Plyscrapers! Timber high-rise buildings are becoming a growing trend

Plyscrapers: a resurgence in timber framed buildings, even for skyscrapers. Photo credit: By Øyvind Holmstad - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79435356

Materiality is a significant factor in the built environment. Not only does the palette used have significant visual and/or aesthetic implications for the external envelope of a structure and its incorporation into its surroundings, but can also result in positive and/or negative interactions with these buildings on a personal level, whilst assisting long-term sustainability more generally.

Within the context of high-rise buildings, the choice of building material has traditionally included steel, iron and concrete, which has resulted in visually intriguing if not astounding structures. However, in recent years there has been a growing tendency toward experimentation with timber high-rise buildings – also known as ‘Plyscrapers’ – as a more sustainable and more socially beneficial material.  

Considerations for timber structures

Although timber is amongst one of the oldest building materials, following devastation caused by the Great Fire of London in 1666, building regulations and more general stigma has restricted its use. However, the contemporary and innovative resurgence of timber can serve to reimagine its character and place within the urban environment, whilst doing so in a sustainable and aesthetically exciting way.

The recent BBC video ‘Will We All Live in ‘Plyscrapersin the Future?’ has considered interesting benefits concerning sustainability as a result of using timber for high-rise buildings. These include carbon capture, improved structural integrity using CLT (cross laminated timber), and reducing carbon emission by 4 %.

Timber elicits positive responses

In addition to ecological benefits, timber is commonly admired for effecting warmth, comfort, and positive physiological and psychological benefits. In addition to other health benefits, it helps users reconnect with nature. Further effects are widely acknowledged throughout the wider environment.

The Concise Townscape (Gordon Cullen, 1971) notes that ‘Trees and buildings have always borne a special relationship to each other … so great as to demand a reassessment of the relationship between the two … Today the art of bringing trees and buildings together is based on the tree lending its richness to buildings, and on buildings pointing out the architectural qualities of trees so that the two together make one ensemble.

But more fundamentally – with respect to the use made of timber in individual buildings – Dezeen (November, 2015) notes that wood ‘… makes the most amazingly beautiful spaces. These are buildings that feel very good to be in…

The reimagining of timber ensues

‘Plyscrapers’ have therefore begun to emerge from the English skyline. Such buildings include the 33-meter-high apartment block in Shoreditch by Hawkins Brown, and the nine-storey Murray Grove in Hackney by Waugh Thisleton. In 2016, a proposal was forwarded by PLP Architecture and researchers from Cambridge University’s Department of Architecture, which entailed a 300-meter-tall timber high-rise for the Barbican Estate.  

The reimagining of a traditional material in this way results in a refreshing, dynamic, yet warm juxtaposition against today’s intensively glass, concrete and steel environment. This would undoubtedly elevate the urban experience from a perspective of streetscape, whilst creating visually engaging spaces that are also a pleasure to use whilst proving environmentally beneficial.

Sources:

Gordon Cullen. The Concise Townscape. Oxford: Great Britain. 1971, p.168.

http://www.plparchitecture.com/oakwood-timber-tower.html

https://www.ribaj.com/intelligence/plyscrapers-timber-skyscrapers-paul-fast-ian-king-what-now-what-next

https://www.dezeen.com/2015/11/09/cross-laminated-timber-construction-architecture-timber-age/

https://www.architectureanddesign.com.au/news/timber-makes-you-feel-good-and-helps-you-heal-says#

“More Front than Blackpool”: Liverpool Risks Loss of World Heritage Status

It is reported that a UNESCO committee is to advise the removal of Liverpool’s World Heritage status, first bestowed in 2004. Whilst encompassing wider historic commercial districts, in general terms, this lines the City’s world-renowned waterfront.

Otherwise, its status rests upon the history of the City as a major international trading port in the C18 and C19, where it played a key role in not only the emergence of the British Empire and as a locus of migration, but also the transatlantic slave trade.

The World Heritage Committee has referred to “serious deterioration and irreversible loss of attributes”

Although its potential relegation is not news – where, due to modern redevelopment of the iconic waterfront, said demotion has been considered for over a decade – whether its status will remain intact, will be confirmed in July.

Despite the City Council claiming an investment of 1.5 billion into one hundred and fifty-seven heritage assets (the Albert Dock area hosts more Grade I listed buildings than any other place in the UK), a report from the World Heritage Committee has expressed “deep regret” at what has been termed the “serious deterioration and irreversible loss of attributes”.

Liverpool Waters and the new Everton FC stadium at Bramley Moore Dock were among those developments specifically referred to in the report.

The City has failed to take notice of repeated warnings

Heritage campaigner Wayne Colquhoun said that the City has ignored continual warnings concerning new development, and that “If you’re going to fill [that] dock in – as a mercantile and maritime city on top of already filling the other docks in – you’re displaying that over your universal value. They’ve pushed the boundaries and pushed it and pushed it.”

The Government has stated “We are disappointed in this recommendation and will continue to work with UNESCO, Historic England and Liverpool City Council to ensure the World Heritage Committee can make an informed decision when its meets next month.”

Are decisions being made remotely in light of Covid-19 fair?

Joanne Anderson, Mayor of Liverpool, has requested the deferment of any decision for twelve months, where any such demotion would in her view be “hugely unfair”.

“We need [them] to see Bramley Moore Dock with their own eyes – physically or virtually,” she went on, where the removal of World Heritage status would prove a “missed opportunity in demonstrating to the world that heritage and regeneration are not mutually exclusive.”

Steve Rotherham, mayor of Liverpool City Region, also finds the proposal “deeply disappointing” and has called on the committee to reconsider. He writes “We are proud of our history but our heritage is a vital part of our regeneration. I’d urge them to take up our invitation to visit rather than taking their decision sat around a table on the other side of the world.”

They have a point. Principally due to the pandemic, but also the perpetual claim of under- resourcing, many important decisions – planning or otherwise – are now being made remotely, and by fundamentally detached bodies. As such, decisions will often be insufficiently informed, and therefore deeply flawed.

A balance between heritage and successful new development must always be sought

For obvious reasons, drawings or CGIs rarely reflect reality on the ground. And, for better or worse, Liverpool is not London and must be canny with its economy, for not merely the sake of its heritage, but also its community; for without one, there is not the other.

That being said – as suggested by both Anderson and Rotherham – the correlation between heritage and successful new development is a key factor in not only regeneration, but conservation, and, whilst admittedly fine, a degree of balance must be sought.

Concerning Liverpool Waters, Lindsey Asworth of Peel Developments has stated:

“Its simply not right to expect derelict parts of cities with such a rich history to stand still and be fossilised. This consent will open up opportunities and new prospects to link our UK businesses with other international businesses. Liverpool is now well placed to be alongside the best of the best.” It is not merely desirable that new and old exist cheek by jowl – resulting in environments that are authentic, rich, buoyant, dynamic and full of vigour – but essential.

Read more here…

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-merseyside-57556884
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-merseyside-21658084
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-merseyside-56541316

Art in the Age of Now: art brings Fulham Town Hall back to life

Among the high number of significant architectural gems located throughout West London, the former Fulham Town Hall is particularly striking. Located on Fulham Road, adjacent Fulham Broadway Station, the redundant town hall is a captivating structure and one that draws the attention of visitor and local alike.

A snapshot of Fulham Town Hall’s history

Its robust presence was designed by George Edwards in 1888-1890 and includes a handsomely ornamented exterior with Italianate influences and a twentieth century Baroque Extension designed by Francis Wood in 1904-1905. Given its special architectural and historic interest, the former Town Hall was as such designated Grade II* on 31st of July 1981.

Given the changes to Fulham’s social, economic and environmental circumstances over time, it became redundant as a town hall from 1965 and, whilst still intermittently used for offices and events, has remained vacant for the past decade. Now closed behind iron rail gates and sealed by large oak doors, it is no longer accessible to the wider public. That is, until recently.

Art has recently given the building a new purpose, but with the interiors left in tact (degradation included)

From May 20th – for the first time in over a decade – Fulham Town Hall’s doors reopened to welcome visitors back into its interior space via a new art exhibit, Art in the Age of Now. This free exhibition gave visitors the freedom to explore and discover not only hundreds of art works but also the ‘seen and unseen’ spaces of Fulham Town Hall in what is an immersive and unique experience.

Here, the extravagance of the exterior can be seen to have been reciprocated throughout the interior, with tall ceilings, elegant stairwells, beautiful tiling, large halls and a wealth of lavish materials, colours and textures. That being said, it obviously remained in an state of deterioration as a direct result of its long vacancy.

The art works made effective use of all available spaces including rooms, corridors, halls, ceilings and floors, and, when juxtaposed against interior’s currently poor condition, have resulted in an unexpected interconnectedness. The exhibit not only utilises the space as it is – unapologetically, given the degree of loss and erosion evident there – but has been curated in such a way that ensures existing spaces compliment and remain in dialogue with individual pieces.

Some areas of the building look like works of art in their own right as a result of the art installations

Within this context, some of the art works cause no undue harm to original fabric, with examples including projections, or free-standing installations, frames and sculptures; all of which result in negligible impacts upon the listed building. Otherwise, some exhibits have been far more intrusive in terms of original fabric, as artists have (temporarily) executed their pieces directly onto the walls, ceilings and floors, which has in turn transformed these spaces – particularly the basement – into works of art in their own right.

Both approaches result in unique interaction between audience, artworks and space, and as a result, the exhibition and associated impacts are – in the main – understood to be wholly beneficial; principally by repopulating and making effective use of space, where the interrelationship between use and preservation is widely recognised a fundament of best conservation practice.

Here, reimagining existing yet eroded and redundant spaces has reinvigorated the vacant building whilst establishing an inspiring precedence for not only the future of the Fulham Town Hall, but also the reuse of all derelict buildings alike.

See it here: https://fulhamtownhall.com/

The Future is Old: a fascinating and thought provoking glimpse of London over the next 100 years

Futurescape - a view of London and how it might change over the next 100 years

Chatham House – of the renowned Chatham House Rule – is an independent policy institute and forum that (in their own words) seeks to assist the understanding of societies, governments and people, in a rapidly changing world.

To mark the thinktank’s 100-year anniversary, last month saw their unveiling of a 3D model that shows how London will look in 100 years and that ‘allows the public to explore a future of positive change.’  Here, the public can explore cities of the future, using Piccadilly Circus as an example.

Intended to ‘stimulate debate about the future of our cities over the next century’ – particularly pertinent given those places suddenly and drastically unpeopled by COVID -the model considers the real need to support increasingly sustainable living in urban centres, whilst urging new conversations about what people actually want there.

Introducing Futurescape

Futurescape emerged following consultation with scientists, architects, designers, sustainability experts and trend analysts concerning the need to create more positive futures for our urban environment; a need that is eternally evolving and in essence, never goes away. We struggle to get it right.

How might the future London look?

With Futurescape, four future dates are envisaged. In 2035, greenery and wildlife have been introduced into the city centre, whilst pedestrians share space with bikes, scooters and drones. CO2 emissions are therefore reduced; storytelling benches relate oral histories; and a solar-panelled food market offers new sources of protein (insects). Commerce and cars have no place.

In 2060, climate change and rising water levels result in new canal systems, whilst buildings, transport and businesses are sustained by renewable energy. Produce is increasingly local – utilising rooftops and waterways – whilst public space offers new, technology-based art forms such as hologram shows. Retail space is given over to leisure, and upcycling, upgrading and exchange have become standard.

By 2090 the clairvoyance perhaps runs out of steam – being fairly difficult to foresee accurately – albeit the environment is by then shaped by vertical farms, giant energy and lighting structures, new religious identities and floating, ‘sky barge’ dwellings. 2121 sees a prevalence of AI, buildings that shapeshift according to need and desire, and low gravity marketing pods that simulate Lunar or Martian living.

A future that remains rooted in the past

Futurescape – as intended – is undoubtedly an interesting basis for discussion concerning a subject in dire need of consideration. It’s also a lot of fun besides. But what is most heartening – despite the unambiguously futuristic cityscape that can be seen to coalesce around the Circus over the hundred years – is that many of its more famous monuments and buildings survive, with the real hub remaining Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain and its statue of Anteros.

As such, the future can be seen to remain explicitly rooted in the past. Here, the ongoing narrative evidenced by retained heritage, shows the central role to be played by conservation in the prospective making of our places. In an increasingly fast world – amidst what Chatham House describes as ‘seismic change’ – the survival ofoldfriends like Anteros nevertheless continue to provide some quantum of stability and security.

See it here: https://futurescape.chathamhouse.org

Rhodes to Ruin: the planning and moral complexities of removing the Cecil Rhodes statue from Oriel College

Rhodes Building, Oriel College. By Robert Cutts - https://www.flickr.com/photos/panr/6697486327/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=91167023

An independent Commission has reported to Oriel College’s Governing Body concerning the legacy of controversial mining magnate, politician, imperialist and former Oxford student, Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902).

Established due to the Governing Body’s wish to remove a statue of Rhodes from Oriel’s Grade II* High Street building, the Commission was also tasked with reviewing how the ‘College’s twenty-first century commitment to diversity can sit more easily with its past’.

Complex planning challenges resulting in a change of decision

Fundamentally, the Commission supports the Governing Body’s intent to remove the statue. However, the undoubted complexity, challenges and associated expense that would ensue (principally from a planning perspective and with respect to impacts upon a listed building etc.), has led to the further decision not to embark upon its removal.

It will instead seek to contextualise the College’s connection with Rhodes, whilst improving educational equality more generally, which is obviously commendable. As is the fact that proposals to remove the statue of Rhodes were not implemented arbitrarily and without due consideration.

And whilst memorialising Rhodes is perhaps unpalatable in some quarters, the removal of his statue for political reasons would seriously impinge upon (if not entirely override) the fundamentally democratic process of planning, whilst setting a very dangerous precedent otherwise.  

We should not attempt to manipulate history, but learn from mistakes made

Without diving into Orwellian cliches, history – in whatever form it takes and as nebulous as it perhaps is – should never be forgotten, erased or manipulated in any way, shape or form. The resulting dangers are not only clear but present and, whilst perhaps obvious, patently not obvious enough. 

Simplistically, this is because one of history’s  principal functions is to remind us of the mistakes from which we might learn and, in turn, the role of heritage assets to serve as reminders of the good, bad and ugly of our past. History is inquiry – and therefore debate – but necessarily depends upon evidence.

Otherwise, physical heritage performs a high number and variety of key functions in society, not least of which – from a perspective of urban design – includes the role of wayfinding and the means by which we orientate ourselves in our environment.  

Heritage has an important role in the function of our moral compass

Such a role extends to our orientation and consequent wayfinding from an ethical perspective. Here, heritage assets further serve to assist the functioning of our moral compass; principally by means of retelling that which should be celebrated or condemned, so that one may be perpetuated, and the other, appropriately left to history.

And whatever you think of the planning system, one fundamental precept is that of sustainable development; defined by the NPPF as ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs.’ Which essentially  means not deciding what is good for future generations, whilst taking away the ability to decide this for themselves.  

Whilst perhaps hackneyed with respect to subjects of this sort, it is worth quoting Orwell’s 1984 after all:

Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped.

Which is an outcome none of us would wish.

Not in my back parish… Balanced, democratic planning decisions can overcome local uproar

Planning applications can cause local wars despite fairness and transparency during the application process

As we all know, the planning system shapes what development can happen, where. Since the passing of the Town & Country Planning Act in 1947, key development decisions are taken by elected representatives rather than private individuals; specifically with a view to ensuring an ultimately democratic process. 

Balancing planning decisions with local democracy

Here, planning decisions are based on balancing competing interests and making an informed judgement against local and national policy frameworks in the wider public interest; even where there is a predisposition in favour of one side of the argument or the other.

However, the risk of controversy and conflict is heightened by such a system, which – in the wholly appropriate effort to ensure that outcomes are as democratic as possible – invites public opinion before taking final decisions. 

The start of a local war

But what happens when allegedly informed residents, further armed with assumption, speculation, and a deep war chest, take it upon themselves to interject with wholly subjective, often self-interested views into an application that they, and other, reassuringly like-minded agitators deem unacceptable?

Let us take, for example, a small village. Having developed as a linear settlement before the Norman Conquest, this settlement has since been subject to extensive 20th and 21st century infill development; predominantly in the form of modest residential estates along its principal historic route. 

In light of recent, fairly significant development within the actual core of this historic village, extensive and aggressive opposition to proposals to develop an isolated structure – in a demonstrably local vernacular – on its outskirts, is therefore highly questionable. 

A controversial application

Here, a local business, providing childcare to residents in and around the area and therefore offering considerable public benefit, submitted an application to construct new premises, before being put definitively through their paces as a result of extensive local uproar.

Given the unduly controversial nature of proposals, the application was not determined by officers under delegated powers, but at committee and, on planning balance, permission was granted. However, the democratic process this evidenced was seemingly not enough.

The cost of overcoming objections

Further hurdles loomed when the Parish Council launched a crowdfunding campaign in order to take the Local Planning Authority to the High Court and judicial review for their decision. Fortunately, this was quashed, and the original permission remains in place. 

Despite this success, significant concern remains. In a system that strives for transparency -the full, sorry saga is not set out here – where does this leave qualified professionals and businesses that have had both time and money wasted at the hands of interested parties and their objections? 

Fairness, transparency and democracy

It would seem that planning does not merely entail making fair and transparent decisions based solely upon planning considerations, but must also be expected to strike a balance between qualified decision makers and the inevitable chatter of those with an excess of time, money and clear disdain for democratic planning. 

It would nevertheless appear heartening that – in the face of those who can afford to shout loudest, longest – democracy will nevertheless win out; but at what cost?