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Cabin fever

David Kohn’s boat hotel for Living Architecture is pure whimsy writes Felix Mara

‘Living Architecture is a social enterprise dedicated to the promotion and enjoyment of world-class modern architecture.’ That’s what Living Architecture’s website says. Sounds great. And creative director Alain de Botton’s proposed method of promoting modern architecture, which involves renting out specially commissioned buildings for short, reasonably priced, breaks, seems very noble.

But are all these buildings world-class modern architecture? Peter Zumthor’s Secular Retreat, scheduled to open at the end of the year, promises to be a cracker, but most of the completed buildings are either neo-vernaculars or follies. David Kohn Architects’ A Room for London, designed in collaboration with the artist Fiona Banner and opened in January, falls into the second category.

Living Architecture, who collaborated with the arts organisation Artangel on the project, boasts of ‘exceptional contemporary architecture in unusual settings’. Seemingly washed up atop a post-diluvian Queen Elizabeth Hall, a concert hall in the Southbank Centre complex, Kohn’s folly certainly has the unusual setting.

He says: ‘Living Architecture’s agenda is to provide an experience of architecture that isn’t going to an exhibition, looking at a magazine or seeing a fragment of it, but actually to experience it – to live in it for a night. The brief was to make a room that was an invitation to be removed from the city and be contemplative.’ As required by the brief, the refuge was fabricated off-site, in three sections, which were craned in and assembled on the roof, where it will remain until the end of the year before being dismantled and either reassembled elsewhere or recycled.

The boat is listing under the weight of its literary and artistic cargo

Given this strategy and site, Kohn and Banner set about dreaming up a narrative surrounding the room’s provenance, and hit on the idea of a boat which had sailed down the river and, after a flood, been washed up on an asphalt beach. And so it sits, a very nice pseudo-boat as pseudo-boats go, or rather don’t go.

A temporary lift hoists guests up to the roof and they enter the boat at its lower level, passing through a lobby and a passage between a shower room and a WC, then between a kitchen and library into the sleeping and living accommodation, with views of the Thames and the London skyline on three sides. A ladder leads up to a larger octagonal library, opening onto the upper level decks.

‘We definitely didn’t want it to feel like a modern interior,’ says Kohn, ignoring the brief and Living Architecture’s manifesto. ‘In some ways it’s contemporary and in some ways old.’ Steampunk, you might say. But it would be rash to dismiss A Room for London as purely mimetic.

You could level similar criticisms at examples of more contemporary-looking architecture which are inspired by the imagery, rather than the performance, of shipbuilding or yachts. What’s distinctive about much of Kohn’s work is its qualities of steadfast originality and abstraction, and this comes across in the boat’s simple, stylised, toy-like form.

The boat is listing under the weight of its literary and artistic cargo, arguably Banner’s main contribution to the venture. The notion of a ship led to musings about Joseph Conrad, whose novel Heart of Darkness begins on the banks of the Thames and, as a continuation of this shaggy dog story, Kohn’s boat takes its name from the ‘Roi des Belges’ which Conrad captained on a voyage to the Congo. There’s plenty of onboard memorabilia surrounding this myth and King Leopold II of Belgium. ‘You can read as much history as you like into it,’ says Kohn.

Then there’s the whole John Soane element, which inspired Kohn’s sequential, layered planning. ‘Soane has a small-scale intensity, and there are lots of small spaces that give views on to much larger ones, through oculi or heavily layered frames.’ This certainly chimes with Kohn’s intention to create a sense of being apart from the outside world. It feels pretty surreal up there – you’d go mad if you stayed too long.

‘The architecture is asking to be handled and worked,’ says Kohn, and this is completely in line with Living Architecture’s emphasis on experiencing buildings. The boat is crammed with accessories: beds with attached partitions which slide backwards and forwards to create different spatial and sleeping configurations, louvred windows behind folded shutters for cross-ventilation, mast-top wind turbines, a weather station and a log book, in which guests can record details such as tide levels and wind speeds.

The coolest details on board belong to the standard ship windows, with radiused corners that help their frames resist breakage when the hull twists, which came in handy when it was craned onto the roof.

This all says ‘boat’ and ‘Soane’ but, especially internally, it fails to cohere as an appealing artistic whole; surprising, but not so unusual in an art-house project. There’s no chemistry in the combination of colours, finishes and textures. The stained birch plywood internal linings evoke Soanean vermillions, but like their marine-blue neighbours, they are about as appealing as stained plywood can be and the grey finish on the CHSs doesn’t help. As in some Design and Build projects, the high quality of execution and finishing just emphasises the lack of artistic vision and invention in the design, and this is most visible in the mast’s detail, or rather lack of detail.

It’s hard to reconcile A Room for London with Living Architecture’s statement of objectives: ‘The history of architecture has always been capable of being shaped by a few great domestic buildings – Chiswick House, the Schröder House, the Villa Savoye [….] The houses hope in their own ways to be as innovative as the famous Californian Case Study houses of the 1950s and 1960s.’ This is a project preoccupied with fantasy. Next port of call, Disneyland!

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