This year’s Serpentine pavilion was designed by Big, an architectural practice whose main force is the 41 year old Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. The practice’s signature is using simple lines in a bold way to support a conceptual story. Usually there is also a playful element in Big’s projects and the user of the building is urged towards a rather adventurous, at times even childlike behaviour. For example they have designed a waste-to-energy-power plant in Copenhagen with a roof that is in fact a ski slope and the Serpentine pavilion (if it weren’t for health and safety measures in the UK) was originally meant to be climbed to the top.


Left photo:Copenhagen Power plant CGI by Big

The pavilion, as has been observed by many writers already, is quite beautiful. It encloses the space but but it also “leaks” views to the park from certain angles. The structure does not however manage to protect from nature’s elements very well, but really how many of the pavilions ever did? Similarly as far as its spatial qualities are concerned, like many of its predecessors, it photographs better than it feels when visited.


This year though I would like to focus on an event that I attended when I went there for the first time, on June 24th one day after UK’s famous referendum that decided the future of the country within the European Union. That strange day, Implicated theatre a group of theatre practitioners, funded by Serpentine Galleries and directed by Frances Rifkin took over the space. Implicated theatre’s performances are based on Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed which is an experimental workshop-based practice that aims to “explore the relationships between political speech and action”1. Usually a scene is presented to the audience who later on is urged to participate in transforming it by taking the place of one of the original actors. The focus usually is underprivileged people and their stories. Their struggles and their interpretation of their experiences within the frame of society and its political structures.


This particular performance called Towards a Radio Ballad: Songs of the Journey emerged from a year-long collaboration with unionised migrant hotel workers from Unite’s Hotel Workers Branch. As described in Serpentine Gallery’s website: “The sound piece that accompanied the performance, is a sketch working towards a possible Radio Ballad, taking its cue from Charles Parker’s original BBC Radio Ballads, a series that aired from 1958-1964.

The audience was divided in two groups depending on whether they had ever worked in the Services industry or not. Walking freely within the pavilion we were given trays and by holding them the feeling of being a waiter was simulated. The stories of actual migrants who have come to London and worked as waiters were heard in the background. In the actual scene presented by the actors and later on moulded by the audience’s participation, a waiter was cheated out of his tips by the head waiter, a common story of professional abuse of power. I will not go into details on what happened as the experience of it is what really matters.



Photographs by Lewis Ronald

The intellectualisation of a workshop-based performance where everyone’s conclusions are purely personal would diminish the importance of the experience with weak generalisations. In the end though we were all given seats and a microphone went around. People spoke of how they felt and shared thoughts on their being in that particular space as part of the group. Very personal stories were heard that attested oppression and injustice. Migrants’ search for a better life by leaving their country of origin were juxtaposed with the dramatic political events in the country, as the decision of the previous day’s referendum. Ultimately the migrants’ journey instead of easier is going to become much more difficult. Surrounded by the loose boundary of the pavilion, we were confronted with the sad reality of a world that chooses to become more closed-minded and closed-bordered. And the feelings were real, people spoke of their lives and their families passionately and even cried.


Left photo by Lewis Ronald. Middle and right by the writer

Never did I expect to experience the sharing of real emotions and harsh truths about major political events, especially in a group, within the Serpentine Summer Pavilion. A space which is a product created and consumed by an international cultural and economic elite. Most nights at the pavilion not that many working class people are present, other than the waiters of course. And there is not that much truth spoken by the well-groomed guests that sip cocktails while exchanging empty pleasantries.

June 24th ‘s performance placed a small bomb of controversy within the fabric of the pavilion focusing on the lives of those who stay in the background unseen and uncelebrated. The space of the pavilion did not matter to me that night, not because its architecture was unworthy but because no architecture should be more important than the people who inhabit it.



1. From Implicated Theatre’s website

Serpentine Pavilion’s website here

Big’s website here

Read about Theatre of the Oppressed here

Implicated theatre’s website here

Park nights Towards radio website here


Going to Lea Anderson’s retrospective performance at the V&A Hand in Glove, I never thought I would be writing about it on my architectural blog. How could dance be ever associated with architecture? Architecture is made of solid elements that define space and create empty vessels for bodies to conduct their lives in. It protect us from the clutter of the world and the elements of nature so that we can cross out things in the list of must-dos-to-survive. What is taken for granted though is that the empty space is usually available for the people to occupy with their volume. What happens when space has to be fought for, and it is not defined by solid elements like walls or roofs?


This often happens in market places, concert halls, music clubs, stations. Lea Anderson’s performance was for me a study on how one achieves space-creation via movement.  The space that the body occupies can be claimed from nothing else. And as it moves each body moulds a trace of itself. What if this space does not exist because other bodies have taken it?


Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2 by Marcel Duchamp

In Hand in Glove the dancers’ bodies had to claim their space from the audience, who was there to see them. A complex combination of admiration and antagonism.


Being in the V&A room where the performance took place one had to negotiate their position and it was not exactly clear what was each person’s agenda either. Possibly the negotiation, or at times even confrontation of the performance, had a very deliberate raison d’etre. Most of the dance pieces presented in the retrospective, obviously speak about gender making a political statement of sorts.  However this was done by means of space negotiation something that resonated with me as an occupational hazard.


It made me think of personal orientation and the primordial action of standing up. Somehow the symbolic action of placing oneself in space with intention is also a symbolic gesture of self-realisation. Being a tai chi practitioner for many years I have realised the importance of assuming one’s space with awareness of one’s state, position in space, relation to other elements and people around. Every movement in space ultimately is such a negotiation. When in public inside our cities we co-exist with others want it or not and have to find a way to do so. It is not relationships which I am interested in here as I contemplate this balancing act, it is the importance of space in negotiating relationships.


In public spaces like the ones mentioned above, concert halls, stations and airports, market places, the “other” body is almost unimportant. It is someone who is potentially in your way of getting where you want to go. In this play though the “other” who is next to you and whom you are “fighting” with to claim your position is also the one who you have come to actually see perform.


I have been to similar shows where performers were free-moving within the crowd and of course it is no great novelty. Actually in theatre performances where the actors are supposed to interact with the audience this freedom of movement, I must confess, made me more stressed than happy. Hand in Glove was flowing though. There was confrontation, but there was also respect. There were lack of boundaries but some boundaries also existed. There was no stress, no violence, no uncomfortable feelings. It seemed there existed a flexible barrier able to include but also separate. A beautiful concept to meditate and build upon in the use of any space really.


Jeanette Barne’s art is undoubtedly about architecture and this particular exhibition at Anise Gallery is all about London. Vibrant drawings along with objets trouvés recovered from Thames banks and reconstituted into sculptural works, paint her view of the city. What makes her work vibrant though is not colour because her palette is rather monochrome. Countless axes leading towards all possible directions intersect and seem to capture buildings in motion. Looking at them many images emerged from my memory: Duchamp’s Nude descending the stairs, photographs that I have taken from moving trains and of course time-lapse videos that architects make to document their buildings’ construction.


Barnes is interested in large buildings hence Canary Warf, the Olympic stadium, new high-rises in the City and bridges and cranes are in the centre of her work. Having lived in London for almost a decade myself, I can attest that the change in its cityscape is at times frantic. One day you notice a hole in the urban fabric with the demolition of some old building. In a few weeks the concrete core of the a stairwell or elevator shaft pop-up like a concrete mushroom. Then floor after floor the slab layers appear and finally the metal and glass skin wraps them. I believe I have mentioned in this blog my opinion about skyscrapers more than once so I do not want to elaborate. I will only say that the awe inspiring grandeur of their scale and their existence as engineering achievements cannot leave an architect indifferent. On the other hand the companies they house and what they represent politically is an important enough reason for me not to admire them for their physical superiority.


I am not sure if it is my own reading of this artist’s work and not her actual intention but to me it was obvious that the massive structures that swiftly rise take over the city and leave behind them relics which the river devours. Perhaps this is why Jeanette chose to work with bones and old pieces of metal that she found and display them next to her dynamic drawings. Although my interpretation of this fascinating work left me rather sad it also brought to my mind a wonderful memory of my student life. When I first started to understand what it is to design a building and made my first efforts to sketch, the drawings always involved innumerable criss-crossed lines like these ones, either in plan or elevation. I do not think though I drew like that intentionally, nor in order to express movement but rather because of indecisiveness and exploration of my rough drawing skills in the making. The outcome though, within its innocence kept in its heart some utopian dream, not making companies or even myself richer.


Another thing that I have mentioned only too often in this blog is that much as it is exploited by profit architecture is undoubtedly an art. In its goal to house the human body speaks of the human existence both individually and collectively. Its ability to preserve history and imagine the future is often appreciated only by architects who know how to speak its language and see the beauty in technical drawings. Barnes shares an interpretation of the architectural process in a more visceral dialect that can be understood without the need of technical training and this is what I loved the most about it.


Visiting the Gallery some days ago I was very lucky to meet Jeanette and have an interesting chat with her. She is as vibrant in person as her work is and she generously shared stories about how she gets her inspiration and the way she observes buildings before she paints them. What stayed with me the most though was her pointing at the river in one of her paintings when she was telling me how enchanted she was by the ripples a swan made when she was sketching. She spoke of the swan passionately and kept pointing at the painting and although in reality there was not such detail there, I really think I saw it.

The exhibition will be open until December 5th 2015.  Anise Gallery is at:

13a Shad Thames, SE1 2PU.

Find out more about it in the Gallery’s website here
Find Jeanette Barne’s website here


I know this is beyond old news. In fact the pavilion has only one day to go until it is taken down. My article was so extremely delayed partly because of personal reasons and partly because I was so underwhelmed by this structure. Still I thought it made sense to write something about it, even if it is only for the records.


Same as every year I try to turn a blind eye to the waste of money that the Serpentine is (this year Goldman-Sach’s money to be exact) and focus more on its artistic value. It is built as an architectural experiment in order to remind to the public that architecture is an art and it may carry strong representational and symbolic values. As Brian Eno pointed out in his John Peel lecture on BBC radio 6 recently, art is basically not necessary. Eno said that art in most areas of culture is exactly what one does not need in order to survive but ultimately is exactly what brings to us the greatest pleasure.


Things get complicated with architecture because undoubtedly it is an art but a structure cannot really claim the title of “architecture” if people cannot enter it or use it. According to most historians this is the very reason why the Parthenon in Athens is not really considered a building. More often it is seen as sculptural work of art because it was never entered by the cult’s believers. Naturally I would not even try to associate this shiny-plastic worm of a “building” with the Parthenon. The only thing that they have in common is the fact that they both were not used as a shelter of any sort. Obviously I am exaggerating because the entrance to this year’s pavilion was not forbidden. However on the beautiful summer day that I visited it I witnessed people rushing out of it more than they were willing to stay in it. The reason was that it had a micro-climate. It was extremely warm and humid the fans which were installed inside had to work full time in order to make any short stay there bearable.


Selgascano, the Spanish architectural office that won the commission was not aiming for that effect I am sure. They did not do much to anticipate it or prevent it either. No aesthetic goal is important enough (according to my standards) to counterbalance the lack of viability of a building.


And this particular one did not even manage to reach a very high standard of aesthetics either. It looks cheap, the plastic looks and feels and like plastic and the ribbons give a juvenile and crafty air to it. Not to mention the metal structure which supports it that according to the contractors had to be extremely precise for the structure to hold nonetheless, managed to look totally random.


The one real success of this year’s Serpentine pavilion is that it is very photogenic, hence it scored high Instagram-points. Appearances are most important nowadays, people are more keen to photograph their food than eat it. Therefore this hot-air balloon is both literally and metaphorically exactly that: bright colourful and totally devoid of substance and meaning.


The Serpentine pavilion website here

Selgascano website here

Brian Eno’s John Peel Lecture here


20 Fenchurch Street Tower or Walkie Talkie as it is usually referred as is not far from where I live. I watched it go up slowly for years and I never particularly liked it. To be more accurate I actually always disliked it. Every time I cycle west down Whitechapel Road it dominates the skyline totally filling up the horizon.

20 Fenchurch building seen by Whitechapel street and Algate East. Dominating the horizon

20 Fenchurch building seen by Whitechapel Road and Algate East. Dominating the horizon

As it was being built I realised that it was flaring up the taller it became. For a little while I appreciated its geometry and was rather intrigued by the potentially interesting engineering calculations it required. However when I came across the drawing of the original idea and saw how much taller it was supposed to be it occurred to me that there was something wrong with its proportions. Proportions determine a building’s scale hence are extremely important.

The Walkie Talkie hovering over the street

The Walkie Talkie hovering over the street

Therefore if a building is ultimately constructed shorter and wider than its original design, it shows. And this is just one of the conclusions that one comes to by examining Walkie Talkie superficially, as a sculptural object. Something which I always find secondary in critiquing a high-rise.

Going up to the higher part of the "garden"

Going up to the higher part of the “garden”

Researching a bit the building’s Skygarden I discovered that it was not part of the original concept. The tower which is not situated in the part of the City where all the other high-rises are, was at first denied planning permission. The case was eventually reviewed and permission was granted because the architect pledged to give the top floor to the public. A smart and cheeky move. I am usually put off by investors’ justifications. Especially when they advertise their generosity which is often a calculated move in order to get their way.

Another interesting fact about Walkie Talkie is that the true reason for the building getting larger in plan towards the top, had nothing to do with creativity and architectural inspiration. It was mainly a smart idea in order to increase the rentable floor space of the upper floors where it is considerably more expensive. The skygarden was the idea that helped the project go through but profit was again in the heart of that decision. A large part of the top floor’s space is occupied by private restaurants.

The restaurants dividing the "garden" in half. Bulky and disproportionate volumes

The restaurants dividing the “garden” in half. Bulky and disproportionate volumes

The garden is divided in half by the bulky volume of the restaurants and is reduced to two sloping areas where the plants are placed. The sitting areas are basically a couple of small seats in the middle of these slopes. In case they are found empty, they are impossible to enjoy as they are constantly coveted by the hundreds of visitors.

The very few sitting areas cannot really be enjoyed by anyone. A fact that beats the whole purpose of naming the place "Skygarden"

The very few sitting areas cannot really be enjoyed by anyone. A fact that beats the whole purpose of naming the place “Skygarden”

Places like this, especially when there is a deadline in the time that one is allowed to stay there, make relaxing there extremely difficult. Ultimately this is a space to be consumed. It exists to go see and maybe take a selfie at, in order to be able to say, “been there done that”.

Of course there is the view, which is undeniable. Any 360 view from a high building is always fascinating. Even from this particular building which most people find rather ugly. The proportions are wrong the detailing is wrong, it feels clumsy and crude and somehow pretentious.

The building is rather crudely detailed. Lacks elegance but offers some good views

The building is rather crudely detailed. Lacks elegance but offers some good views

And to top all that, it melted a couple of cars and set the carpet of a shop across the street on fire with the beam of sunlight that was reflected off it before its brise-soleil panels were installed. Later on its architect Rafael Viñoly stated that he remembered London less sunny which to say the least seems like a ridiculous excuse for the poorly thought out implications of the building’s geometry.

Diagram of how the reflected sunbeams (also known as the deathray) melted parked cars and burned shop carpets

Diagram of how the reflected sunbeams (also known as the deathray) melted parked cars and burned shop carpets

The experience of visiting Skygarden did not leave an indelible impression in my memory. Yes it was free which was good but one has to book in advance, bring a photo ID and go through the airport-like security of x-rays and metal detectors. The hostesses in fake fur that check the IDs and give information look like airline hostesses giving a sexualised 60’s air to the experience that made me rather uncomfortable.

The hostess the metal detector and what you see as you come out of the elevator

The hostess the metal detector and what you see as you come out of the elevator

Once upstairs I did not go immediately to the terrace as most people do. Instead I felt the need to check out first the “garden” which in fact is not visible when you first step out of the elevator. Going up the steps towards the higher level of the “garden” I had what I call “a Planet of the Apes moment”.

My "Planet of the Apes" moment. When it crossed my mind that we are nearing the end of civilisation

My “Planet of the Apes” moment. Seeing the top of other skyscrapers through the plants

Seeing the Gherkin and the Cheesegrater towers through the plants, reminded me of the classic science fiction film when the protagonists realise that the end of civilisation has occurred as soon as they see the remains of the statue of Liberty. The top of the towers through the plants was a similarly compelling image.

Inside the sky garden the restaurant balcony looks like the desert

Inside the sky garden the restaurant balcony looks like the desert

After that I went further up at the restaurant’s terrace which is shockingly bare. What garden? That was the desert. So sad, empty and disorientating, as far away from the concept of the garden as possible. The whole experience seemed more of a hoax. Eventually I went outside to the terrace where I enjoyed my 15 minutes of false superiority that any visit to a skyscraper ultimately is all about.

20 Fenchurch Street's terrace experience

20 Fenchurch Street’s terrace experience

Once again I got to think about how twisted the whole concept of public space is getting to be. This place is as public as any London square owned by a private company that you can quietly stay in if you obey a set of rules of behaviour. No skating, no smoking, no protesting, no rough sleeping and who knows what else. Public space seems to be turning into a plane of restrictions which slowly but surely squeezes the freedom out of our lives. This is not as science-fiction-like as it seemed during my Planet of the Apes moment. Slowly but surely the only thing allowed in these so-called-public places will be to marvel at capitalism’s overwhelming superiority, solidified in scary tall buildings that the masses will be able to admire from a distance.

Book your visit to the Skygarden here

The first time I saw M by Montcalm I was cycling. The building is situated on City road really close to Old Street’s roundabout which is one of the places with the most cyclist casualties in London. Keeping this in mind I always pay extra attention when I am there. That particular day I exited the roundabout successfully and almost had a heart attack at the sight of this new building hovering over me. Later on when I found out it was a hotel called M by Montcalm, I could not help but be amused as its angular and rather distorted façade looks anything but calm.

Left: Old Street roundabout / Middle: M by Montcalm from the beginning of City Road

Left: Old Street roundabout / Middle: M by Montcalm from the beginning of City Road

Being a huge fan of comic books and science fiction I would not be 100% truthful if I said I hated it, because I did not. It immediately brought to my mind Gotham City and Blade Runner. What respectable graphic novel enthusiast would not enjoy something that seems to come out of a book or a film which has been the centre of many a daydreams.


However the root of my aesthetic satisfaction was also the source of problems for this building which has an out-of-this-world quality. I believe it looks like some funfair ride or a film set. Probably its façade’s geometry is not the only reason for that. The materials chosen play some part too. The finish of the cladding for example gives to it a rather precarious and not exactly sturdy character.


Attempting to find out more about this building I was at a loss with the absolute lack of information available about it. Who exactly designed it? No one seems to be claiming it even though on the Montcalm website it is repeatedly mentioned that an award winning firm is responsible for it. However its name is not stated, why? Eventually due to one of my readers that left me a comment under a previous version of this article I found out the company behind the design and the construction of this building was Squire and Partners. You can have a look on their webpage where they explain the concept here

Moorfields Eye Hospital which is exactly opposite M by Montcalm

Moorfields Eye Hospital which is exactly opposite M by Montcalm

M by Montcalm is betting heavily on the area being branded as Tech City, a technological start-up apparently third in the world in size after San Francisco and New York. Tech City has received funding in order to boost the companies it hosts which mainly develop new technologies. Google’s headquarters are not far from here for example. I guess the hotel expects to attract many guests related to Tech City’s companies.

Unfortunately the building is not yet finished and I could not enter it. Admittedly I am quite curious to see if the interiors are even remotely influenced by its exterior appearance. I would be quite disappointed and not exactly surprised if they were not. Judging from the hotel’s website it does not seem that the interior spaces mirror the exterior. Naturally in case they were, the hotel might have looked even more like a fun fair ride. However it would have been a proof that there was some sort of concise architectural concept behind it and not only an aesthetic gimmick.

Middle : Old Street roundabout from M by Montcalm

Middle : Old Street roundabout from M by Montcalm

Which leads this train of thought to the inevitable consideration of the effect of a building’s appearance to the street and the responsibility the architects have on account of it. This debate is a never ending one since the beginning of the history of architecture. Naturally there could never exist one absolute truth. Aesthetics are subjective and no one can pronounce they have created a building that is objectively beautiful. Every new addition to any street is a reminder of boundaries between public and private and can initiate discussions about matters of taste but most importantly motives behind aesthetic choices. The beauty of architecture as an art largely derives from the fact that it brings together necessity and technology wrapped in the amalgam of a designer’s and a client’s taste. Matters get much more complicated when the client is the state which has specific agendas to push or (as contemporary economies have it), faceless companies which mainly chase after profit. Montcalm with its luxury hotel branding has contributed this building to the streets. I often think like most designers do, that bold is better than boring. But this is only one angle of looking at things.



The Chamberlin, Powell & Bon exhibition at the Barbican despite its small size, is worth visiting and I can attest to that as I have enjoyed it twice already. The main exhibit on display is a series of square photographs that were chosen to be featured on the seasonal greeting cards the firm used to send to its clients. The pictures are all square-shaped, similar to the hugely famous Instagram format of the social media with the same name. Chamberlin, Powell & Bon, quite ahead of their time, favoured the square frame recognizing its power.


The context of the pictures though is what is of importance. Looking at these images is like looking through an architect’s eyes. Form, rhythm and composition, shadow and the contrast of light and dark and of course, the human scale. This collection of photographs is a very good example of how architects were trained in the past. Attention to detail and great love for their labour is manifested on their handmade drawings that took months to produce.  The scale rulers, the drawing compass and the triangle on display are reminders of of the architectural synthesis process  as it used to unfold during previous decades. There is no doubt that this process is quite different to the one we have today.


Chamberlin, Powell & Bon were all teaching architecture at Kingston Polytechnic when they entered and won the Golden Lane Estate competition which is situated right next to the Barbican. Golden Lane was and still is a Council Housing project. Since it is often said that with this project the architects developed and tested the ideas they eventually used on Barbican, the latter has often been confused as a social housing project itself. This naturally brings harsh criticism upon the Barbican as it is a known fact that the prices for an apartment in the complex are truly sky-high. You can have a look here.


The Barbican was never meant to be a social housing project. It was supposed to encompass however many concepts that Le Corbusier and other modernist architects developed which definitely did not only have to do with aesthetics. Their goal was to reinvent urban living: to entwine private and public space, to provide cultural spaces and events, gardens and athletic facilities within in the same building complex. That was Modernism’s social agenda that brought humanitarian meaning to architecture for decades. The Barbican will always be an architectural monument for modernism and its galleries and performance spaces will continue to provide high quality cultural services. Still its most amazing feature is Barbican Centre’s spaces which are open to the public. Many times I go there and bring my computer along with my lunch to spend time writing next to the lake or in the foyer. The free wi-fi is much appreciated by many people who come here to work or study as friendly spaces where you can sit without having to buy and consume something are getting fewer by the minute.

chamberlin powell bon 6

Left Instagram by architect Irena Mavromati

Unfortunately the extraordinary humanitarian ideas of architects that dreamt post war urban utopia are fading faster than ever. The Barbican is stuck in limbo between the idea of free-for-all-quality space and the luxury overpriced apartments that only incredibly rich people can afford. Therefore it is not only a unique brutalist monument but also a symbol of the architectural dream of creating a better life for all and not only for the few privileged. The current situation of overpriced housing in London, along with gentrification, privatisation and reduction of social housing prove it without a shadow of a doubt.

This little exhibition that will remain open until the 17th of May though is a modest reminder of architectural ideals in their original form. The penetrating visual observations of architects that naively chose to dream of a better future.

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