• Art, Past & Present: Part 2 of 3 - 'Monet & Architecture'

    By chance, three different art exhibitions in London currently all engage with the same subject – how particular artists considered the old and the new. Specifically, shows looking at Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet and Thomas Cole explore how they each viewed societal developments in their own times, wondered what their work should look like in the context of that and whether they followed, built on or reacted against those practitioners who came before. Fittingly all three finish on the same date, so you have about five weeks to experience all of them. My own encounters continued with the National Gallery’s Monet & Architecture.

    Forget, if you can, Monet’s water lilies. This exhibition is about his response to the built environment around him, in Normandy, Rouen, Paris, London and Venice, whether featuring incidentally or as the principal – sometimes only – subject. It looks at how painted architecture directly, and at how he used it as counterpoint to the natural world for which he is best known. It considers his selection of structures old and new, and it looks at repetition – how the same topic could be painted again and again yet be different each time.

    Beginning with Monet’s love for the traditional aesthetic of the picturesque allows simple scenes of village and harbour life to impress with their dancing light, bright colours and clever effects, such as the apparent blurring of grasses in the foreground of The Hut at Sainte-Adresse, although the captions are curiously silent occasionally on obvious points, such as the dramatically vertiginous viewpoint down a winding lane cutting through the centre of one picture of the same location even as its vertical orientation – surely designed to enhance this exact effect – is noted. A developing mastery of colour and composition is also seen, with the former employed to suggest weather effects (a View of Amsterdam appears as though seen through a rain-spattered window) and the latter starting to use architecture as a highlight or framing device. Both skills come together in the superb The Cliff at Varengeville, which is almost Pre-Raphaelite with its keen atmosphere, and the warmly coastal The Church at Vethéuil.

    Already the variation in Monet’s approach is apparent, and this is not always to the viewer’s advantage in my view. Many of his works are aggressively naïve or pointillistic, these last effective only at a distance. The exhibition is silent on this, disappointingly. Even when he takes this road however other sides of his technique impress, such as the almost monochrome Snow Effect at Giverney which nevertheless drew me in through its complex textures and implied motion, both of which reminded me of Rothko.

    The modern city was a touchstone for many late 19th century artists, including the Impressionists, but this show presents Monet as ambivalent to its charms. It appears that the cost of living an urban life – plus ça change – along with a lack of great interest from buyers in the works he produced eventually dissuaded him. The heavier, darker colours of his images of the Gare St-Lazare are an effective contrast with the earlier rural works and show a solid artistic response to a change of scene, but Monet’s true sympathies seem to lie in the quieter moments along quaysides, near bridges and – in one soft, subtle masterpiece – with a distant View of Rouen, where a row of slim trees is echoed by the tall mast of a barge and a chimney, and barely-there clouds and a slight pink sunset radiate evening calm.

    All three subjects include water, with Monet’s talent for reflection also well to the fore. His ability to differentiate one form of light from another in variant circumstances is seen in the spectacular The Boulevard des Capucines, where two men in top hats stand on a balcony (they are almost pushed off the edge of the canvas) and watch a teeming crowd of several hundred individually-painted figures on the street below with half the scene bathed in winter sunlight and half in shadow.

    Monet’s astonishing ultra-grainy close ups of Rouen cathedral done from slightly different angles and at very different times of day and his heavily atmospheric scenes painted from London bridges close this section. The first is perhaps the most powerful room of the show, with half a dozen frames reading as massively enlarged photographs from further away. The artist often had several canvases on the go simultaneously in Britain’s capital, storing them in rented or gifted rooms and adjusting each in turn at the relevant time of day to properly capture the shifts of light, colour and time, effectively caught with a trio of works featuring the Houses of Parliament from across the river in fog, a storm and at sunset.

    Late-period portraits of Venice’s palazzos and more – the term must be correct, since no people feature – close this excellent show. It is well-curated and superbly hung. The number and choice of canvasses and their considered disposition is a perfect fit for the basement Sainsbury galleries, working with their variety and the clever theming to ensure that things never become overwhelming. As something of a Monet sceptic, I am – just about – convinced...

    The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture continues at the National Gallery, London WC2 until 29 July 2018



  • Art, Past & Present: Part 1 of 3 - 'Rodin and the art of ancient Greece'

    By chance, three different art exhibitions in London currently all engage with the same subject – how particular artists considered the old and the new. Specifically, shows looking at Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet and Thomas Cole explore how they each viewed societal developments in their own times, wondered what their work should look like in the context of that and whether they followed, built on or reacted against those practitioners who came before. Fittingly all three finish on the same date, so you have about five weeks to experience all of them. My own encounters began with the British Museum’s Rodin and the art of ancient Greece.

    The putative originator of modern sculpture visited the British museum repeatedly. He took direct inspiration from what he saw there, especially the Parthenon Sculptures or Elgin Marbles. Uniquely, this innovative show presents the visitor with more than half a dozen instances to examine the source alongside the result. Thus a plaster cast of The Kiss (plaster, we find out, was often the only medium a clay original was reproduced in, pending its commissioning in bronze or marble by a buyer) sits next to a pair of Parthenon goddesses from the workshop of Greek sculptor Phidias or Pheidias, believed to be the creator of the monument’s integrated sculptural programme. In both, the Museum contends, faces are subordinate to bodies – Rodin found the ancient figures “participants in something that we do not see” and also believed in the lyrical concept of ‘phantasia’, whereby the sculptor’s apparition of beauty resided in the mind and was revealed by the hand. In both cases this shaped stone into flesh.

    Matching a dying Lapith warrior with Rodin’s The Martyr is also illustrative of this connection, as is a single figure in an extract from the superb cavalcade sequence – it is impossible to avoid cinematic terminology when describing this outstanding piece of ‘stop motion’ from 2,500 years ago, and indeed the curators note that a sense of movement might have been apparent when this frieze was seen through the screen of columns on the temple – and his The Age of Bronze. Rodin drew and had casts of such architectural elements to help him in his work, and recalled the “little mould makers” who sold convenient A4-sized replicas in the streets of European cities.

    Architecture is another link between these ages in and of itself, since not only did Rodin at one point go into business making architectural sculpture but The Kiss and many of his other works – including The Thinker, presented here in two very powerful versions including a terracotta – began as components of a vast pair of doors, the forbiddingly titled Gates of Hell, for a Parisian art museum. Patterned after the compartmented, richly-carved portal to Florence’s Renaissance Baptistry by Lorenzo Ghiberti, the doors were never made and the museum never built but for Rodin the detailed development work he undertook for the project acted as a kind of living sketchbook for the rest of his life. The exhibition takes pains to identify how those works derived from it made the transition to stand-alone pieces, including when Rodin decided to conjoin more than one source to form a new single form (that Rodin used the same fragments repeatedly but in different combinations is clear in the latest iteration of the wonderful Musée Rodin in Paris, where dozens if not hundreds of casts of arms, legs and torsos are displayed in cabinets, like a fin de siècle Airfix kit of Man awaiting assembly).

    For Rodin an ancient stone torso could seem as “real flesh [that] must have been moulded by kisses and caresses”, yet he also sought to prove that torsos in and of themselves, created as such from the start, could become valid artistic statements. This is shown when Lissos, a headless river god from the Parthenon, is put next to Rodin’s Ariadne, and Hermes stands adjacent to The Falling Man. With the first of these the Frenchman removed the head from a figure on the Gates, evoking an ancient sculpture eroded by time as the curators insightfully have it and so creating instant if self-assured comparisons with the past as well as supporting his thesis. I wondered at this point whether the distinctive cropping of statues in the paintings of Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a near-exact contemporary of Rodin who also looked to the past for his subject matter, might have aimed for the same reading. Fascinatingly, Rodin collected items of sculpture, domestic artefacts and the like that COULD have been created by his hero Phidias as inspiration or for incorporation into his work whilst Alma Tadema carefully selected archaeological finds to be depicted in his paintings, even if he often then deliberately mixed-up or distorted materials, periods and scales for effect – he would frequently take say a Roman marble copy of a Greek sculpture and imagine the lost Greek original, or take a bronze bust designed for a room pedestal and enlarge it to Colossus size. Both men employed the modern technology or photography as an aide.

    Despite his clear love of the past, Rodin was no preservationist. He campaigned against restoration of the Parthenon, preferring to see it crumble, and felt that buildings in general should, like the human body, be born, mature and decay. Keen only to retain his library of inspiration, he looked to the future whilst referring to the past. This enlightening show shows both sides of his personality to good effect, and if it could have benefitted from a little extra layering – more context at the start, an audio guide, more on the techniques of past and present sculptors – and a slightly more intimate setting for some of the works than the cavernous unadorned black box of its new temporary exhibition gallery, it is still well worth seeing.

    Rodin and the art of ancient Greece continues at the British Museum, London WC1 until 29 July 2018



  • High German

    Forty-five years ago, Travemünde on the Baltic Coast of what was then West Germany was at the very edge of the Iron Curtain. Sitting – appropriately – on the west side of the estuary that gave the hamlet its name (“Mouth of the River Trave”), the peninsular of Priwall jutting out from the eastern bank also fell within its boundary but only up to a point – the neck that attached it to the land beyond was cut by the Inner German Border. This line of separation then ran south, all the way to the Adriatic, as Churchill said. But in 1974, Travemünde residents were given a new vantage point from which to contemplate their former compatriots in the East with the opening of the 35-story-high Maritim hotel. With its period décor largely unaltered to this day, this remarkable addition to a genteel, Victorian seaside resort ironically if winningly recalls the architecture of the East.

    The hotel’s roots are firmly in the Federal Republic of Germany. Founded by Hans-Joachim Gommolla in 1969, the private Maritim group opened its first hotel not far from Travemünde at Timmendorfer. This was at the height of the Cold War, which had split the country in half and seen culture and the arts deployed on both sides in furtherance of opposing ideologies. By building along the Baltic Sea – a traditional German holiday destination but one into which the German Democratic Republic had pushed that divisive border – Maritim challenged its neighbour; by building so high at Travemünde, Gommolla arguably thumbed its nose at her, just as Axel Springer did with his towering publishing headquarters right on the Berlin Wall.

    As constructed by Hochtief from 1972, the Maritim Strandhotel Travemünde was to climb 119 metres into the sky and have 35 usable floors. In a further touch of showmanship-cum-assertive diplomacy, a rotating red shipping navigation light was mounted one storey higher. The hotel thus became one of the tallest lighthouses in the world, replacing the hamlet’s 16th century predecessor at its base.

    Resolutely Modernist in style, the hotel’s façade is defined by the projecting grid of concrete piers and beams that create its rooms and the continuous perimeter balconies that wrap the entirety of every floor. These last maintain a surprising horizontality that avoids the building’s height becoming overweening. Rectangular in plan, the hotel’s tower is oriented north west-south-east, giving all rooms views of the river, sea and land.

    As was common in this period, the hotel has a top floor eating and bar space that today – rather unaccountably – is restricted to daytime hours only. Located at the south-eastern end of the floorplate, it faces Lübeck further up the river.

    The base of the building takes the form of a wide, two-storey podium that is partially embanked and has a basement. This houses the main public spaces, which again reflect their time – lobby, restaurant, a bar, a ‘pub’ (so named) and a bowling alley, all with large windows and overlooking the water. A vast, double height and windowless conference/banqueting hall complete with mezzanine and its own dedicated foyer balances these to the landward side. The hotel was originally linked to a large indoor swimming pool complex but this was demolished and the land disposed of in favour of new resort buildings under separate ownership. A smaller pool now forms part of a spa for the hotel.

    No matter what their date, almost all hotels undergo regular refurbishment. Unless exceptionally notable, interiors seldom survive these periodic convulsions of taste. What distinguishes the Maritim Strandhotel Travemünde today is the fact that so much of what is clearly its original scheme remains intact, complete with rich materials and warm colours.

    In that lobby, veined white marble columns, tremendous polygonal chandelier light fittings and the inevitable veined-gold mirrored glass walls survive, as does an attractive metalwork grille to a retail unit. Padded leather half-moon door handles are first seen here and recur elsewhere in different colourways – cream, burgundy, dark green.

    The double doors to the restaurant are a highlight – their insides and outsides, as well as a frieze-like panel above, are feature beaten metal bas reliefs illustrating a mediaeval feast. Slightly naïve in style, they are nevertheless utterly charming. Inside, the serving area is backed by a delightful metalwork screen on an appropriately nautical theme.

    The foyer of the function hall has many more of the chandeliers, as well as sconces in a matching style. An attractive staircase flanked with deep, padded leather side rails leads down to the lower level of the podium.

    Unexpectedly, the guest rooms also show elements of this original scheme. The crystalline light fitting over the full-length mirror, built-in wardrobes with recessed handle, bedside radio controls and hardwood window frames with bronze handles all recall the early 1970s in winning fashion.

    That this hotel has not succumbed to the latest trend is not entirely a surprise. Even today, as new apartment blocks are carved out of the ground across the water, Travemünde is an old fashioned kind of place and a popular retirement destination. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that some of the more positive aspects of that time many decades ago are still with us.



  • ‘The City & The City’ (2018)

    China Miéville’s 2009 novel The City & The City is an outstanding depiction of the structures, conventions and customs that comprise a modern city, as well as a solid police procedural. I have read the book several times and referenced it repeatedly in my architectural writing, lectures and tours, and yet was cautious when I heard it was being brought to the small screen by the BBC. The actual plot – intricate but conventional – appeared to present few difficulties, but the adaptation would also have to address a key conceit: the studious 'unseeing' of the other city required by citizens of both Besźel and Ul Qoma. The real surprise of the resulting serial, which has just finished its broadcast run, is that the former is more of a failure than the latter, yet in truth the entire enterprise must be regarded as misjudged from the outset.

    In the narrow context of that difficult social custom, then, so disarmingly simple to describe in prose yet presenting obvious challenges when rendering it visually, early signs were promising.

    Beginning, as the book does, in down-at-heel Besźel, the home of protagonist Borlú (David Morrissey), we encounter a place rendered in sepia tones. The more prosperous Ul Qoma, when it appears, is in metallic blues and reds. Explained in publicity material (though not, revealingly, in the screenplay) as the result of competing street lighting systems, this is a straight lift from the novel. What is new is that everything in Besźel is crisp and in focus, whilst everything in Ul Qoma – which, of course, Borlú and thus the audience in these first-person scenes is required to unsee – is smeared and blurred. It’s an ingenious device that is deployed sparingly at first and enhanced by occasional subtlety, such as when a Ul Qoman child’s fidget spinner lands at Borlú’s feet but he is unable to return or even look at it.

    But it soon becomes apparent that the truly intimate separation of the two cities described in the book, whereby alternating buildings in the same terrace or two people at a single table can be in Besźel and Ul Qoma respectively, has been radically simplified for television. Ellen E. Jones, previewing for the Guardian, described this as like “two maps, one placed on top of the other, then held up to the light”, but such delicacy is absent here.

    Yes, the differences of alphabet, vocabulary (a linguist was actually employed to formulate Illitan, the language of Ul Qoma, using the real-world Georgian alphabet as a base), food and clothes given in the book are all picked out, but they are segregated behind a straightforward linear border, depicted most obviously in a shot of cars driving either side of a wide road, the one stream in the one city, the other in the other, even if a momentary lane-jumper causing concern also borrows from the original.

    This is a disappointment. Perhaps the production felt that a more nuanced approach would confuse the prospective audience, despite the obvious appetite for complexity amongst speculative fiction adherents, or perhaps it was founded in the same budgetary restrictions that prevented filming in Eastern Europe (Manchester and Liverpool substitute, on the whole successfully). Regardless, it does betray a certain lack of creativity. For example, even the way in which citizens walk and carry themselves varies between cities, something which attains crucial import at the climax of the novel, yet it does not appear to have occurred to the makers to employ as extras two groups of trained dancers or movement artists who, suitably costumed in the colours of the two cities and properly rehearsed, could walk ‘through’ – without seeming to notice – each other.

    In fact not only is the split less shaded than it should have been, extra emphasis has been added to the idea of a physical boundary by clumsily laboured parallels with East Germany before the collapse of Communism and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Thus posters and unrelenting public address system announcements injunct “When in Besźel, see Besźel”, passengers on a train suddenly shut their eyes en masse to avoid The Other and even Morrissey is required to theatrically frown and rub his forehead almost every time he ‘unsees’, as though he has been caught in possession of samizdat. And then there is the crude portrayal of Breach. Truly unseen in the novel, and far more effective a threat as a result, it is depicted as a Staasi-like secret police force with yet more posters warning that its operatives “look like you”, its activities recalling Nazi-era scientists behind the scenes and other characters signing off conversations with the warning “Be safe”. Admittedly their appearance when they take Borlú at the end of episode three is somewhat effective, but even here they loom hammily out of the night as if in an Expressionist film rather than emerge instantly from the crowd, always ‘there’ but never seen.

    The serial fails to honour its own rules, too, in a way that surely insults the viewer. In a scene that, done properly, could have been a perfect representation of the novel, Borlú and his aide Corwi talk on mobile phones, each in separate cities and each framed in separate shots. As their conversation climaxes the camera pulls back to reveal that they are sitting on the same bench, allowing Corwi to leave a wrapped parcel containing a gun that Borlú then picks up – that is Breach, more blatant that any seen or avoided so far, yet an act that passed entirely unnoticed by the supposedly omniscient watchers in order that the story can advance.

    That scene does not come from the novel, and nor do many, many others. Its detective protagonist needed neither a missing wife nor a Difficult Last Case, but writer Tony Grisoni unaccountably lumbers Borlú with both, themselves shown mostly in torpid flashbacks by director Tom Shankland. Much of the remainder of Miéville’s work suffers conflation, inversion and distortion. It is especially depressing to find the construction of Borlú as a convincingly flawed hero so lacking that he cannot, in this version of the story, be permitted to shoot a killer dead without immediate provocation.

    Changing the sex of Dhatt, Borlú’s opposite number in UI Qoma, from male to female works better than I had expected thanks to Maria Schrader’s world-weary playing, though retaining Dhatt’s wife and thus making that character gay probably says more about the straining-to-please mores of today than any flaws in Miéville’s writing. It is, though, bitterly ironic that in seeking to improve the representation of women in these ways (Borlú has two girlfriends in the book but neither speaks) the only decent female character of the novel, Corwi, has been destroyed thanks to an excruciating performance by Mandeep Dhillon as kind of 'gor blimey cockney' and the decision to centre the manifestation of Breach with her.

    It is commendable that an adaptation was commissioned, but hugely disheartening that the outcome is so confused and confusing and burdened with so many additional complications that add nothing and indeed take much away.

    The City & The City, a Mammoth Screen production for BBC Two, is available on iPlayer until the end of May



  • 'The Peripheral'

    Thirty years ago I was exposed to the sub-genre-defining work of William Gibson, the writer who coined the term ‘cyberspace’ to define the then nascent digital realm in which information flows and – as he presciently saw it – societal change is effected. His multi-award-winning 1984 novel Neuromancer was the platform, bought in paperback from the original Forbidden Planet shop and read with astonishment. Its depiction of a mid-21st century America characterised by gritty street life seamlessly intertwined with glossy high technology was utterly winning, especially as this was allied to a lean yet rich writing style where every word counted and conveyed something of the milieu in which its protagonists moved. The pace was fast, the ideas fascinating and the world-building absorbing.

    Two further books – Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive – broadened and deepened these ideas and, along with the first, became known as the Sprawl trilogy. Two more trilogies followed, and I soon began to feel that as Gibson’s style matured his actual content became less and less innovative, not helped by his decision to set the third trilogy in the present day and to eliminate almost all of the technological strands that had made his work so distinctive. Abandoning the Blue Ant trilogy part way through, therefore, was disappointing but not difficult.

    This did, however, mean that I missed Gibson’s next book, 2013’s The Peripheral. Which – it turns out – was a mistake. Complex, densely-layered and detailed, it is a gripping page-turner that flips between two timelines and attempts to tell us a little about our recent past and possible future. Near-future America and further-forward London are both well realised, not least through one of Gibson’s other skills: the ability to write different characters in convincingly different voices. Coupled with an in media res opening this does require some dedication to initially, but once the reader’s eye (and brain) is in, the narrative skips along very briskly indeed though in fact this is Gibson’s longest book by far. And, uniquely for Gibson in my experience, it is a novel where the characters – and thus Gibson’s thoughts – are very explicitly political, in a context that immediately resonates.

    For long-term Gibson fans who yearn for his earlier works there are plenty of references to the that pioneering first novel. The description of Operation Northwind, a war-themed online game, more than echoes that of Screaming Fist, the failed mission that nevertheless kick-starts the world of Neuromancer; chameleon-like camouflage squidsuits have been encountered before as mimetic capes in that same book; the neurological weapon nicknamed Party Time parallels the similar Blue Nine, and opposing power blocs remember the two artificial intelligences who war around lead character Case. Elsewhere in The Peripheral there also ex-soldiers both regretting and missing their service, the atmospheric importance of softly-spoken foreign tongues and even an electric buggy at a crucial moment.

    Overarching all is the titular peripheral, an autonomous or inhabited humanoid complete with the telepresence and AI by which it gains motive power (and motivation) and sensory capacity. It is presented as a method of virtually experiencing space and time and events. This has concerned – even dominated – Gibson’s fiction for decades, from the Apparent Sensory Perception modules of his 1970s short stories to the SimStim of the Sprawl saga and the augmented reality of Virtual Light. Even media firm Blue Ant might be deemed another iteration, ‘agency’ having a double meaning in the context of those three books.

    With The Peripheral, however, the idea moves from McGuffin to central tenet. From the reader’s point of view it occasionally feels intrusive, more so than Freeside, the vast orbiting colony and the closest pure SF object equivalent in the Sprawl books, but even this is not the limit of Gibson’s imagination. Peripherals work in conjunction with the more audacious – some might say outrageous, for a Gibson story – era-bridging mechanism that connects both timelines and makes the entire book possible. Entirely unexplained beyond an absurd throwaway reference or two to “a Chinese server”, its presence at the heart of the narrative is though crucial as it permits a kind of retrospective benevolence whereby the inhabitants of what one reviewer called the novel’s second future (the one in London) are able to help those of the first (America) by transmitting technology and information back in (across?) time. Gibson’s far-future Londoners thus equate to the intervening aliens of Carl Sagan’s Contact or, perhaps more relevantly, Arthur C. Clarke’s bittersweet Childhood’s End.

    In truth this is handled so deftly that the lack of any actual explanation for how it’s done actually feels surprisingly unproblematic, and one anyway should remember Gibson’s well known opinion that he himself is something of a ‘techno innocent’. This may be disingenuous, but yet another far-out feature of the book – the absurdly powerful, nano-scaled ‘assemblers’ that can instantly dissolve or reform matter at scale – does give this view some weight.

    It is then refreshing to find The Peripheral confirming that the mid-level tech of the street is where Gibson seems the most comfortable, and here he makes a welcome return to the best aspects of those early forays. Brilliantly envisaged items, systems and products are scattered subtly yet convincingly through his text. By focusing on real-world advances, Gibson essays concepts ranging from the amusing to the terrifying, such as cardboard cars, chain store 3D printing, veritable swarms of drones and brutally effective orbital weapon systems. Invented consumer brands such as Hefty and Coffee Jones sit comfortably amongst actual names like eBay. The book was coloured by wider cultural happenings, of course.

    The cloaked cars that prowl future London must surely have been inspired by 2012’s Bond film Die Another Day, whilst the ranks of super-tall towers that puncture the skyline of the same city have their own contemporary inspiration (“they’re called shards” explains one character to another). Russian oligarchs (or ‘klepts’) living in the British capital tune in to another anxiety that remains live five years later, as does one such man’s massively extended townhouse and its seemingly endless basement garage where much of the action of the London-set chapters takes place. Here is to be found what is for me Gibson’s star invention at this more intimate level of tech: the Mercedes Gobiwagen (it is never clear whether this is its formal or nickname), a lorry-sized, ultra-luxurious “land yacht” built for comfortable cruising in the desert. With motorised furniture, a robot bar, bathroom and rooftop observation dome, this fabulous vehicle might seem futuristic but has an ancestor in the customised, leather-lined six-wheel-drive Range Rovers and the like that specialist British coachbuilder Tickford and other companies produced in the 1970s and 80s for Arab customers.

    Indeed it is Britain and especially London that appears to have particularly stimulated Gibson’s imagination this time around, generating plenty of neat extrapolations and perhaps predictions. Many are architectural or topographical twists on familiar places, including the central conceit of Oxford Street turned into a vast linear park, thickly wooded and grown out of the ruins of its current buildings. Perhaps inspired by the Blitz, and if so forming another link back to Mona Lisa Overdrive’s holographic commemoration of the Battle of Britain, this also suggests numerous post-apocalyptic domestic works. It also allows for Selfridges to become a domestic residence, a striking image. As with Mona Lisa Overdrive, though, characters inhabit a London seemingly altered as much by Gibson’s (mis)understanding of the real city as deliberate authorial decision. It therefore feels a little ‘off’ in places, with a meeting offered at one of the “guildhalls” (‘Livery Halls’ seems meant) and implied jurisdiction of the Metropolitan police over the City, this last particularly odd given the plot thread mentioned below. That oligarch’s house, though, sees Gibson returning to the Notting Hill that final Sprawl book and is thoroughly sound as a conception.

    There is little indication that Gibson has ever intended a satirical reading of his work, but it’s hard not to think that must be the case in certain passages of The Peripheral. In future London calls are taken on surgical implants – a send-up, surely, in and of itself, but also enabling a wonderful double meaning to the otherwise entirely organic line “he’s had to have his phone removed”. Having this London run by a menacing cabal comprising the police, the City of London’s Livery Companies and Big Business, headed by the sinister (and, again, real) Remembrancer, might also produce a wry smile from those familiar with the Square Mile’s peculiarly individualistic yet highly effective present-day power structure. And although almost all of this appears directed at the British end of the plot, the eponymous peripheral reducing or at least distancing social interaction to a virtual experience must be counted as social commentary, at the very least, on American society today.

    This is a terrific return to form from Gibson, even if the abrupt and unsatisfactory ending dissolves logic and tension as brutally as those assemblers attack walls. It would seem to confirm his fit with things to come, rather than things that are. And another trilogy appears to have begun.

    William Gibson’s new novel Agency, which continues to explore the world created in The Peripheral, is published later in 2018 by Berkley Books/Penguin



  • ‘The Final Year’ (2017)

    We’ve all experienced that feeling of not having enough time left to get a series of jobs done, or hoping that we can complete something that we’ve started because we know it will make life better. But imagine how Barack Obama felt in 2016, as time ticked away until the end of his constitutionally-mandated second and final term as President. Curbing the nuclear ambitions of Iran, normalising relations between Cuba and the US, a super-power-backed war in Syria, the apparently endless bloodletting over domestic gun violence and the knotty problem of affordable healthcare at home all vied for attention in these last 12 months. His team, too, felt that pressure, and film-maker Greg Barker along with his own team were there to capture it in remarkable detail for this gripping and sobering documentary.

    A zippy beginning complete with split-screen, colour-toned titles evoking movies made in another time of political optimism and early scenes showing some of the featured participants forgetting their phones or getting clumsily caught on bag straps might set a tone of comic observation, but it soon becomes apparent that theirs is a business that is deadly serious. We follow the final year through the endless corridors (and car interiors, and airport runways, and office lobbies) of power and the eyes of three principals: Secretary of State John Kerry, Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, with occasional contributions from the latter’s boss, Susan Rice. POTUS himself appears often but speaks to Barker’s camera only sparingly, a device both pragmatic and effective.

    The film could have been titled ‘war and peace’, since those are the concerns that most often drive events. The Syrian disaster prompts Power to describe her time addressing it as “pained and fraught”, and her face sometimes confirms this; in one of several powerful moments Rhodes terms the Russian government’s presumed airstrike on an aid convoy there coupled with its repeated attempts to deny this “fucking sick”. Kerry, responding in the UN, is visibly angry as he berates the Russian delegation and suggests that diplomatic judgements must be based on facts, not fiction. Immense symbolism arises when Kerry, famously both a veteran and critic of the Vietnam War back in that optimistic age, visits Hanoi and Saigon and when Obama meets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Hiroshima peace memorial. Security is ever-present, from bomb-sniffing dogs working the seats within the United Nations chamber to the half-a-foot-thick doors of armour-plated limousines.

    Frustration at actions that can’t be countered and attitudes that should have been loom large. A US military response in Syria is deemed impossible thanks to the black stain of Iraq, a lack of consensus and the sheer complexity of the situation, whilst Rhodes’ contention that Russian president Vladimir Putin acts only for himself and not (even) for his country acquires a horrible prescience when media coverage of the pending Republican convention decision to elect a candidate throws up a certain burly New York property developer.

    As hinted, Barker is good on the daily slog of representing the most powerful country on earth. When a brief sequence shows the same view out of the window of another official plane alternately in sun, gloom and at night, the endless hours at 30,000 feet are fully felt. Arguments, disagreements, mistakes and regrets all make an appearance. But this is balanced by a kind of weary joy when things go right, such as the historic Cuba and Iranian agreements. We are never allowed to forget the risks in such efforts, either, as with a desperately ironic incident where a seven-year-old boy – about the same age as Power’s son – is accidentally knocked over and killed by a car from her motorcade during a negotiating trip to Africa.

    This is a very young team for the most part, we are reminded (Power is 45, Rhodes not even 40 when the election takes place), and one with the same concerns in rare off-duty moments as the rest of us. Power plays with and talks to her children, Rhodes retreats to a grim semi-furnished basement under the West Wing to seek quiet and walks home wearing a rucksack and with his own son on his shoulders.

    Feelings of another kind are on display in the most emotional portion of the film. The rangy, flame-haired Power makes a speech to a group of newly-sworn US citizens that begins as you would expect and adds a few words of thanks to her Hispanic nanny who is one of them. But it then takes a different turn, revealing Power’s own status as an immigrant to the country after a childhood in the Republic of Ireland and leading to some crying from her and others.

    There are tears, too, from President Obama when announcing yet more gun-enabled massacres throughout the year. Obama will of course be the main draw for many. Off-duty, insofar as that status is possible, he is relaxed, natural, humane and generous, as when joining in with a joke at Rhodes’s expense over the latter not getting to Stanford; “Me neither”, the President immediately adds. In the footage of him meeting and greeting, in carefully-assembled montages of stills, and on hearing that voice, his ‘official’ qualities are as obvious as they are lacking in his replacement. Rhodes may write much of those speeches as part of his job description, but it is his Commander in Chief’s message and the enthusiasm, sincerity and articulacy when delivering them drives the point home. Throughout the entire film, the establishment of a legacy is the clear goal of Obama and his team; the locking in of a range of agreements, initiatives and laws that hey believe will make a genuine and positive difference to the people of the USA and of the world. By the end of the film the looming threat of that replacement and his likely response to such effort ceases to loom and instead seems to smirk in our cast’s faces. That the year that followed only confirmed Donald Trump acting “like an ill-tempered child kicking over a stack of wooden bricks”, as reviewer Philip Kemp despairingly noted in his own review of Barker’s film, only makes one more depressed.

    Fortunately for this slice of reality at least Obama has the last word, and Barker frames it masterfully. Obama’s round of global diplomacy ends where the film does, in Greece. This is the literal home of democracy, and Obama demonstrates his clear understanding of the concept’s roots by stating that the most important office within that system is not the leader but the citizen. It is what one or many citizens can do with their lives, working within a wider community, that has always been his passion. Over a selection of images showing him at the Parthenon and at other historic locations round the world, including Petra, Jerusalem and Nepal, Obama talks of those places and the civilisations that made them as a chain of history. Each age has its own responsibility, he says, to ensure we leave something for the next. In other words, “we do our best,” Obama explains, “with the link in that chain that is handed to us.”

    The Final Year, A Dogwoof release with Passion Pictures and Motto Pictures for Home Box Office and directed by Greg Barker is on current release and is also available through a variety of platforms



  • ‘The Twilight Zone’ at the Almeida

    Between light and shadow, science and superstition, fear and knowledge is a dimension of imagination. An area we call the Twilight Zone.

    - Almeida publicity, based on the television script

    Decades after the last episode was transmitted, the original run of the popular American television series created by Rod Serling and first aired in 1959 on CBS remains a touchstone for short, sharp doses of (un)reality. Combining original scripts with adaptations of literary works, these explorations of the rum and uncanny from the Cold War era can still chime closely with the concerns of the present. How closely can be judged (to an extent, at least) by the Almeida’s theatre’s new presentation.

    As what unfolds – inside a simple, forced-perspective black box spattered with white stars – quickly suggests, multiple episodes were sourced for this energetic production. Stranded in an all-American diner complete with chrome-edged counter, juke box and cap-wearing barman a bus driver and seven of his passengers wait out a storm – but an investigating state trooper notes that only six people actually boarded and, what’s more, something odd has crashed nearby. Outside her apartment door a woman with deeply-buried troubles finds a strange young girl who seems to know a surprising amount about her neighbour. A different girl, who has vanished, is the focus of another woman, as she and her husband become increasingly distressed by their daughter’s empty bedroom and some echoing cries. An astronaut is sent on a fifty-year trip to a newly-discovered galaxy with the benefit of suspended animation to keep him young – as launch time nears, though, he finds he has fallen in love with someone here on earth. Elsewhere acclaim greets three astronauts returning from their own pioneering flight – or are there only two of them? Or one? And a patient and his psychiatrist explore what it means to be too terrified to fall asleep…

    Though not a complete summary – and in truth even this restricted list suggests a slate that is rather too ambitious – it is clear all have a science fiction sensibility. The appearance of three-eyed and –armed aliens confirms that genre in very obvious terms, but for me it was the tales that ground themselves in suggestion, temptation and loss that proved the most attractive. Sam Swainsbury and Franc Ashman underplay convincingly the literally star-crossed lovers doomed never to meet again, helping to bring genuine pathos to the story of the half-century traveller, whilst the perfectly in-period looks, speech patterns and style of John Marquez, a ringer for Henry Goodman or John Slattery, build considerable empathy for the terrified, tired patient scared of dreaming. And there are other subtleties beyond this. Some carefully-observed gestures in the initial diner scene rewarded those happening to look in the right place, and the text include some tight, smart lines where Marquez once again dominates. Thus "I've lost my marbles" he worries; "Marbles can be found", reassures the doctor. "It's a dream", he exclaims when meeting in his mind the Burlesquely sexy Cat Woman: "I know I'm a dream" she replies, knowingly. In the penultimate set piece, in which panicked residents fight over space in a Bomb shelter, one desperate home owner bemoans the lack of a basement in his flashy new pad: it has "every wonder of modern science taken into account...except the one heading right for us."

    There are plenty of incidental pleasures, such as an alien with a heart as big as his head and a bandaged woman who becomes The Ugliest in the World. You won’t look at a cigarette in the same way again, either. Best of all, there is that feline femme fatale. As played - actually, inhabited - by Lizzy Connolly she stunned my audience with a fabulous, Ken Russell-meets-Inception song and dance number that I will for lack of its actual title call Never Be Afraid to Dream.

    The staging eschews the cinematic, multimedia integration common in today’s plays for a hands-on, low-tech approach in which stage hands costumed to match the walls shift props (sometimes still carrying actors) in full view and ‘animate’ scene transition cards. The playing is broad in parts, occasionally directed to the audience, and the tone often sits somewhere between David Lynch and student union camp. For me these wide, not to say wild, variations limited my enjoyment. Those writers of the 1950s and 60s were clearly in touch with the human condition, their prescience aside, but it might have been better to take a more serious view of the material and across fewer threads. Yet it is perhaps the most thoughtful comment of the entire piece that also encapsulates the true intention of adapter and director: imagination, a character observes, is welcomed in children but discouraged in adults.

    Hundreds of years ago Englishman Robert Herrick’s poem Dreams came to a similar conclusion, confirming the power of the unconscious and the freedom that it can produce:

    Here we are all, by day; by night we`re hurled

    By dreams, each one, into a several world.


    The Twilight Zone, based on stories by Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, adapted by Anne Washburn and directed by Richard Jones, continues at the Almeida Theatre, London N1 until 27 January



  • Bricks & Words #12: ‘Secrets of the Walls’

    Stockholm town hall perches dramatically on a rocky outcrop jutting into Riddarfjärden bay. A tall bell tower topped with the national symbol of three golden crowns forms a fitting landmark for a maritime country. Closer-to, arched Gothic windows, delicate pinnacles and gilded statues recollect styles of old, whilst bricked-up doorways and extensions in different brick speak of centuries of incremental development. And yet all of this is a carefully crafted architectural fiction, because the entire building – ‘old’ and ‘new’ parts, changes in materials, pseudo-mediaeval touches and all – was built between 1911 and 1923 to a single, unified design. The result is one of the most compelling and beguiling civic structures in Europe.

    Architecturally, Scandinavia in general and Sweden in particular led the world between the wars. Libraries, hospitals and other public buildings combined rational, Modernist layouts and geometric shapes with minimalist but carefully-designed details, these often demonstrating traditional craft skills. The results were widely admired and published extensively and globally. This led to them becoming inspirations for others, most famously, London transport’s director Frank Pick and head architect Charles Holden. They modeled the latter’s new stations for the Underground’s new lines on what they found in Sweden, the Netherlands and elsewhere, using the same concept of simple platonic volumes and restricted detail.

    It is, then, something of a surprise to find Ragnar Östberg creating a richly textured, ready-made history for his new town hall, with layer upon layer of convincing yet utterly manufactured accretions built into his design from the start. The explanation lies in the perceived need to gift his homeland with a prefabricated mythology, which in turn gave rise to the architectural style dubbed National Romantic. To that end, Östberg incorporated authentic-seeming historic touches into the fabric of his brand new building, each calculated to convey a sense of heritage and time. This begins with the very earth on which the building stands, since the naturalistic rock terrace is entirely man-made. On it, a four-posted freestanding cenotaph commemorates national founder Birger Jarl, King Arthur watching over the city – and by extension the nation’s – inhabitants. The arcade facing the water is derived from the Doge’s Palace in Venice, once a great sea-faring power itself. Within the courtyards, those clever touches of simulated age include fake repairs, walls that half-obscure ‘previous’ features and pavements laid over pavements… at the same time, add an extra level of verisimilitude – at least, as seen by the desinger.

    Both the building and Rikard Larsson’s superb book tells the story of, and is unmissable for anyone with an interest in what architecture can do and can mean.

    ‘Secrets of the Walls: A Guide to Stockholm City Hall’ by Rikard Larsson (Bokförlaget Langenskiöld, 2011)



  • Bricks & Words #11: 'Hollow Land'

    When you hear the term ‘occupied territories’ on the news, what do you think that means? I don’t mean politically, but spatially – how does one nation control another’s territory whilst stopping short of actual war? Israeli-born architect Eyal Weizman’s astonishing book provides some of the answers.

    This is a forensic (and I use the word advisedly, since the techniques Weizman employs here have subsequently been brought to bear on war crimes investigations) dissection of the methods and technologies deployed by the Israeli government and armed forces to ensure nothing moves into, out of or to a large extent around Palestinian lands without good reason. Weizman explores every physical and electronic dimension of the situation, including but by no means limited to its architecture – though this last includes a fascinating exploration of how cladding material and style is used on new settlements to create symbolic links to a culture that is actually elsewhere. Transport, utilities, planning, security, surveillance, actual war fighting where this has happened and – it’s important to note – solutions (that expand, deliriously, into the three dimensional) to the thorny two-state problem are all looked at. This is one of the best books about the built environments people create you’ll ever read.

    ‘Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation’ by Eyal Weizman (Verso, 2007)



  • Spies like us: 'Callan at 50', 'Sixties Spies and Beyond'

    The secret agent has been a fixture in popular fiction since the novels of Conrad, Childers and Le Queux, and the genre eagerly embraced film and television as each of those media arrived. The 1960s, especially, saw an explosion (sorry) of espionage on the small screen, and the BFI Southbank caught the mood of those times at the weekend. A late episode of Callan starring Edward Woodward was followed by a panel discussion, a super-compilation of clips from a dozen different programmes of the period both reminded and introduced the audience to a wide range of interpretations,and the thoughts of veteran critic Kim Newman and equally long-serving BFI programmer Dick Fiddy prompted debate. Open Channel D please…

    The centrepiece of the weekend – itself part of the ‘Who can You Trust?’ season of British thrillers at the BFI – was ‘Suddenly - At Home’, first screened in 1970 and thus one of the more mature Callan stories. It was written by the series’ creator, James Mitchell, and saw the eponymous agent of Section tasked with dissuading a widow from taking part in a documentary about her late husband’s governmental work. A simple mission turns complex, however, when Callan falls for Lady Lewis and clashes with his colleague Cross (a well-named character if ever there was one). The true intentions of film-maker Joinville are also suspect, whilst Callan and Cross’s boss, Hunter may have motives of his own when tasking his men.

    Having never seen an example of the programme before, this was for me a perfect introduction. Mitchell’s script was tight, convincing and involving, and contained with some sharp digs at the circumstances – assumed and actual – of the main participants. The repetition of a single word of dialogue (“Promise?”) evidenced its poignancy and power – the episode’s title, a then-common phrase in obituary columns, hints at the reason. Michaell’s son Peter, present on the panel that followed the screening, noted how his father’s anti-establishment leanings were given voice in the series and, in response to a question about another writer in the field, pointed out that “Le Carre didn’t write characters like Callan, he wrotecharacters like Hunter!” The two bursts of violence in the programme were surprisingly powerful even in the context of today’s far more permissiveenvironment, a measure of the skills of writer and director.

    This last was Piers Haggard, who also joined the panel and who has directed films and television productions as varied as Pennies from Heaven, the final Quatermass production and cult horror Blood on Satan’s Claw. With this Callan episode, Haggard’s desire to “make it feel like a movie” as he put it was immediately apparent in an opening shot that tracked through the set, involved several actors in speaking roles and paused to view the action through the glass prisms of a merit award before moving on, all accomplished in one shot lasting around half a minute; ambitious indeed in a studio-bound drama of the time. Shooting through glass actually introduced another of Haggard’s self-confessed favourite devices, and mirrors were used several times in the episode to advance the action. Haggard described how shooting into reflective surfaces keeps two actors conveniently facing the camera, but this is disingenuous since it was notable how he deployed this as subtly and selectively as any other camera effect – elsewhere in the episode the opening of one mirrored bathroom cabinet door actually isolated the remaining figure as a reflection in the closed half. “The other thing about mirrors,” he added, “is that a thing becomes something else, becomes something else, becomes something else… it’s a way of progressing[the action] without changing [the shot]. Elaborating after the screening, Haggard said to me that in this way “you only use the cut when you want to.” Equally impressive was Haggard’s careful placement of actors within the depth of the frame in certain interior shots to create spatial interest, selective focus being used in one instance to add even more texture. Usually encountered only in widescreen cinematography, this was again a mature and visually adept approach for such an intimate (a 4:3 aspect ratio applied) and domestic (most interiors were offices or flats) setting.Haggard also told me of how he would work with the set designer for each production, ensuring for example the presence of “camera traps” to enable these difficult shots to be obtained. That all of this was achieved in a production schedule of just two days is astonishing.

    Prompted by the clip package, the second discussion explored the range of interpretations the genre received across the decade in question. Comparing and contrasting and noting the crossovers with westerns, war films and so on was fascinating. The roots of ‘Spy Fi’ were found by some in the gadgets of the period (which themselves derive from the escape aids Allied air crews were furnished with during the last war), but overlooked was surely the impact of the Space Age. That almost all of Gerry Anderson’s puppet series engaged the genre in some way was noted; indeed, one of the more enjoyable adventures of Thunderbirds, 'The Cham-Cham', sees Lady Penelope and Tin-Tin decamp to a ski resort in the Alps to investigate military sabotage. A useful difference was established between the tenor and tone of episodic spy stories in the US versus the UK, the one being predominantly the caper and the other tending toward the mole – reflecting, one assumes, the national character traits. The success or otherwise of big screen adaptations was covered at some length, albeit with few solid

    conclusions being drawn. And, lengthy thought the clips montage was, all acknowledged that still more programmes had been omitted. The likes of C.A.T.S. Eyes, The Americans, Now & Again and Alias, the last two of which are perhaps the most obvious inheritors of the Sixties vibe, would have also fulfilled the ‘beyond’ of the session title and filled the gap before Spooks (which was mentioned) and its ilk arrived.

    As it is, the enduring obsession we viewers have with those who work in the shadows is likely to continue.



Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here


Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own collage-style spread.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443


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