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Weekend roundup: Protest and survive

Nick newman on tower crop
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This week’s top stories reviewed by the AJ’s Simon Aldous: Studio Bark architect arrested at Extinction Rebellion demo • Lancaster University launches architecture degree for activists • Tributes paid to Charles Jencks • Loan rate hike threatens council housing

Have we seen the perfect combining of architecture and protest with Nick Newman’s arrest during the latest Extinction Rebellion activities?

Newman, who is a director at London-based practice Studio Bark, found himself at odds with the police after chaining himself to a modular plywood tower in central London. The structure was assembled from boxes that used cutting patterns based on Studio Bark’s own self-build system U-build.

And the architect said he was perfectly qualified to climb to the top of the tower. ‘I was familiar with the design of the boxes, and climb as a hobby,’ he explained.

He and two fellow protesters were able to use the boxes’ cutout holes to lock themselves to the structure. Police eventually had to use a JCB to shift the tower from the road before arresting all three.

This isn’t the first time a member of Studio Bark has been picked up by the Old Bill. During the previous round of Extinction Rebellion protests in April, architect Tom Bennett was arrested while taking part in a traffic blockade on Waterloo Bridge. Four police officers carried him off the bridge and he was held in custody overnight.

Bennett pleaded not guilty to a public order offence and his case is set to be heard at trial next month.

Studio Bark originally devised U-build as a system of flat-pack building blocks which could be used to assemble projects ranging from furniture and storage to entire houses. However, for Extinction Rebellion’s purposes, the modules were simplified to make them easier to put together. They have also been used to make stages.

Following his arrest, Newman was released pending further investigation. He said the tower was ‘without doubt the most beautiful construction project that I have ever been a part of’.

School for activists

Lancaster architecture staffruthdaltondesfagan

Lancaster architecture staffruthdaltondesfagan

Should Newman be eyeing a lecturing post at the UK’s newest school of architecture?

Lancaster University has announced the launch of its new school of architecture, which will welcome its first intake next October, and says it wants students with ambitions to become ‘activists’ as well as architects.

Explaining this stance, inaugural professor of architecture, Ruth Dalton (pictured centre) said: ‘I don’t think that any new course could start, at this time in history, without taking seriously the fact that the climate is changing, possibly irreversibly.

She said that this urgent issue along with others such as automation and digital fabrication, would be integrated into the new course, adding: ‘This is the real advantage of starting a new course from scratch at this time.’

She wants their students ‘to be the generation of architects who will fundamentally change the profession and we will be giving them the tools to do this.’

The launch follows the recent news that TV architect George Clarke has helped to create a ‘disruptive’ degree in housing design at Birmingham City University. But unlike the Birmingham course, Lancaster’s will be seeking ARB and RIBA accreditation.

Charles Jencks: ‘If you can’t take the kitsch…’

Charlesjencks crop for index

Charlesjencks crop for index

Last weekend saw the death of Charles Jencks, the architectural theorist who has also left an impressive built legacy in the form of the Maggie’s cancer care centres. 

Jencks was dubbed the godfather of Postmodernist architecture, defining what the term meant in his writings and lectures in the 1970s. 

And as critic Edwin Heathcote wrote in the AJ, while Postmodernism later fell out of favour, ’for Charles, every subsequent iteration of architecture was only an expansion of the PoMo moment’. 

But while his writings alone would have been a considerable achievement, he was able to turn theory into practice with the Maggie’s Centres, an organisation set up with his wife Maggie Keswick after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1993, turning personal tragedy into a positive force. 

The roll call of famous names who gave their design services for free is deeply impressive, including Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, whose Hammersmith centre won the 2009 Stirling Prize. 

In fact, the day after Jencks’s death saw the opening of the latest centre, at the Royal Marsden Hospital in Sutton, designed by Ab Rogers Design. Further centres under construction or in development have been designed by Alison Brooks, Amanda Levete and Thomas Heatherwick.  

His own home in Holland Park, London, was built in the 1840s but became almost a museum to his theorising, with interiors designed by architects such as Terry Farrell and Michael Graves. Jencks said of it: ‘If you can’t take the kitsch, get out of the kitchen.’  

The house was Grade I listed last year, and there are now plans to turn it into a museum

Council housing – one step forward, two steps back

Goldsmith street by mikhail riches with cathy hawley 2

Goldsmith street by mikhail riches with cathy hawley 2

Last week’s Weekend Poll asked whether you thought Goldsmith Street’s Stirling Prize win would herald a new wave of council housing. And while only 24 per cent answered with an equivocal ‘yes’ (54 per cent thought it might lead to a ‘trickle’), readers may still have been shocked at how quickly the government appeared to slap down any such resurgence.

That very week, the Treasury abruptly announced a hike in the interest rate for local government borrowing, more than doubling it from 0.8 per cent to 1.8 per cent. This will make building new council housing more expensive.

While Norwich City Council did itself not use the public works loan board to fund Goldsmith Street, a spokesperson said it represented an additional financial barrier to building new council homes.

The rate hike is believed to have been prompted by a rise in local authority borrowing from the board to invest in commercial property, particularly shopping centres.

Concern has been expressed that cash-strapped councils are investing public funds in ventures they are poorly qualified to get involved in. But surely the government could have retained the lower rate for house-building schemes. 

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