Saturday, November 29, 2008

Constructivism, Kitsch and Capital: Lloyds

As a writer sometimes prone to what Geoffrey Scott called the 'associational fallacy', I ought to have to justify that my favourite building in London, and quite possibly anywhere else, is designed to be a machine for all I most abhor - every time I have gone past it on the 47 bus, I have gazed transfixed at a monument to financialised late capitalism. Strange Harvest recently posted an excellent associational argument that the Lloyds Building, and High-Tech architecture in general, was - maybe more than postmodernism, given that the latter barely continued into Blairism's Thatcherism Mk 2, while High-Tech has flourished under it - the built embodiment of Thatcherism, a simulation of industry, tangible activity and visible moving parts to contain the dematerialised and dematerialising realignment of the British economy into 'services' and speculation. This is all very convincing, but there is more than this to Lloyds. There is the alleged adaptability, the promise that it could easily be transformed into something other than a particularly venal gambling club, no doubt consoling Rogers in the days when he quoted Herbert Marcuse to the RIBA and ritually denounced Margaret Thatcher - though the stockbrokers aren't adapting it, nor will it be if it gets Grade 1 listed. This is, no doubt, a fixed object made to look indeterminate, although I for one hope to see the day that it houses the 21st century Comintern.

As this is a building which pays fulsome homage to Soviet Constructivism; or not so much homage as a final rendering of their dreams, the projects they could never realise, into steel and concrete. Lloyds is not the built Constructivism of Melnikov, Golosov, Ginzburg, the Vesnin brothers, who were grappling with peasant technologies and would eventually gravitate towards an early-Corbusian purism. It's the unbuilt or theatrical, the fantasies of Iakov Chernikhov, the unbuilt projects of the earlier 20s like the Vesnins' Pravda building, and like them it fairly shudders with mechanical power. With its glazed lifts, moving parts, girders, cranes, components all crammed into a tight, fierce, metallic mesh, this is a building that has (on me, at least) much the same shivers-down-spine effect as The Human League's 'Dancevision', or 'Strings of Life', or 'Trans-Europe Express': a mechanical sublime that sweeps away any residual humanist resistance with your willing participation. Someone once described Lloyds as resembling what might have ensued in the steampunk scenario of the Soviets winning the Cold War: a technocratic and ferocious architecture, far from the often more mundane reality of that country's Modernist buildings - here is where Modernism's machine idolatory reaches its most astonishing apotheosis.

Still, it's clear that none of these associations ever worried the denizens of Lloyds of London. Instead this is one of the few instances of capitalist Constructivism, an object that Sam Jacob accurately describes as 'a kitschy, aestheticised, shiny stainless steel simulation of the grimy infrastructure that its design seemingly pays homage to' and, we could add, that the forces it houses were then destroying. And yet Rogers' return to bright colours, friendliness, the polis and volumes of humanist rhetoric that are deeply out of kilter with the alienating brilliance of his finest work, implies that he and his firm were themselves shaken by the ruthless force of this statement. If Lloyds is mid-80s kitsch, it is in a similar manner to a John Carpenter or James Cameron film: brutal, unsentimental, futurist kitsch, thrilling kitsch. It's cyberpunk architecture, as dated and fascinating as that implies. Yet alongside these associations, there is little doubt that it's also a deeply dishonest embodiment of the ideology of late capitalism. How could it have been anything else?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Where are the Robots?

One of the most interesting points in the recent debate over capital and the perversity of 'Accelerationism' was made by No Useless Leniency, who invoked the Detroit techno ethos that 'Ford's robots' are more a source of interest and inspiration than 'Berry Gordy's Music'. The more interesting point, perhaps, is that Gordy himself was heavily influenced, if not by Ford's robots then by the Taylorised man-machine that preceded it (Bat suggests this Martha and the Vandellas video as conclusive evidence). There is an essay, or a book to be written on the desire to become automated that runs from jazz to funk to techno, an area in which Adorno was actually highly insightful in his otherwise misbegotten critiques of jazz. This is particularly worthwhile when fighting (more in academia than in the world of music criticism and blogs, where it is an orthodoxy) the suspicion of pop music, give or take 'industry' suffix, as a machine. Viz Peter Wollen's critique of Le Corbusier's allegedly racist comments on jazz in the late-80s anthology Raiding the Icebox, exuding his usual 'breathtaking Michael Ignatieff authoritativeness' (NB there is also a long section of the unfinished thesis giving this a kicking):

'Constructivism was closely linked to the Americanism that swept Europe in the twenties, the so-called jazz age. Jazz was perceived as both stereotypically primitive and ultra-modern, Le Corbusier put it, with shameless projection: 'the popularity of tap-dancers shows that the old rhythmic instinct of the virgin African forest has learned the lesson of the machine and that in America the rigour of exactitude is a pleasure' – and the jazz orchestra in Harlem 'is the equivalent of a beautiful turbine' playing a music that 'echoes the pounding of machines in factories'(!). In this racist vision, black America was taken to be a fascinating synthesis of the 'primitive', and the 'futuristic', the body and the machine.'
Irrespective of the patronising hauteur and hint of colonial fantasy in Le Corbusier's argument, he appears to have had a far more accurate and insightful take on black music of the 20th century as actually described by its practitioners than does Wollen and his ilk - this is a prophecy of 'George Clinton and Kraftwerk caught in an elevator', that other heroic Detroit cliché, albeit with the proviso that there was nothing 'primitive' about Clinton's music, for all its carnality. Not only are there the innumerable records that describe the jazz, rock & roll or funk band as a machine, there is James Brown's definitive coinage, which essentially puts Corbusier's over-rhetorical prose into two words: 'Sex Machine'. The best works on the subject, like Kodwo Eshun's More Brilliant than the Sun, or Peter Shapiro's essay 'Automating the Beat' concentrated on precisely this tension. 

Interestingly however, if you listen to a lot of recent Detroit techno, this dynamic has mostly disappeared. The work of Gerald Donald (reckoned to be half of Drexciya with the late James Stinson, and all or part of Dopplereffekt, Der Zyklus, Arpanet, Japanese Telecom etc) has abandoned the robots, and often the repetitive, automated beat altogether. Take the deliberately simple, blank playing with robotic cliché on Dopplereffekt's early singles (on the Gesamtkunstwerk LP), with its invocations of scientists, sterilisation and the cold bleakness of porn, all presented in the automatic, computer generated voices that open lift doors and inform you of train destinations - then compare this embodiment of inhuman precision intersecting with the human with, recent work like last year's Calabi Yau Space, Der Zyklus' 'Cherenkov- Radiation' 12" or Arpanet's Quantum Transposition - in all of these, the obsession is with the seemingly unearthly abstractions of hard physics and Big Science, and the music accordingly goes from Kraftwerkian repetition to strange, diffuse spaces which, aside from a passing similarity to Herbie Hancock's Crossings and Sextant and soundtracks by Gil Mellé or John Carpenter, has little allegiance to any other music. Donald seems to have gone from a (parodic) machinic positivism to a Pythagorean music of the spheres, or of the Large Hadron Collider: an area in which not only are human beings uninteresting as subject matter, but the once-fascinating idea of machines taking on human roles is also absent - perhaps as a response to the retro fetishism of electroclash and its eventually wearying sexbots.

Accordingly, except for when they are presented either as retro kitsch or thinly disguised neocon fantasies (by all accounts Transformers fulfilled both), robots seem to have become less and less an area for the popular imagininary. What makes this especially sad is that, by all accounts, robots are becoming more efficient, and more and more able to achieve what has for a long time been a dream of utopian socialists - the abolition of work (or at the very least, toil) by letting the machines do it, a call which resonates from Oscar Wilde's 'Soul of Man' to Paul Lafargue, to the Situationists, and was later  complicated by Mark Sinker and Kodwo Eshun's notion of robotic slavery as a retrospective foundation of Black Sonic Fiction, and Blade Runner as anticolonial parable. Occasionally the news will report some new servomechanism, which is usually employed as a household toy or a futuristic domestic, but more interestingly there is something like 'contour crafting', the system developed by Dr Behrokh Khoshnevis, which essentially uses computer aided design, not for the making of whimsical art galleries, but for removing human hands entirely from the process of building. This was dismissed a little while ago in a post at Things, and rather unjustly: a robotic Levittown would, aside from being so cheap and so energy-efficient as to ensure that the building industry would be permanently bankrupt and a huge chunk of carbon emissions be slashed, be a fulfilment of dreams far greater, and far more significant, than any number of bespoke non-orthogonal architectural fetish objects.

No doubt, it's a Man in the White Suit technology, unlikely ever to be allowed to fully develop because of its obvious dangers both to profit margins and to employment - appropriately, it seems only NASA have declared an interest, as doubtless even the helots of Dubai's construction industry can't be set to work making cities on the Moon. Tellingly, by far the most interesting recent presentation of a robot in recent years is Pixar's Wall-E: here the robot as domestic servant, that bland Eisenhower-era fantasy, is extended to the point where the servomechanism is the last thing left on earth, sifting through the endless detritus left by a Big Box retail firm turned world government. Pixar's marketing creates yet more worthless detritus churned out from Chinese factories, but to separate out the film and its (equally important, for the sponsors) marketing campaign for a moment, it's notable that while Wall-E has its problems - a few of its assumptions are sympethetically critiqued here - the most heartbreaking moments in it are the stunning, balletic opening romance of machine and machine, the obsolete cranky object and the Apple-type smooth, targeted creation; and the later suggestion that the only thing that could possibly shake human beings out of their spectacular inertia is the pathos of the machines themselves.

Nonetheless, automation is something about which there is depressingly little political thought - especially as it's ever more clear that the work which Wilde lists as unfit for humanity (mining, road sweeping, etc) could be done by machines using already existing technology. Yet as Wilde points out, there is the tragedy that under capitalism, as soon as man develops a machine to do his work, he starves. Accordingly, the forms of work that would be created by the (very worthwhile, in the grim circumstances) 'Green New Deal' campaign seems to aim at reviving the sort of skilled and semi-skilled manual jobs made obsolete by neoliberalism. Yet the fetish of work still infects what is left of the workers movement also. Take the unfortunate spectacle of Scargill singing the praises of coal at the recent Kingsnorth Climate Camp, as if the whole point of the Miners Strike or the NUM's long history of militancy and self-education wasn't so much to advance the cause of the working class, but in defence of the mere act of extracting coal, and as if unions never supported the transfer of work from one industry to another in emergencies (war, most obviously). As automation at present, for all its benefits to consumerism, has the immediate knock-on effect of creating unemployment and immisseration, the robotic future where dull, unpleasant work (ie, 90% of it) is finally abolished is forever postponed, something we can only think about as coming into place after an increasingly unlikely development towards an automated socialism rather than our mechanised barbarism, or merely for the class that pays for the machines. So a question for any accelerationism which doesn't fall into macho nihilism or a jargon-fortified neoliberalism is: is it possible for the inhuman possibilies of this technology be used for revolutionary purposes, and not postponed until after the receding glorious day?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Municipal Pride

Belatedly, a link to Kosmograd's post contrasting the unified design of Tokyo's metropolitan boroughs with (shudder) 'the logos of the assorted London boroughs, a truly horrific collection of bad clip art, worse typography, pointless squiggles, and the occasional moronic slogan ("The London Borough", "putting residents first", "the brighter borough")'. This reminded me of the municipal logo of my delightful hometown, which you can see above. Despite fitting at least two of those descriptions, particularly in the case of its horrendous typography, I admit to rather liking the fact that (unless someone wants to prove me wrong) Southampton is the only British city which advertises the fact it has tower blocks on its every leaflet and bit of notepaper. Also enjoyable is the yacht passing under the Bargate (which equally curiously, dwarfs the tower), a prophecy of the city's nigh-inevitable total flooding when climate change really kicks in. 

* For people with too much time on their hands and a wide knowledge of unpleasant English port cities: we ought to ascertain exactly what tower block this is supposed to be. It doesn't look like L Berger's fine blocks for St Mary's, Shirley or Millbrook; has little resemblance to the (admittedly clad to the point of unrecognisability) Millbank tower of my one-time summer abode, Northam estate; nor does it look like either Eric Lyons' Castle House or the (lamented, at least by me) twin towers (Seifert?) that were knocked down to build the West Quay ultra-Mall. Perhaps, in contrast to how the Bargate gets its own recognisable image, it is merely the pure form of the tower block, a sort of council flat isotype? Alternatively it very, very slightly resembles the drab HSBC tower which welcomes the visitor at the station. Anyone?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

'And this also', said Marlow suddenly, 'has been one of the dark places of the Earth'

The perils of gloating, first in what will I expect prove to be a fairly regular series. I, and one suspects many other Londoners, have, with varying degrees of guilt or glee, rather enjoyed the property crash. Whether it's the manner in which the spirit of A Clockwork Orange returned to haunt a complex of speculative riverside flats in Thamesmead, or the catalogue of doomed or already shelved schemes leaving vast, gaping holes where yuppiedromes or 'iconic' office blocks were once to rise - the site of Rogers' Cheesegrater is one, Homo Ludens lists a couple more, and I mentioned another very close to home a little while ago. Yet alongside this, as noted at Boris Watch, the new city administration has been imposing upon Transport for London all manner of swingeing cuts, in one of the few areas where Livingstone didn't entirely say a radical thing and do a decidedly non-radical thing. And what they all seem to have in common is that the area non-planned as the 'Thames Gateway' is becoming more and more obviously a deadzone bereft of any infrastructure whatsoever. No bridge between Thamesmead and Dagenham, no DLR extension to the latter, the cancellation of the riverside link from Greenwich through to the aforementioned benighted New Town - all seemingly designed to make this already poor and isolated area even more inclined towards their current state of incipient Nazism.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Crooked Houses

In the unlikely event that - at this terminal point for immaterial capital - any city still wants to create for itself the numinous Bilbao effect (well, Howard Bernstein is now regeneration tsar of Blackpool), the 50 strangest buildings list, such a bit of internet catnip that I feel mildly unclean linking to it, provides an index of instant iconicity - accordingly, many Bilbaoing buildings are in the list, as well as such heartbreaking inclusions as Habitat and the Palais Ideal. Heartbreaking because these built outlines of a new society are levelled, dropped in amongst so many one-note jokes, with one of the most one-note of all at number one (and in part two, the top-spot is held by the end-point and summation of all architecture). It's immediately reminscent, as are many of the entries, of theme parks, which are one of the few things around that are less strange (in the Shklovsky sense, of ostranenie, defamiliarisation, of making one see the world in a new, more conscious way) than Frank Gehry buildings. Obviously theme parks as urban paradigm is an ever-present cliché of postmodernity, but it actually reminded me of my favourite place on earth for the first 12 years of my life: the rather shoddier and thus stranger theme park of Blackgang Chine, Isle of Wight, with its fibre glass dinosaurs and its Wild West 'frontierland', gradually subsiding into the sea. In amongst the attractions was the 'Crooked House', which is easily explained by the name. When I was a child the Crooked House was the most boring part of the whole theme park. So it was a house all at funny angles, great - now can we get on to the dinosaurs, or best of all, the Mouth of Hell?

Inside the Crooked House were artefacts which seemed antiquated even at the time - a mouldering old 70s copy of the Daily Mail was in the house's bathroom, and the 1970s feel as far away as the 1870s when you're 8 years old, and equally uninteresting unless it involved monsters or explosions. Yet when I went there again at the age of 16 or 17 I found the Crooked House really quite intimidating. Maybe it was the general mental torture of puberty rearranging my internal geometry to the point where a sloping floor was terrifying where it was once banal, but for whatever reasons the spatial strangeness had an effect which it never had when I was supposedly more impressionable. But it should also be noted that the one-dimensional games with geometry that make an icon can be found in all manner of less glamorous places. In the Rachmanesque subdivision of the space above a chipshop where I currently reside, there are sloping floors aplenty, in the bathroom and one of the bedrooms (some reckon this may have been due to bomb damage, and certainly the fact that there are no buildings on either side, despite the block clearly having once been part of a terrace of shops, would imply so). Meanwhile, a bizarrely placed staircase means that the living room and my own room are sliced off at one side by an angular protrusion. In fact, when I first looked at the place, aside from amazement that I could live in SE10 so cheaply, I thought 'hmm, it looks like Zaha Hadid has done the interiors'.

Also of relevance, and very good: Iron Curtain Call on Australian motorway public art.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Book Group in Fusion

This was mentioned briefly on Things a little while ago, but is well worth flagging up here: a vast, thoroughly illustrated (inside and out) archive of Swiss-German book design from the 1920s onwards. Although there's some good stuff from the mid-30s-present, the really interesting material is in the period that is the peak of all human aesthetic achievement, i.e from around 1920 to 1933. Here what is so stunning, other than the play of shape against blank space, of sans serif font against lustrous photogravure image, is how much of this intense attention to the beauty of the object (or if you will, the commodity) was associated with leftist causes (nobody has adequately explained why this should not always be the case). Note not merely the amount of books on Socialist summer camps, the joys of the Neues Bauen and so forth, but how much was for the equivalents of the Left Book Club (and what a typically Brit bit of bet-hedging that was: a lovely font, but otherwise pretty nondescript...). There are plenty of brilliant, bitter covers by John Heartfield, and loads of covers and layouts by Jan Tschichold for the book club bücherkreis. Hours of viewing/coveting pleasure...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Nobody Home

...they come here because it's what they used to do when they were alive. Blog to watch: Evan Calder Williams' Socialism and/or Barbarism, in a very interesting area between Althusserian Marxism, outre cinephilia and Modernist design. Posts include this rather marvellous thing (with supporting clips here) on Dario Argento's Tenebre as an incarnation of Brutalist architecture after being emptied of its original social constituency: without being one of those interminable critiques of Brutalist 'inhumanity' it does hit on a particularly stunning example of the cold, stylised violence of the giallo, and its inadvertent architectural concomitant. Actually, judging by the picture above, with its intersecting rectilinear planes, the building seems conceivably to have nicked an idea or two from Mies' memorial to the slaughtered Liebknecht and Luxemburg, where the roughness of the brick off-cuts used was intended to symbolise the backstreet walls they were shot against. A sample:

...what is particular about Tenebre's world is not that it is an architecure and built world of the future but of the future of the past, the modernist constructions emptied of their utopian impulse that we still live in but that don't belong to us. In other words: what does it mean to occupy a built world designed through and for prior ideological conditions, for a “partial utopia of the plan” (Tafuri's phrase) corresponding to a mode of capitalist accumulation no longer relevant to the bodies that traverse these spaces? The historical conjuncture of Tenebre is a post-Fordist world (one always in its promise of being-future, of money that doesn't have to be cashed out in the present but simply recirculated), yet its space is that of the bastard dreams of Fordist accumulation, the Melnikovian Soviet projects deturned from their social reconstruction fantasies, the integrated design of Bauhaus. And ultimately, as manifested properly in the poured concrete house of Tenebre, Brutalist architecture, that lineage from Le Corbusier through the New Brutalism of the Smithsons.

Monday, November 17, 2008

When the fireworks hit you, in Mogadishu

It's quite amusing reading reviews of Uli Edel's The Baader-Meinhof Complex, where the writers invariably worry about whether or not the group's 'activities' are glamourised. After actually seeing the film, the answer seems so blindingly self-evident that it's amazing it's ever considered an open question: of course it does. Not only does it open with outright terrifying scenes of police brutality as if to remind us who shot first, it also depicts cheering crowds egging on Ensslin, Baader and co at their farcical Stammheim trial, every heist is shot like a steroidal Peckinpah, and that's before we even come to the thoroughly Bechdel-passing depiction of miniskirted middle class Teutonic ladies waving Kalashnikovs around. This is overwhelmingly the story of the Red Army Faction as rock stars, and in that it is a film that would have far more appeal to halfwitted sub-Jim Morrison cocksman Andreas Baader than it can speak about the Shakespearian tragedy of Ulrike Meinhof, intellectual and mother turned deluded, if utterly eloquent bomber. 

Political sophistication falls by the wayside, as the meticulous details of clothes, books and cars outweigh the geopolitical questions: why are they in Jordan? Who is Hanns Martin Schleyer? It also marks another incredibly technically accomplished and politically and morally all-over-the-place triumph for the new New German Cinema, after Hitler worrying about having to poison his dog (Downfall), bet-hedging Ostalgie (Goodbye Lenin - and I was successfully emotionally manipulated by that one, I can tell you) an insufferable but beautifully shot tale of intellectuals saving the world from totalitarianism (The Lives of Others), and more sexy middle class revolutionaries, this time contemporary and non-violent (The Edukators). All are fascinating for being popular, populist non-Hollywood films that nonetheless are rampant with Hollywood tropes, from sentimentality to many, many big explosions. It's an odd phenomenon, which can't quite be dismissed or hailed as yet.

The film is so overwhelmingly on the side of the terrorists that one almost wonders if we'll see copycat kidnappings of bankers in its wake, completing the spectacle's feedback loop. Certainly this seems to worry RCP Trot-Thatcherite Kirk Leech, who indulges in an interesting bit of Godwinning with Hitler replaced by Baader, listing a series of apparently commonplace anticapitalist views and proclaiming to our immediate shock and contrition that these views were shared by the Red Army Fraction. Obviously this won't wash, but is an interesting strategy that we may see more of in the future. So much of the RAF's descent into madness was due to the frustration that, as the German proletariat tolerated or ignored US imperialism, specifically the Vietnam war, a paramilitary group had to kickstart revolution - a political absurdity, but interesting in that it just doesn't apply anymore. While the population 'protected' from the Soviet Union turned a blind eye to atrocities, we've seen 2 million in the streets, recognising as fact an imperialism that was once earnestly disputed or wilfully ignored. Having said that, a bomb in Westfield or Bluewater might perhaps have much the same appeal to the malcontent as did the warehouses of the Wirtschaftswunder. More interesting by some way is the discussion of 'the Brain of Ulrike Meinhof' as exemplar of militant dysphoria in Dominic Fox's forthcoming Cold World.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Change we can believe in

Talbert watched the intersections of the concrete walls and the curve of Dr Austin's breasts, a fusion of Kraft-Ebbing and Erno Goldfinger

Me complaining about the astounding drabness of recent roadside architecture (one of these days I'm going to write a column on something I actually like, I promise). I can also be found in the New Statesman Christmas books (Savage Messiah as a stocking filler). Wherein there is also a no doubt inadvertent channelling of the spirit of Ballard's Atrocity Exhibition from Stephen Bayley, who recommends a parallel perusal of coffee-table books about car parks and breasts.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Future-Past is Boring

This little profile of Poundbury is brilliant: 'You get the feeling if anything became worn a little man would scurry out to touch it up again.' I wonder if this implies that Leon Krier is not so anti-Modernist as he immediately seems: the fastidious, early Le Corbusier impulse to make sure the touch of history never besmirches the building seems far more present here than in the remains of the works of Corbusier's imitators as they exist around Britain, where climate and bad aggregates have left traces of history that are all too visible. It's especially odd that, given Krier's concern for architectural 'speech' and communication, it all seems so very blank. A historicism that looks as freeze-dried and stern as the most coldly precise bit of Weimar functionalism, only for the purposes of hurtling back to the past rather than imposing a possible future on the present. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

'Post-Rave Urban Growth Coalition'

Very interesting comment on the Manchester post below from Justin O'Connor, which I'm posting up here so it doesn't disappear into the oblivion of comments on old blog posts (as the internet tends to be fickle). Also, due credit to Meades' doc on regeneration and how it pertains to Manchester, where some of the inspiration for that post came from;

I was on some sort of think tank with Tony Wilson in 2004. He had just found Richard Florida's book and thought it said all that needed to be said about cities and that Manchester should pay circa 20k to get him to speak. I'd had a few arguments with Tony where he told me, rightly, that I was showing my ignorance (I remember I was slagging off baseball) and I took it on the chin. I tried the same on Florida, saying what a complete charlatan he was and how a 'cutting edge' 'creative city' should not be 97th in line to invite some tosser from Philadelphia. He completely rejected this and never really spoke to me again. The last time I saw him was in Liverpool at a RIBA do. He was saying that Liverpool was 'fucked' unlike Manchester - and the reason was that Manchester (in the figure of the unelected Howard Bernstein) had an enlightened despot. Which more or less set a seal on the increasing moral and political bankrupcy of the post-rave urban growth coalition which had taken over Manchester post-1996. Simpson, Johnson, Bloxham - now all millionaires - all claimed to have the new political vision for the re-invented city. Despite the fact that Bloxham was given chair of the arts council and now VC of Manchester university - a man of little culture and education, thus confirming the toadying of arts and education to the 'creative entrepreneur'- it is Wilson who represents its saddest failures. He made little money from it all, and really believed in it. Now subject to a nauseating hagiography by the city council they kept him outside for years, until the last 4 or 5, bringing him in when his critical faculties had been worn down by years of punditry. He used to say, of the post-rave coalition, 'the lunatics have taken over the asylum'; pigs and farm were more apposite.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


My only post on the subject, at least for the moment: a quote extracted from a leaflet of Bob-Avakian-Thought given out at the HM conference, relevant also to this astute post:

'I am new enough on the political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views'.
Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope

Definitions of the Pseudomodern

Entschwindet und Vergeht muddies the waters on my attempt to sum up everything about contemporary architecture in 3000 words, and in the process posts his own account of the architectural state we're in, immeasurably helped by it coming from actual education and experience rather than my historical dilettantism. There are excellent points on postmodernism, high-tech and the degeneration of the Crystal Palace typology from glass arcades of dreamlike abundance to a bland rhetoric of spans and prefabrication (there's a project on this which we must all bully him to put up on his other space). I've muddied the waters a bit in turn in the comments box. On attempts to define the Pseudomodernist condition, here's Lewis Mumford, writing about what seems an 'icon' of Modernism at its peak, the United Nations building:

'The designers of the Secretariat Building sacrificed both mechanical efficiency and human values in order to achieve an empty abstract form, a frozen geometrical concept, that reflects the emptiness and purposelessness of modern technics, as now short, the Secretariat Building expresses both a breakdown of functionalism and a symbolic blackout. Though mechanically new, it is architecturally and humanly obsolete. That is almost a definition of the pseudomodern.'
Art and Technics (1951)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Off with their Heads

A great post on Morrissey, class and the modern at Aloof from Inspiration: It is easy to interpret this pull towards community, even as it is disavowed, in terms of social conservatism and/or cultural nostalgia, but if The Smiths had simply been a throwback (...) then they would never have been so important, so compelling. The “sepia-toned” universe of their record sleeves cannot be understood as a simple desire to reconstitute a mythical 60s England, apart from anything else because these sleeves point towards popular culture itself as constitutive of community, a community that is self-willed; that does not exist a priori, or stand separate from its own cultural production.

This is one of the many things which distinguishes the Smiths from the parade of indie wretchedness that they unfortunately produced. In the same way as the persona incarnates the vengeful self-construction of the autodidact, there is a sense in which all this mid-century ephemera was used as a weapon against not so much modernity itself, but the form it took as the 1980s rolled on, the new barbarism that was so often expressed in culture by shiny surfaces, impregnable bodies and bright colours (and a revival of Victoriana and Imperial nostalgia, the latter of which Morrissey would later give in to). By making sex into something complex, and shattering rather than something athletically functional (cf old Reynolds essay 'Against Health and Efficiency') by writing of a working class desperate to escape its situation by education rather than acquisition, and by setting up a strange personal canon that encompasses the clearly rather conflicting icons of Shelagh Delaney and Joe Dallesandro, what was happening was more a a re-imagining of history rather than a surrender to it - rather than progressivism, a stress on the recent past's odd, unrecuperated moments, and in that way Morrissey was a hauntologist before the fact rather than a straightforward nostalgic. Similarly, the same service always needs to be performed for the Smiths themselves, 'saving them from the conformism that is about to overpower them': so look at Derek Jarman's video for 'The Queen is Dead' and imagine any of their indie-schmindie acolytes making something so apocalyptic, so electrifying, and so filled with all the rage of regicide.

Kill Yr Icons

The reason I was at the conference described below was, of course, to give my report to the Central Committee that no longer exists on the issue of the current architectural conjuncture.

A Tale of Two Conferences

I am a bit chary about posting anything relating to familial politicial allegiances, as the last time I did I found out that my Dad actually reads this, but the imperatives of self-indulgent politico blogging dictate the following. This weekend I was at the Historical Materialism conference at SOAS, which was excellent - reassuring, even. As a couple of weeks earlier I attended a meeting on 'Marx and the Credit Crunch' where a fresh audience attracted by the immediate failure of capitalism to these new-old ideas gradually vacated the room as the same old geriatric sectlets turned the Q&A into the fantasy fighting aptly described as a 'Dungeons and Dragons geo-politics in which the gentle orks of the working class go and do battle in far-off lands in exchange for the amulet of exchange-value.' After that horror, the supposedly more rarefied, 'intellectual', 'academic' mileu of Historical Materialism is actually a damn sight more accessible, more friendly, needless to say a great deal more relevant to the horrendous mess we're in, and, knee-jerk Workerism notwithstanding, a lot less impenetrable. I won't pick out particular papers and panels (although Ben does this very well here), as it's more the general level of civility, lack of sectarianism, idiot posturing and respect for the intelligence that makes it worthwhile, as much as anything else.

The funny thing is, however, is that at exactly the same time, in exactly the same buildings, was the annual conference of the Socialist Party, the second-largest Marxist organisation in the UK, begat by Militant 11 years ago. Inbetween sessions I bump into someone I've known for as long as I can remember, the full-timer for the Southampton area, and the usual candidate in elections (no deposits held as yet). He's very pleased to see I'm there, and when I tell him I spoke the day before, even more so. Then when he mentions the 'Rally' I suddenly recall the other conference. The Socialist Party are, as well as the more bonkers likes of the Spartacists and their ilk, the only far-left group which would fail to notice a clash between their Party conference and that of a major international theory journal like HM, nor could you imagine members attending both. The anti-intellectualism of Militant is legend - reinforcing Castoriadis' jibe about Trotskyists as 'the Stalinist bureaucracy in exile', a Zinovievite dismissal of anything other than The Canon (Marx-Engels-Lenin-Trotsky, as interpreted by such theoretical titans as Alan Woods, Peter Taaffe and the late Ted Grant) meant that even intellectuals as deeply involved in praxis (and therefore morally acceptable) as Lukacs and Gramsci were beyond the pale for the party reading list, let alone anything published since 1940 that wasn't marginal notes on The Great Ones. 

In a sense, this was not so much because they were Marxists, but because they were Labourites - now, in fact, they could be more accurately described as 'The Labour Party in Exile'. In a typical Western Marxist/New Left tract on Labour, Gregory Elliott's Labourism and the English Genius (a mostly convincing, if insufferably arch demolition of the idea that the Party was ever socialist), they are dismissed as what happens when Marxism literally morphs into Labourism. Rather, Militant were the best and worst of Labour, not the foreign body mythologised at the time by Kinnock and his tabloid assistants. A lumpen, nothing-ever-changes empiricism alongside the serious, confrontational municipal politics of Poplarism - the kind of incremental class politics of housing, conditions, facilities, which intellectuals have long dismissed as mere rearranging of the furniture but which can, at best, provide microcosmic models of what another life might be like, here, now. The mutual incomprehension of HM and the SP are, in Adorno's phrase, those two halves which do not add up. The SP still has a strong base in certain concentrated places, council estates in Coventry or Lewisham that consistently vote them in as councillors, but they never seem to break out beyond that. Yet this sort of quotidian activist politics might be just what we miss, when we ponder the value form and real subsumption. As it is, one room has speakers advocating a return to vanguardism, and just round the corner in another room is a wannabe vanguard which doesn't even notice their existence, and wouldn't be terribly impressed if it did. 

One for Robin Carmody

It was claimed to me yesterday by a long-time SWP member that Rod Stewart was, in the early-mid '60s, while working as a gravedigger, a member of the International Socialists. Seeing as he now apparently owns the 'Britain' island in Dubai's famous global archipelago, it is sadly apparent that the world revolution is no longer on the agenda of the pineapple-haired one - but very interesting nonetheless, especially as it's always nice to know that some Mods were not incipient Tories; and as I.T points out, it puts a particularly sharp spin on the already overwhelmingly grim commodity-fetishist trudge of 'Handbags and Gladrags'.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Puppet called 'Historical Materialism' Must Always Win

As previously mentioned by Leniency and I.T, it's the annual conference of the fine Historical Materialism journal this weekend, with as ever a very impressive list of speakers and topics, viz:




Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi, Gilbert Achcar, Talat Ahmed, Greg Albo, Jamie Allinson, Kevin Anderson, Ricardo Antunes, Giovanni Arrighi, Sam Ashman, Antonio Carmona Báez, Richard Bailey, Metin Bal, Colin Barker, Kate Bayliss, Pınar Bedirhanoğlu, Mike Beggs, Riccardo Bellofiore, Aaron Benanav, Ted Benton, Henry Bernstein, Cyrus Bina, Werner Bonefeld, Mark Bould, Pepijn Brandon, Peter Bratsis, Robert Brenner, Dennis Broe, Dick Bryan, Ergun Bulut, Verity Burgmann, Alex Callinicos, Paul Cammack, Mauro Farnesi Camellone, Al Campbell, Bob Cannon, Gavin Capps, Thomas Carmichael, Emilia Castorina, Maria Elisa Cevasco, Hsiu-Man Chen, Vivek Chibber, Alexander Chryssis, Martin Cobian, Peter Custers, John Darwin, Neil Davidson, Charles Davis, Chuck Davis, Gail Day, Tim Dayton, Roni Demirbag, Radhika Desai, Pat Devine, Paulo dos Santos, Peter Drucker, Jean-Numa Ducange, Gérard Duménil, Nick Dyer-Witheford, Timm Ebner, Bolivar Echeverria, Juliane Edler, Ersin Vedat Elgur, Katsuhiko Endo, Sara R. Farris, Lucy Ferguson, Don Filtzer, Ben Fine, Robert Fine, Bridget Fowler, Carl Freedman, Alan Freeman, Andrea Fumagalli, Cristina Morini, Lindsey German, Melanie Gilligan, Ruth Wilson Gilmour, Saroj Giri, Richard Godden, Maya Gonzalez, Jamie Gough, Peter Gowan, Kevin Gray, Nick Gray, Chris Harman, Barbara Harriss-White, Owen Hatherley, Cristoph Hermann, Andy Higginbottom, Mike Hill, Christian Høgsbjerg, Evren Hosgor, Nik Howard, David Jack, Elinor Jean, Oliver Jelinski, Nicholas Joll, Ismail Karatepe, Ken Kawashima, Paul Kellogg, Geoff Kennedy, Sami Khatib, Aykut Kilic, Donald Kingsbury, Nick Knight, Martijn Konings, Michael Krätke, Rick Kuhn, Ishay Landa, Tim Lang, Spyros Lapatsioras, Paul LeBlanc, Sergio Lessa, Alex Levant, Peter Linebaugh, Alex Loftus, Rob Lucas, Dennis Maeder, Matteo Mandarini, Christian Marazzi, Jonathan Martineau, Paul Mattick, David Mayer, Andrew McGettigan, Philip McMichael, David McNally, James Meadway, John Milios, Owen Miller, Andrew Milner, Dimitris Milonakis, John Molyneux, David Moore, Cristina Morini, Adam Morton, Zwi Negator, Susan Newman, Jörg Nowak, Benjamin Noys, Bertel Nygaard, Bridget O'Laughlin, Keith O’Regan, Sebnem Oguz, Ulrich Oslender, Ceren Özselçuk, Maria Cristina Soares Paniago, Leo Panitch, F. Papadatos, Juan Pablo Painceira Paschoa, Leda Maria Paulani, Simon Pirani, Iain Pirie, Nina Power, Gonzalo Pozo-Martin, Thomas Purcell, Diana Raby, Michael Rafferty, Geert Reuten, Paul Reynolds, Ben Richardson, John Riddell, John Roberts, Bruce Robinson, John Rose, Thomas Sablowski, Spyros Sakellaropoulos, Jorgen Sandemose, Saskia Sassen, Michael Sayeau, Sean Sayers, David Schwartzman, Alan Sears, Lynne Segal, Ben Selwyn, Sanjay Seth, Stuart Shields, Nicola Short, Joe Sim, Rick Simon, Subir Sinha, Panagiotis Sotiris, Dimitris P. Sotiropoulos, Kerstin Stakemeier, Guido Starosta, Marcel Stoetzler, Robert Stolz, Gaspar Miklós Tamás, Bruno Tinel, Peter Thomas, Massimiliano Tomba, Alberto Toscano, Greg Tuck, Mehmet Ufuk Tutan, Kees van der Pijl, Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, Carlo Vercellone, Danga Vileisis, Sherryl Vint, Satnam Virdee, Andriana Vlachou, Elisa Waeyenberge, Jeffery R. Webber, Dominic Wetzel, Adrian Wilding, Evan Calder Williams, Frieder Otto Wolf, Andrew Wright, Steve Wright, Galip Yalman, Iván Zatz

Below is the abstract for my paper, much of which will be an expansion of the arguments in my post on capitalism, the international style and googie into a grandiose attempt to systematise exactly what 'radical' architecture is at the moment, and more to the point, what is so very wrong with it. I reserve the right for it to have little to do with the abstract...

The Becoming Logo of Architecture - iconicity, regeneration and the artistic legitimation of neoliberalism

The idea of 'world cities' and 'cultural capitals' has for the last decade been an alleged solution to the problem of former industrial centres. As a sort of material embodiment of immaterial labour, the spatial representation of this move has often been through iconic, 'signature' buildings, as in the cliche of the 'Bilbao effect' induced by Frank Gehry's single-handed transformation of Bilbao from industrial port to centre for middle-class, 'cultured' tourism. 

In terms of employment, what is actually provided by the 'effect' is typically insecure service industry work not fundamentally different from what might have been provided if a gigantic Mall rather than an art gallery occupied the same space. However this paper will focus in the main on the architectural forms that are created when an area becomes a 'cultural capital'. It will note that a kind of hyper-Modernism (rejecting the 'vernacular' forms of postmodernism, neoliberalism's original architectural representation)  with a quickly grasped 'logo' like effect, is the typical building type. Architects like Gehry, Santiago Calatrava, Norman Foster, Will Alsop and others become their own logos, dropping seemingly random (but immediately comprehensible) structures on cities in order to transfigure them into places of cultural consumption rather than production. 

This paper will begin by examining the possible forbears of this style in advertising - particularly in the architectural strategies of the likes of McDonalds in the 1950s, when roadside structures mimicked company logos in a futuristic spatial form - following on to discuss the ideology of creativity and culture and its effect on architecture, and finally how these frequently deliberately intangible buildings function after they've been placed in the cities in question. It will be argued that the 'iconic', signature building represents a kind of culmination and repudiation of architectural modernism, using a vaguely humanist rhetoric of art and inclusion as it empties it of all genuinely transformative social content. 

Sunday, November 02, 2008

So Much to Answer For

Not wanting to pre-empt the F.J's long-promised post on the late Anthony H. Wilson, but a post impelled by (coincidentally) reading I.T's typically ostranenie-inducing photo essay on Manchester and watching Grant Gee's Joy Division (far superior to the abortive Control) in the same afternoon. At the end of Gee's documentary, Wilson re-iterates his claim that Joy Division made Manchester what it is today, to the visual accompaniment of the rising office blocks and yuppiedromes. The first industrial city became the first post-industrial city. To gloss it in terms Wilson might not have approved: the city that was once a modern, cultured metropolis had declined by the late '70s, but through an unspoken covenant between art and commerce - the final destruction of the old factories under Thatcher, alongside Wilson and Factory's building-up of a new, 'creative industry' - it somehow entered the millennium as a shinily modern metropolis all over again. The old rapacious Manchester liberalism adapted neatly to neoliberalism, and the city of dreadful night became Britain's immaterial capital. Since the 1990s Manchester's overwhelming and mainly malign influence has been everywhere. Certainly there's something ineffably Manchester about New Labour's arrogance, swagger and cynicism, appropriately coinciding with the rise of Manchester United to multinational colossus. The curious thing is that in actual cultural terms, what has been produced is pretty negligible.

In architecture, there's the luxury flats - seemingly even more than in London, on a brief visit a few months ago - reaching their apotheosis in the Beetham Tower; or you have the morally-improving-googie of Salford Quays, and Urban Splash's loft colonies; while in music, the city hasn't produced a genuinely innovative record since A Guy Called Gerald's Black Secret Technology 13 years ago. What else has there been? The student slop-hop of Mr Scruff? The Ting Tings? Anyone? I was linked a very interesting essay a while ago by City of Sound about the relative declines of Sheffield and Manchester, with the former lacking the polyglot blagging instinct which made Manchester adjust so well to the new circumstances (well, excising the vast gap between rich and poor and the rate of violent crime). Yet Sheffield produced bleep&bass and bassline house, and Manchester has pioneered nary a single musical idea since 1980, aside from the continuum of retro vainglory intitated by the Stone Roses and Oasis, with its ever-diminishing returns. So on its own terms, the cultural capital is nondescript. Yet, from the near-bankruptcy of United's sponsor AIG onwards, it'll probably be one of the first places to really suffer from the collapse of immaterial capital. Now all those yuppiedrome rentiers are already suddenly finding their capsules near-impossible to let, there will no doubt be a new wave of decay, the future dying in Manchester first, again. But could the sight of the Urban Splash Dystopia inspire something as strange and beautiful as did the aestheticisation of the dying city of the industrialists and post-war planners?

nb most of these criticisms could be levelled at London also