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I have always been fascinated by architectural competitions, especially the ones held for projects that will never be materialised. From their entries one can really assess the designer’s architectural abilities and also map out their politics and true motives. It is the closest an architect can get to his/her student years, when being a dreamer and not a pragmatist was the norm. Anyone who studies or has a creative profession knows that sometimes the most outrageous of ideas produce the most interesting of projects.

Top left: In the Canopy by Studio McLeod / Top right: The Gassworks by Patrick Judd and Ash Bonham / Bottom left: Reclaiming the canalside by Bethany Gale / Bottom right: Kentish Town square by Urban Projects Bureau+BBUK Landscape Architecture

Top left: In the Canopy by Studio McLeod / Top right: The Gassworks by Patrick Judd and Ash Bonham / Bottom left: Reclaiming the canalside by Bethany Gale / Bottom right: Kentish Town square by Urban Projects Bureau+BBUK Landscape Architecture

In this competition held by the RIBA, the contestants chose one area (out of some suggested ones) and then focused their intervention in whatever part of it they wanted. Each proposed neighbourhood has various places that seem to be forgotten and each project’s aim was to shed new light on them. All of the short-listed entries suggest a 180 degree turn from their original use. Aldwych station turns into a spa, where people actually bathe in the tube, old phone booths are transformed into bike repair stations and a part of the BT tower becomes a cultural centre.

Top left drawings: Bikebox by Sam Rose and Hoi Kei Lo / Bottom right drawings: An Arial View by OMMX

Top left drawings: Bikebox by Sam Rose and Hoi Kei Lo / Bottom right drawings and model: An Arial View by OMMX

Architectural studies involve coming up with schemes on how to regenerate areas and scenarios of what sort of buildings to make quite often. In fact there is so much time put into developing these scenarios during student years that one would think that entering the actual profession architects would be even slightly involved in them. This is really far from the truth. Even the biggest names in the business are presented with very precise briefs that have been developed entirely by clients, companies, strategists and governments and to which the architects have not contributed anything at all. Which means we are trained to be dreamers but we actually only execute orders. This is why I always thought that being an architect is like having studied to be a chef but instead having to wash dishes for decades. This is why most architects are not happy with their jobs even though they loved their studies. And this is also why most of us are willing to spend weeks of our precious time for a competition, even if there is next to no chance to ever win it (not to say that if won, the award would not even remotely cover the cost).

Hidden light by Threefold Architecture

Hidden light by Threefold Architecture

Another important thing that popped into mind going around the rooms of this exhibition was that regeneration is often promised in a vague, generic fashion that reminds me of politicians’ schemes that are presented to the public in order to win votes. Having the objectivity to read the intentions behind such ‘promises’ is an important skill to develop because often there are potent political motives hidden behind them. In our days regeneration usually equals gentrification. Attracting rich consumers to occupy an area is the goal, while social problems and inequalities instead of being addressed, are hidden under the proverbial carpet. Poor and marginalised people are sent away from the ‘regenerated’ area as out of sight is out of mind.

Museum of Memories by Claire Moody

Museum of Memories by Claire Moody

Some decades back, patronising or naïve as they might have been, architects were trying to face social problems, no matter how difficult or even impossible it was. In our days we are trained to forget and focus on design, beauty and generally the surface of things. It is as if designers only look into a repertoire of ‘problems’ that mostly relate to the environment and the need for more culture-related places. Thus the recipe is either to create a leisure/art space or something that addresses environmental issues via recycling and the production of biological products to hit the jackpot. Everyone will think the designer really cares. By that I do not mean that there is no need for additional public or cultural centres and I am not challenging the fact that global resources have been reduced and our health and well-being are not in danger. On the contrary. However I do believe that as citizens and as designers we should all be more sensitive towards the social impact and  politics represented by the projects that claim to regenerate the areas that allegedly need it.

Cricklewood Town Square by Spacemakers and Studio Kieren Jones

Cricklewood Town Square by Spacemakers and Studio Kieren Jones

Having said that I do not want to state which projects in this competition -according to my personal opinion- were successful in addressing actual problems creatively and which not. This is something for each person to figure out on their own after careful consideration. However I do believe strongly in the importance of competitions because somehow they open up a horizon of possibilities for architects that reality has turn into cynics. Especially this competition had a very interesting subject as cities are literally filled with forgotten spaces. Ultimately, the decision to display it in an equally forgotten space, the basement of a building as famous as the Somerset House was a brilliant one.

The basement of Somerset House where the exhibition was placed

The basement of Somerset House where the exhibition was placed

I would also like to mention some projects that stayed in my memory for various reasons. Cricklewood Town Square by Spacemakers and Studio Kieren Jones which is basically a moving kiosk that creates public space where there is none. Hidden Light by Threefold Architects, which is a series of flares indicating the Victorian technology that still remains underground of the city. The Museum of Memories by Claire Moody for its Gothic qualities and for re-introducing the necropolis. “In the Canopy” which is a tree-climbing system by Studio McLeod for its playfulness. Urban Agri-Aqua Culture by Ian and Peter Wale for its ethics even though I wish they had paid more attention to their aesthetics. And finally the Bike Box by Sam Rose and Hoi Kei Lo because something truly helpful should be done for the cyclists in this city.

Top images: Aldwych Baths by Team Growler / Bottom images: installation and drawings for Aquadocks by Studio Pink

Top images: Aldwych Baths by Team Growler /
Bottom images: installation and drawings for Aquadocks by Studio Pink

The exhibition has now ended but you can find the its website here

More information about the shortlisted projects at the RIBA website here

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The minute I came across this book I knew I had to read it. Being an architect who does not currently practice architecture, I had many reasons to identify with it. Especially when I realised that one of its recurring themes was how neglected is architecture’s political and social impact in favour of aesthetics, I knew that the author had won me over. According to LaCecla this occurred gradually. After the war the architects “played their trump card as “reformers of society”, as “engineers of the human soul”1, only to find out that this sort of patronising through architecture does not work. The failure of ideologies and the rise of capitalism provided the fertile ground for marketing and branding to flourish thus architectural practice changed dramatically for the worst.

To quote the author: “architects still carry a lot of weight; they are able with this weight to provoke a great deal of damage through ignorance and incompetence, and above all through the strange conviction that the first thing cities need is an important “signature” that will propel them into the world of fashion.” 2

Front and back cover of Against Architecture by Franco La Cecla

Front and back cover of Against Architecture by Franco La Cecla

As he mentions in another part of the book the true problem concerning architecture is that it can effectively promote co-citizenship but hardly any of the famous practising architects is addressing this issue. Architectural students in universities today are not offered the “tools to observe analyse and decipher the social impact of the built projects they design”3 hence they are not trained on how cities work and they end up being “adolescent hobbyists who are selling themselves as public artists.”4

LaCecla did not become an architect but still managed to remain in the field as a consultant and a critic in several international architectural competitions. In sharing his experiences he does not hesitate to be extremely outspoken and blunt about many of the so-called star-architects that crossed his path. What he has to say about them is far from politically correct like when he mentions that Koolhaas’s intelligent realism “uses the misery of the world just to demonstrate how up-to-date he is, how really ahead of everyone else”5 or that “Frank Gehry goes into his studio, screws a sheet of paper into a ball and says to his faithful CAD implementers: I want that. Thus architecture is vaporized”6. Those eloquent examples reveal much truth about the architectural world nowadays and give clues to how “branding” got to be “just another excuse for power’s concentration at the top.”7

 I think it is rather obvious that I enjoyed immensely reading this book and I recommend it wholeheartedly. It is straightforward, wonderfully easy to read and not at all patronising or pretentious. However there is something within it that I am totally opposed to.

Left:The Shard a year and a half ago / The Shard last night (both pics by the writer)

Left:The Shard a year ago / The Shard last night (both photos by the writer)

La Cecla apparently is a close friend and colleague of Renzo Piano. He mentions him a number of times, basically presenting him as one of the few famous architects in the world with a social agenda. In several chapters he praises him mentioning that he has worked closely with him as his consultant and that he believes that Piano is basically the only architect he knows who is not interested in expanding his brand more than he cares about the communities that he affects with his work.

This is where I disagree with La Cecla completely and I will change the subject a bit to state why. Seeing The Shard taking over London’s skyline, scarring irreversibly London Bridge and Southwark and declaring its superiority as the tallest building in Europe, I truly do not believe that Piano’s architectural values are at all what La Cecla makes them out to be. The Shard is a scale-less sleek mountain of a building and its form chooses not to reveal anything about the luxurious apartments and the 5 star hotel that the consortium of Qatari investors that financed it, paid Renzo Piano to design inside it. In most of the interviews that Piano has given, he declares he wanted to create a beautiful building that would dissolve into the air and would offer 360 views from its top to the public. To my opinion this is a load of absurd promotional nonsense. Especially since the tickets for a few minutes of view-watching are already being sold for 25£ each, it is obvious that they are hardly accessible to the public. This massive building totally disregards or rather violates the neighbourhood it is built on thus all the good things that La Cecla has to say about its architect and his previous projects, as far as I am concerned, vanish into thin air. The Shard to me looks just evil and it reminds me too much of Sauron’s eye from Lord of the Rings where all malice springs from.

Left the Shard with the full moon over it/ Right: Lord of the Rings, The Eye of Sauron from where all evil springs from

Left the Shard with the full moon over it      Right: Lord of the Rings, The Eye of Sauron from where all evil springs from

Its position is too conspicuous, if it were in the City or at Canary Wharf in the company of other tall evil buildings it would be more acceptable. But standing smugly on its own, dominating London and gentrifying London Bridge to the point that it dissolves its previous distinct sense of place, it is truly inexcusable.

Going briefly back to the book to conclude, my objection concerning Piano and the Shard does not diminish its value. I still believe that “Against Architecture” is worth reading but as every other book it should be read with a critical engaging mind in order to draw accurate conclusions.

Quotes

Franco La Cecla(2012), Against Architecture, San Fransisco: PM Press

1. Page 45  /  2. Page50   /  3.Page 116  /   4.Page 10  /   5. Page 24  /  6. Page 30  /  7. Page 29

Read architects’ and critics’ views about the Shard in this AR article here

 

The Battersea Power Station has a rather turbulent history and its present continues to be equally eventful. Designed by Theodore Halliday and Giles Gilbert Scott in 1929, it was built in two phases. The first one was finished in the early 30’s and and was true to the era’s prominent style, Art Deco. The second phase was finished in the 50’s and was a mirror image of the first half but apparently not as luxurious in finishes and interior design. The power station was shut in the late 70’s and soon after, during the early 80’s it was listed Grade II which is defined as “ particularly important building of more than special interest”. However, since then nothing has been done to restore or simply preserve it. It has been passed from one owner to the other and eventually all ambitious master plans that aimed to turn profit from the industrial icon of a building, sunk monumentally.

first photo: Power Station’s first phase 1938,wikipedia/middle picture:Riba Library photos,published in Architects’ Journal 08.12.11

It has been proposed to be turned into a industrial museum, a fun park, a shopping centre, a conference centre, a cultural centre -also referred to as a mini Barbican- a theatre, a hotel, an office complex, a multiplex cinema and more recently a housing project. The fate of the building has also been tied to Northern line’s extension as any investor seeking to take advantage of the Power station is expected to fund it (estimated 200 million pounds). During all these years that the ownership of the Power station has been turned from one covetous owner to the other and the hopes of re-use have been rising and falling like a roller-coaster, the building has been steadily deteriorating. The escalation of its decline peaked when its roof was demolished in 1989 in order to remove machinery from the interior and since then the steel framework has been rotting because its foundations frequently flood.

Battersea Power station present state

The building gradually reached a critical state and even RIBA’s former president, Maxwell Hutchinson (regardless of getting planning permission to turn the Power station into an exhibition centre in the 90’s) recently suggested that the four chimneys should be preserved and the rest of the building demolished. However the four chimneys, according to the latest owner of the site Real Estate Opportunities, might collapse at any point due to strong wind hence they should be brought down and rebuilt for health and safety reasons. Naturally there are doubts about the chimneys ever being replaced if they were demolished, the same way that the roof was never rebuilt.

Ironically, the Power station does not face the danger of being mutilated by the developer for its own good any more. In mid-December 2011 REO failed to repay debts of £501 millions to its creditors, Lloyds Banking Group and Ireland’s National Management Asset Agency (NAMA) therefore the latest housing proposal seams unlikely to ever break ground.

top left: REO’s latest proposal / top right and bottom left Grimshaw/Parkview proposal / bottom right Ron Arad Architects’ luxury hotel on top of the power station proposal

The Battersea Power Station’s future continues to be literally unstable. Since it was listed the intention to preserve it as an industrial architectural monument somehow has lead to the exact opposite result, its deterioration. Or rather the fact that it is listed has turned it into a potential money-making opportunity for those who want to take advantage of it. So is the ‘regeneration’ of the building’s surroundings the only possible solution to the power station’s problem? The gentrification of the area is a very high price to pay in order for the building not to collapse.

first photo: ‘Animals’ Pink Floyd album cover / second photo: Hawkwind’s Quark, Strangeness and Charm album cover

The Battersea Power station community group however believes that the building should be returned to the public sector and its repairs should be funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.The community group has developed a very interesting proposal for the building’s possible uses from discussions through open community planning forum meetings. (http://www.batterseapowerstation.org.uk/bpscg.html)

Since the profit-turning regeneration scheme does not seem to work maybe the community’s suggestion should be finally considered. Capital-driven proposals have always been the prevailing solution to such problems. On the contrary, collectives and communities’ suggestions are seen as naïve and utopian when actually they have demonstrated a simpler and more effective way to sustain life.

you might want to check:

Battersea Power Station Community Group: http://www.batterseapowerstation.org.uk/

http://www.spectacle.co.uk/spectacleblog/category/battersea-power-station/

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