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Ordinary beauty is quite an interesting title for this exhibition because these photographs are not very ordinary at all. Smith’s editing eye and the way his compositions are chosen are truly remarkable. The angle of the frames, the light and of course his strategic choice of introducing objects that refer to the human body. In doing so, regardless of the fact that people are usually absent in his photographs, the human presence is always implied. I believe this potentially derives from his architectural training. Usually in architects’ drawings and illustrations the human scale is evident but actual human bodies are absent. Architects are poetic this way. They are trained to be sensitive to peoples’ needs which are supposed to be their priority, however more often than not human bodies are absent in their representations.

My first impression when I entered this exhibition was that the quality of these photographs was superb. Which actually did not explain the fact that I was slightly bored and not very excited to write about them. It took me a whole month I believe to get around writing this article.

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Still I cannot deny that I liked quite a few of the subjects depicted. For example the bench with the plants growing through it stayed with me because even though Smith was a trained architect he shows a lot of respect, or one might even say awe, for nature and its ability to take over human creations. In fact in some ways Smith shows he is not that into the man-made environment even though architecture seems to be the centre of his attention. Ultimately architecture seems to be almost a necessary evil in these images when what actually prevails is nature and the decay it brings, which is inescapable.

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Undeniably all artists have their own private obsessions. The subjects that speak to them, are their inspiration and what they choose to depict. For Edwin Smith the underlying subject in his photographs is the past or rather a world that is destined to disappear. Hence his pictures are always filled with nostalgia and intense emotion. As I have already mentioned the compositions are great and he is unique in revealing all that is poetic in things that otherwise would have been seen as mundane and unimportant. However there was something in this whole collection of pretty images that did not agree with me.

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Probably it had to do with the fact that this overall sentiment of nostalgia is not very exciting. When people start reminiscing too much about the past and glorify it by saying that things were much better then than now, you know that they are growing old. And it is a known fact that feeling old has nothing to do with age. Being in the present and anticipating the future is young, while being nostalgic and resentful of change is old. People can be young or old at any age. If they are old in a young age a possible way to describe them is conservative.

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This is what I did not like in this exhibition. Smith is supposed to be one of the most iconic British photographers and actually the one that represents Britishness better than most and indeed he has done an amazing job in focusing on history and its importance. He has also done a great job in producing a body of work that is ultimately a “memento mori”, a reminder of human mortality. This is achieved through the importance that is given to the power of decay and the way in which it is implied that nature is destined to destroy whatever man has created.

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However there are some things that are very intrinsic to Britishness that are totally left out of these images. Eccentricity, novelty, innovation which all have one foot already in the future and look forward to change. Smith’s images focus in the past and whatever is destined to disappear and die. Naturally death is always present within life and truly there are no new beginnings without something being lost or left behind. There is always pain over the loss but the pain is partly overtaken by the joy of the anticipation of the new. Here the new is not even implied. This very conservative way of looking at things is most definitely not what speaks to my heart. Still this exhibition is very much worth seeing.

The exhibition will be on until the 6th of December 2014

Find out more on RIBA’s website here

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Tonkin Liu’s architecture is certainly impressive both aesthetically and conceptually.  Parametric design usually is because of its intricacy. This particular work’s aesthetic reminded me slightly of Islamic architecture although the latter Is intricate in regards to decoration and not as fas as the actual structure is concerned.

Islamic Architecture

Islamic Architecture

Attempting an almost simplistic definition of parametric design, it is the production of structural forms, using variables and algorithms which generate a hierarchy of geometric relations. In other words the variable (usually a certain structural part) follows a specific ‘rule’ in movement, rotation or distortion and its repetition or its development ultimately produces the building’s form.

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This design tool has been quite fashionable the last 25 years or so as the architects have gotten increasingly infatuated with what they can come up with technology’s assistance. Looking into its history though I was surprised to find out that Gaudi’s famous Sagrada Familia is also considered an example of early parametric design. The calculation of its breathtaking vaults and arches was achieved with the help of the fascinating inverted model of plumb lines that is now placed in Sagrada Familia’s museum.

La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Left the plumb line model

Mike Tonkin and Anna Liu started their practice in 2002. What is interesting in their approach is that they like to observe nature very closely and find ways to imitate its forms, not decoratively but structurally. Their idea of creating the lace-shell is the centre of this RIBA exhibit. In a nutshell what they wanted to achieve was to make flat sheets that would have their own strength. In their own words, to create “a suit that could hold itself up”. In order to do that they studied seashells where stiffness is achieved regardless of the thinness of the actual material. After analysing a shell’s formal characteristics they narrowed down certain qualities the combination of which result to its strength. Curvature, corrugation, distortion, stiffening and beading.

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The next phase was to develop the algorithm that would combine the above and in doing that they also introduced another element in their study: perforation, which aimed to reduce the volume of the material and make it lighter. Reading their Prototyping Architecture essay (download it here) I was impressed with how observant they are with nature and the way they attempt to incorporated the lessons they learn from it in their design. For example the reduction of volume with the method of perforation is an interpretation of how caterpillars strategically munch on leaves without ever compromising the leaf’s structural integrity because if they did, naturally they would fall off it themselves.

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The organic aspect of Tonkin Liu’s design is what elevates their work aesthetically. In the past I was never taken back by most parametric architectural examples I came across. Somehow they all looked similar, mostly because they seemed rather soulless and a bit too technical for my taste. This kind of work is different though. It is undoubtedly inspired.

Keeping in mind that the algorithmic development for these projects is more complicated than most it makes sense that Tonkin Liu would need extra help. This is where the equation becomes even more complicated and the famous statement “the cause does not justify the means” becomes relevant.

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Lend Lease, the colossal multinational corporation that has funded the talented architectural team’s research, has delivered in the past architectural icons such as the Sydney Opera House. However the last few years it has been behind two very controversial developments in London that have forced thousands out of their homes in order to raise the land value and attract more desirable clientèle. These developments are non other than the Olympic park and the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle and like most similar projects they have been presented to the public as regeneration of run-down areas when in reality their goal was an immorally disproportionate profit compared to the damage that was cause to the social fabric of the affected areas.

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There is no doubt that this work is spectacular but to my eyes it loses most of its value. Romantic as this may sound, I believe that choosing one’s allies is at times more important than the quality of the final product. In fact I find very negative that people get so immersed in their work that they fail to look at the bigger picture. History has shown that experiments which took place in the expense of the underprivileged, ultimately got the place they deserved in the public eye’s opinion. Although nowadays more people than most are willing to turn a blind eye when external beauty is extraordinary enough.

Find Tonkin Liu’s website here

Find the exhibition’s website here

 

photo via LFA website find it here

This year’s London Festival of Architecture revolved around the theme ‘The Playful City” in an attempt to examine the Olympics’ effect. Checking the program it seemed that a debate aspiring to decide if ‘London needs to learn how to play’ was a must-attend event. However it was unclear to me from the beginning if by ‘London’ the organisers were referring to the city’s public spaces or the actual Londoners and if it was the latter how could the citizens’ playfulness be separated from the spaces they were supposed to play at. The political dimension of the subject was totally ignored by chairwoman Daisy Froud in her introduction. Instead she defined play as the process of ‘taking risks together’ adding that she was reintroduced to this concept after becoming a mother.

The speakers invited were Peter Murray, author, LFA’ s founding director, and former chairman of international consultancy Wordsearch, Peter Fleming professor of Work and Society at Queen Mary college and author of ‘Dead man working’ and Clive Dutton, Newham’s executive director for regeneration.

Peter Murray’s presentation. Images of pall mall game/2004 LFA/Londoners playing

Peter Murray was the first speaker and he started by stating that Londoners do not need to learn how to play. He attempted to be controversial suggesting that it is not accurate to examine playfulness in association with the Olympics because for the athletes sports are work. He also said that athletes are not really healthy as they put their bodies under tremendous stress and they have high mortality rates in relatively young age. Additionally, since the Olympic sponsors are junk food providers, this is what is mainly consumed at the games hence they are unhealthy for the visitors as well. That was already quite contradictory as this year’s London Festival of Architecture title ‘The Playful city’ was chosen exactly because of the Olympics. He explained that the LFA’s aim was not to reproduce the games in the streets of London but to make the city generally more playful. In the images projected while he spoke, random Londoners engaged in sports like pall mall and ping pong. He finished by showing a photo from 2004 LFA where turf was laid down on a London street and mentioned that people knew how to sit down and enjoy it by having a picnic.

Peter Fleming started his presentation by saying that being playful in London is not a psychological question but a sociological one and was more related to the neo-liberal favouritism towards privatisation of public places, than the Londoners’ ability to play. The increasingly authoritarian companies promote conservative ways of playing in order to satisfy people’s inherent need to play which is a fundamental need of humanity. By ‘conservative play’ he meant the childish games invented by fun-sunltants (consultants of fun employed by companies to entertain their over-worked employees). He added that a meaningful emancipatory way of playing springs from the joy of pure democracy and he used the Paris Commune as an historical example. This sort of care-freeness challenges and changes society and should be a civic norm, not the privilege of a very small elite. He concluded by posing the question:” Do we actually dare to play like that?”

Clive Dutton mainly presented statistics and numbers in order to show that Newham (Olympics’ host) was the loveliest, happiest and most playful area of London. Apparently this is proven by the fact that Newham has one of the highest birthrates in the country and the majority of its inhabitants are under 34. We additionally learned by Clive’s speech that London is playful, stimulating and exciting because it has 7.000 pubs 25.000 acres of parkland, 14.000.000 tourists per year and organised 10.000 street parties for the Queen’s diamond jubilee, consequently it does not need to learn how to play.

Top photo Peter Fleming/middle and bottom photo Clive Dutton’s presentation

After the panel’s presentations, the audience contributed to the discussion with very interesting comments. An architecture school graduate suggested that cities are places where people come into contact with systems and negotiate social landscapes. He also said that since the 80’s law and order has increasingly been more oppressive, discouraging the inhabitants’ interaction with their environment. Additionally he mentioned that the ‘right to the city’ as it was introduced by the Situationists, has nothing to do with the ‘right’ to have a picnic on a patch of grass that has been temporarily installed somewhere. Meaningful play is about the evaluation and transformation of social relationships.

Someone else in the audience mentioned that playfulness is largely associated with youthfulness and that most people are actually terrified of playing.

A man shared his personal story of having played football at Hackney marshes every weekend for years and recently not been allowed to do so because of a BBC Olympics related event. Peter Murray turned this argument around by saying that he should not complain as he was allowed to play football all weekends except that particular one, which proves that London generally is a playful city.

Another man in the audience mentioned that he had recently spent 6 months in China and Londoners should not complain as freedom to play is much less in Shanghai.

Clive Dutton kept asking the audience ‘what would you do if you could sprinkle magic dust and change London in order to increase its playfulness’. Several people replied that they would undo the privatisations and remove some of the rules and regulations. Still Clive disregarded those comments and insisted that people were not replying his question with a valid proposal. He also sidetracked the discussion by reading a list of the 10 most miserable places to live in the US in order to make London look like paradise. The audience admittedly found that amusing.

Finally Peter Murray said that upsetting the counsellors at school or stealing apples from the orchard is an anti-authoritarian practice that is ultimately pleasurable. Contradicting himself once again he admitted that at times London is a difficult place to live in but that is where its beauty derives from. It is not clean, it is not Singapore, it has chewing gum on the side-walks and police in the streets and that at times he finds amusing to be chased by security guards when cycling through private places. When chairwoman Daisy Froud agreed with him adding that play would not be as fun if there were no restrictions, Peter Fleming intervened telling them they were playing a dangerous game as this argument could be pushed to extremes in order to justify any authoritarian neo-fashist society to which one should be ‘grateful’ to, for aspiring a sense of rebellion to the people. He concluded by saying that the magic dust that Clive kept referring to was the fact that Londoners are somehow still managing to have fun, regardless of the impossible neo-liberal system that increasingly deprives them of their rights and playfulness.

What I concluded from this debate was that it was similarly informative to the ‘Defence of the Public realm’ event but had a totally different feeling to it. It was more conservative and supportive of the statement that London is playful enough and does not need any alterations. Even the chairwoman did not do such a good job in being impartial, in my opinion she was rather biased in favour of the idea that London does not need to learn to be more playful . However a vote by raising hands was held in the end and the outcome showed that the audience believed the opposite.

The debate took place in the RIBA on the 26th of June 2012

Listen to the whole debate here

LFA 2012 program here

Dwelling is humanity’s most basic architectural need. Every venture starts well after the establishment of a base hence the paramount importance that housing has throughout history. There is much to understand about societies, cultures and political systems by analysing individual and collective housing projects as all of the above affect the way our homes are built. Of course there are many other important factors to consider like the evolution of technology, aesthetic trends and artistic movements. An intricate system that implicates all those parameters is at play in the development of housing projects and none should be neglected in attempting to evaluate a project’s success. Especially when its scale is considerably large.

The Pruitt-Igoe estate in St.Louis, USA was tore down on March 16, 1972 and Charles Jencks pronounced at the time that its demolition signalled the death of modernism. Regardless of the 40 years that have passed since then, the discussion of the reasons that brought the immense housing project to its demise is back in the spotlight, mostly due to the recent release of the documentary ‘The Pruitt-Igoe myth’ by Chad Freidrichs. Modernism was undoubtedly the movement that affected architecture more than any other in recent history hence the failure of a project that is regarded as one of its important representatives cannot but continue to be revisited.

Speaking of failure,  reading a rather interesting article in Blueprint’s March issue titled ‘Failing to succeed’ by Natre Wannathepesakul where the St. Louis estate is also mentioned, I was rather surprised not to say shocked. Apparently factors other than architectonic and aesthetic should be considered in order to evaluate the scheme’s failure. Especially for Pruitt-Igoe that endorsed and housed racial segregation (the Pruitt part of the estate only housed African Americans and Igoe white caucasians) and obviously ended up symbolising social fragmentation, many reasons were more important than aesthetics and architectural formalism in leading it to its bitter end. Evidently the position of the architect, (non other than tragic-twin-towers’ architect, Minoru Yamasaki) was less god-like than ever. An architect of such projects is little more than a pawn in a game played by governments, local authorities developers and other possible agents of power. The false impression that one designer has more power in making architectural decisions is rather dangerous in its ignorance.

Visiting the ‘place to call home’ exhibition at the RIBA  I was again very much surprised but this time positively. In the introductory panel of the exhibit, is mentioned that houses are extensions of ourselves. Well, no one ever doubted that but they are also a product of a specific era, a political system, a culture and possibly a religious system as well. This exhibition manages to attribute to each of the above ‘forces’ their proper responsibility in shaping London and most other UK cities. The size of the exhibit is rather small but the information it presents is quite concise and candid.

For example the fact that the ever-present class system is reflected on homes that were designed and named ‘first to fifth class house’ for centuries is mentioned and is also portrayed eloquently in the photo of John Cleese’s 60’s sketch “Three ages of man” . Industrialisation, economy boom, genteel housing, working classes, world wars, post war II escapism and garden cities, modernism, Thatcher’s ‘right to own’, individualism etc are all mentioned and documented. The exhibition’s layout and general aesthetics are impeccable which makes it even easier for its rich context to be absorbed. Of course the mechanisms that are at work in shaping our homes and cities are very complicated and require awareness and extended research in order to decipher. The information given by ‘a place to call home’ exhibition though, is food for thought in that direction.

A place to call home will be on until the 28th of April

Pruitt-Igoe myth documentary information here

A place to call home exhibition information here

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