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.
National Theatre. © David Secombe 2010.
Brutalist architecture has never been popular in Britain. The garden, the milk float, the net curtain, all work to alienate the British sensibility from the modernist, and especially the Brutalist, vision. We don’t care how pure its aesthetic is. We like things Nice.
Maybe the one exception is the good old South Bank. For some reason, despite decades of controversy, two murders, and several refits and remodellings, this complex of buildings is that genuine thing, beloved of the people. Unpromising as one may think it looks (though it is now dotted all over with bright structures, a giant yellow stairway, a turquoise Mexican place in shipping containers, pink things, green bits; they do certainly brighten it up). This is by accident as much as design. Maybe familiarity. Maybe proximity to Tate Modern. Maybe the development of Gabriel’s Wharf and that whole stretch of the river into something a little more friendly. Partly the skateboarders, who just seem to exist alongside everything else, whose thwack thwacks have followed us along that path by the river since the seventies. Certainly the restaurants: people always want something to eat, and the current proposed redevelopment is essentially an opportunity to expand on this.
At just that point, it stops being accident and becomes something more sinister. The space, rejuvenated as it is, has felt increasingly managed (that is, filled with things to be bought) for the past span of years. This is in keeping with a trend, as civic space becomes more and more tied to retail; we are forgetting how to occupy a city without buying, without being told what to look at. If this plan goes ahead, the stretch of river we love most will end up like the renovated Brunswick Centre, with added Thames.
But the Brunswick doesn’t incorporate two of Britain’s most important cultural venues – or the Thames. There is a debate that Londoners (particularly; but also the whole country) need to have about what kind of shared space this complex is supposed to be – who is it for? what is it for? what do we value about it? what do we want it to be like? And, if nothing else, we appear now to be beginning to have that debate (this link is the most informative article we’ve seen on the subject).
The South Bank is important on a personal level. Many of us – most of us, in London – have played out our lives with it as a backdrop. Much as it pains us to admit it, Richard Curtis got that much right; every new relationship seems to have a South Bank moment, and serendipity multiplies there. You meet people, you see things, you get some space to contemplate the sky, you feel the proximity of the physical river, suddenly London feels open and mysterious. But serendipity only happens if you’re left alone to find it. The existing Southbank Centre has more than enough cafés, about 2000% more than ten years ago, and we liked it even then. (Very fond memories of the unassuming old canteen, going back further.) It has been that rare thing: a public space where one can feel private.
These shop-heavy proposals – necessitated by the desperate need for funding to maintain ever-growing levels of activity – will transform the area into yet another crowdfuelled, corporatised zone (art needs people; corporations need crowds). They will gut the Festival Hall embankment in the way that the Royal Opera House extension (also paid for by shiny shops) eviscerated Russell Street. No one can argue that the Royal Opera extension didn’t effectively kill the life (as distinguished from the shopping and eating) of the eastern end of Covent Garden Piazza; and you only have to look at what has been done to Spitalfields and Borough markets in the past few years to be afraid for the South Bank.
Aside from which, everyone seems to have forgotten a principle that was voiced by the influential architect Cedric Price (who designed a radical overhaul for the South Bank in 1983, complete with giant ferris wheel). He said that cities and buildings should never be empty, but nor should they ever be full. For all the recently-added ‘lifestyle opportunities’, this stretch of embankment has been one of the few areas left in London that retains some of this balance; and it’s going.
This is a big thing to say, and it is the crux of the debate the nation needs to have about the South Bank. (And indeed London.) The Southbank Centre has apparently got all kinds of educational remits to fulfil, and outreach, and developing the audiences of tomorrow, and family-friendly holiday activities to lay on, and tourists to first attract and then cater for, and the developments are partly to enable all of this. They’re also, to create badly-needed space for existing facilities: the Poetry Library, for one. Billy Bragg wrote compellingly the other day about the needs of performers, and the projects he describes that are going on at the Southbank Centre are inspiring. Itislovely to go there and have a roof garden. Both of your correspondents here love the South Bank: we use the centre constantly and depend on it hugely. But none of that means the developments in their current form – new shops and restaurants, an obstructive building in the middle, an even more ruined skyline over the river, a giant glass box squatting on top of everything, put through at speed and not consulted on – look like improvements to the actual city. (Sir Nicholas Hytner may have a point.) It’s time to stop, take a breath, have the conversation. This has been as good as said by architects who could have pitched for the contract, but didn’t. As the Architect’s Journal reported:
Bennetts Associates had already withdrawn from the competition, claiming that it had too much work and that it had ‘reservations about the brief’ (see AJ 20.09.2012). Rowan Moore, writing in the Observer, also raised concerns about the ‘commercially-led’ plans which he said could ‘make the Southbank Centre resemble Terminal 5 or Canary Wharf or any moderately upmarket shopping mall.’
After the Tories won the 1951 election, they prioritised the destruction of the Festival of Britain site, for ideological reasons. The current government’s attitudes both to the arts and to public space, similarly ideological, have put institutions large and small under pressure to prove they have a right to exist (you earn the right by making money). The current proposed Southbank scheme is thus about to act out the contemporary version of this philistinism, and the fact that it is presented in the language of ‘inclusivity’ makes it more chilling.
This idea of inclusivity is being underpinned by branding, some of it quite subtle, and the brand seems increasingly personality-driven. Artistic Director Jude Kelly is the driver of these developments, and indeed of the whole ongoing ‘revitalisation’ of the centre. She has made herself admirably available to defend the proposals, and her vision, but the danger is that the whole vision for the South Bank feels like a personal vision. If one wants an ice cream in the interval at the Festival Hall, one even buys a ‘Jude’s Ice Cream’! (The franchise is Minghella.) ‘Southbank Centre’, having already joined up the words South and Bank, has now dropped ‘The’ from its name – turning it from a place into a brand – Southbank Centre – rather as if it were a restaurant or shop. It begins to feel like a sort of Boden or Orla Kiely cultural space, where middle class people (because we are all middle class now) are safe to consume culture en masse along with our pizzas, noodles, and extra-large caramel lattes. But where’s the space for the genuine, austere surprise ? The one no one could plan for you?
We know times have changed – we certainly do know it – but if this blog post is anything, it’s a plea for a deep breath and a deep look at what things really mean. And we’ve barely even mentioned the skateboarders.
We’ll be posting the rest of the week with pictures and impressions – poems, not polemics – of the South Bank and the people who use it.
© Katy Evans-Bush
Hoarding opposite National Theatre. © David Secombe 1982.
Gasometer, Regents Canal, Haggerston. © David Secombe 2010.
After the Gasometers by Katy Evans-Bush
If those were crowns, the kings
must have stretched out underground
from Regents Canal to Stepney Green.
At that size, they were gods. But no,
the earth was level: a thick eiderdown
of chemicals and dirt, beneath the play
of air on iron filigree, the orange light
that danced at sunset through the rings.
… from Egg Printing Explained, Salt Publishing, 2011.