Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Poseur corner

Me in the New Humanist, singing the praises of Ernst Bloch's Evan Calder Williams-esque Atheism in Christianity - reminding me that I really ought to get them to use a better photo of me than the one they're using, which was posed on a trip to a 'heritage railway' in Hampshire, hence flatcap, jaunty expression and (out of shot) 30s Penguin paperback. Also, note that the last line of the piece was not written by me - I have never heard Terry Eagleton cheering, and the very idea fills me with horror.

Those who can read Polish can find words I actually used along with better photos, taken from here, in this interview with me by Agata Pyzik for Notes (PDF, on p64-71). Ms Pyzik also blogs intriguingly at Nuits Sans Nuit Et Quelques Jours Sans Jour, on cinema, art and matters aesthetic.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

This Brutal House

Me on, if not in the New Statesman on the subject of the Sheffield wing of Warp's extensive 20th anniversary celebrations. Now not only have Warp released many of my favourite albums (in which I could include Intro), but for their 10th anniversary they brought out three double CDs, of which two - the collection of American and English techno in Warp 10: Influences and the utterly peerless Yorkshire bleep & bass anthology Warp 10: Classics are among my favourite records ever released by anyone ever. So the suspicious tone of the article is more to do with politics and urbanism than music, although I've ceased to care that much about their output in the ten years since. There have been some wonderful records by Broadcast, Boards of Canada, a couple of others (though the jungle plus cute electronica and/or jazz bass side of their output sounds horribly inconsequential in retrospect, the new prog rock in terms of its rhetoric of ultra-complexity and its spotty demographic), but largely they've become just another slightly-more-interesting-than-usual label. And really, call me a prolier-than-thou sentimentalist, but the fact is that this has much, much more to do with the label they once were than this. Perhaps this is because they've 'moved on', but to whence is not often commented upon.

Park Hill-related pun inspired by this, the 'Let's Get Brutal' mix of which Nightmares on Wax played on the night (photos here of Magna and PH are by Joel Anderson and not for re-use without approval In Writing). Also in the NS and oddly good, Will Self on wood cladding and the possible uses for this insufferable architectural mannerism post-collapse. On the fascinating subject of cladding materials, there's a letter in this week's BD taking issue with my earlier 'naive' (I was trying to be faux-naive, but I suppose it didn't convince) column on reclad towers. It does a fair bit of cheating, in speaking only of panel constructed towers, while those I mentioned by name in the piece were either steel or concrete-framed things that hardly merited such drastic, and architecturally disastrous encasing, other than a sign from councils that Something Is Being Done, so accordingly we don't have to bother doing any maintenance again afterwards. As it is, I was thinking more of this sort of thing, the be-hatted towers of Wakefield, rather than the rather swish redesigns shown in BD.

Friday, September 25, 2009


Two things on Art: a review in BD of an exhibition which bizarrely, manages to disappoint despite featuring Madelon Vrisendorp and Chicks on Speed; and in the current issue of New Left Review I can be found administering an extensive kicking to freelance curator extraordinaire Nicholas Bourriaud. Non-subscribers can read the first paragraph on the NLR's website. I admit to being inordinately pleased to be in there.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Capital of Europe 2: Public Buildings


One thing worth remembering everywhere in Brussels is that it was a capital built on mass murder. Its most glorious years, architecturally, the late 19th century up to around 1940, are the years where this tiny country presided over what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, where initially, under the personal rule of Leopold II, there existed a regime of genocide and brutality which compares only with the Khmer Rouge's Cambodia, Stalin's Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in the extent, scope and ruthlessness of its violence. Needless to say, it's rather less famous than those. Brussels is what it is partly because Kinshasa is what it is. The oppression of the Belgians by the Belgians does not compare, but Brussels is nonetheless a city whose very skyline is marked by the barbarism of Leopold II and his more bourgeois lieutenants, in the form of the Palace of Justice his government had built in the 'upper town'. This part of the upper town was literally constructed on top of the lower, displacing thousands of slum-dwellers. You have to get a lift down to the lower town, which attaches itself to the Palace's ludicrous bulk with an admirable lack of decorum.

Not all of the monuments on the Brussels skyline are so horrible as this. Looking from a position on the platform which leads to the lift above, you can see two of the most extraordinarily odd things on any skyline in the world, both of them in the direction of Heysel. One is the Koekelberg Basilica. This was planned to be the largest cathedral in the world, and is not far off even today. It went through various revisions, got consecrated in the 30s and finished in 1969, to a freakish design by Albert Van Huffel. So what there is now, reached by a grandiose ceremonial route, is a bulging, bulbous mass of stylisation and domination, Gotham City if it were more Byzantine than Goth.

The other thing is even more fun - the Atomium. Being good nostalgists for the future, you should all already know about this. It's the future we were promised and denied in its most vast and unavoidable form, and it still quickens the heart to see a massively magnified iron crystal rising hundreds of feet in the air over houses and blocks of flats, as if such a thing were normal, as if we should all be living inside atoms. (the photo below is of my sister and is the best photo I have ever taken, although the competition is not too stiff)

Near to it is another exhibition building, and another example of the architectural fusions you only seem to get in Belgium. Designed in the late '30s, this one, the work of one Joseph Van Neck, is like the Futurist architecture that would have developed if the 19th century aesthetic had never really been interrupted. Plenty of figures and ornamentation, and even the metalwork seeming to have something (HG) Wellsian about it, the way it seems to rear upwards to eventually thrust itself forward makes it more like Sant Elia than anything actually built by the Italian Rationalists. Anywhere else it'd be an overwhelming building, but here its position on the skyline is necessarily eclipsed by its giant metal neighbour.

Socialist Architects of Brussels, Unite

Rather comfortingly for optimists, there was (and I hope the past tense isn't totally necessary) plenty of opposition to capitalism and imperialism in Brussels, and much of it had unusually direct links with architecture. Victor Horta, the city's most famous architect, was a member of the Belgian Workers Party, and designed for them the Maison de Peuple, a metal monument this time for the Internationale, housing everything from socialist events and concerts to disputatious conferences between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. It was demolished in the 1960s, though fragments of its metal work were saved and eventually became ornaments for a Metro station. Horta's architecture is where art nouveau seems genuinely revolutionary rather than reformist, a new world of glass and iron rather than dressings to beaux-arts houses, with machine-crafted ornament attempting to rival nature in its illogical curves and permutations. As a way of saving the art nouveau public buildings that seldom work properly, there's an agency which restores them and makes them into (usually curiously chosen) museums. So a department store by Horta becomes a cartoon museum, and Paul Saintenoy's wonderful Old England department store becomes a museum of musical instruments. The latter is the finest of the art nouveau buildings we see there, a highly non-contextual black iron squiggle stuck on the end of the boring imperial bombast of the upper town.

Horta then went moderne, and ended up being made a Baron by the Belgian government, an indicator perhaps that his socialism didn't run too deep - though it seems to fit the aristocratic nature of his buildings, with even the cubic art deco of the 20s and 30s using opulent materials and plenty of light. You can see it in the suprematist-classicist Bozar, and also in the Central rail station he designed, which was eventually finished by the firm of Maxime Brunfaut, all rectangles, travertine and deco light fittings. And in the photo above, me and my Dad.

Maxime, Fernand and Gaston Brunfaut are who I really want to talk about here, a family of modernist architects, of whom Fernand actually became a Socialist MP. I bought a postcard of one of their buildings several years ago on another visit to Brussels, which looks like this, an amazing - and built! - interpretation of the Vesnin brothers' glass offices for Pravda, designed in 1930-2, appropriately for the Belgian socialist daily Le Peuple. I had unsuccessfully searched flickr and elsewhere trying to find photos of the thing still extant, and when I finally found the address, I approached it with some trepidation, expecting it to be in some ruinous state, or to be housing a bank or something equally egregious. It wasn't as bad as that - in another example of incongruous adaptive re-use it is well restored, but as the offices for the government of Asturias, of all things, with their flag where the people's flag once was. I'd be much happier if it was occupied by whatever socialist press is left there, the Belgian Schnews or something...

As a building it's another peculiar fusion - this time Constructivist-deco, with black and red vitrolite tiles going alongside the Vesninesque stair tower and the mercifully untouched neon sign. The vitrolite actually continues into the earlier part of the building, which is - of course - another cartoon museum. I only hope that there is some link between the cartoon in question and the 'Socialist Co-Operative' the building proclaims itself to be. Meanwhile, Maxime Brunfaut designed another, even more vivid and exciting building for the Flemish socialists in Ghent, with the same vitrolite running along the entrance - that a socialist corporate style should attempt something approaching glamour is an encouraging thing.

This is a late (1949-52) building by Maxime Brunfaut, the Congress Station, in the bureaucratic heart of the city. Nearby is the relentless, EUR/Il Conformista stripped classical of the national bank, and the many Miesian office blocks which were reclad to make them less scary and/or technologically dysfunctional. This is rather a shame, and fans of the bureaucratic aesthetic have to look further afield to find their jollies. One such is this opaque glass thing, which can give you an idea of what Berlaymont, the notorious EU headquarters, looked like before it was made to look nice.

The building above is the Shell offices, which seem to sum up Belgian modernism, in a sense - while the form is totally taken from the department stores of Erich Mendelsohn, the vaguely De Stijl sculptural accoutrements end up creating a curious decorative modernism that is still far more advanced than the dynastic edifices the corporation was designing for itself in London at the same date. All of it is more interesting than the EU Quarter - both it and the upscale boulevard Louise are practically the only architecturally uninteresting places in Brussels, not for stylistic perversity or mismatching or crass ornamentation - but for their relentless postmodernist tastefulness.

Le Peuple, Lift, Atomium, Old England and Shell building by me, others by Frances Hatherley.

Dance, Prole, Dance!

I'm more than a bit late on this, but go and read The Impostume's ferocious, brilliant and generally ridiculously good two-part takedown of Trainspotting, which for him seems to be a kind of New Labour Triumph of the Will. Note also the intriguing and wholly anonymous comments thread on the second of the two posts. 'Do you realise that with all the class-conscious cultural critique, we're starting to read like a James Kelman character having an internal babble? Ah well - at least Kelman wasnae some slimy New Labour cunt.' Amen to that.

Capital of Europe 1: Houses

Obligatory holiday picture post

Brussels is bourgeois. So bourgeois that Marx and Engels despaired of this most industrialised part of continental Europe ever becoming revolutionary, and hence it's the perfect place for the headquarters of the bosses' utopia that is the European Union, and for NATO. Thing is, in making Brussels the capital of Europe, combined with the linguistic and tribal chaos of Belgian politics, the EU managed to accidentally create a diverse and I almost hesitate to say vibrant, multicultural city. In doing that the weirdness already at large in the capital is positively amplified, and pointing out this weirdness is key when arguing with little Englanders who seem to imagine the European capital as being full of glass buildings housing potato-measuring bureaucrats. There are many of those, but many, many other things. I'm not going to talk about many of them, but instead about the radically bourgeois architecture of the capital of Europe, and the sporadic attempts to make it less bourgeois. The first part of this will be on houses, the second - sometime this afternoon or tomorrow, depending on whether I do any proper work - will be on public buildings.

Due to an ordinance which made the repetition of buildings practically illegal, apparently more because of a rash of lawsuits between Belgian architects rather than a disdain for uniformity, any Belgian street looks vastly different to any English, German or French street. You don't get terraces, you don't get semis, and hence you don't get repetition. This doesn't actually lead to the riot of ideas you could naively expect, and in poorer areas like that around the Gare de Midi, you get the same architects hanging minor variations on fairly uniform façades. Even in the best instances, it's a matter of small details and dressings rather than fundamentals. In practically every case, we're dealing with three and upwards storey townhouses and flats, without gardens, clinging to the streetline, with very few experiments at anything other than the level of style, design and placement of balconies, materials, etc etc. In this Brussels is especially bourgeois, in that there is much ostentatious individuality, but nothing truly nonconformist or revolutionary. Yet, if you take the view that architecture is scenery, and are not especially interested in interiors (I'm not) then this is not necessarily a bad thing - there is lots and lots to see. Most of these photos are taken in the area around the lunatic 1930s Koekelberg Basilica that towers over the north of the city (more of which in part two!), and which show how the same basic idea can be given all manner of surface treatments. It also marks a rare foray of this blog into the world of uncaptioned architectural porn.

Brussels is where Art Nouveau architecture was 'invented'. All this lot support the general idea of art nouveau as architectural frippery, an irrelevant detour from the true path of modernism. Which is not entirely the case, as we shall come to later. Above you have none of the really wild examples of the style, but rather lots of slightly Victor Horta-esque ornament, fancy ironwork, and occasionally huge windows and other more advanced accoutrements. What is interesting in Brussels is that when Modernism came along, it was for the most part slotted neatly into exactly the same system of streetline and ostentatious individuality. This system could accommodate very tall blocks of flats, and in a couple of cases a bit of Brutalism as well, without the essential rectitude of the streetline being broken up, without buildings going off into their own space and orientating themselves in some more 'rational' manner. As with art nouveau, the most interesting things are small details - the fronts of doorways, the edges of balconies, odd little ornaments. It's the sort of thing proper critics would have called Moderne rather than Modern, although see if you can spot the one of these by a CIAM member. Also, bear in mind this is suburban housing of the interwar years - compare the Tudorbethan semis built in London at the same time, for a pointer to what happens aesthetically when you fail to fully complete your bourgeois revolution.

The two below are by Fernand Bodson, who straddled art nouveau and modernism, mostly in partnership with Antoine Pompe - and who at least had the wit to describe himself as a 'pseudomodernist'. Note the space for cars within the facade.

Joseph Diongre was responsible for this bit of intriguing glam-deco ostentation. Like many other Belgian architects he went from traditionalism to an opulent non-mainstream modernism - there don't seem to have been many Blomfieldesque ragers against Modernismus here. Diongre's most famous Brussels building is this piece of nautical Mendelsohnery, whose stern can be seen for miles.

The Brutalist one at the end has a tap.

To see exactly what makes Modernism as a movement different from this play of styles, the contrast between the Cite Moderne and the houses which surround it (many of which are above) is instructive. The Cite Moderne was designed in the early 1920s by a team headed by Victor Bourgeois, but it is the least bourgeois thing in the area. The Modern City is probably the earliest of the famous White Modernist estates of the '20s (early enough that its derivation from the pre-war ideas of Frank Lloyd Wright and Tony Garnier is easily spotted), and like those in Berlin, sponsored by a housing co-operative. Everything about it proclaims collectivity. Here, maybe because of some legal loophole or other, is repetition, but in an enveloping, friendly manner. Here there is an aesthetic consistency, and also lots of what Brussels had very little of at the time - gardens. This was at that strange point where it was Modernists rather than their opponents who favoured family houses with gardens over flats. There's also a lot of cubic topiary, De Stijl stained glass, games with right angles, and a monument to Bourgeois added at the estate's centre in the '50s. Just to remind you of the politics, the roads here are called things like 'Co-Operation Road' or 'Evolution Road'.

These are new houses being built at the edge of the Cite Moderne, which are scrupulously 'in keeping' - an exemplar of the changing priorities of bourgeois taste if ever there were. On the way back to the Metro station, I spot this Corbusian block. Many of Brussels' poor live in these slabs on hills at the edges, looming down on the bourgeois city.

I accept responsibility for all the photos, except the one at the very top which was taken by Frances Hatherley.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Bookmarks Plug Plug

I will be discussing my book and probably fiddling with my fringe and my overbitten nails at Bookmarks on Thursday. It will be, for those who have yet to experience my oratorical powers, an overwhelming experience, where you can gaze at my strange unnatural beauty (above) while I talk concrete and socialism. 6.30pm, Thursday 24th September, at 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1.