Monday, 28 November 2011

Off to Bracknell

I was recently in Bracknell. I'm not entirely sure why. It's a town which lies about an hour on the train from central London, although it's not really that far outside. For some reason or other the day carried with it a faintly sad air, the sun weak and low in the sky, few people around and with crisis in the air.

At first I went through Reading. A few months ago (issue 097) I wrote a feature for ICON on the space frame and its cultural significance, and how its popularity at a certain time in the economic cycle of building has meant that those that are left in our cities are frequently sad and neglected looking buildings, covered in dust, with various bits of servicing detritus stuffed into their voids, spindly and unattractive. At the time I had never seen the train station at Reading, but there you go - it fits perfectly into my theory.

I'm a big fan of the lurid cock'n'balls drawing, as something which unites human culture across all our conceivable moments of history. This was a particularly good one, the method of whose creation I couldn't work out - there was no apparent material that had been put down, merely a dried-out patch of tarmac. The timelessness evoked by the priapic doodle would reappear later in my wander.

Someone must have thought that nobody was looking, so they could design something like this monster. It's not quite sure if it wants to be mega kitsch, or slick Miesian, and the confusion doesn't help it one iota.

Bracknell felt very much like a place straight out of the ghost box mythos. This shouldn't be at all surprising, it being a post-war new town built around the remains of a small village. This image says an awful lot about the place - see the Victorian church, whose churchyard is practically throttled by the oversized ring-road. But see also the humdrum modernist building in the foreground, a quotidian lump, brick and painted timber, of a style that you can still find up and down the UK. I spent my first three years at school in a building just like that.

What the Ghost Box world actively excludes is the built world of Blairism; and here we have a ridiculously representative example of 21st century pseudomodernism. Bracknell & Wokingham College is no 'Belbury Poly', although at times they may have been similar. I'm not convinced about this, but I'm willing to suggest that this college is one of many across this island who amalgamated and consolidated themselves over the last fifteen years. During the property boom it was the strategy of many colleges to sell off all but one of their campuses to property developers and then build a new, single building with the courses combined. It made perfect sense at the time of course, and in an earlier incarnation I actually worked on a few projects like that, but of course the highlight was always visiting the doomed buildings, engineering workshops, art studios, cookery classrooms, with their unassuming modernism, their dusty windows, their dowdy detailing, but also the sense of life, of a different, lost culture wafting through them.

Apparently, after a cursory glance at old wikipedia, this is one of the oldest buildings in all of Bracknell, a 17th century coach house.  

And just coming around the corner, in the shadow of the college's somewhat needless cantilever (thanks to Ellis Williams Architects...), you come across this kind of thing. Shite, just shite. Where does this language come from? How do people design buildings with such a lack of flair? Why do developers build buildings with balconies looking out over a busy ring road? This kind of thing is so utterly lacking in charm or finesse, or even effort that it's just a shame that people actually have to live in them at all, let along be forced to aspire towards living in one!

This AVIS building has shades of John Outram's pumping station on the Isle of Dogs.

And back to the horror of the 'dromes, deafened by the traffic, fenced off behind the road. There are ways you can deal with these kind of situations - a number of buildings which shield themselves from motorways or busy railways would give you an idea, but it seems that these have just been parachuted straight in from sketchup hell, a non place of non places.

Thankfully this gave way to something slightly more interesting. Look at the building on the left, designed in the eighties but perhaps only completed by the early 90s, still flogging the pomo donkey, then in the middle, a bit of earnest, self-deceptive office architecture of the 21st century, acting as modern as possible, and then to the right, the penny-pinching, mean, but utterly efficient modular architecture of the traveller's hotel. The level of standardisation that these people can achieve is ridiculous - if you want to see the utter refinement of generic plan-based architecture, you only have to look at buildings churned out by the hotel industry.

Oh! Public art! What happened? Our recent history is littered with small-ish bronze sculptures, quasi-abstract, sometimes almost figurative, with titles such as 'FULCRUM IX' or what have you, earnest and damned, swept away by colour, neo-classicism, brute corporate power and juvenile symbolism. There is heart in this naive modernist sculpture that we seem to have forgotten, where every estate, polytechnic, small office building, shopping arcade, etc would have some second rate Moore or Calder or Hepworth approximation stationed outside, sentinels of abstraction.

The offices along this road did not seem to be doing too well. Near empty parking lots, curtains drawn, lights off in the receptions.

By this point it was very much reaching 'The Office' levels of abjection. A building on its last legs is a sorry sight, far more so than a ruin, with its sublime pleasures. A building due for demolition is perhaps the worst, with the thought of all the life that might have gone on under its wan lights, its cheap ceilings. What resentments, what ambitions, what nervous breakdowns and demeaning love affairs have taken place while this was the headquarters of a, say, electric shower manufacturer?

No, there's nothing quite like the pathos of a small office block lying empty.

More ongoing collapse.

Yet more.

One of the things that is notable about Bracknell's built environment is the effort that the council have put into decorating the underpasses, of which there a legion. This one is hardly much of an effort, but there are more intriguing ones to be seen.

There is something about the simplicity of form that one gets from modernist architecture and infrastructure that is constantly creating 'compositions'; dynamic fields of line and shape, complex and compelling. Underpasses, cantilevers, all inject even the simplest of views with the drama of a supremacist painting. If you are in the right mood to see, then merely walking under a main road becomes an adventure in poised and tense formal relationships.  

Another last quivering sneeze from the pomo virus.

All of a sudden, and you might find yourself inside a George Shaw painting, all drooping telephone cables, half-hearted housing, bleached fences, that British sense of choking banality. 

Composition with Stairs and Railings XII (2011)

Composition with Stairs and Railings XXIV (2011)

I mean, honestly, the number of plunges down and rises above the street level that it took to navigate around Bracknell was intense. I have no problem with this of course, fearing no droogs, but it could have down with some overpasses as well, to be honest.

This underpass was a riot of seasonal landscape paintings, bleeding deep reds and greens into the gloom. Strangely it's a very dark set of colours to have in an underground space, but then it seems to work with the warmth of them all. 

And what warmth! Yes, it's picturesque isn't it. In the centre of the huge roundabout, a park, with the fiery trees and the yellowing, setting sun. You'd have to be cold of heart not to melt at the sight. I moved on.


This is what I was referring to when I saw the cock'n'balls earlier on. In one of the tunnels under the streets has been painted a history of communications media (a reference to the predominance of IT and high-tech firms based in the town). Now, as someone with a strong leaning towards theories of culture that focus upon the archive, this is amazing. It begins with the cave painters, the very beginnings of the archive, the first marks made for memorialising or commemorating, and proceeds across many stages, through Gutenberg, to the phonograph and then of course to the computer. The 35,000 year journey from earliest marks to the near-absolute archive of today. Can we even imagine a further stage beyond this? If every mark we now make is recorded, stored, then the issue is one of sifting, of finding within the now-near infinitely piled up fragments of culture the objects, moments, facts that will allow us to narrate a history through this cacophony of memories. But even if we are at the end of the archive, we will never be able to retrieve that which was never marked down.

But rather than musing further on matters of archives, of ghosts, of information and forgetting, I trudged on, into further new-town aesthetics.

Of pale grey office blocks for the council, hints of Robin Hood Gardens, of flags and administration.

The Library. Perhaps being transformed into a skeletal fun-palace of indeterminacy, but probably not. 

The centre of Bracknell was both a pleasure to wander around but it was also very sad. A pleasure because of its townscape planning and 'festival style' architecture, but sad due to the lack of people, the empty shops, the sense of there being, you know, a massive recession ongoing, and a catastrophic collapse somewhat imminent.

But the architecture was very charming, all scandinavian influenced diet modernism; quietly hopeful...

And the mosaic on concrete is such a quintessentially 'festival style' detail. Up and down the UK, the little ceramic mosaic adorns all manner of buildings in their early old-age. 

More people were around this street, but it was clear that commerce was not moving swiftly. If the shops were not selling generic discount wares they were empty, or given over to artists to at least keep them busy looking. 


Ah, murals. If it's not 'FULCRUM XI' in bronze as described before, then it's a mural of good working people. Not quite an Eric Gill, but there's something about it nonetheless.

This unwieldy brute loomed up above the main square. Although dramatic, I'm pretty worried that nobody in there is getting much light in there, what with the depth of the plan. But still, it's an interesting example of something that would look much more at home in East London than out here. 

Could this image be any more evocative of post-war Britain? 'Festival Style' building, with a pedestrian rout underneath, a sad looking bandstand (with those lozenge shapes that were popular in the 1950s - where did they come from?), two strolling boys, as well as signs to the post office and the college. The CCTV and mobile phone shop seem like such an anachronism in this scene.

A real mural. Royalty, animals, industry, lives, fighting, objects, stories, memories, narratives.

The square in full. The bland office block in the corner, the parapet details on the raised building to the right, the raised walkways, the fountain (in shadow), the low rise shopping, this was almost an uncanny vision of the post-war British town, almost too perfect an example to be real.

I mean, it even has a expressionist modernist catholic church, for god's sake! It couldn't be more new town if it tried.

This was horrible though. Such a grim canopy, dirty, cheap, over-engineered, pigeon netted. What's more, hanging out of shot is a banner saying "LOVE SHOPPING      SEE YOU AGAIN SOON", as if it wasn't depressing enough. It's difficult, because as you might have noticed I'm a bit of fan of sad looking canopies and other such structures, but there was just something ignorant and heavy about this one that oppressed so.

I'm a huge fan of the escape staircase, as the virtuosic modernist counterpoint to the straight-laced gridded orthographic building. Le Corbusier was a real master at making his escape staircases work for the building, in his Indian projects especially, they are eccentric, angled structures putting the whole building into a sort of compositional tension. And here, I spotted one upon which an effort had been made. 

Oh, and it was a beauty! Old, withering, absolutely covered in moss and mould, yet expressive and flamboyant, it was almost as if it had been uncovered from the jungle, a lost monument to getting out of a building in case of fire. 

As I was gazing up at the entrance here, with its hardwood banisters (another architectural detail loaded with social democratic memory and weight), an older lady walked past me and said "Why are you taking pictures of that horrible building?"

Leaving for the train station, I came upon this - it's the entrance and exit to the car park of the shopping centre whose canopy I was so disparaging of. But here, gosh! The multiple levels, the bold structure, the overlapping and twisting spaces! I went underneath to see where those steps led but they went only to some dirty old locked doors. Still, they gave an impressive vantage point from which to survey the convolutions of the twirling ramps.

Home. The trip out was along a route I have oft travelled, for various different reasons, and with various different people. For some reason this time it was a source of much bitterness, as the innocuous sight of the horrible blue roofs on the top of a particular housing estate just outside of Reading brought flooding back soft memories of travel that scoured and retched against the present and its current arrangement. In all it was strange, the mood of Bracknell was very much one that befitted the state of mind of the traveller at that time, autumnal, deserted, in decline, perhaps doomed - at certain points the poverty of some of the inhabitants was very much made clear, and the imminent decline of the high street was tangible. This is what being in London hides: for all its poverty, London -due to its immense attractive force- is still able to fill its spaces, for however long. But London is not the truth of the UK, rather its anomaly, its sickness.

Anyway, the route I took back to London was not along the oft-travelled main line but across the various dormitory towns that cover the area, giving a chance to examine landscapes unseen, before drifting into Waterloo as the sun disappeared, dense, crepuscular, choked. 

And I thought I'd share this view of Lloyd's. It won't be there for long because they've started building the Leadenhall Building again.

A friend of mine used to live in the Petticoat Square Estate, and I swear it's a real undiscovered gem. We'd often call it the 'Baby Barbican' due to it being actually within the city of london, bounded on three sides by office buildings and on the other side the textile trade.

And it's a lovely place. The flats are nice if a little small, often in the form of densely packed maisonettes. The massing is dramatic and fun, with escape staircases and walkways all over the place, the buildings reacting to their odd-shaped site not by bending but by staggering across the facade, giving it a strange lego-ish look. If you've never seen it you should have a look, as I've no idea how it will survive over the next years of city encroachment and economic collapse.