Thursday, 16 October 2014

Machine Age Temple in Milan

One of the less celebrated attractions of Milan is Deposito Messina, a delirious assemblage of cast-iron and glass built in 1912 to accommodate some 150 of the city’s trams. I like to think that the grandeur of this construction reflects the high esteem in which trams are held by the citizens of Milan. It has the air of a building conceived to impress and for the humble tram there can be no better shelter anywhere else. A glazed roof flies high overhead supported on iron piers and trusses while at ground level there are two enormous bays each placed at 45° either side of a central access road. The unprepossessing exterior on Via Messina gives little hint of the glories to be found inside. Not everyone is going to want to trek out to see it for themselves but for those who do, tram routes 12 and 14 from the city centre run along Via Messina. Alight at Cenisio and walk back – less than 5 minutes. 

By 1912 the Italian Futurist love affair with movement and speed was already underway and both Boccioni (The Forces of the Street) and Carrà (What the Tram Told Me) had identified the urban tram as a key emblem of modernity, placing it at the centre of their compositions. This building seems animated by the same spirit – a Machine Age Temple to the Tram. Finally, I must acknowledge the expertise of tram-chaser extraordinaire, Peter Ehrlich, whose invariably splendid photographs brought this wondrous place to my attention. 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Tree House in Milan

Green buildings, clad with vegetation have been around for a decade or more (the example below is from Quai Branly in Paris, 2006) but the recently completed Bosco Verticale in Milan extends the concept to include entire trees. Tree planting has become commonplace in hotel and corporate atriums the world over but this is the first example of trees migrating to the façade of a building. Bosco Verticale comprises two towers, of 18 and 26 floors and is on the edge an enormous regeneration project named Porta Nuova, close to Porta Garibaldi station, north of the city centre. The architect, Stefano Boeri, designed the two blocks with terracing to accommodate up to 730 trees (between 3 and 6m in height) together with 5,000 shrubs and 11,000 perennials. As the years go by and the trees grow it will present a novel management problem to ensure the trees are kept free of disease and pruned to avoid becoming too big for the building. 

The rationale for this adventurous project is to combat air and noise pollution (Milan has some of the worst air quality in Italy) and to offer the residents of the 400 apartments some direct experience of the natural world. There is a lower proportion of open space in Milan than in any other major Italian city. Tests have shown that the tree cover will act as insulation against winter cold and mitigate the build-up of high temperatures in summer sun. What is visible now is only the beginning of the scheme and the foliage looks a little thin at present. When mature in 5 to 10 years time it has the potential to look spectacular. 

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Crossrail in Construction

If Modern Wonder was still being published, the editors would be in raptures about the Crossrail project and L Ashwell Wood would have been kept busy drawing cutaway views of enormous complexity. Open House London offered the chance to take a self-guided walk through the vast six-level concrete box that now sits in the former West India North Dock and will open as Canary Wharf Crossrail Station in 2018. This was my first visit to London’s cold mercantile heart – its reputation as an emblem of Thatcherism in all its majesty was not much of an inducement to visit and explore. Despite the exemption from local planning controls it seems a modest, unadventurous development compared with La Défense in Paris – less flamboyant, less expansive and less ambitious. (This should not be taken as an endorsement of La Défense – it can be an equally dispiriting experience.) Walking round on a Saturday afternoon it felt more like downtown Buffalo or Omaha, rather than the financial powerhouse of London’s turbo-charged markets. The diminutive driverless trains that trundle around the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) seem in tune with the no-frills architecture and the sense of budgetary constraint. 

Anyway, at a cost of £14.8 bn. Crossrail has been boring and gouging its way across the city since 2009 and the station at Canary Wharf is the furthest advanced with three levels of shopping due to open some time next year. Construction sites where the workforce is in absentia have a certain melancholy not entirely dissimilar to the contemplation of ruins. And of course, the ruins of the future are all around us and even include whatever is under construction. There is a rough, unfinished look to the concreted spaces that will form retail areas and the bright and glossy reflective surfaces of cafés, bars and shops have yet to be applied. Something will be lost when that happens making this a rare opportunity to see the space in a raw state. On the highest level a roof-top garden is under construction beneath a Foster + Partners-designed timber lattice roof. Given that amenity space is sparse in Docklands this looks like an attractive proposition if the unavoidable security surveillance is not unduly oppressive. 

As I understand it, the funding structure for Crossrail is a complex model with a £4.7 bn. contribution from the taxpayer plus £7.1bn. from the Mayor of London, through Transport for London (£1.9bn.) and the Greater London Authority (GLA) with the balance coming from private sector sources including a business-rate supplement from city businesses. The direct contribution from Transport for London will be paid for out of future passenger revenues. This suggests that the private sector contribution will be about £3 bn. or a fraction over 20% of the budget which hardly justifies the cocky sentiment of London’s deputy mayor for transport, Isabel Dedring, “We need to assume that public sector funding is the last resort.” This all sounds like business as usual with public funding deployed to facilitate private investment, a model that has served Docklands well for three decades. The new trains will be entirely paid for by the public sector at a cost of £1 bn. after plans for a PFI deal collapsed. To describe the absence of soul in Canary Wharf we turn automatically to the vocabulary of J G Ballard and the deadness of corporate space that he defined so well. But the privatisation of space and the depletion of the public realm that has followed is best anatomised in Anna Minton’s book, Ground Control that shows how the Canary Wharf model has decisively changed the relationship between the public and urban space from citizenship to grace and favour tenancy as it is rolled out across the country. 

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Cannonball Express

More scraps from the ancient pages of Modern Wonder. Including the endearingly banal (the Bike Trailer), the deeply dubious (the Two-Wheeled Car) and the technologically terrifying (the Cannonball Express). Inviting the readership to contribute some of their personal future visions produced some interesting ideas – my favourite being the double-decker Aerobus. 

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Man Who Walked Through Walls

This book of exquisitely written short stories was published in Occupied Paris in 1943. Marcel Aymé (1902-67) has been compared with Kafka and the Surrealists but his subversive fantasies lack the menace of the former and the mania of the latter. His parallel universes are always convincing and constructed with a delicate touch. An unexpected air of geniality prevails but there’s no space for sentimentality. A few streets away from Sacré-Coeur there is a Place Marcel Aymé with a sculptural tribute of a bronze figure emerging from a brick wall. The title story was filmed in 1951 as Le Passe-muraille – it launched the career of the quintessentially Gallic comic actor, Bourvil, and the female lead part was played by Joan Greenwood in the same year as she flirted with a manic Alec Guinness in The Man in the White Suit. Bourvil’s last film would be Le Cercle rouge, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville in 1970. The Man Who is a popular formula for titling books when imagination fails to come up with anything better and I quickly located these examples lurking on my shelves. 

Friday, 29 August 2014

Solitary Man

The figure of a solitary man (and it usually is a man) is not uncommon in the postcard universe. Often he’s there for an obvious reason – to display an unusual phenomenon. Such as the world’s largest cabbage, meteorite, lump of coal, boll weevil, coffee cup, etc. Or he has a custodial task, presenting an unusually fine horse, dolphin, alligator, dancing bear or tree stump for public admiration. Another figure might be demonstrating a skill – use of an ice axe or shovel, herding sheep, gathering fruit or flowers. There are exceptions, occasionally a child will be recruited though female figures are normally exhibited principally for their erotic potential. Such cards offer simple entertainment for connoisseurs of the absurd but more interesting are the single figures for which there is no obvious explanation. In an otherwise empty sea-front pavilion a single figure gazes soulfully at the distant horizon and suddenly a drab scene is relieved by the germ of a narrative. Some figures are accidental or incidental presences, others deliberately posed to enhance the scene with a sense of scale, sometimes hand-drawn in a desperate effort to alleviate tedium. Loiterers and loafers who just never got out of the way for photographers who couldn’t be bothered to retouch them out of existence. A minority are very well concealed – at the Postcard Memory Palace there’s a tag for “emptiness” and more than once a hawk-eyed observer has pointed out the presence of an infinitesimally small figure.