Monday, 24 November 2014

Fondation Louis-Vuitton

After 6 years in construction the Fondation Louis-Vuitton opened in Paris at the end of last month. A landmark building on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne designed by “starchitect” Frank Gehry it marks another step in the convergence of the visual arts and commercial branding. The intention is to showcase the vast contemporary art collection assembled by Bernard Arnault, Chairman and CEO of LVMH, owner of the following brands (among others) Christian Dior, Givenchy, Marc Jacobs, Moët & Chandon, Dom Pérignon, Veuve Clicquot, Hennessy, Glemorangie, Guerlain, Kenzo, Bulgari, TAG Heueur, Bon Marché, la Samaritaine, Séphora plus 10% of Carrefour supermarkets. It sounds like a store listing for a Dubai shopping mall - an awe inspiring basket of products most of us will seldom if ever purchase. But if we concede that the Tate Gallery was built and endowed on the proceeds of sugar and slavery then fashion, fragrance, wine, spirits and retailing doesn’t sound quite so bad. There’s not much in it - the rarefied world of haut couture is said to bring glamour and excitement into dull and tedious lives but by the time its innovations have filtered down to the consumer their main value seems to be a device for persuading the insecure and style conscious to replace their perfectly serviceable clothing with a new season’s offer. It’s fair to say that the fashion industry is a colossal engine of waste and a world leader in outsourcing labour to wherever is cheapest and free of tiresome regulation. 

It’s never a pretty sight watching the moguls of capitalism indulging their vanity projects and this promises to be no exception. Gehry has claimed that his inspiration came from the ferro-vitreous splendour of the Grand Palais and the Palmarium glass house in the adjacent Jardin d’Acclimatation (itself a part of the LVMH portfolio) but in a vainglorious exercise in creative arrogance the visual coherence of his sources has been discarded in favour of an assemblage of dismembered fragments. Over 3,500 glass panels, every one different, are locked together by an amazingly complex armature of braces, struts, brackets, clamps, trusses and engineered timbers designed by robots using specially designed software. We are invited to see the resulting segments as vast sails, bringing to mind an image of a stately vessel, gliding above the trees, powered solely by the gentle zephyrs. Photographs suggest that this harmonious vision may just be obtainable from a select few high-altitude viewpoints but for the earthbound majority it will remain a baffling cluster of tumbling forms. When I examined my own photographs (taken in May 2014) of which there were many I realised that I’d been searching for some point of balance or compositional integrity and dismally failed to find any. 

I would much prefer to be applauding the results of all this technological ingenuity and investment in space for the visual arts but the overwhelming egotism on display offers little inducement. There’s no shortage of reactionary critics ready in an instant to condemn anything outside their personal preconceptions but that’s the company you are placed in if you express reservations about Frank Gehry. As for the art, I don’t know whether to be pleased or dismayed that two artists I much admire (Ellsworth Kelly and Christian Boltanski) are among those chosen to make signature artworks for the inauguration. On balance I should be pleased, especially for Kelly, still productive at the age of 91. I suspect it won’t be long before the egregious Koons puts in an appearance but then only the super-rich like M. Arnault can have museums dedicated exclusively to their own personal taste. After 55 years, in 2069 the building becomes the property of the City of Paris, by which time the art will be made by robots for an audience of robots unless it has been repurposed as a Mosque in the North European Caliphate. 

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Falling Sales

The drama of the parachute drop has been much used by advertisers to associate their products with the vital difference between life and death. Small wonder that these examples, bar one, come from the battlefield. Camel cigarettes campaigned for years to convince the public that the fastest route to personal courage was igniting a cigarette, with the promise of steady nerves in the face of danger. The wartime adverts come from the age of text-heavy publicity when the prevailing thinking was that the consumer could not fail to respond to a dozen paragraphs of closely reasoned persuasion. Only the final example dispenses with the verbiage which is ironic, given that British advertisers were the greatest of all offenders when it came to filling the page with insipid prose. I should add that an even larger selection of parachute imagery can be enjoyed by visiting the intimidatingly huge but always entertaining, Visual Primer of Advertising Clichés

Friday, 31 October 2014

Unlikely Endorsements

Celebrities who lend their fame and standing to advertisers have featured here in the past but mainly as brand ambassadors for tobacco or beauty products – the nicotine jungle and the fragrant realm of cosmetics were the natural habitat for the Hollywood star in need of extra pocket money. Today we present a selection of some of the more unlikely product endorsements to cross our path. Starting with automotive products where the ethereal glamour of Madeleine Carroll seems a long way from the oil and grease of the motor service bay. No surprise to see Bing Crosby lend a hand – never known to turn down a request. Jack Carson (memorably egregious in Mildred Pierce) does his bit for Ford Trucks in a movie tie-in but Alan Ladd’s enthusiasm for the diminutive charms of the Whizzer takes some believing. In the home of two-wheeled monsters like the Harley-Davidson and the Indian Chief Black Hawk it seems almost un-American to sing the praises of the humble Whizzer. Food products were unfamiliar territory for the average star and while Gene Kelly presiding over a barbecue is quite credible, it’s difficult to accept the idea of Rita Hayworth preparing a round of sandwiches. Bing’s lugubrious expression suggests that the kitchen table is a long way from his comfort zone. Finally – we have Rita (a lady who hated to say no) again and Shirley Temple commending some very basic items of furniture before Ray Milland closes the show with some family fun with power tools. 

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Casa Galimberti – an Illustrated Building in Milan

Italian architects developed their own version of Art Nouveau in which they had the freedom to experiment in terms of decoration and ornamentation without feeling any pressure to be innovative in terms of form or spatial organisation. It was given the name Stile Liberty (in honour of the Regent Street department store whose affordable Art Nouveau product lines were much sought after in Italy) and enjoyed its greatest public acceptance in Piedmont and Lombardy – much boosted by the Turin Exhibition in 1902. Most examples of Stile Liberty buildings are formally conservative, Classical and Baroque variants, occasionally with Medievalist elements. Concessions to fashion were confined to the surfaces in the form of carved figures, slithery organic wrought-iron, painted panels and ceramic decorative schemes showing a strong preference for floral or other natural forms. 

Casa Galimberti in Milan is a classic example of a pictorial building – a 1905 apartment block where visual interest derives primarily from the spectacular surface imagery. The architect, Giovanni Battista Bossi (1864-1924), had two designers on his team, one responsible for the figurative ceramic panels that run along the building at first floor level and one for the vertical panels of painted foliage that climb the second and third floors. The figurative panels present a hedonistic vision calculated to grab attention - curvaceous female figures in revealing costume and a few male companions disport themselves, gathering fruit, drinking wine, listening to music and engaging in a little light flirtation. Galimberti was a property developer who bought the site from the city authority when the stables that previously occupied it became redundant as electric trams supplanted the horse-drawn variety. It may well be that a commercial imperative lay behind the decision to surround the building with steamy imagery. 

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.