Archive for April, 2007

Architecture re-housed: Part 1

Monday, April 23rd, 2007

A break from the standard blogging currency of comment, criticism, conjecture and pointing elsewhere … here’s a series of entries about one of my own projects and how it’s been confirming my growing concern about my generation’s appreciation (or rather, lack thereof) of the history of housing design:

Part 1: to a degree

In November last year I was asked by a client to develop a housing layout for a small site on the edge of Stourbridge in the West Midlands. The brief, set by Black Country Housing Association, called for an ‘exemplar’ environmentally friendly scheme. A layout had already been prepared by others using three pairs of semi-detached properties but large storm and foul drains had subsequently been found to be running through the centre of the site and they required a substantial ‘wayleave’ (zone to be kept free of building) on either side. Very little room for development was remaining.

Can you continue the ‘green’ agenda of the initial scheme? Could we still achieve the same number of units on half the site? Can we have a plan by next week? Can you note that the brief asks for ‘award winning architecture’?

Yes, yes, yes and – depending on your definition of award, winning, or for that matter, architecture – yes:


QR-concept-model1 QR-concept-model3

We have a tried and tested technique in our office. It’s a simple thing but it’s value is often overlooked by those obsessed with the black/white, and/or, left/right, x/y world of the perpendicular. It’s called, for want of a more poetic name, 45 degree planning. It’s come to my rescue often. So often in fact that it risks becoming a style rather than a technique, but for the moment I shall stand by the assertion that I’m understanding the action rather than just reaching for a result. It’s a simple thing but instead of its more popular sibling – 90 degrees – it seems to require a certain deftness. It feels more like a vector. A point on a line of infinite possibilities, rather than a line between two points of known characteristics (*cough* thank you D & G *cough*).

Three existing conditions leapt off the site plan in that first meeting to create the response above: the position of the neighbouring house to the north, the narrow space forced on us by the drainage restrictions and the north-south orientation of the site. The last one creating the need for an appreciation of the solar gain to be equally enjoyed by each property to both front and back, and the potential heat loss to be avoided in the north.

A blustery weekend in a coastal cottage with pencil, paper and Jane Eyre on the TV and it developed into this:


QR-concept2 QR-concept3


The crucial factor in the development beyond that initial site plan proved to be the roof. You can see me noodling about with it on the first 3 sheets (noodling – verb: to apply, through subtle, successive iterations, the full extent of one’s many years of architecture experience to a design problem). The result is a type of scissor roof arrangement in which each plot has two different pitches, one half of which connects to the following plot as the houses step back. We get visual continuity and interest out of the wider street scene, irrespective of level changes, that also creates an opportunity/need to deal with the intersection detail directly above the centre of the floor plan. Ventilation possibilities? Check. Natural light inlet? Check. Character? Innovation? Place making? Check, check and (hello CABE) check.

Returning to the office that week I discussed the layout and house design with older, wiser colleagues. Go and take a look at the work of Eric Lyons, they said. Eric who? said I, not knowing his work. The following week brought the announcement that the RIBA would be mounting an exhibition of his work at Portland Place. The coincidence seemed too great to ignore. I booked train tickets.

Coming up: Part 2 – The RIBA and their terrible muffins

theory about practice

Thursday, April 12th, 2007

Rod, knowing I’ve finally started reading Thousand Plateaus, flicks his wrist and points me towards the sweetest spot of the latest BLDGBLOG interview with Mark Wigley. It’s too good not to repeat at length here:

BLDGBLOG: There also seems to be a huge reliance today on extra-architectural theory, like Gilles Deleuze. But if students were instead locked in a room with some science fiction novels, or even a comic book, it might actually stir up some new ideas. At the very least, science fiction actually addresses architecture. So perhaps the problem is one of reference? Or even of genre? Or just specifically Deleuze?

Wigley: To cut to the chase, if it’s a choice between being locked in a room with a science fiction book or being locked in a room with Deleuze, go for the science fiction book, for sure. No doubt about it. But that’s not a choice against theory – because, in fact, science fiction is an incredibly important mode of theorizing about technology and about space, and the people who produce science fiction are often incredibly canny theorists.

So the problem in the current discussion about theory is that when people say theory they really mean a particular thing. For example, when you say: what do I think about the use of these extra-architectural theories? That makes sense only if we know what architecture is. In fact, what’s so exciting about architecture is that its limits are not clear. It’s a way of thinking; it’s not a fixed territory. In a way, you can reach what seems a long way away – to somebody like Deleuze – in order to get a feel for how those limits are moving. At certain moments in time, Deleuze might seem to be totally inside the limits; at other moments, he might seem a long way away – but that’s not necessarily a move toward or away from theory. Mies’s famous saying: build, don’t talk. Well, that’s a theoretical statement. He had a theory about practice. It’s amazing how many people quote him saying that – they quote a piece of theory against theory.

The more important question is: which theory, at which time, mobilized in which direction? I, myself, would like to be locked in a room with a science fiction book – but that’s just me. Someone else would like to be locked in a room with Deleuze, and generate some thinking for architects that seems much more urgent and seductive and accurate. And somebody can read science fiction and come up with trash – I mean, there’s a lot of junk science fiction out there, and there’s a hell of a lot of bad architecture out there, too.

But I think it’s great that people are reading different books now than they were reading five years ago. There’s no subject an architect won’t talk about. And that sort of restless promiscuity is entirely positive. What’s interesting is that architects have often been informed by a very precise theory, whether technological or political or scientific and so on; but we also learn a lot by just paying attention to the seemingly ordinary details of the city around us. And architects are fantastic at stitching ideas to objects. That’s what we’re really good at.

Architects are builders who theorize – articulate builders.

Which theory, at which time, mobilized in which direction?

This week I ‘ave been mostly constructing a 4 dimensional project program charting the route of the smooth space of the drawing as it passes through the striated space of tasks, people and landscape.


Next week I’d better reach for some science fiction.

twitter meant

Thursday, April 12th, 2007

Not sure I trust the usage comparison results over at These are clearly flawed.


Although if the page tracking stats on the word architecture came with an RSS I might be prepared to overlook the problem.

Willow ribbon

Wednesday, April 4th, 2007

Willow ribbon