I was a Juror at SCI-Arc’s Graduate Thesis Weekend

There seems to be something about the name SCI-Arc that invites wordplays. Maybe it implies reaching out into the blue like a ‘sky-arc’, or a vessel for minds that is floating into the unknown like a ‘psy-ark’. And is it just coincidence that ‘sci’ is usually followed by ‘-fi’, and all its voyages of imagination? The name actually stands for Southern California Institute of Architecture, but there’s some truth in all of those flights of fancy — when it was founded as a non-profit school in 1972 with a faculty that including Thom Mayne (who’d win the 2005 Pritzker Prize), it was with a radical pedagogy, a ‘college without walls’ to nurture free thinking and challenge the system. Since then, alumni include another Pritzker-winner, Shigeru Ban, and its undergraduate and graduate programmes are still ranking top five in DesignIntelligence’s 2017 surveys. But does it still have that radical edge of its past? Every September, SCI-Arc stage a Graduate Thesis Weekend, and this year, I was a juror. That gave me achance to see for myself.

SCI-ArcSince 2001, SCI-Arc has occupied an extraordinary building just a block from the Los Angeles River in an industrial area now regenerated as the Art District. Its converted 1907 rail warehouse premises was one of California’s pioneering reinforced structures, designed by Harrison Albright. It stretches almost 400m along Santa Fe Avenue, a linear box on a vast scale enclosing industrial volume well-lit by a long stretch of clerestory windows, and it proclaims its name boldly in steel letters mounted on the roof, just like a lot of pre-war American downtown buildings did. The Graduate Thesis Weekend jurors consisted of faculty and invited distinguished academics, architects, and wild cards. I was one of the wild cards, a journalist who had not studied architecture but writes about it, and initially, that made me almost as nervous as some of the youngsters presenting their projects. Anyone offering live ‘crit’ side-by-side with some the best in American architecture had better make their words matter.

Still, the welcome from SCI-Arc faculty was informal and warm when we gathered for coffee at SCI-Arc just before the first jury sessions. It’s strange that architects and mourners are the two types that gather wearing black, and there was no shortage of that amongst my fellow jurors — but this was far from a funeral. It was about the future — of architecture and its would-be practitioners. Their models and visualisations seemed to fill half the ground floor. Separated into teams of five or six jurors, we took our front row seats before each project’s display as the graduates, notes in hands and rehearsal time over, each talked them through before being grilled and judged. 

The first two presentations I saw were puzzling. They centred on harvesting urban data, but there was no clear idea about what the data would be. The second student, Ivy Chan, presented Happily Similar, with a cartoon inner-city Baltimore neighbourhood. The animation of neighbourhood characters was strong, and animation could be where her future lie, I suggested — that’s not necessarily a put-down, especially considering that SCI-Arc has distinguished alumni who made their name beyond architecture, such as designer Tom Farrage, or artist Abinada Meza. A third presentation, The Transparency Paradox by Anna Gringer, was also about data, or at least playing with facade transparency in a proposed New York data centre — at last, I was seeing architecture. Next, Vincent Ho showed his design for a Music Centre at the Museum of London site by the Barbican. It visibly expressed its 3D-printed construction  — it looked like a case of form following fabrication rather than function, but it was imaginative.

After the first day, jurors were driven out into the setting Sun along the Santa Monica Freeway, a luminous experience with conjured up the exhilaration that British critic Rayner Banham found driving in Los Angeles in the 1970s, when he coined the name Autopia to apply to what Lewis Mumford had called the ‘anti-city’. 

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Some faculty and guest jurors in Santa Monica

We were headed to the house of SCI-Arc’s vice director John Enright, a modernist concrete volume glazed big and clear with a higher, connected pavilion, all on a slope from which the vista of trees and houses stretched to the Pacific. It was a beautiful evening. With darkness fallen, a philosophical mood had descended on Thom Mayne when I talked with him. He mused on what had become of the political energy of students since SCI-Arc’s early days.

A jury mulls over Omar Baqazi's Facade Gestures

A jury mulls over Omar Baqazi’s Facade Gestures

The next day, my first juries were led by Peter Trummer, Amsterdam-based architect, head of the Urban Design Institute at University of Innsbruck, Austria and visiting faculty at SCI-Arc. Omar Baqazi presented a seductive, lyrical project in which Facade Gestures intervene in Georgian buildings in London, which in reality of course would be ‘listed’, meaning protected by law from the slightest alteration.

Rebecca Wiscombe's Typological Organs

Rebecca Wiscombe’s Typological Organs

Rebecca Wiscombe  presented furniture juxtapositions as big dark sculptures, all with übercool Swedish names- certainly original, and the meticulousness of her drawings and modes was exceptional. Javier Cardiel shows us his intervention in a Downtown LA site. It looked good- but his building was a car park, and that carries baggage. City centres around the world are on the rebound, but it’s people, not cars, that are bringing back life – and Downtown LA is a brilliant example. In London, we build massive buildings (examples- the Shard, the new Bloomberg London HQ) with five or less parking spaces! Jan Gehl should be priority recommended urbanist reading at SCI-Arci. Despite the spell Banham had cast on me, I’m the only juror who spells out the new reality: ‘cars are the enemy of the city’, I tell Javier.

Javier Cardiel's elevation for Downtown LA car park. Photo courtesy SCI-Arc

Javier Cardiel’s elevation for Downtown LA car park. Photo courtesy SCI-Arc

For me at least, the star of the morning juries is Po-Hsien, who in Stages had imagined a block cut with a tight, slightly disrupted 4×16 grid of alleys and courtyards, in which events from a manga-like comic-book story animate its surfaces. When I ask if the spaces relate to hutongs, Trummer shakes his head like it shouldn’t be asked. Maybe not, but clearly the model he presented had roots in a traditional urban vernacular, and in interplay with a contemporary graphic culture, it felt reborn in a new millennium, and super-charged.

That afternoon’s juries were with John Enright’s team and we considered memorable projects.

Jacob Waas presents Eh, That_ll Do

Jacob Waas with Eh, That’ll Do

There was a devil-may-care confidence to Jacob Waas and the title of his project, Eh, That’ll Do. He had created a vast structure of modules like building blocks in columns, all knocked askew and splaying out in lines across the water’s edge, suggesting the figure of a slumped man. Somehow this was meant to be architecture. Striking and original, it provoked much analytical discussion. Waas had set himself a starting point of ‘cartoon physics’, but my common sense rebelled. I needed to speak my mind: ‘We live in an age of buildings trying to be sculptures, but this is a sculpture that’s not even trying to be a building’.… Another confident young man Conor Covey presented The Promiscuous Line, in which a thick black circulation passage wandering madly around the envelope of a partially deconstructed modernist volume. This looked fun, and engineerable, but imagine wandering through windowless tubes to reach anywhere – why not clad them in dark, Miesian glass? Meenakshi Dravid’s Borderline Madness visualised a fascinating multilevel quarter that put me in mind of the Metabolists, but with day-glo colours. Zeinap Cinar had let blue organic patches infiltrate inside and out of a Hollywood vernacular block, an attractive idea though hard to relate to her inspiration, Ed Ruscha’s 1966 photographic work Every Building on Sunset Strip. The last of the day’s projects gave a very different respect to local LA vernacular and changed the mood in an extraordinary way. At the heart of Keith Marks’ work were three large photos of suburban houses, banal yet uncanny. I could feel the silence of standing there in the street before them, and a sense of mystery about what was behind those facades. That mood is something architectural representations never creates — it explicates the visual intent of the architect, rather than implicate the lives of the users of architecture.

The Sunday morning saw the last round of juries. Mine was headed by Andrew Zago, LA architect and head of the faculty’s Design Studio. The following week in Chicago I would be dazzled by his own project, exhibited at the Chicago Architecture Biennial —  huge overlapping grid panels with a sort of digital sheen made by physically separating metallic layers of colour. 

Jiali Carrie Li_s New Dagwood

Jiali Carrie Li’s New Dagwood

At SCI-Arc, we considered projects that included a couple of art centres that referenced sandwiches. A floating box volume mounted on random materials including velvet lived up to its ‘Sloppy’ title, but there was lot to say about the next one, a stacked composition of building sections differentiated by colour and function, then distorted to super-Gehry extremes. Jiali Carrie Li called it New Dagwood.

Saba Samiel’s urban plan of an entire quarter of Milan, Democratic Cohesion, was so seriously designed and executed, that it felt un-necessary to include the landmark element of a volume curving up from the horizontal with the energy of a horse rearing up on its back legs. Another meticulous effort was Palak Mandhana’s The Added Dimension, with a model of a mid-rise block that was a lot of podium and not much tower, but its PoMO facades had something of Michael Graves, and that may be timely…

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A view from above SCI-Arc’s Graduate Thesis Weekend

I had several take-aways from the Graduate Thesis Weekend. The first was that there was a lot of talent being nurtured here— whether or not projects had grounding in basic issues of structure, function or context, by intent or otherwise. The juries reminded me that academic language or concerns can be obtuse and arcane. If that was also the case when guiding students, some straight talk could have cut to the flaws in some projects before they became dominant. Getting real is not the antithesis of free-thinking.

What I didn’t see was much political agenda. The radical spirit of architecture schools was alive worldwide in the 1970s, from the shake-up of the AA in London under Alvin Boyarsky to the professorial style (as well as the architecture) of Vilanova Artigas at FAU, São Paulo… and to SCI-Arc’s foundation. It followed from the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s, but times have changed. Today’s American agenda includes trashing the EPA and the Paris Agreement and walling off Mexico. My biggest message to SCI-Arc and its students is this: there is plenty of politics for a would-be architect to respond to, right now.

SCI-Arc demands imagination at the undergraduate level, and clearly, the graduates delivered it — diverse and vibrant, sometimes naive but almost always free-spririted. That gives hope, and it chimes with the founding principles of the college.

All photos © Herbert Wright 2018, except ‘Javier Cardiel’s elevation for Downtown LA car park’- photo courtesy SCI-Arc

This blog was subsequently edited and re-published in November 2017 on designcurial.com as ‘California Dreaming: Exploring the Visions of SCI-Arc Graduates‘ 

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California at London’s Design Museum

Tools — that’s what Justin McGuirk, co-curator of California: Designing Freedom (at London’s Design Museum until 15 October 2017), says the show is all about. ‘Our theme is tools of personal liberation’, he says. ‘California has specialised in democratising tools, from the 1970s onwards’. That proposition seems straightforward, but it also raises questions.

The wall blurb as you enter offers another proposition: ‘Designed in California is not a style but an attitude’. That attitude has long been can-do — optimistic, individualist, un-hung up on authority or convention, and often ‘stoked’ to be outdoors. The show presents bright California icons such as skateboards going back to 1951 (a chunk of wood with nailed-on wheels), surfboards, a first Barbie Doll (1959) and the Wham-O Regular  


A replica of Hardy and Vaughn’s Captain America Chopper with the driverless Waymo car. Photo Herbert Wright

Frisbee (1968). A star item is a replica of the Captain America Chopper from seminal drop-out-dudes-on-bikes film Easy Rider (1969). Unlike the film company, this show credits the African-American motorcycle masters who built it, Ben Hardy and Clifford Vaughan


There’s a lot more rooted in the counter-culture revolution — some parts feel like a reprise of the V&A’s recent show about the 1960s, You Say You Want a Revolution (reviewed here). 

Emory Douglas, Afro-American Solidarity with the oppressed people of the world

Emory Douglas poster from 1969.
Collection of the Oakland Museum of California 

In a zone called Tools of Self-Expression and Rebellion, we see socio-political revolution voiced in design, such as Emery Douglas’s militant Black Panther artwork (1968-71), and the original Rainbow Flag (1978) by Gilbert Baker which would soon morph into the globally-recognised gay banner. Psychedelic gig posters by Victor Moscoso from San Francisco are way-out trippy (and resonate exactly with those of Hapshash and the Coloured Coats in the Summer of Love’s parallel capital London). Graphic design is applied to an ultimate psychic liberation tool, LSD, in the grid-repeating tiny icons of acid blotters from the 1970s. It pushes beyond the edge in the 1990s when Ray-Gun magazine’s David Carson, who started on surf titles, once put a Bryan Ferry interview he found boring into the Zapf Dingbats font. It replaces letters with symbols.

The show homes in on the off-grid commune movement and the electronic nerd-driven dawn of personal computing, in both of which Stewart Brand played a key role. A copy of Brandt’s Whole Earth Catalog, the thick product guide-come-environmentalist manual published 1968-72, sits next to a geodesic dome frame. Inside it, you can settle on beanbags to watch an instant inflatable dome commune being set up in the Santa Cruz Mountains desert. The hippies who built it frolic on their newly-inflated roof, while a Grateful Dead soundtrack plays. This frontiers lifestyle alternative to settled society still calls today’s city types into the desert – but in a conveniently packaged kind of way. The week-long Burning Man Festival started on a San Francisco beach in 1986 but we see a more recent ariel view of the ephemeral city that hosts its 65,000-odd participants — in next-door state Nevada.

Los Angeles, of course, has a very different sort of urbanism, and this show spotlights it well. Southern California’s post-war freeway system was built as if Robert Moses had been beamed from the inconvenient neighbourhoods of New York into a sun-drenched paradise fully signed up to America’s love affaire with the automobile. Amongst others, it seduced British architectural critic Reyner Banham, who appropriated the word Autopia for the anti-city he saw. We see a clip from the 1972 documentary he made for the BBC, cruising past the Mattel toy factory, as a dashboard cartridge tape tells him is that Barbie Dolls and Hot Wheel toys are made there. He was not the first to identify a new urbanism out West. In 1968, Robert Venuri, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour had seen it in Las Vegas, from which came Learning from Las Vegas (1972) — but again, that’s Nevada and this time not in the show. What we do get is the film Environmental Communications Looks at Los Angeles (1977), shown as the creative collective designed it to be seen — on a big screen wth monitors either side. That references Tom Wolfe, who said that LA is seen through windscreen and side-mirrors. It is a collide-a-scope of the city, its crazy billboards and suburban sprawl,  glimpses of Hispanic street culture and ariel film of the new outsize Century Plaza City tower (designed by Twin Towers architect Minoru Yamasaki), all to a soundtrack spanning from Handel to the Beach Boys.


The film Environmental Communications Looks at Los Angeles runs in a 3-screen configuration that references Tom Wolfe. Photo: Herbert Wright

Pasadena-based artist Syd Mead saw the city differently. Some of his 1980s sci-fi fantasy gouache works defined the urban look of Blade Runner, and his LA street of 2019 is no longer a New World city but a moody, neon-jazzed extrapolation of older urbanisms – New York meets Tokyo, the LA of film noir. Although the Design Museum show doesn’t make the point, it’s interesting that the reality of LA in 2017 is less and less Autopia. The vast city without a centre now has a vibrant downtown, it is densifying, a metro system is spreading ever deeper across it. People are winning against cars. Those freeways weren’t tools of liberation, they just became traffic jams.

Right after he directed Blade Runner, Ridley Scott directed the ad for Apple for its 1984 Mac launch, which we see in this show. He brilliantly flips the change-the-world vision of Steve Jobs into a neo-noir smash-the-system rallying call, all in one minute. It was actually shot in England, but the personal computing revolution and all that’s followed largely belongs to California. 

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An original Google office neon. Photo Luke Hayes


The same year, cyberculture was mapped out by a conference that Brand organised in the state, attended by the likes off Steve Wozniak. This show is full of gizmos, from early Apples (including an unreleased one) to a Waymo self-driving car and the latest in VR. McGuirk says that companies like Apple and Google ‘don’t look back’ – but he pressured them to get exhibits like an elegant, original, colourful 1998 neon Google sign. 

But what about that earlier California techno-cultural innovation that swept the world – Hollywood? A single item falling right outside the exhibition time-frame is doubly relevant. In 1924, Walt Disney made his first movie Alice’s Day at the Sea, montaging film of a girl onto cartoon. He made it in a garage in North Hollywood. A lot later, garage start-ups would include Hewlett Packard, Apple, and Google. Not all the California tech players are here — where, for example, is Elon Musk, whose Tesla electric cars are made in Fremont and SpaceX HQ is by LAX airport?

The elephant in the room with this show is that digital ‘personal liberation tools’ also turn us into manipulatable shadows — subject to anti-democratic social media forces, grist in the mill of Big Data. Algorithms rule and AI looms. In a Waymo, we won’t even physically be in the driving seat. Californian design has indeed cruised a freeway to the future, but at some multi-level interchange, it may have left the road marked freedom.

(This review by Herbert Wright originally appeared in Blueprint magazine 353, July 2017)

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For the Record: Professor Paweł Machcewicz’s last interview as director of the Museum of the Second World War, Gdansk, Poland, 31/3/2017

When I visited the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, Poland, to research an article about its architecture for Blueprint magazine, I was granted time to talk with Professor Paweł Machcewicz, then the museum’s director, appointed in 2008. This proved to be Machcewicz’s last interview in the position. It is published here, for the record. 

He spoke frankly about the political and personal problems he experienced with the ruling Law and Justice party and its Culture Minister, Piotr Gliński.  

The interview transcription is presented here, followed by a brief exchange with ex-deputy director Dr Piotr M. Majewski, and response from current director Karol Nawocki, who was appointed 6 April 2017.

The Blueprint magazine article about the museum was published in May 2017 (issue 352) and should be posted online this summer.  

The Interview with Paweł Machcewicz, 31 March 2017

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Paweł Machcewicz in his museum office, March 2017 – photo Herbert Wright

HW: You invited representatives of the Law & Justice party – Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS) – to the Museum opening (on 23rd March 2017), they did not come. How did you feel about that?

PM: Not very well, of course. The Minister of Culture (Piotr Gliński) should be here at the opening. This is the biggest historical museum in Poland. This government and this minister keep saying they care so much about Polish history, and he didn’t come. I can also comment on the way which I learned that he would not come. He did not respond [to] my letter, I didn’t even get any response. I read in his interview with the Polish Press Agency the day before the opening that he was not going to come. Very impolite, I would say.

HW: Have you spoken to Gliński in the past? Is there a personal relationship?

PM: I have spoken to him, yes. Several times, face-to-face, but only once he invited me to his office in Warsaw, just two days after this announcement was made in April (2016) that our museum would be liquidated. There was such a public storm, a wave of indignation, over the weekend, that he invited me for a talk, and it was polite. But it didn’t change anything. And then I talked to him but it was rather a sort of public confrontation. Twice, we were both invited to the parliament, once for the session of the Committee of Culture in the lower chamber, the Sejm – the session was devoted to our museum. The second time, it was the Culture Committee of the Senate, the higher chamber. The second meeting lasted for four hours, but it was a confrontation, you couldn’t call it a discussion.

HW: Was it like an argument?

PM: No. He accused us, me and the museum, of things which are not real, like we’re devoting not enough attention to the Polish history and more on international history. Also he accused me of some irregularities in the construction works, he accused me that it lasted longer than it was planned [at] first. He also accused me that I have been staging for months an anti-government campaign, a campaign to discredit this government and himself, and that I want to become the new Minister of Culture, once his government collapses. So it was a little bit ridiculous.

HW: Is this (position) representative of the Law and Justice Party generally?

PM: No, this is quite cautious and evolving…  I can only say that in the case of Mr Gliński, he’s rather a new man in this Law and Justice party. 10 years ago, he was a liberal scholar, he was a sociologist, a professor of sociology, leading a non-governmental civic organisation, something that would be very far from this mindset of Law and Justice party. In my opinion, he’s a sort of neophyte, trying to convince [party chairman] Jarosław Kaczyński that he’s a hard fighter, that he can also destroy and use innocent people if necessary… for the sake of the party. In my opinion, he’s doing that, he’s using such accusations in order to prove that he’s one of them, in a way.

HW: It seems to be part of the rise of nationalism, Brexit and Trump, would you agree? And this is very relevant, because the exhibition starts with the rise of nationalisms [in the 1930s].

PM: Yes, in a way you are right. This is not only Trump, not only Brexit, but also [prime minister] Mr Oban in Hungary, which was the overt inspiration for our Law and Justice party. Gliński said many times before he took over power, that Poland should somehow follow the Hungarian example. But also le Pen [in France], a whole wave of such populist nationalist movements. In a way in Poland, it is more difficult to explain why it happened so abruptly, because most people in Poland believed that we are modernising our country, our economy, our society. Poland did not suffer the recession in the last economic crisis. On paper, apparently, everything looked wonderful – economic growth, the decreasing rate of unemployment. But there was some discomfort below the surface. People got frustrated that salaries were low, and also to overcome this financial crisis, our government  loosened the labour market, so very many people, especially young people, worked on a flexible, unsafe basis. My son worked in that way, and he was unhappy…

This populist movement in Poland somehow exploited the real discontent… Simply, some growing frustration which was not, perhaps, which was not seen by those people who [were] successful, well-to-do, and so on. This government is nationalistic but has real support in the countryside.

By the way, the countryside benefitted so much from European funds, but still the countryside supports this party. Perhaps because the Catholic church has [a] very strong position… Well, this is a very general picture.

HW: Was [EU Commission President, former prime minister and instigator of the Museum] Donald Tusk also invited to the opening?

PM: No, because this would be against the diplomatic protocol. He’s a European statesman, he can be invited by the prime minister [or] the president of Poland. As director, I couldn’t do it.

HW: Perhaps it would have been seen as confrontational.

PM: I was not going to do it. I organised way the opening without politicians. The only one I invited was the minister of culture, because he’s my supervisor in a way, and I did not invite any other politicians. It was very unofficial – veterans, and those who donated objects or articles to the museum. It was very touching in a way – the first person who entered the exhibition was Joanna Penson who is now 95 years old, and who was during the war a member of the Home Army [the Union of Armed Struggle]. She was arrested in 1941 and she spent four years in Ravensbrück concentration camp. I opened this museum in the company of people who really deserved to be there

HW: Museums now are becoming entertainment, and have to compete for time and attention with the internet. Do you recognise that problem, and how does this museum respond to that?

PM: In a way we have to face all these challenges, but creating this exhibition, we’re trying to find our own way, and somehow confront the fashion which somehow was created in Poland that a good museum, a modern museum would mean a museum with lots of multimedia. This was the understanding after the opening [in 2004] and due to the great success of the Warsaw Rising Museum [about the Warsaw Uprising 1944]. People got very excited about that. Of course, we have lots of multimedia – 250 installation screens, a lot. But we deliberately focused on finding and integrating into the exhibition artefacts. We have around 2,000 artefacts in the permanent exhibition. For example, just to make a comparison for you, this newly opened  [POLIN] Museum of Jewish History in Warsaw is almost purely [a] multimedia museum. They have only 150 original objects. The people who created this museum admit that is a shame, but this Jewish Museum is a child of the 90s. The project was shaped mainly in the 90s and it was the era of the greatest excitement about multimedia.

We try somehow to go beyond this horizon and we are very proud of collecting some first-class original objects. Many of them were donated and out of these 2,000 objects, more or less half are gifts or deposits. I would emphasise that this was a sort of a grass-root movement which formed itself around the museum, of people who donated objects, supported us last year… Many people who donated family objects said that if our museum was liquidated, they would withdraw these objects. It was a very touching example and I  would say an encouraging example of people at large who cared about history. they are also [the] creators of this museum, [it’s] not only the historians and curators.

HW: The architecture by (Gdynia-based architects) Kwadrat is very dramatic, very contemporary. Where you on Daniel Libeskind’s (architectural competition) jury (which selected the design)?

PM: No I was not on the jury. The choice was made by architects and urban development experts. We got more or less 130 entries for this competition. Almost everyone was excited about this particular entry, so there was not much hesitation.

HW: Are you happy with it?

PM: This is very impressive, very original. This is a benchmark for Gdansk, I would say. My only concern, even at the very beginning, was [for] the construction works to not exceed the budget. Usually, with such original, extravagant architecture, the costs go up, and indeed we exceeded the budget. This was due to the very sophisticated and challenging architecture. The most expensive part was digging 14m below the level of ground. Now, looking at this building, I think this is very worthwhile. Many visitors say the architecture fits very well into the exhibition… It should be understood together the architecture, the design of our exhibition and our narrative. But actually it cost more and took more time to build, this is the price you pay for this world-class architecture. 

HW: It seems that in the last 20 years, museums have to stand out, they can’t look like a nineteenth century building…

PM: … or an IKEA building! It’s worthwhile, although it was a very painful and difficult process to get it all completed. Perhaps with a more banal building, we would have done it one year earlier and it wouldn’t have had all these problems with this new government.

HW: Was the intention to be a catalyst for local development?

PM: It was not the number one reason, but once we were donated this plot by the Mayor of Gdansk, he understood it was a great opportunity to revitalise this part of the city. You now that it was destroyed in 1945 but for many centuries it was a very animated, very vivid part of Gdansk. It had a symbolic meaning to rebuild this part of the city. I understood straight away that this was a great chance for the city, so close to the heart of the Old Town, but at the same time it was a run-down area with just a bus stop and concrete surface. When we removed this surface, we saw the outlines of streets and sidewalks, it was really moving to see the traces of a city which disappeared here.

HW (returning to the politics of the museum): Is it basically that the Law and Justice party just want to talk about Poland and the museum addresses the whole war?

PM: Basically yes. They wanted mostly a Polish history museum, which to me seems really absurd because you cannot tell the story of the Second World War only

HW: … in isolation…

PM: Poland is not isolated. It had enemies, but also allies like Great Britain and the United States. The most important accusation was that we somehow we marginalised Poland. Polish uniqueness is not seen, not underlined enough. They formulated such accusations even before the exhibition was created. It was a sort of ritual accusation.

The second accusation that they kept repeating was that we focus on the fate of civilians and that it should be mostly military history. I find this a little bizarre because this war was different from any other wars because it mostly affected civilians. In the Polish case, the vast majority of people who died were civilians. We owe them recognition.

HW: Has the Catholic church said anything about this cultural dispute between the party and the musuem?

PM: As far as I know, no bishop has ever addressed this issue. The Catholic press is also polarised. There are right-wing newspapers very close to the Catholic church, and they condemn our exhibition. There is a liberal [publication], Więź  – they published an interview with me and an editorial with great praise for the museum.

(Note: Więź (meaning link or bond) was founded by Tadeusz Mazowieck, later Poland’s first post-communist prime minister)

HW: What change do you want to make in the minds of young people who visit the museum?

PM: They are the first generation who may not have any family recollection of the war, only their grandparents can remember. The first task is to convey some basic knowledge, because schools are not fulfilling this task in a sufficient way. Also what we’d like to achieve on a deeper level is to get young people emotionally involved, to understand what war is, what violence is, what suffering is, and what challenges [and] dilemmas ordinary people like them had to face 70 or 80 years ago. We want to effect their values.

When you leave the exhibition, the last scene you will see will be a film showing developments after the war, and the last images are Syria and Ukraine. What you see in this museum is not a closed chapter. The violence is around us, the propensity towards violence could be inside us. Remember that it can be repeated and your task is to somehow avoid such [a] nightmare. But if you happen to be facing this, you can remember about those people whose stories you saw at this exhibition.

HW: What is the situation with the funding of the museum?

PM: It has already been cut. I had to suspend all publications, all research, all eduction activities. All the money is spent on running this building. I have to hire technical staff. Even with this drastic cuts which I have implemented, we have money for only a few months. Our accountants have calculated that if we don’t have additional funds from the government, or sufficient income from the tickets, you have to start firing people in September. If you want to have money from tickets, you must have the exhibition open, so it’s catch-22.

But I think the scenario will be different. The government will remove me and install a new director who will get a lot of money from the government. It’s not a question of austerity, the issue is that this museum has been created by us, me and my collaborators.

HW: What would you do if forced from the museum?

PM: I am a professor of history at the Polish Academy of Science, so I’d go back to my academic job. Creating the museum was a very hard job, but I don’t necessarily have to run it. I have my contract valid until the end of 2019. The government by breaking this contract would be violating the law.

The government is trying formally to liquidate our museum. I fight the complaint in the court. The court suspended the merger [with the  Museum of Westerplatte and the War of 1939]. On 5th of April, there will be the ruling of the Supreme Court. If it it allows the merger of the museums, I will be gone. If the Supreme Court confirms the suspension of the merger, I think the government will fire me because they never forget that I opened this museum against the minister of culture.

HW: We live in strange times

PM: The government [that] says it cares so much about Polish history somehow wants to marginalise the biggest history museum which has been opened in Poland. It’s a bit paradoxical.


Dr Piotr M. Majewski was deputy director of the museum and was dismissed with Professor Machcewicz. He spoke with me in mid-April. I asked him first about new director Karol Nawrocki.

PMM: I met him once during a conference. He’s a devoted fan of the Gdansk football team (Lechia Gdańsk) [which has] a political identification with Law and Justice.

HW: Nawrocki is a fellow historian – do you think he is impartial?

PMM: No-one is completely impartial, but it’s rather a question of how it influences the research or agenda. Nawrocki said at the beginning of our meeting that the exhibition represents a liberal sensitivity and he would seek to “balance” it. [First] he would evaluate the content. We openly asked his intentions.

HW: What are you doing now?

PMM: We have decided to assert our intellectual rights. From the beginning, it bore our trademark. We are consulting lawyers, we have contacted a lawyer whose field is intellectual property.

HW: what about those who have donated items to the Museum?

PMM: They don’t have intellectual rights, but they are free to withdraw objects which are loaned. They have already warned [they may]. We announced an appeal to the donors not to (until legal advice is given). We don’t want to be seen as [acting in] revenge.

(The advice should come in a matter of weeks).

HW: How have other institutions internationally reacted?

PMM: One year ago when the Ministry of Culture announced plans, many institutions around the world signed a protest to the minister (including) the Holocaust Museum in Washington. These voices are important. We think this campaign of support helped to shift [the situation, enabling the Museum to open). We gained one more year. There is an unpleasant feeling of having built something, and it is stolen.


New director Karol Nawrocki replied to me via email on 24th April 2017

HW: Do you plan to change the permanent exhibition of the Museum of the Second World War, and if you do, what changes would you make?

KN: Of course I retain such right as the director responsible at the moment for the shape of the institution. Many changes are in progress – even being reported by employees themselves. Every day brings something new, scientific research is ahead, the desire to convey the memorabilia was announced today (Sunday 23rd) by Anna Maria Anders, the daughter of the legendary Polish general. Other donors want to donate their exhibits either. It would be wrong not to use such opportunities and instead respond – no, nothing can be changed. There is no museum in the world in which nothing would change … In addition, there is no finite work in science, I am listening to the reflections of historians of varying sensitivity and if I consider that something should change after the opinion of experts or in the result of new research then  I will do change it. It’s natural.

HW: Are there plans for a museum building at Westerplatte, or will it remain an outdoor exhibition as is it now?

KN: The Westerplatte peninsula has a very difficult land ownership problem – managed by 11 institutions. Segregation of space for permanent exposure, ranking of ownership structure and start of investment will bring both the Museum of WW II, Poland and the whole World another special place of historical education, which will tell about the beginning of the world conflict and the heroic attitude of Poles in the face of German Nazism.

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Paul Nash at Tate Britain

Paul Nash at Tate Britain October 2016 to 5 March 2017 – a review by Herbert Wright

We see him standing in a big coat in a short 1940 film, intense eyes flicking from sketchbook to a field of Luftwaffe wreckage gathered in Oxfordshire. This is Paul Nash, Britain’s only official war artist in both world wars, and England’s home-grown surrealist. From the start, those eyes seemed to see things that others didn’t – an otherness in objects, landscapes, the sea and the sky. Tate’s retrospective (far deeper than the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s in 2010) is like a walk through his psyche, and it’s a fascinating walk. 

Falling Stars

Paul Nash – The Falling Stars ©Tate


Nash sensed the metaphysical in the world. For him, inanimate objects could be ‘personages’, and ancient mystical forces permeated the English countryside. From the start, he was besotted with the English countryside. Trees were often the stars of his pictures, characters in their own right. Some were as transparent as jellyfish, others solid and brooding. A tree canopy in The Falling Stars (1912) actually becomes a sinister bird’s head.


Nash did not find himself in World War One’s trenches until early 1917, and initially still saw nature – in Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood, he shows new growths emerging. He avoided Passchendaele because a non-combat accident had him sent home. When he returned, the reality of war soon obliterated earlier tender visions, as it obliterated men and nature. He described what he called an ‘unspeakable, godless, hopeless’ world. His work became a message against warmongers and ‘their lousy souls’. In this war, only vorticist CRW Nevinson brings as new a way of seeing it. In Nash’s The Ypres Salient at Night (1918), flares illuminate a landscape of trenches- barren, man-made, stark. The Menin Road, perhaps his most powerful canvas and three metres wide, is a vista of water-filled shell craters, churned earth, a sky of doom and drama, a few soldiers moving between trees stripped to stumps. (In scale and composition it forward-echoes Max Ernst’s 1942 anti-war masterpiece, Europe After the Rain).


Paul Nash – The Menin Road (1919) Credit: Tate, Imperial War Museum

Back in England, the darkness lingered – his Winter Sea (started in Dymchurch, Kent, 1925) is as cold and steely as a theatre of war, but more constant. But Nash was also diversifying into different media – woodwork, photography, writing – and his interests were evolving. He worked with found objects and photographed things he saw strangeness in, such as a dead tree he called Monster. Neolithic stones in Wiltshire became obsessive subjects.

By the mid-1930s, Nash was riding the crest of a wave breaking in new artistic territories. He was central in the modernist-surrealist collective Unit One, which included the likes of Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Isokon’s architect Wells Coates. In 1936, he helped organise the International Surrealist Exhibition in London, where crowds surged to see work by Ernst, Dali, Miro and others.

Nash’s own surrealism was influenced by de Chirico more than any, but Giacometti inspired a sculptural work called Aviary, a frame structure with abstracted birds. After being lost for 70 years, the Tate found it and show it – sadly without the original handheld blue viewing glass.


Moon Aviary courtesy Ernest, Brown & Phillips © Tate Photographty


His most famous surrealist work, Landscape from a Dream, returns us to the English countryside. A falcon stares into a mirror by a cliff-edge, and sees into an inner space where its soul seems to be on wing in a sunset. This extraordinary vision stands amongst the best of European surrealism.


Paul Nash – Landscape from a Dream (1938) © Tate

When another war broke, the enemy came from the air, as it in one of Nash’s earliest works, The Combat (1910) in which a devil swoops down. In 1941, he painted a great composition of plane trails, The Battle of Britain, sadly missing in this show, but we do see the masterpiece of Luftwaffe wreckage he had surveyed, Totes Meer, (German for ‘Dead Sea’) from the same year, and a very different work that took him in a new direction, the semi-abstract Battle of Germany (1944).

From this time also came his most beautiful paintings, peaceful and metaphysical. The Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire, hills crowned by trees, was a subject ever since 1911. In the 1940s, the sun and moon connect them to the cosmos in canvases like his Vernal Equinox landscapes. 


Paul Nash – Flight of the Magnolia (1944) ©Tate

And in Cumulus Head and Flight of the Magnolia, he has already left the earth to be in forms emerging in clouds. There is something heavenly about them, the ultimate strange wonder revealed to Nash. He died in 1946.


War made Nash a towering modernist artist, but he remained a romantic. The deeper worlds he sensed in what he saw is a good lesson for now, when the overload of imagery and media make even the real world hard to see. 

This review was originally published in Blueprint magazine 350, January 2017

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Letter from Tokyo

The most advanced city on Earth isn’t just shaped by earthquakes and economics – animes and architects play out dreams there too. Herbert Wright seeks the big picture from above, and the future beyond the futuristic

Two things not to do with a Tokyo taxi driver: tip, because that’s an insult, and close the door, because that could bugger the self-closing mechanism. Japan leads in automation across many sectors, and now it’s getting a handle in cabs — a door handle. Just remember, don’t touch.

Tokyo has long been a city of the future. I imagine it already felt like the 21st century in 1990, while London hadn’t pulled out of the 80s and it was still 1970 in Manchester and 1955 in Moscow. It’s not just the gizmos and sushi, it’s the scale and dazzle. Chinese megacities may look like the Neo Tokyo of manga comics, towering and superluminous, but their recent turbo-charged urbanisation is just version two of Tokyo’s v1.0. It took 20 years to 1965 for Tokyo’s population to triple to 10 million, by when the neon of Ginza, the city’s most upmarket shopping district, glowed like Vegas. Now Ginza’s shop buildings themselves glow — light shines out from Renzo Piano’s glass bricks at Hermés, or Jun Aoki’s perforated aluminium at Louis Vuitton.

Tokyo is Maximum City, a vast hyperconnected, hyperproductive urban field, now with 13 million people. You can only appreciate its sheer scale 451m up the cool, metallic 634m-high Skytree, designed by mega-practice Nikken Sekkei and curiously not painted red and white like masts always are here. At Tokyo Station, whose 1914 European-style design by Tatsuno Kingo still stands among the blocky high-rises of the Marunouchi district, long high-speed Shinkansen trains snake sinuously away to the Japan beyond, with their 15m-long noses modelled by Eiji Nakatsu on kingfishers’ beaks to prevent sonic booms.

On the ground the best place to feel the hyper-urbanity is another station, Shinjuku. Crossing the street to it, you’re in a crowd as though you were heading to the big match. Some 3.6 million people use it every day, and if you thought King’s Cross or Châtelet-Les-Halles were big and confusing, try finding your Metro line here — I was twice trapped in a long gallery of shops selling exquisite but mysterious cakes.

Nearby is Kenzo Tange’s city hall (1991), aka the Tocho. This 243m-high, twin-headed beast is like a Notre-Dame solid enough to resist Godzilla. From the observation floors at 202m, looking out at bland, boxy skyscrapers, you realise what a classy job Tange did. His surfaces (even the lift door) repeat rectangular patterns, reflecting Japanese order and complexity, and his towers have thrust, like the Japanese economy had. Across town on Odaiba island’s Fuji TV HQ (1996), with Cartesian mastery, Tange suspended a shining 32m-diameter sphere in a vast 3D frame between 25-storey towers. That sphere is another place to see the skyline, plus meet the Assassination Classroom anime characters. Their disturbing smiley-head teacher Korosensei may trash the moon any moment, and here, he has a neo-Shinto shrine. Weird.

Buildings even have their own cartoon creature. The sleek, mixed-use, 52-storey Toranomon Hills designed by Nihon Sekkei (no relation to Nikkei) has Toranomon, a cat-robot mascot designed by manga artists Fujiko Pro. He’s from the future, and the tower seems to be too.

Who says the Japanese are unoriginal? Sure, they take Western ideas and make them better — witness Asahi beer, Wagyu beef, or all those jeans from Kojima — but their animes and designers keep imagining. Nobody was more utopian and radical than the Metabolists. They were dreaming big with their models of crazy structures that surely inspired Gerry Anderson’s budget TV sci-fi sets like Thunderbirds, and Tange’s 1960 Tokyo Bay plan made le Corbusier’s urban plans look dull (which they proved to be anyway).

But is there anything metabolist to actually see? I went to pay homage to Kisho Kurokawa’s Nagakin Capsule Tower (1972). It looks in a sorry state. The angular service towers are rusting, the washing machine-like pods are stained and under netting… but it’s still alive. Pods are available on Airbnb, and a rank of Tokyo’s ubiquitous, colourful vending machines stands outside. Demolition, for now, is at bay. The 13-storey tower was small for metabolism, but the charm of Tokyo is in even smaller, human-scaled spaces.

I chanced on a place just like a London square, called Nano Park (well, it wasn’t that small). Countless Tokyo backstreets reveal intimate eateries (a queue before opening time means it’s good) or wiring strung organically between poles. Occasional wooden houses have survived earthquake, fire and war, from a time before planning. Out in the dense but picturesque village-suburb of Jiyugaoka, I found someone to discuss houses. Locally based Dutch architect Martin van der Linden talked about the ‘anti-metabolist’ modernist Kazuo Shinohara, who taught the likes of Toyo Ito and Kazuyo Sejima. He crafted a sort of Japanese brutalism, different in each of his numerous house projects. He was more interested in the ‘machi’ (neighbourhood) than the city, and the ‘beauty in chaos’ of areas like Shibuya. That was the Sixties, and only now is small-scale urbanism in vogue. Perhaps the house typology, rooted in when carpenters built before there were any ‘architects’, is where Japanese architecture still finds its strongest inner voice.

Sadly, Japan’s inheritance tax has been killing Tokyo’s small plot size by forcing families to sell, letting developers agglomerate sites for the big stuff. But eventually the biggest hit Tokyo will take is demographic. Japan is getting old — there are country villages with the average age of 80-plus. Tokyo’s population is stable, but Japan’s is falling. One day humanity’s most intense city may empty. The last to go will not shut its door — that will be automatic.

March 2016 ©Herbert Wright

1602 Toko Lisa Anna Wilson Tokyo shots

Originally published in Blueprint magazine no.346, May 2016.

Montaged photos by Lisa Ann Wilson 2016 : 1 – Pods on Kisho Kurokawa’s Nagakin Capsule Tower — Like washing machines that need washing. 2 – A glimpse of one of the Tocho’s towers by Kenzo Tange. 3 – Toranomon is a ‘cat-like business robot’ that looks after Toranomon Hills

See also my article A Brief History of Big Plans for Tokyo Bay in the Global Urbanist

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Short Talk about Migrating Studios, the Future of Creative Spaces

A short introductory talk given 26th September 2015 for a panel discussion in the Design Museum‘s Super Talks, on the theme:

Migrating Studios? The Future of Creative Spaces

I’ll just throw out a few obvious thoughts and questions, and some visions you may not have seen before.

Why do studios migrate? An obvious factor is that they are pushed out by gentrification. We all know the pattern – artists colonise neglected buildings in low-rent areas, the area gets cool, the rents get hot, the developers move in, and the studios migrate. Artists and galleries started colonising this area (in London) Shoreditch/ Hoxton in the 1990s. We all know how it is now. The creative energy moved up the Kingsland Road to Dalston, the money followed, now the cool place to be is Stoke Newington. 

Where will the studios be pushed to next? Stamford Hill? Seven Sisters? Tottenham? Can we imagine hipsters in Tottenham? Are hipsters necessarily creatives anyway? Or are they the forward troops of social cleansing?

Has regeneration become synonymous with social cleansing, erasure of history and local identity, feeding developer profits, and making everywhere super-clean and anodyne?

St Modwen Properties by Laura Oldfield Ford (2010)

St Modwen Properties by Laura Oldfield Ford (2010)

If you lived or worked in one of those places, who could blame you for feeling angry? There’s something of that in the work of artist Laura Oldfield Ford, which is usually a drift through dispossessed urban landscapes, often social housing. But I chose this picture because (a) it looks like there may be some studios lurking there and (b) she literally spells out her anger as the developer approaches. I think that anger is back.

(Post-script: the evening following the talk, a Class-War demonstration converged on a Shoreditch cafe)

We see the same patterns and the same issues all around the world. In the 2000s, Manhattan creatives colonised Williamsburg, now the place is prime real estate. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Stadmitte became this gritty artistic Nirvarna with a crazy 24-hour underground scene, now it’s almost Mayfair.

Street art in Savamala (photo: Herbert Wright 2014)

Street art in Savamala (photo: Herbert Wright 2014)

It’s been said that Belgrade has what Berlin had: urban cool on the cheap, hip bars and all-night partying, the lingering traces of socialist days a backdrop to booming creative activity. This (above) is a street in Savamala famous for its street art. (The scale and building typologies are similar to Laura Oldfield Ford’s picture)

Visualisation of Belgrade Waterfront © Eagle Hills

Visualisation of Belgrade Waterfront © Eagle Hills

This picture shows what United Arab Emirates developers propose for Belgrade. It’s called Belgrade Waterfront, and Savamala is at the right hand edge of the development. Savamala’s reputation as a creative hub was used in the literature promoting the scheme.

There are two sides to the story. Belgrade wants investment and employment. And who are we to say they can’t have a 21st century city?

Cities know that creatives are a fertiliser they can use to grow development. Dubai knows that. Whatever you think, Dubai (as a whole) may be the most successful contemporary urban phenomenon in the world.

Visualisation of d3 Dubai Design District by Foster+Partners, 2015

Visualisation of d3 Dubai Design District by Foster+Partners, 2015

This is the Dubai Design District (d3), as visualised by Norman Foster’s studio (who are masterplanning it). There is so much talent and vision in Foster and his practice, I’m not knocking them. But what about their visions for creative space? The PR says abut this that it will be an…

“… incubator for emerging local designers and artists, as well as bespoke environment for art galleries and studios wanting to showcase their pieces. The Creative Community is designed to evolve organically, as its unique ability to adapt to any purpose will … cater for regular changes in its occupancy”.

I wouldn’t mind being there. It looks pleasant, perhaps rather a shopping centre without the branding. Designers work and sell their output here, so it has the retail aspect. Occupancy may change- studios may migrate. (And the public-access spaces are programmed with performances and public art).

But is this a future for creative space?

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Skyscrapers: Herbert Wright interviewed by Daniel García Casillas for Metro World News July 2015

(This interview was part of an article by Daniel García Casillas for syndication within Metro’s newspapers, and it has appeared in editions from Santiago to Montreal)

What the benefits of high buildings for a city?
The denser our cities, the less their per capita carbon footprint. A spread-out city like Houston has way higher energy costs than say Hong Kong or London, starting with transport.
And dense cities create more social interaction, which is good for innovation, creation, and breaking down rural prejudices.
Plus, we don’t burn up the limited resource of countryside by building on it. High-rise is a way to increase density- but it’s not the only way. Hong Kong is super-dense, but Paris is high-density too, and skyscrapers have been banned there until recently.

What are the negative ramifications of erecting tall buildings?
We lose history and we lose community. If skyscrapers are not limited, developers maximise profits per square metre far more than with medium-rise. This increases the pressures on heritage buildings and traditional neighbourhoods. For example, many fine buildings were lost building up Manhattan, and nowadays millions are getting displaced from (for example) Chinese hutongs.
Residential high-rise is also associated with social apartheid. In the mid twentieth century, they were like concentration camps for the poor (think Pruitt-Igoe in St Louis, for example), nowadays they are exclusionist enclaves for the super-rich (think of the new 57th Street towers in New York)

What do the skyscraper represent to society? Why are they so popular?
To corporations, cities and states, they represent power and status. There is a penis-envy dynamic in the way some places (Gulf states, China) and developers (Trump, say) compete for height.
For super-rich penthouse occupants and for corporate execs in high-level boardrooms, there is the God-like feeling of looking down on everything.
But there can also be incredible beauty that makes cities exciting and for everyone to share- New York’s classic skyscrapers did that, and buildings like London’s Shard do that now.

Is it advisable to work or live in such high places?
Yes, it’s great. But skyscrapers’ fortunes can change. Some exclusive high-rise may become future slums. Some offices become obsolete.
As long as society is stable, and there is electricity to run elevators, skyscrapers will be desirable. That may not be forever, though.
Torre David in Caracas was to be a bank HQ, but until recently, it became a poor but vibrant community without electricity. Even so, I’ll bet it was exciting to be there!

What is your opinion about The Kingdom Tower in Jeddah that will rise at least 1,000 metres into the Saudi Arabian sky? Is it too high?
It’s un-necessary, the height is pure vanity. It’s a fantastic and brilliant design by Adrian Smith, but it is a sign of Saudi Arabia’s schizophrenia in simultaneously trying to be super-modern and maintaining a violent, anti-human religious regime. And it copies Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, which is a lot more fun and is in a far cooler place. In less it may well be an abandoned ruin.

How much higher can our cities’ skyscrapers will go in the future?
The best skyscraper architect in the world, Adrian Smith, reckons a mile or more (1600m+).

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