Living Architecture

A whimsical architecture firm installs a steamship on top of Queen Elizabeth Hall

The pop philosopher Alain de Botton has been described as "impeccably liberal," and the same can be said for his Living Architecture project,which seeks to endear the English public to the virtues of modern architecture. The ideals behind de Botton’s so-called "social enterprise" – or worse, "educational body" – are, of course, boilerplate, and the entire enterprise often comes off as patronizing and, at best, misguided.

Works have been commissioned to an array of world-renowned architects, from MVRDV to Peter Zumthor, with the resultant gable-crazy architecture falling somewhere between, but never beyond, moody villas (the admittedly charming Dune House) and whimsical retreats (the "Look Ma, no hands [or legs]" Balancing Barn). Each of the houses can be rented–this being the project’s "social" value–with fees and cache that naturally foreclose the joys of architecture to the disenfranchised, who, presumably, have had their fair share of the the modernist good life in their housing blocs.

Which isn’t to say the projects can’t be fun. The newest entry in Living Architecture series is a disembarked pseudo-steamboat perched on the edge of the Queen Elizabeth Hall in downtown London.

Designed by David Kohn Architects, in collaboration with artist Fiona Banner, the surrealistic pavilion is filled with curious details. As the Financial Times writes, the S.S. “Roi des Belges” takes its name from the "tinpot" steamboat Joseph Conrad briefly piloted during his voyages on the Congo and which served as the template for Kurtz’s frigate in Heart of Darkness. A thick logbook positioned on the captain’s table will record all of the guests’ experiences, while an overhead compartment yields all sorts of wonders, from eerie portraits of departed commanders to maps of the Thames and Congo rivers. The boat itself has been outfitted with all the nautical finishes one could hope for, complete with timber finishes, porthole windows, and a sculptural turbine mast.

Through the cabin windows, the marvels of contemporary London unfold in dense layers, with the South Bank in the foreground and the ghosts of the city’s golden age (the dome of St. Paul’s) and the specters of its deteriorating financial future (see the Shard) looming behind. All one can do, it seems, is escape, and Kohn and Banner’s little boat offers just that.

This post originally appeared on Architizer, an Atlantic Cities partner site.

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