Wednesday, 6 January 2016

History Repeats Itself in Architecture

Although there's plenty to dislike in Loki's analysis of The Glasgow Effect (not least his description of an monolithic establishment that secretly undermines working class culture: there's actually a series of different elites that compete to do that), he makes a salient point about the way that building is used to destroy communities.

...common land is handed to private developers, regardless of what locals think and public spaces are locked up at weekends due to funding cuts while suburban Scotland frequents the swanky shopping village now perched on the periphery of these criminally under-resourced communities.

These shopping districts, super-imposed on the receding cultural landscape, are hailed as the solution to poverty and are always given new names which subtly disown the heritage, history and people of the local area – who now work there for peanuts.

Passionately expressed, Loki's description, sadly, is a contemporary take on an ancient narrative. Architecture and public building projects have been used by dominant cultures to establish their power throughout history. In his TV show about the Romans, comedy evil genius Boris Johnson described how the empire would build a forum in occupied cities, a reminder both of their power and practical skills (he memorably compares them to modern shopping malls). Marvin Carlson comments that while democratic fifth century Athens was a maze of narrow streets, the subsequent Hellenistic monarchies liked 'sweeping avenues', an enthusiasm shared by the French absolute monarchy a millennium and a half later.

For the entry of Charles VI into Paris in 1380 the streets and squares were hung with so many tapestries that they resembled temples, and from many artificial fountains, milk, water and wine flowed... not only decorative and allegorical purposes but, as Konigsen observed, also functioned 'to superimpose on the actual city a idealized path, while removing the lived space'. (Places of Performance, pg 22).

The appearance of perspective in painting during the Renaissance led to it being adopted by the Medici as a symbol of their 'egocentric ordering of knowledge' - Henri II entered Lyon in 1548 with parts of the city screened off by paintings that hid the medieval town behind trompe d'oeil, as if making explicit how the 'new' perspective replaces the old. The development of baroque urban planning took notes from the scenography of the theatre, a reminder that the landscape, especially in cities, is more closely connected to art than to simple functionality.

Loki's argument that the rage against Ellie Harrison is based on a disconnect between the art establishment and the working classes attempts to load social grievances onto a specific instance. The architecture of Glasgow, however, is a far more comprehensive example of the disconnect between bodies that control public funding and the people who live in the city. 

The massive motorway through the city centre? The M74? The Tesco Expresses on the street-corners, those out-of-town shopping centres? Or, to take an example presented by one of Loki's mates, the way in which Dublin has become a consumerism dystopia. All of these are more explicit, more obvious and more oppressive expressions of capitalism's power.

Critiquing these would also have the added bonus of not encouraging a baying mob hurling misogynistic abuse at a single artist.

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