Architects: it isn’t always about you

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Andreas Gursky’s work at the Venice Art Biennale



The shortlisting of the architecture collective Assemble for the Turner Prize has been a surprise to most commentators in the architectural world. Largely because their story seems rather familiar. Here are a group of young trainee architects and their friends in other fields who came together to turn a former petrol station into a cinema in Clerkenwell in the summer of 2010. There project was architectural in purpose and ambitious in its wider intention. Let’s not just turn this petrol station into a cinema but all the other 4,000 odd abandoned ones across the country. It was executed well. The choice of materials was ingenious, particularly the luxurious ‘ruched’ curtain made from a metallic vapour control layer normally inserted in a buildings envelope. It was in a rich vein of temporary, self-initiated work brought to London by the Paris based collective Exyzt and the Berlin-based group Raumlabor.

We have become used in architecture to this type of practice; typifying what is known as social entrepreneurship, the model of which owes a lot to Raumlabor. The pioneering German group’ s practice of using temporary, self-built structures as a catalyst to discussed permanent changes to public space with the public that would use it and their influence has been immense. Indeed the late Matthias Rick and his cohorts set the purpose and direction to a very key strain of contemporary architectural production, channeling Cedric Price’s later understanding of temporary structures as catalysts and propositions to further more permanent structures. Assemble have used this tactic to good effect in their work around the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow as well as the street in Liverpool for which they were nominated. Continue reading

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Some Very Shallow Observations Of The Milan Expo

IMG_1880I am currently writing an article which tries to answer the question what is an Expo for? following my recent trip to to Milan. And I’m realising, it is very hard to talk about the Expo from a completely objective position. I feel like I need to declare a couple of positions. The first is this: as a child I loved international events particularly of a sporting nature and I realise now that wasn’t simply a love of sport but also a way to appreciate the whole world in a single event. Olympics, World Cups, Expos; they’re all a coming together of different countries but in a manner that allows each nation a universal means of differentiating itself. Some people see this as a problem.  I don’t. Everyone has a flag, but every flag is different. You only needed a set of 10 felt-tip pens and you could draw a symbol which represented any country in the world.  Continue reading

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The Dream of the 80s is Alive in Portland. Just.

Michael Graves: Portland Building, preliminary coloured pencil study of general elevation, with perspective and other sketches for a proposed cupola, 1980

Michael Graves: Portland Building, preliminary coloured pencil study of general elevation, with perspective and other sketches for a proposed cupola, 1980

A week before the death of Michael Graves, Portland City Council was locked in complex discussions in how to fund the refurbishment of his most famous work, The Portland Building. Home to a fair chunk of the city’s municipal administration, as well as being a piece of world famous architecture, the city is under pressure to maintain the building. According to surveys last year it requires $95 million in renovations. Portland is a prosperous city; one of the fastest growing in America with a population increase of 1.8% in both 2012 and 2013. It is however feeling the pressure from this expansion, whilst apparently unable to benefit from the increased tax income.  Continue reading

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You’re The Only Star in Heaven

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Deployable Space Truss Mk 2, photomontage, mixed media.

Jan Kaplicky’s drawings for NASA of the International Space Station are a triumph of that period in history in which our most expansive, ambitious infrastructure, the one that slipped the surly bonds of earth into space, was first conceived by men drawing with set squares at tilted boards. I love the collage in which a huge space frame extends up or rather out towards the viewer from the Space Shuttle with the surface of The Blue Marble beneath. It suggests a limitless structure that can be extended outwards at apparent will. Superstudio only dared to impose their grid over nature, whereas as Kaplicky within the scope of a technical drawing suggests that the grid can continue on to the stars.

His speculative projects from the early 1970s are incredibly, almost unfeasibly cool. Yes, there is incredible skill in the finely detailed cross-sections and plans, the dextrous use of ink on tracing paper or drafting film but these drawings are not simply technical. The cutaway isometric which he perfected was a technique with suggested an but also of the Eagle comic. It is a view which suggests both the utterly complexity of the planned project but also the privilege of the designer to be able to control that complexity. That these simple line drawings were drawn sitting at a kitchen table in a Bayswater flat with a set square and pen makes them all the more poetic.

In a great little exhibition at the Architectural Association in London, you can see that his most powerful drawings are in fact collages with stunning landscapes as their backdrop; be that the Blue Marble or an Alpine lake. Without them it would be possible to imagine that Kaplicky was simply a technological fetishist interested in creating nothing but a high tech sublime. Yet he isn’t simply replacing the massive infrastructure projects of the 19th century with a new robotic aesthetic at all. What he’s doing is suggesting that transport technology is reordering our relationship with nature. His Peanut house is a monocoque on a crane. It is doubly isolated, situated on the island in the middle of a lake, it rises to provide perfect isolation.

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Peanut, 1984, Photomontage, mixed media.

 

The view from the Peanut might be a little like that of the one afforded to The Wanderer Above the Mists, Caspar David Friedrich’s famous picture; only you have mountains reflected on the water rather than emerging from the mist. What is important to remember for our purposes though is that in Friedrich’s famous picture what one sees in the picture is not the sublime view but the viewer contemplating that view. We are asked to imagine what that romantic figure is thinking and doing; what impression it is having on him, and why is he there.

When we look at the Peanut – a pretty unlikely name for a Romantic device I admit – and what we see is a machine designed to give you a view. And not just any view, an isolated view of the natural sublime; no wandering required, the hydraulics do all the work. It is a celebration of technology’s ability to extend experience, even if that is through an artificial isolation. We are not privy to the view from the Peanut. It isn’t for the common viewer. Nor is the Media Centre at Lords, which is ultimately a privileged view on a large expanse of grass.

Technology isolates us in a physical sense simply by providing the opportunity for us to be more alone; to be in more extreme places and to be able still to communicate with the rest of the world when we are there. Today many people think that this isolation is troubling. I don’t think Kaplicky did. His drawing of the bulbous cockpit of a vehicle suggests he loved cars for their ability not simply to permit us to see the world but the way they allowed us to create our own world. I am not really convinced that Kaplicky is interested in the social element of housing in his project Coexistence. It is more about allowing us to be left alone even as we must accept living in closer proximity. Just look at those little portholes.

 

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House for a Helicopter Pilot, 1979, Photomontage, mixed media

 

Kaplicky’s interest in the relationship between an isolated consciousness and a technologically enabled world is a trope of science fiction, even if it fell away from the blobs that he built with Future Systems. When he began building and influenced more by moves in architecture rather than engineer,  he opted for a formal separation from the world around him. The Ferrari Museum aside, they aren’t for me. It is only in that project that you get a sense of playful inter-relation with the world outside. Although is an obvious homage to the car, it is an acknowledgement in both a formal and metaphorical sense that one cannot live in isolation for ever.

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Chipperfield is wrong about Berlin

GSW Headquarters Berlin, 1991-99 by Sauerbruch Hutton

GSW Headquarters Berlin, 1991-99
by Sauerbruch Hutton

It is tempting to see David Chipperfield’s eulogy to Berlin – in opposition to London and other cities – as sour grapes. The English architect is after all engaged in two particularly protracted protests from heritage groups regarding his plans for the Shell Centre and the extension to the Geffrye Museum. In Berlin meanwhile he can do no wrong. He is currently exhibiting in the Neue Nationalgalerie and building all over the city. Yet sour grapes doesn’t quite explain it all. His speech quoted in the Guardian and then printed at length therein shows that he fails to appreciate what a huge lost opportunity Berlin was and how it has become an even more staid architectural environment since. If we we look at the architectural history of Berlin since the Wall came down, later even than the International Bauaustellung which brought Rossi and OMA to West Berlin, then we can see that Chipperfield’s speech is more about himself than the city.

Berlin in the 1990s appeared to offer huge prospects to architects from all over the world not simply because of the reconstruction required but because of the intoxicating context in which any work might be done. Architects rocked up in the city expecting a new economic boom and an enlightened architectural culture, given the exciting times in the city’s music and art scenes. As we known the boom was short-lived and the city’s brief construction period ended quickly. A far greater catastrophe however was the sudden arrival of a highly conservative planning culture which sought to level out the huge range of architectural expression that existed in both the former East and West and turn Berlin into “another European city”. As if such a thing existed.
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Parliament in the abstract

Cedric Price, Pop Up Parliament, London, England: Conceptual sketch, 1965 CCA Collection © CCA

Cedric Price, Pop Up Parliament, London, England: Conceptual sketch, 1965 CCA Collection © CCA

I quite liked Bernard Porter’s suggestion in the London Review of Books that MPs should be removed from the Palace of Westminster during its impending refurbishment. But not for the reason he gave. To suggest that it is only by relocating parliament that “they would see the shuttered-up shops, the desolation caused by deindustrialisation, as well as the many positive and promising aspects of provincial life” is to miss – probably deliberately – a fundamental point about the nature of our politics. Take a look at some of the more progressive moments in our parliamentary history. Maybe they had to drag Disraeli around the Potteries in order to pilot the Reform Act of 1867 but I can’t be sure. My A Level History finished in 1860.

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Five of Ebenezer Howard’s ideas that may have accidentally been omitted from the new garden city proposals

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Here are a few extracts from Ebenezer Howard’s work Garden Cities of Tomorrow, which give an insight into some of the work’s more pioneering ideas, particularly those that may – for some reason – be overlooked in the planning of the new garden city in Bicester, Oxfordshire. (The quotations are taken from the second edition, published by Swan Sonnenschein & Co., Ltd in 1902.)
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My Top 5 Black Fridays – in chronological order.

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Photo: Archives, 1960, The Chronicle

 

PS There is a theme. Can you spot it?

1.  Friday 18th November 1910.
300 suffragettes from  Women’s Social and Political Union protested at Prime Minister Henry Asquith’s decision to shelve the Conciliation Bill, which would have extended the vote to about 1,000,000 land-owning women in Britain. They were met by 6,000 police who responded violently.
http://practicalfeminism.wordpress.com/2010/11/18/remembering-black-friday-18th-november-1910/

2. Friday, 31 January 1919
After World War I, a shop steward meeting of members of the Clyde Workers Committee drew up a demand for a 40 hour working week. The strike began on Monday and on the Friday, workers began to assemble in George Square in the morning. Thousands of police launched a baton charge on the crowd which was repelled by the strikers.  Lloyd George ordered 10,000 armed troops with tank support into the city and by the evening Glasgow was occupied.
http://www.redflag.org.uk/articles/art005.html

3. Friday October 5th 1945
10,000 workers from the Conference of Studio Unions, who represented manual labourers who worked in Hollywood had begun a strike in May 1945 when the jurisdiction of their body wasn’t recognised in pay negotiations by a group of producers. A fight broke on this day between strikers and strikebreakers who had turned up for work armed with hammers and nightsticks.
http://utpress.utexas.edu/index.php/books/horcla

4. Friday May 13, 1960,
On the second day of meetings of the House Subcommittee on Un-American Activities at San Francisco City Hall, students from Berkeley and Stanford held a major demonstration – the first in decades – outside. Police turned a firehose on the protesting students and 64 of them were arrested. One was tried for hitting a police officer with his own club but there was no conviction. The event led directly to the foundation of the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in 1964 and the final demise of the Subcommittee.
http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Black-Friday-birth-of-U-S-protest-movement-3188770.php

5. Friday 8 September 1978
This event effectively marks the beginning of the end of the Shah’s rule in Iran. When a large crowd attempt to gather in Jaleh Square in Tehran to demonstrate ostensibly for religious reasons, they did so in opposition to a recent declaration of martial law. By now you can guess what happened next. The soldiers ordered the crowd to disperse. The order was ignored. The military opened fire, killing and wounding several hundred people.

 

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Things That Are Not Mosques. No 35343. A Polish Church.

BIB219124_p.9_fig.w.2In the UK the Twitter the hashtag #thingsthatarenotmosques is trending because a member of the UK independence party press team suggested a poll about their credentials as a party of government was biased because it was taking place outside a mosque. The mosque turned out to be Westminster Cathedral. Given that our friends in the UKIP party seem particulary upset about Eastern European such as the Poles arriving in the UK, it might be apposite to post a story that my friend Lukasz Stanek told me about The Church of St. May Queen of Peace in Wroclaw. The Polish architect Wojciech Jarząbek and his team  won a competition to design this new church in 1980. However, during the design and construction process (1980–94), Jarząbek travelled many times to Kuwait where he was also working on a large mall called the Al Othman Center. (See below)
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History Plays a Double Hand

DSC_5480I have recently enjoyed dipping into Love Goes to Buildings on Fire by Will Hermes – a book about the overlap between the different music scenes in New York in the mid seventies. But I only sampled the book, thanks largely to a review by Charlie McCann in Prospect Magazine which places the book amidst a general nostalgia boom for the seventies, particularly in New York  and is many ways more perceptive than the book itself – as entertaining as it is. McCann states convincingly that “the decade now appeals to the people who weren’t even around to experience it in the first place.”  Continue reading

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