A CONTEMPORARY PUBLIC REPOSITORY
Every day the Bodleian Library at Oxford University receives 1000 new books. Founded in 1602, it’s collection (including four copies of the Magna Carta, Shakespeare’s first Folio and everything published in the British Isles) is housed in an eclectic mix of buildings dotted around the City of Dreaming Spires. At the start of the 21st century it’s shelves were declared ‘130% full’. The solution? A new 127,000 sq. ft. book repository in a steel shed on an industrial estate in Swindon, a seemingly non-descript town, 28 miles away.
Despite the move towards digitisation, the homogeneity of globalisation has encouraged an emphasis on material artefacts with a subsequently increased demand for ‘hard’ storage. Many major institutions responsible for storing publicly accessible artefacts are having to expand their collections beyond the crumbling confines of their predominantly urban mansions into generic warehouses in post-suburban towns. These public repositories provide safe storage but with negligible access to their collections and little contribution to the peripheries in which they are sited.
By contrast millions spend their leisure time visiting the typologically similar but programmatically distinct warehouses of IKEA and Home Depot. Here culturally loaded artefacts are perused and purchased from towering stacks by shoppers keen to establish their identity through material artefacts.
We will explore how the established public repositories of London – the V&A Museum, the Tate Gallery, the British Museum, the British Library, the Royal Armouries – might evolve in response to the changing demands of the contemporary public.
How might these big institutions that store the public’s ‘possessions’ learn from the big box retailer and open their remote repositories to a new audience? What new relationship between artefacts and viewers might this allow or actively encourage?
THE PRODUCTIVE CITY
“Every citizen as he chooses may have all forms of production, distribution, self-improvement, enjoyment, within the radius of, say, ten to twenty miles of his home. And speedily available by means of his private car or plane or public conveyance. This integrated distribution of living related to ground…would be the Broadacre City of tomorrow. Democracy realized.”
FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT, 1946
“For me, the most visionary architect, the one who best understood the ineluctable disorder in which we live, remains Frank Lloyd Wright and his Broadacre City… the projects I have been working on have been situated in a territory that can no longer be called suburbia but must be referred to as the borders or limits of the periphery. The contemporary city, the one composed of these peripheries, ought to yield a sort of manifesto, a premature homage to a form of modernity, which when compared to cities of the past might seem devoid of possibilities, but in which we will one day recognize as many gains as losses.”
REM KOOLHAAS 1989
The post-suburban city is the dominant urban form of developed nations. The sprawl of housing estates, big boxes and bigger infrastructure lacks the density, the heritage or the cultural baggage of its more urban forefathers but, as yet, appears to have failed to best utilize this spatial opportunity.
A democratic society, where everyone’s past is deemed important, recorded and stored, requires an appropriate container, a new typology, in which to hoard. Rather than having our collective memories huddled in cramped and fixed conditions, bound up with retrogressive impressions of what its guardian institutions are, we will move them out to the peripheries, where they have space to breathe, to adapt, to be productive.
We will explore the relationship between the post-suburban city and the potential new forms of its public repositories.
What productive value do cultural artefacts have whilst being stored? What opportunities does the post-suburban city provide to increase these objects’ productiveness? How might this contribute to the evolving notion of civic life?
SAMPLING AND SYNTHESIZING
“The mind of the mature poet differs from that of the immature one not precisely in any valuation of “personality,” not being necessarily more interesting, or having “more to say,” but rather by being a more finely perfected medium in which special, or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations.”
The artifacts that fill these repositories have unique formal qualities, loaded with associations and significance. The institutions that contain them have their own spatial identity that significantly influences the way in which the collections are experienced. Our architectural approach will be to carefully analyze the collections’ content and current containers, to sample the aspects we most value and to synthesize them with the typologies of the post-suburban city to create new combinations.
In this way our proposals will be redolent of the collections and their new context, the historical artefact and its new vessel, the old institution and its new neighbourhood. Familiar forms will be subverted, providing a formal evolution that is slight and radical.
BIG BOX INSTITUTIONS
Modern architecture of the early 20th century appropriated the commercial and industrial vernacular of its time – grain silos and concrete sheds – to establish a new and relevant architecture. Similarly, we believe contemporary architecture needs to embrace the communicative impact and construction technologies of today’s vernacular. A constant presence in the development of the post-war landscape, the suburban ‘Big Box’ has enjoyed a flurry of interest in the last decade. Campaigned against and villanized as a symbol of all that is wrong with the American Dream, it continues to evolve towards every greater efficiencies. We propose re-sampling, not retrofitting, the Box; its forms, scale, technologies and associations.
We will explore how the cultural identity of the old institutions might by synthesized with the Big Box typology to create a participative and productive architecture. Stepping beyond the limitations of abstract contemporary expression we will seek to create appropriate forms enthused with useful details, nurturing an informed combination of form and use. Embracing and subverting associations of the past we will produce buildings that have a communicative facade and encourage a productive relationship between visitor, artefact and place.
THE POST-SUBURBAN EXEMPLAR
The site of enquiry for the studio will be Swindon, located 80 miles west of London in the UK’s Thames Valley. At first appearance Swindon seems like a typical hinterland town – a decaying post-industrial centre with surrounding housing estates, retail parks and industrial zones, barely held together by a ring road. Further research reveals its Gross Value Added per capita is higher than London, it was the first town nationally to provide free broadband to all citizens, it has the nation’s most cinema seats per capita and was twinned with Disneyland in 2010. In short, it is a sprawling, value-adding manufacturing node, hard-wired to global communications and media networks – the post-suburban city par excellence.
In 2005 the English National Trust moved its headquarters from London to Swindon. Keen to encourage similar institutions to relocate the Borough Council have identified a selection of potential development sites. We will be designing new public repositories for London-based institutions for these sites, working with the town’s Urban Design department to explore the potential development of the town’s civic form and use.
1. PROTOTYPE – Big Box Institution (3 weeks)
Working in pairs, students will research and sample the architecture of an established London-based public repository, an object from its collection and a New Haven Big Box. These will be digitally synthesized and a physical model fabricated using appropriate tools e.g. rapid prototyping, CNC routers. The models will provide a basis for the studio’s lexicon of sampling and synthesizing and allow exploration of the relationships between visual image and experienced object.
2. BRIEF – Sampling An Encounter (3 weeks, including the field trip)
1:5 – Individually students will develop a brief for their London-based institution’s new repository. The starting point of the brief will be an observed 1:5 detail of an encounter between a visitor and an object in the collection. Informed by visits to the institution’s existing buildings and meetings with its curators, building managers and visitors, the detail will evolve into a proposal for an altered relationship between the public and collection.
1:500 – Students in (different) pairs will immerse themselves in one of five development sites in Swindon. A combination of qualitative and quantitative site analysis will be encouraged and captured in a 1:500 model, the basis for future proposals.
3. PROPOSAL – A Contemporary Public Repository (7 weeks)
Each student will develop a design for a new public repository for their institution on their site in Swindon. The design development will focus on the (sub)urban relationship through physical models; the image of the building through large format color images, (constructed not rendered); and the relationship between use and construction through scaled detailed drawings.
The studio will visit the UK from 19th to 25th September 2011. Based in London, we will meet the existing public repositories we are investigating and enjoy the possibilities of detached observation and immersive engagement. We will establish a history of the typology through building visits, from Soane’s urban home to Walpole’s suburban castle, Waterhouse’s dinosaur hall to Alsop’s book-stacks-on-sticks.
We will travel beyond the capital to visit Oxford and Swindon, comparing the medieval city-as-repository with its post-suburban upstart. Direct comparison will be made between the Bodleian Library’s repository buildings in each city. Visits to the studio’s development sites in Swindon will be accompanied by a member of the Borough Council’s Urban Design team, who will provide further background on the site, its history and development potential. Throughout the trip we will continue to consider what to sample and how to synthesize, generating a broad sourcebook and design methodologies with which to commence making proposals upon our return to Yale.