Archive for the ‘architecture’ Category

Paul Klee’s students apparently celebrated his 50th birthday by dropping presents through his (flat) roof at the Bauhaus from a Junkers aircraft. An interesting story, although Mark Brown doesn’t pick up on it (Rowan Moore does here but only superficially).

Junkers was the home-town industry of Dessau by then, which is probably why the students were able to arrange the stunt. It’s mildly interesting that Marcel Breuer wanted Junkers to fabricate the alloy tubes for his furniture, but it’s more interesting going the other way.

Hugo Junkers started out working on gas heating systems and two-stroke engines, first as a product of the industrial R&D departments that emerged in Germany before anywhere else and that would later become the key manifestations of J.K. Galbraith’s technostructure, and later as an entrepreneur in his own right. He was the first to build an aircraft entirely out of metal, in 1915.

This was a crucial invention. It combined changes in metalworking and metallurgy with others in structural engineering and aerodynamics. It also meant that aircraft would no longer be craft products of varying quality, like the German fighters of the late first world war, but genuinely industrial ones. Stressed-skin construction would also mean that aircraft would no longer have external guy wires to heave their structure taut, and therefore that their wings would be aerodynamically clean.

In some ways, this would make the original design of the aircraft more important, and its production into a question of mass-producing metal components on standardised machine tools. But that could be overstated. When BAE set about converting the Nimrod MR2s built in the late 1960s to MRA4 standard, they found to their consternation and the Ministry of Defence’s financial horror that the new wings, cut identically on computer-controlled machines, matched the old blueprints but none of the actual aircraft, which had been fabricated mostly by hand. Aircraft still occupy a niche on the scale of industrialisation, rather less mass produced than cars or computers, rather more so than ships.

Of course, the Bauhaus was all about trying to mass-produce the change you wanted to see in the world. So was everybody. As Adam Tooze pointed out, mass production and product design were also part of how the Nazis wanted to escape the uneven economic development of Germany in the 1920s, along with the genocidal imperialism, of course. And it didn’t quite work, as so many of the Volksprodukte remained stubbornly pricey, as the Bauhaus’s had.

As well as aircraft, Junkers wanted to mass-produce buildings, and in fact he did. If you bought their planes, they could also sell you prefabricated hangars to park them in, and that was also how Hugo Junkers made a living between 1933 and 1935, after the Nazis expropriated the company. They had big plans for it, and it grew to enormous size as part of the nationalised Hermann Göring Werke (and part of the man himself’s corruption-empire).

Specifically, they liked three aircraft designs from Junkers – only one of which dates from the company pre-1933, the Ju52 trimotor airliner, which was produced in huge numbers for transport. Then there was the Ju87 dive bomber, the Stuka, the only war aircraft that deliberately screamed at you as it dived in a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk dedicated to violence. When it did so, it was often being filmed, in order to convince Germans at home and everyone else abroad of German power.

In fact, even by 1939 it was rather dated, but it was cheap to build and packing the numbers of front-line bombers with them spoke to the aspirations of pro-Nazi politicians, the fears of the general public, and the empires of airpower bureaucrats everywhere.

It also had a successor, the Ju88, much closer to Hugo J’s vision of a rake-thin streamlined rocket ship.

It’s not too much to say that the hope of a Nazi future rested on it. The air force procurement plan for 1941 foresaw a mammoth build-up to challenge British and US industry, and the Junkers industrial complex began to spread across Europe in search of enough aluminium alloy. In fact, Nazi plans for Norway and the Balkans were heavily determined by the needs of the Ju88. And the Ju88 design was meant to trump the advantages Rolls-Royce and North American Aviation had, by being a multirole combat aircraft before its time, a masterpiece of product design.

Of course, it didn’t work. It wasn’t big enough to make a strategic bomber, it was too big to be a decent fighter, and its high performance made it dangerous as a close-support dive bomber (the role of the Ju87 and interestingly, also of the very first Junkers). They lost and the plants were eventually bombed out to make sure of it. Not only them: the town of Dessau was destroyed to 80% on the night of the 7th March, 1945 by RAF Bomber Command.


Not the kittens!

I have just finished reading The Stones of London: A History in 12 Buildings. Not a gem by any means – far too much broadbrush Tory-ish and not much of an edge – but I did think he had a couple of good points. One was in the chapter on Keeling House and Denys Lasdun, in which Leo Hollis makes the very good point that the Brutalists specifically didn’t want to impose international style modernism on everyone but the reverse – they wanted to adapt modernism to the peculiarities of sites, communities, materials, and projects. It’s quite possible that trying to be enormously localist and consult everyone is a great way to get things drastically wrong, eh, Pickles? There’s no such thing as a Wharfedale shipping container.

In fact, some of Lasdun’s remarks he quotes would probably please Prince Charles if only he didn’t know who said them, and you might even think that part of the problem was the silly name. Although, I guess they said that about Operation KITTENS.

As a result, I guess I’ll have to denounce comrade Hatherley as a right-deviationist.

Another one was about the fate of Victorian houses in London, and specifically the way that people buy them and immediately set about ripping out the interior walls, dragging the kitchen forwards from its kennel in the back garden, and building – essentially – an open plan, white-walled modernist interior inside the brick skin.

I have just been reading the catalogue for the Design Museum’s exhibition on Kenneth Grange. An interesting thought – he makes the very good point that the problem with both the matt-black Apple laptops and the iDevices is that they soak up oil and fingerprints and human grease in general. This is of course the case of all touchscreens – they’re reflective surfaces, so the filth shows, and people touch them. When I lived in Coop Himmelb(l)au’s Gasometer B development the management had placed some tablet PCs (it was just being a thing then) around the public spaces for people to fiddle with. Of course, the screens were practically black with gunk all the time.

As far as the matt black element goes, apparently he copied an idea from Braun and had the mouldings spun in a drum with walnut shells, slightly roughing up the texture and letting the walnut oil soak in, excluding anything else from going the same way. Not something to try with the touch screen, obviously.

So, I wonder, what would a post-iPhone user interface pattern be like? Also, oddly enough, in all his myriad projects over the years, Grange has never done a mobile phone. He did some really amazing designs for Reuters trader terminals, so much so that a casemod almost seems justified. But Psion in the 1980s, Ericsson or Motorola in the 1990s, or Nokia in the 2000s never apparently asked. It would probably have had at least one oversized orange GO button – a constant in his work.

Although perhaps not an extra large number 5.

There’s a good story to be told (somewhat in the New New mode) about the old Eurostar terminal at Waterloo Station.

It’s basically as follows: after the Eurostars moved to the new St. Pancras, the thrillingly modern structure Nicholas Grimshaw gave them was abandoned to rot by “Sir” Brian Souter’s privatised train empire and eventually used as the stage for a production of The Railway Children “with a real steam train!” This, of course, is an example of everything that’s wrong with our society, nicely dramatised by the fact that the home of nuclear-powered, French super-express rockets has become the setting for a slap-up feast of Victorian kitsch and is now entirely surrounded by additional retail opportunities. Hey, the panto advert even has “Welcome to Yorkshire!” on it even though you’re very unlikely indeed to get to Yorkshire from Waterloo.

Like all the best myths it even fits the facts. Pat Robertson’s best mate is indeed responsible. But then you read a good blog; London Reconnections‘s horrifically detailed discussion of the possibilities of improving the South West main lines. In fact, although the trains suck, it’s not because they’re short of platforms at Waterloo, and the best option for making use of the Eurostar terminal requires building a flyover near Clapham Junction and painfully reworking the timetables.

It does worry me, though – how much of what passes for a national discourse is just weightless aesthetic guff? There’s a big difference between the sort of thinking you get with just the look-and-feel and the sort you get once you shove in something like that LR post under it.

If you did want some weightless style page handwaving guff, though, I’d like to point out that I really was a 1980s kid and because of this, I *don’t* have any memories (fond or otherwise) of The Breakfast Club – I’m too young. So if you’re younger than I am, you surely don’t. Nostalgia for the past you don’t remember. Now there’s a bit of conservative culture for you.

Quiggin is discussing why some things are neo- and others are post-. How do we deal with the current revival of high modernism (see Owen Hatherley’s blog and indeed his career, the proliferating Mid-Century Modern groups on Flickr, the wave of preservation campaigns for mid-20th century landmarks)? It’s obviously silly to call it post-modernism and in any case it’s explicitly opposed to it. I’ve heard post-postmodernism but that’s more of an admission that it hasn’t got a proper name yet than a solution.

Neo-modernism? I can’t help but feel there’s some stylistic problem with calling something both new and modern in the same word. I guess you could call it the New New, like the science fiction world’s New Weird, but that would get irritating quickly. But the vaguely pejorative sense of neo- might work. Modernism was always half in love and sometimes quite a bit more with either fascism or communism. To say nothing of the times it was involved in a bizarre love triangle with both of them, or its repeated flings with developmental dictatorship, urban corruption, Gaullism, liberal technocracy, and really anyone with the keys to the planning office, when the other two weren’t in town. Then, architecture is the slut of the arts, almost as much as journalism, and always has been. It can be no other way; somebody has to build something and that takes serious amounts of money. (So what’s the journos’ excuse?)

I would guess that a camp revival of it would enjoy the trains-running-on-time/white concrete rostrum aspect even more. Of course the revivers would furiously deny this, and indeed that there was anything camp or revivalist about it, thus inadvertently confirming it. In fact, I suspect they’d prefer just to insist that it is continuous with earlier modernism and that it’s just modernism, dammit. At this point I see the nightmarish academic plural lunging from the flank and sidestep.

Or perhaps it should get a -punk suffix. As it goes with nostalgia for the great compression and the era of giving us the fucking money, I would suggest we call it something like reasonablepunk. (After all, punk itself began very near to the historic peak of economic egalitarianism in the UK.) Because social democracy is basically reasonable. It’s the other side who want the moon on a stick. This reminds me a bit of Hasek’s Party of Measured Progress within the Limits of the Law, but then again that’s too long. Perhaps it was snappier in Czech.

There’s obviously a resonance with what Paul Mason calls “gut Labour” here. It’s worth remembering that although Tony Blair talked a good game, in practice he was just as horrified as Prince Charles at the suggestion that he might have an aesthetic hidden away somewhere on his person, so I would argue that this is unequivocally a good thing. We’ve already got gut Labour wanktanks so we may as well have an aesthetic. (Although, who’s going to feed the bugger?)

Elsewhere, I read this weekend that IKEA is going to adjust its product line for the UK to be more “British”. This turns out to be a question of function. The Swedish designers have apparently been struggling to grasp the problems involved with fitting their products between the chimney breast, the bay window, and the landlord’s washing machine sticking out of its chipboard kennel by 10-14 cm depending on which end you measure. As a result, one of the new products is a wardrobe that’s only 35 cm deep. I am looking forward to their next lineup, which will include a table whose legs can be removed quickly to beat your relatives senseless over the last tin of catfood, a bookcase that doubles as a coffin, and a range of products designed to be easily converted into firewood.

Is if the exploiters miss you out, said Joan Robinson of capitalism.

A twofer of Owen Hatherley on Manchester. Thoughts: it’s surely a slightly odd idea that London is rich because of the housing market, rather than the other way around, although I can certainly imagine an unusually dense Blairite town-hall politician getting that impression. Bu then, I wouldn’t class the GMC pols as being that dense. And this:

In a way it’s hard to resent them and again this is the major flaw in my stuff about Manchester. The thing is I don’t remember it when it was fucked.

Well, this is the turd in the punch bowl. Is there an even vaguely credible alternative route from about 1983 forwards that goes anywhere else, thinking of the basically hostile central government for most of that period and the various path dependencies? Owen is working on the assumption that without the redevelopment era, we’d have found our way back to the high welfare state in the end, rather than – essentially – Thornton Road in Bradford. It’s a sort of sick, el cheapo parody of Tony Wilson urbanism, with converted mills that end up being rented to not one but two serial killers in ten years, and positively Sicilian half-built failed projects like the motorway to nowhere, the Interchange, Abbey National, the Millenium Faith experience, the Alsop master plan, and the rubble zone.

Actually, making a list of ’em, the periodicity between failures seems to be declining over time, the rate picking up, and one of them includes Will Alsop, so perhaps he has a point. But I still think this rant against decay-porn in a US context could be imported.

Do I notice a common style between Nasr City Security Crisis Management Centre and Erich Mielke’s office? Lots of blonde panelling, display walls of spook stars.

Of course, Egypt’s secret police had both Soviet and East German advisors in the Nasser years, but you wouldn’t have expected that to include an interior designer.

Inverse BOGOF

Supermarkets are getting smaller. I wonder if the productivity numbers that famously put the 90s down to big box retail will ever be revised? Of course, they didn’t really – the UK imposed planning restrictions on big out-of-town developments and didn’t notice any trouble, and the real point was the logistics rather than the shops themselves. Still, interesting.

Shouldn’t Crowdsourced New York Apartment Pushing Limits actually be an Onion headline? Either that or the core of a new ResPublica/New School Network collaboration as the Big Society’s contribution to solving the housing crisis. We’ll crowdsource it! If everyone brings a brick, we’ll have…a pile of as many bricks as users who actually bothered showing up, that the two people who actually care about the project will have to use.

Those coalition housing plans, in pictures!

(Yes, I know this should be on Stable & Principled, but I’m trying to keep that blog Terribly Serious.)

Meanwhile, genuinely serious and interesting points on the same theme are made in this excellent piece on Park Hill in Sheffield and its redevelopment. It’s not as smash-mouth as Owen Hatherley would likely be, but it also makes the point that letting the squatters have their way with it was tried, effectively, and a lot of the work required on the building was basically making good the results. It also strikes me as a good point that it’s not, in fact, easier to run away from the scene of a crime on an access deck. Of course, the real point here is that as the society that built it crumbled, they stopped providing proper investigative policing to the people in it and started treating them as the object of mass public-order policing.

Owen Hatherley has an immense post about Sheffield, modernism, socialism, privatisation, etc. Which reminded me of an estate agent ad I saw recently, for a gaff in the Highgate New Town estate. The sales-slug referred to a “3 double bedroom apartment in an architecturally-designed ex-local authority development, with 19′ kitchen/diner, 12′ reception, and exclusive access to a full-width south-facing balcony”. Well, indeed. A snip at £340,000. I liked the “architecturally-designed” – as opposed to what, exactly? All buildings are architecturally designed – some are designed by architects, some are designed well, a lot are designed badly. But don’t let that put you off. It’s not really my point either.

Highgate New Town

I do think it’s a sign of the times; suddenly, buildings like this aren’t concrete monstrosities imposed on the poor by a remote leftist elite, but rather, “architect-designed” jewels. This is relevant. That this should come up just at the point when Grant Shapps wants to end security of tenure in council housing (which Highgate New Town mostly is, still) should not really be surprising. In the Cameron future, we’ll swap over – the poor can move back into draughty, mouseful Victorian buildings they can’t afford to heat, and the elite can enjoy Parker-Morris space standards. (75% of the houses Peter Tabori’s project replaced didn’t have a bathroom.)