Monday, October 01, 2012

Since joining the Guardian as architecture and design critic, this blog has been put on hold – serving as an archive of selected articles from 2008–2012. You can follow my current writing here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Giant's Causeway Visitor Centre, by Heneghan Peng architects

Heneghan Peng Architects’ visitor centre for the Giant’s Causeway combines a raw simplicity with a generative grid to create a powerful sense of place
Irish legend has it that the Giant’s Causeway was built by a mythical hunter-warrior named Finn MacCool, as a way of reaching Scotland to fight other giants without getting his feet wet. He apparently tore great chunks of rock from the cliffs and fashioned them into neatly interlocking hexagonal pillars — of which about 40,000 remain, clinging to the north-east Antrim coast of Northern Ireland.
MacCool was blessed with many powers, including a magic thumb that he sucked to see into the future, but it is for his paving skills and landscaping prowess that he is best remembered. Many of Ireland’s geographical features are attributed to his fits of rage, including Lough Neagh, the hole left when he scooped up a chunk of land to sling at a rival (he missed and it landed in the sea — forming the Isle of Man). Rich in legend and a primal sense of place, there is a palpable feeling that this ragged coastline might once have been carved and sculpted by an almighty hand.
It is a sense that Heneghan Peng Architects has channelled and masterfully redeployed in its £18 million visitor centre for the Giant’s Causeway, which now lies 1km from the basalt formation, stealthily hunkered down into the brow of the hill above the coast.
It is composed simply from two great fissures in the ground, as if hewn by MacCool himself, one rising up 6m to form the angular entrance prow of the building, the other slipping down by an equal height to create a sunken car park. Each fissure is lined with marching pillars of polished black basalt, revealing a dark striated crust beneath the topsoil. Between these two cuts, a broad grassy bank slopes up to the ridgeline, signalling the beginning of a path that snakes off into the distance along the cliff tops.
“Interfering with the landscape was sacrilege,” says Julia Loughnane, the project architect who has steered this feat of geological engineering to completion. “We couldn’t compromise the ridgeline by putting a building on it.”
Giant's Causeway visitor centre by Heneghan Peng Architects
Instead, Heneghan Peng’s proposal — one of 800 entries to the international competition in 2005 — tried as far as possible to bury the scheme, to blend the 1,800sq m of shop, café and exhibition space, as well as parking for 200 cars, into the undulating topography of the place. Big buildings are difficult things to hide, and the popular planner-friendly approach of covering them with grass rarely works. Here, however, the architects have sculpted the landform in such a way as for the entire complex to be barely legible on the horizon, from any direction. Even approached from the south — the building’s most visible face — it is easily mistaken for a dark furrow in the ground, an exposed seam of peat or cliff face in shadow.
“It is not a destination building,” says Loughnane, refreshingly matter of fact about the project’s relatively humble role, playing second fiddle to the Unesco World Heritage Site beyond. “Its job is to frame a route. You should walk through it, not stay in it.”
The basalt pillars, syncopated into an irregular barcode pattern, break open at the southern corner to form a covered entrance portico through which visitors file. Entered through glazed revolving doors, the building is revealed as one great hall, covered by a thick concrete slab supported on slender steel fins, in which the various components of the National Trust formula are loosely arranged. It is big and echoey, and has something of the air of a departure hall: a riotous tableau of hyperactive children jostling shoulder-to-knee with huddles of day-tripping pensioners, patiently queuing for their tea.
It is easily mistaken for a dark furrow, an exposed seam of peat or cliff face in shadow
It is finished in a palette of simple, raw materials, giving the impression of entering a space that is the result of a momentous tectonic shift, of a void prised open by some great slippage of plates. A single scored fold runs the length of the exposed concrete soffit, as if the slab itself has been wrenched and twisted, tilting up along its length. It is sliced open at regular intervals to reveal wedges of sky and bring in ample natural daylight, allowing snatched views up to figures scampering across the grassy rooftop.
“We were keen that you should always be aware of the conditions outside, as the changing light and weather is such a feature of this area,” says Loughnane, just as the heavens open and torrential rain drives floods of visitors to the shelter of the portico. “We didn’t want it to feel like a black velvet-lined box.”
The floor, of polished concrete with basalt chips, also rises with the roof, stepping up in line with the slices of skylight to lead visitors through to the back of the building, where they eventually exit through a sculpted hollow in the landscape — which has the thrill of emerging from the Batcave. These changes in floor level are set out on a different axis to the roof, as if the ground is a separate layer in the mineral strata, a different seam with its own specific geometry.
Giant's Causeway visitor centre by Heneghan Peng Architects
The entrance is concealed behind a portico of black basalt.
The importance of geometry and generative grids is an ongoing interest in the office of Heneghan Peng, particularly evident in its winning scheme for the Grand Egyptian Museum, currently on site in Giza, which is derived from a mysterious alignment with the Pyramids. There, as here, a powerful sense of geometry is instilled in the psyche of the place, and the architects appear to enjoy channelling these quasi-mystic qualities in their own work.
The stone here has that rare quality of being treated like stone, rather than a flimsy cladding
Loughnane tells me how the entire logic of the project springs from “point zero zero zero”, where all of the lines converge at the top of the ridgeline, and from which everything is measured in “clean numbers”. There is a notionally east-west axis, which controls the basalt pillars, steel columns, roof lights, benches and planters. Then there are the two primary cuts, each a variation on north-south (one of which is projected from the tip of the causeway), which dictate the longitudinal alignment of everything. These are then overlaid by a tertiary axis, which springs from the building’s southern elevation and determines the steps, shelving and other bits of furniture.
Giant's Causeway visitor centre by Heneghan Peng Architects
Giant's Causeway visitor centre by Heneghan Peng Architects
It is an elaborate set-up that belies the apparent simplicity of the initial moves, and one that no doubt entailed further expense in such details as the rhomboid shuttering of the slab and bespoke angular furniture. There are whiffs of Peter Eisenman and IM Pei in the dogma of the grid, which betrays the architects’ US training, although thankfully here it has not been pursued to the detriment of the useful functioning of the building. Instead, it brings a delightful layer of complexity: the basalt pillars on the southern elevation are so skewed by the grid as to make this facade seem almost opaque; the mild steel fins, composed of a seven-layer sandwich of 30mm plates, are so aligned as to appear staggered, the plates slipping past each other as if under tectonic stress. None of these details are overwrought, nor do they overwhelm. They are instead symptoms of an admirably obsessive practice.
“Heneghan Peng are masters in pragmatic perfectionism,” says Graham Thompson, project director for the National Trust, which runs the site and has managed the project since 2008. It is rare for a client to speak so highly of its architect, particularly after a protracted seven-year process — which saw a rival, privately backed scheme derail the plans for some time.
Giant's Causeway visitor centre by Heneghan Peng Architects
Thompson is equally full of praise for the stonemason, S McConnell & Sons, “the finest in the UK”, which has fashioned the basalt slabs (taken from the same lava flow as the causeway pillars, sourced from a nearby quarry) with a precision that Finn MacCool could only dream of. The stone here has that rare quality of being treated like stone, rather than a flimsy cladding, thanks to the architect’s specification of a minimum 75mm block thickness. In some ways, it is almost too slick — the sharp detailing and recessed steel balustrade are more reminiscent of Foster City plaza than the local Antrim vernacular of white render and grey pebble dash. The barcode pattern adds to this feeling, given it has become the knee-jerk response to livening up an elevation, employed in a glut of dreary projects since this scheme was designed.
But this matters little to the children who, on the day of visiting, have embraced every surface of the building as a new adventure landscape, occupying the nooks and crannies between columns, the shifting levels of its ramps and rooftops, the perches formed as the facade meets the ground. Whether peering in through the skylights to ambush their parents below, or playing hide and seek between the pillars, they seem to enjoy it as much as the stepping-stone terrain of the causeway itself. It is only let down occasionally by an over-sensitive building control officer, who has insisted on cumbersome glass fins to prevent overly enthusiastic climbers from scaling the parapet.
Being so much part of the natural landscape, refusing to differentiate between front and back, ground and roof, the building’s one weakness is in providing a coherent sense of circulation. This was always a slippery part of the brief, given that the causeway is an open site and a public right of way, and yet the National Trust must charge for parking and use of the facilities in order to maintain the site. As a result, the first part of the scheme you encounter is the broad grassy ramp, where the building generously ducks down, inviting forthright hikers to march over the roof and not pay the entrance fee.
It is rare for a client to speak so highly of its architect, particularly after a protracted seven-year process
Similarly, the car park is located next to the coach party entrance, through which many confused visitors first enter, before being sent around to the front. Once inside, the open nature of the hall is again at odds with being funnelled to one side to buy a ticket, and even finding the loos (surely the most used part of the building) is something of a challenge.
But the biggest elephant in the room, which was entirely out of the architect’s control, is the exhibition design itself. The product of Event, which also produced the displays for the nearby Titanic Belfast, it consists of a series of lacklustre interpretation boards and digital projections that require the blacking out of several roof lights. It is a black-box production for a building predicated on natural light.
Thankfully it might not prove to be permanent, the architect’s robust shell allowing for multiple versions of occupation over the building’s long lifespan. Having already received 170,000 visitors in its first seven weeks of opening, the project appears to have every intention of entering the popular imagination and lasting as long as the landscape of legend around it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

London 2012 Olympic Park

The Olympic Park is a tour de force of ecological landscaping, but it has little to do with its East End context
Seven years and £11 billion in the making, the London 2012 Olympic Park is finally complete. Two million tonnes of contaminated soil have been washed, 5km of riverbanks cleaned up and 35 bridges built. Six thousand two hundred trees, 9,500 shrubs, 63,000 bulbs, 250,000 wetlands plants and 766,000 grasses and ferns have been planted.
There are fields and lawns, wetlands, woodland and wild-flower meadows. There are 650 bird and bat boxes, kingfisher walls and swift hotels, as well as habitats to lure otters, water voles, sand martins, amphibians, reptiles and a host of invertebrates. There are thickets of oak, ash, willow, birch, hazel, holly, blackthorn and hawthorn, flowerbeds bursting with red hot pokers, tiger lilies and Japanese anemones. Look closely and you will even find toadflax to entice the rare brocade moth.
It sounds like Kew Gardens combined with the entire contents of the Chelsea Flower Show, a baffling shopping list for a project of incomprehensible scale, which has somehow been magicked from the mud at the bottom of the Lower Lea Valley.
Walking around the 250 hectares of gently undulating meadows and pristine tarmac plazas this week, it is hard to believe this is the same piece of land that used to be a wild world of abattoirs and breakers yards, newspaper printers and cooking-fat recycling plants. Pacing the banks of the oily waterways in 2006, shortly before the infamous blue fence encircled this swathe of east London, it seemed the Olympic dream was an impossibility. This was an abrasive edgeland, surely too big and too feral to be conquered.

A chequered past

The site lies at the lower end of the Lee Valley Park, a green ribbon that snakes 40km from Hertfordshire down to the Thames in a knotted tangle of rivers, reservoirs and marshland, woven between infrastructural arteries and fragments of industry. As a buffer between the city to the west and rural Essex to the east, the valley has an important history as a productive belt, layered with generations of service as London’s kitchen garden and workshop, the site of flour mills and shipyards, gunpowder mills, chemical plants and brick factories.
While bestowing the area with a romantic mythology, massaged by the writings of Ian Sinclair and Will Self, these years of heavy industry had taken their toll, leaving a scarred landscape of poisoned soils — a key factor in framing the site’s regeneration as an essential project of land remediation, “cleaning up” what was conveniently branded as a toxic dumping ground.
The Olympic park plan
The Olympic site itself had been home to the sprawling Great Eastern Railway works, left derelict since the early 1990s, and a jumbled collection of sheds and yards. As a result of its isolation, severed from its surroundings by rivers and canals, deep railway gulleys and roaring A roads, it had collected the kind of uses and communities that accrue beyond the fold in the map. When clearance began in 2006, it was a mix of food wholesalers and concrete crushers, warehouse churches and travellers’ camps, piles of fridges and allotments. It is misleading to romanticise this former state too much, but it had its own special quality as a hidden backwater, an unregulated valve where the city could let off steam.
The winning bid for the London 2012 Games — dreamed up in 2005 by Edaw (now Aecom), Allies & Morrison, Foreign Office Architects and HOK Sport (now Populous) — proposed to wipe all this clean. The blank slate would give rise to a startling futuristic vision of a parametric parkland, with venues erupting from the ground in rippling waves — taut, muscular forms traversed by a dense matrix of sinuous, bifurcating pathways.
Reality intervened, FOA resigned, and the plan was dramatically simplified, with a new emphasis on designing a permanent park for east London, incidentally populated by venues, many of which would be fully or partially temporary.

Water works

The landscape you experience today is the work of LDA Design and American landscape architect George Hargreaves, whose practice was responsible for the Sydney Olympic Plaza and the transformation of other vast brownfield sites across the US. Brought in by the Olympic Delivery Authority in 2008, the team overhauled Edaw’s broadbrush approach, softening its edges, opening up the river banks and reducing the concourse area by almost 20%..
“The big move was revealing the water,” says Neil Mattinson, senior partner at LDA Design. “We pulled back the landform and sculpted mounds out of the displaced soil, which allowed us to reuse all of the material on site.” The width of the former concourses would have resulted in near-vertical walls meeting the rivers, but now the land slopes down, via meandering pathways and bushy banks, to naturalised, reed-planted edges — a floodable landscape that has removed the flood risk to almost 5,000 homes further north.
The design strategy for the park is separated into two zones formed by the natural hourglass shape of the site. The southern end, around the main stadium, Orbit and Aquatics Centre, is conceived as a busy, paved world of concourses and entertainment plazas — imagined to grow into a “South Bank of the East End” after the Games. The northern half is a more natural landscape of meadows and woodland, set around the timber bowl of the Velodrome, closer to the marshes and forests further north.
The Olympic park
Seating is built into the landscape in hard-wearing Brazilian cumaru timber.
These two distinct worlds are linked by a vast sea of tarmac and resin-bound gravel — named London Way — that snakes up the centre of the park to channel visitors between the venues that plug in along its length. Like many Olympic promenades before it, it has a bleak, relentless quality — an endless concourse paced by a marching line of “memory mast” lighting columns, each topped with a helical wind turbine, and populated for the Games with an inevitable cacophony of sponsor pavilions and white-tent concession stands.
Either side of this broad, raised spine, which is bowed north-south across the park like a hog’s back, the topography slopes down to the water to provide an alternative, more enjoyable route through the park. In the southern reaches, around Orbit Circus and Stadium Island, this takes the form of conventional towpath edges, where the original concrete river walls are exposed and the occasional iron footbridge has been lovingly restored — although unfortunately fenced off for the Games. These paths back on to banks planted with wildflower meadows, an impressive sight of golds and blues now in bloom.
The broad, raised spine of London Way is bowed north-south across the park like a hog’s back
A whole stretch has also been given over to a project by young architects Tomas Klassnik and We Made That, who have planted patterns that recall the plan forms of buildings that were here before. It is one of the few places in the park where the history of the site is remembered and celebrated, not swept under the pristine green carpet.
On the bank of the Waterworks River, opposite the Aquatics Centre, young garden designer Sarah Price has worked with botanists from the University of Sheffield to construct the 860m-long 2012 Gardens. This riot of flowers and shrubs represents the history of British horticultural ambition, with plants collected from four different climatic zones, all carefully calibrated to flower for the Olympic fortnight — which, miraculously, they now have.
Progressing north, you encounter a lurid confetti carpet of coloured blobs, signalling the presence of an architect-designed bridge. Won in competition by Heneghan Peng, with engineer Adams Kara Taylor, this will be a great asset to the park in legacy mode, comprising two footbridges connected by a diagonal Z-blade walkway that crosses the (soon-to-be-restored) Carpenters Lock below, with a slick, mirror-polished undercarriage. During the Games, the triangular voids are cleverly filled in to form a single 55m-wide deck — and its Smartie-blob carpet is already proving popular with hop-scotching kids.
A similar strategy has been used by Allies & Morrison for other bridges across the site, avoiding the oversized infrastructural legacy of so many Olympic parks. Removable timber sections provide the obligatory 30m width during the Games, which will be reduced to a more human scale of 3-4m afterwards.
North of this bridge, leaving the central concourse spine and the world’s largest McDonald’s — whose timber-clad shed seems surprisingly tasteful next to the disastrous prefab glass and steel Megastore — things start to get a little wilder. Clumps of clover replace the manicured borders, mushrooms spring from beneath glades of trees and the concrete-edged towpaths give way to marshy banks of long grasses
and reeds.
The Olympic park
Attenuation ponds filter greywater from the Athletes’ Village and provide biodiverse wet woodland habitats.
To the east, where the austere beige cliff face of the Athletes’ Village looms into view, the park dips and swirls, forming a series of ponds surrounded by wet woodland. These are attenuation pools that filter greywater from the village, a landscape feature that extends into the development and helps to soften the gridiron in the manner of a Dutch singel. Considering how recently most of the park has been planted, it all looks miraculously well-bedded, and will doubtless improve with time — and a little less enthusiastic gardening.
Developed through physical models, the northern landscaping has a decidedly picturesque feel, with views of venues carefully framed by the rise and dip of planted berms, clumps of trees placed to direct the gaze, with long vistas opening up as you progress through the park. In places, it is hard to shake off the feeling of being on an overly managed stage set, an imported ideal of naturalised landscape completely alien to the tradition of London parks, and even further from the Lea Valley.
Like the Athletes’ Village, it is a placeless piece of placemaking, a Truman Show conception of an imaginary, perfect nature that has more in common with the choreographed mounds of a Florida golf course than the wilds of the post-industrial East End.

A balancing act

The feeling of walking through a stage set should come as no surprise, for that is exactly what this is — for “the greatest show on earth”, as we are constantly reminded. If the ODA built the theatre, it has been Locog’s role to erect the scenery for the event itself. “We were always keen to ensure that the temporary Olympic overlay shouldn’t dictate the park layout,” says Kevin Owens, head of design at Locog. “The park should be driven by common-sense, urban-design principles rather than event planning strategies.”
With legacy ever the driving design force, Owens’ task has been the difficult one of fitting a plethora of temporary structures into this landscape to give the impression of a park in which the Olympics happens to be taking place, rather than a relentless campus tailored to this one-off event, while also mindful of what might come after.
The Olympic park
Source: ODA
The Olympic park with the stadium in the background
“We have tried to follow the layout of legacy development plots with our temporary structures as far as possible,” he explains, describing the Games as “launching the park to the world”, and conscious that any moves made now might inform how the site is used in the future — for both temporary events and permanent development.
Considering the sheer amount of stuff that the Olympics entails, Locog’s distributed masterplan — in which all components, from sponsor pavilions to concession stands, are scattered throughout the park in distinct character areas — seems reasonably successful, although it is a shame so many of the structures resort to either default hired marquees or lacklustre brand showcases. The appeal to employ young local architects fell mostly on deaf ears, save for the delightful anomalies of theCoca-Cola Beatbox by Asif Kahn and Pernilla Ohrstedt and Serie’s BMW pavilion.

The face of the future

Elsewhere, the “Look of the Games”, developed by Futurebrand from Wolff Olins’ original identity, has been liberally plastered across the site, with angular pink wayfinding totems and triumphal entrance arches by Surface Architects doing their required job of being very visible from everywhere.
Less successful is the giant Park Live video screen by Richards Partington Architects, which sits on stilts in the river, engulfed in a flimsy swoosh, and Eric Reynolds’ towers of blue shipping container TV studios that somehow lack any of the charm of his development at Trinity Buoy Wharf.
Post-Games plans are still uncertain, although the park will receive two new hubs — a wild adventure playground and café pavilion by Erect Architecture in the north, and a “Tivoli-esque” pleasure garden by James Corner Field Operations and Make Architects in the south, both of which look promising.
It would be nice to think that, once the garish Olympic flotsam has blown away and the park reopens 18 months after the Games, we will be left with one of the most magnificent public spaces to be built in London.
In one sense, we will, but it relies on the London Legacy Development Corporation — which will manage the park for at least the next 10 years — and the nature of the forthcoming neighbourhoods to ensure the place does not become a privatised enclave of gated communities and sponsored mega-events, forever sold off to the highest bidder. Any sense of life of the old Lea might have been smothered for now, but it must be allowed to return to give this place the character it needs.

Set dressing

Temporary structures will accommodate a variety of functions during the Games

Wayfinding beacons: Surface Architects

Wayfinding beacons by Surface Architects
Comprising six 7m-high zone beacons, five 15m-high major beacons and two 12m-high entrance gantries, the wayfinding structures are based on the angular “Look of the Games”, developed by Wolff Olins and Futurebrand. Dressed in Olympic fluorescent pink, they do their job of being visible from across the park very well.

McDonald’s: AEW Architects

McDonald’s by AEW Architects
Hailed as the “world’s largest McDonald’s”, this 3,000sq m, timber-clad building includes seating for more than
1,500 customers, and will sell £3 million of fast food during the Games. Complete with balcony decks and surrounded by wildflower meadows, it is a considerable improvement on most fast food outlets.

Soundforms stage: BFLS Architects

Soundforms stage by BFLS Architects
Designed with conductor Mark Stephenson and Arup Acoustics, Soundforms is the “world’s first mobile acoustic shell”, a portable stage for classical performances. It is made from inflated ETFE cushions and lined with a series of profiled reflectors to project sound across the surrounding lawn, with room for an audience of 800-1,000 people.

Olympic Broadcast Studios: Urban Space Management

Olympic Broadcast Studios by Urban Space Management
Following on from Eric Reynolds’ work at Trinity Buoy Wharf, this temporary tower of TV studios is formed from shipping containers, topped with a pergola roof structure and clad in coloured fins. In line with USM’s “lighter, quicker, cheaper” approach, the containers can be dismantled and reused.
 Olympic Delivery Authority, Masterplan architects Edaw (now Aecom), Allies & Morrison, Foreign Office Architects, HOK Sport (now Populous), Landscape LDA Design / Hargreaves Associates, Lighting designer Sutton Vane Associates, Speirs & Major, Gardens University of Sheffield with Sarah Price, Maintenance & management plan ETM Associates

London 2012 Olympic Overlay design

Outside the Olympic Park, London’s existing buildings are taking centre stage in creating a visual spectacle
The lithe, red-costumed body of an acrobatic diver floats effortlessly above the sprawling skyline of Barcelona, her back arched into a lean crescent above the knobbly spires of Gaudi’s Sagrada Família, which seem perilously poised to impale her.
It is the iconic image of the 1992 Olympic Games, taken by veteran sports photographer, Bob Martin, who is now acting as chief photography adviser to London 2012.
“I am very keen on iconic images as it gives you a sense of place,” says Martin. “I don’t want any opportunities to be missed in London.”
With a global audience of four billion, the photographic and televised spectacle has become the key driver in determining how the 26 Olympic sports are played out, a piece of minutely choreographed theatre on an epic scale. Outside the Olympic Park, itself conceived as a 230ha stage set, the city of London has been mobilised as the backdrop to a host of events that don’t have their own permanent venues in the east London campus.
“Our strategy is all about showcasing the city,” says Kevin Owens, head of design at Locog. “We wanted to celebrate and capitalise on what is already there, with the minimum of intervention.”
Team Populous — made up of the sporting giant, assisted by Allies and Morrison and Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands — has been working to turn key historic landmarks across the city into functioning Olympic venues with a limited kit of parts.
“It all comes down to the fourth elevation,” says Jeff Keas, principle at Populous, citing the Pittsburgh Baseball Stadium as a key precedent, a venue that employs the city’s skyline of towers as a backdrop to the action. At Greenwich Park and Horseguards Parade, stands of seating have been cleverly configured to turn the seventeenth century facades into the main players, essentially providing ready-made stadia by Inigo Jones and William Kent.
“Greenwich is possibly the most axial place in London,” says Eddie Taylor, director at Allies and Morrison. “It was a no-brainer to continue the powerful symmetry that had already been set up.”
Accordingly, the 21,000-seat equestrian arena is arranged in a horseshoe around Jones’ Queen’s House façade, with a raised field of play on a steel frame, which rests on timber plinths so as to leave no trace in the park. A 1.5km cable-suspended camera line stretches all the way from the top of Greenwich Hill to the other side of the River Thames, allowing swooping shots of the action — and making London the star of the show.
The architects were also forced to deal with the more prosaic back-of-house matters: “What do you do with a dead horse?” asks Taylor. “How much does a horse vomit? These were all things we had to consider.”
The beach volleyball arena
Visualisation of the beach volleyball arena with William Kent’s Horse Guards as its backdrop.
For the beach volleyball arena at Horseguards Parade, a 15,000-seat stadium (the size of Wimbledon Centre Court) has been erected in front of William Kent’s Palladian frontage, its rusticated bays forming a sober backdrop to the play of sand and bikinis. Built in only six weeks, a tight programme restricted by Jubilee events, the steeply raked seats bank up around the building, allowing never-before seen views over the rooftops.
At Lords Cricket Ground the challenge has been the reverse — fitting a 6,000-seat archery venue into a 30,000-seat stadium. Here, the power of the iconic architectural image has led to the intriguing situation of Future Systems’ media centre being used as the background focal point, rather than to house the actual work of commentators.
In all cases, the designs have been driven by the mottos of “embrace the temporary” and “communicate don’t decorate”, both of which seem to mean scaffolding is fine.” Rather than covering up the structures with expensive wraps, they are generally left exposed, in line with the stripped-back aesthetic of 2012 — in which 85% of the kit is sourced from, and will return to, the hire market.
“The challenge was to use this limited palette of components in an interesting way,” says Silvano Cranchi, director at LDS, responsible for many of the temporary back-of-house structures in the Park and across the city - which, in total, equal the temporary works of the last three Olympic Games combined.
CGI of Lords Cricket Ground during the Olympic Games
CGI of Lords Cricket Ground during the Olympic Games
The proliferation of white tents, variously space-frame, A-frame and peaked, lends many of the venues the look of an elaborate series of wedding marquees — and this was not far from the intention.
“We were aiming for a sense of ‘Britishness’”, says Keas. “We looked at Wimbledon, the Chelsea Flower Show, the tradition of garden parties. We always focused on the spectator experience, the party — not the architectural form.”
While this rather staid language of flags and bunting might seem underwhelming after the glitz of Beijing, London’s low-key approach looks set to foreground the city’s real architectural assets and provide an important precedent for future Games. If the IOC insists on holding the vast two-week spectacle in a different city each time, this lightweight, flat-pack strategy is an important model, suggesting a possible way to avoid leaving host cities blighted with barren landscapes of white elephants.

 Team Populous (Populous, Allies & Morrison, Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands),
Client Locog, Engineer Atkins,
Principle contractor ISG

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Blankenberge Public Library, by Sergison Bates

Sergison Bates’ scheme for a new public library in Blankenberge, Belgium, is a lesson in how bring redundant buildings back to life
In 2004, everyone thought the book was dead,” says Stephen Bates. “Libraries were all to be about digital, fluid, open-plan space.”
It was the year that Sanaa unveiled its proposal for an undulating landscape of learning at EPFL in Lausanne, swooping mounds of wifi knowledge unshackled from the tyranny of the bookshelf. It was the time that David Adjaye’s barcode-clad Idea Stores pointed to a future of the library as a public living room, community hub and dance studio in one. It was a time when the arrival of the e-reader looked set to threaten print as we knew it.
It was also the year that Sergison Bates entered, and won, the open competition for a new public library in Blankenberge, a small seaside town on the coast of West Flanders, with a decidedly conventional notion of rooms with books in them. “We still had an idea of the library as a series of rooms with four corners, surrounded by books, with a view out to the city,” says Bates. Its scheme stood out precisely because of its radical simplicity.
The scheme was the only entry to propose retaining the late 19th century school building that was the allotted site for the project — rather than just its listed facade. All other schemes swept everything away behind the frontage, replacing the cellular rooms with big open floors in an approach symptomatic of what Bates describes as a general antipathy towards historic buildings in Belgium.
This attitude is particularly surprising in Blankenberge, a town that was heavily bombed during the first world war and has very few pre-20th century structures left. Together with the church and railway station, the school building constitutes the only remaining historic fabric, occupying an important place on the main thoroughfare from the station to the beach. Yet it had remained derelict for the past 20 years.
Read the full article here
Originally published in BD, 20 June 2012

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Photographers' Gallery, by O'Donnell & Tuomey

O’Donnell & Tuomey’s warehouse conversion for the Photographers’ Gallery opens up a series of complex spaces and multiple skins, against a dramatic inner London streetscape
We were talking about the day that Oxford Street cracked,” says John Tuomey. “What happened when London’s tectonic plates shifted and this great geological rift appeared.”
He is not recounting an experimental slam poetry event, nor an evening of a more psychedelic kind, but a conversation with the planners at Westminster City Council. “Everybody’s got a bit of poetry in them,” he twinkles. “You just have to reach it.”
And reach it he and his partner, Sheila O’Donnell, clearly did, for the result of these conversations about plates and fissures now stands on the corner of Ramillies Street in central London, in the form of a £3.6 million new home for the Photographers’ Gallery.
The rift in question is the level change between the busiest shopping street in Europe and the quiet back-of-house world that lies to the south down a set of steps, accessed through what can now only be read as a momentous crevasse separating Dorothy Perkins and Next.
“We always thought this change in level made it feel like a crack in the system, a shift to another world,” says O’Donnell, as we walk down what she describes as the crossroads where Oxford Street meets Soho, a short-cut route of service entrances and back doors. A recent public realm improvement by the council has seen it partially tidied, with new granite paving and star-shaped benches, and the arrival of the gallery will no doubt see this treatment extended further down the street — although it would be a shame if its slightly seedy air was completely obliterated, removing the sense of discovery.
Read the full article here
Originally published in BD, 23 May 2012

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Kensington Palace refurbishment, by John Simpson and Todd Longstaffe-Gowan

A project to liberate long-concealed areas of Kensington Palace has successfully transformed its outside spaces. However, the interior renovations are underwhelming
Every year more than seven million people stroll the Broad Walk in Kensington Gardens, the north-south avenue that separates the private royal world of Kensington Palace from the public park that sprawls to the east. Until recently, few ever strayed beyond this western limit, the presence of a 2.4m- high spiky fence and thick shrubbery signalling the royal realm as clearly off-limits.
And yet it was not. Since the 1920s, a large part of Kensington Palace has been open to the public — for those determined enough to find the entrance.
“I remember coming across an American family who were in tears because they couldn’t find the way in,” says Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, the landscape architect who has worked to reinstate the palace with a new public setting as part of a £12 million renovation, completed last month. “A lot of people didn’t even know it was there.”
Over the years, the palace had retreated further and further behind layers of fences and foliage, with trees planted for privacy along the eastern front, and visitors forced to navigate around to a low-key entrance from the north.
“Our primary aim has been to make the palace part of the landscape again, as was always intended,” says Longstaffe-Gowan, describing how the history of the building’s successive improvements and additions had always been based on opening up views, not retreating behind protective suburban screens.
Read the full article here
Originally published in BD, 16 May 2012

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Bridport House, east London, by Karakusevic Carson Architects

The first social housing block in Hackney for 45 years, Karakusevic Carson’s Bridport House is a rallying cry to get boroughs building
Two weeks ago a storm erupted when it emerged that east London’s Newham council was planning to move 500 families on housing benefit to Stoke-on-Trent, some 160 miles away. Blaming rising rents caused by the Olympics and the increasing demand from young professionals, Newham saw this “departure from traditional methods” as the only way to relieve its burgeoning waiting list, in light of the recent cap on housing allowance.
Curiously, the borough was simultaneously finalising plans to demolish its 500-home Carpenters Estate in Stratford to make way for a new Olympic Park-side campus for University College London — after it converts the upper floors of two blocks into exclusive, bird’s-eye-view TV studios for rent. The estate is now hemmed in by the worst of Stratford High Street’s bullying towers, monuments to the council’s thrall to the private sector and negation of its public duties, a physical bar chart of developers’ Olympian greed.
How surprising, then, that only three miles away in neighbouring Hackney, a fellow Olympic borough with equal levels of deprivation, a brand new social housing block has recently been completed — the first such building here for 45 years.
The £6 million Bridport House, by Karakusevic Carson Architects, stands at the northeast corner of Shoreditch Park, a slender sliver of bricks and balconies, like the latest product of the canalside gentrification of this part of town. It occupies a narrow plot on a densely packed block, sandwiched between two housing association sites and Countryside Properties’ Hoxton Wharf, a mean-minded metallic box by Flacq Architects topped with half-a-million pound penthouses. With its deep, cantilevered balconies, high-quality brick and floor-to-ceiling windows, it is hard to believe that Bridport House is the local authority housing block of the bunch — it looks a good deal more expensive than its neighbours.
Read full article here
Originally published in BD, 9 May 2012

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Community in a Cube, Middlehaven, by Fat Architects

Will Alsop’s psychedelic rethink of Middlesbrough’s docklands died away in the cold light of austerity, leaving Fat’s idiosyncratic new apartment building very much out on its own
“The most tragic thing, which often happens with masterplans in Britain, is that the vision disappears during delivery,” says Will Alsop, as he floats above a fairytale landscape of fantastical forms — a cinema like a Rubik’s cube, a primary school like a giant spelling block, an expanse of water dotted with wakeboarders. “Not here.”
This is the promotional animation for Middlehaven, a 100ha swathe of post-industrial dockland in Middlesbrough, as reimagined by Alsop into a psychedelic dreamscape. Unveiled in 2004, the £500 million development was slated to provide more than 2,400 homes, 75,000sq m of commercial space and a surfeit of hotels, bars and restaurants on the site of the former docks, which had closed in 1980 and lain derelict ever since.
Commissioned by a Blairish alliance of regeneration agencies, the strategic framework was launched in the wake of Alsop’s publicity-friendly plans to flood the centre of Bradford and bestow Barnsley with a halo, as well as similarly outlandish schemes for Halifax, Walsall and Stoke. Middlehaven was to be the apogee of his unique brand of toy-based urban planning, the denouement of a decade that had seen northern emperors queuing up to try on his new clothes.
The scheme followed the usual formula of novelty object-buildings strewn at random across the site, like the aftermath of an incident in the soft-play area. At one end a giant teddy bear sat next to an office block in the shape of Marge Simpson’s hair; at the other, a “Gucci glove” by Nigel Coates reached out to caress a hotel modelled on the marble game Kerplunk. A line of “sugar cube” housing blocks marched down the edge of the site, while mixed-use “Prada skirt” towers lined the dockfront, each with its own catchy nickname.
Read the full article here.
Originally published in BD, 25 April 2012

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Enzo Ferrari Museum by Future Systems and Shiro Studio

In Jan Kaplicky’s posthumously completed Enzo Ferrari Museum in Modena, the architect’s obsession with amoebic, streamlined forms finally makes sense
Enzo Ferrari always signed his name in purple ink. It was a colour that he had a particular nostalgia for, being the hue of the carbon paper with which his father used to copy letters — a magical process that entranced him as a child. His other trademark was a distinctive pair of sunglasses, without which he would never be seen in public.
Both the purple ink-filled fountain pen and the dark black wayfarers now sit like papal relics in a glass case in the Enzo Ferrari Museum, which has just opened in his hometown of Modena, Italy. Next to the sunglasses, a telling caption reads: “The very fact that meeting his gaze without ‘barriers’ was a privilege says a great deal about the psychology of a person who was very proud of his uniqueness.”
Anecdotes portray the enigmatic founder of the world’s most sought-after car brand as both a genius and a monster, known for pushing his drivers to their limits. After being informed that a crash had killed one of his best racers in 1957, he is said to have replied “And the car…?”
For a man of such uncompromising vision, whose impact on the region was so extensive that he became known as “the Pope of the north,” it seems highly appropriate that the museum built in his memory has been designed by one of the most uncompromising architects of our time.
Read the full article here.
Originally published in BD, 4 April 2012