Monday July 23, 2012
The design metropolis
By LEONG SIOK HUI
Nothing like the largest sporting event in the world to showcase iconic structures, and outside the Olympic Park, London’s vibrant architecture and design scene has more to dazzle.
THE archetypal design capital, London has been a dynamic and propitious stomping ground for creative souls for ages. And thanks to the Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA) which consistently churns out alumni like Pritzker Prize laureates Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhas and Richard Rogers, the city is a magnet for the design cognoscenti and aficionados alike.
So whilst you’re in town for the Olympics, take a whirlwind tour to check out the city’s watershed landmarks and design shops.
In recent years, London has seen its fair share of exciting additions to the cityscape. The steel-and-glass New Court, Rothschild investment bank’s HQ, is the archetype of architecture restraint, in effect and scale.
Designed by Rem Koolhaas’ OMA, the 14-storey mesh cube topped by a sky pavilion is unobtrusive even as it towers over centuries-old churches and buildings. Nor does it attempt to steal the spotlight from the remarkable 333-year-old St. Stephen Walbrook church, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the architect behind one of London’s most famous sights – St Paul’s Cathedral. Too bad New Court’s elegance makes its next-door neighbour, the Walbrook Building (by Norman Foster), look like a hulking, ugly blob.
Hogging the headlines lately is The Shard, a glass-clad obelisk that sticks out like a sore thumb in London’s skyline. Topping out at almost 310m, the Renzo Piano-designed building is the tallest edifice in Western Europe. Critics say it’s totally out of scale with the low-rise streets around it whilst fans of Piano’s works think it’s another masterpiece by the Genoese architect. Apparently, the tapering, faceted form of The Shard was inspired by London’s history of spires and masts.
The Shard will be filled with restaurants, residences, and a Shangri-La Hotel. A bird’s eye view of London from the 72th floor-viewing platform, which opens next February, will surely be a sight to behold.
A stone’s throw from The Shard is The Tanks at Tate Modern, described as the world’s first museum space dedicated permanently to live art, installation and performance. Converted from three 30m-wide concrete oil tanks decommissioned 30 years ago, the underground chambers are designed by Herzog & de Meuron (famed for the Bird’s Nest aka Beijing National Stadium). This is the first phase of the £215m (RM1.06bil) Tate expansion project which will add 10 floors above the oil tanks. It is scheduled to open by 2016. The Tanks officially opened on July 18 and will host a 15-week art festival (tate.org.uk).
Fans of the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (their award-winning collaboration resulted in the Bird’s Nest) may want to check out the 2012 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in Kensington Gardens. Each year, the Gallery commissions acclaimed international architects to design a temporary pavilion on the gallery’s lawn. Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, SANAA, Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhas have been commissioned in the past.
The temporary structure operates as a public space and venue for film screenings, public talks and event. This time round, the dynamic design team dug up the ground to “uncover” the former pavilions’ foundations and form sculptural patterns of platforms, steps and mushroom-like stools for visitors to explore. The entire pavilion is clad in cork due to its versatility, sustainability and ability to enhance acoustics. Twelve columns (representing this year’s pavilion and each past one) supports a floating platform roof that hovers 1.4m above ground and holds rainwater. The Pavilion opens till October 14.
Britain’s design wunderkinds Kevin Carmody and Andrew Groarke of London-based architectural studio Carmody Groarke have carved their career out of creating unconventional spaces in the most unlikely spots. Their latest project is The Filling Station at King’s Cross, a pop-up restaurant and events space converted from an abandoned canal-side petrol station in north London.
The station is wrapped with a 200m-long transparent and curvaceous fibreglass enclosure. At night, this wall is illuminated from the base whilst by day, the sunlight filtering through the translucent screens creates intriguing shadows of what lurks behind.
A small restaurant and bar, Shrimpy’s, is contained within the station’s old kiosk. The structure will remain for about two years before the site is redeveloped to provide housing. By the way, food bloggers are raving about Shrimpy’s soft shell crab burgers, chilli monkfish and salt cod croquettes (shrimpys.co.uk).
Design and interior shops
As an art and design hub, London is hardly short of snazzy and inspiring interior shops. Here’s a whittled-down list to whet the design aficionado’s retail appetite.
Drop in at the London Design Museum (designmuseum.org) for a glimpse into the world of contemporary design. Founded by influential British designer Terence Conran in 1989, the museum hosts exhibitions, educational projects and talks. Previous exhibitions included a showcase of iconic French shoe designer Christian Louboutin’s 20-year career and Japanese lifestyle brand Muji’s Product Fitness 80. Muji’s exhibition highlights the company’s products created based on the post-earthquake/tsunami-era question: “What would happen if we used 20% less material and energy to make products?”
Get your hands on quirky and cool designs at the Museum shop: from the miniature plywood elephant designed by Charles and Ray Eames and a Terence Conran tote bag, to a limited edition Brooks saddle (coveted by bicycle lovers worldwide) and funky fashion accessories by young British designer Anita Gohil. Best of all, all proceeds from shop sales are used for the upkeep of the museum, which funds over 95% of its running costs from admissions, membership and donations.
Most design-savvy Londoners know of SCP, if they are not already regulars like actress Kiera Knightley and her mother. Set up in the now trendy neighbourhood of Shoreditch in 1985, the furniture manufacturer and retailer (scp.co.uk) is regularly voted as one of London’s finest design shops. From lighting, tableware and cutlery to textiles, rugs and objets d’art, SCP showcases the best of British talents. The Independent dubbed founder Sheridan Coakley “the champion of British designers”. He is instrumental in paving the way for homegrown young talents.
In 1986, SCP exhibited for the first time at the Salone del Mobile in Milan, showing the first ever manufactured designs by Matthew Hilton and Jasper Morrison. Today, it works with or represents an exhaustive list of designers, including Terence Woodgate, Konstantin Grcic, Tom Dixon, Russell Pinch and Donna Wilson.
SCP has another store at Notting Hill. And if British design isn’t your thing, you can still buy a George Nelson bed, Eames chair or Alvar Aalto stool at SCP.
Fans of classic pieces from iconic designers like Charles and Ray Eames, Hans Wegner, Alvar Aalto and Jean Prouvé would love twentytwentyone to bits. Starting out in a converted stable building in Camden, the 19-year-old company (twentytwentyone.com) has its roots in sniffing out original and vintage design from the 20th century. Founders Simon Alderson and Tony Cunningham are advocates of timeless, functional and high-quality products. They have since diversified into selling contemporary pieces from international brands like Artemide, Cappellini, Flos, Moooi, Moroso and Vitra. You can stock up on Shigeru Uchida’s L’uovo Paper lamp, Piero Lissoni sofa, Enzo Mari chair or Naoto Fukasawa’s shelving system for Artek. Twentytwentyone also manufactures a small collection of furniture and accessories. And it showcases emerging British brands like Another Country (anothercountry.com), a two-year-old furniture company that describes its crafts as a mishmash of “British country kitchen style, Shaker, traditional Scandinavian and Japanese woodwork”, made from FSC-certified solid wood made in Britain and Europe. Twentytwentyone has two stores in Islington.
If flashy and eye-catching products are your idea of good design, you will be sorely disappointed at the Jasper Morrison Shop (jaspermorrison.com/shop). Opened by Jasper Morrison, one of the most influential designers coming out of Britain, the products displayed at the tiny store, housed in an unused area of Morrison’s studio, seem “normal” or even banal at first glance. A bottle opener, potato peeler, stainless steel kettle and pocket tape measure ... seriously?
But here’s the catch. Though some of the products have been designed anonymously and sourced from around the world, others are notable pieces by renowned industrial designers. That plain-looking aluminium stool is the work of Naoto Fukasawa, one of Japan’s most influential contemporary designers. The “ordinary” stainless kettle is a classic by legendary designer Sori Yanagi, while the cutlery is Morrison’s design for Alessi.
The shop is a natural progression for the “Super Normal” project launched by Morrison and Fukasawa in 2006. “Super Normal is an aspect of how we live with and relate to objects rather than a system for designing better things,” Morrison explains in the book Super Normal: Sensations of the Ordinary (Lars Muller Publishers, 2007).
To put it simply, you can’t tell a Super Normal product by looking at it. It is a long-term discovery of the quality of an object and how it enhances your everyday life. In other words, we may want to re-think our notion of “good design”.