Monday, 26 April 2010

Radio Alarm

A 500-word short story written on a plane using an idea destined for another project. This was written for the Campaign For Real Fear competition, where it didn't get a place on the longlist. Because of the hugely unsatisfactory last line, I imagine. Or because I screwed up the formatting of my entry, which I did. Or any number of other reasons. Photo from my Flickr stream.

Around the time he stopped drinking, he started seeing the bottles. They had probably always been there, left in the gutter outside his building, but now he noticed them. Just soft drink bottles, Coke and Pepsi mostly, but filled with yellow liquid. It was easy to imagine what this fluid might be, but hard to guess why it was being bottled and abandoned like this. The question preyed on his mind.

Many things troubled him like that. He had cut out the drink one hundred percent, the coldest cold turkey. His days were filled with slow clocks watched with a racing pulse, and anxieties that clawed at him. The nights were worse. With no drink to knock him out, he had forgotten how to fall asleep. Instead he lay in bed, between sheets that felt filthy even when clean, sweat on his face and the palms of his hands, back taut like a bow. As he stared at the ceiling, stained sodium-orange by the streetlights, terrible thoughts came to visit. Every twinge was the warning sign of painful and terminal disease. He would fail, continue the fatal trajectory the drink had shown him.

In this limbo, jaws clenched, small distractions became intolerable. The radio alarm was worst. It was old, and in its senility it had become promiscuous. When it was quiet, and he lay next to it, he heard soft voices emitting from its yellowing plastic shell. The radio was off, volume at zero, but still there were the voices. Often it was the jarring electronic bleating that comes from a speaker before a nearby mobile phone rings. Only turning it off at the mains, killing the clock, could silence it.

Presently he was able to connect the interference with the bottles. It was minicab drivers parking in his street off the main road late at night between their calls. The alarm picked up their radios, and they were leaving the bottles in the gutter after filling them in their cabs. After that, when he heard the radio alarm crackle and voices speak across the electronic gulf, he would go to the window and find the parked car, its driver visible in the light of the dashboard, waiting out the night with him.

One night, after a day spent watching his hands quivering and feeling his heart tighten, an electrostatic bark again broke into his sleeplessness. He listened to it hiss and rip, longing for a second's rest. With the clock past three, he crossed to the window.

The street was empty.

Returning to bed, the static was joined by a voice, quiet and insistent. Angry, sick, he pulled the plug from the wall. The digital display went dead. He closed his eyes.

Still the voice went on, repeating its message into the night. The plug lay on the floor, but the radio alarm spoke, buzzing and whistling through space. "You will die, you will die, I am patient, I can wait, you will die.”

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Ewww'll Be Sorry

Kosmograd's thoughtful and provocative post about the ArcelorMittal Orbit earlier today has reminded me that I promised to return to the subject, talking specifically about the structure and not about its imagery or the reaction to it. As Kosmograd says, the Orbit is a little more palatable when viewed side-on as a model, and not through the trippy Tim Burton-esque lens of Arup's absurd renders. From that perspective, it is possible to make out something almost Tatlinesque about it.

But there the constructive comparisons with constructivism must halt. I'm still not a fan. I hate what this monument represents (the thought of visitors in 2052 traipsing past a display praising Mittal's "vision" and "generosity" makes me sick to my stomach) and I dislike it as a form; its structural loops and swirls don't really appear to stretch the boundaries of the possible so much as show off how easy it is for us to build something unusual at this comparitively modest height. Still, K'grad's chiding of instant snark make me feel like I have little new to add to what has been a spectacular outpouring of denigration and disgust on the part of the commentariat, so I'll leave it there.

There is, however, something else going on, something that I think is interesting. Over the past few weeks I've tried to confront and interrogate my own distaste for this structure, feeling very uncomfortable about my dislike for it. The root of this disquiet is now clear. A lot of the Orbit's defenders - or at least the wait-and-see contingent - have made the point that many much-loved buildings and structures (the Eiffel tower, to take Kosmograd's example) were opposed and derided when they were new. This is true; indeed, it's a point familiar to modernists justifying groundbreaking structures to a conservative audience. Pugin and Barry's Houses of Parliament were widely hated. Pugin himself deplored the ugliness of the Victorian city against the beauty of the medieval city. So it goes.

I realised that I was frightened of being caught on the wrong side of history, of being one of the reactionaries who booed Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. This is not healthy. My only motivation for revising my opinion would be so I did not look like a stick-in-the-mud in the eyes of a future generation of Londoners who hold the Orbit to be magnificent, and who are proud of it as a symbol of their city. Obviously I would prefer to be on the side of the bold, the brave, the new.

But in this case that would be dishonest. As it is, the prospect of the Orbit rising over the East End fills me with gloom. Once the thing is up, perhaps familiarity will soften it. I don't know. Familiarity is the magic ingredient here, though. Come 2052, if the Orbit is still standing, I'm sure many Londoners, perhaps the majority, will like the Orbit and feel proud of it. This won't be an aesthetic judgment in most cases - it will simply be a product of familiarity, of being used to a structure and associating it with their home city. There's nothing wrong with that reaction, but we shouldn't lie to ourselves about it now out of fear of being caught on the wrong side of that future consensus. I wonder if the Orbit's defenders are (consciously or not) writing themselves into the desirable role of the visionary, farsighted minority who saw the potential of this structure when the herd around them pooh-poohed it; and if so they are acting against their own aesthetic judgement. (I don't mean to malign anyone in this, my own experience related above tells me how strong this desire can be.)

This nervous desire to second-guess posterity feels like a new phenomenon, a product of the modernist supremacy slipping into the past and the immense power of the "they laughed at Columbus" meme in a relativist age, or part of the same queasy cultural acceleration that means some artists and comedians now see outrage as a form of acclaim. Maybe it doesn't exist, and I'm projecting my own insecurities onto the critical scene. Still, if it is out there, I think it's worth marking it down as undesirable - it's as weary and irrelevant to today as knee-jerk appeals to historical precedent. It is looking into the rear-view mirror not to see the road behind but to see what the kids in the back seat are doing. Keep your eyes on the road.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Shock of the Ewww

Architecture is consumed at walking pace, but nowadays architecture criticism takes place at the speed of light. First impressions can be an important part of building a picture of a building when approach it on foot or in car, but when a digital image of a proposed building flashes over the fibre-optics and plops into one’s inbox, or Twitter feed, first impressions are about all you get. Zap, there it is, all buffed and ready, showing what is presumably its best side, with no intriguing glimpses over rooftops of approaches over lawns. “Hmm,” one says, or sometimes “Wow!”, and depressingly often “Eww”. And that’s all you get – you don’t proceed to consume the building, to explore it, you’re already done, the image is burned onto your mind like the floating blob left in the eyes by a camera flash. There’s some text, but that mostly is just an attempt to serve up a selection of adjectives that you might want to use in your story: “Vibrant”, “exciting”, “dynamic”, and of course “iconic”.

When I opened the emailed press release containing an image – that is, one (1) image – of the Anish Kapoor’s design for the ArcelorMittal Orbit, my immediate reaction was “fucking hell”. Instant and powerful dislike, coupled with instant horror: not a bad reaction to a work of art, but much less desirable in a structure that I think will be visible from my bedroom. The first visual impression I got was of a fountain of gore, the flying sanguinous strings that accompany the chestburster’s emergence from John Hurt, or the various hideous transformations of John Carpenter’s The Thing. This was accompanied by a strong reminder of the bonus buildings from Simcity 2000, which were a little too cartoony, bright and unrealistic. So I joined the chorus of disapproval on Twitter, where people were being most entertaining in their denigration. A number of blog posts have been composed attacking the design, from Hugh Pearman’s fairly thoughtful assessment to (Icon’s own) Douglas Murphy’s cri de couer.

There is of course something disreputable about this instantaneous critical consensus – seeing a render and popping over the Twitter to trade witticisms about it with one’s peers. (It is, however, no less reputable an activity than its tedious sister, contrarianism.) I rolled my eyes somewhat when it was the American Embassy getting Twitter-savaged, and the pleasure I derived from watching the Space Tangle getting a virtual kicking yesterday seems somehow unclean.

One of the things I like about Icon is that it doesn’t trade in renders. We only report on buildings when they’re finished. (Renders do pop up in profiles of architects, though, to show projects they have in the pipeline or never completed, but that’s rather different.) There’s not much that can be usefully said about a render because a building can look dramatically different when it is completed – I say one or two things about the magical world of renders here. It’s dangerous to write off a building on the basis of a render, but it’s equally foolish to praise it. You have to make it clear that you could be wrong.

This is especially the case with a bizarre image like the one that popped into my inbox (pictured above, the most widely-circulated view of the Orbit). Renders, being marketing material, come with certain implicit features that we can safely infer – that we are seeing the building in the best possible circumstances, from the best possible angle. Look at the Orbit render: the angle is impossible, as if we are viewing from an adjacent high building, with a curious wide-angle (almost fish-eye) effect. This unlikely aspect is sandwiched between two planes that are unreal to the point of being positively hallucinogenic – an acid-trip-in-Nevada sky and a great apron of what I assume is concrete; across this fair field, folk appear to be gravitating towards the Orbit from all directions, untroubled by queues, ticket booths, chicanes and the sort of honkytonk distractions that I’m sure will fill the Olympic park. It’s a e-number-loaded confection of an image, created solely to provoke a rush of sensation, that indeterminate thrillshock of the unexpected. That glandular burst of sensation has already served its purpose when it curdles into “like” or “dislike” – and the building hasn’t been used for the first time, it has used you for the first time, it has made its first and most important demand on your recently upgraded fishbrain. Coming out of that experience, a direct neural interlace with a marketing computer, with a bad taste in the mouth is only natural.

(I hope to follow up with a second post with some thoughts about the Orbit itself, but I'm out of time.)