London Design Festival highlights at the V&A

The London creative season is in full swing with London Design Biennale at Somerset House and London Design Festival spread to almost every corner of this great city. The hub at the V&A is possibly the best place to get a feel for the more conceptual work. The festival is celebrating its sixteenth birthday as well as its tenth year collaborating with the museum. For 2018 it is bigger, bolder, more international, and a vibrant start to autumn.

At the V&A’s Exhibition Road Quarter entrance is the striking MultiPly – the clean, clear Sackler Courtyard the perfect stage for this timber structure. One of the festival’s four key ‘landmark’ projects, it is the collaborative work of Waugh Thistleton Architects, the American Hardwood Export Council and engineers Arup who are exploring sustainable materials and modular systems that could help with today’s challenges – namely climate change and housing shortage. MultiPly is nine meters high and made from panels of American Tulipwood to resemble a series of wooden blocks, connected by bridges and stairs, with holes and open spaces throughout – perfect for climbing and seeing new views of the V&A and the surrounding South Kensington.

Sustainability has been addressed in conventional and non-conventional ways throughout the festival. This month, alongside eighteen other cities, London committed to the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Declaration for a carbon free near future. In another V&A festival highlight, London Fountain Co. presents a public drinking fountain, commissioning Michael Anastassiades to design a contemporary public drinking fountain that would replace wasteful plastic bottled water consumption in the city. Installed permanently in the V&A courtyard, this elegant, sculptural piece is made from polished cast bronze to reference historical fountains as well as be hygienic. The Cypriot-born designer wanted his fountain to be an experience, but also blend into London’s furniture. So, the form is an abstraction of a classical column, and the scooped top is a nod to drinking from a bowl. London Fountain Co has plans to install more clean water public fountains throughout the city, each responding to the area and its history.

The V&A is a labyrinth of curiosities, and LDF offers the opportunity to explore its hidden passages and less visited rooms. I have been coming to this incredible space since my childhood, and am amazed at how many rooms have been undiscovered. LDF asks its chosen designers to respond to their allocated room, and the results are often hit-and-miss. Some exhibitors have looked at how to enhance the museum experience by introducing sound to bring life and context to otherwise musical instruments displayed as just ornaments. Others, take us on a virtual journey into other worlds from the museum to create more a bit of an experience. Some, like the Onion Farm by Danish fashion design Henrik Vibskov, have responded to their surroundings in more abstract terms. His long corridor of fabric onions and crude, prickly cash-wash style brushes, running the length of the elegant Tapestries Gallery (possibly the most exciting setting to work within), are, according to the V&A, comments on the ‘hyper-industrialised state of agriculture today’.

Elsewhere, as part of the arts initiative ‘14-18 NOW’ for the First World War centenary, design studio Pentagram has covered the walls, doors and floors of the V&A’s Creative Studio with black and white graphics to dazzle the viewer. This a brilliant concept inspired by ‘dazzle’ ships. Pioneered by the artist Norman Wilkinson, who took aspects of Cubism, Vorticism and animal camouflage, then painted the surface of vessels during the war, it was meant to confuse the enemy as they struggled to make out the dazzle ships against shifting waves and clouds.

See our previous LDF reports here.
Photography © Andy Stagg for the V&A and LDF.

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Driving towards the progressive future

This is an exciting time to be involved in the car industry. As the new chapter in the story of the automobile unfolds, it faces and, to some extent, embraces fundamental changes. Despite some cynicism and a degree of denial amongst hard-edge traditionalists, changes are happening and the general reaction is positive.

It is hard not to find parallels with the murky world of today’s politics where progressive ideas are also shunned by those who cling to the imaginary glories of the past, and where liberal thinking is mocked by a tribe terrified of change.

Change has been slow though and possibly less revolutionary than many of us had hoped, Then, perhaps some of these more avant-garde concepts – much broader urban planning and speculative design and progressive global ideas – will find platforms once the early stages of sustainable mobility settle and consumers ease into new ways of moving about.

This is especially the case with car design. Designers seem to be hesitant about really challenging the visual language of conventional cars. New infrastructures and advanced materials and manufacturing have freed creatives to rethink the motor car vernacular. The first wave of e-cars show some of these possibilities, but the creative work so far has not been revolutionary.

Most seem to be tip-toeing around the subject and not letting go of the past. The handful of notable electric cars today have maintained the essential car shape with a touch of futurism. There is still much more to be explored and it is up to companies, to management, to push the creatives to be bolder. That is not to completely dismiss the first wave of clean-powered production cars – the latest BMW i8 Roadster and Jaguar I-Pace are notably impressive.

It is with the latest concept cars a more daring approach seems to be brewing. Last week a few really exciting ecological studies were revealed at Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in California. Many are being steered by new car brands. This is not entirely surprising though. The likes of Tesla or Automobili Pininfarina or Byton don’t have the constraints of traditional car manufacturers and so they can work on smaller scale productions and take bigger risks.

Infiniti, Nissan’s premium arm, has rebranded itself as an electric carmaker with some brilliant ideas in the pipeline including the Prototype 10 concept shown today at Pebble Beach. Elsewhere, I’m excited to see the PF0 electric hypercar by Automobili Pininfarina in the flesh when the company produces 150 of these by 2020.

These are all lovingly-crafted, fast cars offering a great deal of scope for personalisation. One thing seems to be clear, neither the traditional or the new boutique eco carmakers are asking consumers to compromise in the new age of progressive driving.

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The new Audi A7, a polished and precise mobile tech gadget

The A7 Sportback, Audi’s second-generation grand touring luxury coupé, is a graceful car and a polished example of industrial design. It is a highly technical mobile gadget too, offering the latest driver-assist innovations and a fully digital cockpit. It is also fun to drive. Read my full review in Wallpaper*

 

Nargess Banks

Design Talks | The Textile Building | 29a Chatham Place | London | E9 6FJ | UK
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SOS Brutalism explores the radical movement

Simple block shapes made of raw concrete – this is how brutalism has come to be defined. Yet behind these concrete buildings – some poetic and sculptural – lay a movement with strong principles. New brutalism was controversial the moment it emerged on the architectural scene in the 1950s. It deliberately set out to be hard edged and radical. Progressive social ideals informed much of its thinking. Ironically brutalist building design is often blamed for the failure of social housing. Trellick Tower in London, a masterpiece of social housing, was once dubbed ‘the tower of terror’ and is amongst the vilified. Yet at its best, brutalism was a heroic movement with highly progressive origins.

A new book SOS Brutalism, a Global Survey sets out to preserve its legacy and many of its buildings in danger of demolition. Initiated by the Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM) in Frankfurt and the Wüstenrot Foundation, it studies the movement on a broader scale and within the wider context of time, ideology and location.

Brutalism’s theoretical roots were British and the term was coined by the architectural critic Reyner Bonham. His was a twist on béton brut, the French term for raw concrete and its use in design by the father of modernist architecture Le Corbusier. His 1952 Unité d’Habitation in Marseille is largely seen as a model for the new brutalism that followed. Made of roughly-cast raw concrete, the twelve levels house large apartments accessed from interior ‘streets’, which are raised up on columns replete with a roof terrace.

That same year Alison and Peter Smithson, the husband and wife team at the forefront of brutalism, translated some of these themes into their unbuilt design for the Golden Lane Estate in London. Here Le Corbusier’s internal ‘streets’ became exterior ‘street-decks’. Bonham wrote in 1955, ‘what characterises the new brutalism…is precisely its brutality, its je-m’en-foutisme, its bloody-mindedness.’

Following World War II opinions were divided as to what should be the architectural language of the new era – a new modernism to reflect new times and help rebuild shattered communities. The responses were mixed. In the UK, cheap pre-fabricated modular buildings went up quick and fast to create much-needed schools and hospitals with the domestic scene largely dominated by two-story detached and semi ‘garden suburb’ style homes. It was within this scenario that a group of architects, dissatisfied with existing forms of modernism, made a conscious decision to create socially-responsible buildings. Brutalism was about celebrating the heroic spirit of earlier modernist architecture.

Many of the architects believed humans should be at the centre of their design themes. Whereas earlier modernists were influenced by speed and technology – by boats, the motor car – many brutalists were inspired by humans, their interactions informed the design.

As post-war austerity gave way to the confidence 60s, brutalist buildings were commissioned across the nation as concrete ‘streets in the sky’. Great examples are the Royal Festival Hall and South Bank Centre in London, as well as Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower and Smithsons’ Robin Hood Gardens – both of which were completed in 1972. Robin Hood Gardens was a summary of these ideals. Here two blocks contained both flats and maisonettes, and with the absence of cars, residents were to use the ‘streets-in-the-sky’ thus encouraging social mixing and community creation. Sadly, the 1970s were an altogether different time and soon poverty, crime and vandalism made Robin Hood and Trellick posters for the failure of brutalism.

SOS Brutalism is large, informative and lavishly-illustrated. The book identifies and analyses some of the key brutalist buildings, 102 to be precise, around the world and is therefore a fascinating study of the movement, how it ended up responding to regional voices and concerns. Its roots may have been British, yet raw concrete became a global language of architecture in the 60s and 70s with a shared vision for re-inventing modernism.

With today’s fragmented societies, displaced communities and the widening gap between rich and poor, some of the more utopian brutalist principles feel relevant. It could explain the movement’s new-found popularity. Perhaps elements of its progressive ideology will invite a set of socially committed idealists to find a new language of architecture that engages with our current wider social issues, one that could help rebuild broken communities.

Nargess Banks

SOS Brutalism, a Global Survey is edited by Oliver Elser, Philip Kurz and Paul Cachola Schmal and published by Park Books.

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2017: A year in design, cars and their intersection

It has been quite a year in design. London alone is buzzing away with creative energy – at times impossible to keep up with the number of festivals, exhibitions, talks, walks… Perhaps as a reaction to the current political and social climate, there appears to be much more open discussions around arts and ideas – platforms for encouraging wider dialogues.

It got me thinking that perhaps a little nudge – in this case a painful electric shock – is needed through periods in history to awaken the mind and rediscover the voice. Trump and the global rise of nativist sentiment that also brought us Brexit has been a shock to the liberal minded. I share architect David Adjaye’s vision when he wrote recently: ‘I don’t think my generation needs a passport to define their nationality.’ What recent events have proved is just how much of this sentiment is shared with a generation of creatives and liberals and modernists who define themselves not by abstract national borders, but through progressive ideology. There is light in that.

So, what impressed in 2017? The Serpentine Gallery events and ‘marathons’ were again hugely inspiring where people from all worlds – arts, sciences, tech – gather to share thoughts on topical issues. Elsewhere, the London Design Festival felt bigger and bolder than in previous years to include a whole range of fringe events including Design Junction, where I was a little involved helping to write a book for Campari. Outside of London, Salone del Mobile in Milan was a truly impressive week where the city transformed into a creative hub – again with a strong international voice.

Looking back on the year, I am once again reminded of how multi-layered the car is – being at once a remarkable piece of engineering, a representation of avant-garde industrialism and a complex object. Added to that, the car is now an extension of our personal, social and working lives – a role that will become ever-more evident as we shift towards the clean connected autonomous age of mobility.

2017 was a year when the auto world finally began to seriously show its intent to move forward. It is no longer speculative. Tech companies such as Tesla have been true disrupters pushing the more traditional carmakers into reacting quicker to this inevitable change. And it has been interesting to observe the various car brands and their responses to the future. Some of the more forward-looking traditional companies have also proved that a century of stamping metal and building engines does amount to a great deal – that history, intellect and knowledge are important.

I am particularly fond of the BMW i cars. The marque was the first to show a real commitment to electrification by creating a devoted sub-brand and i Vision Dynamics shown in 2017 explores a unique visual language and preludes a third model in the family. Mercedes-Benz has also been devoting a great deal of R&D to finding more holistic sustainable solutions and the latest Mercedes EQA and Smart Vision EQ Fortwo are the marque’s vision for autonomous, electric urban driving. Then there was Audi’s Aicon, a driverless electric concept with no pedals or a steering wheel inspired by luxurious private airlines and Volkswagen’s brilliant ID Crozz concept to preview a high-riding electric crossover vehicle.

The excitement, however, remains firmly with conceptual cars. Carmakers still seem timid when it comes to radical design – only tip-toeing into the avant-garde with production models. Car making is an expensive business, requiring a great deal of investment and few are willing to take risks. Saying that, there were some fantastic products introduced in the year gone some of which I was lucky to experience.

Amongst my favourites has got to be the new Rolls-Royce Phantom for it simply brings visceral joy in every possible way. I love that the design team have taken the experience of personalisation to a whole new level with the on-board gallery concept. Elsewhere the McLaren 720S is a complex expressive project and, like much of what the company is making, needs to be saluted. Lexus is another company pushing the envelope a little, in the case of the latest LS showing that a bit of eccentricity in design isn’t such a bad thing.

There were some great cross-overs this year too from the world of cars to art and design. BMW released two art cars – the second a very brave virtual proposition by Chinese artist Cao Fei. It was fascinating visiting her at her Beijing studio and in the process exploring the city’s incredible contemporary art scene. Meanwhile, in navigating its future, sister company MINI continued its exploration of urban living working with architects in London and Milan to show us some thought-provoking concepts.

These are the kind of collaborative, ideas-sharing projects that make huge sense as the motor car evolves further to being much more than a vehicle for transport. As for the year ahead, I suspect the car in its formal ‘motor car’ shape will not alter drastically. Nor will our interactions. New car culture still has a little way to go and it’ll be up to a new generation of drivers to force that real shift.

Nargess Banks

Design Talks | The Textile Building | 29a Chatham Place | London | E9 6FJ | UK
Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
All rights and labelled images are covered by ©