Concrete modernism: architecture about us

I love post-war modernist buildings, particularly the hulking grey concrete ones. I like their repetitive patterns and the textures of their weathered surfaces. Many people find them horrible, but for me there is inspiration in their scale, their boldness and civic, socialist values. It is also fascinating – if sometimes depressing – to observe what happens to them over time, as historical remains in an age of voracious capitalism.

Over the last few years I’ve been researching the ruins of St. Peter’s College, a contested 1960s modernist site near Cardross in Scotland (see this website and this journal paper). This year I’m part of a project about Modern Futures, which has given me the chance to think more broadly about what post-war modernism is, what it does, and why, against all the odds, I like it so much.

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The most common attitude to these buildings has become a popular cliché: “concrete monstrosities, knock them down!” Demolitions attract crowds of spectators, in a late capitalist mutation of the public hanging. In some cases charity raffles have been held, with the lucky winner appointed to press the button to trigger the dynamite. It’s as if society has decided that this kind of architecture is unarguably worthless, that it must automatically be complained about, like traffic, wet weather or Simon Cowell. But this view is increasingly being challenged. As well as blistering pro-Brutalist polemics from commentators such as Jonathan Meades, and architectural experts insisting on the historical value of post-war modernism, there have also been surprising levels of public support for campaigns to prevent the demolition of controversial modernist relics such as Preston bus station and the Apollo Pavilion.

It is important that any celebration of concrete heroics doesn’t airbrush out the trickier details of post-war modernism. Many modernist buildings were experimental, failing to function as was hoped. Some quickly became grim places, usually due to a complex mix of factors. The uncompromising aesthetics of this type of architecture can be intimidating, particularly in the UK, where damp climate and overcast skies turn concrete into a drab mass of rainy grey. There is also an undeniable white male arrogance in Le Corbusier’s ideas about rectilinear rationality triumphing over nature, as expressed in Towards A New Architecture. That arrogance has been mercilessly exposed by the premature ruination of many modernist buildings, either through neglect or deliberate destruction.

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Yet the remains of modernism have much to offer. Aesthetically, they are uncompromising landmarks that stand out against the increasing blandness of contemporary cities. Culturally, they are material remnants of 20th Century social history. Politically, they provide a connection to a socialist worldview, in which architecture was seen as a way to engineer better lives for people, rather than as a way of wringing profit from space. These things are all important, but most of all I love modernism for its anti-romanticism. I find it honest – refreshingly, shockingly, brutally honest – about the nature of modern life.

Take the St. James Centre, a shopping centre, hotel and ex-council office block in central Edinburgh, shown in all the photos in this post. A grainy charcoal slab looming over the genteel Georgian new town, it is widely hated. For the majority of Edinburgh residents, its imminent demolition, making way for a more upmarket retail and hotel development, will be an occasion for cheers not tears.

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I’m one of the very few people who like this building. For me, there is a mischievous joy in how the St. James Centre punctures the cosy heritage theme-park feel of the city. Its presence is audacious, disrespectful to the point of being outright rude. Scraping against the veneer of its picturesque surroundings, it blocks scenic views from all directions. The building is so offensive that in recent years a giant redevelopment banner has been hoisted across one of its most visible façades. The effect is like a loincloth failing to cover up an embarrassing erection – a desperate attempt to preserve modesty until the wrecking balls swing into action.

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Scottish arts promoter Richard Demarco apparently claimed that “no argument can defend the overscaled, heartless and meaningless modernism of the St. James Centre development.” (source: here) Well, here’s my argument.

The building functions as an insitu critique, showing the city for what it really is: a utilitarian, functional, impersonal space, where goods are traded and services provided. The St. James Centre affronts the bourgeois sensibilities of Edinburgh like the Greek cynic philosopher Diogenes defecating in public in Athens. His behaviour was neither dirty protest nor exhibitionism, but rather an attempt to cut through the bullshit of Athenian manners by living in a way that exposed the basic nature of human existence.

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Buildings like the St. James Centre are unavoidably modern, unmistakeably urban, unashamedly rational. They don’t pretend to be anything else. Their direct, upfront qualities are the result of an optimistic post-war mood. Modern life was seen as something to celebrate, to display with pride, not something to be ashamed of or hide away. Brutalist architecture openly expresses the incessantly repetitious, mass-mechanised character of late industrial societies, just as a thatched cottage in a rural village reflects the agrarian culture within which it was built.

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There is a serious incongruity when people aspire to live in country manors or mock tudor houses, but spend their lives eating food produced by industrial farming, operating mass-produced machines, immersed in a haze of electromagnetic signals, all powered by fossil fuels extracted through heavy engineering. We can denigrate this way of life as escapism, distraction, pretense, denial, or we can enjoy it as bricolage, mash up, a post-modern merging of past and present. But either way, the fact is that a lot of architecture conceals rather than reveals the structures and processes on which contemporary society is built. Dispirited by the violence of modernity, by its ravaging of life, we try to cover it up, or knock it down.

This is why we need modernist architecture, in its successes and failures, in its rationality and madness, in renovation and in ruins: to help remind us of who, what, when and where we are.

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Thanks to Hannah Neate, Ruth Craggs and the AHRC-funded Modern Futures network for providing space in which to think about these ideas.

Dawn chorus

During Chris Watson’s recent visit, he took a group of sound design students out to make recordings of the dawn chorus. Inspired by this, Jonathan Prior and I decided to do our own early morning excursion a few days ago, on May 11th. The dawn chorus is at its peak around this time of year. We chose to record in Holyrood Park between the Salisbury crags and Arthur’s Seat. Chris said that the best time is from half an hour before sunrise to half an hour after, so we set things rolling just before 4:30am and let the recording run for an hour, right across the daybreak.

Each of us used a Rode NT4 to make a stereo recording. As you can see in the photo, the mics were pointed in opposite directions and spaced apart, so we’ll be able to use the two stereo recordings to create a four channel piece at some point.

Here’s a 15 minute clip from my hour:

[audio:http://www.michaelgallagher.co.uk/audio/HolyroodPark-dawnchorus-clip.mp3|titles=Dawn chorus, Holyrood Park, 11.5.2011]

Jonathan has uploaded his entire hour here.

The Google map below shows the location of the recording. This should make it clear why we chose it – plenty of habitats for birds, and the topography blocks out the noise of the city really well. It’s pretty amazing to live in a major world city that has this kind of environment right in the middle of it. Holyrood Park is owned by the Queen, which perhaps explains why it hasn’t been over-run by the developments of ‘luxury’ flats that seem to be taking over most of the city.

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As time wore on during the recording, the birdsong was punctuated by a few other sounds: outbursts of croaking and flapping from what I think was a pheasant; a passing aeroplane; a cheeky honk from a train echoing off Arthur’s Seat; and a couple of noisy motor vehicles.

The biggest surprise of the morning came at the very end when we were packing up. It must have been about 5:45am, and a man came walking by, the first person we’d seen out there. He was quite well dressed, wearing a smart duffle coat. He said good morning, walked past, then came back and asked if we were professional film-makers. He said he was looking for someone to make a music video for a gospel group – could we do it, or did we know anyone who could? Part of me really wanted to say yes, just because of the unexpectedness of the offer. I didn’t though.

This sort of thing seems to happen quite often when I’m out doing field recordings. I think it’s the result of standing still for a while in a public place with some extremely conspicuous and strange-looking equipment. It seems to invite encounters.

One drawback of the location was the wind. It was a fairly still day by Edinburgh standards, but up in the park there was a stiff breeze. If you look at the map it’s easy to see how the wind gets funnelled from south to north directly into our chosen spot. Despite using a Rycote windshield (the big furry thing), I ended up with a bit of wind noise on my recording. Wind blowing on a mic creates low frequency rumble. I really hate it. To my ears, field recordings with wind noise on them sound really amateurish.

When we set up, it all sounded fine in the headphones. We then retreated maybe 200 meters away, to avoid the mics picking up any rustles or other noises from us. After a while, there were a few gusts that must have been too strong for the Rycote fur. I actually have an extra high wind cover – a sort of fleece jacket that goes under the furry stuff – so I’m going to start using that more often from now on.

In the clip above, I’ve reduced the wind noise by applying some low shelf EQ in my audio editing software using a plugin. I cut about 12dB at 240Hz, with the Q set to minimum for a gentle slope. Luckily, the birdsong is in a much higher frequency range, so cutting the low end like this hasn’t messed up the recording too much. If you listen carefully (e.g. at about 5:17) you’ll still hear a bit of wind rumble, but much less than on the original..

Can you come again next week?

A great big thanks to everyone who came to Edinburgh to the international training and networking event I organised at the start of May. For those who weren’t there, this was a week-long workshop exploring experimental audio, visual and site-specific research methods. It was funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), and hosted by the Institute of Geography at the University of Edinburgh, with support from the Department of Geographical and Earth Sciences at the University of Glasgow.

'Experimenting with Geography' participants and presenters

I think it’s fair to say that overall it was a big success. There was a really positive vibe about the whole thing. Eric Laurier summed up the mood in an email sent to all the attendees the following week:

“Can you come again next week? This one has lacked crackly birdsong, vibrating balloons, soldering irons, city symphonies, anechoic chambers, autumn salmon roe, centrifuges, quarry hammers, avian corpses, men on scaffolding (well it hasn’t, but has in that storyboard way), violin-voices in the foyer, cycle rides to the Wild West and most importantly, the music of your enthusiasm.”

Louise K Wilson giving a contact mic DIY session

To flesh out to Eric’s list, some highlights included:

  • A trigger-happy Matt Rogalsky wandering about shooting a starting pistol, to record the acoustics of various spaces.
  • Louise K Wilson showing people how to build their own contact mics and hydrophones (picture above)
  • Victoria Clare Bernie exploring how storyboarding might work in the context of creative research.
  • Sans Facon inviting people to compose their own sound walks.
  • Nigel Thrift giving us a big dollop of theory in the middle of the week.
  • Perdita Phillips installing mics on the roof of the geography building to record the seagulls.
  • Tansy Spinks conducting an impromptu participatory performance on the main stairs.
  • David Paton and friends presenting audio-visual work about a disused quarry which once supplied much of the stone used in Edinburgh’s grand buildings.
  • Hilary Ramsden triangulating Ennio Morricone, a side street in Morningside, and dogs barking on the meadows.
  • Hayden Lorimer describing the early history of wildlife recording, before the invention of magnetic tape. This included such things as cables running for two miles from mics in the woods to a van full of machines which would cut sound waves into discs of heated-up wax.
  • Murray Campbell from physics showing us round the acoustics labs, and answering questions such as ‘can you make a kettle boil by shouting?’ (answer: in theory perhaps, but not in practice).
  • An evening of experimental films curated by Edinburgh-based film-maker Matt Lloyd, and an evening of experimental music courtesy of Martin Parker’s Dialogues festival.

The result was a week which one participant described on his evaluation form as “by far the most interesting and fun event I had attended in the past few years”.

Eric Laurier, Tansy Spinks and a rather severe-looking gentleman
Sound absorbers in the anechoic chamber we visited

Jonathan Prior has made an audio-visual slideshow which I think nicely captures the flow of the event:

http://12gatestothecity.com/2010/05/17/experimenting-with-geography/

More documentation is available via the project discussion board:

http://michaelgallagher.co.uk/experimental-methods-network/

Special thanks to Eric, Hayden, Jonathan and Andy Wilbur for their help and support with this project, and to the ESRC for funding it.

Can you come again next week? This one has lacked crackly birdsong, vibrating balloons, soldering irons, city symphonies, anechoic chambers, autumn salmon roe, centrifuges, quarry hammers, avian corpses, men on scaffolding (well it hasn't, but has in that storyboard way), violin-voices in the foyer, cycle rides to the Wild West and most importantly, the music of your enthusiasm.

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