Coal Drops Yard

All photos © Anthony Denzer

All photos © Anthony Denzer

Coal Drops Yard is a fascinating new structure set to be completed any day now. The project is part of the King’s Cross redevelopment in central London. The architects are Heatherwick Studio and the Structural Engineers are Ove Arup & Partners.

The project was a highlight of our Study Abroad trip with Wyoming architectural engineering students. (We spent the month of June in London, Brussels, Paris, and Barcelona; some photos here). My colleague Jon Gardzelewski arranged for Coal Drops Yard’s design team to meet with us, both on-site and later in Heatherwick’s office.

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Pictured above:
Left: Alfonso Monedero, BIM Manager, Heatherwick
Center: Ed Clark, Director and Structural Engineer, Arup
Right: Stuart Chambers, Senior Structural Engineer, Arup 
Pictured below:
Pablo Zamorano, Head of Geometry and Computational Design, Heatherwick

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What an amazing experience for our students! As the team explained, the existing brick structures—Grade II listed—date from the 1850s and 1870s, but had been empty and neglected for several decades. (The site represents “ambitious Victorian infrastructure”; more about its history here.)

As seen in the model below, Heatherwick’s design concept took the two inward-facing roof planes and treated them like billowing ribbons, which span across the open space and touch lightly at the center of the site. It’s a striking and memorable form, expressive of advanced parametric working methods, certain to become a London landmark.

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As Ed Clark and Stuart Chambers explained to our students, the form required a great deal of creative structural engineering. Each of the roof planes is supported by a ‘ribbon truss’, and the structure is tied across at the center by a ‘giraffe girder’—apparently Arup’s invention—which includes a large tension rod in the plane of the floor. The floor structure is suspended from the ribbon trusses. The glass, arranged in a saw-tooth pattern, is frameless and self-supporting. The Arup engineers used the sketch below to explain the design.

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Normally I am critical of projects where an unusual form is given to structural engineers who must figure out how it can be built. However, as Ed Clark explained to us, the Heatherwick architects asked the Arup structural engineers to have a seat at the table during the form-making process so that the structure would be as rational and economic as possible. I wouldn’t quite call it Integrated Design, but it certainly resulted in a design of creative integrity in my opinion.

Coal Drops Yard includes some inventive and tactile elevator buttons designed by Heatherwick (see below). And you can have fun in Heatherwick’s Spun Chair, as our students did. (It’s surprisingly comfortable, and it’s stable if you sit still.)

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In June the project was nearly complete; the shops and restaurants occupying the brick wings were all open for business. The ‘featured’ space above was still being finished; it will be the flagship store for Samsung (an answer to the architecture/branding success of the Apple Stores). I hope the Samsung signage won’t be too intrusive.

In all, I find the project to be a successful case of rehabilitation, an intervention which uses contemporary architecture to accommodate new activities, while preserving heritage. I believe there is a bit of ‘false history’ in the construction of some new brick archways.

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The surrounding King’s Cross development is said to be “one of the biggest urban regeneration projects in Europe.” Nearby the Google headquarters building, by Heatherwick and Bjarke Ingels Group, is under construction (see below; renderings here). It will be as long as The Shard is tall.

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Notre-Dame du Raincy

Earlier this week I visited—for the first time—Notre-Dame du Raincy, the church built in 1922–23 by brothers Auguste and Gustave Perret. It is a seminal early example of reinforced concrete construction, with membrane-like walls of stained-glass framed in concrete. I found it to be a truly significant structure, a fascinating reinterpretation of the tradition of French religious architecture. What an experience; the space feels monumental, simple and direct in its physicality, and yet transcendent. I am thinking about it like a William Carlos Williams poem, minimalist, realist, but also magical.

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But here’s the headline: at nearly 100 years old, the building is experiencing some degradation. Rebar is visible and corroding in several places. A display inside the church says it is “a monument in danger.” Donations are sought.

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The Borohus Virkesmagasin

Earlier this Spring, in Landsbro, Sweden, I visited a truly remarkable structure: a drying shed for timber which locals call Arken or Noah’s Ark. I believe it is properly called the Borohus Virkesmagasin. Borohus was one of Sweden’s biggest house factories in the 1930s–80s, and virkesmagasin means warehouse. You might think of it as a cathedral of lumber; it certainly had that feeling. What a powerful space.

Hilding Brosenius, a structural engineer, designed the building and he seems to have invented this type of nailed timber beam. I estimate these are about 20-feet deep! The structure was built in 1946–47. With a footprint of 38 x 165 meters, it is said to be Europe’s largest timber building.

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Here is a 1940 article (in Swedish) by Brosenius describing the method, which he called HB-balkar.

Here’s a similar but apparently smaller structure by Brosenius dated 1953.

The Notre-Dame Question

Update 5-31-19: French Senate demands cathedral be rebuilt exactly as it was before the fire

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It's been about 4 weeks since the timber roof at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris burned on April 15. For me it was shocking and heartbreaking. (A small silver-lining: on that day I heard from several former students who loved the building too, and they reached out because they knew I'd be grieving.)

Almost as soon as the fire was extinguished, French president Emmanuel Macron announced that the cathedral should be rehabilitated very quickly, in time for the 2024 Summer Olympics. And Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced a competition which will seek a new design for the roof and spire which is “adapted to technologies and challenges of our times.” The French assembly followed suit and approved a law to move quickly, rebuilding Notre-Dame within five years.

By April 19, Norman Foster put forth a vision for a new “light and airy” roof. Dominique Perrault said the problem is “extremely delicate” but that the rebuilding should create “an even more powerful presence, a wider resonance, transfiguring, amplifying, and exalting it into something else.” Vincent Callebaut has proposed a timber and glass urban farm (pictured below). And plenty of other non-traditional design ideas have been offered.

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Now, with a bit of distance from the event, there are significant calls to slow down. More than 1000 signatories, including noted curators, architects, and art historians, asked French president Emmanuel Macron to wait to make major decisions about the cathedral’s future. Presumably they would like some consideration given to a traditional restoration. And I’ve noticed a surprisingly large contingent on social media who have expressed a sentiment something like ‘modern architects will do more damage to Notre-Dame than the fire’. I don’t agree, but I do understand why there is some fatigue for “modern” projects incongruently attached to historic buildings.

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What should be done? I will take students to Paris this summer, and we’ll grapple with that question. As we discuss it, we’ll keep in mind these essential concepts:

  • The timber roof was essentially a lightweight umbrella, to keep the weather off of the structure below. Structurally, it is an afterthought. The stone vaults are the true roof structure; their weight and thrust are what the flying buttresses are supporting and resisting.

  • Before the fire, Notre-Dame was hardly ‘original’. (I set off the word original because it’s such a fraught concept.) It was damaged extensively during the French Revolution, when the Gallery of Kings on the west facade was destroyed. Then for Napoleon’s coronation in 1804 the exterior was whitewashed and the interior was remodeled in the neo-classical style.

  • The spire—flèche, in French—that burned and collapsed so spectacularly was relatively young, built in the 1860s in the seminal ‘restoration’ by Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. (Restoration, too, is a fraught concept, especially Viollet-le-Duc’s approach. Wikipedia has a good summary.) There was a medieval spire, built about 1250, which was removed in 1786 after wind damage. Viollet-le-Duc’s spire was not faithful to the 13th-century construction.

  • Victor Hugo’s 1831 book Notre-Dame de Paris created a new love for the building eventually leading to Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration. Hugo wrote: “Architecture is the great book of humanity,” and he emphasized that Notre-Dame embodied many periods, styles, ideas. This is so critically important: buildings always represent layers of history and moments in time. It would not be unusual to add another layer in the 21st century.

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In 1836 the timber roof at Chartres cathedral burned spectacularly. In fact that event seems to have unfolded exactly like the Notre-Dame fire weeks ago, starting with a construction accident. At Chartres, the roof structure was rebuilt in iron, with copper roofing. Built in 1837, it is one of the oldest iron structures in France. Few visitors know this; from every accessible point of view, the roof appears medieval. Nobody (as far as I can tell) regards this as controversial. In his 1904 book Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, Henry Adams didn’t mention it at all!

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In other words, there’s a clear precedent for a modest modernization, hidden from view. Of course, Chartres is not without its preservation controversy. We’ll visit and discuss that too.

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Image credits:
1. https://www.thenation.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/notre-dame-burning-ap-img.jpg
2. http://vincent.callebaut.org
3 Left. https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fichier:Incendie_de_la_Cath%C3%A9drale_Notre-Dame_de_Chartres.jpg
3 Right. https://www.abelard.org/france/culture/chartres/charpente-truss1.jpg

Automated Design

A new article by Lance Hosey asks: “Can Machines Design?” And it asks: “How might architecture change if computers take over the process entirely?”

I wrote about this in 2011:

“One might imagine a user-friendly device where the customer simply inputs information about the architectural program and some performance criteria; the tool could (invisibly) download site information and code requirements, then generate a variety of alternative designs optimized to the performance criteria. The user would choose his preferred option, and the process could repeat at another level of resolution, eventually including the full engineering of mechanical and structural systems—would you like concrete or steel? Clash detections, costing and scheduling, construction documents, all built in. Call it the iPlan. (The technology is not far off.) Clearly such a passive role is intolerable to architects and engineers, and those who educate them. The ability to choose and control the tools is fundamental to professionalism in the AE disciplines (for now).”

So I do believe that machines can design. Whether architects can tolerate it, is probably an irrelevant question in the long run, if such methods prove to be efficient and useful.

I could also imagine an automated design program having an architect-like avatar guiding clients through the process. You could work with Frank Lloyd Wright or Eero Saarinen someday!

Cite: Anthony Denzer and Jon Gardzelewski (2011). “Drawing and Modeling: Analog Tools in the Age of BIM,” AEI 2011: Building Integration Solutions (American Society of Civil Engineers): 44-53.