This blog post first appeared as a guest blog for Urbansplash. You can see it here. There are more photos here.
Beehive Mill is one of the first mills of the Industrial Revolution. Building commenced in 1824 and it is now Grade II star listed. It marks that time when people left their cottages and began working communally away from home. Liberation? Not in those conditions, but the home became home at least.
I still find it mysterious that a building made almost two hundred years ago as a machine for the production of cotton can function so beautifully in a completely different age after another technological revolution with an unforeseen function. It looks obvious to us now, but imagine the building filled with enormous looms being powered by a steam engine. It is equally ironic that most of the tenants fill their spaces with homely objects and their dogs. A sense of domestic space is now conjured by the building when its original purpose was a counter to the cottage. Home, work and freedom reconfigured.
Why do we love these buildings so much - what did those architects and craftspeople actually do and why do we enjoy it on such an instinctive level? How do we unlock that sense of well-being by bringing whatever it was they did forward into our time - to enable people to truly experience all that these buildings give us from a past where different things were valued? I've found it's not enough to just leave buildings as they are. They become pathological relics if left to their own devices. A layer from our time must be added in order to secure the future. Getting the balance of how we intervene is never obvious.
I have observed that people enjoy this building for its authenticity. It expresses its structural components openly with minimal amounts of decoration. It seems to be a deep, instinctive force within us that resonates with materials that speak about their purpose. Brick holds up timber beams that hold up floors. Everything is there for a reason.
My approach is to strip the building down to its primary components - almost like archaeology. Many years of layers were removed to reveal the original wooden flooring. Plasterboard and paint were stripped from walls allowing old bricks to see the light again. And then equally visceral new structures are added. In the reception space the original cobbles were uncovered and a new steel layer intervenes. This new layer folds and bends, forming itself into seating and tables. A strip of light always delineates the gap between the new palimpsest and the old structure.
New functional elements are the places where a different game can start to be played. A cast in-situ concrete wall cuts across the grid at forty five degrees defining separate entrances and happens to be thick enough to house postboxes. A celebration of the everyday in a monumental form. It also happens by chance to be pointing due South - springing from an existing stair geometry.
Toilets are different on each level. A slightly skewed personality to balance the rational repetition of the existing structure. Remember this building was the precursor to the Modern Movement in architecture. A functional machine with a grid of repeating columns. Its functional rationalism attracting like a magnet Sankey's nightclub - one centre of the counterculture - certainly in opposition to 'work'. Nothing on the night was as it seemed - moving artificial light bounced around disparate red and black surfaces.
Every new door is different. The idea here is to reminisce about old doors then slice through the fabric of reality to form new opening to other worlds. Everyday objects are tilted slightly towards the uncanny. One tenant tweeted “We don't say we're going to the loo anymore. We say we're going to Narnia.”
A young persons centre in Ancoats Conservation Area.
This project won Manchester Society of Architects Building of the Year, Manchester Chamber of Commerce Building of The Year and Best Innovative Design at the Northern Design Awards. It was published in the Architects Journal. My favourite critique was written by Karen Regn for Manchester Confidential and can be found here.
My preoccupation with lines that cut across un-unified context can again be seen clearly in this project. This is the text I wrote about the building for the Manchester Society of Architects Awards submission :
At the rite of passage into the adult world teenagers are possessed, particularly viscerally, by the relative world. The body is a vehicle for sensory physical, mental, emotional and spiritual experience......From this perspective imagine the profound, mysterious transformation happening at that time. The environment is seen through the vale of visceral fascination which flips from the sublime to the morbid - ecstasy to paralysing pain - excitement to boredom. As extremes of emotion are experienced, so the transition point in the middle is filled with confusion and uncertainty. Feeling........awkward / nothing fits in with demands / wants to change the world / can't bare fixedness / the body is changing at a rate never before seen / new sensory organs come on-line.
Could a building reflect and help reconcile this transformation we all go through? A place they could feel 'at home' in - when the 'home' which they have loved throughout their life suddenly becomes alien - when the one place of security and protection becomes a restriction and the people you love who live there appear all too well defined. A building which offers security and familiarity, domestic in scale, but with unusual freedom - stable and yet free. A building which expresses duality - two opposing forces / geometries. The geometry of the site context containing a rebellious form which cuts through the site in a gesture of defiance. The site context provides a solid, familiarity.....a comforting brick environment with the almost domestic proportions of the Victorian shop and the Coates School building.
The new building follows the existing urban geometry and forms a similarly proportioned three story end elevation to Jersey Street. Although the Pickford Street elevation is 'longer' in scale and more akin to its neighbouring MM2 development, it is still 'polite' and sensibly adheres to its contextual geometry.
Inherent within the placing of the main accommodation at the back of the site, is the lack of a presence on Great Ancoats Street. The solution is to slice a link though the gap between the end of the Coates School and the gable of the MM2 apartment block, terminating at Great Ancoats Street as the point of entrance. The form of this link manifests itself as a 'leaning' wall wedged between the existing brick containment which continues on to slice though the orthogonal main building. In cutting the main building a triangular, double height, vertical space is formed, the stair cascades up the side of the wall completing the journey of circulation, always in relation to this 'rogue' angular gesture. From a conceptual perspective this rogue element will fuel a synergistic relationship with the centre and its not so old, not so square, visitors.
The main accommodation building is orthogonal, rational and simple in its expression, this is to provide an overall stability and will enhance the juxtaposed angular sliced leaning wall. The windows are all orthogonal too, but are spaced in a random way. Again, this is to balance all the right angles, too many aligned grids can feel oppressive.
The people who ‘are’ 42nd Street have become particularly adept at dealing with the desire to self harm, to cut in order to express or release powerful overwhelming forces. Inherent within this desire is the notion of balancing, curing with like for like, violence cancelled by violence.
Leonard Cohen wrote the lyrics: ‘There is a crack in everything - that’s how the light gets in’. To release this building from its completeness as a ‘box’ a 17M long glass slot slices through its core - that’s how the light gets in.
Such vulnerability as this must be protected at all costs, it’s what keeps us straying too far from ourselves. Four steel Sentinels stand guard, they demand / inspire your attention and clarity of heart, before you pass into this modern manifestation of sacred space.
Once inside be prepared for the unexpected: tapering stairs, angled rooms, leaning walls, a corridor to nowhere - and wardrobes which are passages to the psychologically protected land of one to one therapy.
I recently had a Planning Application rejected. I've had refusals before, but this one was different.
The Application was for an extension to a typical 1930s semidetached house on Bancroft Avenue in Cheadle Hulme. I knew before the application went in that the Planners were going to recommend rejection on the basis of architectural style alone. I had already submitted a Pre-Application and from the feedback had ironed out any easy-to-reject rule breaking. This was going to be about aesthetics.
I asked some friends to write me letters of support. Stephen Hodder, ex president of the RIBA and inaugural winner of the Stirling Prize. David Rudlin who is Chair of the Academy of Urbanism and winner of the 2014 Wolfson Economic Prize - he has also written books about planning and urbanism. Craig Stott - who runs a unit in Architecture at the University of Leeds.
Because of these letters the Planners were forced to go to committee so the Application could be decided by our elected Councillors.
In an unavoidable twist of fate I ended up in A&E on the night of the meeting. This was unfortunate in light of what transpired. The Conservative chair Brian Bagnall set up an argument around what he called a measurable reason for refusal. The opposing Liberals felt the Planning officer Callum Coyne was being far too subjective in his eagerness to refuse. They argued that rejecting an application based purely on personal architectural taste is unfair. Brian Bagnall sidestepped this by inventing a false measurable fact.
The drawings were sat in front of all who attended showing how the new extension was specifically designed so that the eaves of the new aligned with the eaves of the existing house. Despite this Brian managed to convince everyone there that the extension was higher. The Planning officer who knew the truth wholeheartedly confirmed this lie. The debate was over and the vote was to reject.
A video of the meeting is here. Item 5J - 15 Bancroft Avenue can be found in the agenda column on the right hand side -
I did write to the thirteen people in the meeting pointing out the error, but I only received one reply from Councillor Suzanne Wyatt of the Liberal Democrats. She was supportive of the scheme and voted for Planning Approval.
I was expecting a refusal. The position of the Planners was made very clear at the pre-application stage - 'If you don't replicate the building technology used ninety years ago to construct the original house we will refuse'. What I didn't expect was the debate within the councillors meeting for such a small project - it was very clearly about style, about personal opinions. At one point I thought it might even get an approval. Brian put an end to this as described above.
Matt and Sam, my clients, also expected a refusal and we always intended to go to Appeal. But the way it was refused, based on a lie, was infuriating and unfair. And for this to go unacknowledged by the people in the meeting is outrageous.
And why are these people who are the guardians of our built environment not listening to people as knowledgeable and experienced as David Rudlin, Stephen Hodder, Craig Stott and my myself? No mention of their support for a tiny house extension came up in the meeting. The young Planner who I would guess is in his late twenties who has never built a building in his life was talked about extensively and his opinions give huge weight. These men are in their fifties and sixties and have a lifetime of building Architecture.
I was recently asked to take part in an invited competition, I do quite a lot of them. The site was incredible - it was for a house on Lake Windermere. I didn't win it, but I did realise something which you'd think was obvious: Sites like that don't come around very often. My philosophy has always been that context is always interesting - no matter what. That the smallest, most restricted project can produce anything you want - if you are creative enough. Conditions are seen abstractly and beauty is found everywhere - if you are just open enough to see it. With this site seeing the beauty didn't require any creativity from me. And anyone would be able to see it. Just sitting on the jetty looking out over the lake, hearing the water lapping was a beautiful experience.
And designing the house was a pleasure. It opened a new vein of pure space in me which has sent me down a mine I had unconsciously closed.
The realisation - it's important to work on a site, every now and then, which is truly beautiful - a site where everyone would be in agreement about its beauty. Universal beauty.
The gritty sites I normally deal with do have a beauty, but only through my eyes. My Architecture reflects this - I don't expect anyone else to see it.
As a follow on from a post in December of 2014 - 'We are all children really'. Here is a small selection of some of the things my boys make. Louis is now nearly seven and Albert is nearly four. They have an innocent compulsion to form these creations which seem to explode inside their minds and must come out before and above anything else. They don't dwell on process - they know exactly what needs to appear and move at full steam to make it become. They don't care if what materialises isn't perfect. They know exactly what the essence of the object should be. If this essence doesn't come through they will work tirelessly until it does. And this is what shocks me the most - the essence they must manifest is so intimately personal. It is beyond taste, correctness even reason or logic. It just is there and it must find expression.
My job is to protect and honour. For as long as I can. In them and in myself. The world simultaneously and paradoxically both loves and hates this essence which we all possess. It at once worships the creative genius whilst maliciously brutalising the individual who questions the collective common denominator. There is an invisible wall. On one side we would rather support a bland correctness which suppresses our own, and more importantly our competition's, individuality. For this we pay the ultimate price - to stop you from expressing who you truly are - I must sacrifice my own essence.
On the other side of the wall are people who see through this self-harming delusion and fearlessly express who they really are in the purest way. Once over this wall the suppressed elevate you above themselves applying all the labels we know about.
What I see in my children is life before the fearful delusion of mediation has been learned. When I'm involved in building something with them I sometimes hear myself saying '"that's impossible, said Mr Impossible". I don't want to limit your ideas, but with the tools and technology we are using - it just can't be done'. And yet there hasn't been a time when we haven't achieved whatever it is they have dreamt up.
In Urban Design there is a very useful plan called the Figure Ground Drawing. It's usually black and white and is at the scale of roads and buildings - the city. The buildings are black (figure) and the background or space between is white (ground). This type of drawing shows density to open space ratios as a graphic abstraction. I like this drawing because it represents the physicality of an urban situation from an external perspective. Much like walking around the spaces of a city - the buildings become objects - their interiors separated into another world.
The Euclidean notion of the line has length but zero thickness. This fits well with the Figure Ground Drawing as it could be said the boundary between the black and white is a line without any thickness. It also fits well with our experience of the city as a collection of objects with space between. And it could be stretched further to say an object (a building) has interior space and exterior space - the boundary between the two being a zero thickness Euclidean line.
One of the motivations of Modernist Architecture was to breakdown the idea of internal and external space. Ultimately to express Architecture as the subject rather than the object. Consciousness as the subject. No separation - all as one. Below is a Modernist Figure Ground Drawing.
Space takes a step forward and the figure (object) is transformed into a line. Ironically Euclid's line is manifested by giving it real thickness - the wall. In Classical Architecture the wall doesn't exist - there is only the zero thickness boundary between object and space. And this is the paradox I felt on my first visit to Mies' Barcelona Pavilion. The very act of eliminating the boundary between the inside and out concretised the impenetrable nature of form. Transparency is rendered opaque by removing the illusion of the internal.
My design for the National Wildflower Centre took the impenetrable Miesian wall as figure and found space within its depth. The internal is sculpted out of the very fabric of the illusory line. A return to the Classical. An object with an interior. The zero depth line re-emerges as the boundary around the (Miesian) wall.
It seems there is no way out. The interior is just an illusion.
There's nothing like drawing. I love the computer and the images created when using it are Art. But, there's nothing like drawing. No matter how deep I journey into software I never have the 'feedback loop'. When drawing my inner life appears on the paper, a fixed moment, a snapshot of ever changing fluidity. The inner sees this and moves. This in turn moves the drawing. The drawing moves the mind.
I mostly do this in my mind for most of the time, when I'm not being distracted by the world. Objects constantly enter and go through transformation never ending up on paper. I've designed whole buildings this way. When this happens the drawing is just there to communicate an already formed idea - the computer is perfect for this way of creating.
I need to draw more.