SEVEN by SEVEN

POST 36

I am pushing against the wind to enter the Park. I leap the fence and suddenly everything is alive; the leaves and grasses bend under the force of the wind and shimmer in restless animation.

I have lapsed lately in Thinking Quietly, so let this be my revival.

I am 49 today, 7×7, 14th June 2014. Having been obsessed with the number 7 since the moment I could count, it is a good number to be. Full of imminence.

Why do I like 7 ? Is it the seven days of Creation, or the days of the week, the number of levels in Heaven and Earth according to Islam or the number of celestial objects in the solar system visible to the naked eye from Earth ? I don’t know, I think it’s just a satisfying number; neither a beginning nor an end. Seven is on its way somewhere; part of something bigger than itself.

At the far end of the MIA Park, buffeted by the wind is ‘7’, Richard Serra’s tower of seven steel plates located at the tip of Doha’s baby Corniche; this is somewhere I have not been since the sculpture was installed.

Seen from afar ‘7’ never seems big enough; viewed across the Bay, dwarfed by the great museum, because it is so far away, it seems less significant than it really is. It is prevented from interaction by mere distance. The Bay is like Doha’s ‘lens’; magnifying the grand structures which surround it and bringing them closer, but not in the case of ‘7’. Up close it is very large; but is it large enough ?

I arrive at the ‘baby Corniche’, like the child’s arm held in embrace, arm in arm with the mother, and look across the roughened water, planished by the incessant wind, making a surface like beaten metal. The slightly leaning form of ‘7’ becomes a flattened shape with the towers of West Bay beyond, distinguished now by its darkness of tone rather than by height; two layers simply glued together.

I want to reach over the water and touch ‘7’, or fly across the baby-bay like a sea-bird, but instead I will walk round the encircling curve, leaning into the wind.

On my way, I am drawn to climb the green hills, cushiony under foot, velvety to touch; a false horizon, truncating forms; and an irresistible vantage point for the quiet few who are out there with me.

The Sun is going down behind the Grand Mosque. The tipping light, from day to night, softens everything; makes it quieter even, inspite of the raging wind.
I look behind me and there to my surprise is the full Moon rising. Sun falls, Moon brightens, Earth spins.

Turning back to ‘7’, and looking beyond it to the city, there is the National Archive, its mottled surface beginning to glow in the dusk light, there is the Islamic Museum beginning to show its age – silicon joints failing – and our own new office (a new home for the next year). It is a time of beginning; the next in a cycle of sevens.

On arriving at ‘7’, this tower of rusted steel seems rather self-contained. I cannot hear it speaking, or singing in the wind. The little man guarding it is comfortable though; sheltered between two of its plates. He brings it to life. Maybe he is there to show its scale.

The patina and thickness of the steel is indeed magnificent. Its warmth to touch is pleasing. Looking up, the way the plates lean against each other is good, although I wonder about its junction with the ground. I move on.

‘7’ ignores the directional forces of the place, something which the trees, shaped by the prevailing Northwest wind, do not. On my way back, a man leans windwards to continue sweeping, until his day’s work ends and he, like me, can go home.

 

Embracing curveEmbracing curve.

Two flat layers

 

Two layers flattened.

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5_Place to GoPlace to go.

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The Sun.

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The Moon.

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Leaning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TOUCH ME NOT

POST 35

Drive a few miles East of Vellore, towards Chennai – the burial place of Doubting Thomas – and you will find a green place, on the South side of the road, spreading out like a garden, leading to the foot of a high hill. It is the site of a new hospital. As you begin to explore, looking down at the rich ground, wherever you look is Touch Me Not, a comb-like plant, Mimosa Pudica, which I have never seen in England. Why is it called that ? Because if you touch it, it recoils instantaneously, with a ‘seismonastic’ movement; tightening its flat spread surface into a fine blade.

You can tell this is a good site for the hospital because Touch Me Not only thrives where there is a good water supply. The hospital will have to be self sufficient for water, at the outset at least, so this is a good site.

Look up now past the lines of palms, heavy with coconuts, and there is Golden Eye Hill, looking down on you, fresh and wild, its fauna and flora co-existing in comfortable balance, untouched by Man.

It is easy to imagine the hospital in the future, opening up towards the Hill. When it is built the landscape will be changed beyond recognition but the hill remains the same. The hospital and the hill will be in continual dialogue; speaking and listening to each other. The wards, consulting rooms and surgeries, OPC, ICU, Emergency, Cardiology, Neurology, Gastrology, Renal, Admin, Labs and Prosthetics, waiting areas, store rooms and laundries – the hurly burly of their grueling daily lives – will all look towards the hill, stable and still, calm custodian of peace, and signal of health.

At the centre of the hospital sits the Chapel. The chapel is central to the hospital just as the healing works of Jesus are central to their work. The Chapel looks out across water, towards Golden Eye Hill. Between the Chapel and the Hill is a garden, a plateau of green pastures and a path leading upwards.

It is just before dawn and I wake. I will walk to the top to see the Sunrise, to clear my head and gain a perspective. I imagine a mother worrying about her sick child in one of the wards, eyes filled with tears; she is walking that way too; walking out from the hospital to the hill, across the Plateau. She sees someone in the garden and thinks it is one of the gardeners at work; ‘Noli Me Tangere’, Touch Me Not.

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THE HOUSE ON THE HILL

POST 34

Normally the layers of cities build up over time. The city gets thicker and thicker and the ground level rises. We are used to walking on a cushion of time (the fourth dimension), six or twelve inches (or feet) above where our forbears walked.

But have you seen the House on the Hill in Zone 18 ?

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What was once a high point has been eaten away to be part of the general flatness; except for the House on the Hill, which is still where it always was.

It is now a rare piece of treasure; a flash of ancient gold in an urban patchwork, calling out to be passed from one generation to the next. Could it ever be saved from the jaws of the bulldozer; by will or by law ? Would it be worth it ?

Indeed this is the spice which makes the stew delicious. It might cost four times as much to renew as to destroy and redevelop but the ‘flavour’ it would give to the entire neighborhood would be of untold value.

In its own right it is a building of unusual charm (an archetype of its kind) but it is not just its charm which matters. It is rather the fact that this is one of the increasingly rare original buildings to be built in the area. Before this very house was built there was sand. It is a direct link to an ancient past, even within a single life-time; a time whence the traditions of human habitation had not changed for centuries, perhaps millennia.

And, according to the writing sprayed on the wall, if you want to live there you can. Just ring 77390030.

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THE STEW AND THE THOUSAND RIYAL BOTTLE OF SPICE

POST 33

There was once a cook who was known for making stodgy stews. They were filling – more than enough to stave off hunger – but they lacked flavor. His restaurant was never full. One day a passing merchant knocked on the door and offered the cook a very small bottle of spice, for the modest price of a thousand riyals. ‘A thousand riyals for that little bottle ? That is ridiculous’ said the cook; ‘I am not interested’.
‘But this is the best spice in the land’ said the merchant, ‘A small fingerful in one of your stews will transform it into a delicious meal. This bottle will last you for a year. There will be queues around the block and you will be able to double your prices. Let me show you…’
So the merchant went to the kitchen and sprinkled a few grains of the spice into the stew, which was bubbling lugubriously on the stove. As the merchant stirred the stew a mouth-watering fragrance wafted up amongst the steam. The cook took a sip and smiled.
He bought the spice bottle for a thousand riyals and from that day on his restaurant became famous. He still made stews with the same simple ingredients he was used to using but there was now something about them which made his customers sigh with delight, and tell all their friends.
It was the spice.

There was once a street lined with very ordinary buildings. Half way along the street was a small run-down old house – one of the original houses to be built when the city was beginning to grow. I am glad to say that an enlightened developer saved that building. It cost him four times as much to refurbish as it would have done if he had knocked it down and built something completely new but as he said, ‘it was worth every penny; people pay more to live on that street now because it’s different from the rest’.
That is the spice.

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This is one of the last remaining ‘first generation’ houses in Old Salata – it is an original – and as such it has Value.

It is the ‘spice’ which makes the meal flavoursome.
It is the spice which we remember.

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ALL CHANGE AT DALSTON JUNCTION: THE JOY OF TRACING

POST 32

The Joy of Tracing

The act of tracing is an ideal state sometimes. The image is softened by a veil of tracing paper. The mind can disconnect as the hand connects. Something like electric currents can be felt at the tip of the pencil, guiding the hand.

 

Subject and Object are perfectly in balance as the hand responds to the image below. It interprets; neither dumbly copying nor being obliged to create something entirely new, in the emptiness of a blank piece of paper.

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In this case the artist is a filter; not a creator. The hand can relax, entering into a state of pure intuitive action. Time is slowed down. The triangle between the hand, the eye and the brain runs smoothly, without interference. If I was a writer I would call it ‘Autonomism’.

High Places

It is always good to go to a high place; one gets a perspective on things, looking down. Things at a distance seem to move in slow motion. The sounds of the city become murmurs in a prevailing silence. I see a person on a street, or in a window, far far away. I notice them as I never would from the ground. My mind’s eye becomes a telescope and I zoom in; it is a fusion of the seen and the imagined. It is a frozen moment ; Time is slowed down.

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All Change at Dalston Junction

Dalston Junction isn’t what it used to be. The very name used to have a thud about it but now, on September 20th 2013, it seems bright and sleak.

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I am on a mission; to look down on this year’s 10×10 grid from Barratt’s Dalston Square. They are sponsoring the event for Article 25 and doing this drawing binds their regeneration work around town into the personal views of myself and 99 others across the grid; coming together to make a ‘collective snapshot’ of the city; a moment in time.

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It is a good view from the tallest tower. The deep cut of the railway leads the eye South, just beginning to veer East as the City rises. Trains move like toys and the bridge seems to hover over the cutting. It is a brown grey patchwork but one red light and one yellow for sale sign shine out. Green tree cushions billow like clouds amongst the blocks of De Beauvoir Town; rising like froth towards the wooded horizon far away.

 

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I watch a mother with a buggy crossing the road in slow motion. I see the London Eye but cannot see it moving. It is easier to see my pencil’s shadow move as the Earth spins, if I hold it still.

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THE YELLOW SEEDPOD

POST 31

I was at Umm Salal recently, the farm of Mohamed bin Jassim; at dawn, looking down at the sand. It was bathed in dappled light, washing through the leaves of a tree, half shadows moving to and fro, on the dry ground.
I saw a seed pod, curled around upon itself, making the letter M in Arabic; one of the nicest I have found.
As I picked it up I felt something intangible inside – a texture sensed; overlaid with the tangible smoothness of its yellow surface.
It rattled. The seeds within were rattling, so slightly that I could feel but not hear them. The sound of the breeze in the leaves of the tree was masking the sound of the seeds.
I took the seedpod home and now it is in a box.
When it is very quiet, in the early mornings at the start of the day, I take it out of the box and shake it gently. If everything is silent, I can hear the rattling seeds.

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DOHA ON CENTRE: The Jigsaw of the City

POST 29

DOHA_ON CENTRE: The Jigsaw of the City is an installation by Makower Architects, sponsored by Qatar Museums Authority as part of the Qatar UK 2013 Year of Culture. It concerns Doha’s tripartite city centre. It is an exploration of the essential character or ‘soul’ of the city, and grows out of Tim Makower’s close involvement in the development of the city.

The exhibition also features the inaugural collection of the World Jigsaw Company, a set of jigsaw puzzles, for children of all ages, which focus on Doha and its position in the World.

The exhibition is located at Harrod’s in London, 2nd floor, in the InQ cafe. It runs from August 11th to September 12th from 10am to 9pm daily, and 11.30am to 6pm on Sunday.

The content divides into four parts. Firstly, an overview of the city centre, accompanied by a large drawing and a film. These examine Doha’s ‘blood system’ and the role played by the city’s ‘heart and lung’; its major organs without which it would not have a life.

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Starting with the first survey made of the city in 1952, the film records the process of tracing Doha’s lines and shapes – getting to know its anatomy – whilst looking at the contrasting, and potentially complementary, characteristics of its three central components: Old Doha, West Bay and the Corniche.

 

Secondly, a study of the three parts of Doha’s centre – Old Doha, the Corniche and West Bay – asks ‘what is their essence Past, their character Now and their potential Future ?’

The Centre of Doha is both three and one. First, Old Doha, the ancient tree, deep roots, springing new shoots, fragile but very much alive. The second is New Doha – West Bay – new growth; in need of cultivation, nutrients, and depth; unfinished work in the garden of Doha. The third is the Corniche, the unifying motif, the creative space, the iconic gathering place at the Centre of the City: the Doha Corniche. This is the horizon; the meeting of Land and Sea; the meeting of Past and Future…

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6_DOC_CRACKED EARTHJigsaws are as old as the land; they are made both by God and Man. These clay jigsaw pieces were made by the Sun, after rain at the ancient Rawdah of Education City. Its lines are naturally drawn, responding to the forces of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Its shapes come together in harmony; like a jigsaw puzzle; like a good city plan.

 

 

 

OLD DOHA

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What is the character of Old Doha ? It is a living patchwork.

With the positive pulse of Souk Waqif and Msheireb at its heart, is there an alternative approach for the surrounding neighbourhoods; to enhance their identity, to bring out their latent potential, and to build on their Character; evolved over time ?

Old Doha is a Complex Collage; of old and new, large and small. It is like a precious piece of fabric, which can be passed down through a family from generation to generation; stitched and re-stitched, to be repaired not replaced; increasing in value.

Old Doha is the seed-bed of Doha’s city fabric. Can the newly blossoming cultural Renaissance in Qatar unlock a fresh, home-grown, vernacular and a new kind of harmony; a synthesis of Qatar’s architectural roots – both Traditional and the Early Modern – with a timeless contemporary and uniquely Qatari language of buildings and landscape, places and memory ?

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The map, made by the Hunting Survey Company in 1952, shows every fereej, every house – every room almost- in Doha at the time. Having been through a period of decline through the thirties, when the pearling trade collapsed, the city was beginning to grow at this time. Wealth, motorcars, cement, electricity – and Modernity – had arrived. However, this was still very much a rooted city; evolving in a natural way.

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 Rootedness: To build on what we have – the historic fabric and rich language of Old Doha, the latent potential of West Bay, the serene arc of the Corniche – and to look far into the Future; to grow new shoots from deep roots; this is an Aim. Process matters, hand-in-hand with Product. The youth of Qatar are central to this. It is a process of Engagement which will lead to a sense of Belonging, and this is the bed-rock; the living roots, the Legacy.

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TWENTY-ONE QUESTIONS

1. Abdul Azeez bin Ahmed Street Could AAA Street be re-invented as an Iconic Public Space ? A pilot project; to contrast & complement Msheireb, and to respond to its influence as a catalyst for regeneration.

2. Could the link to the Souk spark the re-activation of Old Doha ? This quiet but significant back street – Umm Wishaw – could be transformed into a dynamic mix of old and new; brought to life with new paving, lighting, street furniture, signage: ‘Designed in Qatar, Made in Qatar’.

3. An ‘expo’ of New Qatari Architecture – East side of AAA Street ? The buildings on the West side are a ‘timeless classic’ group of early modern Qatari apartment buildings and should be renovated. But the eastern buildings could perhaps be replaced by a new frontage of high quality ‘Qatari Contemporary’ buildings ?

4. Could AAA St be widened on the East side ? This would make an ‘outdoor room’, with enough space for big trees and maybe a linear carpark below ground ? The Jaidah Tower becomes an ‘end-stop’.

5. Could the large parking lot on A-Ring Rd become a local park ? Would Old Doha benefit from a ‘sports park’ with five-a-side football, a climbing wall and skate-park ? There could also be community buildings such as a nursery and a youth centre ‘Media-Tech’.

6. Facing the Park: exemplars of ‘Qatari Contemporary ? Can these very visible new developments be used as examples of a timeless contemporary, and distinctly Qatari, architecture – deeply rooted in tradition whilst boldly looking to the future.

7. How could existing buildings be adapted to greatest benefit ? Indoor/outdoor living – balconies – more shade, more privacy, more choice. Rooftop gardens and liwans – a living roofscape. Increased quality of life brings higher values and creates a more stable community.

8. Widening the A-Ring Rd: opportunities for high-quality buildings ? To build on the example of Msheireb whilst continuing to evolve a unique new vernacular amongst the local design community ? with Guidelines be drafted to achieve a greater harmony between buildings.

9. How can major Opportunity Sites most benefit these areas ? Can the process of optimizing density and land values at opportunity sites, help to safeguard the comprehensive renovation of the largely in-tact historic urban fabric, rather than ‘piecemeal cherry-picking’ of heritage highlights ?

10. Should some buildings on Msheireb St be retained ? For example the ‘3 sisters’, or the ‘Little Gem’ near the Souk. Are they more valuable as a part of the ‘collective memory’ of Old Doha, than as primary development opportunities ?

11. Can open spaces be created to allow the city to breath ? There are two obvious opportunities, both just South of Msheireb St, one on either side of AAA St. Each one also lends itself to becoming a public garden with carparking below ground.

12. Can minor open spaces & cross routes stitch the city together ? There are numerous opportunities for ‘pocket parks’ or barahas, perhaps focused on a single tree, a bench and a destination café. This, with an enhanced) network of pedestrian sikkas, will stitch the city; repairing the patchwork.

13. What contribution can the minor Opportunity Sites make ? Amongst the ‘heritage urban grain’ there are many undeveloped sites, capable of high quality, commercially viable mixed-use development; to enhance rather detracting from the Character of the area.

14. What opportunities does the new ‘Metro-Bus Hub’ bring ? In its own right, this major transport interchange should be a landmark of exceptional quality. Its influence on surrounding sites and public routes and spaces should be controlled. Public spaces and retail should extend below ground; down to the railway platforms.

15. Links West Links to Abdul Azeez can be made, to the south of the Metro. This can ensure pedestrian connectivity while the Metro is under construction. Links across Al Diwan St are also essential; to connect Msheireb to Zone 13 ‘Msheireb West’ and beyond it to Al Sadd.

16. Al Rayyan Rd: an appropriate frontage to the Grand Park Can new buildings on Al Rayyan Rd form a suitable frontage to the Grand Park; like the apartment buildings of Fifth Avenue facing Central Park ?

17. Can links to the Grand Park and the Corniche be optimized ? A Linear Park can be created along the East side of Al Diwan Street, with bike paths and an underpass to the Park.

18. Essence of the Corniche: to be renewed and reinforced ? A ‘Crescent of Lights’, on a grand scale, reinforces the identity of the Corniche and gives it a three dimensional presence: the iconic motif – and the gathering place – for Centre of the City.

19. Can the Corniche project unlock the ‘completion of West Bay’ ? With a pedestrian link between the Corniche and Omar al Mukthar Street, a grand urban boulevard can be created, running past the Convention Centre and City Centre, which provides a spine to link to the Northern Beaches.

20. Connect: Msheireb, the Souk, the Corniche and the Harbour ? There are opportunities to strengthen connection between Barahat al Nouq (the central space of Msheireb) and the Harbour, via the Burial Ground, the Souk and the Corniche.

21. A-Ring Rd; easier to cross – to find lines of desire ? Are there ways, such as ‘super-crossings’ or inhabited footbridges, to make the A-Ring less of an obstacle to movement by pedestrians or bikes: bringing the city to the centre and the centre to the city ?

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CORNICHE

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What is the essence of Doha’s Corniche today ? Can this be the basis of its future renewal ? Its Calm Crescent is the timeless motif of the City. What simple moves can reinforce its Identity and raise its profile to the Iconic status it deserves ? Does it need to be reinvented ? Or just reinforced, renewed and enriched; as a lasting legacy for the Future ?

The Curve of the bay encircles the Centre. Doha – dowaiha – embrace. The Curve embraces the space of the sea. Land and Sea (Earth and Water) Wind and Sun (Air and Fire). It is out pride and joy, our meeting place; our Majlis. The City speaks to itself across the bay; Old City, new City; slow and fast, The Curve rises up and a Crescent is formed. A Corona of light, day and night. A burning Crown for Celebrations and A Collector for our Memories.

 

 

 

 

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WEST BAY

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How can West Bay become an integrated and hospitable piece of Doha’s Centre ? Can new layers of enclosure be added – a ‘retro-fit city’ – to create shade, shopfront and streets for people ? Can West Bay become an easy place to move around; to find one’s way, and cross the road in safety ?

There is too much space in West Bay. The buildings are like toys, scattered accidentally on a floor; they are objects and the space between them is residual.

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Linear buildings with arcades and a living mix of uses should be added to give definition to this piece of the city; currently looking better from a distance than it does from close-up.

 

 

 

 

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A House is made of rooms & passages: On scaling the City as if it were a house.

POST 28

“… as the philosophers maintain, the city is like some large house and the house is in turn like some small city…” from Alberti’s Ten Books (Book 1, chapter 9)

This piece is about measuring, comprehending and, in the case of a designer, setting out, the spaces between buildings; asking ‘what makes for a successful scale and an unsuccessful one; is there a right or a wrong ?’

Returning to Alberti’s analogy, are the best cities made up of a set of ‘carved spaces’, like the rooms of a house; interconnected spaces which we can navigate, use and inhabit ? If so, is there a limit to the size of urban spaces, based on human expectations, or climates, or cultures which determine good, or not so good, proportions and are there rules, formal or informal, which can help us to achieve developments which are ‘On Scale’ ?

The chapter is divided into three parts. Firstly ‘Far too Far’, which discusses how spaces within the city can be scaled, or over-scaled. Secondly ‘Making an Outdoor Room’, which looks at spaces within the city which make one ‘feel at home’, both from a dimensional and an associational point of view. The third part, ‘City as Still Life’ examines the inhumanity which we can feel in a city where object-like buildings seem to thrown down by accident and, as a result, fail to make streets.

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“…in larger towns even too much breadth can be unhandsome and unhealthy…”

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THREE CAPITALS

In the Spring of 2009 I was in Washington with Noah, my son, and Paul, his godfather. We decided to walk from the National Gallery, past the immense obelisk of the Washington Monument, to the Lincoln Memorial, along the Mall. It is a distance of more than 2.5km – we did not realize it was that far.

It was a hot and humid day; after lunch. We had to leave before dark. As we began to walk along the grand axis, with another kilometer behind us, up to the Capitol, I felt we entered a strange suspended state. As we walked, the obelisk seemed to get further away, and yet, as an object, it seemed to grow, and I to shrink. The fact that the day was hot and humid may have exaggerated this effect but I felt not only that the monumentality of this place had entered the realm of diminishing returns but also that the ratio of width to height to length of the Mall left me feeling placeless, uncomfortable and drab. If this had been a large urban park where feeling lost was desirable, I might have enjoyed it. However, although it was meant to be a structured set of spaces, it was on a scale which ceased to read. Too much space – no space. If the width of the Mall had been less, or the buildings forming its edges had been slightly higher, it may have been a more comfortable place to be in.

As we thought we were approaching the obelisk, after what seemed like an age, we found we were still far away. As we eventually drew near enough to see the tour groups milling about at its base, and the structure itself grew larger and larger and larger, we seemed to be subject to a sensory illusion. What we had thought at first was a standard monumental axis with large civic sculptures, for visitors, along the way, was actually a ‘time and space machine’ which had set everything into slow motion and made us into lilliputtians in a world of giants. The Washington Monument was much larger than I had realized and it was still far off; it was impressive but uncomfortable.

By the time we arrived at the Lincoln Memorial; itself a masterpiece of sculptural scale – where Lincoln, the brooding giant, looks out day and night from within his finely honed cave – we felt diminished. We had walked a distance which, at walking speed, should have taken Z minutes*, but it had felt like an eternity. It was as if the whole experience had been scaled to the giants and not to our ‘regular’ human dimensions.

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The Mall and its monuments are by no means a failure in urban terms but my question is whether its dimensions are unnecessarily large. Perhaps the Parisian masterplanner, L’Enfant would have admitted as much; “…the plan should be drawn on such a scale as to leave room for the aggrandizement and embellishment which the increase of the wealth of the nation will permit it to pursue at any point however remote”. Would the whole have been a better place, for people, and a better piece of urbanism, if distances had been reduced, or proportional relationships increased ?

In 200Y I was in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, the new city where we were competing for a new university campus; a competition we eventually came second in, to Massimiliano Fuksass. Like Washington, this is an over-scaled capital city plan from the Beaux Arts tradition.

The plan of Abuja, by Kenzo Tange, is a work of genius. Its central axis, held by the seat of government at one end and by a large church and a large mosque, two sentinels to faith in balance, at the other, is very strong when seen on Google Earth. The softly meandering lines of the surrounding neighbourhoods, spreading out from this axial geometry, emulating nature, flowing down from what seems to be a source, are in brilliant contrast to the formality of the central spine; but if only the scale of every distance, every street, every space could be reduced by 30%.

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When seen from street level, the first thing we notice on the central spine, apart from a generally bland streetscape, is a boulder, on axis behind the parliament; beyond it in the wilderness. This is Aso Rock; the hugest boulder I have ever seen in my life. Aso Rock is neither Christian nor Muslim, neither left wing nor right wing; it just sits there, as it has for millennia. It is a ‘sugarloaf’; a solid lump of granite with shear sides; impossible to climb. I felt its magnetism strongly. It is 350m wide by 500m long by Zm high. The church of St Peter’s in Rome would fit neatly inside it, with plenty of space to spare.

We asked to be driven there but it seemed too far. No roads seemed to lead there and we ran out of time; we had to get back to work. To this day, I am filled with the sense of not understanding how big it really was and not being able to touch it; some intangible disconnection of space and time and scale. However its ineffable presence for the city, its calming permanence, is something I will never forget.

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When looking at these understandably monumental compositions, the question I am asking is whether their monumentality is successful; does it engage me, the viewer; does it lift my soul, does it send tingling sensations down my spine, or does it make me feel alien, lost and indifferent ?

If grand axes and monumentality could be argued to be a way of ‘bringing things closer’; of making people feel larger than life; enabling them to ‘reach out and touch’ things which are beyond them, are these three capital cities, in particular the widths and lengths of their streets and spaces, and the heights of their buildings, ‘on scale’, are their scale relationships as good as they could possibly be ? I believe not; they have gone too far.

ROME

On the 29th July 2012, on the way back from my first visit to Naples, I spent six hours in Rome, the King and Queen of cities, where I have spent many days and weeks over the years, and hope to spend many more.

I wanted to look at the scale of Piazza San Pietro and the ceremonial street, Via della Conciliazione, which Mussolini created in the thirties by demolishing several blocks of the ‘Borgo’. I have never loved St Peter’s, inspite of Michelangelo being one of my personal heroes, and I have always felt strangely disappointed with the Piazza. I wanted to know why.

It is often said that the creation of the Via della Conciliazione diminished the impact of St Peter’s by ‘taking away the surprise’. In pre-Fascist Rome, having wandered through the tightly packed blocks of the Borgo and coming suddenly on an explosion of space; the Piazza San Pietro, and the enormity of the façade of St Peter’s, framed by Bernini’s grand elliptical porticoes, was said to be one of the great moments in the city. Fig.X shows the piazza before Mussolini decided that a grand vista was needed. To cut a grand axis through the city; to be able to see the façade of St Peter’s from far away; would this bring it closer, make it more noble, or would it make it seem further away, and perhaps more ordinary ?

The precedent was tried and tested. Julius II* had succeeded in Rome, Hausmann in Paris. These were cuts made through the pre-existing city; to open it up, rationalize it, and of course to make it easier to navigate. They were not new pieces of city laid out on virgin soil as with Washington, Abuja and Chandigargh. In the case of twentieth century Rome, when everything was on a larger scale than it had been four centuries before, I wanted to check the notion that Mussolini’s intervention had been a negative step on account of scale; too wide, too long, too open ?

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I am delighted to say that, as if I was looking at these spaces for the first time, I was surprised on two counts. My first surprise was that, rather than being disappointed by the long vista of St Peter’s, I found it successful and satisfying, in §spite of the scorching heat of the day. As one crosses the Ponte S Angelo, the meeting of the bridgehead with the North bank of the Tiber (at a point where the river begins to curve southwards), and its confluence with this grand ceremonial cut, is pleasingly complex. Perhaps it was the early afternoon light, or the quiet acoustic of streets which were almost completely free of traffic, but whatever the reason was, I found the ‘closeness’ of St Peter’s, on account of the Via della Conciliazione, entirely positive.

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Having avoided being distracted by the intriguing asymmetries of the axial approach to Castel S Angelo, I began to walk towards St Peter’s and unlike Washington or Abuja, it was not too far. Apart from the regrettable lack of arcades, and some rather characterless (by Roman standards) frontages, I reached the great space in front of the basilica concluding that Mussolini had been right to take out the Borgo, or at least, he had not been wrong. However, when I looked towards the church from the point where Via della Conciliazione narrows to frame the space, I understood what had gone wrong.

For some inexplicable reason, perhaps out of deference to Bernini, to create a prelude to his famous arcades, which themselves had been designed as a prelude to St. Peter’s, a second open space had been joined to the elliptical space of the Bernini piazza in the Mussolini scheme and, in my view, had destroyed its magic. There is too much space.

We are all impressed by Bernini’s colonnades when we see them; their scale is uplifting, their detail is disarmingly simple, their curve is irresistible and most people find it impossible not to sit for a moment at the column-base to feel the weight of this bold construction. However I believe there are few people who feel the emotive beauty, and the positive energy flowing between the church and the open space of the piazza, as one feels, for example, at San Marco in Venice.

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The Piazza Pio XII is 75m wide by 70m long, which is a good size for a public square,  ‘outdoor room’, in its own right. I was now understanding for the first time what I had always felt. Inspite of very much liking Bernini’s arcades, and feeling that their monumental simplicity was one of Rome’s masterpieces, I have always felt a niggling sense of disappointment at coming upon St Peter’s itself; ‘what’s all the fuss about ?’ The Piazza Pio XII, separated from the main square by the Via Paolo VI*, both diffuses and de-fuses the strength of the main space and the presence of the gargantuan Michelangelo façade within it.

I looked at the façade, wanting to reach out to touch it, but I could not tell what scale it was – far or near ? It could be half as big or twice as big and I wouldn’t know. It just seemed big, and even its bigness seemed bland. It is important to say that this is what I felt from point X on the drawing* below. From point Y, Bernini still works his magic; the façade is celebrated and magnified by the generosity of the two great curves and their intriguing perspective towards the basilica.

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Later I bought a cast model of the elliptical piazza for one and a half Euros from a souvenir shop at the top of the Corso. I was pleased to see that the model-maker had had the sensitivity to edit out the Piazza Pio XII. With some bits of balsa wood which I found at the bottom of my satchel I tried various options for tightening up the space whilst respecting the gable ends of Bernini’s arcades, looking for the best way to reconcile the Conciliazione and S.Pietro. The two gable ends of the Bernini arcades sing to each other across the space and a powerful ‘magnetic force’ would have been felt between them, when they were more focused on each other before the demolitions. However Pio XII has de-focused the whole composition and taken away that energy.

On that hot afternoon, another very noticeable flaw in the experience of arriving at St Peter’s was the lack of continuous shade provided to keep the pilgrim from burning in the Sun on his or her way to the shrine. The Via della Conciliazione is not arcaded, except where it narrows to frame Pio XII. These two arcades give momentary respite on a hot afternoon but, counter to expectations, the arcades do not continue around the square. I, with every other hot tourist on that day, was therefore making my way diagonally across the square, to reach Bernini’s welcoming triple arcades as fast as I possibly could. Many of us (not I) had umbrellas, but I held my sketchbook as a visor to shield my forehead. Having cooled down in the grandeur of their creamy shade and the loftiness of their ennobling scale, where every column base became an individual seat, where novels were being read, phone calls made, picnics had, maps examined, eyes closed in rest and kisses exchanged, it seemed ironic that I then found myself ejected out again into the blasting Sun before I could reach S.Pietro itself. Bernini had also chosen not to give the pilgrim a continuous shaded route and, although shading is not directly a factor of size or distance or scale, it very much affects our perceptions and memories and can ‘make or break’ our experience.

Once inside the church, the theme of disappointment at ‘too much bigness’ continued and lead me to start thinking about the scaling of detail and the need for ‘intermediary scale’, but I am getting ahead of myself; I will return to St Peter’s later in the book.

As I walked out from St.Peter’s, looking across the piazza, back down Via Della Conciliazione, I suddenly found myself imagining the square full of worshippers, as it is every Sunday*, and I wondered if Piazza Pio XII had in fact been scaled specifically to accommodate a required number of pilgrims. If so, I still wished for more compression; more intensity.

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As I made my way across the Tiber, from papal Rome to one of the masterpieces of the pagan city, I wondered what I had learnt; two things came to mind. Firstly that urban grandeur, and even hugeness, can be a basic part of the ‘toolkit’ for good urban design, for example the Via della Conciliazione and the Bernini arcades, but secondly, it is a fine line between that and the over-scaling of spaces, for example Piazza Pio XII (or more obviously Washington’s Mall). Perhaps it is because human beings are of a fairly consistent average size; some spaces just seem too large.

 

MAKING AN OUTDOOR ROOM

A city is like a house. Its streets are its corridors; its piazzas are its rooms. It is the job of a city to be a home for people and homeliness, on an urban scale, is not easy to achieve. If one of the city’s ‘outdoor rooms’ has evolved slowly over time, its character will be something very different from one of its ‘fast set pieces’, designed and built at a single moment. It is good for the slow to inform the fast.

The short walk from St Peter’s to the Piazza del Rotondo took me from over-scaled monumentality to a space which I have always felt is the perfect ‘outdoor room’. I found myself sitting in the shade on the West side of the delightful square of the Pantheon, Agrippa’s temple to many gods, originally built around 30 BC and reconstructed by Hadrian around 125 AD.aIMG_0364

This space is old indeed and its memory can be felt in every stone. Like a drawing room hung with a collection of paintings from different times and places, its windows and the inscribed plaques around its walls tell stories. I sit and read. My neighbor, an aged academic with thick glasses, slowly turns through his papers, waiting for a young friend. A waiter at the next café struggles with an umbrella, a man and a woman in dressing gowns looks down from a window above.

This is a large outdoor ‘salone’, with the sky for a ceiling. Clusters of people group themselves, sitting at the cafes, and milling about; some are moving in ‘Brownian Motion’, interacting, never meeting; others rest in the shade, animating the space with a quiet babble of voices and ring-tones. Two bicycles pass through and a bell cuts the air. The piazza is hard-paved, with no trees, but it is softened by all this life.

The light and colour from West to East grades from blue to gold; from the canvas awnings and table cloths in shade, to the walls of the houses in sunlight; cream, yellow and grey. The satin reflections on the cobbles, burnished over centuries, make the paving into a carpet.

The plaques on the Albergo del Sole opposite, tell me that Pietro Mascagni, composer of La Cavalleria Rusticana stayed here in 1890 [nell’ ansiosa vigilia dell’ambito riconoscimento che sogno il trionfo della Cavalleria Rusticana] and, three hundred and seventy seven years earlier, Ludovico Ariosto, writer of Orlando Furioso and said to be Titian’s ‘man in a quilted sleeve’ had stayed here in the Spring.

From which window did he look out onto the square, all those years ago, I ask.

Looking to the left, opposite the Pantheon, a large plaque is mounted on the apricot coloured wall. I have forgotten almost all of my schoolboy Latin but even I can make out that Pius the Seventh, who became Pope in the first months of the Nineteenth Century had done something similar to Mussolini’s work at the Borgo; demolishing ‘ignoble’ taverns, reconstructing the area and clearing a public space around the Hadrian’s monument; carving the city.

Piazza del Rotondo is a good example of three of the primary themes of this book: party walls, plenitude and proportion.

When buildings touch each other, sharing party walls, they cease to be object-like. They become part of something larger than themselves – an urban block; an urban edge. This is the clay from which the city is carved. Cities cannot cohere, and outdoor rooms cannot be given positive form, without being enclosed by facades which touch, or nearly touch. At this moment a ‘figure-ground reversal’ occurs. The ‘figure’, what was the solid volume of the building, becomes the ‘ground’ – in other words the backdrop or background to an open space; the space between buildings is formed. The facades of buildings which touch are no longer the skin of a building so much as they are the enclosing shell of a void. ‘Void’ however is the wrong word to use. Piazza del Rotondo is anything but void. It is full.

Plenitude is the second theme. The piazza is full in every sense of the word.

How can we feel at home in the city if we cannot furnish the rooms of our house ? If my apartment looks out onto the Rotondo, my world does not stop at my window, my balcony or my front door. The boundaries are blurred between inner and outer worlds, private and public. My experience of the city is continuous; a continuity of many layers; a complexity of many sensations. Piazza del Rotondo, like so many successful rooms within the city, is full of layers, in time and space, sound and smell. Its times of day, its constituent parts, permanent and temporary, its colours and light, its movements, activities and events; its narratives and memories, some explicit, some implicit, make it what it is; the ‘next room’ in the city.

I close my eyes. I try to remember the Pantheon, newly finished, pagan masterpiece, thirty years before Christ. I am entering a colonnaded courtyard*; axial, symmetrical; leading me forwards, focusing my eye. I approach a handsome portico with great granite columns and grand Corinthian capitals, a classic temple of its day which suggests a traditional rectangular form within. I see no sign of the drum which today is visible on the side streets; the colonnades are gone. It is thought that the circular form of the Pantheon was specifically kept secret from the viewer in order to increase the sense of astonishment for people coming into a centrally focussed drum, having been expecting a standard axial temple. The astonishment I always feel on entering the Pantheon is, I am sure, to do with scale; not just the scale of the space and how it makes me feel larger than life but the scale of the coffering of the dome and the circle of sunlight marking the time, but I am getting ahead of myself; more of that anon.

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The third theme is Proportion. The Piazza del Rotondo is approximately 60 metres square, although it widens on the East side, creating a theatrical ‘wing’, for actors in the urban play to ‘enter stage left’. The vertical faces of the buildings, which vary in height around the square are less than half its width but are sufficiently tall to assert themselves and give positive enclosure to the outdoor room.

So what is a good proportion and what is bad ? The best example I know is to compare the Place du Capitole in Toulouse with the Place Royal in Montauban. Each space is surrounded by four storey buildings*. The square in Montauban is 40 by 50 and the buildings are about half* as high as it is wide; it makes me feel somewhere. Its cornices frame the sky, like the cornices of a salon frame the ceiling. It asks me to ‘make myself at home in the city’; enjoy being in this space, take a seat or get up and dance.

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By contrast, the space in Toulouse is 90 by 120 and the height of the buildings is about one fifth* of its width. It is a vast open acreage; unwelcoming to cross; impossible to inhabit. Activity clings to its edges and lurks in its arcades but even these are wrongly proportioned. Although the square is far too large, in proportion to the height of its edges, its arcades are too narrow. They are only Xm wide and it is impossible to occupy them with café tables whilst allowing any space to walk, in the shade or out of the rain.

Montauban also has one of the best arcades I know. On all four sides of the square there are double arcades; the outer vault being used for café tables, the inner one for movement. The clear width of each is about the same as Toulouse but they are lower, in proportion to the space they surround and together, they make a truly generous, and highly functional, heart for the town. For me this comparison shows that less space (Montauban), if well-structured, can feel like more, and more space (Toulouse) can feel like less.

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Ten lessons from loving London

POST 27

I was pleased, when I was asked to speak for 10 minutes at MIPIM on ‘a City I Love’, to find that no one else had chosen London; Tokyo, Algiers, Auckland, but not London. I am a Londoner through and through – my family was trading in silk from Cheapside in the mid nineteenth Century. Is that why I love London ? Or is it because it is loveable ?

I named my piece ‘Ten Lessons from Loving London’ and this is how it went:

One: London is like a patchwork, patched and re-patched; getting better with age. My relationship with it is that of an old friend; not too perfect; resilient, accommodating. Its character, to quote Venturi, is ‘hybrid rather than pure’.

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Two: Napoleon said we were ‘a nation of shopkeepers’ and I agree. Market forces and the ‘un-designed’ realities of the market-place have dictated so much of London’s nature. The collage of the great family estates combined with the jigsaw puzzle of small freehold plots display, in Colin Rowe’s words (when comparing London with Rome) ‘the virtues of order with the value of chaos’.

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Three: London has balance – asymmetric and irregular – and, like debate at The Palace of Westminster, it thrives on differences; point and counter-point; East and West, North and South. It always surprises me how our main East West artery – the Thames – runs due North South at the centre; what I call the ‘Great Straight’; from Vauxhall to Waterloo Bridges. I grew up in the West but my own centre of gravity has gradually shifted Eastwards, just as it has for London as a whole, since I was a child.

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Four: ‘Higgledy piggledy’ is one of my favourites words, and I think it sums up London well; it is an eccentric, comfortable pair of words with the straightforwardness to sound like what they mean. This is not just a matter of lines; responsive geometries, arising from constraints, giving us an ‘emerging view’ up Ludgate Hill to St Paul’s, rather than a straight vista along a grand avenue, in the French style, as Wren would have liked, or the curve of the Great Northern Hotel at King’s Cross which follows the ancient serpentine line of the River Fleet, flowing from the Vale of Health on Hampstead Heath, used as a drain and buried deep underground centuries ago, traced to the surface in lines of ownership to this day. It is also a matter of layers; the layers of history through which the story of the city is told.

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Five: London is a conurbation of villages; its villages are its bone-structure. But, more than that, it is the ‘village in the city’ which accounts for so much of London’s life and identity; its pulse and its sense of self (collective and individual); its behaviour and its harmonics.

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Six: London’s language is strong and clear whilst being spoken in many dialects, loud and soft; it is a living vernacular. Its vocabulary of terraces, mews, squares and communal gardens, porches, steps, bays and chimney stacks is legible and familiar; its grammar of fronts and backs, urban blocks and party walls is coherent. The punctuation marks and accents of endless ‘variations on a theme’ make everyday prose into a pleasing poetry.

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Seven: London’s trees are fine; I love the way they rise above the facades of buildings, making the street an interior. London is indeed a green city, with its great parks and many gardens, but somehow it is not too green; solid edges are its bone structure. Although part of its success is its green green suburbs, it is not a suburban city.

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Eight: London’s transport is excellent and always getting better. I feel lucky, in what are known to be economic hard times, to be somewhere where so much is being invested in infrastructure and 2012 is only partly to be thanked for that. But I feel even luckier that I don’t have to use public transport. My faithful fifty thousand mile bike with my ‘office’ in front (my wicker basket) takes me everywhere. It always seems strange to me that as London grows, it shrinks; even by bike, Bromley by Bow used to be the edge of the world, now it isn’t far at all.

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Nine: London is like a large flowerbed of arts and education; I love the fact that it blooms amongst the bricks and mortar and brings life and colour to the street. Market forces and cultural vision, old and young, intertwine and each nourishes the other.

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Finally it is London’s robust adaptability which I love – it is an ever-changing organism, and has an ‘eco-system’ for survival. Is it ‘sustainable’ ? I don’t know, but I am sure it can be sustained. At the scale of the city and of the street, London is continually undergoing re-birth. The approach to re-use which we see along the banks of the River Lea is found all over London in its solid, ‘edge-making’ buildings, in a perpetual state of healthy flux; an inner world of flexible spaces; an outer world of public places.

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When I had concluded my tribute to – or was it a manifesto – about London, I was asked what secret or surprising detail, in my experience of the city, touched me. Amongst the teeming crowd of fragments from London which have fascinated my imagination over the years, including the stories told by the blue plaques, the countless stories vanished into thin air and my own stories, told and untold, one jumped out. It was the shrapnel scars on the big stone walls of Tate Britain and the V&A. These surfaces have been rusticated twice; once by craftsman in the name of progress and posterity and a second time by bomb-blasts in the name of attack and defense; each time, hot metal shapes rock. Why am I moved ? Not so much as a memorial to the War, but rather as an example of how the three great dimensions of Space, Time and Memory can be compounded and made legible, as part of a living process.

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Watch the video Here (Starts at 17:45).

04/08/2013

TM