Monday, March 30, 2009

The Distorted Mirror

Three things which have interestingly coincided in Britain over the last few months are a colossal recession, the anniversary of the 1984-5 Miners Strike and the screening of the Red Riding films, the connections between which have been perhaps most succinctly pinpointed here. Although most of the curiously both laudatory-and-sceptical reviews have spent much time worrying about whether the portrayal of the West Yorkshire Police as a branch of Pinochet's Death Squads is rather hysterical, some have noticed that the only thing which truly explicates this is knowledge of what comes next in the cycle, Peace's treatment of which isn't filmed in the Channel 4 trilogy - the strike, and the attendant undeclared Civil War fought, largely in one direction, against the National Union of Mineworkers, when punishment beatings, pitched battles, phone taps, moles and the sealing of internal borders were all deployed on an extensively documented scale. Another critique of Peace hits on something more interesting, that his books have to add a layer of diabolical evil on top of the historical evils they fictionalise. So John Poulson, ultra-corrupt Leeds architect, is reimagined as developer and paedophile John Dawson, as if the actual crimes weren't enough. Similarly, at the edges of GB84's refracted versions of Scargill and Thatcher (but mainly David Hart and Roger Windsor) are severed heads in boxes, ritual suicides, 'mountains of skulls', again to amplify the existing horror of the destruction of communities, the destruction of trade unionism, the decisive victory of neoliberalism that becomes in the novel 'the end of the world - the end of all our worlds'.

In the televisual Red Riding this approach is mostly convincing, but loses something through the absence of the final confrontation that ends the cycle. Still, Peace's claim that his fictions uncover the truth through their fictionalisation of the truth should be taken seriously. By turning it into a horrific tragedy - a South Yorkshire Dos Passos thrown into conjunction with the diabolical evil of a particularly lurid Giallo and a beer-and-sandwiches re-imagining of Eliot's Waste Land - GB84 says far more about the strike, especially through the 'diary' sections, clearly based on diaries of actual striking miners, which are the most frightening, intense, heartbreaking and finest pieces of English prose since, oh, the Ballard of The Atrocity Exhibition, than its recently published first history. Obviously Beckett and Hencke couldn't be expected to write something as ferocious and as economical with the actualite as Peace's work, but their flat prose and matter-of-fact listing of dates and negotiations reduces the grand canvas promised by their subtitle - 'The Death of Industrial Britain' - into a drab diagram.

In the small hours, the thieves' hours, with their knives of Sheffield Steel/Among the bodies of the animals, the Circle of the Tyrants kneel/To hear her beat her bloody wings, in her new and lonely Reich/Herr Lucifer! Herr Thatcher!/Beware, Beware, she will eat you like air/Beware, Beware, the Pits of despair/There is a man who bought his council house and drives an Austin Princess/he has a dark room and a very good stereo - '
David Peace, GB84

Nonetheless, there's a wealth of information in their history, some given more significance than is deserving, but some of it enormously telling. There are a fair few details in the book which I didn't get the space to mention in my NS review, and which are worth mentioning here. Irrespective of the extreme hostility to Scargill that eventually makes an otherwise very sober and scrupulous book impossible to take seriously (it ends with the hysterical argument that Scargill lost the 1992 election for Labour) Beckett and Hencke haven't written a book that is hostile to trade unionism, something missed by some reviewers. In fact, the real significance of Scargill, for them, is that he wasn't a conventional trade unionist. This is not to say that he wasn't utterly committed to trade unionism's workerism and protest methods of strikes and forceful pickets, but that he was a syndicalist among Labourists, a Barnsley Wobbly determined to break with the patient collective bargaining and focus on 'our members' of British trade unionism. And, although his Socialist Labour Party would prove to be a stillborn Stalinist sect, they don't distrust him for being a Communist. Communists were sensible people like Mick McGahey, who knew when to compromise. In short, Scargill was for them a soixante-huitard, and hence a foreign body in British trade unionism. 

They write of 'a new, sharp-toothed left-wing...young men who were born in the late 1940s and early 1950s and saw their politics through the distorting mirror (my italics) of 1968. For them, New Jerusalem was just around the corner, its arrival impeded only by cautious, reactionary, elderly trade union leaders, with their fatal addiction to compromise...The new left's heroes had to be young, and attractive, and fluent and charismatic, and preferably charismatic, but most of all they had to be impossible to outflank on the left...Scargill fitted the bill perfectly.' This reaches surreal heights. Rather than a dinosaur in desperate need of a stylist, Beckett and Hencke's Scargill is glamorous, sexy even. 'Scargill was a new sort of Union leader. There was a razzmatazz about him that was entirely different to the grey, elderly men in grey suits muttering 'I 'ave to consult my executive committee' who mostly led the unions. He was new, exciting, he had carefully coiffured hair and neat suits and apparently an ocean of self-confidence'. In a sense, then, these are the worst fears of Stalinists, Labourites and Tories combined - a working class 68er, a proletarian syndicalist with massive power at his disposal. It makes a great deal of sense, and totally reverses the received Monty Python's Yorkshiremen/Hovis Advert version of the Strike, as does Peace in a more occult manner. While the novelist sees the strike through the distorted mirror of Sheffield postpunk, crime fiction, high modernism and the Book of Revelation, the historians see it through the prism of a new left, hell-bent on creating a new society by force.
'Dear Mr Daly, How much would you like for your soul? It's the only thing you have left, we have heard. No wife, no wage, nothing left now. We want to help you avoid aggro and intimidation. So here is a little tear-off slip and a first-class freepost return envelope. Please enclose your fucking soul. Remember, no stamp needed.'

In both cases, the significance of 84-85 and of Scargill is a (failed) breaking of the rules of the game. There was a part of the Left that wanted to break with Butskellism as much as did Thatcher, while now received wisdom imagines it as trapped in the past. If you'll excuse my lapsing into prolier-than-thou, my old man is/was a trade unionist who was formed more by 1968 than 1926, and even now remembers the strike as 'a very exciting time to be a lefty', rather than a doomed march to defeat. More specifically, he was involved with Southampton Trades Council, helping to make sure that no coal entered the port, and this - amongst other stories my parents have always told about the strike, like the South Wales miner who gave a 20p piece to my baby sister, a hell of a lot of money in that particular context, or other stories like dodgy vegetable curries cooked for aforementioned Welsh miners - also makes me decidedly sceptical of their other substantial point, supplementary to the excoriation of Scargill. That this adventurist, far-left, absolutist strike was never really seriously supported by the labour movement as a whole. While there were certainly a fair few quislings, the impression I have always got - not just from people I know, but from histories, including Beckett and Hencke's, inadvertently - was of solidarity invariably scuppered by leadership. This ranges from the support promised and undelivered by the TUC and Labour Party conferences to more decisively the strike of NACODS, the foremen's union, which would almost undoubtedly have turned the tide, and which was voted for by an overwhelming majority of its members then thrown away by its leadership.

'Khaki shirt. Sergeant stripes. Badges. Insignia. The lot. - Clear as fucking day. I'm telling you, that weren't first time, either. That were never just police at Orgreave. Never'

The book sets great stall by the diaries of the printworkers' leader Bill Keys. These are undeniably very interesting indeed, and certainly suggest that, by spring 1985, Scargill was losing his grip. Yet even in amongst Keys' attempts to broker compromises, there are other assertions they consider irrelevant. Near the end, they quote Keys' final entries, as the strike is decisively defeated, lambasting the ego of a certain union leader, but also asking 'when is our class going to learn that it is only total unity that can protect our interests?' Beckett and Hencke obviously don't consider this question worthwhile, or they wouldn't have written an apologia for those who refused to provide unity or solidarity. Yet there's another potential unity which is terrifying for both soft-left historians and neoliberals alike - the unity of the 'left' which aims at the destruction of existing society and the left as organised labour. The possibility of a grass-roots movement that would also be an extreme, uncompromising movement. Beckett and Hencke often sneer at Scargill's claim that there was a victory 'in the struggle itself', that it was in a sense its own reward - and there is an element of truth in their argument that this might seem scant consolation when your community has been decimated - but the wider truth in Scargill's statement is completely ignored. 

The support campaigns around the Miners' strike were genuinely unprecedented, from Women against Pit Closures (mentioned by Beckett and Hencke only in their claim that they must have embarassed the patriarchal miners) to the widespread support shown by gay, or anti-racist, or otherwise extraparliamentary groups. The police tactics meant that, as one of the diarists in GB84 mentions, those normally expected to be 'small c' conservative felt a solidarity with, say, the Brixton and Toxteth rioters, knew what they must have gone through. This situation, where the most militant wing of labour found itself shafted by the TUC and the Labour Party but embraced by the extraparliamentary left (of various kinds) suggested, in embryo, a new kind of politics, not the final battle of a dying workerism. The fear of this kind of unity is also why today, seemingly small and rather melodramatic groups are being quarantined by police away from 'mainstream' demonstrations - because of the possibility of infection, that their ideas might catch. What is still feared, most of all now that the old rules no longer apply, is the seemingly unlikely possibility of something new that doesn't play the game, rather than a careful return to Butskellism. This is what was so scary about the Miners Strike. Not that it was the last gasp of the past, but that it suggested something new. Not just that they were uncompromising, but that they could have won.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Reduce Yourself to a Zero

Imprint for the forthcoming Militant Modernism amongst many other things now has its own blog - reviews, ephemera and Zero-related events will follow on there, as the first tentative shots in what, with luck, will eventually become a veritable propaganda assault...

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Tramp, Serial Killer, Fellow Traveller

Me on Chaplin, in the NS.

Austerity Nostalgia Watch

Wow. These are worth a whole Zizek book in themselves, for their remarkable ideological sleight of hand. These new police posters, based of course on Keep Calm and Carry On, play with the clichés of an aggressive, obnoxious police force which thankfully endure in a country which surely has more abusive terms for the standing army than most. Then, underneath, is the pun, the pay-off, in small print, reminding us that really the police force are all about helping old ladies across the road: 'the police now pledge to listen...' The truth, of course, is in large print, given the recent suspension of Habeas Corpus. So while this ironic gesture claims to play with the brutally state-protecting image of the Police, it also says, very loudly (even more so than these Stasiesque incitements to vigilance) that the rules no longer apply, that the state of exception is fully in force, as anyone who wants to photograph a policeman on Saturday and April 1 may find out. 

(photo taken in Nottingham by the inestimable Mr Anderson)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Die Welt ist Schön

Photographic records of space and economic dysfunction: Giovanni Tiso alerts me to the ruins of Detroit, a well-kicked around subject but still utterly astonishing in the sheer grandeur of the city and the scale of its desolation; this set of 'Scenes from the Recession' has been doing the rounds, but that doesn't make it any less remarkable, a true world-picture of the globalised crisis; a stark, murky photoblog of my current manor (via), a landscape largely created under Blairism, one of leisure complexes, executive flats, and inept infrastructure, built around and over an already shabby suburban-industrial area; finally Architecture in Berlin recommends a visit to the German Federal Photo Archives recently uploaded on Wikipedia Commons, especially those from the Weimar Republic, with their 'overriding impression of utter chaos, civil unrest and the rising tide of Fascism'. Could we honestly look at the contemporary photosets linked above and feel much more secure about our own future?

Magic and Production

Very interesting post at non-washer-upper's blog on the subject of the internet, 'the music industry' and the PRS/Google dispute. While focused quite specifically on that particular dispute and the notion that musical production is something which needs no monetary funding, it's especially worthwhile for pinpointing two very pervasive myths created by the internet, one at the level of distribution and the other at the level of consumption, both having deleterious effects on production. One, the notion that the internet is administered by 'little guys' as opposed to gigantic corporations. Hence, you have the absurd, but curiously successful, self-presentation of Google/YouTube as defenders of freedom against the Peforming Rights Society for Music, who are essentially an arm of a trade union; and linked to this, the idea that file-sharing is somehow anti-establishment, notwithstanding the intimate links between the likes of BitTorrent and the corporations they supposedly subvert. Two, the post notes the way the internet is used and consumed, where cultural products are 'some sort of naturally appearing resource, like water or oxygen'. This, then, is essentially a magical process. Music, videos, films, texts, they all just pass through the ether in seconds, without any trace of production (or any remuneration to the producer). 

Whether or not this is actually 'killing music' or fulfilling the hysterical anti-piracy warnings now found on much cultural product is a moot point, but this magical thinking is one of the most under-remarked-upon facets of the way the internet changes habits and perceptions, as the point of distribution, let alone production recedes ever further from view. I recall my surprise recently at finding that a friend of a friend worked for Amazon, as if the entire process ran at the same level as the automated 'recommendations' on the website - but obviously these things are made, distributed and administered in a very concrete (and union-bashing) manner. This links in with a few posts at Ads without Products recently, on how this works with respect to journalism and print, where the internet often serves to actually reinforce, rather than dismantle, the old boy networks, by making writing into a hobby rather than a job (my own experience in this has been rather less grim, although mainly because of a prior willingness to spend years on benefits). In all this, you can see, very faintly indeed, the outlines of a genuinely utopian system of distribution, where automation and speed makes the possibility of a non-monetary economy viable, erasing borders and all that Hardt-Negri fun stuff. And much of the opposition to blogs has come from those clearly driven by snobbery and fear of the competition. Nonetheless, the means of production that, underneath the magical surface, actually enables these things to come into being, is still owned by the same people it ever was. 

Images are of Amazon's distribution centre in Swansea.


Is out in one month. I haven't got any copies yet myself so still don't quite believe that it ever will come out, but 24th April is the official date. There will be some sort of launch or other nearer the time, when I shall be plugging the thing with increasing desperation - but until then, it can be purchased on Amazon, for an astonishing £2.50 less than the £10 asking price. Gift-wrap is  apparently available.


Me, with not a trace of residual bitterness, on unemployment architecture in BD. The fourth comment is utterly priceless: I used to work for the practice responsible for re-fitting many of the Job Centre Plus offices described here. Most of the people who were involved are now 'end-users'. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Function Follows Fantasy

There has been, on a well-known site which I may or may not have a feed on, an interesting 140-character debate between various architects and critics on the merits of Tower Bridge. Well-known Venturite architect comments on the curious puritanism of the common critiques of this gigantic castle on the Thames - terms like sham, pastiche, faux, and the general belief that there is something wrong with fantasy and illusion in architecture. These are all very good points, and there is something enormously knee-jerk about the dismissal of these sort of Victorian (ooh I almost wrote 'monstrosities') structures. The problem for me, though, is what kind of fantasy something like Tower Bridge represents. By encasing its then extremely advanced technology in twin turrets slathered in ickily Mad King Ludwig detail, Tower Bridge's fantasy doesn't seem like something genuinely fantastical or surprising, but as a sort of built emblem of what happened to British capitalism in the closing decades of the 19th century. That is, the collective, cross-class consensual hallucination that the most urbanised, most technologically advanced country in the world was actually a sleepy, rural backwater, one where 'an Englishman's home is his castle', and where a nation which then oppressed a large chunk of the globe was imagined to be mild-mannered, keeping itself to itself. 

This is why Tower Bridge was loathed by socialists and technocrats like H.G Wells, whose own fantasies in War of the Worlds or The Time Machine were designed to wake people up from these supposedly 'typically English' delusions. Wells' fantasies were attempts to outline what a technologised society imposed upon itself a dreamy conservatism and medievalism might create, or might incur - the possible fate of a society where subjects of the Crown presided over an unprecedented mechanical pandaemonium. Wells devotes a chunk of the close of Tono-Bungay, his most ferocious indictment of England, to Tower Bridge itself. Although the word 'sham' is used. ‘Again and again in this book I have written of England as a feudal scheme overtaken by fatty degeneration and stupendous accidents of hypertrophy…the vulgarest, most typical exploit of modern England, the sham Gothic carvings to the ironwork of the Tower Bridge. That Tower Bridge is the very balance and conformation of Westminster’s dull pinnacles and tower…Each day one feels that the pressure of commerce and traffic grew insensibly monstrous…this unassailable enormity of traffic…ships bound for the killing of men in unfamiliar lands….’

The passion and moral force of Wells' critique, depoliticised and rationalised, degenerates into the International Style's denunciation of ornaments, shams and fantasies in favour of pure Platonic geometries. Although early works of Modernist criticism - like Siegfried Giedion's stupendous Bauen in Frankreich, a huge influence on Benjamin's Arcades Project - managed to combine a love of the fantastical, science fictional qualities of Victorian engineering alongside a disdain for the fol-de-rol that was added atop these structures, later histories of Modernism remove Victorian engineering from the story almost entirely, except as a brief anecdote, a morality tale about the (undoubtedly appalling) arrogance of a George Gilbert Scott imagining his railway castle at St Pancras was 'too good for' William Barlow's proto-futurist train shed. Something like Kenneth Frampton's Critical History barely even mentions the likes of Brunel, Stephenson or Shukhov, although both Constructivism and Brutalism - the peaks, for me, of 20th century architecture, as if you didn't know - are completely incomprehensible without them - the now-familiar rewriting of Modernism where Muthesisus or Morris are more important than the Victorian technocrats who were first to find beauty in the machine, an orthodoxy only partly dented by High-Tech and Archigram.

Anyway, this all resonates with some recent reading, a book on the above written in the late Modernist era - a Pelican paperback called Victorian Engineering, of 1970, by one L.T.C Rolt. This describes a wonderful and largely incomprehensible world of paddle shafts, oscillators and cranks, the romance of obsolete machinery, which often becomes a focus for the reactionary fantasies of steampunk, or more interestingly, the joys of Fred Dibnah's TV programmes. But L.T.C is very good on a few overlooked matters. The incredible destructiveness and the huge human toll taken by the construction of the new bridges and tunnels is not glossed over - several fatalities per iron bridge, it would seem, never mind the horrendous body count of the Mines that provided the coal to keep it all running. As to aesthetics, Rolt combines the Modernist line about the dressing-up of technology in 'sham' and 'pastiche' with a class-based twist. He notes that the classical, Gothic or Italianate railway stations were a way of showing that the new world of iron knew its place, was gentlemanly, not intent on upsetting the established order. It also exhibits, in spades, the technocratic misunderstanding of capitalism, something which runs through Modernism in its embryonic form to the high-tech of the last few decades. This comes through in a well-aimed dig at the Gothic revivalists:

'It is ironical that while Pugin and his disciples, inspired by the medieval cathedrals, were devoting themselves to recreating the pure Gothic style, the engineers were building these lofty pagan temples to the god of steam. There can be no question on which was the truer expression of an age dedicated to material progress.' 

This is a far weirder statement than it looks at first. It might seem that what is being suggested here is that the railway sheds embodied the true rationalist spirit of the age, of industrial capitalism - but what he actually talks about is Temples to the God of Steam, the 'temples to machinery in the abstract' that Wyndham Lewis would suggest, in 1919's The Caliph's Design, to be the likely saviour of a moribund British architecture. That is, an elevation of technology into a religion, not just a useful, utilitarian means of getting from A to B quickly. This is done more easily in a literal manner, by just adding Gothic to technology, but both are essentially the same process. If anything is to really sum up capitalism, it is (in Brecht's phrase) the 'parade of the Old New', an aesthetic which frequently (if not exclusively) sheathes the shocking and the futuristic in the familiar. It's remarkable how after Modernism a divide between engineering and proper architecture has sometimes returned - Michael Hopkins' Porticullis House/Westminster Station, dominating the Modernist trompe l'oeil tube dungeon with a lumpen, grinning stone castle, is an astounding example. Pure engineering is (as per high-tech) the ideological aesthetic of the part of capitalism that thinks of the system as rational. It isn't, of course - but the fantasies of rationalism, at best, seem more interesting than the fantasies of medieval technology - they show, in a shadowy form, what a rational society might look like, although their disciples may believe them to be the 'truth' of this one. Having said all that, Wilkinson Eyre's bridges might be a bit less tedious if they had a crenellation or two.

Monday, March 16, 2009


John Carpenter is quite possibly the most interesting American director of the 1970s-80s in terms of political philosophy - take Zizek on They Live!, the attempt to use phenomenology to avert apocalyptic technics in Dark Star - and in that fine tradition, here's Socialism and/or Barbarism on Escape from New York, read through Trotsky-via-Mike Davis. Someone needs to do similarly sterling work for the electronic urbanism of Assault on Precinct 13 (see above) or the combination of chameleonic terror and the horror of remoteness in The Thing. The S and/or B post also includes conjunctural coinage of the year so far: 'combined and uneven apocalypse'.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The idea of the 'Shop'

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Fashion - Madame Death

Jane and Louise Wilson have long been a rule-proving exception in British art, perhaps the only artists ever to have exhibited at a Saatchi show who won't be assigned several years of re-education come the revolution. Their work has always been full of the things excised by their contemporaries - references to things outside art, explorations of the pleasures and terrors of lived space, an aesthetic as opposed to a signature, an exploration of history and other matter extraneous to the artistic ego. There is something curious about the fact that, given how distinctive their aesthetic actually is, it rarely actually gets talked about. The current work at the NFT (or ahem 'BFI Southbank') is a case in point. Unfolding the Aryan Papers is based on their work in Stanley Kubrick's voluminous archives, drawing from an unfilmed project entitled The Aryan Papers, on a Jewish family which poses as Catholic to escape the holocaust. Specifically, it draws on the wardrobe shots of the actress who was to play the lead. These shots, and re-enactments of the shots, play on a screen flanked with mirrors, while the actress reads excerpts and talks about her role in the unfinished film, briefly interspersed with production photographs, which veer from famous images of the Warsaw Ghetto to more snapshots of clothes and haircuts.

The work's self-presentation in interviews and blurbs centres on these complex stories, and their historical complications and resonances (occasionally combined with the homily that the original film was stopped because of its attempt to 'represent the unrepresentable'). There isn't much, though, about what you actually see in the work. In the sections filmed by the Wilson twins that dominate the film, what you see is a blonde woman with her hair in a bun, in a variety of 1940s outfits - dresses, fur coats, wide black trousers, seamed stockings, high heels - walking around Hornsey Town Hall. As a purely aesthetic work it's coldly intriguing, slow, stately, with a heavily erotic undercurrent. In the same issue of Sight and Sound linked above, a long article wondered why Kubrick's films were so 'unsexy', as if the absence of heat, warmth and earthiness somehow stripped them of any sexual affect. Unfolding the Aryan Papers is, like Kubrick himself, acutely aware of Benjamin's 'sex appeal of the inorganic', and the shots of stockinged legs walking up Hornsey's steps are lingering, obsessive. Both the clothes and the building seem to suggest a fundamentally aestheticised notion of the past, and especially of the 1940s. The artists mention that the town hall 'looked not dissimilar to the production stills on the costume shoot', but this seems highly disingenuous, looking at the rustic wooden door that acts as backdrop to the original photographs. 

Hornsey is a very astute choice, from a visual if not archival point of view. If it had been filmed in an international style building of the same era, the temporality would have be wrong - these are buildings which frequently look like they were made yesterday, which is certainly not the case with Hornsey Town Hall's muted, sober Dudokisms, its brick, lacquered wood and austere palette of browns and darkened yellows, all of which immediately evoke the mustiness of rationing and municipal politics rather than the Meditteranean futurism of CIAM Modernism. Now abandoned and empty, the space as used here verges on austerity nostalgia, albeit with the era's strangeness and otherness emphasised rather than reduced to commentary on our consumer choices. The clothes, too, are meticulously and intriguingly chosen, and the work could easily be taken as a 17-minute film about vintage dresses, with the succession of outfits having a sharply austere glamour. On the soundtrack, there is talk about the unfinished, the fragmentary and the unrepresentable, but this is all basically non-diegetic, and doesn't act as any kind of commentary on what we see. What is actually on screen is intensely polished and cinematic, only wrenched out of any context - a shot of a hand brushing a handrail is invested with an emotional and aesthetic significance which refers to nothing much. To accuse the project of 'using the holocaust as a stage set for a fashion show' is blunt, but at least recognises that in all the material corralled together into the film, the actual historical event which Kubrick wanted to try and make a film around (not about) is demoted, unimportant. The documentary images of the Warsaw Ghetto are more to do with Kubrick's archives than the events themselves. More, this is a fashion show about Kubrick, and about a particular idea of a bureaucratic, sinister and coldly glamorous 1940s, rather than about the unmade film's original subject matter.

(the film can be watched online here)


Some tenuously linked links. Someone described the following as 'almost parodically Hatherleyesque', and, being a writer wholly unafraid of self-parody, here they are: a selection of covers of Soviet Science Magazines, from the 50s to the 70s. It's on the English Russia site, which unfortunately means it's bookended by adverts for Russian brides, a reminder of the benefits capitalism has vested upon the Russian people. Some of these covers are cute and gawky, some are fantastic pieces of midcentury design, but most are baroque, overstuffed, megalomaniacal and demented. One of them even seems to be based on the design of the Jested TV Tower, a decade before it was built...More futures yet to come - City of Sound on his hometown of Sheffield. A brilliant post, especially on the attempt there to create a viable future (far more so than Liverpool and Manchester - compare the two cities' postwar architecture, or compare bleep to baggy) and its undermining by ingrained provincialism and later, the ravages of Thatcherism, leaving the familiar landscape of sheds and wasteland on the edges and regeneration pap at the centre. I'll be writing about Sheffield as the fourth part of my BD cities series (Nottingham next, Notts people) but it'll struggle to be as good as this. On the subject of my hometown, meanwhile, the Ghost of Nairn haunts Southampton, taking aim at its eye-wateringly appalling hotels.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Hit the Hut

Me on the reconstruction of Le Corbusier's Cabanon, on the Frieze website, where I am obviously far more interested in Grey Wornum and Eileen Gray than in the cabin itself.

A Place for Things

Postmodernism has long since acquired its own history, sloughed off several different skins and assimilated competing aesthetics while never being replaced by another paradigm. As much as you can see this in architecture, in the decline of the Michael Graves/Terry Farrell aesthetic of 1980s super-pomo, you can see it in film. There was a brilliant post about a year ago at boredom is always counter-revolutionary about what we could call the early postmodernist metropolis, as seen in a variety of special effects-laden blockbusters. These films - he lists Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Batman, The Crow, Ghostbusters - are examples of 'prototype cyberpunk environments (which) root themselves too firmly to the past and to material humanity to really embrace the digitalised dystopia suggested by that label.' This is an era where Jim Henson's Creature Workshop represents the last gasp of the Harryhausen uncanny before the dominance of CGI, and its ability to make the impossible boring. The city is always (a version of) New York, and it is probably the formative idea of the city for those of us (like myself and I presume, Sam of Boredom is always) who were born in the 1980s and watched these films in the multiplexes or nagged our parents to buy the extensive merchandise. A city of shadows, Gothic skyscrapers, Koolhaasian congestion, megalomaniac bosses (business and criminal) and animatronic creatures rising up from the urban id. If there is any worth whatsoever in the decade's mainstream architecture then it's in the occasional ability of the likes of Broadgate to evoke these places' pre-web physicality and air of doom and excess; and if it survives anywhere in London, it is in the derangement of the senses found in the Trocadero.

Gremlins 2 is arguably the finest of these films. Here, Joe Dante's monsters emerge again from their cutesy chrysalis, except this time they get a New York skyscraper to destroy rather than a mere suburban town. This place, the Clamp Centre, is an amalgam of the Trump tower and the technofetishism of prime-era High Tech. Outside there is 'slick-tech' mirrorglass, inside bared machinery that seems to evoke the revived, shoulderpadded art deco of Helmut Jahn as much as it does Rogers and Foster. Announcing itself as 'the world's most fully automated office building', it is workplace, television station, mall and secret experimental laboratory (helmed, of course, by Christopher Lee). Our protagonist is a draughtsman in the tower's architectural department, and, doubtless alienated by all this post-industrial chaos, sketches images of his suburban hometown when the boss isn't looking. Although the film is, aside from the monsters themselves, little more than the sum of its references (as many as a particularly dense episode of The Simpsons), at the heart of it is an architectural parable. We know, of course, that all this fully automated skyscraper is going to be taken over by the Gremlins, and even before it is, we have an exploration of its mixed uses that suggests Dante had a very well-thumbed copy of Delirious New York. We also see its unofficial spaces, its ducts and service areas, the inside and outside of its lift shafts, all of which the Gremlins and the Mogwai can traverse as they wish. The laboratory creates all manner of enhanced Gremlins - especially memorably, an intellectual Gremlin who claims that what the Gremlins eventually want is 'civilisation...chamber music, Susan Sontag'.

High tech's engineering fetish is mirrored by the early postmodernist film. Something like Aliens is essentially a work of engineering rather than a work of cinema in the traditional sense, in its use of a huge disused oil refinery as a playground for highly-engineered creatures and their human prey. With appropriate self-referentiality, Gremlins 2 turns this into a comment on engineering and architecture itself. As the delirious skyscraper is turned into a space for the destructive use of the creatures, it is abandoned by its boss, the Trump stand-in Daniel Clamp. After the Gremlins have been vanquished, Clamp is pleased to see the destruction of his edifice. 'It wasn't really a place for people. It was a place for things. And if you make a place for things, things come.' Then, he finds our protagonist's suburban sketches. Delighted, he declares that this will be the basis of the next Clamp project, far from the tower's demonic urbanism. 'This is what people want now! The traditional community thing!' He imagines what an adaptation of this drawing of idyllic suburbia into a new town would become under his watch: 'Clamp Corners, where life slows down to a crawl'. Right - and what happens next in postmodernism is an abandonment of these fantastic mechanistic spaces, all too easily commandeered by the monstrous urban id represented by the Gremlins, in favour of the retrogressive, sleepy, conformist fantasies of the New Urbanism.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Architecture can be avoided

A spectre is haunting British architectural journalism - the spectre of Ian Nairn. Ie, the spectre of critical, direct, emotional writing about space and structures. Stepping into the breach, at least in terms of Nairn's bilious, anti-Subtopian ranting side - the mysterious Ghost of Nairn's blog Bad British Architecture, which features this wholly admirable precis: 'I hate how no-one ever talks about how bad British architecture really is. I hate the bastards who make these buildings. So here I am, taking the piss out of them.' Superb.

I do quite frequently talk about how bad British architecture actually is, although on the subject of Milton Keynes the overwhelmingly sublime open spaces and lush underpasses enables the place to seemingly not need the architecture to be that good. And most of it since the 1980s is pretty bad. Nonetheless - here I am waxing lyrical. Like the old East Berlin before the shopping malls and the infilling of its vast plazas. In a good way.

(thanks again to Joel for photos)

Thursday, March 05, 2009

In Praise of Miners and Postmen

Me in the NS, on the GPO Film Unit, and on a revisionist history of the Miners Strike (co-written by Francis Beckett, who I usually have a lot of time for).

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

That joke isn't funny anymore

A recent purchase from Trafalgar Road's invaluable branch of Save the Children - Tony Hancock's second film, The Punch and Judy Man. This is the first product of Hancock's generally disastrous separation from his scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, and is not generally well-regarded. It's also a fascinating failure, which was quite possibly the intention. Co-written by Hancock with Philip Oakes, this is in several places pretty transparent autobiography. The appalling seaside town is based on Bournemouth, where he grew up (although filmed in Bognor Regis), the disintegrating marriage has much in common with his own, and the miserable entertainer may just have something in common with the co-scriptwriter. Still, reference-spotting is mostly fairly pointless, and if this were just a 'this is me!' exercise it would be pretty drab. As it is, the film is a weird conflict between the overambitious and the low-key. The opening titles seem to declare straightaway that we're now watching something serious - shots of a crushingly bleak Bognor filmed in expressionist tones, windswept, shadowy and cruel. The detail of the town is similarly relentless. The moments where we see inside the Punch and Judy show are mordant and claustrophobic, and a potentially sentimental element - a weird child who follows Hancock around for every performance - is dropped remarkably quickly.

It's the technique which makes it such a jarring film, though. For Steptoe and Son Galton and Simpson deliberately chose straight actors, so they wouldn't play for laughs, as Hancock and his supporting cast of comics always did - and here, you can see Hancock forcing himself not to be funny. His co-star Sylvia Syms claimed that his first takes in the film would always be hilarious, and he would then insist on incessant retakes until the joke disappeared. The glorious idiot of the TV series and The Rebel is exchanged for a depressed, mundane man, mildly nonconformist, but with little else to distinguish him. Sometimes this leads to total failures - a long slapstick scene in an icecream parlour with the aforementioned child is astoundingly unfunny - but elsewhere it makes for an understatedly devastating film. The scenes from a marriage are particularly stunning, with an opening breakfast rivalling the dinners of Citizen Kane in the ability to describe mutual hatred and anomie in a few gestures. The final scenes, after a potentially cathartic battle with the town's dignitaries, return to domestic inertia, but of a rather different kind. Quietly brought together by mutual ostracism, the couple seem to be unromantically reconciled. Yet the whole scene hinges on Hancock looking lovingly at his wife's new black eye.

Caressing the Marble and Stone

Was asked last week, by one of my fellow jurors during an architecture crit at which I happened to be an ineffective juror, what exactly was the difference between Fascist and Constructivist architecture. I then quoted some Benjamin on contemplation vs use and manipulation, but this is a significantly less easy question to answer than the Nazi/Constructivist one. Entirely coincidentally, I bought a second-hand book on Giuseppe Terragni the day after, which features at least one building that has a corner extremely similar to that of Ilya Golosov's Zuev Workers' Club, and built in the same year (and judging by the photos, it actually gets upkept). Other photos in the Terragni book show similarities with the Vesnin brothers' work in Moscow, although there's little of the chaotic, jagged fury of early Constructivism here. And with the famous work - the Casa del Fascio most obviously - we have an adaptation of classical ideas of eternal forms into something compatible with the international style. While its games with perception and geometry have been borrowed by Eisenman and innumerable others, there's little doubt that 'Fascism is a glass house' (as Mussolini put it) as exemplified here is something very different from the 'new glass culture' of the bauhaus or Bruno Taut - one seems designed to use glass as a way of wiping the slate clean and dispensing with physicality, the other to create new edifices of glass, using the opaque to create monuments. 

Not that this results in bad or uninteresting architecture. I have a reluctant but intense affection for neoclassicism at its most oppressive - in London, the grace and fol-de-rol of the Palladian seems distinctly less interesting than the mathematical bombast of the British Museum, or the ruthless bureaucratic horror of the Ministry of Defence. For anyone with a liking for coldness, severity and a fine desolate plaza it's difficult not to enjoy most Italian Fascist architecture, although to elevate it Aldo Rossi-style into a principle for all cities to follow would still be a bit of a leap. Regardless, all this is really just a preamble to linking the fantastic Citta del Fascismo flickr group, which surely proves at least a few Benjaminian points about Fascist aesthetics, featuring as it does a series of aestheticised, depopulated, monumental spaces marked by their strangely intriguing De Chirico emptiness. But what might the politics of this group be, given the far-Right context of contemporary Italy? Might this actually not be enjoyed with the now-obligatory historical distance?

EUR image via

Monday, March 02, 2009

Girl Singing in the Wreckage

In all the recent 'what do we do now?' articles that have pervaded the architectural press and blogs (including myself here), aside from the recognition, made with varying degrees of rancour and schadenfreude that the 'radical' architecture of the boom merely provided ideology via titanium cladding, there has been something missing - the question of what, if we take literally (as we should) Walter Benjamin's claim that every epoch dreams its successor, is going to follow the spaces of neoliberalism? Given that this collapsing order has no obvious successors, and given also the likely spiralling effects of climate change, or the endless war that 'unipolarity' will generate, the chances are at least strong that it will look like we have dreamt our successors in the form of nightmares. The always reliably apocalyptically gleeful Socialism and/or Barbarism has a few intriguing and/or terrifying suggestions, posited in his dialectics-via-giallo idiom as the first in a series of 'apocalyptic notes'. He argues for an aesthetic that, abandoning the shininess of cyberpunk and the consolatory pleasures of steampunk, he calls 'salvagepunk'.

Salvagepunk seems to start from what is probably the best mini-encapsulation of architecture during the boom, at least in the sub-primed/credit-crunched Anglo-Saxon economies - this short post at the FJ, which notes that there has been a weird reversal of Modernist and autopian dreams of mobile cities, houses that can be erected and dismantled at will, the lineage that goes from Frank Lloyd Wright through Mikhail Okhitovich through to Archigram, so that while capital has become completely decentred, moving through a network of 'offshore' and non-state sites where it can avoid sordid earthbound neccessities such as tax (cf also China Mieville's essay on the executive floating cities of neoliberalism for Evil Paradises), the thing which sparked off the inevitable crash was the most blandly grounded architecture imaginable - the vaguely vernacular boxes that, from Indiana to Hertfordshire, 'solid', brick-built, traditional, being sold to those who were in no position to join the 'property-owning democracy'. The result has been that, with appropriate dialectical logic, 'finance itself has taken on the dreams of boundary-less freedom we might once have wished for ourselves, while we have invested all our desires and more than we earn in staying put, staying home.'

So the response by comrade Calder-Williams to our stasis and their deterritoriality is to embrace a cranky, broken and dilapidated version of the Walking City, one which is more based on Howl's Moving Castle or Mad Max than Archigram's proto-Monty Python surrealist Disurbanism, a sort of pragmatic apocalypticism where the leftovers of advanced technologies are used in a debased form, montaged together via 'bits and pieces, rags and bones' into new constructions rather than created ex nihilo, or in harmony with nature via the pieties of sustainability. This all strikes me as being a fine first draft for a new (dis)urbanism, if it didn't have that faintly terrifying, survivalist air. I still find the idea that mess is something we should embrace rather than something imposed upon us unwillingly to be a little dubious, as I remain overly attached to the Modernist jingle of 'clean living under difficult circumstances' - but I look greatly forward to the next parts of this projected series...

Sunday, March 01, 2009

How I learned to stop worrying and -

Wire contributor, semi-mythical pop svengali, erstwhile thespian, sampler troubadour and untidy kitchen user (relevant, as I share a flat with the man and mostly write this blog in said kitchen, the largest room in flat) R. William Barry has a blog. It is, to my minor chagrin, really very good - fine posts so far on the political history of the potato, cartoon music and a full interview with Czech New Wave denizen Jiri Menzel. It should be read, although it'll only inflate his ego to even more astonishing proportions.

Neoliberal Undeath

Some more morbid symptoms. 'Gordon Brown tells post office unions 'there is no alternative'', said one of the more (inadvertently) historically droll headlines in the last few days. What is grimly fascinating about New Labour's relentless determination to flog at least 30% of the Post Office at the same time as it takes control of 95% of RBS, is that the vaguely Keynesian rhetoric of the last few months has been playing a strange game of hide-and-seek. When it comes to the truly pathetic attempts to convince the RBS boss to forego his enormous pension, the rhetoric is a populistic one of fat cats, putting 'people before bankers', etc etc (obviously the genuinely 'Keynesian' solution of an appropriately punitive hike in income tax is beyond the pale). Yet when it comes to grappling with the unions and the bulk of the Labour Party, currently at risk of one of its rare moments of backbone, it's 1997 all over again, and amusingly the idea seems to be that vanquishing the left will be some kind of great electoral coup. Look at this story, and note how little has actually changed. The phraseology is so dated you can practically hear the tones of D:REAM in the background, or visualise FBU strikers being sacrificed on the Murdoch altar. In exactly the same news story where you will find Fred Goodwin getting a token bashing and the claim that 'markets alone will not do the job', there is a very familiar New Labour litany: change! Tough Choices! No surrender to the unions! No turning back!