• The Isolation Files #3 – ‘Instant’ architecture

    Demand is falling for the modular, transportable or slot-together medical facilities brought quickly into being around the world, although many have proved critical. Traditionally, speed is considered antithetical to good architecture. Consideration of the brief, site and approach followed by construction itself all take years – typically three to five for any large building today – with the implication that effectiveness, efficiency and, yes, aesthetics have been thoroughly considered in that time too. Yet permanent as well as temporary buildings have appeared every fifty years or so since the industrial age began which were in fact conceived and – especially – fabricated in months rather than years…


    Completed: 1800

    Building: Ditherington Flax Mill (Shrewsbury, UK)

    Architect: Charles Bage

    Construction: 12 months

    Function: Textile mill

    Capacity: 900 spindles

    Materials: Iron, bricks, timber, glass

    Features: Iron frame; non-structural brick elevations

    Bage was actually a structural engineer. He had worked closely with fellow engineer William Strutt to produce the earliest known analysis of the strength of iron beams and columns, and used the knowledge to build this mill for spinning flax into linen yarn and thread. Ditherington has a structure of cast iron columns and beams spanning the building at each floor level, with floors on brick arches tied by wrought iron bars. This is entirely self-supporting and the brick elevations are merely weather-proofing. Ditherington was far more fire-resistant than mills built from the traditional timber and the first iron-framed building in the world. It is thus regarded as the ancestor of the iron- and steel-framed office building or skyscraper, which only appeared – in Chicago – well over three quarters of a century later.


    Completed: 1851

    Building: Crystal Palace (London, UK)

    Architect: Joseph Paxton

    Construction: 9 months

    Function: Exhibition venue

    Area: 92,000 square metres

    Materials: Iron, timber, glass

    Features: Kit of parts; self-supporting structure; modular wall panels

    Paxton had pioneered iron and glass construction with a great greenhouse on the Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire. He sketched his initial idea for this temporary exhibition venue on a train and, having been selected over many renowned architects to build his scheme, partnered with a contractor to produce a full set of plans in 10 days. Every component was designed to be simple and repetitive, allowing volume manufacture at reasonable cost and fast assembly. The structure was formed from iron columns and lattice frames, both cast and wrought; the columns acted as downpipes. It followed a grid that was itself driven by the largest panes of plate glass then manufactured. Those on the roof were formed into units and fitted from trolleys. The floorboards were initially used for hoarding the site and external walls were modular, composed of glazing panels, ventilation louvres or timber. The Exhibition made a 40% profit and the building was re-used elsewhere in expanded form afterward.


    Completed: 1895

    Building: Reliance Building (Chicago, US)

    Architect: Daniel H. Burnham, John Root, Charles B. Atwood

    Construction: 8 months

    Function: Commercial tower

    Floors: 16

    Materials: Steel, terracotta, glass

    Features: Steel frame; terracotta cladding; electric light and telephone in each office

    The Reliance is generally accepted to be the first building to bring together the steel frame, a lightweight ‘skin’ and large expanses of expensive plate glass to make an office tower whose rooms were flooded with daylight. Careful column specification and design removed the need for cross-bracing whilst still providing good wind resistance. This economy, plus the absence of masonry above the ground floor (which was part of an earlier scheme aborted after the death of Root), meant it was exceptionally fast to build, taking just twelve weeks for the frame to be assembled. This was enclosed with white, glazed terracotta pieces that were thinner than brick or stone, aiding the provision of daylight. Intended for rental as professional chambers to doctors, dentists and so on, tenants began occupying the building on New Year’s Day, 1895.


    Completed: 1939

    Building: Maison du Peuple de Clichy (Paris, France)

    Architect: Eugène Beaudouin, Marcel Lods, Jean Prouvé

    Construction: 26 months (excluding emergency basement shelter)

    Function: Community facility

    Area: 2,000 square metres

    Materials: Steel, glass

    Features: Cladding independent of structure; moveable internals; adjustable roof

    Intended to provide in one building a covered market, village hall, conference room, cinema and offices for a union and the local council, the ‘people’s house’ is a key project featuring the designs of metal worker and architect Prouvé. To combine the contradictory needs of the brief, his wall and floor elements are separate from the structure and can be installed, erected or moved as needed, creating for example a meeting venue with partitions or an open trading area out of the same space at different times of the week. The roof could open as needed. Toilets, stairs and other fittings were prefabricated. Prouvé was inspired by the automobile and aeronautics industry, anticipating the work of the British High-Tech movement, and later specialised in metal curtain walling which often had built-in shutters and vents.


    Completed: 1966

    Building: DeLaveaga Elementary School (Santa Cruz, USA)

    Architect: Leefe & Ehrenkrantz

    Construction: 9 months

    Function: School

    Roll: 270 students (initial building)

    Materials: Steel, brick, glass

    Features: Demountable partitions; moveable services and storage

    DeLaveaga was one of a dozen schools built under California’s experimental School Construction Systems Development (SCSD) programme, serving the rising population of post-war America via an industrialised, component-based approach to the provision of education facilities. SCSD was created by architect Ezra Ehrenkrantz who was inspired by the comparable British Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme (CLASP) of 1957. Six subsystems comprised the SCSD specification, encompassing structure (excluding external walls), air conditioning (within the roof space and repositionable), lighting and so on. Commissioning echoed the aerospace industry, as each school board gave performance goals for suppliers to respond to with their versions of the subsystems. These therefore had to be compatible with each other to allow the necessary flexibility. Some bids included maintenance for a period.


    Completed: 1993

    Building: Igus GmbH (Cologne, Germany)

    Architect: Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners

    Construction: 15 months

    Function: Factory

    Area: 7,400 square metres

    Materials: Steel, aluminium, GRP, glass

    Features: Unobstructed floors; service runs in ceiling; interchangeable cladding panels

    Designed for a plastics company as an expandable factory, warehouse and testing facility with the specific additional requirement of a complete change of use thereafter, Igus was one of a series of buildings by High-Tech architects that were flexible, fast and future-proof in their design and erection. Steel masts with tension rods work with steel beams arranged as a simple square grid to form the structure; the insulated exterior skin includes areas that can be changed between glazed, solid, grille or door inserts, and fittings can be attached directly to its inside face. Services are not fixed and hang from the roof or sit outside the overall envelope. The self-contained pods are plugged into ducting and risers and can float to another location on the floor. Domes of GRP bring daylight and natural ventilation.


    Completed: 2019

    Building: Mjøstårnet (Brumunddal, Norway)

    Architect: Voll Arkitekter

    Construction: 18 months

    Function: Mixed-use tower

    Floors: 18

    Materials: Timber, glass

    Features: Prefabricated timber structure and cladding

    The world’s tallest all-timber building contains a hotel, apartments, offices and a restaurant. Its structure, lift shafts and façades are made exclusively from two kinds of factory-made engineered timber – glulam, where layers of planed wood are sandwiched together with their grain aligned, and cross-laminated timber where the grain is alternated. Adhesive is used in both cases. Here the former was used for columns, beams and diagonals, the latter for elevator shafts and balconies. Elements were brought to the site assembled before being craned into position. Such materials are increasingly employed as alternatives to concrete and steel, compared to which they are more sustainable and renewable without sacrificing strength and durability.


Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here


Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own collage-style spread.

Ivy Press, 2018

ISBN 9781782405443

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