Category Archives: building

The Grinning Smithsons

As their greatest and most heroic project is about to bite the dust after decades of slow demolition by neglect, Alison and Peter Smithson’s remaining body of work increasingly looks like the Cheshire cat’s grin – exactly at the point when they seem to be vanishing they are also achieving a prominence they haven’t enjoyed in decades.

Irony just isn’t a strong enough word to describe the situation where two highly influential architects who devoted most of their lives to developing models for social housing will end up being represented by a school, a number of delightful but unrepresentative middle class houses, an office building and finally a shed.

But it’s a great shed, and it’s for sale. The whole project is near to, and reminiscent of, their own weekender, the refreshingly ascetic Upper Lawn Pavilion. It’s hard to imagine a more exciting prospect for adaptive reuse – beautiful (in a rustic brutalist way), spectacular pedigree, fashionably tiny – it’s got it all.

It’s in the garden of the Levitt house, pretty spectacular in its own right. We found it through one of our favourite (architectural) porn sites, materialicious.

And meanwhile Owen Hatherley of sit down man you’re a bloody tragedy has taken a holiday to visit the Smithson’s Hunstanton Secondary Modern School, an enlightening but bleak experience by all accounts.

Reviving Newcastle

It can take a heroic effort to bring an ailing city district back to life but often all it takes to spark it off is one person or one small group. Marcus Westbury‘s efforts to revive Hunter Street, the ailing main street of the Australian industrial city of Newcastle (think rustbelt if you are not in Australia) have certainly been heroic. He is staging a “Renewing Newcastle” information night tomorrow night Wednesday 10th of September at 6:30pm. The venue is the Lock Up (next to the now derelict Post Office) at 90 Hunter Street Newcastle.

Vacant shopfronts in the Newcastle CBD should be opened up to community arts and not-for-profit groups, under control of a property trust that assists building owners with tax concessions.

The idea is simple enough, it’s worked before, but can it work here?

It was pretty amazing to watch the numbers rising on his facebook site when he sent out invitations so here’s hoping it will work. If you are anywhere near there make sure you attend.

We told you so

According to the great Gore Vidal, the sweetest words in the English language are “I told you so!” and here’s where we get to use them.

We’ve always argued that in most cases the best building is the building that is already there. In sustainability terms, at least, the reasons for adaptive reuse of existing buildings seem obvious. Even if the proposed new building is greener than green there will still be a considerable CO2 cost in the new materials, and since many modern building materials only have an expected life of around 25 years there is a considerable future CO2 expense as well. Long lasting but expensive traditional building techniques and materials rate better than cheap modern materials – in other words don’t let accountants design your building, it will cost the earth in the long run.

embodied energy graph

But we’ve never found figures to back our assertion. Well, now someone has proven it. In a report that has got a bit of coverage in the UK (here, here, and here) the Empty Homes Agency has done research to show that reusing existing buildings is greener than building new “green” buildings.

The report, compiled by the Empty Homes Agency with help from the Building and Social Housing Foundation, indicates that the embodied carbon – the carbon released as a direct result of building a new home – accounts for nearly three times as much as the building’s lifetime emissions.

The agency claims that building a new home emits more than four and a half times as much carbon dioxide per square metre as refurbishing an existing one. As much as 35 tonnes of carbon dioxide could be saved by bringing an existing home up to scratch – equivalent to driving a car from London to Sydney and back seven times. Over 50 years, this means that there is almost no difference in the average emissions of new and refurbished homes.

So there, we told you so! Here is the summary and this is the full report.

empty houses liverpool
Plimsoll Street, Liverpool, UK (Photo from
community brother’s Liverpool housing flickr set )

One of the implications is that in a world desperate for a few instant solutions, a moratorium on demolitions, the restoration of empty buildings and the restriction of new building to greenfield sites must suddenly look appealing. It would be interesting to speculate on the effect this would have on the dynamics of the future metropolis – cityofsound, Geoff Manaugh, where are you?

Now the other thing we have been saying is that there will be a world wide ban on coal mining in under ten years – you must remember we live in an area completely economically dependent on coal mining yet the local government strategic plan for the next twenty years does not even mention climate change despite our attempts to raise the issue. Since the European Union, (the world’s biggest economy) is now threatening the US and China with trade sanctions if they don’t get moving on greenhouse emissions, the coal mining ban is looking increasingly possible. Perhaps we should make a long bet on it.

Don’t be brutal to Robin Hood Gardens

solar pavilion

Some suggest that Alison and Peter Smithson were the first examples of starchitecture, as Norman Blogster calls the “more PR than architecture” careers of stylists like Hadid and Liebeskind. But when our reader Kristian Seier challenged us to find something bad to say about the Upper Lawn Pavilion (later known as the Solar Pavilion), their holiday house built in the early 1960s, we realised we’d simply forgotten that it existed.

solar pavilion

Which is inexcusable because not only is it one of the most admirable of the 20th century’s many glass box houses, it is also a rare example of adaptive reuse by great modernist architects whose attitude we admire even when we find their large projects unlovable.

Writing about the restoration of the Solar Pavilion, Jane Withers in The Observer tells us:

The Smithsons bought the property in 1958, part of a group of farm buildings including a stone cottage that had been served with a demolition order. Instead of razing the existing building, the new two-storey pavilion is superimposed on parts of the old structure. The old stone doesn’t just give texture to the new building – it also makes us look at the past with fresh eyes, as old parts are found in surprising places. A massive chimney wall – once the end wall of the cottage – now cuts through the upper and lower living spaces. The outdoor terrace was once inside the old house, so that a cottage window is now set in the garden wall to playful and slightly surreal effect.
The remains of the original cottage not only provide a framework to anchor the new wood and glass structure, they also root the new building in the local history. It is a wonderful illustration of the Smithsons’ ‘as found’ theory, where instead of the earlier modernist pursuit of gleaming newness, the architects reuse and reinvent the existing….
The startling aspect of Solar Pavilion is its utter basicness.
A few years earlier, in 1956, for the seminal pop art exhibition This is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, the Smithsons contributed Patio and Pavilion, a shed made of second-hand wood and a corrugated plastic roof. They intended it to be read as a symbolic habitat embracing what they considered basic human needs – a piece of ground, a view of the sky, privacy, the presence of nature. Solar Pavilion embodies such thinking about the fundamentals that nourish not just man’s physical but also spiritual needs.

“Reuse and reinvent the existing’? Doesn’t that sound like the perfect description of what we are on about?

solar pavilion
(Photo
Ioana Marinescu)

During the restoration in 2003 Sergison Bates had to add a kitchen and heating – apparently man’s physical needs did not extend to heating, stoves (they cooked on a fire outside) or beds (they slept on mattresses on the floor upstairs), a lifestyle Allison Smithson described as “camping in the landscape”.

solar pavilion
(Photo
Ioana Marinescu)

She documented their trips to the house in her solipsistic book AS in DS (ie Alison Smithson in her Citroen DS). Wendy, who hates camping, is horrified by this while I find it incredibly admirable, it appeals to some deep spiritual need of mine. Or maybe I’m just a jaded dilettante and so were they, but I don’t think so. The point is that unlike the starchitects they were never about style, they were about solutions to problems of living.

And that led to their theory of “streets in the air”, based on their opposition to modernist planning that carved cities up into quarantined functional areas.

As younger members of CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne) and, by 1956, as founding members of Team 10, they were at the heart of the debate on the future course of modern architecture, demonstrating a broad concern in the social environment and advocating for buildings that were specific to their location and purpose. Rather than the CIAM understanding that cities should be zoned into specific areas for living, working, leisure, and transport, the Smithsons argued in favor of mixed use within the same area. They conceived mid-rise housing as ‘streets in the air’ to encourage sentiments of belonging and neighborliness, rather than isolated slab-like towers. They believed these goals could be achieved at differing levels of human association: house, street, district and city. (Harvard University Library Smithson Archive)

Unfortunately, when they tried to put it into practice the result was Robin Hood Gardens.

robin hood gardens
(Photo
kristo)

Doomed from the start by a bad location, poor construction and dysfunctional welfare tenants, the streets in the air only facilitated criminal activity. The project turned into a high profile disaster and their careers crashed.

robin hood gardens
(Photo
moreikura)

But looking back on it, the theory still seems sound.

And now Robin Hood Gardens is threatened with demolition. If it goes, their only remaining major projects will be Hunstanton School and the Economist Plaza.

Robin Hood Gardens looks shabby but so do Zaha Hadid’s buildings already,

robin hood gardens
(Photo
joseph_beuys_hat)

that’s what happens to buildings if you don’t maintain them.

Since Erno Goldfinger’s equally dysfunctional Trellick Tower has now become a fairly desirable residence could a similar outcome be possible with Robin Hood Gardens? The current residents love it even if it is noisy, run down

robin hood gardens
(Photo
joseph_beuys_hat)

and generally intimidating in its grimness. It’s a potentially divisive question even in this household on the other side of the world, Wendy says knock it down, I say no. And since I’m writing this and she’s not, I’ll commend BD’s on-line petition to you where you can sign up with your fellow luminaries to petition for its listing and preservation.

And just remember this quote, at CIAM’s 1953 Congress the Smithsons wrote:

“Belonging’ is a basic emotional need – its associations are of the simplest order. From ‘belonging’ – identity – comes the enriching sense of neighbourliness. The short narrow street of the slum succeeds where spacious redevelopment frequently fails.”

Well I’ll be a seagull!

Thanks to our reader Jeroen Harkes we now know that the “Redneck Mansion” is actually a set for the outdoor Theater het Amsterdam Bos. It seems so obvious in retrospect. It was designed by Catherina Scholten for the 2005 production of Anton Chekhov‘s Ivanov, his early play about a disillusioned young intellectual – surprise surprise – not unlike Chekhov himself – surprise surprise – who ultimately commits suicide – surprise surprise. But a great set and yet another example, if any was needed, of the creativity of Dutch design in recent times. And as Jeroen Harkes points out you can hardly say that something three years old is racing through the net. What was really racing was the use of the image as a pretext for vilifying the poor and the joke is now on everyone who was sneering when they saw it tagged as a “redneck mansion” (said with our most po faced look of disapproval, we are just sick of hearing about wealth as a measure of anything other than greed or good luck).

ope air theatre amsterdam ivanov by chekhov
(Photo
HetGelaat)

There are more images of it on flickr now we know what we are looking for and we even found the source of the original, it’s by Elmer Kroese.

Rising in the world

redneck mansion trailer reuse

This image under the title Redneck Mansion is racing through the blogosphere faster than headlice through a kindergarten leaving a wake of vicious and patronising comments, as if rednecks had a monopoly on vulgarity. But it strikes us as an imaginative, witty and good fun bit of adaptive reuse, not at all vulgar – and probably fairly expensive to build. So yah boo sucks to the commenters who seem a more vulgar bunch of rednecks than whoever built this. But where is it? And where did the image originally come from?

Don’t look down!

alternating stair bookcase

A bookcase adaptively reused as a staircase or a staircase adaptively reused as a bookcase? Oh well, taxonomy always was a taxing discipline. You have no doubt already seen these stairs or bookcase in the last week or so – although I can’t remember where I saw them first. But Apartment Therapy is where they came from and bottleworld has a post discussing why alternating tread stairs work so well.

Architecture jocks

Respect for layering is a basic heritage principle.

Heritage places are the result of a layering of history, of use and change, and it is the values related to this layering which is important.
(Pearson & Marshall, 1995, Study of World Heritage Values Convict Places)

The principle is so fundamental that it is now a given that contemporary additions should be in a contemporary style, albeit sympathetic to the existing fabric in scale and treatment, rather than attempt to mimic the style of the original building.

On the other hand we doubt if anyone foresaw that layering in a different sense would become a plague on heritage buildings. First we had that heritage disaster, facadism.

facadism in london
(Photo
speedwaystar)

Adaptive reuse it ain’t. It’s a blight around the world and can only be seen as a sort of architectural passive-aggressive contempt for heritage, a way for mediocre architects (and governments and planners and above all developers) to spit in the face of a public that preferred the building that was there already. It is revealing that, for all its ubiquity, facadism seems to have had only one serious book written about it and perhaps that’s an indicator of a secret shame within the architectural profession …. at least we hope so.

But there is another closely related form of physical layering, piling one building on top of another like a cake. Proposals date back decades and have almost invariably caused controversy.

But you do see cases where the results are good enough to be defensible,

Hearst Tower New York by Norman Foster
(Photo
Milton CJ)

like Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower in New York. But mostly piles, as we like to call them, just look ungainly at the smallest scale, and at the largest scale the historic building is often reduced to a hollow decorative podium,

Hearst Tower New Yok lobby(Photo glemak)

its integrity compromised if not completely destroyed.

And then one day you see a pile that can only be described as beautiful.

Caixa Forum Madrid Herzog de Meuron
(Photo greta_y_doraimon)

We posted another similar Herzog and de Meuron project in Hamburg but this is a smaller example of the same approach applied to the headquarters of a private benevolent trust, the Caixa Forum, in Madrid. It has more than the usual adaptive reuse virtues. Of course it reuses an existing building and it is appropriate in scale to its surroundings, but by removing the foundations they have given it the appearance of levitating, a conceit that lifts it well out of the ordinary.

The Caixa Forum has adaptively reused other buildings

Caixa Forum Casa Ramona Barcelona

– its Barcelona gallery is in a rebuilt 1911 Art Nouveau Factory – but the Madrid building,

Caixa Madrid Patrick Blanc plant wall
(Photo davidarredondogarrido)

with the addition of the Patrick Blanc Mur Végétal, raises interesting questions about the way cultural memes present themselves within different art forms. Removing the foundations of the original building

Caixa Forum Madrid entrance
(Photo
greta_y_doraimon)

effectively turns both the new and the original buildings into samples and the architects into architectural DJs (or should that be AJs) rubbing stylistic snippets up against each to create a delightful cacophony. It seems to have taken a century or so for the cubist collage aesthetic to reach architecture, and along the way it passed through Brion Gysin and William Burroughscut-up writing technique and the music of John Cage to hip hop and finally it’s ended up in architecture. Why has it taken so long? (Yes, we know there an infinite number of unintentional historical examples.)

Spiralling out of control

A quick addendum to our last post. You can be sure that archaeological sites all over Iraq are in danger. The Art Newspaper has just reported this, a police barracks being built on a site next to Samarra’s famous spiral minaret.

Alastair Northedge, Professeur d’Art et d’Archeologie Islamiques, Universite de Paris I (Pantheon-Sorbonne) comments

From the angle of the photo, it is possible to calculate that the complex is being built at E 396388 N 3785995 (UTM Zone 38 North) or Lat. 34.209760° Long. 43.875325°, to the west of the Malwiya (Spiral Minaret), and behind the Spiral Cafe. While the point itself may not have more than Abbasid houses under the ground, it is adjacent to the palace of Sur Isa, the remains of which can be seen in the photo. While the initial construction might or might not touch the palace, accompanying activities will certainly spread over it.

Sur Isa can be identified with the palace of al-Burj, built by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawakkil, probably in 852-3 (Northedge, Historical Topography of Samarra, pp 125-127, 240). The palace is said to have cost 33 million dirhams, and was luxurious. Details are given by al-Shabushti, Kitab al-Diyarat.

Samarra was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO at the end of June. The barracks could easily have been built elsewhere, off the archaeological site.

The report was based on info from the blog of Jeff Emmanuel, a reporter with US Special Forces. Since it’s Halloween here’s something really deathly freaky and scary – his opinions.

Memento mori

You can always rely on the military to make a right mess of a place. Sometimes it’s incidental, sometimes it’s intentional and often its downright consciously genocidal. The US military in Iraq have probably been responsible for all three categories of mayhem.

Unfortunately, their appalling adaptive reuse of the archaeological site of Babylon


(Photo labanex)

as a military base pales in comparison to their destruction of the historic city of Fallujah which can only be described as a war crime.


(Photo labanex)

In fairness, it must be said that Sadam Hussein’s treatment of the Babylon site was little better,


(Photo labanex)

replacing original ruins with his mickey mouse “restoration” – dictators have a tendency to ignore the ICOMOS Burra Charter principle “do as much as necessary to care for the place and to make it usable, but otherwise change it as little as possible so that its cultural significance is retained”

But militaries also build on an enormous scale, and they always have throughout history. We tend to forget that the Great Wall of China was a military installation


Part of Pendennis Castle, Falmouth, UK. (Photo bluemoose)

as were most of Europe’s numerous castles. The Maginot Line, inexplicably restored by the French after WW2, is still partly in working condition – if that can be said of something that never worked. What could it be adaptively reused as? A very large wine cellar perhaps? As one of history’s most expensive and laughable failures it could be regarded as the prototype for the US attempts at developing a missile shield.

Yet strangely enough, in one of those contradictions that confound observers, the US military is among the world’s best practitioners of building deconstruction, the skill of careful demolition to ensure the maximum reuse of the buildings materials.

And of course entire military bases can be adaptively reused although usually they are simply removed and the land turned over to housing.

An extraordinary exception is the Chinati Foundation in the remote west Texas town of Marfa. Although there are times when it seems every declining community in the world fantasises about a destination museum led revival, the Chinati Foundation is undoubtedly one of the most unlikely success stories.


Cats love art. (Photo Mr Frosted)

Minimalist sculptor Don Judd purchased the redundant army camp, Fort D.A. Russell, in 1979 and began converting its buildings into a museum for minimal and installation art.


(Photo informedmindstravel)

(Photo trixie skips)

(Photo salut aimee)

Despite its remoteness and Judd’s death before the completion of the project, it has survived and prospered partly because of Judd’s sympathetic approach to the the long term display of works


(Photo Mr Frosted)

and an ascetic built and natural environment


(Photo informedmindstravel)

that provides little distraction to the careful contemplation of the art works.


(Photo jabzoog)

It would be hard to imagine a destination museum that contradicts the Bilbao model so completely. Architects must look at it and weep in the same way that artists weep with rage when confronted with the unsympathetic monstrosities that self indulgent superstar architects inflict on them.

On the other hand Marfa now has a Prada store nearby


(Photo jabzoog)

to ensure that the isolation doesn’t make art world black packers feel too cut off from conspicuous consumption.

But museum conversions can’t solve every problem. Some military installations remains so threatening that even after half a century of abandonment they cannot be digested by their surroundings.


(Photo dblackadder)

The Vienna flakturm (flak towers) are a case in point. Built by the Nazis during the Second World War as platforms for the flak guns defending Vienna from air attack, they have proved too strong to demolish. If the destruction of the most symbolic built culture is an essential military tool in the process of subjugation, so too is the building of new symbolic buildings. Hitler intended the flaksturm to be reused as war memorials after he had achieved world domination and in some sense that is how they remain, sullenly resisting most attempts at adaptive reuse.


(Photo scope II)

One has even been converted into an aquarium


(Photo timbrighton)

with a surrounding plaza,


(Photo pokpok313)

a climbing school on one wall and a Lawrence Weiner art installation on the top


(Photo watz)

and yet its essential brutalism remains.


(Photo jvhemert)

Others stand like grotesquely overscaled follies in parks where they can now only be regarded as memento mori, the Roman Et In Arcadia Ego writ very large.


(Photo weisserstier)