• 'Dunkirk' (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



  • Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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



  • ‘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.



  • ‘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



  • 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)



  • 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)



  • 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.



  • 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



  • ‘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.



Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

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


Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own collage-style spread.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443


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