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Thomas Heatherwick’s proposed Thames bridge.
The hanging gardens of new Babylon … Thomas Heatherwick’s proposed Thames bridge. Photograph: Arup

The river Thames has long inspired a kind of architectural madness, the looping grey serpent driving many to attempt to leap its great breadth in ever more elaborate ways. As a student, John Soane proposed a triumphal bridge, a classical palace on piers that would have spanned the river with a domed temple, flanked by an avenue of corinthian colonnades. It won him the Royal Academy gold medal in 1776, but the plans have remained in a drawer ever since.

In the 1960s, a radical group by the name of the Glass Age Development Committee dreamed up a multi-storey pleasure bridge for Vauxhall. This would have straddled the Thames with a vertical stack of roadways, shops, skating rinks and a hotel, all topped with a roof garden and open-air theatre, but it proved one megastructure too far.

Not to be deterred, the Royal Academy organised a competition for a “living bridge” in 1996, won by the French architect Antoine Grumbach with a lavish suspended garden, lined with hedges, trees and an exotic “topiary cafe”. It was to hang from two vast apartment towers that would have paid for the project – but these generated fierce opposition that revealed the scheme as nothing more than green garnish for a lucrative private development.

Now there is another garden bridge plan. Bursting out of the river in the form of two conjoined mushrooms, it would create a floating forest between Temple and the South Bank, held aloft on a shimmering copper canopy. It is scarcely less improbable than the heroic failures that have gone before – and yet it seems very likely to happen. It has garnered not only the support of London’s mayor-cum-novelty-infrastructure-tsar, Boris Johnson, who has pledged £30m from his transport budget, but also the backing of central government, in the form of a further £30m from the Treasury. A detailed planning application has now been submitted, with the aim of having it built by 2018.

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Oliver Wainwright
The Guardian

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Andre Le Notre pumped in water from the Seine River to create the Grand Canal at Chateau of Versailles. (Photo: Boris Horvat/AFP/Getty Images)

France’s Chateau of Versailles has pulled out all the stops for one of its favorite sons, gardener Andre Le Notre, who designed the palace’s famous gardens. This year, to mark the 400th anniversary of Le Notre’s birth, several of the garden’s fountains are being restored and the chateau is hosting an exhibit on his life through February 2014.

Experts say Le Notre’s work was so groundbreaking, it continues to influence contemporary urban architecture.

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Eleanor Beardsley
NPR


One of Heatherwick’s ‘sculptural thingummies for public plazas’: Vents (2000) in Paternoster Square, near St Paul’s Cathedral, London. Photograph: David Balhuizen

How can one question the nation’s most engaging designer without seeming a curmudgeon? How can one express any doubt whatsoever about someone beloved by Boris Johnson, David Cameron and Sir Terence Conran, the last of whom has called him “a Leonardo da Vinci of our times”?

How can one criticise work as adorable as Thomas Heatherwick’s without seeming, metaphorically speaking, to punch a puppy in the face? And why would you want to?

I ask these questions because there is no doubting Heatherwick’s talent and appeal, yet he prompts a nagging sense that somehow, somewhere, something is lacking.

People smile when they get into his Spun chairs, objects like spinning tops that make you feel as if they’re about to tip you out, but never do. At the Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum an assistant cranks a handle that makes a model of a bridge curl up and uncurl, and the assembled press burst into applause. He has an ability to do unusual things with materials and objects, such as make buildings that look hairy, and long benches formed of aluminium that has been squeezed out of a machine like toothpaste out of a tube.

Always opposed to the boundaries between design, architecture and art, he now applies his skills to very large projects – a park in Abu Dhabi, a biomass power station in Teesside, a colossal hotel in Doha, a shopping mall in Hong Kong – as well as to tables, bowls, Christmas cards and sculptural thingummies in public plazas. One of his most notable recent designs is the new version of the London routemaster double-decker bus.

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Rowan Moore
Guardian


Steve Jobs … the Apple CEO shows an image of the new storage centre for iCloud at the Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, June 2011. Photograph: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo

Perhaps the funniest passage in Walter Isaacson’s monumental book about Steve Jobs comes three quarters of the way through. It is 2009 and Jobs is recovering from a liver transplant and pneumonia. At one point the pulmonologist tries to put a mask over his face when he is deeply sedated. Jobs rips it off and mumbles that he hates the design and refuses to wear it. Though barely able to speak, he orders them to bring five different options for the mask so that he can pick a design he likes. Even in the depths of his hallucinations, Jobs was a control-freak and a rude sod to boot. Imagine what he was like in the pink of health. As it happens, you don’t need to: every discoverable fact about how Jobs, ahem, coaxed excellence from his co-workers is here.

As Isaacson makes clear, Jobs wasn’t a visionary or even a particularly talented electronic engineer. But he was a businessman of astonishing flair and focus, a marketing genius, and – when he was getting it right, which wasn’t always – had an intuitive sense of what the customer would want before the customer had any idea. He was obsessed with the products, rather than with the money: happily, as he discovered, if you get the products right, the money will come.

Isaacson’s book is studded with moments that make you go “wow”. There’s the Apple flotation, which made the 25-year-old Jobs $256m in the days when that was a lot of money. There’s his turnaround of the company after he returned as CEO in 1997: in the previous fiscal year the company lost $1.04bn, but he returned it to profit in his first quarter. There’s the launch of the iTunes store: expected to sell a million songs in six months, it sold a million songs in six days.

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Sam Leith
Guardian


BANG BUA CANAL: A renovated public walkway, top, along the canal in Bangkok, where residents are helping to design cleaner places to live. (Photo: ACHR)

I joined the line to get into the United Nations the other day, fiddling with my iPhone before shuffling through security. The couple in back (he was toting an iPad) mused about what a design guru Steve Jobs had been. They headed toward the information desk and I toward “Design With the Other 90 Percent: Cities,” an infelicitously titled but inspired show organized by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and now installed (since the museum is closed for renovations) in the United Nations visitors’ lobby.

Design shows may conjure up fizzy displays of Van Cleef & Arpels or stylish tributes to Helvetica and classic automobiles. Design implies for most people the beautiful things an affluent society makes for itself.

This show is not about that kind of design. The objects here tend to look rugged and sometimes embarrassingly simple, as in “Why hadn’t anyone come up with that idea before?” Their beauty lies elsewhere: in providing economical, smart solutions to address the problems of millions of the world’s poorest people.

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Michael Kimmelman
New York Times


Down the pan … in Mumbai, where 60% of the population live in slums, there is one toilet seat per 600 people

A series of familiar images unfolds on the screen: a wall of glass towers, a Brazilian favela, the Shibuya pedestrian crossing in Tokyo. Visual shorthand for a crowded planet, they are accompanied by an equally familiar sequence of statistics: half of humanity – or 3.5 billion people – now live in cities, and urbanisation is so rampant that by 2050 this figure is projected to be 75%. So begins Urbanized, a new film about the challenge that cities pose in the 21st century, which had its London debut this weekend, playing to a packed house at the London School of Economics. It is directed by Gary Hustwit, who made the cult hit Helvetica in 2007 (an unlikely film about a Swiss typeface) before taking on the much broader topic of industrial design in 2009’s Objectified. With Urbanized, he zooms out even further to complete his trilogy, a cinematic story about design moving from the micro to the macro.

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Justin McGuirk
Guardian


Giles Miller photographed in his East London studio. Photograph: Richard Saker

Cardboard boxes contain many intrinsic ecological plus points. Made from cellulose fibres, cardboard can be easily recycled. At the end of its useful life it can even be composted. But because cardboard is lightweight and seemingly plentiful it’s often tossed on the rubbish heap prematurely; its ubiquity has made it seem worthless. Designer Giles Miller thinks we’re missing a trick.

“It’s a brilliant material,” he says, and admits to “falling in love” with cardboard when the strap broke on a laptop shoulder bag he was carrying and the computer was damaged. “I began experimenting with making a laptop bag in cardboard, and after alternating the direction of the corrugation I constructed something that could take the force of the blow.”

His efforts to elevate cardboard as a material for design were given a boost when he made the infrastructure for Stella McCartney’s pop-up shop at Galeries Lafayette in Paris last year. “We have a responsibility as designers to acknowledge the impact and the lifespan of the products we put out there,” says Miller. ‘”Why not use a material we know can be recycled easily and why not also address why something that has such structural integrity and potential is always thought of as having a short lifespan?”

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Lucy Siegle
Guardian


Dublin’s new Beckett Bridge, designed by Santiago Calatrava. Photograph: PA

Can there ever have been a more appropriate memorial to a writer than the new Samuel Beckett bridge that opened in Dublin on 10 December? The several thousand tons of steel deck and pylon were fabricated in a factory in Rotterdam, then carried across the sea by a barge labouring in the churning swell. A stately bridge carried over the turbulent water by a boat? Here’s a conceit so surreal it makes Waiting for Godot read like a cereal packet.

The designer was Santiago Calatrava, the Valencian architect who has made expressionist bridges and weirdly torqued structures a trademark. Never mind that Beckett made a virtue of muted understatement. The writer once said “Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness”. Calatrava does not think that way. He’s in the landmark business.

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Stephen Bayley
Guardian


Josef Albers, Skyscrapers on Transparent Yellow (© 2009 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society)

The Bauhaus lasted exactly as long as Germany’s Weimar Republic (1919–1933) and is its principal cultural achievement. But the revolutionary school of art and design is also an achievement of modernism itself, for it answered a most vexing question: Was it possible to make a viable institution out of a movement that had arisen out of conflict with institutional authority, and which drew its focus, vitality, and sense of purpose from that conflict? Merely to demolish one bastion of academic authority, such as the imperious École des Beaux Arts, and to replace it with another would hardly have been worth the struggle.

One forgets that modernism before the Bauhaus was a volatile, many-sided, centrifugal affair and that there was little reason to believe that its various factions and groupings—whether Cubist, Futurist, or Constructivist—could ever make common cause. At times, their insistence on stylistic orthodoxy could rival that of the École (one thinks of El Lissitzky and Malevich purging Chagall from the Vitebsk School of Art). Yet the Bauhaus, by enforcing no aesthetic conformity and by promulgating no official style, proved to all that a modernist institution need not repeat the failings of its academic predecessors. Such an omnivorous and receptive stance was perhaps only possible in Germany, which, historically, had been accustomed to draw on the lessons of France, Italy, and elsewhere and to mix the results freely.

Whatever the reasons, the Bauhaus demonstrated that modernism could function as a collective enterprise in an institutional setting, and still give the student the widest scope for individual expression. It is this extraordinary achievement that has created the mythic Bauhaus of the imagination, a shrine where artists toiled away in happy accord, savoring the idyllic fellowship of the guild—much as the eighteenth century had imagined Periclean Athens, or the nineteenth the great cathedral-building lodges of the Middles Ages.

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Michael J. Lewis
New Criterion

The late urban planning legend Jane Jacobs was skeptical of Los Angeles because it violated one of her central tenets: that a city be made of vibrant neighborhoods linked by public transportation. Our lovely sprawl is stocked with colorful neighborhoods, such as the glamorous Strip and bustling Koreatown, but public transportation is another story. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the Subway to the Sea.

That is, until more innovative solutions are found for making it happen. Which is the point of the L.A. 2.0 conference this weekend. Urban planners Amber Hawkes and Georgia Sheridan kept noticing the theme of transportation woes while combing through more than 150 applications to their inaugural conference. A collaboration between the global citizen’s initiative known simply as GOOD, the Public Studio and Sheridan/Hawkes, the afternoon think tank on Saturday will call for urban practitioners to outline strategies to improve the physical environment of L.A.

It’s one way to shake up the sometimes-stilted dialogue between the parties with a stake in L.A.’s future. “There’s an idea that planners are stuffy bureaucrats,” Sheridan said, “and that designers have all these ideas but don’t know how to implement them.”

“The idea,” Hawkes added, “is to bring everyone together from a variety of disciplines for an open brainstorm that ends with some concrete plans . . . the future is not silo thinking but collaborative in nature. ”

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Margaret Wappler
Los Angeles Times