17 February 2020

Palace of the Parliament, Bucharest

Construction of what was originally called the Palace of the Republic began in 1983, the cornerstone laid on 25 June 1984. Romanian Communist Party leader Ceaușescu had seen the monumental architecture of North Korea on a visit to fellow dictator Kim Il-sung, and had decided that his palace would rival anything else in its scale and opulence. 2.7 square miles of Bucharest, home to monasteries, a hospital, 37 factories and workshops, and 40,000 people, were demolished to make way for this vision.

With 3,930,000 square feet of floor space, the palace is the third largest administrative building in the world, after The Pentagon (Virginia, USA) and the Long'ao Building (Jinan city, China). At over 90 million cubic feet, it is the third most voluminous building in the world, after the Rocket Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral, USA, and the pyramid of Quetzalcoatl, in Mexico. The palace is the heaviest building in the world, weighing in at over four million tons, and as a consequence sinks about a quarter of an inch per year.

Between 20,000 and 100,000 people, working 24 hours a day, in three shifts, were forced to undertake the construction. Thousands died. Over 700 architects, under chief architect Anca Petrescu, were engaged in the work, but had a largely technical role, with the megalomaniac Ceaușescus interfering at every stage.

885 feet wide, 790 feet front to back, the building stands 276 feet tall. It has a footprint of over 710,000 square feet. Of twelve above-ground storeys, in three registers, plus eight underground levels, the palace contains over 1,100 rooms, of which just 400 or so are in use. Although the exterior was completed in 1997, hundreds of rooms remain unfinished.

Some of the principal rooms and halls of the first register, the most opulent, can be visited by the public. In this register alone there are about 20 rooms of 2,000 to 7,500 square feet; three of 10,000 to 15,000 square feet; two of over 21,000 square feet (Union Hall, photo above, boasts over 23,000 square feet); two vast meeting rooms, seating 850 and 1,200 respectively; and the two official apartments intended, one suite each, for Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu.

The construction material quantities are gargantuan: 35 million cubic feet of marble, 550,000 tons of cement, two million tons of sand, 1,000 tons of basalt, 700,000 tons of steel, 3,500 tons of crystal, seven million cubic feet of glass, 32 million cubic feet of wood, 2.3 million square feet of carpet. There are 4,500 chandeliers, of an intended 11,000.

And the materials used are of the highest quality, largely from Romania: pink and white Rușchița marble, red and black Moneasa marble; sweet cherry, walnut, mahogany and oak. Yet the quality of the work leaves much to be desired. Despite the obsessive reworking required by the Ceaușescus - Elena had the monumental paired stairs built three times over - the joints and junctions are poorly executed, the chandeliers are missing drops, the carpets are twisted.

The whole place has an air of pointless extravagance. It was known by Romanians, most of whom were living in a peasant economy, as the Madman's House. And mad it is. The Rosetti Room, built as a performance hall, seating 850 - photo above - lacks a backstage area and has a tiny stage, such that it's never been used for the presentation of a play.

Since the 1989 revolution that deposed Ceaușescu, when the building was renamed the Palace of the People, Romania has struggled to find uses for a structure that, on the one hand, is a ridiculous folly, yet, on the other, was built at great cost, both financial and human, and might as well be pressed into use. Now called the Palace of the Parliament, it presently houses the Chamber of Deputies, the Senate, an international conference centre, the Constitutional Court, and the Legislative Council, with space to spare.

12 February 2020

Regal Cinema, Oswestry

In the 1930s Oswestry boasted three cinemas. The King's Theatre, later renamed the Granada, then later still the Century Cinema, in New Street, is now a Wilco store. The Public Hall, subsequently renamed the Picturedrome, then the Playhouse, and finally the Plaza, in Oswald Road, has long been demolished.

The Regal Super Cinema opened on 22 May 1933, occupying the corner of Leg Street and English Walls. The architect was Lionel Arthur George Prichard, of Liverpool. The architectural practice is still going strong. The first film shown was the pre-Code (Hollywood censorship) comedy "A Successful Calamity", featuring George Arliss and Mary Astor.

Independently operated, the cinema could seat 1,080 cinema-goers, 744 in the stalls and 336 in the circle. Sydney Bernstein, of Granada Theatres Ltd, took an interest in November 1934, although Granada did not fully own the cinema until February 1955. It closed for improvements, and re-opened on 23 May 1956, now named the Granada Theatre.

The cinema traded as such until 14 June 1975, when it passed into the hands of an independent operator. It reopened on 25 February 1976, once more named the Regal Cinema, but now with 839 seats. In 1985 the cinema was split into two screens, and the capacity was reduced to 522, 261 for each of the screens. A third screen, added in 1987 on the former stage, added another 66 seats.

Later the capacity was reduced once more, to 259 in front of a single screen, the remainder of the space converted to a nightclub. The Regal closed on 16 June 1994, and the building remained vacant until March 2003, when it was gutted. Two floors were inserted and, from spring 2004, the building reopened as a clothing store. It has, since then, housed a variety of clothing and charity shops.

There are plans afoot, in the form of the Regal Project, a local community interest organisation, to purchase the Regal, and the adjoining retail space, 16 Cross Street (photos 3 to 6), and convert the two, combined together, into a multi-use arts and culture facility.

19 December 2019

Deflated Gas Holders

Gas holders, also incorrectly referred to as gasometers - they don't measure anything - were once a common sight in UK towns and cities. They provided a means to store gas, and to maintain the downstream supply at what is called district pressure.

The first gas holder in the UK was erected in 1798, at the Soho Manufactory, in Birmingham. The water-sealed telescopic form, which came to dominate, was invented in 1824, the first constructed in Leeds. The earliest telescopic holders had two lifts, supported by columns. Later models had up to four, frame-guided, lifts. In 1890 William Gadd, of Manchester, invented the spiral-guided gas holder, the helical runners of which obviated the need for an exoskeleton. The last of these was built in 1983.

The gas was stored at near atmospheric pressure, the necessary weight applied by the heavy cap. The tank containing the gas floated in a reservoir of water, which provided the necessary seal, and rose and fell as the volume of stored gas either increased or decreased. A lipped channel around the base of each lift picked up water from the reservoir as the gas holder rose, thus maintaining the seal.

The holders were often sited next to plants producing town gas from coal, but were steadily adapted to store natural gas. Typical volumes for the larger holders, up to 200 feet in diameter, were 1.8 million cubic feet. As a nationwide network of pressurized pipes and regulators for provision of natural gas was developed the holders increasingly became redundant. A few still serve to balance pressure in the pipe network, but in 2013 National Grid announced plans to steadily remove the gas holders of England and Wales. SGN has similar plans for those in Scotland.

The three gas holders visible from the Aston Expressway, Birmingham, were decommissioned between 2009 and 2011. The conjoined pair, erected in 1885, were once part of the Windsor Street Gas Works; sometime in the 1980s they were painted in the claret and blue colours of nearby Aston Villa Football Club. National Grid has been granted permission to demolish all three holders, which are expected to disappear in 2020.

(Second photograph by Abi Smith.)

11 November 2019

Foel Ortho

Foel translates from the Welsh as bald, or bare, hill. But the hillside at Foel Ortho is anything but bald.

In a ruinous state at that time, the farmhouse was discovered in 1967 by Jenny and Eddie Matthews.

The steep acre of ground, between Penybontfawr and Lake Vyrnwy, has over the decades been graced with a series of DIY follies.

With winding and stepped paths between fake rocks, stone-retained terraces, a mock castle, towers linked by a bridge, buttressed walls, and a giant chess set, the place is like nothing so much as a miniature Portmeirion.

28 October 2019

Freetown Christiania

Christiania, now covering about 19 acres of the military barracks of Bådsmandsstræd (abandoned from 1967), and remnants of the city ramparts, in the Christianshavn area of Copenhagen, was squatted in 1971.

A mission statement was co-authored by the journalist Jacob Ludvigsen: "The objective of Christiania is to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible over the well-being of the entire community. Our society is to be economically self-sustaining and, as such, our aspiration is to be steadfast in our conviction that psychological and physical destitution can be averted."

The residents developed their own set of rules: no stealing, violence, guns, knives, bullet-proof vests, hard drugs, or bikers' colours. Known also as Freetown Christiania, the commune's cannabis trade was largely tolerated by various Danish governments, some of which saw the area as an interesting social experiment.

Since 1994 the residents have paid taxes for services such as water, electricity and rubbish disposal. The area's open but illegal cannabis trade was ended in 2004, after which outside biker gangs vied to take over the market.

A Christiania resident was killed in April 2005 as a consequence of the resulting violence. The weed trade recommenced, and has operated ever since, other than subsequent to a shooting in 2016 and for a while after police raids.

Since 2010 matters have settled somewhat, and Christiania now operates (largely) under Danish law. Some of the buildings, including the Grey Hall riding house (used as a concert venue), the half-timbered Commander's House, and the 17th and 18th century powder magazines, were listed in 2007 by the National Heritage Agency.

The area was closed to the public by the residents in June 2011, but a year later they set up a collective fund to enable purchase of the land from the defence ministry, making the commune the landowners. No private cars are allowed within the commune, which is currently home to about 900 people.

27 October 2019

Broen / Bron

The Øresund (Danish) or Öresund (Swedish) Bridge is a four-lane motorway and twin-track railway bridge that links Copenhagen and Malmö. The two-deck bridge at the Swedish end of the crossing is 4.9 miles long, and terminates on the artificial island of Peberholm, from where the 2.5 mile Drogden Tunnel runs to Amager, in Denmark. It is Europe's longest combined road and rail bridge. The tunnel was necessary to prevent interference with the flight path for Copenhagen Airport, and to provide a clear passage for ships and ice floes.

The bridge, the principal engineering design of which was undertaken by Ove Arup, was built by a joint venture between Hochtief (Germany), Skanska (Sweden), Højgaard & Schultz (Denmark), and Monberg & Thorsen (Denmark). Construction commenced in 1995 and was completed in August 1999, three months ahead of schedule, at a cost of c.€4bn. The official dedication took place on 1 July 2000. The bridge weighs in at 81,000 tons. The three cable-stayed sections together total 1,611 feet (a third of a mile) in length, and are slung from concrete towers 669 feet high, providing 187 feet of headroom for shipping. Otherwise the bridge is supported on concrete piers spaced at intervals of 459 feet.

Peberholm - Pepper Islet - so-called to partner the nearby natural Saltholm - is built from Swedish rock and the material dredged during construction of the bridge and, in particular, from the trench in which sits the tunnel. The island is 2.5 miles long and averages a third of a mile wide. On the island the train tracks emerge from the lower deck of the bridge and splay out to parallel the vehicular traffic. The Drogden Tunnel comprises 2.2 miles of immersed tube, in twenty concrete sections of 54,000 tons each, 125 feet wide, the largest in the world, plus approach tunnels of 886 feet each. Five side-by-side tubes accommodate two train lines, two lanes of vehicles in either direction, and services and emergency access.

(Photographs by Abi Smith.)

20 September 2019

i360 - World's Most Slender Tower

Brighton's i360 'vertical pier' was conceived and designed by Marks Barfield Architects, the same team that was behind the London Eye, also sponsored by British Airways. It is sited at the landward end of the ruined West Pier. Built at a cost of £46m, the civil and structural engineering undertaken by Jacobs UK, it is Britain's tallest moving observation tower. At 531 feet tall, it mirrors the height of nearby Beachy Head. Aluminium wind-diffusing cladding aids a damping system in addressing the inevitable wind shear.

A significant portion of the structure is underground. 2,000 interlocking concrete piles were sunk about 65 feet into the underlying chalk bedrock to enable excavation for the foundations. Over 7,000 tons of shingle was removed, to a depth of about 20 feet, and the concrete base for the tower - over 4,000 tons of concrete reinforced by about 195 tons of steel rebar - built directly upon the bedrock. A precision-engineered 21.6 ton anchor bolt frame was set into the concrete.

The tower is formed of 17 steel tubes, fabricated in the Netherlands by Hollandia Infra BV - the main contractor. Delivered to the beach by barge, along with a jacking frame nearly 200 feet tall, and the counterweight for the pod, the tubes vary from about 15 to 39 feet in length, the shorter ones at the bottom. Their wall thickness reduces with height, to a minimum of just ¾ inch, giving a thickness to diameter ratio less than that of a can of beans. The first three tubes were lifted into place by crane, and bolted to the anchor frame. Four tubes were lifted into place atop the first three, and bolted together, but not to those beneath. The temporary jacking tower then lifted these four tubes, enabling a fifth to be slid in from below and bolted to those above. The final lift, of 13 conjoined tubes, was of about 965 tons. This 'top-down' method of construction obviated the need for a tower crane. Work commenced on site in July 2014, and was completed in July 2016, but the tower of tubes, joined together by 1,336 bolts, reached its full height in just ten weeks.

The tower is just 12.7 feet in diameter. With a height to diameter ratio of 41:1, it is the most slender in the world. It is all the more remarkable, thus, that the pod, suspended from eight steel ropes, is as large as it is. 59 feet in diameter, and weighing over 92 tons, this can carry up to 200 people. The oblate ellipsoid pod was designed and built by Pomagalski SA, the French cable car specialists, and ascends to 453 feet. It consists of trusses that cantilever off a central chassis. 24 solid floor sections sit atop the trusses, and atop those sit 36 glazed sections, 24 facing outwards, and 12 facing the tower. The double-laminated glass, which can't be cut once toughened, had to be first cut to shape before it was double curved at high temperature. The drive mechanism, housed in the basement, is akin to that of a cable car. The descent produces about half the power needed for the next ascent.

As part of the development the Italianate Victorian tollbooths that used to flank the entrance to the pier were reconstructed. The originals were designed by Eugenius Birch as an integral part of his pier of 1866. The western one had been demolished, and the eastern was structurally unsound. The latter was dismantled and detailed measurements were taken. Ductile cast iron mouldings - 24 tons of them - were made anew, by the Swan Foundry, of Banbury, so as to precisely replicate the originals. The western tollbooth is now the i360's ticket office, whilst the eastern operates as the West Beach Cafe & Bar.