Monday, 10 November 2014

Phallic Symbols

^Stanley Tigerman, Daisy House, 1976

As long as humans have built societies, there have been representations of the male reproductive organ popping up in its art and architecture, and looking at the distant past compared with our more modern times, one can discern an almost complete about-turn in the way this symbolic presence is embodied, and interpreted. In ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt, the phallus was a celebrated symbol of fertility, a playfully transgressive image that was at once a marker of celestial abundance as well as an often hilarious, and very down-to-earth reminder of earthly desires in all their silliness and joy. In Hinduism Shiva’s creative aspect, the side of the god which brings forth and generates, is represented by the Lingam, a symbolic trinity made up of a penis and two testicles, present in many temples across India. The penis was a funny, voluptuous and profound image that tied together birth, growth, carnality, and godliness, our bodies and beds with temples and mythology, it represented a kind of deep love of the human body as expressed in the very surroundings it inhabited. In contrast to this, the penis and its apparent architectural permutations are now the objects of a persistent disgust. A toxic mixture of analogies and associations have turned it from a shared human symbol into an object of ridicule and point of contestation. The Penis currently = Male = Power = Money = Misogyny = Inequality = Capitalism in a kind of insane spiral of illogical leaps, in which often an entire building typology, namely tall buildings or “skyscrapers”, can become enmeshed in a web of toxically negative cultural meaning. No matter how beautiful, no matter how benign a new tower is, a chain reaction is set off in which, because it is vertically proportioned it = Penis, which = Male and so on to an array of negative associations, in which the Penis is a stand-in for much of the unfairness we suffer in society. I say toxic because aside from the fact that we bizarrely condemn what is simply a building type to never being discussed rationally on its merits as simply a ‘building’, but that we do not question why being a ‘phallic symbol’ is such a horrible thing in the first place. Via its readings of gender-types in buildings, and subsequent value judgements based on this, current discourse drives a wedge between architecture, art and the human body, turning buildings into tools for expanding our self-hatred and alienation from our own figures and identity. Skyscrapers are not penises, and penises are not embodiments of male power but parts of our bodies. If we are to metaphorically associate parts of our body to aspects of architecture and the city, let’s do it in such a way that makes architecture into a tool for valuing our human form, not something that adds to the already plentiful shame contemporary culture makes us feel for our poor, entirely unwitting and innocent body parts. I would like to end with Charles Moore’s Daisy House of 1976 (see above), an exemplary union of an architecture in our time with the ancient attitudes noted above. A joyously explicit fusion of the male and female genitalia, built for a terminally ill man who wanted to be reminded of life in all its delight as he slipped away; it is a house that loves the image of our bodies, and is indeed phallic, but in a way that brings architecture back into communion with our base, unselfconscious and beautiful selves.

^Penis Temple in Tufa stone, 1-50AD, Pompei

Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Act of Copying

^Cast Courts at the Victoria & Albert Museum (source)

Aside from qualified usage in fine-art contexts, copying is generally thought of as a negative act, something which detracts from its source, and there are formidable legislative structures in place to prevent its unlicensed proliferation. Originality, creativity, novelty, innovation, these are ideals that we are told to actively pursue in our working lives. No management consultant would come to your company and tell you to slavishly copy someone else’s designs, or office structure down to the smallest detail, no matter how great the office in question. No good contemporary teacher would ask his or her class to memorise the entirety of an epic poem by rote, no matter how great the poem. 

Today’s all important quality is originality, and so the epic poem is not memorised, but reinterpreted, not recited but performed and reinvented by the class, all in the search for innovation. But copying in its most positive sense is a creative act, in fact it lies at the very foundation of creativity. It is only through the hard work of copying, of systematically reproducing something as in traditional pedagogy, that one can fully digest and comprehend the fullness of what came before, understand it in all its complexity, failures and triumphs, and therefore be able to eventually move beyond it. Every time a new Asian economy raises itself to manufacturing powerhouse status, I hear people dismiss its rise as not being a threat to us because “they only know how to copy, not innovate”. But it is precisely this movement through a period of intense study, analysis and imitation of predecessors that paves the way for a profound and entirely singular leap forward in firmly grounded innovation. Just look at those copiers who are now arch-innovators like Japan, Taiwan, emerging S Korea and soon China. 

Without the studied and entirely positive process of copying, we will only move like crabs sideways, endlessly searching for titillating novelty which is bereft of substance, because genuine newness comes rarely, and can only arise out of a totally thorough understanding of what came before. Architectural education currently has a dearth of copying and a surfeit of apparent novelty. If given precedents at all, students (even in their first year) are pressured to critically re-read, re-interpret, re-analyse and rapidly re-design and re-imagine whatever building, project, square, or city they have been handed to study. There is never the slightest chance that they may have the time to slowly comprehend the subtle complexities of their object of analysis, and thereby be handed the chance to one day surpass it. Instead they are goaded into generating sexy click-bait that has all the depth of a very well-illustrated conceit, and like satirical illustrations are entirely dependent on precedents that have been barely understood, let alone been superseded. Let us have a break from originality for a while, let the kids copy.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

The Idea of a City

^Ideal City, school of Piero della Francesca

In dialogue with Glaucon in Plato's republic, Socrates defends his 'reasonable', but apparently unfeasible notions for the ideal city-state -Kalipolis- as being an exploration in the realm of ideas, and hence above the distracting contingencies of practical consideration, and in any case Kalipolis -in its perfection- will ultimately be imitated imperfectly by reality in pursuit of betterment, placing it above humdrum reality and any of its own specific and flawed progeny.

"'Do you doubt an artist's competence if he paints a paradigmatically good-looking human being, and portrays everything perfectly well in the painting, but can't prove that a person like that could actually exist?'

'I certainly do not,' he protested.

'Well, aren't we saying that we're trying to construct a theoretical paradigm of a good community?'


'Then do you doubt our competence as theoreticians in this context if we can't prove that a community with our theoretical constitution could actually exist?'

'Of course not,' He said.

'So that's how matters really stand,' I said. 'However, if for your sake I also have to apply myself to proving how and under what circumstances it might get as close as possible to viability, then although this is a different kind of argument, I must ask you to make the same concession as before.'

'What concession?'

'Is it possible for anything actual to match a theory?Isn't any actual thing bound to have less contact with truth than a theory, however much people deny it? Do you agree or not?'

'I do,' he said.

'So please don't force me to point to an actual case in the material world which conforms in all respects to our theoretical construct. If we can discover how a community's administration could come very close to our theory, then let's say that we've fulfilled your demands and discovered how it's all viable. I mean, won't you be satisfied if we get that close? I would.'

'I would too,' he said.

Thursday, 17 July 2014


This is a poem of mine that was published in the July 2014 edition of the biannual Brittle Star Magazine

Please see the bottom of this post for a recorded version of the piece spoken by me.


Sometimes he felt like he was outside of himself, looking with slight disdain at the expressionless features of his face, but still feeling his face somehow, numbly, like putty. This happened a lot in taxis. Often, he was attached to his body the way the lens in a phone is connected to its owner as it snaps the selfie in a mirror. Sometimes it was worse, much worse. Sometimes he felt like he was just a volume of paper thin skin encompassing nothing, a human balloon terrified of pins, trying to pretend to everyone that everything is normal, when he was actually terrified, rigid with worry that he might just pop at any given moment. This mostly happened in the build up to office socials. Occasionally he was overcome with remorse. He would feel like he had been entirely unfaithful to his previous selves by attaining so little, by forgetting their dreams, by allowing their passions to be slowly doused in alcohol and BBC reruns. This mostly happened during hangovers. His generally applicable panacea of aimlessly surfing Vimeo’s Staff Picks would no longer work in these instances, so he would walk. Preferably up and down things, like ramps and stairs, regular repetitions of similarly sized steps, but outside, so he could feel the cold or heat on his face. This left few options in his vicinity that were suitable, namely the assortment of multi storey car parks whose ramps and stairs he would ascend and descend in alternation, up the stairs, down the ramps, down the road and up the ramps then down the stairs and so on. The guards were always too busy chatting to notice him and incrementally, with each step he took, he would fill out. Not feel good or anything like that, just that the terror would go away. As he climbed he would slowly lose the feeling that he was his own double, or that there was nothing inside him and he had to hide it, or that he was only the sum of other people’s opinions of him. These walks, usually at night, lit by neon, were the only times he started to feel that the grammar-less 20,000 word email full of misspellings that he usually felt himself to be was sort of fixing itself, adding full stops, using spell check, becoming legible. The car parks were his tower of babel. He was building with his feet, up and up, piling on top of each other, ever higher ramps and stairs and stairs and ramps. Precipitously, endlessly, he was reaching for himself, for his one unitary self, whole, sure and pristine. But every time, sure as with the biblical tower itself, the moment would come when he would shatter. Like a warning that you can and should never try and approach an ideal, even yourself, let alone God, just as he was able to gather a glimmer of relief, each and every time, he would splinter back into a thousand anxieties, a million viewpoints, each with their own language, lost and confused. In the broken wake of his collapsed edifice, he would return home haunted each time with all of his facebook pages and twitter profiles crowding around him and shouting at each other like demented and vengeful spirits.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Ode to Sand

Pure sand, how did you
accumulate, impalpable.
your divided grain
and sea belt, cup of the world,
planetary petal?
Were you gathering by the scream
of the waves and the wild birds
your eternal ring and dark unity?

Sand, you are
of the ocean,
which in your innumerable rocks
deposited the seed of the species,
your nature with its green
bull’s seminal roars.
Naked on
your fragmentary skin
I feel
Your kiss, your murmur
running over me,
tighter than water,
air and time,
into the lines of my body,
forming me again
and when
I continue roving
along the sea beach
the impress of my being stays for an instant
in your memory, sand,
until air,
or night
erase my grey stamp in your domain.
Demolished silica,
scattered marble, crumbling
from the sea depths,
marine dust,
you rise
in the silvery
the throat
of a dove,
you extend
in the desert,
of the moon,
circular and brilliant
like a ring,
only silence
until the wind whistles
and terrifyingly appears,
the pulverised stone,
the sheet
of salt and solitude,
and then
the sand, enraged,
sounds like a castle
by a squall of violins,
by the tumultuous velocity
of a sword in movement.

You fall
until man
gathers you
up with his spade
and in the building
serenely you appear,
to stone,
to form,
joined together again
to serve
the will of man.


By Pablo Neruda

Translated by George D. Schade

Tuesday, 6 May 2014


A poem written as part of a film for a project exploring the allure of symbolic and open-ended architectural form. The full film HERE 

Monday, 3 March 2014

The Verse is Everything

Extract from p135 of the 2013 Penguin translation by Lara Gochin Raffaelli of Gabriele D'annunzio's 'Il Piacere'

The verse is everything. In the imitation of Nature, no instrument of art is more alive, agile, acute, varied, multiform, plastic, obedient, sensitive, faithful. More compact than marble, more malleable than clay, more subtle than fluid, more vibrating than a cord, more luminous than a gem, more fragrant than a flower, sharper than a sword, more flexible than a germinating shoot, more caressing than a murmur, more terrible than thunder, the verse is everything and is capable of everything. It can render the smallest motions of sentiment and the smallest motions of sensation; it can define the indefinable and say the unutterable; it can embrace the unlimited and penetrate the abyss; it can have dimensions of eternity; it can represent the superhuman, the supernatural, the awesome; it can inebriate like wine, ravish like ecstasy; it can possess at the same time our intellect, our spirit, our body; it can, ultimately, reach the Absolute. A perfect verse is absolute, immutable, immortal; it hols within it words with the coherence of a diamond; it encloses thought as in a precise circle that no force will ever manage to break; it becomes independent of any bond and any dominion; it belongs no longer to its creator, but to everyone and to no one, like space, like light, like immanent and perpetual things. A thought expressed exactly in a perfect verse is a thought that already existed preformed in the obscure depths of language. Extracted by the poet, it continues to exist in the consciousness of men. The greatest poet is therefore the one who knows how to uncover, extricate, extract a greater number of these ideal preformations. When the poet is near to the discovery of one such eternal verse, he is alerted by a divine torrent of joy that suddenly invades his entire being.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Alexander's Cup

^Still from Cadbury Flake Advert, 1992

Extract from p88 of the 2013 Penguin translation by Lara Gochin Raffaelli of Gabriele D'annunzio's 'Il Piacere'

This basin was historic: it was called Alexander’s Cup. It had been donated to the Princess of Bisenti by Cesare Borgia before he left for France to deliver the bill of divorce and the dispensation for marriage to Louis XII; and it must have been included among the fabled baggage carried by sumpter-mules that Valentinois brought with him when he entered Chinon, as described by the Seigneur de Brantome. The design of the figures that encompassed it and of those that arose from the rim of the two ends was attributed to Sanzio.

The cup was called Alexander’s because it had been created in memory of that prodigious one from which, at his great feasts, the Macedonian would prodigiously drink. Throngs of Sagittariuses encircled the sides of the vase with bows drawn, rioting, in wonderful poses like those Raphael painted, naked and shooting arrows toward the herm in the fresco found in the Borghese Gallery, decorated by Giovan Francesco Bolognesi. They were pursuing a great chimera, which rose up from the edge, like a handle, at one side of the vase, while on the opposite side bounded up the young Sagittarius Bellerophon with his bow drawn against the monster born of Typhon. The decorations of the base and the rim were of a pleasing elegance. The inside was gilded like that of a ciborium. The metal was as sonorous as a musical instrument. Its weight was five hundred pounds. Its entire form was harmonious.

Often, on a whim, Elena Muti would take her morning bath in that basin. She could immerse herself in it quite well if she did not stretch out; and nothing, in truth, was equal to the supreme grace of that body resting in the water which the gilt tinged with indescribably delicate reflections, because the metal was not yet silver, and the gold was fading.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Nothing Comes From Nothing

^Massimo Scolari, Study Sketches for Invisible Cities, 1976-79

“In the design process, the imprecision of the sketch and digital precision are not in contradiction. It is a matter of two distinct but complementary mental sets wrongly cast in opposition; two graphic expressions which are, in any event, secondary after the clarity of the mental image that each architect should have well-defined before touching a computer or a pencil. This initial phase –the mind’s drawing- loves the slow pace and the silence of reflection, an unfolding dialogue with memory since nothing comes from nothing, and if something came from nothing, it can as quickly disappear into nothingness with a click of the mouse.”

Extract from Massimo Scolari's "Representations" published in Log 26, Fall 2012

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The Prayer of the Touch

god almighty
god inconsolable
bird-legged god long-eared god short-tailed god
take me into the kennel askew into the freight train into the torn pocket
take me into the sea on your palm blow on my hair blow out my spare star
god standing apart
god inaccessible no way to approach to regain senses to dissolve
god with seven wings the real one
tell me something I don’t know something anything your voice is warm
tell me what it’s like on the other side how is the lighthouse how is it going
god night-blind buttercup wild vetch dead bird the starling
god the outskirts
god four steps to the porch dull mirror royal desolation
I brought you a candle a candy a pebble a crescent a broken latch
god of mine light and wise
god of mine sad
god of mine

Poem by Sergei Chegra
Second Prize in the 2012 Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize, translated by Iryna Shuvalova

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Taste, Style and Loos

^Il Bagno Blu in D'annunzio's Vittoriale. An extreme illustration of the points below.

Two extracts from the collection of translated essays by Loos "Creating Your Home With Style" that summarise in the most unadulterated form I could find his stance on the relationship between the inhabitants of a space, their evolution as human beings over time, the design of that space's interior and the disposition and gradual accumulation of objects and furniture within it governed by the interaction of those various agents. It is the only view I could conform to entirely in the collection, and whilst it was repeated in various guises elsewhere, it tended to get mixed up in strange ways with his fear of dirt, with his Anglophilia, hatred of ornament and his utter terror of freestanding cupboards, amongst other very odd things. This is followed by a small statement on the circularity of fashion as being at its core a primer for finding pleasure in things once loved, which given a certain period of time away from our gaze -with a drizzle of scorn- can once again be enjoyed... ad infinitum.

The painters however were right. They who, thanks to their training and experience, have a much sharper eye for all outward appearances, have always been able to recognize the superficial, pretentious, the alien, unharmonious nature of our “stylish” apartments. The people do not fit in with these rooms, nor do the rooms with the people. But how could they? The architect or the interior designer hardly even knows the name of the person for whom he is working. Even if the person has paid for the room 100-fold, they are still not his rooms. They always will remain the intellectual & spiritual property of the person who created them. That is why they do not, simply cannot appeal to the painter. They lack all intimacy and personal connection with the people who live in them. They lack that unique personal touch that he finds in the room of the simple peasant, the poor labourer, or the old spinster.

I did not, thank God, grow up in such a “stylish” apartment. It was just not possible at that time. Now, sadly, things have changed in my family as well. But in those days… Our table for instance, was a crazy jumble of wood adorned with some dreadful metal ornaments. But it was our table, our table! Can you imagine what that meant? Can you imagine the countless joyful hours that we spent at it –by the lamplight? In the evening when I was a little boy I could just not tear myself away from it, and my father had to imitate the night watchman’s horn to make me scuttle off in fright to the nursery. Then there was the desk, and on it the ink spot, where my sister Hermine had spilled ink on it when she was a tiny baby. And the pictures of my parents –what awful frames! But they were a wedding present from my father’s employees. And this old-fashioned chair here, a left-over from my grandmother’s home. And here a knitted slipper in which you can hang the clock, made in kindergarten by sister Irma. Every piece of furniture, every object, every thing had a story to tell –the story of our family. During the period in which the pressure to furnish one’s home in “style” became greater and greater –when all one’s acquaintances had “Old German” rooms, how could one simply refuse to adapt? So, all the old junk was thrown out. It might be junk for anyone else, but revered relics for the family. The rest was left up to the upholsterer.

Now we have had enough. We want to be masters of our own four walls again. If we lack taste, that’s fine, then we will furnish our homes in a taste-less manner. If we have good taste, all the better. But we refuse to be tyrannized by our own rooms any longer. We will buy everything we feel that we need and what appeals to us.

What appeals to us! That is the style that we have been seeking for so long, the style we wanted to bring into our apartments. The style that does not depend on all-pervading lion’s heads, but on taste –or, perhaps the lack of it- of an individual or family, things that comply with their sense of well-being. This sense would be underscored by the fact that the owner had selected all these objects & pieces of furniture in a room. And even if he were to prove to be somewhat capricious, especially regarding the choice of colours, it still would not be a disaster. A home that has grown along with the family can put up with quite a lot. Putting just one single ornament that does not belong into one of the “stylish” rooms can ruin the whole “effect”. In a “family” room it would immediately be absorbed into the whole. Such a room is somewhat like a violin: just as a violin is broken in by repeatedly playing it, a room can be “broken in” by living in it.


Taste and the desire for change have always been closely linked. Today we wear narrow trousers; tomorrow they will be wide, and the day after narrow again. Every tailor knows this. Well then, couldn’t we just forgo the wide trouser period? Heavens no! We need it in order to enjoy our narrow trousers again. Just as we need a period of simple rooms for festive occasions in order to prepare us for the return of lavishly decorated ones.