Arts Week 2018: the architectural beauty of Cook’s Camden

Kayleigh Woods Harley, project support coordinator at Birkbeck, reports on Arts Week event Cook’s Camden: The Making of Modern Housing, a talk delivered by Mark Swenarton. 

On a beautiful Monday evening in the sunlit Keynes Library, Mark Swenarton addressed a crowd of architecture-lovers about his recent book, Cook’s Camden: the making of modern housing. The London borough of Camden in the 1960s and 70s was awash with high rise social housing. But that began to change under borough architect Sydney Cook. While adhering to the need for high-density accommodation, the new designs under Cook were all about simplicity, efficiency and quality.

In 1968 Cook commissioned young up-and-coming architect Neave Brown with his first major housing development at Alexandra Road, just off the famous Abbey Road. Brown was disorganised in appearance when he presented his plans for the site to a large audience wearing the ‘office tie’ which Cook had conscientiously supplied for such occasions. Nevertheless, they were greeted with applause.

The Alexandra Road estate is a seminal example of this new architectural style. Parallel rows of houses are accessed from a central, pedestrianized street. All the houses face one another, to accord with Brown’s belief that children playing in the communal space would be better behaved if all the neighbours could watch them from the window. (Brown designed his own house this way too; he installed a first-floor balcony overlooking the garden, allowing the adults to supervise the children in comfort.) Shirking tradition, Brown’s interiors lack any space-wasting hallways or corridors and he instead created light-filled open-plan spaces with the flexibility of Japanese-style sliding partition walls. The quality of the build and materials was such that these homes – many of which were bought by their tenants under Thatcher’s right to buy scheme – are still highly desirable today.

Brown’s designs became popular with planners because of their economy of space, filling out the development area right up to its perimeter –like laying a carpet wall-to-wall – and other young architects were quick to pick up the gauntlet. Arguably the most beautiful council housing in the world is the Branch Hill estate. Cook handed the strict brief to Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth to build homes on newly acquired land belonging to the estate of the grand Edwardian Branch Hill Lodge. To fulfil the requirement not to build above two storeys, they designed an ingenious interlocking system of maisonettes, each with a large roof terrace overlooking the verdant grounds of the old estate. The development was a not-so-subtle statement about the repurposing of previously aristocratic-owned land for the wider public’s use, giving a snapshot into the political mindset of Cook’s department.

Sadly, when Sydney Cook retired, his grand, pioneering ideas went with him and his young talented architects lost out to their less innovative peers. The political landscape shifted to adopt less progressive notions about social housing, and the architectural style of Cook’s era waned.

Mark Swenarton’s beautiful book is a labour of love which has been ten years in the making. It is published to a high standard with gorgeous original photographs of both the exteriors and interiors of the Cook era developments and new cross-sections have been drawn to modern standards. The book has proved so popular that it is already sold out, but further copies are available to purchase directly from its publisher, Lund Humphries, with more coming back in stock over the coming months.

Kayleigh Woods Harley is a project support coordinator at Birkbeck College. She has held professional service roles at other universities such as the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the University of St Andrews. She holds a PGCE in secondary English teaching and a Master of Arts in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh. Alongside her full-time job, she reads classic literature, art history, architectural history and natural history, writes literary fiction and has an active interest in sustainability issues.

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Family Learning: promoting the benefits of lifelong learning to a wider audience

Birkbeck alumna Yvonne Plowright and current student Liliana Torres discuss their experiences with the Family Learning events attended by the Widening Access team. 

Yvonne Plowright at a Family Learning event

The Widening Access team at Birkbeck collaborate with other London universities (including UCL, King’s and City) to attend parents’ evenings and other family events at these institutions, with the aim of promoting learning which spans the generations.  Through workshops and talks in which current students and alumni also share their experience of studying at Birkbeck, we are able to demonstrate to parents and carers what Birkbeck, and higher education, has to offer.

Often they are in attendance to support their children with making a decision about where to study, so it is a fantastic opportunity to talk with people who may not have considered studying at university.  By providing them with information, advice and guidance, we encourage parents and carers to consider embarking on their own university journey too.

One Birkbeck alumna, Yvonne Plowright, has been a regular ambassador at the family learning events we attend.  Here, she discusses how she got involved and why she enjoys doing these events:

“Among its many attributes, Birkbeck prides itself on being the university “for students who simply refuse to stop learning”.  That rubric always strikes a chord with me, perhaps because I am a mature student who has made a commitment to lifelong learning.  I am passionate about education for all, so when Birkbeck’s Widening Access Team invited me to join them at family learning events, I jumped at the chance.

“I have a BA in Philosophy from Birkbeck and these events are my opportunity to share my story and to say thank you to this magnificent university for changing my life in ways I could never have imagined.  I returned to student life after an absence of over thirty years, when I was busy with a career, working full-time and raising a family.  Once my children had grown up and left home to further their education and pursue their interests, I was able to fulfil the promise I had made to myself to continue with my own studies.

“When I attend the family learning events, I usually give a short talk about my journey to Birkbeck and the absolutely wonderful experience of being a mature university student – how this has grown my sense of self-worth, my confidence and how it has made me a much happier, more productive member of society.  The highlight of each event for me, however, is always the time I then have to meet and interact with adults who may have come to the event in support of their children, or grandchildren, or nieces and nephews, without realising that a big part of our presentation is aimed at them.   Much to their surprise, our adult guests discover that Birkbeck wants to engage with them too.  It is a joy to be told by guests that they feel really inspired and are now thinking in terms of taking that first step to either return to university or go to university for the first time.  It’s the feeling of planting seeds which will one day bear fruit that I find so rewarding about these tremendously worthwhile events.”

Liliana Torres applied to study the Foundation Degree in Management and Accounting after meeting Birkbeck representatives at an event in 2017.  She has shared her experience of being a student at Birkbeck so far:

“I first heard about Birkbeck at a Family Day event last year at King’s College in Strand. I heard two accounts from Birkbeck graduates and felt inspired. I decided to do a Foundation Degree in Management and Accounting as I am running a small business and wanted to further develop my professional skills. I decided to do the four years part-time as I have children and other commitments. I believe I have chosen the right university for me as there is a lot of support and my tutors are always happy to give me feedback and answers any queries I have. I attend the study skills workshops which offer a lot of help, this has really supported me in me learning even receiving a merit on my first essay was a big achievement for me. Most importantly, I have enjoyed my experience at Birkbeck and have recommended it to family and friends.”

For further information about our family learning activities and the organisations we work with, please visit

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Arts Week 2018: Building a hive mind through immersive art

Eva Menger, freelance copywriter and MA Contemporary Literature & Culture student at Birkbeck, reports on Bee Composed Live, an immersive art and sound project featured in Arts Week 2018

When a bee flies into your piano, there are a couple of things you can do. You can choose to ignore it, get a bit annoyed, or carefully listen to the sound it produces and simply let it amaze you. Lily Hunter Green, contemporary sound artist, composer and current artist-in-residence at Birkbeck, opted for the latter. Starting in 2014 with ‘Bee Composed’, a project that involved transforming old pianos into beehives, she is now working towards ‘Bee Composed Live’, a live performance in which contemporary dancers, music and audiovisual compositions will function as an immersive and collaborative representation of the hive mind. As part of Birkbeck Arts Week, she shares her fascinations, findings and future aspirations.

Still of video projecting the collective consciousness of bees.

Bees are extraordinary. The way in which they work is astonishingly efficient and surprisingly relatable to our own neatly organised society. What makes them unique, however, is their ability to work as a collective consciousness. Despite having their own job roles – from bouncer bees to cleaner bees and architect bees – they are not autonomous and only work as part of something bigger, a phenomenon Hunter Green suitably calls ‘the hive mind’. Sharing life footage of this process, Hunter Green shows how it promotes togetherness – a strategy she doesn’t only applaud but tries to apply to her own way of working as well. Collaborating with people from all over the world, including molecular biologists, choreographers and computer scientists, she aims to educate on the science of the hive as well as the reasons why more and more bees are dying.

Having said that, she doesn’t want people to leave her performance feeling hopeless. Narratives around pesticides, climate change and modern farming are to be taken seriously, but hopelessness can lead to inaction – and that’s where Hunter Green wants to make a change. Unlike the 1950s science fiction trend of giant insects ruining everyday life, Hunter Green is keen to show how insects are something to be inspired by. Creating an understanding of their vital role in life through art will hopefully make people see that planting bee-friendly flowers in their gardens will already make a significant difference, she explains.

A piano-turned-into-beehive.

Turning bee science into a life composition seems appropriate both due to its resemblance to Greek tragedies (if there is more than one queen bee around, a violent battle awaits) and geographical nature. As just one of several dances bees perform to communicate with each other, the waggle dance serves to navigate the way to newly discovered food sources (fun fact: the better the food, the more excited the dance). The image below shows one of the contemporary dancers Hunter Green collaborated to visualise this process.

In addition to this dance, ‘Bee Composed Live’ includes visual recordings from the piano hive and original new compositions, ultimately intending to create a simulation of the hive mind. With issues as complex as bee extinction, immersive visualizations can help to create a public understanding. Learn more about Lily Hunter Green and her meaningful work, here.

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Art and memory in Berlin

Kathryn Hallam-Howard, BA History of Art student, writes about the recent course trip to Berlin where she and her classmates explored museums, considered architectural practice and discussed methods of memorialisation.

Birkbeck students in Berlin

On Monday 15 April 2018, a group of enthusiastic students gathered on Berlin’s Museum Island to begin this year’s History of Art field trip. Kasia Murawska-Muthesius and her husband Stefan Muthesius coordinated the trip and brought considerable expertise and personal experience to it.  Inside the futuristic Humboldt Box, we learnt about the work to construct the Humboldt Forum. This world centre for culture will sit upon the former site of the historic city palace of the Hohenzollern Prussian kings. A stroll down Unter den Linden took us to Bebelplatz, where in 1933 the burning of books by Jewish writers took place. A counter-memorial, designed to challenge the monumentality of conventional memorials sinks into the square and can only be seen through a glass panel. Created by the Israeli artist Micha Ullman, it consists of plain white, empty bookcases, capable of holding 20,000 books. Continuing this theme, we then arrived at The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  The work of New York architect, Peter Eisenman, it consists of 2,711 slabs of varying heights and is continuously accessible day and night allowing for a completely immersive experience. Slightly uneven and disorientating, it allows the visitor a unique personal experience and its size and lack of a focal point questions the conventional concept of a memorial. The day concluded with a visit to the Reichstag parliament building and Norman Foster’s glass dome with its double helix, spiral ramps.

‘Fallen leaves’ memorial

Glorious sunshine greeted us on Tuesday and we again found ourselves on Museum Island, analysing the purpose of a museum. We visited three of the island’s museums  – the Neues Museum, the Altes Museum, the Bode Museum – examining in detail their fine staircases and expansive entrance halls. In the Alte Nationalgalerie, we saw the eclectic range of one of Germany’s foremost nineteenth-century painters, Adolf Menzel.  This was followed by another fine staircase and an exhibition, The Beauty of the Big City, containing paintings of Berlin from 1800 to the present at the Museum Ephraim-Palais.

On Wednesday, we enjoyed a bus tour around some key sites in the outskirts of Berlin. First stop was the Albert Einstein Science Park to see Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower. This unique building was erected between 1919 and 1922 and is where Einstein worked on part of his Theory of Relativity. It is a fine example of expressionist architecture. This was followed by a tour around the garden suburb of Dahlem, where we saw villas, built by Hermann Muthesius, Stefan’s great-uncle and a noted architectural historian. This also presented a great opportunity for the architecture fans to see excellent examples of modern Berlin housing estates. These six examples of low cost housing were built by housing cooperatives and are now designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Based on English Garden Cities, they combine multiple occupancy flats with green spaces, emphasising health and wellbeing – and not one bit of graffiti in sight!   After refuelling in the magnificent student canteen at the Free University, we went to the Moabit AEG factory, designed by Peter Behrens, in whose architecture practice, Water Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier all worked. Our final stop was a fabulous exhibition of German painting, montage and caricature from 1890 to 1930 – Berliner Realismus. It included works by many artists declared degenerate by the National Socialists, like George Grosz, Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix and John Heartfield. Dinner at Zum Shusterjunge Kneipe in the fashionable Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg rounded off the day.

Einstein Tower

Thursday began with a walk to the old Nazi air ministry, designed by Mies van der Rohe before arriving at the Kulturforum, to see his only post-war building the Neue Nationalgalerie, which was unfortunately shrouded in scaffolding and tarpaulin. The Kulturforum is a collection of cultural buildings built up in the 1950s and 1960s at the edge of West Berlin after most of the once unified city’s cultural assets had been lost behind the Berlin Wall. It is characterized by its innovative modernist architecture. After a visit and lunch at the Gemäldegalerie, we visited the site of the German Resistance Memorial Centre dedicated to the many Germans who actively resisted or sacrificed their lives opposing the Nazi dictatorship. Two of the best known was the writer Thomas Mann and the painter Käthe Kollwitz. The day drew to a close with a visit to the Berlinische Galerie, which is dedicated to modern art, photography and architecture. It lies close to the Jewish Museum, where we were given a tour of Daniel Libeskind’s interactive building, which uses axes and voids to articulate the Jewish experience of diaspora. One memorable exhibit is ‘Fallen Leaves’ by a Jewish artist, Menashe Kaddishman, which commemorates all victims of violence. Over ten thousand round iron plates lie on the floor in one of the building’s voids. Each plate has facial features cut out of it. The artist invites you to walk across the work and it is totally unsettling to trample across people’s faces and to hear the sound of iron grinding against iron. Eerily, those visitors who walked to the end of the void partially and then completely disappeared.

Our final day came around all too quickly and we emerged onto Karl-Marx Allee to see the wide boulevard created to accommodate the monumental military parades of the East German communist government. At the Berlin Wall memorial, we followed part of the route of the wall along Bernauerstrasse. Here the façades of the now disappeared buildings formed the East German border whilst the footpath beside them was West German territory. This led to residents jumping from windows to escape to the West until the East German authorities bricked and cemented the windows and doors to prevent this. After a visit to the exhibition in the Visitor Centre, we hopped onto the U-Bahn to visit an area called the Hansaviertel. After WW2 much of Berlin lay in ruins including this neighbourhood. To rebuild the old Hansaviertel, fifty-two architects including Walter Gropius, Oscar Niemeyer, Alvar Aalto, and Max Taut were called upon to design an entirely new quarter, complete with church, theatre and library. The project was christened “Interbau 1957” and the eventual outcome was a less dense, green residential area. It was seen as an impressive showcase of the modern lifestyle and seemed a suitable place to conclude our review of the art and architecture of Berlin. Our heartfelt thanks must go to Kasia and Stefan for organising such an interesting and informative trip.

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