Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Mount London

I have ascended Forest Hill to write a topographical essay on my travels there for this new volume from Penned In The Margins, edited by Tom Chivers and Martin Kratz.

Each writer took on a different hill - Tim Cresswell considers Northala Fields; Katy Evans-Bush climbs Stamford Hill... I headed south with only a phone, a Pevsner guide, three maps and two volumes of local history to guide me. Covering details such as a J. Sainsbury floor mosaic, a house built of larch and a Wren spire from a demolished church now the centre-piece of a housing estate, I then ended up thinking about Dawson Heights, the council estate designed by Kate Macintosh - an unmissable mass of flats on the ridge between Dulwich and Forest Hill.

Here's an edited excerpt from the essay which covers my thoughts on Dawson Heights:

Autumn at Dawson Heights

A brick ridge of 300 flats split into two freighter-like masses: Dawson Heights, Southwark council housing built between 1964 and 1972 designed by Kate Macintosh. It’s a design caught in a transition, a statement born from different, simultaneous purposes. The collapse of Ronan Point half way through the planning defines this break, manifested first as a move from system building and high rise towards lower rise alternatives, such as courtyards and 'urban villages', or 'hill towns'. For housing in the UK, the transition is between an architecture which saw itself as reordering society and an architecture which would try to mirror or serve society. This dialectic was played out within public architecture at this point (high rise to urban villages) but it would become associated with public vs private development. The tension is captured everywhere in this design: monolithic but in brick and not concrete; twelve storey slab blocks descending at their ends in ziggurat steps to two storeys; a design which follows the contours of the hill yet extends and transforms it. Dramatic in mass and grouping but self-negating in its trailing away into lines and shadows. One detail: the balconies could only be justified (under a Labour government accused of overspending) by having multiple functions, such as forming fire escapes but with ‘break glass to enter’ doors effectively creating private balconies for each flat but not under that name on the plans.

If this is an arrangement of blocks, then each flat must cross between divisions and axes, the outside suggests, the irregularity of form giving all 300 flats a balcony, and two thirds of them a view both north and south. The great, open puzzle of this interlocking, multi-functional irregularity completely side steps the ‘estate as castle’ defensive trope which appealed to so many council estate architects of the period interested in earlier 'community buildings' in times of embattlement.

The buildings look like stacks of containers – in short like a megastructure although none of the flats could be removed or rearranged, plugged in or out, as the core-and-module principle of most structures in the mega-craze of the 60s dictated. If it’s a megastructure then that term would have to be stretched into the construction of a hill – a second, ordered rock formation upon the earth. Beneath Dawson Heights, the contours of the hill itself are stabilised and constructed, down into the ground, not only by deep foundations but by great buttress drains which dry out the London clay to stop it sliding down to flatten Dulwich on one side and Forest Hill on the other – the drains, ten metres apart and six metres deep (the civil engineer James Dallaway wrote about the project in the Dulwich Society Newsletter) are full of easily draining granular material, an earthwork inserting veins of loose rock into the clay. I climbed this double construct – up some public stairs and onto a walkway, and the panorama across London to the northern heights, Canary Wharf and the Dome was, finally, the social, open summit of Forest Hill. It’s a polemical perspective, the yellow towers of Southwark and Lewisham’s estates appearing as piles, shoring up the financial glimmer above them.

Notes - some online materials on Dawson Heights include: An article by Henrietta Billings at the 20th Century Society and this post by Douglas Murphy who sees the building as riven between two modernisms: "it seems to be riven in two directions between both the force of the sculptural, hard modernism (perhaps erroneously called brutalist) and the more picturesque Pevsnerian modernism. This was an intellectual battle going on at the time, and you can see it writ large here."

Sunday, 2 March 2014

At LSBU: Fan Units in the Quad, or Down In A Mirror

Some education buildings teach you things, and others need to be taught a lesson. In Elephant and Castle, I went to work within the London Southbank University. It’s a triangular campus cut through by side streets. Navigating back to it from Lambeth in the south west, the university’s two central slabs present a kind of ridge or raised horizon line. These two buildings are K2 and the Keyworth Centre, and they mark the former polytechnic's inauguration as a university. Both are high and thin and glass fronted. At first I saw these glass fronts as typical images of transparency, literalising an openness of view if not of access, essentially like a shop window (public buildings ‘must be the visible shop window of an enlightened local authority’ said Hampshire county architect in the 70s and 80s, Colin Stansfield Smith). But if so, as I came closer and started to use the buildings, the constructed signs of life from within seemed more complex and multivalent than the simple 'colour and vibrancy' one might expect. Inside these two buildings you can see a high rise university of walkways and staircases, as if reflecting a city which isn’t yours back to you (changing the outside by working inside the mirror).
Down in a mirror
From the street, the more demonstrative is the Keyworth Centre (2003) by BDP, commissioned for the new university’s launch. A full height, nine storey atrium is fronted by a glass grid - the ideal form of Platonists such as Mies van der Rohe, but here starred and made to float before the colours and forms within. Yellow and blue awnings which strike colour into the facade's glass grid recall an arcade or a Mediterranean back street, becoming part of the overall image of an encased city within (they’re actually roller blinds for the offices looking out into the atrium). Using the space every day, its oddness seemed to deepen and I went to the archives to view the plans, wanting to know what the beautiful wooden struts which shoot diagonally through the atrium might actually do: these supports splay out in X patterns and, I discovered, they take wind load from the facade and transfer it to the internal structure. The wood's shininess indicates the pressurised mixture of wood, glue and lamination which it has been treated to. The facade's glass grid is held by a wooden lattice, so the struts continue this wood engineering inwards. From either side of the atrium, paired birch wood towers stack terraces with seminar rooms, connected by balconies and corridors – at seven storeys they're tall for wooden structures. They suggest a different version of BDP's 'beehive school' concept derived from the directly contemporary Hampden Gurney glass-beehive primary school in Marylebone (2002). It’s at the thoughtful end of what became a ‘Scandinavian style’ of timber cladding combined with random brickwork, colour and bits of metal, more marked and deliberate as McGuirk previously worked with Ralph Erskine on the Byker estate, which made these design themes famous.
Keyworth Centre atrium
Next door, the K2 building by Grimshaw (2007), pushes the idea of building as pedagogy to an actual, remarkable point at which the floor of your seminar room may be teaching you something about material change. The Centre for Efficient and Renewable Energy in Buildings use the fabric of K2 and its services as a data collector, testing ground and exemplar. A walkway out onto the roof places you among windswept pipes and chiller absorption cabinets, ducts and air handling units; suddenly a panorama of London is apparent through the plant. A seminar room apparently hidden within this clanking, whirring mess, might seem to be a control room of the technological sublime, but its aforementioned glass floor shows an example of phase change materials used to store and release thermal energy in the change from solid to liquid and vice versa.
From the roof of K2
Back at street level, the building is a bridge around the atrium where hundreds of tonnes of Pilkington glass is held in place by steel blades so that you can see into and through the building, a view darkened by multiple tinted and laminated panes. Glass sided walkways connect to a white spiral staircase, sculptural and exposed. Education, the building suggests, is not just open but so open that you can see straight through, albeit with darkened vision. Opposite this ridge of modern buildings is an older structure built for the then polytechnic. This is the London Road Building of 1975, designed by John Weller under Peter Jones, GLC education architect. Its solution to the need for density is a red tiled block with slanted, aluminium framed windows – stylistic elements drawn directly from James Stirling's 'red trilogy' of university buildings completed in the sixties. Is the building an imitation, or an attempt to turn Stirling’s new break into an applicable style? The search for models (to develop or to copy) occurs across schools and colleges, driven by waves of population growth or investment (or not) in education – to take one example analogous to the Stirling effect, Alison and Peter Smithson only designed one school but it spawned ‘the Hunstanton style’ of schools across the UK.
London Road building
London Road’s towers which flank the entrance doors and the long thin strips of windows (which light an internal corridor) point in particular to Stirling's Florey building in Oxford (1968). The combined materials of Stirling's red buildings are rarely copied so exactly, perhaps because the problems with glazing and frames which beset them were widely publicised, particularly with the Florey building. This skin, however, simply wraps around a concrete structure which combines three quads (inaccessible and containing plant as if to note that a quad is, I don't know, a machine for learning in), lecture theatres and an internal street which connects London Road to Keyworth Street. Seen from above, there is no axonometric integration of forms as occurs with Stirling's original red buildings, you simply see over the red facade and onto the flat roof and quads, just as the GLC's architectural plans show a stepped red line supporting spacer bars, the red line being the building's basic idea - as if a style were a line, zigzagging away from one building to briefly wrap around another, gathering speed until it dissipates into increasingly arcane references. In fact such a line could have come straight down Walworth Road, as Stirling and Gowan's Brunswick Park school assembly hall in Camberwell is contemporary with the Leicester engineering building.

These three buildings respond in form to the chaos of density inherited from the form of a central London polytechnic college where every building combines lecture theatres with workshops, seminar rooms and labs, quite unlike the master planned or city wide campus. Working within while also researching these three buildings, I found how each – through structure, the building fabric or imitation – could itself be an education.
A rooftop education in K2