wch Restraynt is by the meanes of playinge the Jeylle of dooges

February 13, 2014 § Leave a comment


The three finest works of British brutalism were designed by Rodney Gordon of the Owen Luder Partnership. They were: Eros House in Catford, London; the Tricorn in Portsmouth; and the Trinity in Gateshead. The first, a block of flats, is disfigured; the other two shopping centre and car park complexes have been destroyed in acts of petty-minded provincial vandalism. One can have nothing but contempt for the scum-of-the-earth councillors, blind planners and toady local journalists who conspired to effect the demolition of such masterpieces. One can only despair at the pusillanimous lack of support from wretched English Heritage.

The dependably crass Prince of Wales, the man who sullied Dorset with Poundbury, described the Tricorn as “a mildewed lump of elephant droppings”, a simile as vulgar as it is visually inept. No doubt his heritage industry toadies removed their tongues in order to chortle a moment’s laughter. The critic Ian Nairn was on the money: “This great belly laugh of forms … the only thing that has been squandered is imagination.”

Gordon’s imagination was indeed fecund, rich, untrammelled. It was haunted by Russian constructivism, crusader castles, Levantine skylines. But the paramount desire was to make an architecture that had not previously existed. There are as many ideas in a single Gordon building as there are in the entire careers of most architects. The seldom-photographed street level stuff at the Trinity left the observer with the sensation of being in the presence of genius. One thinks of the burning of books.

It took more than three-quarters of a century before high Victorian architecture began to be rehabilitated through the efforts of John Betjeman, Evelyn Waugh, etc. Their pleas went unheeded. They were reckoned to be perverse and mischievous. Thousands of “monstrosities” were destroyed. The survivors are now widely valued, and lost ones are mourned. We have learned nothing. Half a century after brutalism’s heyday, the term “concrete monstrosity” trips readily off the tongues of the unseeing, the torpid, the incurious. Britain is once again being architecturally cleansed in favour of timidity and insipidity.

Newness and change were bound to be for the better. When Harold Macmillan announced in 1957 that “most of our people have never had it so good”, some of our people were still living in caves (in the Severn valley), and many of our people had no bathrooms and shared outdoor toilets. Built along brutalist lines, new flats had all those amenities, plus central heating, and were welcomed by their occupants. Social-housing projects were not yet bins for sociopaths. But they would soon become so: if blocks are unguarded, if there are no janitors, if they are not maintained … You don’t buy a car and never get it serviced.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Franck Bohbot

There are two types of people in this world: those who divide us all in half

December 2, 2013 § Leave a comment


On April 5, 1772, the author of The Wisdom of Angels Concerning Divine Love and Divine Wisdom and Heaven and its Wonders, and Hell: From Things Heard and Seen was buried in three coffins, the innermost of soldered lead, in the vault of St George’s in the East, Princes Square, London – “an obscure little Swedish church in an East London slum”. When Blake and his wife Catherine attended the conference of the Swedenborgian New Jerusalem Church in 1789, the Swede was still at rest in his crypt. As J. V. Hultkrantz’s polemical study of Swedenborg’s bones (1910) emphasizes, it was in 1790 that the rot set in. In the early 1790s, as the Revolution Controversy gathered momentum, Swedenborgian ideas circulated as part of wider speculative discourses. Swedenborg’s emphasis on divine humanity, on the ossified dogmas and hypocrisies of established religion, and on an “internal millennium” that guaranteed access in the here and now to visions of Eternity, clearly boosted the intensity of radical debate.

Hultkrantz quotes two versions of the bizarre sepulchral events of 1790. According to Gustav Broling (who was there), Swedenborg’s coffin was opened “merely to satisfy the curiosity” of an “American physician” who had “hit upon the idea that a man so much associated with the spirit world . . . must have been removed thence in some extraordinary manner, and not have died and been buried like other human beings”. With the help of a prominent Swedenborgian, “a kind of burglary was made into the dwellings of the dead”, and the three coffins were opened. A grave game of Russian dolls disabused the American of his esoteric faith. When the lead coffin was broken into, “there issued forth such effluvia . . . that the candles went out, and all the observers were obliged to rush head over heels out of the burial vault”. As Broling wryly remarks, “What kind of philosophical considerations as to the materialism and correspondence of Swedenborgian spirits were now awakened in the American no one knows”. The church having been “fumigated with vinegar”, the harrowers of Heaven and Hell returned to gaze on the perfectly preserved body of Swedenborg.

Another version of the story tells how a Rosicrucian claimed that Swedenborg had discovered “an expensive elixir” of youth, and had “withdrawn to some other part of the world, causing a sham funeral to be performed to avoid discovery”. As with the physician, so with the Rosicrucian: mortal remains proved the vanity of arcane belief. Poor Swedenborg suffered the further indignity, it seems, of being exposed to prying eyes a few days later; this time, when the investigating officer, Robert Hindmarsh (publisher of the Swede’s writings) touched the dead man’s forehead, the flesh crumbled into dust, leaving the bones that would now begin their cultural journey. It can be suggested that Blake’s decision to make Swedenborg an angel at the tomb of Christ in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790–3), and his writings the (discarded) wrappings of the risen spiritual body, was motivated in part by his knowledge of the recent raids on Swedenborg’s tomb and of the materialist debate surrounding its contents. Moreover, the event gives contemporary edge to the design that accompanies Blake’s concerted assault, later in the same work, on Swedenborg as an unoriginal recycler of “all the old falsehoods”: a naked figure whose knee rests on “a skull of dead thought”, in David Erdman’s phrase.

The violations continued.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Kristie Muller

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