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


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


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.


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.