CREDIT: Collage: Amanda Moore, Serpentine Pavilion 2013, Sou Fujimoto
Buildings are permanent right? A naive friend once asked me whether architects would always have work because ‘they must have built all the buildings by now’.
I studied architecture after studying fine arts in order to be involved in physical projects which would be more permanent than fine art, in terms of their longevity and relevance. Surely they would therefore also be more important and impactful? Art seemed to be more transient based on trends and what was popular for collectors and galleries.
But is architecture and building design permanent? Should it be? Most clients expect at least 150 years of useful life from a building which is costing them several millions to construct. We raise floor levels above flood levels, with allowances for climate change, and carry out copious coordination exercises with materials and system providers. Maybe buildings can last at least this long and this length of time can be considered ‘permanent’. Victorian residential properties are popular in the UK and are well looked after by each generation of custodian. But should many non-residential buildings, such as commercial buildings, public buildings and temporary accommodation, be permanent?
A commercial building designed with enough solidity, and embodied carbon, to last hundreds of years may not be wanted after forty. If building uses often change, perhaps the structural frame should always be designed to be flexible and reusable. This might be easier to achieve with traditional building technologies such as steel or concrete frame, but not for more sustainable technologies such as cross-laminated timber which may not allow flexibility in glazing or internal wall positions.
There has been an obvious trend for temporary architecture in recent years including pop-up retail, outdoor event spaces and urban parklets. This feels to have grown during 2020 with a need to utilise more outdoor spaces due to reduced permitted indoor occupancy during the pandemic. Temporary architecture allows the proposed use of a place to be introduced and tested by communities before more expensive built interventions, and accepts flexibility and community input. It can also be free to be of its time, trendy in colour or form. It doesn’t have to be timeless. Maybe the design life of 'temporary architecture' can be extended from the length of a single event to the length of a tenure.
CREDIT: Photo: Dinesh Mehta, Kumbh Mehla Festival set up with temporary walls and floors
Can humans expect any of our interventions to be permanent?
Is this wishful thinking as a kind of immortal legacy?
When I worked for a large practice in London, the partners were always excited by projects which involved masterplanning where a developer had procured several plots of land as new street networks and proposed uses could be developed which they felt would likely have greater longevity than the individual buildings.
Aside from building use, building standards often change and old buildings may not be able to be upgraded to ‘current’ standards.
Questionable quality is another issue which can counteract the designed mass and solidity of buildings. There are unfortunately many instances where architect-designed buildings are not weathered well and it’s a (short) matter of time before they decay when all the mastic fails. This often seems to come down to confusion between the role of the architect and the contractor and who will take responsibility for the final detailing.
And so is architecture more or less permanent than art?
Artworks may be protected for millennia if they constitute an important financial or cultural commodity. Public art could also potentially have a longer life span than a building.
A public art project I was fortunate to work on, Black Down Stone Circle, Dorset, was installed in 2016. It consists of five totems produced from local Forest Marble stone. The totems align with true north and the summer and winter solstice sunrise and sunset positions specific to the site. Sunlight passes through openings in the totems and hits a central Portland standing stone. The project was built by a skilled stone mason called Tom Trouton and the alignment was advised by specialist Simon Banton. It is now used as a ceremonial site by spiritual groups on the solstices.
CREDIT: Photo: Simon Banton, Black Down Stone Circle
Contrary to my expectations at the beginning of my architectural studies, a built project like this may prove to have more permanence than most architectural projects I've worked on in terms of physically being there and being relevant. The sculpture is robust and well-built by a craftsperson rather than relying on the integrity of foil tapes and membranes. The artistic idea does not age or need to be updated in line with any style or technical standards.
These days it seems more appropriate to me that art can have permanence but architecture should be more temporary.
CREDIT: Photo taken at Bedford Place, Southampton, of artist decorated road closure blockades, but what now happens behind?: Amanda Moore
Since the pandemic started early this year, people have been forced to become more ‘local’. Working from home, (which I’ve now been doing for 9 months), no distant holidays, less inessential travel.
Strangely, there have been some potential upsides to this new way of living which could point the path to a more permanent way of simplifying our lives and making us more rooted in our local environment, for the better.
For myself, being housebound has made me more appreciative of my home and garden space and forced me to look at ways of optimising small areas of space. I’ve created a reading nook in the hallway and densified storage, as a posed to thinking about extending or buying a bigger home. I’ve gotten to know my neighbours better, we’ve set up benches in our driveways and had lunchtime coffees. I’ve cycled around during the one hour of government-approved daily exercise to scope out parks and woodland cycle routes I didn’t know about and people seemed to make more eye contact and smile more that usual during the summer, enjoying any level of human contact.
Within town centres, some roads were closed in order to allow shops and cafes the opportunity to spread out into the streets due to restrictions on internal occupancy. In my own town, the two main Victorian streets have been closed since July which has not only removed the traffic, but also the linear barricades formed from parked cars which prevented people moving from one side of the street to the other in a more organic way. Both streets are served by back alleyways in any case and there is nearby accessible parking. The last few months of reduced car access has likely had little effect on trade, more the ‘inessential trade’ restrictions or general increase in online shopping pre-COVID. However, the streets have had an eerie silence where the white and yellow road markings remain and people are still not used to waking down the middle of the streets. This is an opportunity though, to rethink whether cars should be allowed into every street of our small town centres, making way for people to have a slower and more friendly retail experience, meandering down streets rather than driving to a shop and leaving, or driving out of town to bigger malls and hyper markets. Using the streets between shops as pop-up markets, weaving a garden through the town, having additional seating or events spaces sits in line with a retail ‘experience’ which has more physical interaction and connection with our local towns, and ties in with encouraging less car use and carbon reduction.
CREDIT: Photo, Romsey Parklet: Mill Road Summer
Architects, designers and planners should be starting with the smaller traditions and rituals of each community such as yearly events, or seeking out local makers and performers who could benefit from having a public platform. Asking people what they want and making temporary and flexible interventions in line with those potential users, introducing a new use for road and parking spaces so that people can see the benefits and feed in ideas. A bottom-up approach rather than a top-down one which usually involves building large permanent interventions without ensuring that people are actually going to use them.
I currently have the opportunity of working with teams on a couple of these town centre projects, walking the streets and talking to local traders and groups about how to make the space around their business or studio more of a transitionary zone, ie; a parklet in front of a restaurant, a selling space in front of a workshop, a market stall for traders who sell in several towns, an activity or event space for local school or theatre groups ... all of this making the market street potentially more of an experience which draws people in as an alternative to online or out of town shopping...
Go [or stay] local.
CREDIT: Photo: Amanda Moore
What is a crit?
An architecture ‘crit’ or critique is an opportunity to present your project to a wider audience, a panel made up of tutors, professional architects and also your peers.
What is it for?
A crit is often not a formal part of the grading process although it may give an indication of where your project currently sits in terms of assessment. A crit should provide an opportunity to have a discussion with a wider circle of people than your tutors and receive feedback to help you develop your project further.
Here are some tips in preparing for your architecture crit:
Pin up a page for each part of your design concept
Each part of your idea such as site analysis, research related to the brief, orientation of the building, materials, and massing should have at least one sheet on the wall dedicated to it.
Don’t spend time doing dozens of sections or dozens of plans. Make sure that each part of your idea is represented as above. If you are short on time, use your model by lighting it and photographing it from different internal and external viewpoints.
Keep your presentation concise
Every project doesn’t need a long starting analysis of where the sun rises and sets. Everyone already knows that and it is a given that the building would be designed with this in mind. Filter your work and pull out the more poignant aspects of the site and project. You could even include a sheet on the wall with a list of the main bullet points about your project.
Don’t read out your presentation
If there is a clear order to your sheets you should shouldn’t need to read out information. You know your project better than anyone else and the sheets should help provide cues.
Don’t worry about negative feedback
This is a hard one. The crit isn’t necessarily part of the grading process. It should be there to provide objective feedback to help you improve your project. Try to not take it personally and attend the whole day so that you can compare your feedback to that of your peers.
Think about the main things you want to get from the crit
You may have questions you’ve been asking yourself about your project in the run-up. Write them down in your notebook and use the crit as a chance to discuss with the panel.
Practice your presentation
Do a run-through to time your presentation and use a friend or family member who isn’t an architect. The presentation should be clear enough that a non-architect can understand what you’re talking about.
Ask a friend to take notes
It can be hard to remember references and other information given by members of the crit panel when you are presenting. You may also remember more of the negative comments than positive ones.
Dressing relatively smartly and addressing the crit panel goes a long way. Don’t treat them as if they were a firing squad. Move around and take them through drawings and models. Also, start your presentation by telling them what your project is and the site location before going into the ‘journey’.
Get some sleep
Working until 3am and turning up unwashed and drowsy is going to distract from your work and result in a poor verbal presentation.
CREDIT: Photo: Amanda Moore
You’re off to architecture school, or maybe you’re already there. It’s going to be tough and challenging at times but also an opportunity to test your ideas and concepts without constraints.
Before I started at architecture school I didn’t know any older students or qualified Architects to ask how they found the experience and the things they wish they’d known or done differently.
Here are the top twelve things I personally wish I’d known before I started:
1. Architecture school is THE opportunity to push creative ideas
This is your chance to explore all kinds of concepts; how you think cities should work, whether food production should be an integral part of our homes, sculptural forms, … You won’t have the constraints of a ‘real’ client and a brief, likely because you’ve also created your own client and brief.
I didn’t fully appreciate this until I was asked to draw 53 bathroom packages for a housing scheme in my first real job. At architecture school I often viewed crits and deadlines as something to survive rather than as a chance to push my ideas to their full potential. My best work happened when I found the bravery to stop, review and start over, even days before a presentation.
2. You will have to work very hard
Tutors will demand a lot in terms of both quality and quantity. You may be sitting in a tutorial and hear, "just do a larger ground floor plan … and erm, a couple more sections … and some night time renders … and an exploded axonometric… and maybe your building should be more like this…" (tutor turns model upside down).
There’s no way around this. However, when it comes to entering the workplace, you’ll have gained phenomenal skills in meeting deadlines even when working a 9 - 5 (ish), rather than a 7 - look, the sun’s coming up again.
3. There are MANY different types of Architect
At architecture school you may feel envious of that person who can do beautiful hand drawings, or the person who has amazing graphics in their portfolio. The actual job of being an Architect is many different things and there are roles for all kinds of Architects. A good boss will recognise this. Being able to solve technical problems creatively, being organised, being able to deal well with clients and contractors with the diplomatic skills of a hostage negotiator … Do not hang your future success as an architect on how many people drool over your portfolio in school.
4. Learn as many different types of CAD software as you can
Hand drawings are beautiful but time-consuming. If you can master 3D software, you can take multiple plan and section cuts, experiment with line weights and layering of colour, shadow and photo images to create equally beautiful drawings with a sense of depth.
You’ll need architectural software skills in the workplace. Learn as many as you can; Autodesk, Rhino, Vectorworks, Archicad, Revit, Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, Indesign, etc …
5. Learn about sustainable methods of building
We have a crisis on our hands. In terms of construction, we need to make our buildings more energy efficient in order to reduce ‘in-use carbon’ and also less carbon-intensive in their materials to reduce ‘embodied carbon’.
A good understanding of this can be taken with you into your future job where you will explore how to implement sustainable technologies in client projects. We need to encourage clients to go way above the minimum requirements of regulations where possible. Hopefully, the results of more ambitious clients and projects will trickle across into all sectors of the built environment.
6. You will find many egomaniacs
At architecture school the best resource is your colleagues. People who will help critique your work late in the studio, swap photoshop techniques and tell you when there’s a discount on foam board. You will be lucky enough to meet many of these people.
However, you’ll also meet others who will see sharing as something which will cause them to lose something. I recall a student colleague who would work with a blanket over his head and his MacBook, yes, a blanket. He didn’t want any of us to steal his genius ideas but he also missed the point of working in a shared studio. Wonder how the blanket’s working for him in the workplace …
Maybe he should invest in one of these. CREDIT: Photo: Becky Stern
7. Make models
Architecture is a three-dimensional experience. Make models to fully explore your ideas. Speed modelling is a great way to try out ideas quickly. Cardboard, wire, clay, wood … whatever is easily available. You can get a lot of use out of these. Light them and photograph them from different angles, print photos and draw over them, add people in poses which interact with your forms.
8. Spending more money on architectural materials doesn’t make a better project
I was part of a studio unit which specialised in digital design. This involved a lot of 3D printing which was incredibly expensive. I wanted to make a large 3D concept model based on beehive structures with lots of little cells. I found that I could use masking tape and roll it back on itself to make thousands of tiny tubes which also stuck together to build forms. During the crit, my tutors asked where I got this "amazing" yellow material from. I’m not going to lie, it took longer than 3D printing but the forms were much finer and I could review and alter it as I was going. There are always inexpensive options.
9. Portfolio printing is expensive
Printing at a shop will prove pricey and the queue at the school printers before crit day will have you crying. Think about investing in your own large-format printer, perhaps going in with a few other people, and then reselling it at the end. Remember, for general portfolio sheets, you may be able to use a smaller format printer. You are only restricted by the width of the paper feed and can go as long in paper length as you like.
10. Always get your drawing scales correct
One of the things which will greatly annoy a tutor or your boss is showing drawings at the wrong scale, or no scale. Also, don’t use that classic well-known scale of 1:345 or multiple scales on the same drawing. The number of crits you will attend where someone is being chastised as the toilets are designed for a giant and you’d have to walk sideways through a door. It’s an unnecessary distraction from your good design concepts.
11. Keep a digital backup of your work
Scan your drawings and photograph your models. Keep a backup of your portfolio on the cloud. Things can get lost. It’s useful anyway so that you can send potential employers images of your work or print a smaller portfolio book for interviews. I had an unfortunate situation where my portfolio and model went missing from an examination room. Luckily I had the portfolio saved electronically but I hadn’t photographed the model.
12. Think about choosing a different Architecture school to complete your studies
What I learned from my colleagues working in architecture practice and tutoring at architecture schools is that different schools have different styles of teaching. I stayed at the same school for my whole architectural education but it would have been interesting to have experienced different schools. Another way around this is to be part of different design units/studios at the same school. In my final year, I joined a computational unit which was very different to all of my previous study years. I brought a (small) bunch of parametric software design skills with me to the workplace and started a design workgroup which helped project teams to model complex forms more efficiently.
Do you have any things you wish you'd known or have just discovered about studying Architecture...?
What am I doing here? I'm collecting sea water to fill 1,000 bottles and hang them from a scaffold inside an old ruin. Why? Why not?