Archives for posts with tag: Architecture

So last night’s pub philosophy circle was one of those classic subjects: art. Tim Cross led the discussion which was lively if full of assertions and opinions but lacking in philosophy. Tim’s talk was great, but our audience let him down, I feel. What it did demonstrate is that philosophy of art remains an area of much debate and it fuels a lot of entrenched opinion.

My feelings on the subject were pretty agnostic going in. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy art. In particularly photojournalism and photo-realist painting, interestingly, both schools of which are sometimes touted as not art at all. My view is that good photo-realism adds something to mere representation that is almost intangible – and it is that, in fact, which is the slippery essence of what ‘art’ is.

But any debate on art quickly falls into rather crass examples of what one likes or dislikes as if that explains what art is or isn’t. A slightly deeper debate will often get to the categories of what makes art ‘art’ but these too are often distracting traps of little consequence. Keen to play along, however, and at a push I came up with a simple triad of core qualities which we might use to define ‘art’. I am not yet certain how many of these qualities need to be in place to qualify, at least one, probably two but sometimes all three, but I’m absolutely happy with that ambiguity, just as what is/isn’t art can be slippery and open to debate.

Here it is; I’ve gone with the 3 c’s purely to keep it simple.

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COMMUNICATION
All art has to engage at least the creator but ideally both the creator and the viewer. It is like a human without a self – it needs reflection. To regard it is to engage in it but if a piece of art fails to communicate with you then it probably isn’t art but rather it is just an object. To you. So, that is not to say that absolutely all viewers need to be able to comprehend it: there’s no magic number in consensus, but some general acquiescence to the fact there is something more than an object will do. In fact, it is probably easier to consider a piece of art which doesn’t communicate with you in some way to define this difference between object and item imbued with meaning in some way. Which is different, of course, to ‘not liking’ what’s being communicated – it is still communicating with you.

It is easy to regard art as beautiful (the art communicates beauty to you) but there is also other means of communication at play here: the beguiling (Mona Lisa) or the horror (Bacon or Guernica, for example) to name but two other expressions.

CRAFT
The most obvious quality. And then there’s ‘found’ objects which are given a context and thus communicate as more than mere objects. So, no, not everything needs to be made from scratch to qualify as craft; the craft might be the ability to capture something already in existence, which brings us nicely to…

CHOICE
The choice of subject, place and materials all bring the craft into being.

The combination of all these three (and in some cases perhaps, only two of these), and by varying degrees and in different forms is what makes art.

Arising out of these are other factors which might explain why some things become art or in some cases ‘great’ art after a period of time. Things like context, subject and whether the art is novel or innovative. Sometimes, however, something may be crafted (like a steam engine) only to become art over time as context changes (scarcity or changes in train design now reveals the craft or art of the steam train). You might disagree with the example there, but the same process might explain the increasing regard for some art over time, or some novels.

The creation of art has the consequence that it does, however, become a commodity. Questions of who buys art, why and at what value, is a separate debate to this, and it is a question rather of what do we mean by the ‘value’ of art, normally in a commercial sense, but sometimes in a critical sense.

Disappointingly, I find debate around art tends to miss what we might call the people’s arts. Gardening, cooking, or more thanks to modernity maths and coding might be considered an art. We debated whether the London Underground map is art. I said yes. Others said it was merely good design. I said it is also good design, but it is art. It has gone beyond design, as evidenced by people being compelled to buy and hang prints of it, a pursuit disconnected with its original purpose.

Finally, I wanted to consider the question ‘why is the question ‘what is art’ important to us?’

It is my opinion that all shared human endeavours and experiences that we hold in common will eternally be important questions and considerations for man. Probably because it is one of the characteristics which make man human.

Art is like all universal experiences – invaluably human.

I was talking about last night’s Tintern Philosophy Circle pub meet and a talk by Tim Cross ‘Art – some philosophical questions’. Next month (each 3rd Tuesday, 7.30pm) is Prof. John Clarke on ‘Sartre: on authenticity & sincerity’ and December has a guest speaker on ‘Religion & Science’.

{early, un-edited version of my next Forest of Dean Clarion magazine article}

Where Conrad journeyed into a Heart of Darkness, in September a friend and I took an excursion into sadness. Together we embarked on a foray into what might have been and what was betrayed: we went looking for the GDR/DDR in modern Berlin.

The GDR could have been an example of socialism but became instead a state racked by paranoia, a state of 90,000 Stasi agents and 175,000 Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (informers).

But I still believed in the possibility. That, at an everyday level there were elements of East German socialism which hinted at socialism as it might have been. After all, it is a fine line between Ostalgie (nostalgia for the East) and gawping at the worst of Totalitarianism. Was the GDR a workers paradise or a Stasi Hell?

Like many such binary questions, the answer is probably somewhere in between, a plurality of truths and realities. And that certainly was my experience. Nowhere was this more apparent than standing on the platform of the Wall Documentation Centre on Bernauer Strasse.

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This free memorial gives an overview in words and pictures of the construction and division created by the Wall but, most strikingly, it allows you to climb to a platform to overlook a snapshot of the wall, death-strip and watch-tower exactly as it was. Un-touched, graffiti-free this living memorial is a stark symbol of the worst of the GDR’s predicament. A symbol of a state struggling with losing its workforce to the West, paranoid in its inability to keep control of its own citizens’ faith in socialism, all set against the best as in the background towers over all of Berlin the remarkable landmark of the East – the incredible Fernsehturm – or TV Tower as it is known in the West. Nearly all my guides placed the TV Tower as the most important thing to visit when in Berlin, but it is one of the very few symbols of the former East.

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Too bad then, that it is now little more than a London Eye-style novelty. Constructed in the mid-to-late 1960’s it was the beacon of socialist achievement. Its lift doors open at bar and restaurant level to look out along the avenue of in front of the Brandenburg Tor (gate) – the Strasse Des 17 Juni – the symbolic avenue from the West to the centre of Berlin. And there’s nothing in the Western skyline that comes even close to matching the achievement of the TV Tower: socialism reigns supreme. And yet as I drank a Berliner Wasse with the traditional cherry juice I felt this wasn’t the East Germany as the workers knew it. Moreover today, despite its setting in Alexanderplatz the TV Towers feels almost disconnected from the GDR. And what’s more, the tourists around me didn’t seem to care about its history – the old symbol was now just a spectacle.

We stayed in the OSTEL Das DDR Design Hostel just off Paris Commune Strasse in the old East, not far from the East-Side Gallery (a long strip of the wall given over to graffiti art). SS851926

No TV, no mod-cons, just a basic 1970’s-era recreation of the GDR in each room. A portrait of Cabinet Minister Horst Sindermann keeps a watchful eye as you check-in at reception, complete with a TV playing a loop of GDR speeches and news. SS851974 SS851823The furnishings and wall-papering of each room are GDR-era and it lends a space for contemplative reflection, of simplicity and scarcity, of sacrifice and suppression, of hope and ideals. The rooms are cheap and the place unique, friendly, spare but touching if you like your travel with a sense of history and place. On the day we drove out into the country in our hired Trabant, the OSTEL provided a brown paper bag lunch at only €5 adorned with their own ‘Guten Appetit!’ label.

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On the opposite side of our OSTEL’s citrus-fruit coloured building is the Volksammer (Das Design Restaurant), with the familiar GDR emblem emblazoned everywhere. A huge painting of Der Palast der Republik (my favourite building of the GDR – sadly now demolished) nestled alongside the TV tower and red flags adorns the length of one wall, and the menu is authentic GDR era cuisine. Much of which reminded me of school dinners or the food my mum made me as a boy in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Except for more fish, more pickled vegetables and, thankfully, more beer. The restaurant was a perfect partner for the OSTEL.

Another ‘Ostalgie Resturant’ is the Käsekönig just off Alexanderplatz (on Panoramastr.1), but the service here wasn’t quite as friendly and sitting outside on the street was a mistake as the weather turned. Neither could it boast the authentic furnishings and ornaments of the Volksammer, but the menu seemed more than appropriate. If you can’t stomach the food of 3 decades ago, don’t worry, one certainly won’t go hungry in Berlin – there’s an abundance of foreign restaurants.

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With so much to do and see, more to write about than we have space here, I offer my essential things to do in Berlin if, like me, you want to sense its history, all within walking distance of each other, especially when based at the OSTEL.

SS851866(FREE) Visit the memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe 2 minutes’ walk from the Brandenburg Gate, along Eberstrasse. Not only is this a moving experience (especially the poignancy of the Reichstag in view), but also it is an incredible piece of immersive sculpture. On the way you can also pay your respects to the homosexuals and gays murdered and persecuted by the Nazis (pretty much opposite), and nearer the Brandenburg Tor is the Memorial to the Sinti & Roma of Europe Murdered under the Nazi regime.SS851869SS851979

(FREE) Visit Berlin Wall Memorial and Documentation centre along Bernauer Strasse; the story of Bernauer Strasse deserves an article of its own, and you can easily spend half a day immersed into the tragedy of the Wall here (do this over a visit to the East Side Gallery as that just lacks a sense of the everyday division)

SS851953Visit the Stasi Museum in the former HQ just off Ruschestrasse – highly detailed and a place of history in itself

SS851879(FREE) Visit the excellent Topography of Terror exhibition which documents the Gestapo and SS main offices, along with another intact Wall section

Stay at the OSTEL DDR Design Hostel

Eat at the Volksammer (Stasse der Paris Kommune 18b)

SS851873(FREE) Spit on the ground at the spot where Hitler spent his final hours (about 2mins walk from the memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe) – his bunker will be under your feet (deservedly just a parking lot, a small green space where dogs fittingly defecate)

(FREE) Marvel at the scale of the Soviet War Memorial in the Tiergarten, and the two Soviet T34 tanks and consider their victory over Nazism

SS851859If you can afford it, book dinner (at least 2 months reservation necessary) with a window seat at the TV Tower, otherwise settle for the bar and try a Berliner Wasse

Hire a Trabant and drive into the countryside of the former East (good luck!)

But avoid the Western view of the Wall: Checkpoint Charlie. You couldn’t find a less authentic experience in Berlin if you tried.

There is so much history to be seen, and so much to consider. But mostly I left saddened by all the focus on failure. The persecution and loss of life all weighs so heavy. Saddening too was the fact that there was little room for the debate that socialism might offer much, even if we agree the price of totalitarianism is not one worth paying. Only the DDR Museum offered some sense of everyday life, some redemption and only then in part, balanced as it was with Stasi exhibits.

My view is that, in the end, the world lost more than the toll of its victims. It lost the chance of a possibility.

This wasn’t a holiday. It was reflection, a memorial. Just as one might travel to WW1 war graves. Perhaps we ought to make such journeys in order to remember the danger in the states we elect and therefore in our consent we all carry in us the possibility of darkness or failure. In that darkness I hoped to find hope. I think it’s there, but it flickered dimly and fleetingly, supressed by Totalitarianism.

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{this article formed part of a much larger research project, reflecting on the GDR}

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This is my latest article for the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine. This is the un-edited edition for the next issue (with different illustrations).

Spring sun beat down through the cloudless blue, its rays warming yellow rapeseed fields and lifting their soft invisible fumes. It seemed impossible that only minutes before I was taking in the magnificent shining architecture of the City of London’s skyline from the North Circular. But I was. This was England at her best. Spring had brought wild garlic and early bluebells into the shady woods and it all seemed so unnaturally calm to be making my way into the fenced area of the Government’s emergency Regional HQ for nuclear war at Kelvedon Hatch, Essex.

The façade of Kelvedon Hatch RGHQ and its surround are unsettling in their beautiful secrecy. Here a nuclear bunker was built especially in the style of a brick farmhouse, complete with a British brick veranda to its frontage. It sits snug amongst the trees and looks like a typical 1950’s brick cottage, not much larger than your average bungalow. But behind the standard white-framed windows lie steel shutters while its false roof hides a reinforced ceiling made from concrete 18” thick. Deeper inside is the 3-ton steel blast doors; a decontamination room; a BBC emergency broadcast studio and enough servicing equipment, supplies and machinery to keep 600 government civil servants, military commanders and scientists alive for up to 3 months after a nuclear attack on Britain.

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Kelevedon Hatch has been a part of the post-war preparedness for a soviet strike on the UK throughout many governments and their varying approaches to civil defence and early warning. It was a R4 radar station and remained the RGHQ mentioned above right up to the 1990’s when it was sold privately. Today it is a self-service museum open to the public.

Nothing can quite prepare you for the scale of the bunker beneath, much in the same way someone who is new to the extent of post WW2 civil defence is likely to be astonished at the sheer amount of infrastructure that makes up UK Cold War architecture with its bunkers and monitoring posts numbering their hundreds across the entire country. The exterior Guard House/cottage is smaller than I thought, but the bunker much bigger than anticipated. The access corridor beyond the initial entrance and holding room is a mammoth 120yds long/deep on its own, and the whole bunker runs across three floors.

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The power generators are run by 2 diesel Rolls Royce engines and the fuel storage holds enough for those 3 post-nuclear war months, by which time it should all be over. Shouldn’t it? It has always amazed me that there has been a gaping blind spot for Civil Defence and Emergency Planners. On one hand they advise us how to prepare for a nuclear blast (remove your doors, paint the windows white and sit under the kitchen table) and when it’s ‘safe’ to bury granny in the garden in between raining fallout. They insist we stay at home precisely because they say nowhere in the UK is safe from radioactivity. But then they go on to believe that after 3 months everything will be fine. Civil servants can return to their county council desks to carry on with the day-to-day of getting Britain working again. There won’t be any office and nor will there be much left of Britain as we know it, let alone any infrastructure. Einstein made this point clear when after considering World War 3 referring to the war after that being fought with ‘sticks and stones’.

Perhaps more senior figures in Civil Defence knew better, or was all for show. In room 110 at Kelevedon is the ‘strong store’ (in military jargon). This is where they keep the rifles for any internal judicial issues within the bunker (once sealed it cannot be opened for those 3 months), but also contains the cyanide for those not able to make it or – more likely – to deal with the reality of what they behold when those doors are finally opened after 3 months.

As a museum today I must say that the audio tour is excellent. It’s ideal both for those who know little about civil defence and its context within government and military protocol but also for those who want more detail on the equipment, its use and construction – some of which are particular to this R4 generation of bunker.

TripAdvisor has some poor write-ups where some guests seemed to take offence at the number of signs warning of having to pay to take photographs. But I feel this is misplaced. With so much of our Cold War heritage being destroyed, these museums of doom are being lost for whole generations. There’s a real need for independent museums like this to obtain income for the vast upkeep any way they can. For sure Hack Green in Cheshire is probably more hospitable and well organised but the Kelevedon audio tour and its unique setting more than make up for its basic approach. Other activities now attached to the site (quad biking and an amongst-the-trees rope climb) seem to be doing well so perhaps those ventures help to keep Kelevedon open, unlike Gloucestershire’s own Ullenwood which has been sold privately, had a big house built on the land while the bunker is apparently moth-balled.

The only disappointment was in locating the stand-by generator building which is located away from the main site but, like to the guardroom/cottage bungalow is built in a manner so local people and more importantly an enemy could not distinguish its use: this time with a modern chapel-like design. What a pity there’s not even a mention of it in the museum or its literature. Luckily it features in English Heritage’s superb publication ‘Cold War: Building for Nuclear Confrontation 1946-1989’ which I thoroughly recommend.

It would be immoral to sign off this piece without mention to the blindingly obvious fact that while the bunkers, the Royal Observer Corps and Civil Defence is all a thing of the past: the nuclear arsenal remains. And is to be renewed if Mark Harper MP and this Tory government get their way. Join CND to help us stop it. While ‘Protect and Survive’ is now merely of archival interest ‘Protest and Survive’ still rings true.

We started by looking at architecture, noting that postmodernism is two fingers to the rigid, utilitarian elegance of modernist forms and structures.

Philosophically, it is a fashionable utopia of no utopias. It labels a stylistic zeitgeist of a certain time, now past. The V&A call the era that “defies definition; an unstable mix of the theatrical and theoretical, postmodernism was a visually thrilling multifaceted style that ranged from the colourful to the ruinous, the ludicrous to the luxurious.” [1]

It is an amorphous, wry dare to accept so many viewpoints and meanings as to be elusive and virtually meaningless. In its plurality of truths it resists a consensual truth upon which we can build knowledge, even if it requires a consensus to achieve its own existence.

Despite this ambiguous fluidity, it is remarkably linear in its succession of its predecessor. But this presents its first downfall. Where, for example, does one place the architecture of Gaudi? Was he a modernist, or a pre-Postmodernist? I don’t think we can just drop him into art nouveau on its own. Then compare to Hundtwerwasser’s building – is that postmodernism, or eco-modernism? Or new-wave nouveau?

And, at last nights’ meet of the Tintern Philosophy Circle, it struck me that its rise and fall is shadowed by the rise and fall of Western affluence.

Professor John Clarke, used the catalogue for the recent V&A exhibition on the art and style of Postmodernism as his starting point. Accordingly, postmodernism starts on 15th March 1972 with the destruction of the modernist Pruitt-Igoe housing project.

This recalled Dominic Sandbrooks’ recent BBC2 series ‘The 1970s’ which touted a similar line and to some degree therefore corroborates the received wisdom that the decade of my childhood saw off the drab, utilitarian age of Modernism.

But this denies the purpose of many of those then-dream homes in the sky estates. Post-war Britain needed mass housing and the working class slums of the pre-war years failed to provide a model a modern Britain needed. As Le Corbusier says ‘The house is a machine for living…’ [2] In the same way you could say the NHS is a modernist idea: a modern state response to a problem facing society at large. And it was the right solution. It represented a modern yet utilitarian approach to healthcare, free at the point of need, invested in by the state – through National Insurance – to deliver a modern service for the modern age.

But postmodernism is a purely middle-class pre-occupation of the well-off and, as Prof. Clarke put it – it is often humorous and ‘superficial’. It cannot see the value in modernist expressions of utility, grace in form.

I can’t remember who it was (Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright perhaps) but a famous modern-era architect once suggested that they’ll never better the symmetry of the perfect utilitarian home: the snail’s shell.

For their part, a postmodernist would paint a ‘for rent’ sign on the snail. A witty aside. Perhaps even some well-placed cynicism of the commodity age. An expression. All these are well and good. But it pales compared to the natural symmetry of the snail ‘s home, which modernist strived to provide for fellow man.

So, what sounds like a permissive, liberal tendency comes across as a petulant, noisy show-off screaming for attention while the rest of us just get on with some work, try to make ends meet.

Even 9/11 – touted as the end of Postmodernism – is a uniquely Western perspective. Something dreadful has happened to us in the West so we arrogantly reassess our own preoccupation with the ‘designer decade’. And yet what was also missed by the postmodern story we heard last night, was that the year postmodernism begins (in  1972 with the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project), the two towers of the World Trade Centre are also completed. Here was see a very modernist structure.

Politically the anti-globalisation movement that came to maturity in Seattle 1999 tried the same amorphous approach favoured by the postmodernists, as has Occupy. Only to realise that without a programme, a shared vision of what is necessary then the demands of its movement will be lost in the noise of its complexity and variety. That is why the movement relented and finally published exactly that last week.

To be able to reflect oneself, one needs form. One needs a boundary that differentiates itself from the multiplicity of background.

Postmodernism is supposed to be liberal and a form of anti-authoritarian expression. It rejects the grand narratives. But look for a moment at cornerstone postmodern artworks like Mendini ‘s ‘Destruction of Lassu chair’ (photograph 1974) and you see a shouty rejection of the past, which seems to me remarkably authoritarian. Burning chairs OK? What about burning books? And if it’s not destroying stuff, it’s taking the piss. Does that make Monty Python pre-Postmodernists? The Goons? When does Dada end and postmodernism begin, then?

No this kind of anarchism exists without co-operation. It is self-indulgent relativism where every view of the world is valid but without consensus and coherence, useless and often meaningless.

Drawing on the NHS parallel I made earlier – where do we find ourselves now? In the boom-years of the 1980s, I imagine that private healthcare rocketed. People could afford to reject the state for something ‘better’. Conservative capitalism now reigns supreme. It even wants a slice of the state pie (and the Tories are giving it to them starting with the hideous Health & Social Welfare Reform Bill passed a couple of months ago).

To survive the post Postmodern age, conservative capitalism create an age of austerity. It must re-embrace the grand narratives of ‘isms. Conservatism.  Be it liberal conservatism or Christian conservatism. Professor Salvoj Zizek, meanwhile heralds the return of proper socialism – communism. But all these must seek out their place in the return of fundamentalisms.

THE TINTERN PHILOSOPHY CIRCLE MEETS EACH MONTH ON THE 3RD TUESDAY. WE ARE A PUB PHILOSOPHY GROUP, MEETING AT 7.30PM AT THE ROSE AND CROWN. WE ARE LUCKY ENOUGH TO HAVE A NUMBER OF PHILOSOPHY PROFESSORS IN OUR GROUP, AS WELL AS A LIVELY AUDIENCE OF ACADEMICS, PROFESSIONALS AND LAY PEOPLE SUCH AS MYSELF.

NEXT MONTH’S MEET IS ON 18TH JUNE AND WILL BE LEAD BY PROFESSOR X OF CARDIFF UNIVERSITY (WHO LEADS THE PHILOSOPHY PHD PROGRAMME THERE, AND WHO IS A RESEARCH PROFESSOR ON DECONSTRUCTIONALISM AND A BIT OF A SPECIALIST ON JACQUES DERRIDA) BUT ON THIS OCCAISION WILL BE DISCUSSING THE TOPIC OF ‘PHILOSOPHY OF POETRY’.

IN JULY THE TOPIC CURRENTLY BEING CONSIDERED IS ‘MEANINGFUL COINCIDENCES’.

 [1] http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/p/postmodernism as at 16/5/12

[2] Vers une architecture, 1923

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Here is an interesting article for those interested in Chartism locally…

http://englishbuildings.blogspot.com/2008/03/staunton-and-snigs-end-gloucestershire.html