A London street artist writes:
I remember living in Hackney Wick around six years ago, just as it was being transformed from a barren industrial area into a ‘funky’ neighbourhood full of vegan coffee shops and ‘warehouse raves’ that had guest lists and cocktails, interspersed with re-purposed plant hire buildings that had been turned into artists’ studio spaces.
I had been a graffiti writer for about four or five years before moving there, and at that point in time I was spending a lot of time utilising the easy access to train tracks from Hackney Wick station to go painting at night. The thing was, Hackney Wick was full of ‘street artists’, yet I never saw any of them on my nightly overground rail missions. The reason for this was that they were mostly drinking chai tea in their studios, plastering canvases with stencilled pop-culture icons or images connoting cunning political/social commentary… But it was still ‘street art’. All the courtyards of the shared warehouse living spaces were covered in pieces, yet the streets surrounding them were bare.
This was the crest of the wave of socially acceptable, tongue-in-cheek street art. It was naughty, but only when it was allowed to be. It was rarely painted illegally, and rarely in places where lots of people could see it; inside the living room of a sandal-clad nut-loaf artisan, or on a peaceful stretch of canal. While the original breed of London graffiti writers tried to paint busy train lines and rooftops, these ‘street artists’ prefer to hit up Tumblr, Flickr and Twitter with photos of their work. ‘Getting up’ has been integral to graffiti culture since the beginning – it is the pure manifestation of the territorial roots of the art form, except now the art form is becoming gentrified, intellectualised and critiqued by Guardian columnists, and ‘getting up’ has turned into social media marketing. While all this is happening, grass-roots graffiti writers are still being locked up with criminal damage charges, sitting in police cells around the corner from a perspex-enclosed stencil that may or may not have been painted by Banksy.
Two street artists, Boe and Irony, recently painted a four story chihuahua on the side of a tower block. They suggest in an interview to have pulled this off without alerting anyone as to their activity. I mean, granted, the piece is nice. It’s a definite improvement over the old, plain brick wall, However, as someone who has spent their fair share of time crawling around on rooftops and side streets with buckets of paint, I don’t buy it. All credit to them if they actually managed to walk around the streets with their faces covered from the cameras, holding a fuck off ladder and the 20+ cans of spray paint they would have needed, set up shop on a residential building for 4+ hours and paint an entire face of said building without anyone even knowing they were there. That would be fucking impressive. There are writers who have been painting in this city for decades, who know all the dark secrets of how to get into train yards undetected and have hit up at least one rooftop in every borough in the city, who wouldn’t attempt a stunt like that.
Street art has always had its own lines of communication. Taggers, know each other by tag and reputation and possibly on the tracks. It’s territorial. Now, the territory is worldwide. The territory is in the bank. The artists get cash, the local authorities who pay them get kudos, and global gentrification accelerates week by week. ‘Street art’ is becoming just another kind of civic prettification – even the Southbank Centre has commissioned some to make itself appear more relevant. Individual neighbourhoods may get brightened up, but the work is mainly for the portfolio and the commercial opportunity.
The big street animals are unobjectionable. Even the Daily Mail likes them. People didn’t want Hackney Council to paint over the rabbit in Hackney Road a few years back – it’s inoffensive and it got a reprieve (and no-one likes Hackney Council). But now you get big animals wherever business is moving in on an ‘up and coming’ area. I see a giant bird or squirrel or fox and all I see is money.
… for The London Column.
Balfron Tower. I love it. It anchors Poplar, it looms over the A12 just by the Blackwall Tunnel approach, and it seems to defend that whole end of Tower Hamlets. In the evenings, when the sun reaches a certain point, it glows golden. You couldn’t help but find it beautiful, its slightly Escher-esque planes and shapes and perspectives changing with the weather and the light, its strange humanity, its arrow-slit windows. Just as the now-demolished gasometers in Stepney did, it casts its grandeur over everything around.
Poor Balfron suffers the slings and arrows of public disgust towards its whole genre. People think ‘the New Brutalism’ is called that just because it’s brutal, but in fact, it’s a play on the French term ‘béton brut’, for raw concrete. It’s easy to forget now that when this architecture went up, it was intended to make life better for people. Goldfinger referred to its corridors as ‘streets in the sky’, and the plan included incredibly optimistic landscaping: Balfron has private yards for the bottom flats, mature trees and shrubberies shielding it from the A12, and light coming at it from all directions. Its flats meander up and down levels, and have balconies and stupendous views.
A website by a Trellick Tower resident, Chris Paulsen, gives the flavour of its aspirations towards good living:
The flats themselves are large by tower-block standards, & packed with space-saving devices. … Doors of wood & glass slide rather than open out, & can be used to partition certain parts of each flat. Glass is plentiful in order to let in as much natural light as possible… Adjoining the main tower is a service tower. This incorporates lifts, stairs, & refuse chutes, as well as a boiler house. The lifts stop at every third floor, meaning that in some flats the bedrooms are above, & in some below, the entrance level. The flats have large balconies which, if you are high enough up, offer views across the North Downs.
My own personal knowledge of Balfron Tower reached its zenith in 2001, when, as a publicity officer for Tower Hamlets’ housing department, I toured the place with a deputation from Trellick Tower, and a member of its resident management committee. The reason they were visiting was very simple: Trellick was in trouble and needed a major overhaul. (The figure given at the time was £9m to get it up to its original standard.) Balfron and Trellick are ‘sister buildings'; Goldfinger learned some lessons from Balfron, but by 2001 they were like twins raised separately.
Trellick had, being in (even if only north) Kensington, been gentrified while the East End was still thought of as a wild space. Its tenants were that bit more prosperous, and more able to get mortgages, and had bought their flats under Right to Buy. However, many new owners didn’t have the money to maintain the flats – or else they did have the money, and took out original features. Kensington’s reputation for affluence got in the way of attempts to secure funding. They had a vandalism problem, and some of the original features – such as the marble that had been in the entry area – had been stolen. The building had been designed to have a concierge but for many years it never had one. No one was – literally – keeping an eye on things. It was in a bad spot.
Balfron, by contrast, had had a boring life, with tenants instead of leaseholders, and with several rounds of major works on it – new windows, for example, and new asphalt in the external linking walkways. It also had more of its original features, like the quarry tiles lining the corridors – different colours on different floors – and its flats had more of their original fittings – for example their bakelite light switches instead of Thatcherite gold-look ones. And Balfron had had one asset money can’t buy: it had had one very hands-on, community-spirited caretaker for almost twenty years.
I interviewed Irvine Gallagher, otherwise known as Jock, for the council’s newspaper, East End Life, around the time of this tour of the block. (I knew him a bit to have a drink with; when I rang him to suggest the interview, there was a long silence, and then he growled: ‘IN THE PUB.’) He told me, ‘When we took over this estate from the good old GLC it was a disaster area. Burnt-out cars, black soot stains, bin rooms full of old rubbish’.
‘No one knows as much as me about Balfron Tower’, he said. ‘I know how the whole building works, where everything is. I’ve had calls from housing management, architects, heating engineers. They wanted to put in new central heating but it’s listed, they couldn’t run the gas pipes up the outside – I identified where the cupboards were, and internal routes where they could run their pipes. I know how the flats fit together, this one on one level, this one on two – I always know where the water’s coming from’.
Jock was a people person, though, as well as being able to do 3D mental mapping. ‘I know everything that happens here’, he said. ‘Everybody knows me and I know everybody . I know all the kids, who their mums and dads are. I’ll knock on someone’s door if I’ve seen them doing something. Nine times out of ten people are grateful and say they didn’t know their kid was doing whatever.
‘But there isn’t much vandalism. We’ve got CCTV, and if a kid is doing something we can see them. We call out the window, “Smile for the camera!” You should see them run!’
Happy days. Also around the time of this interview, Jock had to apply for his job, as the council was bringing in ‘super-caretakers’ – a sort of Blairite caretaker-manager position. I spoke to him right after his interview and he said it had gone really badly. It lasted five minutes.
Five minutes! What went wrong?? ‘Well what was I supposed to do’, he growled down the phone. ‘Spend an hour talking about fucking BLEACH.’
So the job went to someone else, and Jock became an under-caretaker, and I heard last year that he had recently passed on.
My other personal connection with Balfron Tower is that when I was working in that job, my marriage had broken up and my children and I were living in adorable but extreme overcrowding in a wisteria-garlanded one-bedroom flat in Hackney. Things were difficult, and at just this juncture a flat came on the market in Balfron Tower for something like £37,900. But Balfron was in Poplar, and my kid were in school in Stoke Newington, and you couldn’t raise a mortgage in Poplar (or a tower block) to save your life, and I had no savings at all… In one corner of my brain I have always lived there.
I left that job few months after the Balfron tour and the interview with Jock, and have no idea how Balfron Tower fell into the situation it’s in today. It’s about to have the makeover of a lifetime, which will also catapult it into a new social class. Indeed, as life imitates art, the millennial city imitates the famous ‘I Love My Life as a Dickhead’ video, wherein the hipsters have taken over Trellick Tower. For with the ensuing works, and the the huge project of decanting all of Balfron’s tenants underway, Balfron’s flats have been let all year at cheap rents to artists, to keep the place full – and, presumably, soften up a tiny little social transformation.
Balfron went to sleep as a brave and plucky social housing experiment; is currently dreaming a strange technicolor dream; and will wake up, what only feels like a lifetime later, a princess.
And it’s some slight consolation to know that, if I had bought that flat all those years ago, I’d have a big headache just about now.
The photos are from the exhibition Balfron Tower An Unrealised Future, featuring work by photographers Michael Mulcahy, Mike Seaborne, Peter Luck and James Wakefield. This runs until this Sunday (21st September), 12 – 6 pm at Flat 89, Balfron Tower, Poplar, E14 0QT (2 min. walk from All Saints DLR). Buzz flat 89 for entry.
Robert Hughes, The New Shock of the New:
People need beauty. … And so, we seek out zones of silence and contemplation, arenas for free thought and regimented feeling. Museums have supplanted the church as places, both of social congress and of civic pride. They are the new cathedrals. And despite the dubious quality of some of the stuff that actually goes in them, or even outside them, there’s a growing hunger for the direct experience of art on a museum wall.
Robert Hughes’s eloquent classification of galleries as cathedrals (from his 2004 documentary) is especially apt for Tate Modern. This post-industrial monument, the most popular modern art gallery anywhere, is situated plumb south of St Paul’s: twin bastions of belief squaring off across the Thames. You don’t have to be a religious person to love St Paul’s; but I don’t know how Christians who have lost their faith feel about it, or any other cathedral. Does it become a poignant symbol of loss, a reminder of disappointment?
Tate Modern has just announced that Hyundai has taken over (from Unilever) the sponsorship for its major space for new work, the Turbine Hall. The inaugural work for the Hall, Louise Bourgeois’s majestic Maman, was bound to be a tough act to follow, but since those spiders we’ve been treated to Anish Kapoor’s gargantuan ear trumpet, Dorothy Salcedo’s vandalism of the floor (which injured at least one unsuspecting elderly lady) and Carsten Holler’s slides, the hit of half-term: ingratiating, family-friendly, corporate-friendly installations that make good copy for broadsheet and tabloid alike. It has been hard to escape a growing sense that the Hall has become a sort of Battersea Funfair for the Boden set, a place where entertainment masquerades as cultural engagement.
Away from the vast Hall, the nannyish curation of the regular galleries seems intended to prevent the art from speaking for itself: one feels manipulated by an entity determined to impose itself between the art and the viewer. An unsympathetic observer might see Tate Modern as a temple underwritten by the bling of ‘BritArt’, an edifice dedicated to the Traceys and Damiens beloved of feature writers and plutocrats alike. Outside its walls one sees the monolithic, zone-changing retail development that follows artistic success like a blight: the contemporary equivalent of trinket-shit peddlers blistering the walls of medieval cathedrals. Bankside is Southbank east. (Psychogeographers will doubtless point to the golden age of Bankside, when The Globe, The Rose and The Swan premiered Shakespeare and his contemporaries, whilst punters not interested in the fate of Desdemona or the Duchess of Malfi could watch the bear-baiting. Modern Bankside doesn’t offer any bear pits, but there’s a Pizza Express and at least one Starbucks.)
But the building remains sublime, even if its function as a gallery is compromised by the fact that (like the Guggenheim galleries in New York and Bilbao) its architecture overpowers the greater proportion of its content. And it would be bilious to deny that the Turbine Hall occasionally hosts something really good. As Robert Hughes concluded in The New Shock of the New: ‘We’re seeking value, looking for meaning, a place outside ourselves that tells us there more to life than our everyday concerns and needs. You could see this in the crowds gathering for Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. Hundreds of monofilament lamps that suppressed all colours except yellow, shedding a gold light through gloomy air thickened by fog machines underneath a mirrored ceiling. People lay on the floor, staring up at themselves reflected in that ceiling, lit by the pale yellow light of their new sun god’.
‘The success of the Weather Project with its two million visitors shows that the hunger for new art is as strong as ever. The idea that aesthetic experience provides a transcendent understanding is at the very heart of art. It fulfils a deep human need. And despite the decadence, the confusion and the brouhaha, the desire to experience it, live with it and learn from it remains immortal’.
It’s been a smeary, wind-tossed festive season in London and the UK, and I am in a rush to go to a party in Walthamstow – but by way of farewell to 2013, here is an iPhone image of the National Theatre in which Denys Lasdun’s Brutalist masterpiece resembles a giant boiled sweet.
I don’t know about any of you but I am hoping for better things in 2014: let us hope they start tonight. Thanks to all our readers and contributors and a very Happy New Year.
Bush House from Kingsway. © Bogdan Frymorgen 2012.
Bush House, the imposing 1920s edifice which dominates the Aldwych and looms over Kingsway, was once declared to be “the most expensive [building] in the world”: by 1929 its construction had cost its American backers £2,000,000. It was built on the site of Wych Street, an ancient survivor of the Great Fire that was ruthlessly destroyed by London County Council circa 1901.
Built of Portland stone, with extravagant use of marble for its cavernous halls, and fronted by forbidding columns surmounted by statues symbolising ‘Anglo-American friendship’, Bush House embodies its era just as much as the Deco Telegraph Building on Fleet Street, or Collcutt and Hemp’s monolithic Adelphi. (The chunk of old London flattened for the Adelphi was the Adam brothers’ graceful riverside development of 1768.) Like the ‘new’ Adelphi, the sheer bombast of Bush House trails unfortunate traces of Fascist architecture; but where Colcutt and Hemp’s stridently moderne behemoth might look at home in Mussolini’s Rome, Bush House’s gigantic faux-classical styling prefigures the more stolid brand of ‘Totalitarian Retro’ that came to be favoured by Hitler and Stalin.
Main entrance. © Bogdan Frymorgen 2012.
© Bogdan Frymorgen 2012.
The BBC established offices in the building in 1941, and for over 70 years Bush House was home to the BBC World Service, originally known as the BBC Overseas Service. George Orwell was a BBC staff member during the war, and the interiors of the building – in particular its canteen – informed his conception of The Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty Four. (It’s clear that the exterior of Orwell’s Ministry was modelled on Senate House in Bloomsbury, and Room 101 was said to be located somewhere in Broadcasting House, but the echoing, labyrinthine interior of Bush House invites us to imagine Winston Smith lost within it.) It might be easy to resent Bush House – for what was sacrificed for its creation, for its monumental scale, and for the sheer absurdity of that portico (which echoes, in the Latin script above its main entrance, the opening titles of a certain famous 1970s TV series: I CLAVDIVS). You could even say that the payoff for the loss of ancient Aldwych is nothing more than a faceless autostrada with a giant conceited lump at its southern end.
© Bogdan Frymorgen 2012.
© Bogdan Frymorgen 2012.
But London is a restless, shape-shifting city, and Bush House has come to stand for more than the pretensions of its sponsors and designers. With the good fortune to house an institution that infused its overblown rhetoric with genuine purpose, it has become a great London building by default. Orwell’s ironic attitude to the BBC aside, during WW2 it acted as a hub for displaced European intellectuals, who broadcast to their besieged home countries from its offices; coded messages aimed at resistance fighters and SOE agents were transmitted to occupied Europe from its studios. It became a symbol of the War Effort. (It was damaged by a V1 flying bomb that hit the Aldwych in 1944; the V1 landed on the Air Ministry directly opposite, leading to worries over the eerie accuracy of those early cruise missiles.)
Even its grandiose classicism may be said to have a claim to authenticity: workmen laying Bush House’s foundations unearthed Roman statuary beneath the dust of Wych Street. A bust of a Roman noble was duly and reverently put on display in the new building’s lobby (even if there are doubts as to its provenance …).
© Bogdan Frymorgen 2012.
These photographs by Bogdan Frymorgen – a studio manager for the World Service – were taken just hours before the BBC finally left Bush House in July 2012, when the humming bustling halls and studios were already silent. Even as a series of absences, they capture a real sense of the urgency and activity that had so recently been going on. They’re full of love for a building and an institution that came to occupy an important place in British cultural history. It’s too easy to forget the esteem in which the BBC World Service is held by its distant listeners; it’s not television – therefore not sexy – but that is what gives it its reach, as radio waves can go anywhere and radios can be found everywhere. The World Service is a unique and magnificent public service; it’s Reithian; and, as such, it’s permanently under threat.
© Bogdan Frymorgen 2012.
But the BBC’s activities at Bush House weren’t confined to the World Service. Amongst other things, a great deal of radio drama was produced there, and in the past weeks I’ve been thinking of this again. A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to spend a few days working on a radio play at Bush House under the aegis of Claire Grove, one of the most innovative and successful radio drama producers of our time. Her funeral was last week. Her Guardian obituary gives a rough idea of her professional brilliance, but it is hard to sum up such a vital person within the confines of an ‘Other Lives’ entry. Lemn Sissay’s appreciation gives some hints of the energy and life that occupied Claire, and indeed Bush House.
Studio 8, cleared out. © Bogdan Frymorgen 2012.
Amidst current refurbishment, Bush House is now occupied by a law firm and HM Customs and Excise. The love really has left the building. D.S. (with K.E-B.)
… for The London Column. Copies of Bogdan Frymorgen’s photographic tribute to Bush House may be ordered from him at email@example.com or via his Facebook page.
Circles Within Circles: Photo © Mark Granier
Paul Carney: An Odyssey
I have a huge-mungulous love-hate thing going with the South Bank. On the one hand it’s almost the only place to which I ever escape, ergo overwhelming connotations of freedom, restored sanity etc. On t’other, I think it was designed specifically to kill me.
The whole experience is utterly surreal; out from among Embankment station’s gloomy pillars, I’m falling again, down those same four always-forgotten steps. A silhouette thrusts paper at me as I get up. Selling, collecting, petitioning for something. I wave my white stick in a signal that clearly reads please either lend a hand or bugger off. Would a Samurai battle-cry help at this point? Best not. A bit of wild fumbling and here is the handrail at the foot of the Hungerford Bridge.
At the top, I invariably bump (literally) into a man in a wheelchair who seems poised forever at the top of the 42 steps; it’s as though he’s being punished in a Greek myth. At least I haven’t collided with him this week. Halfway over the bridge an old friend and tripping hazard, Tattered Guitar Man, is still endlessly ringing in the Apocalypse with his one weary, toneless chord, and passers-by are always ridiculing him and he just strums all the more. I would drop him a coin, if I could ever see where he lays his hat.
The first time I ever crossed this bridge, there was a man walking ahead of me dressed as a giant green triangle, with scrawny legs in tights of a paler green, and people weren’t giving him a second glance, whereas assorted hot young women were pointing and giggling at me for having a white stick and a hi-viz jacket.
The South Bank Centre itself is allegedly a stunning view, but to Paulish eyes it looks like a cross between a construction site and Eliot’s Waste Land. I pull my baseball cap down and make myself look up. Remember the view! Some of these buildings have won awards… The magazine articles… A shipwreck on a rooftop… But I see no ships. There is no view. Only the Waste Land.
There are, says the legend, doors all over the place here. But only one entrance is my entrance, whence I can feel my remembered way to a lift. And don’t get me started on the indoors of the Royal Festival Hall! Only in the company of a certain genius poetry tutor I know do I brave it…
One thing I’ve never come across is the beleagured skateboard park – I’ve never made it that far – but since it is clearly doing Paul no harm whatsoever (UNlike the new pre-fab restaurant that blocks my route and has caused multiple injuries!), I’m now passionately in favour of letting it be. Why shouldn’t the young’uns have somewhere to whizz about on wheels? It does actually sound like fun.
Pigeons get into this building. Often, the clatter of wings above has startled me. Does some slow-ambling, gently dolorous janitor finally come by night to sweep up their small bones? Should I get out on the wrong floor, he would probably find my bones too, in due course. Elevator, take me straight to the Fifth, and only to the Fifth … There, all will be daylight and space. Windows and pale columns. Got to be wary of those columns, though – inexplicable shelf-things protrude from some of them at vital-organ height. But I am way-wise on the Fifth, now. Ha! Or at least that part of it that is touched by the sun. I was told that the Poetry Library is right here, in this place and on this floor. Down the Dark Stairs, past the Lesser Toilets and farther into the Realm of No Light Whatsoever.
Poetry? Here? Sometimes I have tried picturing poems – I see them as the little frail white moths of childhood – flitting among all the unlovely columns, slabs and balustrades. Can poetry truly live here?
I have a table. I have chairs. I have my back to the sun, the river and the Telecom Tower. I can breathe now, and take off my luminous jacket. I will hang it on the empty chair – it will be my flag, proclaiming this furniture is taken. It is ours alone. She will find me here when she comes, and she will yell out my name, dancing and waving her arms above her head.
© Paul Carney
BMX Bike, Southbank Photo: © Mark Granier
Everything is neither synonym nor like-
We bruise easy, for example;
Peach. Mottled. Punch.
A fib to say more Lyre than Lear,
The juice of the word ‘apophysis’
The bathos of bone, splintered,
Bowdlerized, a coda of this melancholy,
This street theatre, this effervescent
Promenade, this cultural quarter
This street-beat named desire,
This sliding scale on the spinning,
This leave us be moment,
This warmth from the city.
© Peadar O’Donoghue
Peadar O’Donoghue’s first collection, Jewel, is published by Salmon Poetry, and he edits The Poetry Bus magazine.