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New Underground Map

June 29, 2011 1 comment

I’m quite liking this new approach to the London Underground map by Mark Noad… (The version on Mark’s site is interactive and much more legible than this screen grab)

Although it goes completely against the grain of Harry Becks iconic original, it’s visually similar enough to be able to immediately understand what it is, and yet subtly different enough to be an interesting idea. This alternative approach shows relative distances between stations with a degree of accuracy that Beck’s genius allowed him to move away from, opting instead as he did, to follow the standards of electrical engineering drawings, where the order of things in the diagram is far more important than their actual realtime positions.

The generator for the design apparently was both the increased number of lines (underground and overground) and the ongoing complexity of the system since the first map was published in 1931, with Noad suggesting that Harry Beck wouldn’t come up with his original design if he was looking at it fresh today.

A bold statement indeed…



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1950’s Science Fiction films…

June 28, 2011 Leave a comment

The years between 1950 and 1956 were a highly creative period in Science Fiction film making, adding greatly to what is often referred to today, as the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

“People by the 1950’s had lost their optimistic confidence in the ability of science to fulfil all the dreams of mankind; instead you saw science about to fulfil all the nightmares of mankind.” J.G. Ballard

On both sides of the Channel, film makers fuelled by the perceived rise and associated fears of communism, improvements in film making technology and the creeping fear that science was not necessarily going to be the saviour of mankind (as suggested by Mr. Ballard above) produced a huge number of films, not all brilliant by any means, but some that I think can be regarded as absolute classics…

1951, (the same year incidentally as the Festival of Britain was busy expounding only the virtues of science) saw three of the best hit the big screens: The Day The Earth Stood Still, the wonderfully apocalyptic When Worlds Collide and The Thing from Another World, the film that John Carpenter would rework for his masterpiece The Thing.

All three films were American and relied heavily on the fear of Invasion, be it from far superior and intelligent races, other planets or that perennial favourite, monsters… Much has been written about McCarthyism and the purging of so called communist tendencies from the creative fields, and although it was finally on the wane by the early/ mid 1950’s, The Un-American Activities Commission was still an important consideration, with all three of these films demonstrating how much jingoism played a part in getting things made. The stars are all very Gung-ho, the enemy is always assumed to be anti-American/ Human and attacked without question, the Americans/ Humans always win, and the aliens/ monsters/ Russians always lose…

By the mid 50’s, film making techniques and effects were improving to such an extent that when one of my all time favourite films (and one I have touched on before) Forbidden Planet, came out in 1956, it looked and felt completely different from its predecessors. A truly remarkable film for its time, Forbidden Planet was one of the first to be set wholly on another planet, and its thanks to a futuristic electronic score and revolutionary special effects from by The Disney Studios, that it largely succeeded in being convincing with machines, weapons and robots that looked as if they might actually work. The acting was a step forward as well. Whilst there was still all the necessary Hollywood tick list items (comedy crew member (check) love interest (check) handsome hero (check) evil wrongdoer (check) these elements were beginning to become incidental to the plot rather than fundamentally driven by the script (just compare Leslie Neilson’s relationship with Anne Francis to the rather laboured goings on in either When Worlds Collide or Spaceways.

The War of the Worlds from 1953, directed by the inimitable George Pal (also responsible for Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide and Conquest of Space), is pretty faithful to the ideas of the original story, apart from the wholesale transportation of the story from Woking to California  that is. For the time and due in no small part to the estimated $2m budget allocated by Paramount Pictures, the effects were truly out of this world and quite rightly won the Oscar for best special effects in 1954. Colour also plays a huge part in the success of the film, with the green lights of the war machines and the scratchy effect death rays in particular standing out.

Other marvellous films from this period include; Destination Moon (1950), Spaceways (1953), Invaders from Mars (1953), The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), This Island Earth (1955), Conquest of Space (1955) and Earth Vs The Flying Saucers (1956) all of which are wonderful in their own way, with most relying on heavy curtains, clever lighting, perspex sheeting and a triumph of will over budget to bring the directors particular vision to life… I particularly like the main alien in Invaders From Mars, basically a man’s head, painted green with some stick on tentacles in an upturned fish bowl, or the silver suits and white wigs of Exeter and his alien colleagues in This Island Earth..  Simple and effective….

Of the films above, only two were made in the UK, Spaceways (the only film here I’ve not managed to see all the way through) and The Quatermass Xperiment. Both films were produced by the Hammer Studios and are decidedly more low key than their American counterparts, being both black and white and heavily reliant on a very small scale relationship at the centre of the film. In fact Spaceways (from what I can tell) seems to be  a fairly standard murder mystery love triangle, just set in space…

I must say that the posters are all pretty amazing in their own right, all original painted artwork or tinted photos, they very much reflect the styles of the day. It’s interesting looking at them all together now, how many similarities there are between them, be it the diagonal streak of fire/ text/ laser beam/ rocket across the image or that almost all of them emphasise the role of the “monster” in the picture… Not being a big monster movie fan, I thought I had deliberately chosen films which were more or less monster free, and instead concentrated on the space/ sciencey bit… but you wouldn’t really know it to look at these posters.

The Post Office Tower

June 27, 2011 3 comments

I saw one of Andrew Marr’s excellent Making of Modern Britain programmes again over the weekend, the one covering the turbulent times between the mid 60’s to the mid 70’s, when Messrs Wilson and Heath were constantly trying to get one up on each other (sound familiar?)

One aspect that caught my attention was the Post Office Tower, as this iconic building formed a major part of my Architectural Diploma project when I was at the old Polytechnic of Central London back in the early 90’s.

The Post Office Tower was conceived in the mid to late 1950’s as a solution to the increasing number of telephone calls being made across the country. Construction began in the summer of 1961, and 4 years and £9m later, the tower was officially opened by Harold Wilson, who took full credit for this perfect technological example of Labour’s White Heat of Revolution.

The Tower was truly a marvel. The tallest and most expensive building in Britain at the time, it was designed to house a combination of transmitting equipment and receiving aerials as well as public observation decks and the Uk’s first revolving restaurant (initially operated incidentally by Butlins). It also had flexibility designed in so that new technologies could be accommodated…

By the early 90’s with the advent of the unimagined digital exchanges however, much of the main body of the tower was empty and the restaurant had been closed for many years due to security reasons.

The umbrella approach to our final diploma year, under the tutelage of one Kevin Rowbotham, was parasitic buildings: the re-using of all or part of an existing structure and its services to create a new form of “plug-in” architecture.

We all had to choose a London building to infect, and as one of the most prominent buildings in London, it struck me as perverse that the BT Tower (as it was by then) was also the most inaccessible and secretive. I actually phoned up and wrote to BT (on PCL headed paper as advised) trying to organise a trip to the top for me and the rest of the year, but with no success. So I chose the Tower and looked at transforming it into something more appropriate for the times…

Armed only with blind naivety and encouragement from the tutors, and through a combination of fractured coloured glass, external lifts, recycled telephone directories, spray paint, collage and lighter fluid transfer of photocopies, I set out to transform the tower into a brightly lit and highly visible reminder of what it is I thought our nation did best, by creating the worlds first vertical shopping centre…

No don’t laugh, this is what architectural education was like back then (probably still is actually). Who cared whether it worked, or how practical it was, or whether it would benefit your professional career, as long as it was a strong idea, slightly controversial and Kev could get a good image out of it….

You can decide that for yourselves, as I’ve managed to unearth some of my final scheme images… and remember this was all done BC (before computers) when machines were very expensive, and few and far between, so all those lines were drawn with a pen….

There are a number of excellent sites dedicated to the PO Tower here, here and here (I do like Jonathan Glancey…)

I’ve also found a pretty cool Rank film called Eating High from their Look at Life series which is intersting….

The Lattice of Coincidence…

June 16, 2011 7 comments

I’m writing today’s post in honour of my good friend Dan, who when we were talking about my interest in synchronicity in the pub last night, was definitely rather sceptical about the whole random connections thing, and fair enough…

As if to push his point home, this morning he sent me a link to this clip from Alex Cox’s finest moment, Repo Man from 1984, and a quote from the mild mannered janitor, Miller who thought a lot about this kind of stuff, mostly on the bus because as he says “the more you drive, the less intelligent you are…”

“A lot o’ people don’t realize what’s really going on. They view life as a bunch o’ unconnected incidents ‘n things. They don’t realize that there’s this, like, lattice o’ coincidence that lays on top o’ everything. Give you an example; show you what I mean: suppose you’re thinkin’ about a plate o’ shrimp. Suddenly someone’ll say, like, plate, or shrimp, or plate o’ shrimp out of the blue, no explanation. No point in lookin’ for one, either. It’s all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.”

I’d forgotten all about Repo Man, an excellent film involving LA punks, mad scientists, aliens and car repossession. I haven’t seen it for many, many years, something I intend to rectify this very afternoon as those lovely people at Amazon will sell me the DVD for £3.35 + postage… not much more than the price of the beer we were drinking last night!

I must say, I really like the phrase “The Lattice of Coincidence” and I’m very tempted to make it the new subtitle of this blog… Cheers Danny.

Synchroncity, Maurice Sendak & Shaun Tan

June 13, 2011 2 comments

If you’ve read much of this blog, you’ll know that I’m quite drawn to the concept of synchronicity: when you get an idea about something, and then unlooked for, a series of other things occur that reinforce the original idea or suggest some previously unthought of connectivity…

All of which rather involved introduction is by way of an explanation as to why I’ve chosen now to write about one the greatest living American writer and illustrators, Maurice Sendak.

It all started when I found my original copy of Where the Wild Things Are at my mum’s house at Christmas. I remember as a kid I loved this book so much, with its beautiful pictures of Max dancing in his wolf suit and the Wild Things dancing on their island, that when I couldn’t find it about 10 years or so ago, I had to go out and buy a new copy..

Written and illustrated in 1963, Sendak’s wonderful book is rightly regarded as a classic, telling the simple story of a boy’s dreamtime  journey over the seas to a land of monsters where he becomes their king by taming them with magic and then gets everyone to dance the wild rumpus before sending them all off to bed without any supper…

The creator of over 100 books, Sendak’s work has always been deeply grounded in a respect for children, generally giving them more credit than their parents, as he says himself “The point of my books has always been to ask how children cope with a monumental problem that happens instantly and changes their lives forever, but then they have to go on living, and can’t discuss the problem with anyone. No one will take the time.”

Interestingly this (very) short story was made into a film a few years back by Spike Jonze, a film which I’ve only seen once on the back of an airplane seat when we were travelling, and which at the time I thought overly emphasised the darker elements of the story, missing the colour and joy of the original illustrations. I must get round to seeing it again, give it another chance.

Anyway a week or so ago we were in Edinburgh and as I was rooting about in one of the seemingly thousands of charity shops there, I came across a little Puffin book from 1971 written by Robert Graves, called The Big Green Book with illustrations by Maurice Sendak.

It seems that Graves was challenged to write a children’s story and asked Sendak to illustrate it. It’s rather an odd thing to be honest, in which Jack, a little boy who lives with his aunt and uncle, discovers a magic book, makes himself old and then invisible and then proceeds to con his aunt and uncle out of all their money and then their house by cheating at cards, hardly a moral tale then…

Needless to say though, the little black and white drawings are, as with all Sendak’s work, beautifully evocative, full of rich textures and wit… (apologies for the rather poor scans, I didn’t want to break the spine!)

The final piece in the jigsaw was when I read that the Australian illustrator Shaun Tan had won this years Astrid Lindgren Memorial Prize in Stockholm, a prestigious prize for writers and illustrators of children’s books that was won in its inaugural year (2003) by, you guessed it, Maurice Sendak, when he was credited with “changing the entire landscape of the modern picture book – thematically, aesthetically and psychologically”

So three very good reasons to write about one of the most original and gifted illustrators of the last 50 years, I hope you agree.

And whilst we’re on the subject, Shaun Tan is himself a very, very gifted individual, and someone who has also been on my list of people to write about.

His work is layered and clever, taking seemingly simple ideas like unfamiliarity and uncertainty then creating highly original and beautiful images to illustrate these predicaments.

I especially like The Lost Thing and the truly excellent Tales From Outer Suburbia, an anthology of short illustrated stories, where something odd occurs in an otherwise familiar setting, causing ordinary people to act in surprising ways.  Check out the wonderful images below for a small taste of the man’s genius…

Wild Beasts

June 10, 2011 1 comment

When a friend recently played me some tracks from the Wild Beasts album, Two Dancers, I was a bit the worse for wear, and it mostly sounded like a wailing noise to my rather dulled ears, far too slow and involved for that time of night.

There must have been something though, nagging at me through the haze, and my friend was so adamant that it was the best record he’d heard since the last best record, that I loaded it onto my phone on Sunday night, and I’ve been listening to it almost non stop all week…

It’s a strange thing… the music is undeniably beautiful, a collection of uplifting, sometimes odd tunes, with echoes of Foals’  jangly guitars and smart, erudite lyrics that at times remind me of Morrissey’s sense of the bizzare.

Its the voice that gets you though. At times completely over the top and slightly annoying, at others mesmerising. It sounds like the bastard offspring of the great and sadly missed Billy Mackenzie and Sparks’s Russ Mael, operatic, bombastic and certainly not for the faint hearted, singing songs about lust and violence.

Knowing absolutely nothing about the band before this post, I now know that they are a four piece from Kendal, that they formed somewhere around 2005, that their new album “Smother” came out a few weeks ago (and is also pretty good by all accounts) and that the voice belongs to Hayden Thorpe.

Give it a go, see what you think… The opener “Fun Powder Plot” is one of the best things I’ve heard from a guitar band for ages..

Wild Beasts – Two Dancers

Jeff Bridges, Ray Skelton & Endeavour

June 9, 2011 Leave a comment

Three oddly varied topics for today’s post, united only by the fact that I read about them all on the way into work today…. The Metro being surprisingly interesting for once…

Jeff Bridges has to be one of the finest actors in the world. Just a quick look at a list of some of his films gives you an idea of how good this man is at pretending to be other people… The Big Lebowski, Tron, Iron Man, True Grit, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Starman, The Fisher King, KPax, The Men who stare at Goats, Arlington Road, Crazy Heart……

Anyway apart from an excuse to include a picture of His Dudeness from one of my all time, top 5 films, the reason for this post is that there is a retrospective of the great man on at the BFI on the Southbank, so I will try and remember to organise getting to one or two of those. Especially as there are a number of the less well known films like the thrillers Cutters Way and Winter Kills and from 1971, The Last Picture Show with a very fresh faced Mr. Bridges, looking belive it or not, even younger than his CGI “avatar” in Tron: Legacy.

I also learned that Ray Skelton, the voice of Zippy and George from Rainbow died yesterday aged 79.

Like most people I suspect, I didn’t know his name, but being of a certain age (i.e. the wrong side of 40) I grew up with Rainbow and will always have a soft spot for this rather silly show with its overly large glove puppets, a man in a full size bear suit, singalongs with Rod, Jane & Freddie and of course the inimitable Geoffrey….

But even more cool than being the voice of Zippy and George (if that’s possible) and something I didn’t know until this morning, was that Roy was also the voice of the Daleks and the Cybermen… queue loud shouting of “Exterminate, Exterminate…” I have to be honest though, I can’t remember what the Cybermen sounded like, but I’m sure Roy made them sound scary too…

And lastly a photo of the final Endeavour flight which I think speaks for itself .. I wrote about the end of the shuttle missions recently and this beautiful and elegant image of the Endeavour docked at the International Space Station during it’s final flight only a few days ago, is a fitting tribute to the programme.

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