Thursday, November 5, 2009

Neon Lights, Shimmering

The NASDAQ sign was loved and mourned mainly by those who had no love for its market values.
Marshall Berman, On the Town - 100 Years of Spectacle in Times Square

Or: some dialectic on enlightenment. There have been some very interesting recent books by American academics on the architectural culture of the Weimar Republic, all of which seem to be disguised ways of writing about contemporary architecture. Kathleen James-Chakraborty's German Architecture for a Mass Audience, Janet Ward's Weimar Surfaces and Sabine Hake's Topographies of Class all attempt to upend, with varying degrees of success, the versions of Modernism inherited from Philip Johnson's classicisation and bastardisation of Weimar in The International Style, and all of them rediscover an architecture of consumerism, flash and spectacle in an only retrospectively uneasy coexistence with an architecture of socialism and urbanist rationalisation - in more-or-less explicit critique of a cityscape unevenly divided between icons and blandness. One of the most intriguing elements in all of them is the discussion of a certain architectural culture of light. This reached its most extensive form in the Berlin Im Licht events of 1928, where the city's electrical companies collaborated in an urban light show. Meanwhile, the shopping streets and office blocks were regularly illuminated with an intensity and imagination only seen elsewhere at the time in New York. Neon as much as socialism is a neglected element in the modernist city, and it's good to be reminded of the notion of the city as bright lights, rather than slatted wood.

One of many reasons why I distrust the work of postmodernist theorist-architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown is the way in which, in the pomo manifesto Learning from Las Vegas, they spend lots of time talking about a city where the architecture is essentially made of neon - a dematerialised, night architecture of signs, lurid artificial colours, of figures and objects moving in an unreal space, which is a wholly modernist environment, one celebrated by Marshall Berman in the context of Times Square in the fine On the Town, the love for neon adverts on the part of those who have no particular love for the products being advertised - and then eventually favour something much less interesting, a vernacular of deliberate dullness.

What bothers me about Venturi/Scott-Brown is that their actual architecture, and that of the overwhelming majority of postmodernist architects, seems to have so little interest in this architecture of light and technological city-design - in terms of the actual practice, the skewed modernish/traditionalish conjunctions and intellectual gameplaying seem far more important. Funnily enough, browsing through their website, it seems they've finally got round to designing a building where light is a major factor in the design, and it's in the form of a pair of skyscrapers in Shanghai, dressed with 'electronic ornaments' (image via this interview), in a place where their New Urbanist comrades won't be snooping to make sure all is sufficiently 19th century. The reason this is on my mind, other than it being firework night, is that winter is on the way, which in any big city is actually a rather exciting experience, where previously prosaic landscapes become quite exciting through their illumination. Some London examples: if you trace at night the Barbican walkways all the way past the Museum of London, you get to a junction of four buildings, one by Farrell, one by Foster, one by Eric Parry and one Rogers. Only the the latter would get a second glance from me during the day, but on a cold night, with the walkways leading their almost arbitrary paths through them, they become positively fascinating, their nasty stone, their formal ineptitude and their general lumpen blandness being effaced, and the promises of transparency and a city of light and suspension seems tantalisingly close to being fulfilled - though there is of course nothing to actually see but hundreds of rapidly emptying offices.

There's a few instances of this in my area of London, which exemplify this rule of dreadful architecture interestingly illustrated by its lighting schemes. Chief among them is SOM's Pan Peninsula, a absolutely vile block of flats in the Isle of Dogs, which markets itself with an impressive lack of ideological guile as 'the place to live above all others'. In the daytime it's a shocker, a white-tile clad, spectacularly ungainly and clumsy bit of yuppie-stacking, sterile in a drab rather than icy way, and the promise of 'inspired apartments' on the American Psycho-esque website fails to make up for its architectural shortcomings. What does almost make up for them is the lighting scheme. Now maybe I'm still a bedazzled provincial, but I always enjoy the light show it puts on, where the towers are illuminated by minimalist strips of neon which - oh yes - change colours as you watch. It has a palpable sense of urban drama which the building itself entirely lacks. Another, this time on my side of the river, is Farrell's new office blocks, a nearly as slapdash barcode-façade fest, adjoining the Millennium Dome. Again, during the day this is a terrible mess, but in the darkness their kitsch lighting schemes have a sublime poignancy and vacant beauty, something only emphasised by the drizzly sight of Canary Wharf in the distance.

To 'take a bath of light', as the striking epigraph to On the Town has it, you have to venture into enemy territory, whether it's to the tourist-centred mini-Times Square at Piccadilly Circus, or into the locked-down, privately patrolled citadels of capital at the City of London and Canary Wharf, its lights 'taking the piss' out of the surrounding area, as Dizzee Rascal once put it - then there's the neon film atop the BT Tower - beautiful, but a reminder of the privatisation of Eric Bedford's monument to 1960s Bennism. Weimar Berlin had much the same predicament - the Reklamarchitektur or 'advertising architecture' of Erich Mendelsohn, where light was at least as important as concrete and glass, was in implicit opposition to the residential architecture of Bruno Taut, which was blaringly bright during the day but necessarily visually quiet at night, as people have to sleep there. Contemporary with Mendelsohn and just before Berlin Im Licht, there were experiments in light architecture in the USSR, for the 10th anniversary of the October revolution. You can see clips of this in Dziga Vertov's Three Songs of Lenin, a reclamation of light architecture for the purposes of public celebration rather than the hawking of goods. Yet these celebrations coincided with the final quashing of the Left Opposition in the USSR, and the images in Vertov mainly consist of the ziggurat of Lenin's tomb being illuminated, using light to mystify rather than enlighten, as would Albert Speer, several years later. Whether for political or commercial reasons, light is an overlooked urban object, and I suspect any mundane block of flats that proposed 'electronic ornaments' on its façade would face the middlebrow wrath of CABE in an instant. Looking out of my window, the only thing which stands out among the murky yellow sodium, and an eternally comforting sight in that context, is the sign of the Hong Kong Garden takeaway. Its lurid hot pink banner offers little more than an all-too-frequently irresistible promise of monosodium glutamate, but it's the most beautiful thing on the street.