Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Modern design in Austria

If you'd not gathered from my previous post, I'm not long back from a holiday in Germany and Austria and I've been meaning to write this post for a while. Both countries were fantastic and the Bavarian bit of Germany was suitable littered with gorgeous Baroque churches and cuckoo-clock wooden farmhouses, but what was most striking about Austria was the absolutely stunning modern design, absolutely everywhere. We were not far from the city of Bregenz on the Bodensee/Lake Constance so we went there for a day trip. The historic square down near the lake is dominated by the brand new museum and the Kunsthaus, the latter designed by Peter Zumthor:

Austria modern 9

Austria modern 6

And that was the least of it. There was also this amazing ticket hall for the local ferry company (I particularly like how the white triangles painted on the glass look like sailing boats on the lake):

Austria modern 4

And the Festpielhaus where the annual opera on the lake is based is quite a striking building too. What I found particularly striking about these buildings was of course the stunning modern design, but mostly how, although they are striking and imposing, they are excessive and try to obliterate the rest of the urban form. They are just there as natural a part of the city as a medieval tenement block or a baroque chapel.

Now this modern design was not limited to Bregenz - we were staying in the rural hinterland, the Bregnezerwald - and every single little town or village had a substantial number of beautiful modern houses that just fitted in seamlessly to the countryside (just about).


Thanks to our very nice hotel we discovered part of the possible reason why there is all this beautiful modern design. The hotel had a fascinating history, but the essential part here is that each generation of the family who took it over did a massive refurbishment of it. The most recent was carried out by an amazing craft workers cooperative, the Werkraum Bregenzerwald. This is a collective of over 80 local crafts people who are just committed to Good Things: using local materials; keeping traditional crafts alive; training apprentices; and very good design. The hotel manager had basically employed the whole collective to refurbish the hotel and it was truly, heart-achingly beautiful, simple modern design. Basically the whole setup seems like a very good model for sustainable economic growth in a rural area - high value-added and local.

When we visited the Kuntshaus in Bregenz there just happened to be an exhibition of Peter Zumthor's architectural models, one of which happened to be of the Werkraum's showroom and work space in a wee town called Andelsbuch. Using the effortlessly well-timetabled and cheap Austrian buses, we got there on our last day. It was an amazing building:

Austria modern 22

Yet again though, in this wee town the fire station looked like this (note the green roof):

Austria modern 24

The town hall in a village that could not be bigger than somewhere like Callander, looked like this:

Austria modern 21

And even the bus stops are fantastically designed (although still replete with graffiti and vomit from the previous evening):

Austria modern 32

As a planner, the most depressing part of all this for reflecting on how badly we do things in the UK was when our bus back from Bregenz stopped outside a new development under construction:


This is mass-market rural housing, Austrian style. Note the striking modern design; the images of children and older people (not a smiling family in a car); if you zoom in on the image you can see the even more striking thing. These homes are built to Passivhaus standard, with photo-voltaics and batteries for energy storage. If only Barratt and Belway could build stuff like this in Edinburgh.

But, there's always a but. One thing did concern me. Most of this development did seem to be very new indeed. In fact much of it was just finished or barely complete. Reflecting this I pondered something a Dutch researcher explained to me about the Dutch economy. Basically the Netherlands has an almighty housing equity bubble that's on the very edge of bursting. There are many reasons for this, but one of them, it was explained to me, was that the Dutch joined the Euro with a relatively devalued currency (Guilder) compared to the Deutschmark (everything was given the strength of the German economy). This meant the Dutch economy looked artificially more productive than it actually is and this has produced a post-Euro boom in the economy. This has continued as the economy looks very productive compared to the peripheral Euro economies. I'm happy to be proved wrong on this, but this is my recollection of a conversation helped by some nice Dutch beer and bar snacks. Anyway, I was worried about whether the same is true in Austria and the economy is still artificially inflated and there's a property boom waiting to burst. To be sure, there was much more new, private, development in Austria than Germany. Can anyone else enlighten me?

Anyway, if you want to see more photos of the striking modern design, I've put them all into one set on Flickr.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

I DID attend a consultation event

This morning I was right riled up by ever excellent reporting by Greener Leith to do a big ranty pro-cycling, cycling infrastructure blog post about the state of Leith Walk. After all, the day of the Ghost Bike protest at the Scottish Parliament, cyclist deaths on Scotland's roads were very sadly increased to the same number as last year, and we still have five months to go. And the BBC (and other media) still use shorthand headlines like "Cyclist dies in collision with car" - those amazing driverless cars we have in Scotland now. No, the cyclist died being hit by a driver. Leith Walk at the moment is so bad it's a road I never cycle down. It's not just bad at the moment for cyclist. On buses, the road is so potholed it actually hurts to be a passenger. On the pavement, loads of flagstones are loose and many have been replaced with awful looking bits of tarmac.

Anyhow, instead of ranting into my blog, I decided to attend a consultation event run by the Council this evening at a local library. I was actually really impressed. First of all, it has to be said, the plans are in no way perfect, but they are a massive improvement on how the road is or has been. The other really good thing was chatting to the officers they were also massively ambitious and open to new ideas. They genuinely wanted to co-produce a fantastic new space in the city.

Specific very positive things for me were:
  • Zebra crossings! Lots of them! I presumed roads engineers in the UK had forgotten how to paint black and white lines on roads that make cars go slow.
  • Some good cycling provision, including a long section of grade-separated path.
Things I had question marks about were firstly planting - the plans did not fully detail what planting would be (re)introduced (the trees they ripped up for the trams were getting to a nice stage of maturity. It was explained that there would be trees where there could be, but because of the utility diversion work because of the tram (which is why we're in this mess) there is limited space for planting. However, they are keen to put flower beds along the road and to have these as community-managed space, hopefully like London's new edible bus stops and I had a great conversation with one of the officers about the possibility of retro-fitting sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDs) during the renovation, like Portland has done so fantastically well

Secondly, I do think that non-motorised transport should be prioritised right down the road. That means in the narrow bits not ditching the segregated cycle paths, but ditching the road space and making cars wait - like they do in the Netherlands. When I asked about this, the reason given for not doing this is they don't want to make it so difficult to drive down that Bonnington Road and Easter Road end up overwhelmed, and they don't want a modal shift away from buses if they become too slow. I can see why they have these concerns - Leith Walk is a major bus route to the north of the city and also a major distributor in the road hierarchy. But why be so cautious? Why not just prioritise pedestrians and cyclists over other modes and see what happens? If surrounding roads get too busy, then invest in them in the next wave of road improvements. The Netherlands and Denmark (see slides in particular) got their cycling infrastructure N.B. the tense. It didn't magically appear overnight. It took decades of investment and improvement and they continue this improvement today. Making Leith Walk a truly road for pedestrians and cyclists would be a fantastic start to making Edinburgh a city designed for sustainable transport.

Thirdly, the top and bottom of Leith Walk at the moment are just blank spaces. At the southern end (the top) the proposed (or even better, the more improved) cycle paths do need to be linked up to decent east-west grade-separated cycle paths across the city centre. Hopefully the plans for the city centre will go some way towards that. At the Foot of the Walk the Council need to stick to their guns and go for a proper shared space to improve the town centre. The traffic will already be slowed greatly by the plans as they stand. There is no reason why they can't go for a really nicely designed shared space.

Finally, the other constraint that was raised was, of course, money. I don't get this fully myself. Even the basic plans mean basically digging up the entire road and relaying it - surely relaying the pavements slightly bigger or smaller and painting markings a bit differently on the road can't cost that much more? Also, as I mentioned to an officer as I left, perhaps they could ask the Scottish Government to spend some of the £400k that's being pointlessly wasted on the utterly non-evidence based "Mutual Respect" campaign? Or even some of the £3bn making us more car dependent dualing the A9?

It was striking cycling in Germany on a very recent holiday. The Germans do have good cycling infrastructure and some absolutely superb shared spaces (including 10km/h zones). But the cycling infrastructure in particular is not up to Dutch or Danish standards - it's much more pragmatic. The German's will happily send you off on a slightly round-about trip down a quiet suburban road to keep you away from a main road. But they still work because of simple things - they're very well signposted and joined-up; you're not dumped at the end of one wondering what to do, they'll be a very clear white a green signpost telling you your various options. It's even the simple things like this we get so wrong in the UK.

I want to end on another positive point. I was very impressed by the consultation event - it is clear Edinburgh Council are keen to engage and want to get people's views. It wasn't perfect community engagement by any means, but they are trying. And just like the plans themselves, this is a massive improvement on what's happened before.

I just wanted to add another point to this that I couldn't do last night because my interwebs stopped working. My mum, aged 65, learnt to ride a bike this year. She sent me a wonderful photo of her wobbling down a path in a park helped by her instructor. She's not a confident cyclist and could never go out on Britain's roads at the moment. What struck me in Germany was that in all the small Bavarian towns we passed through it was exactly people like my mum who used the bike - because it was cheap and convenient for short journeys. People exactly like my mum, and even older, would happily cycle along a mandatory cycle lane, shove their hand out left, wobble a lot and then veer across the road in front of the traffic to turn without a care in the World. Coming back from holiday, I thought I'd use my fitness to cycle into work (at the moment I take the train in, because it's uphill all the way). Even as a very confident vehicular cyclist the main thing that stops me now is the knowledge of all the dangerous right hand turns I would have to do to get from Leith, through the city centre to Dalry. 

Getting off the train at Edinburgh Park to come out to the Riccarton Campus here I can use off-road cycle path just about all the way. It is very striking that in the opposite direction, every day, I'm passed by about ten other cyclists happily and confidently cycling to work in Edinburgh Park and South Gyle. This is the difference that safe cycling infrastructure.

I want people like my mum to be cycling in Edinburgh. I want a mother of a four-year-old who goes to Lorne Primary to feel confident she can cycle up Leith Walk with her kid on a wee bike tootling behind her. The proposals for Leith Walk are an improvement, but they can be so much better.