Cullinan Studio’s Nathan Breeze takes a look around The Cass’ end-of-year show
Housing in London is perhaps unsurprisingly the dominant design and research topic across the different units at this year’s Cass summer exhibition.
Looking out of the window of Central House, where a mixture of undergraduate and postgraduate work is loosely arranged over four floors, the rise of high-end residential towers is an unavoidable reminder of the financial speculation that has engulfed much of the city, sadly including the school building itself, which has been controversially sold and is soon to be demolished. The fact that many of the students are members of ‘generation rent’ adds an extra level of seriousness and maturity to the typically grounded projects the school produces.
There is a consistently strong emphasis on urban strategy, together with studies of typology, density, tenure and lifestyle trends, with proposals for alternative economic and construction models.
Many of the studios are run by practising architects, with early parts of the year dedicated to the forensic study of housing precedents through sketching and physical model-making. In some cases this ‘understanding through reproducing’ method has the feel of a faithful artist’s apprentice about it and, in the same exhibition space, some of the eventual student projects struggled to compete with the ‘masterpieces’ of old.
Nevertheless there were some highly accomplished high-density schemes in Unit 5, run by housing specialist Mae Architects. Proposals for a site in Kentish Town managed to jump convincingly between urban and domestic scales with a refreshing emphasis on sectional rather than plan-based development, which currently dominates new housing schemes.
Meanwhile Unit 7 has produced some beautifully composed co-housing schemes by east London’s Hertford Union Canal with carefully scaled and sequenced public and private spaces.
While a substance-over-style approach to design through the use of traditional representation techniques gives many of the units a visual coherence, Unit 13’s exhibition provided a welcome dose of playfulness and exuberance. Entitled, For Ever, For Everyone, after the National Trust’s slogan, the unit critically questions the inflexible notion of heritage in Britain. Through a study of six National Trust sites within a 20-mile radius of London, students revealed the highly curated and frozen narratives given to these buildings and their subsequent separation and irrelevance to the communities that surround them. Proposals were made to extend, retrofit and reimagine sites with alternative uses (including housing) to provide them with a socially and economically sustainable future.
Contextually driven design is a key component of the school. While the best projects respectfully enhance their surroundings, some display such formal and material faithfulness to context that one struggles to distinguish between existing and proposed, which can undermine the undoubted skill of the design.
The undergraduate school Studio 4, run by Cottrell & Vermeulen, stood out for its urban strategies using local manufacturing in Bankside arches. Exploratory materials testing, as well as studies of texture and relief, gave a tectonic richness to the exhibition space.
Meanwhile Studio 10 has been exploring civic thresholds promoting social diversity around Roman Road in east London. This was wonderfully represented by a site plan consisting of different coloured ceramic blocks.
Outside of London, this year’s units typically ventured to locations of conflict or scarce resources within sensitive built and natural environments, such as post-earthquake Nepal, rural Japan and various refugee camps including the Calais ‘Jungle’.
Continuing the school’s passionate tradition of humanitarian architecture, these socially engaged projects proposed appropriately low-tech, accessible and affordable solutions. Exhibition space was as much about process as the final proposal. Vast diaries and documents contained a staggering depth of field-based research, with graduates demonstrating the large variety of different roles that architects undertake beyond drawings – from surveying and consultation to construction management.
This appropriateness extends beyond representation to design production and methodology. Back in the postgraduate school, Unit 4, typically the parametric design studio, set students a second term brief of designing deployable shelters for refugee camps. On spending a week volunteering in the Calais Jungle, students quickly realised that this was not a situation that was appropriate for the use of Rhino or Grasshopper. Instead, a group of students have designed ‘Calais Kids Space’, a low-cost, easy to construct, flat-pack dormitory for unaccompanied minors, for which they are seeking crowdfunding.
The live projects provide invaluable experience for aspiring architects, and there should be more of them as many of the quietly sophisticated schemes in the show could - and should - be built. Subtlety is a virtuous character of successfully constructed buildings but it can often be lost or dismissed in paper architecture.
Predominantly this is a school based in the present, but an uncertain future with impending change can provide an opportunity for bolder experimentation. For me, there could be a place for more programmatic and representational variety across units including (where appropriate) digital fabrication, innovative (low-cost) technology and time-based media to reflect the fact that there is a broader range of emerging forms of architectural practice.
Nathan Breeze, partner, Cullinan Studio