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 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


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.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Visiting the Olympics site

The Orbit, a large-scale sculpture by Anish Kapoor
A tour of the Olympic Park with a group of colleagues. Arriving at Pudding Mill Lane station we go to the reception centre for ID checks. Security is notoriously tight on the construction site: we were not actually frisked, but after the ID check you get on the tour bus and there is no getting out until the end of the tour. These are some of the highlights:

The Olympic Stadium with its white zigzag steel frame is the first thing we see and it dominates the site. Designed by international sports-specialist architects Populous, the design was bland to begin with and more so now the outer skin has been value-engineered out, but at least the emphasis on engineering is unpretentious, and it's becoming instantly recognisable.

Next to the stadium, the viewing tower is going up. Every Olympic site has a tower, and the 2012 Olympics has the Orbit, a bizarre twisted, looping lattice structure designed by the sculptor Anish Kapoor. This will be a continuous loop rising to 115 metres, much higher than the stadium, with lifts and a suspended viewing platform near the top. Kapoor has designed some exceptionally successful public sculptures, especially the Cloud Gate in Chicago, but this seems like a complete departure from the purity of his usual sculptural shapes. Think of the Sky Mirror in Kensington Gardens, or the stretched funnel he installed in Tate Modern. This looks random and over-complicated. Probably it will be very popular though.

By way of contrast, the Velodome is beautifully simple, with its oval plan, suspended roof and sloping sides clad in timber to echo the timber track inside. It was designed by Michael Hopkins and won the AJ Building of the Year Award for 2011.

We got only a distant view of the Handball Arena, a substantial permanent building that will become a local sports centre for Hackney Wick. In the far distance, the Corten rusty steel Energy Centre is easier to see from the canal towpath. The Basketball Arena is spectacular, a massive rectangular building with a white PVC skin stretched over curved steel ribs. It is the only temporary arena on the site.

Last but not least should have been Zaha Hadid's Aquatics Centre, another flowing organic shape that is displayed in an architectural visualisation on a nearby billboard. There was a change of plan here though: massive temporary banks of seating have been added on both sides, almost completely hiding the building. The part that does show, lolls out of the gap between the temporary stands like a giant tongue. This will be an amazing building when the Olympics are over, with a clear span roof arching from one end to the other, but right now Zaha must be furious.

Altogether a mixed bag from an architectural point of view.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Pop art mural replaced by cranes

Remember this pop-art mural, once illuminated at night and highly visible from Euston Road? The large-scale artwork by Michael Craig-Martin was mounted on the side of an old office block next to Euston Tower, where it advertised the home of the Diorama Theatre. The old office blocks have now been demolished and the area to the north of Euston Tower is a massive building site, as the final phase of the Triton Square development gets under way - presumably a sign of returning financial confidence.

The New Diorama Theatre, as it's now named, is a brand new theatre and bar in a recently-completed block a hundred yards away. Triton Square also features a pair of cast-iron figures by Anthony Gormley, a serpentine sculpture-cum-bench by Langlands and Bell, and other artworks. Although the buildings are mainly bland, this wholly new environment is completely pedestrianised, bicycle friendly, and quite a pleasure to walk through. Look out for the Summer Festival, free outdoor concerts from 22 June.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Decaying landmark at Kings Cross

The Kings Cross Lighthouse is at the apex of a wedge-shaped block where Pentonville Road and Gray’s Inn Road meet outside King's Cross station. The Lighthouse building is fairly ordinary, except that it narrows to only a single room wide at the rounded-off end, and of course it has that tower on top. It is not unusual to see Victorian corner buildings with a decorative feature like this, but the location and the maritime associations make this one special. The lighthouse may or may not have advertised an oyster bar in Victorian times, when oysters were cheap fast food. Although the shape is right for a lighthouse, there are only tiny porthole windows, a lost oppurtunity perhaps. There is one other lighthouse in London, on top of a Methodist church in Walthamstow, very similar in shape but with a proper glazed lantern - still lit up as a beacon for lost souls.

Almost the whole of the block is now empty, and rotting away while the site awaits development. The building is Grade 2 listed, though, so it is likely to be restored eventually. The question is how long before that gets under way, and how far will dereliction progress unchecked. The whole building is decaying: one report says there are rotten floors, dangerous stairs, leaking roofs and sagging walls. The tower is made of timber, with a zinc covering and decorative cast-iron railings around the balcony. Parts of the balcony railings have fallen off and a lot of the cornice around the top is missing. The timber structure inside must be thoroughly rotten by now.

There have been plans to redevelop the site for many years. A scheme by Richard Griffiths Architects proposed a 'Miesian' (steel and glass) replacement building behind a partly-retained facade. That is superseded by a design by Latitude Architects. Their scheme proposes a restored building with an extra floor added, and was granted planning permission in 2009 despite comments that it looked like a "hunchbacked armadillo". It does indeed have armadillo-like qualities, with a curved and stepped roof clad in zinc, and the zinc tower more or less the right shape. It actually looks quite good. You can see it here, but don't hold your breath waiting for it to be built.


Friday, 3 June 2011

Lunchtime concert at St. Pancras Parish Church

St. Pancras Parish Church hosts regular lunchtime concerts every Thursday. These are about an hour long and tend towards two or three performers playing classical chamber music, often of the difficult twentieth-century kind. Classical music is not at all what I normally listen to, but the atmosphere of the church and the evident dedication of the musicians adds up to a kind of magic.

The church is an impressive neoclassical building featuring a row of caryatids facing the Euston Road. The steps and entrance portico are used by a flower seller and rough sleepers, though not simultaneously. After the nearby Tavistock Square bus bombing in 2005, bunches of flowers were piled high on these steps.

Last week pianist Maria Razumovskaya performed Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. This was the original piano version, not the version orchestrated by Ravel. A grand piano on casters had been wheeled out in front of the altar for the occasion. Inside, the pews were maybe a quarter full, with space to spread out. Ms Razumovskaya is a recent graduate from the Royal Academy of Music in London, and she is evidently an accomplished performer. In contrast to her publicity photographs, she played with great seriousness, eyes half closed, not the slightest hint of a smile at any point. The drama built up along with the volume. She pounded that piano, making more noise than seemed possible. Pictures at an Exhibition has been criticised for clumsiness, even for ugliness, but she made it work. What could have been an uncomfortable half-hour on a hard wooden pew passed all too soon.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

London Sidelines - my very first blog

Cultural events, architecture, streetlife, cycling and maybe even shopping in the capital city... this is my first blog and I'm working out what's interesting to write about as I go. This is not supposed to be any kind of definitive going-out guide. It's a personal inside view of life in London, not the big issues but the fine detail I suppose. I'm not sure sidelines is quite the right word but of course there are a thousand London blogs using every conceivable qualifier, and sidelines was still not taken.