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June 29 2012

Flight exhibition reveals sense of wonder in the artistic imagination

Warwickshire show on art and the history of flight includes some of the earliest views from the air ever published

For centuries artists including Leonardo da Vinci and Francisco Goya looked at the skies and dreamed of flying.

But when, in the 18th century, the first balloons took off and artists really could have soared into the clouds, they stayed resolutely earthbound.

"It is strange, photographers were up there from the start, but I know of no artist who seized those earliest opportunities," said Sam Smiles, professor of art history at Exeter University and co-curator of the first exhibition in the UK on art and the history of flight.

"We know that Turner questioned closely somebody who had been on a balloon flight, but though he was certainly not a timid figure he never did it himself."

It was left to people such as the intrepid Mr Harper, a Birmingham hairdresser, who in 1784 took off from a tennis court and flew for 50 miles, and James Glaisher, a Wolverhampton meteorologist who flew to 30,000 feet (9,144 metres), to publish accounts of their mind-blowing adventures.

Glaisher passed out, while his pilot climbed on to the outside of the balloon and freed a trapped valve with his teeth because his hands were frozen.

The exhibition, at Compton Verney in Warwickshire, includes the earliest views from the air ever published: in 1786 a landowner from Chester, Thomas Baldwin, wrote of his experience in Airopaidia: "A Tear of pure Delight flashed in his Eye! of pure and exquisite Delight and Rapture."

The plates have a fine black line representing the balloon's flight, which readers were supposed to follow looking through a tube of paper to get the full effect of the views shared by man for the first time with angels or seagulls.

The exhibition begins ominously with Icarus, including a ravishing paper cut by Matisse, and ends with Downed, a blood-red crashed fighter plane made from women's jumpers, including the favourite cardigan of the artist Al Johnson's mother as she always wore it, with two buttons undone.

"We start with aspiration, and we end with – the end," Smiles said.

The threat was always part of the thrill.

One of Alfred G Buckham's ravishing cloud photographs, taken in the 1930s from planes he flew himself, shows the gleaming British airship R100.

When R101 crashed over France the entire British airship programme was abandoned, and R100 was sold for scrap.

There is a flying Saint Francis, said to have been capable of levitating two metres when deep in prayer; Yuri Gagarin, the first man to get beyond even the clouds, by Joe Tilson; and Mark Wallinger's Angel, in which the artist ascends via the giant escalator at Angel tube station.

"Artists have preserved that sense of wonder which we all ought to have, and they want to find ways of getting it back in their work," Smiles said.

"I'm going on holidays next week, by plane. I'm going to try and keep the vision of this exhibition in my mind, instead of fretting as usual about luggage and duty free."

Flight and the Artistic Imagination, Compton Verney, Warwickshire, until 30 September,


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June 08 2012

There's a strange beauty to the Hoo peninsula. Is this any place for an airport? | Ian Jack

Along with birds and their habitat, the hidden traces of Hoo peninsula's previous eras of industry will be buried by railways and runways

I'm not sure I fully understand the term "psychogeography". To me, it means the exploration of an unlikely place or a hidden aspect of a place, and whenever I hear it I think of Sunday walks in my childhood, when we would follow an overgrown and neglected path and sometimes scrape away the turf to discover a square stone with bolt holes drilled through it. As beetles hurried this way and that across its surface, my older brother would explain that the stone had once held an iron rail and that the path had once been a wagon-way, built in the 18th century to take coal from the Fife pits to a harbour on the Forth.As nobody else seemed to know or care about these facts, I felt I was sharing a historical secret. There were several of them close by: dark, deep ponds that had once been quarries; a ruined slipway built to take seaplanes; steel rings that had tethered barrage balloons; an abandoned railway tunnel where bats flew. Like a great many people in what was at that time an industrial country, I grew up in a landscape that was interestingly pockmarked with successive eras of exploitation, and all of it so commonplace that beyond a mention of its origins, Watt's engine or Crompton's spinning mule, it never found a place in the history books.

Almost all of that Fife landscape has now been buried without ceremony by motorways and housing estates, but equivalents can be found elsewhere, none of them grander and stranger than that part of Kent known as the Hoo peninsula, which lies between the Medway and the Thames and which, if Norman Foster and Boris Johnson have their way, could become the most vital stretch of land in Britain. As the location of Foster's proposed Thames Hub, the Hoo peninsula will be paved with new railways and docks and the four-runway airport with which Johnson wants to replace overcrowded Heathrow. A new Thames barrier will generate electricity from the currents and tide. Passengers who land there will take ongoing flights and containers ongoing trains.

The scheme is so ambitious – Foster says it requires us "to recapture the foresight and political courage of our 19th-century forebears" – that estimating the cost beyond dozens of billions is pointless. Nevertheless, David Cameron has included it among the options to be considered when the government decides how the UK can continue to provide a hub airport for Europe: pledges to the voters of west London having ruled out Heathrow's expansion.

If Hoo were chosen, which isn't unlikely, the question then becomes: what would be destroyed to make way for it? The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has, as usual, the quickest and simplest answer – the wetland habitats of visiting species – but beyond that the losses are less definable, and not so easy to raise a fuss over. Since Dickens's day, the creeks and marshes of Hoo have had a bleak form of celebrity as the spot where Pip first met Magwitch, and where prison hulks (Magwitch had just escaped from one of them) could be occasionally glimpsed through the mist on the Medway. In fact, the countryside is prettier and hillier than you expect. On a hot day last week, workers from Poland and Bulgaria were spreading straw across fields of strawberries while the knapped flint of Hoo's several 13th-century churches shone in the sun. There is also a 14th-century castle owned by Jools Holland and a workaday marina, about as far from Cowes in its social atmosphere as it's possible to get.

The main impression is of tremendous utility. Power lines sag west towards London to take electricity from the power stations at Kingsnorth and Grain, whose chimneys stand solid against the sky. A diesel rumbles along a single-track freight line with a train of containers from the dock near the peninsula's tip. And beside this present activity lies the evidence of older industries come and gone. A good guide will point out the hollows in the tidal reaches that were dug out in the 19th century when Medway mud was loaded into sailing barges by labourers called "muddies", taken to kilns and mixed with chalk to provide the London building boom with cement. What he needn't point out are the barges, which rot as nicely shaped timbers where the highest tide has left them and are in their way picturesque.

This is also a place of blighted ambition. The railway, for instance, was built for a glamorous purpose it only briefly fulfilled. Trains would take cross-Channel passengers to a pier with a hotel attached called Port Victoria, where they could catch steamers to Belgium and cut a few minutes from journey times offered by rival companies. But only Victoria, the monarch, found much use for it and long before the second world war the Hoo line had become a little-used byway. It last saw a passenger 50 years ago. Port Victoria has been buried under oil pipelines and mud.

Then on Hoo's northerly coast, there is Allhallows-on-Sea, the Ozymandias of seaside resorts. Developed by the Southern Railway, which built a branch to it in the 1930s, Allhallows was intended to have 5,000 houses, several hotels, a zoo and Britain's largest swimming pool with a wave-making machine. Then the war intervened. Postwar Londoners failed to return as holidaymakers and the railway closed. Today a big, echoing 1930s pub, the British Pilot, stands at the end of a cul-de-sac, beyond which is a park of holiday chalets and a sea wall with views across the estuary to Southend. Retired couples spend their summers there and winters in Goa or Cyprus, dividing the money released by the sale of their old homes between a chalet in Allhallows and a flat in the sun. "We don't do cold," says a tanned woman in her 60s, talking of these annual switches; while another wonders what will happen if her husband dies before her and she, a non-driver, is left alone in this inaccessible place.

Would it matter to the world beyond, other than to birds and ornithologists too, if Hoo became a giant airport and dock, clustered with warehouses, freight yards and car parks? It looks no more than a fitting next step for a peninsula that has for centuries been so ruthlessly used. Really, unless you live there, would you care?

And yet something important will go: wreckage, the traces of a previous era that have no official curator and are therefore delightful to find. High up one of Hoo's creeks sits a motorised barge, built in 1915 and long defunct, but still cared for by her last skipper, Cliff Pace, who turns the pages of his old logbook smiling at what he and his barge once achieved. "We took 3,237 bags of prunes from Albert Dock to Whitstable … 5,385 cartons of corned beef from the Victoria Dock to Stroud … 163 bundles of pick-axe handles from West India Dock to Otterham Quay." Even in the 1970s, the estuary was busy with lighters and lightermen – lovely times, says Mr Pace, but all gone. I look at his entries in the logbook and feel, just for a second, the same sensation of discovery that came when a carpet of moss was peeled from a square stone, the beetles scattered and my brother said, "Look…"


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August 14 2010

The 10 best airports

From the breathtaking descent into Santos Dumont to Jeddah's tent-like structure, Rowan Moore selects his favourite 10 airports

El Prat de Llobregat, Barcelona

Most airports are in denial, or at least their architects are. They think they're works of transport engineering, when really they're shopping malls with a transport function attached – BAA is said to make more money out of retail than flights. Barcelona's Terminal 2, completed in 1991, makes a virtue of this fact. It treats the airport as an unusual kind of city, with broad urbane avenues, highly polished purplish marble, big glass walls, dignified concrete and ample proportions. As a result it is much more relaxing than airports where you feel like a piece of baggage on its way to the carousel. Its architect, Ricardo Bofill, has recently also completed the rebuilt Terminal 1.

Santos Dumont, Rio de Janeiro

Since the 1998 closure of Kai Tak, Hong Kong, with its thrilling descent past mountains and above apartment blocks, the approach to Santos Dumont Rio de Janeiro, is unrivalled as the best in the world. Planes wheel past the Sugarloaf mountain and down to a short waterside landing strip that requires special training for pilots. Then a stroll through the terminal takes you almost into the heart of a great city – which is air travel as it should be but almost never is. The airport, which now serves only domestic flights, is named after a great Brazilian aviator and dandy, and its original terminal is a refined work of 1930s modernism.

Dulles Washington DC

Before his death at the age of 51, Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen designed two celebrations of the jet age that reinvented the design of airports. One, the freeform TWA terminal at JFK, has been compromised by later additions, and is currently closed for refurbishment. The other is Washington Dulles, built in 1962, whose concrete roof, concave side down, hangs like a canvas between rows of angled pillars. It pioneered the idea of the sweeping roof as a metaphor for flight that has since become a well-worn theme of airport design, while its white, temple-like form also has some of the gravitas ofWashington's political monuments.

Kansai Osaka

After Norman Foster's Stansted of 1991 gave new impetus to Saarinen's big-roof concept, Renzo Piano's Kansai airport gave it its most impressive realisation in 1994. The roof rises and falls like a big wave, before neatly morphing into the long, tapering tubes that get you to the departure gates. Built on an artificial island, it looks beautiful from above, with all the complexity of an airport resolved into a single silvery object. It also deals with the inevitable retail better than most, by stowing it into deep canyons under the roof. The fact that the island used to sink at an alarming rate need not worry you too much.

Chek Lap Kok, Hong Kong

Norman Foster's practice Foster and Partners has designed three impressive airports – Stansted, Chek Lap Kok in Hong Kong, and the enormous new Terminal 3 in Beijing. Of these Hong Kong gets my vote, Stansted being too compromised by later changes, while Beijing has slightly queasy-making Chinese references: it is allegedly dragon-like, and takes its red-gold colours from the Forbidden City. Hong Kong has a calm, rhythmic series of vaults with views through big glass walls to planes and mountains. As at Stansted and Beijing the design still gets embarrassed by the presence of shops, as if it were hoping they would go away. They won't, and airport architects should get used to it.

Barajas, Madrid

Barajas, Madrid, by Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, is yet another swoopy roof, but the simple idea of lining the ceiling with bamboo gives it a different feeling. It is soothing, rather than mechanical. Steel struts are painted in all colours of the rainbow, grading from red to violet along the length of the building – a potentially cheesy idea that comes off. The joyfulness of Barajas compared with the clunkier Terminal 5 at Heathrow (which was designed by the same architects) says much about the way this country goes about getting big buildings built.

Charles de Gaulle, Paris

The original terminal building of Charles de Gaulle airport, completed in 1974, is the sort of futuristic fantasy for which the French have a special talent. A great concrete cylinder, its central void is criss-crossed by glass tubes, enclosing smooth-moving travelators as if in a Dalek city. On the outside, roads sweep up high on its flanks on vertiginous bridges. Designed by Paul Andreu, a French architect whose most famous work it is, it is playful and inspiring at the same time. Pleasure in its design is limited, however, by knowing about the fatal collapse of part of the later Terminal 2E, in 2004.

Banjul Gambia

Banjul Airport, Gambia, wins a prize for its sheer indifference to all the usual clichés and conventions of airport design. True, it goes like many others for something a bit wing-like, but the gratuitous projections at its sides are nothing like the swoops of Saarinen or Piano. It also goes, for no particular reason, for an arch in its centre with a bigger inverted arch above. A tongue-like canopy then sticks out from the mouth-like arch. The work of the Senegalese Pierre Goudiaby Atepa, its main design principle would appear to be to do stuff for the sheer hell of it.

Changi, Singapore

I don't know why so many airports are designed as metaphors for flight. Why do you need a metaphor when you've got the real thing? Why not have a metaphor for the ground on which you're landing? In any case Singapore Changi Airport has always opted instead for symbols – not metaphors exactly – of opulence. They like fish tanks, fountains and verdant planting, and school parties are taken round in obedient crocodiles to admire it all. Since 2008 it has also included its Terminal 3, by American architects SOM. The roof is as flat as the many football pitches it equals in area, but is fitted with an intricate system of shutters and louvres that filter the light in intriguing pixellated patterns. It's a bit bling, but in a nice way.

King Abdulaziz Jeddah

SOM also designed Jeddah airport, which, as the place of arrival for Mecca, handles a huge increase in passenger numbers during the annual hajj. SOM created a 120-acre canopy composed as a series of tents. It could have been patronising, and I confess I haven't seen it in person, but the effect looks impressive in photographs. It was completed in 1981, and it's hard to imagine an American practice being given a commission of such sensitivity to Muslims now. Indeed, at the time of writing, someone has described SOM on Wikipedia as "futki", which in the Bangladeshi dialect of Sylheti means "arsehole".


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