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 substantial about the subject is difficult to say, but as I dwelt on it I couldn’t help likening the ongoing debate to what is 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 these are all aspects for consideration in the 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.

walbrook

In the transport industry it’s not everyday that one of your projects opens to the public and when they do, it’s always nice when they look and work just as you intended.

The new entrance at Bank station in London has, since 2003, been the peripheral L-shaped box in the bottom left hand corner of my Bank station masterplans. Even back then, when the assessment of capacity and risk was embryonic at best, it was evident that even the most extensive of our underground stations was beginning to creak at the seams.   I had already established that the long-feted Pedroute programme had a fatal flaw, and the capacities of our computers were insufficient for the potential of the emerging Legion dynamic modelling programme. So down went 100+ students armed with coloured monopoly cards to establish the flows, and from that we developed ambitious solutions to spread the people more evenly through what was left of the clay in this part of the city.

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Of course the focus was on the heart of the station, where layers of underground tunnels jostle for space between the buildings above, overlapping and consolidating their passengers in ever more complex conduits. And all the while, my little box in the bottom left hand corner sat waiting patiently for attention.

It was not until one Sunday morning that those in power closed the City to test the effectiveness of evacuation from the Waterloo and City line platforms. The results were never published, and the Walbrook project quietly rose to the top of the priority list.

Naturally, the grand gesture of the Northern line solution made the magazines, it was where the big money lay and the swanky new tendering method was devised, tested and enthusiastically promoted to showcase the new value driven approach of the industry.  But all the while, down in the bottom left hand corner, the Walbrook team were quietly getting on with establishing the developer sponsored approach to infrastructure enhancement, agreeing the funding methods and the interfaces, the legal structure and the coordination strategy that would foretell London’s transport development approach in future periods of government austerity and beyond.

This is not to say the process was without its difficulties; this was new ground for the LU and developer teams and their station box, and the challenges were physical and emotional as only those projects whose protagonists truly care about the results can be.

It is now 15 years since those first masterplan sketches and 10 years since the LU/TMA team was established to push ahead with what more latterly became known as the Bloomberg entrance. All of the struggle and strife is now past and the number of participants who rightly feel responsible for and proud of the new entrance has grown exponentially. And after 15 years and in keeping with it’s nurturing, the new Waterloo and City line entrance has opened quietly and effectively, no trumpets, no showmanship, simply getting on with its job of increasing safety and capacity in the system, in a manner that is as engaging in its spatial generosity as it is in its cost effective delivery.

the moscow metro

The Moscow metro is well known in transport design circles, often quoted but I suspect, rarely visited. I for one shared the guilt.

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So in my quest to know all those things that I have often referenced but never closely examined I find myself with a graphically satisfying limitless travel ticket in one hand and a camera in the other, searching out the classically exuberant stations beneath Moscow.

As in Amsterdam I am immediately intrigued by the ease with which this system can be navigated with limited signage, and in a country with a more than usually impervious language. The simple and occasional use of colour and numbers gets me around rather easily, while I am astonished and gratified by all announcements in Russian and English as the stations approach.

Throughout the journey I enjoy the absence of cables and boxes and associated paraphernalia that minimal or well-concealed communications and power systems allow, and I don’t much mind the long interchanges when the consequent ambience is uncluttered, grand and stately.

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I am impressed at the depth of the stations, and at the capability and fortitude of the 126m long seemingly retail spec. escalators; while we in London are most often limited to a quarter of that and with expansive hidden motor rooms.

I appreciate the absence of handrails on the wide stairs, and the ability of the sudden crowds to then move more flexibly within a given space. And there is the intriguing approach to the bottom step of the stately pitched flights, with its discernable-to-all smaller riser – which British Standards refers to as a trip hazard.

What I am rather more ambivalent about is the decoration that I have come to see. It is evidently magnificent in its exuberance, amusing and perplexing in equal measure, but in the end it is what it is and not much more. Unlike the functional detail of the stations I am no wiser or better informed for seeing it in the flesh. Surprisingly it is only found on the grand concourses between the platforms. Elsewhere the stations are stripped to the bone and devoid of adverts – an absence of distraction that suits me fine while I’m on the move – and with entrances that are quite hard to see among the strong city architecture – which I also wouldn’t mind if this metro had a logo as good as that of London Underground.

While I reflected on the breadth of things that actually pleased me about these stations – and that I vow to plagiarize mercilessly – I was reminded of the much-respected Mr Feynman and his discussion with his friend the artist. As transport designers we own the visuals and promote the appearance of our stations, but our fuller satisfaction comes not just from the visible surfaces and forms we create, but also from our involvement in the multi-faceted details and processes that in combination provide the totality of ambience and function.

 

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“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty.

 

First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees.

I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimetre; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colours in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the colour. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

Richard Feynman

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integrated station/development

There is a building that can’t help but catch your eye as you fly in and out of Frankfurt airport, marooned among the autobahns and looking for all the world like a sanitised Walking City.

While Ron Herron, teacher, mentor, friend and erstwhile colleague, had a more esoteric audience for his seminal piece of work, The Squaire has arrived some 50 years later, to teach a thing or two about Over Station Development. First it must be said that The Squaire is a not a perfect example of OSD, and where it is less than successful it provides lessons so that they may be avoided.

1806184Stylistically The Squaire is clean and crisp and emblematic of a certain commercial glamour beloved of the corporate world. Externally it squats formidably, exhibiting a strength and resilience aspired to by those companies that choose to inhabit these buildings. It squats over the railway; the fast trains to Hamburg and Berlin and Munich that speed from its underbelly placing it at the hub of German commerce. Filled with good intentions it is multi-use, with offices, hotels, shops and numerous restaurants clustered within. At its core is the original station roof, a captured glassy carapace that contains and separates the more grungy components of a station concourse from the corporate demeanour of the rest.

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Yet as a ‘New Work City’ – their words not mine – the building is hollow, thin walled and uninviting and, on a Friday lunchtime in late September, largely devoid of life. Walking into and through this microcosm city offers little in the way of surprise and delight, it has space with little purpose, no way up or out, no through route to anywhere that isn’t an office or an exclusive hotel, little variety of space and no development of ambience. It is what it is, the biggest office block in Germany, with some platforms underneath.

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The design of The Squaire evidently followed that of the station, which had been constructed with little ambition for a location next to one of Europe’s primary air hubs. The opportunities to bring down loads are limited, making the building spans formidable and the structures required to hang any internal commercial space gymnastic. The consequent balance of narrow office space and capacious empty concourses is socially and financially uncomfortable and, with public access limited to that of the original station, the ends of this 660m building are isolated and empty. Wikipedia advises that the construction of The Squaire was economically challenging, with a stop/start programme and ultimately 50% over budget for a building that became difficult to let.

The best of OSDs stem from considered planning and integration of complementary uses that are devised to enable an ebb and flow of people through and within, where the common location of functions can be planned to their mutual benefit and where the structures and services are derived for economy, flexibility and sustainability. Like any good city squa(i)re, the ideal is a destination in which to dwell, on route to somewhere else, at the crossroads of social engagement; a framework upon which public transport and private enterprise can benefit equally and each other.

There is no doubt that the Squaire aspires to most of this – you only have to read the website – but the result appears to be a consequence of the fact that those who build our railway infrastructure and those that build our urban infrastructure are rarely aligned in process, ambition or economic cycle. Effective OSD is complex in timing, funding and risk sharing and requires a closely coordinated response. The Squaire shows what can result if the distinction is maintained.

crossrail sectionBy way of comparison and a bit of trumpet blowing – Crossrail Canary Wharf, with its similar form, purpose and isolation (in water rather than autobahns). Designed as a stepping-stone from the commerce in the south to the residential areas in the north, as a station, development and public space of equal importance, top-down and bottom-up, with many points of access, numerous routes from transport to garden through leisure and commerce, and already a public and commercial success.  A project taken on by the Canary Wharf Group, who saw the benefits, took the risk, and delivered it efficiently, economically and effectively, and all at once.

 

It is of course quite possible that the moniker ‘Over Station Development’ is imperfect, with its presumption of what comes first. I therefore offer you instead ISDIntegrated Station/Development – along the lines of the Canary Wharf success. I propose that ISD should be the next acronymic bandwagon on which we all jump, one on which each part has an equal status and in which we can all enjoy debating a new approach to OSD, TOD, or whatever – at least until someone builds Ron’s Walking City and puts us all out of a job.

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the ger of Galaa and Oyunaa

From time to time over the past few years there have arisen calls-for-ideas that will solve a housing shortage in parts of the world quite remote from those of us lucky enough not to really understand the need.

On occasions the calls have gone out when some climatic turbulence decimates swathes of a remote community, or otherwise when some previously unreported inhuman condition has spurred our collective guilt into action.

And always, and particularly among our architectural schools* and the practices with a true social conscience, the response is sincere and resolute competition to design a readily deliverable quick fix, with a palette of lightweight materials that are deemed pertinent for short-term use in unknown climates, and a structure that requires little skill to create and even fewer tools.

Much earnest head scratching can be seen in the studios of the participants. There is a world to be saved from the climatic and economic ravages that our western lifestyle seeks to make worse, and the collective minds of well-trained architects and engineers are indisputably the crucible in which results will ferment and come forth.

 

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So, far away from all that solemnity, it is a joy to be entertained by Galaa and Oyunaa’s family in Mongolia who, along with half a million not very near neighbours, come together four times a year to re-construct just such a device with good cheer and the nimble dexterity of a close knit group. And on this occasion, because they enjoy it and are proud, they build it up and take it down just for me.

300818930081883008184And this is no highfalutin architectural response. This is the Ger, a home that has been refined in detail and ritual over many millennia; made of materials that come to hand organically and that can be unrolled and tied together; that encompasses a reverential space with strict customs of circulation and heart/hearth; that stays cool in the +30deg summers and warm in the -40deg winters; that can be readily transported; that employs the principles of natural air-circulation and -insulation; that is waterproofed by the effect of heat on felt and made taught against the wind by a single rope; that while circular, always faces the same way, door towards the midday sun; that is kitchen, living room, bedroom in a single, womb-like space. It is the focus of fine singing, dexterous games, flowing mares milk vodka and common purpose.

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This is no temporary measure, no short term fix, this is the consequence and harbour of a fervently defended nomadic lifestyle, where house and livestock and clothing are made of the same things, each moving from place to place to allow the land to refresh, the climatic response to be finessed and its benefits to be harnessed year on year. This is environmental, social and economic sustainability at its most pure.

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*and, if doing these things is of interest, look no further than Paraguay….

http://www.studiocivitare.com.br/emergency-housing-paraguay-student-architecture-competition/