Saturday, 28 April 2012

A Home is Not a House

If you want to understand some old fashioned dualities, that architecture is for instance and almost by definition clean and building almost by definition dirty, or that builders are about building and architects are about worrying about building, then turn your house in to a building site. It's not fun and it's expensive but it makes you think. For one, because everything is dirty, none of the delicate systems we 'build in' to operate everything from kettles and boilers to communication devices of all kinds, suddenly work! And if they do work they suddenly look as if they shouldn't, bits of wire hanging out and sad looking dusty screens don't make for confidence, and all of these things have to be fixed by remote consultation with other systems, even the internet connection has to be re-authorised by other people. But architects don't know much about pipes and wires! Your average architect couldn't keep up with the specifications even if he was interested. The problem for architects is their specialism is generalism. So no wonder architects have fetishized this stuff so consistently.
It is true conceptually then, that the 'architecture' of the house has indeed become all those pipes and wires Reyner Banham and Archigram proselytised, unfortunately rather innocently, and that we have left our notion of home behind. But unfortunately our everyday houses are not yet built by NASA, they are built  by Nic, Fiona and somebody called Moscow, and Nic's not worried like you are, he's filthy, and waiting for his Friday night wrap.
The sixties in architecture, marked by Archigram in particular, should therefore represent a crucial moment in the increasing specialisation of the building industry, whereby architects have finally become technocrats wielding spreadsheets, while builders do something else entirely (that is unless you are in NASA or Switzerland, who happen to represent the most impossibly benign of utility providers). Archigram didn't get the politics, it remains a happy land, Superstudio did (image above) and it looks monstrous, and they manifested that monstrosity in pictures.
Today the possibility of architecture students understanding 'building technology' at all seems more remote than ever, it represents an absolute innocence, and if you follow the logic, that should be exactly the case; such a schism is inevitable and unbreachable. Architects have become conveyors of happy looking pictures, pieces of desire, advertising (very Archigram) but also, crucially (and not very Archigram at all) the professional minders of backs. This I suspect, is extremely sad for a hopeful young architecture student to understand, that all his or her basic instincts about enjoying building (homes!) are squashed under the weight of the divisive superstructure of late capitalism.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Barcelona 2 Chelsea 3

We are checking out, perhaps because we can't stand another episode of Wheeler Dealers, a sort of staple diet of hotel room life. It's on now, and I'm lingering in the emptied room for a bit, snow falling in my head.
Of course we could have got kicked out for the row I made last night when Chelsea performed the impossible. I knew I was the only one screaming profanities to start, but in the end the place had quite an atmosphere. I wouldn't say the hotel bar rocked, but that was close as it was ever going to get. That's the thing about a great football match, and that was a great football match, it transports you somewhere else. My memory will be that lingering shot of the visiting Chelsea fans, stuffed way up in the rafters of the Nou Camp, who refused to leave that other place, that and Torres of course. Ten men, Barcelona beaten, just epic.
For a person who doesn't drink I've got one hell of a hangover. Better go and buy that kettle.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Alessi on my Mind

Last day in Rm338, last day of the excellent ham and and cheese omelette and chips in Billy's Cafe opposite. You wonder what to do, the answer, of course, with home improvements on your mind, is shopping. But I hate shopping and we're broke with the hotel and so I just walked down to SCP instead for a bit of interior design porn, which is what it is of course, and then wandered further through Shoreditch's designer pornland just like a tourist, and rather amazed, wide eyed, to be honest. What a difference a decade can make. Just when and how was 'Le Beau Velo - Made to Measure Bicycles' conceived? However I still had that Wiel Arrets Alessi kettle in my head when I popped in to the White Horse as almost it's only afternoon customer. You could think this a bit of an embarrassment, being the only bloke staring at Tina and Julia and Sylvia and Coco strip to the buff through the middle of the afternoon for a quid each, but it would hardly have been right to leave either. It was one of those conundrums. Now this is real retro I thought, as I nuzzled my mineral water and thought it immensely rude to leave. Anyway I thought, anybody who does come through the door seems to have a beard.
By the time I'd got to the pit to pick up the post and not talk to Scott about progress I was in the mood for no good news at all. Not even steeling myself with a large one I was resigned.
However, to my amazement, as I crept along the deck access I was greeted by plumes of puffing exhaust pumping healthily through the air. Fuck global warming, it's the boiler! Without even a snorkel! Tangible warmth in every way. My heart sang. Like arriving home on the plain!

Sunday, 22 April 2012


Looking at USA Today, the pace of miniaturization is so intense ipods, or whatever is next, will soon be literally under our skin. This is a common enough concern for the conceptually minded young architect, has been since the sixties, when Archigram's 'Cushicle' and 'Manzak the Electronic Tomato' first drew architecture to rank alongside perfume.
Where will they stitch your new ipod? Probably in your arse, but when it goes wrong and phones your mother everytime you sit down, where are you going to go? I imagine little rooms at the back of Carphone Warehouse, crosses between barbers, dentists and opium dens, where the same people who used to serve you behind the counter, now with Btec's in phone surgery, will sort you out on the cheap. Clearly our technological future reeks of over optimism.
Even if I specified a new electric front door, I'd be an idiot. It would break.
The problem is surgery is not cheap, and the medical profession is still relatively primitive. It still, for instance, doesn't understand why I want a drink, it just tells me rather dumbly I shouldn't. That is hardly sophisticated with regard to bodies and minds, certainly not as sophisticated as the technology or advertising for ipods.
Meanwhile, my brother has just had a hip replacement, he's 60. he's had to have a hip replacement because for the last forty years he's had to get up at 3.30 in the freezing morning to milk cows. Because he's only 60, he will have to have another one when he's eighty or so. Nobody factored in the need for such surgery when they mechanized the milk production industry, nobody built the money in to his pension either. His boss still lives in the village manor house, my brother still courteously doffs his cap.

Saturday, 21 April 2012


One of the more deeply unpleasant things about The Voice is the propensity of almost anybody to say they are 'blessed' the whole time. I wonder of this obsession is a consequence of genuine R&B roots, or just another fashionable affectation like 'sick'. However that may be exactly how I feel about the whole R&B thing anyway (which I only hear as background music - so I'm hardly an aficionado but then I'm not sure you can be) that thing being, is all this crying about bitches and booty, projected with a glorification of celebrity and consumerism, a reasonable, even revolutionary response to being shat on as a black person for generations, or is it simply symptomatic of the most crass stereotyping imaginable? I've heard that 'selling out' is now considered very cool indeed.
God knows why I was ever a 'populist' for in general terms it turns out I can't stand people. (Sure I ran courses in Architecture for Tourism and Popular Architecture, both of which I'm proud of for their commitment to architecture as a genuine response to zeitgeist, and which may demonstrate I'm ever hopeful). I mean this mass of people I am supposed to support, believe in, find solidarity with, lets give it that the excellent french fraternite. Watching the rest of the world creep in and out of a Shoreditch hotel bar at lunch time to a background music of R&B doesn't leave me with a good impression, neither does reading USA Today, The Daily Mirror, or watching CNN.
Still, the boiler's in, we are indeed blessed.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Narrative in Architecture Today

Mies and Beckmann

Mies van de Rohe's favourite artist was Max Beckmann. Not Mondrian, not Arp, not Garbo, not Lissitsky, nobody abstract at all, and none of his Bauhaus colleagues. Beckmann, with his flesh and his despair and those fabulous thighs. When you are thinking about Mies van de Rohe I suspect you will understand more about his architecture with that little smidgen of information than with anything else.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Chelsea 1 Barca 0

I was going to publish earlier, I usually press 'publish' without thinking about it too much, but this time the last line saved was 'but it is important to concentrate more, by analogy, on Chelsea's almost non-existent chances against Barcelona tonight'.
Puyol is a great footballer, he's old, he's ugly, he's a lion. The way Drogba and Puyol intertwined in this footballing odyssey at Stanford Bridge in the pouring rain (I was soaked, Julie arrived soaked, we chased around for a decent pub, ended in the Trench as of old, noted all other pubs round here now full of youthful flat beret burlesque enthusiasts with talk of becoming film editors, retreated to the hotel at half time, encountered curious arseholes who thought 'the best team should win and it's obvious who they are' wanted to biff them instantly but in respect of two thousand years of civilization, held off, settled down to something like a middle class Martin Parr) each helping each other up off the pitch over and over, was fantastic to watch, over and over again, they helped each other up, like two ancient warriors, like something out of Homer indeed, Hector and Achilles I reckon. Tonight's battle seemed epic. I don't like it that my team (by extrapolation, our architecture in the biggest sense, whatever) have become what they are, but it is clear that you can still get to the most basic expression of the sport, even with all the money and all the crap, you still get wonderful stuff, and Chelsea were the better team, because they were better tactically in the manner of great organizers of forces big and small.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Hotel Room Life

You always look bad in a hotel room mirror, my hair always goes all Keith Floyd, and like him you pretty much always feel bad when you wake up in hotel rooms, no matter how swanky, and this is not swanky, it's just accented with fields of dark brown against soft white and B&W photoshopped collages of the City of London skyline. I spent years trying to persuade students not to be imaginative with hotel room design, to make sure they used double loaded corridors because it's all about the maid doing the rooms efficiently with those carts, and recommending ice machines by the lift. And if I can't see a concrete ceiling as I lie on the bed, I'm not happy, I want a suspended ceiling over the bathroom only, with a little step between the two for the air conditioning grill and the fire sprinkler, and a heat lamp in there, and shower fittings that I can figure out easily, on. I don't want architectural design, the whole point of hotel rooms, something the Americans gleefully understood long ago, is that they were all the same. After all here I'm waiting on (my own) architectural design, not trying to dress up as Lord Nelson to appropriately grace the Princess Caroline bijoux boutique suite. I'm waiting, I am between things, hanging in limbo, and rooms like these are just right for that, and it looks like it's going to be a long wait.
Most people leave their hotel rooms, but I'm stuck in here all day, at least until I go and visit our pit to witness our righteously slow progress. It's all about preparation, and nothing is ever straight, so it has to be straightened out. Even by 1959 they couldn't do straight, maybe we never will (I notice the bath panel here doesn't fit). For sure we shall have the only straight kitchen in Christendom by the time Scott's finished, which will probably be Christmas.
Hotel rooms have improved, you can work in here, you can die in here, there's not a lot of point in trying to do anything else. You leave the Discovery channel on and learn how to restore a 911, or listen curious as antique dealers accuse each other of not being nice people, you become dependent on sachets, you contemplate the whisky bottle and plastic porn and stare in the mirror. The mirror is never more than a few feet from your face.
But I've been working, working on the most over designed square footage of cupboard space ever imagined and periodically deeply ashamed of myself, longing for other options. While I could never buy them, I can at least admire the crappy low voltage light fittings in this hotel room, they are satisfactorily crappy, but then I've just spent three days in middle England getting close to an aneurysm over the design of a front door.

Thursday, 12 April 2012


Sat in a pub yesterday, looked more like an abandoned furniture warehouse. It was no doubt one of the hipper venues in Southend on Sea. They were playing The Clash. I thought; 'Proper London', 'London by the sea'. 'The only way, after all!' I was brought up with this crappiness, this exact kind of crappiness fits. At that moment I was staring across a car park at nothing much more than total crappiness, but it was the kind of left over crappiness you might find in Venice Beach Cal. It had a certain charm, a certain crappy charm.
'Look!- In that one room walk up over there across the car park probably resides another Motley Crue- it certainly couldn't house anybody else!' I said. A fat girl wearing roller skates sped past.
And when we walked along the front today it was peculiar to think that I'd spent so much time in the original Las Vegas and all the time it's approximation sits right here on the Essex coast, in the form of Las Vegas Grills, Stardust amusements, and even NYNY and the Monte Carlo next to each other, just like they are there.
Here's to the Happidrome (above). It may not be great architecture, but it certainly piles on the melancholy.

Photo by Julie Cook.

Apartment Le Corbusier

In no matter how many years of study it takes to become an architect, they never teach you, we never teach you, this bit. Staring out over the deep blue dawn of the estuary because you can't sleep (see below). You are responsible for it, but you are not the one doing it (you've left him up to his neck in it) and you have run out of unfortunate military metaphors; be it the avoidance of 'mission creep', the carnage of destruction, the consequences on the innocent (Pat next door) or the eventual crisis of resources. And this is just a kitchen. What we teach is apparently, to me right now, is just the dreamy bit.
It says a great deal for architecture that it's detachment from actually doing it has bred such a superfluous appetite for difficulty, for funny angles and complex juxtapositions across all areas, where the simple things are so hard to do in the first place.
Both of these things make me think of Le Corbusier's plan for his own apartment, the seventh and eighth floors of 24 Rue Nungesser et Coli (1934). From what I can see from the plans, the main access is from the service lift or main stair, both of which are peripheral, and the machinery room (no doubt expressed) of the main lift (stopping on the sixth floor) as a consequence occupies the space of his dining room*. Now I must go and see this. LC's enthusiasm for machinery extends to him hearing it, and staring at it as other people use it, as he contemplates his cornflakes and prepares for a morning painting in the studio across the hall? He creates for himself and Yvonne that kind of most secluded, detached, and yet intricately involved negotiation with the world around or in this case below them via this apparently simple manipulation of vertical circulation? Is this his most blatant expression of technological power?
From this perspective, now the new day has broken, he certainly understood something about this business. Our fun fair below will resume in a couple of hours I guess, and those container ships really do move at a rate of knots.

*On closer scrutiny it kinda does but doesn't, it's boxed in, but no doubt with access. It would no doubt have been much better in a glazed box.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012


We have retreated, to Southend on Sea, to a view of Tilbury, speeding container ships, and Adventure Island below. I left 'Old Scotty' in the rubble of our kitchen today. There he was, grey in dust, still brandishing his jackhammer. He'd found more concrete to remove, and him and his mate John looked pretty much like their aim was tunneling through to the other side (our neighbours downstairs). As I apologized to our neighbour next door, she did look pretty shaken.
This was supposed to be a light touch of a job, and now it looks like Stalingrad 1943. Still, we will persevere, I bade goodbye to Scott with the faith in final victory and a promise to order the IKEA worktops. Why is it all architectural jobs, if you want to do them properly, end up with such pain (it's still IKEA)? Or is that precisely why the cheap shit does so well? It's cheap, it's easy, and it's shit (we agree IKEA worktops are not entirely shit). Clearly Scott and I are in more ways than one a half century behind the times, we are ideologically driven to make it right, whatever it takes. I cannot put it any other way, you cannot stand up on the rubble of our kitchen right now, so it's up against the (remaining) wall for everybody else.

Monday, 9 April 2012

The Raw and the Cooked

The ritual of daily life here begins with turning the heating on. No matter the modern facilities, the elder of the house prefers a condition in the region of primordial freezing. I have found this to be not unusual amongst elders, even if it seems peculiar, even detrimental. The elder will, of course, as soon as he can get away with it, attempt to turn the heating off. These are the rules.
On the occasion of great holidays, the elder females will congregate to form something I will term 'a ruckus' while the elder male settles down to watch football for a very long period of time, if not all day. A great feast will very slowly be prepared, in this case an exact replication of the famous Christmas feast (since there was a turkey left over). In the ruckus the mature females enter various forms of competition, while their associated males will slowly join the party and look on slightly aghast, or join the elder in watching the football. The youth of the tribe will eventually return from swimming lessons and various adolescent assignations to be teased mercilessly on their prospects for the future, such prospects being considered presently marginal given the evidence of 'lack of application' or non participation in wars against the Nazis (a long gone rival tribe). The feast will eventually be served amidst great merriment and occasional malapropism which can extend to physical violence if unchecked.
After the meal, at exactly 9pm, the elder will retire, leaving the tribe 'to it' and venture by prearrangement to the 'Rose and Crown' for the company of 'the lads' who will all sport the mark of respect, the 'Y' on the end of their name (in this way Scott becomes ordained 'Scotty' after the gods 'Scholsy' and 'Giggsy'). He will only return when fully satisfied at approximately two in the morning, despite, or perhaps as a direct result of this behaviour, having reached magisterial eighty two years.
The next morning many phones will ring in many blessed tones as each family member will attempt to 'calm down' and 'get on with their lives' with the heating once more secured in the 'on' position.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Ancient Verulamium

Our bedroom here sits on top of an ancient Roman burial ground. This morning the sun was shining and the sky was blue, and we were left to our own devices, so we travelled back in time. Both of us grew up having parks to walk across at those youthful and sensitive times of our lives, when you are love sick or close to it most of the time and prone to singing Yes songs to the trees. So we ambled off down the hill to the ancient Roman bit of St Albans, the theatre, past rabbits hopping around in dingily dell and indeed singing 'And You and I' as best we could, but not remembering the lyrics.
Apart from the group of five American tourists, intent on earnest archaeological chatter, the scene was quiet and beautiful, that is if for beautiful you substitute pleasantly eerie to the receptive. Easy to imagine those Romans in the circumstances. There was very pertinent signposting, one simply said 'More Excavations'. The rest seem to have uncovered mostly Roman carpentry shops and off licenses. We stopped to realize that the rabbits were probably winning the war of excavation, it might be rabbits 1, humans 0 in the fullness of time.
On pondering the Greek tragedies no doubt played out over this scene, a hawk appeared over head, very close in fact, you could see through it's gossamer wings.
'Christ! An omen!' I said
'Omen of what!' Julie said
'God knows'.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

A donglers life

We have not moved in to an internet cafe, nor a house with anything resembling broadband other than it's giant Sky Sports screen, and the pubs of St Albans are iffy on internet access, and I'm not supposed to be in the pub anyway, so it was very helpful that one of my brothers in law offered me his dongle. I was of course, in dongling terms, an idiot, but as soon as I sat down here and the thing appeared to work I went on Ebay and ordered one of my own, just like his. What I did not realize is that I was suddenly in far more rarefied air than I thought, and his dongle was not the same as that dongle (we'd even started calling it the 'dougal') and that we had entered a world of the highly specialized, who know their dongles. Here knowing your dongle is the difference between driving your Astra and your Porsche. Get caught up with the wrong dongle and you're pretty much FUCKED FOR LIFE. Or so it appears.
In this weeks LRB John Lanchester writes a nice piece on Marx (Karl) at 193, and even he complains that while it may be reasonable to retrain different generations, the same process is tough on a 50yr old welder right now. As it is now, all is melting in to air quite rapidly, and my dongle will not, even when it arrives, be any use at all simply because I really am not in the know. 'You're fucked' my brother said down the phone, probably standing in a nightclub, sipping a mojito, doing his business, Porsche outside, probably with the engine running. Success here, probably like success in Kaliningrad, is dependent on certain kinds of knowledge irrespective of the apparent information. It's good to remember this. It is also worth remembering that Scott had warned me off the dongle even before we left London.
Last night my niece went out to get her hair done at a special night at a St Albans salon. I remember speed hair cutting to disco music in a nightclub in Dubai. It was a particularly gruesome spectacle. The girls all ran to the ladies afterwards screaming as they suddenly looked like Middle Eastern soap stars. My beautiful niece, with her 'prom' (don't ask) in a week or two, found herself, since she took off her glasses, with an asymmetrical bob cut, and now in floods of tears unable to leave her bedroom. Her mum has complained to head office, and they are going to take her down to London to see if they can do something with it like it's ER. What exactly can you do with suddenly asymmetrical hair? The mind boggles. St Albans/Dubai asymmetry. D'Arcy's does Pacific Rim.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

St Albans

Somebody said you can visit a city for a night and write a novel, after a month maybe a chapter, but after a year you'll be lucky to write a sentence. No wonder there is so much travel writing.
With Scott finally destroying the kitchen we have moved to St Albans for the duration. I quiver at the length of time this might be.
The first thing you notice about living in St Albans is the reality of HD TV. It's like living in the adverts. All the family's TV's have grown substantially in size over the last two years, and like growing children, they now take over whole rooms. Some are even 3D, and you have to wear funny glasses. The effect is to make you realize what you are missing, that in some sense, giant size pleas for your attention are the reality of our times.
Meanwhile, if you go out, it will be to VIP night at the Slug and Lettuce, where diamonds accompany the cocktails, but only one of them is real. Meanwhile I did actually pick up the phone to hear somebody had died, and the response was 'Do you think we should phone Samantha, we'll interrupt her crazy golf'. This is middle England alright.
We are going to book for dinner in D'Arcy's which we were told, long ago during a rather pleasant evening in the Riviera Las Vegas by a disappointed visiter from these shores, was far better than anything there. We have been waiting a long time for the pleasure. The last time I went out for dinner in St Albans to such a fine establishment, I paid £100 and enjoyed little more than a carrot.