Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Whatever happened to the Earth Centre?

The Earth Centre was an environmental theme park and model for sustainable development, which opened on a former colliery site near Doncaster in 1999. Just five years later the Centre closed, the operators went bankrupt and it was declared financially unsustainable. Since this time, the site has stood derelict.

I'm not quite sure what made me decide to look up the Earth Centre, perhaps it was planning a visit to Yorkshire Sculpture Park which was big around the same time. But whatever the reason, I found myself looking at pictures of the site posted on the 'urban exploration' forum, 28dayslater (hence the photo's on this post). For those not familiar with the genre, urban exploration is where people err... (I'm struggling for a euphemism for break-in) visit derelict sites and unusual places, before posting pictures on the internet for people to marvel at. Generally, the weirder/higher/riskier, the better.

A few years a go people were posting some amazing stuff on the site, but more recently the quality of sites seems to have deteriorated to the point where people are probably posting pictures of a former Budgens, which closed last November. However, some of the Earth Centre photo's are terrific and I'd strongly urge anyone with an interest to check them out at the link below:


At the time of closing no one seemed too surprised that the whole thing went pear shaped, but looking through the photo's now it seems a bit of a shame.

The Centre was funded by an initial grant of over £40million from the Millennium Commission to "establish a world centre for sustainable development promoting the best environmental and sustainable practice", whilst further funding enabled later phases of the development. Initial reviews, including the one below from Jonathan Glancey, were favourable.


Respected architects, Jan Kaplicky and Amanda Levete of Future Systems, designed the buildings, whilst Will Alsop was lined up to develop an innovative new bridge to the site.

Elements of the Earth Centre are weirdly reminiscent of other schemes of the time, in particular the Eden Project. If there is such a thing as, "eco-millenium project vernacular", I'd suggest that this is perfectly embodied by a friendly sculpture man, fashioned from recycled materials.

It's is perhaps telling that while I was studying landscape architecture in Sheffield at the time, I never made the short journey across to Doncaster to see what my lecturers described as "the 20th Century's biggest work of landscape architecture in the UK". If someone with an intrinsic interest in the subject couldn't be arsed to go, then you can be pretty sure Joe Public won't bother either. I think it's location was a big problem, for those looking for visitor attractions there's not much else to draw you to Doncaster. I also think it was a little ahead of it's time - sustainability issues are much more mainstream now, but back then 'eco' was a little bit mung beans and bicycle clips. But I'd say it's biggest failing was a lack of a big draw. I hate to say it (in fact people who say this are actually a real pet hate of mine), but where was the 'wow factor'?!? Eden had the big plastic 'biomes', but I wasn't really clear what the big feature of the Earth Centre was.

Since closing, the site has been used infrequently for paintballing and the fiming of the TV series 'Survivors', which was set in a deserted future where everyone's died of flu (except for the bloke from Hotel Babylon). The current proposal is that the facilities will be demolished and the site redeveloped for housing; you get the impression that the local council are keen to get shot of the site, and put the embarrassment of the projects failure behind them.

More positively, local groups have started a campaign to bring the Centre back into community use (see link below). Given the facilities still present, the interesting design features and the public money invested, you can only hope that they are successful.


Tuesday, 15 June 2010

City Lounge, St. Gallen

City Lounge is an outdoor living space in the centre of St. Gallen, Switzerland, created by artist, Pipilotti Rist and architect Carlos Martinez. Originally intended as a temporary installation to celebrate the pedestrianisation of the city's business district, it was so popular, it became a permanent feature.

I first spotted it in Llorenc Bonec's excellent, Urban Landscape Architecture, which is full of interesting schemes to brighten up your coffee table or reception area!

I've managed to scrounge together a few images from across the interweb (see below), but if you like the look of it, I'd recommend you visit the website of photographer, Thomas Mayer.


Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Prince Charles and the Architecture of Happiness

I've been tempted to write something about Prince Charles for quite some time, but never really found a sufficiently interesting topic to expand upon. As it happens, David Mitchell has saved me a job with an amusing and surprisingly perceptive article for the Observer. I'd strongly urge anyone with an interest in the subject to read it:


While I find myself in agreement with pretty much all of the article, I would add that I don't necessarily have a problem with recreations of traditional architecture and can see that it probably has it's place. However, I disagree that it is intrinsically worthier than more modern styles. I'd also argue that all too often the results are poor imitations of the original buildings they mimic (and this comes from someone who is something of an historic building nerd).

Poundbury is generally acknowledged as the Prince's crowning architectural achievement and the built embodiment of his principles. While I acknowledge that it has many positive aspects (the promotion of shared spaces for a start), I don't believe these are down to the traditional design, but rather the value of considered and person-centred design, as opposed the standardised boxes and road-centric, fit-as-many-units-as-possible approach that predominates most residential developments. I'm sure many people love it and I think it's fair enough for the Prince to act as an advocate for this kind of design.

While Charles appears basically well meaning, I personally don't think that his criticism of modern architecture is helpful. Stepping aside the argument that many people agree with his stylistic views, the justification (as used at Chelsea Barracks) that he is speaking out against bad design on behalf of the people, is undermined by his oft demonstrated dislike of modern architecture and his predilection for columns, plinths and pediments. Similarly, while I am happy for the Princes Trust to promote traditionally styled projects and elements of best practice , I am profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of them being a more general arbiter of good design (as recently put forward in the Conservative 'Open Source Planning' paper). As sure as Hugh Hefner wouldn't choose the girl who speaks six languages and does a lot of work for charity as Miss World, you can guarantee that the Prince's Trust would endorse the building with the vernacular, stone portico and the giant double cupola.

© Copyright Kevin Hale and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

More recently, I found myself reflecting again on Prince Charles and the supporters of traditional design as I read through Alain de Botton's "The Architecture of Happiness." It's not a book that I've found particularly easy to read; being rather verbose and imbued with a knowing irony, that I found vaguely irritating. That said, it contains some remarkably interesting ideas, that although relatively obvious, did have me considering the role of our built environment and what is behind our preference for certain styles.

What I took from the book is the idea that our built environment is a reflection of our aspirations, beliefs and values. While certain forms can have particular characters or intonation, and there is always the 'good design' factor, our reaction to a design is dependent on whether it fits in with our own belief system. This was best demonstrated to me, by the examples of the modernist architects whose designs reflected their beliefs that society would be bettered by advances in science, politics and industrialisation, and a rejection of the old values of western societies.

Similarly, it gives me some understanding of why the heir to a constitutional monarchy, that seems increasingly out of step with modern life, would take such an interest in promoting the building of monuments to tradition, and resist the advances of the modern world demonstrated by all this new-fangled architecture.

I suppose my final thought on the subject, is that while I believe in design guidance and the promotion of good design principles, I don't think that this can be achieved through 'rules' (such as the Poundbury ban on shop signage and satellite dishes). It seems to me that design rules, be it 'secured by design' or the Prince's Foundation's "Build Beautifully", are an attempt to impose the proposers values onto the schemes end users. Sometimes these values are worthwhile, such as a greater sense of community often engendered by good quality spaces. However, I believe that the designers role is to promote, encourage and engender these values and behaviors, rather than to force or impose them.