L’Esprit Nouveau

For as long as I can remember, walking around the City of London at the weekend has been a disquieting experience. It’s streets have invariably been deserted, its shops closed as if some great cataclysm had overtaken the city’s inhabitants. At present, this sensation of the deserted city is exacerbated by the fact that many of the shops have not just shot for the weekend but have shut for good. The prospect of London as a skyscraper graveyard opens up before us.

One of the particular aspects of London that always unsettles me is its grafting of raw and cavernous concrete structures onto a medieval streetplan. The result is often claustrophobic and overwhelming at the same time. Nowhere is this more true than at the Barbican. Conceived of as an attempt to impose order on the unruly chaos of the London streets, the complex seems folded in on itself, hostile to stragers and resistant to their attempts to penetrate it. Pleasant gardens with fountains sit alongside concrete pillars encased in scaffolding. The reason for my visit is an exhibition about Le Corbusier; not my favourite architect by any means but one I still feel I should learn more about, if only in the interests of giving him a fair hearing before condemning him. Much of the initial exhibits reveal a puritanical classicist that is little removed from my prejudices, interested only in reducing items to their basic form rather than delighting in them. Initially a disciple of arts & crafts, his work was intended to adapt man to the machine age, hence his tendencies for ‘garden city skyscrapers’ and his willingness to co-operate with regimes from Moscow to Vichy and New York. Like Wren or Haussmann, his designs would have demolished and reconstructed almost entire cities. His painting, influenced by Leger and Picasso seems rather more of interest than his architecture. The later work perhaps seems of more interest, when his interest in ‘type objects’ gave way to an interest in found textures and the poetry of objects. The result was an emphasis on biomorphic, which at least softened the designs at Ronchamp and Chandigarh. The most interesting structure for me is easily the Philips Pavilion, constructed jointly with Xenakis and Varese. The exhibition shows the Daliesque video projected onto the pavilion walls, as it was lit up in different colours – the result must have been rather like a sixties happening. The building itself seems more reminiscent of Gaudi or Calatrava, in its use of hanging techniques that have only really become widely available through computer modelling. To me, it looks like a geometrical ribcage.

Later, I walk around the nearby areas of the city; the lost graveyards of St John Zacharay and St Anne & St Agnes, the Wax Chandler’s unicorns, the ruins of London wall, the barber’s herbal garden, the ruins of St Alphage, St Albans and the Pewterer’s dragons. I’m pleased to note that St Giles Cripplegate is open; a rather austere post-war interior, interrupted by some surviving Baroque and Tudor monuments, as well as busts of Cromwell, Bunyan and Milton. I look at the heraldic crests on the walls for the Salters, Brewers, Cutlers, Wax Chandlers, the Stock Exchange, Chartered Institutes and so on. I wonder through Postman’s Park, the Holborn Viaduct, the Prudential Assurance, St Luke’s and find the interiors of St Mary-at-Hill and St Mary Pattens open.

I return the following week to go to Hampstead, a part of London that retains the winding roads of a village but also its appearance. One exception to this is 2 Willow Road, the former home of Erno Goldfinger. Goldfiner makes an interesting contrast to Le Corbusier, whose style of ‘white box’ architecture (typified in the mot too distant Isokon building) Goldfinger rather disdained, preferring instead a tradition of ‘structural rationalism.’ 2 Willow Road has many of the hallmarks of modernist design; much of the wall space is window and the base level is supported by concrete pillars. However, the building is designed in the same brick as the nearby Georgian houses, whose order and proportion Goldfinger professed to admire. For me at least, the result is rather nondescript combining some of the blander aspects of Georgian construction with the puritanical aspects of modernism. The interior is a little different though, not because of any difference in the design but in terms of it containing Goldfinger’s art collection. For a house lacking any form of decoration it seems odd that the inside seems so cluttered, with very little space remaining on the walls, window sills and shelves. I’m struck by a Delaunay drawing of the Eiffel tower, a cubist interpretation that makes it look like a gothic cathedral, a large pebble painted by Ernst to transform nature into artifice, a wooden sculpture from Moore combining the soft curves of the wood with geometry of stringed lines, a Duchamp rotorelief, several Riley paintings, Man Ray photos, kinetic sculptures that use magnetism to attach rings to a surface but leaving them mobile, and corrugated triangles used to form a canvas that allow a work to be seen with different shapes or colours depending on whether one stands to the left or to the right. Ethnographic items line the window sills; African masks, Iranian pottery, skulls and so on.

I walk across the heath to meet a different view of classicism; Adam’s Kenwood House. The grounds are dotted with sculpture; Hepworth’s Monolith Empyrean and Moore’s Two Piece Reclining Figure. As ever, I prefer the former, with its resemblance to a petrified figure. From the exterior, the fundamental design of Kenwood House is essentially conservative, a classical design used for thousands of facades. However, Adams has enlivened it with decorated reliefs in stucco; the delight in surface decoration seems very un-English when compared to the earlier Palladian styles or more austere approaches to classicism. This is particularly evident when one comes to the Library; the ceiling is decorated with frescos and the walls painted with blues, pinks and coated in gold. It comes perilously close to rococo, even with mirrors on the wall facing the window. A bust of Zeus-Ammon stands in residence. Other rooms have similar examples, as with a chinoiserie fireplace. Like Willow Road though, much of the interest derives from the art collection, much much of the emphasis being on Dutch art: a Cuyp painting of Dordrecht harbour, Van De Velde seascapes, a De Witte painting of a church interior, Ruisdael landscapes, a Rembrandt self portrait and Vermeer’s Guitar Player. There’s also an extensive collection of English art, with the set of sixteenth century paintings of the family especially striking, accompanied by assorted Gainsboroughs and Reynolds. Although some of Reynolds paintings of famous actresses in a variety of dramatic poses are rather diverting (for instance, one painting shows Emma Hamilton in one of her ‘attitudes’) I’m more taken with some of Guardi’s Venetian scenes.

This is mirrored afterwards by a visit to South London and Nunhead Cemetery. In many ways the least interesting of the Victorian cemeteries I’ve visited, it lacks the famous or notorious internments of its Northern counterparts and mostly lacks their architectural flair too. One exception is a tomb modelled on the Lycian Payavan tomb from the British Museum; originally accompanied with two weeping statues destroyed in the war, it would fit better into Pere Lachaise. Nearby is a terracotta tomb equipped with romanesque designs that remind me of the Watts Chapel, although it would seem more likely to be by Henry Peto, given the resemblance to his Doulton and Tate tombs at West Norwood. Finally, there’s an obelisk to the Scottish martyrs, political radicals exiled to Australia by Pitt. A cherry tree is in full blossom in one corner of the graveyard, framing a view of St Paul’s, while a pair of green parrots chatter in the trees. At the centre of the cemetery lies the ruined Anglican chapel, an unusual octagonal structure whose interior was gutted by fire in the seventies. It seems to lack the faded grandeur of its counterpart at Abney Park though, the stabilisation and restoration work robbing it of decay’s poetry.

The following week is taken with visit to some Oxfordshire villages. The church of St Mary at Kidlington is a typically English bricolage of styles; Baroque memento mori wall monuments, medieval stained glass, medieval tiles, Victorian stained glass, green man corbels. The nearby church at Hampton Poyle has an odd column showing medieval knights with linked hands forming a circle around the circumference of the column, several stone tomb effigies, a carved stone block with a hole for heart burials and Minton tiling. Finally, I go to the ruined village of Hampton Gay. Unlike Minster Lovell, the Jacobean manor here is a ruin in the true sense of the term. It is neither preserved nor maintained. Thick ivy vines prise mortar and stone apart, smothering the walls in a sea of dark green. Sheep wander through the door and out the other side. The church is small, with a somewhat misshapen wall monument and a carved wooden heraldic shield below the barrel organ.

At one point in Betjeman’s Trains and Buttered Toast, Betjeman complains that Pugin and Morris were escapists and fantasists, their work being essentially analogous to stage scenery. It’s a charge that could also be levelled at Betjeman himself, with his tendency to idealise picturesque country cottages whose lack of decent sanitation or heating he wasn’t obliged to endure himself. It’s a little tiring to continually read references to ‘the slave state’ as code for the welfare state, complainst about artistic types ruining rural towns, or to come across jokes about birch rods being the most suitable item to be included in a church children’s corner. In his radio talks during the war, he advances christianity as an counter-balance to such progress myths as fascism or marxism (progressive committees and civil servants frequently seem placed in the same category as the Nazis as part of modern barbarism). For better or ill, his work is almost entirely insulated from the currents of modernity, preferring instead to dwell in a Burkean reverie upon the age of chivalry and wondering in his lecture on wartime reading whether the nation was not simply trying to escape into the past (never mind that these reveries had been denialist fantasies for Morris as much as Pugin in the context of a rapaciously commercial and industrial nation; much the same applies to today’s idylls of smalltown Americana). In his lectures on Edwardian literature, Gissing is the only name to survive amidst a great mass of forgotten poetasters (Joyce is briefly referenced but the likes of Eliot and Woolf are entirely elided). Essays on such luminaries as Henry Newbolt, briefly reference Yeats in passing. I can’t help but feel awkward in reading Betjeman. I don’t share his Tory sympathies or his Anglican affiliation but I do mourn the apparent passing of English liberalism. His nostalgic conservatism could be aptly characterised as the English disease, the daydreams of a nation ill at ease with its present and with a glorious future firmly behind it. At the same time, it’s difficult to feel that his complaints about modernist architecture weren’t justified.

Mishima’s Spring Snow is a novel that offers up a commentary on its own events in the form of the theories and reading of Honda, with their critique of Western ideas of free will and Meiji bourgeois decadence alike; "Europeans believe that a man like Napoleon can impose his will on history. We Japanese think the same of men like your grandfather… you have one characteristic that sets you apart: you have no trace of willpower." Honda limns a world where the age of glorious warfare ended with the Meiji restoration leading instead to an era of the wars of emotion are fought where Kiyoaki lives "in a world of feeling." Nonetheless, the novel seems to have an ambivalent attitude to such commentary. The depiction of Kiyoaki as infected with the effete degeneracy of ineffectual aristocrats like Ayakura, shows him as effeminate, emotionally unstable and lacking a true self (only wanting Satoko when it is forbidden having previously wanted to punish her for loving him). But equally, once his love for Satoko is declared, Linuma sees "a hidden determination that had never shown itself before." Similarly, his grandmother sees him as a true grandson of his warrior grandfather his disgrace; "how remarkable that this grandson, who seemed so effete at first glance, should have revived the spirit of that age." As such, Kiyoaki emerges as both heartless rake and lovelorn fool, just as women such as Satoko feature in the novel as both Kiyoaki’s victim and glamourous but dangerous threats to the homosocial order ("a woman will destroy the friendship of men").