A House of Flags is unveiled across from the House of Commons. 206 panels present the flag icons of all the nations participating in the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. Combined they make a large building jigsaw, a united 'House'. A matrix of symbols, shimmering colours, shadows and perforations invites everyone to experience an image of the world as well as an image of multi-ethnic London.
The installation is designed by AY Architects in response to Greater London Authority's call for new design proposals in connection with the Olympic celebrations this summer. Located on Parliament Square, the installation bridges two very different states: on its exterior the flag motifs demonstratively produce a global image; in its interior the individual identity of each flag is intentionally abstracted, creating a more unified and ambiguous experience of space, volume and light.
House of Flags is located on the southeast corner of Parliament Square, surrounded by the House of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and St. Margaret's, Portcullis House and the statue of Winston Churchill, among many others. Its design acknowledges the World Heritage setting and highly political status of the square, historically charged by protests and demonstrations. One of the initial intentions of the scheme was to use the House as a 'political diary' where the flag arrangements could be reconfigured endlessly and embody graffiti or any other reaction by the public. However, the installation had eventually to adjust to the requirements of the Greater London Authority and The Flag Institute: the House has to have a particular order in terms of flag positions and the site is to be safeguarded 24/7. Countless stories can be told about the symbolic significance of both the flags and the site and the paradoxical issues of identity and security that emerged in the dialogues between the architects and the various stakeholders during the design process.
House of Flags is a freestanding plywood structure measuring 17m long x 8m wide x 4.5m high. It is made of 206 panels of FSC certified Finnish birch plywood, sealed and fire protected, and supported on 42 pre-cast concrete foundational blocks. The flag panels measure 1.2 x 0.8m and three panels are cut from a standard plywood sheet to minimize material waste. CNC fabrication is used for cutting while each flag graphic is UV flatbed printed directly on the plywood surface. Each flag icon was graphically manipulated and, in a way, subtly redesigned in order to determine specific perforations on the material. This happened in such a way so that the top flags are more perforated and lighter than the bottom ones, which are more solid and therefore heavier.
The interior of the structure has a natural timber finish, creating a monochrome neutral space which is in contrast with the symbols and colors overloading its exterior. Although the timber structure has a simple and systematic construction logic, it produces a complex and rhythmical spatiality all round. During the day the structure works as a shadow modulator with the shadows of its perforations shifting from east to west. At night the structure is lit from within, glowing as an inhabited House and showing the emblem cut-outs appear as silhouetted figures.
The structure is flatpack and flexible; it can be dismantled and entirely reconfigured. As a kind of large three-dimensional puzzle it can be demounted and reinstalled in new configurations and flag hierarchies. Its current composition follows strict rules that want the flags to be presented alphabetically, never touching or intersecting, and carefully organized from the back so that symbols and writings are not mirrored. AY Architects worked closely with The Flag Institute, the world's leading research and documentation centre for flag information, to determine how the design of the panels and their connections could correspond to many of these protocols.
Vexillology is a body of knowledge about the history and evolution of flags as well as a body of practice for design. What can this practice share with architectural design and vice versa? A flag design must be so simple that a child can draw it from memory. The flag should be distinct but make connections and quotations with other emblems, both contemporary and historic. As such the flag is a symbolic entity not very dissimilar from the front elevation of the typical public building. What happens when the two languages, of the flag and of the building, collate into one gesture — both political and architectural?
One of the intentions of this design is to push architecture's adaptability and flexibility to its limit in order to see it used in entirely different scales and locations — from children's board games to new large architectural installations in other places. Many more Houses of Flags can be made and remade to suggest new configurations in patterns and politics.
- AY Architects (Yeoryia Manolopoulou and Anthony Boulanger)
- Lotte Helle-Valle and Mark Rist
- Tim Marcot, Price & Myers
Special thanks to:
- George Paraskevopoulos, Greater London Authority
- Guan Lee, Grymsdyke Fram
- Nikki Ledger, ICON
- The Flag Institute
- The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL
Parliament Square, London SW1A 2JX.