Saturday, 20 November 2010

Pre-Freudian Psychology.

One thing I can't quite understand about the ruling class is their attitude to culture. Seeing that they are generally very well educated, and seeing the reputation that high art and culture has, you would imagine that they would supportive of the arts. But no, like everything else that elevates us above germs, they find it superfluous to the demands of extracting profit.

So we have a long slow war of attrition waged against the BBC, among the most symbolic organisations in the world, which produces programmes such as 'Discovering Music', quite simply one of the most lovely things this island produces. This is a programme which is accessible but not patronising, which explores great art-music in detail, tying together the old problem of emotional and social impact with technical construction and execution, and is endlessly fascinating to boot. That our ruling class would want to destroy this in favour of private broadcasters who would never, ever commission something quite so informative and enriching, highlights the inherent contradictions of conservatism better than almost anything. Fuck them.

Here's some quotes from the programme, which are, let's face it, total E&V fodder...

The most famous chord progression in the history of music

Keeps fulfilment at bay

World of unfulfilled longing and endless desire

As we suddenly become aware of sexual attraction and painful desire

The most poignant interrupted cadence of all

We feel the music has come alive after the disjointed and lonely opening but it has only come alive to experience further heartache and unfulfilment.

But the harmony, like our unconscious lives, is never truly at rest. The structural goals in Tristan are moments of unfulfilment, disorientation and frustration of varying intensities.

We might think that at last the music is about to achieve emotional fulfulment. Longing and denial, both musically and psychologically, will be a thing of the past.

One of the mightiest climaxes in all music, a revelation of pre-Freudian psychology in which climactic achievement is merely an illusion.

In spite of the spiritual and erotic adventures, the striving and longing, we're back where we started.

From agony and unfulfilled desire in life, to mystical union in death.

This is orchestral genius at work.

This music still speaks to us today with a power that is hard to resist.

Wagner now begins to build his final overwhelming climax, striving for mystic union in death.

Only a compositional giant could have sustained such a span, and kept alive without monotony this world of agony and unfulfilled desire.
This was a work that revolutionised the composition of music.

I mean, there is an interesting argument to be had regarding the final chords of Tristan. It's quite easy (and actually quite correct) to identify the B major at the very climax as a kind of false unity, as posited by fascism. I mean, every time I listen to it, it sends shivers up and down my spine, I become liquid of limb and prone to swooning, but I know at the same time that it is a bare-faced metaphysical lie. This is why Mahler will always be an improvement on Wagner - listen to the disintegration at the end of the Adagio from Mahler 9, and you hear the unfulfilling disintegration of self-hood that is almost a perfect companion to the voice in Beckett's 'Malone Dies' - ever obsessed with an end that cannot be experienced from within the self that is utterly focussed upon it. Although Wagner is correct about desire, he is wrong about the Will.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

My V*ntage P*rn Soundtrack

Waltz in eb major (vintage pornography) by entschwindet und vergeht

Well! Thanks to Soundcloud and their lack of time limit (at least on individual tracks), you now have the dubious honour of being able to listen to all sixteen minutes of the vintage pornography soundtrack that Kino Fist commissioned from me, more than 3 years ago now (mein Gott!). It was entirely composed and teased out of a single recording I made of the sound of rain, using my own secret compositional recipe.

Monday, 15 November 2010


I have recently been trying to move my thinking on from the book, which seems as far away now as it was before I wrote it, all of 8 or so months ago. If I can summarise the book, it's either: a bunch of essays that have mostly been superseded by stuff wot other people have been writing, or if you're being charitable; it's a critique of a certain standard view of modern architecture, a critique that does its work by going back to the very origins of the concept and then working forwards until it proves that everything is basically rubbish.

What's been occupying me now is the period around the time of the emergence of the post-modern project in architecture, the early to mid 70s, before the rise of the 'new right'. Specifically, I've been thinking that I need to look back at the megastructural project (see my paean to the space-frame, my look at the LOMEX, etc...), which it seems to me was curtailed by bottom-up critique, right-ward lurch and economic recession. In the book I discuss the 'Zoom' wave, Archigram and all that sort of thing, and I discuss how it ended up as corporate high-tech. I mean, you need only look at the Lloyds building to see both the future of corporate architecture; open, ultra-efficient floor plates, neoprene gaskets and full-height glazing, service voids above and below, etc etc... But of course at the same time it's the most surreal and extravagant building in all of Britain, hesitating at the threshold between brutalism and 'Zoom', with what seems now to be the seemingly inevitable descent into the fully glazed air conditioned office building.

And the link between Brutalism and high-tech is very important. Not only were Foster & Rogers taught by Paul Rudolph while at Yale, but one of the most interesting things about Archigram is to look at what they were doing in their early years - the 'bowelism' and the hyper-brutalism. Now although these kind of projects already betray the aestheticisation that basically spoils Archigram for me, the gee-whizz attitude of those who don't really think that things are so bad, y'know... I want to take them more seriously at this point just before they slide right off into whimsy. Where could this have led?

I'm considering putting together some kind of proposal regarding this research, although of course there's no money in it anymore, but basically the idea is something along the lines of a parallel history where the future didn't necessarily occur as predicted, but where it certainly wasn't rejected in the way that it actually was. As I've mused before - what if the Yom Kippur war hadn't happened and the oil crisis hadn't occurred? What if North Sea Oil had been nationalised? etc.etc. The resulting research would be part textual critique, but would also include the design of near-historic buildings from the hypothetical past.

I'm afraid at this stage it's going to have to take the form of an 'inspirational images' type post, I'm far too busy to actually do any of it justice right now, but you never know, maybe one day!

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The Failed Modern Dwelling

On Saturday last I gave a paper as part of the Historical Materialism conference. It went ok I think, the panel itself was a good mix of papers. The following text is the paper I gave.


Basically what I'd like to do today is take you through the last 13 years of architecture, in particular housing, in the UK. The story of New Labour's architecture is one of pretty good ideas, achieved abysmally. I'll start off with a little bit of Thatcher, before moving onto Blairism. There will be a more or less equal focus on specific policies, intentions and material results, as well as the aesthetics and ideological aspects of the process.

To understand what has happened in the cities of the UK since 1997, we will need to at least take a brief look at the period leading up to that point.

After the massive destruction of cities in the Second World War, successive Labour and Conservative administrations took a broadly Keynesian approach to housing, whereby the welfare state engaged in large house building programmes, and housing stock was owned by local authorities and was provided mainly for rent. This was also a period where modernist urban theories were dominant, this was partly for economic reasons - building very large amounts and densities of housing with limited funds necessarily leads to a consolidatory approach, with larger single structures containing massed units. But alongside pragmatism, modernist housing was suitable partly because there was a genuine commitment to changing popular notions of what cities ought to be. Take Berthold Lubetkin's oft quoted - "Nothing is too good for ordinary people". There was a definite sense (at least in the UK) that modern architecture was a force for good, especially considering the problems of the dwellings that it generally replaced.

But of course by the late 1970s it was already clear that there were great problems in the housing practices of previous decades, from the collapse of the Ronan Point block in 1968, to the very public perceptions of 'crime ridden estates' and so on.
These problems are ideologically convoluted: some commentators to the right suggest that the very basic nature of modernist design alienates its occupants and causes social decline, crime and despair, an attitude described as architectural predeterminsism. One doesn't have wait for very long for this argument to slide into an attack on modernist design for its apparently socialist tendencies.

The arrival of Thatcher and the New Right onto the scene had a number of impacts on housing. Perhaps the most significant was the admittedly politically avant-garde policy of the 'right to buy'. Under this scheme, council tenants were encouraged to purchase their council properties at a discounted rate. The aim was partly 'positive', in the narrow sense of empowering people to become property owners, in accordance with the Tories ideological commitment to individualism, but it also had a negative aim, which was the destruction of local government. By stripping some of their most important assets, and making it impossible to replace them, the central government 'hobbled' local authorities, who famously were among the largest landlords in the world. This had further, probably undesired but deliberately ignored consequences - the right to buy was mainly exercised on council property that was already more desirable, meaning that what was left in council hands were often the lowest quality buildings, a process which further worsened the problems of council estates, both actual and perceived.

This accelerated decline in council-owned property was exacerbated by the suburban focus of the Thatcher years - the relaxed planning laws and generally light-regulation meant that most new house building was suburban, made of cul-de-sacs and 'noddy houses', linked by private transport to the new phenomenon of the out-of-town retail park. The Thatcherite period saw the wholesale adoption of the architectural mode known as postmodernism, which although first practiced by left-leaning architects concerned with the 'elitism' of high-modernism, was an almost perfect reflection of the way 80s Tories mixed radical economics with social conservatism. Postmodern architecture is generally playful, ironic and kitsch. It has no interest in 'new' form or progression, content merely to play around with well understood visual tropes.

Meanwhile, British industry was allowed, encouraged & forced into terminal decline, which along with the process of containerisation that had begun in the 1960s led to there being large areas of the inner cities lying derelict and empty.

The election of the Blair government was accompanied with great optimism in the architectural field - instead of the retreat to suburbia and the attendant vulgarity of post-modern architectural aesthetics, there was now an opportunity to treat cities properly, as befitting a genuinely modern country.
One of the main intellectual figures in this optimism was Richard Rogers, who originally worked with Norman Foster in the 1970s. Back then they were radical modernist architects interested in engineering, systems and infrastructure, and the work that they created became known as 'British Hi-tech'. Unsuccessful throughout much of the 70s and 80s, since the 90s their style has become the corporate architecture of choice around the world, replacing the historicist pomo style previously mentioned. The parallels between the political and aesthetic choices of big business over this period are rather blatant, but somewhat outside my remit here.

Where Foster is an apolitical technocrat, Rogers is the quintessential kind-of-leftist bourgeois. In the 80s he designed a speculative project entitled 'London As It Could Be', which was a politicised criticism of the piecemeal developer led building boom going on at the time. An enthusiast for planned development for the benefit of the people, his highly public pronouncements - such as 'Cities for a Small Planet', his Reith lectures of 1995, got him the ear of the Labour Party, and in 1999 he was drafted in to create the Urban Task Force, who published a white paper entitled 'Towards an Urban Renaissance'. This document set out a vision for cities that were dense and compact, making use of brownfield (i.e. previously built upon) land, that were environmentally and economically sustainable, well designed, and filled with public infrastructure such as parks, squares and transport. Buildings were to be mixed-use and mixed-tenure, with commercial and residential properly mixed, and neighbourhoods that were not homogenous in terms of class, culture etc… The state was to be intimately involved in this, providing subsidy, guidance and, importantly, planning to achieve these goals..

Unfortunately, despite these grand and noble aims, what has happened to the cities over the last 13 years has been mostly a failure. Although (and it may be argued that this was genuine) New Labour professed great concern about urban improvement, their chosen course of action, namely encouraging the private sector, often through substantial subsidy, to enact regeneration has not had the desired effect at all.

In behaviour that will most likely be entirely familiar to you, Labour created all sorts of peripheral organisations, partnerships, pathfinders, initiatives, agencies, what have you, in order to try to counter what they referred to slightly euphemistically as 'social exclusion'. Unfortunately, rather than any genuine redistribution or state handled building programme (which was of course desperately needed), the Tory designed PFI and PPP systems of procurement were intensified, leading to some of the most piss-poor architecture for public, state and civic functions that we've ever had, whether it be hospitals, schools or prisons.
In the housing sector, again it was left mostly up to the market. Labour's deference towards the wealthy meant that property developers have had an absolute riot over the last ten years. On the one hand, it is very true that since the mid-1990s there has been a population influx into the cities - in almost every city in the UK the city centre populations have increased by many hundreds of percent, most notably in Manchester, which of course was heavily bombed by the IRA and was almost completely unoccupied. This, in some sense, is a success.

But this success requires a very selective view of its goals. The urban regeneration of the last 13 years has been what has been described by Jonathan Meades as 'the Brandwagon'. This describes the sudden apparent revival of post-industrial land in inner cities and by riversides, areas often previously used by shipbuilding and other heavy industry, and thus mostly destroyed during the Thatcherite period. Often this process begins with the construction of a large cultural building, for example the Guggenheim Museum built in Bilbao by Frank Gehry in 1997, which according to disciples of the process acts as a catalyst for the regeneration of the surrounding area. In the UK, the signature building as regeneration catalyst has often resulted in half-hearted designs from famous architects, vapidly signifying something or other about the supposed history of the location. This then swiftly becomes surrounded by new speculative apartment buildings. However in many respects these buildings are worse than they were during the reviled post-war period. They are universally small - often worse than the Parker Morris standards that governed house building from the late 1960s. As far as design is concerned, this has been almost uniformly terrible, a shiny, plasticky, "FUN" embodiment of early-new labour values, modernism without anything that might upset the 'Mondeo Man'. Although concrete - with its ideologically loaded aesthetic - has been mostly off the menu for the external skins of recent housing buildings, the materials that they are clad in are often of the most flimsy and short-lived, and it will be interesting to watch as the bet-hedging architecture of the last ten years becomes filthy and drab. The aesthetic is one of boosterism rather than any genuine commitment to the troubled areas that these buildings were actually erected within.

And of course many of the properties were bought as investments, buy-to-let and so on - a soufflé economy. When the crash occurred a vast amount of new housing was unoccupied, and large amounts of it remain so even now.
But it gets even worse. Labour made little to no attempt to push money into social housing. The nearest thing that we got were gently nudges such as 'key worker housing' or even 'affordable housing quotas', which was an attempt to legislate with developers that their luxury apartments had to offer low-cost units within the whole. Needless to say this was strongly resisted within the industry, with such cop-outs as affordable housing being built offsite when the site itself was too valuable, and studio flats being used as affordable housing when of course the people who needed it most are often those with larger families.

In fact, New Labour continued the process of transferring social housing out of government control and into housing associations, thus setting in action loops whereby these housing associations, as profit-making entities, acted directly against their tenants. The worst example of this were the 'Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder' schemes in the North of England, whereby whole areas of housing deemed to have suffered 'market failure' were demolished as a way of stimulating demand and hopefully raising house prices. Accordingly, what has occurred is that councils have been accused of deliberately running down areas of housing in order to then make a profit through their demolition and sale to property developers.

There's a rather horrible feeling some of us have right now, because we've spent the best part of a decade complaining about how awful the urbanism of New Labour is, and now it's about to get a whole lot worse.
CABE, the design advisory body, has been axed. Deeply flawed and borderline corrupt as it was, at the very least there was a body whose remit was to uphold standards of design. Arguably this led to the offensively mild Blairite style that I've mentioned above, as designs were made whose intent appeared to be to please absolutely everyone. Instead, at the current conjuncture the architectural charity of the Prince of Wales, bete noir of the architectural profession, has expressed an interest in taking over this advisory service. Normally an idea like this would receive nothing but scorn, but right now it seems entirely plausible.
The ConDem government's proposals on capping housing benefit payments mean that there is a strong chance that the ongoing gentrification of central London will accelerate, leading to what you might describe as 'Parisification', and the effects further north in the cities that suffer from the UK's ridiculous focus of wealth and work in London will most likely be allowed to decline yet further. Meades' film ends with the statement that the long term meaning of urban regeneration is that there will be 'no riots within the ring road', while showing footage of the 2005 Paris riots. This is a very real and dangerous possibility.
The government is also attempting to remove targets for house building, which for a long time has been the most significant challenge that the country faces in terms of its living arrangements - the ridiculously low levels of replacement and new building. This at least partially deliberate policy of scarcity has been one of the causes of the housing bubble, and shows no signs of abating. The consequences of this are very dangerous - one of the main factors that has been feeding into support for far-right groups in the UK has been the shortage of housing, and the perception that immigrants are given preferential treatment by local government housing policy. It is no coincidence that the BNP strongholds in the south of England are areas east of London where people have been forced outwards towards as the inner city becomes ever more expensive.

The difficulties seen now are seemingly intractable.
Architects of the 1970s were fascinated by revolutions in the form of housing. Rather than the monolithic and monumental concrete apartment blocks, the young post-68 generation were interested in indeterminacy, freedom from sedentary lifestyles and ideas of nomadism. They saw new technologies of building services as offering the potential for self-organising architecture: lightweight, cheap, replaceable, high performance.
But of course Thatcher pandered to the desire to be homeowners, and encouraged the worship of the house. A home is a fairly rudimentary object, but it is encrusted with symbolic detail, signifying deeply held desires. Although the means have been there for a long time, housing remains a technologically backward industry, reliant on 'wet' trades and bespoke construction. 1997 presented an opportunity to genuinely attempt a modernisation of the house-building industry, but it was missed by the myopic New Labour project, instead leaving us with vulgar monuments to vapid greed.
To sum up, because it is so inherently capital-intensive, change in architecture can only really come from the top-down. We cannot now, nor could we ever, trust developers and speculators to create the housing that we need, and we have been terribly let down by the last government. It seems unlikely that the housing situation will improve in the UK without a shift in ideology, and a resurrection of the notion that collective housing is a vital and civilised way of organising the way we dwell.

So, basically:

Spiteful article comes out, decries lack of criticism, mentions me both negatively and positively (even compliments me for something I haven't written, although I suspect the writer was referring to this.).

People start responding, although it would seem that I'm not considered to be a part of this discussion.

I mean, I'd hate for this to be about my ego, but if what I write here is not criticism, then what the fuck am I actually doing, and why would I be mentioned at all?

Friday, 12 November 2010

Coming & Going

Well! Haven't I been a busy boy...

This month you can find me in Blueprint magazine, although perhaps not for a reason you might think. In fact, if their rather spiteful article is to be believed, then apparently I'm one of the 'new establishment'. Although it shouldn't really be dignified with a response, I'll take this opportunity to suggest that I'm available for hire as one of the new establishment! I can write, when I'm not too exhausted of course, and I have a track record of being able to effectively sublimate my navel-gazing misery into pithy architectural critique. Although if anyone can find out where I've written about Zaha's Aquatics Centre, as referenced in the article, then let me know...

I will be speaking this Saturday as part of the Historical Materialism conference. My talk will be about the architectural failure of the last thirteen or so years in British Housing. I currently intend to discuss the future as well, if you can imagine that.

As usual I'm in Icon, and this month there are literally FIVE pieces by yours truly... The magazine has been redesigned (well I think - borders are the new full-bleeds!), and I really do advise you check it out. I've written about a Japanese house to die in, the Skyroom in Borough, a shelter in the Azores, a sauna in the centre of a Czech reservoir, and most importantly for me, Patrick Keiller's 'Robinson in Ruins'.

I've been very busy recently. I wish I had a better work/work/work balance, but this is how it goes, I suppose.
Until the next time, which I genuinely hope will be soon...

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Can Architecture Fail Better?

This weekend just passed I spent in Warsaw, in a hotel just on the edge of the massive square under the Palace of Culture. I don't possess a camera these days so there was no way I could really make a documented journey that I could share with you, but of course Owen has already done so rather bloody well. I must say that I really enjoyed my coffee outside of Powisle station, ruminating on certain particularities of Warsaw pact urbanism, which I've picked up in previous travels to Poland, the Czech Republic, East Germany and Slovakia. Such features include the width of the pavements, always generous, the unfussy borders between pavements and grass / shrubbery, and of course the accentuated distance between buildings. Top that all off with a windswept plaza and you're really somewhere.

My reason for being there was a talk to be given at the Museum of Modern Art, which awaits its eventual relocation into a building by Swiss architect Christian Kerez. I've previously interviewed him over the phone, and his English sounds uncannily like that of Werner Herzog's, which was eerie to say the least… I must say I'm impressed with his Warsaw project, which has hints of the best of post-war Brazilian Brutalism, and I hope that when it is realised it is as good a building as it appears in the drawings and renders.

Anyway, I'd like to share with you my notes for the talk, which I ended up kind of ad-libbing in the end. It's an early attempt to push ideas a bit further than they go in my book, but at the same time is a little bit of an elucidation into some of the ideas contained in it. Please forgive the conversational tone.


As you may have noticed, we are at the current time experiencing a new period of ruinenlust. But the subject of this passion for ruins is modernism; many of the 20th century’s experiments in changing the spatial patterns of politics, aesthetics and life still exist, ever more poignant due to the faded urgency of their expressions of tomorrow. The ruins of modernism figure heavily in the work of contemporary artists such as Jane and Louise Wilson, Cyprien Galliard, Tacita Dean, or Jeremy Millar. To that you should add the new book by Owen Hatherley, and the recent film by Patrick Keiller 'Robinson in Ruins'.
So there are a number of strands of what we might call ruin-thought currently at work. To these I would like to add my own area of research, which in a very clichéd way might be described as a history of the future.
I too am interested in the ruin, but in my research the ruin has cometo signify something more abstract than the abandoned and the decayed. I might be able to talk about the 'abstract ruin', but I think that a better word to describe my research is perhaps the word 'failure'. To me, 'failure' is a word which describes not only its literal meaning, not achieving one's goals etc… but also a certain way of seeing.
One might call it 'urban romanticism' perhaps, or maybe 'architectural melancholy', but it refers to, and is drawn to a certain active repression of negativity in architectural culture, a repression that one can uncover through the examination of fragments. I contend that this constant repression is not only a process of aestheticisation but is also a politically charged repression as well. Hopefully I can give you a few examples here tonight.
I will look at a number of different types of building and discuss ways in which this 'failed' condition appears in them. What I will be trying to tease out is a certain 'radical weakness'.

Iron and glass palaces

I will start from what are often attributed as the very beginning of modern architecture, the iron & glass palaces. Made possible through the development of industrially mass-produced cast-iron and plate glass, these buildings evolved from the construction of small orangeries attached to the sides of aristocratic housing till by the middle of the 19th century they had become the largest enclosed spaces in the world, accommodating massive exhibitions, huge displays of flora, as well as covered shopping streets and railway stations. It is not to exaggerate to say that they accommodated some of the most significant changes in ways of life that were occurring at the time; the birth of consumer capitalist culture, the beginnings of mass transit and mobility.

Perhaps the most famous of these buildings is the Crystal Palace, built in London in 1851 to house the Great Exhibition, which in the words of Prince Albert, was "to give us a true test and a living picture of the point of development at which the whole of mankind has arrived." the Crystal Palace was a gigantic web of mass-produced iron & glass, a vast display cabinet containing over 100,000 exhibits, ranging from industrial machinery to raw materials, from fabrics to furniture. Over 6 million people visited the exhibition in six months, one of the most significant early moments in mass culture.

On the one hand the Great Exhibition was a way of symbolically demonstrating Britain's lead in the industrial race, but at the same time it was an event that was born from elite fears of insurgency; conceived in the wake of the failed European revolutions of 1848 and the Chartists revolt, a fear of the working class was a prominent accompaniment to the exhibition. However, not only did the Exhibition help to placate working class anger, it also united the aristocracy and bourgeoisie behind the banner of free trade, inaugurating a new regime of spectacular capitalism: Walter Benjamin wrote that at the Great Exhibition "the masses, barred from consuming, learned empathy with exchange value".

It is frequently thought of as the definitive example of proto-modernist architecture, the work of an engineer-genius who defined a new language of prefabrication and minimal regularity. Overall these iron & glass buildings ushered in a whole new regime of spatial qualities. Compared to the prevailing mood for beaux-arts eclecticism, massive, monumental, a language belonging to the initiates, the weightlessness and lack of conventional language made these buildings highly controversial. For many there was no way that they could be considered architecture at all, examples of 'mere engineering', unsuitable for existing in cities. Very soon aesthetic cowardice would prevail and iron and glass buildings would be constructed behind monumental masonry facades, (take, for example the 1893 Columbian Exhibition, which marked a return to Beaux-arts aesthetics, and about which the modernist Louis Sullivan would remark: "The damage wrought by the World’s Fair will last for half a century from its date, if not longer")

It is not at all difficult to understand the transition from the great exhibitions on to buildings such as shopping malls and other such vast commercial spaces, but there is far more to them than that.

First of all, there were a number of more utopian views of the Crystal Palace. One can be found in Chernyshevsky’s novel ‘What is to be Done?’. In a celebrated passage the Crystal Palace (which Chernyshevsky visited in 1859) appears to the heroine in a dream; functioning as a symbol of a peaceful socialist future brought about through rationalism and technology. (Later, Tatlin's monument to the third international would be described by the critic Victor Schklovsky as being “made of iron, glass and revolution”) The transparency, lightness and rationalism of iron and glass was seen by many radical critics in the early 20th century as a forward looking counter to the eclectic styles of the bourgeoisie. (See German Expressionism, or Siegfried Giedion etc...)

A less avant-garde attitude was that of the well meaning 19th century concept of 'improvement', whereby the lower classes were to be given access to culture in the hope not only of improving their lot, but also reducing the risk of working-class discontent. When the Crystal Palace was rebuilt after the exhibition was over, its owners were adamant that this massive building would be used as a space for, as described in its charter, "the illustration and advancement of the Arts, Sciences and Manufactures, and the cultivation of a refined taste amongst all classes of the community." Try to imagine a building that housed a massive concert venue (20,000+ capacity), with a series of museum spaces in which various architectural styles were rebuilt and mimicked, along with gardens, displays of art and sculpture as well as an art & engineering school. It basically contained every artistic and cultural activity that you might think of, all contained within a gigantic display case.

But far from the glorious monument it is often remembered as, the Crystal Palace itself lurched from crisis to crisis, never actually living up to its lofty intentions, and never managed to make any money, prompting the following comments:

"Glass, as we know, is an excellent non-conductor of heat; it is possible that it is also a non-conductor of coin & prosperity."

It slowly became dilapidated (like so many other buildings of its kind) and eventually burned down in 1936.

I recall a visit to the Crystal Palace during a summer in the mid 1930’s; it presented a most woe-begone picture, peeling and sun blistered paintwork, the glass grimy, ironwork encrusted with rust and stonework suffering from erosion. Overall was a film of black dust that seemed to invade everywhere.

And against monumentality, weakness is, perhaps, one of the defining characteristics of the palaces and their culture. From the very simple sense that compared to all architecture that had gone before the palaces looked as delicate as a spider’s web, “the most fairy-like production of Architectural Art that had yet been produced" ethereal, almost completely transparent, to the worries before the Great Exhibition that the building would collapse at the first heavy wind, to the very word ‘Crystal’, with its connotations of the fragility of glass, to their susceptibility to fire and collapse, to their pathetic fights against commercial decline, we should stress the strong narratives of weakness that attend the culture of the iron & glass buildings.

Eventually, nearly all the iron and glass buildings of the 19th century were demolished, or were destroyed, victims of neglect and a number of other conditions.

“these buildings vanished from the mental horizon like a fata morgana, like a shimmering soap bubble that could not survive the forces of the times and burst into tiny pieces."

Now, at this point I would like to note various other buildings with these qualities, failed, ruined architectures, bearers of the qualities that couldn't be allowed to happen.


Perhaps the next time that a pure aesthetic of this kind would appear would be in the work of the most radical left-wing architects. Takes Hannes Meyer, head of the Bauhaus from 1928-30, who was fired by the fascist mayor of Dessau for donating money to striking workers, and who would design buildings for trade unions as part of a collective practice with his students. His competition entry for the League of Nations (1927, unbuilt) made great play of the egalitarian overtones of modularity and repetitive units; compared to Le Corbusier’s heroic modernist entry to the same competition Meyer’s was rough and full of radical commitment, with a gigantic steel & glass dome over the assembly. Critic Kenneth Frampton makes the connection explicit: referring to Meyer’s radically democratic deployment of prefabricated units and the privileging of process over composition, he wrote that
“All unity is now seen to reside not in some pre-ordained static ideal, as in antiquity, but in process itself, as made manifest through the proliferation of rationalized technique in response to changing need. Hannes Meyer’s design for the League of Nations building of 1927, with its systematic modular assembly of components, clearly intends little else but such a manifestation. In this respect one can hardly overlook its significant derivation as technical method from Paxton’s Crystal Palace." This is a very strong deployment of the aesthetic, naked prefabrication coming to stand as a metaphor for socialist organization.

Now of course the building is crude, and lacks a certain sophistication compared to Le Corbusier's more celebrated entry. But there is a certain charge to the rudimentary grid and its deployment, and considering the function of the building, the political message that would be put across can be seen to be almost unbearable; there is not a political organization that one can imagine that would be able to send the message that their power is prefabricated and generic.


British architect Cedric Price was in some ways perhaps the ultimate ‘functionalist’ - he had the required faith in technology and the belief in a changing society, but compared to his contemporaries Buckminster Fuller, Archigram in the UK and the various radial architecture groups at that point, his projects were based on a level of analytical rigour that was a world apart from his fellows.

Price was well known for commitment to indeterminacy, his aversion to style, his absolute rejection of monumentality and detail. Bearing in mind that a non-aesthetic is still an aesthetic, if we examine Price’s built work we can begin to see remarkable parallels with the iron & glass palaces, with their immateriality and their un-ruined dilapidation.

Price’s Aviary at London Zoo (1961-) is a spacious wire tent, so immaterial as to be almost non-existent. Filled with trees, it was intended to be quickly removed once the birds had made their permanent home, but is still standing, dirty yet proud.

His famous ‘Fun Palace’ project is very similar to the system of courts we discussed inside the Sydenham Palace; a minimal superstructure was to be filled with a shifting set of fragmented spaces for various leisure purposes. But while the courts of the Sydenham Palace were nominally static, the Fun Palace was to be structured in such a way that it could be reconfigured at any time. The Fun Palace has become a very significant project, highly popular with those in the art world with a passion for interdisciplinarity or relational aesthetics etc. For this reason I think it's important to not let it be an intellectual plaything of jet-set curators justifying their own patronisingly class-less and whimsical collaborations. In fact, contrary to the repeated injunctions, I think it's vitally important to consider the aesthetics of the fun palace, consider what kind of political and ideological message a building of its kind expresses. In fact, until recently there was an opportunity in London to do just that.

The InterAction Centre (1976-2003) was a scaled down version of the ideas from the Fun Palace. A lightweight and stripped down frame was constructed into which containers and other industrial objects were inserted to create an evolving and adaptable set of activities. Again, the comparisons to iron & glass are telling; the spindle-like frame, the sense of potential for expansion and contraction, the incomplete spaces made up by fragmentary units within, the dirt and grime that collected around the permanently-temporary structure, all these things were visible in the Crystal Palace, while the programmatic concerns of activity & delight were modern versions of the ‘people’s palace’. Price built little, and would probably reject this assessment of his work, but I suggest that what you can see there is an example of what a genuine future would look like, if the revolutionary change of the late ‘60s had been more successful. Dirty but not ruined, dream-like and un-monumental – Fantastically dreary.


Now of course one might see certain tendencies that are currently active; it's true that the exhibition culture of the late 19th century did lead to the shopping mall capitalism, and also true that the culture & fun palaces as described before also provide roots and glimpses of the worldwide phenomenon of the contemporary art museum, There's another, more hidden route that these histories lead forward to. I'd like to talk here about LSSB's, or 'Large Single Story Buildings', or otherwise known as 'Big Sheds'.

These are possibly the most exemplary buildings of contemporary capitalism, functioning as distribution centres for goods. These buildings occupy space with high infrastructural density, and are perhaps the closest things to 'pure' architecture that exist any more. They are very difficult to love, almost entirely lacking in aesthetic reference points, significantly, these structures are almost entirely ignored by the architectural press in a manner that cannot help bring to mind that manner in which iron and glass architecture was ignored. Although they were described by the late British critic Martin Pawley as 'the architecture of the future' in 1998, this was not necessarily a recommendation. These buildings represent some of the only spatial manifestations of globalised capitalism, moments in the networks of container ships, automated container ports and so on. They are rare points where immaterial capitalism 'touches down'.

But if they have been ignored by architects themselves, they have been approached by artists. Patrick Keiller's 1997 film 'Robinson in Space' goes in search of the spatial qualities of contemporary British capitalism, expecting to find decline but instead being confronted with the blank faces of a then-thriving culture. Distribution parks built on former coal mines, the cheapest and most efficient spaces possible. More recently, Chris Petit's film 'Content' (2010) also attempts to aesthetically approach these almost entirely blank spaces. In the words of Petit, the big sheds 'render architecture redundant'. Is it possible to look to these buildings with a similar eye to those that saw fragments of the future in iron & glass?