27 June 2011

BDP: 5 Cities, 5 Places, One Day

As mentioned in a previous post Building Design Partnership (BDP) turns 50 this year (1961-2011). The book '61/11 Continuous Collective' is reviewed here but BDP have also commissioned a short film by Camilla Robinson, producer and director of Dapper Films, as part of the celebrations. In the film five BDP-designed buildings are visited throughout the course of one day, with footage of the buildings interwoven with commentary from local people and those who inhabit and use them. The buildings span the practices' 50 years of existence: Glasgow Science CentreArmada Housing, the Netherlands; Hampden Gurney Primary School; Halifax Building Society Headquarters, Halifax; and Liverpool One, representing the wide range of typologies that BDP work with.

Speaking to BDP about the film (here), Camilla Robinson, who has worked for numerous art and architecture companies (including Living Architecture and MVRDV), said that the difference with this commission and others was that "BDP were not interested in showing interviews with the architects and instead chose to focus on the life of buildings after they had effectively let them go." Camilla, who comes from a family of architects, has chosen to "tell the story of the buildings through the people who inhabit them" and found it an "exciting challenge to communicate a more three dimensional and sensory understanding of what a building can mean to different people." 

It is the commentary from local people that is most unique, such as one man who has the following to say about Halifax: "When you look at it from the outside it is a strange looking building but there aren't that many like it. It's a one off really" (with pride in his voice at this last part). Hearing from these people provides an insight into how the building has been taken into the local landscape, in a way that a standard interview with the original architect or design team can not. The various voices are interwoven into the narrative, with a range of people heard, from young children at Hampden Gurney to someone who has spent over a decade working at Halifax. The idea of the architect 'letting go of a building' is an interesting one to explore in film because it is exactly this condition through which the built environment is experienced.


The video can be viewed on YouTube here and Vimeo here.

21 June 2011

Utopia Shrugged

In the 20th century two dominant visions for social utopias emerged that would have far reaching consequences for how cities across the world are planned. These proposals have their root in the phenomena of industrialisation and consequential urbanisation that would see urban populations grow from 15% in the late 19th century to over 50% today. Along the way these utopias were compromised in favour of something different and it is with that legacy that architects and urban planners find themselves tackling in post-industrial cities.

New East Manchester.


In the 18th and 19th century the UK experienced an unprecedented growth in agricultural production, fuelled by mechanised farming techniques, freeing up significant proportions of the population from agrarian practices. This burgeoning work force were drawn to the cities in search of better economic opportunities and found it in the workshops of an expanding industrial economy. For the first time in history the majority of the population was now divorced from the land that had traditionally sustained them.

As the cities choked and strained under the pressure of “deleterious physical spaces increasingly devoid of any natural elements” (Latham et al. 2009: 56) many people, justifiably, didn’t like what they saw. Lord Rosebery, speaking as Chairman of the London County Council where rural flight had swelled the capital’s population to 6.5 million, compared it to a “tumour, an elephantiasis sucking into its gorged system half the life and the blood and bone of the rural districts” (Howard 1902/2010: ii). Reacting to these conditions an appetite for socialist reform emerged, self-charged with tackling both the physical and moral degradation afflicting the masses. This manifested itself through “early pieces of social legislation, designed to prevent political unrest and disease” (Canniffe 2006: 45) and new utopian visions that attempted to heal the division between town and country, proposing radical changes to the embryonic industrial society.

A romantic yearning for man to return to nature can hardly be claimed to be the sole property of this era. The Arts and Craft movement, instigated by William Morris and inspired by John Ruskin, would seek to align nature with the realms of architecture and urban design. Ruskin, an “early advocate of town planning” (Glaeser 2011: 202) and critic of industrialisation, urged that “from any part of the city perfectly fresh air and grass and the sight of far horizon might be reachable in a few minutes walk” (Howard 1902: 1). This desire for closeness to nature was reinforced by poor sanitation and miasma theory so that the virtues of this relationship were, at the time, intellectually informed. Furthermore, “historically, the wealthy managed to combine the city and country by having two homes” (Glaeser 2011: 203) and as global income levels rose more people wanted to share in the town and country experience.

One solution was the development of municipal parks, such as Phillips Park in Manchester (1846) or, on a larger scale, the Frederick Law Olmstead designed Central Park in New York (1857). Simultaneously providing recreational spaces and ‘clean lungs’ for the city, these new facilities failed to tackle other issues and as such other strategies were put forward that didn’t require interventions into the existing urban fabric but instead focused on entirely new developments. These included Ruskin’s proposal for a “compact, walled town, girded by a ‘belt of beautiful garden and orchard round the walls’” (Glaeser 2001: 202) and projects instigated by a “series of benign industrialists” (Canniffe 2006: 45) who created model villages at Saltaire (1853), Bourneville (1879) and Port Sunlight (1888). Operating between these, Ebenezer Howard would propose his own variant in the shape of the Garden City, a planned municipal welfare town, with a mixed economy, surrounded by a greenbelt. Howard outlined this vision in his 1898 book To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform and would go on to champion the Garden City movement that would result in the garden cities of Letchworth (1903) and Welwyn (1919).

The Birth of Modern Town Planning

Ebenezer Howard “has the strongest claim to be the founder of modern town planning” (Schoon 2001: 33), despite his position as an amateur not professionally associated with either architecture or urbanism, because of the wider reaching influence of his short book. Howard was able to synthesise an eclectic range of previously published sources into a coherent diagram that was a solution for reintegrating man with nature. Despite some critics dismissing the text as yet another piece of utopian literature interest in it gained momentum, and the Garden City Association forming in 1899 (predating the Town Planning Institute by 15 years) followed by a second edition in 1902 (revised, with the new title Garden Cities of To-morrow) that was translated into numerous languages for a global audience.

The book is a “third way between socialism and individualism” (Schoon 2001: 33) that reflects Howard’s political philosophy and which he hoped would provide a platform for social reform. Although he did not belong to the socialist mainstream his political ideologies were closely aligned to those of the Co-operative movement. The word ‘co-operation’ appears in one of the book’s diagrams, ‘The Three Magnets’, highlighting the importance “of groups of individuals coming together freely to create socialism by practical actions” (Ward 2002: 22). However, the socialist reformist message was lost and instead the key principles behind the urban planning strategy were divorced from the economic and social argument. It is from the selective application of these physical strategies, including, closeness to the countryside, high density, walkability, and a protective green built, that modern town planning has emerged.

'The New Britain Must Bet Planned', 1941 Article
(Image Copyright: MMU Visual Resources)

An integral part of the “new discourse” on town planning (2002: 32), was the Garden City Association (renamed the Town and Country Planning Association in 1941), initially chaired by Howard. Furthermore, the construction of Letchworth and Welwyn would act as catalysts for change that culminated in, but was not limited to, the 1946 New Towns Act. However, “when people talk about New Towns they don’t mean the garden cities” but places that “were intended to be self-sufficient but became just another part of the commuter belt” – such as Crawley or Stevenage (Hatherley 2010: 50). Planners also made use of greenbelts as weapons to counteract sprawl. Whilst appearing to have been successful, “widen your view and you find that development has merely leapfrogged beyond the Green Belt” (Schoon 2001: 56). Howard’s failure to originally take account of the car meant that life in the “bounded city” was not intensified but inadvertently led to “loose indefinite sprawl” (Fishman 2002: 64).

Exploring the relationship between Greenbelts and Sprawl

Towards A Functional Garden City

Twenty-four years after the publication of Howard’s book a young Architect, Le Corbusier, exhibited the ‘Ville Contemporaine’ (Contemporary City), at the Salon d’Automne, a proposal for twenty-four, sixty-story towers surrounded by parkland (Contandriopulos & Franics 2008: 193). The Ville Contemporaine, partly published in L’Esprit Nouveau, would provide the foundation for his first book on urban theory, Urbanisme (1925). As Le Corbusier developed his designs away from a radial, hierarchic model towards a classless and theoretically limitless, linear, model the Ville Radieuse (Radiant City, 1935) emerged and “took the open-city concept of the Ville Contemporaine to its logical conclusion” (Frampton 1980/2007: 180). Ville Radieuse, together with studies undertaken by the Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM), during the cruise to Athens in 1933, formed the 95 propositions for a functional city in Le Corbusier’s The Athens Charter (1943). Observations in it echo those of Howard and his contemporaries, including the inadequate access to “verdant areas” in cities. By outlining his own proposals for social reform (informed by Syndicalism, rule by industrial elites) Le Corbusier would set out a “vision of a modern city that would not fundamentally change over the next forty years” (Contandriopulos & Franics 2008: 193).

The Ville Radieuse has been described as “the garden city on stilts and steroids, pumped up into the sky” (Schoon 2001: 218). Inspection of both the Ville Contemporaine and Ville Radieuse reveal a number of comparisons with the Garden City, principally the relationship between housing, parkland and greenbelt. In the pre-war years Corbusier had been influenced by the ideas of Camillo Sitte but would later abandon ‘the pack-donkeys way’ (Le Corbusier 1929: 5-12) towards the straight line, particularly after viewing Tony Garnier’s own vision of modernity, Uné Cite Industrielle in 1917 (Contandriopulos & Franics 2008: 193).

Tony Garnier, a French Architect, began working on the Cite Industrielle (Industrial City) whilst he was a student in Rome in 1899. Garnier himself was influenced by the “utopian and positivist traditions of Charles Fourier and Saint-Simon, as well as the more recently published urban ideas of Frederic Le Play and Ebenezer Howard” (2008: 123). The Cite had a limited impact on modern urban planning when compared with Howard, “despite the obvious impact on the urbanistic thought of Le Corbusier” (Frampton 1980/2007: 103). Whereas Howard was able to realize two model towns Garnier’s work was restricted to isolated projects, although the extent to which the model Garden Cities are representative of Howard’s utopian vision is in itself questionable.

All three proposals rely on zoning to separate the different functions of a city, with residential, industrial and commercial areas defined in plan. However, differences appear in the aesthetic treatment associated with the separate zones and their respective functions. Being “intimately linked to the development of the Arts and Craft movement” (Frampton 1980/2007: 103) the civic, residential and industrial buildings of a Garden City would be clearly delineated in architectural form. Garnier reinforces the distinctions between industrial, residential and civic buildings “to aid inhabitants in the reading of their urban environment” but that this “evaporates in the proposals of those that follow him” (Canniffe 2006: 50-51).  This process of ‘evaporation’ is borne out in the Ville Radieuse where buildings are reduced to a series of slabs and towers. Le Corbusier takes Howard’s Grand Avenue (Howard 1902: 4-5) to its logical conclusion, freeing up the ground plain into continuous parkland by elevating both buildings, on pilotis, and highways.

As visually dissimilar as the two visions of Ebenezer Howard and Le Corbusier are they are each borne of a concern for their, chronologically respective, urban environments. Both attempt to engineer new urban spaces to provide new possibilities for integrating the natural (country) and artificial (town).

Enter “Mother” Jacobs

The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) marks a change in direction for future visions of the city. Its author, Jane Jacobs, in the tradition of Howard as an amateur, offered up her own observations on what she saw was going right and wrong in cities, focusing on her own neighbourhood of Greenwich Village, New York. Described 40 years later as “among the most important and hopeful books ever written about cities” (Schoon 2001: 219) and praised for knowing that “you need to walk a city’s streets to see its soul” (Glaeser 2011: 11), Jacobs urged change but on a more modest scale than the utopian dreams of Howard or Le Corbusier. She had an aversion to social utopias, particularly the authoritarian and paternalistic nature of Howards (Jacobs 1961/1993: 24-26).

Jacobs was scathing in her attack on both Howard and Le Corbusier, possibly doing more than any other author to harm the reputation of their respective types of urbanism (Schuyler 2002: 12).  She described Howard as a ‘city-destroyer’, his ideas as “feudal” and Garden Cities as “really very nice towns if you were docile and had no plans of your own” (Jacobs 1961/1993: 24, 378). This attack was informed through Jacob’s observations and encounters with the Garden City movement in the United States, whose chief advocate was Lewis Mumford. Along with other Decentrists Mumford favoured a low-scale, low-density alternative of the Garden City (Jacobs 1961/1993: 27), this would culminate in a devolved model, nothing more than dormitory suburbs. The Decentrists were responsible for popularising the idea that ‘streets are bad environments’ a stark contrast to Jacobs who felt that streets were the key element in urban life. Mumford would hit back in defence of the Garden City in an article in the New Yorker under the sarcastic title “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies”, whilst he agreed with Jacob’s criticism of high-rise solutions he had “little appreciation for the bigness of metropolitan life” (Contandriopulos & Franics 2008: 341).

The language Jacobs used to depict Le Corbusier was less colourful but equally damning, stating that “he was merely adapting in a shallow fashion reforms that had been a response to the nostalgic yearnings for a bygone simpler life” (Jacobs 1961/1993: 445). Le Corbusier’s attempts to integrate the car had been one of the main elements that set it aside from Howard’s (along with much higher densities - 18,143 people per 2 compared with just 5,464) but as Jacobs observed this “vision of skyscrapers in the park degenerates in real life into skyscrapers in parking lots” (1961/1993: 446). Even if the skyscrapers were served by ‘parkland’, there is often little difference between empty expanses of grass and full car parks, both are wasteland and examples proliferate across the world. Edward Glaeser, in his praise for Jacobs does point out that she is also not without here faults, with “mistakes that came from relying too much on her ground-level view” (Glaeser 2011: 11).

Demolition in Hulme, 1985 (Image Copyright: MMU Visual Resources)

Jacobs can be seen as part of a wider reaction against architects and other professionals championing urban visions in the 20th century. By the 1960s and 1970s there was growing unease with the Le Corbusier inspired vision, “the unfortunate alliance of idealism and bureaucracy allowed for small mistakes to be endlessly multiplied” (Canniffe 2006: 47), such as the Ronan Point Tower explosion in 1968 (Levy & Salvadori 1992/2002: 76-83), that would see towers demolished. The principles of the garden city model were also being called into question, as the new towns had failed to inspire and “neither saved, nor transformed nor take over the great towns and cities” (Schoon 2001: 218) as Howard had envisioned in his dystopian portrait of London (Howard 1902: 104-111). Howard had been trying to open up the process of urbanisation, so that its benefits were not restricted to a few elites, but this has clearly not happened. Greenbelts have had a negative impact, restricting land supply and new construction where it is most in demand, like London, increasing prices (Glaeser 2011: 11), although London’s prominence as a global city means other factors should not be discounted (Sassen 1991). The growth in suburban dormitories and the reliance on the car may have allowed people to be ‘closer’ to nature but the consequences for the environment are now well known.

A scepticism about urban visions, following the failure of the two “most admired and influential” (Schoon 2001: 218), wouldn’t be repaired until a number of successful landmark regeneration projects transformed the fortunes of post-industrial cities around the world, allowing design professionals some credibility in once again leading the re-planning of cities.

A New To-morrow

The utopias may not have come into fruition but following the world financial collapse of 2007 there is a renewed enthusiasm for architectural projects with a strong social emphasis. As with Howard in 1898 realistic and pragmatic proposals are emerging that talk about opportunities, potential and community involvement. The importance of creating ‘sustainable futures’, particularly as people become more aware of their own impact on the planet, means that designers are seeking new ways to merge town and country. Over the last 150 years there has been an oscillation between interventions into the city (from the scale of a park to entire districts) and building new settlements. Cities are also, no longer considered as two-variable (density and open space) problems but complex entities. A number of recent schemes now tackle urban issues at a medium-scale, intervening in the urban fabric where necessary but without creating a tabula rasa.

White Arkitekter's proposals for new homes in Salford.

For example, the recent competition winning scheme from White Arkitekter for a “visionary development” (Salford House 4 Life Brief) in Salford takes a “landscape lead and focuses on the creation of social and green spatial solutions for family living” (White Arkitekter). This ethos resonates with the Garden City ideals whilst also making use mixed densities and uses within a “framework” to be appropriated by the community that echoes the teachings of Jane Jacobs. The project is simultaneously concerned with the scale of the street and its relationship to the wider urban context.

The visions may no longer be about creating social utopias but this is perhaps to their benefit, allowing them to focus on creating realistic proposals that not only have wider benefits for the city but positive impacts on the everyday lives of their residents too.


This piece was written originally for the Cities and Urban Ideologies Module, part of the MA Architecture + Urbanism course at the Manchester School of Architecture. It builds on the a previous review of Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities of To-morrow which can be found here.

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17 June 2011

The Hepworth Wakefield

The city of Wakefield was once known for its coal and textile industries but these have long since gone, victims of the Thatcher government in the 1970s and 80s. Today it is best known as the hometown to one the most renowned British sculptors of the 20th century: Barbara Hepworth. A contemporary of Henry Moore, John Piper and Ben Nicholson, the work of Hepworth is celebrated in a new gallery that has recently opened in the place where she grew up. The new gallery relocates and expands the city’s existing art collection, providing a new home for work not just from Hepworth but other British and European artists - that puts Hepworth’s own work in context. One of the gallery spaces is devoted to a unique collection of plaster casts and other working materials that offers an insight into Barbara Hepworth’s working methods. Space is also provided for visiting shows and the gallery will commission work from younger artists, to show the continuing development of contemporary art. The gallery aims to provide a new social space within the city, which extends from new external spaces into the interior of the gallery. Public programmes of talks, lectures, film screenings, and tours are planned so that visitors can learn about art, architecture and design.

Entrance (Copyright: Carrie Bayley / Luke Butcher)

New art galleries and museums have become a mainstay of regeneration projects in recent years and examples proliferate across the world. The Hepworth at Wakefield is no different, with the David Chipperfield designed building anchoring the ‘Waterfront Wakefield’ development, although when the original RIBA international competition to find an Architect was held in 2003 the global landscape was obviously different. The gallery is likely to be one of the last of these projects in the UK but it is hoped that it will succeed where there have been so many public failures. Its success will undoubtedly be helped by the fact that entry is free, and it appears to have been embraced favourably by locals although the design of the gallery itself will also have a crucial role to play.

Gallery in relation to the Calder (Copyright: Carrie Bayley / Luke Butcher)

Located on a prominent position on the headland of the River Calder the Gallery sits in a conservation area that includes the 18th century Grade II* Listed Navigation Warehouse (recently restored by BDP) and the Grade II listed Phoenix and Rutland Mills complex. Bounded by water on two sides the gallery complex appears to rise out of the ground, a dynamic form that could have been sculpted from a geological formation. This comparison to a rock formation is reinforced through the materiality of the building, a pigmented purple-grey concrete (self-compacted and constructed insitu) and that the material continues onto the roof. There is an interesting dialectic between the building as an imitation of natural landscape and one that carefully responds to the scale and form of the vernacular warehouse ‘sheds’.

Photographs of the gallery, which has been published extensively already, are often cropped to show its relationship to the river and vegetation, with little acknowledgement of its urban environment, particularly the busy road that runs past it.

Interior view (Copyright: Carrie Bayley / Luke Butcher)

Designed as a “conglomeration of differently sized trapezoidal blocks” (David Chipperfield Architects), each mass responds to the rooflines of the surrounding, small-scale industrial buildings, to create a series of pitched roof volumes. The building has no standard elevations because of the complex geometries and from certain viewpoints it is ‘compressed’, creating an aggressive form which, particularly on the approach from the new bridge, doesn’t easily identify its entrance.  Each block forms a room on the inside of the gallery. The internal spaces have a domestic quality, inspired by the location’s original home – Wakefield Art Gallery – but the different proportions and scale of spaces creates a varied sequence of spaces. This sequence flows effortlessly form room to room so that, what on plan appears confused, allows visitors to move around freely in a loop. All of the galleries are located on the upper floor, with the other functions now required of a modern gallery (café, performance space, education workshops, administration), situated on the ground floor.

View from a picture window (Copyright: Carrie Bayley / Luke Butcher)

Natural light plays an important role in the gallery designs. ‘Slot lights’ in the gallery roof bring down natural light from the top but it is the large picture windows that are the most unique aspect of the galleries. Although not in every room (situated in 6 of the 10 galleries), these windows allow visitors to orientate themselves, with carefully selected, elevated views back over the city of Wakefield, the river and new garden areas. Often as you enter a room you are greeted with a picture window that will draw you across the room and at times this can be a distraction from the art work. Despite this, you are required to turn and move back through the space, and the art work, to continue your journey, and re-engage with the art. This is a gallery then that is equally about embracing the context of the surrounding city, not just about revering the art. What also sets the Hepworth apart from other recent galleries is how the architecture is not in conflict with the art work, neither dominates.

David Chipperfield talks about the gallery and his design philosophy in terms of both formal expressions, responding to “memory and experience” and that “architecture should be both familiar and unfamiliar” (speaking to the Hepworth Wakefield). At Hepworth the scale of the building is defined by the internal experiences, the memory of domestic space, creating a form that is bold, new and but feels appropriate in its surroundings.

The gallery then oscillates between a number of conditions that are both complimentary and contrasting. Taken as an abstract structure it is both an imitation of the surrounding industrial buildings and a geological, natural formation. A solid construction method is punctured by controlled openings that allow soft, natural light to compliment the space without overwhelming the art work. Whilst the plan is executed rigorously to allow the space to make read internally, when it could so easily have be an exercise in wilful form-making.


This piece was originally prepared for Notes on Metamodernism on the 15th June 2011 here.

12 June 2011

Review: 61/11 Continuous Collective

Building Design Partnership (BDP) turns 50 this year (1961-2011) and as part of the celebrations they have organised a series of events, including an exhibition, a film and a book entitled ‘61/11 Continuous Collective’ – which will be the focus of this review. Written by RIBA Journal editor Hugh Pearman the book traces the history of the practice from its origins as a pioneering design firm in Preston into the UK’s largest interdisciplinary practice, with offices across the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, India, China and Abu Dhabi. The main focus of the book is on the design ethos of the practice, particularly the notion of collective authorship and continuation of the left-leaning aspirations of George Grenfell Baines, the practices founder. In addition, key “catalyst” projects, that are said to have significantly advanced the work of BDP, are highlighted, with complementary essays provided by Lee Mallett and Owen Hatherley, “Flexing with Time – Economic ups and downs” and “The Collective Idea” respectively.

BDP. Continuous Colelctive (BDP, 2011)

BDP began life in a former biscuit factory in Preston – a burolandschaft conversion – at a time when signature architecture was emerging in the UK, with architects such as Denys Lasdun and James Stirling “striking out in very individual directions” (2011: 4). George Grenfell Baines, despite already having a successful practice (Grenfell Baines & Hargreaves), “chose to go in the opposite direction” (2011: 4). He was inspired by the “Cathedral of Socialism” – the Bauhaus – where he saw what was being done by Walter Gropius and thought “Why not do this with the building industry and the professions? Group practices of all the disciplines!” (2011: 30) Whilst Gropius had artists with him, Grenfell Baines went further, integrating architects with engineers and planners. Gropius would later comment on Grenfell Baines’ achievements by saying “You have done what I would have liked to have done at Dessau” (2011: 33).

This model of practice was looked on less than favourably by the recognised establishment, particularly the RIBA, but “while the institute fretted about that, BDP just got on with it. At a time when “architects had tended to be architects, engineers engineers, and so on” BDP proved that far from creating conflicts of interest, the disciplines could work side by side to create “better service” (2011: 6). Hugh Pearman adds that “what BDP tried first, later become institutionally acceptable: the practice came to be a kind of professional testbed for new ways of working, which are nowadays, of course, utterly proven.”

Professor Sir George Grenfell Baines was
affectionately known as 'GG' (Image: BDP)

Not only did BDP join up the different disciplines, it was also collectively owned, with a deliberately loose structure that reflected the social aspirations of Grenfell Baines. The office landscape, reflected in the burolandschaft set up, allowed for “an environment where ideas can take root” or, as former chairman Richard Saxon describes it, practice-within the orbit” with “individuals running their parts within the whole” (2011: 8-9). This set up still exists today, with the individual offices allowed to operate with a degree of autonomy. Another benefit to this working method and office structure is that there is no overall style that can be attributed to BDP as a practice. Whilst Grenfell Baines might be described as a “romantic functionalist”, BDP has flirted with numerous styles in it’s 50 years of existence, the individual designers and design teams have been allowed freedom as long as they work in a rigorous manner and believe in what they are doing. Although, it is possible to discern particular trends in BDP buildings at particular periods in time; for instance through the choice of materials and their treatment.

The lack of discernible styles reinforces BDP’s work in raising the base standard of the “total built environment.” To Pearman the 'good ordinary' is a “noble aspiration in building” because it “implies the greatest good for the greatest number” (2011: 8). BDP has completed a great deal of work over the years, both background and foreground, and that little of it has been demolished over time is held up as testament to the quality of that work. There seems to be a growing appetite for the ‘good ordinary’ now, in the wake of copious spending on iconic projects, and it is good to see a book highlighting successful examples of this when, even now, so much print is still expended on the lavish. As Grenfell Baines put it in 1987: “Handsome buildings that perform poorly are no more good to society than are good looking unreliable husbands or beautiful wayward wives to home and family. Ask the children” (2011: 12).

In his essay Owen Hatherley comments that architecture is “an art form dictated by capital and collaborative working” (2011: 28) and that BDP is a practice that acknowledges this collective authorship. However, in later sections of the book, as projects are described in more detail certain individuals are picked out for their role. This trend begins with Keith Ingham who was specifically credited for his role in leading the design of Preston Bus Station and the book touches briefly upon the “consternation” that his caused before using it to illustrate the creative freedom allowed. There is a degree of tension with the book talking openly about the ‘collective’ and then signalling out individuals, not whole design teams. No matter how ‘flat’ the structure of an organisation there will undoubtedly be key figures who take on guiding roles within the design and construction process but how do you balance this within the ‘collective spirit’? It is a question that the book doesn't fully answer and it obviously would have been impractical to name every individual involved with every project featured.

Halifax was a "game-changer" for BDP
(Image: BDP Placebook)

There are three sections focusing on ‘catalyst projects’ with the first entitled “They came from the North” (2011: 54-95) and begins with three of BDP’s most recognisable projects: Bradford University (1965-71), Preston Bus Station (1968-69) and Halifax Building Society Headquarters (1974).  As part of their 50th anniversary celebrations BDP have launched an online poll (Placebook) to find the ‘most loved’ BDP project and Preston (at the time of writing) leads the list by a considerable margin, some what ironic given that BDP has drawn up plans that would see it demolished. Halifax also makes the top five and Pearman describes the project as a “game-changer”, showing that the firm could “compete at the highest level on an interdisciplinary basis, on innovatory buildings” (2011: 70). From these projects BDP would “flourish” from its working class roots in the North West, with a branch-office in London, into a practice that “could handle projects at all scales and level of ambition, nationally and internationally” (2011: 73). Buildings like the un-built, competition-winning United Nations Building in Vienna from 1969, show how quickly the practice developed. The next 25 years are compressed into two trends of work, ‘icons’ like the Glasgow Science Centre and conservation or heritage work like Durham’s Millburngate or the Royal Albert Hall.

Hampden Gurney Primary School
(Image: BDP Placebook)

The second set of catalytic projects, “The Learning Curve”, focuses on BDP’s work in education projects at the turn of the 21st century. Hampden Gurney, a vertical primary school in Marleyborne, London (2001), shortlisted for the Stirling Prize, is showcased along with University of Sunderland’s St Peter’s Campus to show how BDP “rediscovered its modernist design mojo” following “years of aesthetic uncertainty in the 1980s” (2011: 99). Pearman talks about ‘radical shifts’ in the practice as it returned to “humanist-inspired Scandinavian modernism” whilst the role of new chairman Tony McGuirk is frequently referenced. This period also reflects a change in emphasis for the practice away from commercial work towards public sector projects, highlighted by the number of schools and health care projects.

Channel Tunnel UK Terminal (Image: BDP)

Projects highlighted in the third catalyst section, “The Bigger Picture”, deal with the large scale urban planning and master planning projects. The Chanel Tunnel UK Terminal (1994), All England Lawn Tennis Club (1997) and Liverpool One (2008) are all said to build upon BDP’s experience planning campuses like the ICI Headquarters, Wilton, Teesside (1974). These experiences are now being are now being put to use across a range of projects dealing with transport, sport and urbanism. Pearman notes that “the practice’s experience of large-scale urban design is now increasingly in demand around the world” (2011: 172). The book concludes by looking at how BDP’s work is becoming increasingly international. This growing portfolio of planned work reflects the diverse range of typologies the practice has experience in but focuses on large-scale urban planning, particularly the Seaton New Town on the eastern edge of Toronto.

It was always going to be difficult to distil 50 years of practice into 190 pages and at times the projects aren’t given the attention to detail you feel they deserve. The book could easily have been twice as long though the decision to combine a narrative with essays is far more interesting than a standard monograph - that so often feel like glorified corporate brochures. Some projects, particularly those ‘iconic’ structures from the 1970s receive more pages than others and as a reader you feel you understand these better as a result. Interviews and first hand experiences complement the drawings and add another level of commentary. More recent projects, from the last 15-20 years, dominate the later half of the book but the shear number of them, compressed into such a short space, means that they are read off, at times, like a list. Perhaps it would have been better to be more selective, as with the projects from the early years. There is also a big leap between projects from the 1970s to late 1990s, almost as if the “wobble in the market-driven 1980s” (2011: 6) never happened. These slight criticisms aside readers are still likely to find projects they weren't aware of and enough information to spark an interest to find out more.

In summary 61/11 Continuous Collective provides an interesting insight into the development of a practice that has played a major role in the development of the built environment across the UK. Central to this development has been this idea of ‘collective’ working as the method to integrate design and social idealism. BDP’s large size has allowed it to ‘specialise’ but still handle a variety of typologies with a focus on user-centred design. It is also refreshing to see a book that talks openly about the ‘good ordinary’ and it is perhaps an approach, when all design disciplines are coming under increasing pressure to prove their worth, which other practices could look to emulate.


Pearman, H. (2011), BDP. Continuous Collective, 1st Edition, London: BDP

9 June 2011

Building Futures Debate - Manchester

On Wednesday June 22nd 2011, at the RIBA Hub, I will be taking part in the RIBA Building Futures Debate discussing their latest publication "The Future for Architects" - a report that explores the future role of architects. The debate will explore the ideas, vision and services of practitioners in the context of a rapidly changing profession, asking - who will design our buildings in 2025; what roles will those trained in architecture be doing then and how will architectural practice have changed as a result?

This is a free event but booking is essential, to reserve your place, email: For more information click here.

The panel will feature:
Dickon Robinson – Chair, Building Futures
Gavin ElliottHead of Manchester Studio, BDP
Cristina CerulliStudio Polpo
Ben Davies – The Neighbourhood
Professor Tom Jefferies - Head of School, Manchester School of Architecture
Dele Adeyemo - Co-founder and Director, Pidgin Perfect

I will be using the debate as part of my ongoing Masters research into the future of architectural practice.