Thursday, 29 September 2011

Portsmouth and Woking: High-rises and Public Space

A comparison of two urban spaces, one  very successful and one less so.

Colin Rowe’s theoretical studies of urban design issues dealt with many issues, one of which was the relationship of tall buildings to public spaces. The role of the skyscraper can be seen as analogous to that of church spires in previous times: they provide a visual focus for the community and hence the design of public spaces around them must be considered in terms of how the public spaces and high-rise relate to each other.

A good example of this would be the two high-rises at Gunwharf Quarys in Portsmouth, Hampshire. The two towers, the Spinnaker Tower and Tower No. 1 also known as the Lipstick Tower were apparently inspired by the two main sources of power for driving ships: wind power and steam power. More to the point, there is clearly a thought-out relationship between the high-rises and the public spaces around them.

This is more than can be said for the centre of Woking in Surrey. At the Centre of the Town there is a square intended to be the social focus of the town. It contains entrances to the Library, the Civic Offices, the Peacocks Shopping Centre, the Town’s theatres and cinemas and the splendid red-brick Anglican church, ChristChurch. However, looming over the entire space is the presence of a concrete high-rise. The relationship of the high-rise and the square has not been thought out at all.

The centre of Woking is clearly undergoing a transformation. A sort of glass-circus feature is being constructed. It may improve the quality of the square but does not really address the issue of the relationship of the high-rise to the square.


The Peacocks Shopping Centre used to have a tower, on that was demolished to make way for the new development. It was refreshing to see a tower clearly designed in relation to the space it addressed.

 ( Photograph of Woking before alteration © Ron Strutt 2005 )

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Towards an urbanism

The  purpose of this blog  is to find an approach to urbanism appropriate to the British Context. If that is it’s purpose then  it seems to me the following question must be answered; is urban design theory applicable to all cities or is an approach to urban design appropriate for one city irrelevant to other cities? Does a British city entail a specific cultural condition? For instance, the “Urban Renaissance” applied to British Cities during the premiership of Tony Blair seemed to often consist of building high-density housing in almost every available site in the country. Is this approach to urban design appropriate for a British Context?

If I had to choose one architectural theorist who understood regional architectural cultures I would choose Christian Norberg-Schulz. No-one more clearly perceived the difference between cities in the North and South of Europe. Norburg-Schulz believed that there are basically two types of architectural culture that exist in Europe, one of the North and one of the South or, as he would put it, Nordic and Mediterranean Europe. He argued that in an urban condition, the ceiling is effectively the sky but it’s appearance is conditioned by the upper termination of the buildings. In the North, the sky is the result of “variable atmospheric conditions;” in the South, the sky is perceived as “a distant and stable background.” Hence, these two conditions can be seen to giving rise to what might be taken as two typologies, two forms which capture the essence of their respective architectural cultures: the gable in the North and the dome in the South.

 The difference between Nordic and Mediterranean architecture could also be understood by looking at the predominant materials used, timber in the North of Europe and Stone in the South,  in what might be taken as the formative period in these civilizations which would be the Medieval period in Northern Europe and Classical period in Southern Europe. There are of course exceptions to this rule but, in the case of Northern Europe, timber can be taken as a defining “image.” Norberg-Schulz states that

 “These images may be related to the fact that in the North vegetation forms the continuous “ground” on which rocks and mountains appear. In the arid South, instead, the topographical configurations constitute the background, whereas trees and groves are perceived as relatively isolated “figures.” Existentially it is therefore justifiable to talk about wood and stone cultures.”

From this we can deduce that the two types of architectural culture in Europe, one of the North and one of the South or as Norburg-Schulz would say, the Nordic and the Mediterranean, do not follow from tradition but rather they follow from nature. It also follows that there are two types of city. We can examine these two types of city to develop an appropriate idea about architectural strategy, using the idea that a strategies gestalt is generated from the interaction of figure and ground.  Norberg-Schulz argues that, in a Mediterranean city the ground, on which the figure appears, consists of “ topographical configurations” which often mean mountains and stone. The figure will consist of urban spaces and buildings, often themselves of stone. Mediterranean people, drawing on their experience of nature, already expect a stone environment and do not need a large amount of greenery in a city. Hence there will be little in the way of parks and gardens. In a Northern environment the “ground” consisits of trees and greenery.  A large amount  of land used as parks and gardens will not be perceived as wasteful use of space but simply a “ground” on which figures appear usually in the form of buildings or urban planning exercises. Hence strategic ideas appropriate to a Mediterranean city cannot be simply transposed to a British city and be found to work.

So am I advocating a return to suburbanism?

In order to answer that, firstly it is necessary to define what is meant by suburbanism. Many people use that word, thinking they defined something with a great deal of precision. They have not. When many people use that word, they often mean houses with gardens. Hence, if you are trying to create  an urban design proposal, the word suburbanism is essentially useless. Urban design proposals deal with all the functions of a town or city, not just one i.e. housing. Le Corbusier, when he drew up some of his famous city plans, at times definitely indulged in megalomania. But he did assign four functions to his city plans not one.

There is another way of defining suburbia as opposed to a truly urban condition. In an urban condition  buildings are brought  up to back of pavement. In a suburban condition buildings are set back allowing front gardens. But there are plenty of exceptions to this. This definition can be broken down.

So what kind of urbanism am I advocating?

The aim of this blog is an attempt to answer that question.

( Quotation of  Christian Norberg-Schulz from  “Architecture: Meaning and Place-“Timber buildings in Europe”“     
Rizzoli, New York, 1988.)