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Day tripped and the beast by Steven McCloy

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

I had been languishing around in the offices for weeks on end, until I found myself aboard the Jubilee Line, having persuaded my design partner to accompany me on a very special trip, we imagine ourselves like the Situationists on a ramble through the more earthy areas of London, stopping off at various stations on route and marvel at some of the best high tech architecture the city’s trusted old guard have delivered. One favourite is at Westminster, where descending through the darks layers of concrete is to descend into the belly of the city; the belly of the beast, but it is at North Greenwich where the real creature lies.

This day trip is not about the Underground however, it is about Will Alsop, with tube stations as wormholes between his various urban aliens. We’ve been to the Laboratory near Whitechapel, we’ve been to Peckham and Goldsmiths and several others, I don’t entirely remember in what order we went, I barely took any photographs on my rather worn, glitchy iPhone, preferring to document the buildings as interpretative drawings in my sketchbook.

The North Greenwich platform is fairly dark and the space smells like oil, the glass surfaces are polluted with a brown dust. It is immediately obvious that the main guts of the station are one floor above you when you’re on the platform and they are supported by a series of blue columns, they are more of legs though, each one has a slant or a taper that runs up to the bellies of the structures above. There is an excitement to the space that might not be recognisable to a non-architect; I’m moving round the space exclaiming “Look at THAT part, I can’t BELIEVE he got away with that!”

To my astonishment part of Alsop’s building suddenly rears up its head – It’s a Giant Blue Dinosaur! Out from one of the bellies protrudes a steel staircase (the neck), it has central vertebrae and heavy boned flights and handrails, since it doesn’t come down to platform level so if you try to surface you must use the escalators (tail! – you will remember the opening scene for The Flintstones). The little blue tiles applied to the legs and belly caught my attention, was it trying to be like the lightwell of Casa Batlló, but just a really very budget version? Gaudi’s Building of course was a zoomorphist realisation of St. George’s Dragon, so perhaps the reptilian/pre-historic/buried underground theme was floating around the subconscious surrealism of the architects mind. If I ever meet Will Alsop (and have the courage) I will ask him about it.

I usually had preferred to draw with pencil, 2H, 0.3mm, the mechanical variety; the precision of the point and consistency in line weight commands a refined blueprint, whereas the dark blue wax pastel crayon I am armed with on this occasion scrapes and smears over the page. The Wax leaves sticky, grainy layers with clumpy bits, the microscopic hills and valleys proliferating across the pristine paper. The marks reveal a primordial instinct in me, they are as old as cave paintings or tribal face paint, they are part of the primordial goo that has since the event began to shape the way we as a team approach the understanding of a designed space, and have subsequently yearned for that crude formalism in my work.  

I know Alsop likes messiness the immediacy; I can safely infer that from the paintings. I wanted to restrict myself to the wax pastel such that there was no unnecessary attention to unimportant detail when observing the works.

Alsop’s buildings are clearly going to have gone through the same draughting and technical design as any other architect would bestow on their creations. I would dispute that Alsop’s buildings are crafted on the canvas, and don’t believe that as a result the final buildings are rough and unrefined, instead I feel that the canvas is redistributed to cover the site, and the architects’ palette is extended to include the steel, glass, and concrete of cold hard construction, he then proceeds to produce painterly or sculpted surfaces from those materials, and of course, it is just as effortless and full of energy as the drawing.

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