...in the bottom drawer
I knew I'd lose it so I put it in a safe place, and now I can't remember where it is.

currently stashed in: Cheshire Street, London
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November 29, 2005 || 9:05 am
Cab driver epiphany

An amazing London cabbie moment on Saturday evening. I was surprised when he knew exactly where my street is and about the church (St Matthews) that's around the corner. But then he started talking about Arnold Wesker's plays, and before I knew it, he was onto Ibsen, Chekhov, Voltaire, Pushkin, Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Hesse, Thomas Mann. He had Lermontov's 'A Hero of Our Time' in the glove compartment.

Not only did he reel off the names, he talked about them with absolute understanding and intelligence. I read all these books and then promptly forget most of their contents. But this cab driver should have been lecturing at university. Lermontov being compared with Camus, the virtues of Gogol and Gorky's relationship with Stalin.

We asked him when he did all this reading. Well, he answered, I like to read in the morning with a cup of tea and a slice of toast. Often I have another slice of toast and I read for an hour and a half. And I always have a book in the cab with me.

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November 23, 2005 || 5:03 pm
Looking for a job?

We're swamped with work here at General Public Agency. We need new full-time and part-time/freelance people to work with us and we are also looking for interns, who we may be able to support financially a little bit. We don't have much money but we do have a fantastically varied, interesting and ambitious range of work on and offer an environment that's unique for anyone interested in being involved with cutting-edge projects in the built environment, artistic practice, urban development and issues of social and environmental citizenship.

General person spec: Energetic, confident, self-motivated and able to work independently with a minimum of supervision. Able to quickly grasp complex briefs and issues, and produce work very fast. Imagination, lateral thinking and ambition are also required. We need:

Freelance researchers with a background and interest in any of the following: regeneration and urbanism policy, land use, planning, public art, artist projects, new fields of cross-disciplinary practice including social and environmental projects, public engagement and participation.

Urban designers/architects (freelance or possibly full-time) with an interest in current UK and especially London-based design initiatives, projects and agency and policy agendas. We could definitely use young architects with fantastic design and visualisation skills who want to move into urban design/masterplanning work, but who don't know very much about it yet. Working with us, you'd be working on strategic big projects, so although we might be using you for your design and drawing skills, you'd be learning a lot about how the big, bad world of regeneration and urban development really works. We don't need people to be RIBA registered architects - really talented Part 2 or even (if they are fantastic) Part 1 people would be fine.

Longer-term, we're also looking for potential full-time employee(s) - our ideal person spec would be someone with a mix of the above skills - highly self-motivated, very good design sense, confident in dealing with and navigating through the world of government and non-governmental agencies and clients, and who can communicate effectively with everyone from heads of planning through to major arts organisations. We also want bright interns.

Please leave a comment to this post if you are interested.

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3:47 pm
How [not] to use Google

It amazes me that, several years on from the emergence of Google as the pre-eminent way of finding out any information, some people still have no idea how to use the results it throws up. Every week at the office, we get one or two phone calls asking us if we are the Thurrock Urban Development Corporation. This is because if you google 'Thurrock Development Corporation' our project is the first item that comes up. Go to the site and find the 'contact' section and you get us.

But how is it not possible for these people to realise that our project has quite clearly nothing to do with the workings of the actual UDC, who were neither our client nor have ever endorsed or funded our work (much to our frustration and that of our 'real' clients). It is the sad fact that no government quango would ever have such a beautiful, clear, informative and creative website as that of our project - but you would expect that even if the viewer did not think of this, every literate person might read a little of the website content before they pick up the phone.

But it does amuse me that some people think that our small office are the UDC. Maybe we should be exploiting this as a project, to see how far we could get developing an 'alternative' development plan for Thurrock using the people who phone our office. After all, the UDC doesn't seem to have done anything in the year and a half that it's been around...

1 comments


November 21, 2005 || 5:46 pm
Winter weekend

Its hit really cold here, suddenly. Beautiful and crisp, with the slanting sun seemingly permanently shining into your eyes, but so freezing that this weekend, wandering around the city with a visiting friend from abroad, we had to stop every hour for a pint or a cup of tea.

Apologies for not yet blogging about the London Met conference that was last week - very interesting, but I need to set aside an hour to write it up - and everything else. Having visitors tends to do that to one, it being generally more interesting to talk to someone who you never normally see than to sit in front of a computer for a couple of hours. In the mean time, here was our weekend:

Wonderful exhibition installation by Francis Alys in Portman Square (if you missed it, tough...it ended yesterday) including the now-famous video of a fox running wild in the National Portrait Gallery, and the amazing piece 'Guards', where 64 Coldstream Guards march around the City of London in a strange and suspenseful version of the game of sardines.

Then wandering rather by accident into the Wallace Collection, where we felt rather like the fox - creeping round peering inside suits of armour and up at portraits of the famous, the rich and the long-dead decadents. St James' Park, home for a power nap, then out to my friend Tom's night at Clockwork in Angel, and finishing with bagels at (nearly) dawn.

Late rise, wander through Brick Lane market and Spitalfields (how its changed there since I left - with the market reduced to half its former space due to the building of monstrous glass boxes, its too crammed and crowded, and sadly, less enjoyable).

Riding the Daredevil London Rollercoaster (aka the DLR) over the East End to Canary Wharf, real English roast-beef-and-yorkshires pub lunch in the Grapes by the river, a mosey on down to my fantasy London residence (on the tip of Island Gardens) and through the foot tunnel to Greenwich for more tea and cake...then back home for a comforting pasta supper and an early night.

It's really fun having guests in town. I never have such a lovely London weekend normally.

This is what my fantasy house looks like...and the view I would have...

House in Island Gardens

The view from my fantasy house

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November 15, 2005 || 11:13 pm
Floating islands, pre-fab remixed, earthquakes and windmills

Not enough time to blog about the stuff that I've been up to. But here are some things I've been reading that maybe y'all might enjoy in the mean time.

I love this tale of a floating island in, of all places, Massachusetts. Mysterious, provoking rather wonderful dreams of a world of more such eccentric yet possible things. Vito Acconci and Robert Smithson, you have nothing against the strage fantasies of nature. This American island seems to be somewhere between a whale-island with a mind of its own and the mysterious shifting swamps of the Louisiana bayou.

This project - Herve Biele's innovative re-use of old Communist pre-fab concrete panels - is all over the archi-blogs today after being featured in the Guardian. Did no-one clock it in the Biennale last year or this year at the V&A?

This article about the response of ordinary Pakistanis to the earthquake reminds me a lot of the response of Americans to Katrina - everyone driving down south to try and help, a sort of crazy public outpouring of a re-discovered communal sentiment.

Hooray - you can put up a domestic-scalewind turbine that will provide 80% of a large detached house's energy needs and pay itself back in less than ten years. I'm excited. Wind turbines are the new chimneys on roofs, perhaps? or the new church towers?

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November 11, 2005 || 9:10 am
Representation revisited

In response to Robie's comment to my post yesterday, its all very well to talk about the radical-ness of a means of representation in theory but it is a lot more tricky when dealing with a real client (in this case a local council) with a very low level of visual literacy (or should that be, a level of literacy that most non-architects have?) We are producing documents that are being asked to do the impossible: be all things to all people, not to produce architectural representation for architects to fawn over.

Archigram's images were certainly representing their ideas extremely well, but they were also doing the design, whereas we are in the position of trying to produce design guidance to forestall the worst tendencies of commercial development, and prod them into having to be more creative and characterful. We are not advocating a single aesthetic. We are also working in a time-frame that makes a more interesting process of experimentation about how exactly we do represent ideas about design a bit difficult, much to our frustration (in other projects we have had much more ability to communicate our ideas differently).

There is a really gritty point here about how design is communicated to lay people. Alsop argues that 'the man in the street' does respond better to his 'provocative' design drawings than to the usual bland crap, and he's right. Currently, I'm interested in how you can use text in images to point out things that may not be obvious to the naked eye. But the reality is, clients like ours have an expectation of how these documents look (bland crap) and we have to bring them along gently and by the back door to feel comfortable with something more radical (I consider it a minor victory, in this case, that they accepted really fantastic graphic design by Hyperkit). They employ us because they like our high level of ambition and design, but when it comes down to it, they're scared.

[It's noticeable, in this context, that commercial clients are much more accepting of stuff that breaks the mould: they're desperate for something that makes them stand out against the competition.]

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November 10, 2005 || 11:09 pm
Prince Charles, evangelicals and sniffing around London Fields

"I seem to be a dangerous commodity in certain circles and receiving such awards is a relatively novel experience for me," said Prince Charles when he received a Scully Award (previous winners: Jane Jacobs and the Aga Khan) the other day. I also have found myself defending our prince rather a lot over the last few days, much to my surprise. I guess I feel rather sorry for him. Bless him for trying to raise a debate and he's not all nonsense and Poundbury horror - his heart is definitely in the right place. It must be so tough being surrounded by sycophants all the time. I just wish the damn New Urbanists hadn't got their teeth into him - now there's not the slightest chance of weaning him back from the dark side, alas. [Speaking of which I found this scary thread on Cyburbia. How can people express such admiration without irony?]

More strange things: A Christian evangelist theme park is going to be built in Israel. What strange post-post-modernism is this? It's really worth reading the article.

Kevin Harries went to the Social Tapestries pollution mapping project in London Fields that I miniblogged in Ephemera the other day. Looked like he had a good time. I'd like to think that "local people's perception of what it's like to live here... is in the ascendant, in policy terms", as he says. Is this really true? I worry about the attempts to systematise such delicate and subtle perceptions as the inevitable tendency is to simplify to the point of becoming meaningless. But we are also constantly experimenting with possible ways to structure, or at least represent, people's perceptions of their spaces. Which is linked to yet another post I haven't had time to publish yet, tentatively entitled 'On the impossibility of mapping'...

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10:24 pm
The difficulty of representing 'good design'

We're working on rather a lot of 'design guidance' at the moment in the office. Documents that will be given to evil (and not-so-evil) developers and their architects to encourage and inspire them to produce pieces of urbanism that work in their context and that meet the desires and needs of the client and the community.

It's the kind of thing that is crucially important to get right but really easy to get wrong, even when you are intelligent, radical and progressive like us(!) We're not talking watercolours of neo-Georgian crap here - we're talking contemporary design that is nevertheless sensitive and thoughtful without losing its character and becoming another bland glass-and-render-with-a-bit-of wood apartment block.

One knows good design when one sees it, but how the hell does one represent such a thing on paper? I've had this struggle so many times. Precedent images - well, fine, but you don't always really know what you're looking at, its difficult to find precedents that really match your specific ideas, and everyone always falls back on the same old things: Borneo Sporenburg and all the Dutch stuff, mainly. Boring and not very useful, and if you're not careful, it can end up looking like a saccharine New Labour manifesto full of perfect stuff with no connection to reality. Plus, if its a document that's for public circulation, its not really on to steal images without gaining copyright approval so that's an extra layer of complexity for your client (haranguing you because they're not getting what they wanted although they have no idea what they _do_ want) to grasp.

Then, you can do renderings or drawings of your own. Again, problems. You don't want to design the spaces because that's not your job (you're merely trying to suggest guidelines for generic things like relationship of building to street, recommended densities, parking solutions and streetscape design). So you try and make your drawings quite architecturally unspecific. But then they don't show anything and are pointless - if they're photoshopped, you end up with a street full of grey communist slab blocks because you don't want to predict a fenestration pattern.

Photoshop looks flat a lot of the time, or can be really confusing if you attempt to put in a lot of detail. Hand-drawings can look too childish and happy, and has bad associations with evil developers who draw their ghastly malls by hand to make them look harmless. You put people in them to try and liven up the scene - but then the people hide all the little bits of architecture that you're trying to point out. Whatever style you choose can fall foul of someone's personal taste. How do you do your labelling and captions? It's a world of trouble.

We, and every other urban designer, continues to struggle on. Has anyone found a way of actually doing this that looks fresh, genuinely inspiring, characterful and easy?

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November 08, 2005 || 9:36 am
Weekend

Housepainting (walls)
Lunch
Football (live)
Dinner (in, with friends)
Bed

Housepainting (floor)
Lunch
Football (TV)
Dinner (out, without friends)
Bed

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November 04, 2005 || 6:26 pm
India - the full report

After Friday afternoon filing and emails, finally I have half an hour to write, more fully, about my time in India last week.

General impressions: I expected India to be huge, chaotic and poor, but it was vastly more of all of these than I had imagined. I couldn't really believe how the country manages to function as one of the world's largest economies. Somehow, perhaps, all the news that features here about the IT industry, call-centres, Bollywood stars and new luxury resorts on the beach had made me imagine that there was beginning to be a semblance of order and organisation about the country, and a growing middle-class. I'm sure these things are happening, but the appearance of everything we saw, from the headquarters of a major fabric mill making all Levi's jeans, through to the Delhi Secretariat, was exactly as you might imagine from the mid 1960s - terribly shabby offices, erratic electricity, extraordinary flunkeys, whirring overhead fans and broken lifts being among the more endearing features.

In the streets of even 'middle-class' areas, you can see the infrastructure creaking visibly. Every electricity pole has a hundred makeshift connections to it. Buildings groan with badly-built additions, extensions and dangerous-looking cantilevers. While we were there, the newspapers were full of how late monsoon rains had brought chaos to the IT centre of Bangalore, flooding the entire city and embarrasing the authorities, who were attempting to hold a marketing event to new IT companies. Of course, the 'real' slum areas are absolutely appalling too - but, callous as it might seem, I had expected that more than the general chaos of the 'regular' neighbourhoods.

Amazing facts: that only 3% of the population pay income tax. Half are still illiterate. The area of slums doubles every ten years and by 2020, Bombay will be 90% slums. In many cities, less than 10% of the area has sewage lines. Is the headlong, unstoppable rush that the country is experiencing going, in fact, forward or back? How on earth does the country stay together?

I might say that I don't know how it is even possible to install functioning urban infrastructure - roads, sewers, electricity lines - across a city as congested and densely inhabited as Delhi, with its 14 million inhabitants. Yet one man who we met - the engineer Himanshu Parikh, who has been working on a method he calls 'Slum Networking' for the last twenty years - managed to install sewage lines with capacity for the entire city of Indore (pop. at that time 1.4m) in only four years, through his perceptiveness about the city's urban grain and his absolutely simple, elegantly designed solution to the problem. So it is possible - although, talking to him, I felt deeply his frustrations with the slowness and terrible corruption of government, through whom such projects have to be managed.

And equally, we met children who are part of the extraordinary CLEAN-India programme in Delhi - utterly committed, knowledgeable activists for the environment achieving fantastic results on an intimate, networked scale in their communities. It was quite astounding to see thirteen-year-olds dealing with professionals as equals, demanding to know when their next meeting would be, telling them when they were wrong, initiating their own projects and wanting to see them get done.

So, altogether an incredible trip. I could write more - the fantastic food, the shocking disparity in prices, and so on - maybe I'll do a Part 2 before too long. But in the mean time, you can look at some of my photos here - and here's one to get you started. Happy (late) Diwali and Eid.

In Delhi Old Town

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1:51 pm
Michael Clark @ the Barbican

Last night we went to see the latest Michael Clark show at the Barbican. The first half was classic Clark punk-rock, booming Iggy Pop and graphic black-and-white costumes. Clark himself danced a few short sections, as always absolutely mesmerising in the way he moves - controlled yet loose and lithe. As so many times with his (and some others') pieces to music like this, I always wonder whether I really want to be in a theatre to watch them. I'd rather be in the 333 perhaps, beer in hand and grimy black wall behind me, hearing Iggy blast out of the sound system over the noise of the crowd and watching the precisely controlled, haughty yet intimate movements like a vision of perfection above the Hoxton hipsters.

The second half, the much-discussed new version of Stravinsky's Apollo, was extraordinary. Thrilling, spine-tinglingly wonderful. It had a lightness of touch and an absolute boldness in being so simple and so direct in its classicism - unafraid to be pure and uncomplicated, yet also contrapuntal and not without its edgier side, perfectly mirroring the music (which itself was beautifully played). It is quite a brave thing to do, tackling a piece of music made so famous in the dance world by Balanchine's seminal choreography, but Clark managed to both be respectful of B's work (to those who might know it) yet bring an absolutely fresh and truthful approach to the music without relying on those past references.

There were, amazingly, some spare seats in the auditorium! Go see. Also: spotted last night: Will Self, evidently a Clark fan.

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November 03, 2005 || 5:20 pm
Today in London Bridge

Billboard at London Bridge

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4:45 pm
LMU Projects Office Conference

Another announcement: this fantastic conference being held by the architecture dept at London Metropolitan University in a couple of weeks. It's featuring a whole host of great speakers from international universities that are running live projects through outreach programmes ('projects offices') - whether design-build architecture, community/urban planning, humanitarian design in developing nations, and so on.

Speakers include people from the Rural Studio, the Technical University of Berlin, Hong Kong, Russia, Parsons and the Pratt Institute in New York, and so on. If you are either a student wanting to know more about how they might be able to get involved with live projects through their studies, or an educator wanting to know how to set up a projects office in their institution, or a community group/local government group wanting to know how to collaborate with universities to help with their planning or design issues, the conference should be fantastic!

It's over two days (17-18 Nov) but if you're stretched for time, you can come for just one. It's not very expensive and if you're really stretched for cash, you might be able to get in for free if you ask nicely...Hope to see you there!

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4:28 pm
Sheila McKechnie Awards 2005

I'd just like to draw your attention to the Sheila McKechnie Foundation's recently announced call for applications for their fantastic new awards scheme. For those of you who might not know, the SMF was set up to help the next generation of campaigners get their voices heard and create real change. It's based on a belief in the importance of active campaigners like McKechnie to our society, to fight against injustice and for progressive thinking, action and tangible change.

The award winners will get an amazing package of support including the opportunity for one-on-one mentoring, the shadowing of people in positions of influence and networking. The charity's patron is Gordon Brown and there are several equally high-profile people involved so the winners will really be able to access an amazing network of political power and lobbying opportunities. So get the word out and apply!

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10:16 am
The marble halls of Highbury

Last night I had the inestimable honour of sitting in the front row of the directors' box at Highbury watching the mighty Arsenal thoroughly trounce Sparta Prague. Despite my jetlag and a rather late bout of Delhi belly meaning that my consumption of the buffet dinner and drinks in the boardroom was rather limited, it was a rather ridiculously exciting experience. One enters the stadium through the crowd control barriers at the point marked 'VIPs only'! Walking in the marble halls and up the stairs to the oak-panelled boardroom, past amazing pieces of memorabilia, including an extraordinary photograph of the first flood-lit match at the ground in 1951, when of course the whole ground was still terraces (holding at least twice as many spectators as now) and the lights reveal this mass of North London humanity in moody, misty black and white, like some kind of political rally.

Then up, past rather classically obsequious cockney stewards (alright, guv!) in their old-school uniforms, into the boardroom for pre-match drinks surrounded by suits and blonde women (not all with their natural facial features, it has to be said) and then out into (I couldn't believe it!) the front row, dead centre, of the directors box. The view is incredible - every player and the ball crisp against the perfect green turf, and right below, the top of Arsene Wenger's head. You can hear every word he or Pat Rice shouts. I was even offered a blanket in case I was chilly.

Of course the game was fantastic - everything you might want. An amazing Henry goal, a brace from van Persie, only Reyes seemed to make continual errors, getting himself into situations he couldn't see a way out of and giving the ball away too often. It's bad form to shout or anything in the directors' box, of course, so I had to be restrained by the boy (sitting next to me in a suit and tie, the first time I've actually seen him in such a get-up). But altogether an amazing experience and a great honour. And I've been told that our season tickets for the new stadium (hee hee!) are going to be in a comparable position - I can't wait. Meanwhile, we're back in the North Bank at the weekend...

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