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A Room for London; from competition concept to the London skyline

27.02.18

As A Room for London embarks on a new voyage, leaving its current berth on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s Southbank, we reflect on the first part of the story of this unique building.

Until February 2018, A Room for London perched precariously on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, as if beached there by some colossal tide; a figment from a story. In fact, the ‘Roi des Belges’ does pays tribute to a fictional boat of the same name, from Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness.

Conrad had been a merchant seaman for nearly 20 years before he became a writer, and Heart Of Darkness was inspired by a journey he made up the Congo River in 1889, aboard a river steamer named the Roi Des Belges. The journey was the fulfilment of a long-held dream for Conrad, though it became more of a nightmare. A French clerk aboard the boat died of dysentery, and Conrad himself became ill a few months later. He returned to Europe penniless and disgusted by the ravages of colonialism in Africa. All those ingredients found their way into Heart Of Darkness, framed as a story within a story.

This swirling mix of fiction and reality animates A Room For London's static architecture. Jointly created by an architect, David Kohn, and artist Fiona Banner and jointly commissioned by Living Architecture and Artangel, the project's broader mission was to mark London's momentous year of 2012 with a one-off gesture. This would be an experiment in mobile architecture: a single-bedroom hotel.

Vacant sites in central London tend to be scarce and prohibitively expensive, though the advantage of a temporary, mobile structure was that it could sit on the rooftop of an existing building. Finding an obliging host proved to be a challenge, though. After some searching, it came down to the most obvious location: the Southbank Centre. It was in the ideal position, looking across the Thames to central London, added to which, its robust, flat-roofed postwar structures offered a variety of potential sites. What's more, the arts centre was publicly funded and well accustomed to collaboration. It regularly played host to temporary structures and installations on or around its estate. The Southbank's director, Jude Kelly, was immediately receptive to the Room For London proposal, and the institution proved to be flexible and obliging throughout.

 The rooftop of the Queen Elizabeth Hall was perfect; right at the heart of things, close to the Royal Festival Hall, the National Theatre and the London Eye. Its view of the river is unbeatable, extending from St Paul's Cathedral and the City round to the Palace Of Westminster. The competition to design A Room For London was announced in October 2010 and collaborations between architects and artists were particularly encouraged.

A boat would not be the first design solution to spring to most architects' minds, but for David Kohn, boats and architecture were already strongly connected. As a longtime tutor at architecture schools, one theme Kohn has often discussed with students is Michel Foucault's concept of the heterotopia. A heterotopia, as Foucault defined it, is a real place that exists somehow outside the dictates of the ordinary world around it, as opposed to a utopia – an idealised, perfected site with no real place. The the most extreme form, he suggested, was the boat – the ‘place without a place.’

 “As an architect, that's powerful stuff,” says Kohn. “This idea that you have to go into something small and somehow contemplate your relationship to the world.  Boats also have a stronger connection with architecture than other forms of transport, Kohn explains, and many architects have designed boats in the past. Internally, their organisation is closely related to domestic spaces, perhaps so as to mollify the feelings of mortal peril that come with being alone at sea. “It really does play with a lot of extremes that other architectures do more modestly,” says Kohn. “A domestic environment which really is a life-and-death situation. There's a kind of pleasure in that. It has huge poetic potential.”

 Early conversations between Kohn and artist Fiona Banner took in boats through history and literature, from the ark onwards. In the context of the Room For London's location, it was inevitable that Joseph Conrad's would come up. Banner had obliquely referenced Conrad in her work before. For Kohn, the connection with Conrad was also personal. His parents are South African and he was born in Cape Town. He came to Britain at the age of four, when apartheid was still in force and the country's international pariah status was at its peak. “Somehow it all felt relevant to me,” he says. “Literature and Africa and colonialism and identity – they're certainly issues I've had to think about repeatedly through life.”

 Four teams were invited to develop their designs further. A young Czech practice had proposed an intriguing billboard-type building – a tall, wide, thin structure fronted with glass, which exposed occupants' activities to passers-by. They had little idea how overcome the project's technical challenges, however. A German scheme imagined an elegant, translucent ‘Fabergé egg’ containing a vacuum-insulated chamber of pure silence within. There was an intriguing proposal for a rotating room, set on a giant turntable, which inhabitants could point in any direction for an ever-changing view. And there was the boat. Unlike most of the other entries, Kohn and Banner's submission consisted largely of text, with very few images.

 “We picked the boat because we liked the story,” says Living Architecture’s Creative Director, Alain de Botton. “They seemed to believe in it so much. They gave a brilliant presentation and they charmed us all with the quirkiness and also relevance of the idea. And on a visceral level, just the idea of a boat on top of a building seemed charming as well.”

More on the design, creation and construction of A Room for London to follow.

A Room for London; from competition concept to the London skylineA Room for London; from competition concept to the London skylineA Room for London; from competition concept to the London skyline
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