Saturday, November 29, 2008

Constructivism, Kitsch and Capital: Lloyds

As a writer sometimes prone to what Geoffrey Scott called the 'associational fallacy', I ought to have to justify that my favourite building in London, and quite possibly anywhere else, is designed to be a machine for all I most abhor - every time I have gone past it on the 47 bus, I have gazed transfixed at a monument to financialised late capitalism. Strange Harvest recently posted an excellent associational argument that the Lloyds Building, and High-Tech architecture in general, was - maybe more than postmodernism, given that the latter barely continued into Blairism's Thatcherism Mk 2, while High-Tech has flourished under it - the built embodiment of Thatcherism, a simulation of industry, tangible activity and visible moving parts to contain the dematerialised and dematerialising realignment of the British economy into 'services' and speculation. This is all very convincing, but there is more than this to Lloyds. There is the alleged adaptability, the promise that it could easily be transformed into something other than a particularly venal gambling club, no doubt consoling Rogers in the days when he quoted Herbert Marcuse to the RIBA and ritually denounced Margaret Thatcher - though the stockbrokers aren't adapting it, nor will it be if it gets Grade 1 listed. This is, no doubt, a fixed object made to look indeterminate, although I for one hope to see the day that it houses the 21st century Comintern.

As this is a building which pays fulsome homage to Soviet Constructivism; or not so much homage as a final rendering of their dreams, the projects they could never realise, into steel and concrete. Lloyds is not the built Constructivism of Melnikov, Golosov, Ginzburg, the Vesnin brothers, who were grappling with peasant technologies and would eventually gravitate towards an early-Corbusian purism. It's the unbuilt or theatrical, the fantasies of Iakov Chernikhov, the unbuilt projects of the earlier 20s like the Vesnins' Pravda building, and like them it fairly shudders with mechanical power. With its glazed lifts, moving parts, girders, cranes, components all crammed into a tight, fierce, metallic mesh, this is a building that has (on me, at least) much the same shivers-down-spine effect as The Human League's 'Dancevision', or 'Strings of Life', or 'Trans-Europe Express': a mechanical sublime that sweeps away any residual humanist resistance with your willing participation. Someone once described Lloyds as resembling what might have ensued in the steampunk scenario of the Soviets winning the Cold War: a technocratic and ferocious architecture, far from the often more mundane reality of that country's Modernist buildings - here is where Modernism's machine idolatory reaches its most astonishing apotheosis.

Still, it's clear that none of these associations ever worried the denizens of Lloyds of London. Instead this is one of the few instances of capitalist Constructivism, an object that Sam Jacob accurately describes as 'a kitschy, aestheticised, shiny stainless steel simulation of the grimy infrastructure that its design seemingly pays homage to' and, we could add, that the forces it houses were then destroying. And yet Rogers' return to bright colours, friendliness, the polis and volumes of humanist rhetoric that are deeply out of kilter with the alienating brilliance of his finest work, implies that he and his firm were themselves shaken by the ruthless force of this statement. If Lloyds is mid-80s kitsch, it is in a similar manner to a John Carpenter or James Cameron film: brutal, unsentimental, futurist kitsch, thrilling kitsch. It's cyberpunk architecture, as dated and fascinating as that implies. Yet alongside these associations, there is little doubt that it's also a deeply dishonest embodiment of the ideology of late capitalism. How could it have been anything else?


Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

To me one of the most interesting / appealing aspects of the building is its fragmentary preservation of past incarnations, from the atone arch outside to the Lutine bell, ship's register, rostrum and reconstructed offices on the top floor. In a sense it is a symbolic microcosm of London itself, which, no matter how hard it tries, can never quite forget its past--like Freud's Rome.

12:27 pm  
Anonymous Sam said...

Maybe its more steampunk than cyberpunk? That's to say, it's iconography is, in reality, historicist. Imagine it in brass ... wouldn't that be beautiful?

3:16 pm  
Anonymous Lang Rabbie said...

I seem to recall that there was simular soul searching that the building was too good for its clients in the AJ at the time that Lloyds was originally completed in '86.

BTW Did Geoffrey Scott actually call it the "Associational Fallacy?"

I would have sworn it is referred to as the "Ethical Fallacy"

10:05 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Re: associational/ethical - you might well be right on that one, I will check. Have not read it in a very long time, and is currently remaindered so I could get a copy cheap...

Conrad and Sam: yes, it is historicist in a sense (both cyberpunk and steampunk though, esp as the former is a facet of the latter), and it is a consummately London building - but London (as someone once said) 'as it could be', if it had a bit of bloody mettle and ceased pretending to be Paris, Bath, Shanghai or wherever. Yet I think the bell and the arch are by a very long chalk the least interesting things about Lloyds - they seem like pat gestures towards the client, and the building would lose absolutely nothing by their removal.

11:08 pm  
Anonymous Sam said...

Though both bell and room are part of its 'assemblage' ... and as such, perhaps a rare moment in High Tech which begins to address some of the juxtapositions suggested in earlier plug and play architecture.

11:20 pm  
Anonymous John Doe said...

Hmm, I happen to live just down the street from the offices of the R Rogers partnership (well, as it was before he sold most of it off) and I can't help speculating on the relationship between what Rogers has built and where he has housed himself and his workers. As I'm sure you're well aware, the offices are in an old wharf building on the Thames just down from Hammersmith Bridge. There's the River cafe right next door, complete with strip of grass, potted lemon trees, herb garden etc. It is overwhelmingly well, pretty, in an agreeably banal fashion, a sort of reconstructed pastoral formed from the clay of erased industry, Farrow and Ball 'tastefulness', a very discreet smattering of hi-tech, plus a clunking reference (via the river location) to a Wind in the Willows nostalgic, and rather strident, anti-modernism. The contrast with the Lloyd's buidling could not be more pronounced.

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