I grew up in London and studied foundation art at Falmouth University and undergraduate architecture at Edinburgh University before I began my masters in architecture at the RCA. My work in between has included architecture, construction, agriculture and couriering across the UK, the US and the Czech Republic. My studio practice has been inspired by Mike Davis’s argument that the climate emergency gives cause to “return to explicitly utopian thinking [to] clarify the minimal conditions for the preservation of human solidarity in [the] face of convergent planetary crises.” My first year project in ADS1 tested spaces for collective care in an adaptive reuse of an office block in Stratford. My second year project in ADS10 explores the potential architectural and infrastructural supports for sustainable ways of moving.
The aim of this project is to imagine the kinds of institutions, infrastructures, organisations & forms that might support and enable a transition away from a private, individualised model of car ownership toward a public, socialised model. The idea came from the observation that, amidst discussions around the future of transport and mobility in the low carbon city, there are already signs of a decline in car ownership, especially in big cities like London, but that these changing practices are being organised and mediated by large corporations like Uber. These businesses are platforms; they have used innovations in communications technology to monetise the sharing of information. There is a case to de-commodify and democratise the services organised by Uber; and there is an architectural potential in bringing these services all under one roof.
My proposal is a new kind of station: a ‘neighbourhood service station’. The idea is that this building will be the locus of, and house the operations of, a municipally run platform for taxi, delivery and vehicle rental services, as well as offering other neighbourhood services, becoming a social and civic centre with the potential to transform the quality of suburban life. The hope is that this building can support mobility and improve connectivity while reducing the number of vehicles on the road and the trips they need to make. This strategy is oriented toward a future transition to electric vehicles, given that the scarcity of lithium means we must break with the 20th century planning creed of one car per household. The design can also help in the present simply by reducing traffic right now.
Changing Practices: Sustainable Ways of Moving
The proposal is responding to a number of recent innovations in transport. On the one hand, there are technological developments. Most visible is Uber and the innovation of the platform; a new enterprise form that uses innovations in communications technology to monetise the sharing of information (or the new opportunities arisen from sharing information). These new technologies and organisations contain the possibility for a more democratic coordination of life, society, the city – including finding more sustainable, more efficient, less emissive ways of moving around town.
In fact, and instead, the general trend of platform capitalism and our contemporary economy are marked by monopoly and rent-seeking for capital; an increasing precarity for labour; and a certain kind of specialisation and class stratification of the labour force itself, essentially between workers and managers. For example with Uber, you have a clear division between the (formerly ‘self-employed’) drivers (the data points), and the managers and programmers who operate the software (the data managers).
That same communications technology has also enabled the growth of car clubs, which provide members short-term rented access to locally parked cars. And on the horizon are not only electric vehicles, but also the possibility of self-driving vehicles.
On the other hand, in the field of urban planning new concepts that aim to reduce the carbon emissions of the transport system have gained popularity. First of all is the idea of the ‘mobility hub’, which is basically a zone that brings together different kinds of shared transport with public transport in a way to improve the public realm. In the UK at present it is led by the charity sector, the main organisation advocating it is Collaborative Mobility UK. Then there is the 15-minute city: the idea that one’s daily necessities and services can be reached within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. And finally, I have taken up an idea mentioned by the social theorist Andre Gorz in an essay critiquing the ‘social ideology of the motorcar’: the neighbourhood garage.
This is the framework within which I have tried to develop a programme for a neighbourhood service station.
This programme emerged out of a critique of the way urban planning has been impacted by the car, a distinctly anti-urban technology which alienates, decentralises and privatises space, phenomenologically as well as legally and economically. The acceleration of the speed of travel did not give us the futurist manifesto but it gave us the suburbs and the commuter town.
The social theorist Andre Gorz argues in an essay called the ‘Social Ideology of the Motorcar’ that cars should not be understood and were never even conceived as a mode of mass transport but as a luxury commodity for aristocrats. And unlike all other modes of transport, the use value of the car decreases the greater its number on the road, clogging traffic and reducing movement to a standstill. Yet despite this fact, the ‘social ideology of the motorcar’ has dominated urban planning to such a degree that cars are no longer a luxury but a necessity. And the priority given to speed, mobility and travel through space has diminished the character of the suburbs as places that people want to dwell in. So the project has an intention to use these innovations in transport to create a site of density - where people come, where things happen - in a space that is traditionally low density. So the project also has an interest in retrofitting suburbia.
The site for my project is Dagenham, on the eastern edge of London. According to TFL it is one of the most poorly connected areas of London. Dagenham voted heavily in favour of leaving the European Union. I think there is a connection between lack of connectivity, accessibility and reaction. In particular, I think it is no coincidence that the strip of land between London and the English Channel is hostile to globalisation because what globalisation brings to these places is motorways, long-distance lorries and warehouses.
Dagenham has historically been defined by the Ford Dagenham and the industrialisation of the Thames Estuary, and the massive 10sqkm London County Council housing estate called Becontree. Becontree was built in the 1920s and 30s to rehouse East-Enders displaced by slum clearances. It is low-rise, low density (10,000 people per sqkm), designed along Garden City principles. Becontree is an idiosyncratic example of English suburbia, far away from the city and the country at the same time.
The site plot sits on the northern edge of Becontree tube station. It's a busy working garage that provides car washing, MOT and repair services, car dealerships and taxi cab services. These activities are retained and extended in the building’s programme.
The building is a station to be used by drivers (taxi drivers and vehicle rental users). It is a site for vehicle maintenance and repair, and it has offices to be used by the platform programmers and the municipal administration.
Another element of the programme is that the building is also a domestic depot, which extends the idea of neighbourhood services to include other civic, domestic and repair services. So the building has a post office, and it has storage facilities where you can get parcels delivered, or where you can store your stuff when you’re moving house. And there is also a workshop and a fabrication laboratory, which is intended as a modern extension of domestic homecraft – a place you go to, instead of Ikea or B&Q, if your doorknob or your bookshelf breaks and you want to make yourself a new one.
The ground floor and first two levels are a station for drivers, above which is held suspended the interior of the service station. This space is basically a big beam that frames the internal life of the service station. Within the frame the interior design is mostly plywood and timber stud walls that design for flexibility and changing use of the space. The design works backwards from the presupposition that the building is publicly accessible (a public living room). Within a framework of general public access, specific areas can be secured, locked up at night or booked out for private use. On the first floor (the interior ground level) is an entrance hall, a post office and workshops. On the 2nd floor is a Fab Lab, a phone repair shop and a news agent. On the 3rd floor are offices for the platform programmers and the municipal administration, and a kitchenless café. The south east corner/triangle is a triple-height winter garden that acts as a meeting hall and social space with more playful modes of circulation.
The tectonic strategy is in a sense generic and replicable, while the form of the building is specific to the site. The structural strategy is to hang a single-span/open plan floor between external cores, which are pulled to the sides of the building and hold services and vertical circulation.
Diorama: New Generation Research Centre
Here I have learned something from my diorama, which studied the New Generation Research Centre in Caen in Normandy, by the French architecture practice Bruther. This building is kind of a corporate fun palace designed to regenerate a peripheral post-industrial site by bringing together multiple different actors in science and culture. The programme is a “cultural space open to private and professional audiences which offers scientific and technical culture actions around real research and innovation projects”. It has a Fabrication Laboratory (FabLab) as well as event spaces.
Bruther’s style is a kind of French High Tech (or Low Tech), which uses the high-tech strategy of creating open, flexible spaces through its structural system, but also has more of an aesthetic interest in minimalism, cheapness and raw industrial materials than British High Tech. In fact it’s interesting to note that in France this High Tech architecture is far less synonymous with global finance than it is in the UK, where it has become the symbol of the de-regulation of the city. In France it has more of an association with state sponsored projects.
The key architectural themes represented in the diorama are its open plan; its vertical organisation of programme; its elevation from its peri-urban context; and an interior somewhere between the corporate and the domestic.
The design of Becontree Services uses the high-tech strategy of suspending a single-span floor between external cores that hold services and vertical circulation. This move was principally to provide easy access and circulation for vehicles. Beyond this starting point the structural system also reflects the programmatic aim for the internal life of the building, which is to provide flexibility and a level of decentralisation of control. The building will be owned and managed by the local council (London Borough of Barking & Dagenham), while the internal rooms will be let to various smaller local associations, like the co-operative of taxi drivers, local businesses, post office and workshop management. The triangular form of the building is derived from its three distinct façade conditions: the train station to the south; the street to the east; and the residential/garage façade to the north.
The building is made of steel and concrete (justifiable for a piece of infrastructure), and the structural principles are to minimise materials through structural efficiency. The truss structure is expressed on the façade. The combination gives the building a kinetic expression suited to its programme and context.