Tag Archives: Mecanoo

The Property Revolution; Buildings, Spaces + People.

The fundamental purpose of most buildings is to accommodate people. But are buildings really focused on people or value?

Look back ten years and the world of UK property was, by and large, pretty mundane in terms of buildings being delivered I think. A very commercial, corporate and profit driven approach was applied to a lot of new buildings in the residential and office sectors particularly. Houses and apartments were fairly uninspiring places both internally and externally. Offices were largely run of the mill with grey carpets, suspended ceilings and open plan spaces, to accommodate rows and rows of identical desks. In the wider city context, buildings sat next to each other, but the spaces between them were sterile and lacked genuine use and interaction by people; they were just the spaces to move around.

The following five years witnessed one of the deepest recessions in history and a major compression in development activity, especially outside of London. The ‘other side’ of the recession has seen new thinking and new demand, with fundamental need for new and different supply.

Today, thankfully the built environment in the UK is changing. I actually think we’re seeing somewhat of a revolution in the built environment. Design is back and People are the focus.

Last night I attended an event in Manchester and heard Tim Heatley from Capital and Centric deliver a compelling talk about designing “awesome” buildings, focused on people and how they use spaces inside and out, rather than bland boxes which offer some degree of diversity, but don’t create a culture, vibe or an energy. A lot of what his company are doing is based on reinventing existing buildings and giving places life, character and identity.

05_canal-st-raisedKAMPUS in Manchester by Capital & Centric + Mecanno.

Society has changed hugely in the last ten years, especially with our need for connectivity in all we do. The way we work, learn, socialise and interact has evolved and the environment we use is starting to reflect this now.

The rapid rise of PRS (private rented sector) Living promotes a new world of housing. One which, thankfully, isn’t wholly focussed on build it cheap and sell it fast. This institutionally funded approach to delivering rental living provides a lifestyle and quality which must last. This in turn provides a better quality of environment within which people can live, work, socialise etc. Interestingly a sector I’m close to, student living, is well ahead of the curve in this approach. There are many built examples of how this works and the PRS offer is very similar.

On a different level I’ve heard Tom Bloxham of Urban Splash talk a lot in recent months about a brand led approach to property. His vision is a focus on space, choice and diversity, not just the number of beds in a home. He rightly argues that homes should not be valued and sold on the number of bedrooms, but the actual floor space a house has. His latest HoUSe offer blends contemporary design-led homes, which are innovative in their construction, and offer a new car style ‘options’ approach to making your home suit your needs and aspirations. Customer choice and flexibility is the central focus.

Urban Splash_HoUSeThe Urban Splash HoUSe concept.

The office world, or “workplace” as it’s now referred to, sees a strong resistance by many companies from the bland, grey corporate environment. Leaders like Google and Facebook have offices which are uber cool, creative and collaborative environments, underpinned by a primary focus on people interacting, sharing ideas and working together, rather than sitting at a desk and working in relative isolation or using corporate meeting rooms to interact. “Collaboration” is what it’s all about and the industry leaders in this new approach are influencing the full spectrum of business now.

Google Workplace3Google Campus Dublin.

The use of buildings and spaces are now about creating character and identity, by making them diverse and flexible in their offer and giving people a strong reason to be there.

So what’s the big deal? The seismic shift in how the property industry is approaching new buildings is that the focus is firmly on creating ‘buildings for people’ and places with ‘character and identity’, this isn’t just talk now, it’s real. It’s an obvious thing to say, but actually I think ten years ago that focus was really lost. Buildings were more about money than people.

Now there is a distinct connection between people and the environment creating long-term sustainable buildings which in turn creates value.

The Library of Birmingham | Rewriting the book

Think of the coolest contemporary building in your city. A building which is innovative and cutting edge in both its form and function. I wonder if anyone has thought of a library? I suspect not. Unless perhaps if you live in Birmingham.

From working in the higher education sector over recent years, I have seen a new breed of ‘Learning Resource Hubs’ emerge; a new type of library which incorporates digital media and creates working areas where interaction is promoted. These are good buildings.

Whilst in Birmingham last week I visited the recently opened Library of Birmingham. It’s was designed by Mecanoo architects following a high profile RIBA international competition which attracted Fosters and Hopkins, amongst others. The building cost £190m to build, which is bold for a local authority to expend that much cash through such austere times. But this project has a long history and has seen numerous iterations, on two different sites, designed by different architects. I must admit; I knew very little about this building, other than having seen its ‘bling’ facades emerge when driving through the city.

20131124-205812.jpgThis building is like no other library I have experienced. It’s principle function is as a contemporary library, but it’s use is wide ranging. In its short life, it’s has become a visitor attraction and more than that; a community hub. I wandered around for a short while to understand the different levels and experience the different spaces. What was very evident was that this 35,000m2 building attracts every age and walk of life. People come here to read, relax, see the city, have business/ social meetings, see/ exhibit art, work, eat/ drink, surf the net and no doubt much more. The building had a positive, but respectful buzz of activity and interaction – not something you’d typically expect for a library. A trip up to the two external landscaped terraces provides good views of the city, although looking down onto Birmingham city centre is a real mixed bag!

Birmingham seems to have a history of pushing the boundaries when it comes to facades. The Selfridges Store at the Bull Ring was bold in its time. The facades of this new Library take a new dimension. The building envelope is extensively glazed and highly insulated to achieve strong sustainability credentials. But the appearance of the building is defined by its intricate, curvaceous extruded aluminium frieze. This is a German engineered and manufactured system which sits nearly a meter off the main facade. It’s gives the building great depth and articulation and looks equally impressive both in day and night time thanks to its reflective colours and uplighting.

IMG_6219aI strongly suspect that this is an architectural solution we will see more of in the future. The principle being; a simple, flat facade which provides high performance, with a decorative second layer which is completely open to creative freedom; not confined by windows, structure, services etc. Although the building envelope for this project cost £14m so it is expensive as well.

Circulating through the building is interesting. You travel on escalators through a series of connected atrium spaces. This gives you a great appreciation for the scale of the building. The bookshelves extend out to the facades radially on plan from the atrium. This optimises daylight penetration and creates generous spaces in between the books which have a wide range of seating areas. The top levels are accessed via a glass lift which passes the closed off archive facilities. The very top of the building has a final surprise; A wood-panelled room, originally designed by John Henry Chamberlain and built in 1882 to house the Birmingham Shakespeare Library. It has been dismantled, labelled and relocated to the rotunda. Its been called the Shakespeare Memorial Room. Having traveled though such a modern environment, it’s strange to arrive in a traditional old space at the top.

IMG_6248alibrary of birmingham sectionThis building is genuinely impressive on a number of levels, in both its use and form. I think it is a strong precedent for contemporary architecture and is well worth a visit if you’re in Birmingham. It’s definitely a building to see AND experience. I think other UK Cities could benefit from a building like this; something which adds to the City identity and creates a contemporary community facility.

The Library of Birmingham does rewrite the book, its just a shame its not more British!

RIBA Stirling Awards 2013. The Shortlist

I have recently watched the BBC News documentary on the RIBA Stirling prize shortlist for 2013. Its worth a watch – and can be found on BBC iPlayer.

“The UK’s most important architecture award is not merely a beauty pageant; the judges look for original, imaginative and well executed designs, which excellently meet the needs of their users. The shortlisted and winning buildings reveal the pinnacle of current architectural talent – buildings that on all fronts and in every detail inspire those who use and meet them.” RIBA Stirling Awards Website

This years shortlist consists of the following;

1. Astley Castle. A modern intervention to form a holiday home within a medieval castle/ scheduled ancient monument. The dilapidated ruin, of which the UK has many, faced an uncertain future, but the innovative idea of creating a ‘new chapter’ for this structure is an interesting concept. However a building which presumably was open to the public has now taken on a more private use – is this the right thing to do with a building of such historic importance?

2. Bishop King Edward Chapel
. The brief was to create a contemplative and prayerful environment. The chosen design was conceived as elliptical boat-like structure within the Oxfordshire countryside. The architecture is simple, modern, bright and light. An uplifting interior has been formed which certainly provides the ‘wow’ factor according to its users. I think this is a sensitive and positive interpretation on creating a modern place of worship, which is always a difficult thing to achieve I believe.

Bishops king edward chapel
3. Giants Causeway Visitors Centre.
Certainly a building which blends into its environment. It only really has two part-elevations as the structure is submersed into the ground. However the visible external elements are clad in Basalt rock (to match its context). Internally it is very efficient in its energy usage via various sustainable systems employed. The interior is rather organic in its planning, “there is no set route through the building”; its open to user interpretation. Clearly a very public building, and a well recieved one it would seem at that.

Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre
4. Newhall Be
. A new concept in greenfield high density living. Or is it? These black timber-clad boxes promote big windows and open plan internal/ external spaces for the modern needs of housing. However, this scheme is just one part of an extensive ‘new thinking’ residential development in Harlow, Essex. Around ten years ago I visited the recently built Proctor Matthews development called Abode. This was one of the first phases on this site at Newhall. In my opinion the Abode scheme is far more successful than Newhall Be as a modern interpretation of ‘the housing estate’.

newhall be
5. Park Hill
. A huge project on the top of a hill in central Sheffield. An iconic concept of ‘new living and streets in the skies’, when first built in the late 1950’s, It’s design was inspired by Le Corbsier, but it suffered social decline and dilapidation over the years. Urban Splash have delivered a very positive conversion of the scheme to create high density living which enjoys two-storey dwellings, with large open-plan living and big window views out. Commercial uses have also been introduced at ground floor. I have seen this project emerge over recent years and have the utmost respect for Tom and Jonny in their work. You have to admire this project, if only for its sheer scale!

Park Hill
6. University of Limerick Medical School. The second Irish project in the mix. This is good design, delivered to a budget. Exposed materials internally create spaces which are flexible, but perhaps appear too basic? A new academic building is the main event, whilst three residential blocks (student living) surround it. I think this image sells it best, but otherwise it doesn’t seem to stand out?

Uni Limerick Medical SchoolSo my vote? Park Hill by Urban Splash.

The winner will be announced on Thursday this week at a ceremony which wont be televised for some reason? The judges this year are;

Sheila O’Donnell – architect, O’Donnell + Tuomey
Paul Williams – architect, Stanton Williams and winner of the 2012 RIBA Stirling Prize
Stephen Hodder – architect and RIBA President
Dame Vivien Duffield – philanthropist and Chair of the Clore Duffield Foundation
Tom Dykchoff – journalist and broadcaster

Common Themes from this years shortlist are;

  • Modesty, Harmony, Make do and mend.
  • Exposed materials internally dominate (concrete/ stone/ brick/ blockwork etc.)
  • Natural Light features highly in all buildings through large windows/ openings.

Do these six buildings represent the ‘cream of 2013’, I’m not so sure personally. I think there are others which should perhaps be in there.

In the BBC programme, David Sillito concludes his documentary by asking the following questions of the buildings;

Does it work?
Does it lift the spirit or corrode the soul?

I think these points are valid. In a world where “austere” has become somewhat of the norm over recent years, the challenges facing architects are ever-increasing. ‘Signature designs’ are perhaps becoming a minority. A much stronger focus on form/ function and user experience are without doubt the most important factors in achieving the best quality contemporary architecture.

So whats ahead? I think we are seeing an emergence of what I’d call ‘layered’ buildings. These are buildings which have a highly insulated functional envelope, but are then over-clad in a further layer of decorative external facade, this offers aesthetic and functional benefits. An example would be Mecanoo’s new Birmingham Library.