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Green Sky Thinking 2017: how to build an open city

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Open City director Rory Olcayto on why you should attend the week-long sustainable cities event. PLUS AJ sustainability editor Hattie Hartman shares her top picks

Rory Olcayto

AJ’s managing editor Will Hurst asked me for a short comment piece on why architects should go to Green Sky Thinking, please. So here I am, with a roundabout argument, that if you’re not persuaded by, then, sheesh, I don’t know, go see a doctor. What the hell’s wrong with you!? 

David. Leatherbarrow. There. I’ve said it. Got your attention? Er, no? You mean you don’t know who Dave – yeah, that’s what I call him – is? You haven’t read What goes unnoticed: On the canonical qualities of the PSFS building? Seriously? You know, the one where Dave states that the best buildings ‘sustain wonder but do not demand it’. Well Dave’s not coming, but his spirit (he’s not dead, I’m going for effect) haunts our programme this year. 

Great architecture makes sense not only of its street, but its block too and the city itself

How so? Dave writes wonderfully about cities, buildings, materials and form, usually philosophically, always engagingly. In his love letter to PSFS, Howe and Lescaze’s Art Deco tower in Philadelphia, he introduces the idea that that great architecture makes sense not only of its street, but its block too and – why the hell not – the city itself. It’s a nice simple test you can apply right away. Take the Shard. Go on. How does it fare, per street, block and city? 

Dave cites how the PSFS client wanted an ‘ultrapractical’ building, and goes on to explore what that meant in terms of programme and urban design – an elevated banking hall, accessed from street level by a ‘famous escalator’ allowing the ground floor to be made public in the form of retail – as well as technology (it was the second skyscraper in the USA to be fully air-conditioned, woo hoo).

But Dave goes further. He explains that ‘ultra’ means both to intensity and to go beyond, and it’s this second meaning that this comment piece and this year’s Green Sky Thinking is most intrigued by. 

Dave shows that through their dedication to the ultrapractical, the architects went on to create a generous, public building, that not only enhanced its local and nearby townscape, but gave form and meaning to the whole expanse of Philadelphia.

This year’s Green Sky Thinking publicity reads: How to build an open city: be generous, be public, be ultrapractical

As well as animating the skyline with its carefully calibrated elevations and easygoing, smoothed form, it augmented – for the better – the streets below. Sitting directly above a underground rail hub, it first captures and then contains human activity by drawing passengers up into its street level retail offer; and even further upwards perhaps, into the bank, a new customer signed up; or further still to the penthouse restaurant. In other words, it has become a place. 

The publicity around Green Sky Thinking this year reads: ‘How to build an open city: be generous, be public, be ultrapractical’, and now I’ve given you the Dave shtick, hopefully you’ll understand why. 

We’re asking how we can embody both meanings of ‘ultrapractical’ as we set about building the London of the next 100 years. Intensifying practical approaches – in design, in project management, in construction – only takes us so far. If you don’t go beyond the practical, if we obsess over the technical, we won’t build or foment character, that elusive quality the best cities have and which most newbuild parts of the city, even the very good ones, struggle to project.

We have over 50 events at sites across London, each one led by the experts responsible for the case studies shared in their sessions. Keep them on their toes. Ask: Is it generous? Is it public? Is it ultrapractical?’ In short, show some character. 

Green Sky Thinking runs from 15 to 19 May. Download the full programme at greenskythinking.org.uk

Hattie Hartman’s pick of Green Sky Thinking 2017



Somerleyton Road housing, Brixton, by Mae

The cost of everything and the value of nothing
Panel discussion chaired by Alex Ely of Mae
Wednesday 17 May, 6-8pm
1 Naoroji Street, London WC1X 0GB

Healing by design: Discussing the future of sustainable healthcare
Discussion with architects from Foster + Partners, plus Maggie’s chief executive Laura Lee. Chaired by Hattie Hartman
Thursday, 18 May, 6.30-8.30pm
Foster + Partners, Riverside, 22 Hester Road, London SW11 4AN

Exploring how Google use materials to deliver healthy buildings
Tuesday 16 May, 8.30-10.30am
6 Pancras Square, King’s Cross, London S1C 4AG
Event fully booked, but those interested can register on waiting list 

Unveiling the new Bartlett – 22 Gordon Street
Tour with Hawkins\Brown, BuroHappold and UCL staff
Thursday 18 May, 6-8pm
The Bartlett School of Architecture, 22 Gordon Street, London WC1H 0QB
Event fully booked, but those interested can register on waiting list

What did certification ever do for us?
Roundtable with speakers from White Arkitekter, RCKa, Mole Architects and Cundall, plus Flora Samuel and Erick Bichard. Chaired by Dan Epstein
Thursday, 18 May, 8.30-10am
White Arkitekter, 27 Charlotte Rd, London EC2A 3PB
Event fully booked, but those interested can register on waiting list

How architects learn
Bennetts Associates discusses how their buildings function after handover
Monday 15 May, 6.30-9pm
1 Rawstorne Place, London, EC1V 7NL
Event fully booked, but those interested can register on waiting list

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