Friday, January 30, 2009

Separated at Birth: Pop and Brutalism special

On a less depressing note, I'm going to follow the FJ in playing Mockitecture's pop-avec-architecture game (which can also count as my contribution to xavecy, in that each is the truth of the other, here). It's going to be Brutalism only. Starting with the obvious.
West 11, throbbing bass, scraping guitars and synths like rusty reinforcement, and only Lydon's lack of Goldfinger's urbanity stops this one being a precise match: 

Once, with my Dad in one of those elegantly furnished, never-closing bars in Berlin, he told me (not meaning it as a compliment), 'this reminds me of the bar at the top of the Tricorn Centre'. So - not only do we have here the Brutalist truth to (electronic) materials, strange shapes and cold electro textures, we also have the place 'where the people look good and the music is loud':

Walkways and streets in the sky = the technological sublime, ergo, 'Strings of Life'.

Or really, in the latter case, something a bit more Sheffield in its Brutalism:

Not strictly Brutalism, except for among the architecturally ill-informed, but Zeilenbau is the truth of Bowie's Low. Or at the very least, its employment in East Germany:

(photo via)

The GLC's Thamesmead estate will always sound like Wendy Carlos. Or perhaps Rossini.

This could go on and on, obviously...Hulme Crescents = truth of Joy Division, Crossways Estate, Bow = truth of Grime, etc. It does make the point pretty clearly of just how far architecture was in advance of music for most of the 20th century - I mean, temporally you'd have to place Lonnie Donegan next to Park Hill. Pop music just doesn't catch up until the late '70s in terms of artificial textures, lack of human scale and referent, rectilinearity and force. Hence argument in forthcoming book that post-punk was, finally, the music 1960s architecture deserved, emerging after a delayed reaction...

Insult update

Me, either using the Tarnac Nine as an excuse to talk about collectives and communes, or using collectives and communes as an excuse for talking about the Tarnac Nine, in BD. Good also to see this being discussed in Comment is Free by the Institute. Relevantly, there's also now a site devoted to the Narkomfin building.

In that issue of BD is also a news story, a column and a debate on PFI, with the general thrust being the hope that, now that it can't even raise the capital it once could (albeit for its own entirely nefarious purposes), there's no possible reason for its continuation - not that this seems to have bothered Islington PCT, who voted yesterday to sell off the Finsbury Health Centre. So it'll either end up as a private clinic, or probably more likely, sit rotting until after another property boom inflates, when it can be sold for development as flats, as per its contemporary, the Peckham Health Centre - which is now a gated community, in the middle of one of the poorest areas in Europe. It's difficult to put into words just how disgusting this all is...

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Finsbury: the final insult

There's a fashion among commentators to find some particularly egregious New Labour act and declare it the final death of the Labour Party as a reformist, social democratic entity, let alone anything further left. George Monbiot did so quite convincingly a couple of days ago on the issue of dodgy peers, a sleaze scandal of the sort that led to the final disgrace of the Tories in the mid-90s. Regardless - the story in the new AJ that today, Islington Primary Care Trust are likely to vote to sell off Tecton's Finsbury Health Centre is surely the perfect symbolic death of the Labour Party. The health centre that prefigured the NHS, that stood as a symbol of English socialism in Abram Games' wartime posters, that occasioned Lubetkin's declaration that 'nothing is too good for ordinary people', and that has been giving a free, publicly owned service for over 70 years, is to be flogged in order, no doubt, to raise a bit of cash that can then be squandered on some profiteering PFI parasite. There's no doubt whatsoever that PFI is the reason for the sale - the AJ story quotes an 'insider' that here, 'the government's PFI model for new group medical practices is driving the agenda'. So while more public money is thrown desperately at the mostly-nationalised banks, health is still utterly in hock to the ridiculous notion that private companies have any use, expertise or role in the health service, when it's blindingly obvious they can't organise the proverbial piss-up in a brewery.

Well - another 'insider', an architect from John Allan's Avanti practice, who are experts on and the usual restorers of Lubetkin and Tecton's buildings (name obviously withheld), told me at a conference a year ago that they'd been asked to do the allegedly unaffordable restoration, and agreed to do so only on the condition that it stayed an NHS practice. They were told where to go. In fact, Finsbury already feels like a beleaguered building. It's surprisingly tiny and intimate, while in pictures it appears the size of the Festival Hall (which took obvious inspiration from it), the facade is obscured by trees - intentionally, no doubt, but managing to almost hide the centre - and incarnating the change from collectivity to individualism, it's faced by a row of postmodernist cottages, as if to inoculate neoliberal London against this little enclave of socialism. Which, now, will no doubt become either Luxury Flats or a little clinic for the neurasthenia of Clerkenwell media professionals. We can expect those who use the Finsbury Health Centre's NHS facilities to either go to a clinic several miles away, or to some sort of Darent Valley-style out-of-town PFI colossus. Somehow this is all even more depressing than all the other defeats, acts of cowardice and betrayals of the last 11 and a half years - a wilfully ignorant desecration of socialist symbolism, this sell-off is the architectural equivalent of James Purnell publicly pissing on a photograph of Aneurin Bevan.

NB: there is a campaign, website here (petition here) and it deserves all the help it can get.

'I travelled all my life, but never got away from the killing jar, or the garden shed'

As you may have noticed, there is clearly some unpleasant 90s revival going on in my head at the moment, and for this I can at least partly blame Luke Haines' alternately inspired and idiotic memoirs, which are reviewed by me in the New Statesman.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


So, I've finally gotten round to writing something about Pulp. There will be more of it soon, hopefully.

You couldn't make it up

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Trip to an Exurban Hospital

Because I have to see a specific consultant, I don't go to the local hospitals. This is merciful in a sense, as my occasional experience of them - Woolwich and Lewisham respectively - is mildly terrifying, with the phlebotomy department in the latter particularly Romeroesque. So where I do go, every three weeks or so for check-ups and currently every six months for major surgery, is Darent Valley Hospital, on the outskirts of Dartford. Like most of North Kent, this hospital and its site is deeply strange, particularly through its seeming mundanity. This is Daily Mail-land, where South-East Londoners go when they retire or when they find the SE insufficiently racially homogeneous. So it certainly thinks of itself as normal. But when I take the train from Westcombe Park to Dartford the landscape gets progressively weirder with every successive station, travelling as it does through the Clockwork Orange set (literally - it goes through the 1960s sectors of Thamesmead), past the marshlands, sidings and vast Edwardian concrete silos of Erith, and finally arriving in what at first seems like an identifiable small town, with a shopping mall, a high street and a branch of Wimpy preserved in aspic.

Darent Valley was Britain's first PFI hospital, and accordingly it couldn't possibly be in the town centre. For reasons probably connected to land values on the part of the private companies that lease the hospitals to the NHS (leaving them tied into decades of debt), PFI hospitals are always on the outer reaches, in the 'no there, there' places, quarantined away; and this is given particular acuity by the fact that Darent Valley is on the same bus route as Bluewater, the ultimate out-of-town, out-of-this-world mall, bunkered down inside a chalk pit and impossible to reach on foot. So the bus takes you past the M25, through what is probably legally the 'green belt' - that is, a landscape of 1930s spec housing, miniscule farms where forlorn horses look upon power stations and business parks, eventually dropping you off at the top of a hill, from which you can survey this extraordinary non-place. The Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, its ungainly, steep curve reaching to the hangars and containers of Thurrock, an endless strip of sheds and cranes stretching out as far as the North Sea. 

The hospital itself, designed by Paulley Architects, is in the PFI manner which is by now familiar from a thousand New Labour non-projects: a bit of stock brick, a plasticky wavy roof, some green glass, plus a few dashes of jolly colour in the carpets (something which becomes slightly Suprematist in the X-Ray department). Inside is a branch of Upper Crust, a WH Smith and a shop which sells a huge range of cuddly toys, amongst other concessions. The first time I went here I was rather alarmed that this '21st century hospital' was still using manual scales, but certainly one can purchase a wide variety of pastries. Screens show - always grainy - footage of local appeals, health recommendations and, in the waiting rooms, the bafflingly invariably badly tuned daytime TV. I'm always well-treated there, bearing in mind the hours of waiting around, as I do what I'm told, placing all reasonable and unreasonable trust in the physicians. Not everyone has the same trust. A massive, tattooed bloke in the bed opposite refuses to have his op because he's scared of general anaesthetic - 'but what if I don't wake up?' The elderly make up seemingly 90% of the patients. In the bed next to me in the ward was an 88-year old man. His muffled cries of 'give over!' and 'I'm a human being!' would always end with some attempt at fisticuffs, only to be told 'you can't punch the nurses, sweetheart - that's naughty'. Everyone else keeps themselves to themselves, as well they should, something aided in my case by large quantities of painkillers.

In the main Outpatients waiting room is a wall display on 'heritage'. Everything in Britain, especially in the home counties, must involve heritage somewhere. Obviously there isn't much to be found in a hospital which has only existed for 8 years, but conveniently, it turns out that there was once an 'asylum for imbeciles' nearby in the 19th century. Sepia-toned pictures of this take up the space on the heritage wall.

What comes after the Post-Industrial?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Interesting Times

Shoot the Bankers, Nationalise the Banks, says the Financial Times.

'it's no wonder you're looking thin...'

Another posting hiatus is probably on the way, due to a repeat performance of this delightful operation; so here are a few links and things to keep me and/or you going, as the blogs have been in fine form lately:

A suddenly Barthesian Fantastic Journal on design and commodity fetishism - quite brilliant, from the 'ladies' pipe' to the amusing attempts by Gillette and their ilk to make shavers, shampoo, deodorant and such things into car-like machines ('turbos, injections, triple super pro action') to Gaultier's more literal body-shaped bottles; its eventual conclusions on the uselessness of design should be read alongside this hysterical post at Petite Sophist on The Fountainhead, surely the model for all Parametricists.

Ads without Products and the I.T Girl, both brilliant on video games, war, work and compulsory physical jerks, making some very insightful points on a too-little-discussed area;

The ongoing debate over music, identity, fidelity at Blissblog and the Impostume. I've felt the pull of both the 'identity' approach to music and the self-abnegating search for new thrills at various points, and I wonder exactly how exclusive they actually are. They're both fairly obsessive ways of relating to music, but more to the point one can actually define one's relation to music by the latter. For instance I used to deliberately avoid certain records because I knew I would like them, but that it was all just too easy. So when I was 19 or 20 I would try not to listen to, say, Hefner or Belle & Sebastian, despite enjoying the lyrics, the self-contained world they would seem to inhabit, etc - because, like most indie pop, it seemed to constitute a slightly smug little outpost away from the technologies and attendant dubious moralities of contemporary society. So eg listening to Jay-Z was an experiment with not being tied to an identity as a pale, thin socially inept indie boy (although the music made it's own case, I never had to force myself to like it). Which is of course an identity-formation all of its own, and as an irksomely argumentative student I would end up making a moral case for Ginuwine over the Gentle Waves (i.e, if you listen to the latter you are a luddite/nostalgic/racist etc). Not an especially noble position, but at least proving that fidelity to whatever one was first moved by as a teenager isn't the only way of maintaining an obsession and an identity...

All this is given an intriguingly rum spin at Aloof from Inspiration, asking the question of whether carnal inclinations are formed at a young age by musical fixations; not necessarily the 'sexual politics' of a particular lyric or scene, but the actual acts made attractive to the impressionable mind and libido by music. I'm in the comments box there making a Pulp-related confession that will surprise nobody, reminding me that I keep meaning to write at least 10,000 words on Separations, Intro and His & Hers, largely for this reason. If there's anyone from Continuum who thinks any of these need a 33 1/3 book...

Friday, January 16, 2009

Gaza Statement

Against the nonsense that there's anything remotely 'symmetrical' in this massacre: this, in the Guardian today.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Tatatata Hoooraaah

Me on the 100th anniversary of Futurism in the New Statesman*, attempting to balance (with what success I'm not sure) their obvious dubiousness and the equally indisputable fact that they were really very interesting. A couple of the historical connections borrowed here from The Sex Revolts, with thanks.

* although note this.

students in not apathetic shocker

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Global Village

"I think progress is the biggest enemy on earth, apart from oneself… I think we're gonna take good care of this planet shortly...there's never been a weapon created yet on the face of the Earth that hadn't been used. We're run by the Pentagon, we're run by Madison Avenue, we're run by television, and as long as we accept those things and don't revolt we'll have to go along with the stream to the eventual avalanche. As long as we go out and buy stuff, we're at their mercy. We're at the mercy of the advertiser and of course there are certain things that we need, but a lot of the stuff that is bought is not needed...
We all live in a little Village. Your village may be different from other people's villages but we are all prisoners."

Patrick McGoohan, 1977 (via)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Another Green Roof

'The various advocates of solar, wind and water power, of small and decentralised sources of energy, of 'intermediate technologies', of the 'steady-state economy' are virtually all enemies of large-scale planning, of scientific research, of technological innovation, of complex organisation. And yet, in order for any of their visions or plans to be actually adopted by any substantial number of people, the most radical redistribution of economic and political power would have to take place. And even this - which would mean the dissolution of General Motors, Exxon, Con Edision and all their peers, and the redistribution of all their resources to the people - would be only a prelude to the most extensive and staggeringly complex reorganisation of the whole fabric of everyday life. Now there is nothing bizarre about the anti-growth or soft energy arguments in themselves, and, indeed, they are full of ingenious and imaginative ideas. What is bizarre is that, given the magnitude of the historical tasks before us, they should exhort us, in E.F Schumacher's words, to 'think small'. The paradoxical reality which escapes most of these writers is that in modern society only the most extravagant and systematic 'thinking big' can open up channels for 'thinking small'. Thus the advocates of energy shrinkage, limited growth and decentralisation, instead of damning Faust, should welcome him as their man of the hour'
Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (1982)

This notion of Faustian technology and huge structural change as the only possible way out of the current impending doom is, regardless of some rather intriguing recent experiments still hugely convincing. But the major development since this was written, perhaps, is the embrace, precisely by the likes of 'General Motors, Exxon and Con Edison', of the Greenwash. So here's my attempt at a psycho-political history of the green roof from MONU's Exotic Urbanism issue, in which the essential point is that green technology will not look green - a steel wind turbine or the metallic glint of a solar panel is more (awful word) 'sustainable' than the most verdant of car parks or supermarkets. Nonetheless, as Martin Pawley rightly pointed out in Terminal Architecture, 'green' architecture is one of the only serious ways forward for the Modernist ethos. When he wrote that in 1994 he claimed that no major buildings had been designed in this movement; 15 years later it's clear that a few attempts have been made, but the ideology of greenery - easily appropriated by the most destructive of institutions - seems to hold it back more than anything else. As it is, the stupidities of green shopping and offsetting are finding their architectural embodiment.

Which is why Serious Change may be worthwhile, at least, as Dominic points out, pending revolution.

Socialist Hyperrealism

Laid low by a series of ever-more ferocious colds, I've been spending lots of time recuperating by 'reading' pretty (some would say coffee table, but I don't own such a thing, and nor do I drink coffee) books. One such is Steven Heller and Louise Fini's Euro Deco. Although mercifully this is without Heller's embarrassing attempts at art-historical analysis, because of the intense politicisation of the period - the 20s and 30s - it can't help but work as a little politico-aesthetic breviary, the supposedly 'depoliticised' nature of the non-movement 'art deco' (a term not coined until the '60s) actually seeming every bit as fascinatingly ideological as the more professed radical or reactionary design of the inter-war years. One image which really caught my eye was the one above, by Josep Renau. This is the perfect deco image, surely: the upward angle, the streamlining of the powerful, fizkultura body which, aided by liberal use of the airbrush is closer to Vargas than it is to Rodchenko, the lovingly rendered, rectilinear abstraction of the diving board, and the sense that it all might tip over any second into Tamara de Lempicka-style lurid kitsch.

So some searching brought me to the brilliant collection of recondite filth at Au Carrefour Etrange, which features these images published in the magazine Estudios in 1936, which appear - not being able to read the Spanish text, I can only assume - to be some kind of surrealist-deco political history of love via a bizarre series of brightly coloured paintings, continuing the monumental airbrushed physicality of the deco posters. In one, we have 'Amor Financiero', where, under a luridly purple sky, the Rockefeller Centre, a skull and a few dollars, a heavily made-up woman is disconsolately romanced, looking bleakly out at the viewer. Meanwhile 'Amor Humano' shows a muscular male figure (with posing pouch) and a pink female reaching upwards, in front of a blast furnace - and in so doing, is the only example I've ever come across of socialist realist soft porn. Further research shows that Renau was a committed Communist, and the director of posters for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, and is best known for a photomontage series called Fata Morgana USA - The American Way of Life, which features similar Cold War contrasts, resembling some sort of cross between prog rock artwork and John Heartfield. Apparently Renau regarded himself as 'an artist who is a Communist, not a Communist artist', but these images suggest a rather weirder Communist art than the one that we think we know.

Monday, January 12, 2009

In the grip of this cold December, you and I have reason to remember

Go read: Impostume, on ABBA. Excitingly, this is apparently only a preamble.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Must we kill the street?

Not mentioned this until now, as I don't want this blog to entirely become a self-advertisement service, but I was telephoned to add some punditry to this Observer article on new towns a few weeks ago. As you might guess, I'm not really in agreement with the anti-(seemingly any) development position of the writer, although the few of you who would be remotely surprised by my opinions on concrete cows, tower blocks and underpasses should read this month's New Humanist, where I pontificate on these matters at length. But this - along with a recent re-reading of Marshall Berman and this Mike Davis interview (ta to Savonarola) where he talks about Constructivism as one of the most valuable intellectual engagements with the city, albeit one that ended in (literal) anti-urbanism -  has made me think more than I am inclined to do about one of the central New Town tenets: the Modernist campaign against the street.

If pushed, my actual views on what 'should' be done in planning and housing are pretty much the same as Davis' - cities, public transport and public space, density, concentration, and plenty of what the Constructivists called 'social condensers' - so accordingly, the attack on the street, Corbusier's loathsome 'rue corridor', is the element of 'classical' (i.e, interwar) Modernism that I have spent the least time defending, partly because it is the biggest flaw in my long-standing defence/apologia. Anyone looking for the definitive proof of Modernist architects' alleged disdain for the real, rather than idealised life of the working class, would be advised to look here, rather than in the attempt at clean living under difficult circumstances which links mod and Modernism, and which only sentimentalists of right and left imagine is foreign to the proletariat. Bustle, noise, diversity, 'vibrancy', blah blah blah - pernicious cliché as they are, there's little doubt that the garden cities were never really meant to contain them, but favoured instead a sort of village-green polis which, even if it ever had existed, certainly couldn't be resuscitated. And the replacement of the street by the zeilenbau, the tower in the park, the blocks in the garden (etc) runs across the political spectrum, from Mies to Hannes Meyer. A street, with shops and doors leading directly out onto a pavement, facing much the same thing on the other side of the road, is almost always absent.

Marshall Berman, being American, experienced a very different Modernism to the one of the UK - when you read in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air that all Modernist, 'Corbusian' architects abhorred the street it's obvious that this is a man who knows a lot about Robert Smithson but nothing about Alison Smithson - the whole counter-tradition of Team 10 and its outgrowths is entirely absent, as indeed it was from the USA. Yet the love of the street has a reactionary element too, as he (nearly) acknowledges. I lived right on Deptford High Street (above the fine Pizza Vesuvio, if anyone's interested) for several years, a 'rue corridor' if ever there was, where on market days at the weekend it was barely physically possible to get from one end to another, and with a persistent smell of everything from rotting fish to old coathangers. I like eavesdropping, junk markets, noise, the weird conversations and chance encounters of these kind of places; but I was and am less keen on machete fights, slum landlords (Polish families sharing one room, and the memorable occasion when the kitchen suddenly became an African pentecostal church), general pestilence (a skirting board that had been chewed to the point where it was practically en piloti, with a continuous layer open to the rodent population) and the all-pervasive sense of being enclosed and trapped which is usually only romantic to gap year types.

And that, as much as the this-is-good-for you impulse, is part of why the street 'had' to be killed - because there were better ways for people to live than cooped up, hemmed in and casually exploited in rotting buildings. And the story which Berman couldn't have told in 1982 is that when the streets (in London often, and no doubt in New York too) were gentrified, sanitised and, the inner city incrementally transformed into a new professional suburbia, the places that were supposed to be without life and with only bleak and blank space - the plazas, the blocks, the walkways - became the places where the poor, both young and elderly, loitered, lingered, shopped, did their living. The Elephant and Castle shopping centre is a fine example of this process. All the corridor streets gone, in favour of that vast, aesthetically repugnant block on a roundabout - and yet nobody seems to have noticed that a street market coils itself around it, or that the shops inside are far weirder and more diverse than those of the nearby Walworth Road. And if the 'regeneration' planned for the area is ever completed, the montage and mess - the very things whose absence provided the pretext for demolition in the first place - will be the first thing to go, although 'streets' will no doubt come back.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Disgust makes it difficult to write anything on the barbaric collective punishment of Gaza; I was for a while going to reprise a short post I wrote at the time of the 2006 Lebanon war, which made the analogy between the sudden breaking ranks of so many Communists at the repression of Hungary in 1956 and Israel's seemingly equally abrupt fall into disrepute in 2006. What links the two is the many decades of toleration of barbarity that preceded it being suddenly interrupted by the augenblick of Qana or Budapest. While the analogy fits more neatly than the fairly kneejerk Nazi comparisons, I still don't know if I was ever right about this - as the US has finally abandoned its veto then perhaps so -  but this letter, sent to Michael Rosen and others shows another kind of augenblick altogether:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - Board of Deputies of British Jews Cancels Sunday’s Solidarity Rally
The Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council, in consultation with a coalition of prominent organisations in the Anglo-Jewish community, have decided to cancel the planned Israel Solidarity Rally, due to occur on Sunday 11th of January.
This decision has been taken after intense discussions within the community, due to a feeling that such a demonstration would not be in accordance with the Board’s wish to bring the conflict to an immediate conclusion. It was thought that the demonstration might be perceived as the community taking one side in the tragic war in Gaza and Israel, and might be seen as supporting Israel’s military campaign.
The Board calls for an immediate ceasefire, immediate negotiations between Israel and Hamas, and for lifting the economic blockade of Gaza, in order to allow the Gazan and Israeli people to live together in peace. There is no military solution, only a political one.
The Jewish community does not wish to be seen as a participant in the conflict, and in taking this stand we hope to be a part of the solution. The Board stands in solidarity with the besieged and injured people of Gaza, as well as the victims of terrorism in Israel, and we oppose all violence as contrary to the tenets of the Jewish religion. We would like to reach out to the British Muslim community, as well as those of no religion who have demonstrated against Israel’s military campaign-we share your anguish at the destruction and loss of life caused, and hope that our action in calling off our demonstration will be a small step towards peace.
Board of Deputies of British Jews and The Jewish Leadership Council

It's a hoax, tragically - for the first few minutes after I first read it I thought it was genuine. But as Dominic Fox rightly points out here, it is analogous to the recent New York Times detournement - a kind of utopian hoaxing, where suddenly one can 'see reality without perceiving it as inevitable'. On which note: demonstration, tomorrow, 12.30 at Hyde Park. Due to a wedding I won't, for once, be 'stereotypical leftist rent-a-mob' here, but you should be.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Ja Tvoi Sluga, Ja Tvoi Rabotnik

Without Florian, how could they possibly go on...? One unnerving suggestion is implied above, from Private Eye and flagged up by IT an aeon ago. Alastair Darling could do it especially well.


Not the most elegant of neologisms - Urb have attempted to coin 'PHRWEE Urbanism' (which is apparently Post-Humanist_ReWilded_Eco_Ethical - well it beats Parametricism if nothing else) but in the process graciously flag up a particularly cantankerous piece on 'green' urbanism I wrote for MONU last year (which I'll post up on the other blog at some point). In short it was an unkind attempt to insinuate that their gardening strategies resembled those of Josef Fritzl, much influenced by this great post from a while ago on Melbourne.

'I don't even like the music I like'

To contribute to the current unseemly musical listing, the Rocktimists' laudable attempt to do a UK Pazz & Jop is up, with my pennorth in there (scroll down). The thing is, at the end of the year one ends up listening to the stuff one didn't bother with earlier, through listening to what turns up in polls like this. Also, I spent much of my Xmas watching music videos, attempting to find things I actually enjoyed (mostly unsuccessfully, but nonetheless, the year now seems ever so slightly less of a wasteland, despite obviously being a fourth or fifth year of near-total stagnancy in what was once reliably one of the few non-moribund areas of popular culture). So, adapting it to things I've heard for the first time or been converted to in the last fortnight, my ballot would actually be as follows. It wouldn't have made any difference to the poll except maybe a mild boost for Crystal Castles - and of course the new inclusions are enormously consensus votes. Nonetheless:

Tricky - Knowle West Boy (despite around 2 or 3 tracks that are absolutely dreadful, for the other 8 tracks this is a shoe-in)
Stereo Image - S/T
The Caretaker - Persistent Repetition of Phrases
The Advisory Circle - Other Channels
Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles
The Fall - Imperial Wax Solvent
Gang Gang Dance - Saint Dymphna
Blevin Blectum - Gular Flutter
Britney Spears - Circus (for the half of it that continues the media hysteria of Blackout, not for the 'no I'm sane really' half)
Riko - The Truth

Tracks (now adapted, as per a justified complaint on the poll, to Singles)
Tricky - Council Estate
Estelle ft Kanye West - American Boy
Mordant Music - Travelogues 4: Mum Prepared the Piano
Hot Chip - Ready for the Floor (especially if listened to without the video, so you don't have to look at their zany faces. First time I heard this, I thought it was an R&B record)
Snoop Dogg - Sensual Seduction (maybe strictly speaking 2007, but released here in 2008, so there. Am I the only person that finds this a weirdly desolate record?)
Portishead - Machine Gun
Der Zyklus - Cherenkhov-Radiation
Britney Spears - Womanizer
Blackout Crew - Put a Donk on it
H20 ft Platinum - What's it Gonna Be

Glad that's done with.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Container City

In Search of Southampton

Although I've written posts and pieces denouncing the New Labour strategy of regeneration via the 'creative industries', the clawing back of municipal pride from Thatcherite underdevelopment via sheds for sponsorship, relational aesthetics or 'interactivity' (The Public, Baltic, Magma, Millennium Dome, Urbis, add to the list where you see fit), there is a hint - only a hint - of jealousy there. That is, jealousy that even though I may hate both the built result and its ideological legitimation, at least there is some kind of civic pride here, that something other than shopping is considered worth running a city about. The reason for this not because I have lived in London for the last 9 years, but because I lived from birth until a few weeks after my 18th birthday in Southampton.

Too southern and too surrounded by the Tory heartland for the radical, poor-but-sexy cool-by-association of Northern cities; too close to London to avoid a consistent brain drain, even its two Universities (one of which is a Russell Group research colossus) are so rigidly science-based that no taint of artiness ever seems to penetrate the M27. Southampton is a thousand-year old non-place. Yet this, after all, might be what distinguishes it. I used to be annoyed by the way that whenever my hometown was mentioned in a work of art - from Lennon's 'Ballad of John and Yoko' to Lewis' Snooty Baronet - it was only as a place to pass through - off the boat, onto the train, and in Waterloo in 1 hour 15. Southampton was Heathrow before Heathrow, and has never quite known what to do with itself since the ship was succeeded by the jet. I was missing the point - Southampton is a city as terminus.

Southampton, like Coventry, Plymouth and east London, nearly became a non-place in a quite literal sense. In November 1940 the centre was flattened and thousands fled the city, many sleeping rough in the surrounding countryside rather than returning to the inferno. Yet what happened when reconstruction came? Southampton is twinned with Le Havre, a French port that was similarly ruthlessly Blitzed, yet the reconstruction by Auguste Perret for that city is - while by no means fearlessly Modernist - confident, contemporary, urban, large-scaled, proud. Southampton got what you see above, now with the additional frisson of a faded McDonalds sign. A one-storey Portland Stone shopping parade, designed in a staggeringly timid manner. Yet while the planners of Le Havre might have looked over the Atlantic covetously at the USA's skyscrapers and daylight factories, those of 1940s Southampton recognised that the future lay somewhere else. Pevsner, absolutely spot on, described this parade as being akin to a Midwestern town. While the gigantic ships, those ribbon-windowed beauties that inspired a million modernist buildings, sailed to New York from just a few yards away, Southampton channelled the spirit of Iowa.

However, Southampton City Council took a 30-year detour before it realised in the 1990s that Soton's destiny was to be the most American city in Britain, in the least glamorous sense. In Soft City, a fine psychogeographic study marked by a very early 70s paranoia, Jonathan Raban went looking for the most quintessential, standard exemplar of the British transformation of Corbusian utopia into dystopia, and found it in Southampton. The work of the city architect, one L. Berger, is indeed a curious amalgam of seemingly every midcentury cliche. Zeilenbau arrangements at Weston Shore and Thornhill, mixed development everywhere else; beton brut, weatherboarding, bare stock brick, slabs and points. The city had long been one of the best British candidates for a Ville Radieuse, with Victorian planning creating The Avenue, a tree-lined boulevard that ran all the way to the 'Gateway to Empire', and a series of central parks that are what appear in my mind whenever I read Graham Greene, and most of all, safeguarding the great Southampton Common.

In the interwar years this verdancy was expanded by the garden suburbs, little Welwyns designed by the architect Herbert Collins in the city's northern suburbs, inadequately emulated by the city council in the form of the inept Flower Estate, its cottages the incongruous setting for perhaps the town's nastiest area (and as the setting for the most unhappy three years in my life, it is a main source of the chip on my shoulder). And this is an incredibly violent city - Home Office statistics last year proved it to have Britain's third highest levels of violent crime after Manchester and Sheffield. Much of this crime is probably due to a town vs gown divide in a city where the gown is smug and affluent and the town chronically depressed. The Flower Estate abuts Southampton University, where Monsanto-funded youth frolic in a mostly Basil Spence-designed campus (not his finest work, but with a couple of moments of sheer genius). 

As someone said to me in Liverpool last year, the difference between these two Transatlantic ports, the thing that makes the smaller of them the more brutal, is the lack of sentiment and civic pride. Liverpool has a whole mythology, however sentimental it may be, of its own importance and beauty; Soton knows it fucking hates Portsmouth but proclaims very little else about itself. At a stretch, perhaps, it is proud of being the disembarkation point of the 'world's biggest metaphor' in 1912, and the former home of England's most underrated footballer. But you wouldn't imagine the town could be anything other than perfectly calm, looking at the common's drained pools and bare trees on Boxing Day.

L Berger's work was mainly 'mixed development' to an amusing degree. A one-storey house next to a three-storey block of flats next to an eighteen-storey tower. As I was staying in Shirley/Freemantle, near the Western Dock, I photographed Shirley Towers and its surrounding estate, a calm and very very cold late December afternoon, as my example of Berger's buildings. I used to look at this place with some awe as a teen, with Bowie's 'Warszawa' playing in my head. Appropriate, as Polish is now heard as often in Shirley as English, in a town which has always had a large Eastern European contingent. I propose a twinning of Nowa Huta and Thornhill.

Here, the tower is shrouded in mist, as if it were a mirage. None of the gardens are private, which we're now supposed to think is a bad thing.

This little girl guards the estate.

The space underneath Shirley Towers is skin-strippingly cold.

Next to it is what is described as THE BARLOW HOME, which I am guessing was a place where Alms were dispensed or where the mentally unwell or elderly were 'rested'.

Up the road from the tower is Strawberry Fields, a Thatcher-era development which, I assume from the mild effort made in its design, is the product of a Housing Association rather than a spec builder. Just behind it is the '60s block Hatherley Mansions, a possible choice of residence in my dotage. Across the road from Strawberry Fields is something which aspires to being more 'urban'. Both are based on different but equally risible fantasies about what this city actually is. It is as little a moody metropolis as it is rural, even though it was where 'Re-rewind' was recorded.

This is all extraneous to what the city is really for.

The buildings the council didn't sponsor, those of the marvellously named central strip Above Bar and its environs, are in the style recently and amusingly described by Stephen Bayley as 'John Lewis Modernism', here at its most nondescript. The city's great rival, Portsmouth got the wild beast Tricorn, but we got lots of what you could at a stretch call 'Festival style' department stores of remarkable drabness. Southampton and Portsmouth were nearly merged in the 1960s, under proposals by Colin Buchanan, into one linear metropolis. As it is these two fairly similar depressed ports maintain a remarkably stupid mutual hatred. Not that I have any sympathy with that squaddie-ridden hole and its silly sub-Dubai Spinnaker tower. Anyway, when containerisation and Heathrow destroyed Soton's raison d'etre, it attempted to become Hampshire's Shopping Extravaganza, dragging the burghers of Boyatts Wood, Bishop's Waltham, Chilworth, Locks Heath, Fair Oak et al ad nauseam into the city to buy stuff. Draft one: East Street. Nobody comes here. I can't remember anyone ever coming here. It adjoins a huge office block, which is architecturally undistinguished but has a classic Brutalist escape staircase, hence the tortuous angle above. I bought a copy of Le Corbusier's Modulor in East Street Oxfam the day I took these photos.

The blur is flattering, I think. Regardless, East Street, actually placed in a street, and adjoining a tall, urban building, was clearly not American enough. Draft two, the postmodernist mall of the Bargate Centre, next to an 'iconic' Medieval remnant. In Southampton even 'alternative' culture happens in Malls, and the Bargate found its niche in the late '90s by catering to ravers, skaters, Goths and metallers rather than the original targets of children and their harassed parents. Faced with eviction in 2000, my Mum was rehoused by the council in a flat next to the Bargate centre. Due to my brother's largesse, the flat soon became centre of activity seemingly for the entire town's population of stoners, skaters and general bourgeois scum, who were occasionally inclined to excreting on the stairs.

There are four big malls in the centre, while Eastleigh, a railway works with houses attached on the city's outskirts, has its own Mall, now being redesigned in an Erskine-ish manner, but originally as pomo as the Bargate. I lived in Eastleigh in the late 80s and early 90s, right next to the Swan Centre, which swept away Victorian market streets much to my joy. As a child I loved, loved Malls. We never called them by that Americanism (these were Shopping Centres). but I had a birthday in McDonalds, with branded party hats and gifts, I ate donuts and Deep Pan Pizza, and as adolescence hit I listlessly read magazines in WH Smiths until I was thrown out. I was glad when I realised there was a word - Loitering - for this pastime. Upon moving into the city proper, affections were transferred to the Marlands. Draft three of the Soton Mall. Here I once shoplifted a Jonathan Richman album. I shoplifted in Shirley Woolworths too, albeit something much less cool. Needless to say, seeing the place as it is now, as it dies ignominiously, is a thrill. Look at it here, the glossy shelves reduced to the state of the shabbiest pound shop.

Meanwhile, the Marlands apparently nearly went bankrupt, but was successfully turned instead into 'The Mall', where it leeches on some bland post-war blocks. I couldn't bring myself to photograph the original elevations - those with a taste for the nadir of 20th century architecture can probably find them via google. Linked by a walkway to car parks and an Asda, the significance of the Marlands was as the first strike in the transformation of a huge swathe of reclaimed land into Iowa, after all these failed attempts at being a coherent town. A huge site once occupied by a cable works and a power station was, in the late 90s, turned into a series of strip malls and boxes, one which has now taken on a remarkable life of its own. The first I really remember is LEISURE WORLD, an unforgiving box which me and my gal used to call THE MINISTRY OF LEISURE.

As it went up, curtain-wall office blocks went down, wrapped in plastic like Laura Palmer before being thrown into the water. Then the strip mall of Western Esplanade, then some rather functionalist car parks, then the vast West Quay, the retail behemoth for which the others are all unsuccessful drafts. Although I planned to photograph all of the big city centre malls, the latter was so rammed full of bargain hunters that I literally couldn't stomach it, being an ill, neurasthenic type and all. West Quay is now itself generating offshoots - one of which is apparently going to be designed by Foreign Office Architects, but I'm not holding my breath for that - and now has a huge blue IKEA box. The area is incredibly hard to photograph as there is almost nowhere where you can stand without being run over. This whole vast site is one massive retail park, right in the middle of a town of 250,000 people and a sprawl of at least double that. Even the most blindly, blandly utilitarian of post-war planners could never have done something so criminally short-sighted as create out of this huge space of potential such a crushing collection of sheds, where the car is not so much king as emperor. 

What is appropriate about it, though, is the way in which it joins onto the equally vast Container Port. The roads in the Western Dock are called First, Second, Third Avenue. Follow them and you might reach the Millbrook Superbowl, where you can play that most American and Blue Collar of sports, ten-pin bowling. Go back the other way along the approach to the M27, and the containers become an organising principle. Stacks of containers full of goods one one side, stacks of containers full of people buying goods on the other, each of them in the form of coloured or corrugated boxes. The elegance of the principle is perfect, and some enterprising post-Fordist is bound to combine the two sooner or later - completing the circle by transporting people in those boxes too, using them for transportation, shopping, living, all at once. Sure, there's no windows in these things, but a few branches of Costa and nobody will complain. Then, untouched by human hands, the containers could be dropped in Dubai or Shenzen, the cruise ships of the 21st century. Just across the water from this container city is a gigantic incinerator. A perfect dome, not Rogers' deflated tent, silver, not Teflon. It turns rubbish into electricity, and it shines with a sinister optimism.