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.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

The Unreal Deal

Image taken from the Flickr stream of Cliph and used under a Creative Commons Licence.

"Reality as we know it is finished," I announce rather grandiosely in this piece from Icon 076. It takes a fairly fleeting look at the rise of "augmented reality", a term used to describe a number of linked technologies that are making it possible to overlay data and graphics on the world around us (via our next-generation phones, until appropriate eyewear becomes available).

This relates to an older piece I wrote about the film Tron. I wrote:
[Tron] gave computers an inner life rich with stories, drama, conflict and even emotion. It made the abstract seem real. But it also touched upon how virtual reality could improve on the real thing – that it was an environment unbounded by limitations such as the laws of physics, where everything could be manipulated and altered. The young people it inspired became the young professionals who designed and built the internet and drove the world-changing high-tech boom of the 1990s.

In other words, films like Tron have a lot to answer for. This came up again in a conversation I had recently with Matt Jones of BERG. Children see these worlds, and the men and women they become try to build them. This might not even be on a concious level - just that children who loved, say, Flight of the Navigator or Short Circuit would absorb a certain view of what constitutes high technology and then go on to try to make it happen, building BMW's GINA concept car and the Pentagon's attack robots respectively. Which just goes to show the incredible power of fantasy, particularly fantasy of a speculative nature.

This isn't to say something po-faced and brainless like "speculative writers have great responsibility". It might be a little frightening to think that the designers of the aforementioned killer robots are getting their ideas from Terminator, but it's more frightening to imagine a world where killer robots were being developed, but we didn't have Terminator as a guide to what could go wrong. The people in that world wouldn't be frightened enough.

Returning to augmented reality, there is of course a great risk that it will flop, just as the first wave of virtual reality did in the 1990s. I remember being taken to the Trocadero Centre to try out the "Virtuality" machines installed there - the first in the UK. I remember it clearly because it was such a huge disappointment. AR strikes me as massively more practical, but no matter how sophisticated the technology, it still comes up against a fixed limitation - the human arm. Are people going to walk around holding up their mobile phones to navigate the world?

Rationally, I'd say no, but then I wouldn't have guessed that people would experience real-life events through the tiny screen on their digital cameras or even their mobile phones - and they do, preferring to see an even through a technological surrogate. I wouldn't have guessed that people would trust the information on their Sat Nav screen over the evidence of their own eyes and instincts, but they do. There's no guessing what people might prefer to delegate to gadgetry.

Monday, 19 October 2009

George Orwell, Modernist

There's not a lot of architecture in George Orwell's writing. When it does feature, it's not really clear what his feelings are about it. In 1984, for instance, the only modernism (the Senate House-influenced Ministry) is sinister and authoritarian, but the real horror of Smith/Orwell's London is its decaying Victorian buildings, which are barely functioning ruins. Coming Up For Air similarly combines suspicion of the tide of modernity and the suburbs with a sense of the 19th-century built environment slipping beyond salvage.

The lack of interest in architecture in Orwell's non-fiction has long surprised me. As someone with a fairly detailed sense of the shape of a potential democratic, socialist Britain, you'd think there's be more about it. Really, I think he was too much of a pragmatist to get hung up on whether the Britain he desired looked like an 1870 Board School or the Finsbury Health Centre. He was, if you prefer, a phenomenologist - it was effects that mattered, not aesthetics. But he looked forward to the rebuilding that would have to come after the War, and it's intriguing to speculate briefly on what an Orwellian architecture might be.

Here's a data point, from "The Lion And the Unicorn" (1940):

The place to look for the germs of the future England is in light-industry areas and along the arterial roads. In Slough, Dagenham, Barnet, Letchworth, Hayes - everywhere, indeed, on the outskirts of great towns - the old pattern is gradually changing into something new. In those vast new wildernesses of glass and brick the sharp distinctions of the older kind of town, with its slums and mansions, or of the country, with its manor-houses and squalid cottages, no longer exist. There are wide gradations of income, but it is the same kind of life that is being lived at different levels, in labour-saving flats or council houses, along the concrete roads and in the naked democracy of the swimming-pools.

That's the new England, the promise of the suburbs and the new towns: philistine, materialist, but more equal than before. The "naked democracy of the swimming pools" - beautiful. No wonder our present state is so suspicious of the municipal baths. There's no democracy, naked or otherwise, in a gym. "Fitness First" is pretty much a fascist slogan, an inch from "Strength Through Joy". But that's a subject for another time.

But it's in another line from that excerpt that we can see the foundation of Orwell's modernism: Those "labour-saving flats". There's a revealing "As I Please", from the Tribune of 9 February 1945, which has the pleasingly candid quality of something written quickly and in the grip of emotion, a sort of off-the-cuff charm. (The full text can be found here, on a site I can't vouch for.) Here's the start:

Every time I wash up a batch of crockery I marvel at the unimaginativeness of human beings who can travel under the sea and fly through the clouds, and yet have not known how to eliminate this sordid time-wasting drudgery from their daily lives.

He goes on to describe many of the miseries of keeping house in 1945. I don't mind washing up, but Orwell plainly despised it - not a surprise, given his experiences as a plongeur - and had little patience for the rest of the housework. He continues:

What, then, is to be done about it? Well, this whole problem of housework has three possible solutions. One is to simplify our way of living very greatly; another is to assume, as our ancestors did, that life on earth is inherently miserable, and that it is entirely natural for the average women to be a broken-down drudge at the age of thirty; and the other is to devote as much intelligence to rationalising the interiors of our houses as we have devoted to transport and communications.

I fancy we shall choose the third alternative. If one thinks simply in terms of saving trouble and plans one’s home as ruthlessly as one would plan a machine, it is possible to imagine houses and flats which would be comfortable and would entail very little work. Central heating, rubbish chutes, proper consumption of smoke, cornerless rooms, electrically warmed beds and elimination of carpets would make a lot of difference.

He goes on to describe what he sees as the only sensible solution to the washing-up problem: doing it communally, like a laundry. Individual mechanised dishwashers were simply beyond the bounds of the imagination at the impoverished, ramshackle end of the Second World War. The only alternative, he says, is eating off paper.

But I digress. This concern for hygiene is prevalent in Orwell's writing - think of the lingering descriptions of grime or grease clinging to every surface in 1984, down to the dust in the folds of Smith's neighbour's face. Here we see what it means in practical political and design terms: making homes that will save people time and effort. Saving people from drudgery - a harmonious intersection of design and socialist thought. The detail of his vision is sweet, but it's also chiding. Central heating is now almost universal, and an undeniable amenity. But why are carpets still so prevalent? What happened to the idea of the cornerless room? Wrecked by association with prefab bathroom pods, perhaps, or the difficulty of placing bookscases against an edgeless wall.

Overall, however, we can see a commitment to making home a pleasure. Orwell's instincts here - and I'm sure he wasn't aware of it - are in sync with Le Corbusier. He could see home as a labour-saving device; a machine for living in. And we can see what makes that a humanitarian impulse. After all, what does he identify as the alternatives, the first two of his three paths? Primitivism or despair.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

A Zone of One's Own

My review of Anna Minton's book Ground Control is at long last up on But the delay* hasn't made it any less timely - I fear its subject matter is only going to become more and more relevant. It cover the sorry (and under-examined) story of what has happened to Britain's cities under the fluttering banner of Regeneration - a selloff of public space, the erosion of ancient civic rights, the self-destruction of local democracy, the rise of gated communities, and the astonishing extension of police powers into every aspect of the lives of people who have mostly done nothing more than make other people feel uneasy. It's sickening stuff, and Minton has done a good job of bringing it all together in one book.

What Minton makes clear - although she is never wholly explicit about it - is that the decline of urban liberty is a largely spatial phenomenon. Control over the city by the authorities - increasingly private authorities - is arranged by carving the territory into zones and policing individual access to those zones. As I say in the review, things like ASBOs and dispersal orders are spatial in effect. "Order" in the city is being enforced by depriving certain groups and individuals of access to certain areas.

Zones are going to be a very important part of the future. Their use has cropped up in a number of books I've read recently: Keller Easterling's Enduring Innocence, Mike Davis' Evil Paradises, and The Invisible Committee's infamous The Coming Insurrection. (These are all heartily recommended reading.) This is what The Coming Insurrection has to say on the subject:

The unmanned drone that flew over Seine-Saint-Denis last July 14th - as the police later confirmed - presents a much more vivid image of the future than all the fuzzy humanistic projections. That they were careful to assure us that the drone was unarmed gives us a clear indication of the road we're headed down. Territory will be partitioned into ever more restricted zones. ...

I don't agree with what's advocated in The Coming Insurrection, but as an analysis of the present situation, it's often extremely insightful. A future of privately owned city centres and gated communities is no future at all. This extraordinary story from the United States (via) is a sample of why privatised, gated estates don't deserve the name "community".

*The book has been out for a few months; my review was originally slated for Icon 076 but became snarled in a scheduling problem, and held for 077, when it finally had the ignominy of being bumped to make way for Mr Philippe Starck's Design For Life.

The images for this post came from my Flickr stream.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Trafigura Art Prize: Be Creative!

The Guardian newspaper has been prevented from reporting on Parliamentary proceedings - or rather, prevented from reporting a particular question asked of a particular minister this week. Last night, enterprising netizens had little trouble identifying the what could be the contentious question; The Spectator has made the link explicit. It's to do with Trafigura, an oil company that may have been complicit in the dumping of highly toxic sludge in an African city.

This is typical of both the traditional and new media - focusing on the negative, when in fact there are plenty of positive things that could be written about Trafigura. Why, only last week I received a press release announcing the Trafigura Arts Prize. In its own words:
The Trafigura Art Prize will be awarded to one of sixteen international artists who have been chosen to exhibit work at the forthcoming Young Masters exhibition, presented at The Old Truman Brewery from 14 October 2009. The winner of The Trafigura Art Prize will be announced on Tuesday 3 November, and the prize will be continued by the Trafigura Foundation each year.

The inaugural prize will be judged by a panel of high profile artists, journalists and historians including Medeia Cohan-Petrolino, Head Curator for the University of the Arts London; Tom Hunter, artist; Lock Anderson Kresler, Christie’s Contemporary Art Department; Averill Ogden, Outset Art Fund, and Gilda Williams, Goldsmith’s lecturer. Prize money amounting to £4,000 will be awarded to the most talented artist.

The Trafigura Art Prize was conceived by respected gallerist Cynthia Corbett, who represents emerging and newly established artists. Corbett is a regular exhibitor and curator at international contemporary art fairs, and promotes an annual programme of off-site and “pop-up” exhibitions at Cork Street, Mayfair as well as the East End. She describes her enthusiasm and reasoning behind the prize: “Young Masters reflects our belief that the contemporary art world has, to a great extent, ignored craft and technical skill when bestowing recognition and awards to young artists. Young Masters and the first Trafigura Art Prize hope to address this partiality towards conceptualism. Young Masters celebrates absolute technical brilliance in homage to the Old Masters, in all fields of contemporary art from painting, sculpture and drawing to photography, video and installation, proving that all media of contemporary practice is capable of meeting exacting technical as well as conceptual standards.”

Young Masters is curated by Constance Slaughter and Beth Colocci and includes painting, photography, sculpture, video and installation by artists who have shown both reverence and irreverence to the Old Masters through their work. The artists include Gemma Anderson, Lluís Barba, Jessie Bond, Charlotte Bracegirdle, Maisie Broadhead, Cecile Chong, Héctor de Gregorio, Alice Evans, Art Basel exhibitors Ghost of a Dream, Kerry Jameson, Valerie Mary, Ali Miller, David Roche, Constance Slaughter, Antonia Tibble and Masaki Yada, all of who reveal images that are familiar icons, often instantly recognisable, yet re-interpreted, distorted and somewhat uncanny.

Frank Runge, Director of the Trafigura Office, London said: “Trafigura is delighted to support the inaugural Young Masters exhibition, presented in association with The Cynthia Corbett Gallery, recognising the talent of emerging and newly established artists. The Trafigura Art Prize reflects our passionate belief in giving people the opportunity to fulfill their potential. The company is proud to support such an exciting exhibition and to pay tribute to the artists displaying their work this year.”

Everyone involved in this new prize should be congratulated for looking past tedious allegations involving the poisoning of a few thousand Africans and coming together in a display of creativity. After all, did not Trafigura head Claude Dauphin himself urge his subordinates to "be creative" in disposing of the toxic filth that was the result of his pursuit of cheap oil?

The exhibition opens tomorrow.

(UPDATE: That gagging order has now been overturned, the netizens were right, it's Trafigura.)

(UPDATE #2, 18 October: I understand that Young Masters has binned the connection with Trafigura - good for them.)

Friday, 2 October 2009

I Left My Heart in Ul Qoma

(The following is my review of China Miéville's new book The City and The City. The text appears in Icon 075 (September 2009, published in August). Since it won't be online for a while, and the issue is off sale, I thought I'd repost it here by way of recommending the book.)

Beszel, the imaginary metropolis that is the setting for China Miéville’s latest book, is much like many cities. Clinging to the edge of Europe, it has crime and traffic, and is grappling with the problems of globalisation. Its inhabitants talk about Google and Starbucks. But it is also extraordinary – in fact, it is one of the most fascinating literary creations of the new century so far.

The City & The City explores Beszel through the eyes of inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad, who is investigating the murder of a young foreign woman. It’s an investigation that becomes ensnared in Beszel’s unique geopolitical situation: it is not one city but two, or rather it shares its space with another polity, Ul Qoma. The two cities overlap and interweave, but so sensitive and contentious is their Balkan history that the citizens of one cannot see the other. It is not literally invisible, but the inhabitants of the dual city are practised in “unseeing”, conscious ignorance, a skill like the doublethink in George Orwell’s 1984. To engage the other city which shares their streets, even by accident, is to invite terrifying consequences.

This sounds like fantasy, and in a sense it is. Miéville has written fantasy before, creating the superb gothic supercity New Crobuzon for the 2000 novel Perdido Street Station and its sequels. But really the world of The City & The City is rarely much more fantastic than the real world around us. Real-life analogues to Beszel’s many complications continually occur. There is, of course, of the surrealism of existing and historical divided cities: the tangle of Jerusalem’s temples and tunnels, where archaeology is politics, and the Cold War tragicomedy of West Berlin.

And Beszel/Ul Qoma is not just those cities: every city is more than one city. Every day we instinctively unsee the cities that share our space – we unsee poverty, crime, the other. On the day this review was written, the killers of a 16-year-old Londoner were convicted, and the morning papers were explaining the complicated turf war between the Shine My Nine and Don’t Say Nothing gangs. These political alignments and the ground they contest are unknown to most of the inhabitants of the city, but mean life and death to others. A fascinating but depressing report released by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last year explored this territoriality. It included maps drawn by teenagers that revealed their neighbourhoods as patchworks of “safe” and “no-go” areas, an exquisitely complex secret topography.

This is why The City & The City succeeds so beautifully. All cities have their arcane, unspoken, “other” side. Noir works by exploring that other side – stories in the genre start with a set of circumstances that do not make sense in the “conventional” world alone, and can only be understood by venturing into the underworld, the secret city, the parallel universe of criminality. Miéville seems to have an instinctive understanding of this, and he weaves city and mystery together to tell a gripping story.

The City & The City, by China Miéville, Macmillan, £17.99

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

As the World Turns

The wonderful image above shows Rem Koolhaas/OMA's Prada Transformer, a temporary structure in Seoul, Korea, being rotated by cranes into a new configuration. Isn't it great? That seems to be a point of contention. E&V's Murphy was sitting next to me when these pictures appeared in my inbox, and he wasn't wowed; another colleague of mine gave it a resounding meh.

The aspect that got the thumbs-down was the cranes. For Murphy and my colleague, they're a bit of a cheat. The structure, sadly can't simply be rolled like a dice; it can't be lifted in the hand and toyed with, as Rem did with the model; it can't sprout legs and turn itself over. It's a bit of a cheat, as we said in the magazine, in the news story linked above and in the subsequent (generally very favourable) feature: "... none of this can be achieved by a few deft twists. Instead it takes three [sic?] huge cranes, a couple of hours and a major refit to rotate the PVC-clad steel behemoth so that it rests on a different side, entirely transforming the shape of the interior."

Even OMA and Prada seemed a bit disappointed by the necessity for cranes, because the rotations were not originally part of the events schedule. They are costume changes, to take place behind tastefully placed screens, although the fact that Prada is now issuing press releases with pictures of the process suggests that they might have changed their minds.

I hope they have changed their minds. The cranes are great. Quick or slow, it must be great to watch - I see there are spectators in the photograph. Cranes are beautiful, under-appreciated objects. And the Transformer only really lives in the midst of its transformation; it's as if the building appropriates the cranes for part of its life, like symbiosis in nature, the relationship of the flower and the bee.

Really, the transformation should be the highlight of the events calendar, maybe with some son et lumiere - an idea that is inescapably reminiscent of the M Dobnyinski's concept for a Soviet mass festival dedicated to a machine-god (above). Koolhaas would presumably appreciate the appropriation of a communist idea for an event space for a fashion label. In October's Icon (076), I wrote the Icon of the Month on Tatlin's Tower*, an unrealised 1920s project for a dynamic, functional monument: part Eiffel tower, part Broadcasting house, its internal volumes perpetually rotating. Casting around for modern analogues to Vladimir Tatlin, I really had to say Rem - this is the dynamic, functional, constructivist monument right here. It's selling expensive frocks ... Ah well. If we can't have Archigram's Instant City, at least we have this.

* If you want an introduction to the tower, Norbert Lynton's Tatlin's Tower, which I read before writing the piece, is very good.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Down in the Dumps

Trash river. Via.

I'd like to think that the reputation of Don DeLillo will continue to advance in the new century. Maybe David Cronenberg's film of Cosmopolis will help solidify his presence in Transatlantic culture. But the difficulty of some of his writing, and the current mood against many male American contemporary writers, suggests that his influence might dwindle. This would be a pity because he has a rare prophetic power. His novels have shown an unerring ability to get right to the pressure points of the 20th century. He finds the right target with metronomic consistency: terrorism in Mao II; assassination and conspiracies in Libra; atmospheric disaster in White Noise. These concerns - with the possible exception of assassination, which seems to have fallen out of fashion - will continue to be relevant in the 21st century. European imperialism, after all, defined the 20th century as much as it did the 19th - its bloody unravelling was at least as important in shaping our world than was its heyday.

I mention DeLillo because he's been much on my mind lately - I've been wondering about the Cronenberg Cosmopolis and considering White Noise's "Airborne Toxic Event", which has some relevance to a project I'm planning. But mostly I've been realising what an extraordinarily prescient book Underworld was. It's vast and almost unreadable - by the time I got to the end, shellshocked, I had the feeling I hadn't been paying proper attention for at least 200 pages - but there's no dentying the central importance of its theme: waste. Trash. Garbage. Rubbish.

In the past few days the following stories have emerged: The Italian Mafia has been illicitly dumping toxic waste in the oceans. A loathsome British Swiss company called Trafigura has poisoned 31,000 Ivorians by having its toxic sludge dumped in landfills in Abidjan*. Egypt is suffering a garbage disposal and public health crisis because it slaughtered all its pigs as a response to Swine Flu. (That last link via BLDGBLOG.)

However it works out, rubbish is going to be a major preoccupation in this century. It's not impossible that civilisation itself will break down and whoever remains of us will spend their remaining days scavenging the planetary trashpile in the manner of Threads or The Road. (My, I'm cheerful today!) And it'll be a prime concern in all of the more optimistic and likely scenarios. We don't just have to deal with the stuff that we make every day - we're going to have to do a fair amount of sifting through the rubbish already dumped into the world. It's an issue with vast social, political and even geopolitical consequences. Our use of Africa and the Far East as outsourced landfill is going to come back to haunt us - not just in cases like Trafigura, it's also believed that illegal dumping is fuelling piracy in the Horn of Africa. There was recently a heartbreaking post on Metafilter about the use of Ghana as a digital dumping ground, spawning a cottage industry in identity theft using details taken from dumped hard drives. The PBS film that forms the spine of the Mefi post is chilling, and pictures from the ewaste zone are apocalyptic. It's the Alang of computing.

(Even charitable forms of dumping have unwelcome consequences - charity clothing suffocating African textiles industries, for instance.)

So waste is going to be important. We're going to spend decades clearing up leftovers as well as making them. We're going to be curators of the stuff. And we might as well take some interest and pride in this fact.

How to deal with this? Here's one idea. It occurs to me that there's some potential to make recycling centres civic palaces - a grand new industrial typology for the new century, like Les Halles or Smithfield. Like the great markets, these palaces need not be perfectly fragrant or beautiful, but they can be sources of pride, identifiable hearts of the local economy, a public organ. Could they be actual markets - large-scale neighbourhood swapmeets or freecycling centre? What social structures could be evolved to regulate this kind of economy? A greater recycling centre - an actual centre, not a peripheral drive-to facility like a car pound - could be an engine of community.

* No one from Trafigura is sitting in a jail cell at the moment. Why not? What kind of justice system are we (or the Swiss) running here?

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Tree Hunts and Enchanted Forests

An interview with Peter Marigold, a really interesting designer who I'd be happy to tip for future stardom. He has a collection of smashed car wing mirrors in his flat. It's nicely Ballardian. The picture above show the "Split" box and birdbox he sent to the office after the magazine (074) came out.

There are a couple of reviews by me in the October issue (076). If you have a chance, it's worth going to see Telling Tales at the V&A before it finishes; it's a small show but has some of the best work from the past decade's upsurge of "design art". Studio Job's Robber Barons piece alone is worth seeing. The atmosphere of excess is quite something, which is the area I try to explore in my review. It's on until 18 October.

The other review from 076 is about the film Chevolution, a film about the image of Che Guevara, as seen on a T-shirt near you. The film, which is good, is on at the ICA until 30 September. An early draft included an ill-advised rant against Shepard Fairey and Banksy, which was far too long to include. It was related to the passage that says: "[Che's image] has become an off-the-peg brand suggesting a conformist kind of individualism and an unthreatening kind of rebellion. It's appropriate to an age where ideology has dwindled to identifying one's consumer niche, rather than trying to change anything. It's the Nike swoosh of political statements." So, I would have continued, it's hardly surprising that it's an inspiration for the kind of vitamin-free junk protest broadcast by a certain kind of artist. But that's an argument for another day.

To end with, here's a rant that did make it into print, against the unbelievable, dunderhead mutilation of the National Film Theatre riverfront. To summarise: "You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!"

Friday, 11 September 2009

Deviancy and Domesticity

In Gore Vidal's "Pornography", an enthralling and clear-eyed survey of the erotic landscape of the United States circa 1966*, he makes some connections between emerging patterns in American sexual literature and the changing living circumstances of Americans:

The decline of incest as a marketable theme [in pornography] is probably due to today's inadequate middle-class housing. In large Victorian houses with many rooms and heavy doors, the occupants could be mysterious and exciting to one another in a way that those who live in rackety developments can never hope to be. Not even the lust of a Lord Byron could survive the fact of Levittown.

This theme is being supplanted by sadomasochism, Vidal says, continuing:

In the film The Collector, a lower-class boy captures an educated girl and after alternately tormenting and boring her, he says balefully, "If more people had more time and more money, there would be a lot more of this." This got an unintended laugh in the theater, but he is probably right. Sexual experiment is becoming more open.

A certain kind of sexual outrage needs space, privacy and time to percolate. This occurred to me when I read on BoingBoing about the internet activity of Philip Garrido, the kidnapper and rapist who - among other crimes - abducted an 11-year-old girl in 1991 and held her captive for 18 years. Growing participation in the internet - and the curious durability of many of the traces we leave on the net - mean that when crimes like this emerge, we now have the dubious honour of being able to see what the culprit wrote on his blog and elsewhere. Even more chilling is the fact that Garrido's house in Antioch, California, is clearly visible on Google Maps:

And can be seen on Google Street View:

In the aerial view, the complex of tents and structures in which Garrido kept his victims can be clearly seen. Apparently the neighbours heard nothing from these installations, which suggests a degree of solidity. If the neighbours can be believed.

There are obvious parallels with the equally abominable case of Josef Fritzl, the Austrian man who kept his own children captive in a purpose-built cellar/dungeon. Last year Nicholas Spice wrote a superb essay in the LRB exploring the Fritzl case through the writings of Elfriede Jelinek, the Austrian Nobel laureate. Spicer explores the implications of what Fritzl was doing in building his cellar:

Above ground, Josef Fritzl obeyed the rules of ordinary time and causality, the rules that say actions have consequences and are subject to the constraints of conscience (das Gewissen); but when he went down into his cellar, he left all this behind to enter the timeless underworld (das Ungewisse) of his desires. As long as no one found out, it was as if what he did down there had never happened (if he’d killed his children and grandchildren, he said, no one would have made a fuss). Jelinek calls what Fritzl did to his daughter a ‘performance’, the addictive acting out of a pathological need. In building his cellar, Fritzl was building a compartment of his own mind, a theatre for the nightly performance of his fantasies. Elisabeth Fritzl’s grotesque misfortune was to be imprisoned in this compartment, to be trapped inside her father’s head.

It's almost as if there's an architectural typology associated with these cases. A certain kind of structure is created by a certain kind of mind - explored in art in John Fowles' novel The Collector, the film of which Vidal mentions above. They make the space, this microcosm of their desires, and the space gives them the privacy and time they need.

What potential is there to expose cases like this through examining land use? Last year I briefly explored writing a feature about Detroit, the poster child of urban degeneration, with regard to urban farming and re-ruralisation. In the course of this research I spoke with Interboro Partners, a New York-based architecture practice that contributed an intriguing project to Actar's Verb: Crisis. Interboro's interest is "blots" - places where homeowners in semi-abandoned neighbourhoods of Detroit have taken over vacant lots next to their houses, disrupting the suburban grid. Interboro told me about how they use Google maps to look for "blots", and how they were getting better at identifying them from above. Could homes like Garrido's be identified similarly? Or could the process be automated, in the same manner that the police now use thermal imaging cameras to identify suburban homes that have been turned into cannabis factories? Researching "augmented reality" for the new issue of Icon, I was intrigued to hear that the same technology that is used to "recognise" faces on CCTV cameras could be used to recognise buildings - so if you were wondering what a building was, you could take a picture of it on your phone and an internet application could tell you who built it, when, why, and what it does now.

This is utterly fanciful as camouflage is second nature to the psychopath and the abuser and they'll cotton on to Google Maps and crowdsourced detection soon enough. One of the reasons these cases are so disturbing is the way the abusers apply surface touches of domesticity to the nightmares they design and build. I'm also struck, again, by Spice's description of Fritzl building a model of the inside of his head, a space in which his fantasies could be acted out for real. There's a curiously memorable B-movie thriller from 2000 called The Cell in which Jennifer Lopez travels into the subconscious of a comatose serial killer. What makes the film memorable is the depictions of what the inside of the killer's head is like - surreal, Byzantine palaces and landscapes. But what seems more likely than that sort of landscape is a kind of perverted domesticity, like Gregor Schneider’s terrifying 2004 Artangel installation "Die Familie Schneider", or the "village" in Jerome Bixby's similarly terrifying short story "It's a Good Life". (Be warned that the Bixby story, if you don't know it, is the kind of thing that haunts you for life - it shook me up terribly when I first read it in my teens.)

I don't mean to linger too long on these matters for the obvious reasons. My interest is that we all attempt, on one level or another, to turn our homes into models of the inside of our heads, and this is to some extent one of the themes of my book. In Care of Wooden Floors, a control-freak minimalist invites a more lackadaisical friend to look after his flat while he's out of the country. The flat is the precise reflection of the control freak's desires and ambitions, and as such leaving it in the hands of another is a difficult thing to do. His reluctance to let go manifests itself in compulsive note-making - everywhere, there are notes explaining the contents of drawers and what is and what isn't permissible behaviour from the flatsitter. It all leads to disaster. By stepping into someone's home you're stepping into a kind of myth of themselves, a hard projection of their psyche into the physical world. Once you start seeing homes like this, they can be pretty unnerving places. Maybe this is why I like hotels so much.

* New York Review of Books, 31 March 1966; I'm quoting it from United States: Essays, 1952-62.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Inevitably, Poundbury

Ye Budgennes.

Charles Holland says that Poundbury is irresistable to a certain breed of architecture-oriented writer - eventually the urge to snark at it becomes overwhelming and out pours a few hundred (or thousand) words of comfortable metropolitan bile. This is all very predictable and tedious, Charles wrote, continuing:

It is possible to write about Poundbury, even to write about it critically, and say something interesting, but the kind of literal, narrowly ideologial criticism of Bayley's article seems simply derivative and hopelessly myopic. And, apart from anything else, it's just too easy. Wouldn't it be more interesting to talk about Poundbury without this ideological baggage? To actually look at it and leave aside the hollow moralism? For a change. As a way of keeping things interesting.

These words are ringing in my ears as I type. Poundbury has of late flounced its way back into the press, thanks to a damning piece in the Guardian about its multiple flaws, and its connection to Prince Charles' recent conniptions about things modern. It has also loomed large in my personal life - my boss, Icon editor Justin McGuirk, visiting the place earlier this month to be cross-examined by Roger Scruton about the nature of beauty. I visited the place myself, earlier in the summer, as I was in the area and was curious to see it. The photos that accompany this blog post are mine, taken on 3 July. When the Guardian published its attack, I was minded to post, but Owen beat me to it with a thoughtful piece that shot my fox.

Poundbury, then. Inevitably. He are some related and unrelated thoughts from my visit and later ponderings.

In the Guardian's hatchet-job, it's the instances where aesthetics trump practicality that really capture the imagination - particularly the fake chimney causing a very real flood, and the absolutely baffling choice of gravel as a street surface. I noticed the gravel everywhere during my visit, and wondering how many tonnes of aggregate were swept into the district's drains every day. (Why? I suspect that it's purely an aesthetic status-signifier, with that high-class crunch. And why do gravel paths signify status? Because they are difficult and expensive to maintain.)

The gravel.

But the real meat of the Guardian piece, the truly damning bit, is that Poundbury suffers the same problems of antisocial behaviour as anywhere else. This is very important. The Prince's complaints about modern buildings have gained much traction from the way he associates modernist architecture with crime, fear, and social breakdown. Different architecture, he suggests, would have different outcomes. The Guardian piece tells us that Poundbury suffers from exactly the same problems as any housing estate, be it Wimpy vernacular or the sort of cheap quasi-modernism we get in this country. I value experiments like Poundbury because they are helping demonstrate that the social problems of the UK are not solely the result of the high-rise, modernist social housing built in the period 1950-1980. As an aside, I've been reading reports from Edlington, scene of a horrific recent case of youth violence that has prompted handwringing about "Broken Britain". It's as vernacular as you get, brick with pitched roofs and timber features - "some way from a stereotypical sink estate" wrote the Guardian, baffled. Maybe other factors are in play.

But I'm not just relying on the Guardian here. While I was in Poundbury I picked up a copy of the Poundbury Residents [sic] Association Newsletter. It's much like the newsletter of any residents' association:

Secret poo bag slinger!
From resident - name supplied
Someone in Poundbury puts dog poo in small plastic bag, ties them up and leaves it on the grass verges along the pathway bordering the new link road and on building sites. Can all dog owners please put their rubbish in the bins or take it home?

... Obsessed with dog poo, road safety and crime. It has the same problems of antisocial behaviour and petty vandalism as anywhere else, making it the #2 priority of the incoming RA chairman. His #1 priority is:

Engender a sense of belonging for ALL residents so they share a common value system about Poundbury which incorporates a feeling of pride for the area in which they live.

Unless I misunderstood the Prince's intention, I thought this sense of pride and community would kick in as soon as people were freed from their anonymous modernist deathmaze and placed under a proper pitched roof with proper dovecotes and a nice fake chimney. What Poundbury does instead, according to the Guardian, is create a sense of us-and-them between the new town and the rest of Dorchester. You can see why when you visit the place. The vernacular milieu has changed in the past 60 years. Rather than blend in with the rest of Dorchester, which is a largely intact English town not known for its brutalist megastructures, Poundbury sticks out. It's visibly out of place in a dozen different ways - for instance, you can tell where it ends because that's where satellite dishes appear on the side of houses.

You can hardly see the join.

Scrunching classily about in Poundbury, a number of things quickly become clear. Firstly, it's very windy. The place was built on top of a hill, and frankly it shows. So much for the gentle, organic interaction of Mr Leon Krier's town planning with the English landscape. Responding to landscape challenges is supposed to be one of the things that vernacular architecture is good at, and Poundbury is no good at it.

Secondly, parts of it kind of work. By work, I mean attractively approximate an English town that has been in place for centuries. Pummery Square (the placenames generally have a Hobbit-y feeling to them) is twee and pretty, much as it should be as it's epicentre of the place, a showpiece for a showpiece. The place it reminded me of most is Woodstock in Oxfordshire - a telling similarity as that's the home of Vanbrugh's Blenheim Palace, and the village was the plaything of the Duke of Marlborough for centuries.

Pummery Square. Behind me is Ye Budgennes.

It almost works, but not quite. What is the quality that makes the place subtly "off", not quite there? I've been chewing on that question for a while, and here are some suggestions.

Vernacular architecture, of course, isn't really a style at all - it just means local, traditional architecture. England has a vernacular that is completely different to Spain's vernacular. Greece has a vernacular. China and Mexico have vernaculars. They're all different, and the idea is that they evolved in response to local conditions, making them perfectly suited to their environment - more suited than universal modernism, which is "inappropriate". Poundbury is vernacular alright (and classical, which apparently is universal, without being inappropriate, but we won't get into all that) - but what vernacular? This is "The Brownsword" in Pummery Square, designed by John Simpson:

It's vernacular, but whose vernacular is it? Hobbiton, yes, but really it's curiously Germanic, with those high pitches and tubby columns. Or this building:

That's the distinctive Mitteleuropan elephant. And there's this:

Where are we? A new-build suburb in the Moselle valley? The only explanation for all this that I can think of is that Krier is originally German. I'm not a believer in some form of racial determinism in architecture, but it's baffling that this Germanic tendency couldn't be kept under control. It appears to be a kind of tic, like Dr Strangelove's spasmodic Hitler-salute. Speaking of which, Krier - an admirer of Albert Speer - has filled Poundbury with pairs of columns that are just crying out to be topped by lovely eagles.

Columns missing their eagles.

There's also plenty of English vernacular and mixed into it all are dollops of classical, often in surreal and unexpected places. Let's play "guess the building". What is this?

Temple? Cottage? Bus shelter? Folly? No, it's an electricity substation, obviously. Now, I have on my desk Leon Krier's oddly lovely Drawing for Architecture. He devotes most of a chapter - Forms and Uniforms - to building typologies and "nameable objects". His drawings tell us: A temple should look like a temple. A factory should look like a factory. A palace should look like a palace. A warehouse should look like a warehouse. His point is that modernism has driven these distinctions crazy. Either everything looks the same - a petrol station looks like a church looks like a house - or everything is a pastiche, so that chapels look like warehouses, parliaments look like factories, and pumping stations look like mosques.

And yet here we have an electricity substation that resembles a temple. Elsewhere there's a firestation that looks like a palace. It's pure pastiche. The argument that Charles and Sam at FAT might make at this point is: "Why shouldn't an electricity substation look like a temple?" And that's a very difficult point to answer. Taste aside, it's the lack of imagination that I hate. Why not try to develop a new classical typology for the electricity substations and the fire station, and all the other structures we've developed since Palladio? Why try to disguise them? Why not experiment?

But Poundbury really isn't interested in experimentation. Like the satellite dishes, its responses to most of the inconvenient truths of the 20th and 21st centuries is to ignore them, or to integrate them in a clunking, grudging fashion. The Poundbury Village Stores (actually a Budgens) has a perfectly normal, dreary suspended ceiling - the reason I looked is because suspended ceilings are another Krier bugbear, and I was interested to see if he had a different approach, or left the services exposed. It's the same deal with the main roads. The A35/36 - the main road into Dorchester from the west, which turns into the bypass - is hidden behind a huge berm. Other roads are shielded from houses by enormous green gulfs of public grass and car parking, such as the one that separates Poundbury "village" from Poundbury "town". In theory, I believe these are literal boundaries, carving up and separating Krier's "walkable neighbourhoods". The town avoids the problem of throughroutes by shunning them. And it's not really walkable - Pummery Square, rather than being central, is near the Dorchester edge, and to get from it to where most of the large places of employment are placed is a considerable hike. It's quicker to drive. These are suburban units separated by parkways - it's Robert Moses, or Levitt, with slightly higher densities.

I was very interested to see the larger places of employment. The houses and village squares are comparatively easy for the Charles/Krier school - that's where hundreds of years of experience have built up. I wanted to see the office blocks. There's that fire station, of course, and this:

Mey House.

This is what Albert Speer would have done if he had to design an office park on the M40. Krier might take that as a compliment - it really isn't. This is a hamfisted thrust in the direction of Giles Gilbert Scott that ends up looking exactly like most of the rubbish decreed by timid or philistine planners in the wake of the Prince's outbursts in the 1980s and 1990s - bland sheets of brick, overbearing scale, awkwardness and pomposity. If this is the best they can do, modernism has some hope yet.

Mey House is awful, but it might not be the worst building I saw. It's tied with the horror to the right in this photo:

In the middle of the roundabout is a display of traditional water-filled plastic barriers in seasonal colours.

I feel myself slipping into comfortable metropolitan bile. It's easy to do - it's really a horrible, creepy, place, made all the more surreal and unpleasant by the fact that it's apparently deserted (we saw very few people when we there). But I haven't really addressed the mysterious quality that makes the place so ... off. It's very tempting to use a word like "fake", but that's an empty criticism: the buildings are real enough, people live and work there, an although it's trying to look like it was all built 200 or more years ago, it doesn't claim to have been built 200 years ago.

Nevertheless, the reason "fake" is such a tempting word is because although it all "looks old", it does in fact "look new". Part of the appeal of pretty english villages is the mild decay that comes with age - the lichen on the roof slates, the softened brick, roofs that sag slightly. Some of this will come in time, perhaps, to Poundbury - but I'm not convinced. It has not completely been built according to traditional methods. A lot of it appears to be breeze blocks with decorative brick applied to the surface. The offices are steel frame, the bricks and tiles are of course modern. It won't age in the traditional, picturesque fashion. But it is aging - there's efflorescence, staining from masonry, failing mastic, flaking paint and dodgy woodwork. All the troubles of modern volume housebuilding.

Also militating against Poundbury's graceful aging is the fact that the place is so ruthlessly maintained. I get the strong impression - from things like the lack of satellite dishes - that the local building codes frown upon alterations to homes. These experiments in "new urbanism", like gated communities, are always covered by ruthless building codes, lest actual individuality disrupt the carefully choreographed individuality of the houses. It's as if the whole place was built as a conservation area, or a collection of listed buildings.

And that's the source of its weirdness. That's what makes it - dare I say - so fake. The "English genius for townscape", if such a thing exists or survives, has nothing to do with building entire places out of whole cloth - it is a genius for adaptation, evolution, improvisation and development over time. That is what makes buildings that coexist perfectly with their surroundings and their neighbours, and for the elusive charm of heritage villages. It's a change here, a change there, a few windows bricked up, a porch added. In its attempt to replicate this completed evolution from a blank slate, Poundbury misses the whole story of what it claims to try to preserve. The English vernacular - probably most vernaculars - are created by local people problem-solving and expanding over time, in an unplanned manner, using the materials at hand. That is not how Poundbury was created. Maybe I should give it 200 years, and see how Poundbury looks then - but we don't have 200 years, we have a housing crisis now, one that is worsening every day.

I'm very pleased that Poundbury exists, and is developing with little outside interference. It's good that the Prince Charles tendency is being allowed to experiment, so that we can see how the experiment is failing. Hopefully the Charlesistas will learn that modern architecture wasn't the cause of the social problem they claim it has been; but I doubt they will, and instead will fall back on draconian social legislation. Poundbury is a fabulous curiosity, a psychedelic urban experience, an area of exception that deserves to exist. What we can't afford is for its methods to apply to the whole country, because it offers the modern world nothing.

I'll say this for the place: as volume housebuilding goes, it's pretty good. If all the drab Wimpy-box estates were built with Poundbury levels of care and attention, the country would be a slightly better-looking place. But its advantages are mostly the result of care and patronage, supported by an indulgent council. If a similar-size area, owned by a benevolent and wealthy aristocrat or developer, were devotedly filled with a small town designed by MVRDV, or BIG, or FAT, or David Chipperfield, with the same level of attention to detail, it would succeed in the areas that Poundbury succeeds. (It might still be creepy, though, given the presence of that all-seeing, all-powerful patron.)

What we come down to is an entirely contrived "choice" between "modern" and "classical/vernacular/traditionalist" building styles. This is a false dichotomy, a red herring. Take a look at this story from BD, in which developer Barratt proposes both "modern" and "classical" building for the same site. They're both awful, it's no choice at all. It's really about good buildings versus bad, devoted planning and building against developer-led junk, unchecked development against urbanism. What I really wish is that Charles had been bolder and more willing to experiment - there's something bizarrely likeable about the Germano-Hobbit Brownsword, and whimsy has its place.

To close on a note of unalloyed praise for Charles' little urban laboratory, Poundbury makes use of combined service ducts in the middle of its streets, which make utility maintenance easy and minimise the need for disruptive roadworks. That's a functional, sane, elegant approach, one that has as much to do with vernacular architecture and traditional building techniques as suspended ceilings or ETFE pillows.