Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Canada Water Library, London, by CZWG

In spite of funding cuts and its lack of public-sector experience, CZWG has created an imaginative public library in London’s Docklands
’What we have to protect is not library buildings but library services,” culture secretary Jeremy Hunt told a select committee tasked with investigating the wave of library closures last month. Thirty-three libraries have closed in the last year, following cuts to local authority budgets, while the future of 600 others still hangs in the balance. Such savagery prompted co-ordinated action up and down the country, with organised mass book withdrawals, 24-hour vigils and occupation “read-ins” — a polite prelude to August’s riots.
“They are like a demonstration but friendlier, with story readings and someone there to entertain the children,” Lynne Copperstone of the Save Doncaster Libraries campaign told the Guardian.
Hunt may have a vision of dematerialised libraries, freed from the confines of walls and roofs, following the coalition’s anti-buildings strategy, along the lines of Gove’s plan for schools without classrooms. But in Southwark, the council has sent out the message that buildings still matter. The south London borough has retained all 12 of its existing libraries, and just opened a brand new one, designed by CZWG: the £14 million “jewel in the crown” of Canada Water on the Rotherhithe peninsula.
Read full article here
Originally published in BD, 14 December 2011

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Rothschild Bank headquarters, London, by OMA

This light, agile new building for the Rothschild banking dynasty is a model of discretion when contrasted with its attention-seeking City neighbours
For students of architecture, nowhere is the complete history of changing tastes better exhibited than in the City of London. From the baroque spires of Hawksmoor and Wren to the heavy classicism of Soane and Lutyens, from the fruity pomo of Stirling and Foggo to the slick ubiquity of the Fosterian supremacy. The density of architectural ambition — if not necessarily quality — is perhaps nowhere higher than within the Square Mile.
But the architects who build here, and the clients who commission them, are often all too conscious of the history they must live up to. With Pritzker winners jostling for position, the City has become a compressed playground of architectural rivalry, company headquarters vying for attention with speculative office developments, each shouting louder than the next. The Gherkin set the bar for formal novelty, and will soon be joined by its eccentric friends the Cheesegrater, Pinnacle and Walkie-talkie — with the Shard across the river, looming over this bizarre shapeist gaggle.
Aerial view with Foster’s Walbrook building below.
Aerial view with Foster’s Walbrook building below.
Standing back, aloof from the riotous din, there is one institution in the City, above all others, that has no need to shout. It is a banking dynasty of such financial might that it has bailed out governments across Europe, funded both sides of many wars, and in whose premises the international price of gold is still set twice a day — despite the fact it no longer trades in it. With such power comes discretion: for the past 200 years, the Rothschild bank has been tucked out of sight, down the narrow St Swithin’s Lane. It is a location that astonished the urbane German Prince Pückler-Muskau, who described New Court as “a poor obscure-looking place” when he came to visit the world’s most powerful banker in 1826. Since then, the institution has swelled to take over most of the street, but it has remained largely invisible. Now it has a new tower, a 21,000sq m headquarters by OMA — and yet, somehow, it is still barely there at all.
“We have become a little bit worried about the constant pressure to outperform and to outrage and to make more and more exceptional buildings,” says Rem Koolhaas, as we stand in the Sky Pavilion of his first permanent building in London, 75m up in the air, looking down on the topiary roof garden of No 1 Poultry. “I felt that, here, it would be more exceptional to make something like a palazzo — inserting a huge floor-plate into an almost medieval area.”
The original diagram for the project could not have been more literal. An early collage depicts an old-fashioned bank safe sitting on a piazza, raised on little legs, with appendages of bookshelves and auditoriums tacked on to its sides, the whole thing capped by the turret of the Palazzo Vecchio, sticking out of the top at a jaunty angle. And so the building now stands: a central 30 x 30m cube of banking offices is held aloft above an open foyer, clamped between three ancillary annexe buildings — which house circulation, meeting rooms, staff canteen and gym — and topped by a boxy protrusion that appears to lean unnervingly out, as if looking down on the Bank of England, which it used to control.
Section OMA
Disaggregated into lumps, the building fills the irregularT-shaped footprint left by the five premises that Rothschild had accrued over time, dissembling its bulk across the site, the separate pieces clad in different clothing. The primary cube, which presents its frontage to St Swithin’s Lane, is dressed in a confident pin-stripe, chunky aluminium-profiled columns running down its facade in pairs — alternately load-bearing and decorative. But this is no ordinary City weave: each pair of columns is tied together by a diagonal strut, interspersed at different points across the elevation, strongly reminiscent of Yamasaki’s converging mullions at the base of the World Trade Centre towers. Ellen van Loon, partner in charge, is keen to distance such associations. “It was more inspired by the cross-bracing of the City’s Elizabethan half-timbered buildings,” she claims.
For the past 200 years the Rothschild bank has been tucked out of sight
The annexe buildings sport an altogether more muted garb, expressed in blank planes of what appears to be milky white glass. It is in fact a sandwich of expanded metal mesh that gives the surface a ghostly, ethereal quality, changing its appearance throughout the day — although somewhat misting the view out from inside.
Crowning this hybrid assembly of cube and annexes is the grandly named Sky Pavilion, three double-height storeys of plant, meeting rooms and a panoramic chamber, all floating above a roof terrace. The chance for a bit of swagger, the crown at the summit, it is in fact another simple box, reading like an extruded plant room on the City skyline.
“Minimum is the ultimate ornament… the contemporary baroque,” wrote Koolhaas in 2001, in his essay Junkspace. “It is the maximum in drag, a stealth repression of luxury.” These are certainly the tenets at work here, and it seems appropriate for our chastened times — prudent, seeing as the building was designed in 2005. It is all the more interesting, given OMA’s unbuilt proposals for similarly “generic” buildings in the Gulf, that it takes an ancient banking family at the heart of the financial capital for Rem to realise his Calvinist roots.
east elevation
East elevation
North elevation
North elevation
Ground floor axonometric
Ground floor axonometric
But austerity architecture this is most definitely not. From the moment of entry, every material oozes its undisclosed price tag. A ceiling of travertine — articulated as a thick slab — lines the entrance undercroft, mirroring a floor of the same, both of which run into the building in an opulent sandwich to frame a voluminous lobby to the left, an archive of sturdy oak shelves to the right.
It is here, at street level, that the building makes an urban concession unusual in the City. The key move has been to lift up the bulk of the office cube to provide a new view through from St Swithin’s Lane to Wren’s St Stephen Walbrook church, formerly obscured by the 1960s Rothschild office building. In plan, the idea is for the churchyard to encroach on the new raised plinth, with textured “gravestone” shapes milled into the travertine platform. It is a mischievous conceptual blurring of the domains of God and Mammon — but a blurring that is brought sharply into focus by the reality of a glass fence between the two, opened only for Rothschild employees by attendant guards. There is no public route through.
At least there is little illusion that such a space could ever be public: once past the portcullis of columns, which march along the St Swithin’s frontage in memory of the former street line (a feature demanded by chief planner, Peter Rees), you are firmly a guest of the Rothschild estate. The “visual link” is unfortunately as generous as City gestures come, and the extra few metres of pavement behind the colonnade is more than the shear walls most such buildings offer. On his 1826 visit, Prince Pückler-Muskau complained of the narrow St Swithin’s Lane being “blocked up with a wagon laden with bars of silver”. The bullion carts may have gone, but the street will soon be blocked up once again. Traffic is to be “allowed but controlled”, which, as a security guard helpfully translates, means more of the City’s favourite: bollards and barriers at either end.
If you are lucky enough to make it inside, the lobby has the ample scale and ambience of a luxury hotel. A reception desk hewn from a single tree sits in front of a sheer curtain, woven with strips of gold by Petra Blaisse, which can extend around the room in a continuous sweep to screen off a seating area. An exposed truss zig-zags along the rear wall, while the core is clad with woven panels of dark bronze-anodised aluminium — a play on the upholstered walls of the former Rothschild interiors.
generic office level axonometric
Generic office level axonometric
Upstairs, the offices are much as you would expect. The floors of the cube, fitted out by Pringle Brandon, are densely packed with desks and lined along their east and west sides with glazed office cubicles — apparently a culture shock for the managers, used to the privacy of walls. These banking floors are also all linked by a central timber stair, a late addition to the design when the client realised it was important for their working culture to have a direct and open connection, bankers liking to walk and talk. Such changes and additions seem to have characterised the five-year process, leading the design to tend towards a flexible container.
It is a mischievous conceptual blurring of the domains of God and Mammon
“The Rothschild organisation is in permanent redefinition,” says Koolhaas. “You would think that a bank is a very stable and conservative entity, but actually it is almost like the entertainment industry. During the life of the project, totally different configurations and hierarchies were introduced.”
OMA, and its mirror-image think-tank AMO, is known for tackling such baffling bureaucracies, from the Hermitage Museum to the European Union, rethinking their labyrinthine methods with refreshing wit. But is the reorganisation of a 200-year-old investment bank too much even for this office to attempt?
“In this case we are tampering with the organisation much less than we would typically do,” Koolhaas tells me. “Our main task was to make a machine that they can use in many different ways but that is always efficient and always pleasant.”
The central cube of offices is lifted up to create a new visual link through to the Wren church.
The central cube of offices is lifted up to create a new visual link through to the Wren church.
It may not be tampering on the level of their other projects, but OMA has reinterpreted some ancient Rothschild traditions with its usual panache. The ninth and 10th floors of the cube house suites of rooms for client meetings, in which meals play a large part. Accordingly, majestic mahogany dining tables occupy centre stage, surrounded by antique chairs, against backdrops of what van Loon calls “heritage walls”, expanses of raw silk, printed with supersized graphics from the Rothschild archive. The result is really quite surreal. The rooms’ lateral walls are glazed with smart glass, which can be turned opaque at the touch of a button, but always retain a pearlescent, milky consistency. This cloudy layering gives the whole floor a ghostly, unreal quality, mirages of vast cherubic faces looming out around every corner.
Elsewhere, walls are lined with bronze, brass and champagne-anodised aluminium, their surfaces milled with an abstracted pattern of wood grain, echoing the panelled interiors of the former building. Wall-thickness doors give the sturdy, impregnable quality of a castle. And the art collection?
Wall-thickness doors give the sturdy, impregnable quality of a castle
“Their rooms were full of copies of old paintings,” says van Loon, with slight disdain. “We told them to get rid of them all and only keep the originals — which we have gathered together on specific feature walls.” Similarly, one corridor will soon be lined with a densely packed vitrine of antiques. It is a tactic of decoration that OMA has proposed elsewhere, but not before realised, of “wallpapering” surfaces with artefacts for maximum effect, in the style of the historic wunderkammer. It is a more interesting approach to heritage than the recreation of the 1763 Robert Adam interior at the top of Rogers’ Lloyd’s building, although it remains to be seen how generations-old clients will respond to these rather clinical cubicles and their pop-antique tableaux.
Paintings are gathered together on feature walls, hung on milled aluminium panelling.
Paintings are gathered together on feature walls, hung on milled aluminium panelling.
The success of the Rothschild building is perhaps best judged against what is rising around it, in London’s own architectural Babel. To the immediate south-west sit the bulbous buttocks of Foster’s Walbrook building, rubbing its plastic solar fins against the veiled mesh of the Rothschild’s shear glazing. Completed last year and still unoccupied, it is a brute groundscraper, symptomatic of a practice that is too big to take care over such projects. Over the lane, demolition is now complete on what will become Stanhope’s 90,000sq m Walbrook Square development, a grotesque mutant lovechild of Norman Foster and Jean Nouvel, which will rise to a faceted lump, its over-engineered facades sculpted to oblivion.
OMA, for all its reputation for outrageous forms and daring materials, has produced a refreshing foil to this melee, with a light, agile building, woven into its complex site and conscious of its duty to the street. Let’s hope more of the City will follow its lead.
Originally published in BD, 7 December 2011

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Spa School, Southwark, by AOC

AOC’s BSF Spa School for children with autistic spectrum disorder makes a virtue of its suburban setting
Bermondsey witnessed a strange act of political doublethink last month, when Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat MP for the area since 1983, cut the ribbon at the opening of the new Spa School building recently completed by AOC.
He showered due praise on the architects, builders and clients that had brought this new creation into being, yet failed to mention that the very system that had allowed it all to happen was swiftly — and unlawfully — abolished by his own party’s coalition government as one of its first acts in office.
The unwieldy £55 billion BSF programme was criticised for being wildly profligate, yet the building that now stands on Monnow Road — a 734sq m extension and 230sq m refurbishment of one of the UK’s largest schools for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) — was completed for only £2.7 million. It proves just what value an innovative young practice can bring to this overly bureaucratised sector, which is all too often dominated by stodgy architectural behemoths...
Read full article here
Originally published in BD, 30 November 2011

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Quadrant 3 by Dixon Jones

Dixon Jones’s reinvention of the 1915 Regent Palace Hotel as offices and retail presents its past glories to their best advantage
’It is with the deepest regret that I hear of the proposed mutilation of my design for rebuilding the Quadrant,” wrote the 81 year-old Norman Shaw to his client, the predecessor of the Crown Estate, in 1912. “I am, I am afraid, getting somewhat indifferent to architectural matters, but I have not yet arrived at the stage of absolute indifference, and to see a design with which I took so much pains thus vulgarised, troubles me.”
He died eight months later, never to see his plans for the southern end of London’s Regent Street realised. The designs to which he so objected had been produced by Henry Tanner Junior, whose Regent Palace Hotel, a block to the north, was by then already well under construction, its steel frame looming over Nash’s curving street front. This vast cream cake was shoehorned into an awkward triangular plot — produced by Regent Street’s abrupt turn to line up with Carlton House Terrace — a white-faienced beacon, dropped at the collision of Mayfair’s dignified grid with the devious alleys of Soho.
“It was like a spaceship that came down from Mars,” says David Shaw, head of the Regent Street portfolio at the Crown Estate. “It plonked itself down and turned its back on everything else.” Like the rest of Regent Street, it acted as a bookend to “contain” the mischief of Soho, although, offering over 1,000 cheap bedrooms and a host of eating and drinking parlours, it was clearly complicit in its night-time economy...
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Originally published in BD, 23 November 2011

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

WohnWerk, Basel, by Christ & Gantenbein

A scheme that combines live and work space for a community of adults with learning difficulties invests archetypal building types with a high level of specificity
‘I love it when you see those big, blank walls of beautiful old rendered buildings, covered in silver graffiti,” says Emanuel Christ, with alarming relish. These might be unexpected words from an architect whose built portfolio is dominated by careful interventions in historic buildings — from the renovation of the 1898 Swiss National Museum in Zurich, to the renewal of the 1855 Swiss Church in London. But Christ & Gantenbein is not a practice to be pigeonholed, and at its latest project in Basel this comment makes perfect sense.
Walking down Missionsstrasse, a long, straight, nondescript street in the leafy north-west quarter of the city, past the homogeneous grain of five-storey apartment buildings, each crisply rendered in its own shade of off-white, I almost miss the very building I have come here to see. Continuing the parapet line and facade plane of the neighbouring building, its elevation is a mute, stripped-back surface, punctured by a regular grid of windows, not too dissimilar to many others along the street. Yet, on second glance, it jumps out as something strangely other. The surface shimmers in the morning sunlight, glowing brighter than its neighbours, and its windows appear to dance — an illusion produced by their differing sizes and subtly offset positioning. Crossing the street, it is revealed as a decidedly alien object, encrusted with a globular silvery surface, as if calcified by some mutant mineral...
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Originally published in BD, 9 November 2011

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Gwangju follies, South Korea

The South Korean city has commissioned the first of a series of 100 pavilions with which it plans to reassert its historic urban form
Since the Venice Biennale was first held in 1895, the phenomenon of the two-yearly art fair has rapidly spread throughout the world, mutating over time from an exhibition into an expedient means of fusing cultural capital with city marketing. From Shanghai to Sharjah, Beijing to Bucharest, the biennale has become a must-have accessory for any self-respecting global city, injecting the risqué edginess of the art world into the tired tourist offer.
These imported art extravaganzas have more recently been joined by sister design versions. This autumn alone has seen such design festivals in Lisbon and London, Paris and Prague, as well as Brussels, Beijing, Copenhagen, Eindhoven, Helsinki and the Polish city of Lodz — with Istanbul joining the crowd next year. Bringing a whirlwind of exhibits, talks, workshops and debates, these design-world caravanserais come and go, but rarely leave the city with a lasting legacy or meaningful engagement beyond the envelope of the conference centre or exhibition tent.
In Gwangju, South Korea’s sixth-largest city, which has boasted an art biennale since 1995 and sees its fourth design biennale this year, the organisers have attempted to steer the momentum of the fleeting fair towards something a little more permanent...
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Originally published in BD, 2 November 2011

Saturday, October 29, 2011

ArcellorMittal Orbit by Anish Kapoor, Cecil Balmond and Kathryn Findlay

Kapoor’s tower revels in its ugliness, mocking the reserved spirit of the rest of the Olympic site
To date, London’s Olympic venues have been notable for their quiet restraint and structural simplicity – slender frames, pared back to an efficient minimum, in line with the flat-pack, austerity Games. The velodrome roof uses only 100 tonnes of steel, the main stadium is the lightest ever of its kind.
But it seems no one told Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond. On Friday afternoon, the final loop of their ArcelorMittal Orbit was installed, completing the vast tangle of steel – 2,000 tonnes of it – which now looms a mocking 115m above the Park, the lunatic red twin of Populous’s white essay in leanness.
Boris Johnson dreamt up the idea for a tower in 2008, fearing our Olympics needed “something extra … to arouse the curiosity and wonder” of visitors to the Games, in light of Beijing’s bombastic bird’s nest. Keen for a similarly catchy nickname, he has already likened the Orbit to “a giant treble clef” and “supersized mutant trombone,” yet it clearly fits more into Kapoor’s scatological oeuvre...
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Originally published in BD, 29 October 2011

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Maggie’s Centre Gartnavel by OMA

OMA wilfully subverts expectations at its Glasgow Maggie’s Centre, which melts unassumingly into the background.
‘Fluorescent tube lights reflected in the shiny vinyl floor, swing doors in vomit-shaded veneer and armoured kickplates, sickly green walls and the omnipresent dado of protection hardware — protection from trolleys, wheelchairs, architecture.”
This is the language of the contemporary hospital, as described in the Architecture of Hope, Charles Jencks and Edwin Heathcote’s recent book on the Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres initiative — and one of the main motivations to start the programme in the first place.
More precisely, it is a description of a photo of a corridor in Glasgow’s Gartnavel General Hospital, within whose grounds a new £2.6 million Maggie’s Centre by OMA has just opened, funded by cancer charity Walk the Walk...
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Originally published in BD, 5 October 2011

Thursday, September 22, 2011

First Site, Colchester by Rafael Viñoly

There are many reasons not to like Rafael Viñoly’s Colchester Firstsite, which finally opens this week, four years late and, at £28 million, costing almost twice its original budget.
It is the epitome of the noughties icon project, a building more concerned with its outward image than its interior function. Its tilted walls are at odds with hanging artwork; its double-curved ceiling denies the basic possibility of lighting tracks.
As the silver-tongued architect admits: “It’s like a large corridor whose inner face can be used as an exhibition space” — its function almost accidental; a serendipitous by-product of the overriding architectural gesture.
Viñoly was chosen because he is an “expert masterplanner”, explains director Kath Wood, his stroke of genius being to build east of the allotted site so that the “ripples of regeneration could be cast further”...
Read the full article here
Originally published in BD, 22 September 2011

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Stratford High Street

Stratford’s Olympic legacy is already taking shape, but it is a bleak vision that is unlikely to benefit locals.
All eyes were on east London last week, as Westfield Stratford City finally opened to teeming crowds of shoppers, eagerly lined up to charge across the 1,600-tonne Corten-steel bridge and breach the glittering golden wrapping of the largest urban mall in Europe.
They were here to experience the first tangible part of London’s Olympic “legacy”: a sprawling complex of 300 shops, 70 restaurants and a 17-screen multiplex cinema, as well as the city’s biggest casino. Many thousands more will be doing the same next summer. For 70% of visitors, this will be the official gateway to the 2012 Olympics. It is also one of the reasons the games could happen here in the first place. It is no small coincidence that Westfield was recently announced as an official sponsor: without its £1.45 billion of private investment in this unpromising location, the Olympic dream might well have remained just that.
Yet just a few hundred metres down Stratford High Street — the misleading name for what is in fact the roaring six-lane dual carriageway of the A11 — several other gateways to the games have been emerging, largely unnoticed. While the world waits with baited breath to see what the official Olympic legacy will look like — a gleaming new city quarter of 8,000 new homes on the verdant doorstep of the Queen Elizabeth Park — few realise that it is already well under way in Stratford, and has been for some time. In fact, more than 3,000 units are already climbing out of the ground....
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Orginally published in BD, 21 September 2011

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Brockholes Wetland Nature Reserve, by Adam Khan Architects

Moored in a flooded gravel pit off the M6, Adam Khan Architects’ Brockholes Wetland Nature Reserve visitor centre forms
a gateway to nature
Motorway service stations can be singularly depressing places. Cloned formulas of fast-food outlets and amusement arcades, they are sites of a strange limbo, where bleary-eyed truckers mingle with hordes of screeching toddlers in a low-rise Tarmacscape. Identikit sheds, they could be anywhere — brief respites along an infinite number of routes from A to B.
Sometimes there are attempts to make them more contextual. As if mocking your captivity, “interpretation boards” describe the nearby historic landmarks and sites of natural interest — things that you will never see while you munch on your insipid, microwaved pasty.
Marc Augé, who coined the phase “non-place” in 1995, wrote that motorway travel is doubly remarkable, because “it avoids, for functional reasons, all the principal places to which it takes us; and it makes comments on them”. Bypassing places, roads are instead lined with signs listing notable features, absolving drivers of the need to stop or even look...
Read the full article here
Originally published in BD, 7 September 2011

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

London 2012 Aquatics Centre by Zaha Hadid Architects

The smoothly undulating surface of Zaha Hadid’s stingray-like Aquatics Centre belies its structural complexity. But does the last Olympic Venue to arrive at the party live up to its promise?
The Aquatics Centre has a lot to live up to. It was the first Olympic venue to be designed, and it is the last to be completed. It is the second most expensive structure – having risen from an initial budget of £73 million to £269 million – by the most celebrated architect working on the site.
From the very beginning, it was hailed as the showpiece jewel, the “gateway to the games”, the one thing we could rely on to sell our city under the glare of the global spotlight, even if everything else turned out looking a bit cheap. Getting Zaha Hadid, the queen of liquid drama and fluid form, to design an iconic swimming pool was surely a safe bet, regardless of the cost. But since then, things haven’t really turned out as expected.
The Olympic Park, at large, is generally looking quite promising. The Hopkins-designed Velodrome has received universal plaudits for embodying the stripped-down efficiency of the bicycle itself. It is a lean essay in how architect and engineer can best work together, and is hotly tipped to win the Stirling Prize.
The main stadium is much better than feared, comprising a simple bowl and pared-back exoskeleton that makes it the lightest such venue ever conceived. Nord has built a majestic brick temple to electricity, and even Make has managed to come up with something that has its own restrained dignity, a brooding copper-clad box for the Handball Arena.
So what now for the long-awaited star trophy, the belle of the ball that has arrived late to her own party, where the other guests are threatening to upstage her?
“I think it’s OK to have more than one good building on the site,” says Zaha Hadid, in characteristic deadpan, when asked if she feels a sense of competition with the other venues. “It was not our intention to be the only beauty queen here.”
Rising up from the banks of the river, the Aquatics Centre is a lithe, slippery form, a muscular grey fin that swells and ripples with sinuous energy along its length. Its low-lying shell buckles and writhes, flaring up into streamlined wings at either side, before diving down to meet the ground. It is a compelling creature, instantly nicknamed the stingray – a primal myliobatiform relative, dredged from the depths of the River Lea. Or, to be more accurate, this is what it will look like – some time in 2014.
For now, if this is a stingray, it is one held afloat by a hulking great pair of armbands. From the outside you would be forgiven for thinking that the building wasn’t quite finished, or that they had forgotten to remove the site support works. At either side, two boxy wings climb 45m into the air and stretch 90m along the elevations. At 1,600 tonnes a piece, these are the temporary stands that provide an extra 15,000 seats, to be demounted and sold back to the supplier after the games, leaving a permanent “legacy venue” of 2,500 capacity. Trapped between these colossal wedges, the poor Aquatics Centre looks like an alien specimen, an otherworldly beauty clamped in a scaffolding vice, awaiting testing. There is more than a whiff of Area 51 about the curvaceous shimmering skin emerging from the sterile white PVC-clad enclosure, racks of seating erected to view the strange crash-landed beast.
Temporary structures always play a huge part in any Olympics, but never more so than London 2012. Heralded as the “flat-pack Olympics”, it will see 250,000 temporary seats, 165,000sq m of tents and 2,500 cabins, as well as all manner of Smartie-shaped pods, ramps, fences and bridges. So much stuff, in fact, that it equals all the temporary works of the past three Olympic games combined. It is an Archigram dream, writ large.
All well and good – except that, here, the temporary seating wings are dressed up in a mannered costume of Zaha-lite. Their PVC skin has been scalloped and sculpted in 2D like a pair of French curves. It is as if someone has taken a simplified elevation of Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal at JFK and projected it flat on the facade, cutting two holes for the entrances and big gestural sweeps for the wings. Next to such a refined, immaculately finished form, these sexed-up sheds look faintly ridiculous.
Cross sectino of Zaha Hadid's Aquatics Centre in Olympic mode
Cross section, Olympics mode with wings
It is difficult to tell at the moment quite how the Aquatics Centre will integrate into the broader melee of the Olympic Park during the two-week orgy of sport – what is termed “games mode” – but it seems as though its performance in legacy has been more of a priority. Conceived as an iconic gateway, the building is the first thing to greet you on arrival from Stratford City, where those on the six-minute Javelin train from St Pancras will be disgorged. Once escaped from the warrens of the Westfield shopping mall, you are brought across a vast land-bridge to the projecting nose of the structure – a dramatic 20m cantilever – to what looks like the main entrance.
Instead, this is an inaccessible back-of-house, reserved for International Olympic Committee VIPs. Those with tickets must continue across another 48m-wide bridge (to be reduced to 12m in legacy), along a circuitous route that takes in the contorted red entrails of Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit, before crossing back over a much narrower bridge to a concessions concourse, south of the building. From here, a double sweeping stair leads you up 7m, wrapping either side of the curvaceous tail, and into the wings – back to where you began.
“The masterplan came out of extensive crowd modelling,” explains ODA project manager Ian Crockford. “So when events kick out, the crowds don’t combine.” Immediately to the north, David Morley’s Water Polo Arena is gradually emerging – a temporary blue hangar with an inflatable roof – but there is a whole island to absorb people, separated by the City Mill and Waterworks rivers, between these pools and the main stadium. The tortuous entrance sequence seems to be a result of not-quite-joined-up thinking.
Once inside the building, the convoluted arrival is more than made up for. A single wave of silvery matter, the undulating canopy soars up from two points to the north, flexing its broad muscles above the main pool, before plunging to frame the diving pool, bounding up again and dipping back down to meet the ground at a single point – a clear span of 120m. Designed as a continuous skin, the soffit is lined with slender 2.5m-long strips of red louro timber, a Brazilian hardwood which has been stained grey to pre-empt uneven weathering inside and out – although the interior strips are actually 1mm veneer, laminated onto plywood, a brave choice for a ceiling subject to such humidity.
Cross section of Zaha Hadid's Aquatics Centre in legacy mode
Cross section, legacy mode
The sinuous formal gymnastics of the roof belie the forest of conventional steelwork hidden within the cavity. Sandwiched between the thin timber soffit and the aluminium standing-seam cladding lies a matrix of trusses which extends to 12m deep in places, and weighs in at a staggering 3,000 tonnes.
“It is not particularly difficult,” Hadid shrugs, with the nonchalance of an architect who takes such fiendish complexity in her stride – or at least finds engineers that do, in this case Arup. “There are infrastructural works with much bigger spans.” Stuart Fraser from Balfour Beatty – the man who had to build it – agrees.
“We made small sub-sections on the ground – up to 35m in length – and raised them up to be bolted into place, piece by piece,” he says.
“It was very straightforward.”
Five pairs of fan trusses, mirrored down a central axis, are fixed to the two concrete cores to the north. At the southern end of the roof, they rest on a transverse truss which is supported on sliding spherical bearings that take up the movement. It is essentially a big, whale-shaped bridge.
London 2012 Olympic Aquatics Centre by Zaha Hadid Architects
Source: Hufton and Crow
Aquatics Centre
When challenged on why this approach was adopted – which uses more than 30 times the amount of steel than the Velodrome roof to cover a similar area – project architect Jim Heverin explains that other materials were investigated, but dismissed on grounds of programme. Concrete would have required too much formwork, while timber apparently involved a lot of steel fixings. He also reminds me that the Aquatics Centre has three times the capacity of the Velodrome, and had to be designed with completely clear-spanning sides for the plug-in temporary seating – which will be replaced with grand tilted windows in legacy mode. All fair points, but it still smacks of a practice for whom the seduction of form certainly trumps structural logic.
Regardless of its massive weight, the brawny roof seems to float effortlessly, only touching down in three points on the concrete bowl beneath. Again modelled in the mode of Saarinen, this massive plinth is carved with winding stairs and a large oculus which looks through to the underground warm-up pool beyond. This, for me, is the secret masterpiece of the building, an inner sanctum with a beautifully coffered concrete ceiling that dissolves from lozenges to linear ribs. It is a setting that should calm even the most fraught of nerves before a race.
For all the extra expense and prolonged delays, circuitous access and embarrassing temporary crutches, the Aquatics Centre will be one of the best lasting legacies of the London Olympics – a beauty of the Queen Elizabeth Park, once she has grown out of her dental braces.Proving that concrete is still what Hadid does best, the other triumph is the diving boards, thick tongues that arch out above the pool, supporting a processional zig-zag route of stairs. Each board was cast in-situ in self-compacting concrete around an 8-tonne rebar cage – whose members were up to three inches thick.
Originally designed in 2004 – before its client, the ODA, even existed – the building could no doubt have avoided some hiccups with more integrated planning. It is sited, for example, so that one of its three chief cores lands directly above one of the recently buried electrical cable tunnels, necessitating a vast concrete transfer structure.
Aerial image of Zaha Hadid Aquatics Centre.
Zaha Hadid Aquatics Centre.
The question of the wings remains contentious. It has been argued that the venues are designed for a two-week event, and this is when they should look their best, to be beamed around the world to four billion viewers. And yet the wing-free option would have been a monumental folly: the roof was originally twice as long and twice as wide, enveloping both the temporary stands and the warm-up pool (which now lies hidden beneath the northern concourse). It would have become the Colossus of Stratford, and made a majestic ruin.
“We designed it as a compact pavilion in the park, to be fit for purpose as a new swimming pool for East London after the games,” concludes Hadid. “This is no white elephant.”

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Museum of Liverpool, by 3XN and AEW

After seven years of legal battles, cost-cutting and a change of architects, the £72 million Museum of Liverpool proves a spectacular botch-up completely divorced from its context
It is rare for large public projects to go without a few hiccups along the way. Seldom do they manage to escape being tarnished by scandalised stories of escalating costs or legal disputes, heritage battles or local opposition.
But it is rarer still for a £72 million, seven year in the making, “flagship building” to be so spectacularly botched, so comprehensively fouled up and so completely at odds with its context as the Museum of Liverpool.
This is not the vanity project of a sheikh, nor a bauble bestowed by an oligarch. It is the product of several major publicly accountable bodies – built with money from the Northwest Regional Development Agency, the European Regional Development Fund, the Department of Culture Media & Sport and the Heritage Lottery Fund.
It has been through the statutory planning process, and scoured by the government’s architecture watchdog, Cabe – which bravely remarked that it would “provide a striking addition to Liverpool’s waterfront.” It is at the centre of a Unesco World Heritage site, right next door to the listed Three Graces, and has been passed under the scrutinising gaze of English Heritage. So how could it have gone quite so wrong?...
Read the full article here
Originally published in BD,  3 August 2011

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Wardroper House by Sarah Wigglesworth Architects and Arch Street by S333, Elephant & Castle, south London

Financial constraints and local politics have created an uphill struggle for S333 and Sarah Wigglesworth Architects to build decent homes for former tenants of Elephant and Castle’s Heygate Estate.
Back in 2005, certain young London architects could barely believe their luck. In an astonishingly progressive move by Southwark Council, a panel of 15 small practices was assembled to design 1,000 replacement homes for people being “decanted” from the maligned Heygate Estate, long earmarked for demolition as part of the wider Elephant & Castle regeneration.
“We wanted practices that still have a design edge, practices that haven’t moved into designing large offices, where the main design input is choosing the cladding system,” said Chris Horn, then Elephant & Castle development director at Southwark, who talked excitedly about the arrival of “14 jewel boxes” to the borough. The world was enthused.
Five years later, the project was declared to have “failed” by Fiona Colley, cabinet member for regeneration. The target of 1,000 homes has now withered to just over 500, and some of the most interesting – and actually young – offices have long since been kicked off their projects...
Read the full article here
Originally published in BD, 27 July 2011

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

South Norwood Hill Children’s Centre, by Erect Architecture

Erect Architecture’s joyful reinvention of a nursery building in South Norwood, London, has a lot to teach us about working with existing buildings and systems, says Oliver Wainwright

An army of angry mothers and toddlers descended on Downing Street on Mother’s Day this year in a fearsome frenzy of face paint and nursery rhymes. They came to deliver a 50,000-name petition against the closure of Sure Start children’s centres, after research by the Daycare Trust predicted that 250 of these facilities might be forced to shut in 2011 as a result of coalition cuts.

“The centres are a great leveller in our society,” organiser Louise King told the BBC. “Kids from all walks of life mix and learn together and parents can further their education and gain vital support. Take them away, or force them to make cutbacks, and we’ll see the next generation really suffer.”

Luckily, buildings run a little way behind politics. Just as this savagery was being announced, as if in a miraculous parallel universe, a new children’s centre opened on a wooded hillside in Croydon – perhaps the last we will see for some time. Nestled into a sloping site in the north of the borough, the South Norwood Hill Children’s Centre by Erect Architecture shows just how much these facilities are worth fighting for – and just how hard you have to fight to realise them in the first place...

Read the full article here

Originally published in BD, 13 July 2011

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sainsbury Laboratory, by Stanton Williams

This laboratory in the University of Cambridge’s Botanic Gardens is the ideal habitat for botanists

’One man with half-a-dozen flower-pots may do more towards advancing botany than another will attempt with 20 or 30 acres of garden,” declared John Stevens Henslow – professor of botany and tutor to Charles Darwin – in an impassioned address to fellow members of the University of Cambridge in 1830.

“But the larger the number of living species that are cultivated in a Botanic Garden, the greater will be the facilities afforded to us all; not merely for systematic improvement, but for anatomical and other experimental researches essential to the progress of general physiology.”...

Read the full review here

Originally published in BD, 29 June 2011

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Lyric Theatre, Belfast, by O’Donnell & Tuomey

O’Donnell & Tuomey’s joyful new building is the stuff of theatrical legends,

Theatres often like to cultivate a foundation myth around their buildings. From the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, which has proudly occupied the same plot for almost 350 years, to the Young Vic in Waterloo – which had its “temporary” 1970s auditorium recently enshrined, relic-like, in a permanent casing – there is a thespian habit of maintaining an aura of significance around the sites of the beloved boards.

The story of the Lyric Theatre in Belfast is rather different. It started life 60 years ago in the window recess of the consulting room of Dr Pearse O’Malley and his wife Mary’s house, at 117 Lisburn Road. As the Lyric Players’ ambitions grew, and the O’Malleys moved house, performances took place in their narrow, converted stable loft. Sixteen years later – the theatre having swelled to incorporate a vibrant programme of recitals, lectures, exhibitions and a children’s drama school – it moved to its current site at the end of a sloping red-brick terrace in south Belfast, to occupy a purpose-built, 300-seat auditorium. It became much loved and continued operating as a neutral base throughout the Troubles, but lack of funds meant that dressing rooms, wardrobe and toilets had always remained outside, housed in flimsy portable buildings across a service yard. By 2003, the theatre was suffering from a leaky roof and was no longer fit for purpose...

Read the full review here

Originally published in BD, 15 June 2011

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Anne Mews housing in Barking, by AHMM and Maccreanor Lavington

Allford Hall Monaghan & Morris and Maccreanor Lavington Architects have breathed new life into traditional London housing types to provide the first new council housing built in Barking & Dagenham for 25 years.

We had everything we could dream of in the Lintons,” says a frail, East End voice, accompanying footage of a mech-anical jaw biting chunks out of a vast 16-storey concrete slab block. “The lounge was 21ft long, with a beautiful round table and six chairs – and a sideboard. The electric fireplace had a mosaic surround.”

Another bite, and a cascade of rubble falls to ground, revealing a vertical grid of wallpaper swatches and gaudy colour schemes, a stacked cross-section of private lives. “We had comedians, bingo, a darts night. You could go downstairs to the cinema, or the slipper baths. And everyone knew everyone else.”

Read the full review here

Originally published in BD, 8 June 2011

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Doppelhaus, by Lütjens Padmanabhan

On a restricted suburban plot by Lake Zürich, Lütjens Padmanabhan has brought a new wit and richness to the semi-detached house

The semi-detached house is a peculiarly British architectural compromise. An expedient answer to the problem of housing the burgeoning middle classes, the “semi” exploded in popularity between the wars as the perfect solution for those keen to escape the anonymous barracks of the terrace, but not quite able to afford the extravagance of a single standalone dwelling. Now more than a third of the UK population lives in one; it has come to represent the essence of cosy suburbia, the accidental icon of middle England.

For the proliferation of the standardised semi, we have John Claudius Loudon to thank, whose 1838 manual, The Suburban Gardener and Villa Companion, set out a catalogue of rules for what was then confusingly termed the “double detached house”. One of the key objects of combining two smaller houses in one building, he argued, was “to give dignity and consequence to each dwelling by making it appear to have the magnitude of two houses”...

Read full review here

Originally published in BD, 25 May 2011

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Hepworth Wakefield, by David Chipperfield Architects

Chipperfield’s gallery, which opens this week, draws on the power and heritage of its mill-town setting

Huddled together at a crook in the River Calder, a cluster of concrete containers rises out of the churning waters at the bottom of a weir. Their canted planes and inclined rooftops collide in a dynamic, aggregated bulk. Polygonal cells of crystalline matter, the forms have a tough elemental geology, as if chiselled from the bedrock – Yorkshire’s answer to the Giant’s Causeway.

This mysterious shape-shifting mass is David Chipperfield’s latest building, the Hepworth Wakefield, a vast new vessel for the city’s collection of art – named after local daughter Barbara – and the country’s largest purpose-built gallery space outside London...

Read the full review here

Originally published in BD, 18 May 2011

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

St Pancras Renaissance London Hotel, by RHWL and Richard Griffiths

The painstaking restoration of St Pancras station’s neo-Gothic Midland Grand Hotel by architects RHWL and Richard Griffiths honours George Gilbert Scott’s original vision, despite some disappointing fit-out choices.

’Architecture is the art which so disposes and adorns the edifices raised by man … that the sight of them may contribute to his mental health, power and pleasure.” So wrote John Ruskin in 1849, in the opening sentence to the Seven Lamps of Architecture, his extended essay that attempted to define the guiding principles of the Gothic Revival. To this sentence, 30 years later, he added a barbed footnote: “This separates architecture from a wasp’s nest, rat hole and a railway station.”

In between these years, from 1867-77, one of the most extraordinary neo-Gothic buildings in the country was built. It was a Ruskinian dream of soaring spires and pointed arches, a polychromatic mountain of brick and stone, encrusted with carvings of birds and beasts and entwined with the tendrils of abundant foliage. It was the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras – a palatial frontage for a railway station...

Read the full review here

Originally published in BD, 4 May 2011