Thursday, 31 January 2013

Volume 3

We begin Volume 3 of these efforts. The collected blogs Vols 1/2 are available, running to nearly 300 A4 hard back pages, with an original art work, as above (but not that one) for the princely sum of £100. To signify the shift I've changed my portrait, so here's what I really look like, and even that was in 2011, and in the highlands of Cork.
Contact to order.

Narrative Architecture Now (NAN)

One of the curious things about what used to be called 'studio' is that it is now almost entirely devoted to the telling of stories. Tutorials are like listen with mother. Why precisely this is the case I've no real idea, but I do know is that without a convincing story, told via eloquent cartoons (but for god sake make sure they're not actual cartoons) the student is fried. And if you've got the wrong sort of story, you're fried twice. For instance today I spent the morning in studio with the third year and their 'Place for Learning'. Would I spot a single lecture theatre, or even the prospect of one? Don't be stupid. What you get is lots of stories about archaeology, mental illness, and surveillance cameras, and these are just the base camp stories, like 'The Museum of Terrorism'. I'm sure in more high fallutin' institutions, archaeology and mental illness are old hat, and they have moved on to the contents of their grandma's fridge, or the equivalent.
The ability to generate a story and hang on to it is probably an asset, even of it doesn't sound very architectural at all (in fact my curiosity is that it sounds the exact opposite of architectural) Hewing something out and hanging on to it would seem a very useful transferable skill when you feel threatened, like it would be if you were in the dock at the Old Bailey, and that could of course be exactly where we are, metaphorically speaking.
But I'm not going to get miserable about it, and yes, presently I'm enjoying the zero narrative of Walter Gropius, because my deadline is next week, so I'm presently biased. And further and meanwhile and as an afterthought,  of course I'm marking a million essays, and if they concentrated on telling the stories  they should, I'd be delighted.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Critical Thinking

WIRED has it that TV is dead. All the entrepreneurs are 23 and it's YouTube from now on. Some of them are worth millions. I wonder what they spend their money on, Opal Fruits?
I don't doubt they are right, but here looms a big, big problem. I'm not kidding, I teach a bunch of twenty three year olds, and it's not uncommon they join the course not knowing what capitalism is, what almost anything is. They are already post graduate students. The extraordinary duty of the old is to actually teach these people something, I fear that legions have already given up, and that via various forms of condescension, latent Buddhism, and some kind of fear, people are less prepared to teach people anything, and instead, just act as therapists.
The media doesn't help matters, endless emotion, endless troubles, endless dissuasion, always orientated to the local rather than the general. It's just like Soviet TV, but in reverse (what a surprise!) In the end, you just have endless crap either way. Of course, the media is enjoyed (as industry of choice) by twenty three year olds thinking it's wonderful.
There is a solution, if people in education had the balls they would run critical thinking courses over ten weeks for every twenty three year old that feature ten texts that force them to actually read something and join the dots and think way beyond their boundaries. It's amazing, I've got a large number of the results in a pile on the table. Julie thinks I'm showing off when I say, 'Just pick one!' she does, 'This is amazing!' she says! It's not difficult I say, any day of the week. So far, I haven't had to fail a single one.
William Burroughs is one key text. Students should learn that language is a virus, that they are being sold a pup, or even a miniature mirror polish Jeff Koons purple balloon pup, which I note I could buy tonight from Nottingham, on E-bay, in a special presentation case for £85, I'll admit I'm tempted.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Doing Your Taxes

Doing my taxes used to fill me with great misery and trepidation. As a young person you cannot enjoy accounting for yourself. Now, I figure it's not unlike cleaning the kitchen, and if you've made yourself a decent kitchen, it's not such a bad operation. However it still takes a whole weekend, and puts Julie in a rare funk. She's still young at heart.
Tax, of course, is something that no person under thirty should even begin to have to consider, and so you shovel cardboard boxes of crap to a friendly accountant who knows better, ignore his letters thinking they are retribution, and eventually ignore the letters from the Inland Revenue which will usually be cheques you will only discover, when they are well out of date, ten years later.
Those who do their taxes promptly and efficiently by themselves and who are under thirty, I see as symptomatic of a failing generation who are well in need of my courses on Critical Thinking.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Hollywood Costume at the V&A

The trouble with marking is it drives you a bit bananas. All this assimilation of others ideas makes you scramble your own, and I have to keep stopping and making cups of tea, cups of coffee (I don't even like coffee) or bacon sandwiches, or walk around the block, write an essay on Walter Gropius, or as was the case yesterday find ourselves in South Kensington at the Hollywood Costume show at the V&A.
So that's why we were there, as a diversion, that and we had free tickets. And what did we make of it? Hard to say, or see, since it was crowded out. Clearly this sort of thing is very popular indeed. Certainly it felt like a charity shop with sub woofer special effects. And it certainly felt like it would turn in to Night in the Museum III after dark, when Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor 1961) would be found shagging Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford 1983) on the set of Oceans Eleven (2001) but with clothes on. The clothes were most peculiarly and even menacingly animated without even people in them.  What the designers had done was decide to make the only real bits of fantasy film making back in to films again ( Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco would be smiling ear to ear) with the help of enormous amounts of technology (lots of screens and sub woofers). Perhaps the world will soon be amplified in such a way, and you won't be able to take a nixon without it sounding like the krumphh! of an exploding mortar bomb. However we had the delight of not feeling obligated to stay long, so we managed the shortest visit they would have had that day, and were thoroughly relieved to reach cold, normal city air.
On reflection, the only thing I would have really liked a special effect for, Marilyn's dress, was just hanging there limp. It was very non special effect. This was poignant. Firstly, it showed us how small she was, and secondly, how good the special effect was in the first place, thirdly, that frocks don't keep very well, and fourthly that she was very very dead. So you can stuff that up your simulated arse.
Now it's back to those essays...or my taxes...

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Architectural Education (again)

One of the funny things about architectural education is that presently you can sit in a room for hours with it (in the shape of student portfolios, teaching staff, directors and doctors of architecture and so on, the whole enchilada) and realize there is little tangible to the endeavour at all. This is more funny than annoying or anything worse, it has to do with some notion that architecture might embody cultivated, or more cultivated sensitivities than say, the design of an efficient or even beautiful kitchen. This is, essentially, a parlour game, it's all a bit Viennese c1910 if you are a subscriber to the theory that history repeats itself.
I am not a subscriber to such a notion but I do see that in order to protect their worth, to add value, architects have to see themselves, and more importantly have to be seen, as more elevated types, and in a sense we have been pushed toward a curiosity. When thought for the straightforwardly decent exhausted itself in the western world, and consumerism took over, it was the death of Le Corbusier and all that. Historically speaking the project of modernism should have extended to give everybody a decent lunch, not just a brand new IKEA kitchen.
Designing a good kitchen is now seen as a bit austere, a bit ordinary. I think Karl Marx would have been most interested in this almost total distance of todays young architects from their essential subject.

Monday, 21 January 2013

The Rover

'When you're down and confused, and you can't remember who you're talking to' is a nice line from Stephen Stills, but when it looms for you, like when you really do feel like that, a little confused, a little down, and you're back home, what do you do?
'Put Planet Rock on, it'll cheer you up!' says Julie, helpfully, and looking at me doing dinner. I realise that this is when rock n' roll really counts. To cheer me up it takes Nicky Horne (who I suspect is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Joe Bonomassa (born 1977!) Inc but who once at least  INTRODUCED Led Zeppelin at Earls Court in 1975?!) and still hangs a wilting flower for free something or other, to play The Rover. I first heard The Rover over a school lunchtime in Paul Smith's family lounge (not that Paul Smith) at about that time of man. Rick Sanders was there too. We had Paul's Morris Minor outside in which he practised speed shifts to get us to the girls school, but today it was duffel coats in the hall.
What a fucking record. I love this record, it's the record to make sauces to, to cook onions, it's the swagger and the riff. And when you are doing this, you are really doing Air Guitar!
(Of course we might discuss other various air guitar possibilities and their place in saving your soul, but for that, keep logging in).
I play the lead through The Rover, but only the rhythm on Freebird (the Horne plays that next). You should only play the rhythm air guitar on Freebird, and I wish some of my students knew their arse from their elbow.
The picture is me, air Zep, unfortunately looking a bit Bad Co, Bethnal Green Working Man's Club,  a few years ago. Photo Julie.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

(Not Quite) Six Feet of Snow

It is very rare that it snows all through the daylight hours here in Bethnal Green. It's very wrong indeed. But we put Ski Sunday on the television to match.
The onset of snow is a thrill, no doubt about it, Ooooh we go, Aaaah we go. That white blanket is both indicatively fresh and experientially unusual. We've even light candles, and Julie's gone for the Kalua.
We went out to Columbia Rd, our usual Sunday penance, but this time there's blokes, Italians, literally falling over themselves to take photographs of me and even some mad lady with leaflets for the British Museum (something about an Ice Age) says she loves my look!...Such a kind face!! she says, like I'm some kind of dog. At this point Julie's face is dark with thunder. I don't generally put on a look for anybody, although I understand it is not done to go out in Shoreditch without full regalia looking like something out of the nineteen forties in ginger hair whipped up like a French horn. I probably looked kind because there were no idiots duetting barbershop and no ukulele strummers and no busking Joe Strummers that usually really piss me off. That was a relief mistaken for benevolence.
After all this admiration, all caused by fortuitous weather conditions, we came home to savoyarde potatoes and bacon. Nothing like going with a theme.

Thursday, 17 January 2013


Like building, marking goes on and on, and it seems to take inexorably longer the closer you get to the bottom of the pile. And with dissertations, you long for all authors to consider calling a spade a spade, or at least justify it's consideration as a shovel in pert, neat, terms. There are some concerns that demand the contrite, such as Walter Gropius was good in bed, that offers massive illumination in one short phrase, or that Aldo Rossi was a bad driver (Rossi suffered two car accidents, leading us to all kinds of speculation, but we know the first changed his view on architecture- the city, like his body, was fractured- and the second killed him). There is much to the bleeding obvious, such as, if you'd spent four years 1914-18 covered in shit in a trench, you'd want to paint everything white, and if you'd spent WW2 being rained on by bombs you'd immediately want everything built of solid concrete. It's really not that hard, but you would not imagine the contortions some people go through to say over twelve thousand mind numbing words what can be said in one simple sentence.
Right now of course, it's easy to see, for instance, that the High St is dead and computers killed it. It's easy to see that life is now crying at home and shopping on line, and that anything else just 'pops up', like mime festivals or now you see it now you don't Latvian cuisine. Popping up means of course that it soon pops down, hence the crying bit. However, you try building a pop-up old peoples home. Dear dear dear, education education education, a rose is a rose is a rose, which of course it isn't by the time you've said that, it's something else, and of course it's often what's left out, like in reggae or Richards riffs that's important.
I discovered today that Sigfried Giedion, that most accomplished scholar, in his monograph of Gropius published in 1954, omits sex bomb Alma Mahler, his first wife, entirely from his story (there is only the tiniest, most perfunctory mention slipped in at the back). It's like she didn't exist, she is abstracted out. How curious. There's plenty about his wonderful genes, about his heritage, even going back to the effect on Germany of the thirty years war! Spooky. It's like 'Vot! Zerr vill be nose emotions!!' What does that say about the image of a great architect?

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Morris Louis

Morris Louis was only 49 when he died in '62. When he died he left 422 paintings, which he did in the kitchen while his wife was out, rolled up in the house, 230 of which he painted in his mature 'great' period in just 16 months. He was a bit secretive about his painting, and you wont find many quotes by him even on the web; perhaps because even he thought he was mad, or just shy, as he pioneered the 'post painterly abstraction' that would make him, posthumously, a genius. It is remarkable he 'painted' them in the kitchen, for some of them are very large indeed. His methods are also largely secret but involved (clearly) soaking, daubing, rubbing, dragging and folding. He didn't sell many of his paintings at the time, he taught art in college, which must prove he just loved doing them for doing them's sake no matter how awkward the circumstances. And he didn't live in New York, but the relative backwater of Washington DC. Other people made him famous.
The one thing unsurprising about Morris Louis is that he died of lung cancer brought on by paint fumes. The most his wife might have known as she returned to the tidied kitchen was the lingering smell.
Anybody could do it, well yes, anybody could, but they couldn't could they.  

Spike Milligan and History

Possibly the best books on WW2 are Spike Milligan's memoirs Vols1-4, starting with Adolf Hitler My Part In His Downfall. This is a highly contentious statement, some people annoyed Milligan by saying he was unreliable but even then went on to write their own autobiographies as 'Unreliable Memoirs' (Clive James). What a bitchy world. Milligan admits his truth is a bit jazzed up, but he was at least there, and his unflinching attempts to entertain us with the sheer tedium, misery and desperation are revealing not only of the desperation of the war itself, but also in him. At the end of Vol4, he's sectioned.
That is not to say that we should all appreciate history as if watching Night At the Museum II, which I thought was hugely funny, lisping Pharaohs and all, last night. Lisping Pharaohs is jazzing it up a bit, but jazzing it up well to be sure. You can make a lot of the difficulty with history. In his recent book on Reinhard Heydrich, 'HHHH', Laurent Binet begins to annoy you with it. In it his concerns, the authors concerns, while entertainingly post modern, or at least entertaining to Martin Amis, could be said to detract every so slightly from the evil of Heydich himself, and that could be said to be no good thing. It must be a question of balance and intension, because with post modernism, values are apt, ever so slightly, to disappear.
The thing about history is of course that any biographer would give eye teeth to know that 'Jesus raised his left eyebrow just a little when he was interested in something somebody said' but we shouldn't make such a huge song and dance about not knowing that and having to be creative somehow (this is also a hugely contentious statement) we understand that we are stuck, not to get Buddhist about it, in the here and now, in this case stuck in Bethnal Green, 11.24am, Jan 13th. If we weren't, as one of my students very perceptively said last week, and with one eyebrow quisically raised, and we were time travelling as in Back to the Future II, we would all be crashing into each other and it would be very dangerous. In one fell swoop she demolished any possibility of time travel. Time travel doesn't make any mathematical sense, since there cannot be two things in the same place at the same time, and actually, I don't want to be in Milligan's sodden tent or in his sodden boots either.
However time travel does make perfect literary sense.

Friday, 11 January 2013

A Place of Learning

My first architecture studio was situated in the inner sanctum of the Wills Building, Bristol University, a  faux victorian gothic for a faux Oxbridge, all paid for by a cigarette manufacturer. How curiously appropriate. But architectural studios from the AA to Glasgow to Liverpool to Bath fair little better in demonstrating fitness for purpose even given their reputations as some of the finest architecture schools in the world.
This paradox perhaps illustrates that an ideal place of learning is elusive. We learn everywhere, and we learn informally, in pubs, walking down streets, in front of television and now we Google whatever we need.
When asked to demonstrate the 'new' world of working and learning for 'New Labour' for a zone in the Millennium Dome (I had met WORK director Tim Pyne on election night 1997- the rest is history- see 'Sitting in the White Horse Thinking about a White Elephant' The Tragic in Architecture, Patterson R, 2000) it became clear that we were significantly in a world of what would become termed SPIN. Maybe we didn't personally care at that time, the realisation would dawn in my case slowly, but the imperative was certainly for information to be delivered 'on message' and this was a terrible pain in the arse, especially if the message was rather dubious. At this point Joseph Goebbels statement, that the best propaganda is that which the audience does not notice, becomes highly pertinent.
At the time I had also learnt a great deal from Las Vegas. This knowledge might be paraphrased, without much ad do and with apologies to Giedion (1948) as 'Economics Takes Command'.
The positive spin of New Labour has given way, post 9/11 to the all pervasive vagaries of the Shock Doctrine and seemingly impossible conjuring tricks with economics. We are tumbled through information and emotion like we are stuck in a washing machine. Sometimes it seems that the C21st western world is based on little else but crying and shopping.
So it might be prescient to look at some examples of learning environments where there is less to hear and less to see, where the focus is more precise, and precise perhaps because of the trauma of their genesis.
Walter Gropius was an intelligent, sophisticated young man, but prone of course to the tribulations of youth just like anybody else. Not only did he have an affair and marry prototype sex-bomb Alma Mahler, he was nearly buried alive under rubble and dead bodies in WW1. If we consider his period 1915-20 it appears nothing but traumatic. He came through one of the most curious evocations of manic spirituality yet known to civilization and came through it first hand, managing it's embers in the Weimar  Bauhaus, which, as Alma noted, was noteworthy only for the stench of garlic (Itten, in his robes, had commandeered the kitchens). What we get come 1925 is the most positive crystallisation of mental clarity in the building for the Bauhaus in Dessau, a building blessed with understatement to the point of the sublime. There is no nature in the Bauhaus Dessau, there is just a demonstration of mankind's practical, hopeful (some would say Utopian) intellect. (Even then, the studios don't really work very well).
Louis Kahn demonstrates the American tradition of the organic with the Salk Institute. It doesn't necessarily look like that's what he's doing but that is what he does all the same. The building 'worships' the horizon of the Pacific ocean, the rooms for the scientists are arranged like physical crystals regularly placed as pod structures off the main structure of the workshops they serve. There are a lot of corners, building this way is expensive, but the Americans have a penchant for the super primitive and hang on tight to some notion of organic unity through the vagaries of Sullivan, Wright, Lautner, and Kahn despite all evidence to the contrary.
Alvar Aalto, at the university of Otaneimi, taps in to a more ancient humanism, reworking the most elemental of the western world's teaching spaces, the Greek amphitheatre, covering it (given the northern climate) but still providing an exterior echo of the interior form on the outside, and then racking and stacking all the ancillary stuff in a rational way around it. It proves some things will never change, no matter how much information you can download under a tree in a plastic Arcadia, you will still need instruction at some point, you will need the road map to hold it all together, and you will need a helping hand to help you see a positive way forward amidst a morass of information and tumult of emotion, and of course to see through the spin.

(Precis of a symposium introduction given to third year students on the subject of their upcoming final project 'A Place of Leaning' 10.1.2013)

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

No More Heroes?

There is surely more to the abandoning of the blue plaque scheme than squeezing of budgets. Perhaps there are no more heroes, and we are entering a sort of Logan's Run theme world. It is tempting to think this given the undoubted difficulties the blue plaque committee must have faced whenever they tried to decide who and who should not get a plaque, given that we live in times where every little bit of effort has to be cherished as heroic and nobodies heard of, say, Mick Ronson. I do like Logan's Run a great deal, but only the bits with Jenny Agutter soaked in that green dress. Should we be fighting this phenomenon to re-instate the idea of heroic progress and counter all this post-modern nonsense?
Or perhaps that it's just that as you get older it's inevitably harder, personally, to appreciate Squat Diddly Associates design for a parametric tennis court and your attention deviates more happily to contemplation of Walter Gropius's historic sexual prowess. Note post modernist architects all seemed to turn in their fifties, Jim Stirling would be a prime example. Certainly there is a point to that too, my old Professor Kit Allsopp first reduced all architecture to sheds, then reduced it to sheds in forests, and now has given up on the sheds altogether, and just paints trees. Will the sap disappear entirely? Certainly those who attempt to defy the aging process begin to look like twats, I note this happens to almost all male chat show hosts, with UK exemplars Michael Parkinson and Jonathon Ross. Ross has become a particular self parody, and anyway, how can anybody maintain that sort of interest in celebrity gossip for a whole lifetime? That seems particularly squalid. Has architecture become just celebrity gossip?
Meanwhile thinking of Mick Ronson, David Bowie pops up again to excruciate matters. He's been ill, he's sixty five, 'he just works on his music at home' but most of all he's 'the master of re-inventing himself' well you can't do that forever can you?

Thursday, 3 January 2013


Suddenly everybody is worried about being fat even more than they used to be worried about being fat. It's a conspiracy of course. Every hamster in charge of any January magazine knows it's time to market self-loathing. Now it's the politicians who worry. This is a big question for post-humanity, how do we evolve our idea of an NHS designed to rid scrawny kids of rickets in 1947, to one of resolving self-esteem issues with fresh breasts in 2012?
Julie took on a few solutions once, Gail Porter's 'Fat Burner Diet' was her favourite, but if you saw Gail Porter as she is now and as we spied in the holiday rags, looking not unlike Adam Ant as he appeared,  unfortunately, on Jools Holland's New Years Eve Big Disappointment, you'd realize certain celebrity solutions are not to be trusted; the lithe body that was once projected on Big Ben, and the lithe body that was swash buckling New Romantic pirate, had both ended up looking like little and large versions of Ronnie Corbett, except Gail was bald.
Certainly the economic value of hospitals has shifted, no longer a simple drain on resources, I'm sure a dump like Wythenshaw is largely supported by it's hospital, or at least that portion of NHS finances which isn't devoted to making Zurich like Zurich. Nurses are fat because there are no decent places or times set aside for them to eat properly in hospitals, it's no doubt all catering has been sold off to Mars. People who are poor are fat because they shop at Iceland because that is the cheapest place to buy food. Thankfully I'm fat because I like wine and can't drink whisky for breakfast anymore because if I did I'd be thin but then also I'd be dead.
Now they say if you're fat they'll be no more benefits unless you go to the gym. I can't think of anything more soul destroying, and I can hardly think of such unfairness to your fellow man. It is an affront to hear Tories endlessly bleating about 'storing up problems for the future' when their own self image and ideology is so resolutely located in the pre-industrial. They should look at themselves while sipping port in the easy chairs of the Carlton Club, or whilst retiring to the country seat.
Actually I can think of something more soul destroying, how about making prisoners pay for cells like hotel rooms. This is another silly season idea from conservative politicians, it would presumably allow themselves to be confined, if nicked, to five star quarters, maybe in Zurich, while the penniless rot in the clink. Well done, destroy the whole fabric of Enlightenent thought, go on...