This domain name expires in a couple of weeks and I won't be renewing it.
I'll switch the blog to http://sesquipedalist.blogspot.com, but doubt there'll be any updates for many months or years anyway.
Thanks for reading this far.
All nice things, Merry Christmas, happy new year etc.
I'll hastily finish this review off before yet another weekend arrives...
(Before starting, however, I must declare an interest in this book … I accompanied Owen on his first trip around Sheffield, some of my photos have been used in the book from this trip, and unbeknownst to me, he's even quoted me a couple of times. But that's about the sum of it.)
The rise and rise of Owen Hatherley is something of an inexplicable phenomenon. Who would have thought that a difficultly named blog full of long essays replete with obscure references and complex arguments about the state of politics refracted through the state of architecture could catch on? But it certainly did, and led to Hatherley being a columnist at BD, regular contributor to the Guardian (among others) and a couple of books. This just confirms that there is some intelligence and quality on the web and it can be used as an egalitarian platform to launch careers.
In his new book, Hatherley claims he is not a “proper architecture critic” and I would tend to agree. He is far more perceptive and insightful than the conventional critic who considers that criticism begins and ends with a description of the aesthetic, the route and perhaps the function or technology or the site or something else to do with the building as an object, the architect as an author or the process as a narrative. He is also more fun and interesting to read. Hatherley uses architecture as a medium to understand, explain and criticise politics and in particular, the politics of New Labour. He does this with effortless elegance, guile and cutting wit, combined with a broad erudition that is tellingly not from an architectural education, but from a historical one. This is evident because Hatherley avoids the usual architectural clichés and tropes and focuses on what illustrates the story he wants to tell. For example, the chapter on Liverpool discusses the bungalows built by Militant right next to Liverpool One. Nothing is too banal to pass under his radar.
Hatherley's founding assumption is that material culture is a direct product of the political and economic forces that impinge on our everyday lives and the power struggles therein. Therefore, the appearance of our buildings reflects the state of the society in which they were built. There's a bit of Marxist historical materialism in here, a splash of Puginistic moralism, and perhaps a dab of the legacy of Burckhardt's cultural history via Raymond Williams. If, like me, you can buy into this way of looking at architecture, you will probably enjoy the insights this book offers. It is certainly a refreshing change indeed from the usual uncritical banalities that pass for architectural criticism. Hatherley makes no apologies about being from Old Labour and is out to “defend modernism from its defenders”. He is mourning the loss of the “hard left” and the optimistic welfare state architecture of post war modernism that promised to improve the lot of the working class and that has now turned into what he terms “pseudomodernism” of neoliberalism and high capitalism. The book's great strength is the documentation of the false consciousness that has descended over Britain in the last few decades and its attempt to provoke a reawakening is uniquely laudable. Hatherley never lets us forget that it is entirely possible to arrange society and its buildings in any way we chose and its current configuration is far more due to the ideologies of the rich and powerful who run the country than the stylistic dreams of architectural culture.
Hatherley is Northern-hearted with the fearless voice of an over-achieving adolescent (not literally!) – I've never seen the word “ginormous” written before, for example, and there's a curious naiveté mixed in with some seriously intelligent analysis which makes it accessible and surprising in places. As a kind of hybrid of Jonathan Meades and Ian Nairn, the book is clearly reminiscent of Ian Nairn's trawls from Southampton to Carlisle for the Architectural Review in the mid 1950s. In “Outrage” (AR, June 1955), Nairn angrily warned public authorities of the mess they were making of the country, but that they were “only a corporate reflection of what goes on in the mind of each one of us.”
Hatherley has done some impressively extensive research too – travelled many a mile by foot and public transport in order to cover a large area of 12 key British cities. There are inevitably some omissions – I would have loved to hear what he has to say about Bristol, Coventry and Leicester, for example. Maybe, volume 2. Because of the extent of the coverage, it was clearly impossible to go into the specific stories for the buildings he focuses on in any great depth, and the result is a case of understanding the built environment – usually by external appearance – in the light of broad economic and social policy. The method can sometimes contradict the methodology, however: the assumption is often that it is wholly the architects' fault for the appearance of the built environment. While architects clearly do often have design and aesthetic choices to make, the bigger picture that Hatherley is criticising is created by the policy makers and the developers. Are architects, therefore, an uncritical reflection of the state of society? Some certainly are, but not all by any means. In order to earn a living, architects more often than not, have to dance to the powerful's tune. It's like blaming doctors for the health of the nation. Architects who collude with the greediness of the powerful, such as Ian Simpson in his ludicrous Manchester Penthouse complete with olive trees, rightly receive the full blast of Hatherley's scorn.
My other main criticism is that I never have any idea why Hatherley likes or dislikes a certain building. Sometimes we violently agree (Park Hill, Milton Keynes shopping centre), and sometimes we don't (Robin Hood Gardens, Milton Keynes Central Station). In relation to WestQuay mega-mall in Southampton, he himself writes that “the language that is used to attack it is remarkably similar to that which is used to attack some of the architecture I love.” As an aside, the use of the word “attack” very much sums up the tenor of the book, but my main point is that it would be nice to know the criteria that he is using in his evaluations. There again, that's like a magician revealing how he does his tricks (something I actually find more interesting than the spectacle itself). While Hatherley clearly knows a lot about his architectural history – certainly a lot more than me and most other architectural historians, I did spot at least one historical inaccuracy: the Smithsons never worked for Lyons Israel Ellis (p.6).
Finally, a word on the photographs. These are done an injustice in the book and many times, when embroiled in a particularly dense passage on an obscure trail somewhere I've never been but am blindly following anyway, I wished there were far more. They are like you or I could take on our holidays – from the point of view of an average city dweller or visitor and unlike the usual icey architectural pornographic photographs, they contain life.
Enough. In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and will undoubtedly return to it. Like his polemical blog and columns, it led me places I wouldn't normally venture, it inspired me, educated me and made me really consider what I think about architecture and why. You can't ask much more from architectural criticism than that. I'd highly recommend you borrow this book from your library now.
I've promised a piece on architectural education to FATCharles and I've promised to write a review of Hath's Guide to the New Ruins, both of which I've started and put down half way. I don't know whether either will get finished and put up here, as I've started in earnest to write up the old PhD in a serious effort to get it finished and re-enter society (and the working elite, having now literally no income whatsoever other than a stint as archipornaholic on ebay selling rare vintage archiporn - bless my poor, long-suffering wife who is supporting me in every way).
I've also been meaning to write about anonymous architecture, but again, that will probably have to wait until May 2011 too, when I plan to submit the PhD and split this blog into 2: ColumnV and archipornaholic.
Promises are all I can offer for now. So long.
Further to FAT Charles' desperate plea for architects to stop entering competitions, and my frustrated parody from a while ago, I couldn't believe the latest one as notified in today's AJ's newsletter for a chicken coop.
So come on architects ... just one more for the chickens.
The bi-annually updated circulation of architectural magazines, as last seen back in May (click on graph for slightly larger version).
These figures are the average circulation figures over the last 12 months.
It's not surprising that the main three trade rags, the AR, AJ and BD have all been declining during the recession. Even Building has had a bad year, and recent months have seen AT overtake it as the second most circulated architecture mag, after the RIBA Journal. Unsurprisingly, these top two mags are the freebies that one is not likely to unsubscribe from regardless of financial circumstance. While the RIBAJ declines steadily with resignations from the RIBA (due to unemployment no doubt), AT remains the most stable. At the bottom end, Blueprint appears to be not fairing so badly. However, given that it's the only one considered a "consumer" rather than a "business" magazine, it's surprising that it's freely distributed circulation is a whopping two-thirds of the total! The AJ is getting perilously close to undertaking Blueprint as the least read architectural magazine and must be at an all-time low - it's circulation is 50% of that in 2002. Having said that, looking at the figures, those in decline seem to have stabilised recently.
Why is this geekology important or interesting? The numbers tangentially indicate the quality of the architectural press (assuming people choose to buy quality, which isn't always a reasonable assumption of course), but the quantities do reflect the health of the profession. A healthy press indicates a healthy culture and profession. Clearly, it's very sick indead at the moment.
As promised (and promptly forgotten), here's my potted history of 80 years of AD as published in the AJ a couple of months ago.
We all know and love AD today as that glossy bi-monthly magazine-cum-book that publishes the latest in architectural theory and the occasional building. But behind it is a rich and influential history that stretches back to 1930, when it was originally given away freely with the Architect's Standard Catalogue and called Architectural Design and Construction.
Barbara Randell and Monica Pidgeon took over its editorship immediately after the war. A great networker in architectural circles, Pidgeon brought contacts, energy and optimism to the magazine. Forever looking forward (history was frowned upon in her magazine), she had a real nose for the next big thing. But it was the series of talented technical editors beginning with Randell's replacement, Theo Crosby, in November 1953, who guided the magazine's content. Crosby transformed the magazine with the grooviest covers and offered a platform to the Smithsons, with whom he shared a house and an interest in the Independent Group, and who had just completed the school at Hunstanton (published in AD, September 1953). Between the Smithsons in AD and Banham in the AR, the neo-avant-garde movement of The New Brutalism was born and raised amidst post-war austerity. Until the early 1960s, with modern architecture as the choice of style for reconstructing Britain, architecture was all about the building, epitomised particularly by the remarkable September 1961 issue on Sheffield.
In 1962, Kenneth Frampton took over from Crosby and it was while touring Europe for AD and seeing how modernism was attuned to individual architects in the Continent's varied cities that his ideas on critical regionalism were formed. More critical articles appeared on, for example, Atelier 5 and Hans Scharoun and whole issues dedicated to the work of Mangiarotti & Morassuti and Lingeri & Terragni in Italy, Aris Konstantinidis in Greece, Ernö Goldfinger in Britain and ATBAT in France. While the AR remained British and committed to its visually-oriented Townscape campaigns, AD was more international and promoted the likes of Buckminster-Fuller (July 1961) and space-race technology transfer (February 1967), thus becoming the magazine of the younger generation. The issue from February 1967 (above) with the iconic faceless astronaut cover instantly recalls the space race technologies of the time. The photograph was from an advert from Cuttler-Hammer, a manufacturer of electrical products from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The issue was guest edited by former Independent Group member John McHale who was at the time working with Buckminster-Fuller at the Southern Illinois University Carbondale. It features Fuller's predictions about the year 2000 and NASA technology throughout and McHale's essay “the future of the future” prefigured his book of the same name two years later. As one of the most popular issues ever, it immediately sold out and was reprinted.
Around 1973, as the “the golden age of capitalism” was coming to an end and Britain was moving from an industrial to post-industrial society the Standard Catalogue Company wanted to sell AD. Pidgeon left in 1975. A couple of uncomfortable ménage à trois years between Haig Beck, Martin Spring and Andreas Papadakis ended when Papadakis bought the others out and was left as both publisher and editor of AD by 1979. The magazine changed tack completely and history was not only allowed, but encouraged.
I met Jessica Kelly at the Writing Design conference last year. She's a Sheffield graduate of History and is now doing a PhD (somewhere else - Middlesex?) in something to do with architecture mags (specifically, the pertinent question of "How has modern architecture been presented to the public in Britain since its first forays from the Continent in the interwar years, until it’s reassessment through postmodernism in the 1960s?"). There aren't many of us in the world, so I thought I'd give her a special mention. Her new blog, "The ardour of the layman" is here with an promising first post, so I'd encourage you to give her some time and ... erm ... is there another word for 'encouragement' so I don't use it twice in the same sentence?
As much as I'd like to consider myself an independent thinker, I cannot escape the fact that my love of concrete is as direct an inheritance from my father as my very genetic makeup. I was in the batching plants, dispatching quantities of sand, cement, water and aggregate into ready mix trucks when I was in shorts. I was chasing said ready mix trucks around North Notts, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire, South Yorkshire and even on the Channel Tunnel project in the summer between school and university. I was slump testing and cube crushing as my mates Eurorailed.
Harworth Colliery pit head - the longest continuous pour of concrete ever at the time - every time we passed it on the A1 back to Sheffield, and a little further south on the same road, he'd point out Sam Scorer's hyperbolic paraboloid concrete shell roof. I thought every Little Chef restaurant was like this until I grew up, not realising its uniqueness.
Our family holiday photos would always be interspersed with snaps of concrete cracking in allegedly interesting ways. I remember being dragged to a very grey place in sheeting drizzle, to witness the UK concrete canoe championship. Grey concrete, grey places in grey rain. Me and my two brothers in matching yellow kagools, patiently protesting. This was my childhood.
Although CQ is still around, it's written by marketing types. Originally, however, it used to be as vital an organ of modern architecture as any of the other architectural press aimed directly at architects.
The rise of CQ
On 25th May 1940, it became illegal to start a new magazine due to paper rationing. This may explain a rash of magazines in the immediate post-war period a rash that included Concrete Quarterly which started in July 1947. Its second issue, however, didn't appear until February 1948 and contained the doggerel
The Concrete QuarterlyIt's perhaps not surprising that the fortunes of CQ mirror that of the material it advocates whose exciting, unexplored properties promised to solve an optimistic new world's architectural problems. Architects would find the latest projects and techniques to fulfil this promise in CQ's pages.
Is not as punctual as it ought be to
The reason for this distortage
Is paper shortage.
Modernism got high on concrete in the 1960s and CQ's circulation soared to an impressive 23,000 in 1965, when the original editor, Betty Campbell, died. In 1961, she had predicted that 'the precast slab is already established as a versatile finish with a range of natural colour well-suited to our climate.' That would be grey, then: a colour that conveniently compliments black-and-white photography. CQs pages were harmoniously composed with drawings, text and photograph all singing the praises of concrete.
Architectural history written by a single material.
The fall of CQ
During the 1980s Concrete Quarterly was forever trying to address concrete's image problem: a cause I could empathise with at that time. Architect George Perkin took over as editor in 1965 and continued until 1988, changing the format with only a page of comment and, in 1980, a page of news. The concrete road features gave way to yard after square yard of paving. In these years of AR's Townscape, CQ became more pedestrian.
Art critic Peter Schjeldahl once wrote, 'you have to be a masochist to love concrete, enjoying the strength that your own capacity to love displays, until the strength is exhausted, when the loved one is a pitiless idiot.' CQ's strength had all but disappeared by 1988 when a new editor switched focus 'to structural economic and construction aspects.' Although Saint Calatrava was something to get excited about, CQ had to rest a while during the 1990s recession and became part of the AJ during its hypochondriac phase when it would take any supplement going. Like the material it represents, CQ's heyday is long gone and today, it simply fulfils a commercial need.
The magnificent entire back catalogue of this magazine, including the continuing issues, is available at:
the Concrete Centre's website who should be appluaded for this effort. Only one issue, the double 89/90 from Summer/Autumn 1971 is missing. I have this issue here, should anyone be interested.
I'm on my way back from AD's 80th birthday celebration at the RIBA where I heard various people lauding the praises of our favourite mag-book. My homage to AD (80 years in 800 words) will appear in this week's AJ and I'll post it here in a couple of weeks. The morning consisted of Beatriz Colomina (of Clip|Stamp|Fold glory), Peters Murray and Cook and Charles Jencks talking about the 60s, 70s and 80s. So far, so interesting, although the 30s, 40s and 50s remained unmentioned. The afternoon consisted of Neil Spiller, Mike Weinstock, Patrick Schumacher and Mark Burry representing the 90s, 00s and “the future” - less interesting.
Schumacher was the “lightning rod” at question time for both form and content and even delivery of his presentation, which looked like a summary of his future book on “autopoeisis and architecture”. Now, I agreed with Schumacher on more points than I expected, namely that “architecture doesn't exist without architects” nor without “discourse” or even “without architectural publications”. And when he came to talk about AD, I was happy to see he'd used the AD covers that I'd scanned for him (see here and here). It turns out that 'parametricism' isn't necessarily about using parameters, but is the word that Schumacher is attaching to the digital blob era of architectural design, from Greg Lynn's 1993 “Folding” onwards. However, his argument about parametricism being the style of the century is not at all convincing.
Schumacher is too self-consciously trying to write the history of now, with parametricism as the teleological conclusion. He runs through a hugely reductive and uncritical history of Western architecture, with the statement that architecture started with the Renaissance, when architects started writing architectural theory (the Gothic was merely transitional). Under the aegis of “architecture is whatever architects say it is”, I'm willing to go with that, but I'm not willing to agree that architecture is just an ever-changing menu of “styles”, a word that is central to Schumacher's thesis. However, this is a distraction to his main argument, which concerns the nature of the avant-garde.
Schumacher is claiming that this so-called style, parametricism, is today's avant-garde, and his “war of styles” is his attempt to make it mainstream. As Jencks pointed out, trying to make an avant-garde movement mainstream is the last thing on a true avant-gardist's mind. Parametricism may be state-of-the-art and it may be cutting edge, but it's certainly not avant-garde. Peter Bürger has written the only real theory of the avant-garde in the book of the same name (published in German in 1974) in which he identifies a key characteristic of the avant-garde being criticism, either of the institution of of society. Another key characteristic is the unification of life and art. Of course, definitions such as Bürger's don't stand still, and the nature of the avant-garde can change as much as the nature of modernism, or of architecture itself. However, within Schumacher's argument, there is no acknowledgement of what it means to be avant-garde. No criticism of anything, no resistance to anything, no anger at anything, no desire to be an outsider (au contraire), just a clear love of technology and form and a wish to be the next historical movement.
It would not be impossible, however, to make parametricism avant-garde. Taking the cue from the original moderns (Gropius rather than Marinetti) and attempting to help society with technology is entirely within the scope and grasp of digital tools. Instead of pampering to commerce's whims with the iconic project, it could be utilised for mass production of individual designs. If the early moderns were all about pre-fabrication and mass production to provide low cost high quality design for the masses, the digital avant-garde could be about the oxymoron of mass individuality – low cost design for individual needs and tastes. Going straight from the CAD model to CNC machines is the obvious technology to make this possible, but other bottom-up participation technologies (think wikis) could be implemented for counter-mainstream architecture. Think more Cameron Sinclair's “Open source” than Mike Weinstock's cybernetic blobs. In a recent interview I did with Cecil Balmond (see the current issue of Mark magazine), he finished by saying that he'd like to be commissioned to design lo-tech shelters using his nonlinear methods. I don't know whether this will ever get off the ground, but it would certainly be more avant-garde than that Olympic rollercoaster tower. As Jencks rightly pointed out, “Architectural Design and the avant-garde have a relationship” and this relationship has gone from the Brutalists in the 50s through Archigram in the 60s, and Postmodernism and counter-culture in the 70s. However, from the 1980s, it went mainstream and the form-making fads of deconstruction onwards cannot be considered avant-garde in any way. The avant-garde is not something that can be perceived at the time, other than by those artists on the edge. Schumacher and parametricism are far from the edge.
By way of postscript, I actually quite liked the guy. His camp German accent and determined resolution were charming, if not convincing, and having been consumed by digital technology myself in the mid 1990s (my MSc Computation thesis in 1995 used genetic algorithms written in AutoLISP in AutoCAD 12 and I was due to join John Frazer's Evolutionary Architecture unit at the AA until fate intervened). So I can fully sympathise with the “digiraties”. But by the same token, I know that this preaching is not from splenetic bile at the state of things, but from heartfelt love of what they do.
The latest news from the RIPBA is that the Manser medal prize money has been doubled to £10,000.
The RIPBA are becoming an awards circus. Irrelevant to practising architects, education and research alike.
My continuing bone of contention is that they show no interest in supporting architectural research whatsoever. Any bursaries are aimed at Part 1 and Part 2 students and they've removed their solitary Ozolins scholarship. Meanwhile, research suffers and the resulting "discipline of architecture" is laughable.
With their focus on more and more awards, the RIPBA are making themselves more and more irrelevant.