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February 10 2012

Marseille's Cité Radieuse damaged by fire

Authorities assess damage to architect Le Corbusier's Radiant City, a landmark of modernist architecture

One of France's most important landmarks of modernist architecture, La Cité Radieuse housing estate in Marseille, built by the architect Le Corbusier, has been damaged by fire.

Fire services fought for over 12 hours to put out a blaze that began on Thursday afternoon in a first floor flat in the nine-storey concrete complex which is protected by special heritage status in France.

The fire was brought under control at around 7am on Friday morning as authorities began to assess the damage to what is deemed a monument to postwar communal housing. Three apartments had been gutted and many others seriously damaged.

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, the Swiss-born architect better known as Le Corbusier, built what was hailed as the vertical village between 1947 and 1951.

The building was inspired by travel, and was designed to look like a giant steamboat anchored in a park. Affectionately known as "la maison du fada" (the crackpot's house), around 1,600 people live in its 334 famously sound-proofed duplex apartments with functional 1950s interior design in a grid of modernist lines of exposed unsurfaced concrete.

Envisaged as social housing, the building was quickly sold by the state. Some residents have lived there since its inauguration, while many recent inhabitants of the now sought-after apartments are middle-class teachers and architects.

All residents were evacuated late on Thursday night as fire services struggled to keep the blaze under control and five people were treated in hospital. It was not clear how the fire started.


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September 25 2011

Renzo Piano: let there be light

Hidden in a French hillside below Le Corbusier's famous chapel, Renzo Piano's new convent is spare, calm and quietly masterful. Lucky nuns, says Jonathan Glancey

'At first I said no," says Renzo Piano. "We were very busy. For me, the idea of building a convent next to Le Corbusier at Ronchamp was, in any case, a bit crazy." Certainly, it must have felt like a big risk. The chapel of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp is one of the 20th century's most treasured buildings, and Le Corbusier a demigod in the architectural firmament; being asked to build alongside this French national monument, an international destination for religious and cultural pilgrims, is like receiving an invitation to knock up a postmodern extension to the Parthenon or St Peter's in Rome.

But then Piano met Sister Brigitte de Singly at his studio in Paris, caved in and said yes. The architect was busy with towering commercial projects such as Shard London Bridge, at 310metres [1,017ft] Europe's tallest building, as well as the expansion of Boston's opulent Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, both due to open next year. Meanwhile, Sister Brigitte and her nuns were hoping to leave their home of 800 years in Besançon, in order to be closer to Le Corbusier's chapel.

With an all-in budget of £9m, at least 60 times less than that of the Shard, the convent for the Clarisses, or Poor Clare Sisters, was to take up a disproportionate amount of his time over the next five years. Funding was a slow and complex process; the money was realised through local government funding, charitable and religious donations, and the sale of the nuns' former convent.

When I meet the architect and the abbess, lunching frugally with pilgrims and builders at trestle tables set on a wooded hill, below Le Corbusier's chapel, I can see why Piano said yes. "If Sister Brigitte was to be my client, then what else could I say?" Piano says. "She has a profound love of architecture, of landscape, of sacred space – and even of people without religion, like me. She wanted a place of silence and prayer. I said: 'I can't help you with prayer, but perhaps I can help with silence and a little joy.'"

Just as Le Corbusier's chapel was created for a Catholic church he did not believe in, and shaped by a very particular interpretation of the medieval monasteries he never lived in, so Piano has produced a building of quiet refinement and spirituality at Ronchamp. "Sister Brigitte reminded me of the need for quiet, for nature, for slowness, for simplicity," he says. "She reminded me of the long tradition architects have had of working with the church."

The nunnery is, for the most part, invisible – or will be when new trees have been planted, and plants have spread over the concrete roofs Piano and his Building Workshop have half-buried in the hillside. "Landscaping is half the project," Piano says. Even so, the project met great opposition when plans were unveiled three years ago. The Fondation Le Corbusier, a fierce guard of the architect's reputation, was quick on the attack. "They began to scream: you can't do this!" says Piano. At the time, the foundation's director Michel Richard argued: "We are trying to make sure the site is preserved for eternity. We are afraid that in 10 years, the sisters will go away and they will be replaced by a B&B."

"Of course, they were worried that we wanted to build too close to Le Corbusier," says Jean-François Mathey, who, with Sister Brigitte, has been the driving force behind the project. Mathey is president of the Association de l'Oeuvre Notre Dame du Haut, the organisation that commissioned the chapel from Le Corbusier 60 years ago. "In fact, they didn't want anything new built here." When Piano announced his plan to hide the building away in the hillside, Jean Louis Cohen, the distinguished French architectural historian and board member of the Fondation, told the press: "Maybe you wouldn't see it, but you would feel it."

All of this is understandable, but Mathey had been thinking about a new religious foundation for Ronchamp for some time. "The chapel is a great attraction to believers, to cultural tourists, to architects, to anyone with a soul," he explains, "and we have 100,000 visitors a year. But we didn't want [it] to become only a tourist attraction, or a funfair; we wanted to make sure it stays a place of prayer." When Archbishop Luigi Ventura, the papal envoy to France, comes to bless the convent on 2 October, Ronchamp will be reconsecrated in the hearts of the Catholic faithful.

And despite the Fondation's fears, Piano has made a great improvement to the hilltop site. A grim concrete visitors' centre that had lurked between car park and chapel has been demolished. A new visitors' centre, dug into the hill, forms the base of the convent. There is a bookshop and a gallery behind a welcoming zinc-and-glass facade; in winter, a roaring log fire set behind a glass screen will greet those who have battled with snow and fog to get here.

Above is the convent proper. This wraps itself around contours of the hill, burrowing into the landscape like the strands of a rosary pressed gently into the earth. The strings of the rosary are the convent's corridors; its beads are the rooms leading off them. The crucifix at its centre is the chapel, the Oratory.

On one side of a simple central entrance, a long corridor lined with sweet-smelling, floor-to-ceiling cedar cupboards leads to the nuns' cells and living quarters. There is room for just 12 Poor Clares. Aside from their life of prayer and work, they will look after visitors seeking more than architecture and landscape can offer.

The cells are spare, calm and chastely beautiful. They are no more than 2.7 metres square, but have custom-designed timber furniture, warm orange walls, superb natural lighting and stirring views south and west to the valley below. The rooms are fronted by private winter gardens, glazed suntraps serving as architectural gaps, or pauses, between inner and outer worlds. (They will also help keep the cells warm in winter, cool in summer.)

Every light switch, every chair

The refectory is gathered around three sides of a courtyard, with glazed walls but open to the sky. It must be wonderful to eat here as the rain or snow falls. At the heart of the convent, the chapel's concrete vault curves in two different planes, like the upturned hull of a boat (an image of the Church as a ship of souls), while a concealed slit in the chancel wall facing the hillside brings a halo of daylight into its deepest recesses. "Architecture," as Le Corbusier said, "is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light." Piano's work here is quietly masterful, built around a minimal palette of concrete, timber and zinc; the fact that he and his team have designed and crafted every last detail, from chairs to light switches, within such a modest budget is a minor modern miracle. Buried into the hillside, the convent should prove cheap to heat and light. Deep bore holes bring warmth from the ground, while daylight is reflected through the building at every turn. It felt comfortable here on the intensely humid day I came to visit.

"I have tried to make it like a little hill town," Piano says. It's an appropriate analogy. Between 1922 and 1935, Le Corbusier planned new city centres (which were never realised), inspired as much by medieval monasteries as by modern life. "I have found the solution to workers' housing," he wrote to his parents in 1907. "I saw, in the harmonious countryside of Tuscany, a modern city crowning the top of a hill. The ring of monks' cells formed the noblest silhouette on the landscape. Each cell overlooks the plain and opens at a lower level into a small, enclosed garden. I thought I had never seen such happy living arrangements."

The pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp and the monastery of Saint Marie de la Tourette at Eveux-sur-Arbresle, north-west of Lyon, were Le Corbusier's last great buildings, both built on shoestrings. Piano has many more buildings in him, and yet it is fascinating to see this thoughtful architect nurturing one of his most considered buildings on a low budget, for nuns living and praying at the foot of Le Corbusier's chapel. He was absolutely right to have said yes.


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September 16 2011

Constructive criticism: the week in architecture

The design world hits high-voltage this week, with flash openings at historic houses, electric cars racing to the future and RIBA unveiling the British pylons of tomorrow

London Open House takes place this weekend, allowing us to see inside hundreds of historic buildings normally closed to the public. Some, such as the hugely popular Midland Grand Hotel (fronting St Pancras station) and Jimi Hendrix's flat in Mayfair's Brook Street are sold-out, but the choice of buildings to visit is still vast.

What about that trip to Ruislip you never promised yourself, to see 97 Park Road, an unexpected house built by Connell Ward and Lucas in 1936 in the style of Le Corbusier's white Parisian villas of the 1920s? This is the best-preserved of a row of three houses that dumbfounded its neighbours (Ruislip is awash with mock-Tudor and neo-Georgian homes) when they were built. Today, though, it is No 97 that is so very desirable.

Or how about the political and architectural drama of Wrotham Park in Barnet, a magnificent English Palladian country house designed by Isaac Ware in 1754 for Admiral John Byng. The house has featured in numerous films and TV shows including Gosford Park and Sense and Sensibility; doubtless you will spot others. Voltaire satirised poor Byng's death in 1759's Candide: "In this country [England], it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others."

British design is to be encouraged in future at the Commonwealth Institute, Kensington, open to the public this weekend for the last time in its original state before John Pawson converts it into a new home for the Design Museum. With its dramatic hyperbolic paraboloid copper roof (as beautiful to look at as the words that describe it are clumsy), this "tent in the park" pavilion was designed by RMJM; it first opened in 1962.

Details of Open House, Dublin were also revealed this week. Clearly a passionate event, it offers (along with visits to many historic and new buildings) a "Destruction of Dublin" walking tour: all too much of the Georgian city has been destroyed by mindless new development over the past 50 years. Not an event, then, for those heading to Dublin for hen or stag parties and the "craic", but a time to get intelligently under the city's grey stone skin.

This Way Up: 15 Years of Architecture, Design and Fashion at the British Council is a show opening in Hoxton, east London, as part of the London design festival. It tells the story of the Council's attempts to get British creativity noticed by people worldwide. Designs by Tom Dixon, Peter Kennard, Pearson Lloyd, Sebastian Bergne, Nigel Shafran, Michael Marriott and Anthony Burrill will be on show together with four one-off dresses by Basso and Brooke, inspired by their British Council exchange to Uzbekistan.

Designers will be on hand to recycle materials left over from British Council exhibitions. Other objects will be auctioned off, including "everything from giant rolls of Sellotape to fascinating chairs commissioned for shows in Venice," says Vicky Richardson, the British Council's director of architecture, design and fashion. "We wanted to clear out all this stuff, but we didn't want to throw anything away." The money raised will fund a new British Council scholarship giving young British designers the opportunity to work in Brazil.

Audi evoked memories of the intriguing relationship between architects and automobiles when it announced its Urban Concept car this week in time for the Frankfurt motor show. This lightweight, electric two-seater has been designed, says Audi, according to Mies van der Rohe's guiding principle "less is more". More than Mies, though, it calls to mind Le Corbusier's influential, if overlooked, 1929 design for a city car.

Even Le Corbusier never had the hard task of designing an electricity pylon. Contemporary architects, however, have been much involved in the competition organised by RIBA and the Department for Energy and Climate Change for a new standard British pylon. Models by the six pylon finalists will be on show at the V&A during the London design festival. The most convincing is Silhouette by Ian Ritchie Architects and engineers Jane Wernick Associates. It takes the form of a needle-like steel obelisk with well-resolved arms to carry the cables; seen in profile, it would be fairly unobtrusive. Other designs are a little top-heavy (T-Pylon by Bystrup Architects), too flamboyant (Flower Tower by Gustafson Porter with Atelier One and Pfisterer), or simply too dramatic for mass production (the taut, bow-like Plexus by AL_A and Arup). Whichever design wins – final judging takes place on 11 October 2011 – it may yet be back to the drawing board if the existing standard design, dating from 1928, is to be superseded, both technically and aesthetically.

The connection between architecture and engineering is realised memorably in the design of Norman Foster's 1978 Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. This week the Twentieth Century Society announced it was putting forward the building for listing. Expect Grade I status. Unlike Wrotham Park, 97 Park Road or the Commonwealth Institute, this hi-tech masterpiece is open to the public throughout the year.


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May 12 2011

St Peter's Seminary saviours

Site-specific artists NVA given two years to raise £10m to renovate abandoned brutalist masterpiece

There are those who still think the bravura brutalist design of St Peter's Seminary in Cardross, 25 miles from Glasgow, to be an eyesore. There are those who say it was blighted by technical problems from the day it opened 45 years ago. Then there are those who believe that this is one of the greatest modern buildings in Europe. Whatever your opinion, St Peter's was deemed important enough to be placed on the World Monument Fund list of the "World's 100 Most Endangered Sites" in 2008.

Now, Scottish arts group NVA, funded by Creative Scotland and a number of UK trusts and foundations, has been given two years to raise £10m to enable the partial renovation of the great concrete structure. The aim is to transform the graffiti-plastered ruin and the surrounding Kilmahew woodland strewn with litter into an arts-led public space.

"The opportunity to purchase St Peter's/Kilmahew concludes years of speculation about the seminary buildings", says Angus Farquhar, NVA's creative director, "and marks the beginning of a new future for the site and for the many people for whom it has significance ... a new form of generative public art that develops from a long-term creative dialogue with the users and radically accepts the value of the building in its current form expanding an 'unfinished' narrative that will change over time."

That narrative has been beset with sorry circumstances: by the time its construction was completed in 1966, the number of vocations to the Catholic priesthood in Scotland had fallen dramatically, while a Vatican II encyclical from 1965 declared that priests should no longer be trained in the countryside but in the communities they were to serve. St Peter's closed in 1980, became a drug rehabilitation centre in 1983, then closed again four years later and began its rapid descent into decay. In 1993, the building, designed by Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein of Gillespie Kidd and Coia as a homage to Le Corbusier, was listed Grade A – a building of special architectural importance in Scotland.

Visitors to the site in years to come will walk through restored woodland and come across the shored up ruins of St Peter's alive with artistic adventure. This will take many forms, from teaching to live events, with the buildings acting as a sublime frame. NVA also plans to increase security, as the woods and ruins have become a less than holy haven for young people.

No one has expected the seminary to be restored to its original purpose, least of all the Archdiocese of Glasgow. Since the early 1990s there have been several attempts to find new uses for St Peter's, but the NVA proposal garnered praise internationally when it was unveiled at the 2010 Venice architecture biennale. But NVA has just two years to raise funds and to spirit the project into life. It wants people – and not just locals and artists – to join in the discussion and, hopefully, help raise funds. St Peter's is a site of international importance, but if NVA fails, the lands and ruins will return to the Archdiocese; and, then – without purpose and funding – they can only fall into further decay.


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March 20 2011

Stirling buildings

Tate Britain reappraises James Stirling – who gave his name to Britain's premier architectural prize – and shows he could be good, and bad… but never dull

Did the great British architect James Stirling kill architecture in Great Britain? The question has to be asked since, as well as being an original and internationally admired talent, who is sometimes said to be the Francis Bacon of British architecture, he also designed some of the most notoriously malfunctioning buildings of modern times. Worse, two of these buildings were in the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge, wherein opinion formers spent their formative years. If you want to annoy as much of the establishment as possible, there are few more effective ways than this.

In particular he and his partner James Gowan designed the history faculty and library at Cambridge, completed in 1968. Here, as they struggled to study in this alternately freezing/boiling greenhouse, with dodgy acoustics, frequent leaks and falling cladding tiles, future columnists and editors incubated a deep loathing of the building, of Stirling, and by extension all forms of ambitious modern architecture. In the 1970s the young critic Gavin Stamp made his name with a remorseless hatchet job on the history faculty. In the 1980s it narrowly escaped demolition.

In 1984 the pro-Stirling critic Reyner Banham wrote that "anyone will know who keeps up with the English highbrow weeklies (professional, intellectual or satirical), the only approvable attitude to James Stirling is one of sustained execration and open or veiled accusations of incompetence."

Behind most broadsheet tirades against modern architecture in the last 40 years stands the figure of James Stirling. And, when architects are now subjected to the most elaborate forms of control and project management, squeezing out invention in the interests of reducing risk, it is in order to avoid mishaps much like the Cambridge history faculty. Stirling was seen as the very type of the award-winning architect whose buildings don't work. He was, to boot, arrogant, lecherous and sometimes boorish. At a party in the apartment of the New York architect Paul Rudolph, he chose to express himself by urinating against its huge window, from the terrace outside, facing into the crowd of guests.

Yet he continues to hold an honoured place. The Stirling prize, inaugurated shortly after his death in 1992, is named after him. Now, as the wheel of fashion grinds inevitably round, his work is up for reappraisal. Next month Tate Britain will honour him with an exhibition based on the impressive archive of his work owned by the Canadian Centre for Architecture. These drawings will reveal him as a more subtle, complex and even charming character. They are skilful, sometimes refined, sometimes informal. Some drawings, composed as presentation pieces after a design was complete, have an abstract elegance. At other times he would cover sheets of writing paper, diary pages and the backs of plane tickets and telegrams with thickets of sketches, as he worked ideas over and over. They might be plans, diagrams or three-dimensional views. They have energy, with much-repeated lines or brisk hatching or Klee-like arrows scurrying through them.

They are signs of thinking with his hands, of trying things out, of exploring and excavating. These are not the disdainful doodles that some architects dash off, hoping that it will be taken as a sign of genius that they can be done so thoughtlessly. They show complete faith that the design of buildings is a serious business, to be pursued with time, testing, consideration and debate. He might try several versions of an elevation, with differences that would not be obvious to a casual observer.

They also show faith that architecture is something like music or painting or literature, that it is something to be composed, with tensions and harmonies to be resolved within its overall structure. Stirling kept considering his art in relation to that of others, both 20th-century figures like Le Corbusier and the Russian constructivists, and architects of the Italian renaissance, or the grand industrial architecture of Liverpool, where he grew up. His designs and drawings set up multiple dialogues with other works. And, like artists and writers, he wanted to be provocative. He wanted to wake people up.

These tensions and elaborations, these interplays of forces and allusions, should make it hard to dismiss his work as mere leaky showmanship. His Florey building for Queen's College Oxford is a sort of inhabited viaduct turned into theatrical U-shaped court, a distant derivation of the Oxford quad, facing the river Cherwell. It is Oxonian and constructivist at once. It is perverse but you would have to be a dullard not to see its drama. Students there now comment on its faults but also on the atmosphere generated by this extraordinary hemi-cauldron.

His later work is more likeable and less leaky, as Stirling became slightly less reckless, and as he started building in Germany, where the building industry seemed better equipped to realise his ambitious ideas. His 1984 Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, for example, was one of the biggest tourist attractions in the country, on account of the force of the building. In this it was a prototype of the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

At its centre is a great circular stone court, like an inside-out mausoleum or a new-built ruin, with vines falling down its walls. A system of ramps takes you through the building, as if you were climbing a hillside and, at the moments when it might become too monumental, bright curves of steel and glass lighten the mood. It is romantic, potent and playful at once, and perfectly captures the balance between monumentality and motion, between eternity and perambulation, which is the essence of museums.

The Staatsgalerie wouldn't work without the pushing and pulling of ideas you can see in the drawings. It is worked and wrought in a way few buildings are nowadays. Architects still work hard, and test different ideas, but they search more for a magic formula in the cladding or the form which will make the whole building smoothly beautiful and consistent. There is less sense that a building is composed like a painting, and that the architect should leave some of his sweat and brushmarks on the canvas. Stirling's drawings bring on a nostalgia for a way of designing – among other things, without a computer in sight – that has gone the way of dodos and drafting boards.

Does his art justify the malfunctions? There is, to be sure, more than one side to the argument: Stirling's defenders always said that his projects were victims of poor construction, cost-cutting and clumsy clients. It can also be said that time casts a rosy glow over the faults of more distant architects. The shoddiness of Nash, the impracticality of Vanbrugh and the budget-busting of many great architects in history are now almost forgotten and forgiven. The same will probably happen to Stirling.

Stirling was a very naughty boy. The pleasures of his successes came at an exorbitant cost, not only in technical failures but also artistic ideas that didn't quite come off. The number of his works that are unequivocally admirable are few. Architects are mostly more careful and responsible now, which is mostly a good thing. But, at his best, Stirling showed what powerful and moving things buildings can be, and the world would have been poorer without him.


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March 07 2011

Le Corbusier's Indian masterpiece is stripped for parts

Group rallies to rescue city built as monument to modernity from neglect and plunder

It is a last-ditch effort to save a city built as a monument to modernity and hope but now threatened by neglect and the fierce demands of the global art market. Chandigarh, 180 miles north of Delhi, was built by Le Corbusier 60 years ago.

Since then, many of its finest buildings, recognised as modernist masterpieces, have been neglected. Recently, international art dealers have made substantial sums selling hundreds of chairs, tables, carvings and prints designed by Le Corbusier and his assistants but obtained at knockdown prices from officials often unaware of their value.

Now a group of local architects, art historians and officials are hoping to mobilise international help to prevent further damage to Le Corbusier's unique Indian legacy. A report commissioned by the government in Chandigarh has recommended a campaign targeting the UN heritage agency, Unesco, as well as foreign governments, especially in Europe where many of the items have been auctioned. Informal approaches to embassies in Delhi have failed, the unpublished report, seen by the Guardian, says.

The campaigners are led by Manmohan Nath Sharma, who was the first assistant of Le Corbusier in Chandigarh and later took over as chief architect of the city. "What is being lost is irreplaceable," he said, speaking in the home he designed in the centre of Chandigarh and surrounded by prints and paintings given to him by Le Corbusier. "Our heritage is going to be gone forever. This matter is being taken very lightly by the authorities so now we need international help. This is a handmade city. It is unique. It can never be replaced."

A Chandigarh manhole cover recently sold for £15,000, although there is no suggestion the furniture was bought or sold illegally.

Professor Rajnish Wattas, a former principal of the Chandigarh College of Architecture, is also calling for international intervention. "We were stunned when we heard the prices for manhole covers or chairs that you can still see watchmen sitting on outside offices. This was a wake-up call but what we are losing still hasn't sunk in," he said.

Le Corbusier was commissioned by Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, to build a city that would replace Lahore, the capital of the Punjab lost to newly created Pakistan after partition in 1947. Nehru said the new metropolis was to be of a design "unfettered by the traditions of the past, a symbol of the nation's faith in the future". Working on the principle that every detail had to be meticulously planned for the whole to function, Le Corbusier's team designed everything from the vast sculptures outside the monumental high court and local assembly to the door handles in the offices within.

Last year, the Chandigarh authorities approached the British high commission in Delhi in a bid to halt the sale in London of dozens of items including chairs from the assembly buildings. Indian diplomats in London also intervened. Neither attempt was successful.

Many of the items for sale in Europe come from stocks "condemned" as unfit for use by the local administration and sold off at auction to junk dealers. Others have been bought from officials often unaware of their international value.

Campaigners hope that with international support the auctions can be halted until new laws are passed.

"We have to act before it is too late," said Sharma, 87. "The Taj Mahal was made by foreign craftsmen and admired by foreigners before Indians saw it as a major attraction. Today the Taj is a symbol of India. Tomorrow it will be Le Corbusier's work in Chandigarh."


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June 02 2010

Genius TV

Covering everything from Bauhaus to bubble chairs, iPods to Panzer tanks, The Genius of Design is brilliant, insightful television. Even better: Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen is nowhere to be seen

Think design on TV – at least during the past decade – and you think of the reality home-makeover show, a format so perniciously popular that it colonised daytime programming with a battalion of frilly-cuffed pre-Raphaelites and Cockney handymen armed with stippling sponges and MDF. The message was admirable: you too can transform your environment, and with it your quality of life. The reality, however, was a traumatic combination of headache-inducing colour schemes and botched jobs. On TV, the only people with an eye for design were creating sets for period dramas. Poirot was a catalogue raisonné of art deco ashtrays; Mad Men an obsessive-compulsive facsimile of mid-century modern; while Wallander resembled a shoot from a late-1990s Wallpaper magazine, all recherche Scandinavian fetishism. But this was design as background. Even with experts in front of the camera, just as with Philippe Starck's version of The Apprentice last year, I could only watch through my fingers, groaning.

So, it was with limited expectations that I sat down in front of the new BBC series, The Genius of Design, which has been running for the past few weeks. I was anticipating a by-the-numbers trudge through "problem-solving" with a predictable star cast of designers and rent-a-pundits (my phone must have been out of juice the day the producers called). And, initially at least, things didn't look promising. The first episode opened at the Ideal Home Show with a voiceover asking: "Where does design come from?" Uh-oh. We cut to a talking head, the author of Where Stuff Comes From. Oh no, this was going to be Design for Dummies.

How wrong I was. This turned out to be the most intelligent programme about design I've seen. Gary Hustwit's feature film Objectified, released last year, was a welcome study of the subject (if constrained by trying to tackle the whole of industrial design in an hour and a half), but with these five one-hour episodes the BBC gave itself room for detail and nuance – something that, let's face it, good design needs.

The programme tells the story of this 20th-century art form from its beginnings in the industrial revolution to its more volatile status in the modern age. The material is textbook stuff: Bauhaus and a dogmatic Swiss bloke called Le Corbusier, Braun and a "young idealist" called Dieter Rams, Charles and Ray Eames, right up to Apple and personalised computing. It treads where you would expect; and fair enough. But what really lifts it beyond the ordinary is the writing, which has a wonderful feel for the contradictions of design history.

In the first episode, we see Henry Ford change the world by inventing mass production, only to become a victim of his own success. With Ford resting on his "one colour as long as it's black" laurels, it took companies such as Chrysler to come along and realise that a true consumer society requires choice. In episode two, we visit the ideologues of European modernism only to see their radical ideas failing to take root – it was American product designers such as Raymond Loewy and Henry Dreyfuss who turned modernist styling into hard cash. The war years offer, perhaps, the best paradox of all. The Nazis may have shut down the Bauhaus, but they believed in good design – so much so that in the Panzer IV, designed in 1936 and deployed in many of the war's major land battles, they created a vehicle so fearsomely well-crafted that it caused Allied tanks to piddle liquid fear from their exhaust pipes. The only problem was that they were extremely expensive – and labour-intensive – to make, so the Americans and Russians simply churned out cheaper tanks by the tens of thousands. Hey presto, bad design wins the war. Forget "less is more" – in the case of second-world-war tanks, more turned out to be, well, more.

In the postwar years, America's economic dominance gave rise to Tupperware, a solution for a society with too much food. In starving Europe, however, we had to wait a few more years before experiencing the plastic fantastic of Joe Cesare Colombo and Verner Panton, a weird Barbarella world of bubble furniture. The paradox? That once, plastic was sexy and symbolised our aspirations; then it became toxic and synonymous with poor quality. The final episode is this Friday, so I won't spoil the ending for you. Suffice it to say, the principle of standardisation gives way to the dream of customisation. Individuality is to the fore, championed by the likes of Ettore Sottsass, Michael Graves with his 1,700,000-unit-selling kettle ("a mass-produced object that felt unique"), and of course Philippe Starck, who describes himself as "a post-Freudian functionalist".

Though brilliant on the history side of things, the programme rather balks at the idea of tackling our own design era. The iPod is there – eulogised, as ever, by Apple's out-of-house spokesman Stephen Fry – and the sustainable design guru William McDonough is seen dismantling a fully recyclable office chair. Maybe, in the end, that's enough, because from these two objects – a gizmo destined for rapid obsolescence and a guilt-free consumer purchase – you can surmise everything you need to know about design today. Once an optimistic discipline that improved our lives, design has become trapped between a fickle marketplace and a sick planet. And here The Genius of Design leaves us with two competing visions of the future. One, expounded by the science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling, is a world with fewer and fewer objects, as everything gets sucked into our personal electronic devices; the other is McDonough's, in which we can continue to consume indefinitely – as long as everything is recycled according to his "cradle to cradle" mantra. Both views are mind-boggling to contemplate, and that's why it would be wonderful to see the BBC make a programme about contemporary design. (I'll make sure my phone is charged for that one.)


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December 17 2009

We'll always have the Burj Dubai

The 818-metre tower is a true wonder of the world, a fitting monument to Dubai as the capital of excess and irrational exuberance

The scaffolding has cleared from the most astonishing man-made structure I have seen. It is outrageous, wasteful, egotistical, ridiculous; but ask if the Burj Dubai is beautiful and I cannot deny it. When it formally opens (mostly empty) early next year, this Dubai tower will, at 818 metres, be the highest building anywhere, its "sneer of cold command" thrusting a finger at the outside world even as its Ozymandian surroundings sink beneath the economic waters of the Gulf.

With the Dubai property market plummeting, the Burj is the final grandiose gesture of the emirate's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, on his long campaign to make Ludwig of Bavaria seem like a jobbing builder on the North Circular Road.

Unlike most new skyscrapers, the $8bn (£5bn) Burj Dubai does not rise until the point where an accountant calculates the lifts can take no more. Its 20-acre base has the plan of a six-leaf desert flower, from which it launches itself into the sky in a diminishing cluster of rocket-like cylinders, spiralling and soaring to a celestial climax.

This is no pastiche Mies, pastiche Corb, pastiche Foster, like the postmodern blobs, slices, wedges and cornets that crowd every Gulf skyline, screaming "look-at-me" at the brain-dulled passerby. Burj Dubai, designed by the Chicagoan architect, Adrian Smith of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and closely watched by the sheikh himself, leads the eye ever upwards. It has the exhilaration of a Gothic spire. At the top, a spike rises further, swaying 1.5 metres in the wind and appearing to bend towards the viewer, as if appalled at its own presumption in puncturing the heavens.

Dubai this week lay in the shadow of its new tower, a partygoer still dancing in the streets hours after the party has ended. Its hyperbolic malls are crowded, its freeways jammed and its latest attention-grabber, an international film festival, mobbed by crowds. On Monday Dubai's more sober neighbour, Abu Dhabi, tossed its defaulting property market a $10bn note for one last drink, with another $1bn in pocket money for the embarrassed Maktoum family.

The sheikh's obedient media barely mentioned the humiliation, as a drunk cares not who pays for the last round. The construction sites, once host to a quarter of the world's cranes, are mostly still building, but no one holds out much hope for the sea-girt ocean palms and "cities" planned at the height of the most reckless property bubble in history. The chairman of Dubai World, Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, might cry earlier this year, "Dubai has a vision like no other place on earth," but it is a vision few want to share just now.

A quarter of new residential units stand empty and 34,000 are still under construction. Nothing is heard now of a plan to build a tower higher even than Burj Dubai in the port area. An archipelago in the form of a map of the world remains as piles of sand offshore, crazily shipped like coals to Newcastle from Australia and rumoured to have disgorged antipodean snakes into the Gulf. The capital of irrational exuberance has embarked on an almighty hangover.

Since I have long seen Dubai as a speculative accident waiting to happen, I could not resist a debate on its future, held on Monday in the rival statelet of Qatar up the coast – and held with not a little schadenfreude. Dubai's protestation of open markets, an open society and western freedoms have long been absurd. Its rulers reacted to the debate (broadcast next month by BBC World) by trying to have the Qataris suppress it and ensuring that three Dubai speakers and all Dubai journalists boycotted it.

This was absurdly self-defeating, since a motion critical of Dubai's breakneck expansion was defeated 60-40. Twitter and Facebook were flooded with the good news for Dubai, in a week when there had been precious little. Yet none of this was allowed to be reported in Dubai's censored media. Never were so many well-groomed heads buried in so much desert sand.

The surest sign of a polity that has lost confidence in itself is when its rulers cannot tolerate a debate on its affairs. Even the word default has had to be replaced in the Dubai press by "debt restructuring" or "new legal framework". Outsiders are routinely blamed for the property market collapse, which the emirate's buccaneers and paid stooges have for years been stoking with hyperbole. Property values are reported to be 50% down from their peak and are predicted by UBS analysts to be heading for 75%. Those who mimicked the 17th-century Dutch who believed that tulip prices could never fall are left with the paranoid's last gasp, blaming foreigners for their woes.

The most mesmerising thing about Dubai is not its present but its future. Will it be Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat or Fatehpur Sikri? Will it become a place of sand and weeds, so many "trunkless legs of stone" lost on a scorching Gulf shore?

What will happen when the world's funny money starts to flow elsewhere? What happens when a future sheikh goes either environmental or religious and tires of boosterism, returning to tents and camels, to order and respect for his ancestors? What happens when some political whirlwind sweeps across the Gulf from Iran, or down from Iraq, or across from Saudi Arabia?

At a certain point in the decline in property values, it no longer pays owners to maintain lifts, services and utilities (as on a British tower estate). More likely Dubai will be a desert Detroit, a place of widespread dereliction with some money remaining at the centre but with ghost towns and squatted housing in the sweltering suburbs. The smart money is already on the more cautiously developed Qatar and Abu Dhabi stealing its financial thunder and leaving Dubai with its bizarre hotels: Las Vegas to Los Angeles, or Atlantic City to New York.

There is a touch of Vegas to the gold-plated atrium of the "seven star" Burj Al-Arab hotel, with its casino baroque and computerised fountains like leaping dolphins. There is more than a touch of Disney to the $1.5bn Atlantis hotel, opened this year by Kylie Minogue, with shark-filled aquarium wall, garden gnome interior and giant conches for capitals.

Already the office towers of Dubai look like those of a pre-cyber age, when the rich had to live near the oil, and celebrities could be induced to buy off-plan and sell before the fireworks ended. Why live in Dubai and shop at an ersatz Harvey Nichols when you can live in Knightsbridge and shop at the real one?

Dubai is a gaseous burp about to explode in the desert air. But when it explodes it will leave behind the sensational Burj, standing visible across the desert, gleaming proudly in the sun. One day the cost of keeping it up will exceed its income, its steel will rot and the swaying summit will become dangerous. The mother of all demolitions will have to begin. Then Shelley can have his moment and Ozymandias his epitaph. But for the time being Dubai can at least boast a true wonder of the world.


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November 12 2009

Through neon-tinted glass

BBC4's recent series on 1930s architecture looks at Britain's art-deco history through neon-tinted glasses. The reality is a bit more complicated

There's no denying art deco's attraction: it's the style of 1930s cinemas, ocean liners and flamboyant Manhattan skyscrapers. It conjures Hollywood, Busby Berkeley musicals, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat. It makes you think of glamorous climes – whether Miami, Havana, New York or Shanghai – in which buildings that seemed to be encrusted with fashionable jewellery gleam in the summer sun. It's also a style that's been much in vogue recently, because of BBC4's Glamour's Golden Age season, which includes a series of documentaries by David Heathcote on art deco icons.

But here's the funny thing: Britain doesn't actually have much in the way of art deco architecture. Even London has just a sprinkling of buildings: Ideal House, a black granite-clad office block off Regent's Street designed by Raymond Hood; The Odeon, Leicester Square; and the glorious Daily Express building in Fleet Street, with its spectacular, cinema-style entrance lobby by Robert Atkinson. Outside London, cinemas are the most shining examples of the style – Harry Weedon's Odeons are the best (all too many converted into bingo halls or graceless multiplexes), along with shop fronts. Manchester and Glasgow have their own dramatically deco Daily Express buildings, both dramatic examples. If you look hard enough, you can detect deco influences in the buildings of Liverpool's Speke Airport (now a hotel) and even in the suburban stations of the old Southern Railway, such as Surbiton.

But it's never a style that really took root in Britain. Which makes it all the odder that the BBC has decided to label buildings art deco that aren't. In his documentaries, Heathcote devoted much time to Charles Holden's 55 Broadway, the headquarters of London Underground, describing it as "a fantastic art deco building". Holden would have turned in his grave at the description. Influenced by contemporary US architecture, yes. And detailed inside in ways that might suggest art deco. But an art deco icon? No.

This isn't entirely Heathcote's fault. Television thrives on telling stories with the broadest of brush strokes. And art deco has become something of a catch-all title in recent years, used to describe almost any building, piece of furniture, bronze lamp or ceramic dish designed between about 1925 and 1940. I've seen Albert Speer's Reich Chancellery for Adolf Hitler described as art deco and even – a mortal sin, surely? – Le Corbusier's coolly modern Villa Savoye in the suburbs of Paris tainted with the same label. The term itself was something of a latecomer. It wasn't much used before the design historian Bevis Hillier published his delightful book Art Deco of the 20s and 30s in 1968, defining a style that had more usually been known as moderne, modernistic and jazz modern.

The style emerged from the legendary Exposition Internationale des Art Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes held in Paris in 1925 – a grand showing of design and decoration, from furniture and accessories to interiors and architecture, mapped out in acres of precious veneers, marble and onyx, stainless steel and aluminium, all much influenced by Egyptian, Babylonian and Assyrian archaeology. It was this licentious playfulness that provoked the contempt of the rising stars of the Modern movement – modernism – which had been rooted in the far more serious researches of the Bauhaus and, most notably, Le Corbusier. Modernists held art deco in contempt: it was all but sinful. A travesty. Low and dishonest. Downright vulgar – it was the stuff of fashion rather than function, of escapism rather than realism.

When Nikolaus Pevsner, the architecture and design historian, went to see the cinematic Hoover Factory on London's Western Avenue, built by Wallis, Gilbert and Partners (1931–5), he described it in the Middlesex volume of his The Buildings of England series as "perhaps the most offensive of the modernistic atrocities along this road of typical bypass factories". (A comment that was toned down to something substantially less angry in the revised edition of the book, published in 1991.)

And whereas Modern architecture, for better or worse, influenced the British landscape for decades to come, art deco never really took flight. It remained in domestic settings: hinted at in the stained-glass sunrises of mock-Tudor front doors, echoed in the interiors of 1930s MG sports saloons. It conjured fantasy and escapism at a time when the world could be a very grim place indeed.

Perhaps some of the same escapism touches our view of art deco. It's a way of looking at the past through neon-tinted glasses. By all means, watch Top Hat, gawp at the Chrysler Building, imagine yourself sipping cocktails aboard an ocean liner – let the dark and disturbing interwar era become the stuff of ritzy cinematic dreams. But life in the 1930s was more complicated. And while it's understandable that the BBC should have fallen for art deco's charms, it might have been better if they had got their history straight.


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November 05 2009

Towering genius

To mark its 175th anniversary, the Royal Institute of British Architects is holding a season of films in which buildings – fantastical or factual – take a starring role. Here are my top five

In pictures: RIBA celebrates architecture in film

From the silent epics of DW Griffiths through Art Deco spectaculars like Busby Berkeley's Gold Diggers of 1933 to Pixar's wonderful WALL-E (2008), the connection between architecture and film has always been intimate. Look at how Le Corbusier defined architecture: "the masterly, correct and magnificent play of form in light." It stands as a great description of cinema as well as of buildings.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that many great art directors and set designers – especially those who fled Nazi Germany for Hollywood – trained as architects. And the influence runs the other way: inspired directors and their designers continue to exert an influence on architecture. The play of light is everything, whether it's in the work of Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott and David Lynch, or of Nicholas Hawksmoor, Le Corbusier and Rem Koolhaas.

This month, as part of its 175th anniversary celebrations, the Royal Institute of British Architects is holding a film season devoted to the relationship between architecture and the movies. Below, I've listed five films – the briefest list from all but endless possibilities – I can watch happily over and again, and that bring out the best in both genres. You probably have your own favourites: I'd love to hear them.

Metropolis (1927)

Fritz Lang's silent sci-fi may be best known for its wondrous female robot, Eve, but it's the set design that really takes your breath away. It features a cloud-scraping contemporary Tower of Babel, an industrial workers' production hell-hole, and super-modern, master-of-the-universe-style offices – all revealing its creators' in-depth knowledge of the very latest European architectural developments. Whether they're interpreting Art Deco, Bauhaus Modern or Expressionism, all the buildings shown are terrifying. The overall effect is curiously Gothic, shadowy, elongated, chiaroscuro. And scary.

Lang's team of set designers – including Karl Vollbrecht, credited as "film architect", and Erich Kettelhut – were led by Otto Hunte, art director and production designer. Hunte had previously art-directed Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919); a master of dark films, he went on to work on the crudely anti-semitic Jud Süß (Veit Harlan, 1940). Lang and Hunte employed the cinematographer, Eugen Schüfftan, who developed a process whereby Metropolis actors could be projected, through mirrors, into miniature sets. This bold play with "futuristic" architecture and newly developed filming techniques helped make Metropolis a powerful influence on real-life architecture for decades to come.

Blade Runner (1982)

Metropolis translated into another futuristic dystopia, this time a vision of LA in 2019. The opening shots, as the camera pans over a 700-storey skyscraper and the sky glows with industrial smoke, fire and acid rain, is as magnificent as it is disturbing. It's another interpretation of the Tower of Babel, of course; this time the headquarters of the company that makes the humanoid "replicants" that do the dirty work for human beings.

Scott says that the sets were conjured from a variety of haunting images: Edward Hopper's painting Nighthawks, the skyline of Hong Kong at night, the fiery industrial landscape of Tyneside and Teesside of Scott's childhood, the French comicbook Métal Hurlant [Heavy Metal], and, quite clearly, Metropolis. Scott places these nightmarish exteriors in architectural contrast to the theatrical, spooky inside of LA's real-life Bradbury Building, designed by George Wyman in 1893, which is cast as the headquarters' interiors. Significantly, the original architect claimed that his style was influenced by Edward Bellamy's book, Looking Backward (1887) – itself a work of utopian sci-fi. Wyman admired the passage in which Bellamy describes a typical commercial building of the future as a "vast hall full of light, received not alone from the windows on all sides, but from the dome, the point of which was a hundred feet above".

Dr Strangelove (1964)

Ken Adam, set designer of Stanley Kubrick's cold war satire, tells the story of Ronald Reagan becoming president of the US and asking to see the Pentagon War Room. What War Room, asked his aides. The one in the Dr Strangelove movie, replied the president, deadly serious. No wonder Reagan was fooled. This superbly realised space, built in Shepperton Studios, was rooted in Adam's fascination with the sets of Dr Caligari and Metropolis. Born in Berlin, and later trained as an architect in London, Adam gravitated naturally to these darkly inventive productions.

Adam made his name with sets for the early James Bond films – Dr No, Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever – but this was the most powerful single interior he designed, a stark black-and-white space in which the future of humankind was played out. Adam's drawings for this and other sets, and scenes in the film rival that of any practising architect. Kubrick went on to make a number of films, notably 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), in which architectural design was to play co-starring roles.

Nostalgia (1983)

Some 15 years ago, I spent the best part of a week sleuthing the locations that Andrei Tarkovsky chose for this exquisitely beautiful film set in what – at least in 35mm – was a permanently mist-laced Tuscany. The story is nominally about a Russian writer's research into the life of the 18th-century Russian composer, Maxim Berezovsky, who committed suicide after being recalled to Russia from Italy. Tarkovsky saw this sad tale as a reflection of his own life, alienated from the Soviet Union, and possibly his death, too. Here are composites of remote Tuscan churches and abbeys, a delightfully gloomy hotel bedroom, and best of all, a public square dominated by a sulphurous thermal bath.

It took me a while to find the real-life locations. I'm pretty sure that two of the churches were the 12th-century Abbazia di Sant'Antimo at Castelnuovo Dell'Abate and the ruined medieval church of San Galgano. The thermal baths were, without a doubt, those of the 14th-century St Catherine in Bagno Vinoni. In the saint's day, the waters were said to be laced with gold and silver; they were particularly good for ailments of the liver, spleen, stomach and skin.

Sadly, they could not cure Tarkovsky of the nostalgia that, as much any physical condition, killed him in 1986. He said that the locations in Nostalgia "overwhelmed" him. If you go to Bagno Vignoni or the Abbazia di Sant'Antimo, especially on a misty winter's day, you might well find they do the same thing to you.

Laughing Gravy (1931)

A Laurel and Hardy short in which the lovable idiots try to hide their pet dog Laughing Gravy (Prohibition-era slang for booze) from their grumpy, dog-hating landlord. I've included this in my list of favourites because the entire action takes place inside a deeply shabby, snow-blasted townhouse that is as much a star on the screen as Stan and Oliie. Every last cubic inch, every last feature, is used to get laughs as sash windows drop on heads before the same heads get stuck in chimneys. The house becomes a giant climbing frame for non-stop gags.

But Laughing Gravy isn't all laughs: a large number of Laurel and Hardy shorts were made in response to the Great Depression, and many use grim streetscapes to conjure the comfortless real-life world just outside the studio gates. The house's melancholy, down-at-heel quality – its dreadful bedroom, horrid kitchen, and butt of freezing water by the front door – is a perfect match for Stan and Ollie's glum economic status.


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