07 June, 2009


Anthony Sutcliffe's London: An Architectural History (2006) is a useful book, if rather odd in some respects. Useful for providing a reasonable discussion of a wide range of buildings, both well and less known, and comprehensively illustrated. Odd for the sudden outbursts of scorn ornamenting its general level of dispassion. For instance, Sutcliffe interrupts a review of Victorian public architecture for a rant against the 'Outright Bad Design' of R. L. Roumieu, labelling him 'the McGonagall of London design'. He sneers at Roumieu's often admired Dutch façades on De Beauvoir Square as 'crude Tudor detailing', and labels the architect's masterpiece, 33-35 Eastcheap, 'grotesque' and 'brutal'. (Incidentally, Ian Nairn does not 'condemn' the work, as Wiki claims; if you were familiar with the rhythms of that critic's thought, you would not reach that judgement of this passage—
Victorian wildness can come from half a dozen causes, from mere fashion to cantankerousness. But this is truly demoniac, an Edgar Allen Poe of a building. It is the scream that you wake on at the end of a nightmare. Like Poe, and unlike Horace Walpole or a modern detective novel, the horror is no game. Acutely pointed arches shrink away in front of the windows, the wall shrinks back in half a dozen varieties of terrified chamfer. Demolition is in the air; but it must be preserved—not as an oddity, but as a basic part of human temperament, and one which doesn't often get translated into architecture.)
So Sutcliffe has some character as a critic, even if he is no Nairn. But more interesting than Sutcliffe's quirks of taste is his candid reflection of his—our—age. From the introduction:
It is now difficult to go inside most London buildings. Churches have been a problem for many years, but since 11 September 2001 security and general suspicion have made matters worse. My 'Stop and Search' by a City policeman near the Monument was entirely courteous and indeed informative but it took thirty minutes, by which time the light had gone. I often shied away from encounters with security staff and other employees.
Sutcliffe's eye is therefore not the omniscient lens that one expects from an art-book; it is human and frail, clinging unabashed to chance and contingency. This was the real surprise of the book, and at moments the real pleasure. It means bizarre photographs like this one, transposing the glorious red brick of St Pancras to a wintry 1960s Moscow:

Elsewhere, a shot of the Caledonian Market clock tower is captioned: 'The threatening sky emerged mysteriously when this picture was developed.' Security paranoia, meanwhile, reaches its peak in the caption to a glorious old aerial panorama of Pentonville Prison: 'The author did not dare photograph the prison at a time of great tension.' This isn't at all ridiculous; stories abound. A notorious instance occurred two months ago, when an Austrian tourist was approached by two coppers (or possibly PCSOs, as one blogger has observed) and made to delete his photographs of double-decker buses and a modern bus-station, because taking pictures of London transport allegedly contravened some anti-terror legislation. There is indeed a seeping fume of suspicion, and it did not immediately follow 9/11, nor even the London bombings of 2005.

I myself, who take pictures every Sunday on my walks, have only encountered narrowed eyes once, and not those of the Met. I was up in Walthamstow—not far from where the Austrian tourists were shanghaied—examining the Town Hall, which I can't quite decide if I like. It does at least have a fine interior, and a full complement of chunky mid-century relief sculpture on the fronting columns:

Anyway, there I was, camera in hand, in the blazing light of day, the stone so bright my eyes were beginning to hurt, when a middle-aged Carribean woman approached me and asked 'if she could help me'. She was not, of course, asking if she could help. Her tone allowed no doubt: she meant, You do not belong here, please leave. This was officialdom shaking its suspicious stick. Nonetheless, she had, strictly speaking, asked if she could help me. I replied that I would love a cup of tea. She was not moved. What did I want here? I pointed at the building—a fine specimen, isn't it, I exclaimed with a false jollity. In retrospect, I should have taken a photograph of her, there and then. But she continued to watch me darkly until I sidled off, admittedly content with the pictures I had. I felt the thrill of having rubbed up against genuine oppression, but also a disappointment at the mildness, the tameness, of said oppression.


There is a historical precedent for all this. On September 13, 1786, a 37 year-old Goethe, in the course of his Italian tour, and in the face of strong winds on the road, stopped at Malcesine, near Verona in northern Italy. The next morning he went to visit the town's old castle; he sat on a step next to a locked gate, and began drawing the castle's tower. As he sat, people began to appear, until at last
one man came up to me, not of the best appearance, and asked what I was doing. I replied that I was sketching the old tower, as a memento of Malcesine. Thereupon he said that this was not allowed, and I should stop it. This he said in the common Venetian tongue, so that I really could hardly understand him, and so I answered that I could not understand him. Then he seized my paper with a true Italian Gelassenheit [best translated into Anglo-French: somewhere between sangfroid, nonchalance, and désinvolture], tore it up, and left it lying on my board.
The podestà, magistrate, is fetched, and asks Goethe why he is sketching the Festung or fortress; the young wag replies ich dieses Gemäuer nicht für eine Festung anerkenne, 'I don't credit these mere walls as a fortress'—'I prompted him and the crowd to consider the ruination of this tower and these walls, the lack of a gate, in short, the defencelessness of the entire situation, and assured him that I thought myself to be seeing and drawing nothing but a ruin.' Then comes the key passage:
Someone answered me: If it be only a ruin, what about it could then appear worthy of consideration? I replied very anfractuously, seeking time and favour, that they knew how many tourists wanted to travel to Italy purely for the ruins—that Rome, capital of the world, laid waste by the barbarians, remained full of ruins, which were sketched hundreds and hundreds of times—and that not everything from antiquity had been so well preserved as the amphitheatre at Verona, which I hoped to see soon as well.
Thus: Romanticism. The scene at Malcesine is suddenly transformed from an irrelevant squabble into a dramatised conflict between the aesthete, with his love of mediaeval ruins, and civic authority, which sees the fortress not as a beautiful work of architecture, but only as a site of political significance. It is observed to Goethe that the tower marks the boundary-line between the territories of Venice and the Emperor's Kaiserstaat, und deshalb nicht ausspioniert werden solle, and therefore ought not to be spied upon. The Italians worry that Goethe is an agent of Joseph II, a 'restless' man. Our hero replies that he is in fact from Frankfurt and in no thrall to the Emperor; a local Malcesinesco named Gregorio steps in and everything is sorted out, but not before Goethe gets a chance to practice his Italian, waxing lyrical to the throng on the desolate glamour of the scene at hand. (Goethe was not in fact arrested, as Wiki claims. Apparently that famous website is not always accurate.)

The 1786 story neatly mirrors today's clashes between photographic scurriers, their eyes out for the beautiful, the delapidated, the unexpected, the recondite, the fascinatively hideous; and local officials who can understand the urban landscape merely in terms of its civic and political function. Deviance, no matter how undeviant when seen in the context of culture or history, must be barred and debilitated.

[Update 05/07/09: I am stopped outside Crystal Palace station, during a routine Sunday stroll, by cops with sniffer dogs. Somehow, mirabile dictu, the hounds fail to detect the sizeable quantities of smack and blow stashed under both my oxters. Despite my (apparent) innocence, the officer requests my name, date of birth and address. 'Routine procedure, sir.' I ask if I am compelled by law to give my details, and he admits that I am not, but then tries to trick me. 'And what did you say your name was again, sir?' Could he not tell by my very voice that I am not one of his usual subjects, blasted and dupeable, with plenty to hide? He speaks into his walkie-talkie, in an attempt to intimidate me. I confess that I was a little intimidated. But I did not give. Still, at last—a police encounter with real menace! Another authentic London experience to cross off the To Do list. Jellied eels next week, cum liquore.]

03 June, 2009

fauteuil de nuages

It is a little disconcerting, although perhaps appropriate, gruesomely, to our atomised age, to learn of a friend's death via Wikipedia. I had not seen Stanley around the Library recently, and a month ago he was doing very poorly; he had been in hospital, and was sluggish of moment, suddenly his age—eighty-three—after years, presumably decades, of sprightliness. He said that he felt it was the end, but I thought this simply a figure of speech. He said he would come to dinner, sample my wife's cooking; but now that will have to wait. Neither the Times nor any of its competitors seem to have run an obituary, which saddens me. It is not mine to write here. But I will remember fondly his widescreen disdain for almost everything: for A. S. Byatt, 'the big armchair', for Iain Sinclair, who 'insists on starting all his sentences with 'And'', for a play, for a poem, for all the poseurs of today's avant-garde. I was touched that he always expressed a warmth for me, taking me by the arm when we parted. For the last two years, when I knew him, he spent his days doing not much of anything at the Library, just reading, whatever came to hand, under his enormous beard, free.