Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Ghent Stadshal: in praise of a building 'without use'

“’...a building without use.’...freed from ephemeral conditions and without an explicit function...the degree of usefulness is not a means to discriminate the art.”
Auguste Perret 1

Stadshal and Central Squares, Ghent (1996-2013)

Robbrecht en Daem Architecten and Marie-Jose Van Hee Architecten

When urban blocks around the Belfry, St Nicholas's Church and St Bavo's Cathedral in the medieval heart of Ghent were cleared before the First World War, some facades were salvaged and re-built on the Graslei harbour front, where they would reinforce the picturesque image of the city's mercantile origins. The hole in the city fabric left by this destruction was eventually occupied by a car park. Following decades of lobbying and two architectural competitions, the architects Robbrecht en Daem and Marie-Jose Van Hee have recently completed their winning scheme: a free-standing building with an extensive undercroft and remodelled public space.

Officially known as the Stadshal, or City Hall, the free-standing building is intended for use as a venue for performance and markets. On the architects' websites it is given the less grand title 'Market Hall', although locally it also goes by the nickname of the 'Schaapstal’, or sheep pen. Does this uncertainty surrounding the name of the building reflect a deeper insecurity regarding its identity? Evidence on the ground and a search of images online suggest occasional use of the building for performances, but little other public activity. Clearly the use of any building is dependent on the energy and vision of the client and cannot be dictated by the architect. The Stadshal may be a building that is under-used, but even so, perhaps it fulfils a purpose that goes beyond the provision of accommodation for a specific activity?

Its enigmatic beauty is captured in a video on Robbrecht en Daem's website, in which snow flurries swirl through the space as hunched figures hurry by. An open-sided hall that sits at the centre of the city, the building articulates the space between the monumental Gothic towers of St Nicholas's Church and the Belfry, defining two small paved squares and a garden. These finely calibrated spaces recall the intimacy of the medieval layout. Although grand in scale, the Market Hall relates to the height of adjacent street facades, rather than competing with the neighbouring towers.

A distorted barn that eschews conventional expectations of form and construction, the timber boarded superstructure comprises a pair of asymmetrical parallel pitched roofs supported on four massive concrete piers. These house stairs and lifts down to the undercroft, a public hearth for fires and a large extract duct. The twin gables at each end are under-cut by a single pitched profile. The asymmetrical composition is subtly twisted. An irregular grid of small rectangular openings is cut into the roof, disrupting the scale of the building, especially at night: like an image from a sci-fi movie, it resembles a vast spaceship hovering above the ground. Nearby, a huge bell suspended inside a sculptural concrete cube adds a further surreal note.

Overlapping glass shingles wrap the roof in an elegant deconstruction of traditional building techniques. Chinks of light are admitted into the hall through the tiny openings in the timber superstructure, evoking the quality of a ruined building. Constantly shifting in appearance, the glass shingles give the Market Hall a quicksilver character, responsive to the Northern European light and climate.

The extensive undercroft beneath the paved square is densely packed with accommodation: public bike storage, toilets and a brasserie. It is cut back on one side, forming a plinth for the Market Hall above. The Brasserie overlooks an informal garden at the lower level, with an undulating lawn and winding paths. The organic forms of this garden sit less comfortably with the surrounding city and adjacent Gothic monuments than the formal paved space around the Market Hall. However, at a strategic level, the change of level and contrasting character of the garden successfully establish a new order in place of the previously undifferentiated terrain of the site, creating a richer urban environment. Integration of highway engineering and tram lines in the street next to the garden are low key but significant achievements.

The discretion exercised by the architects of the Market Hall and its sensitive integration within the urban fabric disqualify this project from 'icon' status. Even without a fire burning in the public hearth or the bustle of street trade, the Market Hall and sensitive repair of the surrounding urban environment are a resounding success. When he extolled the virtues of a building 'without use', Auguste Perret recognised the truth that architecture may have value which transcends practical function.

1.  Auguste Perret, 'Collective Needs and Architecture', in The Rationalist Reader, Architecture and Rationalism in Western Europe 1920-1940 / 1960-1990, ed. by Andrew Peckham and Torsten Schmiedeknecht (London and New York: Routledge, 2014), pp.75-76 (pp.75-76).

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Well Tempered Building



Ortus, London
Learning and Event Centre for Maudsley Charity
Duggan Morris Architects (2013)

Duggan Morris Architects cite the Georgian environs of Camberwell as their inspiration, but their building can also be seen as a continuation of the Neo-rationalist tradition, with links to the work of Italian Rationalists in the 1930's

Ortus, Duggan Morris Architect's new learning and event centre for Maudesley Charity, is situated in the south London suburb of Camberwell, on the edge of a sprawling healthcare campus which includes King's Hospital, the Maudesley Hospital and the Institute of Psychiatry.  It caters mainly for mental health professionals, but welcomes local people and other groups, in a radically open institutional model.  Georgian terraces adjacent to the site are cited by the architects as the inspiration for the project and it has a number of affinities with the modest and robust pattern of these buildings. Although most evident in the simple cubic volume of the massing and repetitive character of the elevations, this influence also informs the interior.  A variety of flexible spaces are arranged around a central stair hall, which at Ortus has been greatly expanded. Accommodation is on half levels, with access from the stair landings, avoiding rigid stratification of floors and allowing a flowing, open relationship between the different parts of the building. It is all determinedly non-institutional in character: there is no reception desk or overt security and a cafe at ground level next to the central hall opens out onto a pleasant terrace.

In a departure from the Georgian model, some flights of the stair are increased in width to create informal tiers of seating for spontaneous occupation. Similar to David Chipperfield Architects' BBC Scotland project (2001-6), the arrangement at Ortus has a more dynamic character, both spatially and socially. Internally, the top-lit hall, with fine oak panels set into the in-situ concrete structure, has features in common with Louis Kahn's Yale Centre for British Art (1969-77), although Kahn's structural frame is expressed as a three dimensional grid which organizes both the elevations and the internal volumes. Both projects temper the larger scale of a public building  by introducing timber finishes, which invest the interior with a quality of refined domesticity. By enclosing his stair in a sculptural concrete drum, Kahn keeps the focus on the gallery's collection of art. At Ortus the open and expanded stair reflects Maudesley Charity's determination to create an informal meeting place and forum as well as a venue with programmed spaces or activities.

On the exterior a repetitive 1.2m wide grid of pre-cast components frames panels of glazing or masonry infill, broken only by the entrance. Windows, which are generally located one above the other, create a vertical emphasis and the expression of the split level and inset terraces adds dynamic incident, reminiscent of neighbouring terraced houses on the sloping site. Fewer windows on the facade flanking the service accommodation create a stronger horizontal emphasis, which is less successful. At upper levels more grey is added into the mix of reddish bricks, creating a subtle vertical graduation of tone.

Simple cubic forms and highly repetitive facade grids also characterize some recent projects by David Chipperfield Architects, such as his City of Justice in Barcelona (2002-2009), Museum Island Gallery in Berlin (2007-2017) and Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach am Neckar (2002-2006).   Such consciously Neo-rationalist motifs may in turn be derived from Rationalist architecture of the 1930's, for example the Union Headquarters in Como by Cattaneo, Lingeri and Origoni (1938-43).  Like Ortus, the design of these projects is underscored by a concern to establish a connection with urban context and create buildings and spaces which transcend narrow functionalism.  At Ortus in-situ concrete columns are concealed within the brick envelope, but beams are exposed, to create a looser aesthetic. A similar close gridded facade (on a 1.5m grid) at Lubetkin and Tecton's pioneering Finsbury Health Centre (1935-38) reflects the engineer Ove Arup's ingenious perimeter structural frame, which allowed complete flexibility within a column-free interior. While Duggan Morris may take a more relaxed approach to tectonic expression than Kahn or Lubetkin, at Ortus they have successfully created a social and intellectual oasis for those committed to increasing our understanding of mental health.


Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Beautiful Game

Combining beauty with practicality, Stanton Williams' changing pavilion on Hackney Marshes is a paradigm of architecture, illustrating the potential of buildings to enrich both their location and the lives of people using them

Hackney Marshes Centre    Stanton Williams (2010)

Hackney Marsh is a vast plain in East London containing 82 pitches for amateur teams playing football, rugby and cricket. A solitary structure set against a backdrop of mature trees skirting this array of pitches, Stanton Williams' Hackney Marshes Centre provides grounds maintenance and changing facilities for players. It is composed of two linked rectilinear elements. A two-storey block clad in corten weathered steel, containing the entrance, offices and a bar at the upper level, is flanked by a low wing of changing rooms, faced in gabion cages filled with light coloured re-cycled concrete. The rust brown of the corten animates the greens of the foliage and grassed pitches. From closer to, the cubic surfaces of the main block are articulated into walls, doors and windows, folded and recessed to create a dynamic effect, but which often also literally move, allowing the building to be secured at night. Walls slide on concealed track. Window screens hinge horizontally on gas struts to create brise soleils. Precise matrices of perforations and joints between the facade components provide a secondary level of animation.

Internally, finishes are robust: screed floors, concrete walls and soffits. An electric grounds maintenance vehicle is parked under the concrete stair. In the changing areas top-lit corridors are lined in acid-bright yellow laminate with billboard scale sports photos. Filtered light enters the changing rooms via loosely packed cages of the gabion facade. At first floor the bar opens on to a generous terrace with expansive views of the playing fields. The perfect spot for some relaxed post-match analysis. Artful and humane architecture, which resonates with its setting, this is the beautiful game.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Hepworth Wakefield


David Chipperfield Architects' new gallery in Wakefield is a building of impressive modesty which allows Barbara Hepworth's sculpture to take centre stage and establishes strong connections with her home town

David Chipperfield Architects 2011

Seen from the train, the distinctive roof pitches of the Hepworth sit comfortably in a decayed hinterland of industrial sheds on the edge of Wakefield, Barbara Hepworth's home town. David Chipperfield Architects' new gallery houses an impressive range of work by the sculptor.

The pinkish grey of the in-situ concrete construction is precisely smooth and dense. It certainly looked terrific on the sunny afternoon when I visited. The building is best approached via Chipperfield's fine new river bridge. On this side it rises sheer out of a large weir pool on the river, rather like the massive 19th century pile of Titus Salt's textile mill at nearby Saltaire. The effect is inevitably weaker on the other side, where it is flanked by lawn, which does not seem an appropriate treatment in this post industrial landscape. Perhaps some ambiguity of identity is inevitable when an area is in a state of transition. The building is mainly wall, with irregular punched-hole windows focused on particular views. This means that it is not especially open to its context when seen from the outside.

The interior is compelling. A simple entrance hall at ground level links to the cafe, shop, cloaks and toilets, as well as education and gallery administration spaces. A generous stair leads up to the galleries, which are loosely linked cubes, distorted both in plan and section. Each gallery is top-lit along one wall and side-lit from windows, which provide carefully composed views of the river and town. Spotlights in parallel tracks on the raking ceiling augment the daylight with warm artificial light. The intensity and character of light is varied, but always shows the sculpture and paintings to good effect.

The curation of the spaces is superb: not too much on display, clear themes and nice visual links between pieces by Hepworth and her peers. There are two details that don't quite work: the tall John Lewis sculpture feels hemmed in by the ceiling, which would have been better half a metre higher, and some bronze pieces like the Caro 'Woman Waking' and Moore's 'Falling Warrior' do not seem adequately supported on painted mdf plinths.

The palette of materials is subdued: grey finish screed floors with white walls and ceilings in the galleries and clear lacquered grey mdf 3/4 height wall panels at ground level. Chipperfield has judged this building to perfection. It sits well on the site. The concrete finish is tough, but also precise and delicate. Most importantly the collection is beautifully presented and placed in the context of Hepworth's home town. The variety and rhythm of the gallery spaces is unforced, expressed in the 'picturesque' massing, which is tempered by the 'honest' concrete construction. This is a gallery completely in tune with Hepworth and Wakefield.

 See blogpost on David Chipperfield Architects Neues Museum in Berlin

Saturday, 13 July 2013


Can sculpture make good architecture?  
A case of mistaken identity causes consternation at the Academy.

Kloris by Zaha Hadid is exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

Kloris, apparently conceived by Zaha Hadid both as furniture and sculpture, has escaped from the confines of the Architecture Room to the rarified territory of the fine art galleries.  It is displayed on the floor, in the centre of a room lined with paintings, and offers an appealing variety of levels and curved shapes for seating that transcends conventional one-size-fits-all furniture.  Anxiety at the Royal Academy about the status of Hadid's work was revealed when my wife, along with about 20 other weary visitors to this year's Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, was recently reprimanded by a gallery steward for sitting on it.   This raises the question 'is Kloris sculpture, not to be touched, or furniture, inviting full body contact?'  Even when presented as fine art, Kloris clearly exerts an appeal to visitors that transcends the genre boundaries imposed by the Academy.

One of a series,  Kloris is a large scale piece arranged in a radial cluster of elongated, smoothly rounded components.   Cast in resin, it has a finish similar to aluminium. Another version, exhibited at Chatsworth, has some components cast in glassy green.  There are many examples of sculpture which have an architectural character, for example Richard Serra's Torqued Ellipse series, Antony Gormley's Blind Light and much of Anish Kapoor's work.  These share a sense of spatial enclosure.  In Kloris Hadid sets up a spatial relationship between a series of objects, but does not enclose space. This interest in form, taking precedence over enclosure, characterises much of Hadid's architecture, which is often described as 'sculptural'.  It is also typical of Hadid that construction is used to deliver and enhance the form, rather than as something that might be expressed in its own terms.  Arguably, the sculptors' use of materials is more expressive and 'architectural'.  Likewise Hadid's interior spaces often seem compromised by the dominant drama of the exterior form. 

Kloris  represents a superb synthesis of form, construction and utility that the buildings rarely achieve.  Few major architects could produce work as convincing in a fine art setting, or as resistant to categorisation by genre.  Hadid proves at least that architects can produce good sculpture.

See previous blogpost 'Olympic Heats' for preview of Hadid Architects 2012 Olympic Aquatic Centre

Olympic Heat

A preview of two new venues in the Olympic Park - blog posted in June 2012
Aquatics Centre
As part of ‘London Prepares’ I attended track cycling and diving heats at the Velodrome and Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park, designed by Hopkins  Architects and Zaha Hadid Architects respectively.  With their eye-catching large-span sculptural forms, the buildings might appear to be similar, but they are the products of very different architectural philosophies.    One thing that they do have in common though, is that even in February, they were both sweltering!  The warmth inside the Aquatics Centre is less surprising, but the Velodrome is heated to between 24 and 28 degrees to lower the air resistance and create optimum conditions for breaking records.

Echoing the cambered circuit which it encloses, the precise form of the Velodrome has perimeter glazing at ground level with timber cladding above and sits on raised ground:  it is integrated into the landscape with quiet elegance.  Like a classical stadium, the geometry of the track generates a highly focused architecture that is both dramatic and dynamic.  Spectator seating for 6,000 is split into two sections by an ambulatory at the level of the perimeter glazing.  In legacy mode this allows a smaller number of spectators to be accommodated in the seating next to the track, avoiding a sense of it feeling under-populated.   A steel cable net structure supports the double curve of the Velodrome roof.  By using the steel in tension a 90% saving, equivalent to 1000 tonnes of steel, was made compared with a more conventional structure.  Natural ventilation and roof lights, which allow enough daylight into the track area for practice, make this an energy efficient building.
The Aquatics Centre, like the Velodrome, has a striking form, but with a voluptuous whale-like character, an effect reinforced by the ribbed timber cladding.  The heavy steel structure is largely concealed behind the sleek skin of the magnificent roof.  Arranged around the rectangular tanks of the competitive pools are 2,500 permanent seats, with room for 15,000 spectators in flanking temporary stands.  These stands have already been sold and will be relocated after the Games.  Curiously little effort seems to have been invested in their design and they are awkwardly attached to the core building.  On the night that I attended, access for spectators was from under the stand – a wholly unsatisfactory experience.  This casual approach continues where the temporary Stratford City Bridge crashes into the cantilevered north end of the Centre.  As a consequence the bravura flourish of the core building is heavily compromised.

Ceiling detail - Aquatics Centre
Ceiling Detail - Velodrome

Perhaps swimming and diving will never be able to match the visual thrill of track cycling, with its dynamic circuit, futuristic lycra-clad competitors and risk of collision.  To create a fine building requires incredible skill and tenacity on the part of the architect, qualities which Hadid Architects possess in spades, but it also requires a client with singular qualities: not just a vision, but the will and resources to deliver it.  The outcome for these two projects at the Olympic Park reflects the difficulty of achieving this propitious mix.  If the Velodrome is a better building than the Aquatics centre, it is not because lean is better than voluptuous, but because it has been executed with greater conviction.  However, if the Aquatics Centre fails to deliver the anticipated thrill for two weeks this summer, I have a feeling that we will see the brilliance of Hadid Architects’ design emerge after the Games.