The Chair and the Figure

Newcastle University Stage 1 architecture student drawings for The Chair & the Figure are currently on display at the Shipley Art Gallery until 30 March 2017.  In this post architecture Teaching Fellow and project lead Elizabeth Baldwin Gray outlines how the project developed.


The original work produced for a two-week project consists of large-scale 1:1 pencil drawings of chairs ranging from the Bishop’s throne and Quire Stalls at Durham Cathedral to Marcel Breuer’s Wassily and Long Chair, as well as an Eames chair and ottoman, alongside contemporary chair designs presented to the students by Newcastle furniture designers. The original Marcel Breuer chairs, accessible to the students thanks to the Shipley Gallery, are extremely rare design objects. The ability to interact with these design objects at Shipley Gallery was an invaluable opportunity for our students.

The Chair & the Figure introduces the mechanics of technical drawing, while at the same time helping students become more aware of changes in design attitudes and style over time. The project also explores the relation between chairs and the human form, a conceptual standard of measurement or ‘module’ for architecture in treatises and figures ranging for Vitruvius and Da Vinci to Dürer and Le Corbusier. By examining, measuring, and drawing a chair, groups of students carefully record how the dimensions of a static design element, the chair, are informed by the proportions of the human body. This work serves as the basis for original architectural design in later individual projects.

Shipley exhibition image

exhibition image

The students began with analytic sketchbook studies of the Platonic ‘form’ of a chair: plans, sections, and elevations, as well as exploratory 3D sketches. Working in groups of three or four, they then produced 1:1 drawings of various specific chairs they had been assigned to study. Each student was responsible for one A1 board, to be combined with two or three others from the other members of his or her group to form a single large drawing.  Groups presented these collaborative drawings at their final review, together with research into the history of the chair under study. The text that accompanies each of the chairs was written by the students and reflects this research, detailing the social and economic conditions in which the chairs were designed and manufactured. The framed images on display at Shipley Gallery are excerpts from large collaborative drawings, reproduced and displayed to give a sense of the overall range of drawings presented at the final review.

A dedicated group of student curators, Assem Saparbekova, Vito Benjamin Sugianto, Natalie Lau and Iris Xin Guo, guided by Elizabeth Baldwin Gray, worked hard following the project’s final review in October/November 2016 to make the exhibition happen. Together the exhibition team came up with a plan for how to display the work in the space made available by Shipley Gallery through Education Director, Morgan Fail. From initial brain-storming sessions to measuring and drawing the space at Shipley, to coming up with a design layout, to physically installing the exhibit with the help of Newcastle University’s Sean Mallen, the experience was a true introduction into curatorial exhibition design and assured that the display would truly reflect the range of student work produced and the learning experience of the project.

Bigg Market: Night and Day

The Bigg Market Consultancy Project is work which has been undertaken by Newcastle University Master of Planning students in collaboration with NE1. The project provides in-depth research and analysis into various aspects of the Bigg Market, focusing on topics such as media influence, the built environment and the opinions of visitors.

Key contacts for the project are Loes Veldpaus, Research Associate in the School, and Gareth Neill, Bigg Market Project Manager at NE1.

In this post, the project investigates the disconnect between the night and daytime economies of the Bigg Market and the resulting impacts on the public realm.

The original post appears on the project website.


The Disconnect: Night and Day Usage 

A sense of place derives from the way in which a place functions. The area is home to numerous different uses but remains divided. There is a clear disconnect between the night and daytime economies which has lead to the formation of a hotch-potch use of space.

The daytime economy of retail, cafes and restaurants are mixed side-to-side among the evening economy of bars, pubs and takeaway food outlets. As a result, the public realm is suffering badly.


Before we commenced this project, we had all passed through the Bigg Market during the day. None of us had stopped to visit the shops and restaurants or taken stock of the built environment. Because of this lack of connection, we began this project with an open mind. What we observed was an area with limited attractions or staying power. To us it is merely a place to pass through. Throughout the day the area consists of unopened bars and takeaway shops that look rundown, large amounts of buildings to let are particularly noticeable. On our first visit to conduct the questionnaires, it was a sunny mild day as seen in the pictures below.

Bigg Market

Bigg Market

Bigg Market by Day

We noticed people stopped to eat their lunch on the broken benches and some used the Kafeneon restaurant, but only in limited numbers. We concluded from the first visit that we did not value the space as social meeting point in the day. The area lacks an anchor to attract people, meaning low footfall and suffers from a poor unkempt urban realm. We also visited at 9am, the space remained devoid of people but extremely busy with servicing and deliveries


As students, we use this space socially on an evening. We have all been to High Bridge Street and Pudding Chare for meals or drinks but only use the Bigg Market as a final destination the end of the night. The image below shows how the public space is well used and provides both a meeting point and an area to catch a taxi. This project made us more observant when out in the evening to see what type of people used the space at night and how they used it.

Bigg Market by Night

Bigg Market by Night

During the evening the shops and restaurants were hard to see next to the bright lights of the takeaway shops, bars and taxis. The area is mistreated with litter and people failing to care about the urban realm. The aftermath of the night-time economy is felt by people who pass through the area the next morning, creating an unwelcoming and dirty environment.


From our own observations we noticed the disconnect in Bigg Market from day to night. In our opinion, the day shows the area as a tired space that is underutilised and not recognised as people pass through. We believe that despite the negative reputation the Bigg Market receives due to its night-time events, it is actually the day time that is the biggest hindrance to its overall offer. Whether it caters to your tastes or not, during the night Bigg Market comes alive with people socialising, providing the area with a buzz. This cannot be said about the day usage, which is mostly typified by its tired urban realm, its poor retail and restaurant offer.

Would visitor numbers increase if the daytime retail/restaurant offer was improved, or would the night-time economy remain a barrier to attracting visitors?

To find out more about the project please contact Dr Loes Veldpaus: .


Training the Trainers: passing on the skills of engagement

YES Planning is a student volunteer project which offers town planning students training in engagement skills and which, in turn, extends an understanding of town planning amongst young people in the community. Through this initiative, it is hoped that young people in the region will be inspired to become involved, not only in local planning issues but also in wider democratic processes in the longer term. For the town planning students, YES Planning allows them to learn how to share their subject with a broader audience and to learn how to listen to young people’s views about the local environment.

The findings of the project have been turned into an engagement toolkit to enable town planners, teachers and youth workers to start to explore young people’s views about their local area.

In this post one of Yes Planning’s newest first year recruits reflects on a training session that was run by students in November 2016.  The students, Sean Peacock and Ben Million had been instrumental in setting up the project three years ago.


The training session that Sean and Ben ran helped us to get to know what the YES Planning opportunity was all about, as beforehand I was unsure. We were told about the aims of the project and about the praise the project had received in the past which was great – everyone got to know what a fantastic opportunity they were getting involved in. We got to participate in some of the activities we would run with the pupils on a future school visit which I thought was really helpful, as opposed to just being told about the activities. This was also useful for the facilitators of YES Planning, as volunteers could give feedback on the activities, which might have been more difficult to get from children of such a young age. We discussed what challenges we might face working with groups of children and how we could overcome these challenges to get the best possible data from the pupils, through utilisation of the tasks we had been taught about.

Cognitive Mapping Skills

Cognitive Mapping Skills

I felt like we were all well prepared for the school visit because of the training session, and I personally found the school visit very rewarding and insightful.

I look forward to the next opportunity YES Planning presents!

Amy Ingle, Stage 1 Urban Planning


For more information about YES Planning please contact Teresa Strachan, Lecturer in Town Planning,

Working together on cooperative neighbourhoods

On Wednesday 25 January, the School hosted a participatory workshop reflecting on the use of communities within recent policy agendas. It considered the emphasis placed on “localism” over the last nine years, the forces driving it at the national level and how it has been interpreted in northern, urban locations. It also asked how a localism agenda might be reworked to better reflect the needs of these areas.

The event was organised by Dr David Webb of the School, with partners Greening Wingrove and the CHAT Trust, and funded by the Newcastle Institute for Social Renewal and the Global Urban Research Unit.  This participatory workshop is the latest output of their collaborative partnership, building on their project Reclaim the Lanes which worked with residents of an area surrounding a back lane in the Arthur’s Hill area of Newcastle.

The workshop proved extremely popular, around 85 people attended from local authorities, charities, community interest companies, Newcastle and Northumbria Universities, consultancies and arts organisations.

The morning was structured around several presentations with time for panel and table discussions.  After an introduction to the themes from Dr Webb, he and Caroline Emmerson (CHAT Trust) presented their work on Reclaim the Lanes. Caroline Gore-Booth (Giroscope Ltd) talked about collaborating around self-help housing in Hull and after some initial reflections, Alan Barlow (WEA Greening Wingrove Project) presented Wingrove’s community innovation fund. Armelle Tardiveau (Newcastle University) and Cllr Marion Talbot (Newcastle City Council) talked about their experiences of co-designing Fenham’s Pocket Park.

Read the morning presentations at the links below:

The morning panel discussion was led by a presentation from Annabel Davidson Knight (Collaborate CIC) which reflected on early attempts in Oldham to use public services to support community action. She described their intention to create a virtuous circle, with learning and feedback generated from community hubs being used to adapt and update the way services were provided locally.

The afternoon presentations also focused on the use of community hubs, with Tony Durcan (Newcastle City Council) explaining the importance of digital for reducing the cost of service delivery in the city, and setting out Newcastle’s support offer for those who find it difficult to use digital technology unaided. Mark Cridge (MySociety) then explained the use of Fix My Street as a way of encouraging more efficient and transparent reporting of environmental problems. Rob Webb (Transmit Enterprise CIC) described the potential benefits of the Poverty Stoplight system and Pete Wright (Newcastle University) set out the work they have been doing to promote digital civic technologies in Newcastle. An interesting discussion was had on the use of digital to promote a culture change in public services, including the sometimes unseen benefits of face to face communication and the dangers that innovation might be driven primarily by austerity.

Read the afternoon presentations at the links below:

The event allowed for the sharing of experiences of community work from around the region, with numerous insights being offered during the morning panel session. Many of the themes raised were also relevant to Newcastle City Council’s policy cabinet meeting, which directly followed on from the event. Despite the huge challenges presented by austerity, it was interesting to reflect on the variety of responses being taken both by community organisations and local authorities. The experiences of Oldham and elsewhere show that creative ways of promoting joint working are emerging, and that future reflection on these may have much to offer for the way we seek to manage our cities and neighbourhoods.

Dr David Webb is Lecturer in Town Planning and Director of Engagement in the School

Making changes through participation

How do you get communities more involved in their local environment? What changes can be made that can really make a difference to surroundings with a limited budget?

This post from Lecturer in Architecture Daniel Mallo explains how a project in Fenham in Newcastle helped the local community realise a different vision for their public space. This post first appeared on the HASS Research Impact blog.


The Pocket Park idea came about almost by accident. Fenham Ward, in the West End of Newcastle, had received some funding for a Sustrans DIY Streets Project to involve local people in improving their area, making streets less car focused and more generally ‘help them redesign their neighbourhoods putting people back at their heart.’ Through an ESRC IAA grant we supported Sustrans’ work by strengthening community aspirations and sparked inspiration into the potential of their local environment.

DIY Streets Fenham

DIY Streets Fenham

To begin with we used various methods to find out how residents felt about their local area. We built a basic scale model encouraging locals to interact with it, helping them imagine what could be possible. Temporary wooden seats were also placed along the street where cars normally parked so residents could see the impact of making these changes in a more physical way.

Later we conducted a focus group using large photographs of the street that could be sketched over, to foster further discussion amongst participants. During these different stages local people identified a need for a place where they could sit and watch the world go by. Many residents also commented that the library, swimming pool and doctors surgery on Fenham Hall Drive formed a community hub but that there was nowhere to wait for their children. Taking these ideas into consideration the project concluded with a pop-up public/play space between the library and pool for four days, which gave members of the public, residents and other stakeholders the opportunity to experience the potential impact of a public space in the area. This temporary space showed, more than a model or image could ever do, the way in which people could change their environment for the better.

All of these experiences strengthened the desire for the community and all the various partners involved – members of the City Council, local residents, Fenham Association of Residents, Fenham Library, Fenham Swimming Pool, Sustrans, Your Homes Newcastle, Newcastle University and Fenham New Model Allotments – to seek funding for what they now call a hub for Fenham Hall Drive. A group of local people, in partnership with Fenham Association of Residents, were successful in being awarded £15,000 from the Department of Communities and Local Government to build a Pocket Park, which opened on Saturday 21 May 2016.

Pocket Park Opening

Pocket Park Opening

After the park had been created, participants in the project formed the Friends of Fenham Pocket Park, a community group that helps promote the use of the space by local residents and visitors of all ages, alongside a chance for people to volunteer, learn new skills and help support the Pocket Park’s maintenance and future development.

Cllr Marion Talbot, a City Council ward member for Fenham who was involved in the project from the beginning, was interviewed about the Pocket Park when it was opened this year. She said that “it has been refreshing the way residents, community groups and organisations have all joined together to make this project happen; and unite with a common goal of providing something extra special for the area and forging invaluable working relationships that could prosper in years to come.”  You can also read Cllr Talbot’s blog post about her experience of working with the University.

From a research point of view the process of collaboration between various groups throughout this project was thought-provoking. It put the different participatory design approaches we use to the test and at the same time helped local people plan a useful space that is beneficial to the whole community. The project only ran for 18 months however it has had a lasting impression on Fenham and its residents: that is the best kind of impact any research can have.


Daniel Mallo is Lecturer in Architecture in the School.

Exploring the Southbank Undercroft: heritage film wins national award

You Can’t Move History is an in depth account of the 2013 battle to save the Southbank Skate Park.  On Monday 14 November 2016 the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) awarded You Can’t Move History Best Research Film of the Year.

In this post project team member Dr David Webb reflects on what makes places valuable.

The campaign to save the South Bank undercroft revealed important insights into what makes places valuable, and why that value is often so difficult to recognise and legitimise. The recognition offered by winning the AHRC’s Best Research Film of 2016 award will help us explain these insights to a wider audience and champion the value of social and environmental campaigning.

Long Live South Bank

Today’s system of heritage conservation has its roots in a reverence of the past and its most majestic and well preserved remains. However it has evolved to recognise that our towns and cities have an in-built bias towards offering up the most durable heritage, which is often that of the rich and powerful. Twentieth Century bids to popularise and democratise heritage reacted to this by expanding and pluralising what counts as heritage, but left us questioning the basis on which we recognise and care for the past. The notion that heritage is not just given to us but actively created through our choices about what to conserve opens up questions about

  • why it is that we focus so much on place?
  • what would happen if we made place subservient to broader questions about how we should relate to the past?

The dominant approach to conservation planning rests on two assertions which, at first sight, appear self-evident but which, once we have broadened our thinking about how we relate to the past, can be seen to bias particular aspects of that relationship.

The first assertion is that some places are better than others. Some feel cold, windswept, empty, artificial or derelict while others invoke warm feelings of history, intrigue, social connotation or awe. This statement seems hard to disagree with; the next one takes it further. Because of the value stored up in good places, these places deserve to be protected from wholescale redevelopment or insensitive alteration. Places can be put in a hierarchy, with better places subjected to ever stronger legislative protection.

These two assertions may seem simple, even self-evidently right, but hidden with them is a battle for the management of the built environment. The idea that some places should receive privileged treatment depends on public interest justifications that appeal to the aggregated desires of today’s and the future’s public. If some places really are better than others then we need to understand why, collectively, we believe this to be the case. The use of precise and technical terms to define the valued characteristics of place has been associated with a concern for distributional fairness. Comparing places against fixed criteria, or universally agreed principles, can help to justify why certain places are privileged and help make decisions appear less subjective or less spurious. Such principles or criteria provide an immediate way of making sense of the built environment, one that offers the promise of advance judgement and with it the potential to support long-term plan-making. The use of criteria within a public interest framing seeks to provide transparency and accountability to political judgements about which places are better. Where policy makers have sought to move beyond fixed criteria, by instead asking what the significance of a place is, there has been a tendency to think about significance in line with established framings and practices and to underplay the importance of conflict in revealing significance.

Attempts to use the public interest to support the management of the historic environment can come unstuck at the point of contact with people’s direct experience of place. Such experience does not always fit easily into universal categories or predefined assumptions. It is infused with things that are not driven by a concern to differentiate one place from another: human behaviour, politics, cultural norms, imagination, emotional connection all go on within places and affect how people relate to them. Very often these phenomena occur in, and bring together, multiple places and times. For different people with different experiences, place might be central or peripheral to other concerns. Battles might be over places, or they might be larger battles which go on within or are caught up with places. Ironically, the depoliticisation and technicalisation of places that tends to follow the use of public interest based framings can have the effect of excluding the very social, political and community orientated dimensions that make places valuable.


London Southbank

In February 2014 a group of researchers with backgrounds in media studies, heritage and town planning came together at a research sandpit and began to think through these issues. How could unorthodox, marginal voices be heard by those involved in the heritage system? We found relatively little research into the views of young people on heritage, and noted that the research which existed tended to assume a common definition of heritage. Joining up with film makers BrazenBunch, and the Long Live South Bank campaign, we set out to explore how skateboarders, BMX’ers, musicians and graffiti artists made use of the undercroft space beneath London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall and what it could tell policy makers about the meaning of place. By producing a short documentary and holding a workshop, we then sought to legitimise and convey understandings of place that are too often side lined.


Southbank undercroft

Our film You Can’t Move History is the product of our collaboration. It describes the connections between young people and place, and together with the project report, it explains how these meanings differed from conventional ways of understanding the place which centred on its architectural history and role within the Thames riverscape. Quotes such as “the space is also within the people” revealed the integral nature of humans in making and reproducing the value of heritage and places. Links made by participants to wider processes of gentrification highlighted the inevitably political nature of the campaign and references to the sound of the space and its emotional role as ‘home’ or ‘the vortex’ emphasised its central importance within a culture that emerged from street skating.

While the battle about how best to manage our historic environment is unlikely to go away any time soon, we hope these insights will spark people to reflect on what makes places valuable and on the importance of community, politics and attachment to our lives. The question of authenticity will remain central to ongoing debates about how to support these values on the Southbank.

You can watch the film via our website which also provides a guide to the project, an archive of campaign-related materials and the interim report Engaging Youth in Cultural Heritage: Time, Place and Communication.


David Webb is Lecturer in Town Planning and Director of Engagement in the School.

Maternity Tales – Exploring the History of Maternity Spaces

Maternity Tales is a three-year research project lead by Dr Emma Cheatle at Newcastle University. It looks at the buildings and interior spaces used for childbirth in England from the seventeenth century onwards, and evaluates their impact on the development of maternity practices.

In this post, Dr Cheatle gives a short history of maternity spaces and talks about her contribution to this years Being Human Festival.

Until the 1750s all births took place at home – except of course where birth occurred unexpectedly! A labour and the recovery afterwards were known as ‘lying-in’. The lying-in period was typically a month, during which the new mother at first recuperated bed-bound, then remained in the house, gradually returning to her household duties. Lying-in ended with the public cleansing and thanksgiving ritual of ‘churching’ performed in the local Church of England.

Lying-in did not take place just anywhere in the home but involved carefully remaking the master bedroom into a dark and airless lying-in chamber. At the first signs of labour, extra linen was draped onto and around the bed and over the windows and doors. The fire was stoked up, and all openings in the room closed – sometimes even gaps and the keyhole were stuffed with fabric. It was thought air and light were harmful, and may lead to the dreaded puerperal fever, a tremendously dangerous illness (essentially an infection) experienced after childbirth. Men were removed from the room, and replaced by a gathering including the midwife and at least five women to aid the birth, called the ‘gossip’. The room was darkened further after birth, as it was thought light could damage the new mother’s eyesight, already weakened by the effort of childbirth.

Jane Sharp, The Midwife Book, 1671, detail of frontispiece

Jane Sharp, The Midwife Book, 1671, detail of frontispiece

From the 1750s the domestic spaces of home birth were made complex by the emergence of lying-in hospitals. These were the first specialist hospitals, and began an era of institutions in general – from spaces of welfare such as asylums and hospitals to those of intellectual gathering like the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle and the Royal Society in London. The lying-in hospitals were philanthropic charities aimed at poor (albeit married) women who lacked the funds to afford decent homes let alone good midwifery care. Although they undoubtedly helped many women, the lying-in hospitals were devised and controlled by the new men-midwives to develop their skills and establish their status. At first occupying large houses, as the century progressed they acquired purpose made buildings. In contrast to the dark and airless domestic lying-in chamber, these were lofty and neo-classical designs, with roomy wards of 6-8 beds and large windows. Their advantages – including light and airy spaces, access to new forms of care and spaces of rest – contrasted with their disadvantages – lack of privacy, a shift in control over one’s own body as it was passed to the institution, the medicalisation of birth and an increased death rate from puerperal fever.

Newcastle Lying-in Hospital, 1825 From Tom Faulkner and Andrew Greg, John Dobson, Newcastle architect 1787-1865 (Tyne and Wear Museums Service, 1987)

Newcastle Lying-in Hospital, 1825
From Tom Faulkner and Andrew Greg, John Dobson, Newcastle architect 1787-1865 (Tyne and Wear Museums Service, 1987)

Across the nineteenth-century, birth witnessed various experimental practices in these purpose made spaces. Men-midwives were gradually renamed accoucheurs and then obstetricians. Although the vast majority of women continued to give birth at home – indeed it was not until the 1940s that more than 50% women gave birth in hospital – midwifery care had shifted, and the practices and ideas tested in the hospitals affected home delivery. Light and fresh air were seen as important. Instruments such as midwifery forceps became more common, and men began to be called into the birth chamber in favour of the traditional female midwives, particularly by the middle- and upper-classes.

The Maternity Tales Listening Booth at the 2016 Being Human Festival

Parts of the Maternity Tales project are being presented in an installation which can be seen at this November’s 2016 Being Human Festival. The installation, taking place at the Laing Art Gallery and Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle upon Tyne, presents a ‘listening booth’ to explore the history of maternity. Aimed at parents to be, parents, grandparents, midwifery/obstetric professionals, plus anyone interested in architectural and maternity history, the booth comprises two parts:

[1] Histories: Visitors are able to explore a tall wooden filing drawer unit containing different visual displays and sound pieces on the history of spaces used for birth from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries.

[2] Collections: Visitors are encouraged to fill in record cards found in one of the drawers, in order to explore and share their own labour experiences as ‘spatial maternity stories’. Willing participants are also invited to make sound recordings in a separate screened private interview space. Both these collections will inform Emma’s further research and a radio play.


Doreen Evenden, The Midwives of Seventeenth-Century London (Cambridge, 2000)

Ralph A Houlbrooke, English family life,1576-1716 An Anthology from Diaries (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989)

Pam Lieske, Eighteenth-century British midwifery (Pickering and Chatto, 2007)

Adrian Wilson, The making of man-midwifery,1660-1770 (Harvard University Press, 1995)

Margaret Connor Versluysen, ‘Midwives, medical men and “poor women labouring of child”: lying in hospitals in eighteenth century London’, in Helen Roberts (ed.), Women, health and reproduction (Routledge, 1981), pp 18–24.

Helen King, Midwifery, obstetrics and the rise of gynaecology: the Uses of a Sixteenth-Century Compendium (Ashgate, 2007)


Dr Emma Cheatle is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Newcastle University Humanities Research Institute. She is an architectural historian and writer, and author of Part-Architecture: The Maison de Verre, Duchamp, Domesticity and Desire in 1930s Paris (Routledge, 2017). Her current project presents a critical history of maternity spaces and examines how the past changes our understanding of contemporary experience. 

Living Bricks of Venice: A vision, experiment and exhibition by Living Architecture

Rachel Armstrong, Professor of Experimental Architecture and project coordinator of the Living Architecture (LIAR) research project, gives an update on the project and an exciting event showcasing the project’s development taking place in Venice.

The €3.2m LIAR project explores an extended conception of design by bringing together the sciences, design disciplines and the arts to explore the possibilities of “living” in the broadest sense of the term in the 3rd millennium.

LIAR will develop blocks able to extract resources from sunlight, waste water and air. The bricks are able to fit together and create ‘bioreactor walls’ which could then be incorporated in housing, public buildings and office spaces.

Each block will contain a microbial fuel cell, filled with programmable synthetic microorganisms developed by experts at UWE Bristol. Robotically activated, each chamber will contain a variety of microorganisms specifically chosen to clean water, reclaim phosphate, generate electricity and create new detergents. The living cells that will make up the wall will be able to sense their surroundings and respond to them through a series of digitally coordinated mechanisms.

LIAR is a collaboration of experts from the universities of the West of England (UWE Bristol), Trento, Italy, the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid; LIQUIFER Systems Group, Vienna, Austria and EXPLORA, Venice, Italy.

On Friday 14 October the LIAR consortium will host an event in Venice which will demonstrate a working brick and exhibit a ceramic model, which has been developed by LIQUIFER Systems Group, as a discussion point for the potential impact that future living bricks may have for architecture, design, ceramics and the arts.

This will be followed by a short round table of experts including Ioannis Ieropoulos from the University of West England and Juan Nogales from the Spanish National Research Council who will introduce the key technological advances.

Living bricks are part of the story of an alternative future for Venice, which owing to devastating changes in its relationship to rising water levels, is likely to be claimed by the sea. In 2008 we began to ask whether it was possible to turn the city’s fate around by equipping it with some of the properties of living things so that it may actively fight back against the elements in a struggle for survival like creatures do, and so, adapt to its changing conditions on ways that we’d normally associate with living systems.

Back in 2008 a model technology was explored as a possible platform for this transformation based on the chemistry and physical properties of dynamic droplets, with simple metabolisms. Potentially, such a system could initiate the construction of a protective limestone reef around the foundations of the city by biomineralizing Venice’s wooden foundations, which are under threat by the traffic from large cruise ships whose wakes suck the preserving salt water out from under the foundations, leaving the foundations exposed to the air, where they rot. With time, the bio concrete-stimulating droplets then would form a kind of protective kettle-limescale during these times and even build up a residue that could repair erosion of materials at the tidal zone in some specific locations.

Field studies to identify possible sites for testing the technology revealed that the natural marine wildlife was already carrying out a metabolically vigorous version of this process. This suggested that it might be possible to find ways of orchestrating a whole range of events between the biological systems in the lagoon, the chemical technology and the concrete-forming processes in the waterways to produce a synthetic platform, which was potentially programmable.


Living bricks are an exploration of that choreography, looking at how we might shape relationships between human habitation, technology and nature through a mutually beneficial relationship. While specific outcomes are not specifically directed towards the mineralization process at this stage, we are creating these prototypes so they can be directly interrogated by the Venice community, in the hope they will explore their functions and help us understand how such apparatuses may be useful in addressing real challenges within a city that is being, quite literally, digested by its circumstances.

So, living bricks are not a solution to a particular grand challenge, but a prototype that helps us all think differently about technology and architecture in challenging places. These prototypes address different approaches to optimizing the choreography between agents with complex relationships and may help us discover how we may differently address some of the pervasive problems of human habitation. For example, living bricks may help us understand how we may deal with our waste differently, provide clean water for everyone, or retrofit our buildings to increase their environmental value.

The Venice event takes place at Hotel Carlton on the Grand Canal, Santa Croce 578, 30135 – Venezia.

For details of the event on Friday 14 October please contact

LIAR is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under Grant Agreement no 686585.

Creating a shared vision for the Northumberland National Park Local Plan

In this post, Dr Paul Cowie explains how an innovative piece of theatre is helping shape Northumberland National Park.

The next phase of the Town Meeting project starts with a dress rehearsal of the new version of the Town Meeting play. Over the past year, Cap-a-Pie and I have been working with Northumberland National Park to create a version of the play that will help the National Park start the consultation process on the new Local Plan. The new version of the play aims to link the Local Plan being developed now with the actual planning decisions it will affect over the next five years. Often communities do not see the need to get involved in the process of framing the Local Plan as they see little direct relevance to their lives. Only when, a few years later perhaps, an actual planning decision has to be made using the plan do they get involved.

Clennel Street

Clennel Street

We hope to change this by creating a fictitious planning application set within the National Park which takes place in the near future. The scenario aims to test the community’s views on certain planning principles and their vision for the National Park. The new play also has a secondary aim, which is to highlight the limits of planning. Many issues that concern communities do not fall within the domain of the Local Plan. For example issues such as better public transport links or more community activities. In the statutory planning process these are often seen as a distraction. However these ideas need to be developed and encouraged. It’s hoped our new co-production process can also capture these non-planning planning issues and connect them to resources and people that can help.

As far as we know, this is the first time this method of theatre as a tool for planning has been tried so there will be a more traditional consultation process running in parallel to the theatrical events. However we hope this will be a fun and engaging way to get involved in what can be a quite off-putting process.

If you’re in Northumberland and are interested in framing the new Local Plan for the National Park in a new and innovative way we will be holding events in Elsdon Village Hall on the evening of the 18th October and in Harbottle Village Hall on the evening of the 28th October. See the Northumberland National Park website for more info.

Dr Paul Cowie is a Research Assistant in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape

Governance and Self Governance

In this post, Jenny Crawford reflects on a  seminar held earlier in the summer as part of the ESRC Series Neighbourhood Knowing and Working.

The Ultimate in Self-Governance?

Our seminar took place during a momentous week in UK politics. Two days later, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland were to find themselves facing the immediate economic and social fall-out of Brexit. The ‘Leave’ campaigners were claiming a victory for the principles of sovereignty and self-governance. ‘Remain’ campaigners were lamenting the loss of, among other things, hard-won institutional mechanisms of international co-ordination underpinning the functioning and regulation of markets in the pursuit of public welfare. Even more fundamentally, individuals were revisiting assumptions about their own citizenship and self-identity.

Self-governance implies self-empowerment. Are we caught irrevocably in the belief that the ultimate in self-governance is a state of sovereignty based on exclusive occupation/ownership of territory and decision-making powers and rights? Although our seminar was addressing this question at the scale of the neighbourhood, it seemed to bridge the scales in such debates. Indeed, as Simin Davoudi illustrated in her introduction, both the UK’s European referendum and the practice of neighbourhood planning involve the rhetorical opposition of ‘big state’ versus ‘small state’. While “the smaller the state, the greater the self-governance” may be the dominant discourse, what assumptions underlie this assertion and what cul-de-sacs may it lead to? What do we actually mean by neighbourhood self-governance and empowerment in the context of hugely complex and significant interscalar connections and interdependencies? Such questions lie at the heart of our understanding of a liberal democratic state.

Neighbourhood Renewal is Dead – Long Live the Neighbourhood!

Keith Shaw (Northumbria University) helped us calibrate our deliberations by comparing the New Deal for Communities, launched in the late 1990s, with the present situation. The New Deal promised central government intervention to ensure that “no-one is seriously disadvantaged by where they live”. In contrast, current government policies result in the state no longer being a pro-active player or investor in local regeneration. Instead “neighbourhoods” are being enjoined to wrest resources from market processes through their own policy and ownership interventions. It is hard to see how deprived communities that have been economically and/or socially excluded from such market processes can invent and coordinate such activity without, at least, considerable supporting resources from external sources. Rather, they face ongoing “empowerment to fail”, investing too little to make a difference, in the wrong places to achieve looked for outcomes, and at too great a cost to individuals and local institutions. Indeed Keith argued that, since the New Deal ended, the real rescaling of power has been to city regions and the emerging combined authorities, by-passing local authorities and elected members and constricting empowerment mechanisms for the most local of scales. Public services and investment overall have been cut. Thus the shrinking state shrinks public space and abrogates responsibility for public services to a disempowered voluntary or “community” sector.

Where there are community interests in taking over public services or public policy-making at the local level, the issue of whose interests those are remains difficult to clarify. Inclusive and representative government is designed to counter control by elites at all levels. This has been an issue of bitter debate at the level of EU membership and has played a distinctive role in the outcome of the referendum. Yet it is at the level of the neighbourhood that questions about what mechanisms are in place to balance prejudice, vested interests and outright exclusion of other valid interests, remain most unanswered.

“Don’t tell me I’m in a deprived community!”

The shift in focus from public welfare to citizenship rights and responsibilities holds out new possibilities for public policy and research. In this context, Keith suggested that there is potentially much to be gained from focusing on an asset-based approach as opposed to a deficit model (which can elicit negative responses from those citizens who understandably do not identify themselves as being “deprived”). Rather than citizens being constrained to define their boundaries and what they need (lack) within those boundaries, an asset-based approach encourages innovation in “soft spaces”. Such space can be focused on shared well-being (e.g. affordability and quality of housing or open space), ecological health (including low carbon living and restoration of ecosystems) and creative capacity (through e.g. education, communications and mobility).

Peter Biggers, planning co-ordinator for the production of  a neighbourhood plan for ‘front runner’ Alnwick Neighbourhood Forum, discussed what can be achieved in terms of outcomes through what he described as “empowering communities” and “doing everything at the lowest possible level”. He argued that it is the neighbourhood, not the local planning authority, that should decide what a plan contains. However the overall focus remains on the outcome of creation of “better places”.  This recalls the tension between a focus on boundaries and identities associated with notions of “place” on the one hand and the exploration of soft space emerging from social and environmental values and relationships. The development of new projects and services, as part of the supplementary community action plan, and improved dialogue with the local authority, described by Peter as being successful outcomes of the neighbourhood planning process in Alnwick, involve such “soft space”.

“Is this our plan or are we being manipulated?”

However, Peter described concern that the new statutory neighbourhood plans have become dominated by complex and centralized rules set by national and local government, which effectively alienate local contributors and require (sometimes expensive) technical help. Among the most challenging aspects for a neighbourhood forum, such as Alnwick’s, are constraints on what can be legitimately included as a “planning matter”. Indeed the Alnwick draft neighbourhood plan faces the loss of twenty policies as a result of its examination, largely on the basis of whether or not they involve “planning issues”. This suggests that at the scale of the neighbourhood plan, hard land use issues and related soft issues of community activity and management interact to such an extent that it does not make sense to separate them artificially.  Indeed, separating them could lead to a completely different set of outcomes to that intended by the neighbourhood participants. What is clear, however, is that innovations at the neighbourhood level are being explored, even if these are also the focus of considerable resistance and conflict, e.g. around the focus on affordable housing and the location and design of new housing developments in relation to green belt and open space.

The treatment of conflict in such arenas offers particular research interest as its management gives insights into the capacity of governance infrastructures at the neighbourhood level and their implications for wider decision-making. Community planning approaches embrace techniques that supplement campaigns, voting and referenda, in order to reach out to the otherwise excluded in an important development of representative democracy. Liz Juppenlatz’ study of the neighbourhood plan for the rural area of Tarset and Greystead in Northumberland revealed a process of renegotiation of local governance space between the parish council, the neighbourhood plan steering group and the local authority. Both Peter and Liz argued that neighbourhood planning groups have the capacity to be more representative of the broad spectrum of interests, assets and needs than has hitherto been the case in either local or parish council structures. This is not a cheap option for government, but it reframes the relationship between the state and society to reflect a growing understanding of the meaning of self-governance. It also suggests a greater focus on a recognition of planning as an integral aspect of citizenship, challenging not only market-driven but “feudal” and class-based exclusions in active engagement for change.

It is in this context that the capacity for local planning authorities to assume a bespoke mentoring role in relation to neighbourhood planning processes and products could be integral to the redefining of governance and self-governance. Such a role would involve both technical and communicative input, which in turn would require coordination, quality control and reflexive monitoring. This could be a critical aspect of the role of local elected members, positioning local authorities as enablers, first and foremost, of democratic representation and civic action, rather than primarily of services or, as has been increasingly the case, of service markets.

John Sturzaker of Liverpool University suggested that while wealthier (and predominantly rural) areas, which have dominated neighbourhood planning activity to date, may be coming up against the limitations of neighbourhood planning for securing control over local development, poorer/urban areas are increasingly seeing the potential of neighbourhood planning in the context of hollowed out, disempowered local authorities. Using examples from Liverpool and the Wirral, he described how some urban areas appear to be beginning to use neighbourhood planning as a legitimating focus for building social capacity and engaging disempowered voices with new networks and resources.

Reclaim the Lanes

Reclaim the Lanes

Hard space – soft space

Newcastle’s Greening Wingrove initiative, as described by Nigel Todd, pointed to the type of neighbourhood planning approach that could emerge in such urban areas, building on community development initiatives for both hard and soft space. Wingrove is described as a mixed urban area, of some 10-15,000 people, that is not only the most ethnically diverse area in North East but also among its most economically polarized populations. Using some financial help from Newcastle City Council’s participatory budget, the initiative has responded to the area’s dubious honour of receiving a Grotspot Award to develop “a different way of looking”. This involves a predominantly environmental lens, focused on activities such as litter removal, gardening, recycling rainwater etc, with a particular focus on shared civic space in Nunsmoor Park (described as “the heart of our area”). The award of Big Lottery Communities funding with a focus on combating climate change has opened up new possibilities for the leading residents group and a nascent Community Cooperative Group (CIC) to develop business planning and the further development of ambitions for local self-governance.

Among the objectives of the residents’ group in Wingrove is the engagement of the hundreds of private landlords in the area, currently subsidised by housing benefit of around £2.5 million per year but often with little expertise in management, in improving both environmental and social performance. Such ambitions for advocacy through environmental change, as described by Dave Webb, open up potential for what he termed a “critical praxis” that seeks new approaches to planning using action research. Dave referred to Lydon and Garcia (2015) in their book Tactical Urbanism describing the task of “breaking through the gridlock of what we call Big Planning” by working with popular discourses. He introduced recent work in the Reclaim the Lanes project in which marginalized groups of residents in part of Wingrove have been encouraged to engage in action and the early stages of planning for the use of environmental management resources, through events and activities designed to build trust and deliver immediate and tangible value for local people.

The core contribution of social learning based on action to local governance was also illustrated by Julia Heslop’s description of self-build housing initiatives. Again this involves a combination of hard and soft space. In this case such space is that of homes that work for the social and economic circumstances of particular groups, as determined by those groups themselves, whether working in Tirana in Albania or in a Crisis-led initiative for homeless people in Ouseburn in Newcastle. Roger Burrows’ research into the “super-rich” neighbourhoods of London provided a challenging and revealing contrast. It underlined the trump cards held by wealth, land ownership and largely free markets in land and fixed assets. Sixty-two individual billionaires have the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of world’s population. Around half a million of the world’s “High Net Worth Individuals” now choose to live around the great parks of London. Against such a hand, even “powerful” communities, with high levels of social and economic capacity have struggled to have a voice in the leafy environs of Highgate. The inequalities and exclusions generated by these markets can all too clearly be seen to require intervention at the level of national and international governance.

London skyline

London skyline

Enter Doggerland

The seminar presentations and discussions were followed by a participatory performance of The Town Meeting by theatre group Cap-a-Pie, devised in collaboration with Paul Cowie  to explore group processes in community planning. The performance introduces participants to issues of power, representation and policy-making in the context of acting out decision-making about constrained and conflicting options for the development of a small industrial town in the windswept countryside of an imaginary Doggerland.  Those who took part rapidly found themselves railroaded into well-worn pathways and communication cul de sacs recognizable from real-world explorations of development governance.

At the outset of the seminar, Simin had summarised the underlying question for local governance as being what type of government do we have/want in order to achieve what ends? The presentations and discussions outlined the potential for researchers to work with development policymakers and practitioners, at and across all levels, to engage with complexity and diversity. This challenges simplistic perceptions of community identity and belonging, while forging new assets and capacities that can be realized by citizens at every level. The nexus of knowledge generation, knowledge exchange and policy development can be argued to be at its most creative as part of learning, collaborative planning communities. The instability of current governance relationships is opening doors to different and potentially more inclusionary kinds of conversation about social imaginaries of space and identity, as well as more exclusionary and destructive practices. These present a clear and urgent programme to be undertaken by such planning communities.

Jenny Crawford is a chartered town planner with extensive experience in strategic and environmental planning policy at all scales from community level to national.

She is currently studying full-time for doctorate at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape. Her focus is on governance, planning and ecosystem management, using coastal case studies.