Posts Tagged ‘Architecture’

The Last Days of Italy

July 2, 2014

I have at last unglued my bottom from the passenger seat of our trusty car Beryl – so named after Beryl Markham, wonderful author, adventurer and pilot extraordinaire. I know it’s a car not a plane, but needs must. Emilybooks’ Lucca days are now over and London life will ensue once again. Though I can’t feel too glum, as  July is looking rather wonderfully full of walking book club trips – there is the Hampstead Heath meeting this Sunday to discuss Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife; then at Perch Hill Summer Feast (12th-13th July) we’ll be talking about The Leopard, and finally Deer Shed Festival on 25th-27th July brings a welcome revisit to Jane Eyre.

But first a little run down on the last days of Italy…

We set off for Ravenna – which should have been an easy three hours or so, though the husband decided to throw a bit of adventure in the mix by stopping off at an Alvar Aalto church ‘on the way’. Perhaps it would have been more on the way if I weren’t doing the map-reading and the Michelin map was slightly less complicated, but it took us about four hours just to get to the church… It was a great church, however; rather different from all the Renaissance churches we’d spent the last two months gawping over. Instead of their habit of bright white marble outside and cool dark interior, this one was very dark (and I have to say even a little dreary) on the outside, but flooded with light inside.

The bright inside of the Alvar Aalto Church

A Ravenna peacockWe spent the night at a sweet agriturismo outside Ravenna, with delicious food, where peacocks strutted decoratively. On to Ravenna the next morning where we were completely dazzled by all the mosaics, impossibly beautiful, and unexpectedly cheerful. We were to end up in Vicenza that evening, but had a quick stop-off for a gelato (of course) at Ferrara, which really was en route. I longed to see more evidence of Giorgio Bassani, who wrote some wonderful novels set there, including The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, but alas I could discover no museum. Instead we saw a very spiky building – the Palazzo dei Diamante – where I dunked my head under a fountain to save myself from expiring from the heat, while chic Italians looked on with amusement.

Very hot outside the Palazzo dei diamante in Ferrara

Very hot outside the Palazzo dei diamante in Ferrara

And rather cooler after the fountain

And rather cooler after the fountain

Vicenza was a winner, with another architectural theme – masses of stuff by Palladio which was all very impressive, though not quite sufficient for the husband, who drove us off into the hills the following day to see some things by Carlo Scarpa. It was certainly ‘off the track’, and I have to say the Tomba Brion was one of the most beautiful, special places I’ve ever been.


The husband was in architectural heaven and took a million photos, in raptures over all the detailing, while I sat and read for a while and looked at the enormous fish which poked their heads out from amongst the lilly pads.

Among the lilly pads

We also saw the huge and wonderful Palladian Villa Barbaro, where we had to shuffle around in strange over-sized slippers and there were some very sweet and attentive puppies.

 Puppies at the Villa Barbaro

Then across to Milan, where we met an (architectural) friend for lunch, and wandered through some antique markets by the canals. There I spotted this rather pretty bicycle.

A Milanese bicycle

Then through Mont Blanc (aka the rather cheerier ‘Monte Bianco’) to the Haute Savoie, very close to Geneva. Typically, just as we got off the motorway and my map-reading had to begin in earnest, the most colossal thunderstorm broke, and we were unable to see or hear anything much at all. It was not helped by Google Maps telling us to go up an off-road track. Poor Beryl was rather relieved when we did at last arrive at our destination.

The next day we were to go back to Champagne to the very pretty B&B where we spent the first night of our travels. The husband thought it essential, however, to go ‘via’ Ronchamp – a Le Corbusian masterpiece. It was indeed incredible, and added a mere three hours to our journey.


We arrived at last and staggered off to Chalons-en-Champagne – the nearest town – to find something for dinner, only to arrive just as France won their World Cup match. The little, not especially charming, town was soon even less so as it became overrun with crazed football fans letting of bangers, kicking beer cans, starting fights, tooting their horns and driving around like maniacs. We tried to enter into the spirit of things but were unfortunately rather too dazed from seeing nothing but motorway for hours. We ate our quite squalid chicken and chips in exhausted silence and swiftly retreated to said B&B.

So to the final day of our travels. First we drove up the road to Verzy where we wandered through the forest to see some curious twisted beech trees. Then, instead of stopping for a delicious final lunch, we hastened towards a grimmish ‘zone industrielle’ near St Omer to try and make the half-past three tour of a glass-making factory. We pulled in at three twenty-five, after some map-reading of which I was rather proud, only to be told that in spite of what their website had said, there was no tour until six thirty – too late for us. Stuck for something to do, we found this very strange place nearby called La Coupole – a huge concrete dome half-buried in the cliff, built as a launchpad for Hitler’s V2 rockets. It was impressive and horrible, freezing cold and sinister. It made all those James Bond filmsets look uncannily realistic. We read that the hundreds of Soviet prisoners who had been made to build it had soon after ‘disappeared’. The place was filled with awful stories about life under the Nazi occupation and Hitler’s pursuit of his secret weapons. I couldn’t believe that Wernher von Braun, who was in charge of most the rocket programme, and a member of the SS, was snatched by America after the War, not for trial, but to help develop their rockets for the Space Race. He was made an American citizen and even presented a science show on the Walt Disney channel! Amongst his particular brutalities was his encouragement of the use of slave labour from concentration camps to help build the rockets. Many more people died in building the rockets and their factories than were killed by the finished weapons. Quite how this man – and many members of his team – managed to be so welcomed by America is not clear. Please could somebody write a book about it?

And then to Calais, and then on the train, and then a late-night Lebanese feast on London’s Edgware Road, and then to Emilybooks’ mother’s, where we will be staying until we move back in to our flat at the weekend…

The Inimitable Jeeves read by Martin JarvisBut what about the books, I hear you ask… Well there was little time for reading anything other than maps when in the car for so long, but what made the journey extremely pleasant was listening to PG Wodehouse audio books. I have never fared too well with audiobooks, finding that my mind wanders too much, but Wodehouse, read by the incredibly talented Martin Jarvis, was a triumph! All the way to Italy we chuckled along to Jeeves and Wooster stories about love-lorn Bingo Little, Gussy Finknottle and his newts, the various dreadful aunts, the cooly unflappable Jeeves and lovely Bertie Wooster, who will stop at nothing to get his friends out of a tight spot. I was particularly keen on the stories when everyone thinks Bertie’s a lunatic.

Heavy weather by PG WodehouseOn the way home, we listened to Heavy Weather, a Blandings tale, and were similarly entranced by the brilliantly over-complicated plot about various toffs trying to get hold of Galahad’s juicy memoirs, and Lord Emsworth thinking of nothing but his beloved pig, the Empress of Blandings. We giggled and snorted and exclaimed as the miles of motorway rolled away. Perhaps this unbelievably English story didn’t suit our surroundings particularly well, but it did conjure a feeling of immense fondness towards England – even if our little flat is rather less grand than Blandings Castle, and we have a tortoise not a pig… In any case it was just what was needed to speed us on our return.


English Country Houses

January 21, 2013

There is nothing quite like the English country house anywhere else in the world.

So begins Vita Sackville-West’s proud and patriotic English Country Houses, a slim but lavishly illustrated book, first published in 1941 as part of a series called ‘Britain in Pictures’.

Britain in Pictures

This wonderfully eccentric series was commissioned by editor, writer and literary editor of the Spectator, Walter J. Turner, and stretched to 132 books, published by Collins between 1941 and 1949. They were, no doubt, commissioned in part to foster a sense of nationalism and pride in Britain and everything she stood for; a morale booster for a British people beleaguered by tough times of war and rationing. Turner got some of the best writers of the day on board – Vita Sackville-West, as you see, and also George Orwell, Graham Greene, Elizabeth Bowen and many others.

Reading through the list of titles (which you can find in full here), it’s hard not to grin at such delights as ‘British Merchant Adventurers’, ‘British Rebels and Reformers’, ‘British Sea Fishermen’, ‘Sporting Pictures of England’, ‘British Clocks and Clockmakers’, ‘British Chess’, and, perhaps most intriguing, ‘Life Among the English’ by Rose Macaulay. And, lest we forget, ‘British’ back then didn’t just refer to life on our Sceptred Isle, but volumes entitled ‘East Africa’, ‘Canada’, ‘India’ and ‘Australia’ remind us just how far British rule stretched.

I worry that like this Guardian journalist, I will find that knowing about this series will foster an addiction. Now I long to go into a second-hand bookshop and serendipitously happen across one of the other 132 titles in the series, and another, and another … Book collecting is a slippery slope.

English Country Houses by Vita Sackville-WestBut for now I am more than happy with my volume by Vita Sackville-West, kindly and thoughtfully given to me by a fellow bookseller, to whom I meagrely offered some Scottish tablet from my days in Nan Shepherd country.

So what is it that is so unique about English country houses, that sets them apart from French chateaux and German castles? In a brilliant sentence which is about as old-school English aristo as you can get, Vita Sackville-West writes:

The peculiar genius of the English country house lies in its knack of fitting in.

This encapsulates the sentiment of the whole book, which praises above all moderation, proportion and scale. I had to laugh when Sackville-West raced past the Gothic Revival:

It is surely not necessary to give more than a passing mention to the freak architecture of the Gothic Revival … [which] proved ludicrously unsuited to the English counties … we may rejoice that the whimsical air of novelty was so soon blown away.  Had the same fate attended the later purely Gothic craze, we should be spared much to-day: St. Pancras Station, the Albert Memorial, and streets of gable villas with stained glass in the doors.

Evidently, Vita Sackville-West finds this ‘freak’ architecture, these ‘crazes’, this ‘whimsical air of novelty’ terribly alarming. It certainly doesn’t match her vision of the country house, perfectly melting into the surrounding landscape. She tries to explain away the Gothic Revival as a result of boredom with tradition – classic houses ‘were safe, but they were dull.’

This is deeply revealing of the time that she wrote English Country Houses. The Blitz was from September 1940 to May 1941 – it was a time when houses were going up in flames, when buildings felt everything but ‘safe’ and ‘dull’. Confronted with whole cities blazing on the horizon, no wonder she yearned for safe and dull houses that ‘agree with’ their landscape and don’t ‘overwhelm [their] surroundings’.

From the ashes of the Blitz, rose this phoenix of a catalogue and guide to our country houses. Here Vita Sackville-West strives to preserve these houses under threat from fire and changing economic times:

with war taxation and the present rate of death duties it seems improbable that any family fortune will long suffice to retain such homes in private ownership.

Who could be a better guide than this most aristo of aristos, who could count both Knole and Sissinghurst as her homes? For not only does Sackville-West provide a lengthy catalogue of what the houses look like from the outside but she pays loving attention to their interiors and offers some affectionate remarks on the people who lived in them:

I fancy that any English aristocratic intellectual house-party in 1610 would not have differed very much from the equivalent house-party held at any time between the years 1912-1939. The Cecils must have talked in very much the same way at Hatfield in 1619 as the Cecils at Hatfield might talk in 1939, with the same mixture of political and intellectual interests, switching over from one to the other; and so, I imagine, a family party of the Sidneys at Penshurst must have run over all the happenings of life, skating gracefully from one subject to the other, never dwelling ponderously on anything, but always touching delicately and briefly, in the true sense of Humanism.

There must have been something deeply comforting about this feeling of continuity, of English people rooted in English places, in the face of so much upheaval. Of course Sackville-West was right to be sorrowful about what the future would hold for these country seats, to feel anxious that the Cecils might not still be holding intellectual house parties at Hatfield in three hundred years time. (Although, she’d be relieved to see that the Cecils are one of the few aristocratic families who have held on to their ancestral home.)

Reading English Country Houses today, it is indeed a window on to lost world. It is a magnificent catalogue of the National Trust, before the National Trust stepped in to help most of these aristos out. One feels incredibly grateful for the book, for Sackville-West to have succeeded in her last-ditch attempt to capture a precious part of British life before it pretty much disappeared. And a part of you can’t help but wish that these good old days continued and mourn the loss of this well-established, noble way of life.

But before we get too glum about what has been lost, let’s look a little more closely at the cover of the book, which shows the gates of an English country house … closed. Closed to outsiders, to those not invited to those intellectual house parties, not born into wealth and land. Let’s not forget that this life was, for the most part, terribly shut-off to the hoi polloi, unrepentantly elitist and snobby. In any case, if one ever did get through those steely gates, life was terribly elegant but, like the houses, perhaps a little ‘safe’ and ‘dull’.

For sure, we must mourn with Vita Sackville-West the loss of these houses, the inescapable sadness that comes from turning a living country house into the ‘dead thing’ of a museum, but let’s not be too sad at the loss of the Downton Abbey way of life. Now we can embrace the recklessness, irreverence and fun, which she found so alarming. And, come on, who cannot be impressed or feel even a little bit fond of the mad exuberance of St. Pancras?

St Pancras

Venice Biennale

August 29, 2012

If a picture speaks a thousand words, then a 3D scale model must speak a thousand cubed words, which – I think – is 1,000,000,000. No surprise then that at the Venice architecture Biennale, there aren’t many words around.

But quite thrillingly, the words that are there are displayed with a sense of playfulness and imagination. I found that while the husband wandered around looking at all the models and drawings, I was rather distracted by so many fun displays of words.

People were treading on these little pavement paragraphs inside the Belgium pavilion:

And yes, that is my sandaled foot poking in to illustrate the point.

This was the somewhat headache-inspiring display in the Czech pavilion:

I still haven’t got to the end of that scrambled sentence.

This was quite fun from Australia:

But my favourite was in America’s pavilion:

Each black box is connected via a pulley to a sign. These signs run in rows all across the room. When you pull down on one of the signs, the corresponding block on the wall goes up, showing how the idea illustrated on the sign, provides the link between problem and solution. Words and pulleys – what a winning combination.

We were rather too busy to have time for much reading, and what time there was – on the lovely long train rides there and back – was spent either conked out with exhaustion or drinking lots of coffee and anxiously reading through the first printout of my own novel. (For some good Venetian reading, see this post.) But I did get a case of severe book envy in the apartment where we were staying:

Aren’t they the most beautiful books you’ve ever seen? Lucky there weren’t any written in English, or I’d have been tempted to pocket one.


What we talk about when we talk about architecture

July 11, 2011

Last week I spent rather a lot of time in the company of architects. There was once a time when I used to panic in these situations and my conversation would diminish to the single line of, ‘Have you read The Fountainhead?’

The Fountainhead is a huge, trashy, very addictive novel. Its main character, Howard Roark, is a modernist architect who has arrived on the scene before his time. His visions of clean lines and functional architecture are scorned by critics, who prefer the mediocre, unoriginal, overly ornate traditional architecture practised by Roark’s friend Peter Keating. When a rebellious lady – Dominique – turns up on the scene, the plot thickens and becomes very engrossing.

I suppose what slightly undermines the novel is that it is all an extended metaphor for Rand’s philosophical beliefs of rational egoism, capitalism and objectivism. She uses the novel to say, essentially: the individual is important, sod the collective masses. I distinctly remember a long boring section towards the end where she goes off on an undisguised rant about it.

But, nonetheless, it’s a fun novel, Roark is a superb hero – he even spends time working in a quarry! – and it does provide something to talk about when one meets an architect. There are few architects who haven’t read it.

Now, after several years of accompanying the fiancé (who has just finished studying architecture) to all sorts of architecty things, I can normally manage some real architectural conversation. So spending so much time around architects last week was really fun. I didn’t panic once. Now I can talk a bit about buildings and cities, and drop in a few names of architects who I like, or who I don’t. (On the latter, I even wrote a post – here – about Daniel Libeskind.)

But, in spite of this, I occasionally find myself bringing up the old Fountainhead line. Ironically, this is because architects are less Randian and self-centred than The Fountainhead would lead one to believe, so they tend to take an interest in what I do. And so the subject of books arises. And, in order to make this common ground, it’s quite helpful to have an architectural book or two up one’s sleeve.

The next step up in architectural-literary conversation, I discovered, is to read a real architecture book – a book written by an architect, about ideas in architecture that are a bit more subtle than modernism versus traditionalism.

So, on an architect’s recommendation, I read Eccentric Spaces by Robert Harbison. This is one of those books that is rammed full of very intelligent, perfectly nuanced, original ideas.

I like these books but I find they require so much concentration and brain power that I can only manage about two-and-a-half pages at a time. I also continually suffer from the feeling that I’m not fully understanding them.

My tactic for these books is to concentrate particularly hard on the bits that discuss something – as in a building, painting or book – with which I’m familiar, and not to worry too much about the passages that discuss things that I haven’t seen or read. Especially if there aren’t any pictures.

So I found myself very much enjoying Harbison’s discussion of the Boboli gardens, which is one of my favourite places in Florence – and indeed was where we sought respite last summer, when the fiancé got sunstroke. This bit’s particularly good:

If we imagine the forms of a formal garden like the Boboli … in masonry instead of vegetation we get an unexpectedly bizarre construction which shows that people let themselves be confined by plants in ways they would endure uneasily indoors. In the Boboli there is proportionately so much corridor for the number or rooms one might think we came outside for the experience of confinement, which can be enjoyed at greater length there … At times it seems that gardens exist to give a controlled experience of being lost or trapped and the distance seems slight from the maze at Hampton Court to the horrid gardens of fairy tales with poison plants, poison fountains, traps, and cages.

Whenever I’ve been in the Boboli gardens I’ve spent ages wandering around – there never seems to be a good spot to sit down and I’ve always felt that I’ve got to keep going to the next bit, not unlike being in a maze. There is something undoubtedly overbearing about all those hedges and the surprising lack of open space. And there is definitely a resemblance to a fairy-tale, a feeling of having to get past all the obstacles to find one’s way out. I like the way Harbison writes in simple yet precise language, how he uses the word ‘horrid’ and gives the word its sense of ‘horror’ as well as the more common sense of ‘nasty’.

I also like Harbison’s description of what it feels like to wander among the Roman Forum and among ruins in general:

The vegetation softens and makes agreeable huge and sterile buildings yet the spectator longs for what is not there, tries to re-erect fallen pillars, to hold a decayed roof in place, to decorate and furnish before it all collapses into the present.

It seems particularly pertinent for me as I’m writing a novel about a derelict house and the stories which it has to tell. The entire book, I suppose, is an attempt, if not to re-erect fallen pillars, then definitely to ‘hold a decayed roof in place, to decorate and furnish’ it, to imagine what the ruin was like in the past.

But talking to architects about the novel I’m writing can have some unexpected results. Architects tend to like the fact that it’s about a building. Perhaps that lulls me into a false sense of security.

At a dinner thing the other day, sitting next to an architect, I tried to explain what I meant by saying the house in my book has stories to tell. I used the example of coal holes – holes in the pavement, covered by ornate metal discs, that go directly down into coal cellars. Although they’re now redundant, when the coal man used to come round with his deliveries, the coal holes meant he could deliver the coal straight into the cellar without coming through the house and spreading coal dust everywhere. The house in my novel has a coal hole. The story connected to it is when it was used to drop off bottles of paraffin to be used in a nearby arson attack.

The architect listened to all this. Then he revealed that he knew quite a bit about coal holes. It transpired that, when studying, he’d looked at coal holes as a now-defunct system which could be reimagined. He had proposed that coal holes could now be used as a way of delivering internet shopping. Rather than having to be at home to take the Ocado delivery, it could be safely deposited directly into the cellar. They would certainly be a good place to deliver all those annoying packages that are too thick for the letterbox and end up waiting for collection at the post office.

I told him that I thought his delivery idea was a good one.

‘Well now,’ he said, ‘you must include it in your book.’

I laughed. ‘I would, but you see the book’s all about histories and things that have happened in the past.’

‘About coal?’

‘Well no, not really.’

‘Well why can’t you have a future chapter?’


‘Like science fiction.’

During this conversation, my novel was unravelling itself in my head, spinning out of its tightly-plotted existence into a weird book that’s a bit like that episode of The Simpsons in which Homer finds his toaster has turned into a time machine, goes back in time, accidentally does something he shouldn’t, and then returns home to find that everyone has weirdly long tongues or that its raining doughnuts … or that people are delivering shopping into his coal hole.

‘It’s not really a science fiction book.’

‘But this is perfect for your chapter about coal holes.’

And that was the point when I realised that maybe the golden rule of architectural-literary conversations was only to talk about books that have already been written. Otherwise, there’s the danger that architects – who think about things like narrative in very different ways to us bookish sorts – will try to build the book themselves.

Houses, parks and secrets

December 20, 2010

Yesterday I decided that I’d had enough of being ill and stomped along Parkland Walk, a long and narrow strip of nature reserve that stretches along an old railway line, from Finsbury Park up to Alexandra Palace. Originally a suburban offshoot from the main line, there were plans to incorporate this bit of track into the Northern Line, under the rather romantic name ‘The Northern Heights Plan’. Unfortunately, the onset of the Second World War put a stop to the idea, and the line subsequently dwindled – with its last passenger train in 1954 and last freight train in the 1970.

It’s a beautiful walk, and one which provides the added satisfaction of getting somewhere, cutting through the houses far better than pavemented streets. And it was especially beautiful yesterday, bleached white with the snow, which lay thick on the ground and neatly lined along branches, sprinkles of powder wafting off with the slightest breeze.

There are several extraordinary things about this strip of park – the old station platforms, the heavily graffittied bridge, the views down across roads, train tracks and out across the skyline. (Please excuse the awful photos which were taken on my mobile and don’t begin to do it justice.)

But what really strikes me about the walk is that houses are rarely out of sight. Rows of suburban roofs spread out from behind the trees, the mess of branches only thinly screening their windows and gardens.

I wonder whether the houses are pleased with the changes to this strip of land. Now the window frames aren’t rattled by passing trains, now their brickwork doesn’t pass by in a flash to vacant-eyed commuters. Now lazy chatter drifts towards them over the trees and they can hear children playing, perhaps the occasional misfired snowball might splat against a wall. Perhaps they’d be allowed a wry smile when hearing the harsh pants of joggers, or the fizz of graffiti artists’ aerosols, at work on the railway bridge. They stand over this land with incredible knowledge. They have seen and heard everything that’s happened here; they know its past, its secrets.

Jenny Erpenbeck’s magnificent Visitation tells the story of a house in the German countryside, from its construction to its eventual demolition, and the different people who have lived in it over time. It is a novel in which things are always being hidden – people in crates and secret cupboards or behind a pile of wood, silverware sunk in the lake, porcelain buried in the garden. And this pattern of hiding things is a strand in the more intricate pattern of filling gaps. Concrete is poured into the cavity of a tree to give it support – something which reminds me of Rachel Whiteread’s concrete sculpture House, which renders the negative space of a house.

Because a house, in some sense, is just a gap to be filled – a surprising amount of space caught within four walls. And its occupants, as they come and go through the years are the fillers of this space, making their small marks and indentations as they live in its rooms, sit in the garden, hide in its cupboards. Nothing is hidden from the house – it knows every hiding place better than anyone, it is party to every secret.

While Whiteread’s House shows the interior space of a house so marvellously, it omits the space outside its four walls. In Visitation, the remit of the house spreads down through its garden to a lake. A house doesn’t exist independent of its site, but is affected by what goes on outside, the sounds, the happenings, the changes.

And so while these houses that line Parkland Walk have certainly been keeping an eye on what goes on inside, privy to all sorts of daily domestic dramas, they’ve also got an eye outside – watching this space undergo an astonishing change from railway to park. I bet they have some stories to tell.



November 2, 2010

There is something magnificent about goodbyes. I don’t mean those goodbyes you say to friends as you’re leaving a party – jovial, shambolic, hammered hugs – or the goodbyes that friends say when they move abroad, when you know it will be months before you next say hello.

I mean the goodbye of trees as autumn turns to winter. And the goodbye of a building as it is demolished.

Everywhere I look I can see leaves, no longer lush fresh greens, but shining yellows, luminous reds, burning oranges. They’re unbelievably staggeringly beautiful, and they’re everywhere. No longer happy to be strung out along a branch, leaves fly through the air, press up against a windowpane, scatter along the ground. Grey pavement, black tarmac, brown muddy paths are all at once thickly carpeted in rich burnished ambers.

At this time of year, trees are begging to be noticed; bored of being overlooked in favour of summer’s flowers, they change colour and spread themselves to fill everyone’s vision. It is their goodbye, their swansong. They know that as winter comes on, and their leaves continue to swirl to the ground, soon they’ll be no more than bare greyish skeletons, nothing much to look at, too easy to forget.

Currently existing not quite as a skeleton, but rather an extraordinary shell, is an old school, in the midst of being pulled down. Its huge frame soars up above the rubble-filled old schoolyard, way up past the protective fence erected by the demolition team. Its insides are open to the world, scarred in blue, pink and yellow, marking the different coloured paints that used to coat each wall. Old chunks of floor and ceiling hang suspended, caught by twisted lengths of metal, momentarily saving them from dropping to the ground. The stairs are a rubble slide and doorways gape open, paths from dereliction to more dereliction.

It’s impossible not to stop and stare, while walking past, to gawp at this huge megalith as it is crumpled, crumbled up by the demolition machines gnawing steadily away at it. Soon it will be nothing but rubble and dust. And then something new will be built in its place, sealing its erasure from the cityscape.

I won’t remember the school as it used to be – a big, nondescript, vaguely ugly building that always had police at the gates. It’s this dramatic scar, this final, painful, ongoing goodbye that will imprint itself in my memory.

It’s every bit as beautiful as the leaves.

Getting Wonderfully Lost

August 16, 2010

There’s something so urbane about standing on those terraces on a sunny afternoon gazing across London. It makes you feel like a citizen of the city.

So said Steve Tompkins, the architect who redeveloped the Young Vic, about Lasdun’s modernist National Theatre on London’s South Bank. And it is a feeling I share on Saturday afternoon, when weaving my way around the South Bank, getting lost on my way to the Hayward Gallery.

I get off the bus on Waterloo Bridge and then go down, and then up, and then around, and then up again, and then around a bit more. I lose my bearings almost immediately and am soon reduced to guesswork, following the concrete around, occasionally climbing a staircase, turning a corner, hoping for the best.

And, as I walk, each step brings new vistas across the concrete. I see again and again incredible interlocking planes, lines, spaces; the greyness the perfect foil to the colourful crowds of skateboarders, freerunners, theatre-goers, families, tourists and the backdrop of the London skyline.

Needless to say, I don’t find the staircase leading directly from Waterloo Bridge to the Hayward Gallery entrance until it is rather too late. But I don’t mind – getting lost amidst the concrete is a wonderful experience.

But this experience of getting lost in a concrete jungle, finding oneself stuck in something akin to an Escher drawing, is usually a criticism of the South Bank and also another of London’s modernist complexes, the Barbican.

Architect Piers Gough responds to this criticism in a pretty inspiring article for Building Design (here), in which he lauds the Barbican as inspiration for his own architecture:

The criticism is a bit off because we expect and enjoy getting lost in cities and finding unexpected routes and vistas. The Barbican has these in spades. If you’re in the mood to explore, it’s a wonderful place with its changes in level, vistas up and down, intimate areas, dramatic piazzas, the gardens opening up below then there are amazing glimpses out to the city’s slick office buildings and the dome of St Paul’s. Of course the residents themselves rather revel in their maze-like world.

He’s right. Getting lost in the Barbican, or on the South Bank, can be exhilarating, eye-opening. It makes one see the city in new, unexpected ways. It makes me feel proud of London, excited by it again, amazed at how it all meshes together. As Steve Tompkins said, ‘a citizen of the city’.

Of course, on the occasion that one is running late and trying to get from A to B as quickly as possible, getting lost en route isn’t always such a fun experience. Enough of these amazing concrete views, where the hell am I? would be the predominant thought.

Yes, getting lost isn’t enjoyable, playful or particularly enlightening when one doesn’t have time to kill. And people rarely have time to kill in London – one of the most fast-paced, time-precious places in the world.

People often have a similar frustration in the bookshop. The books are arranged in a slightly, well let’s say ‘idiosyncratic’, manner. Most people expect everything to be arranged A-Z by author and neatly divided into sections like ‘Philosophy’, ‘Women’s studies’ etc. Frustrated when looking for a famous book, they march up to the till asking crossly, ‘Why don’t you have The Quiet American?’

Then we calmly explain our system and dash off to fetch them the book, often dragging them slack-jawed in tow.

Somebody complained to me about it the other day. ‘How am I supposed to find anything on my own? I always have to come and ask you to get it for me.’

Well, you see, that’s kind of the point. Everyone who works in the bookshop really loves books. We have all been involved in the book world for several years. We are all full of recommendations, tailored to suit a huge variety of needs. What makes the job interesting, and what makes the shop a success, is being able to talk to people about books.

If a customer comes up and asks me for The Quiet American, this sparks all sorts of conversations. We can talk about Vietnam and other good books about it – perhaps Norman Lewis, for instance – about Greene and other books by him, and then I might mention the new biography of Greene’s family by Jeremy Lewis. Likely as not the customer doesn’t know about this new biography but is very interested in it. Or he hasn’t heard of Norman Lewis. Or he’d like a few suggestions of other particularly good novels by Graham Greene. I go and bring him all these books and he spends a while in the shop having a very happy browse. Either he leaves with The Quiet American and is grateful for the help, sure to return soon. Or he leaves with The Quiet American and some of the other books that I’ve suggested, pleased as punch to have been introduced to them. And, of course, I’m happy as anything not only to have sold some more books, but to have helped someone find a good book or two.

Surely this is better than having everything unimaginatively signposted? Yes, people get momentarily lost, but then they get help and then they find all sorts of things, as well as what they were looking for.

The problem with the Barbican and the Southbank is that people – perhaps Londoners (dare I say male Londoners?) in particular – are rarely inclined to ask for help or directions. Rather than asking a passer-by which way to get to the Hayward, or where to find an elevated walkway, or the loo, people tend to persist in trying to work it out for themselves.

This trait has been greatly worsened by iPhones, with their Google maps app. Why bother to start a conversation when one can plug into some technology and work it out for oneself? Well, perhaps because people aren’t always as adept as map-reading as they would like to think. And because the Google maps of the Barbican and the Southbank are as good as useless in any case.

So perhaps an unexpected product of these two Modernist complexes is the need for conversation. Perhaps, in these particularly urbane London landscapes, we should be less urbane. Perhaps we should step out of our insulating bubble of iPods and iPhones and solitary individual lost wanderings and ask other people the way. After all these complexes are Modern, not Post-Modern. Conversations aren’t such terrifying things to start. Other people hanging out at the Barbican and the Southbank are generally pretty friendly, pretty interesting, happy to help if they can.

Unless, as was the case with me on Saturday afternoon, one is in no particular hurry and perfectly happy to get quite wonderfully, unexpectedly lost.

Daniel Libeskind’s zigzags

May 4, 2010

Last week I went to hear a talk by Daniel Libeskind, a well-known Jewish architect. His most famous work (and, probably his best, according to the fiancé) is the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

Libeskind talked and talked, and talked, about being an architect and being Jewish. I sat there and wondered if I were the only person who thought everything he said was rubbish.

Now the thing is, when it comes to architecture, I often feel that I’m bluffing. The fiancé is studying architecture, and most of his friends are architects-in-training too. This leads to my frequently being stuck in conversations about architecture in which I’m fighting to tread water. Japanese-sounding names are dropped, buildings discussed, words like ‘parametric’ and ‘iso’ tend to pop up. It’s got to the stage now where I can sometimes recognise the name of an architect and know a building or two of theirs, but after that I come a bit unstuck.

So, to begin with, I thought perhaps I was just out of my depth in the Libeskind talk.

‘Every building has a message,’ he declared. ‘The message of lots of buildings is “I am solidly here, with my four walls and four corners.”’ Or words to that effect. He then joked, ‘None of my buildings really has that message.’

Now that isn’t quite right. Even I know enough about architecture to know that buildings don’t have just one meaning. Buildings mean an infinite amount of things, varying on so many different parameters. What about context? What about who sees the building and which bit of it they see?

Let’s imagine, for example, an Italian, working in an office in New York, who always takes the stairs as he gets claustrophobic in lifts. Now the staircase is a bit more run-down than the rest of the building – the back stairs aren’t really part of the smart façade of the main office block. Perhaps they remind him of some stairs in Italy, like the staircase he walked up when visiting his father at work when he was a child. That part of the building – the staircase – is going to ‘mean’ that to him.

But then let’s imagine someone else who works in the same office: a well-heeled young lady who takes the glossy chrome lift up to their office on the top floor every morning, always checking her reflection in its mirror, never ever going near the back stairs. For her, the back stairs are as good as absent in her impression of the building. Their only ‘meaning’ is unnecessary space. It’s the lift that means something to her, a quiet space where she can fix her appearance before the working day begins.

And what about someone else, working in the same building but looking for another job? She dives out into the back stairs whenever she needs to take a phone call from her headhunter. For her, those stairs are a forgotten space in the building where she can be out of earshot.

I’m not sure that Libeskind really believed his statement either. When he was discussing a shopping centre he’d designed, he said it was about bringing together different experiences – shopping, culture, leisure etc. Well, surely he must see that someone who comes there on a Saturday afternoon to go shopping is going to experience the building differently to someone who comes on a Friday night for a concert?

When it came to the end of the talk, someone asked Daniel Libeskind why there are so many zigzags in his buildings. He said that he didn’t think about something as banal as the humble zigzag when he was being inspired to make architecture. But, now he came to think of it, he decided that there was something very profound about the zigzag – it is symbolic of not taking the most direct route, thereby gaining all sorts of insights on the way. (I have spared you his lengthy clichéd anecdote a la Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist of going on a long journey only to have to go all the way home to find the treasure where you began.)

The funny thing was, every time someone asked a question, he seemed to zigzag around answering it. Somebody asked him if there were any projects going on in London that he was excited about and he said he never went hunting for new commissions, but if there were any developers here at the talk, they should let him know. Similarly, when somebody asked him if there was one building that he really respected and thought was amazing, he said he never got jealous of other architects.

So when the zigzag question was posed, I wanted to scream, ‘YES. There is a reason why your buildings are full of zigzags. It’s because you keep on fundamentally missing the point.’ Because really his talk (like his architecture) was an elaborate series of zigzags. He went one way, and then later contradicted himself, and then went back on himself yet again. If only he could bear to admit that there really isn’t anything particularly profound about that.