Archive for the 'buildings' Category

Exciting the imagination

24 December 2011

I don’t like the Royal Academy – it’s snooty, uptight, over-sponsored yet still expensive – but despite this I went this week to see their exhibition, Building the Revolution, about the art and buildings of the Russian revolutionary era, and in particular to see the scaled-down version of Tatlin’s Tower in the (sponsored) courtyard. The Tower, famously, was only an idea, and never built, but it was intended to be both a monument to the revolution and also a working building, the home of the Third International, the organisation to promote communism internationally. As a blog at RIBA notes, it would have

had four rotating elements inside (all rotating at different speeds) to house an information centre, meeting rooms, offices and a radio transmitter which all would have served as the headquarters of the Third International.

The scale version built for the Royal Academy is 10 metres high, a 1:40 scale model of a Tower that Tatlin imagined would be 400 metres high, taller than the Eiffel Tower, spanning the river Neva in St. Petersburg, as a picture at the RA conveyed. (The image here is from a 1999 CGI reconstruction by the Japanese artist Takehiko Nagakura.) In a Russia wracked by war and then civil war the chances of securing enough steel to build it were less than zero. The mechanics were complex too; the engineers who made a reconstruction for the Hayward in 1971 had to work them out from first principles, since there are few records of the original design. Indeed, had it been built, it’s likely that the mechanics of the building would have failed – the Russian constructivists quite often found that their ideas outstripped the limits of what was then technically possible.

In Tatlin’s lifetime, his Tower was realised only as a 15 foot high scale model, which was shown in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The picture of this model, and the one above, come from John Coulthart’s { feuilleton } blog. Even so, it fired the enthusiasm of his contemporaries: Viktor Shklovsky, the critic, reported on seeing Tatlin’s model, ‘The monument is made of iron, glass and revolution.’

Indeed, the design was inherently political. As Catherine Merridale writes:

The marvels of technology were one theme, but movement was another … as well as reflecting the dynamism of the dawning age, the building could double as a slow-moving calendar and clock, perhaps even as a means of measuring stars and space. In its restlessness and transparency, the building embodied the democratic challenge to authoritarian power that Tatlin so welcomed.

Tatlin’s unbuilt Monument has fascinated artists, critics, and maybe utopians ever since he designed it: I’m writing about it here more than 90 years after he conceived it, which I wouldn’t be had it actually been built. I was at an exhibition in Estonia earlier this year at which the artist Petko Dourmana had constructed an augmented reality piece in which the Tower was projected onto the cityscape of Tallinn. In some ways, such a virtual representation seems a fittingly democratic way to see Tatlin’s Monument. The purpose of the unbuilt building, after all, is to excite the imagination.

The picture at the top of this post was taken by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

‘Why we fight’

24 June 2009


Perhaps to demonstrate that politicians do have a use after all, one of Alan Johnson’s final decisions before being ghosted from the Department of Health to the Home Office was to instruct Islington Primary Health Trust to ‘reappraise’ its decision to sell off to developers Berthold Lubetkin’s Grade 1 listed Finsbury Health Centre.

There’s quite a lot online about the Health Centre, which was opened in 1938. Lubetkin was a Russian emigre who became one of the leading Modernist architects in the UK. His views on the function of architecture were radical; nothing was too good for ordinary people. Architecture should be an engine of social progress. This chimed with Finsbury Council, one of the most left-wing in the country, grappling with some of the greatest poverty and worst public health conditions.

But what’s interesting about the building was how quickly it became iconic – adopted by the Ministry of Information as a symbol of what Britain was fighting for in the second world war, as seen in the propaganda poster by Abram Games at the top of the post. Close study suggests that it was designed to make visual the Beveridge Report, with its attack on the ‘five giants’ of illness, ignorance, disease, squalor, and want, seen in the shadows behind the new health centre.  (The more traditional approach to visualising Britain – and certainly the one that would dominate now – is shown below.)


I was thinking about this partly because I was reading the biography of the film-maker Emeric Pressburger, whose war-time films meant endless conflict with the Ministry of Information. In early 1940, a memo was issued on the subject of the areas which were appropriate for propaganda, and there were three of these:

  1. What Britain is fighting for
  2. How Britain fights
  3. The need for sacrifices if the fight is to be won.

Without going into detail, the first heading was about ‘British Life and Character’, and ‘British Ideas and Institutions’. I’m only guessing. of course, that there was a similar note written to inform the wartime art and poster effort, although it seems likely. But with hindsight, it seems extraordinary that a radical public building by a pioneer of the modernist moverment in one of the poorest parts of the counctry should, in effect, be enshrined as an idea or institution worth fighting for within five years of opening its doors. Churchill hated the poster (not the first time he’d disliked Information Ministry propaganda) and it was printed but never displayed; but the fact that it was commissioned at all is a clue to post-war politics. Finsbury’s approach to health is seen now as a model for the national health service; Lubetkin, Games, and the Ministry of Information commissioner of the poster perhaps understood better than Churchill what they were fighting for.

Tucker’s sound mirrors

1 June 2008

Tucker\'s sound mirrors -

Watching an old episode of BBC’s Coast on DVD I came across the story of Major WS Tucker and his sound mirrors, built in some numbers in the ’20s and early ’30s along the south coast as an early warning system of incoming enemy planes. They were relatively sophisticated parabolic reflectors, which concentrated the sound and also enabled direction to be estimated. They were rendered redundant by the development of radar, and Tucker, apparently, was retired early and instructed to dismantle the mirrors. He didn’t completely comply.

And in a strange way, he had the last laugh; the organisation developed by Tucker to manage and respond to the incoming information was taken over wholesale by the radar teams – a reminder that the social and management systems that are developed around technologies are as important as the technology itself.

A web search throws up a surprisingly detailed set of documents from different sources.

‘Iconic’ buildings

16 May 2008

I’ve blogged about the RIBA ‘futures fair’ in a couple of other places.

But I just wanted to capture a couple of quotes here which seemed interesting.The first came from Spencer de Grey of Foster and Partners, who commented that the first words that clients usually said to him were, “I want something iconic”. Fosters has designed some iconic buildings, but de Grey was reflective enough to observe that buildings earned an iconic status (for example through presence, use and response). I’d nominate the Gherkin as having achieved this.

The second quote was from Reinier de Graaf of OMA, talking about the need to design, quickly, some distinctive buildings for their seaborne quarter of Dubai – buildings whose purpose, content, even intended square footage, was not known at the time of design: “this was a brief which as architects we gladly accepted”.