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Archived posts: Architecture

Carters Steam Fair

A couple of weekends ago we got the chance to visit the fantastic Carters Steam Fair while it was visiting Clapham Common.

Carters is a vintage travelling fun fair, entirely run by the Carter family, after John and Anna Carter bought their first ride, the Jubilee Steam Gallopers (below) in 1977. The ride was originally built by Robert Tidman & Sons of Norwich, in 1895; and the Carters extensively repaired and renovated it to get it looking as fine as it does today.

The other main ride they have that’s run on steam is the glorious Excelsior Steam Yachts ride (top and below), built in 1921.

The whole fair features a staggering wealth of traditional fairground art and signwriting, featuring work by Hall and Fowle:

“The later rides owned by Carters Steam Fair are painted in a style of dramatic three-dimensionality by the masters of fairground painting in the first half of the 20th century: Hall and Fowle. Edwin Hall was a master painter producing some beautifully set out and composed Art Deco designs that still stand out to this day; Fred Fowle joined forces with him later. Fowle’s work is unmistakeable in its design and skill, using gold and aluminium leaf, flamboyant enamels and a lot of guts he made some of the most extraordinary and exuberant artwork that can be seen on the fair to this day, most notably the Skid, the Octopus, and the Hook a Duck hoopla stall which are owned by Carters Steam Fair.”

Everything on the fair is still hand-painted, with incredible skill and style, by the Carter family. Indeed, Joby Carter even runs 5-day signwriting courses – the next one coming up this November.

It’s just an amazing place to visit. They even have a coconut shy, and a fantastic penny arcade, which even has a suitably creepy Jolly Jack:

And of course the rides themselves are brilliant.

The fair will be at Belair Park in West Dulwich for the next two weekends, and travelling all round London through to November (check their full diary here). Do go along if you get a chance.

Designs of the Year 2013

We nipped along to the Design Museum’s Designs of the Year show last weekend.

Self-styled as “the Oscars of the design world”, it’s a curious beast of a show, pulling together “the most innovative and imaginative designs from around the world, over the past year, spanning seven categories: Architecture, Digital, Fashion, Furniture, Graphics, Transport and Product”, with a view to crowning a single design as the best of the best.

Which means that you get a skyscraper (Renzo Piano’s Shard) being pitted against a social-media printing gizmo (Berg’s Little Printer).

There’s a lot of great stuff on show, but it was the projects that are demonstrably making people’s lives better that really caught our eye – and the rest of the designs rather suffered when compared against them.

We really loved the Little Sun designed by the artist Olafur Eliasson (the chap who installed the sun in the Tate’s Turbine Hall with The Weather Project) and and engineer Frederik Ottesen. It’s a low-cost solar powered LED lamp that gives up to five hours of light when fully charged. It’s designed to provide a practical, safe and efficient source of light for people living in rural communities off the electricity grid, helping them to work, study or cook at night.

It can be worn, hung or attached to walls, and is much safer and healthier than the kerosene lamp alternative.

And, even more brilliantly, folk in areas of the world with ready supplies of electricity (that’s you, dear reader) can buy them at full price, helping to make it available in off-grid communities at much lower prices.

Go shop.

Also helping kids in the developing world to read are the Child ViSion Glasses from the Centre for Vision in the Developing World, designed by the gents at Goodwin Hartshorn.

Designed to improve the eyesight of kids aged 12-18 (or possibly to create a Wally Olins clone army) these groovy self-adjustable specs use fluid-filled lens technology: a silicone oil is injected into the space between two membranes to adjust the prescription until it’s right for the user (the design is based on something similar for adults, the Adspecs, also developed by the CVDW).

The package includes a simple eye test, and the lenses can be adjusted by any adult. At this stage they’re still undergoing clinical trials, but heck, what a great idea.

Another stunning idea came from the folks at independent non-profit ColaLife, who have developed a novel way of getting life-saving medicines to people in rural areas of Africa – by hitching a ride with Coke.

They realised that soft-drinks giant Coca-Cola has an incredible distribution network: you can buy a Coca-Cola virtually anywhere in the developing world – but that in those same places 1 in 9 children die before their 5th birthday from simple, preventable causes like dehydration from diarrhoea.

ColaLife decided to piggyback on top of Coca-Cola’s distribution network, and developed the Aidpod, a package which can slot into the empty spaces left between soft drinks bottles when they’re stacked in a crate. The pods are designed to carry ‘social products’ – oral rehydration salts, high-dose vitamin A, water purification tablets – to save children’s lives. By using an already established network, medicines can reach communities for little or no cost.

The Kit Yamoyo, nominated for an award, is an Anti-diarrhoea pack which they’re trialling in Zambia at the moment. The original concept was by Simon & Jane Berry (founders of Colalife), with design by Tim Llewellyn for PI Global.

Read more about it all here.

Meanwhile, over in the Architecture category, we loved the renovation of Tour Bois le Prêtre: a 17 storey tower block, on the edge of the 17th Arrondisement in Paris, that was being threatened with demolition.

In 2005 a competition was organised by Paris Habitat, the Paris Office for Public Housing, to renovate the building. Lacaton & Vassal studio put together a retrofitting scheme for the block, using prefabricated balconies, which cost £15 million, around half of the projected demolition and rebuilding cost; and which also meant minimal disruption for the inhabitants of the block.

A pioneering example of how renovated buildings can create great housing. Be good to see some more of that sort of thing going on in the UK. (Read more about the project in this New York Times article.)

Over in the Graphics category, it was the new Australian cigarette packs that caught our eye.

Thanks to the Australian Tobacco Plain Packaging Act, as of 1 December 2012, all cigarettes sold there have to be sold in plain packaging. So there’s no branding to speak of, just warnings, graphic images of the dangers of smoking, and product names.

As the act states, this was done to: “(a)  reduce the appeal of tobacco products to consumers, (b)  increase the effectiveness of health warnings on the retail packaging of tobacco products, (c)  reduce the ability of the retail packaging of tobacco products to mislead consumers about the harmful effects of smoking or using tobacco products.”

It’s design doing the exact opposite of what it normally does. It’s ugly, unpleasant, and uncomfortable, and it’s intentionally trying to dissuade you from making a purchase. The packaging colour has been specified as Pantone 488C, after research by the Australian Department for Health and Ageing discovered it to be the least attractive colour for packaging.

Poor old 488C.

It’s not beautiful, but it may well be very effective.

Although.

It did remind us of the Death Cigarettes brand from the 90s, which was equally up front about the dangers of smoking.

It’ll be interesting to see if the Australian packs pick up a similar cachet amongst rebellious youth…

Other than those projects, the Zumbtobel Annual Report, by Brixton design studio Brighten the Corners and Anish Kapoor, is a real stunner, set in two parts, with one part consisting solely of a series of full-bleed chromatic spreads (you really need to have a copy in your hands to experience it properly).

And the Ralph Ellison series of book covers by Cardon Webb are also all kinds of lovely.

And of course, Thomas Heatherwick Studio’s lyrical Olympic Cauldron for the London 2012 is nominated too, and deservedly so. It was the design highpoint of the Olympics, and there was a real sense of awe watching it open and close during the ceremonies.

All in all it’s a fascinating show – but we definitely came away with the feeling that design is at its best when it’s directly helping make the world a better place.

And we were also struck by this bit of text from the permanent collection on the floor above the Designs of the Year show:

“The most successful designs are those that endure and continue to be relevant many years after they are first introduced. These are the icons that define the landscape of design. The bicycle, the ball-point pen and Anglepoise lamp are all examples, where the basic form has remained the same for decades.”

It’ll be really interesting to see if which, if any, of this year’s crop of designs endure for many years to come.

Designing the Extraordinary

We recently made our way over to the V&A to check out their new exhibition of work from the fantastic Heatherwick Studio, Designing the Extraordinary.

Thomas Heatherwick’s studio, established in 1994, creates work across a wide spectrum of disciplines: architecture, furniture, engineering, sculpture, transport and urban planning.

From their Rolling Bridge  (above) at the Grand Union Canal at Paddington Basin, which unfurls like the frond of a fern (you can see it do so at midday each Friday), to the extraordinary UK Pavilion (below) for the Shanghai Expo 2010, all of the studio’s work is informed by a fascination with materials and forms; and by a real joy in experimentation and exploration.

The densely-packed show features a wealth of models, products and test pieces from the studio. The gallery guide is even given the Heatherwick treatment – it’s stored on huge rolls of paper, reminiscent of the rolls used in the web-fed offset printing of newspapers. You turn a crank-handle to spool out your own guide from one of the rolls. It’s an engagingly lo-fi opener to the show, and hints at the playfulness of the work in the rest of the exhibition.

In London we’ll soon have a fleet of Heatherwick’s designs making their way round the city, as eight of the new London buses go into service in the capital. There’s been a whole heap of controversy about the buses – an abhorrently expensive vanity project for the city’s mayor, Boris Johnson; or a dazzling step forward in transport design, depending on who you’re speaking to.

The show, which runs until the end of September, is well worth a visit, and there’s an accompanying hefty tome, Thomas Heatherwick: Making from Thames & Hudson.

For more on Heatherwick, check out the Guardian’s guided tour of the show, and Mike Dempsey’s interview with Heatherwick on the RDI Insights page.

British Design 1948–2012

We nipped along this morning to the big new show at the V&A, British Design 1948-2012, a retrospective of the creative industries in Britain since the end of the Second World War. Timed to make the most of the Olympic hordes who’ll be hitting the capital this summer (the show ends the same day as the Olympic closing ceremony), it’s a clear attempt to grab back some of the glory from the sporting crowd. Which is no bad thing.

This is the first big exhibition of post-war design that the V&A has staged, and it covers fashion, furniture, fine art, graphic design, photography, ceramics, architecture and industrial products. It’s good to have all of that creative output lumped together, even if it does mean that you can only have a few key pieces from each discipline. Pleasingly there’s rather more graphic design than we’d anticipated, particularly from the period just after the war, with work from Abram Games, Edward Bawden, Reginald Mount, and David Gentleman.

The show is grouped into three main areas, Tradition & Modernity; Subversion; and Innovation and Creativity, which run more or less chronologically from 1948 to the present day. The three groupings don’t necessarily help, creating rather forced divisions between periods and styles. But there’s lots of great stuff on display, including four hand-painted maquettes for British road signs by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert; and a page from Design Research Unit’s British Rail Design Manual.

The second section, Subversion, deals mainly with the rise of the art school and a more youth oriented period of design – so you get Jamie Reid’s Sex Pistols posters, Vivienne Westwood’s punk clothing designs, some Beatles album covers, and of course Peter Saville, Barney Bubbles and Neville Brody. Which is all well and good, but unfortunately this part of the exhibition is designed with a rather clichéd underground vibe – lots of black walls and industrial fittings, which really cheapens the work on display, making it feel like we’re walking through some sort of gaudy themed tourist attraction.

The third section focuses more on manufacturing industries, technology and architecture. Somehow the curators have managed to use Apple’s iMac as a pioneering example of British technology design (Jonathan Ive, the iMac’s designer is from these shores, sure, but come on…). Elsewhere there’s a model of Concorde, an E-Type Jag, a Topper sailing boat, and Kenneth Grange’s Brownie Vecta camera.

Meanwhile, graphic design in this section is represented by Wolff Olins’ hideous London 2012 logo (it just doesn’t get any better does it?); their Orange logo from 1994, and Alan Fletcher’s lovely V&A logo from 1989 (rather happily referencing Ian Dennis’s National Theatre logo, which is shown earlier in the exhibition).

Our favourite exhibit though was these Globoots from 1969:

They were unique at the time of their production, being double dip-moulded in two different plastics, so that the translucent uppers and opaque soles were made in one piece, without seams. And crikey, don’t they look like a certain coloured computer designed in the USA by a British bloke called Jonny?

Our only real gripe is that it features way too much art. The show is British Design 1948-2012, not British Art & Design 1948-2012, but we’re treated to work from Henry Moore, Eduardo Paolozzi, Allen Jones, David Hockney and Damien Hirst. Obviously there’s crossover between the disciplines, and many of those artists worked in design as well as art, but the pieces shown are their artworks rather than their design pieces. So for example, we get Hockney’s We Two Boys Together Clinging painting rather than any of his fantastic stage designs. This seems like a real shame, given how much great design has had to be left out to make room for the art.

Overall though, it’s a great show, and anyone interested in design should get along quick smart.

The show opens on Saturday 31 March, and runs until 12 August.

Picture credit for top image: Children crossing sign, by Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir for the Ministry of Transport, 1964 © Margaret Calvert

The New Design Museum

So, as you may well know, the Design Museum in London is planning to move from its current home in Shad Thames right across town, and into the former Commonwealth Institute building, at “the wrong end of a Kensington shopping street” as architecture critic Stephen Bayley has previously put it.

 

The move won’t happen until 2014, but in the meantime, the museum’s latest newsletter has asked the design community to give some feedback on their proposals to the local council, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Unfortunately, the planning department has hosted the files in a way that really doesn’t invite much feedback, but it might be worth wading through them.

High Street Kensington does seem like a slightly strange place for the Design Museum to move to – it’s not really a part of town you immediately think of when you think about design – and that’s despite the presence of the Royal College of Art, and slightly further away the V&A. But the building is quite groovy, and they’ve got John Pawson on-board for the remodelling, so there’ll be stacks of clean white spaces to enjoy. And the plans do involve far more exhibition space, as well as lots more education space, which can only be a good thing.

And heck, how great would it be if there was space for a permanent collection of British graphic design?

T-Pylon

So the folks over at RIBA have announced Danish architecture, engineering and design studio Bystrup as the winner of their competition to redesign the standard British electricity pylon, with their T-Pylon design.

The design was praised by the judges for managing to reduce both the size and height of the pylons, and consequently the amount of materials used in their construction.

It’s not the most radical of the six shortlisted designs (out of the 250 entries), and it’s interesting to read that National Grid, who also sponsored the competition, are going to talk to the studios behind two of the other entries as well – including New Town Studio with their gorgeous Totem design (below).

 

 

 

Serpentine Pavilion 2011

We nipped over to the Serpentine Gallery over the weekend just in time to check out their latest pavilion (we’re a bit late on this one – it’s been up since the beginning of July, and comes down at the end of this week). It’s the 11th in their series of annual commissions, this time by architect Peter Zumthor.

Sometimes the pavilions can be architecturally audacious, but slightly disappointing as an actual experience. Here, that feeling is reversed – the architecture is restrained to the point of absolute minimalism: a simple black box, which frames a garden designed by Piet Oudolf (the chap behind New York’s brilliant High Line).

The black simplicity of the box feels very sombre, almost funereal – although this is slightly offset as you get closer to it, and realise that it has a rough, organic texture.

You walk into a corridor between two walls, which works to separate the internal garden from the outside world, helping to create a quiet, contemplative space. The light within the corridor was very beautiful in itself, with pools of daylight at the doorways:

We liked the fact that the black box playfully references the classic white box we associate with art galleries, and that inside it you find yourself contemplating the sky* and the other visitors as much as the garden. We were there on a dull autumnal day, and we’d love to see it at different times and in different weather conditions.

*In that resepect, it reminded us a great deal of the artist James Turrell’s work.

If you’ve not been, and can squeeze it in, it’s definitely worth a trip – and this weekend the Serpentine is holding a Garden Marathon, the 6th in their marathon series: a two day event with artists, scientists and thinkers exploring all manner of garden related ideas.

Good stuff.

Caroline Roberts on The Elephant and Castle

~ While Alistair is away cycling the length of Great Britain, we’ve invited twenty disgustingly talented people to each write a post for our blog. Today’s post is from one of our neighbours, the wonderful Caroline Roberts, co-editor of Grafik Magazine, and partner at the rather fine Woodbridge & Rees. ~

In an attempt to avoid the sweltering experience of traveling on the Underground I recently changed my journey to work, catching the Thameslink overground train from Elephant and Castle station.

The Elephant and Castle is an area I’ve actively dodged over the years, only stopping off for the odd vist to the now defunct Pizzeria Castello, the Ministry of Sound and LCC. Despite being a mere hop and a skip away from the City and the West End, it’s an area that has steadfastly resisted attempts at gentrification. The fumed filled-dual carriageway that rips through its centre, the confusing dual-roundabouts and dingy, disorientating (not to mention dangerous) walkways that pedestrians are forced down make for a totally depressing urban experience, of which no amount of jaunty murals or garish rebranding can alter.

Going to the station involves walking through the middle of the much maligned shopping centre, something I haven’t done for years. At 9am it’s a decidedly strange experience — there’s weird tinkly piped music and an even weirder collection of very multicultural shops including a Polish restaurant, a South American café, a discount shoe store, a shop selling cheap handbags, a pawn brokers and a very forlorn looking estate agent.

It wasn’t always like this — in the 1930s the area was known as “the Piccadilly of South London”, home to a department store, a shoe factory and several huge cinemas. The area was badly hit during the war and rebuilt in the 1960s to include a ground-breaking new shopping centre. The first ever covered shopping mall in Europe, it had 120 shops and an underground car park, but in true E&C style, due to some wildly inaccurate financial forecasting, the original plans had to be reduced, budgets were slashed, corners were cut and only twenty-nine shops actually opened.

Things have gone steadily downhill ever since. The large swathes of badly designed social housing that surround it and the problems that brought, coupled with lack of investment over the years meant that the shopping centre has been in a slow but pretty much continual decline. It’s hardly a surprise — creating a scheme where traffic is treated with more respect than pedestrians doesn’t encourage people to visit an area, and it seems blindingly obvious now (although not at the time apparently) that no-one would want to shop at the Elephant when they can get into the West End in ten minutes.

On his site Post War Buildings, Mike Althorpe describes the experience of walking through the shopping centre: “The odd combination of people, languages, noise, smells, bustle, subways, traffic and 1960s architecture is almost Blade Runner-esque. This is not entirely inappropriate. The Elephant and Castle is dystopian. It is an alternative future.”

It’s been decided that the only solution for the shopping centre is to knock it down and start again from scratch. You can understand why, although I have to say that I’ve developed a weird fondness for the place. It has a look, sound and smell (of fried food and desperation probably) that’s almost otherwordly, and it’s about as far from the slick, characterless retail environment of the likes of Westfield as you can get.

It’s not clear yet what exactly is in store for the new shopping centre — chances are it’ll be pretty bland though. Let’s just hope they don’t make the same mistakes again. Sad as the shopping centre has become, it seems a shame to demolish it completely, as most of its problems stem from the wider planning choices that were made for the area. It has a sort of crappy charm and an authenticity to it that will be stamped out in the name of ‘regeneration’. Like it or loathe it, The Elephant and Castle shopping centre is a London landmark. Maybe not as attractive as Trafalgar Square or Big Ben, but still very much part of the fabric of the city and a timely reminder of what can happen when things go wrong. I wonder what’s going to happen to the elephant? Let’s hope he’s returned to a more dignified greyish colour…

Further reading: The Car and The Elephant

 

~ Alistair is raising money for Cancer Research UK during his ride – please wander over to his Just Giving page and donate a little cash. ~

 

 

 

 

Phil Baines on remembering, the French way

~ While Alistair is away cycling the length of Great Britain, we’ve invited twenty disgustingly talented people to each write a post for our blog. Today’s post is from the redoubtable Phil Baines: designer, writer, teacher, and cyclist. ~

I’ve long had a fondness for wandering old cemeteries, seeing the variety of lettering and types of memorial, but in all my trips to France had given their graveyards little thought.

This summer however we spent two weeks in Azerables, a small village near the Creuse valley in northern Limousin, pretty close to the centre of the country. During the first (dull) day we explored the village on foot, and on one of the quieter roads out came across the sight of old greenhouses peeping over a low wall. This turned out to be the cemetery, detached from the church, and so very different to the British kind.

Very few of the graves had the upright carved stone, preferring instead a flat slab with lettering glazed onto ceramic, and occasionally steel, disks or rectangular plates, hung, screwed or inset. The variety of lettering, like our carved versions from the 18th and 19th centuries, was quite astonishing too, with many looking like pages from an old typesetting book or Nicolete Gray’s book Nineteenth century ornamented typefaces.

And then the greenhouses, an optional extra, a poor man’s version of the Grecian temple (some of which were also present), generally open-fronted and acting as protection to ornaments, beautiful ceramic flowers, occasional real ones, and additional plaques or photographs.

Its always a treat to see something familiar treated differently, and this cemetery was a pleasure to explore. It was lovely to see the care lavished on all aspects of the markers, the variety of slabs, the profusion of lettering styles, and the introduction of these iron and glass mini-cathedrals to contain the flowers, other tablets and carriers of memory. A pleasure too to see how remarkably well cared for everything was. Azerables spoiled me though: elsewhere the double-glazing salesmen have been round, modern alternatives now exist, factory-made industrial units, without the individual touches which make the originals such a treat. They serve the same purpose, but don’t fit in at all.

 

~ Alistair is raising money for Cancer Research UK during his ride – please wander over to his Just Giving page and donate a little cash. ~

How to build an igloo