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The House of Muses is an interesting little installation that was commissioned by the Museum of London and is placed under its entrance canopy. Swiss architecture/design collective GRUPPE won the competition held for it and the structure is shown as part of London Architecture Festival 2014. It is inspired by London’s historic architecture and specifically by Sir Christopher Wren’s St. Alban’s Church, the tower of which is the only part of the building that survives. I find the pavilion rather elegant while also quite successful in its attempt to remind one of classical forms without simply reproducing them. Post-Modernism’s caricaturing of similar styles is certainly avoided here. On the contrary the references in colour and geometry are there but slightly shifted.

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The pavilion is supposed to be a fragment of classical architecture but one is unable to identify where exactly it has been taken from. It is not for example a fragment of a column because it does not have the right shape. It reminded me of learning how to draw elevations of ancient Greek plaques with decorative motifs and how difficult it was to make the lines meet using the compass. It required a very steady hand, precession and confidence.

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The one thing that I disagree with is its placement. The canopy over it is just too close to the top of the installation and the whole thing feels a bit stuck under it. Walking around it and realising that it can be entered I understood the restrictions that required for the house of muses to be protected from the rain. Still I think that another solution could have been found for this problem. I believe that cramped as it is in its current position it loses in strength and people do not pay as much attention to it as they should.

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Once inside things are totally different. Its frame is wooden and looks like scaffolding. It reminded me of a theatre’s backstage where the main goal is to support the set on stage. Things are useful but are not meant to be seen hence are not required to be beautiful. I do not mean that in a negative way. On the contrary I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the white smooth exterior, with the warm informal interior. I believe that it is a good analogy for the way that architecture works in general. Much effort is invested in the appearance of buildings while what keeps them standing, the foundations, the structural frame, the utility shafts, are usually not beautiful but still truly essential.

As far as the interactive concept I am not entirely sure. The tags have random things written on them by the children that have entered the installation. I do not really find anything wrong with that. After all this is a museum visited by many schools so if the declaration of a teenage crush is what its visitors have to say, oh well, so be it.

House of Muses will stay at the Museum of London until September 21st

Find the Museum’s page about it here

GRUPPE’s website here

London Festival of Architecture program here

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This is an article about an exhibition I caught at its very end hence I did not have the opportunity to post my opinion about it before it was over. However late it might be now, I still think something should be said about it. The exhibition took place at the Building Centre and it was entitled “London is growing”. Before I went there I already knew that it was showcasing London’s latest high-rises, most of which I am not particularly fond of anyway. Especially the Shard, which being the tallest of them all is considered, for unknown to me reasons, one of Londoners’ favourite (it comes second after the Gherkin). I have spoken about the Shard in the past and in case you are interested you can read my opinion here. Very briefly though let me say that what shocks me the most with people’s views of such buildings is that they are based only on their aesthetics and the awe they inspire because of their size. The fact that high-rises mirror and affect directly politics and the economy is totally disregarded.

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Like all architects I can attest that the awe-inspiring effect of tall buildings is not negligible. I will never forget my first time in New York and how I felt. To my defence I was still very young. Having lived in London for some years I have witnessed aggressive gentrification at its finest. Whole neighbourhoods, their history and unique colour are obliterated in the altar of profit. This is exactly what is celebrated in this exhibition.

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A statement by Sir Neil Cossons, Chairman of English Heritage made me laugh bitterly. “London’s face is its fortune and it belongs to everyone”. What a joke. London today more than ever, certainly does not belong to everyone. It is largely privatised. For example most of the high-rises’ featured in this exhibition offer so-called public spaces on their street level embellished with gardens, benches etc. However those spaces are private and are “protected” by security guards who are instructed to exclude all sorts of “inappropriate” conduct like skating, protesting or even playing. (You can read more about the privatisation of public space in London and a story on how local businessmen were sent away from a so-called public square in the City for playing cricket here). Not to mention the cruel devices that are installed on those “public” benches and floors to assure the expulsion of skaters, the homeless and such.

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According to the studies quoted in this exhibition all those new and really tall buildings are intensely needed because London’s population is growing and its economy is expanding. Still many contradictions are revealed in the information provided for the visitor if one is tuned in to notice them. One of them is that regardless of the fact that there is a need for housing in “growing London”, hardly any of these tall buildings include apartments, not to mention social housing of course!

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This is mainly due to the fact that a social housing tower collapsed to its side in Canning Town (1968) due to poor construction of its pre-cast parts. Since then social housing in particular is largely avoided in new high-rises. The only “shining” example of residential towers is that of the Barbican which thrived according to whoever wrote the exhibition’s texts, due to good management. The fact that Barbican’s apartments were renovated to become luxury lofts is not mentioned at all. Nothing is also said about the poor Londoners who are forced out of their homes and get ostracised to the 6th zone and beyond because this is the only area they can afford. Out of site is out of mind, I guess.

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Still many panels in the exhibition assure the visitor that these new vertical cities of buildings that keep popping up are closely monitored in order not to interfere with the aesthetics of historic London. English Heritage is here to make sure of that and also to assure that St. Paul’s view from Greenwich Park will never be obstructed. Thank God for that!

This exhibition is finished, but trust me, you are not missing on much.

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If you are interested to read more about the privatisation of public space in the UK Anna Minton’s Ground Control is a brilliant book about it. You can find more about it here

The second London Architecture Festival installation that I visited was the Rainforest Pavilion which was commissioned by the Architectural Association and designed by Gun Architects, a Chilean based practice. It is placed on Bedford Square right opposite the school’s entrance and it looks interesting but also quite contradictory from afar. Heavy metallic columns/tree trunks, support white dripping cones that resemble lightweight origami folds. The columns are rooted in axially spread metallic bases with their triangular gaps filled with white rocks, ferns in pots and a little pond.

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Approaching the structure I immediately thought I wanted to stand underneath it. The sun lit the pavilion from behind and I could clearly see the water dripping from the cones on top of it. Unfortunately it seemed rather difficult to enter because of the instability of the rocks at its base. I was disappointed to thing that this might be an object to be looked at from the outside, like an art exhibit. After all the rainforest effect could only be felt if one stood inside it. So I cautiously tried to walk on the rocks but soon enough I exited the structure because I really could not wander about freely. All of us visitors in the pavilion were looking as if we were going to lose our balance and bump into each other clumsily. I was puzzled with the architects’ choice to put those rocks in it, because the actual concept seemed brilliant.

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At the exhibition in the AA’s members’ room I found out that this project was a smaller version of another much bigger installation; the Water Cathedral, which was the winning entry for MoMa’s Young Architects Program in 2011 and was built at Santiago de Chile in 2012. The original structure had leaner columns but the stalactites were very similar to the Rainforest pavilion ones. However its floor was flat with the exception of some clusters of truncated cones that were used as seats but also visually unified the project because they reflected the geometry of the structure above them.

Photographs, Drawings and models of Water Cathedral (2012 Santiago de Chile) and Rainforest Pavilion at the pavilion exhibition in the AA

Photographs, Drawings and models of Water Cathedral (2012 Santiago de Chile) and Rainforest Pavilion at the pavilion exhibition in the AA

I only understood the reasons behind the alterations to the initial concept when I read Jorge Godoy’s (he and Lene Nettelbeck are Gun Architects) interview in AA Conversations. Apparently the changes were made by the engineers involved in re-designing the pavilion due to council and insurance constraints. In the same interview Godoy admits he is not too happy about people being reluctant to enter the pavilion and he also believes that it has to do with the rocks at its base.

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Gun’s architecture is largely experimental and aspires to incorporate the natural elements, which I find admirable. Apparently the Water Cathedral created a wonderfully cool micro-climate which was a refreshing surprise for the visitors, considering Santiago de Chile’s dry heat. The Rainforest Pavilion on the other hand is placed in London, a very humid city and people cannot really enter it easily. Since it does not create a dramatic climatic effect, maybe the experimentation should have extended to the collection of rainwater in the stalactites instead of connecting the structure to Thames Water mains.

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The Rainforest Pavilion is an interesting structure created by very talented young architects. Still I believe it is not as successful as the original, Water Cathedral. It is more of an advertisement, showcasing their creators’ potential as designers but does not manage to truly “stand” on its own. Projects that aspire to work with the natural elements, wind, water etc. are by definition site specific and this one was designed on a different scale and most importantly for a different climate altogether.

Rainforest Pavilion website

Gun Architects website

Jorge Godoy’s interview on AA Conversations

MoMa’s Young Architects Program Water Cathedral page

June is London Festival of Architecture month. For the architectural enthusiasts there is a vast collection of events, installations, exhibitions and talks available to choose from. I always go into a frenzy at the beginning of the festival, then take a break and finally panic towards the end of the month to catch every exhibition before it ends. The easiest and most enjoyable installations to visit are the numerous pavilions and follies that pop-up in the city, the most famous of all being naturally the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in Kensington Gardens. However there are quite a few structures of a more humble scale to be found in the city. The competitions for those ‘other’ pavilions are not entered by star-architects but mostly by small practices and are open to students as well.

Triumph Pavilion by IPT Architects

Triumph Pavilion by IPT Architects

I started my folly-quest with Triumph pavilion which is placed at Museum Gardens in Bethnal Green. The competition is organised by Archtriumph a platform that launches and publishes international architectural competitions. This year’s winner was IPT a small London-based architectural practice that has a straightforward clean aesthetic and judging from its body of work, loves timber.

This year’s theme was “Dream” but unfortunately I could not find out more information about the competition’s brief in ArchTriumph’s website (a revamp of their page is much needed if I may say so). However upon my visit to the site, I found inside the actual structure a plaque that mentions some guidelines from the brief that was given to the contestants:

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This theme invites visitors to dream about a unique space, creative place, achieving an ambition or simply being inspired by a series of thoughts, images and sensations. We hope that it encourages you to dream and realise the vision of what can be”.

The text seemed as ambitious, symbolic and vague as most architectural competition briefs are. Right underneath it though, was the architect’s response and theme interpretation which I found quite interesting and according to which:

The pavilion aims to provoke discussions about architectural aspirations and creativity through exploring geometries to create inspiring spatial forms. Although there is a prescribed circulation route through the pavilion, thresholds between inside and outside are blurred and participants can weave through the spaces towards the perimeter seats for further reflection. There can be a fine line between a dream and reality, thus the perception of the pavilion constantly shifts from solidity to transparency depending on the vantage point. The pavilion structure creates inspiring and ever-changing shadows according to the movement of the sun.

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I could not have come up with a more precise description even if I tried. So I will not try. I have to say though that the impression I got from the other visitors that I encountered was that people were generally pleased and intrigued by it. I saw children chasing each other and truly weaving their play in the structure. I saw someone sit and read a book in its fleeting shade and I also saw a couple sitting on the grass to simply enjoy looking at the pavilion while having a conversation.

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This architectural creation except for being a simple but beautiful structure, has actually achieved its goal, which is for people to enjoy and use it. Similar follies like the Serpentine pavilion, receive much more press because their creators are more often than not star-architects. Somehow the fame of those architects is reflected on their projects and make them more of a self-absorbed ode to their own talent and less about those who are supposed to enjoy their building.

I do not know if it is IPT’s ethics as a practice or if the project’s smaller scale (both spatially and as far the publicity it received) renders this work more humane and real. Either way I thoroughly enjoyed my lunch on that beautiful sunny day and that was especially because of the space and atmosphere that this little structure created.

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IPT Architects website here

ArchTriumph website here

London Festival or Architecture program here

Stills from 'Apodemy' by Katerina Athanasopoulou

Stills from ‘Apodemy’ by Katerina Athanasopoulou

Katerina Athanasopoulou’s animation film Apodemy was created in 2012 and it has a very impressive record so far. It won the international Lumen Prize for animation, it has been screened in many festivals and a lot of articles have been written about it. Its creator is Greek and I accidentally met her in the street, in London where we both live. We ended up chatting that whole evening but she told me nothing of her admirable achievements something that retrospectively I hugely appreciated. When she gave me her card to keep in touch I stumbled upon Apodemy and I was left truly speechless.

The reason for writing about it now after all this time and after the press it already has received is partly that it will be screened in a few days at the University of Sussex for the ‘Chronicles of Crisis’ conference. The true reason is that it touched me deeply and since my means of expression is writing I simply wanted to say something about it. After all it is very architectural.

Stills from 'Apodemy' by Katerina Athanasopoulou

Stills from ‘Apodemy’ by Katerina Athanasopoulou

Leaving aside for a minute the film’s artistic implications I wanted to mention the architectural representation which is one of its main features. Currently most architectural practices in the world produce 3d drawings and animations. Usually the clients require them in order to understand the buildings since physical scale-models are very expensive. Even though many young architects are very familiar with producing this sort of drawings and animations, it does not mean that what they come up with is any good. In fact most 3d representations look wrong but they still seem to be a necessary evil. Apodemy is a shining example of quality and a glimpse of what good aesthetics in 3D CAD can actually look like. I cannot really put my finger on the particular details that make Apodemy beautiful compared to most architectural 3d renderings which (to say the least) are not very beautiful. Maybe it is the colour and texture palette or maybe it is the fact that this film was not produced by an architect and especially it was not meant to sell a building to a client.

Stills from 'Apodemy' by Katerina Athanasopoulou

Stills from ‘Apodemy’ by Katerina Athanasopoulou

Its atmosphere is dystopian and retrofuturistic. It could be placed in the past, the future; in a dream or a nightmare. This city is abandoned by anyone who has a head because even the birds which fly around the cage-vehicle in order to set it in motion, are just pairs of loosely feathered wings. Still, regardless of the absence of life, there is motion. Darkness and decadence are infused with a strange feeling of hope which is far from obvious. The buildings rotate around themselves similarly to the way we were warned that our buildings would, after an earthquake if there was only one central column to support them. Bare concrete slabs and columns emerge like plants from something that is not exactly earth, water or clouds but a combination of the three. The flyovers are broken at places and look like pictures of cities that have endured natural catastrophes, or films that predict the end of the world.

Stills from 'Apodemy' by Katerina Athanasopoulou

Stills from ‘Apodemy’ by Katerina Athanasopoulou

I grew up with comic books and these images brought to my mind illustrated cities by Enki Bilal and Moebius that my imagination inhabited when I was younger. In Apodemy though, when the cage-car appeared there was no doubt in my mind that this was Athens, the city where I was born and grew up.

Left image: Bilal / Middle and right image Moebius (Jean Gireaud)

Left image: Bilal / Middle and right image Moebius (Jean Gireaud)

A concrete city, a modernist-architect’s dream, tragically claustrophobic but promising. When it would ´grow up´ it would become Le Corbusier’s City of 10 thousand people. The cage is a yellow trolley bus, a weird means of public transport so intrinsic to my city of origin that it really could not be from anywhere else.

Le Corbusier's Contemporary City designed in 1922

Le Corbusier’s Contemporary City designed in 1922

This film touched me deeply because I am also an Athenian who chose to migrate years ago, not yet pressured by destroyed economies and global crises. I wanted to leave because I felt suffocated by something I cannot put words into but somehow is narrated in Apodemy. This film encompasses the wanderlust that brings people to new lands and it spoke to me in particular in my language, that of concrete and rust. However this is a work of art that speaks fluently about the dissociation of modern cities that both pregnant and empty urge us to travel to places that seem far away, but in reality exist inside our own selves.

Apodemy was created by Katerina Athanasopoulou with original music by Jon Opstad .

It was commissioned by Onassis Foundation for Visual Dialogues in 2012 and it was awarded the Lumen Prize for best fine art created digitally in 2013.

It will be screened at the University of Sussex on the 30th of May 2014. Find more information here

Stills from 'Apodemy' by Katerina Athanasopoulou

Stills from ‘Apodemy’ by Katerina Athanasopoulou

The minute I entered Phyllida Barlow’s Tate Britain commission entitled “dock” I knew I wanted to write something about it. In order to do so I felt I needed to read as many articles and reviews about it as I could. Mostly because I am not an art critic and I felt rather insecure to express my opinion. Almost all of these texts were slightly fragmented descriptions with a poetic air about them. Focusing on different parts of the huge constructions, the writers came up with interesting metaphors that came to their minds when they visited “dock”. However I felt I did not read anything that accurately described the truly powerful feeling I got from this work which most importantly for me I also found truly architectural.

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Lately I have been to quite a few exhibitions that attempt to interpret architecture and ultimately see it as conceptual art. I always applaud the endeavour because of its degree of difficulty but also because us architects, do think of ourselves as artists as well and not only as technocrats who constantly problem-solve.

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What really struck me with Barlow’s sculptures, is that they are more architectural than any architect’s installation that attempts to be purely artistic. These massive creations speak of volume and scale and start a dialogue between the body and space. Good art has the ability to make one go within, in a psychoanalytical manner. It brings about forgotten memories or even previously unknown realisations and touches us because we identify with it. At least most contemporary art aspires to do that, compared to classical works that were more about creating masterpieces that inspired awe to the viewer.

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Architecture closely as it flirts with visual art in borrowing aesthetics and trends from it has its own vocabulary that mostly derives from the fact that buildings are meant to be inhabited by people. Hence they reflect their bodies as they are designed to accommodate them. What I am saying here is that architecture can be very artistic in expressing existing philosophies or views of the world. It can also create entire pieces of the world which aspire to expand people’s understanding of it. However, even the most controversial building’s conceptual references manage to somehow incorporate the human body. This is what is defined as “the human scale” and buildings are often judged by how successful they are in reflecting it.

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Standing next to the “dock” sculptures I had an immediate sense of my own body’s size and how big these structures were compared to me. I watched and photographed people walking in, under and around them and I thought I was back in university making rough scale models for some unit project. The figurines though were real people and the scale model that I used to make out of some club’s flyer and sprayed cardboard was hugely blown out of proportion.

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I do not want to go into details and share what each of the structures reminded me. There are plenty of articles that do that as I said in the beginning. I also do not enjoy much being very literal. Using a phrase that haunted me throughout my student years from one of my favourite books of all time, Gaston Bachelard’ s Poetics of Space: “The poet does not confer the past of his image upon me, and yet his image immediately takes root in me”

The poetic dimension of Barlow’s sculptures took immediate root in me. But that did not happen because I have been trained as an architect. It happened because architecture refers to bodies, and I have a body through which I experience the world as much as I do with my mind.

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The sculptures will be on display in Tate Britain until the 19th of October 2014

Tate Britain’s site on the exhibit here

Read more about Plyllida Barlow here

According to the myth Persephony was snatched by Hades, god of death, on a beautiful spring day while playing in a field. She was dragged to the underworld leaving her mother Demeter, goddess of agriculture miserable and totally unable to tend to the crops. A terrible drought hit the land hence a deal with Hades had to be made in order for humanity to survive. Persephony was tricked into eating pomegranate seeds from the underworld and thus she always had to return there. At least it was agreed that she went back to her mother six months each year, who was so happy to see her that brought spring back. Winter returned when Persephony had to go again to the underworld.

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The descent into darkness and the emergence into light is so common in the stories of such a large number of cultures that ultimately it is recognised as a fundamental symbol of existence. It encompasses the circle of life, death and rebirth, dark phases in people’s lives, and of course the seasonal changes. Darkness is often synonymous with negative things, difficulties, endings and sorrow. Like in the Greek myth, one might be tricked into it but often it somehow seems unavoidable. While in the dark one has to keep the faith in the light in order to eventually be rewarded with well-being and joy at the end of the tunnel.

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This ancient story came to my mind when I visited Momentum, the UVA exhibit in the Curve gallery at the Barbican. Past the curtains of the entrance and after the few well lit steps was the darkness. The first impression was unsettling because I was suddenly deprived of the security of seeing and being orientated. The fog, the quasi deep-sea sounds the other visitors that unexpectedly popped-up in front of me made me feel insecure. There was a moment I thought I would run to the exit, but then the unexpected happened. I saw some people sitting along the curved wall and I was surprised. What were they exactly doing? I thought I’d try it, so I leaned on the wall and slowly slid down on it until I sat on the floor. After a couple of minutes of being amazed with how comforting it was to be there I started thinking of the elements of this orchestration. There were the lights that moved slowly back and forth. They changed from a soft-lit haze towards the ceiling and walls, to sharp blades of light that cut the thick atmosphere vertically towards the floor. It was also the non-musical soundtrack,of sonar beeps and dolphin click-sounds. Then I thought, this is a womb. It is soft and comforting it is dark and cosy and all of us like identical siblings were clinging to its walls. It was not scary any more, at least not for a while.

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This exhibit has been described as hypnotic and meditative by its creators and its visitors. Even though meditation is an attempt to be aware and present which is the opposite of being hypnotised, strangely Momentum can be both. It depends on how the descent into darkness is interpreted. One can choose to see it as a game and try to catch the light in a successful selfie, or turn inwards and contemplate.

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What I did not mention before was that the myth described above was incredibly important for the ancient world. In fact rituals that commemorated it were practised for no less than 2.000 years in Greece and were attended by people from the entire known world, (at that time). They travelled from their lands to Eleusis an ancient city, not too far from Athens, in west Attica, to be initiated to the Mysteries. The importance that was given to those rituals was so grave that anyone who revealed their secrets was sentenced to death and thus the Mysteries managed to remain secret for ever. Some things are known about what happened in the dark to the initiates. Apparently they endured much in order to be initiated to the ancient cult, but ultimately they were emerged into light, changed, reborn.

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Much has changed since then but some core things remain the same. Like the descend into the darkness that some might even undertake to go through willingly, especially when the promise of light in the end is certain. What happens in the dark is always a mystery and should not be discussed much because it loses its magic. It is something each of us has to carry within when it is time to resurface to glorious light , as the memory of a process.

And what a glorious day it was when I exited the Barbican!

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The exhibition will be on until the 1st of June 2014

Barbican website here

United Visual Artists website here

Eleusinian Mysteries Wikipedia page here

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