• Apollo 11 – An act of faith: Spectacle

    The mission was by far and away the most recorded event in human history. Every word from every console position in mission control and every radio transmission was taped to provide more than 30 simultaneous channels of audio, whilst the astronauts’ medical data – including heart rate – was transcribed on pen recorders from suiting-up to the end of the flight. Telemetry giving details of the hardware’s performance was continuously received from the command-service module, and its position as well as those of each rocket stage were also tracked by radar when in range. But Apollo 11 was, first and foremost, a visual event. Drawing is the most basic method for this, and artist Franklin McMahon, a member of NASA's Art Programme, was invited into mission control to sketch the team. Photography was the dominant medium, however, and this is reflected in numerous ways. Indeed before man got anywhere near the Moon, nearly 100,000 photographs had been taken by NASA's lunar probes of the body and its surface. For Apollo, contractors documented the designing, building and testing of the spacecraft on film while NASA did the same for the astronauts’ training and at all stages of the pre-launch checks – during that suiting up, for example, a stills photographer used three different cameras whilst a cinematographer shot moving images. The space agency also commissioned Theo Kamecke to direct a film covering the Moon shot for theatrical release. For this he and his camera crews were placed within the crowd, in launch control and – during the moonwalk – in mission control. The resulting production, ‘Moonwalk One’, has since achieved cult status. More than 200 of NASA’s own cameras were also emplaced around the launch complex using a variety of mountings, formats and operational modes. Modified anti-aircraft gun carriages allowed heavy 70mm motion picture cameras fitted with powerful telephoto lenses to track the rocket’s ascent smoothly, whereas fixed, high-speed 16mm cameras on the pad shot into heat-resistant

    mirrors from blast-proof boxes and were triggered automatically to produce slow motion footage. Some of these had even been mounted on the Saturn 5 itself on earlier missions, to record the separation, descent and ignition of each stage before being ejected and parachuted to Earth for recovery and development of the film. The world’s media brought their own cameras, both film and video, for newsreels and recorded and live television broadcasts. As part of a deal struck by NASA with LIFE magazine, the astronauts and their families were also photographed at home and at work for publication, a process that yielded memorable images of Janet Armstrong and her sons watching from a boat as Apollo 11 lifts off. And thousands of amateurs, members of the public and VIPs used every type of still and cine camera commercially available to make their own record of events. Crucially, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins took several cameras with them. Hasselblad medium-format stills cameras, shooting very high-resolution negatives, had been trialled on previous Apollos (one was used by Bill Anders to take his famous ‘Earthrise’ picture) and three were carried this time. One had a motor drive, and all had been extensively modified for use in space, reducing their weight and easing film transport and manipulation of the controls. Large-capacity magazines reduced the need to reload – more than 30 were carried, though the cameras themselves would be left on the Moon to save weight. A black and white television camera was fitted outside the lunar module, to be activated by Armstrong as he descended the ladder to make his historic step. Another was fixed to look out of one of the two triangular viewing ports, set to take one picture every few seconds. A colour television camera remained in the orbiting command-support module. What would they all see? One day to go.



  • Apollo 11 – An act of faith: Prophecy

    The Apollo programme may have been a civilian project with no obvious military applications, but it was not the only American response to the ‘space race’ begun by the Soviet Union’s orbiting of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. Seeing what is on the other side of the hill has been a military goal for centuries, with balloons used to gain the high ground well before powered flight was invented and even for some years after. With the Cold War firmly underway, the need to establish what was occurring in the vast reaches of the USSR was pressing, and flying aircraft over enemy territory was no longer possible after Gary Powers’ U2 was shot down in 1962. Spy satellites, invulnerable to attack, were already in use – they took their photographs and returned the exposed film to Earth in a small capsule that re-entered the atmosphere just as astronaut does – but they were slow, could have their view obscured by cloud and were unable to manoeuvre beyond gross changes of position. A crewed platform in space, however, seemed to combine the advantages of a satellite with the benefits of having a man in the loop, and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory was duly announced by the US Air Force in 1963, the carefully bland name concealing its true purpose. Launched by a Titan rocket and with its crew returned by Gemini capsule, the MOL was to have been a 70-foot-long, 10-foot-wide

    tubular space station whose two occupants would live aboard it for weeks at a time and operate, when ordered, a state-of-the-art high-resolution camera system that filled the rear two thirds of the vehicle. Able to be pointed at any target anywhere on Earth, its five-foot-wide mirror would reflect light toward a complex set of optics that could see objects as small as 8 inches. Its film would be developed by the crew, the photographs examined and their content described or scanned back to Earth. Since the camera would only be activated when there was a clear view, every picture would be perfect. Radio contact would allow real-time taskings and it was envisaged that any faults could be fixed in space. Significant effort went into realising the MOL, including building full-size mock-ups of the vehicle and crew compartment, launching an empty ‘boilerplate’ version into space and conducting re-entry testing of a modified Gemini. Astronauts were also recruited and began their training, which would have included working the wide-angle spotter scope, television monitors and exposure controls that supported the camera. The Apollo and MOL operations ran in parallel, one as public as could be imagined, the other classified, until 1969, when the rapid development and obvious advantages of digital photography rendered MOL obsolete - it was cancelled four weeks before Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the Moon. Its astronauts were quietly offered the chance to transfer to a new space vehicle programme that, even then, was planned to be a follow-on to Apollo, but that is another story... Two days to go.



  • Apollo 11 – An act of faith: Chance

    One way of looking at the chance of success when travelling into space was set out by Werner von Braun, who noted with pride that with a design tolerance of 99.999% perfection, fewer than two dozen parts might not be. Another is John Glenn’s apocryphal answer to the question of how he felt before lift-off: “I felt exactly how you would feel if you were getting ready to launch and knew you were sitting on top of 2 million parts — all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract.” During the Apollo 11 mission failure could have occurred at any one of a number of obvious stress points, including ignition of each of the three stages of the Saturn 5 stack. Indeed on the Apollo 6 mission two of the five engines on stage two malfunctioned and were shut down, the reduced thrust affecting the whole mission. Re-ignition of stage three to push the spacecraft out of Earth orbit and toward the moon was also cancelled. This worked on Apollo 11 but many more potential issues awaited, from the complex geometry of separating the command-service module from stage three and extracting the lunar lander to the two stages of that vessel working, and that was before its redocking with the command-service module engine orbiting the moon and ignition of its engine to come home. Most of those attached to the mission seriously considered the overall objective had only a fifty-fifty chance of success, though failure could take many forms short of fatalities. Death though had come to the Apollo program already, and not just with the loss of Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee in the launchpad fire that ravaged the Apollo 1 command module during a test in early 1967.

    Clifton C. Williams Jr. would have been on Apollo 12 but was killed when the T-38 jet fighter he was piloting – ironic\ally on a flight to see his dying father – crashed later in 1967; Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. was also killed when flying as the rear seater in an F-104 the same year. Two Gemini astronauts who would undoubtedly have been on Apollo missions – Elliott See and Charles Bassett – were killed when the two-seater jet they were flying crashed in 1966. Another jet crash claimed Theodore Freeman in 1964. Had the Apollo 11 moon walkers not been able to return to the command-service module – seen as the most likely catastrophe – President Nixon would have read to the world a speech that remained secret for 30 years. Written by William Safire, it is eloquent and spare.

    “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice. These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding. They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown. In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man. In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood. Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts. For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.”

    Three days to go.



  • Apollo 11 – An act of faith: Reach

    In 1926, Robert H. Goddard launched the first rocket that used liquid oxygen and gasoline as fuel. Others were well aware of this idea, including an amateur rocket enthusiast in Germany called Wernher von Braun. The A4 (‘V2’) his team developed was the world’s first intercontinental rocket. It used new technology, including a double-walled combustion chamber that used its own fuel as a coolant and carbon control vanes. After the war, von Braun came to America and continued his work, developing the A4 and giving his former enemy a head start in military and civil rocketry. America’s first satellite went into orbit in 1958, and four years later work began on a much larger system that would allow three men

    to reach the moon. In his “We choose to go to the Moon” speech in 1962, President Kennedy summarised this as-yet-unbuilt structure as: “a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun.” By 16 July 1969, the Saturn 5 rocket stack sitting on the pad in Florida was taller than the Statue of Liberty and weighed nearly 3,000 tons – most of that was fuel which, had it exploded, would have released energy equivalent to two kilotons of TNT; the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was sixteen kilotons. No-one was allowed closer than three miles; at lift-off, the flames turned concrete to glass whilst the shockwaves damaged launch control and caused a seismic event that registered in New York. Its first stage burned 20 tons of fuel a second, pushed the Saturn supersonic in seconds and was empty in 2.5 minutes, by which time the rocket was almost 40 miles high. The second stage fired for less than ten minutes, speeding the Saturn to 15,500 miles per hour. The third lasted for less than five minutes, and ensured the crew reached Earth orbit just 12 minutes from launch. A four-day journey lay ahead.



  • Apollo 11 – An act of faith: Dreams

    In 1687, Isaac Newton worked out that an object thrown from the top of a mountain with sufficient velocity would not fall to the ground but continue around the Earth – it would enter orbit. Nearly 300 years later, during his famous “We choose to go to the Moon” speech in 1962, President John F. Kennedy illustrated how far mankind had come. He invited those listening to visualise “the 50,000 years of man’s recorded history in a time span of but a half-century. Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them advanced man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them. Then about 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only five years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than two months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power. Newton explored the meaning of gravity. Last month electric lights and telephones and automobiles and airplanes became available. Only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power, and now if America's new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.” Less than a decade later still, maths graduate Poppy Northcutt was a systems engineer for TRW, one of the many aerospace contractors for NASA,

    and the first female to work in mission control. Northcutt, aged 25 and the first woman on the team, was responsible for calculating Apollo 8’s return trajectories; she took the computer programs home at night to understand them better than her male colleagues. When Apollo 8 disappeared behind the far side of the Moon on its first orbit and was delayed in reappearing, she stood by to work on any emergency course that might be needed. Six months after that, the most photographed event in human history was about to occur. A million people were soon to arrive at the launch complex, the immediate area around it and all along Florida’s coast. The night before, what did they, Poppy and the three men of Apollo 11 dream about?



  • Maybe it’s because it’s The Londoner

    There are more than 1,500 hotels in the British capital, and given a recent consultants’ conclusion that “London hotels remain at the top of their game” despite concerns affecting the sector it is no surprise that The Standard, London on Euston Road is currently receiving its first reviews in the media and NoMad London will welcome guests next year. Both are firsts in London for their American owners and both are conversions – of Camden council’s Brutalist town hall annexe and the world-famous Bow Street magistrates’ court, respectively. Joining the latter in 2020 will be The Londoner on Leicester Square, a new build by Britain’s own Edwardian Group that is also at the luxury end of the market. I was one of a handful of balloted enthusiasts to have a very early preview, now that the building – as deep as it is tall – has both topped and ‘bottomed’ out.

    The site is that of the Leicester Square Theatre, built as such in 1930 but operated as a cinema for most of its life by the Odeon chain alongside its much more famous black-clad brother across the Square. After ‘twinning’ in the 1990s and becoming the home of the London Film Festival, the building was closed in 2015 and the plot sold. Demolition followed, the first step in an epic build that has been mostly underground but is now more visible. Woods Bagot are the architects with interiors by American designers Yabu Pushelberg; the engineering is by Arup and the main contractor is Blue Sky Building.

    Their goal is a hotel with 350 guest rooms and 15 suites, five restaurants and lounges, a rooftop bar, a ballroom or event space for around a thousand people, and a spa and wellness centre. Odeon will return to the site with a two-screen cinema operating under the firm’s Luxe sub-brand. The catch is that most of these amenities will be underground – a long way underground, in a six-floor, 30-metre basement that is the deepest in habitable commercial use in the city and which took two years to complete. Understanding the three-dimensional challenge that this presented was the theme of the tour. We began at bottom.

    Four levels down sits the spa, with a pool surrounded by private ‘cabanas’ and a sauna. Currently merely a heavily-waterproofed concrete box, the beginnings of its final form were just about discernible with a bit of thought and a useful virtual reality program that allowed us to move a tablet around the space and see what it will look like on screen. Visuals of the final fit-out are intriguing but embargoed, though it is not I think giving too much away to say that a cool palette, coffered ceiling and clever tricks with light evoked an ancient Roman feel, appropriate for London. One of the cinema screens is on the same level but acoustically separated from this area; below are two further floors of technical equipment with another 30 metres of piles below that.

    The entire basement is surrounded by a sophisticated drainage and water management system to handle the constant seepage that is inescapable at these depths. More than 65,000 cubic metres of clay was excavated to form it, and careful monitoring of neighbouring buildings, a complex propping operation and the discovery of a previously unknown utility tunnel were also involved. Height restrictions above ground and the space required by the overall programme required plant to be placed at depth for the most part rather than on the roof – Building Information Modelling was used to fit everything it but there have still been some challenges to both the construction and the architecture.

    On the next floor up but still three storeys below ground, the double-height, multi-functional event space is one of the highlights of this process. It was created by the craning in of six steel trusses, each weighing around 50 tonnes and the length of two double decker busses (bespoke platforms and vehicles were necessary). These transfer the weight of the above-ground structure to the perimeter walls and thus allow for a column-free space here. They also house building services and are stressed for suspended loads to assist with product launches and the like – servicing of the building will from a ground level loading bay via a vehicle lift and goods lifts. The building’s mechanical, electrical and plumbing will be state of the art and we saw one of the risers that will house them – a vertiginous concrete shaft big enough to house at least two lifts that was actually awaiting bundles of cables, pipes and ducts.

    This floor will be connected to those above by a feature stair of steel and painted bronze that will twist its way up a large stairwell, touching the edges only at the concrete slabs. This is the core of the circulation route through the public parts of the building, and it ends at the second floor beneath a glazed atrium roof. A ‘veil’ of rigid rods of three differing sections will act as its visual and physical balustrade. Further circulation will be by 13 lifts and two escalators. Half of the space within The Londoner will be devoted to what the trade calls F&B, or food and beverage, areas. These and other spaces will be opened to the public, in response to Westminster Council’s planning desires – the architects state that the hotel’s role is to offer “an escape from the sometimes hectic atmosphere found in an urban environment,” though there is perhaps some irony in this being undeniably necessary in the hectic tourist trap of Leicester Square.

    The hotel lobby is hard to visualise currently, although some beautifully finished polished pre-cast concrete columns are notable. The warren of partition walls on the upper floors are being completed as guest rooms – conventionally planned, they have semi-open bathrooms in coloured ceramic, one-way mirrors and a reflective panel above the floor-to-ceiling windows to bring more light in.

    On floor eight, which will be the highest level of the building in general use, a ‘floating’ outdoor platform projects into the void at the top of the atrium. A sliding fabric roof will provide protection from but also direct sight of the sky. This will become part of a sequence of lounge-type spaces on this level that will also include a glass-fronted lookout bar. The lack of a genuine roof terrace is a surprise but the resulting compromise results from the limitations mentioned earlier. On the very top-most floor, which we reached by a quick jaunt in the builders’ hoist, is the penthouse suite. Spanning two floors and articulated here as a projecting tower at the corner of the building, it is on the same level as similar features on other buildings in the area such as the dome of Renton Howard Wood Levin’s reconstructed Criterion block at Piccadilly Circus. The massing of the rest of the block, as seen in renderings, is muscular in order to achieve those vital programmatic criteria.

    The exterior is still shrouded but glimpses could be had of the Portland stone and – in the window reveals – thousands of blue faience tiles that, stitched together, will make up what is being considered as the building’s artwork, another planning requirement. By artist Ian Monroe, the tiles were designed using origami before progressing to foam mock ups and then the digital realm. Treated as a rainscreen, the pieces are fixed with open joints on the upper floors.

    The work put in to The Londoner is obvious, even with a year to go until opening. Much will depend on its interiors. Judgement of these and its architectural success will have to await the first check-in.

    With thanks to Woods Bagot architects, Blue Sky Building and the London Festival of Architecture. Images by Woods Bagot, McGee, Chris Rogers



  • 'The Hunt'

    A small country town with long-established traditions and customs; a close-knit community where everyone knows everyone else; families whose children are loved by others as though they were their own… In such a place rumour, suggestion and misunderstanding have particular power. David Farr‘s stage adaptation of the 2012 Danish film The Hunt, which was directed by Thomas Vinterberg and written by him and Tobias Lindholm, explores these points at the Almeida Theatre under the direction of Rupert Goold.

    Teacher Lucas (Tobias Menzies) busies himself at the primary school whilst fighting with his ex-wife over access to their teenage son. The parents of two small children, Peter and Clara, have again failed to pick them up and the kind and patient Lucas keeps them amused. As Lucas also busies himself tidying up, Peter shows Clara adult footage that lies almost-hidden on his father’s old mobile; shortly after, Clara gives Lucas a present, accompanied by some unsettlingly intimate gestures. Deftly, he deflects her attention with a respectful explanation and thinks nothing of it. He knows both families very well – indeed, there is a hint of a relationship as Karla’s outgoing mother finally arrives, whilst Peter’s father is Lucas’s hunting buddy and fellow lodge member. The moment passes.

    Except that it doesn’t. Clara, upset at the rejection and confused and conflicted about love, tells her headteacher a version of what happened, every element of which is the truth but which, as a whole, is not. The remainder of the play dramatizes the impact on Lucas, his family and his friends. As such the snowballing of Clara’s mistruth is well illustrated, with flakes added by others not helping, and the responses of the adults around the pair ring true.

    Menzies is superb, his usual underplaying and utterly believable performance style fitting the scenario perfectly. As Clara in the production I saw (the role is rotated between three young actresses), a quiet, serious Abbiegail Mills was astonishingly good, and the two make a good pair. Michele Austin convincingly conveys the bright enthusiasm of a dedicated headteacher, especially in her clever addresses to the audience at the start of each act, and Howard Ward is convincing as the school board member “with responsibility for this area”. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the cast play their scenes rather too broadly to fit in with these precedents, from Poppy Miller as Clara’s mother to Danny Kirrane as Peter’s father. Taken together and extended over the two acts, this mismatch begins to grate.

    The staging revolves – pun intended – around another of Es Devlin’s sets placed within the Almeida’s customarily bare auditorium and its turntable. Scenes take place in and around an enclosure shaped like a child’s idea of a house with walls of glass. The metaphor is obvious even without the switchable technology (or perhaps good old-fashioned lighting) that makes those walls instantly opaque, often accompanied by thunderous crashes on the soundtrack and flashes of the neon lighting that outlines its form. But there is a problem.

    Unlike Devlin’s exceptional work for Chimerica, The Nether and The Lehman Trilogy, the approach here, along with Goold’s uncertain sense of direction, doesn’t really work. Though permitting clever scene changes to occur, it is often unclear where scenes are supposed to be set or whether characters are leaving the place it represents or entering it. When the players crowd in to it en masse for the climax, set in the town church, it is hard to suspend disbelief. There is much running, on and off stage, around it, even – remarkably – inside the house, in a kind of slow-motion, but much of this starts to seem comedic rather than dramatic. An additional thematic thread, of the mystical aspects of the woodland, overburdens events unnecessarily.

    After two hours I was struggling to focus, and to draw clarity and meaning from the ending. Paring things down and focusing on emotions rather than actions would have assisted, along with – on this occasion – a calmer set design.

    Ultimately I found this a disappointment, even a frustration, an admittedly rare thing at the theatre that brought us Kings Charles III, Mary Stuart and more. If this was a hunt, I felt like its prey.

    The Hunt continues at the Almeida Theatre, London N1 until 3 August



  • The Parallax View

    A Dutch academic has conducted a worldwide survey seeking to establish whether famous photographs are truly famous. Many represent moments of extreme drama, from wars or other conflicts, with most of those taken by the only person present. Or is that really the case? In truth, the results – and what they might mean – are less important than the knowledge of other images of or angles on these events, which might be similar but not as well known. Why? Because it is surely more relevant in today’s world of billions of images, fake news and immediate online circulation to examine the parallax or difference in the apparent position of an event when viewed along different lines of sight.

    Jeff Widener’s ‘Tank Man’ (top left, above) taken in Tiananmen Square was used in the research, and the Associated Press photographer’s picture has indeed come to be regarded as the defining image of those protests. But other people also took photographs of the same man, from different locations and other angles; the others are by (clockwise) Stuart Franklin (Magnum), Charlie Cole (Newsweek) and Arthur Tsang (Reuters) and the stories of three are caught in Patrick Witty’s superb piece for the New York Times. To add a further layer, Terril Jones, another AP journalist, only revealed his own take on the scene a few years ago:

    Also featured in the survey is a photograph of an astronaut on the Moon, as representative of that giant leap for mankind. It might thus be assumed to be a picture of the first man on that body, Neil Armstrong, but is in fact of Buzz Aldrin, his fellow lunar module crewman – Armstrong took it. Ironically this was probably the only time that the man who had just become the most famous person in the world was behind rather than in front of a camera from then on, though given Armstrong’s humble nature I suspect he secretly preferred that.

    One shot of a plane about to hit the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 was chosen. That others exist, as well as stills from video camera footage, is noted in the Guardian coverage. In that context it is perhaps worthy of comment that only a couple of frames, extracted from one CCTV camera’s output, exist to depict the aircraft that hit the Pentagon whilst not a single image of United 93 on its final flight into the Pennsylvania earth is known, and that this has given rise to conspiracy theories in the former case but solemn tributes in the latter.

    Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph of US Marines hoisting a flag and pole on Iwo Jima in 1945 has a double shadow – not only was it also captured as a moving image by a military film crew, but the event itself was a repeat of the original flag-raising, which had occurred during the actual battle for the mountain on which it stands; this first raising too was itself photographed, by SSgt. Louis R. Lowery.

    Outside of the survey, Eddie Adams arrested the moment in which a member of the Viet Cong was killed by a South Vietnamese general in a photograph that defines the dual meanings of ‘shoot’. But this, too, was also filmed by a news cameraman, which gives greater context that only appears in additional images. So was the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald six years earlier; not only that, but Bob Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning picture is invariably cropped, losing more than half of the image. The full frame is far richer.

    And it’s appropriate that the Guardian covered this, though I bet few on the paper realised – it’s more than 30 years since its brilliant TV advert about just this point was first screened.

    Question everything.



  • Source code: The origins of cyberpunk cinema

    Cyberpunk is the sub-genre of speculative fiction dealing with high tech and low life, the pair generally united by a consensual electronic information flow that sometimes achieves consciousness. The term itself is generally regarded as having been coined by writer Bruce Bethke in 1983, with William Gibson its most well-known practitioner, although precursors stretch far back into literary history. Those twin tropes are now firmly established in film, from Ready Player One (2018) via Lucy (2014) to Inception (2010). Here too antecedents are to be found, the best in each decade called out in bold below. But what – and when – was the first cyberpunk film?

    The Millennium appears to have been a turning point, with Cypher and Minority Report (both 2002) and Avalon (2001) in the van of the rush and The Matrix (1999) announcing it, though either the little-known Xchange (2000) directed by Allen Moyle from a screenplay by Christopher Pelham or Abel Ferrara’s New Rose Hotel (1998) taken from Gibson’s short story might have been the catalyst had they been more successful.

    It was though a few years before this when one of the most accomplished productions appeared: Strange Days (1995), written by James Cameron and directed by his former wife Kathryn Bigelow. With characters ranging from a pop star to a bodyguard to a cop, all later intersecting, and a sensorium-recording device taken directly if without acknowledgement from Gibson, the basics were firmly in place. And though produced well before the conception of internet-enabled social media, the established power of television and the viral video – here inspired by the real-life Rodney King footage – supplied that connecting network.

    Elsewhere Robert Longo’s poorly-received Johnny Mnemonic (1995), the other cinematic adaptation of a Gibson work, also under-performed financially and critically although it deserves closer scrutiny for being rather more faithful to its source material than is commonly supposed and for the careful and credible design of the hardware used by its protagonist (even the boxes those devices come in).

    It is though necessary to go back to the mid- and early 1980s to find films imbued with the true qualities that made Gibson and his fellow cyberpunk writers so popular.

    The period saw two relevant blockbusters – RoboCop (1987) and The Terminator (1984). Both feature elements of cyberpunk – cynicism, corporate power versus the man in the street, advanced technological, an urban setting – though only the latter includes the information linkage, through the malevolent war-fighting computer Skynet. More interesting are the slew of similarly-themed yet individually fascinating films that appeared within just a few years at the start of the decade.

    Steven Lisberger’s Tron (1982) pre-figures RoboCop in essaying many of the same concerns, and arguably comes closer to Gibson’s mind’s-eye view of what cyberspace might be. The year was of course most notable for Ridley Scott’s sleeper cult classic-turned-landmark Blade Runner (1982), which looked to the filmic past for many of its cues even as it explored issues of life and death in an engrossing future. Moving from street vendors to billionaires using video phones, flying cars and more (the cop is there again), the all-seeing eye of the Esper police supercomputer fulfils the role of the omniscient network yet the artificial intelligence on show is organic rather than electronic.

    Scott’s visual effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull made Brainstorm (1981, released 1983), which like Strange Days 15 years later also revolved around a technology that allowed the recording of the entire human sensorium. Here the military-industrial complex is set against the purity of science and, ultimately, something more spiritual. Importantly, Trumbull wrote and directed the film with the express purpose of promoting his patented large-format Showscan film system, which he intended to create a shared, immersive visual environment – the majority of the film was to be shot in 35mm, with the Brainstorm device sequences filmed in 65mm at a wider ratio and run at 60 frames per second, more than twice the standard rate, to increase perceived resolution . The plan was not enacted but Trumbull was anticipating the use of IMAX for portions of Christopher Nolan and Michael Bay’s output.

    One film from the remarkable cross-over talents of director, screenwriter and novelist Michael Crichton and another that emerged from the low-budget, independent film movement are the next of significance in this chronology.

    Crichton’s Looker (1981) does, it’s true, dispense with the low-life element – its hero is a Beverley Hills plastic surgeon and his love interest a top model – but a plotline revolving around mass consumerism, media dominance and computer-generated avatars, plus the deployment of a light-pulse memory loss gun (surely inspired by Alfred Bester’s 1953 novel The Demolished Man, itself a prime slice of proto-cyberpunk) place it firmly on our continuum.

    John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981) certainly qualifies and might in fact be regarded as the quintessential cyberpunk film of the decade, with its cynical ex-soldier antihero perfectly bridging the attitudinal gap between the punk-criminal-zombie milieu inside Manhattan island prison and the black-clad, high-tech paramilitary police force outside. An ongoing World War 3, stealth jet glider and injectable explosives provide the necessary technological and cultural enhancement.

    Two films from the previous year, Scanners (1980) and Death Watch (1980), share horror traits (visceral and psychological respectively) but also explore big business’s manipulation of the masses via technology and the media. This saw cinematic cyberpunk echoing contemporary socio-politics, with fears over consumerism, the environment, corruption and profiteering driving protest in the real world. The previous decade’s films, too, reflected this kind of distrust and unrest, with a trio of entries to the fore.

    Norman Jewison directed the sublime Rollerball (1975) from William Harrison’s short story and script. Here the human spirit is placed in conflict with the crushing endeavours of a brutal future sport that is itself shaped by the global corporations that fund and organise it. Television once more provides the shared experience, the ingeniously realised Multivision also anticipating the optional multiple viewing angles available with today’s sports coverage. The power of the computer to connect the world is also now explicit even if the on-screen vision is of its time with a single mainframe. Japan is now seen as influential.

    In Soylent Green (1973) the disparate worlds of the corporate elite and those who service them again collide, as a put-upon detective (again) attempts to investigate a murder against a background of over-population, food shortages and radical, technological solutions to both. The contrast is so well defined that selection for this survey despite the complete absence of electronic media is acceptable. Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) treads the same ground, taking the street life one step lower. Its gaudy, neon-lined street market and striking interior design cast a wide influence.

    Moving back another decade, the great exploitationist William Castle made the under-rated cyberpunk ancestor Project X (1968). Over-population is again key, but so is fear of Asian dominance. Crucially, genetic engineering, biological warfare, holographic viewing devices, memory manipulation and virtual environments all feature. Though it eschews any attempt to actually depict its own future setting, Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) still includes the low life-high tech conjunction and even a controlling central computer.

    Godard’s film also prompts the thought that cinematic cyberpunk might exist within or at least alongside film noir, with its intrigue of secrets and lies in urban settings of authority and cunter-authority. If so, is it too much of a stretch to suggest Kiss Me Deadly (1955), with its street-level characters assailed by representatives of much greater forces, hints of high-tech warfare and a certain briefcase as embryonic cyberpunk?

    But we must actually reach back much further, before World War 2, to complete our quest.

    Based on a play by Noel Pemberton Billing and directed by Maurice Elvey, High Treason (1929) is a geo-political drama set in the future. Competing power blocs, multi-national terrorists and a working class revolution are set against a leisure-saturated world of electronic dance music, and – half a century before Blade Runner – flying cars and video phones.

    Though High Treason is popularly held to be a British answer to a German film from three years earlier, I would contend that it is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) that deserves to be viewed as the very first cyberpunk film. Its protagonist and antagonist span the full sociological distance between oppressed drone and rich plutocrat, technology is the enabler of the status quo and the revolt and the whole plays out within a famously absorbing megacity of towers above ground and cavernous basements below. Aerial freeways, trains and planes connect the former, with advanced telecommunications to fill in the gaps. And from a man peering over his newspaper whilst waiting in the street to the Japanese-influenced downtown drinking hole, from neon-drenched darkness to the aerial shot of a lofty cylindrical building, and from the domineering corporate giant in his eyrie to an erotic dance by a fake human, Metropolis is a virtual blueprint for Scott’s masterpiece in almost every respect and for most of those that followed.



  • In the dock: the Square Mile’s new courthouse

    Eric Parry Architects is to design a new civil and criminal courthouse and police station in the City of London. Located on the south side of Fleet Street opposite the former Daily Telegraph building, it will open in 2025. Although handling the routine caseload expected of any court, the new complex is being promoted as specialising in financial and cyber crime and helping to keep the City a “secure place to conduct business”. Any courthouse is a uniquely challenging architectural job; how might the special requirements of creating one for the Square Mile be met?

    The complex (un-named as yet though ‘City of London Justice Centre’ suggests itself) will contain 18 courtrooms and replace the Mayor’s and City of London County Court at Guildhall Buildings, Basinghall Street and the City of London Magistrates’ Court in Queen Victoria Street, both historic structures. A footnote to a recent consultation document on wider court estate changes stated that the new building will contain “additional Crown Court capacity”. And there will also be a new City of London police station, presumably in addition to the City force’s current, 20th century, stations in Bishopsgate, Snow Hill and Wood Street.

    The conjunction is unusual. Courthouses in England & Wales are generally built to serve a single function – magistrates’, crown or county. The latter two were occasionally joined together as ‘combined courts’ in the 1980s and 90s since both types had long been administered by the Civil Service, but the commissioning, staffing and operation of magistrates’ courts remained independent of government – taking place under the auspices of local magistrates’ courts committees – until as recently as 2005. The creation of Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS), a Civil Service agency, in that year ended this split and, along with subsequent moves need to cut costs, has seen more court buildings converted or designed from scratch to serve multiple case types. Co-locating a courthouse with a police station remains very rare, however, and this will be the first example in London since Lavender Hill Police Station and South Western Magistrates’ Court opened in 1963.

    In a range of ways, then, the new complex speaks to the very specialised nature of the City of London, and this will be reflected in its organisational structure. As with the Central Criminal Court (“the Old Bailey”) and the existing City magistrates’ court, the Corporation of London will own the freehold but HMCTS will run the building. The budget for the project is reported as being comparable to the Rolls Building on Fetter Lane, a new home for a arrange of commercial and other civil courts, which cost around £250-300m when completed in 2011. How that cost was split between the corporation and HMCTS is not known.

    HMCTS has been redefining the standards for future court building design but publication of an updated Courts and Tribunals Design Guide is well overdue. The current version is not available to the public either, although it used to be. Nothing has been released by either the client or Eric Parry Architects to indicate even their initial thinking.

    Nevertheless, we can make some informed guesses about the likely form of the building based on careful examination of the current legal landscape and its architecture. First, what will it contain?

    HMCTS’s ongoing digitisation of both criminal and civil jurisdictions means that thousands of cases and applications are now dealt with entirely online or via ‘hearings’ that actually take place in chambers with no parties present. The aim is for “more opportunities to settle disputes – and to progress cases – that do not depend on travelling and physically attending court”. But hearing rooms, office space (though not, perhaps, as much as before, since centralised Court and Tribunal Service Centres are starting to handle back-office tasks) and cells will still be needed for the courthouse element. They will be connected by the strictly segregated circulation routes for staff, judges, prisoners, witnesses – especially where vulnerable – and the public that are the unique feature of such a building.

    Compared to older premises much larger public entrance lobbies and waiting areas are now common. These also house far more facilities than was the case historically, such as cafés, accessible toilets, faith rooms and spaces for supportive agencies. An original and robust solution to the need for temporary information that dispenses with the usual accumulation of flyers, posters and impromptu notices tacked to a pinboard or imprisoned, fading, behind glass cases would be welcome. Public charging points for mobile devices might also be seen, and at a basic level many more power and data outlets will be needed throughout any new building.

    Information technology provision within courts has massively increased in recent years, again in public areas but also as an inherent part of the criminal justice process. Projecting this trend forward five years should see the City building equipped with display screens and other types of dynamic signage, wi-fi and 5G signals, cordless telephony for staff (already present to a degree) and video-link or conferencing systems closer to the kind of experience marketed by Cisco to private companies as ‘telepresence’. By the time the new building opens, the very cautious relaxation of the prohibition on filming inside courthouses that has seen UK Supreme Court proceedings and some Scottish deliberations televised may have continued to the point where at least minimal facilities for broadcast media might have to be anticipated. All of this, along with the recognition of past failures and the rapid obsolescence of technology, would prompt a plea for much-improved methods of accessing, maintaining, repairing and replacing such equipment, this last activity occurring much more frequently than in the past.

    Where courtrooms are encountered, wood panelling, the royal crest and raised or at least physically divided seating is still common but flexibility of use is now being recognised as key, such that a room can be used for a jury trial, magistrates’ sitting or a tribunal hearing with no or minimal adjustment. Furniture might thus be moveable, at least in part, and the vertical hierarchy reduced or adjusted.

    Unknown in the current estate, visual, aural and other enhancements to promote the wellbeing of staff, the judiciary and users is surely overdue in this most stress-inducing environment.

    Second, what might it look like? Speaking in July 2018, the Corporation’s Policy Chairman described the new complex as the City’s “second iconic courthouse after the Old Bailey” despite this being months before the architect had even been chosen. Away from press headlines, the actual result will be conditioned as much by the site as it will by the aesthetics of the designer or the particular requirements of a judicial building.

    That site is on a considerable slope and currently occupied by two office buildings that are typical of their type and era. To the north, 68-71 Fleet Street sits on the corner of Whitefriars Street and was bought by the Corporation in late 2018 specifically to enable this project. It is a Post-Modern block of 1986 by the Thomas Saunders Partnership that backs onto Hanging Sword Alley, which runs between Whitefriars Street and Salisbury Court to the east and is here a sizeable courtyard behind the other buildings on Fleet Street. Also overlooking it and stretching downhill to the south is the Modernist Fleetbank House, finished in 1975 and by C. Edmund Wilford & Sons. This is a large, roughly T-shaped block finished in glass and granite with a spine rising to a dozen or so storeys but arms that are much lower. These are also set back from the edge of the plot, which tapers to a point where a further, stepped passageway leads through the building and down to Primrose Hill (or, in the other direction, up into Salisbury Square, a quiet public space to the east that is linked to Hanging Sword Alley by walking under another wing of Fleetbank House).

    Since 68-71 Fleet Street and Fleetbank House do not actually touch and are divided on Whitefriars Street by other buildings that are not part of the scheme, it must be assumed that the majority of Hanging Sword Alley will be built over to form a contiguous plot albeit with public access retained by means of a tunnel through the new building. There are several recent precedents for this, in the immediate vicinity and elsewhere in the City, whilst Lutyens’ acclaimed former Reuters building on the other side of Salisbury Court shows the ease with which this task was accomplished almost a century ago in the hands of an exceptional architect.

    The southern passageway might also survive, although a more generous gesture here – and a fitting one for a civic building – would be to not rebuild the short ‘arm’ of Fleetbank House under which this alley passes at all, and instead landscape the connection between the Square and Primrose Hill. There is, again, a precedent in Foster + Partners’ work at 10 Gresham Street, where the new building was separated from its neighbour for the first time and a new alley created. These points aside, the overall massing across much of the plot is very likely to increase, subject to rights of light for neighbouring buildings and the St Paul’s Heights rules.

    Security will obviously be paramount, although this is to an extent at odds with the need for openness. The City’s experience of major terrorist bombs is, thankfully, a generation past, but more recent events in London and elsewhere have their effect on the design of buildings and even their surroundings.

    The relatively tight urban street grid of Fleet Street will probably preclude any narrowing of the two roads bordering the site (the better to keep vehicles away), although the Square Mile’s now-mature ‘Ring of Steel’ network of CCTV and associated physical restrictions to entry will form the first line of defence. Closer to, government advice is that “structurally enhanced bus shelters, lamp columns, benches or cycle racks” should be used to prevent a “penetrative (ramming) or close proximity (parked or encroachment)” attack. We can thus expect an unbroken line of bollards to be installed along the kerb line of Fleet Street at least, and the growth on the City’s streets of reinforced barriers disguised as planters may also continue.

    Underground car parks have been prohibited in courthouse design for several decades, although the City discourages all except bicycle parking in new developments in any event. A secure van dock where custody prisoners are received will certainly be needed; it is highly likely that this will be shared with the police station and located on Whitefriars Street, where the current loading bay for Fleetbank House can be found (the police station entrance could also fit here but might be more appropriate for Salisbury Square).

    Setting the main courthouse entrance back from the street a little would provide another useful ‘stand-off’ as well as some civic presence, especially if a corner entrance can be contrived. Inside, an atrium – a feature once synonymous with only commercial architecture – is now to be expected, with enough space before access to the building proper for the necessary security screening of visitors to take place. This is a common failing with even quite new city-centre magistrates’ courts, where large queues, inadequate, temporary facilities and the risk of ‘false negatives’ can often be encountered.

    Eric Parry’s practice has worked extensively in the City of London and the wider capital, with the new Hall for the Leathersellers Livery Company, 5 Aldermanbury Square on London Wall and 30 Finsbury Square (technically in Islington) notable in recent years. Forthcoming is 1 Undershaft, if built to become the second tallest building in London. Though lacking an obviously identifiable style, many of its buildings have featured a single material and a fairly simple envelope. Most are visually quiet though there are occasional moments of unexpected boldness, such as the polychromic cornice of One Eagle Place in Piccadilly or the Deconstructivist roofscape at 10 Fenchurch Avenue in the Square Mile.

    Even without this preference for reticence, the very nature of the job will probably preclude anything audacious. Whilst some of the country’s newer courthouses, such as the drum-shaped Cambridge Crown Court (Austin-Smith:Lord, 2004) or Manchester Civil Justice Centre (Denton Corker Marshall, 2007) with its ‘open drawer’ glass façade are striking, the majority are bland, awkward exercises in value engineering and mock-Classicising grandeur – in London Stratford Magistrates’ Court (Roughton & Partners, 1994) epitomises this problem. More useful as a possible pattern is the capital’s Westminster Magistrates’ Court on Marylebone Road (Hurd Rolland Partnership, 2011), which by chance compares well to the new City project by programme. Its successes and failures might also prove instructive.

    Also positioned on an urban corner site with sizable planning constraints to consider, it was, too, required to contain not only multiple hearing rooms and related facilities but also ancillary accommodation for other criminal justice purposes. The result is that its densely-packed bulk gives rise to sometimes clumsy back-of-house spaces and often complex circulation. The solidly elegant hearing rooms reflect increased public expectations in this area and the waiting areas are bright, but the restless main façade, for all its attempts at civic dignity, appears to strain at the seams.

    So it may be silence in court for now on Fleet Street, but in a few years’ time such a visible civic project as this is unlikely to require much deliberation before the verdict is pronounced.



Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here


Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own collage-style spread.

Ivy Press, 2018

ISBN 9781782405443

You are viewing the text version of this site.

To view the full version please install the Adobe Flash Player and ensure your web browser has JavaScript enabled.

Need help? check the requirements page.

Get Flash Player