Brian Micklethwait's Blog

In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Category archive: Design

Wednesday August 20 2014

One of my favourite www destinations just now is the Evening Standard website.  Presumably because there are other Evening Stardards in the world besides the Evening Standard, the Evening Standard of London, the website of the Evening Standard is called “London News” (even as its website is something different, involving the world “standard").

A lot of this is because, more and more, I love London, and the Evening Standard, not unnaturally, has lots of London stories.

A particularly fine one recently featured this delectable photo:

image

The young woman is an Evening Standard journalist, Miranda Bryant, and the swimming pool is on floor 52 of the Shard, being one of the amenities offered by the Shangri La hotel.

One of the edges of this swimming pool is right next to the glass wall of the Shard, and I can’t help thinking how great it would be if the glass wall of the Shard were to double up, at this point, as the wall of the swimming pool.  Think of the photographs this would provoke.  This is why God invented x50 zoom lenses.

An ultrazoom photo I have long wanted to take of the Shard would feature a gorgeous young woman in silhouette, at the top, where the light goes right through the building.  But such a woman swimming might be even better, especially if the light could go right through that also.

One of the reasons why architecture is such an influential profession these days (if you are one of the top dogs of the profession – one of the “starchitects") is that the kind of down-the-pecking-order architects and engineers whose job is to contrive things wanted by their bosses or clients, and make these things work properly, can now, it would appear, make absolutely anything work properly.  Therefore, the starchitects, the ones who decide how things are going to be and to look, can now make them be and look any way that their starchitectural whims determine.  (See, e.g.: Zaha Hadid.) Not so long ago, a swimming pool high up in a skyscraper would be a disaster waiting to happen to everyone foolish enough to situate themselves anywhere below it, and in particular a disaster for any idiot architect silly enough to ordain such a thing.  Now, it is just a matter of some starchitect saying “do it”, and it is done.

Sunday August 17 2014

I departed for France on Tuesday August 5th.

My flight from London City Airport to Quimper in Brittany was due for lift off at 11.40am, so I obviously had to leave home at about 9.20am, thereby reaching City Airport as early as I could without having to pay for the journey.  (Old Git passes only cut in at 9.30am, or such is my understanding.) We infrequent flyers can’t be too careful.  I would far rather wait two hours at an airport while reading a good book than endure any fear of missing my flight at any point on my journey to the airport, still less actually risk missing it.

One way to get to London City Airport would have been to take the District Line to Tower Hill, and then the D(ocklands) L(ight) R(ailway) from then onwards, with just the one (somewhat complicated) change.  But my computer said it would be quicker to change twice, first at Westminster from the District Line to the Jubilee Line, and then again at Canning Town to the DLR.  The Jubilee Line is quicker than the trundlingly antique District Line and quicker than the relatively new but cautiously robotic DLR, and it may also have realised that both these changes are far easier than the one change from Tower Hill (District) to Tower Gateway (?) (DLR).  So, I changed at Westminster, and again at Canning Town.

All of which explains why, when I got to Canning Town, and was awaiting the DLR train on to City Airport, I got to see this:

image image

I couldn’t believe my luck.  I hadn’t even left London, yet already I was beholding once-in-a-lifetime wonders!  For yes, your eyes do not deceive you.  That is a crane, holding a bridge.  I love cranes, especially when they are doing something interesting.  I love bridges, especially new ones and especially when they are still being built.  So you can imagine my delight at observing a bridge being craned into position, by a crane.  And all of this presented to me as if by a performer who is determined to communicate to the maximum effect with his audience, assembled on the top deck of Canning Town Tube/DLR station.

On the left there, the first picture I took.  On the right, a later picture which shows where the bridge was about to be deposited.  There are two bright red bits, the same bright red as the bridge itself, clearly at each end of where the bridge would shortly be.

All of this happened on Tuesday August 5th.  A day earlier and it would not have started.  A day later and it would have been a fait accompli, with the installed bridge presumably looking exactly as it looks now.  Only by being there exactly on August 5th, and only by choosing the exactly correct railway journey combination, was I able to observe this delight.

(Imagine if I had happened to sale past this, on August 14th 1999.)

My week in Brittany had got off to a great start.

Saturday August 16 2014

Before I start ruminating more convolutedly about my recent stay in France, there is just one more shot that I want to show you from that ASI boat trip.

It’s a photo I took of the guy who was driving the boat, and (I presume) the man who was in command of the boat:

image

I can find no mention anywhere here of the actual people who command and work on the boats, just lots of stuff about how great the boats are for partying on.  So I don’t know the name or rank of this man.  But, whoever and whatever he is, I love his look of calm but ever so slightly suspicious watchfulness, with his ever so lightly raised right eyebrow.  It’s the face of a man who knows that, mostly, his job is just a job, but that this is a job that just possibly might, were he seriously to neglect his duties, turn very nasty.

Besides which, you never quite know what those people back there partying might get up to, under the influence of all that drink that the other members of the crew are serving them.  A boat full of tipsy revellers, even more than a normal boat, needs a sober worker to guide it and to see that all is well, no matter how friendly the waters they are travelling on.

There’s something else about this picture that intrigues me.  When I was a kid, wearing short trousers was the essence of being a kid, and graduating to long trousers was the essence of ceasing to be only a kid and starting to grow up.  Yet now, more and more indisputably grownup men, doing their indisputably grownup work, wear shorts.  Anyone care to speculate about what this means, or about why it is happening?

Friday August 01 2014

I get google emails whenever “3D printing” is mentioned at all prominently on the www, and the latest one definitely got my attention.  It linked to a story about a guy who has been 3D printing in his garden.

A building contractor living in Minnesota has developed his own 3D printer which can print concrete directly from CAD design software, and he has used it to 3D-print a castle in his back garden.

Here is how that looks:

image

Calling that a “castle”, as this story does, is a bit of a stretch.  At the moment, if this is anything to go by, open-air and architectural 3D printing seems to have all the deft elegance and aesthetic flexibility of a dot matrix printer.  But the equivalents of laser printers, and then (what we have now) cheap laser printers, and cheap colour printers, will surely soon be with us.  And in due course the building trade will become something completely different, and hence buildings will too.

Yet another reason why I would love to remain alive for another century, just to see how this kind of stuff develops.

In England, this guy would either have failed to get planning permission for this erection, or else he would now be being told to take it down, for having failed to get planning permission.

Sunday July 27 2014

I just heard someone say in an American TV sitcom (I love American TV sitcoms) that they’re not going to answer the phone without knowing who it is, “like it’s 1994”.

I still do this, with my old 1994 style phone, which I greatly prefer to mobiles, because when I am out and about, I don’t have to answer it, and because phones connected to your house with wire cannot be lost, and because I know exactly where it is when it rings, and because that ring never changes.

Quite often, when I do answer, it’s a junk phone call, offering to extricate me from a financial error that I personally have not made by urging me to commit another financial error, and as soon as I realise it’s junk, I put the phone down.  Does this constitute some sort of “success” for the junk phoning enterprise?  Look, they answered!  Because obviously they knew who we were, this not being 1994, and yet still they picked up the phone!  Hey, we’re getting through!

Much of life these days seems to consist of doing many futile things, but contriving for these things the appearance of non-futility.  These days?  I suspect all days that have ever been, with humans involved, and no doubt many other species also, both before and now during the human epoch.  Only the futile things and the means of contriving a non-futile appearance for them change from time to time.

I don’t mind junk phone calls.  If they were more frequent, they would annoy me.  As it is, if there is a pause in incoming phone calls lasting a few hours, it is soothing to be informed, even if only by a robot actor voice spouting nonsense, that my phone is still working.  The pause was because nobody wanted to talk to me.

When answering junk phone calls, I pause any music that may be playing.  I do not mind this.  There is a part of my brain (yours too?) where you remember the musical phrase you were listening to when you last paused the music, and when you unpause it you carry on listening just as you would have done normally.  I even suspect that pausing deepens my response to particular pieces of music, by fixing particular moments of them in my brain more firmly than might have happened otherwise.

Since I am now rambling like the really old person that I am rapidly becoming, let me ramble some more.  In connection with none of the above, here are the wheels of a big mobile crane that I photoed in Victoria Street a while back.  Click on it to get the crane:

image

I like cranes.  That one is, I think, the Spierings SK599-AT5.  I love how you can find out about things like this, these days.  And this time it really is these days, rather than all days. 

Here is a link to a toy version of this crane.  Do contractors use toys like this to plan their jobs, I wonder?  As well as just to decorate their offices or amuse their spoilt children?

It is now late morning on Sunday.  Are sermons like this, when the priest is getting old, but is too well liked for anyone to want to sack him?  With a blog you can ramble anyway, because nobody can sack you.

Saturday July 19 2014

You don’t see many of these these days:

image

I’m talking about round headlights on cars.  About ten years ago, and I have photos that notice the moment, car headlights, having been round for about three quarters of a century, went absolutely mental, with silver moldings and weird shapes of all kinds.  It’s been like that ever since.  Now, a car with round headlights is an old car.

Like this one, the car with the above headlight:

image

It appears to be one of these, or if not then something very like it.  I photoed this car this afternoon.

A while ago, I started photo-collecting round headlights, and the cars that sport them.  There may accordingly, although I promise nothing, be a huge spread of them here, any month, or year, or decade, now.

Some new cars these days have pretend round headlights, such as the new German Mini.  But they are only pretend round.  Look carefully, and they are not properly round, like the one above.

Friday July 18 2014

Here is a London picture, with the River Thames turned into a floor, very badly carpeted with very bad carpet tiles:

image

It’s Google Maps’s 3D-isation of London.

Despite the bad river carpeting, I would like to explore this Virtual London.  But none of the reports I read of this exciting new virtuality tell me how can do this.  Can I?  And if I can, will I have to pay?

Thursday July 17 2014

The are two photos which I took last Monday.  The one with the bright blue sky, me looking up, was taken in Wigmore Street.  The one looking down, was taken from the ME Hotel Radio Rooftop Bar.

They are photos not so much of roof clutter, as of roofs, roof in all their elaborately designed glory.  But, you can spot the late twentieth century incursions:

image image

The aesthetic impact of radio and television aerials does not seem to be much discussed in the architectural world.  It could be that it has, and I merely haven’t noticed, but I don’t think that’s it.

Here is what I think is going on inside the heads of architectural aestheticians, on this subject.  The deal we will make with you mindless philistines is: you can have your damn aerials, because we know that if you are not allowed, by us, to have your damn aerials, you will hut us down and burn us at the stake.  But, we refuse to talk about them.  We will not incorporate them into our aesthetic theories of how things look, and should look.  We will not see them.

Which is how we got from the above scenario, where everything on the roof is elaborately designed, but the first few aerials have crept into the pictures, but have not been seen by the architects and their aesethetic guides, to this:

image

Yet still, they don’t see it and they don’t talk about.

Really, really weird.

I’ve been pondering roof clutter for a while now, but the more I ponder it, the more weird the phenomenon is.

What this reminds me of is a distinction that my sociology teachers at Essex University all those years ago made much of, that between the sacred and the profane.  The sacred stuff here is the regular “architecture”, the walls, the windows, the roofs, the interiors, and so on.  All of that is sacred, and is accordingly obsessed over, every tiny square inch of it, every subtle colour change, just as priests obsess about every word in a prayer.

But those aerials are profane.  They don’t register.  They aren’t architecture, any more than a tracksuit worn by a impoverished member of the congregation in a church is a sacred vestment, the details of which must be argued about by bishops and theologians, or the sales pitch being done over the phone on Monday morning (by someone who had been devoutly praying on Sunday) is itself a prayer.  That sales pitch is profane.  Forget about it.  Don’t even think about it.

Those aerials, in among the sacredness of all those designed chimneys and roofs and little towers, are profane.  And hence invisible.  Aerials are designed, by aerial designers, to make sense of radio waves.  But they are not designed to be looked at.  They are a pure case of form following function.  Architects ought to love them, if they believed their prayers.  But they don’t because what is there for architects to add?  Nothing.  The job has all been done, by profane aerial designers.

Well, I don’t know.  I’m thinking as I go along here, but writing it anyway.  Which is all part of why I have this blog.  At this blog, I am allowed to be wrong.  This is a thinking allowed zone, you might say, a place where the thinking does not have to be done before the blogging begins.  This is, you might say, a profane blog.

Wednesday July 16 2014

From Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik (pp. 80-81):

Given that literally half of the world’s structures are made from concrete, the upkeep of concrete structures represents a huge and growing effort.  To make matters more difficult, many of these structures are in environments that we don’t want to have to revisit on a regular basis, such as the Oresund bridge connecting Sweden and Denmark, or the inner core of a nuclear power station. In these situations it would be ideal to find a way to allow concrete to look after itself, to engineer concrete to be self-healing.  Such a concrete does now exist, and although it is in its infancy it has already been shown to work.

The story of these self-healing concretes started when scientists began to investigate the types of life forms that can survive extreme conditions.  They found a type of bacterium that lives in the bottom of highly alkaline lakes formed by volcanic activity.  These lakes have pH values of 9-11, which will cause burns to human skin.  Previously it had been thought, not unreasonably, that no life could exist in these sulphurous ponds. But careful study revealed life to be much more tenacious than we thought.  Alkaliphilic bacteria were found to be able to survive in these conditions.  And it was discovered that one particular type called B. Pasteurii could excrete the mineral calcite, a constituent of concrete.  These bacteria were also found to be extremely tough and able to survive dormant, encased in rock, for decades.

Self-healing concrete has these bacteria embedded inside it along with a form of starch, which acts as food for the bacteria.  Under normal circumstances these bacteria remain dormant, encased by the calcium silicate hydrate fibrils. But if a crack forms, the bacteria are released from their bonds, and in the presence of water they wake up and start to look around for food. They find the starch that has been added to the concrete, and this allows them to grow and replicate.  In the process they excrete the mineral calcite, a form of calcium carbonate.  This calcite bonds to the concrete and starts to build up a mineral structure that spans the crack, stopping further growth of the crack and sealing it up.

It’s the sort of idea that might sound good in theory but never work in practice.  But it does work. Research now shows that cracked concrete that has been prepared in this way can recover 90 per cent of its strength thanks to these bacteria.  This self-healing concrete is now being developed for use in real engineering structures.

Maybe Miodownik is very good at explaining things, or maybe I am just ready to be learning this stuff.  Probably both.  I chose that excerpt because my average reader may not know about such things as bacteria which automatically repair concrete.  But the truth is that I am almost embarrassed by how much I am reading that is new to me, or only vaguely known, as a sort of historical rumour.

I had no idea, to take just one example, who invented/discovered stainless steel, or where, or how.  Now, I have a much better idea.  The story is told on page 29 of this book, which I heartily recommend to all technological illiterates who would like not to be technological illiterates.

Monday July 14 2014

Today, by some means or another that I forget (other than it was the internet) I learned that the new trains for Crossrail will supplied by Bombardier.  Oh yes, I learned it here.

And then, and again I forget how exactly, I learned about this bizarre vehicle, the Bombardier Embrio:

image

Oh yes, how I got to this was I googled for Bombardier pictures, and in among lots of airplanes and some trains, I saw this weird one wheeled thing, and investigated.

It looks like something Sylvester Stallone would ride in a movie.

It isn’t real.  It is only a “concept” vehicle, and concept vehicles never happen.  They just become part of the past history of the future, along with flying cars, robots to do your vacuuming and serve you tea, and elaborate space travel by the end of the last century.  Still, weird.

I think what made me dig this up was that I have a soft spot for Bombardier, having done a few days, over the past few years, of planespotting at London City Airport, my favourite airport in the world.  Lots of the planes that fly in and out of there are made by Bombardier.  The world’s famous planes are made by Boeing and Airbus.  But the quirky ones, the ones with propellers, the ones you don’t recognise, are made by companies like Bombardier.

I also like the way that railway carriages have changed during my lifetime.  They have got better and better, with their automatic doors and spacious interiors.

Friday July 11 2014

City A.M. has a report about another possible bridge across the Thames, this one being one that will connect Chelsea to Battersea.  There is another map here, also showing all the various options for where exactly to put this bridge.  And I see that I already mentioned this Chelsea to Battersea bridge idea in this earlier posting.

This makes three new London bridges that are now being talked up, planned, hustled, whatever.  There is also the Joanna Lumley bridge, which will go from Temple tube station to across the river from Temple Tube station, or then again maybe not.  Both this and the Chelsea to Battersea bridge are footbridges and bikebridges, but they are also forever talking about a big road bridge just down river from City Airport.

If this Chelsea to Battersea bridge gets built, it will be only a dozen minutes (two to three dozen minutes if I want to get close) from my front door, so you can bet that (although I promise nothing) I will be photographing its progress relentlessly.

I hope they make it look good.  Bridges can look so great that it is a serious shame when they don’t look great.  It’s good that they’re going to have a competition for this one.  This, I think, will unleash a contemporary force that is starting to interest me a lot, which is internet informed public opinion.  Now, all the various contending pictures of what they might or might not do can get published and talked about beforehand, far more easily than in the years B(efore the) I(nternet).  The people who rule the world basically don’t care exactly where, or even if, this bridge gets built, so they are perfectly willing to let its final design be settled by Vox Pop.  And Vox Pop, when it comes to bridges, is a force for good, I think. If you are going to spend 8X million quid on a bridge, you might as well spend 9X million quid and make it look really good and distinctive.  That’s what I think Vox Pop will say, and for once I agree.

LATER ON FRIDAY (i.e. not the small hours of Friday morning): More bridgery today from City A.M., this time in the form of a plug for that East London road bridge, already mentioned above.

Tuesday July 08 2014

Yesterday, London was bent totally out of shape by the Tour de France.  It became a French provincial city for the day, as I suppose some French people think it is always.

It rained.  I was otherwise engaged, and in any case did not fancy fighting my way through crowds for the mere chance of snapping a herd of cyclists racing past me for about twenty seconds, especially after I had watched a Lance Armstrong documentary on my television.  What a shit.  And what a shitty sport.  Besides which there would, I reasoned, soon be plenty of photos on the www of the drugged up veloherd pouring past the Docklands Towers, the City and its Big Things, Parliament, Buckingham Palace and so on.

Most of the pictures I found today involved Parliament and Buckingham Palace rather than more modern Big Things, and the veloherd (all with hats designed by Zaha Hadid) of course, and the best Tour de France in London snap by far that I found today was taken three months before the big day, when they were still telling everyone about it:

image

Classic.  Seriously, what better background could there be to a sport that is all about wheels?

Original and slightly bigger picture, with the story, here.

Saturday July 05 2014
Tuesday June 24 2014

Here’s a piece entitled Google Glass:10 reasons Brits won’t buy it.  The basic argument is: it’s creepy, it’s uncool, it has various other more specific disadvantages.

I think that the writer of this piece, Robyn Vinter, makes the very common error of saying that a piece of kit won’t catch on because, in her opinion it is, in a general sort of way, not nice or not good.  I know it’s only a jokey piece, pandering to ignorant prejudice and general technophobia, but it contains a serious and wrong idea about how technology gets established in the wider world.

Technology doesn’t catch on because people like Robyn Vinter think that it’s cool.

Technology or software, or whatever, catches on because it solves a particular problem for a particular group of people, and they start using it.  People like Robyn Vinter then say: ooh, how very uncool you are.  And the people using the thing say: guess what Robyn Vinter, we don’t care what you think, we are finding it extremely useful, to do what we want to do.  If you don’t think we look cool, this is entirely your problem and absolutely not our problem at all.  Gradually other uses for the thing in question accumulate, and quite a few people use it for several different things and get really excited and try to use it for everything, because they now like it so much.  If enough uses are found, then the alleged uncoolness of the thing just gets overwhelmed by people using it, in public, in full view, and to hell with the coolists.  If the coolists still want to write articles about how uncool this thing is, even though thousands of their potential readers are now using it, then they are pushed aside and other writers willing to say that it’s cool after all are told to write that instead.

So the question is: will Google Glass be useful enough?  Basically, it would appear to be a screen that you can use while you are doing something else, to do computer stuff and regular stuff at the same time.  Sounds extremely useful to me, for ... various things that I now know not of.  But I am sure things will turn up that it is very useful for, even essential for.  Work, basically.  Not strutting about in the street.  No.  Getting worthwhile things done, more efficiently, faster.  That kind of thing.  We’ll soon see, anyway.

This guy is much more optimistic.  Better, he understands how Google Glass will or will not catch on.  What can it do?  Not enough, yet, seems to be his answer.  But that may change.  My guess is it will change.

See also, this piece by me from way back, about another sort of coolist with delusions of grandeur.

And see also these pictures of another useful thing being used in an allegedly very uncool way, namely people taking photos with tablets.  This tendency has in no way abated since I took those snaps.  Quite the opposite.

There is also a definite whiff, in Robyn Vinter’s piece, of the status anxiety I wrote about in this recent piece here, if not in Vinter herself then in the readers she is appealing to.  What if this gizmo makes us look and feel stupid?  What if it demotes us in the pecking order?  The answer is: if it does, it does.  That won’t stop it being used.

Sunday June 15 2014

Mick Hartley writes about England’s loss to Italy last night in their opening World Cup game:

Much football punditry has always seemed to me to be an effort to provide a plausible post-hoc storyline for what was to a considerable extent a matter of chance.  … as though the whole enterprise must be made sense of by virtue of the winning team being the team that deserved to win.

Very true.  (I’m guessing that, with luck (ho ho), this book will have a lot more to say about this tendency.) Actually, much of the appeal of football (to those to whom it appeals) is that the “best” team on the day often doesn’t win.  This means that the supporters of bad teams can live in constant hope of upsets.

This also explains why, at the early stages of a season, surprising teams are often at the top of the table.  Later, the law of averages asserts itself inexorably, and the best teams arrange themselves in logical order at the top, and the surprise early leaders sink back into the pack where they belong.

All of which makes something like the World Cup quite good fun.  All you have to do to win it is win five or six of your first six games.  All the best teams have to do not to win is lose one or two of their first six games.  One of the great moments of all World Cups is the one when a Much Fancied Team gets on its Early Plane Home.

What the pundits seem to have been saying about England is that, because the “expectation level” is low, they might do quite well.  The expectation level is low so it’s high, in other words.  My take on England is that they are a fairly bad team, who played fairly well against Italy, and lost, and that they will probably do fairly badly, but you never know, because there are only half a dozen games for each team to play.  I will video-record all of England’s games, such as they are, just in case.  I live in hope of a small series of upsets.

I also video-recorded the Spain Netherlands game, by far the most remarkable one so far.  Will Spain be this time around’s Much Fancied Team early departure home?

And I also videoed the first game, between Brazil and Croatia, with its truly dire opening ceremony.  This was a real collector’s item of awfulness.  What is it about these terrible opening ceremonies, with their meaningless costumes and absurd dance moves?  Witnessing them is like listening to someone talking in a language has only recently been invented - for aliens to speak in a movie, for instance - which consists of no actual words, only meaningless sounds.

The opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics in London contained many things I disagreed with, and I continue to disagree with the entire principle of me and all other anti-Olympickers having to pay for the damn thing for the next thousand years.  But at least that ceremony contained stuff that meant something.  Although come to think of it, maybe the only people who understood it was us Brits, and for countless mllions elsewhere, that was also the gibbering of aliens.