Monday, 31 August 2009

specular architecture

The Guggenheim effect – where specular/speculative architecture really began.

Today I am going to build upon the thoughts of Mark C. Taylor – who said that over the last century there has been a general correlation between forms of capitalism and architectural styles: Industrial capitalism had Modern architecture, Consumer capitalism had Postmodern architecture and Financial capitalism has (or had) Specular / Speculative architecture.

He was not the first to divide up capitalism into these three phases. At the end of the last millennium, the 'Great Man' of economics J.K Galbraith wrote extensively about the shift that was taking place. In one of his last works, entitled 'The Economics of Innocent Fraud', he pointed out how far we had come since the early days, when the economy was driven by actual capitalists – individuals with money who controlled the means of production.

Over time the cost of manufacturing goods fell, and subsequently so too did their value. Maintaining a dominant position in the market by simply controlling the production of something became increasingly difficult (and I am not really even referring to the activities that prompted legislation specifically targeted at breaking monopolies). So the impetus of the leading economies naturally shifted from the people who made the most to the people who sold the most. Above all were valued those individuals who could turn a superfluous luxury into a perceived necessity.

But with the global unification of markets, the digitisation of trading, and the new era of instant communications between financial institutions, it suddenly became possible to speculate in radically new ways. Money was capable of making lots more money, loans backed by securities that themselves were backed by other loans. And the market grew, and everyone won, and (almost) no one thought it would ever end.
And so when Fannie Mae went A-over-T, and kicked off all this business, it came as a bit of a shock.

So I think Taylor is drawing a fair, even predictable, comparison between architectural styles and the economic factors that produced them: the machine and industrial aesthetic of Modernism stemming from the factories and silos; the cultural critiques and pastiche styles of Postmodernism likewise finding their root in an increasingly global society absolutely saturated by the advertisement.

The real goal of this blog is to attempt to capture an epochal philosophy before the relentless wave of progress wipes it from our minds: a time that really began in the late 70's – before I was even born – and may still not have finished, but whose peak was undeniably between the collapse of the Towers and the collapse of the Sub-Prime.

The reasons for wanting to capture this essence are manifold: architecture is my profession, and it was treated as a bitch: the speculative scapegoat. That smarts. A profession that at the time was becoming increasingly image-based, and therefore itself increasingly speculative, began to be manipulated by the financial world – as an agent of financial speculation. How many luxury apartment blocks did architects really think the world needed? But need didn't come into it. Architecture had imploded into itself, there was no moral element, simply a quest to find a new look, and a look to sell more than the competition. And this quest essentially produced the same types of stylistic dead ends that were seen at the beginning of the 20th century (art nouveau, Gaudi, Hunterwasser, and so on).

Zaha is a prime example, though she still tends to divide opinions. But I think it is fairly safe to say that her time has come and gone. She is no longer (if she ever was) at the forefront of architectural discussion. It is nonetheless undeniable that she was an architect that rose to prominence not for actually constructing anything, but simply threatening to construct anything. Her powerfully iconic (but ultimately meaningless) forms epitomise this 'object' architecture – an architecture unrelated to humanity except by the coincidence that it was us that produced it. Always seen from a bird's eye view, it is an architecture of visual appeal (specular) and conjectural possibilities (speculative).

For the next month or so Millennium People is going to tackle the meaning of the architectural 'object', and its relevance to the future of architecture (the discussion will be mainly prospective rather than retrospective).
In particular the focus will be in the fields associated with the blog: psychogeography, landscape and the city.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

catman luther

A couple of years ago my then 5 year-old cousin Luther drew my portrait. It consisted of a large orange triangle, equilateral, though not square to the page, with a long branch sticking out at a very precise angle (he erased the line several times before its relationship to the triangle satisfied him). I asked him: ‘Luther,’ I said ‘if you had to describe the times we live in, if you had to sum up everything that seems to you particular about this epoch, what would you say?’ He sighed, and climbed down from the chair. When he returned he had in his hands two drawings. ‘This’ he said ‘is a picture of catman… and this,' he contained his boredom 'is a picture of a man with the face of a cat.’
‘But Luther’ I said ‘these two drawings are identical.’ He broke into a big laughing grin ‘I know.’

Saturday, 29 August 2009

composite memories

The Parthenon.

After seeing Jason Salavon's 'Every Playboy Centerfold' series, in which he overlayed a decade of sexy pin-ups at a time, I was inspired to write my own little photoshop droplet and produce these images – which I will call 'composite memories'.

A game of tennis with two close friends. Australia.

The Barbican.

Sparklers and fireworks. Woy Woy.

LCD Soundsystem, Sydney 2007.

Friday, 28 August 2009

under the arches #1: euston approach

The Arch in the late 50's.

“The Euston Arch was a powerful symbol of the optimistic spirit of the Victorian railway. Its demolition in the 1960's confirmed that blandness and lack of imagination had replaced the heroic vision of the past. Since then, the enormous popularity of the restored St. Pancras, soon to be followed by a restored King's Cross, has shown that celebration of the past and potential for the future are not mutually exclusive. The restoration of the Euston Arch would restore to London's oldest main line terminus some of the character and dignity of its great neighbours.”

Last year I was having a beer with a Portuguese architect in Paris and we were talking over why English has become the global lingua franca. 'It can all be traced back to World War Two', I told him pompously, 'a war whose end was largely presided over by Americans.' He shrugged. As far as he was concerned it really started with the greatest technological invention of the 19th century– one that was pioneered and disseminated by Britain: the railways.

In trying to recapture some of the zeitgeist of that era I could only compare it with what I knew: flight. Surely the pleasure and excitement of flying must have been akin to the experience of travelling by train. Relatively speaking, the people found themselves effortlessly propelled fantastic distances at terrific speeds – and the change in thinking about the landscape and the world (and especially their connection to other people) must have been very similar. Are the railways responsible for raising an awareness of national unity– just as air travel impacted on the development of the global village? Is there a link to be drawn between the railways and the patriotism of the First War?

But then I thought about it further and I realised it wasn't at all the same. For this one reason: air travel is neither ceremonial nor ceremonious. At no point do we glorify the ritual of flight. It is said that airports are the gateways to the new metropolises. If this is the case they're pretty dire. One could argue that the mode of transport itself – the aeroplane – is responsible for this, in that it does not lend itself to being close to the centre of a city (sound and pollution). But I'm not convinced. Every aspect of flying is designed to desensitise the traveller. The sterility. The boredom. The waiting. The minuscule window, crap food, reticulated air. In short, an activity cramped and uncouth.

By comparison, the drama and ritual of arrival at London's first railway terminus seems remarkable. The sheer scale of the arch in comparison with its context, and the obvious reference to the temples of ancient Greece, must have been quite impressive. Initially (see below) the approach was open from various sides – but over time (see video) the densification of the city suggested a frontal approach with the concealment of the building up until the last moment.

For all the grandeur of Foster's Beijing Airport, it remains without a clear approach. It is all facade, yet there is no front – therefore there can be no ritual of arrival. I am interested less by the treatment of airports as necessary bi-products of the desire to travel, and more as legitimate destinations in themselves (and I do not mean simply as sterile temples to consumption).

While I don't agree with the date (the 60's in Britain, for example, produced some of the greatest Utopic projects of the century), I do agree with Palin that "blandness and lack of imagination [have] replaced the heroic vision[s] of the past". A bold idea can be the starting point of a conversation that leads to social change – while a beige idea begets only itself ad infinitum.

Euston station, probably around 1840.
A video showing the approach to Euston Arch. I managed to track down the author eventually.

Euston Arch during construction in 1837 – notice how closely it resembles the current state of the Propylaea.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

the place of the ruin

Millennium People projects a garden into the turbine room.

Over the last quarter of a century London's Battersea Power Station has been the subject of several redevelopment plans, from industrial-themed amusement parks to 200m tall eco-towers. And yet since the first energetic works in the mid-eighties, when the roof and a fair section of wall were torn down, almost no visible advance has been made.

In fact, there is a convincing argument that says the building will likely remain a ruin forever. Developers seem to simply be sitting on the land and, in a series of Ponzi-esque transfers, selling it on after a few years of having done nothing to it. At a certain point you have to ask: why can't this exchange be somehow perfected and the building left in peace to become a ruin?

Perhaps the real question is: can it be left as a ruin at all? The British architect John Soane imagined his own Bank of England as a ruin even before it had been built, depicting a parasoled public strolling about the broken arches and partial columns as they might the Diocletian baths. Of course the Bank of England was not left to this fate, but ruthlessly demolished in what architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner called "the greatest architectural crime in the City of London of the twentieth century".

Soane's Bank of England.

Should it have been left to fall apart? Integrating itself into the urban fabric as a monument to previous eras, slowly transformed into a pleasure garden of dilapidated folies? Could Battersea become a modern-day equivalent: iron colonnades, tidal ponds connected to the Thames, sunken amphitheatres of smashed brick?

Predictably, the only part of Soane's Bank that survived was its façade. Similarly, given the iconic nature of the Station's silhouette, any future building on the site would almost certainly be a piece of three-dimensional facadism for the twenty-first century. Flats and boutiques crammed into the husk of a former powerhouse.

The only real value of the architecture is the architecture itself. It is the hard materials and industrial detailing that makes it unique. It is the overwhelming scale of the spaces that makes it impressive. The volumes do not have inherent meaning, which is why retaining their proportions in new buildings is so redundant as a design theory. I find the whole modern practice of retaining previous structure's footprints as part of a historical argument highly suspicious- it is the qualities of the limits of the spaces, not merely their measurements, which instil a sense of place. Without the original walls the site will inevitably take on an atemporal and homogenous quality. At which point you may as well demolish the thing and have done with it. Which in some ways I almost wish they would do, being preferable to a lobotomy of the building's industrial aesthetic.

In reality, the city doesn't really design dilapidation, it just happens. Ruins are the result of negligence, not intent. Could that, or should that, change? Will the architects and landscapers of the future be more like geologists, learning to read every depression and protrusion of these forgotten territories?

When talking about how to combat the uniformity of global architecture in our cities, certainly icons like Battersea Power Station become fantastically important. But can we come to think about their preservation as an engineered ruin? What, if any, is the place of the industrial epoch in the post-industrial city?

Battersea as it was, and as it could be...

Wednesday, 26 August 2009


Drawing made using Terragen2, here.

Landscape rendering software is becoming increasingly powerful – several images in the Terragen gallery (like the one above) had me really pushing my face up against the screen trying to work out if they were photos or not (what a n00b). While I find renders of huts in the forest all very nice, the real question is: what is this good for? Is it art? Maybe. I don't know.

Separately, I was cruising through pictures from space and came across an article about how Venus used to be like Earth, with moderate temperatures and, very probably, open bodies of water. Then the greenhouse effect went mad, and turned the atmosphere into a carbon dioxide soup bowl, with sulphuric acid for rain. Venus can be thought of as either Earth's failed older sister, or possibly Earth's foreboding doppelganger. If it hadn't gone so pear-shaped, maybe we'd be digging ancient alien churches out of the Venusian volcanic rubble.

Venus, Earth's failed sister, via jpl.

This all set me thinking about an amazing trilogy I read when I was a kid, 'Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars' by Kim Stanley Robinson (here's a good interview with the man over at Bldg Blog). He invented the concept of 'terraforming' – the human transformation of an entire planet's climate. He chose a rather predictable, and none too easy, subject: Mars. Low-oxygen modified plants, space reflectors to increase the amount of sunlight, nuclear melting of the permafrost and poles, all ultimately lead to a breathable atmosphere, vegetation, purple seas and complex weather patterns.

But why is it we are all so obsessed with getting further away from the sun? Terraforming Mars means starting from scratch, while Venus doesn't seem so different from our own planet –the act would give us two habitable planets in the solar system, quite close to each other. So why aren't we going there?

Left: Artist's conception of the surface of Venus (1968) via cosmographica; Right: A possible rendered vision for a terraformed Venus, via Fractal Landscapes.

What would a Venusian architecture be like? How do you respond to the history of a planet that has never supported life? I can only imagine flimsy constructions posed delicately on the highly volcanic surface, analogous to the early mining works of Australia (although the Europeans may have felt they were on Venus, they were in fact far from alone on that continent). But it may be very different – a massive and colourful vernacular that references the harsh sun and stunning landscapes (sounds more like Australia every minute).

We are only four months away from creating an artificial species, reports the Times. We are finally becoming God (it seems like we've been just playing around for ages) and actually inventing lifeforms. Now, couple that with Venus. Imagine a team of designers creating specific species to slowly turn the planet into a New Earth. Flora and fauna that once made will evolve and come to form a new planetary ecosystem quite unknown to us, and unique in the universe. Further, imagine bathing in an alien ocean or walking through a sulphur sink forest and knowing that every species is the work of Humanity.

Ego trip.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

fistful of links

For a profound look at our impact on the landscape, you can't go past the photography of Edward Burtynsky.

Tomorrow will be a punchy piece on Venus (yeah, more space, sorry, but the passion is perennial so it's bound to fade soon). In the meantime, a soft roll of links into the gym mat that is our lives: some news.

Kunstler goes on a tirade against the high-line, Myoung Ho Lee questions the boundaries of nature, and it turns out our prehistoric ancestors were just as un-environmentally-minded as we are. The New Museum lost the plot and went ///mad, while Teno Sehgal rolled around on the floor. Art? (It seems very easy, but then as morenewmath points out, "Modern Art = I could do that + yeah, but you didn't") An Australian man is super-glued to a toilet seat as a practical joke, and mining of the Canadian oil-sands continues full speed.

"We put it in a black plastic bag", Irishman Fitzharris explained, when asked by incredulous archaeologists how he managed to retrieve a 3,000 year-old barrel of butter from a bog. Los Angeles is planning to re-create a section of the Berlin Wall to celebrate the 20th anniversary (also in California, a teetering bunker, a bit like my own). Meanwhile, Texas is going to Agent Orange up to 130 miles of dense foliage along the Mexican border. Archi-ninja asks 'who is the most over-rated architect?': Zaha finally builds something. 10 things you'll never hear an architect say.

Dope smokers being robbed of sexual highs, and Athens is burning (I was there only recently). Obama tells Nasa to find their moon money somewhere else. Madrid men are illuminating the city with their urine. Re-burbia results in (phh). London's first green wall dies, those of Quai Branly are still in fine form (gees that Patrick Blanc is a weird guy). Alan Bean paints the moon. The heavily addictive word game- wordpop.

Lightning has been caught doing something rare, going up into the sky, while the mushroom cloud remains firmly buried underground. Nokia avoids playing catchup to Apple by not releasing an iphone rival, and a new engine has been invented powered by ice and aluminium. Michael Wolf, the link you love and then forget about, and then love again. Curbed investigate an apparent property fraud by a resident of Nouvel's Soho building (here he is having his head lactated on by an air hostess). The Conservative alternative to Youtube. Finally, KFC releases burger made with two pieces of chicken in place of buns, and Prince Charles' buildings are falling apart.

Monday, 24 August 2009

a fun palace for the people

Cedric Prices' 1961 project Fun Palace, at Mill Meads.

The site today, photo by Lara Almarcegui
The Fun Palace was to be a great open framework of steel lattice girders and towers, surmounted by a traveller crane... halls and galleries, snack bars and entertainment areas, linked by walkways, can be built and changed at will. People of all ages and interests will find space to enjoy their leisure, to relax or be active, at any time, day or night.'
12 Empty Spaces Await the London Olympics
Lara Almarcegui

Cedric Price envisaged a completely flexible program for the complex, "hanging rooms for dancing, music, and drama; mobile floors, walls, ceilings, and walkways; and advanced temperature systems that could disperse and control fog, warm air, and moisture were all intended to promote active 'fun.'" The revolutionary project was never built, though Rogers and Piano cite it as a major inspiration for their Centre Pompidou in Paris (certainly the similarities are striking). The site, which is in an ex-industrial backwater of the Lea Valley (East London), is today still empty. The only thing of note in the region is that the 2001 Big Brother studio is across the canal. The Canadian Centre for Architecture says:
On the one hand, Fun Palace was inspired by the egalitarian philosophy of 18th century English pleasure grounds, such as Vauxhall and Ranelagh, with their sprawling spaces for strolling, amusement, and gossip. On the other hand, Price’s unrealised project was up-to-the-minute, interpreting current Cybernetic theories, avant-garde theatrical principles, cutting edge technology, and a free-spirited, Monty Pythonesque sense of fun. The ultimate goal was a building capable of change in response to the wishes of users.
And I think this is really the crux of the issue: "egalitarian philosophy" meets "cutting edge technology". Modernism was founded on theories of social reform – a conscious rejection of the past. But by the end of the Second War it had deteriorated into an exercise in technological feats. Hoards of monolithic tower blocks were constructed because they could be, not because they should have been – that is, while they may have solved the immediate social and technological problems of the day, they avoided any long-term questions of social morality.

Moreover, the vast difference in amenity between new towns and old suburbs only heightened the age-old divisions of class and social status. Price is quoted as saying “technology is the answer, but what was the question?” – up until the Fun Palace the question had never been asked, technology was its own daisy chain of questions and answers. The separation of 'high-brow' and 'low-brow' entertainment continues today (there are no video arcades in our opera houses).

What Price proposed was an architecture not just capable of bringing Brave New World-esque pleasures to the popular classes, but the creation of a space that permitted for an equality of entertainment expression. By mixing avant-garde theatre with dodgems, or virtual reality simulators with book-readings, the possibilities for exchange would have become much more powerful. The exclusive world of intellectual art forms opened to the public.

Conceptual sketch, interesting for me because the most important (and flexible) part of the building is left blank. For some reason it reminded me of this article: "If you want to change society, don't build anything!"

Sunday, 23 August 2009

sharks in space

via Discovery.

In tracking shark movements, scientists have observed large congregations of sharks during specific lunar cycles, as well as intensified feeding habits.

In some areas, they've also examined shark attack statistics and found that, understandably, attacks on humans increase in frequency during the lunar phases that intensify feeding behavior, as well as when tides bring them in closer contact with humans.

Sharks are great. They are sleek, strong, silent and remorseless – not to mention deadly (they will leave you with some badass scars). And now Discovery adds to our databank of shark knowledge the fact that sharks are affected by the moon, just as we all are (to varying degrees) – and that certain periods of the lunar cycle create werewolf-like shark feeding orgies. Neat.

Segway. Why did no one ever ask the only woman to land on the moon if anything weird happened to her menstrual cycle? If and when we get back to that heavenly body (the moon, not the astronaut) what will the effects on our physical rhythms be, from a lunar standpoint? Will future generations of Selenites (after the moon goddess) refer to crazy people as terratics?

Humans cannot live comfortably, at least for the moment, without the environment of Earth. So assumedly, at some point, we will create an open body of water on the moon. What will happen to the creatures we bring there when the Sea of Crises is a sea of crisis? How will the sharks navigate, and know when its time for the feeding frenzy?

Another question to chock up on the moon board of "gee, I don't know Jack"s.

An amazing chart from the Google Moon service, where you can walk in 3d over the surface, see Apollo pictures and even rare archival footage. That's great!

Saturday, 22 August 2009

thames wading

Will, the powerstation in the background, and the Thames beach...

Word on the street is that there are between 80 and 100 bodies a year that float down the Thames. That's a gruesome statistic of 1 and little bit more than a half of a human per week. Apparently the majority are suicides. Or accidents, drunk people descend to the shore, get stuck in the mud and pass out. The tide – all 6 metres of it – then comes back in. Luckily, most cadavers get stuck in the U-bend before the Isle of Dogs, ending up at Limehouse – which is a favourite fishing spot for the River Po-Po.

If I had known this when my uncle proposed that we walk along the shoreline of the Thames, I might have refused, as it was I hesitated. Were there not diseases in the river? Couldn't I get tetanus, or tuberculosis, or typhoid (like all those kids back in the 70's, when the Battersea Park shore was a swimming beach)?

No, he explained, it was perfectly safe – the Spring Low Tide would make it possible to walk, well, he didn't know how far, but a fine distance. In truth I needed little convincing, and his 'you'll really be the best man for the walk' speech sealed the deal. Off we set.

You can re-live the whole adventure via my Facebook album, which I have made public (yeah, I feel we're at the Facebook level in our relationship), so I'm not going to try to recount everything now. Suffice to say, I don't know where my uncle got the idea of Spring Low Tide from, but the tide was not low. I have heard several claims about the actual date for the lowest tide of the year, ranging from about the 5th to the 12th of March. I have no idea which claim is correct, but I can tell you that at the 7th of July, our expedition could not be considered even an outlier of the group of possibilities. At one point, as we were negotiating around submerged industrial equipment in fecal-like mud, I sunk up to my groin. At Westminster, in view of Big Ben, the walk became something more of a swim.

But I am not one to complain, and in any case, I thoroughly enjoyed it all. In total we walked about 3 miles, and I would say about 10% of that time was spent in the water. But who can say they have waded in the Thames? As Will pointed out, this was the type of activity one is likely to do only once.

As I stepped off the greasy steps at Chelsea Bridge and onto the soft shingle of the shore I had a bizarre sense of having stepped under the city. When you are at eye-height with the river, on equal terms as it were, walking along a beach like almost any other (assuming all the others you know are scattered with the lost ephemera of 12 million people), and you see the bottom of walls and structures built directly onto the ancient rock of the Thames valley you get a very weird sense of being in a wild landscape. Suddenly the models in the Museum of London depicting Iron Age marsh people trekking over paths of compressed brambles seem very real.

At Vauxhall we passed by the oldest known bridge over the river, and looking carefully at the geography, I came to see why it was such an advantageous position, just as the water slows around the bend and the shores come a little closer together. They were no fools, our ancestors, they knew how to read the territory. I began to see the land like it was empty of human development. I began to already forget that the city existed – it was something that had retreated out of sight and thought, concealed behind cliffs crafted of crumbling Victorian brick.

And then under all this came a feeling of... not fear, but worry. I was reassessing my relationship to the river, but how did the river feel about me? Was this land hostile or merely ambivalent? I thought of Roman legionaries, spotting out the best place to build their new fort. Somehow the gap of two millennia had been closed, contracted just like that, and I was seeing London with new and very different eyes.

The old coal cranes used to provide the source of power for Battersea Power Station, which is going through yet another phase of design development. I heard yesterday that back in the day the piping hot water used as coolant in the plant was then fed under the Thames to heat the radiators of Dolphin Square, one of the most amazing estates I have ever seen.

Friday, 21 August 2009

london bridge is falling down

Old London Bridge, the drawbridge visible in the middle via.

Circa 1831, the new bridge having been completed, the old is being demolished, via. The scale is a bit out, but St.Magnus' can be seen on the left...

Now, I've noticed that traffic to Millennium People always drops off over the weekend. This may be something to do with the fact that I rarely post sat/sun– so today I am going to do several posts and then schedule them to appear over the course of the weekend, so do check back... Join me Saturday to wade in the Thames, and Sunday will find Millennium People discussing sharks on the moon.

After a comment (thanks Marc) about the Shifting Shorelines post on St.Magnus', I was forced to check my facts and do some more research into the history of Old London Bridge (it was a chronological error on my part), and I thought I would take the opportunity to herald the weekend with an architectural fantasy...

The origins of the nursery rhyme 'London Bridge is falling down' are contentious, some saying that it stems from a Viking attack in 1014 that pulled down the bridge (commanded by a king who would later become St.Olaf, or Olave, and whose church in London is now the final resting place of Mr. and Mrs. Pepys). Others believe the rhyme is in some ways connected with a legend that children sacrifices were buried alive into the foundations. Another version of the rhyme has the line 'Dance over the Lady Lea/Lee', and there is apparently an ancient story in the Leigh family of Warwickshire claiming remains of one of their ancestors are buried under the bridge.

After Olaf cleared out, several reconstructions took place – ultimately resulting in the famous 20 arches in stone that guarded the upper Thames from invaders and marked the northern reach of the Pool. Tidal variations in London are over 6m, and the narrow spans between the footings created an intense drag effect that could destroy small boats trying to pass. Most sensible people left their boats on either side during the worst times and would return when the waters were more settled, but there are tales of men "shooting the bridge", where the boat would ride the fierce swell and actually gain air as it was propelled out the other side (at terrific speeds).

I'm not going to transcribe the whole history of the bridge, the Wiki article on the subject is really well-written. My main focus for the post is the buildings built upon the bridge: a mill, initially used to crush flour but later adapted to become the first water pump for the city; shops; houses; two medieval stone towers (that displayed the heads of traitors on pikes) and several churches. Locked at night, it was essentially a self-contained town community. However the structures created a major fire hazard – at least two disasters are recorded, the worst was in 1212 when both ends of the bridge caught fire simultaneously and 3000 people died. The oldest example of pre-fab, Nonesuch House, was assembled on the bridge in 1579 (having been designed and built in the Netherlands), and the king's solution to congestion on the bridge is credited as why the English drive on the left, and not the right.

Towards the end of the bridge's life, the eclectic mash of buildings were replaced by stone townhouses, several with communal roof gardens.

Although several people have proposed inhabitable bridges, to my knowledge none have been actually constructed. Why is this? Watch this space for some proposals for a New London Bridge...

BIG's 'bro', one of the more interesting inhabitable bridge projects via.

Thursday, 20 August 2009


Thanks to Things Magazine for their link – like the mate that first introduces you to booze by stealing it from their Dad's stash, so Things was my entry into the world of blogs and blogging. And, you know, you never forget the first.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Shifting Shorelines #3: Atlantikwall

A fragment of bunker that has toppled from a cliff above and is slowly being pushed into the sea by coastal erosion. Normandy, via Flickr.

Today’s post concludes the Shifting Shorelines posts and is a cerebral journey through time and space…
If you're new to the series, start at the beginning.

The goal of this mini-series was to examine Western conceptions of space, and hopefully to show how our understanding of place in time is really quite flawed. From London to New York, the final geographical focus is the shoreline of Europe between Norway and Spain.

I am talking about the Atlantikwall, the massive system of military reinforcements and installations that the Nazi’s built way-back-when, and the subsequent subject of several fascinating analyses, namely by Ballard and Virilio.

The metropolitan bookends of the Atlantic demonstrated what happens when an object (a building, say) is fixed, and the shoreline or city moves around it. By contrast, the action of time on the coastal defences is exactly the opposite. Hitler’s unintentional eternal architecture is moving. Shamed by its parent it is creeping year by year towards the sea, and out of the limelight of history. Since space and time (according to Einstein) are completely relative, the two processes are consequently identical; it simply depends on your point of view.

The basis of our understanding of space is the cardinal (or Cartesian) crosshair: a three-dimensional matrix of x, y and z co-ordinates. It relegates any particle in the universe to a very specific point in space (which is an ether, or a vacuum, that is then filled with matter). But there is an essential paradox: space is defined by its volume – which is abstract and empty – and not by the matter that occupies it.

69, the Hackney Road will always be 69, the Hackney Road, even if the shady striptease that occupies the site is demolished, because in occidental terms the place is defined by its point relative to another place, and not by the materiality of the building. The building, by contrast, is restricted by its materiality. If the striptease is demolished, even if the same owner builds another striptease, we call that a new building, and demarcate it as different from the ‘old’. This is called a cadastral mentality. In China, certain thinkers would tell you that when the new Freedom Tower is finished, it will be the same tower as the one that occupied the site before – that is, there is a continuity of building identity, even when there is no material continuity.

It is, therefore, a relative universe we live in. Our precision about the location of material in space (and its associated properties of volume, velocity, etc.) is dependent on where we set the 0,0,0 of out cardinal grid, which is arbitrary. The basis of all perception of space starts with two points. So it is that we navigate our own planet (longitude and latitude), where the two fairly arbitrary starting points (Greenwich and the equator) thus determine the identity of all places on the planet for all time.

Take a white room with no doors or windows – it could be anywhere, and for precisely that reason it is nowhere or everywhere. Its lack of referents renders it aspatial. By contrast, the smallest aperture immediately infers context and location. It positions the room somewhere and therefore permits for the conditions of genus loci, or the particularities of a place.

But, given that matter is in constant flux, and that everything in the universe is constantly moving, how can one choose an Ultimate 0,0,0? Even Greenwich is spinning round at over a thousand miles per hour (or a little bit faster than the speed of sound), and the planet itself is revolving around a star, and that star is moving in the galaxy, which is… and so on. So there can be no objective stationary point, and therefore no ability to claim that one point in space remains the same over time.

The eventual difference is between place and location in space. We tend to use the two interchangeably, but I think it is fair to make a distinction. A location in space is the occidental way of saying “a position relative to me and my body whose definition I understand and accept, and which I believe exists in time, immutable”, while a place is something we recognise as completely subjective, and changeable, susceptible to our experience and relation to it. It may be linked to personal associations or a sense of identification. The adult that returns to their childhood home to find it has become a ruin recognises that it is no longer the same place – that the place survives solely in memory. By contrast, once the house is restored that adult may be tempted to view it as once again the place of their childhood, even though materially it is quite different.

Finally, I think Borges excellently outlines the absurdities of our belief in the absolute referential system of space over time, by reversing the situation – by making time the constant and space non-continuous. I have mentioned the fable before, but it bears repeating:
"The hypothetical case of nine men who on nine successive nights experience a sharp pain. Would it not be absurd, they asked, to pretend that the men had suffered one and the same pain?"

The continuation of a similar pain in the same location over nine nights is coincidental, and not evidence that it is the same pain. The same would be true of an object: a coin seen in a room by nine men over nine successive nights is, materially, equally non-continuous. Further, to claim that a lost coin on monday and a found coin on friday (that bears the traces of having spent several days in the rain) are the same coin is nothing more than the 'association of ideas'. Classic Borges. This is why the spirit of place is non-continuous in time, but exists only for the moment it is experienced. Try returning to any childhood holiday site and see if the essence of the locale remains...

prince of darkness

An eye for an eye: if Prince Charles thinks he can meddle with modernism, than surely modernism can mess up his mum's house. My proposal for the removal of the Palace, to be replaced by Buckingham Children's Hospital.

Bonnie Prince Charles is up to his tricks again. The British papers call him "the scourge of modern architecture", and with reason. The royal Anti-Modernist has been plastering his antiquarian views all over the shop, arguing that all new developments should be built in a mock-neoclassical style. To illustrate the point he had a town constructed, called Poundbury. Within it he designed a dumpy Georgian palace disguised as a fire station.

But it all really kicked off a couple of months ago when he got involved with Richard Rogers' £3 billion housing development for the Chelsea barracks site. He wrote to the owner, the Emir of Qatar, "one royal to another" to express his disapproval, in an act many called anti-constitutional. As a result Rogers lost the project, which put 5,000 workers out of a job. He is now suing Prince Charles. The worst part of the tale is that the scheme Rogers proposed was indeed pretty bad, making it hard for Modernists to argue its merits.

His most recent act of villainy has been directed at One New Change, Jean Nouvel's mall opposite St. Paul's Cathedral. Nouvel has been having quite a lot of problems with upstarts recently – he only just got back from NY, where he was forced to defend his Tour Verre. Stoically, even though he must think the whole world is against him right now, Nouvel said we shouldn't listen to Prince Charles or any other man that supports "pastiche" architecture.

Nouvel's One New Change, I heard in Paris that he turned up for the first meeting, put a toy Stealth Bomber on the desk and said "my building will look like this".

Charlie also recently threatened to resign from the National Trust unless they become more conservative, although his demands to gain veto power over all new Trust architectural developments are largely heresay, as documents pertaining to Royals are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

under the pavement, the man.

The final destruction in Antonioni's 1969 Zabriskie Point

Even when the bourgeois Chelsea Marina mob set cars alight they return the next day to sweep the streets and right the burnt out husks. The protagonists of Ballard's Millennium People are the solid middle classes: doctors, lawyers, ad men, pilots. Their revolution, or more correctly their revolt, is orderly and well behaved. They are intellectually concerned with the symbolism of their act, but eager to avoid actually hurting anyone.

Ballard, who is arguably the most imaginative writer of the last 50 years, was nonetheless firmly rooted in reality – Will Self noted, “Other writers describe; Ballard anticipates.” So it says a lot about contemporary society that Ballard chose to describe revolution and reform in our own time as being limited by the self-imposed social order of the middle class. It was perhaps the most he could hope for…

So what happened? What happened to the riots, the demonstrations, the manifestations of the 60’s and 70’s? What happened to the spirit of ’68, or the civil rights movements? Were they real, did people feel that way, or is it only fabricated nostalgia? How did it all get so bad that the best hope for social reform became a fictional tale about a moderate and localised Chelsea hiccup?

My generation had anti-war marches too; I took part in them. A million Australians (1/20th of the country) walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. In London, New York, Paris and other global capitals people (I hesitate to say the people) had similar responses. Their effect was less than negligible, and no further evidence of the fact that democracy has failed us is necessary.

My teenage years neatly coincided with the Decade of Terror. The culture of fear, the untrustworthiness of the government, the duplicity, the unbridled economic growth, all came together to produce in this teenager an intense sense of outrage. Not a moral outrage, and not directed at any agent in particular, but at society as a whole. Typique.

Over time the outrage cooled to become disappointment, as I realised that it was my parent’s generation that had conscientiously crafted the world of helicopter parents and bubble-wrapped children. The dissidents that smoked dope to Pink Floyd got jobs, made money, had families, gentrified. They donned the shoulder-pad suits of the 80’s and became the Man.

I don’t want you to think this blog is deteriorating into a series of sporadic film reviews, nor that it is touting some idealist line. As I said in my first post: ‘I am not interested in architecture as an activity of object-making. I am completely fascinated by architecture as a legitimate tool of social change.’

In this case, it is the architecture of the film Zebraskie Point. The Breathless of its time, it recounts the futile struggle of youth against social processes that are beyond their influence. Whether you view it as a trip down memory lane or as an access into a bygone era, the film does well to capture something of the eclectic spirit of the late 60’s.

The conclusion to the film is probably the most beautiful sequence of celuloid I have ever seen. Sometimes, when the frustration with other people becomes too much, we all secretly dream of mass-destruction, of wiping the slate clean and starting again...

Monday, 17 August 2009


The future of the suburbs: a desert cult of cars.

Sometimes you don't quite get round to doing something, and afterwards you really wish you had. Now that the finalists are up for the Re-Burbia competition (to propose the future of the apparently futureless suburbs), I feel a lot less insecure about my own proposal, which I did not submit because I decided to go on holiday instead.

"It was the urban regeneration schemes of the mid-21st century that spelled the beginning of the end for the concept of the suburbs. Re-zoning into ultra low-density rural and hi-density metropolitan effectively polarised the state, and the suburb as an architype was neither profitable (from an agricultural standpoint), nor sufficiently flexible to keep up with rapidly changing trends in social, and technological organisation. Of course, there was no mass-exodus, no overnight evacuation, no one abandoned their homes (although several economic waves of foreclosures certainly aided departures), only a gradual waning of the suburbs' political and social significance over several generations.

At first, it was simply a question of not having the power. Global production of power dipped significantly, and the cities were prioritised. The countryside had been self-sufficient for decades, leaving the suburbs to suffer. Community groups lobbied for aid, but within a few years the fringes of most cities were managed on a lottery system, determining which streets would be without electricity and for what periods. The rich grouped together to fund their own power plants, implementing elaborate security measures to keep the once-bourgeois proletariat from their stations. Eventually, the wealth of a suburb could be measured simply by counting the bulbs at dusk.

The next crisis was water: it became evident to the cities that the suburbs were occupying too much of the water catchments. Wholesale, but strategic, clearing of houses began with a view to raising the water tables, and reducing the amount of run-off disappearing into the sea. Salvageable materials were stockpiled, but most was left to rot. Urban centres that were not sufficiently dense were re-classified as suburbs – resulting in massive re-settlement plans. Riots broke out amongst those who refused to leave, the peasant children of businessmen quibbling for access to artesian wells.

Sometimes whole cities would burn, with no water or willing manpower to extinguish them. The descendents of these vast suburban landscapes took refuge in the sole infrastructure that endured: the highways. Long since emptied of cars, the mighty roads nonetheless provided order and communication. The suburban refugees restructured themselves into linear societies. Forms that had been designed for speed, efficiency, circulation, now took on other meanings: defence, visibility, advantage. A neo-medieval architecture suggested itself, in the wonderful patterns of a turnpike, or the graceful rise of an on-ramp."

Friday, 14 August 2009


Allen Gray is neither awake nor dreaming, as he stares down into a coffin.

Don’t get me wrong, I do love Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht – staring one of my favourite actors Bruno Ganz (who went on to become Hitler). But its Downfall is that it just isn’t supernatural enough. Everything is a bit too clear. The general drive of Millennium People is the essential ambiguity and indeterminacy of the world, and Werner just isn't there.

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 Vampyr is a different story. It is a film about a dapper young man, Allen Gray, who becomes deeply fascinated in the supernatural, to the point where he becomes no longer able to tell the difference between reality and a dream-like state that we are told is the precipice of death. To get away from it all he goes off hunting butterflies in the hills, and as day turns to moonlit night he takes a room at a deserted hotel.

Allen Gray is presently awoken by a strange man who implores him to help save his daughter, and then disappears. Going to investigate, he is led on a terrific journey through eerie forests, ruined chateaus, into the path of ghosts, vampires and ghouls. The spirits of the dead float as long shades – in one scene the shadow of a seated soldier becomes detached and carries itself off to commit a murder, before returning. The special effects are really amazing, and I still wonder how they managed to project onto the walls of an empty factory the dancing shadows of a whole ballroom.

A soldier's shadows goes off to commit a murder.

A great scene from the forest, typical of the film's soft and ephemeral light.

As an aside, I only just realised how unjust the whole vampire system is. Legend has it that someone who has committed terrible sins in life, such that they cannot find peace even in the coffin, will rise again – living forever, prolonging their life by drinking the blood of children and virgins.

Ok, fair enough – bad things should happen to bad people. Makes sense. But what about the poor virgins? Then they become vampires forever too. What did they do to deserve that? I mean it pretty much ruins any future hopes of marriage, except for the Bride of Dracula, of course. And where do God and the dinosaurs fit into all of this, anyway?

Thursday, 13 August 2009

totally rad

Green Room, by lanscape artist collective A12, at the Barbican

The Barbican's got an exhibit on at the moment called 'Radical Nature'. They are quite firm about not taking photos over there, and I was ultimately asked to leave as a result. The focus for the exhibition is examining the physical – and conceptual – separation of nature from humanity, as well as questioning what 'natural' really means.

The show was a mix of hits and misses, but on the whole very good. I highly recommend it. I couldn’t help but think of what a friend of mine, a landscape architect, said recently: “everyday I receive more CVs from architects, but you know they have no feeling for landscape, they only apply because the Crisis forces them to.”

It is certainly true that commercial architecture (probably stemming from Corbu’s laissez-faire attitude to the landscape) has neglected landscape for a long time, only treating it in order to better draw attention to their iconic masterpieces. So while this show presents something new, I can’t help but feel that the disproportionate overrepresentation of architectural firms is its weak point. It needed something fresher, something new.

A group called A12 installed a small wooden chamber to sit beneath a skylight, (the “Green Room”). Inside was something like the art of Yayoi Kusama, but not so well finished, with mirrors reflecting an infinity of Selfs back at me. The interior was a trite English garden, replete with baroque urn and topiary shrub. What I didn’t understand was whether the artists were supporting the English bourgeoisie or mocking them – irony is getting too subtle for me these days. In any case, it was a pretty dubious work, and not indicative of the general standard.

Anya Gallaccio had lovingly collected all the parts of a beech that had been felled, reassembling the tree in the gallery using bolts and plates. It was vaguely painful to look at, the sinewy torsions of the beech evoking an arboristic empathy. Agnes Denes (who I’ve posted about before) was also there, though this is not the first time I have seen her work exhibited at the Barbican).

Anya Gallaccio's butchered beech

One piece that seems utterly redundant is Honeypump in the Workplace by Joseph Beuys. In 1977 he constructed a system to pump 2 tonnes of honey through a ship’s engine and then out round a room in transparent tubes. The display is the original tubes and the original ship’s engine, but no honey. One can only wonder at this act of reification (is all art reified anyway?), and ask why an art piece devoid of the element that made it interesting is still circulated, and particularly why it was included in a show about radical nature.

As a bit of an aspiring psychogeographer, I was really impressed by Lara Almarcegui’s pamphlet (free) on the urban, ex-industrial or natural sites that are under threat by the 2012 Waste of Everyone’s Time & Money. It serves as a great reminder that the natural environment is not static – to be confined, Blade Runner style within the walls of humanity’s white cubes – but an equilibrium in flux.

Final note: the 9 square metres of rainforest, apparently extracted à la Matta-Clark, glued together and then flipped on its side was great, floodlit by sun lamps to keep the trees growing horizontally. As were the Ant Farm projects, and the idea for floating gardens, where plants that collect nutrients from the air are strapped to balloons and sent into space. Go see it, I went 3 Fridays ago with a friend, and we were the only ones there.

casios and bombs

Detonation of seized weapons in Afghanistan, via – by the troops, for the troops...

Last night I went to the Dalston Superstore for a Diesel U:Music party (my brother is a sometimes radio presenter there). I got talking to this one girl, about the relative efficiency of various makes of timepiece (fascinating) and she said "you ought to get a Casio, like me". I looked at the watch and had a sudden flash of recollection.

"When I was 15, they invaded Afghanistan" I said "and of course I watched it live on TV. About a week into the war I remember seeing a heap of dead bodies – the first enemy victims of the invasion. At the bottom of the pile was an arm and a hand sticking out, and the camera zoomed in on his watch – the same Casio you've got there – and I thought, how poignant" I paused for dramatic effect "how poignant that this watch keeps on ticking, probably for years, long after the man that owned it has ceased to be."

I got a bemused, if somewhat cold, stare. I needed to turn this one around, and fast.

"So what I'm saying is, they're pretty reliable, and if you get American's all up in your business, invading and shit, well... you know what time it is."

A chuckle. Saved. Barely. Still, funny the things that obviously mark you but lie dormant, a silent bank of influence.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009


The star-forming region LH 95 in the Large Magellanic Cloud, via Hubble (also, hi-res 2mb)

No one really supposed that light had speed, but we now know it takes 8 minutes to reach us from the sun, and two and a half years from the nearest star. When we look up at the stars we are seeing a live show taking place 30,000 years ago. An aggregate of non-simultaneous and only partially overlapping events. Change is normal. The physical universe is forever changing.
This is Buckminster Fuller talking about Einstein's theories, from a video playing at the Barbican's new one (I'll write again on the exhibit itself). The video is called "Modeling Universe", and its a 1976 doco on Buckminster Fuller, by Jamie Snyder. The reason I labouriously copied down this passage was because of that one line : an aggregate of non-simultaneous and only partially overlapping events.

Baudrillard writes a lot about our obsession with real time, our desire for information to be instantaneous. He says there is no point in trying to identify the world as it happens, because it is already out of date and distorted (through the lag of the eye to brain, or some other instrument of perception like a mirror). He says, in the Perfect Crime:

Thus all things offer themselves up without a hope of being anything other than illusions of themselves. Fortunately, nothing appears to us in real time, any more than do the stars in the night sky. If the speed of light were infinite, all the stars would be there simultaneously and the celestial vault would be an unbearable incandescence. Fortunately, nothing takes place in real time. Otherwise we would be subjected, where information is concerned, to the light of all events, and the present would be an unbearable incandescence. Fortunately, we live on the basis of a vital illusion, on the basis of an absence, an unreality, a non-immediacy of things.
Of course, if you suggest that there is a value to temporal setback you may as well tattoo the term Luddite to your forehead and be done with it. It seems a commonplace in contemporary architecture to try to portray the temporary, the fluid and flux – to design an architecture that is maleable and adaptable. But isn't that really a cop-out, a sidestep of the issue. By refusing to impose will into the formal (or other) structure of a project, and claiming that it will define itself, the architect avoids the responsibility to produce a formal response to a given situation.

An aggregate of non-simultaneous and only partially overlapping events... What would an architecture be like that, rather than responding quickly to the ephemeral conditions of the present, attempted to (re)present the past (as a statement that the present is only the temporal offset of history): a modern stadium designed to host gladiatorial battles, a condo highrise with stables and slaves? Given how long it actually takes to construct a building, what is the maximum acceptable offset (no one, after all, complains about Sagrada Familia being out of date)?

Well. Gees, let's lighten things up a bit with a Roman joke (via Mary Beard, who is the authority on all ancient humour): A man meets a friend of his in the street and says "that's funny, I was told you were dead". The friend replies "well, you can see perfectly that I am still alive". The first man furrows his brow and says "I have to dispute that, the man who told me you were dead is much more reliable than you." Its not that bad really, when you consider that I (like many) don't get Punch at all, and that it was conceived by a whole different kind of Millennium People.

I promise tomorrow's post will be less cerebral.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Shifting Shorelines #2: NY

Under the pavement the beach: mid-70's, just after the completion of the extension of Manhattan, an era of NY beach parties.

In a fit of delirium, Rem Koolhaas praised the urban democracy of the New York Commissioners' Plan of 1811. With a fixed number of blocks (2,028) and (at least in theory) no single development surpassing the limits of its block, the equality of each 'urban island' was assured. That is, no block could claim to be anything more than a certain percentage of Manhattan. Rem goes on to explain that the power of the rules lay in the rigidity of the limitations they presented.

But the rules were not so fixed. The construction of the World Trade Center produced almost a million cubic metres of excavated fill – and rather than dump it or ship it elsewhere, New York used it to push the shoreline 210m to the west, and 2km to the north. The resulting strip (called Battery Park City) created six new blocks and 92 new acres. The shoreline was augmented, a parcel of land (of incalculable value) had been cut from the island itself.

The north tower was finished in 1970, the south in '72. For 4 years the Twins fronted the Hudson directly, until the backfilling was complete. But the first building on the new strip didn't open until 1981, and for several years the strip was the site of art exhibits, anti-nuclear demonstrations and beach parties. The Twins suddenly found themselves at the beach, like Yankies in Miami.

The impact of this enormous expansion on the feeling of Downtown must have been phenomenal – the people revelled in a sudden emptiness that had not been felt in Manhattan for almost two centuries. The landscape artist Agnes Denes celebrated the final days of the space, (new blocks already seen under construction in the distance) by planting an acre of wheat. The abstract world of global finance presented, if only so briefly, with the realities of basic agriculture: the foundation of civilisation brought to the etherial heights of the metropolis.

Coming soon... #3, the thrilling conclusion to the series.

To see the 9 images in Agnes Denes series click here.