Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The Ozymandias Complex

The dusty fata morgana of the winter garden, the dreary perspective of the train station.

- Benjamin, Arcades Project.

People have recently been talking about Victorian fantasy architecture. Coincidentally, we went down recently to have a look at Crystal Palace Park, down in South London, such being the opportunities presented to a euphemistically-titled ‘freelancer’. It was perhaps the first day of the year with weather that could reasonably be described as pleasant, after what has been a very cold and awfully dark winter, much more so than most. We took some photographs, but the sights that we were presented with were somewhat problematic, full of cliché. Whereas some journeys one might go on present an opportunity to evaluate a space in a creative fashion, this particular journey was different, it felt pre-aestheticised. This does not mean, however, that we didn’t find objects and situations of interest on our journey.

It should be noted that we arrived at a distinctly picturesque crepuscular hour.

The first thing that strikes you is a certain sense of Paris about the park, what with the dominance of this industrial structure, a television tower built in 1956. A diminutive Eiffel, visible from those rare places in London where the distant comes into view, the tower is a most significant South London object; it’s the second tallest structure in London, and is likely to remain so, as more and more tower projects are cancelled.

Although the television mast may make allusions to Paris, there was another strange connection to be made. The symmetry, scale and the grandeur of the remains was recognisably the same as that one finds at the Parade Grounds of Nuremburg, Albert Speer’s gigantic setting for Nazi festival, where the Cathedral of Light was enacted. There is a reading to be made where the Cathedral of Light can be seen as the end point of Iron and Glass, perhaps the end point of Architecture, the completely immaterialised place of communal-event making, taken to its grandiose, sublime and intangible limit. Any further along that line of reasoning and you’d have to see Fatima as architecture.
Here, as at Nuremburg, there is also that faintly unpleasant sense of the space constructed with ruin in mind, the guilty pleasures of gloopy Romanticism. The picturesque spectacle of human endeavour fighting its valiant, doomed battle against nature always seems to fit the particular sentimentalism of Victorian architecture all too snugly. It is death made safe, but it is also a delusion of grandeur, of upstarts believing they are worthy of similar cultural duration as that of antiquity, with just as much culture to bequeath as Athens or Rome ever had.

This was once the main transept, which only existed as Paxton decided to incorporate some elm trees that had originally stood in Hyde Park. It’s actually not at all clear where exactly the Crystal Palace stood in the park, I have seen but one map, a panoramic one at that, which shows the palace in situ. It seems to have stood just inside the park, to the immediate north of where the Albert Hall and Royal College of Art now stand.

The Nave; looking north.

The Choir; looking south.
The use of church terminology is entirely apt, for the building was both in plan and in section an ecclesiastical structure, with a vaulted Nave flanked by buttressed aisles. And this is where one should look to the theorising of someone like Viollet-le-Duc: away from the puritanical arguments of a Pugin, moralising the pointed arch as a way out of eclecticism, Viollet-le-Duc (who entertainingly gets a very hard time from Proust in the Recherche) recognised the gothic as a structural method, the functionalism of its day. In fact, perhaps the gothic builders were the hi-tech architects of the day, wedding a fetishised structural expressionism to a theological message: 500 years ago, the church, in the last century the gods of Capital.

There are a few forlorn sculptures still standing around, actually rather nasty reminders of Imperial attitudes; this chap appears to represent 'the Arab'. See the Albert Memorial for better kept examples.

And there are still a number of sphinxes dotted around. This is another reading of the Crystal Palace, one of the most obvious, that of the vile backslapping of an Imperial power. But despite all of the vulgar accoutrements, the exhibition palace as a typology has a rather mournful pedigree. Whereas the train stations, department stores, libraries museums and greenhouses who took on the new industrial methods of building often survived and are still to be found, although their dreamy qualities are more often than not tempered by the being hidden behind a vulgar Victorian edifice, the exhibition palaces, so impressive at first, were usually disastrous failures given just a short while. Due to the popularity of these temporary structures they were often purchased for permanent use, the Crystal Palace being an obvious example. Often they were then recommended for utilisation as locations for the recreation, stimulation and perhaps improvement of the common man, at which point they became almost worthless financially. The Crystal Palace lurched from crisis to crisis, as did many of the others palaces in London such as the Alexandria Palace or the Albert Palace (which survived less than a decade, about which more one day). The attempts to make plateaus out of the singular events of the exhibitions became mournful failures, long before they had any chance to become ruins.

Here we look down the entire length of the Palace. At the time of our visit, there were a few groups of school children hanging around, a number of young lovers’ picnics, dog walkers, footballers and kite flyers. There is a campaign to have the Crystal Palace rebuilt, an endearingly loopy idea. There have also been attempts, even planning applications made, to use the space for all kinds of commercial ventures; vulgar proposals for cinema complexes and the like. Thankfully that will, in our current predicament, be off the agenda for at least the time being. Surely this blankness is the most telling and appropriate use of the space, a grassy terrace dug into the hillside, flanked by crumbling fragments? It really isn’t quite a ruin, although of course one can have one’s ruinophilic fun here:

For there are indeed points where the ivy grows, where the stones decay and collapse, where all things pass.

Where nature takes over, making things secret, occluding the logic that we try to bring to space, asserting its overwhelming power.

But really, what is that worth? One can certainly take a kind of pleasure from sights like these, but what can they actually do for us? I’ve written before about ruins, as many have, but at the time I was trying to find out if one could abstract the code of the ruin, if one could achieve the same effects without the wide-eyed gooey quasi-Romanticism that has come to surround it. I saw the ruin as some kind of supplement – as long as there are ruins somewhere that one can visit for a picnic, and spend a little time marvelling at transience, without it being too traumatic, it means that the simulation of permanence can run more smoothly elsewhere. But now of course, we have ruins everywhere, empty houses, unfinished buildings, towers and monuments, ‘on hold’, shells, ghost buildings; and they’re not helping at all. They are not failures that can be identified with, they cannot be reclaimed.

These are the only fragments of the Crystal Palace that have been left, a series of column bases.
I think that the emptiness of the space is perhaps its most interesting feature. There is a sense here of having missed something – of an occasion that has definitively passed. This sense is not new, one only has to think of the people who used the Roman Forum as space for their lime kilns in the medieval period, but there is something scintillatingly traumatic to our psyche about the vast under-utilised space, created for social gatherings that will never fill it, that resembles the attraction that the ruin had for the 19th century. Despite anything one might say about postmodernism, it is the case that our societies are still predicated around forward linearity, growth. This is an outlandish statement, yes, but capitalism, as everybody knows by now, requires a constant supply of new material, and if it has to overcode a social space, then it does. Every organisation that has to function in this paradigm has to perform progress (conservatism usually only exists to secure more favourable dynamics of accumulation); this is why we still cannot really fathom the idea of a decaying body, a finite, weak planet, or perhaps, at the far end of the scale, the knowledge of extinction. This is another argument, however.
All I suggest is that the under-utilised space, the space created for an event that fails to achieve its potential, the space of a gathering that can never happen again, is perhaps a particularly traumatic space for us now.

The park is also home to some rather remarkable modernist artefacts. This little brute is genuinely ruined.

And a wonderfully basic set of benches, wood shuttered, wrapped in a silvery bit of timber, with plastic moulded seats. Gently heroic.

Joseph Paxton.
There are many possible contestations over the legacy of the crystal palace. Can we think of it as the first ‘modern’ building? It would seem that many do just that. What is Paxton’s legacy? The hi-tech types would put him alongside Brunel as a genius of the new engineering mindset, of the egalitarian technocracy of functionalism. The modular construction of the palace, the opportune use of the latest technology, the refinement of design, the flexibility of construction, or the loose grid to be filled with any old programme, these are all shibboleths of hi-tech. But then, the Crystal Palace was deeply inspired by plants, there is an anecdote about the origin of the façade as having come from Paxton studying a lily; this biomorphic engineering would make him a proto-parametric bore. In a way it doesn’t matter, because the significance of the building is tied to far more than just its success as a piece of structure, and Paxton had very little to do with that.

In a way, my argument is that there is a trace of something in cultural objects that mark certain transitions between a Romantic view of the world and a Modern one. There is a trauma there, a glimpse of something, if not progress, then at least potential. As Benjamin says;
This perplexity derived in part from the superabundance of technical processes and new materials that had suddenly become available. The effort to assimilate them more thoroughly led to mistakes and failures. On the other hand, these vain attempts are the most authentic proof that technological production, at the beginning, was in the grip of dreams. (Not architecture alone but all technology is, at certain stages, evidence of a collective dream.)

Thwarted dreams, as always. What can we do?

This is a gem of a building; The Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, designed and built by Leslie Martin at the LCC between 1954-64, although now with an uncertain future.
Here we have an alternative modernity; this is High Modernism, where structure is fetishised, but in a bespoke, mannered way, represented here by the pre-stressed concrete frame, an expensive and by no means easy technique to use. As far as functionalist rhetoric goes this is a fail, not a true functionalism, but has there ever been a true functionalism, except perhaps that of the shed or the silo. This is of course a very large question, look at Lloyds of London, which screams engineering, calls out functionalism, (it even has a direct reference to the Crystal Palace at the top of its giant room), and yet is utterly bespoke.
Nevertheless, this whole complex seemed to be in very good shape, considering.

This is for Owen, who is worryingly veering towards an emancipatory theory of the cantilever. Note that beneath the roof we essentially have a small fragment of Corbu’s Palace of the Soviets.

That glorious axial emptiness again.

And then some wonderful quotidian modernity, reaching in and out of the trees, a forgotten future, complete with lime stalactites.

And of course the real reason to visit the park is to see the dinosaurs. Grade I listed, don’t you know. It is interesting to note to what extent contemporary palaeontology now accepts the level to which dinosaurs were feathered. They should digitally remaster Jurassic Park to show what velociraptors actually looked like: 1 metre high chickens.



GROVELLING UPDATE: Anyone with the slightest bit of inside knowledge would have been able to tell me that all the photographs I took of the absent interior were actually taken from the space in front of the palace, which stood 50 meters west of where I thought it did. What an imbecile; I now have to go back to South London.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Conceptual Songsmith

Just when I thought that I'd never hear nor think of songsmith again, this shows up. Sublime and ridiculous.

Monday, 16 March 2009

My Stupid Day as a Corbu Hater...

I really do not wish to suggest that Lynsey Hanley is stupid, she is quite obviously not in the slightest. [P.S. - I haven't read her book on Estates, so cannot comment on that, it might be absolutely magnificent.]

However, that hasn't prevented her from writing an unbearably fucking stupid article, about Shumon Basar's A Day in the Life of Le Corbusier event at the Barbican.

As a game of spot the cliché, it's all a bit too bloody easy. Nearly every mention of Corbu in the press throughout the last month has followed the template: "Well, we all know that Le Corbusier was the most evil man of the 20th century, but there's an exhibition of his on...", and this article is perhaps the most perfect example of the form.

To set the totalitarian flavour, Orwell is invoked by the second paragraph, when Hanley emulates Corbu's morning exercise routine.
Winston Smith, the wheezing protagonist of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, wouldn't have lasted five minutes here.

Right, because the only two examples of exercise in the history of the world are an old Swiss man and Physical Jerks?

Then we're told that this exercising:
focuses (or numbs) the mind, creates a sense of collective purpose.

Um, which of these does it do? Also with reference to 'such a thing as benign marching', we're not possibly setting up images of Soviet/Nazi gymnasts are we? Am I just being paranoid? Is there no such thing as LA fitness?

Now, while complaining that she:
can't find the humanity in his work

she also mentions that she spends time working with the 'modulor',
which replaced feet and inches with proportions and ratios taken from the human body.

In which case, what kind of humanity is Hanley talking about?

In paragraph 5 Hanley lets the ideological cat out of the bag:
Such high-concept activity can't, however, answer my core question of the day, which is whether Le Corbusier's approach to architecture and planning has caused more human pain than it sought to alleviate.
Right, if you want to critique the mercenary meritocratic ideals of Le Corbusier, by all means do so; no... really, he deserves it. But that's not what's happening here, really. It's not a symposium Hanley attended, it was a fun, super-interesting day out, yeah?

After listening to a chat from someone who worked for Corbu in the '40s (probably for free, I imagine), Hanley reports:
Don't blame the architect if buildings don't work, he seemed to suggest: blame the people who build them, then the people who live in them.
He seemed to suggest? Now, without being there, I can't vouch for that, but Hanley hasn't exactly provided footnotes. All I can say is that I've never heard or read anybody claiming this. The most I've heard anyone say is that the failures of post-war housing (of which the Barbican is emphatically NOT one), were a mixture of a variety of architectural, political, social and ideological factors, rather than BAD MODERNISTS not listening to what the PEOPLE REALLY WANT, and forcing UGLY CONCRETE on them.

Then we're off to the garden;
with its ingenious traffic noise-drowning fountains and several maddening kilometres of walkway
Ok, it's fairly ambiguous whether Hanley is pleased that the fountains drown out traffic noise or not, but bearing in mind the tone of the piece, she seems to be suggesting that it's wrong that traffic noise ought to have to be drowned out at all. Now, is this a problem with the architects, or one with the municipal policy of re-populating the City of London, in particular the blitzed out Cripplegate? Oh, fuck nuance, just blame the architects. And maddening walkways? What is so maddening about a walkway, as opposed to, say, a cul-de-sac? I mean, the Barbican is not exactly Daedalus's Labyrinth, is it?

The curious thing is, after six hours I'm even less enamoured of Le Corbusier than I was to begin with.
No, it's not curious, I'm afraid.

He dealt in "habitation units", "machines for living in", days divided into productive hours.
Well, 1 - touché, it was called the Unité d' d'Habitation after all! But what's really the difference between that and 'House'? 2 - touché. 3 - How fucking dare he!!!! It's not as if everybody's whole life is divided into productive hours by, you know, the whole system in which we live. What a stupid thing to write, I'm sorry, but come on, as if without Corbu we'd all be living in a paradise of leisure, free to use up our lovely time in whatever way we wish...

Anyway, by this point, Hanley still can't find the humanity.
None of it dents the impression that he was a man who felt his ideas were nothing if they couldn't be imposed on other people.
Where does this impression come from? Who does the imposing? Where do people like Hanley get the 'impression' that architects had enough agency to impose their cooky ideas about solving an absolutely colossal post-war housing shortage single handed? As if they commissioned themselves, paid themselves to build the buildings and then moved all the residents in, all by themselves. What is never mentioned is the possibility that non-modern architecture is perhaps, just maybe, not as ideologically 'pure' as it is suggested to be, as if modernism hasn't been subjected to a half century long ideological attack, insistently associating it with Socialism, Totalitarianism, and thus portraying a false, lying, traditionalism as somehow a perfect reflection of what people genuinely want, and just what they need! Why, when anybody gets stabbed in a Barrett estate, do the tabloids not erupt, blaming pitched roofs and brick-nogging for making all of 'em poor people all bad?

If everyone got to live the kind of life he did – gentle exercise, leisurely breakfast, daily thinking time –
Hang on - I thought that in paragraph two, the exercise was likened to a dystopian future-past nightmare, what happened?

But neither the exhibition, nor the Barbican's attempt to help us enter the mind of Le Corbusier through his daily routine, challenges the received wisdom that only philistines and dimwits can't get a handle on modernism. If there were ever a name that needed rehabilitating in the minds of those who, like me, have wasted too many hours of their short lives getting lost on Corbusian concrete walkways, it's his.
Whose received wisdom? This is a perfect example of the 'elitist' straw man. The only people who possibly would want to defend Modernism are elitists, listening to Schönberg and Xenakis, sipping bruschetta and munching on a latte up in their Georgian house in Hampstead. It's just nonsense, blatant ideology. And again, the bloody walkway line, how original, how cutting, what incisive critique!

There's no one who is prepared to explain how his 1925 "Plan Voisin", for instance, which would have turned central Paris into a giant banlieue, was sensitive to human needs.
Ummm, Banlieue? If Hanley wants it to mean 'Slum', why doesn't she just say so? Does Hanley think that the areas of poverty around Paris are caused by the architecture itself, the 'style' of the buildings? That Corbu's conceptual project is a depiction of a slum-to-be? That there has never been such a thing as a 'traditional' slum? What 'human needs' are we talking about here? The 'human need' to have actually had to live in 19th century slum housing? The 'human need' to be homeless after World War Two? Come on, one doesn't have to defend the Plan Voisin as a genuine proposal to know that Hanley is regurgitating Thatcherite platitude here.

We're often tempted to blame Le Corbusier for everything that was wrong with modernism. The awful thing is, I think I still do.

I'm sorry, I don't mean to be quite so vitriolic, but this is just one article too far, somebody who has criticised the culture of 'Giving 'em what they want' should be able to write something not quite so blood boilingly reactionary, but then, even the bloody Torygraph found her architectural predeterminism a rather poor show.

[P.P.S. - Pardon my French...]

Sunday, 15 March 2009

These are fragile papers, that are now ground to dust...

On the 3rd of March an archive in Cologne, Germany collapsed, killing two people. The collapse may also have destroyed vast amounts of archive documents that were stored there, one of the largest collections in Europe.

Documents up to a thousand years old may have been lost, including the municipal archives of Cologne itself, archives of the Hanseatic league, five hundred thousand photographs, one hundred thousand architectural drawings, and original manuscripts by Heinrich Böll, Marx and Engels, Jacques Offenbach and Albertus Magnus.

One of the reasons that this is such a terrible event is that not many of the collections have been properly copied. Apparently a rather poor quality microfilm exists of much of the pre-1945 collection, but a huge amount of the material has not been ‘backed up’ at all, destroying a large amount of human knowledge forever.

This raises a few questions, however. There is an accelerating process of the digitisation of archives, storing and protecting material precisely for this eventuality. If the fragile material has been duplicated and entered into the immaterial digital realm, then although not in an absolute sense, the knowledge contained within the material has at least become as safe as it can possibly be; it has the potential to be endlessly circulated.

The fact that many of these documents had not been safely dematerialised means that it the loss is not just a question of the fetish value of the documents as objects. Access to information has been historically tied to the physical object and its scarcity. Slowly, our archiving practices are tending towards the immaterial; once an object has been accurately digitised it becomes divorced from its capacity to hold human knowledge. The archive object enters into a strange new role – its only value is in its capacity for destruction.

What would have happened if one of the British Library’s archives of ‘zero use’ material was destroyed? Every year their shelves grow by twelve and a half kilometres, leading them to have to build vast warehouses to hold the collections of books that nobody will ever read, but that we as a culture find impossible to throw away. We are addicted to archiving.

In fact, it can even be said that archiving is one of the things that most makes us human. As we learn more about the capabilities of our animal relatives to communicate, think abstractly and experience emotion, we are left with little that actually makes us unique as a species. Haunted by our uncontrollable tendency to forget, we developed ways of storing knowledge in non-corporeal ways. This desire-for-archiving is an exponential process, giving us the (theoretical) potential to know anything that has ever been documented by anybody, and this changes the relationship between our intelligence and the minds which constitute it.

This world of language proliferated and constituted a symbolic field, dependent upon our minds to exist but not reducible to them. The exponential process of archiving is surely as much a part of the coming to be of this Symbolic as the proliferation of meanings as spoken language deepened and thickened over time. To be a subject is to inherit a position within the Symbolic, a position characterised by what the later Derrida would call the ‘spectral’; not only immaterial, but also origin-less, out-of-joint, never whole. Archives represent an attempt to regulate the Symbolic, inasmuch as they materialise knowledge and ‘freeze’ speech. They attempt to impose orders onto knowledge, artificial and ideological orders, and to regulate the relationship that any one subject can have with knowledge. Yet the archive also has the tendency to proliferate the conditions for speech, an ever –growing background of knowledge. Archives both regulate and proliferate the Symbolic.

It looks as if we are on the edge of a new condition for the archive. We can imagine achieving, although not without struggle, a (near) total archive, freely available across the world, and totally immaterial. This would obviously mean a new level of freedom for the intellect, but also the potential for new methods of controlling access to this information. Is it healthy to banish forgetfulness? Is it inevitable, for that matter? Will the architectural presence of an archive become nothing but ruin, a building that serves to remind us of nothing more than that objects have the capacity to be destroyed, monuments to what Freud called ‘Transience Value’?

UPDATE - see this also, a bit less theoretical; ebb of memory (scroll down), as seen at things.

Entschwindet und Vergeht - Never Knew Such Silence

This is a short electroacoustic piece, recorded probably between 2005-06. The instrumentation was a laptop and live 4-track mixing. It's in the noisier end of the spectrum, shall we say, but I think there's an agreeable delicacy to it. Hope you enjoy...

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Monday, 9 March 2009

Glowing Praise

I feel depressed reading it, because the writer is a fool.

It's Will Self's dumber cousin. What a pile of pretentious posing. Nothing on that website has any quality to it - the thesis in particular is a mediocre masterpiece of saying nothing at great length while dropping names.

About the only thing you learn from that piece is that the writer's clearly a middle class twit who hasn't been out of Chelsea, and is determined to try and make other snobs laugh at 'these poor people', hidden under a veil of public-school writing technique lacking any kind of finesse and a curious, adjectivally-induced sense of boredom.

Bimey, what a pile of wank. I like the photos but anyone who uses the awful neologism, 'hauntogeography' deserves to have their face slapped with a plank. There are actually some good points struggling to extricate themselves from the psychogeographic slurry, but I couldn't be bothered.


Sunday, 8 March 2009


There's a new (old) kid on the architectural cynic circuit, and bloody hell they're good (bad).

The ghost of Ian Nairn has decided that no punches are to pulled. It's a shame that somebody needs to do this, but most of what they have written thus far has been pretty astute, in the Charlie Brooker vein. Personally, I think that it's perhaps a bit unfair to single out British architecture in particular for this kind of vicious critique, as it suggests that there is some kind of architecture somewhere else that is markedly better, and I'm not convinced of that one.

If it's true that there is now a definite full stop on the building boom of the last decade and a half then perhaps it's time to pause, take a deep breath, and admit that the architecture produced in that period has been on the whole pretty fucking terrible. Nearly every architect appears to have been on Blairite autopilot, designing barcode facades and iconic rooflines, commissioned by sub-scumbag developers who think that studio flats ought to count as affordable housing. The changes in contracts have accelerated the process towards utter obsolescence that the architecture profession has embarked upon, and have given us a generation of cheap-as-shit tin boxes for buildings wrapped in awful faux-cheery multicoloured kit kat wrappers. Well, at least there's no visible concrete though, eh? The Academy has spent much of the last twenty years pretending to know what they're talking about when they drop various French names beginning with D, organising hermetic conferences where they speak in tongues and convince themselves that there's something new and subversive about wobbly roofs, generally ignoring any of the political implications of the work that they do, while the students spend a large proportion of their short lives working themselves into the ground in the hope of proving that they're worth hiring for free...

Oh well. Anyway; Bad British Architecture is very funny, and not at all fair. People have been trying their hardest, after all...

It's All Forgotten Now...

V/Vm are rebuilding their web presence, and have recently been uploading lots of their music onto youtube.
In case you hadn't heard it, the Caretaker project is one of the best ideas in recent electronic music, a concept based on Kubrick's use of Al Bowlly in The Shining, which over the last couple of years has developed into a truly excellent exposition of some of the central aspects of hauntological culture. So now is a great time to get on your haunted ballroom shoes and strictly come ghost-dancing...

Hello Everybody!!!

A nice warm welcome to all the visitors from this weekend's Grauniad. It's lovely to have you here.

This is Arnos Grove tube station. Across the road you can visit Finlay Ponti s & Ass. It's true.

ps- and a big hello to all the visitors from!