Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year Sauce

There really isn't going to be a regular softcore corner, I promise. Nonetheless, Bat sends me a link to Ronnie Barker's seaside postcard collection, which can't help but remind me of the strangest book I own, Ronnie Barker's Bathing Beauties, in which said collection is extensively itemised. Has there ever been a time as obsessed with (and afraid of) sex as 70s Britain...?

Chewing Gum for Kisses

One of the nicest, if most wildly inaccurate things anyone has said about me is that I look like Marlene Dietrich. So this Christmas I received a Dietrich picture book. Marvellous. Incidentally, the above song (from Billy Wilder's great, utterly cynical postwar Berlin seediness-fest A Foreign Affair) is the source of my current blog epigraph...

Resolutions, Consolations

The last time I did this, I only ended up writing half of what I promised (nobody really needs to read me rambling about Orwell - although the Pulp piece is still in progress, expect 50,000 words by 2010). So I'm not going to promise anything much for the new year - the usual can be expected. One piece that I may flag up (as a way of inducing myself to write it) will be on the tube stations and posters of the London Transport board in the '30s; as the nearest thing London ever had to Die Neue Frankfurt or suchlike, a Modernist gesamtkunstwerk usually secreted in the most unprepossessing Commuter belt blandness. It'll also be a critique of the current idea of trickle-down architecture, specifically on the utter lack of effect these majestic spaces have had on their surrounding area. Also it provides an excuse to go to bleak, pointless bits of Ballardian outer London (the abortive trip to Osterley station recently detailed at I.T was an early attempt at this project) and enjoy the ennui.

Meanwhile, here is an incomplete list of some of this year's consolations amid (admittedly self-induced) poverty, illness, geopolitical awfulness and having to visit Southampton: moving out of Deptford High St; the Barbican Grill and the Barbican in general; Chinese hotel restaurants in North Greenwich; being asked to write, occasionally; the stretch of Thames between North Greenwich and Woolwich, both sides of the river, a landscape of abandoned shopping trolleys, wasteland, incongrous luxury flats and industry; the Turkish Maoist soundsystem on Mayday; Berlin, irrespective of hipsters and bad corporate architecture; reading Humphrey Jennings' Pandaemonium, Karel Teige, The Arcades Project (albeit still unfinished in the latter instance), Stories of Herr Keuner; Emmy Hennings on Joy Division, IT on feminism, Poetix and K-Punk on Class, the Impostume on Naked and Withnail; I like's postcards; Shirley High Street; charity shops; Savage Messiah, both zine and derives; 30s Hitchcock; music: Soft Cell's Bedsit Tapes, Rolan Vega, Monster Bobby, The Caretaker, The Knife, Raymond Scott, Timbaland, Xylitol; hanging round the City of London when it all went tits-up, cackling; Weston Shore; writing a book, and getting an email from Dusan Makavejev. And you there, for reading.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Anyway, that's enough of that. Must go and be sociable. God bless you, every one. (*Bloody Humbug, Grrr etc*)

Anticipatory 'what were we Thinking?'

It's christmas, so of course, I'm in Southampton. This has the strange side-effect of making me thankful for London. Often, in the course of conversations with my old schoolfriends (half of whom seem to be active Anarchos or working for African NGOs) we reflect on the incoming catastrophe: the near-certainty that future generations will look at us like the postwar years looked at those who voted for the National Government in the '30s. A smug, myopic generation who blithely ushered in the catastrophe without noticing it. The architecture of Southampton will no doubt be one of the least pressing of the appalling legacies left by the past couple of decades, but is, on walking around the place, its own sort of environmental destruction. If Postmodernism was purged from London in the '90s and replaced with Ikea Modernism, here it flourishes, if something so utterly uninspired can be said to 'flourish'. This is a city seemingly rebuilt via the principle of Planneroids.

It's not exactly an architecturally distingished city as it is, but the late-Victorian and 1960s bulk of the city at least has a bit of character, and is broken up by the occasional jarring surprise - some cranky redbrick neo-gothic, the odd brutalist monster. So, hoping that something might rise to challenge this stacking of Victoriana, I was quite pleased to hear that a cluster of four 'skyscrapers', the city's biggest towers since the '60s, were planned for the centre. Eventually, I found pictures of the designs at Skyscraper News. A blander, more utterly timid, nondescript selection of edifices I have seldom seen. Think of the blocks of flats that stick up by riverfronts and former docksides in Surrey Quays, or Mudchute - now imagine a city with that as its Stadtkrone. That's what Southampton is getting. A few hotels and luxury flats which the denizens of Basingstoke would find a little conservative. Look at the picture at the top of this post, a rendering of the central three of these 'skyscrapers'. Now even in the worst current corporate architecture at least they can muster a glassy, fancy or fantastical CGI image, as in the post-apocalyptic skies that, fittingly, swirl around the proposed Ocean Village tower (above). But in the main scheme, before it has even been built this cluster of non-towers barely even announces itself, hiding behind the most unremarkable of traffic intersections - beinahe nichts in a sense that even the most literal of Miesians would wince at.

Even Richard Rogers, from whom most of us have long since stopped expecting anything interesting, seems like some brilliant, lunatic Corbusian demiurge by comparison, with his proposals for the old Woolston shipyards (above). So obviously, he got thrown off the project. Meanwhile the local papers seem obsessed with recapturing the 'wow' factor from Portsmouth's sub-Dubai 'vertical Tricorn', the Spinnaker tower, via a monument to the Spitfire warplane that resembles a slightly more aeronautic version of The Angel of the North - The Angel of Death of the South, perhaps. What sort of city are they creating here? In 20 years, what will these slapped-together non-buildings, the shopping centres and monuments to long-forgotten wars - well, the war will always be forcibly remembered, but the wave of disgust with laissez-faire that followed it won't be - look like to passers-by, whether surveying its wreckage or in its anemic pomp? No doubt, they won't even be noticed, like the statues to obscure Victorian grandees that pepper the city's parks. But at least previous generations had a decent contempt for those slave-traders, God-botherers and moustachioed imperialists. Now they're seemingly the city's only horizon, and anything that might potentially obscure that has to hide itself.

Comrade! Have you contributed to KINO FIST?

Kino Fist returns in the New Year on Sunday 3rd February with a screening of Slava Tsukerman's magnificent NYC Synthpop-Soviet emigre farrago Liquid Sky (trailer here) with supporting features.

In the usual potlatch/free photocopying manner, there will be a photocopied pamphlet accompanying the screening - and anyone who wants to write texts, make images, contribute photograms etc is cordially invited to do so. The broad theme for this issue is Film and Fashion. Something with an appropriate focus would be nice (i.e, no cult studs stuff about the subversive libidinal charge of Pretty Woman, ta) but is by no means essential. Word counts should be somewhere roughly between 200 and 2000 words, with a deadline of 14th January 2008.

In the unlikely event that contributions are rejected for reasons of space, they will be posted to the Kino Fist site. Those contributors who live overseas or can't make the screening will receive a mailed copy of the magazine. Contributors will have to enjoy their name in photocopied print (and accompanying glory) rather than financial incentives.

Please send all texts and images to infinitethought[at]

The screening will be at 2pm at the E:VENT Gallery, 96 Teesdale Street, London E2 6PU.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Fairytales and Real Estate

On the subject of Gotham and fantasy - go forthwith to Kosmograd for a link to his flickr photoset of 341 drawings by the fantastic sketcher of Delirious New York, Hugh Ferriss. What's so fascinating about Ferriss is what makes him so different to his near-contemporary Iakov Chernikhov. While the latter made fantasy cities out of bizarre amalgams of what did exist and what hadn't yet been invented, Ferriss drawings take the actually constructed and make it look utterly unreal.

Even in his Metropolis of Tomorrow the imagination is constrained by New York real estate and the zoning code. If architecture is the first art to shed it's auratic baggage, then Ferriss reinscribes it straight back - leading, as Koolhaas pointed out, to bizarre aesthetic duels, after the New York aesthetic switches via the influence of the international style - as his shadowy guignol is let loose on something so seemingly demystified and sachlich as a grain silo or the UN building. And judging by some of the drawings this was a battle Ferriss won. Which again makes it so odd that modernism and fantasy seem incommensurable today: it can be mystified, and in these cases quite staggeringly.

Fantasy and Construction

In the film The Golden Compass, there's an interesting moment early on when 'the Magisterium', an inquisitorial, popish institution, are shown that - via dust, hauntologists - one can find the traces of other, parallel worlds, which perhaps do without hierarchies altogether. This, of course has to be stopped, and the rest of the film follows the attempt to do so. I've not read Philip Pullman so I can't say whether the book is watered down or not, but any further philosophical intent is lost in the obligatory CGI battles and adventures (never as awesomely tedious as Peter Jackson/Tolkien but just a tad too Never Ending Story for me). Nonetheless - there's something exciting here. Yes, there are other worlds; no, you won't get to see them. The film seems to hinge on the act of what Zamyatin called 'fantasiectomy' to ensure obedience, via the removal of one's 'demon'.

The promise and the film's failure to live up to it are mirrored in the set design. How to show a parallel universe? In the first few seconds we see Wren/Hawksmoor/Vanburgh's Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich, with a huge New York-circa 1911/Moscow-circa 1948 skyscraper in the middle of the Domes. This, we later find out, is the headquarters of the aforementioned Magisterium. The parallel world, as it unfolds, increasingly resembles the world stopped in 1914, just in some cases made bigger. The CGI parallel London, for instance, still has St Paul's domineering over it, but here and there are skyscrapers. Not the sort of towers that actually do surround St Paul's, but Woolworth Building style stacked baroque or amplified Gothic. It's all reminiscent of one of 80s architecture's nadirs: Robert Adam's 'Roman' skyscraper, so designed because 'the Romans would have done it if they'd had the technology'. Production designer Dennis Gassner's CGI city is reminiscent of monuments to the restoration like Moscow's Triumph Palace. The dream-city is still (here a slightly tweedier) Gotham, and the remaking of dreams into images draws on the work of the most rank of architectural revanchists.

As this is a parallel universe in which one of the most obvious features is the non-existence of modernism. Modernist architecture, even in its most populist forms, still hasn't made its way into fantasy - isn't part of what Benjamin in the Arcades called the collective dream. For fantasy film designers, oligarchs or filmgoers in search of escapism, one thing which seems to interrupt the fantasy is an undecorated surface, a ribbon window, a bit of concrete or neon. The steampunk pistons, intricate clockwork parts and so forth look beautiful, but stop just at the advent of the aesthetics of the 'short 20th century'. Maybe this a sign that after 90 years Modernism still hasn't entered the unconscious, is still hostile to popular desire: that when we try to imagine another, perhaps better world, it's one of the things excised. Or that it keeps a certain wakefulness: interrupting any attempt at escape into the imaginary. A strange fate for something so often dismissed as utopian. A dream, perhaps, but not the dream we're offered.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Winter Wonderland

Snow blasted, dark all day, and amazingly inhospitable - winter in the Kola peninsula, a photoset at the BBC, for some reason. Reminiscent in places of Bee Flowers' staggering microrayon panoramas, and reminding me of a Bolshevik leaflet I have that was dropped on English soldiers during the Russian Civil War, entitled 'Why have you come to Murmansk?' A question I imagine gets asked often by these people, at least those not working on the nuclear submarines. Ta to the invaluable Kiri for the link.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Japanese Gentleman, Stand Up Please

Last Christmas I revealed, to anyone remotely surprised, a rampantly sentimental streak by writing (via Momus' rendition) about Ryuichi Sakamoto's fantastically emotionally manipulative Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence theme. Well, a recent and especially fine charity shop hoard included not only the whole OST, but also his ridiculously rare B-2 Unit, which I've been looking for since hearing 'Riot in Lagos' and wondering whether there was anything else as utterly, compulsively head-spinning as that. There isn't, of course, but it's still wonderful. Surprisingly harsh, in fact - it seems to inhabit the same kind of brutalist space as Katsuhiro Otomo's psychic warfare in council estates masterpiece Domu (the only example of Team 10's architectural ideas in a comic book, anyone?). The constant chatter and noise of the sequencers, a sense of restlessness, a metallic beauty...The El Lissitzky reference on the cover was very appropriate as well - the electro-mechanical show he promised in all its glory.

However it really isn't as fantastic as Technodelic, the subsequent, bafflingly overlooked Yellow Magic Orchestra album. While the earlier YMO albums are rather cute, this one harnesses all the chaos, overloaded motion and multilevel ciculation of the (then much-mythologised) Japanese city, without any of the jingle elements that they're better known for. It seems divided between dreamy, bleary-eyed Roxy Music electro-glam and clattering urbanity. 'Seoul Music' especially is a perfect musical evocation of the terror and jouissance of congestion, with gamelan, Neubauten and Kraftwerk all seemingly drawn into its vortex. It's all very different to the serenity of his work with David Sylvian. They appear as different times of day in the same block of flats - one cramming itself into the elevator on its way to work, the other languidly surveying the view. An aesthetics of the urbane that parallels the life of the executive class: Kraftwerkian bachelormachine as organisation man.

Playboy Maoism, who knew

OK, a whole postless week is pretty poor. In my defence, I've been working on a rare PhD chapter (being the sort of person that never finishes their thesis according to the comments boxes of metafilter...), speaking in Amsterdam on preservation (more of which later), and adding images and finishing touches to the forthcoming quasi-Ostalgic bestseller Another Effort, Comrades, if You Would be Modernists. One image that won't be in there however is the above example of Maoist pornography, found in Greenwich market today, by Vargas, top exponent of airbrushes and Mechanical Bride-style cantilevered exploitationism - which, until I write some proper posts, can be regarded as my Christmas gift to you, the reader. (the text says 'it's obvious you're ready for a great leap forward', cue groans).

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Oliver Kamm Serves Imperialism Shocker

Vile, on so many levels. Curious how what is commonly considered unlistenable by mandarin columnists and uppity neocons was perfectly palatable to working class scousers, trumpet players from St Louis, etc...something pointed out by the following exemplary letter:

Ivan Hewett suggests that Karlheinz Stockhausen (Obituary, December 8) became a marginal figure in the last 25 years of his life. This may have been true within the death-wish milieu of classical music, but in more dynamic regions, the opposite was the case. The sustained diffusion of his ideas, initially through key artists such as Miles Davis, The Beatles and Kraftwerk, means that the Stockhausen influence is evident in our contemporary sound world. Whether we are listening to Wu-Tang Clan, Sparklehorse or Kylie Minogue, we hear significant traces of Stockhausen's innovative genius.
David Toop

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Proper posts, as you might have noticed, are thin on the ground at the moment (by my Stakhanovite standards anyway) - this is because, unusually, I have other things to do. Nonetheless, normal profligacy will be restored presently. In the meantime: Things links to a rather lovely, melancholic photoset of Thamesmead in the late 70s, by a former teacher at the Riverside school. There's also much discussion of Gavin Stamp's new book about what the Luftwaffe and those Awful Bureaucratic Town Planners did to our cities, depicting what was lost. I can't say that it bothers me all that much. Even writing as someone who cherishes the rotting shop sign, the empty cafe, the vitrolite lining and the ironwork dressing, it all seems a bit ungrateful, bearing in mind what wasn't done, the comprehensive plans of Abercrombie and the GLC that would have really transformed the city, rather than made incremental changes. London is still overwhelmingly a city of the 19th century, and much of it an undistinguished one. Could have done with more demolition as far as I'm concerned.

Not that demolition isn't a frequently very dubious thing indeed, as the skullduggery of Moscow urbanism amply proves. A little against my better judgement perhaps, given Martin Pawley's denunciation of them as 'quisling' capitulations to art history, I'm pleased that the 20th Century Society, DOCOMOMO, MAPS and the like try to preserve what (little) remains of the early Modern movement. One reason for that is that, you know, 1920s concrete buildings don't make up 80% of the housing stock. On which note, Richard Pare will be speaking at a MAPS lecture at Pushkin House in London next Wednesday (19th), on his photographs of the ruined legacy of the Soviet Avant Garde, which I'm sure readers will be familar with from my frequent mentions. Details: '7.30 and end at approximately 8.30. Tickets £7, £5 for Friends of Pushkin House and students. Reservations: +44 (0)20 7269 9770 or email to bookings(at) The Main Entrance is located on Bloomsbury Way. Nearest tube stations are Holborn, Tottenham Court Road and Russell Square.'

Friday, December 07, 2007

Desert, Concrete

In a similar utopian documentary vein, here's the film Brasilia, capital of Brazil from 1967 - the desert city looking magnificently Ballardian - soundtracked, of course, by Kraftwerk. Specifically their jingle for Expo 2000, inducing all sorts of future/past dissonance. Which wasn't helped by listening to the youtube bassline stuff Simon has posted at the same time. Despite the somewhat disappointing version of the future it represents, it's such a relief to hear people making new and brutal noises again, for whatever purpose - a bit of forward motion, no matter how juvenile. And I especially like the threat 'come to my town and I'll show you the scenic'.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


This is surely heaven for all Brutalist-Nostalgist types - the BBC Radiophonic Worskhop soundtracks the construction of BBC Television Centre. Magnificent.

Skyscraper Potlatch

No-one seemed to Guess My Overarching Narrative, but the gist is the morphology of the skyscraper as it passes through Chicago, through Berlin and ends up at Moscow...the Soviet skyscraper is a fascinating and under-researched thing. There's something very cool about Nikolai Ladovsky's Psycho-Technical Laboratory declaring itself to have 'solved the problem of the skyscraper' in 1926, in a country whre 6 floors was considered a bit excessive. Perhaps the finest of the skyscrapers produced by the aforementioned laboratory is a huge, stepped tower, a series of oblongs stacked up (exhibiting a familiarity with the New York zoning code) into a vertiginous collage, intrinsically opposed to the pure aesthetic object approach (cf Le Corbusier's Cartesian skyscraper).

What I won't be writing about, for reasons of space and sanity, is what happens when these designs return to Chicago. Via Ludwig Hilberseimer, there's little doubt that Chicago's architectural schools in the 60s would have known their Soviet Modernism pretty well, and there's an echo of the Ladovsky tower in Bruce Graham/SOM's vast, stepped Sears Tower, tallest building in the world for an impressively long reign. The interesting thing about the Sears tower though, already a rather hard, militaristic looking thing - all darkside blacks and harsh lines - is how fundamentally uninhabitable it was. Not only do the upper floors shake to the extent that no-one will keep an office in there, but apparently on occasion the windows have been blown in. After a certain height, the skyscraper becomes a kind of capitalist potlatch - never mind, the function, how high!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

British Communism, Lost & Found

Just watched the BBC4 doc My Dad was a Communist, courtesy of the invaluable Sphaleotas. It has its moments: nice footage (Cable St soundtracked by the Pixies), a rueful Alexei Sayle revealing his Oedipal Maoism and declaring his relief that the likes of him were never given any political power...but there was one very big elephant in the room, which I'll get to later. I admit an obvious personal interest (as it's confessional month over at SDMYABT). My Grandparents were Communists - in fact they met through the Party, so I owe my very existence to the Communist Party of Great Britain. My Mum's adolescent rebellion took the form of Trotskyism as much as T Rex and cider. So I suppose I share all these talking heads' (David Aaronovitch, Wesker, etc) ambiguity about the genus English Tankie. I've always been torn between admiration of them as uncompromising socialists and asking over Scrabble 'but, erm, why on earth did you stay in the Party after Hungary?' (an event was covered fulsomely in the documentary in question).

Maybe this was in part down to the instrumental reason despised by all pomo-types - the belief that the Motor Of History was the Kremlin and any brutalities or hypocrisies had to be forgiven. The documentary ends with either dimwitted platitudes of left (admiring their 'idealism') and right ('no-one should believe themselves to be in possession of the absolute truth' etc). So we end up with a kind of 'what were we thinking'/I love 1956 post-politics. But this really isn't good enough - not everyone had a post-1989 revelation that they'd devoted their lives to a lie. What I most admire about my Grandparents is that they never gave up, never went off into a rightwing sulk, as so, so many other Communists did. My Grandad, who died last month, actually spent the last 5 years of his life in a Trotskyist organisation, arguing with my Grandma, who'd joined Labour in the early 80s, about the 'scab' party she belonged to...

But what this documentary ignored was just how influential the British Communist Party has been over the last 25 years. Totally unmentioned here was the role the CPGB played as, essentially, the co-creators of New Labour. When Trots, Anarchists and Labour Bennites were fighting back in the class war Thatcher kicked off, much of the CP was claiming that the class war no longer existed. Bea Campbell attacked the miners, Hobsbawm (admirable as a historian, a disaster as a political thinker) applauded the expulsion of Marxists from the Labour Party. People trained in apologias for the embodiment of the march of history in tanks rolling into Hungary and Czechoslovakia were to become rather adept at transferring that march to Capital, laying the groundwork for Market Stalinism. That's not even mentioning the John Reids and the Mandelsons who started in the CP before destroying the British Labour movement. We still live with the legacy of British Communism, not as a tragicomic memory of gauchely confrontational politics, but as that post-political reality itself.

(red star for whoever guesses what the building at the top is...)