The Retrofit Revolution

“There is no doubt that reworking existing buildings is a highly rewarding and responsible area of work for architects,” says Rab Bennetts, director and co-founder of Bennetts Associates, a London-based firm known for its strong sustainability ethos. Recycling old buildings is not only a matter of reducing environmental impact, he says, but also an opportunity to “retain memories, discover richer textures and use ‘found’ spaces that require innovative design solutions.” Reusing existing buildings can also act as a natural curb on emissions, Bennetts explains, because they are often more compact. 

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Triple jump

You may not have heard of Troika, but if you've travelled through Heathrow's sleek new Terminal 5 since its opening in 2008, chances are you've seen the art and design studio's work. Two of its installations adorn the entrance atrium of British Airways' luxury lounges and the entrance itself. The first is a 5-m-long digital sculpture in the shape of a cloud whose signature feature – 4638 flip-dots that audibly alternate between black and silver, creating mesmerizing patterns across its skin – was inspired by the once commonplace departure-board signage found in railway stations and airports. ‘It's a beautiful technology from the 1970s,' says Troika's Sebastien Noel. ‘You have motion, you have noise, and it is very elegant.'

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Ron Arad: I am very, very lazy

Talking to Ron Arad is not a straightforward affair. While he may not actually be arching his eyebrows, most of his responses come with an implied arch. It doesn't help that the interview takes place in one of his latest architectural projects – the Médiacité shopping mall in Liège, Belgium – and has been organized as a group exercise. This means that I am sitting around a table in a vast open conference area with a rather incongruous collection of (mainly local) journalists, architects and PR people, variously fawning over Arad or attempting to throw questions his way.

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Oscar Niemeyer auditorium - Ravello

Ravello, off South Italy's coast, is one of the most beautiful and romantic spots on earth; and Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer's all-white curvaceous auditorium is set amongst its luxuriant rocky hillsides and against the backdrop of the refined Amalfi coastal town's trademark awe-inspiring brilliant blue sea and endless open skies.

 

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Punta della Dogana, Venice

A dream-team of engineers, builders and architects have transformed Venice's imposing historic customs house at Punta della Dogana into a hi-tech museum for contemporary art in just 18 months. The special relationship that French luxury goods magnate François Pinault has forged with the city of Venice over the past few years is partly to thank for this efficient turn-around, but also Pinault's billions (20 million euro of which he readily invested in the project). It also helps that he owns one of the biggest art collections of contemporary art in the world - about 2,500 pieces at last count and growing steadily.

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Fine prison dining

In one of the more surreal experiences of my life, I recently found myself heading to the medieval town of Volterra in Tuscany for a gourmet diner. The venue? Not an elegant or rustic restaurant or trattoria but rather a maximum-security prison housing about 150 men, all incarcerated for serious offences, including murder, drug dealing, Mafia-related crimes and bank robberies. Far from being a one-off or hare-brained idea, the meal is part of a regular initiative called Cene Galeotte (literally ‘jailbird dinners') that takes place each month in the 14th century fortress-turned-prison that dominates the picturesque medieval town of Volterra.

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A crash course in climate change

I've been to global-warming school. That's right, I'm a proud graduate of “the first course in Britain that guides you through all you need to know about climate change in just three hours.” On a typically wet and bleak autumn day in London, twelve of us (including the seminar leader, a cheerful guy named Christian) met in a small room on London's South Bank to discuss discussing climate change: how to communicate it to others, how to deal with the overwhelming problem of denial, how to overcome the lack of willingness to adapt.

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Fuksas Movement

Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas may be a busy man, but he's also a terribly jovial one. As he recites the long list of where he has been in the last few days, and who he has met, the smile never leaves his face. “My life is impossible, I have no possibility to work,” he concludes, somewhat flamboyantly. He says he can't wait to get away from it all for a couple of days and head to his house on the southern Italian island of Pantelleria. We are in the architect's Rome office, located over several floors of an airy Renaissance palazzo in the heart of the Centro Storico. Fuksas wears his usual attire: a dark sweater and jacket; his manner is informal and approachable.

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Stellar Hella

When you meet 42-year-old Dutch designer Hella Jongerius, there is no exchange of pleasantries or unnecessary chitchat. Tall, slender and elegant, with long hands and short, wavy hair, she looks you straight in the eye when she talks, smiles sparingly and is clear about the topics she finds interesting. These include her latest creation for Dutch ceramics manufacturer Royal Tichelaar Makkum; the sofa and poufs that Vitra asked her to make for this year’s Milan Furniture Fair; and her unusual studio space in Rotterdam. One thing she does not find interesting is discussing her two children. When asked if having them has changed the way she works, she asks, “What do you want me to tell you? Cliches?”

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Vatican Tours

The Vatican City may be the heart of Catholicism but as anyone who has ever been there knows, it is also the centre of a thriving and ruthless tourist trade. This is nothing new – pilgrims have meant big business for hundreds of years.

The hard sell starts on the Ponte S. Angelo leading to Castel S. Angelo where street vendors flog fake Prada and Fendi bags. It continues on Via della Conciliazione, which leads up to the basilica, with tourist shops selling a multitude of guidebooks, postcards and kitsch paraphernalia. Mobile stands sell overpriced snacks, street sellers proffer rosaries and other trinkets, restaurant staff hand out fliers, and dozens of English-speaking tour guides pitch visits of the basilica and the Vatican museums.

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Craving the crater

The first time I visited Stromboli was in my imagination. After seeing the volcanic island in Nanni Moretti’s quirky and poignant film “Caro Diario,” I dreamed of its alluringly wild landscapes, Mediterranean oleander, grape vines and olive trees. I conjured its white sugar cube houses in daydreams, encouraged by friends who had been once and couldn’t stop going back.

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Design Diva

When I met Patricia Urquiola almost two years ago, I wondered why it had taken her so long to branch out on her own.

Her forthright approach—she does not suffer fools gladly—should have allowed her to do it earlier, but the Spanish designer only opened her own studio at the age of 40. Seated in the meeting room of her Milan studio, which she opened in 2001, she explained: “Now I know that I can deal with whatever is asked of me.”

 

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Light fantastic

People and place are what influence the architecture of Richard Meier. And he’s a purist when it comes to light, creating spaces where you can’t help but look up in awe

For Richard Meier, fashion has no place in modern architecture. 
Meier’s commitment to a completely white palette is legendary, while his relentless manipulation of light and space is an enduring trademark in a world where trendiness often takes precedence over substance. His preoccupation with how his buildings will fit in to their surrounding environment - and be used by the people for whom they are destined - has remained unchanged over five decades; Meier’s modernist principles are constant but never static. 

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10 Things to do in...Rome

Giovanna Dunmall lists what you shouldn't miss when in Rome - and not necessarily in this order

You've visited the Spanish steps, Trevi fountain, Piazza Navona, the Roman Forum and the Coliseum. What next? Rome's heady mix of architecture, ranging from the ancient Roman to the present day, of culture and brashness, of delicately coloured palazzi and intoxicating traffic should provide entertainment enough. This is a city where the most ordinary of pastimes, or a spectactular view, can become unforgettable or charmed events. Here are ten simple ways to get under contemporary Rome's skin.

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