Archive

public space

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

Advertisements

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.

montcalm6

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.

montcalm3

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.

montcalm5

chamberlin-powell-bon1

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.

chamberlin-powell-bon2

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-3

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.

chamberlin-powel-bon-5

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.

In the past I have loved to complain about the Serpentine Pavilion not so much about particular design reasons but rather because of what it generally represents: the architectural elite. Without researching much this year’s design (I had basically only heard that it was one of critics’ favourites) I went to Kensington Gardens.

serpentine_14_1

Initially this folly seems almost basic in shape. There is something ancient about it which I guess has to do with the organic-ness of its form and with the fact that its columns are sunk into really large stones placed on the lawn. Hence an illusion is created and the structure seems to be hovering over the ground. The most important reason for me liking this doughnut of a hut is that it is an introvert structure compared to most of its show-off-predecessors. And like most introverts, especially the shy and artistic types, it is full of surprises. Another reason is that it was clear to me that it was not designed for people only to come and look at it in awe. On the contrary it was made for people’s comfort, cosiness and intellectual stimulation. I run into all sorts of visitors, those who just came there to have a coffee and a chat, the ones that took hundreds of photos, studied and drew it like myself and those who just came in to take shelter from the rain.

serpentine_14_2

Whatever the reason everyone seemed to thoroughly enjoy and study it. I have the impression that this is one of those truly inspirational buildings that make people who are not already involved in architecture, want to take an interest in it. And I believe that this is achieved through innovation. Like it or not this sort of building is not something that people bring to mind when they think of architecture.

serpentine_14_4

Of course as the saying has it, everything in the arts has been done before and as architects and critics of architecture would attest, many references to other designers can be spotted in this pavilion like for example Archigram or Future Systems. Regardless of how intriguing and stimulating this style of architecture is, it is at times too progressive for its own good because it makes it hard for people to identify with it. Not to mention that architecture that has little to no references to classical forms unfortunately often ends up looking rather tacky. I believe it is extremely difficult for architects to come up with forms that are truly innovative and still manage to attract the mainstream. Probably this is because most people crave for the new but are afraid of it as well hence they gravitate towards the old and familiar.

serpentine_14_3

Smiljan Radić seems very nice in the interviews I watched. He sounds very calm and collected and really involved in his art, in a non self absorbed way. Looking into his body of work I was happy to read that he hates signature buildings and that other than very few elements he has used before in other buildings most of his projects do not seem at all aesthetically related. That is of course because they have different programs and are made for various users and climates.

serpentine_14_5

His Serpentine pavilion’s recipe of success is that it looks like something that has landed here from outer space but also somehow looks like an ancient relic, a massive rock of Cyclopean mythic architecture. It is both old and new and it brought to my mind a sort of aesthetic that I find truly appealing: retrofuturism. Above all though it is an inviting shelter for the visitor and regardless of its weirdness it manages to keep a certain degree of humility. Its interior spaces on both ground and café level were packed with people who were not admiring it, they were just living! This is what I liked about it. My stay there was a half hour exposure to utopian futurism, but hey, forgive me for being a huge science fiction fan.

serpentine_14_6

Find the Serpentine Pavilion website here

Find more Smiljan Radic projects in Archdaily here

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.

london-growing1

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.

london-growing2

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.

london-growing3

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!

london-growing4

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.

london-growing5

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.

london-growing6

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.

rainforest1

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.

rainforest2

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.

rainforest5

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.

rainforest3

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:

triumph2

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.

triumph3

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.

triumph4

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.

triumph5

IPT Architects website here

ArchTriumph website here

London Festival or Architecture program here

%d bloggers like this: