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Chris Stewart

Collective Architecture's Chris Stewart discusses his overlapping roles as architect and member of the Scottish Ecological Design Association in promoting green design to a wider audience.

Fortnightly Blog - View from the Plague

June 23rd, 2015

Humanity is a plague engulfing planet earth. I first encountered this revelation in a conversation between Agent Smith and Morpheus during a screening of the Matrix. Whilst classifying humans, Smith came the to the conclusion that we were are not actually mammals, as mammals instinctively develop a natural equilibrium with their surrounding environment. Humans of course do not, we multiply until every natural resource is consumed after which we colonise. Smith correctly explained to Morpheus the only other organism which follows such a pattern is disease. What is your view.

Recently these thoughts have been polarised by the ever present issue of migration and populist contributions from the likes of David Attenborough and Katie Hopkins. David with his warning that the frightening explosion in human population is eating up the earth’s resource to the point that the only reasonable alternative is to reduce that population by 2 billion souls. The opposite is the reality as numbers are set to increase by 2 billion over the next 50 years. Natural selection is now so skewed that David, our cuddly malthusian and patron of the charity Population Matters, calls for improved birth control. Jock shock Katie is more economic and would hold back machine gunning drowning migrants to save bullets.

There is little doubt that we swim in a sophisticated plague exponentially fuelled by global capitalism. As with all organisms the view from the eye of the storm is acceptably comfortable while the edges are a tad wretched; migrants flee public beheadings, starvation, political oppression and civil war. Fuelling Katie Hopkins and her form of entertainment shares the ambiguity of the issue, if we can accept we are living in a plague of sorts, we have to temper our views accordingly. Katie may gush poison with expletives such as migrant cockroaches but has to accept in her metaphor they try only to join the rich vermin and enjoy the best pickings from the garbage we produce. Likewise the smug sustainability community have to accept they are part of the same plague, it’s all ours.

The Matrix was first screened 15 years ago, 15 years before that James Lovelock published the Gaia hypothesis that our planet functions as a single living organism. A view that humanity will conquer all, halt climate change and live happily ever after. Lovelock has had to look a different way and listen to creepy nihilist sorts such as The Church of Euthanasia, ‘Save the Planet Kill Yourself’. Their view is that of the astronaut looking down on manmade patterns which resemble nothing so much as the skin condition of cancer patients. Slag heaps, garbage dumps, saline bleeds, bomb craters, open pit mines, top soil erosion, sewerage discharge, checkerboard clearcuts all feature in Kent McDougall's essay ‘Humans as Cancer’. The mist has cleared on Lovelock’s view to such an extent that ‘Climate change may just be the mechanism through which the planet eases its human burden'.

What do we see. The exodus is televised, an epic of biblical proportion where the fury of boils, thunder and death of your first born can be viewed in high definition on flatscreen somavision, past-over by a glut of low interest loans. A two billion population excess giving credence to Nazi ‘Lebensraum’ and the right for a superior race to displace the unhealthy and feeble; an understanding of Russian ‘Dekulakization’ and the destruction of 15 million kulaks; an appreciation of the American frontier, the rape of resource and the use of birthrate as a weapon. Comfortable with our fair trade coffee break, the view from an overpriced raft sinking into the Mediterranean weighed down by your unborn, whose hopes lie in an E.U. back room power struggle is less panoramic.

What do I see. A plague is a large number of animals infesting a place and causing damage. The view from within is often hidden as in the proverbial wood and trees. Some put faith in religion and a place in Valhalla, others in science and the power of GM crops so that one day humanity will triumph. Others know that one day the sun will become a red dwarf and turn all to dust. Until that day we may as well enjoy the diseased ride as best we can but why take down so many of our companions ahead their time. Grasshoppers change to locust when they swarm, humanity changes from David to Katie when we proliferate.

 

SEDA's Krystyna Johnson Award Exhibition will be held at the Lighthouse from 29th October 2015 until 13th January 2016. Prof. Sandy Halliday will deliver the inaugural Howard Liddell Lecture at the opening of the exhibition on the 29th October 2015, 6.00 pm at the Lighthouse, 11 Mitchell Lane, Glasgow.

The overall winner of the KJ Award 2015 is Olivia Page of the Mackintosh School of Architecture for her proposed ‘Place of Amenity’ in Beith. The overall winners certificate will be presented by Jim Johnson on the 29th October.


Fortnightly Blog - Milano, dig that fascist groove thing

March 9th, 2015

Black shirts, white buildings and red eyes coloured our vision of Milano on our annual Strathclyde School of Architecture third year field trip. Stronghold of Benito Mussolini and home to Giuseppe Terragni pioneer of the Italian Modern Movement under the rubric of Rationalism. Not your usual biscuit box Italian city but what could our Fifty eager students unearth and what skeletons could our Five yearning tutors lay to rest.

I cleverly adorned my olive linen suit, sage jumper and stripy pea shirt knowing that the Glasgow Celtic were away to Inter Milan the day of our trip. Greeted at the airport by my fellow tutors dressed in full stormtrooper black, I felt a bit out of place until our Engineer arrived carrying her daughters bunny rabbit bag. Off we flew to discover that match tickets were still in abundance, to be frog marched to the San Siro. Trying to blend in with some lesser Ultra fans, we watched some football but in the main gawped at the enormity of the stadium while holding down our Engineer from hopping out her seat in admiration of Italian diagonal bracing.

Scale, structure and power set the backdrop for the first day as we paraded around Milan. Having sucked Italy of it’s wealth following the 1848 revolution, Milan has become it’s economic powerhouse leaving it’s outskirts littered with redundant industrial zones slowly being replaced with massive second rate edifice dedicated to a corporation or ego. The Porto Nuovo was the latest of these, a foul out of town cocktail of Cesar Pelli, Kohn Peterson Fox, Cino Zucchi and to my dismay Jan Ghel. A long standing fan of Hr. Ghel whose books I constantly reference, his urban space showed some of those ideas but tipped into aversion at those it did not. Urban landscape and agriculture offered some distraction via the tree balconied Bosco Verticale by Stefano Boeri and Agnes Denes’s proposed five acre wheatfield currently being ploughed and planted by local children.

The remainder of the day was spent strutting between Milanese historical gestures; we sashayed past the Pirelli Tower complete with helipad and swanned through the worlds first shopping mall, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II stuffed with bourgeois labels. A quick stride to the brutal Torre Velasca let us question it’s architectural plaudit, surely this can not be Isi Metstein’s favourite building! Grafton Architects‘ Luigi Bocconi Free University likewise seemed overtly imposing and de-humanised by it’s corporate hospitality. Not so the Duomo di Milano, the fifth largest church in the world, it’s spectacular roof forming the perfect take off to something higher. In amongst all this chest puffing, a sneaky wee Terrangi gem, the Casa Comolli Rustica, shone through to leave us wondering. While there was no mistake at how dire were the buildings of Post Modernist grandee Aldo Rossi which we found hard to look in the eye.

The second day we jumped on the bus to heartland Como and roused Dr Jonathon into lecture mode, he grabbed the mike and vented thought. Futurist poets, painters and architects delivered their manifesto; speed, bravado, style brought forth a strong independent Italy; a modern youthful architecture was born. The perfect example was Terrangi’s masterpiece, set in historic Como, the Casa del Fascio arose as a beautiful sublime object, to foster fascism and release stormtroopers to gently placate unbelievers. Como is home to a number of Terrangi’s works and birthplace to Futurist architect Saint’Ellia whose Citta Nuova faithfully inspired Terrangi’s Monument to the Fallen, perched on the lake edge. The similarities between the Italian Rationalists and other twentieth century movements was striking and belief in the new clearly shared irrelevant of political persuasion, until the Nazi book burning and intellectual extermination killed off creativity.

Concerned by but smitten with Terrangi, we climbed back on the bus and headed into Switzerland to take in the ouvre of Mario Botta. Earlier we had stopped by Aldo Rossi’s Gallaratese Housing, influential to Botta and Post Modernism in distilling the building to a series of urban metaphors; the corridor has become the street, the gathering place turned into the plaza, and peoples homes a mere after thought; generosity of useless hard public realm seems forever the architects dream. Our first look at Hr. Botta was more encouraging, the well thought out Morbio Inferiore School built early in his career was suffering a face lift but had much to offer. The remainder of his work was to become progressively flabby as from such very youthful start (he built his first house at 16) Botta aged from a fresh young Barolo into a gut retching Grappa, both of which we sampled in abundance around Lugano. Of particular techno colour yawn material was his yet again over scaled most recent transplant, Campari Towers. The day ended with a visit to Vittorio Gregotti land, a vast Po Mo re-development of the industrial Biocca Milenese quarter, where the one pill use of a solitary architect had made everything twice the size it should be. Gregotti’s fascinating cooling tower stuffed into a vast lego box of offices for yet again tyre-man Pirelli, with yet again standard issue helipad, offered limited consolation. The Po Mo student days of the Five tutors lay in shatters as we stared deep into it’s grave and headed into central Milan for some real Barolo and some seriously gut retching Grappa.

Starchitects filled our last day and never before had I been so happy to see an average Libeskin, a mediocre Hadid and a very long Fuksas. Dr Jonathan continued to hunt down Mussolini inspired fascist power in the form of bricks and mortar, he was not disappointed. Our final rendezvous was at Terragni’s Casa Rustica where we all admired, admittedly more the Five that the Fifty, a delicate piece of housing. Our real final rendezvous was in the Porta Garibaldi District where the Fifty Five took over the ‘Rock and Roll’ bar and disco and danced away the night to ‘Bella Lugosi is Dead’ accompanied by some aging local goths.

The power of the individual is ever evident in Milan, the perfect home to the fashionista and it’s culture of self. Our unnatural love of Terrangi’s buildings helped us understand how the many can be misled by the one. On leaving our hotel we reflected that it overlooked the Piazzale Loreto where the corpses of Benito Mussilini and his lover Petacci were hung upside down from a girder to be battered and spat on by the Milanese until they resembled the salamis in our suitcases.

 

Thanks to Peter Welsh, Third Year Director at Strathclyde School of Architecture for organising another great field trip. Special thanks to the Five for their company and more importantly the Fifty students who again were a pride to Glasgow and Strathclyde School of Architecture.


Fortnightly Blog 14 - to P or not to P

December 16th, 2014

'What a question, is it nobler to take on board the thoughts of others or to follow your own path'

Is the watered down soup of the many, at best destined for bland mediocrity or at worst a frankenstein minestrone of co-joined ideas. Is the strong minded individual, at best a Fountainhead from which clarity rings true or at worst the egotist erecting hatred, discomfort and generating social disease.

Architecture can not shed it’s disasters of the sixties and seventies, deluded that it is beyond the understanding of the great unwashed. The anti modernism of the eighties and nineties did little to win back the public, now out of these dark ages has there emerged an architecture of P.

'There is nothing either good or bad: but thinking makes it so'

P brings legitimacy, ownership and has become such a necessity that no decision will stick unless all have a stake, but what does P mean. One way is to check out Sherry Arnstein’s ladder of P, twenty years old but still relevant today. The top rungs are reserved for citizen control, delegation and partnership; mid rungs are dedicated to tokenism, consultation, informing and placation; on the bottom rung sits no P and it’s world of manipulation.

Rarely does architecture ever reach the dizzy heights of citizen control and today’s P sits uncomfortably in the realm of tokenism, consultation and placation neither half way up or half way down. If mid table is the worst of both worlds which way should we climb.

'I must be cruel only to be kind: thus bad begins and worse remains behind'

It was standard practice for the Ancient Greeks to debate their future environment and the merits of their architecture, while it was expected that a Caesar would erect a massive monument to himself. On which rung would you place Monsieur Charles Edouard Jeanneret, revered by architects, less so by Senior Theodore Dalrymple, try his paper ‘The Architect as Totalitarian, Le Corbusier’s baleful influence’. Suspicious of anyone who uses a self invented nom de plume, Theodore describes Le Corbusier’s life’s work serving both Stalin and the Vichy as appalling.

It is hard to argue against the misery for which Le Corbeau helped to create; the result of a heroic age, the fault of poor maintenance, sink estates and second rate imitations his followers still cry. The fact is these experiments have been a catastrophe, while you wonder why it took over fifty years for us to realise that the crow, a symbol of ill omen, would be lucky to perch on the bottom rung of P.

'Though this be madness, yet there is method in it'

The top rung is the true land of P, and these days it’s getting a bit overcrowded. Some have been tottering up there a while now, the likes of Rod Hackney, community architect supremo and unlikely bed fellow to that most global of totalitarian families, the Windsors. It is hard to argue with the Prince’s Foundation for Building Communities’ manifesto - established to teach and demonstrate the principles of traditional urban design and architecture which put people and the communities of which they are at the centre of the design process. Top rung pure P.

The sceptic in me suspects this unlikely marriage is a result of the Prince sharing architectural taste for Georgian and Victorian nostalgia with the general public, which is understandable. Yet if the public had more of a preference for brutalist reinforced concrete, can you imagine the Prince building his very own megastructure in Poundsbury. This is of course here-say, Poundsbury has proved so successful it is now cited as an example of good practice in government manuals for improved design. What is also true is that Poundsbury is not cheap, note what happens when some mid to bottom rung developers take hold. Those hideous swathes of Barrett noddy houses built over the last thirty years would make the most stained of seventies concrete disasters desirable.

'Conscience doth make cowards of us all'

It seems that there are few rungs on the ladder of P where we can hope for any success or perhaps the problems lie more with those who climb up and down, than the rungs themselves. Those obsessed with P are as bad as those who disregard P, and those neither half P up or half P down sit on a very unhappy middle ground. What is required is the architect strong enough to gain respect through skill and clever enough to speak to people.

'This above all, to thine own self be true: And it must follow, as the night the day: Thou canst not then be false to any man'

 

SEDA's Krystyna Johnson Award 2014 will be exhibited at the Lighthouse from 04th December 2014 until 28th January 2015, please check www.thelighthouse.co.uk for further information.


Fortnightly Blog - Towards a New Sustainability Part 1

September 22nd, 2014

Swotting up on ecological textbooks, I have been struck by the absence of human emotion. My favourite quote from the pathfinding book ‘Silent Spring’ is not by it’s author Rachel Carson but from it’s more passionate preface; while Howard Liddell’s well thumbed handbook ‘Eco-minimalism’ can only manage a passing reference to the ugly. Lack of empathy has not always been the norm, early ecological pioneers such as Patrick Geddes, Aldo Leopold and that bastion of Victorian good taste, John Ruskin all paid homage to beauty. When then did the numerical take over the world of sustainability and at what point did it become a veil to obscure the ill designed.

Over the past few years this thought has concentrated my mind and it is clear that human emotion has to play a more important role when evaluating ecological design. Through a series of ecological essays this thought has been explored to reach a critical mass and suggest that a new sustainability has emerged. This journey started two decades ago at Strathclyde University through our teaching of Architecture and Ecology and in practice at Collective Architecture through our combined endeavor. The essays began three years ago through Faith Week and an invitation to address an assembled congregation of bishops, rabbis and architects, with little to go on.

Numbers  took over the aesthetic, courtesy of Pythagoras, 3000 years ago with his secret code of the universe. Observing nature grows to precise mathematical laws, he concluded that it was not by chance that plants and flowers unfold in beautiful patterns. The patterns were based on a particular geometric ratio, but it took the Renaissance to figure out the ratio of 1 to 1.618 (repeating), better known as the golden section. Feelings could now be measured and the godly ratio could be found everywhere, if the width of the mouth is precisely 1 to 1.618 the width of the nose we fall in love. In the same way do the SAP, the BREAM and the Carbon Footprint lead to beautiful ecological design.

Spiritual sustainability was the result of my fishes and bread broken for the bishops; the recognition that there was so much more to ecological design than science and nothing as important than the love of your environment and those you share it with. The first essay reflected on the work at Collective Architecture and it’s search through community participation and whether this could lead to an architecture. An architecture which through engagement brought ownership, pertinent idea and buildings which would be loved, enjoyed and last; longevity brings the best kind of sustainability. An idea so clear it could not be refuted, but ‘in theory, theory and practice are the same, in practice they are not’, many hands do not necessarily always make light work. The buildings which are more often the best designed come from the most ruthless of dictatorial architects, the hand of the one. Is it possible to manage both, to both empathise with others and maintain strong design responsibility.

The  passionate preface to ‘Silent Spring’, Raechal Carson’s record of the chemical industry’s abuse of the environment was written by Julian Huxley who could not help but name drop his famous brother Aldous and it is his observation that as pesticides devastate insects and worm food, country hedgerows and meadows will lose their lovely and familiar flowers and English poetry half it’s subject manner. Practical design predominates within Howard Liddell’s ‘Eco-minimilism’ while feelings are kept close to the chest, occasionally rising above the subjective parapet in forms such as camouflage architecture, to be dumped amongst the vile greenwash and eco bling. Can no one find time for the beauty of natural wood, the appropriate hue of local stone or clay and the joy of natural light. Adored by the great unwashed but of course difficult to measure, tricky to argue and awkward to research.

The second essay attempted just such a task, placing emotions ahead of science, I joined forces with three phd students from Strathclyde University to consider ‘How to Measure Happiness and Architecture’, as part of a one week research blitz. A back to basics, exploring what is happiness and can it be measured (even before architecture joins the touchy feely). Happily this can be achieved by measuring unhappiness, care of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. The route to happiness begins by satiating those needs which bring unhappiness; physiological, safety, social, esteem and self actualization (the motive to realise one’s full potential). Architecture follows a similar path, in the same way the basic requirements of shelter, warmth, safety, and society can be housed in the simple shed, but at what point do these structures rise to become architecture, a thing of esteem and potential.

Very philosophical, very theoretical but in need of some practicality, the third essay tackled a more direct issue, does ecological design have an aesthetic. Traditionally sustainability has taken the garb of either the hairy toed hobbit hole or the sci-fi weather station. Concentrating on recycling and it’s appearance it became clear that there was some gain, through perception, for a recycled chic. Recycling can either take on the appearance of complete reuse (retain) or be completely hidden (lost) or much more interesting an aesthetic where that which is recycled is not obvious (broken). The broken can be seen in many a scale from cities to clothing but always brings the greatest pleasure.

We are not alone in recognising more the importance of emotion in sustainability. The early pioneers like Jane Jacob championed human joy and more recently the work of Jan Gehl has shown how humans can win back the city through gradual incremental improvements. We are also not alone in our protagonists, ‘Ecology Without Nature’ view the chief stumbling block to ecological design is the image of nature itself, and that ‘nature is not natural and can never be naturalised’. Nature of course is beautiful, it takes little faith to realise this, and forms a crucial part our life, as the flower attracts the bee, we desire to live amongst beauty often at the expense of base needs.

The fourth essay enjoyed a swipe at the cult of sustainability, by nature an alienation of others, home to the activist, the hand knitted middle class and a carbon reduction way of life. This kind of sustainability guards it’s borders with science but needs to look outwards, a New Sustainability with an emphasis on easily understood emotion will bring more meaningful progress. As greenwash and eco bling rampage through society we still require to crunch the numbers, as Howard Liddell warned to guard against the sceptics, but it's time to smell the roses.

Towards a New Sustainability Part 1 will be presented on Wednesday 24th September 1.00pm - 2.00pm at RCAHMS, 16 Bernard Terrace, Edinburgh. Please visit www.doorsopendays.org.uk/opendays/area_programmes.aspx?areaid=16 for further information.

Fortnightly Blog - Extract from A_SPACE, Strathclyde School of Architecture's student yearbook 2014

May 29th, 2014

Is Housing Architecture.

Isi Metzstein once said that only Dutch housing was architecture, a statement not so much about Dutch excellence but the architectural merit of housing.  Housing makes up over half of all architects workload and at Strathclyde University we devote the larger half of our third year to it’s study. This paradox has recently been sharpened with the role of housing in our economic decline, it’s potential rise and how housing has become a simultaneous symbol of failed architectural experimentation and the promise of architectural responsibility.

To start, it is important to understand the depth and range of housing from the affordable to the desirable, from the mainstream to the specialist and from the rural to the urban. Strathclyde University third year students are at the end of a journey from a first year grounding in the rural, a second year wander through the small town, to a rude awakening in the urban. Housing peeks round the corner throughout this passage but it is in the city, where housing steps out from the shadows to become our first dilemma. Is good housing a standout art in itself or just a backdrop for more important urban pursuits.

It does not take long for students to realise that housing is not as easy as it looks, nor to realise that society forgets that housing is but one ingredient, very often the important staple, as part of a balanced meal. These ingredients are cleverly worked into the third year curriculum as ‘to live, to work, to play’ however are quickly forgot as we struggle with stacking, circulation and what is a front compared to a back. In my own unit we place a further emphasis on an ecological design which shares social intent with the search for simplicity. All this leads to another dilemma, does housing sculpt crescents and generate vistas or does it generate lifestyles and sculpt relationships.

These struggles continue into architectural adulthood and form a decent slice of the workload at Collective Architecture where we search for social interaction and personalisation as part of urbanity. Examples of these include our recently completed mainstream modern tenement in Argyle Street, Glasgow for Sanctuary Housing Association and our specialist Alcohol Related Brain Damage centre in Tollcross, Glasgow for Loretto Housing Association. We revel in our work with students and Collective Architecture’s studio mimics the culture of an architecture school. It is no surprise therefore that our project architect for Argyle Street is Nick Walker, third year tutor at the Mackintosh School of Architecture and our project architects for Tollcross are Strathclyde's very own fifth year tutor Ewan Imrie and fourth year tutor Fiona Welch. Happy to say that both projects have been shortlisted for this years Saltire Housing and Scottish Design Awards.

Housing design is once again a young architectural opportunity, only recently the Peabody Trust, London’s oldest Housing Association announced a shortlist of designs by 20 young architects which they hope will become blueprints for the next generation of affordable homes. At what point these blueprints become architecture is still unanswered, I have always thought that when a building design rises above the essential of shelter that is the point of transcendence. This will vary from brutalist architect to ordinary citizen but this is where vistas, lifestyles, crescents and relationships merge.

For more information on Strathclyde School of Architecture Exhibition 2014 please check www.strath.ac.uk/architecture for details, copies of A_SPACE will be available to purchase via a small donation at the opening event on 13th June at the Barras Art and Design (BAaD) from 6.30 pm.

The editorial team for the yearbook are Michael Cockburn, Kim Noble, Mark Kitson, Emma Long, Jonathan Dawson - Bowman, Michal Supron and Jamie Yeo. Thanks also to the whole team who worked on the yearbook collectively known as the A_SPACE team.