Saturday, 24 December 2011

Dumb and Dumber

I finally got around to watching the film Dumb and Dumber starring Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels, a mere seventeen years after it first came out, and laughed so much I cried. Carrey can be extremely annoying, but in this case the humour works - although the characters are stupid, the film is in fact rather intelligently written and tightly directed. Which brings me to today's subject: these posters on the Tube showing bright young things holding up placards inscribed 'I WISH...' So what is that about? There are several versions of the poster with different wishes, and a helpful Internet address links to a lot more. Obviously this is about selling clothes but for once, the advertisements divert attention away from the main object into this eye catching sidetrack. Quite an annoying sidetrack, given the banal wishes and cloying cluelessness they express. I mean, if you can make a wish, it might as well be a decently ambitious one, not just some modest passing fancy. Like those three wishes jokes, you should be careful what you wish for.

The wishes fall into neat categories. Modest wishes (I wish more fun [sic], I wish for a puppy, not to be bored). Ridiculous fantasy wishes (I wish for international travel to be free, to travel the universe in a spaceship). Flaky wishes to change the world (I wish for people to realise their happiness, I wish love to all my loved ones) and the frankly self-centred (I wish to have everything I ever wished for). The standard stuff of the internet age I suppose, all those half-considered contributions vying for attention. The pleased look on the models' faces combined with the nonsense wishes is what I find annoying, but I suppose the target audience will love it, and maybe even send in their own wishes. "I wish for a puppy." Grow up, buy yourself a puppy if you really want one. There are some more personal statements that make a bit more sense (I wish to live in the same city as my sister, I wish to have my book published) . One I rather like runs, 'I wish people on our planet [would] start working together and not against each other'. I don't think that's what the advertising agency was looking for though. It's almost as if stupidity sells.
"Make a wish at www.esprit.com"

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Fitzrovia's fading mural

Half way down Tottenham Court Road is a gap in the shops, an open space called  Whitfield Gardens. It was once a burial ground, and then made into a public park in 1895. In 1945 a German bomb flattened the Georgian houses that separated it from Tottenham Court Road, making the larger space that exists now. All very typical of London: what's left is an accident of circumstances, an odd space  with the single surviving building sitting isolated in the middle of an expanse of concrete paving.
And dominating that space is the 1980 Fitzrovia Mural, faded and peeling, and covered in graffiti as high up as the spray-can artists can reach. People are quite attached to this mural. There was a fashion for murals at that point in history, and this one was commissioned by Camden Council, who own the building it is painted on. The Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association are campaigning to get it restored, although realistically they admit the wall would have to be repaired first, so the whole thing would actually need to be re-painted from scratch. Some of the subjects are local characters of the time, perhaps not all of them forgotten. There are some nice touches with contemporary relevance: the cigarette advertisement featuring a death's head, the machines spewing out bills and final demands, and of course the developer's crane towering over everything else. Even so, it doesn't have the historic value of the Cable Street Anti-Fascist mural or the Hackney Peace Carnival mural, both in much better condition.

Like the 1960 BT Tower behind it, it's past its best and not that relevant any more. The tower recently lost all the satellite dishes which is what it was for in the first place, removed for 'safety reasons' which will inevitably make space for more advertising, but as an iconic landmark there's a lot of life left in it yet (the photo at the top of this blog shows how it used to be). That painted end wall is just paint, and maybe it's time to treat it as the ephemeral statement it was intended to be. Maybe it's time to make a fresh start with some imaginative, good quality landscaping and some artwork relevant to the twenty-first century.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Winter Wonderland

A corner of Hyde Park is transformed, for the second year, into the Winter Wonderland Christmas fair. I'd heard about this but not visited before, and expected something along the lines of the modest South Bank stalls, only with a funfair and more trees - a wrong guess, because this is on a completely different scale. There are seriously large structures here, and what must be the biggest, loudest and scariest rides anywhere.

Visiting on a Sunday afternoon at dusk, the trees were still silhouetted against a deep blue sky, but the strings of lights everywhere grab your attention. The whole site is laid out as streets, which does cause a bit of overcrowding, but better that than an empty fairground. Along the main thoroughfare the scale of the temporary wooden buildings increases, from simple shop stands to complex multiple-storey structures. There are several beer halls, including an antique travelling ballroom (apparently) and huge brightly lit fun palaces on the house-of-horrors model, all transported to Hyde Park rather than built from scratch. Good taste doesn't come into it of course, but the attention to detail is impressive - with antique relics, rustic fencing, old cars and even a tree-sized talking tree to add atmosphere (suitably located among a group of real trees on the lakeside). In the middle of all this the ice skating rink is arranged around the bandstand, and it's an unexpected oasis of calm, with static lighting and rather quiet music.

I've seen complaints about the place being crowded and expensive, but don't be put off. Like a lot of things in London, there is no entry fee, no time limit and no obligation to spend money. It's way more impressive than the typical English funfair and just looking is plenty of fun.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

London's clogged arteries


Every morning the cars, vans and lorries pile into London. On this main road coming in from Essex the traffic is almost entirely one-way, an endless stream of red lights disappearing into the mist, albeit at a snail's pace when there are road works, which there usually are. You have to ask why they do it, when the rate of travel is painfully slow, and the risk of parking fines, arbitrary penalties for things like stopping in those criss-cross junction boxes, and the odd chance to get caught on a speed camera, add up to the absolute certainty of extra expense, stress and annoyance one way or the other. Driving in the city centre is so unpleasant that it's hard to see why anyone would voluntarily opt to travel this way. Door to door convenience and keeping warm and dry come into it, but can it be worthwhile? Of course heavy gear, goods and machinery need to come in a vehicle but most of those cars carry no passengers and nothing heavier than a briefcase. It's not just the shortcomings of public transport. The 26 cars, six commercial vehicles and one airport bus in this photograph probably carry no more than 60 to 80 people, which is less than half the official capacity of a Victoria Line carriage (181 people, 32 of them seated).

There's a story that in rural parts of Europe, people getting on to an empty train will look for someone to sit with: they actually prefer to sit together. Not here though, where everyone's first priority is to grab a bank of four seats and a table all to themselves, spread out their bags and gadgets, and then resent someone else coming along and hoping to sit there. Amazingly, I'm told there are plenty of London commuters who make the journey by road because they prefer to sit in the perceived safety and isolation of their car for however long it takes, rather than be cooped up with a crowd of strangers. No wonder the traffic isn't moving.

 

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Russian constructivism at the Royal Academy

The courtyard of the Royal Academy is currently the setting for this steel tower, a striking twin spiral supported on zigzag bracing, but somewhat overwhelmed by the architecture surrounding it. It is in fact just a scale model of the tower designed in 1920 by Russian architect and engineer Vladimir Tatlin, just three years after the October Revolution and before the USSR was established. Designed as a monument to the Third International, only a model was built at the time, and now just Tatlin's drawings survive. If it had been built, it would be 400 metres high, higher than the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

It's widely held to be a masterpiece of Constructivism, the avant garde movement linked with the early years of the communist state - before reaction and repression set in. Conceived at a time that coincides with the Edwardian period in England, it's quite difficult to understand such an abrupt change, from the amazingly modern and forward-looking futuristic designs adopted by the budding socialist state, to the suppression of artistic expression that followed on all too soon.

Tatlin's masterpiece would have towered high above St Petersburg, but it was never built because of political uncertainty, perhaps because it was physically impossible, and because it would have been extraordinarily expensive. None the less it remains legendary both as an early expression of modernism, and as some kind of socialist icon.

The scale model at the RA was designed by architect Jeremy Dixon, who made a slightly smaller wooden version for an exhibition at the Hayward in 1971. This time around he has the benefit of computer aided modelling, not available in the 1970s, but because it's based upon drawings and photographs of the original model, none of which are the same, it's an interpretation rather than an exact scale copy. That circular base has nothing to do with Tatlin's design and rather spoils the effect of the dynamic form rising out of the ground, dissipating the vertical thrusting energy by introducing that broad wedding-cake base. No doubt that keeps it nice and stable, but it would have been better without it, better still if the whole thing was twice as big and really dominated the RA courtyard.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Walk don't run

Not a murder scene, this slightly alarming black figure is stuck to the floor of Victoria Station to reinforce the message, "You'll run into trouble if you run in stations". The way railway stations are organised, with platforms announced at the last minute, running for the train en masse is the norm. You might think a human figure would at least attract attention but people were casually stepping on this sign as if it wasn't there. It won't work, but it's quite graphically stylish, in the tradition of the signs you used to see on the Tube. I wonder if anyone remembers the London Undergound  "Keep Feet off Seats!" sign when it showed two feet, one in clumpy lace-up boots and and one in high heels, in the days before signs all went down the pictogram route? It's refreshing to see a sign with a depiction of the human figure that isn't quite reduced to the stick-man level. Actually he has a lot in common with the London Sidelines silhouette man (on the sidebar, scroll down a bit). Perhaps they will introduce a female version too.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Advertising Christmas

Yet another giant LED screen appears in London, with a backdrop of yet another massive office development (actually, it's just visible to the right of the photo, behind Euston Tower). While it's tempting to see rapacious development as a sign that the economy hasn't collapsed yet, you sometimes wonder what is happening to the city. Giant screens are part of the attraction at Piccadilly Circus, but do we really want them spreading to any vacant site, stealthily replacing boring old paper posters and finding new high-profile spaces that still haven't been used for advertising? On the Tube system it's happened on a large scale already. London Underground have phased out paper posters completely to replace them with illuminated posters and LCD displays, installed projectors on platforms, and put banks of video screens on escalators. The only thing that stops them putting moving images on the corridors is that it's thought to be disorienting, and therefore likely to lead to people bumping into each other - an effect that presumably doesn't come into play when you're running down the escalator. At Euston Station, a recent overhaul of a very untidy station concourse has been resolved by putting in giant video screens all round, up at high level where there used to be a collection of uncoordinated adverts. Currently the whole lot are advertising the new Range Rover, as if London needs any encouragement to fill the streets with overpowered gas-guzzling status symbols.

The advertising screen in this photo overlooks the traffic underpass on Euston Road. Inevitably we are going to see more of these in the near future.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Finish line at the Olympic Park

A dead straight path, with a smooth concrete surface raised up above the surrounding landscape, might in theory make an excellent bicycle racing track. The Greenway running from Hackney Wick to the Olympics site is just like that, with half the path set aside for pedestrians and the other half for cyclists. Now there is even a finish line at the View Tube end, but it isn't really there to promote irresponsible cycling. The Greenway is usually quite busy and, as always, people on foot don't care in the slightest about keeping off the cycling side. Then, the finish line is so close to the View Tube cafe it's barely safe to cycle throughout the archway at all, let alone at speed. This is in fact an installation, a mock-up of a Tour de France finish line made out of discarded fencing and scrap wood. Most of it is covered with the slats from chestnut paling fencing, which is made by splitting wood rather than sawing it, so the slats are twisted and have a pleasing rough surface dictated by the way the wood splits. The lettering is made from plywood and melamine-coated chipboard, so it's evidently not intended to last.

The official information board, written out in felt-tip on a crude timber notice board, says this is an artwork commissioned by View Tube Art and Create II and funded by the Arts Council of Great Britain. Created in July by Berlin-based artists Kobberling and Kaltwasser, they call it Goal and see it as a finishing post for both cyclists and pedestrians, to give a sense of the feeling you get from finishing a real race. It's tactile and reasonably witty - which is more than can be said for Anish Kapoor's ill-conceived Orbit tower, which looms in the background but still fails to convince.

The View Tube is a collection of shipping containers adapted to house a cafe, viewing platform and open-air art gallery, all painted lime green, and it has the best public viewpoint of the 2012 Olympics site during the construction period. Despite a slightly shambolic website the cafe is good, they have bikes for hire, and there is always something new in the way of artworks.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Mellow yellow

I'm just mad about Saffron.
And Saffron's mad about me.
I'm just mad about Saffron.
She's just mad about me.

They call me Mellow Yellow,
Quite rightly...


Donovan, 1966

The leaves are falling fast, turning yellow and making soggy drifts in this week's drizzly weather. Actually there are some trees that have barely turned, but the London plane trees are going to be bare before long. The parks have different attitudes to fallen leaves: Regent's Park pursues a vigourous clearance programme, while St James's Gardens near Euston has simply disappeared beneath the drifts. In Camden's Oakley Square some half-hearted sweeping was going on yesterday, using a bin liner and a pathetically inadequate broom. The colours of nature are dull in contrast to man-made pigments, though. Here, a yellow bicycle lies among what would otherwise look like bright yellow leaves fallen from a cherry tree - no contest.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Bicycle chic

An old butcher-boy delivery bicycle is a standard cliche for a certain type of healthy food shop, parked outside perhaps to suggest old-fashioned values: proper groceries wrapped in brown paper and delivered to your door, which is of course far removed from the self-service, over-wrapped reality. Recently bicycles are being put into shop displays of all kinds, tapping in to the current wave of cycling chic. There was a paisley-covered bicycle in Libertys - ridden by the Liberty's skeleton (but that's another story). Hanging in the window of a fashion shop in Oxford Street is a red-and-white retro cruiser bike with rotating wheels. Specsavers in Tottenham Court Road has a wrought-iron bicycle shaped display stand, not a real bicycle, but then that's an odd shop selling all sorts of stuff apart from specs. There are plenty of others, as becomes apparent once you start to notice the trend. Bike shops don't count of course. This one adorns a smart but otherwise anonymous cafe in Tottenham Court Road.

Friday, 4 November 2011

The colours of autumn

The colours of autumn are at their best this week, especially enhanced when the sunshine brings out the brilliant oranges and yellows mixed with remnants of green, and London's garden squares are looking spectacular. Drifts of dead leaves obscure the neat pattern of paths and there's something of the wild forest in the ragged look of the half-bare trees. This is Woburn Square in Bloomsbury, a long narrow rectangle of grass bordered by very tall mature plane trees, with terraces of Georgian houses belonging to the University of London on both sides. The simplest arrangement possible, and unlike the garden squares of Kensington and Chelsea, open to the public all year round.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

More to Life than Money

Against expectations, the Occupy camp at St Paul's cathedral looks likely to stay until the new year, with St Paul's and the City of London Corporation both deciding against legal action to evict the protesters. Crowds gather on the cathedral steps every day to hear what's being said at the twice-daily assemblies. A powerful PA system mounted on a tricycle means the speakers can now be heard clearly, and disruptive heckling is relatively quiet. Some friction yesterday as a man took the microphone to pursue his own agenda, evidently deemed not relevant by the organisers, and shouts of "get off" failed to discourage him, but he soon lost the microphone. Elsewhere, a man was putting on a suit of armour and a Guy Fawkes mask, and a giant Monopoly board (reported to be donated by Banksy) sits next to the row of portaloos. Meanwhile the tourists continue to make their way through the crowds to tour the cathedral, which remains imperviously serene inside.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Critical Mass meets the St Paul's Occupy protest

One less car - Norwich
Last Friday, the last Friday in the month, saw the regular Critical Mass ride visit the tent city at St Paul's not just once but twice, heading straight there and then returning via a long loop. Like Occupy, the Critical Mass protests are more about highlighting issues than about proposing concrete solutions, and have a similar leaderless democratic structure - no membership and no agenda, you just turn up and take part. Which is not to say those taking part are not serious about protesting against the way cars and lorries endanger everyone else using the roads.

Londoners probably don't realise they are not the only place where Critical Mass rides take place. There are at least 24 other UK cities that have Critical Mass events. As it happens I was in Norwich that Friday, sitting on the steps at the Forum in the city centre when cyclists began to assemble there wearing various kinds of fancy dress. I didn't realise what they were doing until our park-and-ride bus out to the airport slowed to a walking pace as this same group took the ring-road out of town, occupying the whole width of the road. A modest group of just sixteen riders is hardly a critical mass, but it's a start.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

St Paul's - Forgive us our trespasses

The doors of St Paul's are closed today, just like it says in the news. That makes the steps and forecourt into a fantastic natural amphitheatre, with the massive corinthian columns lending their imposing presence to the event. The protesters are making good use of the location, although most likely everyone would have been happier if that was not at the expense of closing down the cathedral. This afternoon a succession of speakers made their points from a microphone set up by the Queen Victoria monument, to an audience sitting on the cobblestones, and more people standing around them and all over the steps. A sizeable turnout, with more people arriving by bus, Tube and on Boris bikes, but not overcrowded. The weather is fine and everyone seems cheerful, even the police.

The Portland stone colonnade of the Paternoster Square buildings opposite has been taken over as a poster wall, with the piers and columns covered in imaginative printed and handmade posters - more arty satire than political rant. There's no pasting, everything is carefully taped to the stone, some with printed tapes reading 'Capitalism means War' and 'Another World is Possible'. One of my favourites was just plain stencilled lettering reading 'More to life than money', with the 'O's drawn as bombs.

Organisation is better than it was earlier in the week. A busy kitchen is handing out free meals, and they have lots of boxes of apples. Bins are labelled with instructions for recycling and sorting, and there was a council rubbish collection in progress. Portable toilets, although only two of them, are locked until the public ones close for the night. A fenced-off fire escape route for the cathedral is presumably now redundant but still kept clear. Some bigger tents have appeared but there is still plenty of room to walk through the site. No litter and no vandalism to be seen. This does affect local businesses though - the staff in Paul, the French sandwich chain, say that their takings are down because they usually have tables outside and there isn't enough room now. Policing remains low key: Paternoster Square is fenced off and both police and security guards are making sure no-one gets in, but there are no police lines, just pairs of officers walking around in hi-viz uniform.

Friday, 21 October 2011

St Paul's protest - poster making

Paint, crayons and markers: making posters next to St Paul's portico.
Large streams from little fountains flow, Tall oaks from little acorns grow.

The St Paul's protest camp, far from fizzling out from lack of commitment, seems to be growing in size. Contradictory media reports suggest support from Canon Giles Frasier of St Paul's cathedral, but also reporting that the cathedral might have to close. With protesters talking of a long stay, and not the slightest chance of changing the entire international financial capitalist situation overnight, it's not difficult to foresee a replay of Dale Farm at some point in the future. It's impossible to predict what effects this worldwide movement may have. Meanwhile this looks like great fun to participate in.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Tent city at St Paul's Cathedral

So much goes on in London that it's easy to be blissfully unaware of even dramatic events like this. I vaguely registered that protesters are occupying part of Wall Street and Times Square, but it was only when I bought the Independent's baby sister paper i this morning that I found out we have our own protest occupation, not in the City - security is presumably draconian there - but at that symbol of London, St Paul's Cathedral. And even so, coming up from the Tube the scale of this is surprising. There are over a hundred tents pitched in Paternoster Square, and makeshift enclosures of tarpaulin strung up by the cathedral railings. Lots of placards, organised catering and a bank of portaloos, a media centre, speakers going on about practical matters and a lone guitarist with his battery-powered amp, completely ignored. An excitable but entirely peaceful atmosphere. The tourists continue to pile into the cathedral - the protest wisely keeps the main entrance steps clear - and there is an extremely modest police presence. Some of the beautifully lettered slogans:

REVOLUTION
CAPITALISM IS CRISIS
WE ARE THE 99%
END CORPORATE GREED
PLANET 4 SALE POPULATION 6BL RESISTANCE EXPECTED
and my favourite, 
$ELL YOUR STOCKS, IT'S OV£R...

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Remembering Gandhi

Cycling past Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury, I took a break from my journey to visit the statue of Mahatma Gandhi that sits in the square. A timely visit, as it turned out, because the anniversary of his birth was on 02 October 1869, just a week ago, and the statue sported a garland of orange flowers, cellophane-wrapped bouquets on his lap and more flowers piled on the stone steps. At other times, there are always a few flowers - his fame in the history of non-violent resistance is not forgotten. Gandhi sits cross-legged on a bell-shaped stone pedestal, in the centre of the square, surrounded by sedate English gardening and benches occupied by office workers and academics from London University eating their lunches. The roughly sculpted bronze figure was made by Fredda Brilliant, a colourful globetrotting character, and installed in Tavistock Square in 1968.

Although the principles of  non-violent resistance originate from Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, Gandhi was the first to use those principles in an organised way and on a large scale. He pioneered his ideas under apartheid in South Africa, fighting for the rights of the Indian population there. He went on to become a figurehead of India's long struggle to free itself of British rule, although failing to stop the slide into sectarian violence that followed.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Steve Jobs 1955-2011

Regent Street on Friday night, a modest display of flowers and half-eaten apples. The picture says it all really.

Friday, 7 October 2011

See It Now Remember It Forever

Today, a real piece of street art. This tribute to TOX, the tagger jailed for persistent vandalism, appeared on the end wall of a house in Camden during the summer. Tox, real name Daniel Halpin, is notorious for the quantity of his tags, not for any artistic merit. Londonist once called him a serial wall-spammer, and commented "Poor Tox just can't help himself". Banksy's take on that affair is a small boy with his face blanked out (to protect his identity?) blowing red bubbles spelling out T-O-X. It's open to various interpretations: sympathy or solidarity, piss take, opportunism. The image appeared overnight, and by the following afternoon the property owner boarded it over, and then installed a protective perspex cover and frame. A couple of months later the prospects for this theoretically valuable work of art do not look very promising. The perspex is no longer very transparent, with a new tag scribbled on the surface. Someone has bashed a hole through to spray paint onto the image behind (with limited success). The passing bus unintentionally provides an ironic commentary.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Pavement art in Dalston

Rubbish masquerading as art, litter louts with a sense of humour - or a bit of a laugh, done by someone who has already arranged for this old mattress to be responsibly recycled? Discarded mattresses are not unusual in this part of town, and at least this isn't a particularly disgusting example, but the art reference is a bit off. Ceci n'est pas une pipe reads the text on the famous surrealist painting. This version is a bit mangled, and mattress certainly isn't a French word. Whatever the motivation, there it sits on Dalston Lane waiting to be removed. The bin men were there today and one of them asked what it was about, but they were doing a proper regulated collection, not just picking up any old stuff.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Cool Camden

Earlier this year, the top floor of a residential tower block in Camden bore this bold and somehow pleasing message in two metre high letters. You can work out the height by the architect's technique of counting the brick courses, and multiplying by 75 millimetres. The eyes make it, reinforcing the words and giving the whole tower a sort of face. Despite the large size and the height of the building, it wasn't visible from many places and although I'm sure it must be on a website somewhere, I've not been able to find out anything about it. This is in Stanhope Street, an area of well-kept postwar public housing still run and maintained by Camden council. It's far from being the most desirable of the housing blocks around there, but prominent graffiti is really out of place in these surroundings and inevitably, walking past today I see it's been painted over in a tasteful shade of cream.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Grey faces in the City of London

A paved sculpture garden, alongside St Mary Axe in the City of London, sits in the shadow of the Lloyds building, the famous inside-out building by Richard Rogers. The garden has trees and planting boxes, and the amazing Sky Mirror by Anish Kapoor, six metres wide and reflecting the buildings around - if you climb something high enough, that is, otherwise as you might expect from the name it reflects mainly just the sky. One side of the garden is enclosed by a long yellow hoarding, concealing the construction site next door, and it seems to be a venue for artworks rather than advertising. Last year it bore a quote from Mahatma Gandhi running the full length of the hoarding: "Be the change you want to see in the world". Recently I spotted these oversize heads photographed in black and white, superimposed on the yellow background.

One lengthy Google search later, I can report that the grey faces are in fact part of a promotion for the insurance company Aviva. Their "You are the Big Picture" campaign put large black and white photographs of supposedly individual customers in noticeable places including night-time projection onto the National Theatre. To quote their website "It shows that we at Aviva want to get to know our customers as individuals". There is a charity link-up with Save the Children but that doesn't mean it's not 100% about self-promotion.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Posing in the park


The Flower Sellers are in a children's play area in London Fields, but on a Saturday afternoon, close to fashionable Broadway Market, they are taken over by adults sipping cappuccino and hanging out. The figures represent London costermongers with baskets of produce and a few sheep (not in the picture), commemorating the trade in Victorian times when livestock from Essex was driven through London Fields on the way to Smithfield, then the main meat market, and Broadway was a regular food market. The stones are an allusion to the pearl button decorations worn by the pearly kings and queens, who came out of the costermongering tradition and elaborated the traditional decorations already popular with the street traders. There is something borrowed, too, from those East Anglian cottages studded with pebbles. Designed and constructed in 1988 by Freeform Arts Trust, the community arts organisation based in the nearby Hothouse, the Flower Sellers are made of concrete and decorated with stones and broken tiles, a little bit like the art nouveau sculptures in Barcelona but with an East End palette of greys and browns.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Artists at Blackhorse Lane

One of the highlights of the recent E17 Art Trail was the open studios at the Barbican Arts Group Trust. I managed to spend an hour out of a busy day there last weekend, and wished I had more time to look at everything properly. There are 28 artists studios and after spending time looking at the first few studios at a leisurely pace, of course I ran out of time and had to skim what may have been equally fascinating things towards the end.
On a buzz from talking art all day, I plucked up courage to ask some of the artists if I could photograph them. Mike Thorn (top) has an enviable light-filled corner studio, in contrast to some of the windowless internal spaces. His portraits of macho men reveal them to be big softies - at least part of the time. Strong stuff, large canvases portraying his subjects larger than life-size. He was happy to pose with his easel and paint table against the current work in progress.
I think the lady above must be Franki Austin but not entirely sure, perhaps because she was the first person I asked and I was unsure of the proper etiquette. She had delicate works on show, somewhere between painting and installation. Really I wanted to capture her as I first saw her, in the centre of a group of visitors, but the camera frightened them off out of shot. I'm hoping a reader will supply the missing information.

Next door, I was impressed by Helen Maurer's plywood paintings, shaped panels with abstract designs superimposed. She has one of the windowless spaces, improved by taking out the false ceiling to let in daylight from the rooflights in the unused loft space above. I copped out of asking to take photographs though.
Near the entrance, Michelle Reader (above) showed papier mâché figures, apparently self-portraits, which I wrote about in my last post. I asked her to pose with her rather photogenic junk pile.

Gisli Bergmann (above) was showing a selection of ceramic objects, each with a tiny framed picture to give a clue as to what they are about. So the object pictured, a tortured grey slab trapped in a nest of wires, is accompanied by a picture of Batman. Some of them are very funny, with just the slightest nod towards representation. The work is displayed on a spacious windowsill, silhouetted surreally against a long vista of Walthamstow back gardens.

Tam Joseph (below) shares the same view but his studio has a different feel, with small framed paintings competing for attention with the centrepiece, a version of Cranach's Adam and Eve. Foliage on one wall half conceals an array of postcard-size paintings based on those prostitute cards you see in telephone boxes. The same temptresses appear in the tree behind Adam and Eve instead of boring old apples.

Finally Julie Caves' colourful abstracts (below) were on show in a windowless internal space but seemed none the less vibrant in the fluorescent light. I just asked to photograph the studio, cleared for the show and paintings stacked and hung against white sheets that conceal the stacked-up studio junk.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

E17 Art Trail

I'm showing drawings and photographs this weekend as part of the E17 Art Trail. Having an exhibition in your front room (and hall and kitchen) keeps you tied to the house all day. I did get to spend an hour at Barbican Arts, where Michelle Reader's amazing sculptures made out of domestic packaging (pictured) are one of many highlights. Mainly though, tied to the show so I can't get out to see all the other exciting stuff going on in Walthamstow.

There is a selection of my drawings and photographs from the American Midwest on Flickr.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Walthamstow... new and old spaces on the E17 Art Trail

Old and new spaces on the E17 Art Trail

The Ruby Stables secret garden is indeed a Walthamstow secret, a rampant garden grown in containers, mixed in with junk, garden furniture and antiques for sale. It isn't new, but showing art there is. As long as the rain holds off, showing oil paintings among the greenery is very effective, the colours sparkling in the sunshine. Slightly naive but accomplished images of summertime parks by Titus Forbes Adam are offset by a psycho portrait by the artist's daughter, Olita-May.

At the Quaker Meeting Room next door, a simple white space flooded with light is bare apart from a single church pew and one chair, and four pairs of headphones. What might be mere tedious pretension is in fact an absorbing experience: relax, appreciate the simplicity and subtle features of the room, and drift off on the suggestions the work evokes. 
At the other end of the High street, it took quite a while to find the Mill because I wrongly assumed it must be the Coppermill on the Walthamstow Reservoirs site, when in fact it's the former library just off Blackhorse Road. Another clean white space, also recently opened. The doors are wide open all day long and the space is immediately welcoming. Paintings and photographs lent by local artists are on display, mainly not for sale - you'd guess many of the artists are not pros and don't want to part with their work. Furniture and fittings are imaginatively built out of scaffolding boards, shuttering ply and recycled plastic, giving the place a pleasing recycled-chic look, so instead of cheap second-hand chairs there are unique solid wood benches. A programme of three minute films was also showing.

Cutting back along Pretoria Avenue, the recent appearance of the Tokarska Gallery in unlikely surroundings at the bottom end of Forest Road (just up from the fish and chips and fried chicken takeaways) comes just in time for the Art Trail. The background to the gallery opening there is apparently complicated, with their website referring to recent art graduate Nadiya Pavliv-Tokarska, and also to an international organisation of the same name. This was the first time I've seen the pristine new white shutters open, which might explain the slightly damp smell inside. Punk Recruit steals the show with his photographs in muted colour of old mannequins crowded into a dingy warehouse. Barely human, he calls them, which is a way of saying how disturbingly human they seem. It will be interesting to see what comes next in this space.

Finally, rather a disappointment at Barbican Arts open show, where a last-minute visit before closing time really seemed like plenty of time to see what there was to see. Some great photographs, but the paintings mainly left us wondering just what the selection/elimination process might have been- but seeing just one work by an artist is seldom the best way to appreciate what they are doing. None the less, the studio opening next weekend is likely to be one of the highlights of the Trail.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Walthamstow - waterways and woodlands

Today is the beginning of Walthamstow's E17 Art Trail. While the trail is on I will be writing about the place and some of the exhibitions.
Walthamstow sits on the edge of the Lea Valley, which is a swathe of green landscape encompassing the complicated watercourse of the River Lea, the Lea Navigation Canal, the reservoirs, filter beds and water treatment plant at Coppermill Lane, and the open fields of the marshes. You could walk around the town centre without seeing any of this, but it's quite evident as a green barrier coming in to Walthamstow by train across the marshes, or by bus on one of the only two road links, Ferry Lane passing the long blank brick wall of the reservoirs, and Lea Bridge Road passing the marshes and equestrian centre. An open landscape with a wide view of the sky, willows and tall poplar trees, swans coming in to land and geese flying in v-formation overhead, rusty gas holders and electricity pylons looming in the distance, boat dwellers in their tatty narrowboats. Then to the north, Epping Forest bleeds in between the suburban fringes, the old gravel pits near Whipps Cross hospital with rowing boats for hire, and woods criss-crossed with muddy paths. All of which makes a difference to how you feel about the place.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Walthamstow - a London village

Walthamstow goes art crazy this week as the E17 Art Trail gets under way tomorrow. The trail is a two-week frenzy of art and photography exhibitions and live events, with the emphasis firmly on the visual arts. So where is Walthamstow and why would you want to go there?
Only 20 minutes from Euston on the Victoria Line - when it's working - none the less most Londoners have never visited the place, or only on the way to the M11 or Stansted Airport. This is one of London's villages, more of a town in reality, separated from Hackney and Tottenham by the string of reservoirs and waterways of the Lea Valley to the west, and coming up against Epping Forest to the east. So the first thing going for the place is that it's surrounded by open semi-wild spaces. Then there's the mile-long street market with its pavement cafes and ethnic restaurants, the Village with its old church and old houses, and a couple of serious museums: the Vestry House in the Village, and William Morris's house on Forest Road. Walthamstow was once full of market gardens and the country estates of rich City merchants, and some of their big houses survive, like Morris's, now used as flats and offices. Then there are the hundreds of streets of two-storey terraced houses, giving the area its characteristic low-rise look. There are some interesting districts built by the Warner Estate, cheaply built but with unusual decorative brick details, and many of them still painted in the trademark green and cream colour scheme.

The Art Trail is the perfect excuse for an excursion out east.

More tomorrow... and see the Art Trail blog for day by day news and reviews.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Ron Arad's Curtain Call at the Roundhouse

A circular enclosure, a curtain suspended from the circular structure of the Roundhouse, forms a 360 degree projection screen. The curtain is made out of silicone rods, like plastic tubing but solid, hung from a circular rail high up in the Victorian ironwork. Like a bead curtain, the rods form a vertical surface but the ends hang free, and you enter by parting the strands and pushing through. The circle is eight metres high and 18 metres across. Twelve projectors, precisely aligned, make for almost seamless all-round projection. Outside the circle, a ring of twelve monitors surrounds the control desk.

So much for the technology. This works as an immersive experience: walk in through the moving image, sit inside surrounded by movement, walk around the outside trailing a hand against the rods, watch the interaction of people and installation. There is a rolling programme of twelve specially created works. The best use the whole space, like Matt Collishaw's Sordid Earth, a tropical thunderstorm mixed in with time-lapse footage of withering orchids. Others simply repeat a projection round the circle, with different degrees of success. Javier Mariscal does that but creates plenty of excitement with his animations and, like Andy Warhol, makes a virtue of repetition.

The Roundhouse advises 'pay what you can' which effectively means pay the recommended five quid, or risk embarrassment on a level with asking for tap water in a restaurant. Some cushions would have been nice - I bet Ron doesn't care to sit on a hard lino floor for two hours.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Serpentine pavilion 2011

Every year the Serpentine Gallery creates a new pavilion for the summer, a temporary architectural masterpiece (usually) designed by a famous architect who has not as yet built anything in the United Kingdom. This year is the eleventh in the series, the first in 2000 being Zaha Hadid (designer of the ill-fated Aquatic Centre for the London Olympics). This year we  have Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, famous among architects but otherwise little-known, who has designed a huge black box. This doesn't seem like a promising start on paper, but walking across Kensington Gardens, interesting qualities become apparent. The simplicity of the shape is unpretentions and sits in contrast to the relatively ornate Serpentine Gallery and the lush midsummer trees, in an oasis of startlingly bright green new grass. Each long black wall has three black open doorways, giving nothing away. The scene is enlivened by a severely plain string of white lights, although garish red 'keep off the grass' notices rather spoil the green-and-black colour scheme.

The building is black inside and out, a plywood structure covered with some kind of black tarry-looking fabric - even the floor. Through each doorway, you enter a black corridor so dark the lights are on all day, leading indirectly to the interior. The inside is the main point of the pavilion, an enclosed garden with an overhanging roof and blue bench seats all round, and sumptuous planting in the central part, open to the sky. It does make you want to sit and contemplate, which is Zumthor's expressed aim here. Notice the fire extinguishers: the architect clearly anticipated the need for those, unlike the signs outside, and was able to avoid any hint of colour: they are chromium plated shiny silver. The planting is by Piet Oudolf, the Dutch landscape designer who pioneered the use of ornamental grasses in his gardens, and is recently known for the High Line landscaped walk in New York. Red flowers mainly, and the trademark grasses, just high enough to slightly obscure long views. Catch it before it closes on 16 October.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Tottenham reflects

Residents at a street meeting on Monday evening at Tottenham High Cross. Like speakers corner but with much more urgent things to talk about.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

London cycling, last Friday of the month

The last Friday of the month is the regular slot for Critical Mass, when hundreds, possibly thousands of cyclists converge on the South Bank, setting out around 7.00pm on an unplanned and highly disruptive route around central London. Disruptive to traffic, that is. The message is not overtly political, it's just a reminder that not only cars and lorries use the streets. It's interesting to see how safe the whole thing is: there are seldom collisions, and as a pedestrian you can just walk out to cross the road and the bikes weave around you, although a few people clearly think they have to wait for the whole thing to pass.

This month there is a flashride at 6.00pm to protest about the traffic proposals for Blackfriars Bridge, starting at the south end and heading back down the other side, which causes an effective traffic jam for half an hour each way. Most of the riders then head en masse down to the National Film Theatre to join the main ride. You can tell it's summer because numbers are down from usual, but it's still a decent road-filling slow-moving crowd. On the narrow streets behind the National Theatre the procession goes at a snail's pace, perhaps not the most visible use of numbers when we could have used the main road. Blackfriars Bridge is blocked again on the northbound side, but not for long. Self-sacrificing (or foolhardy) types stop their bikes in front of cars to stop them pushing into the route and needless to say this can annoy the drivers, who sometimes get out to argue, but it's reasonably clear that there is no point trying to pass when the entire road is completely full of bikes. The taxi drivers hate this and lean on their horns, van drivers inch forward aggressively, motorbikes try to weave their way through the mass of bicycles, but it's actually a short wait and most people wait calmly, some are even amused. The police are relaxed, waving stragglers through red lights to keep the group together.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Folly under the flyover

Under the twin flyovers where the A12 road crosses the River Lea navigation canal, in what was a nasty, litter-strewn dark space that you would normally pass by quickly, there is now an unusual and imaginative structure built of scaffolding poles, rope and wire, and thousands of recycled wood blocks, like a gigantic Jenga set. Located in Hackney Wick just outside the Olympic site, this is a temporary cinema that popped up only a few weeks ago, and sadly it is already coming up to the end of its last week. It was built by a group calling themselves Assemble, with some help from architects Muf (it's complicated), using partly voluntary labour and mainly recycled materials. The auditorium is made of scaffolding and scaffolding boards, but more intriguing is the construction of the adjoining cafe (pictured) where the walls are made of blocks of recycled wood threaded on to ropes, so it looks like brick from a distance, but clearly wood when you get close. There is even a children's play area with a huge selection of the same wooden bricks - I saw some six-foot skyscraper towers which may perhaps have had adult help. It's lively even in the daytime with an inexpensive cafe attracting canalside walkers and cyclists.

More at the Folly for a Flyover website

More text and photos about the area around the new Olympic Park at the E17 Art Trail blog

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Blackfriars Bridge and cycling safety - a test case

The London Cycling Campaign has been pushing hard for a review of proposals on Blackfriars Bridge. For those who get the bridges mixed up, which is probably most us, that's the one that runs next to the twin turrets of Blackfriars Station, via a major traffic snarl-up where the Embankment runs into Queen Victoria Street, and running parallel to Blackfriars railway bridge and the abandoned piers of Thomas Cubitt's original railway bridge. 

London's bridges are traffic bottlenecks and can be dangerous with impatient rush-hour traffic and high speeds at non-peak times. London Cycling Campaign has been pushing for the temporary 20 MPH speed limit to be kept in place on Blackfriars Bridge, but Transport for London want to change back to 30 MPH to keep the traffic moving. Last time the matter was raised at the London Assembly there was a walkout by all the Conservative members, for completely unrelated reasons. That did give LCC a chance to collect 2000 photographs and email addresses to make a graphic form of petition - a composite image of a 20MPH sign, a message somewhat  compromised by repeating some of the photos for graphic design reasons, but still a strong indication of support from cyclists.

This week the Assembly did debate the motion, and all parties came out in favour of the lower speed limit and a review of proposals. TfL have previously proposed a lower speed limit on all London bridges, and there are proposals from the Mayor to make the whole City of London a 20MPH zone, but there are conflicting interests: despite the strength of feeling that London should be moving towards a safe and pleasant environment for people and cyclists, the traffic lobby has considerable clout. And of course a significant part of the public thinks cyclists are a menace.  A temporary  win then, not a permanent one. 

More details and links are on the London Cycling Campaign website.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Borough High Street bridge

Not quite new, this tubular steel truss bridge went up over the Easter bank holiday weekend. It took several months to build, of course, but the engineers worked out that they could build it on top of the newly-constructed viaduct alongside, where it could be worked on without disrupting traffic. The new railway viaduct has caused a lot of disruption to Borough Market, but that's another story. The original plan was to construct the whole thing some way down Southwark Street, and transport it up the road to its final position, where it takes two lines into London Bridge station. That plan fell foul of the network of underground services and tube lines that could be damaged by imposing such a heavy load on the road surface. So, the bridge was assembled high up on the viaduct, on temporary rails that would allow it to move to the final position. Over the holiday weekend 22 to 25 April the road was closed and the structure inched across at a snail's pace, supported on hi-tech motorised platforms, and then lowered into position. Too slow to stand around watching really, but Network Rail have put a time-lapse video on YouTube. The bowstring truss is just the public face of the bridge: the other side is hard up against the old railway bridge and it's just a flat girder, albeit massive. The aggressively muscular truss side is designed for effect, and not everyone will love it.

It comes as a surprise to find that no trains will use the bridge until work on London Bridge station is complete, some years hence. When everything is in place, though, this will be a vital part of the new Crossrail link currently under construction across central London.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Camden Lock on a rainy Sunday afternoon

A street vendor, blowing enormous bubbles in Camden. The bubbles came in clumps, each one more than a foot across, too big to be perfectly spherical, but glistening with rainbow colours. Nobody paid much attention. The bubbles burst against passing cars or got punctured by raindrops. Then the rain set in for real and the crowds dispersed into shops and doorways. An afternoon of sunshine and violent showers, spent dodging from one bit of cover to another. The object of the expedition - to find churros, the elongated doughnuts with a caramel centre. Elusive in Spain last week, where the churrerias always seemed to be closed, but right where you want them on the Lock.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Dalston goes high-rise


The new CLR James Library
The week before last this was a building site, but suddenly the hoardings are down and we can see the new Dalston Square. Sitting next to the well-known Dalston mural and the mainly Georgian buildings in Kingsland Road and Dalston Lane, this is certainly a change of scale, dragging the area into the twenty-first century with buildings up to 20 storeys (approximately), new shop units, a three-storey shell to replace the 1950s prefab that was the CLR James Library, and about 500 new flats. The centrepiece and original rationale for this large-scale redevelopment is of course the resurrected Dalston Junction station, derelict for many years and opened last year as one end of the East London Line. It must be welcome for connecting Dalston to rest of London. Across the road is the newish Dalston Eastern Curve Garden, a low-tech but stylish green oasis located on a section of railway track that was not needed for the new rail links. It's hard to tell what effect this modern district will have on the rest of the area.

From my point of view as a passing cyclist, Dalston Lane remains narrow and in the morning rush hour, the queue of cars and lorries blocks the single lane completely. Cyclists, I'm sorry to say, are resorting to using the wrong side of the road to get up to Kingsland Road, ducking in between vehicles when there is oncoming traffic. It would be good to see this addressed properly - and not just by putting up signs telling cyclists to use a different route.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Architecture at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

The annual Summer Exhibition blockbuster includes a section on architecture, which reflects the fact that many prominent architects are members of the Royal Academy - the current president is architect Nicholas Grimshaw, who designed that peculiar hi-tech Sainsbury's in Camden Town. A room devoted to architecture does provide some diversity but it sits uncomfortably in a show devoted to pure visual arts. Dozens of models are crowded on low plinths and the walls are covered with framed illustrations, so there is plenty to look at, but it's hard work. Unlike a painting or even a sculpture, nearly everything on show requires some effort to understand what is going on, and raises questions: what's it for, and why is it like that? It it a real proposal or just an abstract architectural fantasy? Architects speak their own language and their idea of humour is a little specialised, which may be why a lot of the projects on show here are just not very interesting without some background explanation.

The star of the show is the Shi Ling Bridge by small practice Tonkin Liu - an organic, flowing perforated structure spanning a rocky gorge. It is rightly given central position in the room: at a glance you can understand the scale and the structural logic, and appreciate how it would enhance a natural landscape. Similar clarity is in evidence in the Hairy House by London architects Shiro Studio. Following a long line of one-off Tokyo architect-designed townhouses, this one is a simple rectangular slab covered in white astroturf, with a car-size indentation for parking and gloopy amoeba shaped windows apparently made of white perspex. At the other end of the scale, an elaborate model of part of Battersea Power Station imagines the interior as a sort of biological mutation. It's intricately built using 3D printing technology, and rather pointless.

Studio East by Carmody Groarke is a pop-up restaurant that was on the Olympics site last summer, built out of stretched fabric on a scaffolding frame. It's shown as a moderately impressive aerial photograph, one of the few images of a completed project. It's also probably the only project on show that has since been taken down. There are a couple of other photographs of oval structures in sombre black and white. FAT are showing a cartoonish but slightly dull birds-eye view of a suburban district in County Durham populated with their trademark quirky buildings.

Two architectural fantasies stand out among all the boring elevations and half-baked deconstructivism. An atmospheric black and white print elaborately titled Embankment, The Alchemic Plant, Tempelhof, Berlin, sits below a similarly elaborate print, The Reforestation of the Thames Estuary, River Elevation. The Alchemical Plant is an adaptation of Hunters in the Snow by Jan Breughel the Elder, with the hunting party and their dogs making their way towards a strange spaceframe structure in the valley, and a modern city beyond. The Reforestation is more original, a grim quayside scene (yes, in architectural elevation) with huge piles of lumber and cranes, again the modern city beyond, and some of those little Thames estuary Noddy houses off to one side.

So some exceptions do stand out - and please note I'm just mentioning a selection.

More information at Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Bike Week - Street art or annoying intrusion?

How did this bike get so rusty, and why is it abandoned? In fact it's advertising. Take an old bike, customise it without making it valuable, and leave it locked up to a street sign. It's been done before, with old bikes sprayed the same colour all over. Rusty chic is a logical progression. Notice how this is a perfectly functional bike, with everything apparently in reasonable working order, except there are no brakes. Perhaps it's a fixed-wheeler and doesn't need brakes? No, it just doesn't need brakes because it's not going anywhere. The front wheel and a discreet logo are the clues to what it's advertising - zoom in to the picture if you want to find out. Westminster council are clearly not amused, that's a Notice of Removal of an Abandoned Bicycle attached to the crossbar. So is it cynical exploitation, littering the streets with yet more commercial overload, or does it provide a little harmless street art - probably without having any useful advertising value?

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Bike Week 2011 - clocking up miles

A Brompton rider checks for oncoming traffic on London Bridge.
This week is officially Bike Week. I've agreed to participate in an office team doing the London Cycling Challenge 2011 run by TfL, which is not much of a competition - the prizes are tiny - but it is good publicity for cycling, and it does work as an incentive to actually do some cycling, as opposed to feeling good about owning a bike. We don't expect to win anything, but there are some highly competitive teams, to judge by the results being posted. Since miles started to accumulate on Saturday 18 June, the Automobile Association team has recorded a total of 591 miles for just 9 members, perhaps hoping to improve their green credentials, while a group calling themselves the Silly Commuter Racers with 52 dedicated members have clocked up no less than 3569 miles. That's an average of roughly 15 miles per day in both cases, not that excessive. There must be teams who haven't done any cycling yet but TfL only publish the top 10.

Better still, just get that bike out and ride without joining anything.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Soho facelift

This is the statue of Charles II in Soho Square. It was carved out of fairly soft sandstone in 1681, 330 years ago, which is why it is so badly eroded. Notice his face though: the statue is carved out of a single block of stone, except for his face which is cemented on, like a stone mask. It's a good match, and perhaps replaces a face that was so badly worn or vandalised as to be not much of a face any longer. That face is eroded, but not nearly as much as the original statue.

According to the plaque it was 'Restored to the Square by Lady Gilbert in 1938', Lady Gilbert being the wife of W S Gilbert, of the famous Gilbert and Sullivan musical partnership, and perhaps it was she who decided it was time for the former sovereign to get a facelift.

Friday, 17 June 2011

A White Elephant?

Stranded in Brixton with a Boris bike and worsening rain I finally found a docking station on the Elephant and Castle roundabout, and sought refuge and food inside the shopping centre. It was late on a Sunday afternoon, too late to be eating lunch, and I wasn't expecting much. The outside doesn't look promising in the rain, a huge concrete hulk surrounded by big roads, windowless at street level and with the entrances up concrete stairs and from a sunken plaza level approached by ramps and subways. A surprise then to find many shops and several good cafes open, people going up to the bingo on the top floor, and generally a modest cosmopolitan bustle, this being Sunday after all. I went for the biggest cafe, a thriving place full of hand-made notices and gaudy food illustrations, with orange vinyl seats and cheerful efficient service. During the week there's a street market in the sunken plaza around the perimeter which adds to the multicultural buzz. It's ugly, spectacularly ugly in places, reprehensible by modern urban design standards, but bold and dramatic, and not by any means derelict.

The Elephant and Castle shopping centre is well known from the outside, sitting as it does at the centre of a massive traffic and rail complex where you enter central London from the south. The place is notorious: in an area bombed flat in WW2 and redeveloped in 1965, this was the biggest American-style indoor shopping mall in Europe when it was completed, and began to fail almost immediately when it became clear that it was far too big. From the beginning it was impossible to let all the retail spaces and the three-storey structure, topped by the glass-and-steel Hannibal Tower office block, has been a problem area ever since. Despite which - people clearly still do use the place, pass through, shop and work there.

Another survival from the past, with something to appreciate before it goes, but also a lot that will not be missed. Southwark Council have been negotiating a 15 year redevelopment programme with architects Make appointed to design the masterplan. In May they abandoned plans to demolish the shopping centre, in favour of a more pragmatic refurbishment strategy - which is bound to antagonise those who hoped to see the big shopping mall replaced by a more permeable new development.

To find out more:
Information about Elephant and Castle regeneration at Southwark Council website
Images of a refurbished shopping centre on the AJ website

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Don't touch that switch

Just a little plug today for the public toilets at Trinity Buoy Wharf. They've obviously been there since it really was a wharf and lots of men had to be catered for in a hurry. No frills, no heating, dodgy electrics and peeling paint, and probably lots of actual dirt but the cubicles do have doors and I think there's a ladies too. A great view of the O2 Dome from the doorway and a couple of good cafes next door. Best of all, plenty of room to bring your bike inside. Of course one day before too long it will be knocked down. Either that or turned into artists' studios.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Hand-Drawn London

I've heard a lot about the Hand-Drawn London exhibition at the Museum of London, one of many places in London that are so familiar that it's never the right time to visit, so today it seemed like that time had finally come. The show originates from Londonist.com who invited members of the public to submit hand-drawn maps of a part or all of London. It's an appealing idea, maps drawn from memory to show how people understand the city around them. It's on the Independent's Five Best London Shows list this week, and I'd certainly agree that small exhibitions are preferable to those endless blockbusters. As an exhibition, though, this one is disappointing.

In fact there are only eleven maps in this small show in the museum foyer, and you can see all of them at reasonable resolution on the Londonist website. There are some nice ideas and elegant drawings, but there are 45 maps on the website, which wouldn't be an excessive number for an exhibition. The ones on show are the most accomplished artistically. I was hoping for something less self-conscious, more spontaneous, maps drawn without the A-Z or Google to get the layout right, dense biroed mind-maps doodled in the lunch break, even some completely wrong ideas about how London is laid out. One or two are like that, but it might have been more interesting, more surprising to see the whole range, not just the most accomplished.

Fortunately there is an added incentive: the excellent London Street Photography show downstairs is well worth a visit.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Strida!

The Strida folding bicycle, captured in action in Tottenham Court Road. The unusual triangular design has a special appeal to bike nuts and gadget freaks generally. Advanced features include side mounted axles, disc brakes and a rubber drive belt instead of a chain. Designed by engineer Mark Sanders as a postgraduate project, it is elegant but of course flawed: it comes in one size and the taller you are, the less comfortable to ride because you end up right over the pedals, but tall enthusiasts will forgive that even if they don't want to ride it very far. Eye-catching on the road, it really comes into its own when you emerge from a Tube station with a bundle of aluminium tubes, and assemble them into a bicycle in about 30 seconds.