Sunday, 29 September 2013

Stirling, Lubetkin and Singapore

There is always something nice about confounding expectations, and presumably a few lucky punters cleaned up when Astley Castle, unexpectedly, won the Stirling Prize. It is, by all accounts, a superb project and in a sense relatively democratic, since anybody who wants to stay there can rent it - if, of course, they can afford it, which seems to be pretty much our government's definition of democratic.

What Astley Castle does not have is an obvious social agenda. It was not a way for the judges to make, as they have been accused of doing before, a political point about the importance of public funding.Neither this, nor Niall McLaughlin's chapel, which was the bookies' favourite, is in any sense a social project. Which is fine - this is a prize for architecture, not for social impact. Astley Castle does, however, address the romantic feelings that the British have about old, and particularly ruined, buildings, while doing so in an innovative manner.

Witherford Watson Mann, the architect for Astley Castle,  was on the shortlist for Stirling for the first time. A lot of its work is strongly about place - for example, it developed the idea of the Bankside Forest, a kind of virtual - but not entirely - forest around Tate Modern, the former Bankside power station. This sense of place-making is visible most strongly in Gardens by the Bay, the project by Wilkinson Eyre and Grant Associates that has won the Lubetkin Prize, the equivalent to Stirling for projects beyond Europe.One of the many extraordinary things about this project, which is actually the creation of a new piece of city land, is that, with the exception of the greenhouses themselves, it is free to visit.

Last year it won first prize at the World Architecture Festival set, appropriately enough, in Singapore. This year's festival is in Singapore again, starting on Wednesday. I will be heading there, revisiting the wonderful Gardens by the Bay and, with luck, seeing a little more of a place that is fascinating, both loveable and loathable in equal measure, and doubtless with lessons for the UK, but ones that are very difficult to translate because of the difference in size, governance and climate.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Underground writing

I have just got round to reading one of the best pieces in a weekend newspaper that I have read for a long time. It was Robert Macfarlane writing about urban exploration - the coupling of a superb writer with a fascinating subject.

Macfarlane writes about the international fraternity of people who like to get onto, into and under parts of the city where they are not meant to go, Some like to dangle from cranes, others to penetrate sewers. Macfarlane's piece is the opposite of that inspirational writing which makes you think 'I'd like to do that'. Here the response is far more probably 'I'd hate to do that'. And that is what makes the piece so gripping.

In the end, although fascinated by the scene, and in particular by its chronicler, one Bradley Garrett, a fearless academic who has written a book that is, says Macfarlane, like no other. ' Intercut with the helter skelter storytelling is heavy duty analysis of, among other subjects, the politics of UE, the affective role of photography and video, and the phenomenology of urban flow.'

In the end Macfarlane, although seduced by the topic (and led into an abandoned tank in north London), is not sure what urban exploration is for, or what it achieves. Me neither. But it is a useful reminder that there is more than one way to explore our cities, and that the intentions of architects and engineers about how we use their designs can easily be subverted by someone who is willing to step over a handrail or pick a lock.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Light, lies and ... video next?

There are plenty of very competent journalists around in the specialist press, and some who are very perceptive, knowledgeable or persistent. But there aren't all that many who are funny. One who is, is Ray Molony, publisher of Lux magazine, and one of the best informed people writing about lighting today. I shared an office with him for a while, and he ploughed genially through an enormous workload. But it was not until I saw him presenting at an awards ceremony that I realised what a sense of humour he had.
He had collected examples of bad lighting from around the globe (apparently this was a regular party piece and so people sent him examples) and had the audience, admittedly fuelled by cheap fizz, in stitches.
Now he is at it again, not in a London hotel but on a LinkedIn group. He has put up a post entitled 'Yeah, right, the 12 biggest lies in lighting'  Some require a certain amount of technical knowledge (ie I don't entirely understand them), but you get a flavour of his approach from point 6:

‘This PFI streetlighting scheme provides value for council taxpayers’
In the same way that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the bailout of the banks and the Millennium Dome gave such a handsome return to taxpayers. 

and from number 12:

 ‘I promise to return the sample’

If you're serious about getting your £900 Foscarini designer luminaire back, you'll have to come to my house and prise it from my cold, dead fingers.

The response has been enormous, and acts like a mini tutorial on what the major concerns are in the lighting industry.

Come on Ray, we deserve the YouTube version next.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Let's table a change

If you were looking for inspiration for a new dining table, you could do worse than go to 100% Design, the interiors show in Earls Court that is looking sprucer and more 'designy' than in years. You would probably not decide however to by 'Worldscape' by Atmos Studios, although it is for sale.
Crucially, it is designed by an architect not a furniture designer. Although not 'practical' in the usual sense, it has been used, since Atmos designed it amazingly fast to host 'world dinners' in the run up to the Olympics last year. It is a representation of a map projection of the world, with all important heights and depths represented, and depressions of varying sizes to represent cities.
It is a work of imagination and enterprise, and yet was really a sideshow in the life of an already busy architect, with some award-winning buildings. You may have to be almost insanely dedicated to undertake a project like this, but it certainly makes life more interesting, and beats sitting around waiting for the work to come in. I really wish I had been to one of the dinners. Perhaps the new owner would like to stage some more?

Thursday, 5 September 2013

How we all missed the blindingly obvious

What is not to love about the Walkie Scorchie story? An already funny name - the walkie talkie - transformed into an even better one. The kind of disaster that we can all enjoy almost guilt free - what could be more pleasurable in terms of hubris than the melting of a car, a rich man's plaything, a disaster that causes no damage to health or general happiness. It is a summer story by definition, although it would be interesting to see an analysis of the impact of different sun angles at different times of day/ year. And it has all happened to a building that has inspired little affection and where, back to money again, the unusual shape was partly at least to maximise the valuable lettable space on the upper storeys.

What really struck me though was that although people have been pointed out how obvious it is that a concave mirror facing south would focus the sun, it was not obvious enough for anyone to notice at the design stage. The architectural press (I include myself - mea culpa) were all too interested in what it looked like and the planning rows that went on. The design team may have felt the same way and were too busy dealing with all the technical issues to ask a fundamental question. And all those people whose job it is to appraise buildings for permissions would have been too busy ticking boxes to think in a major way.

The light from the Walkie Scorchie may have been blinding, but the process seems to have blinded us all to an obvious truth. Unless of course it was a deliberate act of parking control, probably the most expensive ever. Fried egg, anyone?

PS Thanks to HAT Projects and Su Butcher for pointing out that the Skyscraper City blog had actually predicted this in 2010. Even less excuse for the rest of us, then.