Can cheap buildings be rich?

Kolakowski, Marcin Mateusz (2000) Can cheap buildings be rich? Architektura & Biznes, 90 (1). pp. 19-22. ISSN 1230-1817

Can cheap buildings be rich? [A&B 200/1]

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Minimalism is often used to hide something false. It is often an elitist and expensive fashion. It may cover fear of criticism or sometimes simply creative impotence. The work of Walter Menteth has convinced me that there is a different form of minimalism – creative, sensitive, personal. Menteth is perhaps the most convincing of all British architects with aspirations of environmental sustainability.
He calls his projects “polemics with cheap insipid construction.” He does not avoid unusual solutions and materials, and yet he still remains a minimalist... The brilliance of his solutions reminds me of Le Corbusier, whose buildings are dry only at first glance, but on more careful examination surprise you with the inventiveness of the smallest details. Encountering his projects was an experience that changed my artistic view of the world.
In business for 10 years now, Walter Menteth Architects have had a relationship with Ujima Housing Co-operative supporting housebuilding schemes for the homeless and the disabled. Their building at Gwynne Road in London’s Battersea is inhabited by both healthy and disabled people (either mentally or physically). This unusual task required sensitivity and ’design smarts’ in order to conjure up decent architecture given the limited funds held by the state-budget financed co-op (£480,000). The total space of 520sqm is taken up by eight flats. Four of them are two-bedroom, sharing a two-storey hall to the west. These are the homes intended for the mentally disabled. The idea is that some shared living space is part of these people’s integration therapy, since their disability is minor. Two flats for people in wheelchairs have independent access directly from the roofed car parks to the north and to the south. To the east, two independent entrances lead into small halls with stairs to the flats located on the upper floor. This way, the building opens up on all sides and to varied manners of use.
At first contact, the reduction of detail to the minimum directs your attention to texture and colour. The tension which is created by them is the building's main characteristic. The use of broken stone braced in wire net to create a wall around the project was Menteth’s original idea, later used by other architects. These walls provide the unique poetry of the project. The hardly harnessed material represents the very nature of a fencing wall—a divide between what is unharnessed and what is manmade. What is striking is the contrast between the texture of the stone and the white of the smooth facades of the house— they become a symbol of a manmade artefact.
The tranquil rhythm of the windows goes beyond the solid with the projecting bay windows. Due to its intangible transparency, each of them disseminates the building’s rhythm into the surrounding space. On a more practical note, these bay windows provide daylight for the largest rooms.
As opposed to purists, Menteth does not shun colours. The direct vicinity of the house is livened up by bright-yellow small shacks with grassy roofs. The purple of the staircases or the turquoise finish elements lend the building its special spirit and the interiors—some character.
Despite modest financing, Menteth’s building is a proof that minimalist proposals do not have to preclude unusual solutions. A number of quite functional, low-cost facilities are found here, such as mailboxes for residents who use wheelchairs, caps muting external ventilation, or the use of unplastered wall to accentuate the division into private and common zones.
The compact building has the small surface-to-volume ratio to meet the requirements of power con¬servation. Yet it is not an ordinary rectangular prism. The lowered roof has made it possible to raise ceilings, adding space to the largest bay rooms. In its central part, the roof declines towards three skylights above kitchen work surfaces and staircases. Thus, a compromise has been achieved between two contradictory objectives: an energy-efficient shell on the one hand, and a naturally-lit kitchen and large rooms on the other. Architecture is an art of compromise, especially in low-budget buildings, and Menteth seems to be the master of this art.

Subjects:K Architecture, Building and Planning > K200 Building
K Architecture, Building and Planning > K110 Architectural Design Theory
K Architecture, Building and Planning > K210 Building Technology
K Architecture, Building and Planning > K100 Architecture
Divisions:College of Arts > School of Architecture & Design > School of Architecture & Design (Architecture)
ID Code:18028
Deposited On:28 Jul 2015 10:40

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