Utopia installation by Penny Woolock

utopia installation


What is the definition of ‘utopia’? According to the Oxford dictionary, the definition is as follows: “An imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect. The word was first used in the book Utopia (1516) by Sir Thomas More. The opposite of dystopia.”

This year, The Roundhouse invited award-winning British director and filmmaker Penny Woolcock to create a ground breaking installation Utopia. In collaboration with set design team Block9, Utopia is a multi-sensory exhibition focusing on urban issues in recent times including inequality, consumerism, housing, gentrification, education, crime and social media.


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Akin to an immersive theatre setting (except there are no actors involved), visitors are encouraged to spend an hour wandering around the atmospheric setting filled with art and sound installations. There are audio testimonies and stories of Londoners – including drug dealer, prostitute, NHS worker and teenager etc – throughout the exhibition, and each story reveals the harsh reality of life or as an outcast of the society.

In one of the rooms, it is filled with tower of cardboard boxes that resembles a self-storage warehouse, and each box is branded with a label – desirability, cool, glamour, happiness and spirituality etc. These goals or our society’s emphasis on achievements merely create more discrimination, inequality and dysfunctionalilty; and in essence, they are shallow and unrealistic.


Penny Woolcock: Introducing the Artist Behind Utopia 


It is probably more appropriate to use the word ‘dystopia’ as its title, because there is no perfect world here (nor in real life), utopia is an illusionary world that exists in the minds of the deluded. On paper, it would be easy to dismiss the exhibition as patronising and pessimistic, but I found the exhibition genuine, thought-provoking and inspiring. At the end of the day, we have to accept that human beings are conditioned and flawed; however, we also have the extraordinary ability to create, empathise and support each other. Altruism may not be a word that is associated with our capitalist society, but perhaps this is the closest solution to the issues that we are facing in our dystopian society today.


Penny WoolcockUtopia is on until23 August at the Roundhouse, Chalk Farm Road, London, NW1 8EH.

Serpentine pavilion 2015

Serpentine Pavilion 2015


I had visited five Serpentine Pavilions prior to this one, and the designs had been a mix bag with some more successful/popular than others. I loved last year’s pavilion by Chilean architect Smiljan Radić (read my entry here), even though I wasn’t entirely convinced before my visit.

This year’s pavilion, designed by Spanish architectural studio Selgascano (José Selgas and Lucía Cano), has been criticised by critics and public as “the worst Serpentine Gallery Pavilion ever” and “trash bag monster” (Ouch), so is it really that awful? I was curious to see it for myself.


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I ended up visiting the pavilion twice. The first visit confirmed my initial skepticism, I did not like it. Yes, it is colourful and summery, but it also looks cheap ( it is made of ETFE plastic), tenuous and messy. After wandering around for about ten minutes, I took a few snapshots and left.

A few weeks later, I was back at the pavilion again on a lovely sunny day. Perhaps it was the sun or my uplifted mood, but I began to appreciate the playful and experimental aspects of pavilion.


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Since the pavilion is not a permanent structure, the use of cheap material seems to make sense now. And unlike the more refined and prodigious structures by other star architects, this one is more daring, feminine, crude and ephemeral. I don’t think the pavilion can be considered an outstanding one, but perhaps like last year’s pavilion, it challenges us to re-evaluate our perceptions and preconceptions of architecture.

The pavilion will close on 18th October, so there is still plenty of time to wander, ponder, and decide for yourself whether you see it as plastic trash or a fun rainbow tunnel.


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The Mackintosh trail in Glasgow

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Mackintosh architecture exhibition at RIBA London


Back in May I visited the Mackintosh architecture exhibition at the RIBA, which coincided with my Glasgow trip a month later. I have long wanted to visit Glasgow and buildings designed by the renowned Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh (I am gutted that I didn’t visit The Glasgow School of Art before its major fire last year). Hence the exhibition provided me with some background information on the architect, and the evolution of his career and architectural style.

Though the best way to understand and appreciate the architect’s work, one must visit Glasgow to see the bigger picture. And with only two nights in the city, I had to plan my schedule meticulously so that I can visit all the essential Mackintosh sights within a limited time frame ( if business doesn’t work out, perhaps I can switch to planning itineraries for travel agencies one day).


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Left: The Mackintosh house at the Hunterian art gallery; Middle: Lantern and Finial designed by Mackintosh; Right: Stairs in the Art Gallery


My first stop was The Mackintosh House at the Hunterian Art Gallery, part of The University of Glasgow. Visitors could only visit the house with a tour guide in groups and no photography is allowed inside. Although the original house was demolished in the early 1960s, all the original fixtures and contents were preserved and reassembled, and the architects have created a replica that closely resemble the original. The house showcases some wonderful and unusual furniture designed by Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald (whose craft work is simply mesmorising), and it is a must stop for all Mackintosh fans.


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Works by Charles and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum – First row: A reconstruction of the Ladies Luncheon Room; Third row: The May Queen by Margaret Macdonald; Bottom row: Margaret Macdonald‘s work


My second stop was the magnificent Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum (Argyle St, Glasgow G3 8AG), which showcases 8,000 objects in 22 themed galleries. There is a section of the gallery that is devoted to the Glasgow Style movement and works by the Mackintoshes. There is a reconstructed Ladies Luncheon Room at Miss Cranston’s Ingram Street Tearooms with the gesso panelshanging on top. One of the panels is ‘The Wassail’ designed by Mackintosh, while its companion panel The May Queen was created by his wife Margaret Macdonald in 1900.


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Glasgow School of Art and Mackintosh’s furniture gallery


Although Mackintosh‘s original masterpiece for Glasgow School of Art (164 Renfrew Street, Glasgow, G3 6RF) was severely damaged by the fire last year, there are daily guided tours available to visit the new building opposite. Completed in 2013, the award-winning Reid Building was designed by Steven Holl Architects. The school offers three (four in the summer) one-hour student-led ‘Mackintosh at the GSA tour’ daily, and it focuses on the story and design of the Mackintosh building, as well as an exclusive access to GSA’s new furniture gallery. This new gallery showcases 20 pieces of furniture by Mackintosh and two rarely-seen embroidered panels by Margaret Macdonald that were rescued from the fire. The tour ends in the Window on Mackintosh visitor centre on the ground floor which is open to the public free of charge.

It is a real shame that Mackintosh‘s famous library and most of its contents had been turned into ashes, but restoration works have begun and hopefully we will be able to visit the restored building in a few years’ time.


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The Willow tea rooms


One of the more popular and accessible Mackintosh landmarks in Glasgow is The Willow tea rooms (217 Sauchiehall Street) in the city centre. Designed by Mackintosh in 1903 for Kate Cranston (daughter of a tea merchant), the tea rooms were the most fashionable hang outs at the time. Described as “a fantasy for afternoon tea”, The Room de Luxe on the first floor was an extravagant and decorative room filled with furniture designed by Mackintosh and gesso panels designed by his wife Margaret. The Room de Luxe was restored in the 1980s, now visitors can dine in the upstairs tearoom, and visit the free exhibition area at the back of the ground floor. However, the ‘Argos’ style jewellery and souvenir shop and fittings in the front section are inconsistent with the rest of the place. It is a pity, and I hope that this will be addressed in the future.


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The lighthouse and the Mackintosh Centre


With little time to spare, I managed to visit The lighthouse (11 Mitchell Lane, Glasgow, G1 3NU) before it closed for the day. It is housed in the former Glasgow Herald building, the first public commission completed by Mackintosh. The building is now a national centre for design and architecture, with a Mackintosh Tower (which was closed during my visit) and a Mackintosh Interpretation Centre which charts the life & work of the architect/designer. The most impressive feature for me though is the 134 steps spiral staircase that leads you up to the tower. I think I will have to try climbing it on my next visit.


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First & second rows: Daily Record Building; Bottom left: Argyle Street tea rooms (interiors destroyed); Ingram tea rooms (interiors can be seen at the Kelvingrove Art gallery)


Aside from the above sights, there are other Mackintosh gems that are also worth visiting:

House for an Art Lover in Bellahouston Park (10 Dumbreck Rd, Glasgow, Lanarkshire G41 5BW)

Scotland Street School Museum (225 Scotland Street, Glasgow, G5 8QB)

Queen’s Cross Church (870 Garscube Road, Glasgow, G20 7EL)

The Glasgow Necropolis (Wishard Street, Glasgow, G4 0UZ)

The Hill House (Upper Colquhoun Street, Helensburgh, G84 9AJ.