Thursday, 31 March 2011

a field student of meat and polutry

I've been trying to find a quote from a comment by a certain modernist architect about architectural ornament and it's excremental social value. The quote may be in, 'Trouble in Utopia', a chapter in Robert Hughes', The Shock of the New, which, as it was first published in 1980, is getting on a bit though continues to be for me a primary reference for ideas about art and architecture.
Most mornings I cycle to work via Queens Road, site of a new build school/community education building. The former school building was levelled and cleared (or erased) from the landscape to make way for a new streamlined building fit for the purposes of the 21st century. I prefer the melding of old and new such as that done at Walthamstow Central Library. I was surprised to be told many current new buildings are not intended to see out the century - partially or in their entirety. As an aside, having commented on the Community Learning and Skills Service failure to provide cycle stands at it's other sites, there are stands (a hub?) to be found there.
What are the skills necessary for the 21st century? Cycling? How do the skills which have built the new building compare with those which created the former?
Perhaps my enjoyment of the modest 'beaux arts' to be found about Walthamstow is nostalgic, a fey indulgence - at best a resort to a sense of place akin to the realm of a fairy tale.
Above are images of architectural ornament to be found at the St James St end of Walthamstow's High St. Here different cultures of commerce reside in a collage of past and present in varying forms of decay.
Though referring to a much more grandiose culture of ornament, Robert Hughes' treatise on the ideals and skills of architecture suggests ornament/decor was once a demonstration

'of condensed "surplus value" - acres of marble, bronze, and gilding, sumptuously orchestrated, gathering together the labour of armies of plasterworkers, stonemasons, polishers, metalfounders, and ebinistes - an impossible architecture today, because the craft traditions that built it are either extinct or too expensive to use on a public scale. Compared to today's public architecture - mean, scaleless, tacky, and intimidating - such a building is an act of generosity; it assures the private citizen that he or she is the reason for the State. But it would have said nothing good to say to a poor man in 1875. The poor man did not have l'architecture. They had slums.'

What remains in part at the lower end of the High St and elsewhere might be understood as a different sense of moral necessity - the relics and folly of Victorian and Edwardian mercantile surplus.

The coincidence of 20th and 21st century acrylic signage with the bygone plaster and stone ornament is enchanting. Nearly two years ago, as part of the E17 Art Trail, there was a rooftop exhibition above the flats over the Gazi International Supermarket close to the shops featured in the above photographs. The bottom photograph shows part of the facade of the apartment block. Up over and behind the ghouls and garlands of plenty 'Tales from the Forest' were told via an array of prints from the East London Printmakers and others. The exhibition, organised by Katja Rosenberg, featured images based on fairy tales, fantasy and myths from many sources including The Brothers Grimm.

To me it seemed poetically apt that the exhibition took place in such an architectural milieu - a multi- or inter-cultural mix which is, I stress, anything but excremental.


  1. 'The abolition of ornament, Loos concluded, was as necessary a social discipline as toilet training. "A country's culture can be assessed by the extent to which its lavatory walls are smeared. in the child this is a natural phenomenon.....But what is natural to the Papuan and the child is a symptom of degeneracy in the modern adult. I have made the following discovery and pass it along to the world: The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects." Clearly, Mies van der Rohe's dictum that 'less is more' begins with Loos's messianic belief that ornament was excrement'
    Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New (1980) p.168.

  2. Alas, yesterday, 26th January 2013, HMS Bazaar seemed to have gone, along with it's marvellous malapropism, 'polutry'. Has the new Oakam money lending shop replaced it?