Into Orbit

In an essay about F. Scott Fitzgerald's heavily criticised first novel, the celebrated literary critic Edmund Wilson wrote " This Side of Paradise ... does not commit the unpardonable sin: It does not fail to live. The whole preposterous farrago is animated with life."

arcelormittal orbit

Such a comment might be equally applicable to the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the winning design for monument for the London 2012 Olympics, revealed last month. Commissioned by Mayor Boris Johnson, designed by the artist Anish Kapoor, working in conjunction with Cecil Balmond and a team at Arup, and bankrolled by billionaire steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, it's not hard to find faults with this project.

There's the dodgy backstory, the tale that Mittal and Boris Johnson love telling about how they met in the cloakroom at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and in a minute's conversation had agreed to create an Olympic monument funded by ArcelorMittal. Boris would like to think this story makes him seem like a go-getting, seize-the-moment kind of chap, and Mittal as a big hearted fella fond of grand whimsical gestures, instead they both come over as opportunistic creeps prone to making hasty decisions, guffawing loudly, Masters of the Universe in the rich and powerful gentleman's club. Perhaps Mittal shutters steel works and devastates communities in other such moments of folly, and who knows what other momentary lapses of reason Boris might have had. (For a previous rush of blood to the head, see here). Crikey!

Kapoor's got form too, with the occasional gem amongst some clunkers, and there is always a sense of doubt when sculptors and artists turn their hands to large scale structure (Thomas Heatherwick's "B of the Bang" debacle springs to mind) or inhabited space - this is after all, the province of architects.

arcelormittal orbit

Fast forward a few months, and the announcement of the winning design, the ridiculous name, the overblown sense of self-importance, and a design that looks like nothing ever built before. It's not helped by a terrible render, the key image used in almost all the press coverage that makes it look like it has been plonked down next to the Olympic stadium with barely a thought, set against a oversaturated sky. It gives no sense of its scale. Surrounding the structure is a totally unnatural crowd scene, a SketchUp rent-a-mob. Here Arup must take some responsibility; there's no way that Hadid or Foster, for instance, would let an image like that out in public. Arup has misgauged that modern architectural criticism for the Dezeen generation is the about the consumption of images rather than the consideration of form.

arcelormittal orbit

And yet, it does not fail to live. Considered as a modern folly, I think it performs quite admirably. The echoes of forebears such as Tatlin's Monument to the Third International and Seattle's Space Needle resonate, but really this is like nothing else ever seen before. Aesthetically, it leans towards Constructivism, recalling Shukhov's Tower or Chernikov's architectural fantasties, though we should argue that Constructivism is a lot more than how it looks. As Entschwindet und Vergeht says: "it's a piece of public art which signifies nothing but its own potential to be iconic". The renders from different viewpoints, or when viewed side on, look much better. Perhaps to be a truly iconic structure, it needs to be 3 times taller, in order to become a British version of the Eiffel Tower, but even that was hated by many when first built.

arcelormittal orbit

arcelormittal orbit

For all of its flaws, the level of vitriol and snark the ArcelorMittal Orbit has inspired amongst the architectural cognoscenti has been unprecedented, but it's difficult to determine whether the criticism is due to a dislike of the protoganists Mittal, Johnson and Kapoor, the work itself, or a combination of both. Should we hate the ArcelorMittal Orbit just because we don't like its provenance?

In the days of instant Internet commentary, snark and dismissal seem to be the default reaction. How lazy to type an offhand 'meh' comment in Twitter or try to find a funny epithet. What would the Twitterati have made of the London Eye?

Architecture is a whorish profession, as are the careers of artists such as Kapoor who wish to engage in large scale works. You know art is in trouble when you can't tell the artists apart from their patrons, as in this picture:

arcelormittal orbit

Still, I have faith in the one person in the frame with a great track record of producing beautiful structures that work, Cecil Balmond. As long as Boris, Mittal, Kapoor and the rest of their coterie can leave Balmond and his team at Arup to get on with it, I am hopeful that it will turn out to be a building that London can be proud of, and become as popular and well loved as the London Eye.

Making it stand up is the simple part. Turning a sculpture into a habitable, navigable space is a big ask. Adding fire escapes, step-free access, handrails, signage, refuse disposal, toilets, food service lifts, ticketing facilities, queue control measures will all diminish the sculptural purity of Kapoor's artwork. Many visions have failed in the transition from an artistic napkin squiggle into a functioning building.

The ArcelorMittal Orbit could well turn out to be awful. Yet I'm hopeful it will be an uplifting experience - preposterous, yet animated with life. I'm looking forward to be able to take my kids to the top of it, allow them to discover that great architecture too can provide thrill power. As Robert L Stephenson wrote: "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour"

Learning from Niketown

"I like Nike, but wait a minute. The neighbourhood supports, so put some money in it."
- Public Enemy, Shut Em Down

Nike Scorpion

In the 18 years since Chuck D rapped those lines, Nike has moved far ahead of the curve in developing an advanced urban marketing strategy that seeks to connect their brand with neighbourhoods in cities across the world.

In a prior post, Branding the Boroughs, I mentioned the Nike Scorpion KO campaign as a example of marketeers refiguring the city in terms of their brand. Via the web site of creatives Denesh and Anuj I've finally been able to find some more images of it.

The 2002 Scorpion KO campaign was centred around a cage-soccer tournament of 3-a-side, first-goal wins, an extension of a TV advert, directed by Terry Gilliam, and fronted by Eric Cantona.

Teams across London competed in a number of regional heats (at venues rebranded Nikeparks) before competing in a final at a rebranded Millennium Dome (Nikepark @ the Dome). The campaign was 'taken' to the streets of London by giving each borough in London the identity of a species of scorpion, eg Greewich Giants, Bexley Devils, Enfield Tigers, each with its own signature moves, style of attack etc, and complete with text message/ sig file icons. This was then reinforced via traditional outdoor advertising - bus shelters and billboards, with more guerilla forms such as stencil graffiti/ flyposting, adding an edgy ("you are now in Emperors' territory") mythological layer across the city.

Nike Scorpion

Nike Scorpion

Nike Scorpion

In connecting young people with an urban identity reinforced on the streets, and via online and mobile messaging, Nike created a powerful way of representing the city both with space and with signs, a 'Situationist' urban realm.

According to the Wikipedia page:
"Following the airing of the commercials, in June 2002 an estimated 1 to 2 million children competed in matches following the Scorpion KO rules in about a dozen cities worldwide, including London (in the Millennium Dome), Beijing, and Buenos Aires.

Nike considered the campaign a success, with Nike president Mark Parker commenting, "This spring's integrated football marketing initiative was the most comprehensive and successful global campaign ever executed by Nike."'

Nike Scorpion

In his book 'Who's afraid of Niketown', author Friedrich Von Borries explores the lengths to which Nike go to transform urban space into brand space. Bart Lootsma, in his preface, writes:

"The new brand city described by Borries ... is a dynamic city, a setting for organizing 'situations.' In order to reach even the smallest target groups, the media will be deployed in this city far more interactively than they are today. Streets, fallow zones, interstitial spaces and ruins will play essential roles in the brand name city. These spaces will not be overlaid with advertising in classical fashion, but will instead become the objects of discriminating marketing strategies. Here initiatives from below that devise new leisure activities will be instrumentalized, as will critical actions and political demonstrations."

Borries considers the role of architecture in the 'brand city':

"In recent years the actual task of architecture has changed radically. The illusion machine of marketing has rediscovered the reality: architecture is now intended to convey the identity of a brand, is now expected, as an experiential realm, to be an element in brand communication."

Though focussed on Nike's activities in Berlin, almost identical campaigns have run in other cities across the world, including London, with events such as North versus South runs, recoding the city as a competitive space, with clearly defined winners and losers.

Borries continues:

"is it the future of the city to be the remix of an advertising spot? The brand makes the space available in which our social relations are mirrored. With Nike, this is the image of the combative city, of a remorseless battlefield of identity. The city reproduces and elucidates our competitive society. Only as an explanatory model can this advertising-becomes-space reach its target group... In the future experience-oriented city, the brand is a crucial agent, if not the paramount one. In that city, the brand becomes a partner in all forms of planning, the determinant of development trends. Precisely to the degree that economic decisions replace political ones, the brand displaces the primacy of the political in the shaping of the city. Niketown is not called that simply because it is a department store for sporting goods, but instead because Nike claims to transform the city it inhabits into a Nike city."

We have as much to learn from Nike as Venturi, from Niketown as Levittown.


Previously:

Grootens

Vinex atlas

Operating at the intersection of data visualisation and urbanism, the Atlas work of Dutch book designer Joost Grootens is without peer. At its best, graphic design and data visualisation reveals new truths, ways of seeing and understanding. In Grootens' work on publications such as the Metropolitan World Atlas this focus has been on the urban realm, and in Atlases such as the New Dutch Water Defence Line, and the Vinex Atlas, specific aspects of the Dutch built environment. But while they may be preoccupied with specific elements of the Dutch landscape, they reveal a process of representation which rewards patient study.

" Its position in the landscape, the forts, the inundation system, the geomorphology, the strategic system and recent developments can be read off in maps rendered so as to give an understanding of all aspects of the defence line landscape. The defence line reveals itself as a many-tentacled military defensive system of forts, group shelters and polders that can be flooded at the threat of war. The maps show the cohesion of the defence line as a landscape-strategic structure as well as the topographic composition of this structure in layers and components. The more detailed maps of the forts display the wealth of historic places, insertions in the landscape and defining elements."

Waterline defence Waterline defence

As with the Vinex Atlas, an exhaustive, analytical guide to the Vinex districts across the Netherlands, a seemingly dry topic of limited appeal is embued with a rigourous aesthetic sensibility.

Vinex atlas

In December this year, 010 will publish an Atlas of the Conflict - Israel-Palestine, designed by Grootens, and in January 2010 a Grootens monograph entitled I swear I use no art at all will be published, taking an analytic, atlas-like approach to mapping his own work:

"A monograph that works like an atlas, it charts in a systematic and neutral fashion the first 100 books designed by Grootens in the past ten years. In the first chapter, ’10 years’, Grootens uses timelines, lists and plans to trace the course of his career as a designer, the people he works with, the places where the work gets done."

Metropolitan World Atlas

You can find out more about the work of Joost Grootens studio at his website, and watch video interviews here and here.

Kempf

Petra Kempf - You are the City Petra Kempf - You are the City

I've been spending time over the last month getting to grips with Petra Kempf's remarkable publication You are the City.

Petra Kempf - You are the City Petra Kempf - You are the City

Subtitled "Observation, organization, and transformation of urban settings", the main element of this publication are 22 sheets of clear acetate, onto which are printed different conceptual layers and frameworks of a city. It's based on a earlier project called Met(r)onymy 1, from 2001.

In 'You are the City', the 22 diagram drawings are split into four operational categories: Cosmological Ground; Leglisative Agencies; Currents, Flows and Forces; Nodes, Loops and Connections.

By combining different sheets, and adding layers, a huge range of different compositions can be created - a handmade decon version of SimCity. It invites the user to make new urban connections and realities, as different spatial arrangements and possibilities reveal themselves. In these digital days it's quite refreshing to play with something so low-tech and tactile. The slick sophistication of digital interfaces often make it easier to gloss over them, here the simple act of shuffling clear plastic sheets and seeing the resultant overlays makes for a contemplative pleasure.

Petra Kempf - You are the City Petra Kempf - You are the City

Accompanying these diagrams is a slim pamphlet of accompanying essays, brief user guidelines, and notes on each of the diagram layers (referred to as index cards). Kempf herself calls these diagrams an 'adaptable framing device' with which to decode current and developing urban conditions:

"It provides a tool to observe, organise and outline the dynamic structure of cities in a non-hierarchical manner. Thus the urban construct can be studied and revealed in multiple ways, without assuming a specific order. Although we will never fully comprehend the entire complexity of a city in one moment, we can understand the urban construct through the interaction of its parts. This set is comprised of twenty-two transparent index cards that can be either viewed one at a time or in various overlaid combinations. By isolating and superimposing individual components, new perceptions and viewpoints will emerge. There are as many interpretations of cities as there are people."

Petra Kempf - You are the City Petra Kempf - You are the City

It reminds me strongly of a book called Ubiquitous Urbanism, the publication of a studio project a Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation led by Zaha Hadid, which follows a similar approach of layering highly abstract functional layers into a rich, dense Suprematist construction.

Ubiquitous Urbanism

Layering is preferred to the traditional town-planning conceit of zoning to create a greater intensity of urban experience. These mapping exercises are first applied to a number of American cities to test their fit, before the final application as a theoretical project for Tokyo.

Ubiquitous Urbanism - Tokyo proposal

This is what Queen Zaha has to say in her introduction:

"My proposal to the studio was to pursue again what has been the undercurrent of my preoccupations over the years and, I claim, has been until recently the central ambition of twentieth century architecture: the synthesis of architecture and urban planning as a three-dimensional as well as social art and science. ... A new approach to integrating architectural intervention had to be posited in the face of the seeming exhaustion of large-scale planning and against the postmodernist and deconstructivist onslaught ."

Petra Kempf - You are the City Petra Kempf - You are the City

In You are the City there is a similar attempt to try and work across the schism between architecture and urbanism, using the diagrams and their levels of abstraction as means to see things in a different way. Catherine Ingham, in one of the accompanying essays, Cities of Substance, Cities of No Substance, puts it thus:

"The diagram is one of of the only mechanisms by which conventional thinking about cities can be located and dislodged. The diagram is where conventions, givens, are wrestled with ... Kempf uses abstraction, aggregation and overlay to subvert the conventional urban plan."

Petra Kempf - You are the City Petra Kempf - You are the City

You are the City is a powerful antidote to most city-planning exercises, a conscious attempt to free up rigid spatial thinking and start thinking about networks and connections instead.

Petra Kempf can help us move from the notion of ubiquitous urbanism to that of the continuous city.

Koolhand

Koolhand typeface by Chris Papasadero

Koolhand is a free experimental typeface designed by Chris Papasadero inspired by some of the architecture of Rem Koolhaas. In it, plans and sections are treated as typographical elements. I'm not sure any of the letterforms are of actual building designs by OMA, but Papasadero has certainly captured much of the essence of their work.

One day all architects will have their own typeface.

Kunstler

James Howard Kunstler is an entertaining speaker, but at heart he is a New Urbanist, who probably sees himself as a spiritual heir to Jane Jacobs.

New Urbanism is a pervasive aberration, a seductive myth, a creeping kudzu, and must be resisted at all costs.