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...
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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