‘Vertebrate buildings: the architecture of structured space’, by W.G. Howell. Part VI

The final instalment of Howell’s talk, first published in the RIBA Journal (vol. 77, no. 3, March 1970) and made available here wby kind permission of RIBAJ. Previously on HKPA allsorts: parts one, two, three, four, five. GF

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When structure is used visibly throughout a building, any discussion of architectural form must involve a discussion of the form of the structure. Of course, most buildings don’t have a clear and visible one anyway – the relevant bits are formally confused with other irrelevant bits, or are buried or disguised. But to analyse building form without analysing the structural form is like a running commentary on a Miss World contest as opposed to an anatomy lesson.

This is not to imply that we believe architectural form should consist of whatever morass of cells is produced by the interaction of the requirements of the programme and the characteristics of the structural system. The Crystal Palace was based on an additive system of small parts, making up relatively small sets, ie, bays. These added up to a prism of extreme overall simplicity (the simpler the earlier the design you look at). This can be described in terms of external and internal volume, but to comprehend the gestalt you must also comprehend the parts and how the sum of those parts produces the simple whole. It is interesting in this connection to note how comparatively rarely in publications or school projects is one given a ceiling plan. A ground plan of the Crystal Palace will tell you what you can walk about on but will give you little idea of what is above your head.

Transverse section of the Crystal Palace at Kew
Transverse section of the Crystal Palace at Kew

we derive nourishment and inspiration less and less from art and architecture, and more and more from industrial plant, space modules, vehicles of all sorts ancient and modern, crystal structures, native villages, biological forms…

I have indicated that I feel dissatisfied with so much art–based formal analysis; this is basically because I feel that, for architects, Art is the Trap. Don’t get me wrong. We are visual chaps, we are involved with form, light, colour, texture and images. So we all love art. Some of my best friends are artists. But most of the influence of art movements on architecture in this century seems to me to have been baneful. Corb’s early houses are not machines for living in so much as cubist artworks for living in: super, of course, significant and influential, but not machines – which, I agree with him, is what we are trying to make. So we derive nourishment and inspiration less and less from art and architecture, and more and more from industrial plant, space modules, vehicles of all sorts ancient and modern, crystal structures, native villages, biological forms, and so on. We turn to these because they are structural assemblies of bits; studying them helps us to understand this our problem.

We all hope that what we do is valid for its context in time. But where will it end and why? Suppose we or our successors continue to like vertebrate, explicit buildings: will we or they be able to go on doing them? Will they be forced to admit one day that this can no longer validly be done, or will they give up wanting to do so? Are we the last of the dinosaurs?

I don’t want to end on a note of pessimism and gloom like some dwarf lurking miserably in the corner of a Watteau pastorale, knowing it can’t last. But it isn’t gloomy to face change, or to accept that what can be done and is willed to be done by your own generation wiIl be impossible or seem irrelevant to another. WiIl future ages find the sort of approach I have outlined impossible – or just irrelevant? Remember, it does not depend on a given technology – it has existed from the bronze age to Nervi.

Why will they not build as we do in 50 years’ time? Economics and the loss of certain skills and materials, yes. New materials will arrive with new capabilities. But basically it will be because desires and visions change, and what we do will not be wanted because it will have become history. But does this necessarily mean no more vertebrate structures? We think it likely that, whatever people build with, there will always be a stream of architecture that concerns itself with enclosing people and their activities with palpable structure. You may well be asking why. Why show structure? Why bother? Why pay for it? It’s not easy to answer. Can any of us be really honest about why we do anything?

We do it, surely, because we like it. We do it because we are trying to make buildings that wiIl create in others the response we have experienced in the buildings we admire. It doesn’t mean we hate or despise everything else – it’s just different. There is a range of choice (just, despite the general downward trend of building budgets) and, within the range of choice available, we tend to go for solutions which communicate how they work. This is our thing. We hope we are not one–track minded. We have designed big buildings and little buildings, cheap buildings and less cheap buildings, multicellular and continuum buildings, concrete buildings, brick buildings, steel buildings, timber buildings and any combination of all four. We have designed in relatively advanced techniques and peasant techniques. We have designed buildings clad by skin systems outside and in, and we have designed buildings whose internal space is articulated by manifest structure. It is this last category that I think we enjoy doing most, because we think that such buildings satisfy some basic human instinct.

Why do all our aunts love beamy cottages? Why does everyone go mad the first time they step into King’s College chapel? Why do all architects turn on to Japanese houses? Why do we all love old boats and airplanes? Why do we weep for the Crystal Palace? Why does Mackintosh’s art school never disappoint nor Berlage’s stock exchange in Amsterdam? Why do we all applaud Perret even though all his buildings are straitjacketed in Beaux Arts symmetry? Why are the early Herts schools still among the most exciting postwar buildings? Why do we all root for Bucky Fuller’s domes despite their somewhat limited application? Why are tents and greenhouses always super? Because, we submit, they are structures; and somewhere, deep down, all God’s chillun love structures. An American lady recently wrote a book about Oxford called Beware, these ruins are inhabited. If you like what we like, come and join us – these structures are inhabited.


‘Vertebrate buildings: the architecture of structured space’, by W.G. Howell. Part V

The penultimate part. This article was originally a talk delivered at the RIBA, published in the RIBA Journal (vol. 77, no. 3, March 1970) and made available on the interweb with the kind permission of the wonderful Hugh Pearman of RIBAJ. Previously on HKPA allsorts: parts one, two, three, four. GF

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When I plumped for the simple Anglo Saxon of one–way and two–way I mentioned that there were also structures that were many–way. One of the most intriguing exercises in structural anatomy is the evolution of such a structure from linear and planar elements. In the building we designed some years ago at Birmingham University with Harris & Sutherland, we grouped studies round a circular well which culminates in a dome made up from straight joists and flat woodwool slabs.

Our Young Vic Theatre, now going up near Its parent body and designed with Samuely’s, is a very cheap essay in the early German Gasworks style. The roof is an interplay between one–way and two–way anatomy – basic external trusses spanning in the direction of the projecting stage and holding up an internal lattice of secondary support and bracing. Being a limited-life building, we were allowed not to encase the primary structure, provided It was outside the fire enclosure, which leaves the primary structure as the main feature outside and the secondary structure articulating the ceiling inside.

The Young Vic Theatre: reflected ceiling plan
The Young Vic Theatre: reflected ceiling plan

young vic elevation

Before leaving one and two–way structures, perhaps I could return for a moment to ancient history. Early Christian basilicas, and after them Romanesque barrel vaults, were one-way linear directional – extrusions, if you like. At Vezeley we see two–way vaults superimposed on what is still basically a one–way primary structure – walls parallel to the nave and arches across it. The Gothic breakthrough was the invention of a workable two-way system (a combined structural and aesthetic system) for stone vaulting. The pointed arch was vital to enable a system with a consistent aesthetic to spar non–square bays, thereby making possible aisles and naves of different widths.

Of course, we wouldn’t do what we do if […] we weren’t rather pleased not to give a sod for good taste

The illustrated examples of buildings we have done with manifest structure articulating the interior space are all fairly large buildings, but in small (ie, domestic) scaled examples, the same thinking can apply. We think it is this which motivates our tendency to display materials in their primary state, rather than a desire for cosiness, or a love of rough textures per se, or an urge to epater le bourgeois, or a Luddite attitude to technological progress, or a glorification of the era of austerity building budgets. Of course, we wouldn’t do what we do if we didn’t rather like grotty textures, if we did not decide it was better to learn to love breeze blocks rather than spend one’s life pining for gold mosaic, or if we weren’t rather pleased not to give a sod for good taste. But basically what we think we are doing is designing buildings which communicate what they are – but not buildings which moralise. I have deliberately held off talking about structural truth or honesty. Truth, after all, has many faces, as we can see after any road accident, and soon leads us into peril in the case of concrete structures – however much we display our compression members, we sincerely hope never to display our tension members.

after all, there’s a world of difference between a chap who likes displaying his biceps and one who walks round with his fly zip undone

We are often asked if it is not inconsistent that we do not feel the same urge to communicate our services. We flog our poor structural engineering friends into designing things which must all be seen, and at the same time drive our services engineering friends mad by insisting that all their efforts be invisible: I like living in a structure and surrounding myself with entertaining artefacts, but I’m not really convinced that a soil pipe is one I would choose to live with. Services clobber can get as out of hand in the home as kerbside clobber in the urban environment. We want the well–tempered environment, but would prefer it, by and large, to come about, as it were, by magic. Displaying structure and concealing plumbing is not really all that inconsistent – after all, there’s a world of difference between a chap who likes displaying his biceps and one who walks round with his fly zip undone.

One of the great occupational hazards of this approach to structure in architecture is what we call the World’s Smallest Forth Bridge syndrome. I’m sure any engineer will know exactly what I mean, The architect, faced with spanning 15ft, comes along with a marvellous diagram and says, ‘Well, I thought just a simple two–way, three dimensional, precast, post–tensioned etc. etc.’ and the engineer, after sucking his pencil for a few minutes says, ‘Or some 7in Bison planks.’ Or the architect appears with a marvellous multifaceted bent form , and the engineer says, ‘Oh, yes, we could do that: but we could do something that looked exactly the same for a tenth of the cost if we slapped a couple of RSJs across, and you then hung your shape underneath in hardboard.’ Very irritating, of course, but it is the sort of wet–blanketing that the engineer must indulge In from time to time when the architect’s passion for playing at engineers gets out of hand. Engineers sometimes think architects a bit mad if they use anything but the cheapest solution. This is also unreasonable. We have a certain budget to spend; If we spend more on the structure then it can’t be spent elsewhere. But perhaps by spending a bit more on the structure, we may not need a whole lot of interior decoration, or by going for a fairly elaborate finish on the columns , for instance, we can save having to cover them up with mosaic. An engineer is like a dietician – he can tell you the minimum you need to get by, but this may not be a very desirable meal; and he can tell you that too much may do you no good; but it is his successful collaboration with an architect that not only keeps you alive but produces –the cordon bleu result.

45 years Young…

The Young Vic theatre in 1970
The Young Vic theatre in 1970

Molière’s Les Fourberies de Scapin opened on 11 September 1970, the first production at the Young Vic. The budget of £60,000 — about £882,000 today — was offered by the Arts Council based on five years’ rent of an existing building. The Greater London Council offered a five-year lease on a bombsite on The Cut, near the South Bank. The only standing building on the site, a butcher’s shop, was retained (‘we couldn’t afford to knock it down’ joked Bill Howell) and converted to a foyer.

Young Vic plan
Young Vic ground floor plan

With the Young Vic’s founder Frank Dunlop, Howell planned a shallow octagonal theatre to seat 450, with a one row-deep gallery around three sides. The acting area with its long thrust stage was based on study of similar examples such as the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario and the Washington Square Theatre in Greenwich Village, New York. The breeze-block exterior made no bones about the lack of cash — Howell referred to it as ‘a very cheap essay in the early German Gasworks style’.  An ancillary block, on the other side of the foyer housed a large rehearsal room, dressing rooms and coffee bar.

The Young Vic was refurbished by Haworth Tompkins in 2004-6, developing new spaces and facilities around a retained auditorium interior.

‘Vertebrate buildings: the architecture of structured space’, by W.G. Howell. Part IV

Part four of Bill Howell’s 1970 talk, originally published in the RIBA Journal (vol. 77, no. 3, March 1970) and reproduced with the kind permission of RIBAJ. The previous part can be found here. GF

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In one of our buildings, the University Centre at Cambridge, a great area of commonroom space was required on several floors and the site was on a corner. The problem, as we saw it, was to evolve a structural system that articulated the space into a series of units of domestic scale which would go round the street corner in a seemly manner and whose spans would reduce the floor slabs to an economic minimum. All precast bits had to be capable of travelling on a low–loader and getting under railway bridges, ie, should not be wider than about 9ft.

On this page and opposite are sketches interchanged between HKPA and the structural engineers – you can tell which are Frank Newby’s because his are less inhibited than mine. Starting from a rough, workable pile–up of the accommodation, various anatomical arrangements were tried, the decision having already been taken to try first those with columns inset. We early on articulated each bay from its neighbour so that, both from inside and out, the commonrooms would read as a set of spaces rather than a single continuous one. In fact, a certain degree of subdivision by means of moveable screens was asked for. A rough bay–size emerged from an exploration of the arithmetic of floor area in relation to depth and frontage available. Various carve–ups were explored and a rough number of square bays emerged as a likely solution.

Evolution of the structural anatomy of the whole set of bays (engineers' sketches are second, fourth and fifth)
Evolution of the structural anatomy of the whole set of bays (engineers’ sketches are second, fourth and fifth)

Later it became clear that only a set of off–square (ie, rectangular) bays would get the accommodation on to the site. Thinking ahead to cladding and windows, we considered bays whose sides were made of a number of equal–sized bits. Eventually we settled on a three–to–four relationship – three windows down one side to four down the other. What we eventually arrived at was a 9ft wide central rectangular ring beam, held up on four inset columns, with hammerheads whose back ends supported an outer ring made up of separate bits. The whole was post–tensioned by means of high tensile bolts, and locked together with an in situ slab.

Sketches interchanged between architects and engineers of the bay units (Frank Newby's, of Samuely's, top row; HKPA's, bottom row)
Sketches interchanged between architects and engineers of the bay units (Frank Newby’s, of Samuely’s, top row; HKPA’s, bottom row)

The main dining hall in this building has a two–way roof supported on hip trusses with timber compression members and steel ties, paired so as to admit a diagonal cruciform of top light. In this part of the building, inset columns would have inhibited use considerably, so they were set in the line of the wall – ie, 1ft columns with 10in thick infilling. There is not much modelling, but the column is articulated by its shape and colour from the adjacent blockwork, which saves it from getting lost in the wall.

Reflected ceiling plan of the Cambridge University Centre
University Centre at Cambridge
University Centre at Cambridge
A typical common room area
A typical common room area
The dining hall
The dining hall

We returned to the question of the relationship between wall and column in the new combination room at Downing College, Cambridge, designed with David Powell. Our desire not to lose the columns, either within the room or from the outside, led us to devise a structure of paired columns cantilevering up from the ground and supporting brackets which reach inward to hold up a central precast lantern.

Downing College, Cambridge: the new combination room and Wilkins's dining hall, from the Fellows' garden.
Downing College, Cambridge: the new combination room and Wilkins’s dining hall, from the Fellows’ garden.
Downing College Combination Room: reflected ceiling plan
Downing College Combination Room: reflected ceiling plan
Interior of the Combination Room
Interior of the Combination Room

We swung back to columns set in the line of the wall at St Antony’s College, Oxford, designed with Harris & Sutherland. The structure is again two-way, consisting of a diagrid made up of precast elements, supporting small timber pyramids with a rooflight in each. Between the columns are large precast panels. The problem of having to interrelate structural and cladding tolerances was obviated by leaving a relatively large gap on either side of each column, and filling it with that easy–to–cut, durable, waterproof material, glass.

St Antony's College, Oxford: reflected ceiling plan
St Antony’s College, Oxford: reflected ceiling plan
St Antony's College, Oxford: model of Hilda Besse building
St Antony’s College, Oxford: model of Hilda Besse building