Category Archive • Architecture
January 27, 2005
Billion Monkey Johnathan Pearce on top of the Empire State

I think that these clutches of photos arranged in lots of little squares to click on work rather well. The basic post seems to load quite quickly, which means that it does not cause too much inconvenience to the non-photographically inclined, and if you are interested, from then on it's one click shopping. I like the format anyway. Even though it is rather laborious.

So, why do the photos have to be mine? They don't. I have friends who take photos, but can't be doing with all the bother of putting them up on the Internet. So, why don't I do it for them? It's a great plan. If you are a friend of mine, and you have a few Billion Monkey snaps to get off your chest and share with whatever bit of the world wants to share them, but (like me) don't want to nag the basically uninterested, get in touch?

What's the worst that could happen? I'd say no they're crap, and we'd never speak to each other again. I suppose that is a consideration to be considered. But I actually don't think this is very likely. Given the nature of Billion Monkey cameras, there's pretty much bound to be a few of your pictures that I like and consider worthy of world-wide mini-fame. Most of mine are crap, after all.

So anyway, this little rectangle of clictures (ha!) is the work of my Samizdatista colleague and fellow Londoner Johnathan Pearce. They were taken when he was on holiday in New York last September. I have quite a few more nice pictures by Johnathan, but this lot makes a convenient set. All were taken from the top of the Empires State Building, with the exception of the very first, which I am guessing was taken in the lobby at the bottom of the Empire State Building. The day was a little cloudy, and I slightly beefed up the brightness and contrast of some of them, but there was no cropping. I really like them, and I particularly like that there are lots of them, and they add up to a real portrait from on high of Manhattan.

The star of these pictures is the Chrysler Building. Note also the far distant Statue of Liberty. But what is that one with the gold, octagonal spike on the top?


Native New Yorkers, as I think I have said here before, like to photo little street scenes and shop fronts, and they forget their skyscrapers because they see them every day. But for the rest of us, the skyscrapers are definitely the thing. And yes, we non New Yorkers all miss those Twin Towers, even though we gave them scant attention until they got knocked down. Well, my kind of non New Yorker, anyway.

So, thank you Johnathan, and my apologies for taking so long to get any of these up. I promise nothing (as I always say when promising anything on a blog), but I hope that another clutch of Johnathan's America pictures will follow soon.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:23 PM
January 21, 2005
A futuristic tower on the south side of Euston Road

Busy day, so just a quick architecture photo I took today on my travels:


The combination of the fading light and my cheap camera makes these buildings look bluer and weirder than they really are, but I find the effect rather pleasing. I don't know what they are, in particular the tall one at the back, but they on the opposite side of the big interchange at the bottom of it from Euston Tower. Go to the top end of Tottenham Court Road, turn right along the south of Euston Road, and there you are. This is not a place I usually visit, and I knew nothing of this building until I saw it today. I now realise I should have taken the time to find out a little more of what it is and what is inside it. Sorry about that. I was just too tired after a day wandering about doing stuff.

It's the tall bit at the back that I like. There's something about the curve of the wall, and those sticking out right angles at the top, that just manages to raise it above the level of mundane modern vernacular. I think I detect in this design the continuing influence of this man.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:07 PM
January 10, 2005
The towers of Asia

My thanks to he-knows-who, for this link, to an American Spectator article about Asian skycrapers.

I'm glad to see that this North Korean abomination gets a mention, in among references to the better stuff.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:08 PM
January 05, 2005
Billion Monkey New York (1): MetroPlus

Instapundit links to a bunch of New York Billion Monkeys, these photos being my favourites of the ones I looked at, because I finally got to see some skyscrapers. I suppose locals get blasé about those towers, and want to do things like close-ups of peculiar signs or shops or hair or dogs or whatever. But I love those towers.


Dark grey at the front, lighter grey behind. Never fails.

And here's some excellent graffiti, …


… which always gives me a dose of mixed feelings. One: excellent graffiti. Clearlyl this is one of the defining art forms of our era. But two: graffiti suggests to me that the official owners of the place have lost some of their control of it, to a new and nastier sort of owner, and I don't like to see that. Saw some very witty graffiti-graphics yesterday evening at Vauxhall station last night, and I tried to photo it, but it was too dark and it didn't come out right.

Skyscrapers and graffiti have in common that both can be seen as male pissing contests. Discuss.

And also, discuss this. When I saved those pictures from the MetroPlus blog posting (which I assume he doesn't mind), they at first came up as just two of those annoying little red crosses in a little square, in a big blank square where the picture was supposed to be. But then, because I thought it might work and because I recall something like this having worked before, I looked at the "Format Options" in Photoshop when you save pictures (which are: "Baseline ("Standard")", "Baseline Optimized", and "Progressive") and switched them from Progressive to Baseline ("Standard"). Bingo. First I didn't see them, now you do. What's that all about?

So much of computer use seems to mean doing splig and remembering not to do splog, without knowing what the hell splig and splog really mean. So, what do splig and splog mean in this case?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:47 AM
December 21, 2004
Defensible space contrast in Birmingham

Last night I concocted a Samizdata posting on the identical subject, the closing of a play at the Birmingham Rep that was alleged insulting to Sikhs, to one that Perry de Havilland posted about while I was doing mine. So I scrapped mine. He linked to this story, I linked to this BBC report, to this review (which was written before thing got violent), and to this further comment (when the violence had happened and the production had been cancelled).

I ended what would have been my Samizdata bit by speculating (and hoping) that we had not heard the last of this row. Nevertheless, I rambled over much the same ground as Perry had traversed more concisely, so I refrained from posting mine.

But now, it seems that indeed we have not heard the last of this row, and that Birmingham may not even have seen the last of the play itself being performed:

The manager of a Birmingham theatre company is considering staging a play cancelled after a violent demonstration by members of the Sikh community.

Mr Foster told BBC Radio 4's PM: "I think it's one of the blackest days for the arts in this country that I've ever experienced.

"If I'm really honest, I think the people who have made the decision ... have actually been cowards and I don't think we should be cowards in this country.

"We can't allow violence to dictate what we produce in this country in artistic forms."

Well said mate.

However, I cannot help wondering if the contrasting attitudes of the boss of the new Birmingham Rep, where the play was cancelled, and of Mr Foster, who now wants to stage the play at the old Rep, might have something to do with the fact that the old Rep looks like a far easier place to defend against a violent mob.

Here's the New Theatre:


I couldn't find a picture of the old Rep, but I did manage to dig up this map, here.


I know which one I'd rather try to stop rioters trying to get into. The new edifice seems to be surrounded only by open country, and to be pretty much made of glass, a hopeless combination. Definitely not a building to be throwing stones from, even if only metaphorically. The old Rep, on the other hand, seems to be stuck in a small street, defended by being flanked by buildings on either side, like the one's in London's West End, and I'm guessing it's much more solidly constructed and less vulnerable to missiles than the new place.

BirminghamRepOld.jpgAh, and now I have found a picture of what I think must be the old Rep building. It's only a tiny little picture, but it makes my point well, I think.

With only a bit of skill, the Police could probably stop rioters getting anywhere near the old Rep, and if rioters did get near it they'd do far less damage. Plus, if anybody bent on doing damage contrived to sneak in before showing their violent hand, they'd have a far harder time escaping.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:38 PM
December 18, 2004
Revolutionary architecture

RotaTower.jpgMichael Jennings Skypes with the link to this:

RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) – An unusual apartment building was inaugurated in Brazil, each of whose 11 storeys turns independently, giving lucky residents 360-degree views of the eco-friendly city of Curitiba.

The building is located in a residential neighborhood called Ecoville, in the capital of the southern state of Parana.

It was billed as "the world's only completely revolving tower."

The tower was the latest addition to Curitiba's cutting-edge urban planning, which includes a much-copied bus transit system.

Canada and the United States boast revolving restaurants mounted on skyscrapers, but fall short of Curitiba's newest building.

"It is a great civil construction work of art in modern times," said Alcir Moro, director of the Moro contractor group.

Each 300,000-dollar apartment occupies an entire floor of 287 square meters (3,000 square feet).

Lights, air conditioning and the revolving of the apartment can be turned on and off with a remote control or an oral command.

The owner may also change the direction and speed of the revolutions. At low speed, each floor takes an hour to revolve.

The Modern Movement has finally come full circle.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:50 AM
December 14, 2004
A huge new viaduct in the south of France

A dramatic new bridge!

Taller than the Eiffel Tower and longer than the Champs Elysee, the Millau viaduct was today unveiled by President Jacques Chirac to acclaim as a marvel of art and architecture.

Its seven slender pillars, the tallest rising to 1,122ft (340 metres), were likened to needles supporting a taut thread in one the many poetic newspaper front pages marking the elegant structure's unveiling to the nation.

That's how Times Online reports its opening, and these Times Online photos were the best I could find of it.


This picture of the bridge under construction, from above, is also very good.

Economically it looks crazy to me. A few more curves on the road and they could surely have saved themselves billions. But what the hell, it looks very fine. And a British architect! Although, I'm not sure it's exactly what you'd call architecture.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:22 PM
December 13, 2004
The Gherkin of the thirties

This evening I walked home from a meeting past this building, which I've always been rather fond of, in a fascist kind of way.


It's 55 Broadway, the headquarters of London Underground, and it doubles up as St James Park tube station. Click to get it bigger.

Here are some more pictures of this building (and frankly rather better ones), and of others by the same designer, Charles Holden.

When 55 Broadway was built, it was the tallest office building in London. So I guess that means that in those days, cathedrals were bigger than office blocks.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:48 PM
November 26, 2004
Church dwarfed by modernity

I've been busy all day, partly because I've been preparing a monster rectangle of thumbnails celebrating … well, wait 'til it's up.

So here's a quota photo, of a Houston Texas church, which I found here:


… and Jesus looks like he's done really well for himself if he can afford to have that in his back yard.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:53 PM
November 22, 2004
Two of the many faces of Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier was an odd fish. When I was an architecture student I, like most of my contemporaries, worshipped him dutifully, yet I never really worked him out. On the one hand he dreamed fascist dreams like this:


Yet he was also capable of contriving wonderful places like this:


… which truly is wonderful, but the way. I crossed north eastern France on a bicycle in my teens, entirely to visit this place, and I was not disappointed in the slightest.

I found that picture of this amazing building at this site, which has a www address that starts"alovelyworld" dot com. No way would that hideous pseudo city in the top picture (the "Ville Radieuse"!! – "Radiant City") ever find its way into such a collection of cute tourist type photos.

One should not use words like "fascist" lightly, but Le Corbusier really was pretty much a fascist. And like a lot of other pretty-much fascists he had a thoroughly two-faced attitude towards being modern. Sometimes he was modern in the worst possible sense of that word. At other times he was defiantly ancient, as if recoiling from the horrors he found in the other part of his fevered brain. Sometimes, that is to say, he used modern techniques to do modern, and sometimes he used modern techniques to revive ancientness.

And the irony is that his revived ancientness now looks like it could be as influential in the long run as his brutal modernism has been so balefully influential in the short run.

I think that the truth about Le Corbusier is that he was a compulsively first class architectural talent who just wanted to stick up buildings, and he covered all the bases. Like Picasso, he was fantastically prolific, his ideas to final buildings ratio being positively Darwinian. (The Ville Radieuse, for example, never got built, thank God, or at least not by Le Corbusier!) Like Picasso, Le Corbusier was fiercely ambitious to have an impact. Like Picasso, he had a hell of a lot more than two faces. To get this impact Le Corbusier did whatever would make an impact, given the very peculiar times he lived in. In a different century, Le Corbusier's output would have been totally different. He was a fascist because a fascist is what one was in the times he happened to live in.

That is the best plucking out of the heart of Le Corbusier's mystery I can now manage for you, given that, today, I am in rather of a hurry to finish my bloggings and get stuck into other things.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:00 PM
November 15, 2004
Cardinal Place – pipes in but showing

This is the stage that Cardinal Place, the progress of which I last reported here, has now reached:


The light was fading fast and there is only so much that Photoshop can do.

Of course if this building were to be filled entirely with trendy restaurants, those pipes would remain visible when the building is finished. But it won't be and they won't.

I remain optimistic about this thing, and I can't wait to get all the shops at the bottom back, and in greatly increased numbers. (There was a stationary supplies shop the absence of which has been a real inconvenience to me.)

The view of this thing from Victoria station (as per the publicity fake-up), looking straight at its bonnet, so to speak, looks as if it will be quite something. But, as always with big buildings, you never really know for sure.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:23 PM
November 12, 2004
Michael Jennings on scientists getting the credit they deserve

MichaelJCanonA75s.jpgMy latest CNE Intellectual Property piece is up. It was triggered by the student who is suing Ground Zero architect David Childs for allegedly nicking one of his student designs to use for the big tower at the heart of the scheme. I then talked about academic idea-stealing in other fields, especially science.

This article, linked to today by A&LD, discusses how the expansion of science may have lowered its ethical standards, a matter also touched on by Michael Jennings (recent picture of him there), in the following email which he sent me in response to my CNE piece:

Whilst academia is indeed full of asymmetric relationships in which more senior academics gain credit for the work of younger people, most scientific fields are small enough, and the participants meet each other at conferences and talk to one another often enough, that in the case of any important work everybody knows who actually did it, regardless of whose name is on the paper. In practice, it is usually a case of figuring out which of the multiple people whose names are on the paper actually did the work. Maybe this is changing as academia gets bigger and more corporate, but I am not so sure. For one thing, scientific research responds to this by breaking up into more and more fields with a relatively small number of individuals in them, and I think this is unlike architecture. It varies from field to field though. Some fields consist of large laboratories with hundreds of people, but most are as I describe.

And the most asymmetric relationship that exists in scientific academia is that between a supervisor/adviser and a PhD student. In most circumstances a supervisor has a de facto veto over whether a student gets a PhD. This can lead to abuses of various kinds, and also to somewhat weird human relationships. Nothing bad happened to me personally in this regard, but I have seen one or two slightly dubious things happen to other people.

Rather amusingly if you have done a PhD, science fiction writer Vernor Vinge – a former mathematics professor himself – wrote a story a year or so back about a professor who has a virtual reality simulation of one of his students created and told that he has to get so much work done in the next year, or he will not be allowed to get his PhD and runs it over and over again to get this hypermotivated student to do near infinite amounts of work for him.

And as for your final comment about someone suing Nobel Laureates, the interesting issue is that in the sciences the Nobel Prize committees have credibility, and scientific Nobel Prizes are considered such a great honour at least partly because they are seen to have almost invariably been given to the right people, and that means the committee goes to great trouble to see that they are given to the people who actually did the work. In particularly controversial circumstances, there have been a number of incidents where people have not received the Nobel prize until decades after they did the original work, and where the prize was awarded within a year or two of the death of the more senior academic who laid claim to the work. More senior academics are usually older, so waiting for the
wrong person to die before giving the award to the right person is a workable strategy.

One thing that comes into play here is that there is no limit on the number of authors that may appear on a paper published in most journals, whereas a Nobel prize in the sciences is never shared by more than three people, which means that if the wrong people are awarded a Nobel prize, the right ones usually miss out. Even within this constraint, though, simply giving the prize to the three people whose names are on the paper is never done. In such circumstances the prize tends to be shared between people doing work in the same or closely related fields for different universities/laboratories rather than by people who worked together.

You can actually tell certain things about who did what by the way in which the prize money is split in a three way award. If the three recipients each get a third of the money, this means either that the three of them did related but separate pieces of work, or that the three of them were involved in doing the same piece of work (either as collaborators or (more often) by coming up with the same results independently). If one of the recipients gets 50% of the money and the others 25% each, then this means that the one who got 50% did a separate but related piece of work to the other two, who were involved in doing the same work, either together or independently.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:33 PM
November 11, 2004
Pictures of the London Olympic bid

Busy day, so expect not a lot from me here today, other than this.

On my blog travels I stumbled upon the pictures being emitted in connection with the London Olympic bid.

If this was a Samizdata posting, I would now sneer for a paragraph at the London Olympic bid. But this is not Samizdata, so I will merely say I'm not sure about these edifices. Plus, as a London council tax payer in a part of London that the Labour Party has it in for, I am very nervous about what it will cost me.

I can see these objects working quite well during the Olympics, but then what? What, for instance, will happen to all those huge walkways? The phrase "herd of white elephants" suggests itself.

See a bigger version of this aerial view …


here. Note that you can see that other white elephant, the Dome, in the distance.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:36 AM
November 08, 2004
Shanghai morning

ShanghaiBike.jpgI like this photo, which I found here.

Skyscrapers. A reflection in a puddle. Brian's Culture Blog bliss.

The Guardian is making a Shanghai week of it. With luck there will be more photos, though if there are I doubt if most of them will be this good.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:45 PM
November 07, 2004
Modern structures

Michael Jennings has another of his big set piece postings up at Samizdata, about his recent trip to Spain and Portugal. He is a container spotter, it turns out. He includes a most useful map.

Two things caught my eye. First was this observation about recent architectural trends:

(Yes, okay, I realise I am in a minority in that I go to look at industrial sights when I travel, but the most interesting architectural trend in the world is what is being done with decaying industrial structures, and how they are being rebuilt with modern materials and modern design to become commercial and residential centres. The result has a tendency to look like monsters with spider webs growing on them. Bilbao as a whole is maybe the best and most fascinating example of this kind of thing in the world. The Guggenheim museum in Bilbao works architecturally because it understands this and complements the rather brutal architecture around it - not because it is some gem surrounded by a sea of effluent (as most guidebooks seem to suggest). Don't tell me you have missed this trend entirely? Yes. You have missed it entirely).

And the other thing I emjoyed was an aerial photo of the city of Porto, featuring a couple of huge bridges. Porto was nothing but a football club to me, until today.

Porto is a city with a chasm through the middle of it, through which flows the magnificent Douro river crossed by wonderful bridges built during the 20th century.

Here is a river level close up of one of them, which I found here:


What the aerial view does not show, but what this close-up does show, is the way that this bridge (and the other similar one?) doubles up as a high level arch bridge that the trains use, and as a low level suspension bridge that you can drive or walk across. Clever. I've not seen this sort of arrangement anywhere else. But then, I've not been to many places. Certainly not to Porto.

It was about time I had another bridge here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:29 PM
November 02, 2004
Foster photoshops Shuttleworth

Don't try to say that too fast.

From last weekend's Sunday Times:

THE tactic is more redolent of Stalinist Russia than the rarefied air of an architect’s office. A "team photo" of employees of Lord Foster, who has designed some of the world’s most famous buildings, has been "airbrushed", downgrading the importance of the architect’s former right-hand man.

In the original photograph Ken Shuttleworth, a former senior partner, is in pride of place beside Foster. Shuttleworth is credited by many with being one of the creative forces behind Foster's "gherkin" tower in the City of London.

In the published version, however, included in a new book of Foster's work, Shuttleworth has been shunted sideways and back one row into the crowd of some 350 workers.

Graham Phillips, a senior partner who was away when the main photograph was taken, has been pasted into the prime slot at Foster's right hand.

News of the picture doctoring will add to a dispute in the world of architecture over whether Shuttleworth – nicknamed "Ken the Pen" for his rapid, immaculate draughtsmanship – has been given credit for his role in the gherkin.

Shuttleworth, 52, left Foster’s firm in December after almost 30 years to start a rival practice, Make. He employs 18 former Foster staff.

It will be absolutely fascinating to see what Shuttleworth manages to do on his own.

Adam Tinworth has been kind enough to send me copies of Grid, the magazine about property development which he edits, and there is a spread in the latest one he has just sent me about Shuttleworth's plan to build, somewhere in London, the Vortex. But the Vortex picture in Gris seems to be very similar to the one I used in these two postings, so the plan doesn't seem to have advanced very far since June of this year. But maybe there have been developments and I missed them.

Adam's Vortex commenters make the point that a city can only have so many iconic buildings, Gherkin style. I reckon about another dozen such icons should be erected (such as this one), and the Vortex, and a few more memorable edifices, and then London can get back to piling high and selling cheap, i.e. building towers which are collectively impressive but individually less so, like
these ones.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:39 PM
October 05, 2004
Venice on Thames

I took another trip up to the top of Peter Jones, in different and sunnier light, but I'm afraid that the nice part of the view that I already photoed was silhouetted, again, i.e. no change except that the sky was duller, and only the drearier part of the view was differently and better lit.

But I did take this remarkable photo of Venice:


Click on it to get the bigger and real picture. Ha.

Also, you can have a lot of fun pointing cameras upwards. This is the Peter Jones stairwell:


See also this photo. And while you're there, scroll down to this amusing image, also snapped by Adam Tinworth in Budapest.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:26 PM
October 02, 2004
At the top of Peter Jones

Peter Jones is a big (by London standards) department store in Sloane Square. Yesterday afternoon I went there with my friend Elena (who I hope may one day become a blogger – she'd be an excellent one, I think). We like to meet for coffee from time to time, and I wanted to see the view from the café at the top of Peter Jones. Peter Jones has recently been closed for refurbishment, but I was seeing the inside of the place for the first time. The view did not disappoint.


Click to see these photos bigger. The first three are mine, but since mine of Elena is a little unflattering, I have added one taken a while ago of Elena by my friend Bruce The Real Photographer, which Elena uses for all her various attempts to become an Award Winning Actress. His is by far the best photo, I think you will agree.

The interior of Peter Jones is also very fine, but I took no photos of that yesterday. I definitely intend to go back there soon on my own and go Billion Monkey mad, both inside and looking outwards.

Does anyone know what all the various pointed towers are? The ones with the horizontal bits at the top are, I think, the Science Museum. Certainly, they are in that part of London. And could the one that looks like a crown, featured in the thumbnail photo above, perhaps be the Victorian and Albert Museum? Yes.

By the way, does anyone know of other high-up places with good views out over London from which members of the public such as I can take photos? Elena says that the Oxo Tower, just downstream from the National Theatre, is another such good vantage point. Anyone know of any more? Anyone work in a skyscraper and like to invite me to lunch? Just asking.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:34 AM
September 14, 2004

Profuse thanks to Adriana, for the link, to this report:

A Hungarian architect has combined the world’s most popular building material with optical fiber to create LiTraCon a new type of concrete that transmits light. The results are stunning.




Where does she find these things?

Well, I can tell you where that picture at the top with the trees came from. It came from this guy. Go there. Worth a scroll. I like this. More games with light. A bit too seventiesish to live with though.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:10 PM
September 06, 2004
Architecture and classical music on the telly

My TV system doesn't record digitally, and the analogue reception is garbage. Eventually I'll have some kind of Tivo/hard disc gismo. Meanwhile, life's too short to lash up an answer that will be obsolete soon anyway. So I generally now either watch stuff when it's on, or not at all

This evening I watched the first of four shows on BBC3 about guerrilla homes, which means little boxes craned onto the top of bigger buildings, or just lashed up without planning permission buit prettily enough then to be tolerated, from a kit of parts. Said presenter Charlie Luxton: "Planning permission sucks." Go Charlie. Now tell us what you think of property rights. Maybe you think they suck too? But without them, it's anarchy, and not in a good way.

Then I watched a Channel 4 documentary about the design of the new tower they're building in New York to replace the Twin Towers. I seem to recall hailing the idea of teaming Libeskind with SOM's David Childs as a good one. This show made it look like a complete mess. The Childs design would have been pretty good. The Libeskind design would have been pretty good. The Childs/Libeskind/Governor of New York design looks like it's going to be pretty bad, with a stupid, pointless point stuck on the top, in a way that has damn all to do with what is underneath it. Scroll down here for more about this show.

And then I switched to hearing the last bit of Messiaen's Éclairs sur l'Au-delà…, on BBC4. Very fine, by the sound of it, as supplied in their customary fine sound by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Rattle.

Here is a link to the CD they've recently done of this piece. I think this will sell very well, and that in three months it will be havable in HMV Oxford Street for way less than full price.

I have been trying to like Messiaen's piano music recently, but have yet to succeed. The Turangulila Symphony sounds just that tiny bit too slushy and Mantovani-ish for my taste. This sounded rather better. On the strength of what I heard, I want the CD of all of it. When it's come down a bit.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:58 PM
September 03, 2004
The Towers of Docklands (again)

Well, it's business as usual now, with me having no time to expand profoundly and fobbing you off with my favourite recent picture:


It's of the Towers of Docklands, as seen from the north end of Blackheath Common, with Greenwich Palace in the relative foreground.

And here's another version of the same view. There were lots of Billion Monkeys there, of course, but this great looking girl had a definitely non-Monkey camera.


My friends Alastair and Katy took me to this spot the weekend before last. I never knew it existed.

Have nice weekend.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:26 PM
July 31, 2004
A shadow – a bean – a photoblogging contest

Kind words from the Relaxed Homeskooler about my Education Blog, referring to this posting there.

So, kind words from me to her, about her photos. I especially liked these two.

The first is just a fun shadow. The second is not only a fun photo but a fun photo of two other things that are fun too – not that little girls in bathing costumes aren't fun, but you get my drift.

Fun thing number one is the mighty Towers of Chicago Illinois, the Birthplace of the Skyscraper.

Fun thing number two is that the mighty Towers of Chicago Illinois are not photoed direct, but rather are reflected in something called by its creator "Cloud Gate", but apparently known to all in Chicago as The Bean. I (by which I mean London) want(s) one too. It wouldn't necessarily have to be bean shaped, as per Chicago. It could be more elaborate than that. But the super-mirroredness idea is definitely one to copy. And it should be big. Like the artist says, you should be able to see the clouds in it.

You know how I feel about reflections. They are a fantastic source of fun photos, especially on a summer day, because they keep the scene with all its contrasts but moderate the strength of the light, which (like the artist says – reprise) is especially great for getting the complexities of clouds. This object gets that process a little bit organised. And think how many Billion Monkeys I could snap in one Bean photo, me included of course.

This is a perfect example of how very, very much public sculpture has improved since the meaningless lump phase of a few decades ago.

Here's another picture of The Bean. Relaxed Homeskooler concentrated on what you could see bouncing off The Bean. This photo shows you the overall shape of the thing.

I am also going to check out this photoblogging contest, and probably enter one of mine, maybe several if that's allowed. Are you also a Billion Monkey? Which are your favourites of the ones you've taken? Post at your place, and link to hers. She decides.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:11 PM
July 26, 2004
Gherkin stars in Capital Radio bus advert

Today I was in Oxford Street and spotted – and hastily snapped – one of my favourite things, this back of bus advert:


It's one of my favourite things because it combines three of my favourite things: Johnny Vaughan, London double decker buses, and the Erotic Gherkin. This is an advert for Johnny Vaughan's Capital Radio breakfast show, as you can see if you look carefully.

I'm trying to think of a new building in London which has been such an instant hit. The only other one I can think of which has been comparably successful is what began life as the Post Office Tower, and is now, presumably, called the BT Tower, although by now it could be something else again.

I can't help comparing these two popular hits with that lump out in Docklands, the Canary Wharf Tower, which impresses mostly because it is so big, but otherwise hardly at all. I've recently taken a couple of trips to Docklands. More about that when I've the time, and have mulled over the wording some more.

For another fine use of a bus, see the last of these pictures.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:37 PM
July 21, 2004
A new Libeskind building in north London

I didn't clock this new London building, by Daniel Libeskind, until today I found it while scratching through an old Guardian education section.

I will suspend any serious judgement until I've seen it in the flesh. Or in the steel.


Provisional prejudice: don't like the bad-mannered way I suspect it of joining the pavement. But that could be quite wrong. Maybe the pavement outside is nice, and bigger than usual, in a good way.

With buildings like this, a lot depends on the detailing, whether it looks as slick as the model did - if the model looked slick - and whether the detailing lasts, or instead self-inflicts all kinds of horrible stains, etc. I will photo it myself soon, and if I am still doing this in a couple of years time someone should jog my memory about it and make me go and photo it again.

I agree with the commenter that it looks like it's fallen over. But as other commenters say, the rest of the area is pretty dreary, and at least this livens things up. Yes, I rather think that will be my considered opinion. But I'll wait to see it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:19 PM
July 19, 2004
Grumpy Graham and lumpy Elizabeth House

No time for much today. But this rather bad tempered Guardian piece did at least tell me a name to google for, "Elizabeth House", which is to be erected just outside Waterloo Station.

Unfortunately, this is the only picture of what they have in mind that I have so far come across.


What a shitty piece of graphics! They could do better than that, surely. Maybe they have. Can anyone supply news of a better picture of this propose edifice?

Elizabeth House is the dark sticking up thing in the middle, and I do rather agree with grumpy Graham Morrison that this particular would-be icon looks like it will be a n ugly lump, but as I always insist here, appearances could well deceive. You never really know how it will turn out. And when you consider that Elizabeth House will replace this … well, at least there's a chance that things will end up looking better. This being one of those vile lumps that dates from the days when the last thing architects gave any thought to was getting the public to like their buildings and call them icons.

Meanwhile, anything they can do to sort out the mess of trying to walk from Waterloo Station to the South Bank will be steps in the right direction. At the moment you go through the (I think) vile Shell Building, past the vile sculpture in the middle of it, across an aerial walkway, which now, since they took the next bit of it down, just stops in mid air and you have to climb down off it.

As for Morrison's piece, which is an excerpt from a speech he gave to a bunch of other architects, frankly, it reads to me like one mediocre architect who is jealous of the architects who are better at making a splash than he is, and seeking support from a bunch of other mediocre architects. But that's just an impression. Anyone who knows more about this man, and knows that this impression of mine is wrong is welcome to correct it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:44 PM
July 15, 2004
The London Assembly building – not as great as the early pictures

Architecture is difficult. I keep saying that. And I keep saying it because it is true.

You produce really cool pictures of how it will look, but you never really know how it will turn out.

Take the London Assembly building. The Man Behind the Gherkin was also the man behind this, and you all here know that I worship the Gherkin more than life itself.

The London Assembly building, on the other hand, seems to me to display a definite diminution from vision to result, from imagination to execution.

LondonAssembly1.jpg    LondonAssembly2.jpg

On the left is a 1999 publicity concoction, which I found here and I think it looks really great. Like a really expensive headlight on a really expensive car. And notice that at this stage it sticks out over the river, rather than just parked down beside it.

The picture on the right is attached to a January 2003 Guardian story (where the whole Ken Shuttleworth really did this thing is gone into. Can that be the thing itself? No, I think that's another projection of how it's going to look rather than how it really does look. And whereas it doesn't look as cool as the first picture, but it still looks moderately ool. It's not a really cool car headlight. More like an alien egg. But still, as I say, cool. Ish.

And then we have the thing itself, photoed by me a week or two ago.


To me, this looks ever so slightly like a lump of clay on a wheel, slapped down, and not yet straight. Worse, when you are actually there, the curvedness of the floors makes you think it's all leaning over. And something very bad has happened to the ground floor. It ought to curve into the ground continuously. This thing just sits of a plinth that is too small for it. And unlike the bottom of the Gherkin, lots of people get to see the bottom floor of this thing.

Got it. I think I know the big thing wrong with this, looking at it some more. The problem is that it doesn't start out at the bottom by curving outwards enough. At the back, it still goes out a bit, but this is the big difference between the early pictures and the final object, and that is what makes the final object look so comparatively uncool, or, in English, more earthbound.

Plus, I think maybe this is an object that looks its worst when you look up at it from ground level, as I did with my camera, and as the first two pictures above do not. The first looks down on it, and the second looks at it sideways, but not up.

And what's that ziggy zaggy thing about, with the windows at the front. The original headlight effect was far better, I think.

That's how it looks to me, anyway. Of course, if you like it, I'm happy for you, and I'm only judging this thing by the highest possible standards. What I'm saying is: the Gherkin it's not. (For starters it isn't nearly big enough for the curvey style to really work well.) But what, apart from the Gherkin, is the Gherkin? The London Assembly building is still a fun addition to the riverside. Politically … well, that's another argument.

I mean, at least it isn't this Palestra thing, which seems to me to have given up even trying to be interesting. The website is as cool as it's ever going to get, I'd say. Although, the fact that the early pictures can be wrong could be good, with the final object turning out much better than the pictures. But if that happens here, I will … be surprised. Either way, I'll show photos of it here when they finish it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:04 AM
July 08, 2004
Getting bigger by the day …

This building, as previously noted here is now growing steadily:


This one could be a stunner, or it could be rather mundane. Can't wait to see.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:34 PM
Twin Towers in the sunset

I love this picture, which I found here, via this, while composing this.


Point your camera at the sun and let the light refract in the air on its way to you, dusting the distant objects with light that you see but which never did anything to them (if you get my meaning). It never fails.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:57 AM
June 25, 2004

Five photos I took yesterday, on a walk along and then across the river, stopping while it rained at the BFI café. All of them involve reflections of one sort or another.

The first is bounced off a window of the Royal Festival Hall.


The second is bounced off the outside of the BFI café, but also looks through that window, and through back outside again. The snatch of bright blue sky is actually a poster.


This next one, of puddles, illustrates just how differently the camera sees things to the way you and I with our eyes (and our brains) see things. Walk along a wet pavement and all we see is a wet pavement, a flat surface. We know it's flat, so we flatten it. The camera sees right through the wetness to everything that is reflected in it.


Here is a (small and blurred) self portrait, taken on the north side of the river, in the mysterious tunnel leading to Charing Cross station, which was also featured in this set of photos, the one with the blurry arches.


The final one is maybe even more extreme. This is of an entirely flat, black wall. Outside the PriceWaterhouse building, if I remember it right.


Have a nice weekend.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:52 PM
June 23, 2004
The Vortex will be better than it looks in the picture

vortex1a.jpgI have a piece about the Vortex up at Samizdata, the original newspaper story that I'm linking to having been in last Saturday's Guardian.

Already there is the inevitable comment to the effect that this is an ugly building and that "classical London" could do better. I disagree. I think that if it gets built it will look fine. But, the picture that "Make", the name of the new practice set up by former Foster (and Gherkin) man Ken Shuttleworth, have issued does make the thing look rather ugly, as another Samzidata commenter has pointed out. But it is the picture that is ugly rather than the thing itself, in my opinion. The colours will surely look good on the final building, but only because they won't look a bit like that for real. They'll instead by softened by distance and by London's weather. But the colours do make this picture look ghastly.

I only heard about the Vortex only by accident, as a result of having tea on Saturday with someone who had a copy of the Guardian with him, and who, crucially, shares my fascination with skyscrapers and drew the story to my attention. I should have mentioned it then, but subsequent time spent immediately afterwards looking at crazy art at the Chelsea Art College end of term show put it out of my mind.

Another commenter has pointed out that it looks a lot like this:


True, but this, the Kobe Tower in Japan, is a lot smaller, and inside (except at the top) there just seems to be a vertical column.

But scroll down here and I think you get some idea of what the Vortex might look like from ground level.

I say bring it on.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:03 PM
June 19, 2004
Porn music … and another Twin Towers sighting

Is it just me, or is the music that they attach to soft porn movies an abomination? I would love soft porn if they didn't switch on ghastly wallpaper music as soon as the sex begins.

Like now for example. The sex has just begun. So, obviously, I have switched off the sound track. But until they began it they were having a really nice conversation, and although I'm guessing they aren't now saying very much, I could be wrong, and the thought bothers me. Also, they were presumably making the occasional sound of a more real sort.

Although, I must tell you, when they don't interrupt with wallpaper music, but do keep the actual sounds that the participants are making, that can be extremely disturbing. I've just seen the latest Jack Nicholson movie, the one where he falls in love with his latest girlfrield's mother, played by the not-as-young-as-she-was but still-doing-not-half-badly Diane Keaton. And Nicholson makes extraordinary groaning and snuffling noises, like a pig. I think these were the same noises he made when he played the Devil in The Witches of Eastwick, although my memory could be playing tricks on me about that. But I've definitely heard this noise somewhere before, and I am pretty sure it was Nicholson again, and that the setting was diabolical.

Wow, this particular soft porn movie just had a really great view of the Twin Towers.

To explain the significance of this image, I have to tell you a little about the plot. Basically, Our Handsome Hero has lucked into a job as a sex therapist counsellor type person. He has already done several sessions, if you know what I mean, and I know that you do. Well, two minutes ago Our Handsome Hero just recruited his Handsome Friend to help him share his workload, if you know what I mean … reprise. And that was when they showed the Twin Towers.

I think I know what they meant.

Read through the above, I realise that Jack Nicholson is better at getting sex and at doing sex than I am. And maybe my mistake has been not making pig noises.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:23 AM
June 02, 2004
Old London buildings!

And here's another quota phota (see previous):


I don't usually get excited about old buildings, but I remember noticing this view and grabbing it. That's the big church beside Parliament Square in London. St Margaret's, is it? Once again, I have a lit building against a darker sky.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:10 PM
May 28, 2004
The new EU Parliament building in Brussels

All the effort in this posting went into the interminable process of organising all these pretty little pictures. So don't expect literature. Don't expect all that much in the way of coherence.

Anyway, what they are is the new EUroParliament building in Brussels. I was there however many weeks ago it was, and took a stack of photos of it.

It is very impressive I think, and if you disapprove of what goes on inside the thing as much as I do, very scary.

But photographing it is hard, if you don't have a very wide angle lens (as I don't), like trying to photograph an elephant in a crowd. All the other buildings near it are too close for you to be able to get the big picture. Behind the thing, there is a big park, but it slopes away downwards, and again, you can't see everything, just the bit at the back.

So before I tell you about my snaps, here is an aerial view of the thing, which gives you an idea of its entire scope.


There's the Parliament thing in middle at the back, the oval shape. And then on each side, in front and taller, are two huge slabs of Office, two Walls of Bureaucracy. No good can come of this place, it seems to me.

My first lot of pictures were taken at the front, some in the square on the Central Brussels side of the thing, and some nearer to the beast itself.

Click on these little squares to get the big picture of which the square is a detail.

parl13detail.jpg     parl12detail.jpg     parl3detail.jpg     parl11detail.jpg

parl15detail.jpg     parlentrancedetail.jpg     parl16detail.jpg     parlstationdetail.jpg

They are still building it, and the last one is of the railway station entrance for what I think will be another railway.

The next few are of the central Oval, the Parliament building itself, which is particularly well designed, I think, at any rate in terms of how it looks from outside. Everything about this building says: Money No Object. We Are The Bosses. You Cannot Defy Us. Which is entirely deliberate, and goodness knows what this thing did in fact cost. But as I say, I'm sure that they wanted an expensive building, that looked expensive, and was expensive. This is not a building to save money. It is a building to rule. That is Micklethwait's Alternative Theory of why public sector building always costs far more than was originally "planned". It's deliberate.

parl1detail.jpg     parl4detail.jpg     parl2detail.jpg     parl7detail.jpg

Now some looks at the back of the huge offices. The bridge in the third of these next pictures joins the offices and the main building, I think.

parl8detail.jpg     parlupdetail.jpg     parlbridgedetail.jpg     parl6detail.jpg

These next ones are near the heart of the beast. The sign is as near as I actually went to venturing inside. I should have. At the time I just really, really didn't want to, and didn't. The green picture was taken pearing into the inside through a green window.

parl5detail.jpg     parl17detail.jpg     parlgreendetail.jpg     parlsigndetail.jpg

And now I am round the back, in the big park, part of which got swallowed up by this vast new erection. From behind, it feels more like Glyndebourne, or some such place, rather than the fuck-you fuck-Brussels fuck-the-World object it looks like from the front.

parltreesdetail.jpg     parltrees2detail.jpg     parl9detail.jpg     parl10detail.jpg

I just hope that one of the not-so-well-known Parkinson's Laws applies, and that the EUropean Parliament, having constructed itself a magnificent new purpose built headquarters, will never again be such a force in the affairs of men as it has been, and that the EU itself will now disintegrate. I wish. It is actually quite possible that the relative importance of this Parliament is actually about to decline, within the EU as a whole, the real business of which will continue to be run from anonymous office blocks that do not flaunt themselves nearly as much as this place does.

And I wish doing postings like this was not such a labour. Hope you like the photos. But the point is not actually the photos; it's what they're of.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:08 AM
May 21, 2004
The fake Gherkin and the real Gherkin

Recently I acquired a second hand copy of a book about and called Skyscrapers. It includes the illustration on the left, of my favourite, the Foster's London Gherkin, familiar to regulars here (which is why I chose this picture to illustrate my point). The picture is a bit blurry, which is my scanner not functioning properly rather than the original. And I fear that it may have taken rather a long time to load, so sorry if that was the case. (At present it's a .tif file. If anyone knows how to slim that down into something like a .jpg, comment accordingly please.)

gherfake2.jpg   GherReal.jpg

Anyway, my point is: the picture on the left is a faked up guess as to what the building was going to look like, which is what appeared in the book because when the book went to press the real thing hadn't been built yet. On the right is the real thing.

The difference in the shape is probably down to the weirdness of the lens on my camera. No, the difference that interests me is the way the inner structure dominates in the fake, while in the real thing, the glass surface dominates. And it's not just me. All the pictures I've seen of the finished article resemble my photo, in this particular respect.

It isn't as if this picture was just dashed off. A lot of work and thought obviously went into it. Yet, it is seriously misleading. It looks like a real building, in other words it is "realistic" enough to be misleading, in the absence of the real thing. In the book, there are lots of fake pictures of this kind, to the point where it is extremely difficult to determine which skyscrapers have actually been built and which ones remain on the drawing board. They should definitely state this item of information, and clearly. Not stating it at all means that I cannot recommend this book nearly as much as I would like to.

But that is a mere criticism of a book. The serious point here is how relentlessly difficult it is to know what a building is really going to look like, until it is built. Which is just one of many reasons why ... architecture is difficult.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:47 PM
May 09, 2004
More pictures of you know what plus one more from me

More ghreat Gherkin pictures courtesy Ghuardian Unlimited.

Apparently, these guys were just cleaning the windows.

This building has become an instant classic, like the Wheel, Big Ben, Tower Bridge, etc. See Jonny Vaughan fondling it in his Capital Radio adverts on buses. Picture of that follows, I hope, but adverts come and go, and I may not be able to supply that.

Meanwhile, here from me is another photo, featuring another bus advert, which I took in London the other day.


That's exactly as it emerged from the Canon A70. No cropping, no Photoshopping. Very London I think.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:19 PM
May 02, 2004
The Gherkin opened last week

Yes, I missed this report from last Wednesday.

The Gherkin, more formally know as the Swiss Re Tower or 30 St Mary Axe, has slipped so easily into the London skyline that it comes as a shock to discover that it officially opened only yesterday. That is the trouble with a very, very tall building. It takes so long to go up that, by the time it is finished, you feel you’ve known it for ever.

GherkFoster.jpgBuilt in the heart of the City of London, the Gherkin was Norman Foster's second attempt at a skyscraper on the site. The first was a massive affair that would have dwarfed Tower 42 (formerly the NatWest tower), then the tallest building in the City, and reduced the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral to a pimple. This building, which did have the feel of a rather knobbly gherkin, was rejected by the planners. But Foster, ever the pragmatist, came back with a revised scheme, deliberately marginally lower than Tower 42.

Interesting. I wonder what the original looked like. The implication is that it might have been more dominant, but not as elegant. Anyone have a link to what Plan A looked like?

Quite why "Tower 42" is thought to deserve all this cosseting, I have no idea.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:51 PM
April 30, 2004
Cardinal Place is taking shape

This is beginning to take shape.


Expect many more photos, as it nears completion and when it is completed.

Meanwhile, here is another view of what they think it will look like.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:24 AM
April 21, 2004
A possible Moscow landmark (and further thoughts on the Shanghai bottle opener)

moscowtower.jpgComments that go "very beautiful picture" exclamation mark usually mean stupid attempts to interest me in penis enlargement and the like, but when I followed that exact comment (on this) I found my way via this interesting looking blog to this posting and thereby to this.

I love landmarks.

They have to be tall and distinctive, and to have somewhat unusual tops, which by the way means that the proposed new Shanghai tower featured in this posting here, which I there dismissed as a giant bottle opener, might prove to be a huge popular success. You are sweeping trash out of the streets of one of Shanghai's slummier slums, and you look up and there it is: Hey! The Bottle Opener! Although I suppose if that's your job, it might be: Oh God not again. The Bottle Opener. Someone take it down. But, on the whole, I think not. Also, if a 9/11 type terrorist tried to drive an airplane at it, he might go straight through it by mistake!

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:24 PM
April 09, 2004
The joy of new London

In his comment about this photograph, Scott Wickstein makes sense of something that had been puzzling me. Why do I so definitely prefer photographing new nice London buildings to old nice London buildings and even to old great London buildings? What's that about? Do I really think that some snazzy new block of flats is actually superior as architecture to St Paul's Cathedral? Hardly. So, why the photos?

Here is what Scott says:

What it also says to me personally is that there are places in the world that still have a bit of self-belief and are ready to take risks. This is important to me as I live in a city which lost its self-belief long ago, and its doubts are starting to corrode onto myself.

And there you have it. I can't say anything to cheer him up about his home city (Melbourne?), having never been anywhere near it, ever. But he is right on the money about London. The old buildings are great, but the new ones are "important to me", and to me also, for the exact same reason that they are important to him.

St Paul's is great and all that. But the thing that really cheers me up about new buildings which are only half as great, but nevertheless great, is that they say something about the direction that London is going in, now. Unlike St Paul's, decent London buildings now are the promise of greater things to come. Even dreary London buildings can sometimes be the promise of greater things to come, if only because they are the promise of bigger things to come, and because the general standard of the big stuff is improving all the time.

Were it not for the new stuff, I would probably find the great old stuff actively depressing. The contrast between the grandeur of the past and the dreariness of now, between the splendour of my generation's inheritance and the boringness of what it had done with it, would be very hard to stomach, as it actually was in the seventies, when this pretty much was the story. I can really understand why crazy Chinese people in the seventies used to smash all their old stuff. They were stupid, ignorant and philistine, but I can truly understand why they did it. Thank God that this phase of their history stopped, and they are now back on track and matching the achievements of their past rather than just wrecking them.

I'm not the only one who feels this way about the new London. Last night I watched Murder City, again. It was everything I said it was, again. The plot was barking bonkers. But the locations … They were all what Scott called "Micklethwaitvision" places. Basically, they were newly minted little spots in between shiny new buildings, dotted with intriguingly retro and representational statues. (Last night's statues were two oarsman in among, I think, the new Broad Street development, near Liverpool Street Station.) The very first shots last night, for example, were on one of the new Hungerford Footbridges. Later, they wandered all along the river, and wandering along the river in London gets better every year, what with the new bridges, and the new buildings and the new footpaths and coffee bars and art galleries and statues and general tourist trappery. When public places and new buildings get featured (approvingly) in TV and the movies, they have arrived.


In short, thank you Scott, and the photos will keep coming.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:03 PM
March 29, 2004
House made of boats

Incoming email. Jackie D says: how very odd. Says lexxiblog: interesting house.



Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:13 PM
March 28, 2004
The towers of Docklands

For the last week or more I have been neglecting this blog and doing other things, like writing for other blogs, and having something I don't normally have, which is a life. Today has been no exception, so it's photographic fobbing off time once again. I write in haste and reserve the right, even more than I usually do I mean, to change my mind about all that follows.

Here is a snap I took through a train window this afternoon, when on the way to have yet more life, with some friends and all their friends.


What you are looking at, through the greyness of what passes here for Spring (today being the day when the clocks all went forward an hour), is the nearest thing that London possesses to a skyscraper cluster. If you think these lumps are small and near, you are wrong. They are quite large and quite far away. The tallest one, with the pyramid hat on, is, I rather think, still the tallest tower in Europe. It certainly has been.

There are other buildings in London approximately as tall, and much better looking like the Gherkin. But these other towers sprout out of the general undergrowth like isolated trees in what is basically a cabbage patch. Here, in the Docklands, the trees have been planted next to each other and are quite numerous.

I'm glad. Lumpish thought these towers now are, they have at least established the principle. This is an official Tower Block Cluster, and that means that more towers will in the future be added, including some which are taller and prettier. The planning on the ground is corporate statism at its blandest and deadest. The buildings close up sparkle aesthetically only at night, when you can only see the lights.

I don't care. With ugly buildings, size matters. Small ugly buildings, such as were sprinkled all over London in the sixties, are atrocious. But large ugly buildings do, I think, impress. At least something big is happening, even if it isn't big and beautiful.

If London develops as I hope it will, future generations will probably look back on this cluster of lumps as everything that they are now (i.e. in the future) doing better than, just as Londoners now look at all those ugly, small, stupid little towers that were built in the sixties. But these eighties and nineties towers are now making that future possible, and I'm impressed.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:59 PM
March 11, 2004
Moscow magic

A commenter at my Education Blog, for some strange reason, commented on this, thus:

There's a superb and magical shot of Moscow at night over at

Beware, though - beautiful as it is, it appears to be heavily copyrighted!

Well, let's give it a go:


It doesn't fit into my screen. I have to choose the top, or the bottom. I prefer the top.

If this blog collapses into oblivion in the near future, chased by black helicopters, this picture will be why.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:31 PM
March 08, 2004
Putting a wheel in the hole in the skyscraper

Regulars here will know the trick. When I'm in a rush, expect pictures.

So anyway, I was watching this show on Channel 5 TV this evening about skyscrapers, and the one truly amazing thing I learned was that they are talking of sticking one of these …


… in the hole in the top of this …


… this being the World Financial Centre that some crazy zillionaire is trying to get built in Shanghai. For about three months towards the end of this decade it will apparently be the tallest skyscraper in the world, and as far as I am concerned it looks like a giant bottle opener.

I don't get it. Why bother? I mean, if you want to go to the top of the hole, take an elevator, or some stairs.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:55 AM
March 06, 2004
The expected - and the unexpected

A couple of photos from my walkabouts yesterday.

First, number two in what may or may not become a series here: London Pubs Dwarfed by Surrounding Modernity. Number one having been picture number two of this posting.


This one is the Albert, in Victoria Street, just down the road from Westminster City Hall in the Parliament Square direction.

That was the picture I went looking for. But later, in a charity shop, I found something much more unexpected. A swastika!


All perfectly logical and all perfectly innocent.


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:47 AM
March 04, 2004
A movie review and a weird building on Samizdata

I've recently done a couple of cultural type postings at, in the form of a longish review (including an attack on a stupid Guardian review), of The Barbarian Invasions


… and of a shorter bit about this building:

spaceslug2.jpg    sluginside.jpg

Those pictures of it were got from here, and thank you to the Black Triangle man for commenting ("It grows on you") at Samizdata and including the link to these. On the basis of these photos, I said that I didn't like the look of it. But these Black Triangle pictures make it look more appealing.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:34 PM
March 03, 2004
If in the old days you committed suicide by jumping off the top of the Empire State Building people used to respect your privacy but not any more

James Lileks today manages to combine two of my favourite subjects, skyscrapers and cheap digital photography:

Still reading the history of the Empire State Building, and came across a remarkable anecdote. (One or two per page, really – it's such a fine book.) In the 30s the networks broadcast national shows from the toppermost of the ESB, and you imagine what it must have been like to sit in a kitchen in Witchita and listen to a live concert from the 86th floor in Manhattan. What a modern world, full of wonders. Well. WOR had a show called "Microphone in the Sky," which aired at 1 PM, interviewing people on the observation deck. In October 1937 a man standing six feet from the mike threw himself off the deck one minute before air time. Here's the difference between then and now:

"Although the broadcasters were stunned by the suicide, they remained calm, and pleaded with the crowd not to become hysterical. The program went on the air as usual, with no mention of the suicide."

Why? Because people were tuning in to hear a happy Manhattan melody from the top of the ESB, that’s why. And if the broadcasters didn’t say it happened, then for the next half hour it hadn't happened. Such a thing would be impossible now – the announcers would devote the entire show to the event, webcams would catch the fall, people would blog it from the lounge.

And the worst picture of all would be not the man plummeting, but a dozen people leaning over the railing, pointing their cellphones at the man, snapping a photo as he fell to his death.

Could you blame them? The more ubiquitous these things become, the more people’s instincts will shift from horrified helpless onlooker to impromptu archiver of random history.

And why not? - is what I say. I always carry my camera with me, but it does take a bit of a while to get ready, and the first picture is either flash when I don't want flash or no flash when I do. Still, I live in hope of snapping any falling bodies in my immediate vicinity before they land.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:28 PM
March 02, 2004
The wraps are coming off Sainsbury's

On October 1st 2003, five months ago in other words, I did a posting here about a new Sainsbury's that had just opened near where I live, the odd thing about being that although the Sainsbury bit on the ground floor had just opened for business, the stuff above still needed lots more work. How long, I wondered then, would it be before the rest of the building was unveiled.

Well, I went past it again yesterday afternoon, and they are now taking the wrapping off the top of this edifice. Here's how it now looks:


And here's how things look at the far end, further towards Victoria Station:


The Elusive Camel survives, in a manner often practised by London pubs, dwarfed like New York churches by the surrounding hulks of relative modernity, purveying the comforts and consolations of an earlier time in history, comforts perhaps all the more necessary in the newer times.

I think I'm going to like this building a lot.

Maybe I want to like it, because here I am discovering it. I mean, there must be a thousand pictures of the Gherkin, but how many internetters have singled out this humdrum palace of trade for praise? And maybe I want to like it because this is the part of London where I take a lot of my exercise, and I've been happy here.

But I think that my liking is real, and based on more than happy personal associations. Although the grammar of the building, so to speak, is banal – the bricks are very ordinary, the roofs nothing at all grand – the combined effect looks as if it will be very pleasing. It all adds up to a fine albeit appropriately modest example of the pseudo-vernacular style, which, despite the qualification before the hyphen, is a not at all contemptible way of doing architecture. Better a nod towards a place of pleasing higgledy-piggledy picturesqueness than a geometrically crude lump of ugly honesty, which merely says: yes I am corporate lump aren't I? This, on the other hand, is a corporate lump with the good manners to disguise its economic nature, without actually going to the length of seriously pretending to be five different buildings.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:46 AM
February 10, 2004
The London page of

122Leadh.jpgThis is a memo from me to myself. Read along if you want, and the picture to the right gets explained eventually, but my main purpose with this posting is simply to have a way to get back to the London bit of and to freeze the knowledge of this page in my memory and archives. I've been rootling around for months looking for skyscrapers, but this is the first time I've come across this coherent list of what's high and what's nigh in the London skyscraping business, what's hatched and what's scratched. I don't understand why I missed it. Maybe I saw it, and then went from it to some skyscraper so dramatic and fascinating that I immediately forgot about how I got there. That is now a lot less likely to happen again.

I mean, what if I got to thinking, say, how much this proposed skyscraper looks like this bird?

What got me started was Chris Tame, to whom thanks, dropping by with a copy of today's Evening Standard, in which I came across this story. I got to when I googled "122 Leadenhall Street".

It's the work of Richard Rogers, whom I always confuse with Norman Foster. Maybe writing that down will help too.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:03 PM
February 09, 2004
When buildings collide – to make a building

Jonathan Glancey of the Guardian reports on an amazing building designed by Imre Makovecz:

His most sensational new building is unquestionably the Stephenaeum, an auditorium and the cultural heart of the Pazmany Peter Catholic University of the Sacred Heart's faculty of humanities at Piliscsaba, some 20 km north of Budapest. The Makovecz design - and, yes, it is real - takes the form of two circular buildings, one adopted from the form of a traditional Magyar jurta (yurt), the other a Renaissance tempietto, crashing into one other. Here, it appears, are two opposite worlds, urban and rural, rational and romantic, national and international, trying to match and marry. It is also one of the most striking buildings on show in Hungarian Architecture Today: Modernist and Organic, an exhibition curated by the Hungarian-born British architect, Sandor Vaci, at the Royal Institute of British Architects, London.

The most informative website I could find about this bizarre building is this one, which is all in Hungarian but which has some great looking pictures.


Here is some information about the RIBA exhibition.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:19 PM
January 22, 2004
The towers of London, Yokohama and Barcelona

In a comment on this Samizdata posting about the (I hope and trust – according to this guy's comment planning permission may not be the end of the arguing) forthcoming London Bridge Tower, the otherwise estimable Kim du Toit really pushes one of my buttons:

Ugh. One of London's charms is that it doesn't have (many) skyscrapers. Now it runs the risk of looking like any other modern metropolis, if this trend continues.

Let me rephrase that:

Ugh. One of Britain's charms is that it doesn't have (many) legally owned guns. Now it runs the risk of being as safe as the American mid-West, if this trend continues.

The trend in question being if Britain were to reverse its current mania for only letting its criminals be armed. We wish. How would du Toit, who quite rightly never misses a chance to urge us to follow the American way in guns, feel about that?

The skyscraper was discovered and perfected in the USA yes, in Chicago and then in New York. But the idea that the rest of us should refrain, just so that Americans can be charmed by our silly little old cities, disgusts me. Why shouldn't we build them too? What are we, Hawaiian dancers in grass skirts who only survive by demeaning themselves with faked-up derangements of their past? If tourists don't like London when it finally gets kitted out with a proper skyline, say by about 2030, stuff them. Actually, they're going to love it.

Skyscrapers solve a universal problem, not a specifically American problem, which is how to fit lots and lots of people into one working place, of that special sort now called a World City. Skyscrapers are the way that cities Keep It Real. Paris, denied the twin stimulants of the Luftwaffe and the Modern Movement in architecture, now has nowhere to put any skyscrapers. London has been luckier. Result? London is a real place with a great, great future, and Paris is an increasingly tatty nineteenth century stage set.

And the way to make London not look like "any other modern metropolis" is for it to have nice skyscrapers, special looking skyscrapers. And things like the Wheel.

London Bridge Tower may look a bit too much like that one in San Francisco, but at least it's big. Better yet, it takes the skyscraper across the Thames to the south, and believe me there are some mighty charmless bits in that part of London, once you get past the newly restored river bank.

Michael Jennings emailed me about one non-American skyscraper, and has blogged about another. The other night a gang of us went to see Lost in Translation and obviously we were most excited about the brief glimpse we had of a High Speed Train, but we also found time to discuss the architecture of Tokyo, which looked rather dull to me, although there is certainly a great deal of it. Lights good. Towers boring. Jennings responded by emailing me about this Japanese tower, which is in Yokohama. There are some other not too bad pictures of it here, of which this is one of the better ones:


Not bad, but still maybe a little lumpish in the Tokyo manner, to my eye. But definitely a nice try, and maybe if saw it in the flesh, so to speak, I'd say: great. At that time of the evening, and with that mountain behind it, it can hardly be a complete failure.

And the tower that Jennings blogs about is the alleged Gherkin now nearing completion in Barcelona.


But of course it isn’t a Gherkin at all, it's a non-vibrating vibrator. The Barcelona Vibrator. Anyone can see that. Are you a three thousand foot tall woman? You'll love it. Let's hope it doesn't live up to that name and start wobbling in a high wind.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:33 PM
January 13, 2004
Barcelona Gherkin alert!

Michael Jennings has spotted a Gherkin in Barcelona. You know my views on Gherkins. I'm for Gherkins. If you are too, or for that matter if you regard Gherkins as a menace to civilisation and all that is decent, keep yourself posted.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:07 PM
January 09, 2004
Skyscraper redirection

I've found another amazing skyscraper. Do you know what this is?


If you want to find out, read about it in – and follow all the links from – a piece I've just done about it at Samizdata.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:00 AM
January 02, 2004
Taipei 101 (and its smelly toilets)

I love a good skyscraper, and I'll happily settle for a big skyscraper. However, I completely missed this one, until this evening I watched a recording of a Channel 5 documentary about skyscrapers. (Salisbury Cathedral came in for some serious praise. Way ahead of its time in a number of ways, apparently.)

taipei101.jpgHere's how this October 18 2003 report starts:

The Taipei 101 office building laid claim to the title of the world's tallest skyscraper following a ceremony yesterday to position a 60m spire on top of the structure.

With the addition of the spire, the building boasts of a full height of 508m, eclipsing Malaysia's Petronas Twin Towers, a company executive said yesterday.

But why Taipei 101? Answer here:

TAIPEI is an acronym for Techonology, Art, Innovation, People, Environment, and Identity. 101 represents the concept of striving for beyond perfection.

Bullshit is alive and well and living in Taiwan. For a more jaundiced view of this new edifice, go to this guy:

You can only imagine the horror when my friend and I decided to pop by Taipei 101 after a Christmas-day buffet lunch at the Hyatt next door. We took a pit stop at the restrooms in the Taipei 101 mall (the only part of the building open to the public, unless they close it because crap is dropping off the building and injuring people) and just couldn't believe how horrible they smelled. Those restrooms stank to high hell. How long has that mall been opened? Like two months? All that wonderful technology that produced the world's tallest building in an earthquake zone and they can't figure out how to deodorize a bathroom?

Architecture is very cruel. Unless you get everything right, you can get it badly wrong.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:11 PM
December 19, 2003
A magic hour with the digital camera - Hungerford Footbridge - London

On Wednesday afternoon I found myself just south of Waterloo Station with no pressing need to be home at any time in particular. The sky was cloudless, and the sun bright. I was well wrapped up. So instead of going straight home I went on one of my favourite walks, the one across the Thames from outside the Royal Festival Hall, across the now new Hungerford double footbridge, through Charing Cross railway station, and onwards into the West End and its various second hand CD shops.

I had my camera with me, because I had wanted to photograph the new Sainsbury's in Wilton Road, which is now emerging from its wrapping, and had already taken some very dull pictures of that, earlier in the day. The light spoilt them, by lighting up the top and plunging the street into darkness.

But now this same light became my friend.

I am starting to look at things photographically rather than as a person, and I saw the possibilities in this shot.

I'm on the downstream side of Hungerford Railway bridge and looking upstream through one of the old brick railway arches, and this is the Wheel, and one of the towers of Parliament. No Photoshopping at all.


That's it, exactly as it emerged from my Canon A70. I didn't know for sure if it would come out that good, but I gave it half a dozen goes and was confident. I climbed happily onto the deck outside the RFH, past Nelson Mandela:


It's not that I violently object to NM. But I do object to most of the people who worship the man, so I don't much care for this object of their worship either. But even that looked good on this magic afternoon. If he looks larger than life, that's because he is. It's not a great photo, but I thought you might like to see this thing.

The new Hungerford Bridge footbridge gives you a choice of two footbridges, up or downstream of the railway bridge itself. They hang by cable from a series of spikes that are like inverted Vs, and the result is to make the original railway bridge, a girdered object of extreme banality and considerable antiquity, look like a suspension bridge, when in fact it is only the pedestrian bridges which are suspended.

Here's how it looked just before I climbed aboard, looking towards the new Charing Cross station on the far side of the river. I tried messing about with the darkness/lightness settings to lighten things up a little, but in the end I left it as was:


Up onto the bridge. Now I look downstream, to the towers of the city, and as I cross, they come into view. King Midas, in the form of the late afternoon sun during what I believe the movie makers call Magic Hour, has reached out and touched the NatWest Tower, turning it to gold, but has left the Gherkin looking its usual self, for once upstaged. Even those cloddish lumps nearer to us, on the south bank, are turned into things of beauty.


On to the other side of the river, and a look back across the footbridge towards the Royal Festival Hall:


Just before we dive under Charing Cross station, another view of the towers of the city, this time through an artistic foreground of autumn arboreality, and this time including St Pauls:


My next few shots were of one of my favourite secret spots of London, by which I merely mean a spot you don't see in the picture postcards. It's a strangely Dickensian little stretch of the walkway through Charing Cross station, which has been tricked out in cream coloured ceramic tiling. I like it. And I guess it was just one of those days, because the most blurred photo I took all day was also one of the ones I most liked when it came up on my computer screen at home:


I really like that. It looks like an artist's sketch, probably a watercolour. I love the colours, in fact I love everything about it. It's the arches that make it work.

More snaps, and then the card runs out. Here's the very last picture I took, a few yards further along towards the station concourse. We've moved from ancient to modern, from claustrophic masonry to modernistical metal work. It's a suspension bridge under a building and over a sheltered pavement, approximately speaking:


It's not the best photo I took all day, as a photo. But I like what it shows, albeit a little blurrily. And then the card ran out of space.

As usual this happened long before the batteries gave out, the battery life being one of the more remarkable improvements on the old Minolta. That, and the fact that the Canon A70 actually works. Which I now carry with me all the time.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:10 AM
December 18, 2003
Buildings that look (a bit) like animals number one

Knowing my tastes in buildings, Michael Jennings emailed me with news of this building in Bangkok. It looks exactly like … an elephant! Well, it looks vaguely like an elephant, once you've been told that it's called the The Elephant Building.


Here's a bigger version of that picture, and to find out what the rest of Bangkok looks like start at this smaller picture of the Elephant and keep clicking. Make sure you get as far as here, and scroll sideways.

Don't think much of its trunk, but I still like it.

I'd love to know how this thing got built. My preferred version is that this ultra modernist purist did his design, like cricket stumps, on steroids, and rectangular, and they all stood around thinking: Christ that's ugly, or whatever that is in Budhhist. Then some bloke had a brainwave. He said: "Hey, if you stuck some eyes in it, and put tusks and ears on it here and here, and cut a bit off at the end here, you could make it look just like an elephant!"

And the modernist said "Noooooooooooo!!!!!!!!", but finished it anyway as ordered, and was then arrested trying to blow it up.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:58 PM
December 08, 2003
ING and the business of starchitecture

This striking looking building is ING House, near Amsterdam. They wanted a landmark, and they got one.


This was no accident. It turns out that they've got quite a few.

ING, it seems, is the very corporate embodiment of "starchitecture".

In the last 15 years, the desire of the ING Groep for "special architecture" found expression in highly spectacular buildings. The large orange N of Nationale Niederlande is prominently displayed in Rotterdam on the highest building in the country (1991, Architekt A. Bonnema, Groningen). In Den Haag, the eye-catching Nationale Nederlanden complex with its green and white stripes (1994, Kraaijvanger Urbis, Rotterdam) spans the freeway and is a kind of modern gateway to the city. The architectural quality of the building is controversial but its function as a landmark is undisputed.

Examples abroad are the much publicized main office of the ING Groep in Budapest (1995) by Erick van Egeraat (Rotterdam) or the Holland centre of the ING Groep (1996/98) by Pro Architekten (Den Haag) at a striking location within the Warsaw city center.

The ING Groep subsidiary, ING Real Estate, also worked with foreign architects. One striking result is the office building, Ginger & Fred (1995) on the banks of the Moldau in Prague by Frank Gehry.

Clearly ING is collectively of the view that striking buildings are good for business.

I heard about ING House by watching the telly, which I like to do. It was a BBC3 TV (one of the free digital channels) show called Dreamspaces, which is all about the showier sort of modern architecture. They showed a few shots of it. I misheard it as "IMG", but crucially I also heard that it was in Amsterdam, and Googling "modern architecture" and "Amsterdam" got me to a picture of it soon enough. It certainly is distinctive, and you know it when you see it. This mention was in connection with an outfit called Archigram, who produced a design for a similarly insect-like object way back in the sixties. (You can just spy the left hand end of this creature at the top right corner here.)

Maybe this thing leaks and is a nightmare to work in. And maybe it has about as much of a relationship with the ground it sits on as an alien spaceship. I don't know. But I do like the look of it.

It looks to be situated in one of those drearily spread out non-places that the modern world is so full of these days, and which has now replaced architectural modernism as the major real world aesthetic horror story of our time. The occasional self-importantly stupid or ugly building – badly integrated into its surroundings perhaps, maybe technically incompetent and with a roof that leaks – pales into insignificance by comparison with these vast swathes of nothingness.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:21 AM
November 28, 2003
The New York Philharmonic – stuck in the past

In the latest Spectator, Petroc Trelawny, a regular voice in British classical music broadcasting, writes about the current travails of the New York Philharmonic.

Basically, Los Angeles and San Francisco (under the leadership of Salonen and Tilson Thomas) have made the jump, away from safe and solid programmes of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler and so on that appeal to the traditional but ageing classical audience, and towards more adventurous fare which at least gives them a chance of a future. Meanwhile, the New York Phil has just appointed as its music boss … Lorin Maazel!

Maazel is classical music living dead. He's a fine conductor. But everything I've ever heard him say, or read about him, tells me that he takes the future of classical music for granted, and regards actually having to, you know, do anything to secure that future, anything risky, as being just too undignified for someone of his supreme grandeur to contemplate. He wafts about in his opera cloak, issuing orders to trembling orchestral musicians, his head stuck in a vanishing age, imagining himself to be at the top of his tree, seemingly unaware that it is rotting. He has recently been recording Richard Strauss, and Sibelius (again), for RCA, to, er, mixed reviews. He never seems to have a go at anything recently composed, no doubt on the not unreasonable grounds that most of the stuff recently composed is garbage. But the good stuff has been recorded to death, and if they can't find new music and new audiences, these orchestras will themselves fade away. Taking no risks is the ultimate risk that is doomed to fail.

Salonen, Tilson Thomas, and Simon Rattle in Berlin of course, know that both orchestras and audiences now have to be seduced and charmed and jollied along. Orchestras no longer care to be tyrannised over. If new audiences are not sought out, they will disappear.

At the heart of running a great orchestra nowadays is having a hall to play in with good – preferably great – accoustics. Rattle got that built in Birmingham. Salonen now has it in Los Angeles. I don't know the situation in Berlin, but I've always assumed it to be pretty good there too. (It was good enough for Karajan.) In New York, they have the Avery Fisher Hall. Inadequate, apparently. They've been trying to manoeuvre their way into Carnegie Hall, which has great accoustics, but that doesn't now seem to be working. Instead, they're going to try to refurbish the accoustics in Avery Fisher. Dodgy, apparently, according to Trelawy. Could be a costly failure.

Could this be a moment for another big lump of what David Sucher calls "starchitecture"? (I can't find the actual word here, but the principle of the thing is all explained in this posting – the money raising, and the need to get it right at ground level.) Well, they have thought of that, but the descendants of Avery Fisher have vetoed it, because Avery Fisher Hall would have to be destroyed to make way for the new place and Avery Fisher might not end up being as immortal as he is now. The Disneys of Los Angeles seem to have contrived to behave rather more generously, but there you go, I guess this is New York and a deal's a deal.

All of which is a great pity. I mean, it's not as if they don't have money in New York. The problem now is that classical music is not offering New York anything enticing to spend it on. Except non New York orchestras when they play at Carnegie Hall.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:21 AM
November 25, 2003
Planned archaeology

Have a read of this posting on the Adam Smith Institute Blog, by Andrew Selkirk, all about how government impinges, and in a bad way, on archaelogy:

Not content with messing up future development, Britain's planning authorities are now wrecking ancient ones too.

Friends of mine – I am editor of Current Archaeology – persuaded the Discovery Channel to fund them in reconstructing a Roman villa in Hampshire. Whereupon the planning authorities stepped in. And now it has been reconstructed all wrong.

The classic Romano-British villa is what is known as a winged corridor Villa. There are wings projecting forward at either end, and a low veranda running along the front. In this case, the wings were abandoned on grounds of expense - well, OK, some of the smaller villas have no wings.

But it got a lot worse when the planners stepped in. First they said that only one-story buildings in the modern style are allowed in such an area of outstanding natural beauty. Then the veranda, instead of being left open at the front, had to be built in. Finally they insisted on having a continuous roof instead of a double roof (one over the main building, and one over the corridor, with clerestory windows above the corridor).

The result is a complete farce: looking more like a boring modern farm building than a Roman villa.
And now generations of schoolchildren will visit the site - to say nothing of the millions who will see the TV programme - and get a totally false impression of what a Roman villa looks like. All because of Hampshire County Council's planning officials.

Hasn't something gone wrong if planners can even insist that Roman villas should be built how they say, and not as the Romans actually built them?


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:16 PM
November 19, 2003
Men at work

So I had just had lunch with one of my fancy city friends, and I saw this cute little view of the Gherkin, towering over a cute little church. As often happens with photography sessions, the very first picture proved to be one of the best.

Later, though, I realised that something rather more interesting was happening, although I think this picture may have been taken before I realised what it was really of. There were actually men working on the top of the Gherkin! I don't know what they were doing, apart from mountaineering. Window cleaning? Essential maintenance? Anyway, fun picture, I hope you agree.

gherclok.jpg   ghermen1.jpg

Is this sufficiently cultural? Trouble is, I've now got a terrible cold and a headache, and a very busy tomorrow, so whether it is or not, it will have to do for today.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:55 PM
November 16, 2003
A grey view from a London bridge

This, just now, is one of my favourite London views. Partly, I guess, it's because it probably isn't a popular favourite. No Parliament, no Wheel, no Tower Bridge or Erotic Gherkin. Just a little clutch of blocks, with only the triple winged roofs of St George's Wharf lending any distinction. But the clouds helped, I think.


It was taken yesterday, looking up river from Vauxhall Bridge. Unlike some pictures here, it's a convenient shape for a blog posting.

That curious object that looks like a stealth ship is a stopping off point for the boats that now go up and down the river, this one being opposite the old Tate Gallery. You can go by boat from there, downstream, to the new Tate Gallery.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:30 PM
October 30, 2003
Alice Bachini on the Great Modernist Paradise Revolution

Alice Bachini has been scratching about in her archives, and as a result I found myself reading this, again, about Modernist Architecture. It's terrific. Sample paragraph from near the end:

"However, the one thing that really did it for The Great Modernist Paradise Revolution was, bits of the buildings started falling down. This killed people. And when the wisdom of constructing blocks of flats out of plaster-of-Paris and old egg cartons began to be questioned by the normal folk at large, sadly and unjustly, even those architects who had used proper materials such as concrete were tarnished with the same brush by those idiotic general public morons without any understanding of Design Awards who don't know a Clean Line if its carrying its own mop and brush."

The inverted commas are there because this is an Alice send-up rewrite of a TV programme she'd just been watching.

One of the things anti-bloggists tell me is that blogs are here today and gone tomorrow. Electronic wrapping for virtual fish and chips. I don't agree. I think the archiving side of blogs makes it possible to pick out the diamonds from all the muck and shite, and put them in greatest hits lists, and generally treasure them for ever.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:28 AM
October 26, 2003
Defensible space in the not-so-public sector

gchq.jpgLast week there was a little buzz in my part of the blogosphere about "defensible space", and about suburban cul-de-sacs as a better defence against plunderers than more easily accessible public spaces designed by collectivists who want to make community easier to do, but who forget what else is also made easier. You can plug into this debate by going to this Natalie Solent posting.

Meanwhile, here is proof that when the public sector really wants defensible space, it can contrive it with great definiteness. This is the new Government Communications Headquarters (known in Britain as GCHQ) building in Cheltenham. No chance of would-be intruders busting in on the not-so-public open space at the centre of this neighbourhood.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:49 PM
October 24, 2003
Cluttered Gherkin

A whole herd of hobby horses being ridden with this picture, which I took yesterday.


First, the glory of the Gherkin, this time seen from a distance. All else is mediocrity, in this, one of the many less grand parts of London, but the Gherkin shines out from afar as a pinnacle of excellence.

Second, the contrast between how the eye sees things and how the camera sees them, which as a camera-wielder I am starting to understand and make use of. My eye saw the Gherkin. My camera said: but the Gherkin isn't as big as this sign here, now is it? I did no cropping of this picture. That's exactly how it emerged from the Flashcard. I did not edit it to make my …

Third point, which is, as deliberately photographed, all the clutter in the foreground. On a recent TV show called Grumpy Old Men, shown last weekend on BBC2 TV, they had their GOMs complaining about the appalling number and incomprehensibility of the street signs and street barriers that now threaten to overwhelm every street and road in Britain. Matthew Parris was especially eloquent, as I recall. Well said.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:14 PM
October 23, 2003
Twin Towers in the movies update

Googling "Twin Towers in the movies" got me next to nothing, but I've just tried "Twin Towers" "Movies", and up came this, listing no less than eighty six movies in which the Twin Towers appear.

workgirl.jpgAll the ones I've been able to think of appear in this list, which gives me some confidence. If I'd not found, say, Family Man in the list, I'd have known at once that it was woefully incomplete, but there it is. Yesterday in my googlings I came across a picture of Melanie Griffith in Working Girl, with the Twin Towers in the background, but what I didn't realise until now was that the Twin Towers featured in the publicity poster. (The picture I found was simply a cropping of Melanie Griffith, with the Towers but without all the propaganda.) And there's Working Girl that is in the list also. Michael Jennings mentioned in a comment on yesterdays post that AI features the towers. And that's there too. So this list may well be pretty much complete.

Hollywood seems to have been rather baffled by the events of September 11th 2001. What is the appropriate response? Ignore? Do one of those multi-star epics about it all? Do stories "set" in the disaster, so to speak, with the disaster central to the story, but the story not being any explanation of the disaster? Do movies about people warning against terrorism and being ignored? So far there's been little response, other than a hasty shifting of the scenery for the first Spiderman movie, and such like.

But as this list of sightings of the Twin Towers in the movies shows, Hollywood was fascinated by these giant buildings while they stood. Hollywood was (and is) fascinated by New York, and New York was dominated by the Towers.

Speaking for myself, and I suspect for many others too, I loved those towers, but until those maniacs knocked them over, I didn't realise how much.

I still think that a coffee table book along these lines would be an excellent idea. But until today I didn't realise if anyone had even got to work on the subject, so maybe the book already exists too, and I just haven't heard about that either.

If it does exist, or if someone's working on it and it's due out soon, I'd buy it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:27 PM
October 22, 2003
A publishing idea: The Twin Towers in the movies

Those Twin Towers. They were everywhere in the movies, I tell you. I'm watching X-Men, the original one, made in the year 2000, on TV. There's been an historical flashback bit, and seconds into the "and here we are back in the near future and in colour" bit … another sighting of the Twin Towers, in a big picture pinned up in a teenage bedroom.

Has anyone done a book about the Twin Towers in the Movies, itemising every shot of them in every movie that got general distribution, between the time when they were built and the time they were knocked own? Someone should.

My favourite book in this XXX-in-the-Movies genre was called "Cluck!" and was subtitled: "Chickens in the Movies". I can only remember one chicken of significance, which was the one chased by Rocky to improve his footwork, in the original and best Rocky movie.

I've just googled "Twin Towers in the movies". I got this feeble apology for a list. And I got this.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:49 PM
October 09, 2003

Natalie Solent writes:

You can always spot an arrogant ruling power by the way it hates old buildings. From eighteenth century earls forcibly ejecting whole villages so as not to spoil their classical gardens to twentieth century slum clearances that cleared social cohesion along with the slum, there is nothing a power-freak likes better than replacing a muddle with a slab. China is busily smashing the Uighur quarter of the city of Kashgar. The ghost of Nicolae Ceausescu is cheering them on. Unlike his, this is one "modernisation plan" that is unlikely to be cut short by an uprising against the moderniser.

And I think that "There is nothing a power-freak likes better than replacing a muddle with a slab" should forthwith be posted at Samizdata as a slogan of the day. Done.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:50 PM
October 01, 2003
A newly opened but not yet finished Sainsbury's

Today is supermarket day, in my little corner of the blogosphere. Both Jonathan Pearce and Michael Jennings, and coincidentally it would seem, chose today to write about supermarkets for Samizdata. David Sucher has already commented on these two pieces.

Jonathan, who lives a walk away from me, even wrote about the very same newly opened supermarket of which I am about to show you a picture. Believe it or not, this same new Sainsbury's that Jonathan wrote about is what I actually sallied forth to photograph with my new Canon PowerShot A70, last Saturday, when I got sidetracked by one of the other snaps I took into writing about this.

Anyway, here it is:


Notice anything odd about it? Correct. Well spotted. It isn't finished. The Sainsbury's supermarket on the ground floor is finished and open for business, but the stuff above is yet to be unveiled.

This must have happened before many times, but I've never before really noticed a building that is wide open on the ground floor, but still shut on all the floors above, because not even finished. I'll keep you posted. The longer the wait, of course, the more remarkable the contrast between how finished things already are at ground level, and how unfinished they are above.

As to what I think of the look of it, well, try as I will, I can find no mention of the intended look of this place on the Internet.

So far it seems very dull – corporate at its worst. That bland and unchanging first floor horizontal thick white slab, with those ghastly signs hanging off it, is presumably intended to make the place fit in with the other quite low buildings in the vicinity, but at the moment this looks more like an insult to these buildings.

But I have to say: at the moment. Because aesthetically, there's still everything to play for. When finally revealed, the final result could be anything from wonderful, with the first floor slab being the ideal foundation for what rests upon it, to boring boring boring, with the slab being but a foretaste of and resting place for further tedium. I really hope I'm going to like it, because as Jonathan explains so well, this place is already having quite an impact on the surrounding area. If it not only tastes good but looks good as well, that will be doubly good news for us Pimlicans.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:13 PM
September 16, 2003
Jennings on Libeskind

As he says in a comment on this, Michael Jennings has a new posting up at his blog about both (a) the Libeskind design for Ground Zero, and (b) about the Libeskind Berlin Jewish museum. He's not that optimistic about (a), because he's not that impressed by (b).

Is it my imagination, or is that Blogspot nonsense, where if you linked to the most recent item it didn't work, now fixed?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:40 PM
September 12, 2003
Libeskind at Ground Zero

Here's a useful piece of computer graphics to show what Libeskind wants to do with the WTC site. Probably lots of you have seen this or something very like it before, but I hadn't until yesterday.

There was a TV show about the WTC competition here a few days back. I must say that the Libeskind design is now starting to make more sense to me. The sunken garden is a very good idea, I think. The office blocks look broken and half finished to me, but maybe that will be effective.

Anyway, Micklethwait's law on the matter says that you can never really tell how good it will look until it's built. Although, there's a long way to go before this one is even started.

More generally, I continue to be intrigued at how the internet makes it so much easier for the public to haggle about mere architectural plans. That TV show made it very clear how much public involvement there had been in the WTC process. I didn't follow it at the time, but the original plans for a bunch of boring, "undesigned" lumps were just shouted down by the populus, apparently. Libeskind got it because he at least attempted a little … how can I put this? … spiritual showmanship? And the skyscraper 1776 feet high. A shameless play to the gallery, and isn't that just New York, New York, all over?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:45 AM
Buildings shaped like people

Now here's a thought, without any links. And sometimes those postings are the best because for once, the damn blogger is doing is own thinking, instead of just bouncing a few thoughts off someone else – someone else who did the real work.

I've just realised something about the designs of Frank Gehry. I quite like them and I think they're interesting. Yet, the same kind of assemblage of randomised shapes when only twenty foot high and stuck on a plinth in a square is something I utterly despise.

It's architecture, of course. A big lump which people can live in and work in is a whole lot better than a plain old lump, even a relatively small one, just for the sake of having a lump. Sculpture has to be of something. Architecture can just be. Architecture can be abstract, like music, and still make sense, because, again like music, it makes a different sort of sense.

But now what if buildings also start to be of something?

How is it possible for architects to do gherkins now, when a generation ago they could only do rectangloid ugliness, or the occasional tubular edifice? Answer: computers. Computers enable the architects to keep track of everything. Computers enable all those damnably difficult calculations about what size every separate pain of glass or stick of steel has to be, and at what angle. Computers keep track of all the loading complexities. Computers make modern starchitecture possible. And hurrah for computers, say I.

In short, with computers, you can make a building any shape you like.

So, what's to stop the architects making gigantic office blocks or apartment blocks that are … of something?

I predict that any decade now, someone is going to say: to hell with all these abstract geometrical shapes and spikes and pyramids and tubes and lightbulbs. Let's make it look like a giant bloke.

I have in mind that huge Soviet statue, which I really like, of the two hundred foot (guess) woman waving a sickle. (Anyone know where I can find a picture of that woman?) I've got an old Russian recording of Shostakovitch's tenth symphony with that on the front, but inevitably, the titles muck it up.

Maybe someone will do something spectacularly heroic like win a major war or stop a major plague in its tracks, and they'll make a huge building into an individual likeness of said hero, dominating a city as surely as gothic cathedrals dominated their cities.

Obviously there could be lots of links to other people saying something similar, or shooting films with similar buildings in them. I just don't know of them.

Hang on, I'll just try some googling. "Buildings shaped like people" – how many hits?

Your search – "Buildings shaped like people" – did not match any documents.

Sometimes the internet can be very humbling. You have a brilliant idea that you thought of all on your own, and you type it into google and you get three thousand hits. Not this time though.

Hah! I changed it to "Building shaped like a person", and I got the Statue of Liberty. Crushed.

In my defence though, I have in mind a lot bigger, and with lots and lots of windows in it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:38 AM
September 02, 2003
Michael Blowhard on car parking in Santa Barbara

Michael Blowhard has a piece about, could it be?, yes … car parks! (Loud guffaws break out in the Samizdata inner circle. Brian's on about car parks again. Fools, I tell you, fools.)

Michael focuses on Santa Barbara, because there, he notes (with photos to prove it) they've been doing car parks well just lately. Here's what he reckons is the overall lesson:

Overall lesson: despite our reputation as suburbia-lovin' city-avoiders, many Americans in fact clearly like the walking-around-downtown experience, and are willing to go to some (if not too much) trouble to find a downtown and have themselves a good time there, provided only that it's been made convenient, attractive and safe. Making car parks pleasant and attractive – and, as Santa Barbara does, cheap to use – can play a role in this. Cities hoping to score big revitalization points by investing tens of millions in a showpiece from a celeb-ritect such as Calatrava or Koolhaas might do well to give the state of their car parks some attention instead.

And who was the architect behind these Santa Barbara car parks anyway? Funny that he/she doesn't get anything like the kind of press a Calatrava or Koolhaas does ...

Many thanks to Brian and David for kicking this discussion off.

Which is me, and David Sucher of City Comforts Blog.

Although, I'm pretty sure that one of the things that got me pointed in this direction in the first place was the general attitude (certainly) and quite possible some particular thing they said that I don't now recall, of the 2 Blowhards themselves. To spell it out, I seem to recal being pretty sure that if I did some stuff about car park aesthetics, the 2 Blowhards would notice and approve, which would make me world famous in 2Blowhardshire, which I'm guessing is a pretty big place.

Here's a link to the posting I did here on Calatrava.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:30 PM
August 28, 2003
The old London Bridge – another one with buildings

This interesting post of David Sucher's reminded me of a bridge that used to exist in London, a very long time ago, but which was badly burned in 1633, I've just discovered. Like the bridge over the freeway that David describes, London Bridge (no less) also had buildings on it.


I got this recreation of it, by Peter Jackson, from this site, where there are lots more pictures of this bridge, and of its successors, and of its proposed but unbuilt successors.

Adam Tinworth (whom I've already mentioned in this piece) links to the City Comforts piece, and also supplies this link, also to a thing about the old London Bridge.

Of course, there have to be shops next to the road in the middle of those buildings or for David it won't count. Without that, it's just starchitecture by some dead guys. Me, I love it either way.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:42 PM
August 21, 2003
Musical starchitecture

This scheme is not one that I have so far paid any attention to, which is odd, given that it combines my two most serious obsessions here, namely modern architecture and classical music. (I'm seldom serious about movies. I just like them.)

I'm talking about Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the financial history of which is told in a New York Times article today.

The Music Director is happy.

"What does this do for the city?" said Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Finnish-born music director of the Philharmonic, a tousle-haired and still boyish figure at 45. "I'm quite amused by the fact that the hottest ticket in L.A. is a classical music/architectural event, not some Hollywood thing. I'm going to enjoy that. It won't happen again."

My last contact with Esa-Pekka Salonen was attending a prom last year in which he conducted a fascinating and spirited performance of Shostakovitch's 2nd Symphony, which has a chorus at the back of it singing maniacally about agricultural productivity, and which I loved, and in which he then conducted a dull and spiritless albeit note perfect performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, which also has a chorus at the back, singing about joy.

This maniacal building, I'm guessing, is just the kind of maniacal place which Salonen most likes to perform in.

My question: What are the acoustics of the place like? About that, this particular New York Times article is silent. Frank Gehry is described triumphing over the scheme of one of the billionaires involved to domesticate Gehry, as it were. (Shades of this.) Did an acoustics expert have the right to veto this weird object until he was satisfied? I do hope so.

This at least suggests that some people are serious about getting such things right.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:02 PM
August 17, 2003
Office Trends on office trends

Adam Tinworth commented on this Samizdata piece of mine about these buildings, and linked to it from his own blog. When I responded with another comment, Adam emailed me and offered me a copy of the magazine he edits, which is called Office Trends. He sent me the May edition, which has a picture of the Gherkin on the front.

It contains much of interest. This is my first posting reacting to this publication's contents, but it will not be my last.

Adam's editorial (p. 9) starts with this intriguing question:

Why do the really interesting buildings always start going up just as the market turns?

Which is an interesting question to ask about interesting buildings. The relationship between spectacularly fine buildings and spectacularly bad management decisionmaking has long attracted comment, esepecially when it comes to custom built headquarters, which have the knack of being built on the ruins of the enterprise that was supposedly about to occupy them, and at the very least of doing severe damage by diverting top management attention away from the job they are supposed to be doing, and towards their lovely new building.

In general, I feel that the economics of architecture is that it is rather like the economics of higher education. Like diamonds for the wives of rich people, flash buildings are more a symtom of econmic success than a cause of it. But like diamonds, they are very pretty.

Adam continues:

There is no doubt that 30 St Mary Axe, the infamous "erotic gherkin" is the most impressive and innovative addition to London's skyline in decades.

My sentiments exactly.

While Tower 42, once known as the NatWest tower, was a huge branding coup in its day, it lacks the aesthetic appeal of the newcomer.


Canary Wharf, for all its height and (eventual success has near duplicates in many cities worldwide.

Presumably Adam, being the editor of Office Trends, has to be polite about this boring great lump, because it is a major office building..

Adam then goes on to draw his readers' attention to the piece by Piers Wehner (p. 38), and about that I'll do a separate posting.

Also in the issue is mention of Renzo Piano's London Bridge Tower, already commented upon here, which is apparently going to get built. One of a number of Micklethwait's Laws states that with new architecture you can't tell whether it will look good until it's built. Meanwhile, according to the faked-up pictures of it that I've seen, the top of it makes it look like a paper dart that has had the pristine perfection of its pointed nose rumpled by a collision, but which still points upwards in a determined manner as if all was well. I see that in my previous post about this building I said I feared it would look unfinished. I should have said slightly damaged.

There's also a discussion (p. 2) of another new tower that is apparently going to be built in New York, on top of another famous older building:

Lord Foster's first project in New York will be a 42-storey tower extension to create a landmark headquarters for the Hearst Corporation.

Located at 959 Eighth Avenue at 57th Street, the new HQ will also fulfil William Randolph Hearst's vision of a world-class tower at the site. The extension will surmount the company's existing art deco building commissioned by the famous media magnate, and designed by the émigré Austrian architect Jospeh Urban.

The six-storey masonry block, completed in 1928, was always intended to be topped by a tower, althoguh no designs were ever recorded. Seventy years later, the tower addition, combined with a remodelling of the original base, will provide an extra 1m sq ft of space for one of America's largest communications companies.

Lord Foster said: "The new Hearst Tower will express its own time with distinction, yet respects the existing six-storey historical structure. The tower is lifted clear of its historic base, linked on the outside only by columns and glazing, which are set back from the edges of the site. The transparent connection floods the spaces below with natural light and encourages the impression of the new floating above the old."

Well, that's not what a lot of locals think. A lot of them apparently think that this is the new crushing the daylights out of the old, and pretty much destroying it.

The principle embodied in this scheme, of towers rising above the old city frontages rather than just smashing them and replacing them with empty windswept spaces with pointless sculptures in them strikes me as a good one. Similar things are being done in London, right near me, and they look rather good.

And here, I think, is a case where the computerised publicity photos may be giving a false impression of how bad the new building is going to end up looking. I suspect that when it is finally built, the old building will assert itself more firmly in the eyes of passers by, and that the new building will indeed look more like a polite aerial addition and less like an imposition than is now feared. I think that the pictures, being views from a distance, understate the impact that the old bulding will continue to make on passers by.

Office Trends has a much better picture of this tower than I could find with my brief googling. But Office Trends is, I think, a strictly paper enterprise. My apologies to Adam Tinworth if I'm wrong about this, but I could find no Office Trends website mentioned anywhere. This, mentioned by Adam in his original Samizdata comment is the nearest thing to that I could find.

Office Trends update. Adam's one blog piece, I've just noticed, contains the news that Office Trends is to be replaced by a new publication, called GRID. Maybe this will have a website. "GRID" sounds to me like it will.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:16 PM
August 14, 2003
Art Deco versus the Modern Movement

Yesterday Alice Bachini posted the following:

Write me some encouraging comments

I'm feeling all alone here. Help.

I commented thus:

I thought your previous posting about Beethoven's Fifth was so good I stole the whole thing for my culture blog.

Which you already knew. And then I commented as follows:

And ...

... provoked by something you said about Art Deco equals Capitalism (when was that?) I watched a TV show last night about Art Deco, and guess what they said: Art Deco equals Capitalism.

I now understand twentieth century design an order of magnitude better than I did two days ago. And I owe it all to you.

This may not be right, about Alice having blogged that I mean. After posting that comment, I spoke with another woman friend who said that she had said something like this to me, in conversation. Maybe that was what I was remembering.

Next comment by me:

And ..

... during the Art Deco TV show they made a point that I think you would like a lot, which is that the sort of capitalism Art Deco was was women, for the first time in the history of the world, being able to go shopping, and buy pretty things.

Art Deco equals Capitalism equals Women – Modernism equals Totalitariansim equals Men. That was the message.

Interesting, I think you will agree. I'd never thought it through in exactly that way, but doesn't it make a lot of sense to see early twentieth century political nastiness as a pathological male reaction to rampant girlieness?

I think this is a good answer to all those male idiots who have started to say, on Samizdata, Why all this architecture? – as if architecture, had nothing to do with anything IMPORTANT, it's just a matter of taste, and taste doesn't matter. Wrong. Ditto all your stuff about shoes, Oxfam caste-offs etc.

Now I will copy and paste all these clever comments onto my Culture Blog.

Thanks for making me do this.

I had more to say. Next comment:


Just to emphasise the point about Woman/Man, Art Deco/Modernism.

The big difference between Art Deco and Modernism is in that "Deco" bit. Decoration. The Modernists loathed decoration. They believed in buildings, and chairs, and everything, having a ruggedly masculine what-you-see-is-what-you-get look to it.

The Modernists loathed decoration, in the way that many men loathe female make-up. It is deceitful. It conceals the true nature of things.

For culture vultures, see the scene where Hamlet confronts his mother in her boudoir. Quote:

Sorry can't find it. I have every other play the Big S wrote but not that one.

It goes something like:

"You bloody women, you slap on piles of make-up and prettify everything and lie about everything and "nickname god's creatures" instead of just calling them dogs and horses and "you there", and generally the earth should open up and swallow the damn lot of you. Fie upon you, fie, fie I say. I'll have none on't." Or something. And I may be muddling this up with what he later says to Ophelia. "Get thee to a nunnery!" – where they don't allow make-up, and you aren't allowed to go on shopping expeditions.

Women as decorators and prettyfiers and deceivers. It's not a new idea. But the Art Deco v. Modernism things is a recent round in the eternal boxing match of the sexes. And in the twentieth century it all got deeply mixed into politics.

All right, that's enough commenting for now.

I wasn't the end of my commenting, but I went off at various tangents that have no place here, now. I've cleaned up a bit of the spelling, but otherwise that was how I wrote it. My thoughts on Art Deco and all that are now very half baked, so I see no sense in fully re-baking the prose into which these thoughts were stuffed so messily.

But what a thing for a pro-capitalist culture blogger to have to admit to! A huge blind spot about one the twentieth century's most obviously pro-capitalist cultural trends. And me Mr Expert on Modernism.

There are two reasons why I never got Art Deco properly before. Neither are especially honourable. But I can't help that. They happen to be the truth.

First: For most of my life I simply haven't liked it. This is because al lot of the dreariest aesthetic experiences of my youth consisted of seeing fifth-rate fifth-hand after-echoes of Art Deco, in the form of grotesquely ugly furniture (twice my size don't forget) in places like cheap boarding houses or the home of my spendthrift grandparents, and even in some examples in our own home. Art Deco equals veneer equals seventeen shades of shit coloured horribleness. That was the aesthetic world I grew up in. Plus veneer frays at the edges in an especially ugly way, and sometimes peals off in great strips, revealing cheap and ghastly wood or even chipboard underneath. Urrgh!! On the other hand, furniture that simply consisted of blocks of wood that looked like what they were, big blocks of wood, was much better.

Ever since those experiences I have been a devotee, as far as interior decor and furniture is concerned, of the what-you-see-is-what-you-get school of aesthetics. My pathologically gigantic CD collection, for instance, is accommodated in shelving made of untreated timber. Modernist architects of my youthful acquaintance would use bricks of various kinds to support their shelves. My habit of propping up shelves with things like coffee jars or soup tins is a post-Warhol adaptation of the same as-it-comes aesthetic.

The problem with architectural modernism of the Modern Movement variety, i.e. the people that Art Deco was up against, is that this Modernist attitude (they insisted that it was not s style, because no surface covering was added) doesn't work out of doors. What can work beautifully for furniture does not work for buildings, and especially for buildings not basking in a warm Mediterranean climate.

In damp old Britain, you must think of the surface of a building as a distinct design problem from its structure. A building must have a "skin". You must separate the technology of architectural surfaces from all the other technologies that goes into a building; The emerging triumph of the refurbished modernist aesthetic represented by the likes of Foster and Rogers, who proclaim structure, but make sure that it looks the part, is based on accepting some of the tenets of the Modern Movement, such as the idea that buildings ought to look modern, but on rejecting many others, such as, most fundamentally, that beauty itself is suspect. (Shades of Hamlet, above.)

Second - and this is a notion I don't have either the time or the space to do justice to here, but I'll try to sketch the picture quickly: the ideological camp followers and fellow travellers of The Modern Movement managed, I believe, to misrepresent the basic conflict between the Art Deco attitude and the Modernist attitude as not a conflict at all, but as a first-one-then-the-other process. And if that reminds you of the way lefties have written about "late capitalism", well, it is intended to. I think these bastards pulled this trick on me. They didn't spell it out like that, or not so as I remember. They just bent the facts that way by nudging X into the foreground with big pictures, and shoving Y into the background with a few dismissive comments.

I have hardly done more than suspect what the trick was, so I can't give you names and dates, but I think they did this by emphasising the Art Nouveau antecedents of the Art Deco style, and calling that a rejection of High Victorian neo-classicism, and then down playing the Art Deco continuation and popularisation (which is surely what it was) of Art Nouveau. Art Nouveau was treated as "half way to Modernism" and given half a pat on the back, for getting a bit of the way towards the Modernist U- as they saw it –topia. Thus Charles Rennie Mackintosh gets huge attention, while the guys made much of in that TV show I saw the other night get no mention at all.

Again, this is exactly the kind of trick that Marxists used to damn the bits of capitalist progress which they couldn't ignore with faint praise, because of what they patronisingly claimed that it was blindly groping towards.

But Art Deco was not a step towards Modernism. It was a quite deliberate rejection of it. And the Modernists, at the time, knew this, and hated Art Deco, and said so. Or so I now believe and expect to discover for sure.

I have lots more reading and discussing and learning to do. A trip to the V&A Art Deco exhibition (damn – missed it) would be an obvious first step in the right direction. Because all the vibes I'm getting from that show are to the effect that this is all explained, rather than brushed under the Modernist carpet. It couldn't really be otherwise, really, could it? The very decision to hold the exhibition and make it work and make it successful and make it fun, was a decision to push Modernism aside and enjoy the contemporary alternative and opposition to it.

It took a slump and a war to unleash the temporary triumph of the Modern Movement. But now, we have just about shaken it off, taken the best bits of it, and generally learned to live with it.

I could go on, about the relentlessly dishonest manner in which anti-capitalist ideologues rage at all forms of truly popular popular culture while it is happening, but then, when it has proved its enduring validity beyond any doubt and despite all the muck they could chuck at it, have then turned around and claimed it as their own, twenty years later, while simultaneously entirely misrepresenting its true nature. And I guess I just did. But for now, I'll leave this at that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:17 PM
August 09, 2003
More new London architecture at Samizdata

The thing that was occupying my blogging time yesterday was this Samizdata piece about a couple of new London buildings, the relatively new MI6 HQ, and the brand new St George's Wharf which is just upstream from MI6.

The piece has pictures, and here are a couple more of these two buildings. This is St George's Wharf.


And this is a silly picture of the MI6 HQ, looking as if it is trying to hypnotise the building across the river from it. Actually of course, it was just a bus going by.


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:07 PM
August 04, 2003
Who is Santiago Calatrava? – on being a bright fifteen-year-old again

The New York Times comments approvingly on the fact that the man who designed this beautiful footbridge in Bilbao will also be doing some stuff at Ground Zero.

Perhaps the most important of these is the bold choice of Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish architect, to design a new PATH terminal on the site of the World Trade Center. Mr. Calatrava is a master of transportation architecture, and his selection provides just the kind of commitment to serious architecture that this page has often hoped for. His open, organic structures are startlingly beautiful, often evoking the kind of uplifting spirituality that this site will need. The fact that Mr. Calatrava was chosen by the Port Authority suggests that even the most matter-of-fact participants in rebuilding ground zero can see the wonder of its possibilities.

This man would appear to be what David Sucher calls a starchitect. Clever word. Did you think of it David?

Personally I tend to like starchitecture these days, although not in the earlier decades of my life, but I'll leave that argument until later.

For now I just want to give the Internet a pat on the back. The Internet, I think, is very good, which I did not think of first, but which I am now thinking with particular thoughtfulness.

I was once a failing architecture student, and as regulars here now know, I remain a (st)architecture fan. But until recently, I despaired at the cost of keeping up with it all. Keeping up means you had to have pictures, and pictures on paper are just too expensive, and too bulky to share a flat with if you get at all serious.

Until today, I had no idea who Santiago Calatrava was, or about that beautiful footbridge in Bilbao. I am, in short, thanks to the Internet, catching up.

I dined with Michael Jennings last night, and he was likewise raving about how much sheer stuff the average bright fifteen-year-old now has at his finger tips, compared to the time when he was a bright fifteen-year-old, searching through inadequate libraries for dumbed down books about whatever it was, that as likely as not weren't there at all.

I am now going to do a posting on my Education Blog, linking to this one, because the real point of this posting here is not Hurrah For Calatrava. It is hurrah that I was able to learn about the guy, and so amazingly quickly.

About fifteen minutes ago, I knew nothing of him. Then, the daily New York Times email, and I'm straight to the op-ed piece linked to above. Google search: "Santiago Calatrava". Bingo. Now I've done about half an essay on him. Education or what? I am myself back to being a bright fifteen-year-old.

Next question: what is a "PATH terminal"?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:00 PM
July 31, 2003
An ancient style car park and a modern style pumping station

I've just done another piece about car park design for Samizdata, featuring a picture of this one.

I said in passing that, although old fashioned looking wrapping for a technologically modern object, railway terminus style, seemed in this case to have worked quite well, it would be nice if the outsides of some car parks were a bit more modern looking too.

Part of the problem is that we were all, I think, so very badly burned in the sixties and seventies, a time when "multi-story car park" was just another way of saying "the ultimate in hideousness". Brutalist concrete was pretty ghastly when used to make things like London's National Theatre, but when applied to car parks, it sank to a nadir of ghastliness. Anything, certainly including faked up classicism, is better than that.

Michael Jennings commented with an intriguing comparison between car parks and airport buildings:

Until about 15 years ago, airports were considered an architectural and design disaster area that nobody ever said a kind word about, but since then the very best architects have started designing terminals and they seem to be considered almost prestige projects. (The three that come immediately to mind are Norman Foster's terminal at Stansted here in London and his much bigger one at Chek Lap Kok airport in Hong Kong, and also Renzo Piano's Kansai airport terminal in Osaka. There has definitely been a transformation there, as a class of building seen as functional and inherently ugly is no longer necessarily seen that way.

Car parks could go the same way. However, the advantage of airport terminals are that they are very big, and lots of people see them. Car parks are inherently much smaller, and as a consequence it is going to be hard to get decent architects interested in them, except as part of a larger project.

I also mentioned that in earlier times, designers were in the habit of dressing high tech buildings, such as water pumping stations, in old-fashioned garb. In that connetion, Gawain, of this fame (don't ask me what it is but it looks pretty), also offered Samizdata readers this link.

KILLJOY UPDATE from Patrick Crozier:

But wouldn't it be better if you couldn't see them at all? One of the things that struck me about many central Tokyo stations is that you can't see them from outside - they are encased in modern, multi-storey buildings. The station is there somewhere in the middle. Why not the same for car parks?

Come to think of it, isn't that the whole point of underground car parks?

Ultimately, cars are a mess. Far better (for the sake of aesthetics) to hide them away somewhere.

This is surrender, a counsel of despair. I still say it, car parks could look fantastic. Individual cars look great, often. Why can't clutches of them be made to look great as well?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:46 PM
July 30, 2003
Reflections on the Twin Towers in the movies and on movie acting – why facelessness can be a virtue

The other night I watching a rather silly movie called Pushing Tin, which is about insanely neurotic air traffic controllers – in other words the exact sort you do not ever want to be controlled by. As I say, rather silly, even if the background facts it all sprang from so insanely may have been accurate, for all I know. Anyway, my point here is that the very first shots of the movie, and the very last shot of all, right where it said The End, all had New York's now famously absent Twin Towers in them.

Like – I'm guessing – literally millions of others, every time I have watched a movie since 9/11, I have kept a special eye out for those towers, and it is astonishing – truly astonishing – how often they appear in movies. In Woody Allen's Manhattan, they even appeared in the title graphics, as the two ts of Manhattan.

American movies being American movies, any "symbolism" involved in such shots as these is kept at arms length. It's there for the movie buffs, but no character ever steps forward to explain it. That sort of self-consciously artistic art is not allowed in the American art of popular movie making. Nevertheless, those Twin Towers definitely meant a lot, to a lot of people.

If there had only been one Tower, as I seem to recall there once was before the second one got built, I seriously doubt if it would have been missed that much. It was the way there were two of them that really got to people, and made everyone miss them so. (Question: what would have been the reaction if only one of the towers had got knocked down?)

Often the Twin Towers appear for the simple reason that when they existed, they were the most striking feature of the New York skyline. They didn't symbolise anything. They were just there, along with the rest of the city.

But on other occasions, it seems to me, the Twin Towers were used in movies to evoke and to symbolise and echo that most elemental of human experiences, the partnership. As I say, I can't quote you chapter and verse where someone actually says this, but that's how it looks to me.

Usually, that partnership is the one that dominates movies (and especially the kind of soppy chick flick movies I generally like best), the partnership between a man and a woman. But I don't think that what makes the Twin Towers such an appealing representation of human partnership is to do with sex, or romance, or not in the superficial sense of those notions. The Twin Towers were not about sex, or about romantic dinners for two. I think what was appealing about the Twin Towers was their absolute and uncompromising equality.

Underneath all truly effective partnerships, sexual, romantic or any other kind, there lurks absolute equality. Sexually you may be different. What you each do during the day may be different. But a true partnership is a partnership of equals. And those two towers were absolutely equal.

This was emphasised by the extreme blandness of the shape of each tower. The Twin Towers spoken to the inner essence of the human experience, rather than to its outside idiosyncrasies. This is what souls look like on Judgement Day. Faceless.

Take those other Twin Towers, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. They are equal as well, but they is so much else going on with them, and above all so much in the way of surface decoration, that they don't have anything like the same universality or innerness – not to me. Also, they are holding hands in a somewhat co-dependent way, which for me slightly spoils the universality of the partnership symbolism. The Twin Towers stood entirely separate, structurally. Each was utterly self-supporting. Yet there were both were together, manifestly sharing life together. Perfect Partners.

Stay with me.

There is also something rather faceless about the most successful film stars. Often their faces are nothing remarkable, and the most characteristic thing that the most successful film stars often do with their faces is: nothing. They simply present them, blankly, "facelessly", and onto that blank the audience projects its own concerns and interpretations.

Modern architecture. Faceless. Modern movie acting. Also "faceless".

Old time acting (British theatrical acting): full of frills and gestures, to get its message across to the folks in the top row at the theatre.

New style movie acting (American): no frills. The face is so huge that it doesn't have to do anything. It can just be there. It communicates effortlessly, by erecting a blank slate upon which the audience scribbles its emotions.

Old time architecture: … New style architecture: …

The idea that the facelessness of big modern architecture might actually be a major part of its appeal is not one that I have ever spelt out to myself in so many words, yet I do believe that it is so.

I'd never thought of this stuff quite like this before, and I'm sure I'm not the first. But interesting, I think.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:25 PM
July 19, 2003
Skidmore, Owings, Merrill & Libeskind

This is potentially great news, and is a typical consequence of the fact that in the USA they know how to build skyscrapers. Twin Towers replacement competition winner Daniel Libeskind is to be made to work alongside David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

In the bad old days, Modern Movement architects put themselves in unchallenged charge of their buildings, and took in upon themselves to redesign everything, with relentlessly disastrous results.

Architecture is difficult. Architecture is big. Architecture is complicated. Architecture is like ship design. Would you want to travel in a ship designed by a Modern Movement architect, who told you that he had radically rethought what we mean by ship and that this was an experimental not to say revolutionary design? Only if you wanted to drown. To make big buildings work properly, you need people around who are the equivalent of the old master ship designers.

And Skidmore, Owings & Merrill are the master builders of skyscrapers. When they build a skyscraper, it scrapes the sky in regulation style, and it works. Letting some inspired amateur like Libeskind do his unvetoed best and worst for the replacement of the Twin Towers is about as sensible as getting him to redesign the Space Shuttle. But putting an adult in charge of the playpen might just work really well.

Libeskind in partnership with an SOM heavyweight just might be the best of both worlds. SOM towers work, but they tend to be rather dull. Libeskind buidings are not dull, but a Libeskind New York skyscraper is inviting technical cock-ups beyond counting, to the point where they might well have had to knock the damn thing down after a decade of failing to make it work. But if the SOM guy is allowed to veto Libeskind's "inspirational" designs until the thousands of things in a skyscraper design that have to be got right are got right, New York could end up with a fabulous new landmark, and one that will actually be usable as a building, to live in and to work in.

I haven't studied the Libeskind winning design. It looks like a mess to me, but as I always say with big architecture type buildings, you never really know until it's built. I never do, anyway.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:25 PM
July 18, 2003
The convergence of cars and architecture

All those car adverts which feature snazzy modern buildings with snazzy modern cars parked in front of them, or, on TV, driving past them, are saying something very interesting about modern buildings, which is that the people designing them have finally worked out how to make them look as snazzy and consumer-appealing as cars have looked ever since about 1940.

Take this advert I'm looking at for the Porsche 911 Carrera, in the latest edition of the April 2003 edition of Wired. (I looked for a link to it, but no luck.) The point is that the Porsche at the front and the snazzy building at the back – it looks like some kind of sports stadium, although of course as with all architecture it could be anything (form in architecture follows fashion, not function) - are both identical in colour, and seemingly encased in the exact same metal. They're both singing from the same song sheet. Each partakes of the other.

Or how about those adverts a few years back for Rovers, driving in front of a cool new German art gallery, designed by a "Britischer architect"? The text was hurrah, the British are coming. For me, the willingness of car people to treat architects as equals instead of embarrassing scum was at least as interesting as the patriotism angle. Finally, modern architecture was cool!

Yes, the architects have cracked it. Modern Movement orthodoxy said that structure and appearance should be inseparable. This was a principle that the car designers were at that same time consciously abandoning, and they were right. Compared those clunky old twenties form-follows-function junkheeps with the high-style big-fins fifties creations. The logic of technology is specialisation. To make a car, or a building, you have a structure to hold it together, and you have a skin outside it to make it look cool, and to be aerodynamic, and to keep out the rain. Cars and buildings now both sport the same curvy sheet metal, and the same curvy, tinted glass.

Since the fifties, car design and building design have been converging. The cars have been getting tighter and boxier and more utilitarian, while the buildings have been getting shinier and curvier and sparklier. Culminating in adverts like that Porsche one where it is acknowledged that, spiritually speaking, they are identical.

As another example, take a look at this building, even now groping its way out of the mud in a big site on Victoria Street, a walk away from where I live. Look at this architect's publicity fake-up. And tell me that this has nothing to do with car design.


Not that you can tell how good it will look. Making cars look cool is a doddle compared to making buildings look cool. With cars, you just make it and re-make it and re-re-make it until it is cool. With buildings, you make it, and it has to be cool first time. Difficult. I was an architecture student for a brief happy year and then for another long miserable second year when they made us do actual architecture and I realised that it wasn't for me, and that was the basic thing I learned. Architecture is difficult. But whereas in the sixties, Britischer architects knew almost nothing about how to do architecture, now, there's been a ruthless Darwinian weaning out, and the Lords of Britischer Architecture (basically we're talking Foster and Rogers, but there are plenty of others) are hitting the bullseye almost as a matter of routine. Then, they aspired to a brand new style of which they knew almost nothing, and most of what they did know wasn't so. Now, they know their business and they earn their money.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:35 PM
July 13, 2003
Why Gothic had to be Gothic

In his 1996 book, The Economic Laws of Scientific Research (which is my current book in progress), Terence Kealey supplies an excellent short description of the Gothic style.

The Anglo-Saxon churches that survive in England . . . example, show crude workmanship and a copying of Roman forms such as round-headed windows and arches. The Normans introduced higher standards of workmanship, but Norman romanesque was still a primitive architecture, requiring vast pillars and hugely thick walls. Around 1135, however, Abbot Suger, building S Denis, near Paris, inaugurated a superior architecture known as gothic. Gothic has at least three advantages over romanesque. First, its arches and windows are pointed, not round (the weakest point in a round-headed arch is the centre, but a pointed arch transmits the vertical weight to the supporting wall, so it is stronger). Second, gothic roofs are light because they are vaulted around individual ribs, so allowing the supporting walls to be thin and generously windowed (the romanesque barrel vaulting was immensely heavy). Third, the walls in a gothic building can be made thinner still by using flying buttresses. The consequence of these developments, coupled to improved standards of workmanship, was that gothic walls became so strong that they could consist almost entirely of windows if luminosity was desired (see, for example, the chapel of King's College in Cambridge) or that gothic cathedrals could be built immensely tall if that was the aim (see the cathedrals of Amiens, Beauvais or Cologne). The contrast between a Norman building (dark and heavy) and a late gothic one (luminous and sublime) speaks of the considerable medieval advance in technology.

This is another of those Big Technological Things (another one is airplanes) that the Modern Movement Architects felt envious about. Wouldn't it be great if the beauty of your buildings was the inexorable consequence of the way they had to be built? Gothic cathedrals (like airplanes) are structures of inexorable logic. They cannot be built any other way, and they cannot look any other way. Truth and beauty are combined perfectly. (Provided you set aside what is the Gothic Cathedral equivalent of flying.)

But modern building technology is such that a modern building can look any way you want it to. The Modern Movement Style, despite the protestations of its protagonists, is indeed a style, and it is a style that they tried to make look as they did because that was how they thought it should look. Inexorable logic had very little to do with it.

Sadly, they often did not succeed in making the Modern Style look as they wanted it to, as part of a general pattern of technological failure, resulting from the inherent faultiness of several central Modern Movement ideas.

Which just goes to show that when you are making decisions, it's best to admit that this is what you are doing. You are not giving in to the inevitable. You are making choices, and potentially, therefore, bad choices.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:25 PM
June 18, 2003
Gateshead – new glories and old horrors

Here's a collection of fun photos, taken at night, of the Tyne bridges in Newcastle (including the new Gateshead Millenium Bridge), and the Sage Gateshead, which is a new music centre under construction.

The Millenium Bridge doesn't go in a straight line across the river, it goes in a big curve. This means it takes longer to walk across but it also means that it can simply be lifted up into an arch when tall boats want to go under it. Brilliant.

The Sage Gateshead (an ugly form of words but that seems to be how you speak of this thing) has been designed by Foster and Partners. It has two concert halls, which will, we are assured have excellent accoustics, and a glass outer skin which will afford an excellent view of the Tyne. I believe that both claims will prove to be true.

There are some who hate this sort of thing. Anti-traditional modernity for the sake of it, blah blah. Well my "blah blah" tells you what I think of that kind of talk. I love this stuff.

I haven't seen the Sage Gateshead, but I think it looks very promising. I did take a close look at the (outside of the) Swiss Re Building in London and I love that, and love also what it has done for the London skyline.

Big public architecture is just getting better and better, as enticing now as it was soul destroying a generation ago. I used to live in Newcastle, and the most visually striking thing in Gateshead in those days, judging by the view of it from across the river, was the multi-story carpark from which Michael Caine threw one of his many victims in Get Carter. This particular one was the one to whom Caine said, famously:

"You're a big man, but you're in bad shape. With me it's a full time job, now behave yourself."

My favourite line from that film, however, was when a rather posh architect, observing some Caine induced mayhem, said to his pal, quietly but anxiously, words to the effect: "I've got an awful feeling we're not going to get our fee." Norman Foster he was not.

There's a big new Sainsbury's supermarket rising up behind its wrapping just near where I live, towards Victoria Sation, in Wilton Road. I can't wait to see what that looks like also. I tried googling for an architect's impression but could find nothing. So, wait and see, eh?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:34 AM
June 12, 2003
Michael Graves – from architecture to objects (and probably a good thing too)

This New York Times article about the architect Michael Graves, who is now wheelchair bound, includes a nice little slide show of some of his designs. (I couldn't get that particular link to work. Look for the kettle, and where it says "MULTIMEDIA", on the right of the NYT article, and click.)

It's hard to tell whether these designs are really any sort of improvement on the regular versions of the various things Graves has "rethought", or just rethinking for the sake of it, which is one of the great architectural vices of the twentieth century.

The kettle, for example. Pretty shape, sure. But why? Does it work well? Does it do what kettles are supposed to do?

And that chess set. Redesigning a chess set is the absolute quintessence of design lunacy, if you actually want to use it to play chess. The whole point of a chess set is that you want your mind to be clear of all distractions and to think about your moves. What you absolutely do not want is to be worrying about which is the bishop and which the knight, which is the king and which is the queen, even very slightly. You just do not need that. Playing chess with this collection of elegant abortions would be like you trying to read this blog if I had used a typeface "rethought" by this man. Lunacy. Stick with the conventional design, because that is what chess players are used to, and stick with it on principle. In the same spirit, I stuck with a conventional typeface, on principle. And I use a conventional language, with conventional words, and conventional punctuation.

That Graves is even willing to think about buggering about with chess pieces suggests to me that there is a basic wrong circuit in his brain, involving the complete non-understanding of the value of traditional design recipes. Even more shockingly, the error is in the exact area where you might expect him to be strongest, in the matter of the message that the look of something communicates (or in this case fails to comunicate). This is not a merely a technical failing, at the level of materials. (For example, I've no reason to think that these chess men are especially liable to fall over if jogged (although come to think of it, yes I have - this is what this entire posting is all about, dammit).) It's a failure to understand how design "messages" actually work in the brain of the receiver of them. I'm not impressed.

It may seem unfair to bash away at someone like Graves for being unconventional. After all, his buildings look much more conventional than a lot of earlier and more "modernist" architecture does. But looking at his stuff, and seeing only the surface of it I do admit, it looks to me like it could be mere surface. It evokes the look of the conventional, but I wonder whether it really is. His buildings, in other words, look more like they're going to work properly than some anti-conventional blockhouse where the water collects on the roof in great stagnant pools and then leeks down the central staircase, but looks can deceive. What I suspect is going on is that, just as he takes the chess set and messes around with it, while leaving it just about recognisable as a (bad) chess set, he takes conventional architectural gestures and mucks about with them (but not enough to make them look totally non-conventional) and then slaps them on the outside of the same old stupid concrete boxes.

There's a lot of that about.

Of course, if what is really being sold here is just decoration, then okay. But a little hut in the garden which isn't actually constructed properly and which falls to bits in two years doesn't even work as decoration, let alone as somewhere to have a tryst in or to get out of the rain in. On the other hand, if the thing is a best-seller, it probably works.

The good thing is that if you buy that damned chess set, for example, and then regret it on account of it being idiotic, that's a few hundred dollars down the tubes. When you buy a piece of bad architecture, and especially if it's a really big piece of bad architecture, that's something else again.

This is why architects so often shift, as Graves seems to have been doing, away from designing big buildings and towards designing smaller, mass produced objects, like kettles, and like furniture. Wise move.

The irony is that "architects" aren't actually trained to do architecture properly, because too often they've been bainwashed into believing that "rethinking" is an automatically virtuous thing, when in fact it mostly results in stupid and unusable junk.

A stupid and unusable chess set is not a huge problem. You just don't make any more of the things, and stick to the tiny percentage of objects you've designed that have turned out to be quite good, and you mass produce those.

A stupid and unusable big city hospital, on the other hand, or a stupid or unusable big city concert hall (such as the Royal Festival Hall here in London – where the accoustics are a horror story) is not something that can be "discontinued". There's only one of it, and the damage has all been done.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:54 PM
June 06, 2003
City Comforts

Here's a quick first response to a blog that came to my attention via comment number four on this posting at Samizdata. Here's the permanent spiel at the top of City Comforts Blog:

Cities, architecture, the 'new urbanism,' real estate, urban design, land use law, landscape, transport etc etc from a mildly libertarian stance. Our response to problems of human settlement is not "better planning" and a bigger budget for local government. But alas, conservative and libertarian (not the same, to be sure) response to land use issues is barren and in denial. Our goal is to help foster a new perspective.

I love it.

In the very first posting I look at, there's a link to what David of City Comforts says is an interesting discussion about car parks at something called Tinotopia. Mr Tinotopia credits Patrick Crozier with asking about why car parks car parks are so ugly at Transport Blog, but I actually think it may have been me at Samizdata, although I was commenting about something Patrick had linked to about how politicians like trains but people prefer cars.

Whoever, I find all this linkage extremely encouraging. David (the City Comforts man), thanks for getting in touch, albeit in a roundabout (get it – a car reference – a type of road junction – oh never mind) way.

I am going to do a lot more rootling around both in City Comforts and in Tinotopia.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:05 PM
June 02, 2003
More on the aesthetics of car parks

One of the oddities of Samizdata is that comments come in on postings long forgotten. Usually they can be allowed to settle back into the archives, but there was one a day or two ago, on the subject of the the aesthetics of car parks, which I found interesting. Says David Sucher:

Not exactly on point but if you are interested in parking (and the reality is that urbanism starts with the location of the parking lot) take a look at …

… and then he supplies a link to a site peddling automatic car parks.

The original posting said that since car parks make up such a large part of – and an increasing percentage of – the surface of the earth, wouldn't it be nice if they looked a bit nicer? Yes it would.

One way of making car parks nicer would be to just make them nicer, the ones we already have, the ones we now drive into and park our cars in. But another way is to turn parking a car into an automatic storage problem, which has the potential to make car parks far more spacially efficient, and that is very relevant to aesthetics. The aesthetic problem of so many car parks is that they tend to sprawl so horribly all over the landscape.

Benefits of the automatic parking system include: optimization of space utilization, security (vehicle and personal), convenience (all ground level access), lower garage owner's liability insurance, greater depreciation schedule, lower lighting and ventilation requirements (no cars driving around inside; no people go inside), and lower emissions and less pollution (clean parking system).

That sounds like something that would be a lot cheaper to decorate nicely than your usual multi-story.

So even if on the face of it these machines are as ugly as sin, they are nevertheless a great aesthetic contribution to city life, and to life generally. If these things can be got working in city centres, why not eventually at more out-of-town spots like sports stadia and shopping centres?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:25 PM
May 25, 2003
Nice tries

I'm not sure if I'm going to like this, but it looks like a really good effort.

In general, I have a personal architectural category called something along the lines of "They tried but, for me, it didn't work." Example: the Channel 4 Headquarters building in Horseferry Road, just near where I live. And I fear that this Beijing Olympic Stadium could end up in that category.

But the funny thing about architecture is: until it's built you can't tell. You just can't. It's like the movies. Until it opens, you don't know.

But, at least you can try, and with this stadium, someone is really trying.

My fear is that it is going to look like one of those lampshades which you make by wrapping string round a balloon and then popping the balloon.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:39 AM
May 10, 2003
More on vernacular architectural continuities

Today more journeying by car, and I can now report further on the matter of architectural vernacular continuity. I hope that last phrase makes some sense. I'm referring to the feeling I get in these parts (the extreme and nearly Spanish parts of France in Perpignan and places south) that the way they build houses now is an evolved version of how they have always built them, rather than a modernistical discontinuity imposed from above by big housing entrepreneurs, and of course by big government and big government's regulations.

Start with that matter of big government. Government around here is not all big. It is also small. Local government in France is a lot stronger than it is in Britain, and this has, I'm sure, been good for local vernacular building traditions and bad for any attempts to impose a national building style based on nationally available - but not necessarily locally familiar - materials.

Seond, as I have already reported here, the typical house is built not by a big firm for a clutch of later customers buying a house off the shelf, but by a small builder building a bespoke dwelling for an individual house buyer, who has already purchased his own plot of land. Today, we were driving along a valley further inland, towards the higher parts of the Pyrenees, and when you do that you can look across to the other side of the valley and see one of European life's greatest visual glories, namely a town all built in a similar style on the side of the hill, but with each building being slightly different, at a slightly different angle, and with slightly different design decisions embodied in it. Together these buildings form, not a unified architectural design, but something far more life enhancing (because life-resembling): an architectural cluster.

Hill towns are classic examples of clusters. Another classic cluster is the skyscraper cluster. There again you see a cluster of buildings, each built in response to a distinct set of problems by a separate centre of decision-making, but using sufficiently similar materials and to solve sufficiently similar problems for the result to be a cluster of not (A) not identical but (B) very similar buildings.

The difference between the average hill town cluster and the average skyscraper cluster is that skyscraper clusters are still alive and being added to, with new smaller towers being added in the outskirts and brand new huge towers being added in the middle, while the average cute hill town cluster in Europe is now finished. If it is changed, the changes will be in a different style, so if you want the original cluster to be preserved, you'd better preserve it in aspic, so to speak, and refuse planning permission. In practice, the way you preserve a hill town cluster is to switch off economic development and turn the whole plave over to the tourist trade. Cute, as I say, but also depressing.

Well, in the valleys of southern France, if the valley in southern France that I saw today is anything to go by, there are clusters of town houses perched cutely on the side of hills which are still growing. These clusters do not depend on economic stagnation to preserve them from the new, because the new is sufficiently like the old to be a satisfactory addition to it. Because the venacular has suffered not technological discontinuities that are discontinuous enough to be aesthetically disruptive, you can see newly minted cuteness springing up right in front of your eyes.

The other item of information which I can now report concerns what I said in a previous posting about how modernism itself seems to be part of the vernacular in these parts. Concrete and stucco do not seem to be an alien imposition, but are rather a local habit.

I was right, and I have now discovered part of why I was right. It concerns roofs. In Britain, roofs are made of timber. But in these parts, roofs are made of, guess what? - reinforced concrete. Why? because timber gets eaten by termites.

Now. Think about it. You can build a wall with bricks or blocks or stones, and cement. So far so orthodox. That's how walls have been done in Britain for thousands of years also. But you can't do a sloping roof with bricks or blocks, unless you want to go to the bother of building a gothic cathedral every time all you actually want is a house. Thus it is that reinforced concrete is used in these parts not just in modernistical monstrosity office buildings and gigantic blocks of flats, but in regular old fashioned houses. The regular old fashioned house that I'm staying in now has a reinforced concrete roof. Brit tourist that I am, I couldn't tell this at a glance from the street, because this concrete roof is protected on its top by old fashioned terra cotta tiles. I only found out about the concrete when I was being shown round the house, including the attic.

What this means is that the average small builder in this part of France, and I'd guess in the entire southern, sunny part of Europe, knows about reinforced concrete as part of his daily routine. So when such a person moves up the building food chain to making small office blocks or blocks of flats, reinforced concrete is his obvious method. It's a smooth technological path. Again, there's no discontinuity. Reinforced concrete is not a technlogy that has to be imposed by the big building firms; it bubbles up spontaneously from the small building undergrowth.

I visited Athens in the late 1960s, when Athens was in the midst of a frenzy of building development. But although concrete was being used almost universally, it was being used in a vernacular way rather than in an "imposed" way, if you get my drift. The symptom of this is that buildings tended to line up with the old streets rather than with each other as part of some new masster plan. I loved it, but it is only now that I have worked out why. Yes it was modern, in the sense of technologically not eighteenth century, or ye olde, or hill town cute, but it still had that timeless old world charm, that came from the combined effect being a cluster rather than a grid, an aggregate of many separate decisions rather than than the imposition of the one dictatorial plan. That's the feeling you still get here in the towns too, mostly.

I am being asked to stop, and in any case I want to. Please pardon all errors, repetitions and plain blunders in the above. I have no time even to check this through, only the time to save it and scuttle away. Maybe when I get home I will be able to clearn it up at my leisure, and add some links. Meanwhile, I hope what went up first time around makes enough sense to make sense. See you tomorrow I hope.

UPDATE (Sunday): I went on about rooves in the above, but I should have included floors as well, for the same reason. Termites. It only reinforces the point about how small builders here are familiar with reinforced concrete technology. Although today I did see some timber work being done on a house under construction, so maybe an antidote to the termites has been discovered recently.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:13 PM
May 08, 2003
In the land where architectural modernism makes sense

I am now in the south of France, just outside Perpignan, and it is idyllic. Sunshine. Fluffy clouds. A gentle breeze. A house with a tiled roof and lots of rooms.

For all the Anglo-Saxon complaints about France, there is something very good about the way they do houses. Maybe it’s just in this part of France, but I suspect the principle applies everywhere.

In Britain, houses are built in great clutches, by entrepreneurs. In France, houses are built by householders.

In France, being a medium-sized house building entrepreneur is very, very difficult. Most building enterprises, like most shops, are mom and pop outfits, and the way you buy a house, if no one will sell you an old one of the sort you want, is to buy a new one, from one of these mom and pop outfits. First you buy your plot of land, and then you, and mom and pop, work out what sort of house you’ll have and they build it for you. There are rules about zoning and sight lines and so on, but each house tends to be different and distinct. And my hostess says that it also tends to be very nice. You don’t build a bad house if you yourself are about to live in it. There doesn’t appear to have been this radical discontinuity in building technology and architectural fashion that so afflicted Britain in the years after World War 2. Here, the local traditions of building and house design seem to have just carried on evolving. Even modernism itself seems here like an evolved way of building rather than an alien imposition. All those blank walls of stucco, all the balconies, and all the façade games played with balconies, here make sense, in the bright south of France light.

Come to think of it, Le Corbusier did quite a lot of his work in these parts, did he not? I seem to recall lots of plans for Algiers that he did. Hereabouts, he doesn't seem quite such a lunatic as he does if you are stuck in the pouring rain in some hell of a London housing estate perpetrated by some idiot English accolyte of his.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:42 PM
May 03, 2003
Architecture and music

I've used my blogging time today to comment on this at 2Blowhards, here, here, and here. In particular, I have been recommending this article.

Meanwhile I have been listening to another favourite piece of music. Dvorak's Piano Concerto is liked by me a whole lot more than it seems to be admired by the classical music world generally. My favourite recording of this is the first one by Rudolf Firkusny on the Westminster label, almost certainly because this was the version I got to know it with. There's a greatly admired recording also on EMI by Richter. (He's accompanied by that famous under-achiever Carlos Kleiber, who can do no wrong in the opinion of most reviewers. So why doesn't he make more recordings then? Wanker. And something equivalent also goes for Martha Argerich, who is fast becoming one of classical music's most over-rated phenomena. She refuses to make solo piano recordings because she reckons music making is about teamwork not egoism. She has no problem with doing piano concertos, though, which are not egotistical at all. Or something. Maybe she just gets lonely. Silly woman. Or maybe one of her husbands has dosed her with a version of socialism that forbids solo piano recordings. Whatever. But I digress.)

Other pieces by great composers which deserve to be better known than they seem to be:

J. S. Bach: Cantata BWV 30. I especially recommend the recording of this on an Erato two-for-one set by Fritz Werner, where the opening and closing chorus (same thing) is a wonder to hear.

W. A. Mozart: Divertimento No. 11 in D Major, K 251. I have yet to hear a recording of this I didn't enjoy. I especially love the Menuetto (Tema con Variazioni).

That'll have to do for today.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:48 PM
April 14, 2003
The towers of London

I have always envied New York its skyscrapers, and regretted the horizontal smudge that is London, neither Georgian and glorious any more, nor new and shiny as it could be. "Why does it have to be so big?" asked Prince Charles of that uninspiring lump in Docklands. Say I: why did it have to be so small?

So this is terrific news.

Slowly, relentlessly, architects and developers are pushing the boundaries, finding chinks through which they can drive immensely tall buildings up above the London skyline. Norman Foster's Gherkin is nearly complete. Attempts last year to stop the Bishopsgate Tower failed. And tomorrow the public inquiry opens on the most dramatic skyscraper so far, Renzo Piano's London Bridge Tower, which, if built, will soar 1,016ft, making it Europe's tallest building.

Individually, with the exception of the Gherkin and this one by Renzo Piano (Piano and Rogers designed the Pompidou Centre in Paris), the newly arising towers of London look like being fairly undistinguished lot, taken one at a time. But that's to miss the point. They won't be "taken" one at a time. They'll form a cluster, and skyscraper clusters are far more than the sum of their parts.

The London Bridge Tower may become the tallest in Europe, but the tallest in the world has got to be built at Ground Zero in New York, to replace the Twin Towers, and that's what the current "winning design" includes. Not two very tall towers. One tallest of them all monster. Spot on. What happens at ground level is very unimportant by comparison with the big picture. So London won't challenge New York. But it's starting to make Berlin, Paris, Frankfurt and the rest of them look very third team by comparison. Eventually the view from the Wheel may get to be as good as the view of the Wheel itself.

Too bad the top of the London Bridge Tower looks like it won't ever look finished.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:34 PM
April 12, 2003
On the irony of airplane aesthetics

One of the great ironies of twentieth century aesthetics is that one of the most aesthetics-driven design enterprises, architecture, has been obsessed by its perceived aesthetic inferiority to one of the least aesthetics-driven design enterprises, namely aircraft design. Modernist architects queued up ever since the aircraft was invented to say that buildings should be like airplanes, in that the form of buildings should follow their function, in the way that the forms of aircraft followed their function. And the architects were right. If airplanes are beautiful, it is because they have to be beautiful.

There has been no more perfect illustration of this fact than Concorde, whose withdrawal from commercial service by both British Airways and Air France was recently announced.

The shape of Concorde was determined by the demands of aerodynamics. Since then, the other great legislator of airborne beauty has been stealth technology. Here too, amazingly beautiful shapes are created by the application of the most rigidly non-aesthetic considerations.

Airplanes. They're a bit like life, aren't they?

Just a thought. No time for more. Rushing off to a blogger social.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:35 PM
April 09, 2003
Those crumbling shopping centres have mostly now crumbled completely

Rootling around in got me to this, which is a piece about those funny (in both senses – peculiar and ha-ha) American shopping centres which were deliberately designed to look broken, crumbly, tilting, or with curling walls. I loved them when I first saw the pictures. Very post-modern, deconstructivist, blah blah. I never learned the art-speak around these things. I just thought they were a laugh, and that, exactly as intended, they inserted a little cultural fizz into a part of modern life (and a very big part) which is normally considered aesthetically beyond bothering with. (See also this Samizdata piece of mine about the aesthetics of car parks, which was animated by the same ambition.)

Sadly, it seems that these peculiar and ha-ha erections are mostly now no more. The company which commissioned them went bankrupt.

But, what a difference it makes that we still have lots of pictures of them from before they were destroyed.

In his From Bauhaus to Our House, Tom Wolfe wrote derisively about "buildings" which only ever existed as drawings and projects. They never "actually existed", yet architecture critics wrote elaborate essays about them exactly as if they really did exist.

Here is another architectural hybrid: the building which did exist, but only for a brief while, but of which there is an elaborate architectural and pictorial record. One can imagine, for example, the curling wall, being faked up again in another setting, such as a big museum, or being rebuilt as an art gallery.

I don't know all of what this means. One of the many possibilities of blogging rather than only essay-ing, is that you can take half-baked thoughts out of the oven and have a nibble. (Incidentally, note how the word "essay" now means the finished article. Taken literally, the word actually means only an "attempt", like this posting.)

But, one of the things this story means is that here as almost everywhere in art, photography – and record-keeping and recording (and distribution e.g. via the internet of said records) technology generally – has had a profound effect on every aspect of the thing, from the making and pre-publicity for the original creation itself, through to the experience of the final physical object, to the point where we can all still gaze at the photos long after the things themselves have disappeared into the rubble that to begin with they were only pretending artfully to resemble.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:47 PM
March 05, 2003
How I learned about Modern Architecture from the inside - and how I realised that it is now getting better

When I was hardly more than a child, I tried, very half-heartedly, to become an architect, and I drank in the ideology of the Modern Movement in Architecture, like some idiot who had joined a religious cult. The cult spat me out, although not because I lacked belief - I just couldn't do the drawings. And, a few years older and distinctly wiser if not wise exactly, I resumed the attempt that is still in progress at my version of a normal life. I never really liked what passed for modern architecture at the time in my life when I was trying to learn how to add to the problem. But I did suffer a bad case of false consciousness on the subject. I thought I did.

And I wouldn't have missed this experience for anything. It really is very special to have lived through one of the twentieth century's most extraordinary delusions from the inside, in the grip of the thing. I acquired a knowledge that is denied to normal people of this bizarre moment in human history. Normal people wonder what the hell those insane architects were thinking of when they built all those crazy housing estates and office blocks. Normal people were baffled that architects who prated endlessly about "form following function" seemed uniquely incapable of making a building that did actually function properly. What in the blazes was going on? Well, I am in a position to tell you quite a lot of the answers.

By the early to mid seventies I was thoroughly cured of my Modernistic architectural delusions, and like any other normal person I spent the next decade walking past scaffolding, shuddering, and asking myself in despair: What ghastly atrocity are they going to put here?

But then, it happened. I can't remember exactly when it was. Early nineteen eighties I think. Anyway, one day, I was walking past a London building site, and I heard myself say, not: "What the hell are they going to put here?", but rather: "Ooh, a building site, I wonder what they're going to put here!" And I knew at once that this was not a feeling that I was forcing myself to have. This was the real thing. I now genuinely liked modern architecture!

Modern architecture, from about the mid-seventies onwards, has, in London, been getting better and better. Expect many more postings here explaining why this is so, and I hope, further pictorial proofs.

For more of my opinions on all this, see this piece in Free Life, about skyscrapers, Ayn Rand, the Word Trade Centre, and related matters. By the way, I've changed my mind about the World Trade Centre and what they ought now to put there. I now think it should be a "political skyscraper".

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:29 PM
March 04, 2003
A great new London building

Yes, a great new London building. My heading does not lie. And it's nearing completion. These things are a matter of taste, I know. Different steeples for different peoples, and so on and so forth. But I love it.


The new Swiss Re ("Re" stands for reinsurance) building, otherwise known as 30 Saint Mary Axe, is a five hundred foot tower shaped, we Londoners are fond of saying, like a gherkin. To be more polite, it looks like an elegant, carefully tended coniferous tree, or maybe a big christmas light bulb. Or maybe a bulb of the vegetable sort, for it looks as if it has indeed sprung up, rather than merely been constructed.

Last week I took a few pictures of it, and here they are. Do what you like with them so long as your lawyers don't turn around and tell me that they aren't mine any more.

The usual "story" of architecture these days is that unrepentant modernists like Sir Norman Foster, the designer of this new tower, are at one end of the spectrum, while at the other end are to found the practitioners of neo-classical revivalism. But what I find interesting is how much both ends of this spectrum have in common, underneath their mutual loathing and feuding.

Both believe in a building being beautiful and stylish. Both want us regular people to say "wow I do like that" when we first set eyes on one of their efforts. And they both want their buildings to fit in well with the buildings or landscapes around them. They merely quarrel a little about how to do these kinds of things.

Does fitting in mean harking back to the styles of the past and the styles of nearby buildings, or does it mean placing an unrepentantly modern building next to older ones, with each setting the other off, and emphasising each other's particular style and nature? Does beauty mean embracing and celebrating the latest technology, or keeping it at arms length? The answers vary, but these are now the questions.


When the Modern Movement in Architecture first peaked in the nineteen sixties, the buildings were not trying to be beautiful or to fit in, and they most certainly were not trying to be "stylish" – certainly not in London. Modernism was not a "style" – a word that your True Modernists could never use without a sneer. Modernism was no mere celebration of the superficial. It was a total rejection of the past not just in the form of its styles, but in the form of a serious intention to destroy the actual buildings of the past! (It's hard to believe, but that really was the idea.) Modern buildings weren't there to nod politely at their surroundings, to make a nice stir and a nice contribution to an already much loved landscape, or to turn an ordinary landscape into a loveable one. Modern buildings were going to rebuild the entire world in their own brutally honest image, with no polite nods, and with the uncompromising honesty of a panzer regiment. Modernism no more accommodated itself to or contributed to the pre-existing architectural setting than a total political revolution nods politely towards existing power structures and worries about how to fit in with them.

There was no theoretical limit to size and scope of a Sixties Modern Movement building. The edge of the site was not a true boundary; it was a mere cease-fire line, a temporary dotted line on a campaign map. A "building" was not a single shape; it was a plan that was in principle infinitely extendable, like a repeating wallpaper or textile pattern.

Sixties Modernism made a point of exposing the structure, and making the surface of the building totally transparent. How should a building look? It should look how it was! It should proclaim its internal structure to the world. Sixties Modernism rejoiced in totally transparent glass, for it wanted the barrier between the interior and the exterior to be as invisible and insignificant as possible.

Yet the economic logic of modern technology (never mind the demands of aesthetics) says that it is far easier to build a structure in accordance with structural logic, and then cover it up with a surface that protects that structure and which protects the internal environment which teh structure supports and which is its purpose, and which, as a separate project, also looks nice. To regard the outer skin of the building as no more than an interruption to "honesty" caused by those silly clients not wanting not to be exposed to the elements is to ask for environmental and for aesthetic disaster.

The outer glass skin of 30 Saint Mary Axe is a decorative feature, as is the diagonal-based structure which supports it, with the twirls on the surface of the building now having been adopted as the logo of the building. Sixties Modernists must be twirling in their rotting concrete graves.


My only worry about this, I now believe, wonderful building is that when the cranes have gone, it may lose something of its present charm. There is now something outer-space-like and science-fictional to the way in which the determinedly utilitarian cranes now minister to the vast other-worldly pod, like worker insects serving their queen, or like space engineers maintaining a visiting spaceship. When the cranes are gone, will the thing look rather – I scarcely dare to ask this but I must – dull?

I'll keep you posted.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:38 PM
February 24, 2003
(Robert Hughes on) the extreme success and the in-between failure of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

I now have one of those digital TV boxes, which get you more free channels to look at. Thanks to it I recently saw a TV show about Mies van der Rohe, and I did a posting about the Bauhaus (where Mies taught for a few years) on my education blog.

I find that videotaping digital TV doesn't work. The sound goes all haywire. But turns out that one of the oddities of these free channels is that they are in the habit of repeating shows only hours after first showing them, and I am now watching a film of a piano recital by Evgeny Kissin which I caught the end of earlier in the evening and thought I had missed. More to the point, I got to see that Mies van der Rohe programme again.

First, a word of praise to the presenter of it, the handsomely jowly Australian Robert Hughes. Until now I've known Hughes only through his bizarre televised pronouncements about abstract art and a few second hand rumours of his opinions about political correctness. Hughes claims to see all kinds of profundities in the various big name abstract daubs of the twentieth century, in the manner of a courtier confidently describing the stitching and colouring of the Emperor's new clothes, and until now my view of Hughes was that he is a bag a wind. But this Mies show was excellent, as were the two other architecture shows Hughes also did, about the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, and about Hitler's architectural alter ego Albert Speer. There were rather too many pointless shots of Hughes himself doing nothing very much except hobble about on his crutches or gaze profoundly into the distance. That aside, he was making judgements about these architects, and giving you biographical information about them and their architectural struggles and triumphs, that made perfect sense and which were clearly about something that was there in the buildings, and not just in Hughes' profound brain.

About Mies, Hughes said something that is obviously completely true, but which one does not expect such an art-speaky person actually to say, which is that Mies' in-between sized buildings are boring dross. He took a close look at the Farnsworth house, and that looks very fine. The huge skyscrapers are splendid. But the two, three and four story buildings he did for the Illinois Institute of Technology are totally boring.

Hughes did not say much about why, but I now will try to.

I think there are two reasons for the failure of Mies' in-between sized buildings. The Mies aesthetic is all about big, simple, Platonic shapes, which for him usually meant rectangular boxes. The "massing of forms in space" etc. etc. But like most craftsmen (which is what he was), Mies had his own favourite materials, which he used again and again for all the buildings he did, small, medium, or big. Again and again, he would go to work with rectangular boxes made with steel frames, concrete floors, and large sheets of glass.

If you do this for a very small building, such as the Farnsworth House, the overall shape is clear. There are not enough horizontals and verticals to break up the simplicity of the shape. The Farnsworth House has Platonic beauty.

If you do this for a very large building, such as the mighty Seagram Building, the grand simplicity of the shape is also clear. There are so many horizontals and verticals that instead of breaking up the simplicity of the shape, these verticals and horizontals merely form a fine-grained texture on the surface of a flat shape. The Seagram Building has Platonic beauty.

The problem came when he did in-between sized buildings, like the IIT buildings. The grand simplicity of the shape is not clear. The detailing is repetitious enough to be boring, but not vast enough for the detail to be ignorable, in favour of the vastness of the great shape. The IIT buildings are extreme and striking only in their extreme mediocrity.

Mies claimed to be doing a new form of classicism. Big deal. A boring office block done in accordance with the rules of proportionality that governed the design of the Parthenon is, I'm afraid, still a boring office block.

And then, second, there is the weather. A modern building that has become shabby and had started to peal and rot and turn blotchy is a particularly horrid sight, because there is no decoration to assert itself through the blotches and retain the original architect's version of what the building is supposed to look like. Your average Modern Movement, Mies-type building is notoriously liable to look nicer when miniature and made of balsa wood, then in its full sized outdoor version.

Small Mies buildings, like the Farnsworth House, are small enough for their owners to be able to keep them in mint condition and to refrain from defiling them with inappropriate décor or furniture, provided they want to. The owner of the Farnsworth House is now somebody very rich called Palumbo, who worships the place, and who, I'm sure, keeps all weather damage at bay, damn the cost. (Old Mrs/Miss/Ms Farnsworth took against Mies and his house, and made a point of smothering the thing with wildly inappropriate décor and garden features, as if hanging towels on Michelangelo's David. She and Mies may even have had some kind of love affair, which caused her to turn against Mies in later years.

Mies skyscrapers are big enough for the weather to be powerless. The Platonic shapes are just too big for any blotches or fading to matter, certainly not at a reasonable distance. The shape is all.

But, the in-between buildings are large enough for it to be a serious burden to keep them spick and span, but too small to triumph over the ravages of weather and time. They are thus doubly appalling. They are boring from the word go and they quickly also become shabby and dilapidated.

Hughes then went on to say that Mies can't be blamed for his imitators. But I disagree with Hughes' claim that these imitators seriously diverged in the quality of what they achieved from Mies himself. The imitation Mies big city big blocks and big towers that now abound throughout the world are as impressive – or as brutishly dull if that's what you think of them, which I don't provided they're big enough – as Mies' originals. There are also many little modern houses done in the Mies manner which, if looked after devotedly like the handsome but utterly impractical sculptures that they are, can likewise look very fine. And the in-between junk first built by Mies and then spawned by Mies and by the Modern Movement generally is all as drearily hideous as the Mies originals were, but on the whole no more so. And all for the same reasons.

I speak with feeling about this in-between stuff. I live in London, and for about two decades between about 1957 and 1977 almost all new London buildings was done in this ghastly style. Perfectly decent brick buildings would be destroyed to make way for these horrible blockhouses, and I hold Mies, in part, personally responsible for this catastrophe. Very few buildings in London are big enough or small enough for the Mies style to work well. Mies plus London equals architectural horror.

Besides which, Mies was a teacher (hence my piece on my education blog). Is a teacher supposed to accept no responsibility for the alleged horrors of his pupils? It's one thing to be an architect and be copied. But Mies was a professor of architecture for twenty years. Also, Mies fancied himself as a craftsman. Crafts are supposed to be passable on to the next generation. Is it a craft, if it only works for the original creator of it?

Where Mies, and the whole Mies attitude, did produce miracles of good taste and beauty was in furniture design, and in the design of twentieth century indoor domestic objects in general.

These items are small enough for the Mies fascination with the detail of different materials to register and be beautiful.

And, this stuff doesn't get shabby and ugly as a result of the weather, because it almost always spends its entire life indoors. On the contrary, a piece of kitchen furniture with a completely smooth outside surface is by its nature very easy to keep clean and hence looking great.

Above all, unlike architecture, the furniture and kitchen equipment and light fittings and so on that Mies and his many followers and imitators designed is mass produced. This means that the really successful Mies and Mies inspired designs can be mass produced by the tens of thousands and sometimes by the million, while the far more numerous failed designs can been quietly junked. These people invented twentieth century interior design.

Everything I have already said about the virtues of the Farnsworth House applies also to his best furniture designs, such as the splendid Barcelona Chair, and you don't even have to be a millionaire to keep a Barcelona Chair looking good.

But to talk of Barcelona Chairs is to miss the real point of Mies' impact upon our lives. Few of us have Barcelona Chairs. But we all have kitchens, and in your kitchen as in mine, I guarantee you, the influence of Mies van der Rohe is all pervasive.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:06 AM
January 08, 2003
Architectural modernism – evolved and imposed

There's an interesting discussion of modernist architecture by Michael over at 2 Blowhards:

And what a strange conception of architecture! In such fields as poetry, painting and movies, playing abstract, avant-garde, highly-aestheticized games is a pretty harmless activity. Why? Because no one has to read a poem or see a movie. But when it's a question of apartment buildings and office buildings, hundreds if not thousands of people have no choice but to interact with them, often on a daily basis. Modernist (po-mo, etc) architecture is telling these people that they've got to live with (and often live in and work in) buildings that are essentially aesthetically-driven. Ie.: "I am obligating you to live in, work in, and walk by my piece of sculpture."

What kind of ego and arrogance does it take to impose yourself, let alone your aesthetic preferences, in that way? No wonder the star architects are often said to be doing "egotechture." (And how many people actually share those aesthetic preferences -- abstraction, "clean lines," empty space, blankness, shimmer and dazzle -- anyway?) I'm shocked that more people don't react to the buildings they're made to work and live in as angrily as they did some years back to Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc."

Michael has a picture of the Farnsworth house above that, and when it comes to matters at ground level modern-ist architecture is indeed an arrogant derangement of the evolved, traditional and best way of doing things.

But when it comes to skyscrapers the situation is more complicated. Modern architecture itself is an evolved style. It is the traditional way - to build very tall American office blocks. The modern movement people adopted this style, keeping the skyscrapers but mucking about with the ground plan. So when Mies van der Rohe brought the style back to America, the fit, provided you forget ground level, was not half bad. The Farnsworth House and a normal house are a universe apart. The Chrysler building and a Mies tower are not nearly so different from each other as that.

The reason why Americans have such trouble shaking themselves free of modern-ism is that there is a baby in the bathwater, the baby being their own traditionally evolved way of doing things.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:10 PM