Border architecture – a warm welcome

When we think of borders, we think of unfriendly, tense spaces, patrols, barded wire even… But does it have to be a grim wasteland? There is a more positive architectural response to these liminal spaces out there – and here are some examples of border architecture done well.

Designer and creative Espacio Cero has proposed a new and much more productive alternative to Donald Trump’s wall between Mexico and the US.

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Rather than build a wall, Espacio Cero would see a vast, interconnected economic community founded along the border, to celebrate and encourage exchange between the two countries rather than condemn it. Entitled ‘the invisible wall’, Cero’s proposal involves interconnecting the various sister cities along the border area through a web of transport links and industrial enterprises, as well as public parks and recreation programmes.

Canadian Plaza at the Peace Bridge, Fort Erie, Canada

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NORR was awarded the design of the Canadian Customs and Immigration Agency’s Redevelopment of the Peace Bridge Plaza and Border Crossing. The landmark Peace Bridge Authority’s project design reflects “a new Canadian image of confidence and sophistication”, while paying homage to regional history.

Mariposa Land Port of Entry, designed by Jones Studio

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Phoenix-based Jones Studio balanced security and serenity in its design for one of the busiest border stations in the US. The design involved a reconception of the port, reworking the bones of the existing structures into a facility that included 216,000 square feet of new facilities.

Sarpi Border Checkpoint, Sarpi, Georgia

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The customs checkpoint – designed by Berlin architect J Mayer H – is situated at the Georgian border to Turkey, at the shore of the Black Sea. With its cantilevering terraces, the tower is used as a viewing platform, with multiple levels overlooking the water and the steep part of the coastline. In addition to the regular customs facilities, the structure also houses a cafeteria, staff rooms and a conference room. The building welcomes visitors to Georgia, representing the progressive upsurge of the country.

Hedge House by White Arkitekter


White Arkitekter’s interesting proposal, called ‘Hedge House’, is a new housing typology which uses post-war housing estates to create affordable housing. The London Affordable Housing Challenge, an open international competition, sought a concept for affordable housing to increase London’s housing stock. White’s proposal seeks to use the urban fabric, public parks and spaces between the post-war housing estates by addressing what does not currently work, healing the estates without affecting existing affordable homes.

I’ve always thought that many of these post-war estates actually prided themselves on the amount of open space around them –– it certainly can be a redeeming feature, if designed correctly. So it’d be a shame to take away one of the few good things going for them – play areas, parks etc – just to build more housing. But not all the estates have good planning around them – and some, especially later ones, have dead space, or space that is badly lit and unfriendly. 

The idea for Hedge House seems promising though: it has a low site cost, no demolition or loss of existing affordable homes and a small, efficient footprint with lightweight construction that allows for prefabrication with a simple repetition of elements.

The concept creates better spaces on both of its sides: a calm park protected from street noise on one side and a lively city street with people and front doors on the other. With its green facades the building becomes part of the park, creating a natural border.


Designed with prefabrication in mind, the modular system can be adapted to fulfil the needs of any number of sites, scale and access requirements.

White Arkitekter has won the BB-Green Award in the London Affordable Housing Challenge for the proposal –– it’d be interesting to see it if and when it’s implemented. 

On the rise of… meanwhile spaces

Blue House Yard

With commercial property rents on the rise, many of our high streets are being left with gaping holes where once cafes, libraries and local shops fostered tight-knit community. But derelict property – or land that is awaiting redevelopment – doesn’t have to stay untended and forlorn. The notion of “meanwhile spaces” has been gaining ground since 2009, when a project was set up in response to London’s voracious gentrification and astronomical rents. Meanwhile Space has been finding temporary uses for idle plots, whether they are former public toilets or a bit of scrubland. The project takes on the lease negotiations and spruces up buildings before renting the space out for the lowest possible cost. Acting as an interim landlord, it’s there to help people who can’t afford to rent commercial property to get their business idea up and running – and so far, more than 600 people have benefited from its work.

Once a wind-swept council car park in north London, the temporary Blue House Yard in has been doing a brisk trade since January 2017. Studios, workshops, food and arts and crafts markets and retail units have popped up to cater for the local creative community in a space that had been underused and underloved. Now, cosy wooden huts painted in vibrant colours are home to everyone from local fashion designers and ceramicists to a beer shop. Because of favourable rents, these quirky start-ups can now afford to experiment with their businesses, even if they end up not working out.  

Architects are also aware of the existence of meanwhile spaces. Whether thinking about the use of land that is sitting vacant while awaiting redevelopment or awkward pockets in tightly packed cities that can be turned into community gardens, initiatives include the much-publicised pop-up housing by Richard Rogers that, in principle at least, can be moved from spot to spot, as land becomes available. Meanwhile, the disused Magistrates Court in Barking underwent a temporarily transformed into a public canteen, amphitheatre and cinema. The project, carried out by architecture firm The Decorators, reopened the front doors of the once-bustling courtrooms to test new uses for the space. Similar projects have popped up all over the capital, often swapping time spent on DIY or admin for the use of its space. And a sliver of land, owned by Guy’s and St Thomas’s hospital in Waterloo, has been transformed into a buzzing urban farm and garden. Once farmland, its iteration as a meanwhile space will remain in place until St Thomas’s Hospital redevelops the site as part of a masterplan to expand the hospital.

And therein lies the crux. Although it’s undeniably beneficial for all involved to have vacant lots used by start-ups, entrepreneurs and the community at large, they will, in time, revert to their intended use and what goodwill and community that is built up around them will surely dissipate. Perhaps the solution lies in what Meanwhile Space has been trying out in Hastings. Having recently bought and renovated a five-storey building there, it is more likely that the future of “meanwhile spaces” is to be found in transforming property into permanent and affordable live-and-work opportunities. But meanwhile? Let’s celebrate those who have enough imagination – and good will – to make your former public loo worth visiting once more.


The world’s coldest jobs

I helped to conduct the interview with Mikhail who breeds special horses that can withstand the cold ––

Mikhail, 56, Oymyakon, Russia

After the fall of the Soviet Union there was no work for me. I had to think of a way to provide for my family, so I decided to create my own smallholding. I have 100 horses and work with my son and brother-in-law.

Our horses are bred to grow extra fur in time for winter and to get a layer of fat for warmth. It enables them to live outside when it’s incredibly cold. Here it ranges from -20C to -50C in the winter. It’s important for us to dress warmly because you don’t want to lose an ear or a finger. It’s not uncommon for that to happen to people; the trauma centre in Yakutsk, the nearest city, conducts dozens of amputations every year of fingers and toes due to frostbite. I’ve experienced -67C, but I have to work outside every day. I don’t mind. We’re in the mountains and being in nature is the best way to spend time.

Oymyakon is 1,000km from Yakutsk. It takes 30 hours to get here by car when the roads are frozen. About 1,000 people live here. Homes are wooden and heated with wood or coal fire. Our toilets have to be outside because it’s too cold for plumbing. We don’t use our fridges in winter – we just keep things outside. There are only four hours of daylight then, so in the evenings the streets are empty. Most people stay inside and watch TV. I like the news and talk shows, and I also like to read, especially historical fiction.

This weather is normal to us. Nothing really stops here, we drive (if our cars don’t freeze) or walk to work. The school only closes when it goes below -52C outside. When it’s very cold the little children are often taken on a sleigh. No one really complains about the cold; for us, this is natural. We live 3,000m above sea level and it’s beautiful and wild. We’re so used to it that it’s actually difficult for us to travel anywhere south and acclimatise. It’s so cold here that there are few diseases and we can easily get sick when we go somewhere warmer.

Read the full Guardian story here

The death economy

Wish to shuffle off this mortal coil without leaving a carbon footprint? I investigate environmentally sound funerals and burials.

NaturalburialgroundClayton Wood Natural Burial Ground

“Soylent Green is people!” exclaims Charlton Heston in horror in the 1973 cult film upon discovering that the food dished out in the overpopulated and malnourished Earth of 2022 is in fact made of recycled bodies. We’re not quite there yet, of course, but the UK’s cemeteries are fast running out of space.

Every year, about 600,000 people die in this country and soon we will have to resort to “double decking”. “If all the graves that haven’t been visited for the past 75 years were reused in the UK, we would have enough burial space for the next 80 years,” says Mike Jarvis, director of the Natural Death Centre in north London.

But it is important to understand the impact burials have on the environment – it turns out that we are just as troublesome when we are dead as when we are living. Some 90 per cent of coffins sold in this country are made of wood chip, stuck together by formaldehyde, an extremely toxic chemical which leaches into the soil as the coffin breaks down. And while some 70 per cent of us still opt for cremation, it’s worth knowing that burning bodies releases vast quantities of toxic gas into the atmosphere – while cremated fillings and artificial limbs account for 16 per cent of all mercury emissions. As a result, new guidelines dictate that crematoria have to install filters to cut mercury emissions. This will be expensive: a filter can cost up to £200,000 and many could go out of business.

But since 1993 there has been another option on the table: a natural or ‘green’ burial. There has been a significant rise in environmental awareness, especially among baby boomers who are now burying parents or even partners. Today, there are as many as 220 natural burial grounds in the UK, half of which are owned by farmers and half by local authorities. Mike Jarvis, who has had a growing number of information requests about green burials at the Natural Death Centre, predicts that 20,000 burials a year (12 per cent) will be at natural burial grounds by 2020.

A natural burial isn’t just greener, it’s also cheaper. In the past six years, the cost of a traditional funeral has gone up from £2,048 to £3,307. Burials at green sites cost half that but do little to solve the issue of space. There is only so much undisturbed woodland to be had. But a solution is close at hand. It can be found in the sleepy market town of Crewe in northwest England where Mary Slinn is cemeteries and crematorium manager. A few years ago she read about a Swedish project called Promessa. Although it is still largely in development, this novel process promises to be a completely carbon and toxin-free solution. With promession, the body is placed in a tank of liquid nitrogen until it becomes brittle. It is then shattered, dehydrated and filtered for metal fillings and surgical parts. What comes out is what you would see in an urn – fine ash.

It would cost about £1m to install an Promessa apparatus, roughly the same as it would to build a new crematorium. So could it happen? At the moment, “an alternative form of disposal” is not written into the Coroners Bill. A spokesman from the Ministry of Justice explains: “The government will consider promession if it is presented with a sizeable lobby, but there are no plans in place to introduce it in this country yet.”

But Mary Slinn is hopeful that it will go ahead in the next few years, especially as the cemetery at Crewe is filling up fast. “I think it’s the right way to go. We can’t afford not to do this.”

Waste not, want not

young people furniture projectI’ve been meaning to write about London’s Goldfinger Factory for some time. An award-winning design collective, it not only provides affordable space for craftsmen but makes sure that knowledge and skills are passed on – young apprentices are taken on from the surrounding area and are taught skills such as woodworking. It’s design-led, so it’s not just about upcylcing, but about creating pieces that really stand out. Designers such as Tom Dixon have gotten onboard and have created pieces that the factory has then manufactured. The profits are ploughed back into the enterprise.

I also really love that it’s located on the ground floor of Erno Goldfinger’s iconic grade-II listed Trellick Tower – it’s an impressive space.

I’m chuffed that the factory is considering making some of my grandmother’s lamp designs. An interior decorator and designer, she was working in Soviet Russia in the 1950s and 1960s. I’m guessing that the designs she would have been most inspired by are those coming from Finland and the Nordics – Italy was just a little too far away in those days. I’ve located an entire folder of her sketches so the Factory is hoping to make a couple of prototypes and if it’s feasible sell them in its showroom. So if you’re a fan of Soviet modernism – and who isn’t really, eh? – then watch this space!

Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of The Free Independent Republic of Frestonia

© Tony Sleep

For its forthcoming exhibition, Frestonian Gallery presents ‘Welcome To Frestonia’ – an exhibition that will examine and celebrate the Free Independent Republic of Frestonia. It was founded 40 years ago, in October 1977, by a group of disparate inhabitants of the abandoned, run-down Victorian terraces and expanses around Freston Road and Olaf Street. These streets formed the Republic’s territory in the western outreaches of Kensington and Notting Hill.

The space now inhabited by Frestonian Gallery is within the 1902 red-brick ‘People’s Hall’, which served as something of a de-facto capital building and cultural centre for the Republic and its citizens.

The Republic was broadly speaking an alliance formed in opposition – in this instance against the eviction notices and threats of the Greater London Council – from which flowered an extraordinary breadth of communal output, both practical and cultural. Artists, musicians, poets, engineers and builders mixed their skills and outlooks in an environment of material scarcity but creative abundance.

Many strong characters contributed to the founding and the guiding principles of this fledgling Republic, which had begun to produce its own stamps, currency and had already petitioned to the United Nations for full membership. Chief among these were the Frestonian Ministers of State – including the actor David Rappaport (Foreign Affairs), Enrico Weber (Chancellor of the Exchequer), Bryan Assiter (Industry) and Josefine Speyer (Transport). Other figures key to the founding and development of the Republic included the social activist Nicholas Albery and the playwright Heathcote Williams. Each of these ministers and citizens adopted the suffix ‘Bramley’ to their names (after Bramley Road, one of the streets of Frestonia), and united under the banner of the Republic’s motto: Nos Sumus Una Familia (‘we are all one family’).

One of the most comprehensive documents of the Republic, celebrating its triumphs and laying bear its social issues, is the photographic series ‘Welcome to Frestonia’ by Tony Sleep, which will be shown alongside archive material that is still maintained under the custodianship of the wider Frestonian community.

The exhibition is open 11 October to 4 November 2017.