Articles from our writers

Article 25 by Isona Shibata

The changing fashion of Birmingham by Emma Sinha

The Future for Architects by Steven David Jones

When in Rome by Gordon O'Connor-Read


Article 25

Isona Shibata
Recipient of the RIBA Boyd Auger Scholarship 2009

Since starting as a volunteer at Article 25 in October, with financial support provided by the RIBA Boyd Auger Scholarship, my knowledge and understanding of work in international development has increased immeasurably. Article 25 provide building services to those most in need around the world, working in partnership with NGOs, aid organisations and local communities to bring added value to their work. As an intern with the Design Team, I have had the opportunity to work on a number of their current projects, and have also been involved in developing some potential new projects for 2011.


Women from the school community take part in a map making workshop to enable Article 25 to gain a better understanding of the local area.

In November, Article 25 undertook a feasibility study to Burkina Faso, where we have been appointed to design a new model school building, as the first stage towards a large scale increase in the educational capacity of a country with the world’s second worst educational standard.

In preparation for the feasibility study, it was my responsibility to manage field logistics; set up meetings with project partners; develop workshops for community consultation; and devise costing tools to use with potential contractors. I have learned a great deal about the kind of data that determines the projects in which architectural design can make the greatest positive impact - for example, how many children currently have access to education in the area, what proportion of girls go on to secondary school, and the reasons why many girls drop out of education in Burkina Faso. This side of the work is fascinating, and formed a great introduction to assessing and monitoring long-term aims and objectives in development projects. The feasibility study was very productive, and I am looking forward to assisting the design team on this project over the coming months.

The study in Burkina Faso prepared me well for the next project: in December, Article 25 carried out an evaluation project in Afghanistan, looking at the government’s school reconstruction programme. Two staff from Article 25 went to Kabul to oversee visits to 60 schools throughout the country. In the London office, I was involved in producing the report, collating and representing graphically the information that had been collected in the field, as well as data provided by a number of international agencies such as UNICEF, JICA and Save the Children. The review considered all aspects of school construction; from planning and design to implementation, procurement, quality control, disaster risk reduction, community participation, and value for money. A number of recommendations were made for both the Afghan Government and international donors on how to improve the programme for future school building, and we will be sending a member of team back to Kabul soon to present our findings to the Ministry of Education.

It has certainly been interesting to see how Article 25 take knowledge across projects and apply their experience to different scales of work - many of the aspects that were considered for the construction of a single school in Burkina Faso are relevant to wider school construction programmes, and certainly informed the recommendations made in the larger Afghanistan review. Article 25 will soon be returning their team to Haiti to continue their programme of repairing earthquake damaged schools, so it will be interesting to hear what they have to tell us, and how these projects will inform the Safer Schools Programme that Article 25 will soon be starting in the office, promoting safe and appropriate learning environments across the developing world.

The generous award of the RIBA Boyd Auger Scholarship has allowed me to gain invaluable experience, giving me an insight into the importance of appropriate architectural design, and the value that the professionalism of architectural practice can bring to projects in the development sector, rebuilding after disasters and alleviating poverty. 

For more information on Article 25, visit their website.

The deadline for applications to the RIBA Boyd Auger Scholarship 2011 is Friday 1 July.

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The changing fashion of Birmingham

Emma Sinha

Emma Sinha

Emma Sinha, Birmingham City University Part II

Like fashion, Architecture carries trends and styles enabling it to always reinvent itself. Coco Chanel compared the two disciplines when stating that ‘fashion is architecture; it is a matter of proportions.’ Looking at the urban grain it becomes apparent that architectural styles have had an influence on shaping cities. That being said, Birmingham city centre has followed different trends over the years, resulting in a variety of building styles. Nearly every style of architecture can be identified in the city, from the art-deco Electric Cinema to the post-war Rotunda and the more recent Future System’s building for Selfridges. Even postcards printed to represent Birmingham display the juxtaposition of modernity and heritage. A new controversial scheme continues this trend in the changing fashion of Birmingham.


Image courtesy of Mecanoo Architecten The REP, the Library of Birmingham and Baskerville House as three distinct volumes. Transforming the square into three distinct realms and reinforcing the main pedestrian route moving through the city.

The new library of Birmingham is under construction in Centenary Square (the largest public square in Birmingham) set to replace the Central Library in Chamberlain Square. Mecanoo Architecten have been appointed as the architects for this scheme. There is a divided opinion about the proposal: some feel there is no need for a new library in these financially difficult times, whereas others feel the scheme is important in the evolution of the city. Mecanoo have the difficult task of not only designing the soul of a city, but also satisfying the people of the city.

The site for the new library is sandwiched between Baskerville House, a listed former civic building constructed in the 1930s and the Repertory Theatre built in the 1960s. Both buildings are a representation of a certain period and are iconic pieces of Architecture set within the fabric of Birmingham. Francine Houben, the founder of Mecanoo Architecten, said: ‘every building has its own identity from a certain period and it’s our task to bring all these periods together over the last century for the next century.’ Their approach is not just about offering a place for books, CDs and new media; it is about integrating with the existing urban fabric. They want to create an identity for the city and the people of the city, celebrating its history. This notion has developed from the practice’s philosophy which is not about a certain style or form but about reflecting the ingredients of the city, picking up on and reflecting what is already there.


Image courtesy of Mecanoo Architecten The REP, the Library of Birmingham and Baskerville House in Centenary Square, Birmingham.

The project has the potential to create coherence in Centenary Square by integrating the REP theatre into the design. Mecanoo’s design could transform the square into three distinct realms – the monumental reflecting Baskerville House, cultural reflecting the new library and entertainment reflecting the REP theatre. If successful, the project will form an urban narrative of important periods of the city. It has the possibility of exhibiting the changing fashion of Birmingham in one square. 






The Future for Architects

Steven David Jones, Oxford Brookes Part II


 Steven David Jones

Building Futures, the RIBA’s think tank, compiled a report on the future for architects, featuring large practices to ‘one man bands’, students and graduates to developers and clients. Two lectures followed the release of the document, the first a rather grown-up one at the RIBA and the other a more casual discussion at the Gopher Hole in Shoreditch. The first event was predominantly attended by older members of the profession, who in some respects had seen the glory days and were now witnessing the repercussions. The other event had a higher number of younger students and professionals.

Although what the document highlights may seem obvious, it does give a good platform for thought. The first discussion left me slightly deflated, in that we would leave the ‘dream-world’ of architecture school and enter the doom and gloom of a profession in crisis. It made it seem that we would have to become an organiser, a paper shifter making sure the right things go to the right place. We leave with a range of skills, but ones that only have a small significance in an industry with far too many graduates for a limited amount of places.

The second discussion was a little more uplifting, with the board made up of a wide range of people from the profession, as well as two non-architects (one from Greyworld, a public art installation team, and one from an advertising company). They were both taken back when it was made apparent that, for most of the profession, architects don’t get involved or have a control in the making process.

When the board mentioned the point that the act of building had been removed from the architect’s responsibilities it dawned on me that the future for architects is possibly to return to the past, back to the model of the master builder. If we are to strive as a profession then we need to put ourselves back into the driving seat, delivering a product of quality, by creating good relationships with clients, contractors and other professionals. These professions all have their own views on the architect, with some practitioners in the report having to abandon the professional title in order to gain clients.

We are taught as students to develop a broad range of skills, utilising our creative talents in order to produce an effective solution. Sticking to the traditional role of the architect, a model supported by practices like Feilden Fowles, is something that the future of the profession needs to be flexible on. Surely this is exciting; we have the opportunity to mould the potential of our own profession and affect how architects will approach the built environment for the coming decades. 

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When in Rome


 Gordon O'Connor-Read

Gordon O'Connor-Read, Bartlett School of Architecture Part II

Rome is a city with indisputable heritage that has influenced many designers and architects for generations. However, as soon as a mild shower descends into a torrential downpour, much of the city’s antiquity starts seeming less appealing. Yet, like any self-respecting bunch of Londoners well versed in getting drenched, we marched on towards our destination, the new MAXXI museum.

Leaving behind the grandeur of Piazza del Popolo, our group arrived in the Flaminio district near the army barracks, home to the city’s newest cultural institute. The completion of the (MAXXI) National Museum of the 21st Century Arts signalled an end to more than ten years of planning. Comprising five connecting areas, Zaha Hadid’s multidisciplinary venue is dedicated to the arts and architecture, far away from the historical heart of the Eternal City. As a consequence of this distance the MAXXI feels like a stand-alone complex, neither part of the city nor held to account by its past.


MAXXI exterior

MAXXI National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome (exterior), Photographer Roland Halbe

While standing in the main foyer, you immediately find yourself drawn to the lattice network of walkways and staircases high above, pinned in by the mass volume of exposed concrete around you. The ribbon-thread movement of the staircases is a focal point of the interior and forms a labyrinth akin to the work of local artist Piranesi, renowned for his atmospheric etchings of elaborate prisons. This approach is visually striking from many vantage points, but not entirely kind to traditional modes of curating. A lot of the gallery space seems to have been sidelined in order to accommodate this type of circulation within the building. Whereas most museums make us follow a conventional path through their various thematic installations, the MAXXI attempts to shake this familiarity out of the visitor by creating multiple routes to any exhibit. This is an interesting tactic, but not a new one having already been employed in other less conventional museums, such as John Soane’s in Lincoln Inn Fields, London.

MAXXI interior

MAXXI National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome (interior), Photographer Roland Halbe

Commissioned as a new cultural hub for a new century, the MAXXI still looks back to a bygone era when 1990s conjecture heralded museums as the new cathedrals, an epoch of cultural significance. Its name suggests a future centenary of cultural and artistic development, but its appearance is rooted in the ideology of the last century. For the moment, the marriage between content and building is still in its infancy, especially when the museum itself often becomes the centre of attention at the expense of those exhibiting inside. In a city that prides itself upon monumentalism, the MAXXI is certainly uncompromising, but never dull. 

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Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed here are solely those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the RIBA