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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…" © 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

February 12 2012

Passport to the planet

He has 'Give this man every assistance' written in his travel documents – and as the Guardian's architecture critic for 15 years Jonathan Glancey has travelled the world. In his final article for the paper, he reflects on the buildings that have stopped him in his tracks

Fifteen years is not a long time in architecture. It is the slowest as well as the most political of the arts. This much was clear when I joined the Guardian as its architecture and design correspondent, from the Independent, in 1997. I thought the Millennium Experience (the talk of the day) decidedly dimwitted and said so in no uncertain terms; it lacked a big idea and anything like the imagination of, say, the Great Exhibition of 1851, or the Festival of Britain in 1951.

For the macho New Labour government, newly in office and all football and testosterone, criticism of this cherished project was tantamount to sedition. They lashed out like angry cats; there were complaints from 10 Downing Street's press office about negative coverage of the Dome. Hard to believe then, much harder now. That year's London Model Engineer Exhibition was far more exciting; here was an enthusiastic celebration of the making of things, at a time when manufacturing was becoming increasingly looked down on.

New Labour, meanwhile, promised it would do things for architecture and urban design that Roman emperors and Renaissance princes could only have dreamed of. The north Greenwich peninsula was to become a new Florence, with trams and affordable housing. As would the Thames Gateway, that Siberia stretching – marshy, mysterious, semi-industrial – to Southend Pier and the sea. To a new, fast-breeding generation of quangocrats this land looked like a blank space on the London A-Z, ready to fill with "environmentally friendly" development. Precious little has happened there since, save for some below-standard housing, Boris Johnson's proposal for an estuary airport and – a very good thing – an RSPB visitors' centre designed by Van Heyningen and Haward near Purfleet on the Rainham marshes.

Labour's promises turned out to be largely tosh, of course. Architecture and urban planning are usually best when neither hyped nor hurried. Grand plans grow best over time, as serendipity and common sense soften hard edges. In 2002, Tony Blair decided to invade Iraq – not a decision that, on the face of it, has a lot to do with architecture; but one of the articles I am most proud to have written for this paper was the story of a journey I made from one end of Iraq to the other, with Stuart Freedman, an unflappable press photographer. At the time, the Blair government was denying there would be a war, yet every Iraqi we spoke to knew the bombs were about to fall. It was my credentials as a critic and architectural historian that got me my Iraqi visa. Foreign correspondents, including several I met in Baghdad's al-Rashid hotel, were understandably finding the terrain hard-going. But handwritten in my passport was an instruction saying: "Give this man every assistance."

We travelled to Babylon to see Saddam's reconstruction of the fabled walled city, and to Ur, Abraham's home, and its daunting ziggurat and then – wonder of wonders – into the forbidden southern deserts to Eridu. Here I walked on the sand-covered remains of one of the world's first cities. This, if anywhere, is where architecture was born. At Samarra, in northern Iraq, I climbed to the top of the wondrous spiral minaret of what was once the town's Great Mosque. How the sun shone that day. When I got to the top, there was nothing to hang on to. I was confronted by the blazing blue sky and its gods, or God; the architecture itself was all but invisible. Saddam's soldiers, charming recruits in starched and frayed uniforms drilled by a tough and paternal sergeant, led me through the country, through miles of unexploded war material piled high along sandy tracks, and across the paths of Shia militia.

Ten years on, Zaha Hadid, a Baghdad-born architect who has risen to stellar prominence since 2002, has won her first Iraqi commission, a new headquarters for the Iraqi National Bank in Baghdad. With luck, other inspired architects will get to work in Iraq, too, reconnecting the country with its former role as a crucible of great buildings and memorable cities.

Architecture is also the stuff of construction, engineering, maths and science. Of philosophy, sociology, Le Corbusier and who knows what else. It is also, I can't help feeling, harder to create great buildings now than it was in the past. When Eridu or the palaces and piazzas of Renaissance Italy were shaped, architecture was the most expensive and prestigious of all cultural endeavours. Today we spread our wealth more thinly, spending ever more on disposable consumer junk, building more roads to serve ever more grim private housing estates, unsustainable supermarkets and distribution depots (and container ports and their giant ships), and the landfill sites we appear to need to shore up our insatiable, throwaway culture. Architecture has been in danger, like our indefensibly mean and horrid modern housing, of becoming little more than a commodity. Government talk of building a rash of "eco-towns" proved not just unpopular but more hot air. A policy initiative too far, the idea has effectively been dropped.

And, yet, despite all these challenges, the art form survives and even thrives. I have been moved in different ways by the magnificent Neues Museum, Berlin, a 10-year project led by David Chipperfield; by the elemental European Southern Observatory Hotel by Auer + Weber, for scientists in Chile's Atacama Desert; and by Charles Barclay's timber Kielder Observatory, where I spent a night in 2008 watching stars hanging above the Northumbrian forest.

I have been enchanted by the 2002 Serpentine Pavilion, a glimpse into a possible future by Toyo Ito and Cecil Balmond; by the inspiring reinvention of St Pancras station by Alastair Lansley and fellow architects; and by Blur, a truly sensational pavilion by Diller + Scofidio set on a steel jetty overlooking Lake Neuchatel at Yverdon-les-Bains. A part of Switzerland's Expo 2002, this cat's cradle of tensile steel was a machine for making clouds. You walked through the clouds as they appeared and, when conditions were right, watched them float away over the lake.

There have been buildings and structures that have stopped me in my tracks because of their beauty or audacity, and sometimes both. I think of watching the Eiffel Tower-high pylons of Le Viaduc de Millau, by Michel Virlogeux and Norman Foster, a cable-stayed bridge carrying the A75 autoroute across the Tarn Valley, rising through morning clouds. Foster's restaurant and bar at the top of 30 St Mary Axe, or the Gherkin, in the City of London, which also opened in 2004, resembles the nose-cone of some fabulous airship; it is one of the most spectacular of all modern rooms.

I visited the Beijing National Stadium, the Bird's Nest by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei, on a day of relentless rain; it was worth getting drenched to see this dazzling interplay of art, architecture and engineering. As for the Burj Dubai, now the world's tallest building, its design, height and ambition reminded me of the Tower of Babel (as well as the minaret at Samarra; the structure nods at its shape). Architects have reached for the sky since the first temple rose from where sand and sea met. Soon after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, I was asked to write a 2,000 word article on whether or not the skyscraper had a future, and could have answered in a single word: yes. Skyscrapers are symbols of economic energy and political self-worth; they will continue to shoot up whenever and wherever a city, a state or an economy has something to shout about.

Architecture remains, rightly, the stuff of heated and passionate debate. It is the backdrop to most of our lives, as well as the stage on which those lives play out. Politicians come and go. Technology advances. Architecture endures. As I leave the Guardian, there is still so much to write about.

Have things improved since I started here, in 1997? It is too short a time span to tell. Good architecture is still being created, but not – as in 1997 – when hype sets and drives the agenda. Then, what mattered most were very glamorous and noisy projects. Some have proved hugely popular, such as Herzog & de Meuron's transformation of the former Bankside Power Station into Tate Modern. The completion of the Jubilee Line extension of the London Underground, with its fine new stations supervised by Transport for London's architect Roland Paoletti, was a shining example of what the public sector could still achieve in a time of rampant privatisation.

But what really matters today is the creation of good homes for millions of people, and the nurturing of towns and cities that are lovable yet distinct from one another. This means turning the shiny, gimcrack world posited by New Labour on its head. It's time to aim for a world of intelligent, crafted architecture – one that projects a sense of true worth – and to leave the era of limitless aspiration behind. © 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

November 29 2011

Architecting the Future: Buckminster Fuller & Lord Norman Foster / Design District, Miami

The Design Miami satellite exhibition Architecting the Future: Buckminster Fuller & Lord Norman Foster in Miami’s Design District is dedicated to two iconic inventions by architect, designer and inventor Buckminster Fuller: the Fly’s Eye Dome and the Dymaxion 4 car.

In 1961, the Fly’s Eye Dome was envisioned by Fuller as a fully functional, air deployable, low cost off-the-grid shelter. Though never fully realized in his lifetime, Fuller created three prototypes – a 12, 24 and 50 foot dome. A historic restoration of the 24 foot dome was recently completed in Bristol, RI.

Also on display is Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion car. This ‘omni-directional transport system’ (patent 1937) was intended to fly, jump-jet style, when suitable alloys and engines became available. Three cars were produced in Fuller’s lifetime. Renowned contemporary architect Lord Norman Foster recently reconstructed Fuller’s Dymaxion Car in England – Dymaxion 4.

The 24 foot dome is a part of the Craig Robins Collection. It will be installed in a pedestrian plaza currently being developed in the heart of the Miami Design District.

Architecting the Future: Buckminster Fuller & Lord Norman Foster. Design District, Miami. Press reception, November 28, 2011.

PS: For a concept similar to Buckminster Fuller’s Fly’s Eye Dome, click here: Matti Suuronen’s Futuro – House of the Future.

> Right-click (Mac: ctrl-click) this link to download Quicktime video file.

October 25 2011

Urbanized: a documentary about city design in the nick of time

As the global population teeters on 7 billion, Gary Hustwit's film portrays the world's exploding number of city dwellers as the solution rather than the problem

A series of familiar images unfolds on the screen: a wall of glass towers, a Brazilian favela, the Shibuya pedestrian crossing in Tokyo. Visual shorthand for a crowded planet, they are accompanied by an equally familiar sequence of statistics: half of humanity – or 3.5 billion people – now live in cities, and urbanisation is so rampant that by 2050 this figure is projected to be 75%. So begins Urbanized, a new film about the challenge that cities pose in the 21st century, which had its London debut this weekend, playing to a packed house at the London School of Economics. It is directed by Gary Hustwit, who made the cult hit Helvetica in 2007 (an unlikely film about a Swiss typeface) before taking on the much broader topic of industrial design in 2009's Objectified. With Urbanized, he zooms out even further to complete his trilogy, a cinematic story about design moving from the micro to the macro.

With each leap in scale, Hustwit risks pointing his camera at a topic so big he ends up saying nothing at all. Yet Urbanized is a brave and timely movie that manages to strike almost exactly the right tone. For a sense of the scale of the urban problem, simply look at Mumbai, a city of 12 million people that is set to be the world's biggest by 2050. Already, 60% of its population lives in slums with such poor sanitation that there is only one toilet seat for every 600 people. The municipality is reluctant to build toilets for fear that it will encourage more migrants to come. "As if people come to shit," retorts the activist Sheela Patel in the movie. Quite. Most people come to work. Cities are basins of opportunity, and their citizens drive national economies. It is peculiar, then, how poorly cities reward their citizens for that contribution.

The film takes a clear line on what makes a city habitable. Why is Brasilia, for all its drama, inhospitable? Because it was designed with a bird's-eye view that left the poor mugs on the ground hiking across town beside a highway. The movie illustrates the catastrophe of designing cities for cars rather than people with the battle between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses – the saintly advocate of Greenwich Village's street life and the panto-villain masterplanner who scarred New York with his highways. These days the Big Apple is starting to atone for Moses's sins with public spaces such as the High Line. This new elevated promenade doesn't make up for the growing inequality that is turning Manhattan into an island for the rich, but it is a noble case of the city giving something back to its citizens.

Even more impressive is the way the former mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa, changed the dynamic of the Colombian capital by creating a network of cycle lanes and a public bus service. In a city known for its crippling traffic, it is now the poorest – those without cars – who move the fastest. As Peñalosa points out, showboating on a mountain bike as he overtakes a car squishing through the mud: this is democracy in action. Only by prioritising pedestrians have cities rediscovered their vibrant centres. In the 1980s, by contrast, cities were hollowing out as the middle classes fled to the suburbs. Here the camera pans the suburban sprawl of Phoenix, all identical houses and driveways, as land use attorney Grady Gammage epitomises the selfishness of the American dream with the words "I like the way I live". Nowhere has that dream gone more wrong than in Detroit. The most powerful scene in the movie is an eerie train ride through the deserted city, now depopulated thanks to its dying car industry.

There we have the full spectrum of the problem: some cities are bursting at the seams while others are becoming ghost towns. Who has the answer? Is it Norman Foster with his Masdar eco-city in Abu Dhabi? Is it Rem Koolhaas with his behemoth of a headquarters for Chinese state television in Beijing? To its credit, the film is unequivocal that architects – especially starchitects – are not the solution. What happened when Brad Pitt rallied a group of well-meaning architect friends to help rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina? The city got an odd assortment of houses that look like they were parachuted in from Malibu sitting amid a sea of devastation. Not all that effective.

If there is a new orthodoxy in urban design, it is citizen participation. And Urbanized revels in this so-called "bottom up" approach. It depicts several cases of community engagement, from an energy measurement scheme in Brighton to a new pedestrian area in the South African township of Khayelitsha. It devotes a good chunk of time to the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, whose system of half-houses that residents complete themselves is often cited as a paragon of "participatory design". The idea is that citizens, not god-like architects and planners, are the solution to the urban question. And Hustwit knows just how effective people power can be: his movie was partly paid for through the crowd-funding site Kickstarter.

This aspect of the movie is very much in tune with the zeitgeist. 2011 is the year of people power after all, the year when across the world, from Tahrir Square to the streets of Santiago to Wall Street, citizens have been making themselves heard. Indeed, there are several protests featured in the film. The message is undoubtedly a positive one, and the focus on small-scale, tangible solutions is at pains to be uplifting. The only caveat is that at times this borders on the naive. Watching people plant community gardens in the abandoned lots of Detroit, or plaster New Orleans with stickers that let citizens have their say, creates a cosy feel-good factor, but the problem is scale. On one hand, favelas and shanty towns are emblematic of the tremendous capacity of people to look after themselves. But no amount of self-organisation is going to introduce running water and sewage to the favelas. That kind of infrastructure requires politicians, not just residents.

Perhaps that's where a film such as Urbanized can be useful. Undoubtedly there are limits to what can be said about cities in a one-and-a-half-hour documentary – for instance, maybe this notion that 75% of us will live in cities by 2050 is bogus, and that as the global economy falters so will urbanisation. But this is not the purview of films like Urbanized. Whatever the drawbacks of a mass medium when it comes to nuance, it is redeemed by its ability to reach a mass audience. The more people who see this movie the better. And the more politicians who see it – and are persuaded to look beyond the vested interests in front of them – the more powerful a tool Urbanized will be. © 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

October 21 2011

Architecture blasts off into space

Richard Branson reaches for the stars and Zaha Hadid goes down the toilet

Our dreams of blasting off for a lunar mini-break took another small step towards reality this week (even if the advent of space tourism has been announced and postponed about every six months since, ooh, 1961). In a blaze of publicity that was probably visible from Jupiter, Richard Branson held a "dedication ceremony" for the Virgin Galactic Spaceport, the world's first purpose-built space-tourism launch facility, in the New Mexico desert.

After abseiling down the glass facade spraying champagne, Branson admitted commercial flights were still more than a year away, but guests could at least marvel at the building, designed by Norman Foster in association with local firms URS and SMPC Architects.

The no-frills terminal looks something like the prow of the Starship Enterprise emerging from the desert sands, though the guiding principles were less to do with science fiction than environmental impact. By being half-buried, the terminal blends into the landscape more, and the subterranean section contains 100-metre-long tubes to passively cool air for the building. Recycled materials were used where possible and everything was sourced within a 500-mile radius of the site, Foster says.

How much this will offset the whopping carbon footprint of space tourism remains to be seen. But what architect would pass up the chance to design a building requiring "astronaut changing rooms"?

Back on earth, in a small London gallery, a new exhibition has opened showing the work of Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, called The Abolition of War. This industrial designer turned art provocateur regularly engages with architecture and the city in ingenious, sometimes hilarious ways. He literally brings buildings to life by projecting eyes, ears, hands and other features on to their facades, but there's always a political point. In 1985, for example, he fooled London authorities into allowing him to project images of Pershing missiles on to Nelson's Column and tank tracks on the surrounding lions (he had been given permission to project hands); then, for good measure, he directed a swastika at the South African embassy.

Wodiczko also designed mobile shelters for homeless people (which look like live-in shopping trolleys or props from Doctor Who), and repurposed military vehicles as anti-war propaganda machines, one of which is in the exhibition: War Veteran Vehicle, a Land Rover that projects statements ("Have killed") from British Iraq and Afghanistan veterans on to surfaces, to the sound of cannon fire. Among his more ambitious projects is a fabulous World Institute for the Abolition of War which, he proposes, would be built over and around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Anyone want to buy a museum? Now that the Design Museum is moving to the Commonwealth Institute, with a new fit-out by Rem Koolhaas, its old Thameside building is surplus to requirements, and on the market. It was converted from a 1950s banana warehouse in 1989 and remains a crisp, white modernist presence on the waterfront, ripe for another incarnation. But what should we do with it now? Anyone with a bright idea and a few million quid to spare should contact global estate agents Cushman & Wakefield.

Further proof that Britain has finally learned to love Zaha Hadid: the opening of a new gallery designed by her. This is Hadid's third building in England, following the pool (the London 2012 Aquatic Centre) and the school (the Evelyn Grace Academy, which won the Stirling prize earlier this month). But Roca London Gallery, in Chelsea Harbour, doesn't actually display art; it's, er, a bathroom showroom. Not that you'd guess it from the promotional video.

As showrooms go, it's admittedly outstanding. Zaha's fluid curves fit right in with the watery theme, and the ground-floor space is reminiscent of a riverbed. A smooth, canyon-like corridor winds through irregular spaces with curvy openings, and globules of lighting hang overhead like water droplets. There's barely a straight line in the place, and the palette of pale concrete, glass and white fittings is fittingly futuristic.

When Richard Branson finally gets round to building that lunar hotel, he should give Hadid a call. She could at least help him source a space-age bidet. © 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 12 2011

Constructive criticism: the week in architecture

A first glimpse of the soaring new concourse at King's Cross, Norman Foster defects to China, and architects wonder if they are to blame for the UK riots

In a week dominated by images of buildings burning to the ground, there have been at least a few people out there still building the things. The press was granted a preview of King's Cross station's new concourse, ahead of its opening in time for the Olympics next year. Designed by architect John McAslan, it is a majestically conceived space which stands alongside the Grade 1-listed sheds and replaces the cramped and grotty 1960s extension that currently serves as the station's entrance. We will have to wait until after the Games to see it demolished, at which point the ground it occupies is set to be given over to a new public square.

Its steel diagrid roof design owes more than a small debt to the one with which Norman Foster enclosed the British Museum's Great Court a decade ago. Since then, Foster's practice has grown at an extraordinary rate. That growth has been fuelled by its pursuit of work in emerging economies, particularly China. It established a team in Beijing in 2003, having won the competition for the city's new airport. This week, Foster revealed that he is planning to consolidate his presence there by building his own office on a site neighbouring the Ai Weiwei-designed Three Shadows Photography Art Centre. Talking to Building Design magazine, Foster explained: "It will in part be public, in the sense that it will have galleries, it will have a cafe. It will host exhibitions by young artists and architects in China. It will have an apartment for an artist in residence. It will also be a centre for ourselves. It will have all the facilities for designers. We'll have workshops and model shops."

Another British architect who has been pursuing work in China is Will Alsop, architect of the Stirling prize-winning Peckham library, and rather less happily of West Bromwich's widely reviled digital arts centre, the Public. Alsop was in China this week when news broke that he had escaped the clutches of his employers for the past two years – the Edinburgh-based mega-practice RMJM – and set up a new partnership. This, it has to be said, came as no surprise. Thirty years ago, Alsop set up a practice called Alsop & Lyall before jumping ship to Alsop & Stormer, which became Alsop Architects, before financial calamity prompted a string of relationships with dead-eyed multinationals – SMC Alsop Architects, Alsop Sparch and finally Will Alsop at RMJM. An exuberant painter, Alsop presents himself as the artist/architect par excellence. But as his peripatetic history suggests, business management skills aren't necessarily part of the package.

Rather inevitably, discussion among the architectural community this week has focused on the UK riots and the question of whether the cities we have been building have contributed to social breakdown. The past two decades have seen an extraordinary revival of urban centres, after years of post-industrial decline. In the early 1990s, Manchester city centre was home to a mere 90 people. Today, that figure stands in excess of 25,000 – a story echoed in scarcely less dramatic form in urban centres across the country. The events of the past week have made painfully clear that the fruits of this urban renaissance haven't been extended to all. The fear is that many cities' efforts at regeneration may have exacerbated social divisions.

So what now? A particularly incisive commentary on the relationship between social unrest and urban transformation was provided this week by the Dutch architectural historian Wouter Vanstiphout, who is currently researching a book on the subject. His description of the wholly misguided response by the French government to the 2005 riots in the banlieues should be essential reading for UK politicians. He writes: "It is much too soon to say anything about the relationship between the gentrification of Brixton, or the coming of the Olympics to London, and the current explosion of violent alienation. But if we imagine another kind of urban politics, one that does not take into account a marketable image of the city, but the reality of the entire community, it would probably have entirely different priorities." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 20 2011

Pringle power? The Stirling prize shortlist

The six architects on the Stirling prize shortlist 2011 have all been there before. But could a political dark horse say 'on your bike' to the bookies' Olympic favourite?

It's never worthwhile to reduce the Stirling prize shortlist to some overriding theme, but having said that, there is one thing that unites this year's six architects: they've all been shortlisted before. Some of them several times – this is Zaha Hadid's fourth building, and David Chipperfield's seventh, which puts him in joint second place in the Stirling prize league table alongside Richard Rogers, with Norman Foster just one ahead. Does this suggest there were clear frontrunners in the Stirling race, or that a big name counts for more and smaller practices don't get a look-in?

Anyway, on with the reckless speculation. The traditional Stirling winner is a large public building, but in the current cash-strapped construction environment, there have been few of these to trumpet.

Which makes the absence of two of the main buildings on the London Olympics site conspicuous. No plaudits for the main stadium by US-based architects Populous – understandable in a way since its brief was practically to be as bog standard as possible – at which it succeeds (having a silly name for your practice doesn't help either).

And nothing for Zaha Hadid's Aquatics Centre – also understandable given its troubled history of redesigns, budget increases, temporary "water wings" imposed on it, and the fact that, er, it still isn't finished.

That leaves Michael Hopkins's Velodrome with the podium all to itself. As expected, it's currently the bookies' favourite and deservedly so. It's a handsome, unfussy building, quietly distinctive (enough to earn it a nickname: "the Pringle") and engineered as efficiently as a track bicycle. It's already had the thumbs-up from the Team GB cyclists, too, who described it as "the best in the world".

Looking at the other contenders, laudable though they are, they're not necessarily game-changing. AHMM's Angel Building reconfigures a 1980s office building with Louis Kahn-style barefaced concrete and a sheen of Mad Men mid-century glamour – very nice but perhaps too conventional to win. Bennetts Associates' Royal Shakespeare Theatre makes new sense of a messy accumulation of older buildings, but it's not a scene-stealer like the Tate Modern. Zaha's Evelyn Grace Academy is a consolation for the Aquatics Centre, and proof that her swooshing parametricism can work within tight budgets and design guidelines (is that Z-shape a touch of covert branding?). The fact that Zaha won the prize last year could hamper her chances, though. Likewise David Chipperfield's Museum Folkwang extension in Essen, another refined, sharp-edged German culture house for his collection.

Chipperfield already won with one of these in 2007, the Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach, and was shortlisted for another, the Neues Museum, last year. Perhaps he should design a Museum of German Museum Designs.

That leaves a dark horse: An Gaeláras by Dublin-based O'Donnell & Tuomey in Derry, Northern Ireland. It is the first purpose-built Irish-language cultural centre in the UK, a product of the Good Friday agreement, and thus freighted with political relevance (there hasn't been much of that in Stirling world since the Scottish parliament won in 2005). But it's also a beautiful design on a hostile site. Despite being walled in on three sides, it boasts a sculptural four-storey atrium criss-crossed by stairs and galleries, smartly mixing colours and materials – the type of space that stops you in your tracks. Uplifting and finely crafted, it could well tick all the boxes. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 15 2011

The week in architecture

Yuri Gagarin touches down in Britain, the Gherkin paternity battle finally ends, and typhoons strike Zaha Hadid's Guangzhou Opera House

Made from an alloy used in rockets, a statue of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, was unveiled outside the British Council in London this week. Elena Gagarina, daughter of the Russian cosmonaut, did the honours. The casting of the sculpture, a recreation of an original made in 1984, was supervised by the architect Pavel Medvedev, whose statue of Laika the space dog, the first animal to orbit Earth, was erected in Moscow three years ago. Laika died up there.

The Gagarin sculpture is not just a memorial to a brave pioneer. It is also a reminder of a fabulous idea – the notion that space-race technology, both Soviet and American, would transform buildings, everyday goods and machinery, and ways of life. However, although Gagarin's 1961 leap into the unknown did advance design, hopes for a space-age future were nothing new. Science-fiction books, comics and films predate rocket flight, after all.

The space-age look found its way into Soviet buildings of the 1960s and 70s. Meanwhile, much of Britain's futuristic architecture of recent years – the "high-tech " movement championed by Norman Foster and Richard Rogers – has been underpinned by a delight in the sort of space-age design that surfaced when Gagarin made world headlines 50 years ago. Foster's 2004 "Gherkin" is a very modern building that also just happens to look like an old-fashioned space rocket.

Arguments over the authorship of the Gherkin appear to have come an end this week with Ken Shuttleworth of Make architects insisting it was a team effort. In countless articles since 2003, when Shuttleworth left Foster and Partners to set up his own practice, he's been credited as the designer of the London tower. "It's the desire for a figurehead or a single name attached to an individual building that still causes problems," says a spokesperson for Foster and Partners. "Norman has always insisted that his greatest creation is the team around him, and the Gherkin was – once and for all – very definitely designed by a team." Got that everyone?

The idea of a "future memory" in architecture, so dear to Foster, is to be debated in a specially commissioned pavilion for the 2011 Singapore ArchiFest in October. Asif Khan, a young London architect whose work also includes craft, furniture and product design, has been commissioned to create the Future Memory Pavilion on behalf of the British Council, in partnership with the Royal Academy of Arts and the Preservation of Monuments Board, Singapore.

Khan's sketch reveals an elemental design made of ice and sand that will morph during the course of the festival. It captures the spirit of a fascinating line of architectural enquiry, and a contradiction inherent to futuristic design: no matter how apparently innovative they are, buildings retain powerful memories of past. Even as architects try to construct the future, it slips away and becomes the past – just as Khan's pavilion will slowly dissolve back into the Earth and a state of timelessness.

Zaha Hadid's futuristic buildings, such as the flamboyant new Guangzhou Opera House, are as informed by her love of 1920s Russian constructivism as they are with the future. Sadly, the opera house has been in the news this week because of reports that it's already heading the way of Khan's pavilion and falling to bits.

Simon Yu, project architect of the opera house, called me from China. "I've just been to inspect the building. It's typhoon season and its been pouring with rain, but rain isn't 'seeping relentlessly into the building' as has been reported. Glass panels haven't fallen from windows and no large cracks have appeared. I'm not sure what all this is about. Yes, there's still a lot of snagging to be done; we've demanded a high standard of work from what is often seasonal labour, but the flaws are superficial."

Gas holders, meanwhile, were among the most futuristic structures of the 19th century. If the Victorians had invented space rockets, they would have lifted off from structures like these. Some of the most elegant, including Hornsey No 1 in London (described by English Heritage as "probably the world's first geodesic design"), remain under threat. "This is not just any gas holder," says Heloise Brown, conservation adviser for the Victorian Society. "Hornsey No 1 will soon be the last surviving example of a highly innovative design and it must not be lost." Sadly this particular gas holder, designed by Samuel Cutler, is not listed and may be demolished soon.

Gas, in the form of air, will be used to inflate the giant bags that will hopefully save the stepped pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, near Cairo, from collapse. Cintec, the international engineering firm based in Newport, Wales, has revealed a plan to prop up the central chamber with inflated bags and anchors. Damaged by an earthquake in 1992, this 4,700-year-old structure is the world's first large-scale stone monument. Its revolutionary design was the work of the very first architect we know by name, Imhotep. Because of his visionary work, Imhotep took one giant leap way before Gagarin: he became a god. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 12 2011

Lloyd's listed: will it make the Grade?

The Lloyd's of London building may be awarded Grade I status by English Heritage – an honour this modern marvel deserves

Over the years it's been likened to an oil refinery, a North Sea oil rig and part of the set design of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. But 25 years after it was built, the inside-out structure of the Lloyd's building in the City of London still comes as a shock.

If you have never been inside this hi-tech wonder of the modern world, you will either have to become a member of the venerable insurance marketplace the building serves, or else wait for the next London Open House weekend hoping that the doors of this Richard Rogers tour de force will be thrown open to the public.

At once the most private and the most prominent modern building in central London, Lloyd's may well be listed this month. A report being prepared by English Heritage will soon be in the hands of Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary. It is expected to recommend Grade I status, an honour accorded to very few post-1945 buildings. These include Coventry Cathedral by Sir Basil Spence and Norman Foster's black glass Willis Faber building in Ipswich, completed in 1975 and listed in 1991.

Normally, a building has to be 30 years old before the government can consider listing, although if a building more than 10 years old is threatened with change (as the Foster design was) English Heritage can recommend instant listing.

"This was originally the case with Lloyd's," says Jon Wright of The Twentieth Century Society (who preserve architecture built since 1914) "when changes were threatened to the interior of the great atrium. The threat has since gone, but we've been pushing English Heritage to recommend listing because who knows what might happen to the building in the future, especially if Lloyd's was ever to move out?"

Assuming that listing will go ahead this month, Lloyd's will join the ranks of Britain's medieval cathedrals, its grandest country houses, most daunting castles and enduring museums. Does it live up to the mark? Yes, very much so. Commissioned in 1978, a year after the opening of the Pompidou centre in Paris – the building that made Richard Rogers and his co-architect, Renzo Piano, famous – Lloyd's was an unexpected, bespoke design for an organisation characterised by stuffed-shirted, pinstriped chaps.

Here is a building with glass lifts rising up its steely exterior. Here are stainless steel-clad service towers housing prefabricated kitchen and washroom modules lifted by cranes into place. Here is one of the most impressive of all 1980s atriums, soaring 60 metres up to a barrel-vaulted glass roof and criss-crossed by yellow-edged escalators. Even today, the mesmeric interior seems out of step with the apparently old-fashioned culture of Lloyd's.

Design shocks follow one another up the building. On the 11th floor, doors from the hi-tech interior open into a perfectly preserved and wholly unforeseen committee room designed by Robert Adam, dating from the 1770s. It reminds me of the final scene in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey when the astronaut, Dr David Bowman, lands – after his mind-bending journey through space – in a semblance of a Louis XVI hotel room: here hi-tech and classicism met face-to-incomprehending-face, just as they do in Lloyd's.

"Listing Lloyd's will be a good thing," says Wright, "although we shouldn't forget that the building was always meant to have been flexible in use, so somehow it has to be granted Grade I status without stopping all future change. That's difficult."

It does seem odd to witness so young and radical a building as Lloyd's joining the ranks of castles and cathedrals, yet this hi-tech interloper is a monument of our times. What's next on the list? Watch out for news of Norman Foster's Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts (1978). If you haven't been here, it might also come as something of a shock: where else will you find one of the finest collections of primitive art housed in a building that resembles the sleekest possible aircraft hangar? © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 17 2011

Constructive criticism

A week of high-flying British architecture with the launch of Apple's Norman Foster-designed headquarters, the revised Chelsea Barracks plan and an eyecatching east London folly

While everyone was salivating over the launch of Apple's iCloud last week, Steve Jobs's other product launch garnered less attention. This was Apple's colossal new headquarters building in Cupertino, California – a gigantic white UFO sitting in 150 acres of landscaped parkland, designed for 12,000 workers. For obvious reasons, it has already been dubbed the "mothership". Nor has its designer been widely publicised, but we can reveal it's good old Norman Foster – who else?

Foster's people wouldn't reveal any details, but there are some in this video of Jobs presenting the scheme to Cupertino City Council, where it was received just as rapturously as a new iPad. "We do have a shot at building the best office building in the world," Jobs tells the awestruck councillors. "I really do think architecture students will come here to see this."

So what about the design? Foster has obviously taken a leaf out of Apple's chief designer Jonathan Ive's book – sorry, iPad. It looks like the circular trackpad of a giant iPod. If you run around the building very quickly, does a giant playlist light up in the sky? Mind you, by the time it's finished in 2015, it could look out of date.

The purity of the four-storey doughnut's impact on the landscape is also slightly compromised, it emerges, by other buildings on the site, including a four-storey car park. But none of the councillors seem to raise any objections; they're too busy geeking out their celebrity guest. "The word spectacular would be an understatement," grovels one of them, Mr Smithers-style. Just to drive the point home, Jobs mentions that Apple is the largest taxpayer in Cupertino, and hints that if he doesn't get his way, Apple will take their business elsewhere. Presumably the whole building will be able to take off and land in New Mexico, or something.

More good news for Foster and other British architects at this year's spurious but intriguing Best Tall Building awards. Foster's 80-storey Dubai tower, known as The Index – an energy-efficient, Italian futurist-looking affair – won in the Middle East and Africa category. Wilkinson Eyre won the Asia award for their colossal but elegant Guangzhou International Finance Centre – all 103 storeys of it. And Anglo-German architects Sauerbruch Hutton won the Europe award for their tasteful, low-energy Frankfurt office building, KfW Westarkade. The other winner was Frank Gehry's stunning Eight Spruce Street, a shimmering, steel-clad skyscraper that looks better than anything we're likely to find on the nearby World Trade Centre site. Though it does go by the pretentious name New York by Gehry, which makes it sound uncomfortably like a perfume.

Richard Rogers probably wishes he'd had Apple-style planning meetings over the Chelsea Barracks redevelopment in London. Instead, his design was controversially rejected when Prince Charles threw a royal spanner in the works last year, complaining about that vulgar hi-techie stuff to the Qatari royals.

No surprise that the revised design for the £3bn scheme is expected to be approved by Westminster council today, although the Qatari developers are said to be trying to reduce the amount of affordable housing in the scheme. No surprise, either, that the new plan, by Squire and Partners, Dixon Jones and landscape architect Kim Wilkie, is considerably more "traditional", laid out around London squares. Whoever designs the actual buildings will have to adhere to a preordained design code, which insists they "work in sympathy with surrounding character areas and architectural types without resorting to pastiche". Apparently Prince Charles is pleased.

After all this high-flying power architecture, we finally come right down to earth – to a little spot underneath a motorway flyover in east London. Here, a delightful temporary structure is under construction called Folly for a Flyover, as part of this year's Create festival. As designers Assemble explain, it's almost a stage set of a building, with curtain walls of wooden "bricks" made from salvaged timber, hung from scaffolding and held in place by cords running through the bricks. The pitched roof of the folly will poke out between the two roadways, and next to it are steps that serve as an outdoor seating area.

Not only is the folly ingenious and low-impact, it poetically turns a patch of dead urban space into a living venue. As the romantic engraving suggests, it's intended to feel like a forgotten piece of architecture which existed long before they built the A12 over the top of it – a building with a fictional history. Assemble, a collective of young designers and artists, were also behind last year's Cineroleum, a temporary cinema in a disused petrol station in Clerkenwell. This serves a similar function: it'll be a bar/cafe during the day, and in the evening you'll be able to watch films and performances on city themes, while traffic rumbles overhead, the Olympic building site bustles nearby and barges chug past on the canal. Sounds like the quintessential London summer experience. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 16 2011

Saif Gaddafi: dictator's son who mingled with British high society

Libyan leader's second son, named as a war crimes suspect, built a network of powerful contacts in London

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, named as a war crimes suspect by the chief prosecutor at The Hague on Monday, was a magnetic presence for British politicians, bankers and business people who wanted to deal with oil-rich Libya but not with the international pariah his father had become.

He built powerful establishment links from university education and politics to high finance, architecture and publishing. The billionaire hedge fund investor Nat Rothschild, the Labour peer Lord Mandelson, and the architect Lord Foster were among his contacts, while Oxford University Press was going to publish his book, Manifesto, which called for civil society and participatory democracy in Libya. In it, Saif wrote: "I believe it is the duty of the people to rebel against tyranny." OUP cancelled publication in February "because of recent events in Libya".

To some who knew him in London he seemed more like an international playboy than the powerful son and likely heir to one of Africa's longest-standing dictatorships. Two years ago he moved into a £10m house complete with a suede-lined indoor cinema not far from an area of north London known as Billionaire's Row.

He would dine at China Tang, Sir David Tang's restaurant at the Dorchester hotel, and mix in a jet-set world of dinner at the Cipriani and drinks at Annabel's, according to Luca del Bono, an Anglo-Italian businessman who had dealings with Saif on plans, which never bore fruit, to take Italian fashion brands to Libya.

"He used to be quite social in London," Del Bono said. "If you went to the clubs he would be there. Last time I saw him he said he had just been to Downing Street. He was obviously connected."

The London School of Economics accepted a £1.5m donation from the Gaddafi international charity and development foundation chaired by Saif, of which the LSE said it had received £300,000.

The LSE, where Saif studied for a PhD gained in 2008 from the university's centre for the study of global governance, also agreed a £2.2m contract with the regime to train Libyan civil servants and professionals, of which £1.5m has been received. Lord Woolf, the former lord chief justice, is now investigating the deals, as well as the award from Gaddafi's charity of £22,857 to cover costs for academic speakers to travel to Libya. Prof David Held, an academic adviser to Saif at the LSE, was invited to join the board of the foundation but he later stepped down over concerns about a potential conflict of interest.

Anthony Giddens, a Labour peer and former director of the LSE, twice met Muammar Gaddafi on trips in 2006 and 2007 organised by Monitor Group, a US lobbying firm.

"The political class in this country have courted him," said Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski, chairman of the parliamentary all-party group on Libya. "Lord Mandelson and others have seen him as the main interlocutor with the Libyan regime. Saif has branded himself as the caring face of the Libyan regime and they have added to that branding.

"That was inaccurate and, as events have shown, the man was as gung ho as his father when it comes to suppressing the Libyan people. A lot of people who have supported him and interacted with him will have to explain themselves."

Rothschild is said to have been invited to Saif's 37th birthday party in Montenegro, and Saif has been to the Rothschild family villa in Corfu, once meeting Mandelson there while he was in government as business secretary.

"He has a close relationship with Nat Rothschild," said a Libyan source in London familiar with Saif, who asked not to be named. "I know about a dinner in early 2010 that was organised in New York in Saif's honour where Rothschild was one of the principal organisers.

"There must have been a dozen to 20 mainly American-Jewish business families. Saif spent the evening talking about what his father will and won't allow in Libya, the business opportunities in Libya and how they wanted to encourage influential business people to be involved."

A spokesman for Rothschild said there was no business relationship between the two men and said they knew each other socially.

The Libyan source said that one reason why Saif had so carefully cultivated his contacts in the UK was because he had persuaded his father to adopt a strategy for Libya that involved manufacturing the impression of a difference of opinion between them. Saif would be seen by the outside world as a reformer and his father could be seen to be taking a ceremonial role. "The truth is they were never intending to develop the country," the source said. "They were only interested in maintaining power, and the plan was to keep people poor."

Saif commissioned Foster to oversee the development of the Green Mountain area of Libya, in the north-east of the country. He also invited Robert Adam, one of Prince Charles's favourite architects, to attend the launch in 2007.

"This was supposed to be their entry into Mediterranean tourism, and they were buying global PR," Adam said. "They laid on a dinner, a tented hotel, flights in private jets, the works. I was paid for by the Libyan state. I knew this wasn't the nicest government but I didn't do any work for them. I turned up and looked at it rather cynically."

Foster spoke alongside Gaddafi and talked about the area's enormous promise. "This is one of the most beautiful and little-known landscapes on earth," he said. "We've been given a unique challenge: to establish a sustainable blueprint for future development which will be sensitive to the history of the Green Mountain and to its conservation."

Saif said: "We share a determination to build for our children a future full of opportunity and fulfilment and a dedication to the protection of their heritage."

Foster was also asked to draw up a masterplan for part of Tripoli. A spokeswoman for Lord Foster said "We are not going to comment."

Saif also hired British PR advisers. The firm Brown Lloyd James was retained to handle the management of Saif's reputation.

Peter Brown, one of the company's founding partners, is a friend of Mandelson. He was unavailable for comment.

"BLJ New York did provide some PR services to Libya but have not done so since 2009," said Oliver Lloyd, executive vice-president of BLJ in London. "The UK office has never had a contract with the Libyans or received any payments from the Libyan government or either Muammar or Saif Gaddafi."

Judges to decide

The international criminal court's chief prosecutor has asked a panel of ICC judges to approve his request for arrest warrants against Muammar Gaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam and his brother-in-law, Abdullah Senussi.

That panel will consider the application and can accept it, reject it, or ask for more evidence, a process that could take weeks or months.

If the arrest warrants are approved, there is no guarantee they will be enforced. The ICC has no police force of its own.

It has the option of asking the UN security council to empower others to carry out the arrests, but the prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, made it clear he would not be seeking the help of outsiders like Nato. Instead, he said it would be up to Libya  to hand over the suspects.

"My office has not requested the intervention of international forces to implement the arrest warrants. Should the court issue them and the three individuals remain in Libya, Libyan authorities have the primary responsibility to arrest them," he said.

A second batch of indictments is expected in September. Moreno-Ocampo indicated that this time allegations of mass rape will be looked into, as will attacks against immigrants by the Gaddafi regime's opponents.

Julian Borger © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 10 2011

Inside Masdar City: pods and all

The first phase of this zero-carbon Gulf city is up and running. But behind the futuristic facade of driverless pods, medieval streets twist and turn back the clock to traditional design

Masdar City is like a mirage: a walled city growing out of the desert sands in the emirate of Abu Dhabi. Yet it is real, and remarkably so; for this intriguing city not only exists but is also one of the most unexpected in the Gulf region or anywhere in the world. Behind those walls and wind towers is one of the world's first zero-carbon cities. I went to see it recently, just shortly before families from across Abu Dhabi turned up in their thousands for The Market @ Masdar City, the first one-day fair designed to showcase the architecture and planning of this brave attempt at shaping a truly sustainable city of the future.

Designed by Foster and Partners for the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company and set in the desert 17km from the skyscrapers of Abu Dhabi, Masdar is an intriguing experiment in urban design and living. The six square kilometre city – powered by solar energy and other renewable resources – is an attempt to show what kind of future might lie ahead for urban development in the Gulf now that the high-rise city of gas-guzzling towers, that has characterised the region in recent decades, has been increasingly discredited.

Although unlikely to be completed much before 2025, when 50,000 people are expected to live here, the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (the anchor of the first phase of the city) is up and running. Its buildings, streets and squares give a good idea of how Masdar will be.

Getting to the showcase streets of the new institute is an unusual experience. Arriving by road from Abu Dhabi – there will be a train in years to come – you swap your car for a ride in a Personal Rapid Transit pod, an experience that combines the cartoon aesthetic of The Jetsons with the comedy of Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle, the 1958 French satire that lampoons the excesses of an overdesigned futuristic world.

The driverless sci-fi pods bumble around the undercrofts of the first phase of Masdar City and it is a wonder that none of them bump into each other. But they move so slowly it may well be quicker to walk. The original idea was for these comic pods to criss-cross the entire city underground so that residents, commuters and visitors could reach any part of it without having to drive, and in the welcome shade. There would have been hundreds of pods. In the event, they have been seen as an all too complex way of getting about. Future phases of Masdar will be pod-free, although cars and lorries will be directed underground, leaving the streets above for pedestrians only.

Walking here is a pleasure. Streets and squares are shielded from the sun, desert winds, sandstorms and heat by thick-walled buildings that provide shade and funnel the breeze between them. Although modern in appearance, these streets and buildings are essentially old-fashioned. With its narrow alleys, deep shadows and wind towers, Masdar follows in the tried and tested footsteps of traditional Arabic towns, where keeping the sun at bay was both a science and an art practised over many generations.

Eventually, there will be homes, businesses, parks and mosques here and Masdar City will relax into its role as an urban sustainability frontrunner. At the moment, it can seem like a theme park aimed at attracting day-trippers, yet these are early days. Gradually, the Jetson-like novelty side of the city – especially those driverless pods – will take a back seat as Masdar matures. The true success of Masdar turns on the recognition that the very old ways of designing and building cities in hot climates are the ones that make most sense: thick walls and carefully directed breezes rather than pods and wind turbines. It's the determinedly ultra-modern aspects of Masdar that prove to be a mirage. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 16 2011

The 10 best tall buildings

The Observer's architecture critic Rowan Moore's choice of man's towering achievements - from the Chrysler building to CCTV in Beijing

March 07 2011

Norman Foster sets sights on West Kowloon

British architect's firm announced as masterplanners for waterfront site that will become a major hub for the arts

Norman Foster's magnificent HSBC HQ, which looks out from central Hong Kong to the shores of Kowloon, is one of the great buildings of the 20th century, a brilliantly crafted structure standing 180 metres tall. Costing £500m in 1986, the bank is also one of the most expensive buildings ever created.

Yet the HSBC building is now surrounded by enormous, brash neo-art deco skyscrapers erected in recent years; today, it seems almost toy-like in scale, demonstrating just how big, in every way, Hong Kong (and by extension China) has grown since the British handed back the former crown colony to Beijing in 1999.

But now Foster and his team are back in Hong Kong in a big way. It emerged this weekend that the firm has won a tightly contested international competition to masterplan the ambitious new West Kowloon cultural district, a 40-hectare site of reclaimed land on the Kowloon waterfront that will host no fewer than 17 major cultural venues, including an opera house (watch out, Guangzhou), a museum of modern art known as M+, a 15,000-seat arena and an art school. China is taking cultural development increasingly seriously, as if telling the world that while the country might be best known at the moment for manufacturing on an unprecedented scale, it believes in the arts, too.

The plans make allowance for 19 of the 40 hectares to be dedicated to parkland – much-needed in densely packed Hong Kong – and the entire area will be connected by a planted avenue stretching all the way west to Harbour Tunnel, the lifeline between the two major districts of the city. Traffic will go underground. Every effort will be made to ensure this is a showcase of "green" as well as eye-catching design. The scheme will also include housing and shops; it is meant as a proper, fully integrated piece of the city rather than a vast urban redevelopment project parachuted down on the hem of Hong Kong. As Foster says: "Hong Kong is a great city and this project captures what is important about its DNA: the civic spaces, the squares, the parks, the greenery, the avenues and the small side streets."

With more than 30 years' experience in Hong Kong – along with the HSBC headquarters, the practice also designed the city's Chek Lap Kok airport – Foster and Partners were always on fairly strong ground here, although the firm's earlier masterplan for a West Kowloon cultural district, announced in 2002, was cancelled three years later.

This year, the choice of masterplanner for this enormous project was made from three practices: Foster and Partners, Rem Koolhaas's Office for Metropolitan Architecture, and the Hong Kong and Guangzhou-based Rocco Design Associates. But Henry Tang, chief secretary of Hong Kong, admits that elements of all three are likely to appear in the scheme as it develops over the years. The first buildings should emerge from the old docklands in 2015, while the last will not be completed until 2031. Foster says that the masterplan is highly flexible in terms of exactly where individual buildings are placed; the idea is to be neither prescriptive nor simplistic, but holistic.

Fosters will now work with the Hong Kong authorities on the choice of architects for individual buildings. Meanwhile, the great challenge for Foster and Partners will be working out ways to make their parkland scheme meet the rest of Kowloon. It is a densely occupied yet seemingly unplanned part of the city that needs drawing together across extremely busy arterial roads and railway tracks. If the West Kowloon cultural district is to be an island it will prove a failure in decades to come; it has to work as a vast, green, vital and cultured junction box linking disparate parts of Kowloon and Hong Kong as a whole.

Will it work? Yes, with time, some degree of patience (Hong Kong and China like to move quickly) and the involvement, wherever possible, of local people. This, in itself, would be a major step forward for China and will set a precedent for its rapidly expanding cities. Quite how it will all look in the end is open to question – the illustration shown here is only indicative of what might happen. But, as this is Hong Kong, expect some tall towers somewhere in the mix of parks, avenues and a new generation of busy commercial alleyways, towers that will make Foster's bank – just 25 years old – seem increasingly like a prized architectural jewel from a different era. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 30 2011

How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr Foster? – review

This admiring, hugely enjoyable, largely uncritical documentary on Norman Foster follows the career of Britain's most successful living architect, from Manchester, where he was born quite literally on the wrong side of the tracks (a railway line separated his parents' working-class home from a prosperous middle-class area), via Yale to international renown.

Foster is an eloquent speaker with a touch of Lancashire in his voice, a likable man, who uses a sketch pad as a way of thinking, and we get to see stunningly photographed images of his work from Manhattan to Beijing, including his breathtaking Millau Viaduct over the Gorges du Tarn.

The commentary is written and spoken by the architecture critic and director of the Design Museum Deyan Sudjic, and the question in the title was posed by Buckminster Fuller when he flew with Foster over the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Jason Solomons's Trailer Trash

Oscar-nominated Brits turn up the pressure on Bafta, Norman Foster makes an embarrassing noise… and Trash loses a grand but gains an opportunity

Put Bafta in the doc

The Facebook campaign to persuade Bafta to create a category for documentaries grew last week when three British film-makers were nominated for documentary Oscars. Lucy Walker's Waste Land, about "catadores" living in Rio de Janeiro's huge landfill site; Bansky's Exit Through the Gift Shop; and Restrepo, co-directed by British photographer Tim Hetherington among American troops in Afghanistan, revealed the strength in fact-based film -making among our native directors.

"It's madness that three Brits will be fighting it out at the Oscars but not at Bafta," Lucy Walker told me from the Sundance film festival, where she's currently on the World Documentary jury. "It's amazing to be back at Sundance, where Waste Land began its own journey exactly a year ago," she said. "British talent obviously excels in the documentary format, and everyone here from around the world seems to be with us on this one — why can the American academy recognise us but not our own British one?"

Lucy's thrilling and uplifting film, which traces the characters of the favela as they become part of Brazilian artist Vic Muniz's photographic project, does, however, receive a wide theatrical release in the UK next month.

Squeak as you find

I had the pleasure of interviewing architect Sir Norman Foster last week to discuss the documentary about his life and work, How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr Foster? We were granted an audience with him on the 38th floor of the Gherkin, where I found him in immaculate blue corduroy suit and navy polo neck, framed against the building's huge glass panes, with London stretched out beneath him. The interview was going well until my producer interrupted to ask Sir Norman to stop swivelling in his chair, which was issuing a loud squeak. "I'm terribly sorry," said Sir Norman, looking somewhat vexed that his perfectly constructed world wasn't functioning properly. He added hastily: "I didn't design the chair."

And the winner is… not me!

Trash predicted all 10 Best Picture nominees last week and was rather proud… until people asked if I'd put my money where my mouth was with a bet? No, but I haven't been able to sleep since, so I rang William Hill, which offers odds on all Oscar matters, to see what I would have won. Their spokesman, Rupert Adams, told me: "We didn't reckon on Toy Story 3 getting in there, so if you'd have come to us with that 10 beforehand, we'd have given you 100-1. Yes, a tenner would have got you a grand." Cripes. They're now offering me a special accumulator for the night itself, for charity. I've got a week to predict winners of the eight categories for which they take bets. The Oscars just got that bit more exciting. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 02 2011

Swiss miss

The proposed new HQ of Swiss bank UBS is an aloof fortress that ignores its responsibilities to the wider community

Good architects should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. That is, meet their clients' needs, design well-made and sustainable buildings, and also add something to their building's setting, such as work with their surroundings to create a place more harmonious/ fascinating/ humane/ pleasurable than it was before. 5 Broadgate, a mighty money factory proposed for the City of London, fails to do this, even though its architect is Ken Shuttleworth of Make, who has been lavishly praised by all three of the chairmen, to date, of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe). "He is one of the best hidden talents in the UK," said one. The second said he was one of the top five architects in the world. The third called his work "extraordinary". Could an architect so brilliant not masticate while ambulating?

5 Broadgate meets every wish of its future occupier, the Swiss bank UBS. It offers 700,000 sq feet of office space, including a stack of dealer floors the size of football pitches. It aims to set high standards of sustainability. It will be, Shuttleworth says, "an expression of the stability of the bank".

To achieve all this requires something big, consuming the sites of two existing buildings. A pedestrian route across the site will be closed, forcing people to squeeze round the edges of the new building's bulk. A covered arcade through the block might have been possible, but this is banned for security reasons, as are shops or cafes at the building's base. The ban is a deal-breaker, apparently: if the City's planners insisted on these humanising touches, UBS would up and go – to Canary Wharf or, worse, Frankfurt.

You might think that UBS is being unduly touchy – it could surely hire enough security to keep al-Qaida or student rioters out of an arcade or coffee shop – but it is not surprising that the planners would want to avert a Swiss flounce. Given that the shaky edifice of the British economy is in thrall to financial services, they would not want to bring down such a heavy blow for the sake of a bit of permeability for pedestrians. There is not much Shuttleworth can do with these macroeconomic forces, and it could be argued that the accommodation of brute finance is what the special enclave of the City of London is about. He can't pretend his building is not big. But he could try to reconcile the scale of the new building with its surroundings.

The site is in Broadgate, the 1980s development highly praised for the unity of its design, for the ways it makes a whole greater than the sum of its parts and its open spaces more important than individual buildings. There have been calls for Broadgate to be listed, which would be overly precious, but one might hope that a new building respects its principles. It shouldn't try to mimic its neighbours, but its rhythms, proportions and materials could create resonances or rapport between the new and the old.

Instead, Make's design announces with maximum force that it is an aloof fortress. Bankers, it says, are people apart from the rest of us. Its windows are defensive horizontal strips in a cliff-like wall. There are terraces high up for the use of UBS staff, but this glimmer of life is suppressed by the hard geometry. It is armour-plated in aluminium (an energy-ravenous material, by the way, although Shuttleworth says he will work with manufacturers to make this the greenest possible aluminium). There is no softening: not a curve or a piece of greenery. The existing buildings, which have layers of stone screens in contrast to the new one's sheer metal, are ignored. We are invited to admire it as a vast piece of sculpture, where the bank's wish for an expression of power perfectly aligns with the architect's desire for a singular artistic statement.

One of the best things that ever happened to Shuttleworth was when Make, now seven years old, was newly founded. His former employer, Norman Foster, had him erased from a group photograph like a victim of Stalin's purges, which supported the image of him as the suppressed creative genius behind Foster projects such as the Gherkin. With the help of some fervent press, a legend was created of "Ken the Pen", a dazzling whiz of a draftsman. He also combined his radical reputation with securing positions of influence. He became a Cabe commissioner and a member of its Design Review Committee, which judges the quality of significant projects. He became Cabe's "champion for schools and the East Midlands".

Commissions flooded in, for significant commercial developments, for private homes for property developers, for the Olympic handball arena, for schools. Make's reputation rode high, even when its completed buildings consisted mostly of a judo hall in Dartford, and the Jubilee Campus at Nottingham University, a set of wedges mottled with a psoriasis of red cladding. The campus was nominated for Building Design magazine's Carbuncle Cup, for the worst building of the year, albeit also for the prime minister's Better Public Building award, sponsored by Cabe.

Make presents itself as everything Foster and Partners are not: collegiate, open to ideas from even its most junior staff, and with no house style. Publications about the practice include pictures of staff weddings and holiday snaps. Profits and credit are shared. It calls itself a "studio", stressing its creative side. Shuttleworth says he wants to create "the best buildings in the world" and above all be sustainable. "I want to save the planet," he says.

Make stress how important clients are, how each one is special, and how its buildings respond to each unique set of needs. Clients of Make praise the company as responsive and professional, and these virtues are obviously important ones. What is lacking is a core of principles: a Make building tends to be as good as its brief, with Ken the Pen's flourishes giving a dressing of art. If UBS wants a defensive-aggressive citadel, it gets it. On another site in the City of London, called London Wall Place, where the planners are being more demanding, it has produced a more subtle design. In Birmingham they have built the Cube, a block of shops, offices and flats, which brings a bit of flash and sparkle to a site that probably needed it.

Make is a perfect distillation of 00s architecture, where genuine professionalism, slick stylishness, and a real if well-advertised commitment to the environment are boosted by hype and infinite adaptability to the demands of the market. This combination makes it an above-average commercial practice. It does not make its employees the hidden geniuses, or the world-top-five architects that their mates at Cabe or some excitable journalists claimed them to be. It says much for the poverty of architectural discourse that anyone could have imagined that they were. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 19 2010

Between wisdom and folly

Norman Foster shows our critic how his developments in Abu Dhabi aim to marry modern innovations and centuries-old Islamic building practices

An echelon of white cars stands in a grey concrete undercroft. They are electric and, more remarkably, driverless. I press a button, enter one and am swished to my destination, at speeds of up to 50kmh, guided by magnetic sensors embedded in the road. An omniscient computer makes sure that I go where I want and that I don't collide with other cars. A honeyed voice tells me, in American and Arabic, where I'm going. "Salaam alaikum," she adds.

It is like a hyper-disciplined dodgem or a cab in which the cabbie has been replaced by a chip. So far, it only runs between two stops, but it could become the main transport system for Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, whose population will eventually be 50,000, with thousands more working there every day. Masdar's carbon emissions will, it is promised, be zero. Along with Dongtan, China, it is one of the most celebrated eco-town projects in the world.

Abu Dhabi is more responsible than Dubai. It has more oil, more money and less need to gamble. It is investing a sliver of its wealth in Masdar, doubtless to look good, but also to insure against the still-distant day when the oil runs out by making itself a centre of sustainable energy. The first part of the city, the Institute for Science and Technology, is now complete.

The architects for Masdar are Norman Foster and his practice, Foster and Partners. Foster, now aged 75, has many millions in the bank, many hundreds on his staff, piles of honours and seems to want to do good in the world. "Slum housing," he says, when I ask him what he most wants to address next, and the Norman Foster Foundation is funding low-cost schools in Sierra Leone. Masdar, as a conspicuous contribution to rescuing the planet, is near to his heart. He is also excited by Abu Dhabi's planned museum in honour of the late Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the United Arab Emirates. Masdar is a work of serious intent, thoroughly applied. The museum looks a bit daft. How can this be?

Masdar does not just pursue its ends with fancy equipment. It starts, says Foster, with "the principle of learning from past traditions, the accumulated wisdom of centuries", which grand statement means applying the techniques of traditional Arab cities in hot places such as Yemen. So the city is being built with steep streets creating deep shadow and oriented to catch the prevailing wind. The roofscape is made irregular, to create turbulence and direct breezes down into the streets.

The planning is compact, so places are closer to each other, to encourage walking. Buildings are given a heavy mass, so they cool and warm more slowly, evening out the temperature changes from day to night. Patterned screens, based on the traditional Islamic mashrabiya, filter light and breeze. Everything, from the sourcing of timber to the water consumption of the plants, is scrupulously considered.

By saving energy and using natural cooling techniques, Masdar reduces the energy that has to be produced by the solar panels on the roofs and in the surrounding landscape. It also genuinely succeeds in creating some of the virtues of old cities: it is a positive delight to walk its shaded streets, which cannot be said of many public places in Abu Dhabi. Sustainability, in other words, shapes architecture and town planning for the better and is not just a series of technical fixes.

The Masdar plan has been accused of being gated and exclusive. It is not, although there is something spooky in the controls it employs in the name of the environment – a touch of eco-Orwell or at least eco-Huxley. A hidden brain, for example, knows when you enter your building, so that your flat can be cooled before you arrive, while in public places flat screens broadcast uplifting news on the environmental performance of the complex.

Another question is whether it is only a gesture, a green bauble like the wind turbine David Cameron put on his house, only on a larger scale. Here, only time will tell, but the purpose of the institute is to study the effectiveness of Masdar's techniques, so that they can be applied elsewhere.

The Zayed National Museum also takes sustainability as its theme. The sheikh liked falconry, apparently, which Foster says inspired the design. "If you take the reality of soaring birds – raptors, hunting birds – they spend most of their time soaring, not flapping. They capture a thermal." He tells me that gliders do this too and here autobiography enters the picture, as Foster has flown them for decades. From this, it follows that the museum will be surmounted by five giant steel feathers, which use the aerodynamic principles of birds and planes to draw cooling air through the building.

The museum's exhibits are buried under a palm-covered mound, contained in five galleries, in five flask-shaped containers, each cooled by air from one of the feathers above. Exactly what the exhibits will be is secret: we know only that the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, is advising on them and they will follow themes dear to Sheikh Zayed, such as learning and nature.

However, the feathers and flasks look like an extraordinarily elaborate way to cool five exhibition galleries and associated facilities. The museum suffers from a touch of the Millennium Domes, with extravagant architecture running ahead of uncertain content. It also looks, well, kitsch, not fundamentally different from projects shaped like horses' heads and pearls, which you can find in Dubai, even if we can expect the Foster office to bring a degree of quality to its execution.

It is best appreciated, perhaps, as a work of outrageous petrodollar baroque, in a tradition that goes back to the 1970s, and which will be rediscovered with affectionate irony by some Wallpaper* magazine of the future.

For Foster, the aim was "to enhance the memory of this individual and to make this nation aware of its history. If you're looking forward to the future, it's important to remember your roots and history". He is responding to his clients' desire for something "more symbolic, more expressive, more powerful". "It is not an empty gesture, but a powerful pointer," he says and it is given validity by its greenness: it represents the "agenda of a country that, whatever criticisms there might be, is none the less achieving zero energy through inspired examples or, if not, going a long way in that direction". Asked if it might look like propaganda, he says: "Then so does Nelson's column."

Foster's approach is to treat everything as a problem in search of a solution, whether that problem is technical, environmental, cultural or symbolic. It works well with Masdar, which matches some of his best work over the decades, even though it sometimes feels like a composite of solutions rather than an integrated whole. The approach works less well with the museum, which veers between the fantastical and the technical, without bringing them together.

When he speaks, Foster likes to cite disparate things – birds, machines, people – but he doesn't get them to cohere or engage. Rather, his buildings create a kind of gap, a neutral space, in which differences are smoothed over. That is how he is and I don't think he will change now. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 18 2010

Crossrail designs go with the flow

British architects and engineers have shaped calm, elegant and free-flowing spaces for the capital's 2018 east-west rail link

Sudden demolitions. Unexpected views of central London opened up as if someone has taken a giant tin opener to the city's skyline. The disappearance of much loved venues, including the London Astoria on Charing Cross Road. Heated arguments over the compulsory purchase of properties along the route. A fear, even, that anthrax and bubonic plague might be released from mass 16th-century graves under Smithfield.

These urban dramas and revelations prove that, at long last, Crossrail – the £16bn mainline railway linking far-flung east and west London suburbs through four miles of tunnels between Paddington and Farringdon – is finally on its metalled march.

Today, Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, and Theresa Villiers, the transport minister, unveiled the designs of the eight new stations that will serve Crossrail and its 200 million future passengers each year from 2018, on a service that promises a 10-coach, air-conditioned train every two and a half minutes. As Crossrail was first announced in 1989, passengers will have waited just 29 years for their first train to arrive.

The mayor, the minister, Crossrail and its owner, Transport for London, are determined that this bold new venture will be nothing less than impressive. And efficient. "As Crossrail moves from the drawing board to reality," said Johnson today at the New London Architecture gallery, "we can see the breathtaking benefits it will bring to our city, and I'm thrilled Londoners can finally see the designs of the world-class stations we will construct. When complete, they will run east to west in a solid backbone of quality infrastructure and style."

The style of the stations, by British architects and engineers with a solid track record – among them Norman Foster, Allies and Morrison and John McAslan – appears to be sober, robust and calmly elegant. Whether in the booking offices, concourses or platforms of Paddington, Tottenham Court Road or Farringdon, every effort appears to have been made to shape generous and free-flowing spaces designed to cope with future demand. The lessons of the high-quality Jubilee line extension between Westminster and Stratford have been learned. Flow is all.

The simple finishes of the stations – concrete, aluminium, steel, glass, recessed and diffused lighting, a minimal palette of colours – reflect a belief that these structure are engineering-led and designed for optimum efficiency. The architecture of each – drawing daylight from streets above wherever possible – is free from fashion or whimsy. The sheer number of passengers passing through these spacious stations will provide more than enough noise, people and colour.

Crossrail's computer-generated images, however, show the eight central stations peopled by just a few relaxed, nattily dressed travellers who look as if they might be boarding the Orient Express rather than a commuter train to Heathrow, Shenfield, Abbey Wood or Maidenhead.

"London has a glorious railway design history," said Villiers, "that ranges from the Brunel-designed Paddington station, through Charles Holden's Tube stations of the 1920s and 30s to the revival of St Pancras International. Crossrail intends to build on this design legacy and create cost-effective stations fit for the 21st century while regenerating local communities."

After so very long, Londoners will expect trains to run on time, allowing only, perhaps, for the wrong sort of disease – bubonic plague – if not the wrong strand of design on the line. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 05 2010

Back-to-front car drives Norman Foster to dream

It's the 1930s car that was meant to change American lives. And now the Dymaxion's back – courtesy of Norman Foster.

Richard Buckminster Fuller had a lot of nerve. In the 1930s, the great US inventor secured the first $1,000 he needed to build a giant futuristic car, called the Dymaxion. The socialite who gave him the cash was told: "If I want to use it all to buy ice cream cones, that will be that – and there will be no questions asked."

Fuller, born in 1895, is best known for his geodesic domes, but his ultimate hope was that the three-wheeled Dymaxion – which looked like a VW camper van crossed with a pinball flipper – would fly, allowing Americans to leave the highway vertically and touch down at lightweight aluminium homes, scattered wherever they fancied by a fleet of Zeppelins.

The Dymaxion was meant to be phase one of a social revolution, fuelled by the latest technology, but only three were ever built. No 1 caught fire and No 3 was turned into scrap; only No 2 survived. It now sits in the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada – or it did until 18 months ago, when the architect Norman Foster decided he wanted to fulfil a dream, and build Dymaxion No 4. So he borrowed No 2 for inspiration.

"The Dymaxion had the same engine and transmission as the Ford Sedan of the time," says Foster, who worked with Fuller, his design hero, from 1971 until his death 12 years later. "However, at three times the volume, with half the fuel consumption and a 50% increase in top speed, it not only did more with less, but anticipated the 'people mover' of several decades later."

Foster's Dymaxion, which the architect has just unveiled, is striking and spacious. Boasting an emerald green body topped with a white roof, it looks part porpoise, part wingless aircraft, part beetle – like something from the 1930s sci-fi film Things to Come. And, until the end of October, it's parked not in Foster's garage, but at the Ivorypress Art+Books gallery in Madrid, the centrepiece of its Bucky Fuller & Spaceship Earth exhibition.

Hopefully, the show will travel the world, although whether it will encourage further orders for Dymaxions is anyone's guess: they were never cheap, even though Fuller, with typical bravado, once told a reporter, even before the first lacquered aluminium creation emerged from the factory, that 100 were under construction and would soon be selling for as little as $200 (half the price of a run-of-the-mill Ford Sedan at the time). In reality, the cost of building each car was about $8,000.

I watched Foster's Dymaxion No 4 being made in East Sussex, at racing car restorers Crosthwaite & Gardiner. Foster was introduced to this haven of automotive engineering by David Nelson, one of his partners and the co-designer of the elegant McLaren Technology Centre in Woking. It was a marriage made in heaven. "As a child," says Foster, "I lived in a fantasy world inhabited by these cars and their legendary drivers: Bernd Rosemeyer in the rear-engined Auto Union and Rudolf Caracciola in the Mercedes-Benz, racing at Nurburgring, Tripoli and Monaco."

The C&G team had many questions. Restorer Phil King went off to Reno to take 2,000 photographs of No 2, which was in a sorry state. Eventually, with the promise that Foster would create a new interior for the car, No 2 was shipped to Sussex. Meanwhile, Foster's team worked through the Buckminster Fuller Archive at Stanford University, while King and co improvised when clues were unforthcoming. The Dymaxion, says King, "was unlike anything I'd seen before: you almost have to forget everything you've learnt about car engineering to understand how it works."

Why? Well, as with the originals, No 4's shell comprises an ash frame sheathed in hand-beaten aluminium. This sits on the chassis of an old 1934 Ford Tudor Sedan, but front to back, so the back wheels of the Ford form the front wheels of the Dymaxion. Much of the detailing echoes Zeppelin design, while its V8 Ford engine is a mounted at the rear, under a long tailfin designed to both cool the engine and increase stability. It is steered by the single rear wheel, which acts like a boat's rudder. This is, without doubt, the Dymaxion's weakest point.

"The interior seemed extraordinarily roomy," says Allegra Fuller Snyder, daughter of Fuller, remembering her rides in the original. "It felt almost like a living room. Riding in it was much more like floating." Foster echoes Allegra's sense of wonder. "Driving the Dymaxion is a revelation," says this lifelong sci-fi fan and Fuller's perfect disciple. "At slow speeds, it can turn on itself, almost like a spinning top. Moving faster, it is extraordinarily well-cushioned and feels more like a boat than a car."

The Dymaxion Corporation sank, heavily in debt, within a couple of years of its founding. It had enjoyed a rollercoaster existence, with Fuller and his business partner, William Starling Burgess, notching up parties, affairs and engineering sorcery right to the end. Allegra believes that her father lost heart with the project after he crashed No 2, injuring her. Having lost his first daughter to polio, he was horrified at the thought of causing Allegra harm.

Whatever the ultimate reason for the Dymaxion's fall from grace, Fuller's magnificently optimistic fusion of architecture and invention never did fly – either from showrooms or in skies above America. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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