As an early 19th-century infrastructural enterprise, London's canal system took shape to move the countryside's raw products into the city's industrial districts. In the mid-19th-century it declined due to the railroads, and fell almost completely out of use as Britain's automotive era expanded in the 1960s.
But the canal system is an effective visual theme for the exhibition Gritty Brits, which shows through June 3 at the Carnegie Museum's Heinz Architectural Center. Many projects in the show are physically near or even floating in these waterways. More importantly, the adjacent, often decaying, industrial neighborhoods of London's East End are where the young practitioners find their clients. How do you build in the oddly shaped sites, discarded warehouses and multi-ethnic communities nearby? That question links these projects as much as does the water.
Six firms have work displayed here: Adjaye/Associates, Caruso St John Architects, FAT (Fashion Architecture Taste), Níall McLaughlin Architects, muf, and Sergison Bates architects. All of them live and work in London.
While the neighborhoods are frequently gritty, any grit in the practitioners is more like persistence than actual roughness. David Adjaye's Dirty House exemplifies the works that install refinement into rough streets in transition. On a blunt, cubic structure designed as a home and double studio for artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Adjaye covers the outside walls in flat black anti-graffiti paint, to withstand artfully the persistence of crime amid the neighborhood's slow hipsterization. Prostitutes, Adjaye recounted in his recent Pittsburgh lecture, have been known to write on the windows in lipstick. But the building cornice is a cantilevered white plane that seems to float on light, as if a lid is being lifted to expose the box's glowing contents. There's a luxuriously spare penthouse up there, and it culminates a network of rigorous and austere white spaces in the floors below (which might be better served by more extensive documentation in the show and catalog). Notably, though, HAC commissioned six architectural models for the show, and the pristine metal representations of Adjaye's work are supremely elegant.
Indeed, the exquisite private house plays no small role in this show. Caruso St John's well-published Brick House, in Bayswater, London, snugly but delicately inserts a free-form residence into a site described as a "horse's head" in shape. A very restrained palette of plain brown brick and concrete floors and roof allows for a sculptural tour-de-force of folded roof planes and inflected walls shaping open living spaces. The humble palette underscores the architectural agility.
Meanwhile, the biggest burst of sustainable design in this show comes in Níall McLaughlin's ARC Center for Excellence in the Built Environment in Hull, Yorkshire. A movable exhibition pavilion for a port city now cut off by highway construction, the lean-to structure is made partially from locally manufactured mobile homes. A small "thicket" of solar cells and wind turbines on high poles stands at the front of the structure, whose canted roof serves as a screen for a project image of moving waves. As in other McLaughlin projects, the mechanical features are both ingenious and rigorously detailed.
Special credit should go to muf, which, while designing a few artistically rich pavilions, also raises the level of social conscience in this show. The firm's project My Dream Today: Your Dream Tomorrow: Horse's Trail reconfigured the nearly abandoned open space around some high-rise public housing into a garden and horse arena through a process that involved both collaboration with neighborhood children and resuscitation of the nearly lost tradition of riding.
Not incidentally, muf will be one participating firm in a series of presentations starting at 5 p.m. Tue., Feb. 13, at the Pittsburgh Children's Museum. muf and four other international but not necessarily British firms will discuss proposals for the "Charm Bracelet," a campaign to revitalize public spaces in the North Side.
With Gritty Brits, Heinz Architectural Center curator Raymund Ryan has astutely assembled an up-and-coming movement and commented on it thoughtfully in the show's catalog, which is enriched with an essay by writer and filmmaker Iain Sinclair. Ryan states with pride that this generation of architects has moved from compact East End projects to a variety of international commissions of grand scale. London's canals may no longer move many raw materials -- but, even if only metaphorically, they have helped a small architectural industry expand.