Networks + wires

Thumbing Royston Landau’s New Directions in British Architecture (1968), part of the Studio Vista series, brought two interesting items to our attention. We’ve been looking at the birth of computing in Manchester and Cambridge and have come to learn that Lyons & Co. catering company ordered one of the first business computing machines in the UK. The firm was also responsible for the commissioning of Cedric Price to conduct a feasibility study into a ‘walk through’[1] centre to act as an ‘information machine’[2]for the public. The scheme was proposed for an existing building on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road in London and known by the acronym OCH (Oxford Street Corner House) and designed to handle up to 5,000 visitors and staff in a flexible and dynamic arrangement designed to offer skills training, ‘teleconnections’ for the press, information storage and inter-city conference exchanges. Price conceived these interfaces using diagrams that made allusion to scientific structures and interconnectivity. This particular project preempts a plethora of technologies and services that have become embedded in modern cultural life, as far as Price was concerned the site and the city ‘must indeed allow for continuous delight in the unknown in social terms’ [3].

‘OCH can be used as a citizens’ inquiry service where teleconnections can be made to press news rooms, travel agencies, government ministries, to Parliament, industry, commerce etc, thus making information accessible which is at present underused or ignored because of access difficulties. [diagram A].

Or OCH can offer a skill-learning or research facility service through programmed machines [a Link drive-a-car trainer or a language teaching machine] or through teleconnections to other study centres. [diagram B]

Or OCH can be used as a centre equipped to provide facilities for information exchange, at a meeting level, at a conference level, or at an inter-city [concurrent exchange] conference level. [diagram C]

The basic user component in the centre would be the two-seater information carrel, but open floor space for observation, wandering, wondering, rest and refreshment by mobile preparation units is fundamental to the full use of the centre.’

Price did not consult a UK computer manufacturer during his period of research and development, instead he corresponded with US firm IBM over the use of their 360-30 computer in the development of a ‘cyber-teashop’.[4] The variety of high street typologies and interconnectivity of media that this proposal preempts are vast – the shop as no longer a place for exchange of finance and product, but as a showroom in the manner of the pioneering Nike Town projects of the 1990s, virtual learning environments, video conferencing and media hubs are but a few of the later established settings that can be perceived as embedded within Price’s notion.

Matthews (2007) writing of the project proposes that OCH ‘was a deliberate attempt to explore new architectural and educational territories’[5] and quotes Price as wishing to examine these contexts ‘unfettered by tradition – scholastic, economic, academic or class structure’[6]Matthews continues to suggest that the scheme developed as biased towards the technological concerns of the framework and that the social agency and interactivity became less prominent as Margaret Littlewood was not involved in the project. Of course a technologically driven series of environments had already emerged during the 1950s in the form of new manufacturing facilities which, in some senses, whilst acknowledging of the ergonomic demands of an environment were largely technocratic in nature.

Which leads us to the second and ultimately technocratic incidence of architecture, the Central Electricity Generating Board’s (CEGB) National Tower Testing Station (NTTS) at Cheddar Gorge in Somerset. The site was designed by a team under the direction of W.R. Box and operated as a commercial testing laboratory for the full scale testing of pylons and other structures from 1966. Landau, writing in 1969, is fascinated by its hugely flexible demands and expandable setting as architecture without buildings and whilst not emerging from a critical territory nonetheless embodied the spirit of Price and his contemporaries. The dramatic night time photo is from Landau’s book, as is the schematic.[7]

A 100 sqft mounting pad was secured to the floor of the disused quarry and the quarry sides used as fixing points to test the strength of the towers. Without the use of this particular site a 200ft high stand alone structure would have been required to serve the same function as the post-industrial manufactured landscape. The unique laboratory allowed specific loads to be applied to sections of the towers to test one area of the structure at a time and not to test the entirety to destruction.[8]

As ever those ‘pesky kids’, the urban explorers, have been scratching about the modern day ruins of this not so distant remnant of the future. The photograph above is from the UK site 28dayslater and was taken by user ‘rigsby‘ in December 2007, even less now remains on site as testified by later visits. As an edifice this scheme is loaded with associations to things that interest us: the infrastructure and architecture of the post-war period, the design work of the nationalised industries, the hardware of infrastructure, planning and infrastructure as networks and the use of scientific language in design, modern ruins and a host of other loosely floating notions yet to be tied down. In many senses we are yet to arrive at the type of mobile and ultimately flexible architecture presupposed by a generation of future thinkers, in others the ‘new’ forms of socio-cultural space have been erased from the memory as reality fast outstrips imagination – who remembers internet cafes with names like ‘Cyberia’? One installation here reminds us of the hardware demands of the other – the apparently ethereal, networked space, ‘free’ at the point of connection, tied by its attendant transmission devices. Infrastructure can be volume or void, solid or lattice in its manifestation, but its steady accretion in service of our continuing urbanisation in virtual and real contexts can be seen as the surreptitious age of networks + wires.

[1] Landau, R. (1968) New Directions in British Architecture (London: Studio Vista) p.108.

[2] Landau, R. (1968) p.108.

[3] Price, C. (1984) The Square Book (London: Wiley Academy) 2003 Edition, p.54.

[4] Matthews, S. (2007) From Agit-Prop to Free Space: The Architecture of Cedric Price (London: Black Dog Publishing) p.177.

[5] Matthews, S. (2007) p.180.

[6] Price, C. (1984) ‘Oxford Corner House’ in Cedric Price: Works II (London: Architectural Association) p.65 as quoted by Matthews, S. (2007) p.180.

[7] Landau, R. (1968) pp.88-89.

[8] Lightfoot, E. & Duggan, D.M. ‘Rig for failure tests on scaffold towers’ in Materials and Structures, Volume 8, Number 6 (1975) pp.473-479.

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One thought on “Networks + wires

  1. I used to work there putting instrumentation on the nuclear fuel flasks, in order that we could test the fuel flasks to destruction by crashing a British Rail Train into it at 100mph. We also did test on Dowty pit props for coal mining amongst other interesting projects. Nick Dodridge formerly CEGB now EDF.

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