Sunday, August 10, 2008

London: Donnybrook Quarter Housing

A new typology in the Lower East Side

Same densities as surrounding high rises

Interior streets


Garden shed


No transition zone

Victorian front garden space

…”the passion for improvisation, which demands that space and opportunity be at any price preserved. Buildings are used as a popular stage. They are all divided into innumerable, simultaneously animated theatres. Balcony, courtyard, window, gateway, staircase, roof are at the same time stages and boxes.”

Walter Benjamin, ‘One Way Street.’ 1924.

One project that was attempting to do that and has a lot of potential future housing in London is the Donnybrook Quarter Project by Peter Barber Architects. Set in Hackney of the Lower East End, this project was set to replace a tower of approximately 40 units of old Council housing. Barber’s scheme infuses 35 units into a dense fabric, but does it in a way that respectfully adheres to the traditional context, but offers it up in innovative ways.

One reason I chose to look at this project was the clear intention for people to activate the “slack” spaces, or areas in between buildings to their own liking. It was the architect’s intention that the buildings would serve as a type of stage, through the inspiration of Walter Benjamin, by which people could act out the extension of their own lives beyond the notions of the architect.

One of the most striking elements of this project is its color. Viewed from the one of the surrounding council highrises, the white forms stand in marked contrast the surrounding gritty neighborhood. The architect describes this intention to help bounce light deep into all of the spaces. This immediately sets the project apart.

The other innovative notion is its density. By arranging the units one on top of another in a ‘notched terrace’ typology, this scheme was able to achieve the same density as the surrounding tower estates, but with a much more manageable form. Each unit has its own private garden terrace as well. The big difference in these two schemes is the public space. The 20 story buildings are very much the tower in the garden championed after WWII with a small footprint, and a large open public space that no one really has ownership over. The grass is nice, but mostly just used for dogs to do their business. On the other hand, Donnybrook is low rise, with a series of intimate through streets that encourage people to move through the block. To me, this is one of the most successful aspects of this scheme.

While there are many successful components, there are some pieces that just didn’t quite sit right with me.

Based on the zest with which the architects described the freedom by which they hoped people would customize their spaces, I was somewhat disappointed with what I saw. The few real additions that were there seemed completely out of place. The garden shed was sitting on concrete pavers against a pure white backdrop. In fact, it is almost as if the buildings are too pure for additions and personalization to happen. Time will still have to tell, but after five years, the personalization was minimal. Is the actual stage successful or does the backdrop overwhelm the performance on the actual stage?

There were two types of people using the space. Those who lived there (destination) and those who were passing through (route). For either of these groups, the architecture does not encourage that much interaction, even though the intention is there with numerous balconies dotting the facades in a playful manner. There is nowhere for people passing through to sit or stop for a moment or two. There is nowhere for people who live in this block to spend time in the pure public realm. Almost all of the units had windows with closed curtains. It seemed the space was a little too intimate and people preferred to be more inwardly focused.

Yet, people had to use the balconies because there was no transition, or garden zone at the street level. It is very different from the Victorian rowhouses in the surrounding areas that have stoops and small gardens in the front that encourage a different kind of interaction. This lack of transition was very intentional, but left the public space harsh and unwelcoming. But that is probably the new form of interaction. You can communicate with people on your own terms, as they are always one layer of interaction away. This is not accidental, and probably market driven, for what they expect buyers now want. While most of the units were supposed to be affordable, construction costs drove up the numbers that had to be sold on the market. And unfortunately, one of the first buyers ended up buying up five others and renting them, automatically limiting who could live there.

In meeting with a staff member at Barber’s office, it was clear that they share a deep conviction about the type of people and communities that deserve quality housing with the range of projects that they are working on. Because of the press and attention of Donnybrook, it seems likely that there will be many more opportunities to learn and build on the successes and failures of Donnybrook.

See more: Peter Barber Architects

London: Container City

Phase 2



Phase 3

Container as building blocks

Elevator Shaft

There has been no shortage of fascination of architects with using shipping containers to create spaces. Could the use of such containers provide a realistic alternative to larger scale affordable housing?

Container City at Trinity Buoy Wharf utilized utilized recycling of old shipping containers to create multi-unit live work spaces. Designed by Nicolas Lacey and brought to life by Urban Space Management, these once mobile containers of commercial cargo now offer a new commercial product: a hip, modern, flexible, and a formally exciting building. This project offers one of the most extensive use of such an idea.

Because the units high very tight tolerances, they fit together easily without much additional structure. This allows the construction costs to be considerably less (I think in this case they 20-30% less expensive than a similar conventional building). Each of the discarded containers (8'x8'x40') were retrofitted with windows, doors, insulation, and other infrastructure, allowing a comfortable living environment. Even the elevator shaft was made out of containers. Additionally, they can be built very quickly (phase 2 only took three months to build).

This project offers a lot of contradictions, though. Once they were put together, the basically lost the mobility for which they were designed for in the first place. Walls are cut open, joints are welded together and an image is produced. It is fixed. But, it is not totally inflexible. By opening up the walls, you can create larger interspersed spaces that could potentially offer different plans and changes in the future. Because most of the bearing takes place on the corners, it is possible to open up with long sides with minimal structural support. Units actually range from 240-540 sf). Thinking of the containers as shells with a more open and free interior does offer some interesting possibilities. Additionally, the project did add on another floor of containers after the original three floors were built.

While it is a really cool project and serves it purpose well, I am not convinced of longer term or larger viability. It is cool, because it is a novelty at the moment, there is distinct segment of the population interested in living in such a building. But, because it is do different, most of the population probably wouldn’t have much interest in living in such a place. To me, it seems clear they are not interested in ultimate affordability or accessibility, but maximized profits at the end of the day. I was supposed to get permission to even take pictures, even though I didn’t. Regardless, as a testing ground for such ideas, I think it is remarkable. Additionally, architect Sean Goddsell from Australia is using them for emergency shelter and there are some interesting proposals coming out of Seattle, and as usual the Dutch firm MVRDV has some ideas for Rotterdam...


Mad Construction

Urban Infill

Community Garden

Murray Grove Modular Housing

St. Paul's



Council housing re-envisioned after privatization

Surveillance City

Changing Spaces

London was one of those places, much like Paris that kind of put your head into a tailspin. So much to see in such little time. Especially for architecture. Not only is the history of the built environment deep and long, but the recent additions offer a lot of exciting. In a way, I hardly made it to the more historically significant buildings in the city. The city was abuzz with new building projects. The arts scene is deeply established and offered many wonderful opportunities to explore the connection between space, creativity, and perception.

In so many ways, it was most about the old and the new, in terms of housing. Many of the failures of the older council housing is being reinterpreted by new projects, many of which are rising over the city, especially along the waterfront. With the rejection of mass housing, what are some of the newer projects offering different and potentially viable solutions to provide larger scale housing?

Additionally, I was reading the Prefabricated Home by Colin Davies, and the idea of the modular, prefabricated home offered offered many relevant questions for the notions of mass housing. Long has the idea of a prefabricated home obsessed architects, but unfortunately most forays into the field have ended up in failure, especially by the most brilliant architectural thinkers of our time. How can an affordable and beautiful home be made accessible to large portions of the population? Can architects remove themselves from their obsession about their authorship, sole ownership of creativity, and truly allow designs to be accessible to the greater masses of people? What lessons are there to learn from two areas that architects have typically shunned? In the US, the mobile home has quietly grown to

But, a bigger theme that I have continually been struggling with in all of these projects and proposals is how to ensure that the buildings are not one-off projects. Meaning, as beautiful, initially successful, critically reviewed, and accolades given, is the benefit successful is nothing else comes beyond that?

The Huruma project in Nairobi (see post on May 22) was essentially a one-off project. If you have leads in other realms, they can help set lessons for other projects, but ultimately, architects work in a small realm, and the influence of their projects and ideas rarely get extended to the rest of the 98% of the population that is just as deserving of good design.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Paris. Reflected.

Reflections on my way out of town:

Subways old and new. Tiled stations. Renovations, new framework on top of old tile. Firedancing in front fo the Eiffel tower. Tourists. Tourists. Tour boat shining its massive lights on everything it goes by. River only serving needs of tourists. Who is living in those other boats? Do they move? New museum, green chaotic, sensous weaving form on the outside. I see possible housing growth. Cool weather. Spanish fans in the fountains. Spain 1- Germany -0. flower tower. Not really impressed. Its all about the façade. Is paris a museum or a really great city? What really constitutes a great city? Metro stop within three blocks of anywhwere I want to go. New archtiectrue and old architecture everywhere. Train stations. Roofs, massive spaces, can you say industrial revolution? Whew. Amazing metal work, rivets, everything. Deep, history. But, is it now a museum? Plenty of transformations. Public housing to new? Pessac, transformed. Restoration to the master. Geometrical and color purity. Filled in. trees, gardens, ribbon windows, pilotis. Tired. Naked guy in hostel. Pride parade, grinding. Foam machine, fondling. Transgender. Bass pounding. Mobile club. Man rubbing another’s with pants down. Beautiful, inspiring bridge. Parties on top Saturday night. True public space. Trivial pursuit. Overrun by tourists. Spend the day there? Washington, dc? What is the rest of paris like? Should have gone on my own, just ridden the train. Each city I should just take a train and get out and wander. Eiffel tower. OMG. Sweet hotel room. Crappy hostel room. TGV, fast damn. So many trains. Where is there a bathroom? Beautiful women. Lost and clouded mind. Amazing bookstore. Bread, cheese, salad. More bread. What am I doing? Public space activated. Or is it really? Accessible, yes? But to whom? All I see are tourists. Feels like a really accessible city. Institute du mond: way too many gadgets but nice moments. Standardized, institutionalized, conformed….flying buttresses, yes. Things that make me say YES! New housing. Is it just a façade. How do the plans work inside? Do the units work for people. good and quality spaces? Train tracks. Looking at map. Where the F am I? pack the bag. Prominence of the nation. Early. Blacks. Colonization. Blacks selling Eiffel towers. Minorities getting off here. I suck at French! National library. Bridge to redevelopment. The precursor. Bercy. New place. No people. bamboo controlled. Graffiti, trains and new housing. Fucking façade. Movable façade. Game to play. Make it look good. Architectural voyeaur. Homes as museums. Homes as living machines. Machines as living. Living machines. Machines that make homes. Homes that make machines. Machines for machines.

In general, Paris was a good time. Good to get the history where so much creativity and architectural history is based. The old structures are quite extraordinary. The public spaces are truly public. It pretty much makes the incredible mass of tourists worth it. But, it is weird, in the center, it seems like most of it is now a museum catered to the mass of the foreigners. It certainly didn’t feel lived in. Only once I get out of the center did if feel real. But, catering to large groups of tourists brings it perks: from break dancing to fire dancing, to stumbling upon the pride parade. It was like a series of massive clubs on trucks, with foam and often times, nothing else….Oh yeah, and one night, I found this amazing footbridge, and people were having mini parties on it: blanket, beer, music, trivial pursuit. YES! Good public space.

Paris: Bercy

In a similar development to 17e, the architects were having a field day with this new development by the new National Library. Pretty exciting and innovative forms. All with the hand of the architect…Carefully controlled and orchestrated.

Paris: Flower Tower

This project by Edouard Francois, dubbed the ‘Flower Tower’ has generated quite a lot of press. It is a cool idea and serves many functions from heating and cooling to softening the forms of the surrounding buildings From the pictures, it is striking. From in person, well, it left something to be desired. It seems to be the perfect building for pictures and selling as an image. The architect described it as an extension of the park. But, there is not much more to a whole bunch of homogenous plants on the side of a very average building. Wouldn’t it have been much more attractive it people were actually able to grow their own thing? Think of the visual image of that! Plus, it makes the balcony space very small and obscures most people’s views. To me, it takes away that one exterior zone in which so many Parisians have control over. Additionally, something was crazy with the concrete. I hope it wasn’t intentional, but it looked horrible. I don’t remember seeing that in any of the published photos. I kind of think that when they realized the concrete was so bad, they have to think of a cheap and easy way to hide it, so why not with plants? I am personally more interested in another scheme of his...

The flower tower is part of the redevelopment of 17th arrondissment where each building was designed by a different architect offering an interesting language of new buildings.