Sublimely utilitarian: H.Due.O umbrella

The objective:

This is the fifth in a series of posts showcasing the sublimely utilitarian. To qualify, a product must understand and address its purpose perfectly, must comprise nothing that isn’t essential. But it must also go beyond the expected – it must suprise, pleasure and delight. It must respond to this great saying: “Only do something if it is necessary, but if it is necessary, do it beautifully.”

The product:

The Churchill 2 umbrella by Italian company H.Due.O.

Its qualifications:

  1. It is small enough to fit in a satchel but large enough to cover two people and possess the robustness necessary in an umbrella.
  2. It is available in a small selection of dark, solid colours. Ours is grey.
  3. Its hooked handle is easy to carry, both in the hand when in use and over the arm when collapsed, and has a pleasurable softness to the touch. We are noticing this latter quality in more and more products as plastics technology gains greater sophistication (see Joseph Joseph utensils discussed in a previous post, here), and is one we particularly appreciate.
  4. The spokes of the umbrella head are flexible, reducing the likelihood of impact damage from other people, umbrellas and buildings.
  5. The spring-loaded mechanism that enables an automatic opening has been cleverly used to facilitate automatic closing also.

Our verdict:

Whilst H.Due.O oddly produces some umbrellas with garish and fairly unattractive graphics on them, the Churchill umbrella, together with other similarly austere options, is a winner. It is a compact, robustly-built umbrella whose automatic open and close is a delight. Its only weakness is the internal mechanism which unfortunately broke within six months of purchase. However, to the company’s eternal credit, they replaced the umbrella for us free of charge, no questions asked.

Alternative maps of the world

Peters World Map

What are they?

During Season 2 of Aaron Sorkin’s heroic television show, The West Wing, a nerdy but quietly zealous group called the Organisation of Cartographers for Social Equality introduce the Whitehouse staff to the Peters World Map, an equal-area map where 1 square centimetre of map equals the same number of square kilometres anywhere in the world.

Despite this map being proportionately accurate, the staff are shocked by the inconsistencies between it and the more familiar, but deliberately distorted, Mercator projection. Invented in 1569 to rationalise the lines of nautical travel, the Mercator map shows Australia to be roughly the same size as Greenland, despite it in fact being more than three and a half times larger.

The cartographers insist that the way a map is drawn reveals a great deal about the worldview of its creators: for instance, the centre has greater perceived importance than the edges. The distorted sizes of the Mercator map’s land masses further embellish the importance of the northern hemisphere and diminish that of the southern. They conclude by requesting the Bartlett government aggressively champion the use of the more egalitarian Peters map in all American schools.

What do we think?

A map, like any form of written or visual communication, is rooted in the time and place of its creation. If we care to look hard enough, a map reveal will many secrets: its language tells us of its geographical origin; the details of its contents tell us of the era of its crafting; its colour saturation and paper stock tell us of the technological sophistication of its printing press; even what information the map includes, and how it is included, can reveal the assumptions and prejudices of its creators.

A map can convey crowd data:

Internet usage in the years 2000 (above) and 2007 (below), courtesy of World Mapper

A map can be satirical:

Maps courtesy of the Mapping Stereotypes project by Yanko Tsvetkov, otherwise known as Alphadesigner

A map can be hopeful:

Global map looking towards 2050, produced for the WWF Energy Report by Dutch architecture studio OMA / AMO

A map can be simultaneously historical, mournful and beautiful:

Aboriginal Australia

What did we learn?

A map is not merely a means by which to communicate navigational information, it is itself a receptacle of social, cultural and political nuance. It tells us as much about the how and who of its creation as its what. A map is both time capsule and crystal ball.

The Oscars

What are they?

An awards ceremony this Sunday afternoon (Pacific Standard Time) conducted by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that recognises excellence in film making over the past 12 months. Separate awards are bestowed upon the best film, best director, best actor, best actress and a host of other individuals. The Oscars is recognised as the most prestigious awards ceremony of the year and rounds out a season of similar ceremonies that include the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Golden Globes and the British Academy of Film and Television Awards.

What do we think?

We love the Oscars season, when the world’s film studios put their best feet forward in a collective effort to win one of the coveted golden trophies. Irrespective of the controversy that often surrounds the Oscars nominations (entire sites are dedicated to the discussion of films that should have been included), the important and undeniable outcome is that film lovers are spoilt with a great choice of high-quality cinematic experiences. With The Artist, The Descendants and Hugo, Moneyball, The Help and Midnight in Paris, this year has been no exception.

Together with a small group of friends, we will be attending a winner-takes-all Oscars night wherein we bet upon fifteen of the most important categories. Some of our nominations, and the reasons for them, are as follows:

Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo in The Artist

There has been a lot of hype surrounding Michel Hazanavicius’ enigmatic film, The Artist, and for good reason. Set at the simultaneous death of silent cinema and birth of the “Speakies” era, and revolving around the emotional turmoil of one of the former’s most prolific and celebrated stars, this film is an example of a simple idea executed to perfection. It is a silent film about the death of silent cinema that exploits this long-forgotten cinematic technique to great effect. The performances of both Dujardin and Bejo are outstanding, imbuing vast life without the crutch of their voices. Part theatre, part historical recreation, this film deserves its hype, the overflowing bounty of awards it has already collected, and the swag of Oscars it is sure to claim Sunday afternoon.

We have nominated The Artist for Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score and Best Costume Design: 4 stars.

Shailene Woodley, George Clooney, Amara Miller and Nick Krause in The Descendants

Nominated in almost as many categories as The Artist, Alexander Payne’s film, The Descendents, is an engaging tale of family, love lost and survival. George Clooney puts in a magnificently subtle performance as a man who learns that his recently comatose wife was having an affair. He must step up as the parent he never had to be with his wife awake, whilst also taking care of the family estate and holding himself together. The relationship he has with his eldest daughter, played by Shailene Woodley, is fascinatingly complex. Each character is rendered with utterly convincing personality and nuance, imbuing this film with great feeling. The Descendants does what films do best: it tells a story about ordinary people in interesting circumstances.

In any other year, we think The Descendants would claim far more Oscar nods, and indeed it is our preferred film, but up against The Artist, a film about the history of films, we think it will play second fiddle in most categories. We have nominated it for Best Adapted Screenplay: 4.5 stars.

Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz in Hugo

We must admit to being both surprised and curious when we learned that Martin Scorsese was making a children’s film. However, despite being marketed this way, we suggest that Hugo is anything but. It has all the hallmarks of a Scorsese film – great attention to detail, period immersion, a real passion for the art of film making – and succeeds in layering an adventurous plot over a sophisticated exploration of  the life and works of a seminal early film maker, Georges Méliès (played by Ben Kingsley). Butterfield and Moretz are good and the comic interludes of Sacha Baron Cohen are fun, but all are overshadowed by the mesmerisingly intricate clockwork that fills both set and story. Here was a period in our history where mechanical ingenuity was expressed in all its notched and ratcheted glory.

Our big regret with this film was not taking the advice of the inestimable Margaret and David and seeing it in 3D. The naivety of the first cinema audiences may be forever lost, but with Hugo, Scorsese has attempted to recall that innocence, hoping to use old tricks in new ways to transfer his passion for cinema to young audiences.

We have nominated Hugo for Best Cinematography: 4 stars.

Mihaly Slocombe: Farmer House

Hildebrand House by Kevin Borland, 1977

What is it?

A project for which we have recently completed sketch design, photos of whose model can be viewed on our website, here.

Farmer House is a renovation to Hildebrand House by the late Kevin Borland in 1977. It is located near the top of Oliver’s Hill in Frankston South, overlooking Port Phillip Bay to the northwest. Built back in the glory days when town planning regulations did not prohibit overlooking, the existing house has a first floor balcony with magnificent views of the bay framed by the roof- and treetops of its neighbours. Our clients, who purchased the house from its original owners, have asked us to reinvigorate its interiors and provide an additional living area and bedroom to accommodate their young family. They are passionate about the house’s character and wish to respect it without pandering to it.

As discussed in a previous post, here, it is our intention to navigate the delicate operation of intervening in this excellent example of Borland’s “romantic functionalism” in as sensitive and intelligent way as possible.

What have we learnt?

Though monographs dedicated to Kevin Borland are not easy to come by, thanks to our clients we were able to track down one publication that has provided us with significant insight into his work: Architecture from the Heart by Doug Evans is an excellent exploration of his life, values, philosophy and opus.

Through it, we have learnt that Borland played an important role in developing an identity for residential architecture in Melbourne in the 1970s, an identity that, together with his lifelong commitment to teaching, influenced an entire generation of young architects. His mature domestic style successfully combined “absolute structural rationality with materials and detailing of great warmth and informality”. Our experience of Hildebrand House attests to this observation: while the entire house aligns to the orthogonal and diagonal axes of a strict 5 x 5m grid, the spaces are loose, revealing playful nooks from the unexpected junctions of walls rotated at 45° from one another.

These junctions, often resolved in the chamfer ubiquitous to the period, provided the departure point for our own intervention. Stepping beyond a rectilinear building form cut only in plan, we exploded the chamfer into three dimensions and across the lines of the existing and new building footprints.

Farmer House sketch design model by Mihaly Slocombe, 2012

Our design smoothes out the plan somewhat, simplifying the arrangement of rooms without losing the joy that resides within the existing house’s leftover triangular spaces. Enhancing the already-strong connection to the property’s enchanting gardens, each living and sleeping space gains its own unique relationship to the land. Most importantly, we preserve and extend the “irregular, even precarious presentation of form in the building’s exterior that arises from a logical combination of spatial needs, identity of spaces inside and the specific demands of structure”.

Without doubt, this will prove to be a project that truly comes to life only via the execution of its details. However, we are already excited by the possibilities suggested by the house and our sketch design. Unlike any of our other domestic renovation work, the existing condition of Farmer House already possesses its own unique voice, a voice we have taken great pains in protecting and nurturing.

Through the mechanism of considered interpretation, we hope our design eschews both dumb mimicry and ignorant demolition in favour of that precious, elusive balance between past histories and new ones.

Reinventing the wheel

On more than one occasion, we have overheard builders grumble about architects’ inexplicable need to constantly reinvent the wheel. These builders are invariably referring to the sophistication of our construction details and how difficult they are to execute.

Why do we constantly reinvent the wheel? The answer, after years of occasional reflection and contemplation, is pretty straightforward. It is a matter of priorities.

The aforementioned builder’s paradigm (which is thankfully not shared by all builders), demonstrating expertise in standard detailing and familiarity with the cost and availability of building materials, is bound by the tradition of expediency. A cursory inspection of many of the details we see in vernacular construction reveals a widespread and committed dedication to this tradition: face-affixed skirtings hide the floor to wall junction and make plastering easier; ceiling grids remove the need for plaster stopping altogether; hipped roofs minimise tricky edge flashing; weather beading on windows make use of standard timber dowel sizes; floating floorboards eliminate the need for gluing and nailing; expensive cupboard faces hide cheap joinery carcasses and expensive carpet hides cheap chipboard; veneers of all kinds may be inexpensive but they are dishonest.

Expediency is the enemy of the architect.

The architect values quality, craftsmanship and excellence. We seek the truth in structure and materials, and dedicate our designs to their expression. We do not assemble materials in a certain way because that’s how it has always been done, or those were what was available at the hardware store. We start with first principles, endeavouring to discover the heart of a problem and ensuring all that follows seeks its eloquent resolution. We recognise that our buildings are intended to last lifetimes and deserve careful consideration across all their dimensions.

All photos of Hill House by Mihaly Slocombe, 2006

The wheel is fine as it is, if all we want to do is travel from A to B. As architects, we hope instead to savour the journey.

Dangerous places

Walsh Street House by Robin Boyd, 1958

What are they?

The antithesis of the contemporary urban environment, whose sturdy handrails, warning decals and fluorescent yellow strips are tenderly coddling us in bubble wrap, anxiously protecting us from every possible bump, scrape and bruise. By dangerous, we do not so much refer to cliff edges nor shark-infested waters, rather the more quotidian places which return to us a sense of our own bodies, the understanding that our safety is our responsibility and ours alone.

Walsh Street House by Robin Boyd is one such dangerous place.

We had the good fortune to attend the awards ceremony for the AA Prize for Unbuilt Work that was held there last week (into which we entered our project, SafetyNet City, discussed here and viewable here, that did not win). At the entrance, a gracious host warned us to watch our step down the stairs, as the handrail is not enclosed, and our footing on the balcony, as its sides have no handrails at all. Later, taking the photo below, we almost fell off said balcony, but were thankfully saved by the helpful tendril of a well-placed shrub.

What did we learn?

It is true that one of the fundamental prerogatives of architecture is to protect us, to bring us in from the heat and the cold and the lions. But having achieved commendable lion-protection across most Australian cities, our national building code and local councils have with misplaced good intentions turned to making sure even the smallest of dangers is extinguished.

Our steps are festooned with fluorescent yellow strips. Our windows are adorned with warning decals. Our balconies and stairs are ensconced in handrails. Our train platforms are decorated with tactile indicators. Our swimming pools are barricaded by fences. And we suffer unwittingly as the result.

There is such a thing as too much comfort. Our overly safe Australian cities ruin us for other, foreign cities – they soften our bodies, dull our senses and reduce our immunity to the cracks, unevenness and small surprises found elsewhere. It is worthwhile noting that across billions of years of continuous evolution and refinement, good Mother Nature has not found it necessary to grow handrails.

Now, we do not suggest that you tear out your balustrades and burn your fluorescent strips in protest against this gross injustice (though should you choose to do so, we would be delighted to hear about it). Rather, we simply wish to acknowledge the pleasant respite we enjoyed from all this unrequested over-protection at a stunningly-designed house that returned to us an acute awareness of self. It is called proprioception – the awareness through one’s muscles and nerves of one’s own body. Living in so much comfort, we could all do with more of it in our daily diets.

Silhoettes on the roof of Walsh Street House

The Flyboard

What is it?

Every now and then, someone invents something so engaging and persuasive, we can’t help but want one. It doesn’t matter if the design is frivolous or dangerous or even wasteful, we can’t help but want one. When the kernel of the idea is powerful and its execution intuitive, we find our imaginations captured and we can’t help but want one. Zapata Racing’s Flyboard is one such invention.

A pair of water-propelled rocket boots eject a steady stream of water, much like a jet ski, converting the flow of water into propulsion. Unlike a jet ski, the Flyboard can operate both underwater or in the air. A pair of hand-held stabilising jets act in the same way as ski poles, completing the free-flying, dolphin-diving experience.

Currently, the Flyboard uses a jet ski as its power source, however Zapata Racing has announced future plans to release an additional attachment that will allow flyers to do away with the jet ski entirely. A video of this extraordinary invention is viewable here.

First seen at the end of last year on this Inhabitat post.

What do we think?

Footage of Franky Zapata using his invention is smooth and graceful. His body is transformed into something not-quite or more-than human – he is part man, part fish, part bird. His takes its place in a long series of technological innovations that meld steel with flesh to extend our reach beyond the limitations of our nature (see our article on Kevin Warwick, the world’s first cyborg, here).

Undoubtedly, the Flyboard takes some getting used to, but we can’t imagine a more enjoyable way to spend a summer.