Wednesday, 30 April 2014


Wallace Berman (ed.)
Originally 1955-1964.
This anthology published by Boo-Hooray, NYC, 2013

Wallace Berman, beat artist and one of the originators of assemblage art, published Semina as a limited edition art and poetry periodical between 1955 and 1964, containing the work of Berman and friends such as William S. Burroughs, Alexander Trocchi, Michael McClure, Charles Bukowski and Jean Cocteau.

Obviously original editions are rare, collectable and very expensive, so this anthology (produced to coincide with an exhibition last year) is a welcome publication.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Johnsonian / Smithsonian

The Smithsons on Housing
Prod. B.S. Johnson
BBC, 1970

Television can be a cruel medium, sometimes deliberately through malicious direction and camera work, or sometimes because the subject before the lens just doesn't fit comfortably into the aesthetic conventions of the small screen.

Peter and Alison Smithson, the dynamic duo of postwar New Brutalist British architecture, can be seen struggling here as they are afflicted by both B.S. Johnson's raw cinéma vérité style - tight static close-ups, stark colour - and a personal awkwardness in front of the camera - an oddly halting diction, an uncertain evasive gaze, Expressionist make-up and too much lower front dental work. Hey, now it's my turn to be cruel! We must award 10/10 for effort on their wardrobe. Peter's pattern shirt and rhinestone tie combo and Alison's futuristic silver astro-bondage blouse seem like a distinct attempt to ape the young fashions they no longer quite suit, but I like it.
It could be contended that given their small number of realised designs, the Smithson's disproportionately inflated reputation was what they built best, so it is good to see them actually working on real project.
The film examines the Smithson's design for Robin Hood Gardens estate next to London Docklands, which had ceased to be a major port by the mid 1960s and was already part derelict and demolished.
The 'streets in the sky' utopian vision seems appealing at first but the monotone delivery of the upbeat pitch eventually gives way to tedious moaning about the lack of respect tenants have for their building.

Perhaps the vandalism they complain of illustrates that well-intended design can only go so far in creating a better society, when their middle class professional frustrations confront working class poverty, ignorance and mass unemployment.
The powers that be at the BBC did not care for the film and Johnson, being a pugnacious sort, probably took issue with this. It marked the end of his relationship with the BBC, which seems a terrible waste given the other excellent short films he made. It's not as if this was even Johnson at his most experimental and provocative, but thankfully he produced several more films for ITV before he ended his brief but productive life aged only 40 in 1973 by slitting his wrists.

Despite campaigns by residents who loved the place and modernist preservationists, the upkeep and repair of the buildings were deemed too expensive and demolition work began on Robin Hood Gardens last year to make way for residential developments for City workers at neighbouring Canary Wharf. Another victory for Mammon - I wonder what the Smithsons or Johnson would say?

Monday, 28 April 2014

Adventure Time

An architecture of play:
a survey of London's adventure playgrounds
Nils Norman
Four Corners Books, London 2003

A survey of London's adventure playgrounds with several short essays explaining their genesis from WWII bomb sites and development history.

Paul Claydon's essay The Vernacular of Play raises Jan Huizinga and Roger Caillois concept of 'fixed play' as opposed to 'free play', as the playground vernacular architecture and furniture influences the political and imaginative spaces of play. So, as in the photograph below, 'fixed' playground objects inevitably place limits on the possibilities of play as they are formed around a preconceived adult design. An adventure playground is usually designed (and sometimes built) by children in a deliberately open-ended manner, so that spaces are physically and mentally malleable and can be adapted as play and games dictate.

I am particularly pleased to see a small entry for Marble Hill, which was my local adventure playground growing up in 1970s south-west London, and a quite intimidating space for an unconfident kid like myself. Rumours of bloody accidents were popular, particularly the tale of a child that fell off the Witch's Hat and bit the tip of his tongue off. Urban legends are made of this.
While I have your attention, I must mention another current obsession: Adventure Time, a cartoon about a boy and his dog and their exploits in a fantasy land. Like The Simpsons at its best, the show operates on several narrative levels and offers laughs for adults and kids alike. If you enjoy the surreal nonsense of The Mighty Boosh or appreciate daft freeform childlike flights of imagination, it's worth checking out.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Hey Bulldog

The Glass Key
Dashiell Hammett
Penguin, Harmondsworth, Middx.

Roll the bones...

Friday, 25 April 2014

Joe Tilson

Joe Tilson (b.1928) was well known as part of the British Pop Art scene in London in the 60s. He grew disillusioned with consumer society and became part of the 'back to the land' movement when he moved from London to Wiltshire in 1972, where he created the work seen here. More Pop Magus than Pop Larkin.

He now lives and works mostly in Italy. Nice.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Summa Galactica

Design by Choice
Reyner Banham
Academy Editions, London, 1981

While we're talking Reyner Banham, I thought I would post an article he wrote for New Society in October 1977 on the Star Wars phenomenon, reprinted in a collection of his criticism Design by Choice. I should state for the record that I'm not a SW fanatic; I like it but for me it has to assume its place in the SF pantheon and it probably won't be a regular feature of this blog.

I find much of Banham's design writing fairly turgid and overwrought, though his pop culture commentary is a little easier to digest. Note this was written before the film was released in the UK; Banham was semi-resident in the US by this time, teaching at the State University of New York, Buffalo.

It's hard to see the first Star Wars film (Episode IV: A New Hope) with such clarity now, so much has happened in the intervening 37 years, and indeed continues to occur as the filming of part VII may or may not be already taking place in Abu Dhabi. Banham's contention that the film's colossal success was due to it's positioning at the heart of popular culture is hard to contest.

Whether this hurried the end of popular cinema's potential as a progressive artform is arguable. Much was changing in Hollywood at that time, though if we are looking to place the blame the decline in cinema somewhere, Skywalker Ranch might be as good a place as any.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles

Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles
BBC, 1972

I don't find Reyner Banham a particularly likeable individual but there are plenty of good things in this film about Los Angeles architecture, including a brief visit to the Eames House (Case Study No.8) in Pacific Palisades, possibly my favourite modernist architectural environment. Plus a chat with artist Ed Ruscha at an old-skool drive-in about his responses to LA architecture through his photobooks of Sunset Strip and paintings of gas stations.
I haven't read Banham's book on Los Angeles but I suspect it would be an interesting companion to Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's seminal text Learning from Las Vegas, Banham's Modernism versus Venturi's Postmodernist approach.

Both cities were exemplar studies in the state of American architecture in the 1970s. As Banham was from Norwich and Venturi Scott Brown were a Chicago-based architectural practice, I wonder whether it took an outsider's perspective to appreciate what was going on with super-highways and the 'decorated shed'.
The film also has me laughing every time as Banham's appearance always seems so unlikely he looks like the world's worst under cover cop, and reminds me of Peter Seller's Inspector Clouseau in one of his more ridiculous disguises. Can you spot the Banham?

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Everyday Problems

Everyday Problems of the School Child
Agatha H. Bowley
Edinburgh, E & S Livingstone, 1948

Published in Edinburgh, although Bowley was a school psychologist in Leicestershire, a notably progressive county in post-war education. Uncredited photographer of Leicester Day Nurseries, Schools and Youth Centres.

The chapters on deviant behavior seem uncomfortably familiar.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Words Within Worlds Pt.1

Geoffrey Summerfield (ed.)
Penguin Education
Harmondsworth, Middx. 1974

This is a great photopoetry book, combining seven poets with specially commissioned photography. I'm going to post a few of these sets in due course, beginning with Cornish poet Charles Causley (1917-2003) and photographer Fay Godwin (1931-2005).

"Just giving the cat a quick polish"

The Focus Group sample recordings of Causley poems to great affect on several tracks: 'Keats at Teignmouth - Spring 1818' on Salty Sun Tales, from the album Hey Let Loose Your Love (Ghostbox Records, 2005), and 'I Am The Great Sun' on You Do Not See Me, from the album We Are All Pan's People (Ghostbox Records, 2007).