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Tuesday, 10 June 2014

'Brutalism' for the 21st century

On a recent trip to Liverpool I came across three rather ugly new buildings on the waterfront. Known locally as the 'three black coffins' they are certainly bold statements and make quite a contrast to the white stone used in nearby buildings such as the internationally known 'three graces'. They are also bold statements to make in the heart of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. How the architect (Matt Brook)  has managed to get away with this is unbelievable. They have been rightly criticised for the obstruction of the iconic view of the 'three graces' from the Albert dock which used to make for one of the best maritime cityscapes in the country. The new museum (which is also not to my taste) has managed to used similar stone (at least in colour) to the existing buildings and blends in better (perhaps because its not such an intrusion into the cityscape). 

n my view the rectangular block on the end on the 'strand' has no architectural distinction and is certainly comparable to the worst examples of 1960's brutalism. The other two blocks although not to my taste have something more about them. The use of Black glass dominates the buildings, replacing concrete as the main material on show. This building could be described as a modern interpretation of the brutalism style. Will it be regarded as a important building and architectural significant building in 50 years time? No one would have believed in the 1960's the moves to preserve the decades examples of  brutalism then. 

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Post-war Planning in Great Yarmouth

My visit to Great Yarmouth was met with much disappointing as I was greatly excited by my research of the town with its medieval town walls and lanes as well as one of the largest parish churches in England. There are two sides of great Yarmouth, the side which looks onto the sea which was developed in the 19th century and the much older medieval side which was the old town which looks onto the river Yare. The side which looks onto the sea is a declining British sea resort and is deeply depressing deprived of interest and full of the tacky British sea side. The other side is that which looks onto the river which is of much more interest. The outskirts and main shopping street are reminiscent of a deprived northern industrial town in there dereliction and deprivation. The town walls which were indeed in some places impressive are mostly hidden from view by buildings and are not used as the great asset that they are to the town. The church, which is very large also did not live up to exceptions and is a mess, the less said about it the better. The one area of genuine interest in great Yarmouth (except the walls) is the quayside next to the town hall where some remnants of the antique medieval town survive. However remnants is the right word as the blitz took a heavy toll on the town especially the 'lanes' (narrow streets running from the quayside) which were one of the wonders of the town. What did survive the blitz was swept away in the euphoric of post war utopian planning so that what little there is left is isolated and does not convey the dense street pattern which once existed. 
Extract from my visit to Great Yarmouth

It is the post-war redevelopment of the quay-side which is of interest in this post. Much of the lanes where lost in the heavy bombing of the blitz although much still survived albeit in need of restoration and repair, however the decision for much of the area effected was made for a clean start like so many other towns and cities across Britain. Yarmouth house just behind the quayside attempts both to stand out and blend in with the townscape. 
Built in 1970 as government offices by Taylor and Green. It stands out due to its height, six stories much higher than any building on the quayside in front but its use of materials and style is somewhat sympathetic to the town (this is debatable). It does not appear to be particularly 'brutal' on first glance but the height and length of the building is clearly making a statement and is unsympathetic to the historic townscape, all characteristics of a building of the brutal school. Its conception is certainly akin to brutalism but its use of materials is a notable exception. It uses flint panels for blank walls, a local material evident in many of the older buildings of the town where concrete would have otherwise been used and tiles for the preliminary roofs also a local material and used where more efficient modern materials could have been used. The pyarminds on the roof are actually functional and house tanks and other utilities for the building. 

Architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner calls the style of the windows (which also attempt to 'fit in' to existing townscape with pointed windows) aggressively mock Gothic and disproves of the buildings concessions describing the overall effect as 'awful'It is certainly an interesting building, I think the use of local materials in new buildings is essential as it conveys the local character of the area (ie. the flint in this building) however the way this building attempts to integrate with the historic quayside and become less conspicuous by 'mock Gothic' and the slate roof (which may be a homage to the slate roofs of medieval town) but at the same time it is conspicuous by its shear size. Such a contradiction undermines the effect of the building and makes it look ridiculous. 

The entrance to the car park (which is shared with the non-descript post-war public library) which is a gap between two older buildings off the quayside is decorated with a blue plaque which explains this entrance was possible by the demolition of a medieval building demolished after the war is a telling sign of post war planning of the quayside area. However some attempts were made to preserve the character of this part of the town. Two of the older houses on the quayside are now museums (run by National trust and English heritage) and a third behind the quayside on one of the old lanes has been rebuild as a museum (see picture left). A handful of buildings which were deemed important were rebuilt in this area after the war (even if other medieval buildings were still being demolished in the name of progress). The rebuilding of the museum shows an alternative way of rebuilding after the war which if it had been implemented on a wider scale could have preserved the unique character of the lanes and made the town a great tourist attraction for its beauty, it was not to be as in so many other cases.

 Above left- another example of rebuilding behind the quayside on the lanes
 Above right- the rebuilt museum with 'Yarmouth house' in the background

Harvey Court Cambridge

Harvey court on the west side of the Cam is one of many new buildings for colleges of Cambridge university. Built for Gonville and Caius college, one of the largest and wealthiest colleges to house 100 university students. Its site is away from the traditional medieval quadrangles of the city (sitting on the opposite side of the Cam) and is situated in the area developed by the university in the 1960's. Its neighbours include the monumental Cambridge university Library (built in the 1930's), the   iconic History Department and the new faculty of law building by Foster and Partners.  Harvey court was built in Sir Leslie Martin's office by Colin St John Wilson and Patrick Hodgkinson and completed in 1962. The court was named after a fellow of the college William Harvey who was a medical pioneer in the seventeenth century.

The main courtyard is actually above ground level on the first floor (hence the steps from the garden with the area beneath used for utilities, storage and common rooms). The design of the building is a modern reinterpretation of the medieval Cambridge quadrangles with the rooms looking out onto the courtyard as they do in traditional courts. It is less conventional in the fact that the courtyard is paved rather than grassed and that it is not enclosed with only three sides facing the courtyard. The fourth side is detached from the main block and faces into a large pleasant garden. The gaps between the two blocks which are not directly joined is taken by stairs which link the garden to the square and the path from the street to square, the main entrance is also located here wedged between the two blocks. 

Each individual room has an outside terrace (except the first floor which goes directly into the courtyard) which is gained from building recessing after each floor. It has three tiers of student accommodation plus the floor below for utilities. When compared to some university accommodation they are luxurious, although the very generous windows could look out to a more pleasing vista as the courtyard is uninteresting and bland in design. 

The inner and the outer exteriors (facing the courtyard and the outside) are a contrast, the former with generous windows whilst the latter has very few and is much more brutalist in its character than the inner courtyard. From the street the building certainly looks brutal and oppressive (the recognisable trade marks of a brutalist building) but from the other side it is much more elegant and pleasing for those who do not favour the style. The stepped terrace gives the courtyard considerable light and makes it feel spacious despite being a rather small site. On the exterior the columns which surround the building on three sides create an arcade, perhaps also taking their inspiration from the medieval cloister walks and quadrangles of Cambridge. The facade is broken. The gradual recess of the upper floors which allows for a terrace is shown on the exterior by the stepped formation of the facade which as it steps back in the courtyard facade it steps forward and is jettied on the exterior facade. The stairs outline on the facade facing the road breaks up the minimalist nature of the building

The building uses bricks extensively through out and heavy glazing in the courtyard. It has been recently restored and modernised with new windows facing the courtyard and the addition of solar panels to the roof. En-suite bathrooms have also been added to each room which makes gives it similar standards to other student accommodation. The project of restoration cost £7.5 million and was completed in 2011 by Levitt Bernstein architects. 

The building was listed as grade 2* by English heritage in 1993 meaning that is protected by law and the recent restoration has meant it is fit for purpose again which saves it from any possible demolition threats.

The facade facing the road showing the stairwell (top left)  
and the columns which create the covered walk

Steps from the garden up to the courtyard

Monday, 30 December 2013

New blog on architecture

So far from 2012 every year I have created a new blog to cover an area of interest in architecture. So far in 2012 I created 'Medieval London' inspired after a visit to the picturesque area of Smithfield around St Bartholomew's church. In 2013 I created 'British Brutalism' as my taste in architecture matured to include more modern buildings. This was partly inspired by a visit to Preston to see the iconic bus station, threatened with demolition by the council. For 2014 I thought I would broaden the content with no restrictions on a period or style of architecture on which to write on, hence I have created 'Nostalgia's architecture' ('Nostalgia' is my profile name in case anyone is wondering). I will write about single buildings, places and issues on which I feel strongly. I travel England as frequently as I can and am always looking for the picturesque, the grotesque and the interesting in our built environment.  

For now I present a few of my favourite posts from Medieval London and British Brutalism  but soon I will get down to writing some new content. (the links of which are displayed on the side). Happy new year!

13 Portsmouth Street

Extract from Medieval London Blog

13 Portsmouth street or the old curiosity shop as it is known is a modest timber-framed building in Holborn London. It would have been insignificant and overlooked for most of its life, that is until that is it acquired the name ‘the old curiosity shop’. Soon afterwards it became very popular with tourists believing it to have a literature connection. It claims to be the inspiration of Dickens novel by the same name. This unfortunately is not true as It was also only added after the novel was released. It was a hoax by the shop owner who wanted to attract more business. The building has been used for many things over the years, it was a dairy in King Charles II reign, a waste paper merchant in the Victorian era until around 1900, a Antique shop and since 1992 a upmarket shoe shop. When it shut as a antique shop in the 1970's it was founded frozen in time with notes and receipts dating back to the 1920's. 

It was built in 1567 with wood from old sailing ships. It has managed to survive the eighteenth and nineteenth century redevelopment of Holborn and the blitz unscathed. Although the building survived, much of the area around it has been redeveloped with the Holborn new road scheme which means that today the building is dwarfed by much larger and newer buildings. From an architectural point of view there is very little to describe, it is a simple two story timber framed building with an overhanging first floor and hipped roof. It is listed 2 * by English heritage due to its literacy connection with Charles Dickens. 

This was one of the only survivors of the clearances from 1900-1905 for the new Kingsway road which passed straight through the area. Many buildings of similar antiquity were lost especially in the clearance of Wych Street .

Preston Bus station

Extract from British Brutalism blog

Preston Bus station was built in 1969 by architects Keith Ingham and Charles Wilson of the Building Design Partnership. It was publicly funded by Preston council and occupies a large rectangular site in the city centre. It houses the bus station in a grand double height area on the ground floor and over 1,000 car parking spaces above. When it was opened in 1969 it was the largest bus station in EuropeIt has always been a controversial building especially in recent years with some considering it a 'eyesore' whilst others consider it a brutalist masterpiece. Its heavy use of concrete sits it comfortably in the brutalist school of architecture however the elegant curves of the balconies soften its brutalist image. In my view it is one of the most elegant post-war buildings in the country.  

The building from the outside is distinguished by the sweeping four tiered (five tiered at the rear) concrete jettied balconies which house the car park above the bus station. Even someone who despises brutalist architecture cannot fail to be impressed by the vastness of the space which the building occupies. I think the design would be much diminished if a straight concrete wall had been adopted like originally planned.The ground floor on both sides is used as docking area for the buses with 80 individual stands. 

Inside the building retains many original features, mostly due to its neglect and lack of modernisation over the years. However as quality materials were used in the building they have lasted well over 40 years. Of particular note in the interior is the flooring, which is Pirelli used in formula 1 tyres, the woodwork which is the African hardwood Iroko and finally the iconic white tiling used through-out the building from Shaws of Darwen. The building is accessed by three subways or via an entrance on the front facade. The interior of the building consists of two long open halls where passengers stand (separated by characterful African wood barriers) and wait for their bus. The two halls are separated by facilities including: toilets, a cafe (with authentic 1970's bright green chairs), information and ticket areas and offices for staff above, Also between the two waiting halls at either end are some small shops allowing one to have a haircut whilst one waits for their bus. Another distinguishing feature of the interior in my view are the original clocks which before the large and unsympathetic signs were put in (out of shot on picture above) dominated the view down the building (see above). Above the bus terminal is four/five stories of car parking which are less distinguished compared with the bus terminal and are not unlikely many other car parks of the era. The stairwells (of which there are four) give access through-out the building and continue the use of white tiling although unfortunately like many other car park stairwells the stench of urine is overwhelming. The 20th century society describes the bus station as one of the most significant Brutalist buildings in the UK.

It has been put forward twice for listing by the 20th century society and English heritage but refused both times. Its lack of legal protection leaves it vulnerable to unsympathetic alteration and demolition. It was first proposed for demolition in 2000 but was fortunately saved when the £700m Tithbarn shopping development collapsed in 2011. However plans for demolition have re-surfaced recently and after a vote was carried by Preston council on the 7th of December 2012 it was decided to demolish the bus station. The main (flawed) argument for demolition is due to the high costs of modernising and maintaining the building. Demolition which could cost £1.8 million could soon begin even though there are no plans for its replacement and the site is earmarked for a bleak open car park which will undoubtedly give the area a more negative image. This seems vaguely reminiscent of the 1960's when fine Victorian buildings were leveled as they were out of fashion and yet the sites laid empty for years sometimes decades. Another argument used has been that it is in the wrong area of the city which is no reason to demolition a perfectly good building, it is a very wasteful approach. 

Public opinion is split on whether to remain or demolish this powerful brutalist statement which is no doubt the most recognisable building in the city. Although opinion is split it was recently voted the most popular building in Preston by residents. The future does not look bright for this 43 year old icon of the city, but there may still be time for the building to be saved. The building is enormously importance for the image of the city of Preston which is full of other examples of Brutalist architecture such as the guildhall and market. It is by far the best example of Brutalism in the city if not one of the best in the country. It also has high value for the tourist industry, it is internationally known building and features in global books of architecture and is one of the 1001 buildings to see before you die (mark Irving). The loss will be a disaster for the city and its reputation by the arrogant Councillors who do not appreciate its architectural importance.   

The bus station is such a unique and unusual building I feel that there must be an alternative to demolition, surely it can be modernised for its current use or adapted for a new one? Someone I encountered when visiting the building suggested a public roof garden, which is an idea I really like. It is this type of creative thinking which the building needs so it can be adapted for a new use. A roof garden would be amazing as the building has a splendid panorama view of the city, It could be enriched by a roof terrace cafe and be a major tourist attraction. If the bus station was to be made redundant shops could be inserted into the docking areas, the car park could be retained as there is still a high demand for parking in Preston, just an idea? If architects sat down and thought about adapting the building I'm confident a new suitable purpose could be found. It is a shame that Preston council are so narrow minded!

April update- Another application for listing has been presented supported by English heritage and RIBA. However an application has been made by Preston council to block attempts at listing the bus station. The future of this iconic building is still hanging in the balance

To help save this building sign the petition (left on the links bar), write to the council in protest or tweet to bring attention to the plight of this building!
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