19 November 2008

Somers Town, 25 Sept 08

quantum house

women's freedom & academy of dreams

The City is not a hospitable place for hippies, mystics, and idealists - they graitate west towards smaller towns like Totnes and Stroud. A few pagan shops still exist round Seven Dials, and there's a fortune teller in Selfridges, but by and large the City is about power more concrete than cosmic. Bless these women's groups in the pictures above, then! It was a two-storey building with this sterile, masculinist steel and granite facade more suited to an accountancy or law firm - but there they were, working on dreams of freedom regardless of the difficulties outside.

15 November 2008

Stoke Newington, 28 Sept 08

watch your skin


Watch your skin peel indeed - love this haunting intervention in the abandoned church in Stoke Newington's cemetery. The medium is fantastic: moss grown upon felt, we reckoned. Cheers to Caspar for the walk that morning and showing me around his neighbourhood - hope Berlin's treating you well these days!

Design Museum: Richard Rogers exhibition

A couple of themes struck me about the Richard Rogers exhibition at the Design Museum a few months back - absence and the nature of the architectural model; and microflats and confined urban living. The latter will be another post, something to discuss in relation to my own 250 sq ft dwelling. So here I will talk about:


I've mentioned the dissertation I wrote on the philosophy of dust - how, if you think about it far too much, dust is this really weird force in the domestic. Dust holds a mirror up to human dwelling, showing us back to ourselves as alien. Derrida was an influence here, offering ideas of absent presence and spectrality. And it's those sort of questions I want to ask about the architectural models displayed. What isn't there, and how is this a problem for architecture?

The idea came to mind when I was looking at this perspex-built model, and realised that there wasn't a speck of dust on it. Helen Lloyd at the National Trust has done a lot of research on visitor numbers, the dust they produce, and what this means for their conservation work. The Design Museum hae to be cleaning like maniacs to keep these models pristine (wonder if they pay living wage?). So what does this mean symbolically? It is an erasure of the traces left by people and time, when people-over-time equals life. It is a desire to elevate these models into the Ideal, to proclaim their forms as absolute truths like Platonic solids. It's a great big denial and repression of materiality, and when the practical outcome of the architectural design process is building stuff for embodied use, that's a fucking problem.

This is the big objection that, coming from a social sciences perspective, I have with architecture. It's not about fucking form. The arrangement of pretty shapes and lighting in space (whether in the model or the actual construction) is... method, means to an end. What actually matters is the effects of these forms: environmental impacts, the responses and feelings that buildings elicit from people, the social interactions they enable or proscribe. But the architectural model stops half way through that process, reifying what's secondary to built space (i.e. form) to the sole signifier. It's exactly a monumental arrogance on the behalf of the architect, this desire to deny the fact that every single person's use of the building is a form of interpretation and thus authorship, and to claim this creative generation for themselves alone.

To be sure, I know that architecture students are now trained to think seriously about inhabitation and use and radical architecture - and that's great. Sometimes the results aren't so abstract as to be incomprehensible and useless: even better! But these traditional models ignore all of that, and by being shown in this museum they're being called definitive architecture. NO.

This is a model of the Millennium Dome. What does it say? Everything it tells us is in the absences. The failure of the Dome project was that it was planned as a model (and reconstructed at 100x the scale as the same); that its contents went in because they seemed educational and a good idea in theory, and theory only. The model is white and sterile; the Dome was never planned as living breathing processual space, somewhere that could encourage culture rather than just displaying it dead and fixed. Was its handling of multiculturalism and Britain's hybrid and colonial history also pristinely white in the sense of racially normative? Sure there was PC, but that's not real inclusion. Planned as an unpeopled model, the only participation the Dome allowed was consumption, the only way we could express what we thought of the place was by where we chose to queue. And then they put this model in a museum like it is a good thing?

I want to look for people who are modelling and planning architecture in other ways than these perspex and plastic tombs, ways that bring what matters about the discipline (that is, staging social life) in from the beginning. Suggest things to me...

14 November 2008

Choked up

The weather has been ropey this last week, and bang! look at its effects on the systems of the City. So it's been raining. It's bloody November, of course it's been bloody raining. But can we deal with it raining? No. People stop walking and cycling and take to their cars, they jump on buses for the shortest of journeys. So everything snarls up, King's Cross is essentially stationary, and buses don't go anywhere any more. I find this isn't terribly helpful... This is what I am looking at for 20 minutes at a stretch:

God forbid, I may just listen to certain of my friends and get a fucking fixie, hipsterrific as they are. I do not have the space in my teeny tiny flat for a bicycle, and nor could I possibly be restricted to clothing practical enough to ride in. But the way these guys talk about cycling: the way awareness extends in space and time as you slip through this shifting system of road-cars-pedestrians-destination-enironment-self; the physical challenge (and the phenomenal lean grace of their bodies, more real than anything gym-built); the speed and satisfaction... Their eyes light up, their speech is poetic, enthralled, persuasive. Perhaps there's something in it...


I have regressed to age fifteen and started reading legendary comic series Transmetropolitan. Been reading writer Warren Ellis's blog for years, of course, so it's about time I got round to his real stuff. Transmetropolitan tries quite hard to be cool, and of course it's essentially deriative - but this is postmodernity so does that matter? I think I like it. Worth scribbling about it here because Transmetropolitan - as the name suggests - is urban as hell. Urban like ur-city, or at least ur- like originary if your year zero was Bladerunner. There are other urban archetypes in Dickens, Le Corbusier, Ancient Greece - but yes, Transmetropolitan's doing all it can to capture a particular one. So let's take a look at it.

"I hate it here. I hate the way it smells (except when you get into a fully residential quarter where people are predominantly first-gen American: the way people express their culture in their cooking is one of the few good reasons for being alie). I hate the way it looks (except for that weird beauty that hits you in the eye eery other second). I hate the way it thinks (except when it buys this newspaper). I hate the things it does to itself (except when it lets me do them). I hate the way it loes me, and I hate the way it makes me feel. I hate it here... but God help me, I can't imagine liing anywhere else."

(Anti-)hero Spider Jerusalem just refers to it as 'the city', which fits this blog way too perfectly! The series seems to have quite a fixation on prostitution as proiding definitive urban background colour, too, which I need to unpack - that 'Sex and the City' post I promised. Of course it's essentially just romanticised misogyny, but the trope (common enough, think Sin City too) hints at a bigger about urban social relations too, I suspect... But first another trope of Transmetropolitan: drugs.

"You know, when I was a kid, we listened to music that made our parents' eyes bleed and took drugs that made us want to dance and fuck and kill things. That is the way things are supposed to be.
It was, therefore, in the spirit of honest investigation that I internalised a heroic dose of Space, the new social drug enjoyed by the young folk of today as part of the youth culture referred to as Supermodernity.
Supermodernity, apparently, is the experience of being between places; that is, not being in a real place at all, but waiting in transit between one place and the other. This is why SM/Space Culture music appears to us to be utterly silent. You hae to be on Space - slowed down, across places, in the one between ticks of the clock - to be able to hear it.
This is what they do for fun, apparently: suck up appalling volumes of a drug that traps you in an airport waiting lounge of the mind and doesn't let you go for approximately two hundred years while someone plays an antique handheld electronic keyboard in your ear."

First, what the fuck, a reference to the Marc Auge Non-Places: ...Anthropology of Supermodernity that is basically A. getting Terribly Upset about driving on the motorway? Unexpected... But also the suggestion that real cutting-edge spatial theorists ought to be hoovering up ketamine and the other space-time distorters (salvia, perhaps?). The eco actor-network theory of Tim Ingold is essentially based on the acidhead realisations of Gregory Bateson: 'oh shit, man, it's like, all connected! We better be nice to the plants and reindeer now...' So what would the results be for embodiment and architecture if working with disassociatives? Of course architecture students are always already doing these drugs by the bucketload, but is anyone out there integrating it with their practice? I want to know...

12 November 2008

New York, New York

Twelve days ago I went to New York for the first time. I didn't visit for the sake of the city at all - hell, I wish it didn't exist - oh, let's just say it separates me from someone, someone who's pretending for the moment that the City isn't the one true place to be. Nevertheless, this is enough of a someone that I would consider leaving my beloved City for his - so while I was there (and because I lack the money, and because I'm an anthropologist not a lousy tourist!) I was thinking about how NY operates as a place to live. A few comments on its urban space and architecture, to begin with:

The Bowery was one of the streets I liked the most, even as gentrification starts to go too far. (The less said about the hotel these days the better.) It let me take a satisfyingly evocative (cliched) photo, and still seemed to carry a few ghosts.

The Bowery hosts the New Museum of Contemporary Art, one of the very few bits of proper, committed new architecture I found in the city. (I didn't go even as north as Midtown, though, so I accept I may have missed a bit! Then again, no-one was trying to convince me that the Upper East Side was a happening place to see...) The rainbow 'Hell Yes' on its side didn't exactly 'fit' as such, but the building had a scale and a rhythm that worked well. I liked its texture, I liked its balanced imbalance, and it proided a fitting space for its gallery purpose.

One of the other rare bits of serious new architecture I saw in NY was Tschumi's Blue Building on the Lower East Side - I failed to get a decent picture, but thankfully the New York Times did. Apparently, "its contorted form has a hypnotic appeal that is firmly rooted in the gritty disorder of its surroundings." No no no! It's just a bog-standard tower block that happens to be wonky. It's a monolith of glass and steel that doesn't speak to any grittiness or disorder; it seeks to be a singular landmark rather than dispersed or multiple; it's blocky, aggressive, still fucking phallic. This longer review is more astute when it observes that the asymmetric form is all about maximising the square footage, i.e. capital-with-a-capital-C. If I gave a shit about the Lower East Side, perhaps I'd cry.

Oddly enough for America, New York's best buildings were its old ones, with their fragile rusty balconies and sense of speaking in harmony with their neighbours. I was surprised to find that the city had a facility for elegant decay, something I associate strongly with Mediterranean cities and perhaps Latin America. Paint peeled, graffiti layered on top of posters, the sidewalk fallen apart fit to break a leg... Unexpected, but quite beautiful in its anti-statist way. Sea air helps, too, I suppose. I'd thought Coney Island might have this quality but instead it was sadder than that, surrounded by housing estates and derelict land, an illustration of New York's segregation and deelopment rows. Shame. (Fucking enormous seagulls, too.)

Further commentary in another post regarding the 'suburbanisation' of New York and other suggestions as to why I didn't feel it was somewhere that worked very well. But as a teaser, I like this comment by Rocco Landesman, a Broadway producer:

But I think there has been a delibidinization of our city, I really do. ...In terms of public planning there’s been a kind of prudishness, a kind of social and political correctness that’s gone on.

Sex and the City, now there you go - and now that's such a topic for this blog, too!