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)

Re-presenting Hadid

Hadid Silver Painting

Hadid Silver Painting

Hadid Silver Painting

Here are a few recent paintings by Zaha Hadid, from a show at the Galerie Buchmann. (see Flickr set here). There were also some of these silver prints on display at the recent Zaha retrospective at the Design Museum.

While visually stunning, they are little more than a striking way of re-presenting computer renderings, rather than design explorations. Does the act of producing these images change the design approach?

The place of design is now within the computer, not the drawing.

These paintings are pure surface.

"The Silver Paintings are executed on a polyester skin treated with chrome and gelatine then mounted on to an aluminium DI-BOND to resemble polished metal.

Different media are used depending on the desired effect. Stained glass paint offers transparency while acrylic and Chinese lacquer generate opaqueness. UV-resistant ink combined with vinyl gives the highest degrees of reflectivity. These techniques combine to suggest a gradual intersection between reflectivity and opacity, from one architectural feature to the next."

Introducing Superspatial

Zaha Hadid parametric urbanism

Just a quick note to mention the launch of a new collaborative weblog, called Superspatial, that I am involved in.

Superspatial will focus on architecture, urbanism and architectural speculation, while Kosmograd will hopefully become more refined in tackling issues of disurbanism, urban representation and virtual space.

Currently the only other author on Superspatial is Lewis Martin, from the excellent Helsinki-focussed archi-blog lewism. If you are interested in joining in, get in touch.

Some recent posts on Superspatial:

004. The urban futures of rising tides

003. A bridge too far?

002. Parametric Urbanism on the Thames Estuary

001. Seattle Art Museum Sculpture Park