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The year of the laconic machine

Year in review 2013: Felix Mara, AJ technical editor

It has been a low-key year, short on heroic technological rhetoric. It ended with a round of applause for Caruso St John’s sympathetic, finely wrought and finally completed reworking of London’s Tate Britain.

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With the notable exception of Hopkins Architects’ diaphanous Brent Civic Centre (AJ 01.08.13), the evolving stylistic phenomenon Pevsner popularised as ‘the machine aesthetic’ had seemingly hit the buffers. Edwin Heathcote, architecture critic of the Financial Times and custom ironmonger to the stars, was on hand to deftly tighten its coffin lid’s pig’s snout-headed bolts. ‘Sometimes we find that a recession is good for the quality of architecture, filtering out the unnecessary headliners and pointless, over-engineered high-tech silly structures the Brits can’t seem to grow out of,’ he said (AJ 18.07.13). Note the oxymoron ‘over-engineered’.

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Have we all come round to Charles Moore’s view, expressed in his influential book The Place of Houses, that machinery, in residential architecture at least, is a no-no? Not when it comes to work and study-place ceilings, trendsetters Allford Hall Monaghan Morris and Haworth Tompkins’ recent output tells us. If you don’t like conduit, look elsewhere. But a few VRF units and pendant luminaires scarcely amount to a full-blooded celebration of machinery, whereas John McAslan + Partners’ Olympic Energy Centres shop-windowed some heavyweight working kit.Leaving aside buildings which displayed machinery or emulated it through precise, offsite-manufactured and crafted componentry, a handful were in themselves, or incorporated, mechanisms exploring possibilities beyond doors and ironmongery. These mechanisms were usually simple, for example the modules of Hugh Broughton Architects’ Halley VI British Antarctic Survey research station (AJ 11.04.13), with skis on hydraulic legs enabling them to be shunted across the ice. Easily the standout British project of the year, its language of pressed metal, grommets and gaskets, and its legible assembly logic have instant machine appeal.

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Guy Hollaway Architects’ Crit Building for the Kent School of Architecture (AJ 31.01.13) is kinetic in a modest, ornamental way, with myriad hinged aluminium flaps shimmering in the wind and helping to filter daylight. The interior is also gismotic, in a more functional way, with hinged and sliding panels used to display students’ work, demarcate crit spaces and conceal large monitors.

McDowell + Benedetti’s Scale Lane Bridge in Hull (AJ 18.07.13) goes the whole hog, pivoting to let river traffic pass, like a 1,000-tonne lever handle with eerie, chiming, recorded bird noise and hundreds of passengers. Hopefully projects like these, with low or non-existent running costs, are beginning to be seen as less indulgent by those who fund them as our economy recovers.

But when it comes to machinery as the servant of environmental targets, where performance is gauged by reduced energy costs and harmful emissions, rather than renown and non-commercial footfall, there is clearly a consensus in favour of passive, ‘fabric first’ design. As AJ building regs columnist Geoff Wilkinson observes, if you want eco-bling instead of fabric, it’s going to be much more difficult when the revisions to Approved Document L become law on 6 April 2014. This consensus just might be the saviour of the green movement. Its problem is no longer that people are bored with sustainability. They’re actually sick to death of it: of its parsimonious doctrine, clumsy terminology, insufferable slogans like ‘save the planet’, and also with the alienating demands of central government and preaching environmental professionals. Emphasising simple, tangible, architectural principles of good  orientation, planning and detailed construction in favour of bureaucratic abstractions like the BREEAM process may be the best way to fulfil our environmental aspirations.

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Against this changing background, wind turbines seem particularly vulnerable. These are opportunities for striking, heroic design such as Arup Associates’ addition to its BSkyB Harlequin 1 (AJ 02.06.11), and the standard types you see on wind farms have extraordinary sculptural beauty, although tainted by the human suffering their cost entails, which parasitic energy companies have compounded, as well as by nimby ruminations.

To touch on the impact of the machine on urban environments, central and local government were slow to integrate cycling into our road infrastructure this year. Too slow for the six cyclists killed in London in less than two weeks. Cycle lane provision remains inadequate in our cities, although increased sightings of pushbiking boys in blue suggest these will be better policed in future. The Boris Bikes continued to roll, fitted with signs warning users to beware of vehicles turning left. What they should also say is that the greatest danger is vehicles behind them which are about to turn left. The car is one machine that will be difficult to tame.

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Technology. We can’t live with it, and we can’t live without it. When it came to architectural expression, designers of this year’s crop preferred to keep the machine aesthetic in neutral gear. The facade of Allford Hall Monaghan Morris’ Chobham Academy in London (AJ 29.11.13) is studded with the cowled inlets of its natural ventilation system, but this expresses solid-state technology. Likewise, Zaha Hadid Architects’ auditorium at its Heydar Aliyev Centre in Baku has a coupled volume strategy to accommodate different types of use, adamantly eschewing elaborate physical adaptation.

Of course, the machine is increasingly present in the background, through the growing use of digital technology and offsite fabrication, and will surely return to architectural expression as we feel or aspire to more confidence in our technological future, and as fashions change.

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