Friday, July 30, 2010
I'm currently recovering from surgery, something which I undergo rather often, for complications related to this. Due to a combination of luck and whorish lack of principle I now have a 'job' - freelance writing - which I can organise around frequent hospital visits or bouts of illness, but it could easily have been otherwise. For a time, during a particularly nasty period of Crohn's, I got myself on Income Support (not Incapacity Benefit, having not paid enough in National Insurance, but in both cases a Doctor's Note was needed), as opposed to Jobseekers Allowance, which I was previously intermittently claiming, for the main reason that 'JSA' requires you to be available and ready for work at all times, which is a little tricky when one is sometimes bedridden. Although I had to be seen anew by a GP every few months to get another Doctor's Note, NHS staff are all bleeding hearts, as we know, so the DWP employ their own physicians. I remember the bizarre series of questions I was asked by the 'dole doctor' I was sent to in Lisson Grove, all of which seemed designed to ascertain whether I was unhappy rather than whether I had an incurable auto-immune disease, which I naively thought was the principal issue. Do you watch a lot of television? No. Do you walk? Yes. Soon enough I was back queueing up for JSA, then after a thankfully brief spell working from home, writing up transcripts of focus groups on piece rates, I ended up just about able to pay the rent from writing. If it hadn't been for the latter, I could very easily have faced being thrown off benefits due to frequently being unable to work, and hence left without income. This, by the way, was my experience under a system the current government considers excessively lenient.
This is as a preamble to a few links on work, illness and non-work, necessitated by the current government's impressively Shock Doctrine-following determination to use the financial crisis as a pretext for dismantling the remains of the Welfare State. A terrific, unnerving New Left Project piece on the government's attacks on the Undeserving Disabled; Third Class on a One-Class Train on Fairy Jobmother (a programme which I've managed to avoid, mercifully for my recovery); and a sane, sharp piece by Nina Power on the right to not work (with a thoughtful response from the Tomb). The coalition may be managing to convince people that 'scroungers' rather than the astonishing levels of public welfare for financial institutions are the main cause of the crisis - although how people can be so utterly stupid as to be fooled by such a transparent sleight of hand is beyond me - which makes these arguments all the more important.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
'A spectre is haunting Europe...the spectre of the Tricorn – a symbol of demotic resistance that contradicts the role it was assigned. The concept of 'functionality' is negated in it, and the currents of militarism and consumerism that suffocate Portsmouth, its civic life. The Tricorn is a machine for revolution, it negates bourgeois culture. It puts people off shopping. Join Proles for Modernism in their defence of this matrix of working class vision.'
More lamentations, this time on Owen Luder and Rodney Gordon. Before/after via...
Monday, July 19, 2010
You've never seen anything like it
On the listing of Central Milton Keynes in the Guardian (scroll down - and I should point out 'concrete monstrosities' was originally in scare-quotes). Via another forum, Robin Carmody put the whole thing in pithier and more historical terms, and I quote:
MK came to be perceived as a quintessential Thatcherite town, it was as if you had to hate it if you hated Thatcherism and vice versa (vide Style Council "mine is the semi with the Union Jack on" &c) which was a real travesty of the town's original ideas. No other settlement in the history of the UK, probably, has become so identified with a set of values wholly antithetical to those on which it was founded, right down to the way it ended up symbolising the Americanisation/franchising of English football. And that, no doubt, is the reason why the people who run the place don't want to admit that this stuff is of value: they've built their reputation post-82 as a neoliberal epicentre of short-term, franchised capitalism with a garnish of fake heritage kitsch, and they can't stand being reminded that the town was ever supposed to be anything else.
Friday, July 16, 2010
The following is a spiked book review from a while ago which this reminded me about. There'll be a long thing on Hadid, Parametricism and such sometime in the autumn, but the basic argument is below, so waste not want not...
That the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, was completed mere weeks after Dubai's defaults nearly caused a second financial crisis, was towering proof of the Skyscraper Index. This practically failsafe crash-predicting mechanism posits that the tallest building in the world is either erected as boom turns to bust, or finished during a recession. Showing the Emirate's usual keen sense of apocalyptic irony, a supertall residential skyscraper, designed by Switzerland-based tax exile Lord Foster actually called 'The Index', was recently finished in Dubai. Yet these built embodiments of the 2000s' financial hysteria, with their lack of visible means of support, their headiness, weightlessness and essential absurdity, were only the tip of a Titanic-crashing Iceberg of architectural fantasy, something handily and handsomely collected in Will Jones' Unbuilt Masterworks of the 21st Century, a compendium of projects so outrageous that neither Shenzhen oligarch or Ozymandian Sheikh would dare commission them.
Such are the places for which these buildings are proposed. Jones notes that these kind of structures are seldom suggested for London, as it is 'strangled by political and heritage organisations', which is an interesting euphemism for 'retains some vestiges of representative democracy'. The first project here, the Arabian Performance Venue by the Anglo-Cantonese firm Aedas (responsible for some astoundingly bland towers in Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester) is typical of these unbuilt masterworks – 'occupying its own island in the middle of a nature reserve' (artificial islands are a persistent feature here), it is a series of glass tendrils crawling, triffid-like, from a platform on stilts, with the desert sun giving the glazing a golden sheen. It's lurid, apocalyptic, ludicrous. The Island fixation has a fairly clear unconscious motivation – easily defended against intruders – and even Britain has its own unbuilt island settlement in the book, financially embarrassed property developers Urban Splash's Birnbeck Island. Jones writes of the various mechanical features in the latter that 'it appears to 'work'', and this is another recurring feature – buildings that seem to be in motion, that seem to do things, which seem to be machines – or lifeforms – in themselves, although this is usually a matter of appearance than reality.
That's because these are mostly serious proposals, which the architects in question claimed were actually buildable, so these fantasies are circumscribed both by viability and by politics, Here too are glorifications of despotisms that are frequently comic in their sycophancy – take the proposals for a 'Sheikh Zayed Museum', which promises to 'symbolise the centrality of knowledge and ideas and the life and role of Sheikh Zayed'. The indentured helots that would have constructed these edifices (and did construct their more prosaic built cousins) naturally get no such monument. These Unbuilt Masterworks also mark an apotheosis of the architect-as-artist – painterly, indebted to expressionism more than rectilinear Modernism (albeit with little to 'express'), and with function clearly a second or third thought after the biomorphic, writhing form. A fine case in point is Erick van Egeraat's 'Moscow Avant-Garde Towers' – shrill, attention-seeking blocks based on 1920s Constructivist paintings, in a city where actual 1920s Constructivist buildings are left to rot. They require an attention span to be appreciated, and don't contain sufficient lettable floorspace.
As you read the book, glazed-eyed, horrified wonder rapidly turns to boredom, as curvaceous museum interminably follows plant-like skyscraper. Actual ideas are extremely thin on the ground – the only truly memorable non-building is Office for Metropolitan Architecture's 'Hyperbuilding' for Bangkok, a chaotic tower which tries to alleviate congestion by becoming congestion, a bristling embodiment of 'a city on the edge of the tolerable'. It's an exception in its genuinely shocking solution. As a whole, Unbuilt Masterworks is one of the most damning indictments of the last decade – even its fantasies were banal.
The whole city is your jewellery box
Two newer things which have no connection other than mentions of Sheffield and self-made architectures. There's a BD column on the perniciousness of Reference and Vernacular; and I also have the Epiphanies page in this month's Wire (ie the one with Chris Watson on the cover) on a subject that will be fairly unsurprising to lots of those reading this. Warning: prose 'overripe' (which reminds me, I am planning to finish this, but not in blog form. More details to ensue, eventually).
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Things other than annotated photos: in this month's Icon I have a review of Pevsner's Visual Planning and the Picturesque along with a Stephen Bayley/RIBA puff-book on New Regenerating Liverpool - and two recentish things for them which are now online are reviews of Chris Petit's Content and Nottingham Contemporary's Star City show. In the current Cabinet, meanwhile, I can be found surveying the Labour council murals of 1980s London, with fabulous photos by I.T (there's an unused one above); and there's also an interview with me in the current 'streets' issue of excellent German-English periodical Hard Times.
Monday, July 12, 2010
The reason why I was in Maastricht (see below) was for a conference on Yugoslavian Black Wave film, and coincidentally I had to be in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia later in the week, specifically in Ljubljana, for a different conference. As this blog is now a peripatetic architectural study of the Problem of Europe, I am minded to say some things about it here. Yugoslavia is something which people on the far left tend to think about less than they should. Trots like to imagine what might have happened if Imre Nagy or Dubcek had managed to prevail against the Soviets, without really considering that it might have looked distinctly like Titoism, with its anti-Stalinist Stalinism, its far more interesting experiment with Workers' Self-Management, and its demise, to be replaced with a particularly bloody revanchism.
What was interesting in Surfing the Black was that, in the Black Wave, all Yugoslavia's contradictions were fully on show, in films which often seemed more like pre-emptive critiques of neoliberalism than of Stalinism, where those who fall through the safety net make their way through a society with consumerist substance and communist rhetoric. I might put my paper on the subject up at some point, but first of all, the place in Ljubljana which seems to embody these tensions most fully.
This post is about a square called Revolution Square, designed and planned on a site formerly occupied by a convent, by a team led by Edvard Ravnikar from 1960 to the early 80s, renamed Republic Square in 1991 on Slovenian independence. You first get a sign of its rather extraordinary architecture from the '30s boulevard next to it, where the Ayn Rand moderne and Mendelsohnisms built under the preceding right-wing dictatorship (and worth another post in themselves) are ruptured by a mammoth Brutalist housing block, an asymmetric ziggurat with prickly, detailed brickwork, cantilevered balconies and what looks like vaguely medieval turrets, all with appropriately Babylonian hanging gardens spilling from them.
Part of it, by being so ornamental, with its hints of Amsterdam School or a rough, proletarian art nouveau, seems to prefigure some of the less annoying elements of postmodernism - but whoever designed the hat that sits on one of its wings was more literal.
The stepped brick structure that faces the main road becomes something straighter as it turns towards the square, where it aggressively confronts some '30s luxury moderne.
Ravnikar was a former student of Joze Plecnik, the most/only famous Slovenian architect, one of those few 20th century classicists who managed to create something genuinely new, creating a fragmented, dreamlike neoclassicism of randomly arranged stone, columns whose rustication runs out half-way-up, sheathing extraordinarily atmospheric interiors. His pupil went off to work for Le Corbusier before returning to Socialist Yugoslavia, but after some early essays in Plecnik imitation, his work here seems to have little obvious allegiance to either of his tutors. It has no Corbusian truth to materials, no classical references, however elliptical. If anything, the references sometimes seem British, with combination of verdigris, brick and brutalism that evokes good old Basil Spence, and planning which suggests the Barbican, though the vocabulary is more original than both.
As a showpiece for the Yugoslav Socialist Federal Republic of Slovenia, it combines several different functions, all of them seemingly conflicting. There are two tall office blocks, the tallest in Slovenia, one of which used to be known as Iskra; they are clad in metal, with a triangular footprint, with upper stories in copper; there's an art gallery, a conference venue, a concert hall (Pat Metheny gurns out from the posters), a shopping mall, restaurants, various monuments and an (earlier) Parliament building, most of this on multiple levels.
Time has been a mixed blessing to the place, aside from the renaming - while the shrubs and creepers are perfect compliments to the Brutalism, the purple holiday village gating is less so.
If there is something particularly Corbusian here, it's the sense of the architectural promenade, the cinematic feeling of movement between several levels, the changes of mood and material that develop alongside, from the wide open space of the plaza (converted, against the architect's wishes, to a carpark, although a pleasingly empty one) to the enclosed, shadowy underground restaurants, to the subterranean mall itself.
The Mall is especially beautiful, on two levels, both completely underground and in the semi-underground carved into the square, a futuristic space that is recognisably part of the whole through the angular concrete pillars that are repeated throughout. In the supermarket - an exceptionally well-stocked place, with about as much health food and gluten-free produce as anywhere in Islington - at one point, the lettering advertising one out-of-the-way foodstuff is aligned to the contours of one of the concrete columns. It accommodates very well the paraphernalia of high-end 21st century commerce, only the quality of the design and the materials and the subtlety of the lighting giving away its heritage in an earlier era.
This is apt enough, as Ljubljana was always one of the most affluent parts of the Federal Republic, as it remains - a calm, quiet and, in the centre at least, clearly moneyed city. To understand Slavoj Zizek's spluttering, demonstrative persona, it's instructive to see how buttoned-up, neat and Mitteleuropean his hometown is. There's even only slight hints of the giant advert disease that has taken over most post-socialist capitals.
The other part of Revolution Square, and the element that precedes Ravnikar's design, is the Parliament, of the component Republic of the new Socialist federation, planned from the '40s on and finished in 1960. Plecnik had his own ideas about what this should look like, and his proposal entailed the demolition of the city's historic castle, and its replacement with a 'Cathedral of Freedom' rising to a Babylonian point. This being a bit too mental, the end result is in the most sober, tasteful modernism of the era, a building clad in unimpeachable stone with a rigorous grid, while the turbulence of revolution is limited to the outrageous vitalist outbreak around the portal.
The symbolic figures, carved by Karel Putrih and Zdenko Kalin, are literally bulging out of the grid, a series of naked men, women and children involved in labour of various kinds, all of them heavily stylised, and all of them verging on a peculiar socialist-realist eroticism - they're less upright than the norm, the men lighter and more feminine, the women with extraordinarily wide hips and voluptuous proportions. It says the same things as any of the other socialist realist monuments, while stirring the parts others do not reach. The actual entrance is boarded up.
The beaming, contented look while holding unsubtly symbolic fruit is a particular favourite.
This skinny youth is prancing about above the names of the sculptors...
Two other monuments occupy Revolution Square, both sculpted by Drago Trsar. One is a monument to Edvard Kardelj, the apparent theoretician of workers' self-management, who died in 1979. The monument appears as a parade of Giacometti bureaucrats, becoming ever more abstract and depersonalised the further they fan out from the central bespectacled figure, yet all striding vaguely towards the plaza pedestrian.
The other is something more extraordinary. Yugoslavia had various memorial complexes - Spomenik - erected from the '50s to the 80s in an abstract, frequently architectural idiom, which have turned up lately in parodic form in all kinds of Ostalgie art (I've seen one series of them remodelled in brightly-coloured perspex) in various camp attempts to exorcise their profound emotional and physical charge. This much smaller Spomenik is a Revolution Spomenik, and fuses almost imperceptible figures into a bursting, bristling collective object.
Wednesday, July 07, 2010
I'm not a Eurosceptic, I'm a recovering Euro-optimistic. Partly, although the idea of a European Superstate is quite appealing, this was for entirely parochial reasons. In Sweden, joining the Euro would have been a shift to the right, here it would have been a sharp turn leftwards; if in Poland or Croatia the Welfare State must receive the neoliberal scalpel as a condition of EU membership, here the main objection to the Maastricht Treaty was the 'social chapter', which would have enshrined in law some minor continuation of the post-war consensus. Obviously I'm aware that it was only ever an exclusive, fortified enclave, but I wanted to swallow the lie of Europe, at least in principle. Now, as Greece is picked apart by the northern parts of the EU, it's more difficult than ever to imagine European Unity as something other than the Washington consensus with nicer architecture. Even so, it was pleasing to spend a particularly virulent outbreak of post-colonial melancholia in Maastricht itself, the birthplace of the European Union.
Maastricht is what Daily Mail readers who have never been to Brussels probably think it's like - unbelievably clean and neat, austere even when slathered in chocolate box ornament, dominated by bureaucratic buildings where our vegetables are malevolently measured. Brussels is not this, it is architecturally and otherwise a riotously exciting place; Maastricht is this. Lots of it looks like the picture below, dense, heavily urban but so obsessively preserved it's impossible to glean much pleasure from it:
...but for the purposes of this post it is the district planned in the 1990s, at the same time as the signing-in of the Euro and the signing of the Maastricht treaty, that will be receiving attention. This is an area called the Ceramique, built on the site of a large Ceramics factory complex. It is EUtopia.
The vast square is known as Plein 1992, to celebrate the year of the Maastricht Treaty's inception. It's wholly in the fine tradition of gigantic windswept plazas far too large for any conceivable function; and, in blistering heat, it certainly didn't offer much in the way of shade -instead its purpose is to be contemplated. I did this for some time.
Although the tower block is by Alvaro Siza, most of the Ceramique was designed and masterplanned by Jo Coenen. His architecture here is an example, perhaps, of what the PFI psuedomodernism of the Blairite era thought it was doing - a modern architecture that was essentially conservative, without any of the aggressive features - concrete, angularity, dissonance - that it had once had, but with all the things PFI architecture couldn't be bothered with, like detailing and fine materials. Its actually a very well-used square, but sheer size manages to make it desolate regardless.
Even some slight Alsopisms manage to come across as neat and sober.
Most of this I don't so much like as admire, for its refusal to be ingratiating; but there is one part of this complex that is actually quite exciting in its minimalism. It has something of the cold intensity of Ludwig Hilberseimer, 'softened' by a public park on the riverside.
This is an immensely long housing complex along the Meuse designed by Luigi Snozzi, and it's fun to imagine the planning meeting if such a thing were to be proposed in the UK. 'What, you mean it's just clad in brick? With no bits of wood attached? No bright colours? No wavy roofs? What will people think?' There's nothing to break up the length, but the redbrick and the vegetation all around make it feel decidedly more humane a place than all the riverside Blairboxes.
This is the sort of thing I want from the EU, and it is, I imagine, what eg Robin Carmody means when he writes about the idea of a Europe that is everything neoliberal Britain is not. Internationalism, Rationalism, Sachlichkeit - straightforward, but decent in its lack of romanticism or pizazz. Boring in the best possible sense - boring because 'interesting' was decidedly complicated and unpleasant in this part of the world. I would gladly live here.
Oddly, though, many of the buildings around make quite similar gestures and use similar materials, but are never as convincing - mainly because they try and make something monumental, something which is like the old buildings only without all the ornament, gables, frippery and whatnot. Like the somewhat domineering Mario Botta buildings above...
This post concludes with an attempt to puzzle out Aldo Rossi, again - fittingly enough, as he obviously decided at some point to take the veritable weight of Europe on his architectural shoulders, to embody its history in all its complexity rather than efface it, as does the sachlich EU-architecture of the Plein 1992 - rather than an optimistic wiping the slate clean, a representation and montage with that which went before. Sometimes, the result is just a mess. But there's always something else going on other than mere pomo jollity, though it never quite seems to convince, except at the level of occasionally fascinatingly strange objects. The Bonnefanten Museum, at the heart of this Euroland tabula rasa, has both of Rossi's impulses.
First of all, it totally refuses the prevailing mild-modernism, has other games to play. On the one hand there's the use of various odd little readymades or domestic objects made architectural; the toy flags above, for instance, or the Mario Bros pipes which run up the cupola. This is itself quite impressively strange, monumental without being obvious; a striking urban thing, whose actual function seems opaque. But there's something else in Rossi, something much less interesting, where he veers towards the boredom of 'vernacular', which eventually resembles High Art Asda. The service areas of the Bonnefanten Museum, for instance...
And the entrance, where the two sides seem to be brought together - the meditative intensity of De Chirico, the contextual cowardice of an Asda...and curiously, given that Rossi's evident intention was to create a 'locus', an urban centre of montage and movement, it's the long, minimal and uncomplicated housing block which actually features some human activity, some life. This is as cold and empty as the Stalinist architecture Rossi loved (though it lacks its madness), and like it, it has the arguable virtues of kitsch. If there's hope in this EUtopia, it lies round the corner, effacing the traces.