Archive for the ‘Article’ Category

Grey Matters

October 3, 2016

An opinion piece written on older people and housing for the 40th anniversary publication of an architecture firm I used to work for. Came out late 2016; I also did several other interview pieces that feature throughout: article.

Jim Hudson asks whether a new generation of people reaching old age might mean a completely different approach to their housing needs

The percentage of people over 65 in Britain is forecast to increase from its current 18%, to almost a quarter of the population by 2040, bringing with it problems of isolation and loneliness, and placing an increasing demand on already stretched health services. But are current models of housing and care provision responding fast enough to this fundamental demographic shift? If you pick up a brochure for sheltered housing, for instance, chances are it will feature a smiling couple in their 60s, with text that emphasizes security and a 24-hour pull cord response. The buildings in the background will no doubt be a low-rise quiet enclave of some form, and will include a communal lounge where residents can attend coffee mornings.

It’s not just that there will be more older people in the future; older people will be different. Those reaching retirement age now and over the next decade are the baby boomers – the first ‘consumer generation’ who are arguably more demanding, and much more diverse, than previous generations. What are they making of the current housing options available to them – private or publicly supported – and might we soon have to rethink the idea of specialist housing for the ‘over 55s’ altogether, when an active 65 or 70 year old will have no interest in anything that’s aimed at ‘the elderly’? The demand for housing geared towards providing more intensive support and care services will undoubtedly grow, especially for dementia care. But for others – people who are perhaps in need of some degree of support services, but want to remain firmly in control of their lives – there are indications of a change in thinking by more than one of the Care Providers that Baily Garner works with. There’s a view that the ‘extra care’ model, while continuing to provide important services, has grown into a monolithic system, with a tick-box approach that has often led to the over-provision of communal spaces and shared amenities such as hairdressing salons, that are simply not used. Increasingly, there is only demand for such accommodation by those who are much older – in their 80s rather than the now rather arbitrary ‘over 55’ line drawn in planning regulations – and who might be having to accept something they don’t feel is ideal, in return for the care services which they do need.

And although the appearance of many retirement schemes has evolved into something less institutional in feel, there are a number of schemes that strongly reject the typical image of an insular ‘old folks home’ tucked away somewhere in suburbia. Some housing association clients are looking for schemes to have a more ‘exclusive’ feel, with apartment blocks that might have a function room at ground level, or a small restaurant – the kind where you make a booking rather than something that feels like a school dinner sitting. But the real change is location; the aim is to build on central urban sites, next to transport nodes and proper local amenities – high streets with decent shops and some life at street level. Such approaches are very rare in the UK so far. But countries such as the Netherlands show how a completely different attitude to older people and housing has meant that urban, city centre high rises for older people, with communal facilities at ground level are common. Greater flexibility in providers’ use of public funding also means longerterm capital investment decisions are possible, reflected in better quality finishes rather than the drive to minimise capital build costs – the buildings simply have a feel of better quality.

Of course, such central locations mean housing providers competing for sites that are in demand for all residential uses, especially in the southeast where demand is highest, and social providers are hit by a double whammy of right-to-buy and dwindling public funding. But there is perhaps a role here for local planning authorities to create opportunities on selected sites, if they really are serious about creating genuinely mixed neighbourhoods.

In the private sector, Baily Garner is involved in a scheme that is admittedly ‘high-end’, but is exploring alternatives to the traditional ‘coffee mornings and pull-cord’ approach, with innovative ideas and facilities that are aimed at responding to new consumer demand; instead of acres of parking, there is a small pool of electric vehicles (helped by a sponsorship deal with the manufacturer, made possible by the ‘exclusive’ nature of the development) and a concierge service that actually is a service, closer perhaps to a hotel reception. The developer believes strongly that there is a real market for older people looking to downsize into smaller, adaptable homes, where they won’t have to suffer, say, party noise from younger neighbours every weekend, but will be able to benefit from good locations and facilities. In all areas of housing provision for older people, we need to continue to see a move away from ‘responding to care needs’ as a goal in itself, toward policies and approaches that start with an independent person in their home (of whatever type), with support tailored around this. NHS England has warned repeatedly of the ‘crippling costs’ of caring for elderly patients in hospitals where the root cause is actually loneliness and isolation. Successful new housing solutions need to play a role here, with more creative approaches to supporting sociable communities that keep people active and engaged, rather than just creating dependency on care services.

In the US, the “villages” model has emerged, where networks of older people in a neighbourhood jointly commission support services, but through doing this also create mutually supportive social networks. In several north European countries the idea of ‘senior cohousing’ is becoming established, where groups of older people develop their own small housing communities, each with their own home but also with a social space, and hope to mutually support each other to encourage more sociable – and therefore it is argued healthier – lives. In the Netherlands the model has become almost mainstream, where it’s a significant portion of all housing and receives public funding. Here in the UK, it’s yet to make an impact, but the first senior cohousing group will move in to their new homes in north London later this year (known as Older Women’s Cohousing, OWCH for short), with more schemes in the pipeline. Of course, ideas like these won’t appeal to everyone – we don’t all want to live in the same place, or with the same kind of people. But there is a need to recognise the housing for older people in the future will need to be as diverse as older people themselves, and support us all (we are none of us immune from ageing, after all) in continuing active and useful lives for as long as possible. Perhaps the question we should ask ourselves of any scheme that we’re involved in for older people is: would we move in here tomorrow? And if the answer is ‘no’, should we expect others to?

High Rise (Lo-Res)

May 4, 2015

This is a piece I did for the inaugural edition of a new Swedish publication, Lo-Res, which aims to bridge the gap between academic and more freely written texts. The edition took the theme of High Rise both in the sense of the Ballard novel and also in the sense of buildings that are very tall. Being British, and being a bit of a Ballard fan, I was asked to write a piece on the novel, which I chose to relate to thoughts about London’s current high-rise apartment boom. 

 

High-Rise

November 2013, London. Newspaper reports describe how High Point Village, a new gated development of 600 homes on the western edge of the city, has witnessed a social breakdown between wealthier and poorer ‘affordable housing’ residents.[1] Matters came to a head over a temporary fault in the water supply: the wealthier ‘inner gated’ community was given a temporary hose supply while the poorer occupants were denied access to the hose, even though it crossed their ‘zone’. Even the car parking was separated by gates, and mysteriously the housing blocks of the less affluent residents were left unnamed on the location signs around the development. It was not long before one online commenter referenced High-Rise, the 1974 novel by J. G. Ballard.

In the book, the residents of a vast new 1 000-apartment tower quickly descend into barbarism and violence as the building becomes separated into a class hierarchy, with the ‘upper class’ residents on the upper floors and penthouses, and the lower orders at the bottom. Anthony Royal, one of the tower’s architects and resident of the top floor penthouse, establishes himself early on as the ‘master’ of the building, presiding over a situation where cocktail parties soon evolve into raiding parties to other floors. As the building’s services fail and food becomes scarce, a resident’s dog goes missing – taken for food as it turns out – and eventually the residents turn on each other. Following a recurring theme in Ballard’s work, the protagonists voluntarily isolate themselves from the surrounding city, and seem to willingly descend into a state of barbarity.

It is often assumed that Ballard drew his inspiration for High-Rise from west London’s Trellick Tower, the Brutalist edifice designed by architect Ernő Goldfinger and completed in 1972. There is clearly some truth in this: the tower seems to physically fit the author’s description of “an architecture built for war,” and Trellick was the tallest and arguably most ‘Brutalist’ of the towers of that period. It quickly became notorious in the press, with reports of social strife between floors, problems with elevators and rubbish disposal, noise, muggings and assaults, fires, and an overwhelming lack of security.[2] Furthermore, Trellick also has a ‘sister’, the Balfron Tower, on the other side of London. The block (as well as a shorter tower forming part of the complex), was also designed by Goldfinger, and was a kind of proto-Trellick, coarser perhaps, less refined, and completed five years before its younger sibling. To much PR fanfare at the time, Goldfinger even ‘lived’ in a 25th floor apartment for two months, where he and his wife threw champagne parties for the residents to find out what they thought, (before retreating back to the comfort of their two-story Hampstead home). The incident was widely reported at the time[3] and unlikely to have escaped Ballard’s notice when placing his own fictional architect in High-Rise‘s penthouse apartment. The construction of both towers should be seen against a background of rising public animosity to high-rise social housing[4], which gained wider currency in part due to an infamous gas explosion that caused a partial collapse of the Ronan Point tower in East London in 1968.

Yet it would be wrong to read High-Rise as a critique of the failure of large-scale social housing projects of the period, or indeed as a critique of modernism as a style. In fact, the focus of Ballard’s writing was rarely on contemporary social issues in terms of class or housing policy. His fiction was surrealist, using elements of realism and juxtaposing these against a violent, swift and often spectacular social breakdown among a particular group.   Often, such a breakdown is set against a backdrop of Brutalist architecture and emergent technologies. His recurring theme, learned through savage childhood experience, is that modern society is merely a surface illusion; that given the opportunity, our psycho-pathological nature will drive us to violence. As in so many of Ballard’s stories, an apparently realist premise moves beyond any direct analogy with society at the time; towards the end of High-Rise, a surreal scene suggests that a kind of matriarchal micro-society has emerged from among the tower’s survivors.

Another factor that suggests we should resist a literal comparison with the high-rises of Trellick and Balfron, and other towers of the period, is that the residents of Ballard’s fictional tower are all private owners – there is no element of social housing, with its links to the state and wider society. These residents are able to pursue their own will undisturbed by the wider world; at one point Anthony Royal’s wife suggests complaining to the owners about the ongoing slide into chaos. “We are the owners,” replies her husband. It is this very fact of ‘ownership’ that Ballard is able to use as a key device to isolate the residents, or rather that allows the residents to isolate themselves, from the outside world.

In theory, the residents are also a homogeneous group – Ballard’s characters are almost invariably middle class professional technocrats – who despite this quickly divide themselves into three classes: floors zero to 10 for the lower classes, 10 to 35 for the middle, uppermost floors and penthouse for the upper class. The character of Richard Wilder feels driven to conquer the tower itself, and literally becomes a social climber as he ascends from the lower levels towards the penthouse.

Ballard’s views on modernism in architecture also resist simplification, and in his own writing he could often seem ambivalent. “I have always admired modernism and wish the whole of London could be rebuilt in the style of Michael Manser’s brilliant Heathrow Hilton” he wrote, in an article that, arguably, laments the ending of the ‘heroic’ period of modernist architecture.[5] Ballard’s novels are rarely without some form of architectural presence: the architectural realm is both backdrop and protagonist. It is architecture that presents itself as ‘the future’, but a future that seems unable to cope with its own implications. His protagonists in High-Rise, sealing themselves off inside the tower, quickly regress to a pre-civilized state, seemingly driven by, or in sharp contrast with, their modernist, machine-like environment. Thus Ballard uses the architecture as a further tool to allow the isolation of his characters, a concept that recurs in several of his novels, most notably Concrete Island and The Drowned World.

At the same time, it is interesting to note that the fictional tower is so specifically located in London’s Docklands, a post-industrial area to the east of the city’s core. At the time he was writing, the vast area of dockyards and warehouses along the river Thames was in terminal decline or already wasteland. Margaret Thatcher’s legacy project of Docklands regeneration, that gave birth to the glittering towers of Canary Wharf, remained entirely in the future.[6] Although only a couple of miles from the financial center of London, Docklands was at the time, and in some ways remains, physically and economically far removed from the rest of the city – perhaps a further literary isolation device.

Clearly then, although Ballard may have taken some inspiration from existing towers, High-Rise is in no way a critique of the high-rise public housing projects of the era. Instead it is perhaps an extension of his own, at times extreme, vision of the human condition. It is also tempting to read Ballard as a hugely prescient author, as many critics have done over the years, to the extent that author Martin Amis, in a 2011 introduction[7] for Ballard’s novel The Drowned World, wrote ”Is prescience a literary virtue? And should the work of J. G. Ballard be particularly prized (as some critics maintain) for the ‘uncanny’ accuracy of its forecasts? The answer to both these questions, I suggest, is a cheerful no.” He goes on to make a strong case for this, with which few would disagree. And yet there is something fundamental about the novel High-Rise that seems to be set more in the London of 2014 than that of 1974. At that time, private residential towers were almost non-existent in the UK, the only notable project in London being the Barbican complex, with its three private residential towers built between 1973 and 1976.

Today, the London skyline tells a very different story. The capital is currently witnessing an explosion of new, private residential towers. At the beginning of 2014, there were 189 residential towers of 20 stories or more, either in planning or under construction[8]. This seems a particular aberration, given that the English much prefer to spread out rather than to go up, driven to suburbanization by an innate dislike of apartment living and an unwarranted respect for the grand myth of the Garden City movement. But London, as distinct from the rest of the UK, is currently suffering from a kind of hyper-gentrification, in large part due to the capital’s opening up to international investment cash, whatever its providence.[9]

As recently as ten years ago, the Balfron tower stood alone, the tallest structure by far in the poor residential district of Poplar. But now the building rubs shoulders with a cluster of new private residential tower developments, and Balfron itself is being refurbished as apartments for open market rent[10]. The social housing tenants, with family close by and a social network of support built up over years, are being pushed out to the city’s periphery[11].

The residents of the new towers, whether as owners or renters, will be attracted first and foremost by the perception of privacy and security. After all, a ‘luxury’ apartment block is really just code for a vertical gated community – all but the most oligarch-affordable dwellings will fail to deliver luxury in terms of space. These new residents, who seem unlikely to choose their high-rise location based on close family ties or emotional attachment to a particular area, are in effect voluntarily isolating themselves from wider society, from the life of London’s streets and long-established communities and cultures. This is particularly evident in Docklands, where, more than twenty years after the ‘year zero’ that created the shining towers of Canary Wharf, a second wave of development is under way, albeit this time underpinned by a ‘social cleansing’ of the existing population rather than rising out of a wasteland. Here there is a double self-enforced seclusion: in a hermetically sealed, securitized tower, and in the Docklands location that is ever increasingly a world apart from the rest of London. The new residential towers are becoming the physical representation of a new nation. It is a nation of upscale shopping and dining facilities, of exclusive gymnasiums and yes, private swimming pools.

Martin Amis, reviewing High-Rise in its publication year[12], suggested that eventually whole cities, not just Ballard’s single tower, would “take on that quality common to all Ballardian loci,” becoming “suspended, no longer to do with the rest of the planet, screened off by its own surreal logic.” In the London of 2014, it seems as if this vision of the future may increasingly become reality.

 

Notes

Note 1: Ben Quinn, “Unsocial housing? Gates within gates divide the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots'”, The Guardian, October 22, 2013.

Note 2: http://www.housingprototypes.org/project?File_No=GB010

Note 3: http://designmuseum.org/design/erno-goldfinger

Note 4: Miles Glendinning and Stefan Muthesius, Tower Block – Modern Public Housing in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, Section 2, Part C. (Yale University Press, 1994).

Note 5: J G Ballard, “A Handful of Dust” The Guardian, March 20 2006: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2006/mar/20/architecture.communities

Note 6: For an evocative glimpse of the period, see John Mackenzie’s 1979 film The Long Good Friday, where Bob Hoskins’ gangster is planning the redevelopment of Dockland’s as, presciently enough, an Olympic venue.

Note 7: J. G. Ballard, The Drowned World (UK: Fourth Estate, 2014. New edition with new introduction by Martin Amis).

Note 8: “Growing Up”, exhibition and report by NLA (New London Architecture).

Note 9: “Tall Towers 2012: London’s high-rise residential developments” – report by Knight Frank Residential Research www.knightfrank.com/research. According to the report, 85% of the buyers are non-UK citizens, who view the capital as a relatively safe investment, and a large proportion of the homes have remained unoccupied long after completion. This is often a deliberate move, as investors wait for prices to move upwards before reselling or renting, increasingly known as ‘buy-to-leave’ properties, and have been described by Simon Jenkins in the Daily Telegraph as “bank accounts in the sky”. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/investmentinproperty/10103226/The-foreigners-buying-Londons-high-rise-high-price-homes.html

Note 10: http://novaramedia.com/2013/08/social-cleansing-in-tower-hamlets-interview-with-balfron-tower-evictee/

Note 11: Heather Spurr, “Dramatic Rise of families forced out of London” Inside Housing, July 18, 2014 http://www.insidehousing.co.uk/care/dramatic-rise-of-families-forced-out-of-london/7004728.article and Nick Duxbury, “Londoners Housed Outside Capital Doubles” Inside Housing, November 1, 2013. http://www.insidehousing.co.uk/londoners-housed-outside-capital-doubles/6529299.article

Note 12: Martin Amis, “High-Rise Review”, New Statesman, November 14, 1975. http://sdicht.wordpress.com/2008/12/09/high-rise-review-by-martin-amis-1975

 

 

 

 

A Park of Two Halves – Gleisdreieck Park, Berlin

October 15, 2014

First published in the Journal of the Landscape Institute, Autumn 2014: http://www.landscapethejournal.org/A-park-of-two-halves

Creating a park from land that is divided by a railway line and surrounded by building sites cannot be easy, but Atelier Loidl’s Gleisdreieck in Berlin is a great success, thanks to its limited palette of materials and sensitivity to the needs of the community.

Gleisdreieck

Image copyright: Atelier Loidl / Julien Lanoo

The name ‘Gleisdreieck’  translated literally, means ‘platform triangle’, and refers to the prominent intersection of three early twentieth century railway viaducts that still stand and now form a single station close to the centre of Berlin. The name gradually came to refer to the two vast areas of disused goods yards to the south and west of the viaducts, which have recently been reborn
as Gleisdreieck park.

The sites were largely abandoned after the war, and later further divided by the route of the ICE high-speed rail line that rises from below ground at the only point where the two sites connect, creating an uncrossable wasteland, effectively separating the residential districts on either side.
A decade ago, when I first came to Berlin, the area was a lost world of long-abandoned train tracks and graffiti-smothered buildings in the undergrowth – an urban explorer’s paradise, but not a place that was part of the life of the city.

The new park forms a key element of the Berlin Senate’s long-term green space plan for the city following the fall of the Wall, as a still ongoing process of ‘rethinking the gaps’ and knitting the divided city back together. It is also a response to  the strongly expressed needs of local residents’ groups to bring at least part of the derelict site into community use; although the district is well served in terms of green space, there is little in the immediate area. The site lies in the former West Berlin district of Kreuzberg, which has a long history as Berlin’s most alternative and politically active borough, giving rise to strong local action groups, who successfully opposed a 1970s motorway network that would have radically changed the area. They have remained closely involved in the gestation of the park proposal, which was first designated as a protected green space in the mid 1990s, and local groups had already piloted some small-scale projects on the site’s western edge, before work on the
park began.

The brief set by Grün Berlin – the Berlin state-owned company that has already created and run several other parks across the city – was therefore to create a space that would reconnect the residential districts, and would also link these older quarters with the new office and commercial district of Potsdamer Platz immediately to the north. Grün Berlin also wanted the park to serve both the local community and residents from across the city, with as many different and varied uses as possible. Atelier Loidl, the landscape architect that won the commission in open competition in 2006, responded to the brief with a ‘park of two speeds’, and has successfully created a huge variety of different settings, achieving the feel of several different parks in a single project. The total budget was 12 million euros, with a total park area of 26 hectares.

Because of the nature of the site as two distinct parts, and the ICE route that cuts through it, the project was conceived as two separate but linked parks built in separate phases: the Ostpark, (East Park) completed in 2011, and the Westpark, finished in May 2013. A smaller third phase, the ‘Flaschenhals’ (or ‘bottle neck’, named for its shape), forms a southern extension to the Ostpark, and opened in April this year. Although the Flaschenhals is divided by a busy main road, the designers have renovated a number of the original cast iron railway bridges, which allow cycle and walking routes to connect the two parts. The Flaschenhals is also the final piece in the completion of the Berlin-Leipzig cycle route, which runs south from the centre of the city.

The 10 hectare Westpark is the buzzier, ‘active’ side of the park, incorporating multiple sports pitches, play areas, and cycle and roller-blading tracks, but also a large grassed sun terrace. It feels strongly like a part of the city, surrounded by ongoing construction, criss-crossed by two busy overhead rail lines, and with the office towers of Potsdamer Platz. The 17 hectare Ostpark, by contrast, is much more relaxed, incorporating large areas of protected nature reserve along with several former railway buildings and sections of track, and has the air of a series of meadows set in shady woods. Numerous play areas and activities for younger children have been located along the eastern edge of the Ostpark where it meets the older residential districts.

Atelier Loidl has restricted itself to a limited but very effective pallet of robust construction elements that result in a modern, industrial aesthetic. Berlin is rarely a ‘pretty city’ in a Parisian sense – it is a 19th century industrial city violently impacted by the events of the 20th – and Loidl’s designs embrace and work with the ‘rough-and-ready’ feel of the locale.

Red concrete surfaces form ramps and pathways, and sometimes widen into terraces that use polished red cast asphalt. Grey asphalt and white concrete are also used (the latter for paths that cut east-west) as well as long strips of stone track ballast alongside these. The orientation of the pathways in the Ostpark echoes the north-south linear feel of the former rail tracks, and this is further emphasized by the design of the chunky Accoya wood benches, which are aligned in runs of up to 80 metres. The luminaires that follow various routes through the whole park are also a key visual element – a simple design, but with each post ‘cranked’ at a different height. Combined with the benches and paving, these form a kind of sinuous sculpture across
the park.

Another very successful design element is the large-scale striped font used throughout the project for signage and way-finding symbols, acting as a kind of brand for Gleisdreieck (it is not used in other parks run by Grün Berlin). The font is even extended into the markings for sports courts and play areas – a particularly effective moment is the pavement lettering for the Berlin-Leipzig cycle route, which chimes with the speed of the ICE trains as they hurtle down the length of the park.

The Westpark was perhaps the greater challenge to the designers; given the busy rail routes that border and cross over it, an ‘oasis of calm’ was not an option. Its ‘active’ nature is oddly compromised by the incorporation of some existing ‘Kleingärten’ on its western edge. To describe Kleingärten as German allotments does not fully convey their essence; they are as much a social club as a place to grow fruit and veg, usually having semi-permanent buildings and a patch of lawn, and often a communal bar (a café and shop for trading produce has been provided as part of the park development). It will be interesting to see how the privacy of the Kleingärten and the particular openness of the Westpark evolve alongside each other.

In the Ostpark, Atelier Loidl has used the fact that the space is essentially a raised plateau at a level of up to 4m above street level to create a world apart from the city. The original station wall down the length of the eastern boundary on Möckernstraße has been reconstructed, with a number of stepped entrances that give direct access to some of the community-driven projects: an intercultural garden (modelled on New York’s Community Gardens) is long established, and provides space for small-scale community agriculture. In Germany, and in Berlin especially, there is a strong tradition of ‘outside education’ particularly at preschool level. Berlin also sets the bar high for the design of children’s playgrounds, and the Ostpark does not disappoint, with numerous facilities including a playground formed as a forest of tree trunks, and a highly successful ‘nature experience area’ for local 6 to 12 year olds.

A significant part of the Ostpark has been designated as ‘Das Wäldchen’ – the ‘little wood’ or ‘grove’, where woodland has grown over the goods yards largely undisturbed for the last 50 years. Some of the woodland is closed off to protect species of nesting birds and other wildlife, although this is low key, and is achieved by retaining much of the dense planting and by fencing off some core areas.

For many visitors, the most memorable element of the whole development will be the Ostpark’s half-buried railway tracks and crumbling platforms, which emerge spookily from the undergrowth of the Wäldchen. The woodland boundaries are clearly defined by the clean edges of the white concrete paths that cut through them – an effect that surprisingly heightens the sense of ‘unexplored territory’ beyond. In some locations signal boxes and other railway structures are held in a state of arrested decay, evoking the postwar wasteland as well as the century of industry that preceded it.
The effect is taken further still in the Flaschenhals extension to the Ostpark, with woodland partially cleared from rail tracks and signal boxes retained, complete with their as-found graffiti. These conserved elements feel like a natural extension of the ideas used at the German Museum of Technology (Deutsches Tecknikmuseum) on the park’s northern boundary. The museum opened in 2003, retaining and reusing many of the existing railway buildings in a park-like setting, dominated by the rusted steel bulk of a water tower. One of the fully working diesel locomotives from the museum’s collection, which previously ran on a short section of track within the museum grounds, is now able to make its way slowly down the entire length of the Ostpark – a surprising and slightly surreal sight.

Despite using such striking imagery to refer back to the site’s past, Atelier Loidl stress that the focus of its whole design ‘is on the future development of the park and the new image of the site’ rather than on ‘railway history or the nature myth created by man’s absence over the last 60 years’. It sees the park’s history as a starting point rather than an act of conservation. And it is true that beyond the ‘set pieces’ of the park’s historical traces and the ‘settled’ feel of the eastern edge of the Ostpark, it seems implicit in the way the park is designed that there might be future changes, a sense of a work-in-progress, even though the project is technically complete. This impression is reinforced by the fact that this part of Berlin is itself a work in progress; both parts of the park currently seem to be surrounded by a sea of tower cranes and construction activity. A large new development of low-energy community-led housing is fast rising next to the Westpark (with Atelier Loidl responsible for the landscape). The mass of industrial buildings that clusters around the Gleisdreieck viaduct structure itself is currently being converted piecemeal into a new media hub, and in the process opening up a more porous boundary to the park. Inevitably the nature of the Westpark in particular will change
as these new districts come to life.

If one criticism can be made, it is that the weakest element of the park’s design is the linking of the Ostpark and the Westpark. At present, the transit point between the two is a single narrow route, which on the Ostpark side comprises a single fenced-in path that feels cramped, before opening out as it crosses over the ICE rail link. As the park becomes busier, this link is bound to become a bottleneck. Perhaps a future development would be a stronger east-west link that is able to span the parks in a direct line, with another bridge over the rail line.

But this seems not to be a problem for the new park’s wide range of users; the many different elements and parts that make up the project have so far proved hugely popular. In the first days of this summer it was clear that Gleisdreieck had passed the ultimate Berlin park test: it had the feel of a summer festival, but one where you can still find your own quiet corner.

Review: The Tchoban Foundation, Museum for Architectural Drawing, Berlin

October 1, 2013

Review for the RIBA Journal, published Autumn 2013 (not accessible online).

The first glimpse from the street is striking: a number of huge stone blocks, each carved with intricate hieroglyphs, seems to have been stacked against the end of a nineteenth century Berlin terrace. On closer inspection, the blocks become a building, with each floor level presenting a massive solidity, contrasting only with the top floor – an entirely glazed box that reflects and merges with the sky.

This is the Tchoban Foundation’s Museum of Architectural Drawing, a small and in every sense personal work by architects Sergei Tchoban and Sergey Kuznetsov of SPEECH Tchoban & Kuznetsov. The Foundation will be home to Sergei Tchoban’s own collection of (currently) around 600 drawings, and the architect has designed every detail, down to the door handles and furniture. The foundation aims to show three exhibitions a year from other collections, temporarily lending some of its own collection in return: currently on display is a collection of beautiful drawings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, on loan from London’s John Soane museum, which in turn is currently showing a selection from the Tchoban collection. The foundation’s collection ranges from the 16th century to the present day, from from Cerceau to Gehry, and also includes a great number of Tchoban’s own drawings. Its aim is to promote the use of architectural drawing – increasingly a lost art, and a subject close to Sergei Tchoban’s heart.

The building’s form and orientation were carefully considered, as was the use of enlarged fragments of drawings from the collection (the “hieroglyphs”) on the façades: “This specific corner lot was chosen to accommodate the Foundation, since it allowed for a distinctly sculptural appearance of the building. The contrast of fine architectural drawings and the three-dimensional composition of volumes is to express the special relation between drawing and construction. It alludes to the fact that the drawings on thin paper sheets are referred to as rather delicate, sensitive and of course plane objects whereas built architecture is much more robust, much larger in scale and, in a sense, archaic. And yet, the building derives from the drawing.”

The five storeys (plus basement) contain two small picture galleries, a storage room for the rest of the collection, a reception area and a fifth floor office with two large roof-top balconies. For its size, the building’s volumetry is more complex than it first appears: each of the storey-height “blocks” is different: each has a slightly different orientation or shape, with small cantilevers, and a larger cantilever for the glass box of the fifth floor. (Unlike most architectural attempts to make glass buildings “dissolve” in the sky, from certain angles it really is successful, with the occasional puzzling reflection of a brick chimney or two). Tchoban describes the cantilevered glass upper storey as the “crest” of the building, “… creating a relationship between corpus and top that is characteristic of European architecture.” The glass signals the functional difference of the top floor, and creates a beacon of light at night.

The new building stands on the perimeter of the former Pfefferberg brewery, an extensive complex of 19th century red brick buildings now converted into other functions, most notably the Aedes architecture gallery/campus, and the multi-storey workshop and office of artist Olafur Eliasson (his building directly abuts that of the museum, and some of his works-in-progress can be glimpsed through adjacent windows). Surprisingly, the minimalist, irregular form fits comfortably among its neighbours, helped in part by the exuberant range of 19th century styles that surround it (the brewery itself crashes neogothic with industrial, and then competes with the wedding-cake stucco of the surrounding street façades). It also helps that sleek minimalist residential interventions are a familiar sight in this highly gentrified district in the former east Berlin.

A small criticism would be that the scattering of irregular window openings at ground level and to the rear elevation overpowers the façade engravings whose lines they follow. The windows’ flush glazing is very dark in contrast with the sandstone-like finish, and somehow detracts from the illusion that this might be a building hewn from solid stone.

The motifs derived from the drawing collection continue inside the building, reappearing on the longest wall of the entrance room, where they are inscribed into walnut-veneered full height panels. The museum is open to the public, although the atmosphere on entering is one of hushed privacy: a private members’ club, finished almost entirely in dark wood. Bespoke glass display cases along one wall are already stacked with a selection of architectural tomes. The only daylight is filtered through a number of small, irregular shaped obscure-glazed openings.

The two gallery rooms themselves have no natural daylight (due to the sensitivity of the collection), with low level lighting and, at the time of writing, muted red and grey colour schemes that echo similar colours at the Soane Museum, and underpin the greys and reds of Piranesi’s beautiful drawings.

The top floor office level, by contrast, is an explosion of light, glazed on three sides, and with two deep balconies. The structure has an outer, fresh-air ventilated glass façade, and solar gain is mitigated by automated blinds, which lower themselves automatically in bright sunlight (creating an unexpected “Bond villain’s lair” moment). The rooftop view is surprisingly impressive – Berlin is a not a high-rise city, and even now new construction is largely restricted to a building height of 22 metres.

The attention to detail continues up through the whole of the building, including the casting of the dark grey concrete staircase, the bespoke brass handrails, matching brass door handles and other fittings, and the walls behind the glass lift, where the external engraved pattern is continued. The dark walnut theme that dominates the ground floor also continues through the galeries. Accessed from the second floor picture gallery is a small room with a single fully glazed wall that looks onto the street. The room is furnished only with three concrete cubes, which are also also “engraved” and appear to be cut directly from the façades. They serve here as seats – it is, perhaps, the best space in the building.

To describe a building as a “jewellery box” is a well-worn cliché, but here it is geneuinely applicable, and clearly a concept that the architect had directly in mind, successfully executed. The design gives Berlin’s newest museum a magazine-friendly iconic image, but more importantly a thoughtfully designed home for its collection.

Modell Bauhaus

October 13, 2009

Review of ‘Modell Bauhaus’, a major Bauhaus retrospective held in Berlin July-October 2009, published in Blueprint Magazine, October 2009:

Given the importance of the Bauhaus as a founding institution for 20th century modernism, it’s surprising that so few retrospectives have been held, and certainly nothing approaching the scale and ambition of Modell Bauhaus. The exhibition sets its sights high: a reappraisal of the Bauhaus legacy that both acknowledges and critiques the brand it has become, bringing together over 1,000 objects from the New York’s MoMA and the three major german Bauhaus collections: the Bauhaus Archive Berlin, the Bauhaus Foundation Dessau and the Weimar Classical Foundation. 

The timing is apposite; 2009 is the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus, and also the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a division which kept so much of this collection apart in the post-war period.  Coincidentally, 2009 is also the 80th birthday of the New York MoMA, which became a home for many members of the Bauhaus after they fled the Third Reich, holding the first Bauhaus retrospective there in 1938.

With so much material, Modell Bauhaus could easily have been overwhelming, viewed only as an endless display of objects removed from their context.  To counter this, the curators have been keen to emphasize that the Bauhaus was not a static design office turning out branded products, but rather a continually evolving and changing project.  Its brief 14-year life saw three directors (Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer and Mies van der Rohe), and three consecutive homes (Weimar, Dessau and finally Berlin), due in part to constant attack from the reactionary right.   It was also not always harmonious.  Gropius began early on to turn away from the Bauhaus’s founding idea – a modern equivalent of a group of medieval craftsmen – towards an alliance of art with technology, disappointing many of its co-founders.  The ever-apolitical Mies utterly rejected Mayer’s communist leanings.

The eighteen rooms are chronologically arranged, with each room focusing on a different aspect of the Bauhaus’s design output and its changing nature.  The rooms also follow a gradually changing colour scheme representing each year with a different hue, the order based on Bauhaus teacher Johannes Itten’s Colour Sphere system. The design, by Berlin-based chezweitz & roseapple, is almost faultless, apart from the slightly cluttered and strangely 1970s feel of the final room, which features various examples of Mies’ tubular steel furniture,  confusingly set against rather too many mirrors and dark wooden panelling.  Occasionally, you can’t help feeling that you’re in a branch of Habitat, with tableware and lamps displayed in minimalist surroundings, although this says more about the long-term influence of the Bauhaus’s designs than any failure in the exhibition’s approach. 

There was always a tension between mass production and elitism at the Bauhaus; its slogan under Hannes Meyer was “The needs of the people, not the dictates of luxury”, and it is ironic that a strictly limited edition Mart Stam S43 chair is being produced as an exhibition tie-in. This paradox is acknowledged as part of the show with Christine Hill’s tongue-in-check contemporary installation, DIY-Bauhaus, where visitors are given advice on how to bring Bauhaus style into their homes.

The exhibition really comes alive though when it focuses less on the domestic design objects  and more on the Bauhaus’s overlapping work in advertising, sculpture, theatre and architecture reminding you what an incredible scope of activities the Bauhaus encompassed in striving for total art. Moholy-Nagy’s Light-Space Modulator is placed in a translucent cube within a darkened room, with coloured lighting playing fantastical shadows over the cube’s surface from within.  Nearby, video screens play re-stagings of Bauhaus theatre and dance pieces, one of which features a robotic figure performing an early but unmistakable moonwalk.  A new model of Mies’ famously unbuilt (and equally unbuildable) glass skyscraper for Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse is a stark contrast to the rather lacklustre new building going up on the same site today. 

The term ‘Modell’ in the title is translated as ‘conceptual model’ – signifying both the Bauhaus’s intention to create model designs, but also to establish itself as a model for other institutions.  With such ambition to present a new perspective on the Bauhaus, it’s disappointing that explanatory text is so limited – generally each room has a single board of text with individual objects labelled with only name and designer.  There’s also a risk that Modell Bauhaus could imply a neatness and continuity which its curators are striving to avoid, but despite this the show is not to be missed.  Given that the last major Bauhaus retrospective was in Stuttgart in 1968, and that the forthcoming New York version will be in much reduced form, the sheer scale and completeness of Modell Bauhaus is unlikely to be repeated for many years. ‘More is more’, as Mies wouldn’t have said.

Berlin’s 1987 IBA

October 13, 2009

Comment piece for October 2009 issue of Blueprint magazine (not published online), on how there’s much to learn from the former West Berlin’s IBA housing projects of the 1980s:

By the 1980s, Britain was in the process of withdrawal from state funded housing, atomizing the design of domestic architecture and leaving no real models, good or bad, for housing design on a large scale.  But while we were busy disposing of our public housing stock, over in West Berlin they’d gone back to the drawing board. The city had had its fair share of grim sub-Corbusian housing projects, which finally ran out of funding and public patience in the (then) backwater of Kreuzberg – a poor district, but also the heart of the city’s alternative and squatter scenes.   Luckily, the situation coincided with the planning of an international housing exhibition – the IBA (International Bauaustellung) 1987, which  morphed at an early stage from the planned ‘International Expo’ approach (put some new buildings in a park, photograph them, forget them) into something more ambitious.  The IBA became an attempt to repair an entire failing city quarter.

From the beginning of the 1980s up to the point when the Berlin Wall fell, the exhibition was responsible for over 5,000 new residential units, largely integrated into Berlin’s 19th century urban form of five-storey high density buildings around a network of internal courtyards and communal spaces.  A high proportion of the designs were procured through international competitions, resulting in work by Álvaro Siza, Mario Botta, Peter Cook, John Hejduk, Aldo Rossi, Frei Otto, Arato Isozaki, James Stirling and many others.  Zaha Hadid did her first building here; blocks by Rem Koolhaas and Peter Eisenmann face each other across a street.  The use of so many apparently disparate architects leads to some interesting contrasts not found elsewhere on this scale, and not at all in the monolithic planning which preceded it.  The Altbau (old building) element of the exhibition became a case study in sensitive urban renewal, rescuing and refurbishing around 7,000 apartments as well as providing schools, community centres and extensive landscaping, with projects often resident-led.

Curious then that the IBA is so rarely studied, or heard of, at least in the UK.  Perhaps it’s an issue of style; many of the designs are just too postmodern – that unacceptable face of the 80s – for contemporary tastes.  The IBA includes masterplans and several buildings by Rob Krier, brother of Poundbury designer Léon Krier, both of whom were known as postmodernists at the time, but have more recently been rebranded as ‘new traditionalists’.  Both are strongly linked to the New Urbanism movement, whose concerns about the urban environment and often appear sound, but is let down by an insistence on taking historicism to a slightly creepy level; visions of new towns dominated oddly Roman and other neoclassicist buildings, often designed by Rob Krier himself.

IBA buildings present a curious medley of postmodernism and other emerging styles such as deconstructivism (the Hadid block being one of the more recognizable).  Some buildings feature wholly unremarkable, almost bland, street facades.  But take a wander through the entrances to some of these blocks and you find yourself in communal gardens or overgrown Italianate courtyards, with some incorporating cafes, playgrounds and schools.  There are genuine elements of sustainability, from before a time when the pointless strapping of wind turbines and photovoltaics onto buildings became fashionable; in one large courtyard space you find yourself on a series of bridges over fields of reedbeds – the surrounding blocks recycle all their waste water.

Although a majority of the housing is public, there’s a complex mix of tenure, with the IBA stretching from the wealthy embassy district, eastwards toward the poorer areas of predominantly social housing.  Most of the housing seems to be genuinely liked by its residents, who are sometimes bemused by visiting architecture students and critics questioning them on matters of theory or style.  It helps that the buildings on the whole seem have weathered well, despite Berlin’s tradition of graffiti on every surface (Álvaro Siza’s pristine white walls were the most notable early casualty).

The wall that divided Berlin for over 28 years was gone by the time the final IBA projects were being completed.  Much has been written about how many of the key players in the IBA took the policies forward into what became known as the ‘Critical Reconstruction’ of the scarred city.  Yet curiously, looking back it appears that the reconstruction of the 1990s fell  mainly into the traps of either bland corporate towers (Potzdamerplatz) or obsessive historicist restrictions (Pariserplatz).  Lessons from Berlin’s IBA have been learnt elsewhere in Germany (a new IBA is currently underway in Hamburg), but the real legacy is perhaps proof that urban regeneration can be achieved on this scale, with architecture in a leading role.  It is ironic that back in Kreuzberg itself, the work of rescuing of failed neighbourhoods by the IBA laid the foundations for their increasing gentrification.

Farshid Moussavi – Foreign Office Architects

February 17, 2004

Interview for Kultureflash #77, 17 Feb 2004

Things couldn’t be busier at the moment for Foreign Office architects, the London-based practice founded by Farshid Moussavi and Alejandro Zaera-Polo. Having recently won the BBC’s competition to design its Music Box Centre at White City (set to be their first major building in the UK) they’re part of the design consortium that has just submitted London’s Olympic bid. And in the middle of this, they’re moving offices.

As their ICA show, Breeding Architecture, comes to an end this month (29/02), KultureFlash caught up with Farshid Moussavi, amid the packing cases:

Jim Hudson: FOA has a higher profile than ever, and is fast becoming one of the world’s most talked about practices. Has this changed the way you work?

Farshid Moussavi: We now have the chance to pitch for projects where traditionally you would have to wait to be an older, bigger practice. It’s very exciting to work on competitions up against much larger practices, so we think we have been very fortunate, although you have to work incredibly hard when those sort of practices can put in more resources than you. People often dismiss you because of your fame, claiming that there’s no depth to your work, and that you’re just very lucky or fashionable, and often this criticism comes from fellow architects. They often forget that with all this exposure comes an enormous amount of work.

JH: So does this mean you have to be very selective about choosing competitions?

FM: We have to be very serious about what we do. We have to be wary about being included on European or international shortlists where we could be seen as a “wild card” entry — being the younger component, or the foreign component. So we try to be careful. We look at the client, the timing, and even at the list of judges to see if we will be considered seriously; based on that we sometimes decide not to compete. So we are selective, but we’ve never turned down a commission — we don’t have any ideal size of project, or ideal client, or ideal building type. In fact we’d prefer not to become specialised, which helps us stay fresh in our approach to each commission. We think that when you’re too familiar with a problem, you stop experimenting. The Yokohama Terminal is a good example of this; we went through great pain to see it through to the end, but we don’t want to be seen as a practice who only do vastly expensive infrastructure projects.

JH: Breeding Architecture takes a very different approach than other architects’ shows of their own work. How deliberate was this?

FM: When we were asked to do a show about our first ten years we thought it should say something more to visitors than what they’ve been seeing in magazines and the media. Shows like this should be an experience in their own right, and should be something ephemeral that catch the particular moment. Also we wanted to learn something from doing it, so we approached it as a research project in itself. We took the opportunity to reflect on what we have learnt, and on the character of our buildings. The exhibition tries to show how we work; how each project is designed from the bottom up, each one is specific, and each one is designed in a sense from scratch. Of course, you develop expertise and experience over time so it’s also been an attempt to see what we’ve been carrying through with us across the projects. In particular it identifies our interest in surface and topography, the need to blend into the context, and the attempt to remove the distinction between load-bearing structure and the building envelope. It’s been very useful to us — we never impose a solution, and we haven’t created a “Foreign Office” recipe that we can follow for types of buildings, but creating the exhibition has helped us find areas that we haven’t yet explored.

JH: We’re really excited that you’ve won the competition to build the BBC’s Music Box at White City, but shouldn’t the redevelopment of the Jubilee Gardens site on the South Bank have been your first major London (and UK) project?

FM: It’s strange, because they [the South Bank Centre] have never publicly cancelled the competition. We were asked to either work with Rafael Vinoly [named as the joint winner] or to go back in front of the judges, but in the middle of this the client decided to abandon the whole thing. We were told that there were legal ownership problems with the site, and problems with local resident objections, but it’s an absolute embarrassment that an important European city like ours cannot deal with a piece of land. The site is geographically so central, and because of the London Eye it’s now charged with energy, but really it’s still a bit of a dump. I think the real problem is that it doesn’t have a public champion — it needs someone at the highest level to take control.

JH: So has it put you off competitions in the UK?

FM: No, we’re doing more. Competitions are very costly to the practice, but it’s very odd to be a London-based practice and to have so little work here. The BBC competition was very well set up — it had proper advisors and key people from the client involved. But many competitions in the UK don’t have an architectural jury that matches the aspirations of the client and of the public. I think that there’s not enough focus on that.

JH: Do you think public attitudes towards architecture here are changing?

FM: I would say it’s a very good time in the UK for architecture and there seems to be a real public appreciation of new design. The BBC has really helped by screening programmes on architecture, design and art, and events like 100% Design have given people an awareness of design culture, which has started to broaden into the larger scale of architecture. Culture in London now is a result of a kind of combining of multiple cultures — architecture is going to be coming from a multiplicity of different hands, voices and approaches, so I think the future looks very exciting.

JH: And what’s next for FOA?

FM: We’re working incredibly hard right now. We’re in a competition for a new train station in Durango, Bilbao, and a number of projects that you won’t have seen in the show, including an office building and a new harbour, both in Holland, and a major business development in La Rioja. The Torreviaja Theatre has just broken ground, and we feel it’s essential to be absolutely in control of projects through their realisation on site. We do the design here in London, but when projects start on site we dispatch a core team to that site. We currently have a team in Barcelona that’s overseeing our park for instance. There are many outcomes from a design that only come into play on site, and seeing the project right through allows us to constantly feed the experience back into new scheme design.

Link to original article
http://www.kultureflash.net/archive/77/priview.htm