About Richard J Williams

Professor of contemporary visual cultures and head of history of art at the University of Edinburgh, UK. Books include 'The Anxious City' (Routledge, 2004), 'Brazil' (Reaktion 2009), 'Sex and Buildings' (Reaktion, 2013), 'Reyner Banham Revisited' (Reaktion, 2021) and 'The Culture Factory' (Lund Humphries, 2021).

Edinburgh’s Pandemic Festival

Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh, does many things from banking to beer, but its combined annual arts festival defines the modern city as much as than anything. Started as the Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Drama in 1947 by Rudolf Bing, a British-Austrian opera impresario, it is now an amalgam of ten festivals, driven  by the monstrous Edinburgh Fringe. Most of it  happens in the summer, and it attracts a lot of people. In 2019, the last normal year, over 1.2 million visited,  more than twice the city’s resident population. By most measures, it is the largest arts festival on earth, and it makes a lot of money. One excitable analysis published in 2019 indicated that the Edinburgh Fringe alone was worth £1 billion to the Scottish economy.

Rudolf Bing saw the original festival as a direct response to trauma. Its purpose, he thought, was the healing, through culture, of the wounds of the Second World War. That purpose had its signal moment in 1947 in the appearance of Vienna Philharmonic orchestra, reunited with its pre-war conductor Bruno Walter, exiled during the war after Nazi persecution. Edinburgh’s centre had largely escaped the aerial bombardment suffered by other British cities during the war, and if somewhat austere and battered in 1947, it still could provide the festival-goer with an image of a healed world. That sense of culture as amelioration of trauma has always been strongly present: culture as a de facto good.

If the 1947 Festival was a response to the trauma of the war, the 2021 iteration of the festival was a response a different kind of trauma, the covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic could not have been better designed to attack the social bases of the festival: travel, crowds, spontaneous encounters, all in the early stages of the pandemic, impossible. In common with almost all global cultural events that year, the 2020 festival was cancelled altogether. On its return in 2021, the language of healing was much in evidence. 1947 and the recovery from the Second World War were frequent reference points for both the festival organisers, and the news media.  

But inescapable this time around was the sense that culture itself was not only wounded, but was newly in question. The peculiar nature of the pandemic had made normal cultural events impossible, so the restaged version of the festival bore the physical signs of trauma. It was an uncanny event for those used to its previous existence, for there was, by comparison, nobody there. If the social logics of the normal festival had been the crowd, this one was all dispersal. Venues spread right across the city: there were pop-up venues at an-of-town office complex, Edinburgh Park, and a suburban beach at Silverknowes, and problematical indoor venues were replaced with a sort of artsy camping. Edinburgh University’s Old College had a marquee in its iconic courtyard, its audience and performers largely open to the elements.

The 2021 festival could be compelling in its weirdness. At Old College one lunchtime, without really meaning to, I stood and watched the arrangement of chairs in the empty marquee for half an hour as a piano tuner did his painstaking, repetitive work. And I wasn’t alone, as if this – watching an empty venue – had in fact become the new normal concert experience. But sometimes you were just reminded of what had been lost. In the gardens of George Square, in normal times the social hub of the Fringe, the familiar crowd seemed to have been displaced by a grid of empty tables. At times, it was less a festival, than the stage set for one.

The Book Festival managed a successful compromise, staging a hybrid version of itself in the grounds of Edinburgh College of Art, with access possible no less than three ways – streamed online, in person in two socially-distanced halls in the College, or watching proceedings live on a giant LED screen. Mostly, thankfully, it was possible to visit without prior planning. Anyone could walk in from the street and hear and watch proceedings from the deckchairs scattered around the grassy courtyard, or from inside one of the temporary gazebos. It was a rather luxurious experience (and an unavoidable one for this author, whose office overlooked the big screen). It could also be unnerving because of the sheer emptiness. The festival crowd was always somewhere else.

As a festival visitor you were never far from reminders of the trauma that gave it its shape, whether it was the mandatory mask-wearing in venues, or the electronic logging of personal details, or the deliberately antisocial arrangements of venue seating to keep audiences from  mingling. To enter each new festival space was to be reminded again of just how much the pandemic has changed everyday life.

And it could be, in spite of the heroic efforts of the organisers, an anxiety-laden experience. Some of that anxiety was realistic, to use Freud’s terminology, for it was reasonable to experience fear at re-entering the crowd after the pandemic year – the masks likely hid some of that. But some of it was undoubtedly cultural. The university’s Talbot Rice Gallery ratcheted it up with The Normal, an exhibition of dire futurology in which anxieties about the pandemic were linked to worries about climate change, sexual violence and racism. A spectacular exhibition making full use of the grandeur of the gallery’s eighteenth century interiors, its message underlined anxieties already circulating in the local media before the pandemic.

It was increasingly said that the festival was too big, a monster that had taken over the public spaces of the host city. It was moreover unsustainable, especially in the amount of air travel it generated by both audience and performers. And the festival was exclusive, of its often impoverished host citizens (a complaint dating back to 1947). The festival’s official pitch in 2021 was correspondingly cautious: its return, post-pandemic, was tentative, a recognition that there could be no return to ‘normal’, whatever that had been. And it embodied a recognition too that the trauma of 2020-1 had been about in many ways about culture in its industrialised form, as well as the pandemic. If there was no straightforward healing in this festival, it was because there couldn’t be. As the festival’s organisers said publicly, the pandemic had exposed some of its faultlines, as well as those, more generally, of the voracious culture industries. The future, they said, will be smaller, quieter, and more self-reflexive. That may be no bad thing at all.  

Published in New Associations, the magazine of the British Psychoanalytic Council, Autumn 2021.

Banham, again – now with video

Last Sunday the Southern California chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians staged an in conversation event on Banham with me and Todd Gannon of Ohio State. Todd’s excellent 2017 book, Reyner Banham and the Paradoxes of High-Tech is based on the one area of the Getty’s Banham papers that is actually quite extensive, namely the notes towards a planned book project on High Tech architecture. The project was never completed, but Todd extracted the draft of the introduction from the Getty papers, and published it for the first time as ‘High Tech and Advanced Engineering’, where it lays open Banham’s conflicted understanding of the tendency. On the one hand, High Tech represented the technologically-attuned modernism Banham wanted from Theory and Design in the First Machine Age onwards; on the other hand, it was also clearly an architecture of slick surfaces, and serious money (Banham is very good on this superficial quality, alighting on the design of a Salomon ski boot, an item for which he certainly had no personal use). Banham never manages to resolve the contradictions in either High Tech, or his attitude to it, and it remains an unfinished project on every level. Those contradictions were very much the subject of our conversation for SAH on Sunday. Todd’s opening remarks centred on Banham’s wanting to have it both ways as regards High Tech. I said more about Banham as a cultural figure, someone who never entirely worked out if he was consumer or critic. His ambivalence had a lot to do with his origins in austere postwar Britain – as much as he was trained to be a critic, he was also caught up in the dynamism of the burgeoning consumer economy. Banham’s contradictions are sometimes frustrating, but they’re also what make his material historically valuable, and still rewarding to teach. You can see the video of the SAH event here.

Reyner Banham Revisited, Revisited

In May this year, Reaktion published my book on the architectural critic and historian Reyner Banham. You can find the details here, including links to some reviews. The book emerged after I’d been through the Banham papers at the Getty archive, a frustrating experience for anyone who has done the same thing. He threw almost everything away, and what’s left is not much more than fragments. The Banham you are faced with is largely the public Banham, so I decided to write about that.

There is consequently a lot in the book about Banham’s performativeness. His frequent intellectual moves seemed to be accompanied by changes of dress, and particularly hats. There was a lot of dressing up. The name ‘Reyner’ was an invention, a kind of stage name, for he was ‘Peter’ to his friends. Photographs of Banham became important, and I got some particularly useful material from a family friend, Simon Gooch, as well as Tim Street-Porter, who took the iconic picture that is the cover of the book.

I made the mistake early on of thinking the job would be easy. It wasn’t – the more I read of Banham’s colossal output, the more it sprawled away from what I thought I knew. I had to be selective in the end, and there is far less on some topics – such as Archigram – than some readers might expect. But there is more on the last phase, in particular the book In America Deserta, than in other treatments of Banham, precisely because it was here that he seemed to start to come to terms with his complex and often  contradictory self.

It is here too that Banham (and my book) pulls away from architecture to environments. I felt – and still feel – that it’s here that Banham’s work has been most durable. His Los Angeles can be criticised for all kinds of things, but it’s still a compelling account of a different way of organising cities. Above all it’s Banham’s openmindedness that remains refreshing, his interest in anything and everything, and – despite all the grounds for the contrary – his optimism. Those things I felt were worth recovering, and re-presenting to a new generation of readers.   

The Culture Factory

From the Lund Humphries blog. You can order the book here. Quote CULTURE20 and there is a 20% discount until the end of 2021.

The book came about thanks to Marcus Verhagen, the series editor, who invited me to think about it in the first place. His invitation soon had me thinking about how far contemporary art museums had evolved since the 1970s. He also got me thinking about my understanding of museums had changed since I first wrote about them, as well as my attitude to the category of ‘art’. Architecture had become ever more important – that much was clear. Also clear was how industrialised museums had become, and how close to other kinds of leisure experience, causes for regret for some. I decided early on this wasn’t going to be a regretful book, however. Taking a cue from the architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in their still provocative and funny book on Las Vegas, I wondered if there might be something to learn.

There were all kinds of museum experiences that fed into it: the experience of canonical buildings such as the Centre Pompidou and the Bilbao Guggenheim, of newer museums such as the Dundee V&A, and of the art zones of lower Manhattan and Beijing.

There was also, all the way through the witing of the book, the singularly bizarre experience of the covid-19 pandemic. This was a book about museums written during a time when it was hard to visit museums at all. And when you did, it was under even stricter regulation than usual. For museums like Tate Modern, during the pandemic, the contradictions between freedom and discipline were even more than usually exaggerated.

If there was a defining experience for the book, it was probably that of Beijing’s 798 Art District. A rough and ready, more or less ‘found’ space, it had a surreally sculptural gasworks, and some fine Bauhaus-inspired factory buildings. You have to look hard for the art, and the whole zone is is undeniably commercial. Its history has been fluid, and its future sometimes uncertain. But it is a powerful, thought-provoking place as well as a lot of fun. Much of it you apprehend in a state of distraction, and it’s hopeless for the monastic contemplation that used to be the ideal museum experience. Part shopping mall, part industrial theme park, it was, on the face of it, the opposite of the traditional museum.

But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to think of it as a museum. It had a lot of the same characteristics of contemporary museums, and its visitor numbers – 3 million or so – put it in the same league as the Pompidou. The book I ended up writing wasn’t a celebration of the condition of the contemporary museum by any means, but it is an attempt to look in a clear sighted way at what we have created. As we inevitably move on to some other new museum form, perhaps largely online, I wondered if there were things to learn from our recent museum experiments. One thing is certain from them: contemporary art now has audiences unimaginable in their scale 40 years ago. 

It’s still a critical book, however. The most arresting art space I saw when researching the book was, by most standards, a failure, the Centro Niemeyer in Avilès, Spain. One the last works of the great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, it has scarcely any exhibits, and (if you can find it, to begin with) it is almost completely deserted. Like much of Niemeyer’s work, functionally it is woeful. Yet visiting was intense and spooky, a genuinely otherworldly experience that has stayed with me. Admittedly, I’m happiest around ruins, so it satisfied that need. But it also reminded me that the appeal of museums for many of us is irrational: it’s precisely their lack of worldliness, their sheer oddness that appeals. Most of the museums in the book have an overwhelming industrial logic, which holds culture a product to be consumed. The semi-ruin of the Centro Niemeyer really doesn’t, not in its current condition anyway – but it was bracing and strange to visit, and all the better for it.

Manchester After Engels

Extract from ‘Manchester After Engels’, first published in Places (June 2020)

Manchester is, to say the least, an enigma. Ever since the 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union, the United Kingdom has been languishing in Brexit limbo, investment confidence has been flagging, and everyone has been fretting about the future. The North of England, where a majority voted to Leave, has long been notoriously, pathologically depressed, its cities and towns, one after another, the victims of postwar post-industrial decline and post-millennial austerity. So how to explain the recent show of confidence in the self-styled capital of the North?

IManchester, whose collapse in the mid 20th century rivaled that of Detroit, is busily, loudly rebounding; the city is now constructing a cluster of skyscrapers on the edge of its downtown core, the scale of which dwarfs all existing buildings. 1 Not all that long ago, a big building here could perhaps boast 100,000 square feet; today “big” means half a million. The new South Tower of Deansgate Square, a collection of mostly residential towers, rises priapically to more than 600 feet, and it might soon be overtaken by the 700-foot-tall Trinity Islands. There were at the end of last year an unprecedented 80 construction sites in the city center, including 14,000 future apartments, many of which are underwritten by international investment. This is proving to be the most thoroughgoing transformation of an English city for some time; indeed, one of the great spectacles of contemporary Britain. “Manchester is visibly booming,” wrote Oliver Wainwright, the architectural critic of the Guardian. “Cranes cluster across the skyline and the concrete liftshafts of future towers dot every corner. The city is even beginning to look drunk on its own success.” 

Inevitably this is a local story, one that underscores much about the unpredictability and uncertainty of Britain as it finally leaves the European Union, a departure that was expedited by the Conservative party’s victory in the recent general election. Yet it is also a global story; a story about how a city that was at the center of the industrial revolution, and that shaped global capitalism in the 19th century, is today being reshaped by post-industrial globalized capital. As the geographers Jamie Peck and Kevin Ward put it in 2002, in a prescient book on the beginning of the contemporary boom: “Being first proved to be a double-edged sword. The first industrial city was the first to experience large-scale deindustrialization. … Once a global player, the city is in many ways now just another potential investment site in the global economic system.” 3 And now, as I write, the future of the global economic system has been put on at least temporary hold by the spread of a global pandemic; the partly constructed new skyline of Manchester now constitutes an unwitting memorial to the moment the city went into lockdown.

The City After the Pandemic

Originally published as ‘Will We Want To Go Back Into The Crowd?’, New York Times (5 May 2020)

Of all the media images that the Covid-19 crisis has generated in recent weeks, it is the city devoid of crowds that has perhaps been the most affecting. It doesn’t matter whether it’s New York, or Rome or London — it is the empty public space that most clearly signifies something is wrong. There ought to be crowds, and there aren’t. It is the classic horror movie trope. Closer to home, it is what most disturbs and compels us about contemporary Detroit — except we are all Detroiters now.

But the idea that cities ought to be crowded is really quite new. We’ve learned to like density in the Western world of late, but in cities like New York and London, the equation of the urban crowd with urban success has fluctuated, and its recent ascent is one of many oscillations. In New York, its recent history can be traced back to Jane Jacobs’s 1962 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” which made the then-incendiary argument that cities were, in effect, their public lives: What happened on the street corner was the city, and, crudely put, the more of it the better. Ms. Jacobs was a lonely voice at the time against the postwar trends toward urban decentralization and suburbanization, and for the human life of the neighborhood and its streets.

Things really got going, however, in the Catalan metropolis Barcelona, via politician-planner Oriol Bohigas. Between 1981 and 1987, under his guidance at the Office of Urban Projects, the city built or remade some 160 public spaces and filled them with people. Few Western urban leaders were unimpressed by the spectacle, especially when they saw its mature form at the 1992 Olympics. How attractive urban crowds could be! And how much money could be made when you gave them the space in which to eat and drink!

In “The Human Condition” Ms. Arendt wrote that the human world was the life lived in public, the “space of appearance” as she called it. In the hands of leftish advocates of public space, like the American sociologist Richard Sennett, that meant the literal return to pre-modern public spaces, with people living their whole lives in them. (Needless to say, architects loved all this. What better rationale for public architecture?)

Following the Barcelona example, public space became a defining part of the global city and urban crowds filling public spaces began to seem like both an economic and a moral good. “The Great Inversion,” the journalist Alan Ehrenhalt called it in 2013, a process whose architectural emblems were the spaces wherever a crowd might gather: the street corner, the public square, the park. What Mr. Ehrenhalt and others described was partly demographic, partly symbolic: People really were coming back to live in cities, but they also wanted to see and be seen in them.

But however much that process looks like common sense now, it was itself a reaction to the midcentury urban decline in the West. That process wasn’t all to do with Detroit-style industrial decay; it had just as much to do with a planned dispersal that was ultimately about the fear of urban disease in the 19th-century city. To understand that fear, there’s no better source than Friedrich Engels’s “The Condition of the Working Class in England,” published in German in 1845 and of extraordinary and durable influence worldwide. Its account of industrial Manchester was also an account of its sickness and, by proxy, its density. The city’s lightless, airless streets teeming with the poor became a figure of long-lasting architectural horror; so much of modernist planning was a reaction to places like it.

If density was disease for modernists, it followed that their cities were about keeping people apart. Look back at the utopian schemes for cities of the first half of the 20th century, and the same hygienic preoccupations come up again and again: There must be light and space and fresh air. The Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier wrote about these things in his book “Vers Une Architecture” (translated as “Towards a New Architecture”). Parts of the book read like comedy now — the author’s attempt to turn his own obsession with hygiene into an avant-garde manifesto. But it was serious when it was published in 1923, the Spanish flu pandemic having just run its course.

In his first venture into town planning, Le Corbusier designed the imaginary Ville Contemporaine, a city of vast empty spaces. My copy of his book “The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning,” published in 1929, has a perspective drawing of the Ville Contemporaine on the cover, showing in the foreground a sunlit cafe terrace looking out toward vast cruciform towers in parkland; it is all light and space and greenery, and apart from some tiny specks in the far background, entirely free of human beings. Its emptiness has been the source of endless critique; it has been cited as evidence of modernism’s moral bankruptcy in general, and Le Corbusier’s inhumanity in particular. But place it in its post-pandemic context, and it begins to look different.

The Ville Contemporaine inspired plenty of real-life experiments, and perhaps the most closely related is Bras lia, the modernist capital of Brazil, which turned 60 in April. The French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir complained of its “elegant monotony,” its lack of streets and crowds and anything resembling a traditional urban life on a grumpy visit in 1960. Her view set the tone for most subsequent perceptions of the place by outsiders. She was mostly right about the crowds; more space than building, the city is the opposite of what we have learned to expect. But it’s an important reminder that there are different ways of making an urban environment. The residential wings sit in lush parkland, and the life in these parts is airy and relaxed.

The dense city might not turn out to be responsible for the virus when all is said and done — but as it did a century ago in relation to the Spanish flu, it might well start to feel like a cause. After months of social distancing, are we going to want to go straight back into the crowd? Even if we are allowed to, I doubt it.

So what kinds of images are we going to make of our cities now? If we’re no longer dreaming of Venice’s Piazza San Marco (so packed in 2019 you were no longer permitted to sit down), what are we going to want? Might our love of the urban crowd take a break? Might our public spaces necessarily become quieter, more introverted, less social? Might we not more readily accept gaps and voids in our cities, and perhaps even start to value them? In a chastened, post-coronavirus world, images like the Ville Contemporaine or Brasília might really start to seem attractive again.

That fantasy has started to look like it has something to it now, doesn’t it? You can be part of the metropolis, but you can avoid physical proximity. You can see and be seen, while avoiding the closeness that has lately become so problematic. Social distancing? No problem. You’ll be lucky if you can get anywhere near your neighbors. And with all that space, you can do as much jogging as you want. It is of course by contemporary Western standards antisocial, even misanthropic. But if we’re going to have cities and the coronavirus, maybe the future is 1922, not 2022.

On Shipping Container Architecture

First published as ‘Opinion: The Sinister Brutality of Shipping Container Architecture’, New York Times (14 August 2019)

EDINBURGH — It is late summer here, and what is still the world’s largest arts festival is at its zenith. This means one thing: shipping containers.

They’re everywhere. In some cases, they are here serving their intended purpose: They arrive on trucks, disgorge stage scenery, musical instruments, cables, lighting. But they also increasingly form an architectural landscape, serving as box offices, pizza joints, upscale fish-and-chip shops, pubs and noodle bars. More grandly, a sort of triumphal arch made up of shipping containers marks the entrance to one of the main Fringe Festival sites. They’re increasingly becoming a year-round sight: a fashionable restaurant, Checkpoint, near Fringe H.Q., has a container at its center, framing one of its biggest tables, and plans were recently announced for a building made of 30 containers marking the entrance to Edinburgh Park, a signature development near the city’s airport. This isn’t a meaningless choice of materials; this is an ancient city proclaiming “we are modern” and using shipping containers to do it.

Edinburgh’s just one tiny example, though: Every world city, from Amsterdam to Beijing, now has shipping containers. You can find them turned into upscale retail malls, like London’s various Boxparks. A stack of them form the flagship Zurich store of Freitag, the hip messenger bag company. The German automaker Audi’s 2014 World Cup scoreboard in Brooklyn — the world’s largest scoreboard — was made of 45 containers. They are the basis of an office complex in newly fashionable Dundee, Scotland, and any number of Californian beach houses. Visit any architectural school and there will be a dozen student projects on shipping containers at any given time.

I hate them. They’re great for doing what they were designed to do, which is transporting stuff. A simple technology, they have helped facilitate global trade like no other. But they’re designed for things, not people. Dark, damp and airless, boiling in the summer and freezing in the winter, they’re hopeless living and working spaces. They’re not even particularly cheap. It is often said that they are sustainable, as they adapt an abundant, readily available form. But you have to do an awful lot to them to make them habitable; insulation is just the start. To use them for architecture is rarely the convenience their proponents make it out to be. So let’s call it what it is: a matter of aesthetics.

Containers might be hip now, but the architectural fascination with them dates back at least 50 years. The English critic and historian Reyner Banham wrote a polemical article in 1967 (“Flatscape With Containers”) about the emergent landscape of the container port, which he argued was simultaneously monumental and in flux. The container port was for him an analogue for the technologically advanced city, in which all pretense at stasis would be abolished. Around the same time, the futurologist and visionary Stewart Brand, founder of the countercultural magazine Whole Earth Catalog, rented a container for his personal library. He wrote about it in the 1994 cult book “How Buildings Learn,” praising its adaptability and simplicity. For Brand it was the perfect form — a mass-produced, ready-made building open to interpretation by anyone with the nerve to do it. Banham and Brand helped make the container cool, plugging the shipping container into architecture’s enduring but never-quite-realized fascination with modularity: architecture as a giant game of Jenga.

Today’s containers, for the politically woke architect, indicate, among other things, a skeptical attitude toward capital. An important source here is the fascinating book and exhibition “Fish Story” by the American artist Allan Sekula, an exploration through photographs of the power of global capital, in which the shipping container is perhaps the key image. To invoke the shipping container here is to somehow reveal the truth about capital: it’s tough and unforgiving, and to use its imagery is to say that you get it.

But too often, invoking the container ends up just reiterating that brutality. To see what I mean, take a trip to what is probably the world capital of repurposed containers — Amsterdam. A 20-minute ferry ride on the IJ river, downstream from Central Station, takes you to the derelict shipyard of the former Nederlandsche Dok en Scheepsbouw Maatschappij, where there is an entire city of repurposed containers serving as bars, clubs, work spaces, any number of artists’ studios. It’s a dystopia, though it can be a sublime one, and half a dozen beers into your evening it is great fun. But then you’re forced to imagine it as home: There’s a student housing complex here made of stacked containers, so unremittingly bleak in its aspect that it makes you wonder whether the architects had humans in mind.

Or live humans anyway. Everyone remembers the episode in Season 2 of “The Wire” when Beadie Russell, a Port Authority police officer, discovers 13 female corpses in the Baltimore docklands. Perhaps the series’ most horrifying image, it makes the shipping container a literal tomb, showing up one of their key limitations: no air. It wasn’t artistic license on the part of the creators of “The Wire” either, as the countless human trafficking episodes of recent decades, especially in Europe, demonstrate. At the port of Calais, France, one of the main tasks of immigration officials for years has been checking containers for bodies, dead or alive. Perversely, responses to the migrant crises in Europe have involved more containers: Calais’s notorious “Jungle” housed migrants in containers before its demolition in 2016. Hungary’s government established a container camp in 2017, the choice of shelter clearly meant to deter rather than welcome.

And that is the problem. These container environments inadvertently perpetuate a sense of a Darwinian world in which only the tough survive. That brutality can be fun if it’s about creating a landscape for weekend partying; at Amsterdam’s shipyard, you can live out your “Mad Max” fantasies for 24 hours before heading back to the suburbs.

But the harsh landscape of the shipping container is a terrible shorthand for modernity. It’s not just the now-inescapable connotations of the migrant crisis. It’s that the people who’ve most celebrated the container form are precisely not the ones who’ve ever had to live in one: they can always go home, to a proper building somewhere else. And it’s that the shipping container suggests a world in which everything is contingent and temporary, and humans are doing little more than camping. That’s not the way to produce good offices, or housing, or cities.

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.