Sunday, June 28, 2009

Under the Knife

...or at least I will be, in a far less dramatic and more mundane manner than the gentleman discussed below, tomorrow (for similar reasons to last time). Surrogate grapes to the usual address.

We are the only World

Post by request of Mark K-Punk, whose piece on Jackson is far better than any of the innumerable memorials and hand-wringings of the last couple of days. I could have written about the extraordinarily strange mutations and transfigurations of the Moonwalker film, but I'm hoping Alex will do that...

In 1995, there were statues of Michael Jackson being floated up the Thames, to promote the portentously named HIStory - Past, Present and Future Part One. Apparently they were placed in other prominent places around the world at the same time. One wag in a music magazine - I think it was the late Select - wrote that rather than the then self-described 'King of Pop', what we were dealing with here was the Stalin of Pop. Just five years after the statues of Ceaucescu or Dzherzhinsky were falling, Jackson was erecting (presumably fibre glass) colossi of himself everywhere. This was not a new phenomenon. Look at the picture above. What Jackson actually looks like here is some glam version of Tito, or Idi Amin, or Jean-Bedel Bokassa, come to visit the Reagans in order to negotiate the exchange of hostages or the commencement of detente. At the same time he was writing such horrendous outpourings of messianic capitalist realist sentiment as 'We are the World', 'Heal the World' and 'Earth Song', this globe-bestriding colossus was specifically dressing like a totalitarian. In a sense, after he ceased to be the the vividly talented young black man hymned in Mark's post and became an embodiment of the Reagan-era's Integrated Spectacle, he seemed to become weirdly nostalgic for the very Evil Empires Reagan would claim credit for destroying.

This is appropriate, in a weird way, as Gary, the planned rust-belt town where his abusive father was a crane-operator in a steel mill, was taken as a model for the Soviets in their single-industry Fordist industrial new towns such as Magnitogorsk. Long, long after he knew he would never have to enter the steel mills and production lines, the mutation of that world into Stalinism formed a sort of posthumous point of identification for his most haunting post-Thriller song, perhaps the only one that is actually affecting rather than a simulation of affect, 'Stranger in Moscow'. The lyrics here are the usual elliptical mess of tics, paranoia and self-pity you would expect, meaning that the premise is tricky to untangle. Nonetheless, what seems to be happening here is a dream of an outside to the Konsumterror Jackson epitomised - the world of 'actually existing socialism', a cold and severe world without Pop which is also the only imaginable society where nobody would know who he is, where he could actually be a stranger rather than the creature that was, for us born in the '80s, as real a person as Jesus, ET or Santa Claus. Jackson dreams of the world that no longer existed by 1995, the world that he himself had helped to close off - we are the world, there is only one possible world. Yet he can't sustain the fantasy here, either, and it collapses back into the late capitalist media circus, and we know who he is clumsily referring to when he sings 'the KGB are doggin' me'. Yet, in a line which you should remember is sung by someone having statues cast of himself, he trills 'Stalin's tomb won't let me be'. Fittingly at the end, just like Stalin, there seems to have been a Doctor's Plot. In terms of lifelong fame, limitless but profoundly unsatisfying power and presumably endless guilt, the only man who probably knows how Michael Jackson felt near the end is Kim Jong-Il.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Tyneside Addenda

Me on Newcastle, Gateshead and Killingworth in BD. There are two very good things about this area which are not shared by many English cities. The first is, as mentioned, the planned centre - odd to have something this good named after a property developer, or to imagine that all this dark classicism was part of a speculative development - and Grainger was apparently not a very efficient speculator, running up massive debts and risks. Regardless, the end result is that, like Glasgow, Newcastle looks like a city that actually had an Enlightenment as well as industrial capitalism, something that certainly can't be said about Manchester or (pre-1953, post-1987) Sheffield. Squaring this with the city I have read about in Viz for the last 20 years is difficult, at least until you see the remarkable women with their minuscule skirts, enormous heels and imperviousness to cold, and their lunk-headed, shirt & chinos male charges, emerge at around 9pm. Nonetheless, even some awful Malls and Farrell's egregious 'Centre for Life' can't spoil the centre of Newcastle, and the best post-war parts of it - the Civic Centre, MEA House and its walkways - seem to fit into it neatly. Even the accidents have a certain serendipity. Viz:

The other great thing about the conurbation is the Metro, and it's amazing that it is this city - smaller than Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds - that has this basic urban amenity denied from all other British cities save Glasgow and the capital. It has more than a passing resemblance to the U-Bahn, with spacious, tile-clad subterranean stations at the centre and outright weirdness further out where it consumes earlier rail lines, such as the alternately painted and picturesquely rusting ironwork of Tynemouth. There might, perhaps, be some rebuilding of the UK's many closed rail lines soon, and we can only hope the Metro's curious combination of antique and futuristic serves as a model - not only because its one of the few still-unprivatised parts of our transport network, although that's not for want of trying. The Metro has lots of public art of varying quality. One station had this sign inside:

If it were only for this, and the succession of increasingly more powerful, more dizzyingly Constructivist bridges along the Tyne, culminating in the Tyne Bridge and the High Level Bridge, both of them better than any bridge over the Thames, the area would be worth visiting, and there's something insufferably patronising about the idea that a city like this needed to be made more like Bilbao/Barcelona/London (delete as appropriate). Our initial plan was to search for the city of T Dan Smith, and - although out of his immediate jurisdiction - this brought us to the New Town of Killingworth. This really is a deeply strange place, where the remnants of a suburban Modernism coexist with the familiar limbo of spec homes and malls - all of which replaced a series of linked towers Pevsner (or whoever was standing in on the Northumbria guide) likened to Metropolis, an office block on stilts and a modernist shopping centre - its current, timelessly boring incarnation had to efface something more interesting first. In the middle of the 'township' is the obligatory artificial lake, with on one side some small, incredibly narrowly planned houses by Ralph Erskine, with paths that could get you lost even in this small space, and on the other side the faded slickness of Ryder and Yates' Norgas House, below. The more famous building they did here is this place, which was across the road from a bus stop so we could contemplate it for some time. The fencing around it was taking no chances whatsoever.

The more interesting Erskine thing is obviously Byker Wall and environs, which in a cut line I described as the midpoint between Park Hill and FAT - as this is a Modernist monument based on montage and consultation rather than masterplanning's imperiousness, with odd leftover details from the slums it replaced forming the area's only really postmodernist element, but reatining a sweep, a confidence, modernity and interest in sublime scale combined with small-scale intimacy that housing from the '80s onwards would completely abandon. It's especially weird that it gets bracketed with the terminally dull housing association architecture of the 70s and 80s - this couldn't be further from the aesthetic cowardice of Coin Street and its ilk. And much as it would have been difficult by the 70s to see the utopian aspirations of Butskellist architecture, it's now hard to see the originality of Byker, as the formal language has been borrowed by all manner of horrors. But what was especially interesting about the area was the way the estate abuts what looks like the remnants of a canal, now landscaped into a pedestrian path towards the Tyne, inexplicably punctuated by these sheds (pigeon coops? Allotments?)

...which either borrowed the colours and styles used by Erskine or were borrowed by him. When you get out at the other end you're at this school, which was apparently designed as a gesture to the Japanese businessmen who regularly visited this allegedly provincial city in the late 19th century.

In Gateshead we went looking for the barely-clinging-on buildings by Owen Luder, largely designed by Rodney Gordon (I believe that's the appropriate circumlocution), such as the carpark, which looked incredible in the (torrential) rain, and the almost as staggering Dunston Rocket, which resembles no other tower I've seen. When we were looking for the tower's entrance we were stopped by a middle aged couple in their front garden, in the maisonettes which surround the tower. They asked if we wanted to take a pic of their front door, and we did. They were the at the last part of the estate to be cleared, and were not best pleased about being forced to move from where they'd lived for 26 years, and spoke well of the flats' space and how much they were liked after they were built. They said they'd been told they would have priority for being moved to the 'townhouses' that were being planned. Whether any council should be trusted on such a commitment is unlikely...Then we walked to the Wayne Hemingway-sponsored spec houses of 'Staiths South Bank', where luxury and individuality are enclosed by a gasworks, lots of industrial sheds and the ornamental ex-industry of the Dunston Staiths. If this bridge

was open we would have walked there directly, but not only was it fenced off, the area had a certain hint of dubiousness about it. Working Men's Clubs with extremely expensive looking cars parked outside. Of all the cities we've been to, this was the first where we got funny looks for taking photographs. Not hostile, but more 'not seen you in the Dun Cow'. We were intent on visiting the Metro Centre, largest mall in the EU, which we found almost charmingly dated - I went here at the age of 10ish and, even though I have no specific memories of it, I felt I'd been there a thousand times. It is marked by a wonderfully contradictory tension between two models of non-place. On the one hand, the theme park approach most popular in the 1980s, with the central 'Village' even featuring a Parish Chapel, the 'building' here with the green sign.

The land on which the Metro Centre is built is owned by the church, strongly supporting The Pop Group's claim that 'department stores are our new Cathedrals'. This ridiculousness has seemingly absolutely nothing in common with the Metro Centre's new bus station by Jefferson Sheard, a Northern firm who did some fantastic Brutalist things in '60s Sheffield.

This really did feel Cathedral-like in the sense of vast enclosure, while the Metro Centre itself, for all its hugeness, always feels poky and claustrophobic, always resists making the pedestrian aware of its scale. In that it's like the 'community architecture' with which Byker is inexplicably lumped, refusing to do any of the things with space and scale that you can do with the form, instead basically creating a series of rooms where you can shop and eat (we had a Tex-Mex buffet, incidentally). It's afraid of itself, of its own enormity. By comparison the bus station is a Fosterian canopy seemingly designed for the personal edification of Marc Auge, which was playing Elgar, loudly, and almost certainly as a means of dissuading youth from loitering there. The Metro Centre is not connected to the Metro transport system, and it's telling that, both built in the '80s, these two Metros describe the consumerist tedium we've inflicted on ourselves, and a possible way out.

The Music of the Korova Milkbar

Not intending this to become a local history blog or anything, but perusing the 'People from Southampton' list on Wikipedia I was intrigued to find Allen Jones on the list. As someone who considers A Clockwork Orange a sort of key for understanding the built environment, I mainly know him as the designer of the forniphiliac sculptures 'Chair, Table and Hatstand', where sexualised, fetishwear-clad mannequins are turned into chic and sinister furniture. Kubrick approached Jones to design the furniture that adorns the Korova Milkbar in a similar vein, but he refused, meaning that the objects in question are significantly less terrifying than Jones' original (commissioned, not sculpted) sculptures, with a hint of kitsch compared to his chilling mannequins. These were damned through most of the '70s as misogynistic, which is a difficult charge to refute - though Jones has always insisted that he is a feminist, and that the works are more a commentary on oppression rather than a celebration - nonetheless, what they seem to be is a commentary on a particular strain in Modernism, the sex appeal of the inorganic.

There's something wonderfully appropriate about the fact that one of Jones' sculptures - sadly, not from the furniture series - adorns the atrium of the building that JG Ballard claimed could make you a more advanced human being, Michael Manser's Heathrow Hilton, as these are episodes from the same process of disassociation as The Atrocity Exhibition, the point about them is the proximity, the way that the inorganic simulation of flesh intersects with the straightforwardly artificial, precisely, mechanically cut glass of the tables. They suggest the fashion photography and, later, vaguely pornographic postcards collected by Le Corbusier and used as an eventual plastic source, only with all of Corbusier's would-be peasant earthiness purged and replaced with glacial bloodlessness. The fact that these objects were ever taken as unambiguously 'sexy' is curious in itself, and inescapably reminiscent of another seemingly irreconcilable paradox in music. That is, that Bass, the most straightforwardly, dumbly lubricious music you're ever likely to find, an entire genre essentially based around worship of the female posterior, is largely rhythmically based around Kraftwerk's 'Numbers', a mathematically precise music designed to simulate the workings of the stock exchange. The unspoken assumption is that the precision and abstraction of the latter and the supposedly straightforwardly lust-filled former are conflated. The more these things claim to be about the human body, the more they are about reification.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Linkage (2)

Little Other, the blog of the organisation and organiser of the night Special Sounds in Greenwich, which I plugged perhaps a little too cryptically a couple of posts down. It was a fine occasion, nonetheless, with sets from Monster Bobby, Stuart Flynn and Xylitol combining crackling electronics and the seamier side of light entertainment to fine effect, in a suitably salubrious setting. Future events may involve philosophical cabaret and the potential return of Kino Fist from its employment-related slumber. Will plug further nearer the time.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Managed Neoliberalism

Some examples of what Aneurin Bevan once described as 'private enterprise sucking on the teats of the state'. First, a belated link to a story in Inside Housing that I was planning to write about a little while ago, but the link mysteriously disappeared: 'How the Homes and Communities Agency spent £2.8 billion in four months'. The HCA, an entity I've mentioned before, is a quango set up from the amalgamation of the former Regeneration sponsors English Partnerships and the former regulator of Housing Associations, the Housing Corporation. Although there has been much talk about a return to council housing, the fact that the person they appointed to head this body was former Sheffield Council boss Sir Bob Kerslake, whose enthusiasm for 'Pathfinder' demolition schemes raised Sheffield's council waiting list from around 15,000 in 2001 to as much as 90,000 today, in a city which once had half of its population as council tenants, implies that this was not a serious aim. As does the fact that the HCA had obviously been given the green light to indulge in a sort of mini-bailout of property developers, with the knowledge that this would pass largely unnoticed in the context of the colossal bailout of the banks. And of course, given their role in stripping and gentrifying Sheffield's most famous building, Urban Splash got £3.8 million of the money. They're the only developers on the list who are only offering units for sale rather than rent, though even the 'social' housing here is mostly 'affordable', which is meaningless, or at best rented from profit-making housing associations who charge more than municipal councils.

This was rattling around in my head when reading a 'Metronet Special' in this week's Private Eye, which makes clear that not only is Boris Johnson's administration likely to continue a hugely discredited privatisation which led to Metronet itself going bust after only four years, but that similar methods are being used in the building of Crossrail. What links these two things, and this story about the remarkably swift return of enormous bonuses and lordly arrogance to the now state-owned banks, is the common thread that the unrestrained capitalism of the last 30 years isn't dying at all, but morphing into something else entirely, into a sort of Managed Neoliberalism to go along with the Managed Democracies of Italy or Russia, an economic innovation where banks and property developers are the recipients of welfare while provision for the unemployed or disabled is ruthlessly cut back. Though as an RCP libertarian James Heartfield would clearly prefer a productivist capitalism without all those nasty financiers, his State Capitalism in Britain provides a sharp, coherent diagnosis of the situation, concentrating on the weird grey area of almost entirely state funded private companies - 'arms length management organisations', PFI specialists like Capita and QinetiQ - embodiments of the phase of neoliberalism described by Mark Fisher among others as Market Stalinism. This, unless we actually stand in the way of it, seems the most likely final upshot of the financial crisis.

(also, for more HCA co-operation with gentrification, philistinism and all manner of badness in Poplar, read this.)

Linkage (1)

The-Sauce: an interestingly rogue news blog, which came to my attention by reproducing the Sun cover which printers refused to press during the Miners' Strike, and has since ploughed a furrow ranging from the truly horrendous threatened deportation to Kenya of a Somali multiple rape victim taking refuge in the UK to archival digging on our new Nazi MEPs.

Also: Faithful to the Line has been updating. Go read him and encourage the slattern to do so more often.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Bob Crow's Mantelpiece

I love Bob Crow. I do. I love the way he embodies all the most deep-seated fears of Blatcherism - not only is he a strong union leader quite willing to take industrial action - and industrial action that has worked, meaning that tube drivers have enviable benefits compared with the incredibly poorly treated bus drivers; and not only is he not prepared to fund the Labour Party, but he's also both a Communist and from an ineluctably working class background. Crow is, however, a fine example of the sheer uselessness of the British left in terms of actual propaganda, in terms of convincing the majority of people who know little about the significance of 1984, let alone 1926; and in short the refusal to make intelligent use of old media, let alone new. You could see this in the RMT-led No2EU coalition, with its staggeringly inept party political broadcast and its misbegotten pandering to Euroscepticism (especially bizarre in the context of Crow's impeccable internationalism) and in the publicity disaster that occurs with every single tube strike, leading to the bizarre consequence that, instead of setting an example of successful organisation, inspiring other workers to take similar action, the RMT instead always seems to be out on its own - and commuters who are as hostile to privatisation as the union are ignored rather than convinced.

In every strike, the print media, bolstered now with the addition of two right-wing free papers, stirs up an entirely unsurprising annoyance with having the already grim daily commute made more difficult into the acceptance of views that are genuinely shocking - I was amazed by the amount of times I heard during the week of the strike that tube drivers shouldn't have the right to strike, as if this basic human right should be suspended for the sake of an extra hour on the journey to work. In the face of this, the RMT's communiques get sent out to the papers and mentioned in invariably sneering, sceptical terms, while in thelondonpaper there was a 'debate' in the 'More or Bore' column between opponents and supporters of the strike who were equally inarticulate. The idea that the union should do something even as basic as leafleting commuters appears not to have occurred to the RMT leadership. It's obvious that the Boris Johnson administration are desperate to confront the RMT, but by refusing to make allies of commuters they are making a potentially fatal mistake.

Nonetheless, when he does get a bit of space to say his piece, we end up with things like this peculiar interview - intriguingly symptomatic, but despite Crow's adroit fighting of his corner, the class questions here seem at first more aesthetic than political. Simon Hattenstone's interview is an exquisite piece of class condescension, where Crow's choice of furnishings becomes as important as the possibility that up to 4000 RMT workers could be sacked. This comes out especially virulently at the end, when we have a 'spot the ball' contest based on his unusually interesting choices in interior design. Not only is he a Union Baron, but by God, he's a skinheaded Millwall fan whose office is stacked with nick-nacks! Didn't he get the memo where we all decided to redesign our offices in the style of the Big Brother house? Not only is he holding us to ransom, he's got such ghastly taste! Actually, what is interesting here is that what he is surrounding himself with is history, the artefacts of a culture, whether they're gifts from unions worldwide, busts of Lenin or Millwall memorabilia; the exact same history we obliterate with the pine of PFI, the lime-green Panton chairs in the Focus Group clinics and the vaguely abstract canvases in the property showrooms. If anyone doubts the political relevance of design, this interview is an unexpected proof.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Can it be all so simple?

Zone Styx Travelcard, with a bracing post with even more bracing musical annotation on the millenarian in popular music, concentrating on the relentless doomcore techno of Marc Arcadipane and his terrifying, cyber-atavist ilk, but alludes briefly to the 1990s' apostles of apocalyptic hip hop: the Wu-Tang Clan, a group so improbable that it sometimes seems like we dreamed them, especially given their seeming lack of any successors - bar their business model of side-projects and branding, only Cannibal Ox's The Cold Vein attests that anyone was actually listening - bafflingly, given their one-time ubiquitousness. I recall Simon Reynolds lamenting, in one of his feuilletons on a simultaneous attraction (to the futurist sonics) and repulsion (from the unreconstructed brute capitalism) with reference to Cash Money/Swizz Beatz/Timbaland etc, remembering that once you could actually like both worldview and aesthetic (a problem in practically every art form now, this) - 'can you imagine George Clinton naming himself after a footwear manufacturer?' No. But nor could you imagine Ghostface Killah, U-God, the RZA, the Genius (or the other clansmen, and their alter-egos) doing something so utterly lame.

I'm almost tempted to think we (by we I suppose I mean blog-writing, former or present pop-obsessives) made a mistake in backing so comprehensively capitalism's most venal advertising service, in enjoying what was basically Nuts magazine with intricate drum programming, when the Wu were around at the same time - yet comparing early Missy & Tim to the pompous, half-arsed material put out by the Wu from 1997 onwards* quickly puts paid to that thought - but the point still stands, that hip hop as a moving, modernist art form that has formal extravagance and a vision of humanity that isn't utterly depressing, essentially dies with the Wu (and please, don't bother to recommend me any backpack nonsense in the comments - classicism in an art form that's only 30 years old is truly unforgivable). You could argue that the last decade has been in retreat from the Wu, incapable of even attempting to follow the multiple paths they opened up. Nonetheless, to get back on topic: if we're dealing with bizarre atavism, visions more worthy of John of Leiden than Jay-Z, and hip hop's nearest thing to militant dysphoria, then their records from 1993 to 1997 (36 Chambers, Tical, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Liquid Swords, Ironman, maybe half of Wu-Tang Forever) are a bestiary of lurid imagery and palpable yearning for oblivion. Take the first track on Forever, where a voice disdains everything from abortion to evolution, then asks us 'is it time for the revolutionary war?' 'For Heaven's Sake' is a march riven with eschatological expectation, where 'a spark that surges through the undergrowth' is 'overwhelming the populace', 'Visionz', beginning with Method Man talking of apocalypse as if it happens every day (and not the least of their insights is that it does) stands as an almost calm statement by a group clearly aware of themselves as the elect.

Yet what is interesting about the Wu is that their eschatology is so inconsistent, and is so riven with complexity and contradiction. Like Parliament-Funkadelic, they clearly aimed to be 'within and against' capitalism, coining phrases which seem borrowed from a Operaist textbook ('Cash Rules Everything Around Me' indeed) at the same time as they tried to eke money out of the RZA's every moment of accidental collaged inspiration by maintaining a (briefly) astonishingly Stakhanovite level of consistently brilliant product. So they fade in and out of coherence. Listening to Cuban Linx is all about the endless attempt to decipher a baffling series of non-sequiturs, compelling narratives, shopping lists, threats and city stories, all adding up to something as fragmented and incomprehensible as the metropolis itself. Both Raekwon's Cuban Linx and Ghostface Killah's Ironman take the Waste Land approach to writing, where small gripes and inconsequentialities are mixed up with politics micro and macro, with a New York reimagined as the city of the damned: 'you can't believe in heaven cos you're living in hell' - and in tracks like 'Verbal Intercourse' hip hop becomes a matter of detritus, mess, silt, litter: 'catch the most on tape, kilos disintegrate, Pyrex pots we break, fiends lickin plates.'

Unlike their more prosaic New York contemporaries, 'reality' for the Wu was only one facet of a wildly contradictory worldview, and their gangsta tracks are especially notable for their guilt and uncertainty. So GZA's 'Gold', beneath the terrible advance of buzzing synths and '50s Biblical movie choirs, is nearer to the moral intractables of The Wire than by now utterly tedious parade of efficient, sexually omnipotent gangsta supermen that hip hop has been reduced to - listening to Liquid Swords it isn't the cliches of the hood that spring to mind, but the sheer strangeness of the environment, evoking more the streets and streets of decommissioned public housing that lie derelict in The Wire's fourth series, gradually filling up with bodies, while the real estate deals are struck for the charnel houses. The apocalypse here doesn't need anything remotely supernatural to intercede, the disaster is the everyday. So it's instructive to compare Wu's self-presentation as millenarian warriors to one of their most quietly alarming tracks, Ghostface Killah's 'All That I Got is You'.

A cursory listen might make this seem merely mawkish, another hip hop ballad, this time with the twist that it's all about his Mum, satisfied now they've got out but reminding us of the days before they appeared on MTV Cribs - but again, the point is the detail. We get another of Ghostface's stream-of-consciousness shopping lists, only this time he's not playing games with us, and we get an account of raw, unbearable poverty that doesn't feature anywhere in American culture (again, save The Wire), let alone in music: 'fifteen of us in a three bedroom apartment/Roaches everywhere, cousins and aunts was there/Four in the bed, two at the foot, two at the head/I didn't like to sleep with Jon-Jon he peed the bed/Seven o'clock, pluckin roaches out the cereal box/Some shared the same spoon, watchin saturday cartoons/Sugar water was our thing, every meal was no thrill/In the summer, free lunch held us down like steel/And there was days I had to go to Tex house with a note/Stating "Gloria can I borrow some food I'm dead broke"' As soldiers of apocalypse, the Wu should not in theory have done things like this. They should either have been superheroes or gangsters, and certainly shouldn't have admitted to the embarrassing, humiliating experience of being at the the sharp end of capitalism. Call it (a deeply strange kind of) humanism if you must, if you think that's an insult.

* (well, excepting Ghost Dog, the awesome death marches of The W and a few things from Ghostface Killah, it really is all over by disc 2 of Forever; and there are obvious exceptions - oh, Stankonia, Boy in Da Corner, a few others - to my lofty dismissal of the entire last decade here, though it's notable that, like the 80s, the early part of this decade was far more inspired than the rest)


Behind the Privet Hedges: Utopia

Ambushed by improbable brilliance in the more genteel areas of South-East London. One quirk of the SE is that it's far easier to get to east or central London than from one end of the south to the other - I could get to Cockfosters from where I live in east Greenwich with greater ease than I can to Brixton. So this morning I was in Forest Hill, unusually. This is the first time I've been out this way, despite my decade of residence in the capital, so I took the opportunity to see the Horniman Museum, which is a fantastically odd bit of Anglicised Art Nouveau, although the cabinets of curiosities inside were marred somewhat by what seemed like a continuous loop of screaming children. Regardless, in the grounds the one thing that stood out, an outrageous pair of futurist cruisers looming over the hill's teeming verdancy - this:

I had seen these buildings in Meades' Remember the Future and vaguely intended to eventually find them, but there is absolutely no substitute for actually visiting the place. Stuck amidst entirely forgettable if decidedly leafy suburban streets, sometimes you see the block and sometimes it's hidden by the privet hedges, so finding it involved a game of brutalist hide-and-seek where first you could be in darkest Penge, and then the future whacks your over the head. When you finally find the way in, up a slim suburban passage, there is the greatest view over London I've ever seen, and two absolutely enormous deck-access blocks, a series of stock-brick polygons arranged into intricate, abstract patterns, rising up to views from the top which must surely be impossible to encompass without fainting - the place suggesting an entire city in its complexity, and an utterly driven mind in its relentless, rectilinear consistency. A bit of research reveals the place was designed by one Kate Mackintosh for Southwark Council in 1968, when she was apparently 26. It's unlisted, quiet, entirely obscure, and absolutely gobsmacking.

Pic via here, and more here.

Friday, June 12, 2009


Three recent pieces between which, unfortunately, I can't think of even the slightest connecting thread to pull into a blog post: me on Joe Moran's On Roads for the New Statesman; on Derelict Italian Fascist Youth Camps in Northamptonshire for Frieze online; and on the persistent awfulness of memorials, in BD.

Plus more about Fascist Modernists in Icon, on the Estorick's typically excellent Framing Modernism show.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Self-justification Corner

A lengthy interview with me about Militant Modernism for Ready Steady Book, where I attempt to justify what has elsewhere been described as its 'wilful naughtiness'. Similarly - I'm utterly delighted to be talked about in the Sheffield Star! I must go back soon and then justify at length why I like the dilapidated 60s arcadia of Castle Market so much...

Brasilia of the North

OK, so it's a long time since T Dan Smith had the above as his slogan - however, I and my photographer are descending from our lofty perch to come and have a cheap holiday in other people's architectural misery, before ascending back into our lair outside of The Real World, where we will cackle about it over canapes and obscure vintages. That is, I'm going to Newcastle and Gateshead (with possible excursions to Sunderland and Peterlee) for BD this weekend. Any tips, arguments, recommendations or particular horrors in the comments box will be greatly appreciated.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Free Artem Loskutov

The invaluable Petrograd-based leftist collective Chto Delat have put out the following appeal - contemporary with a rise in protest across Russia, artists, particularly those who venture into politics, continue to be persecuted. The appeal is as follows:

Free Artem Loskutov! An Appeal from Chto Delat Platform

On May 15, 2009, the contemporary artist and university student Artem Loskutov (pronounced ahr-TYOHM LOHS-koo-tuhf) was arrested in Novisibirsk and charged with possession of a narcotic substance (marijuana) by the local branch of the Interior Ministry’s notorious Center for Extremism Prevention (Center “E”). Loskutov and his supporters claim that the police planted the marijuana in his bag in order to incriminate him. As one of the inspirations behind the annual “Monstration”—a flash-mob street party in which young people march with absurdist, Situationist slogans—Loskutov had long been an object of the Center’s attentions. At a pre-trial custody hearing on May 20, it was revealed that the Center had been tapping the phones of Loskutov and his friends for the past six months. In the weeks before this year’s Monstration and on May Day itself, Loskutov was summoned to the Center for “discussions”; his parents were also called and told that their son was a member of a dangerous sect. The circumstances of the case and the manner in which he was arrested thus point to a campaign of intimidation directed both at Loskutov and his fellow free-thinking “monstrators” in Novosibirsk.

The Loskutov case has sparked a massive outcry in Russia’s activist and art communities. In the past three weeks, artists, activists, and ordinary concerned citizens all over Russia have carried out a series of pickets, protests, and art actions in Loskutov’s defense. The most inspiring of these actions is a “plein air” hunger strike organized by several young artists in Petersburg, now in its second week. The artists have encamped themselves in a park next to city hall, where they are producing paintings and drawings whose central motif is the increasingly brutal police repression of social activists and dissenting artists in Russia. The hunger strikers have issued three demands. First, they want a criminal investigation of the mass arrests by riot police of marchers in a “Pirate Street Party” on May Day in Petersburg; these arrests took place despite the fact that the action’s organizers had obtained official written permission to march with the other columns of demonstrators. Second, they call for the convening of a public commission to monitor the work of Center “E.” Finally, they demand that the charges against Artem Loskutov be dropped and that he be released from police custody.

Although the Loskutov case and the Petersburg hunger strike have become two of the hottest topics in the Russian blogosphere, there has been a near-total blackout in the mainstream Russian press, especially television. That is why we ask you to join our campaign of solidarity with Artem and his hunger-striking artist comrades in Petersburg. We have called an international day of actions for June 9, a day before Artem’s appeal to be released on recognizance will be heard in the Novosibirsk Regional Court. If we put enough pressure on local and federal authorities now and make enough noise outside of Russia, it is possible that Center “E” will even drop their case altogether.

More information on Artem Loskutov, his arrest and the Monstrations here.

UPDATE from Chto Delat: We just got word from Novosibirsk that the Novosibirsk Regional Court ordered that Artem Loskutov be released on recognizance this morning. Since the court was only examining the defense's appeal of a lower court's earlier decision to remand Artem to police custody pending trial, this doesn't mean the charges have been dropped or that our campaign is over. But it is an important first victory and I believe that the unprecedented solidarity campaign on Artem's behalf made a difference.

Sunday, June 07, 2009


Apologies for the relative hiatus - caused mainly by a postponed, but inevitable addiction to DVDs of The Wire. As recompense, over at the Measures, me on Wang Bing's colossal epic of industrial decline, West of the Tracks - one of the less interesting essays in a short collection put together for a screening of the entire work-day long film at NYU.

Other things: Militant Modernism is reviewed this month in Frieze and Art Review, though neither are online yet - but there is a nice recommendation from the RIBA Journal, and this review at 3AM Magazine, which gets what I was trying to do with the book more than most - which is more my failure than anyone else's, of course.

I Know It's Over

A few appendices to my psuedo-Pevsnerian potter around Manchester for Building Design. First of all, I make no apologies for the Smiths quotation (and nor do the BD subeditors) - in the ultra-gentrified context of 21st century Manchester the Smiths seem to actually matter much more, their unforgiving wallowing in the horrors of Cottonopolis contrasting with the boosterism that Wilson was caught up in over the last years of his life; although the Fall, similarly, refuse to fit into the established narrative that goes Factory-Hacienda-IRA bomb-Urban Splash-Ian Simpson. However, when perusing an interesting collection on the lies the regenerating city tells itself, there was an alarming moment upon finding therein the acronym 'the NWRA' - the name of the 'North-West Regional Association', a Lancastrian regeneration quango, as opposed to the North Will Rise Again. This is surely no coincidence.

Appendix One: The Stunning Developments

This is in lieu of a Manchester special from the Ghost of Nairn. Although in the BD piece I mostly tried to pick the less egregious examples of regeneration architecture in the city in order to give it the benefit of the doubt, there is a huge, huge amount of appalling architecture in Manchester and Salford at the moment, and what makes it especially hideous is just how tall it all is, meaning that the awfulness is inescapable. Now Salford already has some appalling form on this, as you can see here - but at least their straightforward geometries mean their badness is more easily ignorable than what got built since 1996, and at least they rehoused people in something better than what they replaced - and at least nobody kidded themselves these towers were part of some elite, exclusive Lifestyle. I spent quite a lot of time trying to find out who designed some of the most egregious Mancunian yuppiedromes, which is unsurprisingly rather difficult. First of all, there's Skyline Apartments, which looks like this:

and which, when I posted it on Twitter, led to some incredulity, including disbelief that it was even a genuine building, and certainly the amount of exrescences happening here all at once - the mess of materials, the inept patterning, the glass protrusion at the top, the nails-down-blackboard yellow - is quite remarkable. The website for the towers promises all manner of opulence, including a 'Zen Room'. 'Prepare to be seduced', it begins, then suggests you have your celebratory drinks the moment you get in (it's furnished, you see!) and finally that it is aimed, of course, at 'savvy city dwellers'. Whether that means buy-to-let landlords I don't know. When I finally found out the culprits, it turned out to be Jacobs Webber, who when at SOM were responsible for this piece of shit. Below is the first image you see when you click on Jacobs Webber's website.

On a quick nip into a 'marketing suite' in Salford I picked up a selection of free property magazines, which I'm vaguely collecting for some future archive of the Blair Boom; amongst them are Urban Life, one of which had, without irony, a column by a local radio DJ decrying the 60s redevelopment of Salford as soulless high-rises, next to hundreds of adverts for new soulless high-rises. In another of them, Manchester Living, the Leftbank Apartments in Spinningfields are claimed to be 'home of credit crunch chic', which is something rather remarkable, given that only a year before they would have been marketed as 'luxury', and even now are faced with a horrendous ad of a leering couple asking 'like what you see?' (albeit with a new hint of desperation). But the real shocker is round the corner, in the form of Aedas' Manchester Bauhaus, a mixed use office/apartment complex. It's instructive here to compare slogans. The Bauhaus, Dessau, in 1926: 'art and technology, a new unity'; The Bauhaus Manchester, in 2009: 'business and life in perfect harmony'. The piece was writing itself by this point.

Then there are seemingly hundreds of shoddy high-rises in the vicinity of the Irwell, usually vaguely sloping: most prominent are the Great Northern Tower (now being used as a hotel), Abito micro-apartments, The Edge - all of them equally awful, all of them increasingly empty. I spent a bit of time in the company of newbuild chronicler Renter Girl, and got to see her notorious (but, on instruction, still pseudonymous) 'Dovecot Towers', which was as shockingly bleak as you would expect, and still with the flowers, now long dead, left for the suicide. For real negative equity dystopia she recommended the 'Green Quarter', a super-dense mess of blocks dissolving into Cheetham Hill, but we'd seen enough. In fact, we had seen a BNP van, complete with megaphone, speeding past the CIS tower in that direction.

Appendix Two: The Bloxham Organisation

I was also referred to a talk by Urban Splash's Nick Johnson where he explained the history of the recently bailed-out* Manc developer through the Sex Pistols' 1976 gig, through Factory et al...anyone who has seen the Joy Division documentary will be familiar with the argument that, in Manchester, property speculation is the new rock and roll (though not all ex-Factory associates are so vacantly boosterist - cf 'Various Times', a fantastic Benjaminian essay by Liz Naylor). Renter Girl also dispensed various morsels of sadly deeply defamatory (can you sue a blog for libel? Either way I'm keeping schtum) gossip about Urban Splash, all of which I'd love to repeat, but won't - just suffice to recall Lester Freamon's words in series three of The Wire on the subject of Stringer Bell - 'shit, he's worse than a drug dealer - he's a property developer'. After seeing them fuck up Park Hill, it was interesting to see some of their successes. The redevelopment of the Mills and Warehouses in Castlefield are decent enough, and if nobody is going to make stuff there I suppose there are worse things than them being occupied by what Tom Bloxham once called 'decision makers'. It's marginally better than them being demolished - although the gated-off nature of much of Castlefield makes it less fun for flanning about in than it ought to be.

This little bear, with a lapful of gravel, sits in New Islington, although is apparently not FAT's fault. I've said much of what I want to say already about New Islington, a farcical attempt at building a 'millennium community' on the ruins of the Cardroom council estate in Ancoats, a pop-PPP farrago which has levelled an area of social housing in one of those gentrification frontiers on the edge of the ring-road, replacing it with one (apparently very hard-to-sell) Alsop block, two small closes of houses, and a whole lot of verbiage - the promised self-build enclaves, high streets, parks, schools and health centres weren't built during the boom, so sure as hell won't be now. Irrespective of the awfulness of the place, a few words about FAT's scheme there are probably required, as what with regularly linking to them and all it might seem that I was being uncritical...In the context of New Islington their houses look great, obviously, and only partly because almost everything else around them is so awful - and the use of a sort of trompe l'oeil wall/screen to pull the terrace of clearly very modern houses together is clever without being smug. These houses show more actual ideas than all the other recent buildings in the city put together.

Yet the low-rise nature of it (something also used by the very different and similarly decent, if rather less intellectually interesting dMFK housing, also based on consultation with estate residents, and also with a rather paranoid, fenced-off relation to the street itself) makes it seem rather beleaguered, given the vastness of the Mills and the Yuppiedromes, and there's something deeply odd about creating a low-rise suburbia in the heart of such a huge city - but then people ask for some odd things. Sadly the bears and other Urban Splash furnishings imply something infantilising about the whole affair, something more apparent in U.S' own patronising propaganda than Charles Holland's own description of the place's rationale (entirely coincidentally, he gave a talk about it the same day we visited). Even then, the documentation of the alleged 'wrongness' of council tenants' interior furnishings as a source of architectural inspiration had a (no doubt unintentionally) queasily anthropological element, especially given that this 'wrongness' is purely in the eyes of the architecturally educated. There was one irresistible irony. After showing some Martin Parr-esque photos of one Cardroom resident's particularly eclectic interior furnishings, it turned out that, when the FAT scheme was finished, he filled his new house with modern furniture. 'Because I was moving into a modern house'. Because you have all this stuff when you can't afford to throw it away.

Appendix Three: 'the Quays'

Best walked to through Trafford, where you get to see many curious things, including the bizarre Yeltsin-Constructivism of Old Trafford, where domineering symmetries, bared structure and outrageously kitsch statues prove the enduring ridiculousness of the world's least interesting football team. As for the Quays, the leisure extravaganza built on the site of the Manchester Ship Canal, a now useless masterwork of Victorian engineering - aside from Wilford's messy but occasionally interesting Lowry, a building which is from some angles clumsy and straggling, in others sharp and striking (and which has some fantastically spacious and well-designed toilets, and I can forgive a lot for that) and Libeskind's minor but at least vaguely memorable Imperial War Museum, my main thought was 'wow, this is bad enough to be in Southampton'. Otherwise I have little to add to Meades' take. Although to nuance his claim that in Manchester we can see the future - rather, after the crash, we can see it as the ultimate failure of the very recent past, a mausoleum of Blairism.

* Re the Urban Splash Bail-Out. The Homes and Communites Agency has spent an astounding £2.8bn on bailing out property developers over four months: obviously the option of this publicly-owned body just building stuff themselves is tantamount to Communism.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Finsbury Party

The list of local sponsors tells its own story about the changing demographics of Finsbury, but let's not carp - a hearty plug for 'Nothing is too good for ordinary people', party on the 18th June organised by the Save Finsbury Health Centre campaign, which looks enormously worthwhile. Be there or be complicit in the Blairite denigration of public modernism and the PFI hangarisation of health services!

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The People's Non-Choice

Brief thoughts on the results of 'the Stirling of Stirlings', the RIBA Journal/The Times' poll to discover the finest building by a British architect of the last century and a half. There is another poll in Britain this week, which is so depressing that I won't write anything about it until the no doubt utterly terrifying results come in by the weekend. Anyway - the Stirling of Stirlings was a relatively rather heartening thing. Much in the same way that, if you judged the political pulse on the comments on Comment Is Free you'd be faced with an immediate urge to emigrate, to read the recent Chelsea Barracks non-story and the attendant letters and online comments from The Public was so enormously bleak that I immediately assumed the poll would be some sort of Prince Charles-tendency apotheosis. Anyway, it wasn't, partly cos of a very adroit use of proportional representation - ie, the voter had to choose from buildings in each era, meaning that you essentially had to choose at least one Victorian pile or concrete monstrosity, whether you liked it or not. In the Times piece above I got quoted (mercifully) anonymously praising the limits on freedom made by the poll, which is an interesting contradiction - only when democracy is not so much circumscribed as, erm, 'guided', you get some very interesting results, with architectural celebs like Edwin Lutyens and Zaha Hadid being decidedly unloved, while unassuming non-eccentric backroom boys like Charles Holden and the LCC team that designed the Festival Hall did very well indeed, something which perhaps suggests a potential new sobriety need not be completely knee-jerk and retro. Perhaps.

(if anyone cares, my votes, partly tactical and involving three buildings I only know from photos, were as follows: Crystal Palace, St Pancras (for the shed, before it was painted blue and given the worst statues in the world), Glasgow School of Art, Holden's tube stations, the Isokon minimumwohnung, Leicester Engineering Building and Lloyds - and if I had to vote for one, it would have been the latter - although if I had a free choice then Park Hill or, maybe, Wyndham Court could have beaten it...)