Category Archives: architecture

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.

And the winner is…

No we aren’t talking about Jean Nouvel. The prize for Best Fossil Fools Day Prank goes to Inhabitat’s Frank Gehry McMansion

gehry mcmansion

with its “extremely advanced” “PVC-framed double glazed windows, gypsum plasterboard walls and an advanced timber framing system”. It sounds all too plausible, what with his line of McMuseums and all, and you can bet something similar will be appearing soon, somewhere. In the suburbs of Dubai perhaps? Very witty, guys.

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
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
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

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

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

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

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.”


Maya Lin is an architect with an extraordinary ability to find the symbolic form that will reconcile all the conflicting elements of a public design brief. Most famously she did this in the Washington Vietnam memorial,

the wall vietnam memorial washington

that deep black scar in the earth that paralled the scar the war left in the American soul, its rising and descending wall graphing the US death toll. The Wall’s perfection was only underlined by the nearby Three Soldiers memorial and flag

three soldiers vietnam memorial
Jeff Kubina)

demanded by dissenters, its sentimental and anachronistic socialist realism unintentionally symbolising little more than the unresolved delusions and confusion of identity felt by many of the veterans of a futile war that should never have happened.

Maya Lin came to mind when we were writing about Herzog & de Meuron’s levitating Caixa Forum building because she also had built a levitating building, the adaptively reused cantilever barn

cantilever barn haley farm
yellow crayons)

that houses the Langston Hughes Library at Haley Farm.

langston hughes library haley farm

The barn contains a 5000-volume reference library on civil rights and children’s advocacy and a small book store.

Lin commented

“The idea was to maintain the integrity and character of the old barn yet introduce a new inner layer. The integration of old and new allowed me to leave exposed and untouched the main body of the building yet build the library within the existing structure.”

But elsewhere on the site is a much more extraordinary building by Lin. Hans Hollein made a splash, so to speak, early in his career

hans hollein aircraft carrier in landscape

with his image of an Aircraft Carrier City in Landscape. Maya Lin’s ship shape object in the landscape, while smaller, carries a greater symbolic burden than any aircraft carrier.

haley farm chapel

The Children’s Defense Fund, that owns Haley Farm and uses it as a training centre, is the type of organisation that puzzles and disturbs non-americans. Why is it necessary? Why doesn’t the government do it? And above all, why the insidious christian propaganda that permeates its publicity? It’s all as creepy as anything that ever came out of, say, Iran.

haley farm chapel

Perhaps most scary of all is the fact that it can build an indoctrination centre chapel of such potent symbolism.

Noah’s Ark is deep in the subconscious of all children brought up in even the most feeble christian tradition,

noahs ark bouncing castle
(Photo Timothy E Baldwin)

all those cute animals rescued by humans, and at this point in history, as we face the deluge brought on by our vanities, it has a peculiarly ambiguous and guilt laden resonance. The story of Noah’s Ark is probably the only part of christian mythology where there is any trace of human connection to the other life on this planet, the only hint that our actions have consequences for the other creatures we share it with.

haley farm= chapel
yellow crayons)

Can we hope that the symbolism of this building will somehow be adaptively reused to engender this sense of responsibility for all life in children that will in fifty years be facing a genuine apocalypse?

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

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.

Abjects in the landscape

The problem of redundant nuclear power stations can’t easily be swept under the carpet, you need something bigger than that, like a small mountain perhaps? Magnox nuclear power station

If this dinosaur technology gets revived cleaning up after it will become a chronic problem so it’s interesting to consider a 1994 project to adaptively reuse the Trawsfynydd Magnox nuclear power station in Wales. Built in the late 1950s and designed, amazingly, by Sir Basil Spence of Coventry Cathedral fame, Trawsfynydd had the usual controversial history. It was claimed at the time that it would blend into the landscape and if you believed that then we have some Nigerian friends you may like to meet, they want to give you millions of dollars. Echoing Soane, Spence more realistically quipped “Will it make a beautiful ruin?” .

Landscape reuse aficionado David Barrie (with whom we feel a natural affinity) created the project to explore solutions to the Trawsfynydd decommissioning, a process predicted to take over 100 years.

Arup Partners proposal for Trawsfynydd

We liked the sweep-it-under-a-mountain solution,

site architects Trawsfynydd proposal

and the paint-watercolours-that-make-it-look-like-a-romantic-ruined-castle solution has a lot going for it as well. In fact they are all pretty interesting, even the Michelin-man-fat-suit solution.

Personally, we would propose a more brutal sort of Picturesque solution, use random explosive charges to collapse half of both buildings leaving giant shattered stumps, sprinkle them with something that softly fluoresces in the moonlight (this may be unnecessary) then add some ivy to finish it off. In other words, adaptive reuse as a monstrous landscape garden folly. Perhaps a few oversize Welsh gnomes by Ron Mueck would help.

Check it out on David Barrie’s blog, in fact read the whole blog, it’s worth the effort. (Note to David Barrie: the content is great, but the white on black theme…? IMHO)