Tuesday, 20 April 2010

New Starts

For a few weeks, this season will be all about the astringent greens of new leaves mixing with and eventually covering over the ruins of the previous year. Every year the sheer improbability of the palette is a fresh surprise.

The neat pile of rubble here is where one of the oldest buildings of the original University College has been demolished and fed through a grinder. It has been very entertaining observing the effortless deconstruction of the building by just one man controlling a powerful digger, aided by an assistant with a hose trying to control the clouds of dust. The mix of raw power and grace in the driver's use of the hydraulic arm and crushing jaw has been astonishing to watch, rather like an animatronic dinosaur scavenging for tasty scraps among the bricks and plaster.

The orgy of demolition and building that has taken place in the University over the last few years will reach its climax when the improbable and terrifying Faraday Building -- a gigantic office block on a stick designed by Sir Basil Spence, now standing empty -- will (somehow) be demolished. One digger and a man with a hose is not going to do it. Air traffic may be disrupted for weeks by the dust...

The Faraday featured on a 1971 stamp


Poetry24 said...

I remember rescuing three large filing cabinets from Faraday. There was a room full of them, looking for new owners. Those that weren't relocated would be dumped. When I asked the reason for getting rid of them, the inevitable answer came, "we're getting new ones."

Financial crisis? What financial crisis?

Kent Wiley said...

This thing is coming down after only 40 years? Obviously a POS to begin with, no?

Kent Wiley said...

I know you're not much for documentarian photography Mike, but some pics of the Faraday demo would be grand. Any plans to implode it?

Mike C. said...


Please, an architect-designed POS...

In common with a lot of 60s architecture, it's suffering from all sorts of problems with the integrity of the concrete and the cheap'n'easy design. Irony of ironies, it was the home of the Civil Engineering department.

Obviously, I'm going to try to be around when it comes down, but it's surrounded by newer buildings and genuinely scary -- the base is half or less the width of the block it supports, and looks like something unstable your kids might make out of Lego -- when it comes down they'll probably evacuate the campus!


Struan said...

They'll just nibble away at it with big-jawed diggers. The hydraulic arm has removed so many charming hazards from our public life. When were you last deafened by a pneumatic drill?

That huge brutalist thing in Portsmouth was tamed the same way. Rebar as twigs would work well as a theme.

For me, the best thing about spring is the variety of greens. High summer is a time of uniform monogreen foliage, but in spring every single bush, tree and patch of grass takes on its own hue. I also love the way many stems flush with colour just before bursting into leaf - brambles and their relatives are almost rainbow like in their variety, and trees like alder and silver birch go magenta. A dripping wet, condensing day makes for the best photography.

Mike C. said...


You may be right, but I'm going to post a picture which illustrates the, um, challenge.

Agreed, those weird greens of spring are a good thing. As a hardcore contrarian I dislike spring and summer in general, but concede they do have their better points.

Photographing in overcast weather and on wet days is one of those secrets that, thankfully, most people find counterintuitive and therefore disregard... You'd think one look at the results of photographing in mid-day sun in the height of summer would teach its own lesson...


Gavin McL said...

I have to ride to the defense of these 1970's buildings. I don't love them, having lived in two cities where major chunks of elegant Georgian development have been replaced by rather brutal 70's lumps, Edinburgh (St Andrew's & George Square) and Newcastle (Eldon Square).
But they do give an insight into the minds of people then, I'm not sure what we see but remember that buildings are the creation of a large group of people, what was going on in all their minds I'm not sure I know but I'm not sure it involved people.
They may fared better if they were built at a time of more money as they so often left down by poor materials and finish.
From your photographs it looks like "building" is actually the core, the floors will be "trays" hanging around it and the "walls" a lightweight curtain to keep the weather out or not.
I imagine the building itself provided a great teaching resource for the Civils.

Kent Wiley said...

Have the Preservationists tried to rally round this building? Gavin points out that buildings are indeed an incredibly important document of the times. But apparently this one needs to come down.

The grand dame of cantilevered structures in the U.S., Falling Water, designed by that god of architecture F.L. Wright, was severely under designed, to the point that it wouldn't have stood up as he designed it. As built, the cantilevers had sagged some seven inches by 2000, and the place was pretty much rebuilt in the early part of this century. But it was saved. I guess the Faraday doesn't need to live as an actual building. No doubt there are plenty of pictures of it.

Mike C. said...

Gavin & Kent,

Having grown up in a "new town" (postwar green-field public housing for blitzed Brits) I have mixed feelings about concrete architecture. It was all I knew as a child, so I have a certain fondness for blocks of flats, integrated pedestrianized shopping centres, the wood-grain effect of cast concrete, etc..

However, as I started to travel, the patina, character and "fit and finish" of older architecture was alluring: even factories were once built like temples. Now, of course, temples are built like factories...

It was quite a shock, when I returned to my home town in recent times, to see the physical deterioration of the housing stock and public spaces. My own primary school, built in the 1950s, had been demolished as unsuitable, and the site redeveloped. But here in Southampton schools built in the 1920s and earlier are still standing, still in use.

As you say, it's not so much a design problem as a cost and materials problem, though the two can't really be separated.


Struan said...

Owen Hatherley's blog at nastybrutalandshort.blogspot.com is appreciative of these sorts of buildings without being uncritical. He has a book about them too.

I too find it hard to see them as special, because they seem always to have been there. Concrete lasts forever (see the Romans for details) but doesn't wear gracefully, especially in a modern urban atmosphere. Compare the equally inhuman-scale 20s and 30s buildings in brick or Portland stone and the overall impression of the 70s lot is of penny-pinching dinge. Still, even that is better than the current cost-controlled fad of cladding panels in jaunty shades.

I suspect the overhangs on the Faraday building are not so very dramatic compared to the cantilevers of a normal curtain wall structure. It's just that they didn't extend the weatherproofing curtain down to ground level.