Sunday, 22 February 2009

Architecture as music Kowloon Walled City

In 1965, my friend went to a talk by Xenakis. Yesterday we went together to the big Le Corbusier exhibition at the Barbican. First weekend - queues for tickets, packed with earnest looking students and a few familiar faces, not that architects are as high profile as rock stars.

The Poème Électronique room is particularly good because you can see the whole film in its original black and white starkness - clips of Godzilla, ancient art, Belsen, Madonnas. Profound and found objects, thrown together. Sit where you can see both the film and the colour overlay on the other side of the room. At the Philips Pavilion both were shown together : at the Barbican, use your imagination to put them together and in the context of the undulating, walls not made of solid concrete but shards attached to a metal frame, hanging in the air, defying gravity rather than solidly ignoring it.

So, a few random and non-technical thoughts. Mandelbrot patterns are supposed to show how all creation evolves in a systematic sequence even though it may look infinitely chaotic. One striking thing about the patterns in Le Corbusier's work is the way simple grids multiply themselves, becoming ever more complex. It's really not so different from so much new music. Which is why for me new music is as organic as nature, cells dividing and expanding in sequence. And why I don't buy rigid tonality versus atonality doctrines which inflict labels on what is beyond classification. Time to reverse dogma and simply listen.

Architecture is a way of "enclosing space" even when they integrate light, air and landscape. Xenakis described the three planes of the Philips Pavilion as a "cow's stomach", an inner space where ideas are digested. Music too is a way of enclosing sound in structure, creating sculptures with sound. More on this soon after Xenakis Immersion Day on March 7.

Architecture isn't just buildings. The exhibition featured a lot on Le Corbusier's thing for urban space. Cities don't usually grow by planning. except when there's a disaster like the Lisbon Earthquake, or the upheavals in Paris in the 19th century. In the third world there are/were lots of urban environments which defy any principle of urban order - people just build where and how they can. The "traditional" Third World city is a maze-like warren of random structures. Electricity is "borrowed", sewers connect to water supply. There used to be a place in Hong Kong called the Kowloon Walled City which was a vertical burrow of conjoined structures where you never had to reach street level, if you knew how to navigate corridors, illegal bridges etc.

Note in the photo above, extensive gardens were created by the government - not the city inhabitants - to counteract the claustrophobia of the Walled City. (the photo enlarges if you click on it). The gardens acted as a kind of cordon sanitaire around the conurbation. Previously, it had been surrounded by multi storey building, only separated by a narrow city street. Had fires broken out or plague or cholera, it would have easily spread to the rest of the area. Moreover, since the Hong Kong government had no legal jurisdiction, triads ruled : the Walled City was a crime hotspot. Surrounding it with public gardens meant that police surveillance was possible. When the Triads ventured out, they could be stopped. In theory, anyway. The gardens weren't about aesthetic design, but served a grim, practical purpose. Town planners with their drawing boards sometimes don't understand.

Eventually the Chinese and Hong Kong governments made a deal to end the historic anomaly that allowed the Walled City to exist, and the whole place was razed.

So back to my beef with the Barbican. Originally the idea was that the mini-Metropolis should reflect the warren that was medieval London. The ancestors of my friend who heard Xenakis in 1965 lived under what is now the Barbican Hall. The difference is that, in a medieval village people knew their way around because they didn't travel far, and adapted to the higgeldy-piggledy maze by habit, not optimum convenience. People don't build warrens for fun, they just come about piecemeal. Ordinary people don't have big budgets they just improvise. "Traditional" cities aren't a "model" for anything.

The Barbican's systems are utterly counter intuitive to logic and rational movement. Even the lifts (elevators) when they condescend to appear, don't all go to the same floors. And when you get in them they decide for themselves where they are going to go, complete with sado-mechanist voice machinery. The Barbican was not designed for the disabled, elderly, children, or anyone who wants to get from point A to B without going round the block ten times. here's no natural flow of movement. And the feng shui is hopelessly stagnant. The Barbican complex is a structure that actively hates people.

No comments: