A new book surveying PLP's first ten years
What does the new decade represent? What problems will it ask us to solve? Can we find in the past decade the solutions to the next?
As we write this introduction, in the spring of 2020, we are in the midst of the great fear and uncertainty unleashed by the new coronavirus. With unimaginable loss of life and over two-thirds of the world’s population living under containment, we are confronting the worst downturn in over a century. Isolation and social distancing mean that over 90 percent of urban travel is suspended and streets are deserted. Homeschooling and remote working are the new normal.
In 2009 we formed PLP as a platform for typological innovation, making it our mission to investigate
how shifts in cultural practice and emerging technologies combine to establish new kinds of spatial experience and instantiate new architectural and urban realities. The projects we have undertaken since then turned out to resist traditional codification into fixed building types. They were, instead, ever-shifting assemblages of disparate and at times surprising content resulting from unprecedented exterior influences, new collective interests, and uniquely 21st century social habits
Cities are complex but incomplete systems. In this mix lies the capacity of cities to have long lives. And in this mix also lies the critical role that good architecture contributes to the vast diversity of spaces in major cities. These spaces often belong to earlier eras and bringing them into our current epoch through architectural innovation is one of the major challenges we confront.
PLP Architecture was born 10 years ago, in 2009—not the most auspicious moment to start a new practice. And as the authors tell us, it forced them to look at architecture through a different lens. Rather than approaching each project with accepted disciplinary expertise, they chose to adopt “a wilfully naïve stance: what is a building’s obligation given such pervasive changes in technology, society, and culture?”
This is a rare and courageous move in the highly competitive world of architecture.
I have always maintained that neighbourhoods are the components of the city that have best survived change. They broadly enfranchise diverse communities and cultures as they naturally mobilise the agency and imagination of its inhabitants; they enable authentic forms of production and innovation; they are inherently resilient because of their flexibility and adaptability.
PLP describes its work as having the very same attributes as the neighbourhood. They speak of a “typological fluidity,” an architecture that aims to establish spaces operating as fragments of the city.
A good case in point is the new Bankside Yards redevelopment in London, which brings to life both the past and a whole new present. PLP takes the site’s industrial heritage—viaducts, railways, and disused factories—and proposes not static but provisional forms of occupation such as cultural venues, gallery spaces, and artist studios. It is the type of project that can thrive in a city with an extraordinary mix of building types and histories.
Another example is Sky Central, a building where, instead of a conventional hierarchical organisation that keeps different areas of expertise apart, PLP deliberately mixes the talents and interests of the occupants within informal neighbourhoods connected by an intricate network of thoroughfares, stairs, and spaces, all tied together by a central street.
Their coliving building for The Collective responds to the current shortage of housing in the city by bringing together social and residential spaces within a hybrid typology where working, living, creating, exchanging, socialising, and entertaining are all organised as a vertical neighbourhood that encourages community-forming while allowing for a liberating sense of metropolitan anonymity.
One can almost imagine that at the heart of their work is the task of seeing the way a city sees. Central to this mode of building is a larger project marked, above all, by the diversity and specificity of neighbourhoods. And by the fact that localities are about more than building. Once such concepts are in play, we can think of architecture as including flexible tissue that will have a much longer life than a megaproject built for only a few specific uses.
The work of installing, experimenting, testing, and discovering can generate innovations. While acknowledging the role of technology as a driver of urban innovation, I remain concerned about its “de-urbanising” impact on cities. It is charged with negative potentials. From the initial mode centered on experimentation, discovery, and open-source urbanisms, we easily slide into a managed space where “sensored” becomes “censored.”
But this is not a risk in the work of these architects. They protect the urbanity of the city.
Historically speaking, long lives is what has marked cities across the centuries—no matter wars and fires. When it comes to cities and buildings, we can see how both have had such long lives because they are complex but incomplete systems. They have outlived all kinds of more powerful but closed systems—corporate firms, governments, rulers, powerful bureaucracies.
Across the centuries, also, most of the powerful actors that emerged in cities fell apart. But the city and its neighbourhoods survived. And they did so even as whole new types of instruments and buildings came to inhabit those old neighbourhoods and elite spaces.
In fact, the larger project here is about more than building. It is about recovering and bringing back to life architectures of diverse kinds.