The film observes the method and practice of the Modernist architects who rebuilt London after World War Two. It shows how they revolutionised life in the city in the wake of destruction from war and the poor living conditions inherited from the Industrial Revolution. This film is their story. Utopia London travels through the recent history of the city where the film maker grew up. He finds the architects who designed it and reunites them with the buildings they created.
These young idealists were once united around a vision of using science and art to create a city of equal citizens. Their architecture fused William Morris with urban high-rise; ancient parkland with concrete.
Utopia London examines the, social and political agendas of the time in which the city was rebuilt. The story goes on to explore how the meaning of these transformative buildings has been radically manipulated over subsequent decades. Inspired by the optimism of the past it poses the question; where do we go from here and now?
The documentary goes through the history of a dozen modernist buildings. The objective is not to brush a history of architecture in London but to remind us of a British society that had faith in social utopian ideology. The first comments and images of the film look at a panorama of London at a time when the city was built for God. Nowadays, the London skyline evokes finance. The Modernist movement broke the timeline that went from churches to banks with a series of architectural landmarks designed to achieve social good, not through charity, but by the hands of both socially-conscious architects and an accountable municipal authority.
The first construction we're introduced to is the Finsbury Health Centre, designed by Berthold Lubetkin and completed in 1938. Lubetkin was a Russian émigré, he brought with him the dogma of Soviet socialist thinking and revolutionary Constructivist design. The center is a landmark of the early Modern Movement in Britain. It was designed to be adaptable to the ever evolving requirements of healthcare. The centre also had a preventive mission, encouraging people to live healthier lives in a light, airy environment. A solarium gave the children (who spent much of their days in thick smog) a chance to feel the benefits of sunlight.
The Second World War broke soon after the opening of Finsbury Health Centre. As the poster above shows, the health center became a beacon for hope rising from what used to be London slums. Unfortunately, its icon status, radical architecture and social commitment don't seem to be enough to impress today's authorities.
War bombings had destroyed hundreds of thousands of dwellings, leaving almost one and a half million people homeless. After the war, town planning academic Patrick Abercrombie and architect John Forshaw were hired to design the future London. They dreamed up urban spaces where the various classes of London's society would meet and mingle. The South Bank was at the heart of their egalitarian plans, they hoped it would provide a shared space for all Londoners to spend their free time and enjoy art and culture.
The sequences about council estates were probably the most enlightening for me. I know of council estates through Shameless, British tv crime fictions or just the crime pages of Brit newspapers. They evoked little more than dysfunctionality and bleakness to me. Yet, they were built with the best intentions. "We wanted to build Heaven on Earth" declared architect Oliver Cox who was part of the team that built Alton East. Indeed, when the camera follows the architects inside the apartments or eavesdrops on their conversations with the residents, life looks almost cheerful in a council estate. They were designed with plenty of space, nice views overlooking the city, green and recreational areas. They were built in a time of optimism and faith in what the future would bring to society.
The concrete that used to stand for progress and modernity quickly became a symbol of the welfare state. Even worse it came to emblematize Britain's continued class division. The film exemplifies Modernism's fall from grace by reminding us that Truffaut's 1966 film Fahrenheit 451 takes place amidst Modernist buildings, in particular the Alton housing estate in Roehampton, South London. The movie is set in a dystopian future where the main role of firemen is to burn all books. Modernist architecture is used in the movie to carry a sense of uniformity, not humanity.
In the '70s, big social housing schemes were scrapped. In the '80s, dreams of a brighter, more egalitarian future were eclipsed by Margaret Thatcher's politics which saw market forces as the main makers and shapers of society. Among Thatcher's advisors was Prof. Alice Coleman who blamed post-war social housing developments for 'social malaise'. Her team paralleled the amount of litter, vandalism, graffiti, the presence of excrement, etc. with design features such as number of storeys, number of entrances and flats in a block etc. to suggest that the architecture of council estates turned their residents into criminals. The findings published in 1985 under the name Utopia on trial were controversial, let alone because the study ignored the impact of poverty.
Today, despite their striking volumes and place in the history of architecture, Modernist and Brutalist buildings remain unloved. Pimlico School has disappeared and Robin Hood Gardens might meet the same fate. Even when a Grade II listing is granted, the building could still face demolition. Grade II listings can be ignored on the grounds of the economic or social benefit of redevelopment.
Utopia London takes a very clear stand, one in favour of the respect and preservation of buildings erected in a time of utopia and hope. From the beautiful shots of the buildings at night to the very moving walks that the architects take in the buildings they designed, one feels the same twinge of envy that the documentary director confesses for a time when society believed that good design and planning could lead to a brighter future.
Despite my admiration for Brutalism and socially embedded architecture, i sometimes wished that Cordell had given more space for its detractors to express their views. Utopia London would still have been a very moving film. It is a documentary for Londoners and also for tourists whose love for London goes beyond Portobello market and the Tate turbine hall. Its attention to details charmed me right from the start: the opening sequence has elegant, clean infographics; the text is catchy; archive materials provide moments of irony and humour (did i recognize an extract from Zéro de Conduite?), etc. The accent of the director as he does the voice-over was particularly well-suited, it screamed 'London!' clearer than any beefeater or Piccadilly Circus could do. But best of all, the documentary - just like the architecture it champions- focuses on people. Meeting the architects who had designed the buildings was a rare treat. So was hearing the confidence of Prof. Alice Coleman 25 years after her study condemned Modernist social housing. And then there were briefs moments with Dorrit Dekk. Can anyone not fall in love with Dorrit Dekk?
Image on the homepage: Alton East Estate. © Utopia London.
Herman Joshua Wallace has spent the past 38 years in Solitary Confinement (or closed cell restriction) in Louisiana's State Prison System. For a minimum of 23 hours a day, he is shut up in a six-foot-by-nine-foot (2m x 3m) cell. It is very likely that Wallace didn't commit the crime he has been sentenced for.
Along with Robert Hillary King and Albert Woodfox, Wallace is part of The Angola 3. It is believed that the men were framed for trying to speak out against inhumane treatment and racial segregation on the prison. Using non-violent protests, they were trying to draw attention to the corruption, discrimination and abuse reigning in the biggest prison in the US, Angola, an 18,000 acre former slave plantation which got its name from the country most of the slaves traveled from. On a page listing a few facts about the prison, one learns that every physically able prisoner (78% of whom are black) is required to work for 4 to 20 cents an hour a minimum of 40 hours a week. Inmates work fields of sugar cane, soybeans, cotton and corn, they also look after a 1,500 cattle beef herd. They even built a 11,300 seat arena which houses the annual Angola Prison Rodeo. The Louisiana's State Prison provides more jobs than the local nuclear power plant and paper mill combined. Even more surprising, Angola boosts a Prison View Golf Course on its grounds.
Wallace was originally imprisoned for robbery but he, Woodfox and King (who was freed in 2001) have been confined to solitary after being convicted of stabbing to death prison guard Brent Miller in 1972 during their protests. The circumstances of their trial was so suspect that there are no doubts among their supporters that the men are innocent. Even the victim's widow, Teenie Verret, doesn't believe in their guilt.
In 2003 artist Jackie Sumell contacted Herman Wallace and asked him: "What kind of house does a man who has lived in a 6' X 9' box for over 30 years dream of?"
I discovered their project, The House That Herman Built, during a presentation the artist gave a few weeks ago at the International Design Biennial in Saint-Etienne, France. Through exchanges of hundreds of letters, phone calls, and numerous visits to the prison, Wallace and Sumell have been sketching and designing the dream house together.
The construction of the house is currently being funded by a network of activists, artists, architects and other concerned individuals.
Hopefully, the House will one day be a place for Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox to comfortably retire. But until Herman is able to win his legal battle, the house will be maintained by a network of volunteers.
Practically Herman has asked that the house be used as a community space that is committed to youth education and drug prevention. The house is design to be a open space that encourages the exchange of ideas, art and activism- a space to live and dream, and for anyone to visit.
Jackie Sumell's objective with this project is not only to bring Herman Wallace's story to the public attention but also to raise awareness about oppression, institutionalized racism and injustice in the United States.
A documentary of the same name was directed by independent film maker Angad Bhalla.
The Angola 3 are the subject of 2010 documentary In the Land of the Free, directed by Vadim Jean and narrated by Samuel L Jackson. They were also the subject of a 2006 documentary film 3 Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation and of a music video produced by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics.
Download PDF from the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3.
Related stories: YOUprison, Some thoughts on the limitation of space and freedom, America's Family Prison, Lyon Biennale - Pedro Reyes, Artur Żmijewski: The Social Studio, Trapped: Mental Illness in America's Prisons, etc.
A collaboration between the chair for Computer Aided Architectural Design (ETHZ) and the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA), ShapeShift explores the potential application of electro-active polymer at an architectural scale.
Electro-active polymer is an ultra-lightweight, flexible material that can change shape without the need for mechanical actuators and acts like the living, supple skin of a building. Responsive environments or spaces can be created that dynamically adapt to external influences.
One doesn't run from one architecture biennale to another without hearing about electroactive polymers. I'm ashamed to admit that i had never taken the time to look deeper into their potential, challenges and promises. Until life threw Manuel Kretzer my way. Kretzer is an architect, designer and Scientific Assistant at the Chair for CAAD, ETH Zürich. Together with Edyta Augustinowicz, Sofia Georgakopoulou, Dino Rossi and Stefanie Sixt, he has developed a prototype of EAP. I've asked him to give us more details about the development of ShapeShift and to share his thoughts about the new spatial experiences that electroactive polymers could bring about.
What makes ShapeShift stand apart from other existing high-tech Electroactive Polymers?
Mostly scale and visual appearance. We're using the material's properties not merely as an actuator replacement but are emphasizing its aesthetic qualities. The thin film functions as a possible alternative for conventional building skins and envisions the concept of a soft and responsive architecture. The component based form results from the material's desire to return into its original shape combined with specially designed flexible frames. This minimum energy structure retains a variable stiffness, which allows for a variety of deformations within a given range.
Which kind of real world applications do you foresee for ShapeShift? In design? Architecture? Other areas of everyday life?
We are now looking into possibilities (and funding) to continue this research on a larger scale. The concept of independent devices, networked together and affecting each other's behavior can easily be combined with computational approaches to collaborative intelligence and self-organization. In combination with further transformational materials, sensors and embedded control units this can allow the creation of complex and smart environments that dynamically adapt to external influences and physically respond to human inputs. Electro-active polymers have the potential to replace existing mechanical actuators such as motors or hydraulics, and at the same time can become aesthetically interesting, visible and structural elements that lead to new spatial experiences.
Now if you could go wild and imagine what ShapeShift could do in a scifi-esque context, where would it be applied?
If ShapeShift could evolve further and become a truly independent, component based, extremely thin and flexible but still insulating, harmless, translucent (maybe partly transparent) and responsive structural skin without the need of external "backbones" or supports then this could replace every facade, ceiling, floor, door, window or even furniture.
More thin film materials like PV cells, OLEDs, Aerogels, "phase change materials" or "self healing materials" could be included. This soft membrane could then take any desired shape and retain it for as long as desired. Wall segments could open, close, rise or shrink, change opacity and appearance or join with other segments to form new spaces. If this "organism" had a collective intelligence and would be shape shifting without us realizing it, this could be a solution for overpopulation and the distribution of space in (a far) future. Rooms would only emerge where and when they are needed and spaces of any size, shape and appearance could be generated.
Reactions at the Vernissage were extremely positive. The visitors were fascinated by the "organic", smooth and completely silent movement of the sculpture. Unfortunately the components are still very weak and fragile so by the end a few of them were broken. Professionals from the EAP field were very impressed by the students rigor and enthusiasm and what they achieved in this very short time. They liked that the aesthetic sides of the material were emphasized as this hasn't been taken into account so far. The installation is now shown at the Schweizer Baumuster Zentrale.
If you could have your pick and leave ShapeShift into the hands of a renowned architect (or several) of your choice? Who would it be? Who do you think would best exploit its qualities?
I can't name anyone specific. In the 60s and 70s there were big visionaries like Archigram, Constant or Kiesler who experimented with new materials, technologies and forms. I think a similar playful and radical creativity would be necessary to use the material in a way that it really generates something new and unique.
Do ShapeShift and other Electroactive Polymers make sense in a world that should be more and more worried about ecology?
EAPs are in principle capacitors. So the energy that is needed to actuate them could in theory be reused in a closed loop. Also technologies to harvest renewable resources are constantly evolving. I don't know enough about the manufacturing process of the materials components or their recyclability to judge whether they are sustainable or not.
Would it be cost prohibitive to apply ShapeShift to the scale of a whole building today?
So far EAPs are still far from mature. The components are very expensive and the process of making them long and difficult. They are very fragile and their longevity is restricted. Also due to the high voltage they are a bit dangerous.
Can you explain us the involvement of CAAD, ETH Zürich in the development of Shapeshift? And what was the role of the students exactly? Were they involved throughout the development of ShapeShift or only when it came to develop prototypes and applications?
My personal research at the Chair for CAAD focuses on the application and integration of new, "smart" materials and technologies into architecture. Therefore I established contact to the EAP research facility at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA) in Dübendorf, close to Zürich. The complete physical and conceptional development of the project was a cooperation of a team of MAS (Master of Advanced Studies, a postgraduate program at our Chair) students, namely Edyta Augustynowicz, Sofia Georgakopulou, Dino Rossi and Stefanie Sixt and was closely supervised by me. The students executed endless experiments at the EMPA research facility - with support from the people there - and from this knowledge a dynamic structure evolved. The installation was then presented to members of the chair and the public.
The Ludwig Forum is hosting until the end of the month West Arch - a new generation in architecture, an exhibition which introduces to the broad public the work of 25 architecture studios from Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.
The studios singled out by the curators are characterized by the witty, experimental, and often unconventional strategies they adopt to respond to contemporary demands and issues. Moreover, many of the architects represented in this exhibition are embracing collaborations with other disciplines such as visual art, design or graphic design.
From the curatorial statement: We assume that a pragmatic, partly ironic approach is predominant: acceptance of the factual leads to a new realism. Putting existing structures to a new use is a strategy that is not only helpful from an ecological and economical point of view but also creates new aesthetics. Theory and practice are not conceptually separated. In times of economical crisis the production of ideas is redeployed to what is possible.
Impeccable selection of architecture studios, perfect distribution of the works within the space, clear description of the works on show, a catalog that contains the right balance of illustration and information, engrossing documentation made of models, films, photos, books, drawings and plans. I wish i'd see shows like this one every week.
A few projects i (re)discovered in the exhibition:
LAb[au] collaborated with Frederik De Wilde to create EOD 02, an installation starring fish that perceive their environment and communicate with each other by emitting electric signals, either in pulses or waves. Each of the four aquariums contain an electric fish that discharge different electric signals. The electric communication between the fish is captured by antennas and transformed into sound. Under each aquarium a matrix of LEDs pulses according to the intensity and rhythm of the signals.
Using only recycled pieces of washing machines, Rotterdam-based architects 2012architecten built the Miele Space Station, an experimental structure compounded out of five separate modules, each of which can be carried by two people. Once on site, the segments can be placed in various configurations so that the object can be used to host a bar, office, music shop or serve as an information kiosk.
Teaming up with with Jeanne van Heeswijks, 2012Architecten carried on experimenting with domestic appliances and built the Recycloop, a pavilion made out of kitchen sinks.
In order to meet local zoning regulations of this nature preservation area, half of the program of Villa 1 by The Powerhouse Company lies below the ground. Above the ground, the Y-shaped building looks like a glass box while the space below feels as if it has been carved out of the earth.
With A-Cross, Brussels-based Anorak questions the application of art, architecture, design and graphism within the use of public space through a common language: a 558 cm-wide white cross erected in various archetypal situations.
To recreate a traditional Inuit collective dinner with seal meat Mediamatic in Amsterdam, DUS Architects designed a huge table that almost completely filled the room and surrounded by one continuous sofa. Only members of the Proviant-Klub-Room (named after environmentalist Brigitte Bardot) were invited to the celebration.
Another of DUS architects' project, the Gecekondu Summerhouse Hotel aimed to import Istanbul's illegal urban setup (one third of all housing) into the increasingly regulated Dutch urban space. Gecekundu, the Turkish name for shanty building, literally means 'built over night'. Because these buildings are built in one night, the founder of the building receives ownership rights. The building bricks of the Gecekondu Summer Hotel that DUS made at Almere Beach are the typical nomadic bags, the so-called china bags (or 'turkentassen'), filled with sand from the beach.
Rationator is a detached house for a family with 3 children in Overath, a small town at the outskirts of Cologne. Located along the bank of the Agger River, the house is threatened by floods up to 2,5 m above ground level. BEL's design anticipates possible flooding with flood resistant materials and construction techniques.
Views from the exhibition:
My images from the exhibition.
Also on view at Ludwig Forum: Eros und Stasi.
Another update from Artissima, the contemporary art fair taking place this weekend in Turin. There's vodka in the press bag, the art girls wear Melissa shoes, they still rock those pointy shoulder jackets, the men are strongly encouraged to make sartorial efforts, and photography seems to have fallen out of favour.
Meanwhile half of the public is either walking up and down the scaffoldings of raumlabor's life-size maquette of an experimental museum or relaxing with friends on the huge heap of smelly discarded clothes that the Berlin-based collective has 'erected' by the bar. When i saw the mountain of clothes from afar i actually thought it was a scaled-down version Christian Boltanski's Personnes at the Grand Palais in Paris.
raumlabor's construction -which you can find at the back of the exhibition space- was designed to host the fair's cultural offer, a program mixing dance performances, literature, film screenings and architecture. The idea is brilliant and the structure certainly attracts more passersby than the white rooms where the conferences usually take place.
The House of Contamination forms a parallel architecture in clashing contrast both with the sleek volumes of the Oval building where the fair is hosted and with the squeaky clean walls of the gallery booths.
The walls of this experimental museum are built with compressed stacks of plastic, paper, metal, fabric and wood. All the material is recycled. The books of the library are kept inside disused fridges, tables are installed on top of upside-down washing machines. A huge fan intermittently blows wind that moves the fabric walls of the corridor. Up there, a rudimentary skywalk allows visitors to get a better idea of the architecture of the museum.
As the description of the House of Contamination states, all rooms are intercommunicating, the only dividing wall can move merging cinema and theatre, simultaneously sealing the literary salon.
Let's see if this experimental museum gets a life beyond the 4 days art fair.
By bringing the focus of their exhibition on the thousands of buildings that remain unoccupied in The Netherlands, the Dutch Pavilion puts an ironic twist on "People meet in architecture", the theme of the ongoing Architecture Biennial in Venice.
Even the building where the exhibition takes place has been empty for over 39 years since its inauguration in 1954. The Dutch Pavilion -just like any of the pavilions of the giardini- is indeed open for just a few months per year.
Rietveld Landscape, the office appointed by the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAI) as curators, has emphasized the vacancy of the pavilion by leaving the ground floor of the pavilion completely empty. Only by walking the stairs up to the mezzanine can the visitor discover that what looked like a foam blue ceiling is in fact a suspended landscape made of the models of vacant lighthouses, schools, water towers, factories, hangars, offices, etc.
A 'placebook' on the wall shows the connections that could between vacant buildings and creative professionals:
The exhibition Vacant NL is a call for the intelligent reuse of temporarily vacant buildings around the world in promoting creative enterprise.
Vacant NL, where architecture meets ideas is not only an appeal to creative talents to exploit the value hidden in society but also unsolicited advice to countries who want to advance up the table of global knowledge economies but don't know where they can find the hidden strengths. The transition to a creative knowledge economy demands specific spatial conditions. Offering young talents from the creative, technology and science sectors an affordable place where they can share their knowledge, creativity and networks is a way of promoting mutual influences, enterprise and innovation. Vacant NL, where architecture meets ideas shows how architecture can contribute to tackling major social problems.
Project Team for the pavilion: Curator Rietveld Landscape worked with Jurgen Bey (designer), Joost Grootens (graphic designer), Ronald Rietveld (landscape architect), Erik Rietveld (philosopher/economist), Saskia van Stein (NAI curator), Barbara Visser (visual artist).
The Venice Biennale of Architecture runs until 21st November, 2010.