Nostalgia for the Icelandic sky


Sunrise in Reykjvik


One of my favourite documentaries of all time is Chilean documentary film director Patricio Guzmán’s ‘Nostalgia for the light’. The poignant, insightful and stunningly beautiful film was set in Chile’s Atacama Desert, and it is a meditation on life, history and the universe. The film touched me on many levels, but I was notably struck by the film’s cinematography. I was utterly mesmerised by beauty of the Chilean sky and desert.

On my recent visit to Iceland, the sublime and awe-inspiring nature not only reminded me of the film, it also made me appreciate the grandeur of our mother earth and the universe. The Icelandic sky in particular has stayed in my mind since my return, I simply cannot forget the serene and unpolluted sky.


Hallgrímskirkja  Hallgrímskirkja

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Top row: Hallgrímskirkja church; Bottm: Hateigskirkja church


Looking at the photos, it would difficult to guess the time of day (except for the night shots) when these photos were taken. In January, sunrise starts around 9.30 am and the sun sets begins at 4.30 pm. The sun remains low near the horizon throughout the day, hence even photos taken in the mornings and afternoons resemble sunsets in the UK.


iceland   iceland


iceland  iceland


I regret immensely for not bringing my watercolour set, because I was yearning to record the sky colours throughout the day while I was traveling on the road for three days. Pale blue and pink, blue and orange, violet and shades of blue… oh, how I wanted to record these colour combinations! I don’t think the camera did it justice, because what I perceived or experienced was far more vivid than what was captured.


iceland  reykjavik



Last 2 rows: Seljalandsfoss waterfall


Although we had sunshine and clear sky during the day, we were slightly unlucky with the weather in the evenings. The clouds blocked our encounters with aurora borealis (i.e. northern lights), and we only saw a glimpse of it when we were returning from the southern coast back to Reykjavik one evening.


iceland  iceland

Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon

iceland  iceland

Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon

Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon

Skaftafell Nature Reserve

2nd, 4th & 5th rows: Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon; last row: Skaftafell Nature Reserve


Yes, we saw faint green lights behind the clouds, but that was it. It was nothing like the photographs we often see when the entire sky is green. It was slightly disappointing, but it also provided me the incentive to return to Iceland again.


northern lights

A glimpse of the northern lights


I was lucky to have traveled extensively throughout my life, but I have never felt as exhilarated as I did in Iceland. It was the connection with mother nature that had a profound impact on me. Seeing nature as it is, with least human interventions, can be quite startling for city dwellers.


iceland  iceland

full moon

A view of full moon from the plane window


Still enthralled by what I saw and experienced in Iceland, I reluctantly boarded onto the plane back to London. Yet another natural phenomenon appeared right in front of me – an unobstructed and bright full moon in a distance from my window seat. At this point, I was simply grateful to be alive, and to witness the sublime beauty of the universe.

Human beings are so insignificant in compare to mother nature, and we have to do our best to protect it rather than destroy it. However, I fear that it may be too late already, and mother nature has started to retaliate against mankind’s perpetual destruction on the environment. The recent erratic weather patterns around the world is a wake-up call, and if we continue to ignore it, the consequences will be irreversible. And this time, I am on nature’s side.


Designs for the homeless

In my last entry, I focused on the growing issue of homelessness in London, now I want to examine the solutions designers have come up with to tackle this issue.

Last year, London architectural designer James Furzer‘s ‘Home for the Homeless’ project won the top prize in FAKRO’s International Design Competition.

Furzer has designed a series of off-the-ground sleeping pods that can be attached to any building with the help of two steel frames. The 6m2 timber shelters can be accessed via a ladder, and are positioned high enough off the ground to provide clearance beneath for pedestrians walking along the pavements. Each pod contains fold-away seating and a sleeping platform and Furzer hopes a homeless charity would take over the management of them.



Furzer’s Home for the Homeless


Unfortunately, the designer’s crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo did not reach the £7000 target, so it is unclear whether these pods will actually be made or not. Although the well-meaning project’s idea is intriguing, I found some fundamental problems with the project:

1. How likely are London’s landlords going to allow these pods to be attached to their walls? And do they need planning permission from the council? Will shop owners or residents tolerate having these pods outside of their homes or shops?

2. Sanitation facilities seem to be missing here, so I am not sure what the state of the pods will be like the day after.

3. There are many rough sleepers who have issues with being alone and staying in a confined space, this is also one of the reasons why they don’t stay in night shelters even when there is space available.

4. It is also likely that some drug users will turn the pods into a drug den. Is there a way to prevent this from happening?

I don’t want to scrutinise the project too much, but I think it will difficult for the project to work in reality because many practical issues have been overlooked.


Homeless-shelters_James-Furzer Homeless-shelters_James-Furzer

Visualisations are by James Furzer


A more practical shelter solution was launched in 2013 by IKEA Foundation. The foundation has worked with UNHCR and a group of Swedish designers to develop a new kind of temporary shelter that will provide refugees a new kind of temporary shelter. Better Shelter is a flat pack solution for a new, safer and more durable shelter for refugee families. The solar-powered shelter is made out of strong, light-weight stainless steel and is expected to last for 3 years. The prototype has been tested and improved by 40 refugee families in Iraq and Ethiopia, and UNHCR has already ordered 10.000 of them.

Now not only our homes are filled with Ikea furniture, but the refugees will also be using their shelters! Ikea is undoubtedly conquering the world!


better shelter

Photo from Better Shelter


At the Dutch design week last year, Dutch fashion designer Bas Timmer and his business partner Alexander de Groot presented the sheltersuit, a wind and waterproof jacket/sleeping bag for homeless people made from used abandoned tents from vacated music festival sites. The suits are manufactured in Timmer‘s own studio in Enschede, in partnership with Syrian volunteers – many of whom are professional tailors. And in return the volunteers are offered assimilation courses, Dutch driving lessons and assistance with finding places to live.

The founders now run a foundation to ensure the creation of the suits. The purpose is to produce and distribute as many suits for the homeless who are sleeping outside during extreme cold weather.

Hiring Syrian workers and the upcycling abandoned tents are the two factors that make this project stand out. Although it doesn’t solve the problem of homelessness, it acts as a temporary solution especially if the suits can be distributed to refugee camps in the winter.



Photos from What Design Can Do


Here are only a few examples of what designers have come with to tackle the problem, and I am sure there are a lot more on the list. My concern is that sometimes designers and architects are not thinking from the homeless people’s point of view. They are imagining the needs of the homeless without enough research and understanding. If designers really want to know what homeless people need, then they have to talk to them, spend time with them or even try sleeping rough themselves, then they are more likely to come up with better design solutions.


An encounter with London’s homeless

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Left: A rough sleeper in Islington; Right: the same problem can be seen in the streets of Glasgow


I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions simply because if I want to make changes, I would not wait until the beginning of the year. However, a new year has motivated me to do something different, which was to join a grassroots homeless volunteer network, The Sock Mob and spent one January evening meeting the homeless face to face in Central London.

It is hard to ignore the issue of homelessness in London because rough sleepers can be seen in all parts of London these days. According the Guardian‘s recent article – ‘the number of rough sleepers in London has more than doubled in five years because of “toxic mix” of cuts, government failure and a lack of support for people arriving from EU countries, according to figures from a network of charities.’

With over 7500 homeless people sleeping on the streets, can we still turn a blind eye on this growing crisis? When I was in Paris a few months ago, I was also equally alarmed by the homeless people on the streets, and like London, many of them are from central and eastern Europe. With around 4.1 million homeless people in Europe, this crisis is not just isolated to mega cities like London and Paris, it is also affecting provincial cities too.


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Rough sleepers in Paris are as ubiquitous as London


There are currently a number of organisations that help to tackle homelessness in London, e.g. the Mayor’s No second night out and charity groups like Crisis and Shelter from the Storm. At the event, I also found out about another organisation called The Sikh Welfare & Awareness Team (S.W.A.T) which provides hot food in Central three times a week, as well as other support and activities.

In the past, I had a misconception that the people who end up homeless are either drug abusers, mental health sufferers or immigrants, and I believe this is shared by many of the general public. Yet after watching a documentary about homelessness changed my ignorant view, and I decided to try and understand the issue by meeting them.


London's homeless homeless in London

Left: A ‘camp’ in Chinatown; Right: the traffic cone trumpeter


A few days into 2016, over 20 of us showed up for the event and we were divided into smaller groups led by an experienced volunteer who has been involved with the group for over 8 years. Between us, we had brought new socks, bottled water, snacks and fruits to be distributed to the homeless as we walked around Soho, Piccadilly and Charing Cross. The group leader also brought pot noodles and hot water in a thermal flask for those who wanted a quick and hot meal.

Throughout the evening, we met and chatted to various rough sleepers of all ages and of both sexes. We talked to the traffic cone trumpeter in Chinatown; the seventeen year old boy who was given a £50 note by a random passerby; a carer from Brighton who lost everything and couldn’t find a job in London; a woman was desperate for a hot drink on Christmas eve, but was turned away by Westminster council because she was registered under the Camden Council. Each person had a different story, but all them were cold, hungry and lonely.

I am fully aware that volunteering once or even regularly will not solve this complex and deepening issue, but I am glad that I met them face to face and listened to their stories. After I got home, I started to wonder how design can help the homeless, or if designers are doing enough to deal with the growing social issues that surround us daily. In my next entry, I will explore the solutions that designers have come up with that tackle this global problem.

To be continued…