Wednesday, 20 July 2011

City of Angels

When I began this blog last summer I had in mind that it could act as a sounding board for ideas that arose from my doctoral research. I also wanted to practice writing – as writing down what it is that I am thinking is proving to be just about the hardest thing about this PhD (second only to generating the thoughts in the first place). This blog was also principally born of the fear that the formless summer months, devoid of the structures of teaching and fortnightly seminars, would swamp me – and as they swing around again I have the same worry, hence this post!

The topics covered in this blog so far are somewhat of a hodge-podge, perhaps with a few unifying themes such as architecture and class, housing and the role of the architect. I am not going become anxious over the apparent lack of coherence between the posts on this blog, because it’s actually a fairly accurate approximation of my thoughts most of the time - skipping from one thing to the next with scant regard for how the whole may hold together. But the ‘whole’ is on my mind at the minute. I am trying to write a short statement about my project to date, for the purposes of a university procedure, and while it is tedious, it is forcing me to reflect on the bigger picture as opposed to the minutia that usually preoccupy me. Having said all that I’m not going to try and sum up the entirety of my Phd here, instead I want to write a post about another seemingly divergent subject – Los Angeles. It does relate to my research though, in more ways than I had anticipated. 

Way back in September 2010, I was searching for Nikolaus Pevsner’s archive – he worked on and edited The Architectural Review with Jim Richards for many years and I hoped his archive might contain elusive documentary material about the running of the magazine. Pevsner’s papers, I soon found out, are owned by the J. Paul Getty Institute and available at the Getty Research Library in Los Angeles. After a month of agonizing over the application form and several months waiting for the verdict, I received a Getty Research Library Grant, which allowed me three weeks in LA to consult not only the Pevsner papers but several other collections as well. 

The research was great – new material, new ideas, etc, but Los Angeles was quite something.

Let me start however with a negative aspect of my visit. The absolute worst thing about L.A. in four words was the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Seeing the concert hall, in downtown L.A. was the moment I decided that I have seen enough Frank Gehry buildings. I don’t ever want to see another Frank Gehry, ever again. In fact, I’ll say it - I hate Frank Gehry.

Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall 
Earlier in the year I visited Zurich (another archival trip) and while in Switzerland thought it opportune to go to the Vitra factory in Basel. With the exception of the 2008 Serpentine Gallery Pavillion, the Vitra Museum and Gallery was my first real life Gehry experience. Coincidently, at the time of my visit there was a retrospective exhibition of Gehry’s work on at the Museum and printed on the exhibition wall, among various other quotes, were the words of Marty Filler who described Gehry’s architecture as “logo-tecture”. This phrase, logo-tecture, like the term starchitect, sums up Gehry’s buildings which, like all good branding, are instantly recognizable and are identical, regardless of context. 

Gehry's Museum and Gallery, Vitra, Basel
It is the disregard for context that is so irritating about Gehry’s architecture. Its not the monumental and spectacular nature of his designs but the fact that there is no more to them than that. Unlike the spectacular architecture of Las Vegas, which celebrates glamour, luxury, frivolity and the purely visual, Frank Gehry buildings are empty shells. The Walt Disney Concert Hall reflects the downtown surroundings from the polished stainless steel exterior but has no relationship to the city. Gehry, who purportedly “doesn’t do context”, appears to believe his buildings relate only to him, to his creative process and in doing so he ignores the place of history in his architecture – something which as a historian I find very irritating.

Walt Disney Concert Hall
Las Vegas Strip
Fantasy architecture, Las Vegas
By way of contrast, the Gehry designed Museum in Vitra is flanked by a small, anonymous sheet metal shed. This anonymous shed was an example of the mass produced architecture developed by Jean Prouvé in post Second World War France. This type of standardised design that repeats shapes to create architecture that can sit anywhere, may appear to neglect context in the way that Gehry does. However, the Prouve shed does something very different, it allows the use and context to construct meaning around the architecture; Gehry’s buildings bring their own meanings and struggle against anything that attempts to impact or effect this meaning (mainly people who use the building).

Back in Los Angeles and just down the road from Gehry’s concert hall in the city's Downtown is the County Hall of Records designed by Richard Neutra. While the Hall of Records has its own problems – described by Reyner Banham as “neither tough-minded nor sensitive, nor architectural monuments, nor Pop extravaganzas” – it does at least relate to the streets around it.

Downtown is a marked departure from the architecture of the rest of the city of Los Angeles, again Banham describes it best when as a place full of “memorials to a certain insecurity of spirit among timid souls who cannot bear to go with the flow of Angeleno life”. In other words, Downtown L.A. contains the vestiges of mid to late twentieth century attempts to emulate the architectural practices of more conventional cities (New York for example) but in doing so they ignored the unique urbanism of Los Angeles. 

That said, down town was home to one of my favourite L.A. buildings – Union Station. Against my better judgement – I am sucker for a bit of Art Deco (I think it can be a bit politically suspect, at times offering glitz over substance). Nowhere I have ever been does Art Deco like Los Angeles, and no-where that I visited in Los Angeles does Art Deco like Union Station. Jim Richards deplored Art Deco in Castles on the Ground he used his usual style of ‘damning with faint praise’ to describe the suburban Odeon cinema as “glamorous in chromium plate” – glamour was another word for fashion and to Richards’ mind fashion was the antithesis of architecture, which should be universal. However, Richards did admire the popular appeal Art Deco managed to attract and it is the celebration of the everyday through glamorisation, which draws me to Art Deco buildings.

Something I think Richards would have liked about L.A. are the cottages. While there are blocks of Condominiums (condos), much of L.A.’s housing is made up of single story dwellings that are partly responsible for the cities extensive sprawl, but also a symbols of the city’s basis in individualism and penchant for what Banham called “doing your own thing”. While these streets and streets of detached, low rise houses may not fit into Modernist ideas about urban planning or Townscape, they do represent a vernacular style. Richards worked tirelessly to promote the idea of a vernacular Modernism with varying degrees of success.

Towards the end of my stay I ventured to the outskirts of L.A. to Pasadena where, following in Banham’s footsteps (see Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles) I found the ancestor of the L.A. cottage (or the California cottage as is spreads throughout the state), the Gamble House.

The limited knowledge that I had of the house prior to my visit came straight from histories of Modern architecture. In these design history narratives the Gamble House, with it’s Arts and Craft styling was grouped into the ‘ancestors of Modernism’ category along with William Morris and the Red House. Thus, when I arrived, sweaty and disorientated from my walk from Pasadena station (much further than the map indicated – note, all distances in L.A. are measured by driving, not walking) I was ready to see the honesty in construction and use of materials in the house, which had foreshadowed the Modern Movement. 

However, the guided tour administered by a dedicated volunteer was a lesson in the role of discourses in the construction of meaning around buildings and objects. By discourses I mean a specific way of thinking and talking about something. The tour was based on a completely different set of values and ideas to those of the design history discourses I had previously engaged with. While the honesty of construction in the building was commented on, it was not as a symptom of architectural Modernism but as a testament to craftsmanship and local traditions. The house was presented through the biographies of not only its’ architects, the brothers Charles and Henry Greene, but also it’s owners David and Mary Gamble. I hasten to add that I am not suggesting the discourse of the tour was any less significant or important than the discourse of design history, but the contrast between the two was an invaluable reminder that anything I (or anyone) write or say about a building is determined by a discursive context (what we read, watch, listen to) and in turn constructs a discourse about the object that coexists (and perhaps contradicts) all other interpretations.

Reyner Banham created a new discourse about L.A. in his book An Architecture in Four Ecologies – rather than criticise the city through the accepted criteria of urban planning, Banham approached L.A. on it’s own terms and while still acknowledging its’ problems and idiosyncrasies found things to love about it. I loved L.A. too, except the Concert Hall of course. 

Venice Beach Mural 
Individualised houses, Venice Beach

Some of the other things I loved about L.A...
China Town
Dilapidated Deco 
Hollywood Hills

Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Wanderer Returns

Oh my, how I have agonised about this post - I must have gone through at least 5 different attempts to resuscitate this blog since Christmas, but none of them panned out. I have been confined, for the last few months, to writing up my first year of research and although this brought a lot of reflection and evaluation, it has not been forthcoming in blog-able material. Having said that, I am stretching back to June 2010 with this post.

Last year I went on a 72 hour round trip to the Shetland Islands on the kind invitation of Victoria and Richard Gibson. What seemed then to be an exciting adventure appears now to have been a important turning point in my research. I kept a diary of the 3 days, which I have referred back to several times in my recent attempts to record last years' work. For this reason I thought the diary might be something interesting to share. So much of my research has been based on interviews and personal letters - sources that before this project I had never used before - and much of my first year was taken up with contemplating this source material and the issues that came with it, some of which is contained in the diary.

Monday 31st May 2010

Left the Reconstruction-era housing and halal chicken shops of Stepney Green at a pretty-early-for-a-bank-holiday hour. Streets were very quiet but myself and the only other person on the pavement end up walking in sync and uncomfortably close (why?). I’m tired because my fractious sleep last night was haunted by images of ferries sinking and connections missed – despite this I arrive early at Kings Cross station, the starting point of my journey north travelling the length of the British Isles. And Hurray! There is wireless internet on the train - a few more hours of civilised communication before I am cut off. My image of Shetland is one of isolation – defined mainly by a lack of wireless – but beyond that I am unsure of what to expect. The Scottish Highland and the volcanic landscape of Iceland are the images I conjure up when trying to imagine the islands (its actually much greener than Iceland and much flatter than the highlands)

I’m also intrigued to meet my hosts, the only surviving family of J.M. Richards. The agenda for this trip is to build up a picture of the people, places, ideas, beliefs and expectations that surrounded Richards. I want to understand the books, paintings, objects and everyday life that produced the content of his BBC radio programmes, Architectural Review articles and CIAM work. So, I have a suitcase full of recording equipment, notebooks, relevant books and fleeces; I also have gifts from Fortnam and Mason’s to ease my transition. And, if all goes to pot, I have the number of a local hotel.

Edinburgh, four and half hours into the train journey to Aberdeen, a luggage theft causes a bit of a wait. The four ladies in my carriage debate, loudly, the score of their Bridge game.


I’m reading the copy of David Kynaston’s Family Britain, which I picked up at the station and but everything I read is tinged with the anticipation of meeting Victoria Gibson (Richards’ daughter from his marriage to Peggy Angus). During Kynaston’s description of the Festival of Britain I’m preoccupied with whether Richards would have taken Victoria to see the festival buildings (I find out later that he did but her memories of the event – like so many peoples – are of the fireworks more than the architecture)

I make it to the Ferry at Aberdeen. Just 12 short hours at sea and I’ll be in Lerwick. I have essays to mark, which I do, in the Ship’s bar over a glass of wine. Sleep is elusive in the narrow, curtained bunk in a cabin with 4 strangers but breakfast in the harbour in the sunny(!) Shetlands makes up for this somewhat.

Tuesday 1st June
I’m met off the boat by Richard Gibson, Victoria’s husband and an architect himself. My usual anxiety over first meetings (result of too many days alone in the archive) is put off by the Gibsons' immediate friendliness and chat. Lerwick is small and dominated by the port – it seems you can see the sea from wherever you are. Stone buildings characterise the old town where Richard and Victoria live, although we drive through an expanding mass of newer houses between the port and the old town. Lerwick feels, in the spring sunshine, like a town that’s growing fervently beyond its existing boundaries.

In the low ceilinged kitchen of the Gibsons' house we have coffee and I explain my project. I am walking the fine line between biography and history and I try to explain how my interest in Richards (or Jim as I quickly learn to refer to him) is perhaps more as a cultural figure than an individual, a player in a wider network rather than a private person. Having said that, I am desperate to get a more rounded image of the man who, to date, I’ve only encountered through committee minutes and the odd scribbled note at the RIBA archive.

As we begin to talk, Victoria is clearly unsure of what sort of information I am after – she is also, understandably, concerned about protecting the privacy and integrity of her father’s life. I try to ask a lot of questions – hoping I will eventually make it clear to Victoria (and to myself) what I want to know. However, it fast becomes apparent that asking questions is not the way to go. In fact the best thing I learn to do after lunch is sit quietly and listen. When there are gaps and pauses, which in normal conversation would feel stalled and awkward, I steel myself through them and it pays off because without my interceptions, Victoria tells the tales she remembers of her mother, father and family friends.

Even when we take a break for a walk around Lerwick to visit the fish monger and see Victoria’s studio and shop, the stories continue; some are sparked off by sites in the town (many of which appear unchanged from the images featured in the townscape article in the August 1969 issue of the Architectural Review –Kenneth Clark was sent to cover the town for the magazine after Jim had visited Victoria there). Other stories arose from talking to Victoria’s eldest daughter Emma who had a close relationship with her grandmother Peggy Angus. We visit the 17th century town house that was the former home of the Gibson family and where Peggy would come to visit each summer. Still owned by the family but now rented out, the house was still hung with paintings by Kit Lewis, Jim’s second wife and Victoria’s step-mother. Victoria explains that these dark, slightly sinister, oils on huge canvases stood in contrast to Kit’s light, breezy, perhaps even trivial personality. The paintings perhaps express something of the tragedies that Kit experienced from the loss of her first husband, to Jim’s infidelities and of course her and Jim’s devastation after the death of their son Alexander.

Kit’s paintings stayed in this rented house, while Jim’s possession moved with the family to the house over looking the bay. I learn at dinner that you can often see killer whales from the kitchen window; I also hear from one Victoria’s sons that he is building a fibreglass model of a killer whale to be used by the salmon farmers to ward off seals who eat the fish. The kitchen, on the ground floor of the house is decorated with wall paper Victoria made herself and circled by a shelf that holds Jims collection of coronation mugs - a nod to his sense of humour as well as his interest in popular tastes.

That afternoon Victoria had showed me a hand written document left to her by her father, titled Will You Step into My Parlour? This draft of an autobiography by objects was also an inventory of the objects that had filled Richards’ flat in Cheyne Walk – many of which were now in Victoria’s house. I spend some time before dinner just browsing the bookshelves that hold what’s left of Jim and Peggy’s respective libraries. Objects and possessions are a vital part of the stories Victoria tells, for example she emphasises how the contrasts between her parent’s tastes, decoration of their interiors and even their fashion sense, were striking and marked the extreme oppositions between them. These differences were balanced by a shared intellectual life, interest in art and literature and ideas.

Victoria Gibson was keen to readjust the image of her mother – their difficult and uncomfortable relationship has been overlooked by existing histories of her mother and the circle of people around Furlongs, Angus’s house in Sussex. Victoria speaks of her constant and conscious exclusion from goings on by her mother, but the converse reliance her mother had on her and her brother to organise and facilitate her lifestyle. Furlongs plays a large part in the Victoria’s narratives. Victoria also has Peggy’s Furlong’s Journals, some of which were compiled by Emma in the later years. These scrap-books are full of the comings and goings of Furlongs. For instance, the annual bonfire parties that drew large crowds of friends, acquaintances and students of Peggy’s.

The group were an incestuous bunch – the affair between Eric Ravillious and Helen Binyon is well documented and took place largely within the walls of Furlongs – although Peggy, Tirzah (Ravillious’s wife) and Helen were life long friends. Jim’s relationships with other women were well known to Peggy, although she despaired in them. This is where Peggy and Jim’s respective appearances and lifestyles clashed with their values. Jim appearing to be the stiff, traditionalist to Peggy’s bohemian, free spirit, while in fact their ideas about relationships and sex presented a very different picture. A telling reminder perhaps that sexual promiscuousness remained a greater social taboo for women than for men. Furlongs as both a physical and metaphysical place defined Angus and her relationships. The design and upkeep of the house spoke of the gulf of difference between her and Jim. No running water, no electricity, a bohemian collection of art and objects, stood against Jim’s penchant for Simpson’s and the shirts from Harrods.

Victoria’s stories together with the images in the diaries create for me an image of life at Furlongs. With no radio or television at Furlongs time was passed in conversation – often about politics – making art and in Peggy’s case singing. Jim and Peggy constantly swapped books and ideas, while in temperament they clashed, in outlook and ideas they often complemented one another. After their divorce they would encounter each other at private views and other cultural events. Peggy and Jim also shared several mutual friends including F.R.S. Yorke – Peggy designed tiles for his company for many years, some of which were exhibited at the 1951 Festival of Britain - Victoria goes to school with Yorke’s twins and they visit frequently, she also went to school with Lionel Brett’s children. This network of people seems akin to Charleston or Kettles Yard, they share at least the overlap of place and ideas, Furlongs both expressed and created a culture of which Richards was a part (for a brief time).

When speaking to Victoria and her husband Richard I feel immersed in the culture and images of the people, characters and gossip they retell – however, even now as I just sit upstairs before dinner, I can feel those images slipping away, writing this is my way of trying to record what I’ve heard. I go to bed early, soon after dinner, I am exhausted by the day and also want some time to reflect of everything we’ve talked about. As it is June in Shetland, it doesn’t get dark, I have to fix a piece of mdf in place in front of my window if there’s any hope of getting off to sleep. 

Wednesday 2nd June (on the Ferry back to Aberdeen, pre-sea sickness)

I only have until lunch-time today because I need to be at the port at 3 to catch my return ferry. I sense that Victoria is also exhausted from yesterday and trawling through her memories of her father, some not so pleasant memories. However, I talk in more depth to Richard Gibson, whom Victoria married when she was 20 using a letter of permission from her father, much to her mother’s dismay. Richard Gibson’s memories of Jim are of his dry sense of humour that could be mistaken for terseness. After lunch and coffee in the café that is a new addition to the shop and studio in town, Richard and Victoria take me on a brief tour of the island around Lerwick, much of it populated by houses designed by Richard and his office.

Once on the ferry bound for Aberdeen, I filled with relief at going home, the trip has been emotionally and intellectually intense. But I am grateful to the family that allowed my to see J.M. Richards as Jim for the first time. The trip has given a new dimension to my research, one populated with the characters, sagas, gossip and tangled affairs that formed the background to the public discussion of art and design in the middle decades of the 20th century.

Victoria is an intriguing character, growing up in the shadow of her eccentric, over-bearing mother who apparently openly favoured her brother, an epileptic who died at just 21 years old. Continually cajoled and criticised by her mother, Victoria’s keenness to shed new, less rose-tinted light on her celebrated mother is accompanied by an underlying affection and reluctant loyalty to the women who ostensibly brought her up and, as her house in Lerwick testifies, influenced her tastes and lifestyle.

Victoria’s relationship with her father was formed by his unfortunate marriage, awkward divorce and subsequent life long struggle with her mother. Peggy Angus’ ongoing resentment and vocal criticism of Richards did not match Victoria’s impression of him. While she insists he was ‘never a father’ to her, he played a significant if often largely peripheral role in her life. Including the secret, yet ongoing financial support of her mother.

It is the light that Victoria has shed on Richards during his marriage to Peggy and his lifestyle and personality after their divorce, that have inspired me during this trip. Firstly, the images of a young, handsome, Jim Richards strike a real contrast with my images of the middle aged, committee man of the 1950s and 1960s. The Jim that visited Furlongs with Tirzah and Ravillious and Serge Chermayeff was almost unrecognisable from my archival research to date. This ill-fated and widely disapproved of relationship with ‘Red Angus’, revealed a side of JMR that I’d heard tell of, but which came immediately to life in Peggy’s paintings and Victoria’s memories of wartime Sussex. Left wing politics, art and ideas (especially that of William Morris), were the things that Peggy and Jim shared despite their dramatically different temperaments. 

I was struck by the importance of this circle, or network, that Peggy and Jim shared, including most notably the Ravillious’s, Helen Binyon, Edward Bawden, the Pipers and other such as Percy Hauton, Sadie Martin and EQ Nicholson. Peggy’s Sussex cottage formed an environment for artists and intellectuals that greatly influenced Richards in his first years as editor of the Architectural Review. In this sense it’s possible to draw a parallel between Furlongs and Charleston or Fawnley Bottom (the Piper’s cottage), as a rural site for the establishment and development of artistic theory and practice – Furlongs and Charleston were physically united in the figure of Duncan Grant, who frequented both. This cultural and familial background contextualises and enlivens my image of Richards. This insight into Richards’ personal life has proved a revelation to me – seeing the human side to the somewhat bureaucratic voice of the Editor, critic and committee member opened my eyes to the importance of the personal dimension to the professional links.