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?

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. ​

Are You A NEW METROPOLITAN?

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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.

Beatriz Preciado’s Pornotopia

51tb77OliYL._SL500_AA300_There are a few things you should know about this book. First, it is a republication of a doctoral thesis that appeared in book form in Spanish in 2010. Second, its author is responsible for the genre-defying Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, an account of her transformational experiences under the influence of high doses of testosterone. And third, I really wish I’d read it when it first came out. But better late than never.

The literature around pornography in general, and Playboy in particular, has become very rich in recent years, especially from a feminist perspective: Elizabeth Fraterrigo’s Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America (2011) is an outstanding example of what has become, in a way, a genre – an open-minded but still principled take on something that is too complex and too popular to be simply dismissed. What Fraterrigo did was to show how Playboy had, confusingly for its detractors, no shortage of liberal character. It’s obscured by the loathsome Bunnies, and Hugh Hefner’s general weirdness, but Playboy consistently supported a right to pleasure regardless of gender and sexual orientation (…)

This book inhabits the same territory, but with the focus on Playboy’s architecture. The architecture is both real and imagined. The real stuff, the mansions in Chicago and Los Angeles, and the clubs worldwide, are familiar enough, if only in hearsay. The imaginary stuff is less well known and includes plans for bachelor pads of various kinds, incorporating designs for erotically assisting furniture. In between these things, Playboyassiduously kept abreast of architectural trends, seeing in the work of John Lautner, Charles Moore and others a vehicle for articulating the magazine’s erotic programme. Pick up any copy from the 1950s or 1960s alert to this, and it is startling how much architecture there is. It really is more Homes and Gardens than Hustler.

Beatriz Preciado has really done her homework. She goes into far more detail than anyone else on Playboy’s spatiality, exploring the mansions as well as the unbuilt townhouse with (I am sure) unprecedented thoroughness. She constantly turns up revealing details: a fireman’s pole that deposited female visitors abruptly into the downstairs level of the original mansion; Hefner’s predilection for horizontality, to the point where he and colleagues would “crawl” on all fours around office papers spread on the carpet; the presence of surveillance technology everywhere imaginable in the mansions; and, in a brilliant piece of description, the austere fourth floor of the mansion where the Bunnies slept, ate and were instructed in their trade. This last, with its description of nakedly manipulative space, is worth the price of the book alone.

Pornotopia works best in these things where details make the argument. Preciado’s feeling for architectural space is acute; she understands implicitly what matters, and how, particularly, power operates in space. She is admirably open-minded too, something she shares with Fraterrigo. To Times Higher Education readers, Playboy will now seem irredeemably sexist, where it is not simply absurd. Preciado understands, however, the threat that Playboy undoubtedly posed to 1950s American sexual ethics. Its role in turning a somewhat puritanical nation into the sex-obsessed one we now know is key. It is one of the great American stories, and Pornotopia tells it extremely well (…)

The book concludes with a fascinating coda on the difficulties Preciado experienced with Playboy’s organisation, something she shares with many, including this reviewer. Playboy, in short, wouldn’t cooperate, as usual seeing anything that isn’t hagiography as a threat. Preciado turns this problem into a strength. Revelatory of Playboy’s internal politics, it makes it more, not less, worth studying (…)

This is an edited version of a review in Times Higher Education. For the full review, click here: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/books/pornotopia-an-essay-on-playboys-architecture-and-biopolitics-by-beatriz-preciado/2016350.article

 

Peter Hall and Non-Plan

urlPeter Hall, who died last week aged 82 was a planner, but also one of the most lucid writers about cities in any language. I routinely give my humanities students his Cities of Tomorrow (1996), an encyclopaedic account of the twentieth century’s attempts to rethink cities from England’s industrial north, to Berlin, to Le Corbusier’s Paris, to 1960s Hong Kong, and countless places in between. Its key argument is that cities need to be thought of as dynamic regions, rather than collections of historic monuments. It was published too early to say much about China – but as an account of what has most preoccupied Western planners and architects, there is nothing better. Not only comprehensive, it’s a funny, humane book that shows planning, fundamentally, as a discipline of ideas.

Cities of Tomorrow also shows how impoverished our conversations about cities can be. In the humanities, academics (and students) tend to despair change in general, and urban change in particular – which is why in places where their influence is strong, conversations about cities tend to revolve almost entirely around questions of surface. Europe’s historic cities fall into this category, and have become trivial places as a result.

Shortly after reading Cities of Tomorrow for the first time, I moved to Edinburgh to work. I arrived on a bright late summer’s day where the Firth of Forth and its coastline described (I thought) a big, complex urban region not unlike Bay Area where Hall had a professorship during the 1980s. I was instructed later that day by colleagues that Edinburgh was in fact the Old and New Towns, and to a civilised person, nothing else mattered. Edinburgh has been disappointment ever since. That said, rather influenced by Hall, I’ve always tried to inhabit it as an urban region, living its peripheries as much as its centre, and all points in between. Perhaps one day its leaders will think along Hall’s lines, and celebrate its regional character.

In context, Hall’s most provocative text remains the New Society essay he wrote with Reyner Banham, Paul Barker and Cedric Price, ‘Non-Plan’. Superficially an anti-planning diatribe, it’s in reality an argument for freedom, underpinned by the belief (shared by all the authors) that the relatively unplanned landscape of southern California had produced a better living environment for more of its citizens than the English equivalent. After many visits over the years to California, I still believe on almost every count they are right – and I still give ‘Non-Plan’ to students as a corrective to their highly aestheticised, conservation-minded view of cities. A few of them get it every year. Most don’t, it has to be said, although they appreciate its humour and optimism, and the accompanying cartoon-like sketches.

It’s not surprising my students don’t generally get ‘Non-Plan’., for they have a lot invested in what it attacks. They hope to make lives around conservation and history, and enough of them have the wealth and connections to make this refined life a possibility. But if anything, ‘Non-Plan’’s prescription seems more urgent than ever. Those cities of the world that have wished to restrict growth for aesthetic reasons have become cities of the rich. San Francisco’s average house costs $1 million London’s real estate is so highly valued, it has mutated from housing to become a global reserve currency. That can’t be right in the long term – and slowly governments in places
where this has become a problem have started to look at regional solutions. In the UK, that means devolution of power to metropolitan regions, and the development of a series of New Towns, both policies Hall had advocated for at least 40 years. Perhaps even ‘Non-Plan’ will get another run too. In any case, Hall’s marvellous work lives on.

Paul Barker, Reyner Banham, Peter Hall and Cedric Price, ‘Non-Plan: an experiment in freedom’ New Society 338, (20 March 1969)

Western Architecture and Idealism

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NOTE: Extracts from a much longer talk given at Ewha Woman’s University, Seoul, on 20 May 2014. The audience was art historians and the event accompanied the exhibition ART AND IDEALISM at the university’s museum.

‘Talking to architects in Europe or North America these days can be pretty depressing. They might have plenty of work in Dubai, or China, but in their home patch, whether it is the United States, Germany or the UK, work can be hard to find – still, six years on from the financial crash of 2008. But worse, in some ways, is the pervading sense that architecture no longer has much meaning. It’s a complex, difficult, labour-intensive and extremely low-margin way of making a living – but seemingly little else. Architects in western countries experience high levels of unemployment, and in work, depressingly low levels of pay, among the worst of the professions. And architectural criticism seems to be practically dead. At least, nobody makes any money from it any more.

‘So the profession is in a mess. It’s probably always been in a mess, of course. What has always saved it has been a sense of mission. (…) In the 20th century this was modernism. Modernism promised a broadly similar future in which mankind would live a better, healthier, more light-filled, and more rational life; the modernist future was a better place, and architecture was one of the key reasons why.

‘I want to fast-forward now to a time – now – when any such consensus, and more importantly, any such idealism seems extremely remote. The world faces the same problems as before, but what is lacking now is any belief in the ability of architecture to do anything about them. Architecture has, more or less entirely lost its idealism. Where I live now is as good an example as any. Scotland, a small country with perhaps a fifth of the population of Seoul, was once a place that produced architectural ideas with global reach. Its early nineteenth century New Town is one of the most complete and convincing examples of Enlightenment town planning in the world. And in the period immediately following the Second World War, it embraced architectural modernism for social housing with an enthusiasm that exceeded even that of the USSR. Yet in recent years, the Scottish architectural profession has struggled to know what to do.

IMG_3476In Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, the authorities have since 2010 had the policy of demolishing all high-rise housing in the city. It has its own weird logic: locally the high rise has come to represent the ‘failure’ of the idealism of the modernist project. Glasgow’s enthusiasm for towers now seems to the political elite to be an aberration, the memory of which must be erased. So the city has decided to remove all physical evidence of its modernization in the 1950s and 1960s and wishes to present this to the outside world as evidence of its renewal.

‘The demolition of Glasgow’s towers represents in an unusually clear form the loss of idealism in western architecture. For these towers – the tallest buildings in Scotland, and for many years the tallest residential buildings in Europe – will not be replaced with anything similar, but instead a patchwork of neo-vernacular buildings based on centuries-old forms. The retreat from idealism is almost complete here, and with it the retreat from architecture. So simple, low-tech and traditional are the replacements that architects are barely needed at all.

‘So what has happened to what might be termed the ‘idealism function’ in architecture? Idealism still, I think, exists but now it is the look of idealism. Consider the work of Zaha Hadid. Or more generally, the architecture of the museum, an area in which the west is still – just –  pre-eminent.

Here is a good example, also from the UK. This is the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court of the British Museum in London, built to a design by Norman Foster and Partners and opened in 2002. It is said to be the largest covered public space in Europe; it is certainly one of London’s more extraordinary sights, as well as one of the most visited. It is in essence a refurbishment of the old circular Reading Room of the British Library, a building that used to lie at the heart of the Museum. The project cleared away the book stacks surrounding the Reading Room, faced all the surfaces in marble, rebuilt the neoclassical South Portico, and covered the entire court – which is on the scale of an eighteenth century London square – with an undulation glass roof comprised of x panels, each one different. Experientially it is a remarkable, singular place: light-filled, and gently echoing, it accommodates thousands of visitors on a daily basis, with relatively little fuss. Functionally it has improved the Museum a great deal, providing a space for circulation, orientation, as well as simply pausing in what is otherwise an exhausting and crowded experience.

‘The architects’ design contains an important element of idealism in the design of public space. In western modernism architects invariably imagined the modernist city is as a park, a free space open to all punctuated with buildings. Such a space was, in theory, open to all, and to all possibilities. Something of that idealism remains here at the British Museum. It’s in part a utopian space of circulation, a moment in a much longer pedestrian route stretching 3 km from the mainline rail station at Kings Cross to the Thames. The architects wanted it open 24 hours.

‘But what kind of idealism is this? One of Foster and Partners’ specialities was, and is, the design of airports, and at the same time as designing the Great Court it was completing Chek Lap Kok international airport in Hong Kong (1998). Chek Lap Kok’s outward form is nothing like the British Museum, but it does share with it a number of important principles: both are buildings concerned with managing very large pedestrian flows; both organize flow by providing a single, easily legible space; both seek to extract value from flow. This last point is significant. ‘Flow’ is the critical impulse that drives the design, but the flow in each case is of a certain speed and density that it can support, and generate, other value-producing activities.

And by ‘value-producing activities’, I mean, of course, shopping. The Great Court is, in essence, a specialized shopping mall, a fact confirmed by comparing it with any number of actually existing malls on the world. It contains shops, cafes and restaurants, and processes museum visitors into docile consumers. I have to say it does this extremely well. But the idealism is no more than that a residue. Where the open spaces of architectural modernism declare ‘here you can do anything’, the open space of the museum says, ‘here you can do anything – as long as it is shopping’. Modernism reached out to something like the beach, a utopian space of leisure. The Great Court reaches out to the mall (…)

 

The Museum of Everything, by Christina Neuwirth

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Photos by Maeve O’Dwyer.
A bright room in 20-22 Chambers Street, Monday morning. Dr Carold Richardson and Prof Richard Williams warmly usher me to a table covered in brown paper. On it, a feast of crayons, pencils, broad felt-tip pens, the smooth black biros, scissors and glue sticks await my eager hands. And some 8” by 5” file cards. “Make one!” I am told.

The Museum of Everything is the name of the installation. Entering the room, I see objects and text covering a small portion of the walls, all stuck to, drawn or written on file cards.

The large Hadron Collider has found a space near a bag of English Breakfast Tea, a take-away coffee cup sits next to a drawing of a Milchkaffeeschale. I rummage through my bag, pulling out ticket stubs and the like to add to the museum; small items that remind me of something, but can…

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POSTCARD FROM GOOGLE

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I recently spent a morning at Google headquarters (‘the Googleplex’) in Mountain View, Califonia, at the northern end of Silicon Valley. It was a Sunday, so eerily quiet. I had half a dozen leads from Edinburgh, itself a minor tech pole, and I’d written to all of them requesting a visit. As it turned out, so ineffable is the company, and its campus, I might as well have been requesting an audience with God. So I just went alone and unannounced.

The place was certainly a physical reality. As Wired journalist Andrew Blum points out in an entertaining new book, the internet is a material thing as much as an idea. Internet companies love you to believe in their insubstantiality, in their cloud-ness – but all that data has to be stored somewhere, and the work of managing it likewise.

It was an easy enough trip from SF. I got into my rented Prius and whirred down route 101 to the Rengstorff exit, crossed the highway, and there I was. The campus wasn’t strictly a campus per se, but a constellation of campuses, each anchored by one or more Google buildings. Bordered by route 101, it has an artificial lake for boating, miles of hiking trails, and a huge amphitheatre like the Hollywood Bowl. In the distance to the south, across drained swampland punctuated with electricity pylons I could see NASA’s Ames facility. Defined by three of the world’s biggest buildings, arched sheds made for building airships during the Second World War, it’s one of California’s great architectural sights.

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The Google campus it must be said, isn’t. It’s a sprawling complex, at a guess 300,000 square feet shaped like a C-clamp, comprising half a dozen interlinked pavilions. Clive Wilkinson architects designed it; based in Culver City, one of the centres of the LA film industry, they specialise in ‘Building Creative Communities’. It’s not a statement building of the kind that Facebook are currently contriving with Frank Gehry. You could drive past it and notice (I did, at first). But in the open plaza that defines centre of the complex, there are some deconstructivist Gehry-like elements, as if the façade of an ordinary office pavilion had been taken apart and shaken about. There’s a great curved beam, arching into the sky, emblazoned with the Google logo, like a piece of model railway track.

For the most part, it’s unspectacular, however and your eyes are drawn to the details. An organic garden occupies a northern corner of the plaza (a sign offers advice about seasonal planting, and a recipes – Organic Shephard’s (sic) Pie). A notice in the pavilion next door advertises the Google Film Club, whose carefully balanced, global programme looked the work of a genuine connoisseur.

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Of the details, though, it’s the G-Bikes that are most striking. Old-fashioned, sit-up-and-beg clunkers, they’re fitted with baskets and bells, and painted the corporate red, yellow, green and blue. There’s a useless rim brake, as well as a Dutch-style crank, so if you backpedal, you slow down. I don’t know why the two brakes. Safety first, I suppose. Anyway, they’re everywhere – hundreds of them, free to use for anyone who cares to. The abundance is really quite charming. I took one for a while. It felt like stealing at first, and the first few minutes felt deliciously transgressive (I had visited Apple the same day, and within seconds a security guard pulled up and yelled at me). But after a while, it was clear this seeming transgression wasn’t anything of the sort, but Google’s way of performing its generosity. These days Google may be ‘evil’, but it still has a lot invested in seeming not.

I soon grew tired of the Googleplex and pedalled over to an adjoining campus where a giant cupcake guarded the entrance. A handful of like-minded tourists milled around here, taking pictures – it was obviously what you did. They’d arrived on G-Bikes too, and like me were enjoying the perverse pleasures of the campus, before heading on to Facebook, Linked-In, and Yahoo! It was clearly the beginnings of a tourist trail, like Rome would have been for the eighteenth-century Englishman. Google seemed to have cottoned on already, hence the bikes. So, go while you still can. Google is waiting for you.

PS: Google – if you’re reading this, I put the bike back where it came from.

Forbidden Pleasures

The following are extracts from a talk given at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina in Florianopolis, Brazil on 7 November 2013. 

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‘I mainly work on architecture and the experience of architecture. Increasingly I have been interested in the way the architecture of film and TV conditions the way we experience real buildings. So this talk is about the representation of architecture in two recent American TV series, Breaking Bad and Mad Men both of which have attracted huge interest from architects and designers in the English-speaking world, and in some ways, they represent some of the most imaginative architecture built in the last ten years or so – although they do not, as I say represent real buildings, but rather fantasies (…)

‘I was as surprised as anyone to find myself talking about TV. But as soon as I had discovered Mad Men (directed by Matthew Wiener, 2008 to present) I realised that TV could express things that were not being properly expressed anywhere else. TV seemed to be able to express in more detail, and with more subtlety, the complexities of modern family life, and how it was housed. I wanted architecture to have something to say about that, but about architecture, as always, seemed mostly to want to talk about itself. TV seemed to show the lived experience.

‘The TV I refer to is sometimes known as the ‘third golden age’. It is different from previous ‘ages’ in that it is exclusively produced by and for cable networks. So it is not subject to the usual forms of censorship, or self-censorship that apply on mainstream TV (and American TV is, as you probably know, unusually censorious). What else? It is extremely well funded. It is technically of a very high quality, certainly as good as mainstream Hollywood. It allows long-term character development of a kind only known previously in (say) the nineteenth century novel (…) The narratives of each of these dramas revolves around the tension between the public role and the private desire, order and chaos, between civilisation and sex. There are invariably secrets; those secrets invariably threaten to reveal themselves at any moment. Just as Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movies of the 50s an 60s played out themes from Freudian psychoanalysis, so these long-form TV dramas revisit psychoanalytical themes: eros and civilsation, the death drive, the return of the repressed – they are all there, just as they were in Hitchcock.

MAD MEN ‘It concerns the changing fortunes of a New York advertising agency, starting in the early 1960s. It allows viewers to experience – albeit vicariously – a whole range of pleasures that are now more or less forbidden. These include smoking (the US has some of the toughest anti-smoking legislation in the developed world); drinking (the US is strikingly puritanical when it comes to alcohol, certainly compared with western Europe); extra-marital sex (American marriages are strikingly intolerant of transgression). Mad Men allows viewers to experience all of these things safely from the comfort of the home. And  architecture frames these things, and in so doing provides us with a different reading of the modernist city.

‘The city is undoubtedly that of Mies van der Rohe. His architecture communicates restraint and good taste, characteristics of civilisation, you might say, not eros. It tolerates well-behaved humans, but only just. Mad Men subverts all that, introducing bodies to a modernist environment, bodies with all kinds of desires, bodies which are frankly incapable of behaving. Where Mies demands restraint, Mad Men goes for excess. So, smoking, now so powerfully discouraged in the US, punctuates absolutely every activity. Everyone smokes, all of the time (…) So it is with drinking (…)

‘And, inevitably, sex. When we see the office Diva, Joan Harris set against the regular grid of the open-plan desks, we know there is going to be trouble. By the end of series one, we know that the open plan is a kind of arena, a space largely occupied by women who parade for the entertainment of the largely male partners who occupy the translucent offices surrounding the centre. And we know that the parading is not just for show. Often something happens in the open plan which leads to something else happening the private offices. So towards the end of season 1, Pete Campbell has sex on his office couch early one morning with a colleague, Peggy Olson, an act that – to great comic effect – is visible in silhouette through the glass. The janitor’s blasé attitude says it all. He’s seen it plenty of times before: it’s simply what goes on in this place. In summary, Mad Men turns a place of restraint, order and efficiency into its opposite; the Miesian office becomes a machine for the free reign of the libido. We can never look at it in the same way again (…)

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BREAKING BAD ‘Neither can we look in the same way at the sunny, suburban city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, the location of Breaking Bad. The narrative, for those of you who have not seen it, concerns a mild-mannered gifted high school chemistry teacher, Walter White. Walt is faced with not only an unexpected child (his wife) but also his own diagnosis of terminal cancer. Unable to bear leaving his family with debt, he turns to the manufacture of the highly addictive and dangerous drug methamphetamine. He turns out to be extremely good at this. He also turns out to be extremely good at killing. It is one of the strengths of the series that it is sufficiently complex to allow our sympathies to remain with Walt far longer than they should; even after the bodies start to pile up, we still want Walt to ‘win’. The reason for this is, in a way, simple. Walt’s descent into criminality is also a libidinal awakening. In other words, as he becomes a criminal, he also becomes a man (…)

Breaking Bad parades a whole range of transgressions, but all of them can be defined in terms of the libido. In the first episode of the first season, Walt is depicted in bed with his wife, Skyler at the end of a day celebrating Walt’s 50th birthday. It is a dismal scene: an overdecorated, dark bedroom, Skyler distracted with a laptop (she is bidding for items on e-Bay) while she gives Walt a desultory handjob; she’s far more interested in what’s going on onscreen than she is in Walt’s pleasure – he loses whatever interest he had. He is both figuratively and literally emasculated. But later in that episode, through a series of extraordinary turns, Walt has started to construct a new, and libidinally charged identity.

‘Here he is in a composite image used for publicity purposes, but which beautifully summarises the early stages of his transition. The location is the New Mexico desert on the outskirts of Albuquerque, a place (we learn quickly) where Bad Things Happen – a lawless zone, where civilisation literally and figuratively does not exist. In the background is the 1986 Fleetwood Bounder, a large RV that serves for the first half of the series as a mobile laboratory. To Walt’s right lies a discarded breathing mask, necessary attire for cooking meth, but also (in terms of the symbolism of the series) an important uniform. Walt himself stands half-transformed. His residual clothing (the green shirt and the desert boots) is that of his old identity of chemistry school teacher – but he has lost his pants, he stands legs apart, glaring at the camera, and he holds a pistol, with intent. He looks absurd – but also menacing. What is certain in this image is that he is decisively more in control in this by all accounts crazy environment than he ever was in the relative security of home  (…)

‘Now Walt’s solution is an almost perfect realisation of the Freudian death drive, a will to destruction that we all to greater, or lesser degrees, have. Enacting that drive is not an option for most of us, so the function of dramas like Breaking Bad is to stage it, so it can be vicariously consumed. Walt is a fictional character, as are the characters in Mad Men, but there are many Walts out there, angry white men, harbouring the same fantasies of destruction. American TV drama may not have any answers, but it is certainly asking the right questions.