Monday, 29 March 2010


2m40 - Un Blog Impactant is a splendid enterprise. I first saw it on Metafilter a week or two ago, and on my recommendation we're including it in the online picks in the May Icon (083, out in a couple of weeks). It is focused, with pleasing specificity, on a single location: a particular tunnel near the Place de l'Etoile in Paris. This tunnel has a low clearance - 2m 40cm, funnily enough - and regularly scalps oversized vans that attempt to pass through it. simply posts photographs of the results (wreckage, emergency vehicles*, gawping crowds) along with fairly droll commentary in French.

This kind of accident clearly happens in this particular location a lot - presumably the blog's author saw it often before he came up with the idea of immortalising the comeuppance of careless van drivers. And it seems to exert a kind of hold over passers-by, who appear in many of the pictures to be thronging around the accident.

Image from

The Metafilter thread about the site is also interesting, with contributors showing that there are other similar sites, such as this one from the USA. Mostly, of course, roads are designed to minimise the possibility of accidents. But some roads happen to create the perfect conditions for an accident. It's all geometry - trajectory, speed, momentum, lines of sight, incline, camber. To which we can add "human incaution", itself a vector.

In the UK, roads that generate a unusually high number of accidents are referred to as "accident blackspots"; in the film Withnail & I, there's a scene when the protagonists pass a sign warning of an accident blackspot. Signs like this are erected in the knowledge that driver inattention in a key component of these accidents; they're intended to spark a greater awareness of the urban, to jolt drivers out of complacency, to change the vector of incaution, inattention. They say: This landscape is not as it appears.

Look at that. "Accident Blackspot"? These aren't accidents. They're throwing themselves into the road gladly. Throwing themselves into the road to escape all this hideousness.

- Withnail & I.

The accident-ready landscape has other visual cues as well: a layer of burned rubber left by many tires on the road, scraped barriers, forlorn bunches of polythene-wrapped petrol station flowers attached to railings and signposts with zip ties, ghost bikes. In his essay "Third World Driving Hints and Tips", PJ O'Rourke comments on the custom in some countries of indicating a crash fatality with a roadside cross - if you round a corner at speed and find yourself confronted by a sea of crosses, he writes, you're done for.

This site offers aerial views of some UK accident blackspots - intriguing little images, inscrutable in their banality, with their hidden pattern of death and destruction. Complicated junctions, bringing together traffic of different speeds from different and unexpected directions, seem to be the rule.

The Integrated and Permanent Accident

I recently finished reading David Nye's book When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America (my review will appear in Icon 084). Central to Nye's history is the idea of the "integrated accident" (a la Paul Virilio): the invention of the plane was also the invention of the plane crash. A blackout presupposes the existence of a power grid. As a parallel track to this worthwhile bit of reading, I have also been playing quite a lot of a video game called Burnout - specifically, Burnout 3: Takedown and its successor Burnout: Revenge.

Burnout is an astonishing amount of fun to play. It is ostensibly a driving/racing game, pursuing sports cars around beautifully rendered urban and mountain scenery. But as opposed to a game like Gran Turismo - which is all about precision and a nerdish delight in mastering the physics of driving - Burnout rewards recklessness. To earn speed boosts and rank increases, you have to take absurd risks in traffic and at the same time attempt to smash your rivals off the road. The atavistic joy that comes with slamming a rival into a concrete bridge support cannot be demurely stated. And if one of your rivals manages to splat you, you still have options - holding down R1 triggers "impact time", which slows down time and allows you to steer your flaming wreck into the other competitors. Crashing is the most important element of gameplay - accordingly, the crashes are rendered in extraordinary detail; not so much realism as blockbuster-hyperrealism. With this in mind, you begin to see how the different landscapes have been built to facilitate spectacular accidents with conveniently placed ramps, barriers and pillars. This is clearest on the "crash mode" levels, which involve nothing more than accelerating into a busy intersection and trying to involve as many vehicles as possible in a spectacular pile-up.

The "crash mode" levels thus take on a feeling similar to the opening scenes of the dismal UK medical drama Casualty, in which there is some fun to be had trying to guess the nature of the accident that will land the unfortunate bit-players in hospital. The innocuous intersection, with your car idling in a side-street, contains all the elements of the "perfect" crash - over that ramp, bounce off the bus, across both lanes of the freeway and into that big rig. Kaplooie. The accident is all there, it just takes the human vector, the player, to tie it all together. Across the rest of the game, individual crashes run into each other in chains of destruction. Discrete "crashes" run together into a vast, continuous, permanent accident in which every vehicle and every inch of road is somehow involved. Living near a main road strewn with the fragments of shattered brake lights, as I do, sometimes real life looks a lot like that as well.

Of course all this relates to JG Ballard's Crash, and Vaughan's accident-reenactments. It would make an interesting exercise, I thought, to appriase Burnout from a Ballardian perspective - but sadly Matt Bittanti got there first , and with far more style than I could muster [download "crash.pdf" for the results].

Thanks to Simon for drawing my attention to Bittanti.

* The French for those revolving lights on top of police cars is "gyrophares". Isn't that great?

Monday, 15 March 2010

The 21st-Century Equivalent of William Morris Wallpaper

Aaron Koblin's Flight Patterns, part of Decode at the V&A.

There might be a bit of a lull in the blogging for the next week or two - I have a rather heavy workload. In the meantime, here's a self-indulgent selection of a few bits and bobs that have been published or archived online in the past couple of weeks, and that I haven't mentioned before.

"The Warcraft Civilization is the outcome of two years of research, including more than 2300 hours playing the game. Bainbridge has simultaneously run dozens of characters (who he winningly refers to as 'research assistants') across a thorough cross-section of servers, races and classes, and he has played to the maximum skill-levels attainable; he also hosted Azeroth's first-ever scientific conference. And even if Warcraft does not become a permanent part of our culture, Bainbridge says, it's essential to study it now. If, decades hence, researchers want to examine World Of Warcraft, they can restart the servers and run the software, but they can't provide the hundreds of thousands of players distributed across the world that make the game what it is. This is a book that demands to be taken seriously. It's all so promising – heavyweight academic, neglected but fascinating subject matter, bold claims to support – but Bainbridge almost blows it." - Review: The Warcraft Civilization (for Edge Online)

"'An architect, and this might sound negative, has to be capable of manipulating people as the sculptor is capable of manipulating material,' he explains. 'Because that is essentially our building material – it’s getting other people to go along. But also there’s a lot of incorporating input from the outside – I realise that there’s this like entourage of decision makers and if you can, in a zen-like way, make their forces the driving force of a project, you’re much more powerful as an architect.'" - Profile: Bjarke Ingels

"Digital technologies are highly disruptive – all around us, their effect is revolutionary, upsetting industries and social systems, changing the way we work, play, live and think. But Decode doesn’t feel very revolutionary or dangerous – it’s pretty and entertaining. Despite its subtitle – “digital design sensations” – there’s little that’s very sensational about Decode, nothing that hits you at gut level and makes you realise that the world’s going to be very different. Individually, these pieces are all perfectly meritorious, although it should be said that a few weren’t working when I visited. But when the work on show is taken as a whole, its focus on aesthetics and making the raw, terrifyingly abstract world of data and the network attractive and seemly, makes it feel similar to the bourgeois Victorian decorative arts that took inspiration from nature. It’s the 21st-century equivalent of William Morris wallpaper." - Review: Decode

"Even though they never came to trouble the surface of the planet, the projects are still “masterworks” – it says so right on the cover. Actually breaking ground is beside the point now that digital technology has advanced to the present state of the art. Authenticity is overrated in a digital decade, where we can fight wars over non-existent weapons and billions of pounds can dematerialise in minutes." - Review: Unbuilt Masterworks

"'Standing before costly objects of technological beauty,' de Botton writes, 'we might be tempted to to reject the possibility of awe, for fear that we might grow stupid through admiration.' Instead, the writer chooses to be awed, and he’s right to be. It leads to the best part of the book: in the middle of the night, he is taken out to the end of the south runway and stands reverently on the portion of the tarmac where planes touch down, the focal point of the whole extraordinary enterprise. It’s a near-religious site – certainly, more prayers are offered there than in any church in the land." - Review: A Week At The Airport

"Starck is magnificent on screen, like some eccentric bright-feathered predator which grips its prey in a death-hug, dissolves it with kisses, and puts the bones on the next Eurostar." - Review: Philippe Starck's Design for Life

Icons of the month: the barcode, the book (written in retro-speculative manner for Icon's fiction issue) and, appropriately enough,

Thursday, 4 March 2010

The Exoderm of the Edifice

Graham Robb has written a fascinating article (subscribers only, sadly) in the new LRB on the subject of Michael Camille's new(ish) book The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity. Robb writes:
As Michael Camille points out, gargoyles bear the brunt of the weather: they are part of ‘the exoderm of the edifice’, eroded by the water they channel away from the building. They were never intended to last, which might account for their flippancy or irreverence: they were temporary, decorative items; like court jesters, they could express unpleasant truths. The other projecting sculptures, known as chimeras, have no such excuse, and no one knows for certain in what spirit those fish-lipped mutants, flesh-tearing ghouls and masturbating demons were produced. Camille supposes that the medieval artist, ‘in order not to be unnerved by the evil eyes of the devils he was called upon to carve, often ridiculed them’. If so, the devils had the last word: was it really a fearful, superstitious artist who carved the little imp in the central portal (one of Viollet-le-Duc’s favourites), whose tongue protrudes in concentration as he buggers a king with a stick?

"The exoderm of the edifice" is a great phrase, perfectly capturing Camille's meaning: the outer skin, which flakes away. It is fascinating to consider that medieval masons might have been farsighted enough to consider parts of their structures essentially disposable; that they considered the long-term decline and ruination and restoration of the buildings they worked on. One thinks of the (sadly apocryphal, as discussed in this Quiet Babylon post) tale of the New College trees. Entire lines of masons, passing on the same skills in an unbroken chain of apprenticeship to maintain the same buildings, which in a state of permanent renewal - looking at the ancient cathedrals as things that are continually restored rather than subject to periodic total restoration, one can see the masons' scaffolding as being part of the structure itself, like the window-cleaning cranes on top of modern office blocks.

My own theory about pre-modern architecture (which I've nursed privately for years safely away from malign influences such as evidence or research) is that its standards of craftsmanship were partly a response to the longevity of building projects against the short lifespans of their workers. Many of the workers would never live to see a great building finished; if they were going to spend all their life toiling over one particular flying buttress then, by golly, that buttress was going to be the finest thing you ever saw.

Returning to the Robb piece, it's a real shame it's behind the LRB subscriber wall because it really is a splendid read, covering Viollet-le-Duc's "restoration" of Notre Dame and the pathological relationship of that church's gargoyles with the city of Paris. Pick up a print copy while you still can, or order one. Robb ends with a sad look at a more recent restoration which eliminated much of the threat from Notre-Dame's stone animals, giving them playful expressions and smirks in line with the Disneyfication of the gargoyle.

The piece has some personal meaning to me. I grew up in Oxford, home to one of the finest collections of gothic architecture outside Germany. Gothic was my first architectural love - and I mean proper medieval perpendicular gothic, not the prettified gingerbread version beloved by the Victorians. (I'm not writing off all Victorian gothic, some of it is very fine, but much is frankly regrettable.) My childhood memories are populated by blackened walls, spiky skylines and gargoyles, which my parent delighted in pointing out. Oxford has its drawbacks as a place to live, but it was a magnificent laboratory for a child's imagination, and in retrospect its clear why I fell upon the work of Mervyn Peake, MR James, Edgar Allen Poe and HP Lovecraft when I did.

But something terrible happened to this crumbling, mysterious Oxford. It was cleaned. In the 1980s and early 1990s a tide of restoration swept the city and college after college disappeared under scaffolding only to re-emerge gleaming and transformed. University College and Magdalen were particular shocks. They no longer looked particularly old. Oxford today looks, bizarrely, a far younger place than it did in the middle of the 1980s.