Tuesday, September 30, 2008

in fact it's a gas

Behind Conventional Walls

The short film above is Dom (house), made in 1958 by Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica. Borowczyk did a few of these cut-out late surrealist animations, like the cranky interstellar constructivism of Les Astronautes with Chris Marker, and (sort of) interestingly by the 1970s he was a maker of quasi-surrealist softcore, to occasionally unintentionally amusing effect (Immoral Tales, the magnificently titled Behind Convent Walls). Dom centres on an (already) retro-futuristic vision of the home, which in this case is in one of the Haussmannian apartment blocks or rental barracks that can be found in practically every central European capital. So spaceships and musique concrete co-exist with marauding wigs under crumbling neo-renaissance facades, appliances grow unruly heads of wire and dirt, rhizomatic hatstands share a room with a phantasmagoria of picture postcards and family photographs, and almost predictably, Tenniel's Alice illustrations appear near the end.

This brings to mind some of the points in an I.T post on East European surrealism amongst other things, which is apparently one of a series. The work of the interwar montageur Jindřich Štyrský is described as 'simultaneously archaic and modern, in both form and content', a dream-world made up of 'machines, discarded consumer objects, nature and animals'. In his essay 'Dreamkitsch' Walter Benjamin recognised the Surrealist montage as a reaction to the phantasmagorias of the late 19th century home, with the twisted chairs, the objets d'art, the blanketing patterns of the carpets, all of which then become eroticised and reorganised in a conscious marshalling of the unconscious. In a sense, as implied in the link between psychedelic and late 'Victorian' design, the late 19th century was already surrealist, it only needed this latency to be drawn out. While in the west it seems to disappear and then briefly return with late 60s design, this version of Surrealism seems very resilient in postwar central Europe, especially Czechoslovakia. Most obviously in the films of Jan Svankmajer, but note also many of the films on this youtube channel. Or the film adaptation of Nezval's Valerie and her week of wonders.

In this catalogue it's argued that Lenica and Borowczyk's Dom was a reaction against the clean, plastic & formica spaces of postwar design, the 'thaw modern' that was especially prevalent in Poland, and which, via the infelicities of the command economy, ended up (allegedly) making most new interiors look remarkably alike. That's as maybe. But a couple of decades earlier, in the case of the Czech interwar avant-garde, we have something close to the rosetta stone of left Modernism, the otherwise lost missing link between productivism and messthetics, between the lurid collage of erotic Victorian detritus and the block of gleaming communal workers' flats. The same designers and artists - Karel Teige, Vitezslav Nezval, Oldrich Tyl, Jindrich Štyrský and many others, unnecessarily obscure and far too often untranslated - devised the idea that Constructivism and 'Poetism' (the latter of which morphed into the Czech wing of the Surrealist International) were aligned, part of a project for the revolution of everyday life.

Rather than being the inveterate opponents that you come across in innumerable analyses by the likes of Peter Wollen (more on which soon) - a polarisation in aesthetics between lovely jolly Surrealists, far from repressed, fully up on their Freud, with their eroticisme, parlour games and love of kitsch and clutter, and on the other hand grim Fordist functionalists with their allegedly limited view of human 'nature' - here both were pursued as part of a common project. This sense of a common project is especially odd when it comes to the house. There's obviously a certain fetishistic affection for the apparently obsolete in their collages, and at the same time these people could be found demanding the minimum dwelling - a tension similar to Benjamin's unsolved contradiction between the cry 'efface the traces' and the obsessive search for the same traces. Were the interiors you find in the collages supposed to be purely for the imagination, and those of Jaromir Funke's elegant sachlichkeit photos of new dwellings intended as the actual space for living? Or would one spill into the other?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Two State Solutions

Two rather bleary, disconnected reactions to two recent posts on the state. One: Moll on an Anarchist's dilemma in Bolivia, via a fine gloss by Voyou. The original post is easily mocked - already, by comments on both blogs - but is more interesting than they notice. The post focuses on watching TV footage of the Fascist secessionists in the richer areas of Bolivia storming buildings, destroying papers, looting, taking over the streets and overpowering riot police. The post then wonders what this means for the (libertarian bit of) the left, when it finds itself cheering on riot police, and hoping for the deployment of state violence against rioters. Partly, this seems to spring from a misunderstanding of Fascism, which has always used quasi-insurrectionary methods, embarrassing (if occasionally thrilling) the traditional conservatives. If you make a fetish of smashing the state, actually controlling the state obviously leads to some moral and political quandaries.

Moll writes that the Movement towards Socialism government in Bolivia (with its 70% mandate, let's not forget) is 'trying to be a state at a time when the legitimacy of the state remains in question'. Bolshevism obviously tried to surmount this by setting up a monopoly of state violence. It's too often forgotten that this was in the context of horrendous massacres of the supporters of the failed Communist governments in Finland, Hungary and Germany from 1918-9, not to mention the mass killing that followed the Paris Commune - they knew full well what awaited them if they didn't suppress their enemies, if they kept their hands clean. Nonetheless, in the dispiriting making-a-virtue-of-necessity that marred so much of Lenin and Trotsky's theory and practice at the time, this then coloured the composition of the new state. I'm in no way an expert on Bolivian politics, but isn't it more than a tad pre-emptive to think that the MAS would make the same mistakes? Surely there's no reason to imagine that the suppression of the 'autonomy' movements would or should be supplemented by some kind of Bolivian Cheka...? Why be timid about fighting Fascists? After all, this is one of the things Anarchists have to be historically proud of...

Second post: K-Punk echoes Ads without Products on the corporate welfare state: merely 'capitalist realism by other means: the only kind of state intervention that is "possible". This kind of "nationalisation" could only happen to protect the interests of the speculator class.' This was notable in the absurdly trumpteted 'comeback' conference speech of Gordon Brown this week. On the one hand, he made great play of Labour's belated conversion to the regulation of finance capital. The Tories, apparently unique in their fetish for the unregulated free market, would never have banned short selling, or nationalised Northern Rock (although this didn't stop the Republicans nationalising Fannie and Freddie). In the same speech, Brown pledged support for James Purnell's ridiculously Victorian workfare schemes. So what we have here is actually a total reversal of New Deal or old Labour Social Democracy - the state pledges to abandon Single Parents, the Disabled, the rapidly rising numbers of unemployed to the tender mercies of the market, at the exact same time as it pledges to offer enormous bailouts of speculators.

The problem with using this as some sort of definitive Deleuzian judgement on The State as an instrument of stabilisation, is that both of these functions are performed by the state, and by a blanket rejection of one you reject the other (cf, recent Viz Top Tip: 'Anarchists. When smashing the state, take care not to burn down your dole office'). The state, in its neoliberal form, has been keeping itself very busy setting up an unprecedentedly huge and all-encompassing surveillance apparatus, so it's no huge contradiction for it to start nationalising banks when the free market collapses (as it has done, every thirty years or so, for its entire history). Fine, we can discount its propaganda, and roundly mock those who insisted 'the market works' (errm, like Gordon Brown). We have always known that, outside the fevered imaginations of Milton Friedman and his crazies, the free market relies on the state to function, that's why the experiment was first carried out under Pinochet. Or rather - the state's function itself is to prop up the market.

And yet - I write this after a week spent mostly bed-ridden, due to a deeply unpleasant infection related to a long-term condition. Even when employed, I'm dependent on the state for medicines, treatment, hospital beds, surgery, all of which are provided - even in today's attenuated, PFI-ridden NHS - free of charge. In the US, as someone whose income is sporadic, and without wealthy relatives, I would be, not to put too fine a point on it, absolutely fucked. In reaction to the massive popularity of state-run, socialised health care, Anarchists (like Tories) tend to fetishise some rather dubious philanthropic schemes, as if health care would be better provided by the church, charity, business or in the case of the Peckham Health Centre, eugenicists. Were this to occur, I would be putting my dubious health at the service of institutions with concerns - be they profit or philanthropy - other than the NHS' impersonal, functionalist efficiency. Soon enough, I'd also see a quick, and notable, deterioration in my own quality of life. So I don't have any intention of backtracking from this - the NHS is still a greater achievement than the entire corpus of Anarchist theory and (mostly) practice.

The state is obviously not something we can uncritically use as a blunt instrument - but if you want to build social housing, cure diseases, or generally stop people from starving, it beats a thousand squats and affinity groups. The problem now is to argue for this element of the state, as there's no sign that any of the nationalisations will stop the onslaught against any welfare other than the corporate kind, or that a social Keynesianism will go alongside its military form. Anyone expecting a change of heart in our leaders is being decidedly over-optimistic.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Quiz of the Decade

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Buildings for Blairism #4

Paternoster Square, London, William Whitfield et al, completed 2003

A quick, contemptuous entry in the series, which should be followed by something less easily scorned - a remarkably lame, late postmodernist scheme in front of St Paul's Cathedral. It should be noted that, although the three forces of computer-aided sub-decon whimsy, fourth-generation corporate high-tech, and developers' Scando have given the appearance that postmodernist architecture in its initial form has merely faded into aesthetic history, a trip outside London, or Manchester, or wherever will show a huge amount of postmodernist architecture being built. Much in the same way that blaming Corb or Gropius for crap council/office blocks is vapid, it is perhaps equally foolish (albeit tempting) to lambast Philip Johnson or Venturi et al for the rejigging and jollying up of traditionalism that still marks your average shopping mall, development scheme or Barratt estate, or anywhere that 'plannerrhoids' congregate. Yet this is at least a marginal phenomenon inside the metropolis - with one major exception.

Perhaps one of the best ways to refute Ayn Rand types is via the architectural results of laissez-faire capital in one of its oldest, most dedicated centres. The architecture of the City of London is one of the capital's darker, murkier areas. That medieval street plan has accommodated, after some initial post-fire buildings of quality, some of the worst architecture in the country's history. Victorian bombast, and decades of the joyless, filigree pomposity of the neo-Georgian imperial style, dominant for decades, from the 1900s to the 1960s - and when it finally went Modernist in the mid-60s, the results were equally shoddy and unimaginative. A couple of reasonable Seifert blocks and the Miesian geometries of London Wall were about as good as it got, bar the disputed territory of Barbican and Golden Lane. Then, after the 80s' big bang, the whole area was rebuilt far more comprehensively than it was after 1945, with a proliferation of brightly coloured stone and 'fun' references, (and inexplicably, the best building in the City was also built at this point). This period would reach a peak/nadir with Stirling & Wilford's truly indefensible corporate ice cream longship, No. 1 Poultry, perhaps the worst building ever produced by a Pritzker Prize-winning architect, plonked down, neoclassical frieze and all, atop a site earmarked for Mies van der Rohe's only British building.

Since 1997 though, Foster has made the ruthless, Masonic skullduggery of the City look ***TRANSPARENT***, and various already-or-soon-to-be-cancelled skyscrapers from the B-teams of sundry leading firms were announced under Livingstone. The big exception to this, and clear evidence of architectural 'pluralism', was this long-awaited remodelling of the area around St Paul's. The post-45 blocks were reproduced in Lewis Mumford's The City in History as an example of sensitive, anti-Corbusian planning, but our future King didn't like 'em, and so soon they had to go. The resultant scheme has several levels. Some of it is mild Modernism, spectacularly inoffensive, some of it neoclassicism appropriately worthy of a regeneration scheme in a Cathedral town, but what you notice first is Juxon House. Straight off the desk of SOM in 1986, this is a sub-Novecento bit of mock-classicism clumsily hiding some glass trading floors, dressed with free-standing Corinthian columns. Meanwhile, broken heads sit on plinths, symbolising order and the ruins of antiquity. There's a sort of Bluewater version of the Monument in the centre, and Temple Bar, an old city gate disputedly designed by Wren, has been shipped back from a garden in Enfield to be re-erected as the triumphal entrance to this farrago.

In sum, what we have here is the Corporation of London 'reaching out', attempting to encompass activities other than multibillion pound gambling. In fact, here are the two leading sectors of the economy under Blatcherism - the service industry (in the guise of tourism) and the financial services industry (Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and the London Stock Exchange are all housed here), both housed in the architecture of servitude. So on the one hand, the City here actually welcomes in outsiders, by giving St Paul's a theme park (rather than some severe office blocks) as its hinterland, with restaurants to accommodate those unfortunate, so often ruthlessly fleeced London tourists - and on the other, short selling and asset stripping goes on here surely as efficiently as in the Gherkin. Proof also that the architecture of financialisation need not be some excitingly futurist act of dematerialisation, but can just as easily resemble a branch of the historicist nick-nack emporium Past Times.

(photos on this one are by IT rather than myself, as you can tell by the fact that they're actually good)


Airstrip One

Me, admitting my traitorousness to the Ballardian cause of airport-worship, at the NS. And oh how very timely. On a related matter, I've been spending much of the last few months listening fairly obsessively to Fripp & Eno's Evening Star, which sounds to me distinctly like the synaesthetic airfield to Music for Airports' shiny air-conditioned terminal - the glazed prettiness of the opening tracks like the green and asphalt of the endless Heathrow plain, and the monstrous paranoid drone of 'An index of Metals' evoking the BOAC hangar's Brutalist ferocity, a space of huge spans, humming fuselages and thick, reinforced concrete walls.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Disaster Updates

Poorly and full of strong painkillers, so not much to post at the moment - instead, go read the following: a quite brilliant post at the Tomb, in reponse to the curious argument that the 'core vote' ought to be grateful for 11 years of New Labour, outlining how their pernicious, ideologically-driven and obsessively power-crazed politics have played out in 'regeneration' and 'investment in public services' in the city of Sunderland.

The I.T-derived mordant urbanist photo-essay sub-genre attempts to find defenestrating bankers - a short post by the IT girl herself, and a longer disquisition at E&V, which goes into detail on a rather philosophically ambitious pumping station; and on that apocalyptic economic situation, AWP politely asks that people stop referring to multi-billion dollar handouts to banks as 'socialism'.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Apocalyptic glee not pictured

Plug corner: me on class, cultural populism and resentment in Socialist Worker, and on an exhibition of Cold War Modernism in the New Statesman.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

'Every step that we tread, the dead are behind us'

Released in 1992, Disco Inferno's 'Summer's Last Sound' was, despite the title, the sound of the last serious recession, a sort of post-rock analogue to the despair of Patrick Keiller's London. A claustrophobic mesh of increasingly overwhelming sample-scree, birdsong, droning post-punk bass and incongrously pretty, glacial guitars, it features a list cataloguing the impending doom, from 'the price of bread went up 5 pence today' to 'foreigners get hushed-up trials', mass graves, immigrants kicked to death, the rise of obscurantism and barbarity, the sense (as with most of D.I's work) of a queasy horror at all that is solid melting into air. Ian Crause was one of the best lyricists of the 1990s, his intensity and political seriousness never lapsing into cliche or earnestness - as in the fantastic 4-minute version of Theses on the Philosophy of History 'The Last Dance'. 'Summer's Last Sound' is, amongst other things, perhaps the only pop record to ever have made reference to negative equity.

On this track, there is a mounting horror at all this, the feeling that something has to give. Of course, it didn't. The revulsion at Black Wednesday might have given Labour, finally, an election that even they couldn't lose - and from their first act (denationalising the Bank of England) onwards, they willingly built up another bubble which is now bursting even more catastophically. Canary Wharf became a laughing stock, then a seemingly unstoppably expansive mini-city. The most horrifying thing right now is that - at least in Britain, there's still a fight elsewhere - there is no political party willing to reverse, or even ameliorate, the grim human consequences of neoliberalism and financialisation. The utterly pointless Lib Dems have even decided that the visible collapse of neoliberalism - the biggest wave of nationalisations since the 1940s - would be an opportune time for a shift to the right. Labour have no intention of rescinding their collective suicide note. The Tories will win the election with ease, and within a year Cameron will be as unpopular as Sarkozy is now. There is, except for the unions tentatively emerging from a decade of cowardice (and the resurgent Fascists) no opposition, and nobody who can reverse an increasingly suicidal course.

Last week, I attended a talk by Larry Elliott and Graham Turner on the credit crunch, and when asked what could be done to sort out the mess, there was a veritable list - higher wages, massive investment in green technologies, an expansion of council housing, an expansion of public transport...and it felt good, for about 2 minutes, until you realise that even this eminently sensible Keynesianism is considered tantamount to Bolshevism by anyone within a sniff of power. One can gloat at the death of neoliberalism - and why not, it's fun, and richly fucking deserved - but Thatcherism could have died in 1992, or 1997, and yet it still continues, undead, to dictate the perameters of acceptable political thought in this country. One of the finest things about Disco Inferno, and 'Summer's Last Sound' especially, is their depiction of this deadlock - even their collages of samples evoking the weight of the dead generations upon the living.

An Englishman's Castle is Invariably Owned by the Bank

On the matter of financial apocalypse, the crippling national housing obsession and related matters, this fine book review by Nina Power of a potted history of these structures, and the shoddy dreams and grim casual work that lay behind them.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A crash at every speed

Yes, I know we're all going to suffer eventually for their idiocy and venality (and for the 'Labour' government which has so grotesquely mollycoddled them), but the prospect of 500,000 bankers losing their jobs just makes me want to run out into the street waving a rattle and scarf. Never has redundancy been so richly deserved. But what will happen to all the yuppiedromes being built for these people in such unprepossessing locations as Stratford, Silvertown, Poplar, East Greenwich and Bow? Or what of the stacked glass trading floors of 'Ken's towers'? What of the shiny new city being prepared for 2012? A tragedy, no...?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Kino Fist: Apocalypse

After a 'summer' break, Kino Fist returns in a different place. In the wake of financial disaster, constant rumblings about nuclear perils and the many discussions about how the Large Hadron Collider might polish us off for good we will be showing films about the apocalypse as part of this event:

La Soufrière (Werner Herzog, 1976) (something about it here)
Threads (written by Barry Hines/directed by Mick Jackson, 1984) (see here for more details) [Warning: Threads is very likely to be the single most depressing film you'll ever see. Please don't come if you're feeling a bit down or weird - seriously, we'd feel awful about it]

We will be here:

The Wenlock Building
50-60 Wharf Road, N1 7RN

We will screen:
October 5th
roughly 2-5pm

As always, there will be a magazine. Please send texts (200-2000 words), illustrations, images to infinitethought[at]hotmail.co.uk
by September 24th (that gives you ten days!).

'a world which far from being finished, is hardly yet begun'

An intriguing look at the anti-old, yet decidedly weird America: I was sent a link a little while ago by the Institute to the Prelinger Archive of mainly public information films made in (roughly) mid-century America. Relevant to the earlier remarks on Googie - videos tagged with 'Futurism'. See also various Cold War propaganda films including the notoriously moronic how-to-survive-the-bomb film 'Duck and Cover', which makes Protect and Survive look positively helpful; and Frank Gilbreth's faintly creepy Taylorist demonstration films.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


A thought-provoking post at the FJ on interiors, featuring hysterical quotes and pictures from a Terence Conran guide to interior design, published in the late 70s. This reminded me of something I noticed when visiting the Zaha Hadid exhibition at the Design Museum last year. I loved the paintings and the models, but when I got upstairs to the furniture it all seemed so...silly, so tacky and naff by comparison with the buildings, which by contrast seemed (via their representation) muscular, hard, uncompromising etc etc. Thinking about it, I realise this impulse is rather dubious. Why is it that a flight of fancy, where form outstrips function - if ostensibly ornament-free - like Hadid's buildings seems acceptable as houses, museums, train stations, but seems ludicrous to sit on? Obviously this is an entirely contradictory (and silly) thing to think. And of course all the exhibits were interior design of a sort.

Although my taste in exteriors (give or take, a liking for Victorian Gothic in its red-brick, seedy mode, a few other styles and moments, but it seldom moves me in the way 20th century architecture will) is almost entirely for the unornamented, the space I actually live in is a wilfully chaotic mess of books, videos, postcards, posters, clashing chairs found in markets or left by the landlord, and miscellaneous bits of tat - well, one might even call some of them ornaments. Minimal interiors always seem rather more obsessive and anal (in a bad way, that is) than buildings themselves, and whenever I briefly entertain the idea of (given infinite capital) moving to say, the minimumwohnung at Lawn Road, I realise that I would have to leave most of my library behind. I'm also reminded with this stuff that most design isn't aimed at me, or anyone on my income. I have lived and may live again in architect-designed council flats, but unless something drastic happens, I will never be able to afford a bespoke Hadid interior.

Maybe this is a slightly peculiar version of the Lord Burlington/Augustan ethos of the cool, stark exterior and the lush interior - the cool, stark exterior and the messy, dusty interior. So I was a bit nonplussed when I once heard the mighty Rodney Gordon at a symposium talking about his LCC days, recalling his worry at how the tenants at the Alton estate always chose decor totally out of kilter with the flats' design. Surely both could be accommodated? In fact, net curtains tend to look marvellous when seen in the windows of Brutalist slab blocks, adding a layer of intrigue and weirdness, in a dissimilar but analogous way to the (interestingly common) view of a full bookcase through the windows of Balfron or the Brunswick. There's also something frankly lame about designers, urbanists and merchant bankers moving into listed, architect-designed ex-council flats, proceeding to scrupulously redesign the rooms to be in keeping, getting in the glass coffee tables and the Barcelona chairs. But for all that, I'm perhaps too afflicted by Modernist good taste to ever be converted to adding lacy exteriors to council flats. It seems more interesting and contradictory when both are happening at once.

Addenda: the Robin Hood Gardens flat I visited for Open House a couple of years ago, rented by an elderly Geordie woman since the place opened, was an absolutely awe-inspiring conglomeration of 70s tat preserved in aspic, from the green Oriental lady displayed in non-ironic situ to various framed pictures of cowboys & indians. I was having flashbacks to visits to my alcoholic uncle's gaff in my tender years, a council house like a nicotine-stained lung, all brown fittings, thick glass ashtrays and a pervasive musk of sweat, fags and varnish. And it should be noted that one of the cut-out figures walking the streets-in-the-sky in a Smithsons montage is the young Terence Conran himself...

(Photo of the Ferrier Estate courtesy of Joel Anderson)

Friday, September 12, 2008

Gaze in Paper at Yore Strange Unnatural Beauty

I go over to the ranks of the columnists, on the matter of this place, which if they ever finish 'regenerating' it (there's no sign they've even started to as yet, but nevertheless) will look vaguely like the image above, thanks to principled affordable n' sustainable specialists Make.

Cybernetic Communism

A day late for the 35th anniversary of September 11, but may I draw your attention to this fascinating article on Cybersyn, the computerised worker self-management system set up in Allende's Chile by British cybernetician Stafford Beer.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Selfish Meme

Oi, you lot, just because she declares the meme is over in a self-memeing explosion of stylistic tics doesn't mean it is. I, for one, want to read the Aloof from Inspiration take on the Smiths...However, before all the people reading this for 30 seconds leaving strange comments go away, they should go read I.T on saucy postcards, and a fine F.J response on the fascinating grimness of the Carry On films.

Saturday, September 06, 2008


norfolk etc 111

We stayed in a road called 'The Drift', in Heacham. This is a former fishing village, now minor beach resort, on the north coast of Norfolk, looking over the Wash. In the 1790s Norfolk (soon to be supplanted by Lancashire as Britain's industrial area) was a hotbed of Jacobinism. The 'Heacham Declaration' announced the formation of an early, universal trade union, swiftly suppressed under the sedition act. Today it is a small village (Victorian and earlier) bookended by, at one side a series of bungalows, and at another, towards the beach, caravan parks. Both are a kind of quotidian minimal architecture, bereft of ornament, but somehow unobtrusive in their modernity. The most impressive minimal architecture in Heacham is the Pillboxes.

norfolk etc 109

They look over the North Beach, in case the Nazis attack via The Wash. What two men in bunkers could have done against the Wehrmacht is a moot point.

norfolk etc 165

Three miles from Heacham is Hunstanton, a proper seaside resort, with Penny Arcades, shops called things like 'Geezer's Palace', amusements including arcade games of the mid-80s (Track and Field!), and so forth. Like all seaside towns it has gone to seed in an interesting way. At the seafront are curved concrete walls to prevent floods. Also like all seaside towns, concrete and Modernism are quietly, blithely acceptable, perhaps because the purpose is hedonism, however circumscribed, rather than English home-making.

norfolk etc 162

The most famous thing about Hunstanton, although it doesn't feature on the postcards, is a much less blithe kind of Modernism: the Hunstanton Secondary Modern School. Designed by Alison and Peter Smithson in 1949, while they were (remarkably) in their early 20s, it is as far from seaside jollity and all its cheerful crapness as could possibly be imagined.

norfolk etc 117

Practically anyone interested in 20th century architecture will have seen it in photographs, the water tower at the entrance and the severe geometries. 'The first New Brutalist Building', 'the most truly modern building in Britain'. This gives you absolutely no hint of just how wildly incongruous it is with the surrounding area. In amongst the bungalows and such, this sleek, ruthless object. The Smithsons spoke of the building having two lives - one as a noisy comprehensive school, 'and another life when the building is empty, a life of pure space'. Me and my sister go there on a Sunday. The gates are open, so we get the life of pure space. The 'found objects' element you always see in photos is the metal water tower, not the even stranger, even starker brick tower behind it.

norfolk etc 120

Yet it's just a secondary school. Its fame worldwide seems to accord with its obscurity in Norfolk. A perfect example of Welfare State ethics in its most extraordinary form - a sublime object dropped, seemingly at random, landing in the midst of an unremarkable English everyday. Now, of course, rather than being truly comprehensive it 'specialises' in Maths and Computing, in that offensive Blairite manner - something that polymaths like the Smithsons, enthusiasts for art, pop, science, philosophy, would undoubtedly have been depressed by - but Secondary Modern will always be the phrase associated with it, with the latter of the two words stressed.

norfolk etc 126

The length of the main block is almost a shock, the deliberate aestheticism and imposition. Without ever using the raw concrete that Brutalism would be known for, it creates the sense of power and force, the memorable image, that the style brought to Modernism. Even the additions, the black panels on the main block's windows (to stop the sea winds smashing them) seem to reinforce the buildings' domineering effect. All this at one storey high, with De Stijl colours and stock brick - pointedly not the local stone and ragged brickwork which features in so many buildings in the area, which itself seems a Dutch importation, has something rather continental about it.

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At the back are fields which seem to go on forever. The endless Norfolk flatlands, with barely a hill all the way to the Urals.

Friday, September 05, 2008

My (and the Monster's) Back Pages

Bedsit bricoleur Monster Bobby has a new website, based around the Polish motorway system, and presently the Baku Metro. It's well worth a root around, with the usual collection of interestingly arranged promotional information on tours, records and pub quizzes - but note at the top of the map, a link to an almost complete set of the unfortunately named publication Totally Bored. This was edited by myself and the Monster for five issues between 2003 and 2005. Thankfully, for the first two issues I used a pseudonym (prizes for guessing), but there's still enough to induce some embarrassment. Also some minor pride at making a zine which wasn't devoted entirely to third-rate indie acts, and that made some connections between music (whether Oxbow or Roll Deep) politics, art and literature, however clumsily. And the design of the things is far less awful than I remembered it - although the second issue was 'designed' mostly by myself with actual proper pritt stick, so all blame taken there. The second is also the best issue by some leagues, with a certain obsessive bunker mentality to it that is difficult to replicate in the intangible world wide web...


My initial plan to get round I.T's 'Dogmeme', which is explained thus:
the idea is to identify the common rhetorical and stylistic tropes of your favourite bloggers and ask them to write a post in which they get taken away, thus revealing the pure truth of their writing. Possibly. All posts must be at least 200 words. in which my task is to write a post without reference to proper names, places, buildings or cultural objects of any kind.

...was to continue to write about place, melancholy, nostalgia etc by writing about weather. The beauty of cloud formations, the irrelevance of the passing of the seasons after the industrial revolution, and a panegyric to autumn (by far the most elegant of seasons). Anyway, this was too big a cheat, so instead I shall write about illness, and specifically about physical pain. This was one of the mission statements of this blog, to be an area in which I could complain about my health without boring any of my friends. Obviously it hasn't worked out like that, and the occasions when I have have been as a thinly-disguised means to complaining about particular institutions that have crossed or irked me.

First of all, it needs to be said that pain is boring, and, unless you're a doctor or a psychoanalyst, describing pain makes people as nonplussed as a description of a dream. There might be some masochists who have embraced a pain to which they're condemned in the quotidian and made it into something else, but as a rule it seems a fetish for those to whom pain is an unusual experience. Also, the pain from which I suffer most of the time is very, very seldom an excruciating, unbearable agony, the sort which is genuinely hard to take. It's a sporadic, common-or-garden pain, although there isn't a day that goes by without it. There are a few different kinds. One, which I get rarely at the moment, is a feeling akin to having one's intimate areas sandpapered for short bursts, a kind of quick, abrasive thing which (like all of them) is made worse when walking (especially irritating, given one's choice of timewasting activity). Another is a dull ache in the abdomen, which, a couple of times, has suddenly switched in severity to the point where I almost double over. At the moment though, it's a different pain - without giving too much details, the phrase 'torn a new arsehole' has a particular acuteness after my last operation. This sensation (perceptible, regardless of the amount of co-codamol) is of an elastic band with staples on one end being slowly pulled through your body. Which is interesting, as that is in essence the medical procedure.

Also, in a similar way to the manner in which noises during sex come more naturally than during masturbation, one very seldom cries out when alone. Walking on my own I might just growl quietly occasionally, or make the odd wince - only with someone else there does it rise to an audible 'OW!' I've never really itemised the particular pains like this, perhaps because they aren't dramatic enough - someone suffering from cluster headaches might list or explore the agony as a way of understanding and overcoming it. This isn't like that. It's always there, but blandly so (struggles to not make comparisons to cultural artefacts here). The only way to avoid it is to stay almost perfectly still. Which would be even more boring than the pain itself.

Right - now to inflict the dogmeme on others...

I.T - absolutely no humour, no flippancy of any sort, no exclamation marks or rhetorical flourishes.

A of Aloof from Inspiration - no barely suppressed rage or melancholia, and no unwarranted self-deprecation.

Charles of the F.J - no complexity or contradiction.

Martin of BTI - no jokes, no capital letters, no ultraviolence.

Douglas of E&V - must write without reference to ruination or Beckettian futility, at length, about a 20th century architect(s) he unreservedly admires.


Shameless plugs: in the current issue of Urbanist Periodical MONU, dedicated to the theme of 'Exotic Urbanism', I can be found opining on green roofs, and ruination, Josef Fritzl and Joseph Gandy; and in the New Humanist, on the matter of Francis Bacon's curious transition from derivative Bauhaus furniture designer to apparent fan of raw meat, bodily fluids and vigorous sexual activities.

Buildings for Blairism, #3

Grosvenor Waterside, Pimlico, London, Make Architects, Allies & Morrison et al, 2007-present

Suggested, and guided, via Entschwindet, this one offers rather less insight into ideology as currently practiced than the Home Office or the Millennium Village. It's interesting because of the contrasts around it, and because of the peculiar acts of naming involved. To get to Grosvenor Waterside, a former industrial bit on the western edge of Pimlico (obviously it's not where it claims to be. This is cleverly circumvented by the slogan 'Reflecting Chelsea'), the best route is to start from where the monumentally bland 1930s luxury flats of Dolphin Square (red-brick, monolithic, nondescript, and apparently the city stop-off flat of Prince William) face on the one hand the Pimlico School, a Brutalist masterpiece (similar to other GLC work of the period at the South Bank and Thamesmead - jagged, futuristic, expressionist) currently in the midst of demolition; and on the other, the 1940s comprehensive redevelopment council estate of Churchill Gardens. Pevsner was amused by this contrast, noting that the school facing Dolphin Square announced that the people were now in charge - and that the estate said the same thing, rather more quietly. If it were ever true, it certainly isn't now, in Westminster post-Shirley Porter.

Walk through Churchill Gardens, then you come to a series of early Peabody Estates. It's a depressing thought that these grim barracks would be considered more desirable than the council flats adjacent, simply because of the patina of age, and the blocks' deliberate lack of formal felicity. Visiting Churchill Gardens is a curious experience, because you've seen it so many times before, in reduced, cheap, cost-cutted versions. It's very severe, strictly geometric zeilenbau stuff, spacious enough for it never to seem mean - although lacking in the spark of otherness that its Brutalist successors had in abundance. Anyway - the flats are all named after poets, architects and such - Lutyens, Shelley, Byron.* When you get to Grosvenor Waterside, look at the sign. Not the one that implores you to LIVE IN A MASTERPIECE, but the map, where you note the names of the (still unfinished) blocks. A few make obvious references at Tate Britain, up the road a bit: Hepworth, Moore. Then you notice Caro House, and then - Hirst House. Surely Emin Flats is in progress. Confirmation, as if it were needed, that the Blairite conscience does not forget its debt to the Creative Industries.

The flats are the usual fluff - bland, overpriced, full of 'art' whether tacked onto the facade or of the 'public' variety , although seemingly with a finish and seriousness absent from the tackier Hackney variety of luxury flat. Most of all, this is worthwhile as an instructive historical contrast. In temporal terms, you have, all nearby, philanthropic brick tenements for the poor, 'luxury' brick tenements for the rich, intelligently planned and designed concrete flats for the poor, then finally semi-intelligently planned, clumsily designed concrete flats for the rich. Oh, and they are rich here - take a look at the project's website, which veritably screams Russian Oligarchs Welcome.

* (and a bit round the corner from there is the marvellous Lilligton Gardens estate, which has the accolade - blocks named after Aubrey Beardsley and Noel Coward - of being the gayest council estate in London)

Paul Overy RIP

Fine obituary by Tim Benton - oh for the days when architecture correspondents regularly got sacked for getting too political. As an inadequate tribute, here's my short, over-compressed review for Blueprint earlier this year of his excellent Light Air and Openness, one of the very few serious theoretical books on Modernism published in Britain. Among the things not mentioned in here are the remarkable African prefabs designed by Ernst May, lost to history before this book was published, and a bit on the Magic Mountain-esque romance of sanatoria, which Overy interestingly places as the root form of Modernism...

Get yourself fitter, cleaner, healthier…Paul Overy’s Light Air and Openness, a new history of the interwar Modern Movement, recalls the predecessors of today’s cult of home and body improvement, all those TV shows in which members of the public have their defective taste or hygiene examined by media professionals: imagine How Clean is Your House presented by Adolf Loos.

The return of a rather attenuated modernism as design orthodoxy in the last few years has led to a flurry of publications on its interwar antecedents, before the grubbier business of Brutalism set in. While most of these have been pretty and inconsequential, Overy’s book has a strong historical thrust behind it. The thesis is that behind the plate glass and rendered concrete was an ideology, shared across the political spectrum, of health and hygiene. Through a survey of buildings, some familiar and others obscure, these underpinnings are investigated. Where many today see only sweetness and light, this book faces the heavy imprints of history, class, (occasionally pseudo-)science, industrialisation and politics.

This is Modernism as ‘clean living under difficult circumstances‘, to quote the Mod Pete Meaden, with fastidiousness springing up in reaction to disease and overcrowding. At times this became rather eccentric: the conception of ‘health’ held by Le Corbusier left a place for the joys of nicotine. The links made between fitness and Fordist production, as in Brinkman and Van der Vlugt’s glacial Van Nelle Factory, are equally peculiar to post-industrial eyes.

Fittingly for Modernism’s ‘heroic age’, many of the book’s protagonists resemble J.G Ballard characters, psychoanalysed industrialists who practice theosophy and train as aviators, a hobby that would take the lives of Thomas Bata, sponsor of the Modernist company town of Zlin, and the sons of Van Nelle boss Kees Van der Leeuw. This is fascinating, but it’s a shame the socialist patrons of social housing and health services aren‘t given the same attention. Overy makes much of ‘paternalism‘, but what did the trade unionists who commissioned buildings like Duiker’s Zonnestraal Sanatorium see in Modernism? Isn’t it possible that the apparently voiceless proletarians who moved into Karl-Marx-Hof might have wanted cleanliness, education and self-improvement every bit as much as the LA doctors of Neutra’s Lovell Health House?

Although the democratic socialists, paternalistic ‘enlightened capitalists’ and Communists who were the patrons of interwar Modernism have all but disappeared, their architecture has not. In the closing pages, Overy ponders the dilapidation and subsequent restoration of buildings deliberately not built to last, and reaches an ambiguous conclusion. One wonders if leaving these buildings as ill, ruined edifices rather than restoring them to pristine health might do their memory more justice - leaving the marks of the history that this book so admirably recovers.