This article was written for the Guardian
It has Prince Charles as its patron and a recent show at Somerset House celebrated its sense of style, but could wool have a future as a conservation textile too? Over the last three years, a band of artists and volunteers have been installing healing plasters of wool on the side of a Welsh mountain in a bid to control landscape erosion and protect a valuable swathe of peat.
Back in 1976 a fire on the side of Pen Trumau in the Black Mountains left a 70,000 metre square scar burned into the hillside. A huge section of peat was exposed and has been eroding ever since. It’s estimated that 6,125 tonnes of carbon have escaped so far. Over 30 years later, artist Pip Woolf first witnessed Pen Trumau’s “black hole” on Google Earth. She was shocked by its extent but inspired by its potential to be transformed.
“There’s a black space,” thought Woolf, “if we covered it in wool it would turn white, and the long term picture would be that it would turn green.” The reality was it would take an awful lot of wool to cover, so her original idea for an absorbent woollen patch turned into ‘The Woollen Line’, an artistic experiment that’s slowly attempting to heal the mountain’s great wound, stitch by stitch.
A bold white streak
Together with some volunteers and a bale of washed wool from the Wool Marketing Board, Woolf spent the cold February of 2010 making felt by hand. Heather seeds were embedded into the fabric. The felt was pegged onto Pen Trumau, leaving a bold white streak on the dark landscape. It’s now faded enough to miss on foot but is still very visible viewed from above – the area’s gliders have taken the most dramatic pictures.
So why put all that wool up there? “The whole reason the site won’t vegetate is because it’s completely mobile,” explains Woolf. “If it’s wet, the peat is washing off, if it’s dry it’s blowing off. Once peat loses its vegetative cover it oxidises and releases carbon in all sorts of ways. You’re losing carbon storage, water storage and grazing land.”
The hope is that the wool will slow things down, making the site more hospitable to plant life and less vulnerable to erosion. Ask Woolf if the experiment is working though and you’ll get short shrift. “The whole reason peat forms on the top of Welsh mountains is that it’s cold and wet, and everything happens very slowly up there,” she says. “Demanding a green result that quickly is foolish, it’s bad science.”
Sausages to save an SSSI
The project has evolved since the first Woollen Line was laid. Hand making felt was time consuming and none of the heather germinated. So the focus has moved onto wool ‘sausages’, first to pack erosion channels and more recently laid in a line along the top edge of the scar. Woolf now pays farmers to stuff nets with wool they can’t use for anything else. “It’s wool that’s absolutely worthless to the farmer but not worthless to this,” she explains. “They get a rid of their rubbish wool, I get my sausages – it’s brilliant.”
The Pen Trumau mountainside is an SSSI, so throughout Woolf has had to convince ecologists to support her experiments. “Nobody’s done anything on this site for 35 years, but as soon as the ecologist touched one of the wool sausages everything changed,” she explains. “The wool is the language people understand.”
Encouraging new growth is the project’s ultimate aim and where the heather failed, grass is proving more successful. Last year volunteers collected seed and cuttings from cotton-grass and wavy hair-grass and propagated them. Out of 600 plugs planted along the Woollen Line last year, 300 plants are now growing well.
Land art on a mountainous scale
As well as a piece of community conservation work, the line is land art that’s leaving a lasting impression. “It’s almost like leaving a dirty great footprint,” admits Woolf. “I remember coming down early on and thinking I can’t take this back. I do struggle with plonk-it art in the landscape and would hate for it to be a Pip Woolf mark on the hill… but I have to stay there until I can find a really positive way for it to have its own life.”
The project continues and this spring the plan is to create a wool spiral on part of the scar that is yet to be touched. And until the end of the month, an artistic exploration of Woolf and her 750 volunteers’ labours so far is on show in a cold but atmospheric barn in Crickhowell.
An experiment for the Londonist to investigate the theatrical properties of Children of the Sun
To find out whether the latest collaboration between director Howard Davies, writer Andrew Upton and designer Bunny Christie at the National Theatre is worth seeing.
After working together on Russian classics The Cherry Orchard, Philistines and The White Guard, we predict the trio will create something gripping, funny and sad.
- A new version of a play by Marxist playwright Maxim Gorky about the floundering middle classes
- A magnificently detailed and realistic set, complete with science lab
- An idealistic but hopeless would-be chemist, who’s a handkerchief of a man
- A misunderstood but stoic wife with artistic tendencies and a love interest
- A cynical but romantic Scot who expects less and dreams of small pigs
- A deeply sad and prescient sister; and a cringeworthy, slightly mad one
- A slutty, social climbing maid; and a nostalgic nanny, who knows her place
- Various peasants
- Lingering doubts
- Dry ice
1. Suck people in fast with a high impact, disorientating opening
2. Use a daily encounter between siblings and their nanny to set the scene for a play about chemistry, bourgeoisie preoccupations, liberal hypocrisy and crippling poverty
3. Make the dining room table the centre of the characters’ world, which the action can revolve around
4. Use a cast of strong actors to deliver a script that is bold, intelligent and very funny
5. Introduce humour and hopelessness via a churlish Scotsman and his melodramatic sister
6. Add jeopardy in the shape of a cracked vat and an experiment gone wrong
7. Drop in some abject poverty and a poisoning
8. Inject a splash of Romeo and Juliet style tragedy
9. Finish with a big bang
Children of the Sun is a fantastic production that any fan of dark comedy, intricate dialogue, political theatre and awesome set design should seek out.
Children of the Sun plays at the Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, until 14 July. Tickets are £12-£34.
This review was written for the Londonist
Featuring one of opera’s most famous arias, Mozart’s last singspiel offers a heady blend of magic, morality and masonry. David McVicar’s production returns to the Royal Opera House this spring for a run dedicated to the memory of the late Sir Colin Davis. It’s comic, grand and glittering, with great performances all round and a looming set that looks like it’s made of marble and is cast in a mystical kind of light.
As sweet as the lovers are, the highlights are of course the misguided Queen of the Night and the comic folk hero Papageno, who favours wine and women over wisdom. Flawed characters are always more entertaining and here are given the most memorable tunes.
The queen and her three ladies are stunning. Their hair is scraped back into tight peaks, revealing white dome heads with seriously receded hairlines, and their long dresses sparkle midnight black and blue. Their impressive high-pitched voices and mischievous vengefulness are in welcome contrast to the earnest ‘Initiates’.
Visually, the production design (by John Macfarlane) is simple but heavy with a symbolism that adds to both the humour and seriousness of the story. There are glowing globes and solar systems, a huge crescent moon and an enormous golden sun, a massive staring eye, a great old tree and towering columns, but also an over-sized rod puppet serpent, a comedy bird-on-a-stick and a flying wheelbarrow. And, of course, a magic flute.
The run is short and perhaps unsurprisingly sold out but 67 tickets are on offer from 10am on the day of each performance if you visit the box office in person, and returns are sold over the phone. See the Royal Opera House website for more info. It plays on selected days until 9 May and is sung in German with English surtitles. Ticket prices vary wildly depending where you sit.
This review was written for the Londonist
Perhaps it’s the shows I’ve been choosing to watch but, more often than not, trips to the theatre have recently seemed to involve being dragged into the action somehow. Immersive experiences are often deservedly popular but their current ubiquity means it feels fairly rare to see a play that consists of a lone man delivering a 50 minute monologue, with only a chair and a hat stand for company.
Barry McGovern – our leading man in this Gate Theatre Dublin production – doesn’t do anything fancy with these simple props either. He just hangs up his coat and hat, hooks his jacket over the chair back, takes a seat from time to time. The effect of the sparse set, costume and lighting is like watching something in black and white, or sepia. In this world, the deep green of the protagonist’s scruffy coat and the rich purple of the flower in its lapel stand out.
The simplicity of the surrounds is in contrast to the masterful language. McGovern looks us in the eye – his own eyes, framed by wild brows, ever glinting – and invites us into a world where nothing is something. The performance is constructed from selected extracts from the novel ‘Watt’, which Samuel Beckett wrote during the Second World War and finally found a publisher for in 1953. The script is a tongue twisting, listing, delight that it would have been a feat to merely memorise, nevermind deliver so convincingly.
The effect is like being read a story, where McGovern is himself, Watt and Beckett all at the same time. It’s funny, odd, melancholic and hypnotic, and something Beckett fans should seek out so they can aurally bathe in the writer’s clever language. But £18 to see it at the Barbican is surely off-putting. It’s a shame such a price tag has been put on something that any language lover, especially an impoverished one with a taste for Dadaism and the absurd, would enjoy.
This article was written for the Guardian
Forget London’s monolithic new Shard, all eyes will surely be on the Bosco Verticale when it opens in Milan at the end of this year. The new skyscraper promises to bring a hectare of forest into the central business district, as well as hundreds of new homes. Rather than cold steel and glass, the surface of this high-rise will ripple with organic life.
Made of two towers – one 80 metres high, the other 112 metres – Bosco Verticale is currently being planted with 730 specially cultivated trees, 11,000 groundcover plants and 5,000 shrubs. One of the principal architects, Stefano Boeri calls it both “radical” and an “experiment”; a reaction against the “high parallelepipeds, clad by glass, steel or ceramic” he’s witnessed in Dubai.
Jill Fehrenbacher, editor of Inhabitat and a follower of architecture trends, says proposals for buildings featuring copious vegetation are increasingly common. “I have yet to see very many of these ‘living building’ designs become reality, which is why the Bosco Verticale is such a big deal,” she says.
The interdisciplinary team working on the project includes botanists as well as engineers. Their research has ventured into testing the wind resistance of certain species of tree in wind tunnels, as well as finding a suitably lightweight substrate able to meet plants’ nutritional demands. The residents’ needs are also important – trees will be trimmed so foliage doesn’t interrupt their views.
Boeri explains that the Bosco Verticale “hands over to vegetation itself the task of absorbing the dust in the air and of creating an adequate micro-climate in order to filter out the sunlight. This is a kind of biological architecture, which refuses to adopt a strictly technological and mechanical approach to environmental sustainability.”
Already open, the Park Royal on Pickering hotel in Singapore is another example of a towering building-cum-garden in a dense urban area. WOHA, the architects, say it was inspired by headlands, promontories and planted terraces. Richard Hassell, the firm’s founding director, enjoys blurring the distinction between hard architecture and soft landscapes but admits that working with plants is a challenge.“For architects, it is quite a change in mindset to deal with living things,” he says.
“Normally an architect is trying to make things that are as static as possible, and resist wear and tear. But plants grow, and change, and drop leaves, and wilt and die if you forget about them.”
A ‘living building’ is never really finished. It will change over time and will require much more maintenance than one without plants. For both the Park Royal on Pickering and the Bosco Verticale, the upkeep will be centralised and carried out by specialist staff. Could such projects be called too labour and energy intensive? Jill Fehrenbacher doesn’t think so.
“Living plants…clean the air and produce oxygen, they help humidify indoor air, they reduce storm water runoff and the urban heat island effect, and they help insulate a building,” she argues. “Even though skyscrapers like the Bosco Verticale inherently use a tonne of resources and energy – simply by virtue of being a high-rise building – all of those trees and plants are going to be beneficial to the building occupants, neighbours and local environment.”
And perhaps ‘living buildings’ have worth based on aesthetics alone. “At the very worst, a garden is a delight to the users, so even if there is minimum environmental value, there is still immense value in having more green spaces in dense cities,” says Richard Hassell.
The visual impact of buildings like these certainly can’t be underestimated. Apparently Singapore’s taxi drivers now make detours to drive past the planted hotel, while Stefano Boeri talks about his structures being ‘ecology billboards’. Jill Fehrenbacher says such buildings will be everywhere in twenty years, as we “try to recreate some sort of primeval garden of paradise in our homes and workplaces.”More than mere gardens, planted high-rises have the potential to change our cityscapes.
“For sure this is an experiment but to have a sequence of Bosco Verticales, to reach a critical mass, this could be quite interesting,” says Boeri. “To deurbanise the urban environment is a radical alternative to expensive technology.”The proof of a building’s appeal is surely when the architect himself decides to move-in. And yes, Boeri has reserved himself a small apartment in Bosco Verticale, explaining he’s “extremely attracted” to the idea of living high up in these soon-to-be leafy towers of trees.
This review was written for the Londonist
It was the title of Anders Lustgarten’s brand new play that first drew us in. ‘If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep’ is a sparkling threat, full of an angry kind of hope. It premiered at the Royal Court last week, amid speculation it might be controversial. It isn’t, but it is punchy and polemical. The fast-paced script is laced with things that will make you shudder.
‘If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep’ is an anti-austerity play that imagines a future where the current government’s plans to reduce national debt have been taken to their dystopian extreme. Corporate demons have transferred “the costs of social repair from the taxpayer to the private sector at a healthy return.” If hospital waiting lists and re-offending rates are reduced, a new Unity Bond will pay out. The reality is privatised hospitals that turn wounded people away and innocent people going to prison because the chances of them “re-offending” are low.
The language throughout is abrasive and packed with F and C words. The racist abuse is incredible and appalling. Words run into each other in a way that can be hold to grasp hold of but is entirely human. We are not always eloquent beasts. The cast play multiple parts and the backstage area is exposed. The soundtrack is a booming and busy amalgamation of street noises, Cameron speeches and music. It all works to create a close atmosphere of compromise and despair. But there is wit too, including some great John Terry gags.
The play’s title starts to make most sense towards the end, where various strands are brought together in a would-be ‘Court of Public Opinion’. Like Lustgarten himself, the activists we meet here want to challenge the system by asking pertinent questions. But these dreamers are ultimately a disappointment. They become comic figures, and the cast stumble over their lines when they start proselytising to an ex-Goldman Sachs employee. They offer us only a weak spike of hope after the much more powerful earlier scenes of social desolation.
In the current climate of swingeing cuts and stealth privatisation, and tax breaks for the stinking rich, ‘If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep’ is political theatre that demands we open our eyes before it’s too late. It’s a piece of social commentary that you should invite your most right-wing friend too, and then debate for hours afterwards in the pub.
This review was written for Animations Online
Director Will Anderson was due to introduce this screening of ‘Waiting for Longbird’ himself, during a Manipulate Festival ‘Snapshot’ session at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, but found himself heading to the BAFTAs instead, which he duly won the ‘best short animation’ award at the next day.
The animated short was his final year project at Edinburgh College of Art and, for one so young, he’s now an animator with many an accolade under his belt. And deservedly so – the 15 minute film is carefully crafted, creatively shot and great fun.
The title star, Longbird, is a paper cut out bird with an unusually long neck, the handiwork of a long dead Russian animator. The film tells the story of Longbird’s slide into obscurity and Will’s decision to resurrect him for an art school project.
The relationship between earnest but vague Will and the moody, misunderstood Longbird is fractious. Will doesn’t have a script and Longbird is insulting. The entire story is fiction presented as fact, told always with a mischievous glint in the myth-maker’s eye.
The film is shot in a documentary style, blending live action and frame-by-frame animation in the same shots. Crackly, sepia archive footage of Longbird and his master at work are combined with views of the modern animator’s studio and Will’s attempts to tame the bolshy bird.
The paper animation itself is very simple, but the way the shots are framed and angled are visually inventive. The fact we can see Longbird moving on his sheet of paper within the context of the entire studio, lights and all, gives the animated character a life of his own but always a restricted one. Even Will’s sketchbooks, as he dreams up potential scenarios for Longbird to act out, ripple with pencil drawn, animated life.
‘The Making of Longbird’ is sophisticated and slick but with the quirky charm of a collaborative student project. The only complaint is it ends too soon. It could easily keep a viewer gripped for longer. That said, it leaves us waiting expectantly for Anderson’s next animation.