• ‘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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  • ‘O.J.: Made in America’

    One of the dreamlike, sumptuously-composed aerial shots of Los Angeles that punctuate Ezra Edelman’s extraordinary, epic documentary – comprising, otherwise, straightforward interview footage and archive news reports – is of the HOLLYWOOD sign seen from directly above, bathed in strong sunlight; the familiar white letters are thus reduced to a barely-visible dotted line, replaced by a bold, black version of the name created by the letters’ shadows. It’s a subtle but powerful moment that effectively encapsulates the entirety of rise of O.J. Simpson, a working-class black man who inverted the usual expectations of his social and ethnic position to become a cultural icon who lived amongst the white elite. Of course, the most appalling crash then occurred, with two victims whose threads of life run – rightly – through this incredible work.

    The title conveys two meanings. Simpson was and is an outstanding example of a product, a good manufactured by a country whose very essence is that anyone can become anything or anyone by starting their journey within its bounds. And yet the very acclaim, wealth and power that helped drive that process for Simpson also played crucial roles in its disassembly twenty years later, even if some of the components of government and civil society that the Founding Fathers held so dear were found woefully wanting for their part.

    Edelman explores all of this and more from his very first scenes, which show Simpson’s college-level football success as the driver not just for a genuinely astonishing sports career but for the darker sides of Simpson’s personality, including what was to underscore much of the criticism he faced in those early years – that he was too ‘white’, both in terms of the friends he made and the causes he espoused (or failed to). Indeed the level of presumption displayed by various African-American community activists that Simpson ‘should’ play his part in the civil rights movement is astonishing, and is countered by Simpson himself explaining his belief that his race is irrelevant and that only his ability matters. This view and its alternate appear to be the key to understanding both the personal relationships that were to make and destroy him and his reactions to events in later life.

    With its five parts carefully divided to match the main passages of that life, the sensitivity of Edelman’s coverage of the young black footballer’s first introduction to the young blonde Nicole Brown at the end of the initial chapter signals that the reminder of the film will take the viewer through the entire, desperate story of their time together with appropriate restraint but no lack of emotion, and these suggestions prove to be exactly correct.

    By chance for British viewers, ‘LA 92’ (see my earlier post) provided a useful detailed background to the wider history of the struggle between Los Angeles’s mostly white police force and its mostly black clientele. Edelman of necessity is more restricted here but certainly covers this, concentrating on the bitterly ingrained prejudices that built up on both sides and how – just a few years later – each would inevitably view the murder of Brown and Ron Goldman and the trial of Simpson for those crimes through those same lenses.

    The degree of poison, bile and bitterness that is portrayed by many from both sides around this is astounding, as is the fact that very little appears to have been tempered by progression up the social scale to those in the courtroom. Thus, in a set of proceedings that would generate not one but several quotes and phrases that would live on in popular memory – The Dream Team, the trial of the century, the bloody glove, ‘if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit’ – we are presented with appalling errors by the police and prosecution, questionable decisions by the judge and manipulations of the Simpson family home to make him seem more acceptable to the predominantly black jurors. Almost no-one, then, emerges with much credibility, and much of the power of this, the core of the film, comes from the ability or otherwise of those participants interviewed to see their flaws from a distance of two decades.

    That every stage of the case, from Simpson’s infamous slow car ‘chase’ (whose actual end in a several-hour stand-off-cum-negotiation with a SWAT team is far less well known but here rendered as gripping as any thriller) to the portions of the trial where the jury was excluded occurred under the merciless glare of broadcast television – including mobile units, half a dozen helicopters and remote-controlled cameras in court – is obvious when seen like this. The corruption – in the true sense of the term – that this has engendered in the US judicial system is similarly plain, even before every bystander acquired a cell phone capable of becoming its own broadcasting studio, and must be the best proof ever needed that open justice is not the same thing at all as public justice.

    The honesty of the juror interviewed who admits acquitting Simpson as payback for the outcome of the trial of the police officers who beat Rodney King is, one supposes, laudable, but her morality must surely be questionable at best.

    Another quiet but powerful visual moment concludes the saga. With its stately pace, grasping crowds and white vehicle, the journey that took Simpson home after the trial becomes a remarkable inversion of that slow car pursuit. “People wanted to see O.J.’s last run,” explains one contributor.

    Inevitably what follows struggles somewhat to grip, with Simpson now wallowing in an end-of-career stew of hedonism and idiocy that, as noted in the film, appears like a parody of a gangster rapper’s lifestyle. Only when the film plays its final card, when a bizarre confrontation in a Las Vegas hotel room over Simpson memorabilia ends in a conviction and hefty prison term for armed robbery and more, do things return to the boil. Of course, one contributor claims the sentencing is revenge for the Brown/Goldman acquittal.

    And so it goes.

    Seven and a half hours seem too short, even whilst watching, for this awful tale. Each viewer will have their own flashes of emotion brought about by, perhaps, the childhood friend of Simpson who bluntly refused to be a witness for the defence, or the friend of Brown giving a simple speech at her funeral; the depths of Simpson’s narcissistic, self-delusional and arrogant personality are also left to the viewer to measure. Any sympathy, though, will be directed at the parents and families of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, both of whom were, it is clear even with the regrettable decision by the BBC to blur the crucial crime scene images, killed in way that is the very definition of the term slaughter. Viewers will also form their own opinion on whether Simpson was responsible. Those who, like me, conclude that he was will be glad that Simpson has been in prison for 19 years and remains there today, until at least October this year.

    ‘O.J.: Made in America’ was produced and directed by Ezra Edelman for ESPN Films and is available on iPlayer; it was screened last week on BBC Four.

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  • 'The Levelling'

    The return is a powerful trope of drama. The former love, the old enemy, the retired professional, the Prodigal son; all have been effective jumping-off points for inter-relational conflict. The absorbing feature debut of Hope Dickson Leach begins at a point in the narrative – which is written by Dickson Leach herself – where both a son (Harry, played in flashback by Joe Blakemore) and a daughter (Clover, played by Ellie Kendrick) have been lost. Only the latter can actually come back, however, as her brother has died in a shooting incident on the Somerset levels family farm. And although Clover is delivered there in the initial scenes, it is clear from what follows that physical return is only part of the process of homecoming.

    As Clover renegotiates her place in the childhood world she left a few years before, sparring with her brittle, bitter father Aubrey (David Troughton) but at relative ease with workers and family friends as they repair a smallholding devastated by flooding as well as grief, she also works to uncover the truth of what happened to Harry. Here the film sinks new hooks into the viewer, as Clover presses people for their understanding and experiences, restlessly wanders the shattered farmhouse and uncovers fragments of a story that suggests very little is as it appears or was as she remembers. As Kendrick herself puts it in a Q&A after the screening I attended, “She [Clover] thinks she’s in a detective film, but she’s really in a social-realist drama.” Memory forms a large part of the screenplay, with Clover and Aubrey constantly at odds as to their recollection of the past and their reasons for decisions and the audience itself uncertain of the truth. Clues are scattered and discovered (Kendrick explained how she asked not to be shown the contents of prop bags, envelopes etc., to enhance her reaction), but the facts remain elusive.

    Neatly interwoven with this story and acting as commentary on it is the presence of animals and the manner of their depiction. Cattle, starlings, badgers; a hare, the pet dog, a pony; live, dead, caged, free. Seen in extreme close up, from a distance, in water, air and earth, they function as a mute Greek chorus on the action. The moment when Clover walks in the woods and meets, seemingly at their discretion rather than hers, two horses is extraordinary. There is, too, a clear connection that places Clover (note that name) and her surroundings within the rich vein of rural drama explored in English film, television and even art, from Quatermass to Penda’s Fen, The Changes to Masquerade, and Kill List to Wake Wood.

    Throughout all this, and appearing in almost every scene, Kendrick is simply magnetic. Whether rent by sadness or fiery with anger, she is utterly convincing and simply carries the film. Its fast shooting schedule - just four weeks - was, she explained to me after the screening, preferred by her in that it helped her maintain the intensity of her performance thanks to the absence of multiple takes. Appearing younger, perhaps, than her years works in Kendrick’s favour, connecting her character’s present more readily to its past and evoking the resilience and persistence of the teenager. Yet Clover’s toughness does not suffer either, holding her own during rows with her father – himself brimming with resentment over the loss not just of his son and daughter but also his wife, his livelihood and his future – or buckling down with the farmhands digging a ditch. Two moments bridge these extremes and remind us of Clover’s true vulnerability: her determined but heart-breaking cleansing of the room in which Harry died, domesticity horribly perverted, and a gently revealing early-morning scene, this subtly shot by the all-female crew.

    The tangled webs of these damaged individuals and their disrupted, disordered home are unravelled carefully and with sensitivity. Closure of sorts is achieved, but its ambiguity is acknowledged by Kendrick herself. Asked by an audience member whether the future for Clover and Aubrey is bright or dark beyond the final frame, she responded: “Can I ask you a question first – what do YOU think happens?”

    'The Levelling' is on general release; I watched it at the BFI Southbank, where Ellie Kendrick spoke about the film to the audience and - kindly - to interested individuals afterward.

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  • Two artists, one aim

    Five centuries ago, at the height of the cultural transformation that was the Renaissance, an ambitious 26-year-old painter from Venice trained in that city’s tradition of rich colours and improvisational composition arrived in Rome seeking commissions from the church, the dominant patron of the age. There he met another artist, ten years his senior, from Florence, who had already made his name through carefully-planned sculpture and pictures based on extensive drawings. When the two encountered an exceptionally talented man from Urbino who threatened to eclipse them both, they joined forces in an unprecedented collaborative partnership that was to last for twenty five years and is absorbingly recreated for the National Gallery’s current exhibition Michelangelo & Sebastiano.

    Michelangelo Buonarroti was the initiator of the alliance, driven we are told not by any altruistic desire to enhance the career of Sebastiano Luciani but rather as a result of his bitter hatred of Raphael Sanzio, whom critics felt the better all-round artist. Michelangelo and Raphael were hard at work on the Vatican’s extensive decorative programme – Raphael had finished his acclaimed fresco in the library, Michelangelo was still labouring over the Sistine Chapel ceiling – when Sebastiano arrived in Rome. It was then that the joint attack on the precociously talented Raphael took shape.

    Michelangelo began to supply Sebastiano with sketches and drawings that the latter could work up, overlaying the former’s precise poses and compositional formality with sumptuous colour and atmosphere. The hope, in Michaelangelo’s mind, was that the finished composite would address a perceived gap in his skills and trump anything Raphael could offer.

    Sebastiano, too, grew to dislike Raphael, criticising his actions and encouraging Michelangelo to inform on him to the authorities for his lavish expenses. The younger painter was also, it is clear, besotted with Michelangelo, almost certainly painting his portrait over the rejected effort of a rival, begging him at one stage to seek new commissions for himself and expressing his feelings of betrayal when discovering Michelangelo had agreed to this yet appeared not to take it seriously.

    The pair worked together on large altarpieces, chapels and tryptychs, with Michelangelo’s preparatory drawings pushing Sebastiano toward a more considered yet dynamic form for the final image. Sebastiano learned to combine the best of the Venetian and Florentine schools, mixing for example the softness of his home town with the sharp underpinnings of Florence, whilst his own drawings also improved. Michelangelo, in turn, adopted something of his follower’s style, the better for the younger man to follow the older but also recognising its inherent value.

    Michelangelo continued to astonish with his own works, striving to better his already powerful and originall approach to sculpture in particular. Thus when forced to abandon one life-size statue of the risen Christ after discovery of a hidden flaw in a crucial spot in the marble, Michelangelo not only returned to the same subject but contrived to better its pose.

    Ultimately the two artists fell out, victims perhaps of the ultra-competitive milieu of the Papal court. Michelangelo outlived his sometime partner by almost two decades, and it is Michelangelo of course that the world now remembers, despite the obvious debt he owes to his friend, colleague and correspondent for at least a part of that acclaim.

    The exhibition sets out all of the above and much more in a sequence of rooms that is utterly refreshing in its innovation, variety and content. Far, far more than a simple, repetitive display of paintings hung on walls, each is arranged differently, like a journey, with unexpected treasures around every corner. Each also holds items that cover one particular aspect of the story. Though not strictly chronological, the broad arc of the allying of Michelangelo and Sebastiano is nevertheless also conveyed. And, neatly, the rooms also cover the three general periods in the life of the person they mostly depicted – Christ and his birth, crucifixion and resurrection.

    Vitally, the works are shown in many ways. Drawings and sketches, finished and unfinished canvasses, actual sculpture and plaster casts, cartoons squared and pricked for pouncing; all can be seen. Both sides of many of the drawings are visible, a frustratingly rare thing that serves to reveal exactly twice as much art since paper was expensive and Michelangelo especially is well known for using every corner of every sheet as a tool. Indeed, one of his drawings is marked by something so prosaic and recognisable that one almost misses it – the distinctive ring left by the base of a wet mug or glass that has at one time been left standing on the page. Wonderfully, this decision to show so much more than usual is extended to the rear of one large oil – by Sebastiano, but to drawings by Michelangelo – on panel, unveiling rough sketches on the bare wood that confirm the piece was being made in parallel with Michelangelo’s efforts in the Sistine Chapel.

    Works once split have been reunited; others are represented by later periods’ interpretations. An architecturally-inspired wooden frame has been made afresh for one altarpiece yet incorporating fragments of genuine 16th century material; a range of digital technologies has been used elsewhere by the noted Factum Arte group to present a slightly reduced but accurate reproduction of an entire apsidal chapel.

    This wealth of materials, purposes, copies and reconstructions yields an astonishingly immersive insight into the times and methods of these artists, in a rich layering of experiences. Its focus on the why and the how, on the way these works emerged, has much of Neil Macgregor’s ground-breaking and much-missed ‘Making and Meaning’ series at the gallery at its heart.

    Fittingly, perhaps, the third man in this sometimes corrosive triangle, Raphael, appears not at all, though oddly this increases his presence. This is because the exhibition is immeasurably enhanced by the showing of letters written by both Michelangelo and Sebastiano, through which the pall that Raphael cast on the two men’s friendship can be detected. Alternately catty, pleading and analytical, they show just how powerful his influence was. The documents themselves are extraordinary, not least because a couple represent original letter and related reply, an astonishing thing to have been preserved for half a millennium.

    This exhibition is an exemplar of its type. It should not be missed.

    Michelangelo & Sebastiano: The Credit Suisse Exhibition continues at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 25 June.

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  • Behind the scenes at the BFI

    In the pretty Hertfordshire town of Berkhampsted, behind a collection of white-washed buildings reminiscent of a farm, stands a modern block in red brick and coloured steel, nestled up to which are four large, white, hangar-like sheds. Together, these buildings form the British Film Institute’s National Archive and J. Paul Getty Jr Conservation Centre. Open to BFI members and guests for tours on just a few occasions each year, a ticket opens up a world of film that is unavailable elsewhere, as I found on Saturday.

    The Archive is the BFI’s hub for receiving, assessing, restoring and preparing for viewing its vast treasury of feature and documentary films, dating back to the very start of the medium in this country. The ‘lost’ observational films of Edwardian pioneers Mitchell & Kenyon, made from 1902 or so onwards, were conserved and scanned for new public showings here, for example, and a remarkable 10,000 films of all sorts were digitised for the Britain of Film project. Various other works, extending to – as we saw – an Op Art piece by John Smith, are currently being looked after.

    Some material is stored permanently at Berkhamsted, not least the vital magnetic masters of many productions. Each of the sheds contains about 250,000 film cans of all gauges, including 9.5mm. Stacked about three times the height of a person, they are retrieved by forklift and individually barcoded. The BFI’s precious (and precarious) holdings of highly flammable nitrate stock along with the majority of their more stable but still troublesome ‘safety’ film prints (on acetate and polyester) are housed in a frozen, dehumidified state in the explosion-proof vaults of Cullinan Studio’s award-winning Master Film Store in the Warwickshire village of Gaydon.

    When examples are requested for viewing in London, either at Stephen Street or the South Bank, they are despatched to Berkhamsted where they join their cousins in the warmer but still chill-inducingly refrigerated sheds for atmospheric acclimatisation. They are then prepared, which includes a quality check screening in the on-site auditorium, and forwarded as needed.

    Increasingly, however, the BFI is scanning such prints, thus saving on handling and transport costs and reducing the risk of damage but also allowing anyone to watch the film anywhere. This is to be accomplished by the establishment of a country-wide network of Mediateques, similar to that at the South Bank. We saw the Vario machines that make this possible, a laser and cold-source LED lighting system scanning the film in real time with automatic compensation for missing perforations and even distorted frames.

    Restoration takes place in special studios where the more traditional synchroniser and cutting bench is the dominant technology. Indeed, one I saw must have dated from the 1960s or so and was manufactured by none other than ARRI, a company better known for its cameras and which celebrates its centenary later this year.

    Carefully examining, logging, comparing and then fixing celluloid of whatever type is painstaking work, sometimes aided by wet-gate projection or scanning. In this clever application of a process familiar to anyone who wetting their finger to hide a mark on a polished wood table, scratches are temporarily ‘erased’ by running the film through a fluid medium, allowing a clear image to be recorded.

    The Special Collections store, the highlight of the tour for me, is also a help. Here, over 400 separate archives of material – stills, diaries, scripts, publicity material, documents and ephemera – are kept, donated by a wide range of film-makers, performers and companies. A wonderful display of items had been put out for us, from a shooting script annotated by Carol Reed to a costume design for Julie Christie, and from an actual Oscar (given to Cecil Beaton) to letters from Alec Guinness.

    The other side to the BFI’s moving image business runs in a separate but parallel workstream, and involves television. All of the BBC’s output since 1990 has been captured via off-air recordings at Berkhamsted as the BBC’s official archive, but the BFI also has old items from the public broadcaster. In addition, we were informed, the early 1990s mergers of the original ITV companies led to a great clear out of their own back offices. The result is that Berkhampsted has a staggering 800,000 programmes stored on well over a dozen different formats of video (the off-air operation alone has gone through four).

    The problem of format migration is therefore key challenge facing the organisation, not least because of the rapidly-reducing pool of functioning video machines and even the component parts needed to keep them working. Various consumer, semi-pro and professional-quality tapes and cassettes was laid out for us, ranging from the much-loved VHS to the massive Sony D1, so big it comes in its own snugly-fitting plastic briefcase but not removed from its domestic baby brother that it, too, doesn’t come complete with a sheet of sticky labels.

    Trusting to the latest technology, the current format of choice is LTO, a small square box of a cassette that uses just a single spool (the take-up remains in the machine) and has a presumed life of 50 years.

    Thus although one big tranche of titles – 33,000, in fact – has been ‘saved’ already thanks to Lottery funding, the apparent increase in generosity that will pay for a much larger second batch of 100,000 titles is misleading; this is only a fraction of what needs saving, and it is limited by the availability of those machines.

    This was a thoroughly absorbing morning out, giving fascinating insight into what goes on behind the screen of the South bank operation. Recommended.

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  • Bricks & Words #4: ‘The Property Boom’

    How London and other British cities were built up (literally) after the war by a new breed of smart, canny speculators and developers is the subject of this brilliant book, the subject of this month's Bricks & Words. Towers, shopping centres, offices are all covered, in the capital and elsewhere, with key chapters on the late Harry Hyams (mastermind of Centre Point), Joe Levy and more. If you care remotely about why London looks the way it does today, read on…

    This is the inside story of the post-war commercial property market in Britain but with a firm focus on London. It covers all the major deals, including the Hilton on Park Lane, the Euston Centre and Elephant & Castle, as well as the Bull Ring in Birmingham. Exactly how the developers found the road to riches is explained in detail, as is the secrecy under which the prevailing legislation allowed them to operate. The 1989 reprint adds a retrospective commentary by Marriott, a former journalist and now board member of investment company Shaftesbury. As forensic as a lawyer’s brief, as gripping as a thriller, it’s indispensable.

    ‘The Property Boom’ by Oliver Marriott (H. Hamilton, 1967; reprinted with new introduction, 1989)

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  • Arresting commission

    The Metropolitan Police has a new Commissioner and a new headquarters. Cressida Dick met the press last week but media coverage of her new base has been more low-key given postponement of its royal opening, planned for what turned out to be the day after the Westminster bridge attack in March. After 50 years in a Modernist glass tower on Broadway, though, relocation a few hundred metres east to an intriguing pre-war block originally by the civic and commercial architect William Curtis Green that was in fact built for the Met in the first place has nevertheless taken place. There is of course no public access inside, but what about the exterior?

    The Curtis Green building went up in 1937-40 as a second extension to Richard Norman Shaw’s New Scotland Yard of 1890, the force’s first purpose-built home. Clad entirely in Portland stone and in a style perhaps best described as Chaste Classical, it contrasted with the red brick turrets of its Victorian neighbour to the south yet blended nicely with E. Vincent Harris’s Ministry of Defence Main Building (1939-59) to the north; Curtis Green even included top-floor pediments, just as Harris did. A bridge linked the building to the Norman Shaw complex. Close-to, the fascinatingly individualistic detail of Curtis Green’s building emerges. This is different at each level, and includes shields complete with ‘G-VI-R’ crest, stone fillets on internal corners and a wonderful three-dimensional crown over what was originally the main entrance.

    Occupied after the war by the Met’s forensics and other technology departments and, ultimately, by a regional operational headquarters, the Curtis Green block was finally vacated in 2011. Security concerns were raised when the possibility of residential use was mooted, since both Norman Shaw blocks are now used as MPs’ offices, but ultimately a solution was generated that also dealt with the linked problem of a police headquarters that had outgrown its Broadway building, which was in any event a standard commercial block leased, modified and later bought outright by the Met.

    The competition to reshape the Curtis Green building for a new age and new function was based on a brief that required the same quality of general office accommodation as might be found in a contemporary equivalent of 10 Broadway, yet with the very specific additions of highly secure, screened entrance and exit, improved public realm and a buffer of some kind between the former and the latter. The five shortlisted firms responded similarly to the question of the reception area, all sharing a low, stand-alone pavilion forward of the main building, but differently when it came to adaption of the existing spaces and, crucially, that Curtis Green roofline – some decapitated it, others extruded it. Only AHMM, it appears, retained it.

    Clearly this was not the only reason AHMM was in the end selected, neither was the fact that the practice is rapidly becoming as prolific as Curtis Green was in his time, but its ability to flex across a wide range of civic and private commissions and respond strongly to context when doing so are likely to have been factors. Evidence of this last is seen in the design development that took place thereafter, whereby an all-glass rooftop extension was modified by the addition of Portland stone ‘bookends’ and a front wall seemingly clad with backlit glass also became calcified into stone.

    The basic elements of the transformation first outlined in 2013 remain, however, and can be seen easily in a wander around the two sides of the site that are accessible. Deeper consideration of the result is rewarding.

    The works stripped out the main floors, inserted a new central service and circulation core and added a new rear and small side extension that filled in the void of the original C-shaped plan. Useable area has accordingly been increased by 50%, although the actual number of staff and officers working at the new building is considerably fewer as a result of wider estate and organisational change. The new rear façade is dominated by a screen of deep, vertically-oriented aluminium fins in red, orange and yellow. The colour selection is patterned after the Norman Shaw blocks, although the reference is rather abstract and lacks the assertiveness of Whitfield Partners’ nearby Richmond House (1983-87) for the Department of Health.

    That said, I like very much how the new stone elevations to the north and south simplify the existing articulation and then introduce their own, complete with a staggered fenestration that supposedly reflects the functions of spaces within but which seems part of the same move. It reminds me of Francis Pym’s bold extension to the Ulster Museum (1964-72) or Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown’s Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery (1987-91) as caught in Simon Bradley’s description (in Buildings of England) of an entablature that “sheds balustrade and dentils as it goes”. My only caveat is that the Curtis Green attic pediments now appear a little 'pasted on’, whereas previously they stood out against pitched roofs that were removed as part of the project.

    The firm refers to its rooftop extension as a pavilion, even though that term is best used to describe the detached, fully-glazed extension built in the forecourt and which reconciles the brief’s requirement for “positive contact between the building and the general public” with the necessary security measures (new openings punched through the main façade allow access to the circulation core). Its semi-circular ends are reminiscent of inter-war Tube station architecture, the entire structure recalling the platform shelters that can be seen today on the Jubilee and Metropolitan lines. The cantilevered roof, striped on its underside in a manner that actually does reflect the Norman Shaw blocks, tends to confirm the analogy.

    A raised contemplation pool to its south houses the eternal flame to fallen officers, relocated from Broadway. Critic Laura Mark points out that its positioning in this way continues the line of memorial architecture that begins on the Embankment lawns of the Ministry of Defence, though this is perhaps a little conceptual given the pool’s placement at height, behind glass and as part of a secure building. Certainly, though, its inherent significance was – sadly – reconfirmed last month.

    At this point it is appropriate to examine in some detail the visible security measures that have been integrated with the scheme, which would have been of note even before that recent attack given current concerns about public/private space in general and the increasingly defensive streetscape of Westminster’s government quarter in particular. There are several, and most have been addressed architecturally rather than as industrialised add-ons.

    Firstly, the high perimeter wall of aged brick has been removed and replaced with a chest-high Portland stone plinth-cum-wall. This releases space to the pavement and supports the pool and reception pavilion but also, thanks in part to the fall of land, acts as a simple introduction to the entrance threshold. Steps connect this to the pavilion. The building’s original entrance, a squat stone ‘kiosk’ bearing that three-dimensional crown and thus resembling a police box, has been remodelled as a display case with windows cut into the sides. This clever device, along with a new version of the famous revolving sign, does work to draw the public across the forecourt, and with the new entrance off to the left, this can be permitted with only a small compromise in security. Again, though, it’s doubtful whether many will recognise the weakly differentiated tones of stone paviours as another nod to Norman Shaw’s work.

    Next, there has been remodelling of the workaday vehicle entrance to the north. New bollards, railings and retractable barriers provide obvious security, but a row of elegantly minimalist new lamp standards, a simple stone block that suggests a bench and a small planter contribute and create a far more civilised look.

    Finally, the entire length of pavement fronting the building, including its corners, is lined with the by-now standard run of closely-spaced steel bollards just behind the kerb. These appear individual but are actually connected below ground level by steel and reinforced concrete to provide a single, monolithic barrier to vehicles that is permeable to pedestrians (and, it must be said, motorbikes and bicycles).

    All of this responds well to a major part of the brief, though any prospect of reopening Derby Gate, gated in Norman Shaw’s time and closed permanently in 1967 when the parliamentary estate took over, or any of the other passageways between the buildings in this area must remain extremely remote. Even Richmond Terrace, a pedestrian way running between the Curtis Green and Ministry of Defence buildings, is subject to closures.

    Some time ago it was announced that the Met would revert to ‘Scotland Yard’ when it moved in to a revitalised Curtis Green building, no doubt to avoid any witticism about ‘New New New Scotland Yard’; AHMM’s early visuals confirm it. Even recent traditions stick, however, and so ‘New’ prefix remains firmly and indeed prominently part of the name of the building, with large free-standing letters on the pavilion roof – these, arguably, the only truly over-fussy note in a design that is otherwise a model of sober restraint.

    Re-presented in this manner, Curtis Green’s urbane but hitherto unappreciated block equips the capital’s police for another half-century at least and, architecturally speaking, once again takes its place in the sequence of Thames-side palazzos along the Victoria Embankment.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

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

final cover

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