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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Exyzt is a collective of multi-disciplinary professionals from a variety of fields such as film, graphic design, dj-ing, botany and more. It was initiated by five architects in 2003 and they have been experimenting with pop-up public spaces ever since. In the past they have created such places in France, the UK, Spain and other countries.

view from the street

view from the street

The Londoners might know them also from the Dalston Mill (2009) that was a rather unique architectural/art project that was built with the support of the Barbican in Dalston. It actually still exists (with some transformations) as a community garden. However their designated space where most of their experiments take place is located on Union street in Southwark on a plot of land right by the train arches. This is actually where last year’s project name came from: the ReUnion. That project was the first one that I visited and where I met one of the founders of the collective. We chatted for a while and as I mentioned in last year’s post (read it here) he explained how they always came back to that particular location. Basically it is a private plot of land that is owned by a friend of theirs who gives it to them for free. A building permission for temporary use is issued and Exyzt and whoever wants to volunteer, joins in to built each year’s project. They recycle most of the wood they use and they store and reuse furniture and other found or made objects as well.

top left pic : Boat race / top right pic : the cafe and shop / bottom right pic : view from the shop

top left pic : Boat race / top right pic : the cafe and shop / bottom right pic : view from the shop

I regret not asking whether there is actually a hierarchy in the design procedure or not. I suppose there must be some sort of creative team that proposes the initial idea but I am not sure how the details are negotiated. Still both of the projects that I have visited so far demonstrate a degree of creativity that seems quite spontaneous. I guess that the only way to find out how the collective works is by participating in the construction of one of its projects. Judging from Exyzt’s manifesto statement though, (published in their website see here) it seems that there is no single master-mind behind the creative procedure of each year’s public space.

left pic: entrance deck / right pic: Copacabana Promenade by Roberto Burle Marx

left pic: entrance deck / right pic: Copacabana Promenade by Roberto Burle Marx

A friend and I visited the Lake on a sunny day and we brought our lunch there. We entered through the gates which are the same with last year’s space, the ReUnion, but have been painted over with an interesting blue and white pattern. Later on browsing through Exyzt’s facebook page I realised that this pattern is in fact a copy of Copacabana‘s promenade, designed by Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. This is a humorous wink implying that this small public space is somehow similar to the beautiful beach in Rio de Janeiro. The entrance ramps, which I liked a lot since last year, when lifted up, become the gates/fence that enclose the Lake at night. They establish the transition between what is inside and what is outside, however more than anything else they open up the space to the street and random passer bys do not feel intimidated to cross them.

left pic : entrance deck / middle pic : shading structure / right pic : pool and decks

left pic : entrance deck / middle pic : shading structure / right pic : pool and decks

In the middle of the space there is a shallow pool that resembles a lake. A little island is placed in the middle of it but during my stay only a few visitors chose to go there because the floor of the lake looked quite slippery. Actually most children slipped and fell into the water but they seemed to enjoy themselves so much that ultimately the slippery-factor adds to the playful atmosphere. To the right of the lake there is a piece of pebbled dry land with an interesting wooded structure of a high-levelled deck for the placement of the visitors’ tents. Decks also surround the lake and on them are various sitting areas and the shop and the cafe. To the left of the lake is a series of smaller levels and a clear watered pool  where children play as well.

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I stayed at the Lake with my friend for a while to get a feel of the place. Observing the people, mostly parents and children in their swimsuits splashing around, it was obvious that everyone was enjoying the space a lot. The parents looked very pleased because their children seemed to be having a blast while the environment also felt quite safe and small enough for children to be constantly in sight.

Playful details, similar to the ones that I observed last year added a lot to the atmosphere of the place. For example the miniature sail boats that were attached to the decks that the children loved racing with or the crocodile made out of some sort of floating material  wrapped in plastic. Spotting a dragonfly resting on one of the sails of the toy-boats proved that regardless of the fact that the lake is not real it does attract some local fauna.

The visit was pleasant and relaxing and I happily stayed there for a while enjoying the sun. Of course the children (and the grown-ups who felt young enough to splash around with them) got the best of this year’s project. Similar to last year it feels like the space is totally open to the public without any rules nor implying it is obligatorty to purchase something in order to feel welcome.

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As far as I can see from the two projects that I have visited so far and also by reading the collective’s manifestos and statements this is what they are after. Experimenting with the design and the construction of the projects must be an adventurous and fulfilling process for the people who are involved in it. Additionally offering their creation to the public to use and enjoy as they please has an almost utopian element in its theoretical basis. Exyzt say that they dream of architecture being a shared experience that unfolds and develops when created but also during its use as well. It looks as if they attempt to bring architects down from their pedestals of superiority and patronisation of the user. In principle they are quite revolutionary. Regardless of the obvious political implications of such an endeavour, I believe they are orientated rather towards the experimentation of design that politics. They manage to produce temporary little havens where people coexist and are able to be spontaneous and creative. In some ways they keep alive the concept of utopia that we imagined as architecture students. It was mostly back then when we still hoped that design and beauty could instigate true change in people’s lives.

Unfortunately their projects are short-lived. They are little pockets of utopia in a society where whole communities are sacrificed every day for the sake of profit, through the greedy process of gentrification.

left pic : shop / middle pic : toy crocodile / right pic: the letter box

left pic : shop / middle pic : toy crocodile / right pic: the letter box

The Lake will remain open until the end of September. Visit their program of happenings here

talks on temporary public spaces tomorrow Thursday the 19th and and Thursday the 26th of September.

Exyzt’s facebook page here

Exyzt’s website here

Entrance/pebble courtyard/pool area of the Re-union public house by Exyzt

The Reunion public house opened its doors on June 23rd and closed on September the 2nd Unfortunately I managed to get there only a couple of days before its closing date otherwise I believe I would have been a regular visitor. It was constructed on Union Street by the Southwark railway arches at the usual space where Exyzt (the architects’ and artists’ collective that designed and built it) have been experimenting with different themes of pop-up public spaces since 2008. (see more of them here)

The room-capsules for overnight guests/entrance ramp/the pool

This year’s space was a public square which opened itself to the street through a series of doorways that implied a boundary but simultaneously ‘invited’ the street in. The doors when opened laid on the floor to form a deck, an in-between surface that one stepped on in order to access the pebbled courtyard. Tables and chaises-longues where there for the visitors to relax at, while children were playing by the shallow pool. The room-capsules for overnight guests were placed by the arches, on a deck that was covered by canopies. Apparently most of the builders/designers stayed there throughout the summer. Under the arches was also the cinema and concert space, the toilets, the bar/kitchen and the dining area. The ‘Reunion’ was inspired by the Beer Act of 1830 according to which any householder could apply for a license to sell and even brew beer from their own front room. Thus beer was served at the bar without a fixed price, but donations were accepted.

Sitting area on the deck by the room-capsules/kitchen-bar/dining area/under the arches

Going around the bar and behind the toilets, the visitors came across a beautiful secret garden where the sauna (which was free for everyone) was placed. In the garden was also a large table with benches for people to have a drink or eat. Furniture, rooms, the sauna, everything in the ‘public house’ was built by the collective.

We chatted a bit with one of its founding members Nicolas Henninger who told us that Exyzt are architects and artists from different countries that are interested in experimenting with public spaces. The Reunion was included in the program of this year’s London Festival of Architecture. The land is privately owned but has been used by Exyzt in different projects, a number of times already. A building permission was required and issued for its temporary use but ultimately the collective got together, designed and built it. He also told us that all the wood that was used was going to be recycled when the place closed down.

The secret garden/Sauna and dining-drinking area

Apart from the overall arrangement and aesthetics of the space that was beautiful in a simple and effective way, I particularly enjoyed the details: the drawn carpet on the floor in front of the shop, the idea box, the wooden mosaic by the pool, the sculptured wooden howl in the window of one of the toilets. Those additions made evident that the people involved truly enjoyed themselves and left their mark. Since I visited the space towards the end of its existence I had the opportunity to witness a lived-in and enjoyed space.

View from the sauna/table at the secret garden/view of the Shard between arches and canopy

I have to admit that in the past I have not been too keen on the whole trend of pop-up spaces. I believe that this was the reason why I barely managed to visit the Reunion before it was torn down. To my experience pop-up restaurants, bars, shops etc exist in order to take advantage of the financial opportunity that presents itself within the intense urban environment, where people consume spaces and are constantly searching for new ones to spend their money at. There is loads to be said on this subject of places being absorbed in the capitalist game in order to quench the consumers’ thirst for new experiences. However the Re-union public house did not give me this impression at all. It seemed like an inspired architectural hub where people experimented and enjoyed both building and using it. The local community and visitors that frequented it, seemed to embrace and enjoy it to the fullest and for that reason I believe that the experiment was truly successful.

Read more about the Re-union public house by Exyzt here

Details:The painted carpet/the wooden mosaic at the pool/the idea box/the howl at the toilet window

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