architecture of estrangement


What is it about this building in Manchester that both impresses and disturbs? I couldn’t tear myself away from it. I stared up at it, trying to understand my reaction to it’s terrible beauty.

I remember reading an article about the brick. Yes, that hand-size clay block that has been a component of human dwellings for over five thousand years. The term “hand-size” contains a possible clue to my disquiet: there is a relationship between the size of the brick and the human hand. The brick implies a bricklayer; it carries within it’s size and form a memory of the human hand that placed it beside a similar brick. 

I subsequently learned that the building in the photograph is the controversial, neo-modern Beetham Tower.

There is nothing in this structure to acknowledge the humanity of the viewer or of the building’s inhabitants. It is entirely indifferent to us. We are disaffirmed by its scale. Even the hi-tech glass cladding in no way relates to anything we might consider a “window”: it offers us only a mirror-reflection of the world around it, a refusal to disclose itself.

Does any of this matter?

In her essay Utopia Deconstructed: Le Corbusier and the banlieue by Daniella Schrier ( the author says, “It is difficult—perhaps impossible—to disentangle cause and effect. To what extent is the environment in which the inhabitants of the banlieue live responsible for their alienation? Residents are already hugely disadvantaged and consigned to the periphery of society, but it seems impossible to deny that the sterility of their living conditions reinforce and entrench their estrangement, rather than providing any form of comfort and consolation; anything which might elevate the spirit.” Le Corbusier’s utopian (or dare I say dystopian) ideology “… demanded the total demolition of traditional neighbourhoods, complete with everything that might root people in their history, reflect their culture and heritage and give them a sense of belonging to something which transcended their own fleeting existence.”

Theodore Dalrymple in a piece titled, “The Architect as Totalitarian: Le Corbusier’s baleful influence” identifies a hatred of the human in this father of modernist architecture.

How much was Beetham Tower’s architect Ian Simpson influence by the ideology of Le Corbusier? I can only guess. But confronted by this building, the effacement of the individual is striking.  Why am I attracted to – and repulsed by – its bewitching, sterile beauty? Is it the seduction of the abject?

Why my disquiet?

Further reading:

malignant sadness

I am terrified by this dark thing that sleeps in me; All day I feel it’s feathery turnings, it’s malignity 

-Sylvia Plath

Lewis Wolpert’s Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression, Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon and Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind are among many invaluable books which address the subject of depression in a professional, accessible way. Yet it seems to me that it is the provenance of the artist to express the nature of this pernicious illness. These taut lines by Sylvia Plath articulate the dark thing which no amount of professional knowledge can adequately express. This is not to diminish the work of the experts (many of whom themselves suffered the ravages of the illness), but to go beyond knowledge to a place of identification. We enter the poet’s darkness, we feel the breath of the “dark thing” on our own skin. We meet Nick Drake’s Black-eyed Dog in our own doorways:

A black eyed dog he called at my door…A black eyed dog he knew my name…

do buildings remember


Yesterday I went with my wife and daughter to Burleigh, England’s oldest working pottery. The tour guide led a small group of us through the history and production processes of the factory, and we ended up in the shop with it’s beautiful blue and white china.

In Victorian England, this would not have been the worst of factories for a child to work in, but the conditions described by our guide soon found me contemplating the distressing subject of Victorian child labour.

The review below is shocking:

I became seperated from the group as I found myself transfixed by the tall black chimney which towers above the factory. What hardships had this grim tower witnessed? The blackened brick buildings seemed so very sad to me, in the softly falling rain. The chimney like the spire of some godless cathedral. William Blake wrote of England’s dark satanic mills: I imagined men, women and children a century ago – living, breathing, sighing, weeping – in these same spaces through which our little group shuffled with our twenty-first century inquisitiveness.

In the small visitors’ cafe, patrons sipped coffee and ate cream scones while children laughed and played between the tables. My thoughts were elsewhere: I sensed ghosts, invisible lives. Voices, and the footsteps of children in heavy shoes on the brick and cobbled passageways – weary, sad children, deformed by repetitive labour. Women with bent and aching backs. Men wrapped in swathes of wet cloth entering the stifling heat of the kilns.

To write of the sufferings of others is always to run the risk of an indulgent sentimentality. But I cannot escape the thought that these very walls, courtyards and buildings are the same seen by those here long before me. The images of brick and iron, the bleak recesses of dark buildings – I share with souls who lived a hundred years ago. It is as if their eyes were mine. John Berger in Ways of Seeing described how, when looking at a drawing of a beggar by Rembrant, we inhabit the gaze of the artist, as if we were seeing through time to the subject of his gaze. Perhaps it is something similar I experience as I move through the space in which they labored, and something of them remains. It’s an uncanny identification. The poet Fernando Pessoa wrote of becoming the other, not through an objective or distant sympathy, but by means of a mystical-imaginative incarnation. Nicolas Berdyaev wrote of the resurrection of the dead through memory – a concept found also in Vladimir Solovyev and Marcel Proust. Thus, for a brief moment, I become the woman who weeps as she sees the little boy stumbling with a load of pottery -she cannot run to him for fear of being punished herself. I become the terrified boy, beaten for his error. I become the cruel man with the stick. These people do not inhabit a place called the past, for the past is no more. All I have is this existential now, as those who were here before me had their now. And when I leave, there is no difference in our passing: we are united in an ocean of “nows”: their hundred years ago and my one day ago neither lessens nor augments the reality of their anguish.

I walked down to the canal in the rain. Once there would have been barges moored there, being loaded with pottery then drawn away by working horses. Now, a single white swan moved across the grey water towards me. How carefree and beautiful!

This creature know nothing of the past, it’s noisy machines and time-kept labour. And yet, it seems the hurt of the past was sublimated by the swan’s gentle motion across the water.