jeudi 28 août 2014

Brutalism: How unpopular buildings came back in fashion

The National Theatre on London's Southbank was completed in 1976 (Getty)
The National Theatre on London's Southbank was completed in 1976 (Getty)

Post-war concrete architecture was decried by many as ugly – but now Brutalist buildings are back in fashion, writes Jonathan Glancey.

Could there ever be a more bizarre choice of name for an architectural movement than Brutalism? How odd that some of the very architects charged with creating working-class housing and public buildings from the mid-1950s to the early-1970s should have been happy to be called Brutalists. It was hardly likely to make them popular. Who, especially among those hit hardest by the brutality of World War II, wanted to live in brutal buildings?
This peculiar name was a supposedly clever play on beton brut, French for raw concrete, which in the hands of an artist-architect like Le Corbusier, and especially under a Mediterranean sun, could be a strikingly beautiful building material. So, Brutalists – the name conceived and popularised by Reyner Banham, a determinedly hip and massively bearded English architectural critic in the influential pages of the Architectural Review – were meant to be a new breed of thrusting young architects who, while building a post-war socialist utopia, would challenge the very foundations of what they saw as the fey, bourgeois Modernism of the 1930s. And, even worse, of the charming, reticent kind of new state-approved British architecture represented by the Royal Festival Hall, centrepiece of the 1951 Festival of Britain.

Rather ironically, the Royal Festival Hall has proven to be one of the most popular of all post-war British buildings, its charm appreciated by people of all walks of life, while Brutalist housing blocks and art galleries were generally regarded – until quite recently – as dank, dehumanising concrete monstrosities. Like all such labels, however, Brutalism was soggy around the edges. Buildings like Sir Denys Lasdun’s imposing National Theatre, rising in great concrete strata along London’s Southbank and completed in 1976, was labelled Brutalist even though – despite sharing some basic characteristics, like an extensive use of beton brut – it stood aloof from any such categorisation, its architect ploughing his own particular aesthetic furrow.

In fact, Lasdun’s centenary this month, focuses attention anew on what exactly Brutalism was, why it was so prevalent in so many countries, why it was so short lived and why, after a long period in the critical doldrums, it has been nudged back up the critical ladder to link hands with Modernism, Palladianism, Baroque and Art Nouveau.
This process has been going on since the early 1990s when young architects, designers and painters began to delight in such denounced buildings as Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower, a terrifyingly brutal 31-storey concrete housing block completed in 1972 that casts a monumental shadow over what were once seen as the badlands, or bohemian hinterland, of west London. Living in Trellick Tower became a badge of fashionable artistry even if long-term residents held far more ambivalent views of this forceful high-rise housing block.

Attach the block.

Most people – certainly in Britain – would have gone along with the Prince of Wales at the time: he described the Brutalist Tricorn shopping centre in Plymouth as a “mildewed lump of elephant droppings.” Designed by Rodney Gordon of the Owen Luder Partnership, this had been one of the key commercial developments of a city that had been brutally blitzed by the Luftwaffe. Writing in the Guardian, the critic and broadcaster Jonathan Meades claims that “Gordon’s imagination was… fecund, rich, untrammelled. It was haunted by Russian Constructivism, crusader castles, Levantine skylines. There are as many ideas in a single Gordon building as there are in the entire careers of most architects.” Meades felt that he was “in the presence of genius.”

And, yet, other observers would have noted that along with so many other Brutalist “masterpieces” as London’s Hayward Gallery, Birmingham’s Central Library and the Barco Law Building at the University of Pittsburgh, as well as in the design of such lesser yet equally intriguing buildings as the John Lewis department store in Aberdeen or Rodney Gordon’s own Trinity Car Park, in Gateshead in the north of England (which played a special guest star role in the compelling 1971 thriller Get Carter starring Michael Caine), the Tricorn Centre also owed something to Nazi gun emplacements built along the Atlantic coast of France. Created by the formidable Todt Organisation, these were truly brutal buildings encountered by Allied troops in 1944.
Others, like the astonishing flak towers in Hamburg and Vienna designed by Friedrich Tamms, an architect who did much to shape the Atlantic Wall, resembled all too closely the art galleries and university libraries of 1960s Britain. How odd that these should have informed a new architecture for cities that had been carpet-bombed by Germany.

Shock of the new. 

This unfortunate association alone made Brutalism widely unpopular. There were other understandable reasons, too. Emerging in the era of ‘angry young men’, in literature, theatre, film and ‘musique concrète’, this new architecture was meant to be shockingly new. It also coincided – indeed it was often synonymous – with the radical reconstruction of city centres worldwide where urban motorways, concrete underpasses and crass commercial redevelopment went hand in brutally muscled hand. More than this, raw concrete looked relentlessly glum under grey skies, stained all too readily in the rain and, for whatever reason, appeared a natural target for even angrier young men, and women, who sprayed the walls of Brutalist structures with graffiti.

The architects who made among the best use of beton brut and brave new forms in damp, grey climates were those who saw new opportunities to create exciting new skylines with new materials. The roofscapes of the Barbican, a bravura housing development for the Corporation of London designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon to fill a colossal bomb site created by the Luftwaffe in 1941, are brilliant things, a kind of 1950s take on the early 18th English Baroque architecture of John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor. Beautifully built, the Barbican might have appeared brutal, yet it was noble, it made reference to history and paid respect to Christopher Wren’s nearby St Paul’s Cathedral and the medieval churches in its shadows. No wonder it was listed in 2001, while more openly aggressive Brutalist buildings including Plymouth’s Tricorn Centre were demolished.

Institutions like English Heritage have had an ambivalent relationship with Brutalism, recommending the listing of some, like the Barbican, Sheffield’s Park Hill housing estate and the Moore Street electricity substation, Sheffield by Jefferson Sheard Architects, while refusing others, notably the Hayward Gallery, the Tricorn Centre and the Trinity car park. As Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage explained at the time of last year’s Brutal and Beautiful touring exhibition, “Few areas of English Heritage’s work are as disputed… some still view the buildings of the era as concrete monstrosities, others as fine landmarks in the history of building design.”
Perhaps this helps explain why Sir Denys Lasdun, a distinguished modern architect, who landed on a Normandy beach on D-Day and who wanted to create a bold new post-war architecture everyone might appreciate was keen to stress that he was “not a Brutalist” even though he masteredbeton brut. Although perhaps hard to believe today, Baroque and Gothic were once terms of derision too. Will Brutalism finally come to outlive its wilfully controversial tag?


mercredi 13 août 2014

Spain needs 'major cultural change' to do better in science, international panel says

A map of Spain's most valuable landscapes, produced by researchers from the Spanish National Research Council, one of the institutions the panel says should be reformed.

A map of Spain's most valuable landscapes, produced by researchers from the Spanish National Research Council, one of the institutions the panel says should be reformed.

BARCELONA, SPAIN—More cash and many profound structural changes—that, according to a panel of European experts, is what Spain's national science and innovation system needs to become more competitive.
A full report will be issued later, but on Thursday, the group released a six-page document containing its key messages. It says the Spanish government should raise its contribution to science and innovation to 0.7% of the gross domestic product (GDP) and argues for the creation of a national funding agency that gives out merit-based grants, more autonomy for the universities, and a major overhaul of Spain's national research centers. Above all, what is needed is a stronger culture of evaluation and accountability, even if it means increasing inequality between universities, the document says.
The report was put together at the request of the Spanish government by a peer-review panel of the European Research Area and Innovation Committee (ERAC), chaired by Luke Georghiou, vice president for research and innovation at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.
The report acknowledges “islands of excellence” in Spain, in particular a fleet of recently created research institutes that enjoy greater autonomy. But it deplores the “low” performance of the Spanish science system as a whole. The system's main ills, it says, are fragmented governance, insufficient mobility of people and knowledge across institutions, a lack of effective science policies and research performance evaluations, and the private sector's meager R&D contribution.
At the top of the panel's recommendations is to increase public spending for research to 0.7% of GDP over the next 3 years; now, according to a recent report from the Foundation for Technological Innovation, it stands at 0.61%, compared with 0.72% on average in the European Union and 0.97% in Germany. But the increase must come with a sustainable 10-year national spending strategy, so that institutes can plan their activities ahead; the institutions in turn must see the increase as an incentive to meet predetermined targets and implement structural changes.
"The most pressing problem,” according to the group, is the human resources pipeline. Due to a near-total freeze on hiring, staff members at Spain's research institutions are aging. To give young talent a career path, Spain could provide incentives for the retirement of senior researchers and introduce the tenure-track positions that were promised in the 2011 science law and again in the 2013 to 2020 science strategy. (Amid Spain's economic crisis, they never materialized.) The report also calls for a “radical change” in the civil service to foster staff mobility, reward excellence, and promote the best researchers to leadership positions quickly.
The panel says there is “an urgent need” to create a national research agency that distributes competitive grants and fellowships based on independent and international peer review—another unfulfilled government promise. National research organizations should be reorganized by merging some of them with the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), and some CSIC institutes should be relocated to universities, the panel says. Research institutions and universities should have more autonomy and become more accountable. The panel suggests that Spain initiates such “a major cultural change” by allocating 10% of its national funding on the basis of institutional assessments through international peer review.
“Some hard choices may be needed here," the panel acknowledges, "including a review of international commitments … and accepting that funding may concentrate in the best performing institutions.” The former would likely raise eyebrows elsewhere in Europe, where Spain has repeatedly gotten in trouble for not paying what it had pledged for international projects. Tying core funding to institutional performance would also likely be met with resistance.
Spanish science secretary of state Carmen Vela welcomed the recommendations, Europa Press reported on Thursday. Raising public spending to 0.7% of GDP is “ambitious but reasonable,” she said. When it asked ERAC for the review, the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, which oversees science, pledged to incorporate the recommendations in the government’s 2015 reforms. But on Thursday, Vela revealed little in the way of concrete new measures.
Spanish scientists are skeptical that true change will come. “The suggested reforms require stable investment and political will, and both are lacking,” writes astrophysicist Amaya Moro-Martín of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, in an e-mail toScienceInsider. “Many of the recommendations in this report were already made by the science community in an open letter that ended up taped to the closed gates of the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness,” says Moro-Martín, who recently returned to the United States after spending several years in the grassroots movement to improve Spanish science. Moro-Martín, who would like to see even more sweeping changes herself, notes that all parties in the Spanish Congress of Deputies signed an agreement in December to implement several of the panel's prescriptions—except the ruling Partido Popular.
“The good news for the Spanish government is that even in a crisis context, these reforms can be done,” writes Joan Guinovart, the director of the Institute for Research in Biomedicine in Barcelona, in an e-mail. “No more words are needed, now … is the time to apply the recommendations.”

By Elisabeth Pain

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lundi 4 août 2014

Smarter urban water: how Spain's Zaragoza learned to use less

Facing severe crop failure and forest fires, pioneering citizens transformed habits in a decade and reduced water use by 27%.

Smarter urban water: Ebro River Zaragoza Spain
The Ebro River seen from near the top of Basilica of Our Lady of The Pillar in Zaragoza, Spain. Photograph: Alamy

The drought, when it came two decades ago, was severe. As reservoirs across Spain dried up in the early 1990s, the number of forest fires soared, crops whittled and more than 11 million Spaniards faced water shortages. Scientists would go on to note that the five-year drought – the worst on record in the last century – ranked among the country’s worst natural disasters in terms of people affected. 
When the rains began to fall again in 1996, municipalities scrambled to secure their quotas and set water restrictions on residents. But in the northern city of Zaragoza, one group took a very different approach.
Water had always been managed in a reactive way in Spain, said Víctor Viñuales, co-founder and director of the Spanish NGO Fundación Ecología y Desarrollo (Ecology and Development Foundation). His approach was, as he put it: “We need water, where will we find it?” It was an approach that had pushed Spain into a counter-intuitive position of having one of the world’s highest per capita water consumption rates despite limited access to freshwater. “There simply weren’t any policies in place to manage the demand.”
Trained as a sociologist, Viñuales wondered what would happen if municipalities focused less on making sure residents had access to all the water they wanted and more on reducing demand. From that thought began a 15-year experiment in Zaragoza that has revolutionised how many in Spain – from locals to public officials – think about water management.

Wildfires Zaragoza in Spain
Military firefighters at Castejon de Valdejasa, near Zaragoza, Spain, try to tackle wildfires during a period of severe drought. Photograph: Pedro Armestre/AFP/Getty Images

Today Viñuales rattles off statistic after statistic to show how this city of 700,000 has transformed itself. Between 1997 and 2012, per capita use of water in Zaragoza dropped from 150 litres/day to 99 litres/day. The drop even sustained an increase in population; between 1997 and 2008, the city’s population grew by 12% but daily water use dropped by 27%.
The project started simply, with a challenge put to the city’s residents to save 1bn litres of water in a year. “It was a collective challenge with a simple objective that was easy for people to understand,” said Viñuales. “Because behind any of these processes of social transformation lies an exercise in the seduction of the citizens.”
Spurred into action by widespread media coverage and school outreach campaigns, more than 30,000 residents formally pledged to reduce their water use. In the first year of the project, the city’s residents surpassed their goal, saving 1.176bn litres of water, an amount equivalent to 5.6% of annual domestic consumption. 
The next phase of the project relied on a network of what Viñuales called 50 volunteer “accomplices”. Free audits were offered to help implement water-saving – and ultimately cost-saving – measures to a diverse group that included a hospital, a fish vendor and a swimming pool. As soon as positive results came rolling in, Viñuales’s group would spread the word to similar business, handing out guidebooks that explained which techniques were used. 

dried river shore, Zaragoza
Aerial view of a dried river shore, Zaragoza, Spain. Photograph: Gaston Piccinetti/Getty Images/Gallo Images

He pointed to a local hairdressing salon, where the audit resulted in water savings of 90%. “Immediately we spread the news about these good practices to the other 1000 hairdressing salons in the city.” With the leaders marking the path, the majority soon followed, he said, prompted along by an ongoing large-scale awareness raising campaign.
Behind the scenes, his group worked with the municipality to offer discounts on water-saving products as well as to residents who managed to reduce their water consumption. The city’s water bills were redesigned so that residents could see how much water they had used that month in comparison to previous months. Viñuales’s group also worked with retailers to ensure that water-saving options – for products ranging from toilets to taps – were widely available to citizens. “What we did was articulate the project, then use social and economic actors to weave the project into the lives of citizens. The project really belonged to everyone,” said Viñuales. He and his team are now working with officials across Spain to implement similar programs in various cities and regions.
In Zaragoza, the focus has shifted to innovation in water management, through a research cluster that uses the city as a “living lab,” said Marisa Fernández who leads the Zinnae cluster.
A public park in the city that sits on a steep slope, for example, has become the site of several experiments to tackle erosion. “A plant company from Zaragoza has put a certain type of plant there and a company from Madrid developed a watering system for it. Both are testing to see if they can avoid erosion without wasting water.”
The city’s aquifer is also getting a makeover, as the cluster, the University of Zaragoza and various companies work together to develop a “smart” system to manage its use. “When we began, we inherited years of raising awareness amongst residents, companies and the city,” said Fernández. “There was a trajectory of collaboration of many years.”
As the Spanish economy fights off a double-digit recession and rampant unemployment, environmental issues have been pushed to the back burner, she said. “Municipalities in Spain have limited their spending on infrastructure. They’re not looking for innovation, but rather just maintenance.” The cluster has responded by increasingly tying their work to cost-saving benefits as well as setting their sights beyond the Spanish border, targeting markets across Europe and in central and south America.
Spain’s crippling economic crisis served to underscore a virtue that’s been key to the project, said Viñuales: Patience. “We’re talking about a process of 15 years. To achieve profound change – whether it be environmental, social or cultural – you have to be prepared to take it on for the long haul.
“Here in Zaragoza we’ve had that profound change. The population grew, but we use fewer resources than before.” He paused before he adding, “It’s really what needs to be achieved on a global level.”

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vendredi 1 août 2014

Spanish PM and Catalonia leader hold talks over referendum plan

Artur Mas says meeting with prime minister Mariano Rajoy was 'quite positive' and two sides are willing to keep talking

Mariano Rajoy and Artur Mas

Spain's prime minister and the secession-minded leader of Cataloniahave begun talks amid a bitter dispute over the wealthy north-eastern region's plans for a referendum on independence in November.
The Catalan president, Artur Mas, said the two-and-a-half-hour closed-door session with Mariano Rajoy "wasn't the end of anything, and that in itself is quite positive". There was a willingness on both sides to keep talking, he said.
His press conference was slightly delayed by a man who yelled "Long live Spain!" in Catalan repeatedly until being forced to leave by the police.
With about three months before Catalonia's referendum, the meeting was widely seen as a last-ditch opportunity for the political adversaries to find common ground and ward off a potential crisis between Madrid and Barcelona.
Mas said the pair addressed a wide range of issues, including the region's economy and infrastructure, but failed to reach any kind of consensus on the November plebiscite. Rajoy said in a statement that he had reiterated that the referendum could not take place as it would be illegal under Spain's constitution.
In the absence of any alternative proposal from Rajoy, Mas said he would continue to push for the central government to allow the referendum to be held legally. Polls show that more than 70% of Catalonia's 7.5 million residents would like to hold a referendum.
In recent months there has been growing pressure on Mas and Rajoy to discuss alternatives such as a reform of Spain's 1978 constitution to transfer more powers to the country's 17 regions.

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