Monthly Archives: March 2013

Something from nothing

In 2006 the Franco-British Union of Architects awarded me a bursary to investigate the work of the French architects Jean-Philippe Vassal and Anne Lacaton. Since then the report has been languishing on my bookshelf, so I thought I would present some of the research here. For me, Lacaton and Vassal’s architecture is a great example of transnationalism. Their inventive use of materials and references to ‘far-away’ places is not a literal transference of architectural style, but it borrows from different cultures to create evocative, poetic buildings.

Their successful adaptation of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris has highlighted their imaginative responses to a tight budget, yet cost-effectiveness is not the driving force behind their work. As Vassal explains: ‘At the start there are always very ambitious intentions and choices, and cost-effectiveness is simply what permits us to realise them, whatever the budget we may be given.’

13.3.29 Palais de Tokyo

Photomontage showing the bookshop enclosed by Heras fencing, Palais de Tokyo interior, 2006.

Here is an excerpt of my interview with Jean Philippe Vassal, held on 5th September 2006, in which he describes the project to transform the neo-classical Palais de Tokyo (built for the 1937 Paris Exposition) into a contemporary art gallery and museum:

Jessica Holland         The Palais de Tokyo is not a museum in the traditional sense. I was discussing with a colleague whether your work there can be considered as “architecture” or not, because the intervention is very minimal…

Jean Philippe Vassal         [Our work at the Palais de Tokyo] is to give possibilities. Precisely if it’s artists that will go there after, you can do even less… because they want to have space to do things on the floors, on the wall, so you have to give them the possibility to do that. I like the idea that architecture could give freedom to do things and this for me, is probably most important: to adapt spaces, climates, ambiences where things can happen. Always, this freedom is essential.

There was always a reason. For the Palais de Tokyo the budget was very low, but it is not a problem. All the time you can do what you need to – this is one of the things I learnt in Africa. I was in Morocco then after my studies I went to Niger for five years. Niger is one of the poorest countries south of the Sahara desert. It was incredible what people there could do and make from absolutely nothing. It’s strange because when you are in the desert and there is almost nothing, it’s only in your mind that you can find something. The work of architects is not about materials and things like that, it is just invention – to find a solution to a situation. So this question about is it still architecture or is it not architecture, I don’t know… A great architect said: “Less is more”, and that was fifty years ago!

… In architecture I feel you have a sort of invisible direction; more and more the architectural fact will become less and less visible. If you look from Roman architecture to Gothic to Modernism, always there is a search for higher, for lighter, for more. You arrive at the Farnsworth House, which is just a box, so for me; we are still on this journey. Architecture can be just a gesture, even nothing sometimes.

We have done a project in Bordeaux for a little plaza where the outcome was to say: “There is nothing to do, it’s okay.” The client asked us to make this plaza beautiful but it is beautiful. So the way to look at things is important: are you sure she is not beautiful; it is not beautiful? Then you convince them it is beautiful and what is this question of beauty? So, in Africa it was really this challenge: with the minimum of things, what can you do?

JH            And what did you do there? Why did you decide to go back to Africa?

JPV          I went after my Diploma to work for the Ministry of Construction for one year as an architect. In fact, when I arrived they said they did not need an architect, they just needed somebody to work on urban planning. So for three years I worked on the development of a little village in the desert. What happens when they find water, when wells are dug, what happens to the society and structure of the village? I worked on these questions. I also worked on the master plan for Niger’s capital, Niamey.

JH          Going back to the Palais de Tokyo – have you been there recently?

JPV        Yeah, two weeks ago.

JH          Does it keep changing?

JPV        Yes, I see new things, new partitions… So, about museums: I think it is probably too serious or perhaps it is too complex, the way you enter and buy your ticket and then you go into a specific room and see some paintings. Sometimes I like the fact when you are in the city, you walk around the city and for example, you go inside a church – you don’t know why, but you see this door, which is nearly open and you go in, and it is completely dark and it is fresh. You walk inside, you sit for a while and then you leave, back into the city.

I would like the possibility to be in a museum like that, where there is no limit between public space and space inside the museum. I like the idea of a museum as a promenade, a walk – something very delicate.

JH         And why do you talk specifically of a church – because you enter into one large volume of space?

JPV       Yes, perhaps. I give the example of a church because it’s a monument you can go inside but in a library you also have this feeling of a very public space. It’s a sort of inclusion of the outside, with seats, chairs, tables and books.

For me, the question of architecture is how to live. When we designed the Palais de Tokyo we had several ideas, such as the Place Djemma-el-Fnaa, but also this idea of living – how we can inhabit spaces. We are not only inhabitants of our homes, but of the city, on a bank by the side of a river and also in churches, museums, and libraries. I like the idea of architecture being determined by this idea of living, so it’s not something tangible shown in a sketch or a model, it is something you are always a part of. It is your own space and you are able to travel freely through those public spaces; there is a continuity that is important.

I have a lot of difficulty with the question of scale in my work. As an architect you are always making models or little drawings. At the moment when you make a drawing it is not real dimensions, but immediately when you produce a model, it is two hundred times smaller than the real space, you cannot go inside! Always I have to feel the space and it’s real dimensions, to move inside it. It’s a real problem in architecture. I teach at the School of Architecture in Versailles and students, they are very instinctive and inventive. When you ask them to design, for example, architectural clothing around themselves, elements of wood, elements of tissue, but at the moment you ask them to think a bit larger for a little house and begin to make models, forms, shapes, this same spirit is lost. So architecture: you can do it, design it, and use it as something you have on your shoulders.


Thanks very much to Jean-Philippe for taking the time to explain these ideas to me.

Tropical Architecture and the West Indies

The work undertaken in the West Indies during WW2 was to have a significant impact on the later works that followed in West Africa. Robert Gardner-Medwin was posted to the West Indies during WW2 whilst serving in the Corps of Royal Engineers. His mission, working with funding from the Colonial Development and Welfare legislation, was to undertake ‘research’ into building techniques, materials, indigenous housing and new educational buildings. The funding was triggered by riots and general unrest during the 1930s. The British West Indies was the name given to a disparate collection of islands, as well as two mainland territories, Honduras in Central America, and Guyana in South America. Gardner-Medwin plotted this on a map which he overlayed with European capital cities to emphasize the scale of the region he was responsible for.


A small team who accompanied him, including two of his former students from the Architectural Association, London, Leo De Syllas and Gordon Cullen.

Leo De Syllas is of particular interest as he was commissioned to design several schools in the West Indies, including Bishops High School, Georgetown. Here we see the use of local materials, simple but expressive detailing, the use of verandahs, covered walkways and courtyards – all deployed in an attempt to control the interior temperatures of the spaces and all indebted to the colonial architecture that preceded it. De Syllas would go one to work in Africa with the Architects Co-Partnership.

Bishops High School, Georgetown

They also proposed schemes that moved the existing dwellings from one place to another in an attempt to reduce density, which they believed correlated with better health.

When a fire broke out in Georgetown destroying the town centre, Gardner-Medwin was on hand to replan it, and noted how the local hardwoods were more fire-resistant than steel framed buildings. After the war he returned to the UK, working in Scotland and designing health centres before taking over from Lionel Budden as head of the Liverpool School of Architecture. His work in the tropics was not over however, and he joined a UN sponsored team investigating low cost housing in India in 1951. On this tour he met with and was shown Otto Koenigsberger’s work in Delhi as well as many other schemes throughout the country. India was a hotbed of planning activity at this time, with Chandigarh being constructed and the low cost housing exhibition being staged in New Delhi (organized by Jacqueline Tyrwhitt).

Jackson has recently published a paper that discusses this topic in greater detail; it can be downloaded here.

The Central Garden at Model Town

The most ambitious idea in the plan of Model Town was the Central Garden, which as proposed was nothing short of the reminiscence of a hill station resort. The focus of this garden was a central hill 50 feet high on top of which a reservoir for the supply of drinking water to the town was to be located assuming that by doing so the reservoir would remain comparatively cool. The hill was to be covered with evergreen plants and flowers. Winding paths would lead to the top of the hill where a promenade was proposed round the reservoir, with four pavilions providing for shade and shelter and thus be a delightful place in hot summer evenings where it would be possible to get breath of cool fresh air. A few springs from the hill would water the plants and as well as provide water for a ‘couple of’ gold fish pools.

The proposition did not end here, as a cave restaurant was also proposed inside the hill by providing ‘a few rooms’ which were to be well-lit and well-ventilated and constructed of reinforced concrete construction. Round the hill, a 100 feet wide and 4 to 5 feet deep lake was proposed for fishing and boating but ‘not enough for a man to drown in’. Surrounding the lake were proposed lawn flanked by a flower garden. The lawns and gardens were to be watered from the Bambawali-Ravi-Bedian Canal through a lake by means of syphon tubes which were to help in keeping the water in the fishing and boating lake in motion.

from Civil and Military Gazette Lahore

Fry and Drew, 2013 Conference Announcement 

13.3.21Max and Jane

We are currently planning an international conference to highlight Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew’s significant contributions to architecture. The conference will be held at Fry’s almer mater, the Liverpool School of Architecture, in the autumn of this year.

The conference seeks to provide students, academics and practitioners with an opportunity to discuss all aspects of Fry and Drew’s work. It will cover their long careers from the 1920s through to the 1980s, and take in their work from North America to South-east Asia.

A call for papers will be published here shortly.

Pilkington Brothers’ Headquarters, St. Helens (1955-65)

Despite a series of important commissions on home soil, Fry and Drew’s post-war work in Britain is often sidelined due to a historical narrative focused on the second generation of MARS (Modern Architectural Research) Group modernists. A forthcoming article examining Maxwell Fry’s scheme for the glass manufacturers Pilkington Brothers’ new headquarters in St. Helens, seeks to shed light on Fry and Drew’s post-war projects.

The Pilkington commission was Fry and Drew’s first ‘prestige’ building for corporate clients in Britain (although they had built several overseas for BP, Shell and the Co-operative Bank). In the wake of the Pilkington project, offices for Gulf Oil Company, Dow Agro Chemicals and Rolls Royce quickly followed, thus enabling Fry, Drew & Partners to establish itself as an expert in modern, corporate architecture.

13.2.27 PB HQ

The project’s sizeable budget and enlightened clients – who saw themselves as patrons to the British art and design scene – allowed Fry to assemble a sixteen-strong collective of artists to design twenty-four artworks. Including work by Victor Pasmore, Edward Bawden, John Hutton, Robert Goodden, Humphrey Spender, and Avinash Chandra, the headquarters house an outstanding collection of post-war applied art – a secular counterpart to Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral.

The new headquarters opened for business on 31st  August 1965, providing 1,500 employees with the latest in modern working conditions. Extensive social and welfare facilities for staff included a canteen, a medical centre (including a dentist, an optician and a chiropodist), a hairdresser, a library, and a museum, telling the history of glassmaking. The landscaped grounds with the ‘works water’ reservoir – complete with a pair of swans – was intended for use by both the Pilkington staff and St. Helens community.

13.2.27 PB canteen

The complex was sold off around ten years ago, although some 200 Pilkington staff remain with independent companies leasing the remaining office space. The canteen building (above and shown in this previous post), is currently unoccupied and in a bad state, but is apparently now being stripped of its asbestos linings for future re-use.

Did you work for Pilkington Brothers at the new offices on Prescot Road? Do you remember when the building opened? Did you help build the new headquarters? We’d love to hear from anyone with connections to the company and learn more about its significance for the people of St. Helens.

The article ‘A Monument to Humanism: Pilkington Brothers’ Headquarters (1955-65) by Fry, Drew & Partners’, by Jessica Holland and Iain Jackson, will be published in this year’s Architectural History journal.

Mad dogs and Englishmen

Following up Yemi’s post on the RWAFF, I noticed the uniforms of the African soldiers and reflected on how this apparently insignificant peculiarity has been a sign of the different methods with which Europeans confronted with Africa. The uniforms of colonial military force in Africa are a clear sign of the development of climate-adaptive sensibility, they played a major role in the history of Tropical Medicine that I see as the cultural base of Tropical Architecture. Noël Coward in 1931, while travelling from Hanoi to Saigon, wrote the famous lyrics “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun“. It’s amazing to see how the idea that tropical climate was unhealthy and dangerous was so deeply rooted in the European culture to even generate popular folk songs.

The solar topee (shown below) that “the simple creatures hope he will impale on a tree” was the most famous symbol of how scientific knowledge could help the Western man cope with the dangerous tropical climate. Yet we must avoid tracing the history of Tropical Medicine as the simple linear progression of reason over superstition. Even if significant progress were made, they did not sweep away the suspicion that climate itself was a biological harm for Europeans. In 1930s Nigeria one cadet refused to wear the hat until he got a letter from the government saying that if he become ill from not wearing the hat he would have to go back home and end is career. It is easy to imagine how the whole life of colonialists in early decades of XXth century were influenced by the concerns on tropical climate. The idea that black and whites needed different treatments opened up to the idea that they were biologically different which easily ended up in racial theories.

Towards a genealogy of tropical architecture: Historical fragmen

However the systemic approach to climate that many studies of Tropical Medicine show, one for all the monumental work by Aldo Castellani and Albert Chalmers, posed the basis for the development of studies on climate that were strongly influential on Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew’s work. It is perhaps possible to trace a history of the relation with climate that links together solar topees, military barracks and bungalows all the way to the tropical modernism. A history that will be able to recognize the debt that Fry and Drew had with previous experiences in Africa even in disciplines not immediately linked to architecture.

Nigerian Public Works Department Troop Quarters, designed for the Royal West African Frontier Force

While recently going through archival materials on Nigeria’s colonial Public Works Department, I came across a troop quarters design for the RWAFF. The abbreviation sounded familiar, but I could not readily remember what it stood for and had to do a google search for further insight.  Results returned from the search brought it all flooding back to my memory; RWAFF is the abbreviation for Royal West African Frontier Force. To gain an initial casual understanding about the force, I took a quick look at Wikipedia and was able to obtain this excerpt – “The West African Frontier Force (WAFF) was a multi-battalion field force, formed by the British Colonial Office in 1900 to garrison the West African colonies of Nigeria, Gold Coast, Sierra Leone and Gambia. In 1928 it received royal patronage, becoming the Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF).”

13.3.6 GeorgeV

Soldiers on Parade for Visit by King George V and Queen Mary.

In a 1952 paper entitled “The story of the Royal West African Frontier Force”, published by the Royal United Service Institution journal, Brigadier F.A.S Clarke (DSO) however attempts to give a more scholarly account of the origins, services and numerical composition of the Force. In telling the RWAFF story, he sums up his account of its activities with this assertion: “though the force habitually wore a scarlet suave jacket, fez, and cummerbund on ceremonial parades, it has never been merely a ‘picturesque constabulary’ as some would now have us believe”. He gives instances of laborious and painstaking operations,expeditions and invasions conducted by RWAFF units in their bid to capture enemy territory. More importantly, he provides the organizational structure of the force, as well as its numerical composition. According to him, the force consisted of a Headquarters Company, a Raffle Company, platoons and battalions.  He equally notes that the total strength of a 1938 WAFF battalion, apart from British personnel, was 591 African troops and 219 carriers (those who bore the WAFF’s heavy loads of ammunition and supplies), with Nigeria providing the major quota.

13.3.6 Troops

RWAFF troops boarding a military plane.

The availability of such data might suggest a basis on which P.W.D architects developed accommodation schedules for RWAFF troop quarters designs. One of these designs was what I had sourced from my archival search, and is presented below:

13.3.6 Quarters

Drawing of RWAFF Quarters by the Nigeria PWD.

The troop quarters consisted of a ten-room block with an external measurement of 108’3”. It was fronted by an open veranda, and surrounded by an open drain which conveyed waste water to a surface disposal system. Each room had an internal measurement of 18’6” by 10’0”, and was accessed through a doorway from the open veranda. Although each room had a rear window, the space between the top of the door and the wall plate was also fitted with an expanded metal ventilator. This enabled cross ventilation and adequate air flow within each room. The roofing favoured a deep gable design to facilitate rain water run-off during the frequent tropical rain storms.