by Almas SadiqueSep 14, 2023
What transforms the act of seeing into the art of reading? Discussing this in the context of our cities and neighbourhoods - the places we belong to – what if we replace our default ways of visual navigation with a keen observant eye. Will the scenery before us unfold any differently?
A fascinating documentation by British architect and designer Sam Jacob explored this inquiry as he strolled through London’s 44 acre Earl’s Court, with the tryst resulting in an untraditional guide of the neighbourhood in a special project titled 20 Things. Part of the ongoing London Design Festival’s 20th anniversary and presented in collaboration with The Earls Court Development Company, Jacob’s guide constitutes 20 elements - supported with architectural illustrations - that he saw on his walk as characteristic urban features of the place, dipped in eclectic tropes of history, irony, and iconography.
Interestingly, this was a place that Jacob was not familiar with yet an immersive journey through the neighbourhood allowed him to savour its spirit and bring back observations that often elude an unheeding eye. “When you start to look around - up, down and sideways - you begin to notice things that normally just remain part of the background, but are things that have moments of intrigue, excitement and invention. I think walking through the city in a kind of aimless but observant way is a thrilling experience,” says the founder of the London-based Sam Jacob Studio - a collaborative practice that makes buildings, places, strategies and products.
"Micro and macro, witty and moving, hidden and visible", following are the 20 things from Jacob’s project extending the message that "even the most ordinary of streets contain surprises". The list also includes two urban interventions by the designer himself - one in which he presents a graphic transformation of two windows of a British home, and another is a resurrection of a traditional weathervane. The text included for each element below is an excerpt taken from Jacob's illuminating guide.
"The Warwick Road entrance is a classic of 70s British Modernism featuring a glass circular atrium perched on top of Deco curved brick plinth constructed in 1937. Historic England might describe it as being of “no merit” but for others (i.e. me) it has a touch of Constructivism that dramatises the station as a piece of urban infrastructure.”
"Tiny wedges of space between two houses that are too small even to be alleyways, just a slither of light at the ends. When the ideal form breaks down and something else emerges.”
“A very strange hybrid of a building that has housing above a depot containing every garbage lorry owned by Kensington & Chelsea Council.”
"This junction is apparently both a real and a fictional place. It’s where (possibly) novelist Patrick Hamilton was run over. […] Maybe much of a city is as much in the imagination as it is in its built form.”
“A strange hybrid comprising the giant urban gesture of the arch with more cottagey gateway buildings.”
“It is a kind of fantasy version of a European cityscape, elements of Dutch and German towns all compressed into a dense composition that plays with scale and detail.”
“There’s something about the entrances to the mansion blocks of Earl’s Court.[…] They act like little buildings themselves, mini temples, or encrusted in elaborate cake-like decorations, like follies transported from picturesque gardens to the streetscapes of Earl’s Court.”
“At 22 Clareville Grove was where David Bowie wrote Space Oddity while living at his girlfriend, and short-lived folk outfit Feathers bandmate, Hermione Farthingale’s flat (of Letter to Hermione fame).”
“The decorative infrastructure of domesticity. […] If you look down as you walk London pavements, you’ll find such an incredible variety of these plates, so many different decorative designs, so many different manufacturers - this one made by Jas Bartle in Notting Hill.”
In London some very unusual things happen in very average places, where extreme imagination coexists with very ordinary life. – Sam Jacob
“The act of, say, appropriating tubular steel from the factory and reinventing it as a design element was as much an emblem of a new idea about the world as it was a way of making a new world. Design is always symbolic, even when it itself doesn’t want to be.”
“The billboard is low, and it forms the backdrop to a mini park. What kinds of new relationships might be made between that big flatness of the image and the real-life community in front of it?”
"There's nothing quite as strangely perverse as a blind window. A window that cannot see. […] This example on Kempsford Gardens looks pretty new. It’s nicely framed with a surround and sill that seem very functional - only adding to the sensation of dysfunction.”
"For those of us who grew up watching reruns of Carry-On films, Hattie Jaques (along with Kenneth Williams, Sid James, Barbara Windsor et al.) was a kind of mythic character from a post war Britain whose obsession with double entendres masked a complex fear/fascination with sex and gender. Those caricature characters were also real people of course, as Kenneth Williams’ diaries, for example, attest. They walked the normal streets and lived lives that didn’t revolve (any more than ours do) around bad puns.”
"Step into Brompton Cemetery and you’ll see the richness of the Victorian design language of death in the mausolea, memorials and gravestones. But one type of approach I always find interesting is the monuments that are carved into real things. Not just decorative, but things like tree trunks, broken columns, and maybe the strangest ones - rocks carved to look like rocks.”
“The board explores the less important, the fragments of such a vast emptiness in the fabric of London.”
“Moments like this remind us that London isn’t just a city, that it occupies a landscape that is made up of many other things that include geology, ecology, and hydrology.”
“It is also interesting to see, in examples like this, the sheer scale of the commercial graphic language. It shows us that the historic city was far from the idealised image that things like modern conservation areas suggest, that they were far more raucous places with supergraphics plastered over the fabric of the buildings.”
“It’s the future and the past too - the image of Victorian heritage overlaid onto a space age object - an object that expresses the contradiction of heritage against the reality of the contemporary world. If you needed an object that expressed our collective inability to successfully resolve these contradictions, well, you could put this one in your museum!”
“For LDF, I have transformed a house on Empress Place. On the first floor a pair of eyes open and close as you walk past, recalling the blind windows (we have seen before on this list) but also the always present relationship between eyes, looking and windows. Just as eyes are the window to the soul, perhaps windows are also eyes.”
“In WW2, the exhibition centres at Earl’s Court were used to manufacture barrage balloons. The size of the centres meant they could be inflated indoors. I have resurrected this forgotten history as a weathervane with a barrage balloon floating above.”
Often guides are a result of a thorough familiarity of a place. We ask Jacob what separates his untraditional guide from the conventional formats, and how the unfamiliarity of Earl’s Court has contributed to this documentation. “Guides,” he tells us, “are usually written as if they are objective, as kind of top down instructions about how to see or experience somewhere. I think the format is open for reinvention, and that's partly what this is: A guide that is more like walking around with a friend, a conversation, a speculation about what is around you. It is more of an exploration - both in terms of the things I have picked out, which might not normally make the grade of a full blown tourist map, and the way they have been described. So not an expert telling you facts (though there are facts) but more a point of view, subjective rather than objective.”
Going back to the inquiry we opened this article with, here is something that Jacob told us that perhaps brings us closer to the answer. He says, “Sigmund Freud called dreams the 'royal road to the unconscious', but I’d argue that very real roads - and the stuff they are made up of - reveal a kind of unconscious dreamlike idea of the city if only we give them a little more attention. Once we start looking, we can ‘read’ cities, neighbourhoods and places.”
Click here to know everything about London Design Festival 2022. Celebrating its 20th year, the festival takes over the city of London with installations, exhibitions, and talks from major design districts such as Brompton, Shoreditch Design Triangle, Greenwich Peninsula, Design London, Clerkenwell Design Trail, Park Royal, Mayfair, Bankside, King's Cross, William Morris Line, and Islington.