Thursday, July 30, 2009

Problems in the Transitional Programme

Smokewriting takes informed umbrage at my flip dismissal of Transition Towns in the post below. Certainly it seems to be the case that in this, as in so many elements of the green (semi-)movement there is much that is laudable and good as well as much that is provincial and backward. My major objection to it is as per Marshall Berman's critique of 'small is beautiful', a passage which I've quoted before but is so definitive I'll do so again:

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

However in a situation in which the entities through which we could once envisage such a collective, Faustian project - strong trade unions, socialist parties, and the strength of both in the heart of production - are so weak, the idea of small towns declaring their intent to make people think about the things they do not usually think about can't exactly be a bad thing, although it's still redolent to me of (glib comparison alert) the powerless gestural politics of 80s Labour Councils declaring themselves 'nuclear-free cities' (you could just imagine Brezhnev crossing Lambeth and Sheffield off the to-bomb list when the news of that came through). As it is, I'm more excited by the Vestas occupations than the prospect of a carbon-neutral Devon - but both of them share, it would seem, an attempt to start from the local and build outwards into something more powerful - and it's encouraging to see as part of a mission statement lines which imply a transition to something pleasurable rather than a moralistic ordeal: "by shifting our mind-set we can actually recognise the coming post-cheap oil era as an opportunity rather than a threat, and design the future low carbon age to be thriving, resilient and abundant – somewhere much better to live than our current alienated consumer culture based on greed, war and the myth of perpetual growth." I just wish they were coming out of somewhere more significant, somewhere with something to lose, rather than the likes of Totnes or Westcliff irrespective of their undoubted virtues.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

For art's sake

In a famous aside Clement Greenberg observed 'Some day it will have to be told how 'anti-Stalinism', which started out more or less as 'Trotskyism', turned into art for art's sake, and thereby cleared the way, heroically, for what followed.' Actually, it was the other way around. Art for art's sake, chafing under the crude exigencies of proletariat realism and the Popular Front, identified the CP with the bourgeoisie and brilliantly reconstituted itself as Trotskyism.
J Hoberman, Vulgar Modernism

Nonsense of course outside of a couple of blocks in the Lower East Side, but an intriguing counterfactual could be spun out of this...


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Futures and Pasts

Two short responses to excellent posts on futures and their defects: Spillway on apocalypse chic, a blast perhaps at salvagepunk (albeit of a markedly less interesting sort than that advocated by ECW) - the notion that the redesign of space in order to avert climate-based catastrophe should necessarily look like the product of emergency, should be based on the already-extant fetish for ruination, wearing an architectural hairshirt of timber and scaffolding, something which necessarily limits its appeal to those who find a bit of apocalypse chic rather bracing rather than merely frightening, arguing instead that post-war utopianism makes a better model than Mad Max, that a middle class dystopia is not necessarily a model for the future. This can be seen as the aesthete's version of 'Transition Towns', where some enclave of Middle England attempts to make itself carbon neutral and self-sufficient, with little consequence other than an enduring glow of self-satisfaction. The Institute claims by email that Transition Town Totnes for instance reads like 'a Middle England version of The Coming Insurrection': "To build the town's resilience, that is, its ability to withstand shocks from the outside, through being more self reliant in areas such as food, energy, health care, jobs and economics." (with the ambivalence of the "shocks from the outside")'. However there are examples of an aesthetic of salvage and montage being less of a game for the comfortable - New Babylon, with its combination of the ludic and the futurist, automation and disorganisation, shows there are possibilities outside of positivism and apocalypticism.

Although if you're going to start designing futures, you must reckon with the Italian Futurists, and the Institute itself currently features an essay on Political Futurism that alternately makes perfectly clear just how enormously unpleasant Futurism could be, right down to the boiled brains, and also how little the Political Futurism of the late 1910s, with its anti-clericalism, anti-classicism and accelerationist anarchism, had in common with Fascism as it actually governed. Two things spring to mind - the first, that this exemplifies the fantasy of accelerationism fairly impressively; that, like neoliberalism Fascism had to have an idealised futurist supplement to mask its enduring alliances with the old power of church, nation, heredity and land, and while to imagine it without those compromises is in many ways equally terrifying, the important point is that it would be unecessary - the accelerationists made their peace with the past, and created something rather odd in the process. There is, in this and in the Tate's godawful current Futurism exhibition, a lack of attention to the entity the compromised Futurism became, something perhaps best exemplified by Giuseppe Terragni rebuilding Sant'Elia as a stone memorial. The design culture of interwar Italy is an intriguing and under-investigated subject, where the likes of Angiolo Mazzoni attempted to synthesise classicism and futurism to ideologically and architecturally intriguing effect.

Fahr'n Fahr'n Fahr'n

Last week, I spent some time on the motorway. Due to a combination of cowardice, principle and mostly, personal preference for public transport, this is not something that happens often. But to get to Glasgow in order to write one of these on the Second City Of Empire, we decided, in retrospect bafflingly, to hire a car, which was driven by Jeeves, sorry, Joel, for some 20 hours there and back. This was a fairly novel experience for me, with the last time I spent anywhere near as long on a road being somewhere in childhood, so the following may have the sound of a Martian visitor to the Motorway network. The first thing you notice here, unlike on the railways, where towns, suburbs, and most of all sheds provide punctuation for the countryside, is space - sheer, useless, unused space, which is often - though as I will get to, not always - surely ripe for having our glorious cities of the future constructed on it, as absolutely fuck all seems to be happening to it otherwise. This empty space goes on forever, utterly featureless, and, if you have the right music on and are in an appropriate frame of mind, it is thrilling. Going along the A1, noting the geometries of concrete bridges, skeletal pylons ('bare like nude giant girls that have no secret') and floodlights, with the green at each side as abstract as the asphalt, it's only when you're deep into Yorkshire that you notice any difference from the Hertfordshire landscape where you began. There are, we know, business parks and distribution centres nearby, but they'll be off road, reached by a complex series of junctions and sliproads. The A1 was a fine (accidental) choice, with a lack of traffic enhancing the sense of space, and service stations hugging the road rather than involving the loops round roundabouts of proper motorway service stations.

Rather than the Costas that besmirch the M1, the A1 is Little Chef territory, and seemingly any building can be commandeered by them and turned into succour for the traveller - 1920s roadhouses, 80s vernacular, 50s futurism. We had programmed the hired car's GPS (with which the driver maintained the requisite flirtatious dialogue, which gradually degenerated into an argument between a tired married couple) to guide us to the services at Markham Moor, Nottinghamshire, because therein is a building by one Sam Scorer, one of Britain's few representatives of Googie. A sweeping hyperbolic paraboloid containing the branch of Little Chef, playing all the games now expected from decon/regen but for the sake of sheer spectacle and capitalist potlatch rather than as edification, it is enormously striking after several hours of straight lines. Inside the Little Chef we note that the place has had something of a makeover of late, in that it has become self-conscious, marketing proper English comfort food with classic cafe imagery and a familiar Eric Gill-esque typeface on the menu. The Olympic Breakfast was excellent, bar a freakishly oversized and greasy mushroom. Outside, Murphy speculates that the Little Chef is a later insertion into the parabolic roof - well, it turns out that originally the roof enclosed nothing at all, being a mere gateway for cars on the way to a garage - a ceremonial, non-functional architecture.

The North is designated by the shadows of Cooling Towers and Power Stations, frequently right by the road, structures so stark and imposing that any carbon emission-based concerns must be dropped for a few minutes of awe. The landscape gradually starts to mutate, and then the motorway traverses Cumbria as we approach dusk, a darkly cinematic landscape of burial mounds and sudden changes in scale, becoming even more sinister until we take the M8 and get our first glimpses of Glasgow, with the motorway bisecting serried rows of tower blocks, like one of Ludwig Hilberseimer's urban schemes realised in the wrong order and illuminated by seedy sodium lights. More of that later. On the way back we visit what is surely the diametric opposite of the Googie Little Chef: what can only be described as the Innocent Service Station, Tebay Services, which helpfully has a panoramic view as part of its website. Designed in 1972 and in proper contextual vernacular fashion out of stone and timber, the real interest is inside, where Urban Splash white walls and jolly writing which is surely by the same designer as the Innocent Smoothie enclose a range of organic food, Keep Calm and Carry On chocolate bars, and numerous hoorays taking their little Tarquins to sample what is apparently the best tea in England. That something so clearly pleased with itself should be so obviously complicit in the polluting (by all of us in there, whether using the loos or buying local sausages) of the very countryside it fetishises is another example of the pointlessness of irony.

On the M6 we pass underneath the viewing bridges of T.P Bennett's Forton Services, the most famous of the Futurist buildings that originally accompanied the motorway network before we decided to ensure that environmental destruction was in keeping. In order to complete the review of service stations that we had been accidentally composing, we were intent on finding an OK Diner (warning: contains soundtrack), of which there are several along the A1, all of them in chrome and vitrolite, making clear that the A1 is the S&M Cafe of the motoring world, a simulation of pre-1979 England for the benefit of popculture nostalgics. Unfortunately we don't manage to go to any, so eventually resort, starved and nearly hallucinating, to a McDonalds next to a Travelodge somewhere near Peterborough. As we pull into the drive-in at this ungodly hour, our driver asks the middle-aged McAssistant how he is. 'I'm here' is the reply.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A startling view of life in 2009

Further to the discussions of Security and Design below (a bit): my review of Anna Minton's Ground Control in the NS.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Aesthetics of Civil Enforcement

I live with someone currently being sent letters by bailiffs, as she's in the unenviable position of being a student and attempting to subsist during the holidays (jobs not being altogether easy to come by at the moment). Anyway, the bailiffs in question have a website. I have just been made aware of this website and it looks like this, and the contents are spectacularly interesting in design terms, so I can't resist a post. Bailiffs are not, you might suspect, a group for which society has a particularly high esteem. We have an image of them as being thugs who take things away from people who already have very little - a furtive profession, which likes to keep itself to itself. Or at least that's what you'd expect - instead, you click on the site and you have four wankers auditioning for bit parts in American Psycho, lined up inside a glass and steel atrium, all criss-cross trusses and 24 colours, shot from below so that they appear to be looking down upon the unfortunate sods who click on the website to make payment (or, equally, declare to the people looking for jobs in Debt Recovery and Civil Enforcement that you too could look this hard) Click around the site, it's an intriguing example of Blairite aesthetics - look at this man here on the phone, framed by the chrome armrail and the streamlined grille, and remember that what he is supposed to be doing is negotiating with, or threatening, someone who is in rent arrears or who has been overpaid housing benefit. This is how the class war is presented today.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Went to Market

Me and Ms Thought went to Sheffield recently, and as is customary I've generated (at least) two articles out of the experience, as it remains an enormously interesting city utterly determined to make itself uninteresting. The second one, then, is a visit to the fantastic Castle Market for Nothing to See Here. My praise of the market elicited a raised eyebrow or two last time, but I really can't see why, bar the 'omg poor people' reaction that seems to accompany much architectural criticism. Note also that each of her photos have been annotated in photo-essay manner, and that you can see us both in appropriately faceless silhouette in the pic above.

Friday, July 17, 2009


A review of Nicholas Moulin's excellent current show at the Site Gallery in Sheffield. There's also a blog about and around the exhibition's themes, the aptly named Beton Brut; which, interesting as it is, has nothing on I.T's Sheffield photo-essay.

Starting from where we left off...

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Revolt on the Clyde

Next week I will be going to Glasgow for BD, possibly even using a motorcar, although I stress this departure from public transport is only so I can enjoy the Scottish motorway system. Any recommendations of housing scandals, recent buildings good or awful, Red Clydeside heritage tours, and in particular, confirmation or disproving of the persistent rumour that recent yuppiedromes there are being used as council flats, will all be very much appreciated. Comments box is below.

(obviously I won't be visiting the above as it's not there anymore, but note that it comes up on something like the second page if you google images 'Glasgow architecture')

Don't talk to me about sophistication, I've been to Leeds

First in what will be several new things about Yorkshire Brutalism. The New Monumentality is an interesting exhibition on at Leeds at the moment essentially on Chamberlin, Powell and Bon's mighty University campus. It's reviewed by me in a very circuitous fashion for the New Statesman.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson

The first paragraph of the press release for something forthcoming from Zero Books:

The Resistible Demise Of Michael Jackson
Edited by Mark Fisher

Michael Jackson was a supernova; we loved him, we worshiped him, we found his appearances and performances almost godlike — and this “we” was probably one of the widest, most inclusive “we”s in the history of the world. — Steven Shaviro

Michael Jackson showed that there is no such thing as ‘just’ pop music. The quantitative scale of Jackson’s fame was not only unprecedented, it is unlikely to ever be repeated. Jackson was at the burning core of the major changes in politics, the economy and culture in the last 30 years. It’s not surprising, therefore, that his death induced a spontaneous outpouring, not only of emotion, but of theoretical reflection. Providing an antidote to the mixture of unthinking sentimentality and scurrilous prurience that Jackson usually attracts, this book offers impassioned and informed answers to the urgent questions that Jackson’s death has posed. What was it about Jackson’s music and dancing that appealed to so many people? What does his death mean for popular culture in the era of Web 2.0? And just how resistible was his demise? Was another world ever possible, where the ‘we’ that Jackson brought into being could have stood for something utopian, instead of the consensual sentimentality of a world hooked on debt, consumerism and images?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Bracknell Noir

On The Offence for 3am Magazine's 'Saturday Night at the Movies' series. The Youtube clip I chose was selected advisedly, as the only other one is this. Here is a guide to the locations used.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Camberwell Now

What is intended as a non-knee jerk, tentative column on the fire at Sceaux Gardens in BD. An interesting article about this in Socialist Worker too, which despite some debatable architectural points actually goes into depth on the neglect and cutbacks that have beset the estate; see also the original review of the estate at the Architects Journal; not as rapturous as Ian Nairn, a very hard critic to impress, who wrote when it was built that 'for once, an estate has become a place'. Which will obviously be scant consolation now. And, not solely for the sake of my usual attempts to link any event of note to my obsessions but as evidence that the place was once thought romantic, it's the place you can see in the video above, headed up by the caption 'setting'.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Indefensible Space

Another link to Spillway - a photo-essay on the terrifying security landscape created around the Olympic site, documenting the relentless advance of the new Gothic architecture discovered by Patrick Keiller in Robinson in Space, made up of ubiquitous fences, barbed wire, labyrinthine security walls, walls topped by broken glass, with unnerving new space - there big sheds, here seemingly empty waterside luxury flats (featuring possibly the worst example I've ever seen). This links with one of the most brilliant, and unexpected points of Anna Minton's excellent new book Ground Control (reviewed by me for the NS, link soonish) - a passionate, convincing attack on one of the most accepted, cliched ideas about urban planning since the early '70s, Oscar Newman's theory of 'defensible space'. She introduces this by mentioning a housing association project which Hans Van der Heijden of BIQ Architecten worked on in Liverpool. They planned a 'continental' development, and were told in no uncertain terms that, according to police-led Secured by Design policies which have to be followed to get planning approval, the development must 'be surrounded by walls with sharp steel pins or broken glass on top of them, CCTV, and only one gate into the estate'. Despite having the support of residents, they were sacked from the project and something containing all of the above was built in its place.

Minton argues that defensible space, the attempt to design away crime from new developments, something equally prevalent in gated communities and in the housing association-run remnants of social housing, is a paranoid assault on the polis, a form of negative determinism (perhaps to complement the positive determinism of the modernists who tried to design community into estates). Rather than obliterating fear, by closing off an area and filling it with security paraphernalia, defensible space (and its state form as Secured by Design) creates fear. Interestingly, given that both Jane Jacobs and Oscar Newman were very popular among postmodernists, she contrasts it with her idea of 'eyes on the street' from The Life and Death of Great American Cities, where strangers should be welcomed into the urban district and the housing development rather than repelled with the Orwellian apparatus of spikes and cameras that dominates British cities; patterned on the grid, rather than the cul-de-sac. It's odd, really, that this pessimistic, paranoid form of urbanism has been so popular for so long, its applicability being extended from the New York projects studied by Newman to the whole of the UK. There's sadly little acknowledgment of the only seemingly converse Urban Task Force approach of pedestrianized piazzas and overpriced coffee chains, which were frequently in the privately-owned 'Business Improvement Districts' expertly critiqued elsewhere in the book.

Addenda: although Minton doesn't write much about aesthetics, it occurred to me that the visual equivalent of Newman's ideas might be the notions of architectural legibility proposed in Alice Coleman's Utopia on Trial. Making a frontal assault on Modernism in toto, suggesting, rather extraordinarily (I don't want to bring up the Barbican again, but...) that crime increases the taller the building, her influence was brought to bear on actual housing design in Britain in the 1990s, and the results can be best seen in what Cedric Price called the 'pathetic Colemanville' of the area just behind Park Hill in Sheffield, and in the semis built by Liverpool's Militant council. It's extraordinary that Marxists were taken in by such a superficial, anti-materialist analysis - essentially, that buildings that don't look traditional are alienating, that height equals blight - when the problems of estates are mostly social rather than architectural, as the many estates of 30s semis built by local councils with fearsome reputations (Manor in Sheffield, Wynthenshawe, Flower Estate Soton) can attest. It's intriguingly stupid, what was done in the Hyde Park area. Modernist terraces and flats reclad, alternately in vernacular brick and postmodernist plastic, and even architecturally pretty conservative '30s tenements reclad to make them more 'friendly', while the streets-in-the-sky of Hyde Park were enclosed and closely guarded, making it a decidedly hostile place, according to an ex-resident of Sheffield's three streets-in-the-sky schemes - and in the process, a world-famous symbol of confidence and futurism was transformed into a provincial mess.


A chip-themed post on me, by I.T. Am indescribably flattered.

Wonk Policy

I was once utterly obsessed with pop music, and my flatmate likes to wind me up by implying I don't care about it anymore, and am gradually devolving into a one-album-a-year type. The last time I really cared about a New Music rather than listening to burnt CDs of old Isaac Hayes, Wu-Tang and Cabaret Voltaire albums was Grime and to a slightly lesser extent Cologne Techno, about five years ago in each case. My attention has been briefly grabbed since, by the Northern bass-noise-pop of bassline house for a time, but never, ever, with the token exception of Burial's second album, have I cared a jot for Dubstep. Not because it's full of people like me - personally I prefer not to have a pall of menace around where I spend an evening, I had enough of that as a teenager, thanks - but because it's so fucking dull. It suggested drum and bass if it had only ever been the music it had turned into by 1998, a ponderous stonerstep for slovenly, unshaven UCL science students in expensive rainwear. I thought it was boring when Slimzee started playing it on Rinse FM in 2003, I thought it was boring when Rephlex jumped the gun with the nomenclature, and I thought it was dull when I went to FWD for the first and last time in 2004; why listen to this when you could have instead the sonic imagination, the futurist melodrama of Ruff Sqwad?.

So my attention was not attracted by that-which-we-cannot-call-wonky, early on, as I assumed it was another facet of this wholly uninteresting scene. Further investigation made clear that while some was predictable pomo stuff some of it was rather exciting, a bizarre lolloping G-Funk made up of bright, wilfully tasteless synth squiggles. You could actually imagine dancing to it. Another Joker track, 'Digidesign' (above) got me even more excited, sounding like a vision of Asian megacities rising out of dubstep's Brixton squats, of the signifiers of the urban moody being rejected in favour of the urban sublime. So after raving about this elsewhere I was very kindly sent a link by the blogosphere's favourite buffoon empiricist Dan Hancox to a recent mix by Guido, and after managing to put down my hackles - the producer is called Guido, for God's sake, an unshaven Tolkein-referencing Bristolian - there are fine things there, albeit amidst some tracks which evoke a straining for drama reminiscent of incidental music to SNES games. The best things here sound like they're picking up from the luridly synthesised Sinophile grime of 2003 - Jammer, Terror Danjah - with gunplay removed and funk transfused: Guido, Aarya and Ruthless's 'Beautiful Complication' (also above) is a particular joy, a teen-pop melodrama in garishly artificial synth and genetically modified R&B vocals. It's a bit sad that it's been mainly the preserve of those hostile to theory or writing about music rather than scene politics - if this music takes off from the dynamism and drama of the tracks above and leaves its torpid roots behind, there could be something here truly worth overheated prose and grandiose theorisation.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Brutalism, friend of the Pedestrian

Near the end of his criminally out-of-print 1966 study The New Brutalism, Reyner Banham, clearly disappointed that the architectural non-aesthetic he had praised so much had developed not into the architecture autre he hoped for but transmogrified into sophisticated masterpieces of proper architecture like the Leicester Engineering and Economist Buildings, listed the things which dated Brutalism, which meant that even then it seemed passe compared with the Fun Palaces and Walking Cities. Brutalism, he notes, is an architecture that abhors the motor car. 'The ethic of the Brutalist connection in architecture, like every reformist trend in backward looking. It may make tremendous bold attempts to keep the automobile under control, but in the last resort it is to recreate a pedestrian city, as in the central plaza of Siedlung Halen, the street-decks of Park Hill.' Making such a hard and fast distinction between what is backward and what is progressive is often rather foolhardy, as history has a knack of being surprising. While for Banham the autopia of LA was Progressive, we can't be so sure. Signified in the UK by the point in the '70s related in Joe Moran's On Roads when, to the horror of the motoring lobby, the InterCity trains surpassed the motorways in speed, the car is no longer 'progressive'. In any sensible society it would be all but obsolete, a privatised mode of motion which not only carries rates of death in its wake that would never be accepted on any other kind of transport, but which carries in its train a landscape of endless sheds, retail parks and malls which, for all its cold fascination, is not one which even its defenders can be bothered to make a serious case for.

Brutalism's most retrograde element, its attempt to 'recreate' a city for the pedestrian, must now strike us as its most progressive aspect - especially as it is precisely in these pedestrian spaces that Brutalism created a genuinely new space, a new way of moving around the city. Rather than the idealised main street bafflingly turned into a model for all to follow (see this atrocity for a case in point), the Brutalist city of skywalks, under and overpasses and lakeside cafes makes the mundane act of getting from A to B exciting. This is something brought up in In Praise of Beech Street, a post on the Barbican's semi-secret underpass at Will Wiles' fine new blog Spillway. That was in response to a typically irritating post at Oobject, a sort of regular digest of high-in-pics low-in-thought design capitalist realism (eww housing projects! eww statism!), which took issue with New York's newly reopened Highline, because, um, it's not a proper street. This idiot version of Jane Jacobs is depressingly prevalent in urban design circles. Surely at least one reason for the enduring crapness of all the bland Plazas of the abortive 'urban renaissance', with their branches of Costa and optimistic seating spilling out onto the pavement was their spatial conservatism - everything always boringly tied to the ground, presumably with the knowledge that if we get light on our feet then we might not open our purses.

Critics and consumers alike seem to will any attempt to elevate everyday life to failure, anything that lifts us off away from the proximity of a coffee concession being some sort of mockery of the neoliberal city. Whether its the demolished walkways of innumerable council estates (usually for 'security' reasons, though it's moot whether they lead to endemic crime at the Barbican) to the imminent demise of Sheffield's multi-level tat extravaganza Castle Market (wonderfully, Sheffield City Council once planned to throw walkways over the whole Sheaf Valley), the attempt to create a pedestrian city that doesn't stay at a base level has become unpopular just at the point where it would seem most relevant, where it would make a (holds breath) sustainable urbanism something invigoratingly modern rather than tweedily conservative. It has been relatively intriguing, in the arid world of oligarchitecture, to see the reaction to Steven Holl's Beijing Linked Hybrid - not because it looks like it'll be a formally interesting building in itself, but because here the walkway has come back, and this seems to many critics to be an unforgivable urban faux pas. A perusal of the Skybridge-Skywalk-Skyway group on Flickr is a fine reminder that walkways, skyways, the excitement of multiple levels and a Metropolis worthy of the term are wholly part of the future we were promised and denied. Rather than sharing our streets with cars, we should be building car free streets in the air, from which we can rain down eggs and rotten vegetables on said cars.

British Hospital in Hot Weather

My synapses are perhaps still too frazzled by a week of freakish, oppressive weather (during which I realise I am in no way going to enjoy global warming) and of heavy prescription painkillers to write a coherent post, but here goes. My latest sojourn to my PFI hospital in exurbia took me to the daycare ward, although I had been told I would be in overnight. The waiting room had built-in plastic seating uncannily akin to that of Star Express (which might be a more appropriate concession than the obligatory branch of Upper Crust), and after a shorter than usual period of milling around on nil by mouth I was ushered into the ward. I was to be in the corner, in a bed which seemed bizarrely thin, even for one as streak-of-piss-like as myself, where I would be overlooked by a poster for The Rugrats Movie and several cuddly toys of sundry animals. I assumed this was the children's ward, although with the general infantilisation that accompanies hospitalisation I couldn't be certain. The radio in the corner played Michael Jackson hits interspersed with the usual fare (Spandau Ballet's 'True' - and this before the painkillers). Despite the overwhelming brightness outside, the artificial strip-lighting of the ward cancelled out the dangerous notion of 'natural light'.

After a few hours of the obligatory stay of operation enlivened by being brought magazines by the inestimable IT, I was taken in to the anaesthetic room - which, even in this blistering heat, was icily cold. The last time this happened I spent a while afterwards in a half-conscious haze that was a bit terrifying, so this was nice and clean - woke up in the bed, in the ward, rather than in some vague surgical place or in a lift - and with the consoling visages of the Rugrats looking over me. Before I could contemplate further the dubious promise of a night on strong analgesics and tranquilisers looked over by cartoon children teetering atop the Eiffel Tower I was hustled out of the bed by hospital staff, without even a fresh batch of happy pills to take home with me. Since then I've been in far more pain than after the previous two operations, but whether the two are connected I can't say. I can only assume the hospital was being readied for the spectacular crisis that would befall a north Kent trying to cope with a heatwave...