Friday, 23 July 2021

Some thoughts on the 2021 Serpentine Pavilion

For a variety of reasons I have not written anything for quite a while, not for magazines, not for publications and certainly not for a book, so maybe what I’m doing here could be considered something of an exercise, a stretch perhaps. Writing this text is both a workout, an attempt to get the momentum of putting words into orders back, but also it is meant as a slight provocation, to test a couple of thoughts, having been vexed recently by some issues that I feel might benefit from being exposed to others. I don’t feel it’s worth writing whatever this is for money, partly because I’m going to be negative, and we live in a time when everything’s so hard, nobody needs the knocks, but also because I’d like to raise a couple of questions which are, if not exactly pressing, slightly more discursive than most publication writing generally allows for now.

The thing that brought these thoughts on is the new Serpentine Pavilion, which, as per tradition, is currently sitting in Hyde Park. It is designed by a young architect working out of South Africa, Sumayya Vally, whose studio is called Counterspace, and she is the youngest architect who has ever been commissioned for the pavilion. The Serpentine has been running since 2000, and its mission has traditionally been to give an architect yet to build in the UK their first British commission, although that is no longer applied particularly strictly. A variety of well known architects have built pavilions there, although generally speaking there is something of a consensus that the project is no longer fresh.

I visited the pavilion on a hot summer’s day a few weeks ago. I did not enjoy it at all.

But actually, before I go into this, it might be time for a quick digression, on being a critic and the concept of ‘punching up/down’. I often hear it said, and I tend to agree, that in jokes, anything is acceptable if it is ‘punching up’, i.e. aiming at someone more powerful than yourself. Being rude about the powerful, well, it may or may not be efficacious, and indeed the recent history of the UK has shown how satire can be not only toothless, but indeed part of a process of trivialising political culture in general, but as a rule of thumb I think it safe to say that it is good not to be a bully. 

Since I started writing about architecture, I suppose I have always seen myself as being an up-puncher, given that I was young, unestablished, without connections, and the people I was writing about were at the top of their game. Indeed, some of the very first things I wrote that got noticed were polemics against some really terrible public architecture by big names: the over-priced second-rate museum by Zaha Hadid Architects in Glasgow, and the Olympic sculpture by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond, to take two examples. The context for this was also that I (and a few other architecture writers better known than I) began writing at a point when the financial crisis of 2008 had wiped out a boom period of architecture, where a lot of the work had been both poor, and overly celebrated.

But this was more than a decade ago, and while I would hardly say that I am a success now, it really doesn’t make sense for me to pose as an angry young man speaking truth to the powerful, when I am complacently tied up in various ways with the architecture world, from which I require employment, validation, and so forth. In my tired state, every terrible work of architecture no longer seems deserving of a hatchet job, and not every fool talking nonsense about the subject is worth ranting about. I would prefer to say that today I am more interested in looking at systemic problems, and larger questions of history, but perhaps I am just not as hungry any more, too conflicted by experiencing the problems of getting anything of quality done at all in today’s world.

So, if I have big problems with this project, big enough that I want to share them with you, I also need to be aware as I write that the architect is a good few years younger than I am, is just starting out on their career, and indeed their identity is subject to intersecting forms of oppression that I myself do not experience directly. If I decide to write a work of criticism about this project, me, whose name adorns serious books on the shelves of booksellers, shouldn’t these questions, about the power I exert by complaining, and the vulnerability of the new practitioner putting their work out into the world, be at the forefront of our minds, no? 

Well, let’s pretend for a second that I’m capable of discussing the project as a building, on its own, as an autonomous work of architecture. Well on these terms, it’s a complete flop. At its simplest, it is a canopy on a set of columns. The canopy is roughly ovoid, and sits about five or so meters up – quite a monumental space. The columns are irregularly spaced, and are formally complex, seemingly composed out of fragments of other spaces, which fold out into a variety of different possible seats strewn around the space. It’s big, and it’s very busy – there are hints of classical forms, there are hints of quotidian architectural spaces like rooftops or garden walls, and there are all kinds of strange shapes that seem – to me – to have no discernable source. 

The pavilion is not really made up of materials so much as it is made up of colours – black, grey with a pinkish tint, and some minty green in locations. These colours are realised by thin panels of cork, and of a cementitious board that has ribs cast into it. As an architect, one tends to tap and bump buildings to work out what is going on behind the surfaces, and in this case, the panels are all about an inch thick – my first raps on the blocky forms let me hear its thinness, its hollowness, its general skin-deepness. It turns out that the whole thing is built with a concealed steel frame, on a large concrete pad foundation, to which all the forms have been attached. Importantly, to me at least, the panels meet each other without any form of detailing – one material stops, there’s a little gap, and then the next material runs in another direction. This, along with some strange gaps and shapes elsewhere, strongly lead me to believe that the pavilion was conceived primarily as a CAD model, using ‘boolean’ tools (subtract, intersect, etc), and was then translated in conjunction with engineers and fabricators into something that could be built.

To me, in terms of architecture, this is just simply not good enough. There is no sense of order, of proportional relationships, or the basic fundamentals of architectural composition, although this is not in itself a problem, you are not obliged to follow those in the 21st century. There is also no sense of how structure can be a form of communication, can have powerful qualities of its own, in terms of balance, weight, or – fashionably – ‘tectonics’, where the intuitive sense of force and mass gives a power to the work that is non-verbal and non-representational. It’s very difficult to tell whether a design ‘process’ has been followed, and by that I mean that I do not see how the forms could be first evaluated, and then improved, iteratively. The warped truncated form of that column over there – should it be elsewhere? Should it be thicker? Taller? How does the designer judge whether each form is successful, as they go through the process? I do not think it is clear at all. And furthermore, there is no sense either of the joy of materiality, of making things well, according to their intrinsic qualities – the hollow flimsiness of the materials betrays the apparent monumentality of the spaces created, and there is no sense of joy or craft in the construction. 

Ok, this is harsh, but if I may contextualise a little: currently, within the realms of fine-architecture, if we can call it that, there are two quite significant lines of interest, being pursued sometimes by the same architects. One is a kind of pretentious earthiness, an ostentatious rejection of modern layered construction, attempting to use mud, stone, and materials in their rawest forms to create architecture that has something akin to the megalithic about it. It’s a kind of ultra-brutalism, in a funny way, and it is probably best represented by recent work by Anne Holtrop, or the hilariously OTT projects of Ensamble studio, who dig holes in the ground to cast against, creating latter day menhirs. The other pole is an attempt to use the thinness of modern construction almost against itself, through witty subversions of the limitations of multiple skins, as demonstrated by Lütjens Padmanabhan, whose wry postmodernism, revelling in its articulated surfaces, has become highly influential, even as they themselves are yet to build much. 

The Serpentine Pavilion misses both of those poles, and can’t decide whether it’s big or slight, weighty or paper-thin, and in fact doesn’t give the impression that its presence has been much considered at all. On these terms, it’s very poor work, and certainly if I’m being very critical I’d say that it’s the sort of work students often come up with before they’ve had any experience. The capriciousness of the various forms and shapes are in a way uncriticisable – there’s no logic to them, and so at the end of the day they can’t be challenged, other than in the simplest ‘do I like this or not?’ formulation.

But, a very easy objection is that there’s no inherent reason why it has to be evaluated on the terms of architecture-qua-architecture, of mitteleuropean seriousness, of the long chains of the history of the discipline and its discourses. The pavilion has lots of interesting places to sit, it has a cafe, and indeed it looks interesting enough on a smartphone photo, perfect for posing on social media, and in many ways that’s all it has to do. I often worry that there is something inscrutable in caring about architecture, that not only are the things that affect those of us who care about it invisible to the ordinary person’s eyes, but also that they make no meaningful difference to the world. A lot of the architects I know create a strange personal moral mythology for their designs, I think largely to justify the energy that they expend convincing clients and authorities to do things well rather than adequately, and I feel that this masks the fact that most people simply don’t care. And nowadays, if it looks good in a selfie, then why complain?

But there’s something else going on here that needs to be mentioned, and that is that the pavilion has a backstory. In press releases and short films, Vally has discussed how the pavilion is born out of attempting to convey a sense of the spaces that migrant communities experience in London, this exemplary global city, with its constant flux of arrivals and flight. To this end, Vally describes travelling around London, visiting neighbourhoods and studying spaces that various precarious migrant communities made their own, including spaces in Brixton, Dalston, Tower Hamlets, etc, and spaces such as community bookshops, mosques, clubs etc. These spaces were then subjected to, and I quote, “abstracting, superimposing and splicing elements” which then are incorporated into the pavilion. Further to this, the original concept, inevitably watered down, was to have the pavilion distributed around in these communities, various additional fragments that could act at dispersing the institutional nature of the project. This has manifested itself in four small structures built elsewhere, and also in funding that is to be given by the Serpentine to a variety of community groups as part of the project as a whole. 

To be honest, this sounds a lot more interesting, but I think it raises a number of additional issues. First of all is the question of understanding. It is possible to visit the pavilion and not learn anything about Vally’s interest in marginalised communities. In which case, the supposed correspondence with spaces of migration is completely absent. Would someone who worked at the now-lost Centerprise bookshop recognise its influence? Or a regular at the East London Mosque spot a translated fragment? I dare say that they would not. But even in the know, how are we meant to interpret the various ‘figurative’ elements throughout the pavilion? I am willing to argue that there’s nothing to be gained from seeing these forms in the light of the social groups that are supposed to be evoked in this way. I found myself staring at the ceiling, where a green patch extrudes in a shape that looks a little like one half of a pair of shears, and wondered, how on earth can you attach a narrative to this shape? what is it supposed to mean? If it was removed, would the project be better, or worse? There are not really possible ways to answer this.

Vally’s work is engaged in an attempt to broaden the voices that are expressed through architecture, and also broaden our understanding of material, informational and cultural flows, and a video accompanying the pavilion talks of gold deposits, global trade, colonial history and modern migration, encouraging us to see their interconnections, and also to see the pavilion as somehow a manifestation of this wide ranging yet sharply focused investigation. This is very topical, and is part of a tendency of what we might call “research architecture”, which is increasingly influential in the boundary space between architecture and fine art. With this in mind you might argue that the rejection of certain conventions of architectural quality are not omissions but positive decisions in the process, and that those conventions are indeed irrelevant considerations, even tainted by their association with political domination, and I think there’s a point there, but I think the methodology also has a complicated relationship with less on-trend architectural concepts.

Two projects come to mind here. One of them is the Jewish Museum Berlin, by Daniel Libeskind, what would turn out to be his only great project. It’s a one off, a building that is more like a large immersive sculpture, one in which there are multiple wall texts telling you that, for example, a sloping floor is meant to evoke the feeling of homelessness, a tiny window is meant to evoke the feeling of being trapped, the floor plan is an exploded Star of David, and the jagged windows are composed from plans of streets whose Jewish residents were murdered. Here is a project of pure form, where forms have corresponding meanings, and architectural matters recede into problems of memory and memorialisation in space. The point however is that the project relies on the wall texts to impart its meaning, because it does not ‘explain’ itself directly. 

The other project is the Wexner Centre for the Arts by Peter Eisenman, his first big project, a test of the architecture based around his readings of Derridean deconstruction. Famously, along with the grid that runs obliquely through the project, one end of the building features fragmentary reconstructions of a mock-castle armoury that apparently once stood upon the site. Arches are incomplete, a tower is split in two, columns don’t reach the ground, etc etc. The processes of “abstracting, superimposing and splicing” that Vally engages in are extremely similar to those used by Eisenman. His broken forms, which themselves are ‘about’ memory, culture, history, etc, albeit phrased in a very different cultural register, set the tone for a type of architecture that was rightly criticised for its wastefulness, its pretentiousness, and its inability to stand by itself without justification. I think the Serpentine pavilion is unfortunately part of this tradition, setting aside things that architecture is actually good at, in favour of trying to wrestle with questions of greater gravity, but questions that built structures are actually ill-disposed to be able to address. 

Which is a shame because institutionally, Vally’s ideas about community could be very powerful. The Serpentine, still associated with Hans Ulrich Obrist, is a pillar of the art world, with its fair share of complexities and contradictions. For example, two years ago, Yana Peel, the chief executive of the Serpentine Galleries, resigned after a campaign claimed she had personal connections to an Israeli cybersecurity firm whose products had been used by various governments to target journalists and human rights activists. And think, for a second, about the various times that the pavilion gets closed to the public for donors’ drinks and other such events – what do billionaires think about the communities that the pavilion is supposed to be addressing and bringing into focus? It feels that an approach much more powerful would have been to really abandon the architectural part of the project – why bother with a lackadaisical bit of Serious Architecture when it is the community connections that are important? Why not just pop up a marquee for the duration, and invite the people you wish to give voice to to come down and take part in events and discussions, even meet and challenge the billionaires, while donating the budget to them and their own projects?

It’s not Vally’s fault, she and her studio have their interests and the things that they want to campaign on, and who’s going to turn down a commission like that at such an early point in their career? But I think it marks a difficult, nay, ‘problematic’ aspect of this kind of campaigning architecture, because certain unpleasant parts of the industry are being put in question and others are not. So, for example, I note the presence of Professor Lesley Lokko in the selection team for the pavilion. Lokko, an extremely popular public academic, was until recently the head of the graduate school at the University of Johannesburg, under whom Vally began teaching a masters studio. David Adjaye was also one of the selection committee, and he had previously mentored Vally as part of the Rolex Mentorship Protege Initiative. This is of course fine, there is nothing new in patronage, but I think it is at the very least worth considering which forms of exclusivity we urgently need to eliminate and which ones are still very much ok. 

Anyway, to bring this to a close, I think the most important points are these: Increasingly I see a real hunger for architecture to engage with pressing social matters, especially amongst students, but I also see an innocence about what architecture is actually capable of, and how projects come about in the first place. Architecture always struggles against its own limits as a discipline, and it attracts people who are curious in wide reaching ways, and due to its 20th century history as a vital aspect of various political projects, there is a latent belief in a certain kind of agency that is available to an architect. But this can lead to real frustrations, in running up against a highly commodified production of space, ossified networks of success and histories that have not been challenged nearly enough in terms of occluded or denied injustices. So far, as far as I can see, this often leads to a retreat from the things that architecture is actually uniquely capable of, with a network of schools, exhibitions and biennales existing within architecture, but strangely loathing it, because of its unavoidable connections with power. The Counterspace Serpentine attempts to channel the energies of certain spaces of subjugated or otherwise vulnerable subjectivities, but in crudely abstracting them into a work of architecture, existing within the corporate art world, I think it fails in this mission. It may well be possible to square this conceptual circle, but this project doesn’t make me hopeful. 

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The Hatchet

The following is a review of 'Experimental Architecture' by Peter Cook, written by a 'Kit Pedler' and appearing in the April 1971 issue of Architectural Design:
One of the most disturbing features about the immediate future is the very real probability that people can become agreeably conditioned to accept any one of a hundred different technological nightmares. Alvin Toffler on the other hand has recently suggested that we can no longer adapt rapidly enough to a galloping future and that we shall become victims of Future Shock.
After reading this book I am in profound shock. I find that I can live in an "urban finger" the only justification for which appears to be that the complex has concrete digits. I can crawl my way into one of the convolutions of the old "bowellism", a vertical assembly of hollow concrete intestines with windows. I can surround myself with "fun places", "Instant cities" and inflatable buildings ("Mum, can we come and stay with you for a few days, somebody pricked our living room again"). Bored perhaps with the sheer brilliance of the designers, I can then walk to "plug-in-city" pausing for a quick trip in an "environmental box" or a session in a "mind-expander". Finally, having visited a friend curled up in a foetal position in his glass fibre "living pod" I can return to my own PVC pad thanking whichever guru happens to be in vogue at the time for the unspeakable perfections of my surroundings.
Architects often seem to me to be one of the most arrogant species at liberty. Having absorbed a sprinkling of philosophy and a crude knowledge of technical concepts, they develop the ability to translate what is largely impudent dogma into concrete and metal reality, and then have the sheer nerve to justify the initial idea by post hoc rationalisation. What probably started as an absolutely "sooper" idea in the intellectual wastelands of NW1 turns into a fraudulent justification for a real building where people are rather regrettably inserted.
Mr. Cook's congested text is a minor masterpiece of such rationalisation. Amidst page after page of glimpses from the obvious, there are apologies for each project variously labelled as "on-going", "myth exploding" or just "experimental". If one is simple minded enough to suppose that a house - is a dwelling place - is a home - for an individual, then Mr. Cook's future is not for you. Nearly all his explanations offer a complex reason for the relative validity of the project he is describing. One is interested to note for example that "... perhaps it is inevitable that the satellite piece of furniture which moves as an individual package will lead to the mechanised foot rather than do anything which implies a regular hierarchy (even one as loose as that of furniture: to dwelling: to location)". Do you know I never knew that before - just as law is for the lawyers - and medicine is for the doctors, so architecture is quite evidently for architects.
Amidst all the glossy verbosity of this book there is practically no mention of the gentle human frame. It appears to be a rather tiresome protoplasmic appendage, to be fitted in somewhere at the end of a designer's monument to his own frivolity.
I wish, I could believe, that Mr. Cook had written a black comedy, a private in-joke for his colleagues. Sadly, I conclude that he is serious.
A couple of things pop to mind: first of all, who is behind 'Kit Pedlar'? In the culture of pseudonyms I wonder if it's yet another of Martin Pawley's efforts, sticking the knife in in his own inimitable way. But there's more going on, because it's obviously also a parody of the shocked conservative voice that would become much louder by the end of the decade, and then would become the dominant voice by the eighties. Experimental Architecture is by no means a great book, but the sheer anger with which people would fall back on a vulgar Heideggerian notion of dwelling as an excuse to suppress anything even remotely communal or 'modern' about house building and promote reactionary notions about how and where people should live, and what the house should mean in terms of its relationship to the wider economy, is perfectly ventriloquised here.

If anyone can shed any light on this, please let me know...

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.