November 22, 2012

Chalet in the Air

A cell phone is stolen and a wallet the following weekend.  Bad juju. What more can be lost (besides faith in humankind).  The dispirited former owner wants to know. "They're just things," the buck-up voice says reassuringly.  And they are, with the very drastic distinction that they are yours.

In other settings, a voracity for more is just as criminal, but for those who live in a world of design, the collecting and procuring of objects is a pure pursuit, and losing them feels unavoidably personal.  

An interior is not just a refuge; it is the place to be unlike everyone else.  Not a place to manically shop for and fill up, but a fascinating accumulation of artifacts that represents our cultivated, ornamental DNA.

Whether the accessories are pedigreed or found, the furnishings new from the trade or bruised, familiar and comfortable, the houses we can't resist looking at are always the ones that feel like their owners, bearing the specific imprint of those individuals, like or unlike ourselves.  Acquiring things with no meaning seems to be a cruel abandonment of taste (and a terrible misuse of square footage).

I remember the first time I saw chalet “Gryffindor” I was instantly smitten.  The house had been built for an artist. But that was a very, very long time ago and by 2011 the place was in need of restoration. 


November 13, 2012

Greetings from?

© Milos Zivkovic

“All Generic Cities issue from the tabula rasa; if there was nothing, now they are there; if there was something, they have replaced it. They must, otherwise they would be historic” ~Koolhaas

People are rooted in time, whether they accept it or not. Who is the Generic City home to, then? To whom does the Generic City belong? Who belongs to the Generic City? A city without identity is also inherently without people – people bring with them history and culture, and though the Generic City may contain that of the present, it contains only that of the present. Obviously the Generic City is an idealistic argument and would certainly alleviate a variety of unsavory urban conditions – but in reality, it is unrelatable, distant, and belongs to no one. No resident of any city identifies completely with his airport – and doesn’t expect to. But in terms of an entire city, any identity is better than none.

It has been a little over a decade since Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas unleashed his concept of “the generic city,” a sprawling metropolis of repetitive buildings centered on an airport and inhabited by a tribe of global nomads with few local loyalties. His argument was that in its profound sameness, the generic city was a more accurate reflection of contemporary urban reality than nostalgic visions of New York or Paris.

Perhaps Dubai was the inevitable place for the realization of Koolhaas’ ideas. It is the capital of an economic and political New World Order. A city-state without income taxes, labor laws, or elections, it is ruled by a corporate oligarchy of hereditary rulers, accountable only to themselves and their investors.

Built up rapidly over the past few years on the wealth gotten from the world’s need for oil—and more recently as an unregulated sanctuary for cash—it has no depth of history or indigenous culture, no complexity, no conflicts, no questions about itself, no doubts, in short, nothing to stand in the way of its being shaped into the ultimate Utopia.

Quite a model for our global future. 

November 4, 2012

Way Out

Aesthetes in mass turned out for what turned out to be a swell party when Queen Elizabeth II — with 1,000 guests (hope you were among them), the Royal Philharmonic, and masses of champagne — declared the magnificently restored St. Pancras train station open.  London had gained something as significant as New York’s Grand Central Station because the terminus has given the city a great new public space that is much more than a station. It is a destination!

The station is a triumph as an engineering feat and as a meticulous restoration of a Grade I Listed Building, which puts it in the same category as Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

I visited with an architect friend, a railway man through and through.  This quiet man has an instinctive grasp of 19th-century railway architecture and has a miraculous gift of understanding how to adapt, and enhance it for the 21st century.

It is hard to imagine that back in the 1960s, the Midland Hotel of George Gilbert Scott (1811-78) and the amazing single-span iron-and-glass train shed of William Barlow (1812-1902) and Rowland Ordish was under threat.

A few years earlier, the grand Euston Station and Arch had been cynically sacrificed on the altar of railway modernization at the whim of the then prime minister, Harold Macmillan. It was only the efforts of John Betjeman and Nikolaus Pevsner and a great public campaign that saved St. Pancras and secured for it the Grade I listing that have protected it to this day.

Listing alone was not enough. The station went into the doldrums for years and the Hogwarts-style Gothic hotel remained closed. It was the decision to bring a high-speed link to St. Pancras that changed everything.

The key has been to bring together all the new uses for the whole site and to give them an architectural character that is of an appropriate quality to rejuvenate the buildings. This is not a facelift. It is a three-dimensional architectural exercise that established the quality of the total environment.

There had to be new concrete platforms for Eurostar beneath the great roof; a complete new station extension for the regional Midland Main Line; a new Thameslink station; a Marriott Renaissance hotel in the Gilbert Scott Gothic fantasy, with new rooms to harmonize alongside designed by architects RHWL and Richard Griffiths; new shops and flats developed by the Manhattan Loft Corp. in the upper floors of the original hotel.

The greatest architectural triumph is Alastair Lansley’s brilliant stroke to create theatrical openings from the undercroft, so that you will glide on escalators that take you up to the platforms under the soaring sky-blue iron-and-glass roof.

In the undercroft — the space beneath the platforms — you will now wander between the processions of Victorian cast-iron columns dealing with tickets, luggage and security as an elegant prelude to the splendor of the station itself.  The finishes are superb: wooden floors with slate surrounds newly made Gothic doors and everywhere the glow of original brickwork, Minton tiles and granite and carved-stone decoration.

The station clock is back and beneath it a giant sculpture by Paul Day of an embracing couple, sentimental perhaps but poignant too. Is he going off to war, was it a brief encounter, will they meet again? 

It overlooks the longest champagne bar in Europe, where you can drink and watch the arrivals and departures.  

St. Pancras revives the romance of rail. 
Why fly?