The Clockwork Jerusalem Roadshow: Milton Keynes, Folkestone Triennial, Architectural Association

A bit of info on three dates coming up for talks on and around A Clockwork Jerusalem.

First up on Thursday 9th October at 7pm at the Milton Keynes Art Gallery I’ll be with co-curator Wouter Vanstiphout talking with Kieran Long.Details here

Then on Sunday 12th at 12pm we’ll all be doing the same again as part of the Folkestone Triennial. Details etc …

And finally, on Thursday 16th Oct at 6pm a talk and the UK launch of the Clockwork Jerusalem book at the AA.

Obscure Design Typologies: Hotel Art

The strange phenomenon of hotel abstract art illustrated here is key to Will Wiles’ new book The Way Inn. Without giving anything away plot-wise, the book makes us look closely at the strange interior worlds of chain hotels, their arrangements, protocols, furniture and the art that is hung on their walls.

What are these things that are approximations of art filling space adding nondescript character to characterless environments, that are symbols referencing nothing at at all … Where do they come from? Are there, as Will asks, gigantic production facilities producing acre after acre of generic abstraction? Or do they, as the story of the Way Inn suggests, hold the key to much darker secrets?

We could also ask is there an entire shadow art history of hotel art? Stories of the struggle and eventual breakthrough of radical new approaches to meaningless decoration?

Well, if this sounds interesting, next week at AA Nightschool we’re delighted to welcome Will Wiles back for a second edition of his book club. This follows his sessions earlier this year titled ‘Malign Interiors’. In the best traditions of horror movie franchises the sequel is called ‘Malign Interiors 2: Bigger on the Inside’. (The scary proposition that scale and proportion begin to behave in supernatural and perverse ways being a familiar trope in the genre of horror scenarios)

You can book on the Nightschool website for the three sessions which start on Tuesday 2nd Sept where we’ll be discussing William Beckford’s Vathek. Next up is J.G. Ballard’s Report on an Unidentified Space Station. The finale will be Will’s new novel The Way Inn.

For more info you can see Will’s piece for the RIBA Journal here and this piece I wrote for Dezeen for the original series.

The Exploding Edenic Inevitable

The following is the sketch brief for my forthcoming studio at UIC SoA that kicks off next week. The project is an extension of the research conducted as part of A Clockwork Jerusalem for the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, extending the same ideas and trajectories into the utopian experiments of New World settlements and communities …

Extract of Map Of The New World Samuel de Champlain, 1612

The European emigres who settled what they termed the New World bought with them ideas and dreams. They imagined America as a new Eden, a place within which they might construct new worlds, New Jerusalem’s whose form, organisation and lifestyle could be a direct expression of a deeply felt ethos.

Shaker Spirit Drawing “The Holy City” 1843

Architecture, planning and design were the medium through which these theocratic, millennialist, socialist, theosophist, behaviourist, and techno-rustic communities would take shape, the physical form of the dreams of new kinds of world, a golden thread that leads from early religious settlements to Warhol’s Factory.

Garden City Diagram Ebenezer Howard, 1900

In Europe many of the same sentiments of moral, religious and social reform went on to form the basis for post war architecture and planning.

Drop City animation still
Michael Krueger, 2010

In America, these extreme communities remained (for the most part) outsider forms of planning. They often fell apart, imploding sometimes only months after their founding.

Map of Salt Lake City 1870

(But not always. Sometimes their idealism became so deeply ingrained that it seemed entirely ordinary)

Joy Division, Hulme, Manchester Kevin Cummins, 1979

Of course, the European trajectory also (often) fell apart, bequeathing us a landscape of huge projects that are currently in phases of renovation, renewal, demolition, transference from public to private and so on.

The Origins of Architecture Joseph Gandy, 1838

What both the European and American traditions show is architectures fundamental social and idealistic drive. In other words, architecture always needs to write its foundation myth. (And that this is destined to fail)

Map of Canterbury Shaker Village Henry Clay Blinn, 1848

The studio will first research historical examples of utopian settlements.

Victims John Hejduk, 1986

It will compare and contrast these outsider-architectures with canonical forms of architecture, and will project forward the possibilities of idealist communities into the near future.

Apple HQ Norman Foster & Partners, 2013

What, the studio asks, are our own eras forms of idealism? Are the tech campus’ of silicon valley – the sci-fi orchards of Fosters Apple HQ and Amazon bio-spheres for example- the inheritors of this tradition? Are the fractured and intense communities of lifestyle (say the phenomenon of the paleo-lifestyle, the strange resurrection of a myth of caveman times as an ultra-contemporary way of life) possible starting points? What are todays (and tomorrows) cults and dreams? What might baby boomer rest homes look like?

Heritage Tomato

What about that generation of hipsters for whom authentic, artisanal life is the dream?

New Harmony (View of a Community) F. Bate 1838

In an era of market led development, can we both learn lessons about demographic, choice, difference while also forming critiques of its narrow limitations? Can we be both ironic and optimistic simultaneously? In the desert of idealism that now characterises the American (and most other) cities, can we reinvent forms of architectural dream within the fabric of the city? Or can we condense atomised culture and bring together combinations of interests to form new kinds of community?

The Ramones

The studio will explore design scenarios such as: What would Shaker furniture look like if it was the expression of punk rock rather than religion (after Dan Graham’s film Rock My Religion). Conversely, what would a Shaker Stratocaster look like?

Shaker Gift Drawing

This approach – of remaking, appropriation, hybridising references from worlds alien to one another – will be core to the studios design approach. We will learn how to appropriate outsider forms of drawing – such as Shaker ‘gift paintings’, etchings, psychedelic art – as architectural representation.

Plan For The City Of Zion Joseph Smith, 1830

We will bring this entire carnival of ideas back in to the fold, unearthing the utopian and idealistic history of American settlement and repurposing it for a 21st century urban future.

Dumb and Dumber: In Praise of Follies

A piece I wrote for the Gwangju Folly project, curated by Nikolaus Hirsch, Philipp Misselwitz and Eui Young Chun featuring Ai Weiwei, Do Ho Suh, Eyal Weizman, Raqs Media Collective, David Adjaye, Rem Koolhaas and more. The catalogue is available here

Off-season, the Scheveningen boardwalk is a very lonely place. All of its seaside resort jollity is blasted by North Sea winds leaving desolate prospects. Even the blow-up gorilla sitting astride the roof of a fun pub seems to hum, “Come Armageddon, come,” and the giant neon parrot at the end of the pier looks like it would rather be blinking in a neon jungle far, far away.

From the miasma of blur-grey sea mist, a startling figure pulls into focus. Bright and so full of verve, it seems to bound towards us, despite its rigid figure. “Hi!” it says without speaking, “I’m a cone full of chips.” Face bursting with excitement, perky legs sprout from its carton body, chips poking up for hair. One arm is raised in greeting while the other reaches up to the top of its head – no doubt feeling for a chip. Its eyes bulge in anticipation of the taste of fried potato. In fact, so much pleasure emanates from this figure that it seems deliriously innocent of its own imminent self-cannibalism. Its mouth hung open, its tongue swells, lolls out, its teeth are all arrayed in preparation to chomp down on its own body. Ecstatic about its own deliciousness, totally absorbed in its self-ingestion.

The demented fellow seems a poor encouragement for fried food. Its body without organs instead seems to carry another message.

It smiles at us with a knowing smile. “Don’t we all eat ourselves?” it seems to say. “Don’t you, like me, swallow yourself up in self-absorbed pleasure?” Standing as a glowing embodiment of consumption, it is even a symbol of consumption devouring itself.

And while it says these things, it offers a hole in its hollow body as a receptacle for our trash. Just like Brett Anderson, it offers us some kind of redemptive consolation in its (and by extension, our own) lowliness: “We’re tra-a-ash, you and me.”

We encounter these kinds of fiberglass follies in streets, parks, and other touristic locations, the kinds of places wrapped up in absent-minded consumerism. They might be giant sculpted ice creams the size of an adolescent, whipped tops dripping with sauce, their cones sculpted into an exaggerated waffled texture. Or neon pizza slices, each neon mushroom a swiggle of calligraphy. But they aren’t quite signs. They don’t explicitly encourage us to buy, they don’t offer us deals. They remain wordless objects in the landscape. Stupid objects in the stupidest parts of our modern landscape. Not so much advertisements but desire made GRP real, popped as much out of our greedy minds as from the moulds that form them. These are objects of the shallow imagination, idiotic follies of an animal desire for fat, sugar, and flavorings. But they are follies, nonetheless. And as follies they spring from a grand tradition.

Illustration from Erasmus' In Praise of Folly by Hans Holbein

According to Erasmus of Rotterdam, Folly was born to the young and intoxicated god Plutus and “the loveliest of all the nymphs and the gayest” Youth. Folly was nursed by Drunkenness and Ignorance. Her followers include Self-love, Pleasure, Flattery, and Sound Sleep. We might not know much about Renaissance culture or the Catholic Church in the 15th century that Erasmus was apparently addressing, but those character traits sound very familiar, the very same things we wring our own hands about. Erasmus’s text, In Praise of Folly (1511), might be a piece of 500-year-old esoterica but it might help us understand the contemporary significance of a self-devouring bag of chips. Erasmus mobilizes Folly as a form of sarcasm, as a voice able to say things that we can’t say in our own voice. Like the court jester, Folly performs an exceptional role. Its idiocy grants it license to speak the kinds of truths others can’t. Our friendly bag of chips is Folly herself. It talks in Folly’s voice directly to our own self-love, our own empty, trash-filled hearts, and it does so with Folly’s goofy grin and goggley eyes of idiocy.

Adof Loos, Mausoleum for Max Dvorak, (1921)

According to Adolf Loos, “Only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument. Everything else that fulfills a function is to be excluded from the domain of art.” Follies too are architecture eviscerated of practical function. Perhaps this makes them art as well. All three forms of construction share a single characteristic: their primary purpose is to embody, transmit, and represent an idea, to petrify narrative into stone or fiberglass. Aren’t tombs just follies minus the fun? And monuments are surely just joyless follies of state. That also means that follies are far more than simple entertainment. They may be playful, but their playfulness is as serious as the grave.

We can trace the architectural folly’s role as idea-made-real to its origins in the 16th and 17th century. Follies operated as decorative objects in the aristocratic landscape that acted as tangible symbols for ideas and ideals. Often taking the antiquated form of Egyptian structures, Greek temples, ruined gothic abbeys, and so on, they summoned up cultural references to make them stony flesh. By summoning up idealized cultural images, they made the imaginary world of their builders real. Follies are equal parts thing and idea, bound together in a way that is impossible to untangle.

Temple of Ancient Virtue, Stowe

Nowhere is this compound of ideology and folly more fulfilled than Stowe, the family seat of the Temple-Granvilles. Richard Temple, 1st Viscount Cobham, was both a soldier and a politician who acted as a mentor to William Pitt. Disillusioned with active politics he retired and took to redesigning Stowe’s gardens. Rather than a retreat from ideology though, the gardens became a vehicle for his political concerns. The very ground was ploughed and reshaped by his political beliefs. Designed with Capability Brown and John Vanbrugh, Stowe was choreographed as a landscaped manifesto, as satire and as a legible political proposition. Structures such as the Temple of Ancient Virtue embodied those virtues Viscount Cobham saw as lacking in his political opponents, while the Temple of Friendship was dedicated to his group of opposition Whigs. The Temple of British Worthies set out an agenda of good and honorable qualities through its selection of poets, philosophers, scientists, monarchs, statesmen, and soldiers. We can read Stowe as a 400-acre ideologically narrative landscape.

Of course, we don’t build landscapes like Stowe anymore. But we do build follies, even if we call them something else. Even if they are simply giant GRP ice creams. And when we do, consciously or not, we also cite the cultural heritage of the folly. In its ridiculous stupidity it operates like Erasmus’s Folly, as the voice of a deranged self-indulgent truth. In its uselessness, it gains Adolf Loos’s amplified essentiality. In its figural representation, it gains Stowe’s narrative ability.

Follies then, whether we like it or not, are serious, sarcastic, and ideological manifestations. The more stupid they are, the more serious they become. The more facile, the clearer their ideology. Follies are ourselves reflected back at us in a magnifying mirror. They are our desires and dreams, our logic and reason made friendly-grotesque, hanging out on street corners ready to wink at us knowingly and smile with that gurning expression of self-recognition.

Lenin’s Urn

On Tavistock Place there’s a stretch of Victorian terraced housing that is now (mostly) a string of hotels and B&B’s. You might wonder if any of those budget travellers, while trundling their suitcases up from Euston Station look up to see the blue plaque on no. 36. It reads “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin 1870-1921, Founder of the USSR, Lived here in 1908”. Lenin stayed here at the beginning of his second period of exile from Russia. Tavistock Place a convenient base for his research he at the British Museum while writing his seminal text ‘Materialism and Empirio-criticism’ (published 1909)

This part of Tavistock Place is a typical London terrace. Each house has a basement area to the street front. Around these are cast iron railings painted black gloss. Painted many times it seems. Each layer building up on the last, each lick of paint shrouding the metal form in another layer.

Over time – and who knows quite how much time – the decorative details of the the railings have been gradually blurred. What we see now are these strange abstractions of varying degrees, each urn displaying its history of bumps and repair, of coat after coat until they become distinct shapes developing their own character. These are objects created over time, pieces of urban fabric that, like tree rings, tell their own story of their presence in the city.

In their vagueness, in their sense of swathed form we might feel some vague-shaped ghost of Lenin’s presence, somewhere down amongst their base coat. Talk about dialectical materialism, which, as Lenin explained in the very book he was writing during his stay at Tavistock Place

“ … insists on the approximate relative character of every scientific theory of the structure of matter and its properties; it insists on the absence of absolute boundaries in nature, on the transformation of moving matter from one state into another, that from our point of view [may be] apparently irreconcilable with it, and so forth.”

[As a side note, wouldn’t these make fabulous objects themselves? Imagine scaled up representations of them, these wonky, sloughed forms of something vaguely recognisable, gloss black like an oil slick. Anyone fancy commissioning them?]

Obscure Design Typologies: Brick Making Machines

Here is a glimpse into the world that makes the world: A selection of brick making machines gleaned from the global B2B marketplace Alibaba, that Aladdin’s Cave of mysteriously exotic banality. These are the machines that manufacture the things we manufacture the world out of, devices that are interfaces between the raw material of geology and the most basic building block of the synthetic, designed world. And though basic, we know (from this John Conway lecture on the mathematics of the brick, that a brick despite (or rather because of its ubiquity in the built environment) is actually a high concept idea in the form of baked clay. These, then are the glorious machines that provide form to that concept.

And for comparison, a few historical brick making scenarios:

[Side Note: To those dullards who happily quote Lou Kahn’s famous aphorism (you know, that one that goes “What does a brick want to be?”) … Well, isn’t being a brick – with all of the history and culture that that entails – enough?]

Art Review Live

Just a quick note about an event for Art Review this coming Thursday evening, part of their Art Review Live programme in their basement space in Honduras Street.

I’m talking about A Clockwork Jerusalem, the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, people walking ducks in Peckham, and showing videos … and there will be specially themed cocktails too for that real Moloko Plus vibe.

Thursday 17th July, 7pm-11pm, Art Review, 1 Honduras Street, London EC1Y 0TH

John Conway and the Princeton Brick

Thanks to Richard Rhys of Pattern Foundry comes this 2 hr lecture on the mathematics of the brick by mathematician John Conway It starts in the lecture theatre with Conway outlining the dimension of the brick, then explaining how various types of bond work before heading out into the Princeton campus to look at a walls, walls and more walls. Watch it- honestly, do – and you’ll never look at brick wall the same again.

A Clockwork Jerusalem, The Soundtrack

Optimo * A Clockwork Jerusalem Mix. (Optimo In Venice) by Thoughts On Love And Smoking. on Mixcloud

Here is the soundtrack commissioned by The Vinyl Factory and 180 The Strand for the Clockwork Jerusalem party at the Venice Biennale. Mixed by JD Twitch and JG Wilkes aka Optimo the mix brings together such seemingly disparate music sources as Wendy Carlos’ soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange, Mark Stewart’s dubbed-out remix of William Blake’s Jerusalem, Andrew Weatherall’s Sabres of Paradise classic ‘Smokebelch’ and tracks by The Fall, Joy Division, Steel Pulse and even Bronski Beat(!) into a brilliant and powerful comment on the complexity of modern Britain.

Get ready to throw some shapes and dance about architecture.

Stonehenge as Historico Futurism

To coincide with the summer solstice, here is a little extract from my essay in the Clockwork Jerusalem book published alongside the show I’ve co-curated at the British Pavilion. The book is beautiful – burt sadly only available from the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale right now, We’re hoping to have a little wider distribution very soon.

British Modernism begins in a different place and time from its Continental cousin. Unlike Continental Modernisms dream of the tabula rasa, a wiping away of history, it looks backwards in order to invent new utopian visions. But this is not nostalgia: the past is used as the baton charge of progression. Blake’s ‘ancient times’, for example, is not not safe or secure but a radical call to arms. History is polemic, a site to write vivid contemporary arguments. It’s this we find at the very origin of British architecture, the empty-yet-full sign, unreadable but endlessly writable zero point: Stonehenge.

In the words of Spinal Tap ‘Nobody knows who they were or what they was doing there’.
Since its “rediscovery” in the 12th century, Stonehenge has been a backdrop to projected imaginations from Hippy Convoy generator-powered space-rock festivals, to Victorian pantomime Druids, William Blake’s mystical Albionism and associated with a grab bag of folklore and conspiracy theories: King Arthur, Robin Hood and UFO’s.

Stonehenge’s tenuous relationship to history is neatly illustrated by the local guide who, when showing antiquarian William Stukeley around the site in the mid 1700s, scattered Roman coins in an effort to confirm Inigo Jones’s theory that it had been built as a Roman temple.

Jones had been commissioned by James I to carry out a survey of the stones but the document posthumously published as ‘The most notable antiquity of Great Britain, vulgarly called Stone-Heng on Salisbury plain’ (London, 1655) was more wish fulfilment than archeology. Jones drew what he imagined rather than what he saw – the stones sharp and abstract in a perfect circle, a hexagon arranged in their middle.

By naming Stonehenge as Roman rather than pagan Jones was naturalising the roots of continental classicism at the heart of his Palladianism, co-opting indigenous Celtic culture as a way to speed a new vision of what he hoped Britain might become.

This is not the only time Stonehenge – or at least a version of it – has been written into the future.

The Royal Crescent in Bath (1767) is one of the grandest examples of Georgian architecture. The curved facade of the terrace faces onto a ha-ha-ed lawn as though it were an aristocratic house. It may be decorated with the kind of ionic columns and rustication that Jones introduced but embedded in its plan is something far removed from these Palladian references.

John Wood the Elder – who set out the plan arrangement – was immersed in pagan history and its his druidic interests that bent the crescent into an explicit reference to the inner horse-shoe of stones at Stonehenge. Connecting this crescent to the Royal Circus forms a sun and moon set out at urban scale, according to myth, along a ley line. Woods plan merges ghosts of Albion with speculative building to create a new urban typology of the crescent terrace for the rising middle class.

Two hundred years later it was the Royal Crescent that Hugh Wilson and Lewis Womersley had in mind when they were designing what was to be the largest public housing estate in Europe. The four Hulme Cresents, south-facing u-shaped blocks each named after a distinguished British architects Adam, Nash, Barry and Kent provided 3,284 deck-access homes for over 13,000 people.

They wrote of their approach: “By the use of similar shapes and proportions, large-scale building groups and open spaces … it is our endeavour to achieve at Hulme a solution to the problems of twentieth-century living which would be the equivalent in quality that reached the requirements of eighteenth-century Bloomsbury and Bath.”

Hulme was, in other words, a Royal Crescent for all with its bourgeois grandeur democratised. That their abstracted curves recalled the drawings Inigo Jones had made of the “most notable antiquity of Great Britain” is at least serendipity, if not intentional.

The crescents were built on a site that had once been the cradle of Manchester’s Industrial Revolution, whose Blakian ‘Satanic Mills’ and circumstance Friedrich Engels described in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), as “chiefly bad and approaching ruin … generally sunk in filth.”

His description came to haunt Wilson and Womersley’s Welfare State Crescents. In 1974 a five-year old child died falling from a balcony due to a design flaw. After the incident residents demanded rehousing and the Council, deeming the flats unsuitable for families, agreed. By 1984 the Crescents had become so undesirable, and lacking the funds to demolish the housing scheme, the council stopped charging rents entirely.

Left to its own devices, The Crescents became home to an alternative subcultural scene. The Kitchen was an illegal nightclub created from three knocked-through flats and was described as a “much wilder alternative” to the nearby Hacienda club. Hulmes bohemian desolation provided the imaginative space for Kevin Cummin’s famous portrait of Joy Division on the pedestrian bridge leading into the estate – the only structure that remains standing after the Crescents eventual demolition in 1994. Describing it as a ‘portrait of space rather then a band’, Cummins suggests the significance of Hulme – in all its desolate misery – as an imaginative space inhabited by Joy Divisions iron curtain fantasies.

Films and photographs of the era of Hulme’s demolition show wild parties and a seemingly manic delight in its impending destruction. In these moments Hulme pulses with the entire bloodline of British architecture. The Crescents transformed into gigantic versions of Stonehenge – equally strange and mysterious, handed down from a vanished civilisation. Within the curling modernist arms of the Crescents parties unconsciously reenacted Druidic rituals fuelled by Ecstasy and Acid House before Hulme too would be consigned to the dustbin of history and assume its own mythic status in the pop culture of Manchester and beyond.