• ‘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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  • No direction home: ‘Vanishing Point’ (1971)

    The success of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) kick-started a motorcade of road movies in which the wide open spaces of the West were traversed by countercultural characters in cars and bikes, seeking freedom, each other or something else. With one ancient American legend now overlaid with its contemporary equivalent, a new wave of film-making had arrived. Amongst this group, which include Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Terrence Mallick’s Badlands (1973) and Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), one film stands out as perhaps the ultimate existentialist exploration of this kind – Vanishing Point (1971).

    The film follows an adrenalin- and drug-fuelled car delivery driver whose bet that he can take a white Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in 15 hours evolves into a cross-state chase of epic proportions before reaching an unexpected conclusion. Guillermo Cabrera Infante, writing as Guillermo Cain, synthesized his story from real-life events and was in demand for what he had created. Director Richard C. Sarafian combined impressionistic visuals, non-linear storytelling and complex editing to craft from it an exceptionally lean portrait of time, space and destiny in which image, music, sound and silence each have as great a part to play as dialogue.

    As later becomes clear, the film actually begins near its end. A slow pan around a tiny, dusty, silent desert town is interrupted by two yellow bulldozers grinding their way forward toward a road junction. One wonders if Michael Mann was inspired by this to start Heat (1995) in a similar fashion, with massive vehicles reduced to moving blocks of colour filling the screen. Out in the scrub, Kowalski (Barry Newman) pulls his Challenger to a halt, gets out, and considers his options before quickly returning to the car. As he passes another vehicle travelling in the opposite direction on the same road, a freeze-frame occurs, from the midst of which Kowalski’s car slowly fades away; the freeze is released and the other car continues on its way.

    Disconcerting yet elegant, this beautifully conceived and executed moment summarises the entire story in one shot but more importantly initiates a flashback of a day or so to scenes that serve as the briefest of set-ups for what is to come. From them, the action moves forward more or less conventionally, as a small infraction leads to the police pursuing Kowalski with increasing zeal whilst the driver himself appears hell-bent on making his bet notwithstanding the forces ranged against him.

    The journey that results seems often to pass through what Sarafian has called “another reality”. Tone and mood shift between the muscular and the lyrical, from a tightly-flown helicopter buzzing the Challenger to a respite in a religious commune and from spills in gravel to a hiatus of memory with a young female admirer. These changes are signalled, too, by the score, which moves from the easy-going country-folk of Jimmy Walker’s Where Do We Go from Here to the atonal yet hypnotic electric guitars of JB Pickers’ Freedom of Expression echoing the sound of Kowalski’s tuned-up car.

    As Kowalski crosses an apparently endless and almost formless landscape of mountains, oil derricks and sand, he goes back to his past as well as forward to the future through additional shifts in time and place that establish him as a decorated soldier, honest police officer and devoted lover. And yet despite having controlled his morality as tightly as his car, Kowalski is still plagued by uncertainty, revealed when finds himself lost in the salt flats, his tyre tracks forming a crossroads that he contemplates with concern. In fact Sarafian pointedly includes similar lines – railroads, highways, telegraph wires, the horizon itself – throughout the film, as though to lead or perhaps tease his protagonist, a character whom the director has said was on a “highway into another plane, another level”. The scene – present only in the British theatrical release – whereby Kowalski picks up and sleeps with a female hitchhiker, who can be interpreted as either the ghost of his dead girlfriend or death itself, tends to confirm this reading.

    As the narrative inexorably returns to the present and with those bulldozers representing a “crack in the fence” that might allow that becoming, the ending is as profound as it is shocking and can be seen as Kowalski’s past catching up with his present. Cinematically, it features a breath-taking use of a music track that includes an exquisite and audacious burst of silence and a bold curtailing of the cue, whilst the crowd’s actions demonstrate an astonishing prefiguring of the current unhealthy symbiosis of broadcast and social media and tragedy.

    As is often the case, the background of the principals is instructive. Infante was actually Cuban; initially studying medicine, he became involved in the Revolution and after its success edited the literary supplement of a Communist newspaper. Sarafian also studied medicine and also then moved into journalism, in his case as a reporter for the US Army; he then made industrial films and befriended Robert Altman. The importance of these experiences for both men can be seen not just in the obvious anti-establishment theme of Vanishing Point but also in its thoroughly grounded, observational and often almost documentary style.

    The film stands as a crucial document of a particular moment in recent American history, and an outstanding filmic achievement.

    This piece draws on the recent digital showing of Vanishing Point at the BFI as part of its Edgar Wright-curated Car Car Land season. Quotes from Sarafian come from the DVD commentary. The soundtrack has recently been re-issued on CD.

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  • Anime architecture: Drawn from reality

    If architecture is the most important of the arts in life (you can walk past a gallery, turn a deaf ear to music but will find it hard to avoid buildings unless you live in a cave), it should occupy a similar status in simulations of life. Given the very particular relationship the Japanese have with their own built environment – much of the nation is forested or mountainous and so cities are repeatedly refined, modified and rebuilt within their boundaries, tradition and modernity constantly pulling against each other as this occurs – it comes as little surprise that a convincing built environment features strongly in animated films from that country, generically known as anime. The current exhibition at the House of Illustration peels apart the layers of background imagery behind four anime to show this; the immense care and attention it reveals is an absorbing delight.

    Background illustration for Ghost in the Shell (1995), cut 311, watercolour on paper 280 × 380mm

    Illustrator: Hiromasa Ogura

    Copyright: c 1995 Shirow Masamune / KODANSHA ・ BANDAI VISUAL ・ MANGA ENTERTAINMENT Ltd.

    With all of anime, the backgrounds start as concepts, sketched in pencil and used to determine the initial look of the buildings, skylines, streets and rooms to be featured. Separately, image boards are employed to consider different lighting schemes, colour palettes and moods. Layouts – again in pencil – help determine where forms and objects will sit in the frame and the camera angles. Once approved by the director, all of these are combined in the actual backgrounds, painted in gouache or acrylic and mostly onto celluloid, that are laid on the rostrum camera and exposed to film. One interesting point is that these are usually slightly larger than the frame of the visible image to allow for zooms and pans. In this exhibition, many layouts are shown adjacent to their final backgrounds to allow comparison of the two.

    Copyright: 2017 Paul Grover

    That all four productions featured – Patlabor (1989), Ghost in the Shell (1995), Metropolis (2001) and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004) – are set in the future provides the most immediately eye-catching material, as might be expected, in the form of an intricate and high-rise architecture that has yet to appear in the Japan or Hong Kong of today. But the source material and screenplays of three films, at least, also incorporate multiple references to the past, requiring their visual artists to create the old as well as the new.

    This is seen to superb effect in Mamoru Oshii’s Patlabor, whose very theme – as I have explored elsewhere – is the complex future as threat and the simple past as refuge. Hiromasa Ogura’s lush paintings for it beautifully convey the varied tonalities at the heart of the film, from the cloud-puffed blue sky over the police base and its waterside fields of green to the simple wooden homes being demolished for more concrete apartment blocks.

    Copyright: 2017 Paul Grover

    For the first Ghost in the Shell, also directed by Oshii, Ogura worked from Haruhiko Higami’s monochrome, reportage-style photographs taken on location in Hong Kong to craft the fictionalised version of that city seen in the finished film. A chance fogging of a camera lens one evening saw diffuse halos appear around lights in the developed photographs, effects that Ogura copied in his image boards and which were carried over to the ‘cinematography’ of the film’s night shots. The influence of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and, perhaps, Edward Hopper’s celebrated painting 'Nighthawks' in some of the completed backgrounds is unacknowledged here but surely present.

    Layout for Ghost in the Shell (1995), cut 341, mounted on top of background illustration, pencil on printed paper 240 × 370mm

    Illustrator: Atsushi Takeuchi

    Copyright: c 1995 Shirow Masamune / KODANSHA ・ BANDAI VISUAL ・ MANGA ENTERTAINMENT Ltd.

    Background illustration for Ghost in the Shell (1995), cut 341, watercolour on paper 280 × 380mm

    Illustrator: Hiromasa Ogura

    Copyright: c 1995 Shirow Masamune / KODANSHA ・ BANDAI VISUAL ・ MANGA ENTERTAINMENT Ltd.

    Elsewhere, Takashi Watabe's exquisite pencil layouts for Metropolis’s skyscrapers owe much to the great architectural visionary Hugh Ferriss and Fritz Lang’s original film of the same name. Watabe also worked on Ghost in the Shell 2. His drawings for the climactic tunnel battle exhibit an extraordinary density of line in rendering delicate and complicated networks of cables and pipes, and this time the architecture of Richard Rogers for Lloyd’s of London springs to mind as a possible inspiration.

    Only by seeing these small artworks (each not that much larger than A4) in person and close-to can one fully appreciate the detail, texture and colours involved, regardless of type or author. The atmospherics of a soft, aqueous horizon or aerial perspective; the precision of a tower block’s façade; fat water tanks on building roofs; hundreds of tiny dashes of yellow amidst blue signifying lit windows at night.

    All of this comes together in my favourite item in the exhibition, Ogura’s background for shot or cut 477 of Ghost in the Shell (1995). Executed as two sheets, a watercolour on paper and an acrylic on a cel, the one overlaid on the other and moved during filming to give a sense of depth yet suggesting this even when static, the work uses blues, purples, violets and green to portray a dense thicket of night-time skyscrapers in medium close-up. A wealth of detail – structure, fenestration, heating and ventilation plant – enliven the scene and allow one to lose oneself inside of it. It has a powerful dimensionality and realism well beyond its restricted materials.

    Background illustration for Ghost in the Shell (1995), cut 477, watercolour on paper and acrylic on transparent film 270 × 390mm

    Illustrator: Hiromasa Ogura

    Copyright: c 1995 Shirow Masamune / KODANSHA ・ BANDAI VISUAL ・ MANGA ENTERTAINMENT Ltd.

    There is much to take away from this show, not least that some of the most startling sequences of Ghost in the Shell – the first animated film to extensively deploy computer-generated imagery – relied entirely on the talents of these artists to pull off, such as the fish-eye lens distortion of the museum roof that is in fact drawn into the original artwork. That the canals and bridges of Tokyo have also been used to symbolise dataflow is another.

    Representations of architecture in the widest sense are undergoing a renaissance lately, with the London Festival of Architecture in full swing this month, the RIBA opening its new gallery in Liverpool with a showing of plans built and unbuilt in that city over the decades and the announcement of next year’s National Gallery examination of Monet’s paintings of architecture. With only a regret that more interior, domestic spaces were not included, this ground-breaking show, shining a long-deserved light on an internationally-important cultural phenomenon, should be considered a vital part of that rebirth.

    ‘Anime Architecture: Backgrounds of Japan’, curated by Stefan Riekeles in association with Les Jardins des Pilotes and Tchoban Foundation - Museum for Architectural Drawing, Berlin, continues at the House of Illustration, 2 Granary Square, London N1C 4BH until 10 September 2017

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  • ‘Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction’

    Accurately predicting the development of technology is notoriously difficult. Personally I’ve always felt that this is because the things that are predictable through extrapolation (nuclear fusion as a power source, space travel) tend to take much, much longer to reach a given point than first expected, whilst the true game-changers (personal computing, new materials) tend to appear suddenly without anyone giving a warning. That hasn’t stopped writers, artists and others trying, of course, as the Barbican’s new exhibition on science fiction is all its forms shows. It also illustrates many other aspects of that genre and proves just how deeply SF has embedded itself into our culture, in turn drawing on societal developments for its next iteration.

    The treasure trove that has been assembled in the Barbican’s Curve Gallery – spanning literature, film, music, architecture, advertising and more – begins with a well-made point; that no matter how far out SF gets, it almost always remains wedded to tropes that belong in the 19th, let alone 21st century, such as lost lands, exotic creatures, bold deeds and – still – women to rescue. The curators also note however just how much of the groundwork for the genre was laid with that period’s literary fiction, from Jules Verne and H.G. Wells to Edgar Rice Burroughs and Arthur Conan Doyle. Rarely-seen original art, annotated manuscripts and miniatures from early films confirm this thesis, which also posits a link to the genuinely hazardous and impressively intrepid explorations of the real world’s unknown territories that was taking place contemporaneously.

    With this first section also illustrating the principles of display used throughout the exhibition – a rack of novels from the period or theme in question, surrounded by items of other types – and featuring gems such as the painstaking research commissioned by Verne from a noted mathematician to render his space flight fantasies as credible as possible (a century before Christopher Nolan did the same thing for ‘Interstellar’), the scene is duly set for the Barbican’s journey to begin.

    A definition of science fiction that carefully differentiates it from similar fields is helpfully given, with any work that is fictional and hypothetical and rational qualifying. The term itself was first coined in 1926, notwithstanding what the exhibition calls the proto-science fiction of those earlier pioneers; by this date the cinema, the airship and aeroplane, the submarine, telecommunications and the tank had all leaped from the minds of theorists and writers into reality, showing that movements invariably acquire a label well after they demonstrate their existence and indeed acceptance in wider society.

    Warfare is its own seed for new inventions, and the exhibition is particularly strong (if subtle) on how the might of the American military-industrial complex of the 1950s and 60s and its parallel effort on the other side of the Iron Curtain both co-opted and inspired SF imagery to proclaim the power and positivity of its goals and achievements, with a dash of Pop and Abstract art thrown in too. The path from stylish press advertisements for defence suppliers like Martin, Raytheon and Los Alamos to the sober, efficient orbiting weapons stations of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is a short one.

    Peaceful civic projects (“deserts will bloom through atomic power”) also make their debt to the genre obvious, and even consumer products were not immune from its power. A wall of digital screens scrolling and sliding magazine spreads dating from after the last war is a highlight. One suggests – utterly absurdly, yet entirely seriously – that the brand of whiskey you drink has a firm connection to space exploration far into the future.

    Televisual and theatrical SF franchises make plenty of appearances, with robots, space ships and advanced technology from the 1970s up until today. Spacesuits – hanging from the pitch-black ceiling is a slight disturbing manner – are there in abundance.

    Colonisation, another of those long-ago modes of human endeavour, has had perhaps the strongest effect on contemporary expressions of SF, albeit that today’s entries tend to focus on the appropriation and control of the self rather than the soil. Artefacts relating to works as diverse as ‘Neuromancer’, ‘Inception’ and ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ make this clear.

    Ultimately all SF shines a light on us now rather than us in the future, though in doing so it can sometimes store up questions for those generations to come. Looking at the exquisite miniature Capitol building dome crumbling under attack from flying saucers made for the Charles H. Schneer/Ray Harryhausen film ‘Earth vs. the Flying Saucers’, for example, one cannot help but wonder whether recent events in Washington, DC prove that the greatest threat to world peace might in fact be firmly terrestrial in origin.

    This is, in the main, an absorbing attempt to summarise and introduce the world of science fiction to audiences that are familiar and new to it. Inevitably it only scratches the surface of what must be the genre with the widest possible spread of them all, not helped by a lack of clear section or chapter splits and the occasional curious choice of object. This could perhaps have been addressed – at least in part – by a better use of the remaining spaces in the Barbican complex. The promise, in early publicity, of exhibits on display throughout the centre as was done very effectively with the James Bond exhibition a few years ago is not in truth fulfilled; a range of video projections is visible without paying, whilst a ticket for the Curve includes admission to two installations (a short film and a moving ‘sculpture’, in an enclosure constructed on the main concourse and in the Pit theatre, respectively), but neither is in truth of any merit.

    But for inspiration, a few discoveries and a reminder that the roots of speculative fiction are broad and firm, this step ‘Into the Unknown’ is worth taking.

    ‘Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction’ continues at the Barbican Centre until 1 September 2017.

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  • London's layered lives

    For this week only, as the London Festival of Architecture (LFA) gets fully under way, I’m using this platform to spread the word about several events in the coming seven days that unravel London’s extraordinary built history, three of which I’m involved with. By chance they also address the city’s architectural past, present and future, and – especially important in light of the terrorist attack that occurred at London Bridge on Saturday evening, in the shadow of the Shard – reflect on the varied origins and personalities of those who make those buildings and spaces.

    Tonight, the Royal Academy hosts a sold-out talk on the architectural identity of London as a world city, examining how it is shaped by and yet in turn influences its citizens. Entitled London, global capital: Designing urban identities, the event will also examine how far Britain’s principal city has, can and should define a unique architectural image of its own rather than seek to emulate the cities of the Far East or elsewhere. In a so-called ‘globalised’ world, is London’s built heritage an advantage or a disadvantage? Are its new and emerging structures distinct or not?

    On Wednesday, I’ll be delivering the first of my four Rebuild << Rewind talks for the LFA, looking at successive buildings constructed on the same site for the same client and the architectural connections across those generations. The opening event tells the story of Nathan Rothschild, who arrived in London in the early 1800s and settled with his family in a rented house set back behind a courtyard just a few yards from the Bank of England. Founding the merchant bank that bears his name soon after, Rothschild saw his business expand steadily. Moving his family out to make room and adding extensions when even more space was needed, complete rebuilding eventually took place, at the height of the Victorian era. The grand commercial premises that resulted retained a link to that domestic precursor, though, being on the same plot in the same street and with a courtyard hidden behind handsome gates. A century later, in the Swinging Sixties, that building was in turn replaced, this time with a chastely elegant Modernist office block. Once again a courtyard lay at the heart of the scheme, albeit for cars this time; physical elements of the old building, including its hanging sign, were also retained. Finally, just after the Millennium, a third purpose-built home for Rothschild bank emerged – a gleaming glass and steel tower (night image, above). Even here, however, a courtyard of a kind retains a link to that two-hundred-year-old house. Discover the full story by booking a free place now.

    This Saturday I’ll be talking about London’s contemporary architecture more widely for the final part of The London Society’s Saturday Morning Architecture School programme. I’ve called the session Where, Why and How, as these seem to be the pressing questions that underpin many of the current projects in the capital. New ‘quarters’, often on brownfield sites, and the kinds of building being put up on them are at least as important as the styles those buildings adopt, though the remarkable pluralism that the latter demonstrates is clearly a source of interest and debate. The technology that enables many of these new shapes and schemes is also notable, even if it isn’t always – or indeed often – visible.

    And finally, I’ve also partnered with architects AukettSwanke for a display within the Royal Exchange (which co-incidentally features in my book How to Read London) that examines how the atrium has developed over the last sixty or so years. It shows how various City of London buildings designed or worked on by Aukett’s constituent practices in that period have interpreted the idea of this glassed-over space within a building, whether as a practical feature for increasing daylight, a visual amenity planted with lush foliage or a way of connecting spaces. Illustrated with images from the firm’s archives and drawing on and quoting from my paper ‘Opening up the City: Fitzroy Robinson and the atrium’, due for publication in the Twentieth Century Society’s upcoming academic Journal, the exhibition also shows how the atrium is evolving via current and future buildings that Auketts are designing, becoming more of a social space for those outside the building for example. The covered courtyard of the Exchange is open in business hours Monday to Friday and anyone can pop in; the exhibition, called Atrium & City, is mounted on eight ‘totems’, two flanking each of the Exchange’s entrances.

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  • ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977)

    At the age of nine, I saw my first James Bond film at the cinema: The Spy Who Loved Me. It made such an impression that I actually suggested to my then Cub Scout leader that we try to visit the 007 Stage at Pinewood, which wasn’t far away; to her credit, she took me seriously, even if it didn’t come off. It has remained one of my favourite entries in the series, and repeated viewing as an adult – including a revelatory digital presentation almost ten years ago, when I had the pleasure of briefly chatting to its director, Lewis Gilbert – confirms its qualities. Indeed it is widely recognised (including by the late actor himself) as the best film of the Roger Moore era, and one of the most effective of all the Bonds. Why?

    Firstly, and notwithstanding previous entries’ forays into space or underwater, the film has a genuine sense of scale and scope. This was already an established part of the Bond tradition, but by the mid-70s had either degenerated into the excruciating camp of Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and The Man With The Golden Gun (1974) or been abandoned in favour of ill-judged attempts to emulate gritty crime dramas, such as Moore’s debut Live And Let Die (1973). The new film thus built on and indeed outdid previous efforts, with every single penny of its massive budget – double that of the previous entry – visible on screen, yet did so with an eye on credibility and the real world. This includes the Liparus supertanker, whose submarine-swallowing abilities remain utterly believable, Rick Sylvester’s legendary ski jump, the sleek white wedge of the Lotus Esprit (still effectively a prototype at the time of filming) and the exceptional miniature and optical work that still holds up today.

    Secondly, and closely allied to the above, glamour – that other essential element of a Bond film – was also undeniably present yet was similarly restrained. The cool elegance of Ken Adam’s production design, the sensuality of Anya Amasova’s midnight blue evening gown, the understated opulence of Marvin Hamlisch’s sublime title song; all contribute to the feeling of restrained luxury that permeates the film. Made at a time when international travel was still relatively uncommon (Freddie Laker was to launch his low-cost Skytrain transatlantic service just two months after the film premiered, thus allowing many audience members to follow in their hero’s footsteps for the first time), the use of locations is also critical. The film was shot in no fewer than seven different countries apart from Britain (Egypt, Italy, Switzerland, Malta, Japan, Canada and the Bahamas), by far the highest of any Bond film before or since, but in the hands of its veteran director this was more than simple box-ticking. Gilbert had shown considerable sensitivity for place in his films, including Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) and Operation Daybreak (1975) as well as his previous entry in the Bond series, the highly-regarded You Only Live Twice (1967), and brought the same skill to the Egypt scenes especially. The superb Great Pyramids sequence, running for a full five minutes yet containing almost no dialogue, relies entirely on camera placement, lighting and character motion within a built environment for its effect, something repeated in the fluid, lucid climactic battle aboard the Liparus.

    Thirdly, the script is deserving of praise in two respects. It contains a number of nicely-judged scenes that anticipate the more sophisticated products of later decades, such as the meeting between M, Gogol, Bond and Amasova in Egypt. Here the agents’ continual attempts to outsmart each other, much to the delight of their bosses, work both as flirtation and geo-political one-upmanship. There is also a hard edge to Moore’s Bond that is not seen in any of his other films, evidenced by the surprisingly powerful confrontation between Bond and Anya when she realises he killed her lover and, notoriously, Bond’s astonishingly brutal execution of Stromberg with not one, not two, but four bullets, each deliberately and methodically placed over time. The final script was written by Richard Maibaum and Christopher Wood, the latter an outsider recommended by Gilbert. Already an acclaimed novelist and writer, Wood’s experiences in Africa and the Near East whilst on National Service are likely to have informed this approach.

    Fourthly, there are the details; touches large and small that emerge from consideration of every aspect of a film, and which add to the whole. There are many examples. The excellent Michael Billington was cast as Amasova’s lover, Barsov, in the pre-credits sequence. Billington, best known for playing Paul Foster in Gerry Anderson’s dark SF series UFO, auditioned for Bond more times than any other actor and was apparently pencilled in for the role before Roger Moore appeared. The silhouetted women swinging round a gun barrel in the title sequence remains a striking image, even in the oeuvre of Maurice Binder. At a time when the British public was arguably closer to its armed forces than is the case today, with regular open days at suburban army camps and the Royal Tournament a firm fixture in family summers, the degree of cooperation received by the production from the Royal Navy is nevertheless remarkable, as when a submarine glides by behind Moore, in character as Bond, as he walks along a quay at Faslane, the real-life base of Britain’s nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines, and Bond and Anya’s escape capsule is brought into the landing dock of the amphibious assault ship HMS Fearless which, six years later, would play a key role in the Falklands campaign. The nudge-nudge ending, complete with the first few lines of the title song rendered by a ship’s company, feels like a lift from Gilbert’s knowing Alfie (1966).

    That all of this was achieved against a background of great difficulty – including the departure of co-producer Harry Saltzman for financial and personal reasons, the contractual stipulation by Ian Fleming that only the title of his novel could be used and an ongoing law suit – is all the more pleasing.

    By the summer of 1977, as Britain celebrated her monarch’s Silver Jubilee and with the immense impact of Star Wars (1977) yet to be felt – it would not open in Britain for another six months – the way was clear for The Spy Who Loved Me to open to unprecedented success. More importantly, the films were simply in a class of their own when it came to popular cinema – nothing else came close, and nobody did it better. And for another thirty years in the world of Bond, that remained the case.

    Sir Roger George Moore, KBE (14 October 1927 – 23 May 2017)

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  • Bricks & Words #5: ‘Underground Architecture’

    Easily the best book available on the rich architectural heritage of the tube, this invaluable work takes a chronological canter through the entire history of the 250+ stations that make up today’s network, from their origins in 1863 to the Jubilee Line Extension programme of the early 2000s. Beautifully illustrated with historical and contemporary images largely from the archives of TfL (as it now is), the test is readable but knowledgable.

    Importantly, the fact that each of the lines was initially built as a separate, private venture and so had its own individual architect is made clear. This accounts for the wide diversity of styles seen even in stations built at the same time, such as the ‘oxblood red’ tiling of Leslie Green and the pure Portland stone of Charles Holden. The countryside aesthetic of far-off rural halts is contrasted with the powerful urban and suburban identity forged by Holden when working with tube chairman Frank Pick at the time of unification, and early works lost in subsequent rebuilds as well as trial schemes that didn’t always work as planned are well covered. Neatly, text on a given subject generally ends as on the page, dividing the book even within chapters but not seeming to be forced. Integrated art and new technology is also touched upon, where this affects the architecture. Required reading for the Londoner.

    ‘Underground architecture’ by David Lawrence (Capital Transport Publishing, 1994)

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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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