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August 03 2012

Art and the hidden depths of the humble public pool

The swimming pool is not just a place of pilgrimage for leading Olympians – it has also inspired some of the 20th century's most memorable art. Artist and novelist Leanne Shapton, herself a former competitive swimmer, chooses 10 of the greatest works of art based around the baths

Drawing for 'Children's Swimming Pool', Leon Kossoff, 1971

Kossoff's charcoal study for his oil painting Children's Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon is of a public pool in Willesden, London, near his studio, where he took his son to learn to swim. Kossoff captures the wild energy of an indoor pool overtaken by children during a public session. His vigorous lines, bobbing heads and sharp elbows remind us that as well as being pristine and serene, pools can also be aggressive and feral. The piece is audible, one can imagine the echoing hollers of the children, the heavy odour of chlorine and the lurking verruca.

Nine Swimming Pools, Ed Ruscha, 1968

Among the hundreds of gorgeous photographic images of swimming pools, this grid of colour photos that Ed Ruscha conceived in 1968 stands out as my favourite. The nine pools depicted are glassy, blue and bright, and while they are absent of figures, (only wet footprints leading off a diving board) they shimmer with the American dream. Each photo offers its own condensed version of public or private water; together, they simultaneously deliver the yearning of Sunset Boulevard, the challenge of competition, the seduction of youth, the promise of sunshine, as well as the shallow transience of motel life.

Pool Shapes, Claes Oldenburg, 1964

Oldenburg's palette is consumer goods, and his four bright blue swimming pool designs bluntly and directly convey his interest in the choices we are offered. The piece is a copy of an advertisement with the type removed, and the reframing of these simple diagrams of backyard pools, with their bubbly rounded shapes and shallow steps, is typical of Oldenburg's humour and playfulness. The image appears on the cover of a 1966 catalogue of his early sketches, diagrams and photos, produced by Stockholm's Moderna Museet for an early solo show of his work.

Ellipsis (II), Roni Horn, 1998

Rather than making the tank of water the subject, Roni Horn shifts her focus to the locker room of a swimming pool she loves in Reykavik, Iceland. Her large (8 x 8ft) monochrome grid of 64 iris prints shuffle the viewer through a warren of slick cubicles and halls. In an interview, Horn described the endless tiled surface and peepholed doors as a voyeristic delight, and explained that she "…shot it in a way to bring out more of the sensual aspect to balance against the antiseptic quality of the architecture".

Le bain mystérieux, Giorgio de Chirico, 1938

Giorgio de Chirico's series of bathers and labyrinthine pools, done between 1934 and 1973, began when Jean Cocteau asked the artist to provide illustrations for his book Mythology. He returned to this theme – men, both fully dressed and nude, in and around pools that were connected by twisting canals and surrounded by cabanas – for years after. He always depicted the water as a herringbone parquet, inspired by one day observing sunlight reflected on a highly polished floor. In this series, the founder of metaphysical painting hauntingly evokes dreams of water, submersion and classical Grecian imagery.

Gatsby, Dexter Dalwood, 2009

Pools are often used in literature and film as symbols of hedonism, seduction or danger. In F Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, the pool manifests all three, finally submerging its eponymous hero in its eighth chapter. In his painting Gatsby, Dexter Dalwood, whose subject matter often involves the locations of violent tragedies (other titles: Kurt Cobain's Greenhouse, Sharon Tate's Living Room), gives us the melancholy millionaire Jay Gatsby's sunlit backyard pool in West Egg, and an inflatable red air mattress overtaken by its shadow: a fitting metaphor for Fitzgerald's haunted hero.

New Yorker cover, Richard McGuire, 2008

New York City is not known for abundant outdoor swimming pools, which is why this New Yorker cover illustration, Swim, Swam, Swum, a rendition of the Carmine Street pool in Greenwich Village, is so charming. It showcases the beloved city pool (featured in Martin Scorsese's film Raging Bull and Larry Clark's Kids, and flanked by a 1987 Keith Haring mural). Illustrator Richard McGuire is a master of reductive line. He's a regular New Yorker cover artist, designs toys and games, makes wildly popular comics, children's books and haunting animations, and lives a block from the pool.

Poster for 1972 Olympics, David Hockney, 1972

David Hockney is the undisputed king of swimming pool art. His paintings of Hollywood pools, replete with big splashes, submerged figures and undulating ripples, gave us an iconic Californian landscape that still defines a certain kind of languid and lush west-coast sensuality. My favourite piece of his, however, and one I work beneath every day, is his poster for the 1972 Munich Olympics, which depicts a diver, suspended over a wobbling sunlit grid of aquamarine, the moment before he slices through the water. (Josef Albers and RB Kitaj also did swimming-themed posters in this series.)

Floating Swimming Pool, Rem Koolhaas, 1978

Rem Koolhaas's pool illustrates the last chapter of his book Delirious New York. It's an Orwellian fable about a group of Soviet architecture students who build a vast, floating swimming pool that they propel across the Atlantic by swimming laps. The journey to New York takes 40 years, and the pool's arrival is met with a hostility they had not anticipated. Koolhaas, himself an avid swimmer, satirises the utopian beginnings of Russian constructivism and its slow morph into corporate American modernism with his usual intellect, idealism and rancour.

Aquis Submersus, Max Ernst, 1919

In one of his earliest surrealist pieces, Max Ernst offers us a melancholy and disturbing night swim, though a clock in the sky indicates 4:42 and the shadows cast by a handlebar-moustachioed man are long. A sense of unease and suspense shroud the work. The clock is reflected in the pool as a moon, the lonely buildings around the pool appear empty, the upside-down figure of a swimmer is weirdly still. The painting shares a title with an 1876 novella by Theodor Storm, about a long-thwarted love and the drowning death of a boy, as narrated by a painter. © 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

July 21 2012

Stirling prize shortlist revealed

A theatre, a laboratory, a bank tower, an art gallery, a cancer centre and the Olympic Stadium are in the running for Britain's foremost architectural award

Simple. Restrained. Simple and restrained. Possibly also sober, plain and very much not iconic. This year's RIBA Stirling prize shortlist reflects the zeitgeist of our straitened times, with their mistrust of extravagance and waste, more than any previous. Architects such as David Chipperfield, Stanton Williams and O'Donnell + Tuomey, who never knowingly overdecorate, feature prominently.

Rem Koolhaas's practice, OMA, better known for its amazing cantilevers and improbable collisions of form, offers as its two shortlisted projects assemblies of intelligently arranged boxes. Even the Olympic Stadium, usually an occasion for rhetorical displays of national pride, is notable for what it leaves out and what it is not – it is not the Beijing bird's nest and uses considerably less steel than its Chinese predecessor.

Zaha Hadid, victorious for the last two years and not much interested in restraint, is absent. Her most likely contender, the Olympic Aquatic Centre, was not entered, probably so that it can be submitted in another year when the ungainly wings containing temporary seating – widely agreed to be the building's worst feature – are removed.

None of which means that all the projects are necessarily cheap. The stadium, for one, is not. Nor that they are insipid. Chipperfield's Hepworth Gallery has a rock-like obduracy that is anything but. But they are all works that avoid the sugar rush of instant spectacle and which, by holding back a little, help you better experience the arts, drama, landscape or sport in and around them.

The judges, led by the architect and former Royal Academy president Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, will have one or two big decisions. The first is whether to give it to the stadium, which is by far the largest and most significant project – in terms of the worldwide attention it will draw – on the list. It is a handsome thing, hard to ignore, with the interesting idea that it can be partly dismantled after the Games, so as to avoid being the usual post-Olympic white elephant. (Even if, due to political complications, this possibility is unlikely to fully exploited.) The judges may want to recognise the Olympics in some way, and make up for the failure last year to award the prize to the much-admired Velodrome.

If not the stadium, they will have to decide which is the best of the other five simple-and-restrained projects. A bank tower? Ummm, not very now. A Maggie's Cancer Centre? Like the Oscars, the Stirling prize can be attracted to serious illness, so much so that they awarded another Maggie's the prize a few years ago, but they may not feel like repeating themselves.

The judges should, of course, be swayed not at all by questions such as who and what has won before, and whether a bank, a stadium or a refuge for cancer sufferers would make the architectural profession look more lovable. They should simply decide which is the best building. Here, the decision is a tight one, as there are no real turkeys on the list and both the Hepworth Gallery and the Maggie's Centre, for example, do nice things in relating the inner life of the buildings to their surroundings.

My choice would be the Lyric theatre in Belfast, a view slightly tinged by the feeling that it would be good to look beyond the usual names and places, but mostly driven by the belief that its arrangement of materials and space, in the service of the building's purpose, are as good as anybody's. But, in an outstandingly sane year, when there are no outrageous exclusions or inclusions, any of the others would also be a good choice.

My bet is that it will come down to the stadium versus Chipperfield, with the stadium winning.

The RIBA Stirling prize will be awarded on 13 October

The six shortlisted buildings

2012 Olympic Stadium, London Populous
Odds 5/1

The Olympic stadium got some sniffy reviews when its design was unveiled five years ago – too plain, too ordinary was the general view. Now, plainness, simplicity and its economical use of steel are seen as virtues, as is the fact that it is partly demountable. In theory at least, this should make it easier to reuse after the Games. It is also a handsome, confident-looking structure. The only problems are that its price was not quite as plain and ordinary as its appearance implies, while protracted struggles to find a new use after the Games suggest that it is not as adaptable as all that. These struggles are probably more to do with politics than design, however.
Previous form (as HOK Sport, Populous's former name): Arsenal's Emirates Stadium and sliding roof over Centre Court at Wimbledon.

Maggie's centre, Gartnavel, Glasgow OMA
Odds: 9/2

With its other shortlisted project, OMA shows it can do nice. This is one of the series of Maggie's cancer centres, where leading architects design places where patients and their relatives can come for advice, counselling, company or simply peace and quiet. They were conceived by the architecture critic Charles Jencks and his wife, Maggie Keswick, who died of cancer, as antidotes to the architecturally depressing spaces in which most treatment takes place. OMA's centre is less assertive than previous centres such as Zaha Hadid's in Fife, or the Richard Rogers-designed building in London that won the Stirling in 2009. Instead, it focuses attention on the landscaping, which is designed by Jencks's and Keswick's daughter, Lily.

New Court, Rothschild Bank, London OMA (with Allies & Morrison
and Pringle Brandon)
Odds: 4/1

Given that bankers are only slightly more popular than child-abusers, it would take some nerve by the Stirling judges to give this first prize, even though Rothschild likes to protest its difference from the casino banks of ill repute. On architectural merit alone, it is a contender: it seeks to create the headquarters for a powerful financial institution, while also offering the world outside an arresting open space off a narrow City of London street. It is intricate and sometimes playful, even if not entirely politically correct. OMA is the practice founded by Rem Koolhaas, which, despite international renown, has not troubled the Stirling judges until now.
Previous form: Central China TV HQ, Beijing; Seattle Central Library

The Sainsbury Laboratory, Cambridge
Stanton Williams
Odds: 7/2

A place where "world-leading" scientists can study plants in the setting of the University of Cambridge Botanic Garden. As well as fulfilling taxing technical demands, the architects Stanton Williams aimed to achieve a "collegial" environment conducive to the sharing of ideas and knowledge. The result is an L-shape, like two sides of a cloister or a college court, that is also open to the landscape. The architectural approach is rectilinear, well-built, with sharp, straight lines offsetting the natural surroundings. The structure has a certain solidity, while also creating a series of layers through which light and views are filtered.
Previous form: University of the Arts, King's Cross; Tower Hill Square (public space next to Tower of London)

Lyric Theatre, Belfast O'Donnell + Tuomey
Odds: 4/1

A beautifully considered and well-made theatre by the Dublin-based O'Donnell + Tuomey, who were shortlisted last year for their An Gaeláras cultural centre in Derry. The design is about progressing from the city outside through the foyers and bars to the performance space at the heart of the building, with views to a river and greenery. It uses a lot of brick and timber, but avoids the worthiness that sometimes goes with these materials. Belfast doesn't always make headlines for its architectural quality and its new Titanic museum is a contender for the Carbuncle Cup – Building Design magazine's prize for the year's worst building. But the Lyric is on the Stirling list on merit.
Previous form: National Photographic Archive, Dublin; Photographers' Gallery London

The Hepworth, Wakefield David Chipperfield Architects
Odds: 3/1

A sober, impressive art gallery named after the Wakefield-born sculptor Barbara Hepworth. It is designed by David Chipperfield, who has several Stirling near-misses to his name and one win, in 2007. His strengths are the attention he pays to light, space and material, but the judges usually end up going for something more spectacular or else for projects that are seen to have more social significance, such as schools or housing. Set next to water and to historic industrial buildings, the Hepworth seeks to address its site and emulate their Yorkshire toughness with a structure of pigmented concrete.
Previous form: Neues Museum, Berlin (shortlisted for Stirling in 2010); Museum of Modern Literature, Marbach, Germany (winner 2007) © 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

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May 18 2012

Constructive criticism: the week in architecture

The ruined castle that was home to Lady Jane Grey hits the holiday market, Rem Koolhaas's TV colossus opens for propaganda, and some Dutch architects blow bubbles

In the past year, Alain de Botton's Living Architecture initiative has made its name as a modernist alternative to the Landmark Trust, which offers holidays in historic buildings. But now the Landmark Trust is fighting back. The preservation-minded body is usually associated with stays in quirky spots, from pineapple-shaped follies to fabulous old forts, but now it has a brand new building in its portfolio. Well, sort of. Astley Castle in Warwickshire is a bit of both really: a new dwelling built within the ruins of a 1,000-year-old castle. More of a fortified manor house, the castle was extended again and again over the centuries, eventually becoming a hotel before it burned down in 1978. Previous residents included Elizabeth Woodville (wife of Edward IV, mother of the princes in the tower) in the 15th century, and Lady Jane Grey (the nine-day queen) in the 16th.

In something of a first, a new four-bedroom holiday home has been built inside the ruins, in a way that respects the existing structure without imitating it. The new design, by Witherford Watson Mann architects, holds the thick walls of the ruin together but uses a robust, contemporary language of concrete, brick and wood. Rather than putting the original building's history "at arm's length", say the architects, their approach engages with it: the finished building will retain a ruin-like quality (with all mod cons, of course). The project started in 2006, so it's not really a response to Living Architecture, but the result promises to be dramatic when it finishes in July.

Another conversion, of sorts, reaches completion on Saturday with the opening of the new Photographers' Gallery in Soho, London, more than a year late after funding difficulties. The architects are O'Donnell & Tuomey, whose An Gaelaras cultural centre in Derry was shortlisted for the Stirling prize last year. They've expanded the red-brick Victorian warehouse by slotting a two-storey black box on top, turning it into a building worth pointing your Hipstamatic app at. There'll be a cafe and bookshop on the ground floor, of course, and upstairs the first exhibition will be Edward Burtynsky's Oil series, which documents how one commodity changed the landscape.

The week after Rem Koolhaas made his cameo on The Simpsons by creating a Lego model of his CCTV building in Beijing, the real thing is finally finished. You could be forgiven for thinking the Chinese state broadcaster's HQ opened years ago. The unmistakable 50-storey folded skyscraper has hogged the architectural airwaves, and even been lauded as the greatest piece of 21st-century architecture by the New York Times. But it suffered a major setback last year when its adjacent, less glamorous sister building, known as TVCC, caught fire, possibly as a result of overzealous Chinese New Year celebrations. Now CCTV is up and running, all set to broadcast the London Olympics, re-runs of the Simpsons, and egregious state propaganda.

So protracted was CCTV's creation, its project architect Ole Scheeren has had time to leave Koolhaas's OMA practice and set up on his own. His Buro-OS is based in Beijing and Hong Kong, and has a number of projects in the region, including an arts centre in Beijing and a striking office tower next door to Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers. He also designed a fantasy floating cinema in Thailand a few months ago, for a bash curated by Tilda Swinton and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Having dated actor Maggie Cheung for the past few years, Scheeren's clearly moving in elite movie circles. So take that with your measly Simpsons, Rem!

Finally, having started with a 1,000-year-old ruin, here's the last word in ephemeral building materials: bubbles. It doesn't sound possible, let alone advisable, but Dutch practice DUS have just finished showing their wonderful Bubble Building at Rotterdam's International Architecture Biennial. On the downside, the pavilion doesn't last very long; on the upside, it takes no time to build. Visitors can do it themselves, in fact. All they have to do is pull up a series of metal wands from pools of bubble liquid on the ground in one co-ordinated movement and there you have it: an instant building, delightfully wobbly and reflective, very short lived, and different every time.

As well as being fun street art, the Bubble Building fits the Biennial's Making Cities theme: civilisation's ceaseless acts of building and rebuilding condensed from millennia into minutes. DUS even has a manifesto (Rule 13: Confuse). In the past, they've created a Buckminster Fuller-ish pavilion out of umbrellas, which they erected illegally in the street one night and held a party in. They've also utilised woven bicycle inner tubes and once built a temporary hotel out of recycled plastic bags filled with sand, which they put up (again without permission) around Dutch cities. "Its architecture was impermanent," they say, "but it remains in the memory of those who were there."

In other words, it complies with rule 18: Build mental monuments. © 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

April 27 2012

Gallery as art: Moscow ruin lures Rem Koolhaas

Architect Rem Koolhaas and Russian socialite Dasha Zhukova have unveiled plans for a new space for the Garage art gallery

A ruined Soviet-era restaurant in Moscow's Gorky Park is to become the unlikely new home for one of Russia's hippest contemporary arts centres: the Garage, founded four years ago by the Russian socialite Dasha Zhukova.

Zhukova and the architect Rem Koolhaas have unveiled plans to bring back to life a 1960s prefabricated concrete building that would normally be pulled down. "It is the most exciting and biggest change the Garage has undergone," said Zhukova, revealing the plans at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts on Friday. "I think it will be one of the greatest examples of contemporary architecture in Moscow."

The hunt for a new building began because the lease was ending on the Garage's current home in the constructivist Bakhmetevsky bus garage and the site was due to be developed into a Jewish heritage museum.

"Finding it was a random chance," said Zhukova, the partner of billionaire Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich. "A friend of mine said there was a number of completely destroyed and damaged buildings in the park and that the city was looking to regenerate the park."

The Vremena Goda (Seasons of the Year) building has almost everything against it. Koolhaas said it was "a ruin, almost completely overgrown" on a heavily polluted site. It is also a rectangle, which is "currently not a very popular shape in architecture".

But the project fits into many of the themes and views Koolhaas has been expressing in recent years about modern architecture generally, and art galleries in particular. One thing he is fighting against is size, pointing to London's Serpentine Gallery as an example of small being good. "Art institutions are getting bigger and bigger, culminating in a building you all know [Tate Modern] but scale, for me, is not necessarily productive for art."

He is against the unnecessary destruction of buildings from the 1960s and 70s and does not like "the sterility of the white cube" in many galleries.

Koolhaas, who co-founded the OMA practice in 1975, said much of the neglect in the Vremena Goda was picturesque and he would keep much of the brickwork, tiling and mosaics. "The building is a ruin but it is not a very old ruin and there are still traces of decoration. We were able to convince our client to maintain some of the aesthetic and experiment – we have these traces of Russian history as a partner of the art."

That raises the question of whether non-white walls would fight or distract from the art on them. "That is a very long discussion," said Koolhaas. "I wouldn't propose it if I thought so." Having said that, all the exhibiting walls will be capable of becoming white.

The new 5,400 sq metre Garage Gorky Park is due to open next year with galleries on two levels together with cafe, shop and learning centre. Zhukova said the original plan had been to use a hexagon-shaped pavilion in the park, not far from the restaurant, but it would have taken too long to convert. That will now be phase two of their plans. "The Hexagon is in a much worse state and we've worked so hard over the last four years to build up a community around the Garage and establish an audience – we don't want to be homeless for two or three years."

Money for the Garage is understood to come from Zhukova's billionaire partner Abramovich but she batted away questions about the cost. "We don't talk about the finances," she said.

Zhukova is regularly featured in the British tabloids, probably not through choice, and despite the cynics there are plenty of people who would pay tribute to her achievements in establishing the Garage as a force in contemporary art. Artists to exhibit there include Antony Gormley and Christian Marclay, while at the end of last year it exhibited a major retrospective of the performance artist Marina Abramovic .

Zhukova said the Garage would still host exhibitions rather than developing a permanent collection and her "personal dream" was to have a show by the American sculptor Richard Serra, who makes some of the world's heaviest works of art. "He is an artist I am dying to bring to Moscow but nothing has been confirmed," she said. Whether the floors would take it is another question. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 11 2011

The best architecture of 2011: Rowan Moore's choice

It was the year of pop-ups and postmodernism – and the playful Frank Gehry went sky high

In New York they managed to complete the vast 9/11 memorial fountains in time for the 10th anniversary of the events of 2001, while around them rises the strange spectacle of commercial skyscrapers sponsored at huge expense from the public purse. Also in New York, Frank Gehry completed his tower of flats in Spruce Street with a playful beauty that has not been seen in skyscraper design for a while. These days, it's fashionable to knock Gehry for being the father of iconic building, but this tower, and his New World Symphony in Miami, shows that he is what has always been: a proper architect who likes to enjoy himself.

Last year the Serpentine Gallery got the turkey award in this space with its pavilion by Jean Nouvel; now it gets into the top 10 with Peter Zumthor's version of its annual commission. Pop-ups, identified as craze of the year in 2010, are still popping up, with Assemble's Folly for a Flyover leading the field. Olympic projects, such as the stadium and the aquatic centre, are getting their final buff and polish. Both are looking good, if you overlook the temporary add-ons on the latter, and the pointless plastic wrapper planned for the former, supplied courtesy of the Bhopal-implicated Dow Chemical Company.

In other news, postmodernism continued its inevitable revival. The magnificent James Stirling was honoured with a show at Tate Britain, and the V&A is currently revisiting the age of Grace Jones and leopard-skin Formica.

In a strong field of turkeys, the catastrophic Museum of Liverpool breasts the tape ahead of Rafael Viñoly's Firstsite in Colchester, the underwhelming new home of the BBC in Salford Quays and the anti-urban Westfield Stratford City.

TOP 10

8 Spruce Street, New York

Dazzling, elegant fun from Frank Gehry.

The Hepworth Wakefield

David Chipperfield completed two of his sober, considered, light-filled art galleries in 2011, in Margate and Wakefield. The one in Wakefield is the more convincing of the two.

New Court, London

Financial prestige meets cultural super-sophistication in Rem Koolhaas's headquarters for Rothschild.

Brockholes Visitor Village, Preston

A very nice place for looking at nature, on the edge of Preston, by Adam Khan. It floats.

Folly for a Flyover, London

Assemble, maker of the 2010 hit Cineroleum, maintained its form with this temporary cinema/bar/performance space under an elevated section of the A12.

Aquatic Centre, London

Breathtaking inside. Will look good outside, after the Olympics, when they have removed the giant water-wings that contain temporary seating.

Olympic Stadium, London

Handsome in its simplicity, until they wreck it with a festive wrapper for the Games.

Lyric theatre, Belfast

Just plain good, by the Dublin practice O'Donnell and Tuomey.

Maggie's Centres

Three more in the series of high-design cancer centres. The one in Glasgow, by OMA, and the one in Nottingham, by Piers Gough and Paul Smith, stand out.

Serpentine Gallery pavilion, London

An arena for watching plants grow, by Peter Zumthor.


Museum of Liverpool

Confused, expensive, misguided and offensive to the adjoining "Three Graces". Otherwise OK. © 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

November 27 2011

New Court – review

Rothschild is one of the world's most august financial institutions, reflected in its discreet yet opulent new City HQ designed by Rem Koolhaas's OMA

The City of London is, in its own special way, surprisingly fond of architecture. You might have thought that niceties of design would get in the way of its relentless contest with other financial centres to be the most fearsome money machine in the world, but no. The rulers of the City permit themselves the incredible luxury, inconceivable in Singapore, Shenzhen or even Canary Wharf, of weighing and deliberating every tweak of its fabric.

There are the historic buildings, the monuments of Wren, Hawksmoor and Lutyens, that are reverentially coddled. There are also the monuments of the masters of our own time, as recognised by the biggest architecture award in the world, the Pritzker prize. There are works by no fewer than five winners of the prize (Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Jean Nouvel, James Stirling and Rem Koolhaas's practice OMA) within the Square Mile. A sixth, Renzo Piano's Shard, makes its presence felt from just outside its boundaries. Such concentrations are hard to find outside places such as Saadiyat Island, the instant cultural district under construction in Abu Dhabi, or the 1980s tea services designed for the Italian company Alessi, by the biggest stars of the time.

The latest addition to the collection, OMA's whitish tower for the financial advisory group Rothschild, has ghosted its way on to the skyline with a surprising degree of discretion. Usually every sneeze of Rem Koolhaas and his team is the object of global fascination by architects and followers of architecture, but this not-small building has been sitting there for some time, its exterior more or less finished, without anyone paying much attention. Now the interior fit-out is also complete, bar a few details.

The discretion is part of Rothschild's corporate personality. As a distinguished 200-year-old institution, it doesn't feel the need to shout. It doesn't put its name on the door, and while it hangs a coat of arms outside, reused from former buildings, this is not very communicative to non-students of heraldry. It is located in a lane of extraordinary narrowness a short distance from the Bank of England, a narrow strip of pitted tarmac that seems one remove from being a cart track. You are supposed just to know that it is there and if you don't, you are not someone who needs to know or whom it needs to know.

You do, however, know that you are in the presence of something with a high degree of self-confidence. From the lane you rise through a steel colonnade to an ample podium of perfect emptiness, the main body of the building overhead, which then opens on to an also ample reception area. You are treated to the luxury of sheer space, precisely delineated with the oblong architecture. The floor is of travertine, also the ceiling, which creates a vertiginous blurring of up and down. Off to one side is an oak-shelved library that will house the Rothschild archive.

Should you be allowed past the security barriers you can then rise through the building, past the gym and cafe, and floors of close-packed desks, to the top levels of meeting rooms, dining rooms and events suites. There is a quasi-Soviet collectivism about the way the place is organised; as in the 1920s Narkomfin housing project in Moscow, the space allotted to individuals is modest, but the shared spaces of exercise, eating and meeting are generous.

In these spaces, an ever more magnificent panorama unfolds. In one direction St Paul's Cathedral sits in mighty repose, placed in the middle of a glass wall as if it were put there for the special benefit of Rothschild. In another there are the Gherkin and other towers of the City, which somehow look more impressive and serene than they do from ground level. These are celestial, Olympian spaces that convey the certainty that this – here, at this elevation, in this part of London – is where Rothschild belongs.

It is not all about sheer pomp and prestige. This is not OMA's way, and running through the building are touches of wit, irony and teasing. There is a play of small and big, which starts with the transition from lane to podium and continues with such things as extra-heavy or extra-light handrails. There are very thick walls ("Like castles and palaces," say OMA) and very thin ones made of glass.

There is also a play with the history of which Rothschild is so proud. In the meeting rooms are ancestral portraits, of well-mounted men riding to hounds and such like, and antique furniture. These are placed, with a touch of the eclecticism of a boutique hotel, alongside glass and aluminium, the latter embossed, in another moment of old/new overlay, with woodgrain patterns from the old oak panelling.

In Richard Rogers's Lloyd's Building a Robert Adam interior, imported from the institution's earlier premises, was recreated. There, it is a touch embarrassing in relation to the high-techery around it. In Rothschild the interplay of oak, oil paint, silk and aluminium is where all the fun is to be had. It delivers the required message that the institution is both ancient and modern. More than that, it is shown to be cultured, sophisticated, self-aware and sufficiently self-assured to allow a little humour. Rothschild advises but doesn't lend, which sets it apart from the casino banks of ill-repute, and its architecture reminds you of this fact.

OMA also likes to squeeze whatever public value there might be in a commission, even out of a discreet private bank. The colonnade along the lane can be used by anyone, in effect widening the street, and on the far side of the podium a view opens up to the churchyard of Wren's St Stephen Walbrook. It is clear that the podium is privately owned space, but the building still offers more than the many City blocks which rise sheer and opaque from the pavement. Next door, for example, one of Foster's least good works has been squelched on to the ground, an assertive, ribbed, over-inflated blob that is oblivious to its surroundings. OMA's building interacts with its neighbours, enriching itself and them in the process.

The City's fondness for architecture has, in fact, its limits. Often it runs as far as licensing a big name to sculpt the external form of a block, but not to such architectural qualities as the play of volumes and scale, the interconnection of outside and in or the creation of three-dimensional settings for the lives that go on in and around a building. Rothschild does all these things, with skill and subtlety. The only shame is that some of the best bits are on the far side of the security barriers. Come the revolution, though, it will make a great collectivist housing scheme. © 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 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 07 2011

Rem Koolhaas: 'I'm a criticism machine'

At the launch of the OMA/Progress exhibition at the Barbican, which presents the work of the ground-breaking architecture practice OMA, Jonathan Glancey talks to co-founder Rem Koolhaas

June 03 2011

Venice Biennale: Prada on parade

Fashion couple confirm their places as major cultural figures with display from their art collection

If any designer has effortlessly vaulted the confines of the fashion world to become a major cultural figure it is Miuccia Prada and on Saturday she and her husband and Prada CEO, Patrizio Bertelli, will confirm their status.

Their new venture is opening to the public: a semi-permanent display of works from their art collection, housed in a faded but imposing 18th-century palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice.

Enter the Ca' Corner della Regina from the water, and you come straight to the work that occupies the lofty, Doric-columned hall, Anish Kapoor's Void Field: a series of sandstone blocks, each with a curious black hole penetrating its surface, giving the impression that these mighty boulders are at the same time hollow or weightless.

It was part of Kapoor's 1990 British pavilion for the Venice Biennale, the 2011 edition of which also opens today on Saturday.

In the surrounding rooms are Italian artworks from the mid-20th century and contemporary international pieces. Among them are Damien Hirst's 1996 Loving in a World of Desire, in which a beach ball hovers, lifted by an air blower, several feet above the ground and Maurizio Cattelan's Untitled of 1997, a stuffed ostrich with its head buried in the sand.

Tucked beyond the elegant courtyard is Cell (Clothes) by Louise Bourgeois, which contains the only possible reference to the couple's day job: nighties, little blouses and delicate 1930s dresses drape themselves emptily within the suggestion of a bedroom.

According to Prada – who wears a pleated-silk skirt, black merino sweater and sensible, striped-plastic flat sandals that she swaps for mountainous heels to be photographed – the couple began buying art in the early 1990s after a friend suggested their Milanese working space would be "perfect for sculpture".

That started them off, she says, "on a full immersion in learning ... We wanted to understand [the 1960s Italian art movement] arte povera better, and contemporary art".

Bertelli, more leonine than the impishly twinkling Prada, chips in: "We didn't seek advice: we studied, we went to museums. We attempted to understand how certain things happened in the arts."

This art-history course was not meant to result in a collection. "I hate being a collector," says Prada. "We just bought some pieces. And now there is so much of it it's a pity for it to stay in stock."

At the suggestion that learning is possible without buying, the designer, who has a doctorate in political science from the University of Milan, says: "I completely agree. It's vulgar, this desire to own things, but it is also very human."

The Ca' Corner, which once housed the archive of the Venice Biennale, has recently lain empty. Last year, the Venetian authorities offered it to the Fondazione Prada, which has staged regular temporary exhibitions in the city. The foundation has the space for six years, with the option to remain for another six.

Meanwhile, the couple are also building a large-scale, permanent gallery in Prada's native Milan, designed by architect Rem Koolhaas.

Under Bertelli's direction, a gentle restoration of the dilapidated Ca' Corner has been undertaken. But this is no white cube: Pino Pasquale's sculpture Confluenze (1967), which consists of shallow vessels of water placed on the ground, sits beneath a glorious painted ceiling on the piano nobile, while Jeff Koons's multicoloured steel Tulips (1997-2005) glints nearby.

As Prada begins to speak about the way the art works in the context of its faded building, Bertelli cuts in and there is a swift back-and-forth of bickering ("He thinks I am speaking in banalities," she says, goodnaturedly).

Bertelli forges ahead: "We didn't want to be too logical with this palazzo. We didn't want to invade, or wipe out the space.

"We wanted it to keep its veneer, and we did not want to exaggerate the skin of the floors or ceilings with makeup."

A critical commentary on each other's remarks is a feature of the conversation: so how do they agree when it comes to buying art?

Into a waterfall of swiftly spoken Italian from Bertelli, Prada interjects: "He is obsessed by Sigmar Polke." And: "Every time he buys another Lucio Fontana, I say 'Not another Fontana!' "

Bertelli bats back: "She is like the fox with the grapes in the fable. It is easy for her to say 'Not another Fontana,' because if I didn't buy them she would."

There are four of the Italian painter's egg-shaped, slashed canvases on the palazzo walls.

They generally buy separately, according to Prada, and only once have they fallen out badly over a purchase.

"It was the first piece I bought, and he sold it, because he thought it was horrible," she says, laughing. It was a Dalí.

Her strategy, she says, is to "never buy anything except those things that change my ideas, if only in a small way".

She also keeps art and fashion well away from each other: "I refuse the connection," she says. "For me those things are completely separate, except to the extent that your mind is your mind, and my work reflects myself."

The opening few days of the Venice Biennale are a social event, with artists, curators, dealers, critics, collectors in the city to see art – and each other.

Roman Abramovich's yacht is moored not far away, and Elton John has pitched up to see an exhibition hosted by Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk.

Each night sees a baffling array of parties, from prosecco-fuelled celebrations to discreet dinners. Do Prada and Bertelli enjoy the exclusive social scene enjoyed by the world's wealthiest collectors?

Prada replies with a laugh: "I have succeeded in going to not one single party at the Venice Biennale."

On this, at last, they agree: "Our social life," says Bertelli, "is not very sparkling." © 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

August 10 2010

Is capitalism killing Moscow's architectural heritage?

The city's avant-garde masterpieces are falling into ruin. It seems only the oligarchs' wives can save them

From the pedestrian bridge that crosses the Moskva river towards the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour you normally have a clear view of the Kremlin. But for several days last week its fairytale towers had disappeared behind an acrid grey pall. With the thermometer stuck at a record-shattering 40C and the smog hidden by smoke from the burning marshes outside the city, this was a hellish Moscow that none of its residents had ever seen before.

I was in the city to give a talk at a new school, the Strelka Institute of Architecture, Media and Design. Located just across the river from the cathedral, the Strelka occupies the garages of the former Red October chocolate factory, which until two years ago had been producing chocolate on that site since the late 19th century. The school only opened earlier this summer but already it's one of the liveliest nightspots in the city, with film screenings, clubs and a restaurant frequented by Moscow's glamorous media set. If you're thinking that this doesn't sound much like a school, then you'd have a point, but we'll address that later. In all other senses the sight of a former industrial complex being turned into a cultural hotspot is one that we've been accustomed to in Europe and the US for several decades. In Russia, however, it's a more recent phenomenon.

One reason is that the gradual switch from an industrial to a services economy didn't begin until the Yeltsin years. And it was only around the turn of the millennium that developers started to speculate on factories (the more unscrupulous ones earned the description "raiders"). The other factor in the slow speed of the post-industrial project is that the Russians appear to value new things more than old ones.

Any sightseers embarking on a tour of Moscow's avant-garde architecture from the early 20th century had better brace themselves for a catalogue of degradation. The more hallowed the building in the architectural history books, the greater its decrepitude. Take the Narkomfin building, designed by Moisei Ginzburg with Ignaty Milnis in 1928 to house the workers of the commissariat of finance. This radical apartment block, which spearheaded the idea of collective living, is one of the most important surviving constructivist buildings. And it is literally crumbling – indeed it's in such a sorry state that I was amazed to find that people still live in it. Then there is another constructivist masterpiece, Konstantin Melnikov's Rusakov workers' club of 1929, with its muscular geometric profile. It's still as dramatic as ever but empty now except for an Azerbaijani restaurant that has attached its own folksy timber entrance (with lurid neon signage) to the unforgettable facade.

But it is not just the early modernist heritage of Moscow that is unloved. Even the pride of a more recent Soviet past is going to seed. The All-Russia Exhibition Centre (VDNKh), the expo site in the north of the city that was a town-sized advertisement of Soviet achievements, is today a rather seedy theme park. None of its grandiose pavilions still contain anything worth seeing. The grandest, announced by a Tupolev rocket in the forecourt, is the 1966 Space Pavilion. It now houses a garden centre that would embarrass your average parish hall, let alone this vaulted cathedral to the Soviet space programme. Under the dome, the giant portrait of Yuri Gagarin has a sheet draped over it. I asked a local why and he answered simply: "Shame." It would dishonour the legendary cosmonaut to look out over this mess.

This is the climate in which the Russian post-industrial project is taking shape. Preservation is not a major preoccupation here, which is ironic considering that much of the post-communist architecture has been built to look old (it's known unofficially as the "Luzhkov style", after Moscow's long-serving mayor). And yet one fifth of Moscow is made up of industrial sites – think of the impact that Tate Modern had on London's cultural scene and then imagine how much potential Moscow has. But destroy-and-rebuild is the model favoured here, with over 1,000 historical buildings knocked down in the last decade. There's no pressure from heritage bodies and no incentives to convert industrial buildings. Indeed, there tend to be disincentives, such as the regulation that only new buildings can qualify for class A office status. It's no wonder that developers have been either demolishing the factories to build luxury apartment blocks or turning them into business parks.

In the last few years, however, things have started to change. For one thing, the recession has put the brakes on developers, allowing nimbler entrepreneurs to slip in. The Red October factory, for instance, was meant to be turned into a luxury residential zone called Golden Island, with buildings by Norman Foster (much beloved of Russia) and Jean Nouvel. Only the credit crunch enabled the Strelka's founders to lease their site. But there is also a new player on the Moscow property scene: the oligarch's wife, who knows only too well from the international circuit how to turn defunct industry into cultural prestige. One such is Dasha Zhukova, Roman Abramovich's wife, who two years ago turned Melnikov's temple-like Bakhmetevsky bus garage of 1927 into an art centre called Garage. Last week it was holding a Rothko retrospective, the kind of show that normally only major museums can handle.

On a grander scale, though less refined architecturally, are the cultural developments in the Kursky industrial area. Here there is Winzavod, a red-brick wine factory built in the 1860s. It was bought by Roman Trotsenko to turn into offices but again his wife, Sofia, saw the potential for a cultural centre. Today it's full of galleries, showrooms and creative studio spaces. And right next door to it is what used to be the Arma gasworks, which supplied the gas for Moscow's streetlights. Now its four brick gasometers are home to a clutch of nightclubs, creative agencies and publishing houses. In a strange hangover from Soviet bureaucracy, you have to show your passport to enter and you're not allowed to take photographs, which somehow is not quite in the spirit of the place.

Here's the question: is it to be left to the oligarchs' wives to deliver on all this potential cultural programming? One Muscovite I met referred to Garage and Vinzavod rather dismissively as "toys for rich people". "Still," he added, "they could just be buying more yachts."

Perhaps the Strelka offers a different model. The founders of this postgraduate design school, with a curriculum designed by Rem Koolhaas, are at least using their wealth to invest in the next generation. And one way that they are making the school's name (while recouping some funds) is as a social hotspot. In fact, the Strelka is the kind of hybrid that could probably only exist in the turbo-capitalist experiment of Moscow: one part ideology, one part philanthropy (the education will be free) and one part the place to be seen. If the school succeeds, then while Russia may have come late to the post-industrial party, it will have contributed something new to the rather predictable formats we know so well in Europe. Meanwhile, locals are paying it a classic Muscovite compliment: "It's so not like Moscow." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 16 2010

The Surreal House at the Barbican

This new show is 'a mysterious dwelling infused with subjectivity and desire' featuring artists such as Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Alberto Giacometti and René Magritte

May 17 2010

Tomes, sweet tomes

The Dutch architect's practice OMA is so prolific with research that it's rumoured to produce a book a day. So what's behind this preoccupation with publishing?

In Britain we're sceptical of the idea of the architect as intellectual. Most people probably aren't aware that there's a whole realm of architecture that doesn't involve erecting buildings. But from Vitruvius in the 1st century BC and Alberti and Palladio in the Renaissance to Le Corbusier in the 1920s, architects have always produced books, not just to publicise their work but to lay down the latest architectural rules.

Often these titles tend to be monographs. Light of text and glossy of photograph, they are hefty volumes, records of achievement – a chance for the architect to say "Look on my works, ye mighty, and leave them casually stacked on the coffee table". But Rem Koolhaas's books, produced with his Rotterdam-based practice Office for Metropolitan Architecture, are different, as a new show at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London's Bedford Square demonstrates. On a plinth in the middle of the room sit 400 volumes bound together in black folders. They look like endless meeting agendas, but they are the complete works of OMA from 1978 to 2010. If you stood this object on the floor, it would be as tall as two people, one stood on top of the other. No wonder the show is called OMA Book Machine.

One look at this column of paper will no doubt confirm for some the suspicion that all architects care about is size. And, when it comes to books, Koolhaas wins the "whose is bigger?" competition hands down. But they are more than that. For a start, most were never published. The large majority are internal dossiers: OMA is famous for the huge amounts of research it puts into each project, to the point where Koolhaas even has his own thinktank, which he named in the mirror image of OMA: AMO. And while every competition the practice enters may not result in a building, it will definitely yield a book. Many of these titles are used to persuade clients to hire the practice, but sometimes they have the opposite effect. The MoMA Charrette, for example, was ostensibly OMA's entry to the competition to redesign the Museum of Modern Art in New York – really, though, it was an acerbic critique of this stuffy temple of culture that proposed turning it into an edgy shopping mall. No wonder Koolhaas didn't win.

Mostly the books are made by the architects themselves using office printers, but other times Koolhaas has worked with some of the best book designers in the business: the Canadian Bruce Mau, the Dutch Irma Boom and the New York-based practice 2x4. Mau was behind the fattest and most influential book on display, S,M,L,XL, OMA's 1995 take on the monograph. This 1,300-page brick of heavily cropped images overlaid with text was seven years in the making. It divided projects by size, like underpants, from houses to urban masterplans, and abandoned any sense of a clear narrative. It's still the only architecture book that every graphic designer has on their shelf. Mau himself has gone on to become something of a guru – the Guatemalan government recently commissioned him to do nothing less than transform the country. S,M,L,XL itself was so popular that it was counterfeited in China and published in a weird bootleg version in Iran. One of the highlights of the Architectural Association show is the email correspondence between OMA and the Iranian publisher, who argued that it was important to share Koolhaas' ideas, even in this illegal, bastardised form.

As the years go by, the books get stranger. There's the Wired Dictionary, an inventory of all the words published in Wired magazine, one of the by-products of OMA's guest editorship in 2001. There's a book called PradaVomit, a mystifying booklet that is one of the many products of Koolhaas's tenure as Prada's court architect and consultant. "Even vomit has some content," says one collaborator in a transcript pinned to the wall; and Koolhaas is probably the only architect to have designed the spring/summer "look book" for a fashion label.Precisely through these book-shaped investigations Koolhaas has blurred the edges of architecture, taking it into fashion, consultancy, journalism and cultural criticism.

The paradox at the heart of Koolhaas' obsession with the book as a format is that he reveres it and disrespects it in equal measure. We think of books as precious things that take months of painstaking assembly, whereas OMA throws them together with careless abandon. This was particularly true of 2004's Content, which was laid out like a magazine, even down to the adverts – the "boogazine" has since become a much-imitated format. Then came 2007's Al Manakh, a book about the development boom in the Gulf states, which looked like it had been dragged off the internet and onto the page. These days, OMA and AMO are rumoured to produce a book a day, sometimes within four or five hours.

In some ways, Koolhaas is swimming against the tide. As publishing has gone mainstream on the one hand, focusing on Dan Browns and celebrity biographies at the expense of riskier projects, and digitised on the other, sucked into Kindles and iPads, there has been a growing counter-trend for books as luxury objects. Taschen, the publisher of Content, has been churning out giant tomes – such as GOAT, on Mohammed Ali – in limited print runs with price tags of hundreds, sometimes thousand of pounds. It's as though, somehow, we have to try and make books special again. Unlike the internet, they have tactility and weight. And yet, although OMA's books are rapid and slapdash, they betray enormous faith in the book as a medium at a time when print is under siege.

For Koolhaas and OMA, books aren't luxuries – they are the residue of a process. These are architects trained to think and work through books as just another material, like concrete and glass. The vast amounts of research regurgitated by the OMA machine gets sifted and refined in book form, keeping the method transparent and the information easy to re-use. Nothing is ever wasted, and in that sense there is no such thing as failure. If the research doesn't turn into a building, there's always the book. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 08 2010

Roadmap 2050 by Rem Koolhaas's OMA

Rem Koolhaas has helped come up with a daring plan to run Europe on a grid of shared renewable energy – and redraw the map of the continent at the same time

I well remember my interview for a place at architecture school. As a kindly tutor leafed through my cobbled-together portfolio, on the wall I noticed a photo of a trapezoidal cabin with a whirly helical thing on top. It was, I was told, a prototype of an energy-efficient house, a concept of which I was then only dimly conscious.

That was more decades ago than I care to think, and it goes to show that green architecture is nothing new. It goes to the heart of the paradox most architects face: they tend to be hopeful, liberal types who want to change things for the better, but construction requires money and power, which are not always in the hands of the nicest people. So nice architects find themselves working for not-nice clients. Similarly with environmental matters: buildings gobble energy and resources in their construction and use, so the most ecological thing might be not to build them at all, but that would put architects out of work. So they are drawn to that conscience-salving potential oxymoron, the green building.

Just as what was once called health food has gone from muddy lentils to crisp Ottolenghi sophistication, so green architecture has been through many phases. For a while, it wore its ecology on its sleeve, sticking conspicuous turbines and ventilators on roofs, as in the large bronze chimneys over Portcullis House, the MPs' office building next to Big Ben. Now it tends to be a more technical matter, governed by the calculations of the engineering consultancies that have grown up to make buildings sustainable.

There has also been a shift in scale since my tutor's cabin. Now architects design green cities, such as Dongtan in China, or Foster and Partners' $22bn Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, which is currently on show at the Sustainable Futures exhibition at the Design Museum. But none have gone as far as the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), the practice created by Rem Koolhaas. It is proposing to redesign an entire continent – ours, Europe – along energy-saving lines. In fact, they would like to include North Africa as well. As Reinier de Graaf, the partner in charge of the proposal, says: "Megalomania is a standard part of our repertoire."

Called Roadmap 2050, it is a plan calculated to make the Ukip-ians of this world bubble and froth with rage, as it combines the belief that drastic intervention is required to mitigate climate change, with a desire to give meaning and power to the European Union. It has been commissioned by the European Climate Foundation, a philanthropic body dedicated to promoting policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and it aims to show how the EU can achieve an incredible-seeming target of an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. The proposal is being considered by the EU Council of Ministers, for their possible endorsement.

The proposal's starting point is the fact that renewable energy sources such as wind and sunshine are erratic and unreliable, which means they have to be supported by other forms of power. But they are also available in different quantities in different places – wind is abundant in Britain, sun in Spain – and in different seasons. The big idea is to create a power network across the continent linking all these sources, which could then compensate for each other. If it was windless in Britain but sunny in Spain, power could travel from them to us, and vice versa.

This is a political, as well as a technical proposal. "You can use this project to create integration. It creates a very pragmatic reason to integrate," says De Graaf. It coincides with work the OMA has been doing for several years on the ways that the European Union represents itself, through their design and research subsidiary AMO, which "operates in areas beyond the traditional boundaries of architecture". Koolhaas is a member of the EU's Reflection Group, whose job is to think about what might happen a decade or two hence.

With a cheeky, provocative tone typical of OMA, they even show a map of Europe redrawn as "Eneropa", with regions defined by their energy source. Ireland and the western half of Britain become the "tidal states", while the eastern half forms part of the "isles of wind". Former Yugoslavia is miraculously reunited as "Biomassburg". Most of Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece become "Solaria". OMA shows images of these places, like postcards from the future, with batteries of turbines, or plumes of geothermal steam.

OMA insists that its plan makes sense, even if you exclude climate issues. It has produced figures to show that the scheme would not cost all that much per head, especially when compared with road-building, war in Iraq, or bailing out bankers. They point out the benefit of reducing reliance on Middle Eastern oil and Russian gas. They argue that the economic benefits would outweigh the costs. They say that a reduction of even more than 80% could be achieved if North Africa, with all its sunshine, could be included in the grid. Their plan, they say, is "not rooted in apocalyptic hysteria", but is eminently practical.

It's a seductive proposition: go green and get richer. It is also refreshing and unusual to hear architects proposing environmental strategies that do not require the future commissioning of architects to design buildings. It also raises an obvious question: what on earth qualifies architects who spend most of their time designing museums or office buildings or Prada stores to pronounce on these subjects? This is partly answered by the fact that OMA is not acting alone, but is part of a team that includes management consultants McKinsey, energy consultants Kema and Imperial College London. But OMA still takes responsibility for the "overarching vision".

The other question is whether to believe them. OMA has over the years shown me new cities on islands off Korea, the transposition of Amsterdam Schiphol airport into the North Sea, and the redesign of the European flag of gold stars on blue into a multicoloured barcode derived from the flags of its different nations. So far all these ideas have remained on paper. Is there any reason to think the Roadmap would be different?

It is plain that their plan would need will and cohesion that has not been evident in, for example, the EU's attempts to solve the Greek debt crisis. Reinier de Graaf cites as a model President Kennedy's declaration that, before the 1960s were out, America would put men on the moon, but Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Union, is no Jack Kennedy. However, De Graaf argues that European countries cooperate better at a practical level than an ideological one. He also stresses that the Roadmap "doesn't require member states to give up their identities. It allows states to be themselves."

I have, frankly, no idea if by 2050 anything like this network will exist, or whether it will join the ranks of the fantastical and doomed, along with the cities teeming with autogyros imagined in the 1930s, or the 1960s' faith in the future ubiquity of hovercrafts. I doubt if anyone else knows, either. But, of all the abstract speculations about what sustainable futures might look like, there has not previously been one so tangible or engaging. Its value at the very least is to get people thinking about what, actually, we do want. OMA's Roadmap is either prophecy or provocation, but whichever way it's worth having. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 06 2010

Can architecture cure cancer?

Cancer care doesn't have to mean grim hospital wards, believes Maggie's co-founder Charles Jencks: uplifting buildings benefit both body and soul. But are they just an architectural placebo?

In pictures: Maggie's Centres present and future

Charles Jencks would be the last person to claim that architecture could replace chemotherapy, but he's the first to argue that it can make a difference to cancer patients. As the driving force behind cancer care charity Maggie's, and a well-established architectural writer, Jencks often finds himself having to defend his views. The Maggie's Centre initiative, named after Jencks's wife, Maggie Keswick, who died of cancer in 1993, has grown from a one-off project to a mushrooming nationwide network – six existing buildings with more on the way, and a lengthening list of high-profile designers: Richard Rogers, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas. As the idea has taken off, so Jencks has come under fire from both the scientific community, who question the validity of his claims (or media distortions of them); and the design community, who wonder if Maggie's Centres aren't injecting more architecture into small healthcare facilities than they strictly need.

Jencks is not advocating some deterministic equation between architecture and health – as if the sight of a well-detailed staircase could somehow zap away a malignant tumour – but he does believes in what he calls an "architectural placebo effect". "A placebo is a phoney cure that works," he explains. "This is very hard for the medical profession to get their teeth around because they hate placebos but scientifically, placebos work in about 30% of cases that are psychogenic diseases. You have to believe in a placebo or it won't work, but if it works it's obviously working in some indirect way, through feedback in the immune system, let us say, or in the willpower of the patient to take a more strenuous exercise in their own therapy.

"You can imagine all sorts of ways in which architecture adds to the placebo effect," he continues, "and in that sense it's impossible to measure. Here's a funny insight: in a way, the carers are more important than the patients. Because if the carers are cared for, they turn up, they enjoy it and you create this virtuous circle, this mood in a Maggie's Centre which is quite amazing. So architecture helps do that because it looks after the carers. There's a lot of people who would quite rightly attack that notion, and I don't want to claim that we can yet prove it, but we hope to."

Jencks presents his case in a new book whose title succinctly sums up his approach: The Architecture of Hope. "It is my hope, and it was Maggie's hope, to live longer with cancer. And I think any cancer patient, if you dig not too deeply, they want to live. So is there an architecture that helps you live?"

If there is, Jencks argues, it is not to be found in the modern hospital. He describes the space in which Maggie herself received her weekly chemotherapy as a form of "architectural aversion therapy" – a windowless neon-lit corridor of Edinburgh's Western General Hospital. Many of us are familiar with similar spaces. In the industrial age, the design of healthcare buildings has been dictated by the demands of hygiene and efficiency: hard, sterile surfaces; bright, white spaces; long corridors; artificial ventilation systems. The template has been updated a little in the PFI age with atrium lobbies and toothpaste-coloured cladding, but these places are still overwhelmingly alienating.

Jencks and others, such as the Dutch academic Cor Wagenaar, believe that modernism created a rupture in the long, intimate relationship between architecture and health. That history stretches back to ancient Greece, where temple complexes such as Epidauros were about healing the spirit as well as the body, and even Stonehenge, which recent findings suggest may have been a hospital. Its modern roots lie in the Enlightenment, when it was first proposed that good design of the built environment could do more for public health than the medical profession could. In a way, Maggie's Centres reconnect with this "secret tradition", says Jencks. Yes, we need medical environments to cure us, but we also need to feel like people again, rather than patients. He is not alone in this. Witness the Circle group's recent hospital in Bath, designed by Foster and Partners, which feels more like a boutique hotel. They, too, are recruiting architects such as Richard Rogers and Michael Hopkins to rethink hospital design on a more humane scale. Or there's the AHMM's bright, fresh Kentish Town Health Centre, also nominated for last year's Stirling prize, or Gareth Hoskins' civic-minded health centre designs. Things are changing.

There's no great architectural secret at work in the design of Maggie's Centres. They are defined by inarguably positive qualities: light, space, openness, intimacy, views, connectedness to nature – the opposite of a standard-issue hospital environment. They are domestic in scale, centred around the kitchen, a place where you can make yourself a cup of tea and have an informal conversation. In Jencks's words, they are buildings that hug you, but don't pat you on the head. It's not just about giving people architecture, he argues – it's also providing information, relief, psychological, emotional and even financial support – all of which contribute to the urge to go on living. Nor is there any set of instructions for architects as to how to achieve these goals. Frank Gehry's building, for example, combines a crinkly-roofed fairy tale aesthetic with a serene view over Dundee on one side and a garden maze on the other. Zaha Hadid's outlet in Fife has been compared to a Stealth bomber – sharp and black on the outside, but mercifully calm and light inside. More recently, Richard Rogers's London Maggie's Centre shut out the city behind rhubarb-pink walls and opened up an oasis of intimate, domestic-scaled spaces, all capped by a protective roof.

The award of the 2009 Stirling prize to Rogers' building was another gesture of approval for the Maggie's Centre approach, but it also raised the question of whether they really needed such star names to design them. In addition to the six existing Maggie's Centres, there are another six under way, including designs by Dutch superstar Rem Koolhaas, the late Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa and some of Britain's best-known names – Piers Gough, Chris Wilkinson, Ted Cullinan and Richard MacCormac. There are plans for as many as 23 buildings further down the line, even outposts in Hong Kong and Barcelona. If the brief is so relatively straightforward, why the starchitects? Is there a danger that Maggie's Centres are becoming more about prizes than patients – a free pass for virtuoso architects to get something built?

In Jencks's defence, Koolhaas and Hadid were fellow students of Maggie's. Gehry and co were lifelong friends of the couple. They just happened to hang out with future superstar architects. Besides which, Jencks says, without the media attention generated by these names, the charity would not have attracted the public donations that are enabling it to expand. Cancer affects up to one in three adults, after all. A great many people have been affected by Maggie's Centres already, and each of the new buildings hopes to serve a catchment area of two million people. "This was not thought of way back, that architecture would make such a difference to raising money," says Jencks. "And it's a double thing: it raises our profile, but it also gives us good buildings which last, so we benefit in the long term. I can't understand why other institutions haven't done the same." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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