The 4th ‘R’? Visual literacy in contemporary Britain

The Election Project/ Hamira Khan, Conservative. Glasgow, 20 April 2010 (Glasgow East constituency) © Simon Roberts

I recently had the pleasure of a conversation with Stephen Bayley who, according to his own website, might be the second most intelligent man in Britain: he is certainly an insightful cultural commentator, and his long-standing area of particular expertise is design (and architecture and art). He explained to me, in an admittedly rather sweeping manner, that ‘Politicians Don’t See.’ By this I think he meant that, as an institution, they are not programmed to appreciate the world in aesthetic terms.

Bayley naturally, as I hope I also would, argues that aesthetic literacy is critically important. It matters that we think and care about the world around us being functional, well-made – and beautiful.

His biting observation comes not least from the frustration of wrangling with certain politicos over the Millenium Dome project, a sinking ship from which I believe he jumped, and thus from a quite personal aggravation. But it resonated with some other pronouncements I have recently heard.

Richard Simmons, Chief Executive of the imperilled Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (whose job is to drive upwards the design quality of contemporary building), remarked on the common and fatal problem of decision-makers, good with words and numbers and elected on the basis of that particular skillset, believing themselves qualified to take what are essentially aesthetic decisions: something for which they have no apparent training.

And I frequently hear, in the course of my work, the accusation that British people, designers aside, ‘Don’t Understand Design’. This is a rather strange phrase. What can it mean? Perhaps simply that most people don’t know what designers do for a job?

Coming at the problem from a slightly different angle, in a lecture recently I encountered the concept of the ‘period eye’: how the members of a particular culture, at a particular time and place, see. This is particularly with reference to images. The meaning of most if not all images is contingent on cultural and contextual knowledge: most of us have no idea what symbols to look for in a Renaissance painting to work out who all the Saints are, for example. Our biological understanding of sight has changed over time: we no longer tend to conceive of sight as a two-way thing, external objects ‘entering us by our eyes’, as it were. And we now live in a world where images are cheap and abundant, rather than rare and precious, which of course would change our attitude towards them. To understand how a group sees provides an interesting cross-sectional view of how it interprets, navigates and responds to the world.

The lecturer, however, was unable to tell me who is writing on the ‘period eye’ of contemporary Britain? How do we see? I don’t know the answer to this but I feel like it might be important.

A concern for visual literacy is relevant at many levels. To not be critical of the images that are peddled to us on a daily basis is to be a sucker for mass consumerism. And at the level of design, the stuff as well as the images, to be able to see that the things around you have been designed, to intuitively understand the link between material, human creativity and finished object, is to fundamentally have a sense of your own power to change things (as well as more truly appreciate the value of things). A closer connection to ‘craft’ would be literally empowering. I have thought before about design being a tool of democracy. In Britain we seem to equate design with luxury – therefore not something for everyone. Making everything well-designed for everyone is a strong democratic statement.

At the moment there is in Portcullis House an exhibition of photographs taken during the election, all over Britain, of candidates canvassing voters. Without wishing to sound like an architectural snob (and they are great photos), the glaring fact that shouts from most of these is the utterly grim quality of environment in which most Brits dwell, the absolute aesthetic impoverishment of their surroundings. Why are we so resigned to ignoring it? Might we be more likely to object to this commonplace ‘ugliness’ if we felt it wasn’t all quite so predetermined?

We have lost our relationship with the manufactured and constructed world, and primarily through the processes of industrialisation and mass production. Which is exactly the state of affairs that William Morris was (unsuccessfully) trying to ward off with his Arts and Crafts initiative. He spoke, more simply, about the dignity of the craftsman, and being able to see the human hand in the texture of the built environment, but it is basically the same thing.

I’m not arguing for a reversal of industrialisation, and I hope Education Minister John Hayes had something more progressive in mind (I am sure he did) when he recently called for a ‘new Arts and Crafts movement’. Was he responding to the charge that our current schooling system stamps out creative thought? Allaying fears about Gove’s ‘austerity curriculum’? Because the recent suggestion that it could be stripped back to core, ‘traditional’ subjects is worrying and short-sighted. And the removal of HE funding to ‘Arts and Humanities’ subjects even more so.

This is one of the implications of ‘not understanding design’: in education, in focusing so closely on words and numbers, with second-rate status awarded to images and forms, we are robbing ourselves of the tools necessary to navigate the complex physical actuality of the modern world.

The Foolish Wisdom of Future-Proofing

Charles Booth’s 19th century map of poverty in London; the Olympic legacy masterplan

Legacy. As a term, I think I realised the extent to which it has entered the contemporary ‘buzzword’ category when I heard an X-factor contestant declaring on national television that she wanted to ‘be a legacy’.  The misguided aspirations of inarticulate X-factor contestants aside, it is also a word that Londoners will frequently hear in conjunction with ‘2012’ these days. Meaning: what will be left in E15 when the athletes have all departed. And yet it is a deceptively tricky, somewhat intangible, concept. How does one go about ‘ensuring’ a legacy?

As part of the Mayor’s ‘Story of London‘ festival, the British Library hosted a discussion of this very matter (‘London and the Olympics: Predicting the Legacy of the 21st Century’, full details of panel members here). During the discussion, LSE academic Ricky Burdett, in passing, mentioned the difference in tone between ‘legacy’ and ‘inheritance’, referring to his own Roman upbringing. The Italians have no word for legacy. The closest equivalent is eredità: literally, inheritance.

Which provoked me to look more closely at those two words.

Legacy: ‘anything handed down from the past, as from an ancestor or predecessor: the legacy of ancient Rome’

Inheritance: ‘something that is or may be inherited; property passing at the owner’s death to the heir or those entitled to succeed; something, as a quality, characteristic, or other immaterialpossession, received from progenitors or predecessors as if by succession’

With legacy, the emphasis is on the giving, inheritance on the receiving. In extreme terms, legacy is the concern of the dying, inheritance the concern of the living. Which is the more appropriate way to think about what we’re doing to East London? Inheritance might shift the emphasis of the discussion more onto how the recipients are likely to be affected.

It merits such scrutiny because that little word is bearing quite a lot on its shoulders. It is what the Olympic Delivery Authority (and the rest of us) are hoping makes an exorbitant spend on a two-week sporting festival just about justifiable. To his credit, Jeremy Hunt (Minister for Culture, Media and Sport) did focus on sporting aspirations in his speech to the Tory conference. But so much discussion about the Olympics overlooks the sporting aspect it’s easy to assume that the Games might not be about sport at all…

These Olympics are, as Ken Livingstone once put it, an excuse to take £9.3bn from national government, and spend it improving a historically troublesome area of East London. ‘Troublesome’ because previous efforts to pull it up out of its deprived state have hitherto failed. But this leads to an uncomfortable problem. If the goal was simply that, building a massive sporting park with an awful lot of buildings that will quickly become obsolete, is probably not how you would set about it. As James Woudhuysen commented from the floor: ‘Do we really think that the 2012 Olympics can undo the damage done to East London by the Luftwaffe?’

It’s an uneasy relationship between two very different goals, that have to be made to align, and it tells in the ferocity of the justifications posed by those in charge. They’ve been set the task of synthesising and they have no choice but to insist it will work, and that it is a wise use of the money. I do have a certain sympathy for the position of Alison Nimmo, Director of Design and Regeneration at the ODA: something of a poisoned chalice. But then again, no one made her take the job.

Moreover, given the absolute certainty of not being able to predict the future – how sensible is it to be ploughing money into a ‘legacy plan’? And particularly when the activity of ‘planning’ in Britain has such a chequered reputation. The extreme extrapolation is to question the wisdom of planning for the future at all. How do we find the balance between the vogue for ‘future-proofing’ (a bizarre concept, when you think about it), organic growth, and unplanned chaos?

It is evident that these awkward subtleties have been duly considered. Much time has been spent by the masterplanning team analysing what hasn’t worked in other places: the Athens Olympic park is desolate, Barcelona’s has helped relaunch the city as a tourist destination. They’re doing their best to ensure it’s not a heavy-handed ‘grand projet’; it’s light touch; the infrastructure has been carefully designed to allow the right kind of development. But as we surely by now have learned, design on its own is never enough. Design won’t prevent a ghetto developing. Other, as yet unforeseen actors for good or ill, can come in to play.

The misgivings flowed thick and fast from the audience. Has any attempt been made to make links across the river? How likely is it, that with the new 7-minute rail link to Kings Cross, new housing built will be affordable for the existing population, many of whom are chronically unemployed? Yes, we will have a new Westfield centre providing lots of new jobs, but what a damning measure of our own civic values, that a culturally-bereft overgrown shopping mall is a benchmark of success and social improvement.

Which is why Stephen Bayley’s turn as ‘token contrarian’ (something of a job description for Bayley) on the panel was warmly welcomed by the audience, although he didn’t provide any answers. He argued that no-one can ‘create’ legacy, just as he has often argued no-one can ‘create’ brand. His alternative suggestions for spending the money – ‘£9.3bn would probably buy you about four major bridges’, or spreading the Olympics around the city to allow pockets of regeneration to occur – would indeed have been a much more sensible route. Too late now though. As he pointed out – glaringly obvious but rarely acknowlegded – it’s the entire premise, not the current decisions of the masterplanners, at the source of the problem. To be sporting, at this stage the only sensible, if impotent, course of action is to wish the whole operation well.

Sir Terence Conran: An Old Hand at Sustainability

Hard to imagine now, but Brompton was flagging until Conran refurbished the historic Michelin building and moved in.

The FT and The Earth Awards recently hosted a day-long conference (or ‘Summit’ as these things increasingly seem to be called, as though that implies some tangible outcome might be achieved) on the subject of ‘Investing in Innovative Design and Technology’. In reality the topic would more accurately have been described as innovative design and technology solutions to sustainability issues, but perhaps they were worried the less sexy ‘s’ word would turn people off.

It’s always difficult to summarise an event such as this. We listened to 24 speakers on 6 different topics, in a blend of ‘keynote speeches’, panel discussions, and Q&As, all expected to distill a career’s worth of wisdom into ten pithy minutes.  Thus, so many potted ideas and potentially inspiring solutions and ways of conceptualising the problem arise, that it becomes – whilst fascinating and educational – overwhelming. Conference fatigue kicks in and highly intelligent, well-mannered delegates drift off like tired schoolchildren. Which in this case was a shame because the final speaker of the day, Sir Terence Conran, was by far the most thoughtful.

Chairing a pre-lunch panel discussion, Nick Jankel (whose bio, rather nauseatingly, declares he is a ‘leadership, collaboration and social innovation expert, a public intellectual, TV presenter, inspirational speaker and transformational coach’) complained that in Britain we don’t ‘celebrate the maverick’ enough. This came out of his mouth alongside other such catchy, probably ‘TM’, concepts like ‘innovation inoculations’ and ‘zoom thinking’ and irritatingly referring to the panel in the collective as ‘you guys’.

I would like to propose that, if that is true, we also don’t consult the older and wiser enough, particularly in public life (the trend for baby politicians is scary), and particularly on the subject of sustainability. Of course, the era of instantaneous media favours the younger and more photogenic. But it is as though, because climate change is a ‘young’ concept, we are bound only to look to the younger generations to solve it – maybe because the younger generations hold their elders responsible for making the mess in the first place. But there have been wider forces at work than pure ill-will and meddling, and some such elders, like Conran, have always operated their businesses on ‘sustainable’ principles: the word just hadn’t been invented yet. It was probably called something like ‘waste not, want not’ or ‘thrift’.

Refurbishment – which has been a hallmark of Conran’s architectural projects – is an inherently sustainable approach to rejuvenating urban areas. His furniture will outlive its owners. The food in his restaurants is locally sourced. On finishing the FT every day he rolls it up and saves it as fire lighter. So after the carousel of innovation gurus and panicky environmental agitators, the calm ponderousness of Conran reflecting on a life lived sustainably was reassuring. He even explained how to make good stock from bones the butcher will give away for free.

Of course it is very easy to level the accusation that the Conran empire, however well-principled, caters only to the upper middle classes. The people who eat in his restaurants and shop in his shops are those who can afford both sustainability and luxury: ironic for a business built on a personal philosophy of thrift. But then the issue of over-consumption, at least in our own country, went hand in hand with the exponential growth of the middle classes – the lower echelons aspiring upwards via the accumulation of stuff. Surely Conran’s model is a much better one to aspire to? His designs are high quality made to last: his customer is not the insatiable consumer, but someone who buys an armchair for life. His products are only expensive by comparison, their price tags just reflect the true value of things (if not outsourced to a sweatshop).

It did occur to me, listening to him speak, that the climate-change-induced panic and confusion and calls for ‘game-changers’ must be baffling for someone of Sir Terence’s generation, for whom a much more (if not totally) sustainable way of existing is well within living memory. (Equally, I know of my own grandfather bemoaning the lack of community support in his old age, sadly comparing it with what he could remember as a child. What paid carers do impersonally now, conscientious neighbours would have naturally done in the past – economically far more sustainable, as well as pleasant.) We were doing it not all that long ago. And as one of the many panellists pointed out, ‘We all know what a truly sustainable city looks like, because they’re all around us: the pre-industrial city.’

Although it is starting to figure, the question of ‘what makes us happy’ gets too little airtime in these discussions. If people are ambivalent about acting to mitigate climate change, it’s at least partly because it’s such a terrifying concept. Being assured that the end is nigh is of course likely to make the average citizen close their ears to the debate.

The benefits of a more balanced way of life need better marketing. Who would object to less time at work, feeling healthier, eating better quality food, no traffic jams, being supported by your community? But part of that is also learning to be happier with less; which, after centuries of culture and decades of advertising convincing us that getting stuff = status = security, will be a hard conceptual leap for the generation whose parents were the resource-guzzling baby-boomers, who have never known anything other than to expect increasing material prosperity as part of the natural order of things. How do you explain that turning off the lights when you leave the room, or having fewer clothes, is somehow equivalent to a better quality of life? This is the real challenge for the next generation of Mad Men: getting us to stop buying.

As it has often been said, tritely enough, that money doesn’t buy happiness, there is a growing mountain of research pointing to, at least within the OECD countries, an inversely proportional relationship between material wealth and health and well-being. Applying the carrot and stick model to the sustainability problem, it’s increasingly clear that too much time has been spent wielding the stick over the heads of relatively powerless citizens, and not enough thinking about what the carrots might be.

More on Conran at the Earth Awards here:

Portcullis House: A Classic Case of Overdesign

I’ve tried to like it. I really have. I’ve been going in and out for a year now, I’ve taken friends and relatives to look around, I’ve tried to defend it as someone with an interest in contemporary architecture. But on reflection I think I’m decidedly underwhelmed by Portcullis House.

This is the black box of a building next door to the more photogenic older Palace of Westminster, completed in 2001, meant to provide office space for MPs, which it does (although not all of them by a long stretch). It also houses conference and event space, and its covered courtyard is a communal social hub for meeting, talking and eating. It caters to these functions at a basic level more or less acceptably. And it’s certainly visually striking. But there is something not quite right about the ensemble that is hard to identify. There is something wrong with this picture. And it is this: it is totally and inexplicably, pointlessly overdesigned.

There is an argument that the most important institutional building in the country should be architecturally impressive (although in the current climate I suspect even that would be questioned – do those naughty MPs really deserve nice offices??) but need we be reminded that there can be grandeur in simplicity?

A key moment in the piece is the atrium, but it’s remarkable how badly it seems to have been thought through. As though the architects designed a building with a hole in the middle and then decided to fill it in – not as though they planned the internal courtyard from the start. And then covered it with a very strange roof. I’m pretty sure there is no structural reason for it to be so neurotically complex. There are so many nodes and struts and connectors it looks like a weird arachnid robot.

As it’s nigh-on impossible to assert in these democratic times that aesthetic judgements are objective, my subjective opinion is that it’s unnecessarily ugly. It looks good from neither below nor above. I was astounded to find out that the little silver sails arranged in clusters on the underside of the glass roof are pure decoration – so odd are they, I was convinced they must be playing some critical function.

Throughout the whole building, the ‘design’ is a thing that shouts at you from every detail, clamouring for attention. Which, actually, is why it’s divisive. There are some very deliberate aesthetic moves that would only appeal to those with a fetish for buildings that look like bicycle gearing. In the design process the aesthetic choices seem to have been made totally independently of the functional ones, which is why they are so glaring. Apparently it’s meant to reference sails and boats, as well as the lines and mouldings of Barry and Pugin’s Victorian Palace next door. Well which is it? Because to my mind those two styles aren’t really compatible, and mashing them together can only result in a visual mess.

I’m not fully qualified to comment on functionality as I’m not a member of parliament so don’t experience the whole range of use. But I do know that the heating and ventilation systems don’t work that well, which is unfortunate as it was billed as a beacon of environmental design. It was hugely expensive to build, given that it’s just hyped-up office space. In fact it’s often jokingly referred to as one of the most expensive office buildings, ever.

And as far as the Atrium is concerned… Actually, if use is an indication of success, the atrium isn’t a failure – it’s always buzzing, and a great place to people-watch. However for a space predominantly used by people over the age of 50, the acoustic environment is poorly conceived. For the even slightly hard of hearing, every other sentence is drowned out by the ambient noise. Not ideal if you’re trying to hold a meeting. And it gets hot when the sun shines on the glass roof.

The building is not terrible. It’s just not that great, and it’s easy to see why – when it absorbed so much cash – the users should feel rightly disgruntled when it doesn’t perform exceptionally. Too much time was spent shoehorning in some more references to yachts, rather than exacting value for money. I imagine a similar argument could be made about the design and construction of the  Scottish Parliament. If this is what Parliamentarians think of when they hear the word design (without even tackling the ridiculousness of the rat-ridden rabbit warren next door), no wonder they think it means ‘superfluous, overly expensive and ultimately disappointing’. Hopkins didn’t do the concept any favours.

Architects: time for some soul-searching

Last week NLA hosted a panel discussion in response to Michael Gove’s throwaway remark about architects ‘creaming off cash’ through the government’s national school-building scheme. An opportunity for a lot of disgruntled people to come together and vent perhaps? To the majority of architects this proposition – that they are doing anything for ‘the cash’ – would be laughable. Design budgets and consequently architects’ fees are seemingly perpetually squeezed and marginalised. The common explanation for this is the faulty composition and operation of the construction industry, where value and cost somehow become divorced – often because the user and the client (the money) are different parties.

Nevertheless, clearly the cash-squandering misconception exists. But only one speaker in the panel of 8 (Jonathan Ellis-Miller) was brave enough to ask why – and to suggest that architects might be at least partly culpable in their failure to engage. The others merely asserted the value and importance of good design – a stock response. Making the same arguments about the value of good design, however true, is clearly not enough, or even perhaps relevant any more.

Gove is highly educated and intelligent. He has no doubt heard and understood this argument. In a recent appearance before the Education Select Committee,  he made this (really quite valid) point:

‘the evidence that I have seen shows that, if you educate children in very poor circumstances, that undoubtedly has an impact on their education. However, there is a lesser return to value on investment once you pass a certain point. If children are being educated in dilapidated surroundings with inadequate materials, you have got to address that. However, when you move from good buildings to great buildings, as it were, that additional investment is not necessarily the most cost-effective way of using education pounds in order to transform children’s achievement.’

Architects should take note and think about where they can truly add value (and earn a living) now. Too bad for those whose business model is based on public sector contracts: unfortunately that was short-sighted. Joanna Van Heyningen, notably the only woman on the panel, sensibly made the case for architects deploying their expertise in working with existing fabric, to create a ‘spatially intelligent masterplan’ that can accommodate future piecemeal development. In fact architects should relish this sort of challenge – a design problem with some parameters. She suggested that the imperative to tear down and rebuild all school estates was always a misguided one. One can’t help but feel that – although not exactly cash – there is perhaps some monument-building ego mixed up in this somewhere.

If ever there was a time for architects to try and stand outside the profession and see what others see, to reassess their own DNA, rather than mud-slinging or complaining about being misunderstood, it is surely now.

I Am Love: Gorgeous Melodrama

Eleven years in the making, Luca Guadagnino’s film is a tale of tradition and customs unravelling in the face of modernity, enlightenment, and love. It is also an exemplar study in sensuality on film, as co-producer and star Swinton herself so often seems to be.

The protagonist, Emma Recchi, is a Russian married to an Italian patriarchal dynasty of industrialists, whose contributing role in the downfall of the family is to allow herself to fall for a younger man. A chef called Anotnio to be precise, and it is his food that she is initially and instantly captivated by. Throughout the rest of the film, the contrast between the enlightenment of the senses that marks her experiences with Antonio and the strictness of her family life is carefully built and enhanced by Guadagnino, with caged bird metaphors popping up all over the place (a moth caught in the lamp beside her bed, a pigeon trapped in the dome of the family chapel). Insects also provide the clue to the difference between her Lady Chatterly-esque life with Antonio and her staid marital bed.

The Recchi family itself reflects the steady onward march of industrialism – they built a factory, moved up in society, hired an architect to design a beautiful modernist fortress (all hard lines and sumptuous materials), and their children and grandchildren study finance and the arts. The film is set at a tipping point in the history of the family, when it all begins to implode, the begnning of the end marked by the death of the grandfather. As well as smaller hints, such as Edo (the eldest grandson)’s failure to win an unspecified race – victory being a family tradition. Tellingly Antonio, the source of Emma’s later downfall, is the humble victor. The postscript scene finds Emma in a cave with Antonio, almost like a reversal of the process of civilisation that has been the hallmark of her husband’s family.

Although in a literal way, the only senses that can truly be affected by watching a film are sight and sound, some utilise these two to such effect that the other senses are brought into play. This must be one the few films where the first love scene is between a woman and a plate of seafood, impressionistic and seductively filmed, like a Marks & Spencer advert on overdrive. There is a scene where Emma grasps a handful of leaves from a bough and inhales, the camera paying such close attention that the audience can almost imagine the aroma in their own nostrils. In a classic deployment of pathetic fallacy the weather/ seasons are in keeping with the plot – from a cold wintry city scape to a hazy buzzing summer countryside. And Emma’s person is perfectly detailed, the cut of her hair and colour of her clothes reflecting events and her own mood.

Dealing with such classic themes as nature/ freedom vs captivity/ construct, it would very easy to tip over into obvious or trite symbolism. However the whole film is so carefully nuanced and layered, with references reachingback and forth through the narrative, and it is so beautifully detailed, that it glides past this potential trap.

Nevertheless it is unashamedly melodramatic. The dialogue is sweeping and grandiose: ‘You no longer know who I am.’ The music (by John Adams) is fundamental – perpetually heightening the drama, particularly in the closing sequence. But it is forgiveable precisely because it is so unapologetic, and because it works: the soaring violin really does tug on the heart strings. And for an English audience, no doubt the fact that it is Italian also excuses.

A delicious romance, refreshingly, the unfaithful wife gets away with it. She escapes, a pleasing result to the viewer because it really does seem like the ‘right’ thing. And, ultimately, who doesn’t want to run away to a picturesque hill farm with a lithe young chef who can cook food like you’ve never tasted before.

In summary, there is nothing new here, in terms of technique or concept – it’s just all done to utter perfection.

1:1 at the V&A – Serious Play

It’s always a good test explaining something with which you are comfortably familiar from your own field to a total layperson. This is especially true when it comes to the arts. Empirical justification for something which is creative or poetic and elicits a non-quantifiable, emotional response is of course difficult to find.

Recently I found myself trying to describe the new V&A 1:1 exhibition to someone who, although intelligent and undoubtedly open-minded, had little understanding of what I meant by ‘a series of architectural installations’, and, moreover, what the point of such a thing might be.

It is clear what the point is for the architects. As an architecture student I was once given a brief to design a pavilion for a particular site, and it was by far the most enjoyable and liberating project I tackled during my student career. Confinement to thinking about a single room allows the testing of ideas or concepts on a safe scale perhaps too risky at the scale of a building. You can experiment with materials or forms or structures, or ways of modulating light or of shaping space, without having to withstand the full Vitruvian test. This must be the most (serious) fun an architect can have.

The benefit for the museum is also clear. In my limited experience it seems unusual, and really quite ambitious, for a museum to commission a brand new piece of work (or, indeed, seven of them). Such a project pushes the boundaries of what the museum thinks it should do.

But what is the point for the viewer, or audience, or user (whichever…)? There was certainly something playful and innocent and refreshing about some of these projects. In fact, in my slightly tipsy state, I proclaimed that I found one of them ‘magical’. The fact that you can clamber into and around them, even having to remove your shoes for some, enables a much closer and physical interaction with the built form than we would probably indulge in on a day-to-day basis. How often do you spend time really touching the walls of your office, for example? But then your office walls probably aren’t quite as lovely as, for example, Studio Mumbai’s casting of an intricate alley-scape, or Helen and Hard’s barky tree-house. The carefully extravagant deployment of materials and light does bring with it a certain natural pleasure.

So the question is: if, when we really pay attention, we are capable of experiencing the emotional response that these different spaces can draw – of feeling how delightful they can be – what unseen toll and stress is wrought, that we perhaps ignore or suppress, by the uninspiring surroundings of the everyday on our bodies and minds? The space around us does matter, in far more ways than the purely quantifiable – architects and designers know this – and an exhibition such as this is a convincing reminder for both expert and layperson.

Zaha and the Italians

Reggio's new Maritime Museum
Reggio's new Maritime Museum

Last night the Italian Embassy played host to an innately Italian affair: the ceremony to mark the signing of an agreement between Zaha Hadid Architects and the Southern Italian Municipality of Reggio Calabria for the Regium Waterfront Project (pictured). Part of a regeneration initiative, the commission for a new museum and conference centre has been awarded to a typically Zaha, but nonetheless beautiful, proposal. In the sumptuous rooms on Grosvenor Square, swarms of immaculately groomed Italians spontaneously applauded as guest of honour Zaha Hadid took her seat. Although perhaps a natural response to the celebrity aura that surrounds the architect, it could also be an indication of the hope pinned on the success of this project.

Reggio di Calabria, a historically poverty-stricken town on the straits of Messina (between the toe of mainland Italy and Sicily) is allegedly trying to redress the economic troubles of previous decades. With the ascendancy of Dr Giuseppe Scopelliti, the current Mayor, in 2002 a regeneration programme was launched and the €400m project is its flagship. The ambassadorial official opening the ceremony praised Scopelliti for his trust in the virtues of open competition in the face of the ‘current situation’. Perhaps also political bravery in the face of precedent?

With completion set within five to six years, this is a long-term investment, but will hopefully signal to the people a change of fortune for the region. It’s also a celebration of the long cultural history of Reggio Calabria, originally a colony of Magna Graecia, in that one half of the project will be a new ‘Museo del Mare’. The Greek Bronzi di Riace statues – two full-size bronze warriors dated circa 460BC – will be rehoused here. Dedicated to one of the most famous Reggians in recent history, Gianni Versace, with this project the city is evidently trying to re-establish some self-confidence after debilitating times.

The Regium Waterfront is the latest in a series of Italian projects by Zaha Hadid Architects. In finishing her presentation Hadid listed Rome, Florence, Naples, Salerno, Sardinia and the Veneto as sites of construction currently underway. Although I think most architects have a natural soft spot for Italy – the birthplace of modern western architectural tradition – the Hadid/Italy relationship seems to be very much a 2-way affair. On reflection it’s clear that of course they would  love her work. Hadid’s buildings are nothing if not sexy. The designs that come out of Hadid’s office have just the kind of sleek polished lines that Italian style is bound to appreciate.

Actually, although occasionally underwhelmed by the sameness of Hadid’s work, the house style is particularly well-suited to a building about the sea. Its form apparently inspired by a wave, renderings show fluid, folding and unfolding spaces that reveal multiple changing views, internal and external space merging – as of course it is much easier to do in a Mediterranean climate. The ‘rooms’ are beautifully generous and public spaces grand and soaring. Co-designer Patrik Schumacher joked that partly because they didn’t expect to win, they really let go the creative reigns on this one. The result is a hugely ambitious project – new engineering techniques will no doubt have to be invented to construct it – but once completed it will be nothing less than a truly breath-taking building.

In the closing comments, the Mayor was again commended for his innovative plan. Commissioning a bankable celebrity architect to design a new signature building that will generate income? Investing in infrastructure and re-asserting the city’s cultural identity? It may not sound wholly original, even if it is a very good idea. However, seen in context, perhaps this is the fresh move that Reggio needs.

This article also appeared on Blueprint’s website.