This blog was originally published in the RTPI Scotland journal ‘Scottish Planner’ in December 2018
To maximise design quality in our built environment society needs more, highly skilled folk capable of designing and planning buildings and places, in creative dialogue with clients, end-users and communities. The planning and design professions need to inspire people to become more confident and able to contribute effectively to shaping their place; as citizens, leaders and/or as future design and planning professionals.
Creating Places (2013) defines ‘good design’ as, ‘. . . provid(ing) value by delivering good buildings and places that enhance the quality of our lives’. Planners and designers should be valued, and deemed vital, by society by continually demonstrating how we creatively add value.
Planning by Design
To design or to plan is to conceive of something with purpose and intent. I recall, as a student, hearing a definition of urban design as being the opposite of urban accident. An accident suggests unintended consequences. Carelessness. By design speaks of creating something with intentional care and quality; as planned.
Architecture + Design Scotland’s publication ‘A Vision of Health’ proposes that ‘design is the intelligent allocation of a scarce resource’, not simply visual embellishment. Design, and design-thinking, are powerful tools that when applied effectively can resolve numerous issues simultaneously.
Be Valued by Adding Value
We intuitively know that good design adds value. Considered holistically good design can deliver added environmental, social, economic, cultural, health, financial and functional value. However it can be difficult to measure and evidence.
Value of Design in the Built Environment (2014) research published by the Scottish Government, to which I was a contributing author, found that well-designed buildings and places are currently ‘valued’ within the built environment sector in Scotland in a wide variety of ways that are not consistent, transparent or comparable.
It found that design as a process (design-thinking) plays a fundamental and positive role in the different stages of development in the built environment. It is a vital element in decision-making at the critical early stages and as projects progress through problem finding and framing, ideation and solution generating, creative and visual thinking, prototyping, testing, implementing and evaluating.
The design and planning professions are undervalued. Planning is under-resourced by public authorities. The likelihood of delivering design quality is often diminished by ill-conceived procurement processes. We need to continually seek to be smarter in how we bring the right people together, at the right time, to enhance the probability of positive design outcomes. Intelligent planning and commissioning make better design outcomes more probable.
Planning and Designing Together
We need to dissolve silo-thinking and overcome learned systematic misunderstandings (and suspicion) between different professions and sectors. Let’s foster an empathy and culture of knowledge sharing. Let’s embed interdisciplinary working to ensure development, planning and design practice effectively contributes to shaping our future.
We need to appreciate that design quality needn’t cost more; indeed it saves money and adds value. Designers and planners need to show leadership and celebrate the compound benefits of design quality over time. It’s time to reclaim the agenda and advocate a better way for society to benefit from the collective skills, imagination and creativity within current and future generations of designers and planners.
After at least seven years of study and gathering experience, three of our recently qualified architects reflect on how and why they came to join the profession and look forward to taking the next steps along their career path.
Emily Harper, Tom Barker, Victoria Slater……..RIBA
Q1 HOW DOES THE REALITY OF PRACTICING ARCHITECTURE MATCH YOUR EARLIER EXPECTATIONS?
E: I’d always thought of architects as problem solvers, but in the context of the brief being the problem and the design being the solution, in practice we deal with so much more; managing teams, organising information, unexpected issues that crop up on site etc. It all feeds in to the larger design solution but its just the route that university does not wholly prepare you for.
T: I am not sure I had ever stopped to consider what my expectations were for when I finally became an Architect. At A-S:L I had been given such a good opportunity in my position as a Part 2 Architectural Assistant that I did not believe my day to day job would change much. What has stuck out since qualifying and even after 4 months of being qualified is being able to call myself an ‘Architect’ after all the years of being an ‘almost architect’!
Q2. ANY ADVICE FOR PROSPECTIVE ARCHITECTS?
T: Make sure you are driven. It is a long and tough course, not necessarily academically, but in terms of the workload required from you.
V: If you are about to start Part 1; be prepared to find the first few years a steep learning curve in university, it takes time to develop the wide range of skills and confidence required to deliver good designs as well as visual and verbal presentations. Reviews are not fun, but keep working at them; they really do prepare you for the real world of interviews and presentations. Regarding Part 3; do not put it off! Whilst the more experience you have in practice improves the depth of your case study and understanding of Part 3 issues, you are not expected to know everything, it’s about how you research and apply professional knowledge.
E: Don’t leave the Part 3 coursework and PEDR sheets to the last minute. It is important to find a work-work and a coursework balance. Ask for help; you are more than likely surrounded by a wealth of experience; use it, but be critical, being able to think about things critically and objectively will help in both practice and in qualifying.
Q3 WHY DID YOU CHOOSE ARCHITECTURE? WHAT DROVE YOU?
E: Art. I’ve always loved the arts and could not imagine a career without doing something creative. I just want to create beautiful things. It may sound superficial but it comes from a good place, I promise! Even though there is no evolutionary reason why humans create art, music, dance, theatre or strive for beauty; it all increases happiness and well-being. We spend approximately 80% of our lives in and around buildings, I want to be a part of creating space to either facilitate the arts or spaces that can achieve the same effect in and of itself. Preferably both.
T: I chose Architecture when I was very young. I grew up on the outskirts of London and used to see 30 St Mary Axe (‘The Gherkin’) by Foster + Partners being built when we used to travel into the city. One day I apparently said: ‘ Mummy, I want to build something like that one day’. My fascination with architecture was never lost after that, as I developed I found myself more and more challenged by aiming to be sustainable and studying the impact architecture has on our communities and environment. These became the two main drivers towards me pursuing a career in Architecture and a passion for bettering the built environment.
V: My interest was rather unromantically sparked by the result of a computer algorithm career test in school! Quite simply a result of my aptitude and passion for science and art, was this alien profession of ‘architecture’. I was intrigued what this actually was, I had a vague notion but was not really aware of what an architect did let alone how you could become one. A selection of history of architecture books promptly arrived for me at Christmas and I became hooked!
Q4. WHAT HAVE BEEN THE MOST CHALLENGING/ MOST SATISFYING/ MOST ENJOYABLE MOMENTS?
E: I love that we have the opportunity to see things that not many other people get to; this year I visited a storage facility for one of the UK’s major museums and spent a couple of hours exploring only a fraction of their hundreds of thousands of artefacts and I have had similar opportunities on the V&A Collections and Research Centre project, all in the name of work! It’s really exciting being part of a project that could potentially expose more people to the wealth of culture that is currently stored away.
V: My most satisfying moment so far was attending the opening ceremony for the Aberdare Campus project, the speeches from the college staff and video showing their previous campus really demonstrated how much of a positive impact the new building has on the college community. This is reflected in an increase in both pupil numbers and retention in the year since the project was handed over, it’s rewarding to know the project is actively improving opportunities and education for people in the area. I started working on the project at my first day at A-S:L and continued to be a key member of the project team all the way through to completion, so seeing the building develop and come to life over two years was a great experience.
Q5. HOW HAS YOUR PART 2 EXPERIENCE ENABLED YOU TO QUALIFY AND DEVELOP AS AN ARCHITECT?
T: Since starting at A-S:L just over two years ago I have had a great amount of exposure to projects and the full scope of the role of an Architect! I am unsure I would have been able to get this opportunity at any other practice through discussions with my peers. A-S:L have been alert to my capabilities and have allowed me to take responsibility whilst still providing support as and when required.
V: I was very lucky to be one of the recipients of the RIBA Wren Insurance Scholarship in 2014 which meant that I received mentoring by A-S:L during my Thesis project with Phil and Adam in the Liverpool studio. Since joining the Cardiff studio I have worked on a variety of projects in different sectors, with a large amount of design freedom and exposure to project running to develop my skill set further for the Part 3 exam. I am also being further supported to develop my passion and special interest in social housing projects which has been growing in volume in our Cardiff studio since I joined.
E: A-S:L have been very receptive to my personal interests and very supportive of my desire to focus on Arts and Culture projects during Part 2 experience. It makes sense for the business too; having staff that love what they are doing must be good for productivity!
Q6. WHAT’S NEXT? HOW WILL YOU CONTINUE TO DEVELOP IN AND OUT OF THE STUDIO, AND WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO DOING NOW IN YOUR SPARE TIME?
V: I will be looking forward to continue developing my interests in community regeneration schemes with more responsibility in both helping to win and lead projects. Beyond that; reading journals, books, attending events, conferences and exhibitions to keep up to date with the latest thoughts and research in practice, art, design and construction. It is also important to keep aware of the trends and news stories within society as a whole, developing my passion for ambitious social housing projects for example includes keeping up to date on political issues which can help inform brief requirements and ultimately the design and delivery of projects.
T: Now I am fully qualified I do not want to stop here, there is still so much more to learn. I want to continue to be passionate about Architecture, I want to continue to seek motivation and learning experiences through architecturally focused activities such as talks on buildings and ethos as well as articles on new technologies and possibilities. Aside from this I have been enjoying being able to focus back on Sport with running, rugby and football. I would like to spend my evenings completing triathlons but some serious work needs to be done on my swimming ability before I ever attempt to compete in one!
E: Outside of the office I have a lot of the world left to see; I was fortunate enough to go travelling before I started university, but still have so many sights to check off the bucket list. There’s so much beauty and creativity in the world and I want to experience as much as I can. So using all my holiday days for long weekends in European cities seems like a good start! I’m sure it can only benefit me in practice…
An interview with Winy Maas HonFRIAS by Graham Ross FRIAS.
In recognition of his significant international contribution to architecture, urbanism and design Winy Maas, founding Director of MVRDV, was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland at the RIAS Convention in Aberdeen in May 2018. Graham Ross FRIAS, and Partner of Austin-Smith:Lord, was given the honour of reading out the citation whilst RIAS President, Stewart Henderson, presented the Honorary Fellowship to Professor Maas. The citation read out to Winy can be viewed by clicking here.
Austin-Smith:Lord and MVRDV have been exploring collaborative opportunities for nearly a decade, most recently on the (Y)our City Centre project in Glasgow, and have developed a close professional friendship. In celebration of the Honorary Fellowship, the RIAS invited Graham Ross to interview Winy Maas and the article was published in the Autumn 2018 edition of the RIAS Quarterly.
YOU ESTABLISHED MVRDV TOGETHER WITH JACOB VAN RIJS AND NATHALIE DE VRIES IN 1993 AND HAVE BECOME WORLD-RENOWNED FOR INNOVATIVE DESIGN AND PRACTICE. THE WORLD, AND ARCHITECTURAL PRACTICE, HAS CHANGED SIGNIFICANTLY IN THAT 25 YEAR PERIOD.
HOW WOULD YOU CHARACTERISE THE CHANGES TO ARCHITECTURE AND PRACTICE OVER THE PAST 25 YEARS?
When Jacob van Rijs, Nathalie de Vries and I started MVRDV in 1993 we were already heavily influenced by the warning issued by the Club of Rome and we saw amazing opportunities to actually find solutions to the global climate crisis. Nowadays it has finally become mainstream to work on these global issues. We saw our tools change from paper to incredible sophisticated three-dimensional (digital and analogue) solutions, yet at the same time the construction industry still heavily relies on century-old materials such as brick and mortar. There we need more innovation.
Q. HOW HAVE MVRDV ADAPTED TO, AND LED THAT CHANGE?
The digital revolution started during our studies and so as an office, we were born digital. We have made renders, animations, and 3D tests ever since we started. I still love this simple yet abstract visual quality of the early work. Today we educate our staff in technology and sustainability, and also here we are early adopters—recently our in-house BIM whizz-kid was asked to help the government of Luxembourg to implement BIM.
Another fantastic innovation is scripting. For our Valley project in Amsterdam we’ve been able to test the façade for each tower, creating 80 variants that respect daylight, view and sustainable elements.
Q. WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE THE PRINCIPAL OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES FOR ARCHITECTURE (AND ARCHITECTS) IN THE NEXT 25 YEARS?
We have to participate in the global issues, as experts and as a discipline. We should think big with a vision to give direction and work hard on it; we should look ahead into the future and always remain curious to find and apply innovations.
Q. WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU AND MVRDV? FORTHCOMING PROJECTS? FUTURE AMBITIONS?
In 2019 we will complete a large museum project in Rotterdam, the totally democratic and fully accessible art depot for Museum Boijmans van Beuningen. Then in 2022 we will open the first smart city in the Netherlands, the Floriade Almere. Our ambitions are broad—we want to do everything at all scales. From cabins to regional planning and research, we want to create remarkable and wonderful places.
THE WHY FACTORY
YOU FOUNDED THE WHY FACTORY, A RESEARCH INSTITUTE FOR THE FUTURE CITY, IN 2008 AT TU DELFT.
Q. WHAT IS THE SCOPE AND AMBITION OF THE WHY FACTORY?
The Why Factory (T?F) is a global think-tank and research institute which we run at Delft University of Technology and other universities. We explore possibilities for the development of our cities by focusing on the production of models and visualisations for cities of the future. We combine education and research into a research lab and platform that aims to analyse, theorise, and construct future cities. But to be more practical and give an example: we ask the question “how would a city look that we would share with as many animals as possible?” and then we design and research this.
Q. COULD YOU OUTLINE THE INTERPLAY BETWEEN YOUR RESEARCH AND PRACTICE? HOW ONE INFORMS (AND IS INFORMED BY) THE OTHER?
It’s complicated… (laughs). Interplay happens in all different ways—we mostly do totally independent research and explore directions the practice could not go down, that commercially cannot be payed, like a future vision to replace all building material with nano-technology and create totally flexible architecture. Sometimes we collaborate closely and come to communal results, such as The Vertical Village. Sometimes we work and research parallel issues such as the Green Dream, a study into sustainability that is very valid for the practice, or the Porouscity, a study for skyscrapers with a human scale quality that we also explore in practice during competitions. So we inspire each other and collaborate and at the same time there is great freedom to be independent. As it should be.
Q. THE RECENT THE WHY FACTORY PUBLICATION, COPY PASTE “IS AN INVITATION TO COPY WITH FINESSE AND SKILL (THAT) UNDERSTANDS THE PAST AS A VAST ARCHIVE ON WHICH WE CAN AND MUST BUILD.” IN THE WAKE OF THE DEVASTATING FIRE AT MACKINTOSH’S GLASGOW SCHOOL OF ART THERE HAS BEEN MUCH DEBATE ABOUT WHAT TO DO NEXT. WHAT APPROACH WOULD YOU ADVOCATE?
As the building is so loved and admired, I would rebuild it and update it in a sustainable way and make it a great educational project for the architecture school and local artisans. Look at the centre of Warsaw that was rebuilt after the war whilst Rotterdam was completely modernised. I think it’s definitely the choice of Glasgow. But perhaps, if the annihilation of the building is complete, one could think about rebuilding it on the same site but on top of a new building, to densify the area. This would elevate the new old Mack to become a beacon above the roofs of Glasgow.
Q. WHAT ARE YOUR FUTURE AREAS OF RESEARCH AND INVESTIGATION?
Mobility is an important issue for the future that will be explored in upcomimg studios. And we are looking into bio-engineering and buildings that are flexible and adaptable for all kinds of users.
WHILST PRACTISING INTERNATIONALLY YOU’RE A REGULAR VISITOR TO SCOTLAND. MVRDV, WITH MY PRACTICE AUSTIN-SMITH:LORD, HAVE LED THE (Y)OUR CITY CENTRE PROJECT IN GLASGOW AND YOU’VE GAINED AN INSIGHT IN TO HOW SCOTLAND’S CITIES, ARCHITECTURE AND LANDSCAPES COMPARE INTERNATIONALLY.
Q. TO MEET FUTURE CHALLENGES WHAT ENHANCEMENTS SHOULD SCOTLAND MAKE TO ENSURE IT CAN THRIVE?
Scotland is one of the most beautiful and unspoilt places in Europe and the world even. With the relatively empty countryside and densely populated Central Belt, you have a perfect spatial recipe to become Europe’s first CO2 neutral nation. And to develop the spatial dichotomy: keep the highlands empty and make the belt green and dense. I hope that this and the next Scottish governments can realise their green and social goals and I hope that the Independence question will be settled – one way or the other – so that the country can focus on these goals.
Q. WHAT ARE YOUR AMBITIONS FOR GLASGOW TO ENSURE IT CAN BE A LEADING EUROPEAN CITY? AND HOW BEST TO DELIVER THESE CHANGES?
On a more philosophical level, it is fair to say that it is a great time for urban transformation and renewal. The European city is in high demand and attracts more and more people. Glasgow has an amazing historical inner city and fantastic open spaces that can be transformed into vibrant, unique neighbourhoods. Glasgow has a strong and somehow rough character and that should be used, preserved and strengthened through new developments.
I think in terms of urban planning Scotland would be wise to reform and focus on what is good for the public rather than having urban planning mostly focused on making room for investments. If the city is great because urban planning is actively working to make the people the first priority, the investments will follow. Steering investments in the public interest instead of offering opportunities would be a meaningful change.
Q. YOU’VE RECENTLY RECEIVED AN HONORARY FELLOWSHIP FROM THE RIAS. WHAT ROLE SHOULD OUR PROFESSIONAL INSTITUTIONS PLAY IN THE FUTURE?
Set the tone, create a vision for the future, and together with your members ask yourself what architects can do to make Scotland a better place. And never stop.
This interview was originally published in the RIAS Quarterly Autumn 2018. The interview extract can be viewed here.
Header Image: Graham Ross and Winy Maas. Image copyright: Malcolm Cochrane
History Whodunit: Paint analysis at the Great Pagoda
Retelling the tale of a heritage structure sometimes reads like a good detective novel . At the Chinese Pagoda at Kew, the exact date of key components could be ascertained and as such an 18th century copper clad roof was saved.
Listen to this video featuring David Millar, Head of Conservation at Austin:SmithLordand, and the tale not so much of “whodunit” but “whentheydunit”…but the clues were in the paint.
Integrating modern-day techniques into Conservation Architecture
Authenticity is a much-prized attribute in 2018, maybe even a media buzzword in an era of ‘fake news’. Conservation architecture is, by definition, associated with notions of preserving historical legitimacy. However, if it is to remain current and meaningful to the professional talent pool of today that should not mean it must become a backward-looking sector. Optimising the lifespan of a restored structure and minimising its environmental impact might mean integrating modern-day materials and involving cutting-edge techniques such as selective laser sintering or 3D-printing and weather-resistant automotive paint.
This was the approach taken in our recent restoration of the Great Pagoda at Kew Gardens, London. David Millar, Head of Conservation at Austin:SmithLord, explains more in this short video….
Placemaking differs from masterplanning as an approach to urban design by utilising existing assets and community as a foundation for proposals that promote the health, happiness and wellbeing of residents.
Cardiff Council fully embraces the placemaking principle and Austin-Smith:Lord has seen it successfully applied when working with them and Cardiff Community Housing Association on schemes such as Loudoun Square, Hamadryad, Maelfa Llanedeyrn and Schooner Way. We have also used the principle to good effect elsewhere in the country, at Manchester’s Piccadilly Place, Glasgow City Regeneration and Helensburgh’s rejuvenation.
Cardiff Council has approached Austin-Smith:Lord to collaborate on a feasibility study for Channel View, helping to address Cardiff’s growing housing need and enhancing the site’s integration with the surrounding city and landscape, upgrading the site and The Marl for the benefit of residents and wider city inhabitants.
Even at the earliest phases of a feasibility study, an effective placemaking design cannot be realised in isolation; from the outset we worked with a number of stakeholders, their advice and feedback on our proposals proved invaluable and sessions were held regularly. These stakeholders included representatives of the council’s placemaking and urban design specialist teams, planners, highways and utilities departments. Guidance was also sought from representatives responsible for housing provision within the city including the Cabinet Member for Housing & Communities Councillor Thorne who is the local Ward Councillor. With each consultation exercise the design progressed greatly, we felt no reticence in revisiting and redesigning elements of the scheme to fully integrate the guidance received. Key to working in this way is to underpin the scheme with a coherent design concept robust enough to incorporate changes whilst retaining the compelling vision that consultees and stakeholders could buy into.
For Channel View, our concept proposed the layout of the development to stitch together what we identified as the urban fabric of surrounding buildings with the river, where currently an awkward and indifferent relationship exists. The real benefit of sharing this concept with all who engage in the placemaking process is that everyone knows what they are working towards and so the best solutions are reached. That approach is applied to all Austin-Smith:Lord projects for this very reason, the concept never stops working hard for the development of the scheme, extending to all levels of design detail.
The concept emerges as a curve which improves the boundary between the development and the park, making it better observed and more welcoming to users. That curve is supported by a corresponding boulevard, laden with the latest thinking in pedestrian, bike and vehicle movement design, acting as a ‘spine’. The boulevard and park are linked by the public plaza, known as the ‘heart’, where the community buildings and new Independent Living Unit will reside. The concept is again reflected in the vertical silhouette, which rises gracefully from the low surrounding housing towards the river, identifying Grangetown in Cardiff’s dynamic skyline. After addressing current conditions a successful placemaking exercise should be designed to incorporate future developments for maximum benefit while being robust enough to function without them in the interim. In this case the scheme for Channel View allows for the possible future inclusion of a pedestrian and cycle bridge that would complete the circuit of the Bay. In researching the site we became aware of the presence of the wreck of the Louisa, a scheduled ancient monument shipwreck submerged by the impoundment of Cardiff Bay, which we believe could be celebrated and marked by an exciting public art installation such as a light based water feature.
The process of placemaking at Channel View has reached a milestone and we anticipate the next steps being the Outline Planning procedures. Our work with council stakeholders so far has resulted in a compelling proposal which holds great promise for the community in Grangetown and the wider city. Community engagement is an essential aspect of placemaking and will continue as the design progresses. Austin-Smith:Lord’s robust concept will continue to be a reference point for all who engage in the process and we are excited by this opportunity to shape one of Cardiff’s strategic development sites.
Official opening by The Prince of Wales of the Chinese Pagoda at Kew Gardens in London
July saw the official opening by The Prince of Wales of the Chinese Pagoda at Kew Gardens in London. The restoration work at the site over the past year was overseen by David Millar, Director and Head of Conservation at Austin-Smith:Lord. Watch this first video in the series that explains more about this conservation project where 18th century craftsmanship has been blended with innovative 21st century SLS 3D printing to once again adorn this unique listed structure with 80 dragon sculptures.
Something quite remarkable is happening in Venice. An energetic and passionate troupe of artists and architects affiliated with Scotland are testing and translating ideas into action. Through playful participatory place-planning the prospect of enabling lasting change in communities in Scotland, and perhaps even in Venice, is tantalisingly real.
Away from picture postcard Venice, in one of the few districts still harbouring a local community not yet displaced by the forces of global tourism, an uplifting community garden where folk are invited to take a chance, and make a stance has emerged. A truly feel Freespace. It’s an inspiration.
Much of the rest of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2018 passively presents many thoughtful and exquisitely crafted (and several mediocre) meditations on the curator’s theme of Freespace. Meanwhile Scotland’s contribution, entitled The Happenstance, under the stewardship of Peter McCaughey and WAVEparticle, gets stuck in. It is unashamedly proactive; joyfully agitating for authentic Freespace in Scotland, as well as Venice. Its ambitions are high whilst its means are humble.
A CHARRETTE ON CHARRETTES?
The call for ideas this year’s Biennale was issued in autumn 2017 by the Scottish Government and Architecture + Design Scotland. The Scotland + Venice brief overlayed the 2018 Year of Young People with the Biennale curators’, Grafton Architects, theme of Freespace.
In the wake of over 20 design charrettes across Scotland, all foregrounding the participation of young people, WAVEparticle were selected and have pulled together a wider team of artists and architects, practicing in Scotland and allied by the local insights and guidance of Venice based designer, Alberto Lago and Glasgow based Venetian artist, Daniele Sambo.
At this stage I must declare an interest, or two. Firstly, as a regular collaborator with Peter McCaughey and WAVEparticle on numerous charrette and regeneration projects with Austin-Smith:Lord, I accepted an invitation to contribute to The Happenstance project last year. So I’ve been privileged to be engaged from the outset. Secondly, I’m a Board member at A+DS.
As a small part of The Happenstance team, and having just returned from Venice, I’ve an insight and acute awareness of the project’s ambition, and the inevitable challenges in delivering on its promise and potential.
A FREESPACE IN VENICE?
The Happenstance project, which opened at the Venice Biennale in late May 2018, is sharing a vast array of creative tools and techniques for community-led place making and mending, trialled in ongoing projects in Scotland. Since opening it has been inspiring local Venetians, and Biennale visitors to think about how to adapt and translate to their context.
Amid the faded splendour of the Palazzo Zenobio in the Dorsoduro district on the western end of the Venetian archipelago a half forgotten but fondly remembered garden has been transformed by Scotland + Venice into a community gathering space, outdoor cinema, architectural playground, living library, conference venue, and makerspace /workshop. It may be a little rough and ready, but that’s part of its allure and charm. It’s not precious, but alive and accessible. You’ll not wear out your welcome at Zenobio!
Seven projects, bringing together creative collaborations between Scots architects, artists, dancers and filmmakers are showcased and provide an inspiring and optimistic backdrop to The Happenstance project. Whilst Venice Biennale may provide a prism through which to focus and supercharge action on these Scottish projects, it is evident The Happenstance has inspired the locals in Venice to pursue long-standing community activism with renewed vigour.
In response to the Year of Young People there is an emphasis on actively engaging and empowering young folk to help shape their place through each of the featured Scottish projects. Furthermore The Happenstance features the inaugural programme of Scotland + Venice Fellowships, with one student from each Scottish school of architecture participating and undertaking research whilst in Venice for more than a month.
The Happenstance garden in Venice reinforces the focus on young people, with the Armature, designed by Baxendale, creating a playful framework for exploration of Freespace. In the garden and associated interior workshop / library spaces the forces of goodwill and generosity, human spirit and happenstance are combining in a joyful living laboratory of ideas and interaction exploring how to make things better; in every sense. It is simultaneously sharing reflective and active practice; a summation of Scottish charrette and participatory planning experience transposed to purposeful, focused action and live projects and emerging opportunities in Venice.
Despite its status as an official but ‘collateral project’, with a comparatively modest budget, Scotland + Venice has received critical acclaim, with Architectural Review listing it in their Biennale top 5. Whilst a very welcome endorsement the real measure of success has been the overwhelming and positive reaction from locals and visitors alike.
In The Happenstance garden over a three day visit last week I’ve witnessed two stunning free community film screenings, restoring the lost Venetian tradition of outdoor cinema with films from Scotland and Venice. I’ve seen intense community meetings convene under the last of daylight, to agree action. I’ve heard plans hatched for the local community to gather for a shared meal under the stars next week. Venetians, reflecting on the lack of publicly accessible green space in the district, have warmly welcomed and adopted this small piece of nature as theirs, and ours.
I’ve joined in debates and discussions about the politics of place planning with international visitors. And shared the A Town Hall for All in Penicuik (one of the featured projects) with Sister Lorenezza and her class of 11 year olds from the nearby Cinnasio Luceo Marco Polo School, who reciprocated with their ideas for Un Municipio per Tutti. I’ve met old friends and made new ones. Fresh creative networks of Scottish based practitioners are being forged abroad.
I’ve watched young Scottish architecture students adapt the timber framework of the Armature to attend to requests from local kids who’ve creatively invented it as an endlessly evolving play space. The shrieks of joy as young Venetians came back day after day after school speaks of the intense excitement, fun and freedom this small intervention has made for many, young and old, within a week of opening.
The garden has become a place of song (I sang some Burns, others songs from their place), laughter and debate. It’s becoming an ever more magical place, day by day.
BEYOND AFFINITY: TRANSLATING IDEAS TO ACTION; THERE AND HERE
This hidden gem of a space became possible thanks to an unlikely and spectacular sequence of serendipity. Peter McCaughey always claims to expect to get lucky, that the next person he meets will be the most important person to realising a project. The aptly named The Happenstance project encapsulates this. But that’s a long story for another time.
Suffice to say the generosity and trust shown by those responsible for Palazzo Zenobio is being repaid with interest through the tireless efforts of WAVEparticle and The Happenstance team.
In the few months of preparation for the Biennale Peter McCaughey has developed an affinity with groups of community and civic leaders active in this part of Venice who recognise the shared ethos and synergies evident in the Scotland + Venice project.
Palazzo Zenobio is a fascinating place. Its history at the heart of the Armenian community in Venice is complex and multi-layered. Its existence has been under threat in recent decades and huge efforts were successful in restoring and keeping it active. Nevertheless, with a lack of funding and wherewithal, the western portion of the grounds given over temporarily for The Happenstance, have no clear future as a community asset after Scotland + Venice concludes in late June.
However the evident success of The Happenstance intervention points to a possible solution; an egalitarian prototype of a community green space able to meet local needs, establish a playful environment and restore community outdoor cinema. Its early days but perhaps a way can be found to extend The Happenstance beyond the end of June? Time will tell, but there’s undoubtedly desire and willingness to try to make it happen. Perhaps The Happenstance can be transferred to locals to make of it what they will.
Word has spread of the life affirming energy of The Happenstance. Locals have become repeat visitors, bringing more friends and family each time, animating their garden. Mumsnet Venice have flagged it up as a great place for kids and families. Through word of mouth, and online endorsement, the space is constantly enlivened by play, each day. Peter McCaughey is ‘deadly serious about play’ as an agent of creativity and community. The Happenstance garden is manifestly playful, creative and communal.
Beyond the playful it’s evident The Happenstance garden is also nurturing community activism. On a gift shopping interlude I popped in to a jewellery studio half a mile away to find the artist / proprietor speaking passionately about the positive impact and energy The Happenstance project is having amid local artisans and the creative community who are intrinsic to the district. She hopes the action at Zenobio can enthuse and enable this community to gain shared purpose and a voice as they seek to maintain an active presence in Dorsoduro.
At the southern end of the lagoon there’s the small island of Poveglia. Abandoned fifty years ago it has been the focus of contested and controversial land sales. Meantime the island, previously in public ownership, has become a cherished natural escape away from the overwhelming pressures of Venice.
Attempts to establish community ownership have proven unsuccessful, though the campaign continues. Local architect, Lorenzo Pesola and Poveglia Per Tutti (the Poveglia for All Action Group) have used The Happenstance garden for meetings and enabled The Happenstance team members to visit.
The resonance with Scotland’s community empowerment legislation is obvious and the debate about land ownership and access rights in a city with very little ‘freespace’ is clearly pertinent.
In parallel with these emerging opportunities for Scotland + Venice to inspire community-led regeneration in Venice, many of the showcased projects back in Scotland have been supercharged by the endeavour of The Happenstance. The A Town Hall for All project in Penicuik I’ve been involved in has developed momentum towards being showcased in Penicuik and Venice simultaneously.
The Penicuik community responded very positively to the A Town Hall for All project when it was presented at the town’s Hunter and Lass gala day which coincided with the launch of The Happenstance in Venice on 26 May. All 1,329 primary school pupils in Penicuik have been invited to share their ideas for the future of Penicuik Town Hall, where their ideas (and those of their Venetian counterparts) will be displayed on 13 June. Hopefully this can help kick start a whole-town debate about how to refresh and reenergise Penicuik Town Hall.
THE VALUE OF FREESPACE
It will be interesting to see what emerges, what action can be taken to harness the energy and goodwill surrounding The Happenstance. The projects featured in The Happenstance offer the prospect of making positive change in communities across Scotland, whilst its very presence in Dorsuduro is acting as the catalyst for action in Venice.
Hopefully there can be a positive living legacy from The Happenstance. The outcomes will allow us to see just how much we actually value Freespace? In Scotland and Venice.
Blurring the lines between reality and fiction: Virtual Reality teaching at National College for Nuclear South (blog By Murtaza Rizvi, Austin-Smith:Lord)
Murtaza discusses our recently completed NCFN Southern Hub – a project in which innovative technology is key to the delivery of specialist skills teaching.
You find yourself in a locker room. Squinting as your eyes adjust you ask yourself ‘what am I doing here?’ Looking around you see various pieces of protective clothing on the benches. You see a clipboard on the bench and pick it up. There are instructions about what you need to wear to enter a confined space. You put on the rest of the equipment and look down at yourself wearing the equipment.
You walk over to the door and exit into a corridor where the lighting is dim and the sound of alarms is deafening. There is smoke emerging from around the corner and as you walk forward the smoke becomes thicker and there is water flooding across the floor. Your heart starts to pound and you take a breath in order to settle your nerves. You discover the smoke is coming from a room where a motor unit is on fire. Opposite you, there is a fire extinguisher. Instinctively you pick it up, checking it’s the right kind of extinguisher, and turn to the fire to put it out. You experience a brief sense of relief before your attention turns to finding the source of the flooding water.
It appears to be seeping from under a door to an adjacent room. You try to open the door but it won’t open, you see through its window that there is something blocking it on the other side. You spot that there is a ventilation hatch you might be able to climb through at floor level, but it is held shut with screws. You rush back to the locker room, retrieve the screwdriver you noticed earlier and return to the hatch. You crouch down on the ground and remove the screws and ventilator screen and crawl through the hatch, being careful not to snag the threads of your protective wear.
At this point, anyone observing you in the real world would probably be very entertained at the sight of seeing you scrambling across a training room floor, holding two triggers. You are in fact inside the Virtual world where everything feels eerily and impressively convincing.
Once through the hatch, you find the controls for a pump and run it until the water is fully drained from the floor. You climb back through the hatch, return along the corridor to the locker room, where you are relieved to be told that you have successfully completed the ‘confined spaces’ exercise. You finally take off the headset and realise you had completely lost all sense of direction, and for a moment forget where you were.
What I’ve described above is one of the learning scenarios students will be experiencing through VR headsets at the National College for Nuclear Southern Hub for Bridgwater and Taunton College, a building we had the pleasure of master planning, designing, detailing and delivering. It’s one we’re proud to be involved with and the technology used as part of the teaching methods will be of particular interest to many, not least within the construction industry and higher education sector.
The new BREEAM excellent rated facility is one of 4 specialist teaching colleges across the UK set up by the government to develop technical skill sets required for the nuclear sector as part of its industrial strategy. In addition to the Nuclear training facilities other colleges include Creative and Cultural Industries; Digital Skills and High-Speed Rail. The spur for the construction of the facility stems from the nuclear sector and plans for 12 new nuclear reactors across 5 UK sites that will require 6000 people each year to maintain and run facilities. The facility in Somerset has been developed in collaboration with Industry experts from Sellafield, EDF Energy, University of Cumbria and the University of Bristol in order to help train up to 3,500 learners by the end of the decade.
NCFN features an impressive array of cutting-edge technology its educators will be using as part of developing the skills required to deliver the government’s vision. The new building will provide physical, virtual and augmented reality technology to create a learning environment that replicates a nuclear workplace and deliver revolutionary new engineering courses. Training experiences using VR headsets, such as those described above, are designed to help learners let go and enter a state in which deep, effective learning can take place. The thought is that whilst VR experiences are simulated they have the power to trick our embodied cognition circuits into thinking they are real. Technology has a key role in teaching at NCFN with its ability to simulate the working environments learners will face in practice – replicating behaviours, trialing these and perfecting through rehearsal in a safe and risk-free setting is essential and will help create a highly-trained, professional, technical workforce for the nuclear sector.
As designers, we’ve been through a fascinating process in helping Bridgwater & Taunton College realise its plans for this facility. During the early design stages, we had a number of discussions with our clients about how they wanted to use VR technology within the building. What made this challenging was that there was no real precedent for a facility of this nature. This prompted a number of visits made to buildings that contained similar facilities, albeit smaller aspects that were relevant to the design of NCFN as there wasn’t an ‘off the shelf’ example available.
This was enhanced by visits to virtual reality technology providers themselves to look at the available technology first hand. Like any good designers, we went through a process of carefully listening, scribbling notes, drawing sketches, reviewing, discarding the obsolete and repeating everything to refine our design response. What we learnt on visits to other facilities with our client manifested themselves through a number of design choices in the building as part of our response to the brief. For example, as the use of technology in this sector is continually developing the design of the building had to accommodate future flexibility – there are a number of folding partitions which allow a number of different teaching configurations to suit the nature of teaching delivery. You may think, folding partitions are commonplace in many modern education buildings. You’d be right, folding partitions might typically be seen, say, between two rooms. However, within NCFN whole wings of teaching spaces can be opened up, providing a number of teaching possibilities essential to the teaching methods required within NCFN. For example, this might form part of a VR training scenario in which student and teacher might physically walk through a training scenario exercise.
In conjunction with full height glazed screens along corridors, what’s clear in NCFN is that the typical teaching classroom format is completely opened up favouring a more innovative, multi-faceted teaching programme. All of a sudden, the classroom takes on a different meaning and might end up being, say, a high-level gantry walkway 3 storeys up inside a 6 storey high cooling tower. It’s for this reason that at NCFN teaching rooms aren’t called classrooms, they are referred to as flexible training spaces.
Another simple but effective example is the internal arrangement of the teaching wing and simulator suite. The corridor is offset to one side of the plan to allow a larger simulator suite room to be accommodated. This was driven by the need to allow future flexibility depending on whether VR reality experiences would be through VR headsets or within a 360-degree immersive dome, the latter requiring a larger room as part of its feasibility.
Turning attention to the external form and appearance of NCFN, another consideration and challenge was how to reflect the ‘national’ qualities of a National College for Nuclear, given a need to be pragmatic whilst working with a defined budget. The arrangement of the building form reflects these qualities through the siting of the building at the northern crest of Bridgwater & Taunton College’s Cannington campus. The building’s forms sit in an elevated position above the rest of the campus. Driven by a need to work with a steeply sloping site, the distinct forms wrap around a central landscape and sculptural courtyard.
The form of the building is further expressed and articulated through sloped glazed façade to the south east wing and first floor cantilever on the south west wing, incorporating full height corner glazing to better link the social/bar space within to impressive views of the Quantock hills beyond.
The distinct forms created by these wings are linked by an umbilical glazed link which provides continuation of the circulation spaces between the buildings. NCFN is in fact a conglomeration of two buildings, one part teaching facility and one part welfare & recreational building which accommodates facilities for use by students across the campus as well as hosting out of hours events.
These design ‘moves’ are intended to provide the building with an almost civic quality, perhaps more readily associated with university buildings. The architectural expression is intended to provide young learners attending the college with a tangible sense of the importance of the career they are about to embark on from their first day.
Continuing this theme internally, upon entering the building the visitor is struck by the faceted array of stainless steel rods lit by Blue LEDs behind the main reception desk. The idea is to reinforce the impression of entering a cutting-edge nuclear facility through use of precisely engineered detailing with the striking blue lighting evoking images of nuclear reactors to provide an industrial feel.
Whilst there were many aspects both inside and out we enjoyed developing through the design process, it will be seeing how the building accommodates continually changing technology that will have the most impact on those using the building. Following handover in February 2018, the college have already installed WiFi throughout along with Google Home digital assistants (the AI of which is learning specific nuclear terminology) and Chromecast. To top it off all of this is being streamed to 4K Digital TVs. With the VR suite expected to be fully functional by summer 2018, it is anticipated that use of VR headsets, coupled with the impressive digital connectivity, will allow students to ‘dial into’ nuclear training scenarios with their teachers remotely. This will allow teachers to walk through training scenarios with students, providing support and advice where needed as part of the teaching process and embedding key skills.
We are pleased the design of the building is enabling its educators to trial new and innovative methods of teaching, some of which may not even have been known at the design stage, given how quickly technology is developing. In our studios, we are finding the use of virtual and augmented reality fascinating, and its use as a design tool, as well as a method of communicating our ideas, is one we are pushing on projects of all scales within different sectors.
It will be important to pay attention to the trend of VR technology in your organisation. Like many technologies before it, awareness is the first barrier to uptake, followed by cost and content. Costs for adopting VR will continue to decrease through 2018 and with better content and more awareness spreading, VR will play a key role across education and industrial sectors. In education, VR is already revolutionizing not only how people learn, but interact with real-world applications of what they have been taught. Imagine ecology students getting to actually see where the Amazonian rainforest is, or biological science students exploring distant worlds in outer space. The possibilities are endless.