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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Ecclesiastical eyesore destroys view of Shard!

Early yesterday evening, taking advantage of a small window of nice weather in our mostly appalling British “summer”, I took a stroll across the river. I ended up in the London Bridge area, where, just before descending into the Tube to go back home, I took this picture:

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That is a church called Saint George the Martyr.

Now, you may think that this church is behaving itself, but actually, it is seriously interrupting the view of the recently completed Shard. To show you what I mean, here is another picture which I took seconds later:

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Now you see it, now you don’t.

I’m just kidding (I had in mind sentiments like this) about the church being an eyesore. Saint George the Martyr looks very nice, and I find these two buildings particularly pleasing when they are thus aligned.

Earlier I had taken another picture of St George the Martyr and the Shard, but from further away. The church looks smaller, just as you would expect. But the Shard looks bigger the further away you get from it, because it becomes so much clearer that it actually is so very big, and so much bigger than everything else.

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My more serious point is that the Shard, far from being an alien and intrusive presence, actually fits into big old London very well indeed, not least because it echoes some of London most characteristic and most loved architectural shapes. That’s what I think, anyway.

Some declare themselves offended by the Shard, as has already been noted here. But for me, London without its recent crop of skyscrapers would be a less appealing and far duller place. Had the Shard only got as far as the pretend photo stage, but had it never actually materialised, I’d have been very sad. If lack of money had caused that, well, that happens, when boom turns to bust. But had the Shard been politically aborted because of its alleged aesthetic offensiveness, I would have been offended myself.

I aim to juxtapose

juxta2_thumb.jpgLondon, England. (Photographed from a rooftop in Peckham)

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Chernobyl, Ukraine. (Photographed from a rooftop in Pripyat).

Chicago’s Aqua Tower

While rootling around in my personal blog archives chasing up something else, I recently found myself looking again at this 2007 posting, about what looked like being a really cool tower, in Chicago. So, I wondered, did they actually build it?

Indeed they did. Here is a good photo culled from amongst these, which I found here:

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I also particularly recommend these photos, which say “^John Picken- flickr/cc license” in among them, so I’m guessing that means don’t copy without asking, so I didn’t. But that needn’t stop you looking at the photos where I found them.

LATER: Wrong. “cc” means (see comments) creative commons. (I thought it meant copyright only more so.) So here’s another picture:

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It’s called the Aqua Tower. Likes and dislikes in architecture are very much a personal matter. One man’s masterpiece is another’s mediocrity or worse. But I liked the idea of the Aqua Tower when I encountered it five years ago, and judging by the photos I’ve seen, I would like the reality of it now, if I were to see it in the flesh.

It is truly remarkable how similar the photos of this building are to the imaginary pictures of it when it was first announced, which is not always how it is, to put it mildly.

Says this:

Aqua certainly succeeds in making a strong visual statement, but what makes the statement noteworthy … is the simplicity and economy of the main vehicle of expression: the curvy and varied projection of the buildings concrete floor slabs. Aqua does not rely on expensive cladding materials or subject its occupants to impractical interior spaces for the honor of architectural aesthetic.

The floor slabs are a necessary part of the 82-story building’s structure and Studio Gang manipulated them to simultaneously enhance sightlines of major Chicago sites from the balconies (increases function) and give the building exterior an innovative form (increases beauty). The glass-skinned walls of the condo and hotel units behind the balcony edges are rectangular and therefore economical and functional.

Which is a more detailed version of what I said in 2007:

What I admire about this building is that, under the cute decoration, it is a bog standard, structurally and economically completely logical tower.

I also learned, here, that the Aqua Tower is the tallest building in the world designed by a woman. Her name is Jeanne Gang. Meanwhile, the men have not stopped trying to outdo each other. You suspect that with that building, we are back with “impractical interior spaces for the honor of architectural aesthetic”. And speaking of impractical interior spaces, at any rate towards the top, here in London, the Shard is nearly done, and is looking very good, or so I think.

I entirely realise that this latest phase in the history of architecture has been fuelled by silly money. But when you consider what else this money has also been spent on, I say thank heavens we at least have some good looking stuff to show for all the agony.

One New Change

I am always on the look out for new spots from which to look out over London and take photos. Last week, I discovered another such place, on the roof of something called One New Change, which is a big new shopping centre right next to St Paul’s Cathedral. The weather during the last few weeks has mostly been vile but during a brief break in this weather, I journeyed to One New Change to check it out, and in particular to see if I could go up to its roof and take photos. Internet omens seemed good, but you never really know about such things until you get there.

Here is the entrance I used to get inside One New Change:

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Click on any of these pictures if you want to see them bigger.

Modernist architects used to be fond of a phrase to the effect that form should follow function. But the truth is that when it comes to architecture, form tends to follow not function but fashion.

To be fair to the architects, fashion tends also to follow what is technologically possible. At any given moment in modern architectural history, architects have asked themselves: what does building technology now enable us to do which we couldn’t do half a decade ago, thus enabling us to get passers-by to say: Wow, look at that. Is it fair to call this “fashion”? I think so. After all, that is surely how the fashion business itself tends to operate.

So it is with One New Change. Only if you already knew, as I already knew when I went looking for it, would you have known that this is a shopping centre. It could have been a university, an office block, an “arts” or “community” centre, a library, or any one of half a dozen other things. But, you can tell at once that it was only very recently constructed, because here is a building done in the planes of glass at bizarre angles style. Which is a very recent architectural fashion. (One of the growth service industries of our time is presumably specialist window cleaning, of windows that are not easily reached by the usual methods of simply hanging a platform out over the vertical edge of a building and then just going up and down and side to side.)

Where did this style come from? Much of it, as I say, is a case of “because we can”. Glass has got a lot stronger and cleverer in recent years, as have building materials generally. And now that architects have computers to keep track of everything, they can design – and more to the point can build – buildings made in these bizarre shapes.

Another influence at work on modern architecture generally and One New Change in particular is, I surmise, ships. Modernist architects have always been envious of and heavily influenced by ship designers, because with ships, form really does have to follow function, far, far more than is the case with most buildings. Many a nineteen thirties block of flats, with its long horizontal outdoor walkways and curved corners, was designed by an architect with his head full of ocean liner imagery.

More recent ships, of the stealth sort, now offer further “inspiration”. My first reaction to One New Change was that here was a building that was trying to avoid being spotted on anyone’s radar. Which is a very reasonable thing for a building to want to do if it is only a stone’s throw from St Paul’s Cathedral.

So anyway, I went in through this entrance, and found escalators, and a big lift shaft. I decided to try the lift. Early indicators, in the form first of the lift, and then in the form of this very striking view of St Paul’s from this lift, were very good:

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That’s a rather wonkily angled photo, what with the lift being in motion and me having only one go at it. Plus, it looks misleadingly dark, on account of me looking towards the afternoon sun. But I like it anyway, because of the sky and the reflections and St Paul’s.

Nobody tried to stop me getting into this lift, as the somewhat warlike appearance of the outside the building was perhaps subconsciously suggesting to me might have happened. I just pushed the usual buttons, just as in any other shopping centre, or for that matter big department store, and up I went.

The lift itself, made from reassuringly solid slabs of that new and clever glass that I have already mentioned, was clearly designed with the viewing experience of those travelling in it very much in mind. It isn’t buried in a lift shaft. Rather is it hung out on the inside of the building, as happens in grand American hotel lobbies that you see in movies. And a slice has been cut from top to bottom through the building to enable St Paul’s to be visible from this lift, throughout one’s ascent. All of which strongly suggested that a similar concern for viewing pleasure might also prevail at the top of the building. The lift rose upwards, and my level of photographic optimism rose with it.

When I got to the top, nobody made me buy a ticket or tried to check my bag or any such thing. And I was right to be photographically optimistic:

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Wow. → Continue reading: One New Change

Two London towers

Things seem to be a bit quiet here this weekend, so here’s a picture I took earlier this evening:

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Click to get it bigger.

This is not Photoshopped. That’s exactly what came out of my camera when I got home.

What it is is a picture of the Shard, taken by me from the front seat of a D(ocklands) L(ight) R(ailway) automated train, as the train approached its central London terminus, which is near to the Tower of London.

Taking photos through train windows is, as all photographers know, fraught with peril, because of all those stupid reflections in the glass of the window that you inevitably get, of such things as lights inside the train. But this time, what was reflected in the window was a tower on the other side of the train, namely the Gherkin. And since the train was going very slowly at the time, I was able to line the two towers up with each other.

Well, I like it.

The new Kings Cross concourse

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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

Quadrotors

The other day Jonathan was worrying about military drones. Well, you definitely want these guys on your side. Still, there are certainly peaceful applications.

For details, see the Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control, the GRASP lab, and Hack a day.

The Pompidou Centre shows its age

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:

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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.

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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.

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And it gets worse. I was actually quite shocked to see things like this:

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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.

A makeover for London’s BT Tower

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 this Daily 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.

A video talk about modern architecture

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.

Mental health break – some seriously weird buildings

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.

Museum of Communism: Above McDonalds and opposite Benetton

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.