Christian Coop

Christian Coop

Designer, NBBJ
Christian has been drawing stationary objects since the age of three, and this inevitably led to him becoming an architect. Now a senior designer at NBBJ, Christian supports the design direction of the London office. He still draws buildings everyday but now gets paid to do it. Go figure.

Bring Back the Frost Fairs!

Natural Ice Rinks Could Once Again Bring Public Space to the Surface of the River Thames

December 15, 2015

Designer, NBBJ

For centuries until the early 1830s, when the original London Bridge limited the flow of the river and caused it to freeze over for large parts of the winter, the Frost Fair was a reoccurring citywide celebration. During that time the British winter was more severe than now, and the river was wider and slower, and impeded by the Old London Bridge. The festival would often involve a market and an impromptu public festival. The last-ever Frost Fair, lasting four days in February 1814, even featured an elephant that marched across the river alongside Blackfriars Bridge.

In celebration of the holiday season, we have taken inspiration from this once-great London event to return the winter spirit to the capital. Our concept for ‘Frost Flowers’, a series of natural ice rinks on the River Thames, would restore this once-regular event to the surface of the river.

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The scheme proposes ‘flower petals’ that would unfurl into large circular discs. Submerged slightly below the water level, these pan-like objects would isolate a thin basin of water from the flow of the river. Each petal will have a cooling element which enhances the natural freezing process. This surface would become the site of a renewed Frost Fair bringing public ice-skating, markets and exhibitions to the people of London.

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Created from a simple foldaway structure, the project could be easily installed and adapted to multiple locations throughout London and potentially many other city rivers around the world.

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The Thames has seen intent interest in 2015 with proposed bridges, floating villages and swimming pools. This concept aims to restore public recreational activity to the surface of the river, in an area sheltered from commercial shipping lanes, with an annual event that would reconnect London to its heritage.

In a dense, modern city such as London the Thames provides a unique open vista where the history and origins of this great city can be viewed. A draw for Londoners and tourists alike, the South Bank has become a bustling leisure area with bars and markets lining the river. New, sustainable space for leisure activities is now desperately needed, and accordingly we looked to our heritage to find one possible solution.

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Banner image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Take Housing to the Streets!

London’s Streets Contain Enough Developable Land to Meet 50 Years of Housing Needs

September 21, 2015

Designer, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This proposal was developed (and shortlisted) as part of New London Architecture’s New Ideas for Housing competition.

The history of cities and urbanisation is a history of increasing speed. Cities developed and grew through improved infrastructure, from foot to car to rapid transit systems, each allowing larger conurbations and higher densities.

We have reached a watershed moment: our existing infrastructure is ageing, populations are rising and technology allows us to communicate at the speed of light. Movement patterns have also changed, with an emphasis on more sustainable living as people wish to shop, work and play locally:

  • Local cafes have become the new office meeting rooms.
  • Remote technology allows people to work from home.
  • More commuters travel out-of-hours and across reduced distances.
  • Car ownership is decreasing while cycling increases.

In 2015 the International Transport Forum published a report entitled ‘Urban Mobility System Upgrade: How self-driving cars could change city traffic [PDF], examining the changes that might result from the large-scale uptake of self-driving vehicles. Lisbon, Portugal, was modelled and its occupants’ existing trips simulated as if serviced via a self-driving fleet. The results were surprising:

  • Cars will get smaller.
  • Nearly the same mobility can be delivered with 10% of the cars currently used.
  • Public transport would all but disappear.
  • Reduced parking needs will free up significant public and private space both on- and off-street for development.
  • Traffic accidents will be significantly reduced, as 90% are caused by human error.

To meet these changes we will need to adapt our road system and laws, and this will free up substantial areas for development. London’s built area includes more than 9,000 miles of streets, more than a third of the built surface area, which is typical of most global cities. Streets can be social spaces but their many lanes can separate communities and control pedestrian movement.

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We feel these streets offer a fantastic untapped resource for new homes — homes which can be developed without changing the existing urban morphology or functionality of the road network. Even in a strongly growing city such as London we can provide all our housing needs forecast for 2050 (over 1.5 million homes, plus retail/office) within the existing street network whilst meeting our changing transportation needs.

Our proposal is to reserve a 4-8m section of road (around 30% of the road surface) for housing whilst creating shared surface streets on either side of the new development. The following diagrams (click to enlarge) show how this idea could take shape and allow for improved infrastructure as technologies develop.

The houses provide for ‘starter homes’: 2 bed and 3 bed family homes with gardens. The house has been designed to protect existing amenity (through overlooking) and minimise daylighting impacts. In many instances different designs may be possible, including multi-tenanted apartments, retail or live/work, delivering the right homes directly within existing communities.

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The designs ensure minimal impact on existing residents’ amenities and would create improved public spaces whilst delivering family-sized homes close to work and shops. The housing could also increase a city’s surface water capture by more than 20%, which is important as drinking water becomes more scarce and flooding more commonplace. Additionally the streets would provide improved planting, air quality, food production and biodiversity.

The resultant building boom and standardisation of housing design would secure industrial jobs previously related to car manufacturing. Legally the framework for such development could occur with little additional legislation, as most streets are government-owned, and light rights would not impede.

The streets also contain much of our ageing infrastructure which is due for replacement. The sale of housing would offset the cost of infrastructure and future-proof access for ongoing replacement.

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We feel this approach is a game-changer. It can be implemented globally for both existing conurbations and new settlements, and it would provide an opportunity to future-proof our transport systems.

In a world of increasing need, mass migration and decreasing resources we must make our cities work harder for us. This idea may go some way to reaching that goal.

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Banner image courtesy of August Brill/Flickr.

All other images courtesy NBBJ.

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The ‘No Shadow Tower’

How Tall Buildings Can Bring Daylight Back to the Public Realm

March 18, 2015

Designer, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This design concept was originally developed for New London Architecture and published in New London Quarterly.

With its ever-increasing demand for city living and tall buildings, London faces a significant problem of over-shadowing. Dark and gloomy public spaces fail to support a growing city. Our ‘No Shadow Tower’ aims to mitigate this, by creating two high-rise buildings that work together to redirect sunlight and visibly reduce shadows at the most active place, the public realm at the base of the towers.

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Using computational design we developed an algorithm that traces the sun’s incidence angles during each day in a year and translates the results into building form. We optimised this form by further parameters: even distribution of the reflected light, views of the Thames and a maximum of reflecting surface area.

As the sun incidence angles differ at every location on earth, the result of the algorithm is unique to the buildings’ location. In this instance, we chose 51.4800° N, 0.0000° W — on the Greenwich Meridian, which sets the global time standard and emphasizes our site’s relationship with the sun.

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Unlike other reflective towers, which have concave surfaces that focus the sun’s rays like a magnifying glass, No Shadow Towers reflect pane by pane. This creates pools of sunlight and a moving light show on the ground, reducing shade up to 50%. Although shadows to the north can’t be helped, sunlight is redirected to where it is needed most, to the space between the towers, filled with activity and life. Even in winter, when the sun is lower in the sky and blocked more by the south tower, this concept works well in morning and late afternoon (and in winter people are more likely to remain indoors).

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The towers are mixed-use for greater density and social efficiency, with residential uses at higher levels and increasingly active uses at the base. Their elegant sweeping and twisting form allows a perimeter tube design which integrates the structure within the façade, which allows for great flexibility because it is column-free.

These towers can be developed anywhere in the world: the algorithm can adapt the form to any site. More importantly, No Shadow Towers would benefit their surrounding communities as much as the people who live and work in them.

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Banner image courtesy of keith ellwood/Flickr.

All other images courtesy of the design team: David Kosdruy, James Pinkerton and Christian Coop.

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Let’s Build Open-Source Cities

Planners and the Public Have Forgotten How to Talk to Each Other. Here's How to Reopen the Dialogue.

May 8, 2014

Designer, NBBJ

CIAM, Moscow, 1933. The architect Le Corbusier took out his pen and sketched his idea for a singular residential block called the Unité d’Habitation. A provocative vision, it caught the imagination of the émerger European modernist architects who had seen Europe ravaged by war and its housing stock depleted. They looked towards Le Corb’s grand vision for inspiration, a decision which changed the face of Europe over the next 50 years. Not everyone was so inspired, however.

The modernist legacy created both mistakes and also masterpieces which are now much loved, but perhaps the biggest legacy was the disconnect that developed between architect and public. A feeling that decisions had been imposed on the community without consideration of its needs, history or culture. This disconnect became entrenched with designers and the wider public generally misunderstanding each other’s aims due to a lack of meaningful conversation.

Beginning in recent years, formal consultation events are now held as part of the planning process to help address this but often fail to go far enough. Communities often feel they are being “empowered” to say yes to developments without the possibility of saying no. The cycle of misunderstanding reemerges, affecting future social cohesion and limiting the positive effects of change.

In London we are now seeing the effect of such a disconnect. A recent New London Architecture study found that more than 230 tall buildings, mostly residential, are in the planning pipeline within greater London. (I was involved with two of them.) The study has sent shock waves through communities and those who represent them. It has resurfaced old discussions: the fragility of the London skyline versus the chronic need for more housing, the blighting of communities versus the importance of investment. The real problem, however, is not the number of tall buildings, but the sudden realisation that so much change is happening at once, change which was not expected, change over which we have little say or for which we feel unprepared.

How do we move forward? I believe it’s time for a new iterative model of public engagement, one which is fully inclusive of communities, one which would allow the possibility to educate both sides and help to deliver informed change which improves outcomes. A model which is more closely aligned with the new emerging world of technology, founded on the sharing of information.

Open-source development originated within the software world to allow dispersed groups of people to collaborate and improve software programs via the Internet. It has since spread to crowdfunding platforms, open-source drug development and other fields. Some are exploring this approach within the built environment — Architecture for Humanity has established the Open Architecture Network to help design solutions for the developing world. The system allows the public to comment on proposals as they develop, to suggest improvements and share expertise — to debate, discuss and inform change.

Such a tool, used on a city-wide basis, could provide a framework for urban development that is fully inclusive. It would provide an important feedback loop to ensure that designs develop to meet the public’s aspirations whilst retaining a structure that does not stifle architectural vision. Like the New York Times’s excellent ‘Reshaping New York’ feature, it would provide the sort of overview that the public needs to understand the collective impact of development. But most importantly, it would provide a bond of mutual trust between strong communities and those who seek to make them stronger still.

What is certain is real change only occurs when communities and designers work together. In today’s connected world we now have the tools to make that change.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

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Pick up the Pencil

Cognitive Research Proves Drawing Is Good for the Brain. Here's Why.

April 7, 2014

Designer, NBBJ

‘The art of drawing which is of more real importance to the human race than that of writing … should be taught to every child just as writing is.’
— John Ruskin

Since the first man doodled on the walls of the Chauvet cave, we have sought to leave our mark: to record, interpret and understand the world around us. In many ways drawing and its increasing sophistication through the ages helps chart our civilisation’s development from the simplest cave paintings to the most complex technical drawings which allow us to build our cities.

Yet in our increasingly networked digital age fewer and fewer people turn to drawing to capture or convey ideas. As architects we often complain that young designers can’t draw, saying that it impairs their design thinking, but perhaps it’s actually bigger than that — it impairs their overall thinking.

So when did we forget to draw? It helps to consider when we began to learn.

When my daughter was born, I did a lot of reading about child development, and I learned that at 18 months children will pick up a pen and begin to make large marks. At this age the child is interested in both process and results. Perception is important, as unintentional shapes may trigger associations and aid cognitive development. Drawing develops into a social activity; shapes begin to represent parents, friends or even the child herself.

By the age of 6 children have become concrete thinkers: drawing becomes about how the world is rather than how it could be, lines are used to denote boundaries selectively and intelligently, figures are two-dimensional. It should be noted there is no further development phase for perspective drawing, rather this is a construct of the Renaissance period.

Sadly by the age of 10 many children stop drawing. As the child becomes more concerned with proportion of figures she becomes self-critical and tends to abandon the act even if it is enjoyed.

So there you have it: from abstraction to representation, independence, sociability and failure, all apparent within our drawn lines. No wonder drawings are a fertile ground for psychoanalysis and research. As expected many studies have attempted to show the benefits of drawing and creative activities; such work has shown that focusing on a creative activity can promote activity-dependent plasticity. This means that the brain changes, forming new networks in response to what you do, in three areas:

  1. The alerting network, which enables the brain to achieve and maintain an alert state;
  2. The orienting network, which keeps the brain attuned to external events in the environment;
  3. The executive attention network, which helps control emotions and choose among conflicting thoughts in order to focus on goals over long periods of time.

Research such as ‘The Perceptual Foundations of Drawing Ability’ [PDF] undertaken by Rebecca Chamberlin at University College London has attempted to show the results of such cognitive improvements by comparing adults with differing drawing abilities. The results show that people who can draw well have better psychological performance in both perception and memory.

Chamberlin found that if you struggle to draw, you tend not to see the world as it really is. According to the research our visual systems automatically misjudge size, shape and even colour. However, attuned sketchers learn to overcome these systems using knowledge and proportion to overcome visual conflicts. Additionally, good drawers have the ability to remember visual relationships and patterns, such as the angle between two lines, and to record relationships more accurately. Finally, drawers have the mental aptitude to switch between the holistic and the detailed, to focus on what matters and convey form with efficient and accurate lines: as cognitive psychologist John Tchalenko discovered, ‘Artists appear to break down more complex images into simple lines.’

The good news is that Chamberlin found that drawing ability and the underpinning mental processes will increase with practice, raising the possibility of increasing intellectual functioning in adults as well as children. The benefits to our working and emotional lives are obvious and exciting.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to draw something.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

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