Day 6: Shifting the status quo

After getting our bearings on the London walking tour yesterday, we jumped straight into a site visit on Day 6, meeting Alex de Rijke and Nazli Usta of dRMM at their soon to be complete Faraday House project.  The apartment building is located in the newly developed precinct of the iconic Battersea Power Station. Not without its problems, the site is on to its seventh masterplan, with Stage 1 currently designed by Rafael Viñoly Architects. Faraday House will be the first building finished in the first stage.

Sitting in a tough context, the building appeared like a golden gem amongst the super-sized buildings around it. Facing train tracks on one side, and an inner courtyard on the other, the views of the Thames River are hogged by the larger, glassy apartments next door, its relentless glass façade more akin to a commercial building. Using this as a device to react to, dRMM consciously rejected the steel and glass palette for a beautifully detailed copper alloy sheet, which was cut and fashioned on site by hand.

Disappointingly the interior finishes (who were executed by a separate interiors firm) lack the quality that is reflected in the envelope and common areas. It was confronting to see what a two-bedroom flat costs in London, and realising it is completely outside the price bracket any of us on the tour could afford… not an unusual situation in many cities in Australian.

Interestingly, Faraday House was originally envisaged as affordable housing, not only to meet legislative requirements, but because the developer presumed the location next to the train line would be undesirable. As dRMM’s design developed it was favourably received, market interest grew, and the developer realised the potential for a good return. The council’s demand for ‘affordable’ housing was lowered in exchange for a contribution to the new tube line, and the apartments were sold at market as normal. This bending of the rules is more of a reflection on the developer than the architect, but it still a disappointing and reoccurring situation that is not isolated to London.

Aside from the politics of the development, the success of Faraday House lies in its own identity. The articulated form and variation in the copper facade is a beautiful contrast to the neighbouring buildings, and brings a human quality to one of the largest development sites in Europe.

Leaving Battersea behind, we ventured south to see Studio Octopi, a young and energetic firm that have a name for all the right reasons. Like most small firms a fair portion of their work sits in the one-off, highly detailed, residential world. On the flip side they have some wonderfully ambitious projects that cross over in to the community and contribute greatly to the general public. Most notably, their concept for a series of swimming pools on the Thames, right in the heart of London.

While the Thames baths are inspiring projects, the point of interest for us lay within the procurement.  How do you crack the public work sector when you’re a young studio with a portfolio in housing? Studio Octopi successfully ran a crowd funding campaign in 2015 to raise money themselves, and funds were put towards a feasibility study with a marine engineer to actually getting the pools built. They received great support, including attention from the office of the Mayor of London.

With most large public projects in London going through a design competition process, it is such a provocative approach for how young firms might go after larger scale projects that would be otherwise out of reach.

The Thames baths projects have successfully engaged with the public, raising awareness of the role architects can play in the design of public spaces. With only three people in their office, the scale and range of work Studio Octopi are tackling is really encouraging.

The last visit of the day took us to Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA), who are becoming more present in Australia through high-end apartment buildings, two in Melbourne and two in Queensland. ZHA’s folio is increasing in tower typologies, with a gallery space showcasing the iterations of models planned for all over the world.

We finished up the day by each sharing a presentation at the RIBA with our international contemporaries; Australian members of the Institute based in London. It was a wonderful opportunity to see each others work in a candid way and talk with local architects about ideas around affordable housing and crowd-funding conceptual projects.

– Louisa Gee

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