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."

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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.


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.

Jan Grothklags: Concrete Dreams

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Photographer Jan Grothklags has created a book, Concrete Dreams, documenting the construction of the Phaeno Centre in Wolfsburg, Germany, by Zaha Hadid. It might not have won the Stirling Prize, but it looks a damn fine building, and Grothklags images bear witness to a fascinating construction process.

Concrete Dreams won Grothklags an honorable mention in the Digital Photography category of the 2006 Adobe Design Achievement Awards.

You can also see the pages of the book on Grothklags' website.


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Recently published is a special issue of Domus magazine, called Domus d'Autore where the magazine is given over to a guest Editor-Architect, in this instance Rem Koolhaas and his OMA-AMO practice.

The theme Koolhaas has decided to explore with this special issue is "Post-Occupancy" and a chance to critically re-evaluate as AMO 4 recently completed built projects by OMA: The Dutch Embassy in Berlin, the Seattle Public Library, the McCormick-Tribune Campus Center on the campus of IIT in Chicago, and the Casa de Musica in Porto:

"With this issue we try to (re)present four recent buildings in a fresh, more complex way. We don't insist on the buildings' qualities, but monitored their effects on their respective hosts and users. There are no 'critics' - usually, best friends in drag - no intimidation. We have assembled myriad anonymous voices and collected snapshots. We documented how (our) buildings take place in a primordial sea of influences and predecesors on which their existence depends and to whose existence they try to contribute. We looked through the eyes of tourists and artists, trusted others to record. Away from the triumphalist or miserabilist glare of media, we wanted to see what happens in the absence of the author, to represent the realities we were complicit in creating, post-occupancy, as facts, not feats."

As well as the sequence of drawings and photographs as you would expect, there are interviews and vox-pops with users, discussions on the role of image making and photography in architecture, dense hypertextual concentrations of the 4 buildings press coverage, and a lyrical meditation by Koolhaas on Berlin and his debt to OM Ungers.

Through the projects described in this edition, it's fascinating to see evolving the theories explored by Koolhaas from the Delirious New York days, such as the analysis of a skyscraper. The skyscraper's multiplicity of functions, stacked behind a uniform facade, and the vertical circulation, explored by OMA through the brilliant unbuilt projects of the Tres Grande Bibliotheque in Paris, the ZKM in Karlsruhe, the library at Jussieu in France, is further explored with these built projects. With each new project the thinking evolves. Now the functions are not just stacked vertically but offset, creating dynamic compositions and interstitial spaces. The urban field is brought inside, often through a continuous linear route winding upwards through the building in a series of ramps.

This magazine, beautifully constructed, is a fascinating insight into the programmatic approach to the design of the four projects, and comparing and contrasting them shows how these projects related to each other as part of a brilliantly conceived ouevre while at the same time for the most part satisfying the requirements of their users.

When in doubt quote Ballard


Great stuff over at, where Tim Chapman interviews Iain Sinclair about JG Ballard.

Amongst the tit-bits are mention of a new Iain Sinclair book City of Disappearances, and discussion of the latest JG Ballard book, Kingdom Come.

Ballard and Sinclair have been intertwined for a while now, both capturing a certain sensibility of the modern urban condition, though with different approaches. Whilst Sinclair wrote an introduction to the BFI monograph on Crash!, and has pastiched Ballard in novels such as Landor's Tower, Ballard returns the compliment in Kingdom Come:

[Tim Champman, Ballardian] "With Kingdom Come, as you say, you were given this assignment to destroy Bluewater. Did you fail him? Does he have to do it himself?"

[Iain Sinclair] "I did my best — I gave it a good kicking in the book. Bluewater I thought was one of the most de-energising places on the face of the earth. It’s down in this chalk quarry, which makes it different from any other huge mall. Essentially it’s just a car park — the convenience is that it’s somewhere you can put your car. Shopping is completely separate from it."

Ballard is as usual tacking contentious stuff by advocating terrorism in these end days, perhaps continuing the theme of middle-class revolt from Millennium People, this time from the viewpoint of a suburban town called Brooklands on the outskirts of London, along the M25. It starts with a great opening paragraph:

"The suburbs dream of violence. Asleep in their drowsy villas, sheltered by benevolent shopping malls, they wait patiently for the nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world."

Great stuff. And there's more great lines within:

"People in London can't grasp that this is the real England. Parliament, the West End, Bloomsbury, Notting Hill, Hampstead - they're heritage London, held together by a dinner party culture. Here, around the M25, is where it's really happening. This is today's England, but people are bored. They're out on the edge, waiting for something big and strange to come along."

However, as a whole the book doesn't seem to hold together too well, it lacks the sheen of veracity that makes Millennium People so great . As with most Ballard books, there's not much characterisation, and everyone essentially speaks with Ballard's voice, and are prone to pompous speechifying.

Most of the ideas in Kingdom Come are repeated in Balllard's recent diary entry in the New Statesman - A Fascists Guide to the Premiership. - a brilliant title that could have done with a more considered content.

According to the Blackwells web site, JG Ballard is supposed to be talking at the Institute of Education on the 14th September, but as the interview makes clear, he doesn't get out much, so whether he'll show up or not remains to be seen.

Recently, Sinclair was interviewed by Koolhaas at the Serpentine Gallery 24-hour interview-athon, which prompts further cross-over influence/inspiration:

[Tim Chapman] It’s interesting you mention Koolhaas. At the architecture exhibition here at the Barbican, Future City: Experiment and Utopia in Architecture [1956-2006], there’s an installation of a theoretical work by Koolhaas, Exodus [1972], which is about placing a great strip of ultra-luxury accommodation across London so it divides it in two, and seeing what’ll happen. I thought that’s an unwritten Ballard story.

Sinclair also mentions doing a version of London Orbital based in Bejing, following the 7 orbital motorways around the Chinese capital.