Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Contra to those who believe its burgeoning interest in free trade and (pseudo-) democratic spaces signifies a loosening of political control, the Chinese government is clamping down on people's movements (and that includes their eye movements) for the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic:

"Hundreds of thousands will take part in massive parades by civilians and the military, who have been drilled so thoroughly that soldiers are only permitted to blink once every 40 seconds."

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Given the long insurgency of China’s market economy, it may seem surprising that Beijing’s architecture has only recently caught up with the rest of the world’s impudent postmodernism. Until very recently, the great monuments to the world’s fastest growing economy were Zhang Bo’s Great Hall of the People on the western edge of Tiananmen Square, and Zhang Kaiji’s museums of the Revolution and of Chinese History on the eastern side.

In his book The Edifice Complex, Deyan Sudjic suggests that two new buildings have replaced these pompously Stalinist hulks: Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV Tower and Herzog and de Meuron’s Bird’s Nest. He also provides a sardonic narrative describing how they came to be built.

The commission for Koolhaas’s 234 metre Moebius strip, built on an earthquake faultline, arose largely through good fortune. When Beijing’s city planners launched a competition to design a new headquarters for Chinese state television, they quickly realised that they did not have sufficient expertise to know what they were looking for. They invited the architect and landscaper Charles Jencks to join them. “I am here for architecture independent of any other consideration,” Jencks explained, cautious of being caught up in a fait accompli. Jencks is a good friend of Koolhaas, who in turn decided to submit a radical proposal comprising two towers of 70 floors each, leaning into each other and supported by horizontal bands at the top and bottom.

Jencks, belying his apolitical stance, set about lobbying the great and the good of Beijing in favour of Koolhaas’s design. “It is a Chinese moon gate,” he explained, “a framed hole, or the heavy shape made in bronze and jade thousands of years ago in China as a symbol of exchange.” Yet at the same time (covering the postmodernist and authoritarian bases), “it’s a pop image, it can be seen as suggesting the Arc de Triomphe, or the Grande Arche.”

Koolhaas’s design was eventually accepted, but Chinese conservatives and Western academics like Ian Buruma shared a certain scepticism: “What should one make of famous architects competing to build a new HQ for Central China Television? CCTV is the voice of the party, the centre of state propaganda, the organ which tells a billion people what to think. It’s hard to imagine a cool European architect in the 1970s building a television station for Pinochet.”

Sudjic suggests that the source of Koolhaas’s motives may be found in his esteem for Le Corbusier, in particular his wooing of Mussolini and the Vichy Government in the 1930s and 40s. “What attracts me about China is that there is still a state,” says Koolhaas, which is all very well, except that the Chinese state’s function – achieved by continuing the Maoist ban of Trade Unions and locking up those who stand in its way – is to validate the most extreme form of late capitalism in the world.

Presumably Koolhaas wouldn’t see it like that. He will appreciate the lack of planning regulations that an autocracy affords. China is a playground for architects with a missionary zeal, even though they may emerge from the process ultimately powerless. Sudjic compares Koolhaas with Yung Ho Chang and his father, Ziang Kaiji, the man who designed the museums on Tiananmen Square, and subsequently lived out the Cultural Revolution as a caretaker. “Both father and son have confronted the essential dilemma of architecture. Their work has brought them into an intimate relationship with power, but they have remained powerless in the hands of those who wield it.”


Due north of Tiananmen Square, through the Forbidden City, along the axis that gives Beijing its backbone, stands the Olympic Park, a theme-park built on the bulldozed ground of a former residential area. “Stung by criticisms of its murky approach to the allocation of construction contracts,” writes Sudjic, “Beijing’s municipal government has been proclaiming its determination to pursue design excellence and maintain a fairer tendering process. That is why the competition to design the Olympic Stadium had an unwieldy, thirteen-strong jury.” The jury included Rem Koolhaas.

The successful design was, of course, Herzog and de Meuron’s Bird’s Nest, its exterior taking the form of a concrete mesh, its interior defined as much by the gaps between the threads, as by the threads themselves. “There is a certain symmetry in the presence of both Rem Koolhaas and Jacques Herzog in Beijing at the same time, working on such significant projects,” says Sudjic. “They like to see themselves as the Picasso and Braque of contemporary architecture, towering over their peers in the same way that the cubists once monopolised painting, ‘roped together like mountaineers for the final onslaught on the summit,’ as Braque put it.”

Herzog is much the superior architect – witness his transformation of Bankside Power Station, and his Schaulager art store in Basel – and the stadium is considerably more edifying than Koolhaas’s opportunistic and megalomanical CCTV headquarters. And yet, as I wrote at the beginning of the year, the vision for the Bird’s Nest (“the architecture is the crowd,” said Herzog at the time, “the proportions are intended to shift the spectators and the track and field events into the foreground”) has been thwarted by its redundancy. It was designed for the greatest spectacle in the global capitalist calendar and, for all its futuristic high-technology, its time has passed.


As a postscript to this, here is another story from Sudjic’s book which demonstrates the obscene ironies that only Olympic building can produce:

“Both Koolhaas and Herzog have made more headway in Beijing than Albert Speer, the son of Hitler’s architect, who invested considerable energy in lobbying the city’s authorities to take up his plan for a fifteen-mile-long north-south axis for the city, with the Olympic Stadium at one end and a huge new railway station at the other linked by a series of tree-lined freeways. Speer is an urbane, spry man approaching seventy. If it wasn’t for his name, he would be the personification of postwar Germany, the worthy Bonn-based republic of serious newspapers and liberal politics, where ecology and competently managed car factories are taken for granted. I meet him in his sun-filled Frankfurt office with its blond wood floor and its atrium full of primary-coloured art. Speer would rather be in Beijing, but in the spring of 2003, the SARS epidemic has made him cautious about travelling there. He is, however, still busy in Germany, where he worked on Leipzig’s unsuccessful bid for the 2012 Olympics, surrealistically in partnership with Peter Eisenman, the architect of Berlin’s Holocaust memorial, itself built on the site of his father’s studio, where Hitler and the elder Speer spent hour upon hour with the model of Germania.”


"It's hard to listen to that joy - in terms of sheer feeling, British pop has rarely come near There's a Place since - without feeling deeply depressed afterwards, and when you buy the Beatles in 2009 you're effectively buying that memory, a means of distraction from all the machinations of power around you. At the time of the last great Beatles repromotion, there were hopes - however vainglorious - that pop might again lead a movement towards greater equality of opportunity. Now we can see that for the myth it was, and that - combined with the simple passing of time - must be the main reason there has been that much less fuss this time. Every promise is discredited."

Robin Carmody, magnificent on the recent Beatles re-issues.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Great news - CLR James is the face of the Brixton £10 note! Two CLR James's has got to be better than one Adam Smith, no?

Aside from the inclusion of James and Olive Morris, and the welcome hoohah expressed by the media towards Brixton, I'm not quite sure I see the point of it other than to encourage localism. But even then, how will it work? You can spend your Brixton pounds at several local shops, but what do the shops then do with them? Could the Chinese supermarket on Electric Avenue use its B£s to buy frozen dumplings from the supplier? Presumably not. Could staff be paid in B£s? I suspect they'd rather stick to sterling, however devalued.

Like the man at Brixton Wholefoods (and many of the sceptical stallholders in the market, I suspect), it feels to me like a marketing ruse which will benefit the more upmarket shops more than the nailbars and butchers. Still, if it's a gimmick that persuades more people to visit Brixton Market, that must surely be a good thing.


DV and I went to Brixton windmill this weekend. An enthusiastic chap with the voice of James Goldsmith told us that there used to be seven windmills in Lambeth, but when the height of buildings grew in the mid-nineteenth century, most burned down or were demolished. Brixton Windmill stopped milling flour in 1935, and is now open to the public only a couple of times a year. There are some rather wonderful, Savage Messiah-esque drawings of the mill here.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


How short are the memories of politicians and their class. There is now consensus among the leadership of the three main parties that the cause of the recession is the scale of public debt, and that the only way out of it is to cut public expenditure. Nick Clegg, in a rather laughable attempt to out-muscle Brown or Cameron, has even boasted those cuts must be “savage”.

The concentric bubbles which actually caused the recession, the excesses of the free market, the complete lack of regulation in the financial sector, the yawning inequalities that fuelled the credit boom, the need to bail the banks out with public money – all these have been forgotten. So has the lesson of the early 80s – that cutting back salaries and making working people redundant is no way to flee a recession.

Gordon Brown’s speech to the TUC yesterday, littered with the c-word, has gone largely unchallenged by politicians, journalists and Trade Union leaders. Even the joint-leader of Unite has argued (using a tortuous football metaphor - "in off the bar in the last minute of the game ... we are now in extra time – we can beat the Tories" - uh-huuuuh...) that Brown’s speech lays clear ground between the two parties.

But what exactly is the moral or economic rationale for making workers and recipients of public services pay for a crisis which is the result of capitalist excesses? Why does nobody challenge the orthodoxy that our economic exit strategy lies in perpetuating inequality?


Last week, the Left Economics Advisory Panel (LEAP) published research which points out that, for all the talk of low inflation (or even deflation), costs of living have risen for the poor in Britain and fallen for the rich.

Although official measures of inflation (the CPI and RPI) for February 2009 were between 0% and 3.2%, the 2009 Inflation Report suggests a more objective yardstick which they call “Essential Inflation.” This measures the prices of “essential goods that households cannot avoid purchasing” – i.e. shelter (rental and mortgage payments, Council Tax, home insurance), heating (electricity and gas), clothing, transport, communications, food and drink, and water.

Taking Britain as a whole, Essential Inflation was -0.82% in February 2009. But broken down according to income, Essential Inflation was -3.21% for the richest 10% of households and 1.92% for the poorest. Viewed another way, the poorest 10% spend 67p of every £1 they earn on the essential items outlined above; the richest 10% spend only 29p of every £1 they earn on essentials. And, of course, the rich earn a lot more £s.

The LEAP report analyses how this works in practice by focusing on housing costs. The inflation rate for Council Tax was 3.6% in February – although this applies to everyone in permanent housing, it costs the poorest half of the population 4.1% of their income, and the richest half only 2.5%. The rate for rent – which affects poorer people disproportionately – was 2.9%. And yet the cost of mortgage payments – which applies to wealthier homeowners – fell by 39.9%. This example clearly supports LEAP’s contention that “inflation is a class issue.”

Since the cost of living has increased by nearly 2% for the poorest 10% (and by 2.38% for the next decile) but decreased by more than 3% for the richest 10%, the report concludes that,

It is important to understand that a pay freeze is a real terms cut of nearly 2% in living standards for the poor, but a real terms increase for the richest. Unions are therefore correct to argue that low paid workers should not be treated the same in pay negotiations as senior management grades ... It also means that unions representing the lowest paid workers should be calling for pay increases of at least 2% just to maintain living standards.

It is a measure of how fearful people are about having a job at all, that 89% of local government UNISON members voted to accept a general 1% pay increase, and an increase of 1.25% for the lowest paid (in reality a 0.75% pay cut). Meanwhile, the Government has recommended that the National Minimum Wage should be raised by 1.1%.


On the other side of the spectrum, the benefits of lower living expenses for the rich have been coupled with massive hikes in pay. Executives of FTSE 100 index companies have enjoyed a 10% increase in their salaries, even as their companies lost nearly a third of their value and their workers were faced with pay freezes or made redundant. The Guardian’s report on executive pay shows that “nearly a quarter of FTSE chief executives received total 2008 pay packages in excess of £5m, and 22 directors now have basic salaries of more than £1m.” Staff at Man – a hedge fund group – earned an average of £198k each last year – an increase of 100% since 2004. Although shareholders may challenge boardroom pay, there remain no legal ceilings on how much the wealthiest in society may earn, even if their salaries are at the cost of their employees’ jobs or earnings.

Vince Cable has responded to this survey aggressively: “[it] shows that breathtaking cynicism involved in a lot of executive pay deals, which are unrelated to either personal or corporate performance and involve people who are very well off helping themselves to larger salaries when private sector wages in many companies are being cut.”

Yet his party has proposed nothing specific about keeping a check on executive pay or making Britain’s economy fairer. They have joined the chorus of belt-tightening, pay-freezing and pension-stripping for people who work in the public sector and those who depend on it.

We don’t know exactly which services will be cut most, though we can guess by a process of elimination. Not defence, where £130bn savings could be made by scrapping Trident. Not crime and immigration, both Tory comfort zones. And while the Tories would like to take the axe to health and education, we know from history that the market-based policies which they will ramp up will actually increase the burden on the taxpayer.

So the people who will ultimately bail out the wealthy are public sector workers, pensioners, people on benefits, tenants and people who don’t travel to work by helicopter – 'twas ever thus. These are the very people who, in a setback to the late nineteenth century, have nobody in Parliament who will act on their behalf. In an age of late capitalism, parliamentary democracy is worthless.

It is clear what is needed: political participation from the bottom up. But this was only ever likely to be successful during a period of Labour Government, for this should have been the period when those abandoned by Labour sought an alternative to it - and indeed, the recent simmerings of industrial action have been encouraging.

When David Cameron forms a government, he will instantly become unpopular (as it is, he is hardly a savoury proposition to most people). Workers will recall how much they hate the Tories, and how much the Tories hate them. Will they turn to the Labour Party, or what’s left of it? It seems unlikely. But as more and more people find themselves unemployed or out-of-pocket – as people find that they have nothing to lose but etc etc – something will have to give.


Music from Adam Curtis's suggestive/fragmentary film It felt like a kiss, a history of the American age of gold and decay, which you can watch here:

The Essex, "Easier said than done"

Doris Troy, "Just one look"

Skeeter Davis, "The end of the world"