Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Total Art of Market Stalinism

The anglo-architectural part of the internet has been agog today at a proposal for a public sculpture as part of the London Olympics - a gigantic, red steel Tatlin's towerish spiral (with the accent on the tat, as one wag had it). Irrespective of aesthetics - personally, I like absurd follies, and there's no doubt this is one - it's of interest for its unashamed glorification of industrial power in its most personalised form. In its ungainly name, the 'ArcelorMittal Orbit' it incarnates its sponsor, the prolific downsizer and procurer of political favours, the steel firm owner Lakshmi Mittal, Europe's richest man. There was, however, rather recently another public art project which used the image, if not the name, of this man of steel - in Nowa Huta, a planned Stalin-era steeltown in Poland, on the outskirts of Krakow, itself downsized first by its own trade union and then by Mittal, who essentially owns what's left of it, and dominates it in a rather more invisible fashion than Stalin or Boleslaw Bierut used to.

The images in this post are from a project on Nowa Huta and Wolfsburg, called 'Industrial Town Futurismus', and more specifically they are an action called 'remote_control' by Markus Bader and Jan Liesegang. Seeing as Mittal and his firm's dominance of Nowa Huta is as total as that of Bierut and his Politburo, why not put up posters of him on the sides of the buildings? Moreover, Mittal's Brezhnev-like visage, his relentless gaze forward, is unnervingly apt for the purpose. The point, of course, is that those who own the means of production are not so crass today as to resort to such straightforward faciality, to the domineering face of power, which makes the use of Mittal's graven image so striking. On the contrary, they get an engineer and sculptor of the wilfully abstract and spectacular - step forward Cecil Balmond and Anish Kapoor - to provide an 'aspirational', 'iconic' but deliberately meaningless, non-figurative edifice for them instead. It's not a change of great sophistication or subtlety.


So here I am on the Guardian's telly division, giving a 4 minute precis of my 4000 word piece on Manchester for Loops. The bit where I try unsuccessfully to hide my vertigo on the footbridge in Pendleton may be especially choice.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Culture & Science

Posting hiatus caused by finishing work (more or less) on A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, followed by nine days of glorious sunshine and hospitality in Warszawa. After I get over the immediate crushing depression that always attends returning to England after a stay in a more civilised country - and the never-lessening shock of Luton Airport, a Children of Men dystopia of winding queues, malfunctioning machinery, thuggish posters (ASYLUM! ASSAULTS! UK BORDER!) shabby non-architecture and, hanging over the queue, several flickering television screens with broken-english subtitles which, this morning, featured at first sight Tony Blair on Sky News, in front of a sign reading 'A Future Fair' - a Warsaw post will ensue.

Also, next week I shall be in St Petersburg and (erk) Moscow, for the first time. I have a fairly good idea what I want to see when there - ie, the '20s buildings I've written about innumerable times and not seen, amongst other things - but if anyone has any suggestions, ideas, warnings and so forth, please let me know in the comments below.

Also also, it may or may not have escaped attention that I was in the Guardian last week, singing the praises of the conurbation. I'm not reading the comments for fairly obvious reasons, so please do let me know if there's any good ones. I'm also involved in another Guardian-related thing which should be up at the end of the week, and which I'm awaiting with some trepidation. You will also, if you like, get to look at my big nose and effeminate hand gestures later in April, at the South Bank's Ether do, where I will be in a dialogue of some description with Will Montgomery with reference to the sound of the Elephant & Castle; and at the Glasgow Association of Art Historians conference, which is on the appropriate topic of The Modernist Turn: Counter/Other/Alter/Meta Modernisms in Art History and Practice'

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Almost-Skyscrapers of Britain, 1829-1944

As another stop-gap before something proper, here's one-half of a talk I delivered next to and about Senate House in December, posted here in ambiguous celebration of the Heron Tower becoming the tallest building in the City of London, and a series of - mostly awful - boom towers reaching recession completion. The original talk goes on to recapitulate my earlier praise of Richard Seifert, who was, let's be honest, the finest designer of tall buildings Britain has ever had (who else? Foster and Rogers have too much pallid recent guff besmirching their record. Basil Spence and the Hungarian Goldfinger are the only ones who come even close). It's all also hugely indebted to London as it Might Have Been by Felix Barker and Ralph Hyde, from which most of the images are taken)

When, in 1932, America was vaulting into the future, with the Empire State Building leaping up to 85 storeys, the tallest new office block in London, Shell-Mex House, was considered daring and outré for reaching 12 storeys. This, aside from summing up better than anything else the passing of the baton of most powerful capitalist nation from the UK to the USA, gives credence to an argument made by the English critic Martin Pawley – that Britain has had a uniquely unhappy relationship with tall buildings. In his book Terminal Architecture, published in 1997 before the building boom of the New Labour era, this unrepentant Futurist profiled two symbolic failures from Britain's 1960s dalliance with skyscrapers and tower blocks – the Ronan Point system-built council block, jerry-built by contractors, which partly collapsed after a gas explosion in 1968, and Seifert's Centre Point office block, a speculative scheme which remained unlet for decades. We will return later to Pawley's lament for a vertigo-ridden nation, desperately afraid of the future. First of all, however, we should note that at the moment of its imperial dominance, the UK seemed, at least retrospectively, as likely to develop a series of freakishly tall, dreamlike and technologically extravagant buildings as anywhere else. Let the record show that the first proposal for something which resembles a skyscraper was made in the 1850s. After the decision was made to move the Crystal Palace - the iron and glass exhibition centre which displayed the bounty of imperialism to a previously restive populace - out of its previous location in Hyde Park, some proposals were made for redesigns. The architect C Burton proposed stacking the iron frame upwards to fifty storeys. We have here almost everything that would define the early 20th century skyscraper. Construction based on metal and glass, a stepped form, and an extraordinary height. American historians have been squabbling for years over which building really justifies the description of 'first skyscraper', without noticing that it was quietly, obscurely 'invented' in London thirty years earlier. Yet more precocious was the proposal for a pyramidal skyscraper which would, fittingly enough for the Victorian metropolis, be a tower as necropolis, its 50 or so storeys housing the bodies of as many as 5 million Londoners, slotted into a fittingly protomodernist cellular structure. It was presented before parliament, and passed over for the somewhat less demented Kensal Green cemetery.

The Crystal Palace tower was of course unbuilt and, at the time, unbuildable, but there were attempts at tall buildings which, early on, could hold their own with the Americans, albeit briefly. Victorian towers such as those of the Houses of Parliament or Westminster Cathedral had a clearly aggressive, pugnacious, god-threatening upwards motion, while hotels such as the Hotel Russell, and the mansion blocks which grew up in South Kensington, could reach double figures in their number of floors. One example of these was so widely despised that it helped bring in legislation to stop London from going the way of Manhattan – this was Queen Anne Mansions, a fourteen-storey block of luxury flats in St James', which was designed in 1873 and finished in 1889, fitted with hydraulic lifts. As described by Nikolaus Pevsner in the 1950s, it sounds like a Transatlantic nightmare trampling into Westminster's placidity, what he calls an 'irredeemable horror' with 'rudely bare' architecture. Soon after it was finished, in 1890, a height limit was set so as to ensure that London would not share in the bizarre new skyscapes of New York and Chicago. In a sense, tall buildings in London have never quite recovered from this setback, although after Queen Anne Mansions was demolished in the 1970s, it was replaced by a rather taller tower by Basil Spence.

There were other instances of the urge to skyscrape being defeated for reasons financial and aesthetic, the history of cancellations and speculative follies that define the histor of London's tall buildings. The most fantastical and most banal of these must be the Wembley Tower, proposed by the railway magnate Sir Edward Watkin. To cut a long story short, this entailed a skyscraping edifice to rival the Eiffel Tower, which got as far as the first few storeys, by which time investors got cold feet. The unfinished framework lay rusting for years before Wembley Stadium eventually replaced it. It was unlucky enough to have been demolished in 1907, during the Edwardian era when, as Pevnser put it, there was displayed 'the sad spectacle of England throwing off her heritage of originality and retiring to a barren style of period imitation'. Yet the Wembley Tower was itself an imitation, of the Eiffel Tower, whose form it apes very precisely. Meanwhile, it is extremely debatable whether a tower like this counts as a skyscraper at all – though it may scrape or rather prick upwards, it is fundamentally uninhabited, so technically speaking belongs in a separate category along with the Telecommunications towers of the Cold War era. What makes it relevant here, other than its ultimate defeat, is the competition that accompanied the announcement of the scheme in 1889, where many of the proposals imagined an occupied, mixed-use monolith rather than a mere Eiffel-style ornament. Some of these were straightforward stackings of historicist motifs – an 'upright Tower of Pisa', a Gothic spire, and more interestingly, an iron & glass 'tower of babel' recalling the etchings of Athanasius Kircher and pointing forward to Vladimir Tatlin. Many of the proposals appeared as apparitions of Constructivism or the futurism of 80 years later, such as a concrete 'tree', a series of stacked iron domes up a central core, and several ethereal, light metal structures, along with some spectacularly Jules Verne-esque proposals, such as a globe on a spike, which contained within itself several exhibition floors. In the perhaps unlikely event that any of these were buildable, they were a potential index of possibilities for distinctive, non-derivative tall buildings. Such a design may have been more difficult to dismiss than a mere duplicate of the Eiffel Tower – something which would be done in Blackpool instead, with the 518ft tower that was built there in 1894.

To concentrate on the British capital would give an inaccurately bleak picture of the British tall building, however. In fact, an argument could be made that Glasgow, Liverpool, and to a lesser extent Manchester, were far more confident in their modernity than the increasingly retardataire capital. Glasgow, which was for a time in the early 20th century the fourth largest city in the world, after London, New York and Berlin, had all the obvious components of Manhattanism – a speculative building boom, a grid-planned centre, an aggressively mercantile capitalist class and imaginative, independent local architects. The buildings of the 1890s, such as the Central Station hotel, or Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Glasgow Herald Building, show a love of dominating height which paralleled and often surpassed the mansions and hotels of Victorian London. It's at the start the century that Glasgow appeared on the verge of developing a skyscraper language as distinctive as that of Chicago. The architect James Salmon designed the two Glasgow office blocks which seem most keen to make this leap. Salmon's buildings are as sachlich in their technical display as anything by the Chicago School, who were, incidentally, themselves inspired by Glasgow architects like Alexander Thomson. Salmon's rather hard to photograph 1899-1902 'Hat-Rack' building uses large expanses of glass, in an unashamedly modern manner, its gaunt symmetry and hat of sharp foliage veritably slicing upwards, while its bays seem to predict the concrete towers of Auguste Perret. Even more interesting is his 1907 Lion Chambers, a deeply peculiar and fascinating building. Constructed using the then cutting-edge Hennebique Concrete system, it was so experimental that its owners have claimed it is impossible to restore, although it is in fact structurally sound. It is currently held up with string so that it won't completely fall apart, is derelict and noticeably crumbling. A combined office block and chambers for solicitors, it includes some very dubious looking concrete judges on the façade. The block seems to mash several different buildings together, with one part seeming like a glass and concrete Chicago skyscraper with curved protomodernist windows, another side is all Scottish baronial, while the front is a bizarre composite. This freakishly original building was surely the potential point of take-off for the Scottish skyscraper that never occurred, but nonetheless throughout the 1910s and 1920s noticeably Chicago-inspired buildings would spring up in the Glasgow grid, though none of them ever managed to transcend ten storeys.

The place where finally the skyscraper was unleashed on the British Isles was Liverpool, perhaps aptly given Oriel Chambers' precedence in the history of glass office buildings. Two buildings by the architect Walter Aubrey Thomas feature concrete and steel frameworks which were used not as a convenient, cheap structural system but in order to give a feeling of height and ambition – Tower Buildings of 1908 was the first draft, its 10 storeys encased in a medievalist cladding, but the more famous was the Royal Liver Building, which was opened in 1911. It was far higher than any office building east of New York, but added elements to the skyscraper vocabulary – the clocktower, the bizarre series of globes, birds and other delirious ornaments which topped its various peaks – which would make their way back to New York and Chicago, and from there to the Gothick Stalinist skyscrapers of Moscow and Warsaw. Due to its length and its several towers, it created a skyline all by itself, in so doing becoming what Charles Jencks calls a 'skycity' rather than a skyscraper. Although a form of (more classicist, more sober) Americanist architecture would continue in Liverpool through the 1920s and '30s, nothing truly comparable would be built in the UK between the completion of the Liver Building and Senate House nearly 30 years later, leaving it feeling like a precipitate jump which was subsequently considered rather embarrassing, a breach of decorum. This was not for occasional want of trying - in the 1930s Lee House, a proposed skyscraper in Manchester, got as far as its first eight storeys before it was abruptly truncated.

The failure, or lack of interest from, the English in developing a rival to the mythic, fantastical new Transatlantic landscapes did not lack for moments where it looked as if a serious British skyscraper language might have been developed. Another such instance is the proposal for Dominion House, by the architect A Randall Wells, for a site in Aldwych at the start of the new, slum-clearing boulevard of Kingsway. Like any Edwardian architect, Wells has his historical points of reference, here a faintly Tudor style of gridded window. Yet that point of reference has been marshalled for a very different purpose than that of the many mock Tudor houses which were then sprawling out of the big cities – instead, it becomes a module for a concrete office building every bit as tersely modern as anything being proposed in Berlin or Chicago. The building's site was eventually filled by Bush House, a mid-rise neoclassical building dedicated transatlantically to 'the friendship of the English speaking peoples'. It was designed by an American architect, in an example of the perfidy of Americans designing in England, where their residual classicism was brought out in an overbearing act of respect for their former imperial overlords. Similarly, Daniel Burnham, architect of the Monadnock Block in Chicago, was partly responsible for the design of Selfridges, where a steel frame was encased in gigantic columns. Americans seemed to agree with English conservatives that the city was somehow unsuitable for skyscraping.

Appropriately, then, one of the most convincing of the 'halfscrapers' that marked the interwar period's more daring moments, the 9-11 storey towers which were the more daring side of the dying imperial metropolis, was designed not by Americans, but by two Glaswegians, J.J Burnet and Thomas Tait. Adelaide House, built in 1921-25, sits on London Bridge Approach, and hence of a size that can only truly be appreciated from the other side of the river rather than from the bridgeside entrance, shows the incursion of a Gotham City aesthetic into the City of London. Opposite it is the Guardian Assurance Building, a minor dalliance with the Liver Building's congested, dramatic stylisms. Adelaide House is more original, showcasing a determinedly vertical series of strips, decorated in dystopian, dionysian neo-Egyptian style and guarded by a fittingly imposing modernistic goddess. Like the multipurpose Manhattanist buildings hymned by Rem Koolhaas, it is more than one building combined, with a warehouse at one end for goods coming from the river, and slick offices at the other end. Needless to say, it has few successors in the city. A couple of years before, fellow Glaswegian Charles Rennie Mackintosh put a concrete, high-rise block of flats and artists' studios in for planning in Chelsea. Needless to say it was not built, and when in the 1920s the exiled Mackintosh was asked to contribute to a book on Modern English architecture, he refused to do so because, as he put it, 'it does not exist'. Another possible built exception in the '20s, arguably the most conservative decade in British architectural history, was a more fearless American import, 1928's 'Ideal House', a small but decidedly delirious block in Soho, based on a design by the most lurid of skyscraper architects, Raymond Hood, again in a vaguely Egyptian, urban and darkly commercial vein incurring the horrified wrath of Pevsner, as an example of Reklamarchitektur.

Hood's work in Soho is perhaps the only example of Americans in London not betraying their Americanism. Perhaps the most depressing example of this tendency is the Devonshire House competition of 1923, the most spectacular instance of the American tendency to patronise staid old London. This project for a site vacated by a stately home in Belgravia was initially the spur for some spectacular skyscraper projects. The image below showcases a stepped design which seems akin to the Babylonian megacities of Hugh Ferriss, this time with a crumbling aesthetic which seems to point to the skyscraper as ruin, perhaps uniquely so. The other proposal here for the site, above, is by the arts & crafts architect CFA Voysey. Voysey was, for a Hegelian like Pevsner, an examplar of the disappointing nature of the English, someone whose unassumingly original country houses of around 1905 were as modern as anything else in the world by that point, but who had refused to continue keeping up with the international zeitgeist. Rather tellingly, his proposal for a series of 30 storey skyscrapers on the site drew on the turrets of the Tower of London, and that other forced marriage between technology and medievalism, Tower Bridge. Even this genuflection towards heritage grandeur was not enough for the judges, but once again the victor was an American, this time the architect of the New York Public Library, who created another stone and steel frame neoclassical edifice which remains justly obscure, fundamentally lost to history. In the early 1930s this cowardice would let up, albeit slightly, in the form of two massive buildings on the Victoria Embankment, two monsters – Shell-Mex and the Adelphi.

Both of them are too squat, too wide to really count as skyscrapers as such, but they represent an interestingly odd cul-de-sac in London architecture, a closed-off path which 1980s postmodernists attempted to re-open with similarly bombastic results – it's oddly congruous that they now sit next to Terry Farrell's lumbering hulk of a pomo office block, which itself squats over Charing Cross Station, and its successors can be found in Farrell's Mi6 Building or Alban Gate. The earliest of these buildings, Shell-Mex House, was designed for the oil company by the firm of Joseph, and is roughly the height of the Liver Building, although its position on the embankment means that it has much more of an effect on the south bank of the Thames, onto which it faces, than the north bank which it is built on. It's an example of a modernised classicism, monumental yet free in details, that usually gets subsumed under the meaningless retrospective coinage 'art deco', and perhaps also of London architects' attempt to create a kind of skyscraper which doesn't create a skyline (let's not get in the way of those views of St Paul's). As a piece of architecture, it is in some sort of perceptible lineage with Hugh Ferriss and the peculiar architectural consequences of the New York building code, linking up the accidental ziggurats of '30s Manhattan with the stepped temples of ancient power – this impression is reinforced by the peculiar figures who flank the clock tower, hat-wearing men, heads bowed and with pointy beards, who seem if anything Assyrian in their appearance. One of the elements in Shell-Mex House that got the press excited at the time was the clock, because it had neither roman numerals or Arabic numbers on. A contemporary cartoon shows two baffled city workers in conversation – 'what time is it?' 'errrm...dash to dash?' The New Adelphi, by Colcutt and Hamp, finished in 1938, is a mish-mash of 1930s cliches, with perceptible influence from the Rationalism of the Mussolini era, something particularly clear in the colonnade to the embankment itself and the dead-eyed, smooth neoclassical figures who form part of the false columns; in the strips of window, the skyscraper styles developed by Raymond Hood and William Van Alen in New York, and in the massive bulk, an attempt to emulate the gigantism of Shell-Mex-House.

The tendency to low, merely tall-ish hulks and the integration of public sculpture seen on the two Victoria Embankment blocks is perhaps indebted to 55 Broadway, Charles Holden's first draft of a distinctively London skyscraper style – situated just across from the 14-storey Queen Anne Mansions mentioned earlier. These offices for London Transport, finished in 1928, are best known for their sculptures, by Henry Moore, Eric Gill and most famously Jacob Epstein, whose work was described by the press in frequently anti-semitic manner as 'asiatic' and 'bestial'. The building itself received relatively little attention, which perhaps indicates its failure as a skyscraper. Nonetheless, it takes the rationalised classical language of inter-war conservatism as far as it can go without breaking up into modernism, both in the formal details – columns abstracted but still perceptible as columns, Georgian windows expanded but not abandoned – and, more interestingly, in the plan, which is an off-centre cross, stepped upwards to a clocktower. While Shell-Mex and the Adelphi seem to partake of the irrationalism of the '30s, with a air of barbarism and domination in their aggressive, hierarchical stylisms, 55 Broadway appears as an example of the expanding bureaucracies of monopoly capitalism, in a rather benign, almost welcoming manner – there is a through-route that goes inside the building, and at its base is a similarly opulent tube station, part of a works programme which was then extending out into Morden in a similar style. If Shell-Mex shows the corporation as an overlord, 55 Broadway depicts it as benevolent watchful uncle.

It was on the strength of 55 Broadway that Holden was hired to design Senate House, the peculiar absence and presence of which is our principal reason for being here. As is so often the case for London towers, the complex was truncated to the point where only a round a quarter of the proposed scheme was built, and earlier images show the way in which, in Rockefeller Centre manner, it becomes an entire city block in and of itself. Senate House is described differently according to politics. For those on the left it looks Fascist, for those on the right it is Stalinist, but for all concerned it is clearly totalitarian. Aside from the resemblance with Albert Speer palpable in the foyers, the tower itself has some similarities with the icy classicism of the Italian Rationalists - but its stepped form is an impeccable example of Manhattanism, as is its congested, multifunctional nature, whether as Ministry of Information, War Office, London University headquarters or, in Michael Radford's 1984 film, a block of apartments for the Inner Party. Senate House is also largely a masonry structure, meaning that the first London building that could be called a skyscraper without it seeming absurd didn't even have a steel frame, as Holden regarded it as an untested technology, and intended the tower to last as long as a thousand-year Reich. Although the tower is now rich with particular historical associations, its cold blast bracing amidst the smugness of Bloomsbury, it was poorly received at the time by Modernist critics, who had entertained hopes that Holden might have been with them.

If Le Corbusier's phrase 'the Cartesian skyscraper' didn't have a quite specific meaning, it would be tempting to ascribe it to Senate House, as it appears as pure and ethereal as any of his glass towers, particularly when its stone catches the winter light. Yet perhaps what is at the heart of the scorn heaped on the tower by modernists like Siegfried Giedion is disappointment, as Holden elsewhere gave tentative sketches of what a Modernist London tower might have looked like. Out of his many tube stations, Southgate has on top of it a collection of far from classical light fittings and baubles, surmounting a circular station, giving an impression of movement rather than eternal solidity. Osterley, meanwhile, has a tower very unlike that of Senate House, a stick of light which he had borrowed lock stock and barrel from a Dutch department store, on top of a brick tower. While all of them, even Osterley, are low-rise, Holden's tube stations, for all their order and vestigial classicism, are suggestive of an entirely new and frankly commercial architectural language, where the glittering lights and machines necessitated by 20th century technologies could potentially become architectural objects themselves, rather than being hidden away in the ducting. If there was a tower which fulfils this potential in the UK it was the 300ft steel tower designed in 1938 for the Glasgow Expo, by Burnet and Tait. This entirely functionless structure was a conjunction of Constructivist devices and angles, a million miles away from the classicism of Bloomsbury, coloured artificially, uninterested in any truth to Portland Stone and Granite. It's nearest to the various fins and advertising protrusions that formed part of many Odeon cinemas in the '30s, here leaving the buildings of which they were a component and becoming a completely independent architectural object. However, the tower was demolished a year later, and the real pointer to what would happen next occurred in north London in 1934 – the actual Constructivist Berthold Lubetkin's block of flats, Highpoint, which in its cruciform plan and its impeccably smooth, hygienically white form had not a hint of delirum about it. It was described by Corbusier himself as the 'vertical garden city', and there are few things further from the vision of apocalyptic super-urbanism displayed by 1930s Manhattan than Hampstead Garden Suburb. This was the first of what would be several Cartesian skyscrapers, which would instead be known as high-rises or towerblocks depending on their level of prestige, that would spread across London after 1945.

There are two unbuilt schemes devised during the war which imply other possibilities, both of which might also be considered somewhat ill-advised. Above is a sketch for what would, finally, be an unambiguous skyscraper, proposed by the Corporation of London for a site near the Guildhall, suggested in 1944 and subsequently forgotten. It seems entirely speculative, and the drawing does not credit an architect, but it is most notable in being a sudden return to the style of the Woolworth Building, contemporary with similar retro-Gothic-futurist plans in Moscow and Warsaw. If any tall building proposed for London has ever really been Stalinist then this is it, but it will have been the privations and distaste for display that characterised the Attlee government that would have prevented it becoming anything other than a fantasy of the Palace of the Soviets-On-Thames. More interesting because more unprecedented, was the proposal at the top of this post for the redesign of Tower Bridge, received by one W Holden, no relation to Charles. What makes it so worthwhile is its total reversal of this postcard image of an English eccentric, passeist sheathing of technology in favour of a Futurist floating fortress. Stripping off all the neo-Gothic ornament, it replaces it with two streamlined glass towers, the most transparent possible statement of the end of empire and the birth out of it of a more confident, less hidebound architectural culture. Even so, a glass bridge was not, in the midst of V2 raids, an easy sell, and so this has been consigned into the category of noble and/or eccentric failures which has been the fate of so many of London's tall buildings.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

'You're a Machine, just like everyone else'

A little while ago, when I was talking up Pandaemonium, the industrial revolution film spectacular, someone recommended I see Andrzej Wajda's 4-hour 1975 film The Promised Land as the nearest equivalent to a filmic representation of the modern world's primal scene - the mass-production of cotton, along with the people who produce and own it and the processes behind it. Well, by courtesy of the invaluable Ms Pyzik I have now seen The Promised Land, and it fulfils practically every one of Pandaemonium's recommendations save for the CGI. The birth of industrial capitalism (in the Polish city of Łódź, at the Tsarist Empire's industrial edge) is not the creation of innovative entrepreneurs marshalling armies of grateful peasants to their new machines - it's an organised chaos, a horror story, and Wajda shoots it with the giddy sweeps and queasy angles of the genre. The general view of the new world is exemplified in the opening sequences, with their montages of smoke-belching chimneys and percussive, metal-on-metal marching music, creating a sense of terrible anticipation.

In the early scenes, the machines - shot with a frankly Dibnahesque fervour - are practically autonomous, rapacious creatures, which literally consume and spit out both those who are tithed to them and, in one scene, those who own them (Evan should be informed that this marks a rare example of explicitly anticapitalist splatter). The workforce, as it always was in Cottonopolis, is female, and Łódź as Promised Land becomes especially satanic as the factory owners round up the pretty factory girls for a circus-like orgy, lit with an infernal red glow - exploitation here exists on multiple levels, linguistic (this is a polyglot film, depicting a world of Russian and Jewish capital, German machines and Polish aristocrats desperate to buy into the dizzyingly profitable new world) and sexual as much as economic; and brief pastoral interludes show woodland streams running red with iron ore. In The Promised Land the capitalists are in every sense the protagonists, and except for a proletariat ex machina ending, they remain the focus, with the workers, the redbrick mills, the clattering, spindly machines and stock market crashes a backdrop. The 'hero' is a droll, charismatic and brutally unromantic aspiring industrialist, who moves through a series of opulent drawing rooms and parties, attempting to raise the capital for his cotton mill.

But with reference to the hypothetical Pandaemonium, it's still notable how rare (and here, localised) Wajda's unflinching take on the industrial revolution actually is. Perhaps it's a matter of the availability of the machines. Wajda is fully aware that at this distance they become a spectacle, and it's incredible to see, filmed in 1975, the entire apparatus of a cotton mill seemingly functioning, the overwhelming scale, noise and complexity, the mingled terror and boredom - but also the question of political/historical angle. I talked to someone about the film who pointed out that because of the (far from pleasant) conditions of the time and place it was made, the industrialists could be depicted as cynical and inhuman, and the process of mechanisation one in which (as one of them snaps, upon sacking someone) 'you're a machine, just like everyone else!' - now, Niall Ferguson or a local equivalent would be on the advisory board and they'd all be loveable buccaneers. The Promised Land, as its title and ending implies, is double-edged, but it depicts the most important event in human history as something both terrifying and irreversible - as it would be, if not necessarily in the same places. So here's what's happening to one of the factories were it was filmed.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Pomposity Exhibition

Like William Blake, JG Ballard is a writer who can mean, by now, anything you want him to mean. Given the capaciousness of the dictionary definition of 'Ballardian', practically any bit of 20th century art can be corralled into it, and this is exactly the effect of the Gagosian's Crash - Homage to JG Ballard, a really very large exhibition currently on in London. It would be fairly pointless to get proprietorial about the great man here, given said vastness; like most people influenced by him, I take only what I like or want - the descriptions of vivid new spaces and architectures, the implosive geometries, the creation of a surreal new language out of bureaucratic and medical verbiage, the abstraction of suburban England into a hypermodern, erotic international zone, the extremely rare serious analysis and confrontation of exurbia - and am less inclined to embrace the evident belief in eternal human verities (particularly with reference to 'woman'), the cthonic roots of war and 20th century irrationality, or the opinions that a working class barely exists and the London congestion charge is totalitarian. Similarly, someone like Iain Sinclair passes as 'Ballardian' despite an antiquarian instinct that represents exactly the traces Ballard would have joyously erased. Nobody, not even John Foxx circa 1980, can be all Ballard all the time. But even granting how easy it is to be just a bit 'Ballardian', some of the choices in this exhibition manage to fall outside of the category.

Jenny Saville? The NYC hipsterism of Basquiat? Paul McCarthy? Council estate photos by Rachel Whiteread and Cyprien Gaillard (the latter of which I like a lot, but could someone please read High-Rise - it's not a novel about council tower blocks)? The paintings of Damien Hirst? The space opera borrowings of Glenn Brown? Some hoovers in a vitrine by Jeff Koons? SF cities by Mike Kelley? The first notable thing about that otherwise inexplicable list is that they're almost all terribly big names, to which can be added the more justifiable Warhol, Dali, Man Ray or Rauschenberg. Regardless, the main point of the whole affair is a sort of proclamation of the Gagosian Gallery, the relatively new Kings' Cross branch of the tax evading art empire - look! We've got simply everyone here! The relevance of each individual work tended to fall by the wayside. So there's a gap between the obvious (Helmut Newton, 30s surrealists, some cars; a 'book' by Jake and Dinos Chapman called Bangwallop where they adopt Crash as their own, giving it a new cover and assembling a text out of various fragments interrupted by typographical errata - as ever, it's less funny the second time) and the simply irrelevant. Into this gap falls some fascinating work, mainly either by those Ballard was influenced by or by his contemporaries - the still jarring, obsessive English pop of Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton. The pieces by younger artists, when they genuinely do seem an engagement with or correspondent to Ballard, fall comparatively flat. Some sex, some violence, some technology, hopefully if not always all happening at once - but so studious, so ponderous, lacking the malevolent wit of the author and his contemporaries.

Given the exhibition of atrocity films that provides the ostensible pretext for Ballard's finest novel, and the constant preoccupation with the speedy normalisation of anything remotely shocking which runs through his work, I was amused to find, among the painfully thin wandering through the white rooms looking at these (unlabelled) artworks, someone who had on his arm a little blond boy. You expect the yummy mummies at Tate Modern (the 'middle class disco', as Ballard once called it), but to see a child and his father pottering unperturbed around exhibits like Hans Bellmer's Story of the Eye illustrations was impressive evidence of the death of affect, evidence that the idea that this is anything more alarming than Alma-Tadema is now outmoded. What is interesting, though is a hypothetical comparison of this to, say, a hypothetical season of Ballardian film or TV, which would be tremendous - or even more so, the prospect of a compilation of all the records influenced by JGB. How much more dramatic, convulsive and exciting than these pallid rooms. Contemporary art can appear horribly bloodless and elitist by comparison with these genuinely 20th century artforms, and the most Ballardian thing about the Gagosian Crash is its clinical, medical nature - a shifting group of affluent people perambulating around an entirely sterile space. Even then, it's all too metropolitan. It'd be so much more appropriate in the Heathrow Hilton, Shepperton, a business park somewhere on the edges of the M25...

Monday, March 01, 2010

Gentlemen vs Professionals

I will be speaking at this year's Radical Forum at Wadham College, Oxford, at 3pm on Sunday, mostly reading from the Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain - Nina Power, Richard Seymour and the one known as Rouge's Foam will also be speaking from the, ah, 'Blog Left'. Programme here, with an amusingly inaccurate job description.

Stunning Developments on Misery Hill

Here's me on Dublin's Docklands in BD, a sort of frustrated sequel to Urban Trawl, where you can clearly see I needed another 1000 words and some of Joel's photos. As it is, you'll have to make do with the photos below, by me, and some more scattered observations. I was invited as part of Re:Public, a season at Temple Bar Gallery and Studios, my big-up to which was cut from the column. I'm happy to rectify that here - it's an excellent, thoughtful series of events and exhibition with the general theme 'can anything happen in public again?', in the context of one of Europe's most enthusiastically neoliberal countries. The Dublin chairman of Sinn Fein was in the audience to see me rambling on about pseudomodernism, privatisation and other such things - although I'm unsure what they want to happen in public again.

1. Oi, Cowen!

This was my first visit to the Irish Republic, and my first impression of its capital was rather unexpected. The airport is chaotic, a mess of Brutalist, pseudomodern and moderne buildings, some unfinished and some practically derelict. The bus I took from there goes through an extremely long tunnel and has piped advertisements and music, although it was a normal bus rather than some sort of tourist-issue shuttle. Then, it emerged at the port of Dublin, which is principal among the inadvertently strange and thrilling spaces of post-Tiger Economy city. There's a container port, and something I've never seen - a whole load of new housing and offices (in a vaguely germanic, cold mock-modern style) built around it, as if this mechanical spectacle might be worth seeing, rather than being hidden away and ignored. However, I suspect that the frantic land speculation that preceded the crash, rather than an unusual interest in the aesthetics of automation were the reasons behind this. Dublin will build anywhere and everywhere - it's a city the size of Berlin, with around one-third of its population.

The bus dropped me off in O'Connell Street, the gapingly wide granite boulevard that is the most capital-like place in the Irish capital, enlivened by an enormous Millennium spike at one end, a curious move in this very low-rise city. The Liffey looks almost like a Canal, a man-made thing, thin and extremely straight, so that even in the preserved, Georgian centre you can see the power station and the container cranes in the not-too-far-distance, while in Liverpool or London the extant ports are hidden away by the curves of the Mersey and the Thames (and in the latter case by extreme distance).

I decided to have a wander around the back end of the area where I was staying, in order to see if the collapse had any effect on what, along the Liffey, still seems a rather calm city, bar perhaps the stag parties on Temple Bar. The fact that there were things both right and wrong in planning here was announced by the transformation and hi-technification of a church into The Church, and by the fact that, even in a winter less horrendously cold than England's, it was emphatically not summer.

The first sign that something was awry, that government held the citizenry in low esteem, was the horrendously obnoxious posters on the bins. This was implicitly countered by the sharp minimalism of the first political posters I see here, of several.

'NAMA', the package which various governmental and banking worthies are applauding here, is the National Asset Management Agency, an entity created to administer the various failed banks of Ireland (including AIB, whose balloons can also be seen here). In the BD piece I got my facts slightly wrong - AIB might have got 7 billion from the state, but NAMA amounts to a 77 billion Euro bailout. Meanwhile, everything else - social services, pensions, etc - is being cut back ruthlessly. It is faintly amazing that, in these places where the rich have received massive state largesse and the poor been screwed in such a blatant manner, all-out insurrection has not yet occurred. These posters suggest that some are severely pissed off, however, and the first two manage to be pissed off without recourse to the clichés which form part of every political flyposter in England:

Ireland voted against the Lisbon treaty the first time, then after the crash, was given much the same thing to vote for, and did so. The following one is more the usual fare:

These were plastered on the walls outside of a dull, vernacularish council estate, whose dilapidation contrasted instructively with the decidedly spruce nature of the unfinished dromes. Someone seems to be living in this one, underneath the crane.

The main bulk of what I saw in Dublin was via a walk, organised as part of Re:Public, called 'Boom or Bust, an Alternative DIY Tour', organised by Aisling O'Beirn, through the spaces of banking and riverside regeneration. Some of these spaces were old, ageing institutions which had failed to provide the regulation for which they were instituted. Architecturally, they range from the early 18th century classicism of the original Bank of Ireland to the '70s almost-Brutalism of Sam Stephenson's Central Bank of Ireland - which has a hint of the El Lissitzky cloud-iron about it, the whole thing suspended from the top, leaving a wide, open and usually gated space underneath.

These are positive shrinking violets compared to the architecture of the Tiger Economy, which is brash in the extreme, with none of the recent Fosterian ethereality in evidence - the International Financial Services Centre is especially gobsmacking in its crassness. Finance capital here was clearly not interested in being subtle about its presence and dominance.

Across from it are two fragments of pre-pseudomodernism. Ie, buildings for public functions, intelligently designed in an original manner, without retro gesture or expressionistic ego. Both replaced their transparent, ethereal glazing with hard mirrorglass after bomb attacks in the 1970s. One of them, Busaras, the central bus station, is the finest 20th century building I saw in Dublin by some measure. Nominally the architect was Michael Scott, the Modern Movement's Irish emissary, but it's generally accepted that the main designer was one Wilfrid Cantwell, and the team included Kevin Roche, soon to cross the Atlantic to work with Eero Saarinen, whose practice he would then inherit. We will encounter him again presently. What Cantwell did here is analogous to Tecton in London, or the Royal Festival Hall - Modernism gone festive, full of mosaic patterns, lush materials and an interplay of the wilful and joyous with the strict and rectilinear. It's a wonderful building.

The trade union offices at Liberty Hall, with its decorative canopies, are the other example of your actual Modernism here. Slated for demolition pre-crash, it faces a memorial to James Connolly. At dinner the following night an Irish leftist retrospectively castigated Connolly for ever getting involved in the Republican uprising of 1916, claiming that it crippled Irish socialism, and enshrined the sectarianism and graft that still holds the Island in its grip. I can't comment on that, but certainly the Dublin of today is not the capital of the Socialist Republic Connolly had in mind. His memorial is crossed by the Loopline railway bridge, almost Lutyensesque in its use of weird, pavilion-like classical pillars to support the steel rails. Damned hard to photograph, however...

2. Along the Linear Liffey

These are mere fripperies. The meat of the walk was along the south of the Liffey, towards the Docklands, where a new linear city is taking shape. This is punctuated with spaces which were nominally public, but spectacularly cold and inhospitable. Nothing seemed to be occupied, anywhere, and much of it seemed half-way under construction - as in this plaza. These spaces might be a failure in any rational terms, but their quietness and eeriness becomes increasingly surreal, empty spaces that create a richly filled time.

These corporate spaces are still pockmarked by industry, which in the context resembles a series of scattered ornaments, accidental or otherwise, creating a landscape which gets ever stranger the closer you get to the centre of it, the piecemeal realisation of the erasure creating a more tight, urban equivalent the weirdness of the Royal Docks in London, a place where, unlike Canary Wharf, it hasn't all quite worked, it didn't all stick, and this sense of failure creates a concomitant sense of - almost - possibility. Not that schadenfreude is entirely absent from the proceedings. Oi, Calatrava!

This surrealism only intensifies when you reach the bit of PUBLIC REALM where the Dublin Docklands Development Agency has decided to be a bit ambitious. Aisling O'Beirn was especially keen for us to see this square on Cardiff Lane. She wasn't sure how much of the place was accidental. Its boundary is a poem of some description, inscribed on a snaking, low wooden fence, with lighting that has been torn apart at various points, which means that the promised 'butterflies in your tummy' may in fact be volts in your nervous system. They enclose a sandpit, climbing frames, palm trees and a Victorian factory chimney. All the office blocks around seem to be either empty or unfinished, or both.

This is a mere bit of mentalism tucked away where nobody is looking, and the shiny showpiece is further on, where a regeneration trinity of Calatrava-Schwartz-Libeskind have created something much like the thing they have created everywhere else. Martha Schwartz's square, with its lights and public art is the most original, but Libeskind, oh my. Here he designed two office blocks flanking a theatre. The offices are basic curtain walls given completely arbitrary slicing and dicing for no reason other than to remind you that It's Danny, and the theatre sits at the centre, its crushed polygons only as deep as the atrium. It's probably about war, independence and stuff, especially given that De Valera once hid in the silos over the river, or something.

Libeskind was also recently at work in Belfast, and I'm amazed the peace process has managed to do so well without him until now. Then there's the Manuel Aires Mateus hotel, which the architects on the walk were lamenting - 'the detailing would never be this bad in Portugal'. A sign reminds us that were are, after all, round the corner from Misery Hill. In the offices of the DDDA, the models still show the U2 Tower, a shelved Foster scheme where the Great Satan itself would rehearse and not pay its taxes on the top floor. In a way, the sheer internationalism of the scheme is admirable, the fact that it could be built anywhere, up the road from Temple Bar's men dressed as leprechauns. They've gone for big names, and why not? It's a capital city. The problem is that said big names are clearly not especially interested in or attached to Dublin, and it shows especially in Calatrava and Libeskind's tossed-off efforts. But that would imply that (here, ex-) locals could do something better...

The other side of the river, reached by the Samuel Beckett bridge (oh yes. Perhaps if he'd known, he'd have stayed in Dublin for longer?), is dominated by Kevin Roche's homecoming building, the Convention Centre. I'm left almost unable to express myself at this point. My critical faculties fail me. Just look at it. Go on.

Moving as swiftly on as possible, to the Dead Mall that was recycled out of the Custom House Quay Building, one of the quietest and airiest of these failed spaces. The propaganda that marks the point where a 'unit' could be or might once have been has a particular streak of desperation. And aren't you pleased the CCTV cameras are contextual?

For all this, on my brief acquaintance Dublin doesn't feel nearly as downcast, as confused and fucked-up as English cities do now. It seems people know full well who is responsible for the crisis, and having had their budgets balanced so assiduously are all the more livid because of it. At least the wit of its flyposters is encouraging.