Seasons Greetings

January 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

Wishing you all the very best for 2012.

Cutteslowe Walls

September 18, 2011 § 1 Comment

In December 1934 a private developer built two nine-foot high brick walls across the roads that linked ‘his’ estate in North Oxford to a council estate next door : they remained in place until 1959 and they tell a bitter tale of class antagonism in mid-twentieth century England.
In the early 1930s Oxford was booming, and changing from being just a university town to a motor-industry town as well. There was an urgent need for new houses, especially as old condemned ‘slums’ were being cleared at the same time. A prime piece of building land was in Cutteslowe, two miles from the city centre up the Banbury Road ; and in 1933 the local Council built an estate there. The next year a 20 acre plot right next door was snapped up by a private developer, the Urban Housing Company. Its owner decided that his houses would be more valuable if they were physically separated from the workers next door, so he constructed two impassable brick walls across the roads that the council estate tenants used to get to the buses and the shops.

Almost everyone in Oxford thought this was obviously illegal and that the walls would soon be demolished. They stayed in place for 25 years. This is a fascinating story of the Council’s failure to bring them down – they tried persuasion, threat, legal action, even a Bill in Parliament ; on one occasion they simply removed the walls, but the company rebuilt them immediately.


It’s a story of the Communist Party’s attempt to appropriate the issue. It’s a story of undergraduates trying to remove the walls at the dead of night, of drunken motorists driving into them, and of tanks on manoeuvre flattening them during the war.

But above all it’s a story of class antagonism and mistrust, and of the failure of public authorities to protect its community  against the interests of private developers.

Dr. Spurstowe House

September 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Out of ye pious intention of WILLIAM SPURSTOWE D.D. deceased. for.
: merly Vicar of this Parish of Hackney (these six almshouses were 
Erected & built Anno Dmni 1666, for ye Habitations & dwellings of six 
Poore Widdowes of this Parish, of good life & Conversation who dyed 
before hee made a Settlement upon y said Almshouses. & after his 
decease HENRY SPURSTOWE, late of London Esq Brother te? y said Dr. to
Perfect & Establish ye Dr:s good worke Anno Dmni 1667settled for ever
certain Lands in y said Parish on several Trustees for ye said six poor
Widdowes better support & maintenance & for no other persons what
soever. In testimony whereof HENRY SPURSTOWE of London. Gent
Son of ye said HENRY hath erected this Inscription.
Anno domini 1689.

The cartouche of arms and tablet were removed from the original almshouses in Sylvester Path E.8 (round the back of the Hackney Empire) when demolished in 1966.
Dr Spurstowe was Vicar of the parish of Hackney from 1643 until his death in 1666. During the Civil War he supported Parliament and was chaplain to the regiment of John Hampden in the army of the Earl of Essex. Dr Spurstowe was present at the negotiations with King Charles I at Newport. He bitterly lammented the death of the King.

Concrete Fun

September 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Carbuncle 2012? Prince Charles’s Poundbury fire station is a right royal mess.

September 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Prince Charles’s new Poundbury fire station.

Prince Charles  has just completed his first building: a fire station in the twee village of Poundbury, Dorset.  A wonderful creation: a dumpy neoclassical Georgian palace with three garage doors attached to it.

Everybody knows that the prince likes to hold forth, mostly disapprovingly, on the architectural state of the nation. A quarter of a century ago he branded the proposed extension to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square a “monstrous carbuncle”, and the phrase has lingered on infamously as an emblem of British conservatism. Nowadays, he prefers to lead by example, and Poundbury is his vision of the ideal town: a traditional Georgian village that time has forgot

Now, there’s no doubt that Charles has skim read the odd architecture book, but a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

I think the good firemen of Poundbury should be forced to wear Regency breeches and powdered wigs, and rush to their infernos in a red barouche carrying water in wooden pails.


Crushing Fist

September 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

“You just have to think what it takes to be a dictator,” notes the style commentator Peter York: “You have fought your way there. Even if you did have capital-G “Good” taste, it wouldn’t work with your people, many of whom are not very literate. The point is to impress and intimidate to the max. To say, ‘I’m fantastically important and powerful.” The land of a dictator is, he notes, “a world entirely without irony”.

York has gone so far as to formulate a number of key principles which, he says, invariably inform how a dictator will deck out his humble palace and public space. They include building big – “everything is wildly, fantastically oversized” – installing gold, glass and images of oneself everywhere, and emulating everywhere a particular style of ancien regime French grandeur that is wholly fake. “They like old-style because it looks serious but they don’t like actual antiques because they’re old.”

Key principles include “Ferrero Rocher twinkly” and “testosteronic symbolism” – the eagles, lions, elephants and other aggressive animals dictators like to employ as symbols of the imperial, yet slightly savage, power.

Karen Pine, professor of psychology at the university of Hertfordshire and a specialist in consumerist culture, said Gaddafi’s interior design principle – “bigger, better, with more gold on” – has “nothing to do with taste or style”; its only purpose being to reinforce to others, and himself, his elevated position.

Rebels now celebrate around the once iconic statue of the golden fist crushing a US military bomber, after overrunning the Bab al-Azizya compound in the centre of Tripoli.


September 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

This may be the only book you’ll read dedicated to the Southampton city council architects department. Which is a shame, because according to Owen Hatherley, who grew up on a Southampton housing estate, its postwar buildings are “excitingly modern” and evoke the “glittering towers of science fiction”. Bombed-out British cities like Southampton offered modernist architects a chance to realise their utopian dreams of a socialist new society. But their concrete cities in the sky have fallen out of favour, unlike other socialist structures such as the NHS. Hatherley’s book is an intelligent and passionately argued attempt to “excavate utopia” from the ruins of modernism and to oppose the trend in public housing towards a Disneyfied pastiche of pre-industrial architecture, as at Prince Charles’s Poundbury. Hatherley’s exhilarating manifesto for a reborn socialist modernism is inspired by an admirable desire to reawaken our sense of the utopian imaginary. His rallying cry is suitably Brechtian: “Forwards! Not forgetting.”

Social Housing Project – Quinta Monroy, Chile

March 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Chilean Government asked us to resolve the following equation: To settle the 100 families of the Quinta Monroy in the same 5.000 m2 site that they have illegally occupied for the last 30 years; located in the very center of Iquique, a city in the Chilean desert. We had to work within the framework of the current Housing Policy, using a US$ 7,500 subsidy with which we had to pay for the land, the infrastructure and the architecture. Considering the current values in the Chilean building industry, US$ 7.500 allows for just around 30 m2 of built space. And despite the site’s price (3 times more than what social housing can normally afford) the aim was to settle the families in the same site, instead of displacing them to the periphery.

If to answer the question, one starts assuming 1 house = 1 family = 1 lot, we were able to host just 30 families in the site. The problem with isolated houses is that they are very inefficient in terms of land use. As a result, social housing tends to look for land that costs as little as possible. That land is normally far away from work, education, transportation and health care opportunities that cities provide. This way of operating has tended to localize social housing in an impoverished urban sprawl, creating belts of resentment, social conflict and inequity.

In order to make a more efficient use of the land, we worked with row houses.  Even if we reduced the width of the lot until making it coincident with the width of the house, or furthermore to the width of a room, we were still only able to house 66 families. The problem with this type is that whenever a family wants to add a new room, it blocks access to light and ventilation of previous rooms.  Moreover, it compromises privacy because circulation has to be done through other rooms. What we get then, instead of efficiency, is overcrowding and promiscuity.

Finally, we could have gone for the high-rise building, which is very efficient in terms of land use, but this type blocks expansions and here we needed that every house could at least double the initial built space.


Our first task was to find a new way of looking at the problem, shifting our mindset from the scale of the best possible U$ 7500 unit to be multiplied a 100 times, to the scale of the best possible U$750,000 building capable of accommodating 100 families and their expansions. We observed, however, that a building blocks expansions except for on the ground and the top floor. So, we worked in a building that had just the ground and top floor.


We think that social housing should be seen as an investment and not as an expense. So we had to make sure that the initial subsidy could add value over time. All of us, when buying a house, expect it to increase in value. But social housing, in an unacceptable proportion, is more similar to buying a car rather than a house; every day its value decreases.

It is crucial to correct this problem because Chile alone will spend 10 billion dollars in the next 20 years to overcome the housing deficit.  But also at the small family scale, the housing subsidy received from the State will be, by far, the biggest aid ever. So, if that subsidy can add value over time, it could mean the key turning point to leave poverty.

We in Elemental have identified a set of design conditions through which a housing unit can increase its value over time, without having to increase the amount of money of the current subsidy.

First, we had to achieve enough density – without overcrowding – in order to be able to pay for the site, which because of its location was very expensive.  To keep the site meant to maintain the network of opportunities that the city offered and therefore to strengthen the family economy.   On the other hand, good location is a key point in increasing a property’s value.

Second, the provision of a physical space for the “extended family” to develop has proved to be a key issue in the economical take off of a poor family. In between the private and public space, we introduced the collective space, conformed by approximately 20 families. The collective space (a common property with restricted access) is an intermediate level of association that allows surviving fragile social conditions.

Third, due to the fact that 50% of each unit’s volume will eventually be self-built, the building had to be porous enough to allow each unit to expand within its structure. The initial building must therefore provide a supporting, (rather than a constraining) framework in order to avoid any negative effects of self-construction on the urban environment over time, but also to facilitate the expansion process.

Finally, instead a designing a small house (in 30 m2 everything is small), we provided a middle-income house, out of which we were giving just a small part now. This meant a change in the standard: kitchens, bathrooms, stairs, dividing walls and all the difficult parts of the house had to be designed for final scenario of a 72m2 house.

In the end, when the given money is enough for just half of the house, the key question is, which half do we build?  We chose to make the half that a family alone would never be able to achieve on its own, no matter how much money, energy or time they spend. That is how we expect to contribute using architectural tools, to non-architectural questions; in this case, how to overcome poverty.

Community Engagement

February 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

A giant sculpture of a striding man by public artist Andy Scott has been knocked over in a car accident.
The 4m (13ft) structure, installed at Muirside roundabout, Tullibody, in Clackmannanshire, is one of five pieces in the county by the artist.
It is understood a car crashed into the statue, which sits outside the village police station, at about 2110 GMT on Saturday.
Central Scotland Police said they were investigating the incident.
The sculpture – also known as the Man in Motion – is made of welded steel mosaic and has the Wallace Monument and Stirling Castle as a backdrop.
I have heard from a few people that they never liked it, although I doubt they would prefer it looking like this”
Brian Smith, a college lecturer who lives near the sculpture, said the impact of the crash must have been considerable.
He said: “Whoever crashed into it has made a fair mess.
“It looks like they’ve driven into one of the statue’s legs and brought down abut five or six tonnes of metal.
“I don’t know if it quite stopped them but it certainly slowed them down.”
Mr Smith said the erection of the piece in 2008 split the local community.
He added: “It’s quite an arresting sight when you see it lying there. I have heard from a few people that they never liked it, although I doubt they would prefer it looking like this.”

Sunny Govan

January 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

European City of Culture 1990
The Year of Culture was a magnificent success for Glasgow. It was a ground-breaking event, which further transformed the city’s image. Unlike its predecessors, its vast cultural programme was scheduled to run throughout the entire calendar year, not just for a few months.

Its definition of culture was all-encompassing, incorporating not just music, drama, theatre, and visual arts, but many other fields of human endeavour which characterise Glasgow as a unique, dynamic city: architecture, design, engineering, shipbuilding, education, religion and sport.

The statistics were awesome. Over 3,400 public events took place, involving performers and artists from 23 countries. 40 major works were commissioned in the performing and visual arts, and there were 60 world premieres in theatre and dance. Add to that lot some 3979 performances, 656 theatrical productions, and 1901 exhibitions – not forgetting the 157 sporting events.

From big national arts groups to more modest local ventures – all shared a thrilling international stage. No longer could the character Kenneth McAlpin in Alasdair Gray’s seminal novel “Lanark” dare to say that: “imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music hall song and a few bad novels – for that’s all we’ve given to the world!”

The City of Culture tag allowed Glasgow to showcase many facilities created by the city’s Victorian philanthropists. Prime among these were the magnificent Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery housing the richest, most wide-ranging – and most visited– municipal art collection in the UK outside London; the splendid Museum of Transport; and the marvellous Mitchell Library, the largest free public reference library in Europe.

Uniquely, too, Glasgow in 1990 was the first British city to implement a strategy where the arts were used as a catalyst for urban regeneration – a revolutionary model which has since been replicated worldwide. The positive economic repercussions of this successful policy have been huge, and are still being felt well into the new millennium.