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Your views

Approval for Park Hill’s new incarnation from its original creator

In his perceptive assessment of Park Hill (Revisit, AR October 2011) Peter Blundell Jones points to the dilemma of reconciling authenticity and change, a recurring and sensitive issue in relation to listed buildings. As Blundell Jones has described, for the first decade or so, Park Hill was regarded as paradise for those who lived there in contrast to what they had before. But over the years things began to go wrong. The three industries that had made Sheffield great ceased to exist; the management of Park Hill changed; the building fabric was allowed to deteriorate and it was used as a place to dump difficult tenants. Society was also developing a drug culture and violence increased.

The task facing Urban Splash and its architects was new, different and difficult. It went far beyond the repair of the structure, though that in itself is impressive. After years with a bad reputation it needed to demonstrate a fresh start, to attract new residents, two-thirds of whom would buy or rent from the open market.

In the 21st century, living is considered to be more spacious, and the dwellings now have more open plans with views right through and light from both sides. Double glazing allows larger windows, and the brickwork has been replaced by brightly coloured aluminium panels. This controversial proposal required approval from English Heritage, who applied the ‘squint test’ − if you half shut your eyes, does it still look like Park Hill? − an intriguing way of assessing authenticity! At first the colours may seem a bit bright but they demonstrate a pristine new beginning, and they continue to indicate the different deck levels − the ‘streets in the air’ which are part of Park Hill’s essence. The change to the elevations when the panels are open is a witty device.

A new entrance now invites you into Park Hill; it is a splendid monumental space four storeys high. Shops will add life and the glazed, two-storey offices and studios give an effective base to the building. The journey up the glass lifts is a delight with views over the city to the moors beyond; at night this will be very special, and the shiny steel stair spiralling up the building adds sparkle.

The way that the entrance, the lifts and stairs are set within the structural frame shows masterly respect for what existed before. The arrival at each level is similarly spacious, and the access still has the qualities of the deck even though the dwellings encroach on it a little. This is very clever: it not only gives useful space inside but provides a significant threshold, a public/private space, to each group of four dwellings.

The choice of materials, the detailing and the workmanship show great care; this is apparent in the entrance doors, the stairs, the windows, and the design of the kitchens and bathrooms, which benefit from more resources than were originally available. It is refreshing, at this time, that the whole design is free from gimmicks and there is a consistency and inevitability to each part.

Urban Splash and designers Hawkins\Brown and Studio Egret West have got the balance right between respect for authenticity and the embrace of change. What they have done gives real meaning to the word ‘regeneration’; it represents a new beginning, a new vitality. I sense, in those who have been involved, the same enthusiasm and excitement that Jack Lynn and I enjoyed half a century ago.

It will be a great place to live! Ivor Smith, designer with Jack Lynn of Park Hill, completed in 1960

I visited Park Hill when it was in perfect shape in 1968. I went to Sheffield exclusively to see it and was favourably impressed to find public housing that was good and seemed to work. Of course, I had not anticipated Mrs Thatcher. Contrastingly, I found the second part, Hyde Park, much less satisfactory. So you can imagine how pleased I was with your story. The renovation is somewhat drastic but, from the photos, it looks very good. Tom Killian, Françoise Bollack Architects, New York

To P or lower case p? That’s the question

Thank you Farshid Moussavi for the elaboration of the universality of parametric thinking and its promise for ‘intelligent designs that embrace the full complexity of our environment’ (Viewpoint, AR October 2011). Given the difficulty in bridging the gap between form-finding and material architecture, perhaps this should be an educators’ call to arms. Although engineers have successfully applied parametric software for several decades, architectural designers have been slow to employ the true capability for anything more than pure form generation, as you aptly indicate.

Much of this has to do with the inability of architecture schools to provide a schema that focuses parametricism on form created from ‘parametric thinking as a way to integrate formal experimentation with performative concerns’. In lower case, parametricism is both a technique and a mode of thinking that employs the empowerment provided by software for performative design, as applied by the designer’s creativity. It is time to dispense with the capital ‘P’. As a style or classification it will not survive the decade.

Bridging this educational gap will be fraught with obstacles. Although the world is certainly different from what you describe in the 1990s, the problems of creating a relevant studio experience in an industry unaccustomed to change remain. The overwhelming majority of studio instructors insufficiently understand how one might progress from the assignment of external parameters, whether they be environmental, physical, social or cultural, to engage in a feedback loop with form.

This presents a major stumbling block. If we do not grasp this moment, the opportunity for designers to employ parametricism to inspire performative design might be lost: left to the engineers. It will be displaced by the next plaything to shape form, as well as the progressive dumbing of existing software. Each year, in the name of the ‘user-friendly’, the handful of companies that control AEC software tend to reduce itemised control. It will not be long before the parametric programmes geared for architectural designers will severely restrict parametric thinking in favour of push button design solutions.

This is the crucial time to realise parametric thinking for architects. Its future lies in the hands of our educators. We must not let this empowering opportunity slip away. Bill Caplan, ShortList_0 Design Group, New York

First of all, I would like to congratulate AR on its editorial make-over, with its new focus on debate and theory. My letter concerns Farshid Moussavi’s article on parametric thinking versus Parametricism. I have a few points to drive home.

The most important is ‘mere’ semantics. Words matter. If I could, I would like to prevent the term ‘Parametricism’ degenerating to become a punch bag and trash-can that collects all that is disagreeable within contemporary parametric architecture. The term was proposed to do serious work as a positive reference and rallying term for the convergent efforts of a new global generation of architects. If this term is trashed, a new term needs to be proposed to take on its mantle.

In my dictionary Farshid is a proponent of Parametricism, indeed one of its earliest protagonists and I count her Yokohama project among its first, most compelling built manifestations. I disagree with Farshid’s distinction between Parametricism and parametric thinking. I do agree that the current proliferation of parametric software and scripting techniques − which deserves to be wholeheartedly supported − also encompasses
a lot of immature, unresolved efforts.

Equally, there was bad and good Modernism. What matters more than individual lapses and failures is the general innovative thrust and historical pertinence of a global movement and style like Parametricism. The style is in its avant-garde phase. It still needs a certain licence to experiment while gearing up to take on more and more real world challenges.

Let’s remain generous for now. The ‘formal extravagance’ of Parametricism Farshid bemoans should rather be interpreted as the search for rich, complex spatial organisations that might be able to articulate the increased density and complexity of contemporary life processes. Farshid seems to imply that a style is necessarily superficial and dogmatic.

In contrast I am trying to revitalise the concept of style as a tool of collective architectural self-determination and as a concept that allows architecture to project its contemporary innovations into society at large. For me styles are initially design research programmes that later aim to establish canonic principles that allow for the rapid, coherent dissemination of a new global best practice. (Historically pertinent styles in this sense deserve to become the discipline’s ‘dogma’. Today ‘smooth and differentiated’ is indeed a more pertinent default condition than Modernism’s ‘hard-edged and dissociated’.)

Styles − according to the concept I propose − comprise a certain formal repertoire as well as a certain way of interpreting briefs. They should not be (mis)understood as a mere superficiality. A viable style must indeed integrate formal experimentation with performative concerns.
(It seems as if my resurrection of a profound concept of style was appreciated by Peter Buchanan in his thorough review of my book, The Autopoiesis of Architecture, AR March 2011). However, I also insist that the appearance of buildings and spaces matters.

It matters precisely for the sake of their social functionality. Designed territories function as much via their legibility and appeal, that is via their capacity to orient agents, as they function via the sorting and channelling of bodies. That is why Farshid’s 1990s opposition of performance versus representation must be replaced by the formula performance via representation. It’s time for the refoundation of an architectural phenomenology and semiology: Parametric phenomenology/semiology. (See the forthcoming second volume of my book.)

Here lies architecture’s true core competency. Everything else is mere engineering. Patrik Schumacher, Zaha Hadid Architects, London

A message of hope from Afghanistan

The Maria Grazia Cutuli School is truly inspirational, magical and beautiful (Buildings, AR October 2011). Also a very brave bunch of creative people… I am an Afghan and an aspiring architecture student. This has given me a first real step towards achieving my goal of creating and making people’s lives better. I hope one day I can act with others to achieve a similar feat. Comment on AR website by Saladoger

And some thoughts on the relaunch

I was glad to witness that the new AR avoided the sirens of trendy covers and coffee table contents. It was brave enough to insist on demanding and rewarding content. Sadly, today, all but a handful of periodicals covering architectural projects are presented as illustrated brand names of star architects.

I enjoyed the critical presentation of architectural projects and also the theoretical articles of Edward Glaeser (Broader View) and Anthony Vidler (Theory) as indicative of a much-needed interaction between theory and praxis. Actually, I would welcome more of this kind of design-oriented theory, of which practitioners and students of architecture today are much in need. I’m sure this initiative will succeed and that it will instigate important debates in classrooms and amphitheatres. History, theory and criticism are urgently needed, but again as a unified issue centred on architectural design. Architecture cannot change the world, but perhaps it can make the world better. Vassilis Ganiatsas, National Technical University of Athens, Greece

I have to admit that I was on the point of cancelling my subscription to AR. I hated the graphics, I hated the silly number codes and I was rarely engaged by the content. So the new AR, which is really the old AR brought back to life, has brought great sighs of relief. I think the Overview essays are interesting. Glancey’s piece is good, as is the Park Hill piece. Curtis on Libeskind is brilliant − a marvellous demolition job. Only waffly Glaeser lets the side down. David Robson (by email)

At last. After just plain monthly editions of pretty illustrations, yellow highlighters and lack of substance, a proper going over. Buildings photographed with people, theoretical considerations, post-occupancy evaluation, economic analysis, pedagogical teaching methods, sustainability, something to read and critiques at last. Architecture in its proper human and geographical context. Nigel C Lewis (by email)

Readers' comments (1)

  • Bill Caplan

    A response to Patrick Schumacher's Remarks:

    Absent a better "nom d'architecture", for the moment let us call this new architectural movement Experiential. In reality, the phrase "for the moment" itself expresses the energy transferred between tectonic and participant in the new idiomatic style. We are indeed indebted to Zaha Hadid and Patrick Schumacher for extending the mantle of Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal 5 and Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall, coalescing the emergence of a new style yet to be defined, still unnamed. It is interesting to note that TWA pre-dated computer design and the Walt Disney Concert Hall's design, originally in stone, preceded Bilbao. Others noteworthy include Craig Dyker's Oslo Opera House, Kazuyo Sejima/Ryue Nishizawa's Teshima Art Museum and the Rolex Learning Center, as well as designs by Bjark Ingels and Ben van Berkel. And yes, there are many more. Let us not forget Richard Serra, who dramatically impacts the human sensory system through structural form and the strong conveyance of gravitational force by otherwise static objects. His sculpture is unoccupied architecture, or perhaps architecture occupied by energy. We must not confuse autopoietic pattern generation with the tectonics of form, its relationship to sensory perception and the definition of space, i.e. architectural style.

    Let us not trash "parametrics", or in broader usage "parametricism". Parametric design tools are important whether merely as a designer's pencil, an architect or engineer's BIM tool set for adaptation, or a means to impact form emerging from site, social and programmatic inputs. As a designer's pencil, something new will replace parametric software in the future as we evolve from eye-hand coordination, to eye-mouse, eventually achieving brain-realize. As an input/output concept, parametricism endures as a black box realization process. Patrick Schumacher's assertion of the need to categorize this new architectural style is well taken, even if only to coalesce its disparate elements. We should not demean this exciting release of energetic and experiential architectural form, nor the wonders of computer aided parametric design, with the stigma of classifying either with the capital P "Parametricism."

    Bill Caplan, ShortList_0 Design Group, New York

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