London design festival 15 at the V & A

Mexican pavilion at V & A

Mexican pavilion: You Know You Cannot See Yourself So Well as by Reflection by Mexican architect Frida Escobedo


For those who have visited the V & A museum during the London design festival previously would know that ‘seeking’ the design installations within the maze-like museum could be rewarding and frustrating at the same time. Navigating the museum with a simplified map while renovation work is taking place proved to be fairly challenging, though you could view it as part of the fun.


Zotem by Kim Thomé with Swarovski Zotem by Kim Thomé with Swarovski

Zotem by Kim Thomé with Swarovski


This year, eight major installations were created by designers and artists from different disciplines and nationalities scattered around the museum. One of the most conspicuous installations was ‘Zotem’, an 18-metre-tall double-sided monolith embedded with over-sized Swarovski crystals, which rose vertically from the entrance to the Ceramics gallery directly above it, on the sixth floor. Designed by London-based Norwegian designer Kim Thomé in collaboration with Swarovski, the installation resembles a 19th century animation device and it encouraged visitors to look upwards as they walked into the building.


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Barnaby Barford’s The Tower of Babel


In the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries, artist Barnaby Barford‘s six metre high sculptural installation ‘The Tower of Babel’ (on display until 1st Nov) utterly captured visitors’ imagination. The Tower comprises 3000 bone china shops, each one unique, each depicting a real London shop photographed by the artist. At its base the shops are derelict, while at its pinnacle are the crème-de-la-crème of London’s exclusive boutiques and galleries. Each shop is for sale during the period of its exhibition at the Museum, with prices rising as the Tower ascends, the installation confronts us with the choices we make as consumers, through necessity or desire.


Laetitia de Allegri and Matteo Fogale's Mise-en-abyme

 Laetitia de Allegri and Matteo Fogale’s Mise-en-abyme


The Ogham Wall by Grafton Architects

The Ogham Wall by Grafton Architects 


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Mischer’traxler’s Curiosity Cloud


One of my favourite installations at the event was ‘Curiosity Cloud’ in the Norfolk House Music Room designed by Austrian design duo mischer’traxler. I met and spoke to Thomas Traxler at DMY (Berlin Design Festival) back in 2009, and I am happy that they have continued to create experimental and inspiring works since then.

Inspired by the Art Nouveau movement, the duo collaborated with champagne house Perrier-Jouët to create an installation comprises 250 mouth-blown glass globes made by the Viennese glass company Lobmeyr. Each globe contained a single hand-fabricated (moving) insect and 25 insect species were represented, falling into three categories: extinct, common, and newly discovered. The encapsulated emitted trilling noises as they collided with the glass, thus creating an immersive experience for the visitors. There was a definitely a ‘wow’ factor as visitors entered the room, and it captured mankind’s fascination with nature in an enchanting way.


Faye Toogood’s two-part installation, The Cloakroom Faye Toogood’s The Cloakroom Faye Toogood’s The Cloakroom Faye Toogood’s The Cloakroom Faye Toogood’s The Cloakroom

Faye Toogood’s The Cloakroom


A rather fun installation was The Cloakroom created by British designerFaye Toogood. Visitors were invited to wear one of her 150 coats around the Museum in search of her sculptural installations. Each coat was equipped with a sewn-in map that guided the visitor, where they discovered a series of sculptural garments created by Toogood in response to nearby objects from the Museum’s collection.


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Top: Robin Day’s work in wood; Bottom right: Amy Hughes’ ceramics


The museum also paid tribute to Robin Day, one of the most significant British furniture designers of the 20th century. The exhibition, curated by Jane Withers and designed by Turner Prize nominees Assemble explored Day’s innovative use of wood in his professional practice together with objects made for the family home and writings that reveal his deep attachment to nature and strong environmental concerns.


Open House London 2015

Over the years, I have witnessed how Open House London evolved from a relatively low-key architecture event to a major and extremely popular one. Although it is encouraging to see the public’s growing interests in architecture, it is also frustrating because advanced bookings are filled up quickly and long queues are common outside of popular buildings over the weekend.

My strategy this year was to stay away from the landmarks in order to avoid queues, yet many had the same idea as me, so I still had to wait and accept that queues were unavoidable!


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 Alexandra & Ainsworth estate


My first stop was the Grade II listed Alexandra and Ainsworth Estate in South Hampstead. I have read a lot about this estate before my visit, and I was keen to find out more about the most expensive social housing project ever built in this country. Designed by architect Neave Brown for Camden Council, the 6.47-hectare site (the size of 12 football pitches) ended up costing £20.9 million and was completed in 1978.

During the Thatcher years, the estate fell into disrepair and it took some time for dissatisfied residents to get the estate listed. Along with Golden Lane estate, Dunboyne Road estate (also designed by Neave Brown) and The Branch Hill Estate, this estate is now being regarded as one of the most important examples of social housing in Europe.

It is hard not to be impressed by Brown‘s design and vision as I walked along the pedestrian walkway (Rowley Way) with terraced maisonettes on both sides. Unlike Ernő Goldfinger‘s vision for high-rise social housing ( like Balfron and Trellick Towers), Brown‘s ziggurat style terraces provide a greener and more aesthetically pleasing exterior. There is a documentary about this estate called Rowley Way, and you can find out more about the architect’s ideas via this film.


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Alexandra Road park


Although there were guided tours of a flat and the park on the day, the waiting time for the flat was more than 1 hour and a half, and so I skipped it for the park tour instead (which was a shame).

The newly restored Alexandra Road Park was granted The Heritage Lottery funding in 2013, and our tour was lead by landscape architect Neil Davidson from J & L Gibsons, the studio responsible for the restoration work.

At the tour, we were informed that the park was previously a no-go area for kids, so the restoration of this 4 acres park is significant as it aims to create a relaxing multi-functional communal space for all ages. Now the contemporary and beautiful park has five playgrounds, circular lawn, meadow, rows of trees and benches that hopefully would benefit the residents of the estate in the long run.


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McCann Building


I have walked past the stunning streamline art deco McCann building near Russel Square countless times, and I have often wondered what its interior is like. Believe it or not, but this building was built for Daimler as a car hire garage back in 1931. Designed by Wallis Gibert (the architects behind Perivale’s Hoover building and the Victoria coach station), this garage was the inspiration for the Fisher Price garage toy. The Grade II listed building was refurbished in 1999 by PKS Architects and shortly after, advertising agency McCann moved in.


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 Interior of the building and W. Heath Robinson’s exhibition/ drawings from ‘How to Live in a Flat’


Unfortunately no photos were allowed beyond the main atrium (except for the roof top), but I can assure you that the interior of the building is as fascinating as the exterior esp. the circular corridors! The atrium’s decor of hanging laundry and balloons were inspired by the drawings from English cartoonist and illustrator William Heath Robinson‘s book ‘How to Live in a Flat’, which were part of the exhibition at the agency.


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Exterior of The Royal College of Physicians


Located next to Regent’s Park, The Royal College of Physicians is another building that has piqued my interest for years. Although the the Grade II listed building is normally open to the public, the guided tour on the day did provide insight into the history and design of the building.

Designed by architect Sir Denys Lasdun (who also designed the Royal National Theatre) and opened in 1964, this conspicuous white Modernist building was greatly influenced by Le Corbusier. Like Neave Brown‘s vision for social housing, Lasdun‘s vision to build a modern building for a centuries-old traditional body was considered to be quite radical at the time.


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 Interior of The Royal College of Physicians


Aside from the exterior, Le Corbusier‘s influence can also be seen inside esp. in the Lasdun Hall, where light floods the hall from the enormous windows. Yet Lasdun was also keen to merge traditions with modern values, hence he recreated the Censor’s Room, which is lined with original 17th century oak paneling from the College’s third home in Warwick Lane. Other notable architectural features include the stunning spiral staircase and stained glass window created by Keith New.


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The medical garden of the college


The Medical garden was created in 1965 and it contains 1,300 plants either used as medicines in the past 5000 years or which commemorate physicians. Each plant is labelled with its Latin name, plant family, and the regions of the world from which they come from. It is not only an oasis in central London, but also a fine complement to the impressive building.


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Superhome: 8 Belsize Court garages


A few years ago, I visited one of the Superhomes in Belsize Park ( 2a Belsize Park Gardens), and it was eye-opening to learn different energy-saving methods that can be applied to a traditional house. This year, I decided to visit another superhome nearby, which was converted from a Victorian coach and horses stables.

The 19th century mews house is now home to an award-winning architect’s studio and 4 bedroom upper maisonette. It was very interesting to meet the architects from Sanya Polescuk Architects and learned about how they have retained many of the original Victorian features like the wall tiles, ironwork and cobblestones while making many carbon-reducing improvements as possible.

One of the best things about the Open House event is getting the opportunity to visit private homes of Londoners and learn more about how to create sustainable housing through creative ideas and simple methods. This visit has definitely inspired me to visit more private homes next year, though I am not sure if the queuing time will be reduced. I wonder if the popularity of this event will turn it into a biennial one? I sincerely hope so.


The Crossness Pumping Station

Crossness Pumping StationCrossness Pumping Station Crossness Pumping Station


I love historical places and architecture that offer insights into the past. In London, there are never shortages of heritage buildings with significant importance; in fact, there are so many that we often forget their existence until the annual Open House weekend!

I enjoy visiting hidden gems all year round, hence when I found out about the open day at the Grade I listed Crossness Pumping Station, I suggested it to my equally curious friend. Although we are both Londoners, we have never visited this historical building before (not sure how many Londoners have) and so we were both quite enthusiastic until the actual day.

I would not recommend visiting the site without a car. Not only did we have to take the tube, train and bus (since the site’s mini bus was not running on the day of our visit), we also had to walk for 20 minutes in heavy rain from the nearest bus stop. It was then we realised that sometimes a car is needed if we decide to venture out of zone 3!


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Displays of Victorian engines and toilets at the visitor centre


Opened by the Prince of Wales in 1865, the Crossness Pumping Station was built by Sir Joseph Bazalgette as of his radical scheme to improve the heath and sanitation of Victorian London. The pumping station contained four of the world’s largest remaining rotative beam engines, originally built by James Watt & Company. These engines were used to pump London’s sewage into a reservoir before discharged into the Thames. The old beam engines remained in service until the mid 1950s before it was abandoned and neglected for decades. In 1987, the Crossness Engines Trust was formed to preserve and restore the building and engines to their former glories.


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The ground floor beam engine house


Constructed in the Romanesque style, the building features some of the most spectacular ornamental Victorian cast ironwork to be found today. Visitors can admire the decorative iron work on the ground floor, as well as the original remains of the earlier paint work.


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 The beam floor


On the beam floor, visitors can see the upper part of the four beams, the restored tiled floor, and the preserved original painted panel from 1865 in the octagon. It was quite amazing to watch the huge beams moving from the upper floor. Aside from the heritage factor, the site is also a celebration of British engineering.


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Workshops and other machinery


Outside of the pumping house, there are also workshops full of machinery, which would undoubtedly satisfy many machine-thirsty males.

Since restoration work is still ongoing at the site, the pumping station is only open to the public on certain dates. The last open of this year is 11th October, and visitors will have to check the website to find out more about Open days in 2016.


The Crossness Pumping Station, The Old Works, Thames Water S.T.W., Belvedere Road, Abbey Wood, London, SE2 9AQ.



Hampstead’s Modernist gem: Isokon gallery

isokon building


Earlier in the year I wrote an entry on Hampstead’s Modernist architecture, and I mentioned the Isokon gallery which opens only in the weekends from March until October.

I finally made another visit to this Grade I listed iconic building on a sunny and warm day (notice the contrast of the photos taken in winter vs summer), and I highly recommend this gallery to all Modernist design and architecture lovers.


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The newly furbished gallery is housed inside the old garage, and although it is quite compact in size, it is fascinating and extremely informative. There are photographs and historical facts about the building, its founders and the architect, as well as the renovation process from a derelict building to its current remarkable state (by Avanti Architects). And if you are interested in modernist architecture in Hampstead, there is a map of the area that indicates the locations of these buildings and their famous residents.


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The gallery also showcases original furniture from the 1930s including some plywood pieces produced by Jack Pritchard under the Isokon furniture brand. Pritchard collaborated with the building’s famous Bauhaus residents including Walter Gropius (Side Table GT2), Marcel Breuer (Long chair) and Laszlo Moholy Nagy (chair) to produce some iconic pieces for the flats. Simplicity and functionality is crucial in the design of these pieces, and unsurprisingly, they still look timeless 80 years on.

At the entrance, there is a small shop that sells books, designs and souvenir related to Modernism; but best of all, visitors can view a preserved kitchen with original fittings and appliances which reveals how everyday design has changed over time and shaped our lives today.


The Isokon Gallery opens every Saturday and Sunday (11am – 4pm) from March until October. Address: Lawn Road, Hampstead, London, NW3 2XD.