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ArgumentNo. 13/2021

Review of "Learning from the European City" by Jonathan Sergison (Sergison Bates Architects)

  • / PhDc. arch., Faculty of Interior Design, University of Architecture and Urbanism „Ion Mincu”, Bucharest, RO


The lecture is a combined investigative look into the growth of the European city from an urbanistic viewpoint and into how a sensitive and studied understanding thereof has informed the architecture of the British Sergison Bates architectural practice, particularly in how they address housing as a societal building program within the context of the distinct characteristics of the European city. The full lecture can be seen on Youtube at: watch?v=tX1cqLfKTYw.

Cleverly presented through a series of themes under the title “Twenty-one not always connected thoughts on housing”, Jonathan Sergison concisely lays out his ideas on the essential relevance of collective social agreement in the accomplishment of community accommodation. He points out that housing is the dominant building stock of any city, generally comprising up to seventy per cent of the occupied land available and that the space is also predominantly settled by suburban dwellings. Historically, this distinctive symbiotic relationship is most clearly illustrated by the emergence of the terraced house in mid-17th century England, which gave rise to a specific urban composition, a product of both economy and an intentional collective agreement which generated the physical and visual character of the traditional town. And although this most typical emblem of Englishness has, over the centuries, spread as far afield as the Americas, Asia and Australia, Sergison drolly points out that its origins have a particularly continental root, emerging from the Dutch “hofjies” (courtyard dwellings) of the 15th century. Interestingly, from the beginning, these mostly identical, minuscule houses, generally built for impoverished widows, can be seen as the precursors of what we would today refer to as “social housing”. Aside from the grand Georgian developments of England or the Place de Vosges in Paris which immediately spring to mind, he points out that many of the decisions of past generations pertaining to their shared habitation often came about in an informal manner, through the abandonment of city quarters or by political decision. However, as true as this observation may be, it would be somewhat lacking to discount the more “selfish” contributions of the small estate owners and property speculators of the 18th century, which gave rise to much of Bath and Bloomsbury in London for example and are celebrated today as models of harmonious urban living. Specifically, the development of close living conditions in most major European cities was not necessarily born of need but rather through a combination of life situations on all levels of class society, both involving the penurious and the well to do. Additionally, due to the compact nature of early European cities, invariably due to defensive provisions and consequently land being scarce, the urban layout inevitably evolved towards blocks of narrow, convoluted, house-lined streets. As the threat of outside invasion receded throughout most of Europe by the mid-18th century and with the emergence of the Industrial Revolution, (ca. 1760-1840), the scheme of compact dwelling units arranged along an elongated street clearly transpired as the logical solution to efficient urban organisation. Consequently, it becomes difficult to determine with certainty the true origins of the terraced form of habitation given the numerous evolving contributions from across continental Europe over time.

Sergison goes on to describe the rapacious nature of the great city as an economic all-consuming organism, in a constant state of flux, of demolition and renewal. Contrasting images of the New York skyline and of the 8th arrondissement of Paris with that of an early 20th century European tenement street scene, he argues for the perseverance of a more permanent sentiment regarding the historical built fabric of the traditional European city core. It is only through the varied experiences and usage cycles of a dwelling or building, which can bridge over hundreds of years and different epochs, that the particular built and consequently cultural identity of a city can be appreciated. He refers to the various dwelling forms from semi-detached to the “Mansion blocks” of London and hints towards a European model that may ascertain to a common approach to future housing. One can go further, however, and allude to the exceptional importance of the distinct cultural differences that are so representative of the European continent. Europe is unique in its diversity of peoples, languages and cultures, tightly packed onto this minor landmass between the seas. Currently, the seemingly irreversible march towards globalisation, combined with the subsequent falling into line of architects still imbued with the ethos of Modernist and Internationalist thought, has largely ignored the native and regional building heritage still so prevalent and varied across the continent. To use the word “European” to broadly describe a set approach to a common future architecture does not take into genuine consideration the valuable legacy of the past, particularly as regards housing. The migration of building crafts and forms by way of conquest or religious beliefs has invariably taken place over the ages but has always exhibited a specific regional or cultural particularity. In contrast, the contemporary transplanting of building design and aesthetics has become almost instantaneous, reducing the role of architecture to something of an unnoticed backdrop to an unbridled consumer-orientated society. Therefore, a thoughtful revisiting of the culturally diverse and rich architectural heritage of the European cities could be very informative and indeed formative in a reshaping of discourse towards a regionally sensitive alternative to the contemporary train of thought.

Another topic of discussion was that of the role of materials and how they are applied to the building in order to maintain a historical link to the past. Sergison correctly postulates that the current fashion of sustainability coincidentally adapts very well to the promotion of more locally sourced building materials. The traditional brick facades of London or Amsterdam or the timber dwellings of Scandinavia were economically bound to the close proximity of building materials found within the local environment. The Mjøstårnet tower by Voll Arkitekter in Brumunddal, Norway, for example, is now the tallest timber building in the world, standing at over 80 metres in height. Brumunddal is a major region of forestry and wood processing and all materials were sourced about the area. Yet, although this presents itself as a positive trend, and being perhaps more sustainably in balance with nature, there still seems to be a general hesitancy on the part of designers to begin to study the possibility of a more local approach to the value of traditional architecture. Perhaps in addressing this, and coupled with the heedful employment of local materials, a more specifically tailored design could be produced. In other words, the creation of an “architecture of place”.

The work of the Basel-based architectural studio Diener & Diener is also discussed and Sergison Bates has previously collaborated with them, having been shortlisted for the new Museum of London in the historic quarter of Smithfield. Both practices nurture the common motivation of the placing of a building in the urban fabric, which seeks to establish a correlation between the project itself and the city’s social cohesion. Aesthetically also, they share many characteristics of program and design. There is a clear discipline and rigor in their approach and a careful attention to detail. Even so, one cannot shy away from the provoking thought that, despite a clear knowledge and sensitivity of and towards their metier, it is sometimes difficult to perceive how some of their work achieves the stated objective of melding with the existing city. It is particularly on their larger dwelling projects that the sheer scale becomes overwhelming and a constant repetition commences to raise the question of the relationship of the individual to the building itself, as opposed to the position of the building within the city. Of course a careful negotiation between such important and varying aspects is always difficult but, nevertheless, it is essential that such a balance should be struck.