WAF Newsletter In Practice

In practice

Paul Hyett, 24 April 2019


This is the first in a regular series of WAFN columns by former RIBA President Paul Hyett, a Principal in HKS Architects

 Lifting the spirits

‘We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us’. What a call to arms by Winston Churchill: design really does matter. It should, as Lord Palumbo said, ‘lift the spirit’ of all who use, or simply pass by, your buildings.

Which takes me to WAF and its assumed role in lifting spirits and shaping futures. In Amsterdam last November, my high-point was joining Catherine Slessor and Christine Hawley on Friday’s Future Projects super-jury. How better to glimpse the future?  

This is the real and extraordinary value of WAF.  Now marching onwards in, its second decade it has given a new rhythm to our calendar, drawing us together annually, a prompt to pause, reflect, celebrate, and share ideas for the year ahead.

So there I was in Amsterdam on WAF’s first day; hey, that’s Kim Nielsen rushing to present the 3XN scheme for the Olympic Headquarters in Lausanne. I squeeze my way into his ‘jury’, then on to see what the AHMM team have been doing and eaves-dropping on panel discussions led so well, as ever, by Jeremy Melvin; next a lunch-time session as Nigel Coates hosts Eva Jiricna’s beautiful presentation. That guy’s such a gifted compere. 

Later, in the main hall, Peter Cook talks us through the construction of the Wellington Bomber, with its metal frame and timber battens, designed by Barnes Wallis of Dam-busters fame. His miniature prototypes of ‘bouncing bombs’ were tested on a little lake at the Building Research Establishment site in Borehamwood, north of London. I have seen the lake, but never guessed its history. 

New dimensions

If you want to see some beautiful fuselage framing, take a look at 1930s airship construction, especially the Zeppelins which, quite incredibly, operated a trans-Atlantic passenger service. That takes me to the Cape Kennedy Space Centre and the 135 launches of the ‘Space Shuttle’ over the 30 years to 2011. Between them, Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour placed and serviced some 1,570 tons of satellites. Each mission was initially powered skywards by two monster SRB rockets with a 127-second burn time, after which they were jettisoned into the Atlantic, collected, wiped over and used again.

There’s a lovely story about how the SRB’s fuselage dimension was set. Apparently, the diameter was constrained by a long tunnel which rockets, which are delivered by rail, must pass through between the assembly plant and the Florida launch site. They made the fuselage to fit the tunnel!  So what dictated the overall tunnel size was the gauge of the several railway tracks that ran through it – each set at 1435mm or, more lyrically, four foot eight and a half inches. True or not, this account illustrates the critical importance of key dimensions for future use: the current London Mayor, whose transport slogan is ‘Every journey matters’, should remember that most of London Underground original tunnel dimensions have condemned generations of commuters to cramped travel. 

Known as the ‘Stephenson gauge’, it is also known as the International gauge, the Uniform gauge, Normal gauge and European gauge, and is now the most widely used rail-track gauge in the world:. Apart from Russia, Finland, Portugal and Uzbekistan, all other high-speed networks – including China’s – have adopted it.  But why 1435mm? English trains comprised carriages built by coach-builders, whose main livelihood had been making horse-drawn coaches. Long before Henry Ford, they had standardized axle widths to fit neatly into grooves in the flagstones then found in many classical towns, such as Bath. Albeit indirectly, it was the Romans who determined the 1435mm Stephenson gauge, with incredible consequences: chariots to stage coach; railways to the 12,000 kilo Newton thrust SRB.

China leads the world

China is currently completing the latest phase of the world’s biggest and fastest high-speed rail system. I have used it extensively – it’s very good. The Chinese don’t mess about with conventional track-laying: they use concrete viaducts 10 m or more above the landscape, all 18,000 miles of them. No level crossings or quaint old arched bridges, just two discrete worlds: passengers speeding gracefully at up to 200 miles an hour between cities with populations of 10 million and more, and villagers in a time-warp below. China already accounts for 70 per cent of the world’s high-speed lines and by the time it finishes the New Silk Road will be up to 50,000 miles with high-speed connections direct into Europe! Think what that does for an economy.

Two years ago, speaking at a conference in Wuhan on eco-sustainable design, I used an astonishing statistic that I had recently picked up: over the next 20 years the world will see 80 billion square metres of new buildings constructed. That is equivalent to 60 per cent of all that currently exists – and 38% of it will be in China.

Shaping the future

What we build will be critical. That is why I want, in this first column, to pay tribute to the contribution of WAF, which is increasingly shining its torch towards alternative possibilities, at the grandest scale. Through its work, it consistently raises the bar and shapes the debate. In so doing, it can profoundly influence future buildings that indeed will shape us and every aspect of our children’s world. If the architects who are training and starting their careers around the world can get even a quarter of that 80 billion square metres right, going back to Churchill, perhaps we will be able to say: ‘Never was so much owed by so many to so few’.

Which is why I place such importance on the role of WAF and its capacity to nourish and encourage, inspire and inform…. to shine that torch well down the tracks to show how we should shape the tomorrow that will shape the next generation’s future like never before.   

Read other WAFN Articles.

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