‘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.


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