Thursday, May 28, 2009

In Search of the South Coast Supercity

Cities and the myths they tell about themselves. Read: this old article on the Southampton-Portsmouth rivalry, which says a surprising amount about politics and culture in the unglamorous bits of Southern England. Now, as a Sotonian with family from Portsmouth and Fareham, I don't quite have the requisite visceral hatred for Pompey that is customary (although I should point out here I don't go as far as my Grandma, who always claimed to 'support both', which defies the laws of nature). Either way, what is really interesting in this article is that it makes perfectly clear that the alleged historical and political reasons for the intense mutual hatred are something imposed post-facto. For instance, Portsmouth supporters have always claimed that their chosen insult for us - 'scum' (imaginative!) comes from 'Southampton Corporation Union Men', in reference to a Dock strike broken by Southampton Dockers in the '30s. As Southampton is a commercial port and Portsmouth a military one, this is of course impossible - though as the article points out, the latter did acquire a commercial port in the '80s partly by accepting scab shipping when Southampton was on strike. Yet the defence of Southampton's own radical history here is also based on political falsehood (at least in this instance - in the 1910s the docks stood with Red Clydeside as one of the most Bolshevik places in the country), through the non-fact that Southampton was the only city south of London to elect a Labour MP in the 1983 election. In fact, SDP defections meant that Soton had only Tory MPs between 1983 and 1992.

The significance of all this local minutiae? That both of these cities, in relatively apolitical parts of the country, justify their sporting hatreds largely through reference to history (mutual enmity between military and civilian England) and left-wing politics (through imaginary breaches of working class solidarity). In particular, the article shows the two cities competing as to who is the roughest via evident untruths. So Soton is apparently posh and semi-rural because Winchester and the New Forest are nearby - a quick trip to St Marys or (shudder) Thornhill should rectify this misapprehension. Portsmouth is alleged to be an insular island, yet Pompey has played the Blairite iconic architecture/urban regeneration game far more effectively than the hapless Soton, which has almost solely built nondescript retail and Barratt boxes since the 70s. British cities' perception of each other, when refracted through the compulsory agonism of sport, gets decidedly skewed, but is on close investigation usually built on absolutely sod all, and tends to be very recent. Interestingly, in the 60s, at the exact point the Soton-Pompey rivalry first emerged, Colin Buchanan was charged by the Wilson government with developing a plan for the 'Southampton-Portsmouth Supercity'. Uniting these two cities separated by a vague suburban interzone into one huge metropolis of around a million people, this would have become the fourth or fifth city in the country. The plan resembles Nikolai Milyutin's Sotsgorod, the production line city never quite built in the USSR - a diagram made up of linear strips of industry and suburbia linking the two distinct cities, with a dense new centre in the middle. It could be argued that the Saints/Pompey rivalry is what happened instead of this South Coast Megalopolis. Rather than a real modernity, we got dimwitted atavism - but one justified with recourse to the serious politics it effectively replaced.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Historical Construction

The following is taken from an unfinished review of Evgeny Dobrenko's Stalinist Cinema and the Production of History - Museum of the Revolution.

Among the Russian matters which the British press has been wringing its hands about over the last couple of years is the 'Greatest Russian of all time' poll, 'Name of Russia', conducted by Russia TV. A similar exercise in Britain saw an eventual contest between the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Winston Churchill. In Russia the major worry was that Joseph Stalin – a Georgian, after all – would be voted as Greatest Russian, something not altogether surprising when taking into account either his success as an imperialist, or the paltry attempts at de-Stalinisation by both Communists and neoliberals. After a brief and heartening period where it appeared as if Yuri Gagarin or Lenin might win this exercise in public approbation, the eventual winner was Alexander Nevsky, medieval warlord and leader of Rus. 

Not the least interesting matter in Evgeny Dobrenko's attempt to survey Stalinist cinema as an example of the 'production of history' is the discussion of who Nevsky actually was, or rather how he was created. Unlike, say, King Arthur, there is certainty that Nevsky existed, and that he won certain military battles against some countries and conducted alliances with others. Yet very, very little else was known about him in 1938 when Sergei Eisenstein's film Alexander Nevsky was released. Dobrenko makes clear that, for Eisenstein, this was quite deliberate. Desperate to make a film, after the consecutive disasters of Que Viva Mexico! (cancelled by his American sponsors) and Bezhin Meadow (banned by the Soviets and later destroyed), Eisenstein had the opportunity to make a patriotic historical epic, one not unrelated to the possibility of a forthcoming war. Dobrekno writes:

'Offered a choice between Alexander Nevsky and (the 17th century folk hero) Ivan Susanin, Eisenstein settled on Alexander because practically no historical materials had been preserved from this time. 'Whatever you did would be correct, nobody could refute you'' 

Alexander Nevsky would, from 1938 onwards, always be seen through Alexander Nevsky. In a sense this is not unlike Hollywood's own historical constructions - Robin Hood, for instance, will always look like Errol Flynn – but it is given a sharper political significance by the Great Patriotic War, and the role that both Nevsky and Nevsky played within it. The film's great set-piece, its only rival to the 'ecstatic' release of the Odessa Steps or The General Line's cream-separator, is the 'battle on the ice', a spectacular fight against inhuman, armour-clad Teutonic Knights, and after a brief decline during the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the film would be a regular backdrop to the attempt to drive out another army of Teutons. War posters show paintings of Nevsky based on the film as a patriotic inspiration to the Russian soldier, while an Order of Alexander Nevsky ('awarded to commanders for showing initiative in the choice of a felicitous moment for a sudden, unexpected attack') was created. Dobrenko relishes this definitive confirmation of history's cinematic production: 'it turned out that no contemporary portrait of the epic leader existed. And so the decoration used the profile of...Nikolai Cherkassov, from Eisenstein's film.'

This vignette makes clear the value both to the historian and to the observer of cultural politics in mafia-capitalist Russia of Dobrenko's study. Far from being something thrown out as part of a discarded Soviet baggage, the Soviet cinema of the period least studied by historians - 1932 to 1953, roughly speaking - the Stalinist period, a word used advisedly given the General Secretary's personal interest in and direct interference with cinema, which extended as far as personally ordering Eisenstein to give Alexander Nevsky a happy ending. There are good reasons for the obscurity of this period. The films themselves are not held in high esteem, largely abhorred for their retrograde, philistine repudiation of the 'formalist' works of the 1920s – although these films' retreat from montage into what the younger Eisenstein derided as 'filmed theatre' was paralleled by the sound film in other countries. Aside from a few exceptions, where the memory of once-famous works faintly lingers – Chapaev, Mark Donskoi's Gorky trilogy, Kozintsev and Trauberg's Maxim films, Eisenstein's late work – these are very seldom seen in the west. Most of all, their unashamed glorification of one of the 20th century's most barbaric regimes has an unsurprising effect on their public perception. Nevertheless, these films, as the example of Nevsky proves, may have a public cachet in Russia akin to that of the 'golden age' of Hollywood – the period of widest cinema attendance, and of the greatest political and emotional investment in the form. It may be the case that Nevsky is a Soviet equivalent of, say, Casablanca, something ingested to the point where even those who haven't seen it can quote large chunks of the dialogue. As it is, the viewers and voters of Name of Russia have, whether they were aware of the fact or not, voted for a fiction, a myth, and one created as recently as 1938. What makes this unusual is that this myth was created consciously, and in public.

Friday, May 22, 2009

This is Yesterday

The Manic Street Preachers were, as good Public Enemy fans, always Ministers of Information, adept at spreading black propaganda, making grandiose claims, public statements and generating slogans, at letting the paintings and the chosen quotes on the sleeves do the work that a lesser band would leave to the music itself. The music was always, always secondary, even that being essentially an equation, a calculation of how to achieve maximum exposure (albeit a failed one - and their initial 'Public Enemy + Guns and Roses' is a better description of the undeniably modernist, if grisly, world of late 90s nu-metal, as opposed to the MSP's early Eliot writing for Def Leppard). Recently myself and another who was a teenage Manics fan had the pleasure of explaining the group to an American philosophy lecturer who had never heard them, and he was entirely baffled - faced with the likes of 'Foucault writing lyrics for a soft metal group' he asked 'why are you trying to explain what this group are like using writers?' As such, Journal for Plague Lovers is an exemplary Manics record, of the sort they haven't made in over a decade. Not because it's 'a return to their roots', nor because of the unusually fine lyrics, but because it's such an impressive publicity stunt. Not only the exhuming of Richey Edwards' 1995 notebooks for the lyrics, but also the hiring of Albini as 'reducer', the cover artwork by Jenny Saville - an image of a feral-looking child with a facial resemblance to Edwards, which will be covered in Smell the Glove fashion in supermarkets, because it apparently looks like a 'battered child' - in sum, their incredibly explicit attempt to remake what is by far their finest record

I am all the things that you regret

It's all a magnificent propaganda effort, and it clearly worked - for one thing it actually made me want to hear their new record. It's here that the Manics suddenly seem rather less clever, but more a group locked into a grim Groundhog Day loop of their own making. There's a very well- established sequence now - the slick, scrupulously well-produced commercial record (Gold against the Soul, This is my Truth, Lifeblood), invariably followed by the fierce 'return to roots', the angry, messy glam/punk record (The Holy Bible, Know Your Enemy, Send Away the Tigers), with ever-diminishing returns. The last album I heard all the way through was the embarrassing Know Your Enemy, a record whose cringeworthy nature can be gleaned from its titles as much from the fundamentally irrelevant music - 'Baby Elian', 'My Guernica'. With the others, I heard the godawful singles and that was more than enough. But with this one, I pitched an article to a prominent publication (eventually decommissioned, perhaps mercifully) in which I would have some sort of reckoning with the group, one who, with their unashamed style-over-substance, their lyrical density and their obsessions (at least circa 1994 - 20th century history/history of ideas, Soviet imagery, post-punk, body horror) are as much an influence on how I ended up as a writer as the less embarrassing groups I might cite from time to time. So I got a press pack, a pile of papers combining the (all-important) lyric sheet with trite sleevenotes by John Niven (whither Octave Mirbeau, inadvertent writer of The Holy Bible's epigraph?) and a hilarious page where the Manics explained the 'musical ideas' behind each track. Eg: 'Closest we have ever sounded to Nirvana with a Sixties pop sensibility and a Steve Jones guitar solo' or 'Deep Chamber of Sorrow Drums - Velvets doom march - hearbreaking ticking clock volcanic ending', an amusing reminder that the Manics are basically music journalists who somehow ended up making music instead. I was all ready to denounce this as one of the grossest examples yet of rock necrophilia, the ventriloquy of a (presumed) dead man's notebooks as a grisly culmination of the Mojo/Uncut world of morbid museum culture which has become rock music's ultimate terminus.

a dwarf takes his cockerel out of the cockfight; vultures attack the pigeons, in the West Wing at night

Listening to 'Peeled Apples', the opening track, you suddenly think (or at least I think) - this - this extremely belated attempt to provide some sort of continuation of The Holy Bible's blocked promise - might actually work. The music is fierce, pounding post-grunge (not a genre I would usually tarry with, of course), the lyrics throw together self-harm, imperial delusions, sloganeering ('the Levi jean has always been stronger than the Uzi'), cockfights and torture, with oblique wit - all translated into a controlled barking not heard from James Dean Bradfield for 15 years. It's a footnote, but what a footnote. Stepping back a moment. The Holy Bible, as I've written before, is a very fucking weird record. In an NME context it might seem sonically extreme, but this is entirely relative. For all the John McGeoch guitars and Bradfield's impassioned, heroic yammering, the memorable effect is more to do with the breathtaking (accidental?) audacity of combining the horrendous, brilliant, lyrics with big choruses, guitar heroics, rockist dynamics and minor, but extremely effective use of sampling. I can think of few things in any music as chilling as the voices that punctuate the record (eg, JG Ballard, plummily intoning 'I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror') or as shocking, as vertiginous as the way that the unforgiving, encrypted, hyper-erudite indictments of 'Of Walking Abortion' or 'Archives of Pain' veer suddenly into enormous, horrible stadium singalongs. And those lyrics are not what Rock History might lead us to believe, given their context as a pre-(presumed) suicide record. Compared with this, Ian Curtis was a purveyor of portentous platitudes, Kurt Cobain's gripes only occasionally coherent. On the songs that make the record worth bothering with (around two thirds of the album - '4st 7lb', 'Yes', 'Archives', 'Abortion', 'Faster', 'Die in the Summertime', 'Mausoleum') this is emphatically not a 'break up album' or a Gram Parsons or Neil Young smack-and-depression angst record. The lyrical strategy is far weirder - a sort of conflating of horrors, where lyrics survey everything from Americanism and the grotesquerie of Malcolm X branded trainers to anorexia nervosa to prostitution as exemplary capitalist transaction, to the public executions of dictators, an almost straight advocacy of capital punishment in the name of revolutionary violence, to the capacity for pain and illness of the human body itself - frequently montaged together in the same line. The title itself is a stroke of minor genius - inspired by the fact that the book can be found in every hotel room in the world. 

...humanity recovered, glittering etiquette'

The Holy Bible's texts were a stunning leap from the sloganeering and self-pity of their first two albums, and if Edwards had at this point a contemporary as a lyricist, it was the Scott Walker of Nite Flights, Tilt and The Drift. Both lyricists flagrantly ignored Adorno's counsel (with reference to Schoenberg's Survivor from Warsaw) that to attempt to poeticise these horrors always restores the horror to aesthetic contemplation, no matter how unpleasant or dissonant that contemplation. Scott Walker's response to this is at least to create a musical edifice forbidding enough to discourage easy consumption, something which really isn't replicated by James Dean Bradfield's overdriven and flanged guitars, but the thematic and methodological similarity is clear. A Walker lyric like 'The Cockfighter' or 'Clara' is remarkably similar in its panoply of voices, its mingling of description and accusation, its unforgiving lingering on the recent history we'd rather forget, to 'Mausoleum' or 'Of Walking Abortion', albeit with the sophistication you'd expect from it being written by a significantly older and more guarded writer. The Manics' general tawdriness is one of the reasons why this is seldom noticed. Listening (or rather, reading) the new record is a reminder of what a strange and gifted writer (and sleeve designer, and propagandist) they lost, as well as a reminder that he was to an extent stuck in a band nowhere near as interesting as he was. Even in the handful of moments where Nicky Wire's lyrics approach some sort of greatness ('This is Yesterday', 'A Design for Life'), they're comparitively trite and over-direct. The lyrics on Journal for Plague Lovers, however, are after the initial blast, a very odd affair indeed, suggesting that the album not made after The Holy Bible, even with the more textually brutal tracks recorded in 1995-6 such as 'Judge Yrself' or 'Small Black Flowers that Grow in the Sky', would have been a step back from confrontation into an intriguingly hermetic wordplay.

I would prefer no choice - one bread, one milk, one food that's all

Most reviews have noted, rather incredulously, how funny, how relatively light Journal for Plague Lovers is. Actually there's an extremely mordant wit in 'Yes' or 'Faster' which is usually missed, but in 'Jackie Collins Existential Question Time' (oh yes) or 'Me and Stephen Hawking', Edwards adds to his montages - Mark E Smith-style - lines from working men's club comedy routines, confessions of illness and physical inadequacy that are more rueful than wracked, with JDB's settings of Pixies-ish puckish punk-pop an apt, if inadequate approximation of the lyrical curios. 'Me and Stephen Hawking' in particular is a bizarre farce on biotechnology and factory farming, in its deeply peculiar way one of the best things Edwards ever wrote. There are two tracks of straightforward Holy Bible horror: 'She Bathed Herself in a Bath of Bleach', a grand guignol lyric exhibiting a familiar horror of physical intimacy and dependency, rather unfortunately translated into a risible Nirvana pastiche; and 'All is Vanity', where the group manage to almost conjure up a return to The Holy Bible's preposterous balancing act, with guitar solos and big choruses aligning with a wilfully blank text where selfhood and desire are supposedly effaced by hair dye and an ersatz asceticism. Sadly, some of Journal is as lyrically unimpressive as it is musically - 'Doors Closing Slowly' and 'This Joke Sport Severed' are mere self-pity, turned into mawkish balladry; 'Pretension/Repulsion' comes across as unfinished rather than suggestive, while brilliant sketches of chemical adjustment and bodily transformation like 'Facing Page: Top Left' or 'Virginia State Epileptic Colony' are finished in the form of drab indie rock. The voices inbetween, one of the more ill-advised attempts at Holy Bible emulation, are almost entirely forgettable, bar the Marlon Brando monologues excerpted on the sentimental but nonetheless rather thrilling farrago of 'Marlon J.D'. It ends with what is the nearest the record gets to Richeyspoitation; 'William's Last Words', a text resembling a suicide note sung tremulously and, frankly, very affectingly by Nicky Wire, followed by a 'hidden track': 'Bag Lady', whose first line is 'I am not dead'. This is merely macabre, but it marks a very good point for the group to finally stop. After all their betrayals, their endless lumpen retreads, the Manics have finally written a decent epitaph for themselves, a point where they could quit with some dignity. Needless to say, they're currently recording a new album.

a truth that washes, that learned how to spell

Obviously, though, I did not come to this record expecting an exciting aural experience. Equally obviously, I would rather be listening to Rustie or something equally bright, enjoyable and pointless, but there is no way I will ever give so much of a damn. When popular music starts to be all about the music, we're dealing with a significantly less interesting art form. Journal for Plague Lovers is an awful mess, not something I suspect I'll listen to much (while The Holy Bible gets intensely revisited once every year or so, usually with attendant feeling of mild embarrassment at what my friends might say mingled with surprise at how good it is) but I've thought about it more than I have hardly any other record made in the last few years. I concur almost entirely with Robin Carmody when he writes: 'more than ever, the Manics - with the Smiths, Britain's greatest anti-pop pop group - stand out as the last of a line: born as they were into the last generation raised on and defined by "classic" British socialism, they were the last generation to even be aware of the concepts and contexts that defined everything they did'. It was inspired of Jeremy Deller to call the exhibition he curated on the MSP The Uses of Literacy, as these texts, these ill-advised records, are the perfect corrective to Richard Hoggart's disdain for the 'sex in shiny packets' promised by popular music. A young man from one of those close-knit communities hymned in Hoggart's (still fascinating, still deeply problematic) book, using pop music as a vehicle for a form of writing more associated with High Modernism - but most importantly, using that music in its most base and generic form, Americanised big rock, as a means of putting that across. It failed, it's contradictory, it's in appalling taste - but it was something unique and valuable that could only ever have been achieved in this art form. It'll be a tragedy if nothing as ridiculous and brilliant ever happens in it again.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Kitchen Sink

' own personal journey has mirrored the political journey of the party.'

Towards a theory of Austerity Nostalgia, part three - the case of Hazel Blears. If Blears didn't exist, it would have been necessary for me to invent her. Dragged up in Salford, to the point where she features as one of the child extras in a ground zero of Northern mythography, the film of that bleakest of kitchen sink dramas, A Taste of Honey, her seemingly meteoric rise to a New Labour Thatcher was only halted by the unexpected inconvenience of huge, and possibly criminal, mortgage fiddling. So, this interview from a few months ago documents a car-crash of austerity nostalgia combined with utterly ruthless Blairite modernisation, and as such is grimly intriguing as an exemplar of this curious phenomenon, the only deficiency in her case being a lack of the requisite irony. Much of the interview reads as a document from a country where the second world war never ended. Not only is Blears' office decorated with - of course! - the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' poster, her rhetoric is pervaded by a strange combination of Victorianism and Blitz spirit platitudes. You can see a frankly impressive performance of Blairite dialectic in her clear desire to play to every constituency at once, mocking bankers on the one hand but earlier talking about (progressivist metaphor alert) how the 'train' which they presumably commandeered bafflingly didn't transport every member of society; defending the strict working class Salford that created her but sticking up for the ending of 'deference' and backing off from the possibility that she'd ever stand in the way of anyone's fun; an obvious contempt for the Welfare State combined with a belief that the 'underclasses' need to be surveilled at all times...but the most interesting phrase used in the interview is that, in the recession, 'we've all got to do our bit'. We've all got to pull together. By the end of it, you feel a song coming on. Roll out the barrel...

Partly because of a history that would surely once have assured her of a place on a Smiths single sleeve, Blears, like Blunkett, Prescott, Caroline Flint, fascinates me in a way other New Labour politicians do not. James Purnell, Jacqui Smith, Blair himself, these are apparatchiks who would fit into any party at any time, but who historical happenstance, youthful leftism and ruthless careerism elevated to positions in what was apparently the workers' party. Blears and her ilk are different, and more symptomatically interesting - the New Labour proleface contingent, constantly 'flexing their roots' (copyright Julie Burchill). I know people in the Labour Party like Blears, old friends of my Mum's who junked every serious element of their politics, from the egalitarianism to the opposition to imperialism to the respect for something as basic and elementary as habeas corpus, but who retain their implacable hatred of the bourgeoisie, or at least the liberal segment of it; those who supported tuition fees and the abolition of student grants, because they didn't see why people like their parents should have to pay taxes for the children of the middle classes to go to college (conveniently forgetting their own entirely free education and its place in their self-advancement). Perfectly prepared to defend alleged working class racism, if not working class socialism as anything other than a sentimental memory, she is a Burchill column made flesh, minus the wit or the excuse of coke-induced brain damage (presumably, although we can speculate about what made her Blair's 'ray of sunshine'). If we take literally her comments that her advance has been in tandem with the cause of Labour, it's interesting that it was her who specifically provoked George Monbiot to his most ferocious attack on the government - the finest moment in his journalistic career - followed by this confrontation where Monbiot, frankly, fucks it up, allowing Blears to present herself as an unlikely defender of the Salford proletariat.

In the Times interview she decries, with austere rectitude, the 1980s as a time when yuppies caroused and others suffered, seemingly unaware that this is by now the public perception of the boom of the last decade (the irony that it described her behaviour too, as we now know, is another matter); and as it's domestic politics she feels most comfortable talking about, it's this that you would think Monbiot would go for. But while he reprimands her for supporting (or having no opinion on) various British-backed torturers, she's allowed to say, unchallenged, that it doesn't matter to her, as these are all mere bourgeois shibboleths, matters for those who care what happens in Central Asia - not bread and butter issues, not like what she's done for Salford. This is odd, as the counter-argument is simple. She represents one of the most unequal places in the country, but one which has been very keen on remaking itself under her watch, via some very prominent sitebites. When in the Times interview she talks of her love of modern buildings, you're struck first by how much this fits the nostalgia template - take out the politics and you could imagine her in grainy footage next to an architect's model in a GPO film; and second, by what this means in the Salford context. Places like this, if we're being generous, or this, and blocks even worse than that, if we're not. Or perhaps she referred to the 'media city' being built on the former Salford Docks. She certainly doesn't mean any new housing for her 'people', something she explicitly distances herself from, in favour of the spectacularly Dickensian solution of 'mother and baby homes'. She's absolutely right - she represents absolutely perfectly the trajectory of the Labour Party, and as such is truly beyond satire. Make do and mend rhetoric combined with petty graft, without ever seemingly being aware of the contradiction. And as such, she's provided her biggest, if accidental, service to capital, if not to the Labour Party - for her minor corruption in the face of the truly awesome graft of the bank bail-outs.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Vanity Corner

Icon reviews Militant Modernism - a 'sparky, polemical and ferociously learned book', apparently. Also, I forgot to link to PD Smith's review in the Guardian. By this point it's surely due a kicking from someone. In a similar vein: me defending blogs, against a slagging of the blog-becomes-book format from Stephen Howe - which then received a surprisingly sympathetic response...

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


A disconnected collection of links, with a vaguely unifying thread of corruption, architecture and surveillance. First, K-Punk on vintage form, on Alan J Pakula, business ethics and individualism.
Another link pertinent to the proceedings of the Socialist Lavatory League: Jim Schembri calls for a people's movement to reclaim the public loo. The critique of the atomised, automated idiocy of those single toilet pods is particularly sharp; a typically inconvenient neoliberal approach to the public convenience, created in order to efface the worrying collectivity of the truly public pissoirs and cubicles of our Victorian forbears. The public loo must be truly public, or it is nothing at all.
Shockingly enough, an interesting article in Blueprint - Peter Kelly on what has happened to architecture in Rome since the Mayorship was taken over by a 'post-fascist' whose victory was famously greeted by ah, 'Roman salutes'. Unsurprisingly, practically any modern construction has been halted, although it seems that, understandably, nobody is remotely interested in defending the corrupt, neoliberal legacy of former mayor (and Sinistra Invertebrate) Walter Veltroni, rather bafflingly here described as 'left-wing'.

At OpenDemocracy, prolific architectural photographer and historian Edward Denison on The Architectural Photographer as Terrorist - he was recently detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, for the crime of photographing a neo-Georgian police station.
City of Sound on the lack of ambient noise provided by the electric car, something which some lobbyists are rather appallingly planning to rectify by adding traffic noise. COS has some rather more interesting aural suggestions.
Nothing To See Here on Marine Court, the hulking concrete cruiseship which is currently second home to Iain Sinclair, who writes about it with typical overheated noir paranoia here.
More corruption, evil and skulduggery and its occasionally tectonically intriguing results: a photoset of John Poulson's still derelict Leeds International Pool. Brilliantly odd and clearly a film-set in waiting, although not answering the enormously pertinent question of who the Blair boom's John Poulson might be. Hmmm.

Steel City Addenda

Latest in the Urban Trawl series: trying to be all Pevnserian in Sheffield, in BD. A few extra notes and addenda. I might write something longer about Castle Market soon, to really eke out every bit of prose from a few days' flanning about...Photos by Joel Anderson, as ever.

The NUM Headquarters 

Thanks to the commenter who suggested this one. The National Union of Mineworkers' national headquarters was originally in the Euston end of Bloomsbury, where its building can still be seen, near to the current offices of Unison. The decision to move it out of the Great Wen and up to the capital of the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire was made, unsurprisingly, under Scargill, and it was apparently never entirely finished, with construction being abandoned in 1983. The architect Malcolm Lister apparently also designed Scargill's house in Barnsley, the one which he was (erroneously) smeared by the Mirror to have filched Union funds to pay for. What's left of the NUM is now based in Barnsley as well. The building must have been derelict for some time now, but it looked fine on the day we visited, a stocky and powerful little building, like a sobered-up pomo-era Jim Stirling, supposedly in the shape of a Miner's pick. It's slated for demolition like almost everything else of worth in Sheffield, but the recession should at least delay that...

Cold War Megastructures

Two of these which I missed by a few years are the apparently unlamented Town Hall 'egg box' that is nuked in Threads, and the 'wedding cake' which was used for non-religious nuptials, which certainly is lamented, at least by my interlocutors. What I did see was Manpower Services - a stunning building squatting at the edge of the Moor, a ferocious redbrick Ziggurat of remarkable geometric complexity and looming power; and two Jefferson Sheard buildings, the electricity substation, which has some of the finest concrete work I've ever seen, a feast for the beton brut enthusiast, boasting practically every permutation of ferroconcrete surface; and the completely different but cutely tacky Epic Development, former home of the New Roxy Disco, stepped down the hill and covered in public toilet tiles that have seemingly never been cleaned.

Anything before 1945

When you go around the markets and local shops you see a lot of books on the history of Sheffield, all of which seem mainly fixated with the 19th century - oddly, considering the city was, it's almost universally agreed, basically a suburb of Hell. There are a few derelict works in the centre, all mercifully un-Urban Splashed - but neither the industrial or commercial buildings remotely approach the awesome Gradgrindian brutality you can find in Manchester or Nottingham, while the buildings of the 50s, 60s, 70s and early 80s (irrespective of demolitions) are like nothing else. The industrial remants seem more interesting as weird townscape than as works of architecture, little enclaves you suddenly walk in and are transported through different temporalities, before being spewed back out into a would-be utopian 1962, an apologetic 1986 or a blandly pseudomodern 2009. What is of course most interesting is where they all collide, as in the shock of architectural disjunction you can see in the picture at the top of this post.

(many thanks to the Sesquipedalist for tips and tours, Lisa for Castle Market tales of seediness and to the Go boys for the zines)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Careful what you wish for

Last week, myself and several others enjoyed an extremely rare screening of Patrick Keiller's The Dilapidated Dwelling, alternately described by the director as his 'naughty film' or his 'New Labour film'. Regardless, it's quite brilliant (and surely in urgent need of a DVD release, given its extreme topicality), and given a typically incisive analysis by Entschwindet und Vergeht, who rightly notes that one of the central questions someone watching the film today might have is: 'be careful what you demand of capitalism, for it may grant your wish, but never in the way it was asked. In short, The Dilapidated Dwelling asks the question: why does the production of housing never get modernised? (with the linked question, why is construction so backward?) It seems to derive from the successful search for 'new space' in Robinson in Space, where the novel, if unnerving, spaces of containerisation, big sheds, security, espionage and imprisonment almost entirely exclude housing, which is only seen in glimpses, usually of neo-Georgian executive estates. Housing, when this film was made in 1999, was not new space. Watching it now (extract here) leads to certain ironies.

There's a desperately sad yearning in Keiller's Robinson films for a true metropolitanism, a Baudelairean modernity worthy of the first country in history to urbanise itself - in London the capital and its infrastructure is strangled by a 'suburban government', and in Robinson in Space ports like Southampton, Liverpool and Middlesborough are weird, depopulated, with the enormous turnover of imports and exports never leading to any attendant cosmopolitanism or glamour, the internationalism confined to the automated space of the container port. So it's interesting to consider these films after the Urban Task Force, after the palpable failure of Richard Rogers and Ricky Burdett's urban renaissance, the death of which was arguably heralded by Boris Johnson's 'Zone 5 strategy'. The Urban Renaissance was the very definition of good ideas badly thought-out and (mostly) appallingly applied. The expansion of public spaces and mixed uses merely led to pointless piazzas with attendant branches of Costa Coffee; the rise in city living, while having had some achievements like the repopulation of central Manchester, has led to brownfield sites and any space next to a waterway, from the Thames' most majestic expanses to the slurry of Deptford Creek, sprouting more-or-less egregious yuppiedromes and dovecots. Meanwhile, the film's central suggestion - that not only should new housing be on brownfield or greenfield, but replacing the eminently crap housing of 1870-1940 that dominates the country; a fantastic idea, and I'd gladly put my flat first on the list for demolition and reconstruction - arguably found fruit in the truly criminal Pathfinder scheme, the demolition of (frequently, council) housing not to replace it with something better, but for the purposes of 'housing market renewal' in northern towns previously untouched by a southern property boom.

Most of these don't really fit the terms of Keiller's alternatives in The Dilapidated Dwelling, which are mainly focused on the steel-and-glass-and-neoprene gaskets continuum that goes from Bucky Fuller to the Eameses to Rogers and Foster, rather than the wet trades of Brutalism. When you see a yuppiedrome go up, it usually involves a concrete frame, which is then dressed with render, terracotta, wood, anodised aluminium, corten steel, frequently all at once. So it isn't as high-tech as it might seem, but it is a modernisation of a sort, a legacy of New Labour's early years when it looked like it might, at least, have Europeanised Britain rather than dragged it even closer to the collapsing American imperium. As mean as the meanest existenzminimum, most of these blocks are now fit only for the annals of Bad British Architecture, and will almost undoubtedly be looked at by future generations with much the same contempt with which we hold the more genuinely prefabricated Ronan Points of the '60s. The real epicentre of the crash was never the tower in Salford anyway, but the semi in the exurbs, and here there has only been one major attempt at mass housing constructed using truly modern methods, which, rather neatly, came from Richard Rogers - the Oxley Woods houses in Milton Keynes, which I found really very pretty and a genuine, serious effort, although in their context they're quarantined behind a wall of traditionalist whatnot. One possible reason for this failure, other than the shoddy and overpriced nature of New.Urban.Living, is something rather weird which Keiller drew attention to in the Q&A that followed the film screening - a sort of labour theory of value for housing.

Although their ornamentation was usually cast rather than sculpted, and a reading of Robert Tressell might be a good corrective here, people do still think, with some justification, that more labour and craft was expended on your average dilapidated Victorian dwelling than on the most impressive, high-tech and gorgeously functional modernist machine a habiter - so in that sense, the Barratt box is as much a simulation of labour and craft as it is of solidity and permanence. The difficulty, then, in the unlikely event we find ourselves again in the position we were in in 1997, with a huge amount of public goodwill for modernisation, might be to convince people that the intellectual labour behind engineering something like Lloyds or its lesser derivatives was as worthwhile as the apparently obsolete labour behind the Victorian terrace.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Future is Boring

Or: if you like Shenzhen so much, why don't you go and live there?

Tim Abrahams of Blueprint magazine has recently published a critique of British architectural blogs, specifically naming Things, the two FAT bloggers and the blog you are now reading as purveyors of a sort of all-pervasive nostalgia, which stands in the way of us truly thinking the future. Some of his points are just straightforward banalities about the internet that are very familiar from the attacks of print journalists, very effectively outlined by I.T - a sneer at the 'self-published', the allegedly dubious practice of linking, to the particularly dubious invocation of The Real World. Things has already replied in self-defence, and I think the FJ will be doing the same - but I have a few points to make in response to the specific attacks on me, and then more generally on the question of how internet commentators are cheating glossy architectural magazines out of the future. First of all, one of the more peculiar arguments was the characterisation of my blog as links to what I've written in print, combined with a few online-only musings. Abrahams is I assume aware that I was blogging for years before I ever found my way into print - or rather he ought to be aware of it, as Blueprint was the first architectural magazine I ever wrote for, and that as recently as March 2008. So I'm familiar with the difficulty of fitting any kind of 'critique' into the cramped space of their word counts.

There is an argument worth responding to in Abrahams' rant, but before we get to that, I want to take issue with the specifics. For instance: In addition, one sees how the web has become a medium of nostalgia. This goes for those of a modernist bent as much as a postmodernist one. Sit Down Man, You’re a Bloody Tragedy, a blog by Owen Hatherley, author of the recently published book, Militant Modernism, is clearly focused on an interesting collection of articles he has had published plus some online-only musings. This includes an article on Ford which was prompted by a link to a piece about the Ford Anglia on the aforementioned Fantastic Journal. Here we have a fan of civic modernism and an arch postmodernist agreeing on the delights of a car that was popular in the Seventies. This is the kind of scenario that should give us cause for concern.

Years of working at Blueprint have obviously affected Abrahams' reading ability to the point where everything is read with the same glazed-eyes skim with which one peruses the risible, kitsch motorised cock-substitutes that are periodically reviewed in said magazine. Not only have I never mentioned the Ford Anglia, I have barely any idea of what one looks like. I presume he refers to this post, where I start with a link to the FJ's post, and then talk about the specific presence the Ford factory had in the place where I grew up, which, given the bitterness of the memories listed there, can hardly be accused of being dewy-eyed reminisce. However if there is a 'nostalgia' in my writing it is in posts like this (and this, or this). I don't consider my writing about both the wider historical past and my own past - my childhood or teens, my family, and their connection with the recent political past, and the connection of that recent past with design - to be nostalgic as such. I do admit, however, that I linger at it, pick at particular perceived wounds, partly because we are constantly implored not to do so. Move on, forgive and forget, it was years ago, after all. I can't help seeing this in political terms. Going along with the implicit question of why we should care if Park Hill is sold off to yuppies or Robin Hood Gardens knocked down, is the bored question - so what if the Labour movement was obliterated, so an entire history and tradition of working class culture was wilfully destroyed - can't you just get over it and enjoy looking at pictures of the new cultural district in Abu Dhabi?

Although my writing is driven by a feeling that those of us born in the 70s, 80s and 90s were cheated out of a certain kind of future - the future outlined in Patrick Keiller's London of 'what we used to think the future would be like' - equality, technology, infrastructure, sanity - I'm well aware that I write more in this blog about the past than I do about the future. And here, Abrahams' critique seems linked up with a more general one we have heard since the banking crash made suddenly, vertiginously obvious the vacuity of the last 30 years of political thought - what does the Left offer bar a return to the system as it existed before 1979? The first problem with this is the utterly moronic level of futurist thought over the past decade or so, from the 'Singularity' to the starchitects. As anyone who has ever perused the Architects Journal's 'emerging markets series' can attest, we have faced a future constructed by the most brutalised helots, indulging the ego of power and architecture either via an Ayn Rand series of formally whimsical galleries and opera houses for the edification of feudal despots or visiting plutocrats - or perhaps buildings for the oligarchies' rigorously controlled press, or stacked trading floors for now-failed banks. Formally, this always looked 'futuristic', but mostly by drawing on earlier ideas of what the future was supposed to look like, be that googie and space-age design, Constructivism, expressionism, science fiction. Needless to say, this 'future' has been lovingly photographed and spread over the pages of Blueprint for several years now.

But the obvious uselessness of this future doesn't stop Abrahams' question, however clumsily and sneeringly expressed, from having some pertinence. I don't consider it the duty of the critic to predict the future (cf many responses to Mark's recent writings, which seem annoyed specifically by the assertion that the future has turned out to be so boring), but there is an element of truth in the argument that the recession has opened a space which we aren't necessarily filling with a viable vision of the future, but I wonder if that's more to do with the vacuity of the media, old and new, and the necessary length of time it takes to construct a new politics or new forms - we can't just wish them into being. Politically, we can give a series of answers - nationalisation of all privatised utilities without compensation, a 'green new deal' (which, despite the nostalgia of the phrase, would necessarily be a futurist project) to kick-start a less destructive fourth industrial revolution, a move towards participatory rather than allegedly 'representative' democracy - which, in the eyes of the perpetually glib print media, merely sounds like something boringly old. Similarly, architecturally, the future I would like to see would be more defined by its programmes rather than its flashy aesthetics. I'd like to see a massive programme of council housing, an entire new generation of public transport infrastructure (a glimpse?), and a green architecture which doesn't stay at the dumbly symbolic level of tacked-on foliage. I'd like to see such a future, but I don't know if I could draw it. Which brings us back to my alleged co-conspirators in nostalgia, FAT.

The first time I read about FAT and their architecture was not online, but in a typically glib and stereotyped Guardian piece on their Ancoats houses, which played to my prejudices as a fan of 'civic modernism' - good god, postmodernism's back, in the guise of urban regeneration. Yet, from reading Charles Holland and Sam Jacob's writing online, it became abundantly clear that FAT were arguably the only architects in Britain who continued the theoretical sophistication and social seriousness that interested me about Modernism in the first place. Yet, as I.T points out, without the internet there would only ever have been a shallow slanging-match - the mods vs the postmods! - which would have been far less interesting. The difference between FAT and their more ostensibly 'futuristic' contemporaries is particularly obvious in the context of Greater Manchester's architecture. Everywhere, you have buildings which are Britain's nearest approximation of the ManTownHuman idea of what the future is supposed to look like - glass skyscrapers full of overpaid footballers and architects' olive groves, the towering mishmash of the yuppiedromes and dovecots, the titanium-clad banalities of Salford Quays; and in contrast, we have a row of houses which genuinely look like nothing else. Much as I might have huge, huge problems with New Islington and the ever-dubious machinations of Urban Splash, if a new programme of public housing were to emerge, I'd rather it was like FAT's Islington Square than the one-liners and stacked shapeism that have defined the future for the last decade or so. The future ought not to be what it used to be.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Militant Bourgeois

Go read: the FJ on the paintings and architecture of Aldo Rossi: Communist, surrealist draughtsman and alleged proto-postmodernist. Entirely coincidentally, I've just read Rossi's The Architecture of the City for the first time, and fascinating as it is, I can confess to sharing the usual feeling of puzzlement upon facing Rossi's theoretical works for the first time. Much of the book is made up of precise definitions of terms, but it seems absolutely riven with puzzles and contradictions which are initially hidden by the austere rationalism of the prose, and which then linger, nagging, in the mind. It's difficult, first of all, to read this as the definitive critique of the Modern Movement that it was taken as in the '70s. There's some disdain for 'naive functionalism' and the rolling thunder version of urban planning, but that was widely discredited by that point anyway - and the city plans of Berlin's Martin Wagner or Le Corbusier are assumed by Rossi in stageist fashion to have been 'necessary', in the same way as was the Haussmannian obliteration of the medieval city. While others in the '70s would look outside Modernism towards the formal abundance of Edwin Lutyens or Raymond Hood, Rossi, like other Italian Marxist architectural theorists, looks towards only those Modernists who pass a test of maximum theoretical and aesthetic severity and consistency - Adolf Loos, and strangest of all for those who would make a postmodernist out of him, the ruthlessly stark, awe-inspiringly joyless city-planning of Ludwig Hilberseimer.

It's tricky to determine exactly how Rossi's Pittura Metafisica aesthetic derives from the theory, except through a certain refusal of technological fetishism and a - not reverence for, but acknowledgment of the past, combined with the quasi-mystical belief in archetypal typologies*. Rossi disdains as 'pathetic' attempts at contextualism, expressly citing the boredom created when areas are designed to be 'in keeping', but the theory all hinges on the locus, the urban focal point, the mixed-use urban centre, the location for the collective memory - the examples range from a palazzo in Padua, Rome's Forum, and (repeatedly) Diocletian's Palace, eventually adapted into the town of Split. This locus, then, is adaptable, grows over time, is mixed fact, it sounds remarkably like the Megastructure, the point in post-war Modernism that was regarded, by Italian Marxists like Rossi and Manfredo Tafuri** as the ultimate Keynesian hubris, the nadir of programmatic, technocratic Modernism. Although just to complicate matters, Rossi cites, seemingly without disapproval, Corbusier's Unite and Sheffield's streets-in-sky schemes, which are arguably the first megastructures. What the locus doesn't seem to entail is the kind of serene yet disturbing structures that Rossi actually designed, which, fascinating as they are, seem, as pointed out above, to be 'a mute backdrop', formally impressive but seemingly deliberately oppressive, flirting ostentatiously with the aesthetics of 'totalitarianism'*** - not only did Rossi's work resemble Italy's then-recent Fascist past, such as EUR, he was also an enthusiast for Stalinist architecture, describing the admittedly gobsmacking Stalinallee as 'Europe's last great street'.

It's quite possible that this was in some sense satire, a deliberate architectural return-of-the-repressed. This would bring him in line with the megastructural satirists he's bracketed with in Pier Vittorio Aureli's intriguing The Project of Autonomy****, only rather than Archizoom or Superstudio's mockery of Archigram's hyper-positivism, Rossi's immanent critique involved exhuming the otherwise forgotten inter-war international style of domineering stripped classicism. A political architecture that proceeds through satire, rather than the democratic futurism aimed at by, say, Cedric Price's Fun Palace, would also fit with Rossi's final claim in Architecture of the City, which he shares with Tafuri, that 'there is no such thing as an oppositional architecture' (cf Tafuri: 'there cannot be founded a class architecture, but only a class critique of architecture'.) Yet, earlier in the book, he divides housing styles into the pre-capitalist house, the capitalist house (for rental - this before the 'property-owning democracy') and the socialist house, with the latter being exemplified by the urban planning of Red Vienna - so the latter is, at least in some sense, surely a class architecture, placed in a city and country which in the 20s and early 30s faced an intense class struggle - in fact, the construction of the likes of Karl-Marx-Hof specifically 'expropriated the expropriators', dispossessing the city's landlords, who then became a bulwark of Austro-Fascism. 


That's as maybe. Yet the most curious thing about The Architecture of the City, again something it shares with Tafuri, Franceso Dal Co et al, is just how deliberately bourgeois it is, an exemplar of a situation recently critiqued in Perry Anderson's depressing recent autopsy on Italian Communism, where the Italian Communist Party presented itself as the guardian of what Tafuri called 'the great bourgeois artistic culture' against the Americanist barbarians who would have their final triumph in the utterly terrifying form of Silvio Berlusconi's Italy. This might seem a rather counter-intuitive move for a professedly proletarian party, although it has a certain undeniable logic, more than amply justified by the fact that the PCI's prolonged death gave way to the proud moronism of the 'post-Fascist' Forza Italia/'Freedom People' movement. When you read, and equally importantly, look at the illustrations to The Architecture of the City, you're overwhelmed by the images of a culture that stretches back to antiquity, of layers upon layers of construction and elegance reproduced via grainy lithographs, a weight of culture which could be glorified through Rossi's faintly Jungian idea of 'collective memory' or which could be considered a nightmare from which we're trying to awake. It would be instructive to compare Rossi's collective memory with the collective unconscious that Benjamin borrowed from Jung in the Arcades Project and then formed into something very different. Benjamin's dreaming collective didn't wanly haunt De Chirico colonnades, they frequented the glass and iron shopping malls, the cinemas and the spaces of mass entertainment. In those projects disdained by the Italian critical architectural theorists, most obviously in Cedric Price's work, there was a move to use these technologies of mass entertainment for expressly socialist, participative purposes. This still seems a more worthwhile project than a Communism brought about through becoming more bourgeois than the bourgeoisie.

* ...and doesn't that make him a bit of an ancestor to the 'a house should look like a house' tendency...?
** Not that the relentless negativity of Tafuri and co isn't infinitely preferable to the jolly, vacant positivism that Archigram and its successors ushered in.
*** As a fan of bleak empty plazas this is not necessarily a criticism - although the only Rossi buildings I've seen first hand are in his horrible late 'Quarter' in Berlin. Actually, although Rossi might seem 'unassimilable' today, the urban policy of Hans Stimmann's Berlin seems very heavily influenced by Rossi and his successors like O.M Ungers - the 90s and 00s city is absolutely full of scarily blank Hilberseimer-via-Speer buildings like this - which, if feeling generous, we could say provide a mute backdrop for contemporary Berlin's international hedonism...
**** As reviewed by me in Blueprint a few months ago - no link unfortunately...
Milan image via.

Friday, May 08, 2009

A good idea, fallen among Fabians

The Fabian Society - an organisation which I'm always rather impressed still exists, and which is probably, due to the contortions of New Labour, now somewhere on the Far Left of the Labour Party - has a new report out on council housing. This is the topic of my column in this week's BD and innumerable blog posts, so predictably I have something to say about it. As much as one can tell from the Independent article, it isn't entirely stupid. One of its central ideas appears to be that council housing once catered for a wide cross-section of people, and is now an emergency redoubt, creating what are rather hysterically described as 'social concentration camps', and more convincingly an 'apartheid' system in housing. This, as far as it goes, is true enough. If you delve into the history of council housing, you notice that it was originally aimed at the 'deserving' poor - the first and arguably finest of London estates, the Boundary Estate, merely displaced most of the residents of the famously horrendous Old Nichol slum that it replaced; there's a reference in an Orwell essay to the 'upper level' of the working class - skilled workers and council tenants. Meanwhile, if you shove a lot of the very poor together in an enclosed area then the results, as a general rule (very general - there are many well-managed and well-upkept council estates) are not going to be pleasant. The Fabian report also appears to be entirely sensible in pointing the finger at first, the system-built estates of the '60s, with their lack of attention to much other than stacking-em-up cheap, and second, the right to buy, as the culprits for the current state of council housing.

After that, sadly, if predictably, it all goes completely tits-up. When people talk about making council estates more 'mixed' (the report is titled In the Mix...), this mostly doesn't entail building more council housing. This is despite the vastness of waiting lists, now including many prospective tenants who were entirely 'respectable' before the 2008 property crash made their house/investment completely worthless. Yet when there was more council housing than there is now, it rather unsurprisingly had far less of a stigma - so, one would think, more council housing would be the best solution, and the easiest way to ensure 'mixed' 'communities'. However 'mixed' almost always means 'mixed tenure', and what this usually means in practice is the selling off of council housing to be replaced with a mixture of private homes, a quota of 'affordable' homes (a meaningless phrase, usually meaning 'affordable' to buy - and even that is resisted by property developers) and a small percentage of Housing Association homes, if you're lucky. This then merely increases council waiting lists, making estates even more overcrowded and yet more full of people who are utterly desperate, with even 'Priority' tenants sitting on waiting lists for years. The introduction to the Fabian report was written by Nick Raynsford MP, who also discusses the report in this Radio 4 feature. Nick Raynsford happens to be my local MP, and his office is on my street. A few years ago, this street had a Post Office, a General Hospital and a Primary school. Now, all of these have gone, but it does have three blocks of tiny, speculative 'luxury' flats, one of which is a gated community. Because of this, and some issues about rubbish collection, I am not well disposed to the man.

The Radio 4 programme contrasts Thamesmead with Greenwich Millennium Village, built in Raynsford's (and my) manor. Thamesmead is undoubtedly a melancholic place, but it's a remarkably shallow comparison, where it stands in once again for 'the failures of the past'. First, we have a few cliches about the place, mentioning among other things 'dark alleyways', which either refers to a scene in A Clockwork Orange actually filmed in Battersea, or the system whereby the housing blocks are raised on stilts with underground carparks beneath - actually a fairly sensible way of building on a floodplain, something wholly ignored by the Prescottopia of the Thames Gateway. Still, it conforms to stereotype, so never mind the actual reasoning behind it. Yet Thamesmead was itself intended to be a mixed area with a mixture of public and private housing, and the reasons why it wasn't, and doesn't look like one today, are political and architectural. The concrete walkways and lakes of the Tavy Bridge area were originally supposed to be the model for the whole semi-new town, but the backlash against Modernism led to later phases being constructed first in council-house 'vernacular' (often snapped up with right-to-buy), second in Barratt Homes neo-whatever, which never had any pretensions to being public housing, and third in the tacky newbuild aesthetic of the Blair boom. So at the centre is the much-mythologised 'concrete jungle' which stands alone for fairly obvious reasons. Meanwhile, the alternative, Greenwich Millennium Village, held up as a great example of a 'mixed community' is a place I know very well

It's actually almost as isolated as Thamesmead, an impressive achievement on the edges of Zone 2 rather than the outer reaches of Zone 5 - the only way to get from GMV to Greenwich itself is by the notoriously infrequent 129 bus. It's cut off from the surrounding Edwardian and Victorian areas by the Blackwall flyover, but it is very well connected to Canary Wharf, where most of its inhabitants work, creating horrendous early morning bottlenecks. It may have had a token bit of 'affordable' and 'key worker' housing (in the teeth of much opposition) but no council or housing association tenancies as far as I am aware. At its centre is the amusingly named 'Oval Square', the obligatory piazza, ostentatiously lacking any facilities other than an estate agent - not that it matters, as there are two huge strip malls with huge car parks just around the corner (and did I mention this was a 'sustainable' community?) You do sometimes see a handful of families in the area, but generally it's a homogenously middle class young professional enclave set amongst wasteland, with absurd rents and flat prices to match. That this is considered a model for anything other than a prospective posthumous Ballard novel is absurd, but very telling about what 'mixed communities' really entail.

GMV photos by I.T, Thamesmead by E&V