Friday, August 31, 2007

A place where we can go, where we are not known

The optimist's corollary of the ever-increasing horror that is the airport is the visual and environmental wonderfulness that is the Railway and its stations. Indeed, trainspotting always struck me as an eminently sensible act of appreciating the industrial aesthetic, until I realised that they were just crossing off lists of numbers. Although now and then I like to embrace my inner Fred Dibnah and gaze in awe at the glories of wrought-iron work and the magnificent enveloping lattices of the train shed, unsurprisingly my preferences are for the very late, just pre-nationalisation (or post, in London's case) era - the continental sublimity of Surbiton, and the Middlesex Dudok of the Piccadilly Line. So accordingly, I curse the very name of Beeching, for the mutilation of the British Rail network only around 10 years before environmental research would make it plain that all those pointless little stations were in fact far more urgently needed than they probably were when feverish 1840s speculation got them built.

It's a fine example of just how one-sided Butskellism was that within a decade of the nationalisation of public transport it was chopped to pieces to make way for its private successor. In Hampshire there's a little fragment of the lines denoted pointless that was kept open and preserved in aspic for nostalgists, transport enthusiasts and engineering fetishists - the Watercress Line, something which I'm sure Robin Carmody has an opinion on. Circling through all manner of aimless and smugly Tory towns like Alresford and Ropley, the stations are left with all their just post-WW2 signage, some presumably more recently added adverts for Nosegay and 'Camp' Coffee, and the elegant, nationalised rolling stock with decidedly Potterian interiors criss-crosses towns where post-1979 psuedo-Victorian buildings nearly outnumber the originals. Fun as this is, the dilapidated and hidden remnants are as ever the more interesting. Those seedily exciting locations mentioned in Smiths lyrics: 'I took you behind...a disused railway line'...the former Southampton terminus, now a Casino, with its shed and scrubland hidden behind; the Angerstein industrial railway in East Greenwich, part of which still seems to exist, shunting freight from the remains of the docks...

Freeze, don't Burn

One person I can't believe is as yet unmentioned in connection with the continued permutations of the possessors of that voice is - irrespective of their occasional worthiness - Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney. Glassy, commanding, imprerious, general impression of towering over the listener, etc, all there, especially circa 'Dig me Out', as something of a warble has crept in since. Especially interesting in the moments where Carrie Brownstein's more laconic tones creep in and have to be veritably stamped upon by her olympian hollering.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Wildcat Strike!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Paternalism and Dinosaurs

Will someone please think of a better name for the rare moments when the educated refuse to patronise, talk down to or otherwise fling prolefeed at the majority than paternalism...? The phrase is useful in that it annoys some who deserve to be thoroughly annoyed, but has all manner of horrible connotations of the familial, the Fordist and most worryingly, the Fascist. The particular phenomenon that this is an inadequate phrase for was spotted most recently by me on a visit to the Natural History Museum, for the first time since I was around 8 years old. Incidentally: this is the sort of building that elicits thoughts of Deng's line on Mao's Mausoleum: 'it was wrong to build it, and it would be wrong to knock it down'. An incredible Gothic fantasy, with every possible available space filled with carved creatures: monkeys on pillars, deer poking out from the encrusted tops of columns, trilobites in the walls, as if to mock the rationalist intentions of such an institution. Aside from that, the combination of huge dinosaur skeleton and structure akin to Victorian train shed is very steampunk.

Anyway: the salient contrast is between the exhibits that are (fairly obviously) from the 70s or thereabouts, and those from the last few years. An example of the former is a little installation on the evolution of man from ape. The voice on the accompanying video is astoundingly patrician, the technology somewhat rickety, but the line is 'this is what we think happened. Here is some evidence'. For all the haughty tone, the visitor's intelligence is respected. Obviously, like much of the place, it's designed to be understandable to children: seeing as I last visited when at primary school, I don't recall feeling either patronised or confused (but then I was a bit of a swot). Then there's the newly designed Dinosaur enclosures. Now the cast skeletons are so obviously sensational you wouldn't think they needed extra jazzing up: but you're rammed into a maze like horror of interactive* exhibits, toys, cartoons and babytalk, with an ANIMATRONIC DINOSAUR at one end of a continuous, airport-like passageway (which is the only path allowed). One might be stuffy and ineffectual, but the other exemplifies nicely the forcible fun and queasy infantilising that is it's obverse.

* (Of course Interactiveness and the concomitant relational aesthetics is a plague that needs to be thoroughly denounced. Haing said that, a recent product of some major relational culprits, the new Serpentine pavilion, is interesting for just being a space in itself, without any accompanying jazziness other than an overpriced cafe. A shame perhaps about the ostentatious irregularity, which seems to be irksomely essential to all 21st century architecture - something I was pleased, if surprised, to find Koolhaas deriding recently.)

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Interstellar Revolution

And more on that oh so hot topic: I watched this film for the first time's 8 minutes long and very difficult to describe. Enjoy!

War on Biology

You can tell a polemical book has been worth your while when it could easily conclude 'and then, comrades, we can explore the cosmos together!' Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex doesn't quite do this, alas, but it quite easily could have. This book, which is somewhat key to any discussion of the spectre of sexpol, has been my tube reading of late, and what an extraordinary thing it is. Not for its critique, which is in places predictable (comics and Eldridge Cleaver are macho, romance is ideological, etc) but for what the programme. This is a feminist equivalent of the very American techno-utopianism of your Buckminster Fuller types, in that it very much precedes the technophobia that has been a plague on the Left since the late 60s, and instead proposes a feminist revolution via an unrelenting war on nature.

Biology, which as she points out was already hugely mutable by humanity (and become more so since she wrote this in 1969) is the irreconcilable enemy of the revolution. In the later stages of the book, this seems like a revolution based on the abilities of the more impressive humanoids in Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men. A humanity in which eroticism has been diffused across the whole of society and all human interaction, via a total abolition of the couple, pregnancy, marriage, childhood and capitalism - replaced with something which resembles the social life of the bonobo colliding with what she calls 'cybernetic communism'. Even more than the third wave feminists, this is something astoundingly far from contemporary sexual politics: the fetishism of birth and biology has if anything increased: a matter which reminds of the book's one laugh-out-loud moment, the anecdote on birth as akin to 'shitting a pumpkin'.

Also enormously valuable is the concomitant contempt for 'culture', something to be obliterated in her programme as much as the natural. The impressively Hegelian diagrams show a humanity progressively attaining a unity, via feminist and socialist revolution, of art and life (not on the model of the previous failed attempts, mind you: hence the dismissal of the Bauhaus as 'neither art nor science'). Culture, like the couple, would be abolished because of its exclusive character, the private nature of its exchanges. This scientific sexpol socialism would terrify half of the Left, not to mention most feminists, today - on which note, the embarassed comments of its recent readers on Amazon are apposite...

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Constructive Criticism

A curious question that has come up while planning my first book (touch wood), is whether or not one can, or should, devote a large section to the architecture of a country one hasn't actually visited. So as well as a heartfelt plea to all universities with spare money in the former Soviet Union, this is a round up of a couple of recently discovered substitutes. First, a video of the astonishing Gosprom complex in Kharkov from the local news, which apparently also had underneath it the remains of Woolly Mammoths. It is also the subject of the extremely peculiar postcard above. Further, there's the question of whether or not google translator is enough...although it helps with stuff like this page on the 'factory kitchen', one of the most admirable and authentically utopian Constructivist ideas: as pointed out in Jameson's Archaeologies of the Future, a communal kitchen is part of any utopia worth bothering with.

'Real Life and Postcard Views...'

Oh, Europe Endless...Up at my Flickr is another load of the same, including as well as several extra boring and non-boring postcards, a few the majestic Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin, which annoyingly were taken on the only non-blazingly sunny day that I was there: but hopefully this adds to the general atmosphere of European Grey.

The postcard above, meanwhile (which, mark you, is 'jumbo') came through the post this morning, an example of that hugely underrated architectural subgenre, the spaceage tower, another fine example of which can be found in the background of one of the Berlin pics. Another excellent tower is the one at the top of this post, on the Slovakian-Polish border, courtesy of Joel Anderson.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Space and Speculation

A long promised (not that anyone may be bothered) piece by me on Colonel Seifert with some attendant digs at Baron Foster is now up at Archinect, with the customary excellent pictures and links - cheers to all involved.

The Non-Grain of That Voice

The Impostume finally confesses its guilty feelings of lust and terror on beholding the icy tones of Eve Libertine, and it seems the discussion of that voice has taken a turn for the rum. Which isn't really my fault, as I was set off by the video/song combination chez Hennings, and by her really rather key talk of the 'streak of the womanly'. The definition of that voice seems to have gotten pretty wide (from Dorothy Moskowitz's slightly sinister calmness to all manner of highly showtune belters) so I might widen it a bit, and rope Kelis into all it: especially as we have R&B (in both 60s earthy and 90s melismatic senses) as that voice antipode. Essentially there are two distinct versions of the R&B female vocal: the depersonalised, replicant rapaciousness of Cassie, or whoever it is who sings 'Fantasy' on the new Timbaland LP (according to the sleeve they're called 'Money'!), and the oh-so adult hollering of Beyonce.

Kelis, though, has something very similar to that voice: it doesn't make a fuss of itself, sounds somewhat old beyond its years, comes across as both somewhat glacial and full. Particularly on candidate for most underrated record of the last 10 years Wanderland, it totally transcends all those somewhat creepy 'Good Girl Gone Bad' cliches to sound alternately imperious and uncertain. Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with vocal science and droning tones, although the apologia for the classic little girl first LP, whore second LP schema doesn't quite ring true (interesting also that the second Kelis album bombed precisely because of its refusal to follow this pattern, which she's seemingly spent her career since trying to atone for). It's the tension between the full-bodied/disembodied which makes the term 'womanly' appropriate here, in that it sounds like an adult voice rather than an 18 year old's - albeit without the grimly gutsy, overdemonstrative horrors that usually entails.

Fa-fa-fa-fa Fashion

Further to the questions asked below, I've posted up at The neglected Measures Taken a feature on a book called Fashioning Socialism on the DDR's penchant for 'Mode' that I recently submitted to a respected journal, who may or may not print it. My eventual contention, that fashion in the eastern bloc was essentially an interestingly crap version of its Western equivalent because of the state's reliance on the continuation of capitalist alltagsleben, can't quite be transferred to market Stalinist conditions. Borrowing Kodwo Eshun's phrase (on music journalism) of the 'future-shock absorber' might be more appropriate - modernity's acceleration and capitalism's simultaneous growth and putrefaction are no longer 'expressed' but avoided or hidden in personal appearance, much as it is in Barratt Homes. NB: my own sartorial choices, usually for second hand and frequently grey items with occasional brightly coloured shirts made of 70s fabrics, accessorised with Stalinist pin badges, is also not an adequate response to late capitalism.

An aside: there is, despite the resistance of the sensible part of my brain, a definite errm, affinity that I have with the products of the Eastern Bloc, and this is something I can mainly put down to the fact that it has some sort of oddly Proustian effect on me. Maybe the comment on my Wyndham Court post to the effect that 60s Southampton=Alexanderplatz explains it, or Lawrence Miles' contention (numbers 186-90) that 'I feel a close emotional ("emotional"…!) kinship with the architecture of the mid-to-late twentieth century, not exactly because it was the only thing I did get to investigate, but because I tend to think of it as an extension of my own body.' I wouldn't quite say that, but have to admit that on apprehension of a plattenbau housing block or a windswept precinct, it feels like home, which is a rare feeling to we rootless cosmopolitans.

Monday, August 20, 2007

'An electric belt adapts to Climatic Changes'

This video (ta to Kiri for the link) illustrates what the fashionable man and woman about town will be wearing in the 21st century. Of course, as discussed by IT and Limited Inc, the general uniform of fashionable folk, with slight adjustments according to social class (ie, shellsuits vs american apparel) is currently akin to a kind of adult romper suit. What, we must ask for the thousandth time, went wrong...

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Schadenfreude Corner

Things I have enjoyed during the 'STOCK MARKET TURMOIL' (hurrah for the Standard!): 'Darling says not to Panic', the spectacle of neoliberals asking for a state bail-out without a shred of irony, hanging round the Lloyds building thinking how easily all those girders would accomodate a few nooses, or perhaps a guillotine, and the question of what exactly is going to happen to all the gleaming trading floors being erected all over London: a few homeless shelters perhaps? Council flats? Or another arena for the public humiliation of the bastards who've made London almost uninhabitable? Just think of the possibilities. Or: what if the post office strike wins, and the City collapses, all in one month...? (reminds self not to be over-optimistic...)

Long live the performance of Everyday Life

Maybe the only interesting promise of postmodernism was that we might all get to live in a film set. Watching Brazil for the umpteenth time after reading, via the fantastic, ruthless demolition of 80s/90s architectural pretensions that is the Diane Ghirardo-edited Out of Site, that the set where Sam Lowry's ducts are playing up is, in fact, an actual council housing estate in Marne-la-Vallee, which is also, curiously enough, the home of Eurodisney. The 'Spaces of Abraxas' were designed by Ricardo Bofill and the Taller in the early 80s as a spur to the monumentalisation of everyday life, putting the minimal flats within a decidedly Stalinist series of monumental (yet prefabricated) classical blocks. The architects specifically recalled the language of both '68 and the 1920s, in calling for the 'elevation' and 'theatricalisation' of the quotidian, much as in the Alexei Gan book title above. This, seemingly, is an area begging for a Jameson essay.

Yet as Out of Site points out, the facilities that Modernists advocated to help usher in the new everyday life - the collective kitchens, the facilities, the social condensers - were totally absent. The remarkable thing is, that Brazil's sets seem the most 'set-like' imaginable: seemingly made out of cardboard or at the most, fibreglass, looking incredibly flimsy (something I'd always considered deliberate): that someone actually lives in Lowry's block seems utterly incredible. A life lived inside a model. It might well be a fun place for a hauntology of neoliberal aesthetics, as apparently, surprise surprise, it has not been well maintained. Surely, nonetheless, as appropriate for Thatcherism as Thamesmead was for a dying Butskellism, and a reminder that the film is as much a depiction of the morphing, glossy facades of late capital as it is of the more obvious 'socialist' bureaucracy (in fact, is it the first filmed representation of 'market Stalinism'?) Since this steampunk atemporality, most new housing still resembles a film set: just for an extraordinarily boring film.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Last Days of Functionalism

The Great Expositions were always about the spectacularised vision of the future. A showy reservation containing idealised versions of the shape of things to come, without the grubby marks that history might leave. 40 years ago at Expo 1967 in Montreal was erected one of the most comprehensive of these vsions of the future: Moshe Safdie’s Habitat, a vast, multi-level arrangement of little concrete boxes, exploding all the regularities and certainties of the international style into seemingly randomly aligned arrangements. In textbooks like the beautifully illustrated Hamlyn paperback Architecture, this was the exemplar of what the 21st century city might be, as envisaged in the window between the dissatisfaction with ‘classical modernism’ and the wholesale rejection of postmodernism. In years we’re now as far away from Habitat as Safdie was from Mies’ plan of the future at the Weissenhof Werkbund Expo, so it’s as much of a museum piece: only with even less of a lived trace.

Safdie’s book Beyond Habitat (1970) is a fascinating little document of the aforementioned window, the same space occupied by the Metabolists or Archigram, only without the latter’s edge of Futurist-Popist Nihilism. The inspirations for the design are claimed to be the cubic, clustered non-design of Arab villages (this was of course the Nazi insult for Weissenhof), but not as an ahistorical abstraction, but as an example of how building and environment intersect and work with each other. Safdie, as an Israeli, was very conscious of how the international style imposed on the area was akin to the colonising tendency in Zionist state building. So the other element, with the revived city-cluster, was the Kibbutz: kibbutz-style voluntarist, co-operative (what the Constructivists would have called ‘Byt-reformist’) socialism he claims to have been ‘the highest social development achieved anywhere this century’. So from this combustible, contradictory mix comes what was basically his first draft of Habitat: a self-building megastructure designed for the use of Palestinian refugees, an idea he returned to after the Six-Day War.

Yet the other element is the 1930s international style architecture of Haifa, built by the colonisers: and reading Beyond Habitat, one realises that his problem with the official modern movement was precisely that it wasn’t Functionalist enough. For Safdie, Mies’ structural expressionism wasn’t rationalist, because it ignored wider, more important structures: society, the environment, weather, class, science, urbanism – and this is exactly Hannes Meyer or Karel Teige’s critique. But there’s nothing further, aesthetically, from the sobriety of Left-Bauhaus Functionalism than Habitat. Maybe because of its ostentatious irregularity, its clear lack of sachlichkeit and its naturalist mimeticism, but also the ambitiousness: Buckminster Fuller’s techno-utopianism shod with a very 60s attempt at solving all social problems in one vaulting concrete act.Each box has its own garden and is carefully placed for light and to be individually recognisable to the tenant, in a more dispersed equivalent to Denys Lasdun’s Bethnal Green clusters.

Fuller’s influence can also be seen in Safdie’s enthusiasm for prefabrication. There are photos of Habitat where an entire box/house can be seen lifted into place, and the complete fibreglass kitchens being hoisted and slotted in. He cites the Soviet achievements in total prefabrication, but is horrified by all that regularity and rectilinearity. It’s just not American enough: this was a prefab fabulation, where technology creates fantasy. He presciently predicted a world in which only opera houses and galleries are architect-designed, and the rest left to systems: only the system now is based on a reduced version of the 19th century, rather than those of Habitat. If architects are to avoid just becoming irrelevant, they have to react against this, not by ‘playing stylistic games with ornaments, grilles and decoration’, but by immersing themselves in social science and technological research.

Like the postmodernists he called for a ‘new vernacular’, but one recognising that ‘the aircraft is the vernacular design of our time’: a vernacular that would somehow meld the casbah and the concorde. One could ruefully list all the (presented as rather modest and mild) proposals made in this book: from free public transport to Israel becoming part of a middle-eastern confederation, and the general weird Fuller-esque co-operative corporatism. The real strength of the book and the concept – it’s call for a renewed, non-idealist, socialistic Functionalism – is exactly what those who sustained some sort of Modernism through the 80s lost, or thought unattainable in the first place. Safdie went very pomo at some point in the ‘80s, and it’s not too surprising, given the many tirades against repetitive, anti-humanist Miesian Modernism in Beyond Habitat.

One could imagine him turning to the sort of prefabricated Socialist Realism (the original Postmodernist architecture, as Jonathan Meades has pointed out) of fellow soixante-huitards Ricardo Bofill and the Taller d'Arquitectura, turning dense, urban social housing into huge monuments, expressions of power and entitlement (no more true, no doubt, than it was in the Stalinallee). But his Functionalism held him back, at least at the time of this book, and Habitat is full of the very things most hated by pomo and even most contemporary Modernists: bare concrete, walkways and skyways, unashamed collectivism. There are vitalist, hippy tendencies to Safdie, though with a techno-fetishism that they’d baulk at – it is rather hairy for my tastes. Since the 60s he's designed neo-classical colosseums, some pretty dubious projects in Jerusalem and the hilariously named United States Institute of Peace. Yet reading Beyond Habitat – which is in more than a few second hand bookshops, indicating the importance these ideas were once thought to have – is worthwhile mainly, perhaps, to remind of what was once thought entirely, unimpressively possible.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Glassiness & Glamour

I've been greatly enjoying the recent discussions of 'that voice' over at blissblog and mit Emmy Hennings: that glassy, slightly patrician, un-grainy female voice that I at least find impossibly alluring: something surely added to by the 'Beat Goes On' video linked to, and by the Russ Meyer connection. Isn't part of what's quite so exciting about that voice the fact that it's sexy without being earthy, suggesting all manner of perversity without all the athletic emoting and grinding that it's more R&B competitor suggests...?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Bleak Bloc

Just sent to me: a fine photo-set of Moscow looking appropriately bleak and interesting in the 1980s, featuring among the expected Constructivist masterpieces (Melnikov, Ginzburg etc) some very imposing works by Classical-Constructivist Ivan Fomin.

Factory Fun

Almost too good to be true: this, from Whore Cull: 'my agent in the Republic of Mancunia says that soon after Anthony H Wilson’s death somebody went down to Whitworth Street and chucked a load of yellow and black paint over the posh flats where the Hacienda used to stand. A tribute of sorts. A statement, of sorts.' In a sense, Factory was gentrifiers against gentrification: the romanticising and resettlement of the post-industrial for the purposes of Art, the process that has led to the colonisation of too many formerly proletarian areas to list, from New York to Barcelona to etc etc.

The difference maybe with Factory was how much, even if the ball was set rolling by bourgeois folk like Wilson or Peter Saville, it was a working class creation. Before a talk by Tom Vague on Monday, sundry oldsters were talking about the arty wing of the terraces: phrases like 'Situationist Casuals' and 'Acid Teds' were bandied about, and the claim made that casuals with mobile phones orchestrated the Poll Tax riots...Regardless of Wilson's being an Oxbridge buffoon, post-Situ poser, telly presenter or whatever, maybe this actually helped facilitate these alliances: he never assumed that football fans, ex-dock clerks and so forth wouldn't 'get' such far from 'upbeat' ideas or artefacts as Durrutti, Fortunato Depero, the SI.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

New Town Blues

A piece by me on the post-war British New Town in Spectral Space, the 'Hauntology Issue' of Perforations. Shame about the misspelling of my surname, presumably some sort of ghostly hauntological glitch (or just having a name shared only by a nondescript indie pop chantuese).

Ullya, Ullya, Martians

Voyou on Aelita, the magnificent 1924 farrago of interstellar Trotskyism. There's something fairly ambitious and/or bloated from me on this subject (ie: on Bolsheviks in space) on the way...

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Diving, Bored

Yesterday I watched Olympia for the first time: well, I say watched, but as the great unspoken fact about Riefenstahl is less that one viewing will turn you into a Fascist and more that it is so very boring, I had my finger on the fastforward a fair bit. One, perhaps crass point that occurred to me: when she's filming anything horizontal, a hurdle, a 400 metres, etc, she can't quite bring her stylistic obsessions to bear on it, and settles for a fairly straightforward record, bar the constant intercutting of Hitler. On the other hand, anything vaulting, anything that involves a leap or some sort of transport into the air (like diving) is given the full appartus of slo-mo, chiaroscuro and astoundingly fluid camera movements at outrageous angles. The latter is always of an individual act of physical extremis, and the other athletes are irrelevant to this supreme act of awed objectification. Yet, oddly for her reputation as marshaller-of-crowds, anything involving a group is rather less interesting.

The obvious point here about Nazi Narcissism could be supplemented with one derived from Lewis Mumford, top 'radical conservative' town planning and technology theorist, in his blasts against 'sun-worshipping' societies obsessed with flight, the stars, the clouds - always looming, misty, overwhelming and ever-present in Riefenstahl - and so forth. Hers is a heliocentric aesthetic, in which she has much in common with her alleged leftist antecedents. The other astonishing montage in amongst the tedium (and the 'yay, Jesse Owens!' moments) would seem to bear this out, in the only really memorable crowd scene in the film. That is: the sportswomen flinging their arms around in rhythmic supplication, linked in a series of dissolves until you see a huge crowd all making the same beseeching motion, swaying like crops in a summer wind.

Make Yourself Comfortable

Taylorist Typists on the Pianoforte

Pertinent to IT's disquisition on women, machines and noise a while ago: just come across the following on the young women typists of Weimar Berlin, in Siegfried Kracauer's The Salaried Masses (1930):

The fact that they are so fond of placing girls in front of machines is due, among other things, to the innate dexterity of the young creatures - which natural gift, is however, too widely distributed alas, to warrant a high rate of pay. When the middle classes were still in a state of prosperity, many girls who now punch cards used to stumble through etudes at home on the pianoforte. Music at least has not entirely vanished from (the rationalised office). No, it has not quite gone. I know of one industrial plant that hires girls straight from school with a salary and lets them be trained at the typewriter by a teacher of their own. The wily teacher winds up a gramophone and the pupils have to type in time with the tunes. When merry military marches ring out, they all march ahead twice as lightly. The rotation speed of the record is gradually increased, and without the girls really noticing it they type faster and faster. In their training years they turn into speed typists - music has wrought the cheaply purchased miracle.

The Post Card

One of the best things about the Internet is that it allows one to behave as a doddery old dear in the name of advanced microtechnology. Viz: I have just uploaded a selection of my vast and labyrinthine postcard collection, wonkily scanned, onto flickr for your delectation, something that may elicit the sort of groan usually emitted when asked if you want to see the holiday snaps. Obtained mainly from markets, junk shops and what have you, lots of them are in the Martin Parr 'boring' vein: Heathrow, Milton Keynes, Birmingham etc. There are, unsurprisingly some of the Eastern Bloc, and some are of the saucy seaside variety. What I am looking for is some sort of conjunction of the three things into saucy boring Eastern bloc postcards, and one day I will find one that fits that description. Until then, gather round my darlings and look at these with me. There's lots more where that came from...

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Leon Trotsky, Functionalist

'The Shatura electric power station is a thing of beauty. Gifted and devoted builders made it. Its beauty is not put on, is not an affair of tinsel decoration, but grows from the inherent properties and needs of technology itself. The highest and only criterion of technology is fitness for purpose. The test of functional fitness is economic efficiency. And this presupposes the most complete correspondence between part and whole, means and end. Economic and technological criteria fully coincide with aesthetic ones. One may say, and it will not be a paradox, that Shatura is a thing of beauty because a kilowatt of its power is cheaper than a kilowatt-hour of power from other stations situated in similar conditions.'

Leon Trotsky, Culture and Socialism, 1926

Monday, August 06, 2007

Liner Notes

Very pleased to see fellow 'lapsed Sotonians' responding to the Wyndham Court piece: the comments afterwards, and a little anecdotal mention at Mountain 7. One of these hits on quite what makes it such a dispiriting town, much as I love it: unlike Northern towns of the same size and similar industry, its not exactly a place brimming over with solidarity and civic pride. Why this would be is mysterious, and gets into North/South tribalism (i.e, perhaps we're just soft). Maybe its the clement air blowing in from the Isle of Wight...

Arts Decoratifs

Being of a revisionist turn of thought, I never quite know where to put the tearoom futurism of art deco into the partly reconstructed notion of Modernism that I'm currently (whisper it) writing a short book about. As a term, art deco derives itself from one of the most aesthetically and politically contested of the Great Exhibitions, the Paris Exposition of Decorative Arts in 1925. Here you had a dominant cubistified classicism, deeply related to the 'return to order' of the Paris avant-garde, and lurking around amidst it were pavilions by Konstantin Melnikov and Le Corbusier that, from the off, made quite clear their oppostion to this sort of backsliding. Art deco stems from the French/American/English take up of the updated classicism, maybe with a dash of the glammed-up Modernism of Mallet-Stevens, somewhere between the two. Yet, whenever I come across an art deco building, I tend to quite unambiguously like them, whether the bloated, Mussolini style of Shell-Mex House or the streamlined, Modernistic versions that became more dominant in the 30s: some are even among my very favourite things.

And best of all, there's the cinemas - those magnificent high street fantasias dotted around everywhere from Swansea to Morecambe, usually converted into bingo halls or, in London, evangelical churches. If, in Alan Colquhoun's definition, Modernism is the combination of 'the machine aesthetic and a new conception of space', then much of this stuff is Pulp Modernist, undoubtedly: Erich Mendelsohn bastardised, dressed up in faience and neon and taken on the razzle in Margate. Appropriately, the first 'Moderne' cinema in Britain was at the Dreamland in the aforementioned, unloved seaside town. Pevsner called this sort of stuff 'mondernistic' or 'jazz modern', somewhat derisively (the latter sounds rather fun), and pomo has always loved to draw on the period, usually to truly horrible effect: yet, in Oskar Deutsch's palaces of escapism there's almost everything one wants in Modernism: disjunction, excitement, standardisation, all employed in the activity that some historians claim helped avert revolution during the great depression...

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Ghost Buses of London: the 178

I spend far, far too much of my time on buses, crawling endlessly round the Bricklayers Arms with head in book, but there are always the lost buses: the ones that go round the houses, as it were. Today I needed to get from Woolwich to Lewisham, and I saw a bus which declared its intent to go to Lewisham Station, although this was a bus of which I had not previously been aware. I was, it would turn out, in luck: the 178 is a lingering bus, a single decker packed with old folk which takes seemingly endless, looping, circular runs round the back end of SE London.

First, rather than taking the obvious more or less straight A to B that is an option in this journey, it curves around to the hinterlands of Woolwich: a social housing extravaganza here, with Georgian terraces occasionally standing out amidst jagged 60s terraces and walkways. Then, suddenly, this warren is broken up by a huge swathe of scrubland: apparently this is Woolwich Common, and there isn't a soul to be seen, although a long, long row of intricate, multi-level blocks runs alongside, like a cross between Lillington Gardens and a poundstretcher Frank Lloyd Wright: and then to the MOD landscape that lies beyond there. A huge amount of Woolwich is open land owned by the MOD, with occasional outposts and barracks originally built for the Napoleonic wars. But after a few more of its circles, it comes to Kidbrooke's Brutalist ghost town Ferrier Estate, and loops around it for about half an hour.

Heralded by a blank sign, this is, to put it mildly, a startling place. Like the Barbican, it has a sort of trompe l'oeil effect: you can never really work out if it's smaller than it appears, or if its vastness is completely unassimilable. Row upon row of towers, connected by walkways, with lower rise blocks criss-crossing, all looking utterly forlorn. Every window seems to be covered with thick net curtains. Strange landscaping has created grassy hillocks sprouting and bulging seemingly randomly about the place. A patina of grime and mist seems to hang over the Ferrier Estate, which is unsurprising, as Greenwich council are cleaning it out, for an (as ever) frankly evil PPP venture in which a tiny portion of the original inhabitants will be rehoused, and the density more than doubled, you know the drill. Those who took advantage of right-to-buy are being 'offered' 60 grand - this is London, zone 3, so multiply that figure by 4 and you're in the area that they're worth - as was being discussed by a couple of policewomen on the bus. Unsurprisingly, there are horror stories about the place, so perhaps the 178 is the best way to see it before it all gets detonated, but regardless, this is truly a Stalker among buses.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Tränen, Trümmer, Träume

Where I went on my Holiday Teil Zwei: the City of the Future

There’s a wonderfully Teutonic compound word to describe the peculiar kind of block of flats that still makes up much of the capital: Mietskaserne, or ‘Rental Barracks’. Typically, these begin with a street façade of 4 or 5 storeys – originally usually ornamented in neoclassical or baroque style, though most of this was stripped off post-war for its inherent ludicrousness – and then inside there is courtyard after courtyard. When they were built, the further inside the complex one was tended to denote social status. From around the ‘20s until the 80s, these were seen as utterly inhuman structures: dark, dank, without lifts or balconies (for the most part), usually having at least one family crammed into small flats, which nonetheless tended to have incongrously opulent high ceilings. Since they became fashionable in Kreuzberg squatland in the early 80s, they have tended to be the model for all kinds of ‘critical reconstruction’, albeit without the cherubs and twisty ornament that originally festooned them: although I’ve seen a block in Friedrichshain where someone had painted the long-stripped frippery back on. The most grimly beautiful are those Mietskaserne still scattered round Prenzlauer Berg where the ornament is still in place – as are the bullet holes.

‘These are the unmistakable signs of a truly collective building, building which captures the sense of totality and which is the most beautiful expression of a supra-personal sensitivity’
Bruno Taut on his Hufeisensiedlung

But Berlin has been the site for all manner of attempts at building the city of the future, and interestingly, with a few (mostly Eastern) exceptions, one has to do a fair bit of research to find its traces in a city still dominated by the Mietskaserne. The earliest, and perhaps most heroic attempt, was that made by the socialist building society GEHAG from 1925 to 32. Along with Swedish rates of unemployment benefit and the NHS, this is one of a few moments in the history of Reformism about which one can be almost unambiguously positive – there doesn’t seem to have been much of a caveat or catch, no clause for the ‘deserving’ poor…Martin Wagner, the SPD town planner, envisaged a series of more futuristic variants on the garden city, and his instrument in this was a building society run by the trade unions and co-operatives. The chosen architect was Bruno Taut. After spending the 1918-9 period working with the anarcho-communist Arbeitsrat fur Kunst, and nearly appointed a minister in the Bavarian Soviet Republic, Taut’s first draft of the city of the future was a glass fantasy of jagged, Caspar David Friedrich sublimity, but by the mid-20s he’d had the obligatory conversion to Sachlichkeit, as can be seen in his first major project – the Hufeisensiedlung, designed in 1924.

At the edge of Neukolln, a KPD stronghold later to be immortalised by Bowie on ‘’Heroes’’, this is a mix of rows of cherry geometric blocks and multicoloured terraces, leading to the Hufeisen itself: a horseshoe shaped block of flats, with a landscaped park inside – which has become beautifully overgrown, and is still faced by a Constructivist terrace restaurant, now serving Croatian specialties. It’s also notable that here the City of the Future got an immediate response from the city of the past: DEWEGO, run by the white collar unions, erected a line of Volkisch housing in front of the Hufeisen, as if to spite it – the gables and rusticism refusing to let the illusion sustain itself. Likewise, another Taut designed settlement, the Waldsiedlung, served by the Onkel-Toms-Hutte U-Bahn, and often named after it – the rather ambiguous politics of the project are summed up nicely in that name – is also set off against rival hipped roofs and Bavarian tweediness, though here too, Taut’s combination of overgrown, semi-rural and uncompromisingly urban, angular, discordantly coloured blocks and houses still seems like a perfectly viable vision of what the future ought to look like. Interestingly though, these are places devoid of hipsteriness: edgy urban Berlin generally rents (outrageously cheaply) in the Mietskaserne, while the GEHAG adverts scattered about these estates tend to show wholesome looking families in the Barratt mode, albeit in incongrously well-designed locales.

In Architecture and Utopia, Manfredo Tafuri’s inadvertently proto-pomo diatribe against social democratic Modernism’s Keynesianism and technocracy, a very salient point about the Reformist future city is made: that it has to leave the real city, the one where most still live and work, almost entirely unchanged. In the 20s it was left to rack up its contradictions regardless of what Taut and Wagner did on the outskirts, and seeing as Berlin is a city of Mietskaserne in 2007, Tafuri is hard to argue with here. The tract does mention a few attempts that actually harnessed the contradictions to make a montage architecture of shock and disjunction – partly Wagner’s Siemensstadt estate, designed by Hans Scharoun (and faced by the obligatory Heimatschutzstil response) but mainly the signature architecture of Erich Mendelsohn. Best known today because of a tower for Einstein and a pavilion for Bexhill, Mendelsohn’s Berlin buildings have no trace of the garden city about them. The Mossehaus, for instance, is a futurist invention shoved into the frontage of a newspaper offices wrecked in the Spartacist uprising; the Schaubuhne maybe the first Modernist cinema; and the IG Metall trade union offices a sweeping, curved incursion into the street’s linearity. There are other totally urban fragments of the city of the future from the 20s here and there – the very imposing Kathreiner Hochhaus by Bruno Paul at Potsdamer Strasse, or Emil Fahrenkamp’s irresistible fantasy, Shell-Haus, or a few blocks by Hans Poelzig at Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz (including the lovely Kino-Babylon) but these are mostly sachlich precursors of the office blocks of today, with little latent utopianism to them, for all their brilliance. Then there’s 12 years of volkischness and neoclassical bombast, and then most of the city is flattened…

After the war, the Soviet occupiers gave Wagner’s old job to Hans Scharoun, who envisaged a totally new city on the ruins, doing away completely with the Wilhelmine street plan. Tafuri’s comrade and Berlin ‘critical reconstructor’ Aldo Rossi was more keen on the sinister exercise in retro-utopian planning that this eventually became – the Stalinallee, which he called ‘Europe’s last great street’. After a first segment planned by Scharoun and designed by Ludmila Herzenstein in ‘20s fashion, politburo edicts imposed the Stalinist Empire Style, roping in former Modernists like Hermann Henselmann and Richard Paulick to devise tile-clad palaces for workers and functionaries, and appropriately it was the construction workers here in 1953 who first proved the usefulness of the very wide streets for tank movements. The Stalinallee/Karl-Marx-Allee is a street as architectural museum, ranging from the early 50s ‘workers palaces’ to a return to functionalism from the end of that decade, as one approaches Alexanderplatz. It’s also clearly held in more popular esteem than the West Berlin equivalent, the Hansaviertel – a pretty but somehow unresolved scattering of blocks in the Tiergarten, which lacks Taut and Wagner’s conception of totality as much as it does Walter Ulbricht’s.

This wasn’t quite the last of the city of the future – there was Marzahn in the East, a huge plattenbau new town which I haven’t visited, and the Western equivalent to that, Gropiusstadt. This was planned by the Bauhaus director himself (then under fire for the Pan-Am tower in New York, and several decades past his best) as a 4-5 storey garden city, then after the wall went up in 1961, it ballooned into 30 floor blocks rammed up against each other, and was setting for smack & Bowie extravaganza Christiane F. It looked rather pleasant on a very brief visit, if lacking in the sense of the uncanny one gets from, say, Alexanderplatz. And then the city of the future more or less gives up. The ‘80s IBA, a successor to the Hansaviertel, resulted in some interesting buildings, but was all about filling in the gaps left by the war and the wall – then in the tabula rasa at the former Wall ‘death strip’, Potsdamer Platz, the city of the future was squandered for stone and brick skyscrapers. The dominant look imposed by Hans Stimmann is almost comically stern and Prussian, and one should remember exactly who pioneered this particular aesthetic in the city. There are still little parts that put anywhere else to shame in their futurism: the new Hauptbahnhof, maybe the Sony Centre. Yet the most politically and historically curious thing about the Century’s numerous stabs at the future city in Berlin is just how little mark most of them have made. This is still mostly a 19th century city, save maybe for a few Eastern segments of the 60s. At the same time though, it’s a city of fragmentations, ruptures and scars, lacking the laissez faire barbarity and speculative meanness of certain other mainly Victorian capitals one could care to name – and perhaps this is a legacy of the futures that have been attempted in its interstices…