Moulded plywood chair, designed by Grete Jalk, 1963 photo Victoria and Albert Museum.
Edie Stool by David and Joni Steiner photo Victoria and Albert Museum
An exhibition themed around a material is a hard act to pull off particularly where the material is as commonplace as plywood but the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition ‘Plywood: Material of the Modern World’ makes a great success of it. Not too short to be insubstantial yet not too long to be boring and with a great story to tell.
Plywood is of course a sheet material manufactured from thin layers of wood veneer glued together with adjacent layers having their grain rotated by 90 degrees giving it strength, dimensional stability and light weight.
De Havilland Mosquito
The exhibition covers the history of the material and its diverse uses which include furniture, aircraft and buildings etc. It brings the story up to date with the opportunities for the mass manufacture of plywood pieces using digital design files anywhere in the world where there is access to a digital cutting machine.
De Havilland Mosquito
At the part of the exhibition dealing with aircraft I thought of my uncle, Squadron leader Bill Brodie DSO DFM, who piloted mosquito bombers during the second world war. Nicknamed ‘the wooden wonder’ the De Havilland Mosquito was constructed almost entirely of plywood – the fuselage was a monocoque design that came together in two halves lengthwise.
Unfortunately later on I also thought of IKEA. I’m at the stage where I hope to never see another piece of flatpack furniture. What IKEA sells is cheap and some of it is well designed but you have the overwhelming impression that most of what you are looking at is going to end up in a skip in the not too distant future. You can furnish a teenage student’s flat with it and not feel the need to enquire what has become of it when the course is over.
Used creatively and true to its nature (ie celebrated for what it is with its qualities dictating the way in which it is used) plywood can be a super and cost effective choice. I just finished a refurbishment project with a bespoke plywood kitchen by Mark Heeler Kitchens. The minimalist aesthetic featured clean lines with exposed plywood faces and edges.
When I took up my first job in London in 1985 a colleague brought in the just published book ’Cult Objects’ by Deyan Sudjic which looked at how certain mass produced designed objects had become cultural icons that gave their owners a special status. These simple well designed objects gave a thinly coded message that marked out those who possessed and used them as fashionable, discerning, modern, educated etc. The list included Ray-Ban sunglasses, the Braun ET 22 pocket calculator, the Swiss Army pen knife, the Polaroid camera, the Filofax personal organiser and so on. We had a lot of fun deciding which ‘poseur’ amongst us owned the most of them (it was the guy who bought the book). The point of the book was to address the tricky question of what constitutes good design and what value it has.
Design Museum Atrium
Design Museum Atrium
Deyan Sudjic is nowadays the director of the Design Museum in London which recently reopened in its new home in the former Commonwealth Institute building at the edge of Holland Park in Kensington. We visited a few weeks ago to take a look.
The Commonwealth Institute building was always a seriously weird building only redeemed by its unusual hyperbolic paraboloid roof (think of the shape of a Pringle crisp). The roof was presumably originally conceived as a metaphorical ‘big tent’ to house an exhibition about the Commonwealth nations. The same roof now serves as a metaphorical ‘big tent’ to house the broad church that is ‘design’. The building is laid out with a central atrium with spaces around it – permanent and temporary exhibition spaces, learning and event spaces, a members space, designer residency studios, a café, a restaurant and a shop. The architectural detail is very crisp making the building itself the star of the show and an exemplary example of sustainable design in the form of adaptive reuse.
Design Museum Designer / Maker / User Exhibition
Design Museum Atrium
The permanent exhibition entitled ‘Designer / Maker / User’ features 1000 items of twentieth and twenty-first century design viewed from the point of view of the designer, maker and user. When we visited there was an interesting exhibition on the iconic wristwatch designs of Cartier. But the exhibitions are kind of tucked away because the Design Museum is not really about objects. There is no way that a bunch of mass produced designed objects could compete with the world class art in London’s galleries. It is about education, understanding, possibilities, processes and impacts.
If the building itself is the star of the show it begs the question of what the museum is supposed to be about. Just because ‘design’ exits doesn’t mean we have to put a museum around it. The tricky question remains of what constitutes good design and what value it has and whether this is best explored in a book or in a museum or in a design philosophy class.
Grenfell Tower fire 2017 photo Natalie Oxford
Much has already been written and said and much more will follow on the tragic and preventable loss of life in the Grenfell Tower fire.
Why does it take a tragedy like this to bring about overdue change particularly when it was predicted? This was not an ‘act of god’ but the predictable outcome of a chain of causes. Fire safety experts have been lobbying for changes to Part B of the Building Regulations (Fire Safety) for years but successive governments have failed to act. A version of the same thing happened in the Lakanal House fire in Camberwell in 2009 but the coroner’s recommendations were not acted upon.
Ronan Point collapse 1968
It took the Ronan Point disaster in Newham in 1968 for regulations on disproportionate collapse (to prevent buildings suffering collapse disproportionate to the cause) to be brought in and it took the catastrophic fire in the Summerland pleasure complex on the Isle of Man in 1973 for regulations on compartmentation and surface spread of flame to be brought in.
Summerland fire 1973 photo Noel Howarth
On Grenfell Tower it appears that the retrofitted external cladding was the main cause. It was classified as Class 0 surface spread of flame but was not FR60 fire resistant – something that would not have been permitted prior to 1986. The building was fire compartmentalised between individual flats but had no defence against the exterior being enveloped in fire and the fire breaking back in. Internal sprinklers would have helped but their absence was not the main cause. That is my take on it from what I’ve read but the Public Enquiry will get to the bottom of it.
One thing I’m sure about is that under the pressures of competitive tendering the main contractor’s price and the cladding subcontractor’s price will have been driven down to the absolute minimum. They will have done no more than comply with the minimum requirements of the Building Regulations as if they had done more they might not have won the tender (although there may be an issue about what they ought reasonably to have known based on emerging experience of fire risks that could have required a higher standard of fire resistance). Let alone the inadequacy of the current Building Regulations it remains to be seen whether what was designed and actually installed was even in accordance with them. Presumably areas of the cladding on the lowest floors of the tower, which appears to be still intact, will be carefully dismantled and inspected.
In terms of identifying the culprits we need to look beyond the main contractor and sub contractor and include the council which set the budget, the government which set out the regulatory framework and ultimately ourselves on the basis that collectively we allowed this to happen.
Snap Inc has launched its video-record spectacles in the UK. They include a camera lens and record 10-second video clips in a circular format. Very James Bond and the start of something big.
Snapchat video record spectacles
These eyewear ‘computers’ will only get smaller and more powerful. They will capture a huge quantity of information which can be stored for future use raising moral and ethical issues that Snap Inc don’t even begin to address on their website. In fact I don’t think much has been said on this front largely because nobody knows what, if any, impact this technology is going to have on our behaviour.
They’re obviously all about fun but one serious application could be in mapping. Eyewear video clips will allow a library of places and spaces to be created. It’s like a mini version of 3D laser scanning which involves a camera like device to capture and create a 3D model of a place or space.
Another application could be in urban design where video records will improve our understanding of how the built environment is navigated. The choices we make, the signals we pick up on, the routes we take and what we look at as we travel. Urban planners already have a set of theories around the navigability of the built environment known as ‘space syntax’ which uses mathematical algorithms and geospatial computer technology to analyse and predict the choices and flows of people in open space. It is used in urban design and by architects in the layout of museums, airports, hospitals etc where predicting the use of space is fundamental to the success of a design.
Nolli Map of Rome (detail) 1748
We’ve come a long way from the earliest study of the navigability of open space which was the Nolli Map of Rome. In 1736 Pope Benedict XIV commissioned Giambattista Nolli to create the most accurate plan of Rome ever made. In his famous revolutionary map of 1748, instead of illustrating streets Nolli illustrated public space including semi private open spaces such as the inside of the Pantheon and the colonnades at St Peter’s Square. So it was a map of all the accessible spaces of Rome with no distinction between inside and outside only between accessible space and mass.
By the looks of it we’re soon going to have a Nolli style video record of just about everywhere soon. What we do with it is anyone’s guess.
Lisbon wall tiling and stone on rendered brickwork
It must be a great time to be an architect in Lisbon – especially a conservation architect. As with other ports, such as Liverpool, Marseille, Bristol or Bilbao, culture and the leisure economy are driving a revival that has turned into a mini boom.
Unlike other southern European cities Lisbon has a unique semi exotic atmosphere due to its location on the Atlantic coast and an imperial heritage that dates back to the days of Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India and its time as a maritime superpower.
We visited a few weeks ago and discovered a city playing the regeneration game with cranes everywhere (which is always a healthy sign). Funding is flowing in for projects that will allow Lisbon to compete at international level as a world city. Whether good or bad, gentrification is an almost Darwinian process of displacement and rebirth. Whilst displacement of existing activities and communities to outer areas is the inevitable result of the resultant higher prices, new development represents an opportunity for employment and wealth creation. In terms of the buildings, gentrification can be a good thing if it secures their economic future in a sustainable way and if they are properly conserved.
Fortunately the transformation taking place in Lisbon has come at a time when the importance of retaining the scale and physical fabric of the old city, with its tiled facades and slightly strange fusion of the classical European and Indian styles, is fully appreciated. This probably wouldn’t have been appreciated in the same way 20 or 30 years ago when the emphasis would have been on the economic rather than cultural contribution that buildings can make. Lisbon has been able to ensure that the best buildings and spaces of the waterfront, the city centre and the hilly, labyrinthine old quarters are being brought back to life although often for completely different purposes. Hopefully the slightly reclusive charm that makes Lisbon so special will be retained as well.
Azulejo (hand painted tin-glazed ceramic) tiles in the Rua da Trindade, Lisbon
The Feira da Ladra or ‘thieves market’ in the shadow of the Santa Engracia Church, Lisbon
The government has just published the draft Air Quality Plan for consultation www.gov.uk/government/consultations/improving-air-quality-reducing-nitrogen-dioxide-in-our-towns-and-cities that it was forced to come up with by the Supreme Court after action by Client Earth www.clientearth.org/uk-government-releases-weak-air-quality-plans. The view seems to be that this plan (or plan to produce a plan) is inadequate in that there is no mention of a scrappage scheme for the most polluting vehicles and charging schemes for road use in polluted areas are to be avoided where possible (which will probably mean that no heed is taken). The issue has also been passed to local councils which is a convenient cop-out for central government. On top of this a class action lawsuit is being launched against the government on behalf of asthma sufferers for allowing air pollution to exceed legal limits for so long www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/may/04/government-faces-class-action-on-air-pollution-in-landmark-case. It is a sad state of affairs when legal action is necessary to get a government to do its job.
Similarly the government surely needs to step in locally here in Wealden where air pollution in the Ashdown Forest has brought a sudden halt to all development that generates any additional vehicle emissions. The Wealden DC planning department dropped a bit of a ‘bombshell’ a couple of months ago with the latest worse than expected findings on nitrogen deposition from vehicles in the Ashdown Forest.
Kings Standing, Ashdown Forest, East Sussex viewed from near Colemans Hatch Road photo Dartford Warbler
Further development on the Ashdown Forest Special Protection Area (SPA) and Special Area of Conservation (SAC) that increases vehicular trip generation and thus nitrogen deposition will need to be mitigated to meet the requirements of the European Habitats Directive. There is a need to compensate for the damage which is already occurring through compensatory measures which may take years to be put in place to provide equivalent comparable habitat to that being lost. The latest evidence has changed the council’s position to one which means that in practical terms development across the whole district may not now proceed unless any proposal generates no more vehicle emissions than currently exist.
It’s all a bit of a mess which is no consolation to people whose development proposals are now stopped. How does this need to protect and enhance the environment square with the requirement for economic and housing growth? How can development across the whole Wealden district be stopped when development much nearer the Ashdown Forest in neighbouring districts (which is much more likely to affect the Ashdown Forest) still be allowed to proceed?
The government, which has its own agenda for economic and housing growth, needs to step up and assume more responsibility, ‘bang a few heads together’ in the various affected districts, set priorities for economic, housing and environmental issues and set a sensible timetable for mitigating the effects of nitrogen deposition from vehicles in the Ashdown Forest that does not mean the current stop on all projects. The government, which is currently preoccupied with electioneering and Brexit, needs to do its job.
Over almost twenty years Kevin McCloud and Grand Designs have done more than almost anybody else to raise the profile of good design and the importance and value of the design process.
I did a couple of days over the bank holiday weekend on one of the ‘Ask an Expert’ desks at the ‘Grand Designs Live’ exhibition at the Excel Exhibition Centre in London www.granddesignslive.com. The format is a pre-booked 30 minute round table sketch and discussion session with an RIBA architect. Over a couple of days I had about twenty sessions.
I was expecting to discuss projects that were at their inception but instead the majority of those I met tabled a set of drawings that they had already had prepared in order to obtain a ‘second opinion’. In no cases had the drawings been prepared by an architect – they had been prepared by a variety of ‘architectural consultants’. The quality of the design work was generally astoundingly poor as was the level of information provided on the drawings. The sense of client disappointment was palpable in some cases.
The drawings had obviously been purchased on the basis of price alone. What a false economy. Why would you purchase design services for work on your principal asset on this basis when the cost of design is such a small fraction of the overall project cost and the added value of good design can be so high? The approach seems to be a ‘back to front’ one which is that there is building work required so a plan is needed. How cheaply can I get that done? It should be that a need exists for which design solutions need to be explored and a preferred solution arrived at before the building work to realise it is considered.
John Ruskin (1819-1900)
It reminds me of the famous wise words of the Victorian art critic, social thinker and philanthropist John Ruskin (1819-1900):
‘It’s unwise to pay too much, but it’s worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money – that’s all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot – it can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something for the risk you run, and if you do that you will have enough to pay for something better.’
I joined the ‘Unite for Europe’ march in London on a beautiful crisp sunny spring day last Saturday. It was a perfect day for it and a perfect opportunity for a traffic free stroll at a safe and leisurely pace down the middle of some of the best streets in Westminster – Park Lane, Piccadilly, St James, Pall Mall, Trafalgar Square, Whitehall and Parliament Square. I know from attending football and rugby matches what a 50,000 crowd looks like and this crowd looked like twice that.
Pall Mall London 25 March 2017 photo Kate Hobbs
When we move around cities we tend not to look up in case we walk into something or get run over but this march offered the perfect opportunity to take in some amazing architecture afresh and enjoy the drama of such large and colourful crowd in an impressive streetscape. So much of these streets is built of Portland limestone that it felt like the march was snaking through canyons carved out of a single solid stone block. In a way the streets really are that – the big block that is Portland island. I visited one of the quarries there a number of years ago to select stone for a building in the City of London and delighted in standing at the foot of it with fresh air above my head where once existed the stone from which whole swathes of London were built. The consistent use of Portland stone throughout parts of the heart of London allows buildings of varied styles and uses to sit happily together. In fact the uses are unimportant in terms of the creation of urban ‘fabric’ they are just the ‘stuff’ that sits behind the façades which may change over time (say from a bank to a café).
Whitehall London 25 March 2017 photo Kate Hobbs
Whilst many of the facades along the route we took are superb in themselves the most impressive part of it is that they all contribute to an almost continuous frontage which is greater than the sum of the parts. Place making and public space making – city streets and squares where each building is subservient to the whole. The opposite is an architectural ‘zoo’ where ‘object’ buildings do their own thing and the relationships between them and the spaces in between make little or no sense.
The idea of the European Union is also that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. We all have to give up something to get something more. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to see that.
Most of us love a summer heatwave – the chance to imagine for a few days that we are living in the south of France.
Heatwave – one approach (not recommended)
Me included – but my attitude changed a bit when I heard Professor Kevin Lomas of Loughborough University on BBC Radio 4’s ‘You and Yours’ (2 March 2017) outline research published in the Building Research and Information Journal which describes future heatwaves as a ‘public health disaster waiting to happen’ on account of building ‘overheating’ www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09613218.2017.1256136.
The quest for building energy efficiency through heavily insulated walls, windows and roofs and reduced ventilation has led to buildings which are positively dangerous in heatwave conditions. The European heatwave of 2003 led to the premature deaths of around 15,000 people and with climate change causing warmer summers and more frequent and intense heatwaves deaths related to ‘overheating’ could triple by 2040. The risk due to the way some modern buildings are constructed is combined with higher external air temperatures (due to global warming) and an aging population (who are more susceptible to the effects of overheating). The risk is increased in cities and in building types such as houses, care homes, hospitals and single aspect blocks of flats especially where there are large unshaded glass areas and low levels of ventilation. Professor Lomas argues that the Building Regulations need to consider climate change and the effects of overheating and poor air quality not just thermal insulation and ventilation.
It seems to me that we are suffering or about to suffer from the effect of bad, cheap and ill considered buildings. Architectural science is not rocket science and there is no excuse. I speculate that the reason has been a lack of thought, even common sense, at the design stage combined with a low design and construction budget and the the use of ‘lightweight’ (usually timber frame) constuction. The performance of a building needs to be thought through before ‘the first turf is cut’ not in retrospect or by trial and error as the work proceeds. Buildings need thermal mass in the form of ‘heavy’ concrete floors, brick chimneys etc. to store heat and provide ‘inertia’ against temperature fluctuations, they need shading to windows and the facility to allow windows to be opened at the right times to allow fresh air to pass through the building. They need adequate levels of general background ventilation. Airtight windows are in my opinion potentially deadly to the old and the very young and for that reason I have never been comfortable with the low levels of ventilation promoted by the ‘Passivhaus’ ultra-low energy standard.
Given that there are those who will only ever do the minimum necessary under the Building Regulations there will need to be a new regulation to prevent the construction of buildings that are highly likely to overheat in the summer.
JMW Turner Petworth House from the Lake
One of the best bits of our new found ‘fogey’ status as members of the National Trust has been to visit a number of the landscapes of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. We visited Petworth House and Park recently www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth-house-and-park which is one of his best. Our visit coincided with a 300th anniversary exhibition and a good talk about him which persuaded me to purchase Jane Brown’s definitive biography ‘Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, 1716-1783: The Omnipotent Magician’ which I’ve just finished. I wouldn’t particularly recommend it unless you want to know the minutiae of his day to day existence.
Brown’s Blenheim Palace layout
I wasn’t unaware of ‘Capability’ Brown – it’s just that I hadn’t taken the trouble to find out who he was and what he and the 18th century English Landscape Movement were about. His is one of those names you hear about without quite being able to picture what it was he did which is hardly surprising since his work was about making landscapes which looked natural whilst being entirely man made. In fact like many others I’ve been to some of his landscapes over the years without giving him a second thought (Blenheim Palace – to see Churchill’s birthplace and Longleat – to see the lions).
Claude Lorraine Landscape with Hagar and the Angel
‘Capability’ Brown was the leading exponent of the English Landscape Movement which held that landscape should be inspired by nature and complement architecture. It replaced geometric layouts with an ‘arcadian’ vision of an idyllic pastoral paradise where man and nature co-exist in a setting of natural beauty in perfect harmony. It was influenced by the work of the French painter Claude Lorraine and begun by the landscape designers William Kent (1685-1738) and Charles Bridgeman (1690-1738).
Just as it is not necessary to visit all the buildings by a famous architect to get the ‘general idea’ it is not necessary to visit all of Brown’s landscapes to get a clear understanding of what he was about which is just as well as he was prolific and much of his work is ‘up north’. The components of the ‘classic’ Brown landscape were water engineering and earth moving on an often monumental scale to create views (panoramic and framed), rolling lawns, walks, driveways, lakes (preferably ‘serpentine’ ie winding or twisting), rivers, bridges, hills (man-made if necessary), trees (both individual – esp. the imposing Cedar of Lebanon – and in clumps and ‘ribbons’) and buildings and follies strategically set in the landscape.
There is something surreal about these landscapes – natural but not quite natural – and my wife dislikes them for this reason – but it has been fun discovering his work. It is good to know that so much of it still survives and to see him being celebrated on the 300th anniversary of his birth.