Thursday, October 29, 2009

Suburban Sketch One

(first part of an entirely non-rigorous prospective series in response to a creeping revalourisation of suburbia that I may, or may not, be partly imagining)
Today I went back to Bluewater. I had two appointments at the M25's delightful Darent Valley Hospital, one in the early morning, one late afternoon, and I decided that it might be a more interesting means of spending an extended lunchbreak than sitting in the hospital branch of Upper Crust and reading Eric Hobsbawm. The first time I went there, with I.T, who combined pics with quotes from Ballard's underrated last novel, and from whom I have swiped these images without asking, I was a little underwhelmed - having spent much of my childhood and youth in Malls (like 90% or so of those born since the 1970s) it felt like a familiar but expanded version of something I already knew very well indeed - the only novelty seemed to be the extraordinary setting, a gigantic Firing Squad-friendly bowl carved out of a chalk pit, perfect for dealing with us when we start to get off our fucking knees. This time I explored it in a bit more depth, and its complexities and contradictions became more apparent, without necessarily making it a more pleasant place.

I hadn't realised, given the hospital's hilltop encampment-like position, that I was so close to Bluewater in my twice-a-month-at-least appointments. I was walking distance, in fact, or rather I would be if there were any means of walking there. What infuriates anyone used to enjoying the city through walking its short-cuts, walkways, underpasses, parks and general non-routes is that the place is so obsessively channelled, to an extent that makes most modernist housing projects look like models of extreme libertarianism. As the crow flies, or in a post-apocalyptic, car-free scenario, I could walk about 5 minutes from the outpatients to the back-end of Bluewater, counting in some tricksy negotiation of the chalk cliffs. Pedestrians are necessarily bus-riders, as there is literally NO WAY of just turning up and walking into Bluewater, something which I'm sure Americans are rather used to, but for us is still relatively shocking. Eric Kuhne, the architect whose firm CivicArts designed Bluewater, opines in a rather fascinating interview that Bluewater is a city rather than a retail destination. In terms of its size and population, this is true (plus you could count its appendage, Ebbsfleet new town, which I have yet to visit), so we need to evaluate exactly what sort of a city this is - a city with one ceremonial entrance, which can only be entered in a vehicle, where nothing is produced but where many things are consumed. The only sort of regime that could set up such a controlled, channelled city is a dictatorship or oligarchy. Neatly enough, Kuhne explicitly praises 'benevolent despotism' and critiques the very notion of democratic city planning in the above interview, with admirable frankness. Yet following Patrick Keiller's account of finding 'a small, intense man reading Walter Benjamin' in Brent Cross ('Robinson embraced the man and they talked for hours...yet the number he gave him was that of a telephone box in Cricklewood'), it's clear that Bluewater is one of the many possible termini of the 19th century Arcades that bore through the solidity of the baroque city, their iron and glass construction the 'unconscious' of architecture, an oneiric, ethereal harbinger of the future amidst the ostentatiously solid architecture of imperialism - the place where the 'dreaming collective' spend their time. As the bus winds through a series of roundabouts on its way from the hospital to the mall that is yards away, you see the elevations that are the (basically irrelevant) 'face' of the building - a series of spiked glass domes, over a long, bulbous metal roof, which shimmers in the exurban autumn sunshine.

Inside, the first impression - this is half-term, after all - is of everything happening at once. The city of Bluewater soon reveals itself to be docile, unsurprisingly considering the draconian code of conduct, and there's only the slightest hint of menace - but the entrance is chaos. First you go past the standard-issue Blair-era retail architecture of a Marks and Spencers, and then you hit something odd - four glass prisms, seemingly at random, part of the glazed part of the building that ushers you in. This might just be ineptitude, but presumably the designers know what they're doing here, given the (as we shall see) heavily didactic elements of the interior, but exactly what is unclear. They're 'toys', these, as Charles Jencks used to write about postmodernist architecture's little devices, they're purist solids straight out of L'Espirit Nouveau, they're the building's 'logo' - but if so, a remarkably asymmetrical and unmemorable one. Then, you come up to a series of tall pillars, and two overhead walkways crossing each other, a suspended ceiling imprinted with a seemingly endless leaf motif, with the glare of the glazed entrance intensifying the effect - the shopping mall sublime, exacerbated by the thousands of people browsing/watching/buying/eating/expelling their waste (this is a city where these are the only acts that are permitted to occur), and it's thrilling in its way, although the pale stone-ish substance with which almost everything is clad always softens the effect, stops it from ever becoming really jarring and strange - that way lies the Tricorn and a bankrupt Alec Coleman. Walking around inside, you find a large quantity of public art, and a surprisingly large amount of seating - is this, then, a version of the Urban Task Force, with its mixed use and its encouragement of sociality? Kuhne talks of 'special meeting places' that 'dignify the heroic routine of everyday life that drives you to produce a better world for yourself and your kids'. It could be Richard Rogers, this stuff, except that unlike the Plazas of the Urban Task Forces, people are actually using it, and in droves - apart from one closed noodle bar, you'd have to look damn hard here to find even the slightest hint that we're in the middle of the longest recession in British economic history (though the sorting depot nearby tells a different story). Unnervingly, it supports the idea of the financial crash as a kind of Phony War, which will intensify only later, but will be truly horrendous when it does.

I'm trying to look at Bluewater with equanimity, but I don't like this place. I feel ill at ease here. As with so much else, it's a place in which I would have felt completely at home when I was 12 years old, but education, relocation and (ahem) ambition have led me to the point where I go to a place like this and think (and I'm not proud of this) 'there but for the grace of God go I'. I know full well that poncing around here dressed like Lord Alfred Douglas, with my bourgeoisified vowels and cotton wool stuck over the place where the catheter was 10 minutes ago, I'm committing an offence against the dreaming collective, by attempting to be different from it (or at least outside of the acceptable frame of twentysomething male difference: sporty/straight/indie kid/hipster/emo/chav/hiphop). Yet nobody is bothered. This might be the burbs, but in a place like this in Southampton I'd be getting dirty looks and be at risk of worse. This, presumably, is a result of the city being administered as a police state, and maybe the thugs are all at Lakeside. I think sometimes I might like to be comfortable here, but it's not the same as actually being comfortable. I'll persist with second-hand bookshops and charity shops, although will try not to delude myself they're morally superior. Regardless, everyone else has something better to do, and activity is constant. This is ironic enough, as the interior decorating of Bluewater has some interesting things to say about activity.

For something which is supposedly The Authentic Expression Of Our Real Uncomplicated Desires (as per countless suburbia-loving libertarians since the 50s, most of whom seem to live in the nicer bits of inner cities), Bluewater is extremely didactic in its design. It's trying to make various points to its clientele, something which very few seem to have noticed, whether critics or shoppers. So there are little torn-out-of-context fragments from Vita Sackville-West, Laurie Lee and Robert Bridges, all of them on the glories of the countryside, its products and pleasures - well, there is agriculture nearby, of a heavily mechanised sort, although the M25 is the more obvious land usage. It's there to establish continuity, to convince you that the city of Bluewater is a faintly rustic experience, without relinquishing one iota the imperatives of steel and glass - no urban-regen wood panelling here, no Scando. One of the raised Arcades here is illuminated by the partly glazed ceilings, borrowed from Soane, according to Hugh Pearman, combined with the obligatory reference to long-dead local industry - in this case, the pointy tops of oatings - has a series of inset relief sculptures. These immortalise all the jobs that once existed here, an accounting of the professions of the workshop of the world. Fishermen, Goldsmiths, Tanners, whatever, the list is practically endless, all these people who used to make stuff, while beneath them are those taking time off from intellectual labour in services financial, administrative and such. It's a quasi-religious thing, this - an attempt at appeasing the Gods of industry as they are replaced by the newer Gods of consumption (both equally implacable and brutal deities, which only seem opposed via a complicated geopolitical subterfuge). What makes Bluewater's didacticism interesting is that through its poems, its fibre-glass leaves and its statues of ironmongers, it comes out and proclaims its transcendence of nature and labour, precisely by memorialising it. When just-in-time production and distribution seizes up and we can actually walk to it, we can look at Bluewater's sentimental memorials and try and remember exactly what it was we used to do.