Monday 30 April 2012

Gut Reaction: New Materials of The City

^Hugh & Catrina's whisking bowl
This is the first post of three that will document the journey of Hugh McEwen and Catrina Stewart's research & design project for Saturated Space, with this post laying out their topic, aim and approach, the second post being a romp through their exploration process, and the final being a wrapped-up presentation of their findings and proposal.

Field : Lucky dip

Financial institutions surround us, especially in the city of London. Yet so much of the money that is traded and made on digital stock markets has no visual representation. Concurrently, the institutions that work in these areas do so in more and more invisible buildings. The Rothschild HQ becomes see-through; the Shard disappears into the sky. This surreptitious consumption seems totally at odds with the pop culture of bling and TOWIE.

^left to right: the bank of England, the Shard, the Rothschild Bank HQ

These buildings are made of steel and glass and stone. Incommunicative materials that have always been given ascribed meanings. The materials have been selected to represent confident and strong buildings that are in control; but they neglect any reference to the precariousness of the financial systems that are built within their walls. They have no reference to the thrill of gambling, the joy of winning or the humiliation of losing. Following the global financial crisis the public’s attitude towards the banking sector has changed vastly, yet banks have done little to appear any more accountable than they ever were. This bullish PR strategy is not working, as can be seen from the growth of the Occupy movement many years after the initial crash. Banks must engender trust for social, political and financial reasons.

^Occupy StPaul's
Proposal : Hunger for success

If simple changes were made to the material of the institutional buildings, then their meanings to all parties would be made more tangible. The structures could celebrate glories and failures, rather than squirreling them away in basement server rooms. At the same time, more humanistic buildings would help to allay the fears of protesters camped on their steps, or at least provide a less esoteric report than the end of year losses from state owned institutions like RBS.

We believe that the only appropriate material to solve the banking sector’s architectural muteness is cake.

Only cake allows such a range of colour, build up and surface treatments as is necessary to talk about the activities that go on inside these institutions. Cake relies on chance. It is an untameable material, and no matter how hard one tries it will still quickly melt, decompose or be eaten if left exposed to the environment. The colours of these saccharine materials are changeable in different atmospheres and lights. Their organic sheen will flake off, or can be wetted on in a moment’s notice. Their layered and mixed effects combine to form gross warnings or delectable treats. The characteristics of these colours, especially their malleability, have similarities with activities within financial institutions. These coloured materials will become the method by which they are celebrated, rather than being hidden behind the hard and impenetrable materials of current facades.

The severe materials applied to the surface of The City are designed to appear unaffected by their surroundings. These are buildings that want to be seen as being solid and unaltered by the weather, time and the markets. By making building elements out of cake we are allowing for their colours to continue to evolve once the building has been completed. To initially explain the ways in which the materials of financial institutions may be replaced by cake we will illustrate three structures, the inwards facing Bank of England, the transparent Rothschild HQ and the tapered Shard. Initially the process involved in re-making these buildings out of cake materials represents the fragility and elements of chance within the banks and financial buildings, and tackle their solidity and standoffishness. Further studies will examine how fragility and mutability will allow the colours to change over time.

The walls of the bank of England will be made from marble cake. The heavy, thick walls that front the Bank are unnecessary and detrimental to the public realm. Neither the protection, nor the facelessness is required in the modern age. The transmutation of these facades into cake will allow for the building to be more sensitive to its surrounds.

The slick glass of the Shard is designed to look like it is unaffected by the weather. Making the fa├žade of the structure from marbled icing allows it to submit to the elements and celebrate its vulnerability.  

The new face of the Rothschild HQ will be made of reflective sugar coated almonds over a soft layer of sponge cake. The glistening surface exposes the excitement of the internal accrual of wealth while also revealing a softer and more tactile identity.

As the project progresses, new materials will add to this pantheon of cake components, and begin to suggest physiological ways in which the institutions can be reframed.

Critical Tool : Colour and Communication

We are aware that there is the danger of jumping on the bandwagon of banker-bashing, and want to make sure that the project doesn’t slip down that slope. The intention is that the solutions we discover are useful to both the institutions and to their critics. To present this research into cake components, and to sell it to both investment organisations and protesters, it is not the cake that will change, but its framing. The notion of a ‘gut reaction’ becomes very useful to explain this different framing for each party. The language of grey glass and steel may seem solid to investment companies, but it is incommunicative to protesters. A pink suit is humiliating to prisoners in Texas, yet a source of pride for a rower at Henley. The source of information on this ‘gut reaction’ comes from market research. At the same time, physiological research and hard science back it up. We will utilise colour’s ability to change purchasing patterns, eating habits and mood swings.

Research currently being carried out within marketing and advertising companies shows that people have physical and psychological reactions when exposed to different colours. Will the reds in our materials cause the same reactions as the fiery reds used in the fast food restaurant McDonalds? The use of warm colours, according to market research, can be used to increase blood pressure, anxiety and even, make people hungry. Or would blue be more appropriate?

The colours of the new materials will be used to communicate and respond to investors as well as the protesters. They will no longer be dull and inconspicuous; instead they will talk about the exciting events happening within the buildings, allowing for a more humanistic approach to the outside world. Blue, which according to market research and colour psychology, is a calming colour will mean different things, and cause different reactions, from different people. Can it be used in resting areas where the protesters can take a break from their daily activities? And can it be used during harder times to encourage the bankers to be more cautious with their gambling?
^coloured caramel
The colours used on the building will need to change to best reflect the changing financial markets. An orange may cause two very different reactions during prosperous times and in times of economic downfall. Through the changing colours, the materials will react to the passing of time, the changing weathers and the pollution wearing down the surfaces of the buildings.

Over the following period of research, we will use cake to build a different component for one of the three selected buildings. These will be recorded very precisely through photography and each piece will be accompanied by a detailed recipe, with the ingredients and cooking methods of the specific components. This will lead to a compiled recipe book of approved cake components for banks. Once the recipe book has been compiled, we will use it to design a proposal for a new bank within the city. This will work in the other direction to the initial research, since the materials we have discovered will generate the building. This will be investigated through a number of drawings. We will end the project with an exhibition in September where we will present the research into cake components and the designs for a new bank.

We look forward to publishing our next post in which we will begin to detail the cake components that will herald a new financial architecture that is appropriate, communicative and colourful.

Post and Project by Hugh McEwen and Catrina Stewart


  1. could you do the RBS building out of cadburys chocolate fingers. i bloody love chocolate fingers.

  2. this is a thought provoking, well written and interesting piece. I will be interested to see where it goes next.

  3. Cadburys chocolate fingers? wouldn't plastering a global brand like cadburys all over the RBS Building not just be a nod to the corporate stupidity that almost ruined them? I would melt fingers all down and use the crunchy biscuits to spaltter the liquid chocolate all over their windows.

  4. Battersea Mick, Spain9 May 2012 at 04:45

    I’m frankly relishing the prospect of sinking my teeth into the nation’s corrupted financial institutions. The big society bites back, literally. That’s one in the eye for the city big-wigs.

  5. #ArchitecturallyUnsound9 May 2012 at 07:00

    it would be interesting to experiment architecturally with cake. I imagine chocolate fingers would provide a solid structure, whilst sponge layers would be perfect for the walls. you could then use icing to polish off the decorations and fine touches such as fire escape signs etc. and there you have it; a building. you'd have to hope it didn't get too warm in the summer, sparking another 'financial meltdown' LOL.

  6. Squaddie1985, Camp Bastion.9 May 2012 at 07:30

    Well its quite clear that the next bank of England will be made of SPONGE.
    Go do something useful you tax dodgers.

  7. Straight-up-Sue, Dudley9 May 2012 at 08:20

    I'm not normally one for 'blogging' but somehow stumbled across this and have found it to be a throroughly entertaining and insightful piece. I'm currently having a rear extension done on my house and was originally thinking of red-brick cladding. After reading this however, i'm going to suggest sliced Battenberg to my builder. Will have to run the idea past my husband first though....and he's a diabetic. Gulp.