• Opening the box

    The British Museum can explore, examine and extract information from its collections better than ever before following completion of the final stages of its World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre (WCEC), designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. Delicately but confidently inserted into a long, narrow space on the north west of the museum’s Bloomsbury campus, five linked pavilions in steel, glass and stone have a simple, even elegant form that belies the complexity of their function and organisation. Last Friday’s press event revealed the result, and how adroitly RSHP handled the competing demands inherent in the brief to achieve it.

    Tasked with addressing the multiple shortcomings of the museum’s technical research and support spaces that had developed over time as well as providing a large, state-of-the-art exhibition space, RSHP developed a scheme whereby five pavilions, each identical in plan, would be used to accommodate these roles. The majority would be housed with three of these pavilions, placed in line and linked by service cores subsumed within the main envelope. This generated the 70-metre-long exhibition gallery, first shown to the public this spring with the Vikings exhibition. A ‘black box’, with highly-loaded solid concrete floor, multiply-penetrated ceiling for services and direct access to loading bays, it is more akin to a theatre than a traditional gallery, ready for the curators to work their magic on us visitors: the museum’s Carolyn Marsden-Smith has strikingly described it as permitting her team to create “an immersive environment that would transport visitors to another world, another time.” A fourth pavilion would project to the north and contain a large-object conservation studio, whilst a fifth to the south formed the scientific section. Laboratories would sit atop each pavilion, lit by controlled daylight through glazed facades and rooflights.

    This first iteration was however rejected at planning due to concerns over its massing and proximity to the neighbouring Georgian terraces. RSHP’s response was to slim down four of the pavilions slightly but also – crucially – to bury the southern pavilion entirely below ground and lowering its rooflight to a point level with a new garden. It thus became an atrium pouring daylight into the offices and spaces below, via glass discs inset into the concrete floor panels of a mezzanine level. It was an inspired move that secured permission from Camden council and began the five-year journey whose end point was reached on Friday.

    In the finished plan detached service towers connect each pavilion grouping with each other and the existing museum, holding lifts, stairs and ducting; a signature Rogers touch, of course, but here reticently clad in horizontal strips of Portland stone like John Burnet’s imposing 1914 King Edward VII block alongside. This is though very much in reference to that work rather than in deference. RSHP’s stone is roach not ashlar, its banding perpendicular to Burnet’s vertical fluting. And as though anxious to emphasise that such material when used by RSHP remains as non-loadbearing as it was when used by Burnet, these tower façades do not meet. Instead, open corners are achieved by attachment of the planes of stone in a pinwheel plan, something that becomes apparent only after careful study.

    It is a subtle touch, one later confirmed as typical of a project where many of the Richard Rogers motifs are present yet heavily disguised. Thus the colour palette, for example, is sober – black-painted steel, frosty silver glass, pale white-grey Portland stone – with primary tones confined to fire doors. Whilst it would be flip to suggest this appears more in line with the softly-spoken, Northern English-raised Stirk and his dark blue Nehru suits rather than the garrulous, Italian-born Rogers and his famously bright attire, it is a pleasing thought nevertheless. More gentle amusement can be found in the publicity image of Stirk sitting atop a workbench at the centre of a cluster of articulated extraction hoses, touching one fondly like some technological Noah. With at least one critic noting the machine-like nature of the new centre beneath the stone, it might be tempting to cite Stirk as the pilot of this starship, tended by its (his) droids. I immediately thought of the cult film Silent Running, with Stirk a contemporary Freeman Lowell aboard a new Valley Forge along with Huey, Duey and Louie.

    The development of this cladding was crucial in establishing a visual language for the new block that aligned it with the institutional rather than the domestic buildings on site, but in a way that “didn’t signal an entrance”, as Stirk put it, for what is after all a staff-only space; it was also vital not to compete with the Great Russell Street axis nor even with Burnet’s adjacent Montague Place entrance, originally and still a far less trafficked way in.

    It is though in a cross section through the pavilions that the special ingenuity of the practice’s response to the intricate, multi-part brief is really revealed.

    Two layers of studios for the examination of objects sit at the highest level, provided with indirect daylighting through a façade of intriguing textured glass ‘planks’ slipped into metal frames. With a veiny translucency that – marvellously aptly – recalls old parchment, they are intended to allow glimpses into the building from the outside and so bring animation to the exterior. Time will tell; on Friday’s gloomy press viewing the effect from the street was more reminiscent of a misted-up car windscreen, but fortunately images taken at dusk or with helmeted workers standing on the maintenance gangways that separate the inner and outer leaves do show the potential.

    One floor dedicated entirely to plant comes next. Allowing access to the myriad services that feed the studios above and the exhibition space below without disturbing either, it is a rare example of a direct programmatic quote from American architect Louis Kahn’s work at his 1960 Alfred Newton Richards Medical Research Building in Philadelphia, where an exactly comparable arrangement was employed. Kahn’s famous concept of servant and served spaces is an acknowledged influence on Rogers in his previous buildings, and Stirk easily volunteers Kahn’s name when describing the new scheme in Bloomsbury. He also explained to me how this floor brings structural rigidity, permitting the column-free space of the exhibitions gallery below. This is level with the Great Court for an easy visitor experience; a ‘logistics hub’ floor lies under it, tying in to the museum’s existing internal roadway. Below this are no fewer than three basement floors of storage space for the museum’s collection. Heavy, solidly columned and stretching along the full length of the block, these currently dark and empty spaces will eventually be filled with a multi-million-pound roller racking system and thousands upon thousands of objects, project architect John McElgunn confidently stating it should take seven years to fill.

    The fourth and fifth pavilions follow the same basic principles, but have very different natures. The bright, triple-height box that is the large stone-work studio on the ground floor of the northern pavilion has crystal-clear glazed walls and vast doors that give directly onto the new gallery by way of a short linking corridor, off of which stands a 3-tonne capacity goods lift that can travel through all nine floors of the building. Though fully glazed, including the doors, it usually carries “boxes with a fantastic view,” as Stirk joked during the press tour. The studio is also served by an even more impressive piece of mechanical handling equipment: the museum’s astonishing truck lift.

    Designed and engineered in Italy, it features a moveable lid that, paved with granite, is invisible when at rest. It acts firstly as an adjustable access ramp for trucks coming in from Great Russell Street, which can now drive up to or indeed into the new exhibition gallery by means of an immense up-and-over door discreetly incorporated into the glazed façade. Its real trick, however, is to rise up to reveal a massive lift car that can swallow an entire 42-tonne lorry and drop it slowly down the full three-storey depth of the new basement, a total travel of nearly 20 metres. The receiving areas are equipped with a lifting beam and can, like the stores, be traversed by forklift. They match the size of the lift, and also the volume of cargo plane holds. The combined system allows the get-in of objects in daytime without having to dangerously negotiate the museum’s torturous main entrance, steps and public circulation route, the only previous option for any and every item needed to be shown in the temporary space within the old Round Reading Room, and as much freedom as possible to receive and despatch items around the world.

    The final pavilion is its own revelation, especially when emerging from the gloom of the deep basement; though on the same level as the first of those floors, the area below the ground-level glass roof is a delightful, bright space, even on a dull day. Here science serves the collections and, by extension, academia and the public, with electron microscopes and X-ray machines along with meeting rooms and offices.

    Addressing the press here on Friday, museum director Neil MacGregor explained how the new centre will increase the “research and conservation capacity and skills potential” of his staff and expand the object loan programme. In response to a question about whether other institutions might take advantage of the facilities, MacGregor explained that there would be more opportunities to receive interns from those places and give training.

    McElgunn had earlier confirmed that limited physical public access to the conservation centre is envisaged through the medium of tours, pointing out viewing windows into some of the rooms from the corridors we walked through, but I wonder whether such an addition to the institution might not facilitate expansion of the museum concept into the digital realm. The ability to more closely examine the museum’s treasures could easily drive enhanced online content, whether live video relays of conservation activities, electronic versions of the excellent technical bulletin magazines published by the National Gallery (which MacGregor used to run) or the kind of exquisite 3D portrayal of museum items seen in Konica Minolta’s 2005 e-replica of the Venus de Milo that can be examined, rotated and zoomed to an almost microscopic level at home, becoming a real portal into the past.

    MacGregor also announced a consultation later in the year to inform the future of the Round Reading Room now that exhibitions have their own dedicated space, but what of the future of the new centre itself? Will it remain at the cutting edge, or suffer the problems of so many university or commercial comparators, state of the art when built but out of date just a few years later?

    Certainly it appears evident that the RSHP team has worked incredibly hard to understand the needs of the museum at a fundamental level, well before any design solution was proposed. In this one is reminded of the exceptional effort for Lloyd’s of London nearly 40 years ago, when the practice provided them with a strategy first and a building second. Of course such a “bespoke” approach, as Stirk calls it, can at the same time militate against true flexibility, but here again that seems to have been considered. As well as the many efforts to introduce true flexibility across the floors for current use, from furniture on wheels to accessible ceilings and those maintenance walkways, the centre has been constructed, says Stirk, to accommodate equipment not yet designed. Meanwhile, though not apparent during the Vikings show, McElgunn explained that the end walls of the new exhibition gallery are actually glazed and both he and the museum staff are keen to explore the possibility of a day-lit display – possibly of sculpture – to exploit this.

    In fact Stirk goes much further, explaining to me that the centre is intended to allow a future director to open it up or indeed change its use completely, whilst the careful alignment of levels plus its structural openness actually have the potential to beneficially disrupt what Stirk refers to as the “series of annular rings” that have arisen through the museum’s piecemeal growth and limited visitor movement around the complex.

    But coming back to the present, the conservation centre has been built with a great degree of attention to the macro and the micro. Just as the fifth floor plant space serves the exhibition gallery, so the centre is the servant of the wider museum. The flexibility and variation of the spaces created are impressive. Connected, separated, restricted, open, dark, light; the new areas embrace all of these oppositions as a reflection of the tasks being performed within them.

    As one who particularly enjoys those building types that combine the mechanical with the architectural – the great newspaper printing plants, computerised book and document repositories, the last generation of telecommunication centres, the Royal Mail’s large sorting offices with their stacked double-height floors filled with personnel and equipment – I found it fascinating and absorbing to see external refinement and internal technology so closely allied. Of course the public will never see any of this, though the alert visitor using one of the glazed bridge links as he passes from the cool marble Great Court, through the Smirke rooms now reclaimed from storage duties and into the dark space of the exhibition gallery might pause, peer up the narrow slot between the London stock brick of the museum’s walls, the roach stone and glass plank exterior of the gallery to the blue sky above both and appreciate the many different textures – of material, of light, of history – on show.

    Throughout, the architecture is crisp, minimal and precise. At no point does it dominate – instead it merely (but vitally) enables. To see RHSP create such a building is satisfying, especially when they remain widely known for dazzling colours and striking shapes which, whilst always accompanied by a convincing narrative, sometimes seem wilful. Here, at last, is a place where their exposed services and ruthlessly functional aesthetic seem thoroughly at home – indeed, at work, for the benefit of all of us.

    (Plans: RSHP; photographs Chris Rogers except the first, of the glass-roofed atrium at WCEC, at WCEC, which is by Paul Raftery, 2014)

    Paul Raftery, 2014



  • EXCLUSIVE: Marvel’s Avengers London shoot UPDATE #6 12.7.14

    Air, fire and water were employed at Colindale this week as location shooting for Avengers: Age of Ultron continued. A helicopter used for aerial filming was parked on the playing field, ‘smoke damage’ appeared on the buildings and actual smoke drifted over the site, whilst a high-volume water pumping truck stood by. This and the intensive effort concentrated on the bridge might confirm information that has come to me from another film fan who was told by a guard that what the crew are filming at Peel Centre is in fact the finale to the film.

    The helicopter was a white Eurocopter Squirrel with a distinctive camera sphere attached to its nose. No markings could be seen but an online search shows a similar aircraft available from Helicopter Film Services based at Denham aerodrome near Uxbridge, which is a few minutes’ flying time from Colindale. Given much of the site is occupied by the film-making equipment itself, considerable erasure of the surroundings would be needed to render any aerial filming of the buildings usable. But this, and the fact that windows and the surrounding concrete have been blackened not just at two places on the west frontage of Peel House but also on the residential towers, does confirm another suspicion of mine, that the rather Brutalist design of the latter might make them a suitable stand-in for Soviet-era housing.

    The Airwall inflatable greenscreen is still seeing extensive use, as are numbers of rigid, square greenscreens mounted on the forks of telescopic handlers. Shown with the screen face-down in my picture, this allows them to be placed wherever they are needed on the site and quite freely manipulated in three dimensions once there. The complex aerial ballet of the mobile cranes is fascinating, as they hold lights and other equipment. Such lighting, also seen on the top of scissor lifts, is often seen switched on now; a crowd was actually apparent on set this afternoon and a camera crane or jib was being employed near the bridge last week. Various trucks from Panavision, a fan for wind effects, a gas tanker that could have been for flame bars and more cherry pickers were also seen this week.

    The mysterious shrouded ‘aircraft fuselage’ has now gone from its spot near the tube line, though not before further slippage of its tarpaulin revealed enough to almost certainly confirm its aeronautic nature. If so it might confirm the climactic nature of the scenes being shot. The tram is still in place at the northern part of the site, though, so I’ve posted a different image of it that I took a while back.

    I had my first run-in with a security guard today whilst taking photographs through the hole in their gate! To be fair he was from Mace rather than the film crew, but asked what I was doing and whether I had asked permission. I explained that as I was on public land I didn’t need to, and he was disputing that when two young men who had just passed me going in the other direction came back and one of them – staggeringly – flashed a police badge at the guard and said “He’s right, it’s public land, let him carry on”! I thanked them; the guard was a bit bemused since apparently he had had support from police before but he was fine about it and went away.

    Finally, it must be a comfort to cast and crew that their exertions will be rewarded even before release of the finished film; prominent amongst the marquees on site is one marked in very large letters ‘BAR’…



  • EXCLUSIVE: Marvel’s Avengers London shoot UPDATE #5 5.7.14

    "This is the biggest electric train set a boy ever had!" Orson Welles’s famous pronouncement on encountering the pleasures and possibilities of the movie studio must surely have proven true for Joss Whedon this week as filming for Avengers: Age of Ultron finally began at Peel Centre, where the sheer weight of materiel in play now is astonishing.

    A fleet of white articulated trucks and motorhomes appeared almost overnight within the cordoned-off part of the playing field next to the marquee; no fewer than five mobile cranes reaching as high as ten storeys are in use, principally for lighting; and a container lorry – the significance of its open hands logo a mystery – partially blocked tantalising signs of a battle scene at the land end of the bridge that may have been shooting yesterday. A dozen smaller cranes and telescopic handlers are supporting and shifting equipment around the site, and there are the wrecked cars, some scooters, some water bowsers and other action vehicles too.

    More quietly, the crest of Sokovia looks superb on the concave façade of Peel House’s projecting entrance block, as my just-developed photographs show. The double-headed eagle surmounted by a crown is actually deeply-modelled in three dimensions, an impressive piece of production design that shows a real sensitivity to Peel House and to civic architecture of that late 1960s period. I’m struggling a little with a translation of the lettering – feel free to try…

    Around the back, the giant ‘Телеком’ (‘Telecom’) advert on top of Peel House is complete, the final ‘O’ now picked out in blue. Looking more closely at all of my images, the Cyrillic signage affixed to the wings of the building can be seen to include ‘ФОТО СТУДИO’, which would appear to translate as ‘PHOTO STUDIO’, with another which might indicate ‘HOTEL’. This would fit with the idea of the building being used to simulate a typical high street. Similar signs are present at the ground floor level of at least one of the former residential towers, themselves not unrelated to equivalents from the Soviet area, wags might note.

    Recording and noting all of this remains a challenge, of course, leaving aside the limited time I have each day. The production starts works very early, but mornings are difficult given the need to get to my day job in town and the small problem of shooting into the sun.

    Evenings are much better, though, as I have both time and the weather on my side (except when it rains, like it did on Monday).

    The sun is behind the train now, lighting the playing field and the west side of Peel House beautifully. Hopping off a northbound tube at Colindale and taking the next train southbound to Hendon gives a second chance, and this can be repeated in reverse as many times as needed – about four is usually enough, shooting still and moving images. It’s surprising how much registers in your brain each time, but also how much you can only see when examining the pictures later. The two forms of vision are complementary, actually, since getting something on film as the trees whip past your vision and part only for a split second or two is tricky.

    Later, a drive along the road to the north of the site (and the expenditure of fifty pence to park) allows a more relaxed view of the east or ‘church and tram’ side through the railings and a convenient hole in the contractor’s makeshift wooden gate; on Wednesday this afforded a perfect view of the Sokovia crest.

    And the audience for my work is growing. Visits to the blog are averaging 80-100 per day, and on Friday I received an email from a local press journalist. Who knows where it all might lead??



  • EXCLUSIVE: Marvel’s Avengers London shoot UPDATE #4 1.7.14

    The arms of Sokovia have been proudly mounted on the concave façade of the entrance to Peel House! Surmounted by appropriate lettering, the double-headed eagle crest commonly associated with various real-life Eastern European states was installed today, and confirms my suppositions. Meanwhile, a unique 80-metre inflatable greenscreen that can be raised or dropped in seconds and was previously used on Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla has been built in front of the building. The ‘Airwall’ wraps gently around the open end of the bridge, allowing it to be substantially extended virtually via digital compositing.

    It was the material of Canadian firm Aircover Inflatables’ pioneering new system that I had earlier mistaken for waterproofing as it lay draped over the shipping containers it is mounted on for extra height. The sheer size of the screen, seen both deflated and erected in the accompanying images, illustrates once more the scale of the work at Colindale, which is now achieving an extraordinary pace.

    It must be the case that some filming has already occurred. The Captain America mural that started this story off all those days ago has now been ‘graffitied’ with what looks like ‘Resist’, rusty, burned-out cars have already appeared and disappeared from the vehicle storage area previously occupied by the police vehicles, and the giant crane seen on Saturday has moved all around the site. There are indeed dozens of vehicles on the playing field part of the site now, for use behind and in front of the cameras, including more cranes and cherry pickers. A large marquee has been put up on the other side of the field and yet more (if smaller) greenscreens have been thrown up.

    The dressing of the other, eastern side of Peel House to echo the Italian locations continues, and I am now sure that it is Aosta in general and that city’s Hotel Turin in particular that is the specific model.

    A square and two streets in that town were taken over at the end of March 2014, with shooting also taking place at the indoor market hall. The main action though took place outside in the Piazza Cavalieri di Vittorio Veneto. Usually used as a car park, the space was turned into a battleground involving Scarlett Witch and Quicksilver, played by Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Crucially, the opposite side of the small square is dominated by the hotel, built in 1965 or ’67 according to sources and with a row of shops on its ground floor behind a colonnade of square columns and two projecting wings of varying shape. Avengers’ location scouts have been reported as being delighted to find the hotel and other buildings in Aosta; "It seems to be in a city in Eastern Europe," exclaimed one. I hope the locals took that in the right way...

    Peel House is in fact a remarkable double for this brooding building, right down to the same notched corner detail on one of its wings. A giant ‘Телеком’ (‘Telecom’ in Russian) advert sign is now visible on its roof facing the tram site – indeed, it is so large it can be seen from the playing field side too – whilst further photographs I took at the weekend (not yet available) show further Cyrillic signage.

    Interestingly, one Italian site speculated that Aosta and its fellow towns would be representing Latveria, a fictional Eastern European state in the Avengers comics that lies between the actual nations of Hungary, Serbia and Romania. It did though admiringly point out the level of detail used on the set, citing cigarette vending machines, parking meters, shop signs, posters and newspapers all written in Cyrillic.

    I chanced a quick foray along the road that gives access to the site on Sunday – there was no guard this time – only to find, astonishingly, the road blocked off just before the gate to the training centre. I’ve no idea how the residents of the cul-de-sac beyond – assuming it is still occupied – are supposed to get in and out. Although the same low brick wall and railing would normally offer a perfect view toward the north side of Peel House, I was wryly amused to see that opaque material had been fixed to the metal uprights, blocking it. After executing a three-point-turn to position myself for a fast getaway and leaving the engine running, I dashed out to see if anything could in fact be seen through the gaps at the bottom, but no joy.



  • EXCLUSIVE: Marvel’s Avengers London shoot UPDATE #3 28.6.14

    Temporary direction signs featuring abbreviated references to ‘After-Party’, the known coded shooting title of Avengers: Age of Ultron, confirm the production’s presence at Colindale, whilst new photographs and the rapid pace of developments even since Thursday disclose the astonishing scale and scope of the work taking place across the location, which is now verified as representing the fictional Eastern European city of Sokovia that was indeed first created on the Italian portion of the Ultron shoot.

    Most strikingly revealed this weekend is a large mediaeval or Renaissance-era stone building, partly damaged, that has been fabricated on the northern part of the site. Perhaps a church or monastery given its dome, arcading and what can be seen of its façade, it does not appear to exactly match the Fort Bard location, but certainly wouldn’t look out of place alongside it or contemporary architecture from the other Italian towns where filming has taken place. The narrow strip of greenscreen material surmounting it facilitates digital extension of the physical building.

    Nearby, an actual European tram car can be seen, complete with the familiar diamond-shaped pantograph that collects electricity from overhead wires; these, too, are present, suspended via right-angled brackets from metal poles. These last are quite crude, although careful examination of one of my photographs also shows period telegraph or tram wire poles installed a few metres away outside Peel House.

    Cyrillic lettering and signage has been added to the parapet and facades of its rear wings, as was done on the Italian shoot where the Sokovia concept was even carried through to the tiny detail of an ‘SOK’ international identifier on the licence plates of the cars used, something that I searched in vain for earlier when trying to determine their identity! A mural, propaganda display or advertising poster now occupies one entire wall on the Colindale building. A ‘before’ archive image of this side of the block is included for comparison – you can see how the different plans, heights and depths of the wings create variety, for a convincing streetscape. More streets are thus being simulated on this part of the campus, in addition to the urban landscapes created to the south around the bridge.

    The statue outside the opposite, entrance side to Peel House that is visible on the new photograph and the archive image that accompanied my original post is actually that of Sir Robert Peel, Victorian prime minister and founder of the Metropolitan Police, after whom the training centre is named. It is a protected monument and will be moved when the site is redeveloped but I would not be surprised if it masquerades in the Avengers film as a ‘Sokovian’ founding father – certainly this part of Peel House could pass for a post-war town hall or civic centre.

    Greenscreen material mounted horizontally now surrounds the far end of that structure, and scaffolding towers are still being put up. More matting has been laid, especially around the outside of the fenced perimeter that has been created on the playing field. This would facilitate the erection of privacy screens when actual filming begins.

    The massive greenscreen can now be calculated – by reference to the tram – as being about 150-200 metres long and 15 high. It has been placed along the eastern edge of the site, simultaneously screening activity from the private cul-de-sac of housing beyond.

    A telescopic mobile crane from NMT Crane Hire was erected on Friday evening, its extended jib towering over the site. The jib holds a cross-boom, stabilised with guy wires and from which two cables hang. NMT is associated with Pinewood Studios (which is owned by the same group as Shepperton, home of the Ultron production), and so the boom will probably be used for ‘flying’ an actor, stunt performer or physical prop – possibly the shrouded object that has sat in front of the Captain America mural for weeks and is now, thanks to a loose tarpaulin, looking like a partial full-size mock-up of the rear fuselage of an aircraft. A similar but larger and more futuristic item has been photographed in Italy and interpreted as the boarding ramp of a SHIELD quinjet.

    All of the new material above comes from my using the road skirting the north of the Peel Centre site, from which the set is in fact plainly if distantly visible, something I hadn’t previously appreciated. The fall of land away from the road, the presence of railings only separating it from the site and the clearance previously of buildings associated with the wider redevelopment of the site all help. I’ve updated the aerial image to more accurately reflect the layout for the film.

    Surprisingly, other than one gesticulating team member at the gate used by contractors Mace and an attentive guard at the ‘AP LOC’ entrance – which is actually just off the approach road to the cul-de-sac mentioned above – security is entirely absent. Amusingly, I did see a fellow fan this morning stop their car briefly, jump out, and take a quick photograph before driving off again – it seems word on my scoop is spreading!



  • EXCLUSIVE: Marvel’s Avengers London shoot UPDATE #2 26.6.14

    It now seems clear that the scenes being shot at Peel Centre are intended to be cut into those coming out of the major Age of Ultron location shoot in northern Italy that I mentioned previously and which has been well-documented online. Exceptional photos taken at one of those sites show white and blue Russian Lada police cars that match those currently parked at Colindale, and document a destructive combat sequence outside a post-war building that is, with its steps and pillars, a good architectural match for Peel House and the residential towers next door.

    The first photo of each pair above is from the Italian shoot, the second from Colindale, showing the police cars and the buildings' similarity. Here's another of the Russian cars in Italy:

    And this is Peel Centre from the rear:

    Scenes have been filmed at Fort Bard, Aosta, Donnas, Pont-Saint-Martin and Verrès, all in Italy, and the extremely detailed set dressing such as posters, maps and shopfronts in Russian and Croatian that have been recorded mean these may be standing in for the Croatian town of Novigrad; the country lies opposite Italy on the other side of the Adriatic, and Novigrad has a significant minority of Istrian Italians.

    Scaffolding towers for lighting and other equipment are being put up at Colindale this week, whist the greenscreen is now complete. Large runs of portable metal roadway were laid around the fenced-off portion of the playing fields that contains the shoot site this week by British events support firm TPA.



  • EXCLUSIVE: Marvel’s Avengers London shoot UPDATE 24.6.14

    More research, analysis and thought – plus developments on site – have allowed me to finesse my description of what’s going on at Colindale.

    Closer examination of my phone footage and Google confirms my supposition regarding the placing of the bridge in relation to the internal road layout at the college, but also that I was wrong in assuming the bridge and the existing buildings could not work together. All three elements – bridge, roads and buildings – have in fact been carefully placed to construct a single fictional urban space that could certainly function on screen as a coherent location. As shown by the parallel black lines I’ve superimposed on the Google Earth image below, one road actually serves as an approach to the bridge, whilst the buildings are in truth rather further back from the latter than appears from a passing train due to the perspective.

    At least two dozen action vehicles – a fairly random mix of European cars from the 1970s to the present day – were parked next to the bridge until this morning, but also beige ambulances that are certainly not British or American but which could quite easily be from, say, Eastern Europe. This evening, they have been replaced by some old blue and white coaches with curtains. And, photographs widely available online taken at the Age of Ultron shoot in Italy show a town square dressed with Eastern European signage and cars.

    So, combined with the 1950s/60s vintage of Peel House’s architecture, which could easily represent a civic building or a commercial one, we now have what could be quite a convincing post-war Eastern European city space.

    Elsewhere, large inflatable objects were being installed near the bridge yesterday morning. There was already extensive existing plastic sheeting draped over a berm or other wall running along in front of it, all of which suggests a temporary tank is being built which will be flooded to simulate the river the bridge spans.

    Finally, the greenscreen is now confirmed; it is very large and is being put up behind Peel House on the site of a car park, along the approximate line I’ve indicated in green on the Google Earth shot. The angles suggest it might allow a vista to be composited in that would give a view to anyone coming off the bridge. Here's a snatched image taken at the weekend:



  • EXCLUSIVE: Marvel’s Avengers shooting in north west London

    Captain America comes to Colindale; scenes for Avengers: Age of Ultron, written and directed by Joss Whedon and due for release in May 2015, are being shot at the partly-disused Metropolitan Police College in Colindale, north west London, this summer. Whilst thousands of commuters have passed by unaware on the London Underground, a full-size replica of one end of a continental-style bridge has been built at Peel Centre, as the historic training facility is officially known, complete with stone balustrading and traffic lights. A giant mural portrait of Captain America in his iconic winged helmet has appeared on the side of another block this week.

    As well as characters seen in the previous Avengers films, such as Iron Man and Thor, the new film, a sequel to 2012's Marvel's The Avengers / Avengers Assemble and the 11th in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series, will feature new Avengers: brother and sister Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch (seen in the end credits teaser from Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Ultron in the comics is a rogue artificial intelligence in a robot body, invented by scientist Hank Pym (aka Ant Man). Criminal group Hydra, powerful artefacts called Infinity Gems and villain Thanos (seen in the end credits teaser from Avengers Assemble) may also appear.

    Whedon has commented only that he is “taking storylines from decades of Avengers storylines” to create the plot, but the authentically designed and convincingly weathered bowstring truss bridge being built at Colindale, similar to that at Arnhem in the Netherlands, would seem to confirm online claims of a flashback sequence to the World War 2 origins of Captain America, aka soldier Steve Rogers. The mural of the Captain’s 1940s incarnation seen at Colindale supports this.

    Construction of the bridge set has been underway for six weeks on the centre’s playing field, and has involved mechanical excavators shifting tonnes of steel. Peel Centre is a large (over 70 acres), secure site – dozens of police vans from forces around the country were mustered here during the 2011 riots, and helicopters have landed on the field – yet the bridge has been constructed not in its centre but against the road that skirts it. The traffic lights on the approach to the bridge face Peel House, the main block of the campus. It is hard to imagine a scenario in which the aging bridge and the 1960s concrete panelled building might convincingly appear in the same shot, so it may be that this arrangement was driven simply by the need to have a proper tarmac surface leading up to the temporary structure. That said, the Met’s logo and strapline, as seen in the archive image, have been removed from the concave front of the building.

    To the side are the three tall tower blocks where trainee constables once slept during their six-month residential induction course; the mural is here. Other work is underway beyond, including what might be the erection of a large greenscreen, but details are hard to make out since the area is not overlooked by any public road and only fleetingly visible from passing tube trains. When filming starts, it will be interesting to see if precautions are taken to block even this, although the viewpoints of residents on the higher floors of the neighbouring Beaufort Park apartments will be harder to obstruct.

    Whedon is quoted as saying he sought a "number of different looks and textures and moods" when planning the shoot. Principal photography commenced in February in locations around Europe, South Africa and South Korea, but the production is based at Shepperton Studios in Surrey. Although lying to the south west of London, the complex is close to the M25, which in turn has a junction just 10 miles to the north of the Colindale site. This part of the capital is often used for both film and television location work due to its position close to all of Britain’s major studio complexes.

    Peel Centre has been used by the Met since the 1930s, though the existing buildings date from a post-war rebuilding. They have been deemed both surplus to requirements and life-expired and in summer 2013 a scheme was announced to reduce the Met’s occupancy to a small corner of the site with the remainder being redeveloped for housing and a new park over the next few years.

    When asked on Friday about the activity at Peel Centre, a spokesman for the Met’s film unit declined to make any comment or even acknowledge that movie production was involved, describing the situation only as “commercially confidential”.


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  • ‘Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK’

    A couple of years ago, the British Library put on an excellent exhibition of British literary science fiction. It was wide-ranging and highly illuminating, examining the subject from a variety of angles and making connections between past and present. Their new show is not as comprehensive, even allowing for the self-selection inherent in its sub-title, but there is a lot to enjoy.

    I am an antichrist

    I am an anarchist

    Don't know what I want

    But I know how to get it

    I wanna destroy passerby

    'Cause I wanna be anarchy

    No dogsbody

    Anarchy In The U.K. (written by Glen Matlock and John Lydon), Sex Pistols, 1976

    The exhibition succeeds in its two principal strands – describing a distinctively British attitude to the establishment, and showing how that has manifested itself in sequential art of all kinds for more than a century. There were some fascinating revelations for me, such as a wonderful 1888 edition of the Illustrated Police News, which filled an entire broadsheet page with a dozen grim engravings reporting the discovery of a mutilated corpse in the East End (later ruled not to be a victim of the Ripper), or a biting Suffragette poster pointing out that a female nurse was prevented from voting yet even a man deemed insane could still cast his ballot. A convincing suggestion that the Victorian urban legend of Spring-Heeled Jack shaped later incarnations of Batman by the likes of Brian Bolland was matched by the British love of knockabout, anti-authoritarian and often quite violent comedy in comics being traced back to Mr Punch. Linking Judge Anderson from the Judge Dredd series to Aleister Crowley and other forms of magick was a neat touch.

    Alan Moore features heavily, which was not a surprise and acted as a useful reminder of his astonishing output, and the extraordinary trajectory that took Moore and other British writers and artists to the US and the profound changes they brought to well-loved American tropes are both well caught, but even the most casual British comics fan will find some odd omissions.

    The Beano, for example, doesn’t feature, even in the excellent opening ‘Mischief and mayhem’ section which looks at children’s comics. Elsewhere, the otherwise effective ‘Hero with a thousand faces’ ignores entirely British war comics such as Warlord, despite the interest in its lead character being a conscientious objector in public but a secret agent in private. The segment on diversity misses a golden opportunity to examine how science fiction has addressed this subject. Strontium Dog, for example, originating in defunct fortnightly Starlord, was a man warped by radiation and despised by the rest of humanity who is forced to take the reviled job of bounty hunter yet who ultimately leads a revolution of fellow mutants against a racist state. And thirty years of reading it have probably made me biased but surely Judge Dredd deserved a section of his own? The Angel Gang, the Dark Judges and Chopper spring to mind as anarchic adversaries of one kind or another, leaving aside the many facets of Dredd himself – straight or satirical, fascist or rebel, and so on.

    My friend pointed out that the exhibition was light on the visual side of comics, which is true; other than a few full-size original layouts, a couple of explanatory captions and some mocked-up studios there was very little on the infinite variety of illustration techniques that makes comics possible and of ongoing interest. Thus a fascinating link was drawn (as it were) from the typical comic page format of today back to 15th century ‘bibles of the poor’, but there was no reference to, say, Japanese prints or Renaissance altar pieces, both of which pioneered the technique of placing the same character in multiple locations within a single frame to convey the passage of time, something now common in comic art. A few strips shown on iPads were useful to flip through but there weren’t zoomable; surely comic art of all things deserved something more snazzy, like user-controllable output to a big 48” screen? Perhaps this was to be expected for a library, but it was another curious decision.

    Overall, though, this is a worthwhile experience, nicely displayed, and if its sparks a few synapses, that’s a good thing.

    Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK continues until 19 August 2014 at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB



  • Does form follow finance? Will Self on the capital in the capital

    Is London’s sprouting skyline simply a reflection of the shape of its equally thriving financial markets, and does this tell us anything about the kind of capital city we have, deserve or should expect? Will Self, speaking tonight at Kings Place – the very kind of new (or at least revived) space whose own tower blocks of offices and apartments might have been designed to illustrate his point – called his talk ‘When Liquid turns to Solid: the Spatialisation of Capital Flows in 21st Century London’, and it was a suitably erudite but never opaque and always enjoyable 20-odd minutes that followed.

    His principal theme was hardly revelatory – that London has become a home for what Shard developer Irvine Sellar (“‘Er-vyne’, as he insists on pronouncing it”) jollily calls flight capital, and that its new clusters of skyscrapers, the commissioners who pay for them and the architects that design them have become craven to this god to the point of no return. No, what was so amusing was, of course, the bile with which he splattered this triumvirate.

    His first concern was the architecture. A fan of high rise – he accurately picked out the qualities of care, materials and simple form that comprised the success of the first generation of International Modernist towers such as New York’s Seagram building and Lever House – Self nevertheless despaired at the “barcode facades that have shot up since I was last here,” as he described Kings Cross. That Kings Place itself allowed one to “pitch your tent in the lobby for three months and be ‘cultured’” did not redeem it. Channelling Jonathan Meades at one point, that other vigorously vociferous voice of architectural reason, Self bemoaned the “auto-cannibalisation” of London’s history for new design motifs, criticised the gimmicky, poor-quality detail on even the Shard and decried the contemporary “parametrically-designed” towers of the Square Mile and beyond as brand logos for themselves and the money that created them, like “giant handbags” from Hermes or Gucci.

    In a particularly brilliant passage, Self described what this has produced, a “screen-based city” in which a skyscraper’s endless ranks of windows read as workstations and the doors as USB ports, a building occupied by avatars who stream in and out each day connected to their digital devices even before they sit down. London, he foresees, will become an “everted Manhattan”, the Thames bank lined with towers from Canary Wharf to Battersea Park. His only relief comes from the certainty that nothing lasts forever, that even the current crop of tall towers will be temporary. “Think of them like tents,” he encouraged us, “like a festival” that will soon be over.

    The architects of this forest of fantasy got off no lighter than their creations. In response to a plea from one in the audience to understand that the homogeneity of cladding was as much a factor of economies of scale than anything else, Self mused on whether there was “a B&Q for architects”, no doubt imagining an endless train of trolleys being bustled down endless aisles over endless weekends. Such was the eloquent ferocity of Self’s polemic that he occasionally lost his grip on reality, confusing Lords Foster and Rogers, overstating by some margin the height of the FT building on Southwark Bridge, and so on. Previous stylists weren't immune; arch Post-Modernist Terry Farrell’s work was brutally skewered by asking “What’s through the round window? Another crappy round window.”

    But Self’s real despair was the growing divide as he saw it between the have (keys to their own home) and the have nots. Bad enough, he feels, the very concept of a developer like Sellar, who funds his buildings with money that has been pulled out of collapsing and failed cities elsewhere in the world; worse, that he and his like have prevented the far less wealthy from securing their own bit of housing. He was of course scathing of the “wanker bankers”, a term repeated often and to hearty laughter from the audience each time, and placed every negative and even some of the positives of London today at their door, whether that be Crossrail (“designed to get them from their houses in Windsor to their desks ten minutes quicker”), privately-owned ‘public’ squares where security guards “check that all is well in the chain coffee shops” or the fact that London is the “world capital of Pret a Manger” (an amusing line but one which owes a considerable debt to the late Alan Coren, whose version described Tesco). Self’s thesis, then, positioned London’s workforce as essentially fluffers to those “wanker bankers”, maintaining their tumescence so as to allow a continued ejaculation of wealth that nevertheless is carefully directed away from anyone but themselves.

    Luxury apartments are, he agrees, ‘tax-efficient savings schemes parked in the sky over London’ as Simon Jenkins puts it, but unlike Jenkins Self feels that a romantic return to low-rise garden cities is impossible too.

    Of course Self barely alludes to the fact that every successive desirable housing type in the capital, from Georgian terraces to Victorian villas to inter-war semis, was built by speculative, capitalist developers, and he fails to examine how those past generations managed to accommodate all classes of homeowner as they did so when he looks for answers. It is, too, astonishingly naïve to state that – in order to fix this – everyone should be content to have a little less wealth in order to benefit the majority; after all, I doubt he gives his fees away each time he is paid for an article nor does he live in a squat. And, in citing “proper” Socialism as a solution, Self fails to point out that not a single country has managed to achieve this, unless you think Cuba represents a world of perfect equality.

    But it was a lively, thought-provoking and worthwhile evening that was a million miles from the rather dry debates within the profession that I’ve attended lately, aided by pointed prompting from host Andy Beckett and unusually informed and intelligent questions from the audience. Certainly I’ll look at the Shard – Sellar’s cock, according to Self – a little differently when I see it tomorrow.



Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture


The third of my Brand X pieces for The Big Picture, exploring fictional products and brands in films in an innovative way, is now online.

This month, hunker down and tune it to the Multivision commentary for a ringside seat at the World Rollerball Championship final...

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