Thursday, March 26, 2009


From Avaaz:

Dear friends,

Last week, on his first visit to Africa, Pope Benedict said that "[AIDS] cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems".

The Pope's statement is at odds with the research on AIDS prevention, and a setback to decades of hard work on AIDS education and awareness. With powerful moral influence over more than 1.1 billion Catholics in the world, and 22 million HIV positive Africans, these words could dramatically affect the AIDS pandemic and put millions of lives at risk. Worldwide concern is starting to show results and a willingness by the Vatican to revise the statement − sign our urgent petition asking the Pope to take care not to undermine proven AIDS prevention strategies:

This is not a religious dispute, but a grave public health concern. Personal beliefs of Catholics and all people should be respected, and the Pope's advocacy for a culture of fidelity and respect could be helpful in prevention if condoms were not discouraged. The Catholic Church engages in a vast amount of social service work, including the care of those living with AIDS. But the Pope's claim that condom distribution is not an effective AIDS prevention mechanism is not supported by research. It's untrue, and if it diminishes condom use, it will be deadly.

The fact is, HIV and AIDS are prevented by condom use. There is no easy solution to the spread of this tragic disease, but condoms and education are the best known prevention combination and have not been found to increase risky sexual behaviour. That is why even priests and nuns working in Africa have questioned the Pope's statements.

We may not be able to ask the Catholic Church to change its broader position, but we are asking the Pope to stop actively speaking out against prevention strategies that work. It's important that people of all beliefs, especially Catholics, call on the Pope to exercise care in his leadership on this issue. Sign below then spread the word to your friends and family − this petition could actually save lives:

25 million people worldwide have already died of AIDS, and 12 million children have been left without parents. If enough of us join this outcry, we will win an important battle in the struggle for a world without AIDS. With hope, Ricken, Alice, Ben, Graziela, Iain, Brett, Paula, Pascal, Luis, Paul, Veronique, Milena and the whole Avaaz team PS − this campaign was polled among a randomized sample of 20,000 Avaaz members. Over 90% supported running the campaign, and over 75% of Catholic Avaaz members supported it.


Unused freight containers are seen piled up at storage depots near a residential area in northwest Hong Kong February 18, 2009. China's hopes for a speedy export recovery from the global crisis could be undermined by the weakest links in its powerful supply chain - smaller firms too damaged by the downturn and credit crisis to get goods to market.

This and others here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Arriving at the private viewing of D-Fuse's Pathways: King's Cross early yesterday, I had time to look round the King's Cross Central construction site. Access to the site has been blocked from the St Pancras International entrance for well over a year, so I walked up Pancras Road, down Goodsway and tried to enter the site alongside the one remaining gasholder. From a portacabin, a security guard in an orange jacket poked his head out and told me I could go no further. An Olympic-style wall has been erected around the southern end of the site, and only the slenderest traces of its past remain.

Perhaps my series on King's Cross last Spring wasn't the best thing I have written on this blog, but I don't think I've ever put so much of my heart into so few words (albeit the series did stretch to seven posts). For a couple of months I became obsessed with the sliver of land bound by St Pancras Way and Pancras Road in the west, Granary Street and Goodsway to the north, York Way to the east and Euston Road to the south - drifting through them, skirting round them, imagining their pasts and dreading their futures. The railwaylands permeated me like no urban area has before.

My first proper encounter with them was properly psychogeographical: following a predetermined route, designed to pass the time on an afternoon without anything much else to do, I felt a gloom descend. From a guidebook of black and white photos produced by the Council, I saw that King's Cross had once been an axis of crime and vice yet also of community, an hermetically-sealed haven away from the aggressive profiteering of the city. The stations of King's Cross and St Pancras had reared up to protect their railwaylands when regeneration plans were drawn up, and an alliance of recession and resistance had preserved the archaic gasholders, the limpid ponds and rushes of the natural park, the Romantic churchyard of Old St Pancras and the solid, symbolic apartment blocks.

But arriving at the scene midway through 2008, I had missed all of this. The Council had sold one of the Stanleys, and Argent had bulldozed it to make way for St Pancras International. The gasholders and the cosy-looking flats on Battle Bridge Road and the shops beneath the coal-drops – they had all gone the same way. Culross Building, a former co-operative housing block still stood until the Autumn (the Google Streetmaps view of Pancras Road shows it being demolished), but its tenants had long gone.

And now the land on which these buildings stood is out of bounds. The past has disappeared, and we are left with a vision of the future, as set out in Argent’s “marketing suite” in the German Gymnasium. The KXC plan feels dull and affected, as though business capital is pushing for one last hoorah: the relentless discipline of the new Sainsbury’s HQ fails to excite, the unctuous plazas with their unnecessary water-features (there is a major waterway nearby, after all) dominate the canal, the sole Stanley survivor will apparently be fossilised in a glass case (?), and the whole place will become a Westfield for WC1. It is truly miserable, and I’m afraid the Pathways film only deepened my depression. Mixing clips from films (some, like High Hopes and The Ladykillers, set around KXSP; others – Naked, The Long Good Friday – merely passing through) with recollections from people who lived in the area, its message is clear: the old, crime-ridden King’s Cross exists only in fiction or the past, and must give way to the new King’s Cross. The film, I should add, was commissioned by the developers.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Three quick links: the first (via Snowball) is the modern interpretation above of Cruickshank's British Beehive, just so you know where you stand in the order of things. The second (also via Snowball) leads to two excerpts by Paul Foot which discuss the history of unemployment in the twentieth century, and the political elite's unctuous efforts to curb it. The third is K-Punk's review of the Birkbeck Communism Conference (with Youtube clips), which apparently was so popular that the venue had to be changed at the last minute to accommodate everyone.


Of the 1001 buildings you must see before you die (according to this book at least), only 35 are in South America (and only a handful more in Central America). As with most things Latin, there is a prejudice against Latin American architecture which is reflected in what the travel books tell you to look out for. Some colonial relics remain, of course, and plenty of garish cathedrals, but the Brasilia of Niemeyer and a few other forgotten modernists aside, it is suggested that the architectural box-ticker need waste little time in South America. Be that as it may, the three buildings on our to-do list in Buenos Aires and Rio – a library, a cathedral and a museum – testify to the need to rehabilitate the continent’s reputation.


The National Library of Argentina is a curvaceous monument of concrete, and possibly the most southerly Brutalist masterpiece in the world. In the early 1960s, when Borges was chief librarian, it was clear that the then National Library would need to move to bigger premises in order to accommodate its growing collection of books. A plot of land was identified in the affluent and leafy barrio of Recoleta, and in 1961 the young architect Clorindo Testa submitted his design of reading rooms elevated above an open plaza and an underground book depository. Testa, who had recently designed the uncompromising Banco de Londres was commissioned to fulfil the brief of building a new national library.

As it turned out, the library would not be completed for a further 31 years, as coups, juntas, economic crises and stalling all hampered its construction. But today it proves how wonderfully bare concrete and a sunny climate interact, and its transparency (the different areas for reading, administration, eating, storage etc are clearly demarcated) and functionality convey a feeling of everyday monumentality. It is a tactile, shapely (one might even say voluptuous) building, and the open-air plaza underneath the reading rooms is lined with curvy chunks of cool concrete, fingers of fleshy cement with windows set into them, concrete girders for extra gravitas, suspended platforms on which students can plan doomed revolutions (this is Buenos Aires, after all).

I’m not sure why – perhaps the heat had got to us – but DV and I didn’t actually go into the library. The reading rooms apparently offer some of the best views of the city, but we had bus tickets to buy and Quilmes to drink, so we missed these. Nevertheless, the National Library is one of those buildings that gets under your skin, about which one thinks wistful thoughts as the sun sets, thoughts of being a student again, reading political economy or continental philosophy under a vivid blue sky or cool concrete roof... Then again, my own Brutalist University library was the Edward Boyle Library, under the rather greyer skies of West Yorkshire. There are more photos (not by me) here, including some of the interior.


San Sebastian Cathedral in downtown Rio de Janeiro is utterly unlike the Baroque or Spanish Colonial cathedrals in most Latin cities. It is reminiscent of, and follows similar principles to, the more famous Metropolitan Cathedrals of Gibberd and Niemeyer in Liverpool and Brasilia, though it predates both. It is built mainly of concrete and consists of a circular nave, a low altar and high stained glass windows at each cardinal point. Detractors (i.e. guidebook writers, online travel sites, traditionalists, the entire population of Rio ... in fact, we couldn’t find anyone who had a good word to say about it) claim it looks like an upside-down bucket, that it is too bold or brash or inhuman. But I found it rather more welcoming than, for example, St Nicholas’s Church in Prague, whose style such detractors would presumably prefer, but which made me feel physically ill. I rather like the fact that San Sebastian is surrounded by a large car-park, is accessed by driving over the forbidding Avenida Paraguay fly-over in the heart of the financial district, and is faced by the rather vulgar headquarters of Petrobras, Brazil’s biggest oil producer and distributor.

Still, you can’t get away from the fact that this is a Catholic cathedral. Reliefs on either side of the altar depict (uncritically, of course) indigenous barbarians being converted by civilised colonialists – a reminder (lest we forget) of the ultimately imperialist nature of organised religion. And another gripe: the rosary that DV bought from the souvenir shop had a dodgy catch. Still, if shoddy craftsmanship was the worst sin of the Catholic church, the world would be a happier place.


The most obviously transcendent of the three buildings is the MAC-Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum in Rio, Oscar Niemeyer’s futuristic cupola by the sea. It is a classic example of a building whose pleasure derives from it overstretching itself: ostensibly a gallery and exhibition hall, its own dazzling beauty will always surpass the works of art it is supposed to house. This situation is probably not helped by the MAC’s impracticality – in order to get into the gallery, one has to enter downstairs, buy a ticket, exit via a stairwell, and then re-enter one floor above. But it doesn’t seem to matter much when so few visitors are actually bothered about going inside. The MAC’s use value is purely aesthetic, a place to admire and not to participate in (an exhibition in which people are invited to sit on circular cushions and somehow “interact” felt forced and banal).

The views across Guanabara Bay across to Sugarloaf Mountain are so spectacular that quiet awe or reactive (self-)indulgence seem the most appealing responses, in stark contrast to Buenos Aires’s deeply practical library. Indeed, Rio’s almost neurotic pursuit of pleasure is its most unappealing aspect – it proudly proclaims that no problem, no injustice, no crime is so great that it can’t be mollified with a can of beer, a game of football and two hours on a sun-lounger. Privately, cariocas are far more thoughtful, but it seems like the appearance of breezy frivolity must be kept up at all times. Buenos Aires sways the other way – moody, passive-aggressive, self-absorbed – as though no solution, no example of honesty, no good deed is so pure that it can’t be brought down by a military coup. No prizes for guessing which one I prefer.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


As his holiday snap below indicates, Paddington has been so busy sunning himself on Ipanema Beach, that he has rather neglected his humble organ of late.

But all at Homo Ludens Towers are pleased to say that Paddington has returned to London, and is busily writing about matters Chinese, Latin and local (in between slapping blobs of moisturiser on his slightly bronzed fur).

Normal service will resume very shortly, but in the meantime, have a listen to Bat for Lashes' new single "Daniel," which is the nearest thing to a new Kate Bush single in the absence of the real thing (check out that Cloudbusting drum beat), as well as being rather wistfully lovely in its own right.

Sunday, March 01, 2009


"It is a beautiful thing to photograph.

The visual impact of the Opera House is pretty intense, and photographically speaking its form is fantastic.

As the light moves across it during the day it changes its forms and shape. Sometimes it´s a silhouette. Sometimes it´s a rotund piece of sculpture.

Then it goes into the dark at night, and it´s lit artificially. It´s full of moods, and these things lend themselves very much to the camera."

"When Utzon left I felt there was such a break in the sequence of events that it was another world I´d be entering into. I didn´t want to do that. When I look back now I feel I did a foolish thing. I should have persisted and followed through with a total history of the building of the Opera House, but ... it´s just one of those things. It´s too late now."

For more on the Utzon/Liberal-Country Party spat, see here and here.