Communal House of the Textile Institute

Communal House of the Textile Institute

I absolutely love this painting by Mikhail Nemtsov of The Communal House of the Textile Institute in Moscow.

Designed by Ivan Sergeevich Nikolaev and completed in 1931, it is one of the seminal buildings of the Constructivist era, and is often referred to simply at Nikolaev's House. It embodies the radical approach to communal living and education that gained popularity in the post-revolutionary fervent, when all social institutions became open to re-examination. The painting by Nemtsov doesn't just represent the building but also tries to capture the multitude of social relations that would have taken place in the building.

Since 1968, when it was last repaired, the building has fallen into disrepair, and although Nemtsov likes the fact that it still supports a variety of uses, a renovation is planned.

Watch this video interview with Nemtsov from the excellent Ogino Knauss site here:

MIKHAIL NEMTOV from OGINO KNAUSS.

Decaying orbiters

Space Shuttle Enterprise

As the US Space Shuttle Discovery lands for what is almost certain to be the last time, and as the NASA shuttle program winds down, it is a timely moment to examine how the legacy and celebration of the Shuttle program contrasts strongly with the fortunes of the Soviet 'Buran' shuttle program.

A Buran mockup at Gorky Park

As this intriguing article explores, the various test prototypes and production models of the Buran lie largely forgotten at various sites across the former Soviet Union. Only one, the OK-GLI test vehicle (the equivalent of the Enterprise), has made its way to a museum in Germany. The only orbiter ('Buran') actually to make it into orbit, in 1988, was destroyed when the hangar it was kept in, at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, collapsed in 2002, killing 7 people. The only other orbiter ('Ptichka') which ever made it onto the launch pad (for a series of tests) is still in a hanger at Baikonur, with no-one seemingly knowing what to do with it. The incomplete 3rd orbiter has recently been moved out its construction hanger at the NPO Energiya factory, to free up space on the factory floor, and now stands forlornly on the pier at Khimki.

Buran 1.03 orbiter

It is a stark contrast to the inevitable scramble by museums to secure the 3 remaining US Space Shuttles once they have finished active duty. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center, near Dulles International Airport in Virginia, which already has the Enterprise prototype, is likely to upgrade this for the Discovery. Endeavour and Atlantis, when they are retired from active duty, will also find eager takers, despite a likely $42 million price tag. (Hopefully the Science Museum will try and secure the Endeavour, named as it is after the ship that Captain Cook sailed to Australia).

Is it that the US does heritage and legacy better than the Russians, or is there something deeper here? Are there cultural values that make the Americans want to celebrate and make cultural artifacts, even commodities, of their spacecraft, whilst the Russians seem not to know what to do with their craft, celebrate their achievements, or even document thoroughly the history of the program.

Buran and Space Shuttle comparison

The relative fortunes of the US and Soviet Union space shuttle programs have long been a source of fascination to me. Both the Space Shuttle program and the Buran programs can be regarded as beautiful failures, neither achieving the aims for which they were designed, but nevertheless still capturing the public imagination with the dream of making spaceflight part of everyones experience.

But the tragedy that the legacy of the Soviet shuttle program has failed to be preserved, celebrated and even documented, shares a striking similarity with the fate of much modernist architecture across the former Soviet Union. One only has to look at the parlous state of seminal architectural masterpieces such as Ginzburg's Narkomfin, or Melnikov's Rusakov Workers Club, to feel a melancholic sense of futility. Clementine Cecil and the team at MAPS are doing a great job of trying to document 'buildings at risk' in Moscow and across the former Soviet Union, but they can do little more than bear witness to the gradual decay or destruction of some key architectural works of Soviet modernism.

Narkomfin
Nakomfin model

Whilst there is an irony in the concept of restoring and preserving works of the modern movement that itself often sought to forget the past and the build the world anew, there is much that these projects can teach us about the excitement as well as the perils of rejecting what has gone before in a relentless quest for the new. Likewise the space race that led to the two space shuttle programs has much to teach us about the history of superpower relations during the 20th Century, and the innovation fostered in a period of intense cultural and ideological competition.

Het Nieuwe Bouwen

Het Nieuwe Bouwen in Rotterdam, book jacket

Back in the day, I probably knew more about the modern movement in Dutch architecture, Het Nieuwe Bouwen, than just about anything else. Had I been asked to select a specialist subject to appear on Mastermind, it's probably what I would have chosen. These days I've forgotten more than I can remember, but the recent sight of these posters by Wim Crouwel has rekindled my memory, and why I was (and remain) so fascinated by it.

The Dutch experiment with Functionalism seemed to be much more engaged than the brief flirtation of the UK. The evolution of ideas and form works of precursors such as Berlage, van de Velde and Dudok, through to Duiker, Oud, Rietveld and onto to Brinkmann, van der Vlugt, Bekama etc. to my eyes form a compelling continuum of experimentation, openness and shared ambition, and established a platform for the confidence of Dutch architecture throughout the course of the 20th Century.

Het Nieuwe Bouwen, CIAM poster

Het Nieuwe Bouwen, posters

These posters, created by Crouwel's Total Studio in 1983 to accompany a series of exhibitions across museums Holland including the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the Kröller-Müller at Otterlo, and the Gementesmuseum in The Hague. Each of the exhibitions was accompanied by a book, also designed by Crouwel/ Total Studio, and these are well worth tracking down for both their beautiful design as well as their content.

The beauty of the covers/ posters, with the axonometric view of the signature buildings, on a silvered background with the roof picked out in white, and with the helvetica type set at a 45 degree angle, reflects a total synthesis between graphic design and architecture. It doesn't get better than this.

(The images shown here don't really do them justice - I will scan and photograph the covers of my book copies to replace them shortly, if anyone has any decent images of the posters please let me know).

Het Nieuwe Bouwen, books
You can pick these books up second hand but you can also download 4 of them from Scribd (links: Previous History, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, De Stijl, CIAM). If you're feeling rich you can also buy the posters, try here.

This post sponsored by Portakabin:
Modular construction

Cities and Cosmonauts 3

Buran on launchpad at Baikonour

Liam Young and Kate Davies, lecturers at the Architectural Association, are leading a study visit to Chernobyl and Baikonour next July, as part of their Unknown Fields nomadic studio.

"This year, on the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space flight, we will pack our Geiger counters and spacesuits as we chart a course from the atomic to the cosmic to investigate the unknown fields between the exclusion zone of the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor in the Ukraine and Gagarin’s launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Beginning in the shadows of nuclear disaster we will survey the irradiated wilderness and bear witness to a sobering apocalyptic vision. We will skirt the retreating tide of the Aral Sea and mine the ‘black gold’ in the Caspian oilfields and caviar factories. We will wander through the cotton fields of Kazakhstan and tread the ancient silk road before reaching the shores of the cosmic ocean bathed in the white light of satellites blasting into tomorrow’s sky. In these shifting fields of nature and artifice we will re-examine our preservationist and conservationist attitudes toward the natural world and document a cross-section through a haunting landscape of the ecologically fragile and the technologically obsolete."

I'm glad that others have recognised the spatial and architectonic qualities of Baikonour. There are of course the hauntological aspects, the disused and abandoned launchpads, and the tragedy of the collapse of the hangar in 2002 where the last Buran was stored, crushing with it the dream of resurrecting the Soviet shuttle program that was hinted at by Leonid Gurushkin's announcement of 2001. "We have been dreaming of this time," said Gurushkin.

But it is too easy to regard Baikonour as a monument to failed dreams, and forget that it is still a working spaceport. It is a truly disurbanist settlement, to a much greater degree than the compromised linear city plan for Magnitogorsk or the other Sotsgorod. It is a town whose locus is off-world, the earthly counterpart to a true Kosmograd yet to be built.

Buran on launchpad at Baikonour

If, like me, you maintain that the Soviet Space program enabled the secret continuation of the Constructivist project after the rise of Stalin, then Baikonour is a site of key architectural importance.

This is another in a series of posts on Kosmograd sponsored by Portakabin:

Prefabricated buildings from Portakabin.


Previously:

Launch tower typologies

Soyuz TMA-01 launch

Soyuz TMA-01 launch

Soyuz TMA-01 launch

For anyone who might doubt that rocket launch towers represent the purest continuation of the Constructivist aesthetic, I give you these pictures of the recent launch of the Soyuz TMA-01M. This launch was also attended by saucy spy minx Anna Chapman, for that added dash of James Bond-esque colour, and the frisson of returning Cold War tensions.

More pictures here. A deeper enquiry into the typologies of Soviet rocket launch towers is underway.

Unit: Design/Research 02: Space and structure

Unit: Design/ Research 2

Recently I picked up the second issue of the design newspaper Unit: Design/ Research from Unit Editions, edited by Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy.

The second issue, titled 'Space and structure' is devoted to the magazine Form, which from 1966 to 1969 published 12 issues in an uncompromisingly modern format, and filled with avant-garde material in the fields of art and architecture.

Unit: Design/ Research 2

Unit: Design/ Research 2

U:D/R 2 includes an interview with Philip Steadman, co-editor and designer of Form, as well as facsimiles of much of the content from Form itself. So you'll find bits of articles from Van Doesburg and Rodchenko, articles about structuralism, essays by Roland Barthes, and plans for Black Mountain College by Gropius and Breuer, amongst others. It's hard not to feel nostalgic for a time when everything wasn't instantly at your fingertips, and little gems like Form were therefore that much more precious.

Unit: Design/ Research 2

Form, with its Swiss-influenced modernist design, square format and use of white space, was unusual for an English publication at the time, and Steadman struggled to find a printer who held the Helvetica typeface it was set in. Form represents an early synthesis between typography and architecture, something that seems increasingly relevant today, and this publication is a great celebration of this pioneering magazine.

In the box

Metz & Co, Amsterdam

In 1933 Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld designed a circular steel and glass pavilion to be mounted on the roof of the luxury department store Metz & Co. in Amsterdam. Its still there today, now used as a cafe, a little modernist jewel atop the traditional Dutch building. With it, Rietveld perhaps created the first Modernist example of parasitic architecture.

In choosing to build their World Cup studio on the roof of a building in Cape Town, the BBC so nearly got it right, but in the end, like a Lee Dixon backpass, it went wildly astray.

Cape Town

The Beeb decided to forego basing their TV studio for the 2010 World Cup in Johannesburg (where the official media facilities were based), and instead chose to spend £1m building a pentagonal shaped, rooftop glass box on the roof of the Somerset Hospital in Cape Town, providing a panoramic view over the city including Table Mountain in the distance.

Spending a million quid of licence-payers money on a TV studio is the sort of thing that presses all of the buttons at the Daily Mail, (and also any excuse to bash the BBC, at the Murdoch owned News of the World), both of which have expressed various levels of outrage, and schadenfreude when fog blocks the view of Table Mountain. But the BBC instincts were right, it was just the execution that was lousy. Instead of into tapping into the powerful architectural concept of a parasite organism, and placing a jewel like glass-pod on the brutalist exterior of the Somerset Hospital, the Beeb created an ugly, squat, flat-pack conservatory.

BBC World Cup studio

BBC World Cup studio

There are plenty of other precedents for rooftop buildings structurally independent from the main building. The penthouse on Ginzburg's seminal Narkomfin communal housing block in Moscow, stood on a number of slender steel supports, and while originally intended as a communal recreation area, was occupied by Nikolai Milyutin, who had commissioned the building. It's clear to see the influence this building had on Le Corbusier's Unite d'habitation, with its famous rooftop kindergarten. BBC executives should have looked to these buildings for inspiration rather than the sheds department at B&Q.

Narkomfim, Moscow

Unite d'Habitation, Marseilles

Further outrage has been voiced by the Daily Mail when it is revealed that the BBC have installed a lift so that the BBC presenters (or more likely the technicians and all their equipment) don't need to use the stairs inside the hospital.

While the exterior is not much to write home about, the interior is shocking. It's like some kind of nightmare art-deco Changing Rooms makeover. Randomly placed objects are internally lit with a vivid pulsing orange light. To hide a structural element the set designers have placed a kind of orange, ribbed, vortex device which dominates the field of view. I can't stop looking at it, half expecting it to suddenly interrupt Alan Hansen with some insightful half-time analysis. Table Mountain in the distance stands no chance. The studio table, on the other hand, is centre stage, its shape seems to continually shift, its purpose sinister and unknown. Its function seems only to provide spatial separation between gurning idiot Gary Lineker and the 3 randomly selected pundits lined up opposite.

BBC World Cup Studio

BBC World Cup Studio

The floor with its radial lines, the table, the vortex column thingy, and the pentagonal shaped box, combined with the intense distortion caused by the wide angle lenses the camera-men are forced to used, creates a dizzying perspective. The space seems to defy geometry itself. Things have gone all non-Euclidean, like something out of an HP Lovecraft novel.

ITV World Cup Studio

Still, if the BBC's set design is woeful, ITV's set is an abomination. I spend all of half-time transfixed by the day-glo plexi-glass fins that protrude from the table that divides the doughy Adrian Chiles from the moronic Andy Townsend. It's the sort of design that John Outram might come up after a 4-day Angel Dust bender. I wonder if there is some secret school of architecture or interior design where students take mind-altering drugs in order to develop the art of sports studio design.

Panorama House, Los Angeles, by Neil Denari

Las Palmas Parasite by Korteknie Stuhlmacher Architecten

Hopefully in 2014 the BBC will call in Neil Denari or Korteknie Stuhlmacher Architecten to create something futuristic and thrilling, and with an interior to match. In the meantime, if your idea of fine dining is sitting on the roof of an unfinished shopping centre looking at giant building site, you could always the new pop-up restaurant at Studio East Dining.

The ballet of iPod City

Shenzhen

Two news items aroused my disurbanist instincts last week, and in my paranoid modus operandi where everything is connected, thought that they represented two aspects of an identical process: the continued fragmentation and mutation of the urban condition.

Firstly, in a great article in The Atlantic, entitled "Gentrification and its Discontents" Benjamin Schwarz reviews two recent books, Naked City by Sharon Zukin and Twenty Minutes in Manhattan by Michael Sorkin, looking at life in New York, each in part bemoaning the "Disneyification' of Greenwich Village. With the full title of "Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places", it's not hard to guess where the jumping off point is for the Zukin book. Schwarz considers both books to be consciously in a dialogue with Jane Jacobs, the doyenne of urban writing ever since her 1961 book Death and Life of Great American Cities, and compares their relative positions.

Greenwich Village with Lower Manhattan Expressway
(Image showing Greenwich Village if Robert Moses plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway had been built, by Vanshnookraggen)

What has come to pass in Greenwich Village? The vibrant mixed-use community that Jane Jacobs wrote about so affectionately and campaigned to save from the tyranny of Robert Moses has, lo-and-behold, turned into a kind of bo-ho theme park, in the process losing its soul, or 'authenticity' as Sharon Zukin would have it. I'm sure the same thing applies to other renowned neighbourhoods in great cities across the world - Haight-Ashbury in SF springs to mind, and here in London Carnaby Street, Portobello Road and much of Notting Hill are pale shadows of what made them unique in the first place.

But what does 'authentic' mean in this context? Schwarz argues convincingly that the Greenwich Village that Jane Jacobs depicted in the most oft-recalled part of DALOGAC was at a transitional point between the old industrial usage and a largely residential usage, under the forces of gentrification, and that what Zukin wants is for the city to remain in this transitional zone, forever teetering on the cusp of the future. It's a nostalgic, highly sentimental view and one that Jane Jacobs writing is also guilty of. She observed a city that was already changing, and presented a series of matronising, personal opinions as an indisputable analysis of what makes cities work.

Jane Jacobs

We know where this leads. Jacobs founded a powerful myth of urbanism, that the sine qua non of urban form was to found in the 'ballet of Hudson Street', and with it created such as narrow definition of what represents vitality in cities that it can only be achieved with the values that Jacobs proscribed, and that conversely, anything that ignores any of these principles must be doomed to failure. The New Urbanists have taken a set of observations from Death and Life of Great American Cities, and turned them into design guidelines, a form of environmental determinism that in many ways is the exact opposite of what Jacobs wrote and stood for. The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a compelling read, but it is deeply flawed book.

Such a narrow depth of field seems increasingly less relevant in today's globalised economy and accelerated culture. The forces of gentrification move ever faster. The city districts that Jacobs wrote about so evocatively/cringingely can now be seen as a mirage, or at least a frozen moment in the evolution of a neighbourhood. Even New York, arguably the definitive city of the 20th Century, seems increasingly irrelevant as the hothouse for urbanism for the 21st Century. For this we need to look beyond Greenwich Village, outside the western cities of Europe and the US, and look at Asia and South America. Jane Jacobs principles seem increasingly irrelevant to the raging economic and urbanising forces at work in say Shanghai, Dubai or Sao Paulo.

The urban landscape of 21st Century China is not somewhere that a 1960's treatise on diverse, walkable neighbourhoods in the US has much relevance. The forces of globalisation, and the transformation of Chinese society under Deng Xioping's plans for economic reform have led to the situation where almost all goods are manufactured in China, and unprecedented urban growth in Special Economic Zones (SEZ) such as Shenzhen and across the Guangdong province.

China has become literally the workshop of the world. In parts of the Shenzhen SEZ, giant manufacturing complexes represent a new set of local urban conditions, factory cities on a vast scale. Many employ hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who have travelled in from rural areas to try and earn money for their families, living and working in tightly controlled and highly regimented communities

Recently the news has been full of stories about working conditions at the Taiwanese owned manufacturing corporation Foxconn, anchored by the Hon Hai Precision Industry Co, an electronics assembly firm building computer and electronics hardware for US and Japanese owned corporations like Dell, HP, Microsoft, Sony and most notably Apple 1. In the past 6 months alone, 10 Foxconn employees have committed suicide, leading to an increased scrutiny in the West to the living and working conditions inside these factory cities.

Foxconn's walled Shenzhen factory complex, the Longhua Science & Technology Park, is a citadel, within a city within a megalopolis of 14 million people and growing. The Daily Mail dubbed it iPod City back in 2006 - since then its size has nearly doubled. Here Foxconn employs over 420,000 people - more than the population of Bristol (in fact there are only 9 cities in the UK with more people). With such a large migrant workforce, lacking residency permits (hukou), most employees live in company owned dormitories, and travel to work on company buses. The streets, buidlings and infrastructure are all Foxconn built and owned. Yet there are few good intentions on the pavements of Foxconn city, no Cadbury Brothers or Titus Salt looking to build model communities for their workers. A soft blend of commerce and utopian socialism has been replaced with a schizoid mix of global capitalism and hardline Communism.

In a satirical piece, IT journalist Dan Lyons [who publishes online under the moniker Fake Steve Jobs] writes:

"But the Foxconn people all work for the same company, in the same place, and they’re all doing it in the same way, and that way happens to be a gruesome, public way that makes a spectacle of their death. They’re not pill-takers or wrist-slitters or hangers. They’re not Sylvia Plath wannabes, sealing off the kitchen and quietly sticking their head in the oven. They’re jumpers. And jumpers, my friends, are a different breed. Ask any cop or shrink who deals with this stuff. Jumpers want to make a statement. Jumpers are trying to tell you something."

As an act of architectural performance, Foxconn's suicide jumpers are every bit as profound as Jacobs' ballet of the sidewalk. Foxconn's intial responses were architectonic - to put up safety nets; and spatial - to increase rooftop security patrols, before starting to address pay and working patterns.

Safety Nets

Can we begin to understand life in iPod City? Can we even comprehend what it is to live and work here, let alone began any comprehensive understanding of what constitutes urbanism or streetlife here?

In addition to its dozens of assembly lines and dormitories, Longhua has a fire brigade, hospital and employee swimming pool, where Mr. Gou (the founder of Hon Hai) does early morning laps when he is there. Restaurants, banks, a grocery store and an Internet cafe line the company town's main drag. More than 500 monitors around the campus show exercise programs, worker-safety videos and company news produced by the in-house television network, Foxconn TV. Even the plant's manhole covers are stamped "Foxconn."

Foxconn

Foxconn

Foxconn

Foxconn
(Images of Foxconn found here)

Guangdong Province and Gotham, Shenzhen and SoHo, are locked in a symbiotic relationship of economies and cultures. If Manhattan was a laboratory of the urban condition during the 20th Century, it is Shenzhen which is the petri dish of 21st century urbanism. The key to understanding the urbanism of Chinese factory cities, isn't to be found in any book by Jane Jacobs.

Some of the most insightful analysis of the urban forces in Shenzhen are to be found in Great Leap Forward: Project on the City 1, by Harvard Design School, and co-edited by Rem Koolhaas. It carries all of the hallmarks of OMA's analytical investigations into emerging urban conditions, and as part of a wider investigation into the Pearl River Delta region of China, explores the origins of the inherent contradictory nature of the Shenzhen SEZ, analysed as a linear city:

"'Three Paths and One Leveling,' the slogan that inaugurated the construction of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, delineates the formula of a minimally yet ambitiously planned city. Along with the necessary erasure - the preparatory 'leveling - Shenzhen is shaped as a LINEAR CITY. Between its first (1982) and second (1984) master plans, the Shenzhen SEZ was laid out as a linear instrument for organising the flow of capital. Although stretching 50 kilometers along the border with Hong Kong, its layout numbers only three east-west avenues (the 'three paths') and twelve north-south cross connections. It is precisely the scarcity of connections and the freedom from a preestablished pedestrian'grid' that forms the basis for all future urban incarnations. Distilled into an 'essential' traffic pattern, the plan of the zone underscores the INFRARED redefinition of the city as infrastructure. Recognizing that Hong Kong owes its prosperity to its infrastructures - container ports, tunnels, bridges, and highways connecting the harbor with the New Territories ( a warehouse hinterland storing containers and people alike) - the Shenzhen SEZ advertises itself as a colossal infrastructure, and link between the financial incentives of the socialist market economy and international capital flowing out of Hong Kong."

Shenzhen

Shenzhen

Shenzhen

Shenzhen

Shenzhen

(Images from Great Leap Forward, showing, from top, Shenzhen SEZ compared to Manhattan, traffic plan of Shenzhen SEZ, the 1982 masterplan, the 1984 masterplan, the 1996 masterplan.)

But the book seldom comes down from the macroscopic view to look at life at street-level in Shenzen. This post at Polis blog shows that within the explosive growth of the Shenzhen megapolis are engulfed and assimilated a number of smaller villages. These Villages in the City are to Shenzhen as Greenwich Village was to New York - perhaps a Chinese Jane Jacobs will emerge to champion their unique qualities, but it is more likely they will eventually be swept away on the unstoppable tide of progress and Five Year Plans.

Schizophrenic Shenzhen has replaced Delirious New York.


  1. I say most notably because it always the Apple connection that attracts the press headlines. Part of this is due to pure linkbait - publishers know that mention of Apple leads to more eyeballs and web links. But I think that the press love to explore the dichotomy or the irony (and possibly the schadenfreude) - that those lustful consumer electronics products (of which the iPod, iPhone and iPad are perhaps the most visible examples) we enjoy in our western homes or Greenwich Village coffee shops could be the product of a toxic workplace, unsavory working practices and inhumane living conditions. That products presented as liberating pieces of lifestyle tech come from one of the most secretive, regimented and restrictive working environments is a delicious, tempting irony few hacks can resist.

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.


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