Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Non-Work



While I'm not producing, get thee hence:
The Weblog's new Wednesday Sex Sermon gets into the swing of things with a fine IT post on the more outre claims of Shulamith Firestone's Sexpol mistresspiece Dialectic of Sex (see Voyou a little while ago); Dominic Fox's diagram-assisted disquisition on 'charm' is well worth a gander also. Interesting that it's the Weblog's Anglo contingent that are having the naughty thoughts...
The first long K-Punk post in a while, and it's both a corker and decidedly politically timely: the unheimlich, PKDesque world of Gordon Brown, talent show aficionado and self-willed neoliberal - a man who will surely go down in history as Thatcherism's Brezhnev (or Chernenko, even), and he seems to know it;
And Blissblog on Yorkshire Brutalism in its musical form, Bleep&Bass - the criminally overlooked early 90s sound of empty space, harsh but compelling surface and overwhelming bass pressure.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Israel Vibration



One reason why this blog has been heavier on linkage than proper stuff lately has been various other writings and projects getting in the way. One of them involves a forthcoming piece on the politics of architecture in Israel-Palestine - in short, going from the international style of the '30s to Eyal Weizman's recent, staggering work on architectures of control and separation, via Moshe Safdie's super-brutalist mimesis of the Arab village. This has involved researching an area previously entirely opaque to me, somewhat embarrassingly as I'm supposed to be writing a thesis on art and socialism in the 20s and 30s - the political aesthetics of interwar Mandate Palestine, the Soviet and Weimar inflected preoccupations of early Labour Zionism and its workerist modernism: the photomontage above uses a statue of the 'Hebrew Worker', erected in 1934 and rebuilt in the '80s.



This post though is mainly an excuse to link to the photostream of Isotype75 on Flickr, which features a very impressive archive of Hebrew Graphics, some of which showing a remarkably Constructivist bent; what (erroneously) gets called 'Bauhaus style' in Tel Aviv, and a larger set on Haifa featuring photos of the frequently rather battered state of the 1930s buildings. All are fully credited and often interlinked. This fascinating collection shows an aesthetic filled with an imagery of technology, new architectural space and collectivity similar to this place's usual preoccupations, only rearranged in a different, perhaps stranger order. Though with one absolutely enormous elephant in the room.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Are you ready for some Brutalist Jungle Tekno?



Just found via sitemeter: Mentasms, which features a post on Jungle and Brutalist architecture - containing a particularly fine paragraph concluding that Dubstep is the hardcore continuum's equivalent to Foster or someone, a mollifying Modernism that merely reassures that the revolutionary moment isn't dead, rather than recharging it. Excellent stuff.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Diegetic/Non-Diegetic



Two great posts, linked by little else than the way they write about the particular physical/urban co-ordinates that sound evokes - Fangirl on Australian post-punkers Tactics and the settler cityscapes of Canberra and Sydney; and an Impostume post on Dingerism, and a kind of Motorik teleology, initially miming the roads and crowds, yet aiming and eventually arriving at a bodiless, frictionless state of motion.

Elevation



I recently had the unpleasant experience of being trapped in a lift, while house-sitting for some friends who reside in a Ballardian Stunning Development. The lights went out, the alarm got ignored, the intercom seemed to connect us with a call centre in Manchester - it did feel like being abandoned by the entire world, although mercifully only for about half an hour. How this entirely straightforward bit of Victorian technology, long the norm in large swathes of the globe, manages to fuck up so frequently in Britain is an intriguing question, and unsurprisingly tied up with class - the famously appalling lifts of the Pepys Estate in Deptford when it was finished in the early 70s were probably not paralleled at the NatWest Tower. Via the invaluable Things, here's a great New Yorker article about the history and perils of the elevator - several chills ran down my spine reading the story of the unfortunate McGraw Hill employee.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Underpass!



The Fantastic Journal, fairly fantastic, on the beauty and strangeness of the English Motorway System - and making the very apposite point that a motorway designed by anonymous concrete engineers will always be better than one designed by Santiago Calatrava. In fact there is one small stretch of English motorway that is 'designed' - on the edge of the M25, near Bluewater there's a section where the concrete is moulded to resemble Disneyland fibreglass, and given a (spit) friendly look. Nonetheless, there's nothing that can so slice a city into discrete parts, never to be joined together again, than a motorway - far, far more destructive of communities than the dark and reviled figure of the council estate designer, who did usually go hand in hand with them.



Although I almost admire the way that 60s planners could efface huge chunks of city to get these roads and conduits built - something utterly unimaginable today - I can think of two examples from places I've lived where a motorway or dual carriageway tears up urban fabric in a pretty grotesque fashion. In Southampton, the St Mary's area is sliced off from the city centre by a dual carriageway servicing the exodus from shopping mall to Hampshire suburb, instantly creating a ghetto; while where I live in SE London is sliced up by the Blackwall tunnel approach, ensuring, for instance, that the new enclave of Millennium Village is forever divorced from East Greenwich and Charlton, except via one footbridge which, despite a St Louis (or EUR) referencing arch, is designed in such a manner that you can never see if there's anyone in front of you - not terribly pleasant at 2am with only the looming skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, a silo or three and some cabs zooming past at 80mph for company. Similarly, the all but impassable road to Kent saves the inhabitants of Woolwich's Royal Arsenal colony from having to notice that they live in one of the biggest West African areas in London.



The element in the urban motorway that is perhaps most defensible is the one that is considered the most ugly - the flyover. The flyover not only provides the most sublime vistas and structures of the motorway - those monumental, thick legs upon which they lift themselves from the ground, the elevation and sense of the vertiginous on the way up - but in the way that, like a railway bridge, they actually add to the dynamism and excitement of urban life. Most obviously in the manner that the Westway left places like Ladbroke Grove intact by raising itself above them, enabling perhaps their eventual gentrification, but even the more prosaic Blackwall stretch suddenly achieves a poetry when it lifts itself from the ground, leaving the pedestrian to negotiate a series of columns and spaces that could become the venue for all kinds of extraordinary activity, if only it wasn't for all the sodding cars.

(Images taken from the J.G Ballard Flickr Pool...)

Schadenfreude Corner



(via)

Friday, April 18, 2008

Future Lost in Smog



There was a slightly better photo of this in the paper the other day, with someone huddled, covering their face in front of the stadium - but this one will have to do. Regardless, here is evidence that, although futuristic utopias are decidedly off the agenda, the future does seem to have arrived somewhere, albeit in decidedly unnerving form. Actually, this view of the new Beijing stadium in a cloud of pollution seems to have a similar effect to Decon in Decay: the CGI image suddenly placed in a real space, and looking distinctly befuddled by it. But while the rotting Hadid building tells the old Ozymandias tale, this is a weirder story - the detritus and waste products of industrialisation engulfing their built glorification. (via, and on the subject of latticework futuristic constructions, go see Kosmograd on the posthumous history of Tatlin's tower as mix-and-match architectural precursor and point of comparison)

Monday, April 14, 2008

Functional/Fantastical

The Modernist Factory in the garden of England
(by semi-popular demand)



Factories have often had to fight to be seen as architecture. Perhaps because architecture is so often about a spectacle that transports out of everyday life - the palace, the cathedral - how can the place you go to work every day be an object for aesthetic admiration? Perhaps with their conversion into a new space for the contemplation of art, or for ‘loft living’ they might become acceptable, but what of those factories that are still churning out production? Surely they should just do their jobs quietly and out of sight and then be abandoned when no longer of use?



There’s another view of course, that of the machine aesthetic, where the functionalist forthrightness of the industrial structure incarnates all the principles of modernist honesty and fitness for purpose. The buildings I’m going to write about here mostly fit these parameters. Hard buildings, made out of concrete, none of what Basil Spence called ‘mimsy-pimsy’ architecture. Buildings for manual work and the application of technological rationalism. Factories and industrial buildings occupy a central place in the history of 20th century architecture, and, perhaps surprisingly, you can find pointers as to the connections and contradictions of this history all over Hertfordshire. Here is a Britain caught between Europe and America, unsure which it will favour.



In the interwar years industry began to slowly move out of London, where the proximity to both housing and the corridors of power had started to become rather uncomfortable. This coincided with the building of new arterial roads out of the capital, creating an Americanised space in the home counties. Consumer concerns, usually based on the other side of the Atlantic (Gillette, Firestone, Hoover), built their most famous factories on the roads spilling into Middlesex, where their application of art deco details and bright colours, their use of lighting and logos, created what Adolf Behne christened Reklamarkhitektur (‘advertising-architecture’). The architect of the most famous of these was Thomas Wallis, who had gone into business with the American concrete construction company Truscon - so was Americanised economically as well as aesthetically - and christened his firm Wallis Gilbert and Partners to make it sound vaguely artistic (‘Gilbert‘ was an invention). In their placing, they recalled Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of the ‘factory in the garden’, but in the thunderous roads that ran past them, they embodied the autotopia of 20th century America, factories for the civilization of the open road and the car - always rather incongruous in such a tightly-packed island.



London and the Home Counties are sprinkled with his concrete fantasias, buildings more appropriate to 1930s Miami or LA than the garden of England. The most famous of Wallis’ industrial buildings, such as the Hoover factory in Perivale, have long since been listed, tended and restored. They were a prolific firm, though, and a decidedly less well upkept little factory of theirs clings on in Watford - the Ault and Wiborg factory. Rather than being preserved in aspic, the concrete curves have been coloured cream, and a wilfully crap sign for the current owners is emblazoned across the building’s front. Maybe because it doesn’t make as much fuss about itself as its cousins on the Great West Road, Ault and Wiborg seems forlorn and forgotten - and in fact, it’s currently slated for demolition in a new scheme for the area. Maybe it’s just not in an obvious enough place. Yet the production of shiny new spaces was what Wallis’ aesthetic was all about in the first place.



The more serious, socially concerned Modernists always disdained Wallis’ ‘moderne’ factories, with their fripperies and ‘jazz ornament’. ‘The notoriously vulgar and pretentious factories of the Great West Road’ was how the British Modernist historian J.M Richards dismissed them. Yet their version of the utilitarian building was also fundamentally American. In the 1910s Walter Gropius, the future Bauhaus director, had his notorious wife Alma travel round America collecting pictures of Ford’s factories, and especially the monumental grain silos to be found in places like Buffalo - monumental, stark forms that he compared to the severity and scale of Ancient Egyptian architecture. These were the buildings - the silos catalogued and airbrushed in Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture, their fierce beauty ignored by the ‘eyes that do not see’ - that gave the continental Modernists the confidence to abandon ornament and historical styles altogether.



For the Americans, of course, they were just sound engineering, nothing more and nothing less. Gillian Darley’s book Factory points out that the nearest English replication of the monumental silos of Buffalo was actually Welwyn Garden City's Shredded Wheat Factory: concrete, white-rendered, its simple geometries unadorned. Louis de Soissons, the architect of the second garden city, was a neo-Georgian, and perhaps the last person likely to design such a monument to stark technocracy. But design it he did, and it was perhaps the most unashamedly Modern structure in Britain on its completion in 1925. The nearest thing to the cyclopean, windswept, futuristic romance of American industry, ensconced in a semi-pastoral fantasy of old England.



In the same garden city, there is another factory that has connections with this conjunction of Americanism and Modernism. Otto Rudolf Salvisberg was a Swiss architect who had designed some of Berlin’s revolutionary Siedlungen during the Weimar Republic, uncompromisingly Modern social housing estates set in parkland and countryside. Amid the general exodus from Nazi Germany in the 1930s he could briefly be found working in Britain, on the Roche chemical factory of 1938. Here we have an aesthete’s version of the stern romanticism of American design - clean lines, flat roofs and white render, this time carefully planned and stylish. It was actually this building that J.M Richards was discussing when he took a sideswipe at the fancy factories of Wallis Gilbert, citing it as being planned as a harmonious whole, rather than as a gigantic concrete advert at the front and some sheds out back.



Another figure who bridged the gap between Weimar Modernism and Americanised industry was Owen Williams, the prolific engineer-architect best known for a series of glassy, high-tech buildings in the early 30s - Peckham Health Centre, the Daily Express buildings in London and Manchester, the Boots ‘Wets’ Factory in Nottingham - and many others, from the original Wembley Stadium and Arena to the bridges that spanned the earliest motorways. Again, he worked with American concrete producers Truscon, and was much admired by the seemingly less worldly theorists of the Modern movement. His position as an engineer most admired for his contributions to architecture is a little paradoxical. Although most of his buildings make their point via their sharp lines and finishes, his most prominent work in Herts is a whimsical puzzle. The Odhams factory in Watford (apparently still in use by the Daily Mirror) seems mostly a hard, bricky thing, but then features an art deco clock on its tower and at the top, a spire with flying buttresses that evokes German Expressionism more than it does the machine aesthetic of the Bauhaus.



These places are reminders not just of the arguments over the beauty or otherwise of industrial structures, but also of a manufacturing economy that has apparently been superseded by services and speculation; but curiously, all of them are still working. If they were in London itself rather than on its peripheries or on its commuter belt, they would doubtless have been restored as office blocks, art galleries or supermarkets. Instead they still do a job, of a sort. Some are threatened with demolition or redevelopment, but whatever happens to them, they remain fragments of a time when the places where things were made were found in the most prominent places, whether in architectural debates or on roads and cities. We no longer really know or care where stuff comes from, so it’s appropriate that its built form is disappearing from our sight.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Misc



Am too traumatised at the moment by the combination of a severe hangover and living on the London marathon route to be able to write anything of consequence - instead, go and read these:

The Mire, the Wire's new blog space, with a nice pithy format and fine posts by K-Punk, Derek Walmsley and others on Dopplereffekt, Velvet Goldmine, nu-language...Boredom is Always... on the 80s-90s Gotham that haunts the urban dreams of those of us born after the 1970s (another example of that curious thing, postmodernism acquiring a history); and Iron Curtain Call, a new blog tackling the vexed questions of Ostalgie, memory and museum culture with admirable rigour...Also, in this month's Wire you can read me being somewhat mean about Ben Kelly, and Dominic Fox on black metal...plus this on London's grotesque inequalities: 'life expectancy falls by one year for each stop that is travelled east from Westminster on the Jubilee Line'

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Paperbacks and Pictures as Portals



My charity shop compatriot recently brought over to my flat a video he had uncovered from the local Save the Children. With a photocopied cover of a louche figure standing amidst trees and a hand-scrawled label, this was a home-made Smiths compilation, with all the slightly embarassing obsessiveness that portends. The cover implied that what he had here was a mere mix of live performances and videos, but this would prove to be rather stranger than that. The aforementioned are present and correct, but interspersed - upon an abrupt freeze frame - with scenes from films, offering an index of Morrissey's references and fixations. 'Asleep' plays over footage of West Side Story, dragging melodrama into this most intimate of Smiths songs; Lawrence Olivier yells at Michael Caine that he is nothing but 'a jumped up pantry boy who never knew his place!', Albert Finney glowers in the mirror, and of course, the sundry excerpts from A Taste of Honey and Billy Liar. You also notice that one of Morrissey's live dances/mimes/whatever they are is lifted from Billy's imaginary machine gunning of his family and boss.



What does it signify, all this uncovering and revealing of someone else's obsessions? Is this someone acknowledging that their hero is just the sum of his preferred cultural ephemera by splicing all that ephemera together? In fact, it seems to resonate with a lovely aside in Mark Sinker's review of the new JD doc in Sight and Sound: 'Curtis' own writing was a teen scrapbook of anti-pop titles and sensibilities ('Interzone', 'Atrocity Exhibition', 'Colony', 'Dead Souls', invoke Burroughs, Ballard, Kafka and Gogol respectively, the effect dismissable only if you decide not to see such namings as portals'. Portals - that's perfect, the book and the reference as a transport into other dimensions. Interesting that it's so often people from less than salubrious backgrounds (there's at least one other group I could mention but I'm resisting the temptation) who wear their reading (not their listening, which everyone signposts) on their sleeves. Precisely by being the sum of books (or films)-as-portals, you find a way out, and a way into the kind of vengeful self-construction that made these people so prone to others' fascination. An element of list-making and reference taking perhaps, but always subordinate to the use of these texts, objects and ideas. Isn't a possible way of out of a cultural trough an interest in what is extraneous to a particular form, as opposed to incessant art about art? Rather than that being insular and cultish, it can be a projection outwards.

Belt Drive



Readers in Hertfordshire will be able to find a short article by me on the streamlined joys of interwar industrial buildings in the home counties, in the current journal of the Herts Architecture Association. This is sort-of following up a thing about prefabs for them a year ago that I never remembered to post up here, however (continuing the general 'writing about buildings entirely from photos' theme) I have in fact only been anywhere even vaguely in Hertfordshire once, although I do intend at some point to spend some time in its garden cities and new towns. Nonetheless it was thoroughly exciting when I did go, in that there you can see that London's fabled Green Belt really does exist. Here in the South-East of the capital the terminal point is all disused industry, gigantic shopping malls and flood plain (mmm) but up there, really, there's a veritable riot of verdancy not long after you leave Barnet. Long thin roads, sheltered by arches of blindingly green trees, prefabricated primary schools poking out amongst lilliputian houses...

Monday, April 07, 2008

Across the Plaza



Two great posts on space and control at Fantastic Journal - nice to see more postpunk references in architectural writing, too...

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Last Tapes

Nobody has made me a mixtape for ages and ages, and nobody ever reviewed the two (two!) tapes I made for this. A shame, as I rather like a bit of hiss with my recording technology. Also lovely are the following, from a selection of Russian tape boxes kindly sent to me by serial blog retiree Woebot, with thanks...




I know it's only architecture, but I...



A great Things post about the discrepancy between the seamless world of the architecture journals and the majority of what actually gets built. This is something I've been harping on about for ages, and this puts the case very eloquently - a situation where the exclusivity of fashionable (pseudo?)Modernism enables the architect to continue to maintain a critical pose, no matter how many oligarchs one might build for (NB someone please tell me when I start getting too self-righteous). And yet...I can't agree with the conclusion here, the possibility of just being architecture and dropping any oppositional stance to this society and its built environment (no matter how silly, hypocritical or deluded). I'd prefer something that quite straightforwardly presented itself as being more than architecture - the politics by proxy that a Simon Jenkins so rightly considers a threat to everything he holds dear.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Space Rock



There will always be someone else on Flickr who not only shares your obsessions but has beautifully photographed and catalogued them (cf - an English Modernist Suburbia Pool, groups dedicated to rotting bus stations). Looking up photographs of Skinner, Bailey and Lubetkin's Dorset Estate in Bethnal Green, with its tower blocks built around intricate, essentially functionless staircases, grand cantilevered entrances and decorated on the outside with panels based on Caucasian carpets, I found the photograph above - which in turn was part of a flickr group called 'Unknown Pleasures - Post-Punk Aesthetic'. The other contributions cleave to a much more predictable Robert Smith style, but the connection between the sonic space and Piranesian place is clear enough, the confirmation that of course you can dance about architecture.

On the tenth floor, down the back stairs, into no man's land

I'm not going to write about Joy Division - others have done it better than I ever will - but the figure most often cited when people talk about this intersection of space and rock, Martin Hannett, for taking all the lyrical signposts and adding their synaesthetic, spatial counterparts. There's a record out now of his 'personal mixes' of various JD tracks, taking it to Beatles Anthology levels of archivism. The original recording of the tower block lift, the doors clanking shut and the popping noise as it begins its descent. The synth tones and broken glasses isolated from their context, making them acutely eerie. All these empty spaces, free of their usual decoration with shards of metallic sound. Hannett space can actively work against any 'message'. Basement 5's 'No Ball Games' derides tower block 'modern living' (yeah, let's yearn for Victorian terraces! Punk rock!) but Hannett makes it into space of compelling trepidation, evoking the sublime terror felt overlooking a flyover from a system-built balcony. There's a dub version of the Basement 5 LP in which it becomes even more blasted and beautiful, begging the question of why he never got to do this with anyone else.



I've been listening compulsively to all manner of minor Hannett productions lately - those wan second-rank groups on Crepuscule or Factory Benelux that get reissued on the invaluable LTM, all given the obligatory Saville sleeve and Martin makeover. In theory, the more blank the slate, the more Hannett should have been able to do with the sound, as in all the stories of records being returned to the band in an unrecognisable state, after the producer ostensibly spent his time asleep under the mixing desk. Section 25's Always Now is one of the most anemic sounding records ever made, a diaphanous drone of rote postpunk with peculiar mantric tendencies worked into a sound of elegantly catatonic prettiness - unidentifiable noise always somewhere in the mix, the sound of crowds muttering between tracks. Sometimes it becomes so ornate and ornamented that you can hear a band utterly overwhelmed, the baroque productions for The Names occasionally conjuring something glorious, more often sounding like ideas unworthy for their end use. The fragments of what could have been perfect collaborations - 'Procession' for Nico, backing her medievalist harmonium laments with glittering, queasy effects.



down a web of cracks, like twisted veins
a stranger... calls my name between the rollerama and the junk yard
where the panorama looks like Mars
and the belladonna looks like stars
behind the Panamanian bars
in the dying gardens... down below
walking together in the purple snow.

Perhaps the most impressive meeting of environment and sonic space was for John Cooper Clarke, who as a non-musician left the producer even able to do whatever he liked. 'Belladonna' is the most seductive evocation of these spaces of despair and dilapidation - a curtain-wall of sound with the dull ache of a swelling bruise, where the flip equation of this bleakness as a place to escape from is totally reversed: the idea of a crumbling concrete shopping centre like a Joy Division record starts to become sensualised and psychedelicised into something desirable, in which you can wallow, as if you'll uncover something precious in the wasted spaces.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Shock of the Neu!



In memoriam Klaus Dinger, inventor of Motorik. Starting with Kraftwerk's 'Ruckzuck', and driving on through Neu! and the hooligan terrace chant electro-punk of La Dusseldorf, this relentless pulse is the modernist impulse in excelsis - calmly driving ineffably forward, a changing same where the destination isn't wholly clear, but the process of moving and morphing into something new along the way is paramount. Notwithstanding the (let's not put too fine a point on it) revolutionary implications of the motorik beat, Dinger was a hugely underrated pop artist, mocking prog rock Tolkeinisms on the Neu! sleeves in favour of a knowing identification with consumerism (in English one tends to think of it as referring solely to the band, but spend more than 5 minutes in Germany to find NEU! declared all over the place). Anyway, as some sort of celebration of the motorik he set in motion, here's something I wrote several years ago (taken from the same essay as this and this, hence clumsiness) in which, although not always mentioned, the Dinger beat runs throughout.

Wir Fahr’n, Fahr’n, Fahr’n



If Jonathan in Wenders' The American Friend is out of place in the ‘futuristic ambience’ of the Paris Metro, then his post-68 contemporaries Kraftwerk were the quintessential representatives of the German techno-sublime. Kraftwerk and the linked Dusseldorf groups made a connection between German romanticism and Teutonic efficiency, allied it to a kind of tribute to 1950s whitebread America, and thrived on the resultant political ambiguity. They were torn between a kind of awestruck machinic-romantic (the glittering fantasia of ‘Neon Lights’) and an impersonalised mechanical funk (the transliterations of the rail system on ‘Trans-Europe Express’, or the stock exchange on ‘Numbers’). Their panegyrics to power stations or motorways seemed designed to spite the pastorally inclined New Left. Kraftwerk’s Wolfgang Flur writes of this as an explicit reaction, a deliberate elegance and efficiency - ‘we greedily sucked in anything that wasn’t German and believed that anything that came out of Britain or America was good, modern, honest…in the middle of this identity-free cultural vacuum, (we) suddenly appeared on the scene and did everything completely differently. We presented ourselves as German and fashionable, sang German lyrics, and defiantly gave our group a German name. We played songs that sounded as technical and calculatedly cool as if they’d been written by scientists to chemical formulae, or to the German industry-standard DIN format’.



While contemporary German groups would have sub-Dali, grand guignol psychedelic sleeves for their records, the Dusseldorf groups had a Warholian approach to design, mimicking consumer capitalism in a gesture that is as ironic as the viewer wants it to be. Musik Von Harmonia was a washing powder ad, while Kraftwerk and Neu!’s early records would feature standardised logos. Klaus Dinger of Neu! pointed out in an interview that these sardonically blank designs were ‘a protest against consumer society, but also against our ‘colleagues’ in the Krautrock scene, who had a totally different styling, if any. I was very well informed about Warhol and pop art. Also during this time I lived in a commune, and in order to get the space that we lived in I set up an advertising agency that existed entirely on paper. Most of the people I knew were trying to break into advertising so I was surrounded by this NEU! all the time.’ This led to a mockery through over-identification - a reclaiming of elegance and neatness for non-mainstream activity, and also an admission that these works are commodities, that buying them won’t epater les bourgeois, can’t be worn as a badge of resistance.



The adoption by Kraftwerk, Neu!, Cluster and Harmonia of a ‘Central European Identity’ would have a great effect on the Anglophone pop they were defining themselves against. Most of these groups began making typically discordant, acid-fried, obviously counter-cultural improvisations, attempting to destroy US/UK rock conventions. This would in fact be displaced more convincingly on records like Cluster’s 1974 Zuckerzeit, a suite of short, sweet electronic pieces, using drum machines and twinkling synth/guitar repetitions. Along with their collaboration with Neu!’s Michael Rother, Musik von Harmonia, this was an obvious referent for the sound that Brian Eno, having rejected rock and all its ideologically unreconstructed thrusting, would arrive at on the techno-pastoral utopia of 1975’s Another Green World. These groups made dance music of a sort- a rhythmic, melodic and becalmed proto-techno. Similarly, the influence of Kraftwerk on black American electro and techno producers is well documented. An interesting issue here is that the groups in question were at pains to evoke a bourgeois image: whether this is Kraftwerk, tailored and airbrushed on the cover of Trans-Europe Express, or Cluster/Harmonia setting up their studio in the forest and sitting back from rock’s sexual insistence and turbulence, we are a long way from Kommune 1, let alone the Red Army Fraction.



Biba Kopf suggests otherwise in his Unterwegs essay 'The Autobahn Goes on Forever'. Here the Dusseldorf group Neu! are seen as a dispersed, defused reaction to 1968. He writes that Neu!’s unsyncopated, minimalist and relentlessly forward-moving noise is ‘triggered by the failures of 1968 - sick of being caught in street battles grown static, of the surging, groaning masses of demonstrators straining against the immovable weight of the state, Neu! are driven forward and outward. Their music is less a confrontation with authority than a running skirmish with traffic cops’. Curiously, in sound at least, Neu! instrumentals like ‘E-Musik’ or ‘Fur Immer’ are the most explicitly utopian artefacts of the period. Not in the sense of the illustrated, programmatic utopia, or perhaps the purchasable idyll, but in their lack of any force impeding their relentless forward motion. No encumbrances like narrative, structure, harmony, just on and on and on, a reaction to historical amnesia that creates something both beautifully lulling and utterly restless, a doing away with the binaries blocking a musical aufhebung. Yet even here it spills over into frustration, as in the declarations on Neu! 75 - 'fuck the plan, fuck the programme, fuck the company - the only crime is money'



Conversely, by 1981 their former bandmates in Kraftwerk will have gone so far into the military-industrial complex itself (as Kodwo Eshun put it) that they speak from inside the stock exchange, that they try to incarnate the telephone interchanges, try to assume the spirit of the machines without spirit. Otto Werckmeister suggests that there is an immanent critique in something as machinically syncopated and blankly compulsive as ‘Numbers’. ‘These may be brokers at the stock exchanges of Frankfurt, New York and Tokyo, whose simultaneous bids resound through the intercontinental telephone networks. They vainly try to synchronise their overbidding with the beat. The small numbers can still fit into the 4/4 rhythm, but the longer, composite numbers jar against it, no matter how compressed their accelerated pronunciation. The programmed, hectic pace of the human voices appears to follow the dynamics of the electronic rhythm devices, but their melancholic maladjustment detaches them from the schematism of the machines.’ Werckmeister overstates his case here: indeed, what is interesting in Kraftwerk is the melancholy of the machines themselves, the sex appeal of the inorganic, the machine not as the war machine, but as interconnective, utopian in its possibilities rather than merely destructive. This is connected inextricably to the group’s rejection of (overt) nonconformism in favour of perverse identification. Werckmeister quotes Ralf Hutter- ‘someone does a solo on the drums. A sweating bundle sitting there. That’s a joke!’



In this they provide a kind of response to the Herbert Marcuse of Counter-Revolution and Revolt, particularly his critique of rock for its concentration on performance, spectacle and an illusory collectivity that replaces the actual collectivity of the black dance music it genuflects towards: ‘in (black) music, the music is the body…with the takeover by the whites…the jumping and playing now take place in an artificial, organised space: that they are directed towards a (sympathetic) audience. What had been part of the permanence of life, now becomes a concert, a festival, a disc in the making’. In their immersion in the technologies of late capitalist everyday life, as well as their danceability and refusal of overt performance, Kraftwerk are, without mimesis, closer to the black model that Marcuse posits. They are ‘radically bourgeois’ to use Adorno’s formulation of American society. The true radicalism doesn’t necessarily declare itself as such - one strain of 1968’s inheritors continues its struggle by uncovering the transformative, liberatory potential in the most seemingly constricting, mundane or prosaic technologies. This can’t be reduced to a set of signifiers of the ‘60s’, rather it insinuates its model of the machinically collective dancefloor at every level of contemporary life.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

'Cruise Missile Liberals'



...would have been a better title, but nonetheless - huzzah!

In an Ideal Home...



'The visitors, till now, turn round and round in the interior, asking themselves what is happening, understanding with difficulties the reasons for what they see and feel; they do not find anything of what is called a 'house'. They feel themselves in something entirely new. And...I do not think they are bored!'
Le Corbusier, Precisions

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

'From the Vacuum of History'



Proving it as the issue that will not die - The Sesquipedalist delves into the archives on Robin Hood Gardens, and finds that the only major comment on it at the time from The Profession marked something of an architectural-theoretical changing of the guard - from the Smithsons' socially engaged alleged 'symbolism' to the soon-to-be Decon critical formalism of Peter Eisenman, who penned for AD a textual demolition of the place. Of course my contention that Eisenman is a bombastic half-wit using half-understood Shklovsky followed by one-quarter understood Derrida as an alibi for the total abandonment of social responsibility is on record, so where I stand on all this should be pretty clear. Nonetheless, he hits (in the extracts you can click on) on some of the contradictions of the buildings - Eisenman's idea of class and 'English socialism' is predictably bizarre, but there's definitely a hint of truth that for them 'in the heart of every worker is a potential aristocrat', the anti-workerism of pop art and the Independent Group; and on the tensions of utilitarian present and utopian future. Whether the solution to this was interminable formal game-playing is another matter entirely.



(incidentally, further to IT's request for pop-up architecture, the above is an Archigram pic found looking through the Sesquipedalist archives...)