Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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- Bell end?
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- Filling in a Meaningless Triangle near Kensington High Street tube
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Category archive: Architecture
Photo taken in 2008 by me, from a train, just past Queenstown Road railway station, on my way from Waterloo to Egham, the railway station of my childhood:
That’s not two towers joined together by a bridge.
This is two towers joined together by a bridge:
Those two towers are going to be built in Copenhagen harbour. They’ve just received the go-ahead. Here’s hoping they do indeed go ahead.
Two more additions to the Bald Blokes Taking Photos collection. On the left, a Bald Bloke photos Big Ben, in 2006:
On the right, in 2010, a Bald Bloke photos the Wheel, above, with Big Ben in the background.
Indeed. Today was a lot colder than of late, and a lot brighter than of late. I guess that happens when the clouds go away, in November. I was on my way out around midday today, and took these, the last one through a train window:
The first two are looking across Vincent Square, towards Victoria Street and at Westminster Abbey. The next three are of building work at the top end of Victoria Street, where there is not a lot of building work going on. And finally, Big Things, from the train out of Victoria.
I was very pessimistic about all the new stuff around Victoria Station, but that big spikey thing is looking very cool.
The first picture is the odd one out. No cranes.
This is a hastily drawn illustration of a characteristic urban phenomenon of the late twentieth century, namely: the Meaningless Triangle:
The blue lines are the edges, aka the curbs, of two city streets, which, for reasons lost in history, meet each other at an angle.
The black lines are are piece of Modern Movement type Modern Architecture, circa 1970, made of grey concrete, with big, boring windows. Something like an office block or a department store. The Meaningless Triangles are the pink bits.
In the days of Modern Movement type Modernism, architects were obsessed with making everything rectangular, which explains that jagged, saw-like edge to the big Modern Movement type building, at the bottom of my diagram. In order for the building to be in line with one of the streets, it has to be at an angle to the other street, because the streets are not themselves at right angles.
So, why not just have wall to the building that are not at right angles? This is what is done now. Why not then?
There are many reasons. One is that doing this kind of thing, in the days before computers, was a bit difficult. But more fundamentally, right angles were, you know, Modern. Only the despised higgledy-piggledy Past had walls at crazy angles.
More fundamentally, Modern Movement architecture was not so much about building a mere building, as about building a small fragment of a potentially infinite urban grid. In a perfect world, the Modern Movement type building would not stop at the boundaries of the site. It would instead stride madly off in all four directions, covering the whole earth in a single rectangular grid. You think that’s mad? Sure it’s mad. But this was how these people thought, in those days. Hey really did publish schemes to cover the entire world with just the one new building, and smash all the others.
The boundaries of the site were an affront to the building. The building did not end gracefully and decorously at the boundary, and then show a polite face to the world. No. It merely stopped, as gracelessly and rudely as possible, and in a manner which threatened to go bashing on, just as soon as a socialist upheaval (preferably worldwide) could clear all the higgledy-piggledy crap of the past out of the way. In a perfect world, there would be no boundaries, no property rights. No arbitrary lines where one bit of “property” stops and another bit starts. Oh no. All would be owned by the People in Common, and our architect is the instrument of the People in Common, and supplies tham all, all I say, with a new and infinitely huge new building.
I know, insane. Don’t blame me. I’m just telling you what these lunatics were thinking.
Luckily, the higgledy-piggledy old world kept these maniacs under control. They had to stop their damn buildings at the edge of the site. If they had tried to bash on beyond the site, they’d have been arrested. But, they could make the ragged edge of the building look as ragged and ugly as they liked, and they did.
Hence all the Meaningless Triangles.
If you want to hear me talking about the above, go to this video, of me giving a talk about Modern Architecture, and start watching at 41 minutes.
What got me blogging about Meaningless Triangles was that I recently, in the course of wandering through my photo-archives, came across this photo:
What we see there is a very meaningful building, built to fill in a Meaningless Triangle. As I recall, this is a few dozen yards from the entrance to Kensington High Street Tube station. Yes, I just found the Caffe Nero in Wrights Lane, near that very tube station. That’s the one. I took my photo of it in 2010.
Because of the uncannily precise weather forecasts with which modern civilisation is blessed, I know that today will be a great day to be going out, which I have not done for a while. And I intend to check out this, which is a gas holder that has been tarted up into a big old public sculpture stroke small park inside:
There are mirrors. I like mirrors. Mirrors make for fun photos.
Also, notice how, in this other picture, …:
... it would appear that they (Bell Philips) will be inserting a block of flats into another nearby gas holder. Cute.
I’ll let you all know how it is all looking, at the moment. Assuming I manage to find it and it’s not still a building site behind barriers. With these kinds of things, the internet can only tell you so much. By which I mean that it could tell you enough so that you wouldn’t have to go there to check it out, but it generally can’t be bothered. So, since it’s only a short Victoria Line journey, I will go there. To check out not only the Thing itself, but to see what other Things I can see from inside it, framed by it.
The modified cliché is a standard method to spice up writing. You take a too-much-repeated clutch of words, like a metaphor so stale that you hardly notice the metaphor any more, and you alter it or add something to it to bring things alive again. (Said Vinegar Joe Stillwell of Louis Mountbatten: “There’s less to that young man than meets the eye.” I still remember something Harry Phibbs wrote about how he was “eager to intrude upon private grief”.)
Something similar can be done with architecture, on a far more grand scale:
The individual bricks, so to speak, of this architectural pile are impeccably dull. Yet they are combined in a very dramatic way. Which makes the impeccable dullness that is thus still very visible all the more entertaining.
Modifying a cliché has particular architectural advantages, because it means that you already know how the cliché bits work, because that’s been done thousands of times already. (See this earlier posting.)
Of course, combining them in this new way could create all manner of problems of different sorts, so you still need to be careful. But, despite the dangers, I like this.
It was something to do with the fact that it was unseasonably warm yesterday, which resulted in fog this morning in London, but only in patches. And the Evening Standard, which now keeps virtually ticking over at the weekend, reported on the various London fog photos people have been taking.
This, taken by this guy, is my favourite:
Cranes (and the Walkie-Talkie) in front of the fog. Shard stabbing through the fog.
Photo taken last night (much cropped) from the downstream Hungerford Footbridge, looking north towards Charing Cross.
Don’t know what building it is.
Why (on earth, you might perhaps say) do I like this picture, which I took yesterday, through my own (very grubby) kitchen window?:
Partly, it’s the scaffolding. I love scaffolding.
But there is also that net, the purpose of which is to stop pigeons turning the courtyard under it into a huge toilet. I like how my camera’s autofocus function can still find its way through this net, to the scaffolding. And I like how the net is straight from side to side, but curvey from end to end, which we can see, foreshortened, very well
But, note also the three yellow tennis balls, which have been trapped in the sky by the net since the early summer, I think. How did they get there? How did three tennis balls get there? You’d think whoever did it would have learned, after the first one got stuck out there. Maybe they had three balls, and the game was too good to stop, until they had to stop because the balls ran out.
Best of all, though, is that this will only be the first of plenty of such pictures, as the purpose of the scaffolding gradually reveals itself.
Vanity Fair piece about Frank Gehry. Key paragraph:
Things progressed slowly from there, as the architect continued to work more audacious swooping and compound curves into his designs. Eventually he found himself hitting the outer limits of what was buildable. This frustration led Gehry on a search for a way to fulfill his most far-reaching creative desires. “I asked the guys in the office if there was any way they knew of to get where I wanted to go through computers, which I am still illiterate in the use of,” he explains. Gehry’s partner, Jim Glymph - “the office hippie,” in Gehry’s words - led the way, adapting for architecture a program used to design fighter planes. As Gehry began to harness technology, his work started to take on riotous, almost gravity-defying boldness. He dared to take the liberties with form he had always dreamed of, fashioning models out of sensuously pleated cardboard and crushed paper-towel tubes. He always works with models, using scraps of “whatever is lying around” - on one occasion a Perrier bottle. “I move a piece of paper and agonize over it for a week, but in the end it was a matter of getting the stuff built,” he tells me. “The computer is a tool that lets the architect parent the project to the end, because it allows you to make accurate, descriptive, and detailed drawings of complicated forms.”
“Frank still doesn’t know how to use a computer except to throw it at somebody,” ...
I smell a classic two-man team there. Gehry dreams it. And this guy called “Glymph” (ever heard of him? - me neither - I got very little about him by googling) works out how to actually get the damn thing built. To quote myself:
Even when a single creative genius seems to stand in isolated splendour, more often than not it turns out that there was or is a backroom toiler seeing to the money, minding the shop, cleaning up the mess, lining up the required resources, publishing and/or editing what the Great Man has merely written, quietly eliminating the blunders of, or, not infrequently, actually doing the work only fantasised and announced by, the Great Man.
Glymph now seems to be on his own, although you can’t tell from the merely institutional appearances.
In general, the role of the Other Sort of Architect, the one who turns whatever some Genius Gehry figure wants into something buildable, and which will not be a mechanical disaster, seems to be growing and growing.
I found that picture of Gehry’s epoch-making Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao here. The VF piece identifies this as the most “important” building of our time. Architects love it. The public does not hate it.
Indeed. It was front page news yesterday in the Evening Standard. I’m guessing that the way Renzo Piano and Shardeveloper Irving Sellar have been emitting verbiage about how Paddington is now “soulless and has no life” may be what got this story onto the front page:
Images of a 65-storey “skinny Shard” of apartments, offices, restaurants and a roof garden designed by Renzo Piano - the Italian “starchitect” behind western Europe’s tallest building - were unveiled today ahead of a public exhibition.
Irvine Sellar, chairman of Shard developers Sellar Property Group, said although Paddington was one of London’s most important gateways it had been overlooked for decades.
He said: “At the moment you only go to Paddington for two reasons - to catch a train or to see someone in hospital. It is soulless and has no life and yet it is only five minutes from Hyde Park and seven or eight minutes from Marble Arch.
“It is a fantastic location but it is stuck in a Fifties time-warp. We intend to create a place for people to go, where they will want to live, work, eat and shop.”
I imagine many current Paddingtonians actually quite like living in a “Fifties time-warp” that has been “overlooked” by the likes of Piano and Sellar “for decades”.
I of course love the idea of this new Big Thing. I hugely admire Renzo Piano. His new tower and its new surroundings, and in the meantime the process of building it all, will turn Paddington into the kind of place I will want to visit far more often than I do now. And by 2020 there’ll be another London Big Thing for me to observe and photo from afar. So I hope this goes ahead. (Part of the reason for this posting is to remind me to check out that public exhibition that they mention.)
But these guys sure know how to talk about locals in a way calculated to piss them off.
A house, said Modernist Architecture Le Corbusier famously, is a “machine for living in”. Something very similar can be said about all buildings. They are machines to do stuff in, and their number one requirement is that they should work properly. Do the job. Not break. Not leak. Not collapse. Not be a struggle to occupy, work in or live in. They should be nice for people to be in.
But merely working is not the only thing that this strange thing called “architecture” must do. It may also be required to decorate, excite attention, amaze, astonish. It may also be required to be, as they now say, an “icon”.
These two distinct sorts of working - working as a machine, working as a means of exciting admiration and awe - described in my two previous paragraphs, often conflict. If all that architecture had to do was tick over successfully, without problems, then building would evolve, cautiously. There would be no grand gestures, no new styles.
But new styles there are. And when they first get started, new styles often involve lots of dumb mechanical decisions. What can happen is that the architect is so concerned to make his icon look iconic that he forgets to, I don’t know, stop the windows leaking. New styles cause mundane stuff to go wrong.
Illustration, this piece of early post-modernism:
This iconic Thing is the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago. But, it now faces demolition. Reason? It doesn’t work, as a machine for working in:
“This building is ineffective,” claimed governor Bruce Rauner in a news conference. “For the people who work here, all of whom are eager to move somewhere else, it’s noisy. It’s hard to meet with your colleagues. It’s hard to move through the building, very ineffective, noise from downstairs, smells from the food court all get into the offices.”
The 17-storey, nearly one-million-square-foot (92,903 square meters) government centre opened in 1985, and is known for its canted and curved glass exterior and massive interior atrium containing a food court and transit entrance with offices arrayed above.
“Hearkening back to the grand domes of earlier government structures, such as the state capitol in Springfield, the southeast profile is a slice of a hollow sphere, clad in curved blue glass and salmon-coloured steel,” said the Chicago Architecture Foundation in its listing for the building. “The populist Postmodernism continues inside.”
The structure serves as the state government’s Chicago headquarters – the Illinois state capital is Springfield. But maintenance problems, high operational costs, and functional issues have plagued the building since it opened.
Rauner estimates the building needs $100 million (£64.7 million) worth of deferred repairs. In 2009, a large granite panel fell off one of the pedestrian arcades, prompting the removal the remaining slabs. The building has also been infested with pests.
Libertarians often claim that cock-ups like these are a classic public sector problem, and that observation has merit. The public sector is notorious for overspending on the buildings themselves, and then imposing foot-shootingly false economies on maintenance. Public buildings where the political will to maintain, so to speak, has wavered, can end up looking very run-down, as does much publicly owned space generally. This is because no one person or organisation owns the thing. No individual or small group of individuals makes clear gains if the building continues to look its part and do its job. No individual or small group of individuals makes clear losses if maintenance is skimped on. No one is accountable, to use a word constantly used by political people, because they so regularly feel the lack of it in the arrangements they nevertheless keep on recommending.
Further evidence comes from industrial innovation, largely now done by the private sector (albeit often heavily regulated), where innovation is done with a combination of determination and caution, with an awareness that innovation must happen, yet is hazardous. But even there, this trade-off is often mismanaged. The private sector doesn’t avoid error. It is merely better at liquidating it than the public sector is.
There may be sufficient political will to preserve this Chicago Government Center, more than there might have been if it was privately owned and hence costing an owner a not-small fortune. But it if is preserved, will the will to maintain continue to be inadequate? Very probably.
A key question to be asked about this building is: If it must be preserved, is the building worth anything at all? If it isn’t then there will be no buyer for it if it must be preserved, and the Chicago taxpayers will have to go on maintaining it. And Chicago’s taxpayers right now face other and bigger problems.
“Modern buildings, exemplified by the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge, are incredibly light and weight-efficient by virtue of their architectures,” commented Bill Carter, manager of the Architected Materials Group at HRL.
“We are revolutionising lightweight materials by bringing this concept to the materials level and designing their architectures at the nano- and micro-scales,” he added.
In the new film released by Boeing earlier this month, HRL research scientist Sophia Yang describes the metal as “the world’s lightest material”, and compares its 99.9 per cent air structure to the composition of human bones – rigid on the outside, but with an open cellular composition inside that keeps them lightweight.
All of which has obvious applications to airplanes:
Although the aerospace company hasn’t announced definite plans to use the microlattice, the film suggests that Boeing has been investigating possible applications for the material in aeroplanes, where it could be used for wall or floor panels to save weight and make aircraft more fuel efficient.
And it surely won’t stop with wall and floor panels.
These are the days of miracle and wonder.
Maybe one day I will get tired of seeing The Wires! In photos of new Japanese buildings, at Dezeen. But I am not tired of it yet:
Other Dezeenery I have recently liked: colourful buildings for an ugly square in Eindhoven; a big sculpture that looks like a giant tooth, made (by a robot) entirely of pebbles and string (which means the pebbles can be used again and again); packing more people in an Airbus; scepticism about the creative class theory of urbanisation.
Also: a cardboard car. Lexus. Drivable. But not with a cardboard engine, surely. No, they cheated there. It has an electric motor, housed in an aluminium frame. This is not an exercise in engineering. It is advertising. Caused by the fact that in car adverts you are less and less allowed to say anything sensible, with mere words. Car adverts now remind me of cigarette adverts in my youth. They were like that for the same reason.
Here are the last pictures from my trip to Richmond last week that I’ll be showing you. They are both of a house.
No cranes. No roof clutter. No scaffolding. No white vans. No taxis. No Big Things in the background. No me, reflected in it. Nobody else photoing it, or even doing a painting of it.
Just a house, and some leaves:
But not any old house. It was once the home of Henrietta Howard, Mistress of His Maj King George 2. How do I know this? From this sign:
Click on that if you don’t believe me and the above picture is too small for you to read properly.
Tip for when you are out and about photoing. Take pictures of signs. That way you record not only what you saw, but what it was. Maybe you won’t care about that in five or ten or twenty years time, if and when you are looking back through your pictures. Maybe “P1250679.JPG” will be enough for you. But maybe it won’t.