Friday, 27 May 2016

Clerkenwell Design Week: things I particularly liked.

A great day out, looking at excellent design

We spent Tuesday at Clerkenwell Design Week, a three day event at where designers of all sorts exhibit their products at various locations in Clerkenwell: mostly furniture, furnishings and lighting, but a whole range of other products including ceramics, graphics, spectacles frames, and wristwatches.
There was much to see, all of it of a very high standard. I was particularly interested in the sort of things that would be suitable for the home, rather than for commercial spaces. These are my personal highlights, the sort of things I would like in my own home, if I could.

Pluck Kitchens
We have been looking around kitchen showrooms, and while there is a lot of good stuff out there, a lot of it is pretty extravagant, and a little flashy for our taste. Pluck are a small firm of joiners in Brixton who have just launched their range of fitted kitchens. I was struck by their simple and restrained designs, and by their choice of colours. Cabinets are made from sustainable birch plywood, to make the most efficient use of the wood, and the surfaces covered with laminate, which is more durable than paint. They also use Sweet Chestnut and London Plane,  British woods not often used for furniture, and locally sourced where possible.  

The cut-out bit in the the doors and drawers, as an alternative to a doorknob, is elegant and clever:

w152 Busby lamp
A very clever, deceptively simple-looking lamp designed by Industrial Facility for Wästberg, with three USB ports that can be used for charging three separate devices. There are two models: Ambient for a more diffuse light, and Directable, for a more focussed beam. The LED lamps are dimmable. Built in to the charger is an intelligent system that detects the power required to charge each device that is connected to each USB port, so that each devoce charges up at its maximum rate, up to 3A (an iPhone plug charger runs at 1A, and iPad plug at 2.1A). The lamps can be free standing or wall-mounted, and are suitable for a whole range of situations, from bedside tables, to offices, to workshops.

Watch this charming video to get a better idea of the concept:

Morfus modular furniture
A range of simple, elegant and robust modular storage units. This British company uses sustainable northern European birch plywood for the units, which are manufactured in Derbyshire. According to the manufacturer, two trees are planted for each one that is used, so that all the CO2 involved in the production of the furniture and the shipping of the raw materials is sequestered. There are quite a few makers of modular furniture, but Morphus are particularly attractive, and I was impressed by their concern for sustainability. The man with the coffee in the picture below is the designer and founder of the company, Tim Williams.
Beautiful finely crafted wood furniture, made from British hardwoods by Ted Jefferis, with clean lines, subtle detailing, and elegant proportions. The tops of the tables and benches are varnished, and show the wood to perfection. The legs are slender and tapered, and sometimes spray painted so that they look as though they could be made of metal. The hexagonal brass bolts, flush with the tabletops, which secure them to the legs, are an attractive feature.

There was lots more that I saw and liked, but one of the most impressive things I came across was not for sale, or made by professional designers. This seating space in one of the exhibition areas was designed, fabricated and built by a group of GCSE (i.e. high school) students, in collaboration with Scale Rule, a collective of "engineers and architects who like teaching, designing, building and learning"

Here is a detail, showing the parts labelled for assembly:

To find out more about this project, there is a free online book.

All in all, it was a fun day out. We saw a lot of beautiful, well-designed things, and it was good to see that many of the makers seemed genuinely concerned with sustainability of their products. If you are interested in design, it's worth taking a day off to visit this show, which does not seem to take place on the weekend.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Boiled lamb

Originally an English dish, mostly eaten in France these days, it seems.

I’m not quite sure why, but I'm rather curious about the old English dish of boiled mutton and caper sauce. Perhaps it’s a vision of the sort of people you see in Rowlandson cartoons or Hogarth paintings tucking into vast joints of meat, washed down with several pints of claret.

The Dinner. From 'The Comforts Of Bath'. Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827). 
Handcoloured Aquatint, 1798.

According to a 2014 BBC Radio 4 documentary, mutton was highly prized in England until the 19th century, but fell out of favour and was replaced by lamb. This was partly to do with the fact that good mutton was delicious, but poor quality mutton could be very tough, whereas lamb was more consistent in its quality. In the 1960s and 1970s, the invention of synthetic fabrics lead to reduced demand for wool, which pushed sheep rearing into further decline

There have been some efforts to promote a revival of mutton, but as far as I can tell it doesn't seem to have caught on so far. I haven’t seen it on restaurant menus except in stews, and they don’t sell mutton in my local supermarket. I might try to get it from a halal butcher. According to the radio programme, the mutton sold in halal shops is fresh, and not aged in the way it would be in the English tradition, but it's worth a try, I think.

I have, however, had boiled leg of lamb, from a recipe in French Home Cooking by Paul Bocuse.

Boiled lamb seems also to have died out in England but it's a French classic, known as “gigot à l’anglaise”. Incidentally, according to various surveys, the most popular French dish is steak and chips, which may also be of English origin, as suggested by in this 17th century menu which I saw at the Musée Cognacq-Jay, listing “beef-stakes”, as well as "rosbiff".

Last weekend I thought it would be nice to have boiled leg of lamb, but the Bocuse cookbook had been packed away in anticipation of an impending house refurbishment, so I looked online for guidance. Based more or less on this recipe, I put chopped carrots, an onion studded with cloves, some celery, a head of garlic, a bay leaf, a bunch of parsley, and some fresh rosemary into a pot. I had planned to add a stock cube, but while shopping for the lamb, I found that my local Morrison’s supermarket had some lamb bones, so I used those instead. (My branch of Morrison’s are very good in that way: they regularly stock marrow bones, beef bones, chopped heart, and so on).

After adding water and bringing the whole lot to the boil, I simmered the lamb (a 1 kg leg portion, just right for two people) for about an hour. The recipe recommended 15-20 minutes per 500g but I had made a mistake and overdone it a bit. The meat was delicious and tender nevertheless. It's clearly a robust and forgiving method of cooking.

Previously, I had served the lamb with sauce gribiche, in accordance with the recipe in Bocuse. It had been a very good accompaniment but now I wanted caper sauce, which I had read about, but never before tasted. Using a recipe from the Guardian, I made the caper sauce with butter, cream, lamb stock from the cooking pot, parsley and lemon juice. I added rather more capers than they advised, which a good decision. The quantity of sauce was meant for eight people, but we found it about right for the two of us.

Served with boiled carrots and Jersey Royals, this was an excellent dish. I imagine the technique would suit the stronger and fuller flavour of mutton, and I must try that some time.

Just to finish off, this is a recipe I found on Flickr from the Bestway Cookery Gift Book (Fourth Book), published in 1929, in England.

Bestway Cookery Gift Book - Boiled Leg of Mutton

I think a bit of French influence has been a good thing as far as this English dish is concerned.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Bamboo bikes and buildings

At the Grand Designs Live show in London last weekend, I saw a bamboo bicycle for the first time, at a stand run by the Bamboo Bicycle Club. I’d heard about them, and it seemed like a nice idea, but this was the first time I’d seen one in the flesh. It was light, and felt strong. I’m not looking for a new bike right now, but if I were, I’d be strongly tempted to sign up for one of their workshops, and make one for myself.

Seeing the bikes got me thinking of buildings I had seen online which were made from bamboo. There seems to have been a lot of interest recently in using bamboo as a building material. It's strong and light, and considered to be one of the more environmentally friendly materials, because compared to conventional timber, it grows very rapidly and can be harvested after a much shorter time. 

I did wonder about its durability, because growing up in a place where clothes were dried on bamboo poles, I had seen how quickly they deteriorated. I have learnt that untreated bamboo lasts for less than 2 years outdoors, and only about 5 to 7 years if stored under cover. Bamboo also has a high starch content which makes if vulnerable to fungi, mould, and insects. However, it can be treated chemically, which extends its lifespan to about 25 years.

I'm not in a position to assess the technical and environmental aspects of bamboo for myself, but the evidence so far seems to suggest that it is a promising material with lots of potential for our time.

Green School in Bali, by Ibuku

Bamboo Hostels in Baoxi, China, by Anna Heringer

Low cost housing in Vietnam by (steel frame, lightweight walls of layered corrugated polycarbonate and bamboo), by Vo Truong Nghia architects 

Multi-storey car park, The Hague, Netherlands (babmboo exterior cladding)

German-Chinese House, Shanghai World Expo, by Markus Heinsdorff and MUDI (load-bearing bamboo)

Some people are now suggesting that skyscrapers can be built using bamboo as the structural material. Here are some of the winning entries in the Singapore Bamboo Skyscraper Competition

Here is a proposal by CRG architects
Are these megastructures really feasible? Somehow I doubt it, at least not at present, although I don't have the technical knowledge to make that judgement.
Anyway, the smaller scale projects that have actually been built look attractive, and there's a lot to be said for a material that's cheap, light, and environmentally friendly. I don't think I'll end up living in a bamboo house, except on holiday, but if I get a new bicycle, it might be made of bamboo.

Friday, 6 May 2016

A toddle through 20th and 21st century architecture at Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford

Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford, where I have worked since late 1995, was opened in 1940 as a tuberculosis sanatorium. Over the years, it grew to become the main hospital serving the town and the surrounding areas. As it outgrew the original premises, bits and pieces were added, but although some parts were partially demolished, nothing was completely knocked down and rebuilt. The end result is rather muddled, but an interesting catalogue of different architectural styles, and rather attractive in it's own way.

The original TB sanatorium was an elegant modern construction, with two long south-facing wings, designed so that the patients could get as much sunlight as possible.

Much of it was standing when I first arrived, but the side wings were later knocked down, and today this is all that remains. It's now somewhere at the back of the hospital, facing a car park.

The South Wing, with it's art deco doorway, also dates from that time.

Planning for the next phase of development began in the 1970s. After the usual delays, construction seems to have started in the 1980s. This was the main entrance to the hospital when I started working there, a building of the time, with it’s brick and concrete facade. It doesn’t look particularly distinguished, although it’s a little hard to tell, as I suspect that some bits might have been tacked on later. This sort of architecture has not been popular in the past, but in recent years, brutalism and concrete have become fashionable again. I think it does have a certain appeal, though this is perhaps not always easy to discern right now with all the skips and other utilities along the road outside.

The next expansion occurred in the 1990s, known at the time as “Project Alpha”. As you can see it’s a mediocre post-modern construction, typical of that rather unfortunate period, with pediments, string courses, and so on, tacked on for that "traditional" look. Quite frankly, it’s not to my taste. What, exactly, is the point of those silly little balls at the top? The less said about it the better.  Fortunately, it's not too obtrusive, and it's OK on the inside.

The most recent phase was completed in 2010. Modernism was back, thank goodness. The result is an inoffensive building, typical of its time, with a rather pleasant light filled atrium at the main entrance.

I haven’t mentioned the oldest building, Broomfield Court, built in 1904 as a manor house, and a rather nice example of t's type.

It currently houses the IT department and some other admin-type services. The hospital management used to be there too, but some years ago they moved out of their splendid isolation into the main hospital where the action was, which was the right thing to do. In case you're wondering, the current inhabitants are definitely not housed in the style to which the original owners were accustomed.

Whatever you might think about the architecture, the grounds are remarkably pleasant. There are trees and woodlands all around, and the green areas are very well planted and maintained. There are in fact two designated nature reserves within the hospital grounds, one of which I walk past on my way from the car park. The other is on my route to and from home if I choose to travel on foot. My father, an architect, thought that architecture was in may ways not as important as town planning or the environment in which the buildings were situated. Broomfield Hospital illustrates this point rather nicely. The architecture is of variable quality, but thanks to the gardens and the greenery, the general effect is very pleasing.