• ‘King Charles III’

    The ‘What if?’ of speculative history remains a popular amusement, even though the most tantalising scenarios are usually rendered moot by impossibility of distance or improbability of outcome. Mike Bartlett’s riveting new play for the Almeida, however, conflates a definite near future event, recent rumour and a rich thread of British history to create a daring, intelligent forecast.

    The Queen is dead; her eldest son Charles joins a candlelit vigil, before assuming the role he was quite literally born to. But once there, in that position long dreamed of and long observed, what next? That is Bartlett’s jumping-off point. What follows is an absorbing, thrilling and at times moving journey through a few months in British history that have yet to occur but which Bartlett suggests could take place after Elizabeth’s 70-year reign comes to an end, and which test the limits of duty, honour and obligation and the validity of differing sources of power.

    The point of departure from current assumptions for that moment of change is a neat one; the new monarch, finally able to take his turn in a centuries-old tradition, unexpectedly finds himself withholding Royal assent for a new Act of Parliament aimed at restricting press freedom (that such an Act might only come a decade hence may turn out to be the more accurate aspect of Bartlett’s vision) out of firmly-held belief. The decision sparks a rift between the Crown and the (Labour) Prime Minister and, later, Parliament as a whole, as Charles proves immovable in his opposition to an Act that would as he sees it remove the chance to “hold[..] Those institutions to account that claim/To be our guardians and serve us well”.

    Parliament in turn responds by planning the removal of the need for Royal assent for this and all future Acts. As the inevitable tension mounts, Charles stands firm against applying “the value of his name” to the Act in hand. The nation is now divided between the rule of the elected and the rule of the anointed and stands at the brink of civil war, but other forces are also at work, forces corporeal and supernatural and even familial, and Charles’ unwillingness to sign one document will ultimately lead him to sign another of even greater moment.

    As might be guessed from the quotes above, there is much more to this drama than simple fiction. Ambitiously, Bartlett wraps his work in a mantle of Shakespearian form, with most of the lines declaimed in blank verse, the machinations of powerful men and women, a title that draws on the Bard’s own ‘history’ plays and even a ghost or two. The result is a discussion of the dilemmas posed by expectation and principle that is rendered distant enough to be coolly considered and yet also immediate enough to make one care, often with as much passion as is displayed by Charles himself.

    As that monarch, Tim Piggott-Smith has the unenviable task of portraying a man alternately loved, mocked and vilified in real life and keeping that portrayal the right side of parody or plain comedy. Fortunately he does so, brilliantly in fact, deploying only a slight touch of mimicry, and slipping Bartlett’s broader lines (”I felt the same”, spoken of his mother in response to “I never thought I’d see her pass away”; “Shall I be mother?” when pouring tea) into the mix with aplomb. Mostly, Piggott-Smith maintains dignity for this complex character who finds himself unable to align with the past but adrift in the future too. His Charles is a prisoner of conscience at first via a lifetime of waiting, and then a person caught in weeks of opposition between one tradition and another. No wonder he muses at the start that “I am better Thoughtful Prince than King/Potential holds appeal since in its castle walls/One is protected from the awful shame/Of fauilure.” Ultimately, as Charles finds himself distanced from his children in the worst way imaginable for one in his position, our sympathies are firmly with him and, by the end, Piggott-Smith invests just three words with immense pathos.

    As the Prime Minister, by contrast, Adam James is relaxed, confident, real, with his handsome looks and smart suit, a man whose position is earned by public vote, not gifted by hap of birth. Nicholas Rose, leader of the opposition, wears his Tory crown easily, as well he might – Rowe attended Eton and his father was himself an MP.

    But it is with the characters beneath this topping where the real meat of Bartlett’s play lies, for it is the actions of Charles’ sons, William and Harry, and William’s wife Kate, that bring about the twists that elevate proceedings to something special.

    Harry draws the most laughter with Richard Goulding’s wonderfully awkward inhabiting of Bartlett’s sketch of a young man thought by others to be the “ginger joke”, crying off the funeral with “a headache” and next seen partying with toff pals. But Bartlett gives us a Harry who suffers in his own prison, a prison of privilege where nothing is his own and where the life that is planned for him may not be the one he wants, effectively the mirror image of Charles. His introduction to working class girl Jess and the freedom she shows him (“James, we went to Sainsbury’s. You know what Sainsbury’s is?”) is perhaps the most obvious and thus least successful plot strand, but does illuminate another facet of the main theme and is certainly an excuse for the play’s funniest lines, a blizzard of outrageous sexual encouragement (“Do a pleb”), knowing parental teasing (“No the butler didn’t do it”) and snobbery (“You look like you got raped by Primark”) care of those Mockney friends.

    Oliver Chris plays William as stable, aware of the pressure and expectation on him as the new Prince of Wales, and keen to learn from his grandmother’s caution that stability and quietude win out. But it is the writing and performing of Kate that is the true surprise of this piece, and arguably its true heart.

    Initially, in the slim and elegant figure of Lydia Wilson, she is the dutiful, beautiful young wife of popular acclaim, quietly accompanying and comforting William, but very quickly her inner steel emerges and becomes a spur for what is to come. Imploring William to act to “defend /The Crown against this fool’s indulgence”, she notes “The fact that both of us command support/That does near thrice outweigh the aged King/And if we wanted might begin to itch/In waiting for the throne”. Any more would spoil the surprises, but a long soliloquy later in which Kate evinces a desire to “Demand things for myself,” including the “power to achieve my will in fair/Exchange for total service to the State”, intimates why Wilson, speaking to me briefly after the show, thinks Kate is not the villain but the heroine – “She saved the monarchy!”

    As can be seen, Bartlett’s dialogue is incredible, whether for nimble sparring or the contemplative moment. Full of resonant imagery, one particular simile used by Charles is as exquisite as it is appropriate when he compares himself to a book “stuck on the shelf/For years, ignored and waiting, only judged/By one small sliver of the cover whole”. A quiet moment of a different kind, when Harry buys a kebab, has the vendor musing on the state of the nation without its longest-serving head of state and, perhaps, without even more: “Slice by slice, Britain’s less and less.” Accepting Harry’s tendered banknote, he muses “Out of date now innit?”, a comment with wider meaning than amusement.

    In marked contrast to the Almeida’s recent extravagant productions, the play is staged by director Rupert Goold on a simple, seemingly uninspiring stepped dais set inside the bare brick walls of the theatre’s apsidal end, the only decoration a narrow, impressionistic frieze of faces wrapping around the space. And yet this proves to be the gateway to a truly dazzling visual experience courtesy of designer Tom Scutt in which the vast – and vastly dissimilar – spaces of the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Hall and Buckingham Palace, as well as a nightclub and the streets of London, are all conjured before us entirely through lighting (brilliant, by Jon Clark), smoke and sound. The twelve members of the cast, most of whom play multiple roles, contribute, becoming the architecture of those spaces and, in the astonishingly realised Act 2 protest outside Buckingham Palace, a gesturing, threatening crowd, rendered anonymous and powerful by their identical ‘V for Vendetta’ masks.

    Mention must be made of the music score by Jocelyn Pook, played live by Belinda Sykes and Anna-Helena McLean. Its Latin chorals, sung by the cast, are dramatic and atmospheric, reminiscent of Talis and Verdi and Ligetti. Together with Goold’s direction, this works extremely well in the candlelit opening scene, giving a startling, Kubrickian effect, and builds to an epic, operatic climax at the Coronation.

    Overall this is yet another triumph for the Almeida. Sharp, smart, exciting, involving and relevant, it provokes discussion and thought as well as being a terrific live experience in the true sense of that term.

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  • America in Winter: Who watches the watchmen?

    The latest film in a long-running series about comic superheroes isn’t the obvious place to find a thought-provoking treatment of contemporary national security issues such as pre-emptive arrest, punishment without trial and the politics of power, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier more or less ignores the hero in favour of powerful analogies between the world in which he operates and the one we see around us.

    As a result of this inspired move, you don’t really need to know anything of the eponymous super-strong, patriotic, de-frosted World War 2 hero Steve Rogers (no relation, though unlike him in this film, I HAVE met Jenny Agutter) except that he is now leading snatch and grab paramilitary raids for fictional crime-fighting super-agency S.H.I.E.L.D. in present-day America. A mission to re-take a freighter captured mid-voyage by mercenaries is accomplished easily enough, but of course such a very good guy is also the perfect fall guy, and it isn’t long before Rogers is branded a rogue agent, forced to go on the run and battling to clear his name and identify the true villain. Naturally he is joined by a band of trusted friends on this journey, and equally naturally he eventually triumphs – that isn’t giving much away. So far so ordinary, added to which is my ambivalence toward comic-based heroes in general and the whole Marvel thing in particular. I’ve only seen a few of those films, and whilst I found the original Iron Man witty, moving and engrossing, the others have left me cold (no pun intended).

    Why, then, did I enjoy this film so much?

    First there is the credibility of those action sequences, which are grounded very much in the real world. The opening ship assault is brilliantly done, mixing special forces tactics with tough, bone-crunching fighting for a result that would not be out of place in a straight action film. As the conspiracy unfolds the conflict moves onto the streets, where we are treated to a terrific, sustained car chase that sees Nick Fury under attack in his customised SUV. An even more kinetic vehicular pursuit occurs later, one that segues into an extended firefight and hand-to-hand combat sequence staged at a two-level road junction that’s genuinely exciting. Both are edgy and gritty and manage that difficult balancing act between depicted and implied violence that a 12 certificate so often makes impossible.

    Crucially, the CGI assistance that must have been in play for some of the gravity-defying combat skills on display is minimal to the point of invisibility – not easy given almost all of the action takes place in daylight or bright artificial light. This is a bold statement of the confidence the producers had in the Russo brothers’ direction, and of their trust in turn in the work of the technical teams.

    It is also a subtle introduction to the true nature of the film.

    With deeds of ambiguous meaning carried out in plain sight, this is not a superhero movie at all, but rather a boldly political conspiracy thriller concerning freedom versus control and the limits to which the state should go to maintain both in the name of national security. The seeds of this theme are sown just after that opening scene.

    Back in Washington, D.C. Rogers is taken deep below the Triskelion, the fifty-storey cylindrical headquarters of S.H.I.E.L.D. planted squarely in the middle of Theodore Roosevelt Island, and shown the future of the organisation’s law-enforcement capability. Given the exquisitely unexciting name of the Insight programme, its true nature is anything but: three vast aerial gun platforms hovering high in the atmosphere at strategic points around the world are linked via satellite to a predictive algorithm that will sift through millions of internet transactions and phone records to produce a list of ‘undesirables’, who can then be eliminated wherever they are with a single shot.

    It’s a brilliantly audacious concept, worthy of the best dystopian science fiction of the 1970s, although so fantastic that it must surely also be intended as a metaphor for the libertarian of today’s worst nightmare, with its unholy alliance of social media data mining, armed drones and extra-judicial killing.

    Using a fictitious scenario to comment on the very real is a fundamental tenet of the genre, of course, but it’s actually impossible to overstate one’s surprise at encountering such a thing in a mainstream, mass-market Hollywood film aimed at teenagers – not since John Badham’s WarGames is more than 30 years ago has anything so audacious (and intelligent) been tried. Moreover, the degree to which this is carried through the entire production – camera angles, artefacts and even the snappy, stylised animated end credits – demonstrates the investment the makers had in the concept.

    Thus the massive form of the Triskelion – personally visualised for the film by its production designer, Peter Wenham – is sheathed in the same biscuit-coloured stone as the Ronald Reagan Building nearby, and therefore presented as a thoroughly logical addition to the late twentieth century federal architecture of the American capital; speaking to me exclusively for this piece, Wenham commented on “the complexity of it” and especially “its tonality, nesting amongst the rest of DC.”

    But viewed from the White House or the Capitol, the structure looms above the Lincoln Memorial, with its carved inscription of the Gettysburg Address, whilst the eagle logo of S.H.I.E.L.D. has clear connotations of both freedom and fascism. Indeed ‘Triskelion’ is itself the name of an ancient tripartite symbol that has been adopted in various forms by the ancient Greeks, literal and linguistic originators of democracy, but also the far-right Afrikaner Resistance Movement party of South Africa.

    In a country whose citizens believe that “the security of a free State” requires that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”, the Insight programme and its very visible home amongst the governmental apparatus of the capital is an obvious if subversive provocation.

    In this context the casting of Robert Redford as S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce is an obvious masterstroke, a resonant presence for older audience members given the actor is a veteran of three political conspiracy thrillers whose dark action also took place in the light. There is even a wonderfully knowing shot of the Triskelion carefully framed against the Watergate complex to quietly reinforce the point.

    As if this wasn’t enough food for thought there are, in the characters of contemporary war veteran Sam Wilson and the Winter Soldier, as well as Rogers (the weakling whose desperate desire to fight for his country saw him subjected – willingly – to a strength serum and radiation cocktail) himself, some fairly profound points to be made about man as a man versus man as a weapon, and it’s a credit to the script that these are not forced.

    But don’t forget that principal theme – the balance between liberty and security that the government much reach an accommodation on with its populace. It has increasingly universal application, demonstrated by a two stories I noted in the evening paper whilst travelling home after seeing the film. One covered calls for terror suspects to be forced to live outside London; the other the battle between Google and Apple as to which firm gets to be the default provider of mobile media traffic and how that information can be collated and analysed…

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  • Architecture for all Part 3: The Brits who built the modern world

    And so we come to the finale of my ‘Architecture for all’ blog series: the joint BBC/RIBA ‘Brits Who Made the Modern World’ season of broadcasts, talks and exhibitions on, as the blurb succinctly describes it, “the fascinating story of why and how British architecture developed globally from 1750 to the present.”

    Actually for ‘architecture’ read ‘High-Tech architecture’, since that was the underlying commonality being presented throughout; other styles are available, of course, and they did put in an appearance. Slightly awkwardly, if perhaps appropriately, some planning and time-shifting would have been needed to read that tale in chronological order, though. The starting point, for example, came at the end, with Tuesday’s talk by Valeria Carullo, Curator, The Robert Elwall Photographs Collection, on the 19th century precursors to today’s High-Tech designers.

    Convincingly centring that movement ultimately around the Industrial Revolution, Valeria moved through an absorbing and carefully chronological sequence of images showing breathtakingly ambitious and elegant bridges and aqueducts by the Thomases Pritchard and Telford and others, all built in the first decades of the 19th century. Their debt to Pritchard’s original Shropshire Iron Bridge was clear, but the speed with which its influence spread was to me new. Paxton’s great glass palaces towered over all, of course, as the century progressed.

    Next came a small show of material from the RIBA drawings collection at the V&A, setting out the rich and, nowadays, rather overlooked story of Britain’s Imperial ambitions and how her engineers and architects drove that vision forward up to and beyond the Victorian era, though the term High-Tech would of course been anathema to them even if their buildings often used the latest materials and methods under Gothic or Classical shells. Schools, administrative offices and of course railway stations extended the mother country’s reach to the far corners of the globe, leaving a lasting legacy that is picked up in other components of the season.

    Thus at the RIBA itself, where a new space has been carved out of the ground floor of G. Grey Wornum’s magnificent urban (and urbane) inter-war palazzo in Portland Place by Carmody Groarke, a larger exhibition continues the story after 1945. In a powerful opening section, we see how a hard-fought victory nevertheless meant the government was seeking to “construct a new and convincing post-war narrative” for Britain, by which it could address both the continuing privations brought about by that conflict and the break-up of Empire that it ironically accelerated.

    This might be thought to have discouraged the generation of British architects qualifying at the time, but in fact they saw great opportunities in these emerging young countries who, like them, were seeking to make their own mark in the world. In Africa and the Middle East, “an entirely new landscape of airports, offices, hotels and conference centres” was laid out by familiar names such as Maxwell Fry and his wife Jane Drew and Farmer and Dark but also by firms whose work is less well known today, like James Cubitt who pushed this vocation forward right into the 1980s. The heads of the newly-independent states also needed parliamentary buildings and, in the case of the oil-rich countries, new palaces.

    The exhibition is particularly strong here, with magnificent colour perspectives and original brochures depicting a range of such endeavours, including vast new university campuses, the airport at Abadan and Sheik Jabir Al Ali’s Kuwaiti villa, and notes as to the degree to which these mixed Western and traditional styles. In their confidence and scope but also their purpose, it was the 19th century all over again but with a twist – the Brits were coming to these lands once more, but by invitation this time rather than direction. This aspect was of real interest to me given my friend Michael Pearson’s work in just these countries at the same time, and is certainly worthy of a stand-alone exhibition itself.

    The show does then move to cover some of the ‘big names’ to have come out of the later period of such work, but their careers are best seen in the three-part BBC Four series looking at Foster, Rogers, Grimshaw, Farrell and Hopkins and concentrating on their high-tech projects.

    Here their early lives and careers are briskly sketched, with distinctions in class and – in Rogers’ case – country of origin noted as springboards for differing aims and idea(l)s later. Where the first programme really scored was in underlining the partnerships that all five shared at various stages, from Rogers and Foster as Team Four to the rather more intriguing collaboration of Farrell and Grimshaw, before the former – described in the programme as “the apostate” – moved decisively toward post-modernism.

    As each had their big break – Rogers with the Centre Pompidou, Foster with Willis Faber, Hopkins with the fabric-roofed Schlumberger research centre, Farrell with the egg cup-bedecked TVam building, Grimshaw with the Camden Sainsbury’s – the paths they were to take seemed set, but as things progressed so did philosophies and small changes of emphasis arose. That said, it took a second watch for me to detect any real explanation for the fact that Hopkins, for example, still lives happily in the corrugated metal and glass house he built with wife Patty despite now designing buildings that use load-bearing quarried stone with crafted timber interiors, whilst Rogers – that high priest of brightly-coloured exposed metal – was pictured in but never questioned about his dazzlingly white Regency house, so perhaps more exploration of these most fascinating journeys might have been welcome. And, as others have noted, there was little real questioning of many of the assumptions behind the work discussed. Flexibility was heard dozens of times, for example, but the fact that many of the buildings in question haven’t actually been altered to anything like the degree supposedly allowed for in the design was barely mentioned.

    Later socio-political shifts of equal moment to the second war, such as the fall of Communism, gave rise to work in the former Eastern Bloc and a wider movement toward more transparent governments, and many of the five pursued work of this type.

    The transition to superstar status was shown in the final programme, which even if only touching the surface demonstrated the vast output of all five imprimateurs over the decades. Their individual millennial and lottery commissions alone remain impressive, with Foster perhaps winning on both points and quality (British Museum Great Court, 30 St Mary Axe, Reichstag, Millennium Bridge).

    A live debate between all five (plus Patty Hopkins), usefully broadcast on BBC Radio 3 later, provided a chance for some expansion, and across both media some valid points were made. Foster cited the attraction during his and Rogers’ cross-USA tours of such diverse pieces of Americana as Airstream trailers, steel mills and Cape Canaveral, which surely planted seeds in both men’s minds, whilst Grimshaw draws a direct line from the kind of heroic infrastructure built by the likes of Bazalgette and Brunel to the giant airports being erected today. The idea that High-Tech architecture only really came to be appreciated once the everyday world (mobile phones, the web) caught up is an ingenious one.

    Both the television series and the exhibition came together once more at the end, with the concept of architecture being used to promote ‘UK plc’, a concept which the RIBA neatly describes under the heading ‘Brandscapes’. This was in fact present and correct in the 1950s and 60s, when the continuing requirement for new embassies saw Spence construct the sublime stone geometry of his new British chancellery in Rome, the beautiful model for which is on display, but the current international spread of work by the firms featured as well as many more shows that British architecture really does made the modern world.

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  • Towering ambitions

    Just six years after World War 2, the City of London embarked on a daring scheme to bring residents back to the devastated Square Mile, commissioning a compact estate of cleverly-planned flats from a trio of spirited young architects. The centrepiece, a colourful tower, dazzled, but half a century on the challenge of updating its aging fabric is under way.

    Lecturer Geoffry Powell entered a 1951 competition organised by the Corporation of London to kick-start the resettlement of its borough by filling a blitzed site at the edge of the City with high density accommodation for what today are called key workers. Looking squarely toward continental Europe for inspiration, and particularly the theories of Le Corbusier, Powell carefully set low blocks of varying types and scales amidst hard and soft landscaping and shared amenities such as a bowling green and swimming pool. Jaunty, richly-coloured wall cladding in red or blue, of the sort encountered on the new commercial buildings of the period, enlivened each block.

    A tower, Great Arthur House, provided a focus and contained 120 flats. In each a sliding section of wall allowed the single bedroom to be combined with the living area when needed, and there was a balcony and small kitchen and bathroom. Equipment included built-in cupboards, heating supplied from a central system, double-doored hatches for deliveries and rubbish chutes on each floor. The generous windows, complete with both sliding sash section and casement top light, had a pollen-yellow Muroglass spandrel panel below, completing this package of cutting-edge European modernity planted in central London.

    Powell’s entry won, and as agreed beforehand he teamed up with colleagues Peter ‘Joe’ Chamberlin and Christoph Bon to bring his plan to fruition. The terraced blocks with their giant up-and-over window/doors and intricate plans housed most of the new residents, but it was the thrusting tower that drew the eye.

    With its 16 floors, Great Arthur House broke the height ceiling for residential buildings in Britain and buildings of any type in the City. The brave workers who built it, walking nimbly along ledges and standing on scaffolding pipes without any safety gear, were indeed ‘Top People’, as the contemporary Rank Look at Life film of the same name noted. And when the residents moved in in 1956/7 they were too, since even those way down on the first floor could enjoy the triple-level private roof garden at the top of the tower, with its pool, stepping stones, pergola, planters and wonderful curved concrete aerofoil ‘wing’ tipping its hat to the rest of the City.

    The success of Golden Lane led, of course, to the same architects designing the Barbican, Golden Lane’s much bigger, brasher brother to the immediate south. Though dissimilar in scale and overall appearance, shared concepts and themes are clear. Both estates have water and landscaping at their core, celebrate technology, and play with scale and pattern.

    But pioneering architecture in the Britain of the early 1950s had its dangers, some of which have only become apparent fifty years later.

    The science of preventing condensation, water penetration and even draughts was not fully understood at the time Great Arthur House was conceived, and the technology to achieve it was lacking. Today the flats suffer from all three. As such a major programme to replace the single-glazed windows and the cladding below them is about to begin, but if accomplishing this in a Grade II-listed building is a challenge, allowing the residents to remain in their flats whilst it’s under way might appear almost impossible. Fortunately, though, John Robertson Architects (JRA) have a plan, and it’s a clever one.

    With thorough investigation showing the concrete floor slabs are not strong enough at the edges to support the heavier double-glazed window units required, JRA have come up with an ingenious plan to use a type of deep but thin steel truss known as a Vierendeel girder to take the strain. Stiff enough to span from structural wall to structural wall at either end of each flat without needing to rest on the slab on the way, the girder will therefore impose no extra weight on the critical edges of the floor slabs. Neatly, these girders are also slim enough not to add bulk to the building on the outside or the inside and so can be concealed behind the coloured spandrel panel and yet still leave room for insulation and fireproofing.

    This ingenious arrangement will in fact form a prefabricated panel comprising all four windows in a flat to be replaced in one go, making the work faster and less disruptive.

    Even more neatly, this will all be done from the outside. A lightweight foam, board and glass partition will be installed a few feet inside the flat to create a temporary weathertight seal. The old cladding and windows will be dismantled and the new panels installed. John Robertson hopes that each can be done in about a week.

    The delicate pattern of aluminium glazing bars, vital to the appearance of Great Arthur House, will be replicated in these new panels and be only fractionally thicker despite supporting the extra panes. With Muroglass no longer in production, a similar product has been sourced from French giant Saint Gobain for the new spandrels. All told, the new cladding is expected to achieve a thermal performance more than three times better than the original.

    A contractor is about to be appointed to begin detailed design and prototyping of the new system, and the entire project is due to be completed in about a year’s time. As with JRA’s superb work on the old daily Express building in Fleet Street, the restrictions inherent in updating a listed building have been embraced even as the practicalities have been met, bringing an aging building into the future.

    Top people indeed.

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  • Post and Rail

    “Deep beneath the streets of London is a railway which runs busily for 22 hours a day. It carries no passengers and its trains have no drivers or guards. Yet this railway performs an important function…”

    No, it’s not TfL’s dream Tube network; the description is of Mail Rail, the Post Office Underground Railway to be more formal, which was opened in 1927 to carry mail across the capital from Whitechapel in the east to Paddington in the west on a dedicated miniature railway more than six miles long. With its own fleet of trains, a complete signalling system and a maintenance depot, the POUR ran for almost eighty years, calling at seven intermediate ‘stations’ below important sorting offices like Rathbone Place and Mount Pleasant, before finally closing in 2003 after being deemed uneconomic.

    Now planning permission has been gained for a kilometre of the old route to be returned to service as part of ambitious plans for a post office museum in Mount Pleasant itself – and this time passengers WILL be able to travel on it.

    I saw Mail Rail years ago on a tour of Mount Pleasant, and have also peered down the 100’ shafts that linked the now-empty sorting floors in the echoing hulk that is the old West Central District Office on New Oxford Street to Mail Rail in the deep sub-basement, the WCDO being one of those stops.

    Given the almost complete departure of industry from London over the past decades and the rapid sterilisation of the evidence that this vital part of our past ever existed, it’s good to have a small part of it brought back to life, something tangible amid the electrons that pass for business today. I can’t wait. All aboard!

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  • Architecture for all Part 2: What goes up…?

    Collecting press clippings is like time travel; you can go back to the past, see what was predicted for the present, and look forward to the future. When it comes to London’s towering skyline, as the NLA’s PR gears up for their new exhibition London’s Growing Up!, opening next month, flipping through nearly fifteen years’ worth of cuttings makes for an up and down ride.

    Way back in 2000, Marcus Binney cautiously examined plans for the future that included Richard Rogers’ 43-storey Grand Union building for Paddington Basin and a 34-floor Chris Wilkinson tower for Fenchurch Street. Looming over all was Renzo Piano’s Shard, designs for which had been announced but not released.

    The piece is a useful starting point, because despite Ken Livingston (remember him??), then in his first term as Mayor, welcoming ‘clusters’ of super-tall blocks in a piece the following year, neither the Rogers nor the Wilkinson schemes went ahead. Local opposition helped stopped the former, but of course economics was the real killer; as Jonathan Glancey accurately summarised a few years later, “Skyscrapers are architecture’s sunflowers. Given a good, sunny financial climate, they soar into the urban firmament […] When the financial climate is inclement, they refuse to grow.”

    Allied with this is a related factor – the changing, often very nuanced, needs of tenants – themselves altered by takeovers, mergers and new strategy. Nicholas Grimshaw’s elegant Minerva tower shrank to become a far squatter block during the same period, in the process depriving London of what would probably have been its most elegant tower.

    Thus although the NLA’s pre-show report suggests over 200 tall buildings might be coming to the capital in the next decade, it’s useful then to recall not only this but the fact that about as many older towers have come down in London as have gone up in recent years.

    Goodenough House (Barclays’ Dominions & Commonwealth Office), Tower Place, Sudbury House in Paternoster Square, Seifert’s Draper’s Gardens, the Barclays tower in Fenchurch Street…all have been demolished as the newer blocks have risen. Others – the Stock Exchange, Angel Court and King’s Reach Tower (both on site now) – have been stripped to the core and re-skinned. And then there’s the Pinnacle, stalled years ago with its concrete cores just a dozen floors into the air, the steel skeleton tarnishing gently, and now about to forge ahead but with a simpler cladding model and a more market-friendly plan.

    So take that ‘200’ with a pinch of salt.

    Numbers (and heights) of towers aside, though, one aspect of the form that is worth considering is the extent to whether public amenity can compensate for any perceived harm these stacked storeys might cause. Of course that begs the question what constitutes such amenity anyway, and here 2014 will see a fascinating comparison play out, live. Richard Rogers, with his love of a city’s streets and spaces born of his Italian heritage, is championing the expansive, volumetric trickery of the ‘open’ ground floor plus six upper levels of light and air at 122 Leadenhall Street (the Cheesegrater) as a way of giving back to the public what the private areas take. Around the corner, meanwhile, the upside-down massing of 20 Fenchurch Street (the Walkie-Talkie) by Rafael Viñoly will be crowned by a ‘Sky Garden’ open to all (whether this makes up for the death ray effect, I’ll let you decide).

    It’s difficult to judge at this stage which will prove the more successful since they are so different, but it’s hard to imagine a simply space at low level really competing with a kinf of Royal Festival Hall 180 metres up.

    I’ve concentrated on business towers since that is my field, but there are plenty of residential blocks too – indeed the majority are of this sort – but even these are just as vulnerable to change. Remember, the value of your investment can go down as well as up.

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  • Architecture for all? Part 1: Their friend in the south

    The BBC’s recent documentary on the late architectural writer and critic Ian Nairn, this avuncular but passionate critic of much post-war development in Britain’s cities, showed him to be a man of great wit, energy and commitment. We need more like him today.

    Watching the programme led me to the BBC’s accompanying on-demand archive of selected episodes from his 1972 series Nairn Across Britain, a televisual journey Nairn took from south the north in search of the best, worst and – quite often the most objectionable to Nairn – frustratingly bland places along the way. The reason why this last offended Nairn so much soon becomes clear – he believed in a sense of place, a sense of specificity, of towns and cities and villages being uniquely of themselves in layout, buildings and atmosphere. A delight at small touches in the built environment as much as the grand design, at the humble and simple as much as the elaborate and rich, is also apparent. Where this kind of character has been lost, Nairn bemoans it. One lifeless Leicestershire village, for example, is pointedly described as the “dead” centre of the country.

    The series was a journey as much philosophical as actual, though, since Nairn was born and raised in Bedford and was middle class to the core but felt an increasing pull toward Britain’s richly evolved northern cities and their great industrial wealth. His accent shifted to northern vowel sounds – “NewCASSle” – and in the very the first episode, taking us from London to Manchester, he seems hardly to be able to get out of the capital fast enough and is soon flung north along the A5 to the Dunstable Downs.

    And here we see another key tenet of Nairn’s belief; even though he railed against much of the mass demolition and redevelopment that was at that time transforming Britain, he was avowedly not a reactionary. He did not hate modern architecture, and not think the countryside was untouchable. Instead he simply wanted good buildings that were true and honest, and which fitted with people’s lives and contributed to their surroundings. He advocated for man’s impact on the landscape to be similarly straightforward in its newness, and not prissy or meek.

    Thus in that first episode alone he expresses as much joy and admiration for the quirky Windsock pub, built for Schooner Inns in a fabulously mad mix of alpine chalet and Thunderbirds architecture, Willington power station, with its deliberately exposed machinery and – in Nairn’s view – too-timid colour scheme, and the then-new Newport Pagnall services on the M1, the brick and canary yellow pavilions either side of the motorway tied together with a glazed bridge described admiringly as “a tiny knot in the landscape”, as he does for the 18th century Staunton Harold Hall and church.

    Nairn was also concerned for genuine communities that are served by the best, most practical facilities, especially shops. Traditional market squares feature frequently in his travels, and a revealing comparison of Carlisle’s in the Victorian past (open and welcoming) and now (sliced up by roads and anything but) is instructive. Stockport’s new Merseyway Shopping Centre, though, is praised for its square and “high class” shops but also for the way in which this is threaded into the existing streets of shops, many of which have been “turned back to front” to link in to the development.

    Moving by canal toward Leeds exposes the dereliction their abandonment brought, but with the irony of their greened towpaths now being the only sign of nature in many cities. Nairn always sees opportunity, though; he likes a new housing scheme in Wigan that comes close to the canal but notes that it fails to make the most of its waterside setting, suggesting that three-sided squares of houses fronting the waterway would be nicer.

    Nairn’s manner is affable and accessible but also intelligent, sharp and most of all angry – his frustration, annoyance and exasperation come across loud and clear. He is without affectation, and without pretention. It is a reminder of a time when architecture mattered because it was changing where we lived on a fundamental level and at a profoundly life-affecting scale. Things are not quite the same now, despite what we see going up all around us, but we do need more architectural criticism like this.

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  • Birth day: 'Aliens' revisited

    I very rarely blog about films I’ve already seen, but last night I was enjoying watching Aliens (the special edition) on DVD for the first time so much (it was also a while since I’d seen it in any version) that I felt the urge. And given the film is about going back to where you’ve been before, it seems appropriate.

    I first saw the film the day it was released, way back in August 1986. I’d left school that summer and at that time big films opened in London a week before anywhere else in the UK, so I was amongst the first few hundred people in the country to experience it. The film arrived on the crest of tremendous reviews, and I remember David Castell on Capital Radio being very positive. No internet in those days, of course, so imported American magazines sold through Forbidden Planet were the limit of what you could know before a film actually opened. I consumed every word I could about it and so knew the ending going in, but it’s a sign of Cameron’s talent that even with that degree of foreknowledge I still felt the film was over at the point where the dropship climbs out of LV-426’s atmosphere, because what had gone before was so exhausting felt so complete (that said, I’ve since learned my lesson and nowadays avoid everything but the trailer before seeing any film).

    Starting where Scott’s original ended but with the brilliantly simple yet effective twist of setting events nearly 60 years into the future was then and remains today a masterstroke of plotting, allowing much of what is actually a very simple, even clichéd story (as was that of Alien) to be efficiently accelerated. Add to that Cameron’s ability to increase tension through incident after successive incident, often presented initially as impossible to escape, and layer action sequence on top of action sequence whilst maintaining coherence, and the result is extraordinary. Both skills, by the way, can be seen in Terminator 2, made five years later. The claustrophobia of the locations also built on Scott’s work – his studio set for the Nostromo was one of the first to have a roof – and was enhanced by tight editing and good production design.

    The naturalistic performances contribute greatly. Weaver was nominated for an Oscar, a welcome move given genre films are seldom recognised outside of the technical awards, though watching again it’s clear that both Michael Biehn and especially Bill Paxton deserved recognition for their supporting roles as Hicks and Hudson. Shot in London, the cast is a fascinatingly eclectic mix of A-list American actors brought over for the project (Weaver, Reiser, etc), American ex-pats resident in England (William Hope, Al Matthews – who by coincidence was a DJ on Capital Radio in the early 80s) and Britons adopting American accents (William Armstrong, Holly De Jong).

    I was though struck for the first time yesterday by the rather anti-establishment, Dirty Dozen quality of the Marine unit, rather at odds with the popular image of the Corps – various fan theories can be found online attempting to explain this, but it seems to me that it merely reflects Cameron’s own background and views. He is known for his pacifist stance, and stated at the time that Aliens can be read as a broad parallel with the combat situation in Vietnam – which, as a Canadian born in 1954, he could not have been involved in himself. Ironically his techno-fetishistic weapons designs and the work of Ron Cobb and Syd Mead under his direction have had a profound and lasting influence on everything from video games to manga in setting out an utterly convincing illustration of future combat.

    The special edition, of course, reinstates nearly 20 minutes of extra footage cut from the theatrical release. Much of it is merely interesting, but two major sequences fundamentally alter our perception of the film and its characters.

    The extended sequence that shows the colony inhabited and bustling does nothing to improve what for me is the best part of the film, namely the lengthy, atmospheric exploration of the deserted base when the Marines first arrive – it is unsettling even today.

    The revelation that Ripley had a young daughter at the time of Alien who has, by the events of the sequel, aged and predeceased her is supposed to point up her maternal feelings for Newt and give extra tang to her fight with the creatures and the Queen, but I have never found that an issue in the original cut and still feel this an unnecessary distraction in the special edition; after all, when Ripley finally does locate Newt, in tearing apart the alien resin and pulling her out, she gives ‘birth’ to her as effectively as she did her lost daughter.

    I also noticed for the first time this week the subtle change in Ripley’s character as the film progresses. At the start she is passive – indeed, she is in a coma as the film opens – or reactive at best. Humiliated at the inquiry hearing, racked by nightmares, weak and indecisive, she is a wreck. Later, though, she becomes increasingly active, is compelled to act at various points in the narrative and ultimately effectively takes command of the entire surviving group on LV-426, despite reminding everyone that the mission is under military jurisdiction. Note that there are four soldiers and four rifles in that group at this point, but even when Gorman recovers consciousness Ripley keeps the spare weapon for herself. Her injunction to Hicks at the end of the film not to let Bishop leave is absurd – by now it is Hicks, the soldier, the leader, who is wounded, useless and almost out cold himself. The scene also gives Biehn his character’s final line; he will be silent from here on. It’s a highly impressive piece of scriptwriting, demonstrated especially subtly in the crucial pivot for the change – not when Ripley seizes the controls of the APC, but a few minutes earlier, when she starts to ask Gorman to tell Hicks to back up and look again at the acid-burned hole in the deck, before grabbing a spare headset and doing it herself.

    On top of all this are some superb visual effects, many of which were shot traditionally with miniatures, wires and stop-motion thanks not only to the limitations of the period but Cameron’s experience on Roger Corman’s low-budget productions.

    So, a true classic still, nearly 30 years on. But I’d better go, ‘cause it’ll be dark soon, and they mostly come at night. Mostly.

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  • Camera obscura - 'The Exorcism' and other studio gems

    The BFI is currently hosting a season of screenings examining the particular aesthetic of studio-based television. Based on Reading University’s research programme Spaces of television: Production, site and style, it spans every decade in which this format thrived and every genre. Thursday’s event centred around a rare showing of a play which I’d not previously heard of, the BBC drama The Exorcism, written and directed by Don Taylor.

    First transmitted in November 1972 as part of a series of supernatural dramas entitled Dead of Night, only two other installments from which survive, it was chosen for its use of a set-built environment to create a convincing sense of claustrophobic in which a ghost story plays out, and I have to say it was an excellent choice.

    Middle-class couple Edmund (Edward Petherbridge) and Rachel (Anna Cropper) invite their friends Dan (Clive Swift) and Margaret (Sylvia Kay) to stay at the remote country cottage they have just finished doing up, and to which they have added all the latest gadgets. Edmund’s socialist father disapproves; Dan’s ‘champagne socialist’ journalist, on the other hand, had no problem accepting wealth as a milestone toward change. The confident rationalism of his wife, meanwhile, is subtly counterpointed by the quieter, creative talents of Rachel. As the four sit down to eat Christmas dinner, though, a series of disturbing and unexplainable events begin to occur, from the clocks stopping to the perfectly-cooked food becoming inedible. As the four try to make sense of what is happening, the past makes its presence felt in the worst way imaginable.

    This was a superb, enthralling 50 minutes. Dialogue in this type – and age – of drama is often condemned as stagey, but here it snapped nicely. Of the performers Petherbridge was particularly good in the early scenes, but it was Anna Cropper’s tour de force in the final act that really astonished. Gripped by some form of trance or possession, Rachel begins to intone the heartfelt testament of a woman who has been there before, whose horrific plight and death two hundred years ago – “I know the world is built by men, for I see the blood stains” – is the driver of the drama. Lying on her back, eyes screwed up and sweating, Cropper delivers a remarkable, seven-minute monologue from which Taylor cuts away just three or four times. The intimate becomes the intense, a truly heart-stopping moment that is a world away from today’s slick, rapidly-edited work.

    Here, in fact, is the heart not just of the play but the thesis advanced by the evening’s hosts, post-doctoral researchers Leah Panos and Billy Smart, in their lecture afterward: that the output of the television studio in this period succeeded through principles of closeness, space(s), especially the room and our and characters’ understanding of them, and the rhythm of the multi-camera set up.

    In The Exorcism all of these are visible, in the neat achievement of exposition through a tour of the house (David Fincher was to do much the same thirty years later in the clever opening scenes of Panic Room), the staring fixation on Cropper’s face, and in the pursuit of all the actors through the set. They are always on camera, in the peculiarly vivid, remorseless resolution of early video technology and being watched Panoptically in a programme shot on several cameras simultaneously and vision-mixed live as the play was performed and recorded. Both cast and crew had also to cope with the additional pressure of limited re-takes imposed by the fixed-block booking of studio time that was common in that period.

    That Taylor also wrote and directed the excellent The Roses of Eyam, which I saw at the BFI some years ago and which also featured opposed ideologies in a confined setting, was another pleasant surprise, as was the presence in the audience of actors Petherbridge and Swift, the former of whom commented enjoyably on those times during the Q&A that followed.

    The Exorcism is not simply a ghost story, since the plot ultimately has a political message (the deftness with which Taylor manages to combine the two is commendable), but its power to function solely as such is impressive even today. There are clear parallels with the work of Nigel Kneale, whose own ‘scientific’ ghost story, The Stone Tape, was to be shown just a month later on Christmas day but whose The Road (now lost), a tale of the future haunting the present, had been broadcast nine years before. Indeed the last quarter of 1972 proved a remarkably rich year for supernatural drama on British television; as well as The Exorcism in November and The Stone Tape in December, Terry Nation’s equally enthralling and similarly-themed The Incredible Robert Baldick: Never Come Night was broadcast in October.

    The studio is a place for the imagination, said Taylor, and other genres were later explored by Panos with an intriguing selection of clips from programmes featuring relationship dramas (The Golden Road), musical performance (The Folk Singer) and nested realities (Rock Follies). I was particularly struck by The Chester Mystery Plays, starring Tom Courtenay, from 1975, which used the much-maligned technology of CSO but in an original and fitting manner to place, combine and move people, painted backgrounds and other elements on and around the screen to form a kind of stylised, animated mediaeval manuscript for the televisual age.

    This was a real treat of an evening, enough to put the tube strike out of one’s mind, and a shining example of what the BFI does so well.

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  • Ruin Lust

    Well, not quite. But it is curious how the ruined, the abandoned and the derelict have been in the news so much lately, even before Tate Britain’s exhibition of this name opens in four weeks. The lure of the building lost to time, war or ignorance, architecture that no longer functions, it seems, remains strong.

    The BBC began things, with a fascinating report of an entire beach resort in northern Cyprus that was vacated by its population after the Turkish invasion of 1974 and has been unreachable ever since. Haunting phrases noting “a car dealership still stocked with 1974 cars” and “window displays of mannequins dressed in long-gone fashions” introduce personal stories that go further.

    As the Winter Olympics are about to open in Sochi, Dan Snow wandered the sad remains of the bobsleigh track built for the Sarajevo games thirty years ago, hundreds of metres of cracked and stained concrete now covered in graffiti and overgrown by the forest in which it sits. An online search brings up achingly sad photographs of shattered hotels and other buildings, ski jumps to nowhere and an arrangement of triangular slabs that was once the winners’ podium, no less, but which now resembles an unloved and ignored civic sculpture.

    Skiers of a different kind, meanwhile, performed tricks inside Detroit's (in)famously abandoned city

    centre buildings in a video featured on the Guardian’s website, which just a few days later also laid bare the current devastation in Syria with before-and-after images showing the result of the staggering

    fury of war unleashed on towns, cities and monuments. Painfully, even the world-famous, thousand-year-old Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers, a UNESCO World Heritage site perched high on a mountain outside Homs, has not been spared. Meanwhile, a criminal court in The Hague has commissioned two large scale models, one depicting the scene beforehand and the other the same scene afterward, of the location in Beirut where a bomb that killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was detonated in order to help judges understand the event.

    Whilst the homes of those who could ill afford to lose them have been shattered in the Middle East, at the other end of a scale of tragedy it was the Guardian yet again that revealed the astonishing and pitiful state of multi-million-pound luxury mansions on Bishop’s Avenue in Hampstead, some built just a few years ago, which have been left to rot by their absentee owners, grass growing on the stairs and water running through the lobbies.

    With bitter irony, given what is happening in some of the countries where the owners come from, crates of bulletproof glass sit unopened at one property.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

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

This month, take a test flight in Carlyle's shuttle from Neil Blomkamp's Elysium...

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