Monday, November 01, 2010

two sisters

Alexandra Road, London - Neave Brownmy last post made me reread Neave Brown's article The Form of Housing (Architectural Design, September -76). this in turn had me thinking about two recent housing projects which might, in different ways, be said to relate to Brown's theories as expressed in that article and in his housing at Fleet Road and Alexandra Road in London.

first I should probably acknowledge that Douglas Murphy has already pointed out the similarities between BIG:s 8 House and the Smithsons' concept of streets in the sky.

I've mentioned one of the projects – the 8 House in Ørestad, Copenhagen – and the other is O'Donnell + Tuomey's Timberyard in Dublin. what these two projects – if very different in scale – have in common is the wish to relate the single dwelling to the surrounding city at the same time as it's relating to all the other dwellings that make up the project.

in his article Brown argues against the free-standing British post-war housing and its tabula-rasa approach to the surrounding city and for housing that acknowledges its context and adapts to existing street patterns. he thought that the concept of streets in the sky was a step in the right direction but that it wasn't going far enough, there were still 'a no-man's land' separating the different buildings and the city. according to him housing is characterised less by the differences between different types than by what they have in common and he wants to give back to housing 'the traditional quality of continuous background stuff, anonymous, cellular, repetitive, that has always been its virtue'. this was something he found in the traditional British terraced house. unfortunately that model could no longer handle the demands of modern society so it couldn't just be replicated, instead there had to be innovation to give these qualities to mass housing.

Timberyard, Dublin - O'Donnell + Tuomey ArchitectsBrown claims that 'it is the architect's job to structure the environment, incorporating in a single form all the concepts that have a claim to inclusion. to make a perceptible order requires more than an assembly of parts, more than the recognition of meaningful relationships by the tactical arranging of the pieces. it requires the integration of all the pieces into a single gesture in which unity and interdependence can be recognized at whatever level they are perceived'.

like Brown's own Alexandra Road both the 8 House and Timberyard excel at this integration of pieces into a single gesture. unfortunately things aren't as straight forward as they were back in Brown's day, no longer content with just being part of a collective we all want to be individuals. so when in Alexandra Road different kinds of apartments hide behind almost identical elevations both O'D+T and BIG go out of their way to make monolithic buildings in just a few materials but whose plan shape and more detailed massing create a diversity within that unity. to differentiate further both buildings, just as Alexandra Road, employ a sectional layering of different types of apartments. in the case of Timberyard it constitutes of both maisonettes and one-storey apartments and the layers in the vastly bigger 8 House are -from ground up: commercial space and offices, row houses along a pedestrian/cycle path, apartments and finally maisonettes entered off another outdoor path (for a further explanation from the architects watch this film).

the main part of accommodation at Alexandra Road stretches along a pedestrian path between the community centre in the east and Abbey Road in the west. to the sides of this brick-clad path the dwellings are stacked in two artificial ridges of concrete and glass, the northern eight storeys high and the southern four. all apartments are provided with outdoor space in form of a terraces and in some cases this terrace also functions as a front yard from which you reach the entrance.

Timberyard, Dublin - O'Donnell + Tuomey ArchitectsTimberyard is located on Cork Street in central Dublin. that street has recently been lined with fairly hideous and blandly modern apartment schemes with retail space on the ground floors, the less that's said about them the better. O'D+T opted to refuse the retail space asked for by the planners and instead chose to let as many apartments as possible be entered directly off the ground. to be honest I must say I kind of miss the commercial element, not the hangar-like spaces from further up the road, but a small office or shop facing Cork Street could have been quite nice.

just as Alexandra Road is built along a pedestrian path so is Timberyard focused on a semi-private courtyard set in brick (coincidentally the same material as the path in Alexandra Road). it is off this courtyard that most dwellings are entered and it is here that the communal space is located. to make the transition between public and private space less brutal all private entrances on the ground floor are set back slightly and the entrances provided with external benches. towards Cork Street the building line is pulled back somewhat with planters keeping the line of the footpath and a narrower path between the planters and the entrances to the apartments.

the 8 House, Copenhagen - BIG, Photo by SEIER+SEIERthe 8 House is an aluminium-clad block at the very extreme of the new Ørestad area of Copenhagen. at the moment it's even more remote than what is intended as the economic crisis of recent years have slowed down construction. this means that it and a neighbour are the only buildings within a couple of hundred meters. having said that the building makes the most of its edge condition with slopes and different heights that aim to provide as many apartments as possible with views out over the adjoining nature reserve.

as the lowest floors are taken up by commercial space and offices the different apartments can't have as direct a connection to the ground as in Timberyard or Alexandra Road but the architects have instead extended paths from the ground up on top of the offices and the so called row-houses are entered off these paths through a small front yard. the same applies for the maisonettes on the top two floors. just as in Timberyard this is done in the hope that it will create a feeling of community amongst the inhabitants. in-between these row-houses and the maisonettes are several floors of apartments clustered around stair shafts. that these are entered from the street on the ground floor should help to counter the risk of the surrounding streets becoming dead as soon as the businesses close for the day.

the 8 House, Copenhagen - BIG, Photo by SEIER+SEIERcomparing the two schemes I can't help but to think that Timberyard is the more successful. one of my problems with the 8 House is that even though it's mostly built up right to the edge of the pavement the width of the road coupled with a canal before reaching the closest neighbour make for a very un-urban streetscape which I find unfortunate. having said that it's hardly the architects' fault and achieving the gritty urban character of a thousand-year-old part of the city in a yet-unfinished district on virgin land is obviously hard.

the 8 House does boldly continue the intentions of Alexandra Road, though, and on such a heroic scale it's hard not be impressed. it is also much better urbanistically than any of the previous PLOT/BIG projects in Ørestad, eschewing the piloti of the VM Houses and the Mountain Dwellings, but there is still something slightly odd about how it touches down. I'm not sure why, it might just be that the vertical aluminium fins prevent any diagonal views to the interior which makes the building feel more closed up than it actually is. Timberyard on the other hand feels like the end result of serious contemplation about a specific city and what can be done to fit modern accommodation into it without entirely rupturing the atmosphere of the place. there are still things that are problematic about it but it surely is a type of accommodation more suited to Dublin than any of the other new buildings along the rest of Cork Street.

official site for the 8 House
Alexandra Road on Modern Architecture London

photos of the 8 House by SEIER+SEIER

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