Percentage for People

A lot of people don’t understand what it is that Architects do. It’s a fair and modern question, in a world driven by advanced technology and engineering, mass production and profit seeking contracts. Not for a second do people look at De Basilica di Santa Maria in Florence and ask, “But what did Brunelleschi actually do?”

Of course styles change, but the essence of what an Architect is meant to do is to show the beauty of man’s abilities and efforts throughout the arts - when done justly, buildings give you not only shelter but a sense of belonging, pride and inspiration. Today, where the engineer’s knowledge defines our complex structures and mass production largely controls the way a building will look, the Architect’s creative input is often compromised for the need to co-ordinate those involved in the building works and to keep up with the pace of machine controlled processes. I know it to be true from my own experience in architectural offices and my current work advising on design and engineering of public space. The latter of which now takes me most often to London where the number of large development projects significantly outweighs the rest of the United Kingdom.

In the public sector, schemes were developed in the 1930s to ensure a percentage of the construction costs of a project were dedicated to the arts. Beginning in Finland examples of these “Percentage for Art” schemes spread across Europe and America, peaking in the 1950s and 60s as a result of the necessary rebuilding of cities after World War II. Where detailing and craftsmanship had to be compromised for the necessary speed and cost controls of the time, it could be replenished once the building was completed with the contribution of art in the public spaces of the buildings, on the facades or the street facing them. My recent visit to Cologne showed me just one of many examples of cities in Germany where this scheme which gave people the confidence and pride they needed to rebuilt their own lives. The scheme still exists today for public projects, however it is not compulsory and the number of public projects is steadily decreasing. In 2011 RIBA released a report showing that the workload of small Architectural practices in the uk was 82% private works, and in large firms 58%. The continuation of privatisation poses the threat that our cities become more and more monotonous in the way they look and that the only people profiting will be those who own the buildings (who more often do not live in the city in which they are built).

 

On my way home the other day my eye was caught by a newly completed project in the East end of Amsterdam which I assumed must have had an strict “Percentage for Art” scheme, it is beautiful. A modest brick, six-storey apartment residential building called Oostpoort by Architects, Heren5 in Amsterdam. It's design hints towards the “Amsterdam School” style, which made the Netherlands famous for its social housing design between 1910 and 1930. This already makes it pleasant to look at however what is so striking is the glass strip around the central entrance stretching to the top of the building. Collaborating with artist, Stefan Glerum, a burst of coloured glass depicts the history of the Polderweg area in a contemporary design. I called the Architects to find out if this project had a percentage for art scheme. It didn’t. They told me the idea was that of the client (housing corporation, Ymere) and the Architect team who both felt it was important that the project resonated a sense of pride in the area. It gave me a reassuring feeling to know that some Architects still exert the will and the passion to gather a balanced, multi-disciplinary team. 

Polderweg Oostport, Amsterdam by Heren5

Polderweg Oostport, Amsterdam by Heren5

 

The role of the Architect is indeed changing and sometimes difficult to understand, but the essence is still the same. It requires new ways and support (local as well as national) to ensure that a diverse range of arts and crafts are included in the design of buildings that define our cities. Having that, the Architect regains the ability to create and co-ordinate a balanced design that people are able to relate to and benefit from.

Studying Streetlife from The Netherlands to the United Kingdom

I am taking on a new role within the Architectural field, in a broad sense switching from being a designer of large plans to an advisor of the small parts that make up that plan. Focusing specifically on urban public space, in which over 50% of the world's’ inhabitants now live around but become far and fewer in between towering glass shards, and fighting for light amongst mixed-use blocks.

My role is Architectural Advisor within a small Dutch industrial design studio based in Leiden, half an hour South of Amsterdam. They engineer elements (sort of lego blocks) that encourage green and rest to be accommodated in a diverse range of urban settings for the Architectural market to utilise in the design public spaces. Their clear design principles and persistence for sustainable and high quality products caught my interest - get the small things right and the bigger things have potential to be brilliant. They already have an impressive portfolio, collaborating with Architects in the design of furniture and forms for projects such as the High Line in New York with James Corner, the Olympic Park with LDA in London. I will be doing some intensive Streetlife training before leading the UK market, and regaining firsthand insight into UK building procuration methods after four years of living in the Netherlands. Day-to-day I will be based in the Netherlands, and monthly visiting our clients (City Councils, Landscape Architects and Architects); to discuss more specific details person-to-person, observe and analyse the effectiveness of the procuration processes we are involved in and hopefully contribute to realisation of some beautiful urban public spaces.

Always at the back of my mind is my Architectural thesis on the development and demolition decision of the Red Road area in Glasgow - what to do is still unresolved. It was one of many examples in 1960s Europe where local amenities and public space were cut out of the development budget resulting in generations of troubled neighbourhoods, unprecedented levels of crime, drug abuse and eventual desolation. The influence of public space in a project's success, a city's economic gains and an individual's safety and mental health has been proven crucial from this experimental period. Therefore I’ve decided to document my experiences within this new role, because on a whole I don’t think city development is given enough coverage or criticism..or at least not before it’s too late

 
 

Encouraging a creative culture

A new pilot store in Belgium offering space for young designers to sell their products is a concept "after my own heart". The store SCOOP offers physical space in which upcoming creatives can launch new products, and sell them, without having to be there. Leaving the designer with more time to develop their designs, and pursue new projects.

The concept takes on selling responsibilities, and charges the designer for the space that they are renting based upon the product itself and space it requires. The cherry on the top of this laudable concept is that all sales are commission free. The result is not only a shopping experience that you can tell a story with (that of the designer and their project) but actively brings together the craftsman and businessman in a way that encourages a creative culture stay alive in our cities.

In two weeks time will be the launch of my own similar concept, {as Platform} a project developed together with the Philharmonie in Haarlem and van Dongen-Koschuch | Architects and Planners, all based in the Netherlands. The Philharmonie is a 11000m2 concert hall building, with 200 events per year and around 70,000 visitors, attending a range of events from local concerts to international conferences. vD-K Architects (and namely, Frits van Dongen, the former Rijksbouwmeester) were asked to develop a new interior concept that would use the space in a more inspiring way.

Considering the local role the Philharmonie plays as the "beating heart" of Haarlem, and it's international role as an events space (for the likes of Microsoft) we asked the Philharmonie if they would be interested in doing a little more than replacing their old chairs, using a part of their yearly budget to add another layer of cultural awareness to their programming. Our proposal split the interior concept into two parts. The first part; BASE pieces from established Dutch designers service the functional requirements of the space on a daily basis, and secondly SPECIALS, pieces from upcoming Dutch Designers, creating a unique experience for event goers and providing a platform for young creatives to sell their work. It will require the Philharmonie's current bee-hive of activity to quickly adapt and take on new responsibilities outside their current musical knowledge. Being the dynamic business that they are this didn't phase them, they accepted our proposal and are thrilled to be taking on the new responsibilities involved in housing these special objects. 

The SPECIALS are strategically placed on carpets around the Philharmonie, clearly framed and presented to the visitor. Information about the designer and their projects is available in the vicinity of the object, as well as on the Philharmonie's website where people interested in purchasing an object are directed straight back to the designer. No commission is charged by the Philharmonie, and in the future they even hope to encourage specific events organised around their musical talent and designers combined. There are already talks of some of the current designers involved collaborating to design bespoke pieces specially for the Philharmonie...watch this space.

 

The Philharmonie will be reopening with a new interior on the 14th of April, accompanied by a concert by Spin Vis, more details here.