a shorter letter

At the risk of stating what is already widely known, the activity of building that was once the creation of a single edifice by the ‘architect builder’ is now the bringing together of component parts by a multi-faceted team.  One creative ambition in this context is, as in many things, the reduction of those parts to a minimum and the distillation of the interfaces to a subtle and elegant composition that speaks succinctly, with precision and with clear purpose. Above all this is, or should be, the art of the architect.

If I had more time I’d write a shorter letter. 

The environment in which these buildings are composed goes some way to defining the form that the parts and the whole might take. The light and climate of Porto is not that of London, the modelling of simple mass that is so effective on the exposed edge of southern Europe is made bland by our damp grey blue environment and so begets northern Europe’s more textured architectural approach.  But, while they can grace buildings, complexity and texture are not of benefit to the design of our infrastructure, particularly when it lies underground. To look further south at the purist modernism of Alvaro Siza is to engage with an architecture that is more appropriate to the need.

Alvaro Siza is acknowledged as one of the best in this reductive art, and a trip around his works in and about his home-town of Porto is a study in considered simplicity. His art is applied to churches, wineries, high end hotels and affordable housing. There are numerous private houses and there are occasional public squares. And you will not be surprised to learn that there is also an underground station.

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As a typology the station is, in Porto and the world over, ripe for the refinement of detail, the minimal number of components and materials, the simplicity of form and the clarity of route, and Siza is in his element.  If it weren’t for the pace of the people in Sao Bento you may on occasions forget you are in a station, such is the ecclesiastical reverence to space and detail.  The strength of light in which Siza is playing penetrates deep down the escalators, the staircase may lead to an altar, the elements of equipment are exhibits in their own right.

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And yet it also seems that there is some additional agreement here, an agreement that, if you are to employ a much-admired architect with strongly held beliefs, ‘though shalt not foul my station with your secondary revenue’. For where Eduardo de Moura’s stations at Aliados and Trinidade seek a similar simplicity, his unquestionable skills struggle to rise above the usual plethora of posters and sales points. Meanwhile, at Sao Bento, there are very few such trappings – the signs that are required are precisely arranged, Siza is allowed to scribble on the walls in the manner of Le Corbusier, the walls and fittings are unencumbered by self-promoting tat, and so the station becomes less a source of side income for the railway company and more an exhibition of the thoughts, talents and desires of the architect.

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And why not?  For railways should run trains, not sell other people’s product.  To do that against the competition from the automobile they must make the experience – their infrastructure – as attractive, comfortable, enjoyable, safe and clear as practical.  The near-constant bombardment with promotional messages from other parties from which stations usually suffer surely detracts from these primary purposes, adding confusion and detail that is quite opposite to the intent.  The result is usually a compromise, a low quality commercial offering, a disrupted wayfinding experience, and a lesser spatial experience with an increased maintenance load.

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So let us have more Sao Bento’s, let the station architect provide an infrastructure that pleases the senses and of which we are worthy, and let us have a transport system that we all want to use and so be able to fund it from tickets.

manhattan

After too many years I land again in New York, intrigued to see the achievements of the intervening mayors who vowed to clean up its act.

There have been the consequences of Rudy Giuliani (in office 1994-2001), with his tough-man stance and his Broken Windows Theory of urban decay – an emotive approach at the time but interestingly applied a couple of years later by Tim O’Toole at London Underground, with some success in countering graffiti.  Then came Michael Bloomburg (in office 2002-2013), part-funder of the Walbrook entrance at Bank station, who spent his terms in office much-improving the New York subway, and taking the then bipartisan and now highly popular approach of encouraging public transport through a positive stance on commercial development.

Having arrived with great expectations and equally fulsome luggage, I am obliged to briefly wonder whether, despite all the much-anticipated enhancements, the continued inability to readily transit between Manhattan, JFK and the outside world is all part of the rampant insularity that these days permeates the presidential rhetoric. Surely not, this is New York…

 

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Once in the city of course it’s all worth it. I had forgotten just how low-rise Manhattan is, the memory is of serried ranks of skyscrapers, but other cities have long since overtaken Manhattan in the numerical and physical superiority of these edifices. Manhattan now seems rather homely by comparison.  That said, those Johnny-come-lately cities of the middle and far east, with their grasshopper generated building forms and their comic book design references, still can’t hold a candle to the architectural nerve and quality that is Manhattan. And in Manhattan the many and wide intervening spaces enable these muscular and often graceful buildings to be experienced from the ground, not as in London, from some remote viewpoint on the surrounding hills, but by enjoying their majesty from close-to, in the context of the intricacy of the lower buildings and the intimacy of busy street life.

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In the absence of the questionable town planning enthusiasm to cluster these buildings, the new hotels, galleries, high-end residential and swanky offices are now marching off into areas previously forbidden after dark, into the public housing estates of Lower East Side, into Harlem and into and onto the railway lands of the West Side. As an approach to regeneration as defined by personal safety, increased commercial opportunity and improved building stock their impact cannot be denied. The greatest achievements of these mayors, their clean-up ambitions and their lax development constraints, is improved security and cleanliness, public transport to be used without hesitation, and the opening up of previously largely abandoned neighbourhoods. And the smell, that acrid waft of days-old garbage so much a feature of a walk around the Manhattan of the late 20th century, is gone too.

But all this comes at a cost, and the cost is vitality.

 

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Of course I visited the Highline, much promoted as a catalyst for urban regeneration and indeed, its popularity cannot be denied, drawing many to walk its length and enjoy the rich and interesting vegetation that grows better than buddleia on old track beds.

But this is not regeneration in the way that we in Europe define it. While the walk is enjoyable and the greenery welcome, it is a walk of entertainment and not one of connectivity. Yes, it connects Rocket’s Hudson Yards with Piano’s Whitney – both of which by the way, exhibit a rather commercial sterility despite the efforts of their participating starchitects – but in between it rarely connects, passing through buildings and over streets without addressing them in any significant manner. This is regeneration in the manner of Central Park – a place of leisure that can be enjoyed by all, and towards which can now face the adjacent properties, much increasing their cost without greatly adding to the urban value of the adjacent city.

On a broader level, this significant increase in property cost, driven in part by the mayoral clean-up and doubtless a few tax breaks, has to an extent devalued Manhattan. Gone is the rich-mix, low-cost, punk-art excitement that permeated Soho, Greenwich village, Little Italy and the Lower East Side. At risk are the pop-up basketball courts on street corner building lots and the locally tended pocket parks of Elizabeth Street. In their place is offered the likes of Heatherwick’s Vessel, amusing yes, but adding to the vibrant immediacy of the city? Debatable. The result is safer, yes. Cleaner, much. More aromatic, certainly. So ticking many boxes. But in the process is lost much of the vitality, the fascination, the spark and the uniqueness for which Manhattan was famous and that I am pleased to have known and enjoyed. I am told this has not gone but moved across the rivers, but it is a shame nevertheless, because the rivers contained and concentrated the excitement and the drift away to the suburbs is unlikely to maintain the same intensity. One day I shall return and investigate.

For now, if there is a lesson for me in this it is that loosening the grip of strictly zoned civic planning, allowing development and transport to expand more freely and cooperatively, can provide local pockets of enhancement that better reflect the qualities of a slowly nurtured city. But in developing the urban realm that supports these, the requirement is for a facilitator of a more tolerant urban character and variety, rather than simply an exercise in beautification, increased leisure and gentrified property values. The need is to support further change and growth, not to cement a singular image of design prowess. The ambition should be to encourage chance engagement, the unexpected and the unpredictable, to provide opportunity to all of us, users, neighbours and owners alike.

 

 

the Metro Net

A chance article about a recent U-Bahn in Leipzig tempted me to investigate.

In truth I was invited to an urban regeneration event by an acquaintance and took the opportunity to look into this uncube piece.  For it speaks rather dismissively of a U-Bahn project, not from the point of view of its purpose, which is to make a rail connection across the city (think mini-Crossrail) but from an architectural desire that had not, it seems, been satisfied.  This is always a matter of interest to me, for I believe the architectural expression and urban impact of our stations is important, being comparatively cheap to provide, with missed opportunities oftentimes the result of short-sighted value engineering decisions, and equally oftentimes being not difficult to retrofit when the error is recognised.

The engineering decision at Leipzig is to construct box stations; deep, seemingly unpropped excavations that have scarcely any accommodation within them to interrupt the space. Creating boxes in historic and much-loved city centres such as that of Leipzig inevitably means that space has to be found in the urban fabric that removes as little of that fabric as possible, and inevitably therefore the station is rarely at the heart of the urban action.  However in Leipzig the centrality of these stations is really rather impressive. There are four underground stations, one within the arched trainshed of the mainline station, one in the central market square, one on the southern edge of the centre, and one further south, at the site of the original terminus station to which the tunnels from the north now connect.

Each station has a different ambience and, while the article considers the architectural styling to be either restrained or falsely emblematic of a particular historic incident, to me they are all simply resolved and really rather good.  Clearly there is experimentation here, architectural and artistic in equal measure, some more successful than others only due to maintainability and rampant pigeons but uplifting spaces nevertheless.

The thrust of the article is in the loss of the opportunity to create more Architecture (‘pizzazz’), that the stations are underplayed and not an adequate representation of the €1bn invested. I’m in two minds. First, it is certainly true that the surface structures are less impressive than things below ground.  But with station boxes you expect icebergs and the surface structures really don’t need to be grander if form is to approximate to function. However, even small entrances can have flair, and if you are going to dig a big hole in the ground the reinstatement of the site with much the same monotony as before seems a little parsimonious. At the southern two stations in particular, where the entrances don’t rather cleverly employ existing heritage environments, the white box and surface replication approach could have instead offered, and could still offer, a much-improved urban statement and an enhanced public realm.  A competition was held for the space around one of these stations, but it focused on celebratory monumentalism (which is easy to argue against) rather than an enhanced environment (which isn’t) and progress seems to have fallen foul of political machinations.

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While I was mulling all this over with Andreas Rohrbach, a sculptor who had also joined the event, he mentioned Martin Kippenberger, someone who’s work, I am slightly apologetic to say, I had not known. The reference was Martin’s ‘Metro Net’ project, and by chance one of his pieces lay in a park just on the edge of Leipzig.

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The white box simplicity of course struck a chord, as did the project premise that the Metro system is a metaphor for the global interconnectivity of people and cultures.  I liked the idea that such a big concept could be captured in such a simplicity of form, and promptly concluded that uncube’s ‘Architecture-for-architecture’s-sake’ was just too close to ‘celebratory monumentalism’, and neither were the correct premise for stations or the urban realm.

 

earlier contractor involvement

We are of course all familiar with Early Contractor Involvement in all its acronymic forms, but is it as good as it could be?

Mostly thanks to my colleague and expert on everything, Daniel Moylan, I have been traveling the autobahns and byways of southern Germany, immersed in the baroque of Balthasar Neumann and his colleagues.

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Apart from my sojourn to the stations of Moscow you might think this departure into the absurdly frivolous is not my core interest, it having little apparent place in the minimum maintenance focused design principles that permeate the transport industry. Of course, that’s no reason not to admire the quality of the concepts and craftsmanship with their geometric and structural acrobatics that underlies baroque theatricality. The journey, through Munich, Zwiefalten and Bruchsal, offers surprises and inspires admiration at every turn and is highly recommended.

I came to discuss my trip with Evelien van Veen, and she in turn told of the great English landscapes journey she had recently taken through the north of England.

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As we spoke we noted the similarity of these bouts of creativity, of how Balthasar and Capability were near-contemporaries, and how they had both achieved so much in the comparatively short periods of their professional lives. And not just ‘so much’ in terms of quantity, but in the achievement of wholly fundamental changes in our natural and spiritual appreciation and expression.  The little time they must have had for each great project, when compared to the time required to crystallise such original thought, must have meant that somehow they had imbued in those that constructed these projects not only their design aspirations, but also an understanding of an essentially different world view.  It makes our present attempts at process-driven one-team ECI appear superficial in the extreme.

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Of course without the benefits of privilege and residual feudalism, this level of project communication, with its depth of understanding and collective passion, now takes a willingness on all sides to engage and be at one with the concepts and creativity of all participants in the show. However innovative ECI  still purports to be, this is still something I have so far struggled to see and would very much wish to experience.

the purpose of infrastructure

There is no doubt that I enjoy being in public transport design, where the purpose of the infrastructure created is connection, bringing enhanced communication, increased opportunities for employment and leisure, reduced environmental impacts, equality of movement and context, and social benefit directly recycled from our taxes.

And so I thought it would be interesting to place this in perspective by visiting the complete opposite, by taking a look at the US/Mexico border for myself.

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Whether I learnt anything of benefit to my design canons is difficult to say, but as I dwelt on the subject of public infrastructure I couldn’t help likening this ongoing debate to the one which is presently going on closer to home.

This is an infrastructure:

  • that introduces segregation while risking damage to both the environment and the economy, on the basis that it may or may not prevent things people don’t want arriving in their land.
  • which extracts an inordinate cost from the public purse, for the process let alone the structures required to enable it, and that is seemingly without the balance of clear fiscal benefits.
  • that has been generated by a divisive play for power amongst and by those we have chosen to govern on our behalf, who have employed largely unjustified claims of benefits and dis-benefits, appealing to hearts and pockets over minds and mores.
  • where the perceptible rewards from increased self-governance are hard to identify, while the additional layer of border checks and the mistrust inevitably engendered are all too obvious results.
  • that is introduced by a population that is itself divided; where those whose livelihood it will most dis-benefit are by and large the stronger supporters.
  • that ignores the distribution of work between rich and poor, serviced and servicing which, while hard to justify in the bigger picture, nevertheless provides a livelihood for many on both sides that will be difficult to substitute.

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Of course what this reinforces is not what strategy to employ with Europe – for who knows where that’s going – but rather that :

  • justified sustainability
  • a robust business case
  • positive political will
  • broad compliance
  • solid stakeholder support
  • economic inclusiveness

are all aspects for consideration in the early development of our transport systems, and that the Purpose of Infrastructure can be as complex as the Engineering, and equally if not more important if it is to truly reward its users.

footbridges

The interesting thing about a good footbridge is its propensity to cross challenging places with minimum effort.

Luxembourg likes to allow its designers to test their mettle on elements of infrastructure. Not for them the standard components to be stamped out of a production mould and applied to all places regardless of context in the name of branding and some questionable concept of cost saving through repetition. My earlier visit saw Luxembourg successfully challenging the principle of minimum interchange and, having briefly enjoyed one such, on this occasion and in anticipation of a new project, I returned to look at three very different footbridges in three very different settings.

In looking at bridges a few things come to mind.  Bridges are there to overcome obstacles, and so building them is not going to be easy and must surely inform the design. With footbridges the span is carrying little more weight than itself and as such, can be as elegant as considerately deployed materials will allow. In most cases only the supports have any chance of incurring unwelcome forces, be they occasional floods or derailed vehicles, and the necessary resistance could easily be of a scale that is out of balance with the span. To make both span and supports combine with visual comfort, in harmony with their surroundings and providing an experience to be enjoyed, while still being able to be constructed in often unusual conditions, is the art and the function of the bridge team.

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The clever thing about the Pont Adolphe cycle bridge in Luxembourg city is surely its location.  With the deck of the bridge now full of new tram lines, the cyclist, and the more interested pedestrian, are now offered a weather protected trip through the bowels of this historic bridge. The single beam, sculpted to lighten its appearance from the Pétrusse valley below, is suspended from the underside of the deck and reached by ramps and stairs inserted in the urban and parkland landscapes and through the buttresses. These cavernous approaches avoid the subway feel, and the journey across the valley is peppered with magnificent views of the old city.  At night the new bridge returns the favour to the old stone structure, gently lighting the arches from within.  While it would appear to require an extraordinary feat of lifting to insert the beam, it seems that instead it was lowered through the deck during a major renovation of the original stone bridge. The result is an elegance that while uniquely modern, nicely complements the structurally adventurous span of the original.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt Esch-sur-Alzette the construction and visual difficulties are of a very different nature, with limited ground from which to hoist a deck and a very complex railway environment in which a simple bridge would struggle to be appreciated. Here the designers have considered the potential of an open monocoque structure, to maximise the spans and add a level of visual interest by accentuating the contrast with the context.  This is a bridge that has won awards for its design and from a purely visual perspective it’s not difficult to see why. But closer inspection is a little disappointing, as the structure is not monocoque but a clad rigid steel frame, and the goal of external visual interest has come at the expense of the experience within.

f957110b-73d9-4656-9904-86423d80c9e2Grenzbrucke at Bivels, at the border of Luxembourg and Germany, is surely at the other end of the scale, a bridge so simple and so clear that it is impossible to fault without resorting to pedantry. The setting needs no embellishment, the steep banks of the Our valley so complete that any attempt at clever human intervention would be immediately redundant. Rightly the designers have left well alone, and provided a bridge so pure, so devoid of unnecessary detail, so subtle in colour and simple of form that it quiets the heart to see and to use. I like to imagine that it was floated up the river, the steel legs sunk slowly into the river bed, the span rotated and hoisted on barges to rest gently on the old piers that were found on the river bank, arriving and remaining without fuss.  But I have no idea.

 

So, three very different bridges with three very different ways of addressing the context, the span, the installation and the experience, and so answer the comparatively simple question of getting from A to B.  For me, the most successful results are where the designer, the engineer and the contractor are evidently working in balance, answering all the nuances of the A to B question, and coming up with answers that truly respond to the context, the complexity and the ambition, together.

HS2 roofs

I have walked on a lot of roofs lately, and it seems to me to be a fine addition to the enjoyment of a building and the city in which it sits.

Most recently in Lisbon. With all the publicity for Amanda Levete’s MAAT gallery I had failed to appreciate that Amanda’s wave of a building was in fact a rumpled extension of the somewhat 2-dimensional landscaping that edges this part of the Tagus. Promenading along the promenade you can take the straight and level route or, with the expenditure of a little more energy, enjoy the views and the selfie opportunities afforded by the roof.

This is not of course new. In Oslo, it’s been 10 years since Snøhetta first allowed us to roam across their iceberg of an opera house, adding to this slowly emerging quarter of the city new areas for biding one’s time, angled towards the low sunshine and with views of the ferries as they come and go.

Admittedly neither roof is awash with physical or spatial components to encourage a wider range of leisure activities, but the potential is evident.

Of course, these are buildings that house activities for which natural light is not a benefit, and so a designer might readily consider and welcome the opportunity afforded by the roof as one way of ameliorating the urban impact of an otherwise largely blind edifice.

In the transport world there is no such restriction, so it is a little disappointing that while in Japan you can wander across Foreign Office Architect’s precisely laid shipboard and grassland roof of the 2002 Yokohama Ferry Terminal, the absence of openings does make for a rather stowage-class feeling below, where the penetration of more natural light would be quite possible and a distinct advantage to the experience of travel.

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And so in Hong Kong a few weeks ago, I was pleased to experience the recently opened West Kowloon station, with its even more dramatic wave offering a range of clambering and picnicking opportunities, rewarded – at least until they build the cultural centres to the south – with wide ranging views across the harbour.  And despite the ability to walk and rest upon its roof along many different paths, when inside there remains a flood of natural light to bathe the waiting travellers amongst the chaotic-cathedral architecture. Think what you like about the building design and the political implications of mainland China arriving with a splash in the old Crown colony, this combination of internal/external public function and ambience is worthy of serious consideration.

And then I return to the UK and the published images of the new HS2 station roofs.

Don’t get me wrong, the great spans of Brunel, Barlow and their kin are wonderful, some of my favourite spaces, temples to our capabilities and gateways to our cities. But I do wonder whether we as UK transport promoters and designers are stuck with this 19th Century vision of a train shed as an exhibition of engineering prowess alone.  I wonder why, at a time when infrastructure and the urban facility of the city are so closely entwined in our conversation, we don’t make more of these acres of new roof to create elevated and accessible urban spaces that bring new pleasures and perspectives to our cities.