NDSM: Are You Tough Enough?


What you’re looking at are a handful of pictures of the former NDSM shipyard in Amsterdam (NDSM stands for Nederlandsche Dok en Scheepsbouw Maatschappij – Netherlands Dock and Shipbuilding Company). It’s a place I’ve visited often the past two years researching a book on creativity and the city. The yard was built in 1946, largely supported by US Marshall Plan funds, and until it closed in 1984, it built up to six vessels per year, including some of the largest tankers for the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Shell, whose headquarters can be found nearby. You get there by ferry from Amsterdam Centraalstation – it chugs downstream for twenty minutes through a landscape of enormous skies and rehabilitated industrial ruins, depositing you in an unearthly, description-defying place….which I am now going to try to describe.

NDSM is building on an epic scale, but its qualities exceed architecture in the strict sense. It is heterogeneous and informal and the only unifying feature is a colossal slipway, most surfaces of which are covered in graffiti. It now forms a kind of accidental piazza. Scattered around are buildings of every kind and none: two vast assembly sheds, among the biggest single span buildings in the world. In the distance, a brightly painted assemblage of shipping containers forming a student housing complex that is simultaneously chic and extremely grim. Then there is smelting works converted by Group A architects in 2014 for the local headquarters of Pernod-Ricard and (bizarrely, in the same building) Greenpeace; a crane turned into a boutique hotel; and for no particularly obvious reason, a Soviet submarine from the mid-50s. Nobody really knows why it is here, or how it got here.

If NDSM has a core, it is the ship assembly building, or Scheepsbouwloods at the head of the slipway. Since 2000 this has been the home to a community of artists and designers who have occupied this colossal space with a set of temporary and informal structures of varying degrees of sophistication (there are about 100 artists in the complex, occupying some 140,000 sq ft of space). Some of these occupations are bodged out of plywood and found materials, while others have the polish of designer clothes stores. This, the so-called ‘Art City’ has recently (2014) been incorporated as a foundation and appears to be headed towards a more formal future. But in its present condition it describes something important about the subject position of the creative city. It is a city of a city of encampments and occupations, a modern-day Wild West. As much as the art city represents a set of practical solutions (cheap, abundant space, freedom from official intervention) it also represents a set of lifestyle choices that imagine the city as a set of defensive enclaves, sometimes quite fortified, even hostile.

In a 2012 film about NDSM, one of the original artists, Bart Stuart elaborates this outsider’s subject position. NDSM he claims is a city on its own terms, standing in friendly but critical opposition to the official city across the waters of the IJ. It’s not for sale; it’s not to be recuperated into the general ‘project’ of the city’s regeneration. The city is ‘not an office where you can plan everything and organise who is sitting where and how much is that…’

So – as a prominent bit of graffiti asks – what’s happening? What is going on in places like NDSM? What kind of a city are we creating in the name of creativity? I certainly think in a way analogous to Reyner Banham’s exploration of LA, I think there is an architectural history to be written of places like this. In fifteen years, the creative city has moved from hucksterish rhetoric to a reality with distinct architectural forms. And as Banham discovered in the LA of the 1960s, it makes little sense to describe only the formal architecture as the creative city, as the vast majority of it is produced informally. It’s a city of occupations, a precarious, temporary city whose undeniable dynamism is also a barrier to the weak: it’s a place where the strong survive. This attitude has become economically prized. In Amsterdam, the broedplaatsen, in the first instance a panicked government response to large scale squatting, has become core urban policy. Edgy is now mainstream, you might say, and exploring its informal architecture is a good way of understanding what is happening. NDSM is good at identifying the complexities and contradictions of the creative city, its superficial openness (‘everyone is creative’, as Florida says) butting up against a defensiveness and exclusivity. That exclusivity is inseparable, I think, from the cultivated harshness of this and similar environments. The persistence of the squatter aesthetic, the choice of industrial readymades such as the shipping container, the tolerance of graffiti, these things all say: you have to be tough to survive here, to survive the creative economy. Are you tough enough?

LA’s Forties – a talk for Salon London

noirHere is an edited version of a talk I gave on 7 November for Salon London‘s ‘The Century’ event: 

So which city is 1940s Los Angeles, ‘sunshine or noir’ as Mike Davis put it? The great beach metropolis, light-soaked and perpetually optimistic? Or the dank, furtive city of Cain and Chandler that in the movies looks more like Engels’s Manchester than anything else (it’s always raining for a start, a trick Ridley Scott borrowed for Blade Runner). Well it’s both, of course, but at different times sunshine wins out over noir, at least in cultural terms. In the 1940s it’s certainly noir (…)

It is the Freudian city par excellence, a city defined by its unconscious. Whether or not you buy into Freud doesn’t matter: it’s literally a city full of Viennese emigrees who absolutely did. The compelling and influential culture of noir was an explicitly Freudian culture, produced by artists and writers and film-makers for whom psychoanalysis was alive. Knowing that, and knowing just how much of LA’s distinctive culture in the 1940s was produced by middle-European Jewish intellectuals explains a great deal: it’s noir rather than sunshine and couldn’t have been any other way.

Noir is sometimes produced intentionally and self-consciously, in the case of the novels of Raymond Chandler or the films of Billy Wilder. Or it may be unintentional, but no less affecting. My introduction to LA noir came through one of these unintentional products, a building, the Kings Rd house by Rudolf Schindler, a Viennese, who collaborated with the better known Richard Neutra Built in 1922, it is, you could say, emblematic of a set of typically Californian desires: to be modern, to suck up influences from anywhere, and most of all, to be outdoors. It consists of two interlocking, L-shaped pavilions. The structure is cast concrete, the walls and roof wood. It’s more than a little Japanese.

What struck me about it when I first saw it ten years ago was was the architecture, than its sexuality. Built for two couples, the Schindlers and the Chaces, it built on the memory of camping trips the two couples had taken together, and although nowhere it is suggested they shared sexual partners, the house nevertheless alludes to their sexual frankness (Schindler’s sexual appetites were well known. A notorious womaniser, no Southern Californian woman was safe). So the house is largely open to the elements. The living room is really an open patio with a fireplace, and the bedrooms are two sleeping platforms on the roof. You get the idea – everything is open to everything else, everything can be seen and heard. There is no privacy.

So why mention the house in the context of the 1940s? Well – it’s at this point that the sexual dream of the house well and truly soured. It never worked anyway: the Chaces moved out after only a few months, and then the Schindlers split, Pauline Schindler moving out of town. And then, having separated, she came back to live in the house in the 40s. The now divorced couple lived in separate parts of the house, communicating only through their respective lawyers. It was an appalling sexual standoff that lasted the whole decade and beyond, until Schindler’s death from lung cancer in 1953.

To me this story says it all about LA in the 40s. A utopian dream soured, light turned to darkness, sex gone bad. Of course it’s one house and one story in a vast city, but it is the kind of story that became increasingly popular with writers and film-makers. In Hollywood it became arguably the dominant trope.


Noir LA was also the subtext to a notorious, or celebrated (depending on your point of view) piece of cultural theory by the exiled Germans Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’. It’s relevant because it was published bang in the middle of the decade (1944) and its authors were resident just a few miles from Schindler’s house. Cultural studies people love this essay. I’m never quite sure why, because it is possibly the angriest piece of writing you are every likely to come across, outside of a Daily Mail editorial (to which it bears a passing resemblance). All aspects of popular culture are dismissed: mass-produced trash, popular culture is also they write, borderline propaganda that makes independent thought impossible. Their LA is by inference as controlling as Nazi Germany.

It all seems a little unfair given their comfortable duplex in Brentwood (to be fair they were under effective house arrest). And their critique, dismayingly, shows no evidence of their actually having consumed any of the things that make them so angry. So they write if the whole of Hollywood, despite the fact that at precisely the same moment it was producing film after film in a highly critical vein. Why let facts get in the way of a good story? Most depressingly they dismiss jazz, all of it. And worst of all, Donald Duck.

But the piece is nevertheless interesting for its psychosexual dimension, a running theme through 1940s culture. Sex, they write is everywhere in popular culture, citing the way it suffuses the movies. It’s perhaps the only topic in the movies. But while it’s everywhere, it’s also compromised: it only ever appears as promise, never actuality, for to let it be, as it were, would be to satisfy desire, and satisfaction of course curtails consumption. The culture industry, they write, must never satisfy desire; it must inflame it, but always leave its customers wanting more. Precisely how culture might deal with sexual desire more authentically isn’t made clear. They weren’t looking at pornography, which is a pity: that might have challenged their views of popular culture. But what is interesting is how they understand the field of sexuality in 1940s LA as fundamentally perverse. The desire is there, but it can never be satisfied; it’s always compromised and corrupted; always bad.


Well there’s certainly some truth in that. By the1940s, this perverse view of sex has starts to become a major topic in cinema. There remains an open question about its ethics: for Adorno, perverse sex was represented to moral ends. In other words, bad behaviour gets punished, typically female bad behaviour. But I think this is too simplistic. In the films I’m going to describe, the protagonists are perverse in terms of what they do. They have sex for pleasure, often with multiple partners. They care little for family. Their sexual activities often get them into trouble. And sex and death are inescapably connected. That said the characters in these films are among the most attractive in cinematic history, and through that attractiveness, and our identification with them, we have – in the best films – a sense of the complexity of human existence.

‘Noir’ is a slippery term, one that didn’t appear in usage until sometime after its key films were made, and it was used in the first instance (1946) by A French critic, Nino Frank who to some extent projected his desires onto what he saw. There wasn’t a consumer category of ‘noir’ in 1940s LA: you didn’t, for example, set out deliberately to see a ‘noir’ in the same way as you would choose to see a romance.

Nevertheless a distinct style of film-making emerged at the time. Amomg the many definitions of noir, the most useful I’ve found is Paul Schrader’s from 1972. He says (I paraphrase) the following: (1) it’s always night; (2) horizontal lines are out; oblige angles are in; (3) the actors and their settings are of equal importance; (4) ‘compositional tension is preferred to physical action’ (i.e. no explosions); (5) ‘there is an almost Freudian attachment to water’; (6) there is an attraction to hopeless romantic scenarios, temps perdus etc; (7) chronologies are messed up. Almost all of these are relevant to the perverse LA that emerges in the 1940s. This is, in popular culture at least, a city that is made to resist the story of progress.

Double Indemnity, directed by the Austrian émigré Billy Wilder. The script was originally a James Cain novel, adapted by a grumpy Raymond Chandler (Chandler thought Cain was rubbish). It’s a great noir film, perhaps the greatest – and also a great LA film. It tells the story of an insurance salesman Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray) who finds himself entangled with an amoral, psychopathic housewife, Phyllis Dietrichson (played by Barbara Stanwyck), who is bent on murdering her alcoholic husband for the payout. Neff, a cynical tough guy, calls on Dietrichson in response to her request for a quote. When it transpires she’s out for the money, Neff backs off – only to become ensnared when she calls on him later and seduces him into complicity. Out of a feral attraction to her, and (one senses) his own boredom, he takes on the task with relish, embellishing the murder to ensure it takes place on a train – that unusual site of death results, he points out, carries a double indemnity, meaning a double payout. They carry out the task, and subsequently, through an increasingly anxious narrative it becomes clear Dietrichson has no feelings for Neff; in the penultimate scene she shoots him, only to be shot herself in by her lover. The final scene has Neff expire in the arms of his boss, Barton Keyes (played by Edward G Robinson) as he dictates his version of the story to tape.

There is a striking visual quality to the whole film, that is true of noir in general, but well advanced here. It’s always dark, for starters: a city of more or less perpetual sunshine appears in the movie in more or less perpetual darkness. Daylight, where it appears at all, refracts though venetian blinds, or rain. It rains far more in the movies than in reality: LA is technically a desert city, under constant threat of drought, then as now.

As well as dark, it’s always inside. The sunnier accounts of LA, for example Reyner Banham’s amazing book on the subject I mentioned earlier, portray a city constantly out of doors, never far from contact with nature: Banham’s TV film Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles depicts a city of the beach, of the freeways and of expansive views from the Holywood Hills: the sense of light and space and nature is infectious and seductive. Double Indemnitys action invariably takes place at close quarters. Interiors are dark, stuffy and claustrophobic. You never get a view out. The city dissolves into a set of dark fragments.

This perversion of atmospheres, this making the familiar uncanny occurs repeatedly, turning ordinary spaces into extraordinary ones. Nothing – in the great cliché – is as it seems. Perhaps the most imaginative example of this defamiliarisation occurs in the supermarket. Its role in Double Indemnity is to provide, post-murder, the safe space for Neff and Dietrichson to meet. Their encounters are excruciating: avoiding each other’s gaze, they hiss through pursed lips, distractedly pawing cans of baked beans, trying (but failing) to avoid engagement with the other customers. The safe space of the supermarket becomes an ever more anxiety laden one, the space where they come to talk about things that cannot in reality be talked about; the abundance of groceries, meant by the store to represent a benign freedom of choice, comes to be just overwhelming. A middle aged woman’s request to Neff for a package of baby food is not, as it ought to be, an opportunity for kindness; it is the last straw.

That perversion of the city leads us to the question of sex, for this is a film that is motivated by pursuing and having sex, but ultimately to its perversion. Neff first meets Dietrichson at her home, where he first catches sight of her as she emerges from a bath (exploiting the sense of her recent nakedness for all it is worth). That is a straightforward sense of sex. More perverse is what happens next, as she descends a spiral staircase, revealing her ankle bracelet as she does; the camera (and by implication Neff’s gaze) fixates on this piece of jewellery, which by the time she has reached ground level, has become, without doubt a Freudian fetish object – which is to say a stand-in for sexual experience, an object that is associated with a particular sexual experience and can produce feelings of arousal because of that association, to the point at which it displaces the real sexual experience altogether.

I think Billy Wilder knew his Freud well enough. He was a Viennese after all. I wonder if he knew Freud’s essay ‘Jensen’s Gradiva’, an account of a bizarre Danish novella in which the protagonist, a male archeologist becomes obsessed with the exposed ankle of a Roman girl, illustrated on a Pompeian mosaic. The girl’s ankle becomes an obsession, a fetish – to the horrifying extent that the archaeologist finds the girl come to life. Nothing so bizarre happens to Neff, but in a way, his fetish has more terrible consequences. It is his memory of Deitrichson’s ankle bracelet that softens his resolve; his palpable arousal leads him to murder.

Well, the Neff/Dietrichson relationship winds its perverse course through the rest of the film. Each moment that contains the potential for resolution finds subversion instead; as the pair remove obstacles to their being together, they find themselves paradoxically further alienated from each other; what should be moments of intimacy are moments of shocking estrangement. We slowly come to realise that the only true moment of intimacy, the seduction scene in Neff’s stuffy apartment, is in fact the pretext for the murder conspiracy – and Dietrichson turns out to be a sexual double agent, responsible ultimately for Neff’s murder. So it goes – towards the end of the film, it becomes clear that the only true relationship is in fact a homosexual one, between Neff and his boss, the tenacious, neurotic Keyes ‘I love you too’ ne says to Keys more than once, a piece of banter exchanged at moments of routine stress. But the final scene turns it – almost – into a reality: Keys cradles a sweating Neff as he sinks into death; they look like, and effectively are, lovers.

Wilder went on to refine these themes in Sunset Boulevard (1950) a tale of perverse love affair between a failing young scriptwriter and a forgotten screen actress (William Holden/Gloria Swanson), set in a semi-derelict mansion on the upper reaches of Sunset Boulvard: like Double Indemnity it portrays a city of interiors, or perpetual night and sexual perversity in which desire and death are never very far from each other, and no-one ever really gets what they want. These films also describe a precarious and anxious city, full of transients pitching for opportunities, and rarely getting them. The forties are arguably the decade this perverse culture crystallises as part of the city’s culture, and I would argue, makes the city all the better. Great cities sustain complexity and contradiction, and it’s striking to anyone who knows LA how contradiction is a part of the city’s everyday culture: it’s both/and, not either /or and all the better for it. LA’s 40s are a terrible decade, you might say, but also a beautiful one.

Research: choices and consequences

St. Jerome in His Study

St. Jerome in His Study

A colleague recently asked me to speak on research ‘evidence’, which I interpreted as the forms of publication I’d chosen to disseminate my research. I’ve realised over the years that the choices I made have been distinctive ones, with advantages and disadvantages, and consequences.

I started out on a fairly conventional route in the late 1990s with publications in mainstream art history journals and with academic presses (MUP and Routledge). As my work became more interdisciplinary in the early 2000s, I started to make different decisions, choosing to work with a lively and inventive publisher (Reaktion) who straddle academic and trade markets. I’ve published two books with them, with a third on the way. As well as work with Reaktion, I invested a lot of time in non-academic venues, writing for a range of architectural and design magazines in the early 2000s, and then more recently the Times Higher, for whom I’m the (very) unofficial architecture correspondent. I’ve often been quoted or published in the mainstream media too: my thinking about Edinburgh’s urban landscape has been covered by the US political journal Foreign Policy, BBC R4, The Guardian, The Herald, as well as the local Edinburgh press. I take social media seriously, and spend a lot of time on twitter.

So what’s been good about this strategy? Well, it’s been good for volume: Reaktion are responsive and fast, and the other venues have similarly been good for getting a large volume of material out quickly. It’s been good profile-wise, too: ’Sex and Buildings’, the last Reaktion book (2013) got a lot of media attention, which continues.

The bad? Well, it’s not easy to categorise what I do, which means I’m probably now unemployable anywhere else. And because I’ve avoided the mainstream academic venues, it’s hard for some to evaluate it (someone at a rival institution described my work as ‘light’. It’s not at all – but I can see how you might think that).

These are real consequences, and I’m too far into my career now – 20+ years – to make much of a change, even if I wanted to. But I’d argue my path is more fun in the end, however uncomfortable it may be sometimes. And like quite a few academics I know, I simply prefer to speak to broader audiences rather than strictly academic ones. My approach has been a way of doing it. ​

Edinburgh. Toys. Pram. Etc.

The 'Turd', a.k.a. the proposes St James's hotel by Jestico and Whiles

The ‘Turd’, a.k.a. the proposed St James’s hotel by Jestico and Whiles

Well, it’s been an interesting couple of days, you might say. An early morning start on Radio 4’s Today on 12th September, where along with the urbane Adam Wilkinson of Edinburgh World Heritage, we debated the city’s UNESCO World Heritage status. That status is perceived by some in the heritage business of being under threat, from the city council’s negligence on the one hand, and development on the other. Adam and I agree on a good deal, as it happens, and the atmosphere in the studio was amiable. I suggested, playfully, that losing UNESCO’s approval wouldn’t greatly matter: most tourists came for the comedy at the Fringe Festival  (I’m sure this is statistically true, but no matter). I also said, again playfully, that I thought Edinburgh’s attitude to its built environment was ‘neurotic.’ Those who speak for it tend to see threats where none exist; their stock-in-trade is the catastrophe; as I’ve discovered to my cost in the past, they react on a hair trigger.

Sure enough, my few seconds of airtime produced a reaction, on social media, via email, and most spectacularly in the Herald newspaper. The rage expressed in all these media illustrated precisely why I used the word ‘neurotic’, and it’s this peculiar group psychology of Edinburgh’s towards the built environment that was my concern, rather than its buildings per se.

I’ve explored this attitude in the past for the journal Foreign Policy, again to controversial effect. And more recently I explored it length in Chris Breward and Fiona Fisher’s anthology British Design, where I traced it back to Lord Cockburn’s famous/notorious 1849 letter to the then Lord Provost, on the ‘Best Ways to Spoil the Beauties of Edinburgh’. This psychology is primitive, lower-brain stuff, and as a result it can give my remarks a primitive-seeming quality too. One of my most powerful critics over the weekend, a local architect (whom, as it happens, I greatly admire) accused me of being simplistic. Why was I reiterating this tired old idea, Edinburgh’s progress being held up by a fusty establishment, resistant to change? Well – I reiterated this tedious idea precisely because it is so strongly there. There is no getting away from it – as the Herald article, and many others show. Unlike other cities, there is no shared understanding, however basic, of what the city should look like. And consequently, change seems threatening.

So if I’d had more time, I’d have said this: (1) EDINBURGH’S TOUGH. The reaction by the heritage lobby is suggestive of a delicate place, in need of constant protection. I don’t think this is right. The landscape and plan are extremely robust, as a view from Salisbury Crags attests. The bigness of the landscape, not to mention the sky, accomodates a vast range of building styles and qualities. (2) AND BIG. Not enormous, but it is a complex, surprisingly sprawling, largely suburban regional capital of half a million, and if you take the travel-to-work area into account, it’s half of Scotland. In that context, the heritage voice, while noisy, can’t be allowed to be the only voice in the room. Lots of people have a stake in this place, not only those who would prefer it were a museum. (3) CITIES CHANGE. There are some particular issues around recent developments and their perceived quality or otherwise. But the conversation about development in the city too often polarizes into an infantile battle between those who want it, and those who want to stop it at all costs. That battle doesn’t do anyone any favours. There can be a much more constructive conversation between past and present, present and future, as – if you actually read it properly – the 1948 Abercrombie Plan for the city shows. And as I said in an earlier piece in the Edinburgh Evening News, great cities aren’t diminished or threatened by change: they embrace it. (4) MISTAKES ARE ACTUALLY FINE. We can’t, and don’t always get things right first time; we learn what works by doing. And as I’ve said elsewhere, if we get it wrong, we can always do it again, or adapt.

Edinburgh has some local difficulties to do with planning, and the monitoring of quality: I was powerfully reminded of that over the weekend, and in fact sympathise with many of my critics, as well as Edinburgh World Heritage. But what was again striking to me was the sense of fear in the conversation. Every side in the debate – heritage lobby, architectural modernist, neo-Georgian traditionalist, whoever – perceived threat in change, whether from developers, the actions of the city council, or even the opinions of obscure academics. So widespread is this anxiety about the future, and so multifaceted, for the time being it makes a sensible conversation about Edinburgh’s buildings if not impossible, certainly very hard. (The council’s tendency to make covert deals is, I am sure, a form of collective avoidance). And that is why I used the word ‘neurotic’, and stand by it.

The Deal


What you’re looking at is one of the towers of Lasalle College, a small private art school in central Singapore. Built in 2007 to a design by RSP, it was extensively funded by the Singaporean government who have been enthusiastic promotors of all things ‘creative’ since the early 2000s. Of all the things I saw in Singapore last week, this was perhaps the most thought-provoking, less for the architecture (which is undeniably spectacular) than for the attitude that it embodies. It makes a simple deal: accept that the arts are in the service of the national project, and they will be funded with an inconceivable generosity.

The deal is legible enough in the window vinyls, the words ‘excellence’, ‘spectacle’ and ‘critique’ screaming out the message. For many UK humanities academics, this kind of of sloganising is simply grotesque: aren’t these words supposed to be a means of interrogating the very things they seem here to support? You can picture a generation of cultural studies scholars with their heads in their hands.

That reaction, to my mind, would miss the subtlety of the deal. Of course ‘spectacle’ and ‘critique’ and all those other words shouldn’t be turned into mere decoration. But I doubt those words are really much more than decoration in any of the work we might do in the west, the business of naming being, after all, a form of commodification (and where would critical theory be without all those publishers making a business from it?). Lasalle abruptly challenges that myth. To believe in the myth, you have to cling onto the comforting idea the arts can be somehow stand ‘outside’ society too, a zone of freedom beyond the reach of government.

That freedom would be nice were it real, but my twitter feed during the period I was away suggested that my world was in fact a narrow and censorious one. Too often last week, my academic freedom seemed to be the freedom to agree with a majority view.

Lasalle’s windows inadvertently say the unsayable: our freedom is conditional on complicity. It’s discomforting for westerners, but in Singapore’s case, for 50 years, the government has been adept at meeting its part of the deal, remarkably so. It houses and feeds its citizens better than any European country I can think of (certainly Scotland, whose record on both is scandalously awful). Of course, Singapore’s wheels may well be coming off, as two NUS academics, Donald Low and Sudhir Vadaketh, have argued in an excellent new book. But for the time being, Singapore remains a compelling, if troubling example.

The Year In Culture, Kind Of

1. THE WIND RISES. The last film by Hayao Miyazaki, animated by Studio Ghibli. A sprawling epic about the designer of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane. Humour, tragedy, pathos, the surreal – all human life is there. The aircraft are magnificently realised too, especially the huge Junkers G. 38, whose interior spaces form one of the film’s most intriguing tableaux.

thewindrises2. THE EDINBURGH SCULPTURE WORKSHOP. Designed by Sutherland Hussey, and completed in 2012 or so, it’s now into its second phase of development. A collection of studios and exhibition spaces supported by a mixture of private and public funding. It’s a very, very good building indeed. Simple top-lit spaces, robust surfaces, and spaces for reflection. An undemonstrative, deeply practical building it’s the exact opposite of almost everything built for culture these days. Brilliant.

3. ADVENTURE TIME. I came to this series late, now in its sixth season. The most mindblowingly weird programme ever broadcast on mainstream TV, it’s the visual equivalent of a nitrous oxide-LSD trip. But there’s real depth to it too. Jake the Dog is one of the all-time great cartoon characters, a classic hippy philosopher in the Jerry Garcia mould. Unlike Garcia, however, he has magical shapeshifting powers, useful in uncertain times.

4. DONGDAEMUN DESIGN PLAZA in Seoul by Zaha Hadid. I have all kinds of difficulty with Hadid and co., not least the vacuousness of their theory of ‘parametricism’. However this building is a complete triumph, because for once the formal ambition is matched by the ability of the (genius) builders. A swooping, bulging, genre-defying thing, it’s both architecture and landscape.

5. WHY THIS OPTIMIST IS VOTING NO. The referendum on Scottish independence was inescapable in 2014. The vast majority of friends voted in favour, and I could see perfectly well why they might. But after a struggle, I felt I couldn’t join them. The reasons are best explained by Carol Craig in an essay for the Scottish Review. A sensitive, beautifully written essay, it was one of the few interventions in the referendum to address its psychological complexity.

6.ALBERT SPEER: HIS BATTLE WITH TRUTH by Gitta Sereny. Published in 1995, it took me 19 years to read it after several attempts. A vast, rangy book, full of digression and repetition. Once I realised it was basically Moby Dick for the Third Reich, I was hooked. What I experienced as faults first time around now seemed necessary to express the moral complexity of the subject.

7.SUBARU IMPREZA I needed a cheap car quickly towards the end of the year and found myself with an ’07 Impreza with 85k on the clock. By comparison with modern cars, it’s tinny, unrefined, and pumps out far more Co2 than it should. It’s not even very fast. But it’s built to last decades, and has an engineering integrity that few designed objects have these days. In other words it is almost the exact opposite of Apple’s i-phone, which has the feel of integrity that it, in reality, lacks. (The car, needless to say, has no USB socket).

8. ARE YOU LOCATIONALIZED? by Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan. A two-part art installation in Portree, Skye and Lochmaddy, North Uist which turned public buildings into giant cartoon characters Part of the experience was getting there, of course, but this was also robust, funny work of real quality. The Lochmaddy part was a wall painted with a cosmic scene, babbling poetry through a trumpet-like beak. ‘Look’ said a beaming O’Sullivan, when he showed it to me, ‘it’s the Master of the Universe.’

9. THE LEGO MOVIE. Overlong, flabby and the closing live action is a mistake. The opening 15 minutes is however complete genius. The theme song is ‘Everything is Awesome’ by the Canadian duo Tegan and Sara. With the accompanying scene setting in the Lego City, the sequence is simultaneously completely stupid and totally profound. I showed it to awestruck students at every available opportunity.

10. HAWKWIND PLAY THE SPACE RITUAL. A one-off benefit gig at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire for badgers (yes, badgers). An average age of 68, the band played for over three hours. According to the Guardian’s Ed Vulliamy who was also there, somehow during the night they lost all the money they raised. If you know Hawkwind, you’ll know this sort of disaster goes with the territory. But it was a magnificent occasion, every bit as convincing as the ’73 original, and only £20.



Life has been a bit quiet in these parts because we have been busy with thenewmetropolitan.com A new web magazine about cities and citizenship, it brings together people from across the University of Edinburgh as well as half a dozen European institutions. It’s finding its way, but the hope is we develop a distinctive, but independent voice. Above all, we hope it looks good. Tell us what you think, the good and the bad. And if you want to contribute,  just say. We’re all ears.