Whats the big idea?

Associate Theodore Dales reflects on some exciting challenges to conventional thinking. During a recent series of talks in our Belfast office we explored the power of big ideas and what happens when we ask the question “What If…?”

Copyright Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Architecture is about many things: materials, form, void and volume but it is also about imagination and ideas. As relative newcomers to the city of Belfast* we wanted to focus on the power of thinking big as a way to provoke conversation about three big topics for the developing city; roads and streets, the bureaucratic state and the amount of vacant space in the city centre. So we invited architects and designers who choose to think differently, who regularly choose to ask the question “What if…?”.

David Saxby, founder of Architecture OO, describes his work as “less like architecture, more like gardening”. When asked to procure £100,000 worth of furniture for a city council their response was to say “What if we bought a CNC cutter, set up a workspace, trained a team to use it, designed the furniture, made the furniture, delivered it on time and on budget?” By thinking differently they completely transformed their relationship to the client, they made some great bespoke furniture and, perhaps more important, helped kick-start a viable small business that now employs local people. This mode of thinking allows architects to connect much more deeply and directly with people and places than the traditional architectural scope of services allows for.

Listening to David and our other speakers I realised quite how many assumptions we all make out of habit in our modern daily lives that are not based on truth but are actually a culmination of years and years of bureaucratic and risk adverse decision-making. For example, why are the streets of our towns, cities and villages congested with health and safety paraphernalia that set up rules of hostile engagement between pedestrians and vehicles? Ben Hamilton-Baillie asked what would happen if all this rule-driven street furniture were removed.

He proposed the idea that all the signs and markings that clutter our streets don’t actually make them safer. On the contrary, by removing all that visual noise you make drivers and pedestrians more aware of their surroundings and more responsible for their behaviour. Somehow all that street clutter depersonalises our relationship with the street and with each other. So, what if we removed the traffic lights…. and the guard rails… and the signs…. and the paint on the roads and instead relied on the fact that people are inherently humane and quite sensible? Make drivers read the whole picture in front of them and they will respond much more respectfully to the irrational movement of shoppers and students and flaneurs moving around the city.

In Bath the ancient Romans had the sense to use the high temperatures of the naturally- occurring hot spring water to heat and enliven their buildings but for the last 2000 years this natural spring has been discharging into the River Avon, unnoticed by all except a few healthy and dramatically oversized carp that loiter by the outlet. Geoff Rich described our project to re-route the spring to provide heating to the enormous volume of Bath Abbey. This might seem an obvious environmental strategy but it took someone to say “what if?” and to support that question with many layers of critical thought, research and understanding of how the historic fabric has evolved over thousands of years to make a viable case for what seems such an obvious intervention.

Amica Dall’s story of the Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Glasgow painted a vivid picture of children playing and making dens. She described how the children transformed the stockpile of large industrial piping and other donated industrial materials into castles and pirate ships, accompanied by the smell of bananas cooking over an open fire in a shopping trolley.

To paraphrase a member of the audience ‘At first I couldn’t work out if what they were saying was delusional or visionary, but they showed where it had been delivered…. and I decided it had to be visionary’. Big ideas are unusual and challenge our perceptions of convention in a way that is inherently pleasurable. Having our eyes opened, or our opinions changed, is something that we should at the very least remain open to and at best should actively seek.  

What I really enjoyed about the series as a whole was the clarity of thought, dogged work ethic and lack of egos that delivered a compelling series of projects which demonstrate how life might be a lot better if we all allow ourselves to think a little differently and to ask ourselves from time to time "What if..?”.

Theodore Dales

FCBStudios *Belfast *office was established in 2012


1. Baltic Street Adventure Playground ©Assemble

2. Wikihouse. Open Source construction system using digital manufacturing to make it possible for anyone to download and ‘print‘ customised, low-cost, high performance houses ©ArchitectureOO

3. Exhibition Road ©Hamilton-Baillie Associates

4. Drawing of City of Bath. Blue marker shows hot spring running from the Roman Baths into the River Avon ©Matt Somerville for FCBStudios

5. Baltic Street Adventure Playground ©Assemble

6. Baltic Street Adventure Playground ©Assemble

7. Armagh House Belfast ©Arthur Parke

8. Model of Belfast by architectural students from University of Bath ©Arthur Parke

9. Armagh House Belfast ©Arthur Parke

With thanks to:

The Speakers:

University of Bath Students: Ben Munro, Jack Stephenson, Chris Christodoulou, Craig Smith

Ben Hamilton-Baillie, Hamilton-Baillie Associates

David Saxby, Architecture OO

Geoff Rich, FCBStudios

Amica Dall, Assemble

The Hosts: Bri Farren, Ciaran Mackle, Peter Clegg, Sam Tyler, Cormac Maguire

The Team: Everyone at FCBStudios Belfast and PLACE NI

Special thanks to

The Ulster University School of Architecture

The KARL group for their kind donation of the fantastic venue.