The Museum of Everything

Things have been quiet lately on this site partly because I’ve been doing THE MUSUEM OF EVERYTHING. http://sites.ace.ed.ac.uk/museumofeverything/ The site’s first post is reproduced below. Check in daily for updates. The project ends officially on 21 February, but if there’s any demand, we’ll keep the web page going.

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THE MUSEUM OF EVERYTHING is an imaginary museum created by its visitors over a five day period from 17 to 21 February 2014. It takes place in a big, airy room in Minto House normally used for architecture studio crits. On entering, you’ll see a sign setting out INSTRUCTIONS FOR OPERATION. It’s really very simple. You take a 8″ by 5″ file card from a box and on it you write, or draw, or otherwise  describe any object you would like to see in the Museum. Anything at all is allowed. It could be an art object – Picasso’s ‘Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1907) for example, which we can temporarily borrow from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It could be a scientific object, like an early microscope or the Large Hadron Collider. It could be an early Koran. Or the Titanic, raised from its watery grave. A live Giant Pacific Octopus. A set of chopsticks. It really is up to you. If the object is small enough, and you’re happy to let us have it, then stick it to the card. Once you’ve filled out the card, pin it to the wall along with the others, and then repeat the process as often as you like. The aim is to fill the Museum – generosity is positively encouraged. Maybe we can help create a new generation of cultural philanthropists, if only in our minds. At the end of the week, on Friday 21 February at 1300 there will be panel discussion involving Prof. Andrew Patrizio, Dr. Jill Burke, Dr. Carol Richardson and Dr. Frances Fowle of the School of  History of Art at which we’ll discuss what kind of a collection we seem to have created, and what we should do with it. Robust – even iconoclastic – discussion will be encouraged.

THE MUSEUM OF EVERYTHING has scope for a lot of fun. But it is also a serious exercise at a time when museums are so circumscribed by politics, the law, health and safety, the demands of lenders and the demands of insurance companies, the lunacy of the art market, and the competition for audience. With so many competing demands, it’s a wonder museums exist at all. What is certain is that we rarely have an open discussion about them and what we want from them, as we – in this case art historians – are also so often in the position of the Museum’s advocates. The Museum of Everything is, hopefully, a pause in normal business, and a chance to reflect.

The Museum draws on a few historical precedents. The idea that anything might be included comes from the eighteenth century tradition of the Cabinet of Curiosities, an idea that increasingly appears in academic discourse in a cloud of something like nostalgia. The Cabinet’s fundamentally anti-rational character is the very opposite of the present day museum – it has something we’ve undoubtedly lost. The Museum of Everything also draws in a wonderful and eccentric book by Andre Malraux, the Museum Without Walls, published 1952-4. In a classic image from that book, Malraux is pictured looking a carpet of photographs of sculpture – the medium of photography, he argues, gives us the possibility of experiencing art in all kinds of new ways and in new combinations. No longer are we bound to a fixed architectural container. Malraux’s argument of course prefigured the invention of the world wide web, which has informed contemporary museum practice in ways we are only slowly starting to understand. Cognisance of that has to be part of our building a Museum of Everything, too. Finally, there have been one or two Museums of Everything in the past, including a London-based art project with the odd iteration on the South Bank. This is unrelated, not least because it’s an audience, not artist-led project. But we like the name, so we’re sticking with it. If anyone objects, let us know.

So – you’re all welcome to the Museum, very welcome indeed. Visit anytime 0930-1700 and add as much as you like. And please, if you can, come to the events during the week, and help us decide what to do with our creation.

 

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.

Niemeyer: the future is LUMPY

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I’m standing in the middle of the Caminho Nimeyer in Niteroí, just outside Rio de Janeiro. The Caminho is one of the architect’s last big projects, and remains unfinished. It’s a great concrete parade ground on the waterfront overlooking Rio, punctuated with (so far) three buildings that are unmistakably Niemeyer’s: a theatre with an undulating roof and angled walls; a small dome set at ground level, and a larger one with a serpentine ramp leading to an entrance above ground. All could have been built at any point since 1945. The theatre revisits the iconic chapel at Pampulha. The domes are Brasília. The ramps nod to the celebrated Museu de Arte Contemporânea a mile down the road. There are a couple of other less spectacular elements: a pretty gatehouse that could have been done by Richard Neutra in 30s Hollywood. And there’s a little information centre in black glass, a simple drum of a kind that you bump into all over Brasilia. From the ocean it looks fantastic, especially the theatre: crisp and bright against the industrial confusion of Niteroi (the city is a tangle of breaker’s yards, half-dismantled ships and oil rigs: a wonderful, dynamic chaos that is never the same twice).

If you actually make it through Niteroí’s traffic to the Caminho, however, the problem starts. It’s a familiar one for Niemeyer followers, namely the disjunction between the idea and the execution. At Brasília you rarely feel this is an issue, such is the quality of construction and maintenance. But here, it’s the main thing you feel. The ramp leading to the larger dome is a case in point. The idea is clear enough, a drawn line translated into concrete. It’s sweeping gesture in pen turned into 3D (I saw Niemeyer draw in 2001 or 2 and he signed a book for me – he was a wonderfully fluid draftsman). But the execution in concrete is all lumps and bulges which can be seen from a distance. Close up, the ramp has a highly irregular quality, and is in parts quite angular, a representation of the building process. The same is true of all the big buildings here: a pure form on paper in turns into a botched exercise in reality. It’s the future remade as a primary school art project.

The question is, does it matter? As far as I could tell in my conversation with Niemeyer it did not. To focus on the details was to misunderstand the scale of his imagination. His architecture was a representation of an ideal world that would come to pass at some indeterminate time in the future, and in which such minor details would be taken care of.

here’s another possible view, which is that the tension between idea and execution is actually part of the aesthetic, in the same way that (say) punk cultivated a wilful amateurism. You come to enjoy it, because it gives your imagination something to do.

I’m not sure this is the case with Niemeyer, though. Having seen just about everything he did in Brazil, my impression is of the most extraordinary variation in quality. If there’s a ‘punk Niemeyer’, you never know when you’re going to get it. The Niteroí project, prominent, state supported, built in his home town: well, it ought to be good, But it’s one of the worst, quality-wise, and incomprehensible in its present state to any other than hardcore fans.I enjoyed it, though. Its contradictions give you plenty to think about, and its air of shoddy decay produces some hilarious moments. There’s a funny ramp up to the theatre, half-finished and ambiguous in purpose. Was it for wheelchair access, we wondered? But it was angled at 30 degrees, suggesting, if anything a disposal chute. For unloved relatives? A wheelchair would reach quite a speed if let go…There are plenty more instances like this. In the sun, it’s a bizarre, inhumane place, treeless and baking. But its very inhumanity makes you laugh out loud (well, it did us). You have to admit that not much architecture does that. IMG_6083

Richard J. Williams, Brazil: Modern Architectures in History  (London: Reaktion Books, 2009) is still available at around £15.00. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Brazil-Architectures-Richard-J-Williams/dp/1861894007

Lies, Damned Lies…and Cities

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A short post about cities and statistics:

Cities are remarkably hard to define. You would think otherwise, given the amount of data we have at our disposal. There are few cities on earth that have not been comprehensively mapped and photographed. But certain problems of definition remain: even in a single context, let’s say the United Kingdom, the definition of a city’s limits might vary from one case to another; we often compare apples with oranges. I was reminded this in recent coverage of a survey which measured the relative ‘vibrancy’ of different UK cities. I didn’t think much of the survey (it was a ‘fucking bag of bollocks’ according to the architectural journalist Ian Martin). One reason I didn’t was that its definitions varied according to city. So ‘London’ was, strictly speaking, the Greater London metropolitan region, with a population of 7.5 million or so. Its ‘Manchester’ was the political city, which is to say, a constituent part of a much larger urban region. Its 510,000 population makes it more like a big London borough. In this particular case, smallness played to Manchester’s advantage, and it came it top. For this exiled Mancunian, of course that’s good news, but I still recognise it as a flawed comparison.

I explored the problem a little more in a class today. I showed the group a list of population figures, all of which define ‘Manchester’ correctly:

‘Old City’ (1800 boundary)                                          25,000
Political boundary city 2013                                       510,000
Urban core, including Salford and Trafford            1,200,000
Greater Manchester, political boundary, 2013       2,600,000
Postcode city including all GM codes                     3,000,000 (estimate)
Travel-to-work city                                                  3,500,000 (estimate)
MUFC supporters worldwide, 2012 estimate      659,000,000

Manchester City fans will want to discount the MUFC stat immediately, which is fair enough. It does however give an indication of the potential importance of a non-resident population, all of who, arguably have an interest in what goes on in the city. Anyway, put that figure aside. We still have a remarkable discrepancy between the core city population of 25,000 (up from a historic low of 250 in the 1990), and what is arguably the ‘real’ city, the travel-to-work city of 3.5 million. It’s a differential factor of 140. Even if we were to take the ‘low’ figure as the 2013 political city, 510,000, we’re still looking at a factor of 7.

Manchester’s far from alone in its discrepant representations. Buenos Aires seems to suffer a similar problem. Is it a European-scale large city of 3 million? Or an emerging-market megalopolis of 16 million? Well, both, and neither. It just depends who is speaking and what they are trying to prove. That is the lesson for all of us, and all cities.

NOTES:

Vibrancy survey by Experian, reported in FT (9 October 2013)  http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/2bc0e682-2f50-11e3-ae87-00144feab7de.html#axzz2iSUwJSb1

‘Difficult Men’ – extracts from a talk at Glasgow School of Art

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Edited extracts from a talk given at Glasgow School of Art on 11 October 2013. The talk was originally called ‘Sex and Buildings’. The term ‘Difficult Men’ I borrowed from Brent Martin, whose book of the same title was published in June this year by Penguin.

‘(…) Sex and Buildings was an attempt to deal with a basic question – during a century when there was ever more talk about sex, when sex for people in the industrialised world had come to be considered a right, and had been more or less completely separated from reproduction – why was architecture so coy? Our sexual lives are, I wrote, framed by buildings, and rooms in buildings. If we seek sexual encounters outside of buildings (on, for example Hampstead Heath) it constitutes a social, and often a legal transgression. Sex and buildings are intimately connected, and in the category of buildings itself, the relationship is further limited to certain kinds of interiors, typically bedrooms, which are sealed and private. That may well be how we like it. But the long public conversation about sex in the twentieth century suggested we might be entering a more enlightened and liberal phase; that we could put away Victorian sexual morality. Why therefore were we all still living in boxes that either were Victorian (in my case) or were often pastiches of Victoriana (everyone else)? The book was a search for alternatives. There was a broad sweep through history, encountering a gang of sexual mavericks along the way. The conclusion was downbeat, though – the sexual promise of the twentieth century was an illusion, and architecture’s failure to represent that promise was reflection of reality. We aren’t all living in polyamorous communes shaped like crystals because our social reality has failed to keep pace with theory (…)

DFFICULT MEN

(…) Writing in the Times Higher, Annemarie Adams noted how unusual it was to have  declaredly straight man write about sex; that most of the chatter about sex in the academic world in recent years had come from people anxious to define their own experience against heterosexuality. So if you have a an academic interest in sex, invariably you get to know a great deal about homosexuality, especially male homosexuality. If you have an interest in architecture and sexuality, queer theory is really the place to start. The literature on cruising, on queer spaces in cities, on campness is extraordinarily thick; it is arguably a queer sensibility that has made the American suburb such an object of psychological fascination. It is telling that the only major architectural exhibition to link sex and buildings did so from a decidedly queer perspective: ‘Out There’, an archly camp take on the Venice Architecture Biennale staged in 2006, curated by Aaron Betsky. Very good it was too – but also emblematic of the extent to which the discourse about sex had been captured by noisily queer voices.

HOWARD KIRK

‘It wasn’t always like this, or course. Go back to the 1970s and we would probably have been preoccupied with the future of the normative family, wondering how, under pressure from Marx and Freud and Masters and Johnson, it could possibly survive. We might have been flirting with polyamory or polygamy in some limited form ourselves. We would probably have known people who either did live in communal settings, or who were attracted by the idea. We might not have been too bothered by what women thought The sexual revolution had to come first. This was the subtext to Malcolm Bradbury’s brilliant, and much-misunderstood novel The History Man, the story of a rabidly libidinous sociologist in a fictional early-70s English university. It is a book about sex and politics, and both are powerfully conditioned by the spaces they occupy. An early scene in the book has Kirk arranging his rambling Victorian house for the party; every intervention, however slight, is meant to communicate: a door ajar here, a cushion there, a strategically engineered power cut in a corridor, all meant to engineer as much erotic action as possible. Kirk sets the architectural scene, and manages it periodically, a Lord of Misrule filling glasses with wine and making constant adjustments to ensure the maximum possible interaction (…)

Kirk is a monster, but his struggle is an age-old one between the libidinal and the social, sex and civilisation. And it hasn’t gone away, even if it has gone out of fashion in the university (replaced the rather dessicated politics of identity). It has re-emerged in the portrayals of ‘difficult men’ who have appeared in recent long-form American TV (Difficult Men is in fact the title of a recent book on the topic by the journalist Brent Martin). ‘Difficult Men’ are by definition straight men, caught in a web of social and family responsibilities. They take those responsibilities extremely seriously, and they carry them out with dedication, attention to detail and selflessness. But that creates huge tension. 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. Breaking Bad, the now concluded HBO series is a case in point: its central character, Walter White is a mild-mannered family man who turns to the manufacture of methamphetamine in order – superficially – to cover his medical bills. Literally and figuratively emasculated in season 1, by season 2 he has proved himself not only adept at the business of cooking meth, but also surprisingly good at the business of killing people who get in his way. His moral decent is also a libidinal awakening – and it is this, Walt’s emergence as a man that kept viewers rooting for him, even as the bodies pile up. (I was one of them. I loved Walt to the end) (…)

LET’S TALK ABOUT ME 

‘The reviewers of Sex and Buildings were mostly intrigued by another difficult man, however, namely its author. The reason was the confessional tone of the early pages in which I located the architectural history in a context of my own experience. There were some eye-catching remarks about the trials of family life, and an account of Morningside as a Victorian sex prison. All this got press attention, as intended (…)

‘Why did I do it? First is simply that I was asked to – Reaktion thought the first draft was boring, and wanted it sexed up. Fine, I thought (…) The second reason was one of intellectual context, or rather, tradition. Art history has retained a pseudo-objectivity for rather longer than it might, perhaps because of its residual anxieties about art criticism – or heaven forbid, art appreciation. I don’t know the answer. Other modes of writing have been readier to embrace subjectivity. So when I thought of how I might model a more open subjectivity in the writing, I thought of writers I liked. Freud was one – an intellectual subject for me for a long time, but also a writer I’d read for pleasure. And it is striking how open Freud is about his own subjectivity, how often he foregrounds his own experience as a way of giving life to theory. In a passage from ‘The Uncanny’ (1909) that is familiar to innumerable students, Freud describes getting lost on vacation in a ‘small Italian town’, where by accident he winds up in a square occupied mainly by prostitutes; deeply embarrassed, he scuttles away, only to find himself drawn back by some mysterious force; and then again, despite his attempts to escape, producing a state close to panic. It is only on a further attempt that Freud manages to escape, promising himself no further adventures, Freud uses the episode to describe the production of the uncanny (‘a special class of fear’) through repetition. What I always noted was Freud’s willingness to use his own psychological discomfort to explicate a problem. There are countless other examples – and while there is no doubt some thing performative about them, it’s worth emphasising their self-deprecating quality.

‘That performed subjectivity is a critical part of mainstream psychological literatures. It’s vital to Oliver Sacks (in fact it starts to take over); it’s in the popular psychotherapeutic work by Esther Perel; it’s also there, strongly in Richard Sennett’s work, which although strictly sociological, draws heavily on the psychological tradition. If you know Sennett’s work, you also know a great deal about him, his tastes in drink and tobacco and music, his friends, his eclectic sexuality. It’s methodologically problematical – you never know where Sennett begins and ends the research starts, but he always makes you think (…)

‘Finally, by speaking about my own experience, I was trying to find a way of speaking to a larger cultural experience. I’m not very interesting by myself – no-one is. But I’m representative of a once dominant class, now long in decline. My family, as long as I can see back, has been a middle class dedicated to public service. We ran things: sometimes big things like oil refineries and stock exchanges, but mostly the social glue: schools, university departments, doctors’ surgeries, banks, learned societies, and churches – above all, churches We didn’t have money, exactly, but we did have a bit of influence. We did it all over the UK. We were, so to speak, the middle management of empire. We chaired the committees; we held it all together. Most importantly, as I’ve come to realise over the years, our power, such as it was, derived from a perceived level of moral authority, deriving directly from the church. A liberal church by any standards, it took a hard line when it came to work. It embodied the Protestant work ethic like nothing else. We, and the society we built, had the most to gain from the disciplining of the libido. Its sublimation into work was where we derived our authority. But conversely, we had most to lose when that libido ran wild.

‘So my ‘difficult men’ in the book are all like this, driven men, work-obsessed, trapped in webs of obligation and responsibility. Their obligations, and also their desires are represented by the buildings that surround them. Ignore them – or trap them too deeply – and they explode. Their capacity for destruction is breathtaking. Recent long-form TV drama has returned time and again to these ‘difficult men’, most spectacularly in Breaking Bad, which suggests the problem remains as unresolved now as it was in Freud’s time. We still haven’t worked out what to do with these men. We ought to…’

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

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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)

Trouble at t’Mall

IMG_0353Something’s up with cities, as recent articles in The Economist and the FT attest. In the rich world, for decades we’ve held the notion of cities as basket cases to be endured rather than enjoyed. Few really believed in regeneration, if pushed: tidying up old docks and factories was, most of us believed, a cosmetic exercise. Our future was inexorably suburban. That set of beliefs held true until about a decade ago, underlined by relentlessly gloomy demographics, nlot just for celebrated basket cases like Detroit (61% population loss), but otherwise wealthy and successful places like London (-25% from its peak). We read Joel Garreau on the exurbs and imagined, mostly with trepidation, a Californian future. Cities were what the  developing world did – they weren’t for us.

Well, all that seems to have changed. The last set of population statistics for the UK were remarkable for what they said about cities. Greater London we knew had got bigger, but what was a surprise was how quickly it had regained its peak size. Down to 6.5 million in the 1980s, it was back up to 8.5 or so, 30% growth in 20 years. Even more startling in some way were the figures for such perennially shrinking cities are Liverpool (now up 5%), or most amazingly of all, Manchester (up 25%), with accompanying gains for their hinterlands. Across the Atlantic, as Gallagher has recently argued, the same trends are much in evidence. Washington DC hums with life these days in a way inconceivable a decade back. And in al these places, real estate values indicate a shift back to the  central city, and the decline of suburbia. However you do the maths, there is only one conclusion: cities are back.

In a funny way, no-one saw this coming. In fact the professional literature around regeneration is miserable. You can’t research the area without developing a deep sense of gloom. Academics invariably focus on the bad news; builders worry about money; policians argue incessantly about the benefits. Hardly anyone seems to believe it when push comes to shove. They should. The ‘project’ of regeneration, whether it’s through Richard Rogers’s advocacy in London, or Mike Bloomberg’s in New York, has been on its own terms, more often than not, a huge success. Cities have returned in a big way, dense, busy and vertical, just as their advocates wanted.

That success brings with it some old – basically 19th century – problems. In 2004 I speculated about this in The Anxious City, looking at Richard Rogers’s envisioning of London. It seemed (still) unattainable; it also seemed a transparently bourgeois city. Surely we would see through this (admittedly seductive) play of urban surfaces? Surely we would see it for the fantasy that it is? Well apparently not, for it’s come to pass not only in London, but New York and Washington, and with it, the embodiment in stone and glass of a most astonishing set of inequalities. The urbanist’s rhetoric from Richard Rogers to Richard Florida to Charles Landry is of equality and democracy. The built reality – just look at London – is anything but.

This leaves suburbia hanging. Suburbia will always be with us, but like the inner cities of the late 60s and early 70s, it may well become the locus of dissolution and decay. That might be good for urban innovators – we could conceivably see an exodus of poor, but creative youngsters to Metroland in search of space and time and relative freedom from the market. But those people, so prized by Florida and Landry, may choose to leapfrog the city altogether, and abandon it to the rich. Who knows. But cities have irrevocably changed this past decade, and we will have to deal with the consequences.

Sources:

D.K., ‘Mapping Gentrification: The Great Inversion’, Economist (9 September 2013) http://www.economist.com/blogs/blighty/2013/09/mapping-gentrification

Gapper, J., ‘America’s Heart is in the City Once Again’, Financial Times (8 September 2013) http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/0e8cc084-1652-11e3-a57d-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2fF0L7D9Y

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 

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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!

 

Happy Families

preview_america_swings_480x368_1012221505_id_403437Among the many interesting reactions to my Sex and Buildings was the observation by Ed Hollis, and separately, Annemarie Adams, that it was unusual these days to see a discussion of sexuality from a straight perspective. To anyone outside the academy, this might seem odd. But to anyone with a working knowledge of recent research on sexuality it will, one way or another, ring true. That’s not a value judgement at all. It simply acknowledges that the loudest voices in recent years have been queer and feminist ones To read about sex in any serious way is to read about the challenges to what was once thought of as ‘normative’ sexuality. So we now generally understand sexuality as a fluid continuum, rather than a set of fixed categories. We accept gender as socially constructed. We understand sexual expression as an unalienable individual right. Most Western societies, even rather conservative ones, have enshrined these things in law; no-one these days is likely to question them in public.

So far so good. However, this great sexual adjustment has inadvertently produced a lot of  left-behinds. They are the heterosexual majority struggling with one or other form of monogamy. There has been remarkably little said about them, perhaps because sexual laws and ethics were for so long constructed in their image. But these days they could probably use a bit of help. They too have developed a sense of sexual rights, and they’ve seen new communities define themselves in sex-positive terms. They might appreciate a piece of the action – or if nothing else, to be asked what they would like.

What they’re left with themselves is – ironically – a hardened, residual version of monogamy that is if anything even less well adapted to contemporary circumstances. The erosion of the ‘double standard’ – the acceptance of male transgression but not the female equivalent – was  necessary and correct, but it also removed a rare safety valve. The new condition, serial monogamy has the great advantage – contractual clarity – but that is offset by a lack of forgiveness. Transgression is easily defined, but equally easily punished. It demands high, and probably impossible, standards of conduct (its contradictions were explored in by the psychotherapist Adam Phillips in the short book, Monogamy)

The problems and opportunities of the present situation are nicely illustrated by the Canadian photographer Naomi Harris a well-known book of photographs, America Swings published in 2008 by ‘sexy books’ editor Dian Hansen of the reliably bonkers Taschen. It shows the results of a quasi-ethnographic survey of swinging parties across 38 American states. Leaving precisely nothing to the imagination, it describes an alternative universe in which America’s most conservative, God-fearing parts turn out to be the most sexually liberal. It is a book I like a great deal; Harris’s thoroughness is awe-inspiring, and the photographic results outstanding. It also shows communities taking an eminently practical approach to solving the problems of monogamy. Rather than take a sledgehammer to it, they license deviation within certain clearly prescribed community norms. And if the pictures are anything to go by, it really works. As Harris says in the text, ‘these people are definitely having better sex than the rest of us.’

America Swings also points up a serious problem. It isn’t an argument for change, but a work of art (a limited edition of 1000, retailing for $1000 or so, much more for the signed edition). The swingers it depicts are ludicrous and bizarre, and fat. Their clothes and furnishings are revoltingly suburban. We’re invited to stare at them in slack-jawed wonder, not (God forbid)  empathise. It’s a classic work of surrealism, in other words, amoral at best, indifferent to the sensibilities of its subjects. In the end, the context – the art world, Taschen – means it’s impossible to see it any other way.

Now ask yourself if there are in fact any favourable depictions of swinging out there – any depictions that don’t fall into the same trap of sniggering at the lower classes. And then ask yourself a broader question. Are there in fact any sex-positive depictions of heterosexual monogamy? Monogamy has become arguably more rigid in recent years, more idealised, and more exclusive, as if the sixties never happened. There may be good reasons for that. Equally, there may not. It would be nice to have a debate.

Notes: Ed Hollis’s new book, Memory Palace: A Book of Lost Interiors, has just been published by Portobello Books. Annemarie Adams is the head of architecture at McGill University, Montreal. The image above is from Naomi Harris’s America Swings, published in 2008 by Taschen.

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

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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.