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Life has been a bit quiet in these parts because we have been busy with thenewmetropolitan.com A new web magazine about cities and citizenship, it brings together people from across the University of Edinburgh as well as half a dozen European institutions. It’s finding its way, but the hope is we develop a distinctive, but independent voice. Above all, we hope it looks good. Tell us what you think, the good and the bad. And if you want to contribute, just say. We’re all ears.
It’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…
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.
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…
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.
Two new reviews of Sex and Buildings, courtesy Building Design and the Daily Telegraph.
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14 Sep 2013 DAILY TELEGRAPH
Designing fantasies. An offbeat analysis of how 20th–century architecture has liberated our libidos tickles the fancy of Keith Miller
Sex & Buildings: Modern Architecture and the Sexual Revolution
by Richard J Williams
If we were to personify publishing houses as our predecessors did republics, rivers and so on, Reaktion Books would be a groovy former–polytechnic lecturer with a beard, accoutred in beret and polo–neck, nodding along to a free–jazz set. There’s a lot to be said for the house’s output, and a certain amount to be said against it. Well designed and finely produced, their books offer characterful, often offbeat essays in art history, cultural theory or the snappier end of philosophy. Only they can, and often do, achieve the distinctive feat of being at once obscure and glib.
For these reasons, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of jouissance from Sex and Buildings. A dour theoretical tract hiding, I assumed, behind a thigh–flashing title; an assault on my innocent right to take pleasure in my environment, a bucketful of jargon. I was surprised. It’s all those things (to some extent) but in this case, the tutorial is interwoven with personal reflections and recollections that make the project more coherent, as well as more humane.
Kicking off with the endearing revelation that the book was triggered by a midlife crisis in Morningside, Edinburgh’s notoriously purse–lipped southern suburb, Richard Williams unrolls a brisk summary of the 20th century’s attempts to liberate our dreams and desires through design.
To take the domestic arrangements of small human groups in isolation from the broader social goals identified by progressive architects of the period is maybe to narrow the scope of inquiry a little; but then architecture is an impossibly wide discourse to start with.
Not many architects anyway get to design a whole city or change a whole culture.
You’ve got to be willing to play the long game – to change the world, one open–plan living pod at a time. Our tour begins in California, where Rudy Schindler and Richard Neutra built houses for quack physician and amateur bodybuilder Philip Lovell, and other forward–thinking patrons.
In these houses the fluid arrangement of living and sleeping spaces, reflected – and facilitated – an elastic attitude to marriage. From here we hop across America to the “Orgonon” complex in Maine, where the Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, fired up with the early Soviet Union’s experiments in communal living (of which Lenin was not a fan), set up shop in the Forties. There’s a rather melancholy photograph of what I take to be Williams sitting in one of Reich’s “Orgone Accumulators” – boxes that supposedly allowed one’s libidinal energies to build up, with wide–ranging benefits.
Subsequent chapters investigate hippie–type communes such as the Grateful Dead’s ranch at Olompali near San Francisco (a five–year–old Courtney Love is photographed here on the cover of the Dead’s Aoxomoxoa album – look how well she turned out) and a semi–legendary community known as Drop City, the main sensorium of which was a Buckminster Fuller–inspired geodesic dome of a kind one often sees on posh campsites.
There’s a chapter on the “phallic skyscrapers” of New York, and one on the “pornomodernism” of the Seventies. All are well stocked with pop–cultural collateral, though there might have been more – Neutra’s “Health House” features in LA Confidential, as does John Lautner’s Elrod House in Diamonds are Forever; and Mad Men is played out against an impeccably “phallic” backdrop – but Lautner’s Sheats–Goldstein house is more germane than any of these, thanks to a guest slot as arch–sleazeball Jackie Treehorn’s pad in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (another Lautner house, the Chemosphere, also serves as Troy McLure’s pied–à–terre in The Simpsons).
Indeed, it’s in the nature of the subject that there’s always more that can be said – Richard Rogers’s house in Chelsea has, or had, an open–plan platform where everyone had to sleep together.
n the middle chapters there’s a certain confusion between the broad church of Freudian phallic symbolism, which extends to things like hats, overcoats and even the number three, and what you might call the Looking like A Penis sense of the term – though obviously several skyscrapers are both.
But Williams is right to pick out a certain doleful refrain through these failed utopias.
Partly, it’s the patriarchy’s fault: “The truth is, this so–called sexual revolution was something made up by guys and for guys,” said one Drop City resident; another asked why women had to do all the cooking. The guys might have made headway on the first part if they’d applied themselves to the second.
Copyright: Telegraph Group Ltd
Book Club Review: Sex and Buildings, Richard J. Williams
17 September 2013 | By Jon Astbury
Sex and architecture have long shared an uneasy relationship. Considering it is architecture that defines where, how and when we have sex and how we physically define and express our sexuality, there is very little in the way of serious discussion on the subject. It is frankly, as Richard J. Williams states in his new book Sex and Buildings, “odd”.
In a bold study spanning the 20th Century, Williams goes looking for answers to the questions that evaded Freud and others and continue to evade us today. Or perhaps we are simply not looking?
In Morningside, Edinburgh, we are told, there is no sex- “Sex, the joke went, were what you carried coal in”. Whether Williams’ self confessed and sex obsessed mid-life crisis had coloured his view or whether Morningside was indeed actively working to destroy the sex lives of its inhabitants, provided the basis of much of the book: ‘What exactly is the role of the built environment as far as sex and the libido is concerned?’ The analysis falls into three distinct modes – the psychological, the social and the cultural. Despite each carrying the risk of countless digressions, the deft choice of case studies maintains a fast pace that is more concerned with asking than answering, and this is exactly how such a topic should be approached.
The introduction gives a brief look into the extensive existing work on sexuality, from the repressive nuclear bourgeoisie lifestyle to the gradual transformation of sex into what is seen today as practically a human right. Through works by Havelock Ellis, Auguste Forel and others, architecture makes an appearance, yet it is normally through wide accusations that rely on nonexistent objective evidence. Avoiding this determinist trap, Williams work is approached almost as a study of personalities and cultures rather than the architecture itself, and there is certainly an interesting variety of personalities here.
Richard Neutra and Rudolf Schindler create the perfect bridge between the psychological to the sleek, hygienic steel and shotcrete ‘pads’ of the 20s and 30s. Both architects shared a close relationship with the self-confessed quack ‘Dr’ Philip M. Lovell, whose column Care of the Body promoted a virile and pure lifestyle. Such strict views on human behaviour soon found a home in the International Style aesthetic. Fast forward to the 1970s and these pure modernist creations are completely undermined by the rise of what Williams terms ‘Pornomodernism’, almost solely due to visual representation in films and photographs. A backdrop for everything from Playboy photo shoots to James Bond wrestling with Bumpy and Bambi in Diamonds are Forever (John Lautner’s Elrod House, 1968), we are left with the sobering thought of what Neutra himself lived to see his architecture achieve: “There, a house with a distinctly libidinal dimension in its design was the frame for much of its existence of the most dysfunctional marriage imaginable.”
The values held by the likes of Lovell all take on an even more explicit spatial dimension when we are introduced to Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone Accumulator, a completely unerotic box, barely big enough for a person, designed to condition the libido. Despite the Reich Foundation despising comparisons with the ‘Orgasmatron’ from Woody Allen’s 1983 film Sleeper, it is hard to imagine such a space being anything other than parody. Again Williams shows us the naivety of these attempts to control the libido shot down by an increasingly open view on sex in popular culture. That being said, anyone willing to spend a few thousand on Orgonics can find out for themselves.
So much for the architecture of the early 1920s but what of the architectures that attempted to cope with developing sexual attitudes? These prove to be just as unsuccessful, with ‘free love’ in hippy communes like Drop City – whose Fuller-inspired domes saw a Ballardian transformation from liberation to dystopian hedonism – simply amplifying the problems sexuality was facing in the outside world. With Greenham Common Woman’s Peace Camp we see such a devolved, ‘foul mess’ that Williams questions if not all architecture has a duty to contain the libido, perhaps becoming too obsessed with manipulating and controlling it.
Gradually these attempts at ‘sexy’ architecture seem increasingly seedy and unerotic. One can perhaps forgive the purity of Neutra and Schindler’s temples to the body, but by the time we are introduced to the shameless theatricality of Lautner’s Sheats-Goldstein house the architecture’s attempt to be erotic falls into the realms of try-hard. Despite all of the glamorous scopophilia of Neutra, the confused eroticism of Portman’s Western Bonaventure, the prosaic runnings of the Japanese Love Hotel – even Michigan’s ‘Brick Dick’ water tower – humans and their sexual lives simply adjust and make do. Even Morningside, it is revealed, hides a rich variety of sexual lives behind its repressive exterior, more so than any place one outwardly views as a libidinal paradise.
The impression we get from ‘Sex and Buildings’ is that almost any attempt to make a building sexy results in the complete opposite; analysing, preparing and catering for the erotic destroys much of what is. In this sense Williams is careful not to over analyse and completely destroy the charm of his own case studies. They withstand the analysis untarnished as naive, bold, thought provoking and, more often than not, sexy buildings that still have much to teach us.
Jon Astbury is a Part 1 student of architecture
A version of the following review appeared in Sculpture Journal in 2013
Everybody has a view about concrete, but few of these views are exactly the same: there is no material so contradictory and complex in its application and meaning. I myself became fully aware of concrete’s contradictions in Brazil, latterly accompanied by Forty’s edited book on the country’s modernist architecture (Brazil’s Modern Architecture, 2007). I had never seen so much concrete. But equally I have never been confronted with such a disjunction between aspiration and application. Standing outside Oscar Niemeyer’s MAC art museum in Niteroí, it was impossible to square the MAC’s futuristic form (a flying saucer) with the crudeness of its execution (all cracks and, lumps, like a primary school project). That contrast was really quite disturbing, as the official photographs of the MAC depicted a building of otherworldly sleekness whose construction was a mystery to earthly folk. I was alert to concrete’s contradictions from that point on.
Concrete and Culture deals precisely with those contradictions. It expands the thesis Forty set out earlier in Brazil’s Modern Architecture about another iconic building in that country, Vilanova Artigas’s Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism (FAU) at the University of São Paulo (1968). A giant concrete box on stilts, it is both exceptionally sophisticated as engineering, and exceptionally crude in finish (its surface these days is so decayed, you can easily mistake the building for a ruin). Forty argued that this tension was uniquely bound up with concrete itself, and was wholly intentional, a way of making public a set of anxieties about Brazil’s development at the time. It is simultaneously rich and poor, sophisticated and crude, old and new. The argument about FAU is expanded here to make a thoroughly global thesis about concrete’s contradictions. It is one of the key symbols of modernisation, but found naturally, and used by the Romans; it is an industrial material, but also a natural one; it is supposed to lead to efficiencies in the building process, but is dependent on a lot of low-grade physical labour; it connotes modernity in one place, historicity in others; it is simultaneously liquid and solid. And so on.
The book is organised around five key oppositions, represented in suggestively-titled chapters (‘Mud and Modernity’, ‘Natural or Unnatural’, ‘Heaven and Earth’, ‘Memory and Oblivion’). Other chapters explore concrete’s complex geopolitics, its equally complex relationship with industrial labour, and its representation in photography. Even concrete’s fiercest detractors would be hard pressed to deny its photogenic character, especially in monochrome at high ASA ratings. And as Forty argues, there are material similarities between the processes of building in concrete and taking a photograph. Film is a key reference point too: there is a compelling account of the dry concrete bed of the Los Angeles river as a setting in John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967). Forty is particularly good in showing how a particular material detail might represent ideology. In the case of FAU, it’s the building’s strangely attenuated column give the impression of colossal weight supported by very little, a metaphor for Brazil’s underdevelopment. On the Economist Building in St James’s, London, familiar to British readers he alights on a tiny detail: at the base of the columns holding up the Economist tower, the Portland stone cladding is intentionally stopped a few inches from the ground, a ‘Brechtian trick’ in the words of the architects, making visible the structure. It is a ‘demure lifting of the skirt to reveal a glimpse of ankle’ writes Forty, a joke (he argues) you would never find in American concrete. On BBPR’s highly eccentric Torre Velasca (1958)in Milan, Forty writes of the subversion of the modern tower form. This one, with its rough, and now weather-stained surface and its bulging upper structure recalling the form of Renaissance palazzos, suggests a building as much of the past as of the future, in marked contrast with American skyscraper design. Here again is the contradiction of concrete in relation to history: a supposedly modern material here used to signify if not antiquity, an accommodation of the past. One chapter, on labour, departs from the general focus on the aesthetics of concrete. Here Forty makes clear the sheer amount of physical effort involved in concrete constriction. Again, I had myself reflected on this in relation to Brazil, where I recalled the communist architect Sergio Ferro’s account of the building of Brasília. Ferro detailed not just the long hours, and the brutality of the organisation (both well reported) but the peculiar horror of working with the steel reinforcing rods, their tendency to scrape and gouge limbs.
Forty sets out a range of evidence to argue that the use of concrete allowed the building process to be broken down into a much wider range of unskilled tasks, which in turn meant a greater possible reliance on cheap labour. Concrete explicitly didn’t mean automation, or prefabrication, but the strange sublimation of what were essentially craft skills. He reproduces an extraordinary diagram from 1912 by Frederick Taylor and Sanford Thompson detailed every stage in the manufacture of ‘anything’ in concrete. The table reproduced covers the mixing of cement, listing the time taken to cut the string on a bag of cement (0.11 min), ‘moving the bag about 2ft.’ (0.08 min) to lifting the bag of cement to the shoulder (0.30) and several other actions. The detail is mind-boggling. Reproducing it in the somewhat effete context of architectural history gives it the whiff of conceptual art (routine process repeated to absurdity, then documented). But it also makes clear the contradictions involved in concrete construction: a process commonly thought to save on labour compared with traditional forms of building in fact does nothing of the sort; and a process equally commonly thought to be advanced turns out to be dependent on the most rudimentary skills. Taylor and Thompson’s diagram in essence is the book’s argument: what is supposed to be modern, isn’t – and its irrationality borders on the surreal.
The last chapter of the book, ‘A Concrete Renaissance’, surveys the now-familiar revival in concrete’s fortunes in the world’s rich countries as a material for buildings whose clientele both understand and appreciate its contradictions. Peter Zumthor’s extremely refined work makes use of concrete’s rough character for aesthetic effect. The images here index what’s survived: the LCC architects’ South Bank arts complex, Bo Bardi in Brazil, Alvaro Siza in Portugal, Peter Zumthor in Switzerland. What has survived, and revived in these refined contexts is concrete as aesthetic rather than structure; it’s valued for what it looks like, much less for its structural qualities. Its capacity to stain and degrade has become a value, not a flaw (see also Herzog and de Meuron’s Rudin House, which looks permanently drenched).Forty is right to point to a renaissance of concrete’s fortunes in Europe, where a taste for concrete is now, at least in some circles, an indicator of cultural refinement. Concrete’s contradictions, explored in such depth in the book, are now, in Europe, its defining characteristic. Its flaws are cultivated; to appreciate its difficulties is a sign of taste. Of course this is a minority, essentially avant-garde taste: it can only build cultural centres and privately commissioned houses, no longer mass housing, schools or hospitals (or if it does build these things it must be hidden from view).
What Forty doesn’t discuss, nor to be fair, try to, is the cultural understanding of concrete in those places where it is most physically present. The ‘culture’ of the title is the culture of the rich world; he acknowledges that most concrete building actually exists elsewhere. In rich northern places, to build with concrete is a special sort of poverty chic. But in the global South, concrete carries quite other connotations. In Brazil, a country with a particularly acute concrete habit, concrete connotes everything. In Mendes da Rocha and Bo Bardi, it’s the avant-garde material, that looks outwards and backwards to Europe and European modernism. In Niemeyer’s work, it’s modernism again – but it’s also a way of making a curve that stands up. But it’s also the material of choice for Brazil’s ubiquitous high-rise condos and equally ubiquitous favelas, in both cases simply a way of making buildings strong and cheap. The same is true of Peru, and Pakistan to greater or lesser degrees. The anxieties about concrete that Forty describes so well are largely those of a world that has a choice about whether or not to use it. For the rest of the world, it means what ever it has to.
THE USE OF ‘WAR’ TO DESCRIBE CITY LIFE IS A CULTURAL STUDIES CLICHE. In City of Quartz (1990) Mike Davis famously described Los Angeles as ‘militarized’, thinking of the bum-proof benches of downtown, and signs on suburban lawns warning of ‘armed response’ to intrusion. Teresa Caldeira’s account of São Paulo, City of Walls (2001) did something similar for the Brazilian metropolis, describing a city so conditioned by fear of crime that it might as well be at war. I’ve used the metaphor of warfare plenty of times myself, for example in my own accounts of Brazilian cities, which noted the tendency of local journalists to describe them as being in a state of de facto civil war. In that piece, I referred to a much-quoted statistic: during the four-year siege of Sarajevo 1992-6, more people of were killed on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, ostensibly a city at peace. War is a cliche, however, and an increasingly inaccurate one in these terms. LA, New York, São Paulo, Rio (etc. etc.) have become immeasurably safer since everyone started talking about how dangerous they were. And while Baghdad kills 50 or so people per day in a state of genuine warfare, it is frankly unethical to even use the term in relation to what are safe and wealthy places.
Still, that is what I am going to do. In my last post, I mentioned Richard E. Caves’s Creative Industries (2000) in relation to the sociability, or otherwise, of the creative city. The intense, but intermittent, sociability of the creative city is in fact that of a condition of emergency. As Rebecca Solnit has written lately (A Paradise Built in Hell, 2009) natural disasters destroy communities, but also produce marvellous new ones. The more I thought about them, the more Caves’s core principles suggested such a condition of emergency. ‘Nobody Knows’, the ‘Motley Crew’, ‘Time Flies’ (and the rest) invoke an exceptional state of being. The future is unknown and unknowable, threats are permanent, change is ever-present, the project (movie, exhibition, artwork, performance, book, campaign) routinely demands the impossible. Time is essential; everything must be now. The resources required are immense: it must store materials, skills and ideas in anticipation of a future that may never occur. It is subject to high levels of security and secrecy. Its workers are mobile and rootless, and live in de facto camps, separated and sometimes secured from the city proper. And each project – for which read ‘campaign’ – demands absolute commitment. Desertion is death.
Caves doesn’t describe the creative city in quite these terms, but the implication is there to be had. And at the time he was writing, there were plenty of other writers invoking a sense of emergency in contemporary life: the sociologist Ulrich Beck’s ‘risk society’ is a perfect example.
On the ground, there are real figures of this metaphorical war. Superficially, many of the most creative cities have also been literal ruins at some stage of their development, caused, often enough by conflict (Berlin, London and Manchester bore until recently the literal scars of war). Artists have always been drawn to the ruined parts of cities for economic reasons, but they have also long cultivated an aesthetic of ruination – and resisted attempts to clean up. The creative city and the ruined city often seem to overlap.
However there’s more to this metaphorical war than ruins. Caves says a lot about LA and the movie industry, and if you know that city, you know how reminiscent its great studio complexes are of military encampments or munitions factories: sprawling, secure complexes, surrounded by high walls, blind to the outside world. And inside, they’re populated by transient gangs working secretly to impossible deadlines, for campaigns that become apparent only when they’re in progress. Making movies is uncannily like going to war. It’s no accident that war has been such a natural movie genre. And it’s arguably no accident that LA’s other main activity, at least until the 1980s, was armaments.
If the creative city is also metaphorically a city at war, is it right? The creative city undoubtedly suits those with the wits and education to take advantage of it, and weather its vicissitudes. I have thought of myself in that category often enough. But how does the creative city suit the weak, the sick, the very young? How does it work for anyone thinking beyond the next pitch?
Picture: Still from Alfred Hitchcock, ‘Saboteur’ (1942). Exploding munitions factory created on a Warner Bros studio lot.