Friday, July 17, 2009

Starting from where we left off...

The sub-heading to the article on Leeds University and cinematic Brutalism linked below asks 'time for a revival?' I was sort of amused by the New Statesman sub-editors implying I was simply arguing for a 'revival', as if my carefully argued bit of would-be Benjaminian fol-de-rol could be reduced to just advocacy for another retro fashion. Yet in a sense this is what I'm almost arguing for, as Brutalism is basically the diametric opposite of current British architecture, in the total scope of its ambition, its multi-level pedestrianism as opposed to the New Urbanist fetish for Noddy streets and empty piazzas, the consistency and lack of bet-hedging of its aesthetic, the seriousness of its politics (at least in the early, Smithsons version) - and a total reversal of everything we've done for the last thirty years is fairly obviously what I'm advocating. Yet it's pretty obvious that, even if such a thing were attempted, it would be completely coloured by the experience of the last few decades, and, more to the point, it would be just another symptom of the postmodern quandary of there being nothing new under the sun, of deceleration and revivalism. I like Gayatri Spivak's line that 'every repetition is a rupture', but easily imagine that rupture being a new heritage brutalism, yuppiedromes with exposed concrete paying coy tribute to Lasdun or Goldfinger. Or, worst of all, this.

One of the less commented-on elements of postmodernism is the side of it that is seemingly in sharp contrast to the revivalist or corporate montage approach, but which rather tries to restart unfinished and foreclosed projects in radically different circumstances. If you've visited the Tate's pitiful current exhibition on Italian Futurism, you'll surely agree with me that the spirit of Luigi Russolo resides more in Art of Noise records (which are of course now themselves retro) than in museum shows that try and make Futurism acceptable to the late Clement Greenberg. Listening earlier today to 'Beatbox' I was reminded again by how this was, surely, exactly what Russolo had wanted to do but couldn't, when he tried to harness the art of noises via cranky Edwardian machines with inept ragtime orchestras, as you can hear on the desultory recordings of his 'noise intoners'. By really making a rhythmic, industrial music that far more accurately represented 'The Awakening of a City' than Russolo ever could, the Art of Noise did the Futurists a mixture of a favour and a backhanded compliment. On the one hand they created something genuinely futuristic, which even now sounds remarkably advanced, and on the other they sound as much a part of the mid-80s as The Tube and Godley & Creme videos, and in their fetishisation of chaos and the stapling together of old forms, this is perhaps as postmodernist as Michael Graves - just look at what Paul Morley introduces as 'the ZTT building' in the clip below.

Seeing that despite some valiant arguments I still can't look at most strictly postmodernist buildings without feeling ill, I tend to shrink from describing the finest building in London as Postmodernist, but it is quite obviously a product of postmodernity and its deeply reactionary politics. As Sam Jacob has pointed out there's little more obviously an emblem of the monumental bad faith of Thatcherism, with its simultaneous nostalgia for/valourising of enterprise and activity along with ruthless destruction of actual industry, as a building for entirely abstract capital which veritably strains to look like a factory, like something utterly corporeal, like a building which makes stuff rather than which merely processes information in a manner easily replicable in a big shed or a neoclassical palazzo. Yet as I've previously argued, Lloyds too is a re-opening of a seemingly closed book. Lloyds is in many ways an Iakov Chernikhov architectural fantasy finally being realised with the technology that the Petersburgian architect dreamt of but never had access to; later buildings like Wood Street play a similar trick on the Vesnin brothers' Pravda headquarters. In each case, my astonishment and exhilaration at the architecture - hardly unrelated to my love of yr actual, first-generation Constructivism - goes alongside my hatred of everything that happens in these buildings themselves.

So what, in congenial political circumstances or otherwise, could the examples of Lloyds or the Art of Noise suggest for a new New Brutalism? Perhaps, as much as new construction, we could have buildings which took their cue from the Brutalist projects that were never built, or that were considered impossible. Cedric Price's Fun Palace unexpectedly appears in some yuppiedrome-earmarked corner of the Lea Valley, leaving the architect turning in his grave. Kenzo Tange's Tokyo Bay masterplan rises out of the sea. Geoffrey Copcutt's Cumbernauld Megastructure, with all its detachable components in place, but with stain-free high-grade concrete and a public monorail system in place of the '60s cars, replaces the painted parody that sits in its place. Sheffield's 'Information Commons' is eaten up by the walkways of the Smithsons' Sheffield University plan, finally reconnecting their walkways to those of New Babylon. Yet there is another, more unnerving possibility of a new New Brutalism - where the supermodernist or parametric buildings which purported to be genuinely new and unprecedented unexpectedly transform themselves into rotting sixties carparks.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe you've seen or heard this already: "Blume" - Russolo's Intonarumori-chamber, reconstructed and haunted by the Einstürzende Neubauten:


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