Elements of buildings can sometimes be mistaken to be simple technical constructions, performing precise functions to satisfy particular requirements. Take the simple doorway, for example. Boiled down to its essentials, the doorway is a simple tool to permit or restrict access to a room, building or neighbourhood. However, doorways are also deeply symbolic and rich with meaning, and represent much more culturally. Consider briefly the door threshold - the significance of crossing this into a friend or strangers house, and the meaning we imbue on this in our culture, for example in the practice of a groom carrying his bride over the door threshold for good luck.
From the carpeted hallways of the Overlook Hotel to shadowy post-war Vienna, the medium of film has an enduring legacy in representing architecture and the built environment. For many of us, it is through film that we develop our foremost understanding of scale, space, and the city. This was true for me, and so I have sought to assemble an anthology of personally significant films, arranged from the smallest - the 2010 film 'Buried', which takes place entirely in a coffin, to 1977s iconic 'Star Wars', set on a galactic scale.
The buildings that make up our cities are waypoints as much as destinations, and objects as much as infrastructure. Ramps, steps, columns and facades mean different things in the way they are approached. A colonnade becomes a place to meet, a leaning post, a shelter from the wind and rain. The concealed wall becomes a canvas for illicit artwork. The modernist building, raised off the ground, creates an undercroft that becomes a skatepark.
Whisky permeates Scottish culture. It's long been an important part of our national identity and there are over a hundred working distilleries in Scotland; each producing their own distinct character of whisky born out of the fundamental ingredients of water, barley and yeast. Our colleague Douglas Walker has been to quite a few of them, under visits masquerading as research for his dissertation on the subject. We are currently experiencing a renaissance in Scottish whisky production unseen since the last major expansion in the late 19th century. Until recently, new distilleries were few and far between, with only a handful being built in the decade preceding 2015. This year, however, ten new distilleries are set to open their doors.
All architects draw and it is one of the most exhilarating and freeing experiences to explore the world in line and shading. Le Corbusier allegedly preferred drawing to talking. Whilst we accept in the world we operate in, that the language of communication is writing as talking, perhaps we should make a plea for more talk in drawing. Writing in lines may not conform to the mechanics of a standard alphabet and grammar but it can take you to different places. James Brimble speculated what a deeper understanding of drawing might mean.
When Malcolm studied architecture in Glasgow in the second half of the 1970s, community architecture was coming to the fore. Council housing was being taken over by independent housing associations for a significant programme of rehabilitation and repair, and young architects were being commissioned to meet with tenants and listen to them in this new process of rehabilitation. In stark contrast to the perceived lack of engagement of the previous generation, this was a new approach, and one which helped to repair the relationship between architects and the general public in Glasgow. With it came a new appreciation for common heritage.
What is Architecture asked Jackson McKibbin. The honesty of the question was refreshing. Art or Science is perhaps the stock answer but that is over simplistic. To call the architect an artist is to misunderstand the role, where in broad terms the artist takes the real into the abstract world the architect is involved in the reverse, taking the abstract into the realities of making buildings and cities.
Architecture can be described as a philosophical approach to a technical problem. Building is necessary – for shelter, for pleasure, for schooling, for culture – but the approach must be more than pure function. Feasible, certainly, practical, absolutely, but it must also be elegant and articulate.
Plutarch’s thought experiment asks whether the essence of the ship of Theseus lies in the memory of it or its physicality. If every part of the vessel is replaced in the course of its journey, so that nothing original remains, can it still be considered the same upon its return?
There are critical moments in every generation that, having lived through them, cannot help but shape our attitude toward life and work. The context in which Alistair embarked upon his professional career was defined by a changing attitude toward housing, history and how architects should respond to the city.
The environments you encounter as a child have an enormous impact on you. When growing up, our colleague Martin Flett spent a lot of time in Orkney, and one of the things that his family used to do was go and visit Neolithic settlements, such as burial chambers, tombs, cairns and brochs.
For a child in a classroom who will never experience a traditional Scottish ‘black house’ by any means other than words and pictures, it remains an abstract notion, even an absurdity; that men and women might live cheek by jowl alongside beasts as a means to survive the cruel winter. Only two rooms; herd in one and folk in the other. For our ancestors who lived through this, the memories might be of family and survival, coloured by a lack of any useful comparison – this was the only life. For the modern Hebridean though, the black house might conjure a notion of identity more specific than flag-waving nationalism, that speaks of heritage and inheritance.
Colin Glover was next in our 40 Voices, the series where each member of the office presents a manifesto or thought to the office over a period of about forty minutes. These have been elucidating insofar as drawing out into the open our colleagues’ individual interests – what makes us unique – as well as demonstrating a similarity of attitude towards the application of architecture and its attendant effects.
It isn’t difficult for most people to imagine a world without architects, because that is their world already; disconnected from the hand of the designer. The shape of their home or office is predetermined, to be adapted and enjoyed or accepted and tolerated. Design is a luxury for the elite and nothing more than an indulgence. Why would anybody need an architect?
Why do we write about architecture? I think there are two reasons: why it is and what it is. The ‘why’ is political, to do with economics, legislation and cultural attitudes. The ‘what’ is a story, to transport the reader and help them understand why a space might be either powerful or appalling. To achieve this, we must do more than tell them how big it is, what the walls are made of or from which obscure branch of architectural theory it is manifest.
Neil Boyd posed the question whether the understood qualities of an architect as captured in a Royal Institute of Architects paper, namely an aptitude for design, ability to apply a methodology, undertake analysis, have a mathematical bent, show empathy for communication and grasp IT, were the whole story. His take on it was that what we do out-with our professional lives plays a huge part in shaping our architectural experience and contribution, blending on the one hand the hard skills identified above with a broad range of softer perspectives. It is in the end these softer aspects that determine the sensitivity of our architectural output. In the spirit of investigation Neil explored those more ethereal qualities that have influenced his practice.
‘A great city is built over generations, by the hard work of people separated by time, but connected by place.
Joanne continued our ’40 Voices’ series with a series of thoughts on engagement, clarity, buildings that last, character and craft, collaboration and teamwork – a set of architectural cardinal points forming an informal primer:
In our continuing ongoing series of office voices, Justin Fenton explored 10 guiding principles which have helped to map his architectural rite of passage, cleverly intertwining his autobiography as he did so. The list follows as he explained them.
There is an analogy between architecture and painting. In one as the other, one imagines spaces and forms with qualities such as rhythm, texture, composition and line. Perhaps then there cannot be good architecture without the architect demonstrating an understanding of this shared syntax – a kind of aesthetic frame on which we hang our architecture - or one might even call it a set of visual rules that need to be deeply understood, even if the intention is to ‘break’ those rules.
‘Old Willie’ is weather-beaten and ordinary. A simple man of simple tastes, thoughtful and sincere, one could reasonably infer from his relaxed posture, riven features and plain clothing. He stares at us, from the projection wall, unflinching. He knows that it is wise to think before you speak, so he says nothing; the intention is in his eyes.
There is something beautiful in breathing new life into old things. We do it instinctively, as a reflex, in many parts of our lives, be it through the re-use of clothes, cars, furniture, books, objects or artefacts. There is arguably something even more beautiful about examples of this in modern life, where commodities are now so easily replaceable with an affordable new iteration.
For Paul, architecture has always involved a search for meanings; hooks on which to hang each articulation of space. Early experiments in form finding revealed that the route is often indirect; allowing the subconscious to initiate form making can provide clues to meanings. In these experiments a series of abstract doodles emerged as expressionist art, the fragmentation of space and the echo of deeply-rooted cultural tendencies. From here an intimate, personal connection to history, discovered inadvertently, galvanised the relationship between the individual and the collective.
A bit of a break with our Monday Word tradition here with Chris Simmonds exploring a personal journey of twenty-four years of practice in place making. Rather than a timeline of memories, Chris decided to actually revisit his projects to see the longer-term achievement of his place making agenda. Pushing the communication boundaries even further, a provocation of this 40 Monday Word voices series, Chris shared his visit with us in a filmed monologue of the aspirations of the projects, memories of their building and observations of what each setting has become.
There is a method to running well.
Effective partnerships are based on a mutual understanding. To reach meaningful ends we must first understand our collaborators; where each person is coming from and their vision of what successful resolution result might be. A single common aim, filtered through individual perception is what makes a project dynamic and exciting, for everyone involved.
It is an old adage, sometimes attributed to Confucius, that if you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life. This simplistic aphorism is perhaps overly reductive – there will invariably be occasions where the everyday minutiae feels more like ‘work’ than leisure – but if you can generally align your practice with the interests in your life then your enthusiasm and passion for the subject will be evident to those working alongside you.
As infants we learn through play, becoming familiar with the rules of physics by fumbling with wooden blocks, stacking, arranging, climbing and falling. Adults have an unfortunate tendency to lose this capacity for experimentation and child-like engagement as they become satisfied that they know enough to be getting on with, progressing from the fundamental joys of ignorant enquiry to the heady intellectual pursuits of mathematics, literature and science. And yet the two are so closely intertwined as to be inseparable: trial, error and the expansion of one’s cerebral horizons.
There is an indefinable balance that we can all conceive; when something just feels ‘right’ but in a way that cannot be expressed in words. The Chinese might call it ‘qi’ (not so much a word as an idea); an invisible force that binds us together.
The classic 19th century definition of a contract is 'a promise or set of promises which the law will enforce'. In the case of a building contract, it is the binding agreement between the client and the contractor to construct a project. It typically sets down the full details of the design, materials, standard of workmanship, costs and timescale for the construction, and in effect defines the legal obligations each party have to the other.
Lurking undercover, behind the Classical pretensions of Glasgow’s quiet architectural heritage, is a hidden modernity; an attitude woven into the carved stone that informs our thinking today. Poised behind the thick, moulded façade at 104 Trongate, for example, lies a hidden horizontality; a modern and linear composition channelling a much more futuristic idea about light, volume and aperture. Pronouncing its considerable mass, it holds the corner firmly, propping up the more contemporary interventions on either side.
The final review meeting today with those speaking who are involved in the nuts and bolts of the support functions of the office. They operate behind the scenes, they look after the foundation of the office, the space we work in, the IT, how we administer ourselves, HR and crucially finance. The importance of the role is captured in the visualisation of our lander business model, with the support structure represented at the model at the base. As you can imagine in a design culture organisation, the product is everybody's prime focus, so the unsung efforts of many, that create the context for that creativity, is a critical contribution.
Architecture is all about people - the people that we work for and work with are the most important aspect of any architectural project. They define it, shape it, build it, and ultimately occupy and use it. Some designers can lose sight of this and privilege the architectural object in and of itself as the absolute goal of a project, but it is important never to lose sight of the fundamental purpose - to provide agency, delight and utility to the people for whom it is for.
Sometimes in amongst all the talk of the delivery of architecture - through discussions of fees, technical matters, building regulations and the administration of building contracts - it can slip the mind that architecture is first and foremost a passion - we do it because we love it.
The big issue for our cities and it is becoming a game changer, is air quality. For far too long now the agenda of motor transport has 'rode' roughshod over the experience of the individual within our urban environments. Sometimes what we see on the ground is baffling as vast swathes of open space are still given over to the right of vehicular access - sadly to the detriment of folk on foot. And it is killing us.
Our pavilion at the Royal Scottish Academy summed up our stance with regard to the direction of our housing design development, that is the reinforcing of the character of place whether, the urban fabric of the inner city as at Laurieston or the rural cluster of old farm steads on Bute, as a backcloth to the life of the community that live there. In a series of conversations the tie up between the experience of the interior of the house and the setting is manifest.
Having developed a business model based around individually identifiable specialisms (our Centres of Gravity) we work hard to make sure that these do not become isolated groups or silos, focussing instead on the benefits of cross-pollination to maintain a constant dialogue across the office. It is the absence of walls between us that keeps us open to the possibilities inherent within the sketches and reflections that feed our incubating projects.
Building into a context adds a degree of complexity to our role as architects. We are caught in two minds, firstly questioning the relevance of what history has bequeathed us, on the other, understanding what makes our communities is a sense of belonging and belonging depends on what is there.
There are lots of building performance certification schemes, most of them regularly dismissed as box-ticking exercises which don’t tell the whole story. The best, however, can give us a framework within which to shape our ideas and a sound evidence-base on which to communicate the benefits of good design.
At our quarterly Design Group Monday Morning Meetings, we discuss the administrative, technological and regulatory context in which we build. At these meetings a broad range of issues are discussed, from the administration of office expenses, the latest development of our software templates, the changing of regulations that must be complied with, our thinking, such as for an upcoming Pecha Kucha workshop on cultural architecture, and useful construction details worth sharing.
Are you a man
or a pack donkey? In his 1929 essay on the principles of town planning, Le
Corbusier argues the case for the former. Purposeful and intentional in his
travels, man walks in straight lines, economic, comprehensible and in deference
to the car. The pack donkey, on the other hand, is lazy and always looks for
the path of least resistance, following the geological features and topography.
One is powerful, domineering and direct, the other unobtrusive and facile.
Our Monday morning meeting is a chance to share new thinking and debate the viability of new ideas, but it is also a forum to reflect on where we are and what we are doing.
Glasgow has inherited many treasures from its industrial Victorian past. These grand sandstone edifices have in many cases functioned without interruption since they were built, whilst others they have found new purpose as offices, shops or restaurants. Many have become derelict, overgrown and neglected, the worst lingering with a question-mark, unable to find purpose in the 21st Century. Empty warehouses colonised and subsumed by nature, teetering on the brink of oblivion. Surplus to requirements you might say, only the requirement is greater than it ever was, with growing pressure to develop brownfield sites and protect our green edges.
Possibilities are the alignment of chance and the ability to take advantage of what that chance offers, bridging the gap between opportunity and engagement.
We have talked a lot recently about our process on a Monday morning and our Cog have also been talking a lot about our aspiration to hone our workplace design expertise so we thought it might be fun to think about our own workspace and how it responds to our creative process. We are keen to discover what we can do to our workspace to support and cultivate that creative process, using our own workspace as a test bed for some ideas, however like many of our Clients, we don't have a huge budget for this at the moment so what can we do without having to spend lots of money? What ideas can we come up with that use minimal resource to maximum effect?
It seems that our cultural perception of sports facilities can be divided between two distinct typologies: the iconic and the prosaic. The former a symbolic gesture, realised as a standalone building of singular purpose, the latter the ubiquitous tin shed – an incidental building delivering a profoundly internal experience. Though there is of course nuance between these two extremes, they can largely be divided into one camp or the other. But there is another way.
An unusual summer Monday Morning this week. We watched the Twelve minute TED talk by Ellis Watson which he gave at the Theatre Royal earlier in the summer. Entitled ‘Disrupt Yourself or Die Trying ’ it is worth a look if you get a chance. Between exhaustively striding the breadth of the stage, weaving remarkable verbal stories between his steps and condensing his life story into moments of magical revelation was a message that we all need a good shake. We have all stopped evolving, adapting and living rather we have become victims of complacency, consumption and living to die. His answer, change something, change something everyday, keep changing something daily for the rest of your lives.
The construction industry is striving toward the universal – standards, protocols and access for all – an inclusive world with a common voice. It makes perfect sense and in a way addresses the struggle that many of us face when coordinating work across disciplines and specialisms within the design team. It would all be so much simpler if, having defined the outcomes, we could tailor our work accordingly and ensure seamless integration as the project is delivered. It sounds like an ideal world and one which may be close to realisation as Building Information Modelling (BIM) becomes increasingly prevalent.
There is a global housing crisis, centred around intensifying urbanisation, but what does that mean, where are the challenges and how can we directly affect change?
We have all been asked the question, what lessons did you learn? They are part of a suite of oft-uttered variety of phrases which crop up every other day, I learnt my lesson, lesson learned, a lesson for us all. Cumulatively these lessons contribute to our collective experience.
How do we design good spaces for learning? In answering this question it should be no surprise that it is an age old problem, reconciling the needs of the pupil, teacher, room and outlook.
The Theatre 2016 Conference , attended by our own Nicola Walls, gave us cause to reflect on our role as Architects and the contribution we make to society. The suggestion that buildings, in theatre at least, could be a part of a wider problem, rather than the solution, strikes at the core of our professional existence. With these reflections still ringing in our ears, our Briefing and Interiors CoG explore how we can refine the art of listening to stay nimble, moving delicately between competing requirements and changing perceptions to deliver resilient and enduring solutions.
To move forward with confidence, we must understand where we are going. Sounds simple enough. Choose your destination, buy a map and plot your route. No time for scenery, and don’t spare the horses. But what if you don’t know where you’re going? Or if you’re not sure whether the place you want to go even exists at all?
A single word hung on the white wall of our crit space whilst the office congregated for our weekly meeting:
We have always been interested in the idea of ‘authentic’ settlements, whether at the smallest rural scale or in and around our built up village, town and city settings. But what are the qualities that go to make up such ‘real’ places. One aspect we think is a sense of ‘neighbourliness’.
We were delighted to welcome Chris Leslie , film maker to our Monday Morning meeting. For Scotland’s Festival of Architecture 2016, the Glasgow Institute of Architects commissioned Chris to create a new 15 minute film, entitled [Re] Imagining Glasgow . This film looks at Glasgow’s regeneration over the past forty years and the pledges made by the Corporation of the City of Glasgow. In a reworking of Oscar Marzaroli’s 1970 ‘propaganda’ film, 'Glasgow 1980', and using previously unseen footage, shot by Marzaroli, for an uncompleted follow-up film, 'Glasgow’s Progress', Chris embeds that contemporary imagery alongside footage of Glasgow today.
We are honoured to have been part of a group with Simpson and Brown Architects reviewing the vast oeuvre of Charles Rennie Mackintosh projects and their current state of repair and conservation. The remarkable work in creating the Mackintosh Architecture web resource has provided an extensive and robust foundation of information on built and unbuilt projects.
What made Louis Kahn, an American Architect, relevant in Israel? What made Corbusier relevant in India? When the International Style attempted to distil Architecture down to a set of guiding principles that could be applied in any context, it acknowledged that, in broad terms at least, the requirements of building are the same in any country, any city and any town. Although the specific context may change significantly – Jerusalem bears little in common with Pennsylvania – the approach to a building project can be read from the same book. That is to say that one must first consider climate, topography and orientation, followed by the embedded history of a site, together with the social, cultural and economic condition. Having regard for all of these things, we might begin to consider an Architecture that is sensitive to context and community – this approach can be applied in Jerusalem, Pennsylvania, Glasgow or Gloucester.
True to form, our Briefing and Interiors CoG stepped outside of our usual Monday morning programme to engage with us in a conversation about the minutiae of our everyday lives in practice. Congregated without projector or digital media of any sort, we indulged our inner geek and shared thoughts on product, legislation, theory, art and technical detail as experienced at the sharp end of live projects.
We are always searching for words to describe what we do. This is true not just for us, but across disciplines, words usually associated with certain activities are purloined, reimagined and represented as distinctive contributions to current ways of describing our thinking. That is the great thing about language, it evolves and we should be excited by it.
Design quality is paramount. The practice pursues quality through careful and creative thinking constantly building on our existing expertise and disseminating it throughout the office. There are a whole raft of measures of that expertise - the ability to deliver - such as capability, reliability, sustainability. Of course these measures are a moving target and we reflected on a number of new abilities we need to expand our skill base. Three novel 'abilities' stood out in our operations review, how we work together, the tools we work with and what we do with them.
To be inspired and to inspire others: this must be at the heart of any successful practice. As designers we spend our lives in search of inspiration – people, places, objects, buildings – that form the foundations of our Architectural vocabulary. This inspiration can be found easily in the curated collections of galleries and museums, or the selected works of industry publications, but our influences are not limited to these formal compositions. People, sounds, places and experiences can all have a bearing on the cerebral forces that are manifest as we bring our pencil to paper.
We have tackled a number of issues in the past year. Our first explored the issue of conflict and reaction to the modernist housing experiment, the result of which was a ground swell of public reaction ultimately stimulating the grass roots housing association movement. A quarter of a century on, the formalising of the public right to have a voice is manifest in the statutory official consultation procedures required now of significant projects that have an impact on the peoples lives.
“Buildings are only new for a second, but they are old for a very long time.” John Tuomey. This week our newly hirsute conservation team came together to reflect on a landmark year. Among other successes, winning the Glasgow School of Art was a triumph that will forever be a defining moment in our office trajectory, but it is one of many such projects. Varying scales and none quite so prominent, but each with its own challenges. Common among them is a rigorous approach to history, context and planning, adapted to the technology available to us.
Anything we do in our day to day lives has a context. Although it is almost trite to say it, what we do has to be done somewhere, where we do it will have an environment, there is always an economic context and almost inevitably we will interact with people. As with life, so too with all our projects, they sit somewhere, there is an environmental setting, they emerge from an economy and serve a community.
The introduction of briefing and interiors into the everyday methodological working of the office has been gradual, but transformative. Rather than detaching these processes from a holistic Architectural approach, it has led to a more thorough investigation of how our buildings are used; designing from the inside out whilst simultaneously working from the outside in. The outside being the context, history and culture that should influence the development of every building, the inside being the people and how they interact with the spaces we create. Whilst bricks and mortar will be the enduring manifestation of our response, any greater meaning is lost if the building does not work from a users’ perspective.
In the Arts world, ‘how resilient you are?' is a question that is often being asked. Resilience is the art of anticipating challenges and the capacity to absorb, deflect, weather, overcome or deviate around the obstacles that inevitably get in the way. Every organisation intuitively or systematically prepares to a lesser or greater extent for these situations that threaten to blow you off course. You hope the plans put in place work, but until tested you don’t really know.
The concept stage of a new project is often the most exciting, with endless possibilities just a pen-stroke away for the intrepid Architect; an opportunity to test new ideas and refine old ones, reflected against our clients’ ambitions and the historical, cultural and physical context of the site. Many months are spent discussing and fine-tuning the proposals to ensure that before a spade is set in the ground all parties are united behind the project, from the client to the Planning department and the wider community.
How do we as designers, architects and planners represent the use of space, before buildings are completed? From the early days at architecture school, we have drummed into our way of thinking, an empathetic understanding of lines on a plan. We are taught to read the plan like a visual text. Instinctively we look for a north point to note where the sun comes round, the front door to assess where you start to understand the building in terms of its movement and then with practice the eye begins to float over these plans making sense of the connections between spaces. In more complex buildings we need the plan and section to negotiate a number of levels, probably baffling to most non architects.
Stairs are often the most familiar element of a building – a home, an office, a school – negotiated carefully at first, with increasing confidence as the rise and going become predictable. They are a communication device of sorts, connecting people between levels. Defining a pattern of departure and arrival, they can be used as an organisational device, as at Hertzberger’s Centraal Beheer, or an iconic focal point, as at Libera’s Casa Malaparte.
In parallel with human progress runs the evolution of our tools. Stretching the analogy, each generation of tools is generated from the previous one, developing at a remarkable rate. Go onto any building site today and you will be amazed at the tools available that make it easier and safer for individuals to work on the one hand and at the bigger scale achieve remarkable things, inconceivable in the past without huge risk. At the same time the alignment between what is constructed and what is imagined in design offices is getting closer in so many ways. Our tools are crucial to how we model projects, how we think about their safe construction and how we create images to show what is in our imagination; tools for drawing, tools as processes, tools as contemporary paint brushes.
Reinvention is a powerful mechanism for turning the ordinary into the extraordinary. Work with what you find, re-use it and re-imagine it. In 50 years, the way in which we use our buildings has not changed radically, but the way in which we interact with one another is almost unrecognisable. An organisational structure reliant on hierarchy and segregation is less relevant now than it has ever been, with a new egalitarian, collaborative agenda taking its place.
Over the last 20 years or so church organisations have been making their spaces more accessible, inviting and multi-functional for the communities they serve, more civic. Our architectural interventions have served this need in a number of ways over this period, but now there is a reaction emerging from the churches and their communities, a desire for more spiritual space.
Amongst the armoury of any City Planner is a secondary conduit of movement, the lane or more commonly understood, backlanes or service lane.
To coincide with the International Festival of Storytelling in Edinburgh, our discussion focused on the art of storytelling, and some of those stories behind our projects.
This week, in a break from our usual programme of philosophical reflection and critical analysis, we pause to take a good long look at one of the defining characters of contemporary Architecture. Following his talk at this summer’s Metzstein Architectural Discourse and subsequent exhibition at the Lighthouse, we thought it would be a timely opportunity to explore the work of this genre-defining Architect who has taken the principles of Modernism and adapted them for his own ends.
There is much discussion on how we should work, both as individuals and more broadly, collectively as a nation. Conflicting and confusing messages abound. At one extreme, should we follow the so called all hours work ethic of some cultures, a kind of cover all bases approach? Or on the other hand adopt an ever shorter time guillotine to promote the idea of efficient and effective use of work time? You would think the answer maybe lies in between.
The relationship between client, Architect and builder must be worked at if it is to be successful. Care, consideration, communication, understanding and patience are important for all involved if the process is to be fluid and efficient and it is with a building contract that this is managed. When things are going well the contract is all but invisible, keeping everybody moving in the right direction, but as with anything in life the construction process doesn’t always work out as we had planned. Things can happen that nobody had foreseen, and money can add to the strain when it is in limited supply (as it invariably is). If the relationship runs into trouble, lines are drawn and the minutiae of the contract – previously a silent partner in the relationship – are scrutinised by all concerned.
The skills, tools and processes we require to support design is a multifaceted challenge. They are constantly being tested, acted on and re-imagined, from the complexity of support for hardware and software to allow us to draw and manage our projects, keeping up to date with an ever expanding technical and statutory requirements to prompting and promoting our design thinking.
The processes we use to navigate the journey through our conservation projects are undergoing a transformation. There seem to be two broad fronts of change. The first is the need for increased methodological rigour paralleling similar processes such as Building Information Management systems (BIM for short) being adopted in the construction of buildings. The second and distinctive to conservation projects, is management of the inherent requirement for supporting explanations, the data of of the building under consideration, its origins, making, and evolution.
When we describe our projects we use drawings and specifications. Specifications describe what can’t be shown on drawings. They deal with materials, their expected performance and fixing, whilst the drawings describe the location shape and distribution of these materials. A common statement in these specifications is - colour to be confirmed.
There are lots of different words we use to describe the process of delivering our architectural projects. Two which occur quite early in the development journey and whose boundaries seem to overlap, are ‘urban design frameworks’, one which we have completed recently for Glasgow University and ‘masterplans’, the first phase of building out of which has just been completed for Caledonian University .
Housing density is a conundrum that has been at the centre of housing debate for well over a century, responding to economic and social pressures at every turn. The argument for increasing density has broadly been to increase the profit on commercially developed sites, but as our population increases, placing ever greater pressure on our city centres, the conundrum becomes less about whether we should build at higher densities, but rather how this can best be achieved.
City and Society has been the theme shaping our years effort in Creative Workspace.
Inside and outside meet at the external wall of buildings and in particular where the wall or frame defining the internal volume opens out to the wider world. There are parts of the world where the opening is left as just that, with shutters or curtains providing a degree of separation, protection from the rain or sun and a degree of security. Etymology reveals interestingly that the word comes from Old Norse ‘wind eye’ reflecting the idea of the unglazed hole.
Briefing and Interiors. The former a cerebral, investigative process to develop a project brief, which will in turn become the spine around which a project is built; the latter a visceral, aesthetic pursuit, often the final word in a new construction. Uncomfortable bedfellows perhaps, though one cannot exist usefully without the other. ‘Through discipline comes freedom’ (Aristotle), and so it is that by careful research, survey and study we define the boundaries that liberate our thinking.
For architects the origin of the word to join is rooted in the idea of carpentry. It is what we do, joining materials to create envelopes for the communities we serve. Like the word construction, an incredibly constructive exercise!
The idea of 'breathing new life' into something is a recurring inspiration found throughout history. Looking beyond its purely life saving role, the metaphor has found a reworking in a range of fields from philosophies to techniques, from rediscoveries of lost thinking and ways of working, to revivals of musical genres captured in the words, '60s and 70s.' It reminds us that the future builds on the past.
We are writing a document called 'How we Work'. It is a big project, putting down on paper what goes on in our heads - whether it is intuitive, a reaction to circumstances and or even just habit.
We just want to be good, is perhaps a thought that crosses the mind of any professional in respect of their work - as with professionals, so too agencies and governments.
Why is it important that what we do is distinctive? Architectural theory oscillates between the desire to be expressive at one end of the spectrum and be embedded at the other. The mood swings of the time influence which persuasion rises to the fore, at times buildings need to stand out and at other times disappear into the surrounding fabric.
We had the idea that it would be good to explore our architectural vocabulary starting with the column. Columns and walls offer support, but the way they do so is different. Their structural function is linear and point respectively, one braces, the other does not.
We have a wonderful job as designers. It is a thrill to explore the needs of any situation, test possible solutions and hone the response until that magical day the design becomes reality, shaping the lives of those who interface with it. It doesn't stop there, because monitoring the design in use is part of the learning exercise that informs our future responses.
In the context of our remarkable project to restore the Glasgow School of Art, we were reminded during the bid, whilst undertaking a forensic examination of the reconstruction of a bay of the Library, about the wonderful reality of the 1:1 detail. Mackintosh understood that consummately. The opportunity to excavate that thinking is a reminder for us all of the significance of the relationship between making and touch – because detail is what you touch – at 1:1
The latter half of the twentieth century saw a challenging shift in societies relationship to religion and the buildings that house it. Remarkable work by the Archdiocese of Glasgow, the Church of Scotland and external bodies such as the Scottish Redundant Churches Trust sought to manage that change, facilitating reuse and the transfer of buildings. Looking back a large number of buildings were saved, sometimes less successfully than we would have hoped, but on the whole the tide of demolitions was held back.
Considering the process of how we make our architecture goes far beyond simply asking what steps we take. It’s about understanding why we take those steps in the first place, looking at what they offer to the greater exercise of building the foundations on which to develop a project.
We believe strongly in the importance of the need to differentiate between places. Places are shaped by the specific and the general. On the one hand we have the specific geographic and topographic nature of each natural setting and on the other broadly accepted attitudes to the provision of roads or building styles which are shared by many cities and towns.
The Part 3 exams giving entry to to the profession have just happened. For any architect, they will remember it as a tough threshold to cross - the point at which one emerges from being a student of architecture and becomes legally entitled to carry the title of Architect.
No company, institution or organisation is the same. On the other hand, how we build our spaces is often shaped by similar strategies of optimising the space provided, efficiency of the floorplate and service cores including stairs and toilets. The result is a curious blending of difference and sameness. The fall guy in this situation as you can imagine is often the people side of the equation. Buildings are such inflexible entities, change takes time, whereas organisations alter constantly their constituency and how they work. Dovetailing the two is a major challenge.
We group our work interests into two bundles. City and Land sits in what we call our 'methodological' grouping, that is the work we do adds up to a way of working common to all projects in the office. City and Land obviously represents our concern for each context. Taken together with 'Conservation' which is the story behind each setting we are working in and 'Briefing and Interiors', the activities in each place, our methodology informs every project. Our mantra then - know the place, it's story and think about the activities that take place.
We were taken on a metaphorical road trip of our projects as part of our Places to Live annual review. The hunch we had before we started was that we would discover how embedded our housing is in the traditions and contexts of each place. Picking out three groupings on this journey, a familiar trend can be observed.
City and society has been the theme shaping our years effort in Creative Workspace. Our building envelopes and interior frames encapsulate a reading of how the community we serve works and interacts, or perhaps how they might like to act. As designers we envisage how the society of users who intend to occupy the building, might occupy and vitalise the spaces and enclosures we create. The challenge for us is to understand in what ways our contribution to these settings works – how actually does our architecture influence these settings that these communities occupy?
We have a clear methodology of how we deal with any conservation project in the office. In short, we seek to reconcile the act of repair in relation to a broader cultural context. All good conservation projects depend on regular inspection and documentation that concerns our cultural building and landscape heritage. On the one hand, it is vital that we factually record visible deterioration and identify the causes of decay and in turn propose effective solutions that involve the minimum intervention and best technical solution. However, on the other hand this meticulous examination requires the ability to appreciate the ‘message’ and ‘value’ of the cultural asset we are trying to sustain. The ‘condition’ seen simply as repair and not through the lens of culture diminishes the focus of our attention, reducing it to mere stones and mortar rather than a reflection of our society’s priorities. To this end the Conservation Statement and Statement of Significance are important markers of this broader interpretation. They provide the foundation of our actions.
The idea of the importance of the temporary as a tool of conservation was introduced to the office. Studies undertaken as part of the Masters of Architectural Conservation at The University of Edinburgh, determined that the introduction of a temporary use into vacant buildings led to improved building condition in over 75% of cases. Moreover there was evidence to show that through temporary activity jobs were created, crime was reduced and there was a tangible sense of community benefit so much so that English Heritage and Historic Scotland now acknowledge temporary use as a conservation investment tool.
Society is constantly evolving and in parallel the legislative framework changes to respond. It places ever changing responsibilities on our professional lives. Key to our role is our ability to adapt to these changing legislative, social and financial contexts as we respond to society’s expectations of us.
We are all so much more aware of the context within which we operate. The old boundaries of professionalism and experience, which were the route map to guide our actions, whilst still operating, have to be seen against a backdrop of innovative communication, fresh collaborations and novel performance. In short the rules of engagement are being rewritten.
Buildings historically have primarily been seen as mono functional – that is designed around a specific use and largely closed to all but those interested in that use. Think of churches, factories, even offices and the shops we use. This kind of view historically paralleled how we have viewed the house as a series of definitive rooms, from the entrance hall, living room to the dining room, kitchen and bedrooms. Gradually this idea of compartmented living has eroded so that now we see blurring between the boundaries of what we see as activities not defined by rooms such as open plan kitchen living spaces.
There are lots of reasons for looking back at the achievements of previous generations. It can be for fresh inspiration. Or it can be to find out how they reacted to circumstances that might inform our actions now. Another reason might be to distinguish the traces and origins of the influences not on what we might do but rather on what we see around about us now. What you find is that some aspects have ballooned into major current impacts others have withered leaving next to no trace whilst for some we regret the lack of take up of what seemed then good ideas.
Much of our work focuses on the city - the city shapes what we do and it then shapes us. It does that through compactness and proximity of form, interconnectivity and mobility, variety of use and promotion of activity at ground level. The scale of our projects and contribution has largely been about repair and relative to the city stage we operate on, the insertions are relatively modest.
It is important to review projects once built and in use and take lessons from them. One way we do this is to ask colleagues who were not involved in the project delivery to go and independently experience the building and report back on how it is working. There is a point where the ownership of a building reverts from the imaginings of architect and client to the realities of users and managers of the building so we can use these insights to the benefit of projects we are currently working on.
We have an office mantra that we would like to make a difference to people's lives. In our City and Land CoG we seek to do this through creative planning and promotion of high quality people centered places founded on research and policy development.
It is almost a year since we effected the transition to an Employee Owned Business, so we are in a process of examining how we are getting on. The context which we are doing this has been an improving market and an exciting growth in opportunities to contribute to making good architecture. One aspect of that review is to check how we provide technical support for our design thinking but also how we manage the exponential explosion in the auditable requirements of our work.
Many of our projects are about improving the visibility of an organisation or an art form - whether it is the demonstration of the production process (our new project for Edinburgh Printmakers), opening up to new audiences (our Theatre Royal project for Scottish Opera) or indeed the revealing of a rich architectural and narrative heritage (our recent submission for St Peters / Kilmahew).
Our Briefing and Interiors team posed the question during their last Monday morning asking what we expect from our interiors? A number of voices emerged about the nature of the interior in its relationship to the outside, its role as a platform for life, its sensuality and its primacy. We have collected these thoughts below:
What is the future of the places we live in? How are they going to change, develop and evolve? We see two broadly related futures, the first is a need for a fresh partnership between the public and private sectors, and the second the development of a homogeneous model of building that embraces and does not differentiate tenure type. In respect of the public private relationship the recent opening of New Gorbals Housing Association’s 201 unit housing project at Laurieston highlights one potential model amongst many – that is for the public sector to assemble land, prepare a masterplan and seek private sector partners, in this case Urban Union, to redevelop the land with an element of publicly funded affordable houses to kick start and build confidence in the opportunity.
Take a cross section through any mixed group and their state of health, and it is remarkable how dependent we are on our National Health Service. Our office cross section of maladies included a broken hand and ankle from a couple of games on the five a side pitch, various family visits to accident and emergency, prenatal appointments and variety of care for ageing parents.
We think it is good to carry out a review of buildings we have completed. To do this we ask colleagues who have not been involved with a project to appraise it. A new angle on this review process was posed, to explore retrospectively how our contemporary ideas on conservation thinking and strategies inform our new productions. The building in focus was our new boarding house for Fettes College – Dalmeny House which sits overlooking the central building of David Bryce’s Fettes College. What we hoped might emerge is a sense of how the architectural history of ideas, that has developed the campus, might feed an intelligent contemporary contribution. A sub text to this exploration was to reinforce the idea that history is an integral part of our present thinking, indeed it can yield surprising insights feeding contemporary creativity but above all, it can place what we do now in the context of that history.
What a great two weeks the city has experienced as it has invited the world to share its streets and venues. The shift in mind set was palpable from dancing policemen to seated invasions of the pavements, an intoxicating musical ambience and whiff of street food, spontaneous performance and impromptu conversation
Anyone who was in Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games cannot fail to have been impressed with the management of the event across the city. Hosts of enthusiastic volunteers supported officials from the city, specific venues and sports bodies. Everyone benefited from the ambience and welcome, ensuring one of the most exciting public events in Glasgow’s history.
For most of us, the closest experience we have of change - is changing our minds. So what makes us change our minds, is it that we find ourselves doing things the same way, is it that we feel too comfortable and safe or is it just a niggle that makes us feel uneasy. And then you make a change and suddenly you ask yourself why you hadn't done it before. Most of the time we do this within ourselves but sometimes we seek advice from a partner or friend.
The annual Theatres Trust conference has proven a fertile ground for exploring ideas about the nature of performance, its appropriate stage and audience. This year was no exception with its focus on ‘community’ theatre. In our recent Monday presentation our colleague Nicola gave a resume of the conference to the wider office.
There is nothing we like more than the thrill of excavating the history of any building we are working on. Part of the charm is the hope of finding something unexpected, some fresh insight that makes sense of its form and its origins. We have many tools in our bag to help us on the way. The first of course is to look hard at what is there. But it is looking with an intention to unravel the complexities of the built form - how was it made, how is it working, or not, which is often the case? Sometimes we look with machines that open up the fabric to get under the skin, at other times we try and look from where you can't normally go - through walls with infra-red, down drains with cameras or into the sky with cherry pickers.
We are often asked to make architectural contributions to what clients refer to as 'centres'. Reflecting on what we do, everything can be regarded at some point as being a centre. At its most obvious a public square like George Square in Glasgow is such a centre, whilst in complete contrast we can think that each of us individually acts as a centre as we move through space. The trick in making any collective centre is to reconcile these individual needs, in a collective form. A number of aspects emerge.
There are two policies in the Scottish Government ‘Creating Places’ statement on architecture and place that seem not to be about the tangible aspects of place making, rather they deal with the crux of the process of delivery - 'engagement and empowerment' - that is working with and for people, and 'investment decisions informed by place' - which represents the necessary resource which is needed to shape our environment. As a crude synopsis, we might dream about making new places and environments, but it is only with people and money that you make the dreams a meaningful reality.
Do you ever get the feeling that the ground you are standing on feels like shifting sands. In the bid to make building delivery more efficient, react to the digital age, increase the speed of the processes we follow and engage with the technologies that support us a whole series of interconnected realignments are taking place and relationships undone and reformed.
There is an apocryphal story that the US architect Eero Saarinen in judging the Sydney Opera House competition was dissatisfied with any of the submissions he had been given sight of and decided to go back through the rejected schemes. In this review a series of diagrams caught his attention. Somehow he convinced his jury colleagues that these diagrams were the winner. A quarter of a century later the iconic Opera House emerged. These original sketches show a vigour and clarity of intention that in spite of the challenges were in broad terms delivered.
Unveiling a new building can be a nerve racking experience. Of course to various degrees the designer will have sought to embed or not the new entity in its setting to look like it has always been there, or make a new statement. Historically in our cities a common material bound the various experiments together - stone or brick the expressive qualities being moderated by a certain material consistency.
There is as yet no one architectural material that can do everything and be all things to all people. The advantage for the sculptor or the painter is generally the ability to concentrate through one material medium all the ideas about content. For a few artists that limitation proved too restrictive and in pursuing the idea of overlapping materials the idea of collage was born.
In our Creative Workspace CoG we are involved with buildings that can contribute to the public life of the city, as well as providing private space for work. One of our aims for 2014 is to look at how our projects can be more engaged and embedded in the city. One of the challenges is how we depict that public - private relationship.
The conservation agenda influences many of our projects. We have over 30 years experience ranging from working on the Glasgow School of Art to the repair and conservation of Rosslyn Chapel. We have worked with a host of organisations with broad interests in conservation such as Glasgow City Heritage Trust and The National Trust for Scotland and others with more specific agendas such as the Archdiocese of Glasgow and Church of Scotland General Trustees.
Irrespective of your views on the importance of the independence debate in pushing forward change, there is no doubt that within the architecture and place policy unit of the devolved Scottish Government, huge strides have been made to position place-making within government policy. Its interrelationship with other policy units is also well developed. Two strategies stand out to us, Architecture and Planning – the advocacy of processes to support the creation of successful quality places, and Cultural Connections - supporting creative responses in the enhancement and preservation of our existing built heritage.
Three months in it is still too early to assess what has been achieved in our change to an Employee Owned Business. What we can say with certainty is we have a renewed determination to arrive at a consensus about our vision of a reassembled architectural praxis.
Why did it take us so long for the Employee Owned model to emerge? Perhaps the best answer is we needed to rebuild the engine of our practice first, take apart how we practiced, organised ourselves, related to each other and the outside world. That was a painful journey but a journey where we got a lot of help.
When we set up our architecture office in 1981, it was a different world. Drawing boards, angle-poises, tracing paper, masking tape and dyeline prints were the tools of our trade. Outside the office, community architecture had become mainstream adapting to the new agenda of saving the backcloth of our cites rather than renewing and rebuilding them from scratch.
Occasionally book buffs will come across black and white picture books from the 19th century, usually leather bound with embossed national swirls enclosing plate photographs capturing the essence of our culture as it was seen then. A panoply of images, castles set against rocky slopes and vivid skys, steaming waterfalls emerging out of forests, swirling bandsmen performing to attentive hoards and the ubiquitous collection of emphatic stags, docile highland cattle and alert Scotty dogs.
Much is talked about the housing deficit and hardly an election, local or national, goes by without a pronouncement on the need for vast numbers of new houses. The increment of measurement is extraordinary, with units of 100,000s bandied about like confetti. For most of us we measure numbers of houses by where we live, maybe sharing a close with seven others, living in a terrace of ten or perhaps 20 or so in a street, either side or across the road - but 100s of thousands?
Has our attitude to work really changed? The Calvinist tradition celebrated the work ethic. It speculated that through necessary toil we will be rewarded, well at least some of us. For many of us, whether voluntarily or not having to work longer for that ‘reward’, what has certainly changed is the nature of work. For many the toil associated with our industrial manufacturing world – real work - has been relocated elsewhere in the world. For those left behind, the work we do is different. The digitisation, the extension of our thoughts rather than our manual effort has been critical to the transformation.
We have always been conscious of the need to understand the broader context in shaping our design work and inevitably that care led us into looking after the inherited fabric at the same time. It is that blend of new design and the historical precedent that has fundamentally shaped our output over the last 30 years.
We have decided to do an experiment on ourselves. In moving to our office almost six years ago now, we transformed how we worked by creating a neutral but expansive grid of workspaces, roughly all the same size with all the usual associated support meeting spaces, kitchen and crit spaces. We had come from a tight basement to this refurbished old department store floor and it was a luxury to revel in the new space.
Architecture emerges from a brief which describes the needs. It can however be a huge challenge for individuals and organisations to define and translate their often intangible needs into specific and identifiable descriptions of space, especially if your are not used to doing it. Of course as architects we can bring our experience of briefing together with the client knowledge to help that process
We have documented previously how we adopt different geometries to resolve the complex planning of the settings of our buildings and urban plans. But do they have any pedigree and what are the underlying principles for their use?
Forethought, or in other words planning, is an essential part of everything we do. Within every moment of our lives we consciously (and not) shape our future whether in action or thought. In an odd way we plan that future. For us as architects and designers, planning has become synonymous with a statutory hurdle, but looking beyond planning is about not stumbling into that future but anticipating it and managing it.
At one of our recent project workshops we were asked by our client “What does ambition look like?" We found that to be a surprising and somewhat unusual question. We are well used to describing what our buildings look like, how that new architecture might contribute to making new settings for public life, in short describing a vision of what the future fabric might be and how it might work.
Behind each and every project there is a story which guides and informs us during the design process. Ultimately the finished building becomes the embodiment of that story. Ideas, words and strategies become transformed into physical reality, the intangible becomes physical.
It has been a year since we represented ourselves in our new website platform. What was important in our re-visioning thinking was that the website should reflect the people in our office and their contributions. For that we needed to have the ability to update content ourselves as we go along. News and particularly the Monday Word has allowed us to offer controlled glimpses into how we work and created a platform for individual views and presentation of expertise.
As Architects we interact with clients, consultants, contractors and our colleagues on a daily basis but are we collaborating with them? Collaboration is working together to achieve a shared vision, it isn’t splitting the project up in to parts, rather working together to maximise on each others strengths to create solutions.
For many of us, we recognise our cities as largely, if historically, being made up of buildings defining the public streets and more occasionally squares and parks. Less visible but still an important part of this urban form are the back gardens associated with these buildings. Some of our projects such as for New Gorbals Housing Association work within this framework of public street frontages and rear back courts, and indeed a public garden.
We were recently invited to make a presentation at Caledonian University to a number of estates directors for Scottish Universities. One of the themes we explored in our discussion was the idea of 'gateways'.
Making good architecture requires not only the culture that shapes our imagination but also the processes that lead to its delivery. The latter comprises the technique without which architecture is not possible. Anchoring technique are processes and disciplines we adhere to, such as those enshrined in health and safety legislation namely: good management manifested through a broadened sense of responsibility, competency and awareness; the safe delivery of the practicalities of buildability, usability and maintainability, and finally the application of common sense to what we do through a sense of proportionality, communication and documentation of the process.
It is hard not to be impressed by the dynamic that lights up our cities whether the grand dame of festivals, the official Edinburgh Festival and its maverick Fringe sidekick, or in Glasgow its Merchant City Festival or neighbourhood celebrations like the West End Festival.
We have been fortunate over the last few years to have been part of strategic programmes with universities in Spain and Poland, focusing on shared planning and conservation issues. Our office has become a home base for these deliberations and it was the collaboration with the Copernicus University in Torun to the north west of Warsaw that was presented this morning by Natalia Burakowska and Ann Patelka, both students in the Conservation Studies department.
So often the spaces we create seem to be controlled and shaped by regulations or follow established rules. The challenge is to look beyond these rules, seeking out the physical characteristics of a space that might promote the activities in it, or frame the user in a special way. In seeing space making as not simply regulation compliance we need to create alternative methods to discover how people experience, react to and inhabit what we imagine.
There is a quality about certain areas that defines them. We develop names for them such as neighbourhoods or quarters. A quarter clearly implies being part of a greater whole, it’s identity in part, defined by the city around it. But often what is important are the qualities that make it distinctive and in particular consistent.
There is something magically ambiguous about the two phrases ‘God is in the details’ and the ‘The Devil is in the detail’. We are reminded of the perhaps apocryphal story of Basil Spence, asked by one of his colleagues while working on the roof details of Coventry Cathedral, who would see it. Spence looked up to the ceiling and said, he will. More likely he meant God rather than the devil but the anecdote nicely captures the spirit and challenge of the detail. It has to work well supporting the visual quality of the building as a whole, yet if it fails there is a long way to fall!
An intrinsic part of a building is that you can get into it easily. Or so you might think. Many of our great historical settings are memorable as a result of the articulation of the entrance, often in the form of a cascade of steps surmounted by a colonnade to amplify the sense of approach and importance of the building about to be entered. That kind of approach suited its society with its clear view on social hierarchies and how building form could support it.
At the root of our masterplanning thinking is the desire to understand the character of a place to ensure that, at the very least, we make an informed contribution to each each setting. We are however at a serious disadvantage as the proposals we describe in our masterplans can only be a general layout and distribution of built form, not the detailed anticipated design of the buildings. Our understanding of existing character is however hugely shaped by the built form. How do we then capture this without knowing what the buildings will be like or often what the buildings will contain in function?
There is nothing more enlightening than to listen in to a client speaking about their building that you have contributed to. At the recent annual Theatres Trust Conference Colin Marr director of the Inverness Eden Court Theatre spoke on the subject of theatres in use and in particular his experience of its redevelopment. Here is a precis of his thoughts which Nicola shared with the office.
For those who remember the film Towering Inferno, it describes the gallant architect in the guise of Paul Newman opening up a building services cupboard and realising that something has been missed out of the electrics thereby endangering the whole tower. For most architects then, it probably crossed their minds that an architect wouldn't have known that, before reassuring themselves that it is an imaginary tower and in real life that is not really how buildings are built. No one person knows everything about one building, a whole host of people contribute.
There is a common misconception that architects design architecture for themselves. This impression might be the result of media focus on a few individuals, and because the efforts of the full design team are overlooked it seems as if one person does everything. The client is vital to the team. Architects design to reflect client needs, by drawing out a full understanding of these needs through a briefing process.
How long a house, a terrace or an apartment block will last, nobody really knows. Weather, fire, population movements and societal changes can all lead to the redundancy of the built fabric whether individual buildings, neighbourhoods or even areas of the city or town. Two attitudes prevail in these circumstances; demolition and clear out, or reuse and renewal. Each in their own way represents extremes of position. One supports the idea that form is bespoke to a function ie that form is moulded around the internal activities like a glove, the other that function can adapt to form by responding to its idiosyncrasies.
Most of our professional life is spent providing documentation describing an anticipated reality in the form of a building and its setting. This documentation takes the form of words and specifications which confirm what we have said, drawings and modelling, both digital and physical, which imagine what we will see.
Two dark shadows hang over our conservation work; asbestos and rot. Asbestos is a consequence of collective historical handiwork, where the building and product industry pushed the edges of technology to create a versatile and incredibly useful material that we found ultimately to be a silent killer. Rot is nature's killer, not of people but of the fabric of our buildings. Albeit without the health consequences for us, the impact of rot's silent creep is from an economic and disruption stand point, extremely significant.
op·por·tu·ni·ty [op-er-too-ni-tee] noun, plural op·por·tu·ni·ties. 1. an appropriate or favourable time or occasion: Their meeting afforded an opportunity to exchange views. 2.a situation or condition favourable for attainment of a goal. 3.a good position, chance, or prospect, as for advancement or success.
There are remarkably over three hundred museums and galleries in Scotland. We have been fortunate to have worked on and thought about a number of them, at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, The McManus in Dundee, the National Museum of Rural Life at East Kilbride, Rosslyn Chapel and more recently thinking about the Cambo estate in Fife, and the Kelvinhall in Glasgow. This immense cultural collection, together with the collection of commemorative settings, memorials, mausoleums, viewpoints, walks, taken as a whole provide a remarkable cultural platform from which we can look at ourselves and share with others. We are in that interesting position both as a participant in shaping how that cultural setting is seen, and in our private moments as sightseer’s too.
Sometimes we use our Monday morning to look beyond our own work. We are lucky to have working with us an ex Strathclyde University student whose final year project focussed on a contribution to a settlement in Bangladesh and this formed the focus of our Monday discussion.
We have talked often about how recessions force building owners and users to rethink how they might adapt their existing building. The choice to renew or move, a challenging equation at any time, becomes even harder. That difficulty is compounded where there is a change to domestic use. There is no question about the operational convenience of moving and starting again, technically you can get an up to date solution, you can build around your needs and at its simplest you do not have to deal with the disruption of building going on around you. However when money is tight and there is a risk aversion to the thought of buying a site, overcoming the planning and procurement issues, looking at an existing building can become an attraction. In favour of reuse it is often a question of the softer values, the cultural heritage and continuity with the past both in terms of the user, use and neighbourhood setting, and physically the potential to exploit the existing enriched spatial qualities which a more formulaic new construction might limit.
In our tough commercial reality how is it possible to engender joy from the experience of our buildings. At a technical level, buildings and in particular our interior spaces, emerge from an understanding of user needs in the form of briefing with the intended being interiors intrinsic to the architecture and not a finish applied afterwards. To get there, a structured briefing process is crucial as it provides an intimate knowledge of the user at different levels, potentially informing design decisions at all scales and becoming more personal the smaller the scale. This is manifested in that interior architecture, and should reflect this understanding of the user's requirements. Is that enough? One way to expand the potential of our contribution is to learn the lessons of others.
Court is a word full of associations. As a noun, meanings extend from architectural definitions of space surrounded by buildings, to settings for royalty, the administration of justice and sports. As a verb it appears to prompt activity that seeks to gain favour or hold forth. This dual spatial and social interpretation seems pregnant with possibilities to inform our design approach.
We see conservation both as a role we play but also as a support for all the projects we do - our oft repeated mantra is that every project sits within some conserved context. That understanding is now underpinned by a host of supportive documentation contributing to the methodology we apply. They include statutory legislation, charters and policies, publications, pilot studies building on empirical data and crucially, information on potential funding streams.
A vital part of our site analysis at the start of a project is the process of ‘constraint mapping’ where we identify (usually with our design team colleagues) specific constraints in relation to sites we are being asked to consider.
‘A linking association between people, things, or events’. As so much of the work we do is with listed buildings, or set within existing environments, inevitably we need to link our new provision, whether a new building or addition, to what is already there. We have to make connections – between users, activities and settings.
It is always good to remind ourselves of the motives that drive us. We did that this week by asking everyone to sum up in a post-it note word the ambition for the year. A rich and diverse range of words appeared splitting roughly into two camps - the aspirational and the technical. Under aspirational we had; ideas, progressive, nimble, give, zeal, explore, resilience, thoughtful, special, digest, Geddes, holistic, transmit, reprocess, origin, sight, fun, mediate, believe and protect. Whilst under technical we had clarity, care, rigour, precision, and craftsmanship.
The 2008 financial shock in one go, top sliced a whole sector of work across our industry. Housing which had always been an investment vehicle, had over stretched itself across the board to the point when the elastic was cut, a whole industry seemed to be wiped out in the rebound. Almost overnight it seemed we had rewound thirty years to a position reminiscent of the mid 1980s where, certainly in our inner cities, only public sector work offered solutions to the housing pressures that existed and that dependant on the availability of funding.
More and more of our time is spent in search for work. In the spirit of fairness, a plethora of official procurement routes have been established for public works, demanding both thought and time to present a reasonable case for selection. Rippling now into every facet of public and private sector design team procurement, we have had to become conjurors of words and display boundless energy in making each case.
We have a circular diagram in the office, a cross section through our office thinking structure with City & Land (our group looking at urban and rural planning) as an inner core, a mantle crust of Conservation around this core and three continental masses ‘orbiting’, Creative Workspace, Arts & Culture and Places to Live.
We start the year with annual reviews of all the sectors we work in (what we call a centre of gravity or COG for short) and the Arts & Culture CoG kicked things off with gusto. The active membership of this group is limited but we were reminded that the noblest aspiration of our architectural efforts involves everybody in the office. As architects we are all by default members of the artistic community.
Many of our most recent projects have been about bringing a blend of activities, sporting and intellectual, that until now might not have been seen as comfortable bedfellows and been considered as needing separate buildings, more often than not, sheds. Glasgow City Council has pioneered an alternative approach in the last 10 years deliberately bringing activities together that might benefit from cross involvement of participants. Thereby libraries and sports centres have found themselves sharing facilities.
It is often said and it may be apocryphal, that Le Corbusier did not talk about architecture with his clients but only about business. His mercurial ability to merge his business ventures whether publishing, fabrication or building with the integrity of his architectural genius and opportunism remain unmatched.
"to take effective shape, come into existence". There is no greater thrill than to see what has been conceived and drawn become reality on the ground. Where once was empty space becomes new form and enclosure, redefining at that point in time our relationship with that environment.
We are often asked 'what do architects add to the process of shaping our environment?'. In response we often use the word vision, introducing the idea that somehow we can look into the future and see how the building or space will reshape the users and visitors to it.
It is of course a double-edged sword. A technical definition of the term is that vision combines ‘imaginative insight, statesmanlike foresight and sagacity in planning’, all qualities that architects would like to think themselves well endowed with. The step to seeing ourselves as ‘visionary’ is a short one but one which reveals the inherent danger in our role. Its definition is less attractive : ‘indulging in fanciful theories’.
In the process of delivering vision we need to ‘see’ with our imagination a desirable possible future and at the same time anticipate its realisation. This task, or quest we take upon ourselves, inevitably will question and challenge customary or assumed values, existing methods and practices. And In order for us to see the vision translated into reality we need to persuade people to support it and be sufficiently convinced to entrust us with that responsibility.
But there is always a break clause. We need to convince ourselves that our proposals are neither fanciful nor indulgent. The enormous pressure to visualise that future in the myriad of perspectival possibilities at our disposal, creates a potentially dangerous tool in the hand of us vision people. In its sheer enthusiasm it can blind us to the criticism of fancy and indulgence through its overwhelming display of photoshop realism.
Respectful of that danger our visioning processes are tested two fold - firstly in our support for the monotone calmness of the built physical model and secondly in our adoption of persistent reviews; crits in old fashioned terminology. All architects remember that student rite of passage, the public exposure of ideas followed by rational (and irrational) critique, distilling the project back to its essential qualities on the one hand or exposing the poverty of the idea construct on the other.
Whatever the fanciful and the indulgent we're cruelly exposed.
Architects manage change. Everyday, what we do, is about changing the environments within which we work. For every situation there are extremes of possible change, from wholesale renewal to minor adjustment. Our office's starting point is to seek firstly the minimum adjustment in each situation and only when necessary to extend that remit to a more dramatic contribution.
Reflecting on the topical issue of whether self regulation or statutory controls are more effective in so many aspects of our life, from health to finance, from journalism to the media, it is interesting that the construction sector has been a test bed of increasing regulatory controls. Two such procedures, in the demand for air tightness in buildings to prevent unnecessary heat loss, and in the acoustic performance of domestic buildings show that increased expectations have led to an increase in construction standards and building quality across the board. Has regulation worked?
There's no better way to start the week than a surprise visit along the road to our nearly complete project for Clyde Gateway at Bridgeton Cross in the form of the now transformed Olympia Cinema.
As part of an ongoing development of our thinking we spend time looking back at completed buildings and projects. These reviews ‘feed’ our approaches to future projects as well as remind ourselves of how issues were raised and resolved.
The ability of existing buildings to accommodate and in turn represent contemporary functions is a remarkable quality of our cities. Retail, commercial and education activities have embedded themselves in that fabric. Location is obviously a key aspect, the existing city has convenience and adjacency and contemporary functions benefit from this. The capacity of that existing fabric to meet new needs is our greatest challenge. Historic Scotland is clear on the contribution it can make:
"What is a Cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing" Oscar Wilde. We are living in times where we are constantly having to assess relative value against the means available to us. What, we may ask, represents ‘value for money’?
Are the inbetween spaces of cafes, bars and foyers – those spaces between ‘street to seat’ - in our theatres, museums, Burgh Halls, churches, now the places that promote convivial exchanges, the social glue that binds us? Whilst a nice to have, do these spaces contribute to our happiness and wellbeing and how do we convince clients of the value of investing in them?
The studio reviewed the Design Guide - New Residential Areas for Glasgow. This new document has the potential to shape the city for the next generation. It seeks to do so by merging roads design, planning and SUDS (Sustainable Urban Drainage) challenges.
'Every site has a history and should be seen in the context of its physical and social role' neatly summarises the foundation to our creative explorations of any project. A series of Glasgow photographic curiosities was presented as a context for this discussion.
We take Civic Life for granted, but what is it, who invests in it and how should architects contribute? Civic Architecture emerged in a popular sense in mid 19th century settlements in the form of administrative offices, assembly rooms and later Libraries, Museums and Art Galleries. It is to that legacy that contemporary councils, community preservation trusts, individual philanthropists, third sector interests and architects are looking to act as a new foundation for serving community need. The complexity of these client organisations and their often aggregated briefs should not be under-estimated nor the inevitably fragmentary nature of the procurement process. In this complex process the architect’s role and skills can make a major contribution to these initiatives, at a grass roots or visionary level by enabling, filtering, persuading and facilitating fresh approaches to this civic provision.
In the context of the spectacular Olympic Opening Ceremony, Thomas Heatherwick's exhibition at the V and A was discussed and in particular his thesis regarding the loss of the architect's close relationship to the builder. The growing recognition of this disconnection should be a spur to action in the recapturing of inspirational architecture achieved through making and building conceived together.
“Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong." Ralph Waldo Emerson. The majority of our work in our studio is a creative action responding to a need identified and instructed by our clients. We then spend increasing amounts of time and effort during the consultative planning process trying to minimise negative (and encourage positive) reaction from those in the community affected by the proposal (as well as statutory bodies), in order to get agreement to proceed.
The Arts and Culture Cog focused on two issues; the new Corporate Plan for Creative Scoltand and the recent Theatres Trust conference on Delivering Sustainable Theatres.