Simple Things UK

Rosamund Diamond


The UK's late capitalist architecture, which rose to its zenith in the nineties boom, persists in the constant remaking of parts of London and its dependency on land values and marketable developments. This also applies to other cities where building redevelopment has been simplistically associated with regeneration. There is another kind of architecture which takes a critical role in proposing sustainable alternatives. Coincident with the recessionary years, small innovative projects have emerged, precisely executed whilst reacting to conventional building procurement. They include urban interventions, arts and community spaces, and small residential schemes, from which a new genre of larger architectural commissions have arisen. The smaller works are not collectively identifiable by their appearance, or a preoccupation with materiality per se. They are generated by more direct interventions, proposing alternative, less elaborate architectural solutions. They are partnered by different practice models, with groups of young architects working with artists and makers, acting as instigators and contractors to realize buildings. Practices such as Assemble, Studio Weave and Architecture 00, started from a curiosity about procurement and building approaches and a resistance to conventional architectural practice, where proscriptive computerized design can quickly detach their younger practitioners from construction methods and opportunities for playful invention. The recent architectural studios propose different modes of urban development in which inhabitants are engaged with their physical environments. How these projects have been developed critiques the slow way architecture is made in the UK, under risk-averse conditions which have reduced the possibilities for innovative and adaptable buildings. They present alternatives in an economic environment in which land values are distortedly high in the south east, and low in other depressed regions, and building use is a dominant component of planning policy.

Whether consciously or not, these practices have been influenced by former generations of urban activation, polemic as much as physical. In the 1970s, English anarchist Colin Ward inspired UK citizens with books such as The Exploding School (1) to change their environments without state intervention. They explored how local amenities, physical environments and social life interact. This direct action from 'bottom-up' initiatives led to small utilitarian projects. Recent interventions are refined architectural responses to their local environments. One of the formative influences on the current generation of architectural activators is the architecture/art studio muf, which has been making public realm projects for the past twenty years. muf were one of the first to present a viable alternative to conventional practice with meticulous designs such as Gilette Square (2009) and Mabley Green (2012) derived from local conditions and the involvement of potential users. The French multi-disciplinary architecture collective Exyzt's London pop-ups on disused infrastructure, Southwark Lido ( 2008) and Dalston Mill (2009) (2), which inspired Assemble's project Folly for a Flyover (2011) were all outreach projects instigated as co-operations with the Barbican Arts Centre by muf, who were the gallery curators at the time (3). The other educational influence is Florian Beigel and Philip Christou's ARU Architectural Research Unit based at London Metropolitan, now Cass University, where several of these young practitioners studied. (4) What distinguishes muf's, and the works of the younger practices, is the meticulous detail with which their buildings and urban designs are executed as projects of architectural substance.


Several of the younger practices came to attention with more speculative temporary projects. They proposed how a city's disused parts could be altered through less predictable architectural interventions and demonstrated to their funders and users the value of architectural risk as an investment for regeneration. These unexpected structures have engaged their inhabitants, making shared and communicable qualities accessible. Since 2008, Practice Architecture have constructed a summer café on the roof of a disused car park in Peckham south east London, with the prosaic building type transformed by access to its dramatic city views. Peckham typifies the threat to London's poorer populations and indigenously sustained town centres, where commercial redevelopment has followed gentrification and the mixed and casual qualities of the area are displaced. In 2011, Practice installed an auditorium commissioned as part of the Bold Tendencies exhibition on its top four floors, organized by the Hannah Barry art gallery, who are responsible for the temporary reinvention of the car park (5).

A common characteristic of the recent short-term architectur is its development through experiments and adaptations of often cheap, familiar building materials. The approach is one of direct action, a need to be able to control architectural form through a hands-on relationship with its fabrication, and the notion of craft. The precisely conceived robust architecture arises from the interdependency of material and form. Assemble's first project, the Cineroleum (2010), emerged from its members' investigation into uses for neglected sites. They transformed a derelict petrol station into a temporary film venue for one month, self-building everything, including the walls, screen, and flip-up seats. The curtain-like enclosure fabricated from DuPont AirGuard® metallized vapour-control material, raised and lowered between performances, recalled old ruched cinema curtains. Studio Weave's Paleys upon Pilers (2012) was an elaborated, historically referential timber framed 'palace on pillars' installed at Aldgate, marking a gateway from the City of London to the Olympic Park, and commemorating Geoffrey Chaucer. These procurer-makers connect historic and typological narratives with craft to reinvent the idea of an inhabitable, mixed-use city. Whilst permanent projects such as the Globe Theatre are historical reconstructions, the Cineroleum, Paleys, and Collective Architecture's collaborative The Empire Café in Glasgow (2012) (6), have used transient architecture to re-engage people with places, identifying alternative urban use by creative association.

Folly for a Flyover[7], a pop-up building constructed on a neglected canal-side site under a major East London road, realized by means of self build, revealed the possibilities of a typically dystopic urban place of overlapping infrastructures. The temporary building secured the site for the community, permanent infrastructure subsequently being installed by the London Legacy Development Corporation for it to continue as an events and cultural public space. Whilst the annually installed pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery is commercially driven, and commodified as art' (8), the UK's architectural vanguard are developing their practice philosophies through these temporary buildings. Formal intentions are resolved as material techniques are refined. Studio Weave's pavilion 'Smith', in Clerkenwell, derived an occupational form working with fibre-cement panels as a stressed skin over a timber frame to enclose space (9). The tooled cladding reconciled the idea of highly skilled craftsmanship with modern computerized fabrication techniques.

These projects have tested London and other cities as places to be sustained by direct community action. Simultaneously, they have depended on predominantly affluent, educated audiences, and arts and cultural organizations as their funders and risk takers. Thus temporary buildings have re-acquired architectural viability in mainstream cultural settings. At the National Theatre, as an alternative venue while its Cottlesloe theatre was being refurbished, Haworth Tomkins designed The Shed (10), a bright red, two hundred and fifty seat temporary performance venue erected on the South Bank (2013).


Pop-up opportunities enable practices to test ideas which translate into more permanent methods. Carmody Groarke's Studio East Dining temporary pavilion (2010), also on a car park rooftop, was mainly constructed from excess or recycled materials from the Olympic site it overlooked. Like the other pop-ups, it was distinguished by its precise, skilful, and appropriate detailing, subsequently transferred into their strategies for the Frieze Art Fair galleries and the Windermere Steamboat Museum. The test for these practices is the translation of their working methods into permanent, more substantial architecture. What started in certain cases as relatively informal practice groups have had to be consolidated into professional studios, whilst maintaining their co-operative structures. It is the latter in which a rich level of inventive, elegant, witty architectural solutions have developed. The other difference with the latest generation of pop-up buildings is that the transfer has been swift or even contiguous. Assemble's current projects include 10 Houses on Cairns Street, the rescue of derelict existing £1 houses in Liverpool as a pilot live work scheme (11), and their winning scheme for Goldsmiths University Art Gallery. Architecture 00, a practice equally of researchers and practitioners, has recently completed two demonstrable projects, with social enterprise spaces and workshops for charitable foundations. In Manor Works Sheffield (2014), they developed the business model and concept as well as the architecture. The architecture of Social Justice Centre (2014) combines existing and new buildings, using a strategy of permanent infrastructure in combination with careful, well-detailed cheap materials, to convey the supportive yet temporary nature of the start-up accommodation it houses. The architectural quality of the temporary has persuaded clients of the viability of the studios and the alternative design approaches offered to make a new generation of public and communally valuable buildings.

(1) The Exploding School (1973), with Tony Fyson, and ­the Bulletin for Environmental Education and 'Arcadia for all: The legacy of a makeshift landscape' Studies in history, planning, and the environment (1984) Dennis Hardy, Colin Ward.

(2) Dalston Mill contained a community kitchen and bread oven.

(3) The projects were parts of the Barbican's Create programme.

(4) Florian Beigel and Philip Christou run the ARU Architecture Research Unit within the school as 'a design laboratory for built research'. It presents an alternative to commercially driven, typologically ordered practice, with less predictable architectural outcomes. Projects include Heyri G39-2 S Korea, YoulHwaDang Book Hall, Payju Book City, S Korea (2009).

(5) Bold Tendencies is a summertime non-profit commissioning art project, now in its 8th year, with the aim of 'commissioning world-class site-specific visual and performing arts in Peckham'. It has commissioned eighty-two works since 2007.

(6) The Empire Café – An exploration of Scotland’s relationship with the North Atlantic slave trade through literary collaborations was based in the Briggait in Glasgow’s Merchant City in 2014, to coincide with the Commonwealth Games.

(7) Adjacent to a canal on the edge of the Olympic Park, it was built from recycled materials by a team of volunteers; it existed for nine weeks in 2011 and attracted 40,000 visitors. Daytime use included a cafe, workshops, events, and boat trips. Evening use included film showings.

(8) 'This art, that deliberately places itself in the rear guard, is also indicative of the refusal to come to terms with the contradictions of the city and resolve them completely', in: Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia, Design and Capitalist Development, transl. 1976, p. 139, Progetto e Utopia, 1973.

(9) The building was developed by Studio Weave in co-operation with the manufacturers.

(10) 'The temporary nature permits a structure that can be seen less as a building than as an event or installation – a vibrant intervention on London's South Bank designed to entrance, and sometimes bewilder, passers-by for a period of twelve months. Its simple form houses a 225-seat auditorium made of raw steel and plywood.' Haworth Tomkins website

(11) Assemble are working with Granby Four Streets CLT (Community Land Trust) on almost valueless, deteriorated housing stock using the city's £1 per house programme encouraging renovation.

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