Upcoming Events: Battle of Ideas / Critics Night

A couple of upcoming events I’m taking part in next week:

I’m talking in Rotterdam at the New Institute / NAi on Thursday 17th Oct. It’s ‘Critics Night’ and I’ll be joining Eric Kluitenberg, Edwin Gardner, Marit Overbeek, Levien Nordeman and host Lucas Verweij to discuss the current state of criticism in architecture and design. Details, tickets etc. here.

And in London I’m at the Barbican for the Battle Of Ideas in a session titled Pop Art: All Mouth, No Trousers? with Catherine Ince, Angus Kennedy, Karl Sharro, Frances Spalding and David Bowden on Sunday 20 October, 1.30pm – 3.00pm in the Garden Room at the Barbican.

Pop Art’s fusion of fine art techniques with the lingua franca of commodity capitalism remains as enduringly popular and controversial over half a century since it truly began. For some, the mischievous experiments of Warhol, Hamilton and Lichtenstein breathed new life and cultural relevance into the discipline of fine art. For others, however, such experiments paved the way for a kind of celebrity artist who is more akin to a brand consultant, selling superficial work to a dubiously elite art market. Why does an art movement so attuned to the ephemera of its time still hold such iconic sway over our imagination today? Did Pop Art’s celebration of the everyday serve to liberate fine artists from stultifying tradition, or simply turn art into just another product? From album covers to interior design, what has been its true legacy?

Details and tickets here

The Architecture of: Breaking Bad / The Room / Antarctica

A round up of writing elsewhere:

Over on BD is a guide to the Architecture of Breaking Bad. Here is an excerpt:

The Crystal Ship

It’s the image Breaking Bad opens with: an RV careering though the desert and crashing into a ditch. A wild eyed man in underpants and a gas mask emerges and frantically records a confession into a video camera. It’s a signature cold open leaving the viewer entirely confused, dumped right into the middle of things.

It’s a while before we get to see the RV again. But when we do, ‘The Crystal Ship’ as Jesse christens it, becomes something close to a lead character in the early part of the series.

It’s where Walt and Jesse really begin to bond and where Heisenberg’s blue meth is born. It symbolises a sense of liberation. Just as an RV gives holiday makers the freedom of the open road, it gives Walt, for a moment at least, a sense of liberation from his circumstance of debt, illness and failed responsibility.

The Offices of Saul Goodman & Associates

Saul Goodman is the deliciously dodgy lawyer-cum-fixer who assists Walt with increasingly illegal acts. His somewhat interpretive relationship to the law is manifested with great clarity in his office.

Located in a strip mall, it has an inflatable Statue of Liberty teetering above along with a sign reading ‘Better Call Saul!’, the tagline for his TV ads (‘Welcome Lawbreakers!’).

A wood paneled waiting room like a minicab office where a room full of unfortunates wait watched over by his super sized security guard Heull. Inside, a huge blow up of the constitution forms a backdrop to Goodman’s desk which is decorated with a Scale of Justice and conceals an seemingly endlessly supply of burner phones. A diploma from the University of American Samoa assures clients of his credentials.

The back wall curves as though it were the Oval Office. And around the room the high Classical language of the American state is invoked by polystyrene ionic columns that totter dangerously around the edge of the room.

Hollow and fake, Goodman’s office is a moment of comic relief. But behind its ersatz brashness there’s a more chilling reading: the machinations of the law are not always in the service of justice.

More here (I think you can register to read, rather than subscribe)

On Dezeen, a piece about smartphone game The Room, fantasy sci-fi design and how digital culture has changed the way we see the history of design.

The game is set in a series of creepy, dusty, dark half abandoned rooms. But it might be more accurately be titled Furniture as it really centres around a series of strange pieces of furniture. What exactly they are is hard to say. Part desk, bureau, chest, clock, sideboard (and much more) they are nothing so singular. That’s because The Room is really a puzzle, one that comes with it’s questions, riddles, games of skill and observation encoded into fabric of super-hybridised furniture.

But I’d argue that it’s exactly the strange hybrids of history and technology that we find a real expression of the contemporary in. I’d argue that this kind of ultra-techno-retro rewires our received narratives of design, suggesting new tendencies and possibilities: fast-forwarding while rewinding at the same time.

This seems entirely appropriate given the way digital culture is transforming culture. It’s certainly changed how we access design. Flattening traditional scholarly hierarchies, breaching what were once secure boundaries between stylistic schools, jumping across chronologies all in a flurry of Google image searches and Pinterest boards. One might add, given the idea of remaking history, that internet culture has accelerated a certain strand of conspiracy theorising that rewrites history with abandon according to highly specific contemporary points of view.

More Here

And I’ve contributed an essay titled High Tech Primitive: The Architecture of Antarctica to the show Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctica commissioned by the British Council and curated by the Arts Catalyst. You can download the catalogue of the show (in an amazing array of digital formats) from Arts Catalyst website, which also includes an essay by Dr David Walton of the British Antarctic Survey. An excerpt:

Architecture, as it is usually practiced at least, is created in dialogue with these layers of human history and concerned with issues of context and tradition, whether for or against, point or counterpoint. Designing and building are acts that are intricately enmeshed and shaped by political social and economic forces, and architecture occurs when these interests converge with demands for shelter and enclosure, at the intersection of environmental, social, cultural, legal, economic and political issues. It can never exist outside of these frames. But it is not just the climate in Antarctica that makes these issues stranger than anywhere else on earth. To understand its architecture we need to understand the region’s own peculiar socio-political conditions.

The first human laid eyes on Antarctica as recently as in 1820; the first person actually set foot on it perhaps a year later. That is to say, the continent only enters the human world as fact, rather than speculation, supposition or myth, after the industrial revolution. Consequently, Antarctica isn’t a place we understand in the same way as the rest of the world. Even its name reveals something different about its status as a territory. It is etymologically derived from the Greek antarktikos, meaning opposite the north, and has always been imagined as different, as an opposite of normal territorial conditions and definitions of place.

On Antarctica the marks made by human habitation are fainter and more provisional, and this is explicitly preserved through an international agreement called the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959 and the bedrock on which all activity on the continent is based. This defines Antarctica as a scientific preserve and bans military activity (the continent was subject to the first arms control agreement during the Cold War). The Treaty’s ambition is set out in a guiding phrase that claims it is ‘in the interests of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord’. And yet Antarctica is not entirely free of worldly concern. Seven states maintain territorial claims in Antarctica, and not all in agreement. Geopolitics rests lighter on the surface of Antarctica, less embedded in the continent’s geography and geology, but concepts of state, ownership and threshold are juxtaposed like a pie chart against the blank page of its topography nonetheless.

The idea of the primitive hut provides a lens through which to view the architecture of Antarctica, the last earthly wilderness, almost untouched by human inhabitation. Within this landscape, each station acts as a shelter, a bubble containing and enabling society to formulate specific outposts of culture, behaviour and knowledge. This is true even for the most contemporary stations, which may seem centuries ahead of the first simple huts. Indeed, the history of Antarctic architecture seems a hyper-accelerated history of architecture itself, progressing from the hut to the space station in just over a hundred years.

More Here

London Design Festival Roundup

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This year is a busy LDF for me and FAT

We have contributed to Cathedral’s Dolls House project. It’s a piece called Tower of Fables that we’ve made with Grayson Perry providing the furniture, decoration and a little Alan Measles to live in it.

Here’s our description:

Tower Of Fable is a fantasy about a very real piece of architecture: a toy sized remake of the Balfron Tower. This transformation brings out qualities of Goldfinger’s architecture that lie just beneath it’s surface. Brutalism here is revealed as exciting as a castle, as texturally dense as the surface of a space ship, as romantic as a country cottage. High architecture joins with the imagination of inhabitation and fantasies of play. Which, of course, is exactly what architecture should always be.

On 11th November 2013, 20 of the world’s best architects and designers will present their version of a dolls’ house in an exhibition and auction at Bonhams in aid of KIDS. Here is a link to the auction website where you can bid for ours (or one of the many others by Zaha .

The dolls houses are on show at DOMUS, 23-25 Eastcastle Street, London W1W 8DF

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I have some sketches in part of the Moleskine Sketch Relay show at the V&A.

Designers across London have contributed their sketches and drawings to Moleskine notebooks, the results of which are displayed in the Sackler Centre, Sat 14 September 2013 – Sun 22 September 2013
V&A, Sackler Centre, Room 220

And also at the V&A is a FAT floor installation in association with manufactures Amorim, a trompe l’oeil, geometric pattern based on a scientific diagram of the cellular structure of cork.

And finally in the LDF guide book I have a short story type speculation on the future of the post-retail high street. London Design Guide 2014-2015

In Pursuit of Architecture / Vers Un Climat / Landscape Futures

I’m in New York the weekend of the 21st Sept as part of Log’s In Pursuit of Architecture conference at MoMA.

In Pursuit of Architecture: A conference on buildings and ideas
Saturday, September 21, 2013, 10AM–5PM
The Museum of Modern Art
New York, New York

To mark its 10th anniversary and 29th issue, Log presents In Pursuit of Architecture, a conference featuring recent built work selected from an open, international call for submissions. Join architects and critics for a daylong discussion of architectural ideas, what it takes to build them, and how we measure the cultural value of architecture.

It’s a kind of crit format with architects including 51N4E, Office KGDVS, MOS & Preston Scott Cohen presenting and a panel of critics (Sylvia Lavin, Emmanuel Petit and Sarah Whiting and me).

I’ve also contributed essay titled Faster but Slower in the associated issue of Log 29 which should be out any minute now.

Details here

I have an essay We Live Half At Night in the catalogue of Vers Un Climat, a show by AWP at Cornell (which has a lovely heat sensitive cover). It’s on the architecture of night, a theme which runs through many of AWP’s projects.

I’ve written a speculation on the future of retail and high streets in the London Design Guide 2014-2015 edited by Max Fraser and published as part of the London Design Festival

And an essay Landscape In Suspension in Geoff Manaugh‘s new book Landscape Futures

And more columns up at Dezeen:

On Beaches: After returning from a two-week break, Sam Jacob reflects on the phenomenon of the modern beach holiday and argues that it is just as artificial as everyday working life in the city.

On Zombie Architecture: Sam Jacob argues against the resurrection of Crystal Palace in London and urges us to “resist the pull of loss and nostalgia”

On Protest: Sam Jacob argues against what he calls PRotest, proposing that new forms of outcry through marketing and the media are confusing and “only make us more alienated”

Marginalia #2

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Thamesmead Apartment

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Horse, Thamesmead

More on a trip to Thamesmead over at Love London Council Housing.

“The Pantheon: You build a gigantic thing and it rains inside” – A quote from San Rocco’s call for What’s Wrong With The Primitive Hut?

Watch your back James Dyson: CIA let Khalid Sheikh Mohammed design vacuum cleaner in a secret Romanian prison according to this Guardian story

Glasgow’s famous ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ is, sadly, finally completed.

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I had never noticed this tiny sentry box disguised as a street light on the corner of Trafalgar Square. Apparently, it’s a tiny police station sited here because of the squares long history as a site of public protest. The lamp on top is, apocryphally, a lamp from the Victory, Nelson’s ship.

And, finally, a round up of comedy Strange Harvest / FAT features elsewhere:

Above is FAT’s guest starring role on Have I Got News For You.

“Being mocked on Buzzfeed is today’s measure of cultural relevance” according to Kelsey C-D on twitter in relation to an apperance at no. 20 in a list of the Most Pretentious Things Ever (one place above David Bowie, which can’t be all bad). The same piece also made it into Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner

Send Me The Pillow, The One That You Dream On

Over on Dezeen, I’ve written something about the Etsy-fication of Modernism – the way that big, social projects of the 1960’s like Park Hill and the Trellick Tower have reappeared as modern domestic chintz. And how this perhaps reveals that historical ideological battles have become contemporary pillow fights …

“There’s something strange going on here. All this giant, hard stuff is turned into cosy domesticity. It’s as though Cath Kidston, the queen of nostalgic domesticity, has swallowed a copy of Towards An Architecture or fallen through a rift in time and found herself participating at the 9th Congress of C.I.A.M.” Read More

Mipim: Where Cities Talk To Money

A Russian speaking robot at the Krasnodar Region tent, Mipim

A quick heads up for a piece I wrote for Domus about Mipim, the annual global property fair titled ‘Where Cities Talk To Money’. Here’s a link, and below are a couple of excerpts.


Passing model after model, rendered in glowing Perspex on floating islands of live-edge or hyperreal model railway fantasies, everything begins to bleed into each other. Even worse: a combination of expo-hypnosis and low blood sugar makes it difficult to identify where the models end and the plinths, furniture and free gifts begin. Scales merge so that buffets of Belgian or Scandinavian finger food begin to look like regional development plans. The giant spindles of plants in huge abstract vases (and these ones are particularly sickening, resembling over-scaled versions of Gunther von Hagens’s plastinised veins) seem like they might be cities for 20,000 people. All this stuff delivered and hastily assembled in the Palais becomes interchangeable, transmutable, equivalent.


MIPIM reveals something you can’t really see elsewhere: that cities and regions are here not as the places you and I know as the places where we live, work and love. They’re here as brands, as investment opportunities, as businesses. mipim is where cities talk to money. They sweet talk, whisper, shout (and quite possibly also cry) to money. But it’s never clear where money is. Everyone here is selling, though exactly what is for sale seems mostly slippery. And who they are selling to remains, for the most part, unexplained.

An oil painting of a generic airport hotel, Mipim

The Custard Pie As Magical Theatrical Object

In honour of it’s appearance in this weeks Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner, here’s the piece I wrote for Icon about the custard pie in full for all you fan’s of over-thought and over-wrought cultural commentary:

Battle of the Century – Laurel & Hardy

I’m not entirely convinced that the custard pie even exists. Not a Pumpkin Pie, not a Flan, not even a Custard Tart but a real life Custard Pie like in the movies. How is it that something so plausible, so eminently possible, only exists in fiction? Nobody in films ever eats a custard pie, unless, that is, they are tasting it after having been flanned with that beautiful gesture of resignation perfected by Oliver Hardy. It is, it seems, a strange object: something that looks like food but has nothing to do with being eaten.

The custard pie seemingly appears in the 1909 out of nowhere in the slapstick short Mr Flip where a cad has a series of revenges visited upon him by the women who he ‘amusingly’ harasses: scissors up the bum, electrocuted by a telephone, shampoo in his eyes, squirted by soda syphons and finally, a pie in the face. Once pied, the eponymous Mr Flip turns to the camera and gurns that familiar just-pied gurn for the first time in cinematic history. Perhaps there were other pies pushed into faces before this, but for now, this stands as the moment that culture discovered the thrill of the flanning.

Pieing is – always – a moment of sublime magic. First, there is the shock of the pies meaning changing: from an inert foodstuff to a device dealing in humiliation. There is the action: the tension of the pies the gestural swoop from normative horizontal to a vertical pregnant with comedic potential. Then of course the splat, the pie plastered over the victims face.

It was Hal Roach’s 1927 Battle of the Century starring Laurel and Hardy that remains the masterpiece of custard pie choreography where 4,000 pies were flung in a raging street battle (‘real pies – filling and all’ Laurel later wrote).

But the grand era of the cinematic custard pie came to an end. The custard pie had been a product of early cinematic technology. Its exaggerated gestures and high contrast visual effect of a white-splattered face suited the silent, flickery black and white medium, the ne pas ultra slapstick gag. As motion picture technology changed, comedic performance shifted from motion to dialogue. The pie, like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, was forgotten.

Whenever the custard pie appears now it appears as a slapstick object in quotation marks. When celebrities and politicians are flanned, like Rupert Murdoch at the recent Select Committee hearings, the pie arrives from another time and dimension and tries to cast its victim in a world of slapstick absurdity for a brief moment.

The custard pie is not an real object. It exists in the world of slapstick where objects behave differently. The word slapstick derives from a Commedia dell’arte prop, a flat paddle with two wooden slats whose loud smack would make it appear that an actor had been struck with real force.
This was appropriated by the English Harlequinade tradition. Here the slapstick, carried by the Harlequin, was both sword and a magic wand that could apparently magically transform scenery simultaneously. So this then, might be the key to understanding the custard pie as a double entity, as both food and a comedic object, an entirely ordinary object imbued with magical theatrical properties of transformation.

Digital Culture, Design Thinking & Ecosystems

Circular Courtyard at GCHQ, Cheltenham, UK

Over on Dezeen I have a two part piece on how digital culture is shaping design – altering its methods and its scope. It talks about the idea of ecology – both the use of the world as a metaphor for systems of hardware and software and as a re-making of an idea of nature as revealed in the new HQ’s for Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon.

Part 1: As details of the American National Security Agency’s Prism programme emerge, alongside concerns about democracy, freedom, state surveillance and the complicity of corporations, something also seems to be revealed about the ways in which digital technologies are fundamentally reformulating the ways in which design – a new kind of design born out of digital culture – now organises and impacts the way we live.

Part 2: How Google Maps is reshaping cities while Apple, Facebook and Amazon are reshaping the natural landscape by building their own headquarters as self-contained ecosystems.

The illustrations here are the interior landscaped courtyards of Foster’s proposed Apple HQ (below) and of GCHQ (above), the UK Government Communications Headquarters. Both are strange worlds within worlds, ecologies isolated from the word by the architecture that bounds them. Seen here, they assume a strange planetary form. Both perhaps suggest how the digital is reframing things we once thought exceeded the possibility of design.

Circular Courtyard, Proposed Apple HQ by Foster & Partners

A Memorial To Future Existential Horror

There’s something very spooky about this story from the Telegraph with the headline: Town erects blank war memorial ‘for future deaths’.

The memorial is in a town called Bradley Stokes, a place planned in the 1970s and whose construction began in 1987. As the Telegraph writes “The town did not exist in the first and second World Wars and no resident has been killed in military action to date.”

“Katherine Robinson, local scout group leader and one of the memorial organisers, said: “I fully appreciate that Bradley Stoke is a new town and it was just green fields and farmland when the first and second World Wars were being fought.

“But we know unfortunately that conflicts aren’t just consigned to these wars but are ongoing and so we’re thinking about the future as well.

The war memorial consists of pillars that will be adorned with blank plaques inscribed only with the words “We Will Remember Them”.

The tense here is a strange mixture of the future and the past. It suggests the idea of remembering something that hasn’t yet happened. In other words a remembrance of things yet to come.

Of course, it’s the type of rememberance that makes it so chilling. It suggests a fatalism that sons and daugthers of Bradley Stokes will inevitably die in some war, somewhere, sometime in the future.

Monuments usually address the past. They usually address a specific event. Here though it’s blankness makes it a monument to an unspecific, existential horror of the future.