Published in the Irish Times
In 1947, as the machines that made war, were put to work rebuilding the world they had destroyed, the architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe declared that the maxim for this new age of ‘progress’ would be: “less is more”. God — if he still existed in the shadow of Auschwitz — was to be found in the stark, minimal details of steel, glass and white concrete boxes. The hero of this new age would be the architect; his gospel, an architecture, that, irrespective of context, from Deli to Dublin, would be a new ’international style’ — concrete promises in an age of optimism and progress.Read More
The Titanic Visitor Centre in Belfast is a very popular tourist attraction. Between 2012 - 2015 it attracted 1.9 million visitors — that's more than the population of Northern Ireland. As a piece of architecture it raises all sorts of question; I'll maybe write a separate piece on those. But, I do find the whole concept a little strange. One the one hand, a kind of expensive shiny Disneyland for disaster. On the other, it tells an important story from Belfast's history.Read More
It was such a privilege to meet some of the amazing young architectural practices that are working across Ireland at the moment.
My article about them can be found here in The Irish Times
There are, of course, so many other practices that could have been included — it really was very hard to choose who to include, so I asked a number of respected voices in the profession for their thoughts which was really helpful.
Perhaps one slightly disappointing thing for me is that I had planned for there to be a 50/50 gender balance in the article. Unfortunately some of the practices I asked for interview, that would have made this possible, declined to be part of the piece. That being said, three of the practices (TAKA, AF and Carson & Cruschell) all have female founders. I also noticed that all of the practices seemed to have about a 50/50 gender balance in their staff.
I had also hoped that we could have more representation from practices in the North. But, again, those that I did contacted either didn't respond, or declined. A real shame as there are a small number of practices in the north doing great work — although I have to say that in the south there is a much more developed and vibrant architectural scene.
I plan to write a lot more about Irish architecture over the coming months, so any suggestions, or practices who would like their work written about can get in touch with me via the contact page.
Last year, on a winters morning in Copenhagen, as the ‘clockwork’ city was beginning another day I walked though the quiet streets of Island Brygge. Snow was being to fall, the temperature below freezing, and out of a small hut on the banks of the canal came two elderly men dressed in swimming trunks, swim hats and goggles. Walking down a ramp towards the canal they both dived in an began to swim. I watched them for about fifteen minutes, doing lengths of the Harbour Bath, a small enclosed area of the canal. They got out, walked back up the ramp, into the changing rooms, emerging ten minutes later dressed in suits, presumably heading to work.Read More
Architecture is contingent upon forces over which it has no control. This is not a remarkable statement; but it is one worth reminding ourselves of.
This contingency is not a binary opposition — architecture imposing itself upon the world, or: there is what the architect does and there is the world in which he does it in. There is the world and the world only.
The world is a world of forces in play. Architecture is already subject to those forces, and in become real (which is to say not virtual; which is to say real, but not actual) it enters into an assemblage of networks and is thus never a singularity in binary or polar opposition, but always part of a contingent realm of becomings.
This sounds quite theoretical. But it isn’t. It is very practical indeed, for it involves thinking about buildings beyond objects and starts to consider them more like machines. Machines that do things, create things and put forces into play......
Something that the profession would do well to continue to remember.
The work of Philosopher Gilles Deleuze and Psychoanalyst Felix Guattari is complex. I’ve been reading them for years and feel that I am still only beginning to scratch the surface of their ideas. But the more I have engaged with their work, the more I have become convinced of the importance of their work for urban theory and architecture.
I recently interviewed Dr Hélène Frichot for an article I am writing. Hélène is an Associate Professor and Docent in the School of Architecture, KTH Stockholm. She is the director of Critical Studies in Architecture, and the Director of Research Studies in the School of Architecture, KTH. Along with Catharina Gabrielsson and Jonathan Metzger she edited the book Deleuze and the City.Read More
The future success of the urban environment of Belfast city centre depends on how successfully the city navigates the next few years. The city is entering a crucial phase — the fourth of three critical phases in its planning history. There have of course been many crucial phases in Belfast’s planning history; to reduce them four would risk reductionism. Nevertheless these phase have had an unusually significant impact on the city and warrant being mentioned.Read More
Finnish architect Alvar Aalto was acutely sensitive to a materialist ontology. Odd, maybe, for someone whose work is more often than not, categorised as 'modernist'. He was a modernist, for sure, but in my opinion a modernist who was true to the underlying principles of the movement — a perpetual desire for reformation from within; for change; for modernising — a forward trajectory, a continuum towards an always shifting goal. Then there are the other modernists; the machinists of genericism — put this box anywhere and anywhere will do; their ears inclined towards to rhythm of the post industrial revolution capitalistic machine: give us repetition without any difference.
Aalto, with his Scandinavian sensibility, refused this homogenisation and instead opted for what some have called an 'organic' approach. For Aalto, his buildings were not just 'buildings', they became part of a living, breathing 'organic' environment. The building and the context entangled together in a kind of dance. Perhaps the best place to see this is in the way he played with lighting often mixing natural and artificial lighting together to create a conversation between the natural and built environments — a brief study of the library in Vyborg is a good place to see this.
This fascinating (albeit quite expensive) book contains a wonderful overview of Aalto's work but also has some great essays exploring Aalto's interesting ontology, well wort a read.
A version of this article is published at Archinet.
I started writing this on the 13th of June. It was going to be a piece on the importance of critical engagement for sole or small practitioners. Thoughts on why, generally, as architects, we don't engage with other practices as much as we should; why it is important to do so; and to tell you about something we did here in Belfast to begin to explore how we might address this issue. Then, on the morning of the 14th of June we all woke up to the news. The pictures. Smartphone footage. Tweets. Stories. Silhouettes of ghostly figures standing in smoke filled rooms behind double glazed windows. The recordings of firefighters as they first saw the 24-storey, 67m high building that moments later they would be entering — “Fuck me, there’s children in there, there’s fucking children in there”. The numbers; statistics; faces of missing loved ones and the beginnings of public displays of collective grief soon to be followed by anger and protests.
Then while the fire still burned — the questions about cladding, fire regulations; the architects website offline, the contractor saying that everything had been built in compliance with current regulations and every few hours the alarm sounds in the fire station next-door to my office, followed by a muffled automated voice and within seconds the sound of sirens. And as I sit and draw and detail and plan and specify and read and design, I wonder what it is they are going to find when they get to wherever it is they are going. I have a friend who works at that fire station; he says that most of the time it’s nothing — a barbecue that got a little out of hand, someone stuck in a bathroom — but then “you get those calls” he says, “the ones you will never forget”. So every time I hear the sirens from my office, I think about him, and wonder if it is going to be one of those calls.
The reason why I am telling you all of this, if I am being honest, is that writing helps me process stuff — stuff like this. I have spent most of my architectural career working in the social housing sector; it was a conscious choice. I have spent hours over the years, standing in cold and damp community centres in council run estates listening to the stories of residents — the problem with the boiler; the letter box that flaps in the wind; the man next-door who covered his entire flat with tin foil for fear of an impending nuclear attack or the eighty-nine year old grandmother of ten, who'd lived in that estate through the blitz, and just came along to see if anyone there had seen her cat which went missing last week.
I’ve stood through year long resident consultations knowing that for the developer it was nothing much more than a box ticking exercise; something to bolster the planning application. I’ve seen social housing residents take payments for their flats for less than half the market value of what the developer will build in its place. I’ve seen some of the poorest people, from the most broken of backgrounds, sold promises that never materialise — for many perpetuating the story of their lives. I’ve mediated heated exchanges between ‘other’ local residents, objecting to schemes, the ones who live on the other side of the fence, who don't want ‘those kinds’ living near them, decreasing their house prices. And I have, of course, taken part in many consultation processes with local residents that are successful, do listen, do include and are meaningful — usually smaller scale schemes.
Anyway, in the days since the 14th of June I have been reminded that, unfortunately, it is often the case that the voices of the poorest and most needy people in our cities and towns are the ones deemed less important, less informed and less worthy of a hearing than the others. I’m not saying that this is always the case — of course it isn't — but it is often the case and it is deeply unfortunate, and wholly unsatisfactory, that it has taken something like the Grenfell tower fire to begin a process that may, we hope, redress the balance.
I have been reminded, that what we do as architects is not neutral: it is political. Architecture is a political act. Intentionally or not when we design and build we engage in the political. Bricks and mortar are the stage set upon which the narrative of the political and cultural is outworked but they are also the realisation, the actualisation, of the political will. Practicing architecture, by its very nature is political; and as a profession we can, and should, and should continue to, use our skills and knowledge to speak for those whose voices are not being heard.
Our studio is in a converted mill just of the Falls road in Belfast and we really like the space. We worked out of this mill before, and knew the quality of spaces that were in here, and we wanted a space that was filled with light . It’s about ten minutes walk into town so its a great location. You know, there’s such limited quality space in the city, so much horrible spec office stuff, which would just be horrible to sit in day in and day out…and the location is in a part of the city that we want to engage in, the inner city and the issues that are associated with the inner city.
We are working in Belfast by choice. Most of our fiends are not, they’ve heading off, during the recession, and theres a reason for that but we are optimistic by nature, we feel that Belfast’s time would come soon, we thought it would come five or six years ago maybe ten years ago, it still hasn't really came the way we see it, but we still have faith that something positive will happen here, and we want to be involved with that and want to be part of it. This is where we live, its where we are raising families, this is our home.Read More
AP+E are part of a new generation of architects emerging in Ireland at the moment — relatively new — they are definitely a practice to watch.
Last week I had the privilege of spending the day with Laurence and others in Dublin, interviewing them for a piece I am working on for the Irish Times.
At the end of the day I walked through the Liberties with Laurence and we talked briefly about the different between architecture from nations with a Celtic or Nordic history as opposed to Saxon/Roman (or Swiss as Laurence quipped).
We talked about architect Steve Larkin's house at Bogwest. Which we both felt captured something of what we meant by the Celtic/Nordic lineage — Aalto's organic modernism, is a good example of this.
Steve Larkin Architects - House, Bogwest. - Photograph by Alice Clancy
I think that these two images open up a conversation about the difference.
I'll be writing more about this over the coming weeks.