Wednesday, 7 December 2011


What occurs on the scale of the individual building, namely what has been discussed earlier with regard to ruins: the erosion of form, mining and additions of later generations to existing material –also occurs at the scale of the city. Areas are either set down and evolve or are cut‐up, eroded and altered through the centuries –every change adding difference and variation to the spatial continuum of the city’s public urbanity. What in individual buildings is the delightful accretion of various scales, materials and tastes, becomes a powerful display of cultural evolution and its spatial corollaries throughout the ages when expressed at the urban scale. Because in Rome there isn't one definitively dominant attitude structuring the city’s form, but rather a congested layering of various structuring marks from conflicting eras, each area’s streets and squares jostle with each other, under each other, over each other

If one could cast aside historical lineage for a day, and view the city purely as space, colour, form and ideas, then we would have an opportunity to experience Europe in all its breadth and contradictions. By virtue of the sheer overwhelming weight of its physical history, Rome collapses in on itself as an Architectural singularity, it is the epicentre of the continent where the laws of time and space implode. Rome becomes all of history in one point, and because this is rendered spatially, in this place we walk outside of history and its shackles of one‐thing‐comes‐after‐another. We walk through something that more than anywhere else comes close to being the spatial embodiment, in all its time travelling, space defying, taste denying waywardness –of the human mind. Rome negates history.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011


^Tower, Sant’ Andrea delle Fratte, Borromini (source)

There are explosive minds of the kind of unstoppable genius that can bring forth whole worlds, that can render the content of their thoughts as communicable, experiential matter. The problem I have with this category of production is that it can only communicate through experience. The observer is offered no manner in which to discern the structure and order of the intellect and ideas that are displayed before him: his only enjoyment is that of an impression, an emotion.

At the other end of the spectrum there are those whose control of the processes of their minds is so complete that their work takes on the form of a spatial summa through which one can wander whilst having principles and orders crisply revealed to you. This type of space can also be phenomenally rewarding in the secondary, consciously intellectual sense, though it is invariably lacking in the rich ambiguity and delight present in the work of geniuses of the first order.

Occasionally one comes across something –a space, a canvas, a façade, a poem- in which there is either the two tendencies reconciled, or else the two in visible conflict. In reconciliation one is offered the chance of seeing both the growth of wild proliferation, the animal fertility of the human mind, and also spelled forth its innate illogic, logic, law or precise form of lawlessness.

In conflict the two can provide a vital and exemplary spectacle of the creative construction, erosion, explosion and containment that occurs over time in the push and pull between the beautiful impetuosity of a wild and fecund wilfulness, and its internal death drive for clarity, communication, abstraction and a wider relevance beyond the baseness of instinct, the latter annihilating the former, and the former the latter, in an endless trauma of the internalised dialectic. From this process fall the most pure artefacts of genius, spaces of tense equilibrium in which the impossible union of the subjective drive and the objective imperative is achieved in the forced and final reconciliation of real space.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Art in the Flatland

Below is an extract from Herber Marcuse's "One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society", a book in which the author analyses the mechanisms of technological and social normalization in the west which, while producing the image of choice and plurality through mass media, shopping and democratic histrionics, simultaneously and with clinical psychological efficiency, precludes any possibility for genuine critique and/or radically alternative modes of living. It was first published in 1964 and lays out a very exacting critique of the sort of capitalist realist society whose apotheosis, and greatest crisis we are currently experiencing. And yet still we are finding it impossible to imagine, let alone enact any alternatives, and this is precisely because of the many impoverishments and infantilisms that have atrophied our  critical and imaginative faculties, from the reduction of language into a kind of positive capitalist newspeak (complexity, the non-functional, the un-popular are all excluded from the flatland of our language, whose most recent form is that of the tweet and most enduring that of the news presenter and the advertisement), to the rapid and total absorption of the arts (traditionaly the sanctified place of externality, condoned critique, and realm of the just-possible and imaginary) as functional cogs in the great mechanism of pacification. It is the arts as a place free from the relentless positivism of today's general society, a negative place, negative in the best sense, free from the pressure to do, to act, to produce, to buy, to perform, to tweet, to immediately construct thoughts as facebook status updates, it is the arts as a place where the lie is revealed at the core of everyone else's truth that the extract below touches upon. Obviously for the full force of the argument I recommend reading the whole book.

^Shoppers In Westfield, Shepherd's Bush, London (source)
The truth of literature and art has always been granted (if it was granted at all) as one of a “higher” order, which should not and indeed did not disturb the order of business. What has changed in the contemporary period is the difference between the two orders and their truths. The absorbent power of society depletes the artistic dimension by assimilating its antagonistic contents. In the realm of culture, the new totalitarianism manifests itself precisely in a harmonizing pluralism, where the most contradictory works and truths peacefully coexist in indifference.

Prior to the advent of this cultural reconciliation, literature and art were essentially alienation, sustaining and protecting the contradiction –the unhappy consciousness of the divided world, the defeated possibilities, the hopes unfulfilled, and the promises betrayed. They were a rational, cognitive force, revealing a dimension of man and nature which was repressed and repelled in reality. Their truth was in the illusion evoked, in the insistence on creating a world in which the terror of life was called up and suspended –mastered by recognition. This is the miracle of the chef d’oeuvre; it is the tragedy, sustained to the last, and the end of tragedy –its impossible solution. To live one’s love and hatred, to live that which one is means defeat, resignation, and death. The crimes of society, the hell that man has made for man become unconquerable cosmic forces.

The tension between the actual and the possible is transfigured into an insoluble conflict, in which reconciliation is by grace of the oeuvre as form: beauty as the “promesse de Bonheur.” In the form of the oeuvre, the actual circumstances are placed in another dimension where the given reality shows itself as that which it is. Thus it tells the truth about itself; its language ceases to be that of deception, ignorance, and submission. Fiction calls the facts by their name and their reign collapses; fiction subverts everyday experience and shows it to be mutilated and false. But art has this magic power only as the power of negation. It can speak its own language only as long as the images are alive which refuse and refute the established order.

^Arnold Bocklin's Isle of the Dead (+a number)
To be sure, alienation is not the sole characteristic of art. An analysis, and even a statement of the problem is outside the scope of this work, but some suggestions may be offered for clarification. Throughout whole periods of civilization, art appears to be entirely integrated into its society. Egyptian, Greek, and Gothic art are familiar examples; Bach and Mozart are usually also cited as testifying to the “positive” side of art. The place of the work of art in a pre-technological and two-dimensional culture is very different from that in a one-dimensional civilization, but alienation characterizes affirmative as well as negative art.

The decisive distinction is not the psychological one between art created in joy and art created in sorrow, between sanity and neurosis, but that between the artistic and societal reality. The rupture with the latter, the magic or rational transgression, is an essential quality of even the most affirmative art; it is alienated also from the very public to which it is addressed. No matter how close and familiar the temple of cathedral were to the people who lived around them, they remained in terrifying or elevated contrast to the daily life of the slave, the peasant, and the artisan –and perhaps even to that of their masters.

Whether ritualized or not, art contains the rationality of negation. In its advanced positions, it is the Great Refusal –the protest against that which is. The modes in which man and things are made to appear, to sing and sound and speak, are modes of refuting, breaking, and recreating their factual existence. But these modes of negation pay tribute to the antagonistic society to which they are linked. Separated from the sphere of labour where society reproduces itself and its misery, the world of art which they create remains, with all its truth, a privilege and an illusion.

In this form it continues, in spite of all democratization and popularization, through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. The “high culture” in which this alienation is celebrated has its own rites and its own style. The salon, the concert, opera, theatre are designed to create and invoke another dimension of reality. Their attendance requires festive-like preparation; they cut off and transcend everyday experience.

^Kate and Will the Royal Couple depicted in 'Street Art' as Punk Heroes
Now this essential gap between the arts and the order of the day, kept open in the artistic alienation, is progressively closed by the advancing technological society. And with its closing, the Great Refusal is in turn refused; the “other dimension” is absorbed into the prevailing state of affairs. The works of alienation are themselves incorporated into this society and circulate as part and parcel of the equipment which adorns and psycho-analyses the prevailing state of affairs. This they become commercials –they sell, comfort, or excite.
The neo-conservative critics of leftist critics of mass culture ridicule the protest against Bach as background music in the kitchen, against Plato and Hegel, Shelley and Baudelaire, Marx and Freud in the drugstore. Instead, they insist on recognition of the fact that the classics have left the mausoleum and come to life again, that people are just so much more educated. True, but coming to life as classics, they come to life as other than themselves; they are deprived of their antagonistic force, of the estrangement which was the very dimension of their truth. The intent and function of these works have thus fundamentally changed. If they once stood in contradiction to the status quo, this contradiction is now flattened out.

But such assimilation is historically premature; it establishes cultural equality while preserving domination.
Now this remoteness has been removed and with it the transgression and the indictment. The text and the tone are still there, but the distance is conquered which made them 'Luft von anderen Planeten'. The artistic alienation has become as functional as the architecture of the new theatres and concert halls in which it is performed. And here too, the rational and the evil are inseparable. Unquestionably the new architecture is better, i.e., more beautiful and more practical than the monstrosities of the Victorian era. But it is also more “integrated” –the cultural centre is becoming a fitting part of the shopping centre, or municipal centre, or government centre. Domination has its own aesthetics, and democratic domination has its democratic aesthetics. It is good that almost everyone can now have the fine arts at his fingertips, by just turning a knob on his set, or by just stepping into the drugstore. In this diffusion, however, they become cogs in a culture-machine which remakes their content.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

3 Masterpieces of Late Twentieth-Century Design Theory

1:  Rossi's Inequality, aka the Architectural Memory Theorem

The minimum meaningful architectural configuration is greater than and irreducible to its geometric constituents.

2:  Hejduk's Inequality, aka the Architectural Poetry Theorem

The minimum poetic architectural configuration is greater than and irreducible to architectural memories.

3:  Eisenmann's Hypothesis, aka the Architectural Calculus Theorem

Minimum geometric, mnemonic and poetic configurations are special cases of a generalized calculus of form.


Text and images from Jeffrey Kipnis, Late Twentieth Century Design Theory, 1990
via Architecture's Desire, Reading the Late Avant-Garde, K. Michael Hays. MIT Press.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Material & Colour in Memphis

Drawing For a Lamp, Michele De Lucchi, 1981

A few extracts from Memphis' 1982 publication, edited and written by Barbara Radice, in which the group's voracious, vast, and dizzying Iconophagic appetite -which indiscriminately took in symbols, signs and images from Kampala to Tokyo and Calcutta, and materials from anywhere, and of any kind-  was served up as a banquet of exercises in the undermining and transgression of good taste, traditional idealist design values, and the calcified and unproductive relationships between the intellectual, the architect, the designer, fashion, industry, and consumer desire. Memphis claimed the full breadth of the sensual present (from Mc Donalds' plastic seating in Tallahassee, to a neon sign piercing the haze of a Kinshasa side-street) as the rightful property of whoever was without fear of its immense fecundity, and the domain of the feeling body as the legitimate recipient; and it was the designer whom they saw as being destined to orchestrate the intense, fun, colourful and liberatingly orgiastic union of the two.
"As Sottsass said in an interview, “As we know very well, when you try to define the function of any object, the function slips through your fingers, because function is life itself. Function is not one screw more or one measure less. Function is the final possibility of the relation between an object and life.”"

^Carlton Sideboard, Sottsass 1981 source


The plastic laminate shock, besides opening up new perspectives in furniture design, paved the way for a series of reflections, revisions, and research into the theme of materials, their quality, their possible combination and matching, their semantic and cultural charge. As a result, materials have begun to be read, chosen and utilised not only as tools or supports of design (important as these may be), but as active protagonists, privileged vehicles of sensory communication, self-sufficient cells that cohabit the design without mixing, each cell with its own personal story to tell. Marco Zanini points out: “Hoffmann often used precious materials like mother-of-pearl to draw lines. They were lines of mother-of-pearl, but they were essentially lines. If we use mother-of-pearl, we use square miles of it, because it’s the mother-of-pearl that tells the story and not the line.” The Memphis designers have worked on materials in two senses: developing and using “aseptic”, freedom-giving materials that have not been consumed by institutionalised cultures, and putting them together with bits or pieces of cultivated materials “to see if something else can be done.” This, as Sottsass explains, is a phenomenon that very often repeats itself in history, for instance when barbarians with their “non-culture” invade civilised zones.

Every institutionalised culture possesses a very precise catalogue of signs, ordered and assembled to represent the most general meaning that can be given to that culture. This catalogue makes it possible to communicate certain situations, to express certain things and not others, and everything is okay as long as a culture is still growing, fermenting and expanding. But when a culture reaches the point of boredom, when one begins to want to say other things, and especially when, according to Sottsass, “one is not able to say the things one thinks must be said,” then a “change of air” is necessary. New supports must be found in the “no-man’s land” of germinal cultures, where signs still have a sexy charge, a bittersweet flavour, and arouse shivers of surprise or pleasure because they still stagger in a kind of prenatal limbo, because no-one has yet charged them with symbols and meanings, because, as De Lucchi says, “you don’t relate them yet to anything or anybody  and you can project new possibilities onto them right away.”

In addition to plain or patterned plastic laminates, the Memphis catalogue of “aseptic” materials includes many other industrial products: printed glass, zinc-plated and textured sheet metals, celluloids, fireflake finishes, industrial paints, neon tubes, coloured lights bulbs, and so on. In the Memphis context these materials lose their high-tech connotations because they are never quoted as technological symbols but as textures, patterns, colour, density, transparency and glitter. They are immediate and directly sensual. Moving in this freedom-giving context, which appeals more to physical qualities than to the intellect, Memphis designers have even succeeded in revitalising cultivated, traditional, and familiar materials. Marble, for instance, is used in irreverent forms that do not correspond to recognised uses of that material, or it is taken out of context by coupling it with aluminium, fiberglass, or fireflake paints.

Many materials have been thrown off balance, stretched, and deformed to the point of becoming unrecognisable. Once a perplexed British journalist, stroking a bookcase in natural polished briar (used alongside a yellow and green snakeskin laminate in the same piece of furniture, Sottsass’ Beverley) sighed, “fantastic, it looks like plastic.”

Actually, the problem isn’t to make one thing look like another, nor to make it look like itself: whether it is marble that looks like plastic, plastic that looks like wood, or plastic that looks like plastic is of little importance. For Memphis designers the problem of truth and authenticity, and vice versa, the problem of fake, doesn’t exist. What matters is the image, the design, the final product, the figurative force, the communication. As with many pupils of Buddha, all Memphis designers seem convinced that “reality” as an absolute doesn’t exist, or if it does exist, it is what is. The free and easy, anarchic, and unrestrained use of unforeseen and unforeseeable materials, the combined use of heterogeneous, cheap and expensive materials, of rough and smooth textures, of opaque and sparkling surfaces, tend in the end to turn a piece of furniture into a complex system of communication. It becomes a small metaphorical novel, a story of volumes and surfaces, of signs and groups of signs, of their different flavours, and of the inner changes they undergo in order to appear in strange, attractive combinations and create new expressive circuits. What’s more, this linguistic earthquake has definitively altered the traditional image of formal coherence and compactness, laying the foundations for a future, more flexible and sophisticated stylistic syntax.

Gabon, Nathalie Du Pasquier, 1982. source


Prior to Memphis, there was no colour in furniture. With a few exceptions the idea of furniture as a centre of colour didn’t exist in the West. European furniture, on the whole, is made of “matter;” colour comes into play only as a detail in mother-of-pearl, ivory, or bronze inlays, and in marble intarsia works. Even the exceptions are few and far between: the extremely tenuous, lacquered colours of certain eighteenth century Venetian furniture, the black and white lacquers of certain Viennese furniture, tiny details of colour in Jugendstil furniture, and naturally De Stijl, where primary colours alone are used in an ideological manner. In De Stijl, as later in the Bauhaus, colour is chiefly “structural;” it emphasises the way the furniture is built. Rietveld’s “red and blue” chair, when it was designed in 1917, was not red and blue at all; the colour was added after 1919, apparently at Van Doesburg’s suggestion.

In Memphis, colour has never been an ideological vehicle. It does not exemplify building processes, nor does it sink its roots in stories of chromatic symbolism; it may be indirectly provocative, but it is above all a matter of linguistics. Introduced together with decoration in the software of design, colour is one of the active ingredients of the complex messages transmitted by the furniture object. It works as an enzyme to catalyse chemical reactions, it generates nervous impulses that open new doors of logic in the brain, it is a sort of perceptive jogging, an aerobics for lazy or drowsy sensory cells. Like jogging it requires commitment, determination, measure, enthusiasm, faith, and patience, and to serve a purpose, it must be used well.

Colour in Memphis is never “added.” As with decoration it is born with the design, forming an integral part of the structure. It alters the object’s molecules. It works as a mass, as an intrinsic feature of a certain form and volume. It is always a pigment and never a patina. “For this reason,” explains Michele De Lucchi, “there are no dominant colours or background colours in Memphis.” Memphis colour does not work through the set of relations of a chromatic system, but through proximity, as in the East (from India to Persia) or in Matisse (who learned colour from Oriental painting). The juxtapostition of colured masses, amterials, and volumes, like little taps on a tuning fork, make the whole colour vibrate, creating resonances, dissociations, even linguistic reverberations that respond from afar. Sottsass calls them “long distance correspondences.”

Memphis didn’t just bring colour into the game, but made sure to play it as a winning card; Memphis colour isn’t only sensational because it is there but because it is new-made.
Sottsass syas: “Anything that is tamed by culture loses its flavour after a while, its like eating cardboard. You have to put mustard on it or take little pieces of cardboard and eat them with tomatoes and salad. It’s a lot better if you don’t eat cardboard at all.”

At Memphis very little cardboard has been eaten. Memphis colour, especially that of the early days, is devoid of cultural references. It is hard, disjointed, shrill, totally toneless and free of chromatic laxity. It is flat, literal, without suggestions. It doesn’t live on reverberations and depth like most ancient colour, which is almost always allusive; nor is it related to the polished abstractions of De Stijl. Its chromatic quality doesn’t even resemble that of oriental colour, which often is equally intense, sharp and showy, but soft, very soft, sweet and sensual, full of joy and drenched with flavour. Memphis colur is comic-strip colour (De Lucchi, Bedin), plastic coloir, hot dogs, sundaes, artificial raspberry syrup colour (Peter Shire). It is washed-out, cheap gouache colour (Zanini), ridiculous colour (Sottsass), naïve colour (Sowden), third-world colour (Du Pasquier). In any case, whether it is picked up in California, the lower Mediterranean, Africa or Brianza, it is motel colour, suburban colour, five-and-dime colour.

The principle holds true in most cases, almost always. But colur in Memphis follows no fixed pattern or rigid guideline. Instead, as Zanini points out, it is “a changing shade of existence,” and as such even inside Memphis some slight changes have occurred. In three years of experimentations and experience the garish, funny, somewhat childish tones of the early days have been rounded off, harmonised, and classicised, just as the forms have become less ramshackle, less redundant, and simpler, with sharper, more self-assured, crystalline contours. Marble pieces (in coloured, veined, baroque marble) have come into being, and after a while black also appeared –a plastic black with an imitation marble finish, or a black gloss black, used as a dull mass along with shining aluminium, chrome plate glass, and fireflake. The suburbs are making their way into the heart of the city.

Asked about the origins, motives, and goals of this silent metamorphosis, Sottsass sighs and says that you cant go on doing the same things all your life, the explains: “I’ve always looked for nonculturised colour in the colours of children, and I’ve always drawn a blank because nobody understands this way of treating colour. Nobody understood that the problem was to look for colour in areas that no one had worked on. Anyway, that’s the way it was. Now that we have been through that experience and got rid of our inhibitions, so to speak, we can do almost anything we want. We can even allow ourselves a more cultivated, more sophisticated colour, because we know how to use it in a loose, detached way as though it had no links with any culture.”

As always the basic idea in Memphis is to shake off the conditioned routine and recover fresh energy, to follow the logic of the moment, to look at things always from new points of view, and examine every new possibility. Light or dark, pale or saturated, bright or dull, Memphis colour may be a matter of chance or necessity, of work or pleasure, never a problem.


You can find Memphis, Research, Experiences, Result, Failures and Successess of New Design here.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011


^Image by Ilona Dorota Sagar

Below is the text for a video collaboration with Ilona Sagar currently showing as part of the Visionary Trading Project in Hackney. The film weaves a quiet montage of constructed and documentary scenes from around London Fields and Broadway Market, together with a voiceover that tells a tale spoken through a collage of buzzwords taken from advertising material for new housing developments in the area.

This is our stage; We are the set; It’s nothing without us.
It’s vibrant when we’re here, and when we’re here we’re buzzing.
We look distinctly contemporary, and each look we get is spectacularly new.
We are dynamic creatives, well-adjusted living, clean, modern, simplicity.

We shine, clean and new, breath-taking flagships-of-ourselves,
The bespoke measure of our many, fashionable attributes,
bustling with world-class, real friction.

Nostalgic-chic is the vintage-new, and we want unique,
Disconnect of brushed-steel, 24-hour, red-brick- heritage. Plucked and fragrant.
A pure and natural, home-baked-innocence, 
With graceful proportions, and superb specifications.

We have distinctly-dramatic, spectacular- tranquillity,
Superbly packaged identity-specifications, and lush-green dramatic-schemes.
Pioneering bespoke-culture of bright-young- things,
With our bucolic, cosmopolitan-chic. Watch us, watch you.

We are energized products of renowned, home-made, elegant cafes,
and i-phone-footage catwalk-parades, in understated, state-of-the-art.
It’s more than a feeling.

We glide dynamically, into edgily-packaged, genuine, cosmopolitan-debt,
featured in urban-village-galleries and ethnic-sweatshop-global-magazines,
from the unrivalled-creative-glamour of emptied traditions.

We are the newly-arcadian-creatives, buzzing with world-class pastoral-technology-specifications, many fashionably homemade café-utopias, radical cosmopolitan-innocence, spectacularly-tranquil avant-garde delights, and brand-new flagship-heritage.

We are quick with the seductive anxiety of non-stop 24-hour-reinvention, and vibrant-contrasting exhaustion, running, endlessly-perfect bright-young-things with the burden of internationally-renowned-bodies, wearing breath-taking, cutting-edge, and distinctly-urban-culture.

We are acting the bespoke-measure of our many trend-setting spontaneous-designer-initiatives, and watching the buzz in urban-village-galleries that multiply our organic-corner-shop bike-repair-innocence, until the dynamic-creative-mechanism is too anxiously-energized with chic lifestyles and each look we get is exhausting and we feel, genuinely feel, spectacularly, really spectacularly, breathtakingly, dramatically   – a u t h e n t I c

Saturday, 4 June 2011



22 August

It is quite disastrous, Wilhelm: all my active energies have been cast down into restless listlessness, and I can neither be idle nor accomplish anything. My imagination has deserted me, my feeling for nature gone, and books nauseate me. Once we are lost unto ourselves, everything else is lost to us. I swear there are times when I wish I could be a day labourer, simply in order to have something to look forward to in the day ahead, a sense of purpose, hope. I often envy Albert when I see him up to his ears in paperwork, and I fancy I should be content if I were in his position! I have repeatedly been on the point of writing to you and the minister, applying for the embassy appointment which you assure me I would obtain. I too believe I would do so; the minister has a long-standing regard for me, and has often urged me to devote myself to some business; and for one brief hour I am on the brink of going ahead. But then, when I consider it anew, and the story of the horse that grew weary of freedom, had itself saddled and bridled, and was ridden into the ground occurs to me –I do not know what to do. What is more, dear friend! May not my yearning for change be a restless impatience within me, which will pursue me everywhere?


Diary extract from the Penguin Classics edition of Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther"

Monday, 9 May 2011


An essay I wrote (in imitation of certain art historians whose style I was at the time in love with) on Scholasticism and Aesthetics in the development and legacy of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. Tutors were Irénée Scalbert and Dr Timothy Brittain Catlin.


Friday, 6 May 2011


^Glassblowing Workshop, Portland, Oregon (source)

“The substance of the routine may change, metamorphose, improve, but the emotional payoff is one’s experience of doing it again. There’s nothing strange about this experience. We all know it; it is rhythm.”
-Richard Sennet, The Craftsman

Richard Sennett’s book The Craftsman is a call to appreciate and value the kind of creative labor that once dominated in the craft trades, and which he points out is still alive and well in disciplines as varied as Linux code-writing and mobile-phone development.

Sennett does not advocate a return to an economy of pre-industrial manual work, instead he analyzes and explains how certain core elements, which were involved in these professions, made them intrinsically fulfilling and meaningful to those working within them. He explains that the distinction between conceptual inspiration and the act of making is an artificial, and recent one. It is a workplace separation that tends to generate an unhelpful stratification between ‘unskilled’ inflexible production lines, and ‘creative’ but unengaged researchers and developers.

Alternatively, Sennett suggests treating the act of making as a creative endeavor, where research, design and development can occur at the same time as developing the manufacturing process. This not only motivates the designer/maker to have a deep personal connection with the work, but opens up the possibility for mistakes, dead-ends, and tangential explorations within the framework of the process. These mistakes and dead-ends are positive inefficiencies which are necessary for the process to throw up unexpected opportunities and breakthroughs. And for these positive inefficiencies to occur, be understood, overcome and harnessed, there needs to be the space and time for the maker to repeat their process again and again, developing their own personal rhythm. In the same manner that pianists practice repeatedly, until the core skill of playing becomes instinctive, allowing them instead to focus on variations, emphasis and mood within each repetition, so the maker engages initially through repetition with the core skills of his process until they are second nature, by which time the act of repetition is thrown open to become an active field of experimentation, a generative rhythm—adaptive and evolving—of exploration and innovation.

It is when the repetition of work becomes the rhythm of craft that any form of labor can become creative, meaningful and fulfilling.

NB, this post was initially published in The BiBlog

Monday, 2 May 2011


^George Best with Miss World Mary Stavin. source

"Below is an extract from Chapter5 -Truth, Virtue and Objectivity- of Terry Eagleton's After Theory (I highly recommend it). Via the case of the footballer George Best, Eagleton puts forward an argument against judging the personal ethics and morality of one's trajectory in life through the lens of any form of goal-oriented, utility-driven set of values. As humans, we are not means to an end, unless death is our sole purpose in life, and, like Sennett in The Craftsman, he asks that we not only look ahead to results and achievements, but inwards to the process of life & living, crafting our actions and social relations to best fulfill and embody our values, and not just our desires.


"Take the well-known story about George Best, perhaps the finest footballer in history until alcoholism brought him low. Best the ex-footballer was lounging in a five-star hotel room surrounded by caviar and champagne, with a former Miss World lounging amorously beside him, when a member of the hotel staff entered, weighed down with yet more luxury goods. Gazing down at the supine star, he shook his head sadly and murmured: ‘George, where did it all go wrong?’

The joke, of course, is that one would hardly claim that life had gone wrong for a man with such a lavish lifestyle. This is how Best tells the story himself. Yet the hotel worker was right: Best’s life had gone wrong. He was not doing what it was in him to do. He was certainly enjoying himself, and might even in some sense have been happy; but he was not flourishing. He had failed at what he was supremely equipped to excel at. It is true that his life was probably more pleasurable than it had been in his footballing days, when he was constrained to break off nightclubbing from time to time in order to train. It is not that he had been happier as a footballer in the sense of enjoying himself more, though he managed to enjoy himself enough for a whole league of players even then. Nor is the point that his post-footballing lifestyle actually brought him a great amount of suffering, apparently confirming the evangelical view that the dissolute always get their comeuppance. It is rather that he had ceased to prosper. His life might have been happy in the sense of being opulent, contented and enjoyable, but it was not going anywhere. The casual greeting ‘How’s it going?’ suggests something morally significant. Best had come unstuck as a human being. Indeed, one suspects that he used to tell the story so gleefully partly as a way of disavowing the fact.

But where are human lives supposed to be going? They aren’t, after all, like buses or bicycle races; and the idea that life is a series of hurdles which you must leap in order to attain a goal is just the punitive puritan fantasy of scout masters, major-generals and corporation executives. What had come unstuck in Best’s life was not that he was no longer achieving, but that he was not fulfilling himself. It was not that he was no longer piling up goals, silver trophies and salary cheques, but that he was not living, if the pun may be excused, at his best. He was not being the kind of person he was able best to be. Indeed, he was actively out to destroy it. The post-footballing dissipation, as the sniffier commentators tended to call it, was perhaps a substitute way of trying to achieve. Best was now desperately scrambling from one starlet or bottle to another, in a grotesque parody of winning more and more matches.

Throwing up his football career, even if it was getting difficult to carry it on, could be seen in one sense as a courageous rejection of the success ethic. It was a recognition, however bleary-eyed, that life was not a matter of goals, in every sense of the word. Best was now free to enjoy himself, not live as some kind of self-entrepreneur. In another sense, the frenetic high living was a shadow of exactly that. The emptiness of desire replaced the hollowness of achievement. For both ways of life, the present is fairly valueless. It is just a bridge to the future, which will turn out to be just the same. How Best might genuinely have enjoyed himself would have been by carrying on playing football. It would not have been pleasant all the time, and there would no doubt have been times when he felt discontent; but it would have been how he could best thrive. Playing football would have been the moral thing to do.

Perhaps what helped to bring Best down was the fact that he was not able to play football just for its own sake. No footballer can, in a sports industry which is about shareholders rather than players, artistry or spectators. It would be like a hard-pressed commercial designer imagining that he could live like Michelangelo. To live a really fulfilling life, we have to be allowed to do what we do just for the sake of it. Best was no longer able to play just for the delight of it, and turned instead from delight to pleasure. His hedonism was just the other side of the instrumentalism he chafed at.

The point about human nature is that it does not have a goal. In this, it is no different from any other animal nature. There is no point to being a Badger. Being a Giraffe does not get you anywhere. It is just a matter of doing you Giraffe-like things for the sake of it. Because, however, human beings are by nature historical creatures, we look as though we are going somewhere –so that it is easy to misread this movement in teleological terms and forget that it is all for its own sake. Nature is a bottom-line concept: you cannot ask why a Giraffe should do the things it does. To say ‘It belongs to its nature’ is answer enough. You cannot cut deeper than that. In the same way, you cannot ask why people should want to feel happy and fulfilled. It would be like asking what someone hoped to achieve by falling in love. Happiness is not a means to an end.

If someone asks you why you do not want to die, you might reply that you have a trilogy of novels to finish, or grandchildren to watch growing up, or that a shroud would clash horribly with the colour of your fingernails. But it would surely be answer enough to say that you wanted to live. There is no need to specify particular goals. Living is enough reason itself. There are certainly some people who would be better off dead; but those that would not do not need a reason for carrying on. It is as superfluous to explain why you want to live as it is to explain why you don’t enjoy being nuzzled all over by buzzards. The only problem is that something which is or should be valuable in itself, like living, does not seem to need to end. Since it is not instrumental for something else, there is no point at which we can say its function is fulfilled and its purpose over. This is one reason why death is always bound to appear arbitrary. Only a life which has realised itself completely could seem undamaged by it. And as long as we are alive, there is always more self-realisation where that came from.

The idea of fulfilling you nature is inimical to the capitalist success ethic. Everything in capitalist society must have its point and purpose. If you act well, then you expect a reward. For Aristotle,  by contrast, acting well was a reward in itself. You no more expect a reward for it than you did for enjoying a delectable meal or taking an early morning swim. It is not as though the reward for virtue is happiness; being virtuous is to be happy. It is to enjoy the deep sort of happiness which comes from fulfilling your nature."


From After Theory, Terry Eagleton, Penguin (26 Aug 2004)
  • ISBN-10: 0141015071
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141015071

Wednesday, 27 April 2011


Below is a little play-within-a-play extract from Raymond Queneau's wildly creative 1932 re-imagining of Descartes Pensees as a novel (in this book instead coming to the repeated conclusion "I think, therefore I get myslef into a load of crap and a world of mirages"... think Burn After Reading), set in the petit-bourgeois Paris suburbs, "Witch Grass" was his literary debut, the version of which quoted here being currently published by New York Review Books Classics, was translated by Barbara Wright, and is available to buy here on Amazon. See here for an earlier post on Queneau and Perec.


"Marcheville, some thirty miles from Torny, the industrial centre, is more like a large village than a small town; a peasant population, a few bourgeois, among whom are the lawyer and his dog. The lawyer’s dog is a white poodle, answering to the name of Jupiter. Jupiter is highly intelligent; if his master had had the time, he would have taught him arithmetic, perhaps even the elements of formal logic, fallacies and all. But his various pursuits have obliged him to neglect Jupiter’s schooling, and he only knows how to say woof woof from time to time and sit on his behind to get a lump of sugar. However, though there may be some doubt as to the extent of his learning, there can be nothing but admiration for the care he takes of his person. Shorn like a lion, he swaggers about within a radius of fifteen yards of the notarial house. At any greater distance, enormous beasts, jealous of his elegance, menace him with their vulgar, ill-bred fangs.
On this particular morning, Jupiter’s habits are upset; so are those of the lawyer and his family. Everyone is restless, and dressed in black. Forsaken, Jupiter goes to sleep in the hall. A person with a small suitcase in his hand comes in; woof woof, says the poodle intelligently; the lawyer, who has lost his collar stud, comes down in his shirt-sleeves. Good morning, good morning, he seems to be saying; Jupiter shows his approval with his tail and gets a smack on the thigh for his pains. Then another meussieu arrives, a very tall, very fat one. The greetings start all over again; Jupiter wants to take part in the palaver, but the tall-an-fat person treads on his toe nails. Owch, owch, says Jupiter, and goes and hides under a chair. The meussieus talk with restraint and compunction, like the day of the little boy’s first communion. Eulalie brings some coffee. Maybe there’s a chance of a lump of sugar. Jupiter sits up and begs, but he realises from the uninterested looks of the meussieus that he’s put his foot in it. This isn’t the moment for playing the fool. He goes over to the door to get some air; so far and no farther, because Caesar, the Butcher’s dog, is watching for him out of the corner of his eye.

The meussieus start walking. He follows at their soles. Caesar is close behind. They get to a house that Jupiter knows well; it belongs to an old lady who’s generous with her sugar. The old lady isn’t there; there’s a meussieu dressed up as a widow, it’s true, but that’s not the same thing. The meussieu in petticoats starts singing, accompanied by two little boys dressed up as girls whom Jupiter recognises only too well as being the bullies who, last Sunday, tied a corned beef tin onto his stump of a tail. Then they take a great big packing case out into the street; he goes and has a sniff to see what it is; it smells of the old lady. A kick in the rib teaches him to respect the dead.

With the big packing case being towed in front, and the crowd following behind, the ensemble makes its way toward a garden surrounded by walls and planted with huge great stones sticking up at right angles. Jupiter runs up and down and is amazed that his master, who’s usually in such a hurry, doesn’t try and get in front of the big box; he’s walking slowly, leading the way, with the young man with the suitcase and the tall, fat meussieu.

At the entrance to the garden, Jupiter’s heart misses a beat; he’s just noticed Caesar waiting for him, with an ominous look. So it’s advisable not to stray too far from the blackened bipeds. Everyone has come to a standstill around a hole. In the middle of the gathering, the man-woman mutters a menacing song; the bullies wave steaming teapots. Two professional drunks lower the box into the bottom of the hole. Then the guests toss in drops of water. Jupiter is losing interest, and he wanders off and goes scrounging from grave to grave; but, just behind that of Madam Pain, that most worthy lady whokept her idiot daughter in seclusion for fifteen years, he finds himself muzzle-to-ass with Caesar. This encounter gives him wings; he gallops, he flees, he decamps; he jumps onto a mound of loose soil, near his master; the soil is loose, as we said, it crumbles, and Jupiter tumbles, in a cloud of humus and compost, onto the grandmother’s coffin. Some people burst out laughing; other’s exclaim: How shocking! And a few murmur: Putrefaction! The lawyer let out a kind of strident shout, his personal roar of laughter, and then recovered his dignity. But he wasn’t going to forgive Jupiter.

That evening, the young man said to the poodle, as he handed him a lump of sugar:
“Will they put a chin-strap on you when they bury you?”
“Woof woof,” says the other, who hasn’t understood a word.

The next day Jupiter is hanging at the end of a rope, because he has assailed the dignity of the dead and of the living.


Tuesday, 19 April 2011


RELICS by Marcel Proust

"I have bought up all of her belongings that were put on sale -that woman whose friend I would like to have been, and who did not even condescend to talk to me for a few minutes. I have the little card game that kept her amused every evening, her two marmosets, three novels that bear her coat of arms on their boards, and her bitch. Oh, you delights and dear playthings of her life, you had access -without enjoying them as I would have done, and without even desiring them- to all her freest, most inviolable, and most secret hours; you were unaware of your happiness and you cannot describe it.

Cards that she would hold in her fingers every evening with her favourite friend who saw her getting bored or breaking into laughter, who were witnesses to the start of her liaison, and whom she threw down to fling her arms round the man who thereafter came every evening to enjoy a game with her; novels that she would open and close in her bed, as her fancy or her fatigue bade her, chosen by her on impulse or as her dreams dictated, books to which she confided her dreams and combined them with dreams expressed by the books that helped her better to dream for herself -did you retain nothing of her, and can you tell me nothing about her?

Novels; she dreamt in turn the lives of your characters and of your authors; and playing cards, for in her own way she enjoyed in your company the tranquillity and sometimes the feverishness of intimate friendships -did you keep nothing of her thoughts, which you distracted or filled, or of her heart, which you wounded or consoled?

Cards, novels, you were so often in her hands, or remained for so long on her table; queens, kings or knaves, who were the still guests at her wildest parties; heroes of novels and heroines who, at her bedside, caught in the cross-beam of her lamp and her eyes, dreamt your silent dream, a dream that was nonetheless filled with voices: you cannot have simply let it evaporate -all the perfume with which the air of her bedroom, the fabric of her dresses, and the touch of her hands or her knees imbued you.

You have preserved the creases left when her joyful or nervous hand crumpled you; you perhaps still keep prisoner those tears which she shed, on reading of a grief narrated in some book, or experienced in life; the day which made her eyes shine with joy or sorrow left its warm hues on you. When I touch you, I shiver, anxiously awaiting your revelations, disquieted by your silence. Alas! Perhaps, like you, charming and fragile creatures, she was the insensible and unconscious witness of her own grace. Her most real beauty existed perhaps in my desire. She lived her life, but perhaps I was the only one to dream it."

extract from NOSTALGIA by Marcel Proust

"Desire makes all things blossom, and possession makes them wither away."

Tuesday, 5 April 2011


^Peckham, South London (photo by author)

Thankfully, most of our lives are played out through a chain of objectively unimportant, low level events that are on the whole unremarkable in the grand scheme of things, quotidian. In the same way, we tend to grow up, live, work, fall in love, have families, and fade away in entirely ordinary, run-of-the-mill architecture, built stuff that gets the job done, that holds in the heat and humidity in the local pool, and manages to pass planning because it has a gable roof and red brick façade, stuff that answers similar questions in similar ways in a million different variations from Perth to Plymouth.

If you took a picture of any of this low level architecture that fills Britain, the image would present a depressingly mute mediocrity, nothing but the complete factual averageness of the building or space which, if of recent vintage would no doubt end up, to howls of anguish, on Bad British Architecture. But Architectural photography severs the container from what it contains, it shows the aesthetic failure, but not how that failure is really a triumph.

It is precisely these places’ anonymity, their almost total lack of outstanding independent qualities, that ramps up the value of any uniqueness that does exist to such a degree, meaning that we become like archaeologists digging for clues, constructing local significance from minute fragments of singularity that are gathered slowly, over time. It takes longer to become attached to places so messy and banal, their qualities are not handed to you on a Haussmannian plate, one must work for it. And everyone does, instinctively, attaching their memories cumulatively to slight peculiarities, like the unusually large traffic island where the ice cream van sits vampiricaly, opposite the school, or the incredibly narrow gap between two wings of the sports centre, that is just the right size for kids to squeeze between to sneak a smoke, or a snog. Memories which gradually fill the most mediocre of piles with magic, memories which we all tot-up, and that cling to apparently inhospitable places and thrive there, generating an ambient, splendidly subjective beauty, a beauty which only stands out in its greatest relief when the objects of architecture sink, or rather rise, into glorious mediocrity.

NB, this post was initially published in The BiBlog