Right answer, wrong question

Interesting article in the Guardian today; Richard Rogers and YMCA unveil £30k flatpack homes for homeless people
7e38fca7-5604-482e-b197-e91ac346d274-460x276 889660f2-466c-4c58-b6d1-24c31ff276e7-460x460

It’s a solid bit of design, no issue there. Hats off to Richard Rogers, he’s answered his brief well.

It’s the brief that’s wrong.

Note this, taken from the article itself:

“The real issue is what happens when people leave our hostels. The only option is often poor quality shared accommodation managed by private landlords, who require large deposits and rent in advance.”

That’s a political problem. We won’t solve that with architecture.

Jim, seriously, it’s your brakes.

The future was then

Sheffield: 'City on the Move', 1970s

Castle Square, known locally as the Hole in the Road, was the crowning glory of Sheffield’s concrete commitment to modernist oddities. After three decades of decline it was finally filled and flattened in 1994, apparently using rubble from the nearby demolition of the similarly short lived Hyde Park flats.

I was twelve in 1994 and I can’t recall the last time I went down there, but I do quite vividly remember peering in from the top deck of a bus as the demolition teams were pouring the rubble. I informed my mum as she sat beside me:

“When I’m old I’ll enjoy describing the Hole in the Road to kids because it’ll seem mad.”

It was mad. I thought Castle Square was mad then as I do now; a sprawling and eccentric piece of civic architecture difficult to describe. The narrator of the 70s publicity video Sheffield on the Move has a good go, referring to it as a “forward looking development; an underground concourse with its ingenious roof of sky”.

I wonder what those charged with the forward looking thought they saw. I wonder because I know had I been in their shoes I would’ve probably seen the same thing.

For those working to build a better society, the modernist utopia of efficiency, logic and order provided such a solid answer. It’s a concept that makes such sense, and had I been around in the 60s and 70s I would’ve thrown myself headlong into the entire movement.

Even now, with the hindsight of a thousand wrecking balls and a thousand tumbling tower blocks, I find the image above so enticing. I let me eyes be drawn up Arundel Gate by the smooth ribbons of tarmac and I want to live there. Even though I actually did and often still do live there and know it to be largely awful, I still want to live in that picture.

Not in the place, but in the promise. I want to live in the promise of that picture, and with the hope it offers. I want to know what it’s like to live with that hope; the hope that a better world is ours to make.

Dishonest Design Insults as it Insulates

In these days of gleaming Piano and Foster skyscrapers, modernist Grange and Mellor bus shelters and impossibly curvaceous Callum and Bangle car windscreens, it’s hard to imagine a time when large panes of glass were rarely seen.

Today we take for granted that our windows should be glazed with expansive, flawless sheets, but it was not always thus. At one time the practical limitations of glass manufacture meant our larger windows had to be made up of multiple smaller sections, set into a gridded timber framework.

Georgian houses

It’s with that image fresh in your mind that I’d like to introduce you to the main focus of this post: our bathroom window.

I share the bathroom window here only for the photographic practicalities offered by its frosting – it is otherwise identical in style to those throughout the rest of the house.

Now it’s fair to say this is an old property. Yellowing, brittle maps in the local studies library show this short terrace of farmers cottages sitting alone amid the livestock fields that lined this once agricultural valley, long before its steep sides were surrendered to the suburban sprawl of industrial Sheffield, that noisy young upstart downstream.

As it predates its neighbours, so it would figure that this old sandstone farmhand’s dwelling might also, like the tall Georgian example further up the page, predate modern industrialised glassmaking techniques. So it should be of no surprise to me that the windows in our house are similarly subdivided. Thing is, I’m not so sure it’s that straightforward as I suspect the windows in this house may not actually be original. I’m not sure why. Maybe the Unplasticized Polyvinyl Chloride frames give it away?

Now I’m not one to get overly annoyed at insignificant things, but I think you’ll agree with me when I say that these windows represent just about everything that is wrong with humanity. If you’re not with me already, I invite you to shudder with incredulity at what must have been the conversation between window salesman and whichever previous home-owning idiot specced these units:

Salesman: “So double glazed, white UPVC all round, frosted in the bathroom, obviously.”
Customer: “Yes.”
Saleman: “Okay, for just an extra couple of hundred pounds would you like pointless criss-crossed strips of plastic sandwiched between the double glazing to serve no purpose beyond disturbing the view through, in an abysmally tragic attempt to echo the heritage of the property despite the fact that speccing UPVC shows you’re not in the least bit bothered by that, and will thus end up with windows that are both ugly AND impractical? We call it our ‘worst of both worlds’ special offer.
Customer: “Yes please.”

Sold, to the indescribably sodding idiot incapable of not drooling down their fastened-out-of-sequence shirt buttons when dealing with something more complex than breathing either in or out.

I genuinely ask with all sincerity what in the sweet name of holy Pilkington K Glass were they thinking?

It’s not even a travesty well executed. Just take a look at that joint. They’re all like that – just ill-fitting enough to put in mind a picture of a bored apprentice in badly fitting overalls, tasked with slotting the ready cut lengths of extruded plastic onto pre-moulded four way junction pieces scooped like handfuls of lego from a large industrial cardboard drum marked OCM09923 GLAZING BAR UNION 25MM WHITE in Helvetica Black.

And don’t get me started on our front door, indistinguishable as it clearly is from a handsome Georgian oak panel door adorned with lovingly hand-routed ornate trim.

I know I’m not the first to moan about the modern architectural blight that is UPVC, but the material itself isn’t actually something I take issue with. I’m not some English Heritage supporting guardian of tradition – far from it. What I do take issue with is the blatantly dishonest way the material is being used.

UPVC is a plastic, a material of the modern age. Strong yet light, impervious to the wind and rain and the degrading affects of the sun’s rays, it’s the result of a specific scientific mix of petrochemicals created to be ideal for the function it performs. Yet those designing in this wonder material still seem to think it must at least pretend to suffer all the same shortcomings as its predecessor that grew out of the ground.

Maintaining an aesthetic tradition is fine when needed, but it needs to be done properly and it needs to be done well otherwise we’re just insulting our heritage, just as we’re insulting our own intelligence.

I don’t just feel insulted though (though I do feel insulated). I’m also angered by it. Every time I look through the window, every time I leave or enter my home (or the homes of just about everyone I know) I’m reminded that though we live in a golden age of technological revolution, we’re without the merest hint of a culture to call our own. Culture is built on the small details we see every day. Raised bits of plastic moulding alone might not cause any harm, but the compound message of what all such things say to us very much does. They speak of our fear to commit to the now, they suggest that we have something to be ashamed of.

So we have plastic doors and windows. So what? We all know it, nobody is hiding it. Why even pretend to hide it? Why not be proud that we’ve managed to forever wave goodbye to tatty, rotten windowsills and warped, drafty doors? We can produce huge, optically flawless panes of toughened, insulated glass to any shape or size our whim dictates. Why should that be a source of shame? Why feel compelled to disguise it behind a cheap and cynical, snap fit heritage kit?

Regular readers might recall that I’ve mentioned my hatred of none committal vapidity quite recently, but I don’t mind repeating myself as I genuinely believe our fear to leave behind the past and fully embrace the present is impoverishing us far more than we currently appreciate.

History has shown that necessity is the mother of invention, and to me it seems screamingly obvious that the reverse is equally true; placidity is the mother of mediocrity. So perhaps in the less comfortable future we’re being promised, things will change and we’ll finally be forced to grow some balls?

My god, what a terrifying thought. Bring it on.

Georgian Houses picture courtesy of Chris Wilkinson

Terraced Life

I’ve always been interested in the relationships we have with our homes. From the local community to the street outside our front doors, from our gardens to our rooms and the products we fill them with, I’m fascinated by the way we interact with the environment that surrounds us.

The first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of home is perhaps the comfort of a sofa, or of a warm, welcoming bed. But the word ‘home’ has different meanings, depending on the perspective of those who use it.

‘Home’ can be the blue and green sphere we call earth when viewed through the window of a spacecraft. A distant coastline can be ‘home’ when considered by a weary fisherman on the deck of a lonely trawler. A cluster of orange lights set in an otherwise featureless black vista is home to the late night driver.

Home can be photos of loved ones perched on the computer monitor of a bored office worker, or in the wallet of a soldier stationed in a foreign land. Home is comfort. Ease. It’s off duty. It’s letting the guard down. Home refers to the familiar, the surroundings to which we return when at rest. Home is community. Safety. Comfort.

There is so much more to home than the house in which we live. In our bid to satisfy our misled yet insatiable appetite for the perfect house, we seem to have forgotten all about what makes the perfect home.

***

Being a Sheffielder I’m most familiar with terraced housing. The homes of most of my friends and family are situated in long terraces of two-up, two-down properties built to house those who provided the labour that drove the industry this city was once famous for.

Typically they have a lounge to the front and a dining room at the rear sandwiching a narrow, steep central staircase. At the rear, poking out into the garden, you’ll usually find a small off-shot kitchen. Upstairs are two bedrooms, a bathroom, and sat above the lot in the pitch of the roof is an attic room.

Such houses will typically have two chimney stacks running the height of the building – one for the front and one for the rear, built to allow for open fires to provide heat to each room before gas central heating was the norm. In the bedrooms of two terraced houses I’ve previously called home, we’ve removed plasterboard to uncover ornate if modestly sized cast iron fireplaces.

The proliferation of long disused and mostly ramshackle outhouses in the gardens highlight the fact that the bathrooms inside such properties are often a later addition, the result of a partition wall slicing the rear bedroom in half to accommodate the modern sanitary facilities we now take for granted.

Such relics highlight how much life has changed since these homes were built. Technology has changed, lifestyles have changed, expectations have changed, the family unit has changed. Our attitudes, our tastes, our working lives, the entire thing we call society has changed. But we still live in the same houses.

As such, they’re filled with compromise. Tiny kitchens struggle to accommodate modern fridge freezers while microwaves battle for position with toasters and kettles and coffee machines. Sink basins overhang bathtubs, doors bang onto bedside tables and TVs are angled so as to be the focus of rooms originally built around the fireplace.

When they were first built, our terraced homes were designed around the technology and needs of the people of the time. Today the brief has changed but we’re still using the same solution. We’ve adapted it the best we can, but much like fitting ABS, dual zone climate control and headrest mounted DVD players to a Model T Ford, we can’t hide the fact that we’re using the wrong tool for the job.

Of course our homes aren’t viewed as disposable in the way our cars are. They’re too permanent to be flattened every few years and replaced inline with every changing social trend, so we’re forced to accept that compromises must be made, both in the way we arrange our homes and the way we live our lives.

It seems to be the latter where people struggle. We’ll happily carry our evening meal from the kitchen at the back of the house through to the living room at the front, skirting round the dining table we completely ignore despite dedicating an entire room to it, failing to notice how we shimmy through the kissing gate formed by a door’s proximity with an oversized sofa. We’ll happily consider our front doors little more than an emergency exit or an ornate if drafty letterbox surround and instead gain access to our homes from the rear by learning the knack required to open the two badly constructed, flimsy gates separating the unloved, overgrown, postage stamp sized gardens of our neighbours.

We put up with all those daily annoyances and slightly absurd compromises until we stop noticing them. Where we fail to be so accommodating is in our lifestyles.

We love our cars. Despite the average terraced facade being about as wide as a car is long, our streets are expected to accommodate not just one car per home, but one car per person. So our roads are tight, our pavements narrow and the view from our windows cramped, crowded, unsightly and inhuman.

We like our huge television sets despite viewing distances being so short as to make them unnecessary. We like powerful surround sound systems despite sharing walls with our neighbours. We like our consumer goods despite not having room for them. We like our privacy, despite living mere feet and inches away from those around us.

In the end, we love, expect and mistakenly believe we require a kind of luxury that our homes were never designed to accommodate.

And for that perceived luxury we deem common sense a worthwhile sacrifice.

***

How much room is lost in the name of maintaining boundaries? How much land is taken up with fences and walls, and the borders that flank them? By dividing our land, how much of it do we lose? And at what cost does it come?

If we all saw the land behind our houses as one large communal space we all own, rather than a patchwork of segments we each own, our tiny individual lots could be combined, opened into a shared park that our houses backed right onto.

Surrounded on all sides by houses, these little semi-private suburban parks could become areas for neighbours to circulate and interact with each other in a way our tiny little cells don’t currently allow. We’d get to know the names of the people with which we share our environment. We’d learn the respect we need to live together. It wouldn’t be ‘me’. It’d be ‘us’.

We can erect the largest fences but our neighbours still exist. If we take them down perhaps we might get to know and understand those neighbours better. Understanding is the path to tolerance, and tolerance is something we must strive towards if our numbers continue to grow and our resources continue to dwindle.

Communities can only work when people trust each other, when we understand that everybody is in the same boat. When we know each other well enough to realise we’re all humans sharing our environment, and that our personal needs are no more or less important than those of anybody else.

When we put up fences, we hide behind them. Hide behind them for long enough and we start to fear what’s on the other side. When we finally summon the courage to take them down we might realise there’s nothing to be scared of.

Designing a Better Kebab Shop

I’m a graphic designer by trade, so my main focus of attention should be on the printed page and moving screen. Thing is, if you’re the sort of person who has a design mind you tend to find yourself looking at all aspects of the world and trying to think of ways to improve it. I find it really hard to switch off that part of my brain so I’m not really one for accepting rubbish design of any type, and I quickly get frustrated when things don’t work as well they so obviously could. So although my design training never took me much further than typography, layout and colour considerations, my design mind can’t help but look a bit wider.

That, I believe, is what proper design is. It’s certainly not (as most people derisively assume) simply about making things look pretty. It’s about trying to improve the world we live in. Be it the clarification of a bus timetable or the ergonomics of a suitcase handle, be it the most insignificant alteration to the dot of a lower case i or a fundamental overhaul of a mutlinational’s manufacturing practices, the process is generally the same. You look at the subject, consider the problems, look at the current solution, examine where it works and where it falls short, dissect every detail then translate all the collected information into a new solution. The solution is always in the problem; you just have to know where to look.

So though I’m a graphic designer who’s bread and butter is in page layout, visual communication and compelling copywriting, I do feel reasonably qualified, and I know this will probably sound a little bit arrogant, to design just about anything. To prove this beyond all doubt, allow me to share my design for a kebab shop, which should link you to Flickr upon clicking, where you can view it nice and big.

Kebab Shop

An old friend of mine used to work in a late night kebab shop and frequently had to deal with drunk northerners fighting, throwing things around and generally behaving in a rowdy fashion. Occasionally he had to resort to ejecting the worst offenders which is not without risk. The ensuing furore often necessitated a panicked phone call and rapid riot van deployment, and many trading hours were lost while statements were given, windows were boarded and floors mopped.

Looking at the trouble they used to have, I decided there was a better way of doing things, so I designed a system that automates the event. My solution allows the staff, from behind the safety of a bank style glass partition, to simply press a button which ejects all customers from the shop with minimal fuss and bother and little to no risk of litigation following bodily harm. In addition to this, I thought perhaps it might be wise to integrate a cleaning system into the design which could remove all traces of trouble, from exploded kebabs to bodily fluids. My system allows the whole job to be performed in one quick efficient sweep, minimising down time and so maximising profit.

It would even be possible to manufacture the whole thing as a custom prefabricated unit and simply slot the lot into the vacant shop front. That way you just attach the electrics and plumbing and you’re ready to go. Security shutters wouldn’t even be needed as the moving wall can simply be left in the extended position overnight to seal off the entrance.

So there you have it. I hope my sharing this turn-key retail solution provides some evidence that designers from any discipline can turn their minds to just about any problem.

Having said that, I must be honest with you here and also share a little nagging doubt. Though I’m pretty sure I’ve ticked all the boxes in my quest to design a better kebab shop, I do wonder if I’m not taking it far enough. It does its job, but perhaps I could do even better. You see, if I’m being honest my design is only addressing a single symptom of a much wider issue. It’s good, I’m proud of it, but really I must concede that it fails to address the root cause. Maybe if we look at the bigger picture we could get to the bottom of why such a kebab shop might be required in the first place.

Actually, no, scratch that. Great Britain didn’t get where it is today by addressing root causes. I mean, where’s the money in that?

Right. Off to the patents office.

UPDATE: a follow up to this post can be found here.