Expressly concerned with the social duty architecture and architects hold, From Architecture explores the contemporary ventures of our built environment with a critical eye. Though often pessimistic, the column finds solace in poetic and musical expressions, avoiding logical answers to rhetorical questions in large part due to lack of experience. This column does not seek to provide a concrete future, as set out by Le Corbusier in Towards a New Architecture. Instead it takes from and comes from architecture in a very messy way, with childlike fascination and naive idealism intertwined with a desperate search for profundity. Its key tenet comes from Fanon -
‘O my body, make of me always a man who questions!’
On Being Watched and An Architectural Field Guide
Tuesday, March 23rd
It is not the state that surveils me, it is Barnsbury. It is not the state that surveils me, it is Pentonville. It is not the state that surveils me, it is De Beauvoir. It is the Georgian terrace that surveils my body and the garb that hangs on it.
It is not the state that surveils me, it is the boroughs, the locales, the street names.
Islington was once the hub of LGBTQ+ culture in North London, and now it is not. Gay pubs become pubs or gay pubs become homes. The borough has been squeezed like a flannel until all subversives have been removed and the conformity of grey-brown brick and neutral tones has become enforced. Any colour ‘not in keeping with the character of the area’ is removed. Artificial ‘Character’ has been bashed into shape with a blunt tool and fashioned into an image of normativity.
Planting is fascistically ordered, parks gated and locked, streets empty at night, revelry frowned upon or outright banned in some squares. In this situation I mourn not a thing I knew but a something I could have known. It is the same process of mourning for my immediately water damaged copy of a biography of Benjamin Britten as a child.
Solace is found in inconsistencies. There is a dead-end row of 1970s three-storey council houses featuring concrete detailing, their communal staircases and unusual room placements challenging the nuclear family apparatus. There is a mosque down the street with a little stand full of flyers, in bold written “Muhammad (peace be upon him) The Prophet of Islam”, the street bustling after evening prayer. A park nearby features a mural celebrating the freeing of early trade unionists, the Tolpuddle Martyrs. The Spa Green and Finsbury Estates (their towers, short blocks and community centres resonating with one another through their shared architect, Carl Ludwig Franck) call mournfully from across Roseberry Avenue to their siblings in Barnsbury in the death throes of gentrification, their concrete bodies skinned in order to appeal to the new tenant who takes one look at concrete mixed with gravel and runs, knowing it as the sign of the social house and so unfit for their refined palette of wood pressed concrete or, better yet, Georgian terraces stained in Farrow & Ball paint.
We must be aware of ourselves in these spaces. We are visitors to sites of architectural warfare and our clothes, our voices and our possessions indicate who we side with. That is not to say we must deny our identities. We must subdue them in respect. That is of course if we care about these spaces in the first place. Our care for them is essential to our rhetoric, for though our political rhetoric confronts the persecution of people of colour, women and non-binary people, the omnipresent factor in this persecution is class disparity, those who are well off suffering the least while taking up the airwaves.
Oh Islington! Lift up your weary head so that it may be cut off. Rebuild! Restore! Regurgitate! Rebuild your lost community centres, restore your lost bars, regurgitate your boutique supermarkets. The struggling locksmith is still there, as is the workers cafe at the end of the market. They have not been outplayed by global chains yet, and it is our responsibility to see that not happen.
As the 1984-85 miners’ strike occurred in Wales, an Islington pub (among many others in London), The Fallen Angel, organised in support. They named themselves “Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners”, a title not inspired but nonetheless getting the point across. The same pub provided vegetarian food and had regular performances of music from across the globe, while above these joyful scenes support groups met to pull resources. It was a bastion of allyship from the encroaching City of London, and it was a bastion that fell to rising rent prices and the City’s insatiable desire for more homes to hold its people, fueling an economy nobody in the area benefitted off. Its building exists but its community is scattered. Its death epitomised the nature of gentrification as warfare, as the exclusive wealth of a city hoarding everything around it, taking every single available Lego brick in order to build its vision of the world.
As with urban warfare gentrification moves street by street, making small gains at a slow pace. Health foods shops are smoke grenades, New London Vernacular housing (the new brick, glass and obnoxiously large steel balcony architecture proliferating London’s suburbs) are artillery, great monuments of wealth in glass and steel are the death squads that kill children. This new warfare has moved East. Ridley Road market disassembled, the Colville Estate monetized, a few examples among many. Is the battleship architecture present in such projects coincidental? If it is not, there is no room for conscientious objectors. Their nuclear option is demolition (typically unimaginative and not to say wasteful). Our nuclear option is an inclusive allyship, kinship and community, and, from those, action, protest, demonstration. In the words of Sun Ra who turned away from effacing modernity toward the cosmos for answers,
It's a motherfucker, don't you know.”
An Architecture of Present Empire
Tuesday, January 19th
“Chorus of Frogs
Brekekekex koax koax,
I'm starting to hurt
my butt, Koax koax!
Maybe it doesn't bother you!
Chorus of Frogs
Brekekekex koax koax.
Go to hell with your koax
koax and nothing but koax!
Chorus of Frogs
You bet we'll shout
as much as our throats
can hold, all day long.
Brekekekex koax koax.
You won't beat me with that.
Chorus of Frogs
And you won't beat us at all.
Nor you me, oh no,
Never! For I will shout
if I have to, all day long,
until I vanquish you with this koax.
Brekekekex koax koax.”
Matthew Dillon, Ed.
If US military bases are ‘lily pads’ then who are the frogs?
The US military uses this phrase, ‘lily pads’, as part of their arsenal of obfuscatory language while filling up every corner of the pond. In popular dialectic they have become known as ‘Little Americas’ their Burger Kings and Popeyes making such strong spatial statements that they are imbued with territorial possession in our minds. Maybe it's not only in our minds though. The manslaughter of Harry Dunn and the subsequent lack of prosecution of Anne Sacoolas, who hit him with her car while driving on the wrong side of the road in Northamptonshire, ought to make us think what US officials can get away with on their lily pads. It also ought to make us think of our own lily pads, and what the UK gets up to on them.
An article on the 24th of November from Declassified UK showed that the UK had significant presence at 145 military sites in 42 countries across the globe. Alongside their other work in exposing the traces of present British empire practiced across the globe, the article provides us with a map to challenge the social and political holdover of empire. Architecturally speaking these bases and installations are not symphonies in aesthetics, but art and architectural history are increasingly not histories of aesthetic beauty, a notion explored previously in this column.
The case of the Chagos islands, located in the Indian ocean near the Republic of Maldives, is of particular interest in such considerations. The islands were home to the Ilois peoples until 1967 when the UK forcibly removed them in order to build a military base on the largest island, Diego Garcia. Its implication in the CIA’s post 9/11 extraordinary rendition programme (kidnapping and then torture) is only another chapter in the stain it represents as an imperial stronghold. From what can be observed on Google Earth, and the few existing photographs, the architecture is of a typical military base style, stripped down to essential structure, seemingly making no other statement than presence.
Fuel tanks near a runway on Diego Garcia. Photo: Reuters
Such mundanity saves money and is a good tactic for obfuscation of purpose - they are without the ceremony of historic empire and colonialism. Wider visual material of this imperial holdover exists too. Official and unofficial videos on YouTube evidence the lives of those occupying the island, and reveal in their innocence a transplanted United States on British Overseas territory -
Perhaps the most telling visual Americanisation of the island is the fact that cars drive on the right side of the road, or perhaps it's the ‘Meat Trio Supreme’ sold at a deli in the base’s food court. Visual cues indicate the underlying power relationships behind the base. At Diego Garcia, as with many British bases, American empire is seen to operate through its most loyal vessel, the United Kingdom.
Formerly occupied settlement on Ile Boddam. Photo: Diane Selkirk
If placed in context of what settlements used to be on the islands, however, the architecture of the military base would make a significant statement in its difference. What used to stand on Diego Garcia and still stands on Ile Boddam, another island, are homes, churches, jails and graveyards. Their architecture overtaken by nature is evidence as clear as water, of histories worth preserving and restoring.
While the legality of some of these bases might be disputed, their imprint within legal limits can be just as damaging. Bases in countries with authoritative monarchies or outright dictatorships challenge any sense of morality we might want to believe Britain has on the world stage. Described by HIVE Information Services, a part of the British army, “since domestic disturbances in 1962, a Gurkha Battalion from the British Army has been maintained in Brunei at the request of His Majesty the Sultan”. ‘Domestic disturbances’ is to put lightly what was a revolt against the monarchical government, the Sultanate. Housing the battalion, three garrisons
are spread across the small country. Why is this of note? Brunei has some of the worst laws in the world for LGBTQI+ rights. Punishments include stoning, whipping, caning, imprisonment and until last year, death. Yet despite widespread UN condemnation of the Sultanate, the UK still acquiesces to the Sultan’s request for British military presence, in doing so upholding his tyranny. What does the architecture of our bases mean to those communities in hiding in Brunei? Surely the swimming pools of our garrisons and their buildings grid layouts are signifiers of tyranny aided by colonial forces?
British garrison in Seria. Photo: Google Earth/Stephen Chin
Similar situations can be found in many of the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula, where human rights are denied while British military partnership grows. In Yemen, where the monarchical government of Saudi Arabia fights a war, the imprint of our complicity is more visible in our supplying of the very weapons used to fight the war. The architecture of Salwa Garden Village, a compound built for British military staff engaged in advising the Saudi military at nearby Riyadh, resembles more a holiday resort than what in reality is a barracks for advisors to the Royal Saudi Air Force. Large pools form the centre of communities, lounge chairs surrounding them, while the buildings themselves imitate the vernacular architecture of the country, communal structures featuring pointed arches and houses built out of mudbrick. The United Kingdom’s close relationship with the monarchy again acts as endorsement, this time of the bombing of Yemeni civilians.
Salwa Garden Village seen from above. Photo: Google Earth/Declassified UK
The architectural imprint of present empire (ruled by the US, the UK its most trusted ally) stems across the globe, less visually dominant than the forts, customs houses and plantations of historic empire, yet perhaps more significant in reinforcing power. We must not allow our insulation at this current political moment, perceived or not, to obscure our more unsavoury global connections that reinforce our role in the age-long project of empire.
- Declassified UK’s article on global UK bases - https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-11-24-revealed-the-uk-militarys-overseas-base-network-involves-145-sites-in-42-countries/
- A practical treasure trove of images of life in the occupation of Diego Garcia - https://www.facebook.com/MWR-Diego-Garcia-114812951889/photos
- A collection of images of Salwa Garden Village - http://whataboutfood.me/high-quality-salwa-garden-village/
A game is a game is a game is a game
Commodification and liberation in the world of video games
Tuesday, December 1st
You know what makes video games so exciting? They can’t be sold at an auction house. Okay that's a lie. They can, but only old copies of games from the 80s and 90s sell for considerable amounts. Not really relevant to any of us. If an artist’s work gets recognition, in our world of parasite auction houses and dealers, the price of their work inflates. In the world of video games, a game might get critical acclaim, the coveted IGN Game of the Year award and the love of its players, but it still will remain around £60. You can’t ‘flip’ a game back onto the market because they exist in multiples, you can’t inflate its value by buying more copies because the copies are infinite, and the afterlife of a game is a downhill slope in regard to price. In other words, games don’t fit into the art world machine.
“Well Harry”, you say, “architecture doesn’t fit either!” (Apologies for taking control of your voice for a second there, autonomy is fun isn’t it?)
You’re right, it doesn’t. It does as well though. There are all sorts of other things to think about with buildings including the physical space they inhabit (with the possibility of erasure), their prices inflating or deflating according to taste and their finity. This comes with them being physical objects, yet because of their size they obviously can’t be put in Sotheby’s. The only other major point of separation is with architecture’s inherent functionality. Now putting aside architecture, which for a column about architecture is understandably unusual, we might ask, do video games have functions?
Their function is like any other art - to entertain. Because of this shared function they compete with traditional art forms and in doing so pose the most exquisite threat to the world of visual culture as it stands. Each person can have their own performance of a game and make it uniquely theirs, yet they still have a shared experience with others. One can be part of a community of people or one can choose to play alone. A game can only exist in one’s playing of it, at once audience and performer.
This is of course to speak of a majority view and experience of video games. An exploration of the niche areas of video game commerce and culture reveal a more complicated market system. This market system has its own issues; independent developers pushing innovation yet reaping little rewards. Opposition here can be formed easily through giving support to indie devs, boycotts of large game companies engaged in malpractice (from intellectual property theft to staff mistreatment) or on a larger scale with long practiced anti-monopoly breakups. There are promising signs regarding the latter, the tech and games industry being under particular scrutiny over the past few years.
These elements somewhat break the rose-tinted vision of video games as liberation from capitalist practice that has pervaded this article so far. Furthermore, whether video games can act as social and, perhaps more importantly, physical substitutes is yet to be seen. The latter seems to be the biggest hurdle, in excess damaging one’s eyes and affecting our spacial relation to what's around us. One of the many moderation maxims would be useful here, instead (as we are Art History students (note the pompous capitalisation)) I shall make a Classical reference - Dionysus and Apollo are in, like, balance of, like, order and chaos or whatever and, like, that’s what should happen with people and games… word.
We at the Courtauld aren’t taught about the video game as an art form. Yet I have often considered this as exemplifying the stuffiness of the institution and its commercial leanings (just have a look at the alumni section of our website and you’ll see what I mean by commercial leanings). A more nuanced view is probably required on my behalf; however, the absence persists and not just at the Courtauld. The study of video games with the visual elements, rather than social, at the forefront is still an area with little population. While scholarly studies are few and far between (yet growing) the role of building a societal discussion of video games as significant pieces of visual culture and art falls to our generation to propagate throughout all spheres of life.
The issue with this is how we identify ourselves and therefore what we want to advocate for. Mobile gamers are still not considered as ‘real’ gamers and so a wall is put up between legitimate and illegitimate art forms. We should know from our own studies that such walls are not real and often are put up to benefit certain groups. A lengthier consideration and review of gender demographics is important here in regards to the gatekeeping of identity. Given that video games pervade every aspect of all our contemporary lives (in literal form and through gamification) and hold liberating capabilities, such walls, gates and parapets are in dire need of besiegement in public and private fora.
a call to arms, or keys
Wednesday, November 4th
“There was no door there into the other garden,” said Mary.
“What garden?” he said in a rough voice, stopping his
digging for a moment.
“The one on the other side of the wall,” answered Mistress
Mary. “There are trees there—I saw the tops of them. A bird
with a red breast was sitting on one of them and he sang.”
- The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
Behind Vernon Square sits a garden. The garden is small, divided into two parts both triangular in shape. “Why have I not heard about or seen this garden?” you might ask. Well it is secret, not because it has been closed off by an old man mourning his lost wife, but for far more mundane reasons - money and bureaucracy. The walls surrounding the garden on the east side are unfortunately not very stable and so require repair work, costing around £2000. However the funding of this is not necessarily the issue, with the raising of sponsorship easily achievable by the various parties interested in the use of the space.
Birds eye view of Vernon Square Gardens seen from the East on Google Maps.
Image: Author’s own
The question might therefore one of bureaucracy. Why develop a space that people don’t know or care about? I should like to attempt to rectify both these modes of thought. A garden space for us all to use has many benefits. We could plant the spaces, socialise in them, eat in them, eat from them! The benefits to our wellbeing from such uses are clear.
3D view of Vernon Square Gardens seen from the North on Google Maps.
Image: Authors own.
Being in an area where the surrounding natural beauty is held in private squares and gardens, and what is public is neglected by Islington council (who have a significant history of a lack of public consultation in various areas, most notably their LTN schemes) making Vernon Square our own does not only require a familiarity of the built world, but also of the natural world. In making our own space, we rely on ourselves to provide beauty, rather than the council. We can model a space that we as students feel comfortable in, and when/if SOAS move back into the building we could even continue to visit, forging the social connections so desperately needed across London universities, and the scholarly connections across disciplines.
We might even consider taking this a step further, however, in trying to engage with and benefit the community around us. Why, we might ask, have we not been involved in the upkeep of the actual square of Vernon Square? Are we scared by it? Or do we simply not care about the community around us, longing for the days when we can sit on the Strand and not have to worry about the people living in the social housing blocks of Bevin Court and Weston Rise?
1989 view of Weston Rise Estate seen from Vernon Square.
Image: Prof. Miles Glendinning
Another question might be, why must Vernon Square be a transitory purgatory? Apart from having wide ranging mental health benefits as mentioned previously, the garden space could be used functionally. Firstly the East Wing Biennial could feature the spaces as displays for sculpture, with galleries even showing interest in doing so according to those who I’ve been in contact with. Not only that, but societies could run events out of these spaces in the warmer months - life drawing sessions, outdoor film screenings, wine tastings!
I am proposing a call to arms. Or perhaps keys. Write to your tutor, write to our Director, write to your counsellor, your SU representative and your lecturer. This is a project that can be achieved, and it is a project that may propel us even to think hard about what surrounds us. It is not a case of money. It might not even be a case of bureaucracy. It might just be a case of us needing to be students, pressuring action where we perceive it to be needed, naively and ideologically, with wide eyes and a pressing desire for change.
Entrance to the Secret Garden seen from the South on Google Maps. Image: Author’s own.
When I die, may ı turn ınto grass
A reflection on historic memorial architecture
Tuesday, October 19th
Illustration by Emily Lashford
“When I die, may I turn into grass”
A reflection on historic memorial architecture -
There seems to me something odd about describing the next few months as a ‘bleak winter’. It is perhaps the influence of Christina Rossetti’s poem turned carol, one of my particular favourites, that confuses me in the use of that particular phrase. The etymology of the word ‘bleak’ is particularly interesting, its early associations being with paleness, shining and white. Yet I would posit that the modern perception of ‘bleak’ is far better represented in the likes of a van Goyen landscape, than the shining clinical whiteness of medical wards.
A Windmill by a River, 1642. Jan van Goyen.
The association of winter, and therefore perhaps bleakness, with illness will be a factor to take note of over the next few months and years in the immediate and long-term aftermath of the pandemic. And, if a circuit-breaker lockdown is imminent, how will it differ visually and conceptually from the first, specifically regarding our perception of weather? Our biggest national time of mourning, Remembrance Day, has always been on November 11, marking the start of the winter months. Despite preceding the most ‘bleak’ months of the year, I would argue the event retains some of this bleakness for itself, with November’s grey sky weather being an inescapable and stark reminder of the months ahead as well as the violent atrocities of the past.
The visual experience and memorialisation of an event will inevitably have some element of disconnect and so navigating these visual waters is troublesome. The template for mass death memorials in our contemporary minds is dominated by those of the 20th century. Should we be reconsidering how we approach memorials in the 21st century? Should we be considering how we approach memorials to mass death that weren’t caused by war?
Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, 1932. Edwin Lutyens-https://www.ww1cemeteries.com/uploads/7/4/4/5/74452945/thiepval-mem-cl1_orig.jpg
The most recent comparable event of mass death in these circumstances, the 1918 flu pandemic, received very few and scattered memorials partly due to this place in history being marked by more barbaric loss of life. This means that the template we might use to create memorials to those lost in an epidemic is absent. Given that it seems inevitable that there will be significant memorial monuments to those who have died of the current pandemic, we should be asking what we want out of them. The popular response to such questions is to look back at past memorials. Many articles suggest reflecting on the visual memorials that came out of the HIV/AIDS epidemic or less commonly the Ebola epidemic. Yet our experiences of the current pandemic are already so disparate according to geographic and cultural areas that any shared experience, and therefore shared ideas of memorials, for people in different outbreaks seems silly.
Covid mass graves do seem to follow the templates of the epidemics of the 20th and early 21st century, however, in their denial of anonymity. In the majority of cases graves are marked, as opposed to those of large wars and past flus. The inclusion of names, especially those of the rank and file, on memorials to mass deaths is only a relatively recent phenomenon, a small number of memorials to the Boer war hailing the beginning of the trend, memorials of the First World War continuing it in some capacity, and the memorials to the Second World War culminating it with vast walls of names. Yet this again means that we have no template to go off. The inclusion of names on 20th century memorials was often because the deceased body was lost or unable to be returned to its family’s home country. In contrast, most countries around the world have been burying people who have died from the pandemic in marked graves because their bodies were not lost.
New York City AIDS Memorial, 2016. Studio a+i.- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_City_AIDS_Memorial#/media/File:NYC_AIDS_Memorial_Park_at_St_Vincent's_Triangle_3.jpg
Therefore, in order to have some sort of template one is forced to reconsider and evaluate the effectiveness of memorials at a conceptual level commemorating those who died in the AIDS or Ebola epidemics such as the New York City AIDS Memorial. Though written words in the form of poetry are included on its paving stones, the memorial’s essential visual tool is the triangle, once used to denote homosexual men, bisexual men and transgender women by the Nazis in concentration camps, later reclaimed in the 70s in protest against homophobia. It is in continued use to this day as a symbol of LGBTQ+ pride. Yet that historic triangle was pink. Some have posited that in homage to the demolished St Vincent's hospital where the largest AIDS ward on the East Coast was, the triangles are a clinical, shining white. Yet this choice lends the structure an abstract aesthetic that is more in line with a Serpentine Pavilion in its emotional distance rather than a memorial. As Jarret Earnest noted in his 2018 article “the ‘New York AIDS Memorial’ shows abstraction on its own isn’t the promised panacea”. His criticism revolves around the need for an awareness of the whitewashing of the Stonewall riots in its memorials, particularly that in Christopher Park by George Segal.
Christopher Park Monument, 1992. George Segal.- https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Gay_Liberation_Monument#/media/File:Christopher_Park_(1).JPG
We might consider this criticism in conceptualising memorials for victims of the current pandemic. Research conducted by the Office for National Statistics found that Black people are four times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white people. How might we envisage large scale memorials that recognise this? A responding question might be ‘who is we?’
‘Community consultation’ is often used as an effective linguistic tool to give the mirage of developers caring about local residents. It would be unsurprising if it is used in that manner with pandemic memorials without its practical implications.
Memorials to those lost to the pandemic are confronted by a miasma of choices in how to commemorate the dead. In considering such choices I have particularly been reminded of a set of verses by the Albanian poet set to music by Erik Ešenvalds in his Légende de la femme emmurée,
When I die, may I turn into grass
On my mountains in spring,
In autumn I will turn to seed.
When I die, may I turn into water,
My misty breath
Will fall onto the meadows as rain.
When I die, may I turn into stone,
On the confines of my land
May I be a landmark.