Wednesday, 15 September 2010

RIBA West Midlands, Matthew Dobson - Architecture returns to Function over Form?

Edwin Heathcote’s piece on the 2010 Venice Biennale, ‘People Meet in Architecture’, (FT, September 1st 2010) comments on architects starting to embrace how people use buildings. 

He talks about how they’re tackling problems in contemporary cities - such as slums and overcrowding - and how architects seem to be moving  beyond their fetishisation of the building as object, their preoccupation with surface and aesthetics.
"People may meet in architecture but what happens once they’ve met? Is it only memories and fleeting impressions of beauty and texture they are left with?”

Experiential Space
Matthew Dobson assures me designing space with the user in mind is very much at the top of the RIBA agenda too.
“RIBA is looking at this area of ‘post occupancy’ very closely at the moment.  Awards and prizes in the industry currently place less emphasis on user interaction and whether a building is successful 5 years after construction.
“When you throw sustainability into the mix most of the quality assessments done at the point of build completion don’t look at useability either, whether BREAM, or others.  We’re all working to look at the whole lifecycle of buildings and think as a profession how best we can achieve this.
“It may be that we’re returning to ‘function over form’ as in the Bauhaus movement...perhaps there has been more interest in the aesthetic since the ‘60s and perhaps sustainability will encourage a more functionalist agenda, whether in materials, transport, cost of ongoing use, quality of interaction with others – engineers, interior designers etc will be increasingly important.”
As the Venice Biennale is internationally recognised as the biggest and most authoritative of all architecture shows it’s hard not to think about the roles played by Italian architects in wider design circles. 

Experiential Products 

Architect, Ettore Sottsass, designed the classic ‘Valentine Typewriter’(1)

Ettore Sottsass for one, brought together designers, local manufacturers, lecturers, students and other architects like himself, when forming the ‘Memphis-Milano Design Group’, resulting in the launch of a post-modern design movement in Lombardy invigorating furniture, fabrics, ceramics, glass and metal object designs through ‘80s. 

Architect Michael Graves designed the Alessi 'Tea Kettle with Bird Whistle’
 Alberto Alessi, who was awarded an honorary doctorate from Birmingham City University in 2001 took over his family business in the early 80's.  An early act was to ask award-winning  Princeton-based architect, Michael Graves to design new products for his business.  Michael had never designed any consumer products before but on his first attempt he produced the design classic, the Alessi 'tea kettle with bird whistle’ selling over 1.5m products since its launch. An iconic example of post modernism in the kitchen... it started a trend for quirky humour in contemporary product design!

Why do Italian architects seem more revered than UK architects and more engaged with wider design challenges?  “Perhaps”, Matthew suggests, “it harks back to '60s and ‘70s. Architecture as a profession is keen to move on.  Some key challenges were highlighted in the Egan Review of 1998, ‘Rethinking Construction’, in particular, the lack of crossover in planning between architects, engineers, surveyors and town planners. 

Egan suggested ways of breaking down the ‘silo mentality’ through various cross-industry initiatives, for example, ‘Constructing Excellence Centres’, which are threatened by budget cuts, as well as interdisciplinary research and training, which RIBA has been working to develop with its members.

Best and Worst, West Midlands: Matthew Dobson

The Wedgwood Institute, Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, an example of Gothic Revival
foundation stone laid in 1863 by Prime Minister, William Gladstone

Best Architecture WM: The Wedgwood Institute, Burslem, Stoke on Trent
Worst architecture WM: Revenue Offices in Hereford.

Experiential Cities 

For cities trying to adapt to the need to remain competitive as business locations there have been big changes.  “Local authorities used to have large architectural teams - Leeds City Council was the last big local authority to employ a Chief Architect.   There are some exceptions but generally this work is outsourced nowadays with town planners under considerable pressure to deal with inflexible regulations and demanding deadlines and many architects frustrated at this apparent lack of flexibility. 
Foreign Office architects design for Birmingham's New Street Station (2)
“It will be interesting to see if this government includes aspects of planning in its agenda to empower communities, specifically through some relaxation in the rigid application of planning regulations enabling local communities to decide what works best for them.

“Equally it is possible to foresee areas of conflict for local authorities in future as they seek to resolve future housing, design and planning needs and without the arbitration of a regional tier.  One of the motivations for regional tier was for expertise, support and co-ordination which can be lacking at local level.”
Recognising the increasing importance of quality of place to attracting and retaining the best businesses and talented people, Birmingham embarked on its ‘Big City Plan’.
Similarly, Coventry has grasped the nettle. 

“Coventry’s a good example, through the efforts of Martin Reeves and Martin Yardley, of city re-design. They’re doing a good job in trying to engage the whole city in the process.  They opened up a web portal for 2 days and asked for opinions on a blog. They’re taking on two huge issues - re-organising the internal architecture of the council and undertaking the re-design of the City."

The new Central Library in Birmingham
designed by Francine Houben
Looking forward Matthew acknowledges that there’s not been as much engagement with the universities in thinking through the urban and spatial planning challenges as there might have been. 
“There are going to be very different demands being made of our cities in the future and having a strong message to promote ourselves will be important.

"Manchester has done a brilliant job in re-branding itself and developing a strong sense of the strengths of the City. Greater Manchester as a concept has been a success with local neighbours such as Stockport, Rochdale and others buying into it.
“Birmingham, with ‘Forward’ as its motto, hasn’t been a particularly nostalgic place.  The city has a predeliction for re-designing itself every 25-30 years or so and we see this from Chamberlain, post War for the motorcar and now we’re doing it again now – in the new Birmingham Library designed by architect Francine Houben and the re-designed New Street Station which is by Foreign Office Architects."

Design Heritage
“We have a significant heritage in our industrial and design capability,” Matthew says acknowledging the importance of the area’s product designs and world-leading brands, “and despite economic restructuring, this sector has continued to provide many jobs and much opportunity.”

For Birmingham, jewellery remains an important part of our ongoing productive heritage, with the city responsible for up to 40% of the UK’s output.  The Birmingham Assay Office, as the largest in the UK, is located in the city’s jewellery quarter and was established in 1773, thanks to the efforts of the great eighteenth century local industrialist and philanthropist, Matthew Boulton. 
Boulton’s interest in design extended beyond the silverware produced in his ‘Soho Manufactory’. “The factory itself was designed by the architect William Wyatt at a time when most industrial buildings were built under the supervision of engineers.”

Boulton's architect-designed Soho Manufactory c1860
Establishing the Birmingham Assay Office was an important goal for Boulton as the nearest Assay offices were Chester and London.  Jewellers in Birmingham and Sheffield were having to send away items for hallmarking, both logistically challenging and failing to recognise the craftsmanship of the articles produced in both cities.  

Stories of the origins of Birmingham’s rather inappropriate ‘anchor’ hallmark go that, prior to the inauguration of both the Birmingham and Sheffield Assay Offices in 1773, meetings had been held at the ‘Crown and Anchor’ pub on the Strand in London. It is rumoured that the choice of symbol was made on the toss of
a coin resulting in Birmingham ‘winning’ the Anchor and Sheffield the Crown.”
Beverley Nielsen
September 5th 2010
(1) Copyright: GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.3
(2) image from the Birmigham Mail

Matthew Dobson, Regional Director, RIBA West Midlands

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