Last week, I read somewhere on the www that the new Kings Cross Station passenger concourse would be open to the general public for the first time on the following Monday, i.e. yesterday. When I got there yesterday afternoon, it was certainly functioning like a regular station concourse. It didn’t feel like it had only been open for a few hours, but then again it’s not as if an entire railway station opened, from nothing. This was a case merely of lots of people already using the approximate same place no longer having to thread their way through temporary arrangements, but instead having the pleasure of walking through this:
As you can see from my picture, I wasn’t the only photographer snapping away, and trust me, she and I were two of many. So maybe this really was the first public day of this new piece of London show-off modernity? The www confirmed it.
I knew roughly what this concourse was going to look like, having seen plenty of images of what the architects hoped it would look like, and, more recently, some photos taken by officially selected snappers before the rest of us were allowed in. But until you actually see things like this in the flesh, so to speak, you never really know what you think of them.
I was most agreeably surprised. Kings Cross, having been for the last decade put severely in the shade by the magnificently reborn St Pancras Railway Station, literally only a few dozen yards away, wasevidently making a huge effort to respond to that new Eurostar Palace. But I had feared something like one of those seemed-cool-but-actually-rather-naff, seventies, “designed” (as in: over-designed) pieces of lighting equipment. Not quite lava lamp, but in that kind of territory. I feared that the place would simply not be big enough to justify all that virtuoso metal patterning.
The reason I thought it would be too small for all that designer steelwork is that I had quite often walked past the outside of it, while they were building it. I photoed it again from the outside yesterday, and compared to how it looks inside, it appears from the outside to be tiny:
I say that St Pancras has upstaged Kings Cross for the last decade, but there are many who would contest this. St Pancras may have been awarded the Eurostar trains, but Kings Cross has … the Hogwart’s Express. Many of those visiting the new concourse gave no thought to its ceiling. They just wanted to have themselves photoed next to this sign:
I have a vague recollection of the real entrance to Platform 9¾ being in one of the old brick arches between Platforms 9 and 10, and an even vaguer recollection of waiting on Platform 10 for a train, and seeing some Pottermaniacs cavorting in front of this entrance. If that’s right, the sign I photoed yesterday is a fake. A fake, I tell you.
I guess they figure that the platform ticket business they might be doing is not worth all the bother.
Yesterday Antoine and I visited the Pompidou Centre. Follow that link for the usual Pompidou Centre pictures. Here’s a less usual picture of the thing, in the form of a picture of a model of it that we encountered inside:
I was glad to visit this building, if only to go somewhere out of the cold, which has been extreme (and made much worse by the wind) but which may now be abating a little. Or maybe I’m just getting a little used to it.
I was glad also to get to see, close up, the inside of a much admired, much discussed piece of modern architecture, designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano being the man who much more recently has designed London’s Shard. I don’t love all modern architecture, to put it mildly, but I find it a fascinating story.
The Pompidou Centre is an early example of a much practised style of recent years, namely the “structure and services as decoration” style. See also the London Stock Exchange Lloyds of London, designed by Rogers. In this style, architectural organs that are usually hidden inside the body of the building are instead taken out of the body and turned into visual features. As a result of using this style, Piano and Rogers turned what is basically a big urban slab into something a bit more interesting.
I have noticed that more recent examples in London of this now very common style have started out looking pretty good, but have then started to look … not so good. The trouble with decorative steel work is that it is very hard and very expensive to keep clean and smart, what with it being so very much more complicated than a mere flat surface, and so much harder to get at. And sure enough, there are Pompidou Centre details – details in full view of us visitors – which now look decidedly grubby, or worse.
The big outdoor staircase which is such a feature of the Pompidou Centre is a wonderful place to look out across (approximately speaking) the centre of Paris. The view of Montmartre and the Sacre Coeur is, in particular, spectacular.
And thank goodness for the glass, because without it the cold would have been unbearable. But, the glass is rather dirty, and a photographer like me, in among whooping with delight at the views, needs to pick his spot carefully.
And it gets worse. I was actually quite shocked to see things like this:
You expect this kind of run-downness in a now-aging provincial railway station, built in the eighties, given its last face-lift in 2000, and now in need of another. But in a prestige project in the middle of Paris, devoted to “culture” (which the French take very seriously indeed), named after a President? How did they let that happen? Answer: it’s very difficult and expensive to stop it.
I just read the above to Antoine, and he said: It’s the classic problem with a prestige project. There’s a huge photo op when it opens, but no photo op for just slapping on some new paint. Indeed. But, photography by just anyone (by which I mean the likes of me) rather changes that, doesn’t?
Inside the Pompidou Centre there was Art, which we also looked at. I hope to blog about this later, but promise nothing.
February 4th, 2012 | 16 comments - (Comments are closed)
Knowing my fondness for pictures of London’s Big Things, taken from irregular places, South African blogger 6k (a scroll down there is recommended) has just emailed me with a link to thisDaily Telegraph picture, which is a view from near the top of London’s BT Tower, of such things as the Gherkin, the more distant Docklands Towers, and the now nearly completed Shard. Yes indeed, well worth a click and a look. I know I’ve said it many times before, but I love how, with this new internet thing they’ve installed recently, people six thousand miles away can email you to tell you about interesting things in your own back yard.
But the real story here is not the view from the BT Tower. It is what the view of the BT Tower is going to look like from now on, and why:
BT Tower press officer Ian Reed said: “The huge dishes are synonymous with the tower and it truly is the end of an era. With the introduction of fibreoptic cable, the satellites have been defunct for many years and have reached the end of their lifetime. People will remember the dishes from when they were children – they were responsible for 90 per cent of the TV shown in the country. They were a landmark and could be seen all over London.”
I had no idea this was going to happen. [LATER: And either the DT or Ian Reed has it wrong also. As commenter Roue de Jour explains: "They're not satellite dishes they're microwave dishes. They point to similar dishes on masts on a line-of-sight. Satellites are not involved in any way."]
Here are a couple of before and after shots of the Tower, how it looked and how it now looks. And here are two shots I took of this tower, with its big dishes, in February 2006.
I wonder what will happen next? Will they just fill in the gaps with dreary windows and office space? Or will new and different high tech contraptions be installed? I fear and expect the former, but hope for the latter.
LATER: See also another amazing London tower picture, the very first one of these. Those are the Docklands towers.
December 7th, 2011 | 16 comments - (Comments are closed)
At some point last weekend, on a whim, I did some ego-googling, and discovered that maybe I should do this more often. Because, what I got to was a video of me giving a talk, last February, about modern architecture to the Libertarian Alliance, early this year. I of course knew that it was being videoed at the time, but had assumed that they didn’t reckon it good enough to see the light of YouTube. But I was mistaken.
I managed to watch the thing all through without too much pain, but there is one glaring contradiction built into it, which is that my account of the emergence of the nineteenth century American skyscraper contradicts what I later said about form in modern architecture never following function. If by “form” is meant how a building looks, then it is indeed the case, as I said, that “form” in modern architecture follows fashion rather than function. And as a general rule, as I go on to say, a building can pretty much be changed from one use to another, depending not on what shape it is but depending on what people want to do in it. Most buildings have floors, walls, roofs, and provided you aren’t trying to accommodate a Boeing 747 or a rugby match or some such thing, then for most purposes any old building, plus a bit of indoor rearrangement, will do.
But there is (at least) one huge exception to this generalisation about the tendency of form not to follow function. The function of a skyscraper (the skyscraper and its emergence in late nineteenth century America being central to the entire story of modern architecture) is to fit a lot of people into a small urban area, and the characteristic form of a skyscraper accomplishes precisely that. It is that shape because it has to be. Form follows function. So, bad me.
But then again, part of the reason you give talks is for you yourself to listen to what you said (which is far easier if someone records it for you) and then for you to decide what you think about it.
Chairman David McDonaugh’s introduction of me was more an ambush than an introduction, and I floundered about in his trap for a while (be patient please). The title was one thing when I started talking, but they ended up calling it something rather different, and for good reasons. The talk is rather episodic, the episodes towards the end being in a somewhat random order. My attempts to wave drawings in front of the camera were not always as informative as I would have liked. Plus, I refer to my friend Patrick Crozier without making it clear video viewers that he was present, in the front row. (Patrick and I did a recorded conversation about architecture in 2007, which covered similar ground to this talk, and which I listened to again by way of preparation for this talk.)
So, a bit of a muddle. But nevertheless, overall, I am still sufficiently pleased with this performance to want to flag it up here, if only to provoke others who could do better on this topic to go ahead and do so. My belated thanks to the LA both for making the video, and for making it available.
November 30th, 2011 | 5 comments - (Comments are closed)
Here is a good collection of some of the strangest looking bits of architecture in the world. Some buildings will be familiar – like the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain – others, less so. Click on the link and scroll down. It’s a large collection.
August 14th, 2011 | 3 comments - (Comments are closed)
In this, which is about some guys from Loughborough who have decided to mark cities (scroll down a bit) like they are undergraduate essays (Alpha+, Beta+, Beta-, etc.), NickM waxes lyrical about Prague:
The coolest city is Prague. Prague is just mental. I’d happily move there tomorrow but for the language which is something else. Just super-cool. On the Charles Bridge there was a rodent balancer. Some bloke in a monk’s cowl was balancing rodents on a labrador for change. And then you just walk past where Kepler lived and customer service is spot-on and it was about a quid a pint for most excellent beer right in the city centre and the food was good quality and good value. Went to a steak house run by former firemen who donned the hats when they put the heat to the meat. Bloody good steak that was. And then down by the river and a load of blokes ride past me in Edwardian garb astride penny-farthings. Prague is just ineffably cool. Just wandering around is wonderful. Just doing that brought me by chance to the church where the killers of Reinhardt Heydrich had holed-up. That was poignant. And then there is the Museum of Communism. This is not a free museum. It makes a point of being a for profit enterprise. It advertised, when I was there, with a Russian doll with fangs. It gives it’s address as, “Above McDonalds and opposite Benetton.”. It didn’t need to add, “And fuck off Lenin”. A joy to behold.
Here endeth the broadcast from the Czech tourism bureau.
But he adds a warning:
But catch it while you can and before EU membership fucks it.
Well, EU membership doesn’t seem to have fucked London yet, despite decades of the EU trying everything they can think of to accomplish that. London, according to the Loughborough guys, is equal top (Apha++) with New York. NickM goes further. He reckons New York is overrated and has London top on its own, as the greatest city in the world “bar none”. He doesn’t say why, however.
Personally, I love London, because I live here and I just do. But I do not know where I think it ranks in the great city stakes because I seldom leave it, and hence can’t compare it with other urban greatness contenders.
I have been to Prague, which I thought was pretty good. The middle is amazing, wall-to-wall listed buildings, as we would say in London. As I assume is the case in Prague too, i.e. you may not smash it down and replace it with a concrete blockhouse, just because you “own” it. Which I understand. But the uninterruptedly historic nature of the centre means that nothing new can now be built. In other words, the centre of Prague feels like a film set, and will feel more and more like one as time passes. See also: Paris.
Instapundit (and yes I am reading him a lot just now) has been linking to a book called Gray Lady Down, which is about the downfall of the New York Times, from a persuasive proclaimer of the statist consensus to an unpersuasive proclaimer of the statist ex-consensus. I’ve not read this book, but it has a big picture of a skyscraper on its front cover. Might there, I wondered, be a brand new, custom-built headquarters involved in this story? There might indeed:
The New York Times Building is a skyscraper on the west side of Midtown Manhattan that was completed in 2007. …
Previous example of something very similar here. Since writing that earlier posting, I have dug out the original description of this syndrome, by Professor C. Northcote Parkinson, and I note that he sees the causation involved as a bit more complicated than I had previously stated. It is not just that building a new headquarters building causes an enterprise to take its eye off the ball. Its eye already was off the ball, or it would never have decided to build its new headquarters in the first place.
November 22nd, 2010 | 21 comments - (Comments are closed)
I think that in the light of the recent controversy about the place possibly known as the Cordoba Center near Ground Zero, the real cause for annoyance on the part of any New Yorker, surely, is why it has taken so long to get going with any serious construction down there. This Wikipedia entry on the Empire State Building, for example, suggests that the building in Midtown was erected in a space of only a few years. That was in the early 1930s – what was so radically different then?
I suspect that if we already had an impressive and dignified piece of architecture in the southern tip of Manhattan, the row about what happens to nearby buildings would not have erupted so much. It seems that planning and political issues are at stake here – after all, places such as Dubai and various parts of Asia put up skyscrapers with great speed these days.
Or maybe the intention all along is that Ground Zero should remain a flat, empty space of land, purely in the form of a place for remembrance.
September 1st, 2010 | 39 comments - (Comments are closed)
Opinions about new architecture differ a lot, but from where I sit, in London, and when I walk about in London taking photographs, I think that new architecture, having gone through an all-time-worst phase (apart from the BT Tower) between about 1960 and about 1980, has of late been doing rather better. This chap seems to agree, although it’s all in Russian and I could be quite wrong about that.
The latest London Big Thing to be completed is this:
It’s called the Strata, and that’s a view of it from Vauxhall railway station, just across the river from where I live, towering above a concrete stackapleb cluster between it and me with my camera. → Continue reading: Strata
May 29th, 2010 | 8 comments - (Comments are closed)
One of the interesting exhibits in the pantheon of attempted explanations for the current financial crisis is the Kingdom of Spain. Spain had a massive real estate driven asset bubble, which has since collapsed. There is high unemployment, horrible public sector budget deficits, and lots of abandoned, half built housing projects around the coast. (In January, I struck up a conversation with some Australian engineers at the next table in a restaurant at lunchtime in the business district of Hanoi. Upon asking them how business was, they told me that there are lots of construction projects going on, but they were being undercut on price by Spanish and Italian companies. When domestic demand collapses, you look elsewhere).
And yet, Spain has not had a financial crisis. Spain’s banks are generally solvent and in good shape. One explanation of this is that financial crises in other economies are more a symptom of the economic crisis rather than its cause. Asset bubbles end badly. Government overspending has consequences.
One of Spain’s banks, Grupo Santander, has been expanding steadily throughout the world for a little over a decade. Unlike certain other banks of an expansionary nature (Royal Bank of Scotland, cough), Santander did not combine the acquisition of foreign banks with stupid lending, and so when the global banking sector fell in a heap a couple of years ago, Santander did what sound companies often do, and went looking for cheap assets. These included the small UK bank Alliance and Leicester, and the branch network and savings business of Bradford and Bingley (after its toxic assets had been nationalised by the UK government). Santander was an attractive buyer from the perspective of the UK government, as its expansionary frame of mind meant that it was unlikely to close branches and shed lots of employees.
My general inclination here is to compliment the management on running a good business. However, there is something disturbing, just the same. I have felt this for a while. Spanish financial institutions (and in truth Spanish organisations of all kinds) have a thing for building office complexes in the suburbs of Madrid that look like something out of a James Bond movie. It would be mean to say something about lingering residues of fascism here, so I will not do this.
However, the new headquarters (er, sorry, I mean the Ciudad Grupo Santander) shown in the above video really does appear to be a doosey. Professor Parkinson would no doubt have something to say here, but I feel oddly positive. However much I sometimes think that people who make corporate videos of this kind are best when placed on the B-Ark, being driven around by bright red Spanish banko-robots is certainly going to make marketing visits to foreign financial institutions a lot more fun. (Do they bring in Lewis Hamilton to race them on AGM day? Jokes about “augmented reality” in banking could go on and on, too).
It’s a shame that they have to build this sort of thing in Madrid, though. Building it (perhaps on an artificial island?) next to the private zoo in King Alfonso XIII’s weird coastal folly in the actual Ciudad (non-Grupo) Santander would be fitting, in some unexplainable way.
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