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Tuesday22 July 2014

The Wickhamist blog

A not so Passive Blog

Posted by: Julyan Wickham, Thu, 19 Dec 2013

I wrote recently to the Editor of the Guardian about their perception of passive energy use and the motives of those who sell gas, electricity and oil.

I invite you to read my letter (below) as I did not get a reply, which may have been fair enough except a week later this newspaper published a report, by Laura Paddison, on a conference called Energy pricing: what is the future of the UK energy mix? between a bunch of experts.

Experts, excluding architects and engineers, who still seem to think it was OK to have privatised the energy supply industry. An industry that can only be described as a ‘group’ monopoly that clearly cannot be controlled or even influenced by any government or regulator when each part of the group offers exactly the same product at slightly varying prices.

Where on earth do these people come from? Are they not a form of legalised thief and did this move by a Tory elite not promote criminal levels of squander, toxic waste and mindless political veracity at the expense of the common good in a world that can ill afford accomplishments of this kind.

Why, we must ask, does the Guardian use words like ‘green levies’, ‘climate change’, ‘greenhouse gasses’  and ‘carbon emissions’ when ‘rip off’, ‘smog’ and ‘pollution’ are more to the point and would better send the right message to the consumer if that is really what they intend.

The fact is these high energy costs and environmental damage problems should actually be about reducing the excessive use and waste of resources with the lowering of carbon emissions and pollution, quite obviously, following on from the solution. Read this letter and see if you can disagree or live with your guilt:

Dear Mr. Rusbridger, (Editor Guardian)               

The principle of passive energy use. 

Another good reason to bring energy supply back into public ownership.

I read your news piece on Oldham tenants’ glowing report on their Passivhaus homes and while I am sure that some will be pleased to hear that just a few are, at last, heeding the advise and evidence that energy consumption can be significantly reduced to a fraction of what it is now by using ‘heat reclaim’ methods of building and construction in climates like ours, it is not news as many British architects and engineers, who have been advocating this for many decades, will tell you.

John Vidal’s article (Guardian 1st November 2013 - Actively cutting energy bills in Oldham – welcome to the ‘Passivhauses’) is good in that it properly sets out the way in which all buildings, not only houses, can be constructed to save on energy resources and use.

What is more where he clearly states the technical reasons why ‘heat reclaim’ can work is, for now, the best answer we have and has long been obvious to anyone who was prepared to listen and understand the compelling basis for using so-called ‘passive’ heating systems. 

Those in the construction professions have seen successive UK governments ignore the advise and evidence they have been given over some 40 years now and since the moment when energy supply was privatised any attempt to drastically reduce energy consumption has, quite obviously, not been of any commercial interest to those who sell us gas, electricity and oil.

The fact is all buildings can be made vastly and easily more energy efficient, this including much of the existing housing and other building stock, with savings in fuel consumption and the cost to consumers reduced to 5-10% of what we are currently being compelled to pay. 

The trouble is the lack of any will, by successive governments, to properly regulate costs or effectively change building construction regulation and law which at this time allows for only the very lowest of standards of construction; standards that directly cause the high level of energy consumption we see across the board.

I see the Guardian has already received some 200 comments thus far and think it is time you started a full and proper campaign of education and regular reporting on this subject, connecting it to the massive waste our government and local authorities continue to condone on a daily basis. I am afraid a one off article, while good, is not nearly enough to make the compelling point to your readers and all who now have to pay very high heating and energy bills that are unnecessary and ecologically wasteful.

Don’t let anyone confuse this very important matter with global warming and the other ecological issues we are faced with. We are talking here about saving in the UK alone some £50 Billion per annum if not more and when doing so reducing the so-called carbon emissions this planet so desperately needs to see.

Yours sincerely, Julyan Wickham.

 I wonder if Laura Paddison actually knows John Vidal? My take is Vidal is writing good stuff but needs a Brian Cox platform on TV and more friends in the media.

I just do not understand why it is taking so long for the public to ‘get it’:

- The Monopolies Commission was created to deal with conflicts of interest.

- In a capitalist democracy only fools give away their rights to self-interest.

We have to take energy and water supply back into public ownership and make the public want to spend and waste less.

Rykwert is a well-deserved gold medallist

Posted by: Julyan Wickham, Fri, 18 Oct 2013

Joseph Rykwert is now a RIBA gold medalist. This is exactly as it should be; he is one of the greats for architecture and has always been very wise on modern architecture. This is a good day for the ‘unfinished project of modernism’.

Rykwert’s ideas, writings and work have played a significant part in the thinking of architects and urbanists from the 1960s onwards, putting the task of designers into its historical as well as the actual context we now find ourselves in, allowing us to understand that the creation and renewal of our built environment is much more than a response to a mundane need for accommodation.

Joseph Rykwert

Source: Pawel MazurI CC Krakow

Joseph Rykwert

His seminal essay on The Idea of a Town, written in 1963, is still highly relevant as it completely understands why and how cities are formed. It is extremely well researched and it was very exciting to find a clear authority on the history of town planning and the meaning and rationale behind the form, location and purpose of towns and cities through time and civilisation.

It has been said that Rykwert’s ideas were not readably transmissible and that he did not promulgate solutions. While it is not my understanding that he had such an objective, it is hard to avoid the lessons and messages that run through his writings; writings that go well beyond the mundane business of building. They look at the keenness of architects and planners for spatial planning, configurative masterplanning and the construct for urban settlement and architecture. Rykwert talks of the purpose and aims of the makers of towns and buildings across time.

What made Rykwert so appealing was his early grasp of the scale of the ‘project’, together with his enormous capacity for the subject matter and relentless application of logic and reference to the relationships between historic events and manifestations. An erudite and coherent history of urbanism and architecture seen as a web of behaviour and deeds in the context of an expanding world of technological enthusiasm, rock stars and the egalitarian experiment.

He has also been a practising architect during his academic life and amazed and thrilled us when we discovered he, a theoretician and scholar – a boffin – had designed the Ad Lib nightclub in London’s teeming West End. It was a huge, dark, comfortable space with low-intensity purple and blue lighting and walls and floor of a soft black carpet in one continuous and seamless sculptured surface. It became the haunt of the ‘rock/pop’ fraternity, artists, writers and many others on the ‘scene’ and was utterly connected to the buzz of 1960s London. 

In The First Moderns he accurately starts at an understandable first point where a neo-classical architecture had emerged over a significant part of the world, defining the rationalist and first signs of an egalitarian design approach to architecture and how it had so scarcely touched us in the 20thcentury. He cites the work of Palladio, Jones, Wren and Hawksmoor as having perhaps a ‘fourth dimension’, where the emergence of an egalitarian society and world were beginning to play an increasingly important part in creation and configuration of all architecture and urbanism.

I was most interested to find that while the ‘Commonwealth period’ was, in Rykwert’s opinion, a “backwater”, there was an exception: Roger Pratt, who was the only architect of stature and who built Coleshill House in Wiltshire – a perfect specimen sadly destroyed by fire in 1952 and now a wonderful ghost with which I have lived for the past 47 years.

Coleshill House, east elevation

Coleshill House, east elevation

Rykwert’s Coleshill House, east elevation

Rykwert’s Coleshill House, east elevation

Coleshill House, west elevation. The east and west elevations were almost identical

Coleshill House, west elevation. The east and west elevations were almost identical

Coleshill House

The Rykwert discourse is certainly continuing and has developed, weaving together what happened and what is happening, with a consistency and thread in his ever widening grasp of the complexities. He examines the orders of architecture, the work of the Adam brothers and the meaning of building from its roots. And in The Seduction of Place, he shows us why our urban places today are simply the latest part of the same story – showing us what we did, what we still have to do, what cities mean and how they may develop in the future.

What is certain is that Rykwert will continue to be a major influence upon us all. I got to know him in 1967, during my last year at the AA. This was when he commented on my final thesis project on the making of urban mass, housing and dwelling in the city. It was fundamentally about the reasons for the formation of urban places and their workings he had inspired some of us to think of. He was the only person at the time who could put study into a properly considered appreciation of city formation.

Joseph was a good person to meet and his comment and observations were highly instructive and clear.

By Julyan Wickham.

Julyan Wickham is a founding partner of Wickham van Eyck Architects

More pigs at the trough

Posted by: Julyan Wickham, Mon, 14 Oct 2013

After hearing the news that the managers of our broadcasters are also getting massive ‘payoffs’, I am left wondering who – let alone architects – will be able to understand what this (corruption) actually means.

Why is it we still think that everything should be incorporated as a business and run by a CEO, with a vision – regardless of purpose and value – and that people like Fred Goodwin and Mark Thompson should be allowed to run large institutions with little or no regulation and unanswerable to strong governance.

First we had the massive failures of dodgy bankers, stock market traders and politicians, all supported by mumbo-jumbo of the economists. Now we have at the trough those lovely ‘top people’ running the BBC, with £3.65 billion a year, who – we are told by Newsnight’s Michael Grade – do not understand the value of money. Imagine it, a bunch of publicly accountable people who cannot even agree who has stolen the money – and how much.

I suppose if not the Royal Mail the next lot will be those distinguished fat cats in Higher Education if we are to accept that HE institutions – including schools of architecture – are now to be run by people who think they should have the power to do education like corporations do business.

I simply don’t get it; how can this BBC severance payments row be “a drama with no happy endings” when many have walked away with millions they did not earn or deserve? Maybe my sister was right – being rich does not make one happy.

The BBC is certainly now a part of the rotting and putrefaction we see all around and, in case you did not know, those who run the place are unquestionably always right – just try to contact Broadcasting House and comment on a programme.

For instance, I think Ellis Woodman was correct; Viñoly has indeed created a “death ray” masquerading as a cuddly joke – this through gross incompetence and the desire to be willfully original for no purpose. Perhaps we have to ask the BBC, what if it had been a baby in a pram instead of a Jaguar car? Is that not a very scary proposition all children should be warned of?

The BBC has a worldwide reputation for excellence but has it become too big to fail. Surely the BBC exists to serve the public, and its mission – not vision – is to inform, educate and entertain. Where is the BBC Trust going with its mandate to oversee the activities of our broadcaster’s managers. Is this Trust really able to understand and control the veracity of what we hear and see?

By the way, Michael Grade is Baron Grade of Yarmouth, he is a television executive and businessman who chaired the BBC from 2004 to 2006. And corruption is, I think, the immoral and dishonest exploitation of power for personal gain.

By Julyan Wickham.

Julyan Wickham is a founding partner of Wickham van Eyck Architects

PFI = Public Futile Investment and bridges to future debt

Posted by: Julyan Wickham, Thu, 30 May 2013

Why isn’t anyone in the UK architectural world saying that the PFI system is vastly – incredibly – wasteful of government resources when we are reading and hearing that the debt created by this scheme has a significant impact on the finances of public bodies and our government’s ability to manage the public purse?

Should we have to listen to the sanctimonious uttering of our current government on the subject of austerity when it continues to spend beyond the means of the state to the tune of four and sometimes five times the real cost of building our hospitals, schools and other essential public buildings?

Do we really need to be told to live within our means when Cameron, Osborne and Brown, among others, seem to think they can live now and have someone else pay later?

As of October 2007, the total capital value of PFI signed contracts throughout the UK was £68bn. However, this figure pales into insignificance when compared with the commitment of central and local government to pay a further £267bn over the lifetime of these contracts.

A couple of UK regional examples are:

1. £5.2bn of PFI investment in Scotland, up to 2007, has created a public sector cash liability of £22.3bn.

2. The investment of just £618m via PFI in Wales, also up to 2007, has created a public sector cash liability of £3.3bn.

A recent BBC investigation into PFI noted the Balmoral High School in Northern Ireland, at a build cost of £17m in 2002, was closed in 2007 because of a lack of pupils and other defective decisions. The BBC went on to say this PFI contract remains running for another 20 years with the taxpayer paying millions of pounds for an unused and failed facility.

Is it not astonishing that no one has picked up on the comments of a former deputy general of the National Audit Office who was also the Auditor General for Wales when he said that many PFI appraisals suffer from “spurious precision” are based on “pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo” and some are simply “utter rubbish”? The auditor may have been jailed because of his personal activities but what has this to do with PFI or PPP as it was formerly described?

In the UK there are currently some 717 PFI contracts under way funding new schools, hospitals and other public facilities. While these have a total capital value of £54.7bn, the actual problem is the ultimate cost will be £301bn by the time they have been paid off over the coming decades; this regardless of their quality and success.

Architects doing PFI cannot just take the money and run. Isn’t Paul Finch being an opportunist and somewhat optimistic when offering to “design review” PFI school projects for a government that has effectively killed off his Cabe (jobs for the boys) and clearly does not like modern architects or understand what modern architecture can achieve? I thought we are in an age of austerity and that Michael Gove (journalist) and Nick Bowles (banker) know best.

While £301bn isn’t peanuts, I understand this debt is relatively small when compared with other similar public sector building investment and their consequential liabilities. Is it for architects to participate in a folly that will certainly burden our children for generations to come? Don’t ask me ask Margaret Hodge and her Public Finance Committee.

By Julyan Wickham

Julyan Wickham is a founding partner of Wickham van Eyck Architects

Branding our animals

Posted by: Julyan Wickham, Thu, 9 May 2013

First, I wish to congratulate all professionals who have achieved success in their work; but what happens if they put commerce before their sense of duty?

It was Max Fordham, the British engineer, who said many years ago that “a spherical building is the most efficient” in terms of energy-efficiency, while simultaneously making clear the obvious — that a good architect knows not all buildings need to be so absolutely compact. It’s now hard to disagree with Max’s message.

But what is all this branding and corporate stuff about? Are all professionals really obliged to go into manufacturing biscuits or media activities? Or perhaps we are about to compete with the Ford motor company? Surely professional people are not expected to go into the ski tour business in addition to their professional activities?

I have always thought that architects should be in the practice of architecture, which has to be run in a business-like manner, and not a business manufacturing “architecture”.

The status, role and purpose of professionals who participate in building must be made clear and independent of profit motive.

It is important that professionals consider how they represent themselves in public; however, if they feel the need to brand themselves, they may well find they are in conflict with their sense of purpose and the necessary freedom to think beyond the client’s demands and wishes.

That is, if they have to adhere to a party line in order to satisfy their customers’ (no longer clients’) expectations, they will not only have a boring time — they may also diminish their opportunities to invent and discover.

Was it not Vance Packard who said that branding is based on the sales speak of the inevitable marketing that follows the creation of a corporate “name”, where individuals are subsumed into the mass that merely symbolises and identifies a particular firm’s product as distinct from their rivals? It might even be that moves towards this kind of messaging are seen as a lack of solid confidence.

While one can accept that branding was originally adopted to differentiate one company from another by means of a distinctive symbol, it remains akin to the burning of an animal’s skin with a hot iron. The fact that it is now ubiquitously used in business is as if everyone were competing with the Coca-Cola Company and DuPont. 

The architect and other professional people must be careful that their new brand does not become their most valuable fixed asset, as it will oppose the great strength and wisdom of those behind it.

Architecture and engineering often have to come up with the unexpected along with the useful — this the most valuable part of creating an imaginative and durable future for the planet.

The idea of branding for architects was, I recall, born at the AA by Nigel Coates, who taught there and created a mini-movement called NATO. His mistaken aims were exactly those I speak of here and I am sure most who know his work will agree that his celebrity was not only the result of the quality of his projects; rather Nigel is a skilful speaker, tutor and merchant of architecture and life.

We have to ask ourselves: does the kind of commercialism that financiers, bankers and accountants espouse reduce professionalism to a mundane level, and do we really need to compete so blatantly?

The claim that big and small architectural practices are at odds and the small can never become big is true, because they are different entities which can never be compared or weighed against one another. This is not meant to offend, but be warned: steers feel the pain.

By Julyan Wickham

Julyan Wickham is a founding partner of Wickham van Eyck Architects

5 Broad Gate – City of London by MAKE architects

5 Broad Gate – City of London by MAKE architects - Private Finance

University College Hospital, Euston Road, London by AMEC,

University College Hospital, Euston Road, London by AMEC, Balfour Beatty and Interserve - a Private Finance Initiative

St. Bartholomew’s and The Royal London Hospitals by HOK architects

St. Bartholomew’s and The Royal London Hospitals by HOK architects - a Private Finance Initiative

 

 

Another monster

Posted by: Julyan Wickham, Thu, 21 Mar 2013

My sincere apologies for a long silence from this architect. The charade that emanated from the grotesque goings on at the Architectural Association recently, with my resignation from its council, took up too much of my time; perhaps more on this at some later date.

I have been awakened by the revelation in last week’s BD that the architect Hans Kollhoff has been back in Holland and has now blessed the city of The Hague with another of his preposterous and monstrous designs, this time for the Dutch government, comprising a place to work for those at the new Ministry of Security and Justice and those at the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations.

Ellis Woodman is correct, the Piraeus housing in Amsterdam’s docklands site by Hans Kollhoff in 1989 did most probably prove to be his most substantial built manifestation. It was indeed an intriguing project, which in clear terms used Jo Coenen’s masterplan, creating massive city blocks, making a very plastic and monumental complex of housing and other uses along the water.

However, while making a strong reference to Berlage’s revivalist tradition of the perimeter city block we see in Amsterdam South, it did simultaneously confess a complete indifference towards the human programme, this in terms of the provision of living accommodation and its context, giving a false impression that the city is now undeniably egalitarian.

The building contains a cosmopolitan series of dwellings for sale and rent, ranging from tiny 45-55sq m dwellings as social housing, right up to private ones of 400sq m. What no one thought to say or observe at the time was that all the social housing for the less well off was situated inside bland, gloomy light wells with absolutely no views back into the city.

Dutch ministries by Hans Kollhoff

Source: Susanne Wegner

The building with new neighbours

Now we have a similarly grandiose urban gesture, this time in 39 floors of “stick-on” historic brick in mandatory Frits van Dongen monotone brick-window-wall-façade, a product soon to be available by the square metre in various colours at Walmart and in Holland at Praxis. Equally absurd, millions spent on granite façades on the 39 floors of the other tower, from the fifth floor above street level upwards will never be seen by anyone.

Just calling a street level recess in the building mass an entrance courtyard, should not fool anybody when it is in reality a wide open space that funnels massive gusts of wind down into the public realm below, in a scale of building that cannot be justified outside Manhattan and Chicago.

And what are all those things at the top that look like the probable concrete columns for adding future floors to the building like ones sees in places where there is little or no fixed planning law or urban discipline.

It must be said that the client has something to answer for when creating a building that looks like something made in the depressed early 1940s. It is without sufficient street presence in relation to the 4,000 people who will arrive at it each day where authority of the state – little Holland - is written all over it and through it by its enormity and lack of any architectural expression.

Is an edifice of this kind acceptable anywhere, let alone in the scale of a small city such as The Hague of all places; the words “totalitarian paranoia” spring to mind.

This kind of scheme should never survive the design process further than the one to a thousand scale model of the building in its context.

Like the Shell building in London and other outmoded 1940s structures.

The Shell building in London

The Shell building in London

What was wrong with this building? He liked the perimeter urban block in the 1980s…

Perimeter urban block

 

By Julyan Wickham

Julyan Wickham is a founding partner of Wickham van Eyck Architects

Should architects like austerity?

Posted by: Julyan Wickham, Fri, 6 Jul 2012

I have to say it’s very difficult to concentrate on the world of architecture and urbanism at this moment when there are so many other distracting issues across the planet that are of great importance and concern to at least 99% of the human race.

While we listen to the BBC and other respected disseminators of news and information eking out the economy-story so vital to the business of building a convivial and dignified environment it seems not enough attention is being given to the Greek leftist leader Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza party, with 26% of the vote, who are saying ‘It’s a war between people and capitalism’and maybe it’s a little pitiful to direct criticism and praise at architects, planners and the efforts of their client’s when so much else is at stake.

Architects are going to have to ask, is it fair to question the English burghers of Newbury in Berkshire for wanting to exterminate all those little bunny wabbits of Watership Down in the name of ‘progress’ and profit or the continuing folly of Las Vegaswhich is expanding in the middle of a desert where there is no readily available water or getting work in Libya while the place is still recovering from years of an extreme dictatorship or the wild extravagance of the impending London Olympic sport-fest which will come and go in a two week flash in this summer profiting but a few, all while many millions are wondering where their next meal will come from.

Las Vegas

Someone is going to have to force me to accept that bankers, currency traders and CEO’s of corporations, all no doubt with visions, should be so hugely and disproportionately rewarded for causing the increasing massive economic failure, dwindling share prices and the total loss of growth that is what looks like the impending collapse of the current fiscal system with the banner “we are all in it together”.

Should ‘all these people’ the majority - like all those Trade Union members, the people on welfare and the working classes - who barely have a home or a job, be baling out the rich consumerists who were, apparently, the ones who caused us to be left in the terrible mess the Tories inherited from Labour, you know Labour.

I suppose it would be ridiculous to suggest that all architects stop working for the 1% and concentrate only on the projects that serve the common good and those who have to choose between paying the rent and eating, the 99%.

Pla of a building

More than 70% of the worlds population live in an urban environment of some kind and 99% of them are not rich and do not have much mobility yet where they live and work is the real substance of any town or city and without them there is no market or urbanism to fuel the capitalist dream or provide occupation for architects and planners.

Architects will have to decide who their client’s really are; long live the third industrial revolution.

The London mayoral candidates are saying what architects have been thinking for years

Posted by: Julyan Wickham, Tue, 1 May 2012

Isn’t it a bit weird to hear the current London mayoral candidates all spouting about doing so-called affordable housing in London as if it has just become a problem? It’s a bloody cheek when some of us have been telling them of this need for more than 20 years. Do any of them understand the concept of the common good?

We have been told, year-on-year, that the housing lists are in the hundreds of thousands, with the figure currently standing at some 355,000 and rising. Has it not been perfectly obvious that the real workers in central London cannot afford to live near to their work places?

No one expects Boris Johnson to understand or do anything about housing for the low-paid even if he has jumped on the bandwagon, but Ken Livingstone has no excuse and some audacity to now offer the young people who keep London alive and well a measly 35,000 homes a year, 10% of the need he and others have defined.

Where are these people living now while every candidate is offering these sticking plaster solutions without any hope of beating the Byzantine procurement methods we have in the UK?

2003 Micro Flat designs for a free site in Westminster

2003 Micro Flat designs I did for a free site in Westminster

It’s not a planning problem as claimed by many, nor is it a matter of cost. Most boroughs are well-endowed with available land — they just need to look more carefully at the land they have and realise there is no need to factor in the costs of site purchase.

2003 Micro Flat designs for a free site in Westminster

2003 Micro Flat designs I did for a free site in Westminster

The housing associations, which replaced so-called council housing, are corrupt in that they seek to shed any accountability for their actions, passing these on to the architects, funders and others who enable the laborious process, yet add the enormous extra cost of their own existences as well as the cost of indemnifying risk and the land to the bill.

It sounds like the 1960s Tory/Labour housing manifesto con competition all over again and the problems remain:

- There is, as far as we can tell, no distinction made between central London and the outer areas.

- Thatcher’s Right-to-Buy scheme killed off local authority housing provision.

- Tenants’ right to buy their homes with a discount of up to 60% of the market price for houses and 70% for flats has now all but gone.

- Key worker housing and micro-flats are only a part of the solution.

- Politicians’ perceptions that the provision of affordable homes hurts labour mobility is a cynical view and in the event unproven.

Is a London mayor really in control of house building in the capital? It’s still a sick old world.

The benefits of midlife crises

Posted by: Julyan Wickham, Wed, 28 Mar 2012

Ever since I became an architect I have overheard the same old story between rival practitioners, the conversation goes:

Architect 1 – “Hello, are you busy?”

Architect 2 – “Yes very busy. How about you?”

Architect 1 – “Inundated.”

Architect 2 – “How big is your office now?………..”

This obsession with the size of the firm with a voluminous output has long been a distraction and has lead to much loss of excellent architecture. It certainly caused Piers Taylor’s recent resignation email [link: http://www.bdonline.co.uk/news/piers-taylor-quits-mitchell-taylor-workshop/5030695.article]. The message is clear – commercialism does not equal good architecture while an architect’s office can be a provocative and polemical vehicle for collaboration.

It’s good that Taylor is to continue with architecture and is, like Lubetkin who may have had a midlife crisis, understandably tired of the ever increasing regulation of the design process.

Amanda Baillieu is correct to raise the issue of an architect’s “sense and eccentricity” just as the architectural profession, encouraged by the RIBA and business, blunders into the 21st century with the issues surrounding size so poorly understood and debated.

Needless to say there is nothing ethically wrong with large architectural practices, as many have shown, however as Carlos Marcos pointed out, the concept of Bigness in architecture, as defined by Rem Koolhaas, is about architectural scale and its impact in the cities.

Koolhaashas said, “beyond a certain critical mass, a building becomes a Big Building. Such a mass can no longer be controlled by a single architectural gesture, or even by any combination of architectural gestures. This impossibility triggers the autonomy of its parts, but that is not the same as fragmentation; the parts remain committed to the whole.”

I take this to be affirmation of the vital need to address contextual substance in architectural design, especially in urban locations, and that architecture can be a dangerous mixture of power and impotence if an architect fails to see the political dimension.

It was, without doubt prophetic, that in 1970 Ove Arup said, when speaking on the subject of architects and architectural education:

“The advice of the architect is very much needed in the councils which make political decisions about how to use our resources and what to build for two reasons: first because, representing the human aspect, the architect is in a way the council for the people, who should be the client, ultimately. And second, if he doesn’t speak up, there is nobody else to put the case for humanity in an informed way. The twin forces of high finance and technology have their own ruthless logic – the human point of view can so easily get lost.”

He, wisely, added the following advice to architects:

“For heaven’s sake don’t queer your pitch by being incompetent at your job. Nobody will listen to your advice about how to run the state if you can’t run your own business.”

Arup’s advice certainly remains true while over the last 42 years the context and modus operandi of architects has altered immensely. In addition, there has been a gradual change in social orders, an improved understanding of the human condition and comprehensive building regulation setting minimum standards in the digital age where our concerns are now global and inescapable.

Philip Richards Building by Mitchell Taylor Workshop

Source: Peter Cook

The Philip Richards Building by Mitchell Taylor Workshop

Important but often ignored are those who help set these standards, hopefully drawing up solutions with plausible integrity. When looking for intelligent ways of designing and managing our environment at a sustainable rate we must include both inspiration and practicality.

The fact is no one has yet fully understood or altogether agreed quite what our problems are and how we should be dealing with them in the looming collapse of current economic practice and the lack of cohesion on the issues between political systems worldwide.

This is not to ignore that urban mass can no longer be controlled by architectural gestures. Koolhaas may be massaging an urban myth when he says:

“The exterior of the city is no longer a collective theatre where ‘it’ happens; there’s no collective ‘it’ left. The street has become residue, as an organizational device, a mere segment of the continuous metropolitan plane where the remnants of the past face the equipments of the new in an uneasy standoff.

Bigness can exist anywhere on that plane.”

Is Koolhaas’s Beijing CCTV project BIG or is it a mere segment with a front door (its threshold) that has to allow entry for 14,000 during rush hour or is he saying architects will have to understand better their milieu and get back to architecture and collaborate where others are concerned and know better.

In view of this, I realise that my midlife crisis started in 1971 when I left the Cullinan office to set up on my own; I look forward to my midlife continuing.

The Wickhamist blog

Julyan Wickham is a founding partner of Wickham van Eyck Architects, who are based in London and Amsterdam

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