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RIAS returns to Eden for 2002 convention

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This year's RIAS convention in Inverness - the commercial and industrial heart of the Highlands - explored urban design, regeneration and rural design. Zoë Blackler reports The setting of this year's RIAS convention 'Invention and Intervention: a return to Eden?' was the city of Inverness in its Eden Court Theatre. The brief for speakers was broad - they were asked to explore urban design strategies, regeneration and rural design.

British-born Tom Henegan was first to speak, describing some of his work in his adopted homeland, Japan. There he is known as 'Mr Green', as much a reflection of the problematic attitude of the Japanese towards their environment as a comment on his work, he said.

Henegan promised to show 'a series of buildings I've copied and then to show how I copied them', beginning with a number of slides illustrating the relationship between architecture and its setting. From a Japanese temple, to a public square in the centre of Brisbane, Australia, and the central mosque in Kuala Lumpur, the examples demonstrated how architecture worked with its natural setting, rather than opposing it.

Then followed a discussion of his own work, which included the Grasslands Agricultural Institute in Kumamoto, Japan. The design of the school's cowsheds - with its tree-shaped columns and holes punctured in the roof - attempted to reproduce for its bovine inhabitants the experience of being outdoors beneath the trees. Though he admitted the approach might 'sound a little odd', vets had found the cows produced more milk after the shed was constructed than before - a change they could only put down to the architecture.

His vacation cabins in Mirasaka, near Hiroshima, were designed as a series of small boxes made to 'stand up and assert themselves' against the forest. The design set up a tension between the architecture and its setting, with nature, in the form of ivy trained up and around the cabins - trying to wrap up the box-shaped houses.

May Banks followed, describing the restoration of Trenabie Mill in Westray in the Orkneys. Her approach to the conversion of the 19th-century watermill was that of 'minimal intervention - to let the building dictate how it would be used'. The challenge of the project was enhanced by the way of life on the islands, where construction workers abandon site to help with lambing and building contracts have little meaning.

Sir Nicholas Grimshaw described the criteria by which each of his projects is environmentally audited. The assessment system had been applied to some seven projects, 'some of which did not come out very well, ' he admitted. Grimshaw described sustainability as 'meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability to meet the needs of the future'. And he added: 'Architects tend to confine their thinking about sustainability - we need to broaden that.'

The assessment system evaluates the project in terms of its impact on a range of areas that include humans, flora and fauna, water, air, embodied energy use, transport, continuing energy use, land and soil and local communities. Grimshaw considered some of the measures available to reduce this impact, from photovoltaics, to the reduction of CO 2rating, and general recycling.

The Eden Project drew on many of these principles, including the use of lightweight materials such as ETFE, water retention on site and the use of local materials. But though it scored highly in most areas, it fell down badly on transportation, since the majority of visitors to the site arrive by car.

Liza Fior, co-founder of muf - the London-based women-only practice committed to working in the public realm - spoke generally about her approach to commissions.

The emphasis of the practice, which was established in 1992, was a reaction to the political attitude of the time that denied the existence of 'society'.

In order to ensure that public realm projects are embedded in the site, you must start by questioning the brief, Fior said. She described a project, in its early stage, for a community garden in Tilbury, Essex. After initial research, muf discovered the population for a neighbouring housing estate included a large number of second- and third-generation gypsies who still used the land to graze their horses. As a result, the plans for the park will include an area for dressage.

In Newham, a commission to overhaul the urban strategy with £7 million began by mapping everything going on - perceptions and realities about the area and the various groups with an interest in it. Through its involvement, muf found itself as the only conduit between all these different bodies.

Boston-based Israeli Moshe Safdie discussed the problem of megascale. Criticising Rem Koolhaas' suggestion that architects must be 'utterly uncritical', Safdie argued for the opposite: 'I feel we must be utterly critical, ' he said. And in the face of globalisation, 'a force that wants to make everything the same', architects must mitigate the force of megascale, so that human, individual scale can prevail. Safdie illustrated his thoughts with examples of his work, including Vancouver Library and Ottawa Museum in Canada and the Khalsa Heritage Memorial, a museum complex in Anandpur Sahib, India.

Architect Mark Walker discussed a theoretical view of how architecture can relate to the environment, identifying the different possibilities as 'marking', 'borrowing', 'influencing' or 'coalescing'with the landscape, before describing his own house, Cedar House.

Chris Wilkinson took as his theme the title of the conference, invention and intervention, describing the former as the 'exciting bit of architecture' and the latter as 'the responsible bit'.

He began by remembering some of the moments of invention that had taken place in his practice, and the interesting solutions that resulted. Examples included 6,000 eutectic balls in an acrylic tank, the alternative energy source for explore @Bristol; his own design for the Wellcome Wing at the Science Museum; and at Stratford Underground station (above), the light filigree facade and the sustainable elements - solar power and a natural ventilation system. The spiral organisation of the auditoria within his design for a multiplex at the Mary Hill shopping centre - a project that remained on the drawing board, was another example. While Wilkinson did not claim credit for all the inventions which resulted from a team effort, he did claim credit for creating the right environment in which they could happen.

Moving to interventions, Wilkinson cited the Metra Viticas bridge in Northern Greece, for a motorway linking two sides of a mountain and described the positioning of the Gateshead Millennium Bridge (above).

The lesson from the Magna Centre, he said, was that people were willing to accept innovation. 'No one finds it too much, ' he said.

Arni Winther from the Faroe Islands offered 'a break from the extraordinary and the grand to the everyday'. Far from the megascale that concerned Safdie, he worked very much at the microscale, in a society of less than 5,000 people. His tour of the architecture of the islands took in a variety of projects including his Mariu Kirkjan church in Tórshavn.

As the climax to the day, Alvaro Siza spoke of just one project, the Santa Maria Church at Marco de Canaveses in Portugal and the problems, discoveries and doubts inherent within that one building. He described the process of design and the thinking behind each detail and choice of material, including design of the pews, the placing of windows and the simplified design of a cross.

lThe next RIAS convention will take place at the Albert Halls in Stirling on 8 and 9 May, 2003.

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