Category Archives: Architecture

My mother’s much prettier than I am, but I don’t cry so much.

May roundup

I’ve quite enjoyed doing the roundup posts so I decided to do another. Several of these books I also hope to give a proper write-up to later this week or early next.

Child of all Nations, by Irmgard Keun and translated by Michael Hofmann

It’s hard to go wrong with a Hofmann translation of a Keun, and I didn’t. It’s the 1930s. Kully and her parents can’t go back to Germany as her father’s books are now banned there, but nowhere else seems to want them much either.

Child narrators are tricky things but Keun pulls it off here. Kully is the right mix of innocence and experience beyond her years. The portrait of her parents, particularly her feckless father, through Kully’s eyes is nicely done. Any resemblance between the father and Joseph Roth is surely coincidental…

I plan to do a proper write-up of this one. I loved its clever evocation of the tightrope faced by these unlikely refugees, always trying to maintain appearances just enough to keep the hotel manager from insisting on the bill being settled before that next hoped-for cheque or loan comes in. Kully’s pragmatism is frequently heartbreaking:

It’s warm and we’re hungry. We can’t leave, because we can’t pay the hotel bill. We can’t enter any other country, but we can’t stay here either. Perhaps we’ll be thrown into prison, and then we’ll be fed.

Keun though measures the bleakness with comedy, one of the advantages of a child narrator. Here’s one example of that:

Often we have no idea how long we’ve spent in a place. There’s only one unpleasant way of finding out, which is via the hotel bill. Then it always turns out we’ve been there much longer than we thought.

Highly recommended.

The City and the City, by China Miéville

I’d meant to read this for ages but was finally prompted to do so by the recent TV adaptation (which I’ve only now started watching). I was careful not to watch the TV version ahead of reading the book, but based on publicity materials alone I still saw David Morrissey’s face when I imagined the lead character.

Besel and Ul Qoma are two cities in an unspecified East-European or Balkan state. The twist however is that the two cities occupy the same geography. Some streets are categorised as being only in Besel, some only in Ul Qoma, some are shared between the two. The inhabitants of each city ignore the other by an act of will, only seeing their own.

It’s a surprisingly powerful metaphor, not just for the lunacy of many ethnic divisions in the world today but also for how often in real life we choose to ignore other cities that cohabit with our own. The homeless and the ultra-rich may occupy the same physical London, but the truth is they are easily as separate as the people of Besel and Ul Qoma. Perhaps more so since they rarely even share the same physical spaces and so don’t have to actively ignore each other.

Miéville explores his setting with what starts out as a deliberately conventional crime story before getting deeper into the strangeness and for me it worked very well. I don’t have a lot of quotes for this one, perhaps as most of them don’t make much sense out of context, but I enjoyed it and I think others might too even if they wouldn’t normally read SF.

When I reached the tar-painted front where Corwi waited with an unhappy-looking man, we stood together in a near-deserted part of Besel city, surrounded by a busy unheard throng.

Care of Wooden Floors, by Will Wiles

This is another one set in an unspecified fictional East European city oddly enough, though that’s all it has in common with the Miéville. The narrator, a rather ordinary and rather messy man, is asked by his more successful friend Oskar to look after Oskar’s apartment for a few weeks while Oskar is in California settling his divorce.

Oskar is a modernist composer and his apartment is a sleek testimonial to the perfection of his life and his taste, particularly the gleaming wooden floors. To make sure his friend knows how to take care of it he’s left a series of notes with pointers for where to find coasters, how to feed the cats, and of course how to take care of the wooden floor.

Then the narrator spills a glass of wine…

There’s a lot in here. Friendship, architecture, aesthetics and the degree to which humans can lead perfectible lives. It’s a first novel so at times it’s a bit heavy on the similes (authors, let a thing just be a thing!) but that’s a common and forgivable fault in what overall is a clever and fun novel.

Here’s the narrator is looking for some string to use to play with the cats:

Then, I opened one of the kitchen drawers, an out-of-the-way one that looked as if it might contain string. Inside the drawer was a note from Oskar. Corkscrew – in drawer by sink. Torch, batteries – in bottom drawer under sink. 1st aid box, aspirin – in bathroom. Cleaning things, candles – in pantry. This drawer: spices. Indeed, the drawer contained spices, and that distinctive spice-rack melange of smells. And Oskar’s note, another note. Did all the drawers contain notes like this? I had taken cutlery from a drawer, and there had been no note. Curious, I tried the next drawer along, and there was another little note, identical to the first one except for: This drawer: Place mats. Coasters. Two lines under coasters.

But then, what do you expect from a composer whose most famous work is titled Variations on Tram Timetables?

A Quiet Place, by Seichi Matsumoto and translated by Louise Heal Kawai

This is an interesting one. It’s the story of a highly respected and respectable public servant who despite all that may not actually be a very good man.

Tsuneo Asai is a middle-aged career civil servant. He’s not fast-track, he’s not from the right background for that, but through sheer hard work and talent he’s climbed the ranks anyway and has reasonable hopes of becoming a department chief before retirement.

He believed that listening faithfully to one’s manager’s idle chit-chat was a mark of respect.

Then while he’s on a business trip he hears that his young wife has died suddenly of a heart attack. Even though he knew she had a weak heart it’s still a shock, made more puzzling when he discovers that she died in a neighbourhood that she had no obvious business being in. Asai decides to investigate, finally getting to know his wife only now she’s dead.

What follows is a mix of character study and crime novel (as in much good crime fiction of course). The wife’s death is plainly natural causes, but that doesn’t mean nothing odd was going on and Asai soon discovers that what he thought was a quiet housewife with a few polite hobbies may in fact have been a passionate and talented young woman that he barely knew.

A Quiet Place doesn’t start with a crime, just a mystery, but Asai’s curiosity will set in motion consequences he couldn’t have dreamt of. Before the book’s out it will get very dark indeed (though never gratuitous) and becomes a story of complacency, repression and ultimately obsession. Guy wrote a very good review of it here which has a particularly fine insight into the characterisation (or lack thereof) of Asai’s previous wife.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, by Soji Shimada and translated by Russ and Shika Mackenzie

I finished the month with a bit more Japanese crime, here a very classic locked room mystery. Perhaps too classic since it’s not actually a genre I care much about and this is a very good representation of it which means I didn’t hugely enjoy it.

The book opens with an excerpt from the diary of a reclusive artist. In it he reveals an insane plan to murder his daughters and step-daughters to create some kind of composite perfect woman. Those crimes happened, the daughters and step-daughters were murdered just as per his plan. The only wrinkle is that he was murdered first.

Forty years later in the mid-1970s two amateur detectives decide to solve these famous killings which (within the fiction) have now gripped Japan for decades. Matsumoto plays fair by the reader, including detailed floor plans, family trees and every clue needed to let the reader solve the mystery for themselves.

Unfortunately, I worked out the who and the why really quickly, surprisingly so given I wasn’t particularly trying. I didn’t quite get the how but that was a bit unlikely anyway (they always are in these things). Given that, I struggled to buy that police and amateurs alike had struggled for forty years to solve something most of which I got in about half an hour.

Still, I may have been lucky and admittedly I spotted a key bit of early misdirection (authors in this genre have to include all the clues you need, but there’s nothing that says they can’t try and distract you from them).

The two investigators themselves have very little personality, but that’s to be expected because really this is a puzzle-book where the reader is the real investigator. Underling this is the fact that at two points Shimada personally intervenes in the text:

Gentle Reader, Unusual as it may be for the author to intrude into the proceedings like this, there is something I should like to say at this point. All of the information required to solve the mystery is now in your hands, and, in fact, the crucial hint has been provided already. I wonder if you noticed it? My greatest fear is that I might already have told you too much about the case! But I dared to do that both for the sake of fairness of the game, and, of course, to provide you with a little help. Let me throw down the gauntlet: I challenge you to solve the mystery before the final chapters! And I wish you luck.

This wasn’t my book, but that’s mostly I think because it’s just not a genre that interests me. I’m a bit in the position of someone who doesn’t read SF criticising a space opera for having spaceships. In its field I suspect this is actually pretty good. If anyone reading this has read it and has any thoughts I’d be delighted to hear them.

And that’s it for May! It started stronger than it finished for me, but an interesting mix all the same.


Filed under Architecture, Crime, Hofmann, Michael (translator), Japanese fiction, Keun, Irmgard, Matsumoto, Seichi, Miéville, China, SF, Shimada, Soji, Wiles, Will

Nostalgia for the future

Militant Modernism, by Owen Hatherley

Who would have thought a book on brutalist architecture could be fun? Who would have thought a book dedicated to Southampton City Council Architects Department could be an invigorating read? Well, me I guess or I wouldn’t have bought it, but even so I was surprised by how enjoyable Owen Hatherley’s Militant Modernism is.

Clocking in at under 150 pages, Militant Modernism consists of four essays on different aspects of modernism, topped and tailed by a foreword and afterword which seek (with mixed success) to put the individual pieces into a larger overall context. At its heart Militant Modernism is an examination of the promise of modernism as a utopian alternative to traditional approaches to architecture, to culture, and to sex. This is Modernism as Socialism, a destruction of what was in order to clear the ground for a better tomorrow that sadly never arrived. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Erase the traces. Destroy, in order to create. Build a new world on the ruins of the old. This, it is often thought, is the Modernist imperative, but what of it if the new society never emerged? We have been cheated out of the future, yet the future’s ruins lie about us, hidden or ostentatiously rotting. So what would it mean, then, to look for the future’s remnants? To uncover clues about those who wanted, as Walter Benjamin put it, to ‘live without traces’? Can we, should we, try and excavate utopia?

Hatherley appears to come from a very similar background to my own. He grew up on an English council estate, listened to post-punk music and read comics like 2000AD and authors like Ballard and the Strugatsky Brothers. Like me, his politics was forged in the 1980s, a peculiarly partisan decade, and so by opposition to a particular strand of right-wing philosophy. My impression is that he’s perhaps a few years older, and of course I went on to City law (betraying all my youthful ideals like so many before me) where he went on to write books about Modernism. Still, he writes from the place I come from, and that makes this in some ways a very easy book for me to respond to.

Hatherley opens by looking at how architects and town planners of the 1960s sought to create a new utopia, a working class Eldorado in which the traces of a tired traditionalism would be swept aside in favour of genuinely democratic forms of housing, which would in time lead to genuinely democratic people. The experiment of course failed, and the buildings it produced are even now widely reviled. The promise was of a new kind of living, but it was a promise largely imposed from without and whatever chance it might ever have had of succeeding was throttled by costcutting and use of substandard non-specified materials. As so often happens, architecture in compromised implementation achieved far less than it offered in pristine theory.

Where Hatherley excels is in his passionate eloquence. He sees the flaws of this architecture (it’s hard not to when you’ve grown up with it). He sees too though what it was trying to achieve, and the sheer ambition of it. He’s brilliantly excoriating about the timidity of what we in the UK have today: “Postmodernism’s aesthetic of pastiche, historical reference, cosiness and conservatism.” He rails against how “… in houses, schools and hospitals the choice is between an ultra-timid Ikea Modernism or the semi-Victorian developers’ vernacular of Barrat Homes and their ilk.”

Hatherley knows his material, and he’s often highly persuasive in arguing for a reassessment not just of the remnants of this vast social experiment carved from steel and concrete, but more importantly of its aims. He’s equally persuasive though in his attacks on the blandness of much of what replaced it, and on the intellectual vacuity at the heart of modern British intellectual and political life.

We live in a managerial age, with no great choices of ideology or vision. Our leaders compete on the same narrow platform speaking the same peculiar and euphemistic language full of mock-outrage and sham-empathy. Our intellectuals aren’t, they are instead personalities picked either for the flamboyance with which they present themselves or their ability to speak in brief generalities which sound vaguely profound but which ultimately reassure the viewers by echoing back to them what they already think.

Perhaps the most irksome of Ikea Modernism’s products was Channel 4’s The Perfect Home, presented by Alain de Botton, promoting his The Architecture of Happiness. Perambulating about the place with an expression of casual intellectuality and immense self-satisfaction, he encapsulates all that is malign in British intellectual life.

The introduction and first chapter cover this material with real vigour, and are an absolute pleasure to read. Hatherley covers an extraordinary amount of material in these few pages, at one point providing an impressively concise analysis of the differences between Vortiticism and Futurism – and why Futurism had appeal in newly industrial societies such as Russia and Italy but not in longer developed countries such as Britain (though this analysis of course owes much to Wyndham Lewis’s own arguments, and a case could be made that the real difference between Vorticism and Futurism was born of Lewis’s refusal to be part of a movement he wasn’t the head of). I attended an entire exhibition on Vorticism quite recently, and Hatherley explains it better here in a handful of sentences than that exhibition did with entire roomfuls of exhibits (and it was a good exhibition).

Hatherley goes on to an analysis of Modernist architecture in the Soviet Union, of its now largely unrecognised influence on international architectural movements and of the tragedy of how so much groundbreaking and inspiring work was cut short by Stalinism and a Soviet state that grew far less keen on revolution once its own people were the ones in charge. He looks too at the tremendous (and again largely unrecognised) influence of Soviet science fiction on Soviet architecture, and therefore on Western visions of what architecture could do.

Unfortunately, not every section is equally successful. The essay dealing with sexpol (revolutionary sexual politics and the links between communism, architecture and sexuality) ironically becomes in places rather dry as Hatherley reaches increasingly to obscure sources and dense theoretical terminology. The chapter culminates in a detailed analysis of the still controversial 1971 film WR – Mysteries of the Organism. The film even today is heavily censored, but as Hatherley explores it that comes to seem increasingly not so much an act of repression as one of mercy. The film sounds a self-indulgent mess, and it’s hard not to notice that the revolutionary cinema it emerged from and which addressed ideas of sexual liberation still mostly involved male directors making films about liberated women having lots of sex but dying before the end of the movie. As with that least feminist of films, Thelma and Louise, the actual politics and the ostensible politics may be very far apart.

Similarly, while I enjoyed the final essay (on Brecht and on taking a critical stance in relation to culture) it didn’t feel to me a natural fit with the sections on British and Soviet architecture. In that afterword Hatherley brings the book’s various strands together by explaining that the point is exploring how to create a counter-culture. Hatherley doesn’t mean here some form of vague late-1960s hippy alternative, “but rather Modernism itself as counter-culture, drawing on sexual politics, industrial aesthetics, critical theory, a new urbanism, in order to suggest – ‘as a tradition and as a vision’ – the possible outlines of a world after capitalism.”

That makes sense to me, and perhaps in a larger book Hatherley would have pulled that off. In this one though I’m left with two great chapters which fit well with the afterword and foreword, one rather dull chapter and one chapter which while very interesting I really wasn’t persuaded did fit that well with the rest. Despite that I’m left with a more nuanced view of modernist and brutalist architecture, a deeper understanding of how theory and politics interacted and helped shape (now largely overooked elements of) our culture and in the main part I was thoroughly entertained along the way. This is an ambitious book, and while not every part of it worked for me that’s a price I’m more than willing to pay if the result is that a book stretches and challenges me. It may even appear on my end of year list, and that’s not bad going for a thin book on an architecture I grew up hating.


Filed under Architecture, Hatherley, Owen