Christo in London

Better known as Christo, Christo Vladimirov Javacheff has made a global name for himself as a unique installation artist. His iconic works include wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin and the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris in material.

His works are dramatic in scale and unforgettable. London was recently privileged to host his latest work, a 20 metre high multicoloured mountain of oil barrels moored in Hyde Park. Entitled Mastaba, the huge truncated pyramid, afloat on the tranquil waters of the Serpentine Lake, and comprising some 7,500 coloured barrels, dazzled, bemused and entertained thousands of visitors this summer.

Feast on these images of a transient work of art that knows no precedent in the UK, but leaves an indelible memory in all viewers alike.

Mastaba by Christo Vladimirov Javacheff

Mastaba by Christo Vladimirov Javacheff

Changing Perception of the Fireplace. Part 1: 1983 – 1995

In 1983, the design and fireplace industries were heading in opposite directions. Designers and architects were increasingly determined to put traditionalism behind them and create contemporary spaces of simplicity shorn of unnecessary adornment. The fireplace industry, on the other hand, could not help looking backwards, promoting products that hardly changed over decades: Victorian style fire surrounds, free-standing or built in cast iron grates and even fire guards and tenders for gas-fuelled fires! The introduction of gas as the primary fuel form made little or no change to this entrenched position.

Geolog Fire
Geocoal

At the same time, contemporary stylists were doing what they could to banish fireplaces altogether from their interiors, whether residential or commercial. The TV had long taken over as the central focal point of the living space. Where chimney breasts remained, the empty apertures were either bricked up or filled with decorative dried flower displays or the like. For decades these forlorn spaces with their negative solutions were paraded triumphantly on the front pages of home interior magazines. The world had moved on. Or had it?

As a young, practising architect, an American client in the early 80’s insisted on installing a fireplace in the contemporary interior I had designed for him. Reluctantly, after researching and rejecting everything available on the marketplace as unsuitable. Instead I designed a gridded chrome-finished fire basket. Instead of the ubiquitous fake logs and coals, I created cast geometric shapes based on the Platonic Solids: sphere, cube, tetrahedron, pyramid, cylinder and rectangular prism. This formed an unconventional centrepiece to the flat, which was published in the World of Interiors in October 1984, and created a ripple of interest among contemporary designers. Thus was the Platonic Fireplace Company born, and I began to take orders for what I now termed the Geolog Fire. The fireplace industry ploughed on, oblivious of change. Around this time, the editor of the House and Garden magazine commissioned me to ‘decorate’ a traditional fire grate using Platonic fuel forms. I produced sets of miniature geometrics, called Geocoals, which gave a stunning and original look to the fire grate.

A couple of years later, while musing on alternative fuel forms, while skipping stones into the waves opposite Durdle Dor in Dorset, I had another revelation. Why not use beach pebbles as an alternative fuel form to fake coals? Not only were coals ugly, they looked messy and unappealing. I also experimented with architectural forms, such as standing stones, ionic and Corinthian column fragments, but these were too idiosyncratic to appeal to more than a few isolated clients. The sea pebbles, or as I renamed them, Fire Pebbles, did catch on, with their attractiveness and random qualities.By the end of the 1990’s I had begun to dispense entirely with fire grates, as these no longer served a practical purpose. Out of these experiments came the simple hole-in-the-wall fireplace, raised above the floor to sitting level, and with little elaboration, other than a stone surround. This concept became as ubiquitous as the Geolog Fire in design circles. The fireplace was being restored successfully to its original role as the centrepiece of the contemporary domestic interior. Of course, this did not apply to the rest of the country, where traditional fireplace styles continued, oblivious to the experimentation in the South-East of England.

Platonic Fireplaces Fire Pebbles
Fire Pebbles
Platonic Fireplaces Shelf Fire
Shelf Fire

But with the 1990-93 recession, which affected the fireplace industry throughout the country, interest in experimental fireplace ideas disappeared like the dying embers of an untended open fire.

A new magazine focusing on contemporary domestic design, Metropolitan Home, flourished for a few years and helped to disseminate the idea of re-positioning the fireplace at the centre of the modern home, but by the mid 1990’s the magazine had gone into liquidation.

Enquiries for bespoke contemporary fireplaces continued to come in, however, and in 1996, I arrived at the idea of a simple suspended granite shelf featuring a circular burner. On this were deployed a group of Geologs, and the first contemporary gas Shelf Fire was now in existence. This was also featured in World of Interiors.

Innovative ideas can take a long time to filter into the mainstream, but when they do, sometimes they can have a far-reaching effect on an industry, and change perceptions forever. This idea was one example. Unbeknown to me, this idea was picked up from a small brochure that Platonic produced in the early ‘90’s. A hitherto unsuccessful manufacturer adapted the idea to produce a range of fires that sold in great quantities. Ironically, we only found this out when another manufacturer who was being sued for copyright infringement contacted us to help protect them as we had prior art rights. We did so successfully, but it was a bitter lesson in the underhand practices of a cynical industry, and not the last one we learned.

A Day in the Life of Eel Pie Island

As dawn breaks at Eel Pie Island, a chorus of parakeets welcomes the day. The resident foxes leisurely pad back to their dens embedded in the tangled undergrowth of the nature reserves at opposite ends of the Island. The owls hoot for the last time as night turns to day. The early rising mallards and red crested pochards along with a few straggling coots, make their way to the steps at the junction of the footbridge and the Embankment at Twickenham.

At six o clock the bridge rumbles under the enthusiastic footfall of the boisterous young rowers making their way noisily to the Rowing Club. A few minutes later their mono-skulls nose their way into the restless River Thames elbowing its way on both sides of the Island towards Richmond and further still, Central London, some eight miles downstream.

Slowly the Island begins to stir. The dustbin operatives steadily tug the bins over the bridge to the waiting dustbin lorry. A little after seven, Ken Dwan’s boat building team arrive at Eel Pie Slipways. One of the river passenger cruisers and several barges await their dedicated labour. As I leave Phoenix Wharf, with its fifteen studios, to pick up my paper and morning latte, the first of the occupants arrive. We erected the studios ourselves using a mobile crane floated downstream from Platts Eyot on a specially adapted pontoon. Prior to that, Pat Walsh and his son David, operating their crane barge, had cleared the site of some 500 cubic metres of rubble created by the incineration of the former boatyard and studios of Eel Pie Marine.

The wooden structure had housed some 60 artists and boat builders since the 1980’s in a ramshackle jumble of creative chaos. Ironically, on Guy Fawkes night in 1996, a fire tore through the boatyard. The conflagration made the national news, as 24 fire engines lined the bank opposite the Island. Barges were hastily lined up side by side cross the River to support the firemen’s hoses. But the boatyard could not be rescued.

In the summer of 1997, I bought half of what remained. After a protracted planning process, construction of the oak clad, steel framed boathouse buildings commenced in 2001 and were completed some seven years later. The studios were designed for creative businesses, and today dynamic companies in design, internet products, film production, marketing and PR occupy the space. The atmosphere is fresh and relaxed. Sandwiched between the busy boatyards of Eel Pie Boatyard and Eel Pie Slipways, Phoenix Wharf is testament to the energy and creativity abounding in Twickenham.

Directly across the River from Phoenix Wharf, the ragstone tower of St Mary’s Church proudly stands, the first piece of the 500 year jigsaw that is the Twickenham Riverside village. Listed Grade 2 star, it is one of the Borough’s architectural gems; so precious that it seems one day a storm might just blow it away. This unique place on the tidal River, described by Horace Walpole in the eighteenth century as a ‘sea port in miniature’, still echoed this spirit by the community of barges and boat projects along the Eel Pie riverbank.

The grey brick and metal roofed houses of Aquarius soak up the morning sun as their inhabitants emerge to start their day. There is no relic left of the former White Cross Hotel that stood on the site until 1971, when it was demolished after, yes, another fire. Yet the echo of the hotels legendary British R & B scene of the sixties still echoes on the Island. Indeed, it was that memory which drew me to the Island some twenty years ago, and still holds me in its trance. My son was inspired to start up a rock band here. Mystery Jets pioneered a local indie music scene, Thamesbeat, that continues to this day.

Around 9 am, the River at the footbridge is alive with wild life. The Canadian and Egyptian geese and elegant white swans, together with hordes of crows and seagulls hungrily fight over the breadcrumbs thrown at them by regular visitors to the Embankment. Near the footbridge stands Syds Quay where an Eel Pie start up company, Tech 21, has blossomed from a shared desk space in Phoenix Wharf into a global company employing several hundred people in the Borough and many hundreds worldwide. The bright young things of Tech 21 come and go in their droves, helping transform the Island from a quiet suburban enclave into a bustling technological hub. Sleepy Island has morphed into Silicon Island.

Yet the old, single storey corrugated steel clad bungalows of pre-modern times live on at the eastern end of the Island, in a time warp of their own, and long may it stay that way. The Island has morphed from mud flat to a lively community, and will continue to adapt to changing needs and fashions over future centuries, always looking forward.

The Island is abuzz during the day with purposeful activity. But as the sun sets, and the dynamic energy escapes back over the footbridge and the boatyards pack away their tools, the Island returns to its alter ego, the unassuming sylvan retreat of yore. The commuters return home, the pathway lamps gleam into life and as the evening wears on, the foxes emerge from their lairs once more, to claim the Island once again for themselves.

 

The festive season in Marrakech

The festive season is the perfect time to visit Marrakech, to top up on Vitamin D and to experience a culture that remains steadfastly exotic and holds on to positive aspects of its past without seeking mindless modernity. The central square within the Medina (or ancient walled town) Jemaa el-Fnaa, is still the magnet that draws visitors from all over the world to its charming chaos. It is a starting and ending point to experience this fabulous city. This was our fourth visit, and the charm never fails to win us over once again.

Henry Harrison, Platonic Fireplaces

During the day the square teems with visitors and locals standing and talking, mopping up the atmosphere, emerging from or entering the magical adjoining Souk, or watching the traditionally dressed Berbers with their flamboyant orange hats and bright costumes pose for photographs. Groups of visitors stand rooted to the spot next to the snake charmers blowing on trumpets and goading their collection of pythons, vipers, grass snakes and, most compelling of all, Cobras, their heads and caped necks hovering mesmerically in the air. These are such a draw, that the monkey tamers hardly get a look in.

At night the square is transformed into a giant communal outdoor refectory, with numerous mobile kitchens and plastic covered tables and benches. The waiters compete to attract would be diners to their individual pitches. The endless variations on Moroccan tagines, along with kebabs and spicy sauces eaten with flat bread, is surprisingly delicious. Eating at communal tables also encourages relaxed conversations with visitors of all ages, hailing from all over the world.

The symbol of the City is the Moorish minaret of the 12th Century Koutouba Mosque, which overlooks the square. After a few days taking in the charms of the City, including the glorious Majorelle Gardens, restored by Yves St Laurent, one is ineluctantly drawn to escape the constant hubbub of the City and drive up to the Atlas Mountains, whose snow-capped peaks loom over Marrakesh like a distant mirage. A day trip is easily organised, and perhaps the most stunning trek is to visit the mountain-top village of Archain at the foot of Mount Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa. At the heart of the village, nesting on a rocky outcrop in a monastic setting, is the magnificent Kasbah du Toubkal.

Indeed, its very monastic feel was exploited by the film maker Martin Scorcese in 1996, when he had the Kasbah transformed into the Tibetan monastery of Dungkhar, to which the Dali Lama fled from Lhasa in Tibet from the invading Chinese. The Kasbah was clad with stonework, prayer wheels, wooden doors and Tibetan domes. 100 Tibetans, 45 horses and 2 yaks, along with 33 SUV’s were imported to impart the impression of an authentic Tibetan monastery.

The Kasbah retains that magical feel. Improbably, it was built by an English ex-geography teacher, Mike Smith, as an upmarket hotel in partnership with a local entrepreneur. It easily outshines Sir Richard Bransons later constructed Kasbah Tamadot. This is located further down the mountain and has neither the views of Mount Toubkal, nor the breathtaking outlook across three valleys that the Kasbah Toubkal enjoys. It is good to see the small guy win occasionally, as he does here, in great style.

Back in Marrakesh, nothing could be better than staying in a Riad in the centre of the Souk. This connects one with the lifestyle of the local people. To be woken by the Muezzin prayers erupting on all sides at dawn is a truly singular experience, like no other.

A recent addition to the well-known attractions of the souk, which include the well known attractions of the Medersa Ben Yousef medieval Islamic school and the Saadian Tombs, is Le Jardin Secret o Secret Garden. This is a project completed in 2016 that was the initiative of Lauro Milan, with the assistance of Karim el Achak and English landscape architect Tom Stuart-Smith. It involved the restoration of the original Riad dating back to the Saadian Dynasty more than four hundred years ago. The Riad fell into dis-repair in 1934 and the work begun in 2008 involved the restoration of the Riadin and re-creation of two courtyard gardens, a larger Islamic garden and a smaller Exotic garden. Like the Medina itself, the two gardens are irrigated through underground pipes originating in the Atlas Mountains 50 kilometres away.

wwwlejardinsecretmarrakech.com

www.kasbahtoubkal.com

Venice – Renaissance Architecture to Contemporary Fireplaces

Venice Biennale

Now that its late summer, you may feel the need to bask in an architectural hotspot, and what better destination than checking out the Venice Biennale. This year it is extra special, whatever your tastes, traditional or cutting edge contemporary.

Firstly, and most importantly, the palazzo franchetti is hosting a major respective of Zaha Hadid’s artistic and architectural work. Zaha died earlier this year, and as a contemporary of hers at the Architectural Association school of architecture in the mid-seventies, I felt the loss of a brilliant fellow pupil, who was clearly marked for a stellar career: even if it took her over thirty years to actually realise her first built commission.

As a client of ours, she always kept us guessing, never completely satisfied with a fireplace or any other interior design solution; restless, questioning, always seeking a unique solution to each project. “We will never cease from experimentation”’ she said on more than one occasion, and that is an object lesson of a high order to all architects and designers.

During her early fallow years, she spent her spare time when not tutoring at the AA, making extraordinary intricate paintings of her architectural visions: fragmenting buildings endlessly seeking to defy gravity and convention. Her later projects realised theses aims with enormous panache and breathtaking skill and competence. A great example to young and old – and fellow contemporaries at the AA too.

The Biennale this year is one of the best of recent times. The Arsenale, the old naval dockyard where the famous Venetian merchant and fighting ships were built (coming of the production line at one per day in medieval times), is host to many fascinating displays of constructional and cultural innovation from architects and designers all over the world. The theme is ‘overcoming hurdles’. The exhibits range from a pop up city in India for five million temporary inhabitants, water tanks transformed into neighbourhood parks in South America, industrialised migrant accommodation in Germany and building envelope-popping apartment buildings in Seoul.

In addition, the old British favourites, Richard Rogers and Norman Foster produced fascinating displays, as well as Renzo Piano, Rogers original partner. Foster’s proposal for a Droneport network throughout Africa to support cargo drone routes capable of delivering urgent supplies to remote areas is particularly compelling. The Droneport itself is a building typology in its own right; a striking vaulted structure constructed using locally sourced building products and finished in pressed handmade bricks. It has a multi-purpose potential to be used for commercial and civic purposes, and to be a central hub of activity for rural communities. A most challenging idea in a difficult time for this great continent.

Venice Biennale Venice Biennale

 

Hard to talk about, but equally compelling, were a series of blueprints made by architects for the gas chambers at Auschwitz in the 1940’s. . These were presented in Braille form, like a secret code, or for those who would not look and open their own eyes to the truth of what was evidently going on around them. It is stated as the worst crime committed by architects, and that is a pretty hard indictment of the profession.

A thought provoking and immense collection of ideas from all over the world, the Venice Biennale is especially relevant today, when old patterns are constantly being overturned. It is a great pleasure, therefore, when I revisit the Palladio’s Redentore; the great Church serene it’s its beguiling simplicity in a city of astonishing adornment. A great sense of peace descends as one enters the nave, and recognises the masterly control that Palladio exercised over the form, massing, scale, volume and intricate detail of every part of this masterpiece. It is a visual food of the finest quality, and continues to astonish and humble some four hundred years after its construction.

Glastonbury 2016

As you drag your feet through the endless mud heading for some distant point only one mile but probably two hours away, you know that there is only one place this can be: Glastonbury Festival, what else? If it’s late June, whatever the weather, and whatever your age, can there be anywhere as compelling and memorable to be? You are not alone of course. There are 175,000 other people doing the same thing, come rain or shine. So if you are agoraphobic or enchlophobic you won’t be here. And it helps to like noise, loud music of all kinds and not be averse to the ubiquitous crowds throughout Worthy Farm.

glasto-9

This instant city, with the same population as Swindon, or even the London Borough of Richmond, springs up in a matter of weeks, hosts its vast throng of dedicated acolytes and is disbanded and returned to its displaced bovine inhabitants, a few days later. It is a great logistic and bureaucratic enterprise, depending on the willing labour of thousands of tired and patient volunteers. It is liquid marmite.

This year was one of the wettest on record, but after two days of spontaneous river flow across the valleys of the site, the rain abated somewhat, and the late arrivals, like ourselves, only have a steady drizzle, huge crowds and six inches of mud to contend with. Traversing the site becomes a marathon effort, nevertheless, and with considerable distances to negotiate, it can take several hours to cross the site to visit offbeat places like Strummerville and the stone circle.

glasto-4

For those who have signed up for the full Glastonbury experience, camping on the premises is de rigeur. Not for them a cosy bed and breakfast or boutique hotel in the local town. It is the pop up tent pitched on a grass slope near a bank of eco-toilets with the sweet sickly smell of sewage ever-present. It is the all night din of surround sound partying that demands engagement if for no other reason that it is impossible to avoid it, or switch it off. Yet the experience is there for the young, middle aged and older alike, because it is such a re-juvenating experience.

With over 17 stages, ranging from the immense (Pyramid Stage – probably the best known Festival stage in the world) to the intimate (Summerhouse – enough room for a a group of friends), it is impossible to see more than a fraction of the musical talent on show. And with the going very heavy (it can take two hours to cross the site) it is best to choose the desired stage and head there early. My son’s band Mystery Jets play the John Peel Stage on Sunday afternoon. It is an experience I will never forget – a rammed tent holding perhaps four thousand vociferous fans, and a great sound system – makes for an utterly memorable occasion.

glasto-8

Later, in the early evening, several hundred of us gather at Strummerville, for many years the haunt of Joe Strummer of the Clash. Here musicians play around a huge bonfire in the style of ages past. The Mystery Jets find this more challenging than playing in front of several thousand people. But all goes well. Then it’s back through all the mud to the camp site.

As usual, Glastonbury captures a great selection of the best musical acts in the world. This year Muse, Adele and Coldplay headline the Pyramid Stage. But other unmissable acts include Tame Impala, John Grant, The 1975, Beck and the ageless Jeff Lynne’s ELO.

By Monday morning, exhausted but enervated, we slowly de-camp and recover our senses and sense of time, fortified by more lattes and bacon butties. Of course the weekend cannot be complete without a four or five hour wait to leave the Festival site. Plenty of time to reflect on memories that will never fade away. Was this the best ever? It certainly feels like it.