• 'The Nether'

    “It’s okay to forget who you think you are, and find out what you would like to be”

    - Iris

    Would you like to live “a life outside of consequence”? What might that mean for you, me and everyone around us? And what if, to do so, you had to abandon reality and move into a virtual world forever? Would it provide the ultimate playground for the ultimate fantasy, a safeguard for the ultimate in transgressions? Or leave a barren world in which morality is meaningless? These are just some of the questions asked by Jennifer Haley in her startling play The Nether, achieving a deserved West End transfer from the Royal Court and a major upscaling in the process.

    Morris, a young female detective for the Nether, is questioning Sims, a middle aged businessman and self-confessed paedophile, over the activities of users in the Hideaway, a private “realm” or online space he has set up in this vastly advanced version of the Internet. Morris has an agent inside the Hideaway who reports a Victorian dream world in which appalling things take place – sex with children, the murder of children – repeatedly, all of it hidden under Sims’ unbreakable encryption. But none of what is now under discussion is happening “in-world”; the denizens of the Hideaway are after all avatars, controlled by users, and all of the ‘children’ are actually adults engaging in “consensual role-play” – Sims can prove it, and Morris believes him. So if none of it is real, why does it matter?

    It matters for Sims because he believes that he is keeping his desires under control and protecting real children by confining his activities to the Hideaway. It matters to Morris because she is terrified that Sims (the name an obvious but clever pun) has finally found the secret of making the Nether irresistible. She fears “mass migration into the Nether” – people deciding to become “Shades”, who “cross over”, switching reality off and existing purely online. She fears they will do this because of what Sims can do for them: “Your code is the closest we’ve ever come to sensation”, she says. And if all the senses – sight, touch, sound, taste, hearing – can be satisfied with a perfect representation of ‘real’, who is to say what is virtual and what is not?

    Thus Morris wants the location of Sims’ server; Sims want to know how she even found him, and whether any of this is legal. “We’re making our own laws,” Morris replies, firmly.

    As the story unfolds we jump between the interviews, where Morris repeatedly tries to break Sims whilst also cajoling Doyle, a weaker user, using the increasingly emotive sworn statements of her insider, and the Nether, where ‘Iris’, Sims’ favourite young girl, meets ‘Woodnut’, a novice entering the realm for the first time. Relationships form, and questions of identity and motivation abound. Who is Morris’s insider? What is she really afraid of? Who is Iris? Was there ever a REAL Iris, and what happened to her?

    Man’s desires are the heart of the story, which is about transgression and boundaries, about layers of reality. Nothing reflects this better than the staggering set and production design by Es Devlin, building on her astonishing work in the Almeida’s Chimerica.

    The action is set within a three-storey white frame – window/picture/television? – inserted into the stage. It is filled during the interrogations with a simple screen that displays a shifting, fretful mosaic of black and white surveillance imagery, drawn from the confrontation that takes place on the very front edge of the stage. Two chairs with a touchscreen table between them and plain, grey walls complete this bland but threatening environment.

    Transitions to the Nether are brilliantly achieved via a sudden darkening of the stage and a flurry of digitally-projected sequences that are effectively fast-forward histories of the development of computer graphics. Monochrome wire-frame animations rapidly ‘draw’ the world we are about to enter, drawings that are quickly rendered with billions of coloured pixels. These coalesce into photo-realistic images that shift from long shot to medium shot until, finally, the screen lifts in part or in full to reveal the Hideaway itself and the house that Sims has built there.

    More real than real, its rooms are formed from a bright, shimmering, infinite cube of mirrors and screens and real and projected trees. In the drawing room, wall lights and fireplace seeming to hang in mid-air. In the bedroom, a side table and a rocking horse are faintly disturbing. The house in which the rooms stand is itself replicated, fractal-like, as a doll’s house (more manipulation and puppetry) and a picture on the wall. It’s a room that isn’t a room, a space/place of boundless imagination achieved through the ultimate iteration of the theatrical illusion that is Pepper’s Ghost.

    That allure of the senses that Morris feared is subtly alluded to throughout the production, from the faint but persistent ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece to the repeated references to the touch and smell of Iris, to the taste of cognac that does indeed convince Woodnut of the verisimilitude of the Nether.

    Reviewing Blackhat, I listed some of the many filmic interpretations of alternative worlds that have parallels with the Nether. Two more that now come to mind as especially relevant are The Veldt, the most effective portion of the 1969 film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s portmanteau novel The Illustrated Man and the infamous, extended ‘World War I’ sequences in Robert Holmes’s classic Doctor Who story The Deadly Assassin (1976).

    In literature two very specific situations from William Gibson’s Sprawl novels may also have been influential for Haley, who has worked as a web developer – the malignant billionaire recluse Josef Virek, whose body is on permanent life support in a Swiss industrial suburb whilst his mind and personality ‘enjoy any number of means of manifestation’ including the ability to appear and welcome others to a recreation of Gaudi’s Parc Guell, and his moral opposite Bobby, who has retreated into a world quite literally of his own inside a solid block of ‘biosoft’.

    But there is plenty more to ponder in The Nether. An early line from an exasperated Sims, challenging Morris’s attempts to identify him and other users (“Are you pissed you can’t target me for advertising?”), alludes to one matter of the moment. The suggestion of the Nether governing itself is as powerful and relevant as the more obvious central themes, as we query oversight of the web. From a purely genre point of view, Morris – “with an investigative unit of the Nether” – is perhaps the precursor to Gibson’s Turing Registry, formed to police AIs.

    The performances are all good, with 12-year-old Isabella Pappas as Iris and Anna Martine (understudying for Amanda Hale last night) as Morris especially impressive – Pappas handles a very challenging role with great conviction and maturity, whilst Martine’s breakdown, revealing Morris’s true motives, is remarkably affecting when it arrives. The direction, by Jeremy Herrin, exploits to the full the thriller quality inherent in Haley’s script as the hunt for the agent intensifies and revelations tumble out, particularly with the bargain that Morris strikes with Doyle toward the climax when they both log in to the Nether. Herrin also embraces the increasingly cinematic possibilities of multi-media theatrical staging – not always obviously, there are layers of time, with the questioning of Sims taking place in the present, that of Doyle a few hours before, and the activities in Nether recounted in flashback.

    My only criticism is that the very final scene seems unnecessary, and weakens Morris’s powerful last line, which would have ended the production on a blank screen that is also a blank page, for us to write our own history of where the Internet is going.

    But this is great, thought-provoking work, and it deserves to be seen.

    'The Nether', a Headlong/Royal Court Theatre production, continues until 25 April 2015 at the Duke of York’s theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2

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  • West End.

    The tug of nostalgia can be very strong. It’s personal, you see, as Don Draper knows. The latest twists in the related sagas of Centre Point, the Paolozzi mosaics for Tottenham Court Road tube station beneath it and Denmark Street next door as the bulldozer that is Crossrail continues to cut a swathe through one very small but meaningful corner of central London for me have started to disrupt and disperse a part of my memory that goes back 35 years. I was about ten when I first emerged into the light below the towering sliver that is Centre Point, on what was to become the start of decades of pilgrimage to Forbidden Planet at 23 Denmark Street. My best friend was with me, and dad chaperoned us.

    Over the years to come I walked the roads around that area so much that they and their buildings are as ingrained in my mind as the streets between my home and my school were. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the changes that are now underway tug a little. True, it was never a pretty area – the problem is, it’s becoming pretty vacant.

    At Centre Point Paramount, the excellent restaurant that inhabited the top floors, was forced to close last month after losing a battle against owner Almacantar’s desire to convert the space into penthouse flats, ensuring the 360 degree walk-around view once available to all for the price of a drink will now require north of £50m – yes, £50m – to acquire. Plans to infill below the glass bridge link over the road are fortunately still on hold, but the pub built as part of the original tower development will go, replaced by affordable housing.

    Underground, the sorry saga of TfL’s machinations and manipulations over the mosaics has reached absurd levels, with disingenuous statements over the actual state of the art (sorry), their intentions and what was and is possible as far as preservation and restoration is concerned.

    This is what TfL told me back in 2011, when I first started to be concerned:

    “I can assure you that we highly value the Paolozzi mosaics and […] we have been working closely with the Paolozzi Foundation as the Tottenham Court Road upgrade progresses. I can assure you that we are taking great care to protect and preserve these mosaics as we upgrade Tottenham Court Road station [which] will mean that some sections of existing mosaic tiles will have to be carefully removed whilst the tunnelling work is taking place. The tiles will then be restored and maintained in their current location, using an artist appointed in liaison with the Paolozzi Foundation. Where it is impossible to keep a section of mosaic in its current position, we will be liaising with the Paolozzi Foundation to determine whether it is possible to re-locate it elsewhere in the station or provide an alternative home for the work.”

    In fact TfL have never cared for Paolozzi’s energetic mosaics, intended to reflect the vibrancy of the Tin Pan Alley and electrical retail environment above ground. Well before Crossrail prompted the latest round of attritional intervention – including deliberately fixing a poster frame through one patch of mosaic despite there being a large patch of unpainted breeze block a foot away – workers were channelling cables, removing sections of mosaic and screwing things to it. They’ve never been cleaned.

    Today, four years after that letter to me, we finally find out that sections of the mosaic in the ticket hall have in fact been removed without anyone being told and are currently…. Well, no-one knows. Or they do, but aren’t telling. Careful removal was deemed impossible, despite one of the team responsible for making the mosaics in the first place offering to help and despite the preservation of acres of mosaic from ancient Rome being on display at museums around the world. Mosaics have thus been removed from vertical and horizontal surfaces successfully, and any extra time and costs would be lost within the 10 year, £15bn Crossrail programme. As for the what remains, well, who knows – the Central Line area of the station is out of bounds for the entire year (yes) to allow the work to grind on.

    Then we have Denmark Street. Its projected fate is hard to glean from the owner Consolidated Developments’ website given a complete lack of any imagery although the description sounds – grimly, if ironically – like it has escaped from the 1960s world of Centre Point and the infamous Piccadilly Circus scheme, with references to “gigantic advertising screens” and “a sky bar”. Online searches, though, show some rather shiny, rather empty glazed boxes hogging the top of Charing Cross Road which, in

    combination with the gentrifying of Centre Point, Renzo Piano’s hideous Fisher Price St Giles scheme in its lurid colours and the blandification of those chunks of the west end of Oxford Street that are also falling victim to Crossrail – including the new street entrance to the tube station – represent another loss of grain and grit in an area that actually benefits from it. And, don’t forget, an entire Georgian terrace was demolished at the foot of Centre point a few years ago merely as preparation. In a just a few years, this bustly and fun crossroads will be just another slice of dullness.

    Fings definitely ain’t what they used t’ be.

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  • Munich: Mass and moment

    Two January days in a chilly (indeed, snowy) Munich wasn’t enough to get a real feel of this richly historic city, but I did experience two very different but equally impressive examples of post-war architecture, both of which show a very specific response to their predecessors and the agonies of the 1939-45 conflict.

    Just off the busy Lenbachplatz, between the old botanic gardens and the Frauenkirche, is the mixed-use Justizgebaude complex, erected in 1954-57 to designs by Sep Ruf and Theo Pabst on the site of a historic 16th century ducal palace badly damaged in the war. A controversial scheme at the time due to its contemporary design, increased scale and re-use of the palace’s distinctive tower, today the result is widely and rightfully regarded as a model example of post-war urban architecture, a pretty precinct with – crucially – light and softness at its heart.

    A long, 9-storey block paralleling Pacellistrasse to the north protects from road noise a large, quiet grassed area at the centre of the development; a much lower, F-shaped building performs the same function on the other side of the lawn to the south. Both are stone-clad in shades of grey and white in

    memory of the palace. Fully glazed ground floors house retail units, most with doors to the street and courtyard and occupied by independents. Passageways allow short cuts at street level, whilst multi-level bridge links, also fully glazed, join the blocks above – one leads to the preserved tower, which now acts as a viewing point for each floor of the Pacellistrasse block. Underground car parking and apartment entrances are discreet, and the detailing is just as delicate throughout, including purpose-designed retractable awnings for the shops, champagne-coloured anodised window surrounds, typically period wavy steel balustrading for stairs and four major works of mosaic and sculptural decoration.

    Centrepiece of the scheme and facing west is a third, 7-storey block housing functions of the Justice Ministry, and it’s here that the architects showed how modernity, transparency and confidence can serve a place re-establishing itself after a catastrophic conflict. Set back behind a generous entrance lobby (marked by a deep, cantilevered canopy) is a remarkable rectangular atrium, capped with a plate glass

    roof. Mezzanine floors on all levels overlook this airy space, whilst at the east end of the plan is a wonderful elliptical stair, each flight – one per floor – of which twists sinuously through 180 degrees. Delightfully, it reads as an additional sculpture from the outside, as caught in the terrific night photograph shown below.

    A small exhibition pavilion completes the arrangement to the west, whilst the separate Archbishop's Ordinariate building further east in a similar but less open style is a nicely-judged complement. Hard landscaping connects all the blocks and makes a pleasant, car-free meander possible.

    It’s a lovely survivor of its time, virtually untouched, and is a reminder of the kind of gently positive scheme built across Europe in those tentative years before the often crushing boom of the 1960s and 70s but which is now largely gone, itself subject to the next round of relentless redevelopment.

    A few hundred metres north of the Justizgebaude stands the museum quarter, home of a range of antiquities and archaeological treasures and Munich’s three great galleries covering Old Masters, 18th to early 20th century paintings and contemporary art. The second of these, the Neue Pinakothek, was originally built in 1880 as a giant Classical brick box but was also effectively destroyed in the war. Its replacement was a very long time coming, not opening until 1981.

    Designed by Alexander von Branca, whose great, powerful Modernist churches are scattered throughout Germany and who also built the schloss-like German Embassy to the Holy See in Rome and the Modernist Regensburg University, the new gallery echoes those buildings in its volumes and tough but sophisticated use of a restricted material palette. It also forms a miniature city on its large island site thanks to intelligent use of topography both inside and out.

    The exterior is impressively austere, relieved only with occasional windows – articulated here as an oriel, there as a recess – and narrow, historicizing escape stairs covered by lead pents. Inside, a roomy double height lobby acts as orientation between visitor facilities on the ground and lower floors and the gallery spaces upstairs. Sheer walls of beige sandstone, detailed with thin projecting courses of roughly-tooled granite acting almost as dado and picture rails delineate the building’s layout.

    The gallery’s public circuit forms a rough figure of eight. Enjoyably, successive rooms are on the whole at a slightly higher level than the last so the visitor rises up gently as he progresses. A square spiral ramp takes its own parallel course for those less able to walk, in a separate but linked circulation path that, crucially, is no mere sop to disabled access – important sculptural works are carefully placed against the walls, favouring those using this route and requiring the rest to take a short detour each time to see them. That this is, though, a surprisingly pleasant experience, with pieces temptingly glimpsed at the end of framed vistas, confirms the effectiveness of the decision. Pocket courtyard gardens are found at the centre of each half of the figure eight, intriguing though firmly off limits in the winter.

    Most of the sequence is top-lit in an acclaimed fashion, though more robust items are placed in those oriel windows or at the end of blind turnings, allowing the interiosity of the museum to be broken for a moment with a brief weather check or contemplation of pedestrians below.

    A restaurant on the lower ground floor opens onto an outside terrace next to a hard-landscaped artificial lake – sadly, if understandably, dewatered out of season but shown here in its prime – that, along with various pathways, meanders through the museum’s grounds to the east.

    This twin taste of reconstruction architecture complemented my visits to Berlin and Dresden and left me keen to see more of Munich and Germany, not least more of von Branca’s religious commissions. But for now, they exemplified an approach to architecture that says something about its time and place in a highly intelligent and vivid way. We need more of this.

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  • A cuckoo in the nest: The Royal College of Physicians

    “Physican, heal thyself” may have been a suitable architectural admonition to the 500 year-old institution that was the Royal College of Physicians when, in the late 1950s, it sought to build a new home amongst the Nash terraces of Regent’s Park. The Crown Estate had agreed on the proviso that the College respect the existing buildings, though it is unclear to what extent the landlord was aware that the College had already decided on something radical. With new ideas on healthcare emerging and a new, post-war Britain in which to apply them, the move from a classic – not to say Classical – Victorian headquarters was to be accompanied by an equally up-to-date building by a contemporary designer; Denys Lasdun. The story of how that was achieved is told in The Anatomy of a Building, an exhibition at the College marking Lasdun’s centenary and 50 years since the new premises were opened.

    The exhibition cleverly interweaves letters, models, images and drawings covering the commissioning, execution and interpretation of the resulting building with the spaces themselves, through display panels situated on four levels of the building from basement to second floor. The visitor also has the chance to use a booklet and decent multimedia guide handset. Finally two good and very reasonably priced books, by Lasdun scholar Barnabus Calder and critic Rowan Moore, are available at reception.

    Several variations on the overall design were tried initially, as Lasdun sought to understand the College’s requirements for private and public spaces and the site itself. The former included a large lecture theatre, a library, a function room and the crucial censors’ room, where aspiring members are assessed. The latter once housed a Nash villa that had been badly damaged by bombing and was therefore deemed expendable, and gave directly onto the Park via the road called Outer Circle passing in front. Albany Street ran behind.

    Curiously Lasdun appeared in many respects to have ignored both prospects, placing the ‘back office’ areas of the College in a long slab of blue (that is, black) engineering brick inserted into the run of surviving terraces along Albany Street and penetrated only by the service entrance, and denying users of the white mosaic-clad ceremonial volumes found behind this and fronting the Park many views of it, apparently to avoid distracting them from College business. He did, however, conjure one of the capital’s best post-war buildings from these choices, once which dazzled me on my first visit some years ago and which a crisply sunny January morning reinforced.

    Low winter sun is especially conducive to appreciating one of Lasdun’s primary concerns at the College – making a building which drew the outside in. He did this by having a triple-height circulation space at the heart of the building, cladding it with very large glass panes and introducing a series of cuts, slices and interpenetrating solids that disrupt those p(l)anes.

    The white-clad box that is the censors’ room is thus seemingly pushed right through the side of the main hall, to rest partly inside and partly outside. Narrow but deep windows, filled with stained glass, flank the short stair to and from reception. The folds of the College’s small but landscaped garden appear constantly, as lawns or as golden leaves clinging to almost bare tree branches. Part of the mezzanine continues outside the glass as a balcony. In a single beam light rakes a wall of mosaic inside and out, making it read as riven stone and so something that connects present and past and Lasdun’s work to Nash’s.

    Indeed the use of materials generally also marks out the College as something special. A restricted palette is employed (marble, mosaic, concrete, brass, wood, brick), but each is treated with respect and even reverence, and deployed carefully and with skill.

    At the heart of the main hall is the beautiful main stair, a square spiral set which winds outward as it climbs and which the set-back of the upper floor’s mezzanine respects. The principal spaces opening off this gallery are rather conservative, but are still subject to Lasdun’s subtle Modernist twists. The library is lit only by narrow slit windows at the corners on its lower level; the function hall can be united with or separated from its ante-chamber by a hydraulically-operated dividing wall; the lecture theatre, enveloped in black brick outside, is reached by an elegant spiral stair in white marble and mosaic inside.

    From the park, the floating whiteness of the College seems remarkably unobtrusive. Certainly the eager squirrels and the strutting crows don’t seem perturbed. The College is one of a very select group of buildings in London – Lloyd’s of London, certainly, Rothschild’s New Court arguably – where a venerable organisation has engaged a modern architect to house it and its history, and where something magical has been born as a result. Do go and see it.

    The exhibition continues at the College, which is 5 minutes’ walk from Great Portland Street tube, until 13 February.

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  • The future face of London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Happy New Year?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • Out There, Part Three: 'Interstellar'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • Out There, Part Two: William Gibson in conversation

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

    On why he likes Tron:

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

    On ‘cyberspace’, a term which he invented:

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

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

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

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

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

    On the use of branding in his novels:

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

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

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

    On Blade Runner and Neuromancer:

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

    On films and television he’s written for:

    “TV shows have a mayfly existence.”

    On finally trying on a Buzz Rickson MA-1:

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

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  • Out There, Part One: ‘Phase IV’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • Trading up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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