This weekend saw the public opening of The Utopian Impulse: Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area at SFMOMA, the city's modern and contemporary art museum. I thought I should pop in and have a look.
SFMOMA is (still) the only museum here I'm a member of. It's downtown, it has a heavy focus on photography (one of my favourite visual forms), and shows some interesting contemporary art. It also features a couple of rooms that tend to be dedicated to design, and it's these that host The Utopian Impulse.
The entrance and first room are dedicated to Buckminster Fuller's work, with a large Dymaxion map - his design for a world map that's based on an unfolded icosahedron (or cubeoctahedron, although those aren't represented here) to minimise the distortions inherent in displaying a sphere on a flat surface - along with Inventions: Twelve Around One, a series of prints by Chuck Byrne that fuse diagrams and sketches with photographs of Fuller and his inventions. There's also a shelf of the designer's¹ books, along with a display table featuring such lesser-known images as one of his Tetrahedral City proposal, a vast polyhedra situated in the San Francisco Bay.
There's not much new here, though, if you're already aware of Fuller's work. The much larger second room is, by contrast, dedicated to the Bay Area artists, designers, architects, and inventors who've been inspired by it. Here you'll find video, models, artworks, and products from the Ant Farm's proposals for a Convention City, Whole Earth Catalogs, the North Face Oval Intention tent, Nicholas de Monchaux's Local Code, the One Laptop Per Child project, and various models and designs for buildings both built and unbuilt.
It's definitely interesting (and slightly overwhelming) to see how this region has developed his ideas, even if some of the connections seem a little tenuous and could do with further explanation. The final (small) corridor, showing interviews and images from the Dymaxion Chronofile projected onto a custom-designed flattened icosahedral screen, helps somewhat to make the links more explicit; one segment I saw featured Stewart Brand and his "why haven't we seen a picture of the whole earth" campaign, for example. It's also, frankly, a rather amazing piece of AV sculpture.
Would I recommend the exhibition? If you're already in San Francisco or plan to be, and especially if you have a friend who can get you into the museum, then yes, it's well worth a look. However, it's small enough that I really can't suggest anyone travel here. It also makes much more of the Bay Area links than it does provide an overview of Buckminster Fuller's work. Comparing it to the photos and description of the Whitney's show in 2008, it's really just an amuse bouche. It's also a shame, because for all that this work is worth looking at, it doesn't fascinate the same way Fuller's designs themselves do.
¹ One of the problems with Buckminster Fuller is finding a word to describe him. The Whitney uses "visionary", which is probably right, but for some reason I can't quite bring myself to write that. "Designer" is perhaps not enough either, but I'm more comfortable with it.↩
Yesterday evening candace and I made the effort to get out to Hampstead Heath. We've been trying to spot Venus (low in the northwest just after sunset; so low, in fact, that London's horizons are perpetually in the way) for a week or two now, but Parliament Hill seemed likely to provide the best viewing spot. I also wanted to see giant chair sculpture that was officially unveiled that evening.
After the usual entertaining ride on the North London Line (junkies? check! graffiti? check!) and the walk up the hill, candace did some running while I scanned the London skyline looking for the church near work (found it, too), before we both sat down and watched the sun finally slip below the trees and waited for the sky to darken. Our waiting was enlivened by some suicidal nutters who were cycling / skateboarding / both down the hill; one of them actually climbed the sculpture, too (doubly disproving Michael Rosen's theory that you can't see the top: not only can you climb the desk, but it's next to a bloody great hill which overlooks it).
Finally Venus showed up, and I think I also saw Mercury briefly just before it set. As the light continued to ebb away, I got acquainted with the Summer Triangle, and waited for the moon to rise. About 10:30, I noticed a ruddy glow behind St Pauls, nearly directly to the south, and so did the scores of other people atop the hill. Even the strumming guitarist stopped and looked, for it was... magnificent.
Through an atmosphere of smog, the moon rose behind the city skyline, distorted and partially hidden behind bands of cloud. At least three photographers there had tripods; others used cameras with the flash on, lighting up the trees near us but not the scene they were trying to capture. candace tried to reprise my trick of using the binoculars to magnify the scene, but the darkness meant her photos "on Flickr" have an inescapable fuzzy quality.
Reluctantly we came back down the hill at 11 or so, aware that being stranded two buses from home towards midnight wouldn't leave us all that fit for work. Come the morning, I was surprised to see that the full moon had made BBC News. Mind you, their photo doesn't do the spectacle justice. I'm very pleased to have been lucky enough to see it.
As well as being a tube station (on the Victoria line), Highbury and Islington is served by the Silverlink North London Line, which is an overground overground line, and the WAGN Great Northern Electrics line, which is an underground overground line.
Until recently, the WAGN line had no next train indicators on their platforms, or indeed at any of the stations on the Moorgate to Finsbury Park branch. There's one at H&I now, but there's also a major problem. The indicator board is about 60% of the way towards the back of the platform from the exit. It's also behind a much bigger sign pointing at the southbound Victoria line platform, which is right next door- in fact, you can usually see the tube trains from the overground trains.
This means it's impossible to read the train running information until you get past the static sign, which is further than I tend to walk. Who thought that one up? (Still, Old Street still don't have working indicators at all. I suppose I should be thankful.)
Idly wandering through the vast Waterstones on Piccadilly, I saw that the BBC are now doing MP3 CDs of some of their dramas, notably the complete Hitchhiker's Guide radio series and the His Dark Materials from earlier this year.
Oddly, however, these appear to be only available at Waterstones (in the case of His Dark Materials and some of the other new stuff) and online at the BBC Shop.
Personally, I've never really got the hang of audio books; I listen to things if they're on Radio 4 and I'm about, or I miss them. I wouldn't mind the complete HHGTTG, though, and this is a handy way for them to distribute it, so I hope it works well.
About a week ago, ther was a story in the Media Guardian about the Independent launching a tabloid edition. This was confirmed late last week, and it went on sale on Tuesday, I bought one.
In the UK, getting beer is simple. You enter a pub, and go up to the bar, and ask someone to give you a beer. You give them some money, and they give you some change. In larger groups, you either use the rounds system (I bought you one, you'll get me one eventually) or the kitty (everyone chucks in a tenner or so, and drinks flow freely) to make things a little easier.
The building that had the longest queue was City Hall, the new GLA headquarters. It's visually quite distinctive, sitting on the south bank of the Thames just west of Tower Bridge, and looking like a bunch of slipping discs. This was the first time the top of the building, somewhat pretensiously called "London's Living Room", had been open.
Although it's not that tall (at 49m, it's roughly a quarter of the height of the tallest towers just over the river in the City, which you can see very clearly indeed) the views are pretty good, because it's right on the edge of development; there's not much else south or east of it. However, the part of the design that's got all the attention from the architecture critics is the ramp that goes all the way down from this top- eighth- floor to the debating chamber on the second floor.
The ramp is fairly free form and looping; photos really don't do it justice, as every step presents a new view through the levels and you have to grasp the distances right. Still, it leads you right down and around the debating chamber. This is the crux I've been leading you to, through this scene-setting narrative.
Unlike the Houses of Parliament, which I visited last December, there is a real feeling of access to the GLA debating chamber. When I visited City Hall earlier in the year, you could wander in off the street, look at the huge map/model of the city downstairs, then wander up another ramp around the outside of the first floor and end up looking into the debating chamber. I assume (although I haven't been there during normal hours) that you can then go and sit and watch the proceedings. All this without a check of your bags, an interrogating glance or a feeling that you're in some other world.
Meanwhile, in Parliament, you're asked to wait until a space in the (ludicrously small) Stranger's Gallery becomes empty. You pass through a number of security checks before your bag, camera, pen, paper, mobile phone, and in fact anything that could possibly be seen as distracting are stored in a locker. You take in the order paper- the day's business- and watch tiny people who are better seen on the monitors showing the same material that you can watch on BBC Parliament.
I know there's some call for security, and that causes an inevitable difference between Parliament and the GLA. However, which would you prefer: a chamber which ends up feeling horribly patrician, elitist and unwelcoming, or one that screams with its very setting that it's democratic, transparent and accessible?
I have a fascination with Docklands. A lot of people don't seem to like the place, and to be fair it's not really like the rest of London. It aspires to be, and often seems, a tiny splinter of Manhattan implanted at the centre of the Isle of Dogs, as if by growing from the centre it can spread the influence of glass and steel over the entire peninsula.
That sense of growth and infection has really sped up in the last five years. In '97 One Canada Square was still a lone phallic symbol embedded in a bunch of tedious low rise buildings huddling behind the wharves for protection. Now, though, with the HSBC and Citibank towers acting as supportive friends to the central tower, and a bunch of other towers almost as high spreading south into a drained wharf to form the new Bank Street, the idea of Docklands again seems like a bright new future rather than a broken Thatcherite past.
Of course, this is one of the reasons I feel odd about the entire development; it represents, to me, a political mindset of greed and acquisition. However, the sheer aesthetic quality of the place appeals to me more than my political misgivings repel me. Some of the other misgivings people have about the place don't really appeal to me. Yes, it is on a rather inhuman scale, and it doesn't have many nice places to eat and drink, being dominated by yuppie bars. I'm not there to have a good time, though; at least, not in the sense of eating and drinking. I'm there to admire the buildings (and, of course, the process of building itself).
The reason I'm mentioning all of this now is because Docklands is a place I often visit when a bit stressed, and I went down there a week or two ago. It was a fairly brief visit, but I knew I needed to go back with a camera. On Monday I did that, and took photographs of what will be 1 West India Quay, a rather tall apartment block; the new Bank Street development, which seems to have come on rather quickly in the last ten months; the newly opened garden on top of the massive Canary Wharf Jubilee Line station, and then down the DLR to Westferry, where a new residential development is going up next to a row of old terraced houses.
The great thing about the pace of the development is that it gives me the perfect excuse to visit again in a few months. Hell, even if they weren't building, I'd go down there just to lie on the fake plastic grass of Canada Square and look up at the piece of sky encircled by the three towers. There's nowhere else like it in London.
They finally reopened the Millennium Bridge on Friday; surprisingly, this seemed to make the news all over the world. I'd hoped to go down there this weekend, but in the end we did a big roast lunch thing round our house on Sunday, and the shopping beforehand took care of Saturday too.
On the other hand, work's not too far from the bridge, so I went down there yesterday evening. For most of the 18 or so months it was closed, the bridge was completely dark at night; now, it's lit up again, and wandering under it (the Thames was low- but handy hint, kids, soggy mud in the dark can be dangerous, do take care) and then crossing from the Tate to St Pauls was lovely. It was quite quiet, but then the bridge is surprisingly wide. I really wish I'd brought my camera; I'll have to start carrying it with me again.
It's great that it's open.