Tuesday, 24 August 2010

memories, mentors and the movies


(Cliche alert!) I love how I often seem to find what I didn't even know I was looking for at just the precise moment I need it. Usually, this something comes in the form of a book. So, I’m *this* close to finishing my PhD and wondering what in the hell I’m going to do now that I’m not clinging on to the life raft that is academia when, on a whim, I start reading Eric Kandel’s autobiography. Kandel, apart from being a surprisingly wonderful writer and a total genius (such a babe!), won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000 for his research on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons. I don’t normally read autobiographies, but Kandel’s is awesome: aside from our shared interest in neuroscience and the quality of his prose, many of his insights have reminded me that there’s excitement, discovery and inspiration to be found outside of academia, somewhat surprising given that most of Kandel’s life has been spent in research labs.

There’s one anecdote that has nothing to do with science or academia, where Kandel describes his first date with his future wife, which properly cracked me up. According to Kandel, she resisted his advances initially, though eventually consented to go out on a date with him. When he picked her up, he asked if she’d rather go to a movie or to the best bar in town and when she said she’d like to go to the best bar in town, he took her back to his apartment. What pluck! I love it.

Kandel writes of what it’s like to work in a lab beautifully, but one of the most striking passages describes Kandel's excitement and pleasure when he first began to conduct his own experiments. Despite the fact that Kandel was merely replicating Hodgkin and Huxley’s experiments recording the action potential in the large axon of the crayfish, his joy at discovering his results match those of his predecessors is so uplifting. I won’t explain it well, but there’s something about the thrill of setting off on one’s own, whether in a lab or elsewhere, that's so intoxicating. And there's something about seeing these same feelings mirrored in the experiences of another human being... I don't know. It's reassuring and strangely moving.

Having said that, Kandel also speaks very eloquently of the importance of mentors throughout his career. I suppose that I had mentors as an undergraduate, or at least professors I adored and who steered me down the academic path of no return. But since then, in both professional and professorial contexts, there’s been not one person who’s seemed to me anything like what a mentor ought to be. I’m not sure if this is because everyone’s now so concerned with personal gain, that the idea of passing on knowledge to the younger generation is anathema or if perhaps because the idea of mentoring is simply old fashioned. I don’t know, but I do find it sort of depressing that learning comes only from reading books or from that ancient art of screwing things up and learning from mistakes/experience. Not that I have anything against either, but I think it would be wonderful to have someone around who just, I don’t know, rocked your world a bit and pushed you on to brighter and bolder things. Pipe dreams… Anyway, the book is fantastic and I heartily recommend it: you’ll learn a lot about molecular neural science, but also about the fascinating life of an equally fascinating man.

Happily, I did more this weekend than just read an autobiography that made me feel all wistful and uninspired. I also learned how to change my inner tube when my tire (sorry Anglo folks: I refuse to spell tire, tyre. Icky) got its first ever puncture.

Thankfully, tire got said puncture just before we rocked up to this lovely little café in Hackney Wick, the Counter, so I was able to scoff a plateful of eggs florentine before getting my hands greasy.


Bikes fixed, we realised how close we were to the Olympic site and cycled over to check out the progress. I’m not sure why it’d taken me so long to have a nosey round (hello, cynicism!), but I’m glad I finally went to have a look, because it’s actually pretty rad.




Also pretty rad is the cinema that’s been erected on the petrol station where we had our feast back in July. Some seriously ambitious kids knocked up  stadium-style seating, a silver curtain and a cinema screen which will be up through the middle of September. I’m actually amazed they pulled it off, but pull it off they did and it’s great fun. I’m a total sucker for this sort of thing: no massive corporation pulling a marketing scheme, no money-making scamming, just good, old-fashioned DIY architecture at its best.


Thursday, 19 August 2010

I love you as I love the earth, white buildings, photographs, noons. I adore you.


no explanation necessary...

from the 18 odes to the bow collection by York Wu.





All images from WUYORK.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010



This piece first appeared in the Architectural Review

The eponymous Dreamland of the Pompidou’s recent exhibition refers to the Coney Island theme park, forerunner to the Venetian canals and Egyptian pyramids in modern-day Las Vegas, built in 1904, burnt down in 1911 and never rebuilt. This is a thoughtful exhibition on the nature of architectural dreamscapes within societies with ever-increasing amounts of leisure time. It covers a considerable sweep of history, from the turn of the twentieth century in New York to modern-day Dubai, and many well-known names appear: Archigram on the instant city, Scott Brown and Venturi on Las Vegas, Koolhas on New York.

But the exhibition turns truly provocative when lesser-known names materialise, particularly in the section themed around the concept of copy and paste. It’s nice to see a new generation of artists playing with Susan Sontag’s observation that tourists photograph unfamiliar places as a kind of unthinking defence mechanism, to cope with the unfamiliarity of being in a new place. Seung Woo Back’s photographs of familiar monuments transported to unfamiliar locations raise the important question of whether context matters, despite the fact that the images are not staged but taken at Aiins World theme park in South Korea. Is the Eiffel Tower still the Eiffel Tower if it isn’t in Paris? The answer seems obvious, but take perhaps a more culturally loaded monument, say, the Elgin Marbles, and the question becomes more difficult to answer. Woo Back, along with the vivid, staged images of Riedler Reiner, exploits the illusory nature of theme parks for maximum visual impact. Their images directly confront the idea of the theme park as a self-contained, miniature version of the entire world and make one uncomfortable with the premise of theme parks as a replacement for genuine architectural exploration.

Seung Woo Back, Real world I no.01

Seung Woo Back, from the Real World series

Riedler Reiner

Riedler Reiner

Most of the work in Dreamlands poses a direct challenge to the idea that architecture is a lasting achievement. Not that this is in any way belittling to its subject, for the exhibition celebrates the temporal and the transient in both man and his environment. For what is man if not temporal, unstable, changeable? Certainly, we respond to the monolithic and the conspicuously permanent in buildings – the art in the exhibition demonstrates that as well – but we must also be aware of this most human need for adaptation and change. This is taken to its most eloquent and literal conclusion within Yin Xiuzhen’s clever series of portable cities: a miniature, physical, plush toy representation of an entire city, in this case New York, stitched into a suitcase. Stéphane Couturier’s beautiful photographs of façades also consider the temporal nature of urban environments: how we simultaneously construct and destroy within the urban environment. Scaffolding is just scaffolding, but in this context it represents its own kind of dreamscape as a promise of the future.

Yin Xiuzhen, Portable Cities, New York
Stéphane Couturier, Barcelona, Avenidad Parallel #2
Stéphane Couturier, from the Melting Point series
Dreamlands responds to JG Ballard’s challenge of the endless leisure and frantic consumerism of western spaces and mirrors the central theme of Jem Cohen’s excellent 2004 film on shopping centres, Chain: no matter where you are in the world, the typology of these spaces adheres to the same function and the same aesthetic. These visions of falsified utopias, while depressing in their original purpose, make for fascinating viewing within the context of a museum space, itself a kind of ‘dreamland’. Shopping malls and theme parks both represent a loss of traditional spatial and geographical reference points: here we have the crux of globalisation.

While the instinctive reaction to all this is to suggest that architecture has some catching up to do, how does one create a localised utopia? Utopias and dreamlands by their very nature are generalised, universal ideals. Throughout this exhibition the imaginative responses, demonstrated by artists and architects alike, to these faceless, falsified utopias suggests that it isn’t so much the representation of the dreamland that needs re-evaluating as it is the very ideals of Western society.

Monday, 16 August 2010

something to think about


I sometimes wondered what the use of any of the arts was. The best thing I could come up with was what I call the canary in the coal mine theory of the arts. This theory says that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever.
Kurt Vonnegut in 'Physicist, Purge Thyself', Chicago Tribune Magazine (22 June 1969).

Thursday, 12 August 2010

fashion crush: rihanna/hard


Even though I'm mildly concerned that Rihanna's vision of military dressing would see our soldiers running around sans trousers, I am mildly obsessed with the styling in this video.

What girl doesn't dream of stomping through the desert, kitted out in Bryce d’Anice Aime and black grease paint, while perfectly-timed explosions create that oh-so dramatic atmosphere?  Screw your wind machines: this is proper rock and roll.  That black d’Anice Aime dress, with the shoulders spiked all to hell, puts Balmain to shame (though it does remind me a little bit of David Koma's a/w10 collection).


And the
Alexandre Vauthier jacket she wears at the beginning of the video? Oh my me love you long time. It's got that Jil Sander, beautifully sculpted quality, but would look rather tedious if worn by a NYC business lady, all Thatcher-esque.  It works because of the styling: garrison cap, shades, fishnets, boots, granny knickers, cyber purple lipstick. Sexy.


Not so keen on the mickey mouse ears helmet, but I love the bullet bra (where can I get one of those?!) and the pink tank. Who doesn't want a pink tank? Possibly not so good for camouflage, but excellent for a night out in Dalston...

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

i love and i hate

Like any good love affair, my feelings for London are often in flux. Or as Catullus so elegantly put it, odi et amo. Lately there’s been a little more odi than amo, which is non-sensical seeing as I’ve been engaging in some rather, well, engaging activities of late.

Though I’m rather ashamed to admit it, Friday saw me cross the river for my first ever night out in Brixton. It was a little bit of SGP all over again with the amazing Brassroots kicking up an absolute storm. I’ve never seen people dance like this in Dalston! Bit of an odyssey getting home though, so perhaps not going to make Brixton a regular night out, but nice to do something different nevertheless. Check out the boys doing their thang. Amazing.

We also stopped off at late at Tate Britain before getting down and dirty in Brixton and though we missed (major bummer) Paper Cinema, it was nice to catch Fiona Banner’s installation of two fighter jets in the Duveens gallery space.  There’s all this blah blah blah about the jets symbolising wild animals trapped within the confines of the gallery, the embodiment of their namesakes. God, I wish art PR people didn’t have to superficially embed everything with such overblown significance. How is anyone ever expected to be able to differentiate between acceptable art and great art or even objects and art if curators and PR people are always trying to instill the maximum amount of meaning in every single show? Annoying.  Anyway.  Despite the fact that this is another one of those curse of Duchamp exhibitions, Banner’s choices work.  It’s nice that they’re not in Tate Modern, where you’d expect them to be, and, as objects, they work well: on a purely functional level,  on an aesthetic level – for they are truly exquisite objets d’art – but also, on an emotional level, for there’s no denying the pull of such powerful, brutal machines.  This is a perfect example of an exhibition where the, 'yes, but is it art?', question simply doesn't do justice to what’s going on here. It’s not complicated, but great art doesn’t always have to be complicated to be effective.


photo credit: Fiona Banner at Tate Britain

Where was I. Oh yes, the festival. Since I came back from Secret Garden Party a few weeks ago things just haven’t been the same. Fantasy Land 3 – 0 Real World and all that. Thankfully some nice kids, likely suffering from similar ailments, organised a mini fest in London Fields last weekend. 


And a brilliant festival it was. Serious congratulations and felicitations to the organisers for creating such a wonderful environment to let go and play, if only for a single rainy Saturday (apologies for alliteration – don’t know what’s gotten into me).
  Though I missed Young Athletes League (grrrrr), I saw two bands I’d never seen before who were excellent: Black Cherry and YesKing.  Even though it was properly raining during YesKing’s set, we were out at the front of the stage dancing like absolute idiots.  There’s something wonderful about a festival with only three stages and so we spent the day skipping (literally) between the main stage, the little main stage and the dance tent.  Good people, good atmosphere, great music. So, so, so pleased they’re doing it again next year.

Last, but not least, a quick little plug for a wonderful London project: the Urban Orchard on Union Street in SE1.  The Urban Orchard kicked off construction during the London Festival of Architecture, but it’s really taken off as of late.  They’re doing late night openings and with a bar and a BBQ every Thursday and Friday until 16 September.  There’s also a cycle-powered film screening of Animal Farm this weekend and a harvest party to pick all the fruit and veg on 11 September.

Go South/East/West/North and prosper (you moody bastards).

Photobucketphoto credit: Mike Massaro

Thursday, 5 August 2010

this is not my idea of a good time


photo of Dalston Roof Garden by Clemens Hackl

This week has sucked a very sour lemon.  I’m a doer. I do things. I suck at being patient and when I want something, I go out and get it. When things don’t work, I keep at them until they do. I like to think that I can fix everything or make anything work (hence earlier musings on control/perception?), but sometimes there’s only so far you can go before that something or someone has to meet you halfway. It absolutely kills me to sit on my hands and do nothing: hence unhappy times.

Thankfully, London is ever so good at diverting one’s attention and there are two places I’ve been meaning to flag up for the benefit of other London-dwelling folk.

Our offices are in Mornington Crescent, a short stroll from Camden and nearly two years of working here has left me feeling more than a little bored with the local food scene.  When I heard through the foodie blogging network that the chin chin laboratorists, a nitro-ice cream parlour, was set to open in Camden, I could hardly contain my glee. It’s only been open for a few weeks, but I’ve already been about five times.  

The ice cream is made using liquid nitrogen, which means it’s made to order right in front of your eyes: you know it’s going to be good.  For me, though, the best thing is the attitude to flavours and ingredients – the nitro bit is secondary.  I’ve had brown bread and stem ginger, Monmouth coffee, vanilla, and – my absolute favourite – earl grey and victoria sponge cake and they’ve all been delicious.  The home-made sauces and toppings, including parma violet marshmallows, cardamom and pistachio sugar, salty camel sauce, and popping candy are all very appealing, but usually I’m too excited about the lush ice cream to go crazy adding toppings. So whether you’re a Camden local or not, if you have even the slightest interest in ice cream (as any concerned citizen ought to), get your ass down to Camden Lock for a bit of something special.


If you want to know what the flavour of the week is before you trek all the way to Camden, keep an eye on their twitter feed: http://twitter.com/chinchinlabs

The other quite special place I’ve frequented of late is the Bootstrap Company’s Dalston Roof Park.  The garden’s been all over the web, but I didn’t know of anyone who had actually been there so I went down for their weekly film night yester eve to check it out for myself.  On the roof of the Print House, just off Dalston Lane, the space is brilliant, the views are spectacular and garden is wonderful.  Even despite the rain, I wish I would have rocked up a bit earlier to have time for a proper look around. As it was, I arrived as the film was about to start and had just enough time for a good chat with my amiga before the film began.  They’re running weekly film nights and other events throughout the rest of the summer so check out the site or the facebook page to keep up with happenings. I reckon I’ll be spending the rest of the summer here so say hi if you spot me.


Tuesday, 3 August 2010

making order out of chaos


I woke up at 4:04 this morning, rolled over and tapped the following message out in an email to myself:
Making order out of chaos or chaos out of order. Why do humans attempt to systematise everything? We like to feel in control, but how much control do we really have?

I've a long-standing love affair with the idea of perception as reality (was sort of my unofficial motto for a while) and the fine, fuzzy line between philosophy and neuroscience. Yesterday, I skimmed an article about whether you can know something without believing in it. The study gave as a rather lacklustre example a student who believed they knew nothing about history, but when asked about dates of important events could rattle off a surprising amount: hence the student knew facts about history without 'believing' in them.

I suppose this translates into ideas of perception and control in that humans tend to feel happier and more satisfied if their self-perception leads them to believe they have a sense of control over their own lives. A well-known example of this comes from Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin's 1976 study whereby nursing home residents were given plants, but only some were given the opportunity to water and look after them.  The residents who were in control of caring for their plants lived longer than those who had no control over the care of their plants. The psychological sense of control was enough to result in an apparent effect on the physical health of the residents.

It's quite remarkable that a sense of control is enough to make us healthier and happier, even if this sense is simply a perceptory illusion. We seek order and control as intuitively and naturally as a falling cat seeks to manoeuvre itself to land on all four feet. We're more likely to seek out or to create a pattern as a means of preserving this feeling of control, even if those patterns are illusory.

From a neurological point of view, it seems better to maintain this illusion of control as it contributes to a happier, healthier individual, but philosophically I find the whole premise uncomfortable. It's sort of analogous to the idea that ignorance is bliss, I suppose. How helpful (from a philosophical standpoint, anyway) is a perception of control if it's only a conceit? I don't know. I'm still working it out. Or at least, evidenced by my 4am sleepy emails to self, my subconscious is...

Monday, 2 August 2010

the filling station


Been wanting to flag this up for a while. Can't believe it was a month ago! Tempus fugit and all that...

Along with my amiga, Nicola Read of 815 Agency, we put on a smashing party (if I do say so myself) to close out this year's London Festival of Architecture.  I'd had my eye on the vacant petrol station for well over a year - I live around the corner and pass by nearly once a day - and it took the better part of a few months of solidly pestering the developers before they agreed to let us use the site.

Once we had the site, we had to figure what to do with it.  After doing some research into the history of Clerkenwell, we settled on the idea of a large feast with food sourced from local restaurants.  After that, it was just a matter of getting everyone on board - thankfully Clerkenwell's restaurants are awesome and everyone was happy to chip in. A huge, huge thanks to Caravan, The Modern Pantry, St John, Hix Oyster and Chop House, Bea's of Bloomsbury, The Ginger Pig, Bompas and Parr, and Chapel Down Wines for their generosity and assistance with the event. Also, an enormous thank you to all of our friends who chipped in (or were dragged, rather) and helped out. Seriously, we couldn't have done it without you.

I'm really pleased with how the whole event turned out, but especially with the table we built - a 10-metre long monster, constructed from 300+ polystyrene boxes (generously sponsored by the British Plastics Federation) - 'twas a thing of beauty.

Though I didn't see it for myself, as I was running around like a frazzled bride on her wedding day, a friend later told me that people were stopping their cars on Clerkenwell Road to take pictures.  I don't know about you, but for me, that constitutes a result indeed.

We're already plotting our next event, to be bigger and better, of course.  It's all going to kick off in January 2011. Stay tuned, kids.

Full set of images here.









bad day

today was a:

things that cheer me up when my world doesn't fit into a 3 x 5:

1. a beautiful poem by a poet i don't typically jive with, e.g. lullaby by auden.

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find our mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

2. tunes by darwin deez (see above).

3. hilarious kids rocking out to tunes by darwin deez.

4. this blog.

5. my wonderful, ridiculous friends.


6. the knowledge that, come 30 September, I'll be one step closer to freedom...