LA’s Forties – a talk for Salon London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ADORNO/HORKHEIMER

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

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

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

DOUBLE INDEMNITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Edinburgh. Toys. Pram. Etc.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Deal

IMG_6197

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

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

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

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

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

The Year In Culture, Kind Of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are You A NEW METROPOLITAN?

cropped-img_3468.jpg

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

Peter Hall and Non-Plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Architecture (Phallic)

In anticipation of a visit to San Francisco’s Coit Tower (pictured), here are some penetrating thoughts on phallic buildings. A firmed-up, expanded version of this entry appears in the forthcoming Cultural Encyclopedia of the Penis, edited by Michael Kimmel and Christine Milrod (2015).   

IMG_6399

Phallic architecture has existed as long as humans have been building, and it continues to be built now, often on an unprecedented scale. The world’s tallest structures are widely understood as phallic ones. However the phallic tower is one of a number of distinct forms of phallic architecture: many buildings are demonstrably phallic, but they connote the phallus in different ways. The different types can be summarized as follows: (1) Literal representations of the penis: typically for the purposes of phallus-worship in pre-modern and/or non-western cultures. (2) Phallic towers: buildings understood the connote the phallus in its outward form In its proportions, it resembles the penis in its erect state. Its outline may be further bolstered by allusions (intended or otherwise) to a glans, scrotum, or even foreskin. (3) Buildings as Freudian phallic objects. Freud identified certain objects as ‘phallic’ for their unquestionable connotations of masculinity. Pipes, cigars, walking sticks, overcoats and furled umbrellas are examples of metonymically phallic objects. In architecture, steel, chrome, dark glass, and leather may similarly be construed as phallic in themselves, as well as typically exposed structures and plant of any kind. (4) Buildings with a phallic purpose. These are buildings designed (or adapted) explicitly for penile functions or use. There may be more types of phallic architecture, but these are the main categories.

Buildings that represent the phallus in literal form abound in non-western and pre-modern cultures. Among the best known examples are the large statues (‘herms’) of the messenger of the Gods, Hermes, erected all over in Greece in the 6th century BC, depicting a bearded man with an erect phallus. Herms were integral to all major public buildings. Hindu, Khmer, and Malian cultures also have traditions of monumental phallic sculpture on public buildings.

In modern cultures, the high-rise tower is routinely, and popularly understood to connote the phallus, regardless of the intentions of the architects. In recent years, technological advances have made it possible for architecture to take organic, rather than rectilinear, forms. The most striking contemporary examples include Foster and Partners’ 30 St. Mary’s Axe building (2004) in the City of London, Jean Nouvel’s Torre Agbar (2005) in Barcelona, and the Oriental Pearl TV Tower in Shanghai (1997). Rem Koolhaas’s Shenzen Stock Exchange (2013) is rectilinear in form, but has a notably cock-and-balls profile in silhouette. American towers have very frequently been considered phallic. Key examples include Robert Mills’s Washington Monument (1848-85), Harold van Buren Magonigle’s Liberty Memorial in Kansas City (1926), Halsey, McCromack and Helmer’s Williamsburg Savings Bank in Brooklyn (1927-9), and Edward Durell Stone’s Florida State Capitol (1973-7). In  2003, the readers of Cabinet, an influential US culture magazine, voted the William R. Coats’s water tower in Ypsilanti, Michigan (1890) the world’s most phallic building. Known locally as the Brick Dick, it is a smooth cylinder with a highly pronounced glans.

Some buildings are also phallic objects in the Freudian sense. Among the clearest examples are the works of the German-born architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, with their fetishistic concern for engineering precision. His Seagram Building on Park Ave, New York is not phallic in form, but its precision, restraint, and treatment of surface gives it the air of a well-cut suit. Mies was himself powerfully built, and always immaculately dressed. Interviewers often made a connection between his highly masculine physical presence and that of his buildings. The work of so-called High-Tech architects in the 1970s and 1980s had similar characteristics: see for example the exposed structure of Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (1977)  or the luxuriously polished stainless steel of Rogers’s Lloyds Building in London (1985. The architect publicly delights in stereotypically masculine machinery and engineering, airplanes and fast cars especially.

Buildings with a phallic purpose are varied. On the grandest scale – though unbuilt – is Claude Nicolas Ledoux’s Oikema (1773-9), a scheme for a ‘house of pleasure’ on a phallic groundplan to educate young men in the mysteries of sex. Entering via the schematic scrotum, initiates would proceed along the shaft to the ‘glans’, a semicircular chamber where they would be met by women employed for the purposes of sexual initiation. On a much lower level is the contemporary  phenomenon of the Glory Hole, a hole bored in a wall through which a penis may be inserted, and anonymously fondled. A small scale, usually informal, adaptation of public restrooms and private saunas, it has become a staple of queer architecture. It was celebrated publicly in a 2006 exhibition at London’s Architecture Foundation, called simply Glory Hole. Other examples of architecture with a phallic purpose include the work of the British architect Nigel Coates; his installation  Hypnerotosphere for the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale included highly anthropomorphic furniture that seemed to invite penetration. Finally, Foster and Partners’ Commerzbank tower in Frankfurt includes a notorious urinal, at which the user, dick in hand, pisses over the city. The commerzbank is not only a symbolic phallus, but very nearly a functional one.

In all forms of culture, phallic architecture is widely understood, resulting in the popular naming of prominent towers (‘the erotic gherkin’, ‘Pereira’s Prick’, the ‘Brick Dick’ and so on).

FURTHER READING

Betsky, Aaron. Building Sex: Men, Women, Architecture and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Harper Perennial, 1997.

Cabinet Magazine event, ‘Which Building is the World’s Most Phallic?’ (July 2003) http://cabinetmagazine.org/events/phallic/contest.php. Accessed online 05.23.13.

Rand, Ayn. The Fountainhead. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943.

Williams, Richard J., Sex and Buildings: Modern Architecture and the Sexual Revolution. London: Reaktion Books, 2013.

The Urban History Man. Richard J. Williams interviewed by Richard J. Williams

IMG_0383It’s an unusually perfect day in Edinburgh and I’m sitting in Richard’s 1878 tenement flat, in the kitchen to be precise where sun is streaming through the big sash window. He fusses with the kettle. Do I want tea? Coffee? A cocktail? (‘I make a great breakfast caipirinha’). I settle for water, fresh from the Pentland Hills that are just visible from the window. ‘Good isn’t it?’ he says, referring to the water. ‘It’s the lead that makes it.’ He pulls up a chair, which screeches on the wooden floor, frightening a cat from its slumbers. So why did he agree to this solipsistic exercise? Well, he says, scratching his beard, it was time to get a few things straight. And ‘I wanted to do a conversation about research’, he adds, ‘which you rarely get a chance to do in enough detail.’ So I start by asking him the question that all doctoral students dread. What is he doing? What exactly is his contribution to the sum total of human knowledge?

RW: Oh God (laughs). Well actually I invited you to ask that question because I’ve so often struggled with it myself, especially when asked to say something straightforwardly disciplinary. I always end up saying ‘I’m not this, and I’m not that’, you know, without ever really coming to the point. So I did want you to ask that question…

And…

Well the answer is actually pretty simple. I’m interested basically in why cities look the way they do. You’d think it’s an obvious question to ask, but it isn’t because the people who ask it invariably have some agenda. So they lament the way things are, rather than keeping the question open. And there aren’t very simple answers. People like to think there are, but there aren’t. The production of something as complex as a city involves multiple actors, most of whom are perhaps not even conscious of being actors at all.

Can you say what you mean by that?

Well, people – I mean us – habitually think that cities are somehow designed. I want a method of looking at cities that incorporates things like material decay, but also use and inhabitation, and also if this is even possible their representation in things like films and art.

That’s clearly impossible.

Of course it is. But still I’d like to try because our perceptions of cities are conditioned by all of these immaterial factors. We don’t simply see them. We see them, like any other object, through what we expect and have learned to expect.

Can you give an example?

Brasília is a good case. I spent a lot of the last decade thinking and writing about it because it seemed to be such a reviled object, at least in Europe, and particularly Britain. Critics and journalists would routinely invoke it as an example of why the 1960s were so bad. It was always a great disaster, a dystopia – everything about it was appalling. It had a quite amazing status. Of course practically none of the people who invoked Brasília had actually been anywhere near the place, and in the rare cases that they had, their impressions dated from the moment of inauguration, 1960, when Brasília was still a building site. So it was this amazing discursive object. I went for the first time in (scratches head) about 2001 and found a place that was for the most part clean, well-ordered and perfectly normal. Yet the myths, the stories people told about the place, the memories of the candangos (note: the original settlers of the city)  – these things were all essential to the perception of the place.

Did you have a method for producing this synthetic knowledge?

No. But I knew that visuality was important.

Why?

Well, anecdotally, it seemed clear that around the visual, almost everyone had a view. They’d complain about eyesores, and the way things looked, ‘mess’ and so on, as if these things were straightforwardly resolved. Even perfectly intelligent people would start raging against modernist architecture. They seemed to lose their minds in the face of the visual.

Why do you think that is?

I don’t know, exactly. But I think it has something to do with seeing the visual world as a threat, something about it resisting control. For that reason I want to start with the visual and use visual artefacts to keep questions open as long as possible. That is something that art history was always good at, when it was good. I don’t have much patience with art any more, but I do still respect the way art history at its best used visual objects to keep questions open. It showed how meanings could be highly contingent on circumstance, how reception was important as production, and how ambiguity is in fact the condition we all live in, rather than something undesirable that has to be corrected. These are all pretty good things to understand in relation to cities. Who knows, if we could understand these things better, we might build better ones.

So what you’re proposing is an art history of cities?

In some ways, yes. It uses the visual as a way of keeping questions open as long as possible. I did a PhD in art history and still have a lot of respect for the methods. Panofsky, Gombrich, Tim Clark later on.

But isn’t that just another way of aestheticising the city? I mean, you’re always railing against the heritage lobby, but this sounds like the same thing, just in a different style.

Ha ha! That’s a good point, of course. But I’m not principally interested in aesthetics, rather the way the visuality helps keep other questions open. I basically think cities are good for us, and I want the most people to have the most opportunities. Exploring the visual world is often a way of asking awkward questions. So, for example, I’m fairly certain that the adherence to a single design aesthetic, whatever it is, has a limiting effect on the material opportunities of a city. The green belt, for example in the UK. It is an aesthetic position more than anything else that ends up being a tax on the poor. I’m quite convinced of that now, despite having spent large parts of my life enjoying them one way or another…

How?

Walking my parents’ dogs, mainly. But I don’t think the interests of a few dog-walkers should be allowed to trump the access of millions to reasonably-priced housing.

Can you say more about the kinds of sources you use? You once said that you got a lot from what we might call ‘professional’ discourses – what architects and planners say to each other.

Yes, that’s right. I work with academic material like everyone else, and draw on the usual urban theories. But I’ve always spent a lot of time with the professions themselves, especially the professional magazines. There’s a tendency for academics to ignore this material as it’s not always very sophisticated in a way that they recognise. But often they’re dealing with ideas that are as complex as anything academics deal with. It’s just that they have to explain them to a range of different constituencies, with a range of different expertises. I spent a lot of time with architects in the 1990s and 2000s in the UK, and felt that what was being played out in public, in the journals was very important. In the early 1990s, the climate was still deeply anti-urban in the UK and the US. That it changed so dramatically has a lot to do with what was happening in the journals.

You don’t automatically bash the real estate business.

No, that’s right. Part of the urban story of the past 20 years is the realisation by the business that there were market opportunities in cities, so they had to learn a new range of concepts in order to make the most of it. Those shifts are quite legible in magazines like Property Week and Estates Gazette that really nobody apart from people in the business reads. But it always seemed to me that it was there that you really found out what was going on, why for example there had been a gap site somewhere for a generation  (…..) Then there’s the developers themselves. When I was starting to research cities for the first time, I found people connected with the business very open. At least the people I talked to. Howard Bernstein, the CEO of Manchester City Council, for example, a public official, but a man with a very sound business head. He gave me a whole afternoon of his time in, um, 2002 or thereabouts, and then let me have his head of planning give me a tour. They were both extraordinarily generous with their time, despite the fact that they were as busy then as they had ever been in their lives. But they saw I was interested in their ideas. The profit motive mattered, clearly, but they were interested in a much longer-term transformation. You got the same thing from Tom Bloxham and Carol Ainscow in the same city. They needed to make money, obviously, but they weren’t driven by it. Ainscow (note: she developed Manchester’s Gay Village) was as interested in sexual politics as anything else. If these people were just interested in making money, they’d have found a much easier way to do it. Real estate development is hell a lot of the time. You have to really like buildings to do it.

Are there any other developers you admire?

Of course I sound like a Neo-Con nutjob saying I admire developers (laughs)….But yes, I do, at least some of them. John Portman (note: inventor of the atrium hotel) is amazing. There’s a hilarious piece on his Bonaventure Hotel in the French journal L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui from 1977 or so where the writers are so determined to hate it because it’s a product of the market…but in the end they grudgingly admit it’s a really radical building, possibly more so than the Pompidou Centre. Yes, Portman’s great. A real iconoclast.

You really sound like a Neo-Con now.

I’m really not. I’m just not a fundamentalist. I don’t automatically believe that markets are evil.

What are you doing now?

A few things. We want to set up a research centre in Edinburgh of some sort on the cultures of cities, and we have seedcorn funding to start. My colleague Igor Stiks will run it. He’s an expert on, and a participant in various urban-social movements, particularly in south-eastern Europe, and we’re both interested in the way younger people are developing new modes of urban citizenship. That seems to be a global phenomenon, and also seems to cut across political divides to some extent. Igor’s particular interest is in progressive change, Occupy and so on. I’m interested in the way generally people are developing new modes of urban behaviour and urban aspirations. We’ve a bit of a network already. Christoph Lindner in Amsterdam. Sharon Zukin in New York if we can persuade her. We’ll see…

And there’s a book.

Yes, another one for Reaktion, a history of the so-called Creative City. I wanted to put recent developments in some sort of cultural and historical context. Almost everyone in the developed world seems to have signed up to the creative industries, whatever they are – and there’s been a predictable negative reaction from the academic left. What I’m doing is putting a series of quite longstanding debates in context. I’m also hoping to produce a useable urban typology. There are big things like media cities, for example, but also smaller and more informal phenomema. The whole feel of eating and drinking, for example, the excessive sociability. When I was growing up, there literally wasn’t anywhere to go, and I think that applied in many parts of the developed world. Now there’s such an excess of it. And it’s global.

Will there be anything in it about sex?

Maybe, following on from the last book (note: Sex and Buildings was published by Reaktion in 2013). There’s certainly a question around all that frantic socialisation. The Creative city looks like a highly libidinal city in many ways, and work often morphs into something that to older people must look like dating, or at least flirting. But I wonder how much sex is really happening. Really busy people seem to like the look of sex, but don’t actually have time for it. I need a decent evidential base for that argument of course.

When is the book due out?

2016, we hope. There’s another project in the works too, on the visual culture of cities. But I can’t say any more about that until it’s a bit further on.

If you could do anything about cities now, what would it be?

It’s not in the gift of humanities professors to be prescriptive, you know. We’re just supposed to complain about things from the sidelines…

Oh, go on.

OK. There are certainly global problems around access to housing. The ‘great inversion’ as Alan Ehrenhalt calls it has drawn a lot of people to cities again, but the trade-off has been a general decline in the quality of housing and access to it, at least in the most popular places. The cost of housing in London or the Bay Area is pretty horrifying. I’d reduce the unit cost by increasing supply. There would have to be a bonfire of planning regulations, unfortunately, but that may be overdue. I’d also promote industrialised, systematised building. In the UK, everything seems to be done on a bespoke basis much more than it needs to, a problem made worse by the planning system. And I’d tear up the green belt. Did you hear my friend Karl Sharro on the radio the other night? He says just abolish planning altogether. I kind of agree with him. I have some sympathy with the old Parker-Morris standards, though, to get the basic level of space right.

That sounds like a recipe for sameness, a sort of grey-goo urbanism….

I don’t think it is. But even if it is, it doesn’t mean it stays the same. After all, in the UK there are probably ten million units of more or less identical terraced (row) houses, but more or less infinite variation in the way they’re used and inhabited. Buildings learn, as Stewart Brand says.

OK. Finally, I have to ask you about Scotland. You have really annoyed people there from time to time.

You know I can’t talk about that (laughter). Well I have a few supporters too. Scotland is in such a febrile state at the moment, it’s impossible to say anything without getting misinterpreted. But in terms of cities, it’s certainly a fascinating case. It’s got two of Europe’s great set pieces in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and a vigorous tradition of urban housing. The tenement is a really durable form. Unfortunately, Scotland just loves to regulate, and it’s obsessed with the past. So it’s impossible to either adapt buildings for contemporary conditions, or build housing where it’s actually required. If you live in Edinburgh (points at rattling sash windows) you’re not allowed to buy off the peg solutions for windows in tenements. Unless you’re rich, you’re basically encouraged to let them deteriorate. As for installing elevators, and adding extensions – well, forget it. There’s a huge amount of de-regulating that could be done. Not much political will, though. Same goes for the land issue. Edinburgh ought to be twice the size it is given the boom in financial services, but there is so much regulation designed to inhibit growth. That makes no sense to me at all. We need scale. Scale means opportunities.

Are you an optimist when it comes to cities?

Yes. You have to be, don’t you? And the return of cities in the developed world brings huge opportunities. It’s produced some hellish problems around housing, but I don’t see why they can’t be fixed. After all, it’s been done before.