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.


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.


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

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

City of Signs 8

Channel 4 idents

Channel 4 idents
Over the last few years the Channel 4 idents have become a ubiquitous presence for UK viewers, making it easy to take for granted their visual significance.

In these idents, the camera moves through a landscape - such as a brutalist housing estate, an American city, a Japanese city a series of pylons - which for a brief moment reveals itself as the Channel 4 logo.
Signs become fleeting structure, for an instance, structure is resolved into meaningful sign.

I've often daydreamed whether it would be possible for architects, urban planners and landscape designers to hide codes and signs into their creations, which would only be revealed when viewed from a certain position.

Google Earth has revealed new symbolism in buildings, such as this Navy base in California:

Navy building, California

In the meantime, there's always GeoGreeting.




In response to Charles Holland's post over at Fantastic Journal and his fascination with Donald Campbell's crash in the speedboat Bluebird, here is my fascination, some more fatal crash porn:

22 years on it still has the power to shock and awe. I'll always remember how the voiceover from the control room calmly carries on reporting the trajectory of the booster rockets even after the shuttle had exploded. As I commented on Charles's blog, watching crashes seems to me to be the definitive YouTube experience, the apotheosis of the medium. Here you can watch the crash along with Christa McAuliffe's parents and her class of schoolchildren.

Colin Davis, in the book High Tech architecture, saw the Challenger disaster as the sign of the death of the High Tech style, in the same way that the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe estate in St. Louis signified the death of Modernism:

Architectural scholiasts of the future, wishing to pin down the precise date of the death of the High Tech style, might well choose January 28th 1986, the day the Challenger space craft blew up in front of the watching millions. The cause of the tragedy, we now know, was the failure of a Neoprene gasket.

Madin Men

Birmingham Central Library

image by Flickr user manicstreetpreacher

Thanks to Rob over at No. 2 Self, we can enjoy a remarkable TV programme, shot in 1965, one of a series called Six Men, profiling an architect from Birmingham, John Madin. Click here to watch it.

There has been a resurgence of interest in the work of John Madin since Birmingham City Council decided they were going to knock down one of his later works, the Birmingham Central Library. More on this below.

Back to Six Men. In this episode we see Madin striding purposefully towards his office, talking through plans with staff, presenting designs to clients, and enjoying time with his young children.

Six Men: John Madin

Six Men: John Madin

Six Men: John Madin

But it's the period touches that really stand out for me. The drawing boards, the blueprints, and especially the rampant smoking. Added to the casual sexism and disregard for secretaries, and it's easy to read Six Men: John Madin as a British architectural version of US hit TV show Mad Men.

Six Men: John Madin

Six Men: John Madin

Six Men: John Madin

Others have commented on the beautifully observed design touches of Mad Men, the TV show set in a New York advertising agency back in 1960. At the moment, designers seem to be in love with the mid-century aesthetic, with a yearning for the physicallity of Knoll furniture, IBM Selectric typewriters and a private office with your name on the door, contrasting against the ethereal placelessness of the laptop carrying, mobile-toting nomad, connected everywhere but inhabiting nowhere.

Mad Men

Mad Men

But why are advertising agencies such catnip for television producers, whereas architects seldom are? A mid-century Howard Roark/Don Draper character wowing clients with dazzling pitches, berating planners and haranguing contractors would surely be television gold. With the conflict between his beautiful Modernist house and family, and his trysts with the wives of his clients, why the scripts would almost write themselves.

But what of Birmingham Library? It's an intriguing building, an inverted ziggurat of gray concrete and glass. But at ground level it has never really worked, due to cost-cutting measures it was never fully realised according to Madin's design. My memory of it from the 80's was an empty windswept concourse, occupied only by puddles and the occasional skateboarder.

Paradise Circus

In the 90's, a bridge was built across the Paradise Circus roundabout, part of a long overdue strategy to free Birmingham from the stranglehold of its inner ring road. This linked Broad Street and Centenary Square, with the Rep Theatre, International Convention Centre and Symphony Hall, to the rest of the City Centre, turning the area underneath the library into a thoroughfare. This area was then decked out with a rather naff assortment of shops and cafes - Wetherspoons and McDonalds anyone? - another missed opportunity to make some special in this intriguing void.

The new library, to be designed by the excellent Dutch practice Mecanoo, is to sit between Baskerville House, and the Rep Theatre, while the old library is to be demolished to make way for more commercial development that will fund the new library and further development of Centenary Square.

Birmingham Library

I've no doubt that Mecanoo's new library building will be exquisite, as long as the Council don't start interfering in its design. But, regardless of what you think of Madin's building, demolishing the old Central Library won't solve the problem that exists between Centenary Square and the City Centre. It is the other buildings around the library that are the problem. Opening up the site to commercial development has already given us two hideous black-glazed hotels, and a building (the triangular building on the north corner of Paradise Circus - I think it was originally built for Barclaycard) so unspeakably awful that it makes me sick in the mouth just thinking about it. It's as if someone found a secret Ugly command in AutoCad - Ctrl-Alt-Shift-U - and kept hitting it repeatedly.

Birmingham Library

image by Flickr user kevin_r_boyd

Take a look at this picture and think which building you think should be demolished. I'm sceptical that selling the land on which the current library sits, for commercial development, is the way create a unified public realm between Centenary Square through to Chamberlain Square and the rest of Birmingham City Centre. But then Birmingham always seems to find a way to shoot itself in the foot.