Monday, 31 March 2008

Lifetime of a tree

One of the things that amused me in Istanbul was the way the corrugated iron lean-to roof of the Buyuk Yeni Han - a traders' courtyard - has been cut away around a huge tree, so that it looks as if the tree is actually growing through the roof.

Imagine then my delight when I found a picture of the same Han in Godfrey Goodwin's 'History of Ottoman architecture'. And there you can see the same tree, much younger and smaller, with a couple of other saplings now disappeared.

Somehow that tree has now become my tree. I've seen it as a baby, and I feel almost as if I've watched it grow. It's personal.

I've never really been an admirer of those books of old postcard photos - Historic Ilfracombe, Northallerton in the Old Days, whatever. But this single ancient photograph turned out to have a special meaning for me. Perhaps I'll look at those old-postcard books with a bit more sympathy in future.


Monday, 17 March 2008

A marvellous word

I'm off to Istanbul tomorrow, so I've been researching Turkish culture and history.

And I've discovered a lovely word; papučluk. (Pronounced Papuchluk.)

Now that's an intriguing sound. But it's an even more intriguing word. Whether or not the Eskimos have forty words for different types of snow, I know not; but surely only the Turks would have a word meaning specifically a cupboard or cubby hole where you put your slippers.

Well, maybe the Moroccans would have a similar word, though as far as I know, they don't.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

The trouble with design

The trouble with design is that you can create a lovely object, but you can't necessarily tell how people are going to use it.

A piece in the Guardian today tells how Oscar Niemayer is distressed by the current state of Brasilia, the new capital he created for Brazil. Designed for a few hundred thousand, it now has to accommodate millions; and the original clear design statement has suffered from the creep of housing estates and shanty towns.

Brasilia is one of those fine modernist conceptions, like Chandigarh or the Unité d'Habitation in Marseille, that aims to channel life into a clean, rational design. The problem is that this type of system is non-adaptive; it's difficult to change the design to fit people's lives, and people's lives won't necessarily change to suit the design.

There is a beauty in Brasilia. It's totally planned, self-concious beauty. But it has no room for spontaneity, for the kind of adaptation that individuals make in their surroundings. #

That's where Hundertwasser represents a very different type of modernity, with his idea of a 'window right' - the idea that you should be able to lean out of your window and paint whatever colour you like, as far as your arm can stretch. His buildings are designed for living, not for viewing; for the individual, not the mass or the political or artistic elite.

Now let's look at these themes in the light of modern technology. Hundertwasser's idea is very Internet, very Web 2.0. It's infinitely adaptive and it is planned to be that way. It's possible to extend his architecture, but the extension doesn't have to be an exact copy; the building is a meme. Whereas the Brasilia idea, for all its apparent modernity, aims to be non-adaptive, unchanging, fixed, unadaptable. It is proprietary software, you can't reverse engineer it or develop new extensions or applications. And so, if you can't adapt it and you can't adapt to it, all you can do is destroy it.

I wonder at the fact that the role of the architect doesn't seem to have changed yet. But I wonder if prefabricated building techniques, modular building ideas, and more and more people choosing self-build rather than off the peg, indicate that the conditions for change are there. That the 'Great Architect of the Universe' could become, instead, the systems designer - creating an architecture that would be democratic, that would allow individuals to adapt?

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Two different views of architecture

I've just seen the most lovely little house. The Micro Compact Home, designed by Richard Horden, is a marvellously zen creation - a small space, but light and clear, costing EUR 30,000 or so before installation. It's taken ideas from the Japanese tea house as well as from interiors where compactness is at a premium, such as yachts, and it's used modern technology to create a delightfully spare architecture.

There's already a student village installed in Munich. But most interesting to me were some of the more avant garde projects; for instance, installing MCHs in a spire or 'tree village' around a lift shaft, further developing the theme of lightness and transparence that informs the design. Or the 'Golden Cube' designed as a floating house for the Venetian lagoon (floating houses are one interesting way of adapting to rising sea levels, but what interests me particularly is the way the water is different seen from water level - from a boat or a sandbank).

This tiny, 2.6 cubic metre house wouldn't be easy to live in permanently - though two or three added together might create an interesting, free-form house. (Bedroom, living room, studio...) But it seems exactly right for a low-impact, resitable house in the woods or on the saltmarsh - a sort of Thoreau residence.

A completely different view of architecture comes from the Atelier Van Lieshout with its quirky representational houses. There's a 'Wellness Skull' which contains a sauna, and shoots steam out of its eye sockets, and a house in Belgium modelled on the human digestive system. This is taking organic shapes to their extreme - not a single straight line to be seen anywhere.

The one thing that seems to link the works of both practices is that they clearly believe architecture isn't value-free, ideologically pure. Lieshout refers to sex, power, ideas of gender and of what humans are all about - the architecture reflects humanity. And the Micro Compact Home isn't just a soulless attempt to create a cheap pre-fab, but an idea of creating a modern home that can be impact-free, that can adjust to its environment and be transparent to the world around it.

I don't think I'd want to live in an intestine-house. And I do think I'd like to live in a Golden Cube. But it's refreshing to come across architects who are doing our dreaming for us - which Horden and Lieshout, I think, are doing.
An interview with Antony Gormley in the Guardian takes flight from the usual discussion of human bodies as the sculptor praises the striking nature of our industrial heritage:

'I want people to be excited about cooling towers and megasheds; they're as much part of our history as the rural barn.'

He praises the telecoms masts of Daventry; the brutal beauty of motorways.

It reminds me of an open exhibition at Horace Blue, in Norwich, where I zeroed in straightaway on Duncan Reekie's beautifully saturated photographs of allotment sheds. There's something honest and straightforward in the subject - Reekie clearly loves the mixture of gridlike rectilinearity and brutal functionality with the slightly random or makeshift nature of the sheds, made of old windows or doors, repaired with plastic sacks stretched over a hole, leaning slightly where the frame has given way. But equally, there's a real love of these sheds, a great affection that comes through in the care he has taken to get them exactly framed in the photo, to saturate the colours and bring out the inherent beauty of the subject.

It's intriguing how we tend to accept some aspects of our industrial heritage and reject others. Canals are good; cooling towers bad. Old tower breweries are good; modern warehouses are bad. But as Gormley points out, there's something honest and brutal in all industrial work that ought to speak to us - something that isn't pretty, that isn't concerned with being 'nice' or not offending people, something that is robust.

I'm aware of it myself when I'm taking photos. I recently wrote an article on Muscat, Oman, for an in-flight magazine, and realised that I had no photos of the commercial centres, the malls which are a defining part of modern Muscat - no photos of the Bollywood Chaat, no photos of Sabco or CCC with their lights, their escalators, their dramatic architectural attempts to gain attention. And no photos of the shops in Ruwi with their bright signage. No photos of the stalls in the souk either - just photos of the architecture. And I realised I'd missed something of the nature of Muscat.

Iceland Traverse

Regular readers might remember my desire to walk Iceland, because there's 'nothing there'.

I've been doing a bit of research. And the nothing that's there is, as I suspected, very spectacular nothing. Black volcanic sand desert. Unfettered fierce winds. Huge sheets of water. The kind of nothing that represents an existential challenge.

And it is indeed possible to walk Iceland from sea to sea. Michel Blomgren has done it, north to south, and his excellent video documentary "The Iceland traverse" confirmed me in my aspiration to walk Iceland this summer. Warning! Not for the squeamish! (Blisters.)

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Real versus ersatz experience

An article in the Daily Telegraph asks whether tourists on organised tours are missing the real experience of the places they visit.

The answer has to be yet. Tourists are taken to an 'approved' mall. They miss the 'touts' and 'gypsies' - that is, people who are not approved of by the cruise line.
They miss the street markets. They get a slice of life served up in 45 minutes. They see the city through the windows of a coach.

They see India without poverty.

And there seems to be a slight paranoia encouraged by the cruise line. All the locals are seen as scroungers, touts, thieves. No matter that in fact, like my friendly old ladies in St Petersburg and my beer drinking train driver friends in Milan,  they just want to practise their English and get a feel for the world outside their own boundaries.

So the answer to the question posed in the article header is obviously; yes, you are travelling in a vaccuum. You're letting someone else's views determine your own experience.

Now obviously as a provider of audio tours, I'm in some way imposing my own views  on whoever is taking the tour. I've been subjective in deciding what to see, what to omit; how long to spend on a particular church or artwork; what to say about it.

On one level I embrace that subjectivity. My tours are about art and architecture, about deepening your experience of art, about history, about finding a direct relationship with the past through eyewitness accounts of past events. If you're after a quick tour of clubs in Bangkok, Podtours is not the right medium.

I've just taken on someone to write tours of the WWI and WWII battlefields. And I've done that because he has the same values - he's not a tank buff or a battle statistics nerd, but someone who cares deeply about the real human beings who fought in Flanders fields. And I'm sure his tours will do the same.

On another level, I'm deeply suspicious about the way audio tours can try to replace the reality that you ought to be experiencing for yourself. I don't generally use sound effects - because the audio ought to supplement what you're seeing, not replace it. I like the Independent's travel podcasts a lot, and they use plenty of sounds from a Marrakech souk to traffic noise in Marseille - but  they do something different; they try to bring a place alive when you're not there.

Ultimately, if someone is moved nearly to tears by Caravaggio's martyrdom of St Peter, or experiences a little nirvana looking at the geometry and purity of the Pisa Baptistery, and they turn the audio tour off to explore those feelings on their own - I'm pleased.

Because ultimately, the only real travel is the travel you do alone. The travel you do in your mind. All an audio tour can do is help.