Monday, August 31, 2009

Don't TAZ Me, Bro

There are two encampments currently on the heath a mile or two south of the Thames, from which the Peasants' Revolt descended upon London in the 14th century. The first you come across, if you walk from an easterly direction, as I did, up Maze Hill past shirtless ice cream eating and stickers on lamposts advertising 'Canary Wharf Massage Beauties', is the Funfair (pic via). I have always liked funfairs, for being an exemplary combination of the futuristic and antiquated, for temporarily making Leigh Park in Eastleigh an exciting place, for being gloriously artificial - the only place, other than the seaside, where you can legally purchase Candyfloss without it being impounded. In the relentlessly hot, treeless and shadowless heath it looked a bit much today, but nonetheless two salient things about it were clear. First, the gigantic machines of cheap jouissance that towered in the heath's vast expanse, swinging screaming youth back and forth while bright lights flashed on and off; and second, the enormous carpark attached. The heath is very very big, but even then the amount of cars parked upon it on this bank holiday seemed huge, a maze of dust and turned-over grass keeping on it vehicles of varying degrees of flashness. The other, and more talked-about encampment, is the latest manifestation of the Camp for Climate Action, ensconced on the Lewisham end of the heath, so that the fair is barely visible.

The decision to park the camp in a reasonably central London location seems to be a sort of 'coming out' of the Camp, an attempt to connect with Londoners, to reach out beyond the converted, as much as it is a base for operations at City Airport and elsewhere - though one wonders how much more effective it might have been in a really dense area, like Victoria or Brockwell Park, where their presence would have led to major interactions - quite possibly uncomfortable - with the local area, something lost in the vast expanse of Blackheath. The camp is fenced off, with only one entrance. In something like the Kingsnorth or Heathrow actions this makes perfect sense, to protect the Picket from the Police, but here it seems an overreaction, a deterrent to the curious - though one should not of course underestimate the Met's propensity for random brutality. I visited the camp on Saturday with the I.T Girl, where we wandered for a bit, talked to friends who were there and greatly admired the 'CAPITALISM IS CRISIS' banner - cf her Flickr set - but today I went there on my own, with notebook in tow, to get a less convivial view of the whole affair. First of all - I do not, whatever tone I might take here, dismiss the Climate Camp. Far from being a consensual protest with which we can all agree, a mere shouting of 'global warming is bad!', every seminar and talk I saw here was clear, whatever the internal differences (and there are several), that what is needed is a total abandonment of all fossil (and nuclear) fuels, along with a total abandonment of the concept of economic growth. Most of them are quite honest about the fact that to do so would necessitate an economic system we could no longer call 'capitalism'.

Tactically too, they are a great deal cleverer than contemporaries - the contrast between the spectacularised nonsense of the 'G20 Meltdown' and the Climate Camp's organised, serious intervention in Bishopsgate was very telling on April 1. While there's a certain amount of protest-logic there, with all of its flaws, there has also been serious attempts at making links with organised labour - the involvement of many people here in the Vestas Wind Turbine Factory occupation (which appears to have its own tent) suggests that the seemingly unbridgeable gap I moaned about between the Visteon occupation and the City protests on April 1 is beginnning to close. So much is good here, and I have no intention of patronising it, although the inclusion of 'tall buildings' as the first of their ten reasons why they are camped here is not going to endear them to me. Still, of the talks I saw, some, as I expected, were very sensible indeed, while some had a hint of creepy Malthusianism - such is the Green movement and it was ever thus. What they all shared was the contention that this, this thousand-or-so people in a field just up the heath a bit from another more mechanised thousand-or-so people in a field, was, to use a phrase I would usually rather not, the change we want to see in the world. So to a large extent you can judge the camp on its own terms as what it clearly wants to be, particularly here where it is not notably picketing anything - a rather strictly delimited Temporary Autonomous Zone.

I tend to think that the, er, TAZ as a model of politics is every bit as flawed as the turn-up-protest-and-go-home, though rather more admirable. An old friend of mine who was camping announced the following on an internet site: 'Ever wondered what a functioning leaderless society would be like? Come down to the climate camp and find out, it's great!' I suspect lots of people there share this view. So, my opinions on this leaderless society. Well lots of this would be fairly cliched - it's a very earnest society, though friendly, overwhelmingly middle class, and with a liking for rural imagery and, at worst, sitting round in a circle with an acoustic guitar (though there were proper sound systems also). Another cliche in discussion of Climate Camp is to discuss the toilet arrangements in depth, but the aegis of the Socialist Lavatory League decrees that I do so. There are several kinds, boxes for one sort or another, with the additional option of peeing directly into a hay bale, all of which of course smell fairly unpleasant. These hay bales, however, mostly seem to be ornamental, are there to give the illusion of rurality to this little stretch of Zone 3.

So the speakers sit on them, although it would no doubt have been far easier just to get a stack of plastic chairs. This fetish for the pre-industrial recurs too in the rhetoric of some speakers - David Fleming made the extraordinary claim that communities created their own institutions before 'the late 18th century' (and we all know what happened then), as if the Church was somehow a more egalitarian institution than, say, the trade unions. There is a frequent argument that 'technofixes' are irrelevant compared to the urgent need for 'lifestyle changes' (presumably solar panels and wind turbines are not technology). How to convince people that these fundamental changes in (awful word) lifestyle are necessary? A speaker who helped put together the 'Green New Deal' paper with Caroline Lucas et al argues that their approach 'appeals to those who wouldn't necessarily go to climate camp', talking in terms of job creation or community control, rather than the joys of veganism or compost toilets - let alone the talk of 'final battles' we hear from some - yet their interest in technology and the outside world is not shared by all here. Either way, too much hangs on whether you want a new society to look like Climate Camp - and, for all its virtues, I don't. A bridge from the funfair to the camp must be built, but it seems as difficult as ever.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


As preview for forthcoming obligatory blogger's holiday post, me on Front 242's 'Headhunter' and its magnificent video; plus go read the holiday posts at the FJ, on English marine architecture and its strange permutations.

I recently had the honour of being a judge for this year's Carbuncle Cup, the annual award for worst piece of Bad British Architecture. There is a full report on the proceedings here, but it is notable that two of the three winners were educational buildings, and at the two poles of this field - one, the achingly drab PFI modernism of the Queen Margaret University Campus, for its generic Blairite blandness; and the exciting signature architecture of MAKE's Jubilee Campus, with its ten opposing ideas expressed in its three buildings (and appalling sculpture), all of them equally shit. I'd like to apologise to Nottingham for this not winning the top prize - I tried.

Friday, August 28, 2009


Been away in The Capital Of Europe for a week, and a post or several about this experience should be on the way soon, but in the interim, here's a shortish piece for 3:AM on Verso's Radical Thinkers series. In terms of the praxis/talking question, the Climate Camp have set up er, camp on the heath where the revolting peasants used to assemble before descending upon the capital - and about a ten minute walk from my flat. I shall most certainly be partaking as soon as I get all the deadlines I accumulated over the holiday out of the way, but you should certainly take a look at this list of discussion topics, via the Blackheath Bugle - an extensive, fascinating and interestingly contradictory selection there, with a talk on stopping coal mining next to a meeting celebrating women's role in the miners' strike. Possibly most curious of all is the topic 'Composting the Capitalist State – how we can, why we must'. The Socialist Lavatory League may have to attend to give the case against the Earth Closet.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Not a good enough Nowhere

Obviously the first reaction to the news that Prince Charles' neue Stadt is as jerry-built as the average Barratt bungalow should be one of derision and schadenfreude. Among architectural twitterers there were some who were simply amazed by the cheapness described: 'they didn't even use galvanised nails?' In the article residents describe damp, cracked walls, animal faeces, bored and aggressive youth, social atomisation...all the things which Charles Windsor, Alice Coleman and their ilk claimed were some sort of natural teleological consequence of modernist prefabrication, combined with a few wonderfully postmodernist problems like being drenched in water from a fake chimney. We have every right to be smugly unsurprised, but Poundbury is also in a sense a missed opportunity (almost) as much as it is a moronic folly, or at least it could have been an opportunity were those involved in it somehat less thick. Regardless of the sophistication or otherwise of the plan, the aesthetic of Poundbury is almost deliberately nondescript. The plan seems to be one of the culprits in the article above, but complaints about alleyways or it being 'too tight' are misunderstandings of what mad old Nazi apologist Leon Krier was actually up to here - this was not supposed to be suburbia, instead being an attempt at creating something akin to civic medieval planning, perhaps a medieval free city without all those unhappily proto-modernist skyscraping towers and belfries, Bruges rather than Barratt.

This conflicts sharply with the architecture that Charles and his builders have settled on, which is a deeply reticent neo-Georgian, or rather a form of Georgian that has had all the urbane sweep rusticated out of it. Imagine the entire scheme if its patrons were fearless Goths rather than tight-arsed, terrified Classicists, or if they were socialists rather than monarchists - if their derivation was from Ruskin and William Morris rather than christ knows whatever amalgam of Wimpey, John Nash and '80s Labour council vernacular they're taking inspiration from. For the medievalist socialists of the late 19th century, the problem with modern architecture, be it the redbrick terraces that we've since convinced ourselves are 'homely' or the prefabricated Crystal Palaces that are now re-imagined only as precursors to Norman Foster, was that the exploited labour used to produce them was so obvious in their form. This is why it's appropriate that Robert Tressel's novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, a tale of house-builders knocking up Edwardian houses on poor wages, was pivotal in (briefly) making socialists out of the English - because it revealed the misery behind the dream of the traditionalist home. The medieval city, its cathedrals and guildhalls, were the model for them not because of a liking for spikiness, but because they believed, rightly or wrongly, that this was the form that architecture took when it was a truly communal act, when masons were artists, and when there were no catalogues or architectural enforcers. 'Grecian is mathematic form, Gothic is living form'. This may have been a fantasy, but if so it's a seductive one.

The Bauhaus was initially based on this idea, of the communally built cathedral as the foundation of the socialist city - and this impulse carries on into non-International Style modernism, whether hand-prints in the concrete in Latin American Brutalism, the obsessive, freakish craftsmanship of the Amsterdam school, the irregular brickwork of Gillespie Kidd & Coia, the employment of highly skilled workers on the housing schemes of Red Vienna rather than a Taylorised 'work-force' clipping together prefabricated all of these cases, form follows the supposed pleasure of the worker. Now, the medievalists involved in Poundbury, divorced as they are from any real politics, can't conceive of such a thing. So the end result is joylessly applied drudgework, given a patina afterwards to make it look vaguely warm and lived-in. The only way I could ever imagine having anything other than contempt for this particular fantasy is if it were something truly worth fantasising about - if their medievalism was via Ruskin rather than Tolkien, if they employed skilled labourers and artists and waited to see what they came up with rather than getting Persimmons to churn out a preconceived olde-worlde. Except we don't seem to have craftsmen anymore. Which, when neither the builder nor the architect is allowed the luxury of independent thought, condemns the entire endeavour to tedium.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Glasgow High-Rise Addenda

1. Transatlantic City

Though I'm sure I could be upbraided here for rather too pat links between the base and the superstructure, you can follow in the recent history of architecture the passing of the baton of advanced capitalism through Britain, through to Germany and/or the USA, and today to the ultra-developmentalism of China - which at least in the style rags shows a malevolent, unforgiving confidence which is rarely to be seen in Europe. Whether that's a good thing or not is extremely doubtful, given the necessary correspondent of extreme exploitation, but there it is. So, if you want an explanation of the decline of British capitalism and its supersession by less technologically conservative, more industrially fervent countries at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th, architecture is a fantastic place to start. The reign of vainglory and tedium, of E Berry Webber, E Vincent Harris, Reginald Blomfield, various lesser lights - Edwardian Baroque, almost-deco, etc: an escape into solidity and tradition while both were being thrown overboard on the other side of the Atlantic, or at least being stretched and distorted into something unrecognisable. There are some exceptions to this in England - the Liver Building most of all - but Glasgow architecture threatens the entire theory. 'By 1914, Glasgow had the most American city centre in Europe.'

The area around Glasgow Central station - which itself has its futurist moment with the glass bridge that barges across Argyle Street - is absolutely full of what would have been extremely advanced architecture for its date, and appropriately it's apparently used sometimes as a double in film sets for Edwardian Chicago or New York, just before they make their leap into the stratosphere. But funnily enough it isn't a question of sheer height, but the use of that height. First of all, many of the most impressive buildings are fairly low iron-framed warehouses, their unambiguous technological expression something that would never be allowed on Piccadilly. Meanwhile, a building of eight stories in Edwardian London would usually make a big play of its own lumpen rusticated solidity, but their Glasgow equivalents stretch out their ornamentation, and their high windows and unashamed repetition give them that upwards! momentum that is as important to skyscraper design as the steel frame. There are some oddities also, such as the concrete Lion Chambers, which is one of the nearest things in Britain to the ultra-congested multi-functional 'delirium' Koolhaas claims as the foundation of Manhattanism. An artists' studio, chambers for lawyers, a traditonalist castle and a skinny jugendstil confection mashed together. So it's odd how Glasgow doesn't have a cluster of office towers post-war, as it was surely the natural place for such a thing to emerge. But with the odd exception, what did eventually emerge instead was...

2. The Glasgow Bloc

There is a Flickr Group called 'Glasgow Bloc'. Now while I would usually be unimpressed with the easy links between tower blocks in the ex-Eastern Bloc and those in Europe (because they're both so totalitarian, yeah?), here it makes sense. It would be silly to argue that the relative popularity of Stalinism in Scotland - Fife being one of only two places in Britain, along with Mile End (something to remind Michael Collins of, that) to have elected Communist MPs who were opposed by Labour candidates - had an influence on the extremely stark turn of Glasgow's municipal architecture, but certainly there genuinely is a stylistic kinship implying that the city picked the other side in the Cold War. Only partly, of course - in fact, the uninspired zeilenbau boredom of American 'projects' has more in common with the worst Glasgow 'schemes' than either has with the ambitious civic modernism of post-war London or Sheffield. Interesting that the most architecturally bespoke, if by all accounts appallingly built, of Glasgow Blocks, Basil Spence's Hutchesontown C, were demolished while hundreds of more straight-up slabs survive. Not all of them are awful, and most of them need care and decent facilities rather than clearance and demolition, but there is something bracing and cold about Glasgow's municipal modernism. It's sad especially that the natural peaks and dips of the topography seldom seemed to be used, in the way they were in Sheffield - instead it's usually slab, slab, slab.

The slabs of all slabs are in Red Road, erroneously but regularly claimed to be the highest housing blocks in Europe (they aren't, not even in Glasgow) and there was a sense of shame, certainly, about visiting the place camera in hand, after the example of Andrea Arnold's eponymous film - a tale of surveillance and paranoia which builds up an extraordinary tension, only to collapse into a morass of ITV humanism in its last ten minutes. The Wikipedia page on Red Road is an interesting thing, in that someone has, rather angrily but with much justification, blasted the way that the flats have turned from people's homes into alternately a cinematic location or a political football, and it links to a sadly dormant residents' campaign site. It is an extraordinary and atmospheric place, with echoing voices reverberating around the central burnt-out ex-playground. In Ian Nairn's essay on Glasgow in the mid-60s, he prefaced his praise of the tenements with 'I know you're thinking 'right, this man Nairn has gone too far this time, defending the Gorbals!' He contends that they were decent buildings, spoiled by overcrowding, that were nonetheless easily converted into something better, but architecture provided a convenient scapegoat for political ills. As it is the tenements went, and their replacements are going too, and for a seeming amalgam of Barratt homes and soft, sensitive mild Modernism, both of which miss the sense of bombast and scale that makes the place seem akin to an imaginary turn-of-the-century American megacity that has somehow coexisted with an eastern Bloc plattenbau expanse, the two parallel versions of high-rise modernity never really intersecting despite often occupying the same space, as in the Beszel and Ul Qoma of China Mieville's terrific The City and The City. To that can be added another unnoticed, hidden city, one which is determined to resemble an exurban Americanism of retail parks and speculative cottages, rather than flats and skyscrapers.

(incidentally this, from an excellent website, tells another story about US-Scottish architectural links, albeit of a more conservative sort.)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Oh Meckie!

I'll be giving some sort of short talk and tossing my fringe about on the subject of G.W Pabst's version of The Threepenny Opera, at this in Bermondsey, on Sunday - a one-day mini-film festival. 'A day of diversions and cultural curios focusing on the journey of a story from word to screen. Investigating translation and adaptation from literature to film through screenings, talks, live music and play.' It will be roisterous, I'm sure.

Friday, August 14, 2009

New Lanark

Two new things in Building Design, which of course you should go and buy for Mr Anderson's accompanying pictures: silliness on a film I went to see with my Mum at the Harbour Lights because the alternative was Harry Potter; and an urban trawl on Glasgow, erstwhile Transatlantic metropolis. Many thanks to Lang Rabbie and Fr Finton Stack for their suggestions, and to young Murphy, especially because our visit also produced this utterly blistering piece on Zaha Hadid's unfinished Transport Museum - someone give the man a regular couple of thousand words to do this in print.

Finally, am probably going to be helping judge the Carbuncle Cup this year. One building I wish I had made an entrant but came too late is the Glaswegian building above, which I briefly considered posting up as a guessing game - where are these houses? Reading, Basingstoke? Or in an inner-urban district of what was once a gigantic world-straddling metropolis?

Thursday, August 13, 2009


3:AM ask me lots of questions, to which I give mainly very long answers. With added music videos.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Old/New Man (2)

Oblique Numan post #2. About a year ago I went to see one of the finest albums of all time 're-enacted' by (at least some of) its performers. The Don't Look Back 'phenomenon' is not one I in any way endorse, but the Impostume had the powers of rhetoric and a free ticket on his side, so I went along. There's probably two kinds of responses to these things from the performers, one where they know full well their own genius, and the other where they can't imagine why anyone would want to see such a thing, and are a mixture of flattered and baffled. The Genius' response was of the latter sort. Pissed at the start, the erstwhile lyrical swordsman became ever more half-cut as the evening went on, and his bellowing delivery and a truly appalling sound system made for an all-but unlistenable experience - the eventual encore of moshpit Wu classics was far better than this failed attempt at reliving the past. The GZA spent some time inbetween songs railing - as well he might - at the star system and love of Mammon in contemporary hip hop, but it all became less and less coherent. There, on stage, was The Genius, Maximillion, the GZA, 'the notorious henchman from the North', saying to us 'see unlike these motherfuckers today, I'm just like you.'

After writing a long post about the Wu a few weeks ago, I decided to investigate what the GZA is up to now, in the form of last year's Pro Tools album. It's not bad - he's still sharp, still coherent, still better than most MCs alive - although the alchemy, the sense of overwhelming apocalyptic terror, the Wire-esque sense of an entire society being encompassed in vignettes, have all severely lessened, as you might expect. The main reason is obvious enough - the lack of the RZA, or rather the fact that even the RZA can't conjure up the atmospheres he once could. It's the sound of an intelligent, middle aged man refusing to pretend to be stupid, refusing to be cowed, which is something. But right at the end it all suddenly snaps back into unlife. 'Life is a Movie' crashes in with the clattering drums and paranoid Moog strafings from Gary Numan's 'Films', and a throaty, tired RZA who sounds impossibly aged, giving an incantation on his powers, which are suddenly restored by this most incongruous of samples, an injection of cold blood after the sub-Kanye soul of the rest of the LP. Then we get the GZA, who has one thing on his mind - poverty, unglamorous, non-gangsta poverty, the side of The Real you don't hear. Bare cupboards, late cheques, unemployment, and eventually a comedy of accident, and in the last Brechtian verse, an aside on the money and compromise behind the blockbuster. The chorus is a dialogue between a Wu-singer lamenting the cinematically examined life that lies behind all hip hop, answered by Numan's pained, autistic whine, the voice of someone no longer able to live life as spectacle - 'I don't like the film! Play it all back!'.

Socialist Lavatory League Communique #7

The attention of the SLL has been drawn to the following proposals for Tomorrow's Public Toilet, organised by that monarchist claque, the RIBA. The League applauds the rare attention to Public Convenience, something which has been all-but obliterated in the neoliberal city, with the privatised, revanchist exceptions of those automated pods where 20p ushers you into a machine around as trustworthy as the hospital bed in Roujin-Z. Worse still are those pissoirs where those - like the League's General Secretary - who have major problems with the plumbing, are left wholly dispossessed. At the very least, these proposals appear to have full facilities and an attention to aesthetics which is welcome - we cannot live by receptacles alone. For this at least, these architects must be applauded.

However, all of the contributors here - most of whom seem to accept the preposterous notion of paying to use public facilities for relief - make a common mistake. They all seem to think, in a giggly English fashion (and Eva Jiricna doesn't even have that excuse) that bodily functions are funny, and that this hilarity must be communicated by the form. Now, as many members of the SLL find that their dignity is put at risk for health and other reasons, the ideal of the public convenience will always be one of clean living in difficult circumstances. There's no reason why a loo should resemble an early 70s Terry Gilliam animation or one of the adverts from Bert Fegg's Nasty Book for Boys and Girls. Regardless, the proposals, one by one: Jiricna is already partly responsible for one public loo in London, at her Canada Water bus station. Being part of the freakish, anomalous brilliance of the Jubilee Line extension, the station itself is a marvellous Constructivist pavilion, but the toilets actually go too far in the other direction. No offensive jollity, but instead a Bottom Inspectors hell of cold metallic cisterns. Notably, none of the Jubilee Stations' toilets have seats, presumably because TFL can't be bothered to replace them after they get vandalised. That this great public project eventually results in sitting on cold metal in a London winter is an example of the limits of reformism.

So Jiricna's contribution here is brightly coloured, which immediately makes it unlike her earlier work. There is a big cartoon flower in the middle, a touch of fashionable eco-whimsy which is replicated in the programme: There is also the option of pods that provide undercover seating, advertisements, video projection and vending machines, not to mention solar batteries, wind turbines or light sculptures. Public art in public conveniences. We can pass over Robert Adam's neoclassical proposal, not only because lamentably reactionary but also because it is nothing new - similar royalist pissing pods are sprinkled around Westminster, and all of them adhere to the automated pod design which is the enemy of true Public Convenience. Will Alsop's proposal is somewhat baffling - is he suggesting, in Swiftian fashion, that the smell of our waste should be left to linger on the concrete streets? Are we lifted into the toilet's pod or is the toilet hoisted onto us? So his attention to ventilation is most welcome, removing the smell of either disinfectant or piss that is usually attendant, his technological formalism (not to mention the whimsical Zebra stripes) is, while intriguing, something likely to result, after the usual minimal attention to maintenance, in the toilet pod crashing somewhere that it shouldn't.

The other two, and superficially similar proposals, by DSDHA and FAT, don't seem that interested in the immanent qualities of the public toilet, but are more about particular urban interventions using the loo as a pretext. DSDHA go for a Cesare Borgia fountain, all Gods, Goddesses and 'greywater' turned into a pretext for water features. This, at least, is staffed, although the 'warden' appears a rather Bottom Inspectors choice - a mere attendant is obviously not sufficiently security conscious. The 'elevation' promised is deeply ideological - the elevation of the act of expulsion to the level of myth is the mere correspondent of its denigration. It need not be either, just something that has to be done, cleanly and comfortably. A similarly grandiose design by FAT, featuring a gigantic head of Hercules and/or Athena (the proposal that Aphrodite could replace the latter is at least intriguing) recognises that our 'miserly public toilet provision' must be fought, but also seems to go too far in the other direction, proposing instead an intimidating grandiosity, though it's a more interesting urban object than any of the other proposals, with the possible exception of Alsop's. It shares with all of them the recourse to the gag. If there is any form of public architecture where a certain amount of rectitude and lack of fuss would be necessary it is this, yet all of these architects are more inclined to chuckle schoolboyishly. Another effort, architects, if you want support from the SLL.

(in the course of researching this I was forwarded the following link, which includes a rather funereal loo by Adolf Loos - a man who knew that plumbing is a very serious thing)

Friday, August 07, 2009


(this post, the second or third in an ever-more bitter and long-winded semi-history of my hometown through blogposts, was originally to have been accompanied by photographs taken by myself using a 'fun' camera from Sainsbury's Basics Range ('no frills, get the picture'), but the sheer awfulness of the photos combined with a faulty CD from Boots means that this will be using the work of other, more talented Flickr users, with due credit of course. My photos, while staggeringly inept, at least have a certain atmosphere, so I may scan them in eventually...)

1. Eastern Docks

(photo of former Cunard Offices by Kiloran)

Southampton really has two centres, or a centre and an ex-centre. The ex-centre is something I sometimes almost forget about, so cut-off is it from the bus routes into town so important to suburban boys. This is a shame, as it's here that you could almost believe that you were in a great port city rather than a dead, failed yachting&shopping town. The ex-centre is really two ex-places - the former Southampton Terminus, closed by Beeching and now a fucking Casino - and the eastern docks. It's from here that the Titanic sailed. The Titanic is something that Heritage Southampton is entirely obsessed with, not for any good reason, but because it's famous. The new Tory Council is planning to sell off some of what is one of the finest art collections outside of the capital for the sake of a Titanic Museum in a 'cultural quarter' by the Civic Centre. Now there is in fact a permanent exhibition about the Titanic in the Maritime Museum by the Eastern Docks, but that's in the ex-centre, while the Civic Centre is far nearer to the WestQuay uber-Mall, so a collection that features Picasso, Rodin, Blake, Flemish masters and Vorticists, Op Artists and Renaissance altarpieces, is being flogged for yet another attempt to drag tourists kicking and screaming to an ever-more provincial, ever-more small-minded town - the possibility on building on Southampton's real qualities (there are some) is totally ignored.* But the new Heritage Museum by Wilkinson Eyre will include an Interactive Model of the Titanic, so that's OK then.

The (demolished) Ocean Terminal

Get someone to drop you off at the old Terminus blindfolded, take off the blindfold, look around, and you could almost believe you were Somewhere. There's a lush square ringed by stylish bow-windowed terraces, some Gin Palace-like Art Nouveau Hotels, the handsome Terminus station (ignore the Casino signage) and, oddest of all, the South Western Hotel. Now - obviously - luxury flats, this was The Hotel Where The Titanic's Passengers stayed, a wonderfully ridiculous high-Victorian confection that would look at home in South Kensington - but more interesting is the block adjacent. It's unclear from Pevsner exactly what this was, but it seems it may have been the 1899 Cunard Offices (NB: it may just be an extension of the hotel from the 1920s), and it's a freakish anomaly in the city, an example of proper Grosstadtarchitektur, eight masonry storeys, minimal ornament - perhaps inspiration was taken from the thousands of New Yorkers who must have stayed here. It introduces into Southampton a robust urban scale that is replicated nowhere else in the town, with nothing taller (bar one clocktower) built for half-a-century.

Poster for the Queen Mary, designed in 1936 by a schoolboy and never produced

The secret story here is more unnerving for those that would like a city to be marked by the ambition of its architecture. In the early 20th century Southampton overtook Liverpool as Britain's major commercial port. At exactly the point that Liverpool was erecting megacity monuments to itself along Pier Head, its business was being swiped by Southampton, with the White Star Line transferring there in 1907 and Cunard following in 1921. It's the misfortune of Southampton to have prospered most during the most uninspired period in British architectural history, the long slumber that lasted from 1914 to 1945. The shipping companies and Port Authorities built no Liver Building here, no 'Graces'. Clearly, the plan was that you'd get off the ship, get onto the train, and you'd be in London in just over an hour. Southampton didn't make a distracting fuss about itself, and the provinces were not to get any more ideas above their station. This was a place to travel through, not to, nobody (except its largely powerless inhabitants) really cared about it, and except for a brief period in the 60s, you can tell that nobody has cared much since - Tory councillors with houses in the New Forest sure as hell don't.

The Titanic ought to be a bitter, painful memory for Southampton, because most of the crew - those who weren't allowed into the lifeboats - were from the town, and most of them were from the slums of Northam. Their pay was cancelled immediately, and White Star gave no benefits or compensation, giving a clue as to why this Hampshire town became stridently red after World War One - a sudden shocking realisation that, regardless of all that King & Country nonsense, the ruling class doesn't care about you, a shock which has since dissipated into aiming to join the ruling class (think of the way Craig David, from the decidedly rough Holyrood estate, very near to Terminus Station, used to refer to himself in the third person, talking about himself as 'Craig David the Brand'). Instead, this mass death is something we revel in, because it reminds us of Kate Winslet posing nude for Leonardo Di Caprio and Celine Dion warbling atop the ship's stern. Walking round the remains of the Eastern Dock now, you can see at least two generations of failed regeneration. The Ocean Terminal, a 40s' attempt at glamour opened by the decidedly un-glam figure of Clement Attlee, was demolished in 1983, as were most of the other dock buildings, in favour of some egregious postmodernist dreck, attempting to build Reading-on-Sea. The centrepiece of Ocean Village was 'Canute's Pavilion', a shopping and leisure centre where I once fell on some coral for sale in a Nauticalia shop, gashing my arm. Now Canute's Pavilion has itself been demolished, replaced with the rote yuppiedromes of 'Banana Wharf', and a replacement Ocean Terminal - a simple, not-too-awful steel wing, with a surprisingly swish and svelte retro-modernist carpark adjacent, built for the Cruise Ships that still stop here. There is here the city's one bit of high culture aside from the doomed Art Gallery - the Harbour Lights cinema, designed for the Council in 1995 by Burrell Foley Fischer and far better than it has any right to be - a great piece of nautical high-tech that it always surprises me is allowed to exist.

2. Western Docks

Golf atop a Celebrity Cruiseship

The port is divided into leisure and utility. On the one hand, you have the Cruise Ships, on the other containers, with nothing much (save the Isle of Wight ferry) between luxury and automation. I flick through the local paper and find that soon, Southampton will be briefly home to 'Celebrity Eclipse', 'a 21st century, 122,000 ton engineering marvel', built of course in Germany rather than the long-defunct Soton shipyards, boasting a golf course on the roof. Another cruise ship which was in port on the day I (didn't) take these pictures apparently features a dining room where the tables and chairs are made from ice - it recommends you wear warm clothing. These floating Dubais are a weird thing - placeless and opulent, transporting the cruiser through (literally) nowhere. I have yet to utilise the fact that I have family who work on them to test for myself the theory that they must be so boring as to be almost transcendent. Perhaps I should do so. The other sort of ship is attended to largely by The Robots, with an additional skeleton crew of bored humans.

(photo of Southampton cranes by Southdinista)

I vividly remember playing in Mayflower Park, the windswept public space that divides the city's dead and 'alive' docks, on my birthday. I was, being a child of the 80s, fairly obsessed with robots, specifically Transformers. My parents, were they contributors to my comments box, would tell you, unprompted, the story about me coming home from nursery school claiming we'd been told about 'this robot called God' (well how else to explain it?). On Mayflower Park I would insist, thinking wishfully, that I was in fact a robot. In disguise. Which may explain a lot. I was missing a trick, as the robots were a few yards from the park, in the containerised Western Dock. This vast dock complex was built on reclaimed land in the 30s, so that it could take the ever-more ginormous cruise ships of the era such as the Queen Mary. In the 80s its vastness meant that it could, unlike Liverpool or London, accommodate containerisation with ease. It's also damn hard to see, at least from the Southampton side of the river Test, because you're not meant to see it. The best option is to walk through the bracingly bleak linear park that squeezes itself between the port and the railway line, and amid glimpses of the containers and cranes, avoiding the pylons that never seem to electrocute the passing dogs, you get to Millbrook railway bridge, the only real vantage point. Here you can survey the lines of identical cars, the names on the boxes (MAERSK SEALAND, HYUNDAI) and, best of all, the cranes, these astonishing structures which made obsolete an entire city's manual labour, picking up an unbelievable weight of consumer goods with unassuming panache. It's an incredible sight, but nobody cares to see it. It's never going to be on Southampton City Council's Heritage itinerary - and unless you have a pass, you won't ever see it up close. It carries the morbid thrill of seeing our replacements.

* More on the Art Collection sell-off here and here, plus petition here, for all the good it'll do.

The New/Old Man

First in what will be two posts sort-of-about Gary Numan. About a year ago I visited Shirley High Street and purchased, among other delights from it's 74 charity shops, a Gary Numan album with accompanying poster, which now sits above the kitchen table where I write this nonsense. A couple of days ago on the same street I saw a middle-aged man with bleach-blonde hair walking unassumingly up said street, with the logo above tattooed on his arm.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Ocean FM

Julian Cope's Head-On is a fantastic book, proof that musical and literary talent have no necessary correspondence - whether krautrock or megalithic exploration, his books are invariably better than the records. Anyway - one of the many pleasures of Head-On is in its unsentimental but unashamedly mythic evocation of place - Liverpool - and time - 1978-82, to the point where it's hard to read without an intense historical jealousy taking over. It makes both seem shabby, petty and breathlessly exciting, a scene that combines the expansive, bohemian and bitterly provincial, which is Liverpool all over. Part of what is interesting in it is in seeing just how wrong the Liverpool in-crowd (of which Cope was unabashedly one) were, how their coolness and their talent were in inverse proportion. As a rule, if the young Cope dismisses a band - John Foxx's Ultravox, Visage, Japan, Orchestral Manoevres in the Dark - they will be very interesting, but if he takes them seriously - Echo and the Bunnymen, Wah!, his own group - then it's Merseybombast all the way. Until recently, conventional wisdom would seem to agree, and one of the most exciting things about the early, canon-forming days of K-Punk was that we were reminded that Visage presaged techno, while the Bunnymen merely presaged Oasis.

Efficient, logical, effective, and practical.
Using all resorces to the best of our ability.
Changing, designing, adapting our mentalities.
Improving our abilities for a better way of life.

The contempt in Head-On for OMD is very funny - pretentious ex-hippies fronted by 'Leo Sayer' with a risible name. Out of the list above, they're still relatively unhip, lacking any Sylvian panache, their rep marred by astounding lapses in taste (three words: Joan of Arc). They have an obvious appeal for me as poets of port cities, hymning the romance of the Wirral rather than the Cavern, observers rather than participants. The relationship of postpunk to Modernism and industrial decline is an odd one, with much of it missing the imminent shift to the post-industrial - making songs that evoked factories when the factories started disappearing. OMD's best work has an industrial melancholy to it, a sense of loss, of something ending - so Architecture and Morality, with its gorgeous Peter Saville cover of abstracted international style details, claims on the sleeve to have taken the term from arch anti-modernist David Watkin. Songs like 'Sealand' have an expansiveness, sense of transience and an overwhelming, abstract longing that seems to fit the experience of a major port as much as Joy Division incarnate a mythologised tower-and-motorway Manchester or Cabaret Voltaire steelworks and New Brutalism. This all comes together perfectly in Dazzle Ships, picked up by me a few days ago for a very reasonable sum and seldom off the stereo since. Unsurprisingly, as according to Paddington, what we have here is 'a farewell to a utopian period whose potential was never allowed to be realised, a recognition of the empty nothingness of the present, a grim forecast of tragic future.'

Machines are living too, they're working for me and you!

There is, or was, a radio station in Southampton and Portsmouth called 'Ocean FM'. It played the usual pish, but it should have played this - the sound of a bleak month on a container ship compacted into a half-hour. If Dazzle Ships is a concept album, the concept seems to be communication, travel and distribution as enabled by technology, something usually carried out dispassionately, but here made overwhelmingly romantic, a pathetic fallacy for obsolete machinery, with an underlying terror at the prospect of turning ourselves over to abstractions, whether technology or capital. So there's a willed innocence to much of it, with 'Telegram' making this wholly superseded technology wildly exciting - 'I've got a telegram!' he sings, attempting to tap into the joy of its early discovery. Elsewhere, it's about deception as much as communication. The Dazzle Ships of the title are perfectly chosen, as this experiment in warpaint for Great War battleships was, until after 1945 Britain's only major experiment with Modernist abstraction in public life, a utopian idea utilised for depressingly, if impressively atavistic purposes. The title track, with its collage of empty space, foghorns, forlorn drones and sudden, panicked alarms, is almost synaesthetic in its evocation of a locked-down landscape controlled by the defence industries, a blank lullaby to Cold War big tech.

The sound always returns to that pioneered on 'Sealand', a wistful industrial balladry, wrenched away from sentiment by the speak & spell tones, Czech radio announcers, crackles of noise, blank snatches of broadcasts on torture in Latin America. Each of them all but begs a listening position where one is surveying cranes, ships, silos, pylons, microwave receivers, an album permanently on the viewing platform by the docks but seldom allowed to come any closer. It's intensely sad, marked by the realisation that all the things that were supposed to bring us together and make us into more decent creatures - radio waves, international transport, communications technologies, automation - are easily used for less rationalist purposes. It's an album of laments by and for disappointed modernists. If it predicts any future at all, it's one where these technologies will have expanded exponentially, and where we will have drifted ever further apart. And with that, I'm off to Southampton for a week or so, and will be testing its synaesthetic properties when there.

(the fantastic videos here are taken from The People's Palace on YouTube)