Thursday, 27 August 2015

TVAM


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

Buildings, spaces, tools and machines of high-tech media content, whether it be smartphones or studio buildings, are today mostly the very inverse of that which they contain and produce –they are all too often black boxes, slick tablets and neutral sheds. TVAM was something it would be wonderful to see more of: a rapturous celebration of its contents, a building that functioned perfectly as a studio, but which also performed brilliantly as an architectural embodiment of, and story about the new world we were entering, in which old categories were dissolving and hierarchies collapsing, in which cleverness could be a joy, old could be new, pop could be culture, and architecture could be free to be sophisticated, fun, fashionable and communicative. It was a stylistic explosion of pent-up tectonic energies that formed itself around the volatile excitement of a new media age, and in the process became entrenched in our national consciousness.
As Paul Greenhalgh said, postmodernism stands in relation to our own moment as the Steam Age did to its own oil-powered future; the mediated nature of our economy and lifestyle that was only beginning with TVAM has now effloresced into a saturated environment unimaginable at that time. TVAM encapsulated the complexities of its time -good and ill, beautiful and ugly- with stylistic bravado and architectural panache. It would be very good indeed to see young architects picking up the baton, and throwing themselves headlong into the maelstrom of contemporary culture, bringing some of its raw brilliance back into the built environment. In its spirit, it is a model to be revaluated, revisited and taken-up once again.
What would a TVAM of 2016 look like?

Monday, 8 June 2015

The Unhappy Pursuit



1324a5 It remains to discuss whether the happiness of the city is the same as that of the individual, or different. The answer is clear: all are agreed that they are the same. Those who believe that the well-being of the individual consists in his wealth, will also believe that the city as a whole is happy when it is wealthy. Those who rank the life of a tyrant higher than any other, will also rank the city which possesses the largest empire as being the happiest city. Anyone who grades individuals by their goodness, will also regard the happiness of cities as proportionate to their goodness.
Extract from Chapter II, Book VII of Aristotle’s Politics

Much as the analysis of advertising proved to be an eye-opening window into the libidinal underpinnings of the twentieth century’s very irrational consumer mind, the marketing for residential-led developments has more recently proven itself to be a convenient way of gaining insight into what property buyers are drawn to in a city, and in a home. Because of the increasingly yawning gap between the stratospheric prices of many flats and their consequently disappointing reality, the intensity and psychological brio of these marketing campaigns has reached a fever-pitch of ideological clarity in the attempt to reconcile the two.

Their approach can be roughly divided into the targeting of two main areas of desire. On the one hand there is the drive for uniqueness, the need to feel special, better than everyone else, as was traditionally embodied through affectations of luxuriousness. Coming to predominate now in this approach is the use of L’Oreal style exhortations of indulgence and singularity regarding the buyer and the home, phrases which have no link whatsoever with the physical reality of the buildings or places themselves, but are related solely to how the purchaser is meant to feel about his purchase. Redrow’s recent trailer for its One Commercial Street development is the most explicit expounding of this tactic to date, with barely a glimpse of any aspect of the building whatsoever apart from the view, whilst a character narrates phrases like “But if it was easy, then it wouldn’t feel as good. To look out at the city that could have swallowed you whole and say ‘I did this’. To stand, with the world at your feet.[1]

On the other hand there is the drive to not be alone, for the opposite of luxurious isolation, for its therapeutic amelioration in urban form through the connection with something specific to a given place. It is the instrumentalisation of this kind of artificially located authenticity that has seen the greatest proliferation in recent years, with videos of local markets and galleries jostling against phrases about how you will “be enriched by the alluring tapestry of culture and flavours bursting from every direction[2], and even tabula-rasa behemoths like Battersea being “designed to nurture interactions and inspire enduring relationships,” their website earnestly entreating buyers with such unintentionally terrifying phrases as “In and through community lies the salvation of the world[3].

Through these campaigns we can read the desire for perfectly acceptable, even civic forms of socially beneficial human fulfilment which are being perpetually deferred, since their object cannot be achieved in the purchase of the very items being advertised as representing their fulfilment. It is laudable to aim for excellence, to have as your goal the rising above others in the pursuit of one or another form of supremacy. It is a wholly positive impulse to be part of a community and to participate actively in the ballad of perpetual happenstance that we call a city. Purchasing a home in one of these developments means in fact that not only are you very much not achieving either one of those things in any way whatsoever, but it is the very object you are purchasing which in its numerical accumulation across our cities is slowly eradicating those things it purports to embody. No-one may excel in any unique manner in a town in which everyone is exactly the same, of the same income level with the same kind of jobs and the same kind of backgrounds. Community and singularity are eradicated by the disappearance of those who require coming together to subsist and of those who run specific, and enriching but not hugely profitable enterprises.

The pressure to buy a property of such hyper-inflated value that you will effectively be enslaved to a bank for the rest of your life servicing a debt that bears no relationship to any income you could ever really achieve, is a sophisticated form of crowd control, of enslavement and pacification. The populist demagogue of home-ownership is herding the crowd towards a destination that is wholly against its own self-interest.

Very few people value wealth above all else, precisely the opposite, the accumulation of wealth now needs to masquerade as the fulfilment of more substantial goals because otherwise it could never be accepted for what it is, namely the massive restructuring of our society through the transformation of housing into the primary yielding asset type in a newly evolving rentier class of debt holders, shareholders and land owners.

As Aristotle pointed out in his Politics, the happiness of a city has much in common with the happiness of the individuals which constitute that city, and the form a city eventually takes will be governed by the characteristics its populace value most highly. Our cities, and London in extremis, are being refashioned as constitutional Oligarchies in which the many may be democratically represented, but in economic reality they spend their lives servicing the wealth of land owners and lenders.

That does not lead to the kind of city that embodies values most contemporary citizens would claim to prize. It is not leading to the kind of city that creates as much happiness amongst the most people as possible, and neither is it leading to a city that encourages vigorous meritocratic competition, it is moving rapidly towards the total consumption of both the private[4] and the public realm by the forces of speculation, and this will lead to only one thing: the death of the liberal city.


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

An edited version of this text was published in the 2nd edition of the Bartlett's Lobby Magazine


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

Monday, 27 April 2015

Chartres

^Crossing Pier showing the contrast before and after restoration

"Two kinds of nostalgia are not absolute types, but rather tendencies, ways of giving shape and meaning to longing. Restorative nostalgia puts emphasis on nostos (returning home)and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps. Reflective nostalgia dwells in algia (aching), in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance. The first category of nostalgics do not think of themselves as nostalgic; they believe that their project is about truth.”
Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia

In her book The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym posits nostalgia as the inevitable flipside of the coin of modernity, as a primary symptom of development in which the march forward only becomes psychologically acceptable through a turn towards the past, real or otherwise. Spaces of shared history are our universal panacea. Within this fundamentally modern condition she outlines two main responses. On the one hand there are those who reject the ambiguities, layerings and lacunae of history, and wish to return to an ideal origin, to the moment in which a building, a city, or a nation was in its primary, pure and unadulterated state. Those with this goal in mind see history spatially, as just one point in time, to be rediscovered, reconstructed, and inhabited. On the other hand there are those who embrace the passing of time, and the complex stratifications of adulteration and chance, who see signs of change as triggers for the contemplation of the temporary nature of all things man-made, both our ideas & values as well as our buildings. Those who prefer to reflect on the past in this manner see history as a continuum of change, and the very marks of time passing, the indeterminate nature of what came before and after, are the immeasurably valuable qualities that come with age.

Chartres, perhaps the most universally adored of the great gothic cathedrals from the astonishing 12th & 13th Century Ile de France building boom, is part-way through an extensive program of restoration that has pitted these two sensibilities against one another. The campaign’s intention is to remove 800 years’ worth of accumulated grime and reinstate a decorative scheme that was discovered under numerous later layers of paint and dirt. The caking of candle wax, paint and soot, including from a fire in the 1970s, was so textured and dark that the surfaces of the Cathedral were almost uniformly mistaken for exposed stonework. The consequently dark interior provided a dazzling contrast to the coruscating radiance of the stained glass, itself restored to a state of past-perfect chromatic uniformity amid quite some controversy. The layers and layers of decorative schemes, alterations, damage and grime no doubt had nothing in common with how the space looked on the day of its consecration, but the story they told of the intervening time, and the much admired aesthetic consequences of its restrained decay came to be much loved and intimately associated with our version of Chartres, a Chartres that provided something much needed in the 19th, 20th and 21st Centuries, a place to reflect on in the unknowable distances that both separate us from, and unite us with our past.

The restored ambulatory and choir areas, soon to be followed by the transepts, crossing and nave before 2017, look brand new and bright, with a beige ground covered in white lines that trace mortar joints that don’t always follow the actual coursing below, itself an interesting example of how visitor perception of the interior trumped any fidelity to material fact even at the time of the Cathedral’s opening. It is impressive for a moment, and then you remember you are in Chartres. The effect is well summed-up by John Lichfield when he asks us to “Imagine how you might feel if your great, great, great grand-mother was suddenly made to appear 20 years old again.”* The restorers intend that the Cathedral be experienced as had been originally intended. That intention is an impossibility, and the presumption that it can be achieved is a dangerous one. In the sciences, practitioners posit a theory, which may be generally accepted for a period, but as soon as experimental results disprove it, a new theory is proposed that explains the data. Truth evolves. The problem with the material pursuit of reconstructing supposed origins in restoration, such as the cleaning of Chartres, is that based on necessarily fragmentary and imperfect evidence, a theory (and that is all it is) is presumed as a final truth, and all evidence to the contrary contained within the accretions of time and the gaps in the earliest material, is systematically wiped out and lost forever as something that can be experienced spatially. In these instances Truth may not evolve, it is arrested, and visitors are permanently excluded from forming their own ideas about the building in the way they might when all the increments of 800 years are present in the space for them to interpret. The information regarding the original colour-scheme could be present in a guide as text, and become one layer of many that visitors may simultaneously experience, but when it erases everything else there is only one manner in which the building can be understood. It is a form of historical absolutism.

I am open to the reflex towards reconstructive nostalgia in architecture when the building is new. Nobody pretends that the full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Nashville is actually the original Parthenon. There is an honesty about internal paradoxes in that act, everyone is aware of an edifice’s newness, is aware that it is an illusion, and a communal act of imagination is required to validate the history it indicates, whether it be Disneyland (the materialisation of fictional histories) or the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow (the reinstatement of a previously erased past). However restoration to an existing historic building that eliminates the patina of history, and reinstates an illusory ideal moment in the past while using the rhetoric of scientific and historic accuracy, is an act of destruction in the name of an illusion, dressed up in good intentions.

We are all poorer for the restoration at Chartres, and have lost one of our greatest spaces for reflection on the passing of time, and things.


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

This article was published in edited form in the May 2015 issue of Apollo Magazine as part of the "Forum" series in which two opposing takes in an issue are placed next to one another. The article can be read here.

*John Lichfield, Bright future for a Gothic Wonder in the Independent, Saturday 05 September 2009


Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Beauty

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

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Sea Spray

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

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

So turn around. Look up. Jump.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Phallic Symbols

^Stanley Tigerman, Daisy House, 1976


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


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


Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Act of Copying

^Cast Courts at the Victoria & Albert Museum (source)

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

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

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


Sunday, 17 August 2014

The Idea of a City

^Ideal City, school of Piero della Francesca

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



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

'I certainly do not,' he protested.

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

'Yes.'

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

'Of course not,' He said.

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


'What concession?'

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

'I do,' he said.

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

'I would too,' he said.


Thursday, 17 July 2014

Babel



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

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


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


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


Sunday, 13 July 2014

Ode to Sand



















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


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


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


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

By Pablo Neruda

Translated by George D. Schade

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Outside


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






Monday, 3 March 2014

The Verse is Everything


Extract from p135 of the 2013 Penguin translation by Lara Gochin Raffaelli of Gabriele D'annunzio's 'Il Piacere'

The verse is everything. In the imitation of Nature, no instrument of art is more alive, agile, acute, varied, multiform, plastic, obedient, sensitive, faithful. More compact than marble, more malleable than clay, more subtle than fluid, more vibrating than a cord, more luminous than a gem, more fragrant than a flower, sharper than a sword, more flexible than a germinating shoot, more caressing than a murmur, more terrible than thunder, the verse is everything and is capable of everything. It can render the smallest motions of sentiment and the smallest motions of sensation; it can define the indefinable and say the unutterable; it can embrace the unlimited and penetrate the abyss; it can have dimensions of eternity; it can represent the superhuman, the supernatural, the awesome; it can inebriate like wine, ravish like ecstasy; it can possess at the same time our intellect, our spirit, our body; it can, ultimately, reach the Absolute. A perfect verse is absolute, immutable, immortal; it hols within it words with the coherence of a diamond; it encloses thought as in a precise circle that no force will ever manage to break; it becomes independent of any bond and any dominion; it belongs no longer to its creator, but to everyone and to no one, like space, like light, like immanent and perpetual things. A thought expressed exactly in a perfect verse is a thought that already existed preformed in the obscure depths of language. Extracted by the poet, it continues to exist in the consciousness of men. The greatest poet is therefore the one who knows how to uncover, extricate, extract a greater number of these ideal preformations. When the poet is near to the discovery of one such eternal verse, he is alerted by a divine torrent of joy that suddenly invades his entire being.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Alexander's Cup

^Still from Cadbury Flake Advert, 1992

Extract from p88 of the 2013 Penguin translation by Lara Gochin Raffaelli of Gabriele D'annunzio's 'Il Piacere'

This basin was historic: it was called Alexander’s Cup. It had been donated to the Princess of Bisenti by Cesare Borgia before he left for France to deliver the bill of divorce and the dispensation for marriage to Louis XII; and it must have been included among the fabled baggage carried by sumpter-mules that Valentinois brought with him when he entered Chinon, as described by the Seigneur de Brantome. The design of the figures that encompassed it and of those that arose from the rim of the two ends was attributed to Sanzio.

The cup was called Alexander’s because it had been created in memory of that prodigious one from which, at his great feasts, the Macedonian would prodigiously drink. Throngs of Sagittariuses encircled the sides of the vase with bows drawn, rioting, in wonderful poses like those Raphael painted, naked and shooting arrows toward the herm in the fresco found in the Borghese Gallery, decorated by Giovan Francesco Bolognesi. They were pursuing a great chimera, which rose up from the edge, like a handle, at one side of the vase, while on the opposite side bounded up the young Sagittarius Bellerophon with his bow drawn against the monster born of Typhon. The decorations of the base and the rim were of a pleasing elegance. The inside was gilded like that of a ciborium. The metal was as sonorous as a musical instrument. Its weight was five hundred pounds. Its entire form was harmonious.

Often, on a whim, Elena Muti would take her morning bath in that basin. She could immerse herself in it quite well if she did not stretch out; and nothing, in truth, was equal to the supreme grace of that body resting in the water which the gilt tinged with indescribably delicate reflections, because the metal was not yet silver, and the gold was fading.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Nothing Comes From Nothing

^Massimo Scolari, Study Sketches for Invisible Cities, 1976-79


“In the design process, the imprecision of the sketch and digital precision are not in contradiction. It is a matter of two distinct but complementary mental sets wrongly cast in opposition; two graphic expressions which are, in any event, secondary after the clarity of the mental image that each architect should have well-defined before touching a computer or a pencil. This initial phase –the mind’s drawing- loves the slow pace and the silence of reflection, an unfolding dialogue with memory since nothing comes from nothing, and if something came from nothing, it can as quickly disappear into nothingness with a click of the mouse.”


Extract from Massimo Scolari's "Representations" published in Log 26, Fall 2012

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The Prayer of the Touch




god almighty
god inconsolable
bird-legged god long-eared god short-tailed god
take me into the kennel askew into the freight train into the torn pocket
take me into the sea on your palm blow on my hair blow out my spare star
god standing apart
god inaccessible no way to approach to regain senses to dissolve
god with seven wings the real one
tell me something I don’t know something anything your voice is warm
tell me what it’s like on the other side how is the lighthouse how is it going
god night-blind buttercup wild vetch dead bird the starling
god the outskirts
god four steps to the porch dull mirror royal desolation
I brought you a candle a candy a pebble a crescent a broken latch
god of mine light and wise
god of mine sad
god of mine


Poem by Sergei Chegra
Second Prize in the 2012 Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize, translated by Iryna Shuvalova


Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Taste, Style and Loos

^Il Bagno Blu in D'annunzio's Vittoriale. An extreme illustration of the points below.

Two extracts from the collection of translated essays by Loos "Creating Your Home With Style" that summarise in the most unadulterated form I could find his stance on the relationship between the inhabitants of a space, their evolution as human beings over time, the design of that space's interior and the disposition and gradual accumulation of objects and furniture within it governed by the interaction of those various agents. It is the only view I could conform to entirely in the collection, and whilst it was repeated in various guises elsewhere, it tended to get mixed up in strange ways with his fear of dirt, with his Anglophilia, hatred of ornament and his utter terror of freestanding cupboards, amongst other very odd things. This is followed by a small statement on the circularity of fashion as being at its core a primer for finding pleasure in things once loved, which given a certain period of time away from our gaze -with a drizzle of scorn- can once again be enjoyed... ad infinitum.

The painters however were right. They who, thanks to their training and experience, have a much sharper eye for all outward appearances, have always been able to recognize the superficial, pretentious, the alien, unharmonious nature of our “stylish” apartments. The people do not fit in with these rooms, nor do the rooms with the people. But how could they? The architect or the interior designer hardly even knows the name of the person for whom he is working. Even if the person has paid for the room 100-fold, they are still not his rooms. They always will remain the intellectual & spiritual property of the person who created them. That is why they do not, simply cannot appeal to the painter. They lack all intimacy and personal connection with the people who live in them. They lack that unique personal touch that he finds in the room of the simple peasant, the poor labourer, or the old spinster.

I did not, thank God, grow up in such a “stylish” apartment. It was just not possible at that time. Now, sadly, things have changed in my family as well. But in those days… Our table for instance, was a crazy jumble of wood adorned with some dreadful metal ornaments. But it was our table, our table! Can you imagine what that meant? Can you imagine the countless joyful hours that we spent at it –by the lamplight? In the evening when I was a little boy I could just not tear myself away from it, and my father had to imitate the night watchman’s horn to make me scuttle off in fright to the nursery. Then there was the desk, and on it the ink spot, where my sister Hermine had spilled ink on it when she was a tiny baby. And the pictures of my parents –what awful frames! But they were a wedding present from my father’s employees. And this old-fashioned chair here, a left-over from my grandmother’s home. And here a knitted slipper in which you can hang the clock, made in kindergarten by sister Irma. Every piece of furniture, every object, every thing had a story to tell –the story of our family. During the period in which the pressure to furnish one’s home in “style” became greater and greater –when all one’s acquaintances had “Old German” rooms, how could one simply refuse to adapt? So, all the old junk was thrown out. It might be junk for anyone else, but revered relics for the family. The rest was left up to the upholsterer.

Now we have had enough. We want to be masters of our own four walls again. If we lack taste, that’s fine, then we will furnish our homes in a taste-less manner. If we have good taste, all the better. But we refuse to be tyrannized by our own rooms any longer. We will buy everything we feel that we need and what appeals to us.

What appeals to us! That is the style that we have been seeking for so long, the style we wanted to bring into our apartments. The style that does not depend on all-pervading lion’s heads, but on taste –or, perhaps the lack of it- of an individual or family, things that comply with their sense of well-being. This sense would be underscored by the fact that the owner had selected all these objects & pieces of furniture in a room. And even if he were to prove to be somewhat capricious, especially regarding the choice of colours, it still would not be a disaster. A home that has grown along with the family can put up with quite a lot. Putting just one single ornament that does not belong into one of the “stylish” rooms can ruin the whole “effect”. In a “family” room it would immediately be absorbed into the whole. Such a room is somewhat like a violin: just as a violin is broken in by repeatedly playing it, a room can be “broken in” by living in it.

[]

Taste and the desire for change have always been closely linked. Today we wear narrow trousers; tomorrow they will be wide, and the day after narrow again. Every tailor knows this. Well then, couldn’t we just forgo the wide trouser period? Heavens no! We need it in order to enjoy our narrow trousers again. Just as we need a period of simple rooms for festive occasions in order to prepare us for the return of lavishly decorated ones.


Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Human Order

^Nazi Rally

The text below is part of the incendiary introduction to Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones. It lays out a brilliant premise for the sprawling novel. A virtuoso piece of writing in itself, these pages set the scene for a book that is definitely worth reading, even if it only partially reaches some of its aims, although its ambition is so vast, even a proportionally minuscule level of attainment would assure (and does assure) something quite notable.

"Political philosophers have often pointed out that in wartime, the citizen, the male citizen at least, loses one of his most basic rights, his right to life; and this has been true ever since the French Revolution and the invention of conscription, now almost a universally accepted principle. But these same philosophers have rarely noted that the citizen in question simultaneously loses another right, one just as basic and perhaps even more vital for his conception of himself as a civilised human being: the right not to kill. No one asks you for your opinion. In most cases the men standing above the mass grave no more asked to be there than the one lying, dead or dying, at the bottom of the pit. You might object that killing another soldier in combat is not the same thing as killing an unarmed civilian; the laws of war allow one but not the other; as does common morality. A good argument, in theory, but one that takes no account of the conditions of the conflict in question. The entirely arbitrary distinction established after the war between “military operation” like those of any other conflict and the “atrocities” carried out by a minority of sadists or psychopaths is, as I hope to demonstrate, a soothing fantasy of the victors – the western victors, I should specify, since the Soviets, despite all their rhetoric, have always understood what was what: after May 1945, having tossed a few bones to the crowd, Stalin couldn’t have cared less about some illusory “justice”; he wanted the hard stuff, cash in hand, slaves an equipment to repair and rebuild, not remorse or lamentations, for he knew just as well as we that the dead can’t hear our crying, and that remorse has never put bread on the table. I am not pleading Befehlnotstand, the just-obeying-orders so highly valued by our good German lawyers. What I did, I did with my eyes open, believing that it was my duty and had to be done, disagreeable and unpleasant as it may have been.. For that is what total war means: there is no such thing as a civilian, and the only difference between a Jewish child gassed or shot and the German child burned alive in an air raid is one of method; both deaths were equally vain, neither of them shortened the war by so much as a second; but in both cases, the man or men who killed them believed it was just and necessary; and if they were wrong, who’s to blame? What I am saying holds true even if you accept the artificial distinction between war and what the Jewish lawyer Lemkin baptized genocide; for it should be noted that in our century at least there has never yet been a genocide without a war, that genocide does not exist outside of war, and that like war, it is a collective phenomenon: genocide in its modern form is a process inflicted on the masses, by the masses, for the masses. It is also, in the case in question, a process segmented according to the demands of industrial method. Just as, according to Marx, the worker is alienated from the product of his labour, in genocide or total war in its modern form the perpetrator is alienated from the product of his actions. This holds true even for the man who places a gun to the head of another man and pulls the trigger. For the victim was led there by other men, his death was decided on by yet others, and the shooter knows that he is only the last link in a very long chain, and that he doesn’t have to ask himself any more questions than does a member of a firing squad who in civilian life executes a man duly sentenced under the law. The shooter knows that it’s chance that has appointed him to shoot, his comrade to guard the cordon, and a third man to drive the truck; at most he could try to change places with the guard or the driver. Another example, taken from the abundant historical literature rather than from my personal experience: the program for the destruction of severely handicapped and mentally ill Germans, called the “euthanasia” or “T-4” program, set up two years before the “Final Solution”. Here, the patients, selected within the framework of a legal process, were welcomed in a building by professional nurses, who registered them and undressed them; doctors examined them and led them into a sealed room; a worker administered the gas; others cleaned up; a policeman wrote up the death certificate. Questioned after the war, each one of these people said: What, me, guilty? The nurse didn’t kill anyone, she only undressed and calmed the patients, ordinary tasks in her profession.  The doctor didn’t kill anyone, either, he merely confirmed a diagnosis according to criteria established by higher authorities. The worker who opened the gas spigot, the man closest to the actual act of murder in both time and space, was fulfilling a technical function under the supervision of his superiors and doctors. The workers who cleaned out the room were performing a necessary sanitary job – and a highly repugnant one at that. The policeman was following his procedure, which is to record each death and certify that it has taken place without any violation of the laws in force. So who is guilty? Everyone, or no one? Why should the worker assigned to the gas chamber be guiltier than the worker assigned to the boilers, the garden, the vehicles? The same goes for every facet of this immense enterprise. The railway signalman, for instance, is he guilty of the death of the jews he shunted toward the camp? He is a railway employee who has been doing the same job for twenty years, he shunts trains according to a schedule, their cargo is none of his business. It’s not his fault if these Jews are being transported from point A, across his switches, to Point B, where they are to be killed. But this signalman plays a crucial role in the work of extermination: without him, the train of Jews cannot reach Point B. The same goes for the Civil Servant in charge of requisitioning apartments for air raid victims, the printer who prepares the deportation notices, the contractor who sells concrete or barbed wire to the SS, the supply officer who delivers gasoline to an SP Teilkommando, and God up above, who permits all this. Of course, you can establish relatively precise degrees of legal responsibility, which allow you to condemn some while leaving all the rest to their own conscience, assuming they have one; its even easier when the laws get written after the fact, as at Nurenberg. But even then they were sloppy. Why hang Streicher, the impotent yokel, but not the sinister von dem Bach-Zelewski? Why hang my superior Rudolf Brandt, and not his superior Wolff? Why hang the interior minister Frick and not his subordinate Stuckart, who did all his work for him? A lucky man, that Stuckart, who only stained his hands with ink, never with blood. Once again, let us be clear: I am not trying to say I am not guilty of this or that. I am guilty, you’re not, fine. But you should be able to admit to yourselves that you might also have done what I did. With less zeal, perhaps, but perhaps also with less despair, in any case one way or another. I think I am allowed to conclude, as a fact established by modern history, that everyone, or nearly everyone, in a given set of circumstances, does what he is told to do; and, pardon me, but there’s not much chance that you’re the exception, any more than I was. If you were born in a country or at a time not only when nobody comes to kill your wife and your children, but also nobody comes to ask you to kill the wives and children of others, then render thanks to God and go in peace. But always keep this thought in mind: you might be luckier than I, but you’re not a better person. Because if you have the arrogance to think you are, that’s just where the danger begins. We like to contrast the state, totalitarian or not, with the ordinary man, the insect or trembling reed. But then we forget that the State is made up of individuals, all more or less ordinary, each one with his life, his story, the sequence of accidents that led him one day to end up on the right side of the gun or the sheet of paper while others ended up on the wrong side. This path is very rarely the result of any choice, or even of personal predilection. The victims, in the vast majority of cases, were not tortured or killed because they were good any more than their executioners tormented them because they were evil. It would be a little naïve to think that way; allow me to suggest you spend a little time in a bureaucracy, even the Red Cross, if you need convincing. Stalin, by the way, conducted an eloquent demonstration of my argument, by transforming each generation of executioners into the victims of the following generation, without ever running out of volunteers. Yet the machinery of State is made of the same crumbling agglomeration of sand as what it crushes, grain by grain. It exists because everyone –even, down to the last minute, its victims- agrees that it must exist. Without the Hosses, the Eichmanns, The Godlidzes, the Vishinskys, but also without the railway signalmen, the concrete manufacturers, and the government accountants, a Stalin or a Hitler is nothing but a wineskin bloated with hatred and impotent terror. To state that the vast majority of the managers of the extermination processes were neither sadists nor sociopaths is now a commonplace. There were of course sadists and psychopaths among them, as in all wars, and these men did commit unspeakable atrocities, that’s true. It is also true that the SS could have stepped up its efforts to keep these people under control, even if it actually did more in that line than most people realise. And that’s not easy: just ask the American generals what a hard time they had of it in Vietnam, with their junkies and their rapists, smoking dope and fragging their officers. But that’s not the problem. There are psychopaths everywhere, all the time. Our quiet suburbs are crawling with paedophiles and maniacs, our homeless shelters are packed with raving megalomaniacs; and some of them do indeed become a problem, they kill two, three, ten, even fifty people –and then the very same State that would without batting an eye send them to war crushes them like a blood-swollen mosquito. These sick men are nothing. But the ordinary men that make up the state –especially in unstable times- now there’s the real danger. The real danger for mankind is me, you. And if you’re not convinced of this, don’t bother to read further. You’ll understand nothing and you’ll get angry with little profit for you or me."

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Pink Cloud *2


Pink Cloud. Pink. Cloud. Cloudy. Pinklike. ish. Bright Faded Cloud. Light, Pink Pure. Terror.

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


The PinkCloud is rolling in, damp and strange.
It makes things clearer but pushes them very, very far away.
I'm a radar touching misty distances.




Friday, 3 May 2013

Gap



We don’t have a door, there’s just a gap, very narrow and quite deep. In fact it’s so tight that it presses against your chest as you squeeze yourself through. Some kind people have scrawled amusing felt-tip graffiti in it at eye level over the years. Getting to the loo, getting a cup of tea, bringing furniture and equipment in, anything like that becomes a bit of a mission, and you put it off for as long as possible. A few weeks ago an intern got dumped by his boyfriend and lodged himself in there, in floods of tears, knocking his head back and forth on the walls, effectively, and quite theatrically locking us all in for hours.

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

This text was written for Pyramid Schemes, a project by Lawrence Lek and The White Review, for which contributors were asked to design a space in 100 words.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Room, The House, The City

^Charles Moore Foundation interior (Living Room)

"If (as the philosophers maintain) the city is like some large house, and the house is in turn like some small city, cannot the various parts of the house - atria, xysti, dining rooms, porticoes, and so on - be considered miniature buildings?"

Leon Battista Alberti

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Everything Is Filled With You



Everything is filled with you,
and everything is filled with me:
the towns are full,
just as the cemeteries are full
of you, all the houses
are full of me, all the bodies.

I wander down streets losing
things I gather up again:
parts of my life
that have turned up from far away.

I wing myself toward agony,
I see myself dragging
through a doorway,
through creation’s latent depths.

Everything is filled with me:
with something yours and memory
lost, yet found
again, at some other time.

A time left behind
decidedly black,
indelibly red,
golden on your body.

Pierced by your hair,
everything is filled with you,
with something I haven’t found,
but look for among your bones.

...................................
by Miguel Hernández

I came across this today. It devilishly mirrored something wandering around looking for someone, lost in circles, meeting itself again and again inside my head.