A Room for London, Southbank Centre, London

Among the most shocking and visceral images of the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami last year were the photos of fishing boats left marooned on roofs after the waters had subsided. Boats should always be below the level of buildings and when they are not it triggers an unsettling sense of the unheimlich. Which is why it is an odd experience to glance up at the roof of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank and see a boat perched delicately on the massive concrete bunker of the Brutalist building.

This little pseudo-nautical cabin with its wind turbine mast is the latest instalment of popular philosopher Alain de Botton’s “Living Architecture” programme, an ongoing experiment to see if contemporary architecture can be made into a kind of instant heritage, to create tourist destinations through striking modern design. A collaboration with Artangel, the art commissioning body, and with the South Bank itself, it provides a room in which members of the public will be able to stay, to sleep and to contemplate and which will also be used for a packed programme of art events.

“A Room for London” is the work of architect David Kohn and artist Fiona Banner and it occupies that delicate, disputed territory between building and installation, between art and design, a space often inhabited by mongrel works that are neither one thing nor the other. This little pavilion, though, manages to pull off the trick: it is surprising, enjoyable and richly layered.

When he showed me round, Kohn referred to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a story that begins on the Thames, as well as to Robinson Crusoe and the idea of the beached survivor contemplating civilisation from afar. The cabin is adorned with the name “Roi des Belges” or “King of the Belgians”, the name of the steamer Conrad himself captained up the Congo; the tiny interior, lined with timber and studded with intriguing, nautical-themed fittings, is stuffed with narratives and references. Kohn and Banner, it seems, just can’t stop telling stories.

A ship’s log, which all residents are expected to fill in, sits on the octagonal captain’s table and above, on the wall, a flush-fitting cabinet door opens to reveal a series of Banner’s artworks, which themselves open up to reveal more deeper in the wall. There is a portrait of a sinister figure who could be the King of the Belgians or a chiaroscuro Kurtz, and parallel maps of the Thames and the Congo and images of London. This cabinet of artistic curiosities is a tribute to Sir John Soane, the architect who devised this technique for layering paintings at his house in Lincolns Inn Fields; the debt is made explicit in Banner’s homage to the architect’s depiction of his designs for a new Bank of England as a Roman ruin, a building to match the grandeur of Rome. In this apocalyptic image and in the reference to Conrad’s contrast between superficial civilisation and psychological (and physical) horror, the city’s stories are embraced: the river and its docks’ colonial history, the City and the impending fear of financial collapse, all reinforced by the view of the city’s sparkly grey spiky towers through the nautical windows. Just as in a real boat, where space is scarce, everything is crammed in.

This is a curious project. The route up to the room, through a chasm of concrete, is almost expressionist in its sculptural, deeply shadowed intensity; the emergence on to the windblown rooftop affords a sensation of release and, despite the structure’s visibility, of being somewhere slightly secret. The room itself, split between a kitchenette/lobby, a bedroom and an upstairs octagonal library/study (well stocked with London books) manages, despite its theatrical artifice and its city-centre position, to convey some of the existential isolation of the cabin or the wheelhouse.

The whole of the South Bank is a place of views and you might think that one more set of views has little to add, yet the sense of cosy confinement, of nautical isolation in the midst of the city’s constant motion, does seem to offer something new. It has also been built with the quality and spatial invention of real architecture, not the slapdash stagecraft of installation, and its considered, careful execution makes it an oddly moving experience.

Available from £120 per night, www.living-architecture.co.uk

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