Sunday, 3 April 2011

G A M / part 1



Buildings tell stories. And stories collect in buildings. They keep on collecting as long as the building stands. New stories arrive, sometimes shouting from the façade. And the older stories settle into corners, they never disappear.

This could be said of any building, but it was something I felt very keenly a couple of months ago, when I visited the newly inaugaurated Centro Culturel Gabriela Mistral (GAM) in Santiago de Chile. In Santiago in 2007, we had walked past the hulking mass of the Edificio Diego Portales on the Alameda, a long boulevard that cuts through the length of the city. The vast building, that seemed to stretch across about three blocks, had been partly gutted by fire in 2006. The worst of the charred ruined mess had been cleared, but the empty bulk that remained had the appearance of a cut-away axonometric drawing, whereby part of the façade and walls are removed so one can peer in. The volume of a huge amphitheatre was discernible.  The ruined building was at once forlorn and overbearing.

I quickly learned that the Edificio Diego Portales signified a great deal to the Chilien people. Aeriel bombardment during the coup d'etat on September 11 1973 had partially destroyed La Moneda, the original seat of the government, so as they seized power the military Junta moved into the Edificio (which in fact consisted of two buildings - a long horizontal block on the boulevard, and a tower behind). The tower became home to the Minsitry of Defence, and the lower building became the seat of what one Chilien friend referred to as a 'fake congress'. The unelected administration did not govern democratically, but recreated the physical structures of a democratic government - debating chambers and assemblies, an illusion to lull the population. Pinochet gave many of his most famous speeches in the amphitheatre that was now partially visible from the street. But the people weren’t fooled, the two buildings came to represent the military dictatorship and all its ills to many Chiliens.

This 'fake congress' was also the place where the votes were publicly counted when the regime held referendums. In the 1980 referendum (following the UN's public criticism of the dictatorship) Pinochet won an eight year term. But in 1988's historic referendum, 55% of the population voted to end Pinochet's rule, and the slow transfer to democracy began. In 1989 Patricio Aylwin was elected as president, taking office in 1990. The votes were counted in the amphitheatre of the Edificio Diego Portales. The building that represented the brutality of the regime also began to be associated with its slow undoing.

The architecture of the building seemed to me perfectly suited to a military dictatorship. A closed dark shape, cutting through the fabric of the old city and disconnecting neighbourhoods, its vast concrete and steel superstructure expressing pure brute force. But its history has another layer that I was quite surprised to discover. The building was originally built by Salvador Allende's government, completed in 1972, one year before the coup d'etat. It was built at breakneck speed (in 275 days), by an army of volunteers, in order to be completed in time to host the third United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Allende then established the building as the seat of the Ministry of Education, and also the Centro Culturel Gabriela Mistral (the Chilien poet Gabriela Mistral received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945). The social role of the building was fundamental to Allende : 'We want this building to be devoted to... Chilien women and children, and we want this place to be the base of the National Institution of Culture. We don't want culture to be ... elite, but accessible to all, to the agricultural workers, factory workers.' But this egalitarian vision turned out to be fleeting - a little more than a year later Allende's government was ousted by the Junta. The Centro Cultural Metropolitano Gabriela Mistral was renamed Edificio Diego Portales, after the 19th century businessman and politician. The feminist poet ousted by a conservative statesman.

As the dictatorship was gradually dismantled during the 1990s and democracy established, the role of the building changed. The new government built a new Congress in Valparaiso, and the Edificio Diego Portales was used for conferences and conventions. The Ministry of Defence remained in the tower.

Back in 2007, when I first encountered the building, big questions were being asked about its future. The fire damage was so extensive that major building works were unavoidable. The way was laid for a radical transformation and the blackened remains contained a potent glimmer of what might be. Pinochet had died a few months after the fire. The dictator was dead and the palace he had appropriated for himself was ready to be reclaimed and have its original spirit restored.

The newly elected cente left president, Michele Bachelet, launched a competition asking for propositions to transform the ruins into a national cultural centre, and in December 2007, the architect Cristian Fernandez was announced as the winner. I will talk about his transformation of the building in G A M / part 2.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Second Chance or Utopia

Follow this link to visit the site of Sex Mode et Digestion magazine, newly online as of today! I am going to be working with them, writing about architecture. At the moment the site is in French only, but will be bilingual (English and French) soon. The first piece I have written is about our attitudes towards postwar social housing, a big subject, and one that needs a big debate. The text is presented alongside Julie Delaittre's photos of Glasgow housing blocks.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Buenos Aires Buses


The buses in Buenos Aires are roaring great works of art. Each numbered route has its own graphic identity - made up of a particular typeface, colour combinations and patterns. The number 29 has a great big 29 painted on the front in a sloping stylised font, white on a blue background. Down the sides blue, red, white and yellow stripes are the background for elaborate text detailing the route the bus takes. The big capital letters are filled in with shiny hologram effect stickers. The visual impact of all these elements combined is quite astonishing. And joyful! As if to remind us that buses aren't just metal boxes carting people around the city, they are giant, moving, ever-changing, interactive sculptures, where strangers are brought together, sit close, get chatting, overhear each others conversations.
The number 39 is brown and white, with round white letters. The number 60 is yellow with red and black stripes, The 64 blue with curving red and white stripes. I could go on.
One day we took the number 29 from La Boca to Palermo, crossing the city from south to north. We got on near the beginning of the route, so got good seats, and watched 45 minutes of a day in the life of a Buenos Aires bus. The interior is nearly as good as the exterior. The driver's cab is bedecked with rear view mirrors, leaving not a corner of the bus out of his sight. The mirrors are decorated, their edges bevelled with geometric floral patterns, Romany caravan style. This kitsch homely decoration makes for a great combination with the otherwise fairly utilitarian bus interior.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Oxymoronic House



This is a video I made with my friend and sometime collaborator Julie Delaittre. It was an entry for a competition organised by the ICARCH Gallery, under the title of the House of Oxymorons. The brief was to envision a house that incorporates and pacifies a duality (or several). We were interested in the friction present in the dense landscape of appartments in Paris where we both live. We live isolated private lives, often not knowing the names or even the faces of our immediate neighbours. Yet our physical proximity, and the porous nature of the buildings we live in, mean that we share some of the intimacy and banality of each other's daily life.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Tuning

This weekend I ended up trailing a web of architecture blogs across the net, some of the well known (like pruned, bldgblog, sit down man, you're a bloody tradegy, archdaily) and lots of new (to me) ones (entschwindet und vergeht, some landscapes, strange harvest). There is a great mix of stuff, from the brilliant to the mediocre. For a moment I got quite overwhelmed in that special internet way - partly by the sheer quantity of what is being produced daily, and partly because a lot of blogs are almost like rolling news channels - daily even hourly links and images of the latest buildings and projects being produced across the world. And they all seem to cross reference one another, and have enough daily traffic to make it worth carrying ads. But the overwhelmed feeling in fact turned out to be a useful way of refocusing my thoughts.

I am not writing a world architecture update blog. I am writing a very personal series of observations and thoughts about places I have visited or know well. I cherish the everyday, the unknown, the un-new, the un-shiny, with a particular interest in architecture from the second half of the 20th century. I love to know about what's new and exciting but I think a building that has been in use for a couple of years is far more interesting than one that opened last week. I want to see how it is used, where it is getting worn, if the occupants have altered things. Sometimes I walk past something fifty times before I work out what it is I want to say about it. I feel as if I might go on to develop a manifesto for 'slow architecture'. Though there probably exists one already somewhere... In the accelerated world of architecture blogging and the incessant barrage of images that accompany it I defend to the end the slow and the small and the unnoticed!

South London Gallery


Another post about a place I visited a while ago. It's a tactic I like, visit somewhere and then mull it over for a while. Let the experience sink in, and write about what I still remember a month or two or even a year or two later.

The South London Gallery has occupied a purpose built Victorian building since 1891. The main gallery space is very fine - a tall and long roof lit rectangle, it is a well proportioned and reassuring classic gallery space. This summer 6a architects completed works enabling the gallery to expand and evolve. They refurbished an adjacent and previously derelict Georgian terrace house to contain a cafe, exhibition spaces and an apartment for an artist in residence. And they built two extensions. One directly adjoining the refurbished house and the existing gallery - a tall room that works on both a domestic scale and a gallery space scale. The second extension is beyond a garden or courtyard depending on which way you approach. It is a simple squarish space, roof lit like the main gallery. Wide pivoting wall panels allow the space to open onto the courtyard.

The two extensions are clad in fibre cement panels. And this ubiquitous material has been used really cleverly. It has been cut into panels of about 40x60cm and these have been fixed like big shingles - overlapping one another. There are two colours, a brown and a grey in very similar dark tone, equally but slightly irregularly interspersed. I think this works brilliantly. Partly down to the scale - they are bigger than classic shingles, but smaller than standard fibre cement panels. Cutting this materiel down to a smaller size would be fiddly and fussy, making shingles bigger than these and you might start to dilute the texture that the overlapping generates. The overall effect is of the 'strangely familiar' sort - shingles, but different, fibre cement panels, but used differently... And the subtle play of colour between the grey brown and the brown grey is great. Used alone these sober colours might seem dull, but used together they resonate against one another, creating a rich and warm facade.

I read somewhere that the architects had said the project was entirely made using the kind of basic everyday materiels that one could buy in B&Q. If this is true to the last detail I can't be sure, but it is an unpretentious attitude I like. In the description of the project on their website they mention that the existing main gallery space is 'impressive in scale but invisible from the street' and the sense of surprise one has upon entering it. I think what they have achieved in their extension carries some of the same quality. On first appearances it is a very muted and low key project, but the clever use of volume, light, materiality and detail gradually reveals itself. I hope to go back soon, I'm sure I didn't notice everything the first time round. (More photos will be posted later).

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Legs

As you walk out of Lyon Part-Dieu station heading into town, you go past the Lyon Municipal Library, designed by Jacques Perrin-Fayolle en 1972. A vast and windowless tower like a giant silo sits on some very shapely concrete legs. The tower is clad in small rectangular ceramic tiles, brown and black alternating like a chequerboard. From afar they look like rows and rows of books.

Lyon
09.10.10

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Anger in Ambroise

I took this photo in the summer of 2003. It is in the rue St Ambroise in the 11th arrondissement. At the time I lived very nearby and often walked past this apartment building, it fascinated me. One simple form - a folded surface - wall to floor to wall to roof and back to wall - repeated many times across the facade - but each one spaced apart from the next. The form itself contains a series of different spaces. And then a whole series of other spaces are created between them.

It is a deep and occupiable facade. A series of spaces rather than an edge or a surface. It is a facade of nooks and crannies and person sized hidey holes, viewing platforms, sitting spaces, planting places. It is as if each flat has pushed through the facade to create an enclosed and private balcony.

So it is a building I always admired, and photographed frequently. But I never knew who designed it, I once Googled the address to no avail. And then a few weeks ago I went to a talk at the Pavillon d'Arsenal about an architect named Roger Anger. His name meant nothing to me, but he sounded interesting - a Parisian architect who had built a lot of housing in the 50s and 60s, and then was appointed chief architect of Auroville - a utopian new city in the south of India. It was a revelation - here was the apartment building in the rue St Ambroise, and another building I had always found interesting on the rue des Pyrenees - because it looks totally different depending on which direction you approach it from. The talk was given by an Indian architect Anupama Kundoo, who worked with Anger for several years. She said that one of his chief concerns was to find ways to counteract what he called 'the dictatorship of the curtain wall'. He was critical of the vast and smooth surfaces that enveloped a lot of modern architecture - above all because these surfaces don't operate at a human scale. Buildings become vast and solid impenetrable blocks, humans tiny and powerless next to them. He thought buildings should always work with the human scale.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Rooflight


La Maison du Brésil

Cité Universitaire, Paris 14è
16.09.2010

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

La Tourette





photos top to bottom: church; south facade; dining room; windows being restored; view of the chapel from the roof.

The Couvent de la Tourette, near Lyon, is one of Le Corbusier's great iconic buildings. It was inaugurated in October 1960 - exactly 50 years ago. It was originally planned as a place of study and residence for up to 80 Dominican friars, where they would spend four or five years training before moving on to other priories. Today it is home to ten friars, seven of whom were in residence the weekend we stayed. The spare rooms provide accommodation for visitors. Largely made up of the architecturally curious and those in search of an environment where they can truly disconnect from everyday life. On the Saturday night we stayed there were probably around 20 guests.

We each slept in a cell. 1m83 wide. Each cell has a wash basin, a small wardrobe and shelves, a bed and a desk. And a deep balcony. The floor is black lino and the walls and ceiling are very roughly plastered and painted white. You can sleep, contemplate, read, write. A notice on the door asks you not to eat, drink or converse in the cell.

On Sunday morning at 8, before breakfast, we joined the friars for 'les laudes' - a short service of chanted hymns and psalms. It was magical. The church is a vast and resonant concrete cavern. Perhaps 18m high, around 40m long and 10m wide. The four sheer walls connected by the strata lines where the concrete was poured layer after layer. Bright coloured light filters through horizontal slits - these slope upwards through the massive walls, so that the window itself is not visible, just the painted surface inside the opening that reflects the light. The chanting of the seven friars filled the space completely. We tried to imagine how it must have sounded when there were 70 or 80 of them. It is a space that I found slightly oppressive initially - the concrete is almost overwhelming, the geometry of the space, particularly the north end, is not entirely comfortable - but when the friars sing it all makes sense. The volume, the material and the voices just work together.

The building was undergoing renovation when we were there. Half was finished, a quarter was more or less finished but still under scaffolding, and the remaining quarter - the church - had yet to be begun. Three states visible together. One end crisp white render contrasting with the pale clean exposed concrete. The middle under wraps, new double glazing panes lined up in the corridor. The other end looking slightly grubby, the render and the concrete hard to distinguish from one another.

It would be nice to see the whole once all the work is finished, but it was great to visit in a semi building site state. And just as authentic. The iconic buildings of modernism have become precious artefacts. Listed and revered, studied and interpreted. Great efforts are taken to return these buildings to their imagined original state. Methods to clean and repair the concrete, to restore original paint colours are laboriously researched and tested. Theses are written, papers published. Renovation works may take years. In 2010 la Tourette is no longer just a convent, it is also an important piece of architectural heritage. I found it interesting to witness the processes involved in maintaining this status.

One of the most striking things about the building is its materiality - it is tactile, physical, visceral, quite rough in places. And the forms are wild - the strict repetition of the cells and the corridors is set against the steep slope of the irregular pyramid roof of the small chapel, that seems to float in the courtyard. The vast oblong of the church sits between two chapels that bring light deep into the crypt, one is a sinuous bunker, with great funnels, the other a modest rectangle, with diamond shaped lightwells crashing diagonally into its roof. The glazed facades are articulated by an irregular rhythm of concrete vertical elements, a pattern developed by Le Corbusier's friend, composer and engineer, Iannis Xenakis. (The pair collaborated throughout the project, Le Corbusier was preoccupied with his work in Chandigarh, and left Xenakis in charge on site. Execution drawings we found in a plan chest were signed by Xenakis.) The rich and rough materiality and the experimental irregular forms are so striking because they go against the way Le Corbusiser's architecture was so often presented by tutors when I was studying. For years at school we learnt about his five points of architecture and modular studies, and great emphasis was placed on the whiteness, the cleanness, the pureness, the mechanical, the machine age, the uniformity, the prefabrication. Well all that seems to miss the point after 24 hours spent in La Tourette.

The final thing I want to mention is the acoustic quality of the building, already touched upon in the church. Throughout the building silence rules. One has to keep silent at all times, apart from the communal meals in the dining room. We found ourselves whispering the whole time, even outside. It is a place of study, reflection, meditation. But at the same time it is incredibly noisy. It is a giant resonance box. You hear every footstep, every door being closed, every key turning. What would be a tiny sound in a modern acoustically insulated building, becomes a huge rattling sound in this building.

Le Couvent de la Tourette
Eveux, near Lyon
09-10.10.2010

Thursday, 16 September 2010

orange lozenge



Having passed through the orange lozenge there are two smaller orange lozenges, one on the left and one on the right,
containing glazed doors, and a wider lozenge shaped passage continues into a courtyard. (Where another orange lozenge awaits). The building is a 12 storey block of flats, cicra 1970something.

What a fantastic entrance sequence.
Into an open mouth without so much as activating an automatic door. Like in any building at some point one has to
tap a code, turn a key, push a door. But here those actions seem secondary. The open orange lozenge defines the entry. Rather than going through a door to get into a space one goes through a space to get to a door.

20 quai de la Marne 75019
11.07.10

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Box Nests


A couple of months ago, just days before Spring finally sprang, I saw this lovely piece of bird architecture in Kings Wood in Kent. It is the most engaging of three animal/bird residences in a small enclave in the woods called Super Kingdom, by artists Londonfieldworks. They describe the project as 'a sculptural installation of animal 'show homes'... inspired by reports of anomalous animal behaviour in nature as a response to a shifting environment'. They talk about an interesting web of ideas to do with urban encroachment and displaced ecologies, and the purposeful reintroduction of species (re-wilding) and assisted migration - all considered in the context of Kings Wood, a working woodland managed for timber production, recreation and conservation, and the wider environment of nearby Ashford and its ever multiplying Barratt Homes. Slightly puzzlingly the artists also mention being inspired by despots palaces, this particular structure is called the Mussolini Bird House (adjacent are the Caecescu and Stalin bird houses), an unnecessary connection - there seems to be plenty to think about already.

So there are lots of ideas behind it, but they are not the reason that I stopped and took a photo as I read about them afterwards. Here are my reasons:

1. I like the way the tree looks as if it is wearing a jumper.
2. I like that some of the boxes are really tiny, more insect sized than bird sized.
3. I like the way that lots of rectilinear boxes have been put together to form something extremely un-rectilinear.
4. I like imagining that it is fully occupied, tweeting and rustling.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Shed Nests




Wobbly planks, loosely attached to one another perch amongst the steel struts and tubes of the Pompidou Centre's façade. Like giant nests for some as yet unevolved breed of enormous bird.

I first noticed them from afar, across the plaza. Strange messy blips interrupting the familiar primary coloured rectilinear facade that isn't a facade. Yet they also had an unsurprising quality, as if they were quite normal.

Things accumulate. Dust, old newspapers, leaves, people, pigeons. All trying to find a quiet corner. The city could be understood as a giant machine containing a thousand different mechanisms to counteract the incessant accumulation of stuff. Street sweepers, bin men, window cleaners, little anti-pigeon spikes on statues and ledges, signs warning of fines for bill posters, little metal studs on horizontal surfaces to dissuade homeless people from settling down, buses and metro trains to keep everyone moving.

These wooden structures are commissioned artworks, so they are not going to be cleared away until their official art work installation period is up. We know that they have been carefully planned and constructed. But how nice to play the game and imagine that they really are strange nests or cocoons for a mysterious urban creature, or sheds hastily constructed by claustrophobic Parisians living in tiny flats.

'Huts' au Centre Pompidou
10 avril - 23 août 2010

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Stones of Menace


On Saturday June 26 (2-6pm) I will be participating in a one day art event about Brutalist architecture. I will be reading a short text about the modernist sculptural structure the Apollo Pavilion by Victor Pasmore, and showing a series of images I took last year of the dilapidated concrete play spaces at the foot of Balfron Tower.

Blurb from the website below:

The architecture of New Brutalism has some severe critics, one of the most famous being the Prince of Wales whose speeches and writings on architecture have excoriated Brutalism, calling many of the structures "piles of concrete". In contrast, John Ruskin faulted Palladianism in his book The Stones Of Venice (1850) for the “screamingly harmonious” quality of its designs.

Such debates about architectural aesthetics usually go hand in hand with convictions about architectures’ ideological foundation and social function. Whilst the austere architecture of New Brutalism is often vilified as producing social neglect rather than securing the vibrant community life envisioned by its architects, contemporary art is almost required to ‘stir things up’ through expressing discontent and exercising criticism.

This show will explore polemical perspectives on architecture and art and open up a debate on the role of culture as a source of conflict and criticism. The exhibition will display art work that reflects on the relationship between art and architecture and its social and physical context or on issues around creative expressions of violence and social discontent.

The event will take place in the main space of St Pauls Bow Common, a New Brutalist church from the late 1950's and showcase work by architects, artists and members of the local community.


St Paul's Bow Common, Burdett Road, E3

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Transformation.


This is the Tour Bois-le-Pretre in the 17th arrondissement, Paris. It was built in 1959, given a new facade + insulation in the 1980s, and is currently being renovated by French architects Frederic Druot, Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal. You can see the top left of the facade the windows and panels have been replaced by full height glazing (with a temporary garde-corps). Once all the facade has been replaced prefabricated winter-gardens with balconies will be installed for every flat. Everyone is staying put during the works. 93% of the residents support the project (the architects were disappointed it wasn't 100% but there's always a few dissenters). The figure is interesting though, having read countless times in the great Robin Hood Garden debate that the majority of residents (80% usually) wanted the building demolished. I guess it depends upon what they are offered.

Demolition.


They should dynamite that building. It's so ugly.


So said the woman standing near me at the lookout at the top of the Parc de Belleville. She was referring to the building on the left of this photo. A block of social housing. Built in the 1960s or 70s. Full of family homes, where children have grown up, where parents have become grandparents, where people have argued, laughed, cried, loved. Homes full of old photos, favourite toys, carefully chosen curtains and wallpaper.

But you can't see all that from the outside. From the outside you see a tall grey block. With a repetitive facade. You know it is social housing. You subconsciously think of the social problems that are often connected to social housing. And in this particular case, the rectangular grey blocks interrupt the picturesque Parisian panorama. A five storey high pale sandy grey panorama. The Eiffel Tower and the dome of the Pantheon (and the tour Montparnasse) silhouettes in the distance.

Would the view be more beautiful without the buildings on the left?
Who decides what is ugly and what is beautiful?
Can ugliness alone ever be reason enough to demolish something?

There are programs in place to demolish similar buildings in cities all across Europe. Thirty four demolitions are already planned in Glasgow alone over the next decade. The reasons are complex. But it is a phenomenon that stems from the fact that 60s and 70s social housing blocks are deemed ugly. They have been stigmatised. Turned into an image that signifies crime, fear and social breakdown.

But we have to learn to look at them differently. To look at them from the inside out. Last week I interviewed the architect Frederic Druot. He has collaborated with Lacaton+Vassal on the study PLUS, establishing a method by which such buildings can be renovated. They currently have a project on site, the renovation of the Tour Bois-le-Pretre in Paris. They photographed the interior of every flat. When they present the project to people, and show some of these images, people are shocked - it suddenly hits home that these deeply personal interior spaces are what has been threatened with demolition - rather than an abstract and distant concrete block.

I have a lot more to say about this subject. Treat this as an introduction. It is one of the big subjects of the moment. Post-war social housing has come to an age where it is demanding attention. Repair, renovate, transform. Restore, preserve, conserve. Demolish.

Demolition is the easy option. Easy for the planners, the developers, the money men, the decision makers. Not so easy for the displaced residents. Demolition doesn't require us to engage with these buildings, to re-imagine them, to use what works well and transform the rest.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Gorilla Station

El Gran Chufle
An abandoned railway
A new moon
An occupied house
The Lords of Altamont


15.05.2010
1 avenue Corentin Cariou, 75019

Sunday, 28 March 2010

the Future




There is a street not far from here (a bit up the hill, towards Télégraphe) called rue de l'Avenir - street of the Future (or perhaps Future Street). It sounds so promising, so full of anticipation and optimism.

It slopes up from the rue Pixérécourt, flanked on either side by turn of the century apartment blocks. One yellow and red stripy brick. One pale Paris stone.

Then abruptly, after barely more than twenty metres, the buildings are cut and the street crashes against a taciturn facade of white render and square windows. Like a curtain drawn across a stage. The name suddenly seems wistful. Future street is a dead end street, and not much longer than a bus.

Looking on Google maps later on, it is clear. The future arrived in the shape of new apartment blocks. Efficient square blocks, with neat apartments tightly arranged around a central core, not a square metre wasted. They work to their own square and fair logic, and do not yield to the existing irregular pattern of streets and buildings.

city portrait 02

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Bitumen Lamb




Bitumen Lamb (or slightly more elegantly - Le Gigot Bitume) is a French building site tradition, a kind of cousin to the topping out ceremony, where a tree is often hoisted up onto the highest point of a newly completed structure.

In France there is none of this messing around, it is straight to the important business of lunch. I arrived on site (a secondary school refurb/extension in the western suburbs of Paris) just as the champagne aperitif was being served. We were shortly taken outside, to see our lunch being prepared. The charcoaly smell of fresh bitumen was overpowering. I have always quite liked the smell of roadworks, but never really in a way that gets my appetite going. Anyway, lunch was apparently in the bottom of the boiling and steaming bitumen mixer. To much cheering our chefs lifted a wire basket out, placed it on the ground and dowsed the five or six black parcels in it with cold water. Then it gets a bit like pass the parcel. The black bitumen rock is tapped on the ground like a boiled egg to break it open. Underneath are layers of brown paper, and once these are peeled back, layers of silver foil, and finally, a delicious joint of lamb, roasted with tomatoes and onion. Slightly disappointingly, I couldn't detect any background notes of bitumen in the meat.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Jardin Austère


Last Sunday was a day of crystal clear skies and a bitingly cold wind. Looking out of the window on the train out to Versailles everything looked bleached under the brilliant sunshine, as on a hot summer day.

It was a perfect day to see the gardens. Their naturally austere and rectilinear nature is exaggerated to an extreme state of at this time of year. It is a garden, made of things that we think of as 'nature' - trees, grass, other plants, water. Yet it doesn't really feel like a garden, more like some strange abstract world of planes and lines. A giant minimalist sculpture.

The fountains are off, their pools empty, their sculptures petrified.

The statues are wrapped up in fabric and tied with string, as if Christo had been by.

The unwavering hedges are sparse and brittle - made of twigs and dried curled up brown leaves.

The trees are bare. The plane trees make tree shaped drawings against the sky with their silver barks. The other trees remain neatly cut into long oblongs. Grey and brown, and some, if seen from the right angle, a deep red.


Le Jardin de Versailles
Sunday March 7th 2010