Sunday, 26 December 2010

On Pool

Over at the Bi Blog, there's a new and quite short piece by me on the theme of "Pool". I talk - briefly - about what George Orwell thought of London's suburbs. The (rather lovely) concept of the Bi Blog is that two writers riff in different directions on the same subject; my opposite number, Erandi de Silva, writes on Sunset Boulevard and reflecting pools.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

High-speed Panopticon and the Thames Valley State of Mind

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

Road Wars, a cheapo Sky-made reality television show which follows British police patrols, is objectionable on a number of levels. It's relentlessly bombastic and sensationalist, from the titles to the thundering incidental music and the breathless, slang-heavy commentary. It's unashamed in this pursuit of sensation, interspersing the fly-on-the-plod reality stuff with "the best" (that is, the most exciting and entertaining) clips of police "in action" from around the world. It's essentially nuance-free, presenting a completely Hobbesian view of Britain in which a thin blue line of dedicated, calm professionals is the only thing standing between Decent Citizens and a feral, raging, incoherent, bloodthirsty underclass that commits crime for little more reason than sheer love of mayhem. It gives a pretty clear picture of what all British television would be like if the country succumbs to fascism.

And yet all these unassailable objections don't stop it being tremendous atavistic fun. High-speed pursuits, filmed by helicopters and from the dashboards of pursuing vehicles are naturally compelling and frankly I'm a sucker for them. It can't all be Rothko and Satie, dammit, a man needs candy. Before Road Wars, it was Police, Camera, Action that I found compulsive. There's something about the genre "just look at this maniac!!"

That appeal to the lizard brain aside, there's something else at work. From the speeding time-stamped panopticon of the police vehicle fleet, the landscape changes. "It heaved and merged like porridge," said EM Forster of the the countryside seen from the window of a train. "Presently it congealed. They had arrived." The landscape in Road Wars performs a similarly hypnotic, continuous transformation, but a century on from Howard's End we have a far less clear boundary between town and country. Road Wars mostly unfolds along trunk roads, a context-free exurban blur of detached houses, shopping centres and grass verges planted with scrawny saplings. This is where it is at its most natural - when a fleeing car takes a turn towards an urban centre or residential district (a "built-up area" in the pervasive jargon), somewhere with a bit of character and activity beyond the constant flow of vehicles, the reaction of the commentator is of course horror and the alarmist voiceover cranks up a notch, promising near-certain blood and chaos unless the police are able to do something, anything. There are good reasons to be fearful of a car chase through a city centre but in the landscape of permanent pursuit, the landscape of Road Wars, what resolves is a place where the pursuit can be tolerated and a place it cannot. Southern Britain refocuses as a place of flow interspersed with islands of stasis and danger.

For me, this connects with the familiar parcel of Britain that the rozzers are laying rubber over. Although it will clearly show any bit of suitably adrenalised official video, Road Wars focuses of the activites of the Thames Valley Police's "roads policing proactive unit" (Newspeak abounds). I grew up in Oxford, part of the TVP's sprawling beat, a rare British example of a city with proper banlieue. The centre was safe for the middle classes - the less fortunate were hutched in estates on the outskirts, around a ring road that was conveniently racetrack-like. These estates rioted and developed a national reputation for joyriding in the early 1990s, which might go some way to explain why the Thames Valley plod is the heavily tooled-up force that appears in Road Wars.

Not that the blackened peripherique had the slightest impact on us in the centre; it might have been on another planet. Central Oxford was well suited to cycling. When I reached driving age, I had no need to learn, and never took lessons. But for friends of mine in more isolated places like Old Marston and Whytham, the driving licence was a necessity - they learned right away. As soon as they did, my sense of living in a city weakened perceptibly. Piling in a car at the weekends, we could go bowling in Aylesbury, or go to the waterslides at the Oasis centre in Swindon. Southern England suddenly felt curiously Californian, or what a Oxfordshire teenager's perception of California might be. For about a year it was a boundaryless autopia, a free zone of leisure and consumption, a kind of paradise. (Then I went to university.) Road Wars suggests this endless Californian Thames Valley of A-roads and motorways, out-of-town leisure parks and grass verges, where the discrete towns and cities melted into a more general, more modern state of mind. Localism? Give me unlocalism. Adulthood seemed to arrive the day I no longer felt confined by place.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Just Look at Those Trees

It's been quiet because I've been extraordinarily busy. But offline I'm on the newsstand in three different places at the moment. The new-look Icon (issue 090, December 2010) has my long profile of radical French architect Francois Roche. Roche, an interesting fellow at the best of times, was extraordinarily candid, so it's worth a look - as is the rest of the redesigned magazine. I'm also in Edge 221 on the subject of Dungeon Keeper 2, and in the 22 November issue of the New Statesman talking about Twin Peaks' 20th birthday. It's still damn fine.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The Leyton Roar

This article originally appeared in Smoke: A London Peculiar #16 and is reproduced here with permission.

Someone is fighting a lonely war against noise on the Central Line. The shrill tone that announces that the doors are closing is too loud for them, or too high-pitched, or both. They scratch their complaint into the doors: Excessive Door Noise; Noisy Doors Cause Deafness; Too Loud. Always the same hand, the same terse concision. How long has this been going on – scratch-scratch-scratch attrition on one side, deafening psy-ops on the other?

Meanwhile, almost unnoticed, part of the Central Line has lost its voice. Perhaps the anonymous vigilante of quietude is pleased, but it’s really a cause for sadness: The Leyton Roar is gone.

At its furthest eastern reaches, between Epping and Debden, Central line trains roll through actual countryside – fields, cows, hedgerows. Heading west, towards London, the city composes itself out of fragments. Scattered semis link arms into terraces, playing fields shrink and evaporate, urban pressure closes in around you. At Leyton, the gathering density pushes the line underground.

As if to make it clear that Leyton is a threshold, there is an enormous, crowded Catholic cemetery next to the station. Graveyards are traditionally placed at a city’s edge, for hygienic reasons and to satisfy their demands for space. The approach to the tunnel mouth has none of the flamboyance of the cemetery, but there is a grave quality to it: the long downward slope is like the ramp leading into the tomb of an ancient civilisation. This sense of the monumental is reinforced by the rising filthy retaining walls, bruised pink like the walls of the Forbidden City in Beijing or Delhi’s Red Fort, or the exhausted moquette of older Central Line seats. The portal itself is modest, stained with decades of abyssal grime.

This eastern entrance to the city used to be far more impressive, though, for it had an aural architecture too: The Leyton Roar. When a westbound train entered the tunnel, a powerful wave of air would blast through the carriage with a high-volume shriek, loud enough to silence any conversation and surprise the unsuspecting: people would be cut off mid-sentence, or roused from their newspapers. Even for city ears accustomed to tuning out announcements and the Tube’s general background thunder, this noise was impossible to miss. It was a signal, a portent, an apocalyptic howl that far exceeded the usual Underground cacophony. Like a triumphal arch or a gate, it announced that the train had entered the city. And now this landmark is gone. Now, there is simply a dull whoosh when the train slips into the tunnel. No one looks up, and conversations continue.

The sudden disappearance of The Roar unnerved me. Why had it gone? The trains were the same, the tunnel was the same – how could the sound of the journey change so dramatically? These changes are important. If such a noise made a sudden appearance in a routine journey, it would give pause for thought; its disappearance might be more subtle, but is no less significant.

I e-mailed the Transport for London press office. A month passed without reply. I e-mailed again. This time, there was a response, from Benedict Pennington, head of the London Underground press desk. “I believe the difference you will have noticed will be as a result of track and ballast replacement,” he wrote. “This involves removing all the rails and aggregate which the rails sit on, and replacing them with continuously welded rails, rather than blocks of jointed rails. This would alter the ride noise on board our trains.”

That wasn’t wholly satisfactory. The Roar hadn’t seemed to be a product of the ride noise of the trains. But if the removal of the aggregate meant there was now more space, then maybe the train would be less like a piston smashing against a wall of pressured air as it entered the tunnel, resulting in a quieter passage – maybe? “Track ballast replacement” – it was shaped like an explanation, and filled the hole where an explanation should be, but did not really explain anything.

Once a day I still listen out for The Leyton Roar, and listening for a sound that isn’t there breeds a kind of super-sensitivity – it’s as if there is now a negative space where The Roar once was, a new space of quiet carved out of the Tube thunder, in which creaks and sighs that would otherwise rush past unnoticed suddenly stick out; and that thickening in the ears, that perceptible increase of air pressure against internal membranes, that movement of blood in the darkness – a new roar.

Meanwhile, the scratch marks still appear on the doors: Noise Pollution; Inappropriate Door Noise. Somewhere out there, the Noise Vigilante is still at work.

Friday, 1 October 2010

C.O.W.F. in The Bookseller

The Bookseller has a story about the news:

HarperPress buys its lead literary title for 2012

HarperPress has pre-emptively bought the debut novel by Will Wiles, the senior editor of architecture and lifestyle magazine Icon. Publishing director Clare Smith has bought world rights, excluding North America, in all languages to Care of Wooden Floors from Antony Topping at Greene & Heaton. The book will be HarperPress' lead literary launch title in spring 2012.

The publisher said the book was about a friendship between two men who do not know each other very well and how a tiny oversight can trigger a chain of consequences.

Smith said: "Dark, funny and compelling, this novel takes your breath away with its extraordinarily distinctive writing. The voice is unexpected, constantly, but consistently conveys a universal human experience that pulls the reader right into the world of the narrator. The entire team fell passionately in love with the book. We could not be more delighted to be publishing Will."

Tara Hiatt, HarperCollins' head of international rights, will handle translation rights at Frankfurt.

Strangely, seeing the whole business reported as news like this makes it feel less real. But I'm seeing the unfolding reaction from the under-real environment of a Paris hotel room, after a 6am start and about 800 espressos. Anyway, between this and the outpouring of congratulations on Twitter and across my various email accounts, my cup runneth over.

ON EDIT: Here's the text of the press release from HarperPress:

Extraordinary New Voice for Harper Press

On the eve of the Frankfurt book fair, Harper Press is thrilled to announce the acquisition of a distinctive new literary talent. Clare Smith has acquired World rights, all languages, excluding N.America, to Care of Wooden Floors by debut author Will Wiles, in a pre-emptive bid.

Care of Wooden Floors is about how a tiny oversight can trip off a disastrous and farcical (fatal, even) chain of consequences. It's about a friendship between two men who don't know each other very well. It's about alienation and being alone in a foreign city. It's about the quest for perfection and the struggle against entropy. And it is, a little, about how to take care of wooden floors.

Will Wiles is senior editor of Icon, the monthly architecture and design magazine, and he lives in London.

'Dark, funny and compelling, this novel takes your breath away with its extraordinarily distinctive writing. The voice is unexpected, constantly, but consistently conveys a universal human experience that pulls the reader right into the world of the narrator. The entire team fell passionately in love with the book,' said Smith. 'We could not be more delighted to be publishing Will.'

Care of Wooden Floors will be published as the lead literary launch title for Harper Press in Spring 2012. Tara Hiatt, Head of International Rights at HarperCollins, will be handling translation rights. The agent is Antony Topping at Greene & Heaton.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

"Care of Wooden Floors" to be Published by Harper Press in Spring 2012

I'm delighted to be able to announce that Harper Press, an imprint of publishing giant HarperCollins, has bought the rights to my novel, Care of Wooden Floors. Needless to say, I'm thrilled - in fact, I've been walking on sunshine, barely able to think of anything else, since I first heard of the offer early this week. The ink is barely dry on the third draft and it's sold. Publication is due in spring 2012 (although of course this may change).

Here's a description of the book, written before I had completed the first draft. The short version: a man is given his friend's beautiful minimalist flat to look after, with disastrous results. It's a small, strange tale of accidents, friendship, pathological neatness, death and wooden floors.

Updates will follow.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Image Accumulator

This is part of Tim Maly's 50 Posts About Cyborgs, a collaboration between blogs celebrating 50 years of the term "cyborg". Here, I'll be talking about David Cronenberg's film Videodrome, and there'll be some description of sadomasochism. Consider yourselves warned. It's also an imperfect effort to bring together thoughts on a number of subjects, and as such has a slightly unfinished feel. For that, my apologies.

What is the secret of the Videodrome signal? Not its origins or its meaning, which are the objects of James Woods' quest in David Cronenberg's film Videodrome (1983). I mean the secret of its shiver. We get the shiver when Max Renn, played by Woods, is introduced to the signal by his colleague Harlan. The signal was sniffed out by the pirate satellite dish operated by Renn's cable network - Videodrome is a brutal sadomasochistic television programme apparently emitting from Malaysia. Nothing but torture and snuff, filmed in a studio with walls of wet clay. Wet clay - absorbs sound, and it can be electrified. How's that for a deviant architectural detail? You have to love Cronenberg. An illicit television programme, operating beyond the reach of any risk of penalty and specialising in savagery, is a sinister enough premise. And then he goes and throws in a baroque, left-field detail like walls of wet clay. It just emphasises the otherness of the signal - the fact that it is a product of thought processes that are not like ours. We think.


And there's the shiver. An illicit television programme. Something we aren't meant to be seeing. But it's right there, on the spectrum, just waiting for an ear cocked in its direction. It's inherently fascinating. Broadcast television is a rigid, hierarchical, top-down, hermetic system, a trumpeting modern edifice. Underneath a veneer of raucous diversity, it's monolithic and monopolistic. Breaches in that monopoly are at once unnerving and exotic - such as the sinister surrealism of the Max Headroom signal intrusion incident (video).

Finding this hotline to depravity, Renn does what any sensible person would - he pirates the programme and puts it on his own channel. He also becomes obsessed by it, and discovers that not only is it not faked, it is also being broadcast from no further away than Pittsburgh. As Renn gets closer to the source of the signal, he suffers from terrifying hallucinations. His television warps, swells, pulses and erotically reaches out towards him; his abdomen splits into a maw like a VCR cassette slot; he learns that the signal has a direct physiological effect, causing brain tumours. It's a product of the military-industrial complex: weaponised television, designed to destroy the minds and bodies of undesirables.

Body horror is of course what Cronenberg is best known for. The director had previously shown the boundaries of the body collapsing (most memorably in 1975's Shivers) and mind control (in 1981's Scanners). But Videodrome is I think the first proper foray into cyborg transgression - the merging of flesh and technology, a catastrophic breakdown in the separation we take for granted.

Or do we take it for granted? It makes sense that the vector of this breakdown is a broadcast signal. We are, as a species, not entirely convinced that visual information has no power over us - photosensitive epilepsy is of course real, and Videodrome-like mind control has seeped into urban legends, always a good barometer of modern pathologies. (The arcade game Polybius is a particularly fine example of this line of mythmaking.) We feel sensitive to the non-visual electromagnetic spectrum around us, even where it doesn't affect us - witness the pseudoscientific health scares over mobile phones, phone masts, electricity pylons, "electrosmog". Television was the first electronic love-object, the focus of an extraordinarily widespread devotion. As a consumer item, it has consistently adopted different strategies to get closer to us - reproducing, breaking out of the living room and into different rooms in the house, and also attempting a more intimate connection. First it experimented with miniaturisation (portable TVs, pocket TVs, wearable TVs); now its preferred method is immersion, giant screens, clearer images and sound, refining the purity of the signal rather than its portability. The relationship of the 20th-century consumer to the television signal has always been a kind of romance - a ferociously close but off-balance, sadomasochistic romance. Renn is simply acting out the atavistic dream-journey of the 20th-century consumer - he is getting inside his television, letting it get inside him, finally breaching that air-gap and bathing in the electromagnetic spectrum. In an ecstatic climax within the film, when all the distinctions between reality, television programe and hallucination have disappeared, Renn finds himself inside the orange chamber with the wet clay walls. There, he whips a television; on the screen, Debbie Harry's lips moan and cry out approvingly.

Clear-eyed and unsentimental as always, JG Ballard was on top of this relationship. The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), contains the shadow of Videodrome - it's filled with giant screens, with broadcasts, with violence as entertainment. While the discourse around social change was mostly fogged with petty conservatism, Ballard saw deeper psychological instincts and pathologies being acted out in our relationship with consumer goods.

In fact, too few things are bad for us, and one fears an indefinite future of pious bourgeois certitudes. It's curious that these puritans strike such a chord - there is a deep underlying unease about the rate of social change, but little apparent change is actually taking place. ... Real change is largely invisible, as befits this age of invisible technology - and people have embraced VCRs, fax machines, word processors without a thought, along with the new social habits that have sprung up around them.

-- JG Ballard, notes to "Death Games (a) Conceptual", The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, one feels, would have approved of Renn's self-destructive line of enquiry - his advice in The Atrocity Exhibition is that we should "immerse ourselves in the most destructive element, ourselves, and swim"; he thought there should be more sex and violence on television, seeing it as a powerful catalyst for social change. Videodrome is a thoroughly Ballardian film. And Renn really does immerse himself in himself - his tool for becoming one with the Videodrome signal is the Image Accumulator, a kind of helmet; in this helmet, reality, television and hallucination are the same non-judgemental flow of electrons.

The Image Accumulator.

The Image Accumulator is profoundly reminiscent of works by the German artist Walter Pichler. Attempting a critique of television, Pichler combined the device with prosthesis and architecture, fashioning "rooms" that are in fact helmets with integrated televisions. Pichler exposes the dependence in the relationship with television, its total demand on the user - the helmets are not convenient or liberating, they are blinding and immobilising. He gives us the cyborg endgame of devotion to television. But the astonishing thing about his helmets is that they manage to be appealing - they have the finished surface of consumer products, and despite ourselves we're curious about what's inside, how the experience works. The risk of course is obvious - it's not that we'll find these absurd contraptions uncomfortable and debilitating, that's a given; the risk is that we'll find the payoff worth it for final oneness with the signal, the warm umbilical with the machine, and that we'll come to forget we're wearing the helmet.

"Portable Living Room", Walter Pichler, 1967

"Small Room Prototype", Walter Pichler, 1967

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Children of the Bunker

This is part of 50 Posts About Cyborgs.

The Mark 3 Travel Device.

The end of a thousand-year war. Two races locked in the embrace of murder-suicide. Technology in reverse. Attrition on a planetary scale: every living thing, every scrap of life-sustaining environment, must be destroyed to deny it to the enemy. The triumph of nihilism, genocide as business-as-usual. Few Doctor Who serials have even come in sight of the creative peak represented by Genesis of the Daleks, Terry Nation's 1975 story. Throughout its 47-year history, Doctor Who has continually shown a frustrating lack of economy with its own reserves of imagination, flinging away fascinating concepts after only the briefest examination and then eking out unoriginal stories far beyond their natural life. The series had a routine disregard for its own continuity even before the baroque absurdities of the post-2005 "New" series. Genesis of the Daleks is different. An extraordinarily powerful scenario is thoroughly explored, and the existing Dalek timeline is enriched and extended with what is essentially a super-prequel.

As the name suggests, Genesis is the beginning of the Daleks. What's striking about it is that it feels like an ending. The Doctor, played by Tom Baker, arrives on the planet Skaro at the tail end of a millennial war between the Thals and the Kaleds, two sets of humanoid aliens. The world is devastated by centuries of atomic and chemical warfare. The armies of the two races are reduced to ragged bands of skirmishers with mismatched, salvaged equipment, the detritus of a technological civilisation that has all but totally unravelled. The combatants are in regression, on the path back to the bow and arrow. The exhaustion is palpable.

Technology in retreat.

On arrival in this apocalypse, the Doctor is informed by a senior Time Lord that, in the distant future, the tyrannical cyborg race known as the Daleks has come to dominate the universe. This outcome must be prevented, so he has been sent back to the moment of the Daleks' creation to interfere with their development - either he must snuff them out at birth, or intervene to steer the race in a less belligerent direction. There have been too many times when the Daleks were thought to be defeated and came back stronger than ever, like a hospital superbug. The Doctor has been sent ad fontes to pre-empt a Dalek universe. Even the possibility of a Dalek universe is too great a risk to take.

This might sound like Dick Cheney's One Percent Doctrine, but a viewer familiar with the Daleks' later exploits is immediately on the Doctor's side. The Daleks are near-perfect villains, "gliding like priests, talking like Nazis, chimerical yet simple, and with that unpleasantly ambiguous relation to the ground beneath them" in Jenny Turner's beautiful description from 2006. They don't just talk like Nazis, they talk like the angriest, barking, spittle-hurling Schutzstaffel creep; they are Nazis reduced to their perfect essence, in a wheeled tin can. Tinned extract of Nazi. At the moment the Doctor arrives on Skaro, we already know a little of their origins - inside their armoured shell, the "real" Dalek is a degenerate mutant, just a ball of squealing, mucus-covered malignancy. If you had one under your foot, your instinct would be to stamp down, hard. They are bad news. Wipe them out before they do any harm? Sure.

But our trip to the nursery with a flamethrower can also be educational. What could cause that kind of debasement? What sort of florid developmental trauma could lead to that sort of galaxywide psychopathy? If this is the child, what are the parents like?

Trekking across the devastated surface of Skaro, the Doctor and his companions see, in the distance, the first sign that civilisation of some kind is still operating: a domed city. They encounter a network of trenches - manned by corpses - and the entrance to a bunker. They are surprised by a raiding party, captured, and led into this underground world: the Kaled headquarters.

Inside the Kaled bunker.

Terry Nation does not play down the parallels with the Nazis. Although the Kaleds are exhausted, near total defeat, down in the bunker they're still bleating on about huge offensives and Wunderwaffe that will bring about victory. Armies are confidently moved about a situation map, although from the depopulation we've seen on the surface it's clear they represent handfuls of soliders, if they exist at all. Peter Miles plays the security chief Nyder, an SS officer down to his Iron Cross, licking his lips over lines like "The Kaled race must be kept pure!". Great faith is placed in the charismatic chief scientist Davros, promiser of the Wunderwaffe, the man whose genius has kept the Kaled war machine going, and apparent source of the Kaleds' racial rhetoric.

Nyder. The parallels with the Nazis are not subtle.

This is the first appearance of Davros, a recurring character in later Doctor Who serials, inextricably tied up with the Daleks. We, the viewers, know that the wonder-weapon he is promising is the Dalek, and his appearance tells most of the story of this creation. Davros is crippled, confined to a transport device that resembles the lower half of a Dalek; he is blind, able to see only through an artificial eye mounted on his forehead; a single withered arm operates the switches on the chair that allow him to interact with the world around him. The Daleks are, it is immediately clear, simply elaborations of the cyborg technology that has kept their creator alive. He introduces the Daleks as the "Mark 3 Travel Device" - obviously he is sitting in the Mark 2. The Dalek is presented to the Kaleds as the only possible way to survive: it is designed to travel over the toxic surface of the planet, and will accommodate the "ultimate" form of the Kaled race - what the race will mutate into when the chemicals and radiation in the environment have completed their work. Davros has, for experimental purposes, hurried this process of mutation along on a few test subjects, and the results are not pretty. The Kaleds only have Davros' word that his test subjects are really the genetic destination of their race, but their chief scientist has brought them this far, and his own state (ruined, but alive and pugnacious) is a kind of guarantee - a sort of Hitlerian brinksmanship, which says "I'm prepared to go this far, to sacrifice this much, why aren't you?"

Davros: proto-Dalek.

The Kaleds are quite captivated by Davros, and impressed by the obvious potential of his creation to wreak victory, but they are not yet so far down the step-free path to Dalekhood. There are qualms, doubts, power struggles. Some of the scientists, quite understandably, don't much like the idea of ending up as one of Davros' future-slugs. It's not necessary to relay the entire plot here: there is much (too much) toing and froing across the wasteland between the Kaled dome and the Thal dome, many captures, escapes and recaptures, a lot of intrigue and moral calculus, some unintentionally comic encounters with giant polystyrene clams, and eventually the Daleks are unleashed and do what they do best: Ex-ter-min-ate, Ex-ter-min-ate. What's fascinating about Genesis is the way it explains so much about the psychology of the Daleks and how they ended up as such compelling villains, simultaneously terrifying and pathetic, "utterly evil and utterly childish" in Turner's phrase: "What is ‘Ex-ter-min-ate! Ex-ter-min-ate!’ but the most notorious command of the 20th century, done as a comic turn?"

The Daleks confer with their creator.

The childish edge is key: the Daleks are erratic, hyperactive, prone to tantrums. Their debasement could also be seen as under-development. In Genesis, Davros orders chromosomal alterations to the mutant Kaled test subjects. A scientist objects that the change will mean significant defects: No compassion, no conscience. Not defects, says Davros, enhancements! Deficiency is passed off as improvement, just as a slimy residue is being passed off as the apogee of the Master Race. Alongside under-development, the Daleks' hysteria and insanity also has an edge of claustrophobic panic, almost a horror at its own situation, trapped in a metal shell. Their superiority compex is Napoleonic, based on inferiority.

The Kaled super-race.

So they are trapped - just like the Kaleds, just like the Thals, confined to their bunkers, unable to venture out onto the planet they're fighting over without gasmasks, radiation detectors, helmets and other technological enhancements. The bunker can be seen like a kind of super-Dalek, the dome of the head poking above the surface of the planet, while the remains of each race desperately operates the controls inside. The Daleks are the products of the psychosis of the bunker.

Going further back into the rear of the fortification, you meet once again the system of staggered nearby defenses, with its small firing slits—one along the entrance axis, the other on the flanks—with low visibility, through which the immediate surroundings can be seen, in a narrow space with a low ceiling. The crushing feeling felt during the exterior circuit around the work becomes acute here. The various volumes are too narrow for normal activity, for real corporal mobility; the whole structure weighs down on the visitor’s shoulders. Like a slightly undersized piece of clothing that hampers as much as it enclothes, the reinforced concrete and steel envelope is too tight under the arms and sets you in a semiparalysis fairly close to that of illness.

That's Paul Virilio describing a Nazi-built fortification on Europe's Atlantic Coast ("The Frightening Beauty of Bunkers", The Morning News 2 February 2009, an article distilling the ideas laid out in Virilio's classic Bunker Archaeology) - the kind of structure that the Third Reich put its faith in as its manpower dwindled and defeat started to press in on all sides. Internal volumes too narrow for corporal mobility, the structure weighing down on the shoulders, semiparalysis close to illness - it's inescapably Dalekoid. The Dalek vehicle, the "Mark 3 Travel Device", can be seen as a sort of mobile, personal bunker, complete with its own raging, raving Hitler inside, screaming and commanding. It even looks like a pillbox, with the slits at the top, the swivelling weapon, the domed top.

The Doctor does not destroy the Daleks in Genesis. They keep coming back, again and again - hardly a surprise, as they are in many ways a more powerful creation than the Doctor himself, a perfectly tied knot of 20th-century pathologies, one that is for the time being quite at home in our own century as well. They're a warning about desperation, about wonder-weapons, about giving away too much for victory. Genesis of the Daleks is full of destruction and evil, but it ends on a resoundingly humane note. The Doctor plants explosives in the Dalek nursery , among the specimen jars containing the Kaled mutants. But when given the live wires that will trigger the detonation, he can't bring himself to do it. It's a striking moment - the Kaled blobs are after all, helpless, no matter how bellicose they might be. The Doctor agonises, and chucks away his chance, endangering the whole universe just to prevent himself sinking to the Daleks' level.

Genocide anxiety.

Rather than destroy the Daleks, the Doctor settles for blowing up the entrance tunnel to the underground complex, setting back their progress a few centuries, hopefully enough to tilt the scale of history against them. The Daleks are left to trundle about the Kaled bunker on their own, shrieking and plotting. Even after they dig their way out, they will never, ever escape.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

A Wild New Gig

Hunter S Thompson, 25 March, 1969:
Dear Jim [Silberman, Random House] ...

Are you ready for the death of print, books, and magazines? The whole weird future was laid on me tonight by a professor from UCLA Journalism school. The only missing link, he says, is a process for editing video-tape without computers ... and after that it's a whole new ballgame: No more Hollywood, no more book publishers, no more magazines ... I never paid much attention to Marshall McLuhan, if only because he's basically incoherent & needs about five editors. But the forecast I heard tonight is ominously clear, the underground backstairs line from UCLA ...

The real new journalism. He offered to turn me loose with a sound-sync video-tape machine the next time I get to L.A. No bigger than a typewriter, combining the roles of script-writer, director, editor, producer, and ... yes, even publisher. Tape-cassettes instead of book covers, video-tape receivers instead of magazines or newspapers. Jesus, it boggles the mind. The next time I get to NY I'd like to talk about it; this is a wild new gig. Are you into it? Why not ponder a tape/book experiment? To hell with the undiscovered editing process; that's inevitable anyway. Why not learn to use the tools before they're perfected? Do you have any screening rooms designed into that new building? Send word ...



(This is extracted from Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist 1968-1976, the second volume of HST's collected letters. Which is absolutely golden stuff, a book well worth getting.)

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Saint Jane

The Pelican edition of Death and Life, with cover by Germano Facetti.

A spectre is haunting urbanism - the spectre of Jane Jacobs. The American-Canadian writer and activist died in 2006, but she continues to exert influence over the urban debate, primarily via that dreary federacy of messianic dovecote enthusiasts, the "New Urbanists", who have taken her up as a kind of guiding prophet. Outside the ranks of the Kunstlers and Kriers, there is a great swath of architects, thinkers and writers on the city who have read Jacobs and hold her in high regard. With a touch of embarrassment, I should include myself in this latter category. Not being an architect, I was an auto-didact in urban theory. When I came across a Pelican edition of Jacobs' best-known book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in a second-hand bookshop almost a decade ago, I had never heard of her. But I loved the Germano Facetti cover design, the back sounded interesting enough, and the price was right, so I took it home.

At that point, my reading on urban theory had been scattershot, based entirely in what I found in 2nd-hand bookshops: Corbu, Lewis Mumford, Thomas Sharp, Steen Eiler Rasmussen, an odd band who had given me all sorts of interesting ideas and imagery, but nothing very coherent. What they had in common, more or less, was that I didn't really enjoy reading them all that much, and had mostly got through to the end in a spirit of patient self-improvement. I picked up Jacobs, expecting more of the same, and instead ploughed through it in a matter of days. If nothing else, she taught me that book-length urban theory could be hugely entertaining, and since then I have sought out books about the city with enthusiasm, as opposed to a worthy sense of I-really-should-know-more-about-this. (I haven't read The Economy of Cities which I understand unwisely broadens some of Jacobs' microcosmic conclusions, which is probably why its profile has declined in recent years while that of Death and Life has done little but improve.)

At the time, I lived in a basement flat in Pimlico. I worked from home. From the desk where I read and worked, I could see feet passing on the pavement outside. I could stroll out during the day and visit the market on Tachbrook street, which had a book stall. I knew the names of local shopkeepers. It was, when I had money, all very comfortable. Westminster council was on its never-ending crusade to fuck up everything with vast shiny office buildings. Jacobs had an obvious appeal in this context. Since then, I've learned a lot more, but much of what she says about the folly of monolithic single-use zoning and the importance of mixed activity on the street, still seems to me to be self-evident.

She has remained on my mind since, popping up from time to time in both expected and unexpected places. I recently read Joe Flood's account of New York's 1970s organisational meltdown, The Fires (review scheduled in Icon 088). Flood has a criticism of some form for nearly everyone in 1970s New York - except Jacobs, who floats, omniscient and benign, above the crumbling city. This kind of veneration obviously grates with some people. In an essay in The Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz complains that the writers Sharon Zukin and Michael Sorkin are hopelessly in thrall to Jacobs in their recent accounts of NYC, and that Jacobs' description of the city was a mirage - if it ever existed, it was only for a split-second in the city's life.

Jacobs, Schwarz complains, presented a "transitional and unsustainable, if golden, moment" in the life of a certain neighbourhood as an ideal, and in doing so distorted our whole idea of the urban good life. This critique was picked up by Kosmograd: ever since Death and Life, urbanists have been attempting to conjure a steady-state Jacobs Moment in neighbourhoods globally, and always end up with a runaway reaction on their hands: gentrification. Working-class communities and affordable housing are swept away, and the district ends up as a "bo-ho theme park". Jacobs' "sentimental ... matronising" opinions have precious little to offer a world that is throwing up such terrifying urban environments as the FoxConn complex in Shenzhen.

When I first read Schwarz and Kosmograd's essays, my first instinct was to spring to Jacobs' defence. She was a lone voice raised in defence of a certain kind of community. That community was worth defending - the contemporary notion of what constituted a slum was a nonsense, a nonsense that was being used as a tool for massive and wholly un-progressive urban clearance and social engineering. This clearance was not the comprehensive redevelopment and state planning that took place in the UK - Moses-manner planning was an unlikely and grotesque, wholly corrupt, public-private aberration, one that sadly proved repeatable within the USA; imagine PFI joint ventures crossed with the LDDC and given untrammelled power, and you get a rough idea. At the time Jacobs wrote, gentrification and yuppification were inconceivable: New York would continue to experience the flight of the middle classes for 20 years after the publication of Death and Life. Industrial New York might not have been pleasant, but its destruction was a man-made disaster: the city deliberately dismantled its blue-collar manufacturing base in pursuit of white-collar employers, and almost killed itself in the process. (Flood details this insane policy in The Fires.) So Jacobs has nothing to offer the inhabitants of FoxConnopolis - she didn't have much to say about the Gaza Strip or Dubai, either, because she was writing about local issues in the 1960s. Jacobs could not be held responsible for what has been committed in her name by the New Urbanists and their insipid watercolour view of the city. Also, wasn't a lot of the disdain for Jane a distaste for her (American, rather twee) literary style? And the book has this great Germano Facetti cover. Don't you see?

In other words, Leave Britney Alone.

That was my first instinct, but thought better of it. For a start, I didn't particularly want to write an ode to Jacobs and place myself in the company of the Nurbanists. Secondly, it wasn't long after the ArcelorMittal Space Tangle controversy, and I didn't want to get into an argument with Kosmograd again, given that he's one of the most interesting and perceptive architecture bloggers in the UK, and I'm generally behind him 100%.

Anyway, the cult of Saint Jane is developing into a menace. It's worth mentioning that Death and Life is not really (or not wholly) an attack on modernism. Besides the Moses approach to planning, Jacobs is primarily arguing against decentralisation, "decentrists" such as Mumford, suburbanisation, Howard's "Garden City", monolithic zoning, and residential monoculture. Although the organic, dense, city seemed chaotic, Jacobs argued, it could be understood; it had hugely complex systems, and the systems worked. In suggesting this, she was making the case that the technocratic city-as-diagram planners in the Moses mold were not replacing a chaotic lack of system with a working system - they were replacing a working system with a dysfunctional system. Many of Jacobs' ideas (particularly to do with mixed uses) can and should be safely integrated into modernist planning. Indeed, they have been - compare the mixed housing and culture of the Barbican with the Lincoln Center, a Moses project that Jacobs complains about.

However, in deposing the Moses planning priesthood, Jacobs cut the vestments for a new priesthood. "You have misunderstood the city," she says, "and I understand it" - as Kosmograd says, this equation meant that by bearing the relics of Saint Jane, the Nurbanists can set themselves up as the only people who understand the city, and swaddle their agenda in authenticity and legitimacy. They claim to be the people who understand the city, who tend the guttering pilot light of "vibrancy" that keeps it alive.

They are wrong. I am not going to presume to have a deeper understanding of Jane Jacobs than the Nurbanists, and attempt to snatch the relics back - they are, frankly, welcome to them. We are never going to move forward if we get bogged down into a recondite dispute about "what she really meant". But Jacobs appealed to me because it chimed with what I saw in cities and what I liked about them - and the Nurbanists have no idea what this quality is. Their agenda for "neighbourhoods", "contextuality", "walkability", is fundamentally anti-urban. These qualities aren't necessarily bad in themselves - but combined in pursuit of the singular Nurbanist vision, they mean the vivisection of the city into un-urban cells. Taken to its conclusion, "walk-to-work" ideology means cottages clustered around the mill. While a short commute is desirable, in a neoliberal world this would severely limit social mobility and the overall broadening of horizons that is the best the city has to offer. If people wish to live within walking distance of their workplace, they of course should be able to. But basing a housing system on proximity to workplace is not progressive - or at least it is not as progressive as cheap, plentiful public transport and cheap, plentiful rented accommodation. The FoxxConn workers live in and around their workplace.

The Nurbanist vision of carving up the city in this way is as diagrammatic and retrograde as Moses' planning - and, similarly, it's an assault on the complexity of the city, the city's ability to generate its own fabulously complicated internal patterns that defy cursory inspection. The emphasis on little neighbourhoods, the stoop, local shops and walking distances, the "human scale" only tells part of the story of the city - after all, these things can be found in villages and small towns. All cities need sublimity, a touch of holy terror, a defiance of human scale that asserts connection to the greater urban whole. Elevated highways, crowds, tall buildings, interconnection and confusion - these things can be to some people dismaying and unpleasant, but the awe they strike is the overture of accepting the condition of living in a city. The Tube roundel is vaguely holy to Londoners - intensely reassuring - because it is a sign of connection with a system of vast complexity and importance. (The religious meaning of the Tube is a subject I keep meaning to write about at some point.) Nurbanism stems from a fear and hatred of the modern city as it is - a hatred that is ideological, that cannot and will not be shown that there are reasons to like the neon snarl of the cities we have, and their inner flows and surges. This is a terrible frame of mind for a group concerned with urban planning. Jacobs, at least, liked the city, and liked it for factors that cannot be found in small towns.

Death and Life is parochial and highly idiosyncratic, a product of particular times and specific circumstances; as its critics say, a poor basis for general policy. Jacobs herself, though, can't really be blamed for making broad recommendations on the basis of her own experiences and beliefs. The trouble is that there are not more Jane Jacobs, more voices in the urban debate, giving different views of city planning from their own experience. It is mysterious to me that Jonathan Raban's Soft City - a book written out of love for and interest in the city, hugely perceptive about how cities work, without policy recommendations, simply a plea for what is valuable about the city as a huge civilising machine - is not venerated in this country. Anna Minton's Ground Control is the only really outstanding contribution to the urban genre in recent years, although of course I have high hopes for Owen Hatherley's New Ruins when it comes out. The mutations of cities around us, from Shenzhen to London, certainly do need new narratives.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Airport Dream

Copenhagen Airport. Image from my Flickr stream.

Other people's dreams, like other people's holidays, can be fascinating to hear about, but often they're tedious with a capital Zzz. So I'll keep this brief. Writing a review of the Christopher Nolan film Inception (scheduled for icon 088), I've been thinking about dreams. This has had a curious effect: either I'm dreaming more vividly, or I'm just a little better at remembering them at the moment.

Last night, it was an anxiety dream by the numbers, but it had interesting architectural overtones. I was at an airport - I had a flight to catch. I believed it was Gatwick (my wife flew into Gatwick yesterday), but the terminal building looked more like Rogers' Terminal 5 at Heathrow: a vast shed with a curved roof. I had checked in (somehow) but needed to get into the building to get through security and to my gate. But I couldn't find the door. At street level, the terminal building was an endless inscrutable wall of heavily fritted glass and anodised zinc. I found openings, but they where the exits or service entrances of shops, guarded by security. It was an utterly inhospitable landscape, clearly the wrong place to be, but I had no choice but to continue trekking around the endless perimeter. Eventually I ran into colleagues or peers who I knew would be catching the flight, heading to their gate (suggesting that the trip was work), but I couldn't follow them because there was something I had to do first. Also, they had coffee, and I wondered where they got it from.

That's all. Because it wasn't directed by Chrisopher Nolan, the dream did not deliver a vast surge of catharsis. At no point did I see or hear a plane. Hey, I didn't promise this was going to be worth reading.

Monday, 2 August 2010


A tatty former bookcase, now long gone, replaced by a wall of IKEA conformity. From my Flickr stream.

Earlier today I read, and enjoyed, Stewart Lee’s column on the pleasures and pains of compulsive media collecting. I am something of a hoarder myself; I won’t go into figures because it’s just so much dick-waving and because Lee certainly has more than me. Suffice to say that I pick up a couple of new or second-hand books pretty much every week and rarely throw anything out. Even taking a Tesco bag full of rubbishy Mission Earth and Harry Turtledove books down to the charity shop is freighted with sorrow. Then there are the box files of clippings and ephemera. I wouldn’t say this is “collecting” because that suggests aims, parameters, a sort of directionality, but it is a dedicated amassing of stuff. What is this behaviour? An immature attitude to mortality? Almost certainly. But while we’re scrabbling together crumbs on this dirtball, permit me to scratch an itch.

Now, when the subject of bookshelves comes up in discussion online, bookshelves filled with books, there are two recurring counter-positions. These positions directly contradict each other, so just putting them next to each other goes some way to refuting them.

“Aye, you may have a lot of books, but I bet you haven’t read all of them!”


“What’s the point of keeping a load of books you’ve already read?”

Having erected my pair of strawmen, I will now knock them down. In some quarters it is clearly considered pretension to display books that you haven’t read. This of course makes no sense. It shows a misunderstanding of why people would want bookshelves at all – showing off is just a fortunate secondary effect. The great pleasure of owning bookshelves half-filled with unread books is that you can always find something new to read. Having finished a book, I can immediately move on to another. There is no realistic prospect (thank god) of running out of new things to read. This is the heart of having a home library, however small: pleasure on tap.

Moving on to phantom composite internet moron remark number two, “what’s the point of keeping a load of books you’ve already read?” Well, there is of course the reference value – being able to look something up, to find a source or a quote or something. And there’s the pleasure to be had from re-reading. One of the Great Prophets of my personal cosmology is Jerry Seinfeld, but on this point we disagree. He (or at least the long-running-NBC-sitcom version of him) was never a big reader, and was certainly not a re-reader. In one episode he mocks George Costanza for wanting to retrieve some books from an ex-girlfriend’s house: “When you read Moby Dick the second time, Ahab and the whale become good friends!” This position suggests that the only pleasure to be had from reading is the revelation of plot, which is of course nonsense. Plot is of course an incentive to keep reading, but the real pleasure comes from language and character. Even plot twists can be savoured more than once – the first time might have a monopoly on the thrill of realisation, of having your view of the story transformed, but subsequent readings can revisit that thrill as memory, and offer the pleasure of examining the workings of the twist, like admiring a piece of craftsmanship or inspecting a puzzle box to see how it works.

More profoundly, both of these positions stem from a misunderstanding of how reading works. They see books as being binary objects – something is either read, or it is not read. This isn’t true (and not simply because you can read half-way through something and then stop). Pierre Bayard’s excellent book How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read explains this beautifully. Bayard’s book is often misunderstood (mostly by people who haven’t read it, but also by many of its reviewers) as a bluffer’s guide, a manual for literary bullshitting. It isn’t. Instead, he talks about the imperfect nature of reading – even when we read a book thoroughly, it’s impossible to acquire a full mental picture of it, our view of it is inevitably going to be imperfect in some way. Rather than a binary state of books that are “read” and “unread”, all reading is a sliding scale of unreading – books we haven’t read but know something about, books we have read in part, books we have read and forgotten, and so on. Bayard aims to break down a taboo: to give some value to unreading by revealing that all reading is unreading.

Reading isn’t really an act of consumption at all – it’s not like ticking off a checklist or working through a bag of crisps. Both of the positions I mention in this post treat reading as a kind of scorecard, but really it’s more of a continuum. To read is to constantly build and furnish a mental environment, with (for me at least) no particular great aim in mind. So it’s hardly surprising that the continuum of reading can manifest as a physical environment. Books are a landscape to be occupied and enjoyed, not a set of individual states to be reached.

Friday, 16 July 2010

This Isn't Concrete, Honest

From an ad seen on BD's website:

What an improvement! But who is the advert for? AluMing, leading manufacturer of plastinated aluminium cladding? Prefabricated Brick Panel Marketing Board? No, it's "This is Concrete", a marketing initiative of the Concrete Centre. Further pictures of the transformed Ashburton Court show it to be clad in a number of materials - brick, metal, timber, render, the kind of jumble that's depressingly common in bog-standard 21st century British architecture - anything, in fact, but concrete.

The Concrete Centre should buck up and defend the beautiful material it is in the fortunate position of advocating. It's hard to imagine this kind of self-loathing marketing strategy used for another product. "Drink Milk! If you put enough chocolate syrup in it, it's almost like you're not drinking milk at all!"

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Vegas Baby

This was written back in March, about my January trip to Las Vegas. Sadly it lost its slot in the magazine it was written for, and has after some months in limbo found its way to the spike. So here it is. Photos are from my Flickr stream.

“We rode around from casino to casino, dazed by the desert sun and dazzled by the signs, both loving and hating what we saw, we were jolted clear out of our aesthetic skins,” said the architect Denise Scott Brown of her first visit to Las Vegas in 1966. At that time, the Nevada city was already a byword for pleasure-seeking and sin, but it was architecturally unexplored territory. Scott Brown's trip, with her husband and partner Robert Venturi, was a fateful moment for their profession. They would return two years later with a whole class of Yale students to study the place in detail – the result, in 1972, was Learning From Las Vegas, a book that scandalised the architectural establishment simply by paying attention to the unique, dizzying landscape of the Strip in the desert.

More walkable and urban than you might think.

Today, Las Vegas still has the ability to jolt the first-time visitor. It announces itself in an almost sickening moment of existential shock. From Tom Wolfe's Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby to CSI, culture has furnished such a detailed mental picture of Las Vegas that it's almost unsettling to discover that the place is really real. It's like discovering that Narnia really exists. But it's a different wonderland to the one explored by Venturi and Scott Brown 40 years ago. The Las Vegas of Learning From Las Vegas was a low-rise landscape punctuated with spectacular signs. Now, the buildings are the spectacle. The Strip is a procession of architectural set-pieces unlike anything else on Earth, from the high-rise turbo-classicism of Caesar's Palace and the Luxor techno-pyramid to the inimitable imitations of Paris, New York and Venice. There are Disney turrets at the Excalibur and a working volcano at the Mirage, eruptions hourly. In a neat plutocratic pairing, the metallic-brown Wynn resembles an 1960s executive desk-top cigarette lighter, while the gold-clad (literally, gold) Trump is pure Benson & Hedgefund. The Circus Circus, one of the Strip's more venerable hotels, mocked as the screaming nadir of middlebrow bad taste by Hunter S Thompson, is now positively dowdy by comparison.

CityCenter. Helmut Jahn's Veer towers are centre; the blue building at right is Norman Foster's Harmon. Below the Harmon, Daniel Libeskind's Crystals mall.

In the midst of this menagerie is a new beast, bigger than the others and strange in comparison: a gleaming cluster of towers called CityCenter. This is the latest reinvention of Las Vegas – the newest form thrown up in this extraordinary melting pot of atavistic leisure, consumer surrealism, and corporate hypermoney. “Hypermoney” isn't an exaggeration. This project comes festooned with superlatives and eye-popping stats, but among the most impressive is the fact that it's the single largest private development in the United States. $9 billion – or $11 billion, depending on who you listen to – has been plonked down on the roulette table here, just as the ball skips towards the double-zero of a global recession. A joint venture between resort corporation MGM Mirage and Dubai World, the horribly troubled investment wing of the government of Dubai, the CityCenter project has persistently flirted with crisis and bankruptcy, and against the mounting odds opened for business early this year. Whether it succeeds or fails, it's a fascinating new mutation in a place that has been an urban laboratory for half a century.

The Veer. Cesar Pelli's Aria hotel is the curved building below.

CityCenter isn't just a name – it's a statement of intent. The project is described in the plentiful, excitable publicity material that surrounds it as a “city within a city”, a “new urban core” for Las Vegas. 18 million square feet of space over 67 acres is divided into half a dozen hotels and casinos – a Mandarin Oriental and new brands with somewhat abstract names including “Aria” and “Vdara” - in an thicket of towers, most of which are so aesthetically restrained by Vegas standards that they would not stand out in Canary Wharf. These are arranged around the most striking buildings in the complex, the leaning Veer towers and a shopping mall by Daniel Libeskind that goes by the name of, and shape of, Crystals. Libeskind is just one of the starchitect names involved in the project: Foster & Partners designed the Harmon hotel, Rafael Vinoly was responsible for the Vdara and Cesar Pelli contributed the flagship Aria. It goes far beyond manufacturing a simulacrum of a city as a decorative theme, in the same manner as the New York, New York next door or the Paris across the Strip – it wants to be a genuine “urban environment”. As well as the mall, it will have a residential population, a density of construction similar to Manhattan, and it is designed to be walkable, linking up with neighbouring casinos in a web of promenades.

A "street" within CityCenter, leading towards Crystals.

That's a world of difference to the Las Vegas Venturi and Scott Brown discovered 40 years ago. Then, Las Vegas was new and extraordinary because it was designed entirely with the car in mind. At the roadside were the lavish neon signs intended to lure motorists into comparatively modest modernist buildings set back away from the street behind a forecourt of parking. Pedestrians were not encouraged. Once you had parked, the mob-backed management was not going to make it easy for you to stroll over to one of their competitors down the street. The interiors were dark and confusing – it's still hard to tell if it's night or day in most Vegas casinos. Little was permitted to divert from the gambling. But when the architects were compiling their study of this unique landscape, it was already changing. The eccentric aviation mogul Howard Hughes also pitched up in Las Vegas in 1966, installing himself in the top floor of the Desert Inn. When the management tried to eject him (Hughes what could be called “hygiene issues”, and his penthouse wasn't cleaned once in the four years he occupied it) he bought the hotel. Then he bought another, and another, until he had bought up half a dozen resorts.

Crystals, with the Harmon behind. Libeskind is here a kind of Las Vegas entertainer, still belting out the same old repertoire of former hits, but flatter and fatter than before.

Hughes' spree ended the mob's stranglehold on the ownership of casinos and greatly improved Las Vegas' reputation, painting it as a playground for tycoons. Perhaps more significantly, it opened up the Strip to big business, paving the way for corporate ownership of casinos. Since then, the corporations have shaped Las Vegas in unexpected ways. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Las Vegas flirted with becoming a family-friendly destination, a trend that didn't last but which kicked off the spate of super-themes, where the branding of a hotel was extended to become a form of entertainment in itself, from the Treasure Island's scheduled pirate battles to the New York New York's skyline and rollercoaster. Steve Wynn, the billionaire local power broker who developed the Mirage and the Treasure Island, followed them in 1998 with his master stroke, the Bellagio, a hugely luxurious hotel-casino that reasserted the city's status as a destination for high rollers.

And the Bellagio pointed straight to CityCenter. Ironically, Strip's new-found friendliness towards the pedestrian over the automobile isn't the result of enlightened planning or a sudden appreciation for the so-called “new urbanism”, which stresses the value of compact neighbourhoods. It's the result of the concentration of corporate interests into a near duopoly. Two corporations – MGM Mirage and Harrah's – now own the vast majority of all property on the Strip. They are no longer motivated to keep visitors in one place because they own most of the other places – indeed, both companies have suddenly taken an interest in public transport, after a fashion, building tram and monorail lines to ferry punters between their properties. It's an urban landscape drawn like a company org-chart, with different corporate holdings linked up by micro-rail and footbridges.

At CityCenter, lower-scale visitors are essentially extras in an fabulously expensive display of Potemkin urbanism – as they stroll between the fountains, the public art and Libeskind's mall, they're providing the traffic and energy that will give the new district a sense of urbanity. This is for the benefit of the upscale residents – the super-wealthy who will be buying the condo vacation homes in the Veer towers, the Harmon and the Mandarin Oriental. CityCenter isn't obviously themed – indeed, the abstract nature of the branding of its hotels gives them a slightly unnerving lack of conceptual context, like seeing an animatronic stripped of its fur and reduced to a swivel-eyed cyborg. But there is a kind of theme. In a way it's a distillation of the idea of the “world city”, familiar to the residents of London, Paris and New York, where it can feel that the bulk of the residents are there just to provide a lively backdrop for multi-homed mega-rich non-dom top tier. The genius of Venturi and Scott Brown's study of Las Vegas was to show how this unique place in Nevada could teach us about every place – a lesson that would only work if one approached the subject without moral or aesthetic judgement. CityCenter is the same. This glittering enclave is a model of how a globalised elite is re-shaping the idea of the city, and how the rhetoric and practice of walkability, public art and vibrant urbanism can comfortably serve corporate monoculture as well as it serves the healthy metropolis. Like the rest of Las Vegas, it's a genuinely fascinating and exciting place – but also not a little scary.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Support Your Local Zines

I'm in Smoke #16 waxing psychogeographical about the Central Line. Specifically, I've written an elegy for the Leyton Roar, an important part of the Underground's aural architecture, which disappeared in mysterious circumstances some time ago. If you're not familiar with Smoke, it's a quarterly(ish) zine about London, with fiction, humour, photography, illustrations, and short observational pieces. You can get it in Foyles, the Tate Modern bookshop, places like that - but I'm horrified to read in an announcement this month that fully half of the shops that used to stock Smoke (and zines like it) back in (say) 2004 have now closed, including Borders; obviously their sales have suffered. This apocalyptic state of affairs has forced them into a major retool, and it looks like they're toying with a new format or direction. I look forward to seeing it, but the news is a horrific reminder of just how bad things have got for independent culture in the city.

I was due to discuss some of the problems facing print, and the evolution of electronic media, at the British Creative Exchange event "Creative E-Zines & Design Publications in Progress". However the event has now been called off, because the chairman was injured in a car accident yesterday. Those of you who had already bought tickets should be able to get them reimbursed fairly quickly. The BCE tells me that they may reorganise the event at a later date.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Air Rage

Image from my Flickr stream.

Filed under "I really shouldn't read the Standard, still it's right there on the seat next to me and sometimes Kieran's in it BLOODY HELL SO ANGRY":

The new owner of Gatwick today dropped London from its name and pledged to wipe out all links with its BAA past.
The name will be written in the form of an italicised “signature” rather than in the uncompromising “Rail Alphabet” Helvetica font used by BAA since the Sixties.

Mr Wingate said: “We have done the logo in the form of a signature because we want the airport to feel very personal and that we absolutely care about passengers having a good time going through the airport.”

The new owner, investment fund Global Infrastructure Partners, unveiled a new look that it claims will “rekindle the original spirit of taking a flight — we want to make people enjoy it.” Much of the change is cosmetic but aimed at finally ridding Gatwick of its state-owned Seventies heritage.

"Gatwick drops London in £1.5bn revamp", 21 June 2010

The point of Helvetica is that it is neutral. It is extremely legible. It is not subject to cultural bias, regional variation, and the vicissitudes of fashion and corporate identity. It is designed, painstakingly designed, to create standardised signage. Standardisation might not be exactly sexy but it is extremely useful if you want to avoid the world being a confusing racket. "Uncompromising", damn right it is. It is also international, part of the global language of airports, flight, travel - exactly the kind of spirit that this cloth-eared rebranding exercise apparently wants to tap into.

Sure, it's only the logo, there's no indication that they're going to sweep away the whole glorious sign system developed by William Pereira and others. But that crack about "ridding Gatwick of its state-owned Seventies heritage" shows the dangerous prejudices in play. The spangly, gaudy, deliberately confusing world of the British Corporate Pleasure Environment yawns wide, an aesthetic scraped out of the more alarming malls and bars. Let a thousand defective touchscreens blossom. I had a disheartening experience while travelling through Heathrow Terminal 4 last month - wanting to check if my gate had been called, I the back of a cluster of flatscreens attached to a pillar. Thinking "Aha, flight information", I walked around to see the screens - and they were all ads. They were all ads on the next pillar as well. I had to hunt for info. The departure board is to the airport user what the altar is to the cathedral congregant. The boards should be magnificient, huge, dramatic centrepieces of the lounge, and reproduced on a smaller level everywhere in every side chapel, shop and cafe. That list of names! The world awaits! It's beautiful as well as useful. But I had to hunt. and you can see the same dreary though processes at work - "what this place needs is to be much less like an airport, and much more like Westfield".

The plans, they say, hearken back to the golden age of plane travel. I've been thinking and reading about that golden age recently, partly in connection with my article about the Boeing 747 in the July Icon. This golden age certainly existed - it ended when air passengers chose inexpensive mass transit over luxury boutique travel. That is a choice worth remembering. But one of the characteristics of golden age was service, something that I do not feel will be well served by scrapping check-in desks and replacing them with touchscreens. It might be very efficient - I've had mixed experiences with self-checkin - but it's not exactly personal.

"We want to make people enjoy it" - that note of coercion is a little worrying. And this emphasis on pleasure is equally unsettling. It's the Corporate Pleasure Environment again, endlessly pestering you to relax and chill out and treat yourself and so on, forever reminding you of what a great time you're having and see how it's just like Sex and the City until all you want is to be left alone. Want to make people happy, Gatwick? You can't. Want to help people enjoy the airport? Minimal queuing. Clear signage. Information accurate and prominent. Clean. Efficient circulation. Plentiful seating that you don't have to pay for by buying a coffee. Your italicised logo isn't going to make the tiniest jot of difference to anyone.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Video Screens Announce Departures

Las Vegas airport. Image from my Flickr stream.

On the airport after the arrival of the Boeing 747:

Something was lost. In the jumbo era passengers became oblivious to the outside world, moving through concourses that were double-glazed and super-insulated to muffle the roar of jet engines. Conventional points of entry and transition disappeared. Glass doors opened automatically at the command of seeing-eye photo-electric cells. Moving sidewalks, escalators, and baggage conveyors whispered hydraulically. Departure lounges became shadowless holding tanks, saturated with Muzak and fluorescent lighting. Video screens, first introduced in the 1970s, glowed dimly with arrival and departure times. The experience was ersatz and vacuum-sealed from beginning to end.

From Naked Airport by Alastair Gordon, Chicago, 2004 (partially quoted in my article on the 747 in this month's Icon).

On the tanatorio, a Spanish morgue:

One might expect this to be a solemn place. But, with vigils going on for up to twenty-six dead, all neatly arranged in adjoining cubicles, the tanatorio bustles like a railway terminus. First-timers might think they have stepped into a small airport terminal. Groups of people mill about. A TV monitor tells you which corpse is in which cubicle. A cash dispenser sits in the middle of the foyer. Another machine produces prepaid phone cards. There is, inevitably, a large bar-cum-restaurant doing brisk trade. I even have friends who, because of its extended opening hours, have used it for the last drink on an evening out. A new tanatorio, I notice, has just been opened in Madrid. It advertises on the radio with the slogan "the most modern tanatorio in Europe".

From Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett, Faber, 2006

Friday, 11 June 2010

BP: Beyond Pensioners

As oil continues to gout into the Gulf of Mexico, another victim has made an appearance beyond dead fish and poisoned pelicans: British pensioners. According to yesterday's Daily Telegraph, the spill - and the American government's reaction to it - is hurting them terribly. "BP's position at the top of the London Stock Exchange and its previous reliability have made it a bedrock of almost every pension fund in the country, meaning its value is crucial to millions of workers," the paper reported. The story continues with these chilling quotes:

"We need to ensure that BP is not unfairly treated – it is not some bloodless corporation," said one of Britain's top fund managers. "Hit BP and a lot of people get hit. UK pension money becomes a donation to the US government and the lawyers at the expense of Mrs Jones and other pension funds."

Mark Dampier of the financial services company Hargreaves Lansdown said: "[Mr Obama] is playing to the gallery but is not bringing a solution any closer. Obama has his boot on the throat of British pensioners. There is no point in bashing BP all the time, it's not helpful. It is a terrible situation, but having the American president on your back is not going to get it all cleared up any quicker."

Neil Duncan-Jordan, of the National Pensioners Convention, said: "Most ordinary people would not have thought that BP would have an impact on their retirement but if BP's share price goes down then their pension pot goes down.

"Most of those pension funds are invested in the default option, which is stocks and shares, and so if BP goes down the pan then their pension pot goes down the pan."

Can a pot go down a pan? That pressing question aside, this whole argument is nonsense. Pensions might be affected by BP's tumbling stock price, but pension funds are in the business of risk management - that's all they do, or all they're supposed to do, just as BP is supposed to manage oil drilling is a reasonably responsible manner. The implication of these remarks is that BP should be immune from political or popular sanction or criticism, and to politically hurt BP is to launch an assault directly on pensioners. This is the logical outcome of the worship of "the markets" - a form of corporate fascism, the conflation of corporations, state and people, in which an attack on the FTSE or its larger members constitutes a direct assault on the Volksgemeinschaft.

The outraged tone taken by the fund managers here is extremely familiar. It's the voice of Milo Minderbinder, a character in Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Milo runs a syndicate, which comprises a number of generally crazy money-making schemes, and in which "everyone has a share". An elegant piece of circular logic allows the syndicate to get away with almost anything:

"Milo, how do you do it?" Yossarian inquired with laughing amazement and admiration. "You fill out a flight plane for one place and then you go to another. Don't the people in the control towers ever raise hell?"

"They all belong to the syndicate." Milo said. "And they know that what's good for the syndicate is good for the country, because that's what makes Sammy run. The men in the control towers have a share, too, and that's why they always have to do whatever they can to help the syndicate."

"Do I have a share?"

"Everybody has a share."

Everybody has a share, so what's good for the syndicate is good for everybody, what's good for the syndicate is good for the country, and what's good for Milo is good for the syndicate. Why, anything else is simply unpatriotic. Even the Germans have a share, so eventually the syndicate is being paid by the Americans to attack a bridge while being paid by the Germans to defend it. Milo starts flying German planes, and is horrified when an effort is made by the American authorities to confiscate those planes.

"Is this Russia?" Milo assailed them incredulously at the top of his voice. "Confiscate?" he shrieked, as though he could not believe his own ears. "Since when is it the policy of the American government to confiscate the private property of its citizens? Shame on you! Shame on all of you for even thinking such a horrible thought!"

"But Milo," Major Danby interrupted timidly, "we're at war with Germany, and those are German planes."

"They are no such thing!" Milo retorted furiously. "Those planes belong to the syndicate, and everybody has a share. Confiscate? How can you possibly confiscate your own private property? Confiscate, indeed! I've never heard anything so depraved in my whole life."

His tone of voice is familiar, isn't it? It's the same aggrieved wail of the fund managers, the banks, the hedge funds. Eventually, the syndicate bombs its own airbase, and Milo has gone too far. He is made to reimburse the government. But the syndicate has been making unearthly profits, and everyone benefits, and the government is a democracy, and therefore made up of people who have already benefited, so really the government doesn't need to be reimbursed and the benefit has already gone to the people. Even when it's fouling its own nest and screwing everything is sight, the syndicate is good for everybody and good for the country. That's the Minderbinder logic being used by the defenders of BP.

Update: This post has been reproduced on the New Statesman's Cultural Capital blog, with the volksgemeinschaft stuff trimmed out.