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Weekend roundup: Is design to blame for Crossrail delays?

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Simon Aldous’s take on the big architectural stories of the week: Crossrail delayed till spring 2021 • RIBA considers ending free student membership • Chipperfield Edinburgh concert hall squeaks through planning

Have fancy designs been the cause of the delays to Crossrail? 

This time last year, those in charge of the new line that will run east-west across London were still maintaining that it would open at the end of 2018. It wasn’t till August – four months before the opening date when you might have thought it was just a matter of fitting the ticket barriers and putting up the customer service signs – that they admitted things weren’t quite on schedule and the opening would have to be delayed till autumn 2019. 

Turns out they were letting us down gently. Yesterday it was confirmed that the stretch of line between Paddington and Abbey Wood – ie the bit through central London – might not be complete until 2021. Which does rather suggest there was never a cat in hell’s chance of the original date being met. 

But a report by the London’s Assembly’s transport committee suggests that the complexity of the stations’ designs is at least partly to blame. ‘The design features are complex and bespoke,’ it says, ‘for instance, in Paddington station a large steel and glass canopy will be used to bring in natural light.’ 

It suggests that future infrastructure projects should ‘strive to keep designs simple, incorporating standard rather than bespoke features’. 

But one architect working on Crossrail, speaking anonymously to the AJ, strongly disagreed with this analysis. 

They point out that, from very early on, the stated objective was to make Crossrail stations ‘less extravagant’ than those for the Jubilee Line extension and that the central London stations are ‘quite plain’. 

The huge costs, they say, relate to the ‘incredibly complex construction challenges’ of building a railway below central London rather than station design. 

And they point the finger at ‘the crazy decision to re-tender some designs at different work stages, which led to changes of architects at crucial times’. 

Indeed, a rather different take to the ‘blame the designs’ stance was given by the commercial head of Crossrail 2 – the proposed north-south link through London. 

Simon Adams says that they are going to spend more time designing the scheme in more detail before it is contracted out. 

And he described Crossrail 1 as having ‘a fairly immature design’ coupled with ‘a very aggressive incentive mechanism’ which resulted in firms being incentivised to ensure delivery of their own package of works above everything. 

Indeed, Foster + Partners and Ian Ritchie Architects’ Canary Wharf Crossrail station was completed way back in September 2015. Let’s hope it hasn’t gathered too much dust by the time the line does eventually begin operating.

RIBA’s latest brainwave: squeeze some money out of those whingeing students

Shutterstock poor student

Shutterstock poor student

Hats off to the entrepreneurial spirit of the RIBA, which has come up with a fiendish money-spinning idea: end free membership for students. There they are at the start of the year, a fat student loan freshly nestling in their bank accounts just begging for a good home. 

The institute has sent a survey to all its 12,000 student members, asking what fee they might consider good value. The lowest option available was £16 with the highest being £144. It has also been carrying out focus groups among students, aiming to understand what level of fee they would be willing to pay. 

The institute introduced free student membership in 2004, the policy brought in by its then-president George Ferguson. He was scathing about the prospect of this being reversed, warning that it could cost thousands of members. 

‘Membership went up by about 10,000 almost instantly when I dropped [the fees],’ he recalled, adding that when he was a student ‘four pints of beer was more important to me … than membership of a professional institute’. 

While the prospect of extracting even £16 a year from 12,000 students may seem mouthwatering, one wonders whether the tactic might be somewhat shortsighted financially since Ferguson’s experience does suggest student membership will plummet. 

Not charging, on the other hand, gets architecture students in the habit of having RIBA membership, making them surely more likely to retain it once they are working and in a position to pay. 

And many are arguing that there are broader inclusivity issues. Architecture Students Network co-ordinator Olivia Marshall said: ‘It gives the impression that RIBA is trying to exclude students who have insufficient funds … therefore making this career choice more elitist.’ 

Poll: How much should the RIBA charge students for annual membership? 
• Nothing 
• £16 
• £50 
• £144 
Vote here

The previous weekend poll asked what your main objection was to Foster’s Tulip going ahead. Topping the answers at 53 per cent was the view that it would be an embarrassing eyesore; 27 per cent said it would be a waste of resources; while 18 per cent said they had no objection – it would be great. 

Tellingly, a mere 2 per cent considered its harm to the Tower of London to be the problem, suggesting that this objection from various heritage bodies may not be the most effective argument for halting the project.

Chipperfield’s Edinburgh concert hall squeaks through

Chippo edinburgh 1

Chippo edinburgh 1

David Chipperfield Architects’ proposed £45 million Edinburgh concert hall has been narrowly approved, with the city council’s planning committee backing the scheme by a slender six votes to four. 

Heritage campaigners had objected to the scheme on the grounds that it would spoil the view of a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland – a listed building dating back to 1774. 

But there was also concern from the venue’s backer, Impact Scotland, that discontent over its scheme was being stoked by the developer of a major new shopping centre – which feared the concert hall would block views from the top of its W Hotel, part of the development, designed by Jestico + Whiles. 

A spokesperson for the centre’s investors was at the planning hearing, complaining about the disruption to the surrounding, pedestrianised streets that would be caused by trucks bringing instruments to the venue. 

One sceptical councillor repeatedly asked about the use of concrete in the 1,000-seat concert hall. David Chipperfield, there to defend his building, said the concrete would use local stone as an aggregate, giving it a stone appearance. 

He added: ‘One neighbour [to this scheme] said that concrete was concrete, which sounds like Brexit is Brexit. But all concrete isn’t concrete,’ before adding mischievously, ‘nor is Brexit [simply] Brexit.’ 

Also this Easter … 

Just in case the Weekend Roundup is your sole source of architectural news, here’s a quick round-up of some of the bigger stories that occurred while the newsletter was taking its spring holiday  

Notre Dame Cathedral was severely damaged by a fire. Prompt action by Parisian firefighters meant it was less severe than originally feared, with the iconic two main rectangular bell towers surviving. However its spire, a 19th-century addition to the 850-year-old structure, was destroyed. And with the fire barely out, the French government announced an international competition to rebuild it, with prime minister Édouard Philippe suggesting that this might not be a case of simply replicating what had gone before, but should be ’adapted to techniques and challenges of our time’. Some of the subsequent suggestions have not been entirely serious.  

Roger Scruton was sacked from the government’s Building Beautiful, Building Better commission. The champion of traditional architecture was forced to go after a New Statesman interview run almost as a bullet-point list of politically incorrect soundbites. It is unclear why these were considered beyond the pale when a multitude of similarly dubious quotes had been widely highlighted at the time of his appointment.  

One of Scruton’s final public appearances in his role was on an architectural tour of Stratford’s modern housing developments. The AJ’s Rupert Bickersteth, who joined him on the tour, described him as full of charm though surprisingly uninformed about many aspects of housing. He also appeared more broadminded than might have been expected, describing a scheme by Peter Barber as ‘terrific’. This was, alas, not to be the basis of some mutual love-in. Reacting to Scruton’s sacking, Barber himself described himself as ‘Scruton intolerant’.  

Extinction Rebellion, the radical climate-change protest movement, disrupted many parts of central London. Among the architects supporting it was London Eye creator Julia Barfield. The co-founder of Marks Barfield told the AJ she had taken part in a sit-in on Lambeth Bridge as part of the campaign’s occupation of five London bridges last November.  

‘The science is clear and unequivocal,’ she said. ‘Yet the government is on track to miss its carbon emission targets, has effectively banned onshore wind, is supporting fracking and, as Greta Thunberg pointed out, is peddling ‘creative carbon accountancy … Any disruption now will pale into insignificance compared to the disruption to come if we don’t all take urgent action personally and politically.’  

US mega-practice SOM was appointed by former footballers Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs  to deliver their controversial St Michael’s Tower scheme in Manchester. The 40-storey tower was designed by Hodder + Partners, which will be retained as a ‘design guardian’. Hodder itself replaced Make in 2017, completely reworking its original two-tower proposal which had come in for heavy criticism.  

A Chinese blogger was ordered to pay £22,000 compensation after writing that a Zaha Hadid Architects’ Beijing office complex had bad feng shui. The blog post claimed that ZHA’s trio of undulating towers, designed for major real estate company SOHO China, resembled ‘pig kidneys’ and that the buildings’ shapes created negative energy and brought bad luck to its commercial tenants. Such rigorous clamping down on any criticism could make ZHA director Patrik Schumacher’s life a lot easier. Though as an ardent libertarian he will undoubtedly be appalled.

Simon Aldous’s Weekend Roundup is emailed exclusively to AJ subscribers every Saturday morning. Click here to find out about our subscription packages

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