Monday, February 23, 2009

Soi-disant Utopie

Tacheles is, to those who haven't undergone the ex-art school student rite of passage of the extended stay in Berlin, a gigantic 'Kunsthaus' on the edge of the former East of the divided city. Architecturally, it's intriguing in its very Wilhelmine combination of technological prescience and bulging imperial pomposity - a remarkably early concrete building, boasting an internal walkway, of all things. On my several visits to Berlin (see above), I have often enjoyed, if nothing else, the riposte its advanced state of ruination makes to the slickness of the post-Wall city - on every visit there are less and less of these crumbling hulks left, which I suppose makes it worthy of some kind of preservation order for decomposition. For nearly 20 years now Tacheles has been a sort of 'free space', where anything can happen ('and usually does!' says Hollywood voiceover), with studios, galleries, deliberately graffitied walls so that each visitor can make their mark, and all manner of artmaking, idling and other non-recuperable activities go on there. However - and before I go on, may I apologise to my Anarchist readers in advance - I can't say I care as much as I probably should about it's possibly imminent closure.

Obviously I don't want to see it bought up by developers, tidied up and turned into another of the tedious tombstones insisted upon under the appalling reign of Hans Stimmann. Yet the salient thing about Tacheles is how enormously uninteresting all the activities going on under its roof tend to be. After the initial excitement of chancing upon some sort of liberated space, you soon realise there's not much going on here except the similarly egoistic gestures of tagging and extremely bad neo-expressionist painting - and even more than the rest of Berlin, it always seemed to be almost entirely populated by expats from the USA, UK and Japan, and a Berliner here is as rare as a Dutchman in an Amsterdam 'coffee shop'. For the last few years a mural outside has declared 'HOW LONG IS NOW?' Too bloody long, it would seem. As so often, the removal of rules seems here to lead neither to a terrifying lawlessness or to a vertiginously exciting freedom - but to boredom. So, when reading recently the sociologist Albert Meister's The So-Called Utopia of the Centre Beaubourg, a seemingly enormously interesting post-68 alternate-reality fiction written in 1976, all I could think of was Tacheles.

Meister, who apparently wrote often on Yugoslavia's 'self-management socialism', here writing under the pseudonym Gustave Affeulpin (and in English, 'interpreted' by Luca Frei) wrote this pamphlet as a response to the 'official culture' of Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano's original Beaubourg/Pompidou Centre (who he derides as 'Ropers and Giano', the 'young vegetarian architects'), but instituting not so much in its place but under it a counter-Beaubourg, 60 or so floors of non-programmed, self-creating art. Or not-art - art as life and vice versa, with 'shaggers' provided for the functions not provided by 'crappers', with no particular objects to show or sell, and with invitation open to anyone who should wish to utilise the space. This, in a manner that would outclass a Hannes Meyer, is a truly functionalist anti-aesthetic. The Beaubourg is underground, so can never become an aesthetic object, and the art that is produced inside it cannot be consumed, only lived. So far, this would sound like the utopia demanded by the avant-garde from the Constructivists to the Situationists - the revolution of everyday life. Yet Meister is more pragmatic than that would suggest. Although he can imagine the extraordinary technology that creates a multi-multi-storey subterranean super-Pompidou, he cannot seriously imagine the changing of society outside its confines - in fact, he disdains it. 

The book shows obvious signs, from its first pages (with its jibe at 'Lacanising' critics) of a heavy ingestion of Anti-Oedipus, and the possibility of negativity and opposition is always sidestepped, disavowed (critiqued, one might say), with a moralism that rivals that of Deleuze and Guattari. Lots of sex happens in the under-Beaubourg, but it isn't sexy; lots of art is made, but it isn't aesthetic; all classes make a home there, but the class system still reluctantly persists within it. It is forbidden to forbid, yet much of the book is taken up with priggish attacks on violent revolutionaries who still cling to the infantile belief that the world outside can be transformed. Utopian fictions are often mocked for their moralism and aridity, but this one, becoming more drab with every lifted prohibition, makes News from Nowhere or Red Star seem wildly exciting by comparison. William Morris and Alexander Bogdanov still clung to the apparently obsolete belief that the world outside mattered. Another person who once thought that the world could be irrevocably changed for the better is Richard Rogers, co-architect of the surface-Beaubourg. In an old biography which I picked up for a pound in Skoob Books, he can be found taking a Buckminster Fuller tone of techno-utopianism: 'technology offers the possibility of a society without want, where, for the first time, work and learning need only be done for pleasure, and the age-old capitalist morality of earning one's keep, the backbone of the existing power structure, would be eliminated'.

Thing is, Rogers has never been one for setting up free enclaves, and famously will suspend his once-vaunted principles for anyone from Wimpey to BAA to Lloyds of London. Writing of Rogers' career-spanning exhibiton last year, Jonathan Meades rightly took issue with attempts to put a retrospective soixante-huitard gloss on Rogers' career. But self-serving as it is, there's little doubt that Rogers' political distaste for the idea of a centre glorifying 'official culture', and subsequently Georges Pompidou, was entirely genuine - indeed, he initially strongly resisted the call to participate in the contest, writing a lengthy justification to that effect, eventually being overruled through the rest of the firm's need to pay the rent. You can see his rather desperate attempt to hold on to the unofficial in the early plans - those sloganeering boards outside, excised because the Parisian authorities feared détournement (oh yes), or the images of female Viet Minh guerillas on screens in this attenuated Fun Palace. Meanwhile, Rogers was so chastened by the eventual experience of getting the Beaubourg built, that in the late 1970s he considered relocating the practice to the country, as an architectural commune - until Lloyds of London came calling, of course. 

I have yet to visit the Pompidou Centre, so I can't say for definite, but I strongly suspect Meister was substantially correct, that this 'meccano set' would churn out official culture for passive contemplation and consumption, and would fail to effect the revolution of everyday life (though I would rather a building housing IRCAM than the Berlin squat churning out Die Brucke parodies). Yet his imaginary Beaubourg and Rogers/Piano's built edifice both substantially rested on the idea that a building could be within and against capitalism - for all the swashbucking posing of the moonlighting sociologist, his utopia of free production is in the last instance much the same as Rogers' of regulated consumption, in that neither seriously offer a threat to existing society. Perhaps, though, the impossible synthesis that would combine the two - the technological sobriety and programmatic rigour of the one, the spontaneity and hostility to consumption of the other - might offer a worthy revolution of everyday life.


Anonymous Lang Rabbie said...

"I have yet to visit the Pompidou Centre"

I think this has the potential to become an academic parlour game to rival "Humiliation" from David Lodge's Changing Places :)

9:59 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

It's worse than that, my dear Rabbie - I have never been to Paris at all...not once...

12:28 am  
Blogger happenchance said...

The redevelopment of Tacheles would be a huge mistake for Berlin. I've only been there a couple of times, but this saddens me greatly.

9:46 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that the possible demise of Tacheles is probably not a major tragedy for Berlin, but the development that looks set to replace it, designed by American architect Robert Stern and already approved by the local council, may very well be...

8:30 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Good heavens. That is utterly horrible, thanks for bringing that to my attention Bienchen...

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