The First Cut is the Cheapest – Blenheim Palace: pop architecture that goes for the jugular

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Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been Googling long and Googling hard. I’ve been looking for the location where Rod Stewarts video for ‘The First Cut is the Deepest’ was shot. The whole video consists of a dandified Rod walking up a staircase in a Baroque garden. The stairs have a water channel running down the centre and it’s surrounded by rhododendrons. The song lasts as long as it takes Rod to get to the top of the stairs. Which seems a great length to make a staircase in a garden. A much more satisfying reason than simply the prosaic distance between two things. It forms a relationship between the dimensional length of an architectural feature and the length of time it takes to do something: as many meters as it takes to hum a song. It’s a little like the Monument in the City of London. Here, the height of the structure equates to the horizontal distance from its base to the point where the Great Fire of London started. In both, a certain kind of literal meaning is encoded into the landscape as though they were part of a Dan Brown plot.

For some reason I assumed it was set in some Italian garden – somewhere like the Villa Cicogna or Villa Garzoni – both of which feature staircases/water feature combos. But neither looked quite right. I guess even Google has its limits. But then, leafing through a copy of Architectural Digest – with Rod on the cover – and there, beyond a Brown Jordan chair surrounded by antique urns, out in the garden, is the very staircase. Not in Italy in the 17th century, but terraced into the Hollywood Hills in the 1970s.

Case closed. Although, like many modern day sleuths, I’ve got a nagging doubt. Perhaps this staircase is a recreation, part of a landscape design that pays homage to the landscapes of Rods life – from the videos which sold the records which paid for his Hollywood home to patches of grass from Celtic Park (the gates to his home read “God Bless Celtic”). The staircase looks kind of right, but also much smaller. He’d only have got to the middle eight walking up this one. And it looks too old, as though a couple of hundred years have past over it. Like many of the homes of the very very rich and very very famous its hard to parse whats real and what isn’t. Reality gets stretched into something that transcends scale and time.

I’ve been thinking about Rod and Houses, Rod and Landscapes since I went to see him play at Blenheim Palace this summer. In fact, he almost ran me over with his Bentley driving across Vanburghs bridge. Which, if I could choose a way to go, would probably be a close contender.

I’d wanted to see Rod at Blenheim because it was two grand English traditions colliding: 300 years of English history squished into one night. Blenheim was built as a monument to the Duke of Marlboroughs victories over the French. The house was designed by Vanbrough and Hawksmoor, the landscape by Capability Brown. It’s military significance to Britain is enhanced by being the birthplace of Winston Churchill. Wrapped up in Blenheim are many of the events that allowed Britain to become what it is.

Contrasted against this old English history, is British pop culture, made flesh in the form of Rod. From 60s R&B to Mod, to leopard legginged Disco dancer to MTV poseur, and lastly his current shtick as top hat and tailed singer of the Great American Songbook. He’s a one-man cultural institution. And, amazingly, hes still got it.

The building is a Baroque pile up of classical architecture: temples slotted through each other, stretched taller, bent around corners. Like a snake in a cartoon that eats an object, you can see one building pushing through the skin of another. The skyline is encrusted with sculptures: English lions strangling French cockerels, piles of surrendered weapons made stone. Its part Baroque and part Tabloid headline. Blenheim is perhaps the great great grandfather of the Hollywood Home: Statement before domestic function, a house as information rather than a machine to live in.

But instead of a crash, they seemed to glide smoothly past each other. The history of the building and landscape enhanced with the ephemera of a pop act. The event seemed to play out as a series of vignettes: long white Lincon stretch limos croncked out over the lawn, as though grazing under the chestnut trees, their chauffeurs eating chips framed against Capability Browns lake. An arm, tattooed with Rods face, a tartan rug. A display of embroidered cushions in an old fountain, Blenheim branded water, ice-cream, champagne. Teased up highlighted hair, dotted over the crowd live a contagious virus infecting post menapusal women. The banks of the lake seemingly formed of soft gas as an evening haze falls.

Rods show is great. The set up is relaxed – chairs arranged in the courtyard of the Palace, a stage placed on axis with the entry to the house. It’s a temporary alteration to the architectural arrangements – crossing the grand axis that that runs from the column of victory, over the bridge and up the grand entrance portico. Rod is relaxed, cracking jokes, changing costumes, wandering to the side of the stage to let his band solo. And every single song a thoroughbred classic. Behind him is a large screen cutting live footage with prepared montages. Nostalgic Americana features heavily: a GI off to war. And of course, Celtics greatest goals (while Rod hoofs balls into the audience). The curtain drops to show a painted scene outside a New York theatre: Rod Stewart written up on the theatres sign canopy, a small queue and a Taxi. Rods own cultural reference points: an English born, Scottish, football fan in love with 50s America. If only Vanborough was around to turn this ephemera into stone.

Looking at Blenheim, the dramatization, sentimentality, and bombast that drip from Rods oeuvre were once things that architecture did. And if buildings once could do all that, then perhaps they could also articulate our inner dialogues as intricately as pop music can. The idea that building and landscape are explicitly communicative has for the moment, been all but been erased. It’s allowed only in the entertainment ghettos of theme parks and casinos. Maybe it’s the same reason I’m reluctant to join the crowd yelling: “wayyke up Mag Gie I Fink I got something to SAAAAAY to YOOOOU!” – embarrassment. Blenheim shows a time when the land as far as you could see was – unabashedly – sculpted and transformed. It feels like the planet itself has been sculpted.

Of course Blenheim is a product of aristocratic history, and like most other grand country houses is engulfed by a proletarian present. After hundreds of years of keeping us out, they are now desperate to entice us (and our wallets) in.

Every summer brings new rounds of bizarre events at stately homes around the country. Aristocrats turn their estates over to increasingly odd juxtapositions: I’ve seen Lions at Longleat, WWII reenactments taking up positions at Stowe, and aging pop acts bellow their hoary old hits across boating lakes. Contemporary aristocratic estate management has evolved a surreal embellishment of picturesque landscaping. What we need now are reconstituted stone ice cream vans, grottos that dispense tickets and guidebooks, tarmac car parks designed by some modern day Capability Brown.

Looking back across the crowd as Rod gets the encore of ‘Sailing’ underway, the waving hands silhouette against the summer-blue night sky are indistinguishable from the sculpted ramparts of the palace. The gobo-projections of leopard skin onto the walls of the palace make two forms of nostalgia indistingishable

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