• Bricks & Words #8: ‘The City of London - A record of destruction and survival ‘

    With the Square Mile devastated after the Blitz, economic and societal recovery was paramount. Charles Holden and William Holford’s partnership saw architect and planner working to create a new vision of a new City of London, cognizant of tradition but eager to embrace the future. Their joint plan was introduced to the wider public through this book, a landmark in public engagement.

    Written in what we would now call an accessible tone, it is split into sections. One is a concise history of the Thames and the City and its particular situation and practices, with emphasis on the specialised nature of its business and the buildings needed to contain it. The plan itself sets out – again, in a readable manner – the technical detail of the complex new calculations of size, volume and floor space that would be allowed under rebuilding. This and the formal report to the Corporation (also included) hint at the building types that might, as they saw it, emerge from the rational, Modernist thinking that then prevailed.

    Best of all, though, is an extraordinary chapter envisaging a walk through the City in perhaps 20 years’ time, illustrated by Gordon Cullen’s exquisite colour plates of the architecture and landscaping envisaged. Broad avenues, elevated roads with parking below, sunken pedestrianised concourses lined with shops and services, maritime-themed observation points from which to watch the river traffic – still very much industrialised – and small courtyards and spaces made from ruins and historic buildings all feature. Exceptional and indispensable.

    ‘The City of London - A record of destruction and survival’ by C.H. Holden and W.G. Holford (Architectural Press, 1951)

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  • Bridge of size

    Last night’s edition of BBC television’s Countryfile contained a fascinating item on the abandoned suite of rooms hidden within the Grand Bridge at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire. Designed by the architect of that great early 18th century house to carry the main approach road over the Glyme river and up to the front door, it featured the same Neoclassical styling as the Palace. Inside, it contained an ingenious variety of spaces intended for summer entertaining but if you visit the house today, you’ll find the bridge half-submerged in water.

    Blenheim Palace was built as a gift to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, on the instructions of Queen Anne following his victorious command of Allied forces at the Battle of Blindheim (Anglicized to Blenheim) on 13 August 1704. Fought as part of the War of the Spanish Succession, which ended ten years later, the battle saw a key defeat of French and Bavarian forces and helped secure Spanish territory for the Grand Alliance against the claims of Louis XIV.

    The monarch’s grant of a manor and funds for a new house must surely rate as one of the most generous in history. Marlborough was already 54, and quickly engaged the soldier, playwright and architect John Vanbrugh to build the vast, severely masculine Baroque house that exists today. It did, though, emerge from a campaign of construction marked by almost as much effort, reversal and blood as the fight on the continent; Sarah, the Duchess, frequently and famously clashed with Vanbrugh over the cost and details of the works and all three – client, wife and architect – ultimately fell out with the Queen as a result. That the house and its surroundings stand today as one of the most perfect ensembles of British architecture is thus something of a miracle.

    The Grand Bridge seems to have reflected this sometimes painful path in miniature, although that isn’t the word to describe its actual size. Over 400’ long and with a main arch 100’ wide, it was to have been 80’ high until Sarah vetoed both the balustrade and towers that topped the main span in Vanbrugh’s plan. Some panels of ‘frostwork’ or rustication were omitted from the external decorative scheme, but the remaining corbels, quoins and keystones were executed as planned. Internally the Duchess counted – somewhat sniffily, it seems – thirty three rooms, which included some with fireplaces and chimneys. It seems that the large room reached by boat in last night’s programme must be the ‘windowless chamber [… plastered and fitted with an elliptical arch as though for a theatre’ referred to in some descriptions.

    The bridge’s lofty rooms were to be entered quite easily in those days, from the banks of what was originally a modest body of water passing under it. The bridge was also not fully integrated with the land at either end for some time. Rubble and earth from the levelling of a small hill with the estate’s original ruined manor house on it – which dated to Henry I’s time and into which Vanbrugh had moved, much to Sarah’s annoyance) was eventually used to properly landscape the ends of the bridge into he sides of the existing river valley.

    Marlborough and Vanbrugh died within a few years of each other. It was Sarah who briefed another gardener on what Vanbrugh had intended, which led to a kind of interim stage for the gardens before Capability Brown came on the scene. A small lake to the east of the Grand Bridge fed formal canals under it, and a steam engine in one of the rooms pumped water up to the big cistern that sits over the east gate of the house. Only when Brown arrived and doubled the lake by damming the Glyme was the lower level of the bridge submerged. Its walls were re-cased to withstand the water, but its rooms, spiral staircases and corridors – all of which I was fascinated to hear of yesterday, though I was actually aware of the rooms’ basic story – were lost.

    It seems that stabilisation and restoration is the aim of the scanning project that yielded the absorbing wire-frame digital models seen in the item; no public access is intended. As such the bridge will

    remain as it has for the last three centuries, an architectural folly in the landscape of Brown’s Blenheim park. This is something of an irony given its past, but I suspect it must have pleased Brown. He employed tremendous slight-of-hand in enacting his desire to ‘recreate elements of idealized classical landscapes (especially as represented in the paintings of Claude and Poussin) in an English context, and in an English idiom’, as one academic has written. This ranged from planting trees to disguise the fact that a single ‘lake’ was actually two or three entirely separate bodies of water to using more greenery as a theatrical curtain of sorts, to be dramatically drawn aside by the progress of a carriage along a carefully-planned path to reveal the main house. Being able to appropriate an existing bridge with nothing more than the gentle rise of water must have seemed like Queen Anne’s gift had found another recipient.

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  • ‘Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity’

    An artist who straddled two worlds in late-19th century Europe, the man who was born Lourens Alma Tadema in the Netherlands in 1836 and lived there for half his life then emigrated to England, anglicised his name (he had already added a hyphen to ensure it appeared near the beginning of catalogues) and, as Laurence Alma-Tadema, became a hugely successful and admired painter of scenes of the past. A wonderful exhibition of these works is now on at the museum formed from the home of another great artist of the period, and a friend of the Dutchman, Frederic Leighton.

    Showing talent from an early age and studying in Antwerp to further it, Alma-Tadema was then an assistant to two established painters. Works produced in his late teens on show at Leighton House Museum are as formal as one might expect from one emerging from an academic training yet have a feeling of immediacy and care; within a decade, Alma-Tadema was applying those same skills to produce group scenes that were superbly composed, featured naturalistic portrayals of the individuals within them and included highly realistic detail, much of it reproduced from the real artefact or location. All three elements would underpin his paintings from that point on.

    The subjects of these early pictures reflect Alma-Tadema’s initial field of interest, with carefully recreated streets and domestic interiors from the period of Dutch, Belgian and French history in which the Merovingians ruled (cleverly, the exhibition hangs them in the principal rooms of the house – the artist’s later Roman paintings, with their marble architecture washed by Mediterranean sun, are showing in the brightly lit exhibition space upstairs). It is here that Alma-Tadema begins to demonstrate a real command over the placement of people, objects and action in his pictures, often by using combinations of sources. Thus his Queen of Fredegonda at the Death-Bed of Bishop Praetexatus borrows simultaneously from Greek friezes, mediaeval altar pieces and more modern approaches borrowed from photography to generate complex and subtle rhythms inside the frame, whereas The Visit: A Dutch Interior echoes Vermeer’s simple rooms with open windows and also the ingeniously nested views into new spaces created by Samuel van Hoogstraten’s peepshow boxes.

    The next phase of Alma-Tadema’s career followed his first marriage and honeymoon in Italy. This latter-day Grand Tour included encountering the excavations at Pompeii, which immediately inspired a fresh wave of painting featuring ancient Roman culture and settings. The consistently high quality of these works, all produced in the late 1860s, is astonishing.

    In A Greek Woman, the titular figure smells a cut flower whilst standing against a frescoed wall that parallels the picture plane. The latter, featuring a parade progressing to the left, appears soft, almost blurred, whilst the former is sharp and present, faces rightward and looks out of the picture toward us. His Roman Reading contains a wealth of minute and utterly real details, from decorative finishes along the edges of furniture to pictures inside pictures, and from statues half-hidden to scrolls stacked in a cubbyhole. Inscriptions, graffiti and signs included in these images can be read and translated, and the many flowers can be identified with ease.

    Alam-Tadema’s ability to convincingly render a wide range of materials – still and flowing water, fur, food of all kinds, pewter and lead, gilt, a palette of marbles – is also apparent and often transcends the boundary of what is possible with the medium. Strikingly, he frequently positioned items so that their shape or ornamental finish is foreshortened or the original object is partly obscured by another. Of course this complicates the act of painting them, even if it does improve the realism of the final result, and discovering these touches is very rewarding. The richness of colour used by the painter has a basis in fact, too, following for example the discovery of a deep red pigment at Pompeii.

    Sadly this professional happiness was not matched by personal contentment, as Alma-Tadema’s wife died not long after their second daughter was born. Prompting a move from Belgium, to where the couple had returned after their trip, to London, this tragedy was nevertheless to prove the springboard for another stage of the Dutchman’s life. Meeting and marrying English artist Laura Epps, who embraced her step-daughters with touching dedication, the Alma-Tademas remodelled a Regent’s Park house into their own, very personal home, layered with art by themselves and their friends and launching all three Alma-Tadema women on their own creative careers.

    Introducing works by Laura, her sister and Alma-Tadema’s daughter Anna into the exhibition is a welcome touch, not least because both modelled for the man of the house and so it is nice to see them from another angle. More relevant aspects of Laurence’s work also appear, like the inclusion of Japanese objects – a growing cultural touchstone for Western artists after the forced opening of that country a few decades earlier– and the wit of showing in one painting a woman (actually Laura) reading a copy of the publication that commissioned the work.

    By this point Alma-Tadema’s reputation and popularity had reached great heights. His Roman works were often repeated with only slight variations, but the results of his ongoing experimentation with different sizes and formats of painting, use of new subjects to test his technical proficiency (including a superb night exterior that is completely convincing) and continued ability to innovate compositionally and in content terms can only be admired, often open-mouthed.

    One more characteristic of Alma-Tadema’s work that ensures his pictures repay close scrutiny is that mining of real-world sources. These are occasionally deployed with an ingenuous twist, so that marble statues found by archaeologists become the bronze Greek original that the Romans copied; what were table top sculptures appear at a wholly greater scale; important examples of ancient art that would be immediately recognisable if reproduced ‘straight’ are partly concealed or only hinted at, an amusing conceit that that cultured Victorian audiences would have appreciated. The examples displayed at Leighton House are from the more sober end of this spectrum, compressing half a dozen of Rome’s great monuments into the background as if in a capriccio and imagining the Nebamoen Tomb Chapel frescoes, now in the British Museum and elsewhere, in an appropriate context.

    Part of the Nebamoen Tomb Chapel frescoes, in Alma-Tadema's picture and in reality

    Fittingly positioned within Frederic Leighton’s own studio is a reconstruction of the real discovery for me of this exhibition – the Hall of Panels, a space from the Alma-Tademas’ second home in St John’s Wood that was lined with dozens of tall, narrow panels painted by some of the best artists of the day and gifted to the family. Remarkably, almost 20 of these have been secured for the exhibition, including works by John O’Connor, Val Prinsep, Frank Dicksee, John Singer Sargent and Leighton himself. Furniture designed by Alma-Tadema, further works by Laura and Anna and displays of his sketches for theatrical productions round out this section, which showcases what is a very modern-seeming family.

    The climax of the exhibition comprises a selection of the blockbuster paintings Alma-Tadema produced in the last years of his life. Many demonstrate his undiminished mastery of perspective, plane and angle of view, combined in startlingly effective pictures such as Coign of Vantage or A Kiss, in which five separate axes of movement or vision are merged with apparently effortless ease in a way that also anticipates the graphic manipulations of another Dutchman, M.C. Escher, a young teenager at the time of Alma-Tadema’s death and who was born in the same town where the older man was raised.

    The undisputed masterpiece that crowns the show, however, is The Roses of Heliogabalus, seen for the second time in recent years at Leighton House after its welcome visit as part of the Perez Simon Collection in 2014. Fortunately the arrangements this time allow the public to get much closer, and unsurprisingly the wealth of detail that is revealed leaves one breathless. The tightness of torques around biceps; the table of food and curved marble bench glimpsed beneath the deluge; the correctness of marbles’ veining; the green stalks of rose heads caught in the freeze-frame flood of flora; the sumptuousness of the repast on the emperor’s own table. It is, frankly, almost impossible to believe that such a thing could have been created.

    By 1912, Alma-Tadema’s output must have seemed at odds with the world – indeed, it isn’t hard to conclude that his pursuit of increasingly sunlit, dazzling and multi-sensual worlds in paint was a deliberate attempt to distance himself from the gathering clouds that were soon to break as well as his second wife’s death. If so, it was a world that many were happy to share, and perhaps today, too, such works are finding admirers for reasons beyond their obvious aesthetic merit. Regardless, it is without question worthwhile making yourself at home in antiquity for a few hours over the next few months. You will not be disappointed.

    Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity, organised by the Museum of Friesland, Leeuwarden, the Netherlands (Alma-Tadema’s home town), continues at Leighton House Museum, Holland Park Road, London W14 until 29 October.

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  • 'Dunkirk' (2017)

    In the late spring of 1940, a third of a million Allied soldiers were evacuated from the French harbour of Dunkerque in a little over a week in the face of advancing Axis forces completing their conquest of Europe. Hundreds of private boats assisted the Royal Navy amidst harrying from the air; casualties for the entire withdrawal were high. Hailed as both a disaster and a miracle, the event nevertheless prompted Churchill’s heartening “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech, delivered on the final day of the effort. Christopher Nolan’s new film, shot mostly in high-resolution IMAX format and largely eschewing computer-generated imagery in favour of physical reality, seeks to immerse a contemporary audience in the desperation and controlled chaos of those few days. That it fails almost entirely is, perhaps appropriately given the subject matter, a desperate disappointment.

    Initial signs are promising, with an impressive screen-filling flight along deserted streets in the face of gunfire from an unseen enemy. There is little dialogue. We are introduced to an ambitious triple timeline in which events are seen through the eyes of participants in each of the different theatres – the land, the sea and the air – and, crucially, over different periods; respectively one week, one day and one hour. Thus a soldier fleeing that street battle meets a comrade on the beach and together they attempt to board a departing ship; a man, his son and his friend depart from England in their small boat to play their part; and a section of Royal Air Force Spitfires flies to engage the enemy over the French town. Already, the impact of the 15 perf/70mm IMAX film system is clear.

    The difficulty is that problems with every one of these film-making choices are similarly quickly apparent.

    Instead of being thronged with anxious troops, shrouded in smoke and pummelled by incoming fire, the beach is pristine, hosts only a few widely-spread lines of patiently-queuing men (an unlikely proposition even without the knowledge that nearly 8,000 men were taken off in the first day alone) and sits under an empty sky. There is an obvious mismatch in pace between the scenes here and on the boat and those involving fast-moving combat aircraft in flight. Above all, a strange, detached quality pervades everything.

    Linkages between the three storylines do emerge, which sparked a renewal of interest, but unnamed soldiers played by similar-looking actors who repeatedly board, abandon and re-board various vessels rapidly lead to irritation followed by disengagement. The small boat finds itself lost in a sea of emptiness, much like the viewer. Only the aerial sequences retained their grip for me. Their intrinsic excitement, especially during the dogfights and bomber attacks, is enhanced by the visceral power of IMAX, through which the onlooker actually feels each twist and turn in their stomach. The effect is closer to the experience of actually flying than anything seen before in a mainstream medium.

    That overall feeling of listless disengagement, a stilted lack of affect, remains. Recalling Terrence Mallick’s Thin Red Line (1998) and Nolan’s own Interstellar (2014), both of whose mechanical, detached mood failed to connect me to any of their characters, this is the new film’s biggest failing.

    Strangely Nolan even undermines the one positive, by using an optical zoom on the non-IMAX scenes so that their aspect ratio almost matches the ‘tall’ shape of the IMAX format. Since a crucial element of the latter’s impact is the manner in which it fills one’s vertical field of vision, immediately differentiating it from the usual ‘letterbox’ cinema presentation, much of the power of the special format is lost. This zoom also generates an increase in visible grain that is extremely jarring when compared to the flawless IMAX stock. Devaluing the IMAX imagery in this way once more calls into question Nolan’s judgement in this area, despite his well-known championing of the format, after its unnecessary use with the near-monochrome palette of Interstellar.

    Depressingly the air storyline fails in any event, coming down to earth in more ways than one with a particularly egregious final victory that strains credibility to the limit.

    Altogether, I found Dunkirk incredibly unengaging, save for the early parts of the air chapter, visually confusing in the latter stages of the sea story and – ultimately – simply unconvincing in its scale, tone and narrative. What dialogue did occur was either hard to hear or clunkily expository and more suited to onscreen captions. There was no urgency, intimacy or verisimilitude. With two such films now produced, one had to fear for Nolan’s future.

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  • Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave

    The British Museum’s exhibition of prints, paintings and books illustrated by the Japanese artist generally known as Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) is a revelation in three ways. First, the quality of much of the work on display; precise lines, dramatic colourings, realistic depictions and fascinating subjects. Secondly, the variety of formats, media and outlets in or for which he worked, telling of a highly mature, thriving and sophisticated art market in a country that, for all of of Hokusai’s life, had practised a near-complete isolation from the West but which was still rapidly urbanising. Finally, the sheer modernity, with its striking compositions, fresh arrangements and bold choices, connects directly and inescapably to today’s manga, which themselves explore as nuanced a world as did Hokusai.

    At the turn of the 19th century, Edo (Tokyo) had a population of a million and was larger than London. Although another half-century would have to pass before Matthew Perry’s expedition opened the country fully to the rest of the world, Japan had a rich and complex visual culture of its own and highly developed technical prowess in realising decorative and practical objects. An intimate relationship with China and a history of poetry, story-telling and myth all ensured fertile ground for artists seeking to satisfy demand and make their mark.

    Many of their images were intended for reproduction as single-sheet prints, often in more than one colour, or in illustrated novels, these in monochrome. Both involved the pasting of the original drawing face down onto a block of wood followed by an extremely challenging and laborious process by which wood is carved away either side of the artist’s lines, leaving raised equivalents that would later accept a printer’s ink. A fresh block was needed for each additional colour.

    The opening rooms of the exhibition therefore set the scene with a selection of Hokusai’s works from the early 1800s including the exquisite Woman Holding An Umbrella, whose detailed rendering in vibrant colours against a largely plain background introduce several elements of the style with which he is identified. A spread from the Bow Moon story is also shown, 29 volumes of which were published to such acclaim that Hokusai was able to buy a house from the proceeds.

    Here, too, we start to see the part played by the publishers in each of these ventures, since artists seeking maximum exposure and reward could not function alone. Publishers would identify a market and a subject, publicise the forthcoming edition and commission the works from the artists. Throughout the exhibition the relationship between these two parties is shown to be key, and extracts from their advertisements announcing such partnerships are nice insights into the time.

    The print-maker was also critical, and here perhaps the exhibition serves the visitor less well. Although short films explain the technique and several unused but ‘block-ready’ drawings are presented, I would like to have seen more material on the technical and artistic considerations involved and more too on the printing and colour-making.

    Undoubtedly Hokusai’s most famous engagement of this type is the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series from the early 1830s, its best known image becoming his signature in the eyes of many and lending the exhibition its title. The Museum’s own print of this is duly included, along with a number of other subjects, and even without much context their power is clear. The invention with which Hokusai treats each image, sometimes seeming to subvert Fuji’s profound significance with his choice of placement and size as much as he celebrates it, is matched only by the vibrant colour choices and crisp delineation of backgrounds and people, themselves often corralled into one part of the frame to emphasise the sacred mountain’s size or importance.

    Hokusai appears to have been aware of Western artistic traditions, perhaps through the Dutch East India Company which had in fact traded with Japan for decades, and this is seen for example in the transparency of a fisherman’s net, a village visible through its mesh. Other attempts to emulate Old Masters are for me less convincing, with shadows and smoother textures more reminiscent of the frustratingly ‘empty’ computer-generated imagery of today’s manga art.

    The term ‘manga’ was used in his own time to describe Hokusai’s books of stand-alone pictures, clustered many to a page and without any connecting narrative or indeed captions. He published hundreds of such images, to both demonstrate his skill and provide inspiration for others. They are stunning in their detail and particularly their compositional daring, arranged for example across a double-page spread requiring the reader to turn the book ninety degrees. That is also a legacy fully absorbed by today’s artists, seen most obviously in the science fiction works of Masamune Shirow (Appleseed, Ghost in the Shell, Dominion) or the contemporary crime dramas of Ryoichi Ikegami (Crying Freeman, Sanctuary).

    As a sub-strand of this work Hokusai also created designs intended specifically for use by the manufacturers of everyday objects such as combs and tobacco pipes; pattern books, effectively, that they could use to decorate their wares. This confirms the democratic nature of the market for art in the Japan of this time, a parallel of sorts to the Dutch Golden Age of some centuries before,

    Throughout his long life Hokusai was always keen to prove himself and, conversely, to put food on the table and clothes on his back, and as a result turned his hand to a wide range of subjects. Some of the most compelling in the exhibition, and arguably the most beautiful, are the pictures of flowers, birds and other fauna. Their dynamic colours and sometimes almost perverse compositions – in one a bullfinch is hanging upside down from a plant, in another a grasshopper is wittily hidden within the image as though camouflaged in its natural habitat – show a fresh side to his skill and remind us of the deep relationship the Japanese have to nature.

    The knowing manipulation of artistic convention on display across all of these types, sizes and periods should be stressed. Figures are cut off or seen almost entirely from behind, their heads obscured by their hats; elsewhere a samurai surveying what we would today call an infrastructure project states directly out of the page at the viewer through his spyglass. Three dimensionally-rendered boxes, bags and cases have their edges aligned at 45 degrees to the sides, top and bottom of the frame, like an isometric drawing. More fishermen, dragging their nets uphill, describe a diagonal path up through a painting, leading the eye.

    This is an absorbing, at times thrilling exhibition, worth attempting to see despite the sold-out status and crowds. With this, its awkward layout, lack of audioguide and wall texts that omit details such as size and acquisition number, it has the feel of a small show that has unexpectedly grown in popularity but that takes nothing away from its effectiveness as an introduction to the extraordinary breadth and talent of a man who bridged ages, countries and cultures and who still talks to us today.

    ‘Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave’, supported by Mitsubishi Corporation, continues at the British Museum. Great Russell Street, London WC1 until 13 August. Advance tickets are sold out but daily walk-up ticket sales occur from 9am. BM members can also access tickets.

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  • Bricks & Words #7: ‘The Thirties: Recalling the English Architectural Scene’

    Art Deco was the first architectural style that I was ever really aware of, back in the 1980s, probably a result of exposure to television dramas and Sunday supplement articles, both of which presented the delightful geometries and pastel colours of Deco as winningly seductive. It was a movement whose works I learned early to appreciate and which I still enjoy and which led me to join the Twentieth Century Society (originally the Thirties Society). This book, similarly one of the first I acquired on the subject of architecture, is a wonderful introduction to a period when home-grown and émigré architects alike brought optimism and interest to the built environment of England.

    Briskly but not shallowly, Dean takes the reader engagingly through almost every aspect of the style and its application, from iconic houses to public places of entertainment and from the parallel Modernist movement to the underlying social reforms of which the architecture was often a manifestation. Most of the principal personalities of the time are included, such as Oliver Hill, Wells Coates, Lubetkin, Chermayeff and so on, and insights into their characters are given as well as their works. Clients, materials, theories and more are also addressed. Importantly the whole is heavily and beautifully illustrated with material from the RIBA collection. For me this was a revelation, as the many colour plates often include the exquisite perspective works of Cyril A. Farey and J.D.M. Harvey, little worlds of paint and gouche in which to become lost. Altogether this is a perfect primer to the subject at hand, and well worth acquiring.

    ‘The Thirties: Recalling the English Architectural Scene’ by David Dean (RIBA, 1983)

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  • ‘Baby Driver’ (2017)

    An apparently unemotional criminal antihero with talents for driving and shooting, quirks of personal style, a past that is a closed book and a stable existence finds his future threatened; he pushes back in a stylised thriller that mixes black humour and violence, overlaid with a powerfully original soundtrack. Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978)? Michael Mann’s Thief (1981)? Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011)? Nope – this time it’s British writer-director Edgar Wright’s turn, with new film Baby Driver.

    Ansel Elgort plays Baby, regular driver for and in hock to criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey) after stealing from him. Now he helps Doc’s crews steal from others until he has paid off his debt, with his phenomenal getaway driving skills and despite his seeming detachment from what goes on around him thanks to near-permanent earbuds wired to a selection of eclectically loaded iPods that soundtrack each robbery and his daily life. When a chance encounter with diner waitress Debora (Lilly James) signals love at first sight, his future appears set – until the increasingly wayward actions of Doc and his recruits suggest another fate lies ahead.

    So far, so unoriginal, of course, but what IS original this time round is the precision with which the visuals – themselves super-fluid and assured in the key scenes – are synchronised with that music, which thanks to the care with which it is integrated into the film is convincingly diagetic so that one really feels it really is selected by Baby to match his mood rather than the director to match his. The opening bank robbery and subsequent car chase illustrate this perfectly; the vehicle work is brilliantly dynamic, superbly edited and sometimes amusing. The tune, too, is thrilling and new, to me and I’m sure to others – Bellbottoms by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. It’s a satisfying start.

    Such films usually screech to a halt as soon as the cars do, but here the scenes when Baby is off duty are handled in a similar way as the action. After the opening robbery, Baby confidently saunters through his local Atlanta streets to buy coffee for the gang, weaving in and out of pedestrians and avoiding occasional clashes as easily on foot as he does on four wheels, his progress captured by Wright’s camera in what appears to be a single shot. Beyond the music, the soundtrack in its widest sense is superbly crafted – effects and dialogue fade in and out, stop and start, are layered into the distance or brought crisply up in the mix as needed.

    Importantly the portrayal of both settings is, frankly, unrealistic, or perhaps done with heightened realism; everything is brightly lit, clean and has the slight off-kilter nature of a dream, or a fantasy. Meeting a pretty waitress in a diner can be seen as part of that, and this atmosphere is continued as each of the two main story threads continue. Thus during a chance meeting in a laundromat, Baby and Debora swap song titles whilst behind them the spinning washing machine drums are full of red, yellow or blue clothes, and in a certain order; each of Doc’s gangsters, meanwhile, is a stereotype on legs, from the brassy moll to the tattooed thug. Were it not for the way the film pans out one would not be surprised if it turned out to be a dream of Baby’s (there are flashbacks and dreams included, but those are clearly identified as such).

    In fact, both Elgort and James deliver extraordinarily naturalistic performances, quite at odds with everything else happening in the film, and the result is winning. Their relationship is lightly but convincingly drawn, their interchanges are sweet but not saccharine and they form the heart of the film in every sense.

    This, then, is a different and intriguing approach that – at this point – works well. Clearly there are echoes of other films and their makers, Tarantino most obviously, but the sheer chutzpah shown by Wright and team to put his own vision on the screen pays off.

    The problem, however, is that this energy and wit soon seems to run out of steam. The screenplay descends into tiredness, cliché delivered unthinkingly instead of knowingly and that old Hollywood saw, the repeated climax. The borrowings from other films – as varied as Sin City and Highlander – start to annoy rather than prompt a smile. Deliberate lack of realism becomes absurdity, and the viewer begins to disengage. Jamie Foxx as the unstable Bats and Jon Hamm as Buddy outstay their welcomes, and the increasing mismatch between the styles of the Baby/Debora and Baby/everyone else stories begins to grate.

    Ultimately, the film is less than two hours long yet feels painfully extended in its final third. It’s as though Wright simply could not sustain his ideas but felt equally unable to stop. It’s unfortunate, as Baby Driver has lots to offer for most of its length and – in Elgort (just 23) and James (British, surprisingly) – has secured two talents of the future.

    Great music though.

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  • ‘California: Designing Freedom’

    "We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far, remotely done power and glory – as via government, big business, formal education, church – has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing – power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG."

    - from The Whole Earth Catalog (Portola Institute, 1968)

    The above was written years before computers could fit into a briefcase, let alone a pocket, and decades before the internet was invented. Its suggestion that a person might one day become his or her own educator, be able to find – without help – something that empowers them, create a personalised world around themselves and then let everyone know what they are doing thus seems astonishingly prescient. That the scratch-produced physical directory it refers to was intended to be an “evaluation and access device” for “what is worth getting and where and how to do the getting” via images, reviews, prices and suppliers that were “continually revised according to the experience and suggestions of [its] users and staff”– a kind of Google in paper form, in other words – is doubly prophetic.

    The Catalog was the idea of Stewart Brand, who was East Coast-educated but who had moved to the West Coast some years before. There, he found a place within the range of communities displaying a variety of skills and interests that together formed the counterculture of Sixties America. It is from that time and that pool of individuals, this absorbing and often revelatory exhibition at the newly-relocated Design Museum argues, that the technological revolution arose that would ultimately give rise to the laptops, smartphones, websites and precision-made devices that dominate our world today and give us many of the personal freedoms we enjoy.

    The story begins with a slightly different revolution that laid the groundwork for the one which was to follow. Subtitled ‘Say What You Want’ by the curators, the focus here is on activists of all kinds who sought to give voice to minority groups by the adoption or adaptation of unusual methods. Sister Corita Kent, a catholic nun and artist from the Mid-West, employed pop colours and extracts from existing media for her proselytising screenprints; University of California, Berkeley students subverted computer punchcards by cutting protest messages into them; and Mario Savio, son of an immigrant industrialist, rallied universities with his “bodies upon the gears" speech against the tyranny of corporate drudgery.

    With freedom of speech gaining new meaning, work on enhancing freedom of perception ran in parallel. LSD was appropriated from the military to expand the mind (I was struck by the similarity of the repetitively-patterned printed blotting paper on which it was distributed to the appearance of circuit boards), psychedelic newsletters and posters stimulated the eyes and early experiments in video games did both. The fruits of this labour are seen today in Google Glass and Oculus Rift and Touch. This section also covers several aspects of the movie industry, but surprisingly fails to mention the mould-breaking work of either Disney in forging animatronic technology or Industrial Light and Magic, the visual effects company formed by Californian filmmaker George Lucas in 1975 to bring Star Wars to the screen, and its invention of motion control and, much later, the perfection of computer-generated imagery. The US space programme is also ignored, despite its contribution to the many satellites that enable the internet to function world-wide, aid telecommunications and support better weather forecasting.

    The rugged countryside of California offered ample opportunities to ‘Go Where You Want’. The demand for smaller, lighter and tougher versions of existing equipment in order to do this drove miniaturisation. This was achieved but, as the caption for the breakthrough Hewlett-Packard HP-35 puts it, for the first time design decisions – here, how to make a calculating machine small enough to fit into a shirt pocket – were more important than simply improving a product’s performance. Impressively the first truly portable computer, the Osborne 1 from 1972, was a proto-laptop marketed with the slogan “It’s inevitable”, as of course it turned out to be.

    Particularly fascinating is the story of how the hardware and software defining the computer of today emerged separately, and from different companies, over time. The California-based Xerox may be well known for having invented the mouse, for example, but it was graphic designer Susan Kare at Apple who later originated many of the skeuomorphic on-screen symbols that are now universal. Cheap, accessible desktop publishing programmes complemented this new equipment perfectly and drew on that countercultural samizdat for their new fonts. Just how revolutionary such things were is caught in an astonishing gem from 1984 – a glossy gatefold advertisement for the Macintosh placed in Newsweek magazine which explains in painstaking detail, as if to a child, how to select, copy and paste text. The now-standard laptop layout with the keyboard behind the wrist rest dates only from 1991, I was surprised to learn.

    Such “democratised technology” freed people from reliance on expensive, centralised (and unionised, one must assume, though this surely significant consequence is left unexplored) trades. This was Brand’s aim with the Catalog, which gave pointers to a world of self-sufficiency in tasks ranging from growing your own food to building your own house. Many would live communally, sometimes in domes designed by Buckminster Fuller.

    Later communal experiences outside the home conclude the exhibition, with the 1980s-founded Burning Man Festival in Nevada and the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Both have some linkages to that early vanguard, which itself must owe much to the true pioneers who headed west in the 19th century. The detailed design guidelines for the Games’ graphic identity are fun, favouring punchy but neutral DayGlo colours, avoiding bias toward or against any one participant nation and – rather charmingly, given the absence of the Soviet Union in retaliation for the post-Afghanistan invasion American boycott of Moscow four years earlier and infamous, all-American razzle dazzle of the opening ceremony – pleas to minimise the appearance of red, white and blue together. The head offices of Apple, Facebook and Google are also places of communal gathering away from domesticity, and the final caption neatly notes that in addition each can be read as a metaphor for its own corporate ethos – insular, connected and utopian respectively.

    The exhibition is not perfect. Arrangement into self-contained, chronological thematic sections felt disjointed at first, though it does mean that the evolution of each is compactly demonstrated. Material occasionally feels like PR for the firms, individuals or products concerned, and the curators mostly decline to engage with downsides or ironies, such as how the cameras that capture imagery for Google Street View – which have “to be able to go everywhere so that Google users can go everywhere” as the somewhat breathless caption puts it – are in reality refused access to privately-owned business estates such as London’s Canary Wharf or Broadgate, or that independent companies started quite literally in parents’ garages by geeks who made gadgets to hack phone lines ended up as giants run by billionaires, a very long way indeed from icons of subversion or individuality. Though to be fair, neither is there any allusion to Apple’s infamously un-openable iPhone cases secured by proprietary screws, which perhaps confirms Steve Jobs remained a freethinker to the end. A slightly wider view of the context in which these events occurred would also have been welcome, including for example the huge cultural presence within and impact on California of Japan, which is cited exactly once for its creation of emoticons.

    But the most obvious omission is any real discussion of that other Californian industry from the same timeframe, one that yielded as many technological advances and which unquestionably – if unpalatably for some – did as much for our freedom today: defence. It sits quietly behind or next to many of the threads in the exhibition, but the visitor is left to pick that up for him or herself. So the GPS signals the brick-sized early receiver on display handled owe their existence to a military initiative, and Hewlett-Packard might have made the pocket calculator but its founders also worked on radar and munitions fuse technology during the war. Young engineers were just as likely to be attracted to the powerhouse that was the RAND Corporation, formed by Douglas Aircraft to improve warfare through operational research, as they were to civilian companies. Virtual reality is featured but the only military application shown is a tool for PTSD therapy, disingenuously omitting its widespread use as a training aid for the very battles that cause this trauma let alone ongoing research into telepresence during actual combat; drones, already is widespread use in the air force of the 1960s as airborne targets do not appear. An exhibition that presented and, yes, questioned this side of the California spirit of technologically-achieved freedom would have been truly though-provoking.

    And yet this is a superb exhibition in and of itself. It dissects the origins of so much of our world today, and does so in a way that is always gripping and enlightening. You will take many facts large and small and several ‘Well I never’ moments from it.

    ‘California: Designing Freedom’, lead-curated by Justin McGuirk, continues at the Design Museum, Kensington High Street, W8 until 17 October

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  • Making an exhibition of oneself

    On Friday, the Victoria & Albert Museum opened its grandly-titled Exhibition Road Quarter to the public. The museum’s existing entrance on that street has been remodelled and a new courtyard created beyond it. This has been paved with thousands of porcelain tiles that also roof a glass-walled café. Steps lead down into a lobby, which has been carved out of a corridor to the west of the museum’s central garden and from where visitors can access the rest of the museum. The final element of the new scheme lies beneath this lobby, however: a large ‘black-box’ space for hosting exhibitions. Rooflights connect it visually to the courtyard above. What does an initial visit reveal?

    The space occupied by the new ‘Quarter’ has always been known as Boilerhouse Yard after its original Victorian purpose. Changing technology left it and the rooms below unused for many years, although a series of displays of industrial design there in the 1980s were the genesis of the stand-alone Design Museum. The V&A’s plan to build Daniel Libeskind’s Spiral on this site was abandoned in the late 1990s after its Deconstructivist rationale proved too much for too many people. A comprehensive programme of restoring and re-presenting the rest of the museum, with modest architectural interventions where necessary, succeeded such extravagances and has, for the most part, been quietly successful.

    Separately, the increasing unsuitability of the museum’s current suite of rooms for temporary displays and the repositioning some years ago of Exhibition Road itself as a part-pedestrianised thoroughfare argued for a fresh approach at Boilerhouse Yard. Rather than rising above it, a new, state-of-the-art exhibition venue placed underground and fed from a new entrance would safeguard the items on display, simplify access and reduce crowding both in paying exhibitions and the wider museum. A competition was launched to provide this new space and address the connections between it, Exhibition Road and the remainder of the museum. This was won by Amanda Levete’s practice AL_A and the finished build is on show to all this week before it begins to earn its keep from paying customers.

    For over a century, the Boilerhouse Yard has been genteelly screened from the public by a tall Portland stone colonnade joined by elegant balustrading, the whole raised above Exhibition Road on a high, rusticated wall. Designed by Sir Aston Webb, the architect responsible for the V&A’s lavish Cromwell Road frontage, a central arch was its only penetration and the effect recalled a grand London mansion.

    Regrettably, this screen has now suffered an aggressive intervention whereby the portions of wall between every column – and, by necessary corollary, the balustrade in its entirety – has been removed, sliced out as if malignant, in order to provide that increased permeability. Loss of historical fabric aside, the result leaves Webb’s columns looking poorly proportioned and gives rise to a need to close these newly-made gaps up again after hours, a task performed by aluminium doors or gates attached to both sides of the column ‘bases’ formed by the surgery on the screen. In a further irony these doors have been perforated with thousands of small holes in a pattern said to be a reinterpretation of the pock-marking left by wartime shrapnel that still scars the museum façade here, yet the actual damage itself has been removed from the portions of wall left standing, either by filling and sanding or straightforward re-casing.

    Passing through the screen and entering the courtyard, confusion was my initial impression thanks to the jagged, diagonal geometry throughout. The café pavilion’s plan and folded roofline, the skylight (which also slopes in other planes), the angle of the main steps and even the porcelain tiles (over-fussy in themselves, with different colours, line thicknesses and shapes used in their design) all adopt a dizzying, Zaha Hadid-lite orientation that is inconsistent, illogical and jarring. It does nothing to clarify routes through or reassure uncertain guests inside what is in reality a very small space compared to the carefully-controlled publicity photographs, one that is also functionally busy.

    Like all entrants to the competition, AL_A had to accommodate the significant fall of land from Exhibition Road to the main or ground floor of the museum proper, almost the equivalent of a full floor. A ramp to one side yields a step-free route, but that some visitors were seen gamely plodding up the incline separating this from the main area of the courtyard despite paving clearly intended to discourage such efforts suggests this confusion is not restricted to critics.

    Inside, the new lobby is as composed as it could have been in the circumstances, with a line of display panels facing the garden and acting as an orientation point. Its white finish contrasts with the glossy black stairwell that takes visitors down into the first basement level, where the new exhibition space awaits. Its angled form and twisting route, also typical of many contemporary developments, are reflected in its opposite number leading back up (a one-way flow is intended in operational use). Amidst this monochrome palette pillar box red is used to pick out a cluster of four steel ceiling beams and the steel columns that support them, a structural composition that inserted during construction and which holds up part of the original museum façade above although this fact is no more obvious than

    the reason for such assertive highlighting in the first place. Finally, the cavernous exhibition hall is reached. Dark-walled, lit only by the skylight and empty of content, it is what it is – an endlessly-modifiable volume for future use, a blank canvass for the designers of tomorrow.

    It’s unclear how any of this truly demonstrates the architect’s stated aim of “deep engagement with the heritage, architecture and collections” of the V&A beyond the flip. The new work will no doubt be a practical success, not least because the new space can so obviously be closed off from the rest of the museum as needed, but I cannot help thinking Levete’s team has responded to the ghost of Libeskind’s showy excess rather than Webb’s logical planning and restrained extravagance. AL_A’s combination of deliberately awkward forms and unnecessarily busy detail is surely the opposite of what is needed to mark out an early 21st century addition to this firmly late 19th/early 20th century complex.

    (All images Chris Rogers except the first which is by and (c) Hufton + Crow and the second, which is from Google Street View)

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  • Bricks & Words #6: ‘The City and the City'

    China Miéville’s deservedly acclaimed novel is a detective thriller set in Besźel, a fictional city-state located on the borders of eastern Europe and Turkey. The investigations of the lead character, Inspector Borlú, eventually require him to travel to another city-state, neighbouring Ul Qoma to try to solve a murder. This is not as straightforward as it might seem, however, since both cities actually co-exist in the same physical space and are separated by culture rather than geography. Moreover, citizens of each are required from childhood to ‘unsee’ every aspect of whichever city they do not live in, on pain of Breach, an unspecified but feared regulatory mechanism. For Borlú, the required shift in his perspective opens him to threats from all sides.

    Apart from its success in deploying the familiar tropes of the genre that it nominally belongs to, Miéville’s book is notable for the credible and brilliantly thought-through portrayal of its two strange cities. Clothing, dialect, food and customs are all mentioned, of course, yet it is the built or perhaps constructed environment in its widest sense that plays the biggest role. Thus there are references to the differing architectural vernaculars of Besźel and Ul Qoman but also descriptions of signage and telephone receivers, computer operating systems and shops, street names and police sirens. Miéville also constructs histories, political movements, treaties and governance structures for his city-states, and for the intriguing ‘third state’ of Breach. Finally, a hidden past that seems to underpin (quite literally) all of these is slowly revealed, thanks to the clever conceit of an archaeological dig that suggests a shared origin and which plays an increasingly important part in the story. All of this is achieved with great subtlety, arising – like the best travel writing – organically from Borlú’s observations and interactions. A must-have for anyone with an interest in how cities are made and encountered.

    ‘The City and the City' by China Miéville (Macmillan, 2009)

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

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

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