The Fabric of Place
In recent years, there has been a growth of books about architectural/urban design practices which, apart from anything else they may be, are clearly marketing tools for the practice. On my shelves I have books about Terry Farrell, Dixon Jones, MJP Architects, Edward Cullinan Architects, Eric Parry Architects, and several others. They vary in their nature: some are written by the practice, some by a commissioned author; some are a straightforward record of designs and projects, some more reflective.
This book from Allies and Morrison is of the thoughtful and reflective variety – even modest. It has no narrative to tell. You will not learn about the history of the practice. It does not try to hit you over the head with hype about how good the practice is. It is fairly unstructured, rather like a loose-leaf folder of pieces assembled between covers. But it conveys very well that the firm is a creative group of people with an impressive track record of intelligent interventions in cities.
The contents are in the form of three different types of elements – essays on a series of subjects (the city, density, typology, urban space, tall buildings), case studies and observations – all interspersed. The essays are written by a number of individuals, the short observations are, for some reason, uncredited. The case studies of Allies and Morrison’s work range in scale from the 2012 Olympic campus and Argent’s King’s Cross development, down to a small residential infill in an Oxfordshire village. The connections between the three elements are not hammered home: the reader is left to find them.
All three elements are beautifully illustrated with a variety of photographs, sketches, figure-ground plans and many other kinds of drawings. I was particularly pleased to see the A to Z Map test applied to the King’s Cross masterplan: I learned about this tool years ago but have not previously seen it published. I liked too the examination of a number of types of plan drawing used in the same masterplan process, for different purposes of analysis and communication.
This book demonstrates a satisfyingly mature approach to urbanism. There is no flashiness: it is sober and thoughtful, learning from history, employing techniques of building typology and urban morphology, emphasising the processes of the shaping of space and placemaking. Where urban design generates architecture, space is enclosed by eloquently articulated tectonic surfaces: a civilised background for human activity.