Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Rage for the Machine

The Machine at Marly was built on the Seine river in France in 1684. A series of gigantic wheels in the river, it drove pumps that carried water uphill to an aqueduct. It was for a time the largest work of integrated machinery in the world. To find out more about the machine, I strongly recommend an click around this interesting little site, which is where I first discovered it. The story has a number of fascinating little corners - for instance part of the machine, a wooden tower, was moved to the Paris observatory after it was no longer needed on the site. The astonomer Cassini (of Saturn fame) used it to mount long telescopes.

The recycling of the tower by Cassini serves as a good example of the varying use of parts of the machine. It was built to supply water to the palaces of the ancien regime, a monstrous misuse of resources typical of absolutism, but by 1963 parts of it were being used to generate electricity. But I came across the site about it while looking for something else entirely (a picture of a spillway to accampany an end-of-year post), entering via the page of images of the machine. For a time I couldn't tell what the machine was actually for, but that didn't decrease my interest. It made me think of this aside from a recent LRB essay on the work of the eccentric Russian poet Daniil Kharms:
One visitor to his apartment reported seeing a contraption made of bits of metal, wooden boards, springs, a bicycle wheel and empty jars; Kharms said it was ‘a machine’, and, when asked what kind, replied: ‘No kind. Just a machine.’

No kind, just a machine, a line that for me nicely justifies a lot of modern art and poetry. It doesn't have to do anything. But coming across the Marly site also reminded me that machines are interesting in themselves. When I was young, I had a collection of "Technic" Lego, which could be used to build quite complicated machines. The difficulty, for me, was always trying to think of what I could build with it - and so I would build complicated apparatuses of gears and settings and pistons that didn't actually do anything.

I suppose this was a kind of kinetic scuplture; I saw what I believe to have been a Tinguely at a very early age and was delighted by its shuddering motions, its noise, its mischievous lack of utility. Duchamp compared watching the spinning of his "Bicycle Wheel" to watching the crackling of a fire, a really effective analogy for that kind of pleasant, purposeless absorption in the processes of a moving object. It's the same kind of idle pleasure that comes from watching a machine in motion, regardless of its purpose. The Science Museum has changed a lot since I was first taken there as a small child, but I'm reassured to see that children haven't changed as well - amid all the apparently enthralling touchscreens, the object that still really holds the attention is the gigantic working steam engine. It doesn't do anything, it the sense of drive any productive machines or generate any power, but that doesn't seem to put anyone off. It's really a giant version of Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel.

All this, I suppose, connects back to the constructivists, who were (Duchamp aside) among the first to describe and advocate kinetic art, and Vladimir Tatlin's tower, mentioned previously. The Bolshevik avant-garde liked the idea of kinetic machine art, hymning as it did industrialisation and modernity rather than dead Tsarist heroes and saints, but purposeless art was a little too wasteful, bougeois and decadent for them. The sculptures Tatlin proposed would actually be useful - his Monument to the Third International, the tower, would contain a congress hall for the Bolshevik world government as well as offices and a boradcasting centre. Smaller monuments could serve as loudspeakers or platforms for speeches.

Purposeful sculpture isn't so farfetched. Minus the Bolshevik ideology, there are a couple of instances in London. The statue of James Henry Greathead at Bank includes a Tube ventilation shaft in its plinth. And Rodney Gordon's brutalist Faraday Memorial at Elephant conceals a London Underground electricity substation. I like how appropriate these uses are, given Greathead's connection with tunnelling and Faraday's connection with electricity.

The Faraday Memorial. Image taken from the Flickr stream of a shadow of my future self and used under a Creative Commons licence.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Runways, Rhizobia and Revolution

X-Plantation 11 by Hubert Blanz.

Issues 075 and 076 of Icon have now been archived online, plucking a handful of pieces by me from the obscurity of print and into the bright lights of the internet. There's an interesting little news story about Francois Roche's biopunk house-meets-bacteria farm, "I'm Lost in Paris". Another news story covers David Kendall's "Always Let the Road Decide", a photographic project following migrant labourers as they travel on foot along and around Dubai's superhighways. And I wrote a short introduction for a gallery of Hubert Blanz's amazing X-Plantation images.

Looking back, Kendall and Blanz's images have a lot in common - they both reveal an edgeless nightmare wasteland only safely crossed by machines.

Vladimir Tatlin and his tower. (Not actual size.)

Also: my article on Tatlin's Tower for the Icon of the Month slot. Proposed in 1919 but never built, the Monument to the Third International still casts quite a shadow across architecture, just as this Kosmograd post makes clear. It's a fascinating structure and an interesting story, so enjoy.

Also: reviews of the V&A's Telling Tales exhibition, the film Chevolution and China Mieville's The City and the City, all of which I've mentioned on this site before.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Proposal for a Swiss Belltower

In the light of this unpleasantness. Pardon the crudity of the sketch. I don't know about design virtuosity - this is more sarcasm in built form, or the Oxo Tower's dodge around advertising rules. But maybe defiance is better.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009


Robert Kusmirowski's Bunker at the Barbican Centre.

More ruins, and a touch more retro-future. Here's a review by me of Robert Kusmirowski's Bunker installation at the Barbican. It was in Icon 078, and went online on Friday. Bunker is more subtle than it first appears - as I say in the piece, it's a highly ambiguous work. Emergency or wartime bunkers are symbols of catastrophe - the last resort, the futility of the Sheffield bureaucrats in Threads, the impotent rage and nihilism of Hitler's last hours. But as well as being a bunker, it's a ruin - another pessimistic environment, tied up with (stop me if you've heard this before) melancholy and the shadow of mortality.

Put those two negatives together, and what do you get? Well, an interesting installation for a start. But do they cancel each other out, or compound the darkness? A ruined bunker could suggest that the danger has passed and the bunker is no longer needed - or it could suggest that the war has gone badly, that the crisis is terminal, that the last refuge has been breached?

Robert Kusmirowski's Bunker at the Barbican Centre.

Or a third alternative. The text accompanying Bunker stresses Kusmirowski's obsession with the past and the nostalgia that characterises his work - so the bunker may be obsolete, and one kind of danger might have passed, but it could have been replaced with other dangers that call for different responses. A quote from Paul Virilio's Bunker Archaeology is reproduced in the texts that come with the installation: "The essence of the new fortress is elsewhere, underfoot, invisible from here on in." Perhaps we can't even imagine a planned response to the dangers of the new world - we can't build bunkers, long-range rader networks and DARPAnets to anticipate it, so we dream of bunkers. Or perhaps we're already holed up in the fortress - a worrying thought as Virilio saw stepping into the bunker to be the first step towards the death that the bunker was ostensibly built to prevent. Whatever the cause, bunkerlust - or bunkernostalgia - certainly seems to be widespread right now.

Ruins, the future becoming the past, the disintegration of expectations of progress - these thoughts point in the direction of JG Ballard. This is from High Rise:

Even the run-down nature of the high-rise was a model of the world into which the future was carrying them, a landscape beyond technology where everything was either derelict or, more ambiguously, recombined in unexpected but more meaningful ways. Laing pondered this - sometimes he found it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted.

Robert Kusmirowski's Bunker at the Barbican Centre.

Another stray thought from Bunker. I was wandering around the installation, nodding thoughtfully, stroking my chin and trying hard to look like I was thinking about Paul Virilio and the nature of melancholy and the horror of war and all that. But in fact, more often than I would care to admit, I was thinking: "Wow, this is very like Resident Evil/The Suffering/Silent Hill."

Those are all computer games in the "survival horror" genre. In a typical survival-horror game, the protagonist - that is, you, the player - stumbles around in dimly lit and poorly maintained spaces being pursued by monsters or zombies. You can generally speaking fight back, but the mood of the genre relies on a strong and persistent feeling of intense peril - there's never quite enough ammo, or you might as well be flicking rubber bands at the armour-plated drooling thingy coming towards you down a gloomy hospital/prison/insane asylum corridor. (The lighting is key. In "survival horror" games, the dimmer is always down, or the energy-saving bulbs never quite warm up.)

Silent Hill.

I've been thinking about these games a lot lately - I recently wrote a review of Christopher Payne's beautiful book Asylum and its photographs of 19th-century mental hospitals and long corridors in advancing desuetude also led to reflections on the genre. The review is still unpublished - I might return to the architecture of survival horror when it goes live in the New Year, since this blog post is long enough already.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

The Mechanical Jonestown and Perfect City

Two very old reviews - from Icon 052, October 2007 - uploaded here for the benefit of my archive.


Transformers was the first cartoon “inspired by” (that is, designed to sell) a range of toys. It was a glorified commercial, and as such was actually aided by its low production values – the toys themselves did not disappoint. They were three toys in one: killer robot; jet fighter (or flatbed truck, or whatever); and puzzle. How does this VW Beetle transform into a robot, and vice versa? What clues can be gleaned from either form that suggest the other – part of a bumper that resembles a fist, or a chest plate that looks like a bonnet? On this third level, they were almost educational. They taught kids how to interrogate mechanical design, reducing it to constituent parts and postulating alternative applications for each.

But this is summer blockbuster season, and thus no place for anything of educational value. And the lessons present in Michael Bay’s Transformers film become rather unsettling if pondered for too long. It’s lucky, therefore, that this absurd, sprawling, eye-blitzing movie so closely resembles a schizophrenic episode (My car wants us to have sex! Your mobile phone is watching us!) that quiet reflection on it is near impossible for a couple of hours afterwards.

This is the plot: once the Transformers lived in peaceful robo-topia, but after an unspecified “betrayal”, war erupted between the “good” Autobots and the “evil” Decepticons, and their home planet was destroyed. Now, the robo-diaspora has come to Earth to battle over the Allspark, a cube that can turn inanimate machines into Transformers. Robo-rampage ensues; “good” triumphs over “evil”.

This film is a primer in nihilism and moral relativism. Nietzsche deserves a writing credit. The Allspark is the mindless “queen” of Transformer society, the only reproducing individual amid sterile drones and soldiers. It is itself a Transformer, transforming from a cube the size of an office block into a cube the size of a Dualit toaster, and in the process indicating that you might as well not bother wondering how a sportscar can turn into a much larger robot. Scale is for puny humans. The Decepticons want to control the Allspark to make more Decepticons – they are obeying a reproductive imperative. But the Autobots want to destroy the cube – an act of species suicide. This makes them an insane, nihilist death-cult, pitching their entire kind into a mechanical Jonestown. This is the Master/Slave mentality Herr Nietzsche was talking about.

But these concerns are probably the result of watching the film without the recommended dosage of Wham bars and Panda cola. More disappointing is the way that the Transformers transform. Their vehicle disguises are perfect down to the fluffy dice, and the transformed robots are lithe and athletic. One gives little clue to the other, and the act of transformation is a blizzard of high-speed CGI detail that obscures the fascination of the mechanics of the act. Worse still, if a Transformer is unhappy with its disguise, it can just scan another vehicle and turn into that instead – and anything can become a Transformer. This makes them more like the molten, shape-shifting “robot” in Terminator 2 than collections of gears and hinges.

The Transformers’ unique selling point is thus almost entirely lost. The film’s redeeming features – some funny lines, gorgeous effects, John Turturro – rattle about in the remaining 144 minutes of destruction. It will make money though, and director Bay will be free to kill again. Maybe he’ll spoil Thundercats next.

The Perfect City

“Good men need no orders,” said Plato in The Republic. The rest of us need round-the-clock CCTV coverage, ASBOs, smoking bans and electronic tagging. Perfect societies and ideal cities are spoiled by their imperfect inhabitants, who insist on being lazy, selfish, bolshy and unpredictable. Build Le Corbusier’s ville de trois millions d’habitants and the trois millions would only pee in the stairwells and spray graffiti. People are the bane of the perfection-minded planner. Benches need no orders; people need “no loitering” signs.

UK-based artist Keith Piper deftly explodes the pretensions of authoritarian urban planners in search of perfection in his installation The Perfect City at London’s PM Gallery. The large-scale video diptych looks into the mind of an unidentified utopian planner building a model of an ideal metropolis, one that will “embody the memory of all cities before it”. All we see are disembodied hands manipulating maquettes, making sketches, flicking through research. The effect is very similar to the opening credits of David Fincher’s film Seven, and suggests the same conscience-less sociopathy.

White-gloved fingers caress trays of scissors and scalpels, cut out paper figures, position cardboard buildings. Meanwhile the narration, again disembodied, unfolds what the brain behind the hands is thinking as spaces and times are conjured and dismissed. The model-maker/narrator believes that the city arose as a place of refuge, a display of collective will, a refusal to be intimidated by the forces of nature and the divine. God responds to this affront to his authority, the narration reminds us, with the usual Old Testament vengefulness – the Babel workers’ collective is thwarted by heaven-sent incoherence, the sinful hiding-places of Sodom and Gomorrah are smashed. Mindful of these disasters, the model-maker attempts to impose divine authority by proxy, dissecting the city into cantonments, imposing quarantine, imposing surveillance. But the city’s people still have that irksome “inbuilt inclination” towards disorder. And so they must be brought into line with an act of destruction. The end of the film nods towards conspiracy theories, referencing 9/11 and the use of terror acts to impose social control.

The video lasts only 15 minutes – not enough to really examine any of the themes it touches upon, but enough to give the idea of planned perfection a thorough kicking. Perfect cities need perfect people, a line of thinking that tends to lead to the gulag – utopian experiments have a nasty habit of ending up as dystopias. Piper’s video is a condensed flash of insight into this paradox – it raises the eyes first to the ideal, and then casts them back to the autocratic reality.

Keith Piper’s The Perfect City was at PM Gallery and House, 29 June – 12 August 2007

Saturday, 5 December 2009

London in 2010

I was 11 in December 1989. We said hello to the 1990s in a farmhouse owned by family friends somewhere in the North. That New Year, the Observer devoted its colour supplement to speculation about what London might be like in 20 years - in 2010. I was mad for cityscapes, sci-fi and futurology, and I really liked the pictures and some of the ideas in this colour supplement, so I kept it. About seven years ago, when my parents moved house, I found the magazine while clearing out my old room - I refrained from throwing it out, thinking it would be interesting to see how it held up in 2010. And here we are. How did they do?

I've photographed all 15 pages of speculation and they're up on my Flickr site, with some close-ups of interesting bits. (NB: click on the photos on this blog post for a closer look.) The text should all be legible. About half of the speculation is architectural - there are also pages devoted to transport and fashion, but I have little to say about them here.

To kick off the section, there are some short columns by Peter Hall (now a Sir, founder member of Blair's Urban Task Force), the late Tony Banks MP, Peter Kellner and the author Jonathan Raban (who has since contributed to Icon). These opening pensees are a stark reminder that London was considered far more of a "problem" back then - a potentially ungovernable, insoluble perma-crisis. London still suffers from terrible problems, and a crippling lack of vision in its governing classes, but beyond the fringe right I think few now see it actually failing and going feral on us.

Hall points to the need for Crossrail and high-speed rail links to the Channel Tunnel and Heathrow - a network we're still piecing together now, thanks broadly to the dismal stasis of the Major years. Banks draws attention to London's lack of a single governing authority - it now seem amazing that such a governmental vacuum was allowed to persist for so long, from 1986 to 2000. Kellner proposes surrender in the face of London's problems and suggests moving jobs around the country with a view to reducing the city's population by 2 million. Raban provides a direct and pithy rebuttal to Kellner's pessimism: "The nastier that London gets, the darker its peculiar charms, so people (not planners, or sensible journalists with a topic to follow) will be seduced by it ... Just as we love the romantic melodrama of the street in Dickens, we secretly love the growing horror-show of the city we actually live in." Hear hear.

Two different visions of the city in 2010 follow, the first of which is by Nigel Coates and Brian Hatton. Obviously, they get a hell of a lot wrong (London is no longer the capital - and why are blimps so seductive to futurologists?), but in some ways the vision is eerily prescient, even if the details are wrong. They see the influence of Charles persisting and deepening with the result that postmodern and neo-gothic facadism runs riot - "bad buildngs have approved facades", which leaves one to wonder who decides buildings are bad and who does the approving; hopefully not St James's Palace, or the the Carolingian pile Coates imagines built in Liverpool.

Bankside power station has been converted into a museum, although here it's the "Thatcher Museum of Commerce" - one shudders to think, presumably it would be full of brick-like yuppiephones and British Gas share certificates. (Tell Sid I'll meet him in the gift shop.) Another post-industrial museum is Waterloo station, part of which has been converted into a "Museum of Suburban Life". The other defining feature of Coates' London is high-tech parasitism, with exposed services, ducts and blobs creeping across the exterior of the city's buildings. He predicts the yuppification of Trellick tower, although suggests that its facade might need "softening" with a few blobs to allow this to happen. Other towerblocks have been "allocated to young single homeless at near-zero rents, giving limited sanction to social deviance".

Other aspects of the vision are beguilingly whimsical. "Crystalline telecommunications spires spike a new skyline ... Sony World Bank polysteeple overshadows the NatWest Tower, now a block of flats." The most interesting aspect of Coates' vision is his suggestion that the urban debate has shifted from "hardware" to "software" - away from monumental new building and towards flexibility, adaptation and reuse (those parasitic services and pods, and I presume the first inklings of the optimistic Blairite "live-work unit"). But this clashes with his belief in the continuing relevance of Charles - Charles, after all, stands firmly on the side of stasis. One thing Coates and Hatton get spot on: "King's Cross still a building site".

The second vision, by Stephen Gardiner and Joan Scotson, is much more conservative and also more tedious. It mostly consists of the removal of things that they don't like: St Thomas' Hospital, the Shell building, the Elephant & Castle complex and "high-rise housing" in general. Mostly, these are replaced with open space. The city's inner main roads are mostly also "replaced", with car-based commuting almost entirely replaced with public transport. They are light on details as to what form that public transport is to take. But by and large the vision starts with the premise that the city's history since about 1939 was a mistake, and should be set right. You can imagine.

Anyway, do go and check out the pages - my photographs are sharp enough to read the text clearly, and it's interesting stuff. Bring on 2030.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Goodbye Borders

I love books. Not just texts - physical, printed books. They can be objects of extraordinary beauty and desirability, even in their cheapest, most mass-produced incarnations. As a consequence of this, I love bookshops. Many of my formative experiences have involved bookshops - in particular, my taste in architecture was definitively steered away from the traditional by hours of browsing in Blackwells' Art Bookshop on Broad Street in Oxford - a decent bit of building in itself. Bookshop browsing is an activity that cannot be replicated online - a combination of sight, stroll, touch and luck that expands horizons and suggests new avenues of reading.

There are a lot of great bookshops in London - not as many as there used to be, sadly, and too few in the East End - but I must admit that I harboured a guilty soft spot for Borders on Oxford Street. Why? I don't have an adequate answer - it wasn't a particularly friendly experience, although I did come to like it a great deal. Its magazine selection was superb, maybe the best in London. I liked the vastness of its stock, the sense of abundance and confidence that came across from that. I liked the view from the Starbucks over Oxford Street, even if I didn't particularly like the Starbucks. I like that fact that it rarely felt crowded (something that might explain its later undoing). Being something of an Americophile, I liked its American-ness, the coffee, the easy chairs, the superabundance of stock, the magazines - when I first visited the Oxford Street behemoth, these were unusual things in Britain. It was also convenient for me.

Pondering the book trade back when Lehman Brothers went down, I figured that Borders would be the last place to disappear - in the end, it was the first. Its confidence was all an illusion. The Oxford Street flagship closed in August, and now the rest of the company in the UK teeters on the brink of collapse. Closing-down sales have started in all branches - pillage while you can, I certainly have. The pictures accompanying this post come from my expeditions to the Oxford Street store in its dying days.

The magazine section, once the best I knew of, now gone.

Visiting the store in the last days before its closure was a sobering experience. The first time I went, I wasn't allowed in - it was overcrowded with bargain-hunters. The second time, the place had been largely cleared out, and much of the stock that remained was in a sorry state having been manhandled by shoppers.

Beyond my personal feelings of sadness, it was sobering because I realised how many thousands upon thousands of books are published every year that I wouldn't want to own even if they were being given away free. Obsolete textbooks, celebrity biographies, TV tie-ins, books about sport - that's just the most obvious crap, beyond which there's a layer of fiction and non-fiction that might be readable and interesting but I have no interest in reading in this life. It would be easy, in a suitably maudlin frame of mind, to imagine that one was taking a tour of a dying culture rather than just a dying bookshop.

I don't believe that our culture is dying, although certainly our print culture is in fairly serious trouble. But obvious collapse and decline does stir up reflection of this kind. Some time after participating in the sack of Borders I went to the Barbican to hear Brian Dillon, UK editor of the excellent Cabinet magazine, talk about the allure of ruins. Dillon described the melancholy that overcomes one in the presence of ruins as a process of falling into ruins oneself.

A leak.

Desuetude prompts navel-gazing - we often turn to look at the shadow of mortality which follows us around. And as obvious storehouses of culture, I'd say that ruined libraries, ruined books, have a particularly keen melancholy attached to them. (In the many multitudes of photographs of "the ruins of Detroit", few have the the same power to depress as the images of one of its decaying school books repositories.) Which brings me to the ur-text of ruin futurology, HG Wells' The Time Machine. In this scene, Wells' time traveller is shown the ruined library of the future, a structure ignored by the frolicking, sybaritic Eloi:

... I went out of that gallery and into another and still larger one, which at the first glance reminded me of a military chapel hung with tattered flags. The brown and charred rags that hung from the sides of it, I presently recognised as the decaying vestiges of books. They had long since dropped to pieces, and every semblance of print had left them. But here and there were warped boards and cracked metallic clasps that told the tale well enough. Had I been a literary man I might, perhaps, have moralised upon the futility of all ambition. But as it was, the thing that struck me with keenest force was the enormous waste of labour to which this sombre wilderness of rotting paper testified. At the time I will confess that I thought chiefly of the philosophical transactions and my own seventeen papers upon physical optics.

-- HG Wells, The Time Machine, Chapter 8

Confronted with the actual death of culture, the time traveller finds himself looking in the mirror again - what of his own small contribution to it? And so I suppose it was for me. A closing bookshop presents a kind of double death to a writer - their own death in a world in which everything, even the biggest and boldest things, must pass, and the prospect that their shot at immortality might not work, and come to lie amid the heaps of unsold celeb kiss-and-tell and Twilight-a-likes under a leaking roof.