Art and Time Travel

This is a blog I wrote in a different time, in a different circumstance, but I'm revisiting it here because of a burgeoning project I've decided to continue after much water has flowed under many bridges. I think the subtext here is a particular period, Modernism. I see modernism in a strange sort of way and as a consequence I think I'm probably inaccurate in some of my comparisons and assertions. I relate modernism to Structuralism, Keynesianism, Intentism and, most crucially, hope. What I like about all of these concepts and 'periods' is that they provide, or attempt to provide, answers. They place the need for order in primacy and try to lock-in - like a map does a landscape - facts. I like to know where I stand and I like to feel a connection, however imaginary, to truth. If you have the time to read this, please read it with an eye on a wider connections between ideas:

'I urge you to take a look at Rene Burri’s photographs of Le Corbusier’s Cite Radieuse, built in Marseilles between 1947 and 1952. Look at the building but also look at what’s around it, the cars, the people. Try to feel the scene, deep map it, try to hear it if you can. Does it all seem to work together or do you, like me, see a collection of different eras hanging awkwardly together, locked in the photographs through force of circumstance; varying stages of modernity’s maturation process?

Surely in design terms the building requires that old wartime hand cranked Citroens should be replaced with the truly futurist lines and aspirations of the 21st Century eco car? Wouldn’t the post ironic, Mobius Strip tripping fashions of today work better with the beton brut? Forget the Ash saplings, what we need here is an interesting array of strange grasses, some of which should be black. Music wise John Coltrane might fit, perhaps Blue Train from an open window, but that was recorded in 1957 and a pre plastic sax Ornette Coleman was just getting to grips with the ‘harmolodic method’ in 1952. While Edith Piaf’s Mon Legionnaire is of the time (and place) it doesn’t work with the building. For this scene I think it’s Aphex Twin.

Design, fashion, landscape and architecture don’t go together in early pictures of Cite Radieuse and it is, of course, the building that throws the whole thing out of whack. Created to meet the needs of a post war Marseille, Cite Radieuse was part of Le Corbusier’s wider principle of Unite d’Habitation. This was a radical re-think of city design and architecture, taking the basic ‘machines for living in’ philosophical view on architecture and modernity and making the extrapolation literally concrete. Subsequent buildlngs have often failed to match Cite in qualitative terms and this unique structure remains a benchmark for Brutalist ideas and is, thankfully, very much alive and kicking; by now the photographs have caught up.

What I wonder is why do different art forms appear to progress at different rates? And I suppose that by rates I mean that some appear more ‘modern’ than others. Architecture has always seemed to stride confidently into the ‘next thing’, it easily defines a new stage (at least until the ghastly post modern 90′s) and moves, like the blocks it uses in its realisation, cleanly from one level to the next. I would accept that architecture has been, throughout history, touched by influences from the past, but these seem strident and bold, “my latest work is influenced by the Aztecs,” or “I cantilevered that in order to recall the Parthenon.” However, brutalism, while clearly having very vague classical influences, seems quite perfectly new.

Music flutters around, it has many more great practitioners of course and many more genres within which to accommodate them, but it develops and progresses in fits and starts. The truly new happens rarely, a little glimmer: Stockhausen, Aphex Twin, Efterklang, Esbjorn Svensson, all quickly swamped by a baseload of mediocrity. Fashion shocks from Gaultier are moderated by Matelan, motor car design is weighed down by the petrol it sucks on.

Perhaps the reason that some forms of art move in this way depends on the extent the air they occupy is rarified. Maybe, at its best, architecture is a high art form protected from the diluting forces of criticism. When a building is commissioned and planning permission granted the debate ends. It is at this point that all control is handed to one or two people; great buildings are built outside democracy. Once that building exists we live with it, we fit around it evolving at a different rate. Eventually buildings are surrounded by the things and make the sounds that were originally envisioned; the building waits for us to grow up.

At the staggering Royal National Theatre on the Southbank (which is my favourite building, designed by Denys Lasdun and opened in 1976, hated by many, including Prince Charles) they’re putting on Jean Racine’s Phedre (1677). Meanwhile outside among the maze of twists and turns, angular obstacles and cantilevered chins, tabbing and leaping free runners finish the scene perfectly.'

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