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.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Jotter: September 09

Via PD Smith, an enormous archive of old Pathe footage. Scraps of old film on all subjects including Richard Seifert, Tokyo in 1948 (for David Peace fans), Cardiff's proposed comprehensive redevelopment, Fire testing in tower blocks, and Glasgow's millionth new home.

Voyage to the amazing Plastic Island.

Telegraph codes, stand-in words used to cut telegram costs. The system is fascinating - mostly for the definitions. Via MeFi.

Twenty book reviewer cliches. I'm guilty of at least half of these at one time or another, I'd I'd be interested in meeting the reviewer who isn't. Nevertheless, it's a good list of words to avoid.

Faux Panels followed me on Twitter. It's amazing stuff.

Even web 2.0 needs pen and paper.

A post by William Drenttel on the new-look Design Observer kicks off a sprawling debate about the rights and wrongs of Rem Koolhaas. What to make of Rem Koolhaas? A post for another day. In the meantime, Things asks if the CCTV building is based on pornographic imagery.

Brilliant microbudget Mexican sci-fi. “What you are about to see, Commander, is the most advanced in Modern Technology ...” (All via the Twitter feed of Mario Ballesteros, who has a wonderful blog. Have a look at these extraordinary churches, for instance.)

Tokyo's Narita airport has been hobbled by recalcitrant farmers. The aerial photographs of the airport - with truncated runways and taxiways diverted around irregular plots of land - are surreal. The Forbes article about "nail houses" made me think of the chapel of what was the Middlesex hospital, now isolated in the middle of the Middlesex's cleared site.