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Architecture School: The Royal College of Art

London, UK

TomandNicola

Tutors: Nicola Koller & Tom Greenall

Which institution do you teach at?

Royal College of Art

How many students do you have?

12

What level are your students at?

Postgraduate, MA Level

When did you start teaching there?

Nicola: 2006, Tom: 2010

What qualities or attributes do you want your architecture students to emerge with?

We strive to create a studio in which students have the freedom to investigate who they are as designers, as well as who they could be in the future. We focus more on guiding our students towards establishing a critical position and a personal design process than on the creation of pristine portfolios. We promote the development of an individual architectural vocabulary and enjoy the variety of output that is achieved as a result. Being productive is essential, but never making without consideration. We do our best to balance the teaching of hardcore design skills with encouraging the development of other critical faculties that are equally needed in the world of architecture today. Above everything else, we want our students to develop their own critical position on the world.

We advocate a design process that is both critical and propositional, applicable to other disciplines and accessible to a non-architectural audience. The students are encouraged to create projects that make us think. They should raise awareness, expose assumptions and spark debate about issues that affect contemporary society. Through this approach we hope to create students that can find creative ways to insert themselves into areas where architects are not typically found.

How and what do you teach your students?

ADS4 (Architectural Design Studio 4) is a critical design studio embedded within the School of Architecture at the Royal College of Art. Since 2001, the studio has been exploring the complex and contradictory world around us, analysing key shifts in thinking, emerging trends, technological breakthroughs and the new behaviours that they bring with them. 

Through rigorous research and careful observation, the students are forced to understand the realities of the world in which we live and then to question how it might be different in the future. In order to imagine new ways of living, ADS4 weaves current and emerging developments in politics, economics, science and technology into alternative future scenarios, exploring worlds where design outcomes might be very different from the ones indicated by existing surprise-free masterplans.

As tutors we encourage our students to accept no givens; everything must be questioned, dissected and examined, with design as our critical tool. Focusing our investigations on London, we use our research to make projects, and we use these projects to pose simple questions. Who are the people that we are designing for? And what will their values be? The resulting projects teeter between fiction and reality and are rooted in ‘Real Fiction’—a concept from Anthony Dunne’s Hertzian Tales. They are intended to make possible futures tangible, enabling us and others to understand the implications for the built environment.  

While architectural design may be the medium through which we investigate the world, people are our real focus. By accepting that people are complex and contradictory, irrational and sometimes selfish, we intend to develop an architecture that grapples with the everyday reality of a society saturated with contradiction and dilemma.

What tools, techniques or methods do you use in your teaching?

We have developed a number of techniques through which to explore architectural design, often borrowed from other disciplines, including futurology, historiography, critical design and narrative design.

In an effort to remain relevant to the complex technological, political, environmental and social challenges we are experiencing at the beginning of the 21st century, the students’ projects take emerging developments in these fields as the starting points for speculation. To understand the relevance of these speculations, students are asked to design from the scale of a domestic object to the scale of a borough-wide masterplan, using literary techniques such as world building and the use of counterfactual histories to develop scenarios in which their projects might feasibly exist.

Most recently, we have focused our attention on the communication of ideas and the role of architecture in the evolution of culture within a society. Memetics and the idea of ‘internet selection’ (as the cultural equivalent of natural selection in biological evolution) have formed a starting point for exploring alternative forms of representation. 

How does your approach to teaching sit within the ethos of the institution?

We love architecture but we hate the way that architecture is. And we disagree with many of the ways that it is taught. This is something that we share with others at the RCA – a desire to explore alternative ways of approaching the subject, but also making sure that we find a way to enjoy it.

Does your approach sit within a wider school of thought? Is this a local school of thought or a national, continental or global ethos?

The dialogue that our students have with other disciplines across the RCA is beneficial to the output of the studio, making it an ideal place to be situated. Our approach relies on interaction with different departments and the chance for our students to benefit from the experience of other, more specialised designers. In this sense, our approach is deeply rooted in the culture of the RCA.

Since the studio was established over 10 years ago, we have observed a growing interest in the notion of critical practice in other UK institutions. As an emerging form of practice this has largely escaped evaluative attention and this makes us feel uneasy. Critical design is not about criticising accepted forms of practice, but about investigating alternatives to generate debate. Given the RCA’s strong culture of making, it is important to us that the projects are both possible and plausible. Unlike other schools, we avoid science fiction in favour of ‘social fiction’, and refuse to accept ‘future scenario’ as an excuse for lazy resolution. 

Has your approach changed or evolved since you started teaching? If so, how and why?

The approach evolves constantly, but the core ethos has remained the same since the studio was established in 2001—namely to use architectural design as a medium for challenging narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role that design plays in everyday life. As tutors we learn a huge amount from the projects that are developed each year, meaning that the students are instrumental to the evolution of the studio’s approach.

How were you taught? And by whom?

ADS4 was established by Fiona Raby (Dunne & Raby) and the late Gerrard O’Carroll in 2001 – the year that Nicola started at the RCA. Having studied under Fiona and Gerrard for two years, Nicola went on to teach with them both before Fiona left the studio to establish the Design Interactions department at the RCA in 2007 with partner Anthony Dunne. Tom graduated from the studio in 2009, taught by Gerrard and Nicola.

How does the way you teach today relate to how you were taught then?

Having studied in the studio where we now teach, there are obviously similarities in the approach we take. The studio has always prioritised critical rigour and design innovation over mindless production, but our approach to critical design has evolved. Our tutors were concerned with the unfailing optimism that many architects had about the future, believing that Modernism has instilled in us a deeply embedded ideology that the role of architecture is to make the world a better place, always designing for the perfect citizen. In reaction to this, we were encouraged to produce projects that critiqued the social/political/economic realities of the world around us, using our designs to imagine worlds that were plausible, but not necessarily desirable. For us, the ultimate goal is for the projects to be both critical and propositional – projects that are able to ask questions and generate debate, but through presenting an uncanny version of reality rather than a dystopia. We believe that humour and satire can be as powerful – in terms of communication – as fear.

Who has been your most successful/surprising student(s) and what are they doing now?

The variety of fields in which our students find work after graduating constantly surprises us. Many continue in academia, studying for PhDs and teaching; some have worked in product, interaction and industrial design for companies such as Droog, while others have worked in film and television, designing and building sets at Pinewood Studios. Policy is another area of the profession that our students tend to gravitate towards, working for think tanks, local authorities and the GLA. The students find success in these diverse fields, but are united by the desire to contribute positively to the wider culture of the profession. It has always been our intention to provide an education that is applicable to other disciplines and it is often while studying that students identify their future trajectories.

Why do you teach?

In order to learn. All architects have a responsibility to undertake ‘continued professional development’ and for us this is a really effective way. Teaching ensures that we, as people who work in the profession, understand the direction that architecture is moving in.

What is your greatest responsibility as a tutor?

Someone once told us that architectural education wasn’t meant to be fun. We disagree. It is our responsibility to create confident, capable students and we try to achieve this by giving them the freedom to investigate who they want to be as designers. We encourage them to develop an attitude towards design, rather than prescribing a methodology, in the hope that this attitude can be applied to a range of fields, not just architecture.

What have you learnt from teaching?

There’s more than one way to skin a cat. The slowness of architecture means that it struggles to respond quickly to social, environmental, economic and political issues. Education is able to respond much more quickly (although not in terms of addressing its own structure), providing a forum for investigating ideas that are relevant to the professional world.

Does your teaching relate to any of the other activities that you do, for example, your practice? If so, in what way?

We don’t run a practice together and we aren’t career tutors who teach at multiple institutions. Nicola leads an in-house design team at Paul Smith, comprised of architects, furniture designers, interior designers and product designers, while Tom is an associate director at London-based architectural practice DSDHA. Our design output varies dramatically, but the approach we have developed through teaching is applicable to both of these worlds. The difference between our professional backgrounds is an attribute that the students appreciate – a shared approach rather than singular ideology.

What is the greatest piece of advice that you could give to students entering the profession today?

Find inspiration outside architecture and work out how best to communicate your design to a non-architectural audience.

What was the greatest piece of advice you have been given over your career, and who was it from?

‘Never assume’ – Paul Smith

What is the purpose of architectural education today? Has this changed from when you studied?

This is a question that can be divisive – the degree to which the course is vocational, its responsibility to create practice-ready graduates and even the length of the course are issues that are debated in all schools and throughout the profession. In our opinion, its purpose differs between undergraduate and postgraduate levels. At master’s level, education should provide a structured space in which ideas and research are given the space to develop. Students need a time within their training to identify their particular interests and to mature their passion for a particular type of research/aesthetic/design approach to an extent that they can enter the profession as engaged participants. Whether setting up their own practices or entering into established ones, the role of education should be to create people who are able to contribute positively to the culture of the profession.

What is the biggest challenge facing architectural education today?

As fees increase, access to an architectural education becomes more difficult. Recent calls for a review of architectural education also appear to have led many institutions to preemptively develop more vocational courses. We used to teach students who had studied product, furniture and industrial design at undergraduate level, but it seems increasingly hard (or possibly less attractive) for these students to enter architectural education at master’s level. A diversity of backgrounds is really important to help students to appreciate the bigger picture, but this is increasingly difficult to achieve. The context of the RCA is extremely valuable, as it provides our students with access to a range of disciplines.

What is the biggest challenge facing architecture today?

Understanding where architecture should situate itself within an increasingly complex professional world. Architects have always prided themselves on being Jacks-of-all-trades, but increasing specialisation within the wider design team has meant that architects have been pushed to the periphery. Being able to identify opportunities for inserting oneself into the design process is critical. 

Student: Claire Jamieson

Project Information

Project Title: Eternally Yours: Human[ity] Shield

Completed: 2009

 

What did you design for this architectural project?

I designed a building to protect Britain’s vast quantities of nuclear waste for tens of thousands of years. Sited in St James’s Park, central London, fear of radioactivity is assuaged by the layering of narrative and a celebratory nostalgia embedded into a national monument. The site was chosen due to its proximity to key institutions (the royal family, the government and the army) and thus its ingrained presence in the British psyche. In 2028 the waste is ceremonially delivered to site, then permanently sealed, making way for an iconic, Rubenesque public building whose evolution is carefully calculated to communicate a message over vast timescales when language cannot. The building contains a wedding chapel, an archive of Mills and Boon books, a printing press and bindery, a public library, a gallery and a restaurant.

A sequenced ruination choreographs the decay of the outer fibreglass shell to reveal a strange and sensual contemporary concrete Stonehenge in 6480, and finally an observatory-like obsidian chapel by 12,014. The monument is envisaged to last for 10,000 years through a deeply rooted association with love and sex – proven over thousands of years to be our most enduring values. When language can no longer communicate, a mythology connected to love, passed through generations and civilisations, provides the sacred legend required to protect the site from destruction. An added layer of protection is written through a warning encoded in the stars, using orientation, alignment and astrological mapping to pinpoint the exact location and timescale of the waste degradation.

What was the starting point for the project and how did it develop?

The project was driven by the discovery of three key facts:

1: A language becomes unintelligible to the descendants of its speakers after the passage of between 500 and 1,000 years (Linguistic Society of America).

2: There is one Mills and Boon book sold every three seconds in the UK and 70 new titles are published per month (Harlequin Enterprises).

3: Britain has enough nuclear waste stored at points around the country to fill the Royal Albert Hall five times (The Independent).

These facts generate the following scenario and question. Increasing demand for cheap, carbon- and guilt-free energy leads to a resurgence of nuclear power, and by 2020 a new generation of 10 power plants will be active in the UK. The waste from this nuclear legacy will stay radioactive for 10,000 years, during which time it must be protected from intrusion and theft. Over this vast timescale, the English language as we understand it will have evolved so far that it will be incomprehensible – another method of communication must be created. Can the disposal of nuclear waste be ensured for 10,000 years by a mythology embedded in an image of love?

In the US, NIMBY (not in my back yard) mentality has led to the burial of nuclear waste deep in the desert, surrounded by architectural ‘keep out’ symbols consisting of menacing concrete spikes and walls. Rather than rely on predictable methods of concealment and existing ‘out of sight, out of mind’ strategies, I developed a uniquely British solution, strategically placing radioactive waste in a high profile site in central London. The vulnerable waste site is protected by the creation of a synthetic mythology around love, in the hope that we are the more likely to protect something that we cherish and worship than something that we are scared of.

Conversations with my tutors were an important part of developing this scenario. Initially, being asked to unearth interesting statistics was a way to develop a brief that was unexpected yet plausible. My tutors suggested that I think about archaeology and which structures or objects have remained intact for the greatest timescales. I produced a timeline to show the results, indicating that structures such as the pyramids that are shrouded in mythology and worship have the greatest longevity. I was also introduced to the Venus of Willendorf – a statuette from 25,000 BCE which reveals a cross-cultural, cross-epochal obsession with fertility and sex. From this I was able to generate the key themes of the project, designing an architectural solution to a problem while also critiquing our obsession with immortality, the seduction of the ruin and the ubiquity of mythical history as an immanent cultural presence.

What is the most important thing you learnt in designing this project?

I learnt that architecture has the potential to be a critical medium and is not merely about solving problems but can engage with social, political and philosophical questions. Though my project was obviously not a proposal to be built, it engages critically with ideas and problems that affect architectural production and culture more broadly. ADS4 taught me that being an architect – or rather, being somebody who works with the built environment – extends beyond the construction of buildings.

What do you want your architecture to be about? Does this project express that?

I am interested in architecture as a narrative medium, not in the sense of telling a story but in the production of space that is full of content that can evoke and produce sensation beyond the physical. This project was the first step in realising this in the way that it layers signs and symbols through form, material, programme and site.

ClaireJamieson_01

Geological section showing burial of nuclear waste

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Schedule of ruination

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Ground floor plan

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First floor plan

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Ruination, AD 6480

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Final ruination exposing chapel, AD 12014

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Wedding chapel

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Ruined printing press, AD 4976

 

Student: Haiwei Xi

Project Information

Project Title: The BRIC House

Completed: 2012

 

What did you design for this architectural project?

The BRIC House proposes an alternative housing strategy, centred around the idea of a ‘public living room’, using development patterns borrowed from the four BRIC nations.

On the 5.2 hectare Chelsea Barracks site in Westminster, the architecture is shaped for the emerging groups of single parents, single persons and immigrants, and accordingly prioritises public space over private provision.

What was the starting point for the project and how did it develop?

The family structure and social function of the British domestic setting have been significantly disrupted by new technologies. How might we anticipate, and also accommodate, the changes to family structure in the future by imagining an evolution of the home?

What if everything but your bedroom was shared with strangers from various backgrounds?

The project title BRIC House combines the traditional English picture of domesticity with the acronym for the emerging economic nations – Brazil, Russia, India and China – whose diasporas are already well represented in Chelsea’s flush new arrivals.

What is the most important thing you learnt in designing this project?

Critical thinking is paramount. Is the one-bedroom house the only future market? Why is the average house size getting smaller and smaller in London? What sort of development would suit the site other than Modernist or traditionalist?

The project should convincingly position itself not only in the global political and economic landscape but also architecturally, as a proposal for one of the capital city’s most contested sites.

What do you want your architecture to be about? Does this project express that?

The intention is to create a high-quality but low-price, high-density but low-rise housing development aimed at a diverse and multi-cultural society.

Employing ‘family tree urbanism’ as an organisational strategy, houses are located around an organic waterscape that is based on a rigorous analysis of the culture of the BRIC nations. The result is an integration of architecture and landscape.

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Collage of life in the community

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Collage of life in the community, detail

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Collage of life in the community, detail

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Collage of life in the community, detail

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Model

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Masterplan, Chelsea Barracks

Student: Joshua Green

Project Information

Project Title: Jerusalem

Completed: 2013

 

What did you design for this architectural project?

It is a proposed urban masterplan for a town affected by a controversial shale-gas-powered energy boom generated between the years 2012 and ’25.

The project works simultaneously at three scales: the national, the urban and the infrastructural. At the national scale, the project explores how the geographical and geological conditions of the UK would develop within a fracking boom. Moving to an urban scale, the project results in a redevelopment strategy of the town and surroundings of the small suburban area of New Addington, Croydon, as induced by British Shale’s planned expansion across the British countryside. Finally, the project focuses in on Rowdown Dairy Farm, one of several ‘canary in the cage’ infrastructures designed as integral parts of the shale gas system – reintroducing agriculture into the area surrounding New Addington while acting as a ‘tonic’ for the invasive presence of the industry.

What was the starting point for the project and how did it develop?

The project began with a December 2012 Daily Telegraphheadline that announced that fracking (the procedure of extracting onshore shale gas) could ‘permanently affect 60 per cent of the British countryside, despite safety fears’.

This article was one of many pieces of evidence that fed into the unit’s ongoing research into the notion of ‘paradise’, where social, cultural and economic ‘utopian’ proposals of past and present were explored through the medium of scientific models.

The project’s first models experimented with the process of fracking as a means of generating energy, before looking outward at how that model could be applied nationally as an energy-based economic system. Using case studies of the fracking industry in the US, China and Eastern Europe, the UK’s economic shale-powered boom used these testbeds to explore how the patchwork of extraction centres would create a vast network of semi-urban megalopolises.

While the model gave a framework for the design to develop within defined parameters, as with any model applied to the outside world additional factors are fed in which adapt and change it profoundly. In this case, it was a question of combining the controversial nature of the energy production technique (and the fears surrounding safety and ecological repercussions) with the cultural legacy of industrial processes in the UK – from medieval deforestation and the agricultural revolution to the industrial revolution which changed the face of urban living entirely. From this, the notion of the ‘canary in the cage’ infrastructure was formed: greenwashed tools which began as a reinterpretation of the humble milk bottle and moved up to the architecture of the dairy farm as an agricultural typology. These infrastructures redefined the cultural implications of the industry, normalising them into acceptable parts of the British vernacular: the milk bottle became an indicator of agricultural by-product safety while the farm itself became an integral part of the fracking rig system.

What is the most important thing you learnt in designing this project?

In my final thesis viva voce, a visiting critic asked me if the project was a personal cilice, a test of my own ability by designing for an industry that could ultimately destroy the ‘green and pleasant lands’ that the project sought to reinvigorate.

But the answer to this question is not as black and white as being pro or anti the industry; the project taught me a valuable lesson in the duality of being a designer in a world of increasing contradictions. While there are few right or wrong answers, good design isn’t about compromise but about understanding your own ability to navigate a difficult subject in a way that an industry as multi-faceted as architecture requires.

What do you want your architecture to be about? Does this project express that?

I want it to be about thinking laterally to tell a story. Using wide-ranging research and empirical sources to inform with an open, slightly sceptical yet always even head. I always aim to tackle difficult subjects using design as a tool along with a dose of wit, slight obsession, and never an ounce of irreverence, to explore ideas that are not necessarily inherently architectural through the medium of architecture to hopefully bring about something new and unexpected.

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Fracking model experiment

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Skimmed, Semi-Skimmed, Fully Fracked - Milk Bottles

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License Zone PEDL245 FOX, New Addington - Redevelopment Scheme

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The fracking rig

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Housing at the edge of the fracking fields, New Addington

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Sitting at the edge of the fracking fields, New Addington

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The Redefined Public Space, New Addington

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Rowdown Dairy Farm

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Rowdown Dairy Farm, split-level plan

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Jerusalem - film still

 

Student: Louis Hall

Project Information

Project Title: Good Intentions

Completed: 2012

 

What did you design for this architectural project?

‘Good Intentions’ is primarily a study of London planning regulations set within a counterfactual history, resulting in the creation of a new supplementary planning guide that could be applied to any site within a fictitious ‘grey belt’. The ‘Case Study for the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea Box’ is one illustration of what might be in a London that nearly was, questioning what could occur if big business rather than ‘big society’ dominated planning. Building over, under and around the motorway, a new infrastructural architecture emerges. Subservient to the motor vehicle and occupied by programmes typically associated with motorways and out-of-town shopping centres, the modular systems do their very best to blend in with the historic surroundings. Social and private housing merges with Homebase, Little Chef, Matalan and NCP (to name but a few).

The ‘Case Study for the RBKC Box’ is setwithin a site that was almost occupied by a major junction of the Motorway Box, in Earl’s Court.  This is just one of many potential sites within the counterfactual London ‘grey belt’.

What was the starting point for the project and how did it develop?

The initial brief was twofold: a study of disruptive technologies was carried out by each student, under the premise of ‘limits of control’ – how do we decide which worlds come true and which worlds are discarded? Which visions of the future survive and which become extinct? A disruptive technology is one that, when introduced, either radically transforms markets, creates wholly new markets, or destroys markets for other technologies.

By scouring present-day sources and forward-looking articles, three disruptive technologies of interest were selected, each student interpreting the definition of ‘disruptive technology’ in their own way. In my case, I was initially interested in cloud computing technologies, the ongoing debate surrounding tax havens and the world of planning in the UK (specifically London). 

The second point of departure involved the composition of a ‘counterfactual history’. Counterfactual history is a form of historiography that attempts to answer ‘what if’ questions known as counterfactuals. It seeks to explore history and historical incidents by means of extrapolating a timeline in which certain key historical events did not happen or had a different outcome to that which did in fact occur. We refined our individual investigations into disruptive technologies by selecting one and developing a future scenario through a conceived timeline. For my thesis I chose to focus on planning, highlighting associated extinctions and evolutions within the timeline and identifying a point of diversion in order to examine the implications for present-day planning laws of a certain event not taking place.

Up until this point, all students participated in round-table discussions, sharing feedback and ideas under the guidance of our tutors. As we began to form our individual counterfactuals, my tutors encouraged me to merge my current research with a personal interest in the creation and abandonment of postwar London masterplans. Under their guidance and through further research, I was able to identify a point of divergence based around the Private Eye leak of February 1973, which stated that the Conservative government was planning to implement the Motorway Box scheme. As a result the Labour party took a strong stance against the scheme and won the election based on this key point.  This feasible counterfactual history enabled me to imagine a realistic current-day situation in which planning evolved differently, making it possible to critique the present condition of our planning system.

From this point on, the project was composed of two parts (as described in the previous section): the formation of a new supplementary planning guide and a case study illustrating how this would manifest itself architecturally. The input of my tutors at this stage proved to be key – they pushed me to explore the implications of the counterfactual narrative beyond mere architectural form, encouraging me to reassess the effect of heritage values, social implications, political values and sustainability (to name but a few factors) on the design.

‘To understand how it actually was, we therefore need to understand how it actually wasn’t – but how, to contemporaries, it might have been.’
(Niall Ferguson, 1999)

What is the most important thing you learnt in designing this project?

That the social and political repercussions of a design brief are key to developing a visual aesthetic.

What do you want your architecture to be about? Does this project express that?

I feel this project expresses my desire, within the context of a theoretical project, to critique and challenge our present-day condition. It goes some way to reflecting what I want my architecture to be ‘about’, although an exaggerated aesthetic has been developed to inform the critique.

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Counterfactual Artifact—limited edition plate celebrating the dual commemoration of Charles and Diana’s wedding and the opening of the Motorway Box

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Central London after the completion of the Motorway Box, resulting in a circular M4 2011 corridor effect, referred to today as the ‘green belt’

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The North Cross Route, Euston Circus today – as conceived in the Motorway Box Plan of 1966

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The London Plan Supplementary Guide, 01573. Spatial Development Strategy for the London Grey Belt, July 2013

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Massing block rationalisation – from planning ‘jelly-mould’ to developable structure

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Aerial view of the Earl’s Court case study for the RBKC Box

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Presentation model of a section of the RBKC Box case study

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View of Earl’s Court case study for the RBKC Box from Philbeach Gardens

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View of Earl’s Court case study for the RBKC Box from the West Cross Route

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Exhibition

 

Student: Simon Moxey

Project Information

Project Title: Come Friendly Banks

Completed: 2012

What did you design for this architectural project?

Set in Slough Industrial Estate, Europe’s largest privately owned trading estate, a new square-mile global financial hub emerges based on co-location, efficiency and speed. 

From the ashes of the global financial crisis, the next generation of traders – ‘Quants’ – authors of High-Frequency Trading and Global Internet Exchanges are building a new financial landscape. Algorithms operating at speeds 10 times faster than the blink of an eye are used to buy and sell shares in microseconds. Operated by ‘faceless’ companies, born out of bedroom trading, they now control 70 per cent of the market volume yet represent just 2 per cent of trading firms. With ever faster computers, the competitive edge is now determined by ‘latency’: the speed of connection and proximity to the exchange.

In July 2012, Slough became the European entry point for the first transatlantic fibre-optic cable to be laid since the dotcom boom, capable of shaving 5 milliseconds off the time it takes to make a trade between Europe and New York. Without power limitations, and home to Europe’s fastest growing internet exchanges, Slough is set to become a new global financial hub based on co-location, efficiency and speed.

What was the starting point for the project and how did it develop?

The unit’s investigatory programme is an exploration of current trends in culture, technology, politics, economics and society. Considering how these trends may entwine, collide and combine to create unexpected consequences and, ultimately, how these scenarios would influence the architecture we inhabit.

The brief for this project was to investigate ‘disruptive technologies’ – a term meant to describe a new technology that unexpectedly displaces an established technology. Such phenomena often begin life as low-margin, unrefined and overlooked by the established market players, but soon evolve and revolutionise a market. This could be as simple as email replacing fax, for instance.

The brief included the use of counterfactual histories as a tool to investigate how the introduction of this small driver could tilt the scales and cause massive cultural and architectural shifts.

My story began in the early ’90s, at the end of the Cold War. As the race between the US and Russia for inner-space superiority dissipated, construction of a Superconducting Super Collider in Texas, named Desertron, together with its Russian counterpart, a massive Hadron Collider 100km outside Moscow, were both halted. In two strokes, thousands of quantum physicists in both countries were put out of work. However, this margin of unemployed scientists soon found their skills were ideally suited to writing economic algorithms, most notably for deciding mortgages. Having inadvertently brought about the mortgage boom and bust of the early 2000s, they have since moved on to writing algorithms to trade shares. Almost unknown in 2007, algorithmic trading is now responsible for 70 per cent of trades each day and has propelled the financial markets since the economic crash.

The next step was to find the most likely location for the little known mechanism which is coming to drive our UK and world economy. Algorithmic trading is based on ‘co-location’, or in other words putting one’s computer as close to the exchange’s computer as possible so they can communicate and trade with as little delay as possible. Following the trail of the largest internet exchange in the world (soon to overtake the London Stock Exchange in market share) and the newest and fastest connection between UK and US, the search led to Slough, or more specifically Slough Trading Estate: the home of Equinix data hub and, conveniently, Europe’s largest privately owned trading estate. The most valuable square mile conceivable in which to house your algorithmic trading computer.

The challenge followed to consider how the hub would develop driven by an architecture of branching digital networks and trading hubs. How would its growth and construction keep pace with the market’s rampant growth and desire for space? How might its digital worldwide presence coexist with its physical form? How could the need for security be assured in the heart of an existing town? We were encouraged to consider who the key players were; the protagonists, mentors, antagonists, heroes and villains. How would their motives combine, who would use it and critically what sort of architecture and aesthetic would result?

Finally this led to bigger social and cultural questions: could the data centre as an emerging typology lead to a new form of civic architecture – akin to the arrival of Battersea Power Station in London during the 1930s? How will it be accepted and influence the lives of the borough’s existing residents? Could this model appear in other satellite towns outside the M25 ring which are without the power limitations imposed on central London? If so, what will happen to the City of London as an existing financial hub? One disruptive technology leads to a plethora of architectural and social futures.

What is the most important thing you learnt in designing this project?

Through the course I found a new perspective: how the complex mechanisms driving our social, philosophical and economic world can be ever so simple but also how the nuances and random collisions entwine to create outcomes that are hitherto unexpected. I found a critical awareness of the challenge for the physical environment to meet the demands of a new, uncontainable, intangible, elastic, digital era, as well as the divide this might create between the architect’s utopian vision and the drivers behind a project.

What do you want your architecture to be about? Does this project express that?

This project explores how to deal with architectural ideas critically through programme, aesthetic and construction. In this instance that meant designing a fast-tracked, magnified, super-sized trading hub with the materials and trading estate/ financial aesthetic currently trending. It is a critical project; designed to ask viewer to consider what is perceived to be the norm.

This is a process of working that I have continued to adopt since graduation, whether working on an extension for a listed house in a conservation area or designing a new office space. My work with the unit has also led me to find a sense of humour in my work, a desire to ask questions, to challenge the status quo and finally an ability, or should I say initiative, to bend and push the rules. The course has made me see the social and physical environments as fragile, changing, corruptible and subvertable.

Does this project express that? A privately owned square-mile building on a lake in the heart of Slough representing the future of the UK economy…

01_High_Frequency_City

A High-Frequency City - analogue construction attempts to keep pace with the architectural drivers of a digital network

02_hub_plans_low

Hub plans - a new model for a financial centre. No longer a collection of institutional buildings; instead, vast floorplates cluster and swarm, driven by the desire to co-locate servers alongside the next booming internet exchange

03_Plan

Proposed plans

04_fishing_v.3_copy

Fishing on the Lake – living beside a fortress. Could the data centre as an emerging typology lead to a new form of civic architecture akin to the arrival of the Battersea Power Station in London in the 1930s?

05_Community_Hub

Financial Landscape – with views of the 8th Tee, live/work communities evolve between the server infrastructure

06_Micro_second_watch

Micro Chrono Watch – in the 06.317.245 seconds it took to read this, a high-frequency trading computer will have made over 500 trades

 

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