Thursday17 August 2017

Community in a Cube, Middlehaven, by Fat Architects

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Will Alsop’s psychedelic rethink of Middlesbrough’s docklands died away in the cold light of austerity, leaving Fat’s idiosyncratic new apartment building very much out on its own

“The most tragic thing, which often happens with masterplans in Britain, is that the vision disappears during delivery,” says Will Alsop, as he floats above a fairytale landscape of fantastical forms — a cinema like a Rubik’s cube, a primary school like a giant spelling block, an expanse of water dotted with wakeboarders. “Not here.”

This is the promotional animation for Middlehaven, a 100ha swathe of post-industrial dockland in Middlesbrough, as reimagined by Alsop into a psychedelic dreamscape. Unveiled in 2004, the £500 million development was slated to provide more than 2,400 homes, 75,000sq m of commercial space and a surfeit of hotels, bars and restaurants on the site of the former docks, which had closed in 1980 and lain derelict ever since.

Commissioned by a Blairish alliance of regeneration agencies, the strategic framework was launched in the wake of Alsop’s publicity-friendly plans to flood the centre of Bradford and bestow Barnsley with a halo, as well as similarly outlandish schemes for Halifax, Walsall and Stoke. Middlehaven was to be the apogee of his unique brand of toy-based urban planning, the denouement of a decade that had seen northern emperors queuing up to try on his new clothes.

The scheme followed the usual formula of novelty object-buildings strewn at random across the site, like the aftermath of an incident in the soft-play area. At one end a giant teddy bear sat next to an office block in the shape of Marge Simpson’s hair; at the other, a “Gucci glove” by Nigel Coates reached out to caress a hotel modelled on the marble game Kerplunk. A line of “sugar cube” housing blocks marched down the edge of the site, while mixed-use “Prada skirt” towers lined the dockfront, each with its own catchy nickname.

“There was a huge amount of optimism about regeneration at the time,” says Sean Griffiths, director of Fat, whose £10 million Community in a Cube housing block is the only recognisable fragment of the vision to have been built. “It was a golden age for architects.”

Since then, reality has bitten and the development company — a brave marriage between green charity BioRegional and the self-styled “thinking man’s developer” Quintain — has been dissolved, leaving its cube stranded in a lonely landscape. Its only neighbour, across a field of empty plots, is the gleaming hull of Archial’s £70 million Middlesbrough College. A 250m-long cliff face of shimmering metallic panels tacked on to a boxy shed, it proves that the real dangers of Alsop masterplans are when his wacky one-liners are interpreted by lesser architects.

Remains of the vision

At the other side of the dock are two more remains of the vision: a three-storey prefab office block, optimistically titled “Manhattan Gate”, and the taut wiry frame of Temenos, the first fateful meeting of Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond and the only one of the planned “Tees Valley Giants” to make it off the drawing board. In light of what this couple has since spawned in east London, it is a comparatively graceful thing; although next to the majestic transporter bridge and the area’s industrial monuments, the need for a gestural steel sculpture seems questionable.

Fat’s building would have stood in the middle of a row of nine other cubes in the masterplan, refined by Studio Egret West in 2006 — including a stack of Jenga blocks by Feilden Clegg Bradley and a glassy box by Grimshaw — its footprint twisted 45 degrees to peek out of the building line and frame a dockside square. The effect can be imagined, as a path of reclaimed sets and a rank of tilted lampposts, part of Grant Associates’ public realm, now delineate the long march of the phantom sugar cubes and bring you to the building off-axis from the north-west.

From this angle the “Community in a Cube” concept is immediately legible. Clear as a billboard, its three key components are stacked in a surreal domestic triptych, perhaps no better put than by Griffiths’ almost Dada description: “It’s just a straightforward modernist apartment block, resting on a chalet, with a little street of suburban homes on the roof.”

It is at once a didactic sign and a parody of everything the vision stood for.

Fat's Community in a Cube, Middlehaven


The principal elevations are of a generic kind that could have been lifted from any number of canalside regeneration schemes, grids of purplish engineering brick and ubiquitous timber panelling. But this restrained wrapping is soon disrupted. To the north, a vast five-storey hole has been punched through to reveal the main circulation core painted in a colourful harlequin costume, like the jazzy lining of an otherwise sober suit. This big hole brings light into the flats and frames a broad elevated deck — “so you can have a Mussolini moment, overlooking the square,” says Griffiths.

The punch line is saved for the ground floor, where the entire eight-storey slab appears to be resting on the pitched roof of a timber chalet, poking out of the north-west corner. A cartoonish shed with oversized white shutters, it is more trailer home than Alpine cabin, executed with an intentional stage-set flimsiness that belies its Herculean task. It will hopefully soon house a pub, while the rest of the glazed frontage is earmarked for commercial units, propped at the other corner by a single brick gallows post, a recurring motif in Fat’s folk-pop library of signs and symbols.

Fat's Community in a Cube, Middlehaven

The nature of the design and build contract — in which Fat worked to Stage E but was not kept on as adviser — has led to some ham-fisted clunks: bulky drainage pipes hang from the atrium soffit, while the crucial overhang where the building meets the chalet has been clumsily boxed in.

To the south, the cube is cleft open into two parallel wings, its brick skin peeled back to expose a woody back-garden world of balconies and access decks.

A giant teddy bear sat next to offices in the shape of Marge Simpson’s hair

Rows of circular and triangular apertures perforate the rear screen, while the facing elevations are inscribed with a criss-cross pattern, in a “Burger King flame-grilled look” — originally to be burned on, now painted.

Surmounting this lively ensemble are two rows of blue clapboard “skyhomes”, perched like quaint New Urbanist houses plucked from the sunnier shores of Andrés Duany’s Seaside. Gleaming in the sun on the day we visit, with wisps of steam rising from the central chimney, they are an arresting sight, finished with the bold graphic clarity of the original rendering.

Fat's Community in a Cube, Middlehaven

“The first thing locals told me was that Middlesbrough is a house town, that people wouldn’t live in flats here,” explains Pete Halsall, former director of BioRegional Quintain. “So we put some houses on top.”

This may seem glib, but Griffiths claims otherwise.

“We’ve always been interested in working-class, innercity taste,” he says, “and how it contrasts with architects’ aspirations.” Whether Fat’s work champions, or caricatures, such taste has always been a moot point; but here, as at New Islington, the ambition is sympathetic. Although quite where the working-class fit in remains to be seen, given that the mayor, Ray Mallon, has declared he wants this to be the “unaffordable” side of Middlesbrough, luxury one- to two-bed flats aimed at luring a higher-income demographic.

At the time of writing, 10 of the 80 units had sold.

Dramatic view

Entering the building is a delightfully theatrical sequence, conceived as a route through the multiple layers of the facade, a procession through the “figural section”. A grand, double-backing staircase, profiled with cloud motifs, takes you to a first-floor deck, from which the studio flats are accessed. From here, a spiral stair rises to the top of a glazed lantern, which brings light down into the lift lobby, providing access to the second-floor deck. From then on it’s a straightforward lift or stairs, which at each floor give on to an external access deck and a dramatic view of what could one day be the hanging gardens of Middlehaven — if the communal window boxes are planted and maintained.

The flats themselves are “market-driven” (that is, small) in plan, but relieved by unusually airy 2.7m ceiling heights, while the skyhomes enjoy spectacular double-height volumes with pitched ceilings and quirky attic-like spaces. Vast picture windows provide triple-aspect views over the docks, and views between the facing wings give a literal sense of neighbourly streets in the sky.

Encouraging residents to walk up to their flat through the building’s stepped section, as well as the generous ceiling heights, is apparently all part of BioRegional’s One Planet Living philosophy of health and happiness. The scheme is designed to the (now superseded) EcoHomes Excellent standard, with 500mm-thick walls and the incorporation of a biomass boiler — although the pellet storage shed has been bizarrely tacked on to the side of the building as an afterthought. The other OPL principles, such as locally sourced, recycled materials and rainwater harvesting, were either ignored or value-engineered out, and were conspicuously absent from the wider plan. As Cabe commented at the time: “It is curious that the approach to sustainability does not appear to be manifest in the layout of the masterplan and the proposed built form.” Curious indeed for a developer dedicated to eco-evangelism.

The skyhome access decks include oversized Eternit-clad trusses.

Source: Rob Parrish

The skyhome access decks include oversized Eternit-clad trusses.

For all its ambition and carefully crafted moments, the building is the product of the fundamentally flawed idea that a residential block should take the form of a 30x30m cube. By slicing it into two slabs, connected by a core, Fat has achieved the most efficient layout and highest net-to-gross possible, although still four rooms per floor look out 3m on to a blank wall, in a north-facing undercroft. It is telling that the neighbouring Alsop cube, planned to Stage E, was in fact no such thing, slimmed to more of a tower form with a central core and awkward splayed flat plans to avoid the 15m single-aspect depth.

Since the developer disbanded and the land was handed back to the HCA earlier this year, there is hope that the plan might be adjusted, designed less with the arm’s-length sales pitch in mind and more with an idea of making Middlehaven a good place to live. Urban Initiatives has been commissioned to reassess the masterplan, with a focus on improving access to the site — currently severed from the town by railway tracks and an A-road, with only one point of access — and reinstating with the former street pattern. Practice director Kelvin Campbell talks of a “finer grain of family housing”, of “buildings edging streets” and of the “location of front doors” — all welcome words to a place born in the blind euphoria of noughties regeneration, high on the marketing potentials of object architecture.

As we leave, Adrian Wyatt, the founding chief executive of Quintain, arrives, hotly pursued by a stern-faced Mayor Mallon. He explains that, in the current climate, his business is moving out of the regions to consolidate interests in London.

“This project is not commercially viable, make no mistake. But the question is: is this a loss for us, or a loss leader?” asks Wyatt, in a theatrical turn of rhetorical developerspeak.

“We’ve put a stake in the ground — and God loves a trier.”

BioRegional Quintain, Architect Fat, Executive architect Devereux Architects, Masterplan architects SMC Alsop / Studio Egret West, Structural engineer Martin Stockley Associates, M&E engineer DSSR Consulting Engineers, Landscape architect Grant Associates, Project manager Buro Four, QS Davis Langdon


Readers' comments (4)

  • SomeoneStoleMyNick

    I think FAT must have bought some of the books published about 15 years ago on "The New Dutch Architecture". It all looks so passe' now.

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  • I wonder what it will look like in 5 or 10 years time, and will we like the look of it more? I think not!

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  • As ever with FAT the 'jokey' architectural language is overlaid with some pretty intelligent planning. The notion of the impossibly supported brick box doughnut about to crush a 'cartoon' swiss chalet is an interesting architectural metephor which works in the same way as one of those MVRDV super-cantilevers or some of the ideas that come through in H&deM's Caixa Forum building. This is architecture that is designed to make fun of architects, but does it really chime with 'common' taste as Olly Wainright in this very well written piece asks? A graphic designer friend of mine (born in Croydon like me) absolutely hates FAT's Thornton Heath Library, so maybe not?

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  • SomeoneStoleMyNick

    Say what you like. FAT is here to stay. There's nothing either you or I can do about this.

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