Monday, 9 December 2013

Oakshott Court

The area behind the railway stations of King's Cross, St Pancras and Euston has been built up and destroyed a great many times since it was first properly built upon in the early 19th century. In the last few years, the area behind King's Cross, at one point a mass of goods yards, canals, factory buildings and other industrial detritus, has been receiving a high-speed makeover. Central St Martins have already relocated to a huge converted granary building, an odd but compelling mix of art factory and slick modern fit-out, and the area between is being built on rapidly. Blocks of new yuppie flats with a welcome dash of inter-war New York detailing look over a series of huge education and media buildings. The Francis Crick institute, architecturally remarkable only for its size, is having its skin attached as I write, and Google are currently revising plans for an absolutely gargantuan office block as well.

Behind Euston still feels quite neglected; it's quiet, not much 'active frontage' here, and the shops that are there are not upmarket - caffs, old fashioned newsagents, etc. But there are some surprising architectural moments that are worth looking at, one of which I visited a few days ago, in a break from reading 1970s eco-apocalypse books in the British Library around the corner.

But first, a quick glance at the Sidney Street Estate; a flash of European modernity dropped into London in the early 1930s, most highly influenced by the flats of 'Red Vienna'. Large courtyards accommodating community facilities are now securely gated off, blocked to outsiders.

But the main destination, yet again, is a Sidney Cook estate for Camden Council from the 1970s. Around the side of the Cock Tavern were a number of grey haired Irishmen, out for a cigarette break from their lunchtime pints. The price of alcohol, always a notable nightmare in London, has become ludicrous recently; it seems to be debated whether this is a major cause of the decline in pubs across the UK, but in this period of general decline it is becoming harder and harder to enjoy a pint which leaves you with pennies back from a fiver (speaking of which, for some reason I still remember a scene from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, c.1980 wherein a character buys eight pints and peanuts, telling the barman to keep the change. "From a fiver?" he splutters; "thank you very much!!!" - even adjusting for inflation prices have still more than doubled...)

Anyway... the site is angled slightly off-cardinal, perhaps 30 degrees. The north-north-west and east-north-east sides of Oakshott court are presented as long, fairly blank, and small windowed. Doors open at the ground floor, and the upper floors cantilever over, in an obvious sign of the stepped-section so beloved of Camden Brutalists, which first appears in a Walter Gropius design of 1928 for a 'Wohnberg'; a 'residential-mountain', before appearing here and there in Corbu and others, before becoming a mainstay of Team X and their affiliates.

Meditation centres are D1 use class, apparently. Get yourself a Biglife.

The Pevsner guide to North London claims that Oakshott Court has 'forbiddingly overbearing rear parts.' I disagree; I find their sturdy regularity to be restrained and rhythmical. Unfortunately, it has to be admitted that the Pevsner guides from the last two decades are pretty poor when it comes to recognising the architectural merit of modernist housing. For every system-built block whose horrors they correctly bemoan, they also indulge in quite scattershot anti-modernist slanders; 'inhumane' etc etc. It's not bad scholarship, it's just a sign of how completely the critical landscape had changed by the 80s and into the 90s. Now, thanks to exhibitions, books, and a new generation of critics, as well as the panacea of sufficient historical distance, not to mention the deterioration of housing politics in this country, we are far better able to point out the merits of architecture like this, and hopefully in future editions of the guide we will see this rectified.

 Oh hello...

What's this? Not something I've seen before on a Camden Estate, this odd drum form. It derives from a kind of Mendellsohn-ish modernism, perhaps even Art Deco, but also might be a reference to some Constructivist and Futurist examples of the idea. I hate to use the word but this is a most definitely 'dynamic' form. It's interesting because it only seems to serve the flats directly connected to it, which would seem to betray its prominence, but then we might see it as an outward gesture as well, providing a satisfyingly proud hinge around which the facades can bend.

In fact it's really rather odd that the rear facades would be described as 'forbidding', considering how in keeping they are with the existing buildings on the other side of the road; London County Council flats built 50 years before Oakshott Court. There are clear formal parallels in the linearity, the regularity, the simple grid broken only by horizontal bands and vertical pipework.

The facades terminate blankly, although this blankness actually works to convey the sectional conceit, almost as a diagram.

Spot the estate map; as so often, it functions as a basic diagram of the architectural conceit.

From the southerly corner of the complex, it all begins to make sense. The tower that hinged the two facades together at the outside is clearly the most prominent point from the other direction; from it, two wings of stepped section flats stretch out across the site, with a green space completing the square plot.

The first row of flats are sunk into the ground about 3m or so. They are maisonettes; entered from the upper level and then with a small garden to the front.

Various walkways wrap around the L-shaped block; this is at ground level, and provides entrance into the lower maisonettes (with their little plant boxes) and the lower level of the next set of flats above.

It was one of those autumn days; sharply cold, partially clouded; where the light can change from a dusty grey, shadowless and plain, to boldly shadowed, where everything is picked out in either a wan gold or a pale blue, depending on whether the low sun is occluded or not.

Communal facilities; a bench, wrapped around some planting. Who knows; perhaps in summer elderly residents park themselves here as their dogs run around the green spaces, perhaps teenagers sit around getting stoned, or perhaps, like this day, in the stingingly dry cold, it sits empty at all times.

Running up the diagonal are a series of steps which take you between the different deck-access levels. As a passed this point, I jumped as there was a young man (wearing a work uniform I might add) sitting on the steps to the right, supping on a lunchtime can of strong lager. Startled, I carried on upwards, using the other staircase. Not exactly an ideal sense of public space and safety.

You can see here that the flats have clerestory windows in the roof above them, bringing light into the deeper, more northerly spaces in each flat. At a very simple level, it's little touches like this which elevate the work Cook's Camden above other housing architecture; attempts to bring in architectural features which would genuinely improve the experience of living in a not particularly large property. That this all occurred in the aftermath of the oil crisis, amid a context of collapsing contractors and sky-ward construction costs is not the damnation some think it is.

The flats with ground level entrance are the friendliest on the site; they are the ones whose inhabitants have spent the most effort on cultivating their small private gardens, they are the ones where the buildings feel at their smallest. There is something very intimate about the scale at this point, even without masking its communality.

It seems that Mary Wollstonecraft once lived in a building on this site; although its unlikely that she lived in the Somers Town Goods Yard, which Pevsner tells us sat on the site before Oakshott Court; just yet more shifting uses around the peripheral railway lands of the 19th century.

The increased scale and stepping up towards the back of the building allows not only for the larger blocks to receive daylight, but also for the vehicular infrastructure that was necessary for any development at that point. A straight road runs through the development at ground level, lined with garages.

Think back to some of the more inept mass-housing blocks, and consider how their entire ground planes were frequently given over to garages, and how against the 'active frontage' orthodoxy that now appears. But then think about other developments, such as the Barbican or Alexandra Road, and how cars are virtually invisible there, tucked into the basement, leaving a fully pedestrianised ground level above. Then recall Highgate New Town, and how the laying off of the car park attendants created a perfectly hidden landscape for trouble, leading to the permanent sealing off of the parking garages.

Not so subtle messages hint at the fear of young people, the fear of anti-social behaviour.

I mentioned Highgate New Town before, one of the most exciting and accomplished developments by Cook's Camden. The architect for that development was Peter Tabori, who remarkably was hired by the council to build his diploma project. Tabori was also the architect of this slightly later scheme, and if you didn't know already, the obvious similarities might have alerted you to that fact.

Where Highgate New Town is mainly built from a combination of pre-cast concrete and breeze-blocks, Oakshott Court takes the same sectional principle and repeats it with brick as the main material. Also, where the earlier project makes total use of the generous slope of the site, here Tabori deserves credit for being able to artificially conjure up a similar set of steps. It appears also that the budget was clipped more successfully here; the stairwells might be very similar, but in the earlier scheme they are blessed with glazed rooflights above the doorways, providing shelter for getting home with your shopping, wheres here they are far more spartan.

A lovely lady and a grumpy man live here.

The more tightly packed blocks of Oakshott Court also mean that the expansive, bucolic character of Highgate New Town, tumbling down through mature trees, is lost in this scheme. It's definitely a little more hard-edged, with the liquid-applied roof and the underwhelming levels of planting. It's also a little more dense at this higher level as well. Still; if the interiors are anything like the ones further up the road, then the inhabitants here are blessed with excellently planned flats.

  • CCTV cameras to be installed on the estate and response to anti-social behaviour.
(and yours truly in the reflection)

The internet isn't particularly useful in trying to find out about any other works that Tabori completed; in Pevsner North London he's given as the architect of just the two schemes that I've mentioned here. I'd be grateful if anyone knows of further information on other projects that he worked on subsequently. 

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Patrick Keiller's 'The Dilapidated Dwelling' @ the ICA, 24th November 2013

Patrick Keiller's film The Dilapidated Dwelling (78 mins, beta sx, 2000) is an examination of the predicament of domestic space in advanced economies, the UK in particular. A fictional researcher (with the voice of Tilda Swinton) returns from a 20-year absence in the Arctic to find that while the UK is still one of the world's wealthiest economies, its houses, flats etc. are typically old, small, dilapidated, architecturally impoverished, energy-inefficient and, especially, extraordinarily expensive. The film asks why repeated attempts to modernise house production have not been more successful. It includes archive footage of Buckminster Fuller, Constant, Archigram and Walter Segal, and interviews with Martin Pawley, Saskia Sassen, Doreen Massey, Cedric Price and others.  
Following the film, Keiller will be in conversation with Douglas Murphy to discuss the UK's dystopian housing economy and its exploration in The Dilapidated Dwelling and in The View From the Train: Cities and Other Landscapes, Keiller's first collection of essays published by Verso Books (November 2013).

The Packington Estate

A curiosity in Islington: the Packington Estate.

I've been past this quite estate a few times, and since it is currently being demolished I thought I would grab a couple of images of it, because there's some strange things going on architecturally. First off is that it's a rather overt example of panel construction. The system used was the Wates system, and here you can see the simplicity of the large panels (in a strange, burgundy hue) and the various sketchy points where they were sealed together. Many of the systems from back around the 1960s (This estate was finished around 1970, designed by Harry Moncrief) worked with a mixture of pre-fab and in-situ concrete - the panels would be hoisted into place, and small areas where the walls and floors met would be cast on site. A lot of problems of the system built blocks were located at these points, the hasty and frequently negligent construction methods leading to cold-bridging and all sorts of issues. I have no idea how the Packington Estate performed, although the fact that it lasted this long means it probably wasn't terribly built.

It's not pretty, to be honest, although the design does accommodate quite large windows. It's a series of what are presumably maisonette blocks judging by the alternation of the deck access balconies (which, like on so many estates, used to link all of the blocks together). But look closely, there's something really odd going on.

Because the Packington has managed to pick up all manner of strange postmodern encrustations.

Worked on from 1989-94, the estate was refurbished by David Ford Associates and Islington Council Architect's Department. The additions are a perfect example of 'council pomo' - noddy hat roofs, that odd mix of yellow, red and blue brick, and a rather silly, jolly classicism. Aesthetically it's very much of the period of Thatcherite reaction, although it's an ameliorative style; the architects had little choice but to work within a certain neo-vernacular framework, but they're trying not to be too cocky or brash about it; there's no polished granite, for example.

You can see the interventions reasonably clearly here - pagodas, baubles, new vertical circulation cores,    and a district housing office. Behind you can see part of the estate's redevelopment, which strangely for London includes houses specifically built to accommodate the people who currently live on the estate, which is remarkable considering how terrible the housing situation is becoming in London, especially remarkable considering the unbelievably sickening scandal down at the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle.

Can't really say much positive about the shopping arcade really, it's pretty nondescript, although it's obviously been deliberately run down as part of the redevelopment. One frequent complaint about post-war housing estates is the lack of amenities, but in many cases this doesn't ring true. Many estates had perfectly adequate sets of shops built to go with them, along with community facilities. But one thing that doesn't quite offer is, how should I say, glamour. We might look with a smile on the signage and design of 1960s bakers and grocers, but retail has come quite a long way since then, and the out-of-town shopping centre was such a massive social development in the 1980s that everyone became used to that mode.

But at this stage in commercial history, the small independent retailer has enjoyed a certain renaissance, at least in areas with a sizeable middle class. Considering that some of the more lush parts of Islington are just around the corner, can we imagine a situation where some organic deli took over one of the shops here? Personally I can't think of a single Aussie coffee shop located in a post war modernist shopping unit, just as I can't think of any estate pubs which have been hipsterified. Why might this be?

The blandness of the shopping centre was lightly decorated by a rather charming little mural showing off the plan of the estate, enlivening one wall, even if it had been mostly hidden by the bins.

And here you see the panel construction itself - note how skinny the panels actually are. You can see the thickness of the roof, which is insulated, so I expect that the block extended further past this visible bay. Soon there won't be any of these kinds of buildings left at all, as all the last remnants of the quotidian architecture of the post-war era seem to be on their way out; in the way of redevelopment, their styles and tenure out of favour, they are vanishing in much the same way that the most neglected of the slum housing of the Victorian era vanished.

And this, the housing office, good grief. There's a lot of this architecture around, the naff, post-CZWG pomo which dominated before the New Labour pseudo-modernist style took off. This is just inept, really; the rotunda, the awkwardly angled, badly detailed roof, the banding on the brickwork, it's so half-hearted, so inane...

Well, it's hardly of serious interest, the Packington Estate. But at least those who still live here (and there are lots still here) are not going to be scattered across the country when the redevelopment is finished, like is happening in so many other places.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

J.S. Bach - Vor deinen Thron tret' ich - BWV 668

Here is another of Bach's organ chorale preludes, transcribed for and played on the guitar.

'Vor deinen Thron tret' ich' (Before your throne I now appear) has an interesting story behind it, and although I'm not really in a position to properly explain or analyse the music or its history, I can at least give some notes that help explain what's going on.

BWV 668 is a chorale prelude, meaning that it is a piece of instrumental music which takes as its main thematic material an existing song. In this case the original music that the piece is based upon is a hymn entitled 'Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein', which was originally written by Paul Eber in the 16th century. The source melody (or cantus firmus) was composed by Louis Bourgeois, also in the 16th century. Bach had previously arranged this hymn as BWV 431, as below:

If you listen there, you'll note that there are four main melodies, each separated by a fermata (pause). It is these four which become the source for BWV 668.

Reasonably early in his career, Bach created an organ chorale prelude from this piece, BWV 641, under the original title 'Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein' which I have previously transcribed below:

and as played in the original:

What Bach does with BWV 641 is create an accompaniment which is based upon the melodies of the original hymn, but then adds an ornate cantabile melodic line over the top, which I'm sure you'll agree is rather exquisite.

'Vor deinen Thron tret' ich' actually exists in two different versions. BWV668 is included in the 18 Great Chorale Preludes, and actually consists of a fragment (about two thirds) of the entire composition, copied out by someone other than Bach. BWV668a is the same piece, complete, with slight differences, which was included (under the title 'Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein') in the original publication of Art of Fugue, published after Bach's death in 1751.

There is a story that was perpetuated by Bach's son CPE Bach, that his father dictated the chorale directly from his deathbed. This is now considered to be rather flamboyant myth-making, which gave the piece the nickname 'The Deathbed Chorale'. What is actually now understood to be the case is that BWV668a was a piece that was just lying around (Bach was an inveterate re-worker of old material), which Bach decided to put more work into as he lay dying, meaning that although it was not composed out of nowhere, it was still the very last thing that he worked on, and thus a significant artistic statement.

Musically it's really quite complex. It is built in four sections, all composed from fragments of the original hymn melody, diminished, inverted and contrapuntally developed. These lead into statements of the cantus firmus, clearly taken from BWV 641, albeit with the ornaments and floridity removed, before each time the all but one of the voices drop out for another development section. There's a certain plodding quality to the rhythm, which is pretty uneventful, but the level of harmonic interest is high. This regular and systemic feeling is common to some of Bach's large fugues, and perhaps has a certain mood in common with Beethoven's 'Heiliger Dankgesang', another piece closely linked with illness, which also builds slowly and methodically out of simple contrapuntal blocks.

As for the guitar, it's actually quite interesting how snugly it fits onto the instrument. The piece is in G major, and didn't require transposition to be playable (unlike BWV 641, which needed to be moved to D major). G major on the guitar works reasonably well if the 6th string is tuned to D, which means that a low D (the dominant) can be played open beneath the lowest G on the instrument (which thus occurs at the 5th fret). Very few notes, if any, had to be omitted, although there are problems caused by the occurrence of tones on the organ sustained over multiple bars - on occasion these have been rendered as repeated notes. The sections in four parts are particularly satisfying, although the fact that they are so readily playable on the guitar is perhaps down to the lack of rhythmic variety, rather than any particular skill on my part.

Friday, 1 November 2013

left unity left unity left unity

Residual political tensions also endured between them: 'Arthur believed in fixed interest rates. I believed in floating ones. He believed in education vouchers. I believed in fees for education. We didn't ever argue against each other publicly. I was perfectly happy to argue for education vouchers in public. There had to be a collective view...' Because the IEA was trying to achieve influence? 'Yes. If you were forever bickering over nuances...' Harris made a sour face: 'The left wing were always bickering.'
- Ralph Harris discussing the early 1970s years of the Institute for Economic Affairs in Andy Beckett's 'When the Lights Went Out', p. 273

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Some reflections after flying over Iraq

Last night I flew over Iraq. I am unaware of when the airspace became accessible again, but I recall flying over the area in 2006, and the plane taking a pronounced detour all the way down the Persian Gulf, indeed, all the way over Iran instead. But now, the planes fly directly over Iraq. And looking out of the window, as we passed over Baghdad, a sense of blankness; what trauma, what chaos? Nothing of the recent history could be seen from 39,000ft, but of course, what would one expect to see? Perhaps one could read the growth of the city under autocratic rule from certain qualities of the street plan, but from up there there was absolutely no way of sensing History in any way. But what is odd about this is that seeing the dewy spider-web of a city at night is entirely anthropic; all you are seeing is population geography, urban density, the agglomeration of people. As I was carried over, I saw the daily context of millions of people, but nothing whatsoever of the struggles and agony of recent years.

Then, not long later, a strange sight. As the plane crept southwards, from under the edge of the wing, which obscured most of my view, an odd haze began to spread outwards, granular, dusty, like perhaps the halo of a star when photographed from space. Moving along, it grew brighter and brighter, to the point where the streetlights around it began to vanish, swamped by the glare. Eventually, the source of the light revealed itself from beneath the wings; an oil fire. Burning out into the night, this rusty blaze was easily the brightest thing I've ever seen from an aeroplane, so far away as to be nothing but a silent point of light, but easy to sense the slow pulsations of the oil as it blasted out. Then, minutes later, another fire crept into view, and another, and another. Eventually various strings of these lights could be seen stretching off into the night, interspersed with roads and towns whose nights must be constantly ruddy with the smoke and the light which floods into it.

And of course, this point is when one can see history. Not only in the sense of the sheer tangible sight of the economic and security rationale behind the wars of the last decade, but also in that nauseating apocalyptic sense; from the vantage point of those vast new planes that carry eight hundred people, the ludicrousness of scale, aisles with vanishing points, gates like ferry terminals, anthroposcenic economies of scale, I looked down at the vast petrochemical blazes, burning beacons of what drives us, seemingly uncontrollably, into a new future.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Some idle sketches

So here's a couple of little musical items recently saved to disk.

One is a simple sketch attempting to evoke a certain melancholy, utilising a recording I made of the beautiful people hiding underneath the awnings as the Saturday market got unexpectedly drenched a few weeks ago. The guitar comes from a previous recording of mine, and the voice will be obvious to some and perhaps not to others. Those who recognise the speaker will probably find the whole thing too melodic, but oh well.

And then the other is a hastily recorded attempt at Bach's famous organ chorale prelude 'Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ' BWV 639. This has been transcribed for guitar and recorded by both Paul Galbraith and Alexander Vynograd on their eight-string guitars, and also by Graham Anthony Devine on a standard guitar, and there's probably others I've not heard. My transcription is I suppose closest to Devine's, although I attempt to render ornaments that he leaves out, and we have differing octave shifts at various points (not to mention him being a professional and everything). Anyway, it's too loud, the tempo's all over the place, and there's squeaks aplenty, but it's done.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Public Announcement

Here if I may I'd like to make a little announcement. As of the end of work today, the 29th of August 2013, I will be a full time writer. For the next few months at least I will be working on a new project for Verso; entitled 'Last Futures', it's a study of technology and nature in post-war architectural avant-gardes. In it I will be telling the story of the last time that there was any real attempt made to work towards a plausible architectural future, in the late sixties and early seventies. It was a strange period when high-technology and first-wave environmentalism were prominently discussed, before both were swept aside by the rise of neoliberalism. Now from the current age it appears tragic how so many of our most urgent crises were already under discussion back then, only to be kept off the agenda for a generation until we're now at a point where the situation already appears to be too late to save.

Last Futures will cut through the standard architectural histories of the period, which portray much of the experimental architecture of the time to be either hopelessly naive or impotently critical, and will demonstrate that many of the ideas and proposals of the time were more-or-less rational extensions of where things were heading at that point. I'll focus not just on paper projects, speculations and manifestos but on the more bizarrely quotidian examples of these ideas, to further stress the concreteness of these lost directions. In so doing, I hope to further develop ideas from The Architecture of Failure (which you can still buy) which searched for a synthesis between romantic and modernist concepts of architecture, and how important this task might actually be for us. Expect cybernetics, drop outs, hippies, mass-housing, biospheres, space frames, situationists, countercultures, technocrats, environmentalists, dialectics, disasters and defeats...

Thing is though; it's now been half a decade since I finished my post-grad, and well over three years since I submitted the manuscript for my first book. In the intervening time a lot has happened, but it also feels as though time has stood completely still, at least compared to how fast it moved as I went through education. I basically fell into a day job as I was finishing off the manuscript, and it has taken this long for me just to be in the position to take the opportunity to write another one. In the meantime I've written hundreds of thousands of words, for Icon and for all manner of other publications, I've interviewed many of the biggest names in architecture, I've visited new buildings all over the place, I've lectured across Europe, I've appeared in national media, I've built (with friends) various installations and small projects, and all the while I was working four days a week in an office. Add to that the slow background work of learning a completely different method of playing music, some really rather miserable experiences of various kinds along the way, and finally a period of being gravely ill and needless to say, I'm pretty exhausted.

Obviously one should never play the what-if game, but it's difficult to know how working at a pretty intense job while simultaneously trying to fit some kind of career as a writer around that would stand up, compared to some of the other options that were available to a post-grad architect floundering around in the maelstrom immediately after the crash five years ago. Perhaps, like some, he ought to have fled the country to doss about in Berlin, in which case god only knows what he'd be doing now, or maybe he should have dived straight into a PhD, which would most likely have had the word 'haunting' in the title, and would now be complete, giving him the rapidly evaporating academic world to thrash around in. Either way it certainly feels that in the last few years developing intellectually or critically has been almost impossible with the demands consistently made on my time. But never mind; these are worthless counterfactuals, of course I'm not doing too badly after all, and as everybody knows, "This life is a hospital where every patient is possessed with the desire to change beds."

So for now I'll be trying to knuckle down and get stuck into this new book, and hopefully there will be opportunities to do some interesting projects in the meantime. If you're around say hello, and let's see if something good can happen even in these worsening times.

Monday, 15 July 2013

J.S.Bach - Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein - guitar

It's been half a year since I recorded anything, which surprised me when I realised it. I've been playing in the background, trying to keep practicing, when I can fit it into the gaps between 'real' work and life. I certainly haven't transcribed anything recently, but the other day, when working on 'Ich Ruf' zu dir, herr Jesu Christ', which has been regularly transcribed by others, I had a first listen to the full set of Bach Chorale Preludes, and one in particular just jumped out at me.

'Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein' (When we are in our greatest distress) BWV641 is unique amongst these organ works for its highly ornamented melody, giving it a most cantabile quality, indeed the steadiness of the accompaniment gives me the impression slightly of an operatic recitativo. To me it has a lot in common with the Andante from solo violin sonata BWV1003, with their slow pulses and achingly sad major tonality, and of course, when played on the organ, it has an unmistakably funereal air, and as the highly church-like final cadence fades out I always half expect a minister or priest to commence with a solemn eulogy.

Musically it never strays far from home, only briefly making its way out into the dominant and relative minor keys, but it has certainly hints of that same modal feeling which makes music like the Heiliger Dankgesang so very very powerful, and I'm I can hear hints of the suspensions which mean 'Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen' makes my hair stand on end every single time.

I swapped the key from G into D, as you so often have to do with the guitar, but I was most surprised to find that the melody was thus reasonably comfortably brought into the range of the instrument. The pedal line only required a few octave jumps to fit, and luckily the important descending melodies didn't have to be broken across octaves. The inner voices required a bit more tweaking - long held notes don't really make sense on a plucked instrument, so the recitativo aspect is more pronounced, and occasionally the voices had to be swapped. It's also not that easy; four part harmony on a guitar never is, even at a slow tempo, so there are the usual scrapes, pauses and mistakes that come from being an amateur. But it's a most exquisite piece of music, and I'm pleased that it can be played on the guitar without too much fuss.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Unbuilding Britain

"There's a revolution going on in our cities."

By now, I would expect that you’ve all seen ‘On the Brandwagon’, a programme by Jonathan Meades from 2007. In it, he decries the ‘pseudomodern’ architecture that took over our inner cities in the 00s boom, both on the level of its pandering jollity, and also on the basically more dangerous level of what he described as “the soufflé economy”. The film is curmudgeonly negative about pretty much all the developments in built environment culture over the whole of that decade, which is perhaps why so many of us like it so much.

But I’ve dug out perhaps an even more damning document from the boom, one which is more incriminating because of the obliviousness of some of the protagonists. It’s a television programme called ‘Building Britain’. Also broadcast in 2007 (so presumably made before the first cracks appeared in the subsequently shattered world economy), it is an investigation into the differing fortunes of the neighbouring cities of Leeds and Bradford. At this point in time, Leeds was in the middle of a high rise building frenzy, with luxury flats popping up all over town, while Bradford was only just getting used to the gigantic hole that Westfield had left after demolishing a large patch of the city centre, and before building a new shopping centre for the city.

Building Britain was a vehicle for Linda Barker, herself a Bradfordian, who at that time was best known for her work on the BBC’s long running ‘home makeover’ show Changing Rooms, which did much to open the doors to the flood of ‘property porn’ programmes that would clog up the schedules for most of the 00s. Indeed, Building Britain is at least partially interesting for being a reminder of a certain mood in pre-crash television, with shots of her purposefully striding down streets accompanied by obnoxious shuffle-y 90s trip hop music, which even by that stage hadn’t been properly killed off. Thankfully she’s not asking us to “join me on a journey”, and actually, over the course of the show she comes off rather well in the hindsight stakes, being rather more critical than you might expect from a presenter of fluffy daytime television.

On the Brandwagon concludes with footage of the Paris Banlieu riots of 2005, expressing the belief (partially borne out) that the regeneration industry and its massive investment in inner cities would lead to a similarly disastrous neglect of the peripherique. Building Britain, on the other hand, begins with footage of the 2001 Bradford riots, suggesting that a nadir had already been reached, and that upward was about the only direction it could go. As a further sign of things not being able to get much worse, Barker passes the Westfield site, which, half-way through 2013, is still a gigantic hole in the ground. From here on in, the pathos just gets heavier.

"From a ruin to a regeneration icon"

Barker’s next port of call is Lister Mills, perhaps one of the most significant landmarks in the history of Britain’s 21st century regeneration. It’s the project that made the name of Urban Splash, the ultimate Blairite property developer, rescuers of post-industrial and -in Park Hill’s case- post-social housing structures, reconstructors of relics of bygone social organisations as chic design conscious yuppie flats. Unlike some, I’m not sure you can consider them MORE insidious than so many other property types, but there’s something about their modus operandi, their rise from the 1980s Manchester scene, their gentrifying panache and closeness to ‘cool Britannia’ that just does it for some people. In the shadow of Lister Mills, Barker meets Amjad Pervez, of Asian Trade Link, who, with a shit-eating grin on his face dishes out some choice nuggets of regeneration patter:
“You go to Paris, and you’ve got the Eiffel Tower, you go to Egypt and you’ve got the pyramids, and if you go to London it’s the clock, but in Bradford... it’s Lister Mills!”.
This particular trope was actually quite common back then - it reminds me of being in Dubai before the crash, where we visited the show flat for the Burj Dubai as it was then called, wherein upon a wall we found a sequence of panels depicting the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, then Neil Armstrong on the moon, before a rendered image of the tower. Sheer hubris.

Oh, and by the way, Amjad Pervez is currently opening a Michael Gove endorsed free school in Bradford.

SuperCity | Picture A City: Bradford from Scott Burnham on Vimeo.

"We really do think we got value out of it"

Next stop is the masterplan, the VISION. We’re off to see the wizard, although in this case the invisible wizard is Will Alsop, and all that he’s left for us is a big perspex model and a video made by his son, Ollie. Alsop senior came in for quite a lot of flack for his Bradford masterplan (which we are reliably told cost £500,000 - my GOD how fees have plummeted since 2008), for its flimsiness, its triteness and its general implausibility. It proposed demolishing as much 1960s architecture as possible (a suggestion which hopefully now, thanks to the efforts of various critical voices, looks as clearly odious and obnoxious as it was) and replacing it with parks and new wobbly Alsop-style buildings, all accompanied by music from Icarus, one of the archetypes of mid-00’s folktronica, whose glitched up acoustic futurism is actually going through a bit of a revival. There’s obviously an irony to Alsop’s proposal to dig a giant hole in the middle of the city, but overall however it’s clear that the masterplan was intended as a massive confidence booster, not necessarily to be implemented literally but as a certain kick up the arse of the animal spirits of those who might potentially invest in Bradford.

Barker meets Maude Marshall, head of Bradford Centre Regeneration, a private company taking fees to do a job that should really have been the local authority’s. As the camera pans lovingly over the masterplan model as if it were an M&S oven-ready meal, Marshall does her very best to sound convinced that she has a chance of making it all work, spinning out deliriously naff strands of cant and gibberish: “People think Alsop’s wacky, and sure, some of the images you see are a bit organic, they are a bit mushroomy, but what they’re really saying is ‘think out the box, think what Bradford could be.’” when pushed by Barker, we get the following exquisite dribble: “It’s already going for it [...] urban village, residential market, tipping point, it’s happening.”

Oh, and by the way, Bradford Centre Regeneration was wound up in 2009 and the Alsop masterplan was dropped.

"Does that mean smaller apartments, and more of them?"

Soon, we’re in Leeds, where Barker notes, “controlling development is the problem, not encouraging it.” Barker hangs around underneath City Island, shockingly bad lumps of cynical regeneration tat, and it’s good to see that even before the crash mainstream voices were making alarmed noises about this kind of thing. But even that’s nothing compared to Bridgewater Place, a residential tower around the same height as the Barbican, a shockingly ugly building designed by everyone’s least favourite architectural hacks, Aedas. There’s a great scene though, when Michael Gardner, the project architect, is asked about the increase in units from Aedas’ initial design of 156 residential units to the developer’s in-house layout of 201. Mumbling and obviously uncomfortable at Barker’s implications of penny pinching, Gardner euphemises that “they’re able to deliver a … a more refined product to the market.” This of course was the story about the boom - developers were so unchecked, so cynical, that so many of these inner city developments are spatially far, far worse than the detested social housing of old. Sure, the construction is generally better, they don’t tend to rain on the inside, but let’s just wait till their cladding needs replaced in a few decades and we’ll see how much love people still have for them. In Bridgewater Place’s case, it’s not gone well. Nominated for the carbuncle cup, apparently nicknamed ‘The Dalek’, it also apparently killed someone when high winds at the foot of the tower lifted a lorry up and crushed a pedestrian - an accident for which liability has still not been settled.

The depressing peak of the programme has to be the next scene, a visit to the property developer Kevin Linfoot, whose firm were the ones who managed to shoe-horn 30% more flats into the Bridgewater Place development. In a scene of almost poetic quality, with shades of The Fountainhead, William Golding’s The Spire or perhaps Bigas Lunas’ Goldenballs, we meet Linfoot in a penthouse office, dominated by a 1:100 model of his dream project, The Lumiere, 170m tall, over 50 storeys high, nearly 1000 apartments, but absolutely NOT to be referred to as a ‘tower block’. Agonisingly uncomfortable on the camera, Linfoot comes across as very different to what you think property developers are supposed to be like - dominant, brash, testosterone-sodden minotaurs. He barely speaks in fact, being basically drowned out by Barker, but when he does it’s amazing: “the profit levels on this building are about half of what we usually work on” he admits, before confessing “I just think somebody’s got to do it, I know how difficult these things are to do, and I want to do it [...] I suppose really it’s something that I wanted to do for myself.”

Oh, and by the way, the Lumiere never got built, and Linfoot’s property company went into liquidation in 2009.

"It's gonna make the Gherkin look normal"

After that pathos there’s a brief lull where Barker talks to John Thorpe, literally the last civic architect in the UK, who recently retired. However, we’re nowhere near the bottom yet, as we are about to encounter the full idiocy of Ken Shuttleworth. “If the economy suddenly fails, Leeds will have a LOT of empty flats.” says Barker, before instantly spoiling her insight by adding, “but one way to be recession proof, is to get the best in design.” Barker introduces Shuttleworth as “the top architect in the world”, a statement almost criminally false, when it describes the architect of the ASPIRE sculpture, the Nottingham Jubilee Campus, the forthcoming UBS behemoth at Broadgate, the Cube in Birmingham, and arguably of course the Gherkin. In the years since leaving Foster, Shuttleworth has been doing his best to make even the most boring buildings by his old boss look accomplished, as he sets out to have a firm whose usp is that they can design buildings which are both vacuously commercial and inanely flamboyant at the same time. He’s known for making some utterly ridiculous statements too (recently claiming that the Gherkin required viewing corridors of its own, the silly bollock), and in this programme I think I’ve found the motherlode. Barker interviews him in the company of some unnamed black-clad minion from the MAKE studio, stood on a bridge over the motorway looking over at the Leeds International Pool, which is to be demolished to make way for the - wait for it - ‘Spiracle’. Now, apparently a spiracle is a vestigal gill opening behind the eye of a cartilaginous fish, and admittedly it is a respiratory opening, which is ever so slightly appropriate, considering the development is one of those ones from around that time which had wind turbines stuck on the top as an oh-so-bloody-green sop, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a worse name for a development in my life, and there are a lot of offensively stupid and obnoxious developments out there. Spiracle. Spiracle. SPIRACLE. SPI-RA-CLE. It’s a spire + a miracle. A miraculous spire! ARGH WHAT’S THE POINT?

But I think what’s best here is if we just let Shuttleworth use his own rope to hang himself, for what he gives us is perhaps the worst possible justification for silly architecture that I’ve ever heard:
“The idea is to try and make a building which actually stands out from any other building that’s ever been built, so it’s like a circular building, but all the floor plates are expressed as wavy lines, so you get this series of poppadoms on top of the other. I think now with the Spiracle we can make a new ICONIC architecture, and people then rise to the challenge of that on other buildings - I think that’ll be great. In a way the Gherkin London is a marker that says the next building has to be better than the Gherkin, it puts its mark down, it pushes everybody up to the next level. And hopefully the Spiracle will do the same in Leeds, that’d be the challenge.”
My god, so architecture is basically just an excuse for each architect to wave their dick (or occasionally, tits) around in ever more flamboyant loops and shapes, in the hope that that somehow lifts the tide of all design? When people like that are described as the best architects in the world then no wonder the field is in so much trouble. (it should be noted that Shuttleworth, since the crash, has been keen to suggest that he’s against the whole ‘iconic’ building method, but this little clip is just too damning.)

As if to add insult to idiocy, as Barker waves over at the Pool building, saying “I don’t think I’ll be sorry to see it go, you obviously won’t feel sorry for it.” Shuttleworth laughs: “The sooner the better!”

Oh, and by the way, the Leeds International Pool, an excellent if -shall we say- tainted building, was soon afterwards demolished. The Spiracle never occurred, and the site is now a surface car park.

"I think it's the renaissance of Bradford"

A visit to Irena Bauman is included as an example of a practitioner offering sustainable (in the social sense) development. Not particularly interesting, it at least gives us the following interesting fence-sitting: “I think that it’s largely to do with human vanity, and greed. I don’t really want to knock developers, because they are extraordinary people, they are risk takers, they fuel the economy, they are exciting, they create possibilities, but at the moment nobody is actually looking - I can’t hear the voice of the city.” Bauman’s model is that of a responsible capitalism, which is of course fair enough, it’s a very mittel-european attitude to have, that social democratic sense of ‘diverting’ the processes of the markets and doing your best to feed them back into something like a civic sphere. It’s certainly not a very British idea though.

Commercial firm Carey Jones get a visit too, to discuss their plans for the redevelopment of the Bradford Odeon, a project that many felt was utterly necessary for the regeneration of the city, as a sort of kickstarting project. As commercial architects go, there’s not actually so much to complain about - they’re office specialists, and everything is as boring as you’d expect in that world, but at least it’s not MAKE, if you know what I mean. One choice morsel of bullshit is when partner Gordon Carey shares his spiel with Barker, trying to sell her the replacement scheme, which at that stage looks like your typically generic yawn-worthy bollocks. As far as he’s concerned, “These louvres which will be multicoloured, are reflecting the multicultural nature of Bradford”. Oh dear oh dear oh dear.

Carey Jones got hammered in the crash, but are still active, although at a staff level of perhaps just over half what was shown in the project. In 2012 George Galloway managed to take the Bradford West seat in a by-election, with one of his main election pledges to support a local campaign to retain and renovate the Bradford Odeon, which still sits derelict.

"I think we need to ensure you are wowed and surprised."

It’s all rather sad really, this story, at least in terms of how the crash has stretched Bradford’s low point into a plateau of destitution, with really no end in sight. There’s also the temptation to feel a little schadenfreude at the just deserts dished out to the clueless regeneration hack, the property developer brought low, the second-rate architect spinning rubbish about a project that would never happen. But gloating is simply not appropriate when over five years later everything is still getting worse for almost everyone. In fact, since the crash the housing market has become even more desperate than it ever was before, with rental misery increasing, and a swiftly rising drawbridge separating those who can afford/inherit property and those who can’t. Significantly, one theme that runs through the whole programme is a total disdain for the architecture of the 1960s/70s, with everyone remarking how pleased they are to be removing the concrete buildings, and Barker at one point commenting on how new buildings really need to be ‘iconic’ and avoid the ugliness of the post war developments. But actually what everyone seems to be missing is the civic purpose and social aims that fed much of the development at that time, and despite all the failures, what we genuinely need now is a programme of quality mass housing, otherwise this island will continue to strangle itself, will continue to allow the rentier class to dominate, extracting wealth without investing it back in at all. If Britain’s ever going to recover properly it needs to realise that housing does not work as a free market, and never ever will.

At the end of the day, perhaps the most depressing aspect of watching this programme today is the fact that it was obvious even back then that this way of building cities wasn’t working, but 30 years of neoliberalism had removed almost all of the ways to fight back against the ‘property owning democracy’ model, and anyway, it was all too easy to just take the money that was sloshing around and go along with everything. Now what though?