Designing Trees: A Short Article Which Isn’t About The London Riots

Eames, Charles & Saarinen, Eero, IBM Exhibition Pavilion, New York's World Fair 1962-1964

I’m not one of those people who sees in every news event an architectural solution. Much of the rioting that is taking place in London, and particularly in my home borough Hackney can be put down to a combination of frustration, excuse and opportunity. The idea that it this is somehow a design issue is ridiculous. Someone said to me yesterday that the rioting was a design issue, ‘people who are designed out of policy, classes and decent housing, would clearly be angry.’ You can ignore people, but design them out? I’m not sure that’s possible.

 The weekend before the rioting, a mini art festival was held in Hackney. This tiny but intense art festival overtakes a series of artists studios that huddles in the shadow of the Olympic site in London. Liza Fior of British architects / landscaping / art practice muf has written about how this area is one of the most densely populated areas of working areas in Europe and once a year this area shows off itself. I have discovered or got to know some of my favourite artists this way. Jeanette Barnes dynamic drawings of construction sites across London,  Laura Oldfield Ford’s fanzine-fueled protests against development, Julian Perry’s coastal erosion paintings in which bungalows hover in mid-air.

Eames, Charles & Saarinen, Eero, IBM Exhibition Pavilion, New York's World Fair 1962-1964

I didn’t make it this year but from reports it is clear that the funding of art, in these straightened times is being heavily influenced by the Olympics. I have been invited to go on one of several boat projects being created in the build up to the Games. A project called Floating Forest leaves from the Folly on the Flyover, beneath the A12 where I sometimes go for a jog. I’m looking forward to doing it, but a friend tells me the former studio complex at Hackney Wick has now been riven in two. Next to one studio were an artist is working on a temporary pavilion for the Olympics is another working on a project which attacks the Olympics. Next to them, Olympic-funded artist, and so on. Generally the work for or against appears to be examining the impact of the Olympic on community terms rather than wider social ones.

Eames, Charles, & Saarinen, Eero, IBM Exhibition Pavilion, New York's World Fair 1962-1964

Perhaps it is just the dispiriting scenes of opportunist theft during the riots that have clouded my view of Hackney and I try not to denigrate the sincere endeavour that has gone into this, but I’d like to point out this image I found in the CCA collection of a project by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen and ask whether we have really progressed much further in architectural terms. This was his design for the IBM Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, which opened in 1964. The pavilion created the effect of a covered garden, with all exhibits in the open beneath a grove of 45 of these man-made steel trees which were around 32-feet high.

Working for a massive corporation, Eames and Saarinen used the tree column as a conceptual device to create an Arcadian promenade; creating a world that was both of the world and separate from it. In 2012, London will be covered with temporary structures which, if recent events are anything to go by, will frequently use this tree column idea. Indeed London tends to be covered with these objects especially around the time of the London Festival of Architecture, which next year will coincide with the Games itself. I look forward to steel trees, plastic trees and probably even wooden trees sprouting up across the city.

I’m all for architects gaining experience of construction, but sometimes I wonder whether drawing something that won’t be built would not suit them and us a bit better. Hands-on experience is great but what happens when you find yourself re-iterating a form for a client, such as a festival, who wants to buy into the idea of architecture as a life-style choice: who wants you to build them a symbol of an illusory bucolic community. We have seen with the recent riots that when social forces come into play the community can disappear. So why not work less on community and more on society?

Eames, Charles & Saarinen, Eero, IBM Exhibition Pavilion, New York's World Fair 1962-1964


About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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