Category - Heroes

Julian Marsh’s Meat Factory

Indeterminate Space

1249660_marsh_112502_0348Recently, I went to film the Marsh House in Nottingham by Marsh:Grochowski for the next series of ‘The House That £100k Built. The house completely bowled me over – more so than almost any other house I’ve seen. I’d known the house through photographs in journals, but seeing it in the flesh made me realize what a truly remarkable building it is. In almost everything the house does, there is an extraordinarily lesson for domestic architecture.

The house is is Julian Marsh’s  own, and where he lives with his partner artist Jude Liebert, and Jude’s brief to Julian was ‘let’s just have a little flat, with loads of space underneath to make stuff’. Julian calls this space ‘indeterminate space’, and I think it is just about the most important space houses can have. It made me realise just how strangled we are by these terrible little room designations we are so quick to give our houses – the kitchen, the living room, and so on. What we all really need is indeterminate space, which we can use for anything we choose, and occupy differently as needs change, and seasons change. Really good spaces are defined by light, structure, scale, materials and views – not labels purporting to describe (and, usually, limit) function.

The big organizational strategy for the house is to group the living spaces around a south facing growing courtyard with a south facing unheated internal wintergarden cooling the internal spaces in summer and heating them in winter. The wintergarden is a pretty radical thing, as it contains all the circulation space and stairs, meaning that Julian and his partner have to go into an unheated space to get from their bedroom to their kitchen even in the depths of winter.

Having a brilliantly well considered environmental strategy means that the space will never drop below 12 degrees, even in the middle of a harsh winter, but it’s still a pretty radical proposal for living that flies in the face of the culture of sealing up buildings, where having one uniform and stable internal environment is now the norm. As well as every other strategy, the environmental strategy of the house challenges pretty much every building fundamental, and offers hope for those of us who feel strangled in red tape.

Natural ventilation featuers large in Julian’s house. There are clear and defined ventilation paths through the building, with windows, flaps and vent panels that need to be adjusted and operated – a little like sailing a yacht. Julian’s principle of using natural ventilation comes as a big relief for me, in an age where the culture of airtightness is becoming the norm. It is also a relief to see someone challenge basic assumptions, and find a method of using building regulations to support, rather than strangle, his vision.

One of the other fascinating things in Julian’s house is how he has used his environmental strategy to define much of the architecture, from the big picture of what the building looks like, how it is laid out, right the way through to the detail. The environmental strategy is visible in the overall form of the building (with it’s greenhouses on the roof, drawing air up through the house), but it is the detail, in particular, that is a real joy. In the wintergarden there is a sublime double height wall which acts as a heat sink – the wall is designed as a series of precast lintel ‘shelves’ with thousands of clear plastic bottles filled with water stacked on them. This is beautiful and decorative, but also highly functional. Water is thermally dense, and consequently all the bottles contribute to the thermal mass of the wall. Simple, low tech, cheap, and beautiful.

It is this kind of resourcefulness that makes the house sing. Freed from the tyranny of having conventional ‘bedrooms’ with his idea of indeterminate space Julian and his partner have a simple thick curtain they pull around the bed at night to keep the light out – and there’s masses of light, as Julian has a penchant for what he calls the ‘sneaked view’ – windows that are sneaked in where you least expect them in order to open up an unexpected view. The sneaked view is such a playful and fun idea, and this spirit of playfulness is everywhere in the house.

1249667_marsh_112502_0219Julian knows the important of the materials that you touch, and consequently has invested time in door reveals, thresholds and simple posts for hand rails that are bound with the most perfect piece of coloured rope at exactly the point your hand falls. This means the remainder of the materials can be functional in the best sense of the word – all the thermally massive precast concrete soffits are exposed, as are the recycled timber ‘Parallam’ beams, and the plastic meat packing curtain balustrades.

The whole house made me wonder why on earth so many of us start with such a misguided idea about ‘rooms’ when we start to design – rather than wrapping an extraordinary series of spaces around an idea of how we might live. There’s a terrible and mean tyranny in estate agent speak that is used to describe houses, and if any of us aspire to beautiful and appropriate spaces that support rather than throttle the way we live, we must go beyond narrow presumptions around domestic space.

We also need to go beyond Building Regulations. So often I hear the excuse ‘Oh, Building Regulations won’t let me’ as an excuse not to try something interesting, but as Julian has shown, there is usually a way round regulations, which are there more for guidance than anything else, and are certainly not design tools. It is this spirit of navigating around obstacles and problems that leads, as Julian has shown, to interesting solutions, and it is this spirit that I encourage self-builders to embrace. Dream up the spaces you most want to live in, and then find a way to use regulations to support, not throttle your vision.

© Piers Taylor, 2015


Categories 100k house, Articles, Heroes Tags

Richard Leplastrier

0d580fa96894c785c76294441d287224I’ve been wondering recently why as a country, we’re all so desperately conservative when it comes to our domestic buildings. I don’t mean in terms of tradition, taste or style – but in the way that the building works.

There’s a typology that has evolved over the last few hundred years that is pretty much the default choice for everybody. This is a house that has basically the same accommodation in it – just configured differently. There’s usually a formal entrance, a living room, kitchen (which, if you’re feeling radical, may be in the same space), a series of bedrooms for individual occupancy, and a bathroom or two.

Bigger houses are generally more of the same, and while there may be many conversations about finishes and fittings, there’s almost no conversation about the principle of a dwelling, and little rethinking of the set of conventional spaces that appear to be beyond question.

Without doubt, the most profound experience I’ve ever had in architecture was going to see a house by the infamous architect Richard Leplastrier in Lovett Bay, just north of Sydney in 2001, and it is a house I think about almost daily.

I’d been in Australia for a few weeks, visiting old friends and looking at a series of supposedly good houses, before I went to see Richard’s house. The other houses that I’d seen just before visiting this one were all award-winning houses – but were all variants on the same theme – just configured differently.

Richard’s place was already special by virtue of the journey needed to get to it – by rowing boat. It was a glorious relief to discover that there was someone that was prepared to go beyond the terrible tyranny of assuming that he needed to be able to park outside his house. Instead, Richard embraced a 15 minute rowing boat ride across the water to the land, which he, his partner and his kids would do every day.

Much as I’m interested in the technology of vehicles, domestic architecture is unquestionably throttled by the dominance and abhorrence of the awful patch of tarmac, which constitutes a driveway and a double garage outside the front door.

On arrival at Richard’s jetty, there was a short steep walk up through bush land to his house. I call it a house, but the celebrated novelist Peter Carey who wrote a chapter of one of his books about this house called it an ‘extraordinary campsite’. Another architect – Glenn Murcutt – called it ‘like a swiss watch, just an exploded one’.

There was no door to speak of – just a deck that you stepped up on to, and of course no front door – just a series of plywood flaps that opened up on a series of beautifully inventive hinges and struts, through which you could enter – although much of the living was done outside, irrespective of the weather.

There were no rooms to speak of either – just one big open space for all domestic purposes, and from where Richard ran his office. There wasn’t even any furniture to speak of – just one drawing table and Richard’s mother’s old rocking chair in the corner. There was a series of built in window boxes, in which one could sit – but most of the living was done on the threshold out onto the deck, where there were a series of beautifully generous steps, that encouraged sitting and lingering. Not that this was a family that did too much lingering – the kids were all rattling around, without anyone asking them to tidy up or keep quiet. Here was a house that encouraged life – not throttled it like most banal and sanitised contemporary buildings.

The bed, such as it was, was a mattress that the family of 5 would pull down from the exposed ceiling joists at night, and all pile on to. The dunny was across a little plank bridge in the bush, and the kitchen a makeshift affair under the verandah.

Every part of it was acutely beautiful and constructionally brilliant – from an architect who had spent much of his life making timber ‘skiffs’ in which to plough the waters around Sydney. But irrespective of its beauty, the house offered an extraordinary different vision of living, which went way beyond the same series of spaces from which most of us use as a starting point.

Sure, the weather is better in Sydney – but that isn’t the point. You may not want to live like Richard, but that isn’t the point either. The point, of course, is that there is a different model of living from the default and unthinking identikit series of spaces in different dressings which most of us have.

What’s also curious is that Richard’s way of life is that this is how many of us lived up until relatively recently in social history, and was considered the norm. Certainly, up until the middle ages and beyond, families lived in one space, with little privacy. Now, though, despite patterns of work and living having changed dramatically over the last few hundred years, we’re typically unable to reconsider our dwellings from first principles.

This, of course, is a shame – and this means that most of the design conversations around houses in this country are limited to issues of shape, colour and taste, and consequently they’re pretty boring. The conversation needs to move on now, and houses need to change, adapt and evolve. They need to challenge basic assumptions of how we live, and suggest alternatives.

At present, alternative models of domestic space are really only considered by a few progressive architects, and this needs to change and enter the mainstream. More than anything, domestic architecture should be progressive and idealistic, and not default to received norms. The tragedy is that the model of living that is rammed down our neck by mainstream house builders is a cynical one that they know will sell, as there’s little alternative. As a community interested in self-build, we all have an obligation and responsibility to challenge this.

© Piers Taylor, 2015

Categories Articles, Glenn Murcutt, Heroes Tags

On Youth

(For Jim Stephenson and Threshold Architecture Hub Brighton for the Love Architecture Festival)

There’s a strange myth that’s perpetuated by older architects that serves only to reassure themselves that they’re still relevant in a changing world – the myth that architecture is a skilful mastery of form and light and something that you get better at as you get older. It’s a little like Yehudi Menuhin telling Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious that they’d never get anywhere because they couldn’t play – missing the point that each new generation invents their own rules and plays the game its own way.

Architecture as a discipline discriminates against the young – it’s too often taught by middle aged practitioners with too much time on their hands who surround themselves with the tutors and critics architects they were taught by, hoodwinking students into the notion that architecture is a learned art, handed down by generation to generation. Who can forget that tragic image of Frank Lloyd Wright, master, pencil in hand, ‘correcting’ students work with them gazing adoringly up at them? For someone purporting to be interested in Modernism, he wasn’t remotely interested in sweeping out the old.

There’s nothing sadder than working within established traditions, this unquestioning assumption that there are a priori codes, rules and conventions, as typically purported by this older generations, crushing the life of the next generation with their miserable desire to maintain the status quo. For all it’s faults, what’s great about the AA is that it’s generally only possible to teach there for a short amount of time: there’s no permanent jobs, no tenure – only short term contracts where teachers are encouraged to move on after a few years, which encourages renewal. I know my time is limited there – as it should be. The relentless sweeping out of the old – good and bad together – is an essential part of making way for the new.

Modernism at its best is about a process of reinvention akin to punk – a process where each generation of new architects establishes new ways of working that purposely fly in the face of the previous. The incredible Cineroleum was an amazing example of this – a ramshackle self-organising group with no authorship, hierarchy or formal entity – challenging the notion that extraordinary architecture needs quality materials, formal control, discipline, order or craft.

The Cineroleum’s inventive use of (found, scavenged) materials reminded me when another practice – AOC – said ‘Truth to materials? That’s bollocks.” In an age when so few architects have reinvented ways of talking about architecture, ways of practicing architecture – here was a group that you knew even from their name (Agents of Change) they were incapable of doing anything boring.

I saw AOC talk once – they blew me away. They were all so young, so provocative, so fresh. Instead of a practice made up of a monoculture of architects all from the same mould of truth, materials and buildings – here was a practice as rock n roll band who know there was no such thing as truth, no such thing as material integrity and that there was no need to talk about architecture using the same tired old clichés.

They were a band who even had a cultural interpreter – Daisy Froud – as part of their team, How great was that? Instead of just buildings, they also designed games, scenarios and ideas. It seemed that instead of an office, they just had a kind of pop up space with sofas and Russian books lying around.

This youthful idealism is so often cruelly dismissed by ageing practitioners – who still feel there is a ‘correct’ way to lay a brick. An older architect told me how shocked they were that the 20-something Feilden Fowles had never served apprenticeships with established practices for any period of time, and how, disapprovingly, the height of their ambition coincided with a period of their (youthful) constructional naivety. Surely this is how it should be: huge ambition with limited knowledge of how it ‘should’ be done. It was, of course, the same ambition that motivated Feilden’s father to establish his own practice at a similar age as equivalently un ‘qualified’ non-architects in a run down old premises on the London Road calling itself the Community Architecture Shop, and trying to find new ways of working and structuring a practice.

I failed in my attempt to get the word ‘responsible’ removed from one University’s architectural teaching manifesto. Careful, cautious, sensible, polite, level headed: these are all things that architects are taught to aspire to be, and all too willing sign up to be by joining the ‘professional bodies’ that try to define what architecture could be, a place of large and imposing institutions, a world of respect, tradition and torpor. What place in the established profession for the provocative, the hot headed, the idealistic, the impetuous… and the new? As Steve Jobs said about youth: “Stay hungry. Stay Foolish”

I was shocked recently after seeing the banality of a once-great architect’s recent work – and asked the project architect ‘what happened?’ She replied – which explained everything: “He got, well… old’.  Trying it out, trying to make it work, squeezing new ideas into unexpected places, inventing the future: these things are only possible by the young. Older architects – without exception – run out of that most important – the only important – motivation in architecture: the desire to change the world, the desire to make things different than they are now.

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It’s impossible to think of the Ramones without thinking of their first album artwork in 1973 – a photograph taken by Roberta Bayley of the four ‘brothers’ dressed in identical uniforms, skinny ripped jeans, cheap plimsolls and leather jackets leaning nonchalantly against a distressed wall with the band name looming large above them. There’s such a great deal architects can learn from pop music, and in particular the Ramones, who showed us that it’s about everything as well as the music – it’s about the invention of an identity that gets lived and breathed.

The Ramones understood the potential of the graphic image. You’d have bought the record on the strength of the album artwork and its promise of irreverent polemic without even hearing the first perfect minute and a half of existential angst that opens side one. It’s astonishing just how much one photograph can say about a band.

So many of us still see the building as a divine and pure object of desire, capable of telling its own story. But architects don’t just make buildings; we also create an image, an image that places us in the cultural context in which we operate.

I can’t help but wonder whether architects should be more like the Ramones, who couldn’t really play and could hardly sing, but knew that the music was only part of the story.  If only more architects understood that design is an attitude as much as a thing, an identity that we can try on, change, adapt, use to provoke and communicate with, a loaded and charged social and political tool and that it isn’t just about the building.

Categories Heroes

Alec Issigonis

Alec Issigonis designed the first Mini in about 1957 on the back of a napkin. It was such a revolutionary idea, yet so simple and so beautiful. It was easy to communicate with a few pen sketches the intelligence of the thing – a tardis like box that was bigger on the inside than on the outside, where every square inch of space was maximised so that four people could sit in comfort and still have acres of storage space around them.

Issigonis achieved it by mounting the engine, gearbox and radiator sideways, by eliminating anything that wasn’t essential and by getting his old friend Alex Moulton to design tiny rubber suspension pieces instead of springs to stop suspension turrets from jutting into the passenger cell.

It was also, in the early days, just so beautiful – the two spoke Bakelite wheel, the wand like gear stick, those lovely door pulls which where just a piece of plastic coated wire, the sliding windows, those little toggles that were the locks, and the numberplate that flipped down when you opened the boot.

It seemed so obvious to me that architects had such a great deal to learn from his attitude to packaging space, yet remember being told by an old tutor of mine when I was at the AA when I asked her why we thought about space in such a different way to Issigonis: ‘God, you’re so stupid Piers, I cant even believe you’ve asked that question’. But I never understood, because she never told me, why architects couldn’t learn from Issigonis.

Categories Heroes