Friday, October 30, 2009

Hard Graft

Some overkill: two pieces about T Dan Smith, one (short) for BD, one (long) for 3:AM.

Also: the interviews I refer to are being uploaded onto Side TV, and make very interesting viewing....

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Suburban Sketch Two

Family history corner. My Dad is from Perivale, a suburban area of West London built around the Western Avenue, one of the arterial roads that burst out of London in the '30s, and the setting for much of J.G Ballard's Crash, as this is what the Westway transforms into before getting to Northolt Aerodrome. Despite having lived in London for over 10 years, I had never been to Perivale, and after long talking about visiting 'the ancestral home', we finally got round to it last weekend. The tube train emerges from the depths at Park Royal, and ploughs through acres of factories and shiny new (or not-so-new - the post industrial is old hat by now after all) business parks, and eventually comes here, next to the untamed parkland of Horsenden Hill, to a Charles Holden-esque station designed by Brian Lewis, opened in 1947. Here you can see Holden's style going austere, with none of the Piccadilly Line's Cathedral-like spaces, but the welcoming curve and expanse of glass still have more than a shadow of that style.

But it becomes obvious very quickly that public transport is not what this place is all about. This is Starvin Marvin's, a (possibly reconstructed, like the one in Canning Town, possibly newly built) 1950s American diner. It's the once-terrifying future as a benign, nostalgic joke, and next to it is a building which shows how English car culture was rather less exciting than the American - a shopping parade built by my great-grandfather. Shabby, mostly derelict shops, brown aggregate, sort-of-vaguely neo-Georgian. He put his family up in the flats above, although my grandmother was the only one who didn't get to own her bit, perhaps because she'd married a manual worker with Commie tendencies.

Dad says that there were a huge amount of deaths on this road when he lived here in the 1960s, people just walking into it, without realising that cars would zoom at them doing 80mph. The motorway bridge takes a strange route - rather than a simple a-to-b it curves around from the shopping parade to the road with the tube station on, feeling out of kilter with the road's relentless straightness.

Family Hatherley lived here on the ground floor, with a Turkish family living upstairs. A sign on the house says '1913'. I assume this place was another result of my great-grandfather's spec building activities, although it's a shame he didn't invest in a half-decent architect. A path from here leads you to a weather-boarded medieval church, and an achingly pretty, verdant pathway which leads to a tennis court and a boarded-up toilet. Apparently, the last time Dad was here, the green below was a park.

Fantasies of Falling Down-style anti-golf revenge come later. There is a Western Avenue in Los Angeles.

In the churchyard this gravestone proves Egon Schiele was influenced by the typography of late 19th century Perivale.

The most famous thing about Perivale is the Hoover Factory, designed by Wallis Gilbert between 1932 and 1938. Due to its 'jazz ornament', it was described by Pevsner as a 'monstrosity'. Monstrosities are usually very interesting. This is the canteen block, designed in 1938 when Wallis had added proper Corbusian Modernism to his Americanist neo-Egyptian cake mix, hence the expansive, sheer glass, grafted into the symmetries. I was hoping it would still be where the cafe is, but no such luck.

Every little detail here was designed and thought about, in a crazed capitalistic evil twin to the more Fabian total design projects of the London Underground (although Wallis designed the more sober Victoria Coach Station for Frank Pick soon after). It's all equally extravagant, from the gateposts to the tiles to the screens to the signs to the fences to the security gates. It tells you that the manufacture of vacuum cleaners is a rather dynastic business, something which involves opulence, slave armies and the mummification of the dead emperors, but without all the sand and putrefaction that tended to go along with ancient Egypt.

The later-to-be Nancy Hatherley worked on the production lines of the Hoover Factory during World War Two, when it was turned over to electrical components for airplanes and tanks. Her sister, my late great-aunt and fervent Conservative Party supporter Ruth Silwood (the annual argument at Christmas was always the highlight as far as I was concerned), was a factory supervisor, and after the war she bought a garage in Southall, then a hotel on the isle of Wight. By hook and crook she managed to get the entire family to move with her to the south coast, where my grandparents, one of whom died around a decade before I was born, lived in a Fareham bungalow. Nancy eventually went to the Isle of Wight too, to a first-floor flat that is still the first place that comes to my mind when I'm in any cafe, restaurant or boutique designed between 1950 and 1980.

The Hoover Factory is now Tesco (of course it is), and as you can see, the new additions are very much in keeping. I go inside, to use the loo and to see if the cafe is also in neo-deco style, but it's a Costa Coffee the same as every other Costa Coffee, with the snow-white concrete and the lurid reds and greens replaced by self-effacing earth tones.

All photos by Frances Hatherley


Should you be so inclined, you can listen to me pontificating about nostalgia at Frieze, recorded a couple of weeks ago, minus illustrative material. I end up concentrating on the eugh-austerity-nostalgia side rather than the hmmm-resentment-plus-historical-materialism-plus-nostalgia-may-be-interesting side of a perhaps overcomplicated position - or one which has become so since I was savaged by a dead sheep a little while ago.

Also! There are more Zero Books out or on the way - Dominic Fox's Cold World, which you should know about already, Nina Power's One Dimensional Woman and Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism, both of which are excellent and carrying on in the Qualified Abstract Noun vein, and I suspect there will be more plugging of them nearer their release. There is also The Resistible Demise Of Michael Jackson, which is amongst other things a fantastic collection of writing on pop, and within which I have an expanded version of my post on the King of Pop's Stalinist tendencies. On which subject, watch the video above if you doubt my assertion.

were they ever, your people, leonine?

Anyone who is not doing so should be following Dominic Fox's ongoing attempt to revise Percy Bysshe Shelley's The Mask Of Anarchy.

Suburban Sketch One

(first part of an entirely non-rigorous prospective series in response to a creeping revalourisation of suburbia that I may, or may not, be partly imagining)
Today I went back to Bluewater. I had two appointments at the M25's delightful Darent Valley Hospital, one in the early morning, one late afternoon, and I decided that it might be a more interesting means of spending an extended lunchbreak than sitting in the hospital branch of Upper Crust and reading Eric Hobsbawm. The first time I went there, with I.T, who combined pics with quotes from Ballard's underrated last novel, and from whom I have swiped these images without asking, I was a little underwhelmed - having spent much of my childhood and youth in Malls (like 90% or so of those born since the 1970s) it felt like a familiar but expanded version of something I already knew very well indeed - the only novelty seemed to be the extraordinary setting, a gigantic Firing Squad-friendly bowl carved out of a chalk pit, perfect for dealing with us when we start to get off our fucking knees. This time I explored it in a bit more depth, and its complexities and contradictions became more apparent, without necessarily making it a more pleasant place.

I hadn't realised, given the hospital's hilltop encampment-like position, that I was so close to Bluewater in my twice-a-month-at-least appointments. I was walking distance, in fact, or rather I would be if there were any means of walking there. What infuriates anyone used to enjoying the city through walking its short-cuts, walkways, underpasses, parks and general non-routes is that the place is so obsessively channelled, to an extent that makes most modernist housing projects look like models of extreme libertarianism. As the crow flies, or in a post-apocalyptic, car-free scenario, I could walk about 5 minutes from the outpatients to the back-end of Bluewater, counting in some tricksy negotiation of the chalk cliffs. Pedestrians are necessarily bus-riders, as there is literally NO WAY of just turning up and walking into Bluewater, something which I'm sure Americans are rather used to, but for us is still relatively shocking. Eric Kuhne, the architect whose firm CivicArts designed Bluewater, opines in a rather fascinating interview that Bluewater is a city rather than a retail destination. In terms of its size and population, this is true (plus you could count its appendage, Ebbsfleet new town, which I have yet to visit), so we need to evaluate exactly what sort of a city this is - a city with one ceremonial entrance, which can only be entered in a vehicle, where nothing is produced but where many things are consumed. The only sort of regime that could set up such a controlled, channelled city is a dictatorship or oligarchy. Neatly enough, Kuhne explicitly praises 'benevolent despotism' and critiques the very notion of democratic city planning in the above interview, with admirable frankness. Yet following Patrick Keiller's account of finding 'a small, intense man reading Walter Benjamin' in Brent Cross ('Robinson embraced the man and they talked for hours...yet the number he gave him was that of a telephone box in Cricklewood'), it's clear that Bluewater is one of the many possible termini of the 19th century Arcades that bore through the solidity of the baroque city, their iron and glass construction the 'unconscious' of architecture, an oneiric, ethereal harbinger of the future amidst the ostentatiously solid architecture of imperialism - the place where the 'dreaming collective' spend their time. As the bus winds through a series of roundabouts on its way from the hospital to the mall that is yards away, you see the elevations that are the (basically irrelevant) 'face' of the building - a series of spiked glass domes, over a long, bulbous metal roof, which shimmers in the exurban autumn sunshine.

Inside, the first impression - this is half-term, after all - is of everything happening at once. The city of Bluewater soon reveals itself to be docile, unsurprisingly considering the draconian code of conduct, and there's only the slightest hint of menace - but the entrance is chaos. First you go past the standard-issue Blair-era retail architecture of a Marks and Spencers, and then you hit something odd - four glass prisms, seemingly at random, part of the glazed part of the building that ushers you in. This might just be ineptitude, but presumably the designers know what they're doing here, given the (as we shall see) heavily didactic elements of the interior, but exactly what is unclear. They're 'toys', these, as Charles Jencks used to write about postmodernist architecture's little devices, they're purist solids straight out of L'Espirit Nouveau, they're the building's 'logo' - but if so, a remarkably asymmetrical and unmemorable one. Then, you come up to a series of tall pillars, and two overhead walkways crossing each other, a suspended ceiling imprinted with a seemingly endless leaf motif, with the glare of the glazed entrance intensifying the effect - the shopping mall sublime, exacerbated by the thousands of people browsing/watching/buying/eating/expelling their waste (this is a city where these are the only acts that are permitted to occur), and it's thrilling in its way, although the pale stone-ish substance with which almost everything is clad always softens the effect, stops it from ever becoming really jarring and strange - that way lies the Tricorn and a bankrupt Alec Coleman. Walking around inside, you find a large quantity of public art, and a surprisingly large amount of seating - is this, then, a version of the Urban Task Force, with its mixed use and its encouragement of sociality? Kuhne talks of 'special meeting places' that 'dignify the heroic routine of everyday life that drives you to produce a better world for yourself and your kids'. It could be Richard Rogers, this stuff, except that unlike the Plazas of the Urban Task Forces, people are actually using it, and in droves - apart from one closed noodle bar, you'd have to look damn hard here to find even the slightest hint that we're in the middle of the longest recession in British economic history (though the sorting depot nearby tells a different story). Unnervingly, it supports the idea of the financial crash as a kind of Phony War, which will intensify only later, but will be truly horrendous when it does.

I'm trying to look at Bluewater with equanimity, but I don't like this place. I feel ill at ease here. As with so much else, it's a place in which I would have felt completely at home when I was 12 years old, but education, relocation and (ahem) ambition have led me to the point where I go to a place like this and think (and I'm not proud of this) 'there but for the grace of God go I'. I know full well that poncing around here dressed like Lord Alfred Douglas, with my bourgeoisified vowels and cotton wool stuck over the place where the catheter was 10 minutes ago, I'm committing an offence against the dreaming collective, by attempting to be different from it (or at least outside of the acceptable frame of twentysomething male difference: sporty/straight/indie kid/hipster/emo/chav/hiphop). Yet nobody is bothered. This might be the burbs, but in a place like this in Southampton I'd be getting dirty looks and be at risk of worse. This, presumably, is a result of the city being administered as a police state, and maybe the thugs are all at Lakeside. I think sometimes I might like to be comfortable here, but it's not the same as actually being comfortable. I'll persist with second-hand bookshops and charity shops, although will try not to delude myself they're morally superior. Regardless, everyone else has something better to do, and activity is constant. This is ironic enough, as the interior decorating of Bluewater has some interesting things to say about activity.

For something which is supposedly The Authentic Expression Of Our Real Uncomplicated Desires (as per countless suburbia-loving libertarians since the 50s, most of whom seem to live in the nicer bits of inner cities), Bluewater is extremely didactic in its design. It's trying to make various points to its clientele, something which very few seem to have noticed, whether critics or shoppers. So there are little torn-out-of-context fragments from Vita Sackville-West, Laurie Lee and Robert Bridges, all of them on the glories of the countryside, its products and pleasures - well, there is agriculture nearby, of a heavily mechanised sort, although the M25 is the more obvious land usage. It's there to establish continuity, to convince you that the city of Bluewater is a faintly rustic experience, without relinquishing one iota the imperatives of steel and glass - no urban-regen wood panelling here, no Scando. One of the raised Arcades here is illuminated by the partly glazed ceilings, borrowed from Soane, according to Hugh Pearman, combined with the obligatory reference to long-dead local industry - in this case, the pointy tops of oatings - has a series of inset relief sculptures. These immortalise all the jobs that once existed here, an accounting of the professions of the workshop of the world. Fishermen, Goldsmiths, Tanners, whatever, the list is practically endless, all these people who used to make stuff, while beneath them are those taking time off from intellectual labour in services financial, administrative and such. It's a quasi-religious thing, this - an attempt at appeasing the Gods of industry as they are replaced by the newer Gods of consumption (both equally implacable and brutal deities, which only seem opposed via a complicated geopolitical subterfuge). What makes Bluewater's didacticism interesting is that through its poems, its fibre-glass leaves and its statues of ironmongers, it comes out and proclaims its transcendence of nature and labour, precisely by memorialising it. When just-in-time production and distribution seizes up and we can actually walk to it, we can look at Bluewater's sentimental memorials and try and remember exactly what it was we used to do.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Loneliness of the Exurban Dancer

From the synopsis, Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank would seem to be yet another entry in the Dance, Prole, Dance! subgenre. Set in an estate out in Tilbury, it charts the life of someone who one of the reviews said 'you wouldn't want to meet down a dark alley' (do a search on the reviews for Fish Tank to find an impressively consistent level of class snobbery across the papers, incidentally). Played by a 17 year-old picked up by a casting director who heard her shouting at her boyfriend in the street in Essex, our protagonist is bored, aggressive, stuck between a mouthy younger sister and a decidedly louche mother who looks barely ten years older than her. Yet now and then, she goes into an abandoned flat in her estate and has a bit of a dance ('only when I'm dancing can I feel this free', etc, delete as applicable). Around the same time, her mum's soft-spoken Irish boyfriend enters the picture, with his compliments on her dancing, his hep record collection (Bobby Womack, Basic Channel, Soul Jazz compilations) and his restorative trips to the countryside. It won the Jury Award at Cannes, as films which show the English lumpenproletariat behaving in a picturesquely venal fashion tend to do very well among continental intellectuals, no doubt for the same reason we apparently like Stella Artois adverts and Cinema Paradiso. Part of what makes Fish Tank so refreshing is that it subtly upends the expectation of how the above configuration will end up (which I'm not mentioning here, so as not to spoil), and it resists sentimentality, although not intensity or (suppressed) emotion. It skirts perilously close to social realist cliche, but always pulls away from it - with the exception of an outrageously bad final shot, where Arnold suddenly slips from being a Tilbury Tarkovsky into a sink estate Sam Mendes.

Ostensibly, this is fairly similar to Red Road, set on the titular Glasgow high-rises. Both deal with sociopathic women pursuing venal men round the remnants of post-war architecture, both have a visual intensity, an interest in light, place and style that is rare in the Calvinist world of Loachian realism, and both are torn between icy disconnection and incipient let's-all-have-a-hug reconnection. Red Road veers far too close to the latter near its end, where an existentialist thriller suddenly becomes bad telly, where the ferociously driven (and ferociously blank) heroine is suddenly revealed to have a past, to have her reasons, to have a constructed alibi for her previously compellingly impenetrable actions. Excepting said final shot, Fish Tank doesn't make the same mistake, and there is never a group hug, and nobody learns anything. Yet what takes it out of the realm of quite-good social realist film-making and into somewhere more extraordinary is the use of music and setting, which are picked with a subtlety and drama decidedly lacking in Red Road, where Oasis memorably soundtracked one tower block party. The opening scene sets out the stall brilliantly - our protagonist stares at a group of women in the open space of a council estate, acting out the dance moves from the video to Cassie's Me & U, their aggressive faces and human bodies all wrong for the droning pornbot electro of the song and the botoxed, autotuned, airbrushed world of the R&B video. Our protagonist just stares at them, rapt. Another equally sad, surreal scene involves the telly which is always on, a perennial ambient chatter, with some dancing in front of a Ja Rule video, with its presentation of impossible luxury and almost comically basic presentation of sexual relations.

This continues through the music brought in by the seemingly lovely Irish boyfriend - 70s soul presenting itself as a relief from the wasteland and claustrophobia of outer Outer London - yet this reveals itself to be every bit as false an escape as that presented by the videos. And interestingly, and marking this film out from the dance-prole-dance genre, our protagonist is a fairly crap dancer - full of pent-up energy, but also pretty inept, and naively unaware of what role the dancing girl is supposed to play in the 21st century libidinal economy as a quasi-pornographic ornament - hence the fine Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner denouement to the dancing subplot. Elsewhere, Rhythm and Sound are used as a tense, weirdly lit eroticism, the thickness and sibilance of the sticky, smeared echo sounding like an illness, a feverish dream of the old reggae records played at her mum's house parties. Later, a brief blast of Original Nuttah becomes peculiarly still, its date-stamped rush overlaid onto folk looking calmly, statically out of their balconies. There's also an almost unbearably poignant scene involving a track from Illmatic which would have made a far better ending than the maddeningly awful final moments....but music's mediascape is alternately connected and disconnected from the Tilbury landscape in which the film is set - and it's this which finally inoculates it against type.

It's interesting that Arnold is from Dartford, as my initial guesses for where this was set were in that area - Slade Green, Erith, the landscape which appears at the edges of east and south-east London, where the thick, viscous, brown river widens, the industry gentrified out of the centre reappears, as do the people who aren't sufficiently Vibrant for the urban renaissance. It's a violently disjointed world, where smaller structures - Barratt cul-de-sacs, bungalows, lost fragments of '30s suburbia - are loomed down upon by the vastness of the marshes, the towering cranes and pylons, the blocks spaced out amidst yawning spaces. Fish Tank is not sociology, but Arnold's presentation of the estate's compressed over-activity rang true, as did the particular character of insult. Rather than the sub-Jane Jacobs notion that any sort of communality is impossible in these modernist, streetless developments, we see an area where the windows are permanently open much as the telly is permanently on, where you can look down to see whoever new may or may not be entering the area, where washing is hung out to dry on the crowded walkways, where people sunbathe on the strips of municipal grass. This overactivity is overlaid onto an industrial stillness, and the framing always emphasises these disparities, always looks for the image where the characters are overshadowed or warped by place. The Irish boyfriend at his job in an industrial park, his genial figure overshadowed by a series of blue, bulgingly robotic cranes, as if as a warning; oil refineries looming over the Thames' furthermost reaches, un-used, undesignated inbetween spaces never offering relief, and the warped evening light that pours in through the wide windows casting dreamlike, feverishly sexual patterns of light into the sweaty, noisy Parker-Morris rooms. More than any inner city, this is what space looks like when nobody has ever cared for it, planned or designed it (or cared only for their corner of it, the interiors of their flats or their driveways). It's a place which already feels post-apocalyptic, as unforgettable as Tarkovsky's Estonia - yet with the people included who are cropped out of the photos of picturesque ruination.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Martin Parr, Collector and Historian

The other day I was in Tyneside to review an exhibition about T Dan Smith, and while there myself and the I.T girl (who was coming along to take photos, before deciding the weather was too awful to do such a thing) popped into The Baltic to enjoy the wonders of the Urban Renaissance. There was soon to be a Damien Hirst retrospective, but luckily we didn't have to suffer this. What there was, however, was Parrworld, which led to me and I.T, usually so politico-aesthetically sympatico, disagreeing on something. This isn't necessarily because I disagreed with her hostility to Parr and all his works - the words 'irony' and 'end of history' were mentioned - but because I am entirely a sucker for this sort of thing, for these decontextualised collections of political-aesthetic tat. In short, Parrworld (as profiled by this Guardian video) is an exhibition of the man's vast collection, to coincide no doubt with the equally vast (and frankly covetable) book of said collection. Here we have an array of postcards of postwar architecture, the seaside, holiday camps or in commemoration of sundry disasters; a huge collection of photobooks which includes everything from El Lissitzky to Robert Frank; photography, often of Britain, including John Davies' astonishing English landscapes (more of which presently); and, most famously/notoriously, a vast collection of political ephemera in vitrines - the Saddam loo roll, the Bush N' Bin Laden geegaws, Sputnik inkwells, Miners' Strike commemorative plates.

First of all, I have very little time for Martin Parr as a photographer, with the possible exception of the Signs of the Times book (which, much like Abigail's Party, is both a compendium of snobbery and agenuinely chilling insight into Thatcherism). Myself and Joel Anderson have a sort of refrain on our Urban Trawl for Building Design - 'nah, that's a bit Parr', a way of stopping ourselves. This happened first when we saw a bustling farmer's market with nostalgic red & white stalls spreading out from Southampton's Bargate. Fuck that. Too picturesque. We established a strict policy of no 'local colour', no people doing interesting things, no ooh-look-we're-so-eccentric-in-England, but instead tried to make the photographs as wilfully blank as possible. But in that we might well have been influenced by case for the defence #1, Boring Postcards. I don't really give a shit whether or not Parr himself or his audience think Boring Postcards is funny, a nostalgiafest analogue to Crap Towns. When I saw it for the first time I thought it was shockingly beautiful, a hauntingly still document of popular modernism, and it marks (along with the Birmingham scene of Broadcast/Pram/Plone) the first obvious example of the now common the-future-didn't-happen-after-all aesthetic, the revisionism that placed 1950s civic centres and swimming baths along with the Radiophonic Workshop in the area where rock & roll and pop formerly sat. Indeed, I have my own burgeoning collection of 'boring' postcards, and am consistently awed and impressed by the supposedly mundane places that were once considered worthy of a mass produced piece of card. For this if nothing else, Parr has done history some minor service.

Parrworld is too much, far too much, and if I weren't an inveterate collector of tat myself (it occurred to me looking at all this that, in the unlikely event I ever ended up wealthy, I would build up a collection much like this, albeit perhaps without the Obama breakfast cereal and so forth) I would probably be far more hostile. My first response was a consumerist one - oh wow, look at all this beautiful stuff, looking round eagerly at postcards, at silver-coated books on the steel industry of Soviet Kazakhstan, at Yuri Gagarin memorial pens, whatever. Nina reckons, and she is of course right, that this decontextualised pile up is just an exemplar of postmodernism at its worst, an end of history scenario where we can just accumulate ephemera from a time where we actually believed in stuff, place it untouchable under glass, and nothing need ever happen ever again. But what relation does all this stuff have to the aestheticisation of politics? The room with the cases full of Soviet space program whatnot, War Against Terror memorabilia and Miners' Strike posters and plates places all of these things on the same plane. They're all of curio value, and by implication so are their politics, both are fundamentally as picturesquely eccentric as his own photographs, examples of our 'foibles' (as Parr himself puts it). I'm still trying to defend Parrworld as we cross to the Newcastle side of the Tyne, and notice that one of the Miners' Strike posters decorates the front of the Baltic. 'VICTORY TO THE MINERS. VICTORY TO THE WORKING CLASS'. It's like being punched in the guts. In a city which once had some sort of pride in its politics, in an area which dreamed of socialism and self-education, all that becomes a striking, historically rueful what were we thinking? advert to be placed next to the ad for the Damien Hirst show. The very fact it's there is a sign of the working class' neutralisation, the fact that those in the yuppiedromes which tower along the Quayside don't fear it any longer - or at least, that the poster reassures them they no longer need to be afraid.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Glittering, Antiseptic World

Just a note to add to Spillway's post on Orwell and Modernism, something I've been meaning to post about for some time:

'The world of today is a bare, hungry, dilapidated place compared with the world that existed before 1914, and still more so if compared with the imaginary future to which the people of that period looked forward. In the early twentieth century, the vision of a future society unbelievably rich, leisurely, orderly and efficient - a glittering antiseptic world of glass and steel and snow-white concrete - was part of the consciousness of nearly every literate person.'
Emmanuel Goldstein, Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism

Monday, October 19, 2009

Synthesised Spaces

Whoever chose the locations and archive footage for Synth Britannia, a fine BBC documentary on the UK synthpop moment, either really knows their stuff, or has been lurking round here. In the first few minutes there's Thamesmead, Hyde Park/Park Hill in Sheffield*, Hulme Crescents, T Dan Smith's multilevel central Newcastle, later on Basildon and the Lloyds Building, all adding up to - finally! - an explicit acknowledgement of the pop debt to Brutalism without any sociological hand-wringing. For these and many other reasons - Richard H Kirk waxing sinister by the river Don, adroit links between pop and politics, culminating in a smart revisionist argument for Depeche Mode as synthpop's finest anti-Thatcherite entryists** - it's an unexpectedly excellent documentary, everything the enormously disappointing Made in Sheffield should have been and wasn't. Yet, one question which occurred to me when watching it, trying to resist the temptation to just gaze and think 'sigh, those where the days, except for the casual violence and bigotry', was - will there ever be a sound of the decline of the Urban Renaissance? The riverside dromes of most British cities are, as is now becoming clear, the successors to the system-built towers of the 60s, except meaner and cheaper.

Sometimes it all seems rather cyclical. Take for instance, this mildly racist BBC report on fraud in Thamesmead, centring on the negative equity ground zero that is 'The Pinnacles'. The caption to the pic above dubs the buildings 'tower blocks' rather than the more familiar stunning developments or luxury flats. They're emptying out, and becoming fantastically desolate places, as are the business parks and call centres that often accompany them. Yet I can't quite imagine what their sound might be, when in a generation or two they have properly insinuated themselves into our lives, when they've become an accepted part of the city rather than the exclusive enclaves they initially present themselves as, and when people have had the chance to grow up with and in them. At best I could come up with Black Box Recorder's coldly sinister suburbanism, but the aesthetic of postpunk, which fits so neatly the Brutalist fetish for the stark, ambitious and futurist, would seem to jar with this desperately ingratiating style, the sheer relentless jollity of this stuff. I do sincerely hope that the presence of the dromes in Leeds, Manchester and every urban British waterside leads to some interesting new incarnation of musical space, but I wonder if they're powerful enough to elicit the requisite sense of romance and sinister drama. The barcode façades are without the raw power of the concrete panels. The death of Blatcherism lacks the tragedy of the death of Butskellism, and the music may reflect that. We could perhaps imagine a music which sounds like dinner party soundtracks gone curdled and sick, a Hed Kandi compilation appropriated for a post-apocalyptic landscape.

* Gratifyingly, some Sheffield folk seem aware of how important these places are. I recently got sent some copies of Article, an excellent Sheffield zine which features a Sheffield Brutalist Top Five, excepting of course that which has been demolished; and from whence the picture above comes. Think also of the Sesquipedalist's instructive recent comparison of two Sheffield exoskeletons.

** Which might perhaps be linked to the fact that Jeremy Deller seems to be fitting Depeche Mode into his curious counter-narrative of English aesthetic radicalism.

Contre Piloti

Private Eye so often manages to be annoying, even when it's in the right. So with Piloti, the not-particularly-pseudonymous architecture columnist of 'Nooks and Corners'. While I tend to agree that Victorian Board Schools are superior to their PFI replacements, and admire his (rare) insistence on talking about places other than London, there's always something suspicious in his writing, the sense that the past is always worth preserving merely because it's the past. So we find a critic and historian who (unlike, say, Simon Jenkins) is a genuinely erudite authority on architecture acting as if, say, the Bradford Odeon is a unique and notable building, and as if the woeful postmodernist plans for its renovation are preferable to just building something better - the case for its retention is surely environmental rather than architectural. The column was originally called 'Nooks and Corners of the New Barbarism', an explicit reference to the New Brutalism, an architectural form which Piloti now appears to think is acceptable, given that so many examples are so regularly threatened with demolition. Meanwhile the column is invariably full of obligatory swipes at 'Milords Foster and Rogers', presumably because, as with the listing rules, an architect's buildings need to have been around for 30-odd years before he can find them acceptable. For this reason I'm eagerly awaiting his eventual conversion to the virtues of, say, the Sainsbury Centre or the INMOS Microprocessor Factory when developers start planning to knock them down. Anyone under 70, such as 'those posturing Swiss pseuds, Herzog & De Meuron', may never be honoured with Piloti's approval.

The reason for my sniping is the latest column from Piloti, on a subject I've already fumed about, Southampton's Titanic Heritage Museum, and again I both agree with and am enormously annoyed by the column. Essentially, the target is not so much the programme itself, which is noted, albeit in passing - the sell-off of one of the best provincial art collections in the country by a 'jauntily philistine', newly-elected Tory council, the bizarre notion that Soton needs to spend millions on a permanent exhibition about the Titanic when it already has one, in a prominent place next to the Cruise Terminals. The real offence is caused by the building which will be housing it, an extension to the 1930s Civic Centre, to be designed by Wilkinson Eyre. It'll also be the first time - after a recent cancelled scheme by 'Milord Rogers' himself - that an architect of note has built in the city since the 1970s. I have a huge, huge problem with the building's function, part of a 'cultural district' for which a swathe of decent early '60s architecture is being demolished, in a pathetic sop to something other than mammon in a city otherwise cravenly devoted to it; with the obsession with this mass death; and with the infantile idea of a 'walk through model of the 1912 dockside' when the compelling mechanised weirdness of a vast container port very nearby is hidden from view. What I'm really not bothered about at all, however, though it exercises nearly all of Piloti's bile, is a mildly interesting extension to a pallid 1930s stripped classical civic centre, which, aside from a mildly interesting clock tower and a sort-of-interesting plan, is mostly notable for a retrograde blandness obvious even at the time (cf Pevsner's unimpressed reaction to it). It's the interwar equivalent of a so-so BDP project. You know, sometimes a conflict between different buildings of different eras and ideologies can be interesting and exciting, rather than a 'desecration' of a 'formal civilised architectural language'. It might imply a city which is living rather than dead. The very worst buildings are too often those that can offer nothing better than being in keeping.

Insert 'Postal' Pun Here

I get a lot of post, more than I ever have. Bills from the privatised gas & electric companies, bank statements, stuff from Amazon, the review copies, cheques and such that come with working freelance, sternly worded letters from the Students Loan Company, the occasional communication from the people who are supposed to be getting my bank charges back, statements from the fantastically inefficient Virgin Media, etc etc. Much of that list is made up of things that simply wouldn't have existed ten years ago, and yet the claim is made again and again that the internet makes post less likely, as if Amazon, Lovefilm and such didn't exist, and we were writing epistles to each other every day until email came along. This comes complete with a familiar New Labour narrative of intransigent dinosaur unions (with the unspoken concomitant of a management who are presumably dynamic, efficient, not at all lumbering, bullying and by now rather dated in their adherence to an undead neoliberal ideology). The postal strike that will be occuring this week in the UK is clearly going to be enormously nasty. We've already had false claims that Amazon are cancelling their contract, and the news that the government have planned in advance to hire 30,000 temps/scabs - the latter a reminder of what exactly the point of 'flexible working' always was.

The Postal Workers' union have been so far predictably lame at putting across their counter-argument. We should see leaflets being distributed (er, this is the postal service after all), decent statements to the press, visible picket lines, but so far there's been very little of any, in the familiar scenario where one side has been preparing and planning for a confrontation and the other has responded in an ad hoc, unplanned and chaotic manner. What there has been is this piece by the pseudonymous postie 'Roy Mayall' in the LRB, which is truly essential reading. It turns out that 'Mayall' has a blog, and has been writing for a variety of places in a similar vein, and it's both impressive and depressing that the best case for the strike so far has been made by one individual in a literary mag, the broadsheets and online. This implies that either a) he's very well connected, or that b) there is a place for the CWU to make their case, if it's well written and devoid of cliche, if they want to get the public on their side and counter what is likely to be an absolute avalanche of bullshit.


An unusual experience. Browsing books at WH Smith, Paddington Station, after forgetting to bring a book for a long tube journey, I had a look at the paperback of David Hencke and Francis Beckett's revisionist history of the Miners' Strike, Marching to the Fault Line. On the back was a quote: 'restore(s) labour's greatest defeat to history, not myth' - New Statesman.' Now, I may have typed those words in my NS review, but not quite in that manner. What I actually wrote was: 'Beckett and Hencke make a laudable attempt to restore labour’s greatest defeat to history, not myth. Yet, because they lack a wider perspective, they eventually set up a counter-myth – that neoliberalism could have been appeased, that a decent compromise was possible and that the failings of one man destroyed the entire labour movement in Britain – every bit as unconvincing as all the others.' I.e - they failed to restore it to history rather than myth. An even more scathing review by Seumas Milne is excerpted in a similarly fishy manner on the back. It should be noted however that the main quote on the front is from Neil Kinnock, who gets an unbelievably easy ride in the book...

Friday, October 16, 2009

Not Suitable for Miners

It is a truth considered practically self-evident that modernist architecture was always an imposition on the proletariat. It might occasionally be embraced by Labour governments or Communist councils but, we are led to presume, given a genuine democratic choice ordinary folk would always choose something rather more homely. Now, at least one reason why this is largely accepted is because of the obscurity of competing examples. Looking at architecture from the inter-war years, 'classical' modernism appears confined to factories, luxury flats and private houses, with a few more populist outbreaks at the seaside, in the cinema or on the London Underground. However, among the most prolific patrons of Modernist architecture in those years were the Miners Welfare Committees, who built according to some estimates hundreds of pithead baths, most of them paid for by the miners themselves, rather than by the pit owners - and almost all of them have been demolished as part of the attempt to obliterate any record of mining from the British Isles.

They often feature in histories of Modernism in Britain, but less so the further away from the event. So my 60s Pelican History of English Architecture gives them as much prominence as the contemporary tube stations and houses, while Paul Overy's recent Light Air and Openness, a history of Modernism's hygiene fixation, mentions them only in passing, as if to do so would destroy the thesis of Modernism-as-imposition and suggest that, perhaps, people preferred not to be covered in muck. So, I've been trying to collect photographs and information on these (along with similar stuff on the architecture of the Co-Op societies, for the purposes of the Ingsoc book, which I intend to write eventually). This is a bit of an undertaking, as only a handful are listed, and those are derelict. Some of these pictures are from this website, courtesy of Chris Matthews, and some more from here, courtesy of Anne Ward. Here you can see the effect on the miners' architects of everything from Gropius' Labour Exchange and Bauhaus buildings in Dessau, to moderne cinemas, to the more obvious presence of W.M Dudok, used out of choice, making a specific statement of modernity in an area all to often reduced to Hovis adverts. All of these should be presumed demolished.

Meanwhile, there's an exploration of the listed, derelict Lynemouth Colliery Baths here and a 20th Century Society piece on one in the Forest of Dean here (thanks to Nemesis Republic for these). In both cases any trace of streamlined forms, light/air/openness and optimism have been long since gutted, in a building form so specific and in areas so far from being metropolitan that they are practically immune from being Urban Splashed. So we have an entire building type, one which contradicts much of the official history, either completely obliterated or rotting away.

Is Working

I've been writing a lot lately, if not always here. Some proof of this assertion: me in the NS on Charles Saatchi's utterly inconsequential, occasionally quite funny self-outing (leading to the side issue of: when forced at gunpoint between Saatchi and Bourriaud, what would you choose?) and in BD, attempting tentative first drafts of a critique of the new suburbanism, of which Geoff Shearcroft's Thames Valley celebration promises to be both one of the more interesting and, as they say in proper academia, 'problematic' manifestations.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Further Appearances

Am still not the world's greatest public speaker, but am gradually phasing in the use of notes rather than a detailed paper printed in very large type. Sometimes there is even (shudder) improvisation. This progress can be seen either being arrested or continued at a talk on Militant Modernism at the University of Westminster this Thursday, October 15th at 6.30 (see here for further details), and at the Frieze Fair this Saturday at midday, taking part in a debate on Nostalgia. Next month there is yet more excitement, because I shall be attending one of the most superbly Ballardian places in London, Cullinan's UEL runway/disused dock/pods/watchtowers campus experience (note the website's explanation of how the campus 'unlocks' brownfield regeneration, and of how the airport noise is drowned out by 'allowing windows to be closed'), at a seminar with the noted Power and Fisher. Full details as follows:

Modernism After Postmodernism: Is there a future beyond capitalist realism?

November 11th 2009
2:00pm - 5:00pm
UEL Docklands Campus
Room EB.3.19
(first floor, main building, turn left upon entering the main square after leaving Cyprus DLR
Cyprus DLR is literally situated at the campus)
Free, All welcome
Has the idea of ‘postmodernism’ left any legacy but that of a generalised capitulation to the demands of liberal capitalism? What can contemporary urbanism learn from the era of unabashed ‘militant modernism’? Is the most controversial living philosopher, Alain Badiou, with his radical re-conceptualisation of Truth, Event and Subject, to be understood as advocating a neo-modernist programme, or something quite different? Can there be any progressive radicalism that does not ultimately embrace the revolutionising logic of modernism?

Mark Fisher
Capitalist Realism, or the Political-Economic Logic Of Postmodernism
Mark Fisher teaches at UEL, the City Lit and Goldsmiths and is the author of Capitalist Realism (Zer0, 2009)
Nina Power
Is Badiou a Modernist?
Nina Power is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Roehampton University and the author of One-Dimensional Woman (Zer0 2009)
Owen Hatherley
They Are Rebuilding The City, Always: Regeneration now and its Post-war Predecessors
Owen Hatherley is a freelance writer, a researcher at Birkbeck and author of Militant Modernism (Zer0 2009)
Jeremy Gilbert
New Times Again: Legacies of Left Postmodernism
Jeremy Gilbert teaches at UEL and is the author of Anticapitalism and Culture (Berg 2008)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Iron, Glass and Failure

On a distinctly strange book about The Monument to the Third International for International Socialism. I hadn't realised when writing my review, and Norbert Lynton hadn't mentioned it in his book, but one of the rejected designs for the Wembley Tower, North London's only one-tenth built Eiffel-surpassing iron monument, had an incline decidedly similar to that of Tatlin's tower. Another thing to add perhaps to Murphy's secret history of the failed solutionism of high-tech architecture. Scans when I can get at a scanner.

In and Out of the Shadows

This time last weekend I and others were giving a guided tour of both Bloomsbury and Metroland In The Shadow Of Senate House. It all went rather well, people turned up, my factual errors were pointed out, nobody guessed the lie hidden in Christopher Woodward's contributions, and a lucky few got a wander round the lawless Interzone that is the Trocadero afterwards as a contrast to all this classicism and elegance. There are a couple of Flickr sets of the Metroland walk, and a great post on it at Mondo-a-go-go which gets what we were up to very well. There's also more on William Beveridge's mythological intentions for the tower and reflections on living in the greatly contrasting shadows of Southgate and Arnos Grove tube stations on the blog On the walk we also gave out these Cubes to the assembled crowd, which could presumably be stacked up appropriately into a Ziggurat. There will be films and lectures further in the shadow of Senate House soon, and they will plugged relentlessly when I have more details.

Monday, October 05, 2009

The West Riding: Two-thousand and Nine

My Urban Trawl through the West Riding is up on the BD website here - though for a full view of the Westfield Hole I recommend investing in a copy. I'm aware, incidentally, that the term 'West Riding' is something of a misnomer here, encompassing as it does South Yorkshire's steel towns and ex-pit villages, along with pockets of the rural, plus heritage Bronteville - but it has such a ring to it, an evocative air of approaching drama and doom (as David Peace was no doubt aware when titling his quartet). Nonetheless for this piece I've mainly used the parameters of the government-defined 'West Yorkshire Urban Area' (except adding Halifax to the list), a conurbation that - unlike those other unofficial supercities, the West Midlands, Greater Glasgow, Tyneside or Greater Manchester, all these potential rivals to the bloated, absurdly over-favoured capital which never quite manage to get their act together - is hardly continuous. One part of it can seem like it's on a different planet to another part, which is presumably one reason why, other than the ingrained opposition to planning, the places are all treated as if they're discrete areas, despite the fact it's easier to get from one of these towns to another than it is to get from South-West to South-East London. If this is a Supercity in waiting, it's an extraordinarily strange one, a multi-centred mess, marked by sharp, shocking geographical and urban/rural contrasts. And although I mention Alsop favourably in the piece, and genuinely do think the Supercity is a good idea, something which as he rightly points out is already happening in an exurban, car-driven, environmentally destructive manner but could, if planned, be astonishing, it should be noted that his plan for Bradford is a peculiar bit of whimsy - let's add a few water features, then it'll be more like Manchester. There is however plenty of water in the Westfield Crater.

Near the centre of the potential Supercity is a vast TV tower, the tallest freestanding structure in Britain, which sits alone in the midst of open country, a megacity monument without a city. So the most obvious thing would be for the hypothetical West Riding Metropolis to be centred around Emley Moor, much as Berlin clusters round Alexanderplatz.

The Marketplace

Surely one reason why the West Riding seems to have produced great urban writers - David Peace, Laura Oldfield Ford, Jarvis Cocker, even the now-all-but-forgotten J.B Priestley (who can be found perambulating Bradford's demolished Arcades in that clip) - is the presence of actual Parisian ferrovitreous Arcades in its cities, something which is otherwise largely limited to outposts in Piccadilly and Deansgate, neither of which are as good as these. Leeds has the most obvious examples, and given Leeds' status as the local mecca for The New Economy - i.e, as a centre for the post-industrial triad of finance, property and shopping - its examples are treated best, a little Knightsbridge. Normally they are entered through not especially interesting buildings, standard if high-spec Victorian piles, which when penetrated reveal their true futurism, their prophecy of the total retail environments of the 20th century and after. Leeds' Arcades, like everything else in the city, appear to be hierarchical. There are two tucked away in places where you wouldn't know to look unless you're with a local, and which are relatively down at heel. Yet the 'Victoria Quarter' is where Vivienne Westwood, Harvey Nichols and, with tragic aptness, a boutique called 'The French Revolution' make their home. It's wonderfully effeminate for (in the southern imaginary) macho and stolid Yorkshire, prettily dressed as it is with Parisian ornament and pretty, glittering art nouveau mosaics.

What is much more exciting however is the City Markets, a lanky and gaunt, complex and luridly painted piece of spindly ornamental high-tech, which contains within it a mingled smell of old sweets, paint and wrapping paper, and a welcome bustle and mess absent from the slick opulence of the Victoria Quarter. Again, it's impossible not to be struck by the formal daring of the interiors and the retardataire bombast of the exterior, Modernist cliché though this may be. The equally bombastic, imperial stripped classical 1930s Queen's Hotel contains within it an elegant, deeply American moderne station concourse, where a restoration job by Carey Jones (more of whom later) has given Wetherspoons et al an (in)appropriately Reithian typeface. At this point the Leeds that Simon Jenkins thinks is so wonderful effectively ends, although no doubt he is pleased that many back-to-backs, a form of housing considered unfit for human habitation for 150 years, still exist in the city. The other Arcades are the Arndales and their contemporaries. The Merrion Centre, say, with its lost, abandoned basement of greasy spoon cafes and a tiled tower which is a comparitive masterpiece by the standards of the post-war Leeds Skyline. Inside, the use of mirrored glass creates an imaginary geometric space that reflects oddly the uninteresting collection of chain stores therein.

Wakefield clearly wanted a piece of all this when they commissioned David Adjaye, recently bankrupt provider of shiny barcode facades to East London, to design their new market. To their credit, Adjaye instead provided a striking but far from ostentatious or meretricious structure, clearly designed as a mere backdrop to the action of the stalls themselves, which is admittedly the opposite approach to the Arcades of Leeds and Halifax, which impress through opulence rather than rectitude. If this is any indication, it's loathed in Wakefield - a place where, for the first time, I felt like I was somewhere familiar, which is why I haven't given that town much attention - because I felt I knew where I was, because it felt like a southern city. I appreciate this is probably the worst thing anyone could say to Wakefield, so it has my apologies. Their main new shopping centre, aside from the Market Halls, is The Ridings, a standard-issue Mall which occupies part of a 1960s megastructure, consisting of several towers, arranged in zig-zags on top of a shopping street. I have no idea whether it was once impressive or whether it was shoddily done, but today - like all the tower blocks in Wakefield - it is painted in desperately jolly colours, and given an absurd hat. No doubt if the blocks were falling apart before this is a preferable condition, but it should be noted that as in cladding-crazy Glasgow, the entire housing stock has been sold to a housing association, who seem keen on these kind of 'solutions'. The end result is that Wakefield becomes bleakly surreal in its total lack of all-over planning. Take the exit from the all-but ruined Wakefield Kirkgate (where part of the station wall collapsed last year, smashing a parked car, and whose Wikipedia page lists various unpleasant crimes to have occured there recently), where boarded-up pubs and tower blocks seemingly redesigned by a 5-year old greet the traveller, as you can see below. Regardless, Wakefield feels normal, just a bleaker version of normality - and perhaps the council know this, hence their hiring of Chipperfield and Adjaye to sprinkle starchitect fairy dust.

'It's like hell, isn't it, he said enthusiastically'

Halifax, for a southerner, is another world. On a road junction, looking around at the tower blocks, derelict mills and two-up/two-downs, the sombre local stone, all surrounded by freakishly high, impassable hills, themselves enclosed by hedges as if hundreds of miles from a city, with the smell of the Nestle factory wafting over, all under a looming, threatening sky, I said to Joel 'this is indubitably the North'. A voice from a car waiting at the junction agrees, by yelling 'THE NORTH!' as it drives off. Next to this junction is a pub with the name The Running Man, which fits perfectly the general sense of fear and tension. The Running Man has a rather googie roof, and a view over the seemingly untouched 1960s estates which have mercifully escaped the hatting given to Wakefield. As we board the Halifax to Wakefield train, some youth ask us 'are you FBI?' Aside from being quite funny when asked of two men in long coats with neat hair taking pictures, the asking of this question says more about the Special Relationship between the UK and USA than any David Hare play ever could.

Quite honestly, anyone who knows and/or comes from the industrial towns of the south - say, Southampton, Portsmouth, Colchester, Reading, Slough, Swindon, Luton - can't help being jealous of the sheer strangeness of their Northern equivalents, their hills, their scale, the closeness of open country, the amount of extraordinarily serious, world-class architecture, the lack of '80s-90s tat - although little of this applies in Leeds, which conjured the postmodernist 'Leeds Look' in the '80s to simulate Victorian grandeur, with the presumably unexpected end result that much of its outer centre looks like Reading. This is perhaps why it's the token 'successful' northern city along with Manchester, because it's boring enough for southerners to understand. So inexplicably Halifax, a town about half the size of Luton, has within it a Town Hall by the architect of the Houses of Parliament, Arcades as good as those in London, Leeds or Manchester, a 'People's Park' which is a model of municipal munificence, and yet you can see where it stops, when the Moors rear up in front of you. And yet all this (admittedly jolie laide) beauty and richness seems to have no effect. There's no sense here that city air is free air, but instead an almost all-pervasive air of latent violence that could explode at any moment. We watch indie kids with black eyes cluster together in the Arcades, we (me and photographer, ages 28 and 34 respectively) get called 'shirtlifters' by shellsuited youth. Halifax is in general the most racially segregated place I've ever seen. There's a certain historical justice that the spaces of imperial philanthropy are well-used by the formerly colonised, while the descendants of the colonisers prefer to live in the middle of nowhere, seemingly refusing to take advantage of the extremely impressive town their great-grandparents toiled to create.

Building Society Design

There's a very interesting point made by a commenter on this Impostume post, that the epicentres of late British neoliberalism and its subsequent crash have been those areas once considered resistant to Thatcherism - Scotland with RBS and half of HBOS, Tyneside with Northern Rock, Manchester with everything - and the former Mutuals in the West Riding, Halifax Building Society/HBOS and Bradford & Bingley are perfect examples of this, one utterly dysfunctional and propped-up by the state, the other now reluctantly entirely nationalised, due to their over-identification, their over-investment in the new financial architecture of derivatives and suchlike. Both of these entities have a deeply corporeal, brutally physical presence in their respective towns, expressions of bourgeois civic pride, reminders of the close interlinking of finance and industrial capital in the (post)-industrial north. Halifax's headquarters is genuinely one of the most unbelievable post-war buildings in the country, all the more so for being the product of the deeply average Preston-based corporate firm BDP.

To call it dominant would be an understatement, the way it juts out across a Victorian street - but it also harmonises chromatically with Halifax's Yorkshire-stone browns and blackened stains. Finished in 1974, it combines every possible device in the 1970s architectural arsenal, everything that was in the magazines at that point - flying walkways, black glass Seagram curtain walls, postmodernist incorporation of heritage (the original Victorian façade of their first headquarters can be viewed as an object stripped from its context, behind a glass screen), neo-Constructivist public sculpture, and a series of jarring jigsaw angles which are clearly indebted either to Russian Constructivism itself or the variants upon it which were soon to be known as Deconstructivism - all reached by a series of platforms and walkways which replicate the sharp changes in scale of the local landscape. It's a breathtaking building, and proof that finance capital was, even over a decade before Lloyds, quite capable of using the devices of 'left' architecture.

The Hanging Gardens of Bingley are relatively normal by comparison, but are still a powerful statement, by the local firm of John Brunton and Partners, more of whom later. Sharing Halifax's grounding in the work of Denys Lasdun, whose fusion of classicism and Brutalism is so perfect for the area that it's a minor tragedy he didn't design anything here himself, Bradford & Bingley's ziggurat was once planted with creepers, to make this most ancient of architectural forms look appropriately ruined and eternal. Interestingly, now that the building is up for sale and under threat of demolition, the creepers have died, reminding that ruination is not always picturesque. Otherwise Bingley is an almost-suburban encampment looking out over an (award-winning!) new motorway and the Moors. It's up for sale, as you can see.

Local Architecture for Local People

In southern towns, except for Bristol (almost an honorary Northern city in its independence from the capital) and Camden-on-Sea (or 'Brighton-and-Hove' as it prefers to be known), you leave for London if you possibly can. This is one of many reasons why these places are so awful, as all manner of shite can be foisted upon them as nobody really cares enough to propose anything better. Local architects in the south are a source of grotesque comedy. This isn't quite true up north, where the general standard appears to have once been rather extraordinary - in an analogy which unfortunately only one or two readers will get, compare the work of Lockwood and Mawson, who designed most of High Victorian Bradford, to Southampton's Gutteridge and Gutteridge. Being commercially driven non-side takers in the style wars, L&M were able to indulge in a wide variety of seemingly conflicting manners without fear of contradiction - Ruskinian Gothic (with the explicit disapproval of Ruskin himself) for the Wool Exchange and the Bradford Club, 'debased' (according to Pevsner) classicism for St George's Hall, and an amplified, timestretched utilitarian man-machine Italianate for the mammoth industrial structures at Manningham and Saltaire. The latter town was planned and designed entirely by the firm on behalf of the Wool Magnate and philanthropist Titus Salt, where it serves as one of the more complete examples of a settlement completely formed by the rationale of early industrial capitalism in its more 'improving' variant - a gesamtwerkstadt, with churches, social centres, libraries but, of course, no pubs (originally). Although the conditions there were far better than those of the surrounding areas - with space, inside loos, orientation to the sun, etc - there's little attempt to prettify the process, which may explain why it is that its later equivalents, such as Bournville or the Garden Suburbs, massively increased the level of verdancy.

For those of us who mourn the passing of the visible world of engineering and design, Halifax, Bradford and Saltaire are exemplary. The city does not pretend to be the country, but the country is always visible, reachable on foot, and is wild and dramatic. One is one, one is the other - they are not diffuse. Accordingly, Saltaire does not pretend to be a rural village, does not have winding streets, big gardens, gables and beams, as would its successors. It is completely unambiguous about its industrial nature. Strangely, then, Salt's Mill is a veritable hub of cottage industries, or after closing in 1986 and being Regenerated over the last decade, it has become such. Inside the Mills are businesses, galleries, luxury flats and (comfortingly) an NHS centre. A similar transformation has been wreaked upon Dean Clough Mills in Halifax, but Saltaire seems to have as its demographic something that could only exist in a large city like Bradford - Guardian readers, many of whom are in attendance for a beer festival in Salt's teetotal temperance outpost. The other factory given architectural dressing by Lockwood and Mawson is Manningham Mills. Almost accidentally, we found ourselves in search of the Labour Party that was formed here. We ate Pizza in the room where the I.L.P was formed, admired the mural and the Constructivistic worker rising like a lion after slumber that appends the buildings where it was 'officially' founded, and visited the Mills where a long, bitter strike presaged the party's formation.

'Socialism is the Hope of the World' it says, if you look very closely. The ILP was an enormously admirable organisation, always to the left of the compromised Labour Party it named and helped to form, eventually leaving it out of anger and frustration with its dogged conformism in the 1930s, disappearing within 15 years. The legacy of New Labour, meanwhile, is best expressed in Manningham by Urban Splash, one of their finest architectural embodiments. Mr Anderson, the photographer for the images you see here, is from Manningham, so was able to inform me of exactly where the line of burning tyres were placed in front of the RUC-esque police station during the riots of 1995, and the block of vernacular shops 'n' flats that sits on the site of the car showroom that was burnt to the ground in the more extensive riots of 2001, where the army were on standby. The following two images show the Urban Splash-restored 'Lister Mills' (with Fosterian pods just out of shot) and the eerily spacious row of Eric Lyons-like council houses that they look out upon.

Inside, through the obligatory gating, are these ducts, and round the corner, the Wu-Tang have been present. Deep down in the back streets, in the heart of Medina, about to set off something more deep than a misdemeanour.

I always hear about how 'brave' Urban Splash are in restoring and privatising Factories and Council Estates, as if gutting and selling well-constructed city centre buildings is a thankless, risky task (and in a recession perhaps it is, hence their current 'troubles'). There is certainly a daring of some sort in taking one of the most notoriously divided places in the country and building therein more gates, more walls, reinforcing its divisions - although I'm told the division between the new Manningham Mills and the surrounding area is more a question of class than race. So while the best buildings go private, the Victorian situation is replicated - the well-off literally look down upon the poor, who remain in their hovels, left to their sectarian fights while their birthright is stolen in front of their eyes. This is particularly shocking in Saxton Gardens, Leeds. Joel, admittedly a Bradfordian, dismisses Leeds as 'a bosses' city', and there's an alignment there in one particular site which is truly alarming. Once, on Quarry Hill sat an extremely carefully designed 1930s council estate full of facilities and public space. It was Britain's first major casualty of post-60s municipal antimodernism, demolished in the late 1970s. Now a BDP office block nicknamed 'the Kremlin' occupies most of the site. The same architect, R.H Livett, designed the less dramatic, more CIAM standard-issue blocks of Saxton in the '50s. This photo shows that while the not-so-poor get ethereal, dematerialised barcode facades and gated-off car parks, the poor get clunky plastic balconies seemingly designed by the same 5-year old who worked on Wakefield. The U.S site has as its motif some Garden Gnomes, which are apparently going to be everywhere when they finish cladding their second private block, as they will - out of the kindness of their heart - be laying on allotments. Whether these allotments will remain as imaginary as their oft-praised, never-started Tutti Frutti in Ancoats I'll leave for you to speculate.

I can only presume that the Gnomes are in lieu of the references to Pop Music that would be used in Sheffield or Manchester. Leeds has a strange dearth of epochal pop for a city of such size (there's LFO, Nightmares on Wax, lots of Goth bands, some other exceptions, but nothing that would get a BBC4 documentary), so has to borrow other places' 'icons' - under a railway bridge we spot something called 'The Stone Roses Bar', which promises us that 'Love Spreads' therein. This all represents something of a failure of imagination on the part of Urban Splash however, in that they could have referred to one of Leeds' more famous groups, The Gang of Four. Saxton - At Home You'll Feel Like A Tourist!

The other local architects worth mentioning here are from the eras of Wilson and Blair, and are each equally symptomatic of their times. First - John Brunton and Partners, designers of the aforementioned Bradford and Bingley, along with High Point and the Arndale in Bradford. A huge swathe of Victorian Bradford was levelled to make way for the Arndale, while the Arcades were swept away for the (American-designed, and pretty decent, Perret-esque) Arndale House tower. The monitors of design locally, like the Bradford Civic Society, loathe the Arndale, but in its hard, sombre aesthetic and its confusion of forms it fits the city far better than, say, the appalling decorated sheds which sit next to Forster Square railway station. It is a mess, full of tat, although the markets in the basement have a certain bazaar-like quality which only seems to exist in the north, and are another place where the alleged racial segregation of Bradford can be proven to be wildly exaggerated. It's all full of almost Barbican-like gridded ceilings and walkways, but in organisation identical to any Mall of the 1980s. There's another market building in Bradford, where shiny cladding shuns rather than embraces Bradford's (still remarkable, even given all the destruction) cohesion, something which is, unfortunately for any local racists, far from the case with the brick-and-copper Mosque nearby - but both are overlooked and overshadowed by Brunton's most unnervingly brilliant and insane building.

High Point is also ritually loathed by right-thinking Bradfordians, and is also home to a local bank, the somewhat less notorious Yorkshire Building Society. It's also utterly freakish, the severed head of some Japanese giant robot clad in a West Yorkshire stone-based concrete aggregate, glaring out at the city through blood-red windows, the strangest urban artefact in a city which does not lack for architectural interest. The work of Brunton seems almost too appropriate for the combination of wild technological daring, Cold War paranoia, shabby corruption and crushed dreams that defined the Wilson era. In a similarly piece-writing-itself manner, we have Leeds' currently dominant firm, Carey Jones. Viz, their new skyscraper, Sky Plaza, completed just a couple of months ago and receiving its first undergraduate inmates when we visit:

The earliest building of theirs we see, the 1999 Princes Exchange just by the Queens Hotel, is a decent bit of corporate slick-tech, well-scaled, cool and confident, from the time when Blair's rhetoric about a 'young country' might have almost seemed convincing - it's actually better than the 1990s Richard Rogers buildings in Docklands that it pinches all its ideas from. After this, it all goes rapidly downhill. Clarence Dock (below) is mostly by said firm, although includes Derek Walker's earlier fierce, bleak Royal Armouries, which, we wrongly assume, by now inured to these sorts of shocks, to be flats, although even in Leeds a block with no windows at all couldn't get through planning. Yet. Leeds is full of Carey Jones' towers, most of them more or less like the following - not awful, they'd get to that later, just woefully unimaginative. They tend to sit by congested, looping main roads, in a city which is marked by a huge amount of empty inner-urban flats, with none of the oh-so-inhumane underpasses or walkways that could relieve the enormously unpleasant road-crossings.

Ring-Roads, Towers, Estates, Wasteland

Both Leeds and Bradford have extremely aggressive ring-roads, but somehow Leeds' underpasses do less damage, while the wide dual carriageways and inexplicably Portland-stone clad 60s towers in Bradford create ghettos as easily as any housing allocation policy. The Leeds system feels more permeable, less like a barrier, because you pass over the traffic, you are not directly inconvenienced by it (though the pedestrian bridges can be somewhat, er, 'bracing'). What makes it unpleasant is not the planning so much as the architecture. It's an enduring irony that Leeds' city architect, the last in any major city, has personally authorised the development of these towers - not because it's a bad idea in principle, but because of the relentlessly shabby quality of the results. Sky Plaza I've mentioned in the BD piece, and it's also pulled apart by the Ghost of Nairn - but those below are almost as bad, and from their vicinity we literally watch the destruction of the finest work of Leeds' most famous architectural firm - John Poulson, the corrupter of Maudling, British Rail and T Dan Smith, headed by a man who apparently may never even have held a pencil, let alone designed a whole building. Ambitious young man like you...As you can see at the top, we had a good view of the diving board from the walkway over the underpass.

The combination of local reference - red terracotta, who knew! - incredibly clumsy massing and the walled-off wasteland in front of this Carey Jones scheme constitutes one of clearest images you could want of the results of the financial crisis and the thinking that led to it. Leeds has been in the grip of a bitter strike over rubbish collection, with the city council taking a hardline class-war approach to the binmen - but we don't notice it until we check the local press that evening. 2009 is a 'reverse 1979', so the images are different, 'luxury' turning empty and desolate rather than the collapses of council housing and consensus that marked punk mythology - no mountains of rubbish in the street, at least not yet. Here are four more of Leeds' towers, the first of which (by Aedas, Hong Kong/Leeds-based hacks whose offices we pass by near Clarence Dock) is the best of a bad bunch, the second of which is surely the worst - unless anyone has an even worse example they'd like to send me. Unlike all the others, it was impossible to find out who the designers were. It is student accommodation, as are many of the worst buildings in Leeds. The Opal Tower, one of those in the third image, is also student flats. For some reason students are not allowed normal-sized windows in their flats, and must instead look out of these tiny slits.

While central Leeds' ring-roads and inhospitable corners are impeccably Regenerated via this sort of hostile, pedestrian-unfriendly architecture, there is one end of central Bradford that regeneration has barely even scraped, despite impeccable Jane Jacobs credentials. A Bradford Civic Society brochure we pick up from the Bradford Club, which apparently has not been distributed outside of these rarefied circles, entitled Common Sense Regeneration, rebrands it 'Goitside' (no Bradfordian we mention this to knows of the term), and despite banging on at length about an uninteresting Edwardian cinema that faces demolition, at least the writers recognise the remarkable quality of 'Goitside' in architectural terms, and the depths to which it has sunk. From here you get an awesome view, with one of the several sides of Bradford University's tower (anyone know the architect?) fitting perfectly with the landscape (on the other side, sky-blue cladding has been added, in an act of sheer architectural illiteracy). There are several derelict warehouses, but what really hits you is the city's earliest council housing - 1900s tenements, low-rise, arts-and-crafts. They are littered both with bright, well-meaning public art from when people did live here, and the needles and foil left by those who are using in the flats' derelict shells. The smell here is foul.

British cities today are marked by brightly coloured fences. The ultimate of these is the Westfield Hole in Bradford, which provides a fantastic opportunity - surely Westfield have broken the terms of their contract, and surely a visit to towns such as Southampton, which have seen violent crime and traffic congestion rising in almost exact tandem with retail floor space and the attendant desolation of the old high streets, would help them reconsider - but regardless, the fences and the wasteland are one of the most striking features of the post-boom landscape. Don McCullin, who once said 'visually, you just can't lose in Bradford', photographed the area in the late 1970s, showing huge amounts of dead and derelict space. I would wager West Yorkshire has as much of this now as it ever did, if not more, but the bright fences (the happy result no doubt of health-and-safety regulations) help screen most of the wasteland, the most obvious sign of failure, from the public. In the next couple of pictures you can see it behind a sign announcing Halifax's obligatory zoning and subdivision into 'quarters', and then you can see the hoarding that announces the Westfield Hole, where a sloganeer has made the point I've been trying to make in far fewer words.

it's this town Billy, it's the people we know...