FAT’s ‘Community in a Cube’ casts doubt on the viability of sustainable schemes in the current climate, writes Steve Parnell. Photography by Charles Hosea
Middlesbrough is a town divided in two by the railway and the A66. To the south lies the generous civic square that forms today’s heart, but on the wrong side of the tracks, ‘over the border’ as it’s ominously known, is St Hilda’s. This was the site of the original market square and where the dockers traditionally lived.
Riverside One is part of the Middlehaven development on the site of the old railway sidings that fed the docks, and is an identifiably Will Alsop-designed masterplan, commissioned by the now-defunct Tees Valley Regeneration (TVR) development agency.
The plan followed the early-noughties formula for regeneration of individually named buildings by signature architects, thrown across a map like dice across Las Vegas baize. The five dice of Middlehaven were to be apartment blocks alongside three ‘dice shakers’, housing leisure facilities such as a casino and hotel.
Besides the college, the only completed building of the original masterplan is FAT’s ‘Community in a Cube’, or CIAC, comprising 82 apartments above a restaurant and commercial space.
The site, which is only five minutes’ walk to the train station and 10 to the town centre, has a superb location next to the still-operational blue transporter bridge. Surrounding the old dock are Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond’s hyperboloid wire-frame sculpture known as ‘Temenos’, and Archial’s Middlesbrough College, which offers further education to more than 6,000 students but little to the area’s townscape. The potential for an ecological, social and even economically sustainable post-industrial place is palpable. The site’s infrastructure has been largely completed, thanks to English Partnerships, and is of a decent quality, if unexciting design.
Even in its tumbleweed state, it is not difficult to imagine people heading for this place and wanting to linger. Where dockers once would have marched, dribbles of headphoned students now shuffle during the week, and armies of Boro supporters parade of a Saturday afternoon towards the Riverside Stadium whose capacity confirms Middlesbrough’s class origins but belies its town status.
CIAC is clearly a development of the Brutalist idea of housing a whole community in a single building. One thing that Ivor Smith says he would have done differently at Park Hill was to treat the ground and top floors differently to those in between. FAT have achieved this within CIAC by sandwiching six floors of regular apartments between the vernacular New Urbanism motifs of the cube’s ground and penthouse floors, which form the memorable after-image of the building.
The two-storey pitched-roof blue weatherboard houses on top are reminiscent of MVRDV’s blue roof extension in Rotterdam, completed around the time CIAC was designed. Whereas MVRDV’s extension stands out like an architectural Blue Man Group, FAT’s is more the New Urbanism of Seaside, Florida. Nevertheless, the blue houses are hugely likeable without appearing contrived. The ground floor equivalent is a less successful log-cabin restaurant. Its squat form looks uncomfortably squashed and reminiscent of temporary Christkindlmarkt cabins. Thankfully, the vernacular motif did not multiply all over like WAM Architecten’s similarly sized stacked houses for the Inntel hotel in Zaandam.
The building elicited a confused reaction from the locals I asked. Among the predictable ‘eyesores’ and ‘not for the likes of us’ comments, one said that he didn’t like the design, but thought the development was positive, another that it was ‘like Marmite – you either love it or hate it.’ High-density metropolitan living does not exist in this part of Yorkshire where everyone likes to keep their feet firmly on the ground.
The cube is intelligently split into two wings with only a service core and access decks in the centre. This minimises corridor lengths and allows most flats to have a dual aspect. The marketing suite model shows trees in the central courtyard and greenery spilling out over balconies and decks, but no such softening has arrived on site yet. The installed planters along the decks unfortunately remain empty and it is ambiguous who will tend them, although a ‘green facilities manager’ has just been appointed.
The south-facing raised courtyard is a nice idea, although at its grade level (first floor), only two flats’ kitchen sink windows overlook it. The apartments in the middle storeys are of a contemporary size and layout but their 2.7 metre floor-to-ceiling height and large windows with thick reveals and excellent views make them feel larger.
For a speculative private development, CIAC’s ecological credentials are remarkable. A fabric-first approach means the 400mm-thick exterior walls are packed with insulation and heating is from a biomass boiler sized to heat five blocks. The approach to specification is also impressive: recycled North Sea oil pipeline segments form the foundation piles, the roof tiles are made of recycled car dashboards, the insulation is wood fibre (giving a wall U-value of 0.2) and the concrete uses 50 per cent GGBS and recycled hardcore aggregate.
It is therefore disappointing that the BioRegional Quintain partnership company closed down after CIAC’s completion, due to the recession and in order to concentrate on their respective core businesses, as it raises the question of whether ethically minded development is viable in the current climate. The idea of such a large sustainable development should have been exemplary. Pete Halsall, managing director of BioRegional Quintain, says that ‘people don’t buy sustainability, but what sustainability brings.’
Nevertheless, Middlehaven must today seem a risky venture for any prospective developer, regardless of green agenda, which leaves CIAC a little stranded and less interesting as a place to live for the time being, however cosy the individual apartments. It can only be hoped that the Homes and Communities Agency will continue the development with the same principles and that another developer with BioRegional Quintain’s scale of ambition can fill the gap left by its demise.
Steve Parnell is an architectural critic and teaches at London Metropolitan University, the Bartlett and the University of Sheffield