Thursday, July 31, 2008

Buildings for Blairism

This is the first in an irregular series. Being a bit worried that I might be giving the impression that no decent buildings have been designed in Britain since 1979, and as (given the imminent electoral slaughter) an appraisal of the architecture of the vacuous, horribly destructive 11-plus years of New Labour 'Social Thatcherism' (in Meades' phrase), in which the rhetoric of social concern has gone hand in hand with an obliteration of the remains of the public sphere. So, the criteria - the buildings in question must have been constructed since May 1997, and be particularly exemplary of this low, dishonest decade. I'll also be forcing myself to actually go and visit, and hang around the sites in question, with photographer (or my own poxy Canon) in tow. Photographs here are by the inestimable I.T girl.

1. Greenwich Millennium Village, Ralph Erskine, Proctor & Matthews, Edward Cullinan, 1998-present

North Greenwich is a Blairite tabula rasa - a whole swathe of decontaminated land, on which essentially they could have done anything they wanted. So on the one hand, they built the Dome, the 'David Beckham Football Academy', and further down the peninsula, two strip malls and a hotel that could easily be overlooking Heathrow. But these were never the trumpeted achievements - instead, the Millennium Village was the prestige project. Announced by Prescott in 1997, funded by PFI/regeneration quango English Partnerships and the usual coalition of privateers, it was designed by the octogenarian Anglo-Swedish architect Ralph Erskine - whose Byker Wall council estate was famously a critical response to top-down prole-stacking blocks. In theory, something similar would happen here - except, rather than clearing out Greenwich Council's waiting list, it became yet another convenient place by Canary Wharf. Other parts of the scheme were a school by Ted Cullinan, blocks and houses by Proctor & Matthews, nicely desolate parks, and finally some blocks imitating Erskine's originals.

What makes the Village the perfect place to start this series is the way it prefigures so much of what would come next. The use of a formerly toxic brownfield site, lots of wood detailing, rhetoric of sustainability rather undermined by the huge car parks and malls built adjacent, water features, brightly coloured rendered concrete, irregular windows, and the estate agent cliche of the 'urban village'. The estate agent misnomer is also appropriate - like Ballard's 'Chelsea Marina' in Millennium People, this is not quite where it says it is. Difficult to reach on foot, this is more Charlton than Greenwich, and one can only get to The Greenwich World Heritage Site via an infrequent single-decker bus. Yet most luxury flats that have re-used these elements are only parodies of this first effort. What we have here is really the best and worst of Blairism in architecture, as (in places) the Millennium Village works very well indeed. The original Erskine blocks overlook a relatively untamed, swampy nature reserve (sorry, 'Ecology Park') and a curious boathouse which seems to merge into the industry nearby. They're dense and complex, but with an order that would be absent from their successors, and even the touches that scream hypocrisy (the car parks are hidden in little pine alcoves) are at least ingenious.

The Proctor-Matthews parts across the road are less cloying than Erskine's, and are also more interesting than the run of the Docklands des res. There's a variety of tall blocks and low-rise terraces that, if stretched out on a larger scale, would be quite something: curious tech-eco-De Stijl hybrids of metal and wood. Unfortunately, they're never quite given the space to set up a rhythm, stopping abruptly after 5 or 6 units. A shame, as if any part of it could do with extension, it's this section, rather than the simpler perimeter blocks. Perhaps this is because these are complicated things, with a tendency to flake. The most recent sections, which are stuck on the ends of both Erskine and P&M's areas, are merely clumsier, brighter, flatter versions of the riverside blocks, with cubic executive 'Uberhauses' sticking ostentatiously out. Before the Dome became 'the o2' a certain post-apocalyptic eeriness settled quite pleasantly on these parts, something that the promised squares and restaurants- apparently finally on the way, although currently there isn't even a corner shop - will no doubt reverse.

But the real horrorshow is Cullinan's 'Millennium Primary School' (which, famously, originally had to import children from far-off areas of the borough). It never ceases to amaze me that Cullinan is presented as a 'humanist' architect, when the effects of his buildings are so often - from UEA in the 60s to UEL in the 00s - practically dynastic in their sense of intimidation. So the expected undulating, pine-clad walls are punctuated by concrete watchtowers which are redolent of nothing other than the West Bank 'Separation Wall'. Nearby, a square is filled with 'interactive' sculptures, but the sense of being watched overrides the intended jollity. There's a persistent hint of the not-right in the Village, of civility on the surface and other tensions not far below. Once, when the lifts were being renovated and the walls covered in padding, there was a sudden flurry of violent, illiterate graffiti - and apparently, the all-but-unused roads are starting to be used for drag racing. Little by little, the Village is being dragged back into London.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Aesthetics vs Comfort

Germaine Greer as architecture critic. Surprisingly, despite a hint of the old those-proles-know-nothing-of-beauty chestnut, this is not half bad - encompassing a defence of truth to materials, a reference to doomed spec Modernist development Frinton Park...better than Hugh Pearman or Tom Dyckhoff, anyway.

The International Style as Cheesecake

Voyou goes all 1950s, and has some very interesting things to say about the decade in which Modernism and Social Democracy largely became hegemonic - and what happened to them in the process. This argues that today we live in neoliberalism's equivalent to the 1950s - consensus, conformity, the battle won. An interesting contention, and one which the re-emergence in Dubai and elsewhere of an amoral technocratic futurism might support. The Gehry curve as the Cadillac fin? More on this later, perhaps...

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Sexy and the Unsexy Poor

Two posts which seem connected in some way with the idea of Berlin techno as the music of the creative classes at Leniency and Blissblog. Of course much of this could be summed up by I.T's remark on 'creative districts' like Kreuzberg' a while ago: 'the kind of let-it-all-hang-out type places where anything might happen, but whatever does it's unlikely to be interesting'. There is, however, always a hint with this kind of rhetoric that only suffering, grimness and the general chaos and poverty found so easily in London (or in the other branches of the 'shanty house' continuum) can produce great art. This is similar to the idea that say, Sweden is inherently a cultural and philosophical desert full of last men and with an astronomical suicide rate, because a society which almost obliterated poverty is somehow unsexy.

In an interesting bit of passive boosterism, 'poor but sexy' was the phrase Mayor (and possible future SPD leadership candidate) Klaus Wowereit used to describe Berlin. Although this was intended to refer to a capital without the speculation-enhanced cokehead confidence that so disfigures London, it has a very different resonance depending on where you might be living - in the tower blocks of Marzahn, rather than in a repainted Mietskaserne in Prenzlauer Berg, say. Some are condemned to be poor without being sexy. That the Mayor's SPD administration have been absolutely up to their necks in privatisations and in the immisseration of the Unsexy Poor is perhaps the unspoken undercurrent of this oft-quoted line. The problem with the ideology of Creativity (other than when it is - frequently - used as an alibi for gentrification) is that it assumes that the rest of the world doesn't exist. These people don't think they belong to any class, and aren't remotely interested in what exactly happened to the industries, and the workers who worked in them, which once dominated eastern Berlin.

The ideology of the creatives is fundamentally ahistorical, and ignorant of its surroundings. If there were any other Western capital that had rents as cheap as Berlin's, then the exact same people would, for the most part, be doing the exact same things there*. A space, as the phrase always has it, is always by definition nothing and nowhere before it became a boutique, gallery, club, and before the minimalist cottage industry moves in, irrespective of the pleasures of industrial chic. This is why Ben's citation of Walter Benjamin's technik, hostile to 'the dilettante luxuriating in creation' at a distance from real production, is so important here. The idea of a society in which artistic production becomes indistinguishable from leisure is still a utopian one. The smug jetset aesthete at the gallery opening might carry an accidentally liberatory charge - but only if one forgets the very real spatial and economic processes they are implicated in, to mostly malign effect. A friend of mine from Hamburg once expressed his utter disdain for Berlin's Kastanienallee with the words 'it's not real'. Partly that's a refusal to believe that life could ever revolve around something other than work-consume-etc, but also quite rightly recognises that the Sexy Poor exist only because they are insulated - by their trust funds, by arts grants, by the happenstance that rent is cheap in a capital without a financial district - from the world most people live in.

* (although this isn't intended as a blanket statement about techno - unlike the Global Underground boredom cited by Simon, Berlin techno at best has an intense feeling of place - Basic Channel sounds as utterly Berlin as any Jungle record sounds ineluctably London)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Existence Minimal

A thought: isn't one of the reasons for the apparent trough in the fortunes of that seemingly impregnable edifice, German techno - as anatomised by Mark, and Philip Sherburne along with supporting cast, to be found in Berlin itself? The really revealing passage for me is the following: I used to be enamored of Berlin techno's never-ending parties, but these days I wonder if the obligation to defer closure isn't hurting the music itself. Unless you're talking about a ritual music like gamelan, music isn't really intended to be consumed in 12-hour shots. A party culture (and drug culture) predicated upon parties that never end can only result in a music that thumps dully away without surprise or meaningful variation.

It rather pains me to say this, as Berlin - with its healthy contempt for the work ethic, and its still extant left activism - is a far, far saner city than London, and by several leagues more pleasant, more rewarding a place to live. And yet, when - as seems largely to have happened in much of Mitte, Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg - an entire chunk of a formerly working city becomes a playground for an international of 'creatives', something odd happens. One often got the sense in Berlin that whatever was happening, it didn't really matter, nothing was at stake: pure pleasure becomes boring after a while, as does the constant low-level tick-tock of a techno designed seemingly for little else than just rolling along. German techno seems fastidious, but not glamorous. An executive music for people who can make a living off DJing or curating here and there is a bizarre phenomenon, as is a futurist cottage industry. The restraint of the music is the effect of a culture with no restraints.

Having said that - I don't know if I quite agree that techno, at least in this form, would be better off by returning to cheesiness and a war on subtlety. At least a stab at this was made in the form of the Schaffelbeat a few years ago (a Cologne thing, tellingly), which then rapidly scared the scene into a return to purism. Actually, in techno over the last decade, what has excited me most is (to resurrect a long-lost k-punkism) Neuromanticism: the neurasthenic, fastidious and wildly emotional music of Luomo's still shiveringly exciting The Present Lover (occasionally my favourite record of the 21st century so far), Michael Mayer's 'Falling Hands' and 'Amanda', early Superpitcher, Ada. I can't imagine Berlin techno returning to the fairground, but perhaps a possible way out of the inertia is by exacerbating the culture's own vices (anal precision, decadence, a certain sentimentality, the feeling of living in a city of scars and wastes) until they become virtues. There's no reason why the solution must lie in the grisly neocolonial shoulder-padded Vice magazine pick&mix of Diplo and his ilk. Bienahe Nichts need not be boring.

All images from Kosmograd's Mies set.

Interstellar Overdrive

Kino Kosmos texts now up at Kino Fist: IT, Kosmograd and the shadowy and mysterious Robert Barry contribute.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Bulletin No. 4 of the Socialist Lavatory League

Of the thirty-three million water closets in Great Britain, no more than 157,000 are municipally owned – a puny enclave of socialism in its minimal-ideal sense – inhabiting the sclerosed superstructures of civil society. The gross majority of the remainder are dispersed in single household dwelling units. Only in certain areas of Glasgow, Liverpool and the North are communal excretory facilities maximally available in private dwellings – a tribute to the massive, homogenous corporate posteriority of the older working class. For the rest, the global privatisation of the means of excretion radically destructures and factually granulates the ascendant historical bloc. No more subtle and pervasive generation of ‘bad faith’ could be envisaged than this perpetual serialisation, in which living individuals periodically retire from the world of pulsating intersubjectivity into a solitary absence.

Of course, I find myself in agreement with much of this. Curiously, a previous bulletin of the S.L.L derived in some way from Perry Anderson. A true friend of the Comrade caught short.
ta to Savonarola for this one.

Signs vs Artists

An intriguing proposition implied at Homo Ludens: the legacy of the avant-garde is not to be found in an ever-more tedious conceptualism ('an endless rehash of old questions and debates', meaning presumably the readymade, is-it-art, the suffering artist, ad nauseam) but in the most basic means of orientation, such as railway maps. Harry Beck as a true Suprematist, and the maps based on his design as Modernism's most conspicuous presence, stressing abstraction and connection over 'the facts on the ground', in turn changing the facts themselves (the revelation that a geographically inaccurate diagram was more useful for navigation than the 'real' map) . Another possible version of this could be via the schematic road signs of the 1960s: those Playmobil people that can be seen still striding round and instructing one not to get run over on every intersection in the country, accompanied by the delightful tubular Transport typeface.

These, in turn, seem to show more than a hint of the example of Isotype, the system of pictorial information developed by Mitteleuropean Marxists Otto Neurath and Gerd Arntz. Intriguingly, Isotype could be used not merely as a means of description and orientation, but also as a schematic means of political protest. Neurath apparently selected Arntz as the appropriate designer for a universal modern language on the basis the image above, 'Mitropa', where the class war was represented in a form a child could understand, without being patronising (this was Kino Fist's little tribute a couple of months ago). Isotype ended up as 4000 pictograms, cut onto linoleum by Arntz. 600 of these can be found at this fantastic website, alongside activist linocuts, images from books of statistics, etc. This all suggests a possible answer to the quandary here - of what use a left-aesthetic fixated on the drift, the labyrinth and a gradual disappearance up one's backside might be. Instead, this work proposed a truly revolutionary sharpness and clarity, a Brechtian 'usefulness'.

On Yer Bike

As, despite now having part-time employment, I still have to sign on in order to pay the rent and to have a hope of paying the gas and electric bills, I look a tad askance at the prospect of compulsory 'Community Service', particularly when suggested by an oleaginous Blairite fuck who was last seen singing the praises of the super-rich. I was going to rant about this here, but thankfully The Tomb has saved me the trouble, and while at it gives a few well-aimed kicks at the 'left' argument for this punitive nonsense, to which I occasionally get subjected when I write on this topic.

Friday, July 18, 2008

'The Fountainhead rewritten by Jeremy Clarkson'

The Fantastic Journal, is, as they say, OTM on the cumbersomely named and faintly creepy libertarian Architectural Manifesto ManTowNHuman.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Nil Scrap Value: Silvertown

[A photo-essay by IT and myself. Pictures taken by IT yesterday]

We left on the Woolwich Ferry, one of three free boats named after a local Labour leader. We wondered whether the alcohol ban on London transport extended to the ferry, not that we wanted a drink at this time. Words written in tar greeted us at the exit on the North Woolwich side.

Unfortunately the Teleport did not live up to its enticing description.

Silvertown, and the Royal Docks it was built to serve, begins as London's unofficial zone. Because it was officially outside of the city boundary it took in all the noxious heavy industry which was no longer acceptable in the capital.

'You took me behind/a disused railway line/and said 'I know a place where we can go, where we are not known'/and you gave me something that I won't forget too soon'

A grey scarf tied to the bridge over the disused railway speaks of a peculiar kind of loss.

'...the Henley Arms has not been geographically blessed' according to one pub review website.

The railway bridge surprises with its dogged persistence. One could stand up here and watch the non-trains go past forever.

A pagoda looms strangely by the side of the disused railway.

The sign was in better shape than the clinic.

The Silvertown rocket is not often mentioned in the official history of the British Space Programme.

Silvertown was one of the most heavily bombed areas of London. Graham Sutherland's paintings of blitzed East End streets were based on studies made in the area. It never fully repopulated after the war.

We pondered for all while whether the bricks replaced windows, or whether newer bricks had replaced older ones. From a distance the warehouse looked almost transparent.

Rather unusually, the Tate & Lyle factory still produces Golden Syrup. The image on the tin of a dead lion surrounded by bees refers to a Biblical riddle: 'out of the strong came forth sweetness'. The factory was mostly rebuilt in the 1950s, after Tate and Lyle had narrowly escaped nationalisation. The company were enthusiastic anti-nationalisation campaigners, and in the late 1940s all packets of sugar featured 'Mr Cube', a talking sugarlump who cautioned about the dangers of socialism.

This was once the Tate Institute, a social centre built for workers in the Tate & Lyle complex: an example of how the sugar magnate pioneered the use of culture as a means of social control (see also: the Tate Gallery he founded several miles upriver at Pimlico). It's unclear what exactly the symbols on the second floor refer to. Rumours that the institute will be redesigned by Herzog and De Meuron as a daring brick and razorwire structure to be called 'Tate Silvertown' have proved to be unfounded.

Despite the best efforts of copious amounts of blue paint, 'Cundy's Tavern' closed earlier this year, apparently after the landlord illegally rented out the eleven rooms upstairs without a licence.

The Tate & Lyle Factory dominates the area both visually and olfactarily.

Simulacra pubs feature on the wall of the Brick Lane Music Hall, the only dedicated music hall left in the country.

I'm sure Derren Brown has used the Music Hall in one of his shows. Indeed he has: filling the hall with masks on sticks, he disturbs a man into thinking he's a ventriloquist's dummy.

'A hard punch right in the guts...imploded, savage inward raids into the heart's essence, an architectural imagination the size of Blake's. The church is the nearest thing to a mystic's revelation that London has.' (Ian Nairn, Nairn's London)

This lorry wears its GPS on its sleeve.

The Newsflash vans bring news to the informationally starved. They are stored just next door to the Music Hall.

Local re-enactments of scenes from Crash end in finely-tuned disaster.

Judging by the 0181 dialling code, Newham Council 'acquired' this site more than 10 years ago. Newham is one of the poorest boroughs in Britain, and has had at its disposal since the early 1980s a huge amount of derelict land - the Royal Docks encompass an area the size of central London. This land, when leased to property developers, has since become a conference centre, an airport, the University of East London, many luxury developments and soon, the Olympics site. This will 'bring prosperity to the area'.

You could call either of these countries if there was still a phone left in the box.

Georges Diner sits on the site of what will soon be Britain's biggest aquarium. It will be designed by the architect of the Mi6 Building and is to be named 'Biota!'

The 'Graving Dock' Tavern looks very grave indeed. A graving dock is a dry dock where the hulls of ships are repaired and maintained.

The '01' number indicates that these submersible pump specialists might well be retired by now.

This box on the lamppost is measuring something, though now I can't remember what it was. Air pollution, possibly.

A 2-bedroom flat in Barrier Point will set you back £359,000. 'The detailing is very poor' says Owen.

Of all the things we see today, this image is the one for me that most indicates the apocalyptic nature of the current conjuncture. The recent theft of metals from public places (churches, schools) is a desperate realisation of both economic and material finitude. A bronze sculpture by Lynn Chadwick was recently stolen from my workplace, 'almost certainly' to be melted down for scrap.

Despite their centrality and magnificence, the Millennium Mills are almost impossible to capture. Although you can't see it here, some bastard car company has plastered a giant ad on the back of the building.

The Thames Barrier Park, next to Barrier Point. Doug once described this place as the closest thing to Corbusier's Ville Radieuse.

The cafe here is wonderful, all the more so for its total isolation and complete emptiness. You can sit and stare at the Thames Barrier in all its alien beauty.

An elderly couple sit on the wavy stone seats under this rectangular canopy.

They've been among us since 1974.

The site of the Silvertown explosion is wasteland, 90 years later.

I have no idea what this is.

A memorial to those who died in the Silvertown explosion.

'At 6.52, there was no chemical works'.

The green on this ragged factory was discussed, briefly.

Kierbeck are the largest independent fabricator of cut and bent prefabricated steel reinforcement supplying the UK construction industry.

I don't know what this little zebra strip does. It was attached to one of the concrete pillars supporting the DLR track.

Reinforcement EXPRESSED!

Iron Mountain specialise in off-site data protection. If everyone gets blown up in Canary Wharf, company records will all be safe here. One of my students once did a project on the company. She informed me that their data storage site here is the most surveilled area of land in the country. Given that we are the most surveilled country in the world, that would make this location very well-watched indeed.

SunChemical trucks overlook Lyle Park. Here we watch a group of young cadets being taught how to erect a tent, and three young boys play football in the background.

The varnish factory appears to be set in some kind of rural idyll. The stench is unbearable.

A picturesque for the 21st century.

This free-standing gate bears the legend 'Harland and Wolff'. These were originally the entrance gates to Harland & Wolff Ltd, ship builders, ship repairers and engineers, which opened in 1924 and closed in 1972.

The flag assures us that there are many business opportunities to be had in the area.

We speculate that someone tried to steal the wire fence. More 'nil scrap value' signs may be appearing presently.

The main reason for the closure of the London Docks was Containerisation, which made the large workforces of the docks obsolete. Instead, the boxes are collected by the automated port at Tilbury. Within Trinity Buoy Wharf is 'Container City', where the boxes that decimated the London working class become a fun and imaginative urban living solution for young creatives.

Nobody tells me what I can and can't photograph.

This luxury development abuts Robin Hood Gardens, which is scheduled for demolition and replacement with a 30 storey tower. Any similarities to East German Plattenbau are purely coincidental.