Thursday, November 26, 2009

Kino Fist Salvagepunk Special!

Kino Fist will be making a slight, last-minute return to tie in with the Historical Materialism conference. Due to mine and Nina's current workload may unfortunately lack a zine, but it will be in the salubrious environs of the Hotshoe Gallery in Farringdon. It will feature two films of a rag & bone variety:

Richard Lester, The Bedsitting Room (1969)

Peter Sykes, Steptoe and Son Ride Again (1973)

Introduction by Evan Calder Williams

Date: Monday 30th November 2009
Time: 7.00pm
Place: Hotshoe Gallery, 29-31 Saffron Hill, London EC1N 8SW.

Here are posts by me on Steptoe and Son and Evan on The Bedsitting Room, just in case.

You Cannot Resist

My copy of Zero's Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson arrived in the post yesterday, and well, just a look at the contents should be enough to silence any doubters. My contribution focuses on the short film above, amongst other things. There will also be a launch for the equally brilliant Capitalist Realism and One-Dimensional Woman, details as follows: Wednesday, 02 December 2009, 18:30 - 21:00, Siobhan Davies Studio, 85 St George's Road SE1 6ER, London. RSVP to I shall be there, and so should you.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Gross Stadt

Odd request. Does anyone reading this - I know there's at least some architectural academics and historians among you - know of a translation of Ben Noys-lookalike Ludwig Hilberseimer's famously terrifying, nihilistic, blank urban planning manual Grossstadtarchitektur? There is a copy in the British Library which I've looked at monolingually and irritatedly. It has featured in so many English-language studies that someone, somewhere, might well have done a full translation, but to my knowledge none has ever been published. Any suggestions or possible help below, please, as I just don't have time to learn German. I would be quite outrageously grateful.

What to be Done

The Chto Delat people are, as you may know, a very interesting lot indeed (cf my post from a while ago on one of their publications), and they will be in London presently. Details as follows

Dmitry Vilensky & Alexei Penzin from
Chto delat/What is to be done?
Lecture: Tuesday December 1st at 6.00pm
Small Hall / Cinema (to the side of Loafers)
Richard Hoggart Building
Goldsmiths College, New Cross, London SE14 6NW

Chto delat/What is to be done? was founded in 2003 in Petersburg by a group of artists, critics, philosophers and writers from Petersburg, Moscow, and Nizhny Novgorod with the goal of merging political theory, art, and activism. Since then, Chto delat has been publishing an English-Russian newspaper on issues central to engaged culture, with a special focus on the relationship between a repoliticization of Russian intellectual culture and its broader international context. Their last major exhibition was seen as part of the Istanbul Biennale.

Further information is available at

Organised by Marxism in Culture and the Micropolitics Research Group, Goldsmiths, supported by the Open University.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

No-one likes it, we don't care

Brutalist architecture - loved by dead town planners, the deans of post-war universities, Sotonian men of letters, 1960s social engineers and fans of Hibernian F.C. See: this thread - '1960s architecture in good for the city'. If only it were Millwall...

Suburban Sketch Three

Friday, November 20, 2009

Managerial Icons

Me on a debate about photography and urbanism at the Architecture Foundation. Patrick Lynch said some really very interesting things, although at decidedly excessive length - and the sharpest of these, which was too long-winded an argument to shoe-horn into my round-up, bears repeating. That is: one of the central appeals of the *****ICONIC***** building to their clients is a sort of reflected glory, wherein the CEO or Manager thinks 'wow, Zaha or Santiago really don't give a fuck, they treat their workers abominably, they don't let anyone get in the way of the realisation of their ideas, they stomp around in firm conviction of their own genius - just like me...'

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cardiff Crassening

Relatively long-promised, here are some digressions on the Urban Trawl round the capital of Wales. I enjoyed Cardiff as a place a lot - it felt like a real city rather than some autonomous emanation of Gradgrindian money-grubbing, which is always a rare sensation in Britain. Nonetheless the BD comments folk seemed to think I was there in order to denounce the Welsh capital for being a bit of a mess, when in fact its being a bit of a mess was, I felt, one of its virtues - my problem was the lamentable provincialism of getting Benoy, Crapita and if feeling a bit naughty BDP in to design a Capital City. It's pathetic, and invariably justified via a strange circular argument - how dare some jumped-up ponce from London come here and slag off our brilliant buildings, and anyway the reason they're so shit is because of our clients and it's not our fault so there. The suggestion I 'do my research' was particularly irksome, as it took several days of searching and eventually some desperate appeals on Twitter before I found out who designed this bad boy - a new police headquarters at the entrance to the new 'Bay', designed by Capita Symonds. While it may look like a child's drawing, inside this a veritable behemoth of punishment - it increased the amount of cells in the former Cardiff Police Station from 4 to 60. It also has a range of exciting security features. Apparently, 'full integration allows for the operation of multiple systems from one holistic front end - with high levels of control. Comforting, no?

We were given a clue as to the reasons for this when we watched 'Cardiff Carnage' sweeping down St Mary's Street. This militarised pub crawl was a thing to behold - hundreds of freshers, all of them clad in promotional T-shirts and with writing all over both t-shirts and themselves via marker pens, given out so they could cross off each destination on the list, doing all the expected things - drink fall over be sick snog knee trembler if you're lucky etc - but on such an enormous scale that they had fluorescent-jacketed stewards on hand, as if this was a political demonstration. The stewards seemed to be there to channel and watch the students, ringing ambulances if necessary, but in the context it seemed more like, as with stewards' role of providing liaison with the police, they were there to protect the youth from the possible wrath of Cardiff. I've never before seen fun of such a weirdly desperate, over-organised yet nonetheless spectacularly dissolute sort, and it was hard not, without getting too Daily Mail about it, to feel terribly sorry for them all - even the defenders of this curious event write about it as something done fully in the knowledge of impending debt and temp hell. You can be as hedonistic as you like, as long as you're prepared to be indentured for it for the rest of your life.

Back to architecture...the place we saw all this occur was St Mary's Street, and this really is a fabulous place, its impressiveness barely affected - possibly improved, who knows - by hordes of screeching petit-bourgeois virgins covered in marker pen groping each other before being sick in the gutter. It's a curious urban object, a continuous block with each of its buildings differently styled (hence the Belgian comparison) which range from shouty low countries Gothic to two massive Americanised neoclassical department stores, one of which was once the hulking headquarters of the Co-Operative; and on the other side of the road, the buildings lead into markets and arcades. Here I have to confess assuming that Arcades were something uniquely found in Paris and Piccadilly, so hence my previous idea that their presence in West Yorkshire was proof of the area's aptness for flanerie. Cardiff, however, has absolutely loads of iron-and-glass Arcades, albeit all in the same place, which carve unexpected and relatively intrigue-filled pathways through what would otherwise have been some Victorian alleyways. The Market has some great vintage signage on the outside, and the general atmosphere would have been perfect for a '30s Hitchcock film, at just the right level of seedy.

Not all of central Cardiff is as interesting, but there's a good line in silliness in some of the architecture, which for the most part - excepting the invariably dreadful towers - can be quite entertaining. I'd be especially interested to know what the FAT or AOC neo-postmodernist contingent think of buidings like the Cardiff Cineworld, which without ever quite being good, have at least a bit of fun with our prevailing modernism-on-the-cheap, as does the Millennium Stadium, although it's a shame the struts are painted white, when black or red would have taken the admirable tastelessness to a more charismatic level. There's one fine bit of late Brutalism, St David's Hall, in the middle of this, looking improbably chic and European Grey by comparison.

The St Mary's Street area is one of two really very good things in Cardiff, the other being the Imperialistic Beaux-Arts pleasures of Cathays Park, lots of Portland stone classical buildings housing sundry museums, assemblies and suchlike, with green space inbetween and boulevards laid through. Interestingly, this was planned decades before Cardiff was designated 'capital' of Wales, and yet it is laid out with confident gusto as if it already were. It's not to my taste, mostly, - generally a bit too limpid and cold, and retrograde for the 1910s-30s, given what was happening elsewhere in Europe - but at least they made a bloody effort. It's this which makes the comparison between Cathays Park and Cardiff Bay so irresistible, in that both were explicitly laid out as bureaucratic and cultural centres (with some retail added in the new version). 'Cardiff Bay', previously the beautifully-named 'Tiger Bay', became, as with Greenwich Peninsula and the Cardroom Estate in Ancoats aka New Islington, a Blairite tabula rasa - and like those it remains fundamentally unfinished. Even the ceremonial boulevard towards the new district, named after an enthusiastic leader of the most senseless war in history, Lloyd George Avenue, was apparently botched, and is likely to remain unfinished, with anything slightly adventurous in the original proposals - oh, interesting planning, light transit, whatever - replaced with a mere road from A to B.

It's all there - wonky sub-decon, New Urbanist-indebted 'proper streets', dromes, and upriver, lots of call centres - and none of it (except the aforementioned Senedd/Harry Ramsden's similarity) seems to notice the other bits, let alone exhibit a spark of personality. But among the more innovative things done here was the creation of a new Barrage at enormous expense, seemingly solely because of the assumption that muddy water would have deterred people from moving into the adjacent condos. Yet, as it taketh, Blairism also giveth - another load of Microflats-By-Water features an 'Animal Wall' to accommodate any creatures that may otherwise have been displaced, and it's interesting to see that both in terms of interesting design and social policy the birds have been getting a better time of it than the humans. Amusingly, one Dezeen commenter compares the bird wall to a 'socialistic concrete apartment block'. Perhaps the birds and bats need something in their vernacular?

Past the soft-brutalist visitor centre (as we stood taking this picture, the CCTV camera swung round to look at us), St Fagans provides the Vernacular Experience, a park where you can look at everything from piggeries to prefabs, and although the prevailing implicit argument is for the 'authentic' (and, as you can find out for yourself, the unfit-for-human-habitation) architecture of rural Wales, plonked in a Capital which voted an overwhelming No in the referendum for the Welsh Assembly, it's the excursions into industrial south Wales which are the most tragic. There's the House for the Future and the miners' terrace, but there's also the Oakdale Miners Institute - now the coalfields in the Valleys have gone from being Cardiff's raison d'etre to being its outer suburbs, they can be safely commemorated, their institutions of self-education torn out and re-rooted in the fallow soil of compulsory heritage. I have a mole in St Fagans, and he says the following about the failure of the House of the Future:

The negative reaction to the House of the Future was, I think, a recent thing (it closed this year). For one thing, its contents had ceased to look futuristic after 7, 8 years. The museum rejigged it, but half-heartedly, as Ty Gwyrdd [Green House], the House for Sustainable Living -- this meant new displays on the walls etc. but no major changes otherwise. The public picked up on this and were always pointing things out to us -- such as the two combi ovens "for flexibility", necessary due to a sponsorship deal with AEG -- and, quite fairly, saying "but that's not sustainable". Also, they now expected us to be knowledgeable about environmental issues about which we'd have to bullshit; we weren't trained to talk about such things. We actually hated the place. It would have worked if the change of emphasis had been addressed properly (there were no recycling or compost bins) and if the technology had been kept up to date, but neither is in the museum's culture. The house was built by Redrow, by the way, with Jestico & Wiles as architects. Can we safely assume that none of Redrow's actual houses of the future will look like it?

Meanwhile, I'm informed of the following exchange about the Miners' Institute: Small girl, in the Institute library, asks her mother what sort of books the miners would have read. Answer: 'Oh... books about making things, I suppose, do it yourself and that sort of thing'. No subversive literature in the former 'Little Moscows' of South Wales, then. Oakdale adjoins Blackwood, where - oh yes - the Manic Street Preachers come from. They opened the new Cardiff Central Library a few months ago, a not completely awful BDP-designed design & build project whose adherence to the ethos that 'Libraries gave us Power' is rather negated by large chunks of its ground-floor space being given over to Wagamama. In front are new blocks of flats sitting empty, leading the way into a similarly derelict new shopping mall. A design for life indeed.

(thanks to Anwyn, Lang Rabbie and the St Fagans correspondent who will remain anonymous, unless they don't want to be, in which case do say hello in the comments)


'Jameson! Brown! Postone! Rowbotham! Apocalypse! Crisis! Red Planets! Derivatives!' Thus runs the heading for the email I have received asking me to promote the Historical Materialism conference at SOAS from November 27-29. Frankly, this appears to be its own argument, but if more convincing is required, there is some more info available here. Speakers include the aforementioned Fredric Jameson and Sheila Rowbotham, plus Nina Power, Mark Fisher, Benjamin Noys, China Mieville, and all sorts of other exciting people. It will also feature me giving a paper at a panel on the Weimar Republic, entitled No Rococo Palace For Buster Keaton. Gold star to whoever guesses the reference.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

You are not about to witness the strength of street knowledge

Me on the significance of Ice Cube's near parallel career as architectural draughtsman and writer of NWA's best stuff. Oh yes. A somewhat different tack to the Fantastic Journal's take on Dr Dre and suburbia, which - honest guv - didn't occur to me at all when writing it, but popped into my head about five minutes ago while I was trying to think of a clever headline. Nonetheless, as post-NWA solo albums gom I'll take The Predator's insurrectionary fire over the smoove nihilism of The Chronic, irrespective of the undeniable leftist-guilt-ridden pleasures of the latter.

I won't be talking about any of this when I appear at Signs of Revolt, an event at the Truman Brewery in Shoreditch, celebrating ten years of the anti-capitalist movement - but I will be talking about neoliberal architecture in London, so expect lots of pictures and some swipes at the soon-to-be late and lamented Urban Task Force, and the general 'don't give me what I want, because that's not it' tenor of the last ten years of London architecture, the decidedly pyrrhic victories of attenuated neo-modernism and privately-patrolled 'public' piazzas. Sunday, 2pm. Timetable here.

Friday, November 06, 2009


Some new things: in NS on Joshua Clover's 1989 book, on NS on the Stirling Prize, - and taking Urban Trawl to Cardiff for BD, which will be followed at some point by the obligatory footnoting, nuancing and whatever the opposite of nuancing is.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Neon Lights, Shimmering

The NASDAQ sign was loved and mourned mainly by those who had no love for its market values.
Marshall Berman, On the Town - 100 Years of Spectacle in Times Square

Or: some dialectic on enlightenment. There have been some very interesting recent books by American academics on the architectural culture of the Weimar Republic, all of which seem to be disguised ways of writing about contemporary architecture. Kathleen James-Chakraborty's German Architecture for a Mass Audience, Janet Ward's Weimar Surfaces and Sabine Hake's Topographies of Class all attempt to upend, with varying degrees of success, the versions of Modernism inherited from Philip Johnson's classicisation and bastardisation of Weimar in The International Style, and all of them rediscover an architecture of consumerism, flash and spectacle in an only retrospectively uneasy coexistence with an architecture of socialism and urbanist rationalisation - in more-or-less explicit critique of a cityscape unevenly divided between icons and blandness. One of the most intriguing elements in all of them is the discussion of a certain architectural culture of light. This reached its most extensive form in the Berlin Im Licht events of 1928, where the city's electrical companies collaborated in an urban light show. Meanwhile, the shopping streets and office blocks were regularly illuminated with an intensity and imagination only seen elsewhere at the time in New York. Neon as much as socialism is a neglected element in the modernist city, and it's good to be reminded of the notion of the city as bright lights, rather than slatted wood.

One of many reasons why I distrust the work of postmodernist theorist-architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown is the way in which, in the pomo manifesto Learning from Las Vegas, they spend lots of time talking about a city where the architecture is essentially made of neon - a dematerialised, night architecture of signs, lurid artificial colours, of figures and objects moving in an unreal space, which is a wholly modernist environment, one celebrated by Marshall Berman in the context of Times Square in the fine On the Town, the love for neon adverts on the part of those who have no particular love for the products being advertised - and then eventually favour something much less interesting, a vernacular of deliberate dullness.

What bothers me about Venturi/Scott-Brown is that their actual architecture, and that of the overwhelming majority of postmodernist architects, seems to have so little interest in this architecture of light and technological city-design - in terms of the actual practice, the skewed modernish/traditionalish conjunctions and intellectual gameplaying seem far more important. Funnily enough, browsing through their website, it seems they've finally got round to designing a building where light is a major factor in the design, and it's in the form of a pair of skyscrapers in Shanghai, dressed with 'electronic ornaments' (image via this interview), in a place where their New Urbanist comrades won't be snooping to make sure all is sufficiently 19th century. The reason this is on my mind, other than it being firework night, is that winter is on the way, which in any big city is actually a rather exciting experience, where previously prosaic landscapes become quite exciting through their illumination. Some London examples: if you trace at night the Barbican walkways all the way past the Museum of London, you get to a junction of four buildings, one by Farrell, one by Foster, one by Eric Parry and one Rogers. Only the the latter would get a second glance from me during the day, but on a cold night, with the walkways leading their almost arbitrary paths through them, they become positively fascinating, their nasty stone, their formal ineptitude and their general lumpen blandness being effaced, and the promises of transparency and a city of light and suspension seems tantalisingly close to being fulfilled - though there is of course nothing to actually see but hundreds of rapidly emptying offices.

There's a few instances of this in my area of London, which exemplify this rule of dreadful architecture interestingly illustrated by its lighting schemes. Chief among them is SOM's Pan Peninsula, a absolutely vile block of flats in the Isle of Dogs, which markets itself with an impressive lack of ideological guile as 'the place to live above all others'. In the daytime it's a shocker, a white-tile clad, spectacularly ungainly and clumsy bit of yuppie-stacking, sterile in a drab rather than icy way, and the promise of 'inspired apartments' on the American Psycho-esque website fails to make up for its architectural shortcomings. What does almost make up for them is the lighting scheme. Now maybe I'm still a bedazzled provincial, but I always enjoy the light show it puts on, where the towers are illuminated by minimalist strips of neon which - oh yes - change colours as you watch. It has a palpable sense of urban drama which the building itself entirely lacks. Another, this time on my side of the river, is Farrell's new office blocks, a nearly as slapdash barcode-façade fest, adjoining the Millennium Dome. Again, during the day this is a terrible mess, but in the darkness their kitsch lighting schemes have a sublime poignancy and vacant beauty, something only emphasised by the drizzly sight of Canary Wharf in the distance.

To 'take a bath of light', as the striking epigraph to On the Town has it, you have to venture into enemy territory, whether it's to the tourist-centred mini-Times Square at Piccadilly Circus, or into the locked-down, privately patrolled citadels of capital at the City of London and Canary Wharf, its lights 'taking the piss' out of the surrounding area, as Dizzee Rascal once put it - then there's the neon film atop the BT Tower - beautiful, but a reminder of the privatisation of Eric Bedford's monument to 1960s Bennism. Weimar Berlin had much the same predicament - the Reklamarchitektur or 'advertising architecture' of Erich Mendelsohn, where light was at least as important as concrete and glass, was in implicit opposition to the residential architecture of Bruno Taut, which was blaringly bright during the day but necessarily visually quiet at night, as people have to sleep there. Contemporary with Mendelsohn and just before Berlin Im Licht, there were experiments in light architecture in the USSR, for the 10th anniversary of the October revolution. You can see clips of this in Dziga Vertov's Three Songs of Lenin, a reclamation of light architecture for the purposes of public celebration rather than the hawking of goods. Yet these celebrations coincided with the final quashing of the Left Opposition in the USSR, and the images in Vertov mainly consist of the ziggurat of Lenin's tomb being illuminated, using light to mystify rather than enlighten, as would Albert Speer, several years later. Whether for political or commercial reasons, light is an overlooked urban object, and I suspect any mundane block of flats that proposed 'electronic ornaments' on its façade would face the middlebrow wrath of CABE in an instant. Looking out of my window, the only thing which stands out among the murky yellow sodium, and an eternally comforting sight in that context, is the sign of the Hong Kong Garden takeaway. Its lurid hot pink banner offers little more than an all-too-frequently irresistible promise of monosodium glutamate, but it's the most beautiful thing on the street.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Pandaemonium: A Film Proposal

'From Birmingham to Wolverhampton, a distance of thirteen miles, the country was curious and amusing; though not very pleasing to eyes, ears or taste; for part of it seemed a sort of pandemonium on earth - a region of smoke and fire filling the whole area between earth and heaven; amongst which certain figures of human shape - if shape they had - were seen occasionally to glide from one cauldron of curling-flame to another. The eye could not descry any form or colour indicative of country - of the hues and aspect of nature, or anything human or divine. Although nearly mid-day, in summer, the sun and sky were obscured and discoloured; something like horses, men, women, and children occasionally seemed to move in the midst of the black and yellow smoke and flashes of fire; but were again lost in obscurity. A straggling boy or girl was at times seen in the road, with uncombed, uncut hair, unwashed skin, and naked limbs, which appeared as if smoke-dried, and encased with a compound of that element and soot...the surface of the earth is covered and loaded with its own entrails, which afford employment and livelihood for thousands of the human race'.
John Britton, Autobiography (1850)

There is, rather astoundingly, no great (or, it would seem, even not-so-great) film about the industrial revolution, something which is rather odd, considering what happened in those 50 or so years had more lasting effect on the future development of the human race than practically anything else before or since - so we can only assume the fact it hasn't appeared on screen is because of some strange unconscious prohibition on representing our primal scene. There are countless films about either working industry or what happens to the industrial when it de-industrialises, and several films set in the period (1790s to 1850s, roughly) where it occurs for the first time - all those Jane Austen or Dickens adaptations, they all take place at the same time that the modern world is being created in Cottonopolis, while Bill Douglas' Comrades, about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, might be connected with the birth of the labour movement, but necessarily not in the crucible where 'new-fangled men' were formed (is this a question of expense, I wonder, or based on the lasting English suspicion of the cities we nearly all live in?). So, a proposal for any lurking film producers. The film is called Pandaemonium and is partly based on Humphrey Jennings' book of 'images' of the Coming of the Machine, though intimate knowledge of volume 1 of Capital and Francis Klingender's Art and the Industrial Revolution will be assumed.

It'll be filmed in Cottonopolis, obviously (it can be Rochdale or Stockport or the West Riding if the rent in Manchester is too high), with some scenes in the aforementioned Black Country, but there will, emphatically, be no social realism, no Hovis advert moments, with absolutely nothing picturesque, rather the sublime. It'll be based on contemporary descriptions, which are as far from 'realist' as could be imagined - so there will be small armies of women and children attached to vast power-looms, mills more vast than any building previously imagined (Schinkel sketching 'the architecture of the future' can feature in), there will be rivers and canals dyed satanic colours, the sun blotted out by the accumulated smoke. The main characters will participate in riots and secret societies, and die before they turn 20 (as they would have done). The sets will take an idea from Klingender, that John Martin's illustrations to Milton's Paradise Lost, specifically of Pandaemonium, the palace of the devils, were based on seeing the birth of the industrial world; ie, it will be based on the paintings attached here. There will be lots of CGI fiddling about, lots of imaginary sets, no historically faithful use of original lighting or contemporary technologies - instead, the sheer unprecedented nature of the new world will be stressed. It might be difficult finding actors who don't mind just being the appendages of giant machines, but otherwise this is surely a guaranteed hit, and I'll only require a Monsieur Verdoux-style 'from an idea by' credit at the start...