Archive

London Festival of Architecture 2013

hawksmoor-somerset1Hawksmoor’s architecture is truly inspired and has managed to remain contemporary even though it was created a long time ago, specifically at the beginning of the 18th century. In a previous article written about a Hawksmoor exhibition at the Royal academy about a year ago, I mentioned that a halo of mystery surrounds his work. Strange and often obscure characteristics have been attributed to both him and his churches. I believe that the dark tales that have been spread around him mostly have to do with his unique talent that makes his work stand out centuries after it was created. His buildings do not demonstrate any aesthetic obsessions or recurring formal patterns. Many talented architects have partaken in collectives or schools that dictated certain styles or a degree of uniformity in their aesthetic. However each of Hawksmoor’s churches seems to have a ‘life’ of its own, unique, complete, inspired and inspiring. This is I believe where all the mystery derives from: the fact that he cannot be categorised. His work is too free and society has disliked its free spirits as often as it has glorified them.

hawksmoor-somerset2

These buildings have aged gracefully and visiting any of them, one experiences the rich quality of space they create both in their interior and in the street they are located in. They are known for their spires which bear very few similarities to each other. St.Luke’s in Old Street for example has a most unusual vertically striped obelisk for a spire. St. George’s in Bloomsbury has horizontal ribbing and King George’s statue on top surrounded by sculptures of mythical creatures at its base.

Christ Church’s (Spitalfields) analogies with its portico and stairs and most importantly its location that renders it visible from a distance, has an individuality, a presence. I am not exactly sure of how I can describe it but it stands its ground with a sort of pride. In fact all of Hawksmoor churches stand their ground with pride and act as landmarks and centres of orientation.

hawksmoor-somerset3

The Somerset House exhibition on Hawksmoor churches that I visited examined closely each building. Architectural photographer Hélène Binet, with her beautiful large format photographs shared her attentive and very penetrating point of view. Zooming out she observes the churches from far away documenting how they affect their surroundings. Then coming close, she looks at the details and discovers the very visible traces of time on them. Elegant wire structures held resin scale models of the spires giving a 3D perspective to the experience.

hawksmoor-somerset4

Going through the rooms and looking at these photos I was struck (once more) with the realisation that some architecture is so unique that remains timeless and should be rediscovered again and again as we never stop learning from it or appreciate it. A talented photographer’s point of view when it is as poetic, reveals new sides to familiar places.

Looking at these pictures brought to mind Jean Cocteau’s quote from A Call to Order (1926) (Le Rappel a l’ ordre) :

“Such is the role of poetry. It unveils, in the strict sense of the word. It lays bare, under a light which shakes off torpor, the surprising things which surround us and which our senses record mechanically”

hawksmoor-somerset5

Exhibition’s web site here

Hélène Binet’s web site here

More about Nicholas Hawksmoor here

Previous article on Hawksmoor from Architecture as here

Advertisements
Collage of visitors posing. All photos by the writer

Collage of visitors posing. All photos taken by the writer

The installation I am writing about no longer exists. However it triggered some thoughts that revolve around the concept of architectural art that seem discussion-worthy. Dalston house was designed by Leandro Erlich and was placed in an empty plot right behind Dalston Junction which is currently one of London’s most fashionable areas. Its production was also attributed to the Barbican and Dalston’s local cafe Oto that is involved in many interesting art projects. The installation was a façade of a small terrace house placed on the ground with a mirror hanging over it in a 45 degree angle. The visitors could lie down on the collapsed “building” in various positions and their reflection would create the visual illusion that they were hanging from the roof or sitting on a window sill etc.

                                                     dalston-house2

When I first saw the press release and some photos of Dalston house I thought that it was a clever idea. In fact I still think it is a clever idea but the truth is that I was not actually that impressed when I visited it. The reason though had little to do with the actual exhibit.

Barbican’s exhibitions get a lot of exposure. Too much to be exact and I have missed many of them because in order to have seen them I would have to literally queue for hours. The artificial rain exhibit at the Curve gallery (the Rain Room) for example had a minimum of four hours waiting time on most days which meant that I never saw it. This is why I was a bit intimidated by Dalston house. Fortunately one had the possibility to see the exhibit and photograph it without queuing to enter it and naturally I preferred that option.

Photographed from the side

Photographed from the side

How it worked was that every visitor, or group of visitors had a few minutes to assume positions and have their photo taken often by the exhibition’s attendants. When the countdown started they all did their best to pose as creatively as they could. What annoyed me was not the background that the house offered but the crowd that armed with their iphones were striving to get a truly original photo of themselves possibly for their facebook profile pic. I saw little joy, less play and even less spontaneity not to mention the abundance of vanity.

dalston-house-4

Being a part of London Festival of Architecture, Dalston house got me thinking about the nature of the exhibit. Was it an art project? Was it really related to architecture? Is there such a thing as architectural art and what exactly does that mean? If architectural art exists (as it has been previously discussed in this blog mostly on account of the Serpentine pavilion), its purpose seems to be to trigger people to contemplate on architecture or life within and around buildings. In fact quite a few architects aspire to do so nowadays with their work. They want to believe that their buildings can somehow “enlighten” the users to question the existing social structures. Ambitious to say the least. Being the sceptic that I am I very much doubt this could ever really happen.

dalston-house5

As I am increasingly interested in what influences architectural decisions (which I often find that is related to politics and the infliction of power), I believe that projects with strictly aesthetic purposes are less relevant than ever. I am not totally sure about Dalston house’s original intention but my hunch is that its creator meant for it to be playful and intriguing. However for me it ended up being interesting for a different reason. The attraction of a large number of people is the usual measure for how successful a work of art is. Sadly it is not often that commercial success coincides with spontaneity and playfulness. In other words, the queue, the time limit for each person’s visit and most importantly the feeling of one being watched and potentially judged, play an important role on how free one feels to be playful.

dalston-house6

From my point of view Dalston house oddly managed to reflect contemporary society’s voyeuristic tendencies. Being photographed while doing something in order to share it in various social media seems more important that actually experiencing anything. Unfortunately art is another product to be consumed. People want to visit such exhibits because they are fashionable and having seen them reflects some coolness upon them. Even more so if they have the photographs to prove it. I might sound a bit too harsh but I stayed and observed for quite a while and I saw no one that entered the exhibit solely with the intention of experimenting and playing with it. Well, this is not entirely true, there was a group of children that looked as if they wholeheartedly enjoyed themselves to the maximum, even though they did have their picture taken too. It actually made me wonder if any of us is even able to just experience an exhibit like this one without secretly craving to be watched.

Barbican web page for Dalston house here

Leandro Elrich’s web site here

Once again the summer pavilion is built in front of the Serpentine gallery in Hyde park and it is time for the world’s architectural critics to start raving. Regardless of the fact that there are more important things in the world to passionately love or hate I still went to see the pavilion and of course I am writing about it.

All photos by the writer and drawings taken from La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

All photos by the writer and drawings taken from La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

There is no escaping this global architectural event which is always a potent advertisement for the person who designs it. Of course the truth is that most of the architects who have been responsible for the pavilion the previous years did not exactly need the exposure as they were already hugely famous. However this project is a platform for an even wider audience to get to know their brand and no one would ever deny the opportunity.

All photos by the writer and drawings taken from La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

All photos by the writer and drawings taken from La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

This year’s architect was not an obvious choice and he also is the youngest one so far. His name is Sou Fujimoto and according to him, his architecture questions boundaries and converses with its surroundings and with nature in particular. This is naturally not a new concept. Many post-World-War II architects and collectives were interested in buildings and cities that would change, evolve or even move. The Situationists developed a very distinct political agenda around the concept and Archigram experimented with more stylised versions of moving and expanding edifices. Fujimoto on the other hand, explores a static version of seemingly fluid boundaries. A few of his buildings flirt with this aesthetic and Serpentine pavilion in particular looks as if an expanding 3-dimensional grid suddenly froze and assumed this cloud-like shape. What is interesting in Fujimoto’s rational is that he wants his buildings to interact with nature regardless of his choice to build them in hard materials. In other words there are no curves in his forms and the structures do not really weather nor visibly age. Hence nature is paralleled in a rather graphic and intellectualised way.

All photos by the writer and drawings taken from La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

All photos by the writer and drawings taken from La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

Visiting the pavilion my first impression was rather good. It is quite distinct from the previous ones and it surely makes a statement. Thinking about it though I was not sure what exactly the statement was. Fujimoto believes that his design bridges nature and the built environment. I am not convinced that he manages to do that using a grid which has been the archetype of rational thought and of geometrical man-made environment since the beginning of history of architecture. The finished product seems as far away from nature as it could ever be. Not to mention that the grid having been a design tool for millennia renders the pavilion a wink to architects and designers worldwide. Them more than anyone else will ‘get’ and enjoy it. One could say that this edifice is not meant to be understood by the general public but it is a product of internal consumption for the architectural community.

All photos by the writer and drawings taken from La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

All photos by the writer and drawings taken from La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

As far as the pavilion’s intention to look like a cloud, it seems that ambitious architecture nowadays aims to negate itself by attempting to dissolve into thin air. For example that was also Renzo Piano’s goal as when he designed the Shard and of course the outcome is far from successful in doing so.

However the pavilion apparently also looks like something else. A friend of mine -also an architect- with the same age as Fujimoto pointed out that back in the day when he was still in university, there was a comic book that was very popular among architectural students. La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters. According to my friend, Fujimoto was clearly inspired by it as his pavilion looks exactly like Urbicande.

All photos by the writer and drawings taken from La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

All photos by the writer and drawings taken from La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

Of course one cannot be sure of that without asking Fujimoto himself if he ever heard of it or if the resemblance is a coincidence. After researching the subject I found this very interesting blog entry. According to the blogger the main character of the comic book is an architect who aspires to bridge the two separated halves of a city. The south part is the privileged one and the north the chaotic and dark one. Things sadly do not go as planned for him because of a strange cubic object that is excavated in the dessert and is kept in his office. The cube eventually starts to multiply uncontrollably and takes over the whole city of Urbicande with its ability to penetrate all matter. The two halves of the city apparently symbolise body and mind, the rational and the irrational and other conflicting dipoles. In the same article MC Escher’s famous Cubic Space Division (1952) is mentioned as a possible influence for the comic book.

All photos by the writer and drawings taken from La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

All photos by the writer and drawings taken from La fièvre d’Urbicande (1985) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters. Bottom right picture:MC Escher’s famous Cubic Space Division (1952)

Apart from the similarity of the pavilion’s form with Urbicande, there is an analogy in Fujimoto’s concept of bridging nature and the built environment, with the architect from the comic book’s aspiration to unite the two halves of his city. As far as Fujimoto’s ambition to challenge boundaries and property with his architecture. I applaud the intention but I have no doubt that the attempt can only be stylistic and rather superficial. Besides, it is rather fashionable for architecture nowadays to imply political intentions of pseudo-extremist direction. However I find rather naive  Fujimoto’s heavy-weight statement according to which he aims to question the whole idea of property with his work. Especially when he is supposed to be doing so with his designs of houses for wealthy Tokyo residents.  I seriously doubt that any of them would ever want to share their precious tight space with their neighbours or random passer-bys.

This year’s Serpentine pavilion is a tasteful construction and a visit there is highly recommender if you happen to be in London until October 20th 2013. As far as the statements about how politically charged Fujimoto’s architecture can be, they just remind me of other architects’ similar declarations who delude themselves in believing that their architecture will somehow bring about the next social revolution

Serpentine pavilion website here

Sou Fujimoto’s website here

Feuilleton blog post about Urbicande here

 

Left: Suzanne Hall during the lecture / Right Poster of the lecture

Left: Suzanne Hall during the lecture / Right Poster of the lecture

Suzanne Hall and her colleagues have been researching urban change and the ways that high streets express locally the global urbanisation phenomenon for a long time. The lecture she gave on June 5th was a presentation of her ongoing research for LSE’s Ordinary Streets program which focuses on Peckham’s Rye Lane. This particular high-street is a very interesting example considering it is characterised by an especially high degree of multiculturalism and multilingualism. Peckham’s densely woven fabric of uses and cultures is in fact an enhanced version of many London high streets. However looking at the maps indicating the nationalities of the people who live in London (projected during the lecture) one realises that certain immigrants end up in certain parts of the city. In other words the areas which are populated by people from the former British colonies or from countries of the developing world are not very often also inhabited by Americans, Australians or western Europeans.

All images take from the lecture's slide presentation

All images taken from the lecture’s slide presentation

Peckham is mostly populated by immigrants who are struggling to get by and are -quoting the lecturer- places delineated by ‘loose cohesion and prosaic public dimensions of ordinariness. Considering Peckham’s wealth in culture and its potential for development, home secretary Theresa May’s statement according to which ‘the wrong people should be stopped from coming into the UK’ is rather aggravating. Suzanne Hall’s work as a whole focuses on proving such statements wrong. One way of doing this is by studying multilingualism ‘as the ability to read the cultural and economic landscape of the city and translate it to products services and networks’, and to quote her again, ‘multilingualism should be explored as an urban capacity’. It is common knowledge that London is a highly unequal city but this research aims to study the potential that most deprived inner city areas have, instead of dismissing them.

All images take from the lecture's slide presentation

All images taken from the lecture’s slide presentation

 Getting down to facts and numbers I was surprised to find out that two thirds of Rye Lane’s shops are independent retailers, 30% of which have been there for 20 years. 61% of the traders speak 2-4 languages and 1/3 speak four or more. The whole room laughed out loud when it was mentioned that Rye lane is more language proficient than LSE itself. What I found truly fascinating was that 25% of the shops practice mutualism, which is basically subletting part of their shop to another trader. This practice maximizes the variety of products and services offered. Most importantly though, considering that some pay 150£ per square meter each week, the monthly rent adds up to 500£ per s.m. that is equivalent to retail rent for Knightsbridge which is in fact the highest in the world.

All images take from the lecture's slide presentation

All images taken from the lecture’s slide presentation

The question that was posed at this point was how come Peckham is in desperate need of “regeneration” and “tidying up” compared to Westfield that is seen as one of London’s ultimate success stories. Especially keeping in mind that Peckham houses 2100 businesses with 13.400 employees while Westfield counts 300 businesses which generate 8500 jobs. Not to mention that Westfield absorbed huge amounts of public capital for infrastructure while Rye Lane retailers are of course self-funded.

All images take from the lecture's slide presentation

All images taken from the lecture’s slide presentation

Examining the reasons why, many possible answers were given. The one that saddened me the most was extremely superficial and had to do with aesthetics. Rye Lane is neither tidy nor organised. Shops look nothing like Oxford Street and their untidiness has to do with them not looking English enough in order to be accepted by the general public.

It was also mentioned that Rye Lane has an underground grunge or cool side to it because due to relatively low rents for loft-like spaces, it houses a considerable number of artists’ studios. Many of Rye lane’s facets were outlined but one of the most important reasons for its potential not being recognised was that its rich cultural value is not visible.

All images take from the lecture's slide presentation

All images taken from the lecture’s slide presentation

Firstly because there is no dialogue between the inhabitants and the authorities to possibly negotiate any sort of help from the state. Secondly there is no dialogue between the inhabitants and traders themselves. In their struggle to survive they are too involved in individual profit or in their personal quests, to find ways to define themselves as a whole, organise a trade union and appoint representatives.

All images take from the lecture's slide presentation

All images taken from the lecture’s slide presentation

In the short discussion that followed the presentation some questions were posed that gave Suzanne Hall the opportunity to clarify her conclusions. One was that London streets are almost equivalent to living organisms and have a great potential to redefine themselves. Another interesting fact is that 50% of high-streets as we know them today will be extinct in the future because of on-line shopping and large shopping centres. However their very existence apart from interesting and vibrant is very useful in drawing political conclusions on the way that societies are structured. Multiculturalism and multilingualism instead of a problem that makes communication and organisation difficult could actually be the only answer to the possible formation of a new commercial unit. What’s even more important is that this multicultural experiment could find ways to figure out the model of self-organisation that occupy movements have attempted world-wide but have not been able to sustain for more than a few weeks at a time. And this very self-organisational model could oppose and possibly counterbalance the rigid conservatism that seems to expand dangerously the last few decades.

All images take from the lecture's slide presentation

All images taken from the lecture’s slide presentation

Immigration is an unavoidable fact due to global socio-economic circumstances. Nevertheless it is also an anathema because people who are reluctant to accept change nurture and spread conservative or even crypto-nationalist ideas. Learning to accept multiculturalism and recognise its potential is truly creative contrary to gentrification that is sold as regeneration but actually destructs the urban environment by homogenising it. There are gentler ways to change cities for the better because ultimately (as eloquently put by Suzanne Hall) the first act of creativity is observation.

 Ordinary streets program website here

Download the lecture and the pdf for the slide presentation here

%d bloggers like this: