Friday, 4 December 2015

Public Art - exploring process and product

This blog post was written by the Architecture Centre’s Creative Intern, Isobel Plent 


On the 19th November the Shape My City group met for their sixth and final workshop. The focus for this month's session was public art, and the group welcomed Scott Farlow, public artist, landscape architect, and lecturer at the University of Gloucester. Scott's art practice is concerned with exploring the relationship between people and place, incorporating themes ranging from identity, sense of place, community, connection & disconnection – the extraordinariness of ordinariness.

For the starter exercise the group were presented with a diverse range of images of public art and were asked to discuss and categorise them into the more 'conventional' and the more 'intriguing and bizarre'. Particular images were highlighted by all groups, namely one which featured a long table set for a corporate looking dinner, described by Melvin as looking like "a rather bland banquet".

A geyser placed on a communal green space in the inner city area of Birmingham, received particular interest. Scott explained how this project in particular served to show how public art has a place beyond the aesthetic, and can appear in many forms and mediums, and can even exist in a moment, or a series of moments. This piece of art had been installed after tensions in the local area had escalated, and this feature, designed to shoot water into the air at random intervals had become a source of fun and interest, bringing the local community together. This led to discussion of Anthony Gormley’s ‘Angel of the North’, initially condemned by the residents of Gateshead, it is now considered it’s most prized and prominent feature.

The intro exercise served to challenge pre-conceived ideas about what public art is, offering examples of performance, conversations, projections, street furniture and writing to name a few. It showed that there is no specific formula and that public art projects can be emotive and powerful.

Next on the agenda was a talk from Scott Farlow about his own practice as a public artist. He emphasised the importance of the process itself, the conversations and interactions had along the way, as being just as important as the physical end piece of work. It was clear that it was this element that Scott enjoyed the most. He spoke about a previous commission undertaken in the town of Smethwick in the West Midlands, in which his objective had been to get people to think about where they live and respond creatively. Scott compiled the photo responses onto a self constructed frame, which he then wheeled through the streets of Smethwick as a mobile art gallery. In this way Scott emphasised the potential for public art to evoke a shared experience, leaving the white wall gallery behind and making it accessible and memorable to all involved in the process. 

Scott wove examples of his favourite work into his presentation, many of which were interesting because they left no trace.  A particular example being a piece of work by the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs, entitled, Paradox of Praxis, 1997. Scott explained that Alÿs pushed a block of ice around the centre of Mexico City, until it melted. The subtitle of the piece, ‘Sometimes doing something leads to Nothing’, is particularly poignant. The piece of work related to the frustrated efforts of the residents of Mexico City to improve their living standards and it illustrated the potential of a public art process to outweigh the product in terms of importance, and seemed to be particularly relevant to Scott’s work.

Inspired by new ideas about the diversity of public art, the challenge for the Shape my City participants was to design a memorable and inspiring public art ‘process’ (public engagement) and ‘product’ (semi/lasting element) for the derelict ‘gap’ site on the Bristol Harbourside, in between Arnolfini and the Architecture Centre.The group were encouraged to consider how their project would reflect the legacy of Bristol as European Green Capital and how it would involve a diverse range of people creatively. Would they use the site's proximity to water to influence their creation? Or perhaps the character and heritage of the site, as well as it’s prominent connection with arts and culture? In pairs the group discussed and sketched their ideas, and came up with a range of responses to the design brief.

One group wanted to install a large 3m squared cube, made up of different materials for each face. One face would be a mirror, another an interactive game, while another would be completely clear and act as a large window to the interior of the cube - a space for artefacts to be displayed or perfromances or provocations to happen - whilst being observed from the outside world.

Another group had a very different idea for the space. Based on the belief that sport provides a platform for people to meet each other, have fun and improve wellbeing, the group wanted to install a outdoors sports area in the space, where a variety of games could be played. However, the entire space would be covered in mirrors and hanging from the ceiling would be a giant disco ball. With shimmering light reflected off the mirrored walls from every direction and music playing, the sports activity area would be transformed at night time into a space for people to dance, socialise and perform (and even have a roller disco!).

There was a genuine enthusiasm among the group and the result was a great mix of ideas. Each showed an understanding of the great potential public art has to create both an interesting aesthetic, as well as bring people together to encourage conversation, questioning and most of all, fun.

The session ended with Scott responding to our regular Shape My City questions “If you could give your 16 year old self one piece of advice what would it be?” His reply was to never stop learning, always be curious, and to never be afraid of failure.He added it was also important to “See the potential and beauty in everything, no matter how unpromising this might be. Be inspired by the smallest, most ordinary and everyday things around you. Believe in yourself. Always always.”

Useful links:

Willis Newson - Public Art and Health

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Sustainable architecture: snug homes

This blog post was written by the Architecture Centre’s Creative Intern, Lottie Morris

On the 22nd October the Shape My City group met for their fifth session. This month’s focus was on sustainable architecture and the group welcomed Shankari Raj-Edgar, architect, founder of Nudge Group, tutor at UWE and Cardiff University, consultant and researcher.

To warm up, the group did a short activity - the task was to think about insulation and buildings and sort different cards into the ‘best’ – lots of insulation and ‘worst’ – very little insulation. The group thought straw bales, earth ships and cob houses belonged on the good side, whilst portacabins, made of chipboard, 1980s houses and Victorian houses went on the bad side, hence why some people retrofit their homes to become more sustainable. Concrete was in the middle as, whilst it does have good thermal massing, the process of making it is not that environmentally friendly.

It was then time to hear all about Shank’s advice and practice. She started by talking about Nudge Group’s objectives: how they always strive to make the delivery of a project very holistic. Nudge Group do in depth research to really understand a brief and see how the project can have an impact on the community, make a positive contribution to people’s lives and be environmentally friendly. Nudge reduces construction waste on site, and by using locally sourced materials, local labour and fittings, they put money back into the local economy. They are passionate about health and wellbeing, Shanks believes that if things are designed well people will be happy.

She went on to speak about how we can all help in the mission to live more sustainably, recycling, healthy eating, adjusting travel habits can all help. She says it is important to think about the future and how we can make a behavioural change in the city.

Talking about how she got to where she is now, Shanks shared how she studied architecture & the built environment at UCL, then a worked for a year in Sri Lanka before doing a Masters in Sheffield. She felt architecture was a natural choice after having done work experience in an aeronautical firm and a graphic design firm; she felt architecture sat in the middle - a nice combination of art and science. She explained how architecture encompasses a lot of different things, so it's important to have life experience and accept your strengths and weaknesses. Some people may enjoy drawing the specific stage of the design processor on CAD, whereas others might look prefer to look the whole picture. 

Shanks explained that she enjoys the people side of architecture, meeting lots of people and thinking about the client’s needs. Going on to describe the downsides, Shanks said you can’t do architecture part time, as job you have to dedicate your life to it, and it is hard to get back into if you leave.

Shanks’ one piece of advice for the Shape My City-ers was do what you’re passionate about and do it now! If you give it your all and enjoy what you’re doing, you are more likely to succeed - very sound adviceechoed by some of our other Shape My City professional mentors.

With new knowledge, and now knowing the importance of environmentally friendly, sustainable architecture, the challenge for the Shape My City participants was to create a compact home/living space for1/2 people – a snug home (inspired by the Ecomotive Snug Home project on display on the Architecture Centre gallery). Amy explained that more affordable houses are urgently needed, and in the future there maybe be less land available, so smaller homes (which generally have a smaller carbon footprint) will be required.. The 'snug' home had to be no bigger than 6m (length) x 3m (width) x 4m (height). It was a tricky brief, as the groups had to consider: internal layout, adaptable/moveable furniture, lifestyles of inhabitants, sustainable building materials, renewable energy generation and how multiple snug homes could fit together in a modluar way.

The groups came up with some really good ideas, paying extra attention to detail. Team one came up with lots of adaptable furniture, including a sofa bed and desk with integrated storage, with windows located at the ends of the snug homes, they came up with a clever interlocking system which would save space and keep the housing modules warmer.
·         Team two had put their stairs outside, to save space inside, as well as meaning people would spend more time outside, thus being healthier. They also included sliding doors to save space and a window wall to get maximum sunlight were also features.

·         Team three didn’t have any open areas; they closed off the bottom and top floor to keep things warmer. Thier design also contained a roof with a garden space and sky lights. The homes could be made constructed back to back.

·         Team four thought about which part of the houses could have a lower height, as well as designing a bed that turned into desk, foldable chairs, lots of south facing windows and wet room (with no bath - to save space).

·         Team five thought about converted shipping containers on top of high rise buildings, with cupboards on the celling and plumping all in one area.

There was a great mix of ideas, and all brilliant ways of saving space and energy in the future. Ideas like this could really help the future of sustainable cities, the teams did well, the design brief was specific and the homes that were designed were innovative and practical. Another great session!

Useful links:

University of the West of England (School of Architecture and Built Environment)
Cardiff University (Welsh School of Architecture)
Sheffield University (School of Architecture)
University College London (Bartlett School of Architecture)

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Exploring engineering and bridge design

This blog post was written by the Architecture Centre’s Creative Intern, Lottie Morris

The Shape My City group met for their latest session on the 17th of September. The focus was on engineering and bridge design and the group welcomed civil engineer Ingrid Chauvet from RISE Structures to talk about her practice and her career experiences. Founded by Ingrid, RISE Structural Engineers Ltd works on projects by looking at the challenges carefully and resolving them up front, RISE believes that looking at the details ensures quality, always working with the design team to find solutions to structural elements.

As usual, the group first got stuck into a warm up activity, the challenge being to construct a bridge that spanned a gap of at least 10 centimetres, which was free standing and could hold the weight of a glue stick – the challenge being that is had to be made out of no more than 25 marshmallows and 30 sticks of spaghetti! Split into the pairs, the group had about 10 minutes to construct their bridges. The results were impressive, some very innovative and unique bridge designs were made and they all withstood the weight of a glue stick (just!).

After the warm up, it was time to hear all about Ingrid’s practice and the advice she had for the Shape My City-ers. Ingrid first described engineers as the ones that make things happen, after architects create designs that push the boundaries, it is an engineer’s job to deal with the logistics. It is important for engineers to have mathematics skills and knowledge of materials, as they will have to come up with solutions for designs that work structurally. Ingrid shared it is important to deal with each project individually and come up with solutions that are best for each different project and client. Not only must you have the technical knowledge, being an engineer is also about dealing with people and having social skills to talk to clients about how they can alter the design to work better structurally and sometimes, be cheaper. Ingrid has to ensure the clients trust her and that changes to the design will be worth it in the long run.

Talking about how she got to where she is today, she spoke about having an opportunity to work for a contractor on-site when she was 18, then moving from mechanical engineering to civil engineering and studying in Cardiff. She advised that you can’t wait for the perfect job, it is important to grow with a job and be open to many different opportunities even if it’s not your dream job initially, as it will help you gain experience and work in different environments. Now running her own business, Ingrid said she would now find it hard to work for anyone else. However, running your own business means learning new skills like managing people as well as a lot of responsibility. Ingrid also has to make sure everything is safe and keeps to industry regulations.

Ingrid explained it’s important to be passionate about what you do as you’ll be more productive and find it more rewarding. She talked about how even a small scale project can have a big impact, as she discovered recently when adapting a home for a family with a disabled child. She feels she can touch people’s lives and really makes a difference, which is rewarding. Talking about the fact that engineering is a very male-dominated area of work, Ingrid says there are disadvantages but also advantages to being a woman in the field and she emphasised it was important for girls to see engineering as career path for them. It was really interesting to hear Ingrid talk about her practice and the more personal aspects of a job as an engineer.

With new knowledge on what it’s like to be an engineer, the group were briefed on their main design challenge of the evening. In groups, their challenge was to work on a new design for the bridge that will lead to the new Bristol arena. With the Bristol Arena being a new, big attraction for Bristol, the bridge had to be very aesthetically interesting, it also had to cater for pedestrians, bikes and cars whilst being safe for everyone to use. With the arena being a highly sustainable building, the bridge design should aspire to be environmentally friendly and a landmark bridge that Bristol would be proud of. Split into teams, the group got going on their challenge, discussing ideas and grand plans for an impressive bridge, before sketching out their ideas. The teams then presented their ideas back to the rest of the group, some very intriguing designs were thought up including;

  • A layered bridge with one level for cars and one above for cyclists and pedestrians.
  • Solar cells to collect energy to use for lighting incorporated into the structure 
  • Large petal or rib like structures on the outside of the bridge - a very memorable and aesthetically interesting design
  • A bridge that took inspiration from plants and biological references (biomimicry)  

The ideas were very interesting and different, any of which would make a great addition to the new Bristol Arena. They looked striking, but were also practical for all the different kinds of people that would use it.

It was a great session once again, learning a lot about engineering as a profession and how to design practical and impressive bridge structures!

Links for further information:

Rise Structures
Institute of Structural Engineers education resources
Bristol Arena
Architecture Centre Bridge 150 learning materials

Friday, 21 August 2015

#livebuild Summer Project

This blog post is written by Lottie Morris, the Architecture Centre's creative programme intern.

During July 2015, Shape My City undertook a live ‘hands-on’ sustainable building project, collaboratively designing and constructing a community shelter. Built from local and sustainable materials (earth, wood and clay), the shelter is located on the Asylum Seekers Allotment Project (ASAP) in St George, East Bristol and is part of celebrating Bristol’s year as European Green Capital. The shelter will be a positive addition to the Asylum Seekers Allotment Project - a warm shelter to spend time cooking and talking together and a retreat after working on the allotment in all weather conditions.

Joining forces with Engineers without Borders (EWB Bristol), University of the West of England students and tangentfield architects, this was a great opportunity to bring together volunteers, students, young people and professionals to collaboratively design and build a real-life structure.

In May, the Shape My City participants were introduced to the first #livebuild brief and learned about the inspiration behind the project - Hani  (Shape My City 2014 alumni). Hani was inspired to bring a real, sustainable building project to Bristol after seeing earth dwellings on his travels in Ethiopia, and meeting architects Sally and Lawrence from tangentfield, who went on to form a core part of the design and construction team. The Shape My City participants spent the May session designing their ideas for the shelter, which fed into the final structure.

After the initial sketches created in the Shape My City session, the design team tried to bring these ideas all together to form preliminary sketches. As with any design process, ideas were knocked back and forth as the design developed, the time factor, resources, needs of the users and the size of the site all had to be taken into account as the designs got refined. When the team started their first day on site, the design drawings continued to develop, as the team got a better sense of the site. The basic structure and ground sections were worked out, holes were to be dug and filled with brick-filled gabions, which would support the timber posts and overall structure. 

On Day One the site was cleared, the ground levelled out, wood found on site and sorted through. Day Two saw the holes dug for the brick filled wire gabions, they were to be buried around 450mm below ground and the far corner gabion was levelled, the big week of building would begin next week…......

Monday was a day of levelling gabions, a trickier  task than first thought - once one gabion was levelled it made it more difficult to level the others, however all six gabions were set into the ground, with the upper gabions starting to be placed by the end of the day. Tuesday saw the gabions finished, posts installed and the first roof rafters done.  

Wednesday saw the roof get underway, there were many people on site helping and offering their expertise, Brendan, a carpenter, Kareem, a UWE Architecture and Environmental Engineering student and Jo, our resident natural builder and cob expert. We were joined during the week by Shape My City participant Melvin, who undertook his work experience placement on the #livebuild project. Melvin got stuck in with the buiding work and helped to document the project.

On Thursday the straw bale walls were installed, secured with hazel spurs from on the site and one of our current Shape My City participants, Rosie, came along to help out . She and Jo started applying the undercoat of clay slip to the straw bales.

Friday was a busy day on site; the team were joined by  young people from Tomorrow’s People as part of Avon Wildlife Trust’s programme. They helped mix up the clay render – this is done with your feet and was a fun and squelchy process! Another Shape My City participant Matthew was on site for the day and got stuck into making clay render and plastering the cob onto the strawbale wall. Our Tomorrow’s People volunteers also helped apply the cob base coat to the walls - everyone did a great job! After the base layer came the plaster layer of cob, to fully seal the straw bales. 

The roof was worked and brackets and joints were added to strengthen the structure. It was a long and busy day, but the cob was done and the sheets of OSB were fixed to the roof, the structure was almost complete! There were a few parts that would still needed refining (a final top coat of clay render to be done by the allotment project users) but the #livebuild team were extremely proud (and just a little tired!) to have built the structure in such a short amount of time, it looked great and was a big achievement.

Ten days later, the #livebuild celebration event was upon us. Everyone invovled in the project was invited .The shelter was decked with fairy lights and bunting, the fire was lit, and a spread of delicious food from Surplus Supper Club was laid out. It was a rainy summer’s evening, but it didn’t dampen spirits, the weather almost seemed fitting for the launch event, as everyone gathered into the shelter to shelter from the rain (demonstrating the need for the project!). 

Complete with the fire, the space was very cosy and everyone enjoyed eating food and talking about the shelter, how the week went and ambitions for the future of the shelter. Amy (Architecture Centre) started the thank you - thanking Sally and Lawrence from tangentfield/UWE, all the keen volunteers, Shape My City young people, building experts, funders, Avon Wildlife Trust’s Tomorrow’s People, Dee the Allotment site-rep, Emmy and Asylum Seekers Allotment Project for their collaboration and Hani, who had the initial idea and showed so much enthusiasm and commitment to the project. 

Hani also said a few words, thanking everyone for their hard work and Amy who was a great project coordinator. Sally also thanked all and officially presented the building 'hand-over' folder to the Asylum Seekers Allotment Project.

The green ribbon was then cut by Hani and Emmy and the #livebuild shelter was officially launched!
Guests, including local Councilor Sue Milestone, were encouraged to plant chamomile plants around the gabions to make their own contribution to the shelter. The team were also interviewed about the #livebuild project for a video documenting the process, including time lapse footage of the whole build week. 

The film will be part of the #livebuild project exhibition on display in the Architecture Centre gallery from 23 September - 25 October. 

Reflecting on the project Hani said:
'Seeing the finished structure came with a great sense of achievement, and an equally great sense of relief. The impact that this project will have on the local community will hopefully be a lasting one. Being involved in this project has been an invaluable experience for me from, conception to completion, and I am so happy and proud to have been involved in realising a shared vision which helps improve the lives of members of the community'.
Seeing the finished structure came with a great sense of achievement, and an equally great sense of relief. The impact that this project will have on the local community will hopefully be a lasting one. Being involved in this project has been an invaluable experience for me from, conception to completion, and I am so happy and proud to have been involved in realising a shared vision which helps improve the lives of members of the community.'  - See more at:
Seeing the finished structure came with a great sense of achievement, and an equally great sense of relief. The impact that this project will have on the local community will hopefully be a lasting one. Being involved in this project has been an invaluable experience for me from, conception to completion, and I am so happy and proud to have been involved in realising a shared vision which helps improve the lives of members of the community.'  - See more at:

'The building is absolutely amazing. We were up in the garden all day in the rain today and it was just perfect to have a real shelter to be warm in. We all sat round together and it felt so good'.  
Emmy, the Asylum Seeker Allotment Project co-ordinator.

A huge well done and thank you to everyone for all their involvement in the project, and everyone for attending our rainy, celebration event! The shelter looks brilliant and everyone should be very proud, it will be of great use to the Asylum Seekers Allotment Project.

The Shape My City #livebuild was made possible by the kind support of:
Big Lottery Awards for All, Quartet Express Fund, University of the West of England, Ibstock Brick, Elmtree Landscaping and all our wonderful project volunteers - thank you.

Check out the #livebuild blog to read more about the project.

Watch the film about #livebuild here.

#livebuild    #shapemycity