uurimusi arhitektuurist ja teooriast
investigations on architecture and theory

Andres Kurg. GB

Sheffield is a couple of hours by train from London. It was Britain’s largest steel industry centre until the 1970’s. Thanks to its strong labour movement, the city was called the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire. Later most manufacturing was closed down and as a replacement programme, the city reoriented itself to cleaner specialities like universities and the education industry for example. I arrive there at midday to attend a seminar “about text and pictures”; there is practically no leisure time allowed for. I only know that there should be honeycomb-shaped residential area that was built in the wake of the Smithsons in the 1960’s and that is the only thing I purposely would like to go see. I have also seen some pictures of the National Pop Music Centre that was built in the city a few years ago in the same “cultural revolutionary” wave, but that enterprise shortly went bankrupt.

The honeycomb-shaped building is right beside the railway station on a hill. It is visible from the train windows already. The centre of town is nevertheless on the other side. In the afternoon, I skip the discussion and go to look at the building. A beaten muddy path leads up the hill. This is the primary connection between the tram stop behind the railway station and the residential area. I see with my own eyes the propagated elements of the Smithsons: open gallery corridors or raised streets (they have even been given names), a layout that appears to be independent of the street network on the ground, coarse concrete surfaces, two-storey apartments. The windows of the apartments on the lower storeys are covered with brown perforated aluminium panels, an automobile that emits Arabianlanguage pop music stands in one courtyard; the raised streets are low, windy and deserted. The view from them in the direction of the city is very good. I take a photograph over the concrete balustrade of the gallery street and simultaneously realise that the horizontal framing of the balustrade forces it into a film-like format. Afterwards, my travel companions praise this photograph in particular. The sky hanging low over the hills surrounding the city, a stocky gasholder in the middle of the photograph and brown brick buildings in the foreground.

Cultural studies has supposedly been the most important agitator of the British academic world of the 2nd half of the 20th century. It was a particular anti-discipline directed against the seemingly apolitical boundaries and the hierarchical differentiation of disciplines until at least the early 1990’s. Cultural studies separates interdisciplinary interest in “culture as a lifestyle” and in how cultural meanings are produced through the media and other such means, and how they influence people’s daily lives from the ordinary way of differentiating the humanities or social sciences on the basis of field of research (such as art history) or method (sociology). The objective of social studies is not so much the discovery and interpretation of the “correct” meanings encoded in a work by its creator (or by the culture industry), but rather the interpretation by the consumer (group) of the dominant cultural “text” and the social environment that creates the given interpretation. The centre of interest shifted from studies of the culture of the working class in the 1960’s to subcultures and various anti-hegemonic cultural practices, and relationships between the subject and society, above all questions of identity, ethnicity and race in the 1970’s.

Stuart Hall, one of the leading authors of cultural studies, has adopted the concept of diaspora in describing the contemporary experience of race and ethnicity. Diaspora, which originally denoted the relocation of Jews outside their historical homeland, is important for Hall in comprehending the formation of identity in postcolonial conditions. Diaspora describes the cultural situation of a group of resettled people that forces them to see differences within their own culture and thereby to turn their attention to the constructed nature of culture and identity. Diaspora can nurture both mono-ethnic and multicultural feelings among its members, give rise to a collective identity that connects immigrants, or conversely reversing a fixed identity if it becomes an obstructing and repressive burden from the past. Thus this is a complicated and conflicting territory in which differences and similarities between oneself and others are mapped, assimilation with the dominant culture is resisted and ways to identify oneself anew are found. One of the aims of Hall’s theories could be to disassemble the oversimplified axis of integration-separatism policy and to demonstrate the experience of the disapora as instability and a series of rearrangements. This concept, however, is current for Hall in characterising the treatment of identity as a whole, which brings a perception of its associations between culture and location in a much more open manner. Diaspora is a model that expresses the relationships of contemporary culture and identity, and their formation more adequately than static cultural treatments: routes are determinative, not roots.

It snows on the day I am at Oxford. There is a photograph on the wall of St. Catherine’s College of the school building during a snowfall with Barbara Hepworth’s snow-covered sculpture in front of the building. This kind of view is apparently rare, although for me it is similar to the view that is presently outside. St. Catherine’s is considerably younger than the other colleges. It is modernistic and has no chapel. In all other respects, it is quite similar to other schools: with a rectangular inner courtyard lined by dormitory rooms and the studies of fellows. The library is at one end of the courtyard and the dining hall is at the other. This was a modernistic Gesamtkunstwerk for architect Arne Jacobsen, where a uniform module predominates the entire architecture right through to the cutlery of the dining hall, which was also designed by the architect.

At the same time, the election of the rector of the Academy of Art is in progress and one candidate says to a journalist in an interview that university is like a cloister for him. All the colleges at Oxford have this kind of structure – pray and study – at least that is how it was once intended to be. And apparently the stereotype concerning Oxford of properly groomed students in uniforms and dons in black cloaks is widespread to this day. My impression is nevertheless more that of an ordinary British university, quite removed from a cloister, which simply has a better reputation earned over the course of history. And I doubt that any single British university would manage very well anymore as a cloister.

I return by bus. When I awake, I am at the edge of West London in the middle of concrete intersections where tennis is played on illuminated courts in the middle of twisting highway interchanges. The towers of sparsely scattered public housing projects are visible in the darkness, built for immigrants who do not want to live there because they have large numbers of children and they have to clatter up and down in uncomfortable elevators in order to go outside. Their dream is a row house with a back yard regardless of whether it may have fewer comforts. Toward the downtown core, some of these high-rise buildings have been privatised and sold as trendy apartments to yuppies who live alone or in pairs and desire the stereotypes of the big city. The misery of one group of people has become the chic lifestyle of others and the avant-garde of the culture industry has thus captured a subsequent abandoned corner of the world for designer society.

Raymond Williams has in the course of discussing the much described association between large cities and modernism sought an explanation for the revolutionary changes in artistic form of the early 20th century: texts had been written and pictures painted in the 19th century already in reaction to industrialisation and the modern urban experience. Modernism did not offer anything surprising in terms of content, but why did the renewal in form take place then in particular? The metropolis of the early 20th century was no longer merely an important centre or the capital city of a country but rather junctions of relationships that transcended hitherto existing national borders. Social interaction became more complicated. Groups of people that interacted with each other came into being with their own specific interests and their own circles of friends, forming the potential audience for art with a different appearance.

But most importantly, people of many different nationalities and with different backgrounds accumulated in large cities as a result of immigration. They were unfamiliar with the local context and were alienated from traditional “skills”. Placed in another context, they themselves were free of national and provincial traditions. They encountered a new dynamic environment in the big city and saw it as if for the first time, in which many old forms of making art – the established way to react to events in art – had become distant.

“The experience of visual and linguistic foreignness and the interrupted narrative of the journey unavoidably accompanied by encounters with characters who presented themselves in an astoundingly unfamiliar manner raised the unique narrative of resettling, homelessness, loneliness and impoverished liberty to the status of a universal myth: the solitary writer looking down from the window of his shabby apartment on a strange city.”[1]

The only common experience for artists was their own practical experience, the medium of art, which the new environment now allowed to be perceived as random and conventional (no longer as authentic and natural). As such it was something that could be freely changed and experimented with apart from the pressures of content.

As far as Williams is concerned then, modernist art and literature was born from the experience and freedom of their creators being elsewhere. Modern architecture also fits into this scheme: Charles Edouard Jeanneret leaving La Chaux de Fond and finding a new identity for himself in Paris as Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies leaving Aachen and inventing himself in Berlin as Mies van der Rohe.

But what about Norman Foster? Or Rem Koolhaas? Williams himself concludes that modernism comfortably integrated with capitalism quite soon and the narratives of alienation, loss and disruption quickly found their way into pop culture and the world of advertising, and the “solitary, embittered, sardonic and sceptical hero occupies the place prepared for him as the star of thrillers.”[2] The experience of the immigrant is what thousands of artists with a flexible disposition try to imitate nowadays as a glamorous lifestyle in diluted form and what feeds the cities themselves: under the slogan of “creative cities”, it has become the operating rhythm of the entire post-modern economy. And what exactly is the experience of ending up elsewhere for this quasi-immigrant? Doesn’t he more likely carry the waiting rooms of airports with him like a snail (of which cultural theorists speak reverently) and drag his favourite retail chains along after him? And if the experience of immigrants has been hijacked, does this mean that they themselves have disappeared somewhere?

In the vicinity of Brick Lane, the street signs are in both English and Bengali. There is a large market on the lower storey of a former industrial building with a serrated roof where alongside the exoticism of the obligatory T-shirts, shawls and jewellery, one can sell anything else that seems to be of interest at the moment. Right at the entrance, some girls cut a cake and on the other side, some sort of sweets with nuts are on sale. Different types of national cuisine is a topic that leads to the abatement of even the most spirited arguments on multiculturalism – everyone likes enticing Asian cuisine restaurants, Japanese shops where one can buy wasabi and green tea, couscous, sushi, tikka masala. Immigrants are the people that make us good food and as long as they remain in the kitchen, everything is all right. And if they have an important intellectual contribution to make, they are imperceptibly transformed into a part of the national culture, which at the same time rejects their companions. “How about the Russians? Does Dovlatov get an article?” Vaapo Vaher asks the editor of the Lexicon of Estonian Writers as the book is in the process of being compiled. And the editor assures him that Dovlatov is on their list.

Laura Waddington’s film Cargo depicts a sea journey on a cargo ship heading for the Middle East with Romanian and Filipino sailors. The seamen are not allowed to go ashore at their ports of call. They remain on the ship the entire time and the author interviews them in a tiny television room. The film itself does not fit into the category of documentary film because the end result is dream-like and fragmentary but it is apparently the only way to relate this kind of unbelievable experience. Somewhere there is a shipload of men who constantly move about as if they were travelling but they themselves do not control their movement. On the contrary, they are imprisoned by this (global?) movement.

Nostalgia for home and the impossibility of returning there is on the flipside of theorising about migration: migration is not only spatial, moving from one point to another, but rather temporalspatial because the place from where one moves farther away also moves ahead in time, just like the place where one is moving to. For this reason, stories about the imagined return home contain more disappointment and the shattering of illusions, since things are no longer as they used to be, rather than happy recognition from one’s past.

Doreen Massey has aspired to rehabilitate innocent nostalgia for one’s lost home and has claimed that as long as nostalgia does not take a position of power and does not refuse to recognise intermediary changes, as long as it does not try to rob the history of the local population from them, it is not condemnable in and of itself. Yet it most likely happens quite rarely that the maintenance of this kind of position – to remember what was and in parallel to be conscious of what has changed – is managed. (The government of nationalists that was in a position of power in the early 1990’s wished to see the independence of Estonia primarily as a return and to deny the intervening history. This project of the wishful thinking of historians concerning “great” events did not take into account that this way they will leave others without their own everyday stories, the continuing process of daily life. This is what led to the whole wave of soviet nostalgia with a vengeance 10 years later.)

Stuart Hall attributes a decisive role to this kind of migratory geography as it relates to identity:

“Viewed from the perspective of disapora, the identity has many imaginary “homes” (and thus not one single homeland); many different ways to “be at home” – because here individuals are considered capable of designating themselves on maps of varying meanings and simultaneously to place themselves in differing geographies – but this is not connected with one specific place.”[3]

Turning this kind of treatment of identity around, however, how can we comprehend places (from the perspective of diaspora, from the perspective of global movement)? Based on Hall, Doreen Massey has criticised the reactionary treatment of location influenced by Heidegger – the location that guarantees stability and lasting identity – and written about the need to create a global or progressive treatment of location that does not emphasise separatism but rather connections between one another. The identity of this kind of place is not constructed on the basis of history and origin; rather it is the aggregate of various relationships and the point of intersection of paths. The uniqueness of this kind of place is derived from those same relationships and intersections where each path, each trajectory takes one farther than any particular house, street or town. This kind of place is a process without any one singular identity, filled with inner differences and conflicts that carry on a struggle between the celebration of the past and the utilisations of the future. The singularity of a place is in constant transformation, constantly being produced. It does not exist “before us already” or “even after us”.

A Chinese friend of mine from London sends me a link to her blog. Places that are important to her prove to be similar to the ones that are important to me: the view from the 6th storey window of the library of two office towers in lights through the shelves reflected by the glass, snow in Regent’s Park, airplanes over the Senate House, Bloomsbury Theatre, the square in front of the British Library. Points of intersection, trajectories elsewhere, everyday spatial stories.

Andres Kurg

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  1. Raymond Williams, The Politics of Modernism. Against the New Conformists. London: Verso, 1989, p 34.
  2. Ibid., p 35.
  3. Stuart Hall, New Cultures for Old. – Doreen Massey, Pat Jess (ed), A Place in the World? Places, Cultures and Globalisation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995, p 207. Cited: Phil Hubbard, Rob Kitchin, Gill Valentine (eds), Key Thinkers on Space and Place. London: Sage, 2004.