10 Mar Review – “If not us, then who?” Alison Brooks on the built environment and society
On Thursday 22 February Alison Brooks discussed the role of architects and designers within the society: “We should think about a beautiful quality of life”
Alison Brooks, founder of Alison Brooks Architects, joint winner of the 2008 RIBA Stirling Prize with Accordia, was elected Mayor Design Advocate for London in 2017.
Her talk focused on the duties of architects and posed some big questions about the role of architects and designers within the contemporary society.
She underlined that “the expression “quality of life” is used a lot nowadays, but we should start thinking about “a beautiful quality of life”. As architects we can help to frame experiences, to develop a sense of care and beauty“.
There is a present need of beauty, not only in an aesthetic sense and you have to go beyond aesthetic for beauty
“Ideals, then Ideas” was published for the 21st anniversary of the practice, illustrating the key principles and ideals: authenticity, generosity, civilness and beauty.
The key principles guiding her work are “city design as an art” (which we have to re-discover in masterplanning), the city as a “collective design project” and “the beauty of archetypes is their adaptability“. Alison then showcased some projects she worked on. The project Smile, is an example of applied research, architecture and art.
This was a project were the client always said yes
The brief was to create something amazing, temporary, for the public and made of hardwood CLT. The challenge was how to use the material to create an unexpected and playful architecture. The result: a timber structure shaped like a smile. The second challenge was the fact that it couldn’t have any foundations. This was resolved by using more than 7,000 screws and counterweights. A new urban silhouette was created, which challenged the public to climb the internal slope. The final result was a widely enjoyed project with a smile.
Public realm is also the facade of the buildings, not only the ground floor
ABA was involved in the Kilburn Estate re-development. The first project involved the insertion of 44 units in a gap of the urban fabric. The designers started looking at the Victorian plans and street patterns, and reinstated the idea of mew streets including the existing buildings to frame the public space.
One of the keys to its success was integrating architecture and communities though mixing privately sold apartments with social rented apartments. There was also a variety of types of units, none with only a single aspect. The portico was a key element to define the transition between private and public space, acting as a filter and adding complexity to the elevation.
Cohen Quadrangle (2011-2017) aimed to design a new quadrangle in Oxford including undergraduate and graduate living accommodation for 90 students, an auditorium, seminar rooms, social learning spaces, archive, café, roof terraces, offices and fellows’ accommodation. The winning scheme created an ‘S’ shaped quad, adding additional space through a curve in the roof.
One of the key of its success was finding places within the building where you can feel at home
A question from the floor was how does she make connections with her clients. In housing projects the aim is to connect with the history of places, creating an immediate relatability. She considered that a genuine appreciation of the historical environment is a key starting point, but noted this was sadly mostly associated to the environments built before the 20th century.
“How do we regain the qualities that create a welcoming environment?” With proportions, volumes and general cultural awareness. In her view a lot of architects stopped talking about history and beauty to clients, focussing only on the delivery of the project.
“What is an effective public consultation?” “We all know that it takes time and money. We try to get to know the neighbourhood, but is usually difficult to know the people”.
She proposed the idea of a London-wide platform for each neighbourhood, providing direct access to updates on the changes that are affecting each area the historic heritage and information on how people can participate to place-making. Another option could be to create open service platforms experimenting new ways of communicating urban design. These improvements on the diffusion of information can help everyone to participate in the design process and share a vision for the city.
What people consider ugly is often so because it is unknown. Then fear replaces curiosity