August 19, 2010 at 10:06 pm | In advertising, arts, authenticity, brutalism, fashionable_life, ideas, media, style | 1 Comment

Night thoughts about exigency (something I have no time for).

Exigency: An urgent situation …a situation requiring extreme effort or attention. Exigence: demand.

Think child-rearing, perhaps? Think about having hardly any time for yourself, as you prepare yourself to be on constant alert, inbetween the moments that punctuate perpetual vigilance with pure delight? Is it addictive, to live like that? As Perma-Mom or Perma-Dad?

Which brings me to disaster. Why is the idea of disaster so seductive? Is it because it’s over quickly – unlike real life…?

Toward the end of July, NPR’s film critic, Bob Mondello, had an excellent segment, Disasters In Reel Life: It’s About Time (And Suspense). He referred to the “realistic” popular cataclysms dished up by Hollywood, and wondered, “So how come when a real disaster strikes, it feels so different?” One obvious answer is time: in the movies, disaster is fleet of foot (or whatever it is that disasters have, if not exactly feet – legs, maybe?). In real life, on the other hand, there is no suspense to disaster. It’s a drag, not a wild ride.

Then there are the other banal and painful differences: “Disaster movies have characters; real disasters have casualties.” The fictional representations of disaster obey Aristotelian rules about build-ups to climactic events, while real-life disasters mix up that experience. And in disaster movies, you never have to deal with the clean-up…

This might speak to the infatuation with urban apocalypse: it’s a desire to hasten an “end with horror” (versus true – and impossible – reconciliation to the “horror without end”). Check out London After the Apocalypse on Flavorwire: a more nuanced, artistic vision of 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow…? Perhaps we’re to shrink from the oozing decrepitude of Norman Foster’s Gherkin, its normally plump erectitude punctured by what looks like a case of vegetal clap. Maybe we should be awed: when a mighty organ such as this is marred, then it surely is the end.

[An aside, possibly irrelevant: If I had ever met her, I would be able to hear my maternal grandmother’s voice say, Besser ein Ende mit Schrecken als ein Schrecken ohne Ende (“better an end with horror than a horror without end”), a sentiment I always found really alarming and frankly ideologically dangerous (and one my own mother embraced whenever she felt a) depressed or b) manic – like I said, a dangerous idea). But then I didn’t live (and die) my grandmother’s life.]

In this unholy mix of media manufactured fast-forwarding to The End, we see that ecological disaster also has a special role to play: As Bob Mondello put it, “If the Gulf oil spill were happening in a film, you’d see oil-covered polar bears within hours of the Deepwater Horizon’s demise.” Urban disasters are a long-standing trope that goes back to the early days of Industrialization: both the Romantics and Surrealists liked to imagine man-made forms overtaken once again by nature. There’s something satisfying about seeing chthonic nature assert itself against concrete and human-contrived geometries. It’s also nice to think that nature will win, whereby winning means making human squalor and folly seem irrelevant. Unfortunately, that scenario also means everything else human becomes irrelevant – and that’s not an idea I can endorse.

And so we come to fashion, which has to be one of the highest achievements of humanity. (I’m not being ironic, incidentally.) A recent approach (the oil spill shoot in Vogue Italia’s August 2010 issue by Kristen McMenamy, shot by Steven Meisel) has put the Gulf of Mexico/ Deepwater/ BP oil spill front and center in haute couture. But as refinery29.com wrote, regarding the August Vogue Italia photo spread featuring oil-slicked models on the Gulf:

As beautiful and provocative as they are, we can’t help but feel uneasy. Creating beauty and glamour out of tragedy seems quite fucked up to us, not to mention wasteful and hypocritical, seeing as thousands of dollars of luxury clothing was flown in, and then subsequently ruined for the shoot. Glamorizing this recent ecological and social disaster for the sake of “fashion” reduces the tragic event to nothing more than attention-grabbing newsstand fodder. But that’s just us. Do you think this is appropriate commentary, or just tasteless? (source)

Some of the images (very few) are beautiful – most are provocatively horrifying. They’re not easy to swallow, and you have to look long and hard (which is difficult, given the ugliness of the setting) to find the fashion (be sure to view the 11 images in the slideshow).

Horror without end – the models are posing in the thick of it. End with horror? Not practical. As long as humans are around, we’ll never be without fashion (and fashioning) – how could we be? It’s part of our art – we’ve been fashioning since we got kicked out of Eden. Perhaps the question is, if we can’t be without the horror (can’t stop it without ending), can we shake ourselves out of being used to it?

Concrete plans

February 4, 2008 at 4:52 pm | In architecture, brutalism, cities, heritage, urbanism, writing | 4 Comments

Spacing Toronto published an interesting entry back in November, which I just stumbled across when I read Shawn Micallef‘s entry today, Concrete Toronto: Looking at our city. Today’s entry announces a panel discussion about concrete and Brutalism, taking place tomorrow evening in Toronto. It’s organized around the book, Concrete Toronto, published last fall.

I started to write a lengthy comment in response, and then thought I’d better just post it to my blog instead.


There is, I think, an interesting (and unspoken) relationship between concrete architecture (which is often “car-centric”) and what it replaced (“heritage”). I just finished writing an article for the March issue of FOCUS Magazine, where I look at our city’s Centennial Square once again. This 1960s-era plaza, which everyone agrees is a pretty big failure as far as creating urban vibrancy is concerned, is officially hailed on UVic’s Maltwood Museum website as “the beginning of a vast scheme to preserve, restore and revive downtown Victoria.”

What it actually accomplished was the demolition of an old public market and the deletion of an entire block of street (in favour of an overlong, car-friendly street block). Centennial Square was plunked into that sundered fabric, and it’s still just a big concrete plaza that no one seems to use or love. The Maltwood Museum website goes on to enthuse that Centennial Square’s civic impetus was based on “the Norwich plan.”

And that’s where one really has to look if one wants to understand the questions around energy & funding, as well as ideology, behind the sort of urban renewals which Centennial Square (and probably many “renewal” projects in Toronto and other Canadian cities) depended on. The “City of Norwich Plan 1945″ was finalized by 1938, and had more to do with a hatred of urban density and Victorian architecture than German bombers (the usual excuse given for the make-over of many British cities, countered by Gavin Stamp’s 2007 book, Britain’s Lost Cities, and a great review by Stephen McClarence in the Times Online.

Meanwhile, in the fight(s) to preserve 19th and early 20th century heritage architecture, it seems all the blame for its destruction and/or its being threatened is put on the shoulders of “evil” developers. But what Centennial Square and researchers like Gavin Stamp actually prove is that the mind-set for destroying “heritage” was hatched and nurtured by civic planners for reasons of urban renewal.

My own sense is that this is a peculiarly English phenomenon, a sort of psychic hangover, if you will, of traumas experienced by the British during the UK’s rapid (and socially corrosive) industrialization. That process, let’s not forget, produced urban crowding and density of an altogether different order than had ever been experienced before, and I’m convinced that in the British imagination, this history fused the concepts of “slum” and “density” into a single (and consequently frightening) idea — even though “density” no longer equals “slum” in Western cities today.

Hence, the notion of car-centric architecture — and let’s face it, many examples of the 50s-through-70s concrete building type are first and foremost car-centric, with loss of detail and richness at the pedestrian level — fuses in Anglo-Saxon cultures with both a love of the (low density) suburbs and the concomitant attempts actually to decrease the density of cities. Density is at some deep psychological level reviled and feared, and 50s or 60s era rat experiments only served to deepen that revulsion. No one seemed to ask whether it was indeed a “natural” revulsion (because then you’d have to wonder why southerners or Asians manage to live in density without cracking up) or whether it was a lingering social hangover, aided by the strenuous reactions of planners against the “evils” of density as manifested in Industrial Revolution era slums.

As for the concrete or brutalist architecture that either replaced denser, older buildings or that in-filled urban space: what (many) people intuitively reject in those concrete utopias is their sterility. If my argument is right, one could say that concrete renewal was done to “innoculate” against urban density, against slums, against diseases — because in the historical imagination of anyone associated with Britain’s progress through the Industrial Revolution, “slum” and “density” became linked. Through its style, Brutalism tends to banish, minimize, or erase the pedestrian through

  • monumentalism (you are insignificant and matter not);
  • erasure of the kind of detail experienced at 5 mph (walking speed) in favour of more massive form/shape impressions experienced at 35 mph (car speed), for nothing isolates you from (or “inoculates against”?) rubbing up against other people like cars do;
  • and a tendency to be interventionist in the street-scape (what people mean when they talk about its refusal to “fit in” or be “in scale”) — think of someone scouring the kitchen: that’s intervention if you’re mere “dirt”

All of these style factors, I’d argue, point to something programmatic: the desire to embrace the kind of sterility that “cleans up” the germ-laden, densely-populated immigrant or slum areas, typically festooned with “old” and “dirty” buildings. Cleanliness is progress toward godliness and all that, and some want their godliness to be low density…

We’re only now coming away from that and accepting density as a good (urban) thing, which furthermore doesn’t equate to dirt and disease.

Heritage preservation works on the flip side, perhaps: heritage is still approached at times as something that should be kept pristine or separate or pure (apart) from other influences (like encroaching density, development), which seems to me to repeat the attempt to avert contagion or pollution. We’re still treating style as a kind of mental hygiene, even while changing our minds about what’s clean and what’s dirty.

What’s “clean,” what’s “dirty”?  Photo of postwar urban buildings in Norwich, England:

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