Sunday, 29 September 2013

Philips Pavilion 1958

I never took much notice of the Philips Pavilion; Le Corbusier's tent gone wrong. However events; Zaha's floppy hat at the Serpentine, Jonathan Coe's novel Expo '58, Le Corbusier's Radio (see earlier post) and those L-C sketchbooks have transpired to send me back to the time when if it wasn't a hyperbolic paraboloid, it wasn't up to much, and gazing at the Electronic Poem the pavilion contained on YouTube the other day, well it just blew me away. I don't think Zaha's floppy hat is up to much for sure (I don't get it beyond that rather dubious comparison) but I did lie in bed worrying about the word 'tension' in relation to the Philips pavilion, world affairs of the time, all things atomic, that electronic poem, and Le Corbusier's much fabled quest for the reconciliation of opposites, not withstanding L-C's personal circumstances at the time, and he began to look like Homer.
Since at the time L-C was spending so much time in India, the struggle this building presented to the western world now seems obvious, like a child wretchedly entwined in his tent, and the poem presents, without a single smidgen of irony, somewhere near the end of eight minutes, his own unites as that real solution to where and how to live, amidst all the blips, bleeps and bangs and squawks of modern madness, deep within the curious phantasmagoria of the World Fair. A student of mine described the poem as nightmarish, and I think she is right. To present such a nightmare to 500 people at a time- and it was massively popular- in what he called a 'stomach' in 1958 much have been quite something, and we should note we have certainly been shy of doing such a thing since; instead we tend towards floppy hats, collapsed meringues, failed souffle! 

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Just before it goes..

Heygate Estate; the bulldozers roll in tomorrow. I guess we all fucked up but not for want of trying. Now the money men move in for real, and the ordinary folk have been shoved out (where?) Elephant is less than two miles from (actual) Westminster. Today it was like visiting a cemetery.

Monday, 23 September 2013

St Albans: Edge of the Abyss

If you are looking for a window on Britain as we sit precariously on the edge of something or other that 
doesn't look altogether rosy, spend a weekend in St Albans. It's the chipper upside of hell. Get ferried around in cars (Britain is the only European country with booming car sales) for the minutest distance, witness roadside tears (as if dodgems don't have to bump) go to Waitrose three or four times and receive little green tokens for the Girl Guides and free copies of the Daily Mail (!!) watch idiocy on huge TV screens (we own the biggest in Europe) and go to the pub for a lock in with the interminables, those portly fans of the Arsenal and English rugby (whose green and pleasant the rest of the world defiles) who prove so adeptly that the proudest are usually the dumbest.
Quite unreasonably, I blame St Albans for ALL of Sky's excruciating football commentators, a vast percentage of those who make it to Countryfile, and the worst of all tabloid journalists. I see it as the Bayreuth of X Factor, the home of actuaries, and resting home for Page 3 models (and I tend to LIKE strippers, topless models and so on).
St Albans sucks, it's just like where I come from, Wilmslow, Cheshire, where as AA Gill remarked; you wouldn't want to get fat, you'd be letting down your car. This is Britain when it has cash.
This is exactly what we both chose to escape from long ago: we all have to hate something to make progress.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

History Today (The Prologue)

We have a tendency to keep history at arms length. Perhaps we are preoccupied, certainly easily distracted, and possibly distrustful. We may even be nervous. Today’s most capable critics, those adept on television (take Jonathan Meades or Matthew Collings) have developed quirky, edgy, personas as they swoop down on the historically tasty. This makes them entertaining and this makes good television; the media is the message, and no doubt tomorrow’s critics will pod cast at will and shift the message some more. We should certainly acknowledge that they are not talking about history in the way EH Gombrich, AJP Taylor, or Kenneth Clark would have half a century ago, people who did not necessarily understand television at all, and who were still doggedly transferring the book, the lecture theatre, or the radio to the new format. That the medium was the message did not occur to them, it took Elvis to understand that, and shake his hips. So history today is at once massively available to us, and murkily distant, it has being made personal, we pick and choose. Never has the word ‘like’ assumed so much importance, even if we don’t necessarily know why.
Books remain, but scholarship has assumed an ever-weightier mantle. Even the dedicated Marxist scholars have found themselves shoved to the end of the sock, locked in ever closer scrutiny of cause and effect, contemplating more and more about what seems less and less. The superstructure of knowledge demands they do just that, but in doing so, it is not so much ivory towers they isolate themselves within, but more giant cruise ships, great academic edifices like MIT or Yale, with their curious lack of destination and intractable handling.
But even within the pseudo idyll of the academic cruise liner, sometimes the shudder, that congruence of vibrations that periodically racks top to bottom, bow to stern, reminds us that we are in, after all, a delicate (ne creaky) man made structure. Dons, much envied in privilege and lifestyle perhaps, sense something afoot. On smaller vessels such as my own we have felt the tack and turn almost incessantly. 
It is a sense that although the essential elements of architecture might not have changed for three thousand years (it remains the provision of physical and mythical accommodations) that everybody is suddenly obsessed with change, even admitting that change might actually not be for the better, that inspires. As a response, each course I now teach on the history and theory of architecture has become an elaborate road map as to where we are now, because that is precisely what is missing when you pick and mix, when you dive about willy-nilly. Understanding the road map should lead to a better understanding of your next step.
Not so long ago, this enterprise, history such as this, might have been titled ‘A History of Architecture from Ancient Greece to the Present-Day’, with a silent emphasis on the present-day, and it would have invariably tripped up on certain parts for want of enthusiasm or expertise. Certain parts (say, the Normans) happened a long time ago, and were a bit dull, and so on. Authors came over a little patronising in their energy to get to the exciting bit at the end. My apologies to Sigfried Giedion but the cry seemed to go: ‘Look! And here we are now! The climax of it all! A load of tubular steel furniture!’ Imagine that with a thick Swiss accent.
There was, or is (for it necessarily prevails) often an unfortunate sense that modern man is somehow superior. If we didn’t think this the history of the western world might seem a terrible waste of effort. We should understand that there has been progress, but it is not exactly Darwinian, things may have got better, but we are not superior. It has been a struggle not an accident, and our development (such as it is) has to be appreciated to be sustained, or be sustainable.
There is also the equal and opposite tendency to state the opposite; that the men and women of today (and especially it’s youth) are interested in nothing but base-jumping dogs and posting pictures of their lunch-box on Facebook; that this generation will never appreciate DH Lawrence, let alone Le Corbusier, and all we get now, in architecture at least, is funny shaped buildings backed up with fairy tales of justification. This is also a recurrent historical theme. Older generations pour scorn on ‘youth of today’, on the current situation, just as armies are only equipped to fight the last type of war. However, as I discovered myself- when I posted my first dog picture on Facebook, I was no better. When I crossed that Rubicon, I realised the Normans would have loved nothing better than posting their rampart jumping dogs on Facebook too, if only they’d had the apparatus to do so.
So both the silent patronization of the past, and the comfortable contempt for the present, are to be avoided, because history has the capacity to continually amaze us with just how smart people have been whenever and whatever the circumstances over the last three thousand or so years, no-matter that the tools to hand might have been ‘primitive’, or their social order ‘monstrous’. For instance even the Roman poet Lucretius understood that the lowest particle size was atomic, and beyond that there was nothing (that there was something, and then there was nothing) and furthermore that two nothings couldn’t make a something. By understanding this he demolished the supernatural. He said even if you believe in god, magic, or whatever, it simply didn’t exist, it was, indeed, a question of belief. He was the first materialist, and he was Roman, and even he got much of his material from Epicurus.
Meanwhile I can watch one of the worst films currently on rotation on TCM, a truly rotten film called Escape to Athena (1979). It is a most bemusing film in many ways, not least for it’s casting of Roger Moore as a Nazi commandant (personally I cannot imagine anybody less suited to playing a Nazi commandant in 1979 than Roger Moore, unless I consider John Le Mesurier). In the film David Niven plays a prisoner who happens to be an archaeologist and he discovers the ancient remains of the house of an archaeologist! At least somebody in Lew Grade’s rather curious pantheon had his or her historical wits about them. They had realised that it was not just us doing it, they did it too.
In narratives of the type I present, there is always the question of what to include and what not. My response is that the world of things I do not know about should act as a complement to those I do. I’m thinking of a colleague who understands reggae music, ‘it’s just as important what you don’t play’ he says. To use this analogy, my absences, be them Chinese dynasties, Indian civilizations, Babylonian Empires or the architectures of higher beings from outer space; are gaps, not nothings. I believe in them, but they are not there. Keith Richards used open tuning to make those fabulous big one finger major cords come alive for Street Fighting Man, Brown Sugar, Jumping Jack Flash, Start Me Up and so on, and he employed lots of delicious gaps. He remains an inspiration.
Above: Woods and Trees (geddit?) Pushkin Strss, Berlin.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Just be Good to Me

If you're happy and you know it (if only momentarily) play this.

Sunday, 15 September 2013


I joined Facebook for a month, to try it out. We have a book and an exhibition to promote, so I think that was the logic, but crucially I'd cashed in twenty years worth of reward points shopping for groceries at Tesco, and that got us two iPad minis.
First impressions were not encouraging, I soon discovered my 'new' friends (my 'old' friends - apart from Scott- I hardly ever see, they are a diminishing and by now almost mythical set, almost exclusively cherished at funerals) were morons confirming my predisposition toward Facebook as yet another harbinger of forthcoming apocalypse, possibly by 2030. These friends cropped up every day burping up all sorts of crap; films of base jumping dogs and pictures of their lunch, sentimental pictures of babies and narcissistic pictures of themselves, while all the time changing their profile pictures like some nervous twitch. Almost as soon I had accepted them as 'friends' I found myself wondering at the consequences of blocking them off. I contemplated searches for better friends, but soon realised I was stuck with those I got.
So last night I posted MY FIRST DOG PICTURE! (above) and it was a relief. I passed the Rubicon. Notwithstanding that evenings in our flat had become a picture of two folks with their noses stuffed in their iPads, I realised that the appreciation of skateboarding dogs, even dogs of ANY KIND doing ALMOST ANYTHING, was exactly what Facebook was for, and that if the Tudors had enjoyed Facebook, THEY would have been posting pictures of their skateboarding dogs and pictures of their lunch just like us. THEY would have farted their way through their record collections of an evening on Facebook if they'd had iPad minis, and not had to rely on the minstrels. Such is the truth bestowed on us by 'Blackadder' or 'Up Pompeii', our comedy removes us of the illusion that we have every been any better and now Facebook simply confirms what we have always been.
So, as historical documentation, hooray for Facebook, and Facebook friends, I take it all back, I salute you. I have joined in.

Friday, 13 September 2013

The Phoney War

This, for those of us involved in higher education, is the Phoney War, that period in early September each year, when face to face combat has not yet begun. However it is a very real if distant prospect, a nasty glow on the horizon, and it is inevitable. There is nothing you can do to stop it, and after what seems like decades of peace war planes now fly overhead, and they are dropping bombs (lighting fires all over) and you just hope, holed up in your bunker, that you can hold your nerve and not cop it this early. It is enervating as they used to say, weakening, some of us have been known to disappear altogether, to distant lands, only to turn up just in time, shaking, conspicuously hungover. The corridors are empty, there is that fustiness (you can't get fustiness out of a university, it comes with the furniture, with the cleaning fluid) but you are as alert as a rabbit caught in the middle of a field, just before making a dash to the safety of the long grass. Oh the long green grass!
Mobilization is underway, the transports, the mums and dads, shifting men, women and material; mostly duvets. There are intense preparations, dummy runs, mental exercises 'What shall we do?' is the begged question. 'How shall we respond?' to this, to that. We have so many bad ideas at once! 'Have we the numbers??' 'What about equipment!?' 'I've forgotten the fucking password!' and all the time you know there is just that body of knowledge, that pack on your back for you to rely on, except suddenly you seem to have lost something.
Then comes the throng, the throng of eagerness, of bright eyes, it's hand to hand, it's street-fighting, you take cover, you block it out, in the office, listening. But you get used to it. Then it becomes normal, then you begin to prefer it.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Architecture for Christmas

It seems a but mean to moan about a £189m library even if it does look like a stack of Christmas presents but as far as I can see, one demonstrative edifice is simple being replaced by another. Tom Dyckhoff drove us there (!) for the Culture Show last night, to meet lots of other Tom Dyckhoffs (as far as I could see) and try and make sense of it. In running around it, nobody made a good deal of sense at all, which was most appropriate for our age. For your benefit and from this armchair:
1) The outside doesn't know what size it is, it is indeterminate in scale. Is it a small thing made big, or a really big thing made small? Maybe it's a big jewellery box (the architect mentioned something about jewelry) or a small Cape Canaveral? I wondered for a minute if the above image really was a model or not- a true sign of contemporary 'genius'. It is a sign of the times.
2) It's 'cutting edge' (!!)
3) The inside is ideally created for the pleasure of those who like (nostalgically or otherwise) books very much indeed, but especially perfect for the new (C21st) bourgeoisie who simply like the idea of them: it's the perfect place for parties.
3) The public like the idea it looks like Christmas presents (for them) on a grand scale.
4) The public didn't seem to understand that they will be paying for it, somehow (nothing new then).
5) The old concrete thing looked slightly more prepossessing (and TD seemed to agree). Wheel on Owen Hatherley?
In the meantime, are we running out of things libraries might otherwise be? Personally I would have preferred a giant Black Sabbath '13' which could be lit up on Walpurgis night each year, or a giant 'Swan Song' logo inhabited by said library. Christmas presents, is however, original.

Sunday, 8 September 2013


I have a friend who spreads panic, she is a panic machine, her panic is like Linus's blanket, she externalises the damn stuff. Me, I hate panic, I do everything to avoid it, I plan weeks in advance, and if I catch it, if it gets in, I'm paralysed, I literally seize up. Yesterday I panicked.
I blame it on the exhibition we got the other day. I was delighted, elated. Then I started thinking; mostly practical stuff to do with 'art' that is never a problem with 'words' - words do not suffer in reproduction (that's their point). This 'reproduction' stuff can cast a deep shadow. I mean, if I see a rock star (say) relaxing on Sky ARTS1, they are not relaxing, they are being filmed relaxing. If I watch somebody cooking on Come Dine With Me, they may be cooking, but they will be making a much bigger hash of it than they would if they were not being filmed doing it. These things are mediated by reproduction.  So you just tootle along making your bits and pieces and that's just dandy, but then you have to externalise them en-masse, you have to suddenly think of all sorts of shit; you have to be ready to dissect them, sometimes literally but mostly metaphorically, you are part of some other process, and since I am hard wired to panic (and dissection is what I do to other people as a critic) this is likely to blow circuitry. Too many problems beset themselves at the same time and I felt the beginnings of pain in my knees, and elbows, and ankles.
Of course, if you read the self help manuals, particularly those directed at corporate Californian architectural firms, they say this is the natural second stage of the process, following elation, and precursing something awful like 'attacking the problem'.
So, I am suddenly moved toward appreciation of those recalcitrants in the art world who have dealt with panic in their various ways; Lucien Freud never turned up, Keith Richards shot smack, but I'm hardly in their league. I found the best comfort (and ease of pain) in pouring myself a couple of large scotches and watching Dad's Army.
Above, one of my pieces, copyright me.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Adam Nathaniel Furman at Design Museum

Adam Nathaniel Furman brought nice ceramics (pots) to balmy London last night at the Design Museum, his stuff uncannily resembling the evening skyline outside. Not that he would put it like that. However I was put in such a good mood by it all I've just got Spike Milligan illustrations in my head, the stuff that goes; 'Furman pops his head out of pot to demonstrate architects as bunch of silly arses!' (top picture) 3D printed pottery? Well it was a new one on us, but terrific. Presently at the Design Museum.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Le Corbusier's Radio

This is an intriguing thing; a radio designed by Le Corbusier for the Brussels World Fair of 1958. Well it may not actually be by him, it looks too funky to me, too futuristic, too Googie, after all a radio is just electronics in a box, and so from my understanding of Le Corbusier's design principles I would expect a neat box but not a way out one. This looks almost contemporary. If I set a project for a box (or for that matter almost anything) to contemporary students, this is the kind of result I would get. 
LC was working on the Phillips Pavilion for the Fair with Zenakis. Together they came up with a very strange pavilion and an electronic poem to go with it. All in all the World Fair itself was very strange indeed, featuring the Atomium for one, but also an incredible shooting rocket of a pavilion for the USSR. It was all very atomic age. This is an early example of a product tie in, or signature piece. Meanwhile LC was most of the time in Chandigarh pretty much doing the complete opposite. 
This item came up on eBay the other day, I lost out on it for £77. I'm not sure if I'm relieved, because I just can't sustain all this junk, or severely disappointed, because as I said, this is a very intriguing little thing.