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Thursday, May 15, 2008

In the Realm of Jet Lag, a Pico Iyer piece from 2004 that includes the story of Sarah Krasnoff, a woman who abducted her grandson in a custody dispute, then fled to the only place she thought would be free from the law, the international flight: 'They took about 160 flights in all, one after the other, according to the stage piece ''Jet Lag.'' They saw 22 movies an average of seven times each. They ate lunch again and again and turned their watches six hours forward, then six hours back. The whole fugitive enterprise ended when Krasnoff, 74, finally collapsed and died, the victim, doctors could only suppose, of terminal jet lag.'


The London Nobody Knows (part two and three). James Mason narrated gem. See also the earlier Colour on the Thames, part of the BFI's YouTube presence / Abandonia, urban exploration / the Noise Mapping England website / Mr and Mrs Wheatley, a weblog / Chislehurst Caves, underground in SE London.

Wonderful installation by Jonathan Schipper, 'Slow Inevitable Death of American Muscle', a slow-motion car-crash. Very Burden-esque. YouTube commenters are predictably unhappy / Langlands and Bell's digital installation at wallpaper / Michel Gondry Entertained For Days By New Cardboard Box / the Soviet passion for reverse engineered Sinclair computers.

72 views of the Tower of Babel (via me-fi). See also 'Two-mile high termite nest proposed to counter the population challenge' / a rather pithy summary of the end of the era for the desert Guggenheim: Architect Rem Koolhaas saw what Vegas didn't have, not what it needed. Perhaps this will be the same fate of the Gulf cultural building boom?


The life of a Lebanese taxicab, including this striking image of downtown Beirut in 1969 / Nick Cave Fixes, an unofficial site / Newly Released UFO files from the UK government (via the BBC). See also the book E.T. Culture: Anthropology in Outerspaces / art by Josh Keyes.

This isn't happiness, a tumblelog / has potential: potential architecture, unbuilt projects with a focus on Norway / farewell to the The faculty of Architecture of the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands, destroyed by fire, along with a large chunk of modernist architectural history (news via archinect). For the faculty, it's a new start, and doubtless some form of architectural opportunity.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A post-war taxonomy. The NATO Codification System is a means of classifying practical any object imaginable, with a view to easing the complex chain of military logistics between the member states of NATO, 'based on a "One Item of Supply, One NATO Stock Number" concept'. The artist Suzanne Treister has used NATO Supply Classification in her work: 'Within the codification system the NATO Supply Classification (NSC) uses a four-digit coding structure. The first two digits of the code number identify the Group, eg. Group 77 - Musical Instruments, Phonographs, and Home-Type Radios, whilst the last two digits of the code number identify the Classes within the Group, eg. 7710 - Musical Instruments (complete).' See samples above: (NSC) 8830 (Boogie Woogie shoes), (NSC) 9915 (St Edward's Crown), and (NSC) 7730 (Volga Russian Tube Electrophone, 1967)). Treister is soon to publish her work in a book from Black Dog Publishers.


Elsewhere, our fears eventually become our fetishes. See the forthcoming re-print of the 1963 Civil Defence Handbook number 10 by V and A Publications, which turns the potential horrors of post-nuclear Britain into a cosily retro object combining nostaglia with design fetishism. Handbook number 10, 'Advising the Householder on Protection Against Nuclear Attack', at least contained a few crumbs of comfort and optimism, a spirited, plucky response that evoked the Home Guard of WWII. Gradually, the concept of Civil Defence evaporated, and the leaflet that followed, the infamous 'Protect and Survive', in both leaflet and film form, painted a far bleaker picture, as evinced by the cultural reaction. More information at the excellent Protect and Survive Archive of UK Civil Defence Material. See too this essay at Subterranea Britannica, 'Struggle for Survival: Governing Britain after the Bomb, which charts the evolution of the official approach From Civil Defence to Emergency Planning. Survival was the name of the game. The Americans had a similar shift from the naive futility of early films like Duck and Cover to a more gung-ho, survivalist approach, spawning a whole genre which thrives on the internet (e.g. the Best Prices Storable Foods store).


Beatle Money, an economic history of the Beatles: 'Reliant Shirt Corporation paid $25,000 for the exclusive rights to make and produce Beatle T-shirts in 3 factories that they had purchased just for the purpose of making the shirts. In 3 days they sold 1 million shirts.' / Bon Ton, an mp3 blog / underground Greenwich at the Greenwich Phantom. See also the Greenwich Industrial Society. Related: 'A pensioner who created a labyrinth of tunnels under his house over 40 years has been forced to pay £300,000 for repairs carried out by a council.' We would love to see a survey of those tunnels / Warped Reality, an mp3 blog / Lost City in the Woods, a post at the Architect's Newspaper featuring the photography of Christopher Payne.

'Russia builds luxury Agalarov Estate', a concentrated district of architectural follies and residential extravagances: 'Scottish baronial mansions, grand Mediterranean-style villas and vast, neo-Gothic castles'. The developers are Crocus City, and it doesn't look good. Check the Crocus City Mall ('Shopping as an art form'), sporting as lumpen a pediment as it's possible to create. More at the Guardian. Such developments are handy for feature writers who want to decry the ongoing dominance of authoritarian kitsch, as well as containing the people who demand it within a gated and security-protected space. But little else.

Hauntology, or the confluence of the past with the present through the spectral and ephemeral image of the ghost, is a term coined by Derrida, an idea that 'suggests that the present exists only with respect to the past'. It seemed briefly fashionable, then was rapidly discarded (only 16,600 google hits) as the past ceased to be a phantom but a throbbing, living thing, thrust in our faces every day as 'inspiration'. The original concept probably underestimated visual culture's inexorable extension and ability to shape-shift and insinuate it across all other cultural forms. Influence is everything, and the past is no longer ghostly, but a living, breathing presence. (originally found via the promising but apparently abandoned dismantled king is off the throne).

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Saturday, April 05, 2008

From tea shops to the Olympic Games. Joseph Lyons, perhaps the biggest name in British catering (a company with some 700 subsidiaries, as well as being computing pioneers, but that's another story), organised the catering for the 1891 'Venice in London' exhibition, stage-managed by the master showman Imre Kiralfy (even his mausoleum is impressive). Thanks to Heraclitean Fire for digging out the original programme and flyer for the Venice event from the British Library's collection.

Kiralfy was the man who made Earl's Court the capital's exhibition centre, along with nearby Olympia, before moving to White City in 1907 and creating a purpose-buit showground that formed the backdrop of the 1908 Olympics.

Kiralfy, together with his brothers Arnold and Bolossy, were a cross between David Copperfield, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Frank Gehry and Steve Wynn, a genuinely trans-Atlantic business of spectacle making. Their works included: Gorgeous Durbar at Delhi, Nero, or The Destruction of Rome, Fall of Babylon, Venice, the Bride of the Sea, and The Orient (the accompanying publication for which was subtitled 'A mammoth and original terpsichorian and lyric spectacle and water pageant'). Kiralfy also collaborated with the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. This was to be a formative influence on Frank Lloyd Wright, who worked with Louis Sullivan from 1888 to 1893 (when he was sacked). Sullivan was the creator of the mighty Transportation Building with its 'Golden Doorway', a piece of work that could serve as a symbolic gateway to early American modern architecture in the USA.

Often two productions ran at the same time, incredible given the sheer scale of each event. On 18 May 1895, the New York Times' 'England and Continent' diarist was reporting that 'Imre Kiralfy's stupendous "Empire of India" show, at Earl's Court, to be opened next week by the Duke of Cambridge, bids fair to be the most successful thing of the kind yet attempted here. His brother Bolossy's enterprise of "The Orient" at the Olympia has, meanwhile, been experiencing steady hard luck and threatens to come to grief altogether.

(The same column also notes the veritable menagerie being assembled at the Crystal Palace, then in its final location in Sydenham: '... some seventy Somalis are giving an exhibition of savage life in East Africa. They have a village, with actual native huts, working men at trades, dromedaries, ostriches, and other animals tethered near by. Brigands come and try to steal these; the villagers resist them; European hunters intervene, for all the world like cowboys, and the thing ends in a grand caravan, the procession including a magnificent collection of wild beasts.')

(The 19th century 'Spectacle' is chronicled in Spec-ology of the Circus, Part One at the fantastic Circus Historical Society (check their photography and illustrations archive). The article recalls the contemporary advertising for Imre Kiralfy's London production of Nero: "A Titanic, Imperial, Historical Spectacle of Colossal Dramatic Realism Gladiatorial Combats and Olympian Displays. Indisputably, Immeasurably, Over-whelmingly the Most Majestic, Entrancing, and Surpassingly Splendid and Realistic Spectacle of Any Age.")

(These theatrical spectacles were precursors to the more serious and high-minded international exhibitions that characterised the first decades of the twentieth century, lingering throughout the century as a symbol of modernity and futurism and are increasingly well-documented online (Expo 67 especially so).)

(For a bit more on the kind of people who worked with Kiralfy, we recommend this fabulous piece of amateur historical investigation, 'Finding Our Grandfather in the Attic,' by Arlene Wright-Correll. It builds a vivid picture of the life of an animal tamer at Bostock Circus at the turn of the century, amongst characters like Clyde Beatty, whose name lives on today ('He used to walk into a cage filled with up to 40 wild animals, armed with nothing but a whip, a wooden chair and a gun loaded with blanks').)

Perhaps Kiralfy's greatest achievement was the The Franco-British Exhibition 1908, held at the same time as the 1908 Olympics at Kiralfy's new 'White City': ' One night I lay awake in bed and, as if by magic, I saw stretched out in my mindís eye, an imposing city of palaces, domes and towers, set in cool, green spaces and intersected by many bridged canals. But it had one characteristic which made it strangely beautiful. Hitherto I had dealt in colour in the shimmering hues of gold and silver. This city was spotlessly white. I saw it all in an instant, and the next day I had jotted down the scheme of what London was to know as the "White City".' (the exhibition was also the site of early photographic manipulation, as postcard sellers cut and pasted images of visitors to other shows in order to populate sparse images of exhibition grounds taken before they'd opened).

Not everyone was so taken by the plethora of wonders placed before them. Punch noted drily that "Venice in London" was bereft of the Italian city's plagues of mosquitoes ('Could I quiver concealed by yon mimic Rialto, Till I swooped with a warrior's music and swing, Were I only allowed, as I ought, and I shall, to, Be avenged on your barbarous hordes with my sting'). But there was no denying popular taste. The exhibitions shaped the perception of the modern age and its wonders, artist and engineering, as well as presented a largely stereotyped view of the world as seen from the peak of Empire. It's also significant as to how the modern map of London ended up being shaped by these exhibitions, with both 'White City' (named for the sparkling paint finish on the Indian-inspired pavilion buildings) and 'Crystal Palace' becoming London districts.


The Venice spectacle is especially interesting from a modern perspective. Canals have a troubled relationship with urbanism. In London, they were industrial conduits, now mostly filled in and covered over as the factories and workshops they served moved out. But the canal is also romance, and the floating city of the Adriatic was high in the popular imagination of the time, thanks largely to John Ruskin's Stones of Venice. As Kiralfy noted in his own Reminiscences: 'It was while I was staying at Barnumís place at Bridgeport, Connecticut, that the idea of "Venice" flashed across my mind, not a "Venice in Italy" but a Venice transported to London. I took out a scrap of paper, an envelope, from my pocket, and then and there schemed out my idea. My mind went back to my studies of Venice thirty years before, the whole thing as it should be rose up before me, and down it went, even the details, on the back of that envelope. When "Venice" attracted its thousands and hundreds of thousands to Olympia in 1892, it had all arisen naturally from my plans on the back of that envelope.'

These were not the chlorinated waterways of Las Vegas's Venetian, all muscled gondoliers and pocket Rialto bridges. Nor was it was the doomed romanticism evident in sources as varied as Thomas Mann, Nicolas Roeg and even David Chipperfield. In fact, it was something in between. The Victorians were not just big on theme parks, but themes in general, and entertainment, romance, death and industry were frequently brought together in comprehensive but rather graceless synergy in objects like the Albert Memorial.

The inversion is that the modern theme park now occupies the grand houses and parks that had their final fling in the Vicotrian era, employing the very people who would have flocked to the popular entertainments at Earl's Court, etc, etc. While there's not enough space in the UK for theme parks to become abandoned (I, II, III, IV), the architectural losses were the fading, crumbling country houses (see Lost Heritage, 'a memorial to the lost country houses of England'), which gives some indication of what was deemed important throughout the twentieth century.

The flooded, sunken city is a popular theme (taken from 'London 'flooded' in disaster film', July 2007) in popular culture and to a more death-centric culture Venice represents a half-way house between the cataclysm of fatal, irreversible immersion and damp, ongoing romantic gloom. The If London Were Like Venice article from 1899, with its marvellous illustrations of a sunken city, followed the Kiralfy show, fusing its imagery with a speculative view of a changed capital. This sort of thing still appeals very much to the meteorologically obsessed British, see Ballard's Drowned World (1962) or BLDG BLOG on British Hydrology, the use of Google Maps to illustrate global Sea Level Rise (via Inkycircus).

As we write, the Olympic torch is preparing to make its way through a freshly snow-covered city. It will probably look spectacular. Kiralfy would have been proud.

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