Paul Vonberg’s blog has moved

WordPress is pleased to advise that Paul Vonberg is now blogging fortnightly at: the architecture blog

The URL is: http://thearchitectureblog.co.uk

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Corner to Corner

OK, so this man builds a house, right. It’s just a rectangular house and it’s in the middle of an open piece of land. He lives there with his family for a few years and is very happy. The sun shines on the house, it’s convenient, dry, safe and it has gorgeous views. In fact it’s in a very good place; the man chose his spot well.

Then, some years later, his friend, who’s been visiting for a while, decides he’d like to come and live there too. That’s not a problem; the two men are friends after all. Everyone is happy that there should be two houses near to each other. The only question is, “Where exactly should the second man build his house in relation to that of the first man?”

Regular readers will already know that I strongly believe that where a building is built is actually more important than what it looks like. Why? Because, it is the decisions about where every building is put which determine the places which exist, or don’t, between one building and the next, and it is those places, or non places, where most of us live our lives…

Consequently, I am interested in how people have, over the last hundred thousand years or so, made those decisions about where to place buildings.

It seems to me that the apparently simple decision faced by our two friends must have occurred millions of times over that period since building began, and that the problem in many ways hasn’t changed at all. Do they decide to put the second house along side the first house? Or opposite the first house? Or fifty yards away from the first house? Or…the options are actually quite limited. If you’ve been camping, you’ll certainly have faced these very basic but fascinating and important choices and will have a feel for how important such issues are.

If you build the second house far away, it will be a constant bore to walk from one to the other. If you join them together, you will hear your friend making love. If you put the houses opposite one another, you will block each other’s view and waste half the day watching how your friend lives his life. You might build the second house alongside the first one if there is a road running right past but, otherwise, my hunch is that most of us would build corner to corner.

If you build the second house corner to corner with the first, you’re close enough to borrow the proverbial cup of sugar, but not so close that you can hear what you don’t want to hear. You haven’t blocked more of each other’s view than you need to. And, if you’re sensible enough to face the two houses south and west, you’ll create a place which is warm throughout most afternoons.

Exactly…this isn’t really rocket science! Look about you today and I guarantee that pretty much wherever you find a congenial place between buildings, it will be because someone has decided to build a building ‘corner to corner’ with one that was already there. Try it!

Evidence?

Well, the example I have in mind is not quite so simple as the one imagined above but I think it makes the point nevertheless. I have recently been carrying out some advisory work at Jesus College, Cambridge and, while I have yet to grasp the full history of how the College’s buildings have developed, I can tell you that it happened more or less in the manner shown on this simple animated plan (which I hope will open for you! If not, I’ll try to include it next week):

www.paulvonbergarchitects.com/blog/121001anim01.swf

Again and again over the last five hundred years, Jesus College has built buildings ‘corner to corner’ and the result is a wonderful sequence of three sided courtyards. These are only a few of them…

First Court, Jesus College, Cambridge. The building on the right is thought to be part of the original Monastic Buildings from which the College developed. The building ahead was built between 1638 and 1640. ‘Corner to corner’ tightly…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

North Court, Jesus College, Cambridge. The building on the right was designed by Alfred Waterhouse and erected 1869-1870. That on the left is by David Roberts and erected 1963-66. ‘Corner to corner’, but perhaps not quite close enough to enclose?

Library Court, Jesus College, Cambridge. The building on the right was designed by Percy Morley Horder and built in 1927-30. That ahead, the Quincentennial Library, is by Evans and Shalev and was opened in 1996. ‘Corner to corner’ and quite cleverly articulated to achieve both enclosure of the court and separate identities for the buildings.

Yes, some of the most congenial places between buildings that you might find…

You should visit; the College is almost always open to visitors.

 

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Saintes Alive

I’d never heard of Saintes… but, holidaying last month on the Ile d’Oleron in Poitou-Charentes, we decided to drive over and see what it had to offer.

As well as an amazingly preserved Roman amphitheatre, a clearly very important local cycle race and some delicious crepes, it offered (as France so often seems to) street after street of beautiful old buildings completely without tourists. What joy!

What caught my attention in particular though was a simple piece of “streetscape”, or what many architects these days seem to call urbanism. I’m sorry that you need to put your head on one side to see it but hope you will think it worth the trouble….

Rue des Jacobins, Saintes, France

What is happening here? Its just a bend in the Rue des Jacobins, isn’t it?

Yes, but what are the factors that contribute to making this such an appealing little place?

Well, the ground is falling several metres; that can often help to enrich a place, bringing with it all the suggestions of heading downtown for some action or, conversely, leaving the stresses of  the town behind as you head for the hills… Secondly, there is a dramatic bend in the road, presumably created centuries ago to reduce the gradient of the incline for the benefit of horses and their loads.

Then, the space created between the buildings widens out to one side of the road. There are walls and buildings which more or less follow the near side of the road, immediately behind my camera position but, on the far side, the buildings don’t follow the road at all but bend quite the other way to leave a cobbled yard for parking those few cars, and a garden. There is also a footpath which links the yard to the road again. You can just see the last two steps of it.

Next, the ground left between the road and the far buildings doesn’t fall nearly as quickly as the road itself. It gently ambles down hill but then has some catching up to do in order to reach the lower road level. This needs a wall. And, if you can imagine walking up the hill, from left to right in the picture, you will see that the wall also encloses the road so that the garden isn’t revealed until after you’ve rounded the bend.

The same, repeated for your convenience…

The garden, yes! How great is that? It’s got a tree at its focus. Around the tree is a low wall on which anyone can sit and look out across the town, and see the Cathedral. There is also a bench in case someone has nabbed the wall, and both spots are under the tree which is good because its often hot. Then there are a few hedges which definitely need a bit of attention but might be fun to wander or play amongst. They have been planted to focus attention on the tree.

And there is a rather mysterious looking door in the blank wall on the far side of the garden; it doesn’t look as though anyone uses it but what could be behind it? And why is that wall built in smooth ashlar blocks? It can’t possibly have been built as the high garden wall it seems to be now.

And, if you wanted to, you could sit on the top of the high wall dangling your feet above passing pedestrians. Irritating for them, but fun for you and your friends.

I could go on; I haven’t even started on the buildings…

A good piece of streetscape? I think so.

 

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The Interior Design Paradox

What is it about interior designers?

Why do architects mostly seem to regard such people as unqualified, unskilled busybodies, foisted on them by ignorant clients who really ought to know that an architect can design interiors much better? Equally, though, why do many clients feel apprehensive about entrusting an architect with the interior of their building when there is clearly another profession available, and presumably skilled enough, to do it? And, of course, why do interior designers think that architects are the most arrogant bunch of egotistical ‘object creators’ imaginable?

Unpicking that lot might take me some time and I shall not attempt a full analysis here. In any case (and I’ll say it before you do!) an architect is hardly going to be sufficiently dispassionate to unravel the issues properly.  The key thing is surely that a civilized society really ought to be able to provide itself with good cities, good buildings and good interiors, as a background or stage set on which to live out its life; who actually designs those things is of secondary importance.

And, as you will know if you have been following this blog, I am absolutely certain that, right across this supposedly civilized world, and with some notable exceptions, we, collectively, are actually getting rapidly worse at providing ourselves with the first and most important of those, with good cities.

You will also know that the reason I think this decline is occurring is because we are failing even to perceive a need for good places within our cities, focusing instead on creating collections of isolated ‘object buildings’ standing in a meaningless ‘no man’s land’ without any sense of enclosure, or connections or the other key characteristics which I have identified. There’s plenty more detail on all this in earlier posts.

And what has this got to do with interior designers?

Well, the confusions I touched on at the start of this post stem very considerably from the fact that many if not most people seem to think of interiors and exteriors as quite different things. My argument is that they are actually the same thing. Yes I know it sounds daft but bear with me. To put it another way, I believe that interiors are interiors in the way that we all understand them while exteriors really ought to be thought of and designed as if they were parts of interiors too, albeit urban interiors, usually uncovered, less private and so on.

Take a look at the following nine photographs. The first three are interiors in the conventional sense:

Interior No.1: New York Public Library. Architect: Carrere and Hastings. Photographer: Paul Vonberg

 

 

 

 

 

Interior No. 2: Reform Club, London. Architects: Charles Barry and Paul Vonberg. Photographer: Michael Caldwell

Interior No. 3: Private Apartment, London. Architect: Paul Vonberg. Photographer: John Griffin

You will agree I think that they are all unequivocally interiors.

The second three photographs show what we would normally call ‘exteriors’. They are all, however, ones which I suggest have been conceived of and designed as ‘interiors’, even though they are open to the sky. They vary from the large formal square to the informal but public piazza, to the informal and private courtyard. Albeit different in scale and privacy, I hope you will agree that they all share those familiar characteristics of congenial places: enclosure, views out, thresholds, interesting edges and so on.

‘Outside Interior’ No. 1: Palazzo Barberini, Rome. Architects: Francesco Borromini and Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Painting: Filippo Gagliardi

 

‘Outside Interior’ No. 2: Piazza Grande, Montepulciano. Architects: Various. Photographer: Unknown

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Outside Interior’ No. 3: Private House, London. Architect: John Pawson

Of those three, the most interesting to me by far (despite being the smallest picture) is the second. It shows what could be achieved in any town or city simply by placing buildings closely together, by making them of similar heights and by putting all the entrances so that they give onto the public place created between the buildings. It also shows that successful public places don’t have to be rigidly formal or even symmetrical. We could learn a lot from Montepulciano… or hundreds of other Italian towns and cities!

The third three photographs show, in complete contrast, places which again we would call exteriors but which have not, in my view been conceived of, or designed as interiors in any sense at all. In other words they are ‘no man’s lands’ surrounding ‘object buildings’ and I believe serious mistakes for the cities in which they have been built. Worse, the second two are extremely typical of the English cities and towns which form the background against which most of us live out our lives.

When architects can produce such ghastly places as these, who needs interior designers….?

‘Object Building’ with ‘No Man’s Land’ No. 1: Innhotel, Zaandam, Netherlands. Architect: Wilfried van Winden. Photographer: Charlotte Lybeer

‘Object Building’ with ‘No Man’s Land’ No. 2: Spitalfields, London. Architect: Norman Foster. Photographer: Paul Vonberg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Object Building’ with ‘No Man’s Land’ No. 3: Sorting Office, Ipswich. Architect: Unknown. Photographer: Paul Vonberg

 

 

 

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Lines on the High Line

As existing readers of this blog will know, I am staking my reputation on the apparently unusual (and so far as I am aware, not elsewhere stated) premise that all ‘congenial’ places share the same basic characteristics:  primarily that they tend to be enclosed, and additionally that they tend to have views ‘out’, to have thresholds that mark their entries, to have edges and surfaces which interest us, to have been travelled to, and also that they resonate, or remind us of other places we have enjoyed or imagined.

Imagine, therefore, my anxiety when my daughter Charlotte insisted that Jill and I should visit one of New York’s newest places, a place which, as far as I could imagine, could not possibly possess the characteristics which I had set out in this blog and yet which, by all accounts, was an amazing, wonderful, congenial and highly successful place!

The High Line is essentially a park, but one which is a mile or so long and between ten and fifteen metres wide. Having been formed, between 2008 and 2011, on what between 1934 and 1980 had been a freight rail line elevated above the streets of Manhattan’s West Side, the High Line is some eight metres above the street.

The High Line, before 1980

 

So, I thought, it might have views and it might have thresholds (the steps or lifts by which one gets to it) but how could it possibly offer any enclosure in the manner of all those traditional and much loved places which we have enjoyed here? Was my theory to be demolished, as the High Line itself was so nearly in the 80’s and 90’s?

First, though, a potted history of the High Line… In 1847, street-level railroad tracks were laid down Manhattan’s west side. During the following seventy years, there were so many accidents that men on horseback were eventually employed to ride in front of trains waving red flags. In the end, the problem became so bad that, between 1929 and 1934, the “West Side Improvement Project” was constructed over a thirteen mile distance, including the High Line, at a cost equivalent to more than $2 billion today. Immediately after the Wall Street Crash, notice. The new elevated railway served hundreds of buildings, often passing through the middle of them, allowing the easy delivery and collection of “milk, meat, produce, raw and manufactured goods”. Accidents largely ceased. The High Line was a success.

The High Line, before 1980

 

In the 1950’s, however, use of the rail lines dropped as interstate trucking increased and in the 1960’s part of the High Line was taken down completely. In the 1980’s, developers who had bought land underneath the High Line (at prices which reflected its assumed demolition) were frustrated when residents, activists, architects and rail enthusiasts developed quite different plans, for a public park, and eventually won the support of the city of New York.

The High Line, during its derelict years

The full history is set out at http://www.thehighline.org/about/high-line-history 

So far, so good. The ‘evil’ developers have been frustrated, the citizens have triumphed and the concept is simple. But is it really possible to make a congenial park out of this?

I can only say that I was very surprised, completely won over, utterly thrilled in fact, by the skill, verging on genius, with which the landscape designers and architects responsible for the detailed design of the High Line had made so much out of so little.

I could rabbit on about it in words but I think a few pictures will, as usual, tell a far better story….

 

 

 

 

And of course, I was enormously relieved to see that the way in which the landscaping had been approached was such that enclosure was fundamental to the whole thing. Wherever I walked on the High Line, I felt protected, either by existing historic buildings or by new trees or high planting, or by the beautiful and complex patterns of the concrete ‘deck’, so resonant of its railway days. All these provided both the sense of place as well as the interesting edges and surfaces, broken at intervals by openings which revealed quite different sorts of views from those we normally expect. These were views down streets, onto roofs and markets, and across the Hudson River to New Jersey. The whole thing was quite remarkable. It fitted my criteria perfectly but in ways which I had never before experienced….

It also reminded me of the Vasari Corridor in Florence. Know it? If not, you should…Google awaits you!

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Bremer Landesbank, Bremen

Firstly, my apologies for confusing Tooley Street with St Thomas Street in last week’s blog about the Shard; I happened to be there again this afternoon with one of my sons and my error was gently pointed out. Thanks Freddie!

Secondly, I’m afraid I shall not be blogging next weekend as I shall be visiting one of my daughters (yes, we have two of each!) in New York. Looking forward to it, Charlotte! Charlotte is working hard for a charity called PPS or ‘Project for Public Spaces’ whose aim, unsurprisingly, is to promote better public spaces around the world.

You see I’m not the only one in my family who believes in the importance of place…PPS’s website is well worth a look although their angle is more complex and political. I suspect that they find my approach to enclosure, views out, etc etc rather simplistic. We’ll see.

Bremer Landesbank, Bremen, Germany. Architect: Caruso St John

Thirdly, and quite unrelated to points one and two, I would simply like to draw your attention to a building in Bremen. Many years ago, I was flown to Bremen, a town on the river Weser (of Pied Piper fame) in Northern Germany by a grateful manufacturer whose product I had specified for a project at the National Gallery.

But that was long before the celebrated English architectural firm of Caruso St John were commissioned to replace an existing bank building in the centre of Bremen for the Bremer Landesbank. I don’t intend to pontificate on its virtues but I do think it is exactly the sort of building which any competent firm of architects would be putting up on a regular basis were there not such an obsession with celebrity buildings or ‘icons’. In other words, it is competently planned, beautifully proportioned, and made of good materials.  It has a certain presence which is entirely appropriate to its function but, most importantly, it is content to take its place alongside all the other buildings around the square to the North of the Cathedral and, unlike so many buildings in England, doesn’t feel the need to shout its presence to the world.

There are more pictures and a full description on Caruso St John’s website at:

http://www.carusostjohn.com/projects/bremer-landesbank/

I recommend you take a look.

You might also be interested to note that the celebrated weird and wacky Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London has just opened some new rooms. These too have been designed by Caruso St John and are equally modest. If any readers have yet to visit the Soane…get over there fast. You’re missing out on a truly amazing experience. And its free!

Caruso St John are definitely ‘one to watch’.

And, while watching, watch this space in a couple of weeks for some post New York posts….

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One side is missing

I have been fortunate this weekend to have been able to pick a heady bunch of architectural roses in and around Oxfordshire, including Waddesdon Manor (country seat of the Rothschilds), Hidcote Manor (apogee of the garden as a series of outdoor rooms), Coleshill (an important house by Roger Pratt, burned down in 1953 but still surprisingly present in its horticulturally drawn plan…), Great Coxwell Tithe Barn (a vast and silent nave of c. 1300), the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and Stowe.

Amongst all these, I found two places which, though superficially and stylistically wildly different, share one idea, and a rather good one. The first is the three sided courtyard in front of the Ashmolean, designed by Charles Robert Cockerell and built between 1839 and 1845. The second is the new ‘Archive complex’ at Windmill Hill on the Waddesdon Estate near Aylesbury, designed by Stephen Marshall Architects and completed last year; it too includes a three sided courtyard.

The idea is so simple that I don’t intend to say a lot about either of these courtyard places, and I certainly don’t intend to compare and contrast, but I will point out the following:

1. In both cases, the courtyard is raised up by a few feet above the adjacent land, allowing the occupants to feel protected from the farmland below, or, in the case of the Ashmolean, from busy Beaumont Street below.

The Ashmolean Museum, Looking NW from Beaumont Street

2. In both cases, a road passes immediately adjacent to the open side. At Windmill Hill, an existing road was actually diverted in order that it should engage with the new buildings.

Windmill Hill, Looking N past the ‘mouth’ of the Courtyard

3.  In both cases, the obvious view out through the ‘would-be fourth side’ of the courtyard is complemented by other views out. In the case of the Ashmolean, this is the view East through the Taylorian to St Giles.

Looking East through the Taylorian

4. In both cases, the three enclosing walls have much happening on them to attract our interest.

The Ashmolean, Looking West (Detail)

Windmill Hill, Looking NE

Windmill Hill, Looking North

I would go so far as to say that the East facing elevation of the Ashmolean is, in my opinion, one of the finest architectural compositions I have ever seen; look at the balance of symmetry and asymmetry, the depth achieved within the wall face by setting the windows right back while adding columns and urns far forward, the exquisitely carved stonework contrasted with flat planes, and the unusual mix of golden Bath and white Portland stones.

Looking West

But, lest you think that I have less time for the contemporary building, I am also much attracted by the oak screen, the reflective water, the geometrically patterned roof, the shutters and the hedges at Windmill Hill.

Looking West towards the landscape

5. Above all, despite the vastly different stylistic treatment of the two courtyards, I am drawn to the idea that a person in either of the two courtyards is both part of that courtyard, and so protected by it, but is also part of the wider landscape or cityscape. With the three-sidedness of these two courtyards seems to come the message that the world beyond is not so dangerous that we need to be protected from it, nor so subordinate that it needs to be controlled. The world beyond our own space is, on the contrary, to be welcomed. We might not wish to be overrun by it, hence the slight raising of our level above it, but it is still part of our world and we are part of its.

That seems to me to be a good message for buildings to be speaking.

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