Samuel Mockbee, Rural Studio

September 8, 2013

LibraryBirthNov2012 042altBecause of my long time interest in low cost housing, I kept coming across the name of Samuel (Sam/Sambo) Mockbee, associated with Rural Studio, Auburn University, in connection with the housing for poor Black communities in Hale County in Alabama. This was not an association I expected to come out of USA and decided to look into this unexpected phenomenon in more detail.

This journey of discovery was exciting but turned sour when I heard of this remarkable man’s death from leukaemia at the age of 57 in 2001.

Europe is full of examples where architects, planners, philanthropists made significant contributions to develop social architecture (housing and schools) over last two centuries. Africa and Asia also saw some modest developments during late 20th century but the population, urban growth and poverty have given this problem urgency and much higher profile.

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However, USA had no history of this ‘liberal–nonsense’, and for a white man to emerge in the heart of one of the most bigoted areas trying to ‘buck the trend’ was noteworthy.

This may be the right time to visit this man, his contributions and ambitions at the time when Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech is having its 50th birthday with consensus that dream has hardly come true.

Mockbee often quoted Alberti’s call for choosing between fortune and virtue, which he considered a question of value and principle. He thought architects to be by nature leaders and teachers, offering their ’subversive leadership’ for the shaping of environment, breaking up social complacency and challenging the power of status quo. He was repulsed by the thought that architectural profession was coming under the influence of consumer-driven culture and becoming part of the corporate world and corporations. For him architect should not wait to be told which problems need solution, architect should assert his own values that respect and are for the greater good.LibraryBirthNov2012 049alt

“Architecture, more than any other art form, is a social art and must rest on the social and cultural base of its time and place. For those of us who design and build, we must do so with an awareness of a more socially responsive architecture. The practice of architecture not only requires participation in the profession but it also requires civic engagement. As a social art architecture must be made where it is and out of what exists there. The dilemma for every architect is how to advance our profession and our community with our talent rather than our talents being used to compromise them.”

Mockbee managed to disassociate himself from the bigotry of prevailing racial attitudes of American South and had a look at the effects of poverty and how architects can step over the threshold of injustice and address the true needs of neglected American family and their children who may also come of age without any vision of how to rescue themselves from the curse of poverty.

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Mockbee once told one of his clients, a Catholic nun named Sister Grace Mary, that he’s not Catholic but “Christian by birth, Buddhist by philosophy, and heathen by nature”.

The main purpose of the Rural Studio has been to enable each student, tomorrow’s decision maker, to step across the threshold of misconceived opinions and to design/build with a ‘moral sense’ of service to community, being more concerned with the good effects of architecture then ‘good intentions’.

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“On a triangular patch of land, next to the dirt road that serves as the hamlet’s arterial, stands a dramatic sculpture of glass and aluminum, cypress and steel and rust-red earth. This is the MasonsBendCommunity Center, designed and built as a thesis project by a team of fifth-year students at AuburnUniversity’s Rural Studio. The cost was approximately $20,000.

The building is processional in outline, gathering the community within arms of rammed earth, funneling them through a slender entrance sheltered by a fold of aluminum, and delivering them into a space that leads the eye through a fish-scale-glass membrane to the sky and trees beyond.”  Chritine Kreyling

 “Mockbee founded what is now called the Rural Studio, ‘Redneck Taliesin South’. Towards the end of his life he used to bring a group of his students to rural HaleCounty to design and build homes for the poor. One of the poorest regions in America, the county has more than 1,400 substandard dwellings, nearly all lacking electricity and running water. According to the 1997 Alabama County Data Book, about one-third of residents there live below the poverty level, with a per capita income just over $12,000 and an unemployment rate of 13 percent.

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The Rural Studio not only fulfills an overwhelming need for decent housing but gives architecture students the kind of hands-on experience virtually all other educational institutions in the field lack. The houses are built for about $30,000 each using a variety of recycled and discarded materials (tyres, bottles) and funded mostly with grants from a local power company. Designed through a collaborative process involving students and local residents, the homes boast an unconventional modern flair that incorporates the cultural vernacular of the region. Lucy’s house made of 72,000 carpet tiles is now well known all over architectural community.

They may be cheap, but these are nice houses.”   Mockbee thought that these should be good enough for him to live in with his family.

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That Rural Studio is not only self-regulating, but it produces buildings of exceptional quality in direct response to the needs of the community, suggests that it has evolved from a teaching exercise to an alternative and compelling practical asset.

The New York Times published a feature on Rural Studio in December 2005 resulting in crowds of ‘camera/map carrying’ tourists seeking location of Mason’s Bend. With this kind of background the appearances start to matter, the church which was lacking frequent cleaning and was underused by the community became an embarrassment. This brought a changing attitude towards future community buildings and their future upkeep by apportioning responsibilities to various community members from start.

Freear wondered if  Rural Studio has now reached its limit as a domestic housing endeavour, a well-intentioned educational experience benefiting a needy few, or could it evolve into a more serious and wide-ranging social project?

Projects are no longer conceived as isolated objects but links in a chain of essential social service.

The most recently completed final year projects exemplify this approach. Comprising a cell like lamella animal shelter, public park and hospital courtyard, rejuvenated as an attractive courtyard with expanded metal trellis serving staff.

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Freear feels that he is also nearing his own limitations as a Director and recently started to take some classes at AA with an Indian architect Anapama Kundoo.

On a personal level looking back at the contributions Mockbee made fills you with admiration but its significance and impact on the root cause of poverty, resulting deprivation and alleviating it remains a mere ‘pin-prick’.

Suffice to say that few hundred houses and community buildings for a deprived community means a lot. However, the hope for me lies in the generations of young architects coming out of this ‘educational exposure’ with some idea of what ‘needs/survival’ really means to people they hardly knew existed.

 I can only hope that even if some of them carry a small fraction of some of Mockbee’s generosity and wisdom the dream Mockbee had may be partly realized.

The information for this blog has been abstracted from Mockbee’s writings, interview and various magazine articles listed briefly below. The photographs are mostly attributed to my Flickr friends Ken Mccown and David Brown (odb). Their Flickr sites are well worth a visit.

http://www.flickr.com/search/?w=63216345@N00&q=Rural%20Studio

http://www.flickr.com/search/?w=45838449@N00&q=Rural%20Studio

Intereiew by Brian Libby April 2001; ‘Architecture without pretense’ by Christian Kreyling; ‘Community Hero’ by Jennifer Beck; Article by Andrea Oppenheimer Dean in Architectural Record.

 

Earlier blogs have already looked at 4 submissions from internationally invited architects, this third blog looks briefly at other remaining entries, looking at their proposed designs and main objectives. Let us start by looking at 40 years of growth, starting as ‘immaculate architect deliverd new born babies’, growing out of their original clothes (as intended) and covering their bulging bodies with colourful and attractive garbs to feel good, comfortable and impress others.

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Candilis, Josic, Woods    (France)

The housing structure is a system of walls defining built and open spaces.

There are two different width of bays, smaller one is 2.7m wide, can be entirely covered forming single or two storey accommodation, the wider bay 4.5 m wide, forming courtyard, patios and living accommodation in different combinations to suit immediate and future needs of occupants. The land can be traded off between adjacent owners to suit their particular needs.

The basic units at the start are all of equal size consisting of two small bays and one large one, and come ready with masonry walls, slabs and concrete beams with water  and drainage points and a certain amount of space is enclosed.

The streets serving the dwellings can be orthogonal or diagonal interdisperced with public squares and gardens. Shops can be formed within individual dwellings as happens in existing barriadas.

In early stages of development private cars may be limited to perimeter of the housing area, while service vehicles will use pedestrian ways but these arrangements can be readjusted to suit future car ownership demands.

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Charles Correa   (India)

Correa said that the project grew from the following four objectives:

(1)   Highest possible density commensurate with (2) Individual landownership;

(3) Minimum road and servicing cost; (4) Pedestrian /vehicle separation.

An arrangement of narrow row houses with access at both ends provided the logical answer both to vehicle segregation and minimization of service runs with porches and backyards acting as transition areas between pedestrian and car access and the interior of the houses along diagonal road and footpath routes so as to exploit the prevailing wind for ventilation purposes – aided by airscoopes over the central area of each house – and to achieve optimum orientation with respect to sunlight. Tree planting along pedestrian and service roadways can be employed to modulate sunlight and natural ventilation as well as traffic noise from the central thoroughfare.

The service structure of schools, shops, and church and recreation areas is strung out in a disjointed diagonal moving in the opposite direction to the footpaths and roads. They take the form of the covered shaded areas set in well ventilated clearings and can be easily reached on foot as they can be by vehicle. The shops can be serviced from cul-de-sac service roads. From individual porches one can walk along pedestrian ways until these join the central spine of patios culminating in the central church and shopping area.

There is a single underpass linking both halves of the site across the central area.

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The houses themselves are designed in such a way that they can either be built by their future occupants, with the assistance of the authorities as regards prefabricated elements, subsidies, skilled labour etc.: or they can be completed by the authorities themselves and sold to individual families. The former option would allow greater flexibility and, bearing in mind the efforts have been made to minimize the number of constraints that would be necessary under the circumstances.

Narrow plots resulting in narrow frontages, in architects mind ensured that the façade to be ‘controlled’ was very small and set well back into the porch.

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The short span housing offered considerable structural flexibility which could be exploited by the occupants. Further flexibility was offered by building the first stage development to be on ground floor, incorporating a front porch, living/dining area, bedroom, central patio, bathroom, kitchen and a small service patio at the rear. This was considered sufficient for a young family with one or two children. The future stages could add first floor bedrooms and bathroom.

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Correa’s ‘interlaced’ scheme generated by the saw-tooth configuration of the anti- seismic outer wall is orientated along the axis that is most conducive to natural ventilation. The major changes have been made on the scale of the city block. Individual owners have now aligned their units along the street front.

Without malleability you can not have cultural expression-

all you can get is a top-down notion of how people should live” C.C.

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Esguerra, Saenz, Urdaneta, Samper   (Columbia)

Project tries to create neighbourhoods units with high densities/low rise but individual ownership. This approach also reduces combining services and communications. The supervision of open spaces, security of motor cars, play areas is also assured through this community spirit.

Individual plots are square maximising the flexibility of layouts, reducing party walls, enclosing pedestrian routes with easy access to cars.

There are 20 unit designs available depending on locations within layout, service areas and staircases. The following standard structural components using a 50 cm module are extensively used;

  1. A standard pre-stressed concrete tee beam and accompanying hollow brick infill elements.
  2. Prefabricated concrete lintels and porch section and perforated bricks.
  3. A standard open web steel roof joist with steel support columns to support ‘Eternit’ roof sections.
  4. Standard prefabricated sinks, wcs, washbasins and showers.
  5. standardised water, gas and electricity installations.
  6. Metal doors and window frames and terrazzo stair treads.

PREVIDec12 017altOskar Hansen and Svein Hatloy   (Poland)

Earth banks and areas of planting protect the project from the main traffic route.

This scheme avoids using neighbourhood areas as the scheme avoids the formation of hierarchical structures and offers parallel opportunities for all.

Each single unit is placed in close proximity to a sheltered open space to allow free pedestrian movement and play spaces near homes. These paths/private open spaces are connected with the central servicing zones ensuring a steady pedestrian traffic.

All houses are within ten minutes walk from the central rapid-transit route with adjacent parking areas, services and recreation facilities. Construction is intended to be gradual (north-east corner to south-west) to enable progressive occupation without excessive disturbance.

The dwellings are designed to be built in two stages in variety of ways, the first consist of primary structure, building the prefabricated concrete elements placed by a three-ton crane. The secondary structure stage of completion is carried out by tenants themselves by using lighter elements of clay or concrete blocks, lintels, wall panels, partition, windows, woven fibrous screens and textiles, all capable of assembling in number of combinations to suit occupant’s needs.

The structural walls incorporate storage recesses with doors and ventilation to open air, while shaded areas cool ingoing air.

The open nature of plan still provides acoustically quiet areas in the centre of the house, where the private rooms are situated.

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J.L.Iniguez De Onzono and A.Vazquez De Castro   (Spain)

The site is divided into ten neighbourhoods, each of about 500 dwellings.

A 3 m wide main pedestrian street runs centrally connecting groups of dwellings.

Groups of one-family houses are standard plans around internal and service patios.

Upper floors are planned alongside access alleys. A circular staircase links the two floors.

The structural system of prefabrication provides a series of permanent shuttered elements for poured reinforced concrete (walls, pillar, and beams).

PREVIDec12 019altToivo Korhonen   (Finland)

The main structural grid used is 36m x 36m, derived from practical requirements. The structural grid is separate from the internal module making it independent from internal additions and changes.

The plan of dwelling type is based on a functional separation of service and kitchen spaces, general spaces, and sleeping spaces. This offers maximum flexibility to suit future needs of occupiers who will determine the forms themselves.

The boundary walls of all dwellings are built first. The simplest dwelling thus consists of an undivided space, with water and drainage laid on in the service yard, which at the outset will serve as a kitchen. From this starting point the owner fills in and extends his house. Sanitary and Kitchen fittings are fixed using standard components. Services are grouped to avoid long installation runs.

The structural system has shallow concrete foundation pads, a floor slab resting on the ground and concrete columns and beams, supporting a corrugated asbestos roof.

All basic dwellings are single storey, when the upper storey is required; the original roof acts as shuttering for concrete.

There is no traffic within each developed area, apart from service traffic which penetrates on several wider roads. Parking areas in the first stage are mainly reserved for public buildings.

PREVIDec12 020altAldo E. Van Eyck  (Netherlands)

The urban structure formed by the housing is derived from a clustering principle which operates independently of the dwelling type employed. The plot shape does not correspond to the octagonal shape of the houses, so squares, rectangles, rhomboids and free forms could be employed with equal ease. The chief advantage of the hexagonal house with its low perimeter wall is that it discourages further building by the inhabitants in any direction which would result in the loss of external spaces or internal light a frequent development in self-build barriada housing. In this sense the houses are designed so that further free development cannot work against the best interests of the occupants.

The layout is characterized by thick bands of clustered housing separated by a small number of roads placed as far apart as possible. Each band is six plots deep presenting a wall of houses made up of rows of six and two, or five and three dwellings, to the principle avenue, which is itself developed more or less symmetrically so as to achieve a more monumental character. The access footpaths serving the bands of housing have a more informal aspect which clearly differentiates from the main thoroughfares. Climatic considerations affected this layout as traffic – which is insensitive to climate – runs from east to west, whilst the pedestrian footpaths run south-east to north-west or north-east to south-west so as to take advantage of cooling breezes during the hot summer. Protection from a winter winds is achieved by means of the block staggering shown on the plan.

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The arrangement of paths described above allows the breeze to penetrate deep into each band of dwellings, a process facilitated by the lateral staggering of the houses. Both house types1 and 2 are designed to take advantage of this air movement by permitting through ventilation to all interior and exterior private spaces. The triangular patios discourage building over in the manner described above, so that the achievement of a genuinely urban character – instead of a suburban – can be realized. All schools and service facilities are accessible along the diagonal pedestrian paths whilst a variety of safe play spaces for children, communal lawns, plazas with fountains and other open spaces are grouped at the ends of the footpaths in full view of all houses for security.

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Car parking is provided along the principal avenues and also in certain areas off the footpaths.

In the design of the houses an effort has been made to avoid the appearance of an industrially produced minimum house – which carries with it a stigma not easily overcome by the inhabitants of former barriadas. Instead an effort has been made to build a measure of flexibility into dwellings which can not only interpret traditional and modern living styles but also adjust to different room arrangements corresponding to individual family requirements.

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It would be a grave error if pre-designed and partially pre-constructed urban environments such as this pilot project proposes should counteract the growth and development of the barriada idea and practice, instead of stimulating it through the erection of improved dwelling types, construction systems and overall community planning.”  A.v.E.

Prior to taking part in the competition Aldo van Eyck visited Peru where he observed that in local houses women were at the heart of the home, he placed the kitchen in the centre of the floor plan. He also took a more proscriptive approach to how the owners should expand, creating diagonally walled courtyards to discourage people building on top of them. He failed of course. Outside space is not sacred to a family of eight with another generation on the way.

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One of my favourite photos from Domus shows this combinaton of  sophisticated Danish technology, precision and grace, embellished and enhanced by this proud couple, who met Knud Svensson as they occupied this house they adored from the first day. Architect promised that one day he would come back to build them a first floor extension to match what they liked, but unfortunately that never happened.

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Collective/Community External spaces in PREVI

“Though many years have passed, bearing in mind the premise that Peter Land’s team addressed the influence of each participant throughout the design process, the composition of these elements suggests the contribution of Aldo van Eyck.
This assembly of highly static, geometric abstract objects, their gravity-defying impression of lightness and the sculptured border all recall the playgrounds of post-war Amsterdam designed by Aldo van Eyck for Amsterdam’s Department of Public Works. Van Eyck addressed the issue of interstitial voids and defined space and place, producing interventions that were both numerous and ephemeral. His ambition of creating a space for children that was “more durable than snow” was realized in the desert of Lima.
It is surprising to note how the constant transformation of the housing units distracted architecture reviewers, while the collective spaces attracted hardly any attention. The collective space, immaterial and flowing, is the most determinant and lasting element of the PREVI.” Quote from an excellent dap paper Issue 9 by Marianne Baumgartner on collective spaces. http://www.architecturalpapers.ch/index.php?ID=90

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“EL TIMPO CONSTRUYE! TIME BUILDS” by Fernando Garcia-Huidobra, Diego Torres Torriti and Nichlas Tugas Barcelona 2008. A rather difficult book to get hold of, but I understand most of the Domus graphics and details are attributed to this book

Domus April 2011, report by Justin McGuirk.

Julian Salas & Patricia Lucas from openhouse international vol 37 No 1 ‘The validity of PREVI, Forty years on.

Short description of 3 winning entries (Atelier 5, Kikutake-Kurokawa-Maki and Herbert Ohl), and one entry (Christopher Alexander) supported by a split jury.

Having covered the background of PREVI, a glimpse of the competition Brief and the resulting buildings, with particular reference to James Stirling’s proposals, were explored in my first Blog, now I would like to go through the original winning entries and their progress over last 40 years.

You would recall that the jury chose 3 winning projects from 13 International architects in 1969. Atelier5; Kikutake-Kurokawa-Maki; and Herbert Ohl were the official winners but there was a split in the jury and Centre for Environmental Structure by Christopher Alexander was considered by this jury to be worthy of a winner.

Jury thought that Atelier 5 scheme used an interesting method (possibly economical) of construction using pre-cast concrete panels small enough to be built on site and manhandled for wall and roof construction. They considered that two storey house plan appeared complex with patios and internal spaces. The external communal spaces and separation of traffic was well liked.

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In a recent interview Alfredo Pini of Atelier 5 said that their invitation to PREVI was a result of their successful Halen project. They were full of praise for the aims, objectives and the process of the competition. The implementation of their 25 units took place in accordance with their plans but the distance and complexities made the involvement difficult towards the end. They were pleasantly surprised to see the attention and care given to external public spaces after decades of use.

Pini did not consider the present situation a chaos – “…it is a fine chaos. I have nothing against it – in fact, I positively like it. That is a positive drive…. The extensions and interventions of inhabitants were quite good.”

Kikutake, Maki and Kurokawa and Associates also used pre-cast concrete system with different loadings which also included foundations, again considered well worked out and likely to save costs. House plan grouped service areas with potential of local industry producing equipment/units for Kitchen, Toilets and storage in future.

The external spaces in this scheme also separated cars from pedestrians but some jury members considered the spaces were possibly too extensive for effective use.

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Fumihiko Maki in a recent interview recalls the original brief. The large growing families would reflect the growth of houses, an important metabolist concept. He welcomed the changes to the houses but was concerned about the extra floors being built on modest original foundations in an earthquake zone.

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Herbert Ohl scheme was problematic from start. Design was sophisticated use of extensive large pre-cast elements using complex arrangement resulting in a shell which could accommodate internal changes with ease and flexibility.

There was proposal for an underground ‘service spine and car parking’.

Minority jury disliked Ohl’s scheme and considered it regimented, inhuman and expensive.

The ‘travelling crane’ in their view became a designer rather than a useful tool.

Architect anticipated a democratic interchange between human and technological factors, stimulating multiplicity, flexibility, micro and macro relations; … all using dimensional and functional modules. The mobile crane was able to provide universal frame structure at any time without disturbing the community.

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As feared, the complexity and difficulty of producing even a small part of this scheme failed to be built in the ‘sample’ project constructed under Peter Land’s supervision.

The science fiction approach may have been exciting to explore but was very unrealistic and removed from the objectives of the competition. I am surprised it was one of the 3 schemes chosen as winners.

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Interview by Martanne Baumgartner and Tomeu Ramis, ETH Zurich.

This split jury thought that Christopher Alexander’s proposal was a ‘milestone’ which addressed the brief and Peruvian conditions and produced an imaginative solution for low income housing and offering maximum freedom of individual choice. The praise continued “….a freshness of approach, a commitment to the dignity and worth of individual , a recognition and understanding of the complex linkages between the individual, his family, his belongings, his neighbours and the entire community are implicit in each part of this proposal.”

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The building system uses fewest standard components to provide maximum variety and choice of solutions… the proposed use of bamboo, urethane, and sulphur structural members may not be new or proven but was in keeping with the spirit of this competition.

It is difficult to explain the concepts behind the ‘cell structure’ of the housing layout in this short introduction but it is a fascinating report to study if you can lay your hands on it.

The house layout considers various traditional aspects of Peruvians social/living habits.

The house construction was aimed at using local materials and traditions where possible. The foundations were floating slabs supporting load-bearing walls and a lightweight plank and beam floor/roof. An ingenious interlocking mortar-less concrete-block for wall construction, reinforced with sulphur, with cavity for plumbing and conduits. The planks and beams are made of urethane foam-plastic and bamboo, reinforced with sulphur-sand topping; all are earthquake resistant methods of construction.

Information attributable to the following sources;

AD 4/70, Competition drawings and Thick Walls AD Feb 1968; Domus, April 2011,’ Metabolist utopia’; ‘The validity of PREVI, Lima, Peru, 40 years on’ by Julian Salas and Patricia Lucas.

Louis Kahn’s work before Yale University Art Gallery (1950) is not very well known and publicised. However it is worth remembering that he was practicing since  early 30s.
Louis Kahn served as a consultant to the Philadelphia Housing Authority and the United States Housing Authority in 1930s. He had a deep sense of social responsibility and was very interested in providing low cost housing.

He also worked with European émigrés Alfred Kastner and Oskar Stonorov.
In the early 1940s Louis Kahn associated with Stonorov and
George Howe, with whom Louis Kahn designed several wartime
housing projects such as Carver Court in Coatesville (composite; top left), Pennsylvania (1941-1944) and Pennypack Woods in Philadelphia (1941-1943). His last scheme of this period was the public housing in Philadelphia’s Mill Creek Housing project (1951-1963).

In late 40s Louis Kahn‘s career took-off when he established an independent practice and began to teach at Yale University and then at the University of Pennsylvania as Professor of Architecture (1957-1974). During those years, his ideas about architecture and the city took shape and early work of idealism that followed the international modernism was re-examined and reassessed by him and we all know the impact that produced on architectural history for the rest of 20th century.

I visited Canada and USA as a student in 1967 and attempted to see as much of his work as I could. On my visit to Mill Creek Housing I could not help noticing boarded up properties and a general feeling of deterioration. Few years ago  when I learnt that the Estate was demolished, I was surprised and rather puzzled but put it down to possible social deprivation, poor maintenance and ‘sink status’ – a situation one comes across in Britain social housing frequently.

A quick search on internet started to unfold a different story which may be worth noting. Apparently the apartments were built on top of the Mill Creek flood plains. In 1961 several blocks of houses collapsed causing some deaths and as a result 111 houses were condemned and demolished. There were also three 17 storey tall residential blocks, also designed by Kahn in a subsequent phase see composite top right-bottom), which I am informed were a social disaster as far as accommodation was concerned were also demolished.

In the photo on top, Carver Court B&W photo attributed to Wiki Arquitectura. Site layout from http://www.design.upenn.edu.  Mill Creek Housing photo from  from’ In the Realm of Architecture’.

All other individual photos from my 1976 visit.

Wayland Tunley intentions from the start were to have a wide variety of uses and housing on this site as he saw the dangers in housing 3000 people in a repetitive layout lacking amusement and joy.

A clearly understood street, cycleway and pedestrian network were to lead to a lively central area to be shared with the adjacent grid of Pennyland and to be linked to the city via the grid road. He intended to provide maximum variety of public areas surrounded by house types and designs which people were familiar with and liked. The layout consisted of varied building designs around streets, mews, landscape styles, offering surprises and vistas.

The trap of using unfamiliar building materials and contrived forms was also avoided by using red bricks, tiled roofs vernacular throughout the grid where the topography of this prominent site offered the variation sought by the designers to achieve a village plan within the grid with entrances marked with gate piers, timber oriels, lanterns, balconies, pergolas and its own ‘green’ and clock tower

A wide variety of mostly wide fronted one to three storey houses was employed often placing living rooms on first floor to take full advantage of the views. Most of the houses were originally meant for rent, some for sale. There was also specialist accommodation for Spastics Association, employment office, shops, a Pub, health centre, housing for elderly, schools. This variety building types was fully utilised to provide variation of scale and roof heights.

The streets and mews are named after old crafts, within context of a ‘village vernacular’ of a comprehensive newly designed picturesque village community lost within a modern large new city designed for cars.

The local centre lies within Neath Hill but casts its visual net to cover the adjacent grid of Pennyland and indeed announcing itself to the speeding motorists on the main grid road. Neath Hill and Pennyland are special grids as the local centre shared by the two adjacent areas is a departure from norm and addresses the main grid road to break the MK planning rule of hiding the centres in the heart of grids surrounded by housing and a lush belt of hedges and trees to keep the housing grids secret and private to the local population.

Wayland Tunley is the main ‘conductor and composer’ in this area. The housing varies from simple and plain to celebratory and elaborate, depending on the placement within a very rich mix of public spaces and pedestrian circulation. The hidden secret of these grids lies in the joy of walking on footpaths winding their way through matured landscape reminding you of intimate country lanes, village greens, with beautifully framed views of building landmarks. Grand Union Canal has also been included in giving an extra boost to this subtle experiencing of marriage between the social architecture and the best traditions of British informal landscaping by offering a mini ‘Venetian Corner’ with a British twist to the complete surprise of  casual newcomers.

By the time Pennyland come to the drawing board, the energy conservation was becoming a significant issue. The first phase was built to higher standards if insulation and employed quite a few energy conservation experiments and studies.

Wayland Tunley left MKDC in early 1980s and won a competition to build canal-side housing (I assume as a builder/developer partnership) which used traditional canal side architecture and language of Netherfield very effectively. Housing built further away from Neatherfield was carried out by other architects and developers.

The design team dealing with northern Milton Keynes was led by Nigel Lane and Wayland Tunley. They dealt with sensitive infill schemes in Stony Stratford (Cofferidge Close) and did infill projects in tightly built railway town of Wolverton including the Agora.  (see Blog: Agora, Wolverton MK: February 19, 2010)

Galley Hill was one of the first large housing schemes completed in 1971-72. At this point the problems of overheated building industry became apparent. The required speed of building new houses was not available and to meet the requirements, simpler layouts were needed along with the introduction of industrialised methods of construction whenever possible.

The small groups of terraces forming the public spaces were treated in fairly homogeneous manner as far as use of colours and  finishes of horizontal boarding and design of doors and windows was concerned.

However, as happened in other places, the subsequent private ownership of a large number of houses ensured an introduction of patch work of varying colours and materials to display individuality of their new owners, weakening the architectural coherence originally envisaged.

The pitched roofs helped in many ways – disasters of leaking flat roofs of southern flank housing schemes were not experienced and roof scape also helped to unify the appearance.

The densities were low and compared to modern housing developments these Parker Morris standard houses and large open spaces look almost lavish.

Buckinghamshire County Council was responsible for designing and building schools in Milton Keynes and one of their gifted architects, Brian Andrews, worked closely  with MKDC planners to build a traditionally built school closely integrated with the roads and footpaths. There was some bold ‘arts and crafts’ inspired brick detailing and a friendly open layout. Unfortunately the subsequent vandalism has meant that fences and gates have denied easy access.

Greenleys housing is more formal, using car free courtyards  on either side of car parking areas or courtyards large enough to bring cars into attached garages and car parking spaces. These schemes were worked out and built fairly quickly. The warm coloured bricks and pitch roofs were also a far sighted decision for this period. Landscaping, as usual is of high standards unifying the whole scheme.

Buckinghamshire County Council built another traditional looking school here. Ivor Smith built the Local Centre with Community and Sports facilities at low level and housing above.

Both are shown in the photograph below.

As promised at the end of February 2013, I welcome the spring by removing all the images from this Blog I uploaded at the end of July 2012. This saddens me but is to conform with the note received from Archigram Archives representative on 22 February 2013 (see below) about the use of copyright materials, a fact which is undeniable. However, my intentions were simply aimed at offering an open learning resource, sharing original Archigram intentions, when I as a student, bought the original magazines for pennies. In todays world these would have been available as a free/open resource for downloading on Internet.

I intend to revisit this Blog in future after studying the background of the competition and looking at some of the social/political changes which were taking place at that time eventually leading to the cancellation of this as a viable project.

This was a limited competition for an entertainment and sports building on the reclaimed foreshore of Monte Carlo. Archigram reached the final stage and came very close to building in this glamorous city to provide the vibrancy displyed in their graphics.

The Brief required a multi- purpose space to cater for large banquet; variety shows, a circus, Ice rink and cultural activities were also eagerly sought. Architects noticed the lack of a public park and this beach side proposal could extend its services but remained complimentary in atmosphere and experience.

David Greene’s Rockplug/Logplug acted as an inspiration, grassy bank with trees placed over the hole in the ground livened up this depressing area, while offering a glamourous setting as illustrated by liberal use of scanty clad women armed with sun glasses, and a grid of plug-in points for headphones and other modern paraphernalia livening up the site to fit in the famous city of Monte Carlo.  All the major functions brief required were housed in a large circular space chosen for its structural properties, covered with a shallow dome hidden under grass, offering extensive supports for all the technoligical kits Archigram could provide to improve upon Cedric Price’s Fun Place and Piano Rogers Beaubourg project.

The aim was to provide a large enough space for banquets, elephants or go-karts; adapting from chamber music to ice hockey. A place where the envelope and architecture was to become subservient to events and the structural systems and services providing magic tricks for multi-use were only playing the ‘second fiddle’.

The buried space was served by six entrances, each show making its own environment, organization and circulation patterns.
Most of the facilities like toilets, normally built-in were designed to be mobile, using a comprehensive set of kit of parts, set at a 6m metre grid and gantries.  The aim was to design a place not dissimilar to a live television studio, not unlike ‘Instant City’ in one location. No dividing line between performance and transmitted event (projection, overlay of media). Even after frequent visit to these activities, the visitors may not be able to appreciate the size or configurations within this large cavern.
An architecture that was to be made of the events rather than the envelope as it is likely Archigram considered Beaubourg was.

Peter Cook, Dennis Compton, Colin Fournier, David Greene with Ken Allison, Diana Jowsey, Stuart Lever. Engineered by Frank Whitby.

PS: I am informed that Ron Herron worked on the competition albeit whilst he was in America and consequently on the unbuilt scheme.

The information and original scans are attributed to an article in Architectural Design 1/70 Cosmorama

 

In early 70s, while the large scale housing grids were being developed on southern flank of Milton Keynes near Bletchley  (Coffee Hall, Netherfield, Eaglestone, Netherfield have already been covered in my earlier Blogs) northern flank started slightly more cautiously and more traditionally.

Milton Keynes, was badly suffering from shortage of skilled labour and contractors due to its huge building programme and distances from existing conurbations. There were attempts to design housing by using simplified and if possible use factory built or repetitive elements of construction where possible.

The first housing scheme near Stony Stratford, Galley Hill, was nearing completion and DOE’s granted permission for the same contractor to continue working on Fullers Slade provided the work continued from first site to the second. This imposed a much reduced design period (almost two months) and resulted in a simpler layout and quick decision making.  Long delivery periods for bricks made it necessary to use diagonal cedar boarding as external cladding and a concrete system using a box system of shutters was used  on a standardised 3.60m module for all dwellings.

In retrospect you can notice the direct or indirect influence of Wayland Tunley working with Derek Walker. Pithed roofs  and familiar building materials were used whenever possible. This was in contrast wit Grunt Group’s bold use of flat roofs and metal windows and cladding at Netherfield (Ralph Erskin at Eaglestone performed a similar function) which ran into all kind of technical difficulties and windows and roofs had to be changed to make the dwellings habitable.

The decision was taken to use simple terraces with houses of different sizes, generally following the contours of the site. An ancient existing mature hedgerow offered a natural anchor to the generous communal spaces around terraces. The stepped section offers maximum living accommodation on the ground level and daylight within the units also allowing sun to reach the private garden positioned on north-east side of the terraces.

After about 40 years use.

As usual the landscaping is wonderful. Some of the large trees perished during Dutch Elm disease but others were planted. Unlike unfortunate  disunity/disfigurement/multi-colour additions and ad hoc alterations to individual houses within the terraces of Netherfield, it is a relief to notice that there is a satisfying unity of colours textures and window designs despite quite a few major alterations to exterior design at Fuller Slade.

I read quite a few reports about fire incidents in local newspapers of Milton Keynes (unfortunately social housing schemes are often involved), I can only assume that the possibility of spread of fires with timber boarding and lack of vertical barriers may have added to this problem and perhaps explain the resulting changes.

The clay tile hanging has replaced the timber boarding between the window bands, simple (and controlled coloured) fins have appeared between dwellings. There is a relaxed and easy going use of car ports, stores and sheds which are often modified but are not offensive by any means. Children and families enjoy the public spaces in a safe and relaxed environment.

I must find out the reasons for this positive use after seeing the terrible failures in housing in other areas. This may be due to different ‘owner occupation’ ratios or the imposed rules on the new occupiers to conform with some acceptable communal responses to retain some visual unity. It is also possible that there is a large proportion of dwellings under a housing association control which carries out its own maintenance. There is no doubt that the north and south divide has some lessons to offer in Milton Keynes.

One of the most sensitive and cleverly designed structures of recent times, Kingsgate Bridge by Ove Arup was built in early 60s and was soon joined by a notable neighbouring building, Dunelm House where  Ove Arup Associates also acted as structural engineers.

The simplicity and delicacy of the bridge design is seen next to a large but broken concrete ‘jumble’ sitting on a steep slope almost opposite Durham Cathedral. I have been a great admirer of this contrasting ‘duo’ from the day I saw these in mid 60s and my recent second visit has not disappointed me in any way.

The bridge links Dunelm House to other university buildings across the river, while serving various buildings spread around it all over the city. The design exploited the sloping site to its advantage by hiding a large building complex with some large volumes without breaking the existing medieval texture of Durham.

The views from communal and other windows looking over the river and indeed the bridge offer superb views. The reflections of lights and life within the building  seen from the opposite bank are also quite exciting.

The building plan is conceived by forming a spine of stair route which collects the visitors at two upper most levels and starts their downward journey on this spine.

All major usable spaces are at various landings along the route. The stair widths and landings reflect the significance of destinations. The stair stops at the lowest level which also houses the largest and less frequently used main gathering space.

The original finishes inside the building were restrained and sombre. The grey concrete and quarry tiled floors were used in most places. The current taste and more affluent student population seeks more Pub/Club like atmosphere.

I am certain that such demands have resulted in use of some bright colours in main stair areas, destroying the unifying and linking function to move between various destinations. The yellowish tinge you see on my photos is result of paint and not the tungsten light or underexposure.

The original white open ceiling white planks with dark sound absorbent filling behind has now become shiny red which one is happy to accept as transient response to cater the tastes of given periods.

The external walls are made of lightweight (foamed slag) concrete fairfaced board marked finish both inside and outside of insulated load bearing external walls. It is remarkable to notice that concrete on Arup’s bridge has suffered heavy staining while Dunelm House is quite free from serious staining. This may be due to some property of the slag and its mix.

The original roof was meant to be covered in Zinc for economy reason, but Royal Fine Art Commission objected and the resulting precast giant concrete tiles were used using a pink shap granite.

This was obviously a step to ensure that the visible roof was part of this cohesive massing and fitted in the townscape more successfully.

The main entrances at the highest point of site at the junction of footpath leading to Arup’s bridge is brilliant design. These entrances bring the users to the head of stairs, feeding them down like a constant ‘waterfall’.

Black & White photos from AJ 15 June 1966 and  two other B&W photos and Blue Cross Section from Architectural Review (date not visible) from John Donat’s article.

The School of Architecture and Building Engineering (E6)

What is ‘Conglomerate ordering”

To understand the most significant building by Smithsons on the campus, the school of Architecture and Building Engineering or E6, one must try to comprehend the ideas behind ‘Conglomerate ordering’ which emerged in Sienna period of ILAUD.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilaud  This building demonstrates many of these ideas and twenty years of use have also thrown some light on Smithsons hopes and expectations.

Following summary is abstracted from AJ 30 November 1988

1CO.*  ‘ A building of conglomerate ordering is hard to retain in mind… it is elusive except when one is actually there; then it is perfectly lucid.

2CO.    ‘It brings all our senses into play through the widest possible differences: fear and pleasure mixed together.

3CO.    ‘The building has a thick building-mass; (as La Granccia di Cuna and Santa Maria della Scala) not very high…penetrated from the top for light and air.

4CO.    ‘The roof of a building is another face …all faces are of equal value, all equally considered, but non are “elevations”.

5CO.    Conglomerate buildings are an inextricable part of larger fabric .It has no back, no front; it is equally engaged with all it confronts. A change within its “convention of use” enhances its sense of order.

6CO.    Its fabric can accept interventions.

7CO.    It is dominated by one material… the conglomerate’s matrix.

8CO.    It seems to be pulled-down to meet the ground, not the ground built-up to meet the building.

9CO.    It is lumpish in weight and has weight.

10CO.  Its bearing walls and columns diminish in thickness as their load or need for mass diminishes; walls and column spacing is irregular, responding to use and natural placing.

11CO.  It has a variable density plan and a variable density section.

*The numerical referencing above does not represent any order of importance and simply being used to refer to my descriptions/observations regarding this building.

 

 E6

I consider the location and design of this entrance building as pivotal for the campus. Not only it was to act as a ‘sign post’ for entrance but it was to perform the task of moving thousand of students and staff from ground level to main raised deck and down again.  It was built well after completion of 60’s campus development, indeed almost at the end of the productive life of the architects, who were also going to show their final hand to test and explain  ‘Conglomerate ordering’ among other thoughts.

The best way to share my views of this long awaited visit is to understand and explain architects intentions and then try to share the buildings  in their present context. The wear and tear caused by the general use and age and any changes due to change of functions can then be highlighted. I am afraid some effort is required on our part to understand the architectural process used by Smithsons which produced a small body of disparate work of undisputed architectural significance.

Let us start by describing the impact of arriving at the campus for a first time visitor who has just parked the car in nearby visitors’ car park. The positioning of a large bus stop/vehicle turning place with bus shelters around it and  pedestrian friendly surfaces, surrounding landscaping and buildings announce that this is more than a bus stop and makes you register it almost like a town square.

This feeling of arrival is reinforced by the presence of a slightly odd end of a longish slab building which is welded to this ‘arrival space’ near one edge at a slight angle as though it is trying to envelope the ‘space’ just described.

Since you have no clue as how to enter this huge complex of buildings, your eyes run past the end of the ‘odd’ building and there is no doubt in your mind that a major route is being announced by  presence of very wide steps attached to this building looking straight at you. This invitation (with an Italian accent) is irresistible and without any hesitation you undertake this journey of discovery.

Oscar Niemeyer’s sketch from his 2003 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion is for me the best analogy I can offer (with the sincerest apologies to Smithsons but possibly delight of Neiymer). Can you imagine asking some student at the bus stop for directions to get to Architects Department and getting a reply  “Go up to the knee and turn left, but don’t take the lower path”  or “Library? ah! go right up to the belly button and turn right”.

The wide steps are arranged some distance apart at different angles hugging the side of the long building. You notice the steps reduce in width as you climb and you also gradually find yourself under the cover of upper construction of this building. You are also aware of obstacles like balustrades and local ramps near doors trying to impede your upward journey.

If you happen to look into the building through the windows on left, you are bound to notice large display of architectural photographs fixed to a corridor wall running parallel to the route you are following. Some entrance doors to this corridor and signs indicate that these doors take you to the School of Architecture. If you look to your right and backwards you would have gained enough height to see distant campus building and the country side.

After a fairly long walk but gentle ascent, these steps bring you to a very large platform on the right.  This space has trees and is surrounded by lots of high building on each side and bridging overhead. The  ‘odd’ concrete building with attached steps which offered  cover to this route  has now attached itself to one of the older arcaded buildings around this raised area, and you are still walking in an older arcade.

(The width of Smithson steps was predetermined by an existing arcade of the same width to which these originally connected to, well before the upper deck was reached. This in not the case any more, as the deck has been extended towards E6 to meet it and a new lift has been located here basically to for disabled users. This act of arrival via steps of fairly restricted width to a very wide platform originally was a puzzle to me as there was no apparent reason for not finding a more generous stepped ramped approach. Another set of stairs has been added to the other side of the road as well   (second of Oscar Niemeyer’s sketch legs).

Having reached your destination, like any sensible architect, you retrace you steps and experience the journey backwards and explore the other side of this ‘oddity’ of a building. This is an entirely different world. A great deal of raw building materials and machinery paraphernalia dominates the back yard; you obviously are in the Building Engineering department of the campus. This area has its own vehicular access and much more formalized disposition of windows responding to other surrounding buildings. There is also a bit of playing with forms (God forbid!) as the back of lecture theatre shows its presence by two chamfered walls expressed on external elevation.

When you see the end of the building facing the ‘square’ carefully, it becomes apparent that this also acts as a cross section explaining the assembly of the constituent parts (corridors, roof lights, Workshops supporting studios, roof platform for daylight studies for school of architecture).

There are two doors linking School of Architecture to the grand staircase at slightly different levels and in turn connected with another local circulation passage running parallel to the main stepped route offering views in and out and also offering on display some architectural activities and serving a generous crit room also acting as a lecture space. Two stairs and a lift also connects the entrance level to serve most of studios, seminar and workrooms on two floors above and access to the ground level below.

A walk in the school of architecture soon reveals that there is a great shortage of social and informal meeting spaces throughout the building. The circulation spaces are too restricted to offer any other meaningful activity. I assume it is a direct result of financial straitjacket architects found themselves in dealing all the work on this campus.

A quick look at the list of ‘conglomerate ordering’ (with numerical references above) reveals that Smithsons have managed to achieve most of their aims.

1CO- I can verify that building is hard to retain in mind as despite my best efforts to recall what I saw internally, I was unable to draw a plan with any certainty.

2CO- matter of all senses I am afraid is difficult to comment on. Fear and pleasure are strong words. The daylight quality in studios and views are pleasurable and nice.

3CO- Building has thick mass and lit from the top indeed.

4CO- All faces, including the roof are well considered and are of equal value.

5CO- The building equally engaged with all it confronts. Some major changes within the building have already successfully taken place without any change to sense of order.

6CO- Fabric is continuing to receive interventions and thriving. For examples most of the studios are new interconnected with new openings and various walls have been added or altered.

7CO- The use of Bath stone and concrete frame remains the conglomerate’s matrix and weathering well. Horizontal banding of concrete is even more pronounced because of lichen growth on it.

8CO-The grand staircase literally pulls the building to ground. The walk on grand staircase offers interesting little incidents but does not make any attempts to perform visual gymnastics which have become the hallmark of new generation of architects. The real contribution lies in linking one newly created space to an existing one, without trying to dominate any but keeping the interests alive throughout this transition of height.

9CO-Building is lumpish and has weight.

10CO-Walls and columns respond to load and reduce where possible. Columns are irregularly placed for many areas responding to use.

11CO- It has a variable density plan and section.

When the building opened all of the School of Architecture could not be accommodated here but now it is all under this stainless steel roof and looks very happily settled as one can gather from the usual assuring clutter of models drawings and odd furniture in well lived in studios.

The exposed services originally were considered crude but constant changes have proved that this was the right decision. The building must have absorbed many changes to services particularly in relation to new IT changing needs. It appears that the results are more than satisfactory and  continue the original relaxed looking distribution without any known failure of crops of young architects coming out of this school with phobias about exposed services. I have no doubt that this building would remain a fitting tribute to the architects  who chose to close their architectural account with this. It may take some time but I am sure it will mature like a good wine.

All old B&W photos, plans and various absracts taken from AJ of 30November1988.