• Places just to 'be'

    Writing today for the World Architecture Festival, Jonathan Meades (who, by the way, dissects the architecture of Franco’s Spain on BBC next Tuesday) rightly bemoans the mediocre buildings of today. Where, he asks, are those that are responsive to local topography, that “climb hills, turn corners, offer shade and rest and include within their fabric small shops, bars and cafés, plus useful services.” It can be done, of course, and was... in the permeable skyscraper lobbies of New York and Chicago, which offered a handy cut-through, shoe-shine or newspaper; in the nooks and crannies of Manchester’s post-war stars like Brett & Pollen’s luxuriously blue and bronze Pall Mall Court; and in each of several small-scale courtyard developments in St Albans, Hertfordshire, since 1945. Britain’s capital, it’s true, has missed out, perhaps from fear of damaging its richly historic fabric. And yet plans of that era had a lighter touch than commonly supposed, with respectiful infill and many little pausing places in the tight urban grain of the City of London envisaged by Holden and Holford and illustrated exquisitely by Gordon Cullen. So yes, let’s not ignore that need for built-in wellness and visual interest and embrace a bit of calm, friendly architecture.

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  • Apollo 11 – An act of faith: Home

    Fifty years ago today, at 16:50 GMT, the three men of Apollo 11 were home. But when it was was only a couple of hours away from re-entry, a US Air Force meteorologist checking weather satellite data saw that a major storm was headed for the exact area planned for the ‘splashdown’. That information, today routine, was in 1969 top secret because the information was only used to task the American reconnaissance satellites the Manned Orbiting Laboratory had been designed to supplant, to minimise the problem of cloud cover obscuring the target. Through some urgent, confidential networking, the warning (though not the method of detection – Nasa was a civilian body and not permitted to know the satellites existed) was passed on and the naval recovery task force to a new location 200 miles away where the weather was due to be clearer. Apollo 11 too was moved by being given a revised course,

    because the conical command module – once separated from the support module and in the outer atmosphere – could actually be flown. The ship’s centre of gravity was intentionally off-set, meaning it descended at a slight angle. This gave it a degree of aerodynamic lift. To steer, the computer or the pilot (via hand controls) fired jets of gas. This type of vehicle and its flightpath still generated a great deal of heat, needing special sacrificial shields that charred in a controlled fashion, and high g-forces, which is why the crew sat with their backs to the direction of travel. Such capsules were also only able to be used for a single trip and they didn’t have much space inside. What was needed for the future was something that gave a softer, more controllable landing, allowed the crew to face forward and removed the need for parachutes. Such a concept had been originated in the 1930s by Austrian aerospace

    engineer Eugen Sänger, who envisaged a rocket-boosted bomber that could reach the edge of space, ‘skip’ along the outer atmosphere using what he termed dynamic soaring and reach any target in the world before dropping back to earth and landing like a glider. Twenty years later the US Air Force adapted this idea for its abortive Dyna-Soar programme, whilst throughout and indeed beyond the period of the Apollo programme Nasa flight-tested an entire family of blunt-nosed, wingless aircraft resembling shuttlecocks sliced lengthways – the lifting bodies. Some of these had rocket engines and some could only glide, but the aim was to find the right combination of shape, angle of entry and energy management regime that might give birth to the next generation of space vehicle, one that would be flexible and fully controllable during re-entry. It would still need protection from the heat but this could be provided in a more sustainable, re-usable manner. Almost a decade after the last Apollo Moon landing, the new Space Shuttle was squat, heavy and the size of an airliner. It could be fired into space, orbit the Earth, re-enter on a delta wing and use that same surface to glide to a conventional landing on an airstrip. Its first flight was crewed by Bob Crippen and John Young; the former was an astronaut originally recruited for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, the latter was a veteran of Apollo 16. Three men were home, but for hundreds of others the journey was just beginning.

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  • Apollo 11 – An act of faith: Flight

    To get Apollo 11 to the Moon, the programme bought 60% of the available microchips in the US to help make the world’s first portable, programmable digital computer; just a cubic foot in size, at a time when computers filled a room, the device was responsible for integrating navigation and vehicle orientation information and engine ignition and cut-off times to direct the command-service module accurately on its half-million-mile return journey. But in the final 15 minutes of the mission to land on the Moon, fate decreed that the lunar module would be flown down to the surface manually – 66 years after the Wright brothers became the first people to achieve powered, sustained flight – by one remarkably skilled pilot. In 1939, a Heinkel He 178 V1 became the first jet aircraft to take off, part of a secret programme for the Luftwaffe; barely five years after that jet fighters were in combat above Europe, just as a 15-year-old in the American Mid-West was learning to fly. By 1951 that man, Neil Armstrong, was just 21 and flying an

    F9F Panther jet fighter for the US Navy in the Korean War (Armstrong is piloting Panther S-116 on the left of this picture). When he was hit by anti-aircraft fire during one mission, losing part of a wing, he shepherded his aircraft back to his aircraft carrier before ejecting. In 1962, Armstrong was working for NASA and flew the rocket-powered X-15 above 200,000 feet at Mach 4. This research aircraft could manoeuvre in the atmosphere using its wings or at the airless edge of space using small hydrogen peroxide reaction ‘jets’, with the pilot manipulating a joystick and side-controller respectively; Armstrong had to use both to recover the aircraft when a new speed limiter device failed, his becoming the longest-ever flight undertaken in the type. In 1966, Armstrong was in orbit rendezvousing the two-man Gemini 8 capsule with a target vehicle when it began rolling so violently that he and his co-pilot Dave Scott were in danger of blacking out. By firing the ship’s powerful re-entry thrusters, Armstrong brought it under control – “it was my lucky day to be flying with him,” said Scott later. Two years after that, Armstrong was training to fly the lunar module by piloting the unstable, vertical take-off Lunar Landing

    Research Vehicle over California when a mechanical failure caused it to suddenly veer toward the ground; he ejected and went back to his desk without comment. And on 20 July 1969, whilst flying the lunar module from 50,000 feet above the Moon down to the surface, Armstrong realised its automatic guidance system had in fact overshot the planned touch-down zone and was also steering the craft into a dangerously rugged crater. Overriding the computer, and using the lunar module’s twin hand controllers, Armstrong selected a new landing zone, flew toward it, and brought the delicate ship carrying him and his co-pilot Buzz Aldrin down safely at 20:17 Greenwich Mean Time with about 30 seconds of fuel remaining. They had arrived.

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  • Apollo 11 – An act of faith: Spectacle

    The mission was by far and away the most recorded event in human history. Every word from every console position in mission control and every radio transmission was taped to provide more than 30 simultaneous channels of audio, whilst the astronauts’ medical data – including heart rate – was transcribed on pen recorders from suiting-up to the end of the flight. Telemetry giving details of the hardware’s performance was continuously received from the command-service module, and its position as well as those of each rocket stage were also tracked by radar when in range. But Apollo 11 was, first and foremost, a visual event. Drawing is the most basic method for this, and artist Franklin McMahon, a member of NASA's Art Programme, was invited into mission control to sketch the team. Photography was the dominant medium, however, and this is reflected in numerous ways. Indeed before man got anywhere near the Moon, nearly 100,000 photographs had been taken by NASA's lunar probes of the body and its surface. For Apollo, contractors documented the designing, building and testing of the spacecraft on film while NASA did the same for the astronauts’ training and at all stages of the pre-launch checks – during that suiting up, for example, a stills photographer used three different cameras whilst a cinematographer shot moving images. The space agency also commissioned Theo Kamecke to direct a film covering the Moon shot for theatrical release. For this he and his camera crews were placed within the crowd, in launch control and – during the moonwalk – in mission control. The resulting production, ‘Moonwalk One’, has since achieved cult status. More than 200 of NASA’s own cameras were also emplaced around the launch complex using a variety of mountings, formats and operational modes. Modified anti-aircraft gun carriages allowed heavy 70mm motion picture cameras fitted with powerful telephoto lenses to track the rocket’s ascent smoothly, whereas fixed, high-speed 16mm cameras on the pad shot into heat-resistant

    mirrors from blast-proof boxes and were triggered automatically to produce slow motion footage. Some of these had even been mounted on the Saturn 5 itself on earlier missions, to record the separation, descent and ignition of each stage before being ejected and parachuted to Earth for recovery and development of the film. The world’s media brought their own cameras, both film and video, for newsreels and recorded and live television broadcasts. As part of a deal struck by NASA with LIFE magazine, the astronauts and their families were also photographed at home and at work for publication, a process that yielded memorable images of Janet Armstrong and her sons watching from a boat as Apollo 11 lifts off. And thousands of amateurs, members of the public and VIPs used every type of still and cine camera commercially available to make their own record of events. Crucially, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins took several cameras with them. Hasselblad medium-format stills cameras, shooting very high-resolution negatives, had been trialled on previous Apollos (one was used by Bill Anders to take his famous ‘Earthrise’ picture) and three were carried this time. One had a motor drive, and all had been extensively modified for use in space, reducing their weight and easing film transport and manipulation of the controls. Large-capacity magazines reduced the need to reload – more than 30 were carried, though the cameras themselves would be left on the Moon to save weight. A black and white television camera was fitted outside the lunar module, to be activated by Armstrong as he descended the ladder to make his historic step. Another was fixed to look out of one of the two triangular viewing ports, set to take one picture every few seconds. A colour television camera remained in the orbiting command-support module. What would they all see? One day to go.

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  • Apollo 11 – An act of faith: Prophecy

    The Apollo programme may have been a civilian project with no obvious military applications, but it was not the only American response to the ‘space race’ begun by the Soviet Union’s orbiting of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. Seeing what is on the other side of the hill has been a military goal for centuries, with balloons used to gain the high ground well before powered flight was invented and even for some years after. With the Cold War firmly underway, the need to establish what was occurring in the vast reaches of the USSR was pressing, and flying aircraft over enemy territory was no longer possible after Gary Powers’ U2 was shot down in 1962. Spy satellites, invulnerable to attack, were already in use – they took their photographs and returned the exposed film to Earth in a small capsule that re-entered the atmosphere just as astronaut does – but they were slow, could have their view obscured by cloud and were unable to manoeuvre beyond gross changes of position. A crewed platform in space, however, seemed to combine the advantages of a satellite with the benefits of having a man in the loop, and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory was duly announced by the US Air Force in 1963, the carefully bland name concealing its true purpose. Launched by a Titan rocket and with its crew returned by Gemini capsule, the MOL was to have been a 70-foot-long, 10-foot-wide

    tubular space station whose two occupants would live aboard it for weeks at a time and operate, when ordered, a state-of-the-art high-resolution camera system that filled the rear two thirds of the vehicle. Able to be pointed at any target anywhere on Earth, its five-foot-wide mirror would reflect light toward a complex set of optics that could see objects as small as 8 inches. Its film would be developed by the crew, the photographs examined and their content described or scanned back to Earth. Since the camera would only be activated when there was a clear view, every picture would be perfect. Radio contact would allow real-time taskings and it was envisaged that any faults could be fixed in space. Significant effort went into realising the MOL, including building full-size mock-ups of the vehicle and crew compartment, launching an empty ‘boilerplate’ version into space and conducting re-entry testing of a modified Gemini. Astronauts were also recruited and began their training, which would have included working the wide-angle spotter scope, television monitors and exposure controls that supported the camera. The Apollo and MOL operations ran in parallel, one as public as could be imagined, the other classified, until 1969, when the rapid development and obvious advantages of digital photography rendered MOL obsolete - it was cancelled four weeks before Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the Moon. Its astronauts were quietly offered the chance to transfer to a new space vehicle programme that, even then, was planned to be a follow-on to Apollo, but that is another story... Two days to go.

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  • Apollo 11 – An act of faith: Chance

    One way of looking at the chance of success when travelling into space was set out by Werner von Braun, who noted with pride that with a design tolerance of 99.999% perfection, fewer than two dozen parts might not be. Another is John Glenn’s apocryphal answer to the question of how he felt before lift-off: “I felt exactly how you would feel if you were getting ready to launch and knew you were sitting on top of 2 million parts — all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract.” During the Apollo 11 mission failure could have occurred at any one of a number of obvious stress points, including ignition of each of the three stages of the Saturn 5 stack. Indeed on the Apollo 6 mission two of the five engines on stage two malfunctioned and were shut down, the reduced thrust affecting the whole mission. Re-ignition of stage three to push the spacecraft out of Earth orbit and toward the moon was also cancelled. This worked on Apollo 11 but many more potential issues awaited, from the complex geometry of separating the command-service module from stage three and extracting the lunar lander to the two stages of that vessel working, and that was before its redocking with the command-service module engine orbiting the moon and ignition of its engine to come home. Most of those attached to the mission seriously considered the overall objective had only a fifty-fifty chance of success, though failure could take many forms short of fatalities. Death though had come to the Apollo program already, and not just with the loss of Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee in the launchpad fire that ravaged the Apollo 1 command module during a test in early 1967.

    Clifton C. Williams Jr. would have been on Apollo 12 but was killed when the T-38 jet fighter he was piloting – ironic\ally on a flight to see his dying father – crashed later in 1967; Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. was also killed when flying as the rear seater in an F-104 the same year. Two Gemini astronauts who would undoubtedly have been on Apollo missions – Elliott See and Charles Bassett – were killed when the two-seater jet they were flying crashed in 1966. Another jet crash claimed Theodore Freeman in 1964. Had the Apollo 11 moon walkers not been able to return to the command-service module – seen as the most likely catastrophe – President Nixon would have read to the world a speech that remained secret for 30 years. Written by William Safire, it is eloquent and spare.

    “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice. These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding. They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown. In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man. In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood. Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts. For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.”

    Three days to go.

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  • Apollo 11 – An act of faith: Reach

    In 1926, Robert H. Goddard launched the first rocket that used liquid oxygen and gasoline as fuel. Others were well aware of this idea, including an amateur rocket enthusiast in Germany called Wernher von Braun. The A4 (‘V2’) his team developed was the world’s first intercontinental rocket. It used new technology, including a double-walled combustion chamber that used its own fuel as a coolant and carbon control vanes. After the war, von Braun came to America and continued his work, developing the A4 and giving his former enemy a head start in military and civil rocketry. America’s first satellite went into orbit in 1958, and four years later work began on a much larger system that would allow three men

    to reach the moon. In his “We choose to go to the Moon” speech in 1962, President Kennedy summarised this as-yet-unbuilt structure as: “a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun.” By 16 July 1969, the Saturn 5 rocket stack sitting on the pad in Florida was taller than the Statue of Liberty and weighed nearly 3,000 tons – most of that was fuel which, had it exploded, would have released energy equivalent to two kilotons of TNT; the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was sixteen kilotons. No-one was allowed closer than three miles; at lift-off, the flames turned concrete to glass whilst the shockwaves damaged launch control and caused a seismic event that registered in New York. Its first stage burned 20 tons of fuel a second, pushed the Saturn supersonic in seconds and was empty in 2.5 minutes, by which time the rocket was almost 40 miles high. The second stage fired for less than ten minutes, speeding the Saturn to 15,500 miles per hour. The third lasted for less than five minutes, and ensured the crew reached Earth orbit just 12 minutes from launch. A four-day journey lay ahead.

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  • Apollo 11 – An act of faith: Dreams

    In 1687, Isaac Newton worked out that an object thrown from the top of a mountain with sufficient velocity would not fall to the ground but continue around the Earth – it would enter orbit. Nearly 300 years later, during his famous “We choose to go to the Moon” speech in 1962, President John F. Kennedy illustrated how far mankind had come. He invited those listening to visualise “the 50,000 years of man’s recorded history in a time span of but a half-century. Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them advanced man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them. Then about 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only five years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than two months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power. Newton explored the meaning of gravity. Last month electric lights and telephones and automobiles and airplanes became available. Only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power, and now if America's new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.” Less than a decade later still, maths graduate Poppy Northcutt was a systems engineer for TRW, one of the many aerospace contractors for NASA,

    and the first female to work in mission control. Northcutt, aged 25 and the first woman on the team, was responsible for calculating Apollo 8’s return trajectories; she took the computer programs home at night to understand them better than her male colleagues. When Apollo 8 disappeared behind the far side of the Moon on its first orbit and was delayed in reappearing, she stood by to work on any emergency course that might be needed. Six months after that, the most photographed event in human history was about to occur. A million people were soon to arrive at the launch complex, the immediate area around it and all along Florida’s coast. The night before, what did they, Poppy and the three men of Apollo 11 dream about?

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  • Maybe it’s because it’s The Londoner

    There are more than 1,500 hotels in the British capital, and given a recent consultants’ conclusion that “London hotels remain at the top of their game” despite concerns affecting the sector it is no surprise that The Standard, London on Euston Road is currently receiving its first reviews in the media and NoMad London will welcome guests next year. Both are firsts in London for their American owners and both are conversions – of Camden council’s Brutalist town hall annexe and the world-famous Bow Street magistrates’ court, respectively. Joining the latter in 2020 will be The Londoner on Leicester Square, a new build by Britain’s own Edwardian Group that is also at the luxury end of the market. I was one of a handful of balloted enthusiasts to have a very early preview, now that the building – as deep as it is tall – has both topped and ‘bottomed’ out.

    The site is that of the Leicester Square Theatre, built as such in 1930 but operated as a cinema for most of its life by the Odeon chain alongside its much more famous black-clad brother across the Square. After ‘twinning’ in the 1990s and becoming the home of the London Film Festival, the building was closed in 2015 and the plot sold. Demolition followed, the first step in an epic build that has been mostly underground but is now more visible. Woods Bagot are the architects with interiors by American designers Yabu Pushelberg; the engineering is by Arup and the main contractor is Blue Sky Building.

    Their goal is a hotel with 350 guest rooms and 15 suites, five restaurants and lounges, a rooftop bar, a ballroom or event space for around a thousand people, and a spa and wellness centre. Odeon will return to the site with a two-screen cinema operating under the firm’s Luxe sub-brand. The catch is that most of these amenities will be underground – a long way underground, in a six-floor, 30-metre basement that is the deepest in habitable commercial use in the city and which took two years to complete. Understanding the three-dimensional challenge that this presented was the theme of the tour. We began at bottom.

    Four levels down sits the spa, with a pool surrounded by private ‘cabanas’ and a sauna. Currently merely a heavily-waterproofed concrete box, the beginnings of its final form were just about discernible with a bit of thought and a useful virtual reality program that allowed us to move a tablet around the space and see what it will look like on screen. Visuals of the final fit-out are intriguing but embargoed, though it is not I think giving too much away to say that a cool palette, coffered ceiling and clever tricks with light evoked an ancient Roman feel, appropriate for London. One of the cinema screens is on the same level but acoustically separated from this area; below are two further floors of technical equipment with another 30 metres of piles below that.

    The entire basement is surrounded by a sophisticated drainage and water management system to handle the constant seepage that is inescapable at these depths. More than 65,000 cubic metres of clay was excavated to form it, and careful monitoring of neighbouring buildings, a complex propping operation and the discovery of a previously unknown utility tunnel were also involved. Height restrictions above ground and the space required by the overall programme required plant to be placed at depth for the most part rather than on the roof – Building Information Modelling was used to fit everything it but there have still been some challenges to both the construction and the architecture.

    On the next floor up but still three storeys below ground, the double-height, multi-functional event space is one of the highlights of this process. It was created by the craning in of six steel trusses, each weighing around 50 tonnes and the length of two double decker busses (bespoke platforms and vehicles were necessary). These transfer the weight of the above-ground structure to the perimeter walls and thus allow for a column-free space here. They also house building services and are stressed for suspended loads to assist with product launches and the like – servicing of the building will from a ground level loading bay via a vehicle lift and goods lifts. The building’s mechanical, electrical and plumbing will be state of the art and we saw one of the risers that will house them – a vertiginous concrete shaft big enough to house at least two lifts that was actually awaiting bundles of cables, pipes and ducts.

    This floor will be connected to those above by a feature stair of steel and painted bronze that will twist its way up a large stairwell, touching the edges only at the concrete slabs. This is the core of the circulation route through the public parts of the building, and it ends at the second floor beneath a glazed atrium roof. A ‘veil’ of rigid rods of three differing sections will act as its visual and physical balustrade. Further circulation will be by 13 lifts and two escalators. Half of the space within The Londoner will be devoted to what the trade calls F&B, or food and beverage, areas. These and other spaces will be opened to the public, in response to Westminster Council’s planning desires – the architects state that the hotel’s role is to offer “an escape from the sometimes hectic atmosphere found in an urban environment,” though there is perhaps some irony in this being undeniably necessary in the hectic tourist trap of Leicester Square.

    The hotel lobby is hard to visualise currently, although some beautifully finished polished pre-cast concrete columns are notable. The warren of partition walls on the upper floors are being completed as guest rooms – conventionally planned, they have semi-open bathrooms in coloured ceramic, one-way mirrors and a reflective panel above the floor-to-ceiling windows to bring more light in.

    On floor eight, which will be the highest level of the building in general use, a ‘floating’ outdoor platform projects into the void at the top of the atrium. A sliding fabric roof will provide protection from but also direct sight of the sky. This will become part of a sequence of lounge-type spaces on this level that will also include a glass-fronted lookout bar. The lack of a genuine roof terrace is a surprise but the resulting compromise results from the limitations mentioned earlier. On the very top-most floor, which we reached by a quick jaunt in the builders’ hoist, is the penthouse suite. Spanning two floors and articulated here as a projecting tower at the corner of the building, it is on the same level as similar features on other buildings in the area such as the dome of Renton Howard Wood Levin’s reconstructed Criterion block at Piccadilly Circus. The massing of the rest of the block, as seen in renderings, is muscular in order to achieve those vital programmatic criteria.

    The exterior is still shrouded but glimpses could be had of the Portland stone and – in the window reveals – thousands of blue faience tiles that, stitched together, will make up what is being considered as the building’s artwork, another planning requirement. By artist Ian Monroe, the tiles were designed using origami before progressing to foam mock ups and then the digital realm. Treated as a rainscreen, the pieces are fixed with open joints on the upper floors.

    The work put in to The Londoner is obvious, even with a year to go until opening. Much will depend on its interiors. Judgement of these and its architectural success will have to await the first check-in.

    With thanks to Woods Bagot architects, Blue Sky Building and the London Festival of Architecture. Images by Woods Bagot, McGee, Chris Rogers

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  • 'The Hunt'

    A small country town with long-established traditions and customs; a close-knit community where everyone knows everyone else; families whose children are loved by others as though they were their own… In such a place rumour, suggestion and misunderstanding have particular power. David Farr‘s stage adaptation of the 2012 Danish film The Hunt, which was directed by Thomas Vinterberg and written by him and Tobias Lindholm, explores these points at the Almeida Theatre under the direction of Rupert Goold.

    Teacher Lucas (Tobias Menzies) busies himself at the primary school whilst fighting with his ex-wife over access to their teenage son. The parents of two small children, Peter and Clara, have again failed to pick them up and the kind and patient Lucas keeps them amused. As Lucas also busies himself tidying up, Peter shows Clara adult footage that lies almost-hidden on his father’s old mobile; shortly after, Clara gives Lucas a present, accompanied by some unsettlingly intimate gestures. Deftly, he deflects her attention with a respectful explanation and thinks nothing of it. He knows both families very well – indeed, there is a hint of a relationship as Karla’s outgoing mother finally arrives, whilst Peter’s father is Lucas’s hunting buddy and fellow lodge member. The moment passes.

    Except that it doesn’t. Clara, upset at the rejection and confused and conflicted about love, tells her headteacher a version of what happened, every element of which is the truth but which, as a whole, is not. The remainder of the play dramatizes the impact on Lucas, his family and his friends. As such the snowballing of Clara’s mistruth is well illustrated, with flakes added by others not helping, and the responses of the adults around the pair ring true.

    Menzies is superb, his usual underplaying and utterly believable performance style fitting the scenario perfectly. As Clara in the production I saw (the role is rotated between three young actresses), a quiet, serious Abbiegail Mills was astonishingly good, and the two make a good pair. Michele Austin convincingly conveys the bright enthusiasm of a dedicated headteacher, especially in her clever addresses to the audience at the start of each act, and Howard Ward is convincing as the school board member “with responsibility for this area”. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the cast play their scenes rather too broadly to fit in with these precedents, from Poppy Miller as Clara’s mother to Danny Kirrane as Peter’s father. Taken together and extended over the two acts, this mismatch begins to grate.

    The staging revolves – pun intended – around another of Es Devlin’s sets placed within the Almeida’s customarily bare auditorium and its turntable. Scenes take place in and around an enclosure shaped like a child’s idea of a house with walls of glass. The metaphor is obvious even without the switchable technology (or perhaps good old-fashioned lighting) that makes those walls instantly opaque, often accompanied by thunderous crashes on the soundtrack and flashes of the neon lighting that outlines its form. But there is a problem.

    Unlike Devlin’s exceptional work for Chimerica, The Nether and The Lehman Trilogy, the approach here, along with Goold’s uncertain sense of direction, doesn’t really work. Though permitting clever scene changes to occur, it is often unclear where scenes are supposed to be set or whether characters are leaving the place it represents or entering it. When the players crowd in to it en masse for the climax, set in the town church, it is hard to suspend disbelief. There is much running, on and off stage, around it, even – remarkably – inside the house, in a kind of slow-motion, but much of this starts to seem comedic rather than dramatic. An additional thematic thread, of the mystical aspects of the woodland, overburdens events unnecessarily.

    After two hours I was struggling to focus, and to draw clarity and meaning from the ending. Paring things down and focusing on emotions rather than actions would have assisted, along with – on this occasion – a calmer set design.

    Ultimately I found this a disappointment, even a frustration, an admittedly rare thing at the theatre that brought us Kings Charles III, Mary Stuart and more. If this was a hunt, I felt like its prey.

    The Hunt continues at the Almeida Theatre, London N1 until 3 August

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

L

Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own collage-style spread.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443

£14.99

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