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ArcKit: Releasing creativity, rediscovering design

Fri, 08/08/2014 - 15:02

Article by Georgie Day*

For someone who thinks of themselves as tending towards the experimental and progressive, perhaps it is strange that I am such a big fan of rules and constraints. This is because I strongly believe that it is only within parameters that humans can meaningfully push boundaries: pure freedom renders action vacuous, and leaves humans flailing around in the dark.

In the post-modern, liberal, hi-tech society we live in, boundaries break down by the day. In architecture, this has happened at an unprecedented pace in the last century, as a holy trinity of technological progress, economic growth, and artistic experiment transformed how we design buildings. Curvy ones, like Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, tall ones like the Burj-Khalifa, gravity defying ones like Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, or colourful ones like almost every new mid-to-high density residential block built contemporarily.

ArcKit

This, in a roundabout kind of way, is why I found my night in with ArcKit so entertaining. 385 pieces, 25 unique components, 10 ‘arckitexture printable adhesive’, neatly organised into one bespoke component tray. The all-white elements slot together in a significant range of combinations, as the illustrated handbook demonstrates. Not only does the kit allow for simple angular configurations of many different kinds, but the modular pieces enable makers to add corner windows, half-height walls, double doors onto interior courtyards, and numerable other cute detail any which would make any residential client pour over an architects three-dimensional imaginings.

ArcKit will appeal to architects for its elemental-ness. Much like Koolhaas’s theme for this year’s Venice Bienalle, ArcKit breaks down architecture into a set number of components – wall, roof, floor, window, stair and join/link components – clinical categorical groupings of objects, with incremental size increases on a fixed grid that translates at a scale of 1 square to 1.2m. It plays to the puritanical and often reductive streak, found in some of the more purist spheres of the industry, and at some level, within every architect. (The graphics will appeal also).

Personally, I found myself instantly engaged in the more extreme possibilities enabled by ArcKit, and I am sure many other architects will find themselves drawn to it in this way. I enjoyed making funny Escher-like stairs, exaggerated pitch roofs, perfect squares like you find nowhere in contemporary architecture. Part of this is my own personal childish disposition, but I also think it reveals something interesting about the nature of the ArcKit. That is to say that by constraining what can be done, within a realm of sufficient complexity, allows the explorative free-play and imaginative wanderings of the kind that children are so good at, and which I believe is at the heart of creative pursuit and genuine innovation. The fact that Lego have just brought out their own version of the kit, Lego Architecture Studio, plays more explicitly to this point. Who doesn’t remember those wild sprawling intricate Lego castles that you made as a child, of a curiously inquisitive quality, that you could never, for love nor money, hope to reproduce as a cynical and (dare I say) boring adult?

Photograph by Georgie Day

ArcKit doesn’t set out to be a tool kit for full scale design, and for that purpose it would be unfit. For starters, the 1:48 is out of my measly metric-brained comprehension. The reasoning behind this non-architectural scale (as is helpfully explained in the accompanying handbook), is for easy conversion to imperial, the more commonly used standard in much of the building industry. I couldn’t help myself rounding up to nice square, but inaccurate, 1:50. Additionally, you run out of parts – the building can’t be built entirely from glass for example as there aren’t enough pieces, and the walls run out at about the fourth floor story. Maybe that’s not so different from real building though, with its budget constraints and planning restrictions limiting development above a certain height. There are also no rounded corners, fixed floor-to-ceiling heights, and purely modular expansion, which are likely over-onerous restrictions on today’s choice-spoiled architects and their clients.

The majority of the limitations of the kit are (simplified versions of) prevalent norms of the contemporary residential building industry in the Western world. This however turns out to be another point in favour of ArcKit. Rather than the expansive and disparately varied house building industry we have today, a semi-standardised industry, where certain foundational elements could be taken for granted, might be a great thing. By coincidence, I read this quote in False Flat (by Aaron Betsky with Adam Euwens) only last night:

‘The reason for [Dutch architect’s] success… is the result of a situation in which the construction of housing has become so systematized that it has created a well-oiled machine to support the experimentation young designers embrace. Concrete shells and standard window assemblies can be deconstructed and reassembled in new ways.’

Counter-intuitively, if the building industry in the UK was more formulaic, then it might well produce better design as is typified by the Dutch design industry. We might even build more too, by making the design, construction, manufacturing and transportation processes more efficient.

In this way, ArcKit actually embodies something of the modernist vision as well as my child’s-play-within-constraints vision. The modernists believed in modular construction systems, such as the Laing’s concrete frame and shell construction, as a way of providing high quality housing on a scale and to a quality that could accommodate all people equally, rather than privileging good design only to those who could afford their own private architect.

In short, ArcKit is an excellent thing. To say that it releases your inner child is the highest complement that I could give; and you never know, it might also teach us some valuable lessons about the benefits of a degree of standardisation in design also.

Photograph by Georgie Day

*Georgie completed a BA Architecture (Part 1) at the University of Westminster after she had graduated from a BA in Politics at Oxford University. She has worked as an architectural assistant at Terry Farrell & Partners and muf architecture/art and is resuming her architectural studies by enrolling in her Part 2 at Cambridge University this year.

Categories: Latest from the RIBA

Final Frame: Economist Building

Thu, 07/24/2014 - 15:26

A timely reminder of his influence on the townscape movement, Suzanne Waters looks at an illustration by Gordon Cullen, from the collections of the RIBA

Perspective of the Economist Building, 25 St James’s Street, London, 1964 (enlarge image)
Artist: Gordon Cullen
© RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections
Image from RIBApix

This image commemorates the 100th anniversary of the architect and town planner Gordon Cullen (born 1914), and the 50th birthday of the Economist Building by Alison and Peter Smithson. Cullen captures the spaces in between these three office blocks grouped around a narrow piazza, raised up from the surrounding streets. He offers us a glimpse of Brooks Club (1778) by the architect Henry Holland, its pedimented façade contrasting vividly with the Smithsons’ abstract forms. In Cullen’s book entitled Townscape (1961) he argues for interesting focal points as a feature  of urban planning, summed up in this view as “the gap in the streets”.

Article by Suzanne Waters
British Architectural Library, RIBA

 

Discover more

Discover more images of Cullen’s work by browsing RIBApix, or visit the British Architectural Library to read his illustrated books or to book an appointment to see his original drawings.

 

Categories: Latest from the RIBA

Late Tuesday: London’s Greatest Building Knock-out Challenge

Tue, 07/08/2014 - 19:29

Which building won the public vote for the title of ‘London’s Greatest’?  Rosie Doud tells us how the voting went…

Participant at the RIBA’s drawing workshop, Late Tuesday event, 24 June 2014. © RIBA, British Architectural Library

Preparations for the day

Last month, RIBA hosted a workshop called London’s Greatest Building Knock-Out Challenge. This world-cup inspired competition was part of the Late Tuesday event whose theme was London’s Greatest Buildings. Sixteen buildings competed for the title of “London’s Greatest,” and attendees voted between opposing buildings by writing about or drawing their chosen buildings on a flag and sticking the flags into a mount. At the end of each round, the building with the most votes in its bracket moved on while the losing buildings were eliminated.

In preparing for this event, the first step for me was to research what makes a great building and to choose 16 competitors. This task seemed a bit daunting at first, as I knew very little about London’s architecture, but RIBA has a variety of resources including articles on architecture.com and the books, journals, and photographs in the architectural collections of the RIBA. In the process, I amassed quite a bit of knowledge about London’s great buildings, knowledge that I have since found useful in understanding more about this city. Doing this research also got me thinking about what exactly makes a building great, a question that RIBA asks every year when awarding the Stirling Prize.

Images  from RIBApix of London buildings chosen for public voting. © RIBA, British Architectural Library

How the buildings were chosen

After research and inquiries to RIBA staff, I finally settled on 16 buildings to compete. The final list included buildings from a range of time-periods and styles, not all of which I personally liked, but all of which had aspects that made them stand out. Using Vitruvius’s conditions that a great building must have firmness, commodity, and delight to guide me, I considered many questions. These questions included:

  • is this building relevant throughout time?
  • does it use space and resources in creative and efficient ways?
  • does this building do something that no previous building had?

 

After choosing 16 buildings that each had something that made them great, I collected photographs from RIBApix and wrote short descriptions of each building. Then came the crafty part; preparing the flags, labels and mount-boards.

Staff setting up the drawing workshop. © RIBA, British Architectural Library

Drawing workshop: The voting begins

Finally, all the preparations were finished, and the event began. The workshop took place in the Florence Hall of 66 Portland Place, and a three-man band played songs ranging from jazz standards to creative renditions of rap and pop songs. People began filing in and out of the event, some simply surveying the options and grabbing a flag to vote, and others spending time pouring over the descriptions, carefully selecting a building, and drawing detailed depictions of their choices. The variety in the drawings we received is one of my favourite parts of the event because it makes clear that when looking at the exact same building, people see many different things. Although there were inevitably some people who were disappointed in the selection, every building got at least one vote in the first round, demonstrating the variety of ways a building can be great.

Participants at the drawing workshop. © RIBA, British Architectural Library

Image of Lloyd’s Building designed by Richard Rogers. © RIBA, British Architectural Library

Drawings of St Paul’s Cathedral. © RIBA, British Architectural Library

And the winner is…

In the final round, it was a “Battle of the Saints,” and tension was running high. For a while, it looked as though St Paul’s Cathedral would take home the title, but in the end, a flurry of last-minute votes made St Pancras Hotel victorious.

Drawings of St Pancras Hotel. © RIBA, British Architectural Library

It was bitter-sweet taking apart the bracket to make room for the quiz following the workshop. Together, the participants had made their own sort of architecture with various coloured flags and platforms, and the result was quite striking. On the bright side, the actual buildings competing in the challenge still exist and can be visited, although many of them are also changing at this very minute.

 

Article by Rosie Doud
Yale University / British Architectural Library, RIBA

 

Categories: Latest from the RIBA

Final Frame: Highgate Cemetery

Wed, 06/25/2014 - 08:28

 An excavation by Rosie Doud of the history buried within Highgate Cemetery…

Image (enlarge): Highgate Cemetery, London: mausoleum of Julius Beer
Photographer: Edwin Smith, 1961
© Edwin Smith / RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Image from RIBApix

This image was taken by Edwin Smith. His work will be the subject of a new exhibition at the RIBA from 10 September until 6 December 2014.

Highgate Cemetery opened in 1839, reflecting an important shift in burial customs. Starting in the 17th century, London’s interment situation was becoming increasingly grim. As a result of overcrowding and disease outbreaks, churchyards built within the city smelled terrible and were breeding grounds for infection.

Following a series of Burial Acts enacted by Parliament in the mid-19th century, Highgate Cemetery was built outside the heart of the city. Its Victorian architecture expands over a lush landscape, and many famous figures such as Karl Marx have been buried within its grounds. However, the most extraordinary feature of Highgate Cemetery is its catacombs. A series of vaults on Egyptian Avenue lead up to Lebanon Circle, a ring of crypts named after the cedar tree they surround. The cemetery started to decline at the turn of the 20th century, and Highgate became increasingly difficult to maintain. Thankfully, in 1975 a group called the Friends of Highgate Cemetery led a campaign to conserve it, and Highgate is now open to the public and is listed Grade I by English Heritage.

Article by Rosie Doud
Yale University / British Architectural Library, RIBA

 

Categories: Latest from the RIBA

Reimagining the Balfron Tower, or questioning architectural heritage, regeneration and the future of housing

Tue, 06/24/2014 - 13:41

Article by Georgie Day*

The beauty of the Balfron Tower is written all over its fac(ad)e in a very literal way. Its central architectonic move – that of separating the circulation, refuse shoots, and services from the living quarters – is visible, rising out of the Poplar skyline, from most parts of London. Reading between the lines of the Balfron Tower (again quite literally as such lines are created by the individual floor plates), it also becomes clear that there is something funny going on in the section; specifically in the way in which individual access corridors service two floors at the same time: a clever trick whereby entering a flat either means stepping up, or stepping down a semi-storey.  Then there is the message that is contained in its erect, proud, democratic, optimistic and upward form.

The Balfron Tower (Photograph by Georgie Day)

The Balfron Tower positively shouts about the socialist leanings of its architect, the Hungarian émigré Erno Goldfinger.  It is unpretentious an architecture in that it is instantly readable. It embodies an architecture crafted from tactile materials that, unlike most of the modern palette for the built environment, become increasingly beautiful the closer you get. It is designed for its inhabitants, in intricate detail for their close looking, and in 1965, it would have also elevated working-class families from tumble-down Victorian housing to some of the best views in London.

In 2014, things have changed. The building was brought from the state ownership of Tower Hamlets by ‘bottom-up’ housing association Popla Harca in 1995, which has since then become a joint venture with luxury property tycoon Londonewcastle, engaged in a £10million refurbishment. The old residents have been ‘decanted’ (in the unfortunate wine-based jargon) to accommodation elsewhere. Having initially been assured that they would be able to move back in should they want to, things have changed: in a far cry from the intentions of the London City Council (and later, during the final stages of its construction and completion, the Greater London Council, who oversaw its inception), all the flats are now expected to be sold to new private tenants, all in the name of Grade II* Listed Status!

The Balfron Tower (Photograph by Georgie Day)

This often conservative mechanism is at its worst here: the bottom-line justification is that Popla Harca simply couldn’t afford to restore all the features in a sympathetic way, as this status requires. This is cruelly antithetical to the original social-democratic urge behind the building, which most likely would rather see it being clad in jazzy neon fascia panels than carefully restored and consequently sold off to private investors as buy-to-lets. The conservative tendency of building listings is again expressed locally in the future of the comparable Robin Hood Gardens estate. Designed by the husband and wife couple the Smithsons, this low-rise housing stock is in the process of being demolished to make way for a new mixed use scheme, having narrowly missed its own ‘Do Not Pass Go’ card at a recent review of is cultural and historical significance.

Opportunistically, as oft-poor creative minds are entitled to behave, artists have moved into the Balfron Tower, and an interim programme of arts events is about to start before the redevelopment work begins (the Bow Arts Trust have taken a temporary lease on some of the flats which are being let out as rare-to-come-by live/work units). Again, a question emerges almost as old as modernism itself about the relationship between artists and regeneration. In its more self-aware, contemporary form, these artists are known as ‘cultural capital’, and play a role in raising the value of the development to come. It is inevitable and unavoidable, when public funding for cultural activity is drying up and the only well is the private market, that the arts become embroiled in such scenarios. But it is refreshing (and I hope for much more of it), that some artists, such as Simon Terill with his incisive photography documentation (which includes a project on the Balfron Tower itself), are taking their role in this process seriously. Hopefully some interesting reflections will emerge from the ugly transformation. Watch this space.

Photograph by Georgie Day

*Georgie completed a BA Architecture (Part 1) at the University of Westminster after she had graduated from a BA in Politics at Oxford University. She has worked as an architectural assistant at Terry Farrell & Partners and muf architecture/art and is resuming her architectural studies by enrolling in her Part 2 at Cambridge University this year.

 

Categories: Latest from the RIBA

Final Frame: Hengistbury Head

Thu, 05/29/2014 - 10:41

Curator Vicky Wilson uncovers Gordon Selfridge’s grand ambitions for a castle that match those he had for his store on Oxford Street…

Image (enlarge): “A great and glorified dream”. Design for the redevelopment of Hengistbury Head, Dorset, for H. Gordon Selfridge. Front elevation of the ‘large’ castle, facing the sea, November 1919.Architect: Philip Armstrong Tilden
© RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections
Image from RIBApix 

“A great and glorified dream”

Ten years into the building of his flagship department store on Oxford Street, the wildly ambitious Harry Gordon Selfridge commissioned Philip Tilden to design him “the largest castle in the world” on a recently purchased tract of headland called Hengistbury Head. Tilden was already engaged in grandiose designs for a 450ft tower to sit atop Selfridge’s department store and his employer’s ideas for Hengistbury were no less dramatic and fantastic. The scheme was to consist of both a ‘small’ and ‘large’ castle surrounded by ramparts, in a style that combined Medieval fortress architecture with delicate Classical touches. Features included a giant domed hall, elaborate terraced gardens with a covered lake, a theatre, and 250 suites of guest rooms. Unsurprisingly, the scale of the vision outstripped reality and as Selfridge’s personal and professional life sunk toward crisis, his plans for both the castle and tower faded into unrealised dreams.

 

Article by Vicky Wilson
Assistant Curator, British Architectural Library, RIBA

 

Categories: Latest from the RIBA

Architecture Education OTHERWHERE

Wed, 05/07/2014 - 11:58

Article by Albena Atanassova

The value and relevance of architectural education is becoming increasingly scrutinized in light of pressing socio-economic conditions which demand OTHER ways of engagement and transformation in the way we think about, and practice, architecture. As RIBA student representatives, both I and Emily believe that education is crucial to opportunities and future pathways within the profession. We have been looking at various ways of engaging ourselves through organizations, forums and talks with the aim to continue the conversation on architectural education and students’ role in shaping it.

Whilst Emily has focused on the UK through her membership of the RIBA Education Committee and links to the Architecture Students Network (ASN), I decided to look at the education discourse already begun by associated institutions globally and mainly at the International Union of Architects (UIA).

UIA 2014 Durban

The UIA is a non-governmental organization accredited by the United Nations, and it represents professional associations of architects in 124 countries and approximately 1.3 million architects worldwide. The UIA secretariat, located in Paris, is responsible for the Union’s management and general administration. For the first time in the organization’s history this year the focus on young architects (up to 10 years’ experience) and students of architecture has been expanded with the creation of the first UIA Young Architects committee with an associated UIA Young Students sub-committee. This January all member countries were invited to suggest 2 candidatures for both a student and a young architect that would be voted on general election later in the year, becoming the founders of these committees. As a Part II student in the UK I was invited to take part in the selection process which ultimately led to my election for a Region I student representative. As part of my role, along with the remaining 4 region’s student representatives we have started a process of bringing student matters on the table at the highest level with the scope to influence the course of both education and career opportunities within the professional world. This is a unique opportunity for architectural students from around the world to present their own perspectives on the failures and successes of current practice in architectural education and to contribute to charting a new course forward.

As part of the committee I will be travelling to the 25th International Union of Architects World Congress of Architects, UIA 2014 Durban this summer where I will be meeting the rest of the sub-committee. The Congress theme has been set as ARCHITECTURE OTHERWHERE, and the intention is to acknowledge the built environment as a major force that can be harnessed towards a better life for all. As student representatives, we will be taking part in a debate under the National Student Congress which will be an integral part of UIA 2014 Durban. The objective is to provide a platform for students from around the world to come together and to share their stories, voice their opinions and learn from each OTHER in a less formal, but equally informative atmosphere, against the backdrop of a uniquely South African city.

UIA 2014 Durban venue

As part of the debate I will be looking at some of the documentation that started a broader discussion on architectural education, its values and relevance in today’s changing world. There is a need to address economic inequality and social stigma, the very position of architects, their industry and their contribution to vulnerable societies in an era where education has stubbornly resisted changing over the last 50 years. Facing the risk of it becoming a redundant and inefficient past-time of those socially and financially positioned to take advantage of it, we as students are to address how we are being taught in schools of architecture, whether we receive work-ready skills to enter the construction industry and whether the studio dynamics/culture encourage flexibility of both content and teaching methods?

It used to be the time where before studying architecture one would assume the product of architectural education is an architect, however today’s socio-economic development sees a changing role and its potential to transform society beyond the design of buildings.

It is a unique opportunity for us as UK students to voice our opinions on the education we have had or are currently obtaining, but also to step back and consider our place in the bigger world. I am therefore turning to you as students to ask about your thoughts and background, what you think could have been done better and how can we move forward to a new and better education model.

If you feel you have something to contribute to the discussion about the future of architectural education, please comment below, or if you’d prefer email me and Emily at riba.student@riba.org.

UIA 2014 Durban

 

Categories: Latest from the RIBA