Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The most wonderful building you'll never explore...

Back in 2009 I began a project with my close friend Mark at Dancing Eye called 'In the Shadows of the Crystal Palace'. At the time I'd just gained an interest in street photography and naively started to take photographs around the City of London. It was only by virtue of the absurdities of s44 anti-terror legislation, and private securities regular attempts to disallow my taking pictures of their transparent buildings, all the time being watched by their cameras, that I became interested in the new glass architecture that suddenly seemed to be springing up across the city. From there on my curiosity took over and quickly led me to the most wonderful building I'll never explore.

In researching the project I visited the Sydenham Hill site several times hoping to capture something...I'm not sure what. While he Crystal Palace Park is wonderful in its own right, I can't help my disappointment that so little remains of the building that gave it its name.

From 1854 to 1936 the site was home to Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace. Originally intended as a temporary structure to house The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London's Hyde Park, the Palace was relocated to the Sydenham site as a result of popular demand, but no doubt assisted by the commercial interest that inspired. Following its destruction by fire in 1936 the site was used to host events like motor racing until the 70's, but was otherwise left to fall into disrepair.

Today the area is dominated by the Crystal Palace transmitter erected during the 1950's. All that remains of the original site is the upper terrace with its Sphinxes and broken statues, and the restored exhibit of antediluvian reptiles in the lower park. The park's past is commemorated by a pair of arches replicating the prefabricated iron frames Paxton designed to hold his magnificent building's spectacular glass panels.

If my trips yielded little else I at least managed to capture the stunning autumn sunrise seen in my short film above. How much more glorious would it have been though to have snuck into the still standing Palace before dawn; seen the sun rise from within the great Central Trancept; watched the morning light dance across the Alhambra, Egyptian, Greek and Roman courts; and observed the eager morning crowds enter from my hiding place up above.

We may well speculate that if the building did still stand it would be little more than a mall today, but to be fair this criticism seemed to plague the building from the beginning. And so what if it is only by virtue of its absence that it maintains its aura? Doesn't this allow it to serve us as a symbol all the more?

With that in mind I'd like to end with two wonderfully evocative passages from a guide to the Crystal Palace featured in an issue of the The Leisure Hour journal from 1856:
See! like a vision of magic, its striking foreground and magnificent park come into view; whilst, beyond them the Palace rises, wondrous in extent, yet so light and aerial in aspect, as almost to defy belief that it is a thing of solid substance. 

What an enchanting scene here meets the eye! A seemingly interminable vista opens, presenting innumerable gaily-dressed groups of visitors, promenading through lines of luxuriant foliage, intermingled with statuary, from behind which arise ranges of elaborately ornamented facades, and lofty, slender, parti-coloured columns, festooned and enwreathed with graceful climbing plants, springing from the ground, and shooting out from suspended baskets, lustrous with blossoms of every hue; while, high overarching all, is a crystal canopy, stained, as it were, with the mellow blue of the heavens, or sparkling with myriads of sunlight reflections. In the foreground, covered with white and purple and crimson water-lilies, is a sheet of water, from the midst of which springs the world- renowned crystal fountain, glittering with prismatic colours. 
This passage is quoted from the full article that featured in a recent post on Lee Jackson's excellent blog The Cat's Meat Shop. Those with a taste for further Victorian delights are strongly encouraged to try Lee's full online archive The Victorian Dictionary.

Ballardian Architecture: Inner and Outer Space

Back in May the Royal Academy of Arts held a symposium entitled Ballardian Architecture: Inner and Outer Space. I was incredibly disappointed not to be able to attend so I was particularly pleased when, in addition to the mp3s available above, videos of the event were posted by static tv on behalf of The London Consortium.

As indicated by the title of the symposium, each of the lectures are broadly structured around the distinction between the inner and outer operative in the fiction of the late British writer J.G. Ballard. What many of these discussions emphasise in their exploration of Ballard's work is the permeability of those barriers and thresholds ordinarily supposed to mark that distinction in each of its many guises.

By way of example we might consider the violent short circuiting of the libidinal economy of the individual and functioning of the capitalist market economy affected by the penetration of the skin by twisted metal staged by the auto 'accident' in Crash.

Below I offer a selection of the lectures that I found most interesting.

In the first discussion philosopher John Gray draws on Ballard's interest in celebrity culture and surveillance to pose the question as to whether we can expect there to be genuinely public spaces anymore. Gray explores the implications for political economy by way of a comparison with Guy Debord's theorisation of the spectacle in his 1967 book Society of the Spectacle.

In this second lecture the Bartlett's Nic Clear delivers his paper 'J.G. Ballard is an Enemy of the Architectural Profession'. Developing themes explored earlier in the issue of Architectural Design that he guest edited back in 2009, the lecture is offered as an exploration of new modes of architectural representation that are intended, in this case via the writings of Ballard, to stage an encounter between the architectural discipline and its outside.

An earlier interview outlining the development of this project, and featuring videos produced by his students in the course of his Ballard inspired 2007-08 programme for the Bartlett's Unit 15, can be found on the Ballardian website here.

In David Cunningham's presentation he compares Ballard's writing on space and place with those of his friend Iain Sinclair and the Anglo-German writer W. G. Sebald. In doing so he argues that, contrary to the "hunger for memory and place" of Sinclair and Sebald's writings, Ballard's provide a "profoundly urban, no-turning-back aesthetic of futurism and rawness", embodied in the architecture of Brutalism and the new forms of social interaction it might seem to promote.

The end of session panel discussion above features Gray, Clear and Cunningham answering questions from the floor on the subjects of time, the uncanny, sentimentality and social networking.

Chris Hall was one of the first online writers to discuss Ballard's work in his essay 'Extreme Metaphor: A Crash Course In The Fiction Of JG Ballard'. In this discussion Hall uses a reading of 'The Terminal Beach' to explore Ballard's use of particular types of architectural structures as metaphors for those aspects of ourselves that we try to repress. In doing so he develops the psychogeographic themes in Ballard's writings hinted at in Cunningham's discussion.

The lecture by British photographer Dan Holdsworth departs from the format of critical appreciation established by the speakers above. Having participated in the Crash: Homage to JG Ballard exhibition at the Gagosian gallery the previous month, Holdsworth reads passages from Ballard's works that resonate with the sparse and sometimes inhuman images suggested he captures through long exposure photography.

The closing speech of the symposium was made by Ballard's long term partner Claire Walsh. Naturally this offers a fascinating glimpse into the authors private life and the more guarded facets of his character.

The full set of videos can be found on the static tv while recordings of the sessions are available on the Royal Academy of Arts site here.