Anish Kapoor – Orbit

8 04 2010

Anish Kapoor's 'Eiffel Tower'

Sculpture as architecture is always a thorny subject. Does a sculptor have the technical know-how that an architect does? Have they studied the fabric of construction and know about the mathematics, as well as the creativity, that goes into a building? The answer is probably not – I may be generalising here, but I think it’s a fair bet.

Great architecture is, of course, about the collaboration between many disciplines. It’s the structural engineers who tell us if what we’ve put down on paper will actually work, it’s the quantity and cost surveyors who help us bring a project into existence, the landscape architects who shape the environment around it and the all the other professions are what make a great building, well, great.

Anish Kapoor’s Olympic Tower is a staggering crimson structure that twists and turns it’s way up to 120 metres in height. It has been dubbed the British ‘Eiffel Tower’ – but can it stand up to such a comparison? The London 2012 games are, we’ve been told, Britain’s chance to put on an Olympics with a true British character: something a little quirky, a little off-the-wall. We may not have the budget China had, but we sure as hell are going to put on an ‘individual’ show. Personally, I think that’s great. There’s no reason why we can’t put on an exemplary games with a smaller budget than other countries may have at their disposal, but does that involve a £19 million steel tower? Surely the fact we are working with an increasingly diminishing budget means we should be spending our cash wisely?

The ‘ArcelorMittal Orbit’, to give it it’s full name, has been funded by Europe’s richest man – Lakshmi Mittal – a British Indian steel magnate. He has been named the 5th richest man in the world and sits atop many of the worlds most infulential, and richest companies. He’s non-executive Director of Goldman Sachs, for example – one of the major players in the worldwide financial meltdown – now there’s some kudos for a games that’s supposed to represent modern Britain on a budget. A little insensitive maybe?

All of the political and financial quips aside, does this tower fit the London Olympics? Will it serve to be the shining beacon of our games that it’s supposed to be? There’s no doubt that the East London site the Olympics is calling its home is in need of regeneration, and that anything that can last past those few summer weeks when the games actually take place is a bonus, but I’m unsure whether the Orbit will have longevity.

The Eiffel Tower, of course, was never supposed to live past 1909, but has managed to become an iconic landmark of Paris. Similarly, the Eiffel Tower was met with the same sorts of criticism to that of the ArcelorMittal Orbit – maybe then, I’m being shortsighted. Maybe this tower will define the games in 2012 and will serve as a lasting memory of modern Britain’s creativity and ingenuity. Once I get up in that lift to the viewing platform and have a look for myself, I’ll decide. For now I’m on the fence – a colossal expense, but who knows, maybe it will become one of the landmarks of London?


2010 Pritzker Prize winners: Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa

29 03 2010

Japanese partners in the architectural firm SANAA (Kazuyo Sejima + Ryue Nishizawa) have been awarded with the ‘2010 Laureate of the Pritzker Architecture Prize’ for their outstanding contributions toward groundbreaking, innovative architecture in the built environment today.

This is the third time since the prize’s inception that two architects have been awarded; this first was in 1988 when Oscar Niemeyer and Gordon Bunshaft were honoured, and the second in 2001 when Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron (post coming soon about their new ‘VitraHaus’) received the award.

So what makes Sejima & Nishizawa worthy winners? How can one distill an award like this, which promises to seek out: “a living
architect whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision and commitment, which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture.” That’s no mean feat.

A majority of SANAA’s work has been limited to their native Japan, was this ‘worldwide’ award, then, correctly dished out? SANAA’s architecture is beautiful, don’t get me wrong, it’s clean, simple, organic and ever-so Japanese. They have consistently designed perfectly functional and attractive buildings, so I believe they well deserve the award. There’s just one thing that niggles at me: there seems to be a lack of fire in much of their work. Everything is white render, floor to ceiling glazing and cold hard steel. I think sometimes you could argue a white box always looks edgy and beautiful if you stick in a field surrounded by ancient woodland and a beautiful, lush landscape. Take that box out of the landscape and stick it in a desolate urban environment, and suddenly it can loose all it’s appeal – not always, but it’s tricky to get right. SANAA’s ’21st Century Museum’ in Kanazawa, Japan borders on the edge of ‘fashionable’ architecture for me, and fails to impact as much as it would like to.

Their design for the ‘New Museum of Contemporary Art’ in new York however manages to shrug off the ‘white box’ syndrome by cleverly, and effectively playing with form and structure. The museum resembles, quite aptly considering my ‘white box’ analogy, a pile of white boxes stacked irregularly on top of each other. Each level has looked at individually and has been planned with precision for the job at hand – temporary and movable walls allow the gallery space to shift to accommodate the work being shown. The interior is sleek and minimalist, but not cold; it seems to want to house glorious works of art. This white box has soul.

SANAA then, have the worldwide recognition that will, no doubt, propel them even further into the architectural limelight. I suppose then, as much as honoring architects whom have already shown us what they can do, they can sometimes highlight what’s to come. Let’s hope Sejima & Nishizawa take this award as a sign to up their game – their audience just got a whole lot bigger.

Masterpieces: Lloyd’s of London

24 03 2010

A monolith on the skyline, the Lloyd’s building has firmly cemented itself into the heart of London’s financial ‘Square Mile’. It is inimitable in style and seems to hold, within it’s 55,000m2 space, the power London holds over the ebb and flow of the world’s financial markets.

Designed by Richard Roger’s Partnership and Completed in 1986, it brought to the captial not just a structure so revolutionary and iconic in style, but also a lesson in subtlety, form and function to a city being rapidly consumed by cardboard cut out office blocks. Even today, you walk past One Lime Street and are taken aback by it’s beautiful and intriguing outer skin; it seems to soften the grid-like structures around it, and yet holds more authority that any of them put together. It’s a kind of quiet strength that still holds it’s own over twenty years later.

The style, of course, was not Roger’s first exploration into what was dubbed ‘Bowelism’. The ‘Centres Georges Pompidou’ opened in Paris to mixed reviews in 1977 with its unorthodox construct – all the core services for the building: heating, water, ventilation and even the stairs all clung to the exterior of the building leaving the interior massive and infinitely usable. The same principle applies to Lloyds: the idea of a building, no matter its physical size, not being bound to one form or finite use is what Roger’s achieved. Just like in the Pompidou, Lloyds’ interior space was designed to shift with the ever-changing markets that governed the business that was to take place there.

‘The room’ as it was known was the space used for the heart of the business  and was a crucial part of the scheme for Lloyd’s – here the deals were made that drove the company. Roger’s designed this area to be flexible; it could expand and contract when needed to reflect the demands of the time via a series of galleries around one central space, the escalators and lifts providing easy access between floors.

All the cumbersome services expelled to the exterior left the interior of the building truly remarkable – a vast, highly efficient space with the ability to change as and when needed. Not only does this create a visual sense of simplicity, but acoustically too. In a business where a majority of the work takes place verbally, it’s startling that, by removing the moan of water pipes and other indistinct murmurs of industry from the area, the space is remarkably quiet for such a large building.

Looking up through the 84 metre high internal atrium is truly an amazing sight, with layer upon layer of perfectly formed space; the interior in some ways resembles a hive. It’s opaque glazing too lends to the idea of a building designed for industry, both in it’s functionality but also in it’s aesthetic, and yet it never feels cold.

Relentless it may appear, but it works because it is subtle and complex, not brash. It works because it can change; it seems to sit somewhere between solidity and transience and, when the financial world swells once more, this building will be still be here, still adapting and still doing what was asked of it back in 1986.

Brick Lane Arches

22 03 2010

Plans to install ‘hijab’ inspired arches at either end of Brick Lane in London’s East End have been unveiled by Tower Hamlets council, sparking controversy from not just architects and designers, but from residents themselves – but why? Surely, with the East London line racing towards completion, it would make sense to create a new ‘gateway’ into Shoreditch and the areas beyond. It would increase the traffic of people through Brick Lane, more tourists, more sightseers more revenue – all that for £1.85m is worth it, right? Surely though, Tower Hamlets wouldn’t be so calculating (literally) as to see these installations merely as shiny beacons luring confused tourists from Liverpool Street to the boutiques and cafes of Shoreditch? Maybe there’s some other motive here.

“The gates represent lots of different communities and how diverse and special Tower Hamlets is.” Said a Tower Hamlets spokesperson in a recent BBC interview.

Bingo: these arches aren’t just money making fads – they’re political. Here’s where the controversy comes in. Here’s where the flaw, in what must have been, in Tower Hamlets eyes, a way of expressing their respect for ethnic minorities, becomes apparent. The arches clearly resemble a Muslim ‘hijab’ – are we therefore led to believe that Brick Lane is made up entirely of Muslims? Is this not offensive to the large Jewish community? To the Hindu’s, the Sikh’s and every other faith in the area? Religious imagery, or anything close to it is surely something to consider carefully when building anything in a large, densely populated city like London? I’m not proposing there be nothing related to any kind of faith, that would leave the city cold, but sensitivity is key.

Local residents have expressed their anger at the proposed arches, including artist Brad Lochore who remarked:

“These are symbols of domination and repression. It’s the wrong sign and it will mean trouble. Its territorialisation for one minority group. And that’s unacceptable.”

Are we, then, desperately trying to galvanise our society, to encourage everyone that we can all get along and live together in harmony, or is this simply political correctness gone absurd? It’s a shame that actions like this do little but highlight attempts to ‘appear’ to be inclusive and respectful of other cultures, when in actual fact it sort of feels like your Dad dancing at a wedding – cringe worthy, embarrassing and a little out of time.

All of this criticism and controversy may, however, be too strong a reaction to a council that are clearly trying to push things forwards and embrace a modern, diverse London that we can all be proud of. After all, take a look at the numerous churches and synagogues brushing alongside the giants of commerce around Liverpool Street (the Gherkin is visible just about everywhere you go around here) – this juxtaposition is what a city is about. Surely then, a splash of religious imagery couldn’t hurt, no matter what faith it’s rooted in? I think maybe a lesson in finesse and sensitivity is in order; or failing that get ’em some dance lessons.