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 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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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 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.


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