Articles from our writers

Roddy Bow: My experience as an RIBA Boyd Auger Scholar

Reynold Tsz Yeung Li: Architecture, A Year On

Peter Tait: The Dramatic and the Surreal

Georgie Day: Is the Government Building Schools for the Past?

Emma Graham: Northumbria University Field Trip to Paris


My Experience as RIBA Boyd Auger Scholar

Roddy Bow, Part 1 graduate, Central St Martins College of Art and Design

la courneuve, paris

La Courneuve, Paris Image courtesy Roddy Bow

La Courneuve or 'Les 4000' is a suburban town just north of the ring road that creates a distinction between Paris and its suburbs. The outskirts of Paris are filled with similar housing developments built rapidly in the 1960s and 70s to alleviate escalating housing problems. Once a solution to a problem, these high-rise blocks have become wrongly synonymous with the major economic and social divide between Paris's affluent centre and its suburban high-rise estates. Subsequently many people simplistically attribute a large part of the problem to the architecture itself.

The notoriety stems from a tendency of the media and outsiders to continually denounce the delinquency attributed to these suburban areas. In doing so, these voices overshadow the highly rich and complex sub-cultures and social structures that have developed in the face of adversity. The existing geographical divide facilitates the growth of an 'us and them' complex, which reinforces differences and fuels prejudgment from both sides. Since the violent and prolonged riots that spread across the French suburbs in 2005 there has been renewed pressure on the government to find long-term solutions to improving the situation in these areas.

winter garden - tour bois le pretre, paris

Winter Garden - Tour Bois le Pretre, Paris Image copyright Druot, Lacaton & Vassal

The anger expressed through the youth revolt was unprecedented, its force demanded drastic action from a political system that has failed them. From the government a new call for demolition was put in motion with a target of 40,000 apartments per year, the beginning of a seemingly systematic process. A lack of political belief proposes solutions for the long-term, in which there is no future for high-rise housing. Demolition clearly undermines the identities built amongst these environments and makes way for a new future by the erasure of its recent past, a short sighted vision at huge socio-economic cost. Opinion remains divided; it is clear that many would be happy for these buildings to make way for new housing, but it is a lack of alternatives that fuels a lack of ambition.

The French architects, Anne Lacaton and Jean-Phillip Vassal along with Frederick Druot are among those who reject the process of demolition in favour of retrofitting existing structures. Their approach is based on the notion of addition, increasing the living area and flexibility of existing apartments by removing the façade and creating winter gardens with balconies, potentially doubling the usable space. The work is a process that moves from the inside out, in the belief that if people live well within then external image of a building can transform in parallel. It is also a process focussed on economy and comfort for existing residents, preventing a rise in rent post-rehabilitation and developing a modular system of construction, which is rapid and allows the residents to stay in their apartments during the construction process. There is a belief that this typology can provide a unique and exciting possibility to re-invent the experience of high-rise living and such subversive acts could help to place new value on existing communities.

construction - tour bois le pretre, paris

Construction - Tour Bois le Pretre, Paris Image copyright Druot, Lacaton & Vassal

With the support of the RIBA Boyd Auger Scholarship I began working with Lacaton & Vassal on a project for the rehabilitation of the Mail De Fontenay, a block of 300 apartments in La Courneuve. After years of demolition it is an attempt by the local authorities to save the last significant block in the area. Given that the town had yet to find the funding for the project we looked into their current allocation of finances for urban regeneration. We proposed to consolidate the budget for the pending demolition of Balzac, an identical building, allowing the significant rehabilitation of both buildings, thus gaining 300 apartments due to be lost and using money currently available. By associating the two buildings Balzac became a tool that provided the possibility for a substantial project to significantly rehabilitate 600 apartments. It was a proposal based on economy but more importantly an immediate will improve the buildings as places to live without the current financial and bureaucratic delays, which maintain these areas in a space of limbo.

The proposition remains without response, however there are growing interests and equally economic incentives in an urbanism, which accommodates and looks to build on what we already have. With its increasingly expensive and saturated housing market Paris will be forced to look outside its many self imposed borders, to a future incorporating the potential of its suburbs and their buildings. In my opinion, this couldn't happen soon enough. 


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Architecture - A Year On

Reynold Tsz Yeung LiReynold Tsz Yeung Li, Part 1 student, University of Bath

At the very moment when the chosen conceptual scheme for the master plan of the Hong Kong West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) was announced, I was reminded of my personal mood nearly a year ago when I made several criticisms against the Southgate development in Bath, a project that I regarded as unauthentic and uninspiring.

At the time, I was rather disappointed with what had been decided for Bath, and kept thinking that great architectural opportunities
may once again have been subdued. However, a short walk
through the shopping district in Bath today has brought a different
perspective to me.

A year on from my comments on Southgate (a project that I once wished was more influential and stimulating) and the shopping district is now under full exploitation by the locals and visitors of the World Heritage Site. More importantly, the plasticity of the architecture that concerned me a year ago now seems somewhat irrelevant as the atmosphere is simply euphoric and flourishing. It is unbelievable how a space could feel so different in a year's time.

West Kowloon Cultural District

West Kowloon Cultural District, image courtesy Foster + Partners

Coincidentally, the WKCD winning concept designed by Foster + Partners mildly echoed the idea of Southgate. Proposing an idea of a 'City Park', it was a scheme that, to a certain extent, dully elongated from the existing form of the city, rather like Southgate. It offers what is believed to be missing (a 19 hectare park) and filters out what is unwanted (pollution); hence the comprehensive underground transport system. At a first glance, the winning proposal seemed to only fill in the gaps of the busy city and, as a result, lacked excitement. In contrast, the two other contending designs by Rocco Design and Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) had very ambitious and innovative underlying narratives, actively addressing how each practice envisioned a successful cultural district with unique qualities and energies. However, taking a lesson learnt from Southgate in that there is a fine line between being ambitious and overly ambitious, a less aggressive scheme like Foster + Partners' may simply be more than enough.

Regardless of whether the chosen scheme is the best of the three, I'm convinced that it possesses valuable elements that are worth taking notice as times goes by. A year later, the new venue in Bath has proved me wrong by revealing a side of architecture that was unprecedented to me. Architecture is indeed a means to bring our built environment forward, but the step forward does not necessarily needs to be revolutionary; a step by step gradual approach to making our surroundings better with a little difference could also be desirable. The most subtle changes in Southgate surely had demonstrated the first step of this thought and I'm convinced that the winning scheme of WKCD will demonstrate this further as mentioned in the promotional video by Foster + Partners: 'to knit into the community around so it grows out of it, but it is different'. Who knows? The 19-hectare pollution-free park might turn out to be heaven for Hong Kong. 


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The Dramatic and the Surreal

Peter TaitPeter Tait, Part II student, Dundee School of Architecture

Three vast towers of criss-crossed steel loom over warehouses
and apartment blocks, their tension and verticality in stark
contrast with the flat, grey expanse of the estuary. These improbable apparitions sit upon a base which appears to be a
solid mass of rivets and metal, its strange irregular bulk like an extension of the concrete wharf. The notion that this surreal,
fragile structure can even float seems to stretch credulity, let
alone the image of it standing up to the tumult and violence of weather on the North Sea.

Oil rigs, anchored in the port while undergoing repairs, have become a familiar feature in Dundee. Their strange forms have joined the spires and tower blocks as part of the city's skyline.

What is it about these industrial mega-structures that is so striking and captivating? Perhaps the fact that while they are often huge in size, they are without scale. They relate to a world of industrial processes completely removed from the human scale of our everyday environments. This makes these objects profoundly alien to us. We are used to observing buildings and subconsciously understanding their purpose and how they are occupied. Lacking the common language of doors, windows, streets and steps, these objects appear more like sculptures than architecture. Trying to understand them is like reading hieroglyphs; individual symbols or forms may be recognisable, but the whole remains stubbornly abstract.

Oil rigs, Dundee

These oil rigs bring an otherworldly spectacle to city life © Peter Tait 2011

In some respects these structures are more like objects from nature than something made by man. They operate at a wildly different scale from the rest of our built environment and although we may perceive some logic or system behind the forms, it is a process beyond our everyday understanding.

That abstraction, that lack of scale, that strange, somewhat intimidating presence is what makes these artifacts of industry a valuable addition to our built environment. They are a reminder that the pragmatic can also be dramatic, that the useful can also be beautiful. Our industrial and civil infrastructure has the potential to be a source of excitement and spectacle within our cities.

Viaducts, bridges, substations and gasometers are present in every city in the world, but they need not be treated as necessary evils. They can be celebrated for the opportunity they present to enliven the city, to bring a touch of sculpture to the otherwise mundane and to bring something of the scale and drama of nature to suburbia.


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Is the Government Building Schools for the Past?

Georgie DayGeorgie Day, Part 1 student, University of Westminster

If you are ever in doubt about the importance of what architects
do, journey back down memory lane to school. Recall the explicit hierarchical division spatial divisions such as the treble-height school hall which exhorted the idea of authority, with its
resounding acoustics that amplified a headmaster's voice.
Recall the dingy windowless toilets where you learned to stand
up for yourself, because this was a space which felt that it was entirely outside the remit of adult supervision. School memories
in general, I would argue, tend to take on an overtly architectural dimension.

And that's no surprise, since the architecture of schools is an area where the importance of design is writ large. It was good news then, when in 2004, and motivated by this very idea, the Labour government launched the Building Schools for the Future programme (BSF). As Tony Blair explained, establishing BSF 'was a heroic mission', costing in the region of £45 billion, 'to see the entire secondary school building stock upgraded and refurbished - the greatest school renewal programme in British history.' Although BSF was set up by the Partnerships for Schools (PfS), a cross-departmental body made up of members of government, its main strength was that it recognised the importance of discipline specific, design knowledge. At the outset, CABE was brought on board to consult, research and train, ensuring that those who knew most about design were at the forefront of the decision-making process. The prestige of BSF meant that it attracted some of the UK’s top architecture practices as well, something which school design in the past had rarely been capable of doing.

Tong High School toilets

© Tim Soar, courtesy Anshen + Allen

The importance of design in schools is something which has been proved time and time and again. From obvious dimensions such as maximizing light whilst controlling temperature, to things as specific as making sure a school is not on a flood plain (as schools are still largely paper-based institutions meaning that flooding is more problematic than for most other buildings). Should interior walls be designed to house display boards that are permanent display spaces or transient, drawing boards or box frames? Even something as mundane as this has an impact: Killeen et al. (2003) argued for the importance of the permanent displays of children's work on the basis that it affects their sense of the long termism in education.

BSF was remarkable because it provided the finances and resources necessary so that designers could think creatively about how to resolve school spaces in the most intelligent way possible. A good example of one of the BSF successes are the toilets at Tong High School in Bradford, designed by Anshen + Allen. The main school toilets are unusual in almost every way: located in an open area just off a main corridor, unisex, brightly coloured, built from materials that are hard wearing and that make it easy to remove vandalism, and so on. This level of bespoke design evident here simultaneously deals with problems such as bullying, maintenance costs and keeping up the standard of the toilets (because apparently children are less likely to vandalise mixed toilets than single sex).

Surely there were flaws in the BSF model, in terms of funding in particular. However the decision made by Minister for Education Michael Gove, when the Conservatives came to power in 2010, to completely scrap BSF was a real case of throwing the baby out with the bath water. In place of BSF, Gove's own programme is outlined in The Academies and Free Schools Bill. The essence of the Academies Bill is to make it possible for any interested party, private company or members of the public, to set up their own school. These individuals will be responsible for everything from staffing and funding, right through to design. In my view, this inevitably paves the way for cost savings and corner cutting in school architecture, something we are already starting to see with the wave of schools which are being planned for existing buildings (anything from disused factories or houses to town halls or shops). Unlike the bespoke schools under BSF, these new schools will inevitably be based on compromised design and imperfect composition.

The rejection of the BSF programme in favour of the Academies and Free schools agenda is a regressive step, which loses the insights of the previous government into the importance and potential of good design. 


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Northumbria University Field Trip to Paris

Emma Graham, Part I student, Northumbria University

Emma Graham

In February 2011 the second and fifth year students of Architecture at the University of Northumbria took part in a field study trip to Paris.
The trip, generously subsidised by Ibstock, introduced the students to the city’s urbanism and architectural history.

The first day of the visit began with an orientation walk for the entire group along the River Seine from our hotel in Cambronne (where George Orwell lived whilst writing a section of 'Down and Out in Paris and London') to Notre Dame. Along the way we passed Jean Nouvel's Musée du Quai Branly, Musée d'Orsay and Le Grand Palais, amid many other memorable sights.

After writing postcards home at Notre Dame, a small group of us ventured to L'Institut du Monde Arabe to see the innovative 'clockwork' façade, which changes to control the sun penetration into the building throughout the day. We then walked to Luxembourg Gardens and along to the Pantheon, which, with its 67 metre swinging pendulum suspended from the dome demonstrating the rotation of the Earth, was truly remarkable. We also visited the Louvre and Musée de l'Orangerie, which, disappointingly, were both closed on Tuesdays but were still worth the walk to catch glimpses of their interesting structures.

Paris trip

On Wednesday, we travelled to the north east of the city to Parc de la Vilette, to see Bernard Tschumi’s folly structures that revolutionised urban park design in the 1980s. From here, we travelled back to Sacré Coeur and headed down to the Espace Dalí and to the Moulin Rouge. My favourite visit of the day was to Centre Georges Pompidou (designed by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano). This is an outstanding building that amazes due to its fascinating exterior where all the colour-coded circulation and services are displayed on the outside. After changing at the hotel, we visited the Arc de Triomphe, and then dined in the Latin Quarter.

On the final day, a group of us travelled out of the city to Poissy, to visit Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye. This was, by far, my favourite outing of the trip, as I was taken aback by the architecture and the consideration of the quality of the spaces by the architect. We ended the trip visiting the Catacombs: Paris' underground ossuary.

On behalf of the school, I would like to thank Ibstock for their kind donation towards our trip. It was educational, enjoyable and a great experience for all. 

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.