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Camera at the ready, eyeballs on the lookout – yet my first day in the city of Vienna yielded no palpably exciting images, despite an abundance of beauty and grandeur of aesthetic spectacle on every corner thanks to the legacy of the dominating Habsburg Empire.

There was plenty there for everyone, with unending streams of tourists lining up to snap the top tourist attractions, and photographers such as my sister (whose speciality is in photographing people) lapping up the melee of crowds surrounding said tourist spots.

As for me, I felt somewhat at sea photography-wise. My mood wasn’t brilliant, my stress levels were high, and I struggled to find that sweet spot when you just know a shot is working.

Until, that is, me and the family embarked upon an unexpected post-dinner walk down to the beautiful Danube (well, a tributary – a damn big tributary actually). The riverbank hit my sweet spot. Street art and graffiti as far as the eye could see lit by low, coloured lights and punctuated by stark streetlamps in places. This was a bit of me.

Les  Chateu

Les Chateu

Ok it’s been a while since I last shared my musings with you. A long while. Cue tearful streams of apology and remorse etc. Actually, no, none of that. It’s true I wish I’d managed to write sooner, I have missed it. But I’m sure you’ll forgive me when you hear my reason; for I am with sprog. Yes indeed, I can almost no longer see my feet and am starting to have major panics about pathetically inane things such as storage boxes. So when the opportunity came up to go on one final travelling adventure before it all kicks right off, it took me about hmm, a sip of decaf coffee to decide.

Our annual architect’s office outing is usually an atypical field trip combination of concentrated architectural appreciation and Christmas party debauchery. This year turned out a bit more restrained than usual (nothing to do with me being sober, I’m sure). The destination was Nantes, West France, about 2 hours outside of Paris and as it turned out, a very pleasant city with a good vibe. We arrived into Nantes station a tad frazzled around the edges, after relying pretty much solely on a hand fan for air on the Paris – Nantes connection. At least it wasn’t raining. No, it was actually around 26c, the fact that we’d travelled slightly southwards into France as well as West suddenly making itself blindingly apparent. After a brief wash and brush up, we headed across the beautiful Loire river toward our first appointment; the Ecole d’architecture (school of architecture) by Lacaton & Vassal. An impressive building built on a laudable concept, it has but few flaws, although these flaws do surround some fundamentals such as sufficient winter heating. But hey, the upsides outweigh all that, especially if you’re a visitor and not a student shivering in a parka in mid-Jan. The original design opportunity was put out to competition, an approach which has many negative aspects for designers (not least the generally outrageous amount of work required for free) but also has the potential to shoot a practice into the limelight and often results in a standout design for the client as competitors wring every last creative drop from their architects in order to stand out from the crowd. Lacaton & Vassal clearly did just that, submitting a response to the brief which fulfilled the criteria in 600m2 less area than allowed, leaving significant spaces free for them to propose the solution which makes this clever building what it is; an ambiguous play between public/private, inside/outside. The frame consists of a concrete shell held up by 10m spaced columns. Inserted into this is the steel inner, a simple construction technique allowing the building to be inherently adaptable to meet its requirements which may well change throughout its life; for example, new floors can be slotted in to create extra teaching space or more studios. In the meantime, the ‘spare’ floor area serves an important function, crafting external, public space which can be open to the street or closed off, using polycarbonate moveable walls on every level which unwrap the building and when open provide (on a summer’s day) what feels like exceptional outdoor workspaces, many with fabulous views across the river. The staff are clearly delighted with the results, judging by the impassioned tour given by the school’s comms manager. On the walk back, general agreement was shared about an innovative design with its heart in entirely the right place (despite a few technical hiccups); good design doesn’t always need the ‘frilly bits’, and giving a building the ‘wow’ factor often diverts essential budget from the basic premise of creating enlivening spaces.

Ecole d'architecture by Lacaton & Vassal

Ecole d’architecture by Lacaton & Vassal

As the sun set, we topped our day off with a lift to the top of the Tour Bretagne, a 37 storey office skyscraper with a bar and observation deck at the top. The tower has been unpopular with locals due to it’s seeming blight on the traditional city landscape, kept generally low by the French building control system which is set by province and almost impossible to get around. It does, however, allow stunning views across the city, of which we managed to get a glimpse on Friday evening.

View from Tour Bretagne

View from Tour Bretagne

Day 2 began with my first ever blissfully hangover-free second morning on an office trip. Last time involved a necessary 10am vodka red bull to coax me back from the land of the dead (don’t ask), but this time I was up bright and early and ready to make the most of the hotel breakfasts I usually drunkenly snore through.

Ever heard of Les Machine? Or remember a huge mechanical elephant roaming the streets of London a few years ago? If not, get your Google on and check them out. Les machines are a collective of mechanics, engineers and artists who create fantastical creatures and structures from disused pieces of wood and metal. But far from tickling the aesthetic spot alone (although they are stunning), their creations move, make noise, carry passengers and in the case of the elephant, soak people like me with water, mid-selfie. Their technical ability and creative genius combines in a glorious perfect storm to produce pieces swathed in 19th century circus ambience; a productive and proactive use of the modern Steampunk style which amazes children and adults alike; genuine cross-generational entertainment through design. In one word, fabulous.

Les Machines - The Mechanical Elephant

Les Machines – The Mechanical Elephant

Aside from a quick lunch and the return wander to the station, thus ended our visit to the city of Nantes, a  simulating, vibrant, and beautiful city which I wholly recommend you visit. We did stop at Paris on the way back, which although gorgeous and gay as expected, has somehow lost its mystery and so that glorious sense of secret discovery which comes from an unexpected find. There’s undoubtedly so much I didn’t see in two short days, and things at which I only managed to snatch glances as we passed whilst on our way to somewhere else. Another visit to Nantes calls I think, next time with baby in tow!

Loire River

Loire River

Local church interior

Local church interior

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Local church interior

Local church interior

Detail of the Law Courts

Detail of the Law Courts

Les Machines Headquarters

Les Machines Headquarters

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DSC_5263

Workshop in Ecole d'architecture

Workshop in Ecole d’architecture

Front of Law Courts

Front of Law Courts

View from the roof at Ecole d'architecture

View from the roof at Ecole d’architecture

DSC_1512Like me, you have probably never, or perhaps only recently, heard of Lens; a little provincial pocket of France thrust recently and violently into the tourist consciousness, yet still beautifully unaccustomed to its latest role as the home of the newest Louvre outpost designed by SANAA (a recession-respecting snip at a mere €140m), and the main reason for us arriving into nearby Lille last Friday morning for our annual office trip.

Working for an architectural firm means that thankfully office trips don’t mean cheap, vacuous weekend benders to Newcastle, but generally are programmed around an initial visit to a building/site/area of architectural interest. This is of course supplanted by an obligatory messy Euro-trash evening in a sweaty disco, before back to the cultural appreciation the following day, it taking a little more time to focus on exhibition guide text at that point.

Lille struck me instantly as far less industrial than I had probably unjustly and certainly unfoundedly, imagined it would be. Although an established eurostar terminal, it may be that it is more regularly used as I have used it in the past, as a changeover point to get to Brussels or Germany. It was certainly sans the mountains of tat which swarm over the streets of most tourist areas, threatening to engulf guided tours under lethal tsunamis of flag-emblazoned crockery. As I was served a beer at 11am with extreme nonchalance and without even a disapproving glint sweeping across the eye, I decided I liked it already.

The journey to the Louvre-Lens consisted of a 40 min train ride, during which a large number of grown adults (myself included) repeatedly exclaimed our amazement and happiness that the train was double-decker, a situation which I’m sure endeared us to our fellow French passengers and was undoubtedly compounded by the intermittent squeals of excitement and roars of laughter about the newly invented and utterly fabulous ‘shouty shouty tradey card game’ (patent pending). We enjoyed it, anyway.

Lens itself is a pretty little town, the insertion into its outskirts of an internationally important museum collection reminding me of the recent Tate Turner Contemporary constructed at Margate. Indeed an applaudable attempt to drive valuable visitor traffic to a place which currently has little. Would we have gone there otherwise? We arrived at the building after a very European 7 min walk (more like 15) and a touching welcome to France shouted from a window consisting of ‘fuck you bitch’ in redeemingly good English. A long, low and understated metal shed rose suddenly from behind some strange landscaped mounds in the immediate vicinity which were reminiscent of tellytubby land. They must’ve spent €120m on the inside, then. Well, yes and no. Aside from my facetiousness, you can see from the plans that the basement occupies the same long, low space as the building itself, providing extensive (and expensive) archive space for the Louvre’s immeasurable collection. It has also been carefully designed and specified (apart from the roof, which I’m told, in terms that a non-architect can understand is, well, not very good). We were not able to see the touring exhibition space as the Rubens show had finished only days before, much to my joy, viewing one of his waxy grimacing spectacles in the permanent collection was quite enough.

The main exhibition hall is beautiful and distinct, its vast expanse clearly influenced by Tate Modern’s momentous and celebrated Turbine Hall with a rather new take on museum curation; pieces displayed on individual floor panels and plinths, in chronological order and measurable by the timeline etched into the metal of the right hand wall.

DSC_1549 The attached pod area, or ‘garden pavilion’ is tacked onto the back of the main hall with the intention, I imagine, of bringing the visitor back into the here and now after the artificial lighting and whistlestop history tour of the shed. It achieves this effect sharply, vast floor to ceiling windows sucking in light greedily, scattering light-saber beams around the space through translucent floor to ceiling blinds. Shadows of light and dark pierce the (generally unpopular) scuffed floor surface like swords of good and evil, in the kind of detail drama that makes a photographer’s dream.

DSC_1573 After a thorough exploration the general verdict was positive; although perhaps a little too ‘in vogue’ for my taste, the brushed metal shed vibe starting to feel slightly nauseatingly trendy, it did feel coherent, well-designed and was a pleasure to experience. But it was Lille and Lens which ended up being the real winners, both turning out to be places I would visit again after initially being places I would never have chosen to go. We still haven’t managed to discover why a town so far inland appears to have seafood as its staple restaurant offering, but a quest to find out gives me a good excuse to go back!

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Ballardian - Gavin Brick

Ballardian

For Gavin Brick, photography is not a career choice. It’s not an optional hobby. It’s in his very soul, and it shows. The way he talks about it like a close friend, the way he suddenly spots a shot and, oblivious to the rest of the world, jumps up to capture it. Like the painter who knocks out beautiful watercolors in 15 mins, Gavin has an instinctive ability to take a photo, slightly modify it and show you a stunning finished version in 5 mins flat. Me? I’d have taken 300 photos, expecting to get perhaps 10 good ones at the end. Having been taught on film, Gavin works with the mindset of frugality – no waste. Each shot is the shot. Much of this must be down to self confidence; belief in your own ability to have got it right first-time, trust in your instinct. However, although his confidence has been dramatically boosted by the overwhelmingly positive reaction to his inaugural exhibition, he was initially dubious about exhibiting; “why would anyone want to see my photographs?”.

The reason why is all too clear. Focusing mainly on architectural photography Gavin captures not just buildings but moments. His works add personality to every structure he shoots, creating features from certain elements and pronouncing the conditions of the moment. Looking at them you can’t help but imagine yourself there, at that instant. But not just an everyday instant. Somehow the images are imbued with drama; whether it be calmly sinister as in Brutal Ardour, or emphatically hyperactive like Turbine. Either way you sense a story behind the lens. In The Blue Hour the station seems to me at half-light, a clandestine meeting perhaps, or a final look outwards before an escape into the underground.

The Blue Hour

The Blue Hour

Although having learnt film photography originally, Gavin has embraced the technological revolution with open arms. Assuming from the quality, tone and texture that the photographs exude, that his weapon of choice is an obscure and expert piece, I hastened to ask him what camera he uses. Expecting a long technical explanation, and wondering whether to grab a pen and note it down, he casually replied with just one word; IPad. Ok…, I countered, which software do you use? Standard Windows editing. Proof indeed that pricey equipment does not a true photographer make.

Gavin’s creative streak is not restricted to photography, or even the visual image. His other passion is experimental electronic music. These works, which explore the musical medium without relying on traditional structure, blur the border between music and sound art, creating a crossover point at which the visual can become present. The link between art and music has been explored by many artists, the most well-known to me being Kandinsky, whose colorful abstract works were often created whilst listening to music, in an attempt to visualise the sensory experience generated. Although Gavin doesn’t specifically incorporate visuals into his music I would hasten to say there is an inherent musicality to his photography. The dystopian “hyper-reality” of the images exploits the relationship between contrast and colour. It creates a sense of futuristic unreality, much like synthesizer music, tying in with the essence of ‘otherworldly’ness.

In short, Gavin’s photography is more than worth looking into. Printed on metallic paper to emphasise the ‘alien’ intonation, they looked utterly delicious hanging in Muxima in Bow. Having just had his first exhibition go so well I have no doubt there will soon be a follow up. As he told me himself: ‘I have 20 years worth of this stuff’; and we can’t wait to see it.

Blocks on Blocks

Blocks on Blocks

Turbine

Brutal Ardour

Zizkov

Russalka

Russalka

Barcelona

Barcelona

Decadence

Decadence

Gavin’s photography can be viewed at http://www.500px.com/giddygavin

Muxima are showing a retrospective of featured artists 2012- 2013, which includes a couple of new pieces by Gavin. It runs from today for three weeks. See the website for more details.

His music is released under the name LOGAN 5 and is available from http://www.logan5.bandcamp.com

 

I’ll be extremely surprised if you’ve managed to get to this point in the year and not be aware of the Ai Wei Wei and Herzog & de Meuron 2012 Serpentine Pavilion offering. Aside from the fact that Ai Wei Wei is currently UK flavour of the month, following his turbine hall sunflower installation at Tate Modern and his infamous battles with the Chinese government, the pavilion is rapidly becoming a regular must-see of the summer. Introduced only 12 years ago, it already seems like a historical tradition.

For those of you who don’t know, each year an architect (or, as in the case of this year, an architect / artist collaboration) is chosen to design a summer pavilion in the grounds of the Serpentine Gallery at Hyde Park. This is no mean feat. One quick Google search will impress upon you the scale and quality of these structures. We’re not talking a brightly coloured gazebo here, but a fully independent temporary building.

This year’s design broke the recent mould and decided to go down instead of up. Rather than create a shelter by building up and over the human body, the team decided to lower the floor, making the roof raised only around 2 feet from ground level and forcing the visitor to descend into and under it. Exploring the subject of memory, the structure is suspended by 12 pillars, 11 of which represent past pavilions and one embodying the current manifestation.

Once underneath, the space is lit by miner-style lighting with waterproof cork underfoot, reinforcing the underground sensation. That said, the cork is not raw but beautifully refined and shaped, creating a variety of planes and levels to negotiate getting from one side to the other. The design of the floor is again another hark back to late pavilion ghosts, with each floor plan stacked upon one another in chronological order, to create a landscape of jutting corners and sweeping contours.  The gradations retreat then ascend in a manner which reminded me of the final scene in Labryinth, where Jennifer Connelly chases David Bowie in vain as the floor shifts this way and that in a dreamlike scenario, leading to dead ends which suddenly rise up or converge in a cut away space. Placed seemingly randomly amongst these walls and steps are stools. Both made of cork and also shaped like corks, (as from a bottle) they provide a sweet little jolt of humour which snaps you back to the picnics and sunshine above.

The ceiling of this underground retreat doubles as a water feature on the topside. Seen from a higher sloped part of the grounds the flat circular pool creates a stunning reflection of the surrounding trees and life of the park. Linking again back to the organic concern intrinsic in the design, the visitor feels as if buried in the ground: embraced by nature, enshrined in cork , beneath a film of water.

Although delicious on a hot summers day, I can imagine the effect on a damp autumn afternoon; as attested by a friend, cork in damp weather does not equal a comfortable cranny. But this is not intended to be a winter pavilion, nor an all-year-round pavilion. The designers could not have foreseen the deluge of rain of which our summer frustratingly consisted. I, in fact, believe it to have held up rather well; the cork is shiningly intact and although the water has gained a new, rather aromatic element as the algae continuously divides, the current mass of orange complements the increasingly colourful leaves of the trees so delicately, you could almost believe it was deliberate.

I’m breaking two integral rules of my blog with this post. Firstly that its about art and secondly that it’s about art in the city ie. London. The second I can’t argue with; Dartmoor can in no way be mistaken for London, or any other city, no matter how familiar the desperate games of ispy you have to play to keep you sane in traffic jams on the way. But the first I can probably cover in some tenuous fashion.

This past weekend was spent by myself, the bf and 9 work colleagues in a boggy field in the middle of a moor and was much more fun than that actually sounds. After an epic 8 hr journey we realised, in typical comedic fashion, that we were lost. On the moors. At night. With no phone signal. Our only choice was to ask for directions in the local pub (thankfully not too reminiscent of the Slaughtered Lamb). Managing to extricate myself from an over-enthusiastic local guide and smiling sweetly at tedious local warnings to watch out for ‘the Hound‘, we finally set off on the final furlong. As we passed a sign saying ‘Sheep Lying in the Road’ I, in my by this time almost hysterically tired state, laughingly shook my head at this bizarre instruction, but all soon became clear. Passing over the cattle grid, in the pitch black that is evening on the moor, we were suddenly thrust into a surreal safari scenario; sheep featured heavily (lying in the road, funnily enough), horses rambled around unperturbed and my personal favourite moment, when a large, horned, angry looking bull seemingly challenged us to a territorial duel.

Somehow getting through this obstacle course we arrived and began to set up camp. Unluckily for us (which seemed to be the way it was going) my car battery promptly died and we discovered the campsite was akin to a marsh/bog. Cue much expletive muttering, squelching, lost shoes, louder expletives etc. until finally, having beaten all the odds, we were set up. At which point we sat down and got quite drunk.

Next day we took our planned trip to Castle Drogo. As we passed through the previous night’s safari plains in the daylight, we realised that the moor is extremely beautiful. Batches of heather and long stone walls pierce the barren landscape, absorbing you as you gaze at it; the power of mother nature hypnotising you back into her arms. Castle Drogo itself is a strange but enticing piece of architecture. I began the tour unimpressed at the self-indulgence of the building and its client. Drogo is the last castle to be built in England, in 1911 for Julian Drewe, a stinking rich businessman with delusions of grandeur. His saving grace was in hiring Edwin Lutyens, a well respected architect known for high profile projects in India and the Cenotaph in Whitehall, amongst many others. The detail in the building is sometimes stunning and often understated but never, unlike it’s commissioner, gawdy. A very modern castle is in itself an unusual thing to behold and in turn provokes contrasting associations; modern exposed surfaces, sprawling Tudor magnificence, 21st century minimalism, medieval defences (it even had a portcullis! Overkill indeed). Precedent chronology darting back and forth until you don’t quite know what you think or what it’s all about, but it’s got some very pretty details and particularly eye-catching grounds so it wins out overall.

The return journey to London was luckily not as harrowing as that on Friday but still lengthy as we took the scenic route and detoured to Salisbury. Having never visited the city before I am glad I did and would recommend it for those who like olde-worlde pubs (come on, who doesn’t?) and cathedrals. Sadly I didn’t have enough time to discover what else Salisbury may have on offer but did manage to grab a few snaps before we headed off home. Here are a few from over the weekend.

NB: A blog post may not be forthcoming next week as I’m away camping (again), at Green Man Festival this time, but if I get time/battery/signal I will definitely keep you up to date.

Last week, in the middle of Kentish Town, I could have sworn I was in in Egypt. Or Morocco. Or even Norfolk. Nevertheless, I was in the sun; albeit that reflected sun, which refracts like a kaleidoscope, emanating a patchwork of bold colour from the paintings of Birkin Haward. In the tiny Beardsmore Gallery, on what is, currently, a guaranteed rainy day, I gazed at these pieces as if seeing a glimpse of technicolor Oz from the grey of Kansas.

Salthouse Heath, Red Tarpaulin 290111 acrylic

Tilbury Power Station from Gun Hill 210212 acrylic

I feel lucky to be able to say I have worked with Birkin. Both artist and architect, he is outstandingly accomplished in each field. When I joined van Heyningen and Haward (the architectural practice Birkin founded in 1983 with wife Jo van Heyningen) in 2008, I was instantly aware of his artistic talents – his hand-drawn perspectives alone are legendary in the architecture world. However I was not privy to his personal artworks until summer 2010 when I assisted him in producing some prints for his exhibition at Salthouse Church in Norfolk. One look and I was hooked. I took the family up to see the exhibition, was warmly welcomed into the family home by Birkin and stunned by the atmospheric monochrome pieces hung in Salthouse church, most of which were markedly different to the current exhibition.

Old sea defences Happisburgh 2010 Charcoal

The contrast between the two styles of painting can in some part be attributed to his recent change of circumstance. In 2009 Birkin moved away from architecture to become a full-time artist; still keeping links with the architecture world by working as a consultant, but primarily focusing on developing his craft and producing exhibitions. This change has resulted in a subtle shift in style, infused with the ethos of Mondrian, Rothko and a pinch of Cezanne. These bold, dramatic statements move me in a different way to the Salthouse pieces.

Sizewell Beach – White Hut, 2011 acrylic on canvas

The traditional Birkin style is of course always there as the framework; his striking gift is the ability to create a scene and evoke the accompanying emotion from mere suggestion. Line and tone are intimately explored to draw out their capacities and fulfill their ultimate potential. Birkin can see how these pieces, elements of a whole, can be pared down to the most dramatic to create almost just a clue, for us the viewer to decipher: the fence designating the line of the field, the gradual shift in tonal range of an approaching storm. He sees it inherently.

Morston Harbour 111111 acrylic

The evocative nature of his pieces was most evident in pieces such as storm at sea. You get the sense that, in the manner of Turner, he  sat and created this picture right there, in front of that storm. As if he had been amongst that melee of the elements, had felt them overwhelm the landscape with their old magic and deep power.

Storm at sea 1 2009 Charcoal

In contrast, his newer works are less a record of a place and more an interpretation. A translation of scene through unique artistic vernacular and sense experience. Their joie de vivre bursts through the confines of the canvas and inhabits the room. Since moving away from the limitation and stress of the office, Birkin has been freer to travel. To expand his aesthetic language beyond the sometimes rough and raw Norfolk setting in which he grew up and to invoke the hue and light of foreign isles. The result is a juxtaposition of colour and abstraction of view through glorious and celebratory geometrical compositions. Even brooding Norfolk is awash with sunshine, reflected, as it is on the viewer, onto the formerly brittle scenery from climates afar.

Military Post Red Pyramid dashur 130312 acrylic

His father (Birkin Haward Sr.) was also an architect and artist and it is clear that creativity is imbued in Birkin to his very core. His skill in deciphering and analysing spaces and forms runs through both his artistic and architectural work; by inserting and interpreting, he conveys something entirely his own. What is certain is that there is plenty still to come. Birkin has certainly not yet finished making his mark.