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Weekend roundup: Trick of the light – Christmas plagiarism claim

Oxford st lights x 2
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This week’s top stories reviewed by the AJ’s Simon Aldous: Oxford Street lights design was copied, claims competition finalist • West Midlands mayor lays into HS2 station proposals • Bolton Cube fire raises safety concerns

While entering architectural competitions is always a risky endeavour, what you don’t expect to experience is not winning the competition only to see elements of your design in the final project.

This is what lighting specialist StudioFractal believes has happened to a team it was in with architect 3DReid and Barton Engineering. They were one of four teams shortlisted in the RIBA-launched 2017 competition to design the Christmas lights on Oxford Street. 

The contest was won by a team including Harry Dobbs Design, but this was never announced, and all four entrants were ultimately left disappointed when its organiser, New West End Company, decided it would not adopt any of the entries, despite having described the shortlist as ‘all outstanding’.

But two years later, disappointment turned to anger when the company revealed its own in-house designs for this year’s lights (above right) – designs that StudioFractal has accused of copying from its shortlisted entry.

Its founder Tim Downey described his team’s entry as a ribbon of LEDs ‘featuring the Northern Lights and cascades of snowflakes … What an amazing coincidence that this year’s Oxford Street lights are … a series of LED mesh screens displaying what looks like a simplified Northern Lights and snowflakes.’

Inevitably the situation is leading some readers to question the RIBA’s involvement in the competition. The institute says its involvement was limited to the competition, but it seems strange that New West End Company was able to get away with never announcing a winner.

Is this another case of the institute giving kudos to a competition, but then washing its hands of any responsibility when problems emerge – as it did with the Upper Orwell Crossings and RSPCA competitions?

Poll: How far do you think the design for this year’s Oxford Street lights has been influenced by 3DReid and StudioFractal’s competition entry?
• It has copied their design
• It bears a strong resemblance
• It bears a passing resemblance
• It is entirely different
Vote here

Last week’s poll asked: If an architect was standing for election in your constituency, would you be likely to vote for them? 16% responded with an unequivocal ‘yes’ while 45% said they would do so as long as they liked the candidate’s party. 35% said it would make no difference and a cheeky 4% said it would put them off voting for the candidate.

HS2: great line, charmless stations

Interchangeimage1 crop

Interchangeimage1 crop

Among the most ardent of champions for the High Speed 2 railway line is West Midlands mayor Andy Street. The future of the £56-billion-and-counting project is in the balance as its costs continue to escalate. 

Street is very much hoping it will go ahead, believing improved transport links between Birmingham and London will give a huge boost to the region’s economy. But that hasn’t stopped him putting the boot into the Grimshaw’s design for Curzon Street station in Birmingham and Arup’s proposal for Solihull Interchange (pictured).  

Writing in The Times, Street said the plans for the two stations had ‘all the quirkiness and charm of Stansted airport’s baggage drop-off area’ and should be looked at again.  

He is not the first person to question the designs. Earlier this year, Birmingham MP Liam Byrne described the Curzon Street station design as ‘not good enough’. 

Street, who was previously managing director of John Lewis, also thinks costs can be cut by using private investment to turn stations into ‘hives of offices, shops, restaurants and apartments’, which he argues could ‘save billions’. You can take the man out of retail …

Bolton fire highlights shortcomings of new fire-safety rules

Cube fire

Cube fire

A major fire in a student accommodation block in Bolton has raised issues over how effective post-Grenfell regulations truly are.

The Cube, a six-storey former office building, was converted into student rooms in 2015 by Chester-based practice RADM Architects. It caught fire a week ago with videos showing it spreading rapidly across the façade.

According to the chair of Greater Manchester High Rise Task Force, Paul Dennett, the building was clad with high-pressure laminate (HPL) rather than the aluminium composite (ACM) used at Grenfell Tower.

However, Dennett points out, while the government has made resources available to replace ACM cladding, buildings using other combustible materials remain vulnerable to fire. ‘At the moment we have a bit of a cladding lottery,’ he said.

According to a report in the i, government ministers knew that HPL could be dangerous but earlier this year refused to intervene to remove it from buildings. 

Furthermore, the post-Grenfell government ban on combustible material only applies to buildings taller than 18m. The Cube was apparently 14cm short of that limit, so would not be covered by the ban.

It could be argued that it was because the building was not high rise that it was possible to evacuate its 200 student residents with only two injuries. But is anyone seriously suggesting that people should be living in buildings where fire can spread so rapidly?

RADM Architects, meanwhile, seemed anxious not to engage with issues concerning the fire. Its website has been down since the weekend, its Facebook page has been removed, and, when contacted by the AJ, it even refused to confirm that it had been the architect on the building’s conversion.

Also this week:

  • BDP, the UK’s second-largest architect, says it plans to open more overseas offices to offset a potential post-Brexit downturn. The practice already has studios in Abu Dhabi, Canada, China, India, Ireland, Singapore and the Netherlands but its latest accounts show these only accounted for 22 per cent of its £83.1 million turnover. Since 2016, BDP has been owned by Japanese engineering giant Nippon Koei, which already operates in 160 countries worldwide.
  • ARB has handed a formal warning to a Dundee-based architect after he referred himself to the board for downloading sensitive company information. AIM Design sacked Kevin Fitzpatrick in February after discovering a personal storage device connected to his work computer. The device held information about projects the practice was working on as well as files relating to work at his previous employer, Nicoll Russell Studios.
  • The latest version of the Greenwich Peninsula masterplan has ditched housing schemes by Morris + Co and Hall McKnight. They have been replaced by designs by Sheppard Robson. The masterplan, drawn up by Allies and Morrison for developer Knight Dragon, increases the number of homes from 15,700 to 17,500 and drops a planned film studio. As reported in August, also missing is Santiago Calatrava’s original eye-catching Peninsula Place centrepiece, featuring a towering winter garden.
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