Friday, August 29, 2008

No Folk

Off to Norfolk for a proper British holiday, so no posts for a little while. I may go to the place above while I'm there, with luck (Mum, can we visit a 1950s New Brutalist secondary modern school please?)

Production Lines

There has been a bit of fuss over the fact that Shane Meadows' Somers Town was basically funded by Eurostar, as an advertisment for the joys of trans-European travel. To a degree, there's something actually quite admirable about this. Anyone not incorrigibly romantic and/or hopelessly naive would be well aware that not only are most films funded by all manner of deeply unpleasant multinationals, but that anything over and above a certain budget is rammed full of product placement - if there's any art form where the 'author' is more absolutely dictated to by commercial imperatives (outside of architecture) then I don't know what it is.

Conversely, the instances when film has been funded by bodies solely interested in their own product (or ideology) being promoted have often been by far the most interesting. The subsidised montage propaganda of 1920s Russia, for the most obvious example; and in Britain, one of those brief, abortive developments of a truly filmic culture (as opposed to filmed theatre) was wholly corporatist. Not only the work of the GPO Film Unit, beautifully imaginative snapshots of soft-socialist humanitarianism, but also John Grierson, working at the behest of the Empire Marketing Board; or Shell (Shell! Is there any corporation more grotesque?) providing the funding (and ostensible point) of Len Lye's Birth of a Robot. In all of these cases, the sponsorship actually produced something more strange and more interesting than might have been produced by the untamed creative psyche. Partly this is because there is, of course, something enormously romantic and attractive about travel, transience, communication - one can't imagine the films of the Milk Marketing Board being nearly so exciting.

Before Somers Town, there was the industrial film unit British Transport Films, whose excellence suggests that a film made entirely to promote the buying of train tickets can be as interesting, if not more, than someone's untrammelled creative vision. Somers Town tries to have it both ways. It certainly doesn't announce itself as A Eurostar Film or anything so vulgar. Nonetheless, it's all pretty obvious. The new terminal is contantly mentioned, and the final scenes in Paris - in glorious technicolour! - lay it on very thick. As an argument for travel, it works very well, and is a rare statement against anti-East European racism (about a third of the film is in Polish), and for a British cosmopolitanism. It's funny, sweet and very slight, and by far the most irritating thing about it is the appalling David Gray/Mike and the Mechanics-esque soundtrack, all soulful heartwarming crooning over the over-signposted 'epiphanies'. Oh for a British film that doesn't aspire to warming the sodding cockles.

Maybe after the renationalisation of the British rail system we can hire Meadows to make transport films with knob gags and neo-realist cinematography. What is far more worrying than the promotion of train travel is the necessity that the film show the regeneration of this small area round the back of the St Pancras and Euston sheds. The film is shot mostly on local estates (very elegantly - the Red Vienna-style Ossulston estate is especially well-used), but underneath it all - and nowhere to be seen in the film - is the realities of class cleansing in King's Cross. As an excellent series of posts at Homo Ludens has pointed out, the area has been subject to a 'regeneration', as ever involving the demolition of social housing, and a predictable masterplan of new bars, new restaurants, new offices. Housing for the kind of people portrayed in Somers Town - Polish building workers, homeless strays from the Midlands fresh off the train - is not on their list of priorities.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

(Social) Engineers (Re)create New Forms

Two interesting things that you can do with a Russian Constructivist building. Here is a new wikipedia page on Ivan Nikolaev's 1931 Textile Institute Dom Kommuna. When reading of the various strictures placed upon the students in order to make sure they adapted themselves to communal life (organised sedation!) one should note that this is what Slavoj Zizek is talking about (via Boris Groys' pseudo-scholarship in The Total Art of Stalinism, and plus a heavy dose of irony) when he claims Stalinism 'saved humanity' in the USSR - when the Stalin clique fully got control by 1932 all this Huxleyesque social engineering was immediately finished off, with comfort and gemutlichkeit as the new socialist ideal. Note also that the anti-humanist bent of the kommuna-ists also involved legal abortion, easy divorce and other elements of the sexual 'glass of water theory', that were subsequently abolished in the 30s. Not that some students couldn't do with compulsory sedation.

Anyway, it's pleasing to know that the buildings are being restored as student accommodation, unusually something pretty close to the original function. Conversely, an example of what one can do with a Constructivist building when one has looted a country's resources is noted in passing in this G2 profile of the recipient of Roman Abramovich's £43m birthday presents. 'Heiress, fashion designer and socialite' Dasha Zhukova has opened what is inevitably getting called 'Moscow's Tate Modern' in Konstantin Melnikov's 1927 Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage (as prominently used in Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera). During the restoration, the original roof by the 'Russian Eiffel' Vladmir Shukhov was destroyed. According to wikipedia, the space was intended for a 'Russian Jewish Museum of Tolerance' - soon, it'll be housing an installation by Ilya and Emilia Kabakov. But of course.

Monday, August 25, 2008

We Are All Googie Now

Further to the claims at Voyou that an investigation of the politics and aesthetics of the fifties might make some sort of sense of our own times - I've been reading Alan Hess' monumental study of 1950s Pulp Modernism, Googie - Ultramodern Roadside Architecture. This was a specifically southern Californian style, used to draw attention to burger bars, car washes, coffee shops (the name comes from one such, designed by John Lautner). Hess places the style in direct opposition to the 'high-art Modernism' of Mies van der Rohe and his disciples, the classicist glass skyscraper school that became the spatial lingua franca of even the most conformist parts of American capital. What's interesting here is that the debate was purely aesthetic. While the opponents of 'Googie' accused it of being crass and commercial, the Seagram Building was given tinted windows the colour of their client's brand of Whisky. While its outrageous geometrical illusions and structural expressionism were being criticised as mere dressing-up, Mies' towers 'expressed' their structure by decorative I-beams.

In essence, the debate between classical and pulp Modernism in the US was one of taste. On the one hand there was the luxury aesthetic of the wing of the bourgeoisie that aspired to finer things: New York's successful attempt in the 1950s to wrest from Paris the accolade of world fine art capital (naturally with a bit of CIA assistance). In order for this to occur it had to set itself against a more straightforward capitalist hucksterism. In fact, with their deliberate defiance of the rules of gravity and geometry, their brashness and lack of precedent, googie buildings were more true to the Modernist event - futurist visionaries like Sant Elia or Chernikhov would have recognised themselves in Armet & Davis, McDonalds, Denny's and Big Boy, more than in, say, I.M Pei, Seagram, Lever or IIT. It's also a reminder that the idea of Modernism as 'paternalist' imposition on the benighted proletariat makes sense only if one begins with an extremely limited definition of Modernism. Principally, one that limited itself to the International Style, the pernicious legacy of Johnson & Hitchcock's dual depoliticisation and classicisation of modernist architecture for American consumption, wherein the commercialism of Erich Mendelsohn and the 'organic intellectual' socialist approach of Hannes Meyer were equally scorned in favour of purity, white walls and stark volumes.

When I finally read Venturi/Scott-Brown/Izenour's Learning from Las Vegas (one should know the enemy), I found much to agree with in the paean to crassness and commercialism, to the libidinal pull of the advert and the utopian promise of making the desert into a paradise of montage and consumption (despite their deployment of that characteristic pomo rhetorical move whereby the 'authentic' is ridiculed except at the shopping counter, where suddenly consumer choice becomes genuine unproblematic popular desire), but as for the simultaneous eulogy to 'the decorated shed', to a deliberate blandness, retrogression and cheering on of the 'boring' and the 'vernacular'...One seemed to support a futuristic America of seductive surfaces and extraordinary collisions, seemed to be against the mundane - the other valourised the mundane against the apparently de trop desire of the avant-garde to be interesting. On the contrary, googie suggested a futurist everyday. Mostly it was the mundanist element that was taken up by postmodernism, and Hess' Googie (as with postmodernists in general) shows no interest in the question of why, from the early 70s onwards googie was replaced as the commercial style by simulacra shacks and fibreglass huts - that is, why after around 1969, America began to fear the future, and returned to dressing up the entirely novel in historicist drag - which was what American architecture had historically mostly specialised in, of course.

But is Googie really dead, or does it survive in some very unexpected places? Across the road from St Paul's Cathedral is a little pavilion by Make architects. In its improbable geometry, its jagged zig-zag showing zero interest in function or taste, it is as googie as googie can be. Likewise, the new building by Surface architects for Queen Mary University, sundry others by Gehry (obviously), Future Systems, Libeskind and his imitators, etc. While this has in common with googie the reduction of the building to a logo, to an instantly memorable image - one which is appreciated in the act of distraction, as from a passing car (or while doing some heavy shopping, presumably, in the case of the architects mentioned above) it also continues the moralistic rhetoric of the American Miesians. Nobody ever suggested that roadside diners used non-orthogonal geometry to make us better people, or induce them to 'aspire', let alone to simulate the experience of war or the holocaust. It does suggest a truth at the heart of today's allegedly radical architecture, however - its forbears are in the aesthetics of consumption, advertising, in forms designed to be seen at 80mph, not in serene contemplation. The architecture once described as 'deconstructivist' owes less to Derrida than it does to McDonalds.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

To the Scaffold!

Fine posts at Kosmograd and the Fantastic Journal on eco-towns, the mini-Poundburys that were going to be built all over the South of England until the housing crash and the imminent New Labour electoral meltdown made them look a little unlikely. Although, like the F.J I don't believe that building on brownfield sites in London is necessarily the solution to a national housing crisis, or that concreting over the countryside is necessarily a bad thing, there still seems to be something missing here. What the spec cheerleaders tend to forget or wilfully ignore is that housing was actually being demolished in the North of England at the same time that Hackney, say, was bursting at the seams with infill and new housing of an Ikea Modernist sort. The eco-town schemes and exurbs and the Rogers'n'Burdett sponsored stunning developments in E8 are really part of the same process, not at all opposing - that is, the over-concentration of wealth and population in the South-East of England, due almost entirely to the ever-expanding tentacles of London's financial districts and the total decimation of manufacturing.

Obviously building art galleries and even more pallid versions of the pallid E8 stunning developments in said Northern cities isn't exactly the solution either. The problem is the whole question is skewed from the off. It's maybe worth looking at past proposals for towns and networks that were mooted before it was decided that speculation was Britain's main permissible economic activity. Rather than building more Fun Palaces, be they Asdas or Guggenheims, to 'regenerate' once-industrial towns, we could try something along the lines of Cedric Price's 'Potteries Thinkbelt', a 1960s attempt to replace dying industry by utilising the remnants of that industry in the service of new technologies and new forms of production. Otherwise we're just buying into an increasingly untenable logic whereby - even after the obvious havoc wreaked by financialisation and the associated housing bubble - everything is built around the stock exchanges, whether in vernacular commuter towns or in riverside 'luxury' flats.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

I don't want virtue to exist anywhere

Two posts, excellent and vaguely connected by rage against the smugness of virtue: The Impostume, highly eloquent on the subject of Mike Leigh's apparently appalling Happy Go Lucky; and ex-Fangirl Aloof from Inspiration feels ill amidst the self-congratulation of a cathedral of health in New York.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Contributions to The Provisional Museum of the British Revolution

O.G.S Crawford was a character, as Jonathan Glancey points out, almost too good to be true. A misanthropic communist antiquarian and cartographer based in Southampton who photographed social housing projects and Constructivist architecture, and who wrote unpublishable books obsequious and bitter (respectively) about the Soviet Union and Britain! I have a forbear! I was kindly given Bloody Old Britain, Kitty Hauser's excellent biography of Crawford for my birthday, and what a brilliant melange it is. Crawford was one of those (H.G) Wellsian figures who seemed to survey human history from a vast distance, as in the aerial photography he specialised in. This is something inaccurately attributed to Marxism, although Hauser quotes Trotsky's disdain for this kind of Olympian perspective, noting Wells' 'roaming far and wide over the history of a few millennia with the carefree air of a man taking his Sunday stroll.' Clearly, politically Crawford was a typical 1930s brit-bourgeois fellow-traveller of the sort Trotsky himself excoriates in The Revolution Betrayed - but one of the consequences of his trip to the USSR is a methodology which could easily be extricated from his cushy Stalinism.

Last year, I went to an exhibition in Berlin on 'Alltagsleben' in the late, unlamented German Democratic Republic. Looking at the collection of police uniforms, gramophone records, scouting outfits and plastic consumer goods, all of which were given commentary that erroneously claimed they were unique, we realised that exactly the same approach could be made towards documenting the everyday in late 20th/early 21st century Britain. A vitrine filled with pepper spray, tasers and truncheons, perhaps, or another with copies of Nuts and Zoo, while Blair's 'people's princess' speech and a collection of flowers and dedications left in front of Buckingham Palace could get a special Diana room to themselves. Crawford had a similar impulse, Hauser surmises, on visiting the various Museums of the Revolution in the USSR, then in the throes of the brief period of kulturkampf sometimes called the Soviet Cultural Revolution. After returning in 1932 from his junket, Crawford began to obsessively photograph British ephemera and (sub)urban scenes, as if they were to be put before a future tribunal of history, or to serve as exhibits in the Museum of Pre-Revolutionary Britain.

Bloody Old Britain is filled with his cold, elegant and haunting Neue Sachlichkeit photographs of Southampton. Advertising hoardings ('Militarism, Beer' runs one of Crawford's captions), ribbon developments, a church in Shirley that promises knowledge of 'HELL - its locality and use'. He also photographed the sub-garden city council estate where I did much of my growing up, with the same meticulousness that he recorded the image of Ernst May's Neue Frankfurt. Hauser claims this wasn't just an idle hobby, but the fragments of a grandiose project of archaeology-in-advance, one comparable with Mass-Observation in its scope and anthropological bent, the sort of approach that people find 'elitist' and 'patronising' because they don't like to believe that their choices are not 'authentic', or their circumstances contingent and their prejudices conditional. You can see, in these photographs, a delineation of 1930s laissez-faire capitalist Britain as something that could and would be historically superseded, and something which, in its customs, irrational beliefs and fetish objects was every bit as deluded, ridiculous and fascinating as any 'primitive' civilisation.

What happens to these photographs after November 1940, when Southampton is all but flattened and much of Crawford's archives incinerated, is quietly chilling. The belief in the socialist future is gone, but the cold eye and fixation on detail remains. In one, a charred church facade stands in front of a void. An earlier photograph shows the rubble of a demolished Armenian church next to Soviet communal flats, with the implication that the ruin was giving way to a new, saner world. In the 1940s Crawford realised that this wasn't the case, and the result applies the new objectivity to the usually romantic, chiaroscuro iconography of ruination. Both approaches - the documentation of our present barbarism and the documentation of a possible subsequent one even worse - have unsettling but intriguing implications for pre-revolutionary Britain.

Buildings for Blairism

2. Home Office, Marsham St, London, Sir Terry Farrell and Partners 2005

The Home Office Building, which I've written about briefly before, is perhaps London's finest example of what deserves to be called Pseudomodernist architecture, perhaps the predominant idiom of the New Labour years. The architect, Terry Farrell, has always been a perfect barometer of the political aesthetics of British architecture. First he worked for the GLC/LCC (those weird, Corbusian vents at either end of the Blackwall tunnel were his), then became a 'high-tech' functionalist working in partnership with Nicholas Grimshaw; then Britain's most prominent postmodernist after Jim Stirling, designing icons of jollity like the TVAM building in Camden. Farrells' late 80s and 90s work takes pomo and makes it downright domineering. A specialty was the utilisation of 'air rights': thanks to Farrell, Charing Cross station and London Wall have massive multicoloured Gotham creatures squatting atop them. This reached a peak/nadir with the wildly expensive Mi6 headquarters in Vauxhall, which suggested Lev Rudnev and Raymond Hood collaborating with Timmy Mallett.

Meanwhile, the space itself. Marsham Street's government offices originally consisted of three colossal towers built on the site of a gasworks and susequently WW2 and Cold War bunkers. 'The very image of a faceless bureaucracy', 'a ruthlessly utilitarian statement' are some of the things Pevsner &c have to say about it. Of course, we don't do faceless bureaucracy anymore. Today, we do the secret state with a smile, and relational aesthetics accompanies detention without trial. The ostentatious architecture of corporatist Modernism and Thatcherite pomo just won't wash. This was a flagship PFI project, with a French contractor handling the entire job, but unlike so many other PFI schemes this was not allowed to fail. Impressively, the entire space of the three 19 storey towers is stretched across 6 and 7 storey blocks. The approach to the Home Office is through the intricate class and period palimpsest of Westminster, much of which still has a certain intrigue to it, despite Shirley Porter's (rather prophetic) attempt to cleanse it of its working class population.

As architecture this is straightforward stripped down, derivative Modernism. There are Mendelsohn curves and a Gropius-like severity to the entrance, although the opaque glass provides a sinister undertone. What makes this a pseudomodernist building, other than its funding method, is that all the 'art' of the building is on the facade, provided by Liam Gillick. The blacked-out windows are trimmed and decorated with a pattern of computer graphics. Most obviously, the entrance is immediately bright and welcoming, belying the one-way windows. Gillick provides a multicoloured screen hanging over the roof, so that passers by are illuminated in friendly, bright hues, and a neo-De Stijl pattern signals the entrance. This is a Modernism that is devoted to facades, to hiding rather than making plain the function and activity that it serves - what Martin Pawley would have described as a 'stealth building', reducing the apparatus of state bureaucracy to the alleged 'residential scale' of Westminster. Basil Spence and Charles Holden, with their bureaucratic buildings nearby, were not so timid. By contrast, the new Home Office suggests a friendly approach to the business of suspending habeas corpus and launching pre-emptive invasions.

On visiting the Home Office, me and my partner on this excursion tried to get as much of a look at the atrium as we could while the security explained that we'd need a staff member to give us a reference before we could come in. Two pieces of art - one, by a painter who specialises in precise images of post-war Modernist buildings, seemed to depict Lubetkin and Tecton's Lenin/Bevin Court council flats. On the other side, a mural declares 'SECURING OUR BORDERS'.

(next in the series will be some Britart branded luxury flats in Pimlico, then Novecento kitsch in Paternoster Square...)

'if you have the right paperwork then you'll be OK'

Hicham Yezza on his detention under suspicion of research. Note the comments, proof if it were needed that the internet is predominantly populated by vicious, self-righteous right-wing arseholes.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A Strangely Butch Delicacy

Rodney Gordon was one of the greatest British architects of the 20th century, and the architectural illiteracy of this country must be at least a major reason for the truly remarkable series of indignities he suffered. First, most of his buildings were credited to his boss Owen Luder; then they won interminable 'worst building in Britain' awards from sundry aggrieved traditionalists; and more recently the finest of his works have either been demolished, or await demolition, or are being considered for demolition or have been so altered that for some, demolition would have been preferable. He also died three months ago, and no obituaries in the national press resulted whatsoever. Anyway - the latter situation at least has been rectified, viz this impressive obituary in the Times by Jonathan Meades, which has already elicited one irked comment - not usually something you see appending an obituary notice. Some names were named in the full version of Meades' obituary, and I happen to have the full version, featuring the following paragraph:

...that, however, is hardly surprising, given that Gordon was a brutalist, probably the greatest (as well as unquestionably the youngest) of the English brutalists and thus a ready target for indolent bien-pensants, cheer-led by Sir Simon Jenkins and Margaret Hodge, whose antipathy to the architecture of the 1960s is as drearily predictable, as dismally unseeing, as was their parents’ and grandparents’ to that of the 1860s. These people fail to differentiate between the many strains of modernism and, more importantly, between what was good and what bad. Nor, in their arrogance, do they realise that tastes change. Today brutalism has countless admirers who were unborn in the era of board-marked shuttering; a new generation of aesthetes is as opposed to the clichéd, kneejerk calumisation ”concrete monstrosity”, as John Betjeman and Osbert Lancaster were to “Victorian monstrosity”.

Amen to that.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

No Platform

An excellent summation and expansion of the various recent blogosphere to-and-fro on bureaucracy, neoliberalism and immaterial labour at K-Punk. Particularly sharp on the 'fetishist disavowal' of the withdrawal of state control (if not funding) from the economy, viz the familiar complaints against the nanny state which New Labour have only managed to amplify. I suppose though that my original post was wondering aloud what these terms might mean under the inevitable Tory government in 2009 or 2010, given the anti-bureaucratic rhetoric the Cameronites have been using. They will most likely accelerate rather than reverse the neutering of (the constructive rather than destructive functions of) the public sphere and the state, and in that context we should be careful when we attack bureaucracy. It's liberating to say to a health or education administrator that the 'administration' they proliferate is mere bureaucracy, but when the Tories start making the same argument we might need to change tack.

But certainly Planning as a term lacks the immediately repulsive connotations of 'bureaucrat' - and 'public utilities' or 'socialisation' (as opposed to 'nationalisation') could be work as well, for not having particular pejorative meaning - although it's perhaps a moot point whether these pejoratives even have meaning for those who can't remember (or weren't even born) during those much mythologised days of Union Barons and Bloated State Bureaucracies, which most will only know about via the morbid obsessions of the right-wing press (and of course our Labour government). Some can't even imagine a benign role for state intervention, which could most obviously be a break on, but perhaps also an opening for, a new appeal to collectivism and socialism. As the idea of public control over the economy recedes from memory, there are no pejorative past associations to hold the idea back - but there is plenty of very present and obvious evidence of the havoc its absence causes, as free market fundamentalism visibly capsizes the economy. On a similar 'what-if' note, read this intriguing contention at Ads without Products that the likes of Google are becoming a sort of 'anticipatory utility', making clear the benefits of unity over fragmentation...

Related to the above only at a major tangent, with reference to the London Underground's decline from being (at least in the period of Frank Pick, Charles Holden and Edward McKnight Kauffer) a work of art in itself to offering a 'Platform for Art', take a look at the progression in underground posters at this Guardian photoset. In the 1930s, and even for a few decades after that, the posters just were avant-garde works of art, and didn't need a border announcing THIS HERE IS ART. Over the last 15 years or so, though, they veritably scream from the rooftops when something is designed by a Proper Designer or a Fine Artist rather than some underpaid hack at 55 Broadway. One of them even has the presumptuousness to tell you that it can be bought from the Transport Museum. In a time when the fine artists of neoliberalism are largely uninterested in making actual objects - let alone 'useful' ones - their every alleged contribution to the commonweal has to be trumpeted, like in those public art projects adjacent to Blairite buildings which explain to you in great detail just what the artist is trying to do here. The aesthetes of benevolent bureaucracy were uninterested in such cant. To quote Pick, 'those who decry (modernism) underrate the attractiveness of the puzzle, underrate the urge to stretch the mind a bit more than usual...the public like something above their heads, if only it is attainable.'


Disorganised thoughts on jungle and pop-cultural time. Mentasms has two really quite brilliant new posts about being a junglist out of time. Being, like myself, too young to have properly been there in 1994 when the relentless forward motion and futurism of jungle might have seemed like it would change music for good, the observations are rather poignant, and combined nicely with a critique of the staggeringly prosaic architecture of the 'Celtic Tiger' economy. The annoyance at having missed the boat with jungle is one I totally sympathise with. As a geeky 13 year old in '94 I absent-mindedly liked 'Incredible' and (the still utterly astonishing) 'Original Nuttah' but a year later when I was actually into music, in the sense of buying the music press, spending scarce pocket money on cassette singles and listening (forgive me) to the Radio 1 Evening Session, jungle was something that mostly passed me by. One of the two local gangs in Southampton, the 'Jungle Posse' was made up of Punjabi junglists from the inner-city district of St Marys - they were slightly less scary, but also less geographically proximate than the white hick members of the Bassett Boys, but as I was a tad out of place at that age I was never exactly going to be considered for initiation. I recall once someone handing me his headphones while slacking during a science lesson to hear his pirate tape. I briefly thought 'blimey' and then probably carried on reading an interview with Echobelly.

More biography: by 1997-8, lots of my friends stopped listening to Weezer and started going to old school jungle & hardcore nights - the fact it had old school nights that quickly says something very peculiar about 1990s cultural temporality. I ended up having my First Pill (of very few, and bear in mind that this is a rite of passage for everyone born in the 80s, whether you listened to Bizzy B or Belle & Sebastian) at a Drum & Bass night at Fabric in 1999. It wasn't much fun. My actual, proper, obsessive conversion to jungle came about 5 or so years later, and that was by listening to the 93-5 stuff rather than the increasingly dull Drum & Bass my friends were listening to - and totally without any connection with actual raves, but more a mediated tracing of the 'nuum backwards, after I fell for grime at the point it was morphing out of garage - and by this time, jungle unavoidably evoked the background noise of my own adolescence. So I, at least, have a feeling of generational resentment here, due to narrowly missing out on properly experiencing - while being aware of! - the most avant-garde popular music in history. Mentasms has a dissimilar but also temporally 'wrong' perspective, in finding jungle and falling in love with it in a period of alleged decline, when it had already become just another option on the stylistic menu - but writes beautifully about how it still offered 'a narrow alley of evasion'.

In this context, the unearthing (at History is Made at Night) of a Mark K-Punk piece on jungle from 1995 written in the full fervour of the moment is especially historically and temporally interesting, particularly alongside the haunted sobriety of his recent(ish) Rufige Kru retrospective. Reading a couple of recent dissensus threads on such matters you could come to the conclusion that the futurist, delirious rhetoric of junglist theory worked because the music hadn't had the chance to become just another style - it was the style, an apparent pinnacle, summation and repudiation of all previous electronic musics to the point where it doesn't sound rhetorical or exaggerated to ask 'how can you make a record like that and the world keeps turning?' That a culture can reach a peak like this and it has no effect, and everything carries on as before if not worse, with the sound living on only as memory (no matter how poignant, intractable and anti-nostalgic that memory might be) suggests something sobering about the essential uselessness of even the most powerful, radical musics.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Belcher & Joass at their most intolerable

If you spend too much time reading The Buildings of England it begins to warp your brain. You start to see everything through the eyes of Nikolaus Pevsner, and write in your head in a clipped, Germanic English. The 188 bus to a design by Stagecoach, showing usual Souter uninspired chuffing. Flyover at Elephant & Castle by GLC 1969, unlovely composition with mannerist concrete aggregate. Board school opposite, Grabber & Grabber, 1879 - wrong are the Gothic details, wrong are the huge gaping windows, wrong also are the lurid yellow bricks. Stafford Cripps Estate by LCC, 1958 - a fine, humanitarian work before the wilful ugliness of Brutalism set in.

That's until you reach some brightly coloured, ostentatiously irregular luxury development from the past 25 years, and become incapable of even imagining the precise terms of curt Teutonic vituperation he would have used...

Monday, August 11, 2008

Long March of the Penguins

Recently Penguin Books, appropriately as one of the key institutions of British social democracy, have seemed to be in a bit of a state - at least in terms of roster and design. After the anniversary editions and the Penguin By Design book they obviously gave up on creating interesting new objects, merely settling for (in their - ew - 'Celebrations' series) a pale replica of the classic 1930s Gill Sans covers, with a motley selection of writers, from Jeremy Clarkson to Clare Tomalin. But this aesthetic cowardice suddenly seemed entirely irrelevant on finding, in W.H Smiths last week, that each copy of The Times was bundled with a free 'Celebrations' edition of Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival. Surely this wasn't on orders from Fortress Wapping, but the benevolent friend of the British Autodidact slipping a bit of Anarchist geopolitical analysis in with the usual Murdoch bombast?

Similarly, it's pleasing to see that the 'Great Ideas' budget philosophy series, previous editions of which came to the Decent Left conclusion that all great ideas ended with Orwell and Camus (presumably there be dragons beyond that), has now got as far as cheap, pocket-size editions of Foucault, Fanon and Benjamin. Welcome also to see a showing for 19th century Arts & Crafts socialism, with a volume of Ruskin, and Morris' brilliant Useful Work and Useless Toil - there's even some Trotsky, which is a quietly rather extraordinary choice. Some of the covers even manage to be quite elegant without making references to past glories. So hopefully the project of educating the populace via cheap, well-designed mass market paperbacks isn't quite dead, despite apperances to the contrary...

Viva Bognor

I.T, with camera, and mordancy visits Bognor, and the results are as fine as you'd expect - a spectacularly grey and rainy seaside, credit crunch related observations, inappropriate Blakean interludes. As she has been eliciting reader participation of late, there should be some sort of poll for most appropriate destination for an Infinite Photo-Essay. Hamburg? Swindon? Skegness? Magnitogorsk?

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Munificence of Bureaucracy

'But there was one semi-public body that had a far profounder influence. In the eighteenth century, as we have seen, a high standard of design was set by the cultivated taste of an aristocracy. Though our modern bureaucracy, which acts in the same capacity, has not yet succeeded in acquiring definite enough standards of its own to exert a similar influence, we have had the benefit of some equivalent: namely that of certain big public and industrial corporations, notably the London Transport Board, whose influence on design in the between-war period was incalculable'.
J.M Richards, Modern Architecture (1953)

Lately, I have been unashamedly giving in to my inner trainspotter - using the excuse of my birthday to admire the collected ephemera of the London Transport Museum, reading a this new book on Holden and this older one on London Transport boss Frank Pick. What is fascinating here is the outlines of a parallel universe of munificent bureaucracies who carry out Five Year Plans (London Transport had two in the 1930s) and attempt to create an 'earthly paradise' via sober design and bureaucratic branding. And this parallel universe is secreted in London's most unprepossessing places. On the Eastern edges of the Central Line are spaces of strange Eastern Bloc Englishness, the products of the second Five Year Plan: Redbridge Station, its empty tiled space the perfect place for a spy to meet a 'contact'; Gants Hill, a Moscow Metro vestibule with a Constructivist clock, Newbury Park, with its Brasilian concrete hangar; and Leytonstone, transformed into a station devoted entirely to the career of Alfred Hitchcock, with mosaics of The 39 Steps and Saboteur on the wall adjacent to the Metropolitan Police setting up their new knife barriers.

The Five Year Plans of the London Transport Board suggest something that never quite happened - the transformation of bureaucracy from a pejorative into an honorific. Frank Pick was once compared to Lorenzo the Magnificent, and Richards' curious comparison imagines a Modernist Renaissance via a corporatism very different to our own. New Labour has managed to claim for itself the worst elements of bureaucratism - meaningless targets, idiot optimism, a contempt for privacy and an obsession with surveillance and control - without a hint of the benevolent despotism of the LTB, that being too paternalistic, not frivolous or populist enough, not to mention deeply alien to the PFI ethos. This can be seen most neatly in TFL's 'Platform for Art', with their shrill, ironic Mark Titchner posters and that queasy tunnel of Pot Pourri at London Bridge. The LTB didn't provide a platform for art - in Saler's argument it was itself art, industry, bureaucracy, corporation and social democratic wing of the state all at once.

In the next few years, we'll most likely see the term 'bureaucracy' become yet more pejorative, as a libertarian Rightist Tory party attacks New Labour in the name of the business fundamentalism that Blair and Brown's bureaucracies have acted to protect and strengthen. To damn 'statism' is usually the refuge of the neoliberal scoundrel, especially in the context where it's the state's treason to its own citizens that has created the mess. The idea, hinted at by the Blairites and reiterated by Cameron that charities and businesses can take on the functions of the (remains of the) welfare state is sinister, Victorian, and increasingly prevalent. Yet it seems to be working, with people who should know better imagining the Tories might be the non-authoritarian face of the Blatcherite consensus. But would it be a step too far for the Left to try and valourise in response the idea of bureaucracy as patron of the arts and paragon of civilised order...?

Socialist Lavatory League, Bulletin #5

Comrade Bhattacharyya sends for the League's perusal the following proceedings: a debate, started by Mike Haynes, between historians and other interested parties on the use of toilet paper before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Neither come off particularly well, but it's comforting that so many people found an appropriate use for the pages of Pravda, not to mention the collected works of Stalin, translated into Kirgiz. Further proceedings here.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Biggles in the 21st Century

Historical regression corner: I live about a mile, as the crow flies, from the Excel centre. This is a strange place on the Royal Docks which seemingly holds only arms fairs and generally militaristic shindigs - gunboats and attack planes a particular specialty. Lately, the air above my flat has been filled with biplanes diving, swooping and generally re-enacting the Battle of Britain. Perhaps this is because I was reading 'Cato's Guilty Men at the time (a very topical thing, with chapter titles like 'Mr Brown Not Yet Unemployed' - I look forward to something as scurrilous about Thatcher-Blair as this is about Baldwin-MacDonald, one day), but it was really very unnerving. Shouldn't we be sheltering in the tunnel at Westcombe Park until they go away?

On an unrelated note, but still on the edifying subject of instruments for aerial warfare, this in the Architects' Journal. Southampton attempts to cement its recent attempts to become blandest city in Britain by erecting an ****ICONIC**** 'Spitfire wing' Museum where the Isle of Wight terminal is now. Any similarities to Portsmouth's already crap sub-Dubai Spinnaker tower are entirely coincidental.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Rusty Fists

Me, unimpressed by a totalitarian coffee table book at the New Statesman. I am duty bound to state that this is minus a pop at Martin Amis, and in one other bit of subs meddling, the 60s mistranslation of Benjamin's title The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility has been used instead of the now pretty common correct version (which was particularly annoying as it came in a paragraph where I pedantically attack the author for misquoting W.B). But as I went over the word count I'll refrain from going all Giles Coren about this. Also, in the same NS issue there's this excellent little piece on Austrian WW2 watchtowers.