The spectrum of architecture is a wide one. At some point during the architect’s career, they ascertain their design ethos, a collection of principles moulded by personal experience and worldview manifested through their physical conceptions. Folly For a Flyover, by Assemble, is an example of environmentally driven architecture, transforming a disused motorway in Hackney Wick, London, into an arts venue and public space. Realised by a team of volunteers over a month, the now permanent space was built using reclaimed and donated materials intended to be disassembled. Its components are spread across the area for other uses (Assemble, n.d).
In theory, environmentally driven design can conceive no errors, such is the nature of focusing on objective-based information, i.e., the environment. Socially driven architecture, however, is a complex affair that requires the utmost sensitivity to the subject. Home Memories Installation by Balbek Bureau is a simple yet effective project that was purely delivered for the social welfare of staff and tourists on an island in Antarctica.
The National Antarctic Research Centre commissioned Balbek Bureau to repurpose a defunct fuel tank at the Ukrainian Vernadsky research base. Taking the form of a traditional Ukrainian house, the installation was intended to be a visual treat for staff and visitors and to an extent, a home away from home. Encased in a detailed frame, the tank emulates a pencil sketch, almost as though one is reminiscing about their childhood and drawing their home from memory.
An Overview Of PLACE/Ladywell
Having established the different approaches in architecture, it must also be made clear that there are certain projects with good intentions that have birthed negative outcomes, PLACE/Ladywell being the epitome of this.
Designed by architecture giants AECOM and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners for the Lewisham Council, one might expect a sensitively designed scheme that would positively change London’s homelessness problem; however, such is not entirely the case with the pop-up housing scheme.
Adopting a volumetric modular approach for efficient construction, PLACE/Ladywell, according to AECOM, is a “contemporary housing scheme for 24 homeless families”. Located on the former site of the Ladywell Leisure Centre, which was demolished in 2014, the scheme takes advantage of the brownfield by offering temporary housing solutions to tackle Lewisham’s housing demand and incorporating community commercial spaces.
To remain on-site for between one to four years, the scheme’s design and delivery method has no doubt provided environmental benefits through its modular system, AECOM stating that “over 95 per cent of the project” had been delivered off-site, reducing running costs by up to 50 per cent (AECOM, n.d). Each unit, according to RSHP, takes roughly a month to complete and is “manufactured from standard timber components using simple technologies and then fully fitted out with bathroom, kitchen, flooring and all finishes in the factory”, offering the total manufacturer control of quality (RSHP, n.d).
Arranged in three blocks divided by two external cores, the building was constructed as 64 units stacked in a four-storey arrangement manufactured in the factory. The building also provides a sense of spaciousness with full-height doors and windows, each unit exceeding London Space Standards by 10%, creating a floor-to-ceiling height of 2.6m.
The PLACE/Ladywell Dilemma
The design and intention behind the PLACE/Ladywell scheme are the products of a truly architectural mindset, responding to a relevant issue while considering sustainable design, a clear strength of the scheme’s modular construction method. However, architects are blinded by arrogance without firsthand perspective from the subject. While PLACE/Ladywell has been heralded by Homeless Charity Shelter, among other charities, there is a lack of understanding about what it is like to be a resident. The building, a temporary housing solution with reconfigurable arrangements, is, by design, the ideal solution. However, residents have stated that they felt they were “on the show”, according to a study conducted by Royal Holloway (Jessel, 2021).
Upon interviewing the residents, professors discovered that one of the main issues lay in the exterior cladding’s bright colours, with residents stating they felt stigmatised. In addition, the commercial use of the ground floor created a common feeling among the community that it felt like a step towards gentrifying the population (Holloway, 2019), and there were rules in place that prevented families from making decorative changes, blocking any opportunity of feeling truly at home.
While PLACE/Ladywell has set a milestone in the quality of temporary housing provision, more is needed to solve the second issue of how its residents will secure a permanent home towards the disassembly cycle, a dire oversight by the architects. Having previously experienced sudden evictions and relocations, residents feared the unpredictable nature of moves. They lacked reassurance for the future of their living conditions, whether they’d be able to afford it or if they could remain close to their children’s schools, places of work and more. Despite the myriad of issues, there are minor fixes that could create a significant impact for the residents and at the same time, set a precedent for future temporary housing schemes. Residents, for instance, would feel more at home if decoration, albeit minor, was permitted, along with non-open plan choices, with the report stating that “open plan living isn’t ideal” (Jessel, 2021). The term “pop-up” also had negative connotations, creating a constant reminder to residents of their limited time and refraining from using such a term would reverse the negative effect.
“There is a lot of excitement around pop-up housing amongst stakeholders, but until now, nobody seemed to have asked the residents how they found it,” said Dr Ella Harris, lead author of the report. Reiterating that very point, it is well-known that architects are experts in design. However, suppose PLACE/Ladywell has proven anything. In that case, there is still a clear lack of empathy for the groups of people they are designing for, perhaps a sign of ignorance and a cue for architects to consult their subjects in-depth before giving total reliance on personal knowledge.
Folly for a flyover (n.d) Assemble. Available at: https://assemblestudio.co.uk/projects/folly-for-a-flyover [Accessed: April 8, 2023].
Holloway, R. (2019) ‘pop-up’ modular housing solution is no more than a sticking plaster, research finds, Royal Holloway, University of London. Royal Holloway, University of London. Available at: https://www.royalholloway.ac.uk/research-and-teaching/departments-and-schools/geography/news/pop-up-modular-housing-solution-is-no-more-than-a-sticking-plaster-research-finds/ (Accessed: April 9, 2023).
Jessel, E. (2021) RSHP’s colourful place/Ladywell block made residents feel ‘stigmatised’, The Architects’ Journal. Available at: https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/rshps-colourful-place-ladywell-block-made-residents-feel-stigmatised [Accessed: April 9, 2023].
Rshp (n.d) Place / Ladywell – Residential – Projects, RSHP. Available at: https://rshp.com/projects/residential/place-ladywell/ [Accessed: April 9, 2023].