ANGLO-SAXON VERNACULAR

First published in the Architects Journal march 2015

The UK’s volume housebuilders are creating swathes of developments around our cities that demonstrate little or no interest in the creation of place
It has been more than 30 years since Kenneth Frampton published his seminal essay on Critical Regionalism. The arguments – calling for a unity between the abstractions of Modernism and the particularities of the genius loci – have not only been won but have assumed a central position in architectural culture. In planning systems across the world the value of ‘place’ and a local architectural culture is recognised, and is valued alongside the universal needs of programme

What makes regionally distinctive architecture is a combination of materials, climatic design and custom. Most countries have complex histories, evidenced in the evolution of building types, adding to a unique sense of place. The shophouses of Melaka speak of a complex history of Dutch colonial rule, of Chinese traditional courtyard houses, as well as ingenious response to the specific climate of Malaysia. In Britain our own complex history in relation to the rest of the world is evidenced in what is indigenous as well as what is imported, from Palladio to Bungalow. We have a rich and varied vernacular heritage to draw on and (apart from the parametric razzmatazz or the craze for building ever taller) contemporary architects take this on in recognition of the contribution a single building has to the wider context.
We have a rich and varied vernacular heritage to draw on
There is another force shaping our country, fast becoming a new vernacular, if vernacular architecture is the result of unself-conscious building according to need. Housing estates are already forming ‘doughnuts’ around many towns, in a recognisable pattern-book model. The big housebuilders now account for 68 per cent of all new housing, as those smaller have gone out of business or been subsumed. Here, the needs extend beyond the immediate and the local. Our towns are being radically changed by those whose ‘unself-conscious building’ serves not only the housing needs of the people, but those of the boardroom and the balance sheet. This is coupled by an increasing dislocation of communities where economics determine that housing is located remotely from centres of work. As we look to the next government to take the issue of housing supply more seriously, we are also seeking an expansion of housing estates and should be interested in how they will shape our country. The RIBA awards schemes have been poor in recognising the contribution that architects have made in housing, a sector that is stubbornly unimaginative and operates a cost model that mitigates against the establishment of good urban places.
For centuries buildings were made as they were required, which Paul Oliver describes as ‘by the people, but not for the people’. The resulting houses, streets and neighbourhoods are delightfully human in scale. It is these places that people seek while travelling – places that are good to walk in and for meeting and observing others. Theories by Jan Gehl or the New Urbanists that espouse the creation of walkable neighbourhoods are now accepted, and we see the desire to prioritise pedestrians and cyclists over cars in city centres around the world. Efforts are made to avoid the destruction of historic neighbourhoods by new development that fails to take note of the human scale of an existing street pattern.
Swathes of land are being carved out for development that shows no interest in the creation of place
Meanwhile in the UK swathes of land are being carved out for development that shows little or no interest in the creation of place. The mechanism of Local Plans to control the quality of development is necessarily restricted, and dependant on the resources available at local government level to produce plans with sufficient design input to effectively dictate future development quality. Despite the NPPF having design quality embedded into the text, good design can only be achieved by good designers, and then only if they are employed early enough to make a substantial difference. Usually by the time the Local Plan has been adopted, the horse has already bolted.
Here in Cambridge we have seen how long-term investment in the future growth of the city has made a difference to the quality of the neighbourhoods that are now being built. It isn’t perfect, but is better than most. Long-term planning has meant that transport infrastructure was built ahead of development, with significant local authority investment in a guided bus system. Car transport is not the only mode – offering alternatives is the first plank of an integrated suburb and a walkable neighbourhood. The local authority was instrumental in pushing for greater quality on a site near the centre that ended up becoming the Stirling Prize-winning Accordia. In the university expansion to the north-west of the city, the value of long-term ownership and investment in a detailed masterplan has made a tangible difference. It isn’t simply about numbers and zones, but actual urban design: streets, spaces, routes and squares. Architects have been employed to continue the design, rather than start it; too often a masterplan is a two-dimensional exercise in highways and densities, backed up by design codes with ‘character areas’.
There are some developers out there making a difference, taking the need for housing and making good-quality places and new neighbourhoods that are good to live in. Among them are Countryside (the developer of Accordia), Urban Splash, Hill Residential, as well as smaller developers such as Baylight, Cathedral, Carillion Igloo and HAB. In Norwich, developer Beyond Green has outline permission for an urban extension comprising 3,500 homes designed around the principles of walkable neighbourhoods. It has shops and businesses integrated into the development, as well as an energy centre and extensive parklands within the site. The ambitions are impressive.
What is disappointing is the effort that it will take to ensure success. It is curious that creating a place that feels like a historic neighbourhood is so antithetical to the way in which the volume housebuilders work. It’s a tragedy that the creation of the next generation’s urban experience is mostly left to companies whose motive is profit and which talk about housing as a product: to them, terraces are a problem; cars on the street aren’t acceptable; mixed use reduces value; landscaping needs maintenance. There’s an Anglo-Saxon vernacular out there that needs to change.

Mole Architect’s executive role

When Alain de Botton’s Living Architecture asked whether we would consider acting as the ‘UK’ architect in delivering houses designed by overseas ‘star’ architects, I paused for thought.  I was worried about lots of things: Would we end up as another architect’s drudge? Is it to be a thankless task? Would we end up bearing the financial brunt of an impractical design?

 

In the ten years since, we have acted as executive architect for three of Living Architecture’s houses- working with MVRDV, Jarmund Vigsnaes and now Peter Zumthor- and for Baylight Properties, working with Peter Salter. The fears were unfounded; instead the experience has been rich and interesting, each job different and with its own rewards.

Each architect has worked in very different ways, and that alone has been interesting to be a part of.  The process of design and communication, and the way that an architect works with a client is different one to another. Jarmund Vigsnaes were measured and steady, with a logical sequence of iterations towards an end goal. Concerns of the clients were worked through, and the design adjusted to suit. Winy Maas on the other hand, when faced with a new concern from the client, would often come up with a radical alternative requiring re-consideration rather re-iteration. His design process suggested that at all times we should be alive to possibilities.

Between the four projects, we’ve seen designs presented and explained as 1:50 models, CGCI images, 1:20 large scale models, and hand drawings.  Mostly each architect has chosen one of these as a way to explore and describe the design, and the client has had to contend with the limitations of each.  Undoubtedly the CGCI images gave the client the clearest understanding of what the project might be, although the investment in time on these during the design process was huge. It’s been instructive to see things a bit more from the client’s perspective. The degree of trust that architects demand in a process that seems to have an element of alchemy is often alarming for the client, who cannot yet see the gold appearing from the pot. Finding ways to reassure, and seeking further information as an architect’s proof rather than a client’s faith was often our role.

This privileged position is a result of a process of working with both client and architect, where Mole have been part of the team as opposed to the project being handed on to us to implement. In all cases the involvement of the design architect was continuous and paramount; Mole’s role is to work as an extension of the architect to ensure that the project is built within the confines of regulatory and contractual boundaries. It has never been a question of interpreting the architect’s wishes, as we have always remained in constant conversation with the design architect, as if part of their own office.  Where details cannot be built- for whatever reason- the architect is involved in changes that need to be made.

Our role has shifted to accommodate each architect and the way they work.  Both the Peters- Salter and Zumthor- have a complete interest in the minutiae of the work, and have drawn everything. Atelier Zumthor are producing all the contractual and construction drawings from their own office, and our role is to assist in getting the project built, co-ordinating information between architect, engineer and consultants and managing the process on site. With Peter Salter at Walmer Yard, Hugo Keene ended up working directly with contractor Daren Bye and subsequently taught with Peter at Cardiff; this level of commitment goes beyond a role described by a Scope of Work.

Being this close to the architect/client relationship is at times precarious.  We feel an allegiance to both, wishing to do our best to get the best building for the architect, and being employed by our mutual client to ensure that the project is buildable, within budget, and works within the UK regulations. In this piggy-in-the-middle role we have had to pass difficult news in both directions and at times broker a compromise between two sides. Mole director Ian Bramwell, in managing the majority of this work, has become a master of diplomacy, constantly treading a line between client and architect. Our ultimate responsibility is to our clients, who look to us to ensure that they aren’t agreeing to something that will later cause them problems, and each architect in their way has been wary of how we might manage this.  It certainly hasn’t been a drudge; each project has been demanding and anything but. And it doesn’t feel thankless either, as both architect and client have been appreciative of our efforts, and we’ve been engaged in creating some great buildings. We’ve managed to fulfil the task without diluting the architect’s original intention, and hopefully emboldened the client to embrace what they sought out in the first place.

 

Mole take over the RA – Priti Mohandas img

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Mole take over the RA – Priti Mohandas

 

In July, the mole team led a workshop at the Royal Academy of Art for a group of young people involved in the AttRAct youth programme.  I was in the programme when I was 16 years old. It is a fantastic youth initiative created by the Royal Academy which aims to involve talented state school students from around London in the art world.

They provide workshops in everything from fine art artist led workshops to architecture, curation, alternative routes in art, and tours of exhibitions. It was a fantastic opportunity that opened what is often seen as an inaccessible environment for a comprehensive state school student. Since leaving, I have been heavily involved with outreach at the RA and thought it would be fantastic for the Mole team to lead a workshop.

Mole has an approach to design which is not too far removed from the students’ experience of design, art and architecture. We like to make and draw in this office and we all have creative backgrounds in one way or another. The premise of this workshop was not to teach the participants to design a building as such, but to simply be immersed and enjoy the actual process of design, and for their final product to be a direct response to the spatial qualities which interest and intrigue them.

The workshop was flamboyantly called ‘Body Space Interface’. We wanted the students to be aware that architectural intervention is often not very obvious. However the small details that we execute in often a subliminal way, along with various social considerations can enhance and subvert our perception of physical space without us being aware of it. The students, in this one day workshop, had to explore unusual spaces around the RA and invent armature (extensions of the body’ which would subvert or enhance their experiences of those spaces.

The day was split into processes of observation, discussion, design, making, seeing it in context, and presentation. The students were split into small groups, each led by a mole. Some explored the dark underbelly of the crypt whilst others explored more communal spaces. The design process involved the team being sprawled on a floor with markers, drawing loosely and throwing sheets of paper around. The young people were bright, energetic and immensely talented. For the making stage, some of the moles did what they do best and raided some skips to find bin lids, timber, and wire.  We got them to think big, and to think of them wearing these armatures as almost a piece of performance art. The viewer’s reaction is just as important as the wearers.

The final stage was the most fun. Seeing these brilliant pieces of art in context as well as the reactions of the people who were expecting a nice quiet visit to the gallery! The mole team formed close bonds with everyone in the workshop and we managed to get some fantastic shots with the help of Hugh’s camera skills. This was a fun, exciting day and hopefully the start of lots of exciting outreach!

 

Ian Bramwell new director

Ian Bramwell steps up as new Director

We are delighted to announce that Ian has been promoted to become Director at Mole, working alongside Meredith to build upon recent successes. Ian has been with Mole for just over 9 years and he has been key to the effective running of the business. As well as his managerial skills Ian also brings a lot of experience and technical ability in delivery as a Project Architect, and he will remain very much hands-on involvement in his various projects across the office.

 

NWC Journal

MOLE MAKES MODELS

At Mole we make models at all stages of the design process. We find that the quality communicated by physical models can’t be replicated in any other way. As much as CGI renders can give a photorealistic view, they somehow fail to convey both spacial and material properties of built projects.

Models and buildings are both real, and perhaps that’s the difference; models give a direct and tangible link between creative ambition and a physical place, conveying tactile information that affects the way a building feels. Some models are quick and rough and designed to make quick decisions about scale or spacial relationships. This particular model is a labour of love from Architectural Assistant Hugh Craft, who has made this presentation model of the NW Cambridge housing scheme. Hugh is mostly buried in details or to be found on site, and this is a step back to see the bigger picture.

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Miranda’s Ugandan school Project Sept 17

MIRANDA’S UGANDAN SCHOOL PROJECT

Miranda (Part 1 Assistant)  is involved in an outreach project in Uganda. Along with some other architecture and structural engineering students she has designed a small series of classroom blocks for a newly founded school in the Bukomansimbi district.

Glorious Nursery and Primary School was set up in February of this year, by a Ugandan friend and ex teaching colleague of one of the design members, Jingo James. It was established to provide free education to over 120 young children who previously had means to afford schooling. However, the school is currently running out of papyrus structures that will be useless when the monsoon rains hit.

Aiming to combat damaging trends of expensive, sometimes unnecessary "volunteerism", the project is not operating through an organisation. The design group have set up their own project to support a project they feel passionate about, and put their skills into practice at the roots, where it can have an immediate impact.

The core design aims of being sustainable, flexible, easily replicable and contextually suitable mean the project is only using locally available materials and simple construction methods that can easily be taught and repeated. Sustainable features such as a rainwater harvesting system and sanitary toilet block are also being incorporated. Most importantly the group will work alongside the local community, teaching them the knowledge they have learned at university and in practice while undoubtedly learning a thing or two from them!

The project is being run on an entirely volunteer basis and the group are funding the project through sponsorship and donations. They need to pay for all the materials as well as hiring a couple of professional builders to oversee the construction.

If you would like more information the project’s Facebook page can be found here ( https://www.facebook.com/seeSOARUganda/?ref=aymt_homepage_panel) and if you would like to make a donation there is a Just Giving page here (https://crowdfunding.justgiving.com/seesoar-uganda). A tiny amount of money goes a long way in Uganda so even the smallest contribution will supply a lot of bricks.

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Invisible Studio

Review for Architecture Today: Invisible Studio’s two new buildings for Westonbirt Arboretum are tucked away in the back, in the ‘working’ part of the estate. A machinery shed and a mess room for paid and volunteer workers, the brief for the buildings was functional and the budgets modest.

The two buildings were designed alongside one another following a competitive tender process, and built with a traditional contract and main contractor. The tiny mess room evolved into a more overtly ambitious small building, while the machinery shed reserved its invention for the construction rather than the form of the building. These two buildings are an exploration of the architectural use of home-grown timber, both achieving much with little.  That they are here at all (experimental timber buildings on a working estate?) is something of a surprise, and part of wider improvements by the National Arboretum.

The estate was largely created by wealthy landowner Robert Holford, whose vast inherited family fortune was made selling fresh water through a canal to London. Holford set about creating an extensive landscape around his re-modelled house, adding specimen and exotic trees, indigenous woods as well as collecting orchids and shrubs from around the world.  Three generations of the family continued extending the arboretum so that when the Forestry Commission took over the estate in 1956 there were 600 acres of grounds with 17 miles of paths. The estate and grounds are Grade 1 listed; the Arboretum nationally important with 120 ‘champion trees’ (the tallest or largest of the species in the UK).

The Arboretum now attracts 350,000 visitors a year, and has recently been through a re-vamp to accommodate the increasing numbers of visitors, with a new Welcome Building and Treetop walk, both designed by Glenn Howells Architects. The Welcome Building- opened in 2014- is a gently curving timber building that divides the grounds from the car park, and acts as barrier as well as a gateway to the estate. It’s a neat unassertive modern building designed to protect incursion into the listed landscape.  It’s inevitable that with this many visitors the original quality of the landscape will be altered, and that the quantity of resin-bound gravel will increase with more people wanting to get between toilets, ticket office, and a restaurant some way into the park.  This is a popular place, with a very active volunteer force assisting the permanent staff in managing the grounds, and a 22,000 strong Friend’s group.  The ‘offer’ has recently been increased with the addition of a treetop walk, which bridges a small valley and allows access to an area previously considered less accessible.

The Stihl Treetop Walkway snakes its way from close to the Welcome Building across the valley and threads its way to land 300 metres away in the woods.  It’s an elegant structure, gently sinuous, with canted striding legs that suggest movement and play, and restrained enough not to dominate the trees.  It slopes gradually and expands out to create viewpoints and transports the visitor through the canopies. Oddly the containment within the narrow pathway in such a vast landscape has the opposite effect of the anticipated vertiginous thrill, akin to suffering a narrow pathway full of people from the cliff-top car park in order to get down to the beach. Personally I would prefer my arboretum experience to be with more trees and less people, but concede that there are many that even having got to the beach prefer crowds to open spaces.  Undoubtedly the buildings will do much to make the arboretum a destination, broaden the appeal of a visit and hopefully encourage a wider exploration.

These changes were brought about by ex-Curator Simon Toomer, a forester with a broad and persuasive vision for continued change and renewal, who over a decade made changes in forest management, including selective felling and the creation of new walks. Under Toomer’s guidance Invisible Studio were chosen on a platform of invention, collective action and education to design the machinery shed and mess buildings.

Piers Taylor teamed up with long-term collaborator Charlie Brentnall, of Carpenter Oak, who also worked with Taylor on a similar pair of buildings for the AA Design & Make programme at Hooke Park. Their proposal involved working with volunteers on the buildings, and using only timber felled at the Arboretum.  The building was part-funded by a £600,000 grant from the Wolfson Foundation (the remainder raised mostly through donation), and the educational and research aspect of the proposal fulfilled some of the criteria for the funding.  Teams of volunteers worked on the construction, and students organised through the Carpenters Fellowship worked with Brentnall on the traditional framing of the large barn. The strategies for the two buildings evolved through exploration of the timber that the estate had to work with; green larch, oak trees felled four years previously, and Corsican pines felled specifically for the building.

Early design sketches for the big shed show the large 20m span formed from a curved Belfast truss, or later trussed portals.  But the discovery of the possibility of being able to use single 20m lengths of pine, and the realisation that a simpler truss would be £100,000 less expensive prompted Taylor and Brentnall to change tack. Brentnall has been framing timber for 30 years, and firmly plants himself in a tradition of construction centuries old. The resulting kingpost truss is both straightforward and impressive; it is likely that these are the largest single lengths of structural timber in the UK, at least, the pair have yet to find another longer. The timbers were worked by hand on site in an act that connects this building to a long history of timber building.  The large size – together with the lightweight roof, which has no weight to resist uplift- has required joints to be designed by engineers Buro Happold rather than a reliance on traditional framing methods. The resulting joints look slightly odd; the steel is present but not expressed, so that the traditional timber housing looks as if something is missing.  The cladding makes use of the rest of the tree; after the structural sections were cut the rest of the section was milled to make the varying sections set vertically with air gaps between. But this building really is about the roof, and the sides are allowed to open fully with industrial segmented doors on both sides, so that the large covered space opens to yards on both sides. The tree team told Taylor that for this building they didn’t want  ‘any arty-farty nonsense’, and the building is anything but.  It feels like a timeless space, and delightfully free from affectation.

The Mess Building sits in contrast to the Machinery Shed, and is designed to be a playful presence in the back yard.  This is a conscious elevation from an ordinary building, and reflects the engagement of upwards of 30 volunteers working alongside the permanent tree team.  Built with a traditional contract but with volunteer labour, the details are sometimes unevenly applied, and perhaps there was simply too much for one little building to take on. But the fact that Taylor pushed hard for a small budget building to deliver more than one might expect is all to the good- this is a building that will lift the spirits after a long day in the woods.

The north entry is via a low overhang, and accessed from a simple ramp from the yard, whilst the south facing elevation rises up to suggest a chapel in a wood. It’s caught between a humble house-in-the-woods and something less familiar.  Inside, the space is a far remove from the kind of community meeting room that might usually serve the purpose. This space would make the volunteers feel especially valued. In terms of its construction, on the one hand the building is straightforward, with larch studs, oak joists, plywood lining, and oak board cladding. But Taylor has tweaked the forms and subverted traditional details to make a building that is designed to be noticed. The oak cladding is left deliberately uneven- a sort of contemporary waney edge- making an art out of expedience, as to mill the boards straight would have added cost. This all-over cladding reaches the ground in a skirt; a hovering moth of a building, unsettling, and ready to take flight.

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Botania Apartments, Amsterdam

Article for the Architects Journal: These apartments by Architekten CIE have a fantastic plan, turning an internal circulation core into a cascade of internal courtyards. It’s an apartment building in central Amsterdam, at the end of Entrepotdok, home of the Dutch East India

Company’s warehouses that have since been converted to social housing. Botania Apartments sit at a turn at the canal and act as a full stop both to the canal and small park on the street. The cuboid building makes an emphatic statement, with sheer sides dropping into the water, although the connection to the historical canalside houses is also apparent. Over-scaled windows with coloured surrounds in brick facades make a gently arrhythmic pattern, and sunspaces to the apartments have glazed screens to balconies that preserves the singularity of the facade.The plan reveals a series of differently sized apartments arranged around a central core, but big so as to suggest a courtyard. A second look will show two sets of stairs and lifts, and apartment plans that cross over the courtyard. Without the section it’s incredibly hard to make out what’s going on, for it’s the shift in the section that allows the plan to exist at all. The generous entrance hall ascends under the transverse apartments which in turn create external terraces to the apartment on the next level. Light enters the circulation- on either side of the void- both through a rooflight, and through glazed screens on either side of the external spaces.It’s an intriguing plan, and a way to make both external spaces and generous circulation within an urban block. It’s a clever contemporary response to the historic condition; the listed warehouses also had internal courtyards inserted to make the warehouses useful as apartments. With ground level commercial units this little building makes positive impact and a sense of continuity; modern living in a historic context.