Category Archives: Architecture

Who sees comic Lewis Schaffer’s shows repeatedly? Well, one is a green woman.

Blanche Cameron with Lewis Schaffer last week

Blanche Cameron and Lewis Schaffer this week

“I would definitely say I’m green,” Blanche Cameron told me.

“Like the Incredible Hulk?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied, “and, on dark nights or under stress, I do get very cross about things.”

My blog yesterday was about the endlessly fascinating – because arguably neurotic – London-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer. But his audience is almost as interesting and varied as his shows are – and he has an unusually large percentage of people repeatedly coming back to see his Free Until Famous show which has been running at least twice weekly since 2009.

Blanche is a recent convert.

“Why bother to come back?” I asked her this week.

“Well,” she explained, “because, very often with stand-up, a lot of people have got a very structured set-up for themselves. It can be so constricting watching it sometimes. You just feel like it’s a tour guide taking you through a bunch of jokes. But, with Lewis, you’re on a cliff-edge the whole time and it could go horribly wrong. He develops a close relationship with each audience. The show is always different. But he also chooses material on the edge of what might be deemed acceptable and provokes a strong response. I love that because feelings, vulnerability, are still a big taboo. Lewis is happy to embrace discomfort and vulnerability and see what happens.”

“But you don’t want to perform yourself?” I asked.

“Oh no, no, no, no, no…” she said.

“So,” I asked, “when you were 14 in school did you just sit there thinking I want to be green?”

The National Theatre - not my favourite London building

The National Theatre – It is not my favourite London building

“No,” replied Blanche, “I thought I want to do theatre. I worked at the National Theatre for a while as a set painter. When I was growing up, I had done a lot of amateur dramatics, but I always wanted to do backstage stuff: set making and set painting. I worked at the Hexagon Theatre in Reading as a ‘follow spot’ (a spotlight operator). I once shone a light on Harry Enfield.

“The first time I did it, when I was about 17, they put me on something not too complicated to try me out. There was a waltz troupe from Austria. I had headphones on and they said they were going left – meaning stage left but my right – so I went the wrong way with the spotlight and the pair doing their waltz fell over in the darkness and I had to try to find them again with the light. They were very pissed-off afterwards.

Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) in Milan under construction. It will host 900 trees. Designed by Boeri Studio.

Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) under construction in Milan. It will host 900 trees. Designed (and photo by) Boeri Studio

“Then I did a workshop with Forkbeard Fantasy in the 1980s and they told me If you want to get involved in community architecture, you want to talk to Jim Monaghan. He set up the Covent Garden Community Association in the 1970s, so I ended up working there for a year and a half running it aged 18 because, when I turned up, the two women running it went Great! and went off to have babies.

“I had no idea what I was doing, but it was an open door opportunity. Best experience of my life. We ran a newspaper called the Covent Garden Independent News which was a bit Private Eye-ish.

“I loved drawing and making stuff so I thought Maybe I’ll do architecture. So I went to the Charles Rennie Mackintosh School in Glasgow. But I’m not cut out to be an architect. It’s actually quite dull. Well, it is for me. The two guys who ran the school were very modernist. They were into Le Corbusier and big concrete white blocks and I was all greeny and had spent my childhood going out birdwatching. I struggle because I’m not an aesthetic person and maybe that’s why I’m not an architect.”

“So what do you do?” I asked.

The Gherkin  - 30 St Mary Axe, London

The Gherkin – 30 St Mary Axe

“I don’t do anything,” said Blanche. “I’m not an architect, a developer or a planner or anything myself, but I’m involved in green architecture. I advocate for ecological adaptation, I teach environmental design at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth and a couple of other universities, but I am NOT an architect. I don’t care too much about aesthetics. I do to an extent. I think the Gherkin is a very elegant building; it’s like a Fabergé egg. I’m not an architect, but I’m interested in what buildings do.

“The cities we have built are not fit for purpose. There’s lots of beautiful things about them, but they over-heat, they pollute, they can’t manage storm water. If you get a downpour in the summer, the streets flood. Victoria station closes several times a year because really heavy rain can’t be managed by the Underground system.

“I would like to see us working more with Nature rather than fighting against it. We’ve had this idea that cities are separate from the countryside and we’ve separated them from the benefits we can get from Nature, which could reduce costs, cool a city and make it livable. Last summer, in the heatwave, hospital wards were being evacuated – the top two floors – because of over-heating. That costs a Health Trust millions of pounds.”

“Why do they over-heat?” I asked.

“Because it’s a hot day and their insulation and air conditioning can’t cope with it. But, if you put a green roof on that with a decent depth of substrate…”

“You mean grass?”

“No. People often think it’s grass or a horticultural thing, but what you want is bio-diversity. A low maintenance roof. Something that’s mimicking nature like a chalk grassland, like a wild hillside. You don’t have to go out and compost and maintain it. Not a rocky, bare landscape, but lots of plants and invertebrates on it.”

“What happens when it rains?”

Transport for London's biodiverse green roof on its HQ in Victoria. Designed by Dusty Gedge of GRC (Photo by GRC) 

Transport for London’s biodiverse green roof on its HQ in Victoria. Designed by Dusty Gedge of Green Roof Consultancy

“It absorbs moisture and, when it rains, it re-evaporates 40% of the rain so you’re reducing what goes into the sewer system by almost half and you’re alleviating the burden on the drains. And then you get the cooling effect. It’s cooling the neighbourhood because it’s evaporating. It’s cooling the building. And it can help filter the air, make it less polluted. A green roof does the job and it’s invisible. It’s a multi-functional intelligent solution to a lot of problems.”

“What about people having to mow the grass on the roofs?” I asked.

“You don’t have to. What you want is bio-diversity where the plants manage their own community.”

“I have read Day of The Triffids,” I said. “They might plot against us.”

“There’s no grass,” said Blanche. “If it’s well designed, you shouldn’t have to maintain it more than a couple of times a year: just go up there and see how it’s doing. Water is going to be the issue of the 21st century.”

“Not in Scotland,” I said.

“Nor in Wales,” agreed Blanche. “I’ve worked at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth. But, if you look where the wall built by the Israelis between Israel and Palestine actually goes, it follows underground aquifers. It has nothing to do with religion or even territory. That wall is there to protect the water on the Israeli side of the wall, because Israel imports tens of thousands of gallons of water from Turkey every day. Water is going to be a major issue. Water is life.”

“In the 1950s, vegetarians were thought of as loonies,” I said. “but now it’s acceptable. In the 1960s, Chinese medicine was thought of as loony, but now it’s becoming acceptable. Is green architecture still thought of as loony?”

“Not so much,” said Blanche. “One of the problems with the environment movement has been – though it’s less so now – that the Greenies thought We have the Holy Grail. Everyone should come to us. We know the solutions. But, unless you are a vegan living in a cave up a hill, you also participate in the same mainstream society as everybody else. You’re just kidding yourself if you think you’re not.

“I work a lot with two guys – Dusty Gedge who wrote the London policy plan for sustainables and Gary Grant who’s an ecologist who designed the bio-diversity action plan for the 2012 Olympics. They’re doing the green roof on the Tate Modern extension and advising on the green roof for the South Bank re-construction. It is now in the Greater London Authority’s documents that the Mayor expects to see green roofs and walls integrated into buildings and developments wherever possible. Things are changing.”

And how is this relevant to Lewis Schaffer you, my dear reader, might ask?

It isn’t.

Did I say it was?

I worry more about the invertebrates on the roof and the potential plots of the Triffids.

There is a 50 second time-lapse video on Vimeo of greenery being built into the wall of the Rubens Hotel in Victoria, London. (Designed by Gary Grant of the Green Roof Consultancy.)

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Several reasons why people with a love of the bizarre should visit Vancouver…

Anna Smith in her Vancouver hospital

Anna Smith reports from Vancouver on wide cultural matters

This blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent Anna Smith tells me that there is an enormous amount of construction in Vancouver at the moment: over a hundred tower cranes rear up on the skyline.  She tells me a team representing fifty construction firms flew to Ireland last month recruiting workers. In Vancouver’s local Irish newspaper, full page ads are running:


This is Anna’s latest despatch from Canada:


Well-stacked shelves at Vancouver's Library

Well-stacked shelves in Vancouver’s Library

The building which used to house the main branch of Vancouver Public Library has evolved into an enormous Victoria’s Secret store and is bursting with brassieres, panties and corsets. The cornerstone, however, remains intact – So it now appears as if the Lieutenant Governor (the representative of Queen Elizabeth II in Canada) presided over the dedication of a lingerie supermarket.

The design of the new main branch of the library is based on the Colosseum in Rome and has got rid of most of its books, although a small volume of John Hegley poems survives. Most of the books have been replaced with computers which are being used without interruption by coffee-swilling, mentally-ill and homeless people who have given up hope of finding affordable housing and are engaged in other research.

Several other local buildings have recently been converted into churches. I have no idea why churches are getting popular here, unless it is something to do with so many used bookstores going bankrupt and the proximity of the United States.

The Hollywood Movie Theater on Broadway, once famous for art house and second run movies, has become a church.

Across the street from the ex-Vancouver Public Library – now Victoria’s Secret – building, the enormous Center for the Performing Arts is now home to an evangelical church. It used to stage elaborate Chinese Action Musicals.

Chinese Action Musicals

Chinese Action Musicals’ home is now an evangelical church

I only know the term ‘Chinese Action Musicals’ from the posters round here. It appears that they are a form invented by writer/director Dennis Law – a retired vascular surgeon turned theatre impresario.

He is Chinese but lives in Denver USA and has produced ten action musicals. They are said to be a combination of Kung Fu, martial arts, acrobatics, acoustic and lavish scenic wonders, erotic scenes, dance and music… and a non verbal performance spectacle of otherworldly beauty with virtuoso body movement skills.

Mr Law is the survivor of a messy divorce (he found his godson naked in his bedroom closet) and says Chinese humour and dialogue does not translate well for international audiences. His most recent productions include The Terracotta Warriors (two-thirds dance and one-third martial arts) and Tang Concubines (not sure of the percentages on that one),

Half Burns Night, half Chinese New Year - in Vancouver

Event half Burns Night, half Chinese New Year

Another impresario you might be interested in is a man called Toddish McWong, who has been holding an annual Scottish Chinese fusion cultural event here for several years under the title GUNG HAGGIS FAT CHOY. It combines Robbie Burns Night with Chinese New Year.

I have never been, but will try to go this January so I can report to you about it.

At the moment, I am taking photos of buildings in Vancouver for some mysterious architect I have never met. All I initially knew was that his name is Edward, he likes shoes and lives in Toronto. The story has now expanded to involve lady lawyers, a yacht, vipers, a cocktail party and a person who is something like that Peter Sellars character in Being There

Meanwhile, my smart phone has a problem in the form of Pope Francis.

My new screensaver is a picture of the Pope, arm outstretched, performing a blessing.

I did not ask for this, it just happened somehow.

OK, he is from Argentina and I do prefer Jesuits, if I have to have a preference.

I am glad that he says Who are we to judge? and that he said the drownings in Italy are an atrocity.

But I am not a Catholic and I don’t know how the Pope got onto my phone. It might have come from the BBC and is probably the result of the phone being jostled in my handbag shortly after reading the news.

'Sir Gideon Vein’ (copyright photograph by Anna Smith)

‘Sir Gideon Vein’ wore cravats back then (Photograph copyright of Anna Smith)

The only similar quasi-spiritual event that comes to mind from my past would be one occasion in London when performer Ian Hinchliffe appeared at the door of our flat at ten in the morning. He was half-cut as usual and was accompanied by a quiet, bewildered but ordinary-looking young man whom he introduced as The Benefactor. Ian pronounced this (being from Yorkshire) as Tut Benefactor.

Ian and Tut Benefactor paced restlessly while Sir Gideon Vein adjusted his cravat and then they  all headed off for a day at the horse races at Epsom, financed by Tut Benefactor.

Do you ever have occasion to visit Brussels? There are a couple of buildings that I need photographed there. If you know anyone who lives or works there or is passing through, let me know.

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Filed under Architecture, Canada, Humor, Humour, Surreal, Theatre

Greenwich: from World Heritage Site to Third World slum within a two minute walk

Greenwich is designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

But the road behind late comic Malcolm Hardee’s Up The Creek comedy club in Greenwich has not become my favourite place recently. It is called Bardsley Lane.

In the late-night darkness there, I have twice trodden in dog shit (it’s apparently common in the area) and my car was broken into in the early hours of the morning (apparently also common in the area). The police response was: “Is there a street camera in Bardsley Lane?”

Call me out-of-touch, but I somehow thought the police might know.

There isn’t, of course, because Greenwich Council appears to have abandoned Bardsley Lane like Jordan has abandoned Alex Reid as a lost cause – they don’t even pretend to take any interest in the area. It is just a two-minute stroll from Greenwich Town centre and you can see what a jolly stroll it is in a video I have posted on YouTube.

While tarting-up some areas where councillors live “for the 2012 Olympics”, Greenwich Council have let Bardsley Lane deteriorate literally into a rubbish tip – although it is just two minutes from the historic town centre of the UNESCO World Heritage site and visible from the main Creek Road through the town centre.

The car wash featured towards the end of the video was given permission to trade on the basis it was “not out of keeping with the general character of… Greenwich Town centre and (would) not harm the setting and the appearance of the area and the adjacent West Greenwich Conservation area.”

Are they having a laugh?

Does this look like a World Heritage Site or a rubbish tip of a slum in some Third World country?

Ah! But then… call me a cynical fat slaphead…

Where there’s muck, there’s usually brass changing hands.

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Filed under Architecture, History, Politics