Reading a recent Building Design article on the introduction of wind turbines on Elephant & Castle in London, I sense a tenuous link between that and last month’s note on modeling the behaviour of sound in urban spaces, not just within buildings.
Repeating my hasty sketch, intended to indicate sounds bouncing through a space (‘wavetracing’) after Arup’s SoundLab, it’s easy to mentally reconfigure that to indicate wind – although of course the engineering actually being carried out here is far more precise, and wind has quite different characteristics to sound.
The engineering on the Southwark project is by Brian Dunlop Associates and Gas Dynamics. Dunlop says:
"There’s plenty of data for photovoltaic performance in urban locations but very little regarding urban wind power. From a planning point of view, we want to put to bed fears over noise and vibration, and so far the results have proved positive." Dunlop does add, though, that there is an enormous amount of data to be analysed. “The equipment used collects information every second using sophisticated software created by Gas Dynamics,” he says. "At the moment South Bank University is analysing data gathered from the first three months."
Arup’s engineers are also modelling the way wind moves through open urban spaces, which sounds impossibly complex. Arup’s Rupert Blackstone:
"Modelling urban wind movement is a real challenge. It’s almost impossible to be predictive because every environment has local characteristics that affect air flow. The surface roughness — meaning the variation in height of a neighbourhood’s buildings — has a huge influence on the wind resource available. There’s really no point in extrapolating from meteorological data — you have to be location-specific in your analysis.”
Wind turbines, as with other renewable energy sources, are only likely to increase in number throughout urban space, and personally I’m all for them. I’ve never quite understood arguments against their introduction – a few messy bird-kills here and there aside – and have personally almost always found them aesthetically appealing. I recall Justin Good’s piece for Design Observer, when he almost systematically ‘proved’, in that way philosophy doctorates do, that "wind farms are objectively beautiful."
However, the article was predicated on the most likely current siting for wind farms – rural environments – and so hinged on the suggestion that people found wind farms unappealing as they resembled modernist sculptures, and so "don’t want the ideology of high modernism disrupting the very different order of the natural world."
In urban environments, smaller vertical axis wind turbines can look like modernist sculptures and all the better for it, perhaps more universally at ease in this setting. With some of the newer wind turbines on the market, they’re not a million miles away from the Alexander Calder or Barbara Hepworth sculptures that we see at the Fundaçion Joan Miro or pinned to the side of John Lewis in Oxford Street.
Still, the portrayed settings for these turbines are often the ex-urban ‘object in the landscape’-style houses familiar to photogenic regions of Australia, California, Scandinavia etc.
This is perhaps due to their unwieldy size thus far but also, I think, a cultural association between renewable energy and ‘the great outdoors’, which is entirely false and actually problematic. As with water tanks there’s an irony that most renewable energy products appear to be designed for properties in rural settings or at best on the fringes of urban sprawl. Whereas, of course, most people live in cities, in areas that are the highest contributors to greenhouse pollution. I’d like to see small elegant turbines intended for domestic use in tighter urban context.
That’s why it’s so interesting to see the experiments at Elephant & Castle. As Monocle reported last month, on some days Denmark achieves all its electricity demands via wind power – with an average of 20 percent. The blades developed by leading Danish company LM Glasfiber are 61.5m long, travel at around 300km/h and pull 9Gs. Not exactly what you want atop your house. But the Windspire, Helix, and particularly the Quiet Revolution, designed for small scale wind generation in cities, are developments that just might. Indeed, Quiet Revolution is almost designed to take advantage of the turbulence found in urban settings – or at least not be impaired by it.
Their current QR5 is 5-metres tall, but appears to need a 9-metre base – again, outside of what most urban residents have space for. But just as water tanks are now being designed with apartment dwellers and renters in mind, we’ll surely see smaller-scale generators extrapolated from the QR5 – such as their ‘in development’ QR2.5 for instance.
Their projects include a QR5 to be mounted on top of a listed building on Southwark Bridge Road; planning permission granted, installation in "late 2007".
See also these seven turbines planned for the top of a development in Croydon. (Has all of south London been turned over to a giant test-bed for wind power or what? Wouldn’t be a bad thing.)
Quiet Revolution’s display turbines are also interesting, comprising LEDs embedded in the blades, combining renewable energy with informational possibilities – hopefully carried a little further than simple branding (an obvious display would be amount of energy contributed, in the spirit of the presentation I gave last week at Interesting South). I’d also love to know what they sound like. I suspect, in the spirit of positive soundscapes, that they would sound fantastic, actually. Should it necessarily be a quiet revolution?
We look forward to hearing more about these projects, and their impact on surrounding neighbourhoods, and also to a further refinement of their design, derived both from the sculptural lineage noted above and the huge variety in urban conditions found worldwide (wind may be the same force everywhere, but the spatial characteristics, cultural capital and related environmental conditions certainly aren’t. Will we see cities such as Chicago and Wellington increasingly talking up their windiness?)
Do add a comment if you know of similar projects (perhaps even, dare I suggest it, outside of south London).
Finally, returning to the first point, modelling wind through these spaces is just one of the numerous fascinating developments around urban modelling – extending increasingly sensor-based models of buildings, generated and maintained throughout the lifecycle of a building and known in the trade as building information modelling (BIM), up to the scale of cities, aka city information modelling (CIM). So as well as developmental tools, speculating as to potential environmental behaviour of buildings and spaces, some of these systems could be built as real-time feedback loops, indicating the behaviour of urban spaces in real-time. It’s a burgeoning loosely-defined field at the moment, running from indices of air pollution, water pollution or informational behaviour through to these live ‘field recordings’ of wind or sound. As the Building Design article suggests, "an enormous amount of data" can emerge from recording the dynamics of urban wind power, but our ability to now process this data – and then make sense of it through information design – has given us new possibilities for assessing the behaviour of urban environments.
It’s also not without problems, as models are just models and not reality, and as such are limited in their expression of territory and have various patterns of power or ideology coded within them – a great editorial by Flavio Albanese in Domus #908 made a similar point about maps, recently – but when used imaginatively and with well-informed civic value in mind, we begin to have ever-more useful tools that may enable us to sculpt wind, sound and other elemental forces for the benefit of cities and citizens.
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