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keep calm and carry on… co-opting socialist modernism

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A good piece from Owen Hatherley on the Festival(s) of Britain – both the old one and the new one that’s ostensibly on its way – and austerity in the Guardian‘s Comment is Free. Here’s a bit:

In their rhetoric of belt-tightening, in the ludicrous notion that “we’re all in this together”, the millionaires’ austerity government is tapping into something that predates it, but which accompanied the start of the financial crisis in 2008. Since then, an austerity nostalgia has been rife among the middle class: in the wartime aesthetics of Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food; in retro-modernist CCTV posters; most of all in the phenomenal success of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster. At the Festival Hall’s shop, it can sometimes seem like you’re in a 1940s theme park, with all manner of austere rationing-era ephemera for sale. It hinges on the somewhat gross analogy between our predicament and the blitz, or the rationing that lasted well into the 50s – the “blitz spirit” attendant on every transport disruption or tube strike. Cameron’s government has consciously appealed to this trend.

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January 21, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Posted in architecture, austerity

yeats and the imf, harry potter brutalism, apple store art museums: aesthetics via the wsj 19/11/10

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In addition to my IHT, I like a financial paper every day, as the “business section” is the only section where the actual news happens. I used to read the Financial Times until, at MSA 2008, I saw Frederic Jameson carrying around a copy to match mine (we’d probably both walked to the Borders down the road as there was nowhere else to buy such a thing in Nashville) and realized at that moment that this FT shit had, as they say, jumped the shark. So now I kick it old school with a subscription to the Wall Street Journal – European Edition, which is cheaper by miles anyway.

(a joke, btw – in case it’s not clear. maybe a joke. i dunno)

Anyway from yesterday’s WSJ, a strange melange of aesthetics / politics / commercialism that gives us the present state of play in snippets. First, from an article on Ireland’s debt crisis / IMF intervention:

It (an editorial in The Irish Times) went on: “There is the shame of it all. Having obtained our political independence from Britain to be the masters of our own affairs, we have now surrendered our sovereignty to the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.” In Ireland’s parliament, a deputy recited the stanza of Yeats from which the editorial takes its title, an elegy for the dead of an earlier, failed, revolution.

Let a billion quasi-leftist grad seminar papers bloom. Folks have been – at times very cheaply and with a tinge of, dunno, residual and deeply perverse ethnocentrism – using Ireland and its literature as a way to be a “post-colonialist” without dealing with, you know, black people. This would seem to me to be the wet dream via Naomi Klein version of this…. The quotation in question, as another article in the WSJ indicates, was from ‘September 1913’:

Was it for this the wild geese spread

The grey wing upon every tide;

For this that all that blood was shed,

For this Edward Fitzgerald died,

And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,

All that delirium of the brave?

Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,

It’s with O’Leary in the grave.

Funny thing is that there are better bits from that poem to cite on this occasion, namely the first stanza (“What need you, being come to sense / But fumble in a greasy till / And add the halfpence to the pence” etc). If I were one of those erstwhile hibernian pocoists, that’s where I’d go with my deconstructively angled paper…  Alternately, if I were still attending “mass” on weekend evenings at the Boston Arms in Tufnell Park, I’d ask and receive, I’m sure, incredibly fascinating analyses of this poetry-cum-or-anti-economics issue from the (sometimes) friendly and strangely erudite pensioners who go there to receive liquified communion.

And then there’s this from an article about the CGI in the new Harry Potter film(s):

Leavesden (Studios) is also home to the fictional Ministry of Magic, which is supposed to sit beneath a real street in the London government district of Whitehall. To create the ministry, which first appeared in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” in 2007, Mr. Craig studied underground structures such as the London and Moscow subway stations.

For the new film, Mr. Craig added a towering monument to the ministry’s atrium. The Soviet-style sculpture shows wizards crushing cowering muggles—people without magic powers—and bears an engraving that says “Magic Is Might.” The totalitarian aesthetic, Mr. Craig says, highlights the theme of a world dominated by evil. He used seemingly long, winding corridors to give the ministry a Kafkaesque feel. As the characters explore the building, including an upstairs office and a basement courtroom, viewers soon feel as if they know their way around the place.

Leaving aside the sublation of the Red Menace into noseless (syphlitic?) baddy magicians, that final phrase is a bit bizarre: “viewers soon feel as if they know their way around the place.” Location, Location, Location real estate imaginineering meets Kafkaesque Unheimlichkeit in some sort of illogical and unholy union, no? Perhaps that, my friends, is the definition of the uncanniness of our times: bureaucratic befuddlement that somehow you feel cozy in, that you want to take out a variable-rate mortgage in order to buy-to-let, even though there are no mortgages to be had…

Finally, and winning today’s Rem-Koolhaas-Was-So-Right prize, is this on forthcoming renovation of the Mauritshuis Museum in the Hague:

“You can think of a cross between the Apple store in New York and the Louvre,” is how Mauritshuis Director Emilie Gordenker describes the museum’s hopes for the extension and renovation. “We’re going to open up the gates. Then you come in and you end up in a very large, spacious and light-filled foyer.”

And things finally head full-circle. The Apple Store aesthetic, stolen from what I can tell (or remember) out of certain now-lost Soho (NYC) sleek coffeehouses, which in turn had stolen their look out of the galleries that were just then on their way out, returns to garnish the place where they keep Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” What is the next turn of the screw to come in our frenetically static cultural world, the palpating infrastructure built atop an ever self-renewing base? Apple Stores shaped like Aeroflot terminals? Childish pre-sex fantasies (wtf?) cast in the light of Allende-ite democratic socialism? Ezra Pound cantos about usury and the Jews recited on the House floor?

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November 20, 2010 at 8:56 am

“the real tragedy of england” / office park socialism

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The real tragedy of England, as I see it, is the tragedy of ugliness. The country is so lovely: the man-made England is so vile. (D.H. Lawrence).

Perversities – inner-originated or outer, who knows – conspired to put me back in the gynaecological surgery ward during the same week when I finished reading Ballard’s Crash. Too bad Ballard’s sexo-aesthetic didn’t take – perhaps I’d have been wafting along in some sort of dark erotic reverie instead of melting into a puddle from anxiety and wanting-to-be-homeness. I spent three days and two nights, and I’m just back now, and so very happy to be back.

I hate hospitals, I really do. We were taught quite a lot at Catholic school about the fucked up fort-da games God plays with hell – a glimpse of the All-Most and Everythingest, and then lost, lost forever, that sort of thing. You’re hottest most excellent fantasy, but when she turns (and keeps turning forever and ever) there are maggots for eyes and yuck for breasts and burning hot coals where the… you know what I mean. Hospitals are like that for me too. Single rooms in them impersonate austere hotel rooms (love those!) but then add into the mix nervous electronics (hate that!) and people who burst into your room unannounced to do unpleasant things (hate that even more! in a visceral sort of way!) that completely blow the fantasy that you’re trying to keep in place that this is just a lovely few days spent somewhere with an interesting view and worse TV choices than at home.

Anyway, we spent three days and two nights. With luck, we are now absolutely finished with absolutely everything having to do with the medical end of bringing children into the world. We’ve had our two, my wife was injured and then injured worse, and now we’re done. We’ve replaced ourselves, and now, well, it’s your turn! We’re done!

head-on

Best of all, we got to do our three days and two nights during the runup to what appears to be a full-scale swine flu pandemic. You heard it here first – they’re clearly in the process of shifting hospitals from their normal and normally gory work of hacking and sawing and sewing and injecting into H1N1 Containment Camps. Shit. I overheard unpleasant conversations between nurses in the lifts (elevators) detailing the geometrical increase of infected patients in their wards: we had none yesterday, three today, and they’re telling us to be ready for nine tomorrow. The reassuring thing is that none of the staff seemed particularly worried about this outbreak, except in terms of what it is about to do to their next few workweeks. But clearly, this thing is happening.

from the side

Apparently, infection makes the lights go out wherever you are, and turns your hands sort of black to white, white to black, and green in the dirty spots. Worse than you thought, huh? But it does make it easier on the Underground. If the person you’re tit-to-tit with during the morning rush starts to cough and sputter, simply give a little left-and-down juke and see if there’s any green aura involved. Saves on swabs.

mushroomic

Anyway, I had lots and lots of time to start out our 13th floor window. Here’s some rain happening over the Thames Estuary. I thought less abstractly and interestingly about things like aggregate fiction, and more poignantly and pressingly about simply wanting to be out of the hospital, down on the street, and back on schedule with my work. I could see all of my workplaces – the libraries and my office and even the tops of buildings that contain my favorite coffee places at street level – from up here.

I’ve decided that I want the following image (properly and professionally cropped, of course) to be used on the cover of some book soon, perhaps even the one I’m finishing now.

northwest mittel-europa

northwest mittel-europa

One of the reasons why the image is an appealing choice for a cover is because it’s so fucking weird. And not just this scene – London from above, with the exception perhaps of stuff along the river, is weird in general. Funny to think how few images you see of London from above. There are easy and hard reasons why this is so. The easy ones generally have to do with the ugliness of the city. It truly is ugly – you can come and see for yourself if you like.

I will photoshop out the cranes if I use this for a cover, as they are not really real, not in the realest sense of real – like the BT Tower is real.

My wife and I decided that in certain senses, London from above reminded us most (or best) of things like the boringer parts of Toronto seen from on-high, or the way Waterbury, Connecticut looks from the 84. (If you know what I mean with that last one, specially NY-NJ to NE driving props to you…) Obvious, if you look in just the right directions, it’s a bit different, but in general, blah.

But don’t get me wrong. It is one of the most loveable things about this place. There are big problems with photogenicness as well – a kind of hyper-realness that of course never feels real enough, as per almost every single street in Manhattan. London feels at times like an only-slightly post-medieval Los Angeles, with the invisible hand dropping what it would as the city sprawled. Terraced houses are nice. Modernist apartment blocks are nice. Terraced houses giving way for six units to modernist apartment blocks and then back again doesn’t look all that nice – and that’s the rhythm of the entire city.  And because of that rhythm, which repeats itself in large scale in the act of dropping a sublimely iron-curtainy looking telecommunications tower into Fitzrovia,  you can take insipidly beautiful / excitingly ugly pictures like the one above. And this rhythm has much to do with the sense of generic urbanity, raw unmarked urbanness, that London gives off in all of its parts – a sense that when felt deeply suggests that Ballard didn’t even have to go to the highway networks that mesh Heathrow. Tottenham Court Road fits the bill just as well.

postcardic (and not really my picture)

But on the other hand… or perhaps on the same hand but only somewhat differently, there’s the question of what to make of all the greenglass newbuilds like the one pictured, the hospital in question above. (The BT Tower picture was taken from that central column of windows in the tower, thirteen floors up…) Nu-language utilitarianism rendered in transreflective window treatments, the design might well have been plucked from an office building on the Rt. 1 pharmacorridor in New Jersey. It is big, it is banal, but it is clean and new. Despite the fact that the photo above (full disclosure – not mine this time) could easily work as a nouveau-nostaligic entry worthy of a future decade’s Architectures de cartes postales, but of course it never will. People have changed, and our architecture is regrettable. But still, perhaps only the Americans in the audience can appreciate how wonderfully funny and more than funny it is to get medical care in a hospital that looks like it could be the regional office of Merck & Co., but which contains no cash registers at all, except the ones at the newsstand and the cafe.

I can’t help but fantasize, from time to time but insistently in spots, about the repurposing of all of the slick office buildings, with their employee cafes and openplan offices, into workspaces for a new bureaucratic rationality, distributing goods and services rationally. Just as in 1984, the characters struggle to remember what these places were before they were rebranded into totalitarian ministries, I tease myself with the thought at times of what sort of conversations might occur over the corian-countertops and leftover cubicles of media company officebuildings put to better use.

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July 18, 2009 at 11:28 pm

ghost airports: fantasies of over-capacity

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The BBC on a South Korean “ghost airport”:

Yangyang International is an airport looking for a reason to exist. Built on South Korea’s east coast just seven years ago, you won’t find any delays or long queues here. In fact, you won’t find any passengers at all.

The initial vision could not have been more different.

Up to three million people a year were meant to throng the gleaming floors of the departure and arrival halls, built at a cost of almost $400m (£260m).

But last year an average of just 26 passengers a day came through the doors, vastly outnumbered by the 146 airport staff on hand to serve them.

In November the last commercial flight took off, and the terminal became what the Korean national press has dubbed a “ghost airport”, an impressive monument to overestimated demand.

The novel that I’m working on this summer basically starts in an airport like this one… I’m trying to think just what the fascination is, for me or in general, with this sort of space. Asia, in my limited experience, is full to the brim with things like this – empty airports built to serve as-yet-non-existent populations, high-volume roadways built for the traffic and trade of 2030 rather than 1958.

Americans on the other hand make do with the opposite – infrastructural elements always seem to be handling triple the load they were intended to handle and living on thirty-years past their projected obsolescence horizon. If an airport is under-crowded in the US, this is generally because the city to which it is attached is in the process of dying. We might even say that the Asian ghost airport is the geopolitical inversion of that utterly common American form – the ruin formed by the triple processes of state defunding, creative destruction and geographical dislocation.

So, while the Korean airport discussed in the BBC piece seems to have been born of political corruption – and even America has its own cases of that sort of thing – there’s still something to this I think. While it’s not at all hard to drive around the US finding the architectural materialization of private-sector speculations and public-sector dereliction, things like empty bullet-trains to unbuilt cities, hulking universities for student populations not yet born, hospitals for patients not yet sick, and slick public housing for populations yet to arrive but who vividly anticipated are very difficult to imagine in anything other than the light of the utopian apparitions. Those of us familiar with the post-industrial portions of the USA, the northeast and the Great Lakes region, know only the bent tracks and silted canals and abandoned silos and factories – the native flora cast in concrete and iron of unemployment, casualization, and privatization.

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May 23, 2009 at 9:59 pm

in boxes

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Nice photospread in Saturday’s FT by Michael Wolf, who “used a telephoto lens to take a surreptitious look behind the façades of Chicago’s international-style architectural gems, he fantasised he would see ‘thrilling things,'” but found of course only banal working and more working….

Also worth looking at the pocket history of the office cubicle that comes at the end of this week’s magazine…

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March 30, 2009 at 12:31 pm

just in the nick of time

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From the NYT last week:

Hundreds of buildings commissioned by the Works Progress Administration and Roosevelt’s other “alphabet” agencies are being demolished or threatened with destruction, mourned or fought over by small groups of citizens in a new national movement to save the architecture of the New Deal. In July, at the Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico, a dozen buildings built in the Spanish Revival style in the 1930s, including murals with Native American themes, were bulldozed. In Chicago, architectural historians have joined with residents of Lathrop Homes — riverfront rows of historic brick public housing — to try to persuade the Chicago Housing Authority not to raze the complex. In Cotton County, Okla., a ruined gymnasium has only holes where windows used to be. Across the country, schools, auditoriums and community centers of the era are headed for the wrecking ball.

Relatedly, go read Owen in the NS on the Finsbury Health Centre.

(Should have registered this long ago, but do you know how damn cool it is to open up the New Statesman nearly every week and find new work by Owen in there? Some weeks, like this one, twice!  Anyway, overdue to say, yes, this is very cool…)

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February 17, 2009 at 11:24 pm

Posted in architecture

cités heureuses

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See here. Nice cover, wow….

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March 18, 2008 at 5:22 pm

Posted in architecture