By Chris Rogers, Nov 23 2014 11:35PM
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….
By Chris Rogers, Nov 18 2014 8:32PM
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.
By Chris Rogers, Oct 26 2014 7:41PM
One of the pleasures of the BFI Southbank is the chances it provides to see great films in ways that are as close to what the makers intended as possible. For me this has included Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm, and Lean’s doubly-restored Lawrence of Arabia complete with overture, entr'acte and walk-out. Now, those two cinematic landmarks are joined by Fritz Lang’s classic portrait of rebellion, betrayal and lost love in the futuristic city of Metropolis, thanks to last night’s screening of the most complete version of the 1927 film ever assembled as part of the BFI's Days of Fear and Wonder SF season.
Lang’s epic is an acknowledged entry in the canon of science fiction motion pictures thanks largely to its dazzling visuals. The obsessed inventor Rotwang’s gleaming Art Deco robot, rising slowly from its chair and extending a hand to its master; the drone-like men, heads bowed, shuffling along passageways and into lifts to serve the machines of the hellish, industrialised, underground workers’ city; and its inversion, the vertiginous, skyscraper-strewn upper city, lit with neon and threaded by aerial freeways, trains and biplanes – all have inspired directors, writers and designers in the eight decades of film-making that have followed.
But thanks to the troubled production history of Metropolis and its fragmented existence during those years (attributable variously to censorship, practicality, its funding arrangements and misfortune), none of the versions that have been available have allowed modern audiences to truly understand the work that Lang created. It was only the discovery in 2008 of a 16mm copy of the original release print that has permitted reconstruction to a point where the film is now 95% complete.
Fully a quarter of the current 147-minute running time comprises material recovered from the Argentinian find, including entire scenes, reaction shots and simple extensions of existing shots. Having only seen one or two of the earlier iterations, and those a dim memory, I was eager to find out just how effective Lang’s work is viewed much as he intended. Happily, I was not disappointed.
The story is cleverly structured. Beginning with the revelation of the conditions in the underground city to Freder, pampered son of the Master of Metropolis, Joh Frederson, and Freder’s desire to atone, Lang and his wife Thea Von Harbou, who wrote the screenplay, then fold in a love story between Freder and the idealistic Maria who believes in a God-like figure called the Mediator who can bring both classes togther, the acrimonious past and uneasy present shared by Frederson and Rotwang, the former’s cynical decision to foment an uprising of the dissatisfied workers that can be ruthlessly repressed and the vengeful actions of the latter who gives his robot the appearance of Maria on Frederson’s orders but has another agenda all together.
Despite also blending elements of film noir, Gothic Romance and Greek tragedy, as well as Biblical allusions and parallels to both the French Revolution and the socio-political world of inter-war Europe, all of these strands and more come together easily and absorbingly.
The performances are something of a revelation; yes, some of the conventions of the day raise a smile, especially as embodied by Gustav Fröhlich as Freder, but Heinrich George as Grot, the foreman of the machines, Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Rotwang and, especially, the wonderful Brigitte Helm as both Marias are superb. Helm, who was just 19 at the time and who died only in 1996, shows a terrific duality, with the doe-eyed saint that Freder falls for and the writhing, lascivious False Maria who wears black lipstick and kohl and excites the male audience of a nightclub with her dance. Indeed I hadn’t realised just how much actual performance was still present in a ‘silent’ film, nor how involving this can be. The lack of spoken dialogue almost become irrelevant, and even the score by Gottried Huppertz, with its occasionally overpowering sweeps of Wagnerian drama, dissolves into the background as one concentrates on the faces on the screen.
Lang’s camerawork is crucial to this. Providing not only basic comprehension but also style and atmosphere, I was struck by the mixture of techniques employed and the modernity of some. A shot of the terrifying Thin Man (Fritz Rasp), Frederson’s henchman, by Freder’s bedside is followed immediately by a reverse angle of the same scene that is also the first shot of a fantasy sequence. This and other such passages, revealing characters’ dreams, fears and desires, are carefully deployed throughout the film and are remarkably powerful, mixing elements of Surrealism, Expressionism and Modernism in their rapid editing, eye-catching design and placement in the plot structure. A hand-held camera is used for key moments – Freder noticing a scrap of Maria’s clothing whilst trapped in Rotwang’s house, Maria herself desperately trying to escape from the same place. These moment of fluidity genuinely startle, the camera seeming to come loose from its moorings and float into the scene.
Of course, it is those famous visuals that are the most anticipated aspect of Lang’s vision, and on the big screen their ability to impress is confirmed.
The vast machine halls of the undercity call to mind the new industrial palaces of the twentieth century. Two celebrated buildings in particular – the Palais des Machines at the 1899 Exposition Universelle in Paris and the 1909 AEG turbine factory in Berlin – are likely sources for the designs used in Metropolis, whilst Rotwang’s tumble-down house, dwarfed by the brutally plain mass housing blocks towering above it, can be found in any number of European fairy tales, complete with disorientating warren of rooms and basements within. Lang was inspired by seeing New York, and this is obvious in the vistas of his celluloid upper city, rendered in depth and with fascinating neon signage hinting at the pleasures it can give.
Metropolis’s cathedral, home to a troubling sequence in which statues of Death and the Seven Deadly Sins come to life and the climactic battle on the roof, is brilliantly achieved – in the studio, as with the entirety of the production – through realistic sets, including a single massive column base and its entrance, and appropriate, often raking lighting, helping plaster and wood to convince as stone. A temple of another sort is seen in Frederson’s office at the top of the Tower of Babel, from which he manages the city. Mixing Art Deco and Classical motifs in its décor, a panoramic window giving an expansive view over the city, an ostentatiously large desk packed with telecommunications equipment and a wall-mounted display of stock prices in scrolling columns are all remarkably prescient of today’s executive lair.
Lang used the latest visual effects technology to depict these places and spaces, primarily via Eugen Schüfftan’s eponymous process for filming actors and miniatures (or matte paintings on glass) simultaneously to form in-camera optical composites. A sequence in which lead characters and extras run along an elevated freeway between images of cars demonstrates this. Elsewhere, the film features models, photographic cut-outs and even wholly animated shots.
As a result of this dazzling collage, and as much as Metropolis borrows from the literary classics– Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and The Time Machine, to name but three more – of the past, it has been an immense influence on films that became classics of the future. Tim Burton’s Batman, the original Star Wars and RoboCop, and King Kong all owe an obvious debt, but it is Ridley Scott who has shown the most devotion to Lang’s picture.
Scott began with his infamous ‘1984’ television advert for the Apple Mac computer, which may have been inspired by Orwell’s novel conceptually but whose briefly-glimpsed cityscape criss-crossed by walkways and workers’ trudging procession to their briefing all derive from Lang’s film. It is though Scott’s seminal dystopian detective drama Blade Runner that shows this enthusiasm most openly.
From a man waiting in the street and peering over his newspaper to the Japanese-influenced downtown drinking hole and video phone conversation, and from the neon-drenched darkness of a multi-levelled city and the aerial shot of a lofty cylindrical building to the domineering corporate giant in his eyrie and an erotic dance by a fake human, Metropolis is a virtual blueprint for Scott’s masterpiece in almost every respect.
Fritz Lang never got to see Blade Runner; he died in 1976 in California, just a few miles from where a gang of hippies who were about the same age he had been in the mid-‘20s were working on that small, mid-budget SF adventure called Star Wars... But as with 2001: A Space Odyssey, a trailer for which co-incidentally was showing before last night’s screening, Metropolis outlived its maker. It has not dated and has a resonance today.
By Chris Rogers, Oct 17 2014 5:21PM
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….
By Chris Rogers, Oct 12 2014 9:00AM
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…
By Chris Rogers, Oct 1 2014 7:37PM
A week on, and I’m still absorbing the richly-layered materials, juxtapositions and implications of Irish architect
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.
By Chris Rogers, Sep 23 2014 6:35PM
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.
By Chris Rogers, Sep 11 2014 6:47AM
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
By Chris Rogers, Sep 6 2014 11:43PM
“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.
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.
Hounds of Love
Top of the City
Running up that Hill
King of the Mountain
The Ninth Wave (complete)
A Sky of Honey (complete) + Tawny Moon
By Chris Rogers, Aug 27 2014 10:51PM
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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