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That’s It
 

Is that it? seemed to be the general response to the Housing White Paper ‘Fixing Our Broken Housing Market’ which was published last week http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-38884601. The White Paper was short on ambition or the promise of radical reform.

But one thing we should be grateful of is that the White Paper did not give in to the clamour from the volume housebuilders to permit development on green belt land. It would have been the thin end of the wedge and once undeveloped land is gone it’s gone for good.

Plenty of suitable brownfield land is available in areas where infrastructure such as roads, utilities, schools etc already exists and there is enormous opportunity for increased density in already developed sites across the country. It is just that from the volume housebuilder’s point of view brownfield / already developed land is unattractive as it requires ‘expensive’, imaginative, one-off solutions to unlock the development potential whereas rolling out standard house types and estate layouts like so much wallpaper is an easy tried and tested money maker for them.

As well as this these anonymous suburban developments are basically unsustainable relying, as they do, on an unsustainable car-based way of life. We need to recognise that human patterns of development will need to return to the concepts of the village, the town, the neighbourhood and the city – not suburban sprawl.

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A Yorkshire Surprise
 

We joined the National Trust six months ago and have been having a lot of fun visiting various the trust properties in these parts.  The trust acquired many of its country houses and gardens in the mid 20th century in lieu of death duties. The rate of acquisition of new properties has since declined with the emphasis now on parcels of coastline, forests, moorland etc. To be considered, new property acquisitions must be fully resourced for future management and maintenance.

So my ears pricked up when I heard these words on Wednesday in the chancellor’s autumn statement: “I will act today, with just seven days to spare, to save one of the UK’s most important historic houses: Wentworth Woodhouse near Rotherham. It is said to be the inspiration for Pemberley in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Wentworth Woodhouse is now at critical risk of being lost to future generations. A local effort has secured millions in funding – subject to the balance required being found by November 30th. So we will provide a £7.6 million grant towards urgent repairs to safeguard this key piece of Northern heritage.”

Wentworth Woodhouse East Front photo Andrew Rabbott

Wentworth Woodhouse East Front photo Andrew Rabbott

Wentworth Woodhouse is a grade 1 listed early 18th century county house and gardens in South Yorkshire. It is one of the finest and grandest country houses in Britain with the longest façade of any of them. It looks like a city in its own right and it’s hard to imagine what all the rooms were used for in its heyday other than for show. The chancellor’s grant is a relatively small sum to bring up in the autumn statement but he probably needed to pull some sort of ‘rabbit out of the hat’ in the midst of a bizarre financial statement predicated on a self-inflicted £60 billion (give or take the a few tens of billions ) Brexit ‘black hole’ over the next five years. In fact the house has been secured by the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust and SAVE Britain’s Heritage. They purchased it for £7 million which is a bit of a ‘snip’ for those of us who are used to house price levels in London and the South East. In Kensington, £7 million will buy a semi detached villa. The chancellor’s additional money will effectively pay for fixing the roof. Public opening of the main interiors and gardens will be run by the National Trust.

I’d never heard of Wentworth Woodhouse, probably as it is not local and not yet on the ‘heritage days out’ list, but hearing of its rescue was a pleasant surprise and I look forward to visiting it courtesy of my National Trust membership.

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The Limits of Believability
 

It’s funny how we can finally find time to read things years or decades after we were ‘supposed’ to read them.

I read my way through the canon of classic children’s stories not as a child but as bedtime stories for my kids. I read some of the ‘set texts’ we were supposed to have read before entering architectural education decades later. Similarly I’ve just read the 1972 classic ‘Limits to Growth’ – the top selling environmental title ever published. I’d read numerous references to it over the years and thought I was broadly aware of it’s contents but decided to read it when I found it available as a free download at the website of Parliament’s UK All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the Limits to Growth http://limits2growth.org.uk/ which was set up earlier this year. I’ve also just read the ‘Limits to Growth 30 year update (2005)’ and the Parliamentary Group’s own ‘Limits Revisited’ paper. Once you get started, these titles are so compelling in terms of our current predicament that it’s kind of hard to put them down.

Limits to Growth 1972

Limits to Growth 1972

‘Limits to Growth’ is a genuinely ‘jaw dropping’ read – one of those ‘this book will change your life’ type titles. It looked at the implications for the planet of the continuation of existing growth trends (population, resource use and emissions). In particular it looked at the impact of exponentially increasing consumption against the fixed limits of the planet (natural resources and the capacity to absorb emissions from industry and agriculture). The research that underpinned the work used ‘system dynamics’ to look at how different components of a system interact – often in ‘feedback loops’ or other non-linear ways. The components used were population, industrialisation, pollution, resource depletion and land availability for food.

The conclusion of ‘Limits to Growth’ was that if human behaviour did not significantly and immediately alter then the human race must expect exponential growth to be followed by overshoot and collapse some time this century. This ‘business as usual’ scenario was labelled the ’standard run’. Other scenarios that assumed some change only pushed the date of overshoot and collapse back by a surprisingly short period. A number of scenarios that involved stabilising the human population, restricting industrial output per person and various technological solutions were capable of establishing ‘equilibrium’.

Limits to Growth 1972 World Model - Standard Run

Limits to Growth 1972 World Model – Standard Run

Whilst ‘Limits to Growth’ has been challenged on points of detail nobody can challenge the collision between exponential growth and fixed limits and the long term need for ‘equilibrium’. The question is whether we manage this transition or allow it to happen chaotically. The consensus is that little has happened since 1972 and tragically we are still following the trend curves set out in the ‘standard model’ towards overshoot and collapse.

All the more worrying then, and at the limits of believability in the circumstances, to hear US President elect Donald Trump announce that he is going to ‘make America great again’ by effectively setting the clock back 30 years or more in the ‘rust belt’ states, burning coal and gas and abandoning the Paris climate agreement https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/13/trump-looking-at-quickest-way-to-quit-paris-climate-agreement-says-report which is one of the few concrete measures adopted globally to try and start to get a grip on things.  Trump can get away with this because until the limits of growth are reached it will seem to many like business as usual. But the global limits will be reached and when they are those who suffer from things like starvation will be the world’s poorest.

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Factory Life
 

It is good news for those in housing need that government ministers are planning up to 100,000 prefabricated homes (‘prefabs’) to help solve Britain’s housing crisis http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/10/29/britain-set-for-new-wave-of-prefabs-to-help-tackle-housing-crisi/. The last time that there was such an ambitious plan was in the aftermath of the second world war so what’s the reason this time?

Basically the construction industry in general and housing in particular is a convenient tool in the government’s regulation of the economy through bringing forward or postponing investment. As well as this housing is a political ‘football’ – free market versus state provision and in many cases a class of investment rather than a means of shelter.

Modular home factory photo Riverview Homes

Modular home factory photo Riverview Homes

Instead of a steady stream of new housing there is under supply followed by, in this case, the emergency provision of ‘prefabs’. Decades of stop / start have led to the loss of traditional construction skills and weak supply chains.

The ‘prefab’ ‘solution’ will involve the replacement of site based construction trade skills with less well paid factory jobs both in the UK and overseas and a much less rewarding way of life for the workers involved. I would not include factory work as one of the notable features of contemporary civilization.

Regarding the ‘prefabs’ themselves they have advantages but also disadvantages. They are standardised so not site specific. They are relatively difficult to alter and extend as their design is so specific to their form and repairs will depend upon the form of construction whether framed or panelised. Whilst their ‘lightweight’ construction is well insulated it has no thermal mass to even out temperature. There are bound to be issues with sound insulation and fire protection. The industry will no doubt argue that all of these issues have been addressed – which they probably have been up to a point.

The main attraction of ‘prefabs’ is cost and speed but short term cost does not equate to long term value and the only reason that speed is a bonus is because of the housing emergency we have put ourselves in.  Still – something is better than nothing.

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The ‘Marc Chagall’ Church
 
All Saints' Church Tudeley East Window photo: Peter Klaus

All Saints’ Church Tudeley East Window photo: Peter Klaus

I’ve been meaning to visit ‘the church with the Chagall stained glass windows’ in Kent since a neighbour told me about it several years ago. The church in question is All Saints’ Church  http://www.tudeley.org/allsaintstudeley.htm which is hidden away in Tudeley near Tonbridge. Parts of the church date from before the Norman conquest but most of what is there today is from the 18th century.

All the more surprising then to find within the relatively small window openings of this solid little church the only example in the world of a full array of stained glass windows (twelve in total) designed by the Russian – then French – artist Marc Chagall.

An early pioneering modernist, Chagall was associated with cubism, fauvism and symbolism, creating works in virtually every artistic medium including stained glass (‘painting with light’) which he came to late in his career. Chagall’s involvement at All Saints’ is a sad story. He was commissioned by Sir Henry and Lady d’Avigdor-Goldsmid to design the magnificent east window in memory of their daughter who died in a sailing accident off Rye. When he arrived for the installation of the east window in 1967 and saw the church, he said, ‘It’s magnificent. I will do them all.’

We visited recently en route to Tunbridge Wells and it was well worth the visit. The simple exterior of the church does little to prepare you for the vibrancy of the colour, the quality of the light (even on a dull day) and the all encompassing completeness of Chagall’s vision. A Russian Jew, Chagall often included Christ in his work. He said that the windows, which feature animals, birds, butterflies and fishes were inspired by verses 4-8 of Psalm 8:

All Saints' Church Tudeley Bird

All Saints’ Church Tudeley Bird

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.

Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet:

All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field;

The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.

 

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Abstract Expressionism at the RA
 
Life Magazine 8 August 1949

Life Magazine 8 August 1949

We always had LIFE Magazine and TIME Magazine in the house when I was growing up. My uncle posted them over from Canada in batches so we got them several months later. My father cut out and saved various articles on art in folders and it was in one of these that years later I first came upon Jackson Pollock. It was the article from LIFE dated August 8 1949 entitled ‘Jackson Pollock – Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’- an article that did much to establish Pollock’s reputation. I thought he was pretty cool – pouring paint about and getting famous for it. More recently I saw Ed Harris’s great biographical movie ‘Pollock’ (2000) when it was given a limited screening by the local film society. So I was looking forward to seeing more of his work and that of his contemporaries at the ‘Abstract Expressionism’ exhibition at the RA (running until 2 January 2017).  https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/abstract-expressionism

Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy of Arts

Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy of Arts

It’s a wonderful exhibition – a big show that brings together big and important pieces by Pollock, Rothko, Still, de Kooning, Newman, Kline, Smith, Guston and Gorky with a sense of the energy and experimentation of New York in the 1950’s. This was the age of jazz, beat poetry, the nuclear bomb and a frenzied desire to defy convention and forge a new art. Pollock is the star of the show for me especially the room that features his masterpiece ‘No. 11 1952’ (‘Blue Poles’) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Number_11,_1952_(painting), which is in his fully developed style, opposite ‘Mural’ – a work he did in 1943 on commission for Peggy Guggenheim in a developing style influenced by Picasso’s Guernica (1937). ‘Blue Poles’ caused a bit of a nuclear explosion in its own right when it was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in 1973 for what was then a large amount of money – let alone for something that many thought had no value at all as ‘art’.

I would have liked a bit more information on the social and cultural context of 1950’s New York. We purchased the film ‘Peggy Guggenheim- Art Addict’ which we found amongst the Abstract Expressionist cups, scarves and postcards etc in the RA shop on the way out which filled in some of the background. If they were able to bottle and sell the hope, confidence and enthusiasm of the Abstract Expressionists that would really sell out fast.

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Peak Absurdity
 

“For those familiar with my art practice, and with my sense of humour, this situation is oddly suited to me and I am sure will inform my work for years to come”.  The words of Rebecca Moss, a 25-year-old ‘absurdist artist’, who is currently in the absurd situation of being stranded off the coast of Japan on the 68,000 tonne container ship the ‘Hanjin Geneva’ www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/sep/14/artist-stranded-container-ship-rebecca-moss-hanjin. An MA student at the Royal College of Art in London, Rebecca was taking part in a residency programme organised by a Vancouver art gallery called ‘23 Days at Sea’. Her aim was to explore ‘the comedic potential of the clash between mechanical systems and nature’ but she got more than she bargained for when the Hanjin Shipping Co, the world’s seventh-largest container shipper, filed for bankruptcy after her trip going westward from North America to Asia had commenced. Rebecca’s ‘23 Days at Sea’ should have been up by now but with no means to pay docking or cargo handling fees Hanjin’s ships are being refused entry into ports and are at sea with no destination. “The situation is completely ironic” she said “It is bizarre how much it suits my interests.” I hope Rebecca’s adventure gives her lots of material and wish her a safe return to dry land.

The View from the 'Hanjin Geneva' photo Rebecca Moss

The View from the ‘Hanjin Geneva’ photo Rebecca Moss

I was interested in the story firstly as it plays into the notion of ‘peak stuff’ – the state where our appetite for extraneous ‘stuff’ is saturated and we are using fewer material resources. We are starting to ask what is this stuff for? Does it make us any happier? Does it do us more harm than good both as people and as a planet in view of ongoing resource depletion (worth a blog of its own)? As Rebecca puts it “It has forcefully underscored the contradictions I always perceived about this endless stream of stuff that is constantly flowing across the Pacific”. In the case of the ‘Hanjin Geneva’ what stuff is actually in the containers? Why is it necessary to transport so much of it across the Pacific? To what extent has its non-arrival been noticed?

I was interested in the story secondly as it illustrates the fragility of the systems that we rely upon to underpin our daily life. Hanjin Shipping Co apparently accounted for 8% of the trans-Pacific trade volume for the US market yet its activities ceased at a stroke. It’s like the stories we regularly hear of how fast the supermarket shelves will empty in this or that crisis.  The answer, as many are beginning to realise, is to build a more robust and sustainable way of life based on local goods and services – and there’s nothing absurd about that.

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The Rubble Club
 

What right does an architect have to expect that their buildings will not be demolished during their own lifetime?

This question occurred to me when I learned of the death of Isi Metzstein who was my final year tutor at the Mackintosh School of Architecture during 1979-80. Isi was a partner in Gillespie Kidd and Coia – one of the greatest British post war architectural practices as well as an inspirational teacher. He will be remembered for his buildings, teaching and discourse.

I knew that some of Isi’s buildings have already been lost but I was unaware of the fact that he was responsible for the formation of ‘The Rubble Club’ www.therubbleclub.com – an organisation open to architects who have had buildings destroyed in their lifetime. ‘The Rubble Club’ has three key ground rules: firstly the architect must be alive and not party to its destruction, secondly the building must have been built with the intention of permanence and thirdly it must have been deliberately destroyed. I think there is an unwritten fourth rule which is that the building must have been architecturally ‘important’ in one way or another so that the loss comes as a shock not just to the architect.

St Vincent Street United Presbyterian Church, Glasgow

St Vincent Street United Presbyterian Church, Glasgow

It is all a bit tongue in cheek but it points to the issue of (relative) permanence versus temporariness in architecture. Some buildings are intended to be as good as permanent and others are intended to be temporary. A good example of the permanent variety would be the St Vincent Street United Presbyterian Church in Glasgow (1859) by Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson – a wonderful ‘set piece’ comprising a temple standing on a massive podium with a tower soaring above. The design was intended to create a link to antiquity and the birth of civilisation and endure into an almost infinite future through the use of a perfect system of proportion, the classical language of architecture and ‘permanent’ materials such as stone and slate. Its monumentality still defines a large part of the centre of the city.

Good examples of the temporary variety would be festival architecture or the annually renewed Serpentine Gallery Pavilions in London of which the 2002 version by Toyo Ito is probably the best example. Other buildings are intended to be permanent but end up being temporary (destroyed by fire, flood, earthquake, terrorist attack, redevelopment, decay, lack of funds, inflexibility etc) – a good example would be the twin towers of the World Trade Centre by Minoru Yamasaki which were lost in shocking circumstances. Some buildings are intended to be temporary but end up being permanent. Good examples of these would be the Eiffel Tower, The London Eye and even the post war ‘prefab’ bungalows which were only intended to last a few years but are in some cases still going strong.

Top left - Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2002 by Toyo Ito Top right - World Trade Centre by Minoru Yamasaki Above - Post war 'prefab' bungalow

Top left – Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2002 by Toyo Ito
Top right – World Trade Centre by Minoru Yamasaki
Above – Post war ‘prefab’ bungalow

As a society we are nowadays much more inclined towards the temporary and the throw-away despite moves towards sustainability which suggests adaptive re-use. ‘The Rubble Club’ advocates adaptive re-use as a means of saving threatened treasures. A few years ago I was shocked to see my ‘old’ secondary school (Hermitage Academy in Helensburgh) being reduced to rubble. I was one of the first intakes to a brand new set of buildings. Apparently they had become expensive to maintain and heat and did not lend themselves to modern teaching methods. The value of the site for housing helped fund the new Academy.

The answer to my question is probably that apart from a few buildings that acquire an iconic status within society (for example becoming listed buildings), the architect cannot expect that their buildings will not be demolished during their own lifetime. Many clients would be horrified to think that if they commission an architect designed building they could be saddled with it and unable to redevelop their land. Nevertheless the design IDEA remains the property of the architect and one answer may lie in modern technology. Three dimensional computing now allows models of buildings, even ‘lost’ historic buildings, to be created and viewed as they were originally intended. Through three dimensional computing the architectural IDEA can be saved for posterity if not the physical structure which is just its physical embodiment. In theory with sufficient three dimensional records the physical structure could be recreated in a different place at a different time.

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Tuscan Sketchbook
 

Architects do less freehand drawing than most people probably imagine. The majority of time is spent seeing projects through to completion.

Montestigliano, Brenna, Sketch 1

Montestigliano, Brenna, Sketch 1

With the advent of computer generated imagery the architectural freehand sketch has become less common but more celebrated as a means of communication in its own right. So it’s always a pleasure to find the time to do freehand sketches when time permits.

Montestigliano, Brenna, Sketch 2

Montestigliano, Brenna, Sketch 2

I’ve just returned from holiday in Tuscany where I managed to spend some time sketching. Whilst less accurate than photography, sketching forces one to really look and understand the subject matter and find a way of recording it. I used oil pastels on thick watercolour paper. Oil pastels are great as they are completely dry and easy to get started with. No need for brushes or various solutions – just pastels, a pencil and a sheet of paper. However pastels are fairly blunt so the result will inevitably have that ‘sketchy’ look. The colours can’t be mixed prior to application so they have to be blended on the page which is part of the fun – and the effect.

Montestigliano, Brenna, Sketch 3

Montestigliano, Brenna, Sketch 3

Montestigliano, Brenna, Sketch 4

Montestigliano, Brenna, Sketch 4

Tuscany in summer is a magical place to sketch. Possible subjects present themselves at almost every turn due to the powerful stone architectural forms, the quality of the light and the dramatic shadows. It’s important to catch the shadows early in the sketch as otherwise they will have moved by the time the sketch is approaching completion.

Back to work in late summer in England now – a mixed bag with it’s own particular charms – hopefully an ‘Indian summer’ this year.

 

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The Frackers are Back
 

At the height of the fracking protest in Balcombe in 2013 I went to hear Mark Stevenson http://markstevenson.org , author of ‘An Optimists Tour of the Future’ speak at Forest Row Village Hall.  Mark delivered a fascinating overview of future technology and the energy sector.  He had a very clear ‘take’ on fracking and the other extreme unconventional means of extraction of gas, oil and coal – such as deep water drilling, tar sands extraction and mountain top removal.  It is that these are the desperate and dying acts of an outdated technology that is rapidly being replaced by renewable energy – especially solar energy.  Solar energy has the potential to re-order society because it can be home produced thus cutting out the ‘middle man’.

Balcombe 2013

Balcombe 2013

So it was surprising and disappointing to read a few weeks ago of the decision of the planning committee of North Yorkshire County Council to approve plans put forward by an outfit called Third Energy to frack for gas at a site near Kirby Misperton in Ryedale.  Yes the frackers are back like the undead from a Hammer Horror movie.  The councillors who voted in favour probably thought they were voting for the future when they were in fact voting for the past.  Fighting this polluting and dangerous industry, which is designed to make a few people a ‘fast buck’ at the expense of everybody else, before it is stopped is both a local and a national fight and the decision in Yorkshire could have implications here.

Hopefully the relentless and inevitable march of renewable technologies will squeeze out this nasty industry (which would industrialise our countryside and threaten our health, water supplies and wildlife) before it gets properly established in the UK.  Here’s a link to an article about how wind energy is becoming mainstream in the USA (and as we all know we’ve no shortage of wind in the UK) http://www.slate.com/articles/business/the_juice/2016/05/the_windpower_expo_demonstrated_that_wind_energy_is_finally_corporate_and.html

Leave the hydrocarbons in the ground.  It’s where they belong.