Branding the Moon

"Moscow shot for the Moon, and scored a bullseye".

Although the Americans were the first to set foot on the Moon in 1969, they were not the first to leave their mark on the lunar surface.

Lunar pennants

In a fascinating act of planetary branding, or a sophisticated piece of land-art to trump any Andy Goldsworthy, the Soviet Luna-2 mission was the first man-made object to reach the surface of the Moon, crash-landing east of Mare Imbrium, on September 14, 1959. The Universal Newsreels report called it a propaganda bonus for Krushchev, stating "Moscow shot for the Moon, and scored a bullseye".

On board the Luna-2 craft were 2 small spheres, composed on a number of pentagonal panels, like a small football. The panels were made from titanium with "thermoresistant polysiloxane enamels." Each pentagon is a pennant, printed with the USSR state seal - a wreath of grain around the hammer and sickle - or the message СССР (USSR), СЕНТЯБРЬ(September) , 1959.

Luna Sphere

The ball on display at Kansas Cosmodrome, as discussed here, is inscribed with ЯНВАРЬ (January), rather than September, so it is likely that these were also placed on the earlier Luna 1 mission which launched in January 1959. Due to a programming error, Luna 1 missed the Moon by approximately 6000km, and instead became the first man-made object to reach heliocentric object. Its orbit now lies somewhere between Earth and Mars. With typical Soviet opportunism, it was dubbed Mechta (Dream) and also referred to as the First Cosmic Rocket.

It is unclear whether the balls were fitted with an explosive charge, to be fired from the craft before impact, and scattering individual pentagonal pennants, or whether the sphere was designed to stay intact, bouncing and rolling across the lunar dust. Either way it is unclear whether they would have survived the heat generated by the impact of Luna 2, estimated at 11000°K.

This picture implies there were two different sizes of sphere. The Wikipedia article states that there was a third ball, which was located in the main part of the rocket, which crashed into the Moon 30 minutes after the Luna-2 probe.

Luna 2

As this excellent page on Soviet spacecraft pennants shows, it seems that all Soviet space craft carried metallic pennants, left to commemorate the missions. This included the various Mars probes and the Venera (Venus) missions. Later Luna missions included rectangular pennants that illustrated from whence the craft came.

Glass Houses

"I’m a plagiarist man — you see, you must take everything from everybody"

Philip Johnson, interview with Susan Sontag.

With all the press jouissance over the possibility of a clone of a Zaha Hadid project in China being completed before the original, there is a historical precedent of the copy preceding the original, in perhaps the greatest act of architectural plagiarism to date. The story concerns two of the most famous buildings of the Modern Movement, The Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe, and Philip Johnson's Glass House.

The original in this scenario in Mies' Farnsworth House, planned in 1945 For Mrs Farnsworth in Plano, Illinois, but completed in 1951. A model was exhibited at the MOMA in 1947, at a show about modern architecture part curated by, you guessed it, Philip Johnson. Johnson was able to design and build The Glass House for himself quicker than Mies, with his project completed in 1949 and subsequently widely published in the architectural press.

Farnsworth House

Mies was understandably said to be furious, partly because he thought people would conclude that his was the derivative work. And it's not difficult to see the direct influence of one upon the other, both being essentially glass boxes, with full height glazing, and a flat roof supported by edge mounted columns giving an entirely free plan, with a central service core. There are differences of course, primarily the raised platform upon which the Farnsworth House sits, and the white paintwork. In contrast, the Glass House sits into the ground more, and with its darker colouring, sits more within the landscape than against it. In Johnson's Glass House, the corner columns together with the floor and roof slabs creates a box-like frame, whereas Mies, in moving the columns inwards, dissolves the edges and make the horizontal elements float more.

Glass House

David Holowka, in a wonderful article on his Architakes blog, calls Johnson's iterations "history's worst case of the anxiety of influence", and later recalls Franz Schulze, "biographer of both men, states in Philip Johnson, Life and Work, that Mies belabored Johnson 'not for having copied him but for trying to and failing.'"

Johnson went through many variations in his design for the Glass House, somewhere between 27 (the official view) and 79 (according to his assistant Landis Gores). As the Architakes article describes: "After 25 tries, Johnson’s tortured resignation that the Farnsworth House was not to be improved upon is on full view in penultimate scheme 26′s nearly actionable plagiarism of its plan.",

Mies and Johnson continued to have an uneasy professional relationship, working together on the Seagram building in New York. Mies visited Johnson at the Glass House in 1955, but famously refused to stay there. "After a night of drinking, Mies picked at the Glass House's details until Johnson indirectly retaliated by challenging the greatness of one of Mies's favorite buildings, Berlage's Amsterdam Stock Exchange. In a 1985 interview by Robert A.M. Stern published in The Philip Johnson Tapes, Johnson describes Mies’s quietly angry response: "I’m not staying here tonight. Find me another place to stay."

Here is a short Sarah Morris' 2010 film 'Points on a Line':

Sarah Morris "Points on a Line" from Sarah Morris on Vimeo.

Who owns an architectural idiom? After all, Mies didn't invent modernist architecture or the idea of building a house from steel and glass, even if we can admit that the Farnsworth House represents a high-water mark for Modernism. We can sense that Johnson's Glass house has crossed a boundary between inspiration and plagiarism, without being able to explain fully why. It is a fuzzy boundary, and any artistic endeavour will alway find it hard to separate inspiration from duplication. As far as I know, the rules of copyright do not apply to architecture in the same way that they do not apply to fashion. Buildings and clothes are both regarded as utility, and therefore unable to be registered.

It is only Western architecture of the 20th century that began to prize uniqueness in architectural designs so highly, and denigrate similarity and duplication in favour of a radical individuality. Johnson's building, while certainly derivative, ultimately arrives at a different destination from the Mies house. While the Farnsworth House sits against the landscape, the Glass House rests within it, and both solutions are equally valid. Unlike the Chinese clone of a Hadid design, it is not simply a context-free rip-off.

Olympics Brand Exclusion Zone

Advertising restriction zone around Olympic Park
In graphic design, an 'exclusion zone' is an area around a logo which must be left clear. Corporate brand and logo usage guidelines demonstrate the proportion of vertical and horizontal space around a logo into which no other element can intrude.

In urban design, exclusion zones are becoming commonplace in relation to sponsorship of sporting events. The Brand Exclusion Zone is the newest form of urban demarcation, and can be used not only to affect signage and advertising, but also restrict personal freedom of choice. Within this context, the London 2012 Olympics represents one of the most radical restructuring of the rights of the city in London. The 'canvas' of London will belong exclusively to the Olympic marquee brands.

In essence, London has abdicated all rights and responsibilities to the International Olympic Committee, and implemented legislation which creates radical new spatial demarcations not only within the Olympic Park, but because of the distributed nature of the Olympic venues, across the whole of central London. London has surrendered the traditional rights to the city to the demands of the Olympic 'family' and their corporate paymasters. What the IOC want, London will give. London will be on brand lockdown.

The most carefully policed Brand Exclusion Zone will be around the Olympic Park, and extend up to 1km beyond its perimeter, for up to 35 days. Within this area, officially called an Advertising and Street Trade Restrictions venue restriction zone, no advertising for brands designated as competing with those of the official Olympic sponsors will be allowed. (Originally, as detailed here, only official sponsors were allowed to advertise, but leftover sites are now available). This will be supported by preventing spectators from wearing clothing prominently displaying competing brands, or from entering the exclusion zone with unofficial snack and beverage choices. Within the Zone, the world's biggest McDonald's will be the only branded food outlet, and Visa will be the only payment card accepted.

Advertising restriction zone around Greenwich

Advertising restriction zone around Wimbledon

This brand apartheid is designed to prevent "ambush marketing", the gaining exposure of an brand through unofficial means. One of the best known examples of this was in the World Cup in 2010, where a bevy of 36 Dutch beauties in orange dresses provided by Bavaria beer gained considerable media attention, to the chagrin of the official World Cup beer, Budweiser. At London 2012, branding 'police' will be on hand to ensure that nothing like this happens, with potential criminal prosecutions against those responsible. Organising committee LOCOG will also take steps to ensure that no unofficial business tries to associate itself with the Olympics by using phrases like 'London 2012', even on such innocuous things such as a cafe menu offering an 'Olympic breakfast'. The Olympics authorities are looking to control both language and space.

Ambush marketing at World Cup 2010

And it's not just London. All the venues for the 2012 Olympics will be on brand lockdown. In Coventry, even the roadsigns will be changed so that there is no reference to the Ricoh Arena, which is hosting matches in the football tournament. Even logos on hand dryers in the toilets are being covered up. The Sports Direct Arena in Newcastle will have to revert back to St. James Park for the duration of the Olympics.

Traditionally, the most epic guerrilla marketing war has taken place between sportswear rivals Nike and Adidas. Whereas Adidas has long been an official sponsor of major sporting events such as the World Cup and the Olympics, Nike has cast itself as the hip, streetwise alternative, and taken considerable steps to trump Adidas in gaining exposure at major sporting events.

1996 was ambush marketing's breakout year, with Nike making a concerted effort to upset the official sporting sponsors of both the Euro 96 football tournament in England and the Olympic games in Atlanta:

"The 1996 edition of the European Championships, Uefa’s premier international quadrennial soccer tournament, provided an example of ambush marketing that changed the face of sports sponsorship. English sportswear company Umbro had paid for the rights to be the official sportswear supplier of the championships, only to find that Nike had purchased all the poster space and advertising sites in and around Wembley Park underground station, the main travel hub for England’s national stadium, Wembley. Nike’s move completely negated the power of Umbro’s official partnership. The same thing happened for the World Cup in 1998 when Nike hijacked Adidas’ official association in much the same way. As a consequence Uefa, European soccer’s governing body, has spearheaded the use and enforcement of marketing exclusion zones surrounding stadia, forcing the official sponsorship agencies of the competition in question to buy all the advertising space within a 1.3 mile radius of the stadia. The IOC too was quick to adopt this counter-ambushing strategy. The ability to implement such exclusion zones is now a key element in the process to decide future Olympic host cities."

In World Cup 2010 in South Africa, Nike circumvented the billboard advertising ban by projecting onto the side of a building in Johannesburg. As the authorities get wiser, Nike get smarter.

Nike Write the Future

Nike Write the Future

Whereas the Beijing Olympics represented an embracing of China into the coven of Westernism, the London Olympics will show us just how venal unfettered capitalism can be, how its default modus operandi is paranoia, and rather than a celebration of human endeavour and athleticism, it demonstrates more that the power of branding requires such strict parameters of control that nothing can be left to chance. Brand Exclusion Zones are just one manifestation of the privatisation of public space that London is fast-tracking. For a more thorough analysis of the much hyped legacy of London 2012, I urge you to read Anna Minton's Ground Control, recently updated to include a new chapter on the Olympics.

London Olympics Riot

I've said it before and I'll say it again, the marketeers are way ahead of the urbanists in understanding how the city works. The spatial politics of brand paranoia will be part of the true legacy of the London Olympics.


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

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.



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.


Lunar surface

This page on the BBC web site, reminds us that today is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 10 mission, the penultimate mission before a lunar landing would be attempted.

"In May 1969, with only seven months to go before the end of the decade, the first Lunar Module to fly in orbit around the Moon was powered up and readied for undocking from the Command Module.

Astronauts Tom Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan were about to test out a technique for lunar landing which had first been proposed in 1916 by a Russian mechanic called Yuri Kondratyuk.

Kondratyuk's thesis described how a small landing craft could leave a mothership in lunar orbit to ferry its crew to the surface and back - a technique later referred to as Lunar Orbit Rendezvous or LOR."

Kondratyuk had a fascinating life, as the biography on Wikipedia reveals. Born Oleksandr Gnatovich Shargei, and having already escaped death once, he took the name and identity of the deceased Yuri Vasilievich Kondratyuk, following the Russian Revolution, to avoid being arrested as an enemy of the people.

His pioneering ideas on spaceflight had to be self-published after no publisher would accept them. Foregoing the chance to work with rocketry pioneer Sergei Korolev for fear of his real identity being discovered, Kondratyuk pioneered work on wind turbines, and died in 1941 while serving in the Soviet army. Fortuitously, his notes on space travel eventually found their way to the United States when a neighbour took them with him when escaping the Soviet Union after World War II.

The history of the Soviet space program is littered with fecund stories of human invention; paranoia, power and corruption; missed opportunities; epic failures; lost dreams and bitter tragedy. But it is also my hypothesis that it harbored the secret continuation of the Constructivist 'project' after Stalin's Socialist Realism became the only acceptable form of artistic expression. More to follow.


Kirstie's Homemade Home

Kirstie's Homemade Home is one of the most vile pieces of television that Channel 4 have ever shown. In it, property doyenne Kirstie Allsopp discovers the joys of furnishing your own home, by having a large country house (nauseatingly called Meadow Gate) renovated, and then decorating and furnishing it. Rather than focus on the bricks and mortar, this show is focused on the fixtures and fittings, furnishings and decoration, with each episode focusing on a particular room. In the first show, Kirstie is fitting out her kitchen, the heart of the home.

Kirstie's Homemade Home

The first, glaring, problem with it is Kirstie's dubious CV. The woman's got form. Miss Allsopp has after all, spent the last ten years or more as part of a double-act with Phil Spencer, fronting shows such as 'Location, Location, Location' and 'Relocation, Relocation': househunting shows where each week Kirstie'n'Phil help upwardly mobile couples, invariably with a baby on the way, either move up the property ladder, find a house in the country with a city pied-a-terre, or buy a second home as a buy-to-let investment.

These programs formed the vanguard for a string on Channel 4 shows even more venal and grasping, such as 'Property Ladder' and 'How to be a Property Millionaire'. For over ten years, Channel 4 beamed into our homes the message that property is a failsafe investment opportunity, buy-to-let is the future, that your house is a money making machine, and that if you didn't get on the ladder you'd be left behind, or if you were on the ladder you should put it all on the line to move up to a bigger property with more money-making potential, or expand your portfolio into a property owning empire.

Kirstie's Homemade Home

Of course, we know where this all ended. After a decade of growth, fuelled by Channel 4's boosterism, the inevitable slump and credit crunch has ripped many peoples lives apart, with the average burden of debt carried by people in the UK even greater than that in the US. With practically no alternatives to private house-ownership, many people have felt compelled to obtain giant mortgages and climb on the property train wherever it might be headed.

So now we have Kirstie, unbowed and unrepentant, and having ditched Phil, switching tracks with barely a blink. Now it's all about nesting, building your home, making it a warm, special place that reflects your character. Crucially, Kirstie's vision is of a home-made home, not one bought from a store. It should be a place filled with idiosyncratic artefacts that you have made yourself or had made from a local artisan, quirky second-hand furniture bought at a market, or curios you have rescued from destruction from a skip.

This is where Kirstie starts to get strident. To her, this quest for individuality is seen as an antidote to the kind of bland cookie-cutter Ikea moderne style that dominates the interiors of most magazine and style-guides. The vibe Kirstie is going for, as Rabbit from Winnie the Pooh might say, is that "rustic informal look". Buying second hand furniture, commissioning hand-made crockery and glassware from artisans and craftsmen is seen as somehow more authentic than buying mass-produced homewares. It's about downshifting, reusing, recycling, cherishing those precious objects.

It's a dubious concept at best, but let's roll with it for now. So we see Kirstie trying her hand at a number of crafts. In the first episode she vists a master potter, and has a go at making a rather dumpy pot, its function unknown and undeclared. She next pitches up at a glassmakers workshop with the intention of making her own glassware, and lustily declares it the best thing ever, "I'm giving up, I'm becoming a glass-maker", then about 5 minutes later drives off to find something else to do.

Kirstie's Homemade Home

Similarly, she rediscovers sewing, and with the help of a posh family friend, makes a cushion, "Wow! ... I feel I want to sew and sew and sew!" she heartily exclaims, before heading off and leaving her friend to finish making all the others. Perhaps the fast jump-cut world of a modern TV show is not the ideal format to explore loving, painstaking workmanship.

Cut to Kirstie walking along the street to her local street market in London, haggling with the traders over the price of some pictures, buying some chairs and a bench, before loading them into/ onto her massive Land Rover Discovery which has suddenly appeared, (perhaps like Kitt out of Knight Rider). I've got 5 bedrooms to fit out, she says, forking over banknotes left right and centre, "We're going to need a lot of stuff to fill all those rooms". So much for downshifting.

Next she extols the virtues of dumpster diving for discarded treasures, by driving around the streets in the Land Rover and exploring the contents of skips. Having liberated a mirror from a ignominious end, she boldly states how she is helping to save the world's resources by not buying a new one from a department store. The irony of this statement, delivered to camera as she is driving the aforementioned massive Land Rover Discovery, a 4wd light commercial vehicle with a fuel economy little better than a Humvee, over to Meadow Gate, seems to pass her by.

Kirstie's Homemade Home

Next it's onto her parents house, and it's clear the apple hasn't fallen far from the tree. The Allsopps live in a massive house, and it's full to the rafters with crap, collected over the years by her antique dealer father, and lovingly arranged by her interior designer mother . They moved house so many times as Kirstie grew up, she explains, because they kept renovating houses. Now, having followed the property ladder aspect of her parents lives, Allsopp sets out to relive their maximalist approach to interiors.

Kirstie's Homemade Home

Finally it's back to Meadow Gate, where the builders have gutted the house, and renovated it, ready for Kirstie to fill it with all the crap she's been making, buying, and rescuing. There's just about time to hang some plates on the wall, for reasons that are never explained, and get someone to do some flower arranging for her. The glassblower turns up, hand-delivering Kirstie's effort along with a few of his own. The posh cushion woman brings the rest of the cushions too. I wonder if this will be a recurring theme.

Kirstie's Homemade Home

Eventually comes the money shot, as the camera pans back, and the final kitchen and dining space is revealed, transformed from a spartan, light and airy space into a cluttered room full of gaudy crockery, knick-knacks, gew-gaws and beset by a jumble of furniture. With the folksy, rural charm dialled up to 11, it's the sort of space that would probably give John Pawson a heart attack.

You wouldn't want to be the poor bastard who has to clean it all, but then you also get the impression that this won't be Kirstie. There's a Marie-Antoinettish quality about the show, with the impression that Kirstie enjoys the simple life, playing the wife of a country squire in her petit hameau, and that the Barbour jacket, the Aga, and the Land Rover are all but stagey props.

But then, given that you can rent Meadow Gate, it's more likely that the whole house is a prop and Kirstie won't actually be living in it either.

Honing a craft takes time and dedication, something Kirstie seems loath to do, making her rather contradict one of the shows central tenets. So she ends up paying the high price for fine hand-made glassware and furnishings, again contradicting the homely, downshifting theme of the show. But the concept that hand-made craft items are somehow more authentic, eco-friendly and worthy than mass-produced homewares is simply one that doesn't stack up. The craft ethic is a myth.

The problem is that we have confused cheap and utilitarian with disposable, ready to be treated as items of fashion, and thrown away when we have our eyes turned by the latest style magazines, or programs such as this one. But by starting with literally an empty room, a blank slate, Kirstie's Homemade Home tries to sidestep this issue, and in its movie-set stageyness, contradicts the authenticity it claims to seek.

From Hodge to Hooverville

The madness of Margaret Hodge

Could Margaret Hodge be our very own Sub-prime Minister?

There are more insane ramblings from UK architecture minister Margaret Hodge in this weeks Building Design (20,03.2008). Cleverly giving herself enough rope to hang herself, BD invites Margaret Hodge to show them around her consistuency of Barking, East London, and see what kind of architecture she likes - "Now that’s what Margaret Hodge calls architecture".

She starts off well enough, criticising a spec housing development by Bellway homes, (albeit for reasons that should be within the council and planning departments ability to enforce):

"It's horrible, cheap housing with no facilities: no schools, no transport infrastructure, no buses, no shops. This is just want you don't want."

Then she starts to show a little of her own design 'vision', for the Barking Riverside masterplan:

"I don't think it works," she says. "There are enormous pedestrianised areas. They haven't integrated the housing properly. New communities only work if people have their own gardens, fenced off."

Now it's possible that Margeret Hodge has been feverishly reading nutters like Oscar Newman and Alice Coleman et al, or channeling the spirit of Jane Jacobs through a kind of New Urbanist distortion field, since landing in the poisoned chair at the DCMS in June 200. However, it's more likely that she has made this gross, sweeping statement off the top of her head. Margaret Hodge has nailed her colours to the mast of environmental determinism.

Barking Learning Centre

But the killer comes when Hodges takes BD to Barking Learning Centre:

Among her high points is Barking Learning Centre, formerly the central library, designed by Alford Hall Monaghan Morris. This mixed-use building, which is the centrepiece of Barking Town Square’s redevelopment, is an example of the government’s vision for integrated public spaces, with council services, a lending library, educational facilities and residential apartments all on the same site. Hodge is very proud of it.

"Look, a buggy park!" she exclaims, as we view the children's library, a book club meeting in progress. Hodge points out the "welcoming entrance", which she sees as friendly and inclusive, and insists there ought to be a coffee shop here too. Her only disappointment is that the flats have been sold to a buy-to-let investor. "There’s nothing you can do about that." [My italics].

There's the money quote. With one throwaway comment the UK's architecture minister washes her hands of the parlous state of the UK's housing.

Buy-to-let, where investors buy properties as a business venture and enjoy tax breaks, has completely altered the UK housing landscape over the last 10 years. Fed a diet of 'you can do it' property investment programmes such as Relocation, Relocation, Property Ladder and How to be a Property Developer, the middle-classes of England have been steadily sinking themselves in debt taking out multiple mortages and riding the milktrain.

But now the chickens are coming home to roost.

Writing in the Guardian, Sympathy for the buy-to-let devil?, (22.03.2008), Patrick Collinson states:

Lenders keep telling us Britain doesn't have a "sub-prime" problem like the US. Yes we do - in the shape of a million buy-to-let mortgages.

Collinson then details some of the scams and sharp practices that have dominated the buy-to-let feeding frenzy:

"On paper, you couldn't obtain a 100% mortgage for a buy-to-let. But developers offered fake 15% "discounts"; credulous surveyors gave fanciful valuations; lenders skimmed over loan applications. Hey presto, wannabe landlords were able to obtain an "85%" loan which was really 100% of the purchase price, and start building a "portfolio" without spending a penny upfront. And they didn't even have to pay tax on the income.

It wasn't much of a worry to the lenders that the whole thing might later go wrong. They could "package" or "securitise" the buy-to-let loan, mark it down as a profit and take it off their books. Only in the coming few months will we see where in the financial system the losses turn up.

Compare this with first-time buyers. They have to stump up a deposit. They have to prove their income. They have to make monthly mortgage payments from a taxed salary. There could only be one winner in such a one-sided game. With access to easy finance, the buy-to-letter could outbid the first-timer and push prices up to ever more ludicrous levels."

Now the bubble has inevitably burst, not only are tens of thousands of get rich quick investors stuggling to make interest payments on mortgages, but overstretched owner-occupiers are faced with large mortgage hikes, while the banks and financial institutions who have been ridden by this loa of greed and exploitation get bailed out by the Bank of England. As a nation we are overextended on credit per capita to a much greater extent than the US.

Barking Learning Centre, held up by Hodge as the shining example of urban regeneration in Britain, is actually just the mirror to the failed state of housing in the UK. Who will maintain the properties at Barking Learning Centre? What can motivate investors, who are losing millions of pounds on the empty promise of buy-to-let, to look after their properties and ensure that they are good places to live?

To bring it back round to Robin Hood Gardens, and it's recent threat of demolition, Amanda Bailieu states in her recent BD editorial:

As one would expect from this government, Margaret Hodge believes the newly built Barking town centre in her constituency offers a more hopeful model for the future of British housing than the rugged, generous and light-filled flats at Robin Hood Gardens.

And yet Hodge cannot find any housing in Barking that actually works.

Tent City, Ontario California


In the US, the credit crunch and the fallout from the subprime mortgage farrago is refiguring communities and the suburban landscape, creating new housing archetypes - subprime shanty towns and exurban slums. The death of the buy-to-let market in the UK could do the same in this country. Margaret Hodge could find herself with a Hooverville in the midst of her constituency.

What is needed, now more than ever, is a richer mix of housing types and typologies. This needs to encompass social housing, letted accommodation, housing associations and cooperative living, as well as owner occupied dwellings.

Instead of hanging round Barking, Hodge should try visiting Rotterdam.

Virtual Brutality

Robin Hood Gardens

Robin Hood Gardens

Another Brutalist landmark is under threat of demolition. This time it's Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, East London. Designed by Alison and Peter Smithson, and completed in 1972, it looks likely that the local council, Tower Hamlets, will demolish the building and look to redevelop the site.

The only hope is that it receives listed building status, and becomes the protectorate of English Heritage. But conferring listed building status ultimately lies in the hands of the architecture minister, Margaret Hodge, who has weighed in with the following astonishing comment, in the recent issue of Grand Designs, and requoted in Building Design:

"When some concrete monstrosity - sorry, I mean modernist masterpiece - fails to make the cut despite having expert opinion behind it, let's find a third way. This is the 21st Century - a perfect digital image of the building, inside and out, could be retained forever."

This is either visionary prescience or the inane ramblings of a deranged lunatic. There is the germ of an amazing concept here - that we should create a National Digital Archive of high quality 3D models of our country's best buildings, which can be visited and explored in a virtual environment.

That this then presumably clears the way to demolish all that doesn't fit Hodge's aesthetic sensibilities is where she lurches from visionary to tyranny.

While the words 'conservation' and 'heritage' generally cause shivers to run down my spine, the revitalisation of the Brunswick Centre and to a lesser extent the redevelopment of Park Hill in Sheffield by Urban Splash, show that there is plenty of demand for some BoHo Brutalism. Superficially, it took little more than a Starbucks and a Waitrose to transform the concourse of the Brunswick Centre from a forlorn, windswept precinct to a popular urban hangout.

Goldfinger's masterful Trellick Tower was once also held with similar contempt as the Smithsons RHG, and now its flats are in high demand, often selling at above market rates. Likewise the Unite d'Habitation in Marseille, which was a powerful precedent for Robin Hood Gardens. Could Robin Hood Gardens also be turned into a desirable residence for owner occupiers? Unless and until more compelling alternatives are put forward, it should be saved.

(images from Flickr user Joseph Beuys Hat)