Wednesday, 22 December 2010


In this quick entry I have gathered images of my favourite buildings from my home town, Shrewsbury, for no real reason other than architectural interest.

The odd St Chad's Church

The market hall is one of my favourite 'new' builds in the town. The old market hall was restored 'to its former glory' by Arrol & Snell architects, with the inclusion of a small upstairs cinema (I guess 100 seats). I watched the film Gainsbourg there in the summer - it is the sort of place you buy a coffee and where you sit on a sofa and put your coffee on a coffee table. The whole experience is much more enjoyable than going into a packed cineworld/vue/odeon cinema, and it is worth the extra pound or so, despite the small film choice:

It's hard to talk about the architecture of Shrewsbury and not mention anything Tudor. In amongst all the awful new 'mock-Tudor' shopping centres and cheap bars are some absolute (genuine) gems, that are unbelievably still standing. 

It is also a good example of the primitive Tudor way of getting more from their building site by building outwards on the upper levels, as Tudors were at one time only taxed on their initial ground footprint.

Finally, Rowley's House Museum, the biggest Tudor building in the town, is the main museum that attracts the tourists, and continues to dent their foreheads with its very low beams:

Finally there's a new addition to Shrewsbury, the large sculpture named 'Quantum Leap', celebrating 200 years of Charles Darwin, the 'town's favourite son'. The sculpture is giant, 12m high by nearly 20m long and it weighs over 200 tons.

It is similar to the 'Meaning Models' project I was set in the first year of architecture, so it's hard for me not to look into its meanings behind it: Could it be the spine of an animal, twisting... evolving? A strand of DNA? Could it be reflective of the struggle Darwin went through to get his ideas listened to? Bridging the gap between science and religion? Who knows.

Please see my blog entry 'Unbuilt Shrewsbury' for a few 'might-have-been'(s):

Bruges in Winter

I visited Bruges just before Christmas to do the traditional touristy/Christmas market thing, making a number of stops at interesting buildings in the small city centre.

First Impressions: The canals were frozen, as were the tourists. I luckily managed to miss the winter 'travel chaos' by travelling my Eurostar, and once my connecting train arrived into Bruges it was a bit like stepping out into a Narnian landscape. Snowball fights, frozen canals and picturesque little houses all with roaring fires filled the landscape.

The focal point of the city is the city's Belfry/Belfort Tower, that I used to navigate my way around. There used to be a spire on top of the tower, but this was destroyed by lightning, so all that remains is a relatively flat roof. Annoyingly I can't find a picture of the original design, but it's still hard to imagine a further spire on top of the existing building. Wikipedia proudly tells me that there are 27.5 tons of bells in the tower, a deafening noise at the (cramped) top when overlooking the city. 

I think the tower's success is that it forms an immediate focal point for the city. All the main shops/bars/restaurants are centred around it - even Christmas market stalls, an ice rink and a Salvador Dali exhibition are located underneath it. Every city needs one!

What I enjoyed about the architecture in general around Bruges was that no two buildings were the same. It was easy to draw parallels to my first year of architecture, when a brief was to design a slim terraced house of given dimensions, and place the design next to every other students' work, thus creating a row of terraced houses with much character and each house very different from its neighbours. 

Although window heights were more or less the same, and the stepped brick roofs that I had come across in The Netherlands seemed to follow similar dimensions; the width, colour, horizontal window placement and sometimes type of brick, were all different. This made for no dull street in the city. 

One of my unexpected favourite architectural gems were the (last remaining) four windmills that lined the perimeter of the city. These were closed in winter, but signs told me that they were originally used for grinding grain, but now helped (somehow) control water levels in Bruges. 

The designs look quite rudimentary, surely one of the cheaper tourist attractions in the city; but they still maintain their charm with each windmill being painted a different colour. The artificial mounds they stand on help raise the buildings to catch the wind, offer good views of the city, and double up as great sledging opportunities. 

Friday, 19 November 2010

National Glass Centre

I had to visit the National Glass Centre in Sunderland as part of a technical project study assignment, but thought it was worth writing a quick blog about it too. It was raining heavily when I visited the building, so all the exterior photos in this blog are all sourced from Gollifer Architects' website.

The first thing you see when approaching the building is two giant chimneys, that I was to later learn were for distributing the fumes of glass-making high away from visitors below. The architect's website lists shipbuilding as an inspiration for parts of the design, and the chimneys do seem to have a nautical look about them:

The unusual thing about the entrance to the building was that you enter on the roof level and walk down into the building. Before I entered however I walked around the roof, which sloped up slightly towards the River Tees. The glass floors on the roof were fun, although not as scary as other glass floors I've walked on, due to the glass not being 100% transparent. There was a separate 'glass walk' section that I had heard so much about, but on a rainy day the effect wasn't as striking as in this image below:

Once inside the building, to the left and right were some small exhibition spaces, and straight in front was a large double height cafe and shop area, with an interesting conference pod at the end (my photo):

It wasn't until I picked up a building floor plan that I discovered I had missed out the majority of the building though. The north of the building was home to a large glass blowing studio, where a number of students were working on interesting glass sculptures and ornaments. At this time I was thinking of designing a glass-blowing factory and showroom on Murano for my design work, so I quickly became interested in everything that happened in this space. My photo below demonstrates the functionality of the space - with pipes and extractors positioned pretty much everywhere. I had no idea this space existed because all of the photos I had seen of the building were of the exterior:

A success of the building in my opinion was the huge glass façade facing south across the river. The architects wanted to create a transparent building, that engaged with the ship building yards and the river Tees, but in doing so they had to set back the façade several metres under the roof to prevent the summer sun baking the building (the picture below demonstrates this well). Solar shading was implemented also to stop glare from winter sun. Speaking to the people working there, however, they mentioned the building gets particularly cold in winter because of this wall of glass.

I enjoyed walking around the building - I was visiting primarily to look at the architecture, but I was sucked into the interesting exhibitions, and spent a while listening to a talk about glass blowing. The structure didn't leave much to the imagination - every pipe and vent was left showing, which will surely help my technical building study.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Sunderland Winter Gardens

I travelled to Sunderland to visit The National Glass Centre (see my other blog) for my AT3.1 Building Study; but I also went out of my way to visit Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens (the sole study of this blog is on the winter gardens).

(picture courtesy of flickr - my picture of the same view in heavy rain wasn't as comprehensible)

I walked in knowing little about the building, so I began talking to the museum staff, who told me that the museum's original winter gardens were damaged in the war, and later demolished. The glass building above was completed as one of the national lottery-funded millennium projects, and was 'the most attended museum outside London' when completed. The picture below shows the original winter gardens in the early 1900s; very Crystal Palace- like:

Entering the Winter Gardens begins with a look up at a spiralling staircase leading up into a green canopy. The open treads and mesh under the railings help promote the gardens the staircase travels through. 

The architecture both internally and externally was very transparent, allowing views of the gardens wherever you are in the winter gardens, including outside the building. I'd imagine this is to allow the most natural sunlight into the building (to help the tropical plants grow), as I spotted no artificial lighting in this structure. Eco-credentials in a garden are particularly appropriate.

View of the (broken) lift into the canopy, which is just as transparent as the rest of the structure. 

My picture above shows the view from the top of the canopy. A cantilevered walkway lines the perimeter of the building, and it is very open (much like the staircase), allowing you to see beneath your feet and down onto the tops of the plants below. The cantilever allows a column free space under the walkways, creating an unobstructed growing area about twenty metres across. The walkway also slants away from the centre of the room, allowing more space for the growth of the larger plants, such as banana plants. 

This type of future-proof architecture interests me. I watched a programme on iPlayer featuring Richard Roger's Lloyds Building in London and how it was designed to meet the requirements of a modern office block a decade or two after its completion. This involved designing space for the miles of computer cables that would replace the old typewriters and filing cabinets in offices of the time. The building also features a huge atrium that is built in such a way that new floors could be added across it if extra floor space is required in the future. 

When I design buildings for university projects it would be useful for me consider not just the building's purpose upon the immediate completion date, but also the function maybe a few decades in the future. Flexibility is so important in architecture. I was in California a few years ago and a tour guide told me that the Disney studios in Hollywood were laid out and designed to look like a hospital, so that if Walt Disney's ambitious creations did not hit a chord with the public, the studios could be easily converted into a hospital. Plant growth, however, is much easier to predict, so the architects (Napper Architects) of the Winter Gardens didn't have to go to the lengths that Rogers or Disney did. 

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Clifton Cathedral

The cathedral church of SS. Peter and Paul (known to most people as Clifton Cathedral) by Percy Thomas is one of my favourite buildings I visited during the summer break.

On approach I was hardly blown away at the sight of the exterior of the cathedral. Its lack of windows (from this view) made me wonder if the interior would be gloomy, maybe even suppressing. If it wasn't for the three giant in-situ concrete spires on top I don't think I would have recognised it as a cathedral at all:

Once inside the building however I was welcomed by a series of bright spaces. Straight in front of me was the main alter, delicately bathed in the sunlight passing through hidden roof lights. I was told that these roof lights drew more focus to the alter, as people wouldn't be distracted by anything going on outside if the cathedral were to have had conventional windows.

To my left (on the west side of the cathedral) were a series of stained glass windows that let in the afternoon sunlight, creating glimmering patterns on the floor. The windows had all the colour of classic cathedral stained glass windows, but unusually there was no picture or religious scene to be found in the design; just a jumbled pattern constructed from a collection of broken glass. I've darkened this picture to highlight the vibrant colours:

I could see that the floor plan of the cathedral was hexagonal, but the more I explored, the more hexagons I discovered. From the organ to the floor tiles, everything seemed to be hexagonal. The guidebook states:

'All the dimensions and angles within the building are based on an equilateral triangle height 1 ft. 6 in. base to apex and this is the controlling order that runs throughout'

Above the seating area were maybe fifty wooden 4-faced pyramids. These acoustic pyramids appear to help sound bounce back down to the audience, rather than have it reverberate around the in-situ white concrete above. Each prism looked about two metres in length.

My Grandfather is a classical composer and has written music specifically to be played at the cathedral. Instead of sitting the orchestra in the same place, he made use of the cathedral's nooks and crannies by scattering different sections of the orchestra around. For instance the choir sang on the second level, to create heavenly voices from above, which I'd imagine sounded quite compelling when accompanied with the natural light pouring in from the same direction. It was really interesting talking to him about how music can be shaped by architecture.

. . .

Brunel's suspension bridge was just a short walk away from the cathedral. I found myself talking to a man who walks up and down the bridge looking out for any would-be jumpers, as the bridge is an infamous location for suicides. I later watched the BBC's 'Climbing Great Buildings' where the bridge was also featured. I hope to write another blog entry on these series of programmes.


All photographs are my own.

Reference from the guidebook, plus more architectural information about the cathedral can be found at:   (The Cathedral > General Design)