But is it Universal?


10 July 2017

Architecture and the Art of the Extra Ordinary, an exhibition devoted to six projects by British architects Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM) currently on display at the British School at Rome (BSR), makes no small claims for the projects it presents.

"The essential urban building of the near future is flexible, memorable, and allows a mix of programmes to flourish. And it offers universal use!" writes Simon Allford, co-founder and director of AHMM, in the self-published manifesto Extra Ordinary (Fifth Man, 2016). The BSR exhibition claims to be an illustration of this universalist design thinking, and was accompanied, on its opening night, by a lecture in which Allford rehearsed many arguments from the manifesto. "Essential architecture" and "universal building" are terms that are used to describe the practice's core design ethos in the exhibition press release.

Claims to universality have a fraught position in the history of architectural (and political) thought. They underpin some of the most ambitious and socially progressive architectural projects in the 20th century, but can also be used as pretexts for pushing through programmes that are only universal in the sense that someone has declared them to be so. Historically, that someone would usually have been a European man in a university – something many cultural critics have been keen to point out, and problematise, in the past 40 years or so. In fact, it is fair to say that the heyday of the international style in the immediate postwar moment was the last time it was considered OK to speak of universals and essentials.

However, a closer look at the projects on display at Architecture and the Art of the Extra Ordinary, suggest there is nothing so lofty going on here. In fact, what Allford seems to mean when he speaks of "universal use" is simply a willingness, on the architects' part, to accept that lasting architecture will inevitably be appropriated for a variety of uses. The more a building can "flex" (Allford's term) to accommodate these uses, the more valuable the design.

"When we started out in the 1980s, there was something called refurbishment, which was something all good architects cleared away from," says Allford when he shows Disegno around the BSR exhibit. "It was really a postwar idea. There was a brave-new-world optimism then, and there had also been mass destruction. I think what has changed now is that people have realised that the longevity of the city is not brought about by endless clearing. It’s about buildings that allow change to occur within them. If you look at the history of architecture, structures have been endlessly recycled. So our position is only a reversion to history."

This is a line of thought that accords much more with the theme of "Fragments", the BSR Architecture Programme's research focus over the past few years. The programme, which AHMM is a continuing sponsor of, has seen theoretical heavyweights such as Eyal Weizman (founder of the Forensic Architecture research group at Goldsmiths) and artist Mirosław Balka lecture on memory and fragmentation vis-a-vis the built environment (and the destruction of the same) over the past two years. It is through the lens of historical fragmentation that AHMM's six projects make most sense.

Indeed, Allford is keen to emphasise the specific conditions – historical, social, and practical – of each of the projects on display. "Constraint is what we work to. We are always given some notional brief – not an accurate brief, but a notional brief. We’re never free, we’re always working in the context of a space. And everything is to be found in the place. The programme is just the latest overlay onto that place." In the end, he says, AHMM is "commissioned by clients to make buildings in the public and private sectors. They’ve got a very specific programme that you have to deliver. They’re not paying you to idly speculate on architectural theory."

Below, Allford speaks to Disegno about six projects on display as part of Architecture and the Art of the Extra Ordinary.

The social and behavioural sciences campus at the University of Amsterdam, completed by AHMM in 2014. IMAGE Tim Soar.

Simon Allford This was designed in the 1960s by Norbert Gawronski and finished in 1981. Gawronski had the idea to make a masterplan, but like all masterplans it was never completed. Two buildings were built in the end, including a 1m-sqft megastructure over the canal. It is the only building in Amsterdam, in fact, that goes over a canal. So when we won the competition 12 years ago, we met with Gawronski and had an ongoing conversation with him. The University of Amsterdam was reorganising itself into four campuses in the city, and this was one of them, the social and behavioural sciences campus. The brief that we won the competition with entailed opening up to the city. So we cut a large chunk out of the building so that the canal went through it, but the view through to the other side, which links to the zoo, was brought back into the city. The other thing we said to the client was that whatever your programme is with this building, it’s very likely to be different within 10 years. So we organised the public spaces within the building as a series of mini atria. We also hung a social room under the bit over the canal that we cut out. It’s kind of the heart of the whole building with the view of the canal that orientates you more clearly back into Amsterdam. Again, it wasn’t part of the programme. The point was, a building of this scale needs social spaces within it. Then regardless of their usage, it will last.

New Scotland Yard in London, a remodelling and extension of the 1930s William Curtis Green building, completed by AHMM in 2016. IMAGE Tim Soar.

Simon Allford William Curtis Green built a new police station in 1935. In 1955, the Metropolitan Police moved to New Scotland Yard, and then in 2009/10, they moved back into this building. Our job was to take give this neo-classical building another life. It had generous floor to ceilings, it had a fairly robust frame, and it had a very set piece facade in the context of Embankment on the Thames. There are histories that come out of that place that become important. And those fragments of history are then taken into the new project. So we wanted to keep the visage of the building and add this new bomb-proof public pavilion. It’s in curved glass, about 3m thick. Underpinning this project is an immense technical challenge. No-one has ever made curved bomb-proof glass before for instance. The whole building is obviously bomb-proof, but the public pavilion, which looks the most transparent, is just as secure as the rest of the building although it’s the most exposed. In this building, every W.C. is colour-coded to match a police car across time – a bit of humour injected to a part of the structure that will change anyway.

Burntwood School in London, the 2014 project that won AHMM the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2014. IMAGE Tim Soar.

Simon Allford Leslie Martin, a famous Cambridge researcher and architect, was the original architect of this school. There were some quite fine buildings on this campus, like the school hall, which we kept. Then there were some that were a little too postwar mean – that idea of endlessly compressing space to build cheaply because materials were rationed and so on. So we did a careful review of all the buildings and kept the the school hall and the pool, and then we removed all the others. The constraint here was that the whole school had to stay in operation throughout the process, with 1,200 girls coming in and out every day. But that’s just another constraint among many other constraints you have to work with on any other project. Somewhere like London, you have visible constraints: daylight, sunlight. You have invisible structural constraints: English Heritage, certain preserved views. You have invisible constraints: the Underground, archaeological concerns.

The American Energy Partners (AEP) Fitness Center in Oklahoma, completed in 2015. IMAGE Tim Soar.

Simon Allford We were working for Aubrey McClendon, an oil and gas entrepreneur. He’d set up American Energy Partners, and wanted us to built him a new campus in Oklahoma. But there was only one fragment of a building on the campus, which was an underground store he’d built. He was embarrassed about it because he’d built the foundations, had a bit of financial wobble, and then left the site looking a bit derelict. Oklahoma’s a small city and everyone knew it was his site and that he’d left a bit of a mess. I asked him what it was for and he said it was his personal wine storage for his wine collection, which was 100,000 bottles. Anyway, those bottles went somewhere else and he wanted a sports facility for his new campus and the idea was it would be open to the community as well. Then he died, indicted on oil and gas corruption charges. But now this building, which hadn’t been used for one and a half years, has now been turned into a centre for the Oklahoma City Ballet, so it’s already going through this other iteration. The reason we put this in the show is it’s the most universally generic idea of flexible space. But in fact, a similar thinking exists in the other projects too.

Chobham Academy, a school complex in Stratford completed in 2012. IMAGE Tim Soar.

Simon Allford When we designed the central building for the site in 2004, there was no Olympics, no Stratford City. We were asked to design a school for a masterplan only. Thinking about memorable public buildings, the idea was that the school building, being circular, would have a recognisable identity wherever you were in the city. A very simple idea from 2004 then survived through the next sever or eight years, into this project. This project is an all-age academy, which means you can go in at 3 and leave at 18. It was the opposite of the Burntwood project: we didn’t have a school, we didn’t have any pupils, and we didn’t have a place. We had very few constraints, so we invented the constraint of the circle (which no-one else liked, because it was expensive.) As the place came forward, we didn’t actually know if we were going to have one, two, or three separate schools or whether it would be a connected school. We set up the potential for it to be run as one school, however, by linking the buildings. That’s actually what has happened now. But equally so, if pedagogical models change, it can be converted to School 1, School 2, and School 3.

A speculative project exploring circular structures. IMAGE Tim Soar.

Simon Allford We were wondering about which projects were best to tell stories with. You can weave different stories around different things. But ideas are never that linear. They’re bouncing off other attitudes, constraints, and situations. This project is the last one, and the only one that’s not built. This is really just the exploration of an idea of a particular physical form in a city. But this idea of a monumental form in a disaggregated city reflects our project Chobham Academy near the Olympic Village.