• The future face of London

    A clutch of recent announcements signalling new ‘quarters’ for London could see every corner of the capital genuinely and often utterly transformed over a generation. North, south, east and west are affected, as well of course as the centre, and if the schemes do indeed go well beyond the trivial rebranding that afflicts the city from time to time – ‘Northbank’, anyone? – it’s arguable that nothing like it will have been seen since the post-war period.

    In the east, the steady and actually quite remarkable repurposing of the London 2012 Olympic Park is to continue with a major new cultural and educational quarter housing a space for the Victoria & Albert Museum combining collections, research and curation, a new outpost for Sadler’s Wells, and extensions to the campuses for the University of the Arts London and UCL. In a conscious echo of the V&A’s genesis, the new quarter is being labelled ‘Olympicopolis’. It’s an intriguing idea, with some obvious potential synergies building on the tentative hold both types of institution have on the area already, such as the Laban dance centre and the University of East London’s existing campus running along the dockside further south.

    Not far away from there is the equally ambitious Silvertown Quays, a repurposing of 60 acres of the Royal Victoria Dock centred on its L-shaped pontoon dock immediately across the water from the ExCel centre. The Quay is being masterminded by veteran property developer Stuart Lipton, creator of Broadgate and Stockley Park, although the concept itself actually began life 15 years ago with another firm. Lipton envisages the area as attracting technology and engineering companies such as BMW and Microsoft; planning documents point out the area’s “superb urban and global connectivity, through rail, air and international display and exhibition spaces” and say the new scheme continues the area’s “incredible history as a place engaged with the world for trade and exchange.” Amongst the new buildings, welcome news is that the great concrete cliff that is Millennium Mills, built in 1933 but remodelled 20 years later and the last major derelict structure from the area’s Dockland past, will be retained and remodelled. At the O2 centre, meanwhile, Hong Kong-based Knight Dragon plans yet more homes plus – intriguingly – a new film studio complex. This type of facility is now a rarity in central London, given the need for large-scale operations, so this may be worth watching (as it were).

    In the west, Wood Lane is busy. The BBC’s television centre conversion promises much; on the Corporation’s former Woodlands site, Imperial College is developing Imperial West at White City. This “will provide multidisciplinary research space […], together with state-of-the-art space for translating research ideas into direct applications and spin-out companies. Plans for the site include a publicly accessible square, accommodation, leisure and retail facilities, a conference centre, and homes.” the giant Westfield shopping mall is expanding via more retail space, offices, new streets, public spaces, and a residential component. John Lewis will be the anchor tenant of the shopping centre extension, matching its presence at Westfield’s Stratford centre at the other end of the Central Line. Nearby, both Earls Court exhibition centres are to be demolished in favour of 7,500 residential flats distributed amongst four ‘urban villages’, retail, offices, hotels and possibly a new convention centre as part of Capital & Counties’ plan. Terry Farrell, masterplannner for the scheme, also envisages a ‘21st century high street’ linking these elements together and garden squares sitting between them. Inevitably, there will be more tall blocks; the promise – contained in the planning summary – that “no new building will be higher than the Empress State Building” (which will be converted to residential use) is hardly reassuring for those concerned over this continuing trend. Whether the design of the overall scheme really does show “a timeless beauty that delights and inspires,” as the document also states, may therefore be the least worrying aspect of the completed scheme.

    Farrell is also involved in arguments over the future of the vast Old Oak Common railway lands, also in the neighbourhood. He has been engaged by Queen’s Park Rangers football club chairman Tony Fernandez to plan a scheme for a staggering 25,000 homes and a new stadium, whilst rival

    businessman Geoff Warren is working on his own plans for 10,000 homes. A station for Crossrail and one for the HS2 high speed line are planned, and many an armchair expert has devised ways of interchanging with other rail routes on the site, one of the last of its size and type in central London. Interestingly, a letter in the Standard this week suggested a new exhibition centre there too, a “balance” to ExCel. Rows aside, the precedent of the Olympics show what could be achieved.

    In the north, the existing concentration of university and medical uses embedded around Bloomsbury and Euston is expanding rapidly. The Francis Crick Institute is a biomedical research centre set up by almost all the major players in the area to tackle cancer, heart disease and stroke, neurodegenerative conditions and infectious diseases. It is opening next year in its new red brick, steel and glass block by HOK and PLP Architecture sat across the land at the back of the British Library. It will be joined by the Alan Turing Institute for Data Science at the Library, promoted by the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council, giving rise to a new nickname for the area – the Knowledge Quarter. Google’s proposed UK headquarters in Kings Cross is on hold but Central Saint Martin’s recent opening at the old granary building is spurring ongoing development around the area, which provides years of growth potential.

    In the centre, sites and opportunities are of course more modest compared to the foregoing, but within the context of London’s heart are no less radical. At the cheaper end of Oxford Street, Frogmore and Land Securities’ Oriana redevelops a number of adjacent properties, in part behind retained facades, as flats plus more retail – Primark already occupy the initial phase, which in turn re-uses the former white faience-clad Lyons Corner House, latterly the Virgin Megastore and previously a cinema.

    Centre Point’s conversion into flats has begun. Along the way, Great Portland Estates’ Rathbone Place scheme is under way, replacing the Royal Mail’s vast sorting depot with a new residential square. Cleverly described in the elegant brochure as being ‘innermost London’, a rather charming conversation with its designer Ken Shuttleworth – a surprising choice – includes an insight into the planning idea: “We also introduced the idea of having arches to go through to enter the space to create wonder. An Alice in Wonderland effect, where one goes through a tunnel and pops up to discover

    somewhere new. Fitzrovia is all about small-scale streets and lots of character. I think the idea of having a ‘found’ space, where you can’t see all the way through, but instead you go in and discover your way round, is much more exciting. The idea came out of a chess move, not architecture. Forward and sideways, discovering your way round corners like a curious knight.” Over at Victoria, the twin redevelopments of New Scotland Yard (which will be demolished and replaced with two blocks) and TfL’s 55 Broadway (which will not) will move the area further away from its post-war governmental office hegemony.

    In the south, from Nine Elms to bankside development is almost in overdrive. The former clearly has the potential to make the biggest change to the capital with the new US embassy anchoring multiple schemes looking to exploit former industrial and backland areas.

    Crossrail, of course, is the thread that ties these plans together, though it remains to be seen whether a sub-fifteen minute journey time from the West End to the East End will be enough to close the vast psychological, sociological and financial gaps that exist between those two parts of the city today.

    Happy New Year?

    Read more...

    0 comments

  • Out There, Part Four: Revisiting '2001: A Space Odyssey' with its cast

    As Stanley Kubrick’s magnificent, majestic 2001: A Space Odyssey receives a national re-release, its two leads – Keir Dullea (Dave Bowman) and Gary Lockwood (Frank Poole) – appeared on stage at the BFI last night for a uniquely absorbing and thought-provoking discussion of their part in the making of the 1968 epic. They were joined by two men exceptionally well qualified to comment on the film’s impact then and now – veteran cultural historian Christopher Frayling and star physicist Brian Cox.

    Broadcaster and writer Matthew Sweet, chairing, introduced the actors as the Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin of the film, and as the evening went on that seemed an apt as well as amusing description of this mission commander and his deputy compared to those Moon men. New York-raised Dullea – looking dapper and efficient – was articulate, precise and calm. Californian former rodeo rider Lockwood, jacket thrown on over a T-shirt, was prone to tangential interruption and seemed more heartfelt in his opinions.

    Both had a clear recall of their time with Kubrick and co-creator Arthur C. Clarke, and both were clear as to the support give to them by the director. Dullea explained how both Bowman and Poole had prepared “backstories”, surely an early example of this now-common tool for actors. “We were both double doctorates,” he explained, “non-military, and with psychological profiles meaning what might disturb others wouldn’t bother us as much.” It was a useful reminder of the sheer depth of effort toward accuracy seen in the film; none of the Apollo astronauts were chosen for their fiery tempers. And, as Dullea added, “by the time [the audience] meets them, we’ve done everything and are into the mundane [part of the mission].” Lockwood, meanwhile, remembered Kubrick calling an immediate halt to filming after the actor demurred over a particular moment in the script, sending him away from the Hertfordshire studio via his personal chauffeur-driven car and the A5 to Golders Green to muse on the scene over bagels and cream cheese.

    Both men were clearly stimulated by the film’s many messages, and were keen to stress its positives. Dullea explained how he brought warmth to what could have been the most coolly technical scene of the film – Bowman’s painstaking ‘execution’ of HAL – by playing it in his mind as the poignant climax from Of Mice and Men. Lockwood stressed his own efforts at engaging the youth of the day as those most likely to respond to the material, telling how he cannily manipulated the make-up of the press corps assembled for the premiere so that the underground and alternative scene got first bite of the cherry.

    Frayling accurately described the film’s ground-breaking mix of concept, imagery and music as “a visual concert” that “dared to be slow.” Its painstakingly researched design grew organically out of real-world achievements, he said, whilst Dullea, for his part, noted the degree to which many of Kubrick and Clarke’s technical predictions came true – “BBC [channel expansion], iPads…Floyd talking to his daughter by video – that’s Skype.” Cox agreed, confirming its plausibility even today and its expression of the possible within man: “You’re invited to look at the ingenuity of the human mind across the screen.” Indeed Frayling noted how, in deciding ultimately to obscure the function of the spaceships featured in the famous ‘evolutionary jump cut’ (they were intended originally to be orbiting Cold War bomb platforms), Kubrick changes the sequence’s meaning from one depicting “three million years of weapons development” to one simply showing our triumphs.

    It’s a pleasingly optimistic view of a film often accused – along with much of Kubrick’s work – of being cold. But this is to miss its fundamental hopefulness, signalling as it does – no matter how obliquely – that there is always something better ‘out there’.

    Read more...

    0 comments

  • Out There, Part Three: 'Interstellar'

    In his new film Interstellar, Christopher Nolan leaves behind the comic book fantasy of Batman and, indeed, Earth itself for an examination of mankind’s future. He consciously embraces a humanist view of that projection and a grounded method of production, shooting on photo-chemical film – in part in IMAX – and relying on miniatures and full-size, four-walled sets, and engaging a CalTech physicist to inform the science.

    The film’s beginning is deeply rooted in the history of the American mid-west, the country’s larder but also the scene of desperate times in the Depression. In this Nolan appears also to borrow from the similarly-themed first act of Superman: The Movie (1978), yet in omitting the misty-eyed, elegiac quality of Donner’s film Nolan makes a fatal error which is repeated throughout the remainder of Interstellar – it is realistic and convincing, but actually too realistic and too convincing, undercutting the mythic quality inherent in the basic concept and leaving little room for awe and wonder.

    Admittedly, the pivotal scene in which Cooper finally leaves the family farm for NASA strikes an emotional note. A simple crane shot of him driving away from his crying daughter – and thus from us – through the corn fields and into the distance, with Hans Zimmer’s score soaring and the rocket launch countdown from the next scene already bleeding into the soundtrack, is remarkably effective (and would perhaps have been so without the need to slip into IMAX, a harbinger of another false step). The moment also reinforces a wider point within the screenplay, which presents space exploration in general and the Lazarus mission in particular as the logical next step in America’s founding lore and connects NASA’s astronauts directly with the pioneering settlers that pushed west following Jefferson’s expansionist Louisiana Purchase. Curiously, though, despite this being a period so canonic in US history, the revelation that school children are now being taught that the Apollo missions were faked is passed over astonishingly casually.

    Once in space, Nolan asserts a rigorously – even relentlessly – credible and matter-of-fact aesthetic. The neat Ranger shuttles build on real-life lifting body design, and their tiled coating and array of deeply-set windows clearly reflect the Space Shuttle in their detail. Throughout these sequences, the colour palette is bleached down to black, grey and white, notwithstanding the publicity poster of the ship Endurance near a bright red nebula, continued with location shooting in Iceland representing one of the new planets discovered by the mission. Nolan eschews almost entirely traditional shots of the various space vehicles in flight or landing, in favour of tight close-ups, distance shots or, in the case of exteriors of the Rangers, a locked-off camera pointing down the fuselage and thus delivering the same angle every time.

    Both are effective approaches if you consider the space scenes as ‘found footage’, but again lack the epic quality that would have made Interstellar special. Equally disappointingly, they render the decision to shoot more than half of the film in native 70mm IMAX virtually redundant, with barely a single shot generating the particularly visceral thrill enabled by that format.

    Of course, no film featuring extended, meditative space sequences can escape the gravity of the triple star system that is 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Solaris and Silent Running (both 1972), and sensibly Nolan doesn’t even try, acknowledging rather than ignoring them. Kubrick’s landmark receives the most nods, from the circular Endurance and balletic docking sequences to the appearance of notes from Strauss’s ‘Sunrise’ on the soundtrack. In common with the more optimistic view of assistive technology that followed 2001 in fact and fiction, though, HAL is broken down into three talking robots, a la Douglas Trumbull’s Huey, Dewy and Louie, able to fold and unfold themselves in various ways helpful to the plot though at rest – and wittily – each a man-sized monolith, albeit in tactile bronze rather than impenetrable black.

    Revealing any more of the plot would be unfair, as would identifying other works with which this is shared. Suffice it to say the climax separates itself from 2001 in one fundamental respect, a move that is by no means unacceptable conceptually but whose execution is astonishingly awkward and over-extended. Combined with the uneven look of the film, awkward plotting and dialogue, unclear motivations and some points skipped over which could usefully have been dwelt on, this was a real disappointment for me – and a disappointing disappointment at that, just four years after the effortlessly effective Inception.

    Read more...

    0 comments

  • Out There, Part Two: William Gibson in conversation

    Probably the best-known author of science fiction alive today, William Gibson appeared at the BFI this week to promote his new book, The Peripheral, and look back on his career. Fittingly, this year marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of his breakthrough work, debut novel Neuromancer. First of the Sprawl trilogy, a key text in the genre and still his most effective read, its tight, punchy, predictive melange of high tech (two warring artificial intelligences) and low life (gangsters, bodyguards, junkies) defined a generation of science fiction. In discussion (with Nick Harkaway) Gibson is as elegant and spare as the writing in those earlier works, his words having the same compressed brilliance, and so a more stripped-down account of the evening seems fitting…

    On why he likes Tron:

    “It’s the only depiction of the politics of digital information that doesn’t feature typing! In lots of films about computers you see lots of tense typing. That’s why [in Neuromancer] you never see [Case’s] hands, because I never knew what they were doing.”

    On ‘cyberspace’, a term which he invented:

    “I needed an arena, and not [outer] space. I scribbled terms on a yellow legal pad with a red Sharpie – dataspace, cyberspace…cyberspace, hmm. It’s become a signifier. I proceeded over the course of three books to fill that signifier up [but] it isn’t MY meaning that’s in the OED, but the world’s, and that’s something else. It’s the signifier that became famous, not the content.”

    On ‘cyberpunk’, a term which he didn’t:

    “I wanted more dirt in the corners of science fiction…What I do is collage – taking bits and pieces from the world and putting them together in a certain way and lit from a certain angle to seem spooky. But it’s become a Pantone chip in popular culture.”

    On Pattern Recognition and its McGuffin, and how that might work as a movie:

    “They’re speculative novels. They’re set the year they are written. In Pattern Recognition, we never see the Footage, we only see how others react to it. It was done pre-YouTube; I was imagining a kind of hidden internet where this stuff is. When YouTube came out shortly afterward, I thought ‘phew, dodged that bullet’. You could negotiate to use something that might already exist. Glimpsed over characters’ shoulders, or on iPhones [it might work].”

    On the use of branding in his novels:

    I wanted a high resolution, high definition future. I always worried about the lack of branding in science fiction; it was one of the things on the Post-it note inside my forehead. I always looked at Starfleet [in Star Trek] and thought, it’s a Marxist utopia…”

    On the Sprawl as dystopia versus the utopia of classical science fiction:

    “If you lived in Mogadishu today and offered people the choice of that or the Sprawl, they’d take the red pill. [But] the whole universe is antithetical to us. You can walk into any forest, something will eat you.”

    On Blade Runner and Neuromancer:

    “I literally ran from the theatre after twenty minutes. I thought I’d have to put [the manuscript] in the shredder. I didn’t actually see it until after the book was published. Then I started to get fanmail from architects.”

    On films and television he’s written for:

    “TV shows have a mayfly existence.”

    On finally trying on a Buzz Rickson MA-1:

    “It wasn’t as soft as I expected, for a female character."

    Read more...

    0 comments

  • Out There, Part One: ‘Phase IV’

    The only film directed by legendary graphic designer Saul Bass, creator of title sequences for Psycho and Spartacus and logos for some of the biggest brands in America, received a very rare screening at the BFI Southbank tonight as part of their sci-fi season; not only that, but the audience also got to see Bass’s original ending, truncated by the studio in 1974 and not seen since until its discovery in an archive two years ago. It’s an absorbing and at times visually stunning concoction.

    In suggesting unusual astronomical activity could mutate the humble ant to such an extent that species set aside hostilities against each other and commence an attack on humanity, Mayo Simon’s original screenplay deftly merges two of the most common sci-fi sub-genres of the period: man’s dismissive attitude to the natural world around him (The Andromeda Strain, Planet of the Apes, Silent Running), and how intelligent life might be encountered in modes unfamiliar and indeed unrecognisable (Colossus/The Forbin Project, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris).

    And just as those films often pitted one or two men against an implacable foe, using force and brainpower to outwit it, so Phase IV sees a pair of scientists in self-imposed isolation within a geodetic dome planted in the desert near a large concentration of the unusual ant activity that follows the solar alignment. Hubbs, a British entomologist played by Nigel Davenport, discovered the ants’ changing behaviour and so initially appears the more sympathetic to the creatures ‘cause’. Young game theory expert James (Michael Murphy), meanwhile, is the most detached. But as move and counter-move of this experiment play out, indicated onscreen by Futura titles moving from ‘Phase I’ to ‘Phase III, their positions and attitudes change; Hubbs becomes increasingly fixated on the ants’ power and increasingly desperate to destroy them, whilst James seeks to break the stalemate by communicating through simple mathematical symbols.

    This clash of alternate civilisations provides a rich canvas for Bass to explore.

    Crucially, the humans and the ants are treated as equals. They are shown to share similar motives – tenacity, teamwork, respect for the dead, and so on. The scientists’ home, full of computers, poison gas and radios, may appear artificial compared to that of the ants, but their new-found ability to construct vast, intricate geometric dwellings above and below the ground shows them to be equally adapt at manipulating their environment. Indeed there is some wit at play – straight forms are generally regarded as man-made and curved as natural, yet here it is man who occupies a friendly, rounded dome and the ants who build hard-edged crystalline towers. The television system used by the men to observe the ants is reflected in the insects’ compound eyes.

    There is a strong use of colour in Dick Bush’s cinematography, from the sickly yellow chemical spewed from the laboratory’s defence spray through the warm orange glow of each day's sunset and sunrise to the metallic blues and silvers of the dome’s machinery. Willy Kemplen’s editing employs a mix of jump cuts, sudden reveals and sequences of dreamlike unreality.

    The ant sequences are staggering, not only for the exceptional close-up photography by Ken Middleham but for the manner in which they are choreographed, art directed and seemingly actually controlled. Make no mistake, this is not simply behavioural footage cut into the narrative – instead we have the corpses of bright orange ants carefully laid out by black ants who appear to mourn them, others laboriously carrying poison samples into the nest to help snap-breed a batch of resistant ants, ‘discussions’ between members of the colony and, best of all, a hellish queen, monstrous, blue-black and glistening, a distended egg sac behind her, directing them all. That all this was shot for the most part in scaled studio sets to simulate real ant nests matters not at all – their very obvious artifice reinforces their alien, other-worldly nature.

    The taking in of wide-eyed Kendra (Lynne Frederick) part-way through the film initially seems awkward, but her apparent Titus Oates-like suicide later on is a jolt and only as the film climaxes – with James assuming the role of vengeful attacker after Hubbs’ death – does her true purpose become clear. Even the theatrical ending packs a punch; the full-length Bass version, with its dazzling, genuinely surrealistic and often disturbing montage, is astonishing.

    Kendra and James, reduced to tiny silhouettes, run through mazes and scale vast ziggurats. They have, it seems, been spared for their similarities with the ants: Kendra her self-sacrifice, James his willingness to talk. They swim with frogs and – in a truly breathtaking moment – float in the sky with birds. There is apocalyptic imagery – fire, sun, volcanos – and theological overtones. Humans are corralled, wired up, experimented upon and physically transformed. A race of hybrids emerges, their ant masters watching, with a new Adam and Eve ready to take their first steps. Both endings present homoformica as the next step in the evolution of mankind – ‘Phase IV’, indeed.

    Bass’s film is brilliant, highly original and thoroughly thought-provoking. Its sometimes nightmarish visuals were achieved solely through traditional photo-chemical processes and optical trickery (mirrors, filters, painstakingly aligned double exposures) yet are more powerful than much of today’s computer-generated work. It sits alongside yet firmly outside the mainstream of 1970s sci-fi.

    Its touches of mysticism are welcome, and have prompted me to explore in this blog over the coming week or so a number of other sci-fi works looking at life and the ultimate form this might take. Watch the stars….

    Read more...

    0 comments

  • Trading up

    Bush House, commanding the southern end of Kingsway, is a grandly-conceived yet often overlooked inter-war office block in the heart of London. The massive central portion was built in 1922 by Irving T. Bush, an American developer experienced in commercial real estate across the Atlantic. Employing an American architect and advanced construction techniques new to Britain, his scheme anticipated the Broadgate project that at that time lay more than 60 years into the future. Empty for some years after the departure of the BBC World Service, Bush House has now been completely refreshed for a new era; not only that, but it could just kick-start the revitalisation of an entire district.

    The laying out of Aldwych and Kingsway, connecting the Strand with Holborn and having the additional benefit of clearing a notorious slum, was the last great infrastructure improvement of Imperial London; Kingsway – once poetically described as an arrow shot from the bow of the crescent-shaped Aldwych – was completed only in 1905. On the prime site formed by the junction of the two roads, Bush intended to erect a great trade building containing exhibition space, offices, a restaurant and bars, with sumptuous lobby areas tying them all together. To design the new building Bush chose San Francisco architect Harvey Corbett, who sketched a narrow but deep block running from Aldwych right back to the Strand. It would later be flanked by more or less symmetrical wing annexes – pragmatically referred to by their compass points – filling the space up to the contemporaneous but entirely separate corner blocks, Australia House and the Gaiety Theatre (Melbourne House and India House were slotted in between the two).

    Intriguingly, although Corbett was very experienced in the field of skyscrapers, it appears he looked to Europe for the planning, detail and especially the exterior treatment of his scheme, perhaps as a result of his Parisian Beaux-Arts training.

    Thus the central block of Bush House was axially planned around a principal circulation route comprising the northern entrance on Aldwych, a generous central foyer containing lifts and stairs, and a secondary southern entrance on the Strand. These elegant common areas were equipped with up-to-date electric lighting and an internal letter chute system but were decorated with Neo-Classical detail in travertine, bronze and plaster.

    The most dramatic of these Old World influences, however, can be found outside.

    The entire pedimented Aldwych façade of Bush House is taken up with a six-storey semi-circular niche, topped by a coffered half-dome and separated from the street by a screen comprising two giant-order columns supporting an entablature, that is itself surmounted by a sculpture of two figures holding a torch to symbolise Anglo-American friendship. The obvious precedent is ancient Rome’s Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, completed in the fourth century, and to see it replicated on the streets of London after the Great War is a remarkable, hubristic gesture, unmatched anywhere else in the capital.

    It took another dozen years to complete the Bush House wings, yet even as the central block was finished, the Great Depression forced Bush to abandon his trade mart principle and instead offer Bush House as simple tenanted offices. The World Service moved in a 1941 wartime emergency measure but ultimately stayed for 60 years.

    Now, Japanese owner Kato Kagaku has spent £61m engaging John Robertson Architects to restore and modernise the central block, its eastern wings and Melbourne House, together renamed the Aldwych Quarter. John Robertson describes the big complex as “the Canary Wharf of its day – London had not seen anything like it,” and says his firm’s task was to “bring it back to life.” Fortunately Robertson and team have built an impressive and deserved reputation in resurrecting such treasures, beginning with the Daily Express building in Fleet Street 15 years ago, and visiting their latest success on completion ably demonstrates why.

    Building on Kato Kagaku president Eiichi Kato’s genuine love for the building and his concomitant desire to keep it in commercial office rather than residential or hotel use, JRA’s research uncovered its history as well as its bones. This included remarkably tall floor to ceiling heights for its day (4.1m), the use of equally unusual long-span structural steel beams (10m) and the deployment of inverted steel U-troughs as permanent shuttering for the concrete floors. Ingenious copper panels cleverly buried in the walls gave radiant heat. For Robertson, this “far-sighted, flexible infrastructure” confirms Corbett’s pioneering methods. One revelation from the building’s later life is that the delightful shopping arcade once entered from the Strand side was in fact a fairly recent insertion, replacing the ground floor portion of a double-height space originally occupied by a grand staircase.

    From this careful work JRA determined the best way forward, respecting and retaining as many of the best features and qualities of the building as were compatible with the brief as a first step. The original window units have been kept and cleaned, and the external stonework washed. The bronze doors with their Imperial lions’ heads were reconditioned and other doors refurbished. Inside the northern entrance lobby the two wonderful “minstrels’ galleries”, as Robertson describes them, have been reinstated. The original light fittings have been fitted with new bulbs. Throughout, later accretions have been removed.

    JRA have then made “modern interventions, discreetly done,” which Robertson hopes will “link and harmonise with the original building”. He is keen to emphasise that this new work is reversible: “I really wanted to ensure all we have done is strippable [in future],” he says.

    New toilets have been put in, as have new lift cars; nicely minimalist new architraves mark their portals. Inserting new services like full air conditioning, a real challenge in large period properties of this type, has been handled with the kind of ingenuity I first saw in JRA’s work at the Daily Express. Here advantage has been taken of the original deep basements on the south side of the site to house air handling units and a stone-faced rooftop enclosure added by the BBC for now-redundant plant for the heat rejection equipment. Risers have been installed in the walls to feed the office floors and a new well created above the central core for tenants’ own equipment.

    Two terraces are now available as amenities, that above Malvina Hoffman’s sculpture on the north front presenting what JRA team member Ben James calls a “rehabilitating” view of Kingsway as a broad, green boulevard, and it’s true that only from here does one appreciate the surprising scale, power and, yes, beauty of the Kingsway axis, whose Parisian scale and feel may also have attracted Bush and Corbett.

    The wing blocks have been given their own receptions, in keeping with Kato Kagaku’s wish for the Aldwych Quarter’s blocks to function as stand-alone buildings but with provision for inter-connection if needed.

    But impressive as this transformation is, it is the space between the buildings that may prove even more valuable, and for a much wider user group than simply tenants.

    The BBC’s occupation of the Bush House site saw the courtyards between the central block and wings colonised for car parking and temporary buildings, with railings and gates closing off access to all but employees. The entire central portion of the Aldwych ‘island’ thus became a forbidding and isolated fortress standing within a moat of traffic, an impenetrable barrier of Portland stone and steel that forced pedestrians into a tedious diversion. Even today, and despite the nearby presence of hotels and theatres and the bustling and ever-expanding campus for the LSE, the Aldwych island remains a real blockage to enlivening the area. There is, therefore, an obvious – and, I’d suggest, pressing – need to improve permeability and open up the site. Fortunately, though, a solution is in sight…

    JRA have already made moves to resurrect the spaces surrounding the buildings. The courtyards have been cleared and re-surfaced, with new bollards and reopened ‘areas’ (lightwells); although still used for parking, this begins to indicate what might be possible if, for example, the tarmac was replaced by granite setts and the parking moved elsewhere. And, whilst some of the building facades overlooking these spaces remain grimy and, even when cleaned, will still be cliff-like, the possibilities for open-air dining – where the walls then provide shelter and stored warmth – are obvious.

    Best of all, however, Corbett actually designed a number of formal pedestrian ‘gateways’ onto the site. These take the form of four further screens of balustrading, paired columns, pilasters and entablatures either side of the central block. Those to the north frame magnificent flights of steps leading down from Aldwych to the courtyard level, whilst those to the south serve the Strand side, just without the steps. It is therefore obvious that Corbett – and Bush – intended a far more open arrangement than exists currently, and these gateways cry out for reopening.

    It is easy to imagine an animated, fully peopled courtyard either side of the main block with access north and south and a range of food and drink outlets, with lighting and awnings as needed. Such a move would utterly transform this currently dead space, especially in the evening, attracting theatre audiences and students and creating a real destination – imagine a cross between Somerset House and the revitalised Air Street.

    Luckily, Robertson confirms that Kato Kagaku are amenable to this idea and indeed have included it in phase 2 of the Aldwych Quarter scheme, to be activated if the economics of phase 1 prove positive and when neighbouring owners and tenants agree. Let’s hope that’s soon.

    In the meantime, John Robertson can be content with another terrific success story and another major building reintroduced to Londoners.

    Read more...

    0 comments

  • 'Metropolis'

    One of the pleasures of the BFI Southbank is the chances it provides to see great films in ways that are as close to what the makers intended as possible. For me this has included Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm, and Lean’s doubly-restored Lawrence of Arabia complete with overture, entr'acte and walk-out. Now, those two cinematic landmarks are joined by Fritz Lang’s classic portrait of rebellion, betrayal and lost love in the futuristic city of Metropolis, thanks to last night’s screening of the most complete version of the 1927 film ever assembled as part of the BFI's Days of Fear and Wonder SF season.

    Lang’s epic is an acknowledged entry in the canon of science fiction motion pictures thanks largely to its dazzling visuals. The obsessed inventor Rotwang’s gleaming Art Deco robot, rising slowly from its chair and extending a hand to its master; the drone-like men, heads bowed, shuffling along passageways and into lifts to serve the machines of the hellish, industrialised, underground workers’ city; and its inversion, the vertiginous, skyscraper-strewn upper city, lit with neon and threaded by aerial freeways, trains and biplanes – all have inspired directors, writers and designers in the eight decades of film-making that have followed.

    But thanks to the troubled production history of Metropolis and its fragmented existence during those years (attributable variously to censorship, practicality, its funding arrangements and misfortune), none of the versions that have been available have allowed modern audiences to truly understand the work that Lang created. It was only the discovery in 2008 of a 16mm copy of the original release print that has permitted reconstruction to a point where the film is now 95% complete.

    Fully a quarter of the current 147-minute running time comprises material recovered from the Argentinian find, including entire scenes, reaction shots and simple extensions of existing shots. Having only seen one or two of the earlier iterations, and those a dim memory, I was eager to find out just how effective Lang’s work is viewed much as he intended. Happily, I was not disappointed.

    The story is cleverly structured. Beginning with the revelation of the conditions in the underground city to Freder, pampered son of the Master of Metropolis, Joh Frederson, and Freder’s desire to atone, Lang and his wife Thea Von Harbou, who wrote the screenplay, then fold in a love story between Freder and the idealistic Maria who believes in a God-like figure called the Mediator who can bring both classes togther, the acrimonious past and uneasy present shared by Frederson and Rotwang, the former’s cynical decision to foment an uprising of the dissatisfied workers that can be ruthlessly repressed and the vengeful actions of the latter who gives his robot the appearance of Maria on Frederson’s orders but has another agenda all together.

    Despite also blending elements of film noir, Gothic Romance and Greek tragedy, as well as Biblical allusions and parallels to both the French Revolution and the socio-political world of inter-war Europe, all of these strands and more come together easily and absorbingly.

    The performances are something of a revelation; yes, some of the conventions of the day raise a smile, especially as embodied by Gustav Fröhlich as Freder, but Heinrich George as Grot, the foreman of the machines, Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Rotwang and, especially, the wonderful Brigitte Helm as both Marias are superb. Helm, who was just 19 at the time and who died only in 1996, shows a terrific duality, with the doe-eyed saint that Freder falls for and the writhing, lascivious False Maria who wears black lipstick and kohl and excites the male audience of a nightclub with her dance. Indeed I hadn’t realised just how much actual performance was still present in a ‘silent’ film, nor how involving this can be. The lack of spoken dialogue almost become irrelevant, and even the score by Gottried Huppertz, with its occasionally overpowering sweeps of Wagnerian drama, dissolves into the background as one concentrates on the faces on the screen.

    Lang’s camerawork is crucial to this. Providing not only basic comprehension but also style and atmosphere, I was struck by the mixture of techniques employed and the modernity of some. A shot of the terrifying Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), Frederson’s henchman, by Freder’s bedside is followed immediately by a reverse angle of the same scene that is also the first shot of a fantasy sequence. This and other such passages, revealing characters’ dreams, fears and desires, are carefully deployed throughout the film and are remarkably powerful, mixing elements of Surrealism, Expressionism and Modernism in their rapid editing, eye-catching design and placement in the plot structure. A hand-held camera is used for key moments – Freder noticing a scrap of Maria’s clothing whilst trapped in Rotwang’s house, Maria herself desperately trying to escape from the same place. These moment of fluidity genuinely startle, the camera seeming to come loose from its moorings and float into the scene.

    Of course, it is those famous visuals that are the most anticipated aspect of Lang’s vision, and on the big screen their ability to impress is confirmed.

    The vast machine halls of the undercity call to mind the new industrial palaces of the twentieth century. Two celebrated buildings in particular – the Palais des Machines at the 1899 Exposition Universelle in Paris and the 1909 AEG turbine factory in Berlin – are likely sources for the designs used in Metropolis, whilst Rotwang’s tumble-down house, dwarfed by the brutally plain mass housing blocks towering above it, can be found in any number of European fairy tales, complete with disorientating warren of rooms and basements within. Lang was inspired by seeing New York, and this is obvious in the vistas of his celluloid upper city, rendered in depth and with fascinating neon signage hinting at the pleasures it can give.

    Metropolis’s cathedral, home to a troubling sequence in which statues of Death and the Seven Deadly Sins come to life and the climactic battle on the roof, is brilliantly achieved – in the studio, as with the entirety of the production – through realistic sets, including a single massive column base and its entrance, and appropriate, often raking lighting, helping plaster and wood to convince as stone. A temple of another sort is seen in Frederson’s office at the top of the Tower of Babel, from which he manages the city. Mixing Art Deco and Classical motifs in its décor, a panoramic window giving an expansive view over the city, an ostentatiously large desk packed with telecommunications equipment and a wall-mounted display of stock prices in scrolling columns are all remarkably prescient of today’s executive lair.

    Lang used the latest visual effects technology to depict these places and spaces, primarily via Eugen Schüfftan’s eponymous process for filming actors and miniatures (or matte paintings on glass) simultaneously to form in-camera optical composites. A sequence in which lead characters and extras run along an elevated freeway between images of cars demonstrates this. Elsewhere, the film features models, photographic cut-outs and even wholly animated shots.

    As a result of this dazzling collage, and as much as Metropolis borrows from the literary classics– Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and The Time Machine, to name but three more – of the past, it has been an immense influence on films that became classics of the future. Tim Burton’s Batman, the original Star Wars and RoboCop, and King Kong all owe an obvious debt, but it is Ridley Scott who has shown the most devotion to Lang’s picture.

    Scott began with his infamous ‘1984’ television advert for the Apple Mac computer, which may have been inspired by Orwell’s novel conceptually but whose briefly-glimpsed cityscape criss-crossed by walkways and workers’ trudging procession to their briefing all derive from Lang’s film. It is though Scott’s seminal dystopian detective drama Blade Runner that shows this enthusiasm most openly.

    From a man waiting in the street and peering over his newspaper to the Japanese-influenced downtown drinking hole and video phone conversation, and from the neon-drenched darkness of a multi-levelled city and the aerial shot of a lofty cylindrical building to the domineering corporate giant in his eyrie and an erotic dance by a fake human, Metropolis is a virtual blueprint for Scott’s masterpiece in almost every respect.

    Fritz Lang never got to see Blade Runner; he died in 1976 in California, just a few miles from where a gang of hippies who were about the same age he had been in the mid-‘20s were working on that small, mid-budget SF adventure called Star Wars... But as with 2001: A Space Odyssey, a trailer for which co-incidentally was showing before last night’s screening, Metropolis outlived its maker. It has not dated and has a resonance today.

    Read more...

    0 comments

  • Happy Birthday to me!

    Hello! Today is my birthday, I’m four years old. Well, that’s what those ooGle people say, they tell me that’s when people started coming to see me. A lot of people have done that since I was born – nearly a quarter of a million times. I don’t even know what a million is (is it more than all my fingers and all my toes??) but I know that sounds a lot.

    They’ve come from all over the world, and the world is much bigger than London – America, Poland, Japan – even one man from Reunion! I had to look that up... Imagine that, people from all those places coming to look at me. Some of them have even talked to me. It’s brilliant, they leave little messages saying nice things and asking things too, for the nice man that’s my daddy. I help him answer. There are thousands and thousands of words from him on here, about all sorts of things, like films and cars and dogs and planes and houses and pictures and sounds and everything. He’s very clever. I hope more people come and see me. Did I say I’m four today? I am!

    I hope I get a cake….

    Read more...

    0 comments

  • Tube tales, then and now

    Forty five years ago this year the Victoria Line, the first entirely new London Underground line since before the Great War, was officially opened by the Queen. Its trains, composed of swish new rolling stock with curved windows, fluorescent lighting and a brushed aluminium finish, were the first to be run automatically from a central control room – the train operator simply opened and closed the doors. This week saw that heritage continued with the unveiling of the New Tube for London, featuring a single walk-through train, air cooling, digital in-car displays and the ability to run without a person on board at all.

    Half a century ago, applied science was changing the world. Demonstration of a working laser in 1960, the first man in space and introduction of the contraceptive pill the following year and launch of the pioneering transatlantic communications satellite Telstar and the first commercially viable hovercraft service (1962) helped drive future prime minister Harold Wilson’s famous 1963 ‘white heat of technology’ speech. In Britain alone the remainder of the decade saw the Post Office Tower built and the first flights of the TSR.2 advanced military jet and supersonic airliner Concorde.

    Such dazzling progress wasn’t limited to events on or above the ground, though.

    The Victoria Line was an astonishing engineering achievement at the literal cutting edge of tunnelling technology. Bored deep below the city’s streets for 23 miles, the ingenious “drum digging shield” was employed for most of this length. This was the latest iteration of a device to protect workers and temporarily support the tunnels they had made that had been invented by Brunel and improved by Barlow and then Greathead, who mechanised part of the process. The new shield – introduced less than a decade before – added a rotating wheel of teeth to cut through the clay, leaving the workers to erect the pre-cast concrete or cast iron tunnel liner behind it. The shield is only one generation removed from the pressurised, laser-guided tunnel boring machines driving Crossrail beneath Londoners’ feet today.

    The tunnels – for escalators, services and ventilation as well as trains and stations – were threaded between complex knots of sewers, cable ducts and water mains. Today’s passengers take this now-invisible feat for granted as they strap-hang to and from work each day, though hopefully they appreciate, like I do at Warren Street, the Victoria Line’s special feature, unique on the network: cross-platform, same-direction interchange with every other line. Cleverly, it was often achieved by digging a new section of tunnel adjacent to the other line’s existing platform and then diverting that line to it, allowing Victoria Line trains to permanently ‘squat’ in the old location. And as if that wasn’t impressive enough, the whole of Oxford Circus was excavated to build a new ticket hall below it by lifting the massively-trafficked crossroads into the air for five years on a steel and concrete ‘umbrella’.

    Justifiably proud, the British Transport Commission despatched its film unit under Edgar Anstey to record the project, from test tunnel start to Royal finish. The results – available on DVD from the BFI – are utterly absorbing.

    Detailed, intelligent and informative, the five films concentrate on that excavation work through explanations of the technology and footage of the men using it. The shields are certainly impressive; like great rust-coloured worms with their clanking parts and hydraulic ‘blood vessels’, they and their crews – complete with flat caps, fags dangling and the need to man-handle concrete slabs and cast iron panels – appear to have escaped from a Jules Verne novel.

    But amongst all this brutal hard work, the cameramen and directors occasionally isolate moments of poetry and even beauty. The multitudinous colours of the muck – blues, greys, hot oranges – appear as globs of paint on a painter’s palette. Iron linings in half-a-dozen different diameters lie in concentric circles in a marshalling yard like a giant’s dart board, two men at the bull’s eye. Cool, crisp new ceramic tiles, dark blue and white, are carefully cemented into position. A train on a wet-braking test slices through a tiny rainbow generated by jets of water. Elsewhere, the staggering complexity of the interlocking systems that drove the new trains via electronic impulses sent down the rails is caught in a breathless montage of and within the futuristic concrete drum of the Coburg Street control centre that looks like a period spy film title sequence, all blinking lights and scrolling punch tape.

    Fast-forward half a century and the New Tube for London takes these features a step further. Similar to the Siemens EVO/Inspiro concept seen last year, the new stock is intended to run on the Piccadilly, Central, Bakerloo and Waterloo & City lines from the 2020s.

    PriestmanGoode’s train picks up styling cues from automotive design, such as the raised bar and circle Underground ‘badge’ on the nose and the subtler version incorporated into the seat-front ventilation grille. Firmly tube-like, though, are the Deco-influenced circles radiating out from where

    vestibule grab pole junction with the roof. The new cars will have double doors throughout to speed-up boarding and alighting; this, in turn, is only really practical when paired with the walk-through design, in order to eliminate the dead space at car ends. The TfL video shows what appear to be LCD-type screen advertising panels, neat but surely a significant maintenance risk, and let’s hope the niggles of the

    current stock are also addressed, such as the neck-chilling positioning of the outflow vents and the lack of grab poles within reach of the centre of each seating block. As with the Victoria Line, train and signalling will be two sides of the same coin when it comes to cutting journey times and reducing intervals.

    As for that promise of “total automation” – well, that might take another fifty years…

    Read more...

    0 comments

  • Rock, steel, water

    A week on, and I’m still absorbing the richly-layered materials, juxtapositions and implications of Irish architect Patrick Bradley’s house for himself, as built on his family farm in Maghera, Northern Ireland, and as featured on last week’s Grand Designs on Channel 4. Overlooking a small river called the Grillagh Water that winds its way through the property, Bradley’s house is a highly original blend of industrial toughness, contemporary luxury and a sensitivity to the beautiful locale that belies the first of these.

    Bradley conceived the improbable yet ingenious project around four second-hand 45-foot ISO shipping containers, welded together in pairs and with the resulting “modules,” as Kevin McCloud described them, placed atop each other at right angles to form a quick, simple and cheap structural core for the house. The site was also crucial, a tumbling, picturesque mass of natural rock clothed in moss and greenery in apparent opposition to the tonnes of brutally pragmatic steel about to be imposed on it. Indeed, publicity for the episode, a snatched glimpse whilst recording it of the containers being sliced apart and much of the programme itself stressed this last point, which made me fear the worst – a grim box in all its horrid corrugated glory.

    Mercifully all this proved slightly misleading, for Bradley’s plan from the outset was to bring the natural and the unnatural together in a truly synergistic manner, to make “a sculpture in the middle of the landscape,” as Bradley puts. Intending to preserve the folds of stone and conceal the final building’s workaday origins entirely, the final act revealed that the true worth of Bradley’s aim.

    The finish of the weathering steel used to clad the lower module is a beautiful complement to the stone that lies beneath, both in texture and hue – its rusty orange is “the colour of the rock,” said McCloud. The upper module, though, is sheathed in expanded metal sheeting sprayed a misty dark grey – “the colour of the sky.” The manner in which these two surfaces blend with the land is enticing in the television coverage but beguiling in Aidan Monaghan’s intensely lush still images. These also reveal the echoes of the Japanese art aesthetic present throughout the design, from that special connection with landscape to the contrast of form and plane.

    The earthy tones of the lower level’s interiors continue this concept, whilst one can also read the stacking of materials as a subtle illustration of their lifecycle – from ore to steel to rust to air. The views from the upper level are enhanced by the house’s winning specific feature, for me – the wonderful balcony, composed of superimposed steel rectangles pushed out from the main block like a succession of super-sized picture frames. And thus here there is also a clear connection to the classic Mid-Century Modern corporate architecture of the US after the war, with its high-precision parts, metal detailing and bold use of colour. Only the slightly crude main entrance, with its blank steel wall and blunt door, seems a mis-step.

    In the history of Grand Designs, Kathryn Tyler’s lovely, homely Modernist Cornwall house stole my heart, whilst the Lambeth water tower, GD's 100th project, had me awestruck with its ambition and quality. But my last major ‘like’ was Two Cocks, also a powerful, contemporary iteration of the farmhouse, and now we have this. Perhaps I missed my calling; certainly Patrick Bradley hasn’t missed his.

    Read more...

    0 comments

Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

BX 00 - TITLE

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

Take a snap shot of technology stocks which you might find familar with a Bloomberg intelligence report, and then read an exclusive interview with none other than Dr Eldon Tyrell...

BX 05

You are viewing the text version of this site.

To view the full version please install the Adobe Flash Player and ensure your web browser has JavaScript enabled.

Need help? check the requirements page.


Get Flash Player