Monthly Archive: October 2013

Keeping it real: the craft skills renaissance

FX

Craft skills and authenticity were officially declared as ‘having a moment’ at last year’s London Design Festival, when Design Junction hosted a debate on the value of craft, inspired by the Crafts Council’s excellent Added Value exhibition (still touring).

Happily craft is well and truly surfing that wave of renewed interest and appreciation, as evidenced by a slew of new and existing high-profile awards this year. Two new awards schemes have been launched: the Craft Skills Awards, set up by the Creative & Cultural Skills network, to celebrate the passing on of knowledge from one generation to the next; and the Perrier-Jouet Arts Salon Prize, won in its inaugural year by ceramicist Hitomi Hosono, who receives a £10,000 grant towards the development of her career as well as getting a solo exhibition.

Craft-inspired designers and promoters were also garlanded with awards in the Queen’s Birthday Honours – including Thomas Heatherwick, Grayson Perry, Emma Bridgewater, Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, Pippa Small, Holly Tucker and Sophie Cornish (of notonthehighstreet.com), with Heatherwick and Barber Osgerby also coming up trumps in the D&AD awards.

Two major trends play into this renaissance of craft skills. As austerity continues to leave teeth marks, making stuff (sewing, knitting, weaving, growing and cooking food) has emerged as both a pleasurable and an economically prudent way of investing our spare time – hobbies that pay dividends in terms of replenishing our wardrobes and cupboards and enhancing our skills and bank balances. You could call it slow consumerism, as people increasingly turn away from the mass-market homogenisation of the high street and everything available in it in favour of something more personal and meaningful.

Maggie’s furniture

From a sketch by architect Edward Cullinan, local artisan Ben Atkinson refined and honed this pivotal piece of Maggie’s furniture

The second and maybe more bittersweet trend is the unceasing drive to add to the exclusivity (and justify the cost) of luxury goods which has capitalised on this new craft sensibility, from the bogus personalisation of Levi’s ‘crafted’ campaign to the trumpeting by Hermes of its artisanal connections (leading to record sales, it seems, despite the recession).

Rosy Greenleas, the Crafts Council’s executive director, said in a blog about the Perrier-Jouet award that ‘finding corporate sponsorship is the Holy Grail in the arts world in these days of austerity’. She continued: ‘Historically, craft has never quite had the same cachet with big brands as fine art and design, but perhaps as consumers pay more attention to how and where their products are made this is beginning to change.’ Maybe we could take a moment to think about who and what is being appreciated when the big brands move in. Yes, it’s a fantastic thing when Perrier-Jouet highlights and rewards those unsung heroes quietly going about their vocation of making the ordinary, commonplace and unremarkable into something beautiful. It’s great that Hermes is keeping hundreds of highly trained leather workers in food and rent (though wouldn’t it be a more enlightened act of patronage if who they are, where they live and how they are paid were transparent in the process?). And it’s wonderful that the sale of so many of Swarovski’s kitsch crystal animals and jewellery diverts large sums of money towards high-profile collaborations with artists and designers who rarely, in tight commercial markets and time-frames, get the chance to simply play with materials for the sake of artistic expression and experimentation.

But are people buying those expensively tooled handbags because they appreciate the skills that went into making them or because it justifies the price tag – because it’s all part of the allure and glamour of the brand? Glamour, it may be worth pointing out, comes from an archaic word meaning ‘a magic spell or enchantment’. Its contemporary meaning is ‘an air of compelling charm, romance and excitement, especially when delusively alluring.’ If the perceived authenticity and integrity of craft is a vital part of that allure, why not ensure that the craftsmen involved are given due credit?

These thoughts were reinforced by a recent visit to the newest Maggie’s Centre in Newcastle. Designed by Cullinan Architects as a charmingly humane antidote to the hostile hospital environment around it, it features a handcrafted kitchen table by local designer/maker Ben Atkinson, who happens to be a friend of mine.

Atkinson’s reward for designing a beautiful kitchen table was the commission to design this outdoor table as well

Atkinson’s reward for designing a beautiful kitchen table was the commission to design this outdoor table as well

Before the opening, Atkinson was apparently quizzed by a Maggie’s PR executive who was anxious to know how special it was to be working for Maggie’s (Atkinson, at the time, hadn’t heard much about Maggie’s; he had simply been asked by the interior design company working with Cullinan’s to create a table that roughly corresponded to Ted Cullinan’s sketches). So Atkinson, with refreshing honesty, said: ‘It doesn’t really matter who I’m making for; I could be making radiator covers for the Queen and a kitchen table for a bloke in Burnley, and I would take greater pleasure from the kitchen table because it was a more interesting commission.’ Needless to say, Atkinson’s words didn’t make it into the press release. But they struck a chord with me, because of their integrity.

As anyone familiar with Maggie’s cancer centres will know, the kitchen table is a pivotal piece of furniture within the Maggie’s concept: it’s the friendly alternative to a hospital reception desk – the key device uniting random groups of people, who feel immediately entitled to gather around it to share experiences and offer support. (To his credit, Atkinson was untroubled by his PR ‘gaffe’. ‘The table will do its own PR,’ he told me. And, sure enough, he’s been rewarded with additional furniture commissions in both Newcastle and Nottingham Maggie’s Centres.) It’s the beauty of the thing itself we should enjoy, the skill of its maker, the ease and grace with which it does its job – not the kudos or additional ‘glamour’ it adds to the brand behind it.

While craft is having its extended moment, perhaps designers, craftsmen and those who appreciate their output should seize the initiative to educate more consumers about the value of craft and craft skills; we should take pains to throw an equal amount of glory on to the creators as we bestow on the patrons who have been clever enough to single them out. If we really mean to shift to a model of more considered and sustainable consumerism, people should know the difference between patronage and exploitation – knowing the name of the person who made your underpants or jeans doesn’t necessarily bring with it any appreciation of their craftsmanship or any tangible reward beyond the (hopefully) minimum wage they were paid to create them.

Maybe if more people thought this way, they’d ponder carefully before handing £500 to a corporate global brand for a bag or a piece of furniture and give it directly to a talented local maker who could create something just as beautiful and twice as meaningful and receive an appropriately generous payment for their efforts.

Read a good book lately?

FX

I’m with Jorge Luis Borges: ‘I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.’ And Flaubert, who ‘read in order to live’. While Jane Austen declared there was ‘no enjoyment like reading’, Hemingway found ‘no friend as loyal as a book’, and Frank Zappa had ‘so many books, so little time’. Ray Bradbury reckoned that ‘without libraries we have no past and no future’, and Virginia Woolf ‘ransacked public libraries and found them full of sunken treasure’. Germaine Greer saw the library as ‘a place where you can lose your innocence without losing your virginity’ and Kurt Vonnegut praised librarians who ‘staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove books from our shelves, and have refused to reveal to the thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles’ when he declared ‘the country I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries’. Even Keith Richards admitted: ‘When you are growing up there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully: the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you.’ For once, he was showing his age: both the church and the library have far less pull today.

The British Library

The British Library was the largest public building to be built in Britain in the 20th century. Designed by Colin St John Wood, its £147m cost in 1998 now seems cheap Photo credit: Paul Grundy

If only the whole world was organised along the lines of the Dewey System rather than Google’s commercial interests we might possibly find everything we are looking for a great deal more easily. Libraries are places where you learn what teachers were afraid to teach you; they are full of ideas, perhaps the most dangerous and powerful of weapons. There are probably more than a million books in print and around 120,000 new titles published every year. In the 1950s there were 10,000. The average Waterstones stocks 30,000 books. Its Piccadilly branch is the largest bookshop in Europe, with more than 200,000 volumes in its stock.

And yet one in six working adults in London cannot read. One in three children in London does not own a book. One in three in certain parts of London start secondary school with a reading age of between seven and nine. Four in 10 businesses in the capital say their employees have poor literacy skills that have a negative impact on their business.

Books have changed. The emerging world of e-books has changed the mathematics of publishing. The industry seems set on a path to self-destruction as its business model is dismantled via the internet. Its conglomerates link arms to withstand the onslaught of Amazon, Apple, and Google as it learns the hard way that disintermediation is a term that no longer applies only to others. Public corporations driven by stock markets and the unrelenting pressure of quarterly profit figures have acquired swathes of small publishers that were once the bulk of the industry.

The British Library

The Royal Copenhagen Library, designed by Schmidt Hammer Lassen, was completed in 1999 Photo credit: Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architecture

There are very short books available electronically for the price of a coffee. From precious to throwaway, respect for books has changed, and the major challenge is one’s choice of tablet on which to read them. Choice is everything as tablet manufacturers try to hook clients up for life in order to get them to buy other products, like books. The range of options can be confusing and complicated even if you are someone who lives and breathes tech. The proliferation of products is the sign of a mature market. And this one has matured at a very young age. The embarrassingly tacky skeuomorphic iPad design aesthetic with its wood veneer bookshelf, once termed visual masturbation by a senior UI designer at Apple, and ‘lipstick on a pig’, has downgraded the user-experience ever since the iPad was launched. Even Jonathan Ive is not completely satisfied with Apple’s output. When asked about skeuomorphic design features such as that bookshelf and the fake leather texture and stitching in iOS and OS X he visibly winced in a way that the interviewer interpreted as a ‘gesture of sympathy’.

That 2.5 million Mills & Boon novels were pulped and used for the top layer of asphalt on the M6 may seem to many not just a reminder that reading in electronic times is different, but a final nail in the coffin of the printed book. In a digital book world content is searchable, findable and shareable, everything, and every computerised hacked-up book, is tagged, indexed, and referenced to other sites. It is a bag of words, ‘link juice’ in the parlance of ‘content discovery platforms’, ‘knowledge that YOU feel good about finishing’. A line has been crossed. To these people books are software. So what about good writing? You may well ask.

From 1860 until 1961 WH Smith had a subscription library service attached to its shops. One could deposit a borrowed book at any one of some 500 bookstalls around the country. One of its High Street competitors used design as a selling point even in the 19th century. Florence Boot, of Boots the Chemist family, instigated a subscription library in 1898 marketed on the basis of ‘clean books and beautifully fitted libraries’ usually located above the chemist shops. In the Twenties and Thirties Boots had more than 500,000 subscribers, by the Forties they topped a million, and the company bought books at a rate of 1,250,000 a year, which gave it considerable clout with publishers. Boots Booklovers’ Library lasted until 1965.

he new Library of Birmingham, at 35,000 sq m the largest in Europe Photo credit: Christian Richters

The new Library of Birmingham, at 35,000 sq m the largest in Europe Photo credit: Christian Richters

Bookshops have been changing fundamentally for 20 years since Waterstones opened its megastores in Sauchiehall Street and then Piccadilly, followed hard on its heels by Borders invading the UK for an ultimately futile decade, sustained by the creation of the mass-market hardback at the expense of the small independent shops. Bookshops would never be the same again. Book selling was tough, bookshops were dying and, quite possibly, the end of written culture was nigh before these megastores with lecture halls and internet rooms began to appear as part of a new relax-and- read approach.

They answered the needs of book lovers unimpressed by mail-order book clubs and large-scale discount deals in supermarkets. The rest of the industry appeared to simply curl up and prepared to die. But ever since Hatchards opened its doors in Piccadilly in 1797 the trade has survived each crisis of confidence and devised its own renaissance; Armageddon of the book has always been unavoidably detained.

Waterstones’ founder Tim Waterstone considers the publishing industry today is like Humpty Dumpty: it has been broken and can never be put back together again. Having unconsciously signed the death warrants of many independent booksellers when they gave mail-order houses savagely larger discounts than they gave bookshops, publishers are desperately trying to mend matters as they fight to control price-setting of e-books. Yet demise by discounting has taken hold and bookshops continue to disappear.

Therein lies an opportunity for local libraries, which some have been quick to grab. Lost in this fog of change, the paradigm shift of the electronic revolution has impacted not just books, but on bookshops, and now on libraries, from Rotterdam to Aberdeen, from Whitechapel to Washington.

Schmidt Hammer Lassen designed the 9,000 sq m Chaucer Buchanan District Centre Library in Sheffield

Schmidt Hammer Lassen designed the 9,000 sq m Chaucer Buchanan District Centre Library in Sheffield, preparing the way for the practice to win the competition to design the Mediascape facility in Denmark Photo credit: Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architecture

My renewed interest in libraries was sparked by a new one that has opened in Spijkenisse, on the edge of Rotterdam and not far from the docks. It’s called the Book Mountain, designed by Fokke Moerel of MVRDV, who previously worked for OMA. With around 60 staff, MVRDV was set up in 1993 and has quite a track record: the Dutch pavilion at World Expo, the Lloyd Hotel in Amsterdam, Mirador housing in Madrid, boutique shopping in Tokyo, an office campus near Munich, a cultural plaza in China, and now, a new project in the UK.

The Book Mountain holds over 55,000 books, and is worth a look. A spiralling network of stairs and walkways form a 480m-long route through five levels of bookshelves that stretch for nearly two miles. All the shelving and much of the furniture is made from recycled plastic bags and flowerpots, but it looks and feels like wood. The building is a naturally ventilated glass box with a total surface area of 9,300 sq m, cost £26m and took three years to build and fit-out and six years of planning and consultation.

There is an environmental education centre, meeting rooms, auditorium, offices, chess club, some retail, and a cafe at the peak with panoramic views. A book-lover’s delight, it nevertheless has been criticised for allowing direct sunlight on the books, a criticism deflected by the acknowledgement that wear and tear from borrowing means the books only have a four-year lifespan.

The building forms the centrepiece of a new library district with 42 social housing units, also designed by MVRDV, car parking and open public space adjacent to the market square and a historic church. With a local rate of illiteracy at 10 per cent the new library has been designed as ‘an advertisement for reading’. The overall shape and form of the project references the town’s agricultural past as it grows towards being a new eco-city.

The library at Aberdeen University Photo credit: Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architecture

The library at Aberdeen University Photo credit: Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architecture

A dizzying stack of shelving rising to the heavens is also to be found in Aberdeen where the new University library by Schmidt Hammer Lassen, completed in 2011, has registered an 87 per cent increase in student registrations since its completion (see FX October 2012). The 15,500 sq m, £34m building forms one side of a new public square, linking the university with the city. Having previously been responsible for the Royal Library in Copenhagen completed in 1999, and the 9,000 sq m Chaucer Buchanan District Centre Library in Sheffield completed in 2011, the architecture practice has since won an international competition to design the Urban Mediaspace, a banal name for the largest public library in Scandinavia (35,600 sq m) to be built in Aarhus, Denmark. The budget is £195m and completion is expected next year. Another social hub, like Spijkenisse, it will be part of the regeneration of the city’s old docks and its cultural focal point. SHL says it will be a ‘large heptagonal slice [that] hovers over a glazed prism resting on a square of ice-flake- shaped stairs fanning out to the edge of the sea’. We shall see.

With the first visuals now available of Foster’s 9,300 sq m overhaul of the Carrère & Hastings beaux arts 1911 masterpiece that is the New York Public Library flagship on 5th Avenue, and due for completion in 2018, a different kind of criticism was only encouraged. Scholars and writers with little faith in Foster believed it might both cripple scholarship and become a ‘glorified Starbucks’, especially when the scheme’s unveiling was repeatedly delayed last year and the library was less than forthcoming in its explanations.

That the architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote that the library was ‘about to undertake its own destruction’ did not help matters. She wrote that ‘you don’t update a masterpiece’. Having begun her career arguing passionately in 1963 against the destruction of Pennsylvania Station, she was nothing if not consistent. Caring as ever about standards in public design, she railed against the library’s redevelopment, heaping scorn on the scheme in a lacerating critique.

The £34m building has seen an 87 per cent rise in student registrations since it opened in 2011 Photo credit: Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architecture

The £34m building has seen an 87 per cent rise in student registrations since it opened in 2011 Photo credit: Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architecture

Closing two branches of the library, consolidating operations, uniting the lending and reference sections, installing state-of-the-art storage facilities, all within a clever piece of real estate dealing that could net the library zillions to be spent on more books and more staff, the ingenuity of the scheme becomes apparent and starts to foil the public-relations offensive waged against the scheme. It has nevertheless taken four years to get to the point at which the design ideas have been published and, with the original building gutted and a shopping gallery inserted into the heart of a sublime cultural institution, the critics’ views that it is heading in the direction of a suburban mall, complete with spacious atrium and curvy staircase, are understandable – and at a cost of £224m.

Should a much-loved building be trashed in order to deliver the unifying vision of the trustees; did they ‘run the numbers’ over all the options; have they chosen the right site from the three at their disposal? Indeed, have they commissioned the right designer? As reading habits change, so do demographics, and technology impacts everything, it raises yet again the question: what do we want of a library today?

Libraries are serious places but, as Will Alsop showed at Peckham, that does not inhibit style and wit. Enter the libraries rechristened Idea Stores in the UK. Idea Store: the name conjures up think tanks or literary salons but are in fact a Blairite- Orwellian package deal. As the word library may begin to disappear from our vocabulary, the Idea Store was conceived as a place that would draw in a new audience by grabbing its attention through design and a range of new services, places that could offer a wide range of adult learning courses, together with extensive activities and events programmes, careers support, meeting areas, crèches, free internet access and cafes.

Launched in 1999 by Chris Smith, Labour’s minister of culture, the idea was first championed by Tower Hamlets, which has opened five in the previous decade as part of its lifelong-learning strategy. Aside from all the gobbledegook the Idea Stores are very good at delivering traditional library services, plus DVDs and CDs to rent and e-books to loan to their members, something that initially caused great concern to authors and booksellers alike, while attracting the attention of the media across Europe.

Plans for Mediaspace, at 35,600 sq m the largest public library in Scandinavia Photo credit: Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architecture

Plans for Mediaspace, at 35,600 sq m the largest public library in Scandinavia Photo credit: Schmidt Hammer LassenArchitecture

Design has played a significant part in creating accessible and attractive spaces for the diverse range of activities housed in these new venues. The Idea Store in Bow was designed by Bisset Adams, at Canary Wharf by Dearle & Henderson, with both Whitechapel and Chrisp Street designed by David Adjaye. The Whitechapel branch replaced a building from 1892, a refuge for generations of free thinkers known as the ‘university of the ghetto’ because of the diverse community it had served (mathematician and scientist Jacob Bronowski learned English there.)

The concept at first sounded excruciating – a monument to trendy rebranding – but overall the Idea Stores have succeeded; the new image has garnered new users, luring kids away from computer games to the world of books, upping visitor numbers by 400 per cent on their predecessors that were visited by just 18 per cent of the population.

Much of the thinking behind this is now on view in the USA. The Francis Gregory Library and the William O Lockridge/Bellevue Library are both new buildings by Adjaye Associates, opened in 2011 and 2012 respectively and serving two of the 24 neighbourhoods in Washington DC. Both cost £8m and are approximately 2,000 sq m in size. The Gregory has a chequered facade of timber and glass, a woodland pavilion in the Fort Davis Park that reflects its striking setting. The Bellevue – a rather brutalist cluster of forms in concrete with a glazed skin and striking timber fins – has been inserted into a dramatically sloping site to act as a beacon for community activities.

As librarians reinvent themselves and adapt their collections and services based on the demands of their customers, so they are beginning to fill a void created by the loss of bookshops. At the heart of many a community, the library is gradually being reinvented to secure its place in society as more than just a place to get access to the internet, but as a gathering place for civic and cultural engagement, and a trusted place for preserving culture. It is far more than simply storytelling one morning a week in small market towns, or bookmobiles.

It is being designed by Schmidt Hammer Lassen and has a budget of £195m Photo credit: Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architecture

It is being designed by Schmidt Hammer Lassen and has a budget of £195m Photo credit: Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architecture

Now we have libraries as digital learning labs, as community publishing centres, mini-conference centres, locations for technology training programmes. They are studious places, quiet places, places to be stimulated, places for contemplation, repositories of knowledge, places to exchange ideas. It should come as no surprise that libraries are doing more educational work than ever before. Faced with the need to compete for shrinking municipal finances, libraries are changing to prove their value to taxpayers as local political ramifications get thrown into the blender along with the joy of discovering books.

Ever since the British Library by Colin St John Wilson was unveiled in 1998 – the largest public building to be built in Britain in the 20th century – controversy over library spending has escalated. For various governments it cost too much, and so the project was curtailed as budget cuts were imposed, yet at £147m it now seems almost cheap; for architects its red brick cladding was feeble and lacked courage as they brayed resentment; for the Prince of Wales it resembled a secret police academy.

Wilson looked as though he could not win. But he did. The 37 years from the award of the brief to completion of the last reading room he referred to as ‘the 30 years war’ as he worked through changes to the building’s location, size, three full designs, and funding. He came through it and, in an echo of MVRDV, spoke of ‘a magic mountain of all the knowledge of the world’.

With more than 150 million items, 14 million books, and 186 miles of shelving, it is an inspiring place. Inside it is a revelation, and a fine place to study, a place for calm contemplation. It works. Extravagant and impressive, we had to wait until 2006 for a similarly rich and restrained ‘shrine to the soul of a literate nation’ – Chipperfield’s Museum of Modern Literature that rubs shoulders with the National Schiller Museum at Marbach am Neckar in Germany, a rather specialised library housing original manuscripts, which won the RIBA Stirling Prize.

 Waterstones Piccadilly, Europe’s largest bookstore is in a 1935 Grade I listed building, reworked by Brian McManus/BDG McCall

Waterstones Piccadilly, Europe’s largest bookstore is in a 1935 Grade I listed building, reworked by Brian McManus/BDG McCall

At a lecture given on behalf of the Reading Agency, author Jeanette Winterson waxed lyrical about a youth spent in the Accrington Public Library, a place for her of refuge and inspiration built in 1907 for the working classes with money from the Carnegie Foundation. That library today ‘has fewer books, the children’s library has been closed, computers are everywhere, and the place functions as a community centre with books – the assumption being that if books are disappearing then why not libraries.’ I’m with writer Sara Sheridan: ‘They should be taking bonuses from bankers, not library books from schoolchildren. What kind of society are we building?’

Civilised nations build libraries, lands that have lost their souls close them down. Carnegie paid for 660 libraries in the UK and 1,500 in the USA. For him, ‘A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.’ The Library Act of 1850 allowed local authorities to spend a penny in the pound on libraries. Now maybe more than ever, they are the anchors of many communities and neighbourhoods.

Now, the UK’s libraries cost around £1bn a year to run, and are generally put into a pot labelled ‘libraries, leisure and culture’, lumping books with sports centres.

Once everyone’s university everywhere, a library’s cost is presented to taxpayers today as an invidious choice between rubbish collection or books. As to the cost: Walter Cronkite, for 19 years the CBS Evening News anchor, had it about right when he said: ‘Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.’

Waterstones Norwich, designed by Dreambox Studio

Waterstones Norwich, designed by Dreambox Studio

As author Seth Godin pointed out in his contribution to The Library Book: ‘Before Gutenberg, a book cost about as much as a small house’, hence books were shared and libraries created as ‘warehouses for books worth sharing’. They became places to go for entertainment and education, for fun and encyclopaedias, places to become better informed, more thoughtful, and productive members of a civil society. That was then. Today, amateur (and, sadly sometimes, not-so amateur) research is conducted on poor websites like, in my view, Wikipedia because it is cheaper and easier than going into town to the library. When you can store a thousand books on a tablet, we have left Gutenberg a long, long way behind. Books are no longer scarce or worth warehousing. ‘Post-Gutenberg, the scarce resource is knowledge and insight, not access to data,’ says Godin.

So if we have to face the fact that we need new kinds of libraries for a new kind of future in a new kind of world, where can we look? Books are changing, so why not libraries?

SSHHH! Designers at work

Fx

The Quiet Space
In search of comfort and tranquility

I have seen a growing consumer desire for spaces that offer solace from the hyper-connected, image and noise-saturated modern world. This is leading to a new wave of residential and commercial spaces that present a sense of intimacy, calm or relaxation. New forms of architectural cloaking and camouflage are helping to ‘quieten’ the visual landscape; many of these ambitious designs are being fuelled by new materials innovations.

The digital management of sound and the dampening of excess noise through absorbent materials are moving beyond specialist spaces into everyday hospitality and home environments. Consumers are reacting positively to soothing spaces that provide a level of intimacy, retreat or relaxation, in retail, home, work and leisure spaces. Intelligent precision sound-management systems and tactile yet functional materials are combining to allow spaces to be aurally manipulated in unprecedented ways.

Cloak & Camouflage
Dampening visual noise

With urban environments becoming increasingly crowded, designers continue to explore concepts that minimise visual clutter, including industrial architecture.

An example of this is by American artist Ned Kahn. Working with international design studio Urban Art Projects (UAP), he has created a camouflage for the multi-storey car park at Brisbane Airport using a shimmering facade of 250,000 individually mounted aluminium panels. Suspended 1m from the building, they move with the breeze, cloaking the structure and allowing it to blend into its surroundings.

Diffusing colour through layered materials is another method I’ve seen used to soften imposing structures. The educational farm and eco-museum in Rosny-sous-Bois, France – designed by French practice SOA Architects – is masked by a layered polycarbonate facade in numerous opacities and shades. Appearing like a blur of plant life, the structure acts as camouflage, maintaining visual tranquillity.

Another example is the Aichinger House in Kronstorf, Austria, designed by Austrian studio Hertl Architekten. This employs extraordinary exterior curtaining to soften the appearance of the former commercial space.

Modern Cocoons
Designing Calm & Intimacy

I’ve noticed that the idea of cocoons as structures, creating pockets of intimacy, is also growing in popularity. This is directly feeding consumers’ desire for spaces that deliver respite from the hyper-connected modern world.

The installation Rock Chamber by Israeli designer Arik Levy for the Bisazza Foundation exhibition space in Vicenza is a homage to solace: a cave-like cushioned pod upholstered in yellow fabric with a single, central light source. Discussing the space, Levy commented: ‘It’s not the escape that is important but the lack of private, calm and relaxing spaces around us. Designers have not yet started to pay attention to these issues other than in the work environment.’

My favourite adaptation of this concept can be seen in the work of French artist, Laurent Grasso, who’s Anechoic Chamber in Hong Kong explores the need to retreat. Two further effective uses of fabric to create a cocooning are in the gym of the Benedictine Archabbey of Pannonhalma, Hungary, and the Dental Bliss Clinic in Bangkok. For a summer festival, the Archabbey was transformed into an intimate performance space, using rolling layers of translucent polypropylene suspended from the ceiling. The design, by Hungarian architects Dániel Baló, Dániel Eke and Zoltán Kalászi, used material to reduce echo and soften the hall’s stark contours.

The Dental Bliss Clinic, designed by local studio Integrated Field, has subverted traditional clinical styling through the creation of a cocoon-based aesthetic. Translucent curtaining, warm lighting, modular cushioned leather seating and a palette of whites have been deployed in the waiting area to reduce the anxiety experienced by patients and foster more frequent visits.

The cocoon concept is also evident in the retail world. An excellent example was seen at the beginning of the year in the London Selfridges’ No Noise initiative. This included a Silence Room – a tranquil lounge space inside which visitors were asked not to bring their shoes or mobile devices – and a Quiet Shop, where consumers were only able to purchase debranded luxury goods. The space was created in collaboration with British meditation organisation Headspace and alternative lifestyle magazine The Idler to promote ways to live a more balanced life.

The desire for softness is also manifesting as an aesthetic. Soft and warm-looking materials, including bleached wood, leather and brass, encapsulate intimacy in Australian skincare brand Aesop’s shop in West Village, New York. Designed by the Australian March Studio, the simple interior features gently curved ceilings and leather flooring panels. Fixings are hidden to create an intimate, calming ambience. The interior also echoes the Selfridges initiative, in the noticeable absence of branded signage and promotional material.

Shaping Ambiance
Quietness without silence

While loud noise in hospitality environments can be frustrating, silence can be just as undesirable. I have seen a number of new innovations helping align sound to venue, shaping ambience.

American audio solutions hub Meyer Sound Laboratories premiered its Libra and Constellation sound management systems in a Californian restaurant in 2012. Combining sound-absorbing textiles, microphones and hidden speakers, the sophisticated systems dampen acoustics in echo-prone areas while creating a low-level wash of sound using remixed recordings captured within the space. Controlled using a tablet interface, they allow for precision acoustic dynamics. Much of the Constellation system relies on the properties of key interior materials to create acoustic buffering. The materials are hidden in the restaurant’s decor as printed art canvases, burlap sacks, salvage denim and Tectan – a relatively inexpensive, acoustic-absorbent material.

American-Canadian design practice RVTR’s research project Resonant Space, devised with international lab Arup Acoustics, is a generative sound system inspired by traditional Japanese origami techniques. It uses a three-pronged approach to manipulate spatial acoustics; the geometric system integrates reflective, absorptive and emission panels comprised of bamboo and expanded polypropylene.

Individual panels of the facade react to sounds created within their vicinity and adjust their positions accordingly, allowing acoustics to be responsively tailored. The research holds great potential for musical performance and recording spaces.

Quiet Materials
New innovations

While hi-tech electronic systems may be at the sci-fi end of innovation, developments in foam cell structures and felts are aiding the quest for quiet in homes, work and leisure spaces.

Global materials company BASF’s Basotect melamine resin foam is highly regarded for its acoustic and visual qualities. Manufactured in 50,000 hues, its web-like structure is easily shaped and offers superb thermal and acoustic insulation. It has been used as a decorative, sound-absorbent element in the Barceló Raval design hotel, Barcelona, the Children’s Museum of South Dakota, and in the interior of a Russian helicopter, designed by Moscow-based Vemina Aviaprestige. By adding custom-made, 40mm-thick sections of foam to specific areas of the aircraft noise levels were reduced significantly, making on-board hearing protection redundant.

Environmentally conscious Finnish materials specialist Konto has developed a peat-based acoustic dampening product. Used as an oil spillage absorption material in 2010, the company has since developed fibrous boards for interior use as sound-wave absorbers. The material is manufactured in naturally flecked 20mm and 40mm sheets that can be cut or painted – traits that have led to its use in sound-dampening artworks for public and private spaces.

Other companies are embracing recycled PET felt. The panels in the British sound-reducing tiling system Soundtect comprise 70 per cent recycled material. Relief patterning on the tiles, used on walls and ceilings, creates a homely cosiness in both work and residential spaces. .

Architects, artists and interior designers have always sought to better our environment. Traditionally the problems have been with little or ill-conceived space, poor lighting and impracticality. Their shift in focus, prioritising texture and mood over size and light, reacts to popular feelings of stress and dissatisfaction with the modern, hyper-connected environment. But this movement should not be viewed as a rejection of technology by creative disciplines. On the contrary, the problem is spawning creativity in approach, as inventive designers look to technology to solve the very problems it has supplied.

Owen Hatherley on Britain’s ‘bland’ Olympic legacy

BP

If there’s one architectural object that embodies the ‘Olympic legacy’, then it’s the Shoal, a sculpture by Studio Egret West. It is placed in front of the unlovely Arndale-like hulk of the Stratford Centre, at the side facing the Stratford transport interchange and the entrance to Westfield Stratford City. Aware that this insufficiently iconic structure would be seen by all visitors to the Olympic Village and the Olympic site, the munificent Olympic commissioners got the bumptious Alsopians at Egret in to hide it without demolishing it, or (as at Egret’s other big project, Park Hill) turfing out its tenants and draping it in luminous anodised aluminium. The idea is dubious enough, but the execution is something else – a series of multicoloured ‘fish’ swim along the centre’s concrete and stock brick, suspended on big, bulky and wobbly steel members. Some of those members don’t have fish on at all, but little CCTV cameras instead. Who knew ubiquitous surveillance could be so much fun!

Shoal

Shoal by Studio Egret West Photo: O.F.E from Flickr

It may sound like I’m being cynical here. After all, didn’t the Olympics ‘deliver’ various public facilities and a new park where once there was a poisoned post-industrial wasteland? I’m not one of those fixated with the memory of the picturesque interzone that once occupied the Lea Valley — it was a very vivid and strange landscape, and though it would have been nice if it could have been remade without erasing quite so ruthlessly its unplanned wildernesses, it’s also hard to see how they could have been retained as anything other than a smug contrivance; flats surrounding tyres and shopping trolleys would not necessarily have been better. Listening to Ken Livingstone on the Lea Valley, you got the impression that the area was being transformed from a landscape used mainly by Iain Sinclair into an area of desperately needed social housing and public facilities. The notion that Ken was going to get a new Alton Estate built on the sly, via the massive injections of money that come with the Olympics was always implausible, and from the start, there were clearances of housing co-ops on the site to make way for the New Stratford. Yet it’s still staggering quite how much Livingstone’s gamble failed.

The ‘legacy’ can be roughly divided into the site itself and the knock-on-effect, the latter being mainly Stock Woolstencroft’s series of towering dromes down Stratford High Street, a miserable parade of barcode facade buy-to-let nullities, and the clearance of the Carpenters Estate — now halted after a public campaign, but still an area of only partly-occupied council housing in a borough, Newham, that has taken to trying to export its poor to Stoke-on-Trent. Then there’s the vast, bland mall which provides a huge barrier between the Village and Stratford proper, a building of no more architectural distinction than the Stratford Centre itself, albeit significantly shinier. If these are the side-effects on the immediate area, they are hardly encouraging. But what of the official legacy, the Olympic Village and the Queen Elizabeth Park?

The latter is pleasant if extremely eerie in its combination of calm and ultra-heavy security. The imposing appearance of the publicly funded, Qatari Diar-owned Village, with its unified height and bulk leading to ‘Eastern Bloc’ comparisons, has led to some obvious criticisms. It does look peculiarly authoritarian in its stark, stone-clad monumentality, hence, presumably, the necessity for Fun to be slathered about, as in the ArcelorMittal Orbit, that monument to downsizing commissioned by Boris Johnson in the toilets of Davos: probably his only major contribution to the development. The other buildings have their moments, passably swooping sports structures that, with luck, won’t be the victim of cuts at Newham Council in a couple of years.

What next? The bedroom tax and other measures are putting Newham under enormous pressure, which may explain its abandonment of the clearance of Carpenters; and its rhetoric suggests that it will be trying to avoid oligarch-owned towers in future, with current plans opting for low-rise ‘villages’, with delightful sourdough bakery names, like ‘Chobham Manor’. In fact, Newham intends to directly build some of these houses, employing Rogers Stirk Harbour to design one of the first council-commissioned estates in decades, using the prefabrication system RSHP devised for Oxley Woods, Milton Keynes. It would be wonderful if it were possible to proclaim that this signifies a great change of heart, away from the public subsidy of rentier capitalism that has so comprehensively dominated the Olympic Borough. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what Newham is planning. It will be the client of the new development, but the houses will not be open to those on the council waiting list, but will instead be ‘affordable’ — that is, available at 80 per cent of the market price, immediately pricing out almost all council tenants and a considerable number of even middle class Londoners. After that, perhaps, if it’s successful, they’ll consider building council housing at subsidised rent. If public money can fund a sports festival to the tune of £15bn, then why can’t Newham Council spend some of its money on cornering the market for prefab chic?