• Happy Birthday to me!

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

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

    I hope I get a cake….

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  • Tube tales, then and now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • Rock, steel, water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • Open

    A fundamental principle of this site is that I never cover anything I haven’t actually experienced first-hand. Sounds obvious – you can’t really criticise creative endeavours without seeing/visiting/watching them – but it’s worth re-stating in the context of my one building visit this Sunday, day two of London Open House 2014. A couple of coincidences gave me a good excuse to finally visit Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands’ acclaimed Jewish Cultural Centre in Swiss Cottage, known as JW3 in a play on the neighbourhood’s postcode. I’d seen photos and skimmed a couple of reviews, but never actually seen it, let alone stepped inside. I’m glad I did, though, for what seemed at a distance a little plain and awkward turned out to be a warmly detailed, genuinely enjoyable building, especially with the buzzy vibe of the Sunday before the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

    Fronting the (very) busy Finchley Road just north of the popular but bulkily Post-Modern O2 centre, JW3 has to mediate between the frenzied pace of car and pedestrian traffic outside and the calmer activities inside, including a large nursery for babies and toddlers on the top floor, book group spaces and a demonstration kitchen (actually, forget calmness there – Great British Bake Off, anyone??). This it does in a range of ways, most subtle and all successful, at least if my visit was anything to go by.

    A rectangular ‘pavilion’, as the architects describe it, is pushed back from the main road and snuggles up against the western site boundary to create an initial buffer zone. The fall of land handily permits the lowest story to open onto a piazza which is a floor below-grade with respect to that road, yet level with the side street that flanks the site to the south to allow vehicular entry. A run of storage units occupying the full length of the piazza below the main road is clad in continuous timber panels, and the space is spanned by a bridge of granite paving and patinated brass balustrades that leads from Finchley Road into the pedestrian entrance.

    Already, therefore, the use of a carefully restricted palette of high-quality, largely self-finished materials appears, a good sign in any building to my mind and here contributing greatly both to the overall architectural language of the centre and to the experience of using it.

    At that principal level, a metal and glass screen around four metres high separates the centre from the pavement. The one aspect of the building that attracted negative comment when the building opened a year ago, it was explained then as a traffic noise mitigation measure only. Of course that description was somewhat disingenuous since security is also its function, made more obvious by the walk-through cage of an entrance portal. And yet the whole is in fact remarkably unobtrusive, helped perhaps by a year’s growth of dense hedge in front but also the softly patinated brass of the frame and the railings, simulating Cor-Ten steel and softening the impact. More of this material, one of the key textures in the centre, appears on the pavilion facades, now emulating bronze. The others – finely cut stone, brick, actual bronze – arrive later.

    Inside, the main stair is subtly signed by approaches of textured granite to reflect the bridge and is nicely weighty, crafted from more granite, teak veneer – suffering just a little from workmanship issues, it seemed – and a splendid patinated brass handrail. The rear elevation of the stairwell is of ‘hit and miss’ brick, letting sculpted light become a further material.

    The suite of nursery rooms occupying the south east corner seemed a little cramped for us, though I imagine their tiny inhabitants find them quite large enough. Brass sheeting perforated with a regular pattern of circles is deployed extensively for privacy and sunshading, though the play of light they produce actually gave a delightful pattern that was enjoyed not just by us visitors – we were told the children like to follow the dappled effect as it moves across the floor.

    I can understand that, since I found myself unexpectedly mesmerised by the half-glimpsed, silent motion of the vehicles on the other side of the screens; ‘animate’ is a current but overused term in the business but here, watching the continuous stream of brightly-coloured vehicles flickering by exactly parallel to the run of rooms, the fence, the greenery, and the wooden panels below the ground, somehow the traffic itself actually formed part of the architecture.

    A narrow corridor running along the roadside elevation joins these rooms and adds further insulation. It

    provides for spectacular views thanks to full-height glazing, this time uninterrupted by the sheeting. A terrace for the nursery gives excellent views of the compact tower of 14 private apartments required by Camden council. Clad in pretty, roughly-finished, pale-sand coloured bricks, neat inset balconies finished in timber and more patinated brass bring a quietly pleasing rhythm to the scheme, whilst its southern wall is sheathed in precast shaped stone panels, thankfully still bright white and set back slightly from the edge of the elevation so as to be framed by the bricks. It’s unshowy, attractive stuff and fits well with the rich legacy of domestic brickwork in its comfortably mixed neighbourhood.

    Back inside JW3, the elegant double-height café and restaurant – packed at Sunday lunchtime – was a welcome surprise fronting the piazza and the main road. The community rooms were simple and clean, there is a capacious multi-functional hall with American-style retractable bleacher seating and a cinema. Solid door furniture, including bronze handles, is a pleasing and very welcome break from the traditional ‘value’ ironmongery and more reminiscent of a good corporate head office.

    I really enjoyed this little building. It’s comfortable, humane and exudes quality. The lack of extraneous internal fittings helps – the building is naturally ventilated and has exposed structural concrete ceilings, in the manner of AHMM’s ‘white collar factory’, for thermal mass and cooling, though they are finely finished and not at all out of place.

    Importantly, this was not an office, empty at the weekend, or a grand palace, seldom used at any time of the week, but a place for people, being used by people. It was a place that I wanted to come back to.

    We need more buildings like this.

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  • Top of the City: The Leadenhall Building inside and out

    Settled comfortably around a black conference table – the only item of furniture in an office space still lacking its carpet tiles – on the 40th floor of the new Leadenhall Building as part of a small group of journalists and writers invited to its press view last week, I had a rare and valuable opportunity to discuss with lead designer Graham Stirk and his partner, practice co-founder Richard Rogers, the forces that had shaped their new building and how they came to be working in the City of London once again.

    Click here for the full story, including conversations with Stirk and Rogers and exclusive images

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  • Kate Bush: 'Before the Dawn'

    “Oh my God, did you touch her?” The man sitting on my left, up in the gods at Friday’s performance, was on the phone to his friend down in the stalls after the curtain dropped on act (and that is the right word) one of Kate Bush’s soaringly ambitious new show. Just minutes before, Bush had been carried off stage through the front rows of the audience by half a dozen Fish People, and this fan’s reaction must surely have been typical of many who had just seen the climax of the second part of the gig’s opening half. This was a full-scale theatrical interpretation of The Ninth Wave, the allegory of loss and redemption set against the sinking of a ship and the drowning of its crew that comprises the entire second side of Bush’s acclaimed 1985 album Hounds of Love.

    To call it impressive is to pull one’s punches. Joining a small cast that includes her son Bertie and her backing singers, Bush stages a son et lumiere that moves from a storm-tossed ocean via a scene of domestic disharmony in a twisted Expressionist-style room to salvation of sorts on a lonely lifebuoy, to which survivors cling in their lifejackets with red lights and burning red flares. It involves trapdoors, a UFO-like ‘search and rescue helicopter’ cleverly created from a mechanised lighting rig that flies rather unsettlingly around the stage, the aforementioned Fish People and more. It was a hell of a start.

    Beforehand, it was clear that no-one knew what to expect and that anything was possible. Some wanted to see what she looked like, after twenty-odd years away from the lens. Some wanted to see her dancing. The woman on my right had seen Bush the first/last/only time; “I wanted to say I’d been on all of her tours,” she joked. Most, I suspect, just wanted to see her. I was curious about all that too, of course, but mostly I wanted to hear her voice – that crisp, sharp, agile, warm voice – live.

    A recorded venue-voice warning us that the event was about to start garnered huge applause. The house lights cut – a massive cheer split the auditorium. The opening incantation of Lily from Bush’s 1993 album The Red Shoes began:

    Oh thou, who givest sustenance to the universe

    From whom all things proceed

    To whom all things return

    Unveil to us the face of the true spiritual sun

    Hidden by a disc of golden light

    That we may know the truth

    And do our whole duty

    As we journey to thy sacred feet

    It seemed appropriate, given the anticipation. When Bush actually appeared, leading a small group of singers, modestly dressed and not even spot-lit, the next cheer took the roof off. That she was actually barefoot only added to the sense of a religious occasion. As it happened, that isn’t a bad comparison, too, for the sheer range of philosophical ideas reached by the show. Exploring big themes, the stage became, variously, a time machine, jumping back and forth; a teleportation device, moving us from forest to sky to stars and sea; and a microscope, looking deep within us.

    The choice of Lily was an intriguing one for an opener, a non-single from an album not generally considered successful, but it was a solid base for six consecutive songs taken exclusively from The Red Shoes, Hounds of Love and Aerial (full set list at the end of this post). There was dancing, but not by Bush, who did a few token swirls but that was all, and enough. The seven-piece band (three guitars/strings, two drums/percussion, two keyboards) and five backing singers recreated well the richly-layered production of the albums, and the lighting and stage design for this first half was nicely restrained, a simple arrangement of diamond-shaped ‘pixels’ like those used in the London Olympic stadium but mostly giving out only tiny points of golden light.

    This was merely a prelude, though. As the community sing-song ending of King of the Mountain – itself a rather unwelcome harbinger, as it turned out, of similar changes to other songs – continued, a lone musician whip-cracked his swirling purerehua-like instrument, instantly plunging the theatre into darkness and summoning lightning bolts. A scrim descended and a filmed insert began – we were off.

    Not being familiar with The Ninth Wave until the celebrations marking Bush’s return, for me only the melancholy And Dream of Sheep and haunting Hello Earth truly connected musically, though I was alone in that to judge from the audience reaction to each intro.

    Those theatricals, though, were certainly eye-catching. They mostly featured simple, traditional techniques as old as theatre. Thus a vast expanse of silk, constantly ruffled, made a remarkably convincing sea, whilst a signal buoy floating in the waves seemed to hover like an object in a 3D film, more real than real, thanks to the intensity of the red light in which it was bathed. The room set, a physical piece of scenery, was silently moved through a ‘sea’ of lasers and smoke, Fish People slipping below the surface...

    Whether that degree of staging is actually necessary is a moot point, since it is there, but whilst it is evidently fully in line with Bush’s own original conceptions of the music according to her fascinating essays in the lavish event book (‘programme’ doesn’t cover it – advert-free, nicely produced and exploring the making of the show, it’s worth the £15 price), one very occasionally feels a kitchen sink being prepared in the wings. Of course one can hardly blame her, though it did make the first encore – just Bush, playing piano and with that voice – all the more welcome.

    For me, though, it was act two that really delivered, a complete performance of A Sky of Honey from side two of Aerial. A single 45-minute composition in nine subtly joined movements, the suite follows two lovers through the course of a single day from afternoon through dusk and night to dawn. Vitally – another appropriate word, in context – its music merges and mingles with, becomes and is generated by, birdsong, including a rhythmic line of dove coos that has become as famous in Bush’s oeuvre as the drum beat from Running up that Hill.

    Opening with a projected backdrop of dense woodland, giant doors 40 feet high let in and then lock out a figure about the size of a child and based on those artist’s wooden mannequins. Animated Bunraku-style by a black-clad puppeteer, this delightful little figure tentatively explores the band as they play, cocking his head in bird fashion and almost-but-not-quite touching everything. It’s not hard to read him as Bertie, especially later.

    The backdrop shifts to show an evening sky, overlaid with breath-taking, ultra slow-motion, close-up footage of all manner of birds in flight. With the band simply lit in autumnal colours, this was a truly magical sequence that for me was the highlight of the evening.

    As the day progresses, a vast ‘canvas’ in a frame is lowered for the Painter – Bertie again, diplomatically replacing Rolf Harris from the album – to work on. It slowly changes (All the colours are running) to become an exact but smaller replica of the painted sky backdrop, the gauzy texture of which is itself well-suited to simulating canvas. It was a neat trick whose method I won’t reveal – a woman has to have some secrets. Day/night, life/death, sea/sky and past/present thus collide, beautifully caught in a verse from Sunset:

    Who knows who wrote that song of Summer

    That blackbirds sing at dusk

    This is a song of color

    Where sands sing in crimson, red and rust

    Then climb into bed and turn to dust

    Later, Bush stands on a jet black stage backed only by an immense orange disc that moves imperceptibly lower as the song cycle concludes.

    Sadly the movements are split in several places, breaking the building of mood that is such a critical part of A Sky of Honey’s success as a recording. Nevertheless the building of atmosphere continues, propelled by the percussive, melodic, hypnotic, seductive Nocturn:

    Bright, white coming alive jumping off the aerial

    All the time it's a changing like now

    All the time it's a changing like then again

    All the time it's a changing

    And all the dreamers are waking

    though its climax is delayed by Tawny Moon, new material written for the show and performed by Bertie as a serenade to a lunar body (which is seen to spin on its axis, something actually impossible to perceive from Earth) that veers perilously close to West End musical, and overextended when it arrives, with a misjudged move into Spanish drumming.

    At the end, with a stage in darkness, a single bird flies down the screen, white on black.

    Phew.

    Staging aside, it is important to point out that, listening to such a wealth of material in one go, whether live, via a television documentary or re-browsing your own collection, and this time really listening to the words, does make you appreciate the wealth of influences, linkages and relevances in Bush’s work.

    In particular, she is arguably the latest in a long and rich line of English – specifically English – writers and artists, visionaries who have shown a clear personal connection with the intangible, the unconscious and the countryside. John Dee, Joseph Turner, John Constable, William Blake, Kit Williams, maybe even Aleistair Crowley; all are invoked. There is, for example, a clear link between the liminal state summoned by the lyric of Somewhere in Between:

    Somewhere in between, the waxing and the waning wave

    Somewhere in between, what the song and silence say

    Somewhere in between, the ticking and the tocking clock

    Somewhere in a dream between, sleep and waking up

    Somewhere in between, breathing out and breathing in

    Like twilight is neither night nor morning

    and Herrick’s exquisite Dreams, written three centuries ago:

    Here we are all, by day; by night, we're hurled

    By dreams, each one, into a several world

    Certainly, too, Bush is conscious of the debt she owes to the pastoral scenes conjured by the great Edwardian composers Elgar and, especially, Vaughan Williams, whose ‘English sublime’ finds an obvious echo in Bush’s lyrics (Can you see the lark ascending?) but also in her flawless sonic evocation of ‘a lovely afternoon’.

    As for that voice, well, it was there, certainly, and with some power behind it – certain passages were almost belted out. There were, inevitably, some concessions to her maturity. Extra bars had been deftly inserted in Running up that Hill to ease a tricky transition. Whole chunks of lyrics were omitted, not entirely to the song’s benefit in the case of Hounds of Love but surprisingly successfully in the brilliant Top of the City, second-best track from the very underrated Red Shoes and here with a storming chorus vocal from Bush that roused the audience considerably. There was, finally, a fair bit of helpful echo dialled in to her mic, a tiny amount of speak-singing and just one or two indecisive moments.

    So, was Bush waving or drowning? It’s clear she was determined, even after all this time and with obvious adulation awaiting almost regardless of what she did, to return very much on her own terms, with the crowd-pleasing singles bookending the three quarters of the show devoted to the two conceptual works. Some of the visuals are spellbinding. So yes, I did enjoy my trip across the universe. The earth didn't quite move for me in the end, thanks to the uneven tone and pace and some of the staginess, but certainly the moon moved for Kate and I imagine few left unhappy.

    Goodnight sun

    Goodnight sun

    Goodnight mum

    -----------------------------------

    Setlist -

    Act One:

    Lily

    Hounds of Love

    Joanni

    Top of the City

    Running up that Hill

    King of the Mountain

    The Ninth Wave (complete)

    Act Two:

    A Sky of Honey (complete) + Tawny Moon

    Encore:

    Among Angels

    Cloudbusting

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  • ‘Lucy’

    A young woman is forced by a friend to take a briefcase to a mysterious, violent gang boss, then forced once more to become a drugs ‘mule’, a package of blue crystals sewn into her stomach. Brutalised along the way, the package bursts, the drugs leak…but Lucy, far from dying in agony, begins to live.

    The protagonist who takes a journey to self-discovery is a keystone of fiction and especially screenwriting, but in Luc Besson’s new, almost uncategorisable film – existential thriller, maybe? – this idea is taken to heights seldom reached, especially in mainstream cinema. That it succeeds in mixing sex, shooting and stimulating ideas is a credit to all involved.

    Besson built his reputation with dynamic, sassy films, often with single women searching for a meaning in their lives and eventually becoming empowered through action and reaction. With Lucy, he takes that idea and puts it through its ultimate – in every sense – iteration.

    Scarlet Johansson plays the title role, brilliantly portraying both a care-free thrill-seeker in contemporary Taiwan and a terrified victim in the first ten minutes of the film alone.

    Once the effects of the then-unknown drug begin to kick in, though, it becomes clear – with the help of some Terrence Malick-like quick cuts of wildlife red in tooth and claw and parallel scenes of scientist Morgan Freeman delivering a lecture on mammalian neurology hooked around the supposed notion that we only use 10% of our brain capacity – that Lucy is about to extend the limits of human ability, gradually acquiring powers over her mind, her body, and then those of others.

    This, though, is not an opportunity for Lucy, it’s an obligation. She has no choice, and even as she begins her journey, she already knows she will stop being who she is, and eventually stop being altogether. There is a lyrical speech at the exact point where Lucy realises this that brings it home to her and the audience in a genuinely powerful way.

    Lucy makes a phone call to her mother for some mutual reassurance. She tries to explain what has happened to her by describing what she can now sense: “ I feel everything. Space, the air, the vibrations, the people, I can feel the gravity, I can feel the rotation of the Earth, the heat leaving my body, the blood in my veins. I can feel my brain. The deepest parts of my memory…..” but this subtly changes into an extraordinary, poetic paean to motherhood as she can also quite literally remember every kiss she has ever received, feel every touch and even – in a line which might have had others smiling for the wrong reason but which I thought quite beautiful – the taste of her mother’s milk.

    It’s a superbly scripted moment, movingly delivered by Johansson and subtly directed by Besson with a simple, very slow zoom into her face as a tear run down her cheek. It rivals Roy Batty’s elegaic rage against the dying of the light at the end of Blade Runner for a deeply humane postscript to a life.

    Afterwards, Johansson shifts to an almost complete lack of affect that is as scary as it is amusing, just short of robotic enough to keep you caring. A chase across Paris sees Lucy demolishing innocent drivers’ vehicles with no interest in their survival – she has moved beyond emotion by this point. Her powers become ever-greater, allowing her to dismiss gunmen with a flick of the wrist without even touching them. “Why do you need me?” asks the bemused Paris police detective who finds himself accompanying her on this kinetic adventure. She kisses him gently on the lips: “A reminder,” she explains. And yet as she loses her human-ness, she starts to gain her humanity.

    That Lucy is a woman, and a woman called Lucy too, is crucial.

    The first scene of the film is a lush prehistoric Earth populated by a single hominid, the two-million-year-old precursor to homo sapiens found in Ethiopia in 1974 that was christened Australopithecus afarensis and nicknamed ‘Lucy’.

    Back in the present, as the new Lucy’s abilities accelerate (reflected in the very brisk 80 or so minutes of the film’s running time) and her potential to connect with everything and everyone emerges, one is reminded of Sarah Connor’s impassioned rail against men making death and women making life in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. That crime boss Jang is male and peremptorily kills the hapless-seeming first recipient of the drug, to whom Jang feeds it as a test and whose rapt expression Jang misreads as simple stupefied ecstasy but which we later realise shows nascent realisation of his own becoming, seems to prove this point; Jang terminates the future Man that he (we) could become, whereas Lucy enables it.

    Thus whilst the on-screen action sees Lucy methodically tracking the other mules in order to prevent an uncontrolled meltdown as Jang tries to find her, we realise that the film is about being, about becoming; it is nothing less than a meditation of life, its meaning and its potential for being something more.

    At Freeman’s university – clearly indicated as the Sorbonne, founded by theologian

    Robert de Sorbon, although God thankfully makes no appearance in the film – Lucy instructs Freeman to inject her with all of the drug, now recovered from the other mules, to allow her to complete her self-actualising transformation.

    It thus becomes clear the film Lucy most closely resembles is not a live action production at all, but Mamoru Oshii’s animated Ghost in the Shell, his seminal visualisation of Masamune Shirow’s techno-philosophical manga.

    Although starting from wholly different points, both films show a female lead character attaining a different state of being after encountering an external accelerant and the final scenes of the two films are thematically identical and even visually comparable

    In Ghost in the Shell, Kusanagi is freed from the limitations of her body (which is mechanical, the film already having meditated on the improvement or otherwise this represents as compared to a human frame) and fused with the artificial conscience that is Project 2501, becoming a new form of life, “in the world wide sea of information”. In Lucy, Johansson attains a similar state, vaulting back in time in a breathtaking sequence which sees her ‘swiping’ Times Square like an iPhone back to Victorian New York, then again to farmland, then again to primeval swamp, before finally meeting her namesake ancestor and touching fingertips in a gesture that is a direct quote from both Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco seen earlier in one of the film’s montages but also Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Indeed at the film’s climax Besson even throws in a tiny Monolith in the shape of a black USB stick extruded by the being that evolves from Lucy and a pile of computers, its surface a portal into stars in a direct quote from the Clarke novel and the Peter Hyams-directed sequel. “Where is she?” asks the puzzled flic; "I am everywhere," Lucy replies via a text message on his phone.

    So this is not just a simple shoot-‘em-up; it has ambition and brains. I suspect that’s why Scarlet Johansson was involved, who clearly relished a role where she could work Louboutin heels and a little black dress whilst also theorising on metaphysics. Do see it. It’s cleverer than you think it is. It might even be cleverer that IT thinks it is.

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  • Blakes 7 x 4

    Seven rebels, fighting a totalitarian empire, and four friends, fighting interruptions from late-departing workers and a diligent officer cleaner – such was the setting for the recording of The Blake-Easy, an immense (and immensely interesting, if I may say so) podcast celebrating the much-loved BBC SFTV classic Blakes 7 that I was invited to contribute to last month, and which is now available for your listening pleasure on the very excellent Excuses And Half Truths blog from the equally excellent Rob Wickings.

    What’s that, you say? How is a podcast ‘visual culture’? I know, I know – though I, Rob, his fellow show (pod?) runner and my good friend Clive Ashenden, and friend-to-all-of-us Keith Eyles were actually wearing black, in order to facilitate the superb pic featured above. And, of course, the visuals of the series were a big topic of conversation for us during the ‘cast.

    Watching all 50-odd episodes showed the fascinating variety of effects, technology (both actual and predicted), locations and sets employed through the series’ four runs, and despite the limitations of budget there are some real gems to be found.

    You’ll hear us all agree on the brilliantly-designed Liberator, as a found, genuinely alien artefact, with its unusual configuration, absent crew, elegant guns, and mysterious teleport facility. Elsewhere, episodes where the design embraces the simple power of colour and shape are amongst the best in this respect, from the superb monochrome courtroom of The Trial to the Sapphire and Steel-like weirdness of Shadow.

    We also look at the advantages and challenges of the multi-camera, live-mixed studio shooting technique that was then the norm; seldom if ever edited after the fact, scenes were recorded on several cameras simultaneously with the choice as to which feed will make the tape for any given shot made as the script was performed and recorded.

    We also explore the characters, costumes, themes and more, as well as picking our worst and best episodes. It’ll be like having four mates you don’t yet know chatting in your room about one of your favourite childhood programmes, so charge the neutron blasters and dive in…

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  • EXCLUSIVE: Marvel’s Avengers London shoot UPDATE #7 4.8.14

    CUT! It was the calm after the storm at Colindale this week as the Avengers: Age of Ultron production team left the Peel Centre site, although not before shooting a full-scale riot in Sokovia that was dramatically captured by a local resident. Made available to the same reporter who contacted me and included in his online piece on the filming, the clip also shows in more detail the set dressing applied to the old police buildings to create the fictional city-state.

    The sequence was still being shot last weekend; the ‘impact’ of the (planned) chaos could clearly be seen on the Peel Centre buildings themselves, which are now extensively burned and smoke-charred. Rubble has also been visible at the end of the bridge.

    Whilst filming was still underway, further service companies spotted on site continue to hint at the wealth of effort being put in at Colindale.

    Based at Shepperton Studios, Alpha Grip supplies a vast arrany of rigs for mounting and manipulating cameras, including cranes and vehicle systems of all kinds. It is likely to have been their equipment that was used to film the ambulance scene caught in the amateur footage, which certainly involved the wheeled trolleys for vehicles I blogged about earlier. Plowman Craven is a chartered surveying company – handily based just up the road in Hertfordshire – that has branched out very successfully into 3D laser scanning for visual effects and films, employing a technology that was originally invented for building surveys to digitise actors and stuntmen but also props and entire structures, this last especially fascinating in light of the aerial photography that has taken place and firmly implying virtual extension of the site from the air.

    But all these crafts and trades have been withdrawing from the location this week, and quickly, too.

    The mobile cranes and almost all of the large trucks had gone by Tuesday, as had most of the marquees and generators. The vast greenscreen next to the tram was being stripped of its green material by Wednesday – the framework followed on Friday. The process is shown in my panorama, below, which was stitched together from two shots and digitally retouched to reduce the visibility of the join.

    By Friday, too, the bridge had had its ‘stonework’ unceremoniously smashed to pieces, revealing within the steel skeleton that first caught my eye way back in May – little did I know what would follow!

    It’s been a real pleasure and privilege to have watched and recorded this extraordinary creative endeavour, which I’ve documented through 250+ photos, 30+ mini-movies and a few thousand words, and I’m flattered and pleased by the following it has built up. The daily session count has reached 140, and I’ve had comments and contacts from fans and passers-by and of course the journalist from the press. I hope you’ve all enjoyed it – can’t wait for next May…

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  • Opening the box

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Paul Raftery, 2014

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

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

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

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