Art for art’s sake or money for God’s sake

A recent editorial in Housing Association magazine questioning the need for architects in the field of housing design prompted us to reply. Here’s our response, printed in October’s issue of the magazine. (PDF copy)

In challenging your view of architects happily colouring drawings devoid of practical nous, I do not wish to fall into the mire of more professional stereotyping by proposing that architects led the charge in technology driven, construction innovations. But I do wish to correct the impression that we sat around waiting for others to give a lead.
Architects have demonstrated a capacity to put down their coloured pencils (not for good I hope), to embrace technology and new materials in progressive housing. Individual architect designed houses are little more than a paragraph in the post-war history of ‘housing’ (as opposed to ‘houses’) however the architects and the technologies which they experimented with are a different story.

As an engineer you will be familiar with the constructional items selected below, but I detect less familiar with the role of architects (in brackets) who, in a fusion of creativity and practicality, made significant contributions to their development in our industry. Slip-form shuttering (Schindler/Wright), tilt slab walls (Gill/Schindler), short bore pile/beam (Krisel/ Neutra), lightweight post & beam (Wexler, Segal, Koenig, Soriano, Segal), metal windows (Tait, Rohe), Gunite (FLW/Schindler & Neutra), curtain walling (Ellis, Prouve, Wright), plywood (Wells Coates, Straub, Soriano), bent plywood (Wells Coates, Breuer, Ain), concrete (Calatrava /Candela, Lautner)…and so on.

Setting aside the two modern architects you quote, neither renowned for their housing output, you share a widely held public preference for older styles over later modernism. However, inferring that the production of Arts & Crafts houses, Garden Cities and model neighbourhoods like Bournville, Harborne Estates and Port Sunlight somehow happened without architects is an injustice to many, including Lutyens, Baillie-Scott, Bidlake, Voysey, Parker & Unwin, Harvey, Bedford-Tylor, Martin and the thirty or so different architects working for the Lever Brothers (one at least responsible for the design of the Blackpool Tower). British housing of this period was admired the world over but the impact of World War 1, political instability and the reduction in European economic capacity moved the centre of gravity for the development of technically innovative, low cost housing to the USA, for a time.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s earlier prairie and later Usonian houses attracted many architects to leave Europe, work in his studio and latterly on the West Coast, developing new house planning ideas, constructional techniques, M+E developments, new materials, fixtures and fittings. Decades later open plan living, the family kitchen, sliding walls, composite worktops, integrated kitchens, built in closets, indirect lighting, polished concrete, multi-fold glass screens, the en-suite bathroom, dado trunking, the carport, underfloor heating and the patio entered the lexicon of the UK homeowner. Add to this list the automatic washing machine (1908), domestic refrigeration (1915) and we pretty much define contemporary living excluding home entertainment technology.

It is the creative tension between historicism and modernism, not the choice between one or the other which matters – familiarity, reassurance and security on one side; novelty, risk and experimentation on the other. You may want a cosy cottage but not a thatched hatchback and half-timbered wide screen TV.

Finally, the role of today’s architect working in housing is another discussion, but is, in summary, to create housing solutions on increasingly difficult sites, in numbers dictated by market forces, to a client’s specification, in a style approved by the client and wider public, laid out to mandatory quality standards, detailed to meet Building Regulations, constructed to minimise energy and carbon costs in materials doing little or no harm to the planet while all the time hoping the result will improve the quality of life of its users.
It is a wonder that we have time to colour up any drawings.

Mike Menzies

The single-storey story

From its origins in the Indian sub-continent through the British Raj to post war coastal development and urban fringe sprawl, the bungalow has a contradictory, almost schizophrenic, existence in Britain. On the one hand, reviled in the UK press as early as the twenties as ‘bungaloid’ sprawl but on the other hand, consistently voted as the public’s’ most aspirational housetype, in one survey after another. Bungalows built in the late Victorian / Edwardian period were not restricted to coastal resorts and ribbon development, many were an integral part of the utopian neighbourhoods of social reformers aiming to improve the living conditions of the urban working class.

More recently single storey homes have been relegated to holiday lodges sited within countryside parks or to the fading memories of the good old post-war prefab, an imported MMC product which survived its design life by a factor of four, and also outlived its debt redemption by decades. Wouldn’t that be a novelty in social housing.
Ageing home occupiers, reluctant to move, fearful about service costs, anxious about having enough room for a lifetime of stuff, unsure about pets and cranking up the volume on their vinyl collections, beware. As things stand, you cannot have what you want and must get used to it and learn to love the alternatives, supposedly higher density schemes with equally high service costs marketed in numerous cosy metaphors for village life in your later years.

Today single storey housing appears to have little to offer in the current housing crisis, being seen as low density, land grabbing, unstylish and comparatively expensive.
However, bungalows can readily be developed at around 40 – 50 plots/hectare, a figure common in suburban housing with front gardens providing parking and an external front to back access with a rear garden governed by the 70ft privacy spacing rule (although it started life as a sunlight/ health rule of thumb) so beloved of planning officers. With the right range of rectangular and patio floorplates, single storey housing developed in courtyard, mews style and stepped formats can be more efficient on many sites, where you can increase numbers over a layout of standard two storey housetypes.

Turning to the construction cost issue the common response is that the ratio of foundation length combined with roof/external wall to enclosed area is far from the cuboid ideal, (but no flat roof please). However single storey construction releases the designer from the Lifetime Homes strictures of upper floor accessibility, supporting an upper floor, two layer services distribution and conventional footings. It can also speed up the delivery of homes with, pre-fabrication, reduced height working, lower scaffolding/ lifting equipment costs, single panel lift and reduced preliminaries.

It has for many of these reasons been a favourite with the self-build / custom home markets, common in early housing pre-fabrication case studies and the dominant type in the post war expansion of the Commonwealth and the American West Coast.

West coast trip 228

The Californian bungalow, as it became known, reached its most innovative in the mid-century modernist, prefabricated, steel/timber post & beam, pile founded, low pitch/butterfly roofed, polished concrete 100sm floorplates, built in the thousands by developers like Eichler, the Alexander family & Meiselman brothers working in San Francisco, LA and Palm Springs. These low cost, middle income tract homes featured ,many of the domestic features taken for granted today: open plan living space, central heating/cooling, island kitchens, built in kitchen units, floor to ceiling glass, decorative blockwork, sliding external and internal doors, glazed atria and carports.

As we confront the ageing population crisis, can we not shed our net curtain/ paper doilies and cream tea preconceptions about bungalows and rediscover single storey houses which are chic, cool and suited to the downsizing ‘Woodstock/Isle of Wight’ generation.

West coast trip 265

West coast trip 224

West coast trip 252

West coast trip 294

West coast trip 271

existenzminimum

ExistenzminimumMike considers the reality of space standard minimums and examples of UK housing:

Recent debate about the value of delivering smaller houses, with or without government subsidy, reignites the professions enduring interest in existenzminimum, the minimum habitable area in support of subsistence life. Internationally much debated within CIAM & Demos throughout the early to mid-twentieth century and often described as the house for the proletariat. The resultant decades of dialogue, research and the construction of numerous prototypical pods, insights from physiology, psychology, sociology, biology, ergonomics and engineering were garnered in support of the search for the answer.

So what is the minimum area necessary to support contemporary living: a bedspace, a bedspace + clothes rail, a bed/clothes + sitting space, bed/sitting space + cooking corner + toilet, all of the above + space saver shower? Not convinced or still undecided then…

Let’s sprinkle each with a modest social life, a (very) compact hobby or two (no pets please) and occasionally languish in a bath and you have got yourself beyond the touring caravan, converted garage, yuppy yurt, glamping trailer tent, bijou box, chic shed or my(i)pad.

The problem with existenzminimum is that most of us don’t really relish subsistence living, let alone being described as a proletarian. We surely don’t aspire to it, certainly not on a market rent or 25 year repayment mortgage. It is by its very nature a transient state which you wish to move beyond, as quickly as the property market and income will allow.

While pondering the question we quite naturally expect to put our feet up, reach into the fridge for a chilled beer/wine and prepare (maybe even cook) and consume a basic meal for one/two. From the confines of our living pod a network of space consuming relationships develop, with the outside world, not surprisingly since we have so little of the inside world to deal with. We use personal transport to work/leisure, we eat drink outdoors, we deal with laundry, we visit long suffering friends (if only for a bath and to use their dryer), we grow stuff, we keep pets, we order takeaways, order stuff (small stuff) from Amazon sometimes to display trophies suggesting we ‘have arrived’ and yet yearn for that combination of personal solitude and psychological centredness summed up in ‘my space- keep out’.

So where does this get us? Certainly beyond that rash of urban hutches which regularly appear on the UK market in a blaze of incentives for first time buyers craving the new urban lifestyle. On reflection anything heading much below 50 sq m is a strait jacket where living goes out the window (if you have one) and existenzminimum arrives. If you are still undecided have a look at the diagram which overlays to scale a number of living enclosures, there may be space for us all here.

Niemeyer living on

Research and Development is tough. Thankfully we’re fully committed to continual professional development here at Axis Design and even go so far as undertaking long distance travel to learn more about the profession we love. For example, here’s some thoughts from Axis director Mike Menzies following a recent trip to Brazil:

Oscar Niemeyer

“Back in the early fifties when Oscar Niemeyer and his friend and collaborator, Roberto Burle Marx set out the plan for the Ibirapuera Park, roller blading and skateboarding were yet to become part of the urban street culture. However the shade and cool breezes offered by the serpentine concrete covered walkways linking many of Niemeyer’s principle buildings in the Park has been appropriated by a new generation of young Paulistas, keen to demonstrate their skills weaving between the pilotis, café tables and groups of tourists and visitors. As a lifelong communist, Niemeyer would have no doubt raised a wry smile at this counter-cultural invasion of the world of art and culture celebrated within the nearby museum and exhibition spaces.

Oscar Niemeyer

Two of which, the Pavilion of Brazilian Culture and its nearby twin, Museum of Afro Brazilian Art have undergone recent extensive renovation works. The interior spaces framed by their cantilevered floors, raking pillar supports, brise soleil and concrete louvred facades are an uncanny precursor to much later open-plan, loose-fit, flexible exhibition spaces.

The interplay of the structural grid of floor bays and supports with the serpentine, ramped access routes is a powerful and unfolding experience as you walk between the floors. His lifelong affair with curvilinear forms, most recently seen in La Lingua, his newest auditorium building in the Park, came to its conclusion with his death last December. However his urban cool lives on, not least in the uncanny parallels of a sinuously, executed grind and his meandering plan for Ibirapuera Park.”

Oscar Niemeyer

British Homes Awards – Gran Designs

The quality of supported housing for the 55+ market in the UK is a topic we’ve been discussing here at Axis Design a lot over the last few years. This year’s brief for the British Homes Awards gave us the opportunity to explore some of our ideas and show how we believe the industry could turn to existing housing solutions from the holiday home sector combined with improved landscape and infrastructure to meet the aspirations of retiring baby boomers.

Here’s our response to the Lifetime Homes challenge set by the British Homes Awards 2009 (click images for full size):

Eco Lodge Parks 

Asset rich but cash poor; dire pension and savings forecast; inheritance tax worries; probably working until our seventies. The kids could help but they are mortgaged to the hilt and need help with childcare and top up fees.

Today’s reality for the youth of the 60’s, nurtured on the NHS, fashioned on the Mini, honed by world travel, inspired by JFK, rock & roll heavy….   their 21st century living is essentially about affordability and equity release creating third age choices and financial security.

What if we could sell up the family home, spend one third of the proceeds on a third age home, then invest the rest, buy a villa in Goa, or help the family?

In eco-Lodge Parks you can….. and even generate letting income over the next 20 years.

British Homes award entry

British Homes Awards entry

Thanks to Jez Sanders from Red Landscape for collaborating with us on this work. Although we didn’t make the shortlist we’re still very pleased with the concept and hope to get the opportunity to develop it in the future.

(see the full entry for further text)

Continue reading “British Homes Awards – Gran Designs”

Euroclad competition

Here’s our entry to the Euroclad drawing competition, which asked entrants to ‘sketch a fresh look for Brighton’s West Pier’.


Chambers for a Brighton Memory Palace

Brighton-Memory-Palace

Concept: “The first pier at Brighton was known as The Chain Pier, and there was a silhouettist working on it throughout most of it’s history. The slhouettists moved to the West Pier when it opened in 1866, and continued more or less continuously until shortly before it’s closure in the 1970’s.”1

The profile of a sea front pier is a well understood, easily recognisable form that stirs recollections. The history of the silhouette cutters on West Pier is captured within the full scale profile and becomes a surface to incite and then receive the memories of the people of Brighton.

Repeated, rotated and woven together to form a field of chambers housing exhibitions, events and installations; the grid becomes a set of co-ordinates that control the curating of time and topics.

Construction: The spaces are created by intersecting, perforated metal clad walls with an opening in each side connecting to the adjacent chamber. Exposed spaces drain towards the edges and covered areas shed rainwater into the cavity between the walls. Colour controlled lighting in the cavity seeps through the perforations and assists themed curation of exhibitions by directing visitors across the grid. Lightweight tent structures stretch over the volumes that trace a wandering path across the grid providing alternative environments for different events/objects.

Curate: The grid of silhouettes conveys the passing of time in one direction and cultural topic in the other. The profiles heading away from the beach out onto the sea carry the topic through the intersecting date lines parallel with the shore. We begin at the shore in 18652 and travel towards the horizon to the present day, crossing decades as we move from chamber to chamber. As time passes the structure continues to grow into the sea and new topics are added along the beach. Non-linear journeys through history are suggested within the volumes traced across the grid by the silhouettes of the original pier buildings.

The co-ordinates provide public meeting places with a nostalgic subtext.

“Should we meet at 1964/Mods or 1975/Pier ?”


With apologies to Charles Moore and Donlyn Lyndon for the Chambers for a Memory Palace rip off. The drawing is also available as a PDF.

notes:
1. from ‘The Silhouette Tradition of Brighton Pier’ by Edo Barn.
2. the year the West Pier was constructed

Making Urban Places

The partners here at Axis Design have a long history of teaching (working here is always an education!) and at the office we have copies of lecture notes and books that are all worthy of re-publishing via the web.

Under a new category simply entitled ‘notes’ we will be posting urban design lecture notes to share with visitors. These are made available under a Creative Commons license.

For the first installment there are three PDF files on offer: 1, 2 and 3.

Continue reading “Making Urban Places”

Diagrams

Part of the goal of Open Practice day this Friday is to talk about how architects work. One of the projects available for viewing on Friday will be some recent design work for a single domestic residence on a challenging suburban site.

The challenges of difficult access, overlooking from nearby houses and substantial level changes were developed into opportunities through a series of sketches and diagrams. The diagram is an important device in architecture and the hand drawn sketch continues (in an industry ruled mostly by computer aided design) to be the best way to explore them.

Come and visit on Friday and we can talk about the way the design developed…

sk1sk3

sk7_v2lay_02

cutaway