Friday, 18 March 2011

International Space Station

Perhaps the most unique building mankind has built, I have always been interested in the International Space Station since I knew about its construction, until its recent 100% completion.

Constructed in tiny segments at a time, the space station's design had to be meticulously planned - its components were designed to fit inside rockets and be easily assembled together by the astronauts ~200 miles above the earth's surface.

The views from are extraordinary, surely more beautiful and diverse than from any other building. As NASA describes it:

"From fiery volcanoes spewing smoke and lava to icy lakes and glaciers in the coldest environments of our planet, crews have given humankind views of these natural phenomena from one of the most unusual perspectives available"

Rationing and recycling are essential parts of life on the station. For power, light from the sun is converted into electricity through the use of photovoltaic panels. Waste water is collected, processed and stored from the space shuttle’s fuel cells as well as from urine, oral hygiene and hand washing, and by condensing humidity from the air. Careful water recycling reduces the amount required from Earth to resupply the station by 60 percent. The environmental conditions on site are so important for the safety of the astronauts - the space station is perhaps the most site specific building in the world and the micro-climate reflects this.

This documentary was very informative, and gave an insight into the day in the life of one of the astronauts:

NASA really had to know their clients when they designed the ISS. The smallest detail such as a drop of water in the wrong place could have such devastating effects in the building. 

Toilets, beds etc had to be reinvented so they could function properly in a micro-gravity environment. The astronaut Piers Sellers describes the earth as looking extremely fragile from space. The earth's atmosphere, something we rely so much on, is seen as a thin blue band on the horizon. Smoke from power stations can clearly be seen rising up into this atmosphere and everything from hurricanes to volcanoes can be seen directly affecting the atmosphere. The observatory in the ISS is perhaps my favourite feature of the space station because of this unique perspective on the planet - photos from which have influenced so many scientific ideas, political and environmental decisions.


Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Unbuilt Shrewsbury

I have stumbled across a number of paintings depicting a lost-Shrewsbury - buildings that once sat (or were once proposed?) on the Welsh Bridge in my home town. It's extraordinary to see these images but annoying I haven't been able to trace the sources and find out the story behind them, so I just have to sit back and admire what Shrewsbury didn't build:

Monday, 8 November 2010

Successful but Unethical Architecture?

I'm intrigued by two building projects featuring designing spaces for animals. One is a dog grooming centre designed by Square One Interiors, and the other an elephant house in Copenhagen Zoo, designed by Foster and Partners.

What struck me about the dog grooming centre was that it's quite an unusual way of spending money. The very idea behind the building seems to be fraud in itself - a building designed specifically to groom dogs is surely a waste of resources. It's essentially a canine beauty salon.

Looking past the ethics however I think the design's quite fun. The concept image below shows the architects are enjoying the design process, a quirky building function needs a suitably quirky design.

The final design, pictured above isn't too dissimilar from the concept image. It may be a complete waste of money, but that dog is clearly enjoying it! The website talks about dog ergonomics - the surfaces have all been designed with dogs in mind and all the platform heights have been designed to accommodate the average sized dog. I can see a small step for the smaller dogs to jump up on to the pampering platforms. 

Moving to a larger scale now, I'm interested in Foster's elephant enclosure in Copenhagen Zoo. Designing a cage/display case to show off elephants will always be unethical, no matter how well it educates the zoo's visitors.

The bulging glass roof reminded me of Foster's British Museum roof or City Hall. These designs can prove uplifting for humans so I expect an elephant too would rather be under a huge glass roof than a traditional dark elephant house. 

There are some successes to the design. The elephant house was designed so the whole herd can sleep together, like they would in the wild, and underfloor heating helps keep the space at a suitable temperature for them. There are shaded areas outside and large pools to evoke social behaviour in the animals. The barriers between elephants and humans are discreet and an on site educational centre further enhances the zoo's message of conservation...

...but keeping animals in cages is still keeping animals in cages. This design seems to be a step in the right direction; certainly judging from my experiences of visiting zoos that keep elephants in cramped houses leading onto muddy, vegetation-less enclosures. The balance of creating a sanctuary for elephants and an exhibition space for humans is certainly a tricky one. If I was designing the exhibit, I would have made it clear that humans were visitors in the elephants domain, perhaps by raising walkways over the enclosure, or by giving the elephants some form of privacy. 

I used to play a computer game called 'Zoo Tycoon', a game where the user had to create suitable exhibits for specific animals, using a combination of surface terrain, plants, rocks, slopes or hills, animal houses and toys for the animals. The animals became upset if they weren't given enough privacy, if the wrong kind of tree was placed in the enclosure and if there weren't enough similar animals in the exhibit (etc). The emphasis of the game was on the habitat, the environment... not on the animal houses. Elephants don't have houses in the wild, so I feel designing fancy glass roofs for them is missing the point. If the land they walk on, the vegetation, the food they eat, the company they have and the activities they would usually do in the wild are not able to be met in the exhibit design, then they shouldn't be kept in captivity. 

Sunday, 24 October 2010

The Shard

'The Shard' is a nickname coined by Renzo Piano from English Heritage's derogatory comments about the design of his skyscraper looking like 'a shard of glass', assuming this was a bad thing.

This informative video below shows the construction sequence of the building, showing a slipform core with skeletal steelwork following alongside. The benefits of slipform are the speed of construction and the structural strength of one solid piece of concrete as opposed to many different core sections stacked on top of each other.

Another good feature about the video is the time line at the bottom, that seems to be accurate judging from construction updates on this this website .

Construction update 24/10/10

What I like about the design is that it isn't a perfect pyramid - the curtain walls aren't flat from top to bottom, they taper slightly, creating interest all the way up the tower. They also cantilever, as the photo below shows:

The image also shows the quality of the glazing on the tower. It's so easy to dislike skyscrapers because they dominate their surroundings, and contribute little to the public realm around them. The Shard seems to embrace the public by inviting them up to a viewing gallery, in perhaps an alternative to The London Eye to give people a different aerial view over the city. The cladding looks crisp even early in the construction stage, and the detailing at the top where the curtain walls all join at different levels looks really interesting:

I look forward to exploring this building when it's finished in 2012, and seeing London from a fresh angle. I enjoy looking at construction updates, as new buildings are so often viewed as only computer renderings or the final, finished product. I will check up on the website (linked above) every few weeks to see how the project is developing.

I think this concept sketch (parti) is beautiful, and surprisingly informative. It shows the different curtain walls, the cores, notes where the public observation galleries are, and shows the public realm beneath the skyscraper. All of this is evident in such a small sketch, something I hope to achieve with my own in future

The building's official website:

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Architecture of Ant Society

This short blog looks at the way ant society functions, and how it is so similar to our own. This blog is loosely based on today's technology lecture, by Dan Kelly.


I've always been interested in the architecture that animals create. From termite mounds to beaver dams, animals have always been successful at changing the landscape around them to suit their needs. Ant colonies create huge underground cities, and I watched a documentary about this, part of which I have rediscovered on youtube. The documentary team pumped gallons of concrete into a disused ant colony, and once the concrete had dried, the surrounding soil was dug out to reveal the disused city - its many chambers, routes and networks:

(please watch!)

'There are sub-terranian highways connecting the main chambers, and off the main routes are side roads. The paths branch and lead to many fungus gardens and rubbish pits. The tunnels are designed to ensure good ventilation, and provide the shortest transport routes. Everything looks like it has been designed by an architect, a single mind'

The ant colony moved forty tons of soil to create this city, digging eight metres into the earth and building fifty metres of pathways... But aside from all the documentary's facts about the vast heights, lengths and weights of the city, I was much more interested in the fungus gardens and rubbish pits, and the ventilation systems the ants used to provide clean air eight metres underground. The more I read up on ant society, the more parallels I found between their society and our own.

Ants build houses and communal spaces, they build bridges, even boats. Their waste goes to waste disposal areas, and they farm (fungi) to provide food. They form symbiotic relationships with other insects and fungi, cooperating with other species to help the success of the colony. The baby ants are cared for by nursing ants; and if an ant is infected with an illness, it will be carried away far away to protect the overall health of the colony.

Ants also social-network. If one ant detects danger, it will release pheromones to the next ant, who will pass the message on (and on) until the whole colony is aware of any potential threat and can respond to it.

Ant society is not just limited to one city state either. Collaborations sometimes exist with nearby colonies, and this BBC news report lists a few 'mega-colonies' that exist around the world, whereby ant colonies can stretch for hundreds, even thousands of miles, and are made up of countless cities.

'It now appears that billions of Argentine ants around the world all actually belong to one single global mega-colony'

It's a strange feeling that beneath our feet lies a society nearly as developed as our own, in my opinion similar to early homosapien societies (such as the early Mayan/Incan), based on a class system, where everyone knew their rank in society and every action was ultimately intended to benefit the development of the whole community. Basic society requirements such as a place to live, a place to work, a ruler to rule, slaves to enslave, water and food needs, waste disposal, a place to be born, a place for the dead ... are common in both ant society and human society.

I really look forward to new discoveries about this mega-colony, and how the different city states function with one another.  Do ants only stay in their own cities? Do they receive promotions taking them to bigger cities? Do they even holiday in different cities within the colony? ...I really hope so.