I’ve decided that as a vague tribute to the sadly departed JG Ballard (me and Phil will undoubtedly raise a glass to him on Thursday, as is our way), this piece can be read in an order of your choosing. All sections are linked in some way or another. If there is a non-contradictory view point by the end, then kudos for noticing it; I wasn’t aware I had one.
I’ve been surrounded by Brutalist architecture for a long time. I hated it for a long time, but then I think I didn’t really understand the motivation for this. Unrationalised dislike. I later considered the reasoning for my dislike, and realised that I had largely misunderstood the point, and that these buildings, widely pilloried, are some of the most conceptually interesting structures we have built and deserve to stand alongside traditional beauties like faux-Florentine St.Pauls. Every University I have studied at (two to date) was built with a nod to Modernist architecture; at UEA, my halls of residence was a perpetually leaking concrete ziggurat, and here at York the Central Hall is a peculiarly supported inverted octagon in the same style. The majority of buildings today operate on a different level. They are either there out of necessity, and devoid of imagination, or are entirely imagination. The collapse of the idea of a grand narrative in to fractured often baffling spaces has allowed for a conceptual free-for-all at one level, and lazy paint-by-numbers buildings at the other. It wasn’t always like this.
In Content, recently screened on More4 as part of their True Stories season, Petit takes issue with the nature of out-of-town industrial warehousing. He views it, always from his car window, as ‘the apotheosis of non-place’. Their anonymity renders everything to the imagination, disregarding ideas like architecture in favour of nothing but function, the boxing of society. Now nothing but the forever war of invisible industry. The result – buildings today are impossible to read. Within these gargantuan zeros, business life exists in a state of military alert…under the eye of constant camera surveillance. It trickles out somewhere along the line, in to the wider environment, like oil across a once pristine beach.
He says ‘it all looks so quasi-military, like living inside the cold war again’. The road movie, and it definitely is a road movie, draws interesting pictures of the architecture of failed ideas, or practical solutions giving way to horrific encounters. There is a discussion of Auschwitz New Town, an ‘ideal community’ planned to be built over the concentration camp following German victory. It would have had 12 schools and a Nazi party headquarters constructed on top of the Jewish Cemetery. At around the same time, rubble from the houses of blitzed London was transported to East Anglia where it formed the runways for the bombers that destroyed Dresden.
There is a shot of a high sky filled with blue, and a land of nothing but dust.
Petit suggests that the emotionless constructions of today’s new build housing, out of town retail parks and faceless warehousing leads to a incomprehension of the natural vista as well. People are now unable to understand varied, confusing and massive landscapes in a way that our ancestors did. At least in the past people tried to exist within them or else they feared them, whereas now it is just blank indifference, viewed at distance. ‘It is spectacular’ because I am told that that is what I think it should be. This is not the reaction people should have. How can you live in an environment that seeks to alienate you from it? In nature there is purpose to it, in man made space it is inexplicit intention that we have needlessly fashioned. To make spaces we do not understand how to act within, or misbehave around. To hope history will fix purpose at a later date.
Jenny Holzer’s exhibition ended at the Baltic on May 16th. I went with Zoe, on a day filled with grey cloud and squally winds along the river. I felt the exhibition worked in that the curation and display of the huge scrawling LED screens filled the two large halls perfectly, simultaneously suggesting great distance (high ceilings, long echo filled chambers, a viewing platform above the main retrospective piece) and also intimacy, in the nature of the message (I know her stuff is designed to be ambivalent in its statement-making). It didn’t seem large enough to be a retrospective, but then much of the work had been distilled in to conglomerated displays. The Baltic itself was terrifying, mainly because I am scared of heights, or rather I am scared on man-made heights…trees, cliffs etc. are no problem. The Baltic’s six floors are reached via speedy glass lifts that, after the terror of the initial ascent, made me take the staircase for the rest of the visit, much to the chagrin of Zoe. The stairs were also heart stopping, set slightly out from the wall meaning that no matter which side you stand, you can see down. The main highlight was the elderly couple that were visiting the Holzer exhibition with their grandson, who was maybe only six/seven (start them early). They stood next to us on the viewing platform reading out the statements as they scrolled past, the kid watching in wide eyed awe as his nan had to stop herself from reading ‘Fuck me and fuck all of you’ out loud.
The Guantanamo hand prints, and blocked out text were perhaps the least effective works on display, too obviously loaded, and the LED tubes symbolising virtual news tickers provided a much more disturbing account of The War on Terror in their emotionless delivery. The gallery itself is a well worked reimagining of the old flour mill/factory, particularly in terms of its positioning alongside the silver insect larvae of The Sage Gateshead and the graceful curve of the Millennium Swing Bridge. It seems to bring an unusual feeling of impotence to riverside area, which I guess is entirely unintentional as a redevelopment, like the smell from a dentists surgery transformed in to tangible public space (this was perhaps because of the unexpected cold May day I was there on). Huge and empty. I found that reassuring for some reason.
This was my third visit to the city, and I enjoyed it very much. I see the city as an architectural art gallery spread across numerous levels as the buildings run down toward the Tyne; a multitude of styles fighting against each other in often uncomfortable arrangements. The classicism of Georgian streets leading in broad arcs to Grey’s Monument punctuated by the horror of Eldon Garden Shopping Centre (Eldon Garden itself is a square of dead brown grass where people gather to smoke and argue). Modernist monoliths, the old theatre, the Pearl Assurance building, a largely disused multi-story car park (and earlier in the day from the top of the Baltic, what I thought was the iconic carbuncle of the Trinity Square car park loomed out from Gateshead…it may have been demolished already…I suppose the chances of two massive modernist car parks in one place are fairly unlikely) sit uneasily on the valleyside. A hodgepodge, which you could be forgiven as seeing as being spilt on the land rather than meticulously planned and constructed. I also like the area to the north-west of the city, called Spital Tongues…but solely for the name. It would be nice to have it written on an envelope.
For a year, I lived on Lincoln Street in Norwich, no. 76 I think, part of a fairly standard row of Victorian terraced housing. I’d walk from there to University, on the rare days that I bothered going in. I’m not entirely sure why this was, though Zoe suggests it was because I never really try (definitely some truth in this). I spent much of the year, my third, writing a book that is still called Sunshine and Power Lines. It seemed to be an attempt for me to synthesise some of the confused opinions and ideas I’d fostered since leaving school, and fashion them in to a narrative of sorts. The book follows five nameless characters through preparations for an end of the world type scenario. To avoid the usual clichéd end of the world type event, I made my end of the world an amalgamation of all other end of the world type events; economic meltdown, environmental collapse, meteor strike, no more children being born, all the animals disappearing. The book ends with a protracted chase, through a series of structures and cities made of constantly reconfiguring brickdust and jets of steam. The world is essentially desert, with the old cities rearing up from the earth in new arrangements completely at random. I wrote the book without planning it, and it shows.
On the way to University, I would walk up a long straight road called The Avenues, surrounded by well established trees and council housing that was built at a time when councils still put some thought in to the design and placement of such things. Shortly after the crossroads with the inner ring road, the A140, I’d come to George Borrow Road, which I found a tremendously unsettling place. The juxtaposition between this view of new build housing, unlived in, emotionally vacuous, with the older semi detached housing across The Avenues unnerved me. New buildings are disturbing because they lack anything but the architects dimension, and in the case of much new build housing, it is constructed from default plans of previous developments, flat pack, designed without any real flare or feeling. The need, as set out by successive governments post-Thatcher, was to replace the social housing lost in the buy-your-council-house scheme sanctioned by the aforementioned, which while giving numerous people the opportunity to join the home owners club, left the country with little to help those struggling to find social housing today. They have to be built now, which requires that genuine consideration for the people who live in these theoretically prefabricated homes is done away with in favour of speed. These houses are nothing but vague intentions of living created from what private industry requires to be the bare minimum requirements from those who urgently need social housing. The houses on the side of George Borrow opposite the Avenues would have been like this once, but now they are well lived in, and people have been able to occupy the space in their own way for long enough that the original ideas defined by planners has largely fallen by the side; it is represented in external looks but not in internal feel.
The new build private housing I looked at prior to moving away was equally dire, curiously shapeless due to the uniformity of everything around it; spatial blindness brought on by abundance in the same way that sun reflecting off a mountainside of snow will burn away your vision given a chance. A sterile idea of what community should be, imposed without consideration rather than expressed by the people who live in these buildings. The German narrator in Content, who I believe is reading lines written by Ian Penman, delivers the unsubstantiated fact that suicide rates are higher in New Build housing than older housing.
I went to Exeter during a family holiday, possibly the one where Dad spent two days in Torquay hospital with blood poisoning, picked up from an exposed sewage pipe somewhere beneath the red cliffs flanking Teignmouth. Our holidays were always predicated on an idea of cultural exploration of one kind or another; stately homes, gardens, moorland, mines, museums, places of worship. Exeter had just redeveloped its waterfront area on the Ex, or at least it seemed recently done as much of it was uncompleted. There were shops set in to what could have been a railway bridge were empty, there glass fronts reflecting a bright afternoon. People in canoes paddled past a rope ferry. We spent an hour at the cathedral, wandering out of the sun in to cooler chapels vestries, finishing with an ice cream in the park in front. My abiding memory of my time in Exeter though is the monotony of it. I found it a boring place to be. I’d assumed for a long while this was just because I was a child, and children get bored, but after I’d decided not to go to University there on this basis, I reassessed my issues with the place. Largely, I’d found it boring because of the uninspiring centre. The high street of the city, which I automatically considered to be old enough to be considered properly ‘historical’, was the same as any other high street in any other town. Character replaced with function. My concern here is that I seem to bemoan the loss of the former in favour of the latter, or that I appear to favour some faded (and possibly imaginary) idea of what a city is or should be, but this is not the case. Function in buildings should consider the occupants and not simply the intended activity.
(Forever) The Arndale
The Arndale in Luton is a similar case. Function over the needs of the occupants, or rather the needs of occupants are imposed. An architect of any worth understands not only the materials and the construction but the idea of space. Space is defined formally, in the structure, and informally in the way it is used by those who occupy. The old heart of Luton pulled down and replaced by an odd white plastic coated series of irregular shapes, balanced on a dark brown brick wall. It offers nothing but an obvious barrier to the past that it was built over. It is domineering in a way opposite to its intention; it does not invite people inside it, but provides numerous blocks to that, in appearance and layout. The past, the streets that were there before, are in no way idolised here. They were knocked down before I was born, and those I know who remember them considered them to be as dark and dangerous a place as the current building is troubling in its effortlessly extensive boredom. Buildings need to be considerate, widely consulted on, able to match architectural vision with the unforeseen way in which people use the space provided. This can not be planned for perhaps, but the option for allowing a space to develop organically should be factored in to the design process. The same applies to public spaces. The George Square development in Luton is another example. A half arsed attempt at redesigning the amphitheatre as low slung concrete seating and a band stand that need removing within two weeks of construction because homeless drunks used it as a shelter.
Unlike the Trinity Square car park in Gateshead, I very much doubt tourists would gather for guided tours of the condemned building prior to demolition, or that the council would use it as the backdrop for a light show…Trinity’s ultimate fate, as a Tesco development complete with an additional ‘Mall’ and cinema as well as public meeting places (whatever their eventual function will be…perhaps policed in a way to keep people from massing), is a future both centres could share. If I were Owen Luder I’d be pretty pissed off that three of my most iconic creations, the others being the Derwent Tower (also in Gateshead, and reminiscent of the police tower Gaff’s spinner lands on in Blade Runner) and the long-demolished Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth, were reduced to memory and replaced with facile attempts at buildings
Brutalist buildings are forward looking in their now failed utopian living ideal, but also old and crumbling, streaked with brown and green where the rain has seeped in to the supposed impervious ‘raw concrete’. Old and new. In Doig’s ‘Concrete Cabin’, which I saw a few years ago at the Tate exhibition of his work, numerous strands are brought together. The scene is eerily lit, the forest dark and impenetrable but, by the width of the trees, apparently no older than the building they surround. The sun shining on the exposed façade suggesting an enlightening of some kind, perhaps the glimmer of that almost forgotten utopian dream of community living that Jeanneret-Gris never saw realised. The Unité d’Habitation in Briey-en-Forêt that Doig depicts is the idea of man and nature coexisting, perhaps as espoused in Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of Tomorrow, but come about as though channelled through JG Ballard, or Disch’s The Genocides. It has the vibe of Pripyat, the ghost town evacuated after the Chernobyl distaster, now being consumed by vines and saplings. This particular Unité d’Habitation has been abandoned since 1983, the year I was born, and is now kept going by a group of conservationist architects, La Premiere Rue. I can see the York campus going a similar way one day. It is already surrounded by park land, as well as something like 12 species of waterfowl and a shit load of rabbits.
Brutalism was too rigid, its ultimate downfall the supposed end of modernity and the postmodern ‘turn’. The ultimate in function, unable to play nice with its surroundings, it stands there demanding subscription to forward thinking; it is hopeful, but not dissimilar to the modern shopping centres peppering the country nowadays in its inability to see the potential of human agency in shaping rigidly structured/intentioned spaces. The exercise track and paddling pool built on the roof of La Maison du Fada are unused today, and the apartments (designed for occupation by all social strata), are largely occupied by the wealthy who want cultural capital by association and occupancy. So what is the difference between these apparent eyesores and the ones I have complained about? I suppose it is intention again, that the buildings are symbolic of an idea of utopian community and cooperation, a then-urgent rethink in the concept of how people living in a post-War society could interact with one another, rather than simply an extension of trading practices or lip service to appease he concerns of town planners and worried citizens who fear the sprawl. However flawed these ideas may be, in their attempt to standardise and their lack of consideration for their surroundings (which are all parallels to the boxes of today), their intentions and now-vanished optimism are a saving grace.