Cashing in the CHIPS


The landscape of urban desolation which New Islington still remains as we plumb the depths of the recession has been recently complemented by the unveiling of Will Alsop’s long awaited CHIPS apartment building. Uncannily similar to the computer simulation produced as part of the marketing campaign, the project constitutes one of the fingers of Alsop’s 2002 masterplan for the Urban Splash development in East Manchester. The brightly-coloured reveals, the super-graphics and the waterside location will perhaps distract the architectural tourist from the brittle quality of the building’s construction. The bus stops are in place to ferry residents, but seven years after inception one would still have to be a very optimistic pioneer to invest your hard-won mortgage in this key example of contemporary urban anomie.

The New Islington CHIPS promo


In an attempt to ameliorate an existing, historic and celebrated example of urban anomie (that’s enough anomie, Ed.) Urban Splash are also involved in Park Hill in Sheffield. A documentary about English Heritage’s role in the structure’s conservation will be screened on May 1 at 9.00pm on BBC2. Mayday! Mayday!

English Heritage on Park Hill


Not Brutal but Savage

The Barn, Exmouth

The Barn, Exmouth by Edward Schroder Prior, 1896. Photoset taken this week.

In The Nature of Gothic John Ruskin proposed a list of the characteristics of Gothic architecture. This was an attempt to describe architecture as a living process rooted in building. In the sphere of the builder the characteristics of Gothic were: Savageness or Rudeness, Love of Change, Love of Nature, Disturbed Imagination, Obstinacy, Generosity.

E.S. Prior’s buildings embodied Savageness in an architecture that tried to link the discipline to the process of building rather than the professionalism of the Victorian era. His buildings are traditional and experimental employing novel plans and uses of material and allowing the process of building in a specific environment to decisively affect the character of the building.

The Barn, Exmouth

The butterfly plan of The Barn creates a sun-trap between its arms and exploits wide views of the sea (the English Channel). It has a linear arts & crafts plan broken to shorten circulation and respond to entrance and view. The house was built out of local stone – ashlar mixed with pebbles and boulders – and originally thatched (the house burned in 1905 and the roof was re-covered in slate).


Before the fire, from The English House by Hermann Muthesius

Making a spectacle of itself


Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in Boston follows in the now venerable tradition of cultural regeneration projects, hoping to create its own New England version of the ‘Bilbao effect’. It is a taut essay in the creation of a waterside icon, with its dramatic cantilever and open auditorium facing across the bay. But the economic collapse in the U.S. suggests that it will remain surrounded by parking lots for several years to come, by which time the novelty of its angular forms might have paled.


That is for the future. What, I hear you ask, of those forms now? The building is sleekly realised, blind walled galleries propped up on the performance space that has the potential for a backdrop view over the water. A central glazed elevator (surely the only one in the world dedicated in honour of wealthy donors) connects the public spaces and galleries. The desire for flexibility in exhibition design creates rather banal and neutral galleries, the very uninterrupted size of which seem to contradict the place-making gestures of the ICA’s exterior. Not the least of these is the dropped section of the media gallery with its banks of computer monitors framed against the waves.


Linking temporary and permanent collection galleries there is a spectacular panoramic buffer zone at gallery level, which reveals a fundamental problem. The orientation of the building results in the framing of views towards the uninspiring buildings of Logan Airport, rather than the airport’s more dynamic runways or the crowded skyline provided by Boston’s irregular plan and successive waves of commercial development. This decision means that the building’s ambitions are more satisfyingly realised, not from its characterless interior, but from the exaggerated quality of the outside.


The Figure in the Grotto

Call for Papers for a session at the First International Meeting of the European Architectural History Network, Guimaraes, Portugal, June 17-20, 2010.


The Figure in the Grotto: Materialisation and embodiment in the Renaissance

In renaissance Italy the garden represented a space of mediation between nature and culture. Within this liminal context the body appeared in a specific guise, figures ambiguously seen as both animated material emerging from nature, and conversely the petrifying figures of culture. The context of the garden, a very overt locus of private reverie, encouraged the experimentation with meaning through form that was deemed to have insufficient decorum for the public realm. Figures of the antique and mythical past were used to create a psychologically provocative setting for the indulging of fantasy away from the cares of ecclesiastical or civic office. In particular the appropriation of herms, half architectural element and half statue, as ambiguous figures in the populating of grottoes, were exploited as members to define, and even on occasion support, the other and originary world of the garden. Their presence provided literal embodiments that were invested with interpretative meaning. Constructed of marble, mosaic, tufa, and stucco the nymphaea spatialised the painted grotteschi uncovered in early archaeological explorations of ancient villa sites, with their phantasmagoric juxtapositions of architectural elements and mythical creatures. The scale transformation, from a fictive realm to an architectural one, inevitably involved a coarsening of the detail and the illusionistic exploration of material possibilities. The intellectual meaning expressed was therefore obscured by the immediacy of sensation and novelty, which served as a mask to the ancient ethos evoked through the form, decoration and location of such spaces. In such situations the human and the natural were treated as one phenomenon, tied into a corporeal expression that sought to make the intangible expressively apparent. They stand as manifestations of the mediating role of architecture as human intervention in, and vulnerability to, the elemental forces of nature.

Papers are invited which explore specific examples of the genre (such as the nymphaeum of Villa Giulia and the Casino of Pius IV in Rome, the Grotto of Buontalenti in the Boboli Gardens in Florence, or the nymphaeum of the Villa Barbaro at Maser) or which exploit the expressive range of architectural grotesques, as column, as pilaster, as sculpture and as decorative ornament, to define the space or figure the surface.

Send paper proposals to Eamonn Canniffe
Manchester School of Architecture, Manchester Metropolitan University, Faculty of Art and Design,
Chatham Building, Cavendish Street, Manchester M15 6BR, United Kingdom. Tel +44 (0)161 247 6956 / Fax +44 (0)161 247 6810.

The full programme for all sessions is available at