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Metropolitan traffic policeman controls traffic in Fleet Street, London in 1960 before traffic lights and roundabouts came in to regular use. Credit: English Heritage/National Motor Museum

Few people would associate the words "English heritage" with car showrooms, repair garages, filling stations, traffic lights, inner ring roads, multi-storey car parks, and drive-through restaurants. Yet, the exhibition Carscapes: How the Motor Car Reshaped England draws our attention to the country's motoring patrimony and shows that the car's impact on the physical environment needn't be reduced to ruthless out pours of concrete and "wayside eyesores".

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The Esso filling station on the A6 at Leicester is one of the few surviving buildings commissioned from industrial designer Eliot Noyes by Mobil. Steve Cole/English Heritage

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Laurel Garage, Ramsbury, Wiltshire. Peter Williams/English Heritage

The first motor cars entered the country in the late 19th Century. New buildings, signage, rules and systems had to be invented for dusty roads that so far had only been crisscrossed by horse traffic. It is only recently that we have started to value the infrastructures that have facilitated their construction, sale and maintenance of cars. "It took the best part of 100 years for the railway infrastructure to be appreciated," argue Kathryn Morrison and John Minnis in the book Carscapes: The Motor Car, Architecture, and Landscape in England, "now it is the turn of the car."

Many of these buildings, road signs and infrastructures have disappeared, others are under threat of being demolished or are decaying beyond repairs but English Heritage has started to list motoring heritage sites in England. The exhibition at Wellington Arch shows archives images, contemporary photos and a series of motoring memorabilia. It also explores the impact that motor car have had on the planning of cities, towns and on the countryside.

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Argyll's Car Showroom, Newman Street, London in 1905, which featured a lift to the rooftop where cars were taken for 'grooming'. Credit: English Heritage/National Motor Museum

Below are some of the most spectacular buildings and road systems i discovered in the exhibition:

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Bibendum on the facade of the Michelin Building. Image Picky Glutton

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Michelin Building, Fulham Road, London. Credit: English Heritage/National Motor Museum. Credit: English Heritage/National Motor Museum

Bibendum aka the Michelin Man!! Michelin Building on London's Fulham Road is now a restaurant but it was built to house the first permanent UK headquarters and tyre depot for the Michelin Tyre Company Ltd. It also function as advertisement for the company with its corner domes that resemble sets of tyres and the large stained-glass windows starring the cheerful "Bibendum."

The building opened for business on 20 January 1911.

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Brewer Street car park, London. Photo Retrorides

When the Lex (now NCP) car park opened in Soho in 1928, its architects were catering for the rich men who could afford the luxury of a car. The Art Deco architecture thus also housed a cafe (for car-owners) and a separate canteen for chauffeurs.

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Anglo-American Oil Company (Pratts) Filling Station, Euston Road

The photo above shows one of the earliest filling stations to open in London. It was built by F.D. Huntington in 1922. Each pump was manned by a uniformed attendant.

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An early AA Filling Station, Stump Cross, Essex. Credit: English Heritage/The AA/Hampshire Record Office

This was one of the six filling stations built by the Automobile Association in 1919-20, the first to be opened in Great Britain, and originally selling only British-made benzole.

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The Markham Moor petrol station in Nottingham. Steve Cole/English Heritage

In 2012, English Heritage granted listed status on two 1960s petrol-station canopies - one on the A6 near Leicester (photo on top of the page but check out also this night view) and the other at Markham Moor, Nottingham.

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The first vehicles rolling off the production line at Dagenham in October 1931

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The Ford factory. Credit: English Heritage/National Motor Museum

When it opened in 1931, the Ford factory on the banks of the Thames at Dagenham was the largest car factory in Europe. The nearest building in this 1939 photograph is the power station. Behind it, fuel for the power station and furnaces is unloaded from ships via a double-decked jetty.

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Coventry Inner Ring Road. Image: English Heritage Archives

Coventry Inner Ring Road built between 1962 and 1974 is one of the most highly developed and tightly drawn inner ring roads of any city in England.

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In 1963, the M4 motorway was extended on a continuous viaduct, seen here under construction, running above the existing road. Credit: English Heritage/National Motor Museum

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Wellington Arch in 1930. Credit: English Heritage

The Wellington Arch was built in 1828 but Victorian traffic jams meant that in 1883, the Arch was dismantled and moved some 20 metres to its current location. Between 1958 and 1960, to further ease congestion - this time from motorised transport - Hyde Park Corner was altered and the Arch separated from Constitution Hill by a new roadway.

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An exterior view of the shop front of the Metallurgique Car Company's shop at 237 Regent Street. Photo English Heritage

Metallurgique was a Belgian company which opened the first car showroom on Regent Street in 1913

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M62 at night as traffic passes around the Stott Hall Farm. Photo Si Barber

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Romford in 1920 was still a country town with gardens and fields behind the market square. Today, engulfed within suburbia, it is completely urban and surrounded by car parks and relief roads

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This view of Reading in 1971 exemplifies what was going on all round England at that time as new inner ring roads made their mark on the urban environment

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Preston Bus Station and Car Park, built in the 60s, is now a Grade II listed building

More images on The Guardian, Heritage Calling and itv.

Carscapes: How the Motor Car Reshaped England is at the Wellington Arch until 6 July 2014.

Sponsored by:





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Trees, Woolsington, 1967-8 by Gordon Ryder of Ryder and Yates. Listed grade II. Photo James O Davies/English Heritage

Brutal and Beautiful: Saving the Twentieth Century was a very small but enlightening exhibition that celebrated post-war listed architecture in England. I went to see the show one day before it closed so, for once, i have a good excuse for the ridiculously late review. It took place at the Quadriga Gallery, on the second floor of Wellington Arch right in the middle of Hyde Park Corner. I don't think i had ever been to Hyde Park Corner before.


Brutal & Beautiful: What is Brutalism?, one of the films by Alun Bull, James O Davies and Leon Seth about twentieth century listed buildings, written and presented by architectural historian, Elain Harwood

Brutal and Beautiful, thus. The images below speak for themselves and I won't need to comment much on the adjective 'beautiful', even if, for many people, their aesthetic qualities are somewhat debatable. But brutal, in this context, requires a few lines of explanation. It comes from the term New Brutalism coined by architects Alison and Peter Smithson in 1953 to define a style that used the béton brut (raw concrete) as much as it used light and innovative materials. The term probably contributed to the unpopularity of the style but in fact, what the Smithsons had in mind was not concrete aggressively poured all over the country but 'honesty of expression and of natural materials.' This is therefore not a show about brutalism even though the style has a strong presence in the gallery.

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Engineering Building, Leicester, 1961-1963 by Stirling and Gowan. Listed grade IIº. Photo James O Davies/English Heritage

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Centre Point, designed 1959-1962 by George Marsh of Richard Selfert and Partners, built in 1962-1966. Listed grade II. Photo James O Davies/English Heritage

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RAF Upper Heyford, 1950-1. Photo © James Davies, English Heritage

The exhibition presents brutal and beautiful cathedrals, libraries private houses, landscapes, war memorials, schools and industrial buildings. They were built between 1945 and the 1980s, in times of austerity and boldness. Each of them has been listed which means that they may not be demolished, extended, or altered without special permission from the local planning authority. Buildings and landscapes can be considered for designation once they are 30 years old. Younger structures can be protected when they are under severe threat or are considered outstanding, that's how the Lloyd's building became the youngest listed edifice. And ultimately, the exhibition invites us to rethink what makes a historic building:

Now the Royal Festival Hall and Coventry Cathedral are popularly admired but at the time post-war listings were fiercely debated and the future Tate Modern was rejected. Brutal & Beautiful looks at our love/hate relationship with England's recent architectural past and asks 'what is worth saving?'

It's fascinating to see how buildings that have been much maligned are now seen as iconic. Think of the Trellick Tower --and the smaller but equally arresting Balfron Tower-- by Ernö Goldfinger, an architect as famous for his arresting council blocks as he is for his unpleasant character so much so that, as you probably know already, Ian Fleming named one of James Bond's villains after him.

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Trellick Tower, Cheltenham Estate, Kensington, 1968-1972 by Ernö Golfinger. Listed grade IIº

The Barbi! The upswept balconies, i read in the gallery, reduce wind resistance.

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Cromwell Tower, Barbican, City of London, 1964-1973 by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon. Listed grade II. Photo James O Davies/English Heritage

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Photo James O Davies/English Heritage

That said, all's not rosy and cheerful in the world of Brutalism. The Heygate Estate, in Elephant & Castle, provided the gloomy setting for violent scenes in the Luther tv series until its demolition started and John Madin's Birmingham Central Library will be teared down in 2014. But, hey, at least the the Preston Bus Station is doing ok.

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The Preston Bus Station, 1968-1969 by Keith Ingham and Charles Wilson of Building Design Partnership with E. H. Stazicker. Photo Dr Greg via wikipedia

And i'm going to leave you here with some brutal and not so brutal archi porn:

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Photo © James Davies, English Heritage

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British Gas Engineering Research Station, Killingworth, 1966-7. Designed by architect Peter Yates of Ryder & Yates. Listed Grade IIº. Photo © James Davies, English Heritage

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British Gas Engineering Research Station, Killingworth, 1966-7. Designed by architect Peter Yates of Ryder & Yates. Listed Grade IIº

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Lloyd's Building, City of London, 1981-1986 by Richard Rogers and Partners. Listed Grade I. Photo © James Davies, English Heritage

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Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool, 1962-7 by Frederick Gibbero and Partners. Listed grade IIº

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Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool, 1962-7 by Frederick Gibbero and Partners. Listed grade IIº

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The Royal Festival Hall, London, 1949-51 by the London County Council. Listed grade I. Photo: James O Davies/English Heritage

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Library (Phillips Building) to the School of Oriental and African Studies, 1964-1974 by Denys Lasdun and Partners. Listed grade IIº. Photo James O Davies/English Heritage

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Templewood School, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire County Council, 1949-1950. Job Architect A.W. Cleeve Barr. Listed Grade IIº. Photo via The Decorated School

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Rogers House, Wimbledon, City of London, 1981-86 by Richard Rogers and Partners. Listed grade I

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Royal College of Physicians, Regent's Park, London, 1960-4 by Denys Lasdun and Partners. Photo: James O Davies/English Heritage


Brutal & Beautiful: The Royal College of Physicians, Regent's Park, London, designed by Sir Denys Lasdun. One of the films about twentieth century listed buildings, written and presented by architectural historian, Elain Harwood and screened at the exhibition Brutal and Beautiful

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Stockwell Bus Depot, 1951-3 by Adie, Button and Partners. Listed grade IIº. Photo: James O Davies/English Heritage

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Stockwell Bus Depot, 1951-3 by Adie, Button and Partners. Listed grade IIº. Photo Courtauld Institute of Art

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Bracken House, City of London, 1955-9 by Albert Richardson for the Financial Times. Listed grade IIº

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Elliott School, Putney, 1953-6, by London County Council. Photo: James O Davies/English Heritage

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Apollo Pavilion at Peterlee in County Durham, 1963-1970 by Victor Pasmore. Listed grade II*. Photo James / cacophonyx

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B2 Prefab, 55 The Crapen, Cashes Green, Stroud, 1948

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Turn End, Buckinghamshire, built in 1967 by Peter Aldington. Photo James O Davies/English Heritage


Brutal & Beautiful: Peter Aldington and Turn End. Shot by photographers and filmmakers Alun Bull and James O Davies and screened at the exhibition Brutal and Beautiful

The photographs in the exhibition were by James O. Davies. They will appear in a forthcoming book, Space, Hope and Brutalism: English Architecture 1945-1975 which will be published next year by Yale University Press. I'll definitely get my hands on that one.

Related: Utopia London.

Brutal and Beautiful: Saving the Twentieth Century is thus closed. The next exhibition to open at the Quadriga Gallery, however, seems to be equally interesting: Almost Lost: London's Buildings Loved and Loathed. It will run from 4 December to 2 February 2014.

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Halley VI, Copyright A. Dubber, British Antarctic Survey. Image © Anthony Dubber

Last week i went to Manchester. I could never go too often to that city, especially when a number of exhibitions made another day in London less attractive. My first stop was for Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctica at MOSI - Museum of Science & Industry.

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Google Street view of the geographic South Pole (image slashgear)

Ice Lab presents some of the most innovative and progressive examples of contemporary architecture in Antarctica, drawing together projects that not only utilise cutting-edge technology and engineering, but have equally considered aesthetics, sustainability and human needs in their ground-breaking designs for research stations.

The show focuses on some spectacular research structures but it also presents some of the most extraordinary scientific and geological characteristics of Antarctica. That's the bit that got most of my attention. Here's some of random facts i learnt while visiting the show:

Because of its extremely cold and dry climate, Antarctica is the closest analogue to an extraterrestrial site on Earth. The region is thus used to test technologies that might be used for Mars exploration. The NDX-1 is a planetary suit prototype designed by a team of graduate students lead by Pablo de León and mobility expert Gary L. Harris.

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The NDX-1 space suit

Nacreous clouds form only when temperatures in the high atmosphere drop below -85 degree Celcius. They might be beautiful but they also trigger the depletion of the ozone layer.

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Nacreous Clouds glowing in the winter sky above Rothera. Image British Antarctic Survey

The Antarctic Plateau, at 2800m high, is great place to observe planets and stars. The air is unpolluted and the atmosphere is stable and very dry. The geographic South Pole hosts a complex of telescopes that use wavelengths other than visible light to look for evidence of dark energy and for cosmic microwave signature left over from when the universe was formed.

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The South Pole Telescope built to investigate cosmic rays and explore dark matter. Photo Keith Vanderlinde / National Science Foundation (via Smithsonianmag)

Ice cores, obtained by drilling into an ice sheet or glacier, are formed of layers derived from snow that fell at a certain time, and each layer is like a time capsule. The bubbles of ancient air they contain reveal information about the past climate and environment, such as Palaeolithic weather patterns for example.

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A slice of an ice core showing trapped air bubbles. © British Antarctic Survey, Pete Bucktrout (via Discovering Antarctica)

The McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica are located in a polar desert blasted by ferocious winds. The harsh environment provides ideal circumstances for the creation of ventrifacts, geologic formations shaped by the forces of wind.

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Ventifacts in the Dry Valley. Photo by George Steinmetz via from Amazing photography

But let's get to the architectural part. The exhibition presents 5 case studies: Halley VI, UK (Hugh Brougton Architects) Princess Elizabeth, Belgium (International Polar Foundation), Bharati, India (bof architekten/IMS), Jang Bogo, South Korea (Space Group), and the Iceberg Living Station (MAP Architects), a speculative design for a subterranean station carved out of compacted snow.

Architects of the research stations face three main challenges: ensure inhabitants a pleasant working life sheltered from the harsh weather conditions, build a station that will be strong enough to withstand the Antarctic's onslaught and construct a structure that will have minimum environmental impact.

The featured projects are:

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Halley VI, Copyright A. Dubber, British Antarctic Survey. Image © Anthony Dubber

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Aerial view of Halley VI Research Station. Halley VI, Copyright A. Dubber, British Antarctic Survey. Image © Anthony Dubber

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Aurora above the Halley signpost. Halley VI, Copyright A. Dubber, British Antarctic Survey. Image © Anthony Dubber

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Halley VI Research Station in winter. Halley VI, Copyright A. Dubber, British Antarctic Survey. Image © Anthony Dubber

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Close-up view of Halley VI's legs. Halley VI, Copyright A. Dubber, British Antarctic Survey. Image © Anthony Dubber

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Fully operational since February 2013, the British Antarctic Survey's Halley VI was designed by Hugh Broughton Architects and engineered by AECOM (UK). Located on a floating ice shelf, the structure is the first fully relocatable polar research station, it is also self-sufficient, able to withstand freezing winter temperatures of minus 55ºC and has minimal impact on Antarctica's pristine environment.

Halley VI is built using modules supported by hydraulically driven legs with giant steel skis which allow the station to mechanically 'climb' up out of the snow every year. As the ice shelf the station is built on moves out towards the ocean, the modules can be towered by bulldozers further inland, to eventually be taken apart when the time comes.

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Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Research Station © René Robert - International Polar Foundation

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Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Research Station © René Robert - International Polar Foundation

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Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Research Station. Photo © René Robert - International Polar Foundation

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The newly-discovered 9,000-strong emperor penguin colony on Antarctica's Princess Ragnhild Coast. Photo © International Polar Foundation/Alain Hubert

Belgium's Princess Elisabeth is the first zero-emission station in Antarctica. Perched on a nunatak, the aerodynamic stainless steel structure integrates renewable wind and solar energy, water treatment facilities, passive building technologies and a smart grid for maximising energy efficiency. It has no interior heating system.

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Polarlicht. Bharati.bof Architekten IMS.copyright NCAOR (National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research

Bharati Research Station India's third Antarctic research station by bof Architekten / IMS is made from 134 prefabricated shipping containers.

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Architect Impression: Jang Bogo / Space Group and KOPRI

Jang Bogo Korea, by Space Group (South Korea), will be one of the largest year-round bases on the continent when it opens in 2014, able to accommodate up to 60 personnel in the Summer.

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South Pole Section, Iceberg Living Station / MAP Architects © British Council Architecture Design Fashion

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MAP Architects, Iceberg Living Station. Animation made for Icelab Exhibition

Unsurprisingly, the speculative design for a research station was the one that seduced me the most.

Iceberg Living Station, the concept for a future research station by David Garcia / MAP Architects, would be made entirely from ice. The station would be holed out of a large iceberg, using caterpillar excavators that are traditionally used to clear snow. Icebergs have an average life span of about 12 to 15 years. The inhabitants would then leave the iceberg, taking with them all the energy and work infrastructure, "leaving only the architecture behind to melt away and be part of the oceans again," Garcia explained.

Finally, Torsten Lauschmann was showing two a new audio and light works, 'Whistler' and 'Ice Diamond', both commissioned for the exhibition.

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Torsten Lauschmann, Ice Diamond (still), 2013

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Torsten Lauschmann, Whistler (still), 2013

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View of the exhibition space. Photo Jo Fells

You can (and you should) download the free eBook version of Ice Lab catalogue.

Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctica was curated by Sandra Ross of the Arts Catalyst and initiated by the British Council. The exhibition remain open at MOSI - Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester until 6 January.

The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on ResonanceFM, London's favourite radio art station, is aired this Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.

The guest of this episode is Usman Haque, one of the founders of Umbrellium. Usman is an architect who creates responsive environments, interactive installations, digital interface devices as well as many mass-participation initiatives. His skills include the design and engineering of both physical spaces and the software and systems that bring them to life. He is also the Founder of the sensor platform Pachube, now known as Xively.com.

Usman Haque happens to be one of the most thought-provoking people i know in London and today we're going to talk about the smart city vs the messy city.

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Usman Haque & Natalie Jeremijenko, Flightpath Toronto, 2011. Photo: City of Toronto

The radio show will be aired this Wednesday 13 November at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am. If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud.

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Shichong Li and The Candy Cloud Cyclone Chamber

Inspired by the environmental work of Diller & Scofidio, the performative and multi-sensory work of Bompas and Parr, and the nostalgia of 1960s event architecture, Shichong Li's project utilises sugar as a base element and 'centrifugal random fibre extrusion' fabrication (candyfloss) to build cloud structures.

Unsatisfied with the scale of the miniature clouds he thus produced, the artist and designer decided to build a candy floss cloud on an architectural scale, with sugar as an ideal base material for a floating semi- rigid architecture. Indeed, sugar can form structured space to be inhabited and engaged with in ways water cannot. These cloud formations create a medium between architecture and inhabitants which aims to stimulate communication and interaction.

Shichong Li's quest to build the ultimate and most efficient candy cloud-making machine is still ongoing. He has spent the past year making prototype after prototype. Often failing but always learning and fine-tuning his creations.

I discovered the Candy Cloud Machine at the graduation show of the Interactive Architecture Studio - Research Cluster 3 at the Bartlett School of Architecture UCL. The unit, headed by Ruairi Glynn and Ollie Palmer, focuses on kinetic and interactive design looking at the latest robotics, material and responsive systems while at the same time borrowing from a long history of performative machines and performing arts.

I already mentioned one of the works developed over this one-year postgraduate course: William Bondin's research into self autonomous creature-like structures which take their cue on slime mold and very slowly navigate public parks. The other stand-out work for me was Chong's poetical, elusive and absurd Candy Cloud Machine. I contacted him to ask if he had time to tell us more about his candy cloud adventures.

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Candy floss maker low temperature test -25C

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Sugar feeding test

Hi Chong! What are the physical and technological challenges of creating clouds using sugar rather than water?

Whether they're conscious of it or not, I believe Architects dream of building clouds. Not in the narrow sense of a cloud, but rather architecture which is "cloud like", soft, , ephemeral, responsive, light etc. Water doesn't have to be the base component and so I explored sugar for its inherent properties.

The cloud-like architecture is candy floss. There are many challenges in making clouds using candy floss. These challenges can be summed up into two parts. The first one is the process of creating the clouds, the second one is to keep them floating in the air. During the process of creating candy floss, the tricky parts are the control of the heating temperature and the proper moment of sugar feeding. The heating temperature have to be controlled and stabilized between 186℃ to 200℃ and a proper amount sugar has to be fed continually. After the candy floss has been created, and because it is heavier than the air, it has to be blow up by in the air so that it creates a cloud. That requires me to design a system to control everything at the same time, which is complex but also interesting to design.

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The first candy floss making experiment

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Candy Cloud Cyclone Chamber test

Could you describe some of the prototypes you developed in your quest to make a candy cloud machine? Why do you think the experiments failed?

Sure! The first and second prototypes were built following a study of the mechanical principles to make a candy floss maker. The heating and rotating systems have to be tested properly and they will be the base of the next step studies. These experiments were successful in a way. But as the research moves along, the air control and generating system have became the biggest challenges.

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Laminar air flow generator (LAFG)

The third and fourth prototypes, for example, are wind tunnel systems, they were designed following the study of air driving system. The third one is called Laminar air flow generator (LAFG). Laminar air is a type of flow where the motion of the particles of fluid occurs in orderly straight movement. Compressed air is blown into a perforated wind box. The wind box has the shape of a circular ring surrounding the candy floss maker, which blows the candy floss up smoothly. I was thinking of using laminar air which is stable enough to hold candy floss. However, the results of the LAFG experiment show that the airflow looses a large amount of energy in the box and at the edges of holes. The outward-streaming airflow is too weak to drive the candy floss upwards.

The second air control system tested was a multi-fan system. In order to solve the problem of insufficient air flow in the LAFG, this design comprised eight powerful axial fans to blow air into the chamber directly.

Because the design used axial fans as driving forces, the airflow is no longer not laminar. A new problem was the vortex flow in the chamber. The vortex flow led to circulating air in the cylinder; air did not go straight up and candyfloss was sucked into the gap between the candyfloss maker and the fans, making all the candyfloss stick to the edge.

Despite the fact that the attempts of the Candy Cloud Machine air control system failed, these first experiences are worth studying. Firstly, the candyfloss itself is light, but the air power needed to drive it upwards cannot be low. Because the candyfloss structure doesn't have a surface which can hold airflow, the air can permeate the gaps between the candyfloss fibres. Secondly, small-scale installations are inappropriate to test aerodynamics. According to knowledge gained in the multi-fan system test, the circulating air has a strong influence on the vortex, as the air in the chamber is highly limited. The circulating air and the vortex interact with each other and destroy the air system. These experiences and lessons are an important basis for the development of the project.

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The shed in exhibition

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The shed in exhibition

The final project on view at the show right now is a cabin. Could you explain what the cabin is about? Why did you decide to show a wooden cabin rather than a modified candy floss machine?

The final fabrication machine- the Candy Cloud Cyclone Chamber, is too big to be exhibited so, inspired by the nostalgia of British Garden Shed Inventors, I've presented the project as an inhabitable portfolio. Visitors could search through the drawings, tastes and sugars, and examine the prototypes.

Now that your thesis is done and you graduated, are you planning to push the cloud machine further? To try and develop it until you reach the kind of candy cloud machine you were dreaming of?

Yes, the research of the cloud dream is still ongoing, and I am still trying to further develop the candy cloud machines. The fascination held by clouds offers designers a multitude of ways of thinking about space and designing in architectural practice. This story of clouds is a framework for future studies and design works. The role of designers and architects with an understanding of 'cloud theory' must be to use their knowledge to embark upon a 'higher' architectural approach.

Thanks Chong!

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Drawing of candy cloud machine central control panel

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Elevation of the final candy floss maker

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Section of the final candy floss maker

Also from RC3: Morphs, the architectural creatures that behave like slime mould.
Check also Pixelache's Cotton Candy experiments.

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A few weeks ago, i went to the graduation show of the Interactive Architecture Studio - Research Cluster 3 at the Bartlett School of Architecture UCL. The unit, headed by Ruairi Glynn and Ollie Palmer, focuses on kinetic and interactive design looking at the latest robotics, material and responsive systems while at the same time borrowing from a long history of performative machines and performing arts. As you can guess, i was quite enthusiastic about many of the works developed over this one-year postgraduate course.

One of the most interesting for me was William Bondin's research project which explores the gap between digital simulation and physical prototyping in the performance of dynamic architectural systems.

Bondin's proposal involves a colony of self autonomous creature-like structures, called Morphs, which very slowly navigate public parks. Their moves are not just dictated by a set of pre-programmed rules, they also rely on their physical and social environment.

Morphs exist and wander freely as individual nuclei but they can also join together and adopt certain geometries according to their needs and circumstances.

This is still very much a work in progress but a very promising one.

Simulations for tetrahedron and octahedron nuclei were carried out. In addition, one tetrahedron nucleus was fabricated as a proof of concept in order to understand the limitations of the technology employed.

Video documenting the whole research:

The morph performing one step:

I contacted the young architect for a quick interview:

Hi William! If i understood correctly, your self autonomous creature-like structures are inspired by a species of brainless slime mould. Can you tell us what you found interesting about that type of slime and how this translated into the Morphs?

The interesting thing about slime mould, in particular Physarum polycephalum, is that its cognitive processes occurs within its environment rather than a centralised brain. It is an example of an organism which has developed a clever way of exploiting its surroundings in order to perform navigational tasks and memory-related processes. For instance, when foraging for food it deposits slime in areas which have already been explored, and then avoids the same slime so that it will not re-explore the same area twice. This simple feedback technique inspired me to develop a form of mobile architecture which, analogously to slime mould, deposits digital data into its environment in order to off load its computational processes such as path finding and spatial memory. In fact, Morphs are very low-level creatures in terms of computational abilities and their complex trajectories are a result of the complex environments in which they are placed.

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Proposal for Mobile Reconfigurable Polyhedra (MORPHs) to occupy a site and encourage interaction through play

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MORPHs during winter might experience neglect

Could you describe the behaviour of the Morphs?

Morphs, which stands for MObile Reconfigurable PolyHedra, have a behaviour which is dictated by the sites in which they are located and their physical morphology. They are attracted to areas with high pedestrian traffic which ensures a higher probability of engagement with the public, and they stay clear of vehicular roads due to their very slow movements. Therefore, characteristics which are embodied within a site become highly influential to their "desired" locations. Similarly, their physical composition dictates the way they perceive their environment and consequently the way they behave. For example, due to their solar powered circuitry, they avoid shaded areas and do not travel during night time or overcast weather. They are also terrified of water and do not operate in wet conditions, in order to protect their electronics. These are their basic low-level behaviours which, similarly to our primary instincts, ensure their own protection and survival in complex environments. Therefore as an end result, you have these creatures which are very playful and gather in areas where people are likely to meet, but they get scared easily and become very introvert when threatened.

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Fabricated fully-actuated tetrahedral truss performing a walking action

Because Morphs move so fluidly and elegantly, i couldn't help but think of Strandbeests. But they have nothing to do with Theo Jansen's creatures, right?

I really enjoy Jansen's work and appreciate it in its context; as beautiful objects which occupy and travel across landscapes. However, as an architect, I'm not only interested in the spaces which man-made creatures inhabit but also in the spaces which they create. Morphs have the ability of joining together into complex formations to create spaces which can be occupied by people, and respond to these temporal inhabitants. Additionally, Theo Jansen's creatures are automatons which are unaware of their surroundings and the people within their "personal space". Morphs, on the other hand, are responsive spatial structures which communicate between them and their users in order to perform collective tasks. If you threaten one Morph you might send a whole community into hiding, while if one of them enjoys learning a new dance routine it might teach it to others and perform it in groups.

The Morphs move super super slowly. Can't you make them move faster? Why?

All buildings move. They do so over a very prolonged timescale, and it can take centuries for a building to move a couple of millimetres. So if we had to speculate on how buildings view time, because after-all Morphs are architectural creatures, we have to acknowledge the fact that architecture operates on a very different timescale than its users. Morphs operate on a mediated timescale, because although we perceive them as very slow movers they are lightning fast compared to their 'static' counterparts. In terms of time, they exist somewhere in between. This also gives us practical benefits, such as very low power consumption and risk mitigation.

The "Morphs rely on environmental cues and human participation in order to attain purposeful behaviour." Which kind of environmental cues and human participation are you talking about?

Morphs continuously assess light intensity and water presence in order to take informed decisions about their next steps. This ensures that they will not get trapped in ponds or under trees, and helps them to locate themselves in sunny and dry areas. However, Morphs are not completely self autonomous.

There are four classes, or sub-species, of Morphs and each of them has different purposes and degrees of control. The music-enabled units, which are finished in bright orange, are very slow and rarely change their location. They allow musicians to play music within their enclosure, and transmit the sounds they pick up via wi-fi, as a sort of a free-for-all radio station. The purple ones, which relate to dance, are very fast movers and they respond to push-pull action by their choreographers. They are able to store unique geometries in sequence and play them back when instructed to. The architectural ones, identified by their blue colour, are very slow movers but they can carry a significant amount of load. They are ideal for assembling large configurations and can be attached to different coloured units to create complex spaces. An additional class of these polyhedrons is also envisioned to cater for open-source development, whereby users can design and build bespoke components which can be plugged into existing units.

Do the machines learn in the course of their 'life'?

It is envisioned that over time these machines start to learn about their environment, participants and even themselves. This will give them the ability to take better informed decisions about their future actions. For example, if a tetrahedron breaks one of its edges it will then have to learn a new way how to roll over without using that side. In addition, it might ask for collective help from its peers to help it travel or become permanently bonded to another Morph for successful locomotion. Another suggested form of learning is the ability to predict participants' preference and behaviour. This will ensure that the right amount of units are present at the right location when needed.

However, in practice machine learning is a very complex area of research. So far we have been exploring this field in simulation, with limited degrees of success. The intention is to collaborate with robotics engineers and computer scientists in order to actualise these processes into the next generation prototypes.

Do you see applications for the Morphs? In architecture, robotics or other areas?

Morphs started out as a research project into adaptive behavioural architecture. Over the course of a year, it has developed into a semi-speculative project which brings together robotics, computer science, public art, landscape architecture and urban design.

What is next for the Morphs?

Morphs are planned to be unleashed by the end of 2015 as an autonomous but sociable reconfigurable architecture. Prototyping of a tetrahedron nucleus started in March 2013 and has resulted in one functional unit. Current research involves the programming of these nuclei, development of their digital communication and the simulation of their social behaviour. The next fully mobile, untethered, Morph is aimed to be completed by the end of 2013 before larger assembles are explored through 2014.

Thanks William!

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