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Project A119 : A Study of Lunar Research Flights…

January 15, 2017 Leave a comment

va-cold-war-modern-6In light of the imminent inauguration of the real life American Idiot, and his rather troubling views on Nuclear weaponry, I thought I’d dig out this post I drafted a couple of years ago but never got around to posting.

I’d been re-reading the book that accompanied an excellent exhibition that the V&A organised a number of years ago. Entitled “Cold War Modern” it looked at the influences on style and design brought about through the increasing political tensions and exceptional bursts of creativity that defined the post war period between 1945 and 1970. A creativity that, despite being born from challenging and difficult times, undoubtedly benefited society in the long run through an improved understanding of materials, science and technologies.

With one notable exception, and this is a tough one to believe, but for a period of time, America were genuinely looking into the practicalities of exploding a nuclear bomb on the Moon… A terrifyingly over the top and stupefyingly ridiculous act that was justified by the argument that if Americans using American technology could make such a thing happen, then it would leave the Communist Block countries in no doubt as to how powerful a nation they were dealing with…

450px-study_of_lunar_research_flights_-_vol_i_-_coverCodenamed “Project A119 or “A Study of Lunar Research Flights”, this top secret plan was first conceived in 1958, but did not become common knowledge until around 2000.

In October 1957, The Soviet Union had shocked the West with the huge success of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. America desperately needed to regain the upper hand and set about developing plans (little knowing that they would once again be beaten into second place, when in April 1961 Yuri Gagarin would be the first human to leave the earths atmosphere).

I digress. Back in 1958, various ideas were considered and a certain Carl Sagan became attached to Project A119, a name familiar to my generation as the brilliant and charismatic Astronomer and Astrophysicist who later brought the ground breaking TV show Cosmos into our living rooms in the 1980’s. The team concluded that a nuclear bomb, rather than a more visually impressive hydrogen bomb would be best, however this was due only to considerations relating to payload at take off, as hydrogen bombs are apparently significantly heavier.

The maths were fiendishly difficult, however the principles were straightforward enough: put the bomb onto a rocket, launch the rocket from a secret base in the US, fly it to the moon, crash the rocket into the moon and detonate the bomb. At the same time (once the rocket was irretrievably on its way of course) let the world know and make sure it was watching when impact occurred. One up manship at it’s most insane..

Amongst other factors, Sagan and his team had to consider trajectories, possible debris and gas dispersion in the low gravity of the moon, the likely effect of radiation on any future manned missions and the affect of the explosion on the moons orbit, not to mention any potential affects such actions might have on our own planet.

Thankfully, driven primarily by fears of negative publicity should something go wrong during take off and the bomb explode on US soil, and a general reluctance to begin the overt militarization of space, this harebrained scheme was abandoned in 1959, with NASA concluding that sending men to the moon and bringing them safely home would be a far more effective political and popular “weapon”.

So there you are, a true and sobering story. Let’s hope the incoming 45th President of the USA doesn’t read this post and decide that Project A119 might be resurrected as a way of demonstrating to the world how suitable a candidate he really is for his new role in the world….

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Mac Conner: The Man who drew the American Dream…

April 5, 2015 Leave a comment

We went along to the House of Illustrations Gallery in Kings Cross on Good Friday to see a small exhibition of the work of the commercial artist most closely associated with Mad Men era New York.

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Macaulay (Mac) Conner was a Madison Avenue based illustrator whose work graced the pages of the many 1950’s and 60’s lifestyle magazines published throughout North America, a country swollen with pride and full of optimism for the future, where success, wealth and a perfect family life in the suburbs were the corner stones of the American Dream, readily available to everyone who read the articles and features that Conner’s work accompanied.

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And whilst we may look back at those times now as more divisive, with their conspicuous racism, latent sexism and rampant consumerism, in the simple terms of what Mac Conner was commissioned to illustrate, his ability to capture the very essence of those heady times is unquestionable…

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As with many exhibitions, the images accompanying this post, wonderful though they are, do not really do the originals justice. Almost all the paintings on show were produced using gouache on board, allowing Conner to paint faces and figures with a confidence and ability that is endlessly impressive.

Conner was also something of a stylist, using devices such as a limited use of mid tones for skin or a single block colour such as the green above or the purple below, to give the images greater presence.

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And in his own small way he was also a rebel. The restrictions imposed by commissioning editors were, as I understand it, if not draconian then certainly restricting and Conner’s inclusion of strong women, intimate positions (for the time) and black faces is certainly worthy of credit..

So an excellent little show and a marvelous insight into an era that we really only see these days, through the filters of the 21st Century.

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Exhibition of Mid Century Latin America Architecture…

March 6, 2015 2 comments

Arch Daily have just informed me of an exhibition which starts at the end of March. Unfortunately for me it’s at the MOMA in New York …

Entitled Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980, it sounds like something right up my street, full of idealistic 1960’s and 70’s designs, when imagination was only limited by the ability to which it could be drawn

These two images in particular caught my attention.

The first is from 1969 and is a magnificent proposal for a hotel at Machu Picchu, Peru by Miguel Rodrigo Mazuré. Having been lucky enough to visit Machu Picchu a few years ago, I can imagine where this was probably going to be located, on the slopes above Aquas Calientes, where the buses on the switchback road slowly take you up to the citadel and a sight that I will never, ever forget

As such my heart tells me that I’m quite pleased it wasn’t built. But my head absolutely loves it.. all those cantilevers and cable cars and funicular railways and dynamic concrete planes.. ohhh, yes please…

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This second image is slightly more conceptual in that it appears to have a record cutting lathe acting as a central civic hub of some form, with routes in and out being represented by oil refinery pipework.

It still looks bloody marvellous though…. I can’t find anything about this image from the exhibition blurb, but it looks a little bit like it’s sitting in the beautiful Peruvian valley of Cusco, so again, probably a good thing it never made it off the drawing board…

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So all in all, it looks like it could be a good exhibition, although unless it crosses the ocean, one I won’t get to see. I’ll have to find out if there’s a shiny and informative, fully illustrated book to accompany the exhibition (and let’s face it, there usually is..) and be satisfied with that…

My own small contribution to spreading the word of South American post war architecture was a piece I wrote a couple of years ago for the Modernist Magazine, about the Argentinian Brutalist architect Clorinda Testa, whose work in Buenos Aires, I found particularity memorable and deserving of far greater recognition worldwide…

Expo ’58

February 8, 2015 Leave a comment

Atomium ashtrayOne of the things I remember growing up was a small metal and plastic souvenir that my Gran and Grandad used to have. It spent most of its life safely out of child’s reach on a shelf above the dining room door along with various other odds and ends that they’d collected on their travels (and that I really wish I’d had the gumption to ask them about whilst they were still here..).

Anyway, every time we visited, without fail, I would ask if this wonderful object could be brought down so that I might admire it… The souvenir was a model of the Atomium in Brussels, the center piece of their Expo 1958 extravaganza. It’s long since disappeared, probably to a charity shop or in the bin knowing my Gran (who was the least sentimental of people I’ve ever known). I haven’t thought of it for at least 30 years, but after a quick look through the internet I’m pretty sure it looked like the one above…

expo58The reason for this mini bout of nostalgia is that I’ve just read Jonathan Coe’s rather fine novel of the same name. Part cold war spy parody, part comedy of errors, part unrequited love story, Expo 58 conjures up post war life at the end of the 1950’s, which as any one who reads this blog might tell you, is where my interests lie…

Expo ’58 was the first such post World War 2 event, and came at an very interesting time in world history. The horrors and enforced austerity of the Second World war were finally beginning to fade across Europe, allowing its citizens to begin to think about the future, rather than dwell on the past. At the same time however, political instability in various regions was creating it’s own new set of global concerns: The Mutually Assured Destruction of the Cold war was in full effect, the various wars across south east Asia and Vietnam in particular were escalating, whilst recent conflicts in The Suez, Hungary and North Korea had all contributed to a growing feeling of unease and insecurity.

bruxelles58-bigIt was always naive to suggest that a six month long party, at which more than 50 countries attempted to distill their very essence into a purpose designed, temporary pavilion located within 500 acres of prime city center land in Brussels was ever going to address or solve these huge political differences, but one can’t help but admire the determination and commitment that drove the participants to make it such a hugely successful event with over 41 million visitors passing through the gates…

Interestingly despit ethis huge success and popularity of Expo 58, Coe highlights the paucity recognition that it has received over the years. He references a number of recent post war social histories (Dominic Sandbrook’s Never Had it so Good and David Kynaston’s Modernity Britain) that completely fail to make any reference to it, and I would also add Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain to that list.

Coe’s book and the memory of my grandparents little souvenir (and the implication that they went there of course) has fired a desire to look further into this event. I’ve written about Expos several times before (Monorails at the New Your Fair of 1964  and   Basil Spence’s pavilion at Expo 67) and I’m unquestionably drawn to the idea of trying to represent a country and its culture with(in) a single building…

A future post (probably centering on the amazing Atomium itself) is more than likely, but until then, I’ll offer you a selection of stylish graphics and images from Expo ’58, and a recommendation to read Mr. Coes’ entertaining and (for me anyway) thought provoking novel…

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Expo 1958 paviljoen van Engeland / United Kongdom

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October Roundup : Music & Art, Swearing & Skating, Poppies & Birthdays…

November 2, 2014 2 comments

What with one thing and another (mainly updating my portfolio, applying for and getting a new job, a nerve wracking experience that I haven’t been through for about 9 years) I’ve not had the chance to write much recently, which is a shame as we’ve done some excellent things together this last month. So what better excuse for a mini roundup as a way of recording them all…

20141004_203121_aFirstly there was our annual trip to Bedrock land to hear the mighty John Digweed spinning his tunes into the early hours. This year though, as he was promoting his rather excellent Traveler album there was a launch party at Plan B in Brixton and we, along with surprisingly few others, had the pleasure of a private play through.

The three fine fellows in the photo are JD himself, his musical accomplice Nick Muir and the Bedrock label manger Scott Dawson. Middle aged blokes in black, proper pop stars or what?..

Taking of middle aged blokes, we went to see Underworld at the Royal Festival Hall, playing their seminal album dubnobasswithmyheadman from start to finish, plus all the other tracks from that early 90’s that so fired me up at the time, Spikee and Rez sounded particularly wonderful. I got all a bit over excited and sang along loudly to most of the tunes most of the time, so apologies to M, D and A for that, but they all knew how much much this music means to me when they agreed to accompany me…

Easily one of the best gigs I’ve been to for ages…

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Then we were lucky enough to be invited to the private view of Lucy McLauchlan’s new show at the Lazarides Gallery. 20141013_210137 copyLucy is a truly excellent and gifted young artist whose immediately recognisable work moves effortlessly from the street to a gallery. There was an interesting selection of new work based around bark textures and florescent colours, however it was this gridded arrangement of painted timber panels with her trademark swirls and lines that was particularly satisfying.

Lucy had just returned from China where she’d been invited to create a mural high above the streets of central Guangzhou. Check out the video below for a little taster. How on earth she so effectively translates the scale of her work from sketch book to such gargantuan proportions is beyond me, and to be doing it that high up off the ground and from a wobbly cherry picker… I bet they don’t teach you that in College…

There was also a little after show party at the newly opening Mondrian Hotel at Sea Containers House on the South Bank which topped the evening off very nicely, with stunning views over the river (shame it was raining so hard though). I wrote about Sea Containers House several years ago actually when it was empty and being used as a giant advertising hoarding, so its good to see that it’s finally being occupied again. (Photo stolen from Dan, mine was rubbish…)

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A trip to the hidden and graffiti soaked under crofts of Waterloo to see my friend’s son skateboarding was the only excuse we needed to visit the House of Vans, and what an amazing place it is. Buried deep below the station platforms, carved out of impressive Victorian brick arches, two skate areas, a bar, a cinema, a gallery space, a club space and a rather excellent cafe (the BEST scrambled eggs on sourdough I’ve had in many years and only £4..).

No idea how long it plans to be there, but with such excellent and affordable food and free skate sessions, I should go see it quick before someone at Vans realises the maths don’t work…

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The Modern Toss exhibition in Shoreditch was small but good fun. Silliness elevated to art but done with so much swearing that you can’t help but be impressed. The same could not be said for the The Lego exhibition in Brick Lane however, which was very average and not worth paying to see.20141006_145125_b The tag line The Art of the Brick is easily the misnomer of the year. Lots of bricks, f*ck all art (as the Modern Toss boys might describe it…).

We’ve been several times over the last couple of months to the field of ceramic poppies at The Tower of London, but now it’s finally complete, it really is quite something to behold.

Repetitive art on a large scale is almost always impressive (Ai Wei Wei at the Tate for example or Anthony Gormley’s Field for the British Isles) and with Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, Paul Cummins has undoubtedly created a very powerful installation to mark 100 years since the start of WW1 and to remember the 888,246 British soldiers who lost their lives during the conflict.

(And yes I did read Johnathon Jones’s piece in the Guardian, and yes he does make some very valid points about not addressing the realities of the war, but I would still contend that this work is both appropriate and moving, especially when you see it first hand. Making the visual connection that each of the poppies represents a life lost, can’t fail to make you stop and think, and the work certainly deserves its place in the Remembrance .)

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And then finally at the end of October, my lovely girlfriend’s birthday celebrations, which once again she managed to stretch out for nearly a whole week… Happy Birthday And, love you lots xx.

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So all in all a most excellent month, busy and full of stuff… Which of course is why we live in London, and why I love this city.

Louis Khan at the Design Museum

July 30, 2014 1 comment

We went to the Design Museum over the weekend to see the new Louis Khan exhibition.

The architecture of Khan is an acquired taste. His work is not immediately beautiful nor classically elegant whilst the scale and simplicity of his best works gives them an almost intimidating air. His later drawings and sketches are somewhat rudimentary and if you’ve seen the film made by his son My Architect, his personal life was complicated especially his attitude to non architectural people.

But without doubt he had something. Moving on from the stylistic limitations of modernism, Khan defined a new monumentality, developing theories around “servant and served” spaces and producing visually unforgettable buildings that seem to take inspiration from some future civilisation, echoing the ruins of forgotten megastructures adrift in alien landscapes…

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Khan was a huge fan of geometry (although not necessarily symmetry), finding an innate satisfaction in it’s rigor and ordered structure. He was also something of a philosopher. When I was learning to be an architect, I was quite taken with Khan’s writing. He used words like no other architect I’ve come across either then or since. Sometimes naively suggesting a conversation between himself and a brick as to what the brick wanted to be, or making bold statements about how the sun was nothing until it had a building to shine on…

Often he would make statements that on the face of it were simple, yet had a profound effect if you thought about them for any length of time.. “Consider the momentous event in architecture when the wall parted and the column became” or “Architecture is what nature cannot make”  or “Design is not making beauty (it is) the reaching out for the truth”…

Although Khan was a natural artist and got the calling to become an architect whilst at college, it wasn’t until he was into his 50’s that his first major building, the Yale University Art Gallery in 1951 was completed. And with that, his style was set: a preference for solid planes rather than glass panes, expressed structural elements, simplicity of and truth to, materials and above all an innate understanding of natural light and how large spaces would be experienced once complete.

Over the next 20 years or so, until his death in 1973, Khan completed some truly inspiring buildings. I’ve never managed to experience any of them first hand, but after seeing this exhibition, the desire to do so has certainly been rekindled…

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There’s one final twist to the Louis Khan story, and that is his death. Khan died of a heart attack in a New York City train station toilet in 1974, and like that great eccentric Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, his body lay unrecognised and unclaimed for several days. It was later found that despite his apparent success and status as one of America’s most respected and influential post war architects and academicians, his architectural practice was over half a million dollars in debt (and that’s 1970’s dollars…)

Well worth a visit if you’ve any interest in understanding where the spirit of architecture might be found and what it must be like to be gifted and driven. There are images, ideas and photos here that have stayed with me long after I left the gift shop…

A huge thanks to SB for making it happen, much appreciated.

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