Last year, in a world capital, a fire in a tower block caused the death of many of its poor inhabitants. This event prompted the national government of that country to immediately bring forward a radical policy to improve the urban conditions of that city. Of course, this swift response should immediately alert the reader that this was not the Grenfell tower disaster. Beijing’s municipal authorities have just completed a “special operation” targeting building safety violations in the city after a fire in poorly constructed apartment building killed 19 in Xinjiancun, an area described by Reuters as “a ramshackle village of migrant workers on the far southern fringe of Beijing”.
This is a version of a Comment piece I wrote in Blueprint that must’ve been published in early 2010 about the design competition which led to the Arcelor Mittal Orbit and in which Boris Johnson, then mayor had a major hand. It has eerie parallels for the London Bridge process; a total lack of transparency and fairness. At the time, the tower on the Olympic site was treated as something of a laugh even by those who opposed it. In contrast to the dedicated way the Architect’s Journal news team have picked apart the process by which the Garden Bridge was commissioned, back in 2010 the editorial line about the Orbit was to find the whole thing a bit of a wheeze. Anyway I think we can see some consistency, if only because I don’t think anyone comes out of the Orbit or the Garden Bridge campaigns that well.
Reviews of the year may seem arbitrary, particularly when it comes to architecture, which by its nature takes years to gestate before it is completed. Yet they have their uses. And not simply because they give harassed editors a no-brainer at a time when any sensible human being’s mind is on the office party and a week off. They are also the moment when, in trying to string together a narrative that links all the apparently haphazard events of the year into some single line, journalism becomes the first haphazard stab at history.
It seems particularly pertinent this year as a certain historical turn in architecture has asserted itself. The finest architecture of the year for me were two buildings by OMA both in Italy: one in Venice and one in Milan. The former, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi was effectively an act of archaeology revealing the twentieth century reality behind a building that was supposed to be centuries old. It is a deconstructed building as much as a renovated one which reveals the concrete-and-steel beamed reality of its 1920s conversion and values that as much as the traces of the 16th century.
On 16 September 1920, a wagonload containing 45 kilos of explosives and 230 kilos of lead weights placed outside the JP Morgan bank at 23 Wall Street in New York was detonated, killing 38 people and injuring many more. The glass in the tall windows was blown inwards killing at least one JP Morgan employee of and injuring others. Interviewed in the New York Times the following day, one of the partners of JP Morgan Bank said: “From what we have learned I am inclined to believe that the explosion was due merely to an accident. There are no reasons that we can find that would lead to a premeditated bombing.”
In his article announcing Alejandrao Aravena as the Pritzker winner Ed Heathcote suggests that handing the prize to the young Chilean architect offers hope to the architecture profession racked with self-doubt over its lack of purpose. “The award is a vaccination against accusations of irrelevance. How could anyone argue with that?” he concludes. It is an interesting question and one I wish to address briefly. How could anyone argue against it? By stating very clearly that Aravena’s work which shows promise, although it must be said, not a spectacular amount of originality when it comes to the creation of form, is at times, a theatre of social engagement.
Although he surely wouldn’t approve, it seems only right and proper to begin a Christopher Lee story with a Dracula anecdote. Actually, it is just over 25 years since Lee took the decision – as he puts it in his autobiography – ”to Draculate no more”. But the shadow of the Count – metaphorically if not literally, given that vampires aren’t supposed
to cast such things – obviously still haunts him. So let’s go back to 1999, when Lee agreed to narrate a documentary on the character’s historical origins. Continue reading
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
I 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
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
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.
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.
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.