Wednesday, 31 August 2011


Well, some of you might know about this, some of you might not, but I've written a book.

Against those who consider architecture to be a wholly optimistic activity, this book shows how the history of modern architecture is inextricably tied to ideas of failure and ruin.By means of an original reading of the earliest origins of modernism, the Architecture of Failure exposes the ways in which failure has been suppressed, ignored and denied in the way we design our cities. It examines the 19th century fantasy architecture of the iron and glass exhibition palaces, strange, unprecedented, dream-like structures, almost all now lost, existing only as melancholy archive fragments; it traces the cultural legacy of these buildings through the heroics of the early 20th century, post-war radicals and recent developments, discussing related themes in art, literature, politics and philosophy.Critiquing the capitalist symbolism of the self-styled contemporary avant-garde, the book outlines a new history of contemporary architecture, and attempts to recover a radical approach to understanding what we build.

It's due to be published on the 24th of February 2012, and in the time left before that I'm going to have to a) remember what it's about, and b) transform myself from a shameful self-deprecator into a shameless self-promoter. Wish me luck!

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Romanticising the Riots

Romanticising the Riots by entschwindet und vergeht
You might have noticed that there were some riots recently. I don't really have much to add to the hundreds if not thousands of analyses that have already been contributed, apart from the observation that they all have some element of truth to them.

One of the riots took place right outside my house in "London's Fashionable East End", and as well as going outside to have a look at what was burning (along with a sizable cross-section of the local population), I also, as you'd expect from a pretentious hipster, made an audio recording of the helicopters that were thundering around outside, of which I counted at least four.

Now, it's not as if I couldn't have just left it at that, and had myself an interesting little Chris Watson style audio recording, but I felt it necessary to somehow transfigure it slightly, and the result is the audio that you can listen to here. The helicopters have been combined with a recording of Strauss' 'Im Abendrot' ('At Sunset'), one of his Four Last Songs.

Why? Well, there could be a number of reasons. On the one hand it's a sly gesture towards Stockhausen's 'Helicopter Quartet', but that's by the by. It's also a kind of aleatoric duet - listen to how the doppler effect of one of the helicopters perfectly accompanies the slide from the major to the relative minor! But then it's perhaps about the artistic gesture as such, the impotence, or failure, of any artwork to genuinely transfigure the structure of the world into which it's inserted. The high-romanticism here functions as a phantasmagoric fragment of a world that is not always in the process of collapsing, a fiction that is always drowned out by the harsh sounds of the world in which it is heard. Or, to put it another way, high-camp futility is the mood I'm going for.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Soon to be gone

There's always this strange thing that occurs when you live in a city, and it's that amnesiac feeling when new buildings are being completed around you, and it becomes almost impossible to remember the building that stood on the site previously, even if you passed it almost every single day. We could probably draw lessons about 'homeliness' perhaps, about how the immediate environment is always present to hand and thus taken as permanent, even if the building before us is only a year or two old. There are innumerable buildings that have gone up in the time I've lived in London, where upon encountering them for the first time, amid the revulsion of yet another rubbish new building being inflicted on us one suddenly senses a loss, not of the object itself, but more of the ability to consider or remember it.

With that in mind, here are a few buildings that I have begun to notice are about to be lost.

London Bridge Station

This deliriously dreary space frame roof is set to be removed as part of the Shard redevelopment. This was very much one of the first buildings that really put me on to how sad and disheveled a space frame could look, on the various occasions I sat gloomily under its pale light, waiting to be taken away somewhere.

Milestone House

This rather unremarkable bit of Mini-Mies is rendered fascinating by the fact that it holds the 'London Stone', a rock of great historical and mythical status, although for people like me it's most interesting because it features in Keiller's London, when it inspires Robinson to declare the No.15 a sacred bus and bus route. This is especially poignant for me as I lived for a number of years on the route of the 15, so I saw the stone frequently as I made my slow way back home. The fictional sacred-ness of the 15 is understandable, as my experiences of the bus were almost the perfect example of the idea of London as a world city of hard workers from everywhere and anywhere - I've never heard as many different languages being spoken in one enclosed space as I did on the No15 heading back out east on wet and cold december evenings. What's going to happen to this building is that (apparently) Fosters are going to knock the building down, and relocate the stone into their unfathomably ugly Walbrooke building next door, at which point all sacred-ness will be lost forever.

4&6 Broadgate

And of course, planning permission has been granted for MAKE's terrifying bulky block building for UBS, with sardine-stacked traders piled into massive floor plates well over 100m long. In drawings the new building begins to resemble an old 19th century mill factory, with innumerable posh yobs getting through those harsh early years on the vast trading floors before they can jack it all in to start an infantilised organic food company, chirping on and on about their 'yummy bits'.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Mahler - Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen by entschwindet und vergeht
Recently E&V was possessed by the desire to transcribe this most exquisite of Mahler's 'Rückert Lieder', and here is the initial result.

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben,
Sie hat so lange von mir nichts vernommen,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben.

Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen,
Ob sie mich für gestorben hält,
Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,
Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt.

Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgewimmel,
Und ruh' in einem stillen Gebiet.
Ich leb' allein in mir und meinem Himmel,
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied.

I am lost to the world
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing from me for so long
that it may very well believe that I am dead!

It is of no consequence to me
Whether it thinks me dead;
I cannot deny it,
for I really am dead to the world.

I am dead to the world's tumult,
And I rest in a quiet realm!
I live alone in my heaven,
In my love and in my song!

The text is your typical world-weary romanticism, but you might notice that the music is very much the prototype for the far more famous 'Adagietto' from Mahler's 5th symphony, and it's generally thought that this lied is very much inspired by Mahler's burgeoning romance with Alma Schindler.

The transcription is not just of the accompaniment, but includes and attempts to render the vocal line in a prominent manner. The performance is admittedly rather sketchy, with great hesitation: this is basically a result of my haste in recording the piece, meaning that the fingerings (some of which are really rather awkward) have not been properly worked out.

I hope this pleases at least one person out there.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Mmm... tasty

Coming south from hence we passed Stilton, a town famous for cheese, which is called our English Parmesan, and is brought to the table with the mites, or maggots round it so thick, that they bring a spoon with them for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese.

Daniel Defoe, A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, p.424

Seriously though, this book is utterly amazing.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Apropos of nothing, two classic stride pianists taking on classic romanticism. Lambert playing Wagner, & Tatum playing Chopin.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Review - "BDP: Continuous Collective"

The following is a book review that was spiked by a magazine. I thought I'd post it up here rather than letting it go to waste.

"You know more Crowded House songs than you think you do,"said the advertising catchphrase marketing the greatest hits of that long-running antipodean pop group. A simultaneously proud and yet self-deprecating statement, it suggested that there was an inherent invisibility to the band that was leaving their important yet unglamourous contribution to music easily overlooked. 'Continuous Collective', a book published to celebrate fifty years of Building Design Partnership (or BDP), attempts a very similar form of humble self-promotion, making a case for what they consider to be their easily-ignored strengths of flattened hierarchy, multi-disciplinary organisation and most importantly, a non-egotistical approach to design.
"The 'good ordinary' is a noble standard in building, because that implies the greatest good for the greatest number. Surely this is what the design of the total built environment should be about," writes Hugh Pearman, author of the volume, exemplifying the deferential attitude which primarily defines the book. This is a positive spin on what BDP currently represent, which we might uncharitably describe as the best of faceless commercial architecture in the UK. To reaffirm the image of the practice in this way it helps that BDP has the history that it does, having been formed by George Grenfell Baines in 1961 as a socialist cooperative with a practice structure including all design professions, or in Grenfell Baines' words; "Technology and Art linking together in fruitful dialectic relationships!"
To stress this utopian dimension to BDP and attempt to give it historical consistency, an essay contributed by critic Owen Hatherley examines BDP's early years in the context of the Bauhaus and other radical architectural experiments in co-operation. Siting them in the milieu of post-war collectivity, Hatherley sketches a narrative whereby BDP were at the vanguard of British building rather than peripheral workhorses. It helps here that we have such striking early works as the Preston Bus Garage, a lean terminal dominated by ribbed bullhorn profiles, easily the stylistic equal of Paul Rudolph's car park in New Haven, or the Halifax headquarters, a virtuosic smorgasbord of Corbusian brutalism, Miesian tailored box, hi-tech serviced office and proto-deconstructivist rhomboids.

However, like many architects of a certain age BDP have skeletons in their closet, most significantly the swathe of unsustainable out-of-town shopping complexes they built during the 80s. Lee Mallet's essay traces the development of BDP alongside a broad history of British capitalist culture. After the aforementioned welfare state brutalism of the 60s & 70s fell out of favour BDP had to adapt to the brash and vulgar architecture of the Thatcher era, a change that obviously pushed them far out of their comfort zone ("There were no BDP education buildings and scarcely any hospitals […] during the whole of the 1980s" notes Mallett). After suffering badly during the early 90s recession, BDP were among the leading lights of the new Aalto/Erskine influenced pseudo-modernism that will forever be associated with New Labour's pseudo-socialism.

It is the very fact of BDP's resistance to egotistical design that makes it so apposite to see them as a symbol of British architecture as a whole. "If at first the desire was to change the society, the model has also been very successful at adapting to society's changes" Pearman writes ambiguously, and it's a source of sometimes bitter nostalgia to compare BDP's work with itself, whether it be the difference between the confident, bold buildings for the plate-glass Bradford University and the polite and somewhat insipid fair of later buildings such as Sunderland University, or in the slow transition from exciting modernist graphic design to the aesthetic nullities of the pastel coloured sketches and banal renderings that we are used to now. Even contemporary design as consummately executed as the Stirling Prize nominated Liverpool 1 masterplan is tainted by knowledge that the project is a yet another insidious privatisation of public space for the benefit of commercial interests. In the last few pages the projects suddenly develop into massive city-sized schemes, signifying BDP's move into the emerging markets and their potential futures.

BDP have found themselves in the news a number of times recently: they were recently named by the education secretary and playground bully Michael Gove as the most overpaid architects of the slashed BSF scheme (a wildly inaccurate accusation), a sign of the massive changes that British architecture is once again going through, while it was recently revealed that the architects in charge of an anonymous shopping development in Preston which proposes to demolish the Preston Bus Station - recently voted BDP's most popular building - were none other than BDP themselves, a situation of sublime irony. Overall, BDP can tell us a lot more about architectural culture than we might think, and the final impression of the book is that what first appeared to be just a banal pat-on-the-back is actually a intriguing section of British architectural history.