22 March, 2009

On the Textures of West London

Sure, it's been a while. Not that I've had nothing to say: but my intellectual energies have of late been directed instead towards the munificent footnotes of my opus. I was going to return with an arcane disquisition on religion in the later Renaissance; I still have it planned, but after such a charming request for another 'of the same order' as my last post, I offer you this instead. It is about walking in London; I do hope you are not sick of the subject.


Today I returned to the Grand Union Canal, west of Scrubs Lane. The weather was fine, and cyclists pelted repeatedly past me on the towpath. Strolling the canal in London is unique: for one can see to the other side, but not attain it. Thus whatever the far bank has to offer must be enjoyed at a distance, almost as through a glass. One of the finest spots in the city, indeed, is the passage of the Canal through London Zoo: on the near side, a great modernist aviary filled with peacocks, and on the far, a stepped enclosure with antelopes. At seven on a weekday morning, with nobody about, one can imagine the whole world obliterated save for these stray exotics. West of Scrubs Lane, the mood is quite different. There are no zoos, no genteel back gardens opening onto the canal, no grand Nash terrace or Elgood mansion to stare one down from without, fewer houseboats; and instead, plenty of industry, old and new. Also, now and then, an uncategorisable oddity, such as this:

Strangely, the woman's head in the gold capsule (see details, right) rotated as I watched, such that I initially thought it a live person. I was unable to determine the mechanism of its movement: was it, for instance, electric? Nor could I ascertain its function. Perhaps simply to instill fear and awe in the beholder, an effect largely achieved in my case, due partly to its distance, which allowed the illusion to remain unspoilt, and partly to its physical separation across the water of the canal. I hope that Park Royal Salvage are sensible enough to light the head at night, and even to add smoke effects for the true Gothic horror experience. Still, she was strangely peaceful in the five o'clock sunshine, silent, with nary a soul about, just revolving merrily in a junkpile above the canal, on the edge of the least human area of London. Right from Scrubs Lane, the towpath is full of sounds, present, but never invasive: the chug of occasional barges, the hum of toy planes flown over the copse in Wormwood Scrubs to the south, the whish of bicycles and cackle of the geese they fright up as they pass, and a two-note alarm you can hear for quite a distance, the same two notes, I think, chosen by John Cale for his acute production of 'Facing the Wind'. The canal is also haunted by a smell, warm and half-sweet, like a bakery.
This should be one of the sights of London. Instead you have to slip on to it furtively from Acton Lane or Old Oak Lane. Cooling towers, steaming engines, chimneys, black corrugated-iron sheds: a new industrial excitement every few yards, mellowed and bound together by the water in the foreground and the grass on the banks. — Nairn, London.
This texture I recalled from my last visit here, almost a decade ago. I have pictures from that trip, in sepia, some of the few photographs I took in the pre-digital age. They are scratched and muddy, but only appropriately so. I would not reform them.

At that time, Butterfingers and I were overwhelmed by the darkness and brutality of the place. This was not the North London in which I had grown up: a crueller beast, and a thrilling one. Our urbanites are too flattered by their surroundings, allowed too easily to master their streets, pretty and neatly arranged at the human scale. We need, rather, a range of moods: the gentle, certainly, but also, as here, the harsh, alienating, monumental. As the Romantics knew, though they were able to find it only in the countryside, we need to experience subjugation at the hands of a landscape, to keep us humble, in lieu of a religion. For this reason I was relieved to find the same remorseless passages today, albeit in full March colour:

But not all of my memories were intact. Here is another: the '57' on the side of the brick building behind the silos tells us what it is, namely, a Heinz factory.

Today I reached Abbey Road at Stonebridge with a start: I had not seen the old 57. Where was she? Gone, vanished, and in her place, simply endless rows of faceless grey boxes, walls without architecture, like these. Nairn's 'industrial excitement' is diminishing year by year; I presume that it had largely dissipated even before my first trip. Our architecture is tending away from these black chimneys, towards an absence of character, and particularly of texture. Dirt, grit and variety is bending to sheen and monotony. As an example, take the outer wall of London's new über-mall, Westfield, at the southern end of Scrubs Lane:

Look closely: this is a wall upon which the sun is shining directly, as you can see from the concrete supports below, and by the polished metal strip running along the side towards the top. The supports have their shadows, and the reflected glow of the strip indicates the path of the sun's light. But the wall itself has no glow or texture: only colour. Light diffuses smoothly, immaculately, across it, and becomes invisible. And so the wall resembles a simulation. Inside, legions of immigrants labour to maintain spotlessness. I saw one girl at her post, in a free moment, take a cloth to wipe an imaginary mark from the glass above her till. The antiseptic cleanliness of the place is most impressive. And it has been very cleverly laid out: there are no dead ends, and at the conclusion of each row of merchants, another vista opens out suddenly, beckoning you forward. The lines are not straight and orthogonal, but sinuous and irregular, ergonomic. Even signs have the soft edges of a modernist sculpture, of an Arp or a Moore:

(Hatherley, in his account of Westfield, says the signs remind him of 'prehistoric rubble'.) The tiny detail is utterly revealing. At every moment the aggression of commerce is masked and quieted, and the environment becomes instead cosy, childlike. The glass ceiling allows sunlight to penetrate every nook; there is no darkness, no possibility of the secret or occult, no possibility of 'slipping onto anything furtively'. One moves not by espying and following, not of one's own accord, but as if in a dream, automatically. The sounds are not chug, whish, hum, cackle, alarm, but consumer chatter and the reassuring strains of over-produced radio pop. The smell is not warm and nostalgic, but processed and global, expensive and indeterminate.

Westfield is the future of London, of England—the latest stage in an evolution away from awe, away from brutality, monumentality, and towards cosiness. We are no longer to see the guts of our industry: the girders, pipes, valves, tanks, the bits that get dirty. Instead, smooth lines, matte surfaces, public art. The industry along the Thames, for instance at Chelsea Wharf and Nine Elms, is being swept away for shiny flats in the Westfield idiom, and one has to trudge out east of the Dome to see the desolate remains of the old, to experience the filthy sublimity of industrial scale, and of its continued operation. On the Canal, meanwhile, south side, just east of the Hythe Road Estate, where the towpath swings away from the railway lines, one discovers a puny birch grove, littered with rubbish. I took a few steps down into the grove, and espied an old gentleman by himself, in this most forgotten spot, haunting the trees.

The sun was still coming down as it had been all afternoon, but the trees beat it back and made the place obscure. The old fellow was just standing there, not moving, for as long as I watched him. I was unable to determine the reason for his presence, or his stillness. Perhaps he was busy bringing to mind the canal as it once had been. I moved on, towards the factories.


A.J.P. Crown said...

For as long as I can remember (30 years), there have been discussions and great quantities of money and time spent on designing 'taut skins': in other words making glass curtain walls with the glass and all of its connections and mullions in the same plane as each other, thereby casting the absolute minimum amount of shadow or uneven reflection across the surface. It was hard to achieve, but clever design and new technology (glue, gaskets and bigger bits of insulated glass) have made it possible. There's a wider range of glass colours available nowadays, too.

On the other hand, there's been very little done to increase surface texture -- especially in commercial building -- I'd say, since Brutalism.

One reason for this state of affairs, probably the main one though I don't know much about construction in London, is that developers like to maximise the net square footage of their projects -- i.e. what's rentable -- relative to the gross square footage -- i.e. what they are paying for in construction cost. Space planners (a job title invented in the Eighties) measure, literally, every square millimetre of a shopping mall or office building and try to get the architect and structural engineer to make the walls and columns and other uninhabitable nooks and crannies as small as possible.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, Crown. But I don't see what the 'taut skin' has to do with maximising retail floor-space.

A.J.P. Crown said...

The prospect of creating a taut (especially glass) skin has always provoked modernists because it has to do with transparency, grids, reflection and other kinds of abstraction (see "Transparency, Real and Phenomenal", by Robert Slutsky and Colin Rowe, 196-something).

A glass curtain wall has the physical side effect of being very thin -- say, roughly, one-inch thick in many places -- compared to a concrete block wall, that's probably over a foot thick. The net to gross sq. ft ratio of a floor of a building enclosed by glass is much closer than that of (say) a concrete block building, where there is a more than one foot difference all the way around between the inside and the outside perimeter. In plan view, the developer is renting out the inside square feet, but he is paying for the construction of the outside square feet. The closer the two are to each other, the happier the developer is. It's fairly obvious if you take it to an extreme. Think of a woman in Africa who builds a very thick-walled shop. It's a thousand sq. ft, but the walls are so enormously thick that only a hundred sq. ft of it remains to be rented out. She will be less satisfied than the neighbouring open-air developer, whose building has no walls at all, so he can rent out the entire two thousand.

Glass walls are more often used on office buildings than on shopping centres; but the principle of non-load bearing walls enclosing a structure of columns and beams -- on which twentieth-century modernism is pretty much based -- has nowadays been refined to the extent that few people build any kind of commercial structure using very much thickness (and therefore texture) in the outside walls. This is unlike a Victorian warehouse, for example, whose brick walls rely on relief for the magnificent play of light and shadow.

Lisa said...

Dear Mr. Roth,

My oldest son, Amin, has this fantastic head of hair. Copious in quantity, its quality is neither especially coarse nor terribly fine, but each strand’s a marvelously thick, pliable stalk. If you buzz him short, cadet-style, his hair's sheer volume makes for an awesomely fresh sensation: crown to neck it’s smooth as a milled stone and sleek as spun silk; rub against the grain and it delivers a shock of pure tensile pleasure to the palm. Your essay’s like that, except, of course, it’s the head and not the hand that gets the welcome jolt.

Roaming around the canal’s cityscape; winding through Westfields’ pristine mall: at first read it’s a calm, almost tranquil excursion, this ‘been there, done that’ piece of yours. I grinned at the orbiting head; caught the canal’s sugary drift, weighed what wrought Heinz’ demise (I’ll hazard that “slow good” jingle of theirs; hated it), saw the mall-gal busy enough at imaginary hygienic infractions; wondered at the quiescent old codger lingering at the far edge of the littered wood.

It was a great treat to read and, having indulged myself as much as time invariably allows, I set about tackling the day’s myriad mundane tasks (I have five kids, so there’s no end to my chores). But as I went about my work, something about the essay nagged at me. It took me until after the kids were asleep to figure it out. Because your writing is at once both fluid and measured, it’s all too easy (for me) to give in to its prose. Not wanting to sound perverted, its lilt has an almost seductive quality; kind of like looking at a peacock when its plummage is in full array; by association, it’s hard to see the bird for its feathers. I make this admittedly oafish analogy because it was actually those “stray exotics” that least caught my eye during the first reading, but which I later wholly subsumed.

Namely, almost every “tiny detail” in your writing ripples, current-like, just under the narrative surface: cyclists’ whiz by as you wend your way down the city’s towpath, the strangely ensconced mannequin’s head pivots, the shop’s girl mechanically wipes; ironically, even the old fifty-seven's ‘passed on’, headed, it’s hoped, for greener pastures. But more: every conspicuous image -- save for your “stray exotics” and your “old fellow” -- derives its force (or so to me it seems) from a subtle interplay of antithesis and parallelism. I’m not merely referring to the barefaced contrast between say, for instance, "dirty...guts” and “antispectic cleanliness”; but the “matte surfaces, public art” that informs the “uber-mall” architecture of Westfield and the “uncategorisable oddity … [that marks] the edge of the least human area of London.” Surely I’m not imagining some untried tension between the disembodied head of the mannequin perched atop her mound of debris and the busy-bee working her register, wordlessly.

Still, the two images which most stand out -- those poor creatures (bird and beast alike) and the aging man – do so ultimately because they stand still. Such stasis suggests some abstruse equilibrium at play; one made all the more poignant by the high fence abutting the train-track, no doubt forged of some hardy metal, towards which the man faces. Thus, I came to conjecture: the “stray exotics”, against their upscale address, and spiffy quarterage, have been made impoverished by virtue of their very exoticness, or, rather, their exoticness as fashion perceives it.

For my own part, I imagine your gaggle of geese, those “[r]ight from Scrubs Lane,” being -- despite the fright of bicyclists’ and the likelihood of an occasional tow-path-side mishap -- happier than their chic city cousins in their “modernist aviary,” no matter how great its size. And really, when it comes down to the wire, what’s truly ‘extraordinary’ is an overstuffed goose-feather pillow behind one’s head following a superbly roasted goose dinner, replete with the requisite fixings. For those who’re all up in ‘avant-garde’ arms or only mild ‘au courant' enthusiasts: take a picture of an egg in a cage; save a peacock. Verily, England’s quite exotic of its own accord: ask any American.

So what may be said of the “old fellow … just standing there, not moving” at the edge of the shabby grove? I can’t insist a shock of white hair an “old” anybody makes, but after a sound mulling over, it occurred to me, and for all I know, your oblivious, maybe reticent subject is, euphemistically speaking, a rare bird indeed. One thing is certain: whatever his straights, hopefully not too dire, he seems content left to his own devices. So now, a day and some few hours since I first read your essay, I submit this: where your language is subtle, your imagery’s stark. A perfect mesh: like my Amin after a good haircut.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Lisa, many thanks for your comment, again. It is very flattering to know somebody is paying such close attention to what I write. The parallels were intentional: and walking down a canal is much like window-shopping---in both the objects of one's interest are separated, in one case over water, in the other behind glass.

As for Westfield, Riyadh seems to have its fair share of such shiny megaliths.

AJS said...

I am fascinated by two ladies - the mannequin in the sun and the reader Lisa (what a delightful response you composed and concluded so neatly).

We do not tire of your promenades.