Philobiblon: Two in the eye in the fundamentalists

Friday, April 07, 2006

Two in the eye in the fundamentalists

After the discovery of the "missing link" fish/amphibian yesterday, today it is the unveiling of the Gospel of Judas:

The Gospel of Judas, a fragile clutch of a leather-bound papyrus thought to have been inscribed in about AD300...
According to this version of events, not only was Judas obeying orders when he handed Jesus to his persecutors, he was Christ's most trusted disciple, singled out to receive mystical knowledge.
According to the 26-page gospel, copied in the ancient Coptic language apparently from a Greek original more than a hundred years older, Jesus told Judas: "Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal."

Scholars are saying it doesn't reveal anything fundamental that wasn't already known about the gnostics (about whom I've written here and here), but it is a nice reminder that the whole idea of the Bible as a single, unchanging document, set in stone, is utterly ridiculous - a bit of a problem for the fundamentalists.
Simon Jenkins in the Guardian today is getting stuck into modernist architect. That left me looking out my Sixties tower block window (and a very nice, practical, well laid-out, light and airy flat) it is too, wondering if the fault on "failed estates" really is with the architecture, or with the lack of investment in maintenance, services etc? I tend towards the latter view.

Perhaps some of the huge estates, with their linked walkways, as seen for example in east London, do by their nature create problems, but to sweep up all modernist architecture in that seems a bit harsh.
The Tories have decided that prison doesn't work and the solution lies in rehabilitation not punishment. Meanwhile Labour keeps locking more and more people up without making any provision for their rehabilitation. It is getting to be a funny old political world.

One figure of note from that article: 2 per cent of the prison budget is spent on education - TWO PER CENT! No wonder the recidivism rate is awful.


Blogger clanger said...

Clanger disagrees.

Modernist architecture is fundamentally flawed. Modernism across the arts is important for what it did, much of which is difficult to grasp today.

As an example, almost all the radical elements of Brecht's theatre have appeared in TV comedy sketch shows from The Two Ronnies, through Monty Python to alternative comedy. So none of it seems radical, but it was once.

However, in every case, modernism tends to leave its audiences unsatisfied. It simply didn't work. Anti-art doesn't work as art (which is hardly surprising). Perhaps it isn't supposed to.

Art conveys meaning/emotion using an image, sound, shape and language, indirectly (ie, not a lecture). All the arts do this one way and another, although architecture matters more because its real-people have to live with (and in) the results, so there is a greater burden of responsibility towards the 'end users'.

Modernism tinkered with the fundamentals. That was important, and we benefit today as it gives us a greater freedom in all the arts, and allows us to pick and choose (post-modern) from a variety of options.

But ultimately, modernism breaks the fundamental structures of art. If pre-modern art conveyed meaning/emotion through an indirect use of language (verse, parable, story), modernist works took a spanner to this and cleverly used 'private language' (on a raft of semantic theory), which taken to its logical conclusion gave us unintelligible work (Dada). Modernists unpicked the medium, but in doing so they destroyed the ability of the art to convey a message.

The medium became the message because that was all it could do. It could convey no other message as the means of conveyance had gone.

In architecture this translates into buildings that don't work for people. That verges on the criminal as it destroys lives. A building is not a toy. Attached to it are responsibilities. The responsibility to ensure that implementation will be effective. So you don't design a building that costs a lot to maintain, for an authority with no money.

Light and airy rooms are great, but 8 flights of stairs with a pushchair and a urine-rich, broken lift are not an option, so you don't design social housing like that, just because high-density flats are cheaper to build.

Modernists have always been uncompromising to the point of arrogance. When you design a building, this should rule you out of the running, and architecture is about your end-users. You can write what you want, and draw what you want, but you can't build what you want. Don't like that? Don't be an architect.

In the arts generally, modernism looks increasingly like an important hiccup, an angry toys-out-the-pram hissy fit in the history of the humanities. Modernists took the arts apart. They took verse out of poetry, narrative out of prose, and in drama, with the alienation effect for example, tried to take away the audience's empathy with the cast.

If you take bits off something, what remains rarely works.

Its no surprise that modernism happened in the 20thC, when universities took the humanities professions and academised them. Modernism was deeply associated with the Ivory Towers. Many modernist works only work for an academic audience that gets its kicks from understanding and thought about the concepts at play.

Ultimately, modernism annoyed almost everybody, and in some fields simply disappeared up its own arsehole in a fit of pretension.

Personally, give me post-modernism any day. Or pre-modernism.

I wouldn't deny how important modernism was, but I'm glad its over as a dominant movement. We can pick the interesting bits from the carcass, and we understand a lot more about the arts as a result.

But the buildings. They were really bloody awful. Best described by the term 'new brutalism'. Unsuitable for human habitation. Take the open plan, take the new building technologies by all means, but leave the ethics of the Bauhaus in the intellectual graveyard, where they belong.

Look upon modernism as a kind of intellectual puberty. It was wild. It was whacky. But you wouldn't want to go back there.

4/07/2006 01:15:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

But the lift is broken down because the maintenance is bad; and is urine-sodden probably because there are several alcoholics in the building who've not been given the opportunity to access services that might stop them being alcoholics.

Yes, we do have that problem in these flats, and did in the previous one where I lived, where the offender was an inoffensive old Irishman on my floor. (Terribly stereotypically...)

Being an ag science graduate (cows are much, much worse) it doesn't much worry me...

If I won the lottery with the ticket I haven't got, I'd choose to buy a modern (if not necessarily precisely modernist) home, designed for life today, rather than some Victorian pile awkwardly adjusted for it.

4/08/2006 12:04:00 am  
Blogger clanger said...

Agreed, Victorian piles can be a pain when you want to cable your PCs, as can their original features. Although if you want to buy a house but don't want to hear the neighbours every time they have sex (as in my last house), get one with a chimney (ie. 1950s or earlier): thicker walls. For the last 30 years, as domestic audio systems have got louder, walls have got thinner. Which is mad.

My bugbear is the unpleasant collision of modernism and architecture.

Literature doesn't have to work. Buildings do. Modernism (which was often radically experimental) in literature was fine. A worst case scenario was low sales and wretched lit. students 20 years on. But the responsibility for an architect was and is much greater. Lives really do depend on good architecture. Make a building mugger-friendly, and your design 'aids and abets'.

A building is a working system, the look, the plumbing, and the consequent usage. Council-owned social housing in inner London was never going to be properly maintained, and that requires addressing at a design level.

There is also a responsibility to the environment (the genus loci or spirit of the place), the people who use the space around the building, and most of all, the people who will live in it.

Modernist architecture, notably, wasn't directly replaced by post-modernist, but via a bout of 'social architecture'. Architects who asked tenants what they wanted and consulted them. It wasn't an ideological act but an act of humility. That led to the style and component parts of post-modern architecture.

At its worst, P-M A is bland and safe and a bit too kitsch for its own good: out of town supermarkets, and the TV-AM building egg cups.

But thats OK, because you can, as they say, plant vines. At its worst, M A was a blight. It destroyed lives in a fit of ugly arrogance. It looked great at the start (central heating and indoor loos-heaven if you lived in a back-to-back slum with an outdoor bog and a coal fire), but putting families with kids in multi-storey rabbit hutches killed communities, wiped out defensible space, and gave kids nowhere safe to play.

The social damage modernist architecture did should never be forgotten, so that it is not repeated.

'Safe' is often condemned in the world of the arts, but in architecture, the social art, 'safe' is great when the alternative is 'dangerous'.

Apologies for going on to absurd lengths. Passionate about this.

A little surprised these issues are stirring again in the papers, as this all happened in the early 1980s.

4/08/2006 01:33:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Some council flats are very good on noise - the eighties ones I used to live in were superb, you really didn't hear anything at all, and even this sixties one is OK. Someone in my vicinity likes very bad country music played loud, but they only do it for half an hour or so, and I can live with that.

But some of the privately built stuff is a worry - there is a block just down the road that has been constructed in concrete block (one layer, quite thin), with PLASTIC fake wood cladding around the outside. And the prices start in the high £200Ks. As a builder's daughter I wouldn't be buying one, even assuming I wanted to spend that much money.

But that's a construction problem, not a style one. And I do wonder what they'll think in a few hundred years when they realise we were mostly building today domestic buildings designed - usually very badly - to look more or less like Victoria or Edwardian ones, instead of actually having our own aesthetic.

4/09/2006 12:14:00 am  
Blogger clanger said...

On the noise grounds, I wasn't distinguishing between council and private, but between buildings of different ages. Earlier buildings seem to have thicker walls. My late 70s terrace had massive rooms compared to a pokey new build, but the walls were 2 breeze blocks and an air gap thick. You can only hear so much coital grunting, and so much electric guitar without going insane or moving.

If folk like houses to look a certain way, then that is our own aesthetic, even if it is an emulatory one. It isn't invalid because it isn't delivered in a top-down manner, forced on people by architectural fashion gurus. Architecture is a social (and democratic) art, and people should be allowed to live in homes they feel comfortable with. The other arts can be as challenging as they wish. Architecture has a social responsibility, and requires humility.

Neo-Edwardian suburban?

If you find something that works, go with it. Change for the sake of it is just daft.

4/11/2006 02:27:00 pm  

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