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.



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.


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.


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


transport for the responsible

While the number of transport designers with an enthusiasm and capability are less well represented in London now that TMA has packed its bags, it’s time to see how we can work with our neighbours.

One such made contact a short while ago with some intriguing thoughts and interesting pictures, so its off to the Netherlands to see what Group A are up to, how they get away with it, and whether opportunities exist to broaden all of our design horizons.


Maarten and Maarten were found in the wood engraved halls of the 1e klas restaurant on platform 1, Amsterdam Central. Group A are collaborating in China with a long term colleague Evelein van Veen and collaboration, association, and just plain conversation seem to be the order of the day at the 1e klas restaurant.

Trisha teams up with Maartin and I team up with Maartin and Evelien herds us all into the underground and off we go, seven upgraded stations to explore and question, to enjoy the fresh openness created by rerouting systems cables (yes, moving cables), stripping out signage (yes..), taking away maps (yes…), installing new lighting above the tracks (yes…) and generally bringing a design ambition and freshness to those areas that we in the London system can only dream of. And with such elegant and effective results.

In the Netherlands the principles of personal responsibility, social respect and design appreciation are fundamental to decision taking. That is not to say the engineering, operations, and safety are not paramount, it is just that ‘paramount’ is more widely defined and so more effectively integrated.

And the client accepts all this because a) there is a fundamental acceptance and appreciation of the results, and b) the widening of the ambition doesn’t come at a cost. These are low cost, high value upgrades – little more than £6m per station – a budget that includes working around passengers and trains, new lifts, cable moving (yes…), invention, playfulness, and big new holes in the street to gather the natural light and project it into the underworld.

Aligned with social responsibility comes personal responsibility, and the standards that we adhere to in the UK – those that allow for anyone doing something self-destructive at any moment – are simply not present. This doubtless goes some way to explaining the low cost and the freedom to propose beneficial change, and as far as I’m aware no more Dutch people are hurt in the process.


As the public purse in the UK is put under still greater pressure, and as private enterprise is encouraged to become more responsible for the delivery of our infrastructure, it is good to have first hand experience of principles, approaches and ambitions that offer good quality transport for less money. It is also good to know that Group A – fresh, dynamic, responsible and enthusiastically immersed in these things – are willing to freely share their thoughts and experiences in developing the solutions.



the ambience of interchange


One of the long-held principles for encouraging the use of public transport is to minimise the number of interchanges, but in Luxembourg they can afford to do things differently.

When the aim is to ferry people in a more planet-preserving fashion to the mega-offices of the European parliament – that in political eagerness and without a great deal of environmental foresight were placed on top of a plateau on the opposite side of a deep ravine – it seems no money, and no opportunity for interchange, is spared.


In a moment of comparative and unusual spontaneity – taking only six years from conception to operation – a new railway station of substantial proportions has been opened on the precipitous ravine slope of the Pfaaffenthal valley, a pair of funicular tracks have been sliced through what remains of the hill flank, and a new tram has been popped on top to speed the traveler to their glass walled edifice on the wide but aimless Avenue John Fitzgerald Kennedy. And while the opportunities to protect one of the more pleasant parts of the planet appear to have been largely overlooked, the many opportunities for interchange that the journey involves are actually quite enjoyable.

There is a moderately funfair feel to this journey that makes the experience rather entertaining – different ways to move from one place to another, a lot of light and cleanliness on the way, acres of well-crafted simplicity, and elevated views to die for. Yes, there is a lot of interchange in a very short journey but, after a hard day maintaining some of the less exotic aspects of Europe, the experience may come as a welcome distraction of movement and variety.

The question this poses is whether interchange is really such a restriction to use or whether, if the experience, ambience and quality of the journey were more highly prized by those who provide our infrastructure, some of the more complex elements of fully integrated systems could simply be avoided.








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With tma nicely wrapped up there remains a passion for our infrastructure, and with a heightened ambition to expand the definition and the range.

While there is still much to do here in the UK, and there are exciting projects emerging which can not yet be discussed, the prospect of informing future design by reference to a better understanding of social, environmental and truly economic infrastructure from other places is too attractive.

There is functionality and purpose in infrastructure, and there is also delight, in the form, the ingenuity and the absolute appropriateness of the best of it.  This is not to say that it’s all mutually relevant, that would be idealistic, but there is a joy in observing, engaging and learning, and it’s about time time was found to fully appreciate it.