Big City Oasis

1200px-SFParkletAs a supporter of green spaces, especially so in urban environments, I was intrigued by the concept of parklets when I first read about them in this recent NYT article.

Parklets are defined as pavement/sidewalk extension that provides more space and amenities for people using the street. Usually parklets are installed on parking lanes and use several parking spaces. These “pocket parks” are all different, but tend to include a number of key features such as cycle parking, seating, planters, trees and flowers. This simple concept seems such a great idea in high density areas, where there is a lack of greenery and relaxing outdoor seating areas are virtually none existent.

While a new concept to me, it seems it has been around for a while. While other big-city planning concepts, like roof gardens and green walls, claim environmental benefits, this seems to be the first concept that is just about social improvement. My view is that they provide a little oasis of calm in the extreme pressure of the city. These simple opportunities for just relaxing are a really welcome introduction in urban spaces, and I’d be pleased to see them being  introduced more widely.



Googling Quarters


Plans for the new Google building in London have been released, and while the computer-generated images don’t exactly entrance the eye, it is significant for two things. One, the continued leviathan nature of these corporate temples , and two, the attempt to add a new descriptive word to our language – Landscraper! The term refers to the stated belief that this is a “building on its side”, rather than one just going up. I can’t help but think that someone just tilted the image on their computer screen and thought “OK that will do” and started to add stuff to it, rather than a design philosophy. And no, I don’t think much to the term either!

Following the Apple campus spaceship, these corporate beasts seem to suggest there is no work-life balance, as you can actually live here. With gardens, swimming pools, sports and medical facilities, they create their own gated community of hip young things. Of course, once built they will probably fill it with cubicles, so Dilbert-like. Or maybe worse “hot desks”, though that term is a bit too 90’s, maybe they are referred to now as “co-sharing incubators”. Although that concept defeats me, who gives a damn about the desk, we wanted our own chair! Your floor probably has the latte and chai tea dispenser, so you probably have to wander a few floors up and down, a bit like Tom Hanks (The Terminal) lingering around the place to find a desk, or a coffee machine that does plain black coffee.

These mini-citadels, may not be easy to Create but can be as impregnable to those who work there, as they are to those of us who will never grace their corridors. The sheer scale and complexity defeating the efforts to feel comfortable and familiar. But then you are there to work. So stop staring out those windows!

What’s the time, Mr Wolf?


So central Birmingham is spending £2 million on a clock. Ignoring the contentious fact that this is part of the controversial HS2 project, it does once again raise the question of what public funds should be used for.

The PR spin will say this is a worthwhile project that will provide footfall to Birmingham, based on in-depth analysis that an additional XX visitors will spend YY, that means it will generate Billions and make the £2m a paltry insignificant sum. Except that they are spending an actual £2m, that could be spent on hospitals, libraries, other public services. Any exponential visitors are hard to measure. So here’s a competition – Hull, is the current European city of culture, this year they will get loads of extra visitors. Name one thing that all those visitors are coming for? Thought not, it’s the overall events and activities. Had they spent £2m on a clock, that wouldn’t be bringing in any additional visitors, it would just be one more attraction for those visitors to go too.

But there is another problem with these grandiose schemes. These huge art competitions tend to create a culture of international artists trying to implement challenging schemes to win. And thankfully some of these were overlooked, the train crash one, possibly all too apt with HS2! They are international, they are not local. This clock has nothing to do with Birmingham, it is just an anodyne artwork parachuted into that location. Of course by the time it gets built and modified it will have a developed a local flavour, local voices, but does this really make it unique to Brum? Not really.

Another possible public folly is the garden bridge in London, currently being reviewed to evaluate if it justifies the expense. Couldn’t they just put flowers and greenery on all the existing bridges? Well they could, and that might look really nice. But it wouldn’t be a “concept” would it, so that won’t count.


Building images

Murphy House, named after Richard Murphy, the architect and home-creater and owner, won the RIBA house of the year award this year.

Love it or loathe it, a least it’s a fascinating design, and looks like some sort of house. Other shortlisted ones included the ubiquitous endless glass panels of the Outhouse. Oh come on, give in with the sliding glass doors; and for goodness sake at least try and make it resemble a private dwelling rather than a trendy office block with lifestyle fixtures!

Meanwhile the CIOB are showcasing some fabulous photographs in their “Art of Building” competition. I know with Instagram and endless image banks there are already plenty of striking images, but trust me, these are striking images worth looking at. Plus unlike RIBA it’s a public vote so you can have an input into this year’s winner. But only if you’re quick, before 23rd January 2017. And if you’re not quick, you can look at next years!

My favourite? The art deco of “Control”, by Roman Robroek, from Hungary.

The competition attracts fabulous talent, so is a great opportunity for any budding photographers out there.

RIBA Cycling

While I do admire modern buildings, somehow another year of RIBA buildings are here, and yet again expanses of glass, pillars of modern materials be they steel or concrete seem ubiquitous. I grasp the concept that designers have to design for their clients, but surely someone wants a different looking building in the whole of the modern world, and not one that looks as tho you could design it with lego bricks and then do some sort of computer modelling “substitute sheet glass for lego plastic”. DONE.

I mean they’re all quite striking. But just heft and weight. Not something you can really say “wow”. Last week a Vulcan bomber flew overhead, on its last public flight. The Vulcan has been flying for 50 years. You still look at it and go wow, same with a Jaguar E-type, it just exudes sheer design style.

Burntwood School: Nearly £41million. Please can someone pay a bit of attention to the cycle stand outside the school. Presumably quite a lot of kids could arrive on a cycle. What do they get?. A cold windswept corridor of stark metal hoops. Oh and there’s a rubbish bin right beside them, as if to say this is an area for a right mess, the naughty kids and smokers. Oh and you can park your bike here. Not under cover, not protected. No. just against a metal hoop, near a rubbish bin. Great. Actually maybe it is a striking design feature – the blurb says they have “produced grown-up buildings for Burntwood School, which make kids raise their game, instead of pandering to them” so there! Raise your game don’t arrive by bike.

Rate a Building!

The RIBA Stirling prize for architecture was announced recently, a welcome time to review designs and understand forthcoming trends. For me it’s the swimming pool but then I just like pools!

It’s cool to look at well-designed buildings and feel they elevate the mundane circumstances, especially at work. Here’s a host of trendy offices but have a look again. They are not actually offices or actual workspaces, they’re the communal areas or break-out rooms. You have a feeling that the reality is that all the staff are still in Dilbert-style cubicles and to book space in these trendy areas takes a degree of seniority or months of H&S form completions. Still it keeps buildings on agenda and makes them important, especially important when so many are under-rated.

And what is an oculus? It’s never a good sign when you need to look words up to understand them in an journalism article. Our good friend Wiki provides the following: “An oculus, plural oculi, from Latin oculus: eye, denotes a circular opening in the centre of a dome or in a wall. Originating in antiquity, it is a feature of Byzantine and Neoclassical architecture. It is also known as an oeil de boeuf from the French, or simply a “bull’s-eye”.”

So really a trendy nomenclature then for a round opening. Sometimes you get the feeling architects are just well-paid painters & decorators, painting over the cracks and making things look OK. It’s amusing to imagine the discussion around the London Eye. The architect describes it as a metropolitan urban oculus portal. No mate it’s in London and its gives you an almost birds-eye view of the city, let’s call it the London Eye.

Trompe-l’oeil takes affect

A modern take on those German style fake towns that have trompe l’oeil windows and doors that just look so real. Well now some inspired people have come up with complex optics to mimic the way the sun refracts through standard glass in particular situations. This could be a great architectural design feature, with the added benefits like those winter sunshine lamps are supposed to provide.

Or maybe it turns out to be more closely resembling wallpapers that show countryside views or lakes, cheap tat that does nothing for body or soul. There’s some interesting articles on the graphics of design just for fun. Look forward to seeing it for real (sic) sometime soon. Brilliant idea!

People in glass building’s shouldn’t…

Architectural fashions change and now its suggested that glass skyscrapers are falling (no, that in that way) out of favour with the architectural elite. We have had granite and stone so if architects start to move away from glass then what’s left? Well, it will have to be a sexy new material, and expensive. Car and cycle designers seem to love carbon so maybe that will be the new one. Matt black office buildings of the future! Or maybe Apple will design one and it will be ultra-light aluminium and too thin to fit in! I My suggestion, create them out of the most inexpensive material you can find that works really well and the cover them in (no, not in chocolate) in greenery. And you still shouldn’t throw stones (among other things).

RIBA Prize 2013 – A bit staid or what?

Sometimes it’s good to have an outsiders view. Bringing a fresh perspective and new approach, But sometimes it’s just aggravating. The latest prestigious RIBA Stirling Prize has been awarded to Astley Castle. Its good to know a contemporary prize has gone to something as futuristic and modern as a…castle. Um. Well its been Restored. Sympathetically. It’s a 12th century fortified manor, further damaged by fire in 1978, so attention to timescales has been a big pressure on this project. So our best prize for architecture goes to a pastiche. That’s taken a tad under forty years. Great.

Mind you, it was against strong opposition. Park Hill was a refurbished tower block from the 1960’s. Er…next year can we look less far back in the past and a bit more to something that looks as though it was designed and not just re-designed? Mind you the Sydney opera house has just turned forty. That still looks cool. Possible RIBA winner next year?

Design your own museum!

The design museum awards are always an interesting amalgam of what is new, with what’s considered hot and topical. It’s normally challenging and interesting to review what has been included. This year the overall design award has gone to the gov uk website. Um that’s a bit dreary and boring isn’t it? I mean a website? Among all the other things they could have selected, from the categories of Architecture, Digital, Fashion, Furniture, Graphics, Products, and Transport. They chose a website. It strikes me as a bit dull and un-inspiring. Mind you so is the design museum website. Looking like it was designed in the 1980’s with that tight text and links all over the page, it’s a pain to navigate and unforgivably doesn’t provide any description or images for the design shortlist. Maybe the design museum should take a real long hard look at their chosen winner. On top of that they should think about marketing the shortlist better, not everyone can get down to London and visit the place and they would be doing us all a favour. For those of us outsiders here are some of the highlights. The wind map is baffling. It takes a while to load but it’s worth it, click on the live map and view. Eerie, surreal, hypnotic. Like the early years science class with moving iron fillings and magnets. The Mando Footloose Chainless Bicycle is not just chainless but is also a folding bicycle. Innovative. Bit more exciting than a website eh? (OK i will stop now). While the aptly named donkey bike aims to be the “pick-up truck of bicycles” according to industrial designer Ben Wilson.