Fiona Banner and David Kohn Architects: A Room for London

13 January 2012

Behold this rather spectacular architectural installation – a modern day Noah’s Ark – currently sitting atop the Queen Elizabeth Hall, overlooking the River Thames. It was designed by David Kohn Architects in collaboration with the esteemed artist Fiona Banner for a brief set by Artangel and Living Architecture, and this brilliant project has really pushed the boat out (pardon the pun). Yesterday I had a sneak preview of this contemplative cocoon holding court on the city’s river skyline.

A Room for London pays homage to the Roi des Belges, the riverboat captained by the eminent writer Joseph Conrad in the Congo in the late 19th Century, and an inspiration for his celebrated work Heart of Darkness. Yet the project manages to live up to this highly rich literary reference, from the theatrical setting perched on top of one of the city’s most iconic modernist buildings, to its simple but striking form mirroring the spires of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church and borrowing the structural language of the Hungerford Bridge nearby.

Approaching it feels like a performance in itself, taking you right inside the Queen Elizabeth Hall – a feeling of entering the belly of the concrete monolith. Travelling up in a stark industrial goods lift, you ascend disorientated without a view to gauge your surroundings.

But that only adds to the drama as the doors open at roof level, revealing a striking panorama of London – that sense of space and horizon is so rarely experienced here. The temporary scaffolding walk-way emphasises the parasitic nature of this light-weight timber clad structure, cantilevered over the existing architecture, as if it has run ashore or is ready to take/topple off. A perfect contrast in scale, materiality and permanence to the buildings it gazes out at.

Fiona Banner explained that they hoped to convey “a notion of transience”, which felt “so utterly different” to its immediate environment. This is certainly true when you are in the space – you immediately feel distanced from the frantic pace of the city, insulated from the cacophony of sounds. It offers instead a quiet place to withdraw, to reflect and to be inspired.

A simple interior invites you in, beautifully composed down to the smallest details, such as the play between the circular shaving mirror, the porthole window, and the London Eye beyond.

Not only can people apply to sleep there for a night (choose me please!), Artangel have curated a programme of events bringing together writers, musicians and artists to use A Room for London as a place to harness creativity – a microcosm of the capital’s cultural landscape. There’s a seeming dichotomy with such an intimate space amidst such a public place but yet Kohn and Banner have succeeded in creating just that.

There are some other clever design moves, such as the wind turbine producing 70 per cent of the installation’s energy, and a weather station, which Artangel’s Michael Morris explained “generates weather reports live to the website,” where the outside world can also gain access to all the events taking place within.

The logbook has some impressive opening entries from figures who have kipped there – so far: Kohn, Banner, and Alain De Botton – but from Saturday it will be open to the public and become one of the city’s, nay the world’s most-sought after, bespoke “hotels.” A Room for London is in situ for one year, and then like the Roi des Belges, it will set sail for distant, as yet unknown shores.

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Maya Davies

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