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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.

COP26 Day Zero

October 31st, 2021

Wearily I dig through two weeks of emails to try and register as a delegate. Put off by the prospect of downloading Aps and covid tests, I had been procrastinating, but finally I am accepted. Feeling more optimistic I pick my lockdown heavy frame of the sofa and take a Sunday walk around the campus and see what is going down.

Glasgow certainly looks photogenic, all windswept and interesting peppered with high vis polis, she could not look more apocalyptic. I wandered around the concrete bollards, blocked roads and bomb proof gates in search of some activity but all was quiet. I turned up the Clyde and thought I would source some action on the Green, but not to be. Perhaps George Square, but all I could find were some guisers looking for a night out. It was only yesterday on Sauchiehall Street at chucking out time I witnessed five firemen in yellow trousers having a fight. Not real fireman just some fancy dress, and unbelievably spider women came to their rescue. It was now becoming hard to figure out who are the authorities, the activists, and the locals. 

Following my meanderings I now feel ready to get beyond this calm before the storm and get stuck in. My first visit is likely to be Tuesday and if I can get past the barriers and onto neutral territory, I will try and write some proper stuff.

 

Obituary - One Million Species

October 5th, 2020

It is with deep regret that I have to inform everyone of the passing of our good friend One Million Species. She, him and it have been our close companion throughout, what seems like an entire lifetime. Together we have shared the ups and downs of the last four million millennia however all things have to end somewhere.

Although not painless it brings some relief that dear old One Million was oblivious to their demise. The hard hearted blame shrinking habitat, over exploitation of natural resources, pollution and even the myth of climate change. Rather than reflect on a planet ravaged by an ever-growing human population, we prefer to remember One Million Species in the glow of youth, scratching and scuttling around in the dirt and puddles.

It is relatively well known that One Million Species came from a very diverse background. She him and it made up almost a half of our amphibian creatures and a third of all marine mammals. Old One million included another third of all those colourful coral reefs and even a tenth of those itchy insects. On the more edgy side, she, he and it bit into a third of the entire shark family.

What is not so well known and not even included in old One Million’s basic arithmetic is all those microbes, they probably add up to billions. A bit more tricky to calculate and a bit less in your face than a wolf or a rhino, they are though still pretty important and something old One Million should take more credit for. It is all those lesser well known achievements which should be acknowledged, it takes a lot of effort keeping nature clean, breaking down all those dead plants and bits of animal into usable organic matter. One Million Species understood that we were all connected and knew that if a soil microbe disappeared, then perhaps a tree may fall, fruit may be lost, birds and monkeys go hungry and can no longer be eaten by large predators such as ourselves. 

It is a blessing that One Million Species left behind no relatives or immediate dependants. This is not to say she, he and it were not prolific fornicators, the exact opposite in fact. Old One Million produced one bloody large brood who all unfortunately passed away just before One Million, it is one of life’s tragedies when a parent outlives their children. Another unwelcome anomaly is that Old Million appears to keep growing. This is more than some hammer house set of long finger nails or straggling hair, this is a fresh set of numbers capable of outdoing the achievements of One Million themselves. It could include vast areas of oceans, a third of all our land and the Bengal Tiger. Who says there is not life in the old dog even when she, he and it are dead.

One Million Species has made the request not to send flowers to the funeral and would prefer that contributions are made to resolving the situation. She, he and it believe it is not too late to make a difference. Please start at every level from local to global, let us all build up to an overhaul of our economic systems, that is how I think they would like to be remembered.

Unfortunately due to pandemic restrictions only 20 close family can attend the funeral, to be held at Eden Garden Crematorium. Fortunately everyone else can witness the event as it will be broadcast live on all major channels and I am sure will touch us all.

 

It is the intention that the above obituary will form part of a developing SEDA publication 'A Guide to Being Unsustainable' which builds on previous SEDA magazines.  The publication will take a satirical look at life to help generate constructive criticism and draw attention to the serious issues which affect us all.

 

#buildbackbetter (every silver lining has a cloud)

August 9th, 2020

We read, hear and say these words. They make sense, they mix a pandemic crisis, the looming recession it spawned with eye watering sums of money, to spit out a shockproof economic solution to climate emergency. What does that mean, what should we do, and has it already been stolen.

Zoom webinars feed our hunger for recovery plans. We turned on to the Common Weal and Our Common Home, a ‘14 aspect green new deal plan for Scotland’. We tuned in to Doughnut Economics, ‘seven ways to think like a 21st Century Economist’. And dropped out with the Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN) and their three overarching aims, 1. Decarbonise Now, 2. Ecological Regeneration, 3. Cultural Transformation. Loved them all, each a planetary self-help road map to grab my imagination, only to wake up the next day and wonder what to do. They demand major structural change, they are correct however there is another change in town, Build, Build, Build.

Boris beats this drum down south with their overhaul of the English planning laws. Tearing up what has been an effective system in place since World War 2, they propose a straightforward set of categories; growth, renewal and protection, to encourage automatic planning permission and a reduction in scrutiny. History tells us planning deregulation on this scale, including reductions in mandatory affordable housing quotas, can only lead to ill conceived construction. It will all fly under the banner of beauty, in the form of pattern books and design codes, written and judged by watch this space.

We sit smugly North of the border feeling immune from such thoughts and look forward to the National Planning Framework 4. I was one of those who spent many a midnight hour writing a response to the recent Scottish Government’s ‘Call for Ideas’ in what for me seemed like a real opportunity to Build Back Better. I now shudder when I read headlines like ‘Green zealots risk wrecking recovery, top economic adviser warns’ in the The Times (06.08 2020). This is not a Boris Johnson chum but the Scottish Government’s chair of their advisory group on economic recovery. I am no nationalist however do have faith in Nicola Sturgeon and hope this is just a market economy partisan uttering.

It is within this context that I welcome the Scottish Ecological Design Association’s 2020 conference ‘How do we Build Back Better’. Scheduled between the 07th and 10th of September in a series of three evening events. SEDA offered up some of the best recent webinars including Doughnut Economics, Our Common Home and Meet ACAN, that track record suggests this should be an interesting exploration. On the 07th September Urbanity will be scrutinised while on the 08th September Rural takes the spotlight. Ideas from both will be presented to the SEDA membership on the 10th September and help form their agenda for the coming two years. All to be revealed at the RIAS Convention on the 29th September.

Ahead of that, a bit of homework is in order. Build Back Better first emerged from the Central Java earthquake of 2006 by the Japan International Cooperation Agency Reconstruction team. It is a simple common sense concept, eventually defined as a holistic concept in those ponderously titled, far from easy reads ‘Disaster Risk recovery for Economic Growth and Livelihood, Investing in Resilience and Development’ and ‘Recovery and Reconstruction an opportunity for Sustainable Growth through Build Back Better’ both penned in 2015 and adopted by the UN. Today the movement is fronted by the straightforward ‘Build Back Better’, a recovery plan based on five principles: Secure the health and needs of everyone in the UK now and into the future; Protect and invest in our public services; Rebuild society with a transformative Green New deal; Invest in people; and build solidarity and community across borders.

‘How do we Build Back Better’ does not appear to have an easy answer, free marketeers pull it in one direction while so called green zealots tug it in another and all the while the climate emergency clock keeps ticking. Please join SEDA in September for a wee scratch of the head and a think, how can we just get on with it.

 

For more information on the SEDA conference please follow this link https://www.seda.uk.net/events

 

 

Any Porto in a storm

April 11th, 2020

In February 2020, just as Covid 19 had begun its journey and the great bush fires of Australia finally abated, Pedro charted storm Denis across the Atlantic, and behold a window of opportunity opened up on his laptop. Undeterred by a journey involving 4 airports each way, Pedro gathered his troops, stuck two fingers at the apocalypse, and we set off to Portugal’s second city for the annual Stratharch third year field trip.

4 airports passed peacefully enough and we made our way to the hotel. Situated in the University Quarter, we discovered ‘hotel’ is youthful Portuguese slang, for beatnik beach huts in a backcourt overlooking a communal barbecue area. Love it, declared Ayrshire Gordie as he breathed in urban chic and exhaled farmhouse steading, our very own Christmas Island. To avoid facing up to the privacy issues too quickly, the rest of us took refuge in the bar, decorated in skateboards and bamboo. We took it in turns to navigate the hipster landscape and check out our bunks, return and venture out for Portuguese rations in the form of a Mexican restaurant.

Day 1: The architectural siren rang sharp at dawn, ‘this is not a drill, if you see any Souto de Moura or Álvaro Siza fall to your knees in awe, turn your back and shield your eyes’. Pedro rounded the corner in full combat gear, khaki jacket, black polo-neck and clipboard. He marched us quickly through the Cedoffeita District to Bouça - SAAL, Álvaro Siza’s early housing project (1975-77). Pedro handed out tiny round sunglasses and black banderos, essential when glaring at gracefully proportioned facades, climbing challenged staircases and trying to blend into a community scratching its head.

Blinded by the brilliance, we reeled forward and around the massive concrete spiral, Silo Auto by Albertos Pessoa (1961-64), architects love a brutalist car park; across the hilltop Art Deco outpost of the Cinema Batalha by Artur Andrade (1944-47) and descended into the Centro Historico. First stop the wonderfully tiled Sao Bento Station by José Marques da Silva (1900 - 06), with its 20,000 azulejo tiles depicting Portuguese battle scenes. Painted tiles also lay behind the station in a quiet lane, where the entrance wall to a dance club decorated with 3,000 azulejo tiles, asks the question, Quem Es Porto? (2015) which is answered by the anonymous citizens in graphic certainty. Sao Bento is an area in flux, changing its face while continuing to discharge visitors into the city; from this gateway we fought ever downwards through glittering churches and arched bridges to the Douro River. The architecture rained hard that first day in the sun.

Day 2: The architectural siren rang sharp at dawn, we were up early, standing by our bunks, dressed and ready to go, when something rounded the corner in full white garb. The clipboard was a give away, which waved us forward in single file onto the waiting troop carrier. ’Expect a long hard day, no dawdling, no chatting, no smiling, or ….’. Pedro raised his eyes to the sky, tapped his microphone and in a low booming voice informed us ’First stop Alvaro Siza’s Leca Lido (1966), where concrete and nature meld in runic manner, to create a modernist bathing paradise amongst jagged rocks’. We disembarked the carrier to discover that the might of the Atlantic had destroyed Siza’s masterpiece which lay broken and scattered across the beach. We genuflected our way along the coast to Siza’s second youthful masterpiece, the still intact however now exclusive Michelin starred restaurant, The Boa Vista Tea House (1963). Back on the carrier we nursed our bruised knees.

Onto Braga for lunch and a pleasant wander through the town where we replenished our bodies. On our way out of the city a quick visit to Souto de Moura’s extraordinary Municipal Stadium (2003), home of Sporting Braga and carved out of the side of a quarry. We took turns to stand on each others shoulders to peer over the fans stockade at this 21st century miracle, Pedro raised his arms, and it was back on the carrier. History soothed the remainder of day where we took in Bom Jesus do Monte by Carlos Amarante (1811) and climbed the 12 stations of the cross, followed by a whistle stop knee shuffle around the historic town of Guimaraes. Aloe vera eased the bruising but nothing could calm our minds ablaze with architecture.

Day 3: The architectural siren rang sharp at dawn, this time we ringed the hipster courtyard, backs against the wall, all eyes on Pedro’s beach hut. He walked casually out, all smiles and clipboard. “Today is your day, you can do what ever you like, I thought we would start with a quick visit to Matosinhos”. This may be an illusion but reflected on the glass door of the beach hut, an image of Pedro working a console appeared as the door was shut. What else could we do, Robo-tutor held aloft the clipboard, led us to the Metro, conversed with a ticket machine and a few stops later we arrived at the Casa da Architecture by Guilherme Machado Vaz (2013-17). Inside was the most extraordinary gathering of Souto de Moura models and drawings ever assembled. We marvelled at the depth of exploration, the iterations, the study of scale, minds akimbo we danced back into the depths of the Metro, chatted to the ticket machines and emerged at the Casa da Música by OMA (1999-2005).

A faceted lump, Casa da Música settles amongst undulating hard landscape, now adopted as home to middle aged skate board freaks, I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised. We dodged through the skate boards and visited those parts open to the public, mainly the shop. Robo-tutor checked with the till to negotiate some student discount and we left. The day was far from over and arm in arm we sauntered north to the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art by Álvaro Siza (1989-99), set within a stunning park we whiled away the afternoon while Robo-tutor lay in the sun drinking iced tea and munched miniature custard pies. Before we knew it the sun was dropping and we raced for one last homage to the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Porto, Álvaro Siza (1985-99). A series of sculptural white boxes where students can emulate the master and produce their own sculptural white boxes. We turned to thank Robo-tutor for the tremendous day, but he had wondered off into the sun set.

No siren for our final day, we gathered our bags and headed back to reality. We worked our way through the airports where masked travellers kept their distance and tensions rose. China headlined the news screens, we wondered but we did not realise the sadness coming our way. Today we speak to our students through zoom, discuss screen saved drawings on which we scribble with digital pens and pencils. It’s going well, we laugh, we draw, we move on. We will always have our adventure in Porto.

 

Thanks to Peter Welsh for the incredible effort he puts in to make the Strath Arch field trips such a success. Thank you also to my fellow tutors for being tremendous company however the biggest thanks of all to the Strath Arch third year students who this year especially were a credit to themselves and the University. This extends to today where students and university have reacted brilliantly, keeping the Architecture course alive through Covid 19. It has been a joy to work with the students, albeit on line, over the last few weeks.

Please keep safe everyone.

Book Review: Sustainable Construction (2nd Edition) by Sandy Halliday

September 29th, 2019

When is a book not a book, when it is ajar, which is kind of open all the time. I bought my copy of Sustainable Construction, the first edition, five years ago and that has pretty much been the case. Scanned, turned, flicked and quoted, Sustainable Construction is a reference book, a sustainable plan, a series of case studies, a philosophical approach and as with all good things, it is more than the sum of its parts.

Sandy Halliday’s approach to sustainability brings together the practical with the philo- sophical so that a healthy, affordable, resource efficient environment is within our grasp. Originally evolved from a training course, Sustainable Construction continues to mature but retain the essential ingredient of a multi disciplinarian, straight forward view of what is a complex subject. Optimism abounds replacing the anthroprocene threat of extinction norm. Sandy Halliday’s world is real, we just need to roll up our sleeves and get on with it.

10 years have passed since the first edition, the second follows the same format, however shifts the focus beyond recognisable sustainable building blocks towards health and well being. Still arranged as a series of chapter headings these have been re arranged from 14 to 12, generally moving through the design process from drivers and policy, to cost, material selection, environmental design and ultimately construction. Along the way we move from the global to the local and using Sandy’s own words from ‘the very right to the very wrong’. I have never read the book in the correct order al- ways jumping to a chapter which is of interest or one that demands attention. My favourite chapter remains the last, ‘Urban Ecology’ was and will continue to be the best thumbed.

It is not possible to describe all 12 chapters, each is stand alone, providing best prac- tise information on a particular topic complete with its individual bibliography, narrative and case studies. Do not be misled by some of the Chapter headings, such as “Cost Issues” which can be the most fascinating, putting to bed a number of imbalances and informing the reader of an emerging future world of modern realism where it is the pol- luters who are expected to pay. For those less au fait with sustainable terms Sandy will take the time to explain their meaning, in chapter 5 “Materials Selection”, aesthetics are left to the designer however an approach which considers resource, impact in use, an explanation of the embodied and asks what happens to the building at the end of it’s life are the reasons we should make our choices. Collectively the chapters boast 120 case studies, many favourites from the 1st edition remain, such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solar Hemicycle, while some are new including Emsher Park in Germany which transformed the Rhur Valley and there are those which have grown up between editions such as the Green City of Malmo. Photographs are much improved without losing some of their amateur charm and a significant addition is the inclusion of the RIAS Sustainability Policy (1997) and RIAS Sustainable Design Accreditation within Chapter 2. The time has come for the RIAS to re-embrace both.

For those who do not own a copy of Sustainable Construction either edition, I would suggest this book is essential, why it does not appear more on University Reading Lists is a mystery. If like me you already own a copy of the 1st edition, please get hold of the 2nd edition and study the changes, you will most probably buy it. Together with Eco- Minimalism written with her late husband Howard Liddell and other recent works such as the Sustainability Guide to the RIBA Plan of Work make Sandy Halliday a true sus- tainability champion, we are very lucky to have her.

 

Originally published in RIAS Quarterly Spring 2019