One of the many felicities of Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, which I am currently engaged in reading and am enjoying greatly, is that noted warriors and statesmen do get mentioned, but for their peacetime activities.
The Duke of Wellington, for instance, gets just the two brief mentions, on page 128, for his habit of consuming a very large breakfast, this being an illustration of the then breakfasting habits of rich personages generally, and before that on page 49, when in his dotage Wellington was in nominal charge of an army of militiamen whose task would have been to quell any revolutionary outrages that the masses gathered for the Great Exhibition of 1851 might have felt inclined to perpetrate, outrages which were greatly feared at the time but which never materialised.
Concerning two big military and political movers and shakers on the other side of the Atlantic, Bryson has more to say, because they, unlike Wellington, made two very impressive and influential contributions (Jefferson’s Monticello and Washington’s Mount Vernon) to the art of domestic architecture, and in consequence to architecture generally:
Had Thomas Jefferson and George Washington merely been plantation owners who built interesting houses, that would have been accomplishment enough, but in fact of course between them they also instituted a political revolution, conducted a long war, created and tirelessly served a new nation, and spent years away from home. Despite these distractions, and without proper training or materials, they managed to build two of the most satisfying houses ever built. That really is quite an achievement.
Monticello’s celebrated contraptions – its silent dumbwaiters and dual-action doors and the like – are sometimes dismissed as gimmicks, but in fact they anticipated by 150 years or so the American love for labour-saving devices, and helped to make Monticello not just the most stylish house ever built in America but also the first modern one. But it is Mount Vernon that has been the more influential of the two. It became the ideal from which countless other houses, as well as drive-through banks, motels, restaurants and other roadside attractions, derive. Probably no other single building in America has been more widely copied – almost always, alas, with a certain robust kitschiness, but that is hardly Washington’s fault and decidedly unfair to his reputation. Not incidentally, he also introduced the first ha-ha into America and can reasonably claim to be the father of the American lawn; among all else he did, he devoted years of meticulous effort to trying to create the perfect bowling green, and in so doing became the leading authority in the New World on grass seed and grass.
It is remarkable to think that much less than a century separated Jefferson and Washington living in a wilderness without infrastructure from a Gilded Age America that dominated the world. At probably no time in history has daily life changed more radically and comprehensively than in the seventy-four years between the death of Thomas Jefferson in 1826 and the beginning of the following century …
A “ha-ha”, in case you are wondering, is a fence set in a ditch, which works as a regular fence for impeding animals, but which doesn’t spoil the view.
Concerning those “proper materials” that Washington and Jefferson lacked, I particularly enjoyed reading (pp. 424-8) about the infuriations suffered by rich pre-revolutionary Americans when trying to get Brits to send stuff over to America for them to build and furnish their houses, in sufficient quantities, of the correct sort, not ruined in transit, and for a non-extortionate price. The Brits insisted that everything that Americans bought from abroad had to go via Britain, even stuff originating in the West Indies. Of this draconian policy, Bryson says (p. 428):
This suppression of free trade greatly angered the Scottish economist Adam Smith (whose Wealth of Nations, not coincidentally, came out the same year that America declared its independence) but not nearly as much as it did the Americans, who naturally resented the idea of being kept eternally as a captive market. It would be overstating matters to suggest that the exasperations of commerce were the cause of the American revolution, but they were certainly a powerful component.
Despite such things as the dramas now going on in the Ukraine and in the Middle East, most of us now live amazingly peaceful and comfortable lives, when compared to the hideously warlike and uncomfortable lives lived in the past. That being so, more and more of us are going to want to read books like this one by Bryson, about how life became as comfortable as it now is, who contrived it, and how, and so forth and so on. We are now becoming the kind of people who attach more importance to things like why forks are the way they are, or why wallpaper started out being poisonous, or how vitamins were discovered and itemised, or how farming got better just when big new industrial populations needed more food, or how gardening became such a huge hobby or how meat, fruit and vegetables first got refrigerated, than we do to such things as the details of the Duke of Wellington’s or George Washington’s battles.
All this peace and comfort may turn out to be a mere interlude, if all-out war between Great Powers is resumed, and if that happened, the people in the formerly comfortable countries, like mine now, would soon rediscover any appetite they might now be losing for learning about war rather than about peace. But despite recent claims that our times resemble those just before WW1, I personally see little sign of a real no-holds-barred Great War erupting soon between two or more Great Powers. Putin is not Hitler reborn and Russia now is not 1940s Germany; the Muslims are mostly killing each other rather than us; and attacks with H-bomb barrages remain as utterly terrifying now as they have been ever since they were first made possible.
The above photograph is of the main building of Moscow State University in the Sparrow Hills district of Moscow. This is one of the so called Seven Sisters – the Stalinist buildings that are prominent in the Moscow skyline. When completed in 1953 this was the tallest building in the world outside New York City, and it remained the tallest building in Europe until 1990. The building was built partly with gulag labour. As it was nearing completion, the gulag workers were housed inside it in order to minimise the number of guards required, so the building functioned as something resembling a gulag itself during construction.
The Seven Sisters were built in the 1950s after the USSR obtained the technical knowledge to built large steel framed skyscrapers from the United States. There are a few more such buildings scattered throughout the former USSR and the former Warsaw Pact states. The most notable of them outside Moscow is the Palace of Science and Culture in Warsaw, which I have written about before.
The Polish attitude to that building is, at this point in time, mixed. It is a memento of having been occupied by the Soviets, an experience of which the Poles are not especially fond of the memory of. However, the familiar becomes familiar, and it is hard to imagine it not being there. The Palace of Science and Culture is full of many good cinemas, theatres, concert halls, and other venues for cultural activities, and many a good evening has been had there by many a Polish person. As the years go by, other tall buildings have been built in Warsaw, none of which have anything like the same style, and the Palace of Science and Culture has become just a historical artifact (and a reasonably interesting one) in a more modern, and more western city. Nobody would ever think of building another building anything like it, and it remains as an integral, but singlular, landmark of the city.
Moscow is different. There are seven large buildings in the same Stalinist gothic style, and a number of smaller ones. They are not physically together, but are scattered all over the city. They don’t dominate the Moscow skyline, exactly – if anything does it is the spires of the cathedrals of the Kremlin and Red Square – but they lend an essential part of the character of the city. Take photographs and there is always one lurking in the background somewhere. Their style is one of the defining styles that defines Moscow, and even defines Russia.
Consider this building, though, to be found elsewhere in Moscow.
This is the Triumph Palance. This is a residential apartment building out along Leningradsky Prospect corridor in the direction of Sheremetyevo airport and the stadium belonging to the football team CSKA Moscow. It was completed in 2003. For a few years after that, it was the tallest building in Europe. There is also a hotel on the 53rd floors and above. A quick check on booking.com finds that the hotel offers rooms from £171 a night, which I think in Moscow puts it in the “very nice but not extremely luxurious” category. I bet the views are great. A walk up to the building finds security and people who come and going who look prosperous but not obscenely rich. I think we are talking oligarchs’ lawyers rather than oligarchs themselves.
The building, though, is clearly influenced by the style of the Stalinist-Gothic architecture from the 1950s. It would seem that there therefore exists an architectural style that might be called “Stalinist revival”. Saying that this style is nostalgic for the communism of the Soviet 1950s is probably not right, but it is clear that that era has had a big influence on what makes Moscow Moscow just the same – to the extent that the city is still building upon it. This is unthinkable in Warsaw, but is what happens in Moscow. This almost makes me think about some of the strange iconography I have seen recently from Eastern Ukraine: “Russian Nationalists” holding up communist symbols and Russian Orthodox Christian iconography side by side. Communist iconography no longer means anything as communism, but has become part of the language of Russian nationalism.
I am told there are some Stalinist revival buildings in Kazakhstan, too. In fact, there is even another Triumph Palace in Astana. What I should read from this, I shall leave for another day.
Most of the commenters to this fascinating Guardian article on the many copies of famous Western buildings and bridges being built in the Chinese city of Suzhou dismiss the replicas as vulgar.
Vulgar they are. They are what you get when the some of the vulgus get rich and build what they like.
It [the explosion of urban mimicry] is also a result of housing becoming a free-market commodity. After Mao’s death, the introduction of a new economic policy, starting in 1979, opened the nation to foreign investment and restored private control over land use. Real estate investors supported by Hong Kong, Taiwanese and overseas Chinese financiers were quick to exploit the new opportunities in the booming housing market. With a rapid increase in the number of cities, a growing middle class and a desire to invest capital in property, there has been a boom in residential construction, investment and sales, coupled with a desire to demonstrate personal prestige.
Tyrannical regimes don’t collapse because the peasantry are suffering. They collapse when the hitherto supportive inner circle of peasant-minders starts to suffer.
Thus it is that the most politically portentous line in this (thankyou Mick Hartley) about two new buildings in North Korea, one collapsing, the other already collapsed …:
Another apartment building in Pyongyang is reportedly in danger of collapse as fear spreads after a 23-story apartment building collapsed in the North Korean capital early this month, killing hundreds of people.
Both high-risers were built as upmarket homes for the elite.
A government source here on Tuesday cited rumors that an apartment building in Mansudae in downtown Pyongyang has subsided around 10 cm and dozens of cracks have appeared in the walls. “Fearing a collapse, residents are racing to sell their apartments and move out,” the source added.
… is the bit in the middle, about how these collapsing apartments are “homes for the elite”. By the sound of it, no North Korean home that is more than a tiny few stories up in the sky any longer feels safe.
Not so elite now, are they? If peasant houses collapse, screw ‘em. But who is going to screw these people? They are screwers.
Not so long ago there was a somewhat similar report concerning badly built towers in China.
One of these weeks, months, years, decades, a really really big skyscraper is going to come crashing down to the ground. Not because someone flew a plane into it. No, of its own accord. Through its own “internal contradictions”, you might say.
When that happens – and I really do think it’s only a matter of when – what’s the betting that the media coverage will imitate art.
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:
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.
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?
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:
… 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?
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?
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.
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”
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.
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
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:
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:
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