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30 August 2011

Dog Planet

"There is something aphrodisiacal about the smell of wet concrete."

(Denys Lasdun)


Robin Hood Gardens, Poplar, London

As far as architecture goes never has England witnessed anything so unrelentingly violent as the hatred and collective frenzy elicited by 1960s Brutalism, putting it on a par with the Moors Murderer's ghastly crimes. Some of its most notorious achievements - from Portsmouth's Tricorn Centre, regularly voted the worst eyesore in the land, to the Gateshead multilevel car park of 'Get Carter' fame and Basil Spence's Hutchesontown C in the Gorbals, have long been knocked down and replaced by people-friendly, no-nonsense buildings appealing to reactionary visions of national identity and time-sanctioned picturesque. The frantic erasure of this peculiarly British take on high modernism - in a way the aesthetics of the Welfare State per se - went on unabated from the suburban, neo-vernacular backlash of the Thatcher years to the aspirational brashness and obsession with exclusiveness of Blairite pseudo-modernism [1]. In a context of open class prejudice and increasing surveillance of the public realm from which parts of the community are excluded on the basis of inadequate consuming habits [2], the destruction of Brutalist structures across Britain seems to tie in with the discrediting of a whole period of modern history and the social ideals it fostered. Ironically enough though, these radical architectural forms have found staunch defenders in a very exclusive coterie of connoisseurs with the Smithsons elevated to the rank of icons of the über-cool.

Robin Hood Gardens, a fortified double-slab of social housing laid out around a grassy knoll in full view of Tower Hamlets council officials - who, reneging on their prime mission to serve the community's interests, did all they could to bring about its demise - is one of the glamorous couple's rare projects to have ever been built (their masterplans for the post-war remodelling of the City of London and central Berlin with their infinite networks of deck-access blocks and streets in the sky may have been a tad too daring for the times). And despite this belated interest in Brutalist chic (exemplified by Trellick Tower's reverse of fortune and the overall fetishisation of urban edginess in a kind of 'pastoral' outlook not always immune to social voyeurism [3]) and the appreciation societies' usual outcries it is earmarked for demolition. Caught between the intensively policed enclaves of Doklands and the new consumer paradise of Stratford City its beleaguered, poor community of Bengali descent might have proved too unsightly as London is poised to become the world's focus during the next Olympics. Instead of piss-drenched communal behemoths inhabited by the undeserving poor what better symbol for our ultra-liberalized world than the glitzy, soaring glories of aspirational hubris with all the trappings of 'urban luxury living' (real estate parlance for tiny flats, total disregard for local cultural ecologies and paranoid, ultra-securitized environments)?

Beyond the strictly socio-economic issues such revanchist policies inevitably raise, times are also tough for any fetishist with a penchant for visually uncompromising local authority creations. For there has to be somewhere some poor sods who can hardly contain themselves at the sight of rough-wrought, stained concrete, and in that department the country as a whole is a true feast for the eyes with that distinctively British touch turning originally brilliant ideas into a morass of mishaps and tragedies - as the collapse of Ronan Point one grey morning in 1968 single-handedly demonstrated [4]. And it's probably its louche sensuality that exposed the material to such primal forms of violence. In Thamesmead revisited in A Clockwork Orange huge dicks and cunts are daubed all over the lobbies' vandalized walls. At the Hulme Crescents, the swan song of an aesthetics reaching its phase of terminal decay [5], its rough, grooved texture has an obscene carnality to it as remains of illicit activities and unidentified human secretions ooze out of its flawed surfaces. The estate, which from the air looks like a collection of contorted worms, was based on Bath's more salubrious Royal Crescent and before becoming, as a quasi-Piranesian burnt-out shell of empty concourses and squatted flats, the epicentre of the Mancunian underground acid house scene, was every mother's nightmare after a toddler had fallen to his death from the upper floors. In Britain bare concrete always had something menacingly alien (an unwholesome invention foisted by Teutonic modernists on an unsuspecting, tradition-loving people) that had to be domesticated and controlled by all means (prettified with adornment, whether plastic ivy or flower baskets [6], or painted over), which ultimately led to the current wave of wholesale destruction [7]. In this context the British vernacular, symbolized by 'noble', homely materials such as brick and stone, had reinstated values of common sense and decency over the excesses of foreign lunacy.

I used to live in a part of Islington where the single class society promised by New Labour came up against deeply ingrained, annoyingly unreconstructed working class identities. In fact the sort of communities routinely vilified for failing to share in the values of taste and aspiration emblematic of Blairite Britain ("the wrong kind of raspberry-wine vinegar on their radicchio", as one commentator put it), and openly ridiculed amongst the resolutely PC and morally irreproachable middle classes with 'chav' as the most common term of abuse [8]. Packington Square was before its recent obliteration such a place: a sprawling estate of interconnected low-rise blocks inhabited by the remnants of the area's former white, working class population and as such regarded by outsiders with much distaste and fear. Clad in nauseating red rubbery pannels the Packington didn't have the Brutalist credentials of Robin Hood Gardens or any of Goldfinger's creations, and subsequent redesigns (the raised walkways had been removed as they served as escape routes for muggers) did much to bastardize the original concept with all sorts of cosy additions - pitched slate roofs atop brick-clad stairwells, cutesy railings enclosing front gardens in an attempt to implement the by then very fashionable theory of defensible space. Walking back there at night was an unnerving experience. From day one I took to skirting the place through the tastefully gentrified side-streets as gangs of teenagers (constructed as necessarily aggressive, homophobic and racist by the two trendy gay urbanites my flatmate and I were) would hang out on the grassy patches between blocks with Mike Skinner aka The Streets blaring out and girls screaming in the dark like banshees. The fear of intrusion and impending violence was very real as the flat was sunken in a recess and exposed to every passing gaze. In my room the shutters were always drawn, turning it into a damp-ridden, hostile space which I could never appropriate, with the most immediate threat lurking just behind the door.

The same room appeared in a nightmare I recently had. I was lying on my bed and a floor-to-ceiling window was overlooking a vast grassy wasteland. A massive concrete slab resembling Robin Hood Gardens was looming on the horizon, distant and forbidding, as an intense white winter light bleached all colours from the scene. In the distance a group of teenagers was drifting about the burnt expanse and gradually came nearer to my room where I was fully exposed bathed in the warm sunshine. Then a scally youth clad in white sports gear and with a baseball cap on broke away from the group and peering into the flat sneakily slid a hand through the half-open tilting window. He started feeling my arse then with one finger penetrated me as deep as he could and more and more forcefully. I noticed his boyish face in the sun, frozen in a sadistic grin. I was terrified by this sudden physical violation [9] and asked my mother, who was standing still in one corner, to activate the window's complicated shutting mechanism. Her hard, sour expression made me realize that she knew. This was but one of her numerous unwanted intrusions into my room, which she entered by force to re-establish a natural order - the laws of our class collectively upheld by mutual surveillance - that I had willfully transgressed. Control was manifold and perfectly integrated, from technocratically designed architectural spaces to the innermost workings of a mother's heart.

Dial a Chav! sex hotline


[1] The concept of pseudo-modernism was coined by Owen Hatherley in his impassioned homage to the political visions and commitment to social progress of the Brutalist ethos, which he savagely opposes to the vacuity and vulgar grandiloquence of Blairite architecture: Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the new Ruins of Great Britain (London, New York: Verso Books, 2010). By the same author, a reflection on the erotic potential of bare concrete in Militant Modernism (Zero Books, 2009), 29-42.

[2] For a systematic deconstruction of the processes at play in the privatisation of public space in British cities, the toughening of the law and order stance under New Labour and the increasing criminalisation of the working class in the context of zero tolerance policies: Anna Minton, Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the twenty-fisrt-Century City (London: Penguin Books, 2009).

[3] The council housed working class viewed as the receptacle of urban authenticity and gritty realness by middle-class newcomers in formerly poor neighbourhoods. On the 'pastoral' see Maren Harnack, 'London's Trellick Tower and the pastoral Eye', in Matthew Gandy (ed.), Urban Constellations (Berlin: Jovis, 2011), 127-31.

[4] Ivy Hodge and her morning cuppa had far-reaching consequences and did much to knock British architectural modernism off course. Subsequent social housing arguably showed a refreshing degree of invention compared to the monolithic, ideologically stifled building programme of the sixties (not to mention the taint of local corruption). Experiments with warmer materials and more intimate forms of space proved things were really taking a turn for the better before being nipped in the bud with the curtailment of all public housing provisions under Thatcher.

[5] A powerful evocation of life at the Crescents and their demolition after an amazingly short lifespan in: Lynsey Hanley, Estates: an intimate History (London: Granta Books, 2008), 129-32.

[6] The Right to Buy Scheme, historically the first step towards the dismantlement of the public housing sector, intended to differentiate the cream of the crop from those devoid of any aspiration towards social betterment. The appearance of fan lights and wacky colour schemes as markers of social standing over the otherwise uniform drabness of council tenure widened the gap between what was increasingly viewed as the dreck of society and a new privileged stratum of owner-occupiers, as Hyacinth Bouquet's tentacular influence was now spreading to the working classes themselves...

[7] Latest casualty: Preston Bus Station, whose fate hangs by a thread. Despite repeated attempts to get it listed its future looks pretty bleak.

[8] Some sensitive souls wouldn't be caught dead cracking a sexist, homophobic or racist joke, but 'chav-bashing' is somehow acceptable and doesn't seem to give them any qualms. For as the 'chav' is defined as an essentially dimwitted, abhorrent thug hooked on benefits, he's only fair game. To illustrate the point see the opening anecdote in Owen Jones, Chavs. The Demonization of the working Class (London, New York: Verso, 2011).

[9] A brilliant study of the gender dynamics intrinsic to Brutalist architecture in its commodification of a totally available female body and the flaws of an easily penetrable, defective concrete: Katherine Shonfield, Walls have Feelings: Architecture, Film and the City (London, New York: Routledge, 2000).

Dog Planet

Robin Hood Gardens, Poplar, London

Jamais en Angleterre vindicte publique n'aura été si intense et durable que celle sciemment perpétuée contre le Brutalisme des années soixante, l'équivalent architectural des Moors Murderers. Ses spécimens les plus spectaculaires - du Tricorn Centre de Portsmouth et du parking à niveaux de Gateshead dramatiquement mis en scène dans ’Get Carter’ aux Gorbals de Basil Spence - ont soit depuis longtemps été pulvérisés ou sont en passe de succomber à la vague de fond réactionnaire qui depuis une bonne trentaine d'années oblitère les traces visibles de l’utopie architecturale du Welfare State au profit d’un anti-urbanisme fanatique, un appel à la tradition picturesque et au bon sens populaire. Cette haine destructrice représente donc un lien de plus entre le conservatisme thatchérien historique et le pseudo-modernisme vulgaire du blairisme triomphant [1], négation systématique des formes allant de pair avec un classisme de la pire espèce dans la marginalisation de groupes sociaux 'improductifs' et la privatisation/ultra-sécurisation croissantes du domaine public [2]. L'ironie a toutefois voulu que cette esthétique sans concession à rien ni personne ait depuis été fétichisée par une clique trendy de connaisseurs distingués avec les Smithsons érigés au rang d’icônes de l'über-cool.

Malgré cette revalorisation tardive, Robin Hood Gardens, double-barre de logements fortifiée de l'East End et l’un des rares projets du couple à être sorti de terre (la radicalité de leurs plans pour la City de Londres et de restructuration du centre de Berlin - réseaux labyrinthiques et infinis de streets in the sky - en ayant sans soute refroidi plus d'un) est lui aussi voué à disparaître et le site multi-rentabilisé par une énorme opération immobilière de luxe. C’est qu’à quelques mois des Olympiades la communauté locale, pauvre et en grande partie d’origine bengali, commençait à devenir un peu trop voyante, périlleusement coincée entre les enclaves exclusives et étroitement patrouillées de Docklands et Stratford City. Au-delà des questions politico-sociales qu’un tel revanchisme urbain soulève inévitablement, pour les fétichistes du béton brut et violemment malmené, c’est un nouveau coup dur. Car il faut bien quelques pervers déclarés pour mouiller dans leur slip au seul contact de ces textures rugueuses et maculées, et dans ce domaine le pays entier est une fête des sens sans égale avec ce quelque chose de très anglais dans l'adaptation miteuse et le ratage systématique d'idées nobles - comme l'effondrement traumatique de Ronan Point le prouva un matin gris de 1968.

Et c’est sans doute sa sensualité trouble qui exposait le matériau aux pires outrages. On se lâchait contre le béton de façon littéralement primale: couvert de bites et de chattes dans le Thamesmead d’Orange Mécanique, souillé de traînées pas nettes, de restes inidentifiables d’activités illicites, suintant de sécrétions qui en corrodaient la surface, une nudité salace antithétique à une tradition indigène incarnée par la brique et la pierre, matériaux 'dignes' et totalement contrôlables. Decoffré en blocs bruts cannelés il est d'une obscénité charnelle aux Crescents de Hulme, chant du cygne d'un modernisme en déliquescence et cauchemar des mamans à poussettes - des gosses ont d'ailleurs chuté du sommet -, avant de devenir à moitié brûlé l'épicentre de la scène acid house mancunienne et être finalement abattu pour laisser place à un urbanisme des plus normalisés. Inspirés du Royal Crescent de Bath, leurs arcs en forme de verres de terre contorsionnés circonscrivaient d’immenses pelouses pelées et informes dégorgeant les déjections des cassos que la ville entassait là. Ses cages d’ascenseurs pisseux, accessibles par d'énormes piles isolées et reliées par des passerelles aux coursives sans fin, devaient dans les lueurs des lumières au sodium avoir une allure quasi piranésienne [3].

J’habitais à Islington dans un ensemble similaire bien que plus complexe dans ses agencements de blocs interconnectés et infiniment moins bandant dans son exécution. À la suite d'une tentative de reprise en main Packington Square avait même subi l’ablation de toutes ses passerelles internes pour cause de criminalité juvénile et son revêtement d’un rouge caoutchouteux dégueulasse avait été compromis par l’ajout de structures ’traditionnelles’ de brique avec petits chapeaux d’ardoise pour un surplus de domesticité tendre. La réputation de l’endroit était désastreuse, dernier résidu working class blanc dans une mer de gentrification et de bon goût qui fut avant son élection le bastion de Tony Blair. D’ailleurs on adoptait profil bas en y entrant et il était toujours préférable de le contourner par les élégantes rues adjacentes pour gagner son appartement. Dans les espaces verts séparant les blocs des groupes d'ados en survêts squattaient les bancs avec The Streets à fond le ghetto blaster. Parfois les filles hurlaient dans la nuit, des cris atroces d’écorchées qui se réverbéraient dans les coursives à peine éclairées de veilleuses. Vivant au rez-de-chaussée nous redoutions une intrusion violente et les volets restaient toujours baissés dans nos chambres pour éviter d'éveiller une attention malvenue.

Dans un rêve récent l’appartement surplombait une étendue verte face à une muraille grise identique à celles de Robin Hood Gardens qui au loin barrait l'horizon. Le soleil pâle de l’après-midi éclaboussait la chambre d'enfant où je me trouvais à travers une fenêtre large qui perçait le mur sur toute sa hauteur, si bien que j’étais de mon lit totalement visible d'un groupe de jeunes mecs qui rôdait sur la pelouse. Bien que le rez-de-chaussée fût surélevé ils réussirent quand même à m’atteindre, je ne comprenais pas comment. L’un d’eux, à casquette et veste de survêt blanches, s’approcha de la fenêtre basculante, passa la main par l'ouverture pour m’introduire un doigt dans le cul, qu'il enfonçait lentement et avec un plaisir évident. Son sourire satisfait et sadique était illuminé dans le soleil et je ne sais plus si les autres s'étaient rassemblés autour de lui pour mater la scène. Un rêve purement brutaliste où l’architecture a atteint un tel degré de porosité que le corps est ouvert et accessible à qui le veut dans la dissolution des limites successives menant à la dernière intériorité. Pétrifié de terreur je demandai à ma mère d’actionner pour moi le mécanisme de vérouillage compliqué de la fenêtre. Son expression outrée de condamnation me fit comprendre qu’elle savait [4].


[1] La notion de pseudo-modernism est empruntée à Owen Hatherley, amoureux inconditionnel du Brutalisme en tant que véhicule d'un projet politique progressiste et pourfendeur impitoyable de la vulgarité cynique de l'ère Blair: Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the new Ruins of Great Britain (London, New York: Verso Books, 2010). Pour une méditation sur le potentiel érotique du béton brut (assortie d'une citation de Denys Lasdun: "There is something aphrodisiacal about the smell of wet concrete."), voir également du même auteur: Militant Modernism (Zero Books, 2009), 29-42.

[2] Pour une déconstruction en profondeur et terriblement lucide des processus de privatisation de l'espace public en Grande Bretagne, de l'obsession sécuritaire des gouvernements successifs ainsi que de la criminalisation croissante du corps social dans le cadre de politiques de tolérance zéro: Anna Minton, Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the twenty-fisrt-Century City (London: Penguin Books, 2009).

[3] Lynsey Hanley, Estates: an intimate History (London: Granta Books, 2008), 129-32. Il y est question du bref destin des Crescents dans un passage aussi visuellement évocateur qu'implacable.

[4] Une étude brillante sur le Brutalisme et l'accès illimité au corps féminin rendu possible par la transparence et la pénétrabilité de la nouvelle architecture: Katherine Shonfield, Walls have Feelings: Architecture, Film and the City (London, New York: Routledge, 2000). C'est juste après avoir évoqué ce livre avec un ami que j'eut ce rêve.


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