Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Tuesday 20 September 2011


Or, things that happen by chance. One sunny day last week invited a bike ride, so off I set to the Victoria and Albert Museum (of which more later), through the parks wherever possible - a route that I had quite forgotten goes past the Serpentine Gallery and its pavilion, which had still been building last time I was that way.

A forbidding and closed-looking exterior takes you into a dark and even more depressing corridor, from which there is access to a cloistered garden that might have been there for a thousand, or even two thousand, years (such is its mediaeval, or even Roman, feel), instead of barely few months. This is "Hortus conclusus" by Peter Zumthor. Nothing remarkable about the plants or layout, perhaps, but all the more peaceful a sanctuary for the dramatic contrast of the fact of its enclosure - and of the fact that, like all the previous pavilions, it's purely temporary:

Back to modernity and industry for the visit to the V&A, which was prompted by a news piece about a competition to find a new standard design of electricity pylon. The shortlisted proposals were rather tucked away on a landing upstairs. You might, by the way, think that anything would be better than the great Stalinist robots that currently march across the countryside, but the glumness of the people watching a computer simulation of those that didn't make the shortlist tells you they could be much, much worse. No doubt there are all sorts of technical and cost considerations that outweigh the aesthetic, but I thought the "Y pylon" was a clear winner, for sheer simplicity. You can make your own mind up.

Serendipity might as well be the V&A's alternative title. It was the place to come for surprises on a wet day in the school holidays: you might think you wanted to look at one thing, but it's so easy to take a wrong turning and find yourself moving from stained glass to metalwork to Buddhist sculpture to musical instruments. This time, the pylon competition turned out to be a minor part of the Museum's contribution to London Design Week. On the ground floor is "Power of Making", all about new developments in craft and skill as new technologies and markets develop. Here there were bicycles in mahogany, or nylon, or covered in Swarovski crystals, a surfboard based a cardboard frame, a Polish lace manufacturer's sideline (to its usual Church vestments) in skimpy undies (presumably for a different market), various sorts of wacky furniture and a thought-provoking demonstration of 3D printers. These can create any computer-based design in plastic: as they get cheaper and more sophisticated, how soon will it be before you can have customised designs of whatever you can imagine run up in a local high street printshop?.

After all that, what better than a relaxing new way to contemplate the Raphael Cartoons, courtesy of this installation for Design Week:

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