TVAM

Thursday, 27 August 2015TEXTBIN
 
 
 

A building of the media, for the media, heralding the beginnings of our saturated age with its palatially cheap-and-cheerful exuberance, TVAM was a complex, clever, and delightfully giddy stage-set, back-drop, and active instigator in the nation’s newfound –commercialised- breakfast pleasures. Mad Lizzie and her team did aerobics under the neon keystones of the its retro-futuristic-classical-pop entrance arch, while its oh-so-eloquent plastic eggcup finials were beamed straight into our living rooms as the utterly endearing markers of the end of each morning’s entertainment, and the beginning of the working day (no doubt while some of us were eating similar boiled eggs from very similar eggcups). Its interior was like the very coolest American industrial design and Italian fashion had exploded on impact with the dour British working environment, performing with perfect ease as the backdrop for impromptu broadcasts, being far more interesting than the majority of the actual TV-show sets themselves.

Buildings, spaces, tools and machines of high-tech media content, whether it be smartphones or studio buildings, are today mostly the very inverse of that which they contain and produce –they are all too often black boxes, slick tablets and neutral sheds. TVAM was something it would be wonderful to see more of: a rapturous celebration of its contents, a building that functioned perfectly as a studio, but which also performed brilliantly as an architectural embodiment of, and story about the new world we were entering, in which old categories were dissolving and hierarchies collapsing, in which cleverness could be a joy, old could be new, pop could be culture, and architecture could be free to be sophisticated, fun, fashionable and communicative. It was a stylistic explosion of pent-up tectonic energies that formed itself around the volatile excitement of a new media age, and in the process became entrenched in our national consciousness.

As Paul Greenhalgh said, postmodernism stands in relation to our own moment as the Steam Age did to its own oil-powered future; the mediated nature of our economy and lifestyle that was only beginning with TVAM has now effloresced into a saturated environment unimaginable at that time. TVAM encapsulated the complexities of its time -good and ill, beautiful and ugly- with stylistic bravado and architectural panache. It would be very good indeed to see young architects picking up the baton, and throwing themselves headlong into the maelstrom of contemporary culture, bringing some of its raw brilliance back into the built environment. In its spirit, it is a model to be revaluated, revisited and taken-up once again.

What would a TVAM of 2016 look like?

 

Chartres

Friday, 19 June 2015TEXTBIN
 
 
 
"Two kinds of nostalgia are not absolute types, but rather tendencies, ways of giving shape and meaning to longing. Restorative nostalgia puts emphasis on nostos (returning home)and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps. Reflective nostalgia dwells in algia (aching), in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance. The first category of nostalgics do not think of themselves as nostalgic; they believe that their project is about truth.”
Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia
 
In her book The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym posits nostalgia as the inevitable flipside of the coin of modernity, as a primary symptom of development in which the march forward only becomes psychologically acceptable through a turn towards the past, real or otherwise. Spaces of shared history are our universal panacea. Within this fundamentally modern condition she outlines two main responses. On the one hand there are those who reject the ambiguities, layerings and lacunae of history, and wish to return to an ideal origin, to the moment in which a building, a city, or a nation was in its primary, pure and unadulterated state. Those with this goal in mind see history spatially, as just one point in time, to be rediscovered, reconstructed, and inhabited. On the other hand there are those who embrace the passing of time, and the complex stratifications of adulteration and chance, who see signs of change as triggers for the contemplation of the temporary nature of all things man-made, both our ideas & values as well as our buildings. Those who prefer to reflect on the past in this manner see history as a continuum of change, and the very marks of time passing, the indeterminate nature of what came before and after, are the immeasurably valuable qualities that come with age.
 
Chartres, perhaps the most universally adored of the great gothic cathedrals from the astonishing 12th& 13th Century Ile de France building boom, is part-way through an extensive program of restoration that has pitted these two sensibilities against one another. The campaign’s intention is to remove 800 years’ worth of accumulated grime and reinstate a decorative scheme that was discovered under numerous later layers of paint and dirt. The caking of candle wax, paint and soot, including from a fire in the 1970s, was so textured and dark that the surfaces of the Cathedral were almost uniformly mistaken for exposed stonework. The consequently dark interior provided a dazzling contrast to the coruscating radiance of the stained glass, itself restored to a state of past-perfect chromatic uniformity amid quite some controversy. The layers and layers of decorative schemes, alterations, damage and grime no doubt had nothing in common with how the space looked on the day of its consecration, but the story they told of the intervening time, and the much admired aesthetic consequences of its restrained decay came to be much loved and intimately associated with our version of Chartres, a Chartres that provided something much needed in the 19th, 20th and 21stCenturies, a place to reflect on in the unknowable distances that both separate us from, and unite us with our past.
 
The restored ambulatory and choir areas, soon to be followed by the transepts, crossing and nave before 2017, look brand new and bright, with a beige ground covered in white lines that trace mortar joints that don’t always follow the actual coursing below, itself an interesting example of how visitor perception of the interior trumped any fidelity to material fact even at the time of the Cathedral’s opening. It is impressive for a moment, and then you remember you are in Chartres. The effect is well summed-up by John Lichfield when he asks us to “Imagine how you might feel if your great, great, great grand-mother was suddenly made to appear 20 years old again.”* The restorers intend that the Cathedral be experienced as had been originally intended. That intention is an impossibility, and the presumption that it can be achieved is a dangerous one. In the sciences, practitioners posit a theory, which may be generally accepted for a period, but as soon as experimental results disprove it, a new theory is proposed that explains the data. Truth evolves. The problem with the material pursuit of reconstructing supposed origins in restoration, such as the cleaning of Chartres, is that based on necessarily fragmentary and imperfect evidence, a theory (and that is all it is) is presumed as a final truth, and all evidence to the contrary contained within the accretions of time and the gaps in the earliest material, is systematically wiped out and lost forever as something that can be experienced spatially. In these instances Truth may not evolve, it is arrested, and visitors are permanently excluded from forming their own ideas about the building in the way they might when all the increments of 800 years are present in the space for them to interpret. The information regarding the original colour-scheme could be present in a guide as text, and become one layer of many that visitors may simultaneously experience, but when it erases everything else there is only one manner in which the building can be understood. It is a form of historical absolutism.
 
I am open to the reflex towards reconstructive nostalgia in architecture when the building is new. Nobody pretends that the full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Nashville is actually the original Parthenon. There is an honesty about internal paradoxes in that act, everyone is aware of an edifice’s newness, is aware that it is an illusion, and a communal act of imagination is required to validate the history it indicates, whether it be Disneyland (the materialisation of fictional histories) or the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow (the reinstatement of a previously erased past). However restoration to an existing historic building that eliminates the patina of history, and reinstates an illusory ideal moment in the past while using the rhetoric of scientific and historic accuracy, is an act of destruction in the name of an illusion, dressed up in good intentions.
 
 
We are all poorer for the restoration at Chartres, and have lost one of our greatest spaces for reflection on the passing of time, and things.
 
 
.............................................
 
This article was published in edited form in the May 2015 issue of Apollo Magazine as part of the "Forum" series in which two opposing takes in an issue are placed next to one another. The article can be read here.
 
*John Lichfield, Bright future for a Gothic Wonder in the Independent, Saturday 05 September 2009
 

The Unhappy Pursuit

Friday, 19 June 2015TEXTBIN
 
 
 
1324a5 It remains to discuss whether the happiness of the city is the same as that of the individual, or different. The answer is clear: all are agreed that they are the same. Those who believe that the well-being of the individual consists in his wealth, will also believe that the city as a whole is happy when it is wealthy. Those who rank the life of a tyrant higher than any other, will also rank the city which possesses the largest empire as being the happiest city. Anyone who grades individuals by their goodness, will also regard the happiness of cities as proportionate to their goodness.
Extract from Chapter II, Book VII of Aristotle’s Politics
 
Much as the analysis of advertising proved to be an eye-opening window into the libidinal underpinnings of the twentieth century’s very irrational consumer mind, the marketing for residential-led developments has more recently proven itself to be a convenient way of gaining insight into what property buyers are drawn to in a city, and in a home. Because of the increasingly yawning gap between the stratospheric prices of many flats and their consequently disappointing reality, the intensity and psychological brio of these marketing campaigns has reached a fever-pitch of ideological clarity in the attempt to reconcile the two.
 
Their approach can be roughly divided into the targeting of two main areas of desire. On the one hand there is the drive for uniqueness, the need to feel special, better than everyone else, as was traditionally embodied through affectations of luxuriousness. Coming to predominate now in this approach is the use of L’Oreal style exhortations of indulgence and singularity regarding the buyer and the home, phrases which have no link whatsoever with the physical reality of the buildings or places themselves, but are related solely to how the purchaser is meant to feel about his purchase. Redrow’s recent trailer for its One Commercial Street development is the most explicit expounding of this tactic to date, with barely a glimpse of any aspect of the building whatsoever apart from the view, whilst a character narrates phrases like “But if it was easy, then it wouldn’t feel as good. To look out at the city that could have swallowed you whole and say ‘I did this’. To stand, with the world at your feet.[1]
 
On the other hand there is the drive to not be alone, for the opposite of luxurious isolation, for its therapeutic amelioration in urban form through the connection with something specific to a given place. It is the instrumentalisation of this kind of artificially located authenticity that has seen the greatest proliferation in recent years, with videos of local markets and galleries jostling against phrases about how you will “be enriched by the alluring tapestry of culture and flavours bursting from every direction[2], and even tabula-rasa behemoths like Battersea being “designed to nurture interactions and inspire enduring relationships,” their website earnestly entreating buyers with such unintentionally terrifying phrases as “In and through community lies the salvation of the world[3].
 
Through these campaigns we can read the desire for perfectly acceptable, even civic forms of socially beneficial human fulfilment which are being perpetually deferred, since their object cannot be achieved in the purchase of the very items being advertised as representing their fulfilment. It is laudable to aim for excellence, to have as your goal the rising above others in the pursuit of one or another form of supremacy. It is a wholly positive impulse to be part of a community and to participate actively in the ballad of perpetual happenstance that we call a city. Purchasing a home in one of these developments means in fact that not only are you very much not achieving either one of those things in any way whatsoever, but it is the very object you are purchasing which in its numerical accumulation across our cities is slowly eradicating those things it purports to embody. No-one may excel in any unique manner in a town in which everyone is exactly the same, of the same income level with the same kind of jobs and the same kind of backgrounds. Community and singularity are eradicated by the disappearance of those who require coming together to subsist and of those who run specific, and enriching but not hugely profitable enterprises.
 
The pressure to buy a property of such hyper-inflated value that you will effectively be enslaved to a bank for the rest of your life servicing a debt that bears no relationship to any income you could ever really achieve, is a sophisticated form of crowd control, of enslavement and pacification. The populist demagogue of home-ownership is herding the crowd towards a destination that is wholly against its own self-interest.
 
Very few people value wealth above all else, precisely the opposite, the accumulation of wealth now needs to masquerade as the fulfilment of more substantial goals because otherwise it could never be accepted for what it is, namely the massive restructuring of our society through the transformation of housing into the primary yielding asset type in a newly evolving rentier class of debt holders, shareholders and land owners.
 
As Aristotle pointed out in his Politics, the happiness of a city has much in common with the happiness of the individuals which constitute that city, and the form a city eventually takes will be governed by the characteristics its populace value most highly. Our cities, and London in extremis,are being refashioned as constitutional Oligarchies in which the many may be democratically represented, but in economic reality they spend their lives servicing the wealth of land owners and lenders.
 
That does not lead to the kind of city that embodies values most contemporary citizens would claim to prize. It is not leading to the kind of city that creates as much happiness amongst the most people as possible, and neither is it leading to a city that encourages vigorous meritocratic competition, it is moving rapidly towards the total consumption of both the private[4] and the public realm by the forces of speculation, and this will lead to only one thing: the death of the liberal city.

 

 
.................
 
An edited version of this text was published in the 2nd edition of the Bartlett's Lobby Magazine
 
[1] From the Redrow marketing trailer for One Commercial Street now pulled from their site
[2] From the website for the Lexicon http://www.lexiconlondon.co.uk/in-the-area
[3] From the website for the Battersea Power Station Development https://www.batterseapowerstation.co.uk/#/view/app/placeCommunity/109?view=charter
[4] By Private realm I mean the domain of the family, and the premises of businesses as opposed to the public sphere of exchange.
 

Beauty

Wednesday, 25 February 2015TEXTBIN
 
 
 

Beauty is anything, made or found, which without practical actions, can momentarily alleviate the dead weight of reality from an observer.

 

Sea Spray

Tuesday, 24 February 2015TEXTBIN
 
 
 

I never managed to be a believer because my rabbi couldn’t answer the simple question why? ‘How’ he could answer: always ‘what’, and ‘how’. Never why. And it’s been exactly the same in architecture, mentors full of certainty, but devoid of explanations. They could say what was good and bad, and how to do things, but ask ‘why?’ more than twice and a great rift would open up in which it was clear they were clinging desperately to a life raft of arbitrary values, terrified of the ocean around them, ignoring it. Some sea-spray would occasionally hit their face and they’d swipe it away in disgust and suppressed fear. 


But its okay, the sea is warm and welcoming and liberating. It knows why, it really does, it tells you a bit each time you dive, a little more with each push of your arms through water. The truth is we really are free, the little prisons our teachers built for us are weak as air, held up only by their terror of reality and disdain for honesty.


So turn around. Look up. Jump.

 

Phallic Symbols

Monday, 10 November 2014TEXTBIN
 
 
 

As long as humans have built societies, there have been representations of the male reproductive organ popping up in its art and architecture, and looking at the distant past compared with our more modern times, one can discern an almost complete about-turn in the way this symbolic presence is embodied, and interpreted. In ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt, the phallus was a celebrated symbol of fertility, a playfully transgressive image that was at once a marker of celestial abundance as well as an often hilarious, and very down-to-earth reminder of earthly desires in all their silliness and joy. In Hinduism Shiva’s creative aspect, the side of the god which brings forth and generates, is represented by the Lingam, a symbolic trinity made up of a penis and two testicles, present in many temples across India. The penis was a funny, voluptuous and profound image that tied together birth, growth, carnality, and godliness, our bodies and beds with temples and mythology, it represented a kind of deep love of the human body as expressed in the very surroundings it inhabited. In contrast to this, the penis and its apparent architectural permutations are now the objects of a persistent disgust. A toxic mixture of analogies and associations have turned it from a shared human symbol into an object of ridicule and point of contestation. The Penis currently = Male = Power = Money = Misogyny = Inequality = Capitalism in a kind of insane spiral of illogical leaps, in which often an entire building typology, namely tall buildings or “skyscrapers”, can become enmeshed in a web of toxically negative cultural meaning. No matter how beautiful, no matter how benign a new tower is, a chain reaction is set off in which, because it is vertically proportioned it = Penis, which = Male and so on to an array of negative associations, in which the Penis is a stand-in for much of the unfairness we suffer in society. I say toxic because aside from the fact that we bizarrely condemn what is simply a building type to never being discussed rationally on its merits as simply a ‘building’, but that we do not question why being a ‘phallic symbol’ is such a horrible thing in the first place. Via its readings of gender-types in buildings, and subsequent value judgements based on this, current discourse drives a wedge between architecture, art and the human body, turning buildings into tools for expanding our self-hatred and alienation from our own figures and identity. Skyscrapers are not penises, and penises are not embodiments of male power but parts of our bodies. If we are to metaphorically associate parts of our body to aspects of architecture and the city, let’s do it in such a way that makes architecture into a tool for valuing our human form, not something that adds to the already plentiful shame contemporary culture makes us feel for our poor, entirely unwitting and innocent body parts. I would like to end with Charles Moore’s Daisy House of 1976 (see above), an exemplary union of an architecture in our time with the ancient attitudes noted above. A joyously explicit fusion of the male and female genitalia, built for a terminally ill man who wanted to be reminded of life in all its delight as he slipped away; it is a house that loves the image of our bodies, and is indeed phallic, but in a way that brings architecture back into communion with our base, unselfconscious and beautiful selves.

 

Penis Temple in Tufa stone, 1-50AD, Pompei

 
 

The Act of Copying

Thursday, 18 September 2014TEXTBINThe Cast Courts at the V&A (source)

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The Cast Courts at the V&A (source)

 
 
 

Aside from qualified usage in fine-art contexts, copying is generally thought of as a negative act, something which detracts from its source, and there are formidable legislative structures in place to prevent its unlicensed proliferation. Originality, creativity, novelty, innovation, these are ideals that we are told to actively pursue in our working lives. No management consultant would come to your company and tell you to slavishly copy someone else’s designs, or office structure down to the smallest detail, no matter how great the office in question. No good contemporary teacher would ask his or her class to memorise the entirety of an epic poem by rote, no matter how great the poem. 

Today’s all important quality is originality, and so the epic poem is not memorised, but reinterpreted, not recited but performed and reinvented by the class, all in the search for innovation. But copying in its most positive sense is a creative act, in fact it lies at the very foundation of creativity. It is only through the hard work of copying, of systematically reproducing something as in traditional pedagogy, that one can fully digest and comprehend the fullness of what came before, understand it in all its complexity, failures and triumphs, and therefore be able to eventually move beyond it. Every time a new Asian economy raises itself to manufacturing powerhouse status, I hear people dismiss its rise as not being a threat to us because “they only know how to copy, not innovate”. But it is precisely this movement through a period of intense study, analysis and imitation of predecessors that paves the way for a profound and entirely singular leap forward in firmly grounded innovation. Just look at those copiers who are now arch-innovators like Japan, Taiwan, emerging S Korea and soon China. 

Without the studied and entirely positive process of copying, we will only move like crabs sideways, endlessly searching for titillating novelty which is bereft of substance, because genuine newness comes rarely, and can only arise out of a totally thorough understanding of what came before. Architectural education currently has a dearth of copying and a surfeit of apparent novelty. If given precedents at all, students (even in their first year) are pressured to critically re-read, re-interpret, re-analyse and rapidly re-design and re-imagine whatever building, project, square, or city they have been handed to study. There is never the slightest chance that they may have the time to slowly comprehend the subtle complexities of their object of analysis, and thereby be handed the chance to one day surpass it. Instead they are goaded into generating sexy click-bait that has all the depth of a very well-illustrated conceit, and like satirical illustrations are entirely dependent on precedents that have been barely understood, let alone been superseded. Let us have a break from originality for a while, let the kids copy.

 

The Idea of a City

Sunday, 17 August 2014TEXTBIN
 
 
 

In dialogue with Glaucon in Plato's republic, Socrates defends his 'reasonable', but apparently unfeasible notions for the ideal city-state -Kalipolis- as being an exploration in the realm of ideas, and hence above the distracting contingencies of practical consideration, and in any case Kalipolis -in its perfection- will ultimately be imitated imperfectly by reality in pursuit of betterment, placing it above humdrum reality and any of its own specific and flawed progeny.


 

"'Do you doubt an artist's competence if he paints a paradigmatically good-looking human being, and portrays everything perfectly well in the painting, but can't prove that a person like that could actually exist?'

'I certainly do not,' he protested.

'Well, aren't we saying that we're trying to construct a theoretical paradigm of a good community?'

'Yes.'

'Then do you doubt our competence as theoreticians in this context if we can't prove that a community with our theoretical constitution could actually exist?'

'Of course not,' He said.


 

'So that's how matters really stand,' I said. 'However, if for your sake I also have to apply myself to proving how and under what circumstances it might get as close as possible to viability, then although this is a different kind of argument, I must ask you to make the same concession as before.'

 

'What concession?'

 

'Is it possible for anything actual to match a theory?Isn't any actual thing bound to have less contact with truth than a theory, however much people deny it? Do you agree or not?'

 

'I do,' he said.

 

'So please don't force me to point to an actual case in the material world which conforms in all respects to our theoretical construct. If we can discover how a community's administration could come very close to our theory, then let's say that we've fulfilled your demands and discovered how it's all viable. I mean, won't you be satisfied if we get that close? I would.'

 

'I would too,' he said.

 

 

 

Babel

Thursday, 17 July 2014TEXTBIN
 
 
 

This is a poem of mine that was published in the July 2014 edition of the biannual Brittle Star Magazine

Please see the bottom of this post for a recorded version of the piece spoken by me.

............................................................................................

Sometimes he felt like he was outside of himself, looking with slight disdain at the expressionless features of his face, but still feeling his face somehow, numbly, like putty. This happened a lot in taxis. Often, he was attached to his body the way the lens in a phone is connected to its owner as it snaps the selfie in a mirror. Sometimes it was worse, much worse. Sometimes he felt like he was just a volume of paper thin skin encompassing nothing, a human balloon terrified of pins, trying to pretend to everyone that everything is normal, when he was actually terrified, rigid with worry that he might just pop at any given moment. This mostly happened in the build up to office socials. Occasionally he was overcome with remorse. He would feel like he had been entirely unfaithful to his previous selves by attaining so little, by forgetting their dreams, by allowing their passions to be slowly doused in alcohol and BBC reruns. This mostly happened during hangovers. His generally applicable panacea of aimlessly surfing Vimeo’s Staff Picks would no longer work in these instances, so he would walk. Preferably up and down things, like ramps and stairs, regular repetitions of similarly sized steps, but outside, so he could feel the cold or heat on his face. This left few options in his vicinity that were suitable, namely the assortment of multi storey car parks whose ramps and stairs he would ascend and descend in alternation, up the stairs, down the ramps, down the road and up the ramps then down the stairs and so on. The guards were always too busy chatting to notice him and incrementally, with each step he took, he would fill out. Not feel good or anything like that, just that the terror would go away. As he climbed he would slowly lose the feeling that he was his own double, or that there was nothing inside him and he had to hide it, or that he was only the sum of other people’s opinions of him. These walks, usually at night, lit by neon, were the only times he started to feel that the grammar-less 20,000 word email full of misspellings that he usually felt himself to be was sort of fixing itself, adding full stops, using spell check, becoming legible. The car parks were his tower of babel. He was building with his feet, up and up, piling on top of each other, ever higher ramps and stairs and stairs and ramps. Precipitously, endlessly, he was reaching for himself, for his one unitary self, whole, sure and pristine. But every time, sure as with the biblical tower itself, the moment would come when he would shatter. Like a warning that you can and should never try and approach an ideal, even yourself, let alone God, just as he was able to gather a glimmer of relief, each and every time, he would splinter back into a thousand anxieties, a million viewpoints, each with their own language, lost and confused. In the broken wake of his collapsed edifice, he would return home haunted each time with all of his facebook pages and twitter profiles crowding around him and shouting at each other like demented and vengeful spirits.

............................................................................................

 

 

Ode to Sand

Tuesday, 15 July 2014TEXTBIN
 
 
 

Pure sand, how did you
accumulate, impalpable.
your divided grain
and sea belt, cup of the world,
planetary petal?
Were you gathering by the scream
of the waves and the wild birds
your eternal ring and dark unity?


Sand, you are
mother
of the ocean,
which in your innumerable rocks
deposited the seed of the species,
wounding
your nature with its green
bull’s seminal roars.
Naked on
your fragmentary skin
I feel
Your kiss, your murmur
running over me,
tighter than water,
air and time,
folding
into the lines of my body,
forming me again
and when
I continue roving
along the sea beach
the impress of my being stays for an instant
in your memory, sand,
until air,
wave
or night
erase my grey stamp in your domain.
Demolished silica,
scattered marble, crumbling
hoop,
pollen
from the sea depths,
marine dust,
you rise
in the silvery
dunes
like
the throat
of a dove,
you extend
in the desert,
sand
of the moon,
limitless,
circular and brilliant
like a ring,
dead,
only silence
until the wind whistles
and terrifyingly appears,
shaking
the pulverised stone,
the sheet
of salt and solitude,
and then
the sand, enraged,
sounds like a castle
crossed
by a squall of violins,
by the tumultuous velocity
of a sword in movement.


You fall
until man
gathers you
up with his spade
and in the building
mixture
serenely you appear,
returning
to stone,
to form,
building
a
dwelling
joined together again
to serve
the will of man.

 
............................................
 
By Pablo Neruda
 
Translated by George D. Schade
 

Outside

Tuesday, 06 May 2014TEXTBIN
 
 
 

A poem written as part of a film for a project exploring the allure of symbolic and open-ended architectural form. The full film HERE