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.