learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Changing Practices: 2009 RIBA Research Symposium

I was in London last week for the annual RIBA Research Symposium Changing Practices. This was the fourth installment of this annual event, structured to bring practitioners and researchers together for a day of papers and discussions. The event was curated by Tatjana Schneider of the University of Sheffield and Prof. Jeremy Till of Westminster University (but formerly Sheffield).

Anne Lacaton opened the proceedings with a keynote on recent work by her French practice Lacaton & Vassal, and set a promising tone for those architects who were basing their presentations around recent work. While my research is about actual building work in schools, I’m always interested to see instances where actual research goes on in architectural practices. Lacaton discussed some of her firm’s recent social housing projects, each of which sought to demonstrate how existing modern-era buildings could be adapted to exceed current space standards more efficiently than if they were simply demolished and replaced with new buildings. A new-build scheme in Mulhouse introduced the idea of semi-enclosed winter gardens in a scheme of suburban houses. Although Lacaton spoke passionately for social housing that was more than just the cheapest option, and larger than the minimum space standards (reminding me of Giancarlo de Carlo’s famous appeal in the late sixties: why does social housing have to be cheap?) the project employed inexpensive industrial materials and construction techniques. The winter gardens were located on the first floor, and directly accessed through full height and width French windows. Providing unheated and technically exterior space, they dramatically increased the liveable area of the houses, simply by adding enclosed external space that is warm enough for habitation most of the year. Adding value to the properties without adding what is technically internal space plays with the local laws on property sizes, and is a refreshing example of what happens when housing is designed with aspirations beyond the basic specification. Looking beyond the traditional family shape, and considering modern day families with single parents or children from multiple relationships, the houses aspired to be significantly more flexible than more traditional cellular homes, notably those found in most recent developments in the UK.

Lacaton & Vassal have gone on to develop this concept in the rehabilitation of problematic modern-era tower blocks, notably the infamous suburban French HLMs (habitation à loyer modéré or ‘moderated rental housing’). Politicans love to dynamite problematic social housing, but Lacaton spoke up for buildings that could yet be saved, acknowledging that it is rarely the architecture that is at fault but surrounding social conditions. In this instance the winter garden (and additional rooms) are new-build complimentary structures that are built alongside or around the tower blocks. Internally, apartments can be re-configured as required, but most interestingly Lacaton & Vassal simply propose replacing the existing external façades of the apartments with French windows that open out onto these new semi-external habitable spaces. While not necessarily adding more internal space to these (often miniscule) apartments, they once again add usable space that adds value and space for the majority of the year. I was, however, concerned to note in one floor plan the addition of an extra bedroom to an apartment, only accessible through this uninsulated balcony space. I would like to know more about the efficiency of this scheme, although it was presented as a more cost effective option that demolition and construction of equivalent new housing. I was also amused to note that the spirit of le Corbusier continues to permeate through even the most socially progressive of French architecture. Lacaton also included some images of an unbuilt project for a new social housing tower block (featuring double height winter gardens to all apartments of course) that featured the distinctive Corbusian model of landings on alternate floors serving up-going and down-going flats. It seems sunlight and fresh air are still the prescribed cure for urban ills.

Simon Pepper of the University of Liverpool spoke on the evolution of practice, focusing on the sad decline of architectural design in the public sector in the UK. Tatjana Schneider plugged a forthcoming book on alternative architectural practices (which I look forward to reading) and Albena Yaneva of the University of Manchester offered an anthropological insight into the workings of Rem Koolhaas and OMA, although I was left unsure of the motivation behind the study.

Entering the second session, Jim Saker of Loughborough University reminded me of my childhood aspirations to design cars rather than houses, bringing an entertaining and articulate view of the architectural profession from his field of automotive design. He developed a theme presented by Anne Lacaton of the need to respond to the changing shape and size of the contemporary family. Fewer and fewer people need a home or a car designed for two adults and two children, and even fewer need them to serve the same people and functions seven days a week (hence Lacaton & Vassal’s open plan social housing, and the expanding market for compact people carriers with almost endless seating configurations).

Fresh out of another round of redundancies, Keith Bradley of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios attempted to remain upbeat with a whistlestop history of this established British practice, which has for some time operated as a collection of semi-autonomous studios. Harriet Harriss of Oxford Brookes presented her newly commenced PhD studies, although the presentation suggested to me that it was too early in the process to be speaking in this forum.

Evidently dealing with ever-straightened circumstances, the RIBA took me back to my childhood with a packed lunch reminiscent of a school trip. Luckily it was a basking day outside, so the majority of delegates decamped out to the street to consider the site of Jonathan Hill’s Institute of Illegal Architects.

Jonathan Charley couldn’t escape from the University of Strathclyde to be with us, so a brilliantly sharp ten minute video was presented in his absence. Charley called for a radical and critical charter for architects, encouraging us to aspire to a practice that was practical, critical and radical. It will be Youtube’d shortly, and I’ll share it here when it is. Liza Fior of muf slipped dangerously close to a twenty minute talk on her practice’s work, but nonetheless provided fantastic insight and anecdotes into working as a non-conventional practitioner. Fior proposed three steps to an inclusive design process: value what’s already there, define what’s missing and then nurture the possible. Stephen Hill of futureplanners followed, in a way, from Simon Pepper, discussing the architectural profession and its evident erosion during the years of the ‘Thatcher-Blair-Brown project.’ Although he didn’t answer the question, he indeed left me wondering whether architects are smarter than slime mould, appealing for us to all consider how the architectural profession can develop sustainably.

Christian Derix of Aedas singularly failed to hold my attention as he demonstrated digital design simulation as a means of sharing and developing design knowledge. But that was as much due to my disinterest as anything else. The afternoon session concluded with two phenomenal speakers: Robert Webb of Quiet Revolution on the architecture of energy, and Indy Johar of 00:/. Both held my attention so well that my notes cease at this point, and I simply you recommend you download their papers from the RIBA Research website when they become available.

Jeremy Till concluded the day with a final keynote, presenting a fierce but not unexpected attack on the hypocrisy of the profession’s stance towards its ethical responsibility. That these opinions can be expressed from within the RIBA is no small feat, but it’s just a shame that their sound is unlikely to be carried far.

This was a day packed with interesting speakers and topics, but sadly short on the much needed discussion in between. I was hopeful that the drinks afterwards might have provided an opportunity for that interaction to occur, but the RIBA needed to make money out of its bar, so our group repaired to a pub round the corner instead.

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