Honey, We’ve Shrunk the World

Paul Hyett reflects on IT’s distortion of time, interval and distance. Can design benefit from its impact?

The Old Rules: Where and What? 

Since time immemorial, technology has had a huge impact on  the where and the what of architecture and building. From the  earliest days of urban settlement, beyond any Stone Age decision to bunch a few dwellings around a space for market and  trade, the where of town and building location has always been  dictated by issues of accessibility. 

This was very much the case in England. Early internal trade  depended heavily on shipping. For centuries, sturdy little craft  braved the coastlines, especially down the country’s east side,  before plying their way up the estuaries and rivers as far as their draught depths would permit. Thereafter, further haulage relied on horses (or oxen) and carts. The Ouse and mighty Trent at Hull, and the Thames out of London, were the key river routes  inland from the east, and the Severn, Avon and Mersey offered  access from the west. 

As the Industrial Revolution advanced, the cost of shifting raw materials and finished goods became evermore critical. Transferring loads to wheeled transport only exacerbated expense, so  a series of brave, complex civil engineering projects involving  systems of weirs and locks were undertaken. These were de-signed to ensure sufficient depths and enable water navigation farther up riverways and deeper inland, for example to Nottingham and beyond.

Such initiatives were complemented by an intense parallel  programme of canal construction. At its peak, this campaign extended over 4,000 miles, linking rivers and positively impacting trade and manufacturing while connecting growing towns and cities across the country. Emerging industrial settlements expanded along navigable waterways. 

In the 19th century, newly invented railways scythed their ways  through fast-growing suburbs, improved supply lines of raw  materials and components, and serviced outward markets. What  was their impact? Even greater influence on the where and the  what of building across our towns and cities. 

When oil replaced coal and straw as the power source, new  tarmacadam roads came into their own. Once again, building  typologies and location were influenced by innovations in transportation methods, always in pursuit of speedier door-to-door journey times, and for freight-goods, minimal double handling. 

The principal generator of these changes was economics: A dollar invested in a product must be returned, with interest, at the earliest possible time. Nothing has changed; newly made goods  cannot be allowed to accumulate interest debts and erode profits  

during a slow journey to market. As a result, the where of township growth, if not the origins, was  always determined by the technologies and reaches of available  transport. In America, the form of urban design (or lack of it)  was dictated by the available space (usually more in the U.S.  than in the U.K.) and by the internal combustion engine; the  impacts of emerging transport technologies drove development.

New Technologies 

To complement all this, construction technologies emerged in the latter half of the 19th century that enabled even denser city centres. These were: 

• The elevator, which facilitated the development of tall, steel framed buildings. 
• The availability of electricity to power artificial lighting. 
• Mechanical ventilation, which enabled the “deep plan”  building (notably without lightwells and internal court yards). 
• The emergence of wafer-thin curtain walls and lightweight  cladding systems that reduced loads on frames and foundations while yielding super-efficient floorplan “footprints.” 

Clearly, the impact of technology was profound, causing a complete inversion of social hierarchies. From the Romans through  to Haussmann’s Paris and Edwardian London, the cheapest  rentals had always been at the top of buildings otherwise inaccessible except by stairs. This established hierarchy was quickly  reversed as elevators and escalators offered effortless vertical  mobility and created optimum values for the now newly desirable penthouses with views! 

Occasional efforts were made to blunt the powers of market  economies on location, but with little effect. One of the most  heroic was the modernist Brynmawr rubber factory, designed  against a progressive social agenda to provide local employment  up in the mountains of South Wales after World War ll.

But the costs of hauling raw materials up, and finished goods down, the narrow winding roads proved prohibitive and Brynmawr, with its generous clinics, creche, canteens and class rooms, was closed. In the meantime, Wolfsburg triumphed in its efficiency as a manufacturing base for the Volkswagen Beetle and dispatched German exports via Hamburg, while other U.K. locations, such as Derby and Linwood, also proved too expensive as manufacturing bases for the U.K.’s export markets. As ever, the long shadow of basic economics impacted the what and the where of architecture and urban design.

New Rules

But today the basic rules have changed again as a new technology has emerged, previously inconceivable even in the mind of Mary Shelley and her fellow science fiction novelists of the 19th century. This new technology continues to evolve and make its full impact felt. It is now beyond doubt that its influence will exceed that of all previous transport and building innovations combined. 

Its impact is twofold: it “shrinks” distance (reducing demands for movement and transport) and reduces space requirements and therefore demand for volume and new building. 

This powerful new force is, of course, the “wireless” transmission of sound, images and data. Consider these time and distance comparisons:

• When John Adam travelled eastward from the Chesapeake Bay in 1778 as envoy to George Washington, it took him and his son John Quincy some seven weeks of sailing to get to France. 

• In 1866, a mere 88 years later, as described in Simon Winchester’s wonderful book “Atlantic,” the British ship Great Eastern laid the first permanent telegraph line across the Atlantic Ocean. Courtesy of the brilliance and determination of Cyrus West Field, the adverse impact of distance on  communication had been largely curtailed. 

• Fast-forward to the 1950s. Sports fans could by then watch  the Australian Open tennis tournament at their local cinemas. Technology had distorted distance. Spectators no longer had to be there to see the event unfold. The “exchange”  was one-way and limited, but conventional interaction with  fellow spectators had been forever dislocated by technology’s  newfound capacity to transmit experience to remote loca tions. “Virtual” had commenced its assault on “real.” Hitherto unimagined forms of remote socializing would stream  forth as new norms.

Deconstructing Time and Space 

Even though there were still significant delays as pre-digital film  reels had to be transported and then laboriously copied and  distributed to movie houses around the country, the processes  continued to accelerate. By the 1960s we could watch sporting  events live on our TVs, broadcast directly to our homes (albeit only in black-and-white). In the 1970s good quality colour was  affordable, and by the 1990s we could further deconstruct time  by recording, “fast-forwarding” and replaying our favorite sporting events all on our own device. Two decades later, we could  even “deposit” information on the “cloud” — a shared global  storage network. 

Against today’s norms, those were the “Dark Ages” of information technology. More recent evolutions have since transformed every aspect of our working and personal lifestyles and interac tions. The rate of progress has been exponential. We now take  for granted the experience of riding “live” in Lewis Hamilton’s  Mercedes Maclaren or partaking in an outpouring of shared  grief during our late beloved Queen Elizabeth’s funeral from as  far afield as Auckland and Soweto in the southern hemisphere  to Montreal and Balmoral in the north. We also take it for granted, in international businesses, that we can dial into conference  calls or workshop sessions, one after another, and again shrink  time courtesy of videoconferencing software, such as Microsoft  Teams or Zoom. 

It is clear after only a few millennia of scientific and technological progress, our species has effectively conquered the limits  distance had hitherto imposed on communication. The world has shrunk in real terms as we quickly morph into an age of augmented and virtual realities and immersive experience. One might say, “Honey, we’ve shrunk the world!”

Assessing Impacts 

But what will be the impact of the IT revolution on the where and what of building? 

To start, the need for local and long-distance business travel has  been slashed overnight. That is a game-changing development with extraordinary impact for the what and where of our building programmes. Since COVID-19 accelerated the effectiveness  of virtual exchange, I have been participating in online conferences, meetings and workshops, as well as design reviews and  joint design charettes with delegates from around the world on a  regular basis. 

At the international scale, such practices have saved millions of  tons of aviation fuel. The all-time high for aviation fuel consumption was 2019’s use of 95 billion gallons. The COVID years  saw that same rate fall to 52 billion gallons. Increasingly sophisticated and available IT will enable us to reduce those levels  further. 

As we search for solutions, the IT and communication revolution provides our best hope for saving the planet. We have the  technology. Now, in the words of the ever-gracious President  

Barack Obama, we need only to “do the right thing!” And as  President Ronald Reagan, that most genial of American presidents liked to say, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” 

So, buckle up for the ride. It’s time for designers and builders to embrace these powers and employ others creatively as we seek  greater impact and influence. The world may be smaller, but it desperately needs our help.

Paul Hyett, PPRIBA, is a past president of the Royal Institute of  British Architects, co-founder of Vickery-Hyett Architects and a  regular contributor to DesignIntelligence.

 

Safely back home

Published in World Architecture Festival Q3 2021

If you have yet to make your first post-Covid visit to another country, let me forewarn you: from start to finish you will be challenged. There’s no doubt of course that we had become accustomed to easy inter-country and inter-city movement, but what I have just been through in preparation for, and during, my first foray into mainland Europe since my December 2019 visit to WAF ‘Amsterdam’ has served only to reinforce my memories of those halcyon days, pre-Brexit and pre-Covid, when travel was as simple as it was cheap, and as hassle-free as it was pleasurable.

I had been invited to join a two-city workshop organised by Design Intelligence which started in Rome and rolled on to Venice….

First, I had to obtain a so-called NHS ‘Covid Vaccination’ Certificate. This involved an application to the NHS which, with laudable efficiency, sent the document electronically. Herein of course lies the first real problem: if you are anything less than IT savvy, stay at home – you won’t make it. Indeed, the level of IT knowledge and competence now required for travel renders most of our older folk severely disadvantaged: SAGA be aware; many of your 2.7 million customers – and certainly those without a smart phone, or the like, will need nursing all the way through this one! And you will need patience in abundance. I was just about IT-savvy enough to fight my way through this IT roller-coaster, but I certainly lacked the patience which led to many a stumble, and occasionally heavy falls as, short of the ability to show the right information in the right form (electronic or paper) my road ahead was blocked…..

……. Yes, blocked, and non-negotiable. Show the necessary document or stay there, stay out, or go back. Anything except go on. I kid you not: I have seen couples separated; the elderly left behind; and siblings split between parents who made it ‘through’ and those that didn’t.

When my NHS Covid Certificate arrived, I printed a copy for incorporation into my newly prepared ‘hard-copy’ travel file, and duly transferred an electronic copy to my i Phone ‘wallet’ (remember that you have done this – I forgot; more of that later). This strange little form, issued under our wonderful NHS logo, contains the simplest of information: name; date of birth; period of validity; dosage status (one jab or two!) date of ‘Dose 2’; vaccination product; and, of critical importance, the ‘Bar Code’. The NHS use a two-dimensional barcode called a QR code which is supplied by the Denso Corporation. Better than the old linear one-dimensional versions used in retail, it can carry much more information. However, be careful: if you print a copy, the paper version often fails to register with the mobile scanners used in airports. It is therefore essential that you always carry your electronic version with you on your Smart Phone. Oh, the trials of modern post-pandemic life…. things will never be the same again.

Next, and before I travelled, I had to arrange my Covid Tests which must be carried out within 48 hours of travel and certified by a registered laboratory. These are not cheap at £110 per test: you also need proof of a pre-booked test scheduled for within two days of your return….so that’s another £90. Think about it: that’s £400 for a couple’s holiday abroad. Good-bye cheap travel!

In my case it was a knife-edge as to whether I would travel or not on the allotted Sunday. Tested on the preceding Friday morning at the local pharmacy my certificate, which was due to be issued electronically on the Friday afternoon, had still not arrived on the Saturday morning. Multiple phone-calls to the chemist led to investigations which initially suggested my test had been lost (and it was too late to do another). But mercifully, around 5pm on Saturday evening, success; sample found, and the certificate arrived: I was good to go.

I arrived uncharacteristically early at Stansted: I had layered in contingency time for every possible ‘hiccup’ along the way. But no, all was easy….no queue at check in, and I was able to quickly produce i) my passport, ii) my RyanAir electronic flight ticket iii) my Passenger Locator Form and iv) my PCR Test Certificate as issued by the laboratory. Each of these carried my very own QR Code and again, I kid you not, if any one of these goes missing, you’re going nowhere. But all mine was in order, so I whizzed on through passports and security, and all was good until I was stopped by one of their grim eateries: no access without my Covid Vaccination Certificate. Easy: I produced once more my electronic version and I was in.  

The remainder of the journey was without incident, and no real problems at Rome arrivals except, on my first trip out of the UK since Brexit, I was saddened to be split from my European ‘family’ and channelled into the non-EU line. And it took forever: as other European travellers joined the fast-moving EU queues, I shuffled slowly forward with seemingly everyone in my queue being subjected to lengthy questioning. It took me one and a half hours just to get through passport control.

All the certificates had to be produced again at the hotel check-in late that Sunday evening but no hassle, I dropped my bags and made off to a restaurant. There I was again required to show my vaccination certificate; a ritual that is currently required pretty-well everywhere in Italy.

The conference was great: more meals, regular proof of Covid status being required, but all good, then off to Venice by train. Here again, serious documentation protocols: identity and Covid status certificates to get into the station, and again through the ticket barriers, and again on the train itself. My electronic version often didn’t work with their hand-held scanner, so frequently much rummaging in my case, and then my briefcase, until I found the appropriate paper version.

And on and on all this went as we progressed through the Venice protocols of hotel check-in and entry to restaurants. And my word weren’t they strict on the River Buses: no mask, no boarding. No argument.

All this is of course for our individual safety and our collective good, but it reminded me of a trip I took to China way back in 1978. At that time the country was pretty-well closed to foreigners and very different from the China I recently lived in for three pre Covid years. Whilst Europe remained very colourful (the Chinese back in that immediate post Mao Tse Tung era wore only blue denim jackets and trousers irrespective of age and sex) I remember that the Chinese nationals needed a special pass to travel by train from city to city. Indeed, without that travel within China was barred. Courtesy of Covid 19 that situation now pertains across Europe: no pass, no train travel, and no movement across national boundaries without a ‘Passenger Locator Form’. I know this is as wise as it is necessary for the common good, but it certainly gives governments a very clear grasp on where we all are.

Indeed, nothing like it has been witnessed since the Nazi machine swept across Europe….

Per chance, as I travelled across Italy on this latest trip, I was reading a biography on that most evil of the Nazis, Reinhard Heydrich. His killing apparatus was efficient to chilling effect and all without any of our modern-day computerised paraphernalia. All by paper the SS ‘machine’, with its incredible administrative efficiency, established and maintained the most sophisticated human data base ever hitherto seen which was all too often, for vast swathes of the population, ruthlessly effective from the point of invasion to their execution or extermination. There, of course, all comparison ends because, whatever the irritations, we fully understand that the benign governments of Europe are gathering and maintaining this information in the interests of its citizens. That fact affirmed; we are nevertheless being monitored in terms of our movement as never before in peacetime Europe.

Those ultimately responsible for the Nazi atrocities were of course brought to trial at Nuremburg and the worst of them were sentenced to death by hanging. Sadly, for them that process was carried out with a bungling incompetence and inefficiency that contrasted starkly with the ruthless and efficient competency of their evil regime, all due to the Americans. For it was they who insisted that ‘their’ hangman be charged with responsibility for the first 10 top-level Nazi executions.

And so it was that Master Sergeant John C Woods was to deliver justice. Sadly, for those that he executed, he had neither the training nor the experience of his British counterpart, the infamous Albert Pierrepoint, who used to carefully assess the weight of his charges to calculate the rope length, and thus a ‘drop’ sufficient to break the neck causing virtually instant death, without severing the head. Unlike Pierrepoint who carried out over 400 executions in his 25-year career, Woods was clueless: he was also an imposter….

Abandoned by his parents shortly after birth, he had dropped out of school in Kansas to join the US Navy. Finding that career unsuitable, he deserted, only to be caught and tried. He was then assessed as a ‘constitutional psychotic’ and dismissed, thereafter bouncing from one job to another until, at the outbreak of World War 2, he was drafted into the US Army as a combat engineer, eventually arriving in Normandy following the D-Day landings. There, death sentences of its own military for grievous crimes such as rape and murder were effected to maintain discipline, and Woods answered the US Army’s call for a hangman during the invasion’s advance across Europe, apparently bungling a number of executions along the way.

Regrettably, he had lied about his experience at interview claiming to have been an executioner in his home state of Oklahoma. Thus, it was that Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Foreign Minister who went to the gallows first (Hermann Goring having committed suicide) would take fourteen minutes to die. Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel would choke for nearly twice as long. And so on….

There was of course a cruel irony in the fact that the leaders of such an efficient killing apparatus should be executed with such bungling inefficiency, but this is an episode for which the allied victors can draw no pride….And so, however tempting it might be to liken the current frustrating paperwork and bureaucracy that frustrates our movements through and around Europe in these Covid charged times with the likes of Europe under occupation, never forget that behind the current initiatives lie Governments who ultimately care for their people’s wellbeing, one and all. These are indeed good times….and it was very nice to be back ‘in Europe’.

Colour on our streets

Published in World Architecture Festival Q4 2021

It’s astonishing that colours seem to have all but vanished from our roads. I mean proper colours like reds, greens and yellows, or those lovely deep maroons and blues once favoured for larger sedans. Everywhere you look nowadays, be it on the motorways or in the side streets, just about every car has been finished in one of those seemingly infinite shades of greys, or silver. I admit to there being occasional black or white examples amongst them, but you rarely see any ‘cars of colour’ anymore. Walking home recently I counted only two (one a sort of khaki tan, the other a metallic olive green) in a street of over 40 parked vehicles. Even the Toyota garage nearby had only three coloured options on a forecourt otherwise adorned with some 45 motors up for sale in their predictable tones of grey.

I simply don’t understand what’s happened: no-one has decreed this; no law has been passed. But there certainly cannot be any doubt that car manufacturers are pandering to public demand – they know their market! They know what people want…So what is informing this seemingly insatiable desire for the colourless car? And whatever happened to the predilection for bright primary colours that adorned the Morris Minors, Minis and Austin 1100s of those far off days of the ‘60s; or the sherwood greens and royal blues so favoured for the big Jags of the same era; or the reds and yellows much loved for the Avengers, Cortinas and Capris of the ‘70s and ‘80s,

Remember Inspector Regan’s first car? Interesting story there: Ford originally supplied a blue Consul GT ordered for the first Sweeney series back in 1974, but Thames TV swapped it for a metallic orange-gold model that they thought would stand out better against the drab London background: those were the days of the miners’ strikes, and the three-day week! And then there was John Thaw again, subsequently cast as Inspector Morse, with his burgundy Mark II Jaguar and its rather incongruous black vinyl roof. Never a grey car to be seen in any of those films. The old BMC swatch below shows the variety and richness of colour choices for the cars then produced by that plethora of British manufacturers.

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BMC Colour Chart of 1960’s

The current mass penchant for grey can be tracked back to the Germans and those BMWs of the 1980s that came to dominate the executive car market here in the UK. Yep, that is surely where it started, with the emerging preference for gun-metal finishes and their association with fine machinery and precision engineering. All of which reminded me of a passage in my 1994 M.Phil. thesis entitled ‘Architecture under Siege’ wherein I was bemoaning the uninspiring offerings of the UK house builders.

There I noted the peculiar dichotomy of the home-buyers’ evident fondness for traditional vernacular house styling with their contrasting love of contemporary car design. I described the executive’s run home from work in his flash modern carriage as he departed the city, dashboard lights sparkling and instruments silently monitoring and reporting – I italicise because marketing strategies for such machines then targeted men: goodness; how times have changed!

Such interior designs were of course no more than props, pandering to male egos through their suggestion of a functional complexity synonymous with the control systems more commonly found in Boeing cockpits. Likewise, the external form and language of the new generations of colourless cars were uncompromisingly expressive of purpose: sophisticated engineering was celebrated in unambiguously precise detailing. All was ‘machined’ to perfection. Such cars oozed technology, their quality impeccable, their performance assured.

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BMW: Synonymous with Engineering Sophistication

In similar vein the executive’s abode of that period would become ever more ‘technical’ in its equipment: we increasingly expected to be ‘welcomed’ home to sensors that monitored security; gates and garage doors that opened automatically, temperature management systems that ensured comfort; discrete sound systems that ‘piped’ music anywhere and everywhere to order; and wands that offered remote control to all communication systems. Indeed, by the eighties, Le Corbusier’s ‘machine for living’ was available, courtesy of the UK housebuilder, everywhere from the dense suburbs of our cities to remote villages right across our land – except of course that the housebuilders’ offerings didn’t look like a machine at all. Modern in terms of internal function and equipment yes, but modern in their architectural expression; decidedly not! Same old vernacular, ever smaller windows – UK housebuilders’ styling was nothing but a trip down memory lane…and a bad trip at that….

And the house buyer’s apparent demand for that cottagey vernacular would remain stubbornly consistent until, it seems, just the last few months. But suddenly, perhaps even courtesy of Covid, people are taking a fresh look at their homes. I kid you not: next time you walk our suburban streets, keep your eyes peeled and look around to see what’s happening to those dull, non-descript homes of the post WW 2 era….and even some from the ‘20s and ‘30s. Many houses, and even bland single storey bungalows as well, are getting a serious makeover; what can only be described as a total face-lift. What’s driving this no-one knows but, somehow, individual houseowners are, en masse, beginning to embrace a refreshingly modernistic styling. You will see this particularly expressed in grey replacement window frames, stylish but contemporary front doors, modern and bold fonts for house numbers, and of course, white render…. and lots of it.

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 Billericay ‘Semis’ Undergoing Makeovers

Mock leaded lights are out; big panes of clear glass are in; white plastic window frames with their dirty mitred corners are out; crisp grey aluminium frames are in; mock Corinthian columns: no thanks. And a big no to the imitation gas streetlamp.

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 Identical Woodford Houses – One A Recent Makeover

Such ‘cottagey’ styles their little dormers, leaded pane windows, and functionless chimneys were of course always a veneer, a sham, and a lie. But at long last all this seems to have run its ghastly course, and housebuilders may now have to play catch up as a myriad of private owners have, through their individual retrofit programmes, set a new direction in taste and style for the housing market. What they are doing may not be great architecture, but at least it shows a growing public interest in a new language for the domestic abode….an interest that is spreading super-fast. And what we see in a thousand individual makeovers today will be in demand for the new housebuilder’s offerings of tomorrow: so, watch that space! And expect some good, confident, architect led stuff.

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Three Woodford Green Makeovers

All of which takes me to a recent visit to the VETTii Factory just west of Venice a few weeks back. Specialists in kitchen and bedroom fitted furniture this firm, one of the largest of its kind in the world, has taken the art of efficient manufacturing and combined it with a laudably accountable sustainability agenda which puts responsible production, recycling, and minimisation of waste at the very heart of its slick and stylish operations. Every day 187 articulated lorries leave its main factory gates loaded with newly manufactured products bound for markets across the world. What is it about those Italians, now the eighth strongest economy in the world, that enables them to grace all they design and produce with such breath-taking style?

In their showrooms we discussed the bold colours that are now finding their way into the finishes of the company’s fitted kitchen and bedroom furniture. In response to my question about just what informs their choice of new colour offerings for their products, I was surprised to learn that it all starts with the fashion industry shows for ladies clothing…. they in turn traditionally influence the car manufacturers and lastly, with a three-year lag, the furniture industry follows. So, as we see houses going all white and grey on the outside, it seems that we can expect some real splashes of colour beginning to emerge to the interior fitouts. Again, that would seem to me to be none other than very welcome!

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  Fashionable Makeovers Will Set New Agendas for Housebuilders

Responsibility

Published in Design Intelligence magazine, Q2 2022

‘You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today’. Never were those words of Abraham Lincoln more prescient than now….

For the architect the terms professional and authority are synonymous with responsibility. The former establishes the obligation, the latter facilitates its dispatch.

In its narrowest sense professional relates, of course, to the standard of service expected, both in the context of law and ethically. The opening lines of any Barrister’s examination of an architect in an English court will run something like ‘….and you were, at all times during the service that you provided, a professional, registered architect’. This sets the benchmark against which the service as delivered is to be measured – that is of a reasonably competent architect. Not a brilliant architect, note, just a reasonably competent architect, albeit often, where the appointment terms so stipulate, one that carries experience in the design of buildings of similar scale, complexity, and function.

Yet against the limited confines of contractual duty, there is a much higher calling to which architects should aspire. I was alerted to that on day one, semester one, year one of my training when our tutor threw the gauntlet down by demanding that we never forget that beyond any contractual duty to clients, we would carry a responsibility to the users of our buildings, and to the public who would pass them by, every day, evermore.

I never forgot those words, but how important they have proved to be in the context of the two biggest external factors that have to date affected my career: climate change and the Grenfell Tower fire.

The former is of course universal in its relevance; we live in a finite environment and the collective impact of the buildings that we design must be controlled in terms of their effect on the environment. This we all now know, and surely all now accept. And despite the undeniable progress within the construction world, we all know that there’s still a long way to go. In fact, we have only just started out on that journey….

But, in terms of responsibility, the point is that irrespective of any contractual duty to individual clients – that is, to those who pay us – we have, as designers, a wider duty to the public, and to future generations, to ensure that our buildings are ecologically sustainable. The problem here, however, is that whilst we can encourage, we don’t have the authority to impose sustainable architecture. That is why enlightened and progressive building regulations are so crucial. The architect has a standing obligation to comply with code, so therein lies the authority to ensure that any design solution is responsible in terms of the eco-agenda. And whilst this may matter little to the paying client, or the person or organisation to which we are contracted, it certainly does matter to the wider public, and to future generations to which we owe a responsibility but to whom we have no contractual obligation.

So much for the design responsibility to those who may not use our buildings but who are nevertheless affected by their performance. Here in London a recent and dreadful tragedy has served to place into the sharpest relief the responsibility that my tutor insisted was ours to carry evermore on behalf of those who actually do use our buildings……irrespective of whether they had commissioned them. The fire at Grenfell Tower back in June 2017 has led to the largest and most far-reaching Inquiry ever undertaken in the UK (and probably worldwide) into the function and operation of the building industry. Its Chairman, Sir Martin Moore-Bick is soon to commence work on Phase Three which will deal with Recommendations, and whilst it is not for me to anticipate what they may comprise, we can all safely anticipate that they will be as wide in scope as they will be profound in impact.

Many commentators expect that whatever recommendations are forthcoming, the issue of authority will come to the fore because responsibility for the design, sanction, construction, and inspection of any building must carry with it the authority necessary to ensure that the standards of safety, as set, are delivered. Which brings me to Winston Churchill’s words, equally prescient in this context: ‘…..you have no right (to) ask me to bear responsibility without the power of action.’  For power of action, of course, take authority.

All of which brings me to the responsibility that we, as architects, carry as leaders, both in our firms and within our industry, to those whom we train and those we employ. That is, that we must ensure that through our programmes of education, and thereafter within our offices, those coming into our profession are properly equipped to discharge their responsibilities, both competently and effectively. That means that they have the know-how, as well as the time and the fees, to enable them so to do. But it also means that they have the authority to ensure proper delivery of their work and critically, back to my tutor and his ‘call to arms’, that they have inculcated within them that wider sense of duty that goes way beyond any contractual obligation to a paying client.

We owe that to all who use, and will use, our buildings…..

All Change?

Originally published in Panstadia magazine, Q4, 2017

I get mighty irritated by fans who struggle to get out and take a pee during soccer games. Unlike American venues UK soccer stadiums were not designed for this: we have narrower tread depths and the assumption is that spectators will sit tight during play and not disrupt their neighbours through constant ‘calls of nature’. But these calls are getting more frequent as beverage sales rise and bladders strain: drink more, pee more and pee more often. Simple as that!

Revenue enhancement is another driver for change: facility managers want to get people there earlier, retain them longer and sell them more food and beverage.

American football may offer lessons: the match is a festive occasion rolled out over a longer period. Two things are key: first that food and beverage is available for consumption, and indeed often sold directly into the bowl DURING the match which in turns assumes a move towards ‘grazing’ – eating and drinking across the entire time spectrum of the event. Secondly, it operates against an extended match time which comprises 4 quarters of 15 minutes each, played out over some 3.5 hours.

Linked to this is the increasing interest in reducing ‘time wasting’ by players under which our model of 90 minutes of play against 105 minutes of attendance has come under challenge. Studies have apparently shown that out of any 90-minute soccer match only around 60 minutes of the ‘play’ time involves true play. At present ‘our’ clock continues to tick after goals have been scored and during ongoing referee/player disputes. New proposals, if adopted, for video replays to determine uncertain referee calls will serve only to further delay proceedings and further erode time.

So, goes the thinking, why not split our precious traditional soccer game into two ‘30-minute halves’ played out against a clock that would be stopped during disputes, after goals and in many other circumstances such as player substitutions and video replays?

The implications of all this would be profound and who knows where it would end? For example, tv adverts will set the time for restarts after goal scoring (as in America) and I would predict with confidence that before we know it we will be playing two 30-minute halves over 3 hours and more of real time.

If this were to happen the impact on stadium design will be profound even perhaps leading to an increase of terrace depths from our typical 750mm to 1100mm and more to allow spectators to pass along the seating rows during ‘down-time’ or more radically, permit the introduction of ‘in-seat’ hospitality services.

Also, the extent of food and beverage services and the length of concourse concessions and numbers of points of sale, together with the extent of toilet facilities will all be ‘up for grabs’. Currently designed to meet peak half time rushes, venues would need less in the way of numbers of toilets even though more visits will be made over a longer period. Likewise, food outlets will be able to deal with steady demand uninterrupted by playtime, so less speed of service will be required and less demand will be placed on staff numbers and bar lengths as fewer people work over longer periods meeting steadier and higher demand.

Will this happen? Who knows…watch this space. And watch those waist lines if it does!

China and B2B2C

Originally published in Panstadia magazine, Q2, 2017

In Beijing in early June to give a presentation entitled “Smarter Buildings, Better Profits” I came across the term “B2B2C”. 

A little research revealed that B2B2C is one of over 1 million acronyms held on the ‘Acronym Finders’ website. Those which comprise both letters and numbers often become a strong form of brand identity, an example being ‘3XN’ with whom HKS recently delivered the new Copenhagen Arena. The founding architect-partners shared the same surname hence 3XN, as intriguing as it is memorable, simply stands for 3 x Nielson

B2B2C is an e-commerce model that combines ‘business to business’ (B2B) and ‘business to consumer’ (B2C) for a complete product or service transaction.” 

It Is a collaborative process that aims to create mutually beneficial service and product delivery channels…for example: Company X pays Company Y for users, leads or sales generated by Company Y’s business or website. Company X then uses Company Y’s channels to locate prospective customers. Company Y provides its customers with new and relevant services, facilitating an increased customer base and earned revenue for sold products and services.

But what on earth has this to do with an article on sport? Well, WSCE stands for World Soccer Convention and Exhibition China and their 2017 event held in early June in Beijing proudly claims to be Asia’s “only B2B2C Convention and Exhibition Covering Soccer Whole Industry Chain” (sic),  

I have attended, and indeed chaired, a good few conferences over the years but never have I seen such a symbiosis between so widely differing industry sectors and this was as evident in the cross section of speakers as it was in the products and services represented in the exhibition areas. Yes, we are used to seeing stands for specialist services and products from natural and artificial turf to lighting, and from stadium seats to IT systems but this was a whole new ball game. 

The B2B2C of this event comprised a coming together of specialists and interest groups that was reflected in talks and panel discussions on subjects as diverse as ‘Strength Diagnostics for Youth Football’ and ‘Neurofeedback: Measuring and Training the (Footballer’s) Brain’ to ‘Cross-over of Real Sports and E-Sports’ and ‘Broadcasting and IP Protection’.

Soccer is being developed at an extraordinary speed and scale in China: it is of course big business, and big business for a very wide range of sectors. But above all it is about transformation and about planning for the long term. Xi Jinping, the current President of China, is a big soccer fan and he is determined that his country should both host and win the FIFA World Cup before 2050. That, in a country that is so new to the game, involves a long-term plan of epic scale.

The players who achieve this goal (as they surely will) have probably yet to be born. Their education and training, together with the equipment and facilities that will be dedicated to that endeavor, will be more sophisticated than anything ever seen or witnessed before. And through that process medical science will benefit enormously, medical technologies will advance, and the public at large will benefit enormously.

FREI OTTO – Impact and Inspiration

Originally published in Panstadia magazine, Q3, 2015

Frei Otto died in March 2015 at the age of 89.

What is incredible, when considering his place amongst the truly great names in architecture and engineering, is not so much the contribution that he made in terms of creating a whole new language and form for buildings, but that he did it before the breathtaking breakthroughs in information technology and computer modelling which all of us now take for granted and which have so utterly transformed the world of the designer.

Just look at the roof of Olympiastadion in Munich.This stadium was originally built for the Olympics way back in 1972; an event so sadly marred and overshadowed by the attack that saw 11 athletes murdered by Black September terrorists.

Think, those of you who can remember, to what an architect’s office looked like, and was like, back then…

Drawing boards; ‘T’ Squares and Set-Squares; perhaps a few ‘drawing machines’ and ‘parallel motions’; the almost inevitable smell of stale ashtrays and, liberally scattered across the tables and plan-chests, a few slide-rules and those new fangled electronic calculators in wild abundance. And of course a good sprinkling of angle-poise lamps.

The point here is that when Frei Otto conceived his wonderful free-flowing forms, explored their natural beauty and potential, and developed their unique architecture in its purest simplicity, he was operating without the aid of modern computer aided drawing and calculation ‘support’.

Metaphorically, those light years ago, he was at the sharp edge of innovation in terms of the equipment available to him by today’s standards. Where we now can set up a complete, albeit, virtual model from which we can run ‘fly throughs’ that comprise a thousand, nay ten thousand images, every one of the renderings created within the studios of Frei Otto and Günter Behnisch was drawn by hand. Drawing was then a hugely expensive and time consuming process so this inevitably led to much less imagery being produced in order to explore and ‘settle’ form: the imagination simply had to work all the harder to fill in the gaps…..

Computer models now allow the designer to ‘travel ‘ around an architectural form in order to analyse it from every angle and incorporating the surrounding context within the virtual model allows the architect to assess how the proposal will relate to its setting.  Such processes also enable the architect to instantaneously understand how light and shadow interact both externally and within. Put simply computer technology has provided an invaluable tool for the rapid exploration of form and the pursuit of economic efficiencies.   

Frei Otto’s work, particularly at Munich, has had an immense impact on generations of the world’s finest architects, and through them on many of the world’s most impressive sports facilities. In this respect, if he didn’t actually change the course of architecture, he certainly opened up a complete new avenue in terms of genre. 

Quite simply, he is the father of the modern tensile structure……

But beyond this, his work has triggered another whole territory of exploration and that is the bolder and clearer use of structure. Some would agree that he was by instinct as much an engineer as an architect and in this respect stadiums – especially their roofs – offer immense opportunities for the use of structure, clearly visible and expressed in all its glory, as an architectural device for ordering and organising the building.

Building Services can be used in this way as well – for example the 5 pairs of enormous air shafts – bold and red – that run along the west side of the plaza outside the Pompidou Centre.

For too long, as we made the journey from load bearing structures to framed buildings, architects seemed to divest themselves of interest in structural elements and services: think of the wonderful ‘exhaust’ structures (chimneys!) that adorned our city roof structures of old. 

Otto Frei’s work not only broke completely new ground in terms of generating innovative architectural forms and language, he re-kindled interest in structure as a delightful ‘tool’ in the designer’s armoury.

In some ways it is sad that Otto Frei was not born 50 years later: he would have achieved even more with the tools and equipment that we take for granted today. Or put another way: what a pity the IT revolution didn’t come a few decades earlier…..

Expressing ‘Collective Identity’

Originally published in Panstadia magazine, Q1, 2015

Paul Hyett of Vickery Hyett explains the importance of designing host stadia that are conducive not only to the global sporting event but more importantly to their local community; reflecting their environs.

Music, Food, Language, Poetry, Literature, Song, Dance, Clothes and Furniture: these are just some of the essential ingredients that define a culture…… that imbue a people with a collective  ‘identity’  – a sense of belonging, and a sense of place. Architecture has a central role in this process – at once shifting and shaping space and informing “space making” through the varied agendas contingent to context. 

But traditional identity is being increasingly challenged by the processes of globalization. Modern products of media and manufacturing are constantly effacing the characteristics of ‘place’ and ‘back-drop’ that evoke the “particular”.   Modern mass production of   cars, planes and the hamburger each, in their way, contribute towards a process of ‘cultural unification’ – as do corporate hotels and denim trousers. “There” as a concept in “place making” is lost to the point of becoming “everywhere”.  

 The Challenge

 Invited many years ago as RIBA President to address the Sri Lankan Institute of Architects’ annual conference on the topic of ‘Traditional Identity in a Global Context’, I became pre-occupied with making “there” special yet particular. Against that endeavour,  architects can indeed challenge the processes of globalization and, through our work,  imbue  projects with a character that is relevant  to  making an ‘architecture of place’ – an architecture that makes sense of the essential qualities of “there” responding to local climate, topography and culture. An architecture that utilizes local materials and engages local craft…..

Some aspects of “global” cannot, of course, be ignored architecture must always   respond to new and expanding programmatic challenges;  including large building typologies such as hospitals  and stadiums that have little precedent in a newly  developing country.  Architecture must also respond to new agendas such as eco-sustainable design, but through all this it should remain locally relevant and confidently contemporary. 

……..Nothing can be more inappropriate and potentially inadequate than to transfer the architecture of somewhere else to a new location.

 But beyond reinforcing the cultural identity of context, it is necessary to recognize that “identity” is dynamic rather than static, always evolving in response to the conditions that a place, in the widest sense of that term, responds.  An architecture of integrity will generate local pride and command external respect. An architecture that is so grounded in its response to its physical, cultural and social context will, quite simply, be meaningless anywhere else…..

National Identity and Ambition

Architecture should be placed at the ‘cutting edge’ in the shaping of Cities, Regions and Nations as ambitious modern places which express a collective identity   that will ever continue to evolve.  Major public buildings such as stadiums will contribute enormously to this process.  They should be always bold and innovative.  Certain in their expression   they should ‘lift the spirit’ of all who use them, all who pass by and all who visit. But above all they should be buildings of that place that show a quintessentially local response to the challenge of ‘place making’.

Major Tournaments and the Challenge of Legacy

International sporting events impose requirements that are universally applicable to any site around the world; the temporary condition they create and their subsequent legacy will frequently be at odds with the cultural and urban norms of any particular place. Stadium precincts, particularly those capable of hosting major events, can be hostile places, they are space and infrastructure hungry, yet contribute little to cultural and urban life. History shows that time and again, the challenges of legacy generate embarrassing levels of waste, cost and ultimately architectural compromise with the legacy offering. 

If the architecture of the stadium is considered symbolic of place and its culture, we must ask how can the stadium precinct contribute to and sustain cultural and public life in legacy mode?  

The solutions to this will be as varied as the contexts themselves, but as designers our ambitions must –at least – address some common goals: we should design public spaces that are appropriate to local customs and that support the kind of public life that is particular to that place; the built fabric should moderate the climate so that spaces are comfortable to occupy – often this means borrowing from indigenous building typologies; we must build-in a degree of flexibility, to allow for unforeseen cultural nuances to enrich  a place over time. And we should activate these places with facilities that are needed and will be used. 

Conclusion

The ’Stadium’ and the ‘Major International Sporting Event’ are global phenomena, the modernizing effect of which can be extremely positive. It can also, however, pose a threat to cultural and traditional identity, with the notion of “there” being eroded by the notion of “everywhere”.  But “there” can be special, and particular to its context, by adapting ‘global’ programmatic challenges that hitherto have no local precedent into relevant and contemporary architecture which both reinforces and expresses a discrete sense of identity. And, in addressing the wider precinct in legacy, we are concerned with “place making” that will sustain cultural life and identity.

Proscription, Prescription, Liberty and Freedom

Originally published by World Architecture Festival, May 2020

Here, in an increasingly beleaguered Britain, many analogies have been made between Covid-19 and World War II: 

……the biggest threat to our freedom since fascism; the virus personified as a hidden, ruthless and cruel enemy random in its attacks; the impact on our economy, manufacturing output, distribution and way of life, destructive. 

Effectively ‘gated’ on this island with all but essential workers under 24-hour curfew, we are imprisoned in our homes large and small, urban and rural, our liberty, so prized, indefinitely suspended. The shock has been profound, the consequences incalculable.

So, having reached the end of the beginning of this viral siege what next? 

‘Tagged’, courtesy of our new phone apps, our movements will be ever monitored and recorded, those we meet identified and traceable. Virtual policing will become routine within the society in which our Prime Minister now so believes. And thereafter, when the enemy is beaten and the virus destroyed, what kind of future awaits us? 

The political battleground will surely become a struggle between Orwellian control and a ‘virtual’ version of another New Jerusalem Movement. Which brings me to the issue of the ‘intelligent’ buildings that will become an inevitable part of our future architecture: what kind of ‘intelligence’ and how will it be used?  

Supermarkets and digital purchase stores already maintain substantial profiles on the buying habits and the preferences of every one of us. Advertisers use these to influence our behaviours and expand our purchasing activities. Further surveillance and monitoring of our movement and contact profiles will facilitate yet more sinister abuse: these are very dangerous times for privacy and freedom, offering rich rewards for those who gain access to social profiling. 

A more progressive insight into the coming post-Covid architectural world can, of course, be found in the anticipatory projects and teaching of Cedric Price, once famously described as having a ‘capacity for making the complacent sit up, and the over-confident sit down’, which is precisely why we so much need his scepticism and wisdom to guide us now. 

Intelligent buildings are potentially good: the key is, what are the goals of those who direct and monitor that intelligence, and what will constrain their mischief. It is for this reason that the socio-political agendas that will inform the re-booted environment in which we will in future live, work and play are so critical to liberty and freedom.

As we tiptoe back to some kind of normality, to a world in which we can once again gather within our buildings for work, trade, worship, learning pleasure and fun; where we can sit at the same tables and drink at the same bar; where we can queue and jostle, cheer and clap, huddle and all the rest, we should therefore think about the architecture of Cedric Price which enhanced, rather than limited liberty, and of his prototypical ‘intelligent buildings’ which reinforced rather than constrained freedom. 

We of course already suffer massive invasions of our privacy in the form of security cameras – you cannot complete any urban journey unseen, unrecorded and unmemorised. Your progress by foot, car and public transport is watched silently, recorded meticulously, and archived for eternity. 

But from here on that game is going to get even more clever. Mobile phones will be screened, thousands of contacts traced, and our unfolding risk profile assessed at every step of life’s journey. At points of entry, shopping centre security systems will automatically measure our temperature and bio-recognise our profiles; pathogen monitoring systems will detect any offending microorganism emissions and, whenever appropriate, alert the authorities. Likewise, for stadiums, theatres, cinemas pubs and clubs. In Benthamite fashion, those whose ‘condition’ threatens the good of the majority will have been ‘spotted’ even before they have reached the top of the escalator. Whether you freely turn right or find yourself ‘firmly guided’ left into the restraining arms of authority will be a consequence of the surveillance and analysis systems incorporated into the very architecture that surrounds us. 

So whilst, courtesy of ever more efficient technologies that observe, manage and alert, we will once more soon be free to enjoy our buildings with a sense of normalcy, ‘Big Brother’ will be ever present in the metaphorical rafters, watching over you and yours. This is only good if it is for your good. 

We cannot go back to yesterday because we were different people then. But, Legislators and Regulators be warned as you shape and set rules for our new and safer world: enforced social distancing is the enemy of the marketplace; the shopping centre; the bar and the restaurant; the mosque, temple, synagogue and church; the arena and the stadium. And anyway, laws that forbid and prohibit are as alien to our liberty as are walls to our essential freedom. Safety must not be secured through proscription.

We yearn to return to a time in which we can breathe the same air, touch, shake hands, love, be loved and be human again. But that return is ultimately contingent on the complete eradication of Covid-19. On the way architecture will gain a new string to its bow the development of which should be guided by a philosophy of liberty and freedom as opposed to one of prescription, or its ugliest sister, proscription.  

So yes, we must for the common good accept a future in which surveillance of the public realm, both within and without our buildings, is the norm, but only where our government’s purpose and practice is itself proscribed and regulated, and where protections ensure that information gleaned about us is not raided and misused by others. The sole purpose of such  surveillance as will be delivered through tomorrow’s intelligent buildings must be to sustain our collective health and wellbeing, and to ensure our innocent freedom and right to learn, explore and develop within a virtual world that is becoming curiouser and curiouser with every step we take.Tomorrow is coming, but what will we become? That is the great puzzle….