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March 25 2012

Roath Lock studios, Cardiff

The new BBC Wales studios are all about front – as well as Doctor Who

For nearly a century, architects have viewed facades with mistrust, going on fear and loathing. This feature, almost universal in all previous architecture, ever, came to be seen as fake and deceitful, as something like the hypocritical morality of the 19th century, and contrary to the modernist ideal of displaying the inner nature of a building on the outside. In the 1960s the architects and theorists Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown led a reaction, praising what they called the "decorated shed", but by the 1980s the revived facade was being abused as a postmodern wrapper for bankers' palaces, which seemed to prove that the fear and mistrust had been justified.

The new Roath Lock studios for BBC Wales in Cardiff are, architecturally speaking, almost all facade. There are 250 metres of it, looking across an old dock to the trophies of Cardiff's 25-year efforts at renewal – the Welsh Assembly Building by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, and the Wales Millennium Centre on the site where Zaha Hadid's doomed opera house was once planned. Around the studios is empty space awaiting development under a regeneration plan backed by the Welsh government, and behind is a bit of Cardiff's docks that is still in use for shipping.

The studios are built on the success of Doctor Who and its spin-off Torchwood, just as Cardiff's finest buildings were once founded on coal. The phenomenal popularity of the Time Lord's show, which since its revival in 2005 has been made in Wales, has helped provide the funds and confidence to build a £20m complex where the programme is now made. A corridor in the new building has been named "Russell's Alley", in tribute to the contribution of the Doctor Who executive producer and screenwriter Russell T Davies.

The aim of the new building is to provide ample, well-appointed, highly sustainable production and post-production facilities for the making of Doctor Who, Casualty, Upstairs Downstairs and the BBC's longest running soap opera, the 37-year-old Welsh-language Pobol y Cwm. It means that scattered facilities can be brought together: the downstairs in Upstairs Downstairs, for example, used to be several miles away from the upstairs. Now they are under the same roof.

The complex consists of large sheds interspersed with functional courts and alleys, as in a Hollywood film lot, punctuated with sets of extreme specificity. For Casualty, the mediocre design of a PFI hospital is recreated with uncanny precision, down to the ridiculous public art in the car park. For Pobol y Cwm they have built a chapel front, an estate agent and chippy, and little back gardens with immaculately reconstructed B&Q decking.

Unusual design requirements include corridors wide enough for two Daleks to pass, and a recreation of Holby City hospital's car park in precisely the same orientation as the one in its former location in Bristol. The fear is that meteorologically aware Casualty nerds will bombard the Beeb with complaints if they spot that the shadows are falling in a different way. They also had to make sure that an ambulance could roar into the place without hitting any buildings.

Amid all this stage architecture, what might be called "proper" architecture – as in, designed by architects and written about by architectural critics – doesn't get much of a look in. After all, not even the greatest geniuses in the history of the art, not Palladio nor Wren nor Le Corbusier, have performed spatial magic to match the big-inside-small-outside effect of the Tardis.

Nor is this new building a work of the BBC in Medici mode, as they were in the early days of their expansion of Broadcasting House. It is more like the installation of BBC North at MediaCity in Salford, where a hopefully business-like deal was struck with the developer of a publicly assisted regeneration project. In Cardiff their partner was Igloo, an investment fund dedicated to "socially responsible development", who appointed the architects FAT, whose design seems to have taken the BBC somewhat by surprise.

Chris Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, said it was like a cross between the Doge's Palace and Ikea, which for Sean Griffiths of FAT is mostly a compliment. His practice is, he says, "the UK leader in decorated sheds", which was what was called for here. Or rather, there was no choice but for it to be a shed, only whether to decorate it or not.

The issue, says Griffiths, was "how do you give any life at all to an immensely long elevation with only one door", which looks onto a quayside awaiting development and currently populated only by some hardy black pines, chosen for their ability to survive salty air. It has to deal with a problem common to incomplete regeneration projects, which is how to suggest life that is not yet there. A laughable hotel across the water, with a frantic roof in the style of Santiago Calatrava, shows how not to do it.

The BBC, moreover, are extremely sensitive about giving away future plotlines and details, and don't want people looking into their studios. The windows to the cafeteria are frosted, in case anyone peers in, sees a new Doctor Who alien having a cup of tea and goes viral with phone-snaps of it. Transparency, a favourite trope of modern architects, is therefore not possible.

FAT, who need little encouragement to come up with such things, have responded with a facade that is mannerist, baroque and "sci-fi retro", which has big cross-shaped windows in reference to Casualty, and gothic octofoils in homage to William Burges, the exuberant Victorian who built his greatest works near here. It is, says Griffiths, "a bit mountain-y" and "a bit wave-y", in response to the local landscape. You can detect the shapes of houses like those in Pobol y Cwm that "morph into space invaders", with a centrepiece that is "Doctor Who goes to Las Vegas" or "baroque mixed with what a cyberman looks like".

The aim is to communicate and engage, to escape constricting notions of good taste and create a "narrative" with which people can connect – and whether you get all the references is not entirely the point, as opposed to getting the sense that someone is talking to you. "Most people don't go into most buildings," says Griffiths. "The facade is what they experience. If you mention the Taj Mahal, what people think of is the facade." He wants to address "the experience when you are there", rather than the "doodle seen from 20,000 feet" that some iconic architects provide. The elevation is designed to work at different scales, with its exaggerated gables speaking to the view from across the dock, while a lower level squiggle addresses the eyeline of passersby.

If FAT can sound flip they are actually serious. They study historic architecture in a way that few other contemporary architects do, and try to learn from, for example, the effects of layering and depth you get in 16th- and 17th-century Italy. They compose and seek complexity. They want to make their shed seem substantial and "tactile", so they give an exaggerated thickness to its facade.

That the results are not precisely like those of Florence or Rome is due to the ferocious constraints of time and money under which buildings are now built, and the contracts that limit the architect's role to specific areas. FAT would have liked to spread their influence deeper into the building – to the somewhat basic reception and cafeteria areas, for example – but it was not possible. "Computers and Excel spreadsheets make the world," says Griffiths, "and it's a strange assumption to think that architects have any power to change it." FAT's attitude is rather to make the best of what they've got.

Making the best of it in this case leads to a facade where their escape from good taste has been achieved with exceptional success, but which might fairly be described as stonking. It is bold, engaging, rich, entertaining and complex. It commands its tough site and helps you forget that this zone is still largely wasteland. It achieves something beyond the abilities of many current architects, which is to make a very big facade. Of all the BBC's recent adventures in architectural patronage it is, by accident, one of the most successful. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 14 2011

Readers' cultural review of 2011: What, no Katy B?

Last week our critics picked their highlights of 2011. Did they get it right? Readers respond with their own highs (and lows)


One Man, Two Guvnors was the most fun I've had in a theatre for years – easily the best play of 2011, and James Corden best performer. The National theatre largely misfired for me: A Woman Killed with Kindness, Cherry Orchard, 13, The Kitchen, Frankenstein and Greenland were all largely disappointing.

The RSC's Homecoming was the best revival. Rupert Goold's Merchant of Venice was great fun, even if the inconsistency in Portia's characterisation (from ditzy blond Glee fan to brilliant prosecutor, hm) took the edge off it.

Tom Brooke was my favourite actor of the year – in The Kitchen, and I Am the Wind.


Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid are still two of my least-admired starchitects. However, credit where it's due. I had the pleasure of wandering Toronto's AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario), redesigned by Gehry [a few years ago], and apart from his usual frivolous facade, the interior had been quite brilliantly done. So restrained and sophisticated: words I never never thought I'd use for the old showboater.


Katy B owned pop in 2011, or temporarily leased the lower sections of the charts from Adele at least. Seven singles off one album and a successful B-side, bridging the gap between cool, intriguing dance and charming, relatable 2000s-style British pop-star writing. Loved it.


The programme of the year has been Mark Cousins' superb history of the cinema, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, on More4. Incredibly wide-ranging, informative and inspiring, with extremely intelligent analysis of how film developed and how the great directors innovated.


Artist Christian Marclay's awesome 24-hour film-montage The Clock, shown as part of the British Art Show in Plymouth. Mesmeric, fascinating, witty editing and marvellous film-buffery content.


The Inbetweeners Movie. The snobs may scoff but this film says more about Britain and its youth than 20 Ken Loach films ever could.


Two of the greatest musical evenings were the appearances of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer in Mahler's First symphony, and the zany late-night Prom with audience requests including Bartók, Kodály and Stravinsky. A month before that, the magic combination of Andris Nelsons and the CBSO in Richard Strauss and Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky.

At the Royal Opera, the three most memorable performances were Madama Butterfly with Kristine Opolais in the title role and her husband Andris Nelsons in the pit; Werther with Sophie Koch and Rolando Villazón doing his best (still short of what Jonas Kaufmann can do); and the recent revival of Faust, with Vittorio Grigolo, René Pape, Angela Gheorghiu and Dmitri Hvorostovsky.


The release by the BFI on DVD and Blu-Ray of Barney Platts-Mills's 1971 film Private Road, starring Bruce Robinson (who later wrote Withnail and I). I first saw this in about 1987 on TV and I've been wanting to see it again ever since. Even better than I thought.


Gruff Rhys's Hotel Shampoo was my favourite album of the year; Cashier No 9 was not given the recognition it deserved. Enjoyed Kate Bush, Tinie Tempah, Noel Gallagher and Will Young's offerings, but very disappointed with Coldplay. Adele: lovely voice but too many songs sound the same on her album.

Still, it wasn't all bad: the end of Westlife and hopefully the beginning of the end for X Factor.


Right Here Right Now; Format international photography festival in Derby. Thousands of photographers took part from all over the world, including Joel Meyerowitz and Bruce Gilden. An exciting and eclectic mix showing the best in street photography.


Best resurrection: Rab C Nesbitt. Comedy of the year for me. Now that the Tories are back in, he seems to have found his mojo again.


Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery. I think the major problem with this absurdly hyped show is that, apart from the two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks and the unfinished St Jerome, the other six "Leonardo" paintings on display are either too unattractively gauche, stiff and mannered to be considered good or significant. Or they're too implausibly naturalistic to be an autograph work (La Belle Ferronière is too lifelike to be by Leonardo). Or just too plain weird and damaged to take seriously (step forward, the newly discovered Salvator Mundi).

Thank you, Adrian Searle, for having the integrity to give your honest opinion about this insanely promoted but hugely disappointing show.


The High Country, an album by Portland band Richmond Fontaine, demands your attention from first song to last. It's one of the only albums that will give you the same sense of satisfaction that finishing a novel does.


Bridesmaids was a great and genuinely funny film. Comedies (and female comedians) are too frequently dismissed, especially by the Oscars board.


British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet in Plymouth. It was good to see [Christian Marclay's] The Clock and Sarah Lucas's work up close and personal. At least there is an emphasis on craft skills in video art: good focus, framing and timing are back in fashion.


Nicola Roberts, the good one from Girls Aloud. In her album Cinderella's Eyes she lays out her inner demons and anguish on a platter of sumptuous dance pop hooks and beats. The album is so simple that my two-year-old can sing along, and layered enough that we slightly elder statesmen can appreciate it as well.


In no particular order: Sufjan Stevens live at Southbank: ambitious, experimental, joyous, exciting, sad. Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle: the sixth episode, Democracy, was quite simply awesome. Senna is my film pick: made in 2010, but didn't get released on these shores until 2011. Wonderfully moving.


Propeller's Comedy of Errors was riotous. I mean, how often does a naked grown man run past you with a sparkler wedged into his buttocks?


Archipelago is the worst film I have ever seen in 50-odd years of cinema-going. How Peter Bradshaw and Philip French can find a single redeeming quality in this dreadful two-hour river of bathetic, emotionless, drama-free drivel baffles me.


I loved Attack the Block. I got mugged the week before it was released and actually found watching it quite cathartic. I was rooting for the little shits by the end. That's good screenwriting.


A really disappointing year for British TV, which has been on a downward slide. Doctor Who was probably still the best thing domestically. The Crimson Petal and the White and The Hour were underwhelming misfires; The Shadow Line was about the only really promising new kid on the block.

The basic problem is that there's just not enough TV drama being produced. We need more one-offs, more Plays for Today to allow TV to find new voices and take more chances. Everything seems to be market-researched and focus-grouped into mediocrity.


We went to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park this summer and were blown away by the incredible Jaume Plensa exhibition; the alabaster heads took my breath away. Beautiful, mesmerising and enchanting.


Memorable plays: Flare Path, Frankenstein (Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature was brilliant), and Much Ado at the Globe (Eve Best and Charles Edwards were good enough to almost match my memories of Janet McTeer and Mark Rylance as Beatrice and Benedick).

Damper squibs were Chicken Soup with Barley (far too long). Conor Macpherson's The Veil at the National started brilliantly but didn't deliver the beautiful, haunting, elegiac power of The Weir – a great shame.


There were aspects of Grayson Perry's Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman that drove me round the bend. But he wrote well about his theme and chose some absolutely lovely objects from the British Museum's collection.


85A collective from Glasgow's brilliant mechanical opera Idimov and the Dancing Girl at the Secret Garden Party. Spooky, funny, ingenious.


The Tree of Life: a vast expansive film with multiple interpretations, and little in the way of film convention for the casual viewer to latch on to. Viewers fall into two camps I think: those who want simply to be entertained and led, and those who want to explore and participate. Tree of Life is about participation.


I just couldn't get The Tree of Life. I tried. I wanted to like it. Admittedly I was on a Singapore Airlines flight, which is not the ideal way to appreciate its cinematic beauty.


The Tree of Life is quite possibly the most overrated movie of all time. The sheer brilliance of every single actor isn't in dispute, nor is the superb cinematography. The movie itself is the problem, because it's a real clunker. It's also one of the few films I've seen at the cinema where people were either (vociferously) walking out in disgust or staying behind just to boo.


The [designs for the] new US Embassy in London. I realise these buildings have to be more fortresses than offices, but really. I'm disappointed that such an important new commission isn't going to be more iconic. Especially since I live opposite the site.


Possibly the biggest disappointment was the final track on Bon Iver's second album: it never fails to surprise me with just how cheesy and plain bad it is.


Some of my favourite moments have been in otherwise unremarkable shows. I was slowly won over by Susan Hiller at Tate Modern, and Nancy Spero's works Azur and Hours of the Night II [at the Serpentine] were so incredible I forgot all the meh stuff that surrounded them. The only exhibition I have been unreservedly knocked over by was Mike Nelson's Coral Reef at Tate Britain – an old piece so I'm not sure it counts. Not a superlative year; let's hope 2012 is better and isn't overwhelmed by a spurious Cultural Olympiad. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 18 2010

Cosplay: the sincerest form of flattery

Dressing as one's favourite character is not mere imitation – cosplayers often subvert the artwork's gender and add meaning

Walking down the hallways of conventions such as San Diego Comic-Con, fans can admire their favourite characters from video games, anime, TV shows or comic books come to life. Cosplayers, who dress up as various characters, concepts, or even inanimate objects are a huge draw to these conventions. They show off their handiwork, have their photos taken and do roleplay. What motivates these fans to don costumes, wigs and makeup varies from person to person, but one trend emerges: cosplay offers a uniquely public way to respond to published artwork and fan communities simultaneously.

For the uninitiated, the term cosplay is a combination of costuming and roleplay, a practice that originated in Japanese fan cultures. In the UK and US, however, the roleplay aspect has become less vital. What does seem to matter is where a cosplayer gets their inspiration. Many of the cosplayers I have spoken with define it similarly to Abby, from the US: "The important thing about cosplay is that it is derived from a specific work already in publication. A steampunk [Victorian sci-fi] outfit, for example, would be cosplay if it was based on a specific outfit in a Jules Verne novel, but not if you randomly throw steampunk accessories together."

Cosplay is never a purely original creative enterprise, but a reaction to an already published oeuvre. However, this does not mean that it is a brainless copy of other authors' creations. Quite the opposite. Every well-done cosplay is an individual work of art.

While most cosplayers do not usually believe their creations directly affect published texts, they do expect reactions to their character interpretations by fellow fans. Allison, an American cosplayer from Georgia, enjoys crossplaying (dressing as a character of the opposite gender), in part because "it's really satisfying when you play your part so well that an observer doesn't realise you're a crossplayer until you speak". Fans such as Allison challenge gender presentation in their fan communities, illustrating the fluidity of gender in the context of their subcultures.

Female cosplayers are often challenged by source texts that don't offer interesting, independent, or strong female characters, or make these characters minor. One solution is to crossplay, but some are unsatisfied by this option, preferring to change the gender of the source character. For female cosplayers, this activity is often referred to as "femme-ing" a character. Women who go this route choose a male character and interpret it as female. By doing so, they directly address and correct gender inequity in their chosen works of art.

A popular example of femme cosplay is the femme Doctor: female cosplayers choose a doctor from the Doctor Who series and interpret him as a woman (in contrast, female crossplayers would costume as the Doctor as a man.) This cosplay of a femme fourth Doctor (originally played by Tom Baker) and this one of a femme fifth Doctor (originally played by Peter Davison) both include skirts, but some femme cosplayers, like this femme ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), opt for trousers, while still maintaining the "femme" feel of the costume.

The blogger Nightsky in Doctors with dalek bumps: femme doctors, argues that the femme Doctor trend is a way for geek women to reclaim their femininity as legitimate, in a subculture that often denigrates all things "girly". She is absolutely right, but cosplaying as a femme Doctor also allows female fans to portray and play the role of the main protagonist: they remind us that female characters in Doctor Who are perpetually sidekicks.

That femme-ing is so popular in geek fan cultures marks the fact that, as a whole, these subcultures' original inspirations overwhelmingly favour hero-men over hero-women, and frequently cast women only in the limited roles of mother, lover or trusty friend. But not all cosplay is subversive: it mainly offers a space in which fans can appreciate, criticise and deconstruct what they love (some times all with the same costume).

• This article was requested by reader gembird in a You tell us thread © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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