emptied or were never occupied in the first place.

Then, in 1975, Holland ceded independence to its colony Suriname, on the north coast of South America. Citizens there were entitled to a Dutch passport, with the result that soon there were nearly as many Surinamese in Holland, in search of economic opportunities, as in Suriname. With inevitable logic, many moved into the vacant flats of the Bijlmer, despite official attempts to stop it becoming "Holland's first ghetto", by rationing the provision of homes there to immigrants. The prices remained high, leading to overcrowding, in one case 12 adults and 12 children in one flat.

The new residents adapted the flats, designed for typical white Dutch families, to their own needs. They knocked through walls or floors to make larger homes for their extended families. Many were from rural backgrounds and lived as they had in tropical villages, only adapted to a colder climate. Livestock was kept in flats, campfires lit indoors and rubbish thrown from balconies to the ground, rather than down chutes into bins. Catholic churches were set up in disused garages and flats became part-time temples to the Surinamese religion of Winti. Bird-singing contests were held in the parks, with betting on which brightly coloured bird would sing the longest. A petting zoo and farm were set up and for a while a Bijlmer cheese was made. The architects' dream of communal activity came true, but not in the orderly form they had imagined.

The estate's original problems of disconnection and poor facilities remained, with the result that more stable and better-off families left when they could. The Bijlmer declined, crime grew. The walkways, products of the original ambition for complete safety and comfort, became dangerous and ground-floor lock-ups became brothels and drug dens. The estate's bad name, acquired when the first residents started complaining about its defects, got worse. Racists called it "Negro-ghetto" and "monkey mountain." Masterplans for its improvement by leading architects came and went unrealised. In 1992, an El Al cargo-carrying 747, trying to return to Schiphol airport after two of its engines had fallen off, crashed, made a 10-storey gash at one of the 120 corners in one of the hexagonally-planned blocks and killed 43 (or possibly more, as the large numbers of unregistered immigrants made it difficult to be certain). It was a random catastrophe, but confirmed Bijlmermeer's image as a place of ill omen. Following the aeroplane's lead, the authorities later demolished most of the blocks and replaced them with lower buildings.

Meanwhile, however, the blighted place began to show glimmers of success. The residents, who included Hindus, Antilleans, Ghanaians and white Dutch as well as Surinamese, had organised themselves into a community group substantial enough to get itself heard by official bodies. A thriving weekly market started and a cultural festival, Blij met de Bijlmer ("Happy with the Bijlmer"), was set up. The latter, perhaps burdened by the forced upbeatness of its name, closed after 16 years, but a more successful festival, called Kwakoe, grew from a series of informal soccer matches into an event of music, dance, sport and food that now attracts 400,000 people. Crime started to fall, and if the Bijlmer did not become paradise on earth, it was no longer the sink of despair it was once thought to be.

The point of the Bijlmer story is partly how an obsessively planned development could be thrown off course by the unexpected: the independence of Suriname, a plane crash. It is also about the way in which a migrant population can, not easily but with some success, make a home in an unpromising location. It is hard to imagine anywhere less domestic than the huge, repetitive blocks of the Bijlmer or more alien to the incoming Surinamese. The population of the Bijlmer had to discover, in a few decades, how to inhabit a place through adaptations, actions, successes and mistakes. It is the opposite of the Deans and Soane, who invested everything in the fixed fabric of their homes. The residents of the Bijlmer make their universes around and in spite of the fabric.

It is easy to see the absurdity of a belief in the healing power of masonry – it is a superstition, animism – but people fall for it again and again and they are not entirely wrong to do so. For, if it is a mistake to think that a house can mend a family, the opposite is also false. That is, the built background to our lives is not irrelevant, either. To put the case negatively, the wrong kinds of buildings can inflict misery and frustration. A world in which the dwelling becomes a purely technical question is not appealing.

To be more positive, we want buildings to embellish, beautify, dignify, distract or divert. We want them to propose and to enable: to suggest what could be, to make things possible, to give freedoms. The idea of home, whether expressed as stable cosmos or as nomadic wandering, shows a basic truth, which is that the space we occupy is not neutral to us. We cannot look at it with detachment. We are in it, we make it and it makes us. What are mysterious are the ways in which physical surroundings interact with our desires. If Dean Gardens seems over-determined and clumsy, where exactly did it go wrong? How might a builder or an architect make a happier relation of stuff to humanity?

The assumption behind Dean Gardens, or the Soane house, is that there is a close alignment of form and content: that if a mansion represents happy family life, such life will take place within it. Similar conceptions have played their part in the global economy, when the illusionary solidity of owning a home contributed to the American sub-prime crisis. As the US secretary of housing and urban development Shaun Donovan put it, "the built environment helped create the economic crisis".

The Surinamese colonisation of Bijlmermeer suggests that people can make their home anywhere, without or despite the contribution of built form, albeit with considerable struggle. Other examples suggest that the planning and design of cities can, after all, make a difference to the futures they will contain, but with luck and unpredictable events along the way.

The failings of Dean and Soane show that they misjudged the power of form and imagined a too direct connection between the inanimate and the animate. If there is cause and effect in the relations of minerals and people, it is more circuitous and reciprocal and less linear. If there is truth in architecture, its shape is not immediately obvious.


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August 01 2012

More than bricks and mortar: how to make the most of your facilities

Good facilities are integral to good universities, so how can HE leaders finance, plan and manage their estates in a way that leads to gains and not losses? Join the live chat, Friday 3 August

Campus development: everyone's at it. From minor refurbishment projects to more sizeable construction jobs, it would seem - in the UK at least - that appetite for new, bigger and better facilities has defied the austerity mantra.

State-of-the-art facilities are not simply a vanity project. They help attract students, provide a tailored space in which academic staff can teach and conduct research, and are part of the wider distinctiveness and economic strategy.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) puts it this way: "Research shows the increasing importance of the role of higher education institutions in local and regional economies through knowledge creation and knowledge transfer. Facilities play a crucial role in meeting educational needs and providing places where knowledge exchange can happen. However, they are an expensive commodity to provide and maintain."

And at a time of considerable change in higher education, coupled with a global economy in renewed crisis, many wonder if greater gains could not be achieved by investing elsewhere in the sector - predominantly in teaching and research.

But the question shouldn't be whether buildings are worth more than brains. In an assessment of which is more valuable to the creation of scientific knowledge, scientists or facilities, assistant professor Fabian Waldinger concludes: "It is difficult to evaluate how much high quality scientists and better facilities contribute to the creation of scientific knowledge".

Similarly, a non-targeted injection of funds into capital projects won't guarantee a university's survival. As a recent report into US colleges and universities found, development without a good strategic plan could lead to liquidity issues. The report, The financially sustainable university, explains: "Many institutions have operated on the assumption that the more they build, spend, diversify and expand, the more they will persist and prosper. But instead, the opposite has happened: Institutions have become over-leveraged."

So how can facilities and senior managers finance, plan and manage their estates in a way that leads to gains and not losses? And as technology permeates all areas of HE, what is its role in facilities management? Join our live chat panel to explore what an effective learning environment looks like, what the benchmarks and performance indicators of effective management are, and how to make university facilities financially and environmentally sustainable.

The live chat takes place on Friday 3 August, in the comment threads beneath this blog and will begin at 12 BST

If you would like to join the panel, please send me an email.

This content is brought to you by Guardian Professional. To get more articles like this direct to your inbox, become a member of the Higher Education Network.


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December 20 2010

Towering conversion

Britain's Martello towers were built to keep the French navy at bay. Jonathan Glancey reports on how one rotting relic in Suffolk was turned into an extraordinary new home

Martello towers were built, at great cost, along the coasts of Kent, Sussex, Essex and Suffolk at the time of the Napoleonic wars. Originally, there were 103 of these 30ft-high towers, with walls 13ft thick and roof-mounted cannons capable of shooting lead balls a mile out to sea.

Duncan Jackson's Martello tower, rising from behind the seawall at Bawdsey in Suffolk, is a daunting structure, yet it has been reworked to provide a warm and unexpected welcome: warm because the thick walls keep the winter at bay; and unexpected because, inside, industrial designer Jackson has shaped one of the most original and soul-stirring modern homes in Britain – from a neglected fort never designed for comfort.

Until it became redundant in the 1870s, there had been troops at Tower Y, as well as coastguards after Napoleon's defeat. The spartan living quarters, however, had been crammed around the entrance floor, above an arsenal of gunpowder and cannonballs, and below the wind-scythed roof deck. Today, from the battlements, or rather the roof terrace, three other towers can be seen, dotted along the shingle coast.

Jackson first came across the tower in June 2000, when it was rotting away at the edge of a farm. And so began a 10-year affair with 750,000 Suffolk bricks. "I wasn't wholly naive," says Jackson, whose American wife and young daughter are now settling in. "I spent a year in negotiation with the farmer. He put in mains water and electricity, but I did have to face up to the fact that the tower was a Scheduled Monument, that it was on the Buildings at Risk register, and that it's part of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that's also a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Given all this, perhaps I should have cut my losses and walked away."

Instead, Jackson and his architect Stuart Piercy got stuck in. The two had worked together at Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners – architects of the Eden Project – so had experience of taxing commissions requiring the highest standards of detailed design. Making Tower Y a home, though, was never going to be easy. "When we first walked round," says Piercy, "the cellar was five-foot deep in water, while the roof was covered in soil blown across the fields over the years. But the underlying structure was as strong as a battleship."

Jackson adds: "We made friends with the conservation and planning people. We needed them on our side. There are people who say the towers shouldn't become homes because this takes away from their historic role. But if they aren't going to be lived in, what's to happen to them? Those that hadn't been blasted away during target practice by the military have often been left to rot, and then demolished."

It was the undulating new plywood roof, swooping over three-quarters of the battlements, that did most to turn Tower Y into a modern home. This elegant parasol not only provides a dramatic ceiling for the top floor living space, kitchen and dining area, it also allows mesmerising 360-degree views of the Suffolk coast: on one side tractors plough fields; on the other, vast ships plough the last leg of journeys from, say, China to Felixstowe.

Here is a special place to cook, entertain, or just while away the day. Stroll out onto the terrace and you feel as if you've walked from the bridge of a modern liner out on to its deck, where you stand bathed in light and sucking in sea air. Only the two spiral staircases beckoning from the sides suggest that, below decks, there's another dimension: a cavernous, circular brick chamber, with oak floors set around a vast central brick column. Here, lit by windows set into those deep walls, is another ravishing living space.

This circular living room boasts a large fireplace and sitting area, as well as a cloakroom, a storeroom and a lobby leading to the front door – set some 20ft up from the ground and reached by a straight new steel stairway. Directly below that thrilling space, there are cosy bedrooms, the main ones ingeniously lit by lightwells cut through the brick at steep angles. These bring daylight into what would otherwise be dark storerooms better suited to housing cannonballs. A room for children, meanwhile, is being fitted with a camera obscura that will reflect the seascape on to its walls.

These rooms, complete with grotto-like bathrooms, work beautifully down in the basement. "It was the only place for them really," says Piercy. "Otherwise, we'd have been forced to cram them into the big living chamber upstairs. That would have lost us the great sense of space you get up there."

The overall effect is magical: brick fort on the outside, palatial home within. The main space, approached from the entrance lobby, is breathtaking, with the climb up the spiral stairs enjoyably spooky, and the top floor a revelation: all light, space and comfort, with little hint of ostentation. But then you don't need decoration when you have the sea and all its moods just beyond the parapet, with ships hoving in and out of view, and sunlight playing over that lichen-encrusted brickwork throughout the day.

All the lighting, heating and plumbing gubbins have been carefully concealed, but some doors do lack handles; this is simply because, after so many years, Jackson has still to find the right ones. Best of all is the fact that the tower remains very much itself, and very much as it always was, seen either from the coastal path – or from a ship on the waves, through a captain's spyglass.


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October 27 2010

The scariest building in Britain?

Is the Royal Masonic School for Boys the scariest building in Britain? As Halloween looms, Jonathan Glancey visits the school adored by film-makers that's being turned into luxury flats

When the film-maker Merlin Ward was scouting for a location for his 2003 film Out of Bounds, a psychological thriller set in an eerie boarding school where bells toll ominously and a chill wind rarely stops moaning, he could scarcely believe his luck when he was shown the Royal Masonic School for Boys, a hulking structure built in 1903, in the Hertfordshire town of Bushey.

"It wasn't just that this vast Edwardian school was conveniently close to London and the film studios around Elstree," says Ward. "It was the gloriously spooky entrance tower and the sense of foreboding evoked by the surrounding buildings: cavernous, ominous, Halloween-like. I couldn't have asked for a more unnerving setting."

Nor could other directors. When Ward began filming in 2001, four other production companies were busy there. In fact, before it closed in 1977, the school had been a popular setting for murder mysteries and thrillers, including the cult 1960s TV show The Avengers. Since then, it has featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Harry Potter movies, Monty Python's Meaning of Life, and 1985's Lifeforce, in which a shuttle returns to Earth carrying space vampires. Scarier still, it even served as a law court in EastEnders.

When the school, surely a contender for Britain's scariest building, closed, its next incarnation was as an international college, before becoming the property of Comer Homes, a company founded by Brian and Luke Comer, two plasterers from County Galway. They have redeveloped some great abandoned buildings, including Colney Hatch Asylum in London, which they rechristened Princess Park Manor, after turning it into sumptuous flats complete with gyms, swimming pools, spa facilities and pretty much every luxury expected by their clients, who include high-earning footballers. They have now repeated the trick with the Royal Masonic School – or Royal Connaught Park, to give it its new name.

"It's sad in a way that it's been redeveloped," says Ward. "The school was such a brilliant studio. It was highly atmospheric. We camped out there during our shoot. It was cold and forbidding. We never saw a ghost, sadly, not even in the mortuary." The mortuary? "Oh yes – the boys who came here as orphans from the Boer and great war would sometimes die of flu and TB, if not from beatings. It seems odd today, but there was nothing unusual about a school mortuary then."

Comer Homes employed architects ADP, specialists in such work, to exorcise the Halloween spirit from the old school. "I've spent more years involved with Royal Connaught Park than any schoolboy did," says project architect Catherine Yeatman, who, with Comer's Basil Nwalema, is taking me on a tour. "Planning began in 1998, and it has evolved gradually ever since."

There are 157 flats in the old buildings, with 200 to come in new residencies hidden in a dip in the extensive grounds. The cheapest flat, which has just one bedroom but could never be described as cramped, costs £369,000; the most expensive, a three-bedroom penthouse, is £2.5m.

"It's hardly a fast-buck project," says Nwalema, "but this type of complex – big and beautifully built, at a time when British architecture was exceptionally well crafted – makes for special homes today."

As a mournful drizzle sets in, we start off from under the clock tower. Originally built by freemasons for sons of impoverished and bereaved families, the white-stone-and-red-brick complex was designed by the firm Gordon, Lowther and Gunton. Their approach was, to say the least, eclectic. For their schools, chapels and office blocks, the architects employed a pageant of styles drawn from the spectrum of British history: the daunting tower alone reads like an encyclopedia of gothic design.

Their work could be epic, though. It takes an age to walk from the tower to the enormous dining hall at the far end of a cloistered quadrangle. Almost too large for the eye to take in, the hall, which will be used for big social events, boasts dark timber panelling, exposed beams and lofty gothic windows that pour light into an echoing cavern. I'm assuming it wasn't much fun here. A record of school life written by Geoff Kirby, a pupil from 1949 to 1953, is divided into sections entitled: I Enter Hell, The Curse of Games, Censored Letters and Beaten Bare Buttocks, and My Eyes Are Ruined By Incompetent Medical Staff.

Today, a glazed section in the dining hall floor gives a glimpse of the luxurious underground swimming pool. Its blue waters look enticing: for a happy moment, all the daunting school architecture is warmed and tamed. Yet if the old dining hall, with its horribly long echo, feels in any way sinister, the unrestored assembly hall is the stuff of a Hammer House of Horror nightmare. Yeatman tells me that this appallingly large room will eventually be conjured into five four-storey flats, each with a pair of cathedral-sized windows.

We move on to imposing towers and wings, now flats, some big enough to house an entire football team. There is an impressive gym with gothic decor; and that swimming pool, underground yet ingeniously daylit; as well as other rooms due to be turned into club rooms and restaurants. A magnificent kitchen block, with clerestory windows, is to be made into further flats boasting impressive top-lit, oak-beamed roofs.

"One of the good things," says Yeatman, "is that we've been able to demolish poor ancillary buildings that grew up alongside the walls of the Edwardian school like architectural fungus. Now the school has been turned into homes, you see it more as it was [originally]. We've also been able to replace black-pitch yards and playgrounds with gardens."

"And," says Nwalema, "the birds have returned, along with a lot of wildlife." Just as I'm about to suggest bats, rats and giant spiders – if not vampires and zombies – a murder of crows alight on a gothic gable and arrange themselves into a line, cawing menacingly.

There are still a large number of buildings like this in Britain: schools, hospitals, asylums dating from a time when Britain was able to indulge in architecture that was the stuff of architects' dreams and gothic horror nightmares. While it is good to see them returning to favour, their ghosts and demons expelled, it does pose a question: where will directors of the future go to find places as scary and Halloween-like as the Royal Masonic School for Boys?


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October 03 2010

Our cheap old blocks | Owen Hatherley

Again the Stirling prize goes to a building abroad. British clients prefer their architecture parochial

For the fourth time, the Stirling prize, the award for "the building that has made the greatest contribution to British architecture in the past year", has been awarded to a building outside the UK. In itself, that isn't so alarming – the prize aims to show how influential British architecture is abroad. Yet looking at the shortlist, the contrast between the British and European entries was unflattering. We had a small block of "live/work units" assisting in the gentrification of east London; a drab remodelling of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford; two schools, as a protest against Michael Gove's axing of the Building Schools for the Future programme; and two real contenders, neither of them realisable in the UK, David Chipperfield's fragmented remaking of the Berlin Neues Museum, and Zaha Hadid's monstrous, overwhelming Maxxi Museum of 21st Century Art in Rome. With their cheap PFI detailing and stylistic bet-hedging, the UK entries didn't stand a chance.

There were worthy buildings in the UK that could have been on the list – most obviously the lace-patterned concrete shipping containers of Caruso St John's Nottingham Contemporary, though this is too allusive and peculiar for the optimistic Stirling. The judges usually have a message to communicate, and the small scale and alleged social purpose of recent winners – such as the Accordia housing scheme in Cambridge, or the Maggie's cancer care centre in Hammersmith – were taken as protests against the recent fetish for the spectacular, signature, "iconic" building. Apparently this time the judges were initially hostile to Hadid, but were won over by the relentless spatial aggression of Maxxi. Yet the unintended message about the provincialism of British clients is clear enough, given that Hadid is most famous for not building in the UK. Her most notorious British work is still the Cardiff Bay Opera House that was cancelled in 1995. However, she finished a tiny cancer care centre in Fife in 2007, and has finally completed a building in London – the Evelyn Grace Academy, which opened last month.

In her victory speech, Hadid drew attention to the architect the prize is named after, James Stirling, designer of three still deeply controversial red brick university buildings – the Florey halls of residence at Queens College in Oxford, the History Faculty in Cambridge and the Leicester Engineering Building. A new book, Jim Stirling and the Red Trilogy, claims that the trauma these caused – not only were they architecturally extreme, but poor maintenance, changes made during construction and simple ineptitude condemned them to functional failure – set back British modern architecture, perhaps irrevocably. Although the trilogy are now listed and protected, Stirling designed council housing schemes too, in Preston and Runcorn, both long demolished.

In the fearlessness and fierceness of her work, Hadid is Stirling's heir, and this is surely one of the reasons why British clients avoid her. Modern architecture here is jolly, cheap, brightly coloured and optimistic. Hadid's major buildings, such as Maxxi or the Phaeno Science Centre in Wolfsburg, are the sort of architecture that apparently terrifies British audiences – hewn from thick slabs of grey concrete, harsh and uncompromising.

For many of her clients, that flamboyance makes Hadid something of a heroic individualist, neglected by the masses. In recent years she has built prolifically in the Alps, in the United Arab Emirates – providing the sort of dramatic form-giving for ski-jumps, museums, opera houses and luxury towers that some have dubbed "oligarchitecture".

She has often expressed her desire to design, like Stirling did, social housing, functional buildings for everyday life. It's perhaps appropriate that the sponsor of her first educational building is hedge fund manager and "venture philanthropist" Arpad "Arki" Busson. Some have made the connection between the weightless, swarming formalism of Hadid's recent work and financialised capitalism – architect Sam Jacob called it "an architecture of spectacular, hollow unreality: based on unreal money, housing unreal programmes ... (inspired by) the systematised abstraction of late capitalism", so its patronage is apt.

Yet Evelyn Grace, in south London, was realised by the same PFI methods as any other school in the UK, pieced together by Capita. And while it might promise that architecture as powerful as Hadid's could be put to everyday use, it's as an exception, as the signature for an "aspirational" academy. Most of us will make do with what Alastair Campbell called "bog-standard comprehensives", and bog-standard architecture.


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June 10 2010

From the archive, 10 June 1958: Brasilia in model form

Originally published in the Manchester Guardian on 10 June 1958

From tomorrow an exhibition showing the projected new capital city of Brazil will be at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Dover Street, London. Brasilia, which is to become the seat of government in 1960, at present consists of vast site works and two nearly finished buildings, the "Residency" and a hotel.

Since this city, six hundred miles from the coast, will normally be approached by air, it is one of the few projects of which a model can give a realistic view. First of all a map locates the city and offers data of latitude, longitude, temperature, altitude and the object of the whole operation. The far end of the gallery is filled by a progress photograph of Oscar Niemeyer's Residency building, showing the marble clad pilotis (columns) with the silhouettes of steep waves, locally known as "Oscar's Cardiograph". Niemeyer was commissioned by the President to put up the buildings pending the result of the preliminary competition for a broad planning idea.

Brasilia was first thought of seriously in 1823 and received legislative reality in 1946. In 1956 the development corporation was formed and President Kubitchek invited Niemeyer to prepare sketch plans for the city. On the architect's advice, however, operations were held up while the competition was held and judged by an internationally constituted jury. Lucio Costa's broad scheme was adopted.

Costa's idea for the city is a plan shaped like a bent bow and arrow. The bow, the residential area. The arrow, the legislative buildings. Whether a capital city for half a million inhabitants can spring fully armed from the designer's brain has yet to be seen.

First reminding oneself that the concrete will be seen against deep blue sky and red earth, one can consider the Residency, with its spiral concrete chapel, and the saucer and the dome of the Plenary Assembly Hall, whose silhouette dominates the roof of the congress building. One can question the wisdom of using the same pilotis shape as at the Residency for the Supreme Court and Government buildings, but here at right angles to curtain walls, or the political implications of siting Congress and Senate under one roof.

Study of the housing section reveals that the community unit is 3,000, each with its own primary school, market and church. Overlooking from flat to flat has been strictly avoided and services have been considered carefully even at this outline stage. Each community is screened by a grove of trees. Architecturally one of the most interesting experiments is the use of immense horizontal platforms to produce monumentality.


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