Forbidden Pleasures

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

mm1

‘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 (…)

bb1

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.

Advertisements

‘Judas’ at the Free Trade Hall: memories of Dylan in ’66

bob-dylan-1966

Bob Dylan’s 1966 British tour is remembered primarily for one thing: the moment at the Manchester Free Trade Hall gig when a man in the circle yells ‘Judas!’. Some brief banter with the stage ensures, and then Dylan turns to his all-electric band and instructs them to ‘play it fucking loud’, before launching into the last number of the night, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. The story has been told countless times. In the most recent biography of Dylan, by the journalist Ian Bell, it actually is the defining moment if the singer’s career: a version of it opens the book, and Bell’s somewhat baroque analysis spills out over twelve pages, the leitmotif of Dylan’s life. The interpretations of the ‘Judas’ moment are legion: the defeat of folk, the triumph of sex, the birth of punk, the death of God. You name it, it’s been said.

Like just about everyone else, I only know the moment through heresay, and more recently Martin Scorcese’s 2005 documentary No Direction Back. The ’65-66 tour was a the subject of D. A. Pennebaker’s film Don’t Look Back, which impressed me the first time I saw it aged 15 or so. I happen to have known the venue, Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, very well. An extraordinary transplanted Florentine palazzo, it was the frame for any number of crucial performances, from the Halle Orchestra to the Sex Pistols. A truncated Hall now serves as the entrance portico of the Radisson Renaissance Hotel.

By chance, I met Susan Grey who was at the Manchester concert in 1966, and understood my desire to know more. Susan is a clinical psychologist, based in London; she grew up in the south Manchester suburbs in the 1960s. I wanted to know more about the Dylan gig, but also what she felt about it all now, looking back. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, very little edited:

RW: You said these were your first gigs.

SG: The first was in 1965, when I was 14. The second was 1966.

RW: Fourteen’s quite young. What was the appeal of Dylan to you at that age?

SG: If I had to pick one thing it would be the words. But I think it was much more complicated than that. I remember hearing the buzz about a Pete Seeger concert that some friends of my elder brother had been to. Some of them played the guitar, banjo or harmonica and they started up an evening folk club at school, so I used to go to that. They played a mixture of traditional folk and the newer Pete Seeger style of songs. But there was one boy who used to turn up and do Bob Dylan songs. I liked pop and rock music –  I’d spent years listening to Radio Luxemburg and Radio Caroline. When folk came along it was an introduction to a whole new genre – especially the political and protest songs. ‘Little Boxes’, or ‘We Shall Overcome’, for example, challenged the accepted order of things and couldn’t have been more different from what was usually in the charts. Dylan had that folk sound, but was a bit different – sometimes bluesy, poetic and often rather mysterious. Songs like ‘Masters of War’ were incredibly powerful and like nothing else I’d heard before.

RW: Did the political context matter?

I think the context was important. As children in the 50s we’d heard a lot about world war – supposedly as a thing of the past. But now we were seeing very shocking images of the Vietnam war on television night after night…we forget that in those days media coverage wasn’t managed the way it is now. Not long before we’d had the Missile Crisis and extremely alarming talk of World War 3. Protest movements were gathering momentum, not just about the war, but also about civil rights, apartheid, nuclear weapons etc. Young people were questioning the establishment. There was also beat poetry, pot and jazz – and I was on the threshold of all that.  So for me I think the folk revival in general and Dylan in particular represented an entry into something very exciting and grown-up, both musically and in terms of involvement with bigger issues.

RW: What did your family think of him? He’s an unkempt, rebellious character in Pennebaker’s film.

SG: My parents didn’t think much of him – especially his singing voice. But they were pretty tolerant and didn’t stop me monopolising the family record-player.

RW: That sounds familiar. My folks never ‘got’ Dylan because they couldn’t understand what he was singing. Anyway, back to ’66. Who liked Dylan in Manchester back then? Who was the audience?

I think they were mainly youngish people. People who were excited by songs with a message. It was about entering a much more serious and grown-up world.

RW: The second gig, when Dylan ‘went’ electric – how did it strike you? Was the music a shock?

SG: Yes, it was rather. I wasn’t aware of what he’d been doing over the year between ‘65 and ’66. In 1965, at 14, I was absolutely enthralled. I’d never experienced anything like this before. He came on stage and stood in the spotlight – just a slight figure with guitar and harmonica.  He said very little, just worked his way through all these wonderful songs. Everybody loved it. Afterwards my friend and I went round to the stage door with a dozen or so other people in the hope of seeing him and getting his autograph. Of course he didn’t appear, so eventually we had to accept that the evening was over and get the train home.In 1966 I suppose we expected more of the same – and this time I knew more of the music. The first half was fine then the second half was a real surprise. I didn’t know what to make of it. It wasn’t just that he’d added the band and electric sound, the arrangements were different as well.

RW: Did you identify with him, this all-new, ‘electric’ Dylan?

SG: Part of me felt cheated that he’d changed his style and we weren’t hearing what we expected to hear, but I was intrigued too. I didn’t want Dylan to give up what I thought were his principles, but also I didn’t want to give up on him. It didn’t take me long to get on board and I bought the single ‘Like Rolling Stone’ as well as the album, ‘Bringing it all back home’.

RW: The electric band’s so rough – it sounds close to punk now. God knows what it was like in ’66. Can you say a bit more about your reaction? 

The quality of the sound? Well, the electric set was noisily dramatic. Very loud in comparison with the accoustic set – and the words were hard to follow, as much as anything because we couldn’t hear them properly. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the electric numbers – but it was still Dylan and, after all, you had to work at it a bit with some of his accoustic songs too. So for me it was a case of waiting to see what happened next.

RW: When the guy upstairs shouted ‘Judas’, you told me you earlier that you heard him loud and clear. What went through your mind?

SG: I thought – did he really say Judas? By that time there’d already been plenty of noises from the audience – slow-handclapping and so on – so it was clear not everyone was happy.  Dylan was clearly not happy. After ‘Judas’, he said ‘I don’t believe you, you’re a liar.’ There were some other comments at various points but they were difficult to hear.

RW: Did you think you’d witnessed something historic at the time?

SG: This individual hostile exchange was quite dramatic, but I think at 15 my sense of history was limited, so I’d have to say no. Obviously I was aware of the fuss in the press afterwards, but I don’t remember that particular incident being singled out until the official album came out years later and Andy Kershaw wrote about it, and interviewed the chap who shouted ‘Judas’. I remember thinking ‘Ooh I was there!’ But looking back it was only one of many turning points for him. He turned out to be even more versatile and extraordinary than he seemed in the 60’s.

I think some people in the audience felt that we might have lost a hero for no good reason – other than his own wilfulness. – and I could relate to that. In retrospect it’s clear there were a lot of unwarranted assumptions being made about his interests and motivation. But at the time we were at a loss as to how it would all pan out – would he continue to be interesting and sing songs with a message, or would he become just like any other rock and roll band? After the concert a small crowd of people sat down on the floor in the foyer in protest. My friend and I hung around for a bit to see what would happen, but nothing much did. We knew by now that stage door appearances were not Dylan’s style, so we headed off for the train. Such antagonism between a performer and the audience was all very strange. But it was exciting to be there when things were happening that people cared about. Sit-down strikes and protests were like a new language for young people, so it seemed like a natural way to react.

RW: What do you think of the Pennebaker movie ‘Don’t Look Back’?

SG: I didn’t see that film until many years later. I think it pretty much showed how Dylan and others in that scene behaved at that time. I’d followed all the coverage of Dylan’s tours in the newspapers, so I knew he liked to be challenging or contrary with interviewers. I’d like to have felt I knew more about him, but that didn’t make me any the less fascinated.

RW: The Free Trade Hall was an extraordinary place. What else do you remember about it?

It was good that it wasn’t a very big venue, so you could always see. By today’s standards it was quite intimate and they even had seats on the stage behind the performer. As far as I can remember the tickets were reasonably priced. I don’t count them as a gigs, but I’d been there a couple of times as a much younger child with my family to see our next-door neighbours’ Scottish Country Dancing Nights, so it was familiar. The venue was near to Oxford Road station and concerts always ended in time for the train back to the nearest station in Cheadle Hulme (RW: southern suburb, ten miles south). If my parents had any concerns about me going to a gig in town at 14 they didn’t say so.  I’m not sure how interesting it is to read lists of names, but over a few years following the first Dylan gig I saw acts like Simon and Garfunkel, Julie Felix, Incredible String Band, and Donovan. One gig had a young David Bowie doing a mime act supporting Tyrannosaurus Rex. Then there were acts like Manitas De Plata with his flamenco guitar group. I collected a few autographs as some of them were stage door friendly and didn’t mind chatting with a few of us who stayed behind after the show. The Free Trade Hall was also home to the Halle orchestra – where I saw Daniel Barenboim, Vladimir Ashkenasky and Jaqueline Du Pre. There were a couple of other gigs I went to during those years – The Beatles at ABC Ardwick, and I think Charles Aznavour was at The Palace, but those venues didn’t have the intimacy of the Free Trade Hall.

RW: There’s not much left of the original Free Trade Hall – it’s just the foyer of the Radisson. How did you feel when it was redeveloped?

SG: I remember feeling dismayed by a newspaper story that the Free Trade Hall might be demolished or developed in some way. So, although I knew the battle had already been lost, when I was visiting Manchester a few years ago I felt compelled to go into what’s left of the building to have a look. I stood in the foyer and felt quite bereft. I had to go over to the receptionist and tell her how sad it was and how much those concerts meant to me growing up. She was very nice and friendly and said they understood. In fact they’d tried to acknowledge these events by naming rooms after some of the artists. So that was it. Not much else to be said. I felt stupidly emotional and my eyes were welling up a bit so it was time to leave.

Very many thanks to Susan Grey for sharing her experiences.

REFERENCES

Ian Bell, Once Upon a Time: The Lives of Bob Dylan (London: Mainstream, 2013)

D. A. Pennebaker (dir. ), Don’t Look Back (1967)

Martin Scorcese (dir.) No Direction Home (2005)

Zurich’s ‘Sex Boxes’

Article first published in Building Design, August 2013. For more on BD, and how to subscribe, go to http://www.bdonline.co.uk 

PA_Zurich_sex_box_we_440

There was much chortling this week at the opening of Zurich’s scheme for rehabilitating street prostitution via so-called “sex boxes”. Reported by the global media, the scheme is a practical approach to a real problem: street prostitution in the Sihlquai neighbourhood, which had reached uncontrollable proportions, with attendant problems of waste. Residents were used to finding prostitutes and clients using their gardens as public toilets.

The trial solution is neat. On a bit of railway land, 2km west of the city centre, social services have built a terrace of wooden drive-in huts. The design is superbly restrained Swiss-minimalist-modernist. Think Peter Zumthor with condoms.

It’s all very decently landscaped, and at night is lit up with an appealing red/green colour scheme. The cabins are open at one end, so there is no real privacy, but it’s a good deal more luxurious than the street practice it replaces. It’s also safer: each hut is equipped with a panic button, and social services are close at hand.

The world’s media were fascinated not only by the fact that the sex boxes existed at all, but by the overt (and stereotypically Swiss) regulation. No cameras or phones, big signs exhorting the use of condoms, and a strict 30-minute time limit.

It’s all beautifully explained in pictograms. Initial reactions seemed good. When it opened at 7pm Zurich time on Monday, there was plenty of trade. The only complaint the clients had was about poor signage, though the place did already show up on satnav devices. And the streetwalkers in Sihlquai seemed to have disappeared.

Could it happen in Britain? No. There are awkward questions about the origins of the women and their conditions of work, not to mention the reasons for the project in the first place, responding more to the sensibilities of the burghers of Zurich than to the largely powerless sex workers.

Put those things aside, though, and there is something attractively honest about this. It makes sex a part of everyday life rather than hiding it away. Why not adapt it for the rest of us, struggling to find time and space for intimacy? Dress it up a bit, and fit a door. Rent by the hour. Sex pods for all!

 

‘Architects always seem pretty uncomfortable with feelings…’ Interview with Richard J Williams

playboy-town-hous_600-1

Interview text first published in Building Design, August 2013

BD: What made you want to write a book about sex?

There is a quite an intellectual history to it, I suppose. The first piece I ever published on architecture (1996, I think) was about photography, and I was aware then that architecture could have rather bloodless quality. I had a fat file of quotations by architects complaining about “people” in photographs. Architectural photography has changed quite a lot since them but there’s still a general problem around the body, unless it’s highly abstracted.

I did some more thinking about the problem in 2004 in the book The Anxious City, which argued that the kind of civilised urban life we being offered by Richard Rogers et al was oddly desiccated. It seemed to cut out all the stuff that makes us human. I spent a lot of time in Brazil around then, and the next book Brazil (2009) explored the way that country seemed to provide some alternatives.

They certainly seemed to have an idea that modernism and modernity could be sexy, rather than utilitarian. In practice, I’m not sure what it means. I don’t think Brazilians necessarily have sex more than the rest of us. But sexiness is an important part of the natural myth, and it runs right through architectural practice. It seemed obvious after that to do a book on sex. Of course there was a mercenary aim too – I thought people might actually want to read a book with ‘sex’ in the title.

BD: How much of the book is based on your personal experience?

Quite a bit, as it happens. I developed my architectural interests at the same time as moving to Edinburgh. In a short period, I was married with kids, settled in a comfortable corner of the city and a professor at the university. There’s a photograph of my street in the first chapter.

A lot of growing up had happened in that period, and inevitably kids, and work, and life in general displace sexuality, or it gets sublimated into work. My wife and I reflected on it a lot, as did everyone we knew. It’s a classic human narrative, intensified these days by the fact that we live such bloody long lives.

The twist in my case was the city. Edinburgh’s a fantastic city, but it’s socially very conservative. It tends to wear its morality on its sleeve, and that morality is more clearly built in stone than anywhere I can think of, certainly anywhere I’ve ever visited. In the bourgeois city, the domestic architecture represents a sexual morality with real clarity.

People really do keep rooms for “best”, ask you to RSVP, and invite the minister round for tea. And they really do tell you off if they think your behaviour isn’t up to scratch. There’s remarkable pressure to keep up appearances. As a result, it’s got a remarkable number of psychotherapists, who spend most of their time dealing with the fallout. Dig below the surface and it’s a screwed-up place. I really started to understand Freud in Edinburgh. It sometimes feels like you’re in his Vienna.

There’s one other thing in the background. I lived in Manchester during the 1990s, a brilliant time to be there. I did most of my drinking on Canal St, which was very educational… Apart from all that al fresco sex going on round about, it really showed how a different approach to sex might change a city. It really felt like I was witnessing some kind of liberation.

BD: Can architecture limit procreation? If so, how?

That’s a very good question! The straight answer is no. Buildings can’t stop people having sex any more than they can stop them breathing. But buildings have always been put up in the belief that they can limit sex. I’m not wild about Foucault, but his History of Sexuality is good on that question. He talks about the design of schools and hospitals and prisons, the physical separation of the sexes and so on. That idea will always be with us in some form. I’m sure we’re due a revival in schools. I think it’s nonsense, of course, but there will always be folks who believe in it.

BD: Do you think modernism – rectilinear forms, clean lines, classic proportions and so on – can be sexually repressive?

It depends where you live, and when.

I had an office for years in Basil Spence’s David Hume Tower (1963) which of itself didn’t have any sexual connotations. But it’s remarkably like the modernism you get in the centre of Brasília, and those buildings are somehow easier to understand as erotic. It’s the climate, partly. But it’s also the sense of a city created de novo which has an eroticism all of its own. There’s still a sense that anything is possible there. In Edinburgh, anything modern happened against enormous resistance.

In the States, Mad Men  is brilliant at showing how a Miesian office building can be eroticised. In many ways, Mad Men is the most important piece of American architecture of the last ten years – it’s an amazing piece of work. And it’s not even a building.

BD: You have a chapter dedicated to communal living which sounds pretty grim . But isn’t co-housing the most sexually progressive form of housing?

I do believe that co-housing has the potential to let people have the sexual lives they deserve. One of my favourite books is Esther Perel’s Mating in Captivity. She repeatedly argues that sex is profligate and wasteful – it ‘loves to waste time’. Well, if that’s the case, you need to find ways of making time for it, and it seems obvious that shared facilities and labour would help. Then co-housing can provide all sorts of facilities that are normally out of range.

Swimming pools, for example. I often think if we all had access to a decent outdoor pool where we lived, we’d all be better off. But co-housing is very difficult in the present climate when housing is an investment. If it wasn’t. I’m sure we’d be more inclined to experiment. The funny thing is we all accept co-housing on holiday – resorts based around pools and childcare and so on. I’d happily live like that all the time if it were actually an option.

BD: Did you visit any buildings outside the UK for your research. If so which?

I think most of the research was done outside the UK for the simple reason that most of the ideas about sexuality and space seemed to have been explored elsewhere (that might be different if the book had been about the contemporary situation – the UK has changed). The key buildings were American. There IS a big chunk on California, the work of Schindler and Neutra in particular, and then the Case Study houses.

I also looked at a few big public buildings there. The cover is the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in LA by John Portman, who proper architects tend to loathe, but I really admire. Playboy’s attempts to imagine a modern town house were important too.  America IS important because that was where our (western) ideas about sex were most enthusiastically developed.

BD: What’s your view on the smaller homes we’re building – is this going make people cuddle up or have the opposite effect?

I’d suspect it’ll have the opposite effect. If you go back to Perel again, her idea of sex as an inherently wasteful force suggests that you need space, room to play. Efficiency is a bit of a turn-off, especially if it’s the only concept in play. The UK has some remarkably small living spaces now. It might be worth comparing our recent experience with that of (say) Spain, which had exactly the same problem in the 80s and 90s.

I lived in Madrid, 1990-3. The pressures on space did (anecdotally) seem to produce some inventive use of public space, but also a hell of a lot of frustration, and family conflicts. All my Spanish friends hated their parents. One useful outlet was the love hotel, just like in Brazil and Japan. Madrid had quite a few. You know, rent a room by the hour. They’re an excellent idea. If I had the money, I’d set up a UK chain without any hesitation.

BD: Could the concept form follows emotion take off?

I like that. Why not? It might re-engage the client. After all, talk to people who use buildings, and all they want to talk about is how buildings make them feel. Architects always seem pretty uncomfortable with feelings. They shouldn’t be; they’re all we have as human beings.

Two New Posts

Here are a couple of new pieces in print. More in the pipeline from Monocle, and the Times Higher. Details to follow.

Interview about Sex and Buildings. ‘Architects always seem pretty uncomfortable with feelings’, Building Design (9 August 2013) http://www.bdonline.co.uk/culture/architects-always-seem-pretty-uncomfortable-with-feelings/5058889.article Register free for access.

‘Sex in Architecture’, MAP (6 August 2013), online. http://mapmagazine.co.uk/9664/sex-in-architecture/

Madrid in the Journal of Iberian Studies

Here below is a link to a new issue of the Journal of Iberian Studies on Madrid, edited by Benjamin Fraser. Looks great. Madrid is very large, and complex, but often overlooked by Anglophone writers. It shouldn’t be: it grew at a prodigious rate during from the 1980s until recently, and arguably experienced more urban change than anywhere in Western Europe in that period. It bought into culture as an agent of change more vigorously (and earlier) than anywhere I can think of, and its reconstruction of its transport networks was likewise done with with rare conviction and thoroughness. The landscapes of change we now find in contemporary China were all there in early 1990s Madrid: new suburbs and satellite towns created de novo, forests of high rises, inexorably expanding subway networks, frenzied consumerism, a new, bewildered poor. I know, because I was there. It was an unforgettable and formative experience. Lately, Madrid has experienced waves of immigration that have changed its character markedly – and it’s an abrupt experience, with no historical precedent. Madrid’s recent experiences are thoroughly global ones; it’s a splendid test case for any number of global phenomena.

http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-issue,id=2454/

I Heart My City In The Summer: My Top Twenty.

url

National Geographic Traveler has just posted its top 20 best things to do in cities around the world this summer. Here are mine, in reverse order:

20. Stockholm, Sweden Have a tour of the recent riots, taking in some great ethnic food along the way. Take the blue (T11) metro line to the northern suburb of Husby. Then top it off with a spot of nude sunbathing at Ågesta Beach (bus 742).

19. New York, United States Take a trip back in time on the famous New York subway, unchanged in 40 years. Has the US completely lost it? It’s 1973 down there. Lou Reed’s chewing gum, spat out as he left the Velvet Undrground’s session for Loaded in 1969, still visible at Spring St. station, SoHo.

18. Singapore, Singapore Play hide and seek with your kids in the smog (but do wear masks). Plenty of time left to do it: it’s going to last for weeks. Have a drink on the veranda at the Raffles Hotel afterward.

17. Edinburgh, Scotland Tour the the never-ending tram works on Princes St. Are they building it – or taking it to pieces? Your guess is as good as ours. Later on, take the Scottish DNA test courtesy those latter-day eugenicists at http://www.scotlandsdna.com/. Are you pure enough for Scotland?

16. Madrid, Spain Help remove the shanty town at El Gallinero, Madrid. Let’s clean this place up! Take the train to Collado Villalba, and get a cab from there. Great tapas back in Madrid. Try El Museo del Jamon, nr. Puerta del Sol.

15. Tehran. Iran Try a spot of flag-burning in Azadi Square to celebrate the election of President Hasan Rowhani (but not the Iranian one!). Check out the street food: ‘Mexican Corn Cup’ and boiled beets, available everywhere.

14. Doha, Qatar Visit the new Taliban Embassy. If you can find it. They’ve removed the sign.

13. Moscow, Russia Stand up for traditional family values in an anti-gay demonstration. Plenty of choice, free to participate. Then frozen vodka with Moscow’s jet set at Simachev’s, Stoleshnikov Lane.

12. Shanghai, China Take a refreshing dip in the Huangpu River. Watch out for pigs!

11. Paris, France Ever wanted to try your hand at being an air traffic controller? Now’s your chance. France routinely stops air traffic during the summer to let tourists have go at  guiding planes – but without the risk, because they ground them all. Try Paris Charles de Gaulle. It’s popular, though – be prepared for long queues.

10. Venice, Italy Biennial festival of Garbage. The mysterious Biennale attracts pilgrims from all over the world to worship displays of rubbish, and speak in mystical terms, guided by the enigmatic catalogo, a religious text. The origins of this rubbish-worship are obscure.

9. London, England Re-enact the spectacular looting of summer 2011. Just take a train to Clapham Junction (every five minutes from Waterloo), head for the Debenhams department store, and help yourself to whatever you like. Nobody minds. That buccaneering spirit is London’s gift to the world.

8. Detroit, United States Celebrate the city’s culture-led revival with a visit to the opera house. Free entry.

7. Toronto, Canada It’s party time – and boy, do Torontonians know how to let it all hang out. How about sharing a crack pipe with the city’s Mayor?

6. Limassol, Cyprus Check out the spectacular ruins of Europe’s banks, strangely compelling in the sunshine. Great Russian food.

5. Kabul, Afghanistan Model aircraft fans! You’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven. Actually…

4. Brasilia, Brazil How about some free-running (parkour) on the government buildings of the Monumental Axis? Very popular this summer. Watch out for teargas, though. Then try some authentic Lebanese kibbeh in the Bar Beruite, Asa Sul. Open late.

3. Athens, Greece Learn the ancient art of the moutza in Syntagman Square. Careful what you do with it once you’ve learned.

2. Istanbul, Turkey Meet the friendly local police at Gezi Park.

1. Sao Paulo, Brazil This summer’s hit. Where to start in the South American metropolis? A quarter-million-strong demo on the Avenida Paulista? Check. Blocking the main highway to Santos? Check. Looting of shops and banks? Check. It’s all to play for in summer 2013’s hottest destination.

Here’s the National Geographic’s selection: http://intelligenttravel.nationalgeographic.com/author/iheartmycity/

The FT on the future of the city

IMG_4261

Two outstanding pieces of journalism from the Financial Times recently, both on the future of the city (that’s ‘city’, uncapitalised, as it were). First was Edward Luce , ‘The future of the American city’, on 7 June. (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/4e857a96-ce40-11e2-a13e-00144feab7de.html#slide0) His argument, in short, is that after decades of decline, the American city is now in the ascendency. Cities represent poles of economic and population growth, where not so long ago they were basket cases, consuming, rather than producing resources. Some of those cases remain – Detroit, for example – but they have become the exception rather than the rule. Second was Simon Kuper’s ‘Priced out of Paris’, on 14 June (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/a096d1d0-d2ec-11e2-aac2-00144feab7de.html#axzz2WSWUgrtq) Kuper wrote something similar, but focused on the European experience, and particularly what it feels like to be excluded from the city to which you feel you have a right. Neither Luce nor Kuper say anything especially new, but they say it  with unusual clarity. They point to a series of emerging crises in the world’s most developed cities: crises around property values and rights to the city.

What is perhaps clearer than before (and why the FT has taken an interest) is the extent to which the middle classes now fear exclusion from the city. The poor have always lived precariously in cities; that sense of precarity now infiltrates the relatively well-off. Both pieces describe that emergent insecurity very well.

Of course, what we’re seeing is nothing new. This astonishing concentration of wealth is what cities do. And once they’ve done that, they tend to suffer some or other form of market correction – cities have always been bubbles, and bubbles, at some point always burst. It is on the one hand a wonder to behold, especially if you experienced the violence done to the industrial city in the 70s and 80s. The impossibility of imagining a future for the British city at that time was my subject in the book The Anxious City in 2004: at that time, any urban development seemed miraculous. On the other hand, the violence done to the working class city now seems to be directed at the middle class city, the suburban city that only a few years ago seemed unassailable. That city is the home of the FT as much as the City of London. No wonder they’re worried.

Richard J Williams, The Anxious City (Routledge, 2004):

http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=sCu-ImkaxNwC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=fal