Saturday, 30 November 2013

Decline and Fall

Evelyn Waugh's parody of an architect Prof Silinus in Decline and Fall is easily to read as a fool. Waugh was writing as the Villa Savoye was rising from the ground, and Le Corbusier is even mentioned by name, and Otto, an architect who can't sleep, hates everything he does, wishes everybody become machines, and sees ladies in terms of their digestive systems, is certainly a comic relief. However I've just realised Waugh was even cleverer than that.
Waugh reviewed, glowingly, but with reservations, the English edition of The City of Tomorrow for the Observer in 1928. He has reservations about L-C's vision surviving in war, and he wonders, also prophetically, how modernism might weather, but overall he supports a bright view of possibilities, he seems quite willing to salute the Utopian flag.
In this first novel, of course meant to be funny, he deftly parodies, but with lashings of comic despair, the insuperable, cloying absurdity of British society, with it's Lady Circumference's and Lord Tangent's, it's Bollinger Clubs and crappy public schools, whose education never fails to save the privileged when they get, periodically and inevitably, 'in the soup'. There is hardy a character who is not grotesque.
So while the anti hero, the lack lustre Paul Pennyfeather, is tossed around on the waves of fortune, those fortunes are created by a cast of even more preposterous characters that remain the immutable fabric of Britain. Perhaps Otto is not so bad. It may be no co-incidence that the title mirrors Spengler's desperate 'Decline of the West' and it's inauguration of fatalistic post-modernism, where nothing can change. In the sense that even the plot is circular, for even after his adventures Pennyfeather ends up back where he started, back to square one, there is, essentially, no progress, literally or metaphorically. Meanwhile it was the architect, Prof Silinus, who was there at the end to explain to him the unfortunate facts of life, and all of this, of course, underlines the tragic nature of the modern endeavour, and it's necessity.

The Daliborians

It was a very good seminar. But anybody who stands up and talks about Dalibor Vesely takes a risk, a big one, since there is always going to be a disciple in the room. I've had to deal with it since, roughly, nineteen eighty four, my first encounter; they are strong people, but I've never believed them.
It was perhaps the acceptable face of post-modernism, that something lost should be regained, but I could never find divine revelation in a rooflight, much less heal the city by shading my drawings in. I may be too dumb. Even my friend Scott fights shy on taking on phenomenology, shaking his head and suggesting I look it up in wikipedia as we sit in the pub.
Their argument is conspicuously religious, but I'm not sure that politics is subservient to the transcendental, because practically speaking I've met plenty of architects whose transcendentalism was conspicuously political, in that their own circumstances conspicuously carved their opinions. It's chicken and egg (even if phenomenologists believe it isn't). Both Dalibor and Daniel Libeskind were exile genius's from the workers paradise, where the church fostered rebellion. And of course Dalibor is an expert and enthusisast for the baroque, that baroque of Loyola, that architecture intended to instruct, perhaps to save. Joseph Rykwert even tried to design modernist churches in his youth. Being materialist of mind, this is not for me. After all so many phenomenologically minded architects seem particularly devoted to the materialistic in the other sense, since those revelations certainly don't come cheap.
So I would prefer it if we said we would fix the city rather than heal it, and allow room for a little less piety, and a bit more filth.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Aldo Rossi: Modena Cemetery

Advice to students in four paragraphs:

'Follow up the first Loos quote on architects ruining the landscape by trying too hard with a second, which goes something like 'only a small percentage of architecture, the tomb and the monument, belongs to art' and then ponder both quotes. What Loos might be getting at is that art is one thing, and the pizzeria round the corner quite another. The history of our art in architecture might be displayed in objects such as Michelangelo's Pieta (tomb, or at least the equivalent) or Trajan's column (monument) as significant events, the rest is just culture at large. It comes and goes, mostly goes.

This might lead  to a conversation about the significance of cemeteries in general; perhaps Roman Catholic cemeteries in particular. Can they be seen as cities in themselves, or at least analogous to cities? Certainly if they are, they are cities full of art (tombs and monuments). Certainly cemeteries are also eerie places, without pizzerias, without even birds singing. 

Fortuitously then, for Aldo Rossi, recognising a certain 'death' of architecture, the cemetery seems an appropriate project. What does he do? Well to my eyes he seems to assemble a series of eerie relics of the city (including that arcade, which of course is an ancient stoa, and the tower, which is not unlike a renaissance palace). Of course he has to be practical too, to fulfil a brief, but in his mind he has this notion of brokenness, of fracture, loss and - indeed- that famous car accident that immobilised him in hospital for a good while. NB: Rossi was an unlucky driver, he died in a car crash too.

Meanwhile Rossi's assemblage, when complete, is struck by an all too real event, an earthquake, and, as if proving his point, is now closed. In this way, what might be considered a rather melodramatic architectural work becomes rather more profound as a poetic statement, in that it has suddenly gone the way of the pizzeria.'

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Rebellion in Economics Courses

The news that students in Manchester and elsewhere are rebelling against their economics curriculum which simply grooms them for more lucrative and ongoing catastrophe in our contemporary City institutions is heartening, as is the recognition that religious zeal might not be the best justification for free market economics. Perhaps this is a serious awakening, and not one that just leans back in the other direction.
However the real importance would seem to be the realisation that education, especially degree and post graduate education, is crucially NOT about fulfilling the employment briefs of the existing status quo, since for the existing status quo to change effectively, it needs fresh knowledge. This of course would come as a massive surprise to university PR departments countrywide, who now sell their degrees like tickets, and to students, who are forced to consume their degrees as spectacle.
In architecture, if this meant that students understood as part of their course work the effects of the economic landscape in it's various and contradictory forms on their product (buildings in their various manifestations) it might help them out of at least one malaise they currently suffer. This malaise is ostensibly one that has taken processes that were radical back in the mid eighties and turned them horribly mainstream, in the process almost entirely losing any concept of what it might be to be radical at all.

Monday, 18 November 2013

And Life at Home

How to Make a University

Nobody is helping anybody make a university these days. Sometimes you might think the whole idea was to flutter around Olympia and a crappy stand, selling your university's USPs. Of course this is not the point at all, and pretty much nobody, certainly students, are duped by the adventures of the superstructure.
So, in humility, here's a room, made in this case mostly by me. OK I need the salary, I need the building, I need.....all sorts, but I guess this is what I think a university room looks like, and I made it myself.

Saturday, 16 November 2013


Perhaps it's because I did the French Revolution yesterday morning and the beatniks in the afternoon, or perhaps it's because of the post 'What Revolutions Do' (see post below) that I think I can define counterculture as something that happens when revolutions cannot. Without a discontented army, without a starving populace, and without the necessary apparatus in place to replace what you depose, revolutions don't happen. However malcontent must manifest itself somewhere, and that place seems to be 'counterculture'.
Where does this get us? The somewhat unfortunate conclusion must be that even at it's very best, counterculture might influence, in some way, the over-riding power play, but it will usually hopelessly overestimate this influence, for only total catastrophe will bring fundamental change. Mostly, counterculture just feeds the beast. Also countercultures which demonstrate no interest in changing anything at all, like hair metal, might be considered just as valid as those that do, such as hippies. It is really just a question of how you wish to get through the day. It also makes Marxist critique of culture almost an entirely peripheral pursuit on the level of belonging to the boys scouts or girl guides (which of course, many paid up members resemble).
So Brand might be right on one thing, you may, if you dare, simply not participate. Otherwise you would have to get very angry indeed.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Back in the USSR

I am no authority on the subject of the former Soviet Union, neither am I an enthusiast, and my knowledge of it is largely abstract, fleshed out with a bit of anecdotal stuff, but nothing had me shouting in to my iPad like yesterday evening's flagrantly biased documentary on the BBC on The Cold War.
In the light of day I have to wonder why such a film has been made, why such a toad of a presenter was selected, and why such a sensationalist view of the red menace has to be dug up and resuscitated all over again as if we all hadn't been indoctrinated enough by James Bond. After all the Soviet Union collapsed twenty five years ago. Mind you, my students do seem to love going to Cuba.
Perhaps the BBC is worried about it's alleged bias, so swung itself mindlessly in the direction of a Daily Mail for effect, or perhaps on the other hand, something is genuinely up, that the powers that be are sincerely interested in the problem that Russell Brand might suddenly represent. Who knows?
The Beatles didn't know, and in their parody of the Beach Boys, 'Back in the USSR' is a shining example of parody. Those Ukraine girls might indeed knock us out, Joe Joe (Stalin) may always be on our mind, and in it's quirky jolity it even sounds like a Black Sea surfing song, that is if you can surf, which I doubt, in the Black Sea, and in doing so it makes a point, a singular rarity (in my opinion) in the whole Beatles back catalogue.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Truth Behind Capitalism

The more you understand about life, the more miserable it gets. This is an eternal truth that capitalism endlessly wishes to exploit; with bits, with bobs. Of course if you follow the love of bits and bobs you will die either ignorant or scared stiff, perhaps both.

LSA The New School of Architecture

As architecture in conventional schools runs through it's Tales From Topographic Oceans, triple concept album progressive rock period, when even the most liberal of staff might be minded to agree with Rick Wakeman, that 'even I didn't know what we were singing about, and I was in the band', it is perhaps a matter of cause and effect that there might be some sort of grass roots rebellion, and a potential new school.
Prog-rock was of course energised by the noodling of the Moog synthesiser, which at least facilitated, maybe even encouraged, some appalling and lengthy lyrical drivel. Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson surely deserved each other. And so now in architecture forty years later, we have Grasshopper and Rhino fusing fairy stories of one kind or another in all permutations over many many sheets of paper. However what could on the surface appear pleasant madrigals of dissuasion might conceal an alarmingly political subtext, just as Rush are, in fact, Randian.
For me it is not surprising to see cross sections of locusts on the walls of the architectural studios, or projects revolving around the eating habits of sloths, or for that matter any inspiration from the natural world, for these life forms seem an important and convenient last resort of inspiration. Grasshoppers and sloths have not done anything wrong, they are what they are. Humans are more problematic, we have, and continue to do, and it has been lurking in my consciousness for some time that beneath the madrigals lies a steely discipline even Loyola (above) would have appreciated as the Catholic church fought back the Reformation in the C16th. There is certainly something of the religious exercise to today's architectural product (I fear even using the term 'work') and there is considerable self flagellation. In fact, there is much of the character of the inquisition.
I'm not sure how the new school will work, the schools are a powerful bastion and I am not heretical, so I'm not going to the meeting tonight at the Architecture Foundation partly because I hope the old guard keep their noses out of it (some hope!) and partly because the LSA have charmingly not really got around to how they might teach my particular subject area. However I do enjoy it when the mechanisms of straightforward cause and effect become so plainly evident, and as a consequence I wave politely from a vatican window.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Margate in November

I guess walking around any seaside town at nine in the morning is going to be bleak, but Margate can be very bleak indeed. I put it down to the fact that Thanet is north facing, everybody with a view of the estuary is instantly reminded that the sunshine is, even at best, behind them. However I do like staring out at the estuary, one particularly fuck-off container ship slowly slipping across the horizon and my window pane right now, and if there is anything positive to be said about down in the mouth seaside towns like Margate, it is their sense of rather desperate theatre. It can make you more miserable than you could be almost anywhere else.
However this hotel, the Walpole Bay Hotel, is, or at least was, Tracey Emin's 'most romantic place in the world' and I can heartily recommend it. Down stairs last night there were two old guys talking in German accents about Hannibal Lecter and another dressed all in black going for a part as Merlin. It felt, amongst the joyously assorted victorian bric-a-brac, that you were suddenly participating in some Agatha Christie murder mystery weekend. I ate in an almost deserted and huge old style dining room, something I have not had the pleasure of doing for twenty years, and the food was satisfyingly period too. Afterwards, chatting to Merlin, I realised he was also a dead ringer for Mick Fleetwood, and this morning, as I spotted the gold Rolla parked outside, I wondered just who I'd been talking to really. 
Meanwhile all the attractions are super bleakly closed even if they look as if they might be even bleaker when open, and of all people Bill Wyman is playing the Winter Gardens this evening, just after Julie has finished her 'Nostalgias' conference as it happens. Now sitting here on a November morning as it starts to rain on that window pane is no finer spot to say 'Bill, just give it up..' because there surely cannot be anything worse than the ex-Rolling Stone, champion of Madison Square Gardens for a generation, doing THIS. Mind you, by the look of the above, Margate gets even worse by January.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Has Modernism Failed?

I have been reminded twice recently, once in a missive from Unit 12 at the Bartlett, and again from Metamodernists (whoever they are) in Preston, that 'modernism' has catastrophically failed. God knows why anybody is bothering to declare this, it's rather like saying apricots have failed whilst surrounded by apricots.
What is modernism and what do you define as failure? To say your world has failed is one thing (and sure that would seem correct on many levels) but thinking that an architectural project, a new proclamation on the part of architects, can do anything to ameliorate this is preposterous. More likely, as was proved with 'postmodernism' when architects attempt this they tend to get caught out as self aggrandising frauds supplicant to a bigger power play of fashion and trend.
Architecture has 'failed' necessarily in it's aspiration ever since the advent of the industrial revolution, since it's remit  was suddenly re-conditioned as preposterous (at least utopian) in itself, or if not preposterous at least absurd, or if not that then at least 'tragic' in consequence. Sometimes you have to laugh.
The idea that lots of new funny shapes doodled on the computer can somehow alter this unfortunate but all too real predicament is idiotic, further for a fresh approach to architecture to be deemed successful, it will surely have to be wrestling with a far broader range of processes than the visual to be seen (paradoxically) to be such a success.

What Revolutions Do

'I don't think the capitalists are going to give up without one hell of a fight' I said to Scott, rather lamely, as he explained his somewhat sketchy programme of forthcoming events; the introduction of the universal social wage, nationalization of land and agriculture and the immediate closure of the Department of Work and Pensions. Indeed, it was all getting more than a little Citizen Smith in the corner of the Star, whose staff are now used to our joint berating of the said capitalist system, whose creaking momentum, Scott is sure, is about, any minute now, to crumble to dust.
And this morning I found myself quaking at Russell Brand's expression of a 'plausable and beautiful revolution' (see today's Guardian front page) since whilst I really enjoy the Brand & Paxman experience, any cursory glance at history tells us that any kind of revolution is ghastly violent. I mean, one guy was thrown out of a window in Prague and Europe went to war for thirty years not so long ago (historically speaking) so don't tell me that nicking everybody's investments overnight is going to make them happy, it will not, it will make them bloodthirsty. What's more we are no longer used to feeling domestically bloodthirsty, we have no idea what it will be like. This is a worry.
Most revolutions, and the things that happened of a similar type before the term revolution was invented, occur with some seismic shift in technology- say the printing press (Reformation), or gunpowder (Empire States) or the steam engine (Industrial). It is anybodies guess what our contemporary technology is doing, but one thing is for certain, it dulls the senses when you have it, and it infuriates those who do not. Hence the War on Terror; our primary concern. It may be worth fishing out that old Baudrillard book, 'The Gulf War Did Not Take Place' to work out what to make of the War on Terror, but it is certainly a consequence of our domestic indulgence, and perhaps perilously, that indulgence we would be loathed to give up.
It is quite possible Marx was right, and that Scott is right, but yesterday evening I had that nagging feeling, deep in my gut, that maybe we could put off the revolution just for a little while, because I've got something I'm looking forward to next week other than carnage. I was, suddenly, bereft of virtue!

Monday, 4 November 2013

'Broadsword to Danny Boy'

If I'd have known that Ms Rebekah Brooks and co, scum of The News of the World ('pizza delivered and the chicken in the pot') had used my own call sign (above) to communicate with my impresario friend Tim Pyne during the Dome fiasco (alternatively recognised as huge fun) I'd have reconsidered. Pathetic how the old classic skewed the consciousness of so many (including me). I've watched that film a happy 946 times.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

'Island of Happiness'

Emperor Hadrian had an island for sulking: showing his humanity perhaps. Abstractly watching the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this afternoon (a 'sport' reduced to controlled slippage under immense power as far as I can see- glides as smooth as the moves on your iPad) and staring at those stupid buildings, and thinking about the even stupider 'Island of Happiness', with it's monstrous contributions from Gehry, Zaha, Nouvel, Foster and so on which are now threatened by strike over appalling working conditions, really brings reason and substance to a course like 'Critical Thinking'. Yes at 9am tomorrow I shall be critically thinking once more, and the mind reels after an hour or so of Abu Dhabi on you mind.
On the Island of Happiness there shall be a Gehry Guggenheim, but what with an artists strike, and a certain cultural difference, even when it is finished it will be impossible to curate any meaningful show within it's daftly struck walls. It is, well, pure vanity, and nobody cares. F1 is pure vanity too of course; the whole bundle goes so well together. But what of the architects who work on these things, all those teams working so hard on such obviously wretched exercises? What the hell do they think they are doing?  

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Why I love the MR3

I love my MR3, it's the best chair in our apartment without doubt. I have another one at the other end of the room right now which is on it's way to my university office, and this one pictured (original factory refurbished they said) is better than that, even if they look the same. Both have the Knoll signature thing going on, but they seem different! How can this be? They should, as official products, be the same but of course things go on. My simple advice; if you want the best of Knoll's MR3's weigh them! That lovely beast over there is one hefty beast, like Mies himself, the other a little more shifty across the floor.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Sick Again (Slight Return)

Getting sick alleviates pain, it is pain of course, you have to go through hell, that horrid 'God I'm going to die' type stuff in the middle of the dark night, but after you finally collapse to wake at noon, some calmness descends, and you're left to yourself in the grey of day in an empty flat, just a bit numb, with classes cancelled, suddenly painless and spiritually lightweight. At least there are some benefits.
Sickness is a symptom of malaise, yes maybe that's better, so when you find yourself up all night with your bowels tied up in knots, it's not them thats getting to you, it's not even the pumpkin soup, it's probably a raft of other things, like Stalin, or your dad, or that e-mail where you actually said what you meant. At least that's what you hope.
I could blame it on the pumpkin soup, but the pumpkin soup was very good. I could blame it on Halloween itself, seeing as there is actually a real box of Halloween branded tangerines on the side in the kitchen, and I'm inclined to think Halloween branded tangerines bring madness in themselves. The word tangerine doesn't even appear on the Disney packaging, they are now called just 'Halloween Easy Peeler'.
When I was young, Halloween hardly existed, now it's a heavy industry. Instead we used to celebrate The Gunpowder Plot, Guy Fawkes! The blowing up of Parliament!! What a noble tradition that was. Now poor Guy hardly gets a look in for omnipresent gouls and goulishness. Perhaps it's a symptom of going soft that brings on this indigestion.