Le Corbusier, Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, Chandigarh © FLC/ADAGP
We know little of Jane Drew through her writing. Of course, she co-authored works on building in the tropics with her husband but these are generally technical in nature; part of the programme of international expertise that Drew was part of. They are expressions of Drew’s expertise as an architect but only by implication can we sense her pioneering spirit which was legendary. Her husband, Maxwell Fry acknowledged it as his one of his wife’s many strengths. Although Fry served in the Royal Engineers from 1939 to 1944, reaching the rank of major, and ended the Second World War as town-planning adviser in west Africa, his wife, he acknowledges was “the truer adventurer” even if he was rather disparaging about her written work. “She is a teller of stories rather than a writer,” he wrote (The implication is that Fry himself is the latter.)
The recent BBC 4 documentary on Ian Nairn is just the latest attempt to bolster the reputation of a writer and broadcaster who is often described as desperately needing of rediscovery yet who has in fact had a singular, negative influence over architectural writing since he died in August 1983. In case you don’t know, Nairn came to prominence after writing a couple of diatribes against the pace and nature of urban change of Britain in the 1950s before going to write some books, present some telly and drink far too much. I suspect that in an era of polite circumscribed behaviour amongst journalists this latter fact lends an allure to Nairn’s reputation. Today, too I think there are some who see a certain glamour in throwing long words vainly in the face of human development. I am not one of them.
It didn’t turn out like I expected. From the moment the tour guide announced that he had helped Andrew WK write the lyrics for his latest album to watching members of the outside audience for NBC’s today show strain to get into shot, the Rockefeller was something far more slippery than I had imagined. I realised that it was 14 different buildings but I hadn’t appreciated quite how detached they would all feel and how little opportunity there would be to consider it as a whole project. There are three conventional Manhattan towers, albeit with generous Seagram style plazas, on the western side of the Avenue of the Americas which i am sure most New Yorkers don’t consider part of the Center. Continue reading
It may have started with noble intentions; to halt the idea that social media somehow brought about the Arab Spring and to remind us that real protest – people in the street – actually delivered the end of regimes. However, architectural theorists, critics and writers interested in urbanism have used the events – particularly in Egypt – to make some dubious claims about the instrumental effects of urban planning. Reading them, especially in the light of the “liberal” embrace of the Egyptian army and the attacks on supporters of the democratically elected government, one is forced in turn to state that architecture and urban planning have a limited role in social upheaval, much as these writers originally wanted to point out that the major agency of the Arab Spring was not Twitter. Conversely one has to state clearly that nor was it brought about by the pedestrianisation of roundabouts.
There is something pleasantly unsettling about the Highline and it is not just the richness of the plantings in an urban context; prairie dropseed; spiked gayfeather; wild quinine; yeah whatever. It is the inversion of the usual egocentric co-ordinates of the city. Particularly in New York the rich generally look down on the poor whether that is from their penthouse or from their helicopters. On the Highline that has been inverted. On one level the Highline has provided a new attractive, hip development driver to the Chelsea district but in another way it gives something back. Continue reading
Reading the early reviews of the American Folk Art Museum in New York makes you realise that there was a crushing logic to the decision by MOMA’s board to selected Diller Scofidio & Renfro to decide whether any parts of it could be preserved. Such a perfect architectural storm had blown up following the announcement that the large art museum was going to demolish its tiny neighbour. In turn, MOMA’s decision to punt the problem back to the architects had a certain ruthless aspect to it. And not just any architects. After their work on the Lincoln Center, DSR have established themselves as a practice to turn to in order to reconcile conflicting architectural ambitions that have historically dogged a project.
BE OPEN Sound Portal, Trafalgar Square
In one of Arup’s London offices is an array of speakers designed to help architects and acoustic engineers hear how the designs of their spaces will sound when complete. It’s called an ambisonic array. Virtual sound models for proposed concert halls can be created and reproduced using this array to give the designer an idea of how the concert hall will literally sound. The virtual model can be changed to asses the qualities of different experiences. Wouldn’t it be good, though the designers at Arup, if this ambisonic array could be experienced by everyone and become not a sterile laboratory environment but a place to experience sound? The London Design Festival and the sponsorship of BE OPEN, gave a team at Arup the opportunity to create this. Taking Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey as an inspiration for the mood of the Sound Portal, Arup created an intimidating black rubber shape that sits in the centre of Trafalgar Square but which opens up to reveal light and sky within. The facility provides the perfect environment for some of the most thoughtful and innovative recording artists in the world, including one of my favourite Tom Jenkinson a.k.a. Squarepusher I spoke to him about using ambisonic arrays and exploring sound in three dimensions.
Technology Will Save Us: part of BE OPEN SPACE at Tom Dixon’s Ladbroke Grove canal-side HQ
What’s the greatest piece of design to come out of Italy in the last decade? The Branca chair by Mattiazzi? Something by Patricia Urquiola for Moroso? It was the Arduino, a simple microcontroller board, named according to the Wall Street Journal, after its inventors favourite bar in Ivrea, a city 50 km north of Turin. Micro-controllers are miniature computers dedicated to a single programmable task and whose components, a processor, memory and programmable inputs and outputs sit on simple circuit board. They are embedded into every device around us.
Amidst the makers of felt boot and cork wall panelling at Be Open Space at Tom Dixon, Gergely Lorincz from the British collective Technology Will Save Us explains the story: “About ten years ago in a design school, students were struggling with micro-controllers, they wanted to do something interactive. At the time, it was really hard to programme micro controllers and really expensive, so these Italian guys came up with the idea that they should make something easy to use for students and artists: not technically minded people. It became an instant success. In the last 10 years an insane amount of art installations, robots, autonomous airplanes, home energy monitors… have been made with it… You can turn a blender into a MIDI controller with it.”
Technology Will Save Us: part of BE OPEN SPACE at Tom Dixon’s Ladbroke Grove canal-side HQ
Designer Sam Bernier’s starting point is the ultimate contemporary dilemna. “After finishing the content of a mason jar… I always clean it and keep it for later use. I quickly realised that I had almost no opportunities to actually reuse them unless I decided to turn my kitchen into a canning manufacture,” he writes. Bernier’s response was to create customised lids using low cost 3D printing for the jars. He uses the popular phrase ‘upcycling’.
The phrase upcycling is a strangely moralistic term. Rather than an object being re-used in any old fashion – old ceramics crushed into powder and used as supplement to cement for example – up-cycling suggests an act of improvement on the original, and an improvement enacted by a human being who makes something better by ingenuity. Surely in the absolute terms of an environmentalist any kind of re-use is worthwhile. Indeed as recycling is possible on an industrial scale and therefore truly beneficial. Upcycling then is more of a design term or a craft term. It is the urban equivalent of beach-combing – there is something more exciting going on here.
Image from the Thames Hub: an integrated vision for Britain, published by Foster and Partners, Halcrow and Volterra
The all-to brief appointment of Daniel Moylan as chairman of the London Legacy Development Company marks a sea-change in the development landscape in London. His departure, after just 7 weeks, marks the end of an 8 year period during which the Olympics where the main architecture, construction and development story in the British capital. The fact that he has moved to head up London Mayor Boris Johnson’s proposed review of airport capacity shows that a real political struggle is about to take place over the future of London’s airports and that the Olympic Park is secondary. For a long time, Johnson’s support of the Thames Hub proposal – despite its genuine credentials as a serious alternative to expansion at Heathrow – have been seen as something of a joke. Moving Moylan – one of his most trusted advisors – to aviation policy shows how far he’s willing to go with it. Continue reading