Category Archives: Modernism

Ruined gothic

Pancras Halfspider: Paul Day's The Meeting Place

Pancras Halfspider: Paul Day's The Meeting Place

Like an Edwardian cinema, a Victorian train station has two parts: the frontage that welcomes you, and the hall where the business of departure is done. The front is generally shallow and tall, the shed long and low. Together they form a supine letter L. The building that faces you on the street is typically the more impressive half (such buildings’ fantasy architecture returns to haunt them: the colonisation of former cinemas by religious organisations is not limited to Pentecostal churches. Is it surprising that a former cinema once owned by Mecca Leisure has become a mosque?). But even cinema sheds are not without their merits, as watching even the most meagre arthouse fare in the Finchley Phoenix or the Duke of York’s in Brighton will show you.

So it is with the dreaming Gothic spires of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s Midland Grand Hotel and William Barlow’s vast single-arched train shed at St Pancras. The monumental vision of an architect, and the architectural vision of an engineer combine gloriously (engineer Brunel alone was good enough for the earlier Paddington). But alas, now split between the glassed-off fortress of the Eurostar showroom and the far-off extension for the spurned Midland platforms, the undercroft filled with a standard-issue transport shopping mall, and enhanced with a Betjeman-themed pub, St Pancras has been multiplexed.

Is it possible to love gothic without also loving its abandonment? The Gothic Revival was born from the appreciation of picturesque ruins, but even a twentieth century hipster might talk of wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic appreciation of transcience. “Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” Like Brighton’s West Pier which periodically burns and folds slowly into the sea, the Midland Grand gained something from its ruin and emptiness. We cherished the tiny glimpses that we caught on Open House weekends, the impassive facade we drifted past on the nightbus, even if we didn’t know what St Pancras station, like its near-namesake vital organ, was really for.

Margaret Thatcher’s London manufactured dereliction. City-based representation was stripped away, the rights of the suburbs to veto progressive transport policy were enforced, and corruption was funnelled through borough councils. This wasn’t just about a recession: even in the boom years the Tories were more interested in beginning again in the Wild East on the Isle of Dogs than the city or even the City. Though the channel tunnel rail link was signed off by Heseltine, it was only with the election of a Labour government, less than a year after the Spice Girls symbolically reopened the doors of the hotel in the Wannabe video, that the regeneration of the Midland Grand Hotel became an inevitability. As Iain Sinclair says, you can’t make policy decisions to preserve decay, but a five-star Marriott and penthouse suites promise to be as showy and tasteless as the Peyton and Byrne pastries on sale in the arcade.

Tubby little John Betjeman, St Pancras’s own Paddington Bear, holds onto his hat and gasps in awe at Barlow’s train shed. Appointed patron saint, the man who through the medium of the Victorian Society is credited with having saved the building from modern hammers. Though his heirs in the Society relish regeneration, he himself invested a very gothic wistfulness in the building, deeming it ‘too beautiful and too romantic to survive’ (though almost certainly it was the labour economics of a building without ensuite bathrooms or central heating that did for the hotel itself). He’s a fusty figure for a fusty restoration: the author of A Subaltern‘s Love Song, is a bit too metropolitan (in the wrong way) for London today. In fact, Betjeman was at his best when satirising exactly the kind of middle-century, middle-English existence that we now use him to typify, and not just on the subject of Slough.

The dead hotel is haunted not by Betjeman but by an upstart and a ghost. The Euston Arch is the Midland Grand’s dead twin, the unsaved glory of the Euston Road, a baleful classical monstrosity borne of the architectural monomania that decreed every public building from a bank to a school should be modelled on a pagan temple. Those who would reconstruct it, return it to a zombie heritage half-life, are guilty of the same neurotic fixation with the past that led the city government of Berlin to demolish the Palast der Republik and replace it with a facsimile of an eighteenth century palace. Rebuilding the Palast now would make as little sense. It is a building that we can now only access through memory and historical record: all that will ever happen there has happened. The construction of the lines into St Pancras itself involved the destruction of half St Pancras churchyard (under the supervision of Thomas Hardy). Should we reconstruct that too? History is human jam: you can’t make strawberries back out of it.

The upstart is Colin St John Wilson’s British library building. Though it’s the UK’s largest public building of the twentieth century, it bears a mere 10 million bricks to Scott’s 60 million (Bazalgette’s majestic shitpipes put them both to shame with 318 million). Wilson was a member of the Independent Group alongside brutalists par excellence the Smithsons, but his library is associated with the warmer nordic humanism of Alvar Aalto, and fellow Independent Eduardo Paolozzi’s Newton After Blake graces the courtyard. We can tell the building is a modernist masterpiece because that eminent Palladian Prince Charles said something rude about it. He called it “an academy for secret police”, but in fact it’s Babcock House just down the road, a building of Grecian proportion, that once housed our secret services. The library may look a bit like a suburban Tesco, but with five subterranean floors extending twenty five metres down into the London clay, Wilson’s behemoth is an iceberg. Its form nobly follows its function, if only we could see the form.

If there is a single focus point for all these contradictions, it is in another structure found on the Euston Road, one also on the brink of obsolesence. Scott’s own son, George Gilbert Scott Jr died mad and cirrhotic in the Midland Grand, but Scott Jr’s son, Giles Gilbert Scott’s architectural achievements rival his grandfather’s. He designed not only Liverpool Cathedral and Battersea Power Station, bringing gothic home to the modern, but also the archetypal K2 red telephone box. Whence the inspiration? From the self-designed mausoleum of a man of the other party, arch-classicist Sir John Soane, which can be found in in the undisturbed half of St Pancras Churchyard. See the echo of the curved pediment? Take a picture on your phone and text it to someone. If you’re lucky, one day it may be all you have.

The above owes a great deal to drink and conversation in the Betjeman Arms with Nathan Charlton and Rich Cochrane. The podcast we made on the night [mp3 | subscribe: xml]  is available on the Big Ideas website.


Me, me, me

I’ve been writing about old British films and old American terrorists; I’ve been talking about kiwi earthquakes and banging on back at BIGI. Time for a lie down.


I only used to come here for the Carnival. Westbourne Grove, Portobello Road and even Kensal Green were a strictly annual affair, packed streets to shuffle through, shops shut and pubs packed.

It could be a disheartening experience, too. Arriving full of energy, the first task would be to meet up with friends who were a) inevitably on the other side of the carnival and b) possessed of some kind of inexplicably degenerate musical taste. Time and again, the most beautiful sounds would boom from street corners, and I’d attempt to linger, only to be dragged forcefully along to the Ministry of Sound or Sancho Panza (if there’s anything worse than house, it’s Latin house) where I’d reluctantly shuffle around, silently hating my friends and wishing I was listening to reggae.

This tendency reached its apogee the year that I went with Rob and Sharon and we followed a techno float around the carnival route, the only float I could see whose crew and audience were entirely white (though of course hardly short of dreadlocks). It was like being the White Man in Hammersmith Palais year after year. In my mind I can still see a small, mythical static, just a few large speakers, playing roots and dub. A young man toasts while the old dreads sit around smoking collie weed and nodding slowly to the righteous riddim… of course everybody says the Carnival’s not really about reggae any more. I stopped going after the year I had to pull S out of a rowdy crowd at the Good Times system and nearly got into a fight. And that year there were only half a million people there.

If I ever ventured west out of August, the place seemed somehow naked without the floats and systems. Portobello was exotic enough for an N9 boy, with shops like Wong Singh Jones and the punky market under the Westway that wasn’t crowded with eurogoths like Camden. But visits were far and few between. Settling in Stoke Newington, Brick Lane felt more like my scene: West was even more foreign than South.

Now I find myself within spitting distance of the Westway, the top end of Portobello Road (near enough for two of us to carry a second-hand bureau home) and Maida Vale. But I’m also in a place without a name. Previously, I’ve had ‘Stoke Newington’, ‘Greenwich’ or ‘Brockley’ to put between my street address and the postcode: the true sign of a Zone 2 snob is that they live not just in London but in a place with an identity of its own, often with the imaginative help of local estate agents. Here, I simply fill in my address as ‘London…’. The A-Z says ‘West Kilburn’, but Kilburn proper is more or less due north. The bus stop says ‘Maida Hill’ and we get the Wood & Vale through the door: if you bought a house round here, the estate agent’s amenities pack would have Maida Vale tube on the map but not Queen’s Park. But it’s certainly not Maida Vale: rather than ubiquitous mansion blocks, three-storey terraced houses subdivided into flats are the norm around here.

To compensate, I learn local facts. Local Fact #1: Joe Strummer played at the pub round the corner with the 101ers, before the Clash were even formed. And if there’s a ‘here’ here, it’s the Chippenham. Grocers where you can buy a red pepper at ten o’clock at night, a hardware store and a bakers, barbers and dry cleaners even. Creole, Thai and Lebanese restaurants. A constant flow of people day and night, a school and a college, bus routes into town.

At Christmas, L bought me a handful of badges with the Trellick Tower on, Erno Goldfinger’s ‘brutalist masterpiece’ that like the Barbican complex is one of the few high-rise apartment blocks to have survived London’s apocalyptic rage at elevated living to become some kind of modernist exemplar. Of course, looking casually at the image, it could just as easily be the Balfron Tower, the nearly identical one in Poplar, which Goldfinger built first and even briefly lived in to demonstrate his confidence in the new manner of housing proles. Unlikely, though: even the new new East End hasn’t reached the Blackwall Tunnel Northern Approach Road yet.

You see a lot of the Trellick in Much Ado About a Minor Ting, and west London is important filmic as well as musical territory. The first black British feature film, Horace Ove’s Pressure takes place along the Harrow Road and the Grand Union Canal. Isaac Julien’s Territories, one of the key experimental films of the 1980s, brings Carnival, race, class and the politics of local housing together in an overlapping DJ mix. It’s all a long way from the carefully restored white terraces and shopkeepers of Notting Hill. But buying a copy of Charlie Phillips dark and intriguing book of photographs Notting Hill in the Sixties (you’ll have seen his famous portrait of a mixed-race couple in the Tate’s How We Are or on the cover of London Is the Place for Me Vol.2) in the very same bookshop still trading on its moment of Hollywood fame, you realise that even radical history eventually finds its realisation in the price of a home.

But the west is no longer what it was. Take Nathan Barley. When Charlie Brooker originally wrote the character in 1999, he had West London written all over him. ‘A twenty something wannabe director living in Westbourne Grove’, he was instantly recognisable as one of the post-Trustafarian generation of moneyed pricks who had completed the cycle of regentrification of Notting Hill, filling its bars and restaurants with their self-regarding yammer. By the time of his 2005 TV debut, however, there was clearly no place for a Cunt but Shoreditch: East London had been fully transformed into the only natural habitat of privileged, posing, talentless wankers. The Mighty Boosh are exceptional in remaining funny after moving to Shoreditch, while in some kind of weird reverse-Dorian-Gray effect, Noel Fielding becomes more and more of a twat in real life.

And it’s this, at last, that makes West London liveable. Its moment is over, its history, for the moment stalled. There are no more Napoleons in Notting Hill. No panicky Harlesden-is-the-new-Willesden Time Out specials about where to live. No mass-scale conversion of dead industry into overpriced living space. It’s not unapproachably posh: some of it you can even afford to live in. Like the rest of London, council estates and Victorian housing interlock in the same easy-uneasy jigsaw. It all feels, somehow, more like real life.

The painting of not-so modern life

There’s a look you sometimes see in the eyes of people painted around the turn of the twentieth century. It’s an enquiring, intelligent look, sometimes pompous, the look of a person self-consciously trying to be Modern. It’s also an unknowing look, one that can’t see the horrors of the century to come. The wars, the trenches, the camps, the gulags they may end their lives in: they can see none of it. Like Patrick Hamilton on the eve of the blitz, you want to cry ‘God help us, God help all of us, every one, all of us’.

This look appears on the faces of people in the paintings in the Ballet Russes room in the Royal Academy’s From Russia exhibition. Like the Tate’s Modern Painters show about the Camden Town group, it’s an extraordinarily conservative portrait of an extraordinarily radical period. If Virginia Woolf was wrong about human character changing in December 1910, revolt and revolution were waiting to change forever the circumstances of human existence, and literature lacks visual art’s capacity to imply the utter transformation of the phenomenal world

But the response of the wealthy Russian collectors and their artists to French avant-garde technique was to merely reflect the aesthetic: the challenge to life itself was lost in translation. Just so, the facile exoticism of Gaugin is revealed as no more than cultivated taste: portraits of nude Pacific Islanders lined the walls of Shchukin and Morosov’s mansions, all the better to shock you with. Gaugin appears again referenced in a salon painting at the beginning of the Camden town story: a reminder that modernity means sophistication.

Like Gissing, the Camden Town painters show a London recognisable in form, and even in poverty, though not in colour. Also like Gissing, conscience stands in for revolt against circumstances. The ‘socialist’ Harold Gilman plays Jiminy Cricket to Sickert’s grim carnival of the flesh, with patronising pictures of his housekeeper, brought brought right up to date Tate-style in the teaching notes (‘How would you describe Mrs Mounter’s expression? If she could speak what would she say?’ they ask, perfectly defining the colonial crime of exercising your imagination on the territory of other people’s lives.)

Even Wyndham Lewis’s bogus avant-gardism is missing from the Modern Painters show, but From Russia bizarrely finishes with a scale model of Tatlin’s Tower. Not only aesthetically distant from almost everything else in the show, the unrealised monument to the Third International and headquarters for the comintern is a building of the revolution, the revolution that chased parasites like Shchukin and Morosov into exile. It’s impossible to tell whether putting the tower here is a crushing irony or monumental inanity.

If the Bolsheviks terminated the Russian collectors (but kept their paintings) the death-knell of the Camden painters was the First World War. They could only respond by painting pierrots and a ward full of jolly moustached Tommies recovering from the fighting under patterned bedspreads. No ‘guttering, choking, drowning‘ going on here.

Curatorially, neither show pretends it represents a cutting edge: in particular, the Tate is at pains to point out that Sickert’s mob are an evolutionary dead end, far from ‘authentic modernism’. But both shows share a frozen moment before the onslaught of the twentieth century, a hesitation and rejection of the implications of modernity. Too late. God help all of us.

South by Southwest

I don’t realise how much London attitude I’ve got till I’m in the Hourglass Inn and spot a youngish barman sporting a tufty ginger beard and another youngster in a trilby: I’m cursing them already for the sheer affectedness of it all before I remember that this isn’t 93 feet east and sometimes people just wear beards and hats.

Phew. The next morning I find out that in Exeter you can pay what you like for a book, but the bookshop staff don’t get paid (“it’s in the constitution” says the dreadlock on the phone), and that culture exists outside the M25: Spacex have a pretty excellent Cory Arcangel show on.

I’ve been dying to play I Shot Andy Warhol, for a while… it’s based on an old NES game, Hogan’s Alley, one of the first to be played with a light gun. The cartridge has been physically hacked (the plastic sawed away, the chips removed, reprogrammed and soldered back in) to replace the baddies with Andy Warhol, and the don’t-shoot-’em goodies with Flavor Flav, the Pope and Colonel Sanders. Keep shooting Andy, and eventually you start to feel like Valerie Solanas. As a bonus you can also blast ricochets off spinning Campbell’s Soup cans.

In Sans Simon, Arcangel edits Paul Simon out of a 1960s Simon and Garfunkel performance with his hands, interjecting their shadow between a projector and the wall, which is then refilmed. In Colors, the top line of pixels of Dennis Hopper’s cop drama of the same name is stretched downwards to fill the whole screen, so the soundtrack plays to a rippling curtain of moody greens and purples. The Bruce Springsteen Glockenspiel Addendum takes the few tracks on Born to Run which don’t contain glockenspiel, and adds the missing instrument. The format is a giveaway CD. The track lengths remain unchanged: pop it in a drive and the CDDB will read it as the original. Put it up as a torrent, and the unauthorised version will spread, an invisible virus.

The centrepiece, a couple thousand short films about Glenn Gould, reassembles the first of Bach’s Goldberg variations from the single notes of thousands of YouTube musical performances. Twin screens play separate melody lines, synchronised with simultaneous frame grabs from the amateur movies. For my money, Oliver Laric did this sort of thing better with his ICA piece Under the Bridge in which renditions of the Chilli Peppers’ ballad were similarly stitched together note by note as single frames accumulated in rows filling a four-times-normal-width screen. That piece had something about fandom and guitar-devotion in it that Arcangel lacks.

As media art, Arcangel’s stuff is about the usual clever media art things – the ubiquity of video, low-tech techniques in a high-tech age, the accidentally aesthetic qualities of everyday media. But more importantly, it’s very funny – watching Paul Simon trying to sing from behind Arcangel’s hands, the crappy eight-bit sound as Warhol takes another direct hit, the fact that many of the instruments in the Glenn Gould piece are being played by cats and hamsters: each time, it’s a giggle.

Also made from what’s found, Virgil Widrich’s Fast Film, playing on the closing night of Animated Exeter, takes the archetypal Hollywood chase and projects it onto virtual origami. As the basic forms of the chase scene are animated with the folded-paper forms of racing train carriages and paper planes, each surface has embedded into it carefully-picked scenes from the entire array of movie history. Bond walks along an underground passage: as he passes behind pillars he ripples from Connery to Moore and back again. A woman is fiendishly manacled, but her head rotates on a lever-operated disk: here’s Janet Leigh emoting anguish – click – now Tippi Hedren. The cumulative effect, like that of Cremassticparkinator 3, is to demonstrate how alike films are not only in their plot and structure but also in their gesture and manner. The kiss, the punch, the laugh: all repeated a million times.

Films about other films are fantastic, and it took reading Dubravka Ugresic to make me realise that one of the simple and unpretentious pleasures of postmodern literature is reading books that are about other books. At seventeen, studying it for A-level, much of the emotional impact of The French Lieutenant’s Woman was missing from a work of literature that’s all about other literature. Visiting Lyme Regis for the first time goes some way to exorcising the ghosts of that spine-bent paperback illuminated with dayglo marker pen. However, it’s not the 1860s but the 1970s that are most immediately evoked: there’s a shop where you can still buy backjacks and fruit salads for a penny each.

In fact what’s most striking about the place is not the cobb (crowded, slippy and a bit short) but the long Jurassic cliffs stretching west. Here was once shallow seawater, teeming with spirally little ammonites dutifully dying, falling into mud and getting lithified into cute fossils. Tectonic action has lifted the resulting near-perfectly horizontal strata out of the sea and into cliffs of shale from which the fossils can easily be pried. Carl says that the creatures found in higher levels show clearly higher levels of morphological complexity than the creatures in lower levels, an irrefutable demonstration of the thesis of gradual evolutionary advancement.

How could the heart of a fervent atheist be gladdened further? Sadly, these days it seems to take more than overwhelming evidence for the scientific theory of evolution to prevent even the most po-faced bishop-basher to declare that they like getting Christmas presents anyway. Thankfully, the beauty of mere nature prevails: on the drive back to Exeter, we drive into the most gorgeous of sunsets: a burnished orange glow, filtered through the naked branches of windswept trees.

Rebuilding Britain

The National Film and Television Archive is not only a collection, but also a collection of collections. The way in which the nation’s moving image heritage is collected is often by acquiring smaller collections which have already been gathered or curated: the Mitchell and Kenyon collection, for instance, or the Joye films, which both keep their own identity and become part of the larger collection.

Some of these are company collections: many large firms historically maintained film units for the various purposes of record-keeping, internal communications and pubic relations. The Laing construction company was one such company, and on Wednesday night, at the NFT, Jez Stewart and company historian Alan Thorpe presented films from the Laing (pronounced mote like Laying than Lang, apparently) collection, which have now been donated to the NFTVA.

The audience was full of Laing workers and retirees, who seem to share some company spirit: Sir John Laing was a member of the Plymouth Brethren, and a paternalistic employer who rewarded loyalty to the company with a sense of belonging and staff holiday outings. Laing Company Outing 1 from 1948 has many long shots of Laing workers, and some of Sir John himself on their annual jolly by boat from Tower Bridge to Margate, enjoying themselves by the sea.

Motorway through the Lune Valley documents the construction of the Cumbrian section of the M6 past Tebay and over Shap, through to Carlisle, in the early 70s. There’s clearly enough consciousness of the negative effect of roads on the environment that an effort is made to suggest both the harmony of the new road with its environment, and the scenic appeal of driving the motorway itself (it is actually one of the most spectacular stretches of motorway in England).

80 weeks to Touchdown feels even more sinister: beginning with Michael Heseltine’s announcement to the commons that a proper airport was to be built in the Falkland Islands, it’s a CoI film of the construction of the airport, starting with the valiant pontoon landing of JCBs, complete with characteristic 80s bright video, incidental synthesiser music and a chillingly Tory-sounding voiceover.

Coventry Cathedral shows Laing’s contribution to Basil Spence’s great modern cathedral: the struts and wires that hold up its enormous edifice. There’s a lot about stained glass and the craft of stonemasonry, but the most amazing thing revealed about the cathedral, fundamentally a medieval gothic cathedral in form, is that the roof forms its own self-supporting cantilevered vault: the tall and fine pillars of the nave were only put into position afterwards to hold up the wooden beans that echo the form but not the function of traditional vaulting. This is a mutation even beyond Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, where the nave’s columns still support the roof; but in Coventry all is illusion.

From the high art to low living, Where You Live is a paean to Laing’s programme of cottage estates system-built in concrete with ‘Easiform’ metal-shutter moulds. True to the form of this kind of film, it invokes vox pops from newly-installed residents to praise the ramped underpasses ideal for pushchairs, and pans lovingly across (unvaryingly white) children at play while their mothers shop. It makes to want to run immediately to the history books to find out when the estate was demolished. The film takes a surreal turn when it plays Pete Seeger’s Little Boxes over scenes of estate life (making you think the filmmakers might just not understand the irony) before rounding off with a forthright attack on the satire, and defence of the necessity of the estates as both essential housing and a place where individuality can flourish.

But it’s Taking Stock, a film from 1961, detailing (in great detail) Laing’s contribution to the postwar construction boom that makes you understand most the kind of unauthored vernacular architecture that Laing is responsible for. Here are secondary modern schools, factories and industrial estates, office blocks and housing blocks, all in a suburban sub-International Style, large windows, flat roofs and intermittent towers. A kind of low-rent brutalism: even as the ribbons are optimistically cut, these places contain the seeds of future melancholy. They are the everyday, invisible ugly buildings that we still live among today: the ones we don’t mention when we talk about architecture.

Photos at an exhibition

A tiny Dan Leno, no bigger than your hand (and yet every detail of his face is distinct, from mugging eyebrows to dimpled chin) is dancing like a marionette and making incomprehensible jokes about a pile of planks of wood behind his house.

Not Medusa, but another woman photographed by Madame Yevonde holds her forearm up like Madonna, or Rosie the Riveter. Suddenly colourful, she is both a refugee from 1980s freak-fashion and the cousin of a woman painted by Tamara de Lempicka: something is machine-like about her curves, something is supreme.

There is no compassion: Martin Parr just makes everyone looks like a cunt.

What are you taking pictures for? An issue of Camerawork about the Battle of Lewisham. Behind a solid wall of police stand the limp union flags on poles of a small phalanx of National Front marchers. A full-on fight involving children and police horses is photographed from behind: fragile young bodies and the flanks of stumbling horses are dangerously close.

Model food in unappetising colours: a cold palette of cold meats.

A bi-racial couple from the cover of a compact disc, his arm on her shoulder, each beautiful but neither looking at the other, both looking out, at you.

A full-length LCD portrait of Cerith Wyn Evans skinny and seductive in a black waistcoat, hair dark and shaved on one side. His face is three-quarters on and the slightest hint of flash reflection, red-eye in his right eye, contains a whole quarter-century of sadness.

Queen Victoria was very ugly indeed.

Homes that people were removed from, homes to be demolished, substandard and surplus homes. A boy in a alley so narrow that he can stand, feet wedged against both house and wall, five feet above the ground.