Monday, March 31, 2008


There's a poem by the fascinating (and occasionally somewhat unnerving) Proletcultist, trade unionist and 'Leninist Taylorist' Alexei Gastev in which the workers' movement is incarnated in the form of a gigantic steel tower, rising ever upwards despite defeats and collapses. Interesting to find that the seemingly less extreme world of Scottish trade unionism ended up using a similar symbol, as in the image above (taken from here). This was in direct reference to the Glasgow Expo of 1938, and in particular its Constructivistic central tower, designed by underrated Moderne-ist Thomas Tait. The Glasgow 'Empire Exhibition' was one of that now mostly disappeared yet endlessly intriguing species, the Great Exposition, in which the future is previewed, and the inability to subsequently provide it becomes a barometer of the failure of the present - think Paris 1925, Brussels 1958, Montreal 1967 (not forgetting the famously bellicose Paris 1937). Of course, Kraftwerk knew all about this.

The fading of the Expo is surely yet another symptom of the attempt to stop us thinking about the future, even in the faintly comic, positivistic manner of these expositions. Yet these are one of the few examples of a Modernism genuinely taken to the public bosom (eg, this little youtube film made up of photos from Glasgow 1938, worth a look providing you mute the soundtrack). Perhaps this is because they stick to one of the key ideological tenets (if wholly ignoring the functionalist, purposeful ones) - to be instantly disposable. The expo is the ephemeralisation of architecture, snapped together, flashily devoted to spectacle. Every Expo must have within it a strange thing known as a 'Palace of Industry', beginning with the palace that started them all. A Palace of Industry is a factory that doesn't produce anything, a space that merely showcases the potentiality and power of industrial equipment and technology in order to impress or dazzle the spectator - who may or may not look at similar machines every day, may in fact have built the tower or the glass canopy with them, but which become something different when isolated from their context and put in the vitrine.

Brutalist Apologists Arrive

Itemise your Discontent

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Return of the Hooverville

Kosmograd pulls together Blairite urbanism, Margaret Hodge and what Mike Davis would probably call the 'peri-urban' disurbanist consequences of the sub-prime crisis - the erection of tent cities on the outskirts of Los Angeles. This isn't isolated to LA: his links bar highlights the same tent colonies occurring in Ontario, only to be expelled by the police; and remarkably, Socialist Worker profiles the tent encampments of Peterborough. While the stock market meltdown has more than a hint of 1929, the urban settlements that created are reappearing in their turn, the Planet of Slums making incursions into Western cities.

An especially staggering moment in Kosmograd's profile of a minister best known for pandering to Fascists and spectacular philistinism, comes when surveying some stunning development in Barking: Her only disappointment is that the flats have been sold to a buy-to-let investor. "There’s nothing you can do about that." You can only be faintly taken aback. This is a government that can create the most extensive surveillance apparatus in the world, throw huge quantities of money at banks when they have a mishap, offer blank cheques to imperial adventures, but when faced with something as seemingly basic as providing vaguely affordable housing rather than endless pokey boltholes for junior stockbrokers, then suddenly their powers run out. It's not that they wouldn't want to, it's that - bizarrely - they can't. And as the post points out, the implications of such an abdication of responsibility could be horrifying.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Two Trips to the Outskirts' Edges

(partly occasioned by a trip to review an exhibition.)

There's something both appealing and terrifying about the fact that no matter how long you live in London, how much you walk its streets, you can never encompass it. The sheer overwhelming sprawl of the city (which is being counted here as everything within the M25) means that the idea of covering the whole place, either on foot, by bus or one of those newfangled automobiles, is inherently absurd. Even if by some miracle of longevity and unemployment you manage to traverse it, there's still the tunnels, the sewers and the passages to bunkers, the private roads and gated-off places that you'll never, ever be able to get into. This leads to the creation of different Londons, something that can stay as the banal estate agent's cliche of a patchwork of interlocking villages, or be a spur to the attempted discovery of another London entirely - a place where all its horrors and contradictions might be effaced.

‘daintily alights Elaine
hurries down the concrete station
with a frown of concentration
out into the outskirts’ edges…’

Having never been a resident of suburbia proper, one of my favourite imaginary Londons is Metroland. Not really Betjeman's version - too twee, too damned English - but the London suggested by the work of Charles Holden. As with all the great London architects (Wren, Nash, Lubetkin) this was a deliberate, doomed attempt to impose order upon mercantile chaos. The 1930s tube stations, their redbrick vanilla Modernism, are so often at odds with their Mock Tudor surroundings that they suggest another city entirely. On my way to Cockfosters I stopped off at Arnos Grove, the most renowned of his stations, both to have a look inside its concrete drum and to use its toilets, a fine facility for such small stations (and something not repeated until 60 years later, with the surprisingly wonderful Jubilee line extension). The loos were closed, so I had to nip into an enormous bogus-boarded Beefeater round the corner, as if to prove my original point. Waiting inside the station though, you notice the sheer totality of the conception here, with benches, clocks, signs, all in a strange Middlesex Constructivist style. Then ten minutes later and out into Cockfosters, and - it's almost a shock. A harsh, bare concrete hangar, proto-brutalist if anything, promising a gateway into the Kraftwerkian Europe-Endless with much more panache than does St Pancras. Holden seemed to toss these surprises out, then forget them - by the end of his life he was creating timid, bland buildings like Birkbeck and SOAS, risible in the glacial presence of his earlier Senate House.

All the contradictions of my Metroland are in the above two pictures, both a stone's throw from Cockfosters station. One (a slab for Lloyds bank) for all its anemia, could be anywhere - Ghent, Brno, Turin. A curving curtain wall, with some brick infill so as not to be too scary: the sort of bankers' bauhaus that used to fill the City of London (where, no doubt, much of Cockfosters works) until it went pomo, then got Fosterised. The other could only ever be in England. It's called Betjeman Court. The writer in question could get as enthused about Denys Lasdun's National Theatre as he would more famously over ragstone churches, but sod that - he pledged himself to English suburbia, and they aren't going to give him back. A building so awful that you feel like a churl for getting worked up about it. Walk on a bit to find some less offensive conservatism, a parade of shops in a Decoised Georgian, housing Chinese takeaways and health food - none of the fried chicken joints or charity shops that would make me feel at home, but faintly seductive nonetheless - not my Metroland, but another one that feels a potentially very pleasant place to disappear into.

The real point of all of this was to ignore as much as possible the majority of my surroundings in order to find evidence that Holden's work had, somehow, penetrated into the suburbia it brought into being (as the presence of a tube station would provoke building, not always the other way round). To confirm a suspicion that there really was some sort of comfortable, quiet Modernist enclave somewhere at the outer reaches. It wouldn't have to be that impressive, just a few houses with Crittall windows would have done nicely. It didn't actually take too long to find what I was looking for. On the phone, having an argument, appropriately, with someone from Lloyds bank (I felt like walking up to the office and asking if I could talk to them there instead) I wandered into such an enclave. Heralded by an isolated rectangular clock-tower, you come to an open, empty sports field, with what is apparently the De Bohun school at the end of it, a thing of redbrick and glass that evokes, interestingly enough, Frederick Gibberd's original buildings for Heathrow Airport. An international style tamed and anglicised, looking a little baffled at all the mess below.

The journey to the Northern periphery was rather more fun than the one to the South. If I willfully blind myself to the fact that it was these people who kept Thatcher in power and who may presently elect Boris Johnson, I could live in the edges of North London, with its kosher Chinese restaurants, parades of shops, those fantastic Crittals windows (NB I would only live there if I could have a set of the latter), and the general sense of living out the catastrophe at a safe remove, able to see it as a panorama from hills and recreation grounds. The South feels rather meaner - petit-bourgeois, close enough to London proper to be brutally snobbish about it. But not at first - Surbiton station, gleaming and glorious, then a parade of almost art nouveau shops round a corner, then some more redbrick moderne (ignoring several thousand dwellings along the way).

On being dropped off near Kingston, the mystery of the Northern suburbs is nowhere to be found. The pubs are smug, with jokey signage and punning names. There's enough leftovers of the time when it was genuinely rural to make it rather irritating - real mews, actual cottages, even what I have to describe as a babbling brook. All this is lifted only by the discovery of a stone in a creaky, silly little Spiritualist church, reminding that the creator of the urbane, drug-addicted Holmes lived out his last days as an adherent of this faintly sad creed, apparently driven to it by grief. To the Angel World. Then, next to an especially egregious pub, you find this view - extraordinary, and fantastically London, of a game of football in front of some Queen Anne concoction and looming in the distance, a bulging creature which I wonder might have the hand of Luder behind it, what with its strange appendages and curves, if given a lick of paint or some kind of facing rather than left roughly brut. So I get the bus from round the corner to the Alton Estate, Roehampton.

Alton, for those who haven't read any of the thousand 1960s architecture books that mention it, is the London County Council's ingenuous attempt to create Le Corbusier's Ville Radieuse, a huge section of parkland next to Richmond where former slum dwellers were settled. The place was fairly doomed for not having a tube or rail station in even walking distance, but for that has aged well, at least away from the harsh shopping sector of the estate, where the true poverty of the place becomes inescapable, stalked as it is by unkempt, confused looking middle aged men. Alton, once dubbed 'the best low-cost housing development in the world', is now divided into 'neighbourhoods', denoted by plastic signs and far from Neue typographie, but architecturally it was divided between the softs and the hards, the communists and the non-aligned, the empiricist and the new brutalist. Alton East, the first section, planned by Swedish influenced, CPGB linked architects, is in what was pejoratively called 'people's detailing': rather absurdly, as embellishment doesn't go beyond some cute Festival of Britain entrance tiles at the tower blocks. It's pleasant, and I expect a nice place to live if you don't mind having to travel to Barnes to get anywhere, but not somewhere anyone but the most obsessive Modernist-nostalgist would visit. It's also far from photogenic, hence is not in any of these pics. Designed for people - for the tenants - rather than visiting aesthetes, maybe.

Corbusier's Ville Radieuse plan was reckoned by Patrick Abercrombie, the planner of postwar London, to bridge the gap between the Modernists and the garden cities, being a futurist equivalent to the open spaces, greens and semis of the 1930s' furiously duplicated little utopias. That's as maybe. At the edge of Alton West the spaces are all textured concrete and geometry, but what might have seemed like inhumanity is always tempered by some ingenious touch, like the tiny cubic cottages that run zigzag up and down the hills. This is the New Brutalists having their first flourish, before they too became pejorative. But the finest moment of this imaginary London is unlike anything else in Britain or elsewhere. You can't photograph all of this, either, not without a panorama. Block after block, lining up on the top of a shallow, verdant hill. To get to the blocks you have to walk under trees, then when you get there you can walk under the buildings surrounded by the trunks of pilotis. This, finally, at the periphery in every sense, is the other London, the one you've been looking for, where Modernism has transformed the landscape totally, entirely, without so much as a metro station as inspiration. Elegant and weird, with a shaggy, compacted bull as public sculpture. And you can't just move here, you get moved here.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Bloc Beat Books

I picked up the following books extremely cheap in a second-hand bookshop in Ljubljana: the only criteria was sexiness of covers, due to my facility with slavic languages remaining at a sub-Clockwork Orange level. Some of these are truly gorgeous works of art - the Arkady Fiedler and Roger Vailland have dust-jackets concealing equally wonderful designs on the hardcover - some are just enjoyably clunky. The 1950s-60s examples (mostly from the publishers Zalozba) share in a peculiar sort of Eastern Bloc Beat aesthetic that you can find in Polish and Czech film posters of the '60s (or in the amazing matchboxes scanned in by Maraid) - an angular but bright and irregular style, quite apart from the stiff grimness one might expect.

Monday, March 24, 2008

(flurry of posts caused by having only just obtained a broadband connection in my flat - oh yes, I've been blogging for three years from libraries and internet cafes - and saner service should be resumed soon)

Streets in Sky Overkill Post

Just before everyone gets bored with the subject...Functional arguments are useful as a way of circumventing whimsy and eclecticism, but are only interesting up to a point. What I like in buildings with streets in the sky, what I find walking across the walkway over the lake at the Barbican, isn't the frisson of trepidation, or the vicarious thrill of urban decay, but excitement. String a deck across the air and all my teenage dreams of a Metropolis are, for a moment, fulfilled. In 1977 The Human League (when they were The Future) recorded a fantastic, brief blast of breathless futurism called 'Dancevision', evoking some 'ambiguous alloy of euphoria and grief' according to its historian. Euphoria and grief - that's exactly what these buildings provoke. While carried away by their sweep, the possibilities they suggest, you can't help but notice what a fucking state they're in. On the sleeve of the EP 'Dancevision' was released on a few years later, a note says - 'recorded in front of Kelvin flats, Sheffield'. That's what elicited this sound. Kelvin was the third, after Hyde Park and Park Hill, in a series of vast deck-access (the prosaic term for the street-in-the-sky) council blocks built by Sheffield City Council under Jack Wolmersley in the 1950s-60s, and the first to be demolished. All three were reactions to Alison and Peter Smithson's Golden Lane project, their nearest built equivalent to which was Robin Hood Gardens.

Deck of Access/Social Palace

I've never been to Sheffield - like many a lickspittle Southerner I never go North of Cockfosters - and my experience of the street in the sky is pretty limited. My Mum and siblings lived in a deck-access block for 5 or 6 years after I moved to London, and it was quite nice - a damn sight more spacious, light and well designed than the flat carved out of the space above a chippy in which I currently reside - and calm enough, bar one care-in-the-community case whose bedroom was underneath Mum's washing machine. Aside from that, it's just visits to the Barbican, the South Bank and the occasional jaunt over to Poplar. One of the sillier comments amid the whole RHG farrago was that deck access blocks were somehow inherently unworkable, a faintly absurd claim occasionally going with 'prisons have them sometimes, do you see?' Walking in the sky seems to me more fun than walking on the ground, amid cars swinging past you every second. But if we're going to talk about Collage aesthetics, isn't this what the Smithsons did with the streets in the sky? Urban bricolage, taking an extremely common form - the means of access to practically every council block built in London in the 20s and 30s - and expanding it into something its creators never counld have conceived? Or you could trace the typology back even further, to find it as one of the preferred models for Charles Fourier's Phalansteries, the utopian socialist 'social palaces' proposed and occasionally constructed in 19th century France.

The Future's been Deep Fried

Back to Kelvin. These blocks were erected as a deliberate reaction to the way that Athens Charter Modernism broke up communities, erected Corbusian utopias of cleanliness and hygiene, had a certain suspicion of the lower orders and their teeming streets, their prediliction for disorder. Jack Lynn, one of the architects of Park Hill, wrote that classical Modernism 'had torn down streets of houses, which despite their sanitary shortcomings harboured a social structure of friendliness and mutual aid'. That's every sociological critique of Modernist development in a nutshell. Park Hill, and its inspiration, the Smithsons' unbuilt Golden Lane block, was a way of avoiding this - a critique of Modernism from the inside, making the exact same arguments that would be flung back at them in turn a decade later. Yet, curiously, the streets in the sky were put there for purposes of community, or traffic avoidance, but not officially because it might be an invigoratingly futuristic way of walking to the shop for your paper and pint of milk.

Maybe because of Sheffield's centrality to Pop Futurism, or because of the buildings themselves, there's been a lot of these streets in the sky in pop. On 'Deep Fried in Kelvin' Pulp did the dystopian version, a grim, shabby place of feral kids, where the concrete walkways are 'where pigeons go to die'; and then on 'Sheffield Sex City' they get transmogrified into a space of utopian carnality, Park Hill having a Reichian mass orgasm. It's difficult to read anything on bleep & bass or Cabaret Voltaire without finding at least one reference to brutalist architecture. This wasn't about escape into a futuristic city, it was there in front of you, albeit cracking and riven with spalling concrete. That there's no record about Robin Hood Gardens is a little surprising, maybe linked to the way that the Blackwall tunnel tears apart anything approaching cohesion and community. Pop appreciation gets reserved for the Athens Charter tower of terror, Trellick, not its East End sibling, Balfron.

Your Private Sky

There's an entertaining little series of short and none-too-serious books on Sheffield's three blocks here (and see also). They're a catalogue of impressively unrepentant unemployment, musical dabbling and the particular strategies which the authorities use to deal with these places - demolition, as with Kelvin; plastic cladding and CCTV, in the case of Hyde Park; and listing followed by privatisation, with the most famous of the three. Despite their obvious facetiousness, they catalogue exactly what living in such extreme places does: when filled with the poor it can create places full of bustling weirdness and excitement, and can be pretty horrible. It might be messy, and it was always supposed to be. The problem, as Homo Ludens points out, is that the dearth of council housing means that you might be dumped in somewhere so extraordinary when you have kids to bring up, when you're claiming your pension, whatever. It shouldn't be the crumbling remnants of the future or nothing.

I'm on a council waiting list, (not Tower Hamlets, perhaps mercifully) and I'd gladly walk across those walkways on a daily basis, but I have no interest in compelling anyone else to do so. Yet there are thousands of other single and/or young people in London on waiting lists, and no reason why they wouldn't want to live in these places. There was a statistic quoted at me a while ago that Britain had a non-white majority only above the 10th floor. Well, the stockbrokers are busy trying to reverse that one, and we're being denied our place in the sky. Not for decades has Modernist architecture (of an attenuated sort) been so accepted among a major part of the ruling class, and not for decades has it been so emptied of anything resembling social responsibility. Maybe that's what lies behind so many of the signatures on the BD petition - a profession guilty about becoming the aesthetic wing of social cleansing beginning to yearn nostalgically for a time when it had cleaner hands. Now let's see some of them offer their support to this.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Making a Cunt Boring

Jean-Luc Godard's British Sounds

It's long been my suspicion that when people say they don't like Brecht, and Brechtian techniques, what they really mean is they've seen some of Godard's 'political' films and been rather scarred by the experience, ending up with the entirely false view that the Verfremdungseffekt consists in breaking character to read bits of the Little Red Book, a general peevish 'politicality' in the editing and stiff performances. It's almost as if his extraordinary visual talents, his ability to generate pointless filmic euphoria (oh, Bande a Part, Alphaville, etc) made him enter a sort of tedious self-criticism tribunal. That this continues without the politics today is obvious from his recent, utterly middlebrow film-essays collected in the ECM Four Shorts box: Arvo Part, work of mourning, etc - like Chris Marker with none of the wit or style, or general interest in people and the means of their emancipation.

The only film from his most explicitly political phase (after he'd stopped posing and took up a genuine 'commitment', during his collective work with Jean-Pierre Gorin and/or the 'Dziga Vertov Group') that I've seen is Tout va Bien, which mixed tremendous set pieces, as in the occupied factory sequence, with indulgent pseudo-Brechtian autobiographic interjections; and the 'cine-tracts', an anonymous series of films produced by and for the enrages of May 68 - you can tell which of the films are his, because (literally) his handwriting is all over them. So I was surprised, to put it mildly, to be very impressed with the first of his collectively produced, 'Maoist' films, British Sounds. The story of the film is intriguing enough in itself, commissioned by Tony Garnett for ITV and unsurprisingly not shown - and the political and aesthetic reasons for this must surely be identical.

The opening sequence is a startling example of the televisual 'ambient uncanny' that Ads without Products has been so good at pinpointing. A tracking shot across the Ford works in Dagenham, in which you suddenly realise that every production line you've seen on film has been a lie - none of them were this deafening, a huge, forbidding industrial screech of metal on metal, with the workers having to yell to be heard above it. Before you get the chance to assess this, to evaluate this cacophony, you hear a patrician, BBC newsreading voice reading out Marx and Engels, and making an oblique state-of-these-islands pronouncement, as if the master voice has suddenly gone haywire, as if the reality studio has genuinely been stormed. Rather than being agitational, the effect is extremely unnerving - something here is decidedly not right, the images, the sounds, the ideas are all used with such aggression, that at no point can you sit back and take them in, as one can in Tout va Bien or a Marker film - they agitate in the sense of irritate.

After this astonishing opening sequence, the rest is still intriguing, mainly for the sheer violence of the techniques used - rarely does a sentence go by without being interrupted, an image emerge without being immediately placed in question. In one of the most famous/notorious sequences, Sheila Rowbotham reads while a woman walks around a house naked, occasionally stopping to quote some of the same text, all but inaudibly. The second of Colin MacCabe's two books on Godard reveals that Rowbotham was suspicious until being assured by JLG that he could 'make a cunt boring'. (ironically enough, the staggeringly unerotic nudity is what keeps this sequence off YouTube). Some of it features examples of estrangement that are perhaps a tad obvious - in the only sequence where someone directly addresses the camera, the speaker recites in that same BBC English a sort of neo-fascist manifesto. It's effective, though, in that every illustration for his rant is completely oblique, not just directly contrary to the content but baffling, making the viewer wonder exactly what it's doing there.

It also has the very welcome accidental effect of reminding us that 1968 was the year of the greatest general strike in history, not just of some students demanding unisex halls of residence. Expecting perhaps some attack of fierce dialectics, when we end up at an occupied university what we have is some remarkably dulcet folk (and the accents are another of the remarkable components of the 'sounds', utilising their class power and status throughout) wondering how to get the precise revolutionary message out of an acoustic rendition of some of the more whimsical songs of the White Album. Not the least of the problems this ferocious film raises is - what exactly is the point of changing the words when you're still singing the same song?

'his characters speak as if they were reading out the floor plan for a shopping centre'

Emmy Hennings is back, with a beautifully pitched demolition of Gus van Sant's Paranoid Park. I've always loathed skateboarding and skateboarders anyhow...(pic via)

Social Cleansing Watch, # 932

I'm as horrified as anyone else by the implications of loveable bumbling public school racist Boris Johnson becoming Mayor of London, so I'll be voting for Ken Livingstone in one way or another in a month's time - but check Michael Rosen's comments on this Socialist Unity thread for a detailed account of how opposition to war and support for the Bolivarian revolution count for fairly little when you're an accessory to mass gentrification. And see also.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Looking from a Walkway

Pop life in the streets-in-the-sky. I suppose at the very least these places will always make good film sets...

Are you Local?

And on the issue that nobody wants to talk about - the almost certain class cleansing of the Robin Hood Gardens site, which will most probably happen regardless of whether it's Building Design or Margaret Hodge that gets their way - read this excellent, forensic Entschwindet post.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Tricorn Lives in Our Hearts

Me on English Heritage, in the New Statesman. There's also a piece in this month's Blueprint on 'trickle-down architecture' - although you'll have to actually buy the thing.

UPDATE: now with angry letter! Love the Joy Division reference...(it's the fourth letter down)


There is no doubt that earlier bastions of Leftist cultural discourse – factory gates, universities, coffee houses – are not what they used to be. Nevertheless, the ‘intellectual foibles’ that partly constitute the artworld deserve closer attention. If the artworld is where immaterial labour goes to party and, let us not be coy, a very attractive concern for investors everywhere, then we should be concerned both by what it says about the ‘political-intellectual’ culture, and by what it says about itself.

IT on the language of the 'creative industries', an important and so far terribly under-theorised element of Blatcherite cultural and urban policy (for around 25 years now artists have moved in to areas to be followed later by stockbrokers, and yet they seem surprised when it happens...) Especially good on the peculiar free-floating guff spoken in this milieu, which, like capital itself, always speaks of itself as accelerating, making, recombining and generally doing terribly dynamic, exciting stuff. There's also a fine response over at Entschwindet und Vergeht, who makes a connection between art-aphasia and his own works on ruination.

I wonder how much the latter has to do with Patrick Keiller's mid-90s observation that neoliberalism in Britain gave a false appearance of decline, in that the lack of interest in housing as new space (something usually found in spaces of punishment, consumption and distribution) made British cities look grottily dilapidated while wealth actually increased. This kind of space, where most of us actually live, is interestingly different to the Rogers-Livingstone policy of shiny Ikea Modernist flats on riversides and along canals - which does, in its way, create new space. These new spaces are as untouched by history as their surroundings make a fetish of it, and yet they still don't signify an economy based on the making of new things, new artefacts - rather, they're the products of massive, overinflated property speculation. Similarly, the art-world has long been suspicious of the object, the thing - the realisation that the concept was as saleable as the signature meant that an artwork that the artist may not have even touched could still be auratic, could still possess all the uniqueness and numinal 'creativity' that allows it to become a hugely expensive fetish object. If 'nu-language' is immaterial language, Britart conceptualism immaterial art, then the luxury flat is the immaterial house. Erected by decidedly material labour.

(Some pics from taken from the new Savage Messiah site, which features drifts from the zines, much on yuppiedromes, and a particularly appropriate use of pop-ups...get yourselves down there forthwith.)

Red Brick Extraction

The Robin Hood Gardens controversy has elicited some of the most interesting debate among the architecture blogs in a long time: Kosmograd sceptical, Fantastic Journal even more sceptical, with Homo Ludens and City of Sound being much more pro the whole campaign. My own position is somewhere between the latter two. Without wanting to slight a brilliant post, there's a hint in the COS post, and in lots of the contributions to the BD petition in the first place, that Park Hill or Keeling House, with their Alsopification and Gated-Community fate respectively, are in some way a good model - and along with this a denigration of the tenants, somehow unfit to live in such an ambitious building. What I find especially sad about this - true as it might be, and certainly in the 70s the building was riven with vandalism - is that Brutalism was the nearest architecture ever got to a culture of, not a culture for, the working class. This was always messy and contradictory, and certainly not an exact symbiosis, but read Banham's The New Brutalism (if you can get hold of a copy) and you can't miss the class issues running through it - the brutalists as products of class mobility, working class and petit-bourgeois, of 'red-brick extraction', infatuated with shiny popculture and technology and hostile to welfare state philanthropism, if not to socialism.

'A building for the socialist dream, which is something different to building for the socialist state' was the Smithsons' description of Robin Hood Gardens. RHG was robbing the rich to give to the poor, and to reverse this would be a tragedy, one to which demolition might even be preferable. Though this isn't to support the East London Advertiser's demand to 'TEAR IT DOWN'...which might have a little to do with who their advertisers are. (may I add there's lots about this in the forthcoming book?)

* Actually since I started writing the above, there's been an excellent post on 'Complexity and Contradiction' in the Smithsons' work at Fantastic Journal - convincingly classing their Sugden House as Pop architecture. There's a difference between pop and postmodernism though, and for me this is exemplified by the differences between the detailing of the Sugden house (ostensibly bare and conformist, but with those huge, odd windows throwing it off-centre) and the Venturi-Scott-Brown house at the end, where the windows make references, borrow old forms. One uses conformism as a deceptive strategy, the other just seems to reinforce it...

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Arterial, Peripheral, Industrial

A flickr set entitled 'interwar industry scrapbook' (now there's a title after my own heart), featuring all the deco clocks, rendered concrete and slight shabbiness one could possibly want, plus lots by London's answer to Albert Kahn, Wallis Gilbert. Am very busy with the book at present, which is currently on its third 'final draft' - but regard this as a taster for an imminent post on London peripheries (which the world will have whether it will or no) as I've been enjoying the outer suburbs lately, the joys of Surbiton, the haunting beauty of Cockfosters, not to mention finally getting to Arnos Grove...(these things become quite romantic when you've lived in SE London for the best part of a decade. Oh dear, see the obvious trap I've fallen into etc)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


I've been asked to draw attention to this thing which looks worthwhile - there's a CFP for contributions to an issue on exotic urbanism, something which appears to be very much the order of the day...and just how prog rock is Koolhaas becoming? The image above looks like something by bleeding Hipgnosis - and not in a good way.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Bulletin of the Socialist Lavatory League, No. 3

New Labour attempts to privatise the public loo. In reaction to this Third Way bollocks, with its public-private partnerships for pay-as-you-go receptacles, I propose a version of the mass trespasses of the 30s, in which those with 'irregularities' - Crohn's and colitis sufferers, the elderly, the heavily pregnant - smash open the iron gates of the Victorian palaces of expulsion and take a satisfying and much needed use of the amenities. I suggest we start at that one in Bermondsey round by the Antiques Market. If that fails, then knocking on the doors of the nearby Yuppiedromes threatening dirty protests if they don't open up their internal facilities should suffice.

'Some Working Classes are Very Pleasant'

I'll tell you who makes the Nazis...Here's Two excellent pieces on the BBC's ridiculously dangerous 'White' season, in which the experience of the 'white working class' is boiled down to having a bee in one's bonnet about immigrants - something motivated, as Lynsey Hanley's piece points out, by the Beeb's own cossetted middle class fuckwittery, in a world where these things are excitingly exotic. Note also that on the comments appending her piece the working classes are accused of stupidity and smelling of piss by someone clearly unfamiliar with the niceties of English grammar. An interestingly common thing on Comment is Free and its ilk, the grammatically and verbally challenged rantings of right-wing arseholes who still, somehow, manage to maintain a sense of impregnable superiority.

This middle-class reductiveness (pioneered in Michael Collins' sentimentalist The Likes of Us) is something that I find particularly infuriating, as it constantly declares that the white working class that make up most of my family - mostly politically active, with an autodidact or two amongst them, committed to working class solidarity and education - don't exist, never did exist. Similarly, the history of the East End has to be rewritten in a way that ensures that the Great Dock Strike, Cable Street, decades as one of the few places in Britain where 'Communist' wasn't a pejorative, are all secondary to a Sun reading bestiary. All particularly grotesque in an area that has seen the mass social cleansing that is gentrification expel working class inhabitants, black or white, off to the peripheries.


Perusing the filmography in the back of the Russ Meyer biography Big Bosoms and Square Jaws, it transpires that a Top Celebrity Architect and Urbanist had an interest in hyperactive All-American grotesquerie, not to mention the category of the 'cantilevered', that extended beyond the architectural. Rem Koolhaas collaborated on a script entitled Hollywood Tower, which was considered and rejected by the great man. Whether this was inspired by Meyer's long-lost short film Skyscrapers and Brassieres is unknown...(he expands upon it a bit here.)

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Off the Couch

English Heritage keep their Images of England site rather quiet. A shame, as it's an invaluable resource. On the ‘Advanced Search’, one can bring up a map of the country, click on area, and see an illustrated list of all the listed buildings in said area. When looking up suburban North London, I found that a particular favourite building of mine – Belvedere Court, between East Finchley and the Hampstead Garden Suburb, was rather more interesting than previously thought. It’s a very elegant and large-scale bit of second-division Modernism, the geometry tempered by little deco and quasi-Biedermeier details. Anyway, not only does this appear to have been one of those much-vaunted Experiments In Living rather than just another suburban block, but it was designed by Ernst Ludwig Freud – son of Sigmund, and trained by Adolf Loos. Surely another part of Adam Curtis’ Century of the Self could have been spun out of this connection? After Bernays’ use of the talking cure as instrument for popular control, we could have had another Freud’s importation of Modernism – something which many have considered, as per Karl Kraus’ line on psychoanalysis, to be ‘the disease to which it thinks itself the cure’ – as another example of cross-continental cross-pollination that came to oppress where it intended to liberate. Obviously E.L Freud is a peripheral figure, but it would have been no sillier than the importance apportioned to Esther and Matthew Freud…

Conversion Parables

The future historians of the built environment of Blairism won’t be consulting back issues of AD or the glossy monographs of the starchitect. On the contrary, they’ll be hoarding and rifling through the advertisements in the back pages of the London free papers, the property pullouts of The Guardian or the Telegraph. That is, if they can stomach the antiseptic parade of stunning developments, loft conversions and suchlike. As a contribution to such a future history, here’s a couple of interesting conversions of places previously industrial or uncomfortably dirigiste, recently found amid such pages. First, found in a Telegraph supplement, is what describes itself, with frankly rather admirable chutzpah, as the Bauhaus building, Croydon. The skeleton of this building is one of the many office blocks erected in the southernmost outpost of London, when it was a brief proto-Canary Wharf, ‘London’s Mini Manhattan’, ambiguously featuring in the pre-Sex Pistols work of Jamie Reid. These Wilsonian spec towers were rather lacking in the colour and flash required by their distant successors, so accordingly the building has been given what would once have been called a ‘jazzy’ façade, declared by the developers to be ‘Constructivist’ in inspiration, and opened up to the young couples and media professionals. To point out that this blatantly superficial act of facading is the antithesis of the Bauhaus’ ethic and aesthetic is almost churlish – unlike the Libeskinds of the world with their ludicrous messianic pretensions, this is a sort of aesthetic blag, designed only to make a quick killing before the building is remade again in 25 or 30 years time.

The other stunning conversion, this one again at London’s periphery, only West rather than South – Wallis House, on the Great West Road’s Golden Mile, found in London Lite, as I recall. This is in prime Ballard country, where, this time without municipal prompting, an attempt was made at creating a little America at London’s edges. The art deco factories built for American businesses in the 1930s still mostly cling to this endless arterial road, Brentford’s own Gotham. The tallest of these has been under scaffolding for some time, during which a poster declared ‘DECO IS BACK!’ beside a drawing akin to those horrible Hed Kandi sleeves for 'chilled' 'beats', depicting a woman with a hairstyle more Jackie Kennedy than Louise Brooks. The factory as a place of fashionable living has become so familiar since the early 80s that it now barely merits comment, but for the way in which this particular machine glamour is used as an explicit selling point. And I admit to being rather disappointed that it’ll mostly be filled with business types attracted by the proximity to the Great West’s slick-tech office blocks and Heathrow. I’m not so bothered that it no longer houses a cigarette factory or whatever – rather, would that it were full of Joan Crawford types with cigarette holders and brutal bon mots. In both of these two conversions, art history is pressed into the service of commerce in an interestingly straightforward way. A journey to both towers to measure and report upon their hauntogeographical effects is being planned.