Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Flickr Has Arrived

I have done what I have intended to do for some time; start uploading some of my large photo archive to Flickr.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to visit Copenhagen so this is my first set of photographs.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Cambridge’s Unique Green Belt

Cambridge has a unique green belt; unique in that it is actually embedded within the fabric of the city. It is possible ( well almost) to walk in a circular route through the city centre without straying from green land.

The sequence of spaces starts at the Fen’s Causeway which leads onto “The Backs”.

“The Backs” follow the route of the river Cam.

If you wish to vary this route, you can occasionally  venture into the city of Cambridge itself encountering streetscape of incredibly high quality.

The architecture and its detailing is  similarly astounding.

View from the Avenue, Trinity College.

St Giles Church at the intersection of Castle Street and Chesterton Lane.

Jesus Green.

Houses on Short Street.

Christ’s Pieces.

Parker’s Piece

Unlike Oxford, Cambridge’s  science park is not separated from the city by a strategic “green break”  but is located on the north of the city, within the boundary of the ring road.

It is perhaps for this reason that  a proposed satellite town, Northstowe, will be located five miles to the north-west  of Cambridge on a site between the villages of Oakington and Longstanton. This development is master-planned by Arups and it will be exciting to see how it turns out.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Oxford Landscapes

The landscapes in and around Oxford provide, for me, ample food  for thought regarding approaches to urban design. Take this example, a view from Blenheim Palace, just north of Oxford. This naturalistic landscape has virtually nothing natural about it and was created to the designs of Capability Brown. A contrived landscape like this evokes many picturesque associations. When I see the island on the lake with its tall  Cyprus trees , like many I imagine, I am reminded of the painting  The Isle of the Dead by Arnold Brocklin.  A late Romantic like Arnold Bocklin was simply referring back to the picturesque tradition, a tradition which predates Capability Brown himself.

Landscapes like this and similar landscapes like Stowe are often taken as the pinnacles of British landscape design. Personally, however, I would rather be in Oxford itself. Surely a city like this provides the ultimate example of  a garden city, a city where landscape has been married to architecture to produce perhaps the most delightful, liveable city in the UK.

The Botanic Gardens, the grounds of Christ Church College, Port Meadows, the University Parks together with ten of the college gardens are on the national list of historic parks and gardens. In all, there are 417 gardens and parks  within the boundary of the City of Oxford which are usually accessible to the public. 52% of the land within the city is green land.

As you move through the fabric of Oxford, you become aware of what seems like a basically urban spectacle.

Only when you get closer to buildings do you become aware of another dimension. Vistas open out to reveal extraordinary natural landscaping such as the grounds of Trinity College.

A landscape replete with routes and incidents. 

Worcester College incorporates an orchard within its grounds.

Cars are almost entirely banned from the centre of Oxford. This allows streets to be appropriated in the summer for cafes. Park and ride facilities allow motorists to park at the edge of the city and take public transport into the centre.

Bike lanes have been provided throughout the city.

The city’s name refers to its origins as a fording place on a river. The city is sited around the confluence of two rivers, The river Isis  (Thames)  and Cherwell. These, together with the Oxford canal have created ample opportunity to create linear parks.

The Oxford canal on the right with the Isis (Thames) to the left.

The river Cherwell resembles an Indian river in that it seems to have two river beds. Its flood plain creates a linear park in the centre of the city.

Privacy is allowed in the college grounds by the simple device of the railing. This allows views in but prevents straying members of the public wandering in.

An additional   level of privacy is created by the simple device of the wall used to enclose   the famous quadrangles.

Large areas of green land has been preserved quite close to the city centre.  A good example of this would be Christchurch Meadows.

Oxford’s Science Park can be found on the edge of the city. Its presence is signified by a large black building visible from the A4074. Much of its layout follows the familiar pavilions-in-the-park  type theme.  Although such developments have become ubiquitous in Britain in recent decades, the landscape strategy clearly attempts to respond to the specific as opposed to generic qualities of the site. Many of the buildings are orientated towards Littlemore Brook which is provided with a riverside walk.

Most the Science Park’s  streets are  devoid of any pedestrian life.

Extraordinary resources have been lavished in landscaping  car parking spaces.

Although the development has been provided with gymnasium plus café it is doubtful whether this can be really considered to be a mixed-use development.

There has been much discussion over the appropriate form the next wave of British urban development should take. An approach which I think has much potential is that of the retrofit. A business park such as this could be seen as the nucleus of new neighbourhoods as opposed to mono-functional zones. The thinking behind the business park presumably is that the tranquility necessary for work is only possible in buildings separate from city centres, surrounded by countryside. The example of Oxford city centre shows that very private activities such as teaching facilities, libraries and halls of residence can be successfully incorporated into a city centre.

An intellectual like Paul Virilio has often argued that settlement patterns are often determined by transportation patterns. The car-based convenience of the business park can be contrasted with the transport strategy of a historic city such as  Oxford where visitors  usually use park and ride  facilities, leaving their cars on the outskirts of the city to make their journey into the city centre by bus. The challenge to urban designers  is to produce the urban environments of the future where the environment is of such high quality that people will actually be prepared to give up their cars or at least accept a greatly reduced role for them. Perhaps the business people of the future will adopt the practice of Oxford students who often cycle to work.

The expansion of a  city like Oxford might provide an ideal site for growth to solve Britain’s  housing shortage. A site such as Oxford Science park could have  housing developments  built next to them together with some retrofitting of the office buildings into more mixed-use functions.

Another strategic criteria for town expansion is the issue of city size.  The Garden City and  New Town Movements always proposed that cities should only be allowed to reach a certain size and that somewhere between 33,000 to 200,000 was the optimum size for a city. Obviously Oxford would fulfil this criteria. The site is several miles from the city centre, separated by many “green breaks”.

Lancelot  ”Capability”  Brown  acquired his nickname through his habit of telling his clients that their sites had  great “capabilities.” Surely a site like Oxford Science Park has the capability  to provide a starting  point for a mixed-use expansion of Oxford.

( Thanks to Google for aerial view of river Cherwell)

Friday, 28 March 2014

Charley in New Town

If you haven’t seen this charming little film by the Central Office of Information on the British Government’s 1948 New Town strategy then you should have.

If Britain is to experience a wave of New Towns then where should they be built? Should they be built on virgin green land, retrofitted to existing low-density sprawl or built on existing brownfield sites? The second  two options are worthy of serious consideration. The wave of New Towns built after the War were not always built on entirely new green sites but were sometimes expansions of existing towns. Basingstoke was such a town. The ill-fated Eco Towns were proposed on land which was often brownfield former- military sites.

I wonder when was the last time the British Government made an animated film explaining its urban design policies?

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Bournville: an example of business-led urban design.

If I keep adding posts dealing with The Garden City Movement I fear  I will start repeating myself at least as far as the writing goes. Nevertheless even a generic form can allow for  fascinating, infinite  variations, providing lessons which are eternally relevant. For this reason I am posting a piece on Bournville, Birmingham’s great example of The Garden City Movement. This can be seen as a photo essay with perhaps similar postings to come.

                                               Typical semi-detached housing

Bournville was created by  George and Richard  Cadbury  who wished to relocate their chocolate factory from a cramped, city centre site to a location more amenable to expansion. They chose a site four miles from the centre of Birmingham well connected by the new railways and canals, close by the Bourn Brook.
The original move took place in 1879. In 1893, 120 acres of land was purchased to create a model village. By 1900, 313 cottages and houses had been built, at which stage ownership passed to the Bournville Village Trust.

                                 Shops with other uses above by the village green

                                                    Bournville Rest House

                                                     Bournville Primary School

                                               Bournville Center for Visual Arts

A factor of urban design which must always be considered in, of course, the economics of a  creation of a  proposal. We live in an age of small government whose most overriding concern often seems to be  shifting financial responsibility away from the public to the private. It is heartening to see a business-led development of such high quality. Businesses should take note that there are a huge number of benefits entailed when a development like this is undertaken. Firstly, naming a town after a company’s product generates a massive amount of favourable publicity for a company. Why, indeed, should the provision of things such as affordable housing and good schools be left to the government? Businesses with access to good financial resources should realise that provision for staff goes way beyond mere wages. Businesses which find it difficult to recruit high-quality staff could look at Bournville and see what is being offered here. I hesitate to use a word as  repellent as “lifestyle” and would rather focus on essential matters such as affordable housing and good schools.


                               Cadbury Factory with cricket pitch in the foreground


I think it clear that my photos convey what a remarkable achievement Bournville is. It has, as I never tire of saying, the four qualities that really make a neighbourhood; access to public transport, a walkable scale, a mixture of uses and public spaces of real quality.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Prince Charles and John Ruskin: a Tale of Two Cultural Conservatives

“While your divine intelligence and will, Imperator Caesar, were engaged in acquiring the right to command the world,…..I hardly dared , in view of your serious employments, to publish my writings and long considered ideas on architecture, for fear of subjecting myself to your displeasure by an unseasonable interruption……I began to write this work for you, because I saw that you have built and are now building extensively, and that in future also you will take care that our public and private buildings shall be worthy to go down to posterity by the side of your other splendid achievements. I have drawn up definite rules to enable you, by observing them, to have personal knowledge of the quality both of existing buildings and of those which are yet to be constructed. For in the following books I have disclosed all the principles of the art.”

The Ten Books on Architecture: Vitruvius  (80-15 BC)

The Ten Books on Architecture by Vitruvius, the only text on the subject to have come down to us from ancient Greece and Rome, provides not only a manual of Classical architecture but  also provides a clear insight into the nature of the politics of the time. The fact that Vitruvius not only dedicated the book to Caesar but claimed that his book
“disclosed all the principles of the art” provides, for me, also  a certain amount of humour since today, no architectural theorist would claim to have settled, finally and irrevocably, all theoretical controversies surrounding architecture. However, while no two architectural theorists can agree on everything, one British architectural theorist, namely Prince Charles seems to have acquired a quite remarkable level of certitude in his own beliefs.
Prince Charles first  intervention in the debate on architecture came  in the 1980s. This  consisted of  a  television program and a book, both entitled  “A Vision of Britain.” In the television program he examined a drawing, illustrating the  primitive hut of classical architectural theory, a group of tree trunks which fortuitously grew close together with branches strewn across the top forming rafters and beams. 

From this he seemed to   conclude that the Classical style of architecture, since it derived from nature was  therefore  eternally relevant, seemingly appropriate in all times and places. Since that time he opened the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment and founded the village of Poundbury. He has also conducted high-profile interventions into developments such as the Chelsea Barracks site effectively torpedoing the design by Rogers Stirk & Harbour, insisting his preferred design “relates to nature.” 

Leaving aside the issue that deliberately scuppering an architectural project does raise very real constitutional issues, he insists he does not advocate simply a style such as Classicism. In a speech he gave to The Royal Institute of British Architects in 2009 he  stated:
“I am sorry if I somehow left the faintest impression that I wished to kick-start some kind of “style war” between Classicists and Modernists; or that I somehow wanted to drag the world back to the eighteenth century.”

His approach, it seems deals not with style but with social issues such as “bottom-up” planning, architecture which deals with problem solving. The antithesis of this might be seen as those obsessed with form and Prince Charles admits classicists can be as guilty of this as modernists. He states:

“I propose to speak of “organic” rather than Classical or Traditional architecture
And this, he partly explains is:

“one which is informed by traditional practice, and by traditional attitudes to the natural world”

But here, he seems to have embraced a rather circular form of reasoning.

The idea that Classical architecture, self-evidently relates to nature is rather more contentious than Prince Charles seems to realise. The subject has been discussed down the ages, especially during the 18th and 19th Centuries  when the subject of the hypothetical origins of classical architecture in nature became a huge bone of contention between various architectural theorists. Leaving aside the views of Vitruvius on the origins of architecture, the primitive classical hut was basically an idea invented by 18th Century  theorists such as Abbe Laugier in France and William Chambers in Britain. This led to a more rational conception of classical architecture; Laugier argued that the five classical orders were based on columns and hence should only be used as freestanding elements and never in relief.  In the 19th Century, British architecture turned towards a revival of the Gothic. This style had never entirely died out, surviving in unlikely quarters such as  18th Century notions of the picturesque, keeping the  style alive until its  19th Century   re-flowering.   Augustus Welby Pugin, architect of the  Houses of Parliament would only countenance  a Gothic rather than Classical approach. Indeed, he believed Classical architecture was flawed from its very inception. A primitive timber hut may have been the inspiration behind the Greek Classical Temple. But these forms cannot simply be transposed from timber to stone. A key example of this were triglyphs. Triglyphs were the vertical channels on the frieze of a Classical temple which represented the ends of timber rafters. The features were considered to be representations since the frieze of a Classical temple was constructed in stone, not timber. And hence, this motif, when reproduced in stone, indicated that the architecture no longer truthfully expressed the structure. 

Pugin wrote:


“Grecian architecture is essentially wooden in its construction….never did its professors possess either sufficient imagination or skill to conceive any departure from the original type… it is extraordinary that when the Greeks commenced building in stone the properties of this material did not suggest to them some different and improved mode of construction.”

  The other great instigator of the British Gothic revival was John Ruskin who shared with Pugin a dislike for Classical architecture. 
Ruskin wrote the book “The Stones of   Venice”, on the  Italian city in the shadow of the Alps, which he regarded, rather strangely as the birthplace of Gothic architecture. Here, he describes the kind of architecture he admires in the great chapter “The Nature of Gothic.” Ruskin makes much of the savageness of the northern climate and the quickening of energy which must accompany endeavours, qualities which people of the north expressed in their architecture. Ruskin was a great advocate of architecture which “relates to nature,” and firmly believed that in the context of Northern Europe, Classical architecture was incapable of fulfilling this role.

Ruskin, evokes the  British climate and landscape with its heathland, ice, snow; language which  amounts to a sort of   word-painting.

“we should err grievously in refusing either to recognize as an essential character of the existing architecture of the North, or to admit as a desirable character in that which it yet may be, this wildness of thought, and roughness of work; this look of mountain brotherhood between the cathedral and the Alps;”

Evidently, he considered Gothic to be a sort of ' organic' architecture. For instance, he wrote in ' The Seven Lamps of Architecture' the following on piers in Gothic cathedrals:

'the resemblance in its shafts and ribs to the external relations of stems and branches.. . . necessarily induces in the mind of the spectator a sense or belief of a correspondent internal structure; that is to say, of a fibrous and continuous strength from the root into the limbs... ' .

Taking Pugin’s argument, that classical architecture was an essentially dishonest imitation of a timber hut, he argued that there could be no beauty in architecture without truth. In what is arguably the greatest book ever written about architecture, "The Seven Lamps of Architecture", Ruskin devotes an entire chapter to "The Lamp of Truth." Here he eloquently condemns all forms of untruth in architecture. The first is

"The suggestion of a mode of  structure or support other  than  the true one:”

However, he also states

  "The architect is not bound to exhibit structure; nor are we to complain of him for concealing it, anymore than we should regret that the outer surfaces of the human frame conceals much of its anatomy; nevertheless , that  building will generally be the noblest, which to an intelligent eye discovers the great secrets of its structure, as an animal form does, although from a careless  observer they may be concealed".

  He also condemns
"The painting of surfaces to represent some other material than that of which they actually consist (as in the marbling of wood)"


"The use  of cast or machine-made  ornament of any kind.”

He argues that

"For it is not the material, but the absence of human labour, which makes the thing worthless:"

He despised the sort of architecture that was being produced all around him by the industrial revolution. He was employed as a consultant to the architect Benjamin Woodward who was designing the Museum of Natural History in Oxford  but resigned when he realised that the building would have some similarities with  a Victorian railway station, with stone and brick used at the front and iron and glass  at the back of the building. The Crystal Palace, built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 may have had a touch of Regency elegance about it, reminiscent of Nash, but Ruskin viewed it with similar disapproval. However, I would argue  that, as time went on, Ruskin began to have to have doubts about his rigid architectural conservatism.



In 1859, Ruskin produced essay on the subject of industrial materials, “ The Work of Iron, in Nature, Art &  Policy.” Iron, Ruskin states, can be seen in the British landscape in the form of ochrerous stains, that is oxidised iron or rust on hillsides or in streams. A conclusion that might be reasonably drawn from this is that metal, used as a material in architecture can relate to nature.

He states:

“what do you suppose dyes your tiles of cottage roof? You don’t paint them. It is nature who puts all that lovely vermilion onto the clay for you; and all that lovely vermilion is this oxide of iron.”

Whether he thought iron could produce appropriate forms for architecture can be gauged by the following statements. Architectural writers were so pre-occupied with the academic approach that there was much controversy over whether buildings realised with iron  could be considered to be architecture at all. Ruskin,  capable of almost schizophrenic views on this subject was able to write the following views in the 'The Seven Lamps of Architecture';
“True architecture does not admit iron as a constructive material.”
And again;

“the time is probably near when a new system of architectural laws will be developed adapted entirely to metallic construction.”

Here, for the first time, Ruskin acknowledges that new technology may fundamentally alter approaches to architecture. The French architect, Viollet-le-Duc, spent most of his career restoring his country’s cathedrals. He also wrote a number of great theoretical treatises on the nature of materials and embraced with rather more enthusiasm, the potential  new technology offered:

"We hear it maintained in the present day, as it was formerly, that iron cannot be employed in our edifices without dissembling its use, because this material is not suited to monumental forms. It would be more consistent with truth and reason to say that the monumental forms adopted, having resulted from the use of materials possessing  qualities other than those of iron, cannot be adapted to this latter material. The logical inference is that we should not continue to employ those forms, but should try to discover others that harmonise with the properties of iron.”

Here we can sense the stirrings of something new in architecture, detectable even in Ruskin.

The Gothic revival overturned the Classical tradition of axis and the orders and celebrated qualities such as asymmetry, originality and “truth to materials”. Once these ideas  had been accepted , the floodgates were opened to a wave of architectural innovation.

Prince Charles may feel that in the Georgian era, there was a sort of universal benchmark of quality, below which architecture did not seem to drop and that modern architecture has not achieved this. In many ways I would agree. However, there is at least one member of the Royal Family who seems to view with favour the work of at least one eminent modern architect. The Order of Merit is an award which is the personal gift of the Queen to bestow. In 1997 she gave the award to Norman Foster. 

( A version of this article appeared in The Salisbury Review).