Frei Otto (1925-2015): congratulations and R.I.P.

A model of Frei Otto's groundbreaking roof membranes

A model of Frei Otto’s groundbreaking roof membranes

The German architect and structural engineer Frei Otto sadly passed away just one day ahead of him being announced as their year’s winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize. Otto was seldom listed among the most celebrated architects of his generation – people like Kenzō Tange, Giancarlo de Carlo, Justus Dahinden, Peter Eisenman and Norman Foster – but often received quiet praise for his innovative efforts at combining expressive design with bold structural engineering. Many will remember him for creating the roofing for main sports facilities in the Munich Olympic Park for the 1972 Summer Olympics, 1968–1972, a task he solved in collaboration with his German college Günter Behnisch.Truth is, Otto was more of a team player than a solo star. In an architectural world that loves starchitects, powerful individuals (predominantly male) and outspoken, talismanic, “larger than life” kind of personalities, a humble figure like Otto could hardly expect to produce more than small ripples in the media water. His words upon getting the message about the Pritzker Award (which he did, luckily enough) says a lot:

“I’ve never done anything to gain this prize. Prizewinning is not the goal of my life.”

That said, he did collect some prestigious awards over the years: The Wolf Prize (1996/97), the Royal Medal for Architecture by RIBA (2005), and the Praemium Imperiale (2006), to list a few.

The 1972 München Summer Olympics Sports Park, by Otto & Behnisch.

The 1972 München Summer Olympics Sports Park, by Otto & Behnisch.

I will not linger too much on details from his vast career (you can read more here and here). Instead, I will simply reflect a little bit on the three things that immediately came to my mind when I was alerted to his latest prize winning achievement.

Tensile and membrane structures

Pretty obvious, I know, but it’s hard not to associate Otto with these words. Such structures are very common in architecture today, not least because innovators like Otto managed to revolutionize and utilize tensile and membranes in completely new ways in the postwar period. The concept was invented in the late 19th century by the Russian architect and engineer Vladimir Shukhov, whose work was on display during the 1896 All-Russia Exhibition. While that was a stunning achievement, it did not necessarily mean that thin-shell structures would become a dominant force within architecture and modern engineering. Otto’s greatest achievement in this regard, which the 1972 Olympic Stadium exemplifies, was that he managed to expand the flexibility of use as well as the scale. He needed less material, less reinforcement, to do the same structural job as Shukhov’s work in the late 19th century.

Form follows nature/nature follows form

Another great invention of Otto’s was the use of tensile and membranes in relation to natural surroundings. The 1972 München design was the first example in the history of modern stadium architecture of a large-scale arena that was not in conflict with its context. Until that moment, most stadiums had been inward-looking and closed. The larger the scale, the lesser the contact with the outside world. Otto (and Behnisch) managed to challenge that tendency, which remains a significant feat.

Collaboration

As previously mentioned, Otto was a team builder. The majority of big projects he was involved in throughout his career were collaborative by default. This way his thoroughness, his scientific approach, his eye for details could benefit the creativity of others. And he kept developing himself too, by constantly engaging with new projects, new colleagues, new contexts. In many ways he is the antithesis to the strong-willed individual architectural genius, as portrayed in the 1949 Hollywood film The Fountainhead (directed by King Vidor, based on Ayn Rand‘s book by the same name). And for that, we should all be thankful.

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Concrete: the miracle material

Adrian Forty lecturing at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, 5 March 2015.

Adrian Forty lecturing at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, 5 March 2015.

The revival of this blog coincides with today’s inspiring lecture by Adrian Forty at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design. The heading of Forty’s lecture was “Old or New” and the main topic of his talk was continuities and new trajectories in the use of exposed concrete in architectural practices. Although slightly different in content and deliverance, the lecture certainly aligned itself with Concrete and Culture: A Material History (2012), Forty’s most recent book.

The lecture was structured around three dichotomies that Forty used as frameworks for detecting similarities and differences between postwar concrete architecture and concrete architecture in the 1990s and 2000s, the most recent era in which architects around the world have used exposed concrete extensively.

1. Heroic, precise/unpredictable, inexact

Concrete architecture in the postwar period was marked by heroism and precision, according to Forty. The precise aspect comes from the meticulous and scientific testing of concrete, to map its sculptural flexibility and supporting strength. The heroic aspect comes from the fact that many concrete buildings were erected to impress, as the structural fortitude of concrete enabled the construction of a visual weightlessness hardly seen before in the history of architecture. Forty used the term “magical material” and showed a range of different examples, including Denys Lasdun‘s Royal College of Physicians in London (1960-64). The hovering box volumes of that building are typical of the heroic spirit of 1960s concrete architecture, which often includes large volumes that “seems to float on nothing really”, as Forty put it.

The Royal College of Physicians by Denys Lasdun (1960-64).

The Royal College of Physicians by Denys Lasdun (1960-64).

Most concrete architecture of recent years, however, has nothing exact or heroic about it, according to Forty. He used the sagging concrete of the Portuguese Pavilion at the Lisbon Expo in 1998 as an example of both trends. The dented roof structure certainly lacks the clear-cut precision of 1960s concrete architecture but it could be argued, perhaps, that there is a different kind of precision at play in Álvaro Siza‘s work. Not visually – the uneven surface also has a anti-heroic, fragile feel to it – but structurally, as it takes quite a lot of technical and mathematical skill to conceive such an irregular and unpredictable slab of concrete. Fragile, yes, but on the other hand: isn’t it quite audacious, and therefore rather heroic, to design such a structure? Forty’s categories are certainly helpful in approaching this material but not flawless.

The Portuguese Pavilion at the Lisbon Expo in 1998, designed by Álvaro Siza.

The Portuguese Pavilion at the Lisbon Expo in 1998, designed by Álvaro Siza.

2. Exterior/interior

It is easier to make a coherent argument about old and new trajectories under this heading. It seems to have been far more common to use concrete as an external material in the postwar period than it is today. Forty’s examples include Louis Kahn‘s Salk Institute in San Diego and the Silver Towers in New York by I.M. Pei & Associates. These examples reveal a keen fascination with the aesthetic powers of raw concrete, which are amplified by being contrasted with marble paving and wooden panels. These qualities help explaining why concrete, despite obvious technical difficulties, was used extensively as an external material. Forty relates this glorification of the exterior through concrete to the pioneering work of Auguste Perret, who managed to turn concrete into a noble material.

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, San Diego. Designed by Louis Kahn (1959).

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, San Diego. Designed by Louis Kahn (1959).

Recent buildings, like the Kunsthaus Bregenz by Peter Zumthor, tell a different story. Many of them are defined by translucent and semi-opaque qualities on the outside, with an abundance of concrete on the inside. External exposure is rare, concrete is mainly used as an internal finish. There are both aesthetic and thermal reasons for this. Concrete does not stand weathering very well. On the inside of a building, however, it has the potential to shine a number of contrasting ways. Forty used the new Art Gallery in Walsall as a prime example. It contains an imitation of a timber roof, a neat overlapping of wooden panels and traces of panel in concrete and many other internal finishes that display the subtle capacity of concrete.

3. Positive/neutral

This last dichotomy was used by Forty to differentiate between buildings that allow concrete to draw attention to itself as substance (the postwar period) and buildings that use concrete to create neutrality. The first category resembles the heroic qualities mentioned above: the point is to utilize the aesthetic qualities to such an extent that concrete becomes the main architectural focus. The opposite approach involves architecture taking a step back, for instance by allowing people to be the aesthetic focus. A neutral, non-spectacular concrete framework can do that job. Or concrete can be used to mimic other “featureless” materials, like the cardboard-like exterior of Peter Eisenman‘s House 2. Upon completion the building was colorless, lacking in character – neutral.

The Hayward Gallery, London, by Herron, Engleback and Chalk (1968).

The Hayward Gallery, London, by Herron, Engleback and Chalk (1968).

Forty mentioned a couple of other examples that may fit into this category while also adding a level of ambiguity. The concrete exterior of London’s Hayward Gallery, designed by the Archigram trio Ron Herron, Norman Engelback and Warren Chalk, was produced through a lot of artful carpentry, striking in detail. But the overall concept, Forty explained, was formed by the idea of the city as a single building; a concept in which architectural individuality is completely removed. Archigram. While this is hardly possible in practice – especially not in the case of Hayward Concrete, where concrete, in Forty’s word, “is monstrously apparent” – the intention of hiding and neutralizing buildings nevertheless remains a potent source of inspiration. Another example is

The Habitat 67 in Montreal. Designed by Moshe Safdie (1967).

The Habitat 67 in Montreal. Designed by Moshe Safdie (1967).

in Montreal, designed by Moshe Safdie and built for the 1967 Expo. The project was conceived when Safdie did his master’s thesis in architecture at McGill University, and was not necessarily going to be made in concrete. It eventually became a powerful assembly of concrete modules but that was never the architect’s main focus. Safdie was deeply concerned with the characteristic construction system, not the materials.

This particular focus, argued Forty, relates to Roland Barthes‘ thoughts about freeing literature from the traditional rhetorical devices. These ideas emerged from Barthes’ writings in the 1960s and 1970s. This dream of a world empty of meaning, the possibility of outwitting the paradigm, a search for something that would not be imbedded in discourse, the image of an idea that stands above the thing etc. has been a driving force in architecture. Forty mentioned Gottfried Semper as an example of an architect who did not want the substance of the building to get in the way of his architectural ideas. Paradoxically, Semper studied materials meticulously but nonetheless wanted to mask them.

This quest of material denial never really worked though, admitted Forty, as he rounded off the lecture and opened for questions from the audience.

To me, this lecture was both inspiring and enjoyable, especially since – despite Forty’s substantial research into the matter – much still remains to be said about concrete in architecture. Its remains a miracle material, not just for the architects but for researchers too.

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What’s the story (Oslo glory)

The master has returned to Oslo after a truly great stay in London. This blog has been sadly neglected since I did a short report on the latest (and also the last, as it turned out) R.E.M. album, which turned out to be a huge disappointment. Good thing they disbanded before the ship really sank to the bottom of the ocean of musical has-beens. Well, enough said about that.

Arne Garborgs plass: a sophisticated tunnel system that disctates the traffic puls of central Oslo

It has been a pretty busy autumn in Oslo. My return to the city was of course marked by the tragic incidents of July 22, when a total of 77 people were killed in the worst onslaught ever to be seen in the modern history of Norway. I will not get into further detail but I must however mention that the tragic event has influenced by work a little bit. I normally take students in the Norwegian Architecture course for a guided tour of the Government buildings, which got hit when terror was unleashed in July. We could only visit the site at a distance this year. Also, one of my PhD case studies – the Arne Garborgs plass (see picture above) below the Y Block – is almost out of reach. This is nothing compared to the tragedy itself, which caused the deaths of many young people and left the survivors badly traumatized. Still, it says something about the extensive reach of the operation that shocked the capital.

The dismantling of Bispelokket made us cry

Oddly enough, yet another of my case studies is about to disappear. The Bispelokket roundabout in downtown Oslo – a wonderful traffic machine from the late 1960s – is being dismantled these days (see picture above). If you are eager to know more about this process, check out the forthcoming edition of Morgenbladet. Good thing my third case study, the Sinsen interchange, is still working as normal.

Since I sold my previous flat before I moved to London I had to go through the ju-ju of finding a new crib upon my return. It was not an easy task as the property market seemed to veer towards stupidly high prices. People’s low appreciation of 1960s architecture turned out to be my rescue once again. After a couple of weeks of endless searching, bidding ridiculous amounts of money for mediocre places,  there was a gap in the market.  A spacious and lovely flat on the fourth floor of Vardøgata 1 was available and I seized the occasion.

Oh, behold: the new crib

Vardøgata 1 is situated right on Trondheimsveien, one of the most important Oslo thoroughfares. My livingroom is facing the road but a well crafted sound insulation reduces the noise of traffic to a minimum. I actually like having the road as my closest neighbour. I am a road scholar after all. Trondheimsveien provides a nice contrast to my backyard, which is quiet and dominated by wooden houses from the 19th century, and it is convenient because there is a bus and tram stop just outside my door. The metro at Carl Berners plass is never far away either.

The neighbourhood itself is very nice indeed. Rodeløkka is one of the few areas that contain preserved wooden houses in Oslo. Every morning I walk through the narrow streets, which give me a sense of living in a small fisherman’s village. The street names add to this feeling. Bodøgata, Tromsøgata, Vardøgata….perhaps the neighbourhood was founded by former fishermen from Northern Norway who, by a misfortunate turn of fate, found themselves in Oslo, looking for a job like we all do. Anyhow, I cannot complain about the closest surroundings. The building even has a roof terrace – very uncommon in Norway – which allows for a panorama of the area. The position in the city is favourable as well, close to the trendy bars at Grünerløkka and my workplace, the Oslo School of Architecture and Design.

A room with a view: the Rodeløkka neighbourhood seen from my bedroom window

Now that I have all my stuff organized and all my eccentric musical instruments in place, life is good. Such a boring thing to say but it is true. If only winter could be a little shorter than yesteryear. It is getting close now, wrappings its icy fingers around us more tightly for each passing day. On the other hand: I need to stay indoors continuously after new years to finish my PhD. Weather and temperature is of no concern. All I need is strong coffee, an updated version of Championship Manager 3 and a comprehensive library. These factors are all within reach so I should be able to finish according to plan.

That is all for now. The next entry will hopefully be less personal and more professional/academic. Nothing is more dull than reading about someone’s happy life in a perfect home. I apologize for that.

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The new R.E.M. album

R.E.M.'s new album: Collapse Into Now

A beautiful day in London culminated with the purchase of R.E.M.’s latest studio album Collapse Into Now, which had its European release today. I’ve listened to R.E.M. since the early 1990s and I became a fan in the summer of 1997. At that point, as a 16 year old country boy, I suddenly realized – for some strange reason that I cannot recount – that R.E.M. was greater that any other band I had discovered up until then; even greater than Nirvana, which really was the band that got me seriously hooked on music in the first place.

Anyway, enough about my uninteresting past. Collapse Into Now is R.E.M.’s fifteenth studio album in a career that has spanned three decades. Their previous studio album Accelerate came out in 2008. That album was considered by many critics as a return to form after the rather dismal Around the Sun from 2004. I have listened to Accelerate quite a lot since its release so when I picked up the new album today I was cautiously optimistic. You never know with old heroes. Even the greatest of the great seem to lose it at some point. If you’re lucky they manage to swoop back with a late surge of glory, for instance like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. With an experienced band like R.E.M. you always have to brace yourself for a sudden trip down to Spinal Tap level.

So what is my immediate impression after the first run-through? Well, there’s certainly some unmistakeable R.E.M. qualities here. I was not totally convinced by the opening tracks, “Discover”, “All the best” and “Überlin”, but when I got to tracks 4 and 5 I liked what I heared. Compared to the opening trio these songs are low-key, Automatic for the People-ish. They’ve obviously taken some of the guitar riff left-overs from the last record with them, but this time around they seem to have hit the luckiest strokes with the quiet tunes. The musical scope is much more diverse in comparison with Accelerate, so I will probably need more time to decipher the soundscapes, not to mention Michael Stipe’s lyrcis. Fortunately enough he puts them on print nowadays. Or maybe it’s not so fortunate, but we’ll see.

I have just heard the last song, “Blue”, which contains a brilliant vocal performance by guest singer Patti Smith. That’s to my liking! I’m also curious to get back to the other guest performers, e.g. Eddie Vedder and Peaches, when I do the next round of listening. I promise to provide a more accurate, detailed and thorough review when I’ve had more time with the album.

All I can say for now is that Collapse Into Now is definitely worth the 10 quid I payed for it at HMV, Oxford Street.

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Crap Towns

A few weeks back I went into the lovely second-hand bookshop at the Camden Market to look for interesting books at affordable prices.  £4 later I was the proud owner of Crap Towns II – the Nation decides, a humorous collection of the 50 worst places to live in the UK. As the title suggests the book, published in 2004, is a follow-up to Crap Towns (2003), in which the initial list of crappy places was introduced. The books, which are edited by Sam Jordison and Dan Kieran, are based on the votes of the people of Britain, whose well-known enthusiasm for slagging their hometowns reaches a new high with these publications.

The first volume did spark some controversy when it came out. Many local people,  council politicians, journalists etc. were offended by the fact that their city was represented on the list. Others, however, accepted the shameful position and acknowledged the element of humor attributed to the line-up. And some were even disappointed that their hometown didn’t make the top 50.  A second volume containing new contenders as well as a reconsideration of the previous was therefore needed. In their introduction to the second volume, Jordison and Kieran explain the motivation behind Crap Towns II:

BRITAIN IS STILL CRAP. If the publication of the first book of Crap Towns proved anything, it was that there’s an unlimited supply of undesirable places in the UK. It was a huge success and, we’re happy to say, in spite of a few understandably aggrieved local burghers and conservative worthies, most people found it quite funny. There was, however, a problem. ‘Why the hell isn’t Luton in there?’

(In Jordison, Sam & Dan Kieran (eds.), Crap Towns II, London: Boxtree, p. 1)

Luton: UK's crappiest tow

Unsurprisingly enough, Luton is topping the chart in the second volume. I shall not bore you with the complete list but the Top 10, or the Bottom 10 if you like, runs as follows:

I am happy to reveal that I’ve been to no less than three of these places (Edinburgh, Clapham and Bath). Plus I’ll be spending next weekend in Nottingham. But I can’t imagine what a place like Nottingham is doing on this list. According to trustworthy rumours, the city provides the best ale in the whole UK, Harvest Pale. This product is apparently so good that it ought to be be made illegal, out of safety reasons.

Anyway, I was also puzzled, but not at all surprised, to find Hackney on the list. Although it has been moved from 10th to 12ft place in volume II, certain aspects of Hackney never seize to generate harsh critique. I qoute from Matthew De Abaitua’s description:

Hackney’s psychic weather is a battle between the low-pressure front og gentification – drifting up from Hoxton and across the preservation area around London Fields and the high pressure above Clapton, which continues to press layers of deprivation and derangement down upon the borough.

(…) The metropolitan bourgeoisie, after a few glasses of red, might roll their eyes at one another and mutter darkly about living close to ‘the front line’, but the north-eastern corner of the borough, Clapton, is worse than that. Is is interzone; it is down the rabbit-hole wrong. It’s the only place I have gone into a newsagent and asked the woman behind the counter how her weekend went, only for her to reply, ‘I died, but they resuscitated me, and now I am back at work.’

(De Abaitua, Matthew, “Hackney – Justitia turris nostra”,
In Jordison, Sam & Dan Kieran (eds.), Crap Towns II, London: Boxtree, p. 85-87)

De Abaitua is definitely right about the pitfalls of gentrification, as I have written about on this blog before. But the rest of his account is clearly out of date. Well, you do see some drugs about in the streets, but certainly not as openly as described above. As for violence, even the notorious Clapton Road has improved (I will write more about that in a forthcoming entry). That said, I must admit that I have witnessed two violent episodes just around the corner from where I live: A man who assaulted a woman by kicking her in the back – very nasty and frightening, I must say – and a guy who was thrown off the bus at St. Thomas’s Square, who promptly turned to the bus driver to ‘kill his ass’. Another unsettling episode, but at least I learned a new expression. Might come in handy in case I need to kill some ass or other parts of someone else’s body in the future.

These episodes do no doubt qualify as crap. But apart from that I do not find Hackney particularly crappy or unattractive in any way. Maybe I’m biased because I live here, altough only temporarily, or maybe the beautiful sunshine that greated me on the balcony at noon today have clouded my judgement. I do not agree with him in all matters, particularly not his nostalgic whining about how marvelous Hackney was in the past, but I have to admit that I share some of Iain Sinclair‘s great love for the borough. And who can blame us, when you see images like this?

 

The green space/playground below my balcony at 12 Fairchild House

"The sun is shining and the grass is green"

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Are you local?

“This is a local shop for local people, there’s nothing for you here.”

Local shop for local people

“Pay attention to the cracked streets
And the broken homes
Some call it the slums
Some call it nice
I want to take you through
a wasteland I like to call my home
Welcome To Paradise

The streets in my neighbourhood are quite typical for what’s happening in Hackney at the moment. Gentrification equals Tescofication: old buildings are demolished to make way for generic department store architecture that houses corporate monsters like Tesco, Liedl and (in)Sainsbury’s. But the monsters haven’t swallowed the whole area yet. Crammed between the sterile monuments of the so-called regeneration of the borough lie small shops, kiosks and tobacco joints that seem to have been there since the dawn of urban mankind.

Like so many of the politically correct young people (I’ll deal with them later in the text) who live in the area I tend to avoid the fancy new shops. Instead, I slowly by slowly explore the old ones, browsing for knick knacks, curiosa, trivial artifacts and fresh vegetables. An absolute favourite of mine is This-n-That in Terrace Road (see image above), a discount store that provides you with some of the things you need and, more importantly, most of the things you never would have guessed that you needed – or even wanted – but buy anyway, just for the hell of it. This particular shop reminds me of two fictionary shops from the world of BBC: the Nabootique in the third series of the Mighty Boosh and the local shop for local people in the League of Gentlemen.

Nabootique

This-n-That has the aesthetic qualities of the Nabootique and the quirky, lurid character of the local shop for local people. For those of you who haven’t seen the series, click on this link to see the full first episode. You should however skip this link if you are cursed with a nervous mind or a weak stomach, or both. Unlike the poor souls who visit the local shop in Royston Vasey I think I have a pretty fair chance of surviving my daily visits to the local shops in South Hackney. But survival is a big issue, not for the customers (let’s hope…) but for the shops themselves.

From Local to Glocal?

This question relates to ongoing discussions on cities in transformation. According to the Australian Sociologist David C. Thorns one cannot deal with the issue of local communities without taking a global perspetive into consideration. The social sciences have been occupied (maybe even obsessed) with ‘consumption landscapes’, as Thorns puts it, for the past decades. This has to do with the fact that “Consumerism is seen as one of the driving forces of economic, political and social life. The global nature of the world requires us to see urban change as an interrelated process.” (In Thorns, David C., The Transformation of Cities, Houndsmils, Basingstoke: Palgrave/MacMillan, 2002, p. 69). Consequently, “The Consideration of home and identity leads to thinking about the way broader spaces within the city are organized. ” (Ibid, p. 107). And, to make matters even more difficult to follow, one must not forget the impact of neoliberalism, which the American scholar Edward W. Soja describes as “…perhaps the dominant glocal ideology and most influential “ideoscape” of the contemporary world.” (In Soja, Edward W., Postmetropolis, Oxford: Blackwell, p. 216).

One way of trying to deal with my naive but highly complex opening question is to go directly to the source, to analyse the community. But as Thorns accounts for, ‘community’ is not a simple and straightforward concept. On the contrary, it is a multi-faceted word that signifies a host of different meanings and connotations (Thorns, 2002, p. 107-108). This is however not the time and place to analyse South Hackney in all it’s multitude. I will save that for later. What I will do though is to introduce you to one of the most distinct features of globalization in East London, a factor that’s more threatening to the local environment than Tesco, Liedl and Sainsbury’s combined: the urban hipster.

The rise of the idiots

“The idiots are self-regarding consumer slaves , oblivious to the paradox of their uniform individuality”

(the opening line of Dan Ashcroft’s vicious attack on British hipster culture in Nathan Barley).

South Hackney is crawling with young urban hipsters. In fact, the area is so full of them that one could possibly make a perfectly good living out of selling organic hot pants. It is not quite as disturbing as Dalston, where the hipster density is so high that the sun is constantly blocked out by funny little hats, but still. I haven’t yet dared to visit the Broadway Market, which apparently is so hip and organic that it makes you want to start a political party with things like oil sand refining, cluster bomb production and mountain top removal on the main agenda.

How to detect them? Well, that’s easy. Just look out for melodramatic, stuck-up girls with ridiculously tall shoes and self-important young men on tiny, tiny bikes. And they all wear extremely slim pants (at least these people will never be capable of reproduction). When they’re not spending time looking for organic food and rare vinyl records they are probably sat in the nearest cafe, carefully plotting out their latest work of genius on state-of-the-art iMacs. Highly annoying indeed. All I can do is to pass on this message from uncle Edward and hope that they read the blog – I’m sure they all read blogs, the muppets – and take notice of it:

“You people are all alike, You march in here, young! try and touch the local things.”

If you happen to be a young urban hipster: let that be a lesson to you.

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The Senate House Library

The Senate House - monumentality on display

This is the view that greets me every morning on weekdays: the mighty monumentality of the Senate House, where I spend most of my working days in London. The Senate House is situated in the heart of Bloomsbury and I have quick access to it from the bus stop in Bloomsbury Way. It takes me about 40 minutes to get here on the 55 bus from Hackney, which isn’t too bad for London. Traffic can be a right state in this narrow city so anything less than an hour to work must be ok.

The Senate House contains the main administration of the University of London, the School of Advanced Study and the Senate House Library collection. Personally I’m there to enjoy the latter. I will get to that later in this entry.

As you can see from the opening image the building is blessed (or perhaps cursed) with a pretty powerful facade. The heavy monumentality of the architecture is the work of the English architect Charles Holden, whose countless projects in the 1920s and 1930s earned him a RIBA Gold Medal in 1936. Holden designed many of London’s underground stations during this period. The Senate House is one of his major works, with a construction period of 5 years (1932-1937). It was the second tallest building (after St. Paul’s) on completion.

Holden’s design can be described as a stripped-down, strict classicism with a touch of art deco. The massive verticality of the facase is emphasized by the staircase, which makes up the central axis of the exterior. The distinct verticality is somewhat kept in check by the horizontal bands that articulate the building’s floor elevation. The monotone colour of the Portland stone, a limestone that hails from the Isle of Portland, Dorset,  ads to the monolithic aura.

Personally I’m not sure whether I should fear it or love it. Anyhow, the awe-inspiring quality of the architecture has given the Senate House quite a lot of attention from film makers. It is hardly surprising that the facade was used for exterior shots of the Ministry of Truth in Michael Radford‘s adaptation of George Orwell‘s 1984. It also features in Batman Begins and in the opening shot of the music video for Garbage‘s James Bond track, “The World is not enough“. Quite a history.

Let me take you on a guided tour via the route I follow every morning:

Entrance to the North Block

This is where I enter my area of interest, the section that contains Geography, Sociology and Philosophy literature. I go through this door and enter the second floor via the adjacent staircase (or the elevator if I’m lazy, which happens on occasion). When there, on the second floor, I skip past the library barrier by an elegant swipe of my student library card. Or maybe I have to visit this place before I enter:

The Men's Lavatory

Well, you all know what happens in this particular room so I shall not bother you with unpleasant details (My goodness, someone has made a terrible mess in the garbage disposal section).

The corridor of the Geography section

After a quiet walk through two relatively uninteresting corridors – who would want to spend their short life in the section for Economic calculations? – I arrive at this place, the corridor that leads to each of the cosy rooms of the Geography section. Here I can bask in everything from the geography of Southern Wales to urban theory, mobility studies and landscape design. It is in other words perfectly suited to my needs.

Man of action, with things to do

If I do not finish my thesis on time I certainly cannot blame the fascilities.

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