Archive for the ‘Architecture’ Category

Competing Conservatisms

Saturday, February 5th, 2011

A defence of modernism against the heritage industry:

"The relevance of Ypres and Warsaw escapes me. Rather than being a purely symbolic propylaeum, they were functional city centres. They had to be rebuilt. As I said in the piece, an act of reconstruction is also an act of erasure: it wipes away the circumstances of the destruction. When the destruction was the result of a vast national trauma like a war, one can understand the desire to promptly rebuild things as they were, as part of a national recovery process that is as much psychological as it is to do with restoring buildings. But the Euston Arch was not the result of a war or invasion, and its loss – whatever the Euston Arch Trust might say – was not a comparable national trauma. Was the Euston Arch such a “great architectural monument”? Maybe if it had not been demolished it would have continued to mean something to subsequent generations. However, it was demolished, and I would contend that it was less than a generation away from being almost entirely forgotten. It means almost nothing to my generation, and I can’t imagine it mattering any more to the next.

The Frauenkirche in Dresden is an interesting case. Again, the loss of the arch is in no way comparable – the Frauenkirche was the linchpin of Dresden’s skyline. And its restoration was not only aimed at undoing the damage caused by the Allied bombs in 1945, it was also part of the process of symbolically undoing Dresden’s more recent history as part of the DDR. Germany’s present enthusiasm for restoration and reconstruction is very relelvant here – presented as a harmless antiquarian endeavour, it has the covert goal of wiping out DDR-era landmarks such as Berlin’s Palast der Republik. It’s an act of erasure.

To restate what I said in the piece, the destruction of the arch was a symbolic defeat for the forces of conservation and traditionalist architecture in this country – and its symbolism has grown steadily over the years, judging from the melodramatic prose used to describe the demolition. The campaign to rebuild is about undoing a defeat more than any other consideration – any other rationales are simply convenient cover for this prime objective. It’s part of a broader cultural effort to discourage the modernisation of the UK in the later 20th century, and to present post-war modernist construction as a malign mistake to be rectified.

Central to this heritage-militancy is a national loss of nerve about the New. In the minds of the likes of Jenkins, the New was a modernist invention, but in fact centuries of British architects and city-builders had faith in the New over the Old. The Georgians swept away medieval cities and the Victorians swept away Georgian cities, and hundreds of good and tens of thousands of indifferent buildings were destroyed and places changed their character for better and worse long before the modernists appeared on the scene. The idea – often repeated by the Prince of Wales and others – that previous generations tended their cities bonsai-like, with nailclippers and tweezers, is a myth. And because there aren’t photographs of those pre-existing eras, just unfamiliar paintings and drawings, we don’t grieve all that much. And Stamp, to his credit, sees this, acknowledging in his introduction that the railways (for instance) were terrifically destructive…. The wholesale rejection of the New has completely failed, giving us only amnesia and routine philistinism. In distrusting development we have, as a country, not stopped development but ceded our ability to shape it and even plan it."

It seems a trifle disingenuous to say that any desire for cultural continuity has to be validated under the extreme circumstance of erasing the memory of a war or foreign occupation, and even then has to be at least partially dismissed as being in some way suspect and infantile. It also seems the wrong way round to blame the desire for the conservation and even reconstruction of historical structures as being to blame for the contemporary lack of will to create a meaningful built environment; people cling to the old because of the mediocrity of the new, not the other way round. Modernism has only itself to blame for having failed to blaze a trail towards the future and can’t really look around for scapegoats. It’s also important to remember in this context that we are often only speaking of a contest between two conservatisms; on in favour of ‘traditional’ architecture and one in favour of ‘modernist’ architecture; in practice, neither often seem to like contemporary architecture very much; the former category is at least honest in its conservatism.


Saturday, January 16th, 2010

Fantastic Journal has an interesting article on Terminal Five and the modern airport:

"The contemporary airport is probably the perfect architectural encapsulation of the strange complexities and iniquities of modern (western) life. They are glossy and expensive playgrounds offering endless diversions that never mask the ennui of actually being there. They are also highly policed, security-obsessed environments where the people in them are both flattered as consumers and treated as potential lunatics at the same time.

Airports are the quintessential contemporary building type, the symbolic target for terrorists and the rallying point for environmentalists. They are the manifestation of our desires and the focus of our fears. Spatially they are highly complex, a warren of labyrinthine corridors, border controls and security tape. Terminal 5 – like Foster’s Stanstead – strives to transcend the reality of endless queues and sock shops, harking back to the grand spaces of Victorian railway sheds, but the grim realities of immigration control always brings such flights of fancy back down to earth… Airplane travel today is a weird echo of 1950’s Service-with-a-Smile faux-luxury combined with the degrading intrusiveness of contemporary security arrangements. It’s hard to equate the optimism of vintage BAOC adverts with the humiliation of thousands of people being forced to take their toothpaste through security in a clear plastic bag."

In a lot of respects, I rather liked Terminal Five. Victorians looking at the Crystal Palace or St Pancras Station must have felt the way I did when looking at it. That sort of gleaming futurism is rather uncommon in Britain. With that said, my main recollection of it was the contrast between the gleaming high-tech character of the building and the rather generic anonymity of the building interior; the effect of the contrast is rather bathetic. Terminal Five is in short, the perfect representation of what Marc Auge called the ‘non-place:’

"Auge laments the rise of spaces like airports and freeways and rest areas that are decoupled from the world around them, places that could be anywhere and everywhere, but are actually nowhere. For Auge, these spaces seem to signal the end of borders, of locality, and of the old sense of identity rooted in place and time. The non-places are devoid of relationships and have ‘no room for history unless it has been transformed into an element of spectacle.’"

The Sense Of Place

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

This article from the Guardian struck me as being far removed the point:

"When the phrase ‘Hampstead novel’ was used in the 80s, everyone knew exactly what it meant: a middle-class morality novel – probably involving adultery and shallow-masquerading-as-deep. Critics fastened on ‘Hampstead’ as if the place itself might be a clue to content – as if the postcode was a giveaway. But, actually, the idea of Hampstead may never have had much to do with reality. Professor John Sutherland says the phrase became more an ‘idea’ than a ‘topographical truth’ … What is perhaps most interesting about this slippery mirage of a genre is what it suggests about place itself – and the way it can take hold and have an independent life in a reader’s imagination. It was the ‘Hampstead novel’ tag that first nudged me towards thinking about the way places are used as critical shorthand. I started to wonder about the geography of novels – and whether we still use place as a symbolic key to content…

‘Chelsea, Hampstead and St John’s Wood have been replaced by Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani, set in Hounslow and on the Heathrow Flight path.’ (There may be hope for the Luton novel yet.) Hahn points out that gaps in the A-Z tend to be filled by ‘non British writers’. ‘Fifty years ago,’ he says, “it would have been amazing to read a novel like Monica Ali’s from someone with a different background.”.. In non fiction, Iain Sinclair made his name writing about such places (no small feat to write compellingly about the M25 as he has done in London Orbital). In fiction, Blake Morrison is one of a growing number of writers attempting to do something comparable. He could hardly be plainer about his allegiance: his most recent novel is called South of the River… Yet although British novelists now spread their nets more widely, there is still a paucity of state-of-the-nation novelists, writers able to move freely across the map and get an aerial view. Hanif Kureishi puts it like this: ‘Dickens had a sense of the whole society, from prisoner to home secretary. No writer has that now.’"

It’s certainly true that place was an especially important concept in the Victorian novel. George Eliot wrote of how she saw it as nurturing and forming character, making it the basis for the balance of character and society that is the hallmark of the Victorian novel (to the extent that Moretti could construct a series of maps from Dickens and Balzac). In Eliot, Hardy and the Bronte sisters (and DH Lawrence later), the place is typically rural, albeit one being transformed under the impact of an increasingly commercial and industrial society. In others, like Gaskell and Dickens, there is a contrast of urban squallor and vice with rural virtue, following the likes of Fielding. As society became increasingly urbanised (not to mention less homogeneous) these sorts of themes work less well. In contemporary terms, people are more mobile between places, less likely to be influenced by one areas. I often think of a line from Peter Shaffer’s play Equus, about how the very concept of place has been eroded in the modern world. Equally, place has become an increasinly homogeneous concept, with most of the population living in suburbs that are invariably designed as to be mutually interchangeable, before travelling to work in offices of glass and steel that come close to being mass manufactured. Contemporary geography is characterised by what Marc Auge calls the unplace; places like supermarkets, motorways, hotels, business parks or airports that are the architecture of transience rather than social stability: "… like the place, the non-place doesn’t exist in pure form; it’s more likely that new places are generated, relations are reconstructed within. Place and non-place are contrary poles; the place never disappears completely and the non-place is never fully established – they are palimpsests on which the confusing game of identity and relation finds its own reflection over and over."

As such, it seems to me that the writer that best characterises the modern concept of place is "One of the things I like about Ballard is how he treats architectural space: highway flyovers, corporate campuses, flooded hotels, suburban home-development projects, abandoned swimming pools, army camps in the desert. He presents the modern, built environment as this kind of psychological field lab for testing new ways of being human. He encodes all this, or hardwires it, into the actual landscapes of his novels. You get humans trying to understand and psychologically accommodate themselves to the presence of vast, empty car parks, derelict hospitals, redundant freeways, under-subscribed exurban high-rises and so on. It’s a ‘malfunctioning central nervous system’ in spatial form, on the scale of a whole civilisation.

Ballardian space is psycho-spatial. His books are full of artificial lakes, highway medians, multi-storey car parks, strangely over-air-conditioned corporate boardrooms – and these all take on a kind of menacing, even confrontational, gleam, as if you’ve just stepped into some kind of unspoken mental challenge. The buildings and cities and landscapes in Ballard’s novels are more like psychological traps built by management consultants – not architects – who then fly overhead in private jets, looking down, checking whether their complicated theories of human cognition have survived the test. Where ‘the test’ is the world you and I now live in.

Of course, any built environment has a psychological impact on the people who live there. In Super-Cannes, for instance, the book’s setting – an office park – is haunted by a kind of ‘controlled and supervised madness,’ Ballard writes. One of the characters explains, at great length, how the too-perfect and over-manicured landscapes of this new corporate enclave inspire sexual violence and anti-immigrant raids – a rebellion against the boredom of tennis courts and well-mowed lawns. Every artificial landscape is the diagram of a certain psychological state – even if that just means reflecting the dominant aesthetic of the day. But the idea that the built landscape can be read as an ‘encephalograph of an unresolved mental crisis,’ as Ballard writes, crossing generations and countries, just fascinates me.

Space in Ballard’s novels is never deeply textured or deeply described. Instead, you get these abstract non-places – a corporate campus, a media center, a fitness complex. You drive down feeder roads and airport roundabouts and cross-city motorways. You never enter a world of rich, Dickensian details. He’s like the anti-Dickens. You don’t walk past churches and bookshops and local bars and farmers’ markets and whatever else makes a believable urban setting; you’re always out in this weird edge-world of import warehouses and corporate development projects. Sports-car dealerships. The very lack of detail is what makes a setting Ballardian."