London’s most famous empty building is reopening this week. The (Millennium) Dome is reopening as the O2. And all that public money that created it (???850 million apparently) has subsequently been hijacked by a private entertainment corporation to create a US style entertainment quarter. The Dome’s High Tech futurism has become buried beneath a layer of scenography in a half-hearted provincial shopping mall manner.
Simultaneously, a completely different kind of venue has just reopened in London after a very different kind of refurb. Instead of the fake streets and pseudo-beaches that have filled the Domes perplexing void, the Festival Hall draws on its own mythology for its new lease of life.
While the Dome – with its skylon-esque pylons and millennium exhibition explicitly modelled on the Festival of Britain – has morphed into fantasy narratives, the Festival Hall has stripped away the accumulation of eras following its construction to reveal itself.
Over the years the Festival Hall has become a beacon of a very particular kind of retro-ism. Its 50′s aesthetic makes it a classic of the mid-century modern look: an austere-yet-sexy thing that crystallised on the glossy pages of Wallpaper but spread through a generation. Coupled with this, the buildings post-war socialist heritage and connection to the Festival of Britain also chimes with a different kind of clientele – making it the obvious candidate venue for the post election 1997 New Labour victory party. If retro-ism had a spiritual home it would be here.
Its been carefully and sympathetically renovated by architects Allies and Morrison with a feel for the mid-century vibe. The Halls 1950 atmosphere has been augmented by restaurants named ‘Canteen’ complete with period signage.
But it’s not just what the building looks like or what it represents that makes it a nostalgia factory. It’s what it puts on too. I was supposed to go there this Friday to see the Jesus and Mary Chain as part of Jarvis Cockers ‘Meltdown’. I’ve seen Morrissey there and Brian Wilson too over the last few years. One of the Festival Halls specialities is its line in the rehabilitation and tasteful presentation of yesterday’s figures, representing them as ‘significant artists’: A kind of high-end nostalgia. Of course the idea that the JAMC might now be nostalgic seems very strange, and totally surprising.
A quote on the wall at the current Architecture Foundation exhibition ‘Don’t Panic’ is taken from JG Ballard and reads something like this: ‘Sometime in the 1960s we became scared of the future.’
Nostalgia is a means of escape from future-fear. It’s what you hear for example in the echo-ey, trembling music of Brian Wilsons (the wobbly sci-fi theramin in Good Vibrations, the churchy reverberations, the sound of a family singing together). It’s in Morrissey’s record sleeve coverstars and references to kitchen sink dramas. And it’s in the JAMCs replaying of the Velvet Underground through the collapsing state of 1980s west coast Scottish heavy industry.
Retro-ism is an act of collecting, sorting, editing. Creation comes out of curation. Nostalgia is far more than a brake applied to progressive culture or a force for conservatism. Nostalgia can provide the drive to make things as startling as the sound of the JAMCs Psychocandy, as electric as the first bars of Handsome Devil or as wildly ecstatic as Good Vibrations. Why? Because it connects with our collective contemporary sense of worry – caught between the past and the future.
As the O2 and Festival Hall show, there are many kinds of nostalgia. They represent opposite versions – what one might call authentic-retro-ism, and synthetic retro-ism.