Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Low-cost architecture

click photo to enlarge
It must be extremely satisfying to make good, low-cost architecture out of simple materials. It must also be very difficult! Given a large amount of money, a great location and an interesting brief, most architects should be able to come up with a structure that meets the client's requirements and contributes something significant to the site: Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers do it all the time! But, a nailed-down brief, a tight budget, and an undistinguished setting make the job much more of a challenge.

In the UK, particularly in the period from the 1950s through to the 1980s, public sector architects worked in this way, and produced some of the best buildings of those years. Critics will say that they produced some of the worst too, citing grim high-rise flats, windy council estates and drab concrete multi-storey car parks. And yes, the output was not of uniformly high quality. But, buildings like Rookwood Infant School, Eastleigh (1981) or the public library at Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire (1970), despite the constraints noted above, match the best that the private sector produced at this time. The photograph above shows the north elevation of a children's nursery in Fleetwood, Lancashire. It was built by Lancashire County Council's architect's department in the mid-1970s, and it exemplifies some of the qualities that I admire. The building is faced with brick, areas of dark timber cladding, has mainly floor to ceiling glazing, and is capped by a monopitch roof. The strength of its design comes from the careful attention to proportion, the outlining of shapes, the contrast of surfaces, and the way the main forms visually and actually interlock. These combine to give it an integrity that is a pleasure to see.

My photograph shows some of the basic underlying forms of the building, and benefits particularly from the nice detail of the curved wall that hides and encloses the bins and also borders the adjoining primary school playground. I used this sweep of brick in my composition to take the eye, from the left, through to the window line in the main wall, and then along and up to the apex of the dark roof. The painted lines on the playground helped the image by echoing some of the angles above, and by adding visual interest to the lower right. Despite this elevation, naturally, being in shadow, the shapes and tones collectively produced a photograph that pleases me.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen