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Monday, June 15, 2009

While this Telegraph piece praising Prince Charles' intervention in the Chelsea Barracks saga is superficially very depressing ('Chelsea Barracks: Thanks to Prince Charles for meddling', don't read the comments), what's most annoying is the way in which the piece doesn't bother to engage with the real driving forces behind the highs and lows of the now-abandoned Rogers Stirk Harbour scheme; the economy.

When the sale of the Barracks was first mooted in 2005, the stakes weren't quite as high: according to BBC News, 'The 13-acre prime building land could raise as much as £250m from residential or retail development.' The actual price realised, claimed to be £900m in April 2007 (£959m in January 2008), making it 'the UK's most expensive home property deal.' This put a tremendous pressure on the new owners to maximise the site to get any sort of return on their investment.

Initially, this didn't seem like much of a problem. The property firm that brokered the deal and subsequently (and probably fatally) lent their very slightly louche image to the whole project was Candy and Candy, then on the ascendance as purveyors of absurdly OTT apartments, houses, yachts and helicopters. One Hyde Park, developed in conjunction with RSH, is generally considered to be the apogee of hedge funded architectural hedonism. As was noted back in 2007, the Barracks sale was proof that London's 'housing market has hit a new high' (the original whizzy flash site to publicise the sale is here). The C+C moolah factory merely stirred a heady dose of schadenfreude into the mix.

But then the market plunged, and the ire aroused by the site and the plans inevitably rose. The economic need to fit on large quantities of housing to cater to both C+C's high-end clientele and the affordable quota demanded by Westminster resulted in a fairly dense bit of architecture, with tall blocks crowding apparently dark, gloomy streets. Arguably, RSH didn't handle the presentation terribly well, with a relatively bland set of documentation that failed to stress the improvements to the townscape beyond superficial rendered imagery. Instead, the CADs unfortunately emphasised the rather more dominant issues of massing and facade treatment. A second submission seems to have solved these issues, but we'll never know.

There are many rich paradoxes in the whole saga. The rather austere image at the head of this post - the sort of thing that induces twitches in any good urban explorer - is a picture of the original barracks, built on open fields east of the Royal Hospital. Undeniably hefty, as all good Victorian buildings should be, they were designed by George Morgan and demolished in 1960, replaced by an undistinguished piece of early 1960s banality, since flattened, by Tripe and Wakeham (which would be a fabulous name for a firm of undistinguished 1960s architects if they weren't still around). T+W crop up elsewhere around the country, in Stockwell (via urban 75) and also in Liverpool (via infinite thought), where they designed the marginally more interesting Royal and Sun Alliance building a few years later (another image, by Aidan O'Rourke). The only bit of Morgan's original 1863 building to survive was the chapel (pdf), turned down for listing and not retained in the RSH scheme.

In opening up the site with an expansive parade ground, Tripe and Wakeham gave this bit of London back some open space, yet the return to hefty terracotta facades was one of the key bones of contention. In very basic terms, Modernism opened up the closed Victorian city, but objectors, from HRH downwards, believe it would be far better to have a bit of opened-up-neo-Victoriana-Georgiana rather than a 'brutalist' and 'communist' piece of contemporary design. The site is also right on the edge of Kensington and Chelsea, the Royal Borough with one of the country's most vociferous planning departments. RBKC objected to the scheme's proximity to Wren's Royal Hospital (which, according to the report, had no objection to the scheme).

Given that the RSH scheme has been binned, you have to pity the poor case officer at Westminster Planning who wrote up the 121-page document for the planning meeting on Thursday 18 June 2009 (download the pdf here). In it, the council is broadly supportive of the scheme, concluding:

'Officers consider the scheme in terms of both the masterplan and detailed design to be one of exceptional high quality. They are mindful, however, that the scale of the development and design approach has been contentious from the outset. Whilst CABE and Westminster Society are generally supportive, there remains strong opposition to it from some consultees including English Heritage, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the Belgravia Residents' Association and many residents, either individually or through the Barracks Action Group [of 496 letters received, 435 were letters of objection]. Further, following the recent interest in the proposal shown by HRH the Prince of Wales there has been much debate in the national and technical press and there are divergent views amongst the architectural profession on the design merits of the scheme. There has also been a growing groundswell of public opinion against the design.... It is considered that when compared to the inappropriate and disjointed collection of 1960s buildings on the site and the austere appearance of its Victorian predecessor, the proposed development, by a combination of its architecture, generous open space and treatment of spaces between buildings, will significantly enhance the immediate townscape.'

Oh well. The whole thing was scuppered from the start, a combination of class envy, conservatism and politics. Ironically, the Duke of Westminster's comments last year were probably more troubling to the site's owners (Qatari Diar Real Estate), especially given his position as owner of the neighbouring Grosvenor Estate, a role that keeps him in the top spots of the rich lists. Charles's property holdings are small fry by comparison.

One can only hope that Quinlin Terry's [sic] back-of-envelope scrawl (a piece of theatrical underdogism that played well with the Luddite) has been worked up slightly more than as presented to the world (via, and actually drawn by Francis Terry). Major pieces of neo-classicism are relatively thin on the ground in Britain, but with each new commission the stakes get raised a little higher. As Terry Jr recently wrote, while reviewing the Royal Academy's Palladio exhibition: 'with most great architects, say Le Corbusier, Lutyens or Mies, their own greatness is indisputable but their followers are an embarrassment.' We watch the site with interest.

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Monday, December 03, 2007

Gavin Stamp's new book, Britain's Lost Cities, is one of the most depressing architectural monographs ever published. Page after page of monochrome photography charts the combined destructive effects of Blitz and town-planning, as medieval, Georgian and Victorian structures were ripped apart in the name of war or progress (or a combination of both, as planners used German bombs to help facilitate the grand visions dreamt up in the 1930s). Stamp's book recalls Hermione Hobhouse's classic Lost London, a heart-rending compilation of architectural violence against the city, from the loss of Sir John Soane's original Bank of England (its ruination foreseen by Joseph Gandy) to the absurdly petty-minded destruction of the Euston Arch (still a grand symbol of the importance of having a strong conservation movement). More at London Destruction. Related, unbuilt London, an occasional collection of schemes that fell by the wayside.

The picture at the top shows the south side of Brunswick Square, before the arrival of the Brunswick Centre and the architectural excesses of London University. The Centre has now been refurbished and scrubbed up and is rather schizophrenically celebrated as both Brunswick (!), a glossy street of boutiques and big-name brands, and the gritty, modernist megastructure that was originally envisioned. City of Sound captured the place mid-gentrification, and it's safe to say that Patrick Hodgkinson's scheme has now largely overcome the antipathy it received for being responsible for so much demolition.

But like the terrace in Abingdon Street illustrated below, these records mark the loss of not just houses or architecture, but place. Abingdon Street was a distinguished line of Georgian houses along the edge of Old Palace Yard, just north of the Houses of Parliament. Damaged during the war, they were removed in 1943 for the erection of the George V memorial - and now form the spot where TV crews do their piece to camera. These are heartfelt losses, clumps of cityscape and memory that can never be replaced, only replicated, without patina or proportion. So much of the city has been bludgeoned into open space, or lost forever beneath squat blocks whose meandering footprints have no time for ancient street patterns. The other day we watched a pavement being laid, with the surface cut deep to expose pipes and cables, roots and raw earth. Amongst them all was the unmistakable curve of a barrel vault, the last remnants of a long lost streetscape, soon to be covered over once more.


Other things. The Futurists would have loved YouTube, with its swift delivery of pornographic violence, cut, spliced and soundtracked, served up in little two minute chunks of mechanised, balletic carnage. It's a sign of the times that we'd think of YouTube while reading Ghost in the Machine, a dissertation by Michael Heumann on 'Sound and Technology in Twentieth Century Literature', which covers the Futurists' splenetic, frezied sound experiments. Related, Halvorsen's Blogariddims 31, 'one hour of straightforward avant-garde electronic goodies, treated and non-treated voices, some phonography, computer code noise and the old pause signal from the Norwegian radio'.

Also related, a question: Would current technology allow someone to make an audio recording of their life?. According to Heumann, Thomas Edison spent time exploring the sonic landscape of life after death, talking to the New York Times about 'his interest in building a hyper-sensitive microphone which would be able to capture and store these "life units" as they leave a dying body–thereby extending the notion of recording beyond material sound and into the registers of spirits and energy'.


A chaotic collection of books, links nicely to BLDG BLOG's musings on the new British library archive centre, and this recent piece on The Space of the Book, focusing on a theatrical, Umberto Eco-like space in a church in Maastricht. By placing the book at the heart of the house, you get interesting architectural oddities like the late Simon Ungers' T-House in New York State, or OMA's Maison a Bordeaux (1998), with its central core of knowledge accessed via an industrial paternoster platform.

A flickr set of serious colours / small drawings, a weblog / Honey Pot, a blog of baking and fine recipes / Kids on Roof, complex play structures / the Government Art Collection / the Yenidze building in Dresden, a former cigarette factory and a bold architectural statement. More at flickr and skyscraper city / Curiously Incongruous, London everyday (via Coudal) / little modernist birdboxes by Raumhochrosen / the Tate extension takes another step towards commencement / all about the Lewisham Train Disaster of 1957. See also the official report (link to pdf).

Disassembling Old Magazines To Sell On eBay - A Mini Case Study, one of the origins of our ephemera overload / a gallery of work by Vladimir Ossipoff, Hawaiian architect extraordinaire / a one-off Buckminster Fuller Chandelier / the Amazon filler item finder, scour for bargains / tales of Old China / Historical Maps of Europe / a flickr set of Penguin books / the future is increasingly being shaped by our memories of the past (see Collective Perception, and its homepage of dazzling but strangely familiar imagery) / and what a past: Ken: the man behind the doll / a short (textual) history of CGI in film / The Schimmel Piano, the latest project from Daniel Libeskind.

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Friday, October 05, 2007

Finally, victory for Crossrail, given the go-ahead, with the first trains set to leave in about a decade (give or take a year or two). The campaign for Crossrail dates back to the late 80s but cost has always been an issue - an issue that never went away. Back in 1993, figures of £2bn scared the (then Tory) government off. By May 2001, the TfL was costing the scheme at £3.8bn. Today's announcement gave a figure of £16bn. Crossrail has its opponents, not least those for whom the disruption, especially in Central London, will be costly and devastating. Whether or not the Astoria, a striking but rather grimy music venue will survive or be demolished. That was 2004; in 2005 Westminster Council produced a draft planning brief for the Astoria site (large pdf), stating fairly unequivocally that the theatre, on the site of a former Crosse and Blackwell jam factory (and not a converted pickle factory - although it sounds better - is doomed. Ironically, the 20s building began life as a cinema, and was converted to a theatre in 1976, just as theatres all round the UK were going the other direction. More on the Astoria at the excellent Arthur Lloyd Music Hall and Theatre site.

The new Crossrail station extends deep beneath this part of Oxford Street, with platforms running below the heart of Soho - the square's layout just visible in the centre of this image. There are those who believe a bigger, more ambitious project should have been considered - Superlink, or even the long-mooted Chelsea-Hackney Line, also known as Crossrail 2 (map (pdf) - you can also see the outline of the Crossrail 2 station on the Tottenham Court Road station plans). Nonetheless, Crossrail is much needed. If nothing else, the 2025 Transport Network map (pdf) is an exciting prospect, especially for South London, although some of those station links are a bit disingenuous (it's also not nearly as satisfying as the tube for South London map, a fantasy hosted by Colourcountry). What it will do is create a new psychological world of genuine subterranean travel, a sense of being deep below the city that the tubes don't really convey, now that we're all so used to them.

Also far too long in the offing (check the name, for example, is Thameslink 2000, a north-south consolidation and expansion of existing track. Thameslink 2000 is very much a giveth and taketh away kind of scheme, weaving - bludgeoning - its way across existing arches, bridges and tunnels. Sadly, T2000 will have a major impact on Borough Market. The Save the Borough Market Area Campain illustrates how great swathes of the freshly-rejuvenated market will be swallowed up by the rather dreary piece of railway engineering that is designed to increase capacity out of London Bridge station. This is a messy part of London, where infrastructure and history collide unhappily. Throw in the proposed construction of the Shard at London Bridge (the capital's first 'vertical city'?), and the area will be echoing with jackhammers and bulldozers for the best part of a decade.


Teachers 'fear evolution lessons' / Paris pictures from Hyperkit / Plus Six, interaction design and more / finally side-barred: Rossignol and diamond geezer (their Crossrail post, which notes that 'the Central, Bakerloo, Northern and Piccadilly lines were all constructed within a single decade, using private finance') / Content Aware Image Resizing: the 'graceful re-sizing' of images is not only alarming in a 'Commissar Vanishes' type of way, but is further indication of the modern world's utter disregard for proportion - something TV and cinema aspect ratios have also degraded. More about this another time.

Two links to digital urban: To Teleport or Not to Teleport: Travelling in Virtual Worlds, or how the teleport became ubiquitous, despite its ability to 'break the metaphor'. Also, SimCity Societies - What Kinds of Cities Would You Build? / the Downfall meme, in which a certain dictator's rage at the failure of Armeeabteilung Steiner is translated into frustration with 21st technology. Sounds glib, usually quite amusing: iSketch, Flight Simulator X, Xbox Live, car theft. And it goes on (via kottke).

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