Thursday, 28 May 2015

Book Review: “The Fabric of Place” by Allies and Morrison

Allies and Morrison have long occupied a curious place within the perceived hierarchy of British architectural practices. They tend to be viewed as creators of reliable yet un-iconic architecture.  Yet this preference for fabric over the iconic is deliberate, based as it is on a subtle reading of British cities.

A philosophy of urban design is central to their work. They state their belief that the street has more historical continuity than individual buildings. They state that they would like users to be unaware of where their master-plans end and the surrounding fabric begins. Since they see urban design as dealing  more with process than form, it is appropriate that the illustrations for projects like King’s Cross and Brent Cross, Cricklewood  are expressed often in the form of street sections.    For them the most important response to the Great Fire of London in 1666 was not Christopher Wren’s masterplan but the building code expressed in the 1667 Act for rebuilding the City of London.

I had long thought that Aalto must be a key influence on  Allies and Morrison. This influence is drawn not from the Aalto of exuberant organic form but of constrained, orthogonal sites, the Stockmann Academic Bookstore  being the Aalto building here examined as a precedent. The lesson here seems to be that simple, orthogonal buildings can work provided that their proximity does not reveal a poverty of detailing. Indeed, this book confirms other expectations i.e. the key strategic issue for the Olympic park was felt to be healing the rift that the Lea Valley imposed upon east London.

                          The Stockmann Bookshop in Helsinki by Aalto

It is fascinating to see the rationale behind some of their more famous projects. For instance, their strategy for the re-development of the Royal Festival Hall; unlike more grandiose strategies for the South Bank, their approach was to simply  provide a fabric or context for the building  and rationalise its interior   by  removing commercial uses to the outside.

Clearly they have always drawn on the example of Arabic architecture so it  is interesting to see how they respond when given the chance to work in this context. Such projects give them the opportunity to most fully express their vocabulary of urban place-making, endowing sites in Doha and Beirut with a  variety of external spaces such  as alleys, pocket piazzas and gardens, all framed by characteristically  simple buildings. In fact, whatever the context, be it  a Victorian building in London or a British cathedral city, their response is more driven by qualities such as grain rather than style. Many of their buildings have qualities in common with modern, abstract art; the strategy seems to be that simple ideas gain strength through repetition.

In this Allies and Morrison building in Farnborough, surely the influence of Aalto can be detected.

                     Future proposals  for Farnborough by Allies and Morrison

The book includes an essay by Robert Maxwell and Bob  Allies locating their approach to urban design in the context of urban design theory,   from the orthodoxies of CIAM to the more nuanced approach we see today.
It can almost be read almost as a primer on the subject of urban design.

( All photographs by author. A version of this article appeared in Building Design)