Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative

Rolex_Frost-Eno_Babyshark's Minority Report

Rolex is a world-renowned watchmaker. The company was founded in England as Wilsdorf and Davis, in 1905. Its headquarters, since 1919 have been in Geneva. It is considered one of the most valuable global brands, numer 71 according to Forbes magazine.

In the year 2002, the company -always true to its tradition of supporting individual excellence- set up the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, a philanthropic program that brings together internationally recognized masters  and promising young artists, with the objective of contributing to global culture. The program, which runs every two years, has mentors and protégés spending a year in a one-to-one mentorship relationship. The company wanted to do for artists something similar to what it was doing with the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, created in 1976, which support scientists, conservationists and explorers. It came up with the idea of a mentorship, which seemed more appropriate for the arts.

Rolex_Jacir-Zhang Yimou_ Sellars-Zbib

The program has paired some of today’s most important artists and rising young talents; in literature, film, dance, music, theater, visual arts and architecture, and has established a new global community of artists in less than a decade.  Artists like Jessye Norman, Mario Vargas Llosa, Mira Nair, Martin Scorsese, Peter Sellars, Zhang Yimou, Brian Eno or Anish Kapoor have been some of the mentors, which are chosen by a special advisory board which suggests and endorses the potential mentors. When the mentors agree to take part, they work with Rolex to define a profile of protégé they would like to work with. It is therefore a carefully matched relationship. An expert panel identifies suitable potential protégés, who are invited to submit applications. The winner is chosen by the mentor after personal interviews. So far, there have been protégés from 20 countries.

Rolex_Kapoor-Hlobo_Babyshark's Minority Report

Mentors and protégés spend a considerable amount of time together, interacting in many different ways, sometimes even collaborating on a work. Protégés receive a 25,000 Swiss-franc grant during the year and travel and other expenses are also covered. An additional 25,000 Swiss francs is available for each protégé after the year ends to fund a work, a publication, a performance or an event. Mentors are awarded 50,000 Swiss francs. Protégés also obtain international publicity for their work and time to develop their art, free from daily worries.

Protégés can become mentors themselves in future editions of the program. Some have changed disciplines and others have created new works.

(In the photos: Ben Frost & Brian Eno, Annemarie Jacir & Zhang Yimou/ Peter Sellars  & Maya Zbib, Anish Kapoor & Nicholas Hlobo/Hans Magnus Enzensberger & Tracy K. Smith)

Algie and the Cathedral of Electrons

The enormous pig had been designed by Australian artist Jeffrey Shaw and built by a German company called Ballon Fabrik. On a cold December morning in 1976, Algie, as they called it, was inflated with helium and was manoeuvred into position above London’s Battersea Station. A sniper was hired to stand by and shoot the balloon in case it broke loose. However, bad weather on the first day made it very difficult to work, so the photo session had to be continued the following day, but on this second day wind was so strong that Algie, eventually broke free, and the marksman, who had only been hired for one day, was not there to bring it down. The wind took it West, into the flight path at Heathrow, probably becoming a nightmare for air traffic controllers, and it finally landed near Kent, where it was recovered by a farmer who was definitely not happy, since Algie had apparently scared his cows.


Although in the end it had to be a montage from different pictures taken over the course of three days, Algie was the star on the cover of Pink Floyd‘s Animals album, and went on to become -together with Battersea- one of the most recognizable icons in music history.


The impressive Battersea Power Station is one of the biggest and most spectacular brick buildings in the world. It is also one of the UK’s most recognizable landmarks. But it stands now in a state of disgraceful neglect and incredible disrepair. So bad, that it is listed among the world’s 100 Most Endangered Sites. This gives it an almost magical aura. The massive building, visible from the train to Heathrow airport, stands today an empty carcass, a monumental testament to progress and industry. Many owners have proposed different development plans (from amusement parks to malls) but all end up reselling it.

Architect Theo J. Halliday began construction of the power station in 1928. To appease growing public rejection to the size of the building, however, the London Power Company also hired architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, an incredibly prestigious and prolific architect, to help improve the project. He was famous for buildings such as the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station, the Albert Memorial and St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh. He was also responsible for the design of the Bankside Power Station, building that today houses the Tate Modern art museum, and interestingly, he also designed the classic red telephone box, still in use today in many cities accross the UK.


Halliday was responsible for the general shape of the building and the lavish art deco interiors, which included bronze doors showing figures representing Power and Energy, opening on to a marble turbine hall. Scott was responsible for the exterior styling, such as the art deco detailing of the chimney bases. It was also Scott’s idea to change the original square chimneys to the fluted classical columns that we can admire today. The power station is in fact two individual power stations that come together to form a single building. One was built in the 30’s, and the other in the 50’s.


The station has appeared in music videos and in The Beatles’ 1965 Help! Movie. In Alfonso Cuarón‘s film Children of Men, one scene takes place inside the station, between Theo (Clive Owen) and his cousin Nigel (Danny Huston). In a world of chaos crumbling around it, the building -which houses the Ministry of Art- provides a rare space of peace that allows for contemplation. The scenes even include a homage to Algie, who is seen floating around the outside. Today, it is the building that is literally crumbling on the inside.

The most recent bid for Battersea has come this week (4 May). Chelsea Football Club, owned by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, has launched a takeover bid for the iconic building. The station and the 38 acres of surrounding land are considered the last major undeveloped regeneration site in central London. Knight Frank, the global real estate agency that is trying to secure a long-term owner, has said that this is the first time that Battersea Power Station has been offered for sale on the open market and it has attracted many of the world’s biggest property investors, developers and sovereign wealth funds.


The stadium Abramovich wants to build here would have capacity for 60,000 fans. The plan includes a full restoration of the building, the famous chimneys and the Art Deco control room, at an approximate cost of £150 million. The stadium would be at the heart of an important new £5 billion development, that has already been approved, and that includes homes, offices, hotel, retail and leisure facilities, and what would be London’s first public park in many years. The club would also make a “significant contribution” to help build a new Tube link to the Northern line. The offer has drawn some skepticism from local politicians who say the transport infrastructure is not prepared to give service to 60,000 football fans.


Who knows what Battersea will become, maybe a shopping center, maybe a hotel, or maybe a huge square stadium. But at least for now, the building that was once called the Temple of Power, can still be admired as a brilliant -if neglected- example of a type of power station design, popular at the time, that became known as brick-cathedral style.

Battersea’s future is uncertain and the debate of what to do with it is intense. It is such a unique piece of history and such a spectacular work of architecture. I think it should be turned into a Ministry of Art, like in the movie Children of Men. That would be much better than surrounding it with houses or offices, or inserting a stadium on the inside. After all that’s kind of what they did with the Modern Tate…and that wasn’t so bad. And as our world continues to crumble in values on the outside, it would be nice to have a place like this, an empty but magnificent Cathedral of Electrons, to come and pray.  

-To read my original article in PDF: Algie and the Cathedral of Electrons.

Jamaraat Bridge

This monumental bridge structure that almost looks like a living creature from above was not built not to cross any river or to connect two mountains. It exists only to be a part of an ancient ritual that involves millions of pilgrims every year. In the photo below, a view of some of the camps set up for pilgrims around the bridge, which give you an idea of the magnitude.

The Jamaraat Bridge is located in Mina, 5km east of Mecca. It is dedicated exclusively to the stoning of the devil ritual of the Hajj. The original bridge was constructed in 1963, and expanded several times, but after a series of deadly stampedes, the worst of which occurred in 2006 and resulted in 346 deaths and 289 people injured, the Saudi authorities demolished the old bridge and started construction of a new multi-level building.

The current bridge was designed by architecture and engineering consultants Dar Al-Handasah and constructed by the Bin Laden Group. It is the only special-purpose structure of its kind in the world. It has been designed to handle 300,000 pilgrims an hour, a spectacular crowd. However, at certain times, over a million people may gather in the area of the bridge. The purpose of the bridge is to enable pilgrims to throw stones at the three jamrah pillars from any of the levels.

The new security measures implemented include wider pillars that are easier to hit by pilgrims, to prevent dangerous bottlenecks. Pilgrims on each floor move in the same direction. Exit ramps are wider than entrance ramps.

The authorities also recruited the world’s leading experts in crowd dynamics that use crowd behaviour simulation tools to predict the movement of people through the bridge, in order to design escape routes accordingly. Pilgrims have also been allowed to throw their stones at any time of day rather than only in the afternoon as before, which caused extemely dangerous situations.

The number of pilgrims continues to increase every year and is expected to rise to 20 million in the near future. The bridge will have to continue adapting and will eventually have 12 levels.

Total site area: 500,000m2

80 hectares of lanscaped pedestrian areas

4 floors, 600m long each. Total area of 385,000 m2

3 vehicular roads

1 Underground level for services with area of 21,000 m2, and 3,000 m of tunnel connections to surrounding area

6 Service buildings with total area of 25,000 m2

2 Heliports

6 Five-ton elevators

2 Bus stations with total area of 37,000 m2

Construction cost (2005) US $1,120 million

(To read my original article, published in Jan 2011, in PDF: Another Bridge in the Sand)

Cum Grano Salis

The English language expression “with a grain of salt”, which means to be skeptical or not taking something literally, appears for the first time in Pliny the Elder‘s Naturalis Historia. When Gnaeus Pompeius defeated Mithridates in 65BC, he found a recipe for an antidote for poison in his private cabinet. The recipe was: two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue; pounded all together and taken with a grain of salt. If a person took this mixture fasting, he thought, he would be protected from all poisons that day.

If anyone knew about poisons, it was Mithridates. After his defeat he fled to Crimea and attempted to organize a new army against the Romans but failed, his eldest son, Machares, was unwilling to help (and so, was killed) and another of his sons, Pharnaces II, led a rebellion against him. Seeing his loss of authority, he attempted suicide, but failed; because throughout his life -obsessed with assassination by poison- he had gained immunity to many of them taking tiny doses of all available poisons. He had to order his bodyguard and friend Bituitus to kill him.

That last part of Pliny’s translation of Mithridates’ handwritten recipe was adopted in the English language, no doubt, when classical scholars studied the Ancient Greek texts. It has been in use in English at least since the 17th century, when John Trapp, the English Anglican Bible commentator, said that the Old and New Testaments had “to be taken with a grain of salt”. But it has always meant to have common sense and a certain skepticism in Italy, where “to have salt in your pumpkin” (avere sale in zucca) means to have personal judgement and not believe things literally.

This cathedral, in Zipaquirá, a town in Cundinamarca, Colombia, was not built but carved within the tunnels of an underground salt mine. The “Salt Cathedral” is a popular tourist destination. Although mass is celebrated in it, the church has no bishop assigned, so it has no official status as a cathedral in Catholicism. The church visited today is not the original one inaugurated in 1954, dedicated to Our Lady of Rosary, Patron saint of miners, however. Due to structural problems a new one had to be excavated, 200 feet below the old sanctuary. Still, some of the galleries used today were originally excavated by the Muisca people, who already exploited salt, at least since the 5th century. Alexander von Humboldt described this mining during his visit to Zipaquirá in 1801.

An surprising and original endeavour, this cathedral. But, like most things surrounding the holy Catholic church, and like religion itself…it must be taken with a grain of salt.

(To read the article on my magazine, in PDF format, published today: Cum Grano Salis)

The doghouse that Jim built

The Berger House, located in San Anselmo, California, was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for mechanical engineer Robert Berger and his wife Gloria. It is one of Wright’s less spectacular designs, but this is because the budget was very small. Although he was already a renowned architect, having already built icons like Fallingwater and his “Prairie Houses”, he had always been an idealist at heart and he accepted the commission despite the restrictions.

Wright, probably influenced by Populism -an American movement in the XIX century that started among poor white cotton farmers in the South and represented hostility to banks, railroads and elites in general- always promoted the agrarian ideas of Thomas Jefferson, himself a farmer. Over his long career, he designed many homes for people of modest means. He even had a name for this new democratic American architecture: Usonian (from the U.S.). He built around 60 of these Usonian homes for the middle class.

It is no wonder, then, that Wright accepted to design a house for a dog. The commission came from 12-year-old Jim Berger, the son of Robert and Gloria Berger. Complicated and radical as he was, Wright was also a prolific architect, constructing more than 500 buildings over his more than 7 decades in the profession. He had designed all sorts of buildings, from skyscrapers to synagogues, and from schools to museums, so why not a dog house?

I would appreciate it if you would design me a doghouse, which would be easy to build, but would go with our house…”, Jim’s letter read. He went on to say that his dog, Eddie, a black Labrador Retriever was two and a half feet high and three feet long, and that the reason he wanted this doghouse was for winters mainly. He also mentioned that he would pay him from the money he made delivering newspapers.

“A house for Eddie is an opportunity,” the famous architect wrote back. But Wright was just too busy at the time, building the Guggenheim, so he suggested that Jim write back later in the year. Which the boy did. Wright accepted this new challenge and promptly delivered detailed plans for the dog house, at no charge. The new project respected the hexagonal geometry of the plan of the house he had previously designed. He even specified the materials: Phillipine mahogany and cedar, like the main home.

The small triangular pavillion was not built by the Bergers until 10 years later, with some minor changes to the original plan. Unfortunately, Eddie had already died and never saw his house built. Neither did Frank Lloyd Wright, who died in 1959. The house was built for a new family dog (in the photo above), who apparently didn’t like it very much; so it was dismantled a few years later and then taken to a dump.

In 2010, while filming a documentary about buildings designed by Wright in California, director Michael Miner learnt about the doghouse story and asked Jim, now 68, if he would be rebuild the house. He gladly accepted. It is believed to be the only dog house ever designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and certainly his smallest building.

(To read my original article in PDF, with photo and sources credits: The Doghouse that Jim built)

With your Head in the Cloud

The cloud as a metaphor of the internet is ubiquitous today. From Amazon cloud server services to Apple’s iCloud. The term was first used in telephony and then it started to be used for the internet as well. However, the idea was already present in Douglas Parkhill‘s 1966 book, The Challenge of the Computer Utility, in which he sees computation being provided as a utility.

Clouds have been inspiration for artists, like Diller + Scofidio, who in 2002 created the tensegrity structure Blur for the Swiss Expo 2002 on Lake Neuchatel. This pavilion was made to resemble a cloud, spraying water at high pressure from 31,400 jets with tiny apertures. The original project included a LED text “forest” inside and was supposed to be a metaphor of the Internet.

Dutch artist Berndnaut Smilde has also used clouds as inspiration, in his installations “Nimbus” and “Nimbus II”. He manages to create real clouds inside buildings.

My article With Your Head in The Cloud takes a look at clouds in all their forms.