On the urban character of the Arab Spring

Tahrir_Square,_Cairo,_in_the_early_morningIt 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.

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The Highline and Social Voyeurism or Something That I Thought When I Went to New York Recently Part 1 

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

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Getting the Folk out

momaReading 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.

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Squarepusher and the Geometry of Sound

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.

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Avante Arduino

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

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Endless Interruptions

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.

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The Airport Guy


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

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Flags and People: Olympic Boxing Semi-Finals

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“To the traditional sounds of an English summer…”

After the first weekend of the Games, it’s already becoming clear that the relationship between the city and the event is working well. This is partly because half the population of the British capital has apparently been scared into going on holiday, making the DLR and Jubilee line relatively clear for Olympic tourists. This generous act has left the rest of us and the visitors free to enjoy the sport and, for the design geeks amongst them, see how adaptable architecture has been embedded into the city with subtlety and no small amount of humour (in contrast perhaps to the main stadium itself – see this for more details!). Indeed, I would argue that the main stadium aside, the 2012 games is a triumph for temporary and adaptable structures. London is seeing 270,000 temporary seats used, more than the last three Olympics combined and in doing so the organisers have created what I want to argue is an uniquely British experience both to the TV viewer and to the spectator and one which grows out of and capitalises on our culture of sport and entertainment.

Using the Olympics to present an image of the host city has come a long way since the poster for the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, United States. This simply showed a map of the USA with an arrow on it pointing to the words Lake Placid. It was, however, the first time the Games had been used as a tool for tourism – a notion that is now an integral part of the Olympic package and for which the language of spatial design forms a key component. The aim by designers has been to place key events within the working heartland of the city so that select images of London’s architectural highlights will be beamed to audiences all around the world. Continue reading

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Nothing Will Be Restrained

This short film essay looks at how man has built and talked about elemental architecture forms since the Tower of Babel. It takes the viewer inside the ArcelorMittal Orbit for the first time as well as placing it in historical context. I made it with Simona Piantieri, who I first worked with on her film about the Shard. Less about the merits of the structure itself, I like to think that it asks important questions about how we judge architecture and art in a modern society.

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