Architecture

Architecture A Modest revival – from Intelligent Life
Once everyone wanted buildings of glass, steel and outrageous curves. But Robert Bevan sees the twilight of starchitecture falling
ROBERT BEVAN | JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2016

stacked house
THE 2015 STIRLING PRIZE, Britain’s biggest architectural award, was won by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM) for six buildings it designed for the Burntwood School campus in south London. A modest exercise in neo-Brutalism in which the composition of concrete panels recalls the stately public architecture of the 1950s and 1960s, they fit tactfully within the school’s existing campus. In September, meanwhile, the Walkie-Talkie won the Carbuncle Cup, Building Design’s annual prize for the worst building in Britain. A 37-storey skyscraper in the centre of London, the tower is named for its bulbous, top-heavy profile – it’s an office that has steroidally bulked up its chest and shoulders but allowed its legs to wither. Prizes don’t make taste but they can point towards the direction in which it’s shifting, and the coincidence of these awards suggests a weariness among tastemakers with the exuberances of contemporary architecture.

walkie talkieOver and out: the bulbous “Walkie-Talkie” building in Fenchurch Street, London
This a far cry from the mania for instant icons, which first emerged with the opening of Frank Gehry’s 1997 Guggenheim Bilbao. The art gallery’s shimmering, titanium bulges were credited with putting a run-down town in northern Spain back on the tourist map. The “Bilbao effect” was born and a thousand outlandishly shaped buildings sprung up across the world. The face of London is now marked with thrusting figures. First came the Gherkin, then the Shard. The Can of Ham is on the horizon.
The capability to create novel, gravity-defying curves and cantilevers stems from the expansion in computing power in the early 1990s and the innovative digital design tools that developed alongside it. Unconventionally shaped buildings had always been imagined and even, on rare occasions, achieved – think of Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower in Potsdam, Gaudi’s still-unfinished Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona and Jørn Utzon’s nose-bleedingly expensive opera house for Sydney. But digital made complex forms, especially curves in multiple directions, easier to design, engineer and construct – and thus more affordable. Information coded into a digital drawing could be used to manufacture components of the buildings themselves – in the precise laser cutting of titanium sheets, for example.

Even more significantly, architects could now fix the limits of a virtual three-dimensional form, then manipulate shapes with these parameters. This technology, dubbed “parametric architecture”, made Zaha Hadid’s architectural vision, for example, more readily buildable. Previously Hadid had built physical models, sliced them into cross-sections, then scanned the slices onto a computer to render her ideas virtually. With computer-aided design (CAD), the limitations of working with paper were obliterated. Architects could now toy with surfaces. They folded and bent thin skins, so that buildings imitated rolling natural terrains, geological formations and biological structures. Architecturally speaking, the past, with its imprecise and unflexible bricks and mortar, had been left behind.
Cities, companies and institutions across the world suddenly demanded similar buildings as the centrepiece of a regeneration initiative, or for the new wing of a museum or a corporate HQ, hoping for their own Bilbao effect. In the commercial world, para­metric design, as Zaha Hadid’s sidekick Patrik Schumacher observed recently, perfectly responds to the demands of market-conscious developers, because computers can maximise the rentable floorspace on expensive but constrained sites, like those found in the City of London. The swollen Walkie-Talkie, its upper floors much wider than the plot on which it sits, is a shining example of this phenomenon. And while the curvaceous can waste space conspicuously – impractical extravagance has always been a measure of luxury – it does so with digital efficiency.

Going straight: plans for the V&A East development in east London by O’Donnell + Tuomey

 

odonnel
Digital design tools also hastened the rise of the global designer, whose signature style could be airlifted in to brand a development as forward looking. The Guggenheim Foundation led the trend in the cultural world, commissioning leading architects in order to present itself as the outrider of the avant-garde. Hadid was joined by Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, Jean Nouvel and Peter Eisenman, among others. The global starchitect was born and won all the prizes.
Yet the past has persisted and now it is fighting back. All architects these days, bar the occasional crank, use digital drawing packages. But increasing numbers of designers are insisting that they should be the masters of technology, not its slaves. Colour-washed sketches to convey the mood of a place are again being produced after decades of demands for the sterile photorealism produced by CAD. Because creatives are no longer enthralled to its giddy novelty digital technology has become just another tool for those who can maturely blend different approaches – using lasers to cut traditional letterpress type, for instance, or software to extrude a brick arch. Brick is now in such demand for tall residential towers in Britain that there is currently a shortage.
Concerns are being raised about imposing buildings that ignore the urban contexts in which they are built, fail to make any concession to the human scale, and serve only as three-dimensional branding for their creators. These critiques echo an earlier generation’s displeasure with the anonymous global products of post-war Modernism. One response was Critical Regionalism, an approach that sought to humanise Modernism by making it more sensitive to place. The reaction this time around is more akin to the return to analogue that can be observed throughout contemporary culture – in the enthusiasm for vinyl records and handicrafts, for example. In an increasingly virtual world, there is a longing for human touch and a spirit of resistance to the invisible forces in which we find ourselves enmeshed.
There has also been a slow realisation that the beguiling, computer-generated images of glossy and curvaceous parametric buildings often work better on screen than in reality. Their construction still too often depends on a precision that is hard to achieve in practice. Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the architects of the recently opened Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles, promised a diaphanous, perforated veil as its sweeping cladding. Instead, it is far more static, regularly shaped and solid – a concession that had to be made in the course of building.
In Britain in particular, ostentatious architecture did not guarantee the public’s affections. Many ill-conceived National Lottery-backed projects relied on the presumption that an impressive building alone would entice people to flood through the doors. In the case of Will Alsop’s arts centre The Public and Sheffield’s drum-kit-shaped pop-music museum, they didn’t. New uses for the vacant icons had to be found.
THE VICTORIA & ALBERT MUSEUM in west London is perched on the cusp of the two architectural philosophies. It is in the middle of building a new extension to its South Kensington home, a conspicuously folded form by Amanda Levete. But for its next large-scale project, the V&A East – part of the planned Olympicopolis cultural quarter in the East End – it has appointed Irish architects O’Donnell + Tuomey, who have been quietly crafting buildings on the edge of Europe for some decades now.

Rise of the red bricks: the Saw Swee Hock student centre for the London School of Economics, designed by O’Donnell + Tuomey

red bricks
Kieran Long is keeper of the design, architecture and digital department at the V&A and involved in the development of V&A East. He sees a deliberate move away from the formal excesses of parametric architecture’s high noon. “I am super happy that O’Donnell + Tuomey were appointed,” he says. “They don’t lapse into the abstraction that the big shape-makers fall into.” He admires the craft that the practice brings to a project. Their buildings, such as the Saw Swee Hock student centre for the London School of Economics, may be made of brick but they are far from conservative. Indeed, digital tools were employed to achieve the inflected brickwork walls of the LSE centre. Long contends that O’Donnell + Tuomey will provide a monumental character for the museum’s new building. It achieves this – in drawings at least – through a measured, rectilinear massing of materials, rather than by resorting to an architectural caprice which reveals all it’s got in a single glance. The V&A East will be a weightier affair: “A more permanent architecture”, says Long, “that contrasts with…the thin, powder-coated steel and glass of a lot of those shape-making buildings nearby.”
English practices such as Caruso St John, Eric Parry, Sergison Bates and Patrick Lynch are also devoted to the craft of construction, and willing to quote historical examples and to use ornament in their work – the antithesis of the slick futurism of the parametric. The same counter-tendency can be found elsewhere in Europe. The work of Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura’s work has been described as “slow architecture”, not because it takes an age to build but because it can only be appreciated slowly and through repeated viewing. And while this reaction is primarily European – North America lags noticeably behind European architectural practice – instances of this approach can be found as far afield as China and Vietnam, where architects are reinterpreting the vernacular.

 

reworking
Dissatisfaction with the hegemony of the blob – and with the profusion of architecture graduates who can make a nifty digital image but don’t actually know how to design a feasible building or even sketch an idea by hand – is rippling through the profession. One of the consequences has been the launch of the London School of Architecture in October, a collaboration between academics and architectural practices. It is the first new architecture school in the capital for more than a century. Did it, I asked the LSA’s founder Will Hunter, emerge out of desire for a richer, contextually informed design approach? “Definitely,” he says. “The building of icons to stand out, the fetishisation of the digital, is definitely out of fashion in favour of what’s good for the urban fabric.”
Hunter accepts that parametric design can be an important element of the architect’s toolbox, especially if devoted to more ecologically minded and culturally relevant buildings, but he wants his students to think through drawing, to analyse a site and respond with nuance. What once seemed daring now is obvious and gauche, a novelty act whose shine is losing its lustre. Hunter is blunt about the era of the big, simplistic architectural gesture: “It’s over.”
Grandiloquent, digitally driven architecture will doubtless continue to land in our cities. The tech sector in particular is still in thrall to the parametric. Its latest fashionable exponent, the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, has been commissioned by Google, alongside English designer Thomas Heatherwick to design its “Truman Show”-like HQ in California. In London, Google is reported to be thinking of ditching the current design for its King’s Cross building by this year’s Stirling prize-winner AHMM in favour of something by Heatherwick.

Stirling work: the collaged reworking of the ruined Astley Castle in north Warwickshire, by Witherford Watson Mann
But this style no longer represents the avant-garde. In recent years the Stirling prize has been anointing a quieter kind of architecture: the subtle rebuilding of the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool by Haworth Tompkins; and Astley Castle, the collaged reworking of a ruined castle by Witherford Watson Mann, who have layered the contemporary on top of the historical, creating a dialogue between the two. This year’s shortlist was especially notable for the absence of bloated buildings. Even the Guggenheim, the original sinner of parametric architecture, did not commission Gehry or one of his acolytes for its latest outpost in Helsinki; it chose instead the sober-sided Parisian architecture practice Moreau Kusunoki. Their design incorporates curves, but as gentle inflections to the walls and roofs of rectilinear pavilions – more Japanese temple than overinflated blobology. The bubble, it seems, may finally have burst.

Who is Leading?

Who’s most likely to be the 2016 Republican nominee?
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Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz during a campaign stop in Oklahoma City last month. (J Pat Carter/AP)
By Chris Cillizza January 3 at 6:39 PM
It’s 2016 (finally)! Iowa voters will head to their caucuses in four weeks. The country will pick a new president in about 10 months. It’s all happening, people.

Given all of that, it’s time to revisit my rankings of the candidates who could be the Republican presidential nominee. It’s a shrinking list but still far longer than that of the Democrats’ side, where it’s Hillary Clinton’s race to lose (still).

The candidate ranked No. 1 below is the most likely, as of now, to be the GOP nominee. And, for the record, I think it’s possible (if not probable) that we go into Cleveland for the Republican National Convention in July with no candidate with enough delegates to be the nominee.

1. Ted Cruz: The senator from Texas has been underestimated and underrated at every step of the primary process. No longer. Cruz is solidly in first place in Iowa and, barring some sort of unforeseen collapse, will win the first-in-the-nation caucuses. He also should run well in South Carolina on Feb. 20 and in the “SEC primary” on March 1. Cruz, thanks to Donald Trump, is now being seen in some GOP circles as a conservative, non-disastrous alternative to the real estate mogul. And, unlike other conservative insurgents of the past, Cruz has the money — in his campaign committee and in a constellation of super PACs backing him — to last for the duration of the race.

2. Marco Rubio: He has emerged as the establishment favorite, a designation made apparent by the number of major-dollar donors who jumped off the fence to be on his side over the past few months. The problem for Rubio is that he doesn’t have an obvious win among the first few states to vote. Iowa looks to be a lost cause — although maybe finishing first in the “establishment” primary might be enough? — and New Hampshire is a place where everybody is looking up at Trump. South Carolina may be Rubio’s shot — much of the senior command of his campaign is made up of Palmetto State operatives — but that’s not a given. The Nevada caucuses, where Rubio is a favorite, are Feb. 23; can he wait until the fourth vote to get a win?

3. Trump: The most likely scenario is that he finishes second behind Cruz in Iowa and wins New Hampshire. Where does that leave him? Who knows. Polling puts him ahead by double digits in South Carolina, but that state’s voters undoubtedly will be affected by what Iowa and New Hampshire do. And what does losing Iowa mean, if anything, for Trump’s psyche or how he is viewed by supporters? Does he get angry, redouble his efforts and actually start spending his own money? Or does he throw up his hands and walk away? I think the former is the more likely option. Trump loves what he has done in this campaign and has little to no interest in giving it up anytime soon.

4. Chris Christie: The New Jersey governor has fought his way back to credibility largely thanks to his intense focus on New Hampshire, where he has lavished attention over the past year. Christie spent a few days last week in Iowa, evidence that his campaign thinks he could sneak out a surprising showing (and crucial momentum) from the relatively open field behind Cruz and Trump in the state. Christie’s greatest asset is himself. He is a talented retail campaigner, which plays well in Iowa and New Hampshire. What remains to be seen is whether Christie can weather an attack on his administration’s politically motivated George Washington Bridge lane closures. That ad is coming from some opponent if Christie starts to look like a real threat to win New Hampshire.

Big Sur Bus

bigsurbus

I took this photo on a recent trip to Carmel,  Several years ago, we rented a cabin in the Big Sur woods and hiked for several days.  We were fortunate that the weather was so clear and dry.  Hoping to do it again next year.

Crossing Lines

Crossing Lines

I recently watched on old Jack Nicholson and Harvey Keitel movie, The Border. The theme song, written by Freddie Fender, is a tutorial on ethics and not crossing lines. It made me recall times clients asked me to cross lines. What helped me was my parents were honest people and I know that everyone has a price and I was able never allow myself to be in a position where I learned mine. During my lifetime, I have not tarnished my family name. Here are the lyrics:
“There’s a land where I’ve been told
Every street is paved with gold
And it’s just across the borderline
When it’s time to take your turn
Here’s a lesson that you must learn
You could lose more than you’ll ever find
When you reach the broken promise land
Every dream slips through your hand
You’ll know it’s too late to change your mind
‘Cause you’ve paid the price to come so far
Just to wind up where you are
And you’re still just across the borderline
Up and down the Rio Grande
A thousand footprints in the sand
Reveal the secret no one can define
The river flows on like a breath
In between our life and death
Who’s the next to cross the borderline
Hope remains when pride is gone
And it keeps you moving on
Calling you across the borderline
When you reach the broken promise land
Every dream slips through your hand
You’ll know it’s too late to change your mind
And you’re still just across the borderline
And you’re still just across the borderline.

Automotive Developments

British cable firm HellermannTyton snapped up in drive for intelligent cars
US car part maker Delphi Automotive pays £1.1bn for HellermannTyton as it seeks to capitalise on growing trend for vehicles that connect to the web
Cable wiring
HellermannTyton manufactures products for fastening, fixing and protecting cables
Sean Farrell

A US-listed car parts maker is paying £1.1bn to buy HellermannTyton, a British manufacturer of cable equipment, as it seeks to capitalise on the growing trend in intelligent vehicles.

Delphi Automotive said it expects HellermannTyton, which makes products for fastening, fixing, and protecting cables, to help it take advantage of increasing demand for vehicles that connect to the web and smart devices such as phones and tablets.

Delphi said it would pay 480p in cash for each Hellermann share. The price is 44% more than Hellermann’s closing share price on Wednesday. Hellermann’s shares rose 42% to 472p.

Delphi is based in Gillingham, Kent, but its shares are listed in New York. It makes electronic components for motor vehicles, including safety systems that detect hazards, and employs more than 20,000 people.

Hellermann, based in Manchester, employs 3,800 people globally. In the UK it employs 700 people and its main factories are in Manchester and Plymouth.

Delphi said it expected to save $50m (£32m) a year by the end of 2018 by cutting purchasing costs and making its supply chain more efficient. It said that after the deal was completed it would review overlapping operations, including Hellermann’s distribution network.

Delphi said the deal would give it more products to capitalise on the “megatrend” for connected cars and opportunities to expand in Hellermann’s other sectors such as aerospace and defence.

New safety and anti-pollution rules are forcing cars to become more intelligent so engines are fuel efficient and vehicles can better perform semi-automated taskssuch as accident avoidance and cruise control. Cars increasingly rely on multiple computer systems to operate and become safer by responding to what is around them. The move towards intelligent cars is expected to lead to vehicles that drive themselves more safely then human beings.

The deal is the latest in a spate of mergers and acquisitions as companies seek new markets and products to spur growth. Takeovers worth $5bn or more totalled a record $1.13tn in the first half of this year, fuelled by a boom in the US.

Apart from Shell’s blockbuster £47bn acquisition of BG Group, merger activity in the UK has been more muted. Also on Thursday, Chime Communications, a sports marketing company, said it was in talks to sell itself for almost £350m to WPP, the world’s biggest advertising company, and US buyout firm Providence Equity Partners.

Kevin Clark, Delphi’s chief executive, said: “With consumers now demanding more connectivity in their vehicles, electrical architecture is the enabler to that added vehicle content. By leveraging the combined capabilities of both companies, we will be able to capitalise on additional growth opportunities and create significant value for our customers and shareholders.”

The Music of Science

WISH UPON A SEA FLOOR

MJ_15_science
The Music of Science: what links the depths of the ocean to the hearts of dying stars? A tiny bit of iron—and not just any old iron. Oliver Morton explains

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2015

There is a wind that blows from the heart of dying stars, a wind so strong that it reshapes the atoms in its path and drives them out as spindrift into space. This storm-tossed spray spreads out across the galaxy, filling the space between stars. And it settles on everything. It falls on the other stars, and on the nurseries where stars are born. It falls on comets and planets. It falls into puddles. It falls into oceans. And there it settles.

The information that sediments on the ocean floor provide about the history of the Earth has been a source of insight for decades; cores drilled from sea floors around the world were fundamental to the acceptance, in the 1970s, of the modern theory of the ice ages. But more recently, the sediments have started to attract people looking for a record of goings-on farther afield—such as in supernovae. All chemical elements other than hydrogen, helium and a little bit of lithium, which were made in the Big Bang, are produced by nuclear reactions that go on in stars. Some, like carbon and oxygen, are made throughout a star’s life; others come into being only at the end. Many of the atoms thus made last for ever. Some, though, are radioactive, and decay.

Hence the excitement when, in 1999, a team of German scientists published an analysis of a rock sample brought up from the sea floor near Mona Pihoa in the South Pacific. It was not any old rock; it was coated in a ferromanganese crust, a chemical precipitate that had grown very slowly and steadily over a very very long time. Every million years, the crust had got a few millimetres thicker. Analysing this crust, the scientists showed that a bit of it which was about 3m years old contained a measurable amount of iron-60—measurable, that is, if you had instruments capable of distinguishing one atom out of a thousand trillion.

Even this tiniest trace of iron-60 was remarkable. By rights the Earth should have none at all. Iron-60 has a half life of 2.6m years, which means that if you had started off with a kilo of the stuff 2.6m years ago you would now have just 500 grams. If you had started out with a kilo 190m years ago—that is, back among the dinosaurs—then you would now have a single atom. This rate of decay means that none of the iron-60 that the Earth acquired at the time of its formation, 4.5 billion years ago, is still around, and that the iron-60 in that ocean-floor rock must have had an unearthly source. Iron-60 is formed in tiny amounts by cosmic rays hitting the Earth—but it is also formed in copious amounts in supernovae. One exploding star can produce a mass of iron-60 six times that of the Earth. A relatively close supernova a few million years ago would have delivered enough iron-60 to the Pacific—and to the oceans and puddles of every other planet within a hundred light years or so—to explain the signal in the deep-sea crust.

The rate at which supernovae create isotopes other than iron-60 depends on processes which, with no supernovae nearby to observe, scientists can only model—or approximate with particle accelerators. By seeking out the abundances of these yet rarer materials in appropriate rocks, some of the scientists working in the area think it may be possible to say more precisely what really goes on in supernovae. From that they might be able to work out whether there are some ele­ments that supernovae cannot make, and which must instead be formed in yet more esoteric catastrophes, such as the merger of two neutron stars.

A recent study by Anton Wallner and colleagues, many of whom were involved in the iron-60 work, looked for plutonium-244 in similar deep-sea rocks and found, more or less, none. The work suggests—though these are early days—that supernovae may indeed not be able to produce the range of elements previously thought. This may have impli­cations for science’s view of the origin of the solar system. If it were to turn out that some of the heavier elements found in the Earth could only have been made by a collision between neutron stars, it might mean that the Earth is a rarer sort of planet than had been thought. That could have implications for the likelihood of life elsewhere.

This sort of work would still delight, though, even if it turned out to have no bearing on such matters. The links between physics that plays out on the largest scale, that of the cosmos as a whole, and the smallest, that of the fundamental particles studied at CERN and elsewhere, are well rehearsed. No science magazine or mind-stretching television series is complete if it does not include the idea that there are connections between cosmology and particle physics that provide fundamental insights into the universe. The astronomical and the geological are not quite as disparate in scale, and their links not as conceptually deep; accordingly, perhaps, they get less play. But I can’t help thinking their specificity may make these connections, if less profound, no less wonderful—and possibly more so. That humans should find a rock that grows a few millimetres every million years and tease from a scant handful of its atoms the secrets of a dying star does as much to make the world a richer place as anyone could ask.

Oliver Morton is briefings editor for The Economist and the author of “Eating the Sun”

Illustration Pete Gamlen

Benedict Cumberbatch

INTELLIGENT LIFE MAGAZINE NOV / DEC 2013 Sherlock

INTELLIGENT LIFE MAGAZINE NOV / DEC 2013
Sherlock

The Visual CV: a character actor for years, Benedict Cumberbatch is very much a star now. Nicholas Barber picks out his best moments

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2013

2004 Stephen Hawking in Hawking

With the name Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch, you have to learn to pronounce long words early on in life. Maybe that’s why, when he was cast in his first big television role, Cumberbatch could handle the most tongue-twisting quantum mechanics lectures with unruffled authority. The BBC’s excellent biopic also showcased his deft physicality, and let us glimpse the boyish warmth which he’s since kept in reserve, just in case the right rom-com script comes along.

2006 Patrick Watts in Starter For Ten

In his film debut, adapted from David Nicholls’s novel, Cumberbatch is surrounded by rising stars, both male (James McAvoy, James Corden) and female (Rebecca Hall, Alice Eve), but he’s funnier than all of them. Anyone who saw his priggish quiz-team martinet might have seen a sparkling future for him as the next John Cleese. But, with his wide-apart eyes and piscine mouth, who would have bet that he’d become a leading man?

2007 Paul Marshall in Atonement

A year on from “Starter for Ten”, Cumberbatch was still well below James McAvoy on the cast list (his name doesn’t appear on either DVD box), and again he was a bullying buffoon with just a handful of scenes. This time, though, it was no laughing matter. He plays Ian McEwan’s predatory villain—who happens to be an old Harrovian, like Cumberbatch himself. There is no more detailed or authentic portrait of skin-crawling unpleasantness in recent cinema.

2010-14 Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock (above)

Steven Moffat’s and Mark Gatiss’s Conan Doyle update shouldn’t have worked. Sort of Victorian and sort of contemporary, usually ludicrous yet often earnest, it needed a Holmes whose laser-beam intensity would force us to take his deductions seriously, but whose clowning would reassure us that it was OK to giggle, too. Cumberbatch fitted the bill and became a star—helped, no doubt, by the piercing eyes and the clenched-fist cheekbones which left legions of fans happy to call themselves Cumberbitches.

2011 The Creature in Frankenstein

Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller took turns to play Frankenstein and his patchwork progeny in Danny Boyle’s National Theatre extravaganza—a dry run for the opening ceremony at the Olympics. A cruelly cerebral scientist was hardly a stretch for Cumberbatch. But his balletic interpretation of the creature was a revelation, a feat of rubber-limbed mime artistry which showed why he was picked to do the motion-capture, as well as the voices, for two baddies in Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit”.

2012 Christopher Tietjens in Parade’s End

Through five hours of torrid period drama, Cumberbatch committed himself to a facial contortion nobody should try at home: jaw jutting forward, chin hoicked downwards, fleshy lower lip furled underneath stiff upper one. But enough about his LAMDA-honed precision. His doggedly honourable Tietjens, unfurling sentences by Ford Madox Ford and Tom Stoppard, put viewers through the wringer, even as he held his own emotions tightly in check.

2013 Khan/John Harrison in Star Trek Into Darkness

Casting the world’s palest man as a character named Khan Noonien Singh was always going to be contentious, but even diehard Trekkies were won over by Cumberbatch’s sneer in human form. He is Hollywood’s dream antagonist: a classically trained Englishman who can deliver reams of expository techno-babble with the purring menace of a soliloquy from “Macbeth”. And, unlike Jeremy Irons or Alan Rickman, he looks as if he could beat most heroes to a pulp.

2014 Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate

A first lead role on the big screen—a spooky impression of Mr WikiLeaks, Aussie twang and all—adds to his collection of slimy brain-boxes and terrible haircuts. Next he plays a slave-owner in Steve McQueen’s award-winning “12 Years a Slave”, Meryl Streep’s put-upon nephew in “August: Osage County”, and Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game”. On the set of “Sherlock”, Cumberbatch has also been busy fending off the paparazzi, holding up scrawled signs instructing the fourth estate to “photograph Egypt and show the world something important”. So either his message gets out or they leave him alone. Smart.

Nicholas Barber writes for the Independent on Sunday. He has recently written for The Editors’ Blog about the Motion Picture Association of America’s bad ratings and why actress Olivia Wilde might be too attractive

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