Monday, 25 June 2007

Down the tubes

The Tube, the Underground – but never the Subway – is almost inseparable from London itself. The oldest underground system in the world – services began in 1863 with the Metropolitan Railway, most of which is now part of the Hammersmith & City line – it’s a huge part of Londoners’ lives. Where would we be without the Tube? Waiting at a rained-out bus shelter, that’s where. With 408km (253miles), 12 lines, 275 served stations (there are some ‘ghost’ stations that are no longer in service) and over 3million passengers every day, the London Underground is the third-biggest metro system in the world (behind Tokyo and New York). It would take a lifetime to write about the whole of the Tube, and almost as long to read about it. So instead I shall tell you about three stations that are my favourites for very different reasons.

First up is Gloucester Road. The station, which opened in 1906, is grade II listed and the original station building is still largely intact. The great thing about it, though, is the way it is used as a space to display art. Five-metre-high niches in the wall of the disused platform 4 have been transformed into an underground gallery to exhibit a series of installations commissioned by Platform for Art, London Underground’s public art programme.

What a laugh: Life is a Laugh is a new commission from Brian Griffiths, running from July 2007

London Underground has a long history of promoting art and design, beginning in 1908 when Frank Pick commissioned leading artists of the day, including Man Ray and Graham Sutherland, to work on London Underground poster campaigns. Then there is the distinctive red, white and blue logo, the typography and, of course, Harry Beck’s iconic map. It’s great the London Underground Ltd is carrying on this tradition with Platform for Art. And if you happen to be heading that way, keep an eye out – you might catch sight of a masterpiece.

I like Tottenham Court Road station for the spectacular mosaics that cover the walls; they really are very beautiful. There are more than 1,000 square metres of murals, installed during the early 1980s and designed by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi. The murals feature in the ticket hall, the escalators, the rotunda and on the platforms of the Central and Northern lines, the two lines that serve the station, and each is different. The frenetic design on the Central line platforms reflects the station’s position close to Tottenham Court Road’s large concentration of hi-fi and electronics shops, and Paolozzi’s signature appears in several places in the murals. Those millions of little coloured tiles really brighten up the long escalator journey to ground level.

Platform art: Eduardo Paolozzi was a Scottish sculptor and artist, he was knighted in 1989

The station was also used for a scene in An American Werewolf in London.

Westminster is my favourite station. The architecture is amazing – like something from a stark sci-fi movie. The new station was designed by Michael Hopkins & Partners in the 1990s when it was decided to join up the District & Circle line with the much deeper Jubilee, London Underground’s newest line. It’s a futuristic vision of concrete, glass and huge steel beams and buttresses, which are actually the foundations of Portcullis House. Travelling up (or down) the escalators is simply breathtaking, it’s worth travelling from the District & Circle line to Jubilee just for the experience.

Future shock: The Piranesian-style design creates a sci-fi fantasy

In another film-related aside, the station is used the forthcoming adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Art attack

Yesterday marked the beginning the Royal Academy’s 239th Summer Exhibition. Held annually since the RA was founded in 1768 under the patronage of King George III, the exhibition is the largest open contemporary art show in the world. Works from unknown artists are hung alongside those of famous Royal Academicians such as Tracy Emin and German artist Anselm Kiefer. Other eminent artists on show this year include Michael Craig-Martin, David Hockney and Jasper Johns. Any artist may enter work for the show and the majority of pieces are for sale.

Around 13,000 works were submitted this year, and it is the job of the committee, whose annually rotating membership of practising artists curates the show, to whittle this down to a more manageable number. Around 1,200 works are displayed, and one of the selection methods dates back to the RA’s earliest days. Two wands, one marked ‘D’ and one ‘X’ are used. Any work that manages three ‘D’s (for doubtful) make it through to the next round, while any which get the more ominous ‘X’ are returned to the artist.

This year’s theme was light, prompting the introduction of a whole gallery dedicated to photography. The works on display, however, will encompass a wide range of artistic media, including printing, printmaking, sculpture and architecture. Other features will be a gallery of works by invited artists, which will be curated by sculptor and Turner prize winner Tony Cragg RA. As per tradition there will also be a gallery celebrating the works of Royal Academicians who have died over the past year. This year Kyffin Williams RA and Sandra Blow RA will be remembered.

A highlight of the show will be Hockney’s 40ft scenic painting of Yorkshire, which will be the largest piece on display. The creations of the former Turner Prize nominees Tracey Emin and Issac Julien will feature alongside American artists Johns, Ed Ruscha, Robert Rauschenberg and Chuck Close. Edith Devaney, the head of the Summer Exhibition at the RA, said she was delighted by this year’s line-up. "There's nothing quite like it in the world,” she said.

Light fantastic: Jeppe Hein, Neon Mirror Cube. Mirror, stainless steel, neon tubes, transformers, 100 x 100 x 100 cm

The show runs until 19 August and tickets cost £7, including a list of works with details of every exhibit in the show. See for more information.

Monday, 11 June 2007

A feast of festivals

June is a month for festivals south of the river, with three happening along the Docklands Light Railway route.

First is Motorexpo in Canary Wharf. Starting today and running until 17 June, and now in its 12th year, Motorexpo is the UK's biggest motor show. Over 200 vehicles from the world's leading manufacturers will be on show throughout the Canary Wharf estate. Car makers include Aston Martin, Jaguar, Lotus and Maserati. The cars are shown outside, transferring the estate into a giant showroom for the more than 40 manufacturers' latest models. And what's more, it's all free!

Open road: Aston Martin's V8 Vantage Roadster will be on show at Motorexpo

Next is Greenwich Alive, a multi-arts programme of events celebrating contemporary and classical arts, music and architecture in Greenwich. Three are family architecture days at the Queen's House, open gardens, open studios and special film screenings, among others. Some of the highlights include the Blackheath Art Society 60th anniversary exhibition, running from 16-27 June at the Blackheath Library Gallery (Blackheath Art Society) and Handel with Hamper (17 June), a recital of Handel's music in the beautiful chapel of the Old Royal Naval College. During the extended interval you can have a picnic in the lawns and colonnades of the Grand Square.

Then on 21-24 June is the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival. This annual series of specially commissioned outdoor performances is absolutely free. The Festival Fanfare, on 21 June, takes place in Beresford Square in Woolwich. Dutch company Close Act, with White Wings, present ethereal stilt apparitions. From France, Fanfare Jo Bithume’s eccentric brass ensemble plays music from Handel to Hendrix in surprising locations.

Australia’s Strange Fruit embark on a sublime journey into memory with Absolute Pearl. Paper Men create Kurosawa inspired performance from huge swathes of paper. Vernisseurs’ Joyeuse Pagille Urbaine wraps public spaces in ribbons and confetti plus dazzling fireworks from UK pyrotechnic virtuosi The World Famous. Over the next three days the Greenwich and Doclands area will be alive with aerial performance, live music, outdoor dance, theatre and street art.

Chaos theory: Grupo Puja take their inspiration from nuclear physics for K@osmos at the Old Royal Naval College

Motor Expo
Greenwich Alive
Greenwich and Docklands International Festival

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Open for business

The O2 (formerly known as the Dome) opens its doors this month, weeks ahead of schedule (see Wembley? That’s how it’s done). The Dome has been much maligned in its seven-year lifetime. The Millennium Dome was the government’s white elephant. When the exhibition celebrating the year 2000 and the third millennium was open, it was criticised as too expensive, too crowded and not attracting enough customers, the structure was said to be ugly.

I visited the exhibition while it was still open; I took advantage of the little publicised £10 tickets available in the final hour of opening. The exhibition was huge, there were a lot of people there but the size of place meant it didn’t feel crowded. And the enormous icecreams took the edge of any queuing. The Dome was a fun day out. Eventually the Dome attracted 6.5million visitors, well short of the forecasted 12million, but that was a ridiculously inflated estimate. To put this in perspective, the London Eye is described as ‘the most popular paid for UK visitor attraction’ with 3.5million visitors a year (according to their website).

As for the architecture, I like it. It’s not beautiful but it is striking. Huge and imposing, it’s impossible to miss as you take the DLR towards Greenwich. The architecture is known as ‘tensile’ – it’s constructed of elements carrying only tension with no compression or bending.

When the Dome closed there were several proposals for what should be done with it, including a football stadium and a super casino, neither appeared, for which I’m glad. Instead we have The O2: an enormous, multi-faceted entertainment complex with an arena, music hall, exhibition space, shops, bars, cinema and ice rink. This is exactly what London in general, and south-east London in particular, needed.

The centrepiece of The O2 is the 23,000-seat arena. London’s first purpose-built music venue since the Royal Albert Hall in 1837, the arena ‘is designed specifically for music events whilst retaining all the functionality to transform it into an indoor sports facility within hours,’ according to The O2. The acoustics are the most advanced of any venue in Europe, it has been ‘designed to provide a balanced sound, achieved by treating the entire underside of the roof, the upper walls, balcony fronts and seats to absorb sound and reduce the risk of any echoes or unwanted audio reflections’. The arena will be launched on 24 June with a special inaugural concert by Bon Jovi. Other acts include The Scissor Sisters, Snow Patrol, Barbra Streisand, Justin Timberlake and Take That.

Other attractions include a more intimate music hall, the indigO2, which seats 2,300 people and will open in July with a Jools Holland gig. There’s also an 11-screen cinema, a leisure district with over 20 bars, restaurants, cafes and shops, including Gary Rhodes’s newest restaurant and a venture from Roast, the celebrated eatery in Borough Market. The exhibition, known as the Bubble, opens in November with the Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, before these celebrated treasures return to Egypt forever. And don’t forget the ice rink, which I have to say I’m very excited about. I’ve been obsessed with ice skating since I saw Torvill and Dean take gold but I’ve never lived near a rink before.

The O2 is enormous. Just look at these statistics: it has an overall diameter of 365 metres, one metre for every day it was open as the Millennium Dome, and a circumference of one kilometre; at its central point it is 50 metres high and the steel masts are 100 metres high, there are 12 of these masts, representing the hours on a clock face, a reference to Greenwich Mean Time; the ground floor area is more than 80,000 square metres.

If these figures mean as little to you as they do to me, maybe these facts will make it easier to picture:
· If The 02 were ever turned upside down Niagara Falls would take 15 minutes to fill it
· Likewise it would take a million pints of beer to fill it
· Or 1,100 Olympic sized swimming pools
· The O2’s volume equals thirteen Albert Halls
· Or 10 St Paul’s Cathedrals
· Or two Wembley Stadiums
· 18,000 double-decker buses could fit into the 02
· The O2 is as high as Nelson’s Column
· The Eiffel Tower lying on its side would fit into the 02
· The O2 could hold 12 football pitches
· Or 72 tennis courts
· The venue will employ around 1,500 people

The O2