By Alastair Donald

22 April 2013 - 17:39

What ideas would architects concoct with no restrictions? Our Paper Salon turned up a few imaginative solutions. (Image credit: Ross Anderson)
What ideas would architects concoct with no restrictions? Our Paper Salon turned up a few imaginative solutions. ©

Image: Ross Anderson

What’s the point of designing buildings that may never be built? The British Council’s Alastair Donald explains the value of ‘paper architecture’ after our recent Paper Salon in London, part of the Venice Takeaway exhibition.

Twenty-four young architects and artists gathered at the Calvert 22 Foundation in Shoreditch, East London, recently to consider visionary architecture during our ‘Paper Salon’.

Paper Salon combined the best traditions of the salon – those Enlightenment gatherings that aimed to increase knowledge and facilitate an exchange of ideas – with the esquisse – the working out of ideas through sketching.

The experimental, day-long forum was the latest in a series of events aimed at reviewing the research and testing the proposals developed as part of the exhibition Venice Takeaway: Ideas to Change British Architecture.

Participants had the opportunity to create their own piece of paper architecture in response to a real London site, which they then presented and explained to a panel of expert critics.

According to salon speaker Yuri Avvakumov – one of the leading figures in the ‘paper architects’ collective in Moscow in the 1980s – paper architecture is a genre of visionary architecture that emerged in response to the culture of restraint that engulfed architects within the Soviet Union at the time. It provided, he pointed out, a creative outlet for architects to explore ideas.

It would be wrong to draw a direct comparison between 1980s Moscow and 21st-century Britain. Yet as the open call for proposals that launched Venice Takeaway highlighted, in the UK today, architecture is beset by its own set of constraints: a culture of risk aversion; over-regulation; anti-development set against a background of low horizons.

One result, the Venice Takeaway brief outlined, is a lack of ‘experimentation and new ideas’.

Against this backdrop, part of the appeal for Venice Takeaway’s young Scottish-based architects Ross Anderson and Anna Gibb of going to Russia to research the paper architects was that group’s pursuit of the freedom to engage in an exploration of architectural ideas; according to Avvakumov, paper architecture is the product of ‘non-conformist reflection’.

Inspired by the history they uncovered while in Moscow, on their return to the UK, Anderson and Gibb set up online space ‘paperplusarchitects’, which will provide a forum for young architects here to explore concepts and designs ‘unrestricted by the limits of convention’. Their hope is that ‘creativity and critical engagement can be revitalised’.

Paper Salon was conceived as a step towards achieving this aim and over the course of a day proved a ‘3-D’ experience, packing in discussion, debate and drawing. We kicked off with a series of introductory discussion sessions, each led by a panel of experts who spanned a variety of backgrounds and perspectives.

The sessions were an attempt by panelists and participants alike to grapple with ideas: for example, asking ‘what does visionary architecture mean today?’, assessing its continued relevance and the role it could and should play in creating the future. As one participant reflected afterwards,

"it was nice to be actively encouraged to challenge ideas, and through doing so, to work out where we stood on issues."

One issue of lively debate was the role of drawing in the creative process. Today, with computers and CGI imagery dominant, some architects argue for a return to hand drawing. Using drawings for his Xiasha Project in Shenzhen, salon speaker Professor Alan Dunlop of Robert Gordon University sketched out the case: we all use the computer at some levels, he argued, but it is a tool rather than a creative design instrument.

Fellow panellist Austin Williams from the architecture school at XJTLU in Suzhou, China countered that, while it’s useful for architects to be able to draw, drawing is actually no less a tool than the computer; the danger, he argued, is that in seeking to resolve a lack of creativity in architecture through a return to hand drawing, the solution being sought is merely a technical one. As such it fails to address the real problem – constrained ambitions and a lack of intellectual engagement.

And so to the afternoon design challenge where participants were allocated the soon-to-be-demolished Heygate Estate in South London and asked to produce a piece of paper architecture based on a visionary proposal that tackled an issue of their choice.

While free to define the programmatic elements and the aesthetics, each team was challenged to carefully define a particular problem associated with the current urban condition and then use the design exercise as a testing ground to experiment with new ideas.

Not surprisingly at a time of major housing shortage, many of the designs  grappled with current political and planning inertia. From floating housing that only temporarily touched down to earth to subverting a ‘regional’ design ethos via an elephantine apartment block, there was certainly no shortage of ideas.

A proposal by Rowan Morrice and Simhika Rao tested how the removal of planning regulations on height restrictions might deliver housing in line with actual demand. Setting a small number of parameters – public provision of transport infrastructure, large plots sold to competing developers, and the right to build in the airspace above other plots – Morrice and Rao tested an air-based ‘land grab’ whereby developers who didn’t build quickly enough ran the risk of losing all value of their plot.

As they acknowledged when presenting their work, it’s hard to predict the resulting architecture – building would take place at a rapid pace, certainly, but some developers would likely build straight up, while others might cantilever new construction out over neighbouring lots.

The rapid nature of the exercise mitigated the possibility of resolving all the tensions within the designs. But just as for the paper architects in the 1980s, the salon provided a forum for confronting accepted wisdom and broadening the mind, while the design exercise was a vehicle for expanding the architectural imagination.

For one participant, who had made the trip down from Glasgow, it was ‘a hugely enjoyable day that has gone a long way in reinstating some passion in my profession of architecture.’ Or, as another participant later blogged [link expired]: ‘We all came away quite exhausted from the day but incredibly inspired.’

Find out more about the Paper Salon programme (pdf) [link expired].

Book tickets for a talk at the Royal Institute of British Architects on 23 April 2013 about what the UK can learn from Berlin about urban renewal and attend the free exhibition, open until 27 April 2013 [links expired].

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