An Architect Reflects on the Past Year

As another year – another decade – draws to a close, it’s interesting to ponder the exciting and unknown future which awaits us. But to best understand our role in the world, I think it’s important to reflect on our journey so far.

As architects, I believe we have a lot to be proud of. Some say modern politics is leaving us more divided than ever, but as an industry we have united to support some truly important causes.

The winner of 2019’s RIBA Stirling Prize, awarded to the top architecture project of the year, was won by a council run housing estate in Norwich. It’s unusual for such a ‘modest’ project to win the headline prize, but this one really resonated. It won because it was designed to foster community and to help its residents live greener lives.

In fact, this was a wider theme for RIBA this year: the organisation launched campaigns to both counter climate change, and to promote renovation over demolish/rebuild.

The world is a beautiful place and good architecture adds to it, but bad architecture can take away. And it’s great to see that RIBA is ensuring that we all do our collective best to build responsibly, leaving a healthy world for future generations.

Of course, there is still a long way to go. This is also true of Britain’s homelessness problem, which has grown every year this decade. (Faris Mousa: Homelessness is a growing problem and it’s our responsibility to help) Our most vulnerable people need our help, and it was great to see my hometown of Manchester making noise earlier this year when Andy Burnham announced new measures to help the homeless – and hopefully this inspires other towns and cities to do the same.

Unfortunately, Manchester missed its targets, but I do appreciate that they’re trying. It just goes to show how big the problem is, and how difficult it is to reverse the trend. In the meantime, please do consider donating to charities such as Crisis or Manchester’s own Mustard Tree who are doing what they can to help provide a roof and a warm meal for those in need this Christmas.

All the best for the New Year,
Faris Mousa.

Elements of a Great Modern Home

A new housing development which won the RIBA Stirling Prize for 2019 has been making headlines not only in industry magazines and websites but in mainstream news.

The Goldsmith Street housing estate in Norwich was a popular nomination and most experts predicted well in advance that it would be a clear winner.

I have written in the past about what makes a great family home (Faris Mousa: The Most Important Piece of Furniture in Any Home) so let’s look at what makes this an award winning development

Energy efficiency

Climate change is something which is affecting us all, and for which we all have a responsibility to address. Modern day architects must not only employ sustainable working practices, but also create buildings which are themselves energy efficient.

Goldsmith Street was built to Passivhaus environmental standards, which is considered the ultimate goal. This covered even the tiniest of details, from the angle of the roof designed so that it didn’t cast shade on a neighbour, to external letterboxes which won’t create draughts through the front door. Not only is this great for the planet, but it will save residents an estimated 70 on their energy bills.

Social harmony

The development contains 105 homes, and they have been laid out in a way that encourages social interaction. Isolation can lead to poor mental and physical health, but in this neighbourhood it’s easy for residents to get to know their neighbours. Plenty of green space and childrens’ play areas have been located away from roads, too, which means they’re safe from traffic.

Innovation

There will be many social housing projects built this year and next year, across a great number of councils, by a variety of architects. And the easy choice is to build something exactly like everything else that has gone before. But Norwich’s council members had the bravery and ambition to try something new, and Mikhail Riches Architects and Cathy Hawley had the ability and expertise to create something completely truly original. So by breaking from the norm, the two have created something which benefits the residents, shines a positive light on Norwich, and hopefully will inspire others to be a little bolder.

More amazing architecture in Rome

In a recent blog (Faris Mousa: The Pantheon still amazes nearly 2,000 years on) I said that the Pantheon was such an incredible feat of architecture that I wanted to write about it all by itself. I think it’s worthy of its own post, but that’s not to say it’s the only spectacle worth seeing in Rome. There are many more great buildings, both old and new, and here are a few more that I recommend for any traveller or fan of architecture.

Teatro Marcello
This theatre was completed in 11BC and is still revered by architecture enthusiasts more than 2,000 years later. Its arches, columns and tunnels were revolutionary at the time, and its ability to comfortably hold an audience of 20,000 was a great showcase of Roman ingenuity. In fact, it was the inspiration for the much better know Colosseum, built around 70 years later.

St Peter’s Basilica
Rome is home to a great many religiously significant buildings, including an estimated 900 churches. The Vatican’s basilica is the most widely recognised, and it’s easy to see why. It took more than 100 years to build and was completed in 1626. Its design is the work of a string of world renowned architects, including Michelangelo who helped design the iconic dome, and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a sculpture who is responsible for much of its decoration.

The Supreme Court
One of the most important buildings in the country, where the ultimate rule of law is decided, it is also fittingly one of the most imposing and eye catching. The architecture is inspired by late Renaissance and Baroque styles and is so opulent (and took so long to build) that many locals still question how it was funded. But to the casual tourist, it’s an incredible sight.

The National Museum of the 21st Century Arts
Rome is recognised for its historic architecture but has continued to innovate and modernise. One of the best examples from modern times is Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI museum. Its sharp angles and bold curves, which provide a backdrop for the many contemporary exhibits and events which take place there, stand in stark and exciting contrast to the surrounding ancient buildings.

There is plenty more to Rome than fantastic architecture – we haven’t even touched upon the magnificent food, culture or sport – and these four buildings (and the Pantheon, of course) are just a few of the many examples of iconic buildings. But hopefully this will give you enough of a taste to go and explore this beautiful city for yourself.

Key Manchester building is to undergo major revamp

A building in the centre of Manchester is to be extended by two stories as part of a £6m project.

Bluefig Investments has secured planning permission to redevelop and expand 55 Mosley Street in Manchester city centre.

The plans will see two floors added to the landmark office building meaning that it will provide 13,000 sq ft of Grade A office accommodation as well as a comprehensive refurbishment of the existing interior.

Bluefig Investments acquired the building in December 2017 and employed architectural practice, Hawkins\Brown to design the new scheme.

The contract for the construction of the extension and refurbishment is about to go out to tender.

Faris Mousa, managing director of Bluefig Investments, said: “This strategically located prime office building not only benefits from the extensive investment that has been ploughed in to St Peter’s Square over the last few years but as it is situated close to one of the key gateway entrances to the city and with the new tram stop on its doorstep, it seems obvious that this building is overdue a revamp.

“The Manchester office market remains one of the most stable and buoyant sectors in the country and whilst many developers are continuing to hedge their bets on speculative developments pre Brexit, I am confident that 55 Mosley Street will appeal to a number of occupiers currently looking for exceptional new office space in the city.

“We have a fantastic team supporting this project and are excited to be delivering a very special scheme that embraces the future ways in which we operate by creating an inspiring and productive working environment.”

Tom Dobson of Hawkins\Brown adds: “The redevelopment of 55 Mosley Street has presented an exciting opportunity to regenerate a prominent city centre building to provide new contemporary workspace.

“Working in close collaboration with the client and consultant team, we established a clear narrative and vision for the project that was crucial in developing the design.

“The distinction between the original fabric and new interventions has been designed to create a clear legibility and definition that celebrates a new period in the building’s history and encourage tenants to adopt new ways of working, whilst recognising its former use as an industrial warehouse.”

The reconfiguration of the internal spaces has included the integration of a new entrance and reception area to engage and activate the building at street level.

The Pantheon still amazes nearly 2,000 years on

Exploring the cities of Europe, you will find endless varieties of amazing architecture, from humble homes to unrivalled shows of extravagance.

On any trip abroad, I will usually discover a selection that I really admire, and I have begun writing about my favourite locations in this blog (Faris Mousa: Valencia San Sebastian )

My most recent adventure was a few days spent with my family in Rome, enjoying a city deeply rich in culture and history. And while there is much about the Italian capital to love and report back about, I think the Pantheon deserves a blog all of its own.
It’s not easy standing head and shoulders above all else in a city which was once the centre of the known world and still houses some of the most culturally significant locations of modern times, such as the Vatican.

But I have never before seen such a stunning example of human ambition, ingenuity and achievement.

Around the outside stand 24 columns, which weigh 80 tonnes each and had to be transported all the way from Egypt using a clever underwater system.

The enormous, 142 ft roof was constructed without any visible support or reinforcements. A 25 ft aperture at the top provided the building’s only light source, which would no doubt have been an even more incredible sight when all of its original treasures will still on display.

The Roman empire may not have lasted, but many of its ideas and innovations did.
Not only did they invent concrete, which remains one of the most versatile and durable construction materials, but the Pantheon’s dome is still the largest cast-concrete construction in the world.

Evidence, maybe, that nobody has done it better in the nearly 2,000 years since the Pantheon’s construction.

Homelessness is a growing problem and it’s our responsibility to help

The UK has a growing homeless problem and it’s a tragedy. It has been suggested that empty buildings and shops could be converted into homes for those who need them, and I think we need to start right away.

Working in property for almost a decade I’ve seen so often what an important role buildings play in everybody’s lives: whether it’s a secure home, a productive workplace or a football stadium, swimming pool or museum that helps us enjoy our time and bond with others.

Without a home to call their own, it’s far too difficult for an individual to succeed in any other aspect of their life. A home enables you to put down roots. It also helps you to become part of a local community – another crucial part of everyday life. A secure home is the first step to greater things.

I don’t understand how this country can have a growing number of people without a place to call home, at the same time as a growing number of empty properties. We should be opening our doors to people who need our help.

And it’s not just a problem for property owners to solve. I think we could all do more to help those in need.

Mental illness is one of the leading causes of both drug abuse and homelessness, and this has culminated in suicide becoming the leading cause of death among middle-aged men. 

There is not enough support and compassion for those who need it most. Not enough second chances available for those who desperately want one.

We need to start turning these empty and unused buildings into something which will benefit our society as a whole. And we all need to spend a little longer helping those around us.

Take a moment to think about the people in your own life. Could you make a life-changing difference with a simple gesture of kindness to somebody who is struggling?

Follow Faris Mousa’s Profile for more updates!

Valencia: A City Rich In Architecture

Following Manchester United affords me the opportunity to visit some fascinating places. Most recently that was Valencia, in Spain.

I was there at the historic Mestalla Stadium to witness my team just about qualify for the next round of the Champions League. But my favourite part of the trip was exploring the city and and enjoying its many and varied architectural treats.

The old

Valencia was first built by the Romans, and although you’ll need to visit a museum to see evidence of that, just by walking around the streets you’ll see a wealth of buildings dating back as early as the 14th century. There are many magnificent examples of the locals’ take on gothic.

The obvious focal point is the cathedral, and there are many other beautiful examples too, including a basilica just metres away and a pair of 15th century towers which have protected the city as recently as the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.

The central market, which has a magnificent ceiling, is one of the largest of its kind in Europe, and the nearby Silk Exchange is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site.

Compact by design, the centre itself can be taken in within a single day – with a wide choice of galleries and museums for anybody with a little more time to spare.

The new

Anybody who loves ingenuity and mixing form with function, as I do, will marvel at the Turia gardens.

Tired of the city flooding whenever the River Turia burst its banks, the city decided to reroute the river around the population and turn the now-dry riverbed into an attraction fit for both tourists and locals. It’s now a popular home to public art, sports facilities, flower gardens and, best of all, the City of Arts and Sciences.

A project costing almost one billion euros, it features extensive gardens, an IMAX cinema, an aquarium, a science museum and an opera house. But these are no ordinary buildings: architects Santiago Calatrava and Felix Candela were tasked with creating something that will live long in the memory.

Photos show how original and inspiring the unique collection of buildings are, but I recommend walking among them to feel the full effect.

Antoni Gaudí

Valencia is not far along the coast from Barcelona, a city I have written about previously in this blog. And the influence of the noted and highly unusual architect Antoni Gaudí can be found in the city, too, not least in the magnificent Colon Market. So whether you’re a fan old architecture from eras past, new and inspiring takes on public works, or you like to sip a fine wine on the beach while watching the sun set (which was also part of my trip) I can recommend Valencia as a destination rich in experiences.

The Notre Dame fire was a tragedy and a cause for optimism

It was heart-breaking to turn on the news and see the Notre Dame cathedral burning, but in many ways what followed inspired hope and optimism.

The cathedral is the finest example of gothic architecture in the world. Nearly one thousand years since work began, and almost 700 years since the original construction was completed, it has been an iconic part of the Parisian landscape for generations. It’s not just one of France’s greatest buildings, but one of the world’s finest examples of architecture.

And that’s why it hurt to see it ravaged by fire. But this is not the first time the building has been damaged. It has been repaired and restored several times in its rich history, and it will be repaired once more.

The core structure of the building is still standing, which not only makes saving this building possible, but it’s strength and stability even in the face of this major fire is another awe-inspiring aspect of its centuries-old construction.

Experts are suggesting that restorations could take a decade or more to complete. That’s probably true. But the fact that there is so much enthusiasm about bringing the cathedral back – from politicians, from millionaires and billionaires, from the public around the world – is so positive. It proves that architecture plays an important role in our lives.

Beautiful buildings inspire people to make and do beautiful things.

The rebuilding of the cathedral will be a symbol for hope. It shows that we care about art, about public works and public spaces, and it shows that we can all come together to find recognise what a tragedy this event was, and then all determine together to put things right.

And when Notre Dame cathedral reopens in 10, or even 20 years, I’ll be there among the masses enjoying everything the revitalised building has to offer.