Saturday, February 27, 2010

First Time as Tragedy...

Possible epigraph for the new book:

...But inside it there is a special vision of the system that is being opposed: an influential view, right through to the labour governments of the sixties, which has now shown its inadequacy. The old system, with its aristocratic and parvenu stupidities, is seen as a top layer, to be replaced with 'new blood, new men, new ideas'. The spread of the middle-class is seen as having made the old class analysis almost obsolete, and the working class anyway is believed to be rapidly acquiring middle-class habits and ideas. The ruling class is seen as having become mere owners, their work done for them by managers and technicians. All that is then needed, it seems, is for the decent members of the family - middle-class and working-class alike - to get rid of the outdated old fools in charge.
Trumpets around the walls of the Barbican. Trumpets turning into penny whistles and then, reflected in the new shining glass, suddenly and surprisingly accompanied by a respectful and celebratory choir.'
Raymond Williams, Orwell (1971)

Friday, February 26, 2010

Don't Bore Us, Get to the Caucus

marxism in culture: programme for summer term 2010. These will be good.

Friday 30 April
No End & No Beginning: Pop, Periodization, Problems c. 1989
Joshua Clover (University of California, Davis)

Friday 14 May
Symposium on Frederic Jameson
Matthew Beaumont (University College London), Gail Day (Leeds University), Nina Power (Roehampton University), and Alberto Toscano (Goldsmiths)
This seminar starts at the earlier time of 4.00pm

Friday 28 May
Photography in May ‘68
Antigoni Memou (University of East London)

Friday 11 June
Marx, Hegel and the 'Truth Claims' of Critical Realist Photography: A Political-Aesthetic Reading of the initial chapters of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit
Simon Constantine

All seminars start at 5.30pm, and are held in the Wolfson Room (unless otherwise indicated) at the Institute of Historical Research in Senate House, Malet St, London. The seminar closes at 7.30pm and retires to the bar.

Organisers: Matthew Beaumont, Warren Carter, Gail Day, Steve Edwards, Maggie Gray, Owen Hatherley, Andrew Hemingway, Esther Leslie, David Mabb, Antigoni Memou, Nina Power, Pete Smith, & Alberto Toscano.

For further information, contact Andrew Hemingway, at:
a.hemingway[at] or Esther Leslie at: e.leslie[at]

Monday, February 22, 2010

Value Engineers Create New Forms

Another place-holding post, instructing you to go read instead: the recent flurry of posts on bureaucracy, audit culture and such at K-Punk, eliciting an interesting and depressing response on how this pertains to architectural 'value-engineering' from Charles Holland; and see also this excellent RSB interview.

In terms of the sheer surreal politics of zombie neoliberalism and an era where banks are nationalised while privately owned public services are propped up at enormous public cost, it's hard to top the Kickstart scheme, whereby the state, in the form of regeneration quango the Homes and Communities Agency, subsidises private, volume housebuilders - the likes of Persmimmon - in order to resuscitate the moribund housing market. None of it, as far as I'm aware, entails funding for council housing despite the 1.7 million waiting list, although a minority is, in the euphemism, 'affordable'. Rival design/urbanism quango CABE, when they assessed the programme, found that more than half of the first lot of (let's not forget, publicly funded, private) schemes were substandard, and now the Homes and Communities Agency are refusing to name where the schemes are or who their architects might be*. As an example of the astoundingly depressing death agonies of Blairism, with its managed market and abdication of actual social democratic responsibilities, it's almost too neat. There's a BD campaign on the whole sorry mess which is here. Also, now that shit exurban Barratt/Bovis/Persmimmon/etc housing is being state funded, can we have done with the idea that it's an authentic expression of popular desire? Ta.

* (some of them might just have appeared on Bad British Architecture, which has returned from its recent extended hiatus)

Wilson & Womersley

Self-promotion corner: I have the lead article in the current issue of Loops, on the topic of Hulme and the ritual sacrifice of its Brutalist architecture to New Emerging Manchester, drawing heavily on Liz Naylor's excellent Manc counter-history Various Times, which Zero should be putting out later this year. Also the Ex-Hulme website was also very useful indeed. The pieces on science fiction music, the inability of Sonic Youth to die and Prince side projects are all very very good.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Nurse! The Screens!

The photograph above is the delightful PFI castle that is Darent Valley Hospital, mentioned on here passim, where yesterday I was given a restitching and some other things. Amongst its many townscape-enhancing features is a strip window which looks out on some scrubland, a random lump of concrete* which may once have been a pillbox - this is a hilltop site, not far from the Thames - and near to that, in full view of goings-on inside, an equally random scattering of volume-housebuilder Noddyhomes. A bed laid alongside the strip window can provide an interesting view of invasive medical procedures, although the nurses need to have this pointed out to them.

Anyway, due to aforementioned I will be somewhat befuddled but nonetheless present at Pages of Hackney bookshop tomorrow, Wednesday the 17th from 7pm, where I will be reading - without pictures, so you'll have to draw your own - from the forthcoming Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. There will also be a post soonish on Dublin, continuing the general decline of this blog into annotated photographic documentations of where I've been.

* a phrase which will only ever be used on this blog in reference to a real, actual lump of concrete, rather than in derisive terms about buildings made of concrete.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Radio Free Constructivism

There are ironies aplenty in Radio Free Europe defending a monument of constructivist, socialist architecture against the neoliberal hordes who would destroy it. Strange alliances... (see also Clementine Cecil in Blueprint.)

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

'I Wasn't Sure What to Expect, but I was Pleasently Surprised'

A winter afternoon in New Ash Green

Span Developments Ltd was the other side of post-war mass housing to the one I normally write about. Founded by Eric Lyons, an occasional architect to Southampton and Hackney councils but mostly a private practitioner, it was both a profit-making business and an attempt to design spaces which were, at least implicitly, Social Democratic - this BBC article quotes their approach as 'community as the goal; shared landscape as the means; modern, controlled design as the expression'. Impeccably Butskellite, then, only with the emphasis on Mr But rather than Mr Skell.

I've written a bit about their estates in Blackheath before, and was recently amused by a comment from a moderately successful youngish architect that 'Span is interesting because it works'. I fail to see how what Span were doing - car-free, pedestrianised public spaces, low-rise, plenty of landscaping, a Scandinavian softening of Modernism - was any different in design terms from what Sheffield City Council did at Gleadless Valley, which 'doesn't work'. Span works for one main reason - it was designed, and designed very well, for (often upper-)middle class clients, so the spaces are looked after, the designs are scrupulously cohesive, and the inhabitants have invariably chosen to live there. It's not mysterious, and it's nothing to do with design.

Anyway - they are very lovely things. As an experiment, to see the bit of Span that might not work so well as those that are in Ham Common, Cambridge and Blackheath, and as an attempt to convert me fully to Social Democracy, Matthew Tempest convinced me to go out to New Ash Green, for which I am thankful. This place is not so much a New Town as a New Village which Span had designed in north Kent, so ambitious that it basically bankrupted the company, and the last few pieces of the scheme were entrusted to the somewhat less socially idealistic Bovis, who were chaired by Keith Joseph, who as government minister had tried to stop the place being built in the first place. Apparently Bovis still has its head office in the Village, which might explain some of the place's continued affluence.

It's properly rural, this is, although I say this with the proviso that I don't understand or know anything whatsoever about the countryside, generally considering it an ideological phantom wielded as a weapon against towns and cities, inducing them to surrender any true civic life to dreams of homes-as-castles-and-investments, as opposed to a real place, which I suppose it must be, for some. You can reach it only via car, or a tortuous public transport route - the nearest largish town, Dartford, is reached via a bus which seems to be either hourly or two-hourly depending on how bad a mood the bus driver is in. New Ash Green stops abruptly at one point, where rolling fields start.

Yet although it's essentially one of the Milton Keynes grids with all its surrounding infrastructure taken away, it's far more urban in design terms than most of what has been built for the last thirty years, albeit if the urb in question is in the outer reaches of the Stockholm Metro system. The houses, for all their wood and brick, are still deeply Modernist, almost futuristic at times, an impression reinforced by the signage, which seems to have escaped fully-formed from the head of Julian House - pseudo-rustic names spelled out in science-fiction letters.

Even the streetlamps have something decidedly Dr Who about them, furnishings that could beam you somewhere else entirely.

The landscape - nature under strict control - is the truly impressive thing here, something which even the drabber Bovis parts of the estate manage to retain - a sense that everything is public, and everything is permeable, except of course for the houses themselves - Span seem to have assumed that a largeish, well-designed house with big windows and a garden was all anyone needed for private space, with CCTV and driveways strikingly absent. Lyons and Span had evidently not read Defensible Space or the Essex Design Guide, and New Ash Green breaks every one of their nasty little rules, by placing what now seems like enormous trust in the place's inhabitants. If, as Alice Coleman and her ilk suggested, certain urban forms invite crime, then the following snickets should be a constant fest of knifings and rapes. By all accounts they are not.

Bad things do happen here, though, and when they do, it seems that it has the eventually sinister nature of all villages (he writes, in a similar knee-jerk manner to someone in a village assuming the same about a story about a death where he lives in south-east London).

There are nooks of mild criminality, however, in the form of the graffiti that is scribbled on the walkways, much of which is so cute and indie that it seems like the local youth are all living in a Belle & Sebastian song. Or at least in Gregory's Girl, a place that comes to mind often here, in its modernity and unrelieved niceness. Not in a suffocating, austerity nostalgia way, though, and the place lacks the Keep Calm and Carry On posters and general Farrow&Ballisation you can find in the Span parts of Blackheath.

Nonetheless, by the standards of 98% of Britain this is hard-line stuff - the hedges impeccable, the original features mostly in place, the spaces extremely trim. You could have a wonderful life here and you could also go completely bonkers in a week. Although not nearly as bonkers as a Secured by Design officer would become looking at the below.

Span probably knew from early on that this one would be a hard sell. The RIBA's recent Eric Lyons and Span book about their ex-president (and think of the relative fate of the buildings designed by their only other talented recent president, Owen Luder) has loads of pictures of the flagrantly sexist ads used to convince people to move to the back of beyond (or the back of beyond less than an hour's drive from London). Architect's Wives, 'vital statistics (no not those ones!)', some fairly blatant suggestions of possible wife swapping and the general sexual intrigue that goes with being terribly modern.

The place may well soon become both modern and terrible, as Broadway Malyan are slated to redesign it. To get an architect of similar talent and prominence to Lyons, they should really be asking Richard Rogers - and his recent spec houses in Oxley Woods are a precise modern equivalent - but I don't suppose he comes as cheap. The shopping centre is slightly knackered, but compared to, say, Thamesmead, is thoroughly self-sufficient - banks, health food cafe, branch of Oxfam, co-op, newsagent, various other bits and bobs. I've seen places in Zone 2 with less amenities. Up on the roof there is some slight sign of ruffness - though having 'HENCH' as your tag is a bit sad. Like writing 'I'M A BIG MAN, ME!' everywhere. It doth protest too much.

We hadn't expected it to be as neat as it was. Matthew had been through before in a car and briefly stopped in the Village Pub, and came back with the impression that here, Span had gone Yokel, and the air of chic and wealth-expressed-through-minimalism you could find in their main estates had gone in favour of the same menace you find elsewhere in north Kent. Actually though, there are only two places here where New Ash Green seems anything other than idyllic - the back end of the shopping centre you can see above, a car-parking area that for some reason has gone derelict before everywhere else. The pub is not exactly welcoming, full of regulars who look at us like we're from Mars - which is rich, as they live on it - but I've been in far worse.

The door of the pub advertises the Sunday Carvery, but rather than showing a farmhouse, the advert shows the outline of a thoroughly modern house.

Borrowed, with Thanks

Whisper it, but Urban Trawl photographer and Bradfordian bon vivant Joel Anderson now has a Tumblr, from whence I have pinched my current profile pic. Obliqueness and unreconstructed communism should result.