Tag Archives: architecture

Point – Point: The End of the Series

This is the last in a series of three posts about Swindon, a small city where My Friend Lauren grew up. The other two entries stemmed from the disagreements Lauren and I had as we explored Swindon together (she as a native, and me as a pedantic polymath interloper). While the other two entries have been point-counterpoint, this one is more just…reflections on the Railway Village, a historic and troubled neighbourhood downtown.

Swindon experienced a populations explosion in the 19th century (specifically 1841-1842), when it became a hub for the Great Western Railway.  This was accompanied by a colossal railway works and an associated worker’s village, both of which stand today in substantially altered form. Railway yards are not necessarily organised in a way that lends itself to adaptive reuse; the scale is enormous; the buildings are not organised at right angles and they tend to be extremely long (you know, like trains).  There’s too much space in between the buildings for traditional streets but not always enough for more buildings – and how much plaza space can you have? Plus, the Swindon Works – seminal as it is to British rail history – is a protected monument.

The Swindon Works can be divided into two parts, one of which is the historic railway yard, the other of which is the village built simultaneously to house all the workers.  Lauren’s mother works for the Swindon housing authority, and reported that the railway village has a reputation for being dangerous and especially low-income – today, the entire village is social housing.  A long tunnel connects the village (and the rest of Swindon) to the old rail works, which now also houses an event space, an English Heritage office, and a giant shopping centre, plus some new construction. This is really two separate posts – first, its about the railway worker’s village, a perfectly picturesque urban scene if ever there was one.  Second, there’s an assessment of the old Railway Works, the place where the trains were manufactured.

The worker’s cottages are just the cutest damn things you’ve ever seen.  Stone cottages arrayed along narrow streets with generous setbacks (by English standards) and wide sidewalks, the houses look like something out of a movie.  Small pedestrian pathways intersect the terrace houses and the corners have little three-story towers to add visual interest. Mature trees in the back create a domestic scene that delineates private space without closing the neighbors off from each other. The cottages are small – it was housing for poor people, after all – and the ceilings look low, but the experience of the railway village reminded me of some very successful social housing projects I’d visited in the US.  Furthermore, it didn’t seem like it should be social housing at all.  It was historic housing an easy walk to the train station, shopping, and a park…I mean, these things are just adorable.  And while they may be the product of another era, there are literally hundreds of thousands of Victorian terrace houses that have been modernized and appeal to the middle class – I live in one.


The only thing this place didn’t seem to have was any people. We were there on August Bank Holiday Monday – not typically a busy time – but I don’t think we saw a single person walking through the community. I’m hoping Lauren will contextualize Swindon for me a bit – why isn’t this place full of yuppies? Shouldn’t it be a prosperous place?  The workers’ village is the little grid to the right of The Park – you can see how close it is to the station (the red hash mark)

The Swindon Designer Outlet is sandwiched into a corner of the railroad, and you can see how huge the scale is from the size of the streets around it.  Up close it looks like this:

The eastern (right-hand) side of the railworks is weirdly empty.  Although the scale of the buildings is low and reasonably human-scale, the space between them is enormous,  and the wayfinding through the site is awkward, especially when you approach as a pedestrian (as I did).  There is plenty of room for new construction – even on a busy shopping day, many of the car parking spaces were vacant – but those new buildings that are there are, um, ugly.  It was surprising to me that a country that is so meticulous about conserving its historic landmarks should be so lackadaisical about what gets built next to and within those same landmarks.  There was one piece of new construction – a brick condo building with a blank facade.  It was obviously brand-new (some of the windows still had stickers on, and there was a sales sign outside the door).  Density is a good first step, but the place just felt sort of windswept and empty.  Like there should be tumbleweeds blowing across the plazas.

All of which made a stark contrast to the actual shops, which were jam packed.  My expectations for the mall were pretty low, because the rest of it was so awkward, but the interior of the mall struck me as an incredibly sensitive and intelligent adaptive reuse.  And the entire place was bumping – you’d have thought it was December 23rd – so clearly its popular.

Basically its a pretty standard shopping mall – but a really nice one, made cooler by the fact that its a historic building.

Lauren has her say: 

The points that Franny made in this blog are difficult to address directly; I think the best way to give the reader a view of how the Railway Village is now is to give some context of what the Railway Village was.

Without going into too much detail of the works’ history, its rise and fall is a beautiful and direct parallel to the trajectory of industry in the rest of the UK. From ‘glorious’ industry in the Victorian era, to thrilling modern designs in the early 20th Century it reluctantly closed in the 80’s.

 File:GWR map.jpg

Figure 1 GWR c 1930 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GWR_map.jpg

When the works and village were built (in 1841 to provide the trains and track from Brunel’s Great Western Railway from London to Bristol), the worker’s facilities were world leading; the Mechanics’ Institute held classes and housed the UK’s first lending library, there were 3 pubs (including one of my favourites, the Glue Pot), the Medical Fund offered health care (attributed as being the inspiration for the NHS) and houses were of good size and quality (testified by the fact that they still stand today).From its origin the GWR expanded rapidly into an efficient and prosperous industry and in the early 20th century produced thrilling designs (City of Truro was the first locomotive in the world to travel at over 100mph on 9th May, 1904). Its peak of 14000 employers was in 1920 and from there it declined (in 1960 Swindon produced British Railways’ last steam locomotive (Evening Star, number 92220)) and then reluctantly closed on the 27th March, 1986.

I have to mention the Mechanics’ Institute, (1853-55) which is by far the most beautiful building in Swindon. Today it is in ruins: it was nominated as in the top 10 most endangered Victorian Buildings, according to the Victorian Society. http://www.victoriansociety.org.uk/news/mechanics-institute-swindon/

Working in the railway works was a given for lots of men. My grampy (see Point Counterpoint #2) was fortunate enough to have an alternative. When he was leaving school his father posed him the question:

‘Now boy, you can either work in GWR for pittance a week, or come flog fish down the market with me for £30 a morning.’

And even stinking of fish with frozen hands and chasing live crabs around he was glad not to have the fat controller as a boss.


Figure 3 The Fat Controller, Thomas the Tank Engine http://christmas-specials.wikia.com/wiki/The_Fat_Controller

There was always social unrest in the village: Daniel Gooch, Superintendent for GWR said in 1859 “It having come to my knowledge that many of the boys of New Swindon are very unruly and mischievous in their conduct, especially during the evening when property is frequently damaged and (as on a recent occasion) life endangered, I hereby give notice that any person in the service of the company reported to me as being disorderly, firing cannons, or making an improper use of firearms in the Village be discharged (…) ”

Figure 2 Workers leaving c 1910 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GWR_map.jpg

I recently went to a gig by the Unthanks and their melancholic song Black Trade really captured the concept of underappreciated workers: ‘all you welders and riveters… you’re just black trade…’ These men put all their energies into producing the magnificent engines, tracks, carriages, but individually they are not given much recognition.

Today, ironically, the village has a low employment rate and is 95% owned by the local housing authority. The social problems that plagued the village in the 19th century still do today. I’ll illuminate this with a couple more anecdotes from a local housing officer: The electricity meters are in large cabinets; it’s usually fine and easy enough to read the meters, but on this occasion the door opened to a waft of smoke: among the drug paraphernalia and sleeping bag poked the head of a homeless man smoking a fag! Another time the officer was taking photographs of a pile of dumped rubbish when another homeless man started shouting abuse and vitriol, thinking his drug stash was disturbed he started throwing objects, when the officer turned around she saw he’d thrown chocolate bars at her!

Swindon has always been an innovative town: more recently we were the first to have a cable TV channel in the UK, and I think it is the history of the Railway Village that puts the ‘yuppies’ off the Railway Village.  I can imagine an aspiring professional thinking ‘No matter that these houses are cute, there’s still poky ex-council houses in a dodgy area.’ For those that can afford them, there are plenty of modernized Victorian terraced houses in Old Town, or as we saw in an earlier blog, fashionable new-builds in the suburbs.

The Railway Village, while being cute, it is not the calm, quaint village it appears. It is a place fraught with social problems, and either despite or perhaps because of this, it still has one of the best pubs in Swindon.

Figure 4 The Glue Pot http://www.flickr.com/photos/majorclanger/2260255446/

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Impressions of Tibby’s Triangle, Southwold

Last month, my friend Jaime visited from Israel and I had five days to give her a peek into my exciting (not so exciting) UK life.  Jaime and I met in planning school, so I particularly wanted to take her to see a really cute, quintessential British seaside town.  We settled on Southwold for 2 main reasons: 1, there is a new Ash Sakula housing development there that I wanted to see and 2, Adnam’s Brewery is there.  Holler!

The scheme, as you’ll see from the movie, is a small development – 26 houses – just off the main drag in Southwold, near a cemetery, a playground, the beach, and a whole bunch of super cute seaside-y houses.  It was built on some land owned by Adnam’s, and the architects also designed an adjacent pavilion, cafe, and shop owned by Adnam’s.

For the most part, I really liked the development.  In the video, the architects talk about trying to mimic Suffolk vernacular (which is something I’ve heard a lot about, in design reviews in Suffolk).  They tried to do that by using referential materials, incorporating lots of small-scale cut-throughs, and including small-scale green spaces into the development.  All the houses have access to some outdoor space, which is nice, and (as promised in the video) none of the building heights are the same.  There’s also a flatiron building in the middle of the development that I think is particularly cute.

The  image above shows some of the pros and cons of the scheme.  The pros I think I’ve already established: its cute, it clearly takes Suffolk as its inspiration, its visually interesting, its porous.  All good stuff.   The pros outweigh the cons, but there were two things that I really, really noticed that I would have done differently: first, as you can see from the image above, the space to the left of the flatiron building is devoted to cars.  Every house has its own space, which I understand it necessary from a real-estate perspective.  The amount of asphalt may have been a requirement for fire truck turning radii or something – but the edges of the development have a fine-grain, intimate feel; its weird that the middle of the thing is basically a parking lot.

The other complaint I have is with one of the housing styles (despite the variety, there were three or four house themes and palettes that were repeated throughout the development):


This is where I think the commitment to vernacular references broke down.  But I don’t object to this house (there were several of them) because they’re modern; I object to them because they’re ugly. I think the windows are awkwardly set into a boring facade.  The thing that I really hate, though, are these semi-enclosed parking spaces. I think they are the worst sort of faux-modernism; I think they destroy the intimate pedestrian feel that the architects worked so hard to cultivate in the rest of the project, and I think they aren’t even that useful – there’s no storage; there’s no extra living space; the half-garage has a larger surface area than two surface parking spots – its just stupid.  It made me angry.

I think at heart my biggest objection to the scheme – which I did find quite lovely – is that the architects smushed together the car space and pedestrian space without really reconciling the two.  The alleys through the little neighborhood are dominated by pedestrians, but (especially around the flatiron building), people on foot feel like interlopers – a feeling reinforced by the architecture, planning and landscaping across the site.

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I’d Live There

On a early spring run a few weeks ago, I took a turn down a street I’d been near many times, but never been down. Secluded down a ravine, with easy access to the Don Valley Recreation Trail, these modern houses caught my eye.  Not my usual style of architecture, but they were so appealing in the warm spring air.


***This is part of a weekly Friday posting of places we’d love to live, eat, and play***

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The Castle

The first time I went to Metro Rock Climbing Wall in Everett, Mass, the driver assured me (repeatedly!) that he wasn’t trying to kill me and dispose of my body.  Metro is sandwiched between a limousine and town car warehouse and  some sort of cement storage yard down – take a left at the peanut butter factory down a rutted gravel road, take another left past an overgrown wire gate, and you’re there!

Because of the physical requirements of rock gyms, they’re often located in unappealing places – in industrial estates on the edge of town or far outside the city center.  Or, alternatively, they’re located someplace wonderful but the facility is dinky, expensive, or both.

The Castle Rock Gym in London is expensive but hardly dinky; in fact, I think its the best climbing gym I’ve ever been to.  But what I love the most about the facility (versus any other climbing wall) is that its actually located in a castle – or, more specifically, a former pumping station built in 1860 to look like a castle.  Elsewhere in England, churches have been repurposed as climbing gyms, and of course Europe in general has been enthusiastically re-using buildings for hundreds of years (I got really excited about a grocery store in Ghent for that very reason).

The Castle also has a garden and solar panels, and has set a goal of becoming completely carbon-neutral by 2014 (or something…check their website for more info).  They’ve taken an out-of-date piece of infrastructure and turned it into a vibrant and profitable business.

Does anyone else have a favorite adaptive-reuse story? Or am I just a big ol’ nerd?

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I’d Live There: Small town Ontario

OK.  So the title is kind of a lie.  In reality, I probably never would live in small town Ontario, or any small town to be honest.  A summer living in Monticello, Utah (population 1900) cemented my status as an urbanite.  That being said, in travels across  southern Ontario for work and play, I fall in love over and over again with the gothic revival farmhouses from the 1800s that dot the landscape.

Last weekend took me to the small town of Beaverton, Ontario while shooting a music video with my band The Strumbellas.  The town of 2,500 is chock full of beautiful historic homes that I wish I’d snapped a few pictures of.  I’ve scoured the pages of realtor.ca looking for the perfect home to share, but have come up short.

If you’re interested, though, check out the Gothic Revival page at OntarioArchitecture.com.

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I would live the crap out of this place

A friend sent me this link with the message “behold dreamhouse”

He is spot-on.  This house is perfect.  If I had 1.5 million pounds, I’d be snapping it up right now instead of blogging about it.  If YOU have the money and buy the house, can I be your friend & come hang out in it?


It’s worth clicking the link and looking at the ten photos they have displayed.  Happy Friday!

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Recycled Architecture

My fascination with architectural conversions doesn’t stop with churches transforming into condos.   Preservation of historic architecture by means of transformation is on my mind again with the opening of Loblaws (a large Canadian supermarket) in Maple Leaf Gardens (former home to the Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL team). (More info on this here, here, or here).  A compromise was reached whereby the facade of the historic building was maintained, with the grocery store, clothing store and LCBO opening on the first floor, and a hockey facility for the Ryerson Rams opening above.  The fact that hockey will once again be played inside the historic walls pacified a lot of the sentimental Leafs fans.

This morning’s Toronto twitter was a-buzz with reports of people lining up for hours this morning for early entry into the new location.  Free food and a chance to meet the handsome Galen Weston (president of Loblaw’s and star of President’s Choice commercials) are apparently what it takes to get people to wait in the cold for hours.  That being said, I’m glad for a peak at the renovated building from the warmth of my desk, latte in hand – I’ll check it out when the weather is less inclement, and when there are groceries to be bought.

 Check out the images below, of Maple Leaf Gardens new and old:

Left to Right: Maple Leaf Gardens, Date Unknown, Maple Leaf Gardens marquee, People line up for the grand opening, Fans get Galen Weston’s Autograph, Inside the Gardens, The new front, new home for the Ryerson Rams hockey team

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OMA and the Barbican

After a delightful, extended Thanksgiving celebration, Ian and I headed to the Barbican, a giant concrete ziggurat that, though located in central London, feels like its in the middle of nowhere.

Its a sprawling arts complex, with a theater, a design shop, a gallery, a cafe with an award-winning design, and floors of offices and condos above.  We saw Ruddigore, a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta at odds with the aggressive modernism of everything else about the place, and then we went to look at an exhibit on OMA, Rem Koolhaas’ firm.  The exhibit poster featured an image of the famous building Koolhaas did for the Beijing Olympics, a building that was like the Sydney Opera House in its defiance of conventional engineering.  I was psyched.

I was disappointed.

The exhibit, in a word, sucked.  Although it is a brand-new exhibit that just opened last month, the intro to the exhibit was an excerpt from a book published six or seven years ago, and contained a factual error about Central Michigan University (conflating it with Carnegie Mellon) that Ian and I are both sensitive to, seeing as its our alma mater.  One of the centerpiece graphics was a site analysis map of Beijing cultural spaces – made in Illustrator with a Google aerial underlay.  It was the sort of thing that everyone learns to do in their first semester of grad school – something essential, but that you don’t put in your portfolio.

The next component of the exhibit was a compendium of OMA buildings – while the display was interesting, laminate posters hung from a track, the content (as the exhibit acknowledged) was just ripped from the website.  Everything about it was sloppy.

I was particularly disappointed by how little attention was devoted to individual buildings.  Anyone who’s been paying attention (the sort of person who might be interested in going to such an exhibit, for example0 knows that you can look at OMA’s website and see the buildings they’ve been working on, and even people who aren’t paying attention may have seen images of Koolhaas’ more famous buildings (the Beijing Olympics building, the Seattle Public Library, etc). I wasn’t interested in outdated publications or lists of projects, but that was all that was on offer.

There was a three-room exhibit preview before ticketholders passed through a door to the (presumably) more substantive material.  To be fair, I was so disgusted by the preview that I didn’t bother to pay for the exhibit, which might have had some actual content. Also, architecture is a difficult subject to curate.  With other art, the object in question is right in front of you, whereas with architecture, you have to resort to models, renderings, and images that show the architect’s process.  Its not the same as just looking at the building.  Even Zaha Hadid, who works primarily with conceptual rather than built architecture (and is the number one badass in the world of architecture right now), is difficult to curate.

When I was in college I wanted to be an architectural historian (its not so far from there to city planner) and I used to visit the Heinz Architectural Center at the Carnegie Museum a lot.  I was taking architectural history classes and had some knowledge of buildings, but even so, I found the exhibits impenetrable.  Architects have been notoriously poor at conveying their message to a lay audience when they’re not actually building anything, and I think the Barbican exhibit was perhaps the apotheosis of this complaint.

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I’d live there

My current favorite architectural conversions are churches turned into condos. I ran across this one in Toronto, as seen in Toronto Life. It looks like there may be some problems with natural light, but the vaulted ceilings make up for it.  More Pictures Here.

I’d live there.


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