Category Archives: graffiti

Dalrymple schools a brute and a barbarian

Debate on the propaganda campaign to persuade people that the brutalist strain was a glorious episode in architectural history

Detail of Balfron Tower (Ernő Goldfinger, 1965-67)

DALRYMPLE: It has the ring of guilty people who protest their innocence too much, who know that they have been complicit in many crimes but hope that by noisy protestation they can drown out their conscience and befuddle the judgment of others. The architects who practised brutalism were brutes. No invading barbarians could have done more damage to towns and cities. Of course, there is no accounting for taste. As James Curl pointed out in debate with an apologist for brutalism, if you do not apprehend the horrors of brutalism at once, there is little that anyone can say. It is like trying to persuade someone that genocide is wrong who does not apprehend it at once. The great mass of the population rightly detests brutalism.

BRUTE: The newly-gained attractivity is growing by the day. In troubled times where societal divides are stronger than ever around the globe and in a world where instantaneous rhymes with tenuous, brutalism offers a grounded style. It’s a simple, massive and timeless base upon which one can feel safe, it’s reassuring.

DALRYMPLE: The idea that brute concrete could create any kind of security other than unease or fear is laughable. When defenders of brutalism illustrate their articles with supposed masterpieces, it is hardly a coincidence that they do so with pictures of buildings devoid of human beings. A human being would be as out of place in such a picture, and a fortiori in such a building, as he would be in a textbook of Euclidean geometry, and would be as welcome as a termite in a wooden floor. For such apologists for brutalism, architecture is a matter of the application of an abstract principle alone, and they see the results through the lenses of their abstraction, which they cherish as others cherish their pet.

BARBARIAN: Unrefined concrete was an honest expression of intentions, while plain forms and exposed structures were similarly sincere.

Le Corbusier: evil

DALRYMPLE: This is like saying that the Gulag was an honest expression of Stalin’s intentions. Sincerity of intentions is not a virtue irrespective of what those intentions are, and those of the inspirer and founder of brutalism were evil, as the slightest acquaintance with his writings will convince anyone of minimal decency.

BARBARIAN: Beyond their architectural function, brutalist buildings serve other uses. Skateboarders, graffiti artists and parkour practitioners have all used Brutalism’s concrete surfaces in innovative ways.

DALRYMPLE: To regard the urban fabric as properly an extended playground is to infantilise the population. Extension of graffiti artists’ canvas to large public buildings is a surrender to vandalism. No one would say of a wall, ‘And in addition it would make an excellent place for a firing squad.’

BARBARIAN: Brutalism evokes an era of optimism and belief in the permanence of public institutions—government as well as public housing, educational and health facilities. While demolishing Brutalist buildings often proves politically popular, they are typically replaced by private development.

DALRYMPLE: Many brutalist buildings, especially those devoted to public housing, have been demolished within a few decades at most because they have been so hated, not to mention dysfunctional and impossible to maintain. They evoke not permanence but the wish that they be pulled down as soon as they are erected. If many survive, it is because they are too expensive to pull down and reconstruct. Private development as architecture can be good or bad, but whether it is one or the other does not depend upon its being private. Much private development is as hideous as anything the government has managed, but that is because architects are terrible and patrons have no taste.

One law for the bien pensant, another for the rest of us

Shire Hall, Cambridge

Dalrymple writes:

One of the perpetual criticisms of Western legal systems is that they apply one law to the rich and another to the poor. Magistrates in Cambridgeshire recently did their best to substantiate this criticism.

A parliamentary candidate for the Green Party

was arrested for having defaced the offices of the county council by spraypainting them with Extinction Rebellion symbols. She was charged with criminal damage. Her defence was that she had been defending her property from imminent damage caused by climate change. The magistrates accepted this and acquitted her because of her ‘very strong and honestly held belief that we are facing a climate emergency‘.

Angela Ditchfield

Such a socially destructive judgment, says Dalrymple,

made honestly held belief, however absurd, a defence against what would otherwise be a criminal act. It made everyone a law unto himself. The magistrates, as weak of mind as of character, were acting in a politically biased manner. If a person with a ‘very strong and honestly held belief’ that Britain was being Islamised had daubed the council offices with a slogan to that effect, he would (quite rightly) not have been acquitted. If the accused had been an unemployed young male lout dressed in international slum-ghetto costume, he would not have been acquitted, either.

Dalrymple points out that the police in London have spent more than twice as much on trying to contain the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations as they have on a special force to deal with the increasing number of violent crimes, but then,

violent crime affects mostly the poor and ethnic minorities, so it is not very important by comparison with, say, the distant and purely hypothetical damage caused by global warming to the property of parliamentary candidates for the Green Party.

Bring out your spraycans!

Dalrymple writes that the epidemiology of graffiti

suggests that, at least subliminally, men still take notice of their surroundings and are affected by them.

Defacement is

overwhelmingly of hideous Corbusian surfaces, that is to say on what Le Corbusier called ‘my friendly concrete’.

Villa Savoye. Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, 1928-31. Reinforced concrete.

A satanic gynæcologist

Dalrymple points out that J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise (1975)

has several doctors as characters: a lecturer in physiology at a medical school, a psychiatrist, some neurosurgeons, and a gynæcologist.

The book

is typical of his dystopian genre. The high-rise of the title is one of four 40-storey blocks of flats built in the docklands area of London (as the novel was published in 1975, the location is an instance of Ballard’s prescience).

The residents of the new development, all of the professional classes,

start a war against each other of a class nature (the higher the floor you live on, the higher your social status).

Eventually there is anarchy.

Everything is vandalised, the services cease to work, rubbish accumulates everywhere, the walls are covered in graffiti, and the residents raid one another for food and eat each other’s pet dogs.

Dalrymple notes that almost every element of Ballard’s fictional horror is visible in less extreme form in the real world today.

Pangbourne, the gynæcologist,

is among the worst characters in the breakdown of order. Rich and successful, he lives on the highest floor, the 40th, and has led a raid with women acolytes to the lower floors, capturing an accountant and a meteorologist.

Dalrymple asks:

Which of us has never met a Pangbourne?

Against this I raise my sword-spraycan

Heygate Estate, Walworth. Tim Tinker, 1974

Heygate Estate, Walworth, London. Tim Tinker, 1974

Enemies of Corbusian profanation do not hesitate to act

Whole acres, writes Dalrymple, of man-made surfaces are disfigured in Europe by graffiti,

in which some people, ever on the lookout for something counter-intuitive to say, claim to have found art. This is the tribute money pays to poverty without having to part with anything.

The need to assert (rather than express) oneself in some way, no matter how pointless, becomes imperative in a society in which

  • we are all called upon to be unique individuals
  • celebrity has an exaggerated importance in the mental economy of so many
  • employment is often precarious and is felt to be without dignity
  • powerlessness is obvious (powerlessness in a democracy is more humiliating than powerlessness in a tyranny)
Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London. Denys Lasdun, 1967–76

Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London. Denys Lasdun, 1967–76

Taggers tend to deface

ugly surfaces, often of inhuman size, in which modern urban spaces are so richly, or impoverishingly, supplied. It is true that tagging never improves those surfaces, but they are often in themselves of degrading hideousness.

The epidemiology of graffiti

suggests a subliminal aesthetic criticism. It is a commentary on the kind of building and concrete surface that the fascist modernist architect, Le Corbusier, extolled and desired, with the enthusiasm of a revivalist evangelical, to spread throughout the whole world. In a sense, taggers in England and France are endowed with taste.

Having said that, in Italy or Portugal,

18th-century buildings are not exempted from the attentions of bruised and inflamed young egos.

Deeply meaningful drivel

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Dalrymple draws attention to the slogan ‘I would prefer not to’ on a T-shirt worn by Slavoj Žižek as the Slovenian charlatan-philosopher delivers what is, to put it most kindly, a rambling and daft speech on the subject of ‘freedom’. The T-shirt, writes Dalrymple, covers Žižek’s

capacious trunk, the bulk of which indicates that if he is opposed to the consumer society on ideological grounds he is nevertheless no ascetic.

The slogan sported by Žižek is of the same genre as the 1970s London railway-line graffito ‘Far away is close at hand in images of elsewhere’, which Michael Wharton used as the title of one of his collections of ‘Peter Simple’ columns.

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If Žižek did not exist, says Dalrymple,

it would be necessary to invent him. He is deliciously, archetypally intellectual; he incarnates the satirist’s idea of what an intellectual should be. His Central European accent is perfect: it would be impossible to say anything in it that was superficial. He understands the workings of the universe so well that he has no time or energy left over to look other than a mess.

Non

Screen Shot 2014-12-24 at 22.52.30graffito Dalrymple passes on the road to Nîmes from his villa consists of this single word. ‘You can’t get more profound (or more succinct) than that,’ he remarks.

Postcards from Brussels

A bourgeois city gone to seed

A Sint-Jans-Molenbeek street, Brussels:

The Sint-Jans-Molenbeek district: Brussels, the ‘sepulchral city’, as Conrad called it in Heart of Darkness, is, says Dalrymple, ‘dirty and unswept’; the houses, once all ‘bourgeois pride and prosperity’, are neglected

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The degeneration Brussels: 'Despite the fact that the public sector accounts for 50 per cent of GDP, it remains dirty and uncared for, and is architecturally ever more a hideous mish-mash. Many of the buildings were defaced by graffiti, the architectural equivalent of tattoos and just as idiotically egotistic'

Degeneration: ‘despite the fact that the public sector accounts for 50% of GDP, Brussels remains dirty and uncared for’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cretinism: 'Many of the buildings were defaced by graffiti, the architectural equivalent of tattoos and just as idiotically egotistic'

Cretinism: ‘many of the buildings were defaced by graffiti, the architectural equivalent of tattoos and as idiotically egotistic’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An architectural 'mishmash', says Dalrymple, but he would surely acknowledge that this is part of the city's charm

An architectural ‘mishmash’, says Dalrymple, but he would surely acknowledge that this is part of the charm of Brussels

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Palais des Beaux-Arts (Paleis voor Schone Kunsten), Victor Horta, 1928: the ugliest of all the major art galleries of the world, a building in the fascist style but without the courage of its megalomania, designed as if by a pocket Albert Speer

Palais des Beaux-Arts (Paleis voor Schone Kunsten), Victor Horta, 1928: ‘the ugliest of all the world’s major art galleries, a building in the fascist style but without the courage of its megalomania, designed as if by a pocket Albert Speer’

Notes from underground

Screen Shot 2014-01-21 at 13.23.08On an escalator on the Metro, Dalrymple witnessed this scene:

A young man in international slum-costume and face as malign as the late Mark Duggan’s…used a spray gun to scrawl his initials in bright red on the handrail. Scores of people saw him do it….He returned the other way to repeat his action on another handrail.

Dalrymple was saddened.

The ease with which the stupid and criminal insolence of one young man was able to defeat the civilised conduct of the vast majority of citizens present was…dispiriting.

Duggan: malign

Duggan: malign

And just because the young man was cretinous

doesn’t mean he wasn’t cunning, or wouldn’t be able to draw the correct lesson that he could act with…impunity.

Dalrymple dared not do anything to stop the French Duggan. Nor did anyone else. Why? Dalrymple points to these factors:

  • He and others were ‘busy with their own lives’
  • He and others were afraid of the French Duggan, ‘that he might carry a knife or a gun’
  • He and others were ‘by no means confident that if they had intervened…it would be the young man and not they who would be charged with an offence’
  • Certain witnesses — admittedly a very few, the silliest among them — might have ‘so read, marked and inwardly digested the exculpatory sociology of our time that they saw in his graffito not an act of moral depravity but a cry for help’