Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Monthly Archives: January 2012
January 29, 2012Posted by on
Yesterday we thought we’d spend our Saturday afternoon catching up on a couple of new buildings, including CZWG’s new library building at Canada Water, in Surrey Quays, on the south side of the River Thames. “Where? And did you say ‘new library, in London?”
Surrey Quays was one of the first areas of the east London docklands to be redeveloped – which, in the 1980s, meant filling in most of the enormous docks and building suburban housing – an aspect of Po-Mo that attracts little interest because it ill-fits with the kinds of urban renewal values that magically appeared on the UK agenda after we emerged from the 90-94 recession (after which everyone was suddenly into other than Po-Mo/Hi-tech concerns, the masses discovered Modernism and we were into a prolonged boom period). London architects turned their backs on what remained a peculiarly remote area paradoxically almost within spitting distance of Tower Bridge . Then, in 2000, the Jubilee Line Extension arrived at Canada Water and, more latterly, the upgraded Overground train has boosted traffic at Rotherhithe station. The Olympic Park or, alternatively, the heart of the West End are equally about 20 minutes away. Suddenly, this island of suburbia is not quite so lost and, being a reasonably cohesive area, it has proven to be ripe for maturing into a cohesive area of desirable homes.
So, here we were, years later, parking the car in a large car park next to Eva Jiricna’s bus station that sits upon the top of the Jubilee Station ostensibly designed by Ron Herron ( a name architect was attached to each of the new stations), stepping out toward the pond of Canada Water itself, Decathalon in the background , Saturday shoppers cruising toward the supermarket… etc. And there: the angular (‘stealth’, as they say), dark grey and brooding hulk of CZWG’s latest creative endeavour in London.
CZWG have been quite a success story over the last 20-30 years. “Did he say success?,” I hear the skeptics mutter: “According to whose criteria?” OK: that ‘success’ has been as novel as their buildings. CZWG has always exhibited a predilection for a gratuitous, one-line approach to architecture that purported to be the fun, witty and inventive end of the game … except that wacky jokes in architecture rarely work. They linger, go stale and somehow never quite escape a mildly scandalous note of juvenility. Architecture still sits oddly within an entertainment culture. (“You can joke all you want with the likes of Expo pavilion, but not with my home or local library, thanks.”) But Piers Gough, the most salient partner in the practice, is an affable, character written up in the media as ‘an English eccentric’.
“So, surely, the practice’s work must be good? Certainly, if this man is a notable affable chap, we should never make a critical comment, should we?” Yes, well that’s the usual media rule …
Of all CZWG’s less-than-memorable architectural jokes, only one gesture has struck me as having anything more than passing merit: a lower level balcony on a riverside building (China Wharf) at the east end of Butlers Wharf – a balcony that is actually a boat projecting out, as it awaiting a rising tide to allow the building’s inhabitants to get out the oars and paddle off … Who knows why, but it appeals to me … possibly because it has something of that mischievous quality one sometimes finds hidden away in good architecture – something quietly slipped in. Slipped in, that is, but never rudely ‘in-yer-face’. (Humour of any kind, never mind in architecture, has tasked many a philosopher and so there is no way I’m about to attempt a quick venture in that direction!)
Against such a background this new building is a breath of fresh air. Well, in the first place, it’s a new library for godssake! … in London! And, for Gough, the library is a special place: “A library is not just an extension of the public realm. It is a release from the intensity of school and work, a place to come and discover and dream. It is a portal to the discovery of other worlds.” But, surely, whether the local library is a ‘portal to other worlds’ or not, it is a community gathering place? By its existence it helps to consolidate and define a community. And that, by definition, is ‘public realm’ in my mind.
Anyway, public, communal or portal to ‘other worlds’, this is a worthy work. Upon making our approach we could already sense architecture was ‘going on’: someone was sticking his/her neck out, making some bold gestures, fighting the budget and the builder and the rest … One can smell these things out immediately, before rationality kicks in, noting the references: inevitably, to Alsop at Peckham; not, it seems, to Adjaye’s ‘Idea Store’ in Whitechapel, but perhaps to his nearby pitch-black house conversion in Shoreditch; maybe to the staircase at AHMM’s Westminster Academy (or is this the stair at Adjaye’s other ‘Idea Store’?)… although I can’t think of a London reference for the building’s strongest internal feature: the central access drum. One drops into a vague discourse and starts to makes such guesses. There’ architecture going on. And from CZWG. of all people.
And the Chinese? Well, Surrey Quays, after all these years and with its new transport links is suddenly a rather pleasant, nicely maturing place to be. (Yes, I know: I’m not supposed to say that (i.e, ‘nicely maturing’), but its true.) The Chinese seem to love it and are flocking to make off-plan purchases of new apartment blocks that are bringing a new density to Canada Water.Its strange how these things seem to experientially take place overnight, even though hindsight tells us we’ve know it was coming for years. Well, finally, they are hear, with lots of cash in their pockets. “One apartment? No, don’t be silly: I am buying three!” We joined in, Brits pretending to be equally eager to throw money at Barratt’s new housing, getting the sales pitch, apartment plans … and prices, of course.
Then we took a stroll around the area and came across the hosting CZWQ did in the late-1980s. And you know: it’s no longer that bad! How strange. It’s a London thing: the city somehow loves to have quirkiness missed in, helping to form a mature, idiosyncratic character of placeless that one finds dotted all over the metropolis – a peculiar modernity that obviously perplexed OMA when they had to comment upon it in their recent exhibition at the Barbican.
Like Peckham and Adjaye’s efforts, the library gives over the ground floor to a cafe and reception area. At its heart is a surprisingly generous circular drum faced in acoustic timber panelling and sporting a stair that draws one up to the principal, galleried library floor. here, the external canting that seems to be a gesture to cope with a mix of solar gain issues and the need to find a simple branding statement makes practical sense (although rows of computers along the windowed, south side is a but daft). Clearly (at least on a Saturday), the place is a success: providing just the kind of services the local community needs in order to help both service it and bind it together. Community. Yes, that is becoming a Surrey Quays keynote. How often can you say that of housing developments? (A rumination that returned when we later went to look at Haworth Tompkins’ Peabody housing in Pimlico.)
So, overall, welcome back CZWG. Some people might think you’re a trifle late in maturing into architects who want to do real architecture rather than take the piss out of most design opportunities that come your way, but this building manifests a welcome game shift. Dreary? Well, perhaps now is the time to reintroduce that humour? Not as an irreverent poke in the eye or gratuitous piss-take … Anyway, Piers Gough should know that – it was in the ’80′s that he successfully curated an exhibition of Lutyen’s work at the Hayward Gallery.
January 6, 2012Posted by on
I turned on the TV the other night to catch the end of WALL-E and its warm humour returned me to the controversy on the web pages of Building Design magazine over Zibwe Taveres’ Robots of Brixton’ award-winning animation.
Pixar’s media industry masterpiece and Taveres’ DIY equivalent make an intriguing comparison. WALL-E presents a dystopian setting on a devastated Earth that is conveniently devoid of humans. The survivors have been evacuated onto an endless cruise ship voyage constituted as a sanitised Apollonian LaLa Land where an absence of irritation is purchased at the price of forfeited critical awareness. The passengers of this Noah’s Ark become the plant life they have killed off on Earth.
In contrast, in Tavares’ animation we meet with a blunt dystopianan zone of aggravation and irritation in which critical awareness is accompanied by Dionysian conflict and uncertainty. Georges Bataille would have approved of it.
A common denominator between these respective products of the global entertainment industry and DIY narrative endeavour is the agency of Nietzschian heroes. In Pixar’s fantasy they are unlikely parodies of Adam and Eve (that perhaps says something interesting about male:female politics and their roles in sustaining culture). However, because of this, they ironically possess an evocative humanity that draws us into a realm of sentiment and humour largely absent from Tavares’ work. And yet, even here, there is entertainment: Brixton is where vain robots find fulfillment in the purchase of ‘trainers’ and smoking dope. But the humour is incidental and redemption is simply anarchic. It’s an intriguing contrast, between which sits the social and architectural realities of London’s inner city streets, where sentiment is as real as violence..
But there is another contrast that is equally important: between a digital world that opens up stirring neo-mythic and narrativised possibilities, and the formalised approaches charactertising the ‘scripted’ and parametric tectonics of professional architects. Despite a shared technological basis, these are worlds apart, epitomising a felt and prepredicative world of mythic awareness (Pierce, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, et al) contrasted with the fulfillment of a reasoned Enlightenment ideal (e.g. Cassirer). While the former has been bracketed within the confines of an emergent generation’s dispossessed and gritty oppositional values, the latter has been hijacked to spectacle, glamour and the power politics of moneyed cultural consumption. Within these disparate spheres – ruled by Dionysus and Apollo – superfluity finds familiar definitions. Between them is a place where most people try to find an uneasy reconciliation.
January 3, 2012Posted by on
One of the DVD’s I watched over Christmas was Secret Beyond The Door, a rather dreadful Fritz Lang movie of 1948. The villain of the piece is an architect who manages to implausibly fill a mansion with rooms in which people have been murdered. Lang’s concern was with Freudian release from repressed feelings and entirely misses the point of something far more interesting: this architect’s fascination with the ‘charge’ of certain designed settings. Design, asserts our architect-with-murderous-intent , can affect behaviour.
Well, maybe; maybe not – or perhaps not in terms of murderous intent. The film doesn’t explain how the architect’s hangups (as a child, he was once locked in a room, watching his mother drive off to a night on the town with her boyfriend) become correlated with room settings and their affects, never mind the notion of purchasing whole rooms from wherever and reinstalling them into one’s home – a wonderful notion that is pure Ron Herron. No Fritz, the real issue here is our hero being locked up in the House of Architecture.
Anyway, here I am at 4am in the morning: an insomniac in a silent, very dark gasthof bedroom in the middle of the Black Forest, starkly lit from the screen of his Apple laptop, a cat prowling the room and hungry for attention, and a wife snoozing beside me … I love these places. This one is almost a parody of itself, right down to the family running it, the locals who come to dinner, the social mix … and, of course, the almost kitsch decor. But it isn’t kitsch; it’s the real, authentic thing, through and through!
I’m reminded of an architect acquaintance who, some years ago, decided to switch careers and get a job in designing film and TV sets. I commented on how difficult I thought this would be and later found out he thought I was just being cynical about the architect’s proverbial ‘transferable skills’, or his personal ability to break out of an architect’s mind-set. In fact, I was simply and genuinely impressed; he was making a reinvention of himself and his design abilities of which I was envious. If my Fairy Godmother would give me a choice of having my life all over again, one of the career choices that would be high up on the list is set-designer in TV, films, theatre … Do you know what I mean? Do you appreciate the skill of being able to assemble design motifs that are right on target, which epitomise a certain character of place and life style?I take my hat off to anyone who can do that.
So why can’t architects do this? Why don’t they value such a design capacity? What is it about their mind-set that finds it necessary to denigrate this kind of inventiveness and, instead, go for … For what?
I was reminded of this earlier today as we cruised up through Switzerland, past Lucerne and Basel (yes, and Weil am Rhein, home of Vitra (another story)), through snow piles to either side and rain pouring down. We dropped into a Marché road-side stopover, ran through the rain and cold, and found ourselves in interior wonderland: welcome to Rue Marché and its street market stalls and varied dining room settings and vegetables piled high and the theatrics of staff ostensibly preparing food (a real kitchen was hidden away) … and a funny mix of high-tec ducting and rustic tiles and gigantic ne-classical vases and Italian Hi-design over-sized light fittings and curtains at the windows and … Hey, it was impressive.
Impressive? Yes. Sortof. One of the first jobs I ever had was working with a corporate identity agency. We were tasked with creating an identity for an underground Parisian shopping mall and, suddenly, I found myself in a conversation that five years at a school of architecture hadn’t prepared me for (even after working with Ron Herron). I recall one meeting in which the architect got rather hot under the collar: “Je suis le architect!”, he shouted. Yeah, well … Nowadays shell-and-core approaches to just about everything are taken for granted. Then, they weren’t. Yes, he was the architect and the notion of cosmetic character, branding, identity creation and the like was light years from his mind set … Yes, and from mine until I met with the bunch of graphic designers on steroids who constituted Wolf Olins.
So, I enjoyed Rue Marché, somewhere on a motorway between the Goddhard Tunnel and this Bavarian village somewhere east of Freiburg. I loved the theatre of it, and of this gasthof and the rest … OK, not ‘loved’ but was ‘impressed by …’ Qualifications? I’m an architect for Godsake! I can’t like all that, can I…? I’m not supposed to … I’m sinning, I know. Oh, God, where’s the psychotherapist when I need her? Haven’t years being locked up in the House of Architecture freed me from the misguided desires of an outside world?
Ah, yes, well, the House of Architecture … It’s interior can do things to you, you know … It can affect your behaviour …
January 1, 2012Posted by on
It was fascinating to sit in a lakeside café in Riva di Solto on a sunny New Year’s day: muttering ‘buon anno!’ to the locals in between sipping at luke-warm cappuccino (“Bollenti, per pavore! Bollenti … It’s bloody zero degrees out there!”) and tapping into the café owner’s monopolistic ADSL connection (which, for some very Italian reason no one else in the village is allowed to have) whilst reading the Guardian news (yes, I know: it’s a Sunday, but this is the internet), which happened to headline an article on the Shard, from a couple of days ago.
The ‘piece’ made an intriguing insight into the realities of architecture of a kind that would have warmed the heart of Georges Bataille: the almost complete Shard cast in the role of authoritative security symbol for the Quatar royal family, reassuring them that, come the inevitable invasion, the British government will remember that the Quataris own the tallest building in Europe and most beautiful in London, together with Harrods, the American embassy building in Grosvenor Square, and Chelsea Barracks – all of which, apparently, gives them one-upmanship over their neighbours in the Gulf as well as an ability to sleep well at night. It’s true.
In sum, we were told, the soaring Shard will include “27 floors of offices, three floors of fine dining restaurants, an 18-floor, five-star Shangri-La hotel with a spa, and 10 palatial apartments, each on average seven times bigger than a semi-detached home” There will be a “four-storey public viewing area is being built starting on the 68th floor which is likely to cost around £20 to access” and “the developer is even considering renting out the very highest room on the 78th floor for high powered conferences and political talks – summits at the summit.” It also seems that two of the apartments (spanning two entire floors each) are expected to become London homes for members of the Qatari royal family. But for the governor of Qatar’s central bank, Sheikh Abdullah bin Saud al-Thani, it’s all about diplomatic potential: the Shard would become “a symbol of the close ties between Qatar and the UK.” Architecture at London Bridge as a most significant aspect of the next Middle East war?
The underlying political reality – as pointed out by less–than-diplomatic journalists – upsets the developer and the dear Italian starchitect, Renzo Piano, for whom the project is indubitably about a building that gloriously and poetically “disappears into the sky.”
“This is not about money,” Piano protests, “It is about surprise and joy. This is about the way cities should go. They should stop and we should not go beyond the green belt. If you do this by going vertical that sends a message about conserving land. The building is not about arrogance and power but about increasing the intensity of city life.”
Well, yes, maybe … But judging by Guardian reader comments, that is exactly what many Londoners hope the building will do: somehow magically disappear – a disparity of viewpoints that highlights the gulf of a different kind between an alliance of the Quataris, the developer and architect, and the people of Southwark out there on the streets.
OK, so what’s new?
Perhaps so, but the architectural profession’s vocational prostitution nevertheless remains a continuing sad underbelly to its blinkered pretensions. That they daren’t admit to the truth and find it necessary to seek recourse in obfuscation is understandable but hardly excuses the reality of a bent-over posture, pants around the feet. Katy Perry comes to mind: architecture as a piece of ass – just name your price; wonderful …
But I hear the protest: “You’re missing the point. All this is merely an ‘aboutness’ blinkering you to the admirable concrete realities of the thing, as it gloriously is, in itself.” I admit: you have a point … But for God’s sake, get real … (A wonderful phrase. One could write a PhD on it.)