We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Parkinson’s Other Law suggests that now might be the right time to sell your Amazon shares

I see that Instapundit has become aware of Parkinson’s Other Law, the one about custom-built headquarters buildings. This is the law that says that any organisation which builds itself a brand new headquarters building is heading for disaster.

Instapundit links to a Wired piece about Apple’s new mega HQ, which does indeed look like a recipe for corporate disaster. This new Apple enormity looks a lot like the GCHQ building in Cheltenham, which was completed in 2003, after that organisation had participated successfully in two major wars – WW2 and Cold. But that Apple scheme has been around for a while. The latest HQ building news comes courtesy of Amazon:

AmazonHQ

Pity. I really like Amazon. I hope its death throes are prolonged enough not to derange me too much. I hope, that is to say, that in the near future, it is Amazon’s shareholders who suffer most of whatever Amazonian grief is about to erupt. However, I do fear that if, as a result of a share price collapse, Amazon then tries to be profitable, this might hurt us now-very-happy customers quite badly too.

Immediately after the Dezeen piece linked to above, about the new Amazon HQ, there came another piece, about a new Twitter HQ. But, although suspiciously well designed (hence it being noticed by Dezeen), this is to be in an already existing building that used to be a furniture store. This is the right way to contrive a new headquarters building, if you really must have such a thing at all.

A culture of economic failure

I realise that the sums of money that get spent on “culture” are very small potatoes indeed when set beside other sorts of government extravagance.

Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking that there is a connection between this report about France’s “new wave of culture-focused building projects”:

A Napoleon III villa in a Parisian suburb, squatted by artists and musicians; a cathedral-like hangar, the vestige of Dunkirk’s naval industry that used to define the life cycle of the entire city; a new, 240m-long bridge in the French Alps. This is just a sample of France’s recent crop of architectural projects, and they have at least one thing in common: they are all cultural facilities that offer a draw both through their content and their site.

… and reports like this one from the BBC about French economic pessimism, or this one entitled Is France the new Italy?

Hollande’s Socialist administration faces protests over taxes and burdensome regulation not just from business leaders, as you might expect, but also from farmers, shopkeepers, teachers, truck drivers and soccer players. …

Leaning heavily on higher taxes, the government has been slow to get public spending under control. France’s ratio of public spending to gross domestic product is now 57 percent – the highest in the euro area.

As Instapundit likes to say, what can’t go on forever won’t.

What, I wonder, will those new culture palaces end up being used for?

An Apple launch disaster and a new Apple HQ building

Regulars here will know my interest in the phenomenon of Custom Built Headquarters Syndrome.

So now, I can’t help suspecting that maybe what Roger Kimball says, about the disaster that is Apple’s latest version of something called iWork (says Kimball:

I’ve never seen a shoddier release. The fate of particular pieces of word processing and spreadsheet software may not much signify much in the world at large. But among the population of people who use and depend on it, there is grave unhappiness. Apple really messed up on this, and it is interesting if unedifying to ask what it portends about the giant company’s future.

…), and this new Apple HQ building that now has the go-ahead:

AppleHQCircle

… are somehow connected.

It seems that Steve Jobs himself was responsible for setting this particular architectural wheel in motion.

Instapundit reckons Apple only did their shambolic software launch just now to make Obamacare look better, arf arf. But there is a more serious point to be made about this comparison. The difference between the public sector and the private sector is not that the private sector never screws up, as this Apple screw-up illustrates. And it is most certainly not that the public sector never builds itself dysfunctionally lavish buildings. The difference is that as and when the private sector screws up, it suffers. Money is lost. In this case, Apple market share is being lost even as I blog this. Apple will either sort this iWork mess out quick, or watch a lot of people move over to Microsoft.

If a custom built headquarters causes a private sector screw-up, as I surmise may just have happened to Apple, the building may then get sold on to other more capable people, or be partly rented out, to cut costs.

When the government screws up, taxpayers will foot the bill both for the screw-up and for all the money they then throw at it to unscrew the screw-up, and as likely as not the people who presided over the screw-up will end up with even bigger buildings to luxuriate in.

To escape Obamacare, your only hope is kayak.com. I watched the whole of that Saturday Night Live skit last night on Youtube, but now, Youtube refuses to play it to me, what with me not living in the USA. But trust me, it’s very funny. Will the BBC ever show it, I wonder?

Town planning and views

My starting position is that anyone should be able to do anything he wants on land he owns, as long as it does not initiate violence against someone else.

From Brian’s post about a bridge, to a site called Dezeen, to an interview with the architect of a building in London called the Cheesegrater. One side of the building is slanted, which must reduce the total floor space, but why?

The main constraint on Leadenhall was the view to St Paul’s [Cathedral]. London is unique in being partly controlled by views; you have to leave certain views open to St Paul’s and we were on one of those views. So we made use of this and we cut it back at an angle and that gave us that prominent section and profile, [which can be seen] from all over London.

So London imposes planning rules that control views. This makes me wonder: can I own a view? In some sense if I am using the view I have homesteaded it. If my neighbour spoils my view by building something in front of it, he has made me less wealthy. Would I be right to sue him? Can we abolish planning without spoiling anyone’s views?

Samizdata quote of the day

Not that I intend to die, but when I do, I don’t want to go to heaven, I want to go to Claridge’s.

- Spencer Tracey, quoted in the TV show Art Deco Icons, shown on BBC4 earlier this evening.

Now securocrats tell you how to build a house

I have frequently noted here the obsessive fortification of the state during the last decade: how all public buildings in Britain have steadily become the opposite – closed-off, accessible only through guardrooms, by special permission.

A fascinating and frightening piece by Anna Minton in the FT Locked in the security cycle describes something I did not know. Though I had noticed a more general neurotic security obsession in new developments, I thought this was merely a matter of insurance and corporate cowardice. Some of it may be. But some of it is official coercion. Minton explains:

High security is now a prerequisite of planning permission for all new development, through a government-backed policy called Secured by Design. [...]

Secured by Design is administered under the auspices of the Association of Chief Police Officers and backed by the security industry, with the initiative funded by the 480 security companies that sell products meeting Secured by Design standards. It is also supported by the insurance industry, with lower premiums for the increasing levels of security offered by Secured by Design standards.

Beware the security-industrial complex!

Note this is enforced by state power: since the all-nationalising Attlee government of 1945-51 planning permission controls all building in Britain. It is a panopticon of the built environment, covering all significant building or alteration of building: nothing is legally done privately; nothing is legally done without prior official approval. So “a prerequisite of planning permission”, means developers comply or they don’t build. But the standards to be applied by planning officers are controlled by a ACPO – a closed professional body for senior police and civilian policing officials – and far from correcting the producer interest, as choice might, deliberately incorporate it as a driving factor.

What will we get – what are we getting – all around us? An architecture calculated to reproduce the assumptions of those in security positions and industries of what’s a good place for people to live, trade or work, for children to play or be educated. Those are assumptions about order, ‘appropriate’ persons and behaviour, the need for oversight, the nature of – and constant presence of – threat. Hence the suspicious building syndrome: you will be increasingly screened to permit entry, and watched, controlled inside the perimeter. Hard, plan-defined boundaries, rather than freely negotiated common use of space.

But look! Lots of jobs for guards and electrical maintenance crews. Compliance by large builders will make their lives easier and competition more difficult. ACPO members will find valuable consulting work. Politicians can say we live in a society with “world class” security. The execution of policy will be deemed its success. Everybody (who matters) wins. Positive feedback.

But not the only feedback loop. The authorities are not interested in contrary evidence. Public bodies and quangos are skjlled at commissioning proleptic studies, and the institution of ‘public consultation’ is highly developed as an art of obtaining affirmation for policy, but even so, there are clear signs that that official security obsession creates psychological insecurity in the populace. Minton again:

Although crime has been falling steadily in Britain since 1995, fear of crime is soaring and 80 per cent of the population mistakenly believes crime is rising. Fear of crime does not correlate with actual crime but with trust between people, which is being eroded by high-security environments. [...]

One of the key drivers for this project [Minton's forthcoming NEF-published report] is the dearth of evidence that Secured by Design and high security prevent fear of crime and create strong, stable communities. Of the few existing studies, an investigation into CCTV by the Scottish Office found that while people often believed CCTV would make them feel safer the opposite was true, with both crime and fear of crime rising in the area investigated. The author concluded this was because the introduction of CCTV had undermined people’s personal and collective responsibility for safety. Research has also found an “unintended consequence” of extra security can be that “symbols of security can remind us of our insecurities”

[my emphasis]

I would add: they also remind us of something else. The pressure for all this comes from regulatory culture. As with the fortification of the state, it reveals and propagates the intense fearfulness in authority itself. Authority is frightened of the unsupervised individual, and thinks we should be too. To recycle a phrase, they hate our freedom. The possibility that life may be lived harmlessly in divers ways is just as much anathema to a secular bureaucrat as a religious totalitarian. If rules and fear are not everywhere, we might not accept that the people who make up rules always know best.

How Amazon is causing me to read more books and read them better

And not just in the obvious way, by selling me interesting books, cheaply, that I might not otherwise be able to get hold of.

It happened like this. The block of flats I inhabit has a door at the bottom which each of us can unlock from our flats with a remote control button, without seeing who we are letting in. This makes us vulnerable to robberies. What happened was that the buzzer went, and one of us would pick up his phone. A voice would say: “I am the postman”, or “I have a delivery for number 22″, or “I have come to read the electricity meters”, or “I live in number 29 and I don’t have my key on me”. It only needed one such person to be a plunderer and a liar, and one trusting householder to trust the liar, and the liar was inside the building able to steal any enticing parcels from the post boxes just inside the front door.

We don’t have a concierge, and we don’t have postal boxes that are locked. (Which may be why blocks of flats are now, more and more, big. They are big enough for all the dwellers in them to be able, between them, to afford a concierge.)

So anyway, this all makes it impossible for me now, in full confidence, to receive purchases from Amazon. They get delivered fine. But they are then liable to be stolen.

We have all learned about this, and I for one do not let people in without coming down and personally seeing them in and out. I get the impression that robberies have now abated, and the robbers have moved on. But, why take the chance? Why not, instead of getting Amazon stuff delivered to a home like mine, get it delivered to the home of a friend with no such problems, just his own single front door? Why not drop by every now and again to collect whatever Amazon stuff you order?

So it is that, instead of getting Amazon stuff for me delivered to my own home, it now all goes to Chateau Samizdata, the home of Perry de Havilland. And so it also is that I have yet another excuse for dropping by to visit Chateau Samizdata every so often, every time stuff needs collecting.

This is good in itself. There is nothing like face to face contact with good friends. Samizdata is all very virtual and twenty first century and all, but it started when people met each other face to face, and it works better if we keep on meeting in this old fashioned way from time to time.

But travelling to Chateau Samizdata has another benefit, for me. → Continue reading: How Amazon is causing me to read more books and read them better

62 Buckingham Gate nears completion

While delighting here in the new camera I bought early this year, I included a picture of a new building, then being constructed in Victoria Street, London SW1, near where I live. 62 Buckingham Gate is now nearly finished.

In February, as already show in that earlier posting, this was how it was looking:

4samVictoriaStreetThingS.jpg

There was a time when a building which looked like that when it was being built would end up looking pretty much like that when finished. This was the time of such architectural enthusiasms as “New Brutalism”, a time better know to civilians as the age of Concrete Monstrosities.

And that building above would have carried on as the misshapen oddity that it was when being constructed, looking like it had been put together by a bunch of builders who got drunk every breakfast time, while supervised by an architect who was suffering from a nervous breakdown.

But now look at it:

62BGnearlydoneS.jpg

Yes it’s another contribution to the Buildings That Won’t Show Up On Radar style, already noted in an earlier posting I did here about One New Change. Here is another example of the style.

Partly, as I already mused in that One New Change posting, architects now do this kind of thing because they can. Whatever new thing they can do at any particular juncture in architectural history tends to get exaggerated and turned into a style. And they can do this kind of geometrical weirdness because now they have computers to enable them to keep track of it all, as they did not during the Concrete Monstrosity era.

They also have better technology, including such things as greatly improved glass of many different kinds, from which they can pick the exact one that is most suitable for their particular building.

But there is also a deeper change in play here, a change of aesthetic philosophy. → Continue reading: 62 Buckingham Gate nears completion

Ecclesiastical eyesore destroys view of Shard!

Early yesterday evening, taking advantage of a small window of nice weather in our mostly appalling British “summer”, I took a stroll across the river. I ended up in the London Bridge area, where, just before descending into the Tube to go back home, I took this picture:

StGeorgeMartyr1s.jpg

That is a church called Saint George the Martyr.

Now, you may think that this church is behaving itself, but actually, it is seriously interrupting the view of the recently completed Shard. To show you what I mean, here is another picture which I took seconds later:

StGeorgeMartyr2s.jpg

Now you see it, now you don’t.

I’m just kidding (I had in mind sentiments like this) about the church being an eyesore. Saint George the Martyr looks very nice, and I find these two buildings particularly pleasing when they are thus aligned.

Earlier I had taken another picture of St George the Martyr and the Shard, but from further away. The church looks smaller, just as you would expect. But the Shard looks bigger the further away you get from it, because it becomes so much clearer that it actually is so very big, and so much bigger than everything else.

StGeorgeMartyr3s.jpg

My more serious point is that the Shard, far from being an alien and intrusive presence, actually fits into big old London very well indeed, not least because it echoes some of London most characteristic and most loved architectural shapes. That’s what I think, anyway.

Some declare themselves offended by the Shard, as has already been noted here. But for me, London without its recent crop of skyscrapers would be a less appealing and far duller place. Had the Shard only got as far as the pretend photo stage, but had it never actually materialised, I’d have been very sad. If lack of money had caused that, well, that happens, when boom turns to bust. But had the Shard been politically aborted because of its alleged aesthetic offensiveness, I would have been offended myself.

I aim to juxtapose

juxta2_thumb.jpgLondon, England. (Photographed from a rooftop in Peckham)

.juxt1_thumb.jpg
Chernobyl, Ukraine. (Photographed from a rooftop in Pripyat).

Chicago’s Aqua Tower

While rootling around in my personal blog archives chasing up something else, I recently found myself looking again at this 2007 posting, about what looked like being a really cool tower, in Chicago. So, I wondered, did they actually build it?

Indeed they did. Here is a good photo culled from amongst these, which I found here:

AquaTowerChicagoS.jpg

I also particularly recommend these photos, which say “^John Picken- flickr/cc license” in among them, so I’m guessing that means don’t copy without asking, so I didn’t. But that needn’t stop you looking at the photos where I found them.

LATER: Wrong. “cc” means (see comments) creative commons. (I thought it meant copyright only more so.) So here’s another picture:

AquaTowerChicago2.jpg

It’s called the Aqua Tower. Likes and dislikes in architecture are very much a personal matter. One man’s masterpiece is another’s mediocrity or worse. But I liked the idea of the Aqua Tower when I encountered it five years ago, and judging by the photos I’ve seen, I would like the reality of it now, if I were to see it in the flesh.

It is truly remarkable how similar the photos of this building are to the imaginary pictures of it when it was first announced, which is not always how it is, to put it mildly.

Says this:

Aqua certainly succeeds in making a strong visual statement, but what makes the statement noteworthy … is the simplicity and economy of the main vehicle of expression: the curvy and varied projection of the buildings concrete floor slabs. Aqua does not rely on expensive cladding materials or subject its occupants to impractical interior spaces for the honor of architectural aesthetic.

The floor slabs are a necessary part of the 82-story building’s structure and Studio Gang manipulated them to simultaneously enhance sightlines of major Chicago sites from the balconies (increases function) and give the building exterior an innovative form (increases beauty). The glass-skinned walls of the condo and hotel units behind the balcony edges are rectangular and therefore economical and functional.

Which is a more detailed version of what I said in 2007:

What I admire about this building is that, under the cute decoration, it is a bog standard, structurally and economically completely logical tower.

I also learned, here, that the Aqua Tower is the tallest building in the world designed by a woman. Her name is Jeanne Gang. Meanwhile, the men have not stopped trying to outdo each other. You suspect that with that building, we are back with “impractical interior spaces for the honor of architectural aesthetic”. And speaking of impractical interior spaces, at any rate towards the top, here in London, the Shard is nearly done, and is looking very good, or so I think.

I entirely realise that this latest phase in the history of architecture has been fuelled by silly money. But when you consider what else this money has also been spent on, I say thank heavens we at least have some good looking stuff to show for all the agony.

One New Change

I am always on the look out for new spots from which to look out over London and take photos. Last week, I discovered another such place, on the roof of something called One New Change, which is a big new shopping centre right next to St Paul’s Cathedral. The weather during the last few weeks has mostly been vile but during a brief break in this weather, I journeyed to One New Change to check it out, and in particular to see if I could go up to its roof and take photos. Internet omens seemed good, but you never really know about such things until you get there.

Here is the entrance I used to get inside One New Change:

1NCEntranceS.jpg

Click on any of these pictures if you want to see them bigger.

Modernist architects used to be fond of a phrase to the effect that form should follow function. But the truth is that when it comes to architecture, form tends to follow not function but fashion.

To be fair to the architects, fashion tends also to follow what is technologically possible. At any given moment in modern architectural history, architects have asked themselves: what does building technology now enable us to do which we couldn’t do half a decade ago, thus enabling us to get passers-by to say: Wow, look at that. Is it fair to call this “fashion”? I think so. After all, that is surely how the fashion business itself tends to operate.

So it is with One New Change. Only if you already knew, as I already knew when I went looking for it, would you have known that this is a shopping centre. It could have been a university, an office block, an “arts” or “community” centre, a library, or any one of half a dozen other things. But, you can tell at once that it was only very recently constructed, because here is a building done in the planes of glass at bizarre angles style. Which is a very recent architectural fashion. (One of the growth service industries of our time is presumably specialist window cleaning, of windows that are not easily reached by the usual methods of simply hanging a platform out over the vertical edge of a building and then just going up and down and side to side.)

Where did this style come from? Much of it, as I say, is a case of “because we can”. Glass has got a lot stronger and cleverer in recent years, as have building materials generally. And now that architects have computers to keep track of everything, they can design – and more to the point can build – buildings made in these bizarre shapes.

Another influence at work on modern architecture generally and One New Change in particular is, I surmise, ships. Modernist architects have always been envious of and heavily influenced by ship designers, because with ships, form really does have to follow function, far, far more than is the case with most buildings. Many a nineteen thirties block of flats, with its long horizontal outdoor walkways and curved corners, was designed by an architect with his head full of ocean liner imagery.

More recent ships, of the stealth sort, now offer further “inspiration”. My first reaction to One New Change was that here was a building that was trying to avoid being spotted on anyone’s radar. Which is a very reasonable thing for a building to want to do if it is only a stone’s throw from St Paul’s Cathedral.

So anyway, I went in through this entrance, and found escalators, and a big lift shaft. I decided to try the lift. Early indicators, in the form first of the lift, and then in the form of this very striking view of St Paul’s from this lift, were very good:

1NCFromTheLiftS.jpg

That’s a rather wonkily angled photo, what with the lift being in motion and me having only one go at it. Plus, it looks misleadingly dark, on account of me looking towards the afternoon sun. But I like it anyway, because of the sky and the reflections and St Paul’s.

Nobody tried to stop me getting into this lift, as the somewhat warlike appearance of the outside the building was perhaps subconsciously suggesting to me might have happened. I just pushed the usual buttons, just as in any other shopping centre, or for that matter big department store, and up I went.

The lift itself, made from reassuringly solid slabs of that new and clever glass that I have already mentioned, was clearly designed with the viewing experience of those travelling in it very much in mind. It isn’t buried in a lift shaft. Rather is it hung out on the inside of the building, as happens in grand American hotel lobbies that you see in movies. And a slice has been cut from top to bottom through the building to enable St Paul’s to be visible from this lift, throughout one’s ascent. All of which strongly suggested that a similar concern for viewing pleasure might also prevail at the top of the building. The lift rose upwards, and my level of photographic optimism rose with it.

When I got to the top, nobody made me buy a ticket or tried to check my bag or any such thing. And I was right to be photographically optimistic:

1NCFirstSightS.jpg

Wow. → Continue reading: One New Change