Design At A Price

Design At A Price

     London’s Design Museum has long been a vagabond of the cultural world. Starting life in 1984 as the Boilerhouse Project in the Victoria & Albert Museum, it moved five years later to a banana-ripening warehouse on the Thames near Tower Bridge. But the need for more space soon became clear, and last week it opened on new premises: the late lamented Commonwealth Institute off Kensington High Street. The museum’s founder, Sir Terence Conran, describes it as a ‘magnificent new cathedral of design’, and declares this to be the proudest moment of his long career.

The contrast with the collection’s previous home could hardly be greater. ‘Bauhaus-on-Thames’, as it was sometimes described, was a white-walled, flat-roofed, rectilinear building whose picture windows constantly led your gaze away from the exhibits and towards the river. The new museum, with its blue-grey exterior, is a symphony of curves – and although it overlooks Holland Park, the focus is inwards and upwards, towards its extraordinary roof. The architectural term for this structure is a hyperbolic parabola, which means that it manages to combine a convex axis with a concave one: from the outside it has often been compared to a tent, and from the inside to a manta ray.

John Pawson, who redesigned the interior, has a metaphor of his own for the atrium: ‘an open-cast mine’. Lined with pale oak and speckled beige marble, it gives an uninterrupted view of the concrete ceiling and its supporting stilts; access is via a series of glass-fronted terraces linked by high-sided staircases, so that as you ascend you are constantly seeing the curves above from a new angle.

It’s an extravagant use of space, but – unlike at Tate Modern – it doesn’t leave the galleries squeezed into poky, claustrophobic corners. The double-height basement (which opens with an exhibition of nominees for the Beazley Designs of the Year awards) is particularly generous. Another good-sized temporary exhibition can be housed on the ground floor, while at the top of the building is a permanent display aimed at visitors unfamiliar with the concept of design, encompassing everything from the first fitted kitchen – created in Germany in1926 – to an Anglepoise lamp and a AK47.  The museum also manages to fit in a 200-seater auditorium, a large events room, an educational centre, a shop, a coffee and juice bar, and a restaurant – which, if the chef knows his onions, could become as fashionable as its Thames-side predecessor, the Blueprint Café.

At the opening press conference, much emphasis was placed on the rescue of a great venue which had been on the verge of rack and ruin. Unveiled in 1961, the Commonwealth Institute was rated by English Heritage as the most important modernist building in London after the Royal Festival Hall (the two were designed by the same architect, Robert Matthew); but in 2002 the Institute closed and the structure was left to decay, with rain leaking in through the famous roof. The site was eventually bought by property developers, who welcomed the Design Museum in return for permission from Kensington and Chelsea Council to build three blocks of flats beside it.

We must be grateful that the building still exists and has been put to such good use. Aesthetically, however, the price has been appalling, because what made the Commonwealth Institute such an extraordinary experience for visitors was not just its futuristic, sky-blue façade and Thunderbirds-style interior walkways but the approach to it from Kensington High Street: a wonderfully imaginative piece of landscaping by Sylvia Crowe with lawns, trees, open water and a forest of flagpoles – one for every Commonwealth nation. Now almost all of that has gone to accommodate the unremarkable flats, leaving just enough room for a cramped little courtyard and a half-hearted fountain to remind us of a lost urban paradise. The museum, consequently, is like an elephant without its trunk and tusks: impressive, but not thrilling.

Inside, however, some of the original features have been preserved, such as the stained-glass windows framing photographs of life in different parts of the Commonwealth; and there are other, more surprising echoes of the past. The ‘Fear and Love’ exhibition, running until April, consists of eleven installations commissioned from leading international designers to explore ‘a spectrum of issues that define our time’ – among them the wastefulness of the fashion industry, the use of social media to search for love and sex, and the settlement of nomads in cities. But looking at Ma Ke’s selection of textiles woven on traditional wooden looms, André Jacques’ video about dating apps –   shot to look like old Technicolor stock – and Rural Urban Framework’s glorified yurt, you feel a strange sense of familiarity. Where might we have come across things like this before? That’s right – in the Commonwealth Institute half a century ago. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


Richard Ford’s Canada

Richard Ford’s Canada

     To most Europeans, the differences between the USA and Canada seem minimal. They occupy a single landmass; the inhabitants speak English with similar accents; they wear the same clothes and enjoy the same pursuits. If pressed, we might observe that Canada is emptier and (as Michael Moore pointed out in Bowling for Columbine) its people are less likely to shoot each other – but that’s about it.

So it’s interesting, and educational, to read a novel in which Canada defines otherness. For the narrator, Dell Parsons, it’s a place of exile, a diversion from the life he was supposed to lead.

The book begins with Dell and his twin sister, Berner, living quietly with their parents in Montana. Their father has given up a career in the Air Force to become a car salesman, but proves ill-suited to the job; when he runs into financial trouble, he persuades their mother – a teacher – to help him rob a bank. The plan fails, and in the aftermath Dell finds himself driven across the border and given shelter of the most basic kind in a small town in the middle of nowhere. There he is taken up by another exile, Arthur Remlinger, who owns the main hotel; but before long Dell finds that he has jumped from the frying pan into the fire.

I have long believed Richard Ford to be the greatest living American novelist – an F. Scott Fitzgerald with lower social horizons but the same perfection of narrative tone and gift for wise generalisations about life and human nature. Canada, however, doesn’t find him at his best. Its main fault – oddly for an author who embraces a pared-down, low-key style – is that it gives us too much information, explaining and elaborating when this is completely unnecessary. Most obviously, Dell refers throughout the 400-odd pages to ‘Berner, my sister’, as if we could possibly have forgotten his relationship to this key character; and when, at an anxious moment, his mother passes the time by cleaning the bath tub, he adds as an aside ‘which Berner always left dirty’. Does this contribute to our understanding of Berner, or anything else? No.

The unfolding of the plot, meanwhile, is low-key to the point of perversity. It has dramatic – not to say sensational – elements aplenty: not just the robbery, but suicide, incest and a double murder. Ford chooses, however, to tell us far in advance what’s going to happen (whether the robbery will succeed, who’s going to die), so that the tension is minimal. Reading Canada, I wondered at times whether he was lapsing into self-parody, as Anthony Powell did at the end of his career in The Fisher King.

Having said that, the book gets better as it goes along. There’s an obvious change of gear halfway through, when Dell arrives in Canada: Ford’s evocation of the bleak, almost abandoned township in which he finds himself is mesmerising, and the enigmatic Arthur Ramlinger is a chilly, fascinating character. As for the final few chapters, which bring us up to date with Dell’s subsequent life, they are really excellent – above all in their brave and wise contemplation of death.

After putting the book down, I found myself wondering how many other novels had been given the name of a real country. Kafka’s America was the only one that came to mind. Curiously, he wrote it without having visited the place, and one can’t help wishing him alive to see its present state. Perhaps only he could do justice to Trumpland; or will Richard Ford’s next novel prove otherwise?