Friday, December 10, 2010

Beyond the occupation


It has been hard to avoid news of the university occupations this week.

Hoards of aging commentators, seeing current student antics as a means to relive their imagined youth of ’68, have used their columns to wallow in the rosy mists of nostalgic reverie, remarking with surprise that Thatcher’s children have turned out politicised after all. Look, today they were all marching, isn’t it sweet.

Scrape off the dollops of patronising gloss, and the real legacy of the occupations is only beginning to become apparent. They may have lost the vote in Parliament, but there has been a fundamental shift in the outlook of the new student-consumer towards directing their own education.

Last week, I reported from UCL’s occupied Jeremy Bentham room, which – now into its third week – has become seen as the nerve centre of the national campaign, attracting such supporters as Billy Bragg, Mark Thomas and, last night, Razorlight, to come and entertain them.

Such activities have made headlines, but what is really compelling is how the students have actually been curating their own serious programmes of lectures, seminars and classes. In between plotting the media-friendly public actions, they have constructed an alternative model of education.

“I’m learning more from the students than they are from me,” says Jane Rendell, director of architectural research at the Bartlett, who relocated her PhD seminar to the occupation last week. “This isn’t just about political protest; it has become a space for exploring radical pedagogy.”

Such experimental parallel institutions have sprung up within the lecture theatres, offices and events rooms of universities across the country, redefining these dormant spaces as grounds for productive, student-led learning. From Leeds to Sheffield, Bristol to Falmouth, these initiatives have provided an alternative mirror image – they are the real Free Schools of the Big Society.

And they’re not just staying in their nests of slogan-daubed bed sheets and posting songs on YouTube. Like all good community-minded establishments, they have “outreach departments” that plot external actions – coordinated with other occupations through Facebook and Twitter – satellite events that take this new model of teaching out on to the street.

Yesterday evening saw a flash mob “teach-in” at Euston station, while earlier in the week Arts Against Cuts organised a similar event at Tate Britain, temporarily transforming its hallowed galleries into an impromptu lecture theatre – and strategically delaying the Turner Prize presentation in the process. Tonight, they are doing the same at theNational Gallery.

A group of Goldsmiths graduate students has established theUniversity for Strategic Optimism, a nomadic institution that pitches up in unexpected places, briefly converting them into spaces of learning. Their inaugural lecture took place in the London Bridge branch of Lloyds TSB, and they have since lectured at Tesco. This is the stuff the Archigram generation could only draw doped-up pictures of; now it is happening for real.

“We seek to not only draw out the political layers inherent within space,” says their fictional lecturer Dr Étienne Lantier, “but to re-politicise thinking about space, aesthetics and the city by means of performative political action.”

Across town, students at the RCA have gone one step further. Despite being late-comers to the occupation scene (their sit-in only lasted one night after the Rector foiled the campaign by agreeing with their demands), they have already established an alternative educational model in the form of Department 21.

“The RCA should be wall-less,” says Bethany Wells, a second year MA architecture student, sitting at a hastily erected table in the college’s main gallery. “We’re providing a space for people from different departments to meet and develop their own practice.” The initiative has already been running for a year, squatting whichever spaces in the campus happen to be free, and running a packed programme of interdisciplinary workshops, lectures and discussions.

This is an important challenge to the received dogma of the standard model of art and architectural education. “The unit system has proved itself to be redundant,” says Tomasz Crompton, also at the RCA. “It doesn’t work in the interests of the students.”

But, rather than drawing up elaborate aestheticised visions, or hiding behind rhetorical allusions to misread theorists, these students are getting on with building their alternative. And it’s looking pretty convincing.

Originally published on BDonline, 10th December 2010


Thursday, December 02, 2010

Shingle House, by Nord

Nord has completed the second house in Alain de Botton’s holiday home initiative, Living Architecture, on the beach in Dungeness, Kent.

Sited two doors down from the late film director Derek Jarman’s famous cottage, the Shingle House replaces a former fisherman’s house and smokery, to whose footprint and envelope the architects had to adhere.

“It is conceived as three separate buildings,” says project architect Mark Bell. “Different houses for the rituals of living, cooking and bathing.”

The three forms follow the volumes of the former house, smokery and garage, but sport a hierarchy of exaggerated roof pitches. They are connected by glazed openings and a white concrete spine that runs from the kitchen sideboard, along the floor of the hall, rising up to form a chimney, hearth and staircase in the open plan living room. Purpleheart flooring lines the kitchen and living space, extending out on to a screened west-facing terrace...

Read the full article here

Originally published in BD, 2 December 2010

Friday, November 19, 2010

Rainham


This east London outpost is home to a projects by architects including Alison Brooks, East and Maccreanor Lavington

Perched on the edge of the floodplain at the bottom of the Ingrebourne valley, clinging to the verge of the greenbelt between London and rural Essex, a little village has recently caught the attention of some of London’s best architects.

“It’s not hard to spot that Rainham is an amazing little place in an extraordinary context,” says Mark Brearley, head of Design for London, and enthusiastic champion of this strange piece of city. Like an outpost at the end of the world, Rainham Village sits at a powerful spatial crux, where sprawling marshland collides with a world of big box sheds and the brutal barriers of transport infrastructure. In the middle of all this, the crooked lanes of the village, winding around a Norman church and 17th century merchant’s house, lie as a precarious relic...

Read the full article here

Originally published in BD 19 November, 2010

Friday, November 12, 2010

Faustino Winery, Spain, by Foster & Partners

Winemakers in northern Spain hope this futuristic new bodega will put the Ribera del Duero region on the world stage.

Hunkered down in the hollow of a sandy hillside, 150km north of Madrid, a rusting UFO has been unearthed. Nestling in a bend on the A1 motorway – which connects Madrid with Burgos and, ultimately, the French border – Foster & Partners’ new winery for Bodegas Faustino looks more like something you might stumble across in Nevada’s Area 51 than the rolling hills of northern Spain.

Read the full article here

Originally published in BD, 12 November 2010

Friday, November 05, 2010

One New Change, by Jean Nouvel


While the form of Jean Nouvel’s One New Change is designed to respect views of St Paul’s Cathedral, the mixed-use scheme has an exotic geometry that contrasts with its ’polite’ neighbours

Building next to St Paul’s is always going to be tricky. As the epicentre of London’s vain attempt to impose some kind of rationale on the beautiful mess of its development, the cathedral – particularly its dome – has become the arbitrary datum from which everything must be judged. Not only is it the fulcrum of a lopsided starburst of viewing corridors, which radiate out to the suburbs from its sacred centre, but it sets the height beneath which all its neighbours must kowtow to preserve its premier position on the skyline. It is the symbolic kernel around which the whole city is deferentially choreographed. Add to this the quagmire of objections and constraints to building in such a sensitive location, and it is a miracle that a project so brazenly modern as Jean Nouvel’s glistening mixed-use mountain ever made it to fruition...

Read the full review here

Originally published in BD, 5 November 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

Evelyn Grace Academy, Brixton, by Zaha Hadid Architects

The aggressive swagger of Zaha Hadid’s Evelyn Grace Academy reflects the hard-edged dynamism found within the school itself

’Some people think we are too strict here,” says principal Peter Walker, as we stroll through the sweeping corridors of his new Evelyn Grace Academy in Brixton, south London, orderly students shuffling past in silent reverence. “But you must understand that self discipline is one of our three core values.” As he talks me through the other core values of excellence and endeavour, as well as “depth before breadth” and “the 100% concept”, Walker has the assured tone and accomplished rhetoric of a high-flying business executive...

Read the full review here

Originally published in BD, 22 October 2010

Friday, October 08, 2010

Moscow School of Management, Skolkovo, by Adjaye Associates


David Adjaye has cross-fertilised 1920s Russian Suprematism with his own African heritage to create the gargantuan Moscow School of Managment in Skolkovo

’All business in Russia is done in the restaurant,” says Emil Pirumov, between mouthfuls, as he enthusiastically tucks into a pizza. “It helps you to make decisions very quickly.” Sitting in the soaring canteen of his new building, as Jane Birkin pants Je T’aime incongruously over the Tannoy, the managing director of the Moscow School of Management, Skolkovo, recounts how this vast project came about...

Read the full review here

Originally published in BD, 8 October 2010

Friday, September 17, 2010

Ravensbourne College by Foreign Office Architects

FOA’s new building for Ravensbourne College makes bold predictions about how the next generation of students will be taught

A fragment of the future has crash-landed next to the O2 Arena on London’s Greenwich peninsula, in the latest addition to what is fast becoming a breeding ground of alien objects and brave experiments in how the world could be. We’ve glimpsed the future of entertainment in the Dome and the future of living in Ralph Erskine’s Millennium Village. Now it’s the turn of higher education...

Read the full review here

Published in BD, 17 September 2010

Monday, August 30, 2010

Venice Biennale 2010: Blog 4





The sprawling labyrinth of the Giardini’s Palazzo delle Esposizioni (formerly Italian pavilion) continues the well-paced tempo of the Arsenale, only shifting slightly from the shock and awe tactic of immersive installations to a greater emphasis on exhibiting built projects, and artists whose work tackles the wider social and political of context in which these buildings are situated.

Some of the things I’ve been waiting to see in the flesh for a long time are on show, and do not disappoint. The looming model of the Negelhaus in Zurich by Caruso St John and Thomas Demand is one of the first things to greet you, a pared down cardboard maquette clumsily scaled up until it’s almost too big for the room – a lovely touch in which the air conditioning pipe is forced to puncture its side. The wrinkles of corrugated card have been milled into the flimsy timber skin, propped stage-set like from behind, its bleak precariousness making you feel as insignificant as the residents who were relocated from the original structure in China.

Elsewhere, several of Christian Kerez’s vast structural models are on show, the monumental stacked trusses of the Leutschenbach School filling one room, while a sectional model of his Warsaw Museum of Modern Art fills another – strangely pleasing to see Modroc plaster scrim used outside the school art classroom. In their raw workmanlike power, you get a sense of how he uses the physical model not as a formal tool, but one for distilling a singular structural idea.

Next door, Atelier Bow Wow are given free reign to show off quite how many lovely houses they have designed, another chance to revel in doll’s house heaven and marvel at the spatial ingenuity this practice has brought to the domestic problem. Their alluring construction-sectional-perspective drawings hang on the wall next to each model, generously giving away their secrets – when I visited, the room was full of architects copying down detailed notes for their next residential project.

As well as giving her peers and the (relatively) young a chance to shine, Sejima has also given over large amounts of space to architects who clearly had a major influence on her own work. Lina Bo Bardi gets a much welcomed retrospective, a large room devoted to a vibrant archive of energetically annotated drawings, with a model of her SESC Pompéia building in São Paulo taking over centre of the space. The drawings are full of people meeting, playing and learning in her open and expansive structures.

Andrea Branzi, godfather of the plan-drawn-as-wallpaper, is also given a room, in which his studio has exhibited a series of recent projects, updated (if slightly weaker) takes on the seminal No-Stop City. Mirrored boxes create endless fields of urban digi-scapes, toytowns and green utopias, while yet another manifesto on ‘infinities’, ‘data flows’ and ‘interstitial spaces’ hangs on the wall, rather losing its power now it’s no longer the Sixties. But it’s still all good fun.

Other welcome additions include the American artist Tom Sachs, whose foreboding models of crumbling Corbusian projects provide a refreshing reminder of how utopias go wrong. As well-intentioned as our modernist forebears were, their imitators and replicators have left us with a legacy of paranoid urban spaces devoid of human delight, places divorced from the essence of Sejima’s exhibition title. Alongside scale models of worn relics from Chandigarh and the Ville Radieuse, a battered foamcore model of the Villa Savoye sits next to a one of a drive-thru McDonald’s – both are paradigms of the car-oriented building, perhaps from not so different universes.

Continuing the theme of why and what we should revere and preserve from our architectural heritage, AMO has been given one of the largest rooms to present an encyclopaedic catalogue of how the work of OMA has responded to the changing discourse of preservation and conservation, beginning with the age old Ruskin vs Viollet-le-Duc dichotomy, and demonstrating how the office’s successive projects have advanced this dialogue. I was lucky enough to catch my old boss, and this year’s Golden Lion winner, Rem Koolhaas giving head of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre Francesco Bandarin a tour. His wry comments are neatly summarised in the captions accompanying each poster-sized picture, cheaply hung from scaffold bars in AMO’s typically ad hoc fashion. It’s not ground breaking stuff, but it does make you think a great deal more than the rest of the work on show in the Biennale. And inside word has it that this, unlike many of the bloated office’s worldwide projects, is largely authored by Rem himself.

As confusing a network as the former Italian pavilion is to navigate, Sejima has done a largely heroic job making sense of such a disparate group of practitioners. There are some intriguing curatorial decisions, such as placing work by the same architects at opposite sides of the rambling warren – which meant, for example, that many missed the magical films of Fiona Tan portraying the alien arrival of SANAA’s gallery pavilions on the island of Inujima, which are exhibited in all their perfect whiteness on a large site model at the other end of the building. But although sometimes frustrating, this separation allows a serendipitous enfilade to unfold through the network of spaces, accidental association of themes and techniques becoming more important than office egos.

Originally published on BD online, August 2010

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Venice Biennale 2010: Blog 3





The sprawling labyrinth of the Giardini’s Palazzo delle Esposizioni (formerly Italian pavilion) continues the well-paced tempo of the Arsenale, only shifting slightly from the shock and awe tactic of immersive installations to a greater emphasis on exhibiting built projects, and artists whose work tackles the wider social and political of context in which these buildings are situated.

Some of the things I’ve been waiting to see in the flesh for a long time are on show, and do not disappoint. The looming model of the Negelhaus in Zurich by Caruso St John and Thomas Demand is one of the first things to greet you, a pared down cardboard maquette clumsily scaled up until it’s almost too big for the room – a lovely touch in which the air conditioning pipe is forced to puncture its side. The wrinkles of corrugated card have been milled into the flimsy timber skin, propped stage-set like from behind, its bleak precariousness making you feel as insignificant as the residents who were relocated from the original structure in China.

Elsewhere, several of Christian Kerez’s vast structural models are on show, the monumental stacked trusses of the Leutschenbach School filling one room, while a sectional model of his Warsaw Museum of Modern Art fills another – strangely pleasing to see Modroc plaster scrim used outside the school art classroom. In their raw workmanlike power, you get a sense of how he uses the physical model not as a formal tool, but one for distilling a singular structural idea.

Next door, Atelier Bow Wow are given free reign to show off quite how many lovely houses they have designed, another chance to revel in doll’s house heaven and marvel at the spatial ingenuity this practice has brought to the domestic problem. Their alluring construction-sectional-perspective drawings hang on the wall next to each model, generously giving away their secrets – when I visited, the room was full of architects copying down detailed notes for their next residential project.

As well as giving her peers and the (relatively) young a chance to shine, Sejima has also given over large amounts of space to architects who clearly had a major influence on her own work. Lina Bo Bardi gets a much welcomed retrospective, a large room devoted to a vibrant archive of energetically annotated drawings, with a model of her SESC Pompéia building in São Paulo taking over centre of the space. The drawings are full of people meeting, playing and learning in her open and expansive structures.

Andrea Branzi, godfather of the plan-drawn-as-wallpaper, is also given a room, in which his studio has exhibited a series of recent projects, updated (if slightly weaker) takes on the seminal No-Stop City. Mirrored boxes create endless fields of urban digi-scapes, toytowns and green utopias, while yet another manifesto on ‘infinities’, ‘data flows’ and ‘interstitial spaces’ hangs on the wall, rather losing its power now it’s no longer the Sixties. But it’s still all good fun.

Other welcome additions include the American artist Tom Sachs, whose foreboding models of crumbling Corbusian projects provide a refreshing reminder of how utopias go wrong. As well-intentioned as our modernist forebears were, their imitators and replicators have left us with a legacy of paranoid urban spaces devoid of human delight, places divorced from the essence of Sejima’s exhibition title. Alongside scale models of worn relics from Chandigarh and the Ville Radieuse, a battered foamcore model of the Villa Savoye sits next to a one of a drive-thru McDonald’s – both are paradigms of the car-oriented building, perhaps from not so different universes.

Continuing the theme of why and what we should revere and preserve from our architectural heritage, AMO has been given one of the largest rooms to present an encyclopaedic catalogue of how the work of OMA has responded to the changing discourse of preservation and conservation, beginning with the age old Ruskin vs Viollet-le-Duc dichotomy, and demonstrating how the office’s successive projects have advanced this dialogue. I was lucky enough to catch my old boss, and this year’s Golden Lion winner, Rem Koolhaas giving head of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre Francesco Bandarin a tour. His wry comments are neatly summarised in the captions accompanying each poster-sized picture, cheaply hung from scaffold bars in AMO’s typically ad hoc fashion. It’s not ground breaking stuff, but it does make you think a great deal more than the rest of the work on show in the Biennale. And inside word has it that this, unlike many of the bloated office’s worldwide projects, is largely authored by Rem himself.

As confusing a network as the former Italian pavilion is to navigate, Sejima has done a largely heroic job making sense of such a disparate group of practitioners. There are some intriguing curatorial decisions, such as placing work by the same architects at opposite sides of the rambling warren – which meant, for example, that many missed the magical films of Fiona Tan portraying the alien arrival of SANAA’s gallery pavilions on the island of Inujima, which are exhibited in all their perfect whiteness on a large site model at the other end of the building. But although sometimes frustrating, this separation allows a serendipitous enfilade to unfold through the network of spaces, accidental association of themes and techniques becoming more important than office egos.

Originally published on BD online, August 2010

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Venice Biennale 2010: Blog 2





Entering this year’s Arsenale I was greeted with a surreal vision of the future. Hoards of revering onlookers, 3D glasses strapped to their faces, mouths agape, as images of Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa zooming around their EPFL campus on Segway scooters flashed before their eyes.

The work of film maker Wim Wenders, this beguiling swoop through SANAA’s undulating hymn to the open learning landscape is as true to the Biennale’s title as could be, full of people meeting in architecture. But not only meeting. We are shown that the gentle curves of the Rolex Learning Centre induce trance-like states of nirvana in its users, cringe-worthy scenes of students closing their eyes in transcendental reverie accompanied by the saccharine voice of the building itself. “I love the sunlight,” she purrs. “And the sunlight clearly loves me.”

As cheesy promo as this film is, it is nonetheless a soothing introduction to what is to come and sets the tone for a sequence of rooms which revel in the simple of joy of creating beautiful environments as backdrops for our daily lives.

The rest of the 300 metre long journey is carefully choreographed, rooms alternating between rigorous architectural presentations – enormous scale models, drawings and maquettes of realised projects – and immersive sensory installations. It is an energising experience and not once did the usual Arsenale-fatigue set in.

Jan de Vylder’s refreshing take on the theme is that “people meet in the drawing,” and his practice has devoted a large area of their room to a vast number of exquisite working and construction drawings of their Ordos villa, alongside a huge scale model, revealing the complete process behind the development of this complex spatial conceit.

If examining construction sections feels a little like hard work,we are rewarded in the next room by Transsolar’s ethereal cloudscape, a spiralling cantilevered ramp which ascends through a perfect layer of cloud filling one of the building’s largest spaces. A carefully controlled climate ensures the perfect sandwiching of this misty band, obscuring shadowy figures as they ramp around each other, progressively sweating as they reach the 40°+ summit. This is what Philippe Rahm’s 2008 installation was attempting to be, but never was.

Junya Ishigami, ultimate master of weightless thinness, has this time unfortunately proved too delicate for his own good, the wildly ambitious project to construct the structural ‘outline’ of a 14m-long, 4m high building literally collapsing in on itself, a pile of impossibly slender carbon-fibre threads scattered along the floor at time of writing. But there was an frantic team of workers still on hand, and if it works this will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of the show.

Again in sharp contrast, the next room has been taken over by a sprawling collection of mock-ups, prototypes and full-scale fragments of projects by Studio Mumbai, a chance to see the practice’s impeccable devotion to hand-crafted timber detailing close-up. It is a thrilling workshop-like woody environment which makes you want to pick up a chisel and get involved, and reminds us of the importance of the haptic qualities that even a window frame can bring to a room.

Plenty more practices follow up with rather more conventional displays of mounted drawings and models, widely published and previously exhibited works of Toyo Ito and Valerio Olgiati regurgitated for the nth time, the richly patinated surroundings sometimes upstaging the flatness of the work on show.

Olafur Eliasson brings his usual crowd-pleasing interactive mastery to liven up proceedings in the form of a long, pitch black hall of wildly capitulating hosepipes scattering erratic spurts on to those brave enough to run the gauntlet, as strobe lights pick out their daring manoeuvres. You find yourself dodging the watery beams just like Catherine Zeta Jones did in Entrapment. If only for the lycra catsuit.

Finally, Janet Cardiff provides a stirring end to the long journey down the rope-making factory, with a surround-sound immersive project of 40 individually recorded voices singing Thomas Tallis’ 1573 “Spem in Alium.” The effect is utterly mesmerising, like being dropped in the middle of a choir, moving around the space giving a completely different bias to the overall effect, cycling from bass to soprano as you circuit the room.

All in all, it is a thoroughly invigorating experience, and markedly telling that Sejima is practically the first curator of this vast event who is also a practicing architect, deftly navigating between sensory experience and the rigour of spatial manipulation in her own work. I’m looking forward to seeing what she has assembled in the Giardini’s Palazzo delle Esposizioni this afternoon.

Originally published on BD online, August 2010

Friday, August 27, 2010

Venice Biennale 2010: Blog 1





“People meet in Architecture” is the rather quaint title of this year’s biannual frenzy of cocktail parties and free bags in Venice, nimbly curated by Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA. Trumpeting architecture’s noble role as a backdrop to the lives that inhabit it – or perhaps a sardonic critique of the Biennale format as an endless orgy of meetings and networking events – either way, the sentiment is a refreshing foil to the formally-obsessed offerings of the 2008 event. People must take centre stage.

The giardini’s pavilions have responded in varying degrees to this challenge, some taking up the brief rather too literally – with a tiresome proliferation of ‘forums’, ‘collaboration zones’ and ‘mixing chambers’ – but others have taken it on in a much more compelling, critical angle.

The Dutch pavilion, by Rietveld Landscape, stands out for its notably vacancy. You enter a large white, empty room, with a suspended wire ceiling covered in what appear to be random blue Styrofoam off-cuts. It’s like seeing the floor of the OMA model workshop from below. Only on ascending the staircase do these random blocks become apparent as a meticulous survey of Holland’s vacant buildings, their latent potential screaming in the raw blue foam finish. You could literally carve a new use into their virgin surface. A large sign downstairs proclaims “this building has been vacant for more than 39 years” in a nod to the promiscuous waste of the giardini as a surreal Potemkin village used only for a few months of the year, the rest of the time sealed off or inhabited by squatters. A very Dutch manifesto accompanies the simple display, arguing for new models of temporary use and interim allocation as viable development strategies – themes which recur throughout many other pavilions, following the recession-chic trend for temporary projects and ‘meanwhile’ uses on our cities’ growing number of vacant sites.

The Belgian pavilion, by art collective Rotor, takes a different, but equally simple tack. Harvesting used, heavily worn, fragments from a variety of public buildings – from stained carpet tiles to fading stair treads – extracted from their usual context and hung gallery like, the beautifully curated exhibition elevates these skip-bound remnants to works of art and argues for ‘wear’ as way of reading buildings. As props from our daily lives, these silent witnesses to mundane ritual activities take on a deeply charged quality, the history of use elicited from shadows, stains and marks.

While these two pavilions take their power from a carefully controlled absence, pregnant voids implying the potential for, or history of, use and habitation, the British pavilion goes all out to encourage a riot of activity. Coordinated by muf architecture / art, the ‘Villa Frankenstein’ is intended to provide a backdrop for meeting, drawing, debating and scientific enquiry. Showcasing an eclectic, often esoteric, collection of interests, from Ruskin’s meticulous documentation of Venice to the endangered future of Venetian salt marsh, the pavilion is grounded in an adamant stance held by the practice that proposition must come from observation – or ‘close looking’ – and an obsessive interrogation of place. A 1:10 fragment of the London Olympic stadium has been recreated by Venetian gondola carpenters as a forum for ongoing drawing workshops, a surreal play structure which is dying to burst out of its Palladian proportioned room, while a mini lagoon and collection of stuffed birds is on show round the back. In each case, the idea of a ‘two way traffic’ cross fertilisation between London and Venice is demonstrated, often the first steps of a longer-term collaborative projects, with the ‘legacy’ of each exhibit held firmly in mind.

Muf have also been collaborating with Re-biennale, a mischievous collective of architect-squatters, including members of French group EXYZT, who see the overflowing post-biennale skips as a cornucopia of potential building materials, harvesting the leftovers each year to recycle into new structures. Industrious magpies of the expo aftermath, the group will be unveiling their latest creation over the next few days, as an alternative makeshift mirror image to the polished works on show within the Giardini and Arsenale – the 300 metre-long old rope factory, down which I am about to begin the exciting voyage. I hope to meet lots of people – in architecture, of course.

Originally published on BD online, August 2010

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Stirling Prize shortlist





Culture and education go head to head in this year’s Stirling prize shortlist as three museums weigh up against two exemplar schools, with a live-work building bravely waving the flag for smaller projects.

With odds of 1/1, Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI Museum of Art in Rome is the bookies’ overwhelming favourite, and will be compared to David Chipperfield’s Neues Museum in Berlin and Rick Mather’s extension to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, three very different approaches to the cultural repository.

Hadid’s voluptuous tendrils swoop into a dynamic infrastructural tangle, trumpeting the building as a piece of sculpture in its own right. As former icon editor, Justin McGuirk said in icon 079, MAXXI is “an impressive exercise in fluid space and should be enjoyed as a purely spatial experience, as architecture for its own sake”. But how has it fared since the paintings arrived?

Chipperfield’s Neues Museum, meanwhile, stands as a charged ghostly backdrop to the artefacts on show, fusing the tumultuous history of the city and the history of museology in its sensitively restored fabric. As Edwin Heathcote argued in icon 070, “while the white cube and the icon fight it out for supremacy in art-world hype, the found space has always presented a richer background, a story against which a history can be told”. Mather’s Ashmolean extension provides a similarly complex story, a stacked interlocking puzzle of spaces that create a new flexibility in its deft composition.

The inclusion of Christ's College School in Guildford, by DSDHA, and dRMM’s Clapham Manor Primary School, comes as a welcome rebuke to the recently slashed budgets for such progressive educational projects. As RIBA President, Ruth Reed, commented, “they represent what all schools should be: light, well-laid-out and well-equipped environments in which all students can flourish,” adding that “it could be some time before we see such exemplar school buildings on the Stirling shortlist again”.

DSDHA combine urban sensitivity with robust pragmatism on their campus site, the school’s brick shell enveloping a series of carefully arranged social spaces, with its central atrium providing a strong social hub for the 700 pupils. “It has created a different atmosphere,” says one Sixth Form student. “Everyone has a better attitude to work and has a lot more respect for things inside the school, and for each other.” Meanwhile, dRMM bring a technocratic approach to fresh air and light for an extension to a Victorian board school building. Their dramatic multicoloured box provides a vibrant new addition, its polychrome curtain walling creating a variegated skin for the double- and triple-aspect classrooms within.

Finally, combining homes, an office and a gallery, Theis and Khan’s Bateman’s Row building is the surprising final contender and outsider at 7/1. “A boundary-pushing take on the future of mixed-use buildings,” in the words of Ruth Reed, it has unexpectedly knocked off the more established contenders Caruso St John’s Nottingham Contemporary gallery and Tony Fretton’s Warsaw Embassy.

Whichever the winner, as vast cultural institutions prepare to fight it out with feisty progressive schools, we should enjoy it while it lasts: it may be the last of such buildings for a while.

Originally published in Icon, July 2010

School shows: Architectural Association





THE SCHOOL

The Architectural Association “builds audiences for experimentation,” proclaims its Director, Brett Steele, who has made pushing the technical boundaries of the discipline his school’s priority. Whether the audiences will understand what is on show is of little consequence to a school which works at the rarefied cutting edge of advanced digital production. Many units are concerned with complex form-finding over contextual realities, and their agendas are bolstered by an incredibly high standard and volume of production across the board, in both the intermediate and diploma schools.


THE SHOW

Newly expanded into two adjacent buildings, this year’s AA show provided an even larger labyrinthine network of rooms filled with a riot of undulating models and often impenetrable drawings. Frustratingly, much of the work was left unlabelled, seductive images losing their power without meaning, and any captions that were provided were frequently coded in the usual arcane archispeak.

A refreshing foil to DRL’s orgiastic climax of parametric tumours, some of the newer intermediate units provided a healthy dose of critical cynicism. Sam Jacob’s Pop Vernacular Inter 12 explored the depths of “Post-functional techno primitivsim” in the form of a thatched McDonalds, while Liam Young’s Inter 7 revealed our anxieties through a compelling series of cinematic speculations on the end of the world.


THE STANDOUT UNIT[S]

Many of the usually strong units were disappointingly displayed this year, with Diploma 10 and 13 both showing a crisis of curation. The work of Shin Egashira’s Diploma 11 was characteristically gnomic, but beautifully so, the walls plastered with a wunderkammer of intriguing low-tech fragments and chunky Luddite models. Diploma 14, under Pier Vittorio Aureli, also shone out above the melée with its polemic stance against the school’s surrounding “monotonous landscape of diversity.” His students developed a language of monolithic austerity to confront the insurmountability of the city, portraying relentless visions of urban megastructures in stark, critical clarity.


STAR STUDENTS

In Diploma 9, Amandine Kastler’s poetic treatise on the city as an endless interior experience stood out for its conceptual rigour. Elegantly modelled in a series of immaculate paper studies, she unfolded her world from the bedroom to the street to the city block in an endless Baroque perspective. Dip 14’s Jorgen Tandberg presented an equally thorough examination of the potentials of generic spaces to cater to different personalities, taking John Hejduk’s North, East, South, West House as a precedent from which to extrapolate a polemic extreme of programmatic separation in his Immeuble Cité.

Originally published in The Architects' Journal, 22 July 2010

School shows: London Metropolitan University





THE SCHOOL

Under the thoughtful leadership of Robert Mull, the London Metropolitan University Department of Architecture has risen to prominence as one of the most grounded schools in the capital, consistently producing students with both robust pragmatism and acute sensitivity to the complexities of the city. The department is home to a broad church of approaches, with diploma units ranging from the humanitarian development agenda of Maurice Mitchell’s Architecture of Rapid Change and Scarce Resources (Unit 6), to the ‘phenomenological’ world of sensory experience in Patrick Lynch’s Unit 2, with an equally diverse range amongst the seven undergraduate studios.


THE SHOW

As usual, this year’s show gave you lots to chew on, although sometimes little to help wash down the ascetic diet of muted tones and equally muted forms. It often seemed there was such reverence for context that students’ own creative agendas were less developed than their analytical faculties, the rigour of endless precedent studies frequently absent in their own work.

Refreshingly, there was an emphasis on live projects and a true engagement with reality outside the school, with several units building permanent structures, including David Grandorge’s Unit 7 Belvedere on the Hadspen Estate and Public Works’ Studio 3 performance space in Germany. An overarching preoccupation with the way things are put together was also evident across the show, with a strong emphasis on hand drawing and the manual craft of model-making – shown particularly elegantly by the structural inquiries of Studio 5.


THE STANDOUT UNIT

The Free Unit is perhaps the most interesting part of London Met’s progressive programme, unique in architecture schools in giving students their own autonomy to develop a ‘contract’ for the year and choose a series of tutors – or ‘friends’ – to guide them through. Although exhibited in a deadening and limited form, time spent with the work revealed a series of very individual passions, from participatory approaches for community buildings, to mapping church spires through the routes of peregrine falcons.


STAR STUDENTS

Crystal Whitaker stood out in the Free Unit for her work in the Kosovan town of Pritzren, which developed techniques to enable local craftsmen to play a part in the regeneration of three public spaces and provide systems of vocational training. Meanwhile, Sam Potts’ playful and energetic response to the recession, in the form of the Redundant Architects Recreation Association, provided an alternative to trawling the jobs section by building a collaborative project space in Clapton – complete with in-house brewery to drown the sorrows of redundancy.

Originally published in The Architects' Journal, 22 July 2010

Columbia Building Intelligence Project Think Tank





“Architecture schools may cease to exist in 10 years’ time,” proclaimed Mark Wigley, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) in New York. You would think this might be cause for concern, but he was positively fizzing with excitement.

Wigley was addressing a high council of building industry leaders in the second Think Tank summit of the Columbia Building Intelligence Project (C-BIP), an ambitious strategy to bring industry closer to academia. This day-long conference was the second in a series of events in which urgent issues facing the building industry are hammered out, alternative models debated and new research shared – with the aim that ideas are filtered back to students in the Integrated Design Studios at Columbia.

The Heston Blumenthal of architectural education, Wigley has been quietly pursuing a series of experiments since 2004, concocting unlikely combinations of students and staff in his research-led studios. “I like to see the school as a laboratory,” he grins, describing programmes that have mixed architects with students of engineering, real estate management, preservation and even healthcare.

The debate at C-BIP wasn’t quite so radical, as throughout the day age-old battles between architect and engineer were reprised, the ills of our medieval procurement systems railed against, and short-sighted clients admonished for their risk-aversion. The curious format of a “private conversation”, with speakers oriented with their backs to the limited public audience, provided an apt metaphor for the closed nature of the industry, while students were conspicuously absent – they’ll have the pleasure of watching it all on DVD.

Cutting through the technocratic posturing of SHoP architects’ Chris Sharples and the environmental systems fetishism of CASE’s Anna Dyson, Hanif Kara stole the show with a vociferous polemic against everything Columbia holds dear, namely the faux-science of “parametricism” and the evils of techno-jargon. Revealing the emperor’s new clothes, he argued that “most automation tools are being used by architects as weapons to produce images that don’t mean anything to anyone”. He warned that their appropriation and misuse of real engineering terms and techniques is leading to a tidal wave of mediocrity beneath a flimsy facade of innovation.

The meaning of collaboration was also a recurring theme, with Wigley arguing that disciplinary divisions must be strengthened before cross-over can happen, and mischievously calling on the architect to become “more annoying” in the role of collaborative agitator. Arup’s Mitsuhiro Kanada proffered a more conciliatory way forward, revealing software he had developed to facilitate a common language between architect and engineer, including the real parametric process which allowed Sanaa to construct its paper-thin Serpentine pavilion, and Toyo Ito to build his multi-curved concrete walls.

Finally, Columbia tutors Scott Marble and David Benjamin concluded by showing what all this talk was leading to, in the form of the first batch of work produced by the C-BIP studio. Taking PlaNYC’s carbon-cutting ambitions as a target, the students developed a catalogue of 30 environmental components with a “parametric range” to retrofit a series of New York’s ailing buildings. Rigorously modelled in CATIA and subject to endless BIM calculations, these studies were no doubt worthy, but sadly symbolic of the concluding indictments of the day: that with their role progressively fragmented and outsourced, architects are desperately trying to reclaim authority by usurping the tools and techniques of science; and that collaboration does not mean trying to do someone else’s job.

Originally published in BD, 16 July 2010

London Festival of Architecture 2010





Temporary orchards, nomadic allotments and portable theatres trumpeted the return of the London Festival of Architecture this summer, a biennial orgy of walks, talks, installations and performances aimed at bridging the gulf between architects and their estranged public.

After the baffling month-long riot of events across the city in 2008, this year’s festival was recession-slimmed to three weekends themed around different "hubs", from Terry Farrell’s regency procession of "Nash Ramblas" through central London, to the Olympic hinterlands of Stratford in the east, to the "urban forest" of Bankside south of the Thames.

At its best, the festival demonstrated alternative possibilities for pieces of the city, providing a lens through which to see our streets afresh and mobilising local communities to get involved. The Urban Orchard, designed by Heather Ring and curated by the Architecture Foundation, took over a neglected plot beneath a railway viaduct, transforming it into a refuge for "wayward plants" and 85 fruit trees. Hosting cider-making workshops and classes in guerrilla gardening, the orchard has become a thriving community garden, its legacy continuing beyond the festival when the plants will be dispersed to nearby council estates and adopted by residents in the autumn.

A project by Central Saint Martins students highlighted some of the invisible forces at play in the city in the form of their London Flapjack Association, a whimsical critique of the Business Improvement Districts which are progressively privatising our public spaces. Patrolling Bankside with their “Mobile Ranger Hub” (or tea trolley), they doled out officially sanctioned baked goods and recruited an army of “Flapjack Rangers” in hi-vis vests. Meanwhile, tirelessly pedalling between myriad events to provide a thirst-quenching cuppa, the Chai-cycle by Daniel Marmot and Pooja Agrawal also demonstrated the potential of most unlikely places to become congregational hubs with their mobile pop-up tea shop.

At its worst, the festival showed quite how far architects have retreated into their internalised theoretical realms, with many "public space" projects seemingly designed without the public in mind. Feld72’s "Hyperlimpics" installation in Stratford provided an apt metaphor for such indulgence, broadcasting blaring crowd noise from a mobile seating module, oriented towards a big video screen where you could watch yourself. While commenting on spectacle, it was also a noisy deterrent to anyone who actually wanted to sit down. Similarly, Carmoady Groarke’s elegant rooftop dining pavilion – perched atop the Olympic building site and constructed from its surplus materials – provided an apt monument to exclusivity: while aesthetically provisional and lean, at an inflated €90 a head, its pricing was anything but.

Elsewhere, New London Architecture proved that the tried-and-tested trick of covering a street with turf is still an easy crowd puller, with their pop-up "pocket park", a temporary public garden which hosted a jam-packed schedule of free talks, performances and sun-bathing. Students of the Welsh School of Architecture in Cardiff continued the green theme by assembling a series of ‘nomadic allotments’ out of palettes and other materials scavenged from Borough market, providing a convivial space to linger on the fringe of its hectic food hall. Such projects had instant appeal, capturing the public imagination as to how the city could be. Done well, the festival proved that temporary interventions can provide a snapshot of the possible, with the potential to open up fundamental debates about the future of a site or street. But all too often these projects come down as quickly as they have popped up. With no legacy plan to take them forward, they remain one-offs, serendipitous biennial blips in the architectural calendar, rather than opportunities to seriously debate the future of our cities and interrogate the less happy sides of our built environment.

Originally published in Domus, 13 July 2010

The New Décor, Hayward Gallery





Are you sitting comfortably? Well you won’t be after visiting the Hayward Gallery’s latest show, where unsettling apparitions of fractured interiors populated with Frankenstein furniture will ensure you never look at your sofa in the same way again.

The concluding exhibition in a trilogy of summer blockbusters which have explored the unhinged depths of our architectural and mental landscapes (Psycho Buildings and Walking in My Mind), The New Décor takes interior design as its target and proceeds to undermine everything we assume about the safety and stability of our home.

Full to bursting with 80 works gathered from 36 international artists, the galleries take the visitor on a journey through an encyclopaedic catalogue of domestic anxiety, from wayward chandeliers to heavily bolted doors, past undulating beds and a hovering table. It’s like walking through the junk shop lair of a schizophrenic decorator, or going to Ikea on acid. In each case, familiar objects are subverted and reframed in an unstable or threatening light, forcing us to question our customary intimacy with the things that surround us, and revealing the interior as an arena of social and political angst.

Much of the work addresses our physical connection with furniture, playing on the habitual anatomical associations we give to the things designed to support us – from the “head” of a bed, to the “back” and “arms” of a chair. Rosemarie Trockel challenges these anthropomorphic terms head on, grafting grotesque stumpy legs onto a minimal white coffee table, their brute bulk jarring with sleek modernist lines to suggest our relationship with designed objects isn’t always a comfortable one.

Similarly, Franz West’s monumental phallic obelisks and Monica Bonvicini’s bondage hammock invite clumsy, ungainly straddling, transforming the intimate desires of the spectator into an embarrassingly public spectacle. All of the work on show elicits this uneasy combination of curiosity and intimidation, fear and lust, with objects’ semiotic codes disaggregated and fused back together in a process of promiscuous assemblage. The resulting message is always disconcerting – and sometimes rather opaque.

Other pieces bring global political struggles crashing into the home, from Mona Hatoum’s stark cell, with eerie traces of the map of Palestine inscribed in hairs on the pillow, to Jin Shi’s recreation of a Chinese migrant worker’s living quarters at half-scale, forcing us to peer down on their meagre existence. The social ruptures caused by Cuban collective housing are mirrored in Diango Hernández’s fragmented tableaux of chopped-up furniture, on which embargoed objects are balanced, next to an amputated chair awaiting momentary reunion with its orphaned leg. Such scenes demolish our cosy reliance on interior spaces as safe havens, their fragility instead revealing a more precarious reality.

Upstairs, in the gallery’s concurrent show, anxiety is soothed as visitors are drawn through the diaphanous bowels of Ernesto Neto’s sprawling lavender-scented dreamscape. Clearly the crowd-pulling foil to the more difficult work on show downstairs, Neto’s beguiling warren spills out on to the gallery’s three terraces, where the Hayward’s tried and tested formula for public participation reaches its climax with the inclusion of a heated swimming pool nestling in one of the voluptuous fabric pods.

While slightly jarring, Neto’s immersive environment reminds us that décor refers to both the worlds of interior design and theatre, and the sculptures in the lower galleries take their power from occupying the blurred margin between these two spheres, revealing everyday objects and their settings as theatrical props for staging our identities, real or imagined. If your home is your castle, this exhibition will breach its walls and declare revolution – forcing you not to chuck out your chintz, but question what it means.

Originally published in BD, 2 July 2010

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Beyond the Fence





“It is important to know the mechanism of transformation and above all to establish how we can act in this situation – not, I believe, through the total control of the process of change.”
Aldo Rossi


Eleven miles of blue plywood landed in east London in 2006, inscribing a vast ring around a newly sacred swathe of land: the site for the 2012 Olympic Games, consecrated with a fence.

Since then, the Olympic project has troubled the hearts and minds of east Londoners as an imposition, the blue wall trumpeting the arrival of wholesale regeneration. As an endless billboard, the fence projected the promise of a post-Olympic landscape of verdant valleys and glistening towers, emblazoned with scenes of cappuccino-supping avatars enjoying their 12,000 new homes and 10,000 new jobs. It was a heroic frieze of infinite promise and inclusivity, plastered on an infrastructure of dislocation and severance. The irony wasn’t lost on local residents, disenfranchised on the wrong side of the fence.

Last summer the blue wall came down (making way for a Guantanamo-style electrified version) and some of the ubiquitous plywood fell into the hands of Studio Superniche – a hastily arranged marriage of four students from the RCA’s Architecture and Design Products departments, brought together to champion the cause of the niche against the tide of the generic. Attempting to demonstrate an alternative future for the site, we began to develop an Olympic Legacy Toolkit, a catalogue of provisional urban furniture designed to encourage local re-appropriation of this vast terrain in the aftermath of the fleeting sporting funfair.

For, once the travelling Olympic circus has upped sticks, 230 hectares of the Lea Valley will be left bare, a tabula rasa to be magically transformed into a new piece of mixed-use masterplanned London – by 2050. Yet, struck down by recession, developers are in no position to invest in such vast speculative projects, leaving the plan discredited and open to strategic intervention. And herein lies our call to arms.

Through encouraging temporary use on the site, our Toolkit proposes a bottom-up alternative, a counter to the conventional top-down masterplan issued from on high. Using the very material designed to keep people out, we have developed a series of low-tech, ephemeral pavilions to suggest possible ways of inhabiting the site, taking inspiration from community groups that were forcibly displaced by the Olympic project, to encourage them to reclaim the empty landscape as their own.

From bird hides to allotment sheds, portable galleries to boat houses, this series of functional follies aims to provoke debate about potential uses for the site’s vacant plots in the wake of the Games and demonstrate the power of propositional critique in challenging the received wisdom of the planning authorities.

In recession-struck London – an architect-squatter’s nirvana of empty building sites – temporary intervention can provide a snapshot of the possible, a physical means of demonstrating alternatives. Public consultation – the souped-up roadshows of interactive maps, board games and Post-It notes so beloved of developers – can be transcended in favour of building a version of the real thing, at no risk and little cost. By showing what is possible, temporary uses have the power to rewrite the rules of the plan, forestalling final judgement on what plots of land might be worth, and what kind of activities are appropriate there. Interim users have the potential to open up fundamental debates on land use classification, temporary permissions suggesting the slackening of more permanent restrictions. Ultimately democratic, they must prove their self-sustaining viability through their own vitality: if spaces thrive and become established before the developers arrive, as facts on the ground they can redirect the development agenda and turn the whole masterplan upside down.

And this is already beginning to happen across the city, as empty sites are given over to interim projects by smaller architectural firms. From Chelsea Barracks to the Leadenhall tower, London’s most high profile plans are being surrendered to alternative proposals for provisional uses. This recession marks a watershed in conventional systems of masterplanning, from which we can only move towards a process-driven model of evolutionary development. Newly politicised, there is an opportunity for design to be oppositional once again, to battle the tide of win-win consensus planning and offer up a radical alternative. Like never before, the future of the city is in the hands of its users. So go and get building.

Originally published in ARC magazine, Issue 14

Friday, January 01, 2010

Church-ita by Supersudaca





“It’s hard to break a building that is already broken,” says Juan Pablo Corvalán of mischievous South American collective Supersudaca, whose new “Church-ita” in the Chilean city of Talca combines elegance with rugged pragmatism.

Nestling in a small site on the outskirts of the city, this brave project deftly tempers social ambition with the tricky realities of the area. “Throwing stones is a local habit,” says Corvalán, describing how many of the city’s public buildings have been targeted by vandals and burned down, “so we needed an enclosure that could resist this and be easily repaired.” Yet their result is far from a fortified religious bunker.

With a frugal budget of $60,000, the architects relied on salvaging as many of their materials as possible, from reclaiming industrial kiln bricks for the hard-wearing floor, to scavenging assorted lurid tile fragments for the facade. Working in collaboration with an artist, they have reinterpreted the religious narrative mosaic in the form of a tough protective shell, its bold graphic forms deviating from the figurative Catholic tradition. Instead, Corvalán explains, these shapes are details cropped from a painting by this artist of a walking figure of Jesus, “who looks more like Ringo Starr.” For the church to work as an open community hub, accessibility is key.

The church’s folded skin hangs on a simple steel frame. Rising up above its scruffy neighbours, its faceted form avoids the hierarchical conventions of a front and rear facade. Instead, the 
church has been reconfigured as a multi-purpose open space, more covered plaza than enclosed building. “It is much more than a church,” says Corvalán, who developed the project in collaboration with his diploma students at the Universidad de Talca.

Despite its name – “-ita” is diminutive in Spanish – the building acts as a new social heart for the community, incorporating a small library and canteen for the elderly along the perimeter of the site. And it has been avidly embraced by the local residents – the eager congregation had moved in and held services there before it was even finished.

Originally published in Icon, January 2010