Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Deck the Halls

Off to Southampton, where all the Chinese tat you're buying comes from, and where the train will almost certainly pass through the failed state of Basingstoke (so wish me luck). When at my Mum's I will only have access to the world's worst internet connection. So no posts for a bit while I attempt to see only the nice things in my hometown. To whet your appetite for the all-but inevitable post when I get back, this piece on south coast ports is very interesting, and seems to have successfully 'got' Southampton (ie, it says much the same thing I do). Anyway, merry bloody christmas.

Monday, December 21, 2009


Some things by me which you can't read online: in the new 'Geo-Philosophy' issue of Collapse, on the political aesthetics of the concrete bunker, read through Ballard (obviously), the Atlantic Wall, Paul Virilio, Archigram and the South Bank Centre; in The New Humanist reviewing a decidedly on-form Zizek's First As Tragedy, Then As Farce; and in The Philosophers Magazine, on G.A Cohen's Why Not Socialism? which, while unsatisfying for certain rhetorical reasons, is very interesting on particular ways to achieve and administer a new socialism, about which he says more in 10 pages than Zizek has in his entire career. A better, more comprehensive approach to the question of Why Not Communism, meanwhile, can be found in this tremendous David Harvey piece for Monthly Review, explaining why another Communism is not just possible, but necessary.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Down and Out in Eastleigh

Recently I went to Eastleigh, a railway town just on the edge of Southampton which just happens to be the place where I spent half of my childhood. Here, me and my Dad (and hundreds of 6th form students) were watching a production of 1984 at the local theatre. I had excitedly asked to review it for Icon, which I did. It was bad, very bad, and an interesting contrast with, say, BADco, as it all seemed incredibly English by comparison with their reinvigoration of Constructivist theatre. Here, a giggly parody of Constructivism was combined with a refusal to take Orwell or Nineteen Eighty-Four seriously, all incredibly redolent of a particular post-1989 idiocy, in its insistence that socialism and socialist aesthetics lead inevitably to a (nonetheless slightly sexeh) totalitarian nightmare. Regardless. What was interesting, in the sense of 'not necessarily interesting but deeply symptomatic', was returning to Eastleigh after not having walked round it for around 15 years, to find a place as achingly, depressingly English as could possibly be imagined, in a way which felt to me like a commentary on Orwell - or rather, the live bits of Orwell, on language*, surveillance and manufactured scarcity - more than the production itself.

Eastleigh is a small company town, planned as a complete entity in the late 19th century for the South-Western Railway. It was settled by workers transferred from the works at Nine Elms, meaning that it was for a while a south London enclave in Hampshire, and I swear the accent, at least, survived until the 1990s. On moving aged 12 to a council estate in within the city boundaries, not only did I find the semis and front gardens suspiciously posh-looking, but I also thought the estate kids' semi-rural accent to be surprising and hilarious, which guaranteed me some perhaps slightly deserved kickings. I suspect that by the 50s Eastleigh had forgotten it was once a colony of London, and the gridiron plan gradually extended outwards from the '30s onwards, so that it's now more an indeterminate zone between Southampton and Winchester than a town in itself, so while it is incongruously dense at the centre, it's mostly dispersed, exurban, straggling, the bleak reality of the libertarian promises of 'Non-Plan', which once proposed to turn the area into a discontinuous funfest. Walking distance from the centre is Southampton Airport, which is on the site of an interwar camp for Jewish refugees, midway from Eastern Europe to New York City, although this bit of history is seldom mentioned, lest it imply that Southampton was once not provincial. Eastleigh had its brief moment in the national news in the mid-90s when its Tory MP, Stephen Milligan, was found dead with orange in mouth, plastic bag on head and suspenders on legs. I recall BBC News visiting the town, an incredible, improbable breaking of telly into life. I also remember when the 'historic' grid was broken into in the '80s, by a shopping mall, the Swan Centre, where I spent most of my early adolescence browsing through books at WH Smith. The town library was inside the Mall, reached by a glass lift, but I spent a lot less time in there, it didn't have the gloss of commerce to it.

The train to Southampton that I've taken hundreds of times in the last 10 years goes through Eastleigh in its last stretch, and hence through an enormous cargoscape of rusting vintage carriages, freight-trains carrying Chinese containers, with Southampton's Ford Transit factory visible in the distance. So I remember seeing the bombed-out church, a place which to me always seemed incomparably ancient (I was so disappointed when I realised it was Victorian) restored in the '90s/00s into a block of flats, improbably. It won an Evening Standard award for housing, and whether it was deconsecrated or not, the move from God to property seems highly symbolic. All of this is still there, but the inner streets - Cranbury Road, where I lived, Desborough, Chamberlayne, Derby Road, Factory Road - have a drinking ban in place, to stop general ultraviolence and roisterousness from occurring in the residential area. It's not hard to see why this might occur, as the place looks utterly fucked, not to put to fine a point on it. Everyone looks ill, half the shops are charity shops (not wholly a bad thing, though not a sign of great economic health), and the first conversation I hear when sitting down with my drink in the Wagon Works is 'Soon it'll be an Islamic Republic...Enoch was right...still, there'll never be rivers of blood 'cos the English don't have the guts'. I remembered that when I grew up here most of my friends were second/third generation Asian, and I wondered, looking round town at all the white faces, whether they all escaped to the other side of the M27, or hopefully further than that.

It's a bizarre leap to blame immigration for Eastleigh's desuetude. I once came across someone describing Eastleigh as a Northern town lost in Hampshire, which is true in part (though certainly not at the super-affluent outskirts) - it's a very thorough bit of planning, and its buildings are a residue of, first, Victorian civic culture - the town hall, the two-up/two-downs, the churches, the redbrick Gothic school - and later, something else, something perhaps promising transformation - the garden city estates outside the grid, the 'Labour Party House', The Comrades Club, which I'm amazed and pleased to see is still called The Comrades Club, though I suspect it's a karaoke and real ale fest rather than a hotbed of agitational theatre. The town was once a Labour stronghold, but boundary changes and drift meant that by the 70s it was a Tory seat - my Dad tells me that the town once had one of the highest Labour memberships in the south of England, but only because anyone who was on the 'tote', buying a raffle ticket, at the Labour club, became an automatic 'member'. It's hard to imagine any active politics there now, corrupt or otherwise, as it's gone the way of most places of once-skilled labour - confused, lost, lumpen.

The place is planned for industry, very precisely. Railway Works at one end, Pirelli Cables factory at the other, with a grid of terraces inbetween and semis at the sides - more channelled, less 'adaptable' than any modernist plan, although like all Victorian urbanism it's seen as some sort of force of nature, the way things have always been, rather than something directed and planned for pecuniary purposes. As it is, all the industries I remember being here even in the early '90s are now gone - the Mr Kipling factory from whence we got slabs of chocolate and the revelation that Tesco's cakes were exactly the same as the Kipling's cakes, the huge railway works, once one of the biggest in the country (as presumably there's no demand for new trains...) and most shockingly, as I remember it always just in the near distance, the Pirelli factory at the end of Factory Road is gone, replaced by new Heritage Flats, with street names taken from the handful of famous residents - Joe Meek's bleach-blond boy, Heinz Burt from The Tornados; plus, of course, Benny Hill Close (in a similarly rum vein, the Daily Mirror's striptease strip Jane was based on a woman of Eastleigh, though I don't know if she has a close named after her...). Apparently, there are proposals to rename Factory Road, because it gives the wrong impression of the place. At the centre of Eastleigh is what can only be described as a Socialist Realist sculpture, depicting a railwayman, erected around the time the railway works was being closed down.

The urban environment Orwell describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four is not, contra the misunderstandings of generations of conservative dystopians, one in which modern technology and design have created something blandly and oppressively hygienic. It's a mess, made up of crumbling detritus left over from the 19th century, all cabbage-smelling tenements, overcrowding, damp, bombsites and 'adaptive reuse'. Similarly, the art or music mentioned there is not agitprop, not strident Brechtian attempts to jolt the audience into action, but lurid, expensive snuff footage of war, where you can see the enemy die in a variety of interesting ways. The proles, whose presence in any given Orwell book tends to become decidedly creepy, are misshapen and quiescent. If anything works, it's the buildings of the Inner Party - the Ministries, and O'Brien's gleaming apartment with its multiple elevators. But most of Airstrip One is squalid and Victorian. After leaving the theatre, the two places - the sniggering satire on the prospect of a non-Victorian world, and the grim reality of a dead Victorian town - seemed linked, with the former being one of the ideological legitimations of the other. Neoliberalism, the dominance of heritage, nationalism and small-mindedness, the violent transformation into a service economy, all seemed to make us more rather than less Victorian at the start of the 21st century.

* on which subject - go listen to I.T on Radio 4, on the deficiencies of Orwell's 'Politics and the English Language'. Thanks to PD Smith, Rouge's Foam and Matt Poacher for encouraging Eastleigh tweeting.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Adverts of Warsaw


Much of Warszawa, from the snatches of it that I saw before my English constitution rebelled against the ferocious cold, still largely looks like Bowie's 'Warszawa' sounds - sombre, spacious, dark, uncanny, utterly modern. But to really translate the synaesthetic effects of contemporary Warsaw into musical form, imagine listening to the song with a Spotify advert interrupting the frosted synth tones every ten seconds. Warsaw appears, at least from my brief and partial impressions, as a city of advertisements. At first, this is thrilling. The car journey into the city from the airport, when it inches towards the commercial centre resembles, if anything, the delirious final seconds of the 'highway sequence' in the original Solaris. As overpasses and underpasses pass under and over the long, straight road, you see on one side the angular steel of the central station, and in front, a row of neon-lit towers - many of them with neon signs flickering on and off - Toshiba, Sanyo, Orange, Marriott, with the latter also broadcasting a pointillist neon pattern show, punctuated by (to me) excitingly unreadable advertising slogans. In the middle of it, unavoidably central, and I know I ought to apologise to Warsawians for my being so predictable, but, let's face it, the central building of the entire city, the Palace of Culture and Science - the only example outside of Moscow of the astonishing, ludicrous Gothic skyscrapers built after World War Two, so tall they disappear into mist at daylight.

Designed by Lev Rudnev and built by imported Russian labour, it actually fits the capitalist city very neatly as a distant, showy urban object, derived as it eventually is - at a couple of removes and with a wedge of ideology inbetween - from Manhattan's Woolworth Building (it's like Ghostbusters! Says my sister). What is atypical, however, is the planning. Ever since the 1960s Warsaw's planners have tried to crowd it out by building office blocks and hotels with the same (enormous) height, but the difference is the way in which it isn't just a tower, but a practical city-in-itself, with wings as large as some streets, with the gigantic Plac Defilad (erstwhile Plac Stalina) in front of it. At night this area is astonishing, one of the most dazzling cityscapes I've seen, an overwhelming argument for consumerism's urban qualities. In the morning it's utterly fucking miserable. Here's Plac Defilad on Monday morning. Click on the picture and you'll note that one advert says 'Life's Good'. Yeah.

So, central Warsaw appears to be built on a peculiar hedonistic principle - the highs may be pretty high, but the hangovers are nigh unbearable, albeit with a certain catatonically bleak power. You'll also note, if you look closely, that one of the housing blocks has been completely covered with a canvas advertisement for a new car. Just below it is the Rotunda, an example of the confident, angular 'Thaw' modern of post-'56 Poland. It features on its walls some heritage images of what the place looked like when it was built, but the glass walls are covered with another gigantic advertisement. It's as if it's saying 'we can't afford for you to see this building as it is, so here is what it would look like if we didn't have to cover it up with ads'. Every available surface must advertise. A little lower down, in the station concourse, a recreation of a pioneering work of abstract propaganda is covered in graffiti. In both cases, a rather similar process of random defacement is at work.

At the other side of the Palace, near the the sweeping steel roof of the Central station...

...which is one of an excellent series of railway stations by the architect Arseniusz Romanowicz (whose Warsaw Powisle station, which unfortunately I saw after my camera ran out of batteries, is a superlative design, one of the best stations I've seen anywhere), for which demolition is periodically to this, you can see the New Warsaw of the mid 90s to mid 2000s boom. It's a motley lot, as ever - the undulating, biomorphic glass roof of a new mall sits next to the Hard Rock Cafe, which sits next to some wonky spec towers, which sits next to the concrete frame of an unfinished 45-storey residential tower by Daniel Libeskind. Intended to be finished by 2008, it reached around fifteen stories before being credit crunched. It is now apparently indefinitely shelved. The area is a bit of a farrago, to put it mildly, but its seemingly deliberate disorder seems another morbid symptom, as if some sort of planning and order were a return of Communism. It looks alternately crankily exciting or bleakly tawdry, depending on light and/or mood.

It has little in common with the two kinds of 'socialist' architecture in the pre-1953 city, either Socialist Realism or Modernism, both of which were tightly planned and controlled. The former was very much a populist architecture, though, a proto-postmodernism which mashed together advanced technology, 'proper streets' (albeit with huge roads inbetween), and extensive ornament and decoration, which is never entirely retro, but is rather in a kind of mutant free classical-gothic-renaissance-whatever manner, with all the aesthetic incoherence of pomo, albeit with little of the bright colours. It's little wonder that the likes of Philip Johnson rehabilitated this sort of thing in the '80s (curiously enough, a mural of his AT&T tower sits next to the Lissitzky mural above). It too needs 'redevelopment' now, and that takes several forms. The monumentalism of the Marszalkowa area, with its showpiece squares, is the dark stuff, Stalinist architecture at its most sombre and also its most 'contextual' (the blocks were all supposed to emulate a 19th century housing block nearby). It is restored in tiny sections, and elsewhere it's either picturesquely sullied or, more often, draped in enormous advertisements - seeing a giant Wayne Rooney blocking light and views for 50 or so flat-dwellers is as good a capsule image of the post-socialist city as any other.

Apparently, the giant ads are a means of funding the restoration of these buildings, but they've been here for so long that nobody seems convinced the restorations will ever actually happen. The shiny new towers imply this isn't entirely an impoverished city, but that money is going to the usual places.

The first skyscraper in Warsaw was built in the '30s for a British insurance company, of all things. One of the few buildings to survive the destruction of the entire city in 1944, it was redesigned by its architect, Marcin Weinfeld, in Socialist Realist style after the war. It has another ad stuck to its top, and there are plans afoot to restore it to its 1930s state, in a strange act of misplaced historical fidelity.

It's not a matter of architectural style, this - the Modernist department store above, designed by Zbigniew Ihnatowicz and Jerzy Romanski in the 40s before the Soc-Realist edicts, is also draped with a giant Lego advert, and the owners promise to restore the building - if they're allowed to demolish one wing of it...


My host very kindly obtained for me a tour around Zoliborz, a district built up between 1918 and 1939, given by a long-term inhabitant who runs Poland's most hep music magazine. It was all enormously informative about the area, which was a mixture of 'national manner' style houses for the officer class and the nobility, Modernist 'colonies' which were variously social housing of a sort and flats for the intelligentsia, and once, embassies, surrounded by the walls of the Tsarist citadel which once stood on the site. He was not impressed by my lack of interest in the national manner, but to be honest it seemed remarkably similar to every other national manner.

The Modernism in Zoliborz was also quite derivative, but interestingly so. The school is the most original building in the area, an expressionistic design which was left pockmarked with the bullets it incurred during the Warsaw Rising.

The housing is, like everything else, sometimes very well restored, sometimes not, and sometimes renovated in a completely random order in a variety of different ways - anyone from Modernist preservation groups like DOCOMOMO or the Twentieth Century Society should stop reading at this point if they're faint of heart.

There is lots of nice planning and planting in Zoliborz, parks and public space which are sometimes gated at random points. Still, the pallor of the buildings seems to be the one point where the place conforms to Eastern Bloc stereotype - grey flatblocks, lots of space, and (as with most of Warsaw) well-dressed pale people in long coats and scarves. I like this place.

At the centre is the square above, which is named after Woodrow Wilson. For a few years it was named after the Paris Commune, which is apparently a bad thing.


The other district I got to have a bit of a look at was around the Wilanowska Metro station. The Metro is '90s, and is a curious mixture of good materials and spacious proportions downstairs, super-low-budget kiosks on the surface. The area was recently built up with tall towers, which ostentatiously try and avoid the serried repetition of the '60s blocks a yard or two away.

There are various types, some are condos for the wealthy and some contain mere microflats, and this seems visible from the relative swishness of the surface materials. They differ from their tower block precursors not by slathering themselves in ornament or wood panelling, but by creating strange outgrowths and clusters, with the end result that while it doesn't look ordered and repetitious, it does mean that anyone living on the 3rd storey of one of the blocks is enclosed by a 16 storey courtyard, so there's less light or air than there would be in a 19th century Mietskaserne. By trying to do everything other than what was done from the 50s to 80s, some strange and imposing accidents have been created - but what continues is scraping, domineering height.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Stage Sets in Zagreb

being the first of two photo-posts on a peripatetic week spent mostly in two capital cities that were, just over 20 years ago, nominally 'socialist'. I was in Zagreb and then Warsaw about a day and a half later in order to sell coals to Newcastle, by telling an extremely erudite Croatian politico-philosophical dance troupe about Soviet cinema and biomechanics, and to talk about socialist architecture in Poland. I promise these won't herald this blog becoming wholly a showcase of travel photos with marginal notes, though that appears to be the way it's going (a good thing or not? Comments, please!). All observations should be considered partial and tentative.

I was in Zagreb as part of an event that also included BADCo, the aforementioned troupe, performing a piece in a factory at the edge of one of the city's yawningly wide roads. Entitled Man.Chair, it entailed the partial re-enactment of a performance piece where a middle-aged man dances in tortured fashion around chair. In this version, this was accompanied by two almost machinically controlled younger dancers, whose Constructivist movements were set in contrast to the Artaudian contortions of their elder, to a grimily rhythmic soundtrack. It was, especially for one as physically inept as myself, enormously impressive, performed with commitment and a total lack of the smug irony which would be attendant on such things in the UK.

The picture above shows where one sort of Zagreb hits another. I agree with Orson Welles that his finest film was The Trial, a hugely overblown, lurid adaptation of Kafka, set largely in the (now) Croatian capital. Amongst other things it is an object lesson in 20th century urbanism. In some scenes a character leaves a room in a studio set to walk through a Paris railway station out into Zagreb. I was, needless to say, incredibly excited when told, in a car in the city, that we were driving past the district where K tries to ask an old woman if he can carry her incredibly heavy suitcase, as she drags it through a landscape of open space and overpowering slabs. I would go there the next day. Yet, what is unique about Zagreb is that it seems incredibly precise in terms of the periods of its architecture. The part that is Hapsburg is very, very Hapsburg, crumbling, ornamental and opulent, a stage set of bourgeois decay. It starts very suddenly when entering from the Modernist south, and is only sporadically interrupted with postwar construction, to deeply unpopular effect, viz:

This skeleton is the remains of what is apparently Zagreb's most hated building, soon to be reclad. The construction site features some new schemes by the same developer, which makes it fairly clear that no new baroque will ensue:

So no more of this, which is better when left picturesquely rotting, after all.

The painting and restoration of this sort of architecture always makes it look rather obnoxious, no matter how historically accurate. In the imagination, these sorts of buildings were always already dilapidated and decadent. There are small outbreaks of modernism inside the Historic Hapsburg Zagreb, which look '30s more than postwar, such as the icy Italian Rationalist buildings of the city's centre.

The part of the city that I was staying in was south of this, in a district of 30s flats which then hits a similarly extreme swathe of post-war modernism, a seemingly no expense-spared showpiece of monumental planning. Running throughout are the most expansive roads, lined by tall buildings which lead to pedestrianised green spaces. There's little of the partial infill or tying together of the loose and messy that marks most capitals. If you don't drive (and the traffic is relentless, even on the weekday late morning when this walk occurred) it can be just a tad intimidating, but it all seems to work on its own terms, if one ignores the amount of carbon being belched into the clouds. At it's centre is the gigantic square, which looks like it exists purely for the purposes of military commemorations.

The road (well, 'road' is a slightly paltry description for this canyon) where some of the most interesting things can be found has at various points been called Moscow Avenue, Avenue of the Proletarian Brigades, and is currently Ulica Grada Vukovara, after the town that was destroyed in the Yugoslav wars. None of the architecture along here is especially original, but it's all very interesting in its experiments and variations on mainstream, international style Modernism. So, we have the city's tallest tower, the delightfully named 'Zagreb Lady' (see top of post), designed by Slavko Jelinek and Berislav Vinković in the early '70s. It echoes Niemeyer in the balance between the curtain wall's repetition and some wilful curving and enveloping - but the seeming urge to add competing angles to it whenever possible seems more restless, less hedonistic, than Niemeyer. Near it are some massive slabs, among which the best was apparently designed, by a student of Le Corbusier, for army officers. It has a peculiar green tint to it, but up close the Beton is extremely Brut, and the thick, physical pilotis seem very directly cribbed from the Unite d'Habitation. At the back, you get the sense that the Ulica is a slight Potemkinstadt, as almost shanty-town like dwellings sit hard against the confident, if somewhat down-at-heel Corbusian slabs.

Yet at the bottom of at least half of the blocks I saw in and around this boulevard, there were shops and well-used cafes, something almost unimaginable over here; while the tenants of the flats which would elicit the immediate reaction of 'omg sink estate' among my countrymen dress more like they work at Canary Wharf than Asda. In amongst the blocks of flats are similarly huge offices, some of which, like these two:

show an urge to create something more discordant than the International Style, playing with angles, walkways and Brutalish hieratic vents and extrusions. New architecture is slicker and uses more glass than concrete, but mostly seems to have just continued in the same vein, without displaying any urge to try and recreate 'streets' (why, when there are already cafes and markets in the tower blocks?) or to offer reduced versions of the Hapsburg world at the other end of town. Across from the gleaming glass Eurotower is the University, and the Kino. Still, there are often moments when something earlier and less modern pokes out, and it's fairly shocking when it does so, especially given the general homogeneity of the place. So here, some more shack-like dwellings are looked over by, this time, some shiny new corporate thing.

Both here and elsewhere there is a lot of political graffiti, which is always a good sign. The philosophy-led insurrectionary Zagreb University went back into occupation recently, but was back in class when I was there. There seems to be a lively Left in the city, which isn't represented by actual politicians, but which contrasts greatly with the creepy political torpor in certain other capital cities, eastern and western. The Kino sign is just there because I liked it.

Google translate implies some selling off souls to capitalism is alleged in the graffiti above.

Here contemporary work is indicted by one of the 'plenums' which formed part of the student occupation.

By comparison, the grinning faces here seem as uncomfortable as a bit-part player in The Thick of It, gamely trying to look both friendly and presedential, clean-cut and impeccably European. The EU is seen as apparently seen as something of a panacea by local politicians, hence the name of the tallest and shiniest new block - the 'Eurotower'.

The area where Joseph K lives is much as you would expect - slabs and open space, lots of good, scrubby and windswept examples of what architects today insist on calling 'public realm', and with plenty of facilities on the ground floors. Some of the blocks, which are more horizontal than vertical, recall the Corbusian period of Soviet '20s architecture, communal flats like the Narkomfin, more than they do the standard towers and slabs of the post-Stalin eastern Bloc, suggesting that either Yugoslav architects knew their history or that the less blut-und-boden sides of 'actually existing socialism' produced curiously similar forms.

The (ack) 'Public Realm' entails a large playing field with rusty goalposts, where on one of the school buildings is a peculiar and faintly chilling piece of graffiti - a group crowding round a blank banner. It's hard to tell whether this is satire, or whether the schoolkids are supposed to fill in a slogan when they have something to demand or advocate, which makes its blankness more unnerving.

Further on, you can see the almost satirical placement of a McDonalds in front of serried tower blocks. 'No two countries that have McDonalds have ever fought a war with each other', said the cretinous Thomas Friedman, inaccurately. Nearby is some more low-rise 60s stuff with new developments nearby in almost the same manner, as if outer Zagreb has decided on a sober, neat international style Modernism definitively, as if this really is the architectural end of history.