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This is an article about an exhibition I caught at its very end hence I did not have the opportunity to post my opinion about it before it was over. However late it might be now, I still think something should be said about it. The exhibition took place at the Building Centre and it was entitled “London is growing”. Before I went there I already knew that it was showcasing London’s latest high-rises, most of which I am not particularly fond of anyway. Especially the Shard, which being the tallest of them all is considered, for unknown to me reasons, one of Londoners’ favourite (it comes second after the Gherkin). I have spoken about the Shard in the past and in case you are interested you can read my opinion here. Very briefly though let me say that what shocks me the most with people’s views of such buildings is that they are based only on their aesthetics and the awe they inspire because of their size. The fact that high-rises mirror and affect directly politics and the economy is totally disregarded.

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Like all architects I can attest that the awe-inspiring effect of tall buildings is not negligible. I will never forget my first time in New York and how I felt. To my defence I was still very young. Having lived in London for some years I have witnessed aggressive gentrification at its finest. Whole neighbourhoods, their history and unique colour are obliterated in the altar of profit. This is exactly what is celebrated in this exhibition.

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A statement by Sir Neil Cossons, Chairman of English Heritage made me laugh bitterly. “London’s face is its fortune and it belongs to everyone”. What a joke. London today more than ever, certainly does not belong to everyone. It is largely privatised. For example most of the high-rises’ featured in this exhibition offer so-called public spaces on their street level embellished with gardens, benches etc. However those spaces are private and are “protected” by security guards who are instructed to exclude all sorts of “inappropriate” conduct like skating, protesting or even playing. (You can read more about the privatisation of public space in London and a story on how local businessmen were sent away from a so-called public square in the City for playing cricket here). Not to mention the cruel devices that are installed on those “public” benches and floors to assure the expulsion of skaters, the homeless and such.

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According to the studies quoted in this exhibition all those new and really tall buildings are intensely needed because London’s population is growing and its economy is expanding. Still many contradictions are revealed in the information provided for the visitor if one is tuned in to notice them. One of them is that regardless of the fact that there is a need for housing in “growing London”, hardly any of these tall buildings include apartments, not to mention social housing of course!

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This is mainly due to the fact that a social housing tower collapsed to its side in Canning Town (1968) due to poor construction of its pre-cast parts. Since then social housing in particular is largely avoided in new high-rises. The only “shining” example of residential towers is that of the Barbican which thrived according to whoever wrote the exhibition’s texts, due to good management. The fact that Barbican’s apartments were renovated to become luxury lofts is not mentioned at all. Nothing is also said about the poor Londoners who are forced out of their homes and get ostracised to the 6th zone and beyond because this is the only area they can afford. Out of site is out of mind, I guess.

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Still many panels in the exhibition assure the visitor that these new vertical cities of buildings that keep popping up are closely monitored in order not to interfere with the aesthetics of historic London. English Heritage is here to make sure of that and also to assure that St. Paul’s view from Greenwich Park will never be obstructed. Thank God for that!

This exhibition is finished, but trust me, you are not missing on much.

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If you are interested to read more about the privatisation of public space in the UK Anna Minton’s Ground Control is a brilliant book about it. You can find more about it here

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Amanda Levete Architects' entrance to the V&A Museum for London Design week 2011. Photo top left: parts of the structure from the exhibition / All other photos : the writer's pictures from the actual exhibit in 2011

Amanda Levete Architects’ entrance to the V&A Museum for London Design week 2011. Photo top left: part of the structure from the exhibition / All other photos :writer’s pictures from the actual exhibit in 2011

A prototype (in Greek πρωτότυπο: πρώτο=first, τύπος=type) is the first of its kind, something that is designed in order for copies to be modelled after it. Hence it is rather obvious that prototyping is a creative but also a very ambitious business too. In this exhibition of architectural prototypes at the Building Centre what I found most interesting was that creativity does not only characterise artists. Engineers, inventors and researchers are creative in a way that at times puts artists to shame. The exhibits also prove that structural parts and building methods that emerge as solutions to particular problems on building sites, or are invented in order to reduce cost and save energy can produce truly innovative forms too.

Protocell Mesh by Peter Beesley. See more about it on his website here

Protocell Mesh by Peter Beesley.

I am almost positive that designers were involved in the aesthetic refinement of the actual products. However what I observed and to my opinion makes the exhibits exceptional is that aesthetic is not always the goal but emerges almost as a by-product. What is on the foreground is scientific experimentation

Top photos:Bones tubes by Barkow Leibinger / Bottom photos : Concrete formworks by Anne-Marie Manelius

Top photos:Bones tubes by Barkow Leibinger / Bottom photos : Concrete formworks by Anne-Marie Manelius

Successful design is often ergonomic and highly practical. After all people have always been attracted to this sort of innovation, the kind that makes their life easier and simultaneously introduces a change in what they have been taking for granted in their environment. This is what actually attracts crowds to World fairs and design-award exhibitions, anything that is fresh, unexpected but also practical.

All of the prototypes on display are innovative, however some of them are more experimental and less practical than others which ultimately renders them rather decorative.

Like the Protocell mesh1 that was created as a university project and is a strange collaboration of a scaffolding meshwork canopy that incorporates carbon-capturing air-filters. The timber wave structure2 that was built to ornament the entrance of V&A museum for 2011 London Design week similarly was not created to solve some practical problem but was very impressive nonetheless.  It is an exercise on how to create a 3d timber structure with non- symmetrical parts. Similarly the ‘Bones’ tubes3  were designed to embellish architectural façades while shading them.

Top photos : Autarki 1:1 by Jesper Nielsenand and Nikolaj Callisen Friis / Bottom photos : Loblloly house by Kieran Timberlake

Top photos : Autarki 1:1 by Jesper Nielsenand and Nikolaj Callisen Friis / Bottom photos : Loblloly house by Kieran Timberlake

However there are exhibits that might not catch the visitor’s eye immediately as they seem more technical and not that impressive design-wise, like for example ‘Autarki 1:1’4 or the Loblolly house5 where actual sections of each house have been brought to London and are included in the exhibition. When one looks closer into them, ‘Autarki’ is a unique experiment on totally self-sustainable house design and the Loblolly house is a building system where all components are organised off-site and are then bolted together so they can be taken apart and reused as parts in case the house is demolished. The house is also energy efficient.

The ‘Fabric formwork’6 is also relatively unimpressive at first glance but completely revolutionary as an invention. Being able to use a fabric to mould concrete might be responsible for the production of truly innovative architectural forms.

Then there are the ‘sci-fi’ exhibits like the organic-looking titanium structural components with futuristic names like Nematox II7 or the additive manufactured violin8.Those are interesting mostly because of the additive manufactured technology which in other words is 3D printing.

Top left photo : Nematox II by Holger Strauss / Middle photo : Additive manufacture violin by Manufacturing Research Division, Faculty of Engineering, University of Nottingham / Bottom left and top and bottom right : Zoid by Yves Ebnöther

Top left photo : Nematox II by Holger Strauss / Middle photo : Additive manufacture violin by Manufacturing Research Division, Faculty of Engineering, University of Nottingham / Bottom left and top and bottom right : Zoid by Yves Ebnöther

Finally there are products that fall into the middle of the pragmatic/science-fiction spectrum and their complexity refers to the assembly method of ordinary parts. For example Trada pavilion9 where everyday ‘boring’ materials like flat timber panels and hinges are put together following an algorithm to produce a stiff free-standing structure. Also Zoid10 which is a stool that is computer-generated product of parametric design that is made from a single sheet of metal which can be folded by hand following the prototyped drawing. Fab pod11 is a system of hyperboloid surfaces that has been developed in order to improve sound-pollution in open plan offices.

Top and bottom left photos and middle top photo : Trada pavilion by Ramboll Computational design / Middle bottom and top right photo Antonio Gaudi's Sagrada Famillia researched by Mark Burry

Top and bottom left photos and middle top photo : Trada pavilion by Ramboll Computational design / Middle bottom and top right photo Antonio Gaudi’s Sagrada Famillia researched by Mark Burry / Bottom right Fab pod by Sial

Last but most definitely not least, the exhibition includes a 130 year old structural problem that has puzzled many engineers: Gaudi’s Sagrada Famillia that was left unfinished because of the architect’s untimely death. Modelling and interpretation of the church has restarted since the digital era and research regardless of the problems faced due to lack of an original study-model, seems much more promising lately.

To conclude, I do recommend the Prototyping Architecture exhibition which will be on until the 15th of March.

1.By Peter Beesley. See more about it on his website here or watch a video about it here

2.By Amande Levete Architects AL_A website here

3.By Barkow Leibinger website here

4.By Jesper Nielsenand and Nikolaj Callisen Friis see more of it here and here

5.By Kieran Timberlake his website entry the house here and watch a video about the house here

6.By Anne-Marie Manelius read more about it here

7.By Holger Strauss at Delf Technical University read more about additive manufacturing here

8.Researched by Manufacturing Research Division, Faculty of Engineering, University of

    Nottingham. Read more about it here

9.By Ramboll Computational design. See it here and read more about it here

10.By Yves Ebnöther. Find it at his website here

11.By Sial, Royal Melbourne institute of Technology. Find it here

12.By Antoni Gaudi and continuing research by Mark Burry. Read about his research here

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