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

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