Wednesday, 21 July 2010

The go anywhere river

My name is Sam Redlark. I am a carrier of the LonB gene which enables me to perceive parts of London that exist outside the normal sensory range. This blog is an account of the Capital as I experience it. I hope that my writing here will encourage those who find themselves in London, whether it is as a visitor, or as a resident, to seek a deeper appreciation of their surroundings. You don’t need to be a LonB carrier to experience the best of the city. All you need to do is open your senses to what is around you.

The go anywhere river...

A week after Emma Priestnell and I made a rather unsuccessful attempt at mapping the lost Langbourne river, I find myself sitting face to face with the man who has been given the task of restoring the ancient watercourse to the streets of London. Florian Lehrer is Chief Architect for the German construction firm Rothstein and Ackerman. He is also a founding member of the Stadrorchester Group – an underground alliance of European architects who, for over three decades, secretly incorporated designs for large-scale musical instruments into the blueprints of their buildings.

Well known within his profession, Lehrer’s sudden rise to wider fame occurred during the late 1990s when the founding members of Stadrorchester voted to reveal their work to the general public. He was subsequently appointed coordinator of a project in which 100 previously undisclosed meta-instruments, hidden in buildings around the world, were unveiled and later united to play a 24 hour long concert on the millennium eve, with the geographically scattered strands of music being brought together on the internet.

We arrange to meet in one of Lehrer’s creations: The Langbourne Reservoir Tower on Mark Lane is a 33-floor high-rise, cocooned in blue-green mirror glass. Its unconventional apexes and trailing steeples lend it the appearance of a straight-jacketed Rhineland castle reflected in a fairground mirror. The warped, shape-shifting spires that snake from the tower’s upper storeys have a strange gaseous quality, giving the impression of a building in the process of sublimating into the London skyline.

Inside, commercial offices are arranged around a central core that houses a vertical reservoir and water treatment plant.

At the time of my visit the tower’s media centre has been gutted as part of a refurbishment program, prior to the official opening of the reservoir later this year. I step out of the lift and into acres of barren, open-plan office space. Stacks of chairs swaddled in protective plastic wrapping, kidney-shaped pine desks and computers still in their boxes have been neatly corralled at various points around the enormous room, where they await distribution.

My host has pulled some of these disparate furnishings together in the middle of the floor to create a small office for himself. A nearby drinks vending machine, connected to a distant wall socket by a grimy orange extension cable, dispenses plastic cups of sugared water when asked for coffee.

Now approaching 75, Florian Lehrer retains the wiry physique of a man who still likes to get hands-on with his construction projects. As we ruefully stir our steaming cups of sugared water, the ceiling clanks and groans with the sound of government contractors, noisily dismantling the building’s sound pulse generator – a legacy of Stadrorchester project. Concerns that the device might, accidentally or otherwise, damage the surrounding buildings means that it has only been used once, as part of the Millennium concert. A failed court appeal in June sealed its fate for good. Lehrer seems to have taken this defeat philosophically and won’t be drawn on whether his famous meta-instrument will be destroyed outright or reassembled elsewhere.

“I am one of the few artists working in the world today whose music is still considered a threat by the establishment,” he says.

SAM REDLARK: “You are a vocal critic of what you describe as ‘inaccessible fortress architecture’ and have spoken about the need for modern buildings to integrate themselves more into communities. Is the Langbourne Reservoir an example of this principle in action?”

FLORIAN LEHRER:  “When I use the word ‘integrate’ I am referring to something far broader and deeper in scope than simply designing a building with a pleasing exterior that compliments its surroundings. I strongly believe that the way in which buildings enrich their environment should go beyond their outward appearance. They should also have a functionality that benefits their local area. A library can be a beautiful building but it is also has a purpose and the potential to improve the lives of all those who live nearby.

“I would like see a similar mindset embraced by the private sector, whereby commercial properties are designed with multiple purposes in mind and exert a positive social influence over the areas they occupy. A very elementary and somewhat controversial example of this practice in action is the use of high-rise commercial properties as hosts for mobile phone masts. It was because of this network of masts that I was able to contact you this morning and warn you that I would be an hour late for our interview.

“The Langbourne Tower provides office space in central London; however its primary function is as a reservoir and water treatment facility. The building has the potential to affect change across the whole of the city. Ordinary people who have no connection whatsoever with the companies who rent floor space in the tower will benefit from having clean water which can be used to irrigate parkland, to fill swimming pools or ice rinks, to power fountains and water sculptures, or for any number of other purposes.   

SAM REDLARK: “Is this the mindset that drove Stadrorchester – designing buildings for private companies that also engaged with the public?”

FLORIAN LEHRER:  “You have to remember that for 30 years Stadrorchester was a private joke among a very small group of people. It was very self-indulgent. Nobody knew what we were doing.

“In a way I have come around full circle. As a young man I was strongly influenced by my father. He worked at the Department of Urban Planning and Resource Efficiency in Hamburg. It was through him that I came to believe that buildings should have clearly defined roles, and that it was the moral duty of the architect to ensure that the structure fulfilled these demands as efficiently as it could, with a minimum of waste and distraction. When I met my wife, Giselle (Giselle Lehrer, founder of Jugendlich Records, married Florian in 1965) she loosened my tie a little. The buildings that we worked on together as part of Stadrorchester were extremely playful. My younger self would definitely have not approved! I think that maybe in the 1980s some of my designs were a little too frivolous. Now in old age I try to strike a balance between fun and functional: An interesting building that serves its purpose well.”

SAM REDLARK: “The reservoir is the first building since 1809 with a facade designed to appear different to LonB gene carriers.”

FLORIAN LEHRER: “It’s certainly the first legal one! In the past it was very fashionable to design buildings in this way, with hidden features that only a select few could see. If I remember correctly the LonB gene wasn’t identified until 1967. However, it was well known before then that there were people living in the capital who had visions and could see things that others could not.

“Inevitably various dissident groups took advantage: When Joseph Waters built the Royal Palace at Chiswick in 1807, his assistant, Ernest Devving, covered the exterior with anti-monarchist slogans that were only visible to LonB carriers. That is why King George III disowned it and why the current Royal family still attempts to censor parts of the structure.

“It was this scandal that resulted in the Buildings Concealment Act that prevented anyone from hiding secret messages in architecture. In 1985 I worked on a small community project in Plaistow in East London (the Sealeaf Estate Community Centre). When the building was complete a very serious man came to inspect the property. He was convinced that somewhere in the building I had concealed insulting messages about your Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. When I asked him why he thought that I would risk my professional reputation by allowing such a thing, he gave me a lengthy explanation. I remember it began: ‘Well, given the troubled history of our two nations...’

“The construction of the Langbourne Reservoir was postponed for a year while we waited for the Concealment Act to be overturned. In its place there are strong guidelines: You can’t incorporate libellous images into a design or build anything that might appear threatening or upsetting to LonB carriers.”

SAM REDLARK: You are not a LonB carrier. It must be strange to design a building knowing that you will never see it as it is intended to be seen.

FLORIAN LEHRER: “Of course I have seen computer simulations, so I do have an idea of the end result. I know that the version I saw when I arrived this morning is far less avant-garde than the one you see.

“As you know, Martin Beardsmore, my collaborator on this aspect of the project was a carrier of the LonB gene (Beardsmore was killed in a cycling accident on Fenchurch Street in 2005). We both wanted a design that reflected the tower’s role as a reservoir. Literally, we wanted the building to look like the reflection of a skyscraper in a body of water! Martin spent many hours cycling around London staring into ponds and rivers. He took many photographs of puddles!  

“I remember one day he showed me video footage of some low rise flats reflected in a stream. A branch from a willow tree had broken the surface of the water and was snagging the slow-moving current, pulling the reflection out of shape. That is where we got the idea of distorting the exterior of the building. You have probably noticed the way that some of the double windows have been dragged down into a V shape. Here we were attempting to replicate the effect that a boat has on a body of water.

SAM REDLARK: “Is it true that parts of the tower are made of water?”

FLORIAN LEHRER: “That is correct. The tower isn’t a completely solid object. The spires on the upper floors are made entirely from airborne moisture which we can manipulate so that their shape is constantly changing. We achieve the effect by pumping out clouds of water vapour. This is sculpted by tiny mirror arrays that reposition themselves according to randomly generated computer algorithms. Unfortunately much of the detail occurs beyond the normal human visual range. Only LonB carriers can really get the full impact.

SAM REDLARK: “The reservoir is integral to restoring the lost Langbourne River to the city of London. How does one go about recreating a river?”

FLORIAN LEHRER: “The original Langbourne was a ghost river (For further information see the previous entry in this blog). It existed predominantly as clouds of water vapour that condensed around airborne Storm Elm pollen. On the ground the river had an intermittent presence as a network of ponds that sometimes ran together in periods when there was unusually high rainfall, to create a fast-flowing torrent. This is what people think of when they imagine the Langbourne – a ‘join the dots’ river with the tree trunks as the dots!

“Of course it is no longer practical to plant giant elm trees in an urban area like London, or have bodies of water springing-up randomly in the streets. In recreating the Langbourne we have had to reinvent it for the 21st century:

“When I started work on this project I wanted the new version of the river to bear as much resemblance to the old one as possible. This meant that we had to simulate many of the organic processes that had brought the original river into existence.

“We have just finished mounting a series of cannon on the roofs of buildings, in areas that correspond to historical locations of Storm Elms. These cannon will fire clouds of hypoallergenic synthetic pollen into the lower atmosphere, three times a day, at regular intervals. The pollen particles behave in much the same way as regular Storm Elm pollen does: They form sticky molecular bonds with oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the air. This is what enables them to maintain a constant altitude. While the pollen is airborne it stimulates the surrounding atmosphere causing water vapour to condense into small rain clouds. After about seven or eight hours the pollen begins to lose its stickiness and drifts back down to earth where it biodegrades harmlessly.

“We don’t want the airborne water vapour that collects around the pollen to fall naturally as rain, as it would have done in the past. In fact when the river was first proposed we had to make legally binding assurances that we would not make it rain anymore that it already does in London. It is in our contract: We can be sued if precipitation rises above expected levels in the area where the Langbourne is operational!

“Instead we aim to harvest the moisture from the sky and transport it to the reservoir. To achieve this we make use of a particle accelerator which is mounted on the roof of this building. The accelerator projects a Collop-Mounsey beam on an irregular wave-form pattern, which recreates the meandering course of a river. The shape of the beam has been designed so that it intersects with the pollen clouds. The suspended water vapour is drawn along it in the opposite direction by a process called condensate transference. When it reaches the tower it is drawn down into the reservoir through absorbent panels. The end is result is a permanent vapour corridor flowing towards this building at an altitude of roughly 600 feet and at speeds of roughly 13.5 metres per second: A river in the sky.

SAM REDLARK: “Will the river be visible in any way from the ground?”

FLORIAN LEHRER: “Yes it will, since we are effectively smudging rain clouds together. On clear days you should be able to see the Langbourne as faint grey line, like a vein in a slab of marble or a thin wisp of smoke.

“We are currently performing phase one tests to ensure that it doesn’t interfere with mobile phone signals. When the river is fully operational at the end of 2011 it will be the first virtual object anywhere in the world to have required planning permission. In time it could even become a listed structure. I very much hope that people living and working in the capital will embrace it, and that it will become a defining feature of the London skyline 

SAM REDLARK: “The reservoir has a very novel water purification system.”

FLORIAN LEHRER: “In 1992, as part of my research for this building, I spent several weeks in the Gerllerterd region of Hungary. The focus of my visit was the river Gerller which is naturally purified by the ecosystem that it supports.

There is a species of trout that lives in the upper reaches of the Gerller called the Sebes Pisztráng. It is a rare fish that can only survive in very pure fresh water. Its natural predator is a heron known as the Bellman’s Wader. It is also sometimes called the Carrion Wader, as it is more of a scavenger than a hunter, and picks off injured or dying fish as they float to the surface.

“Many years ago a team of Russian scientists who were studying the river discovered that a strain of bacterium found inside the stomach of the Sebes Pisztráng mutates in the digestive system of the Bellman’s Wader. When this bacterium re-enters the river, it has evolved into something that is very efficient at removing impurities from water.

“It is a beautifully symbiotic system: The old and sick Sebes Pisztráng are eaten by the Wader. In doing so they ensure the clean water that their offspring will need to survive.

“That is why the water in the river Gerller is very clear and safe to drink directly from the source. There are also very strict laws regarding the use of chemical fertilizers on neighbouring farmland, and industrial pollution is outlawed.    

“Having seen the river Gerller first hand I wanted a similar method of water purification for the Langbourne. Of course it is not practical to have birds and fish living in a closed artificial environment like the one we have created here. We had condense the processes at work in the River Gerller down to their essential elements. We had to ask ourselves: What is shorthand for Sebes Pisztráng? If you give me a moment I will just show you the answer to that question.”


Lehrer reaches across to the desk behind him and shuffles a computer mouse around on a mat. A monitor clicks out of power-saving mode. The Langbourne River Company screensaver fades to reveal a simple picture of fish - a greyish brown ellipse with a red belly and a triangle for a tail. He clicks through a series of dialogue boxes. At the end of the desk a printer stirs into life churning out an A5-sized piece of paper bearing the perforated image. He presses it out and hands it to me.

The fish is coloured-in on both sides. There is writing along the base of the belly that reads: ‘Hello Sam Redlark’.


FLORIAN LEHRER: “Here is the answer. The fibres in the paper are arranged so that the fish will float naturally on its side. Electro-chemical processes in the water cause the tail to move back and forth allowing it to swim in random directions. The coloured dye is made from the bacterium found inside the gut of Sebes Pisztráng.

“Now, to simulate the Bellman’s Wader we have this...”


He reaches into a cardboard box under his chair and takes out a yellow plastic cylinder, about a foot in length. One end is flared into a horizontal slot roughly six inches long. Large black flippers, like duck’s feet are attached to each corner. He turns the device over so that I can see the propeller housing and a small round opening underneath.


FLORIAN LEHRER:  “This is our robot. We call it a Bellman’s Biobot as it contains living organic material. We currently have 16 of these programmed to hunt the fish in the reservoir. The filtration system is made from the stomach cells of Bellman’s Wader’s, which we are able to grow in the laboratory. As it digests the paper the bacterium mutates in the same way as it does in the wild.

“When we first introduced the Biobots to the reservoir they were too efficient. Pretty soon there were no fish left. Now we are able to calibrate their hunting behaviour based on purity levels in the water. They are quite graceful to watch. It’s a shame that the tanks aren’t open today or I would show you.

“With this technology we are able to simulate the processes that occur naturally in the river Gerller. The result is very pure water. I would say it is probably the cleanest water that you will find anywhere in London. “

SAM REDLARK: “What is the long-term plan for the Langbourne?”

FLORIAN LEHRER: “The Langbourne River Company is a public/private venture with the balance of ownership skewed 70/30 in favour of the public. If everything is managed correctly the initial cost should be recouped within a decade.   

“The first phase of the project will be completed in August 2011. By that time the ghost river, the reservoir, and the water treatment plant will all be operational. After that we will begin to plumb the reservoir into other parts of the capital. This will enable us to move Langbourne water around the city via an underground network of pipes. We are also looking at more creative ways of channelling the river such as through railings and street furniture.  

“It will be a working river designed to generate a profit. We already have contracts with three city gymnasiums and a number of hotels to provide water for swimming pools.

“There are also more ambitious projects on the horizon. The Christmas Sea in Stratford is planned for December 2012 and will make use of the Olympic site. It will be a modern-day take on a Victorian ice fair and will feature large temporary structures made entirely from ice.

“In addition The Langbourne River Company has pledged to commission 25 new public fountains in the city of London. They will be built at a rate of one a year and based on designs submitted by the general public. The first of these will be the Raven Spout in the grounds of The Tower of London.”

SAM REDLARK: “Do you have a date for the public launch of the river?”

FLORIAN LEHRER: “Stage one of the media campaign will begin in a few weeks. I wish that I had some of the posters here so that I could show you... Somebody has moved them... They are very beautiful. We all thought long and hard about a slogan for the Langbourne. Eventually we decided to call it ‘The Go Anywhere River!’”

NEXT... Stepney Ginger