Yes/No, Southern Gothic and the Architecture of Doom

I usually close out my blog for the year with a simple roundup of books I’ve particularly enjoyed. But 2014 has seemed a rather strange, transitional period, for reasons I’m still trying to define, so I thought I’d write a somewhat longer retrospective in the hope of making some sense of it.

As ever my memories of the year that has passed are a jumble of images: I’ve little or no recollection of things that should have been important, but have vivid impressions of moments in time that were of no obvious significance. I can’t quite remember what happened when and where, so have relied on a review of my blog posts to put them in some kind of linear order.


The year began with the design of book of memories to note my mother’s 70th birthday, an arrangement of photos spanning her life interspersed with messages from friends and family. In the course of putting the book together I was interested to note the development of photography from the 1940s to the present day, from the misty sepia of the 40s, the monochrome sharpness of the 50s and early 60s, through to polaroid and on to today’s digital photography. The evolution of the photos seemed to follow the pattern of memory itself, from the undefined but luminous memories of childhood to the sharp impressions of the recent past.

It’s strange to think that the ubiquity of digital photography means that for younger generations records of the past will be crystal clear: people will look back in old age at images of their youth, captured in high resolution. I tried to capture that thought in a blog post, Memory, old and new:

It seems somehow right, I think, that our visual records of the past should slowly decay, like memory. Appropriate that some half-remembered day from another decade should find its physical record in a set of weather-worn desaturated photo. … It’s strange to contemplate that today’s technology will preserve the past with such stark clarity. It already disconcerts me to see scenes from my life recorded using the first wave of digital cameras some 10 or 15 years ago. A younger me looms up, preserved with megapixel precision. What, I wonder, will it be like to look back on these images in old age? What will it be like for those a generation or two younger than me, whose entire lives will have been preserved in high definition? How odd it will be to look back at one’s distant past, shining as brightly as the present.

The other thing in January I can recall clearly was a brief trip to London which turned into something of an eccentric little architectural pilgrimage, inspired by a book I was reading at the time, John Grindrod’s Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain, an elegiac record of the soaring ambition to build a better world that inspired postwar British architecture.

The book featured rhapsodic chapters on the Barbican and the South Bank’s Royal Festival Hall and National Theatre, which for Grindrod are perhaps the most perfect expressions of the high modernism of the 50s and 60s. Suitably intrigued I took the opportunity to go for a winter’s morning ramble round the Barbican estate, and saw it as I imagined it: deserted, wind-blasted, austere. I tried to capture the scene in a blog post, Barbican ghosts:

I arrived somewhat earlier than expected, just before 9am on a Sunday morning. Unsurprisingly no other idiots like me were around to enjoy the freezing wind bringing in isolated spots of rain from the east, outliers presaging the deluge that was to follow later that day, the sky an angry blur of lowering greys. The perfect conditions, I thought, to see the Estate at its best. This is Brutalist concrete modernism at its most uncompromising, the tower blocks a silent sisterhood of jagged sentinels, last year’s leaves spiralling across the open spaces, the wind jotting quicksilver patterns on the artificial lakes.

Grindrod’s account of the 1951 Festival of Britain made me feel oddly nostalgic for an time and place many years before I was born, a Britain that saw itself entering into a bright social democratic future, energised by a sense of hope that seems distant today, a bold new age, stalled. I spent some time exploring the area of the South Bank where the Festival had taken place and attempted to make sense of it in another blog post, Southbank Evenings.

Shortly after returning home I wrote a piece for the New Escapalogist magazine on the subject of absurdity. My piece attempted to express my scepticism regarding a certain notion of freedom, prevalent today, according to which we are supposedly made more free as public services are withdrawn. The idea is that instead of funding a comprehensive welfare state through public taxation we each pay less tax and instead purchase our own insurance. It seems to me that this devolution of responsibility for constructing our own little personal welfare states is stressful and time consuming, and that it makes more sense simply to pay more tax in return for decent public services. I’m not sure if I still agree with everything I wrote in the piece, but I stand by the general sentiment. I may publish an edited version of the piece here sometime in the New Year.

In February we welcomed a new addition to the household: an Irish greyhound called Judy. Kate had wanted a dog for some time, and had heard that greyhounds are a particularly good choice, a placid, affectionate breed needing comparatively few walks, content to spend most of the day sleeping. I was hesitant as I’ve never lived in a house with a dog and most of my experience of them has been of the small, noisy, energetic kind: I’ve always been a cat person. But I’m glad to say that after an eventful couple of weeks when she first moved in, it’s proved a good decision: Judy is a gentle, endearing creature, somewhat like a large cat, comical and elegant by turns, who seems very happy here. She is by and large content to follow us around, sleep, and often has to be dragged out for walks. I refer you to Kate’s blog for the full story.

I don’t recall much else from the early months of the year aside from going to see a couple of movies that made a deep impression. I’ve been haunted for many years by half-remembered images from a film I saw in childhood: a black knight, a white maiden, a dark forest, a deep lake. I couldn’t quite remember when I’d seen it or where, or its title. My memories of it had the quality of a dream. So I was quite emotional when I had the opportunity to see it again, some 34 years after it was first released. It turned out to be a film called Black Angel, originally shown as a short feature preceding the original release of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. Watching the film again after so many years was like walking into childhood memory, the distant past looming up, made real. I tried to evoke that strangeness in a post, Dark forest, old dreams.

The other film was the brilliant Under the Skin, avant-garde sci-fi on the streets of Glasgow. The movie captured the sepulchral splendour of city centre Glasgow on a dim winter’s day, which, as I wrote in my post Glasgow textures, ‘cloaked in a Stygian murk, a fine veil of rain, low clouds scudding over its monumental architecture’ evokes something of the ambience of Blade Runner. In my book that is emphatically not a criticism. The film also had an incredible soundtrack.

Shortly after that I had further occasion to indulge my obsession with urban dystopia when the BBC ran the wonderful documentary Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry by the ever excellent Jonathan Meades, an unapologetic defence of the preverbial ‘concrete monstrosity’. For Meades Brutalism is an architecture of sublimity, a manifestation of the capacity of the human imagination to evoke the uncanny. As Meades put it:

Inverted pyramids, allusive shapes, reckless cantilevers, toppling ziggurats, vertiginous theatre, imitations of pyrites, the defiance of gravity: always a sign that a demigod is at work. The architectural imagination was flying … These structures challenge the gods. They’re monuments to mankind’s supremacy. They’re supremely optimistic, supremely confident, supremely hubristic.

I used elements of Meade’s argument as the basis for an article written for the design magazine Creative Bloq that sought to challenge some comfortable design orthodoxies: On Brutalism. I probably enjoyed writing this more than anything else this year.


Spring began with a redesign of my business website – A New Design, Again – so as to create something more impactful: larger images, a clear typeface. Around this time I attended a web design conference in Edinburgh – one in the ongoing Highland Fling series – which presented a pleasant opportunity to catch up with some designer colleagues from around Scotland. The conference started with a particularly good presentation on the way in which the web continues to disrupt established patterns of economic life, and put me in mind of one of my favourite quotes from Marx:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air.

I wrote a post trying to pull together my thoughts on how that presentation related to several things I’d been reading about the pace of technological change, and its implications for our collective economic security. If nothing else I’d been wanting to give one of my blog posts the title All that is solid melts into air for some time, and this presented the perfect opportunity.

May was a rather quiet month in which I received a lovely birthday present from my wife: Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye recreated in Lego, one of the models in the Lego Architecture series. This series, designed for those of a certain age, is giving me the excuse to get back to building Lego, some 30 years after my collection was retired to my parent’s loft.


Things got a lot busier during the summer months, which were the most crowded – and in some ways downright odd – I can remember for many years.

During early June I wrote another piece for Creative Bloq, reflecting on the legacy of the late designer Massimo Vignelli – What Massimo Vignelli can teach designers today – one of the great generation of postwar modernists. I wrote it as something of a reply of my own to my earlier post for the same magazine about Brutalism, which under the influence of Meades had disputed some of the modernist principles Vignelli and others had worked so hard to develop.

Later that month we took something of a dreamlike holiday in the US. For a week or so Kate and I, together with most of her extended family, repaired to Sea Island, Georgia, a summer holiday retreat for the wealthy. The trip was made possible through the generous loan of the use of one of the seaside ‘cottages’ (in this case a seven bedroom mansion) to the family by an investment banker friend of one of Kate’s uncles. I tried to capture some of my impressions of the place in a blog post, Dreams by the sea. Some memories will abide: riding ‘adult tricycles’ along a shining white beach, days of brilliant sunshine punctuated with intense electric storms, marshlands stretching for blank miles around the island, and, during one beach ramble, catching sight of the fabulous Entelechy II, home of the architect John Portman. The trip also encompassed a trip to the city of Savannah on a blistering hot day, genteel 18th century classicism built on a swamp, unalloyed Southern gothic.

To add further surrealism the holiday coincided with the first couple of weeks of the World Cup, which was actually followed closely in the US. I don’t recall much of the football, but I do remember admiring the design of some of the team outfits, particularly that of the Dutch, which I was pleased to learn was designed by the great modernist Wim Crouwel – a contemporary of Vignelli – a discovery which inspired a post about the splendours of Dutch typography.

Once back in Edinburgh the rest of my summer was dominated by the Scottish independence referendum. My day-to-day design work was rather quiet during this time, so I was able to devote many hours to door-to-door canvassing.

I helped with Scottish Labour’s No campaign, not without considerable internal conflict. I thought then, and still think, that extensive devolution is, for now at least, better for Scotland than outright independence. The argument that the member nations of the United Kingdom benefit from the pooling and sharing of their collective resources is a powerful one. If an appropriate distribution of powers across the UK can be worked out it seems to me that it is better to share our collective wealth.

But: that is a big ‘if’. I fully appreciate the powerful case that was made for independence. A United Kingdom only makes sense if its members are travelling in the same general direction, if there is broad agreement on the political principles according to which the Union is governed. Sadly this does not seem to be the case. The picture is complex, but I do think it is fair to say that the political consensus in Scotland is social democratic, and in England rather less clear. Certainly, the current Coalition government – with it has to be said the support of much of southern England – scarcely bothers to hide its long-term intention to work towards the dismantling what remains of the British welfare state. If this north-south tension persists it seems inevitable to me that a future referendum will be held, and the result will be Yes. If the Tories win the coming General Election and pull Britain out of the European Union I can see another independence vote looming within five years. For now I continue to hope that it is still possible to design a robust devolution of powers, but I may change my mind about that.

The atmosphere in Scotland as the day of the referendum approached, and the polls narrowed, was electric. Everyone knew how important this was, and nearly every conservation one overheard was about the vote. Taking part in the campaign itself was an extraordinary experience. It may seem odd that an introvert such as myself was prepared to knock on so many hundreds of strange doors to canvass opinions, but I can only remember a handful of hostile responses: most people wanted to talk, often at length, about the issues at stake. I remember several leafleting sessions on city centre streets during which many passers-by literally grabbed the materials from our hands, delighted to see supporters for a No vote out in public. As the final vote proved, they were the quiet majority.

I tried to work out my position on the referendum in several blog posts, one of which gathered together some of the many photos I took during the campaign: Scottish independence referendum images.

All of these posts appeared on a new blog I set up over the summer to provide a space for posts on subjects that didn’t belong on my design website. I called it Metropolis2520 for no other reason than that I wanted the word ‘Metropolis’ to appear somewhere – that architectural obsession again. I appended a series of numbers to ensure I could register a suitable domain name.

As a respite from politics I found some time during this period to write a few things on design. I did a short presentation on WordPress and image resolution at a new Edinburgh WordPress meetup, and reviewed two excellent design books. Merz to Emigré and Beyond, by Steven Heller, is a richly illustrated study of 20th century avant-garde design magazines, and The Commissar Vanishes, by David King, is a brilliant visual history of the degeneration of the early Soviet Union into dictatorship.


After the referendum I enjoyed an exhibition of John Ruskin’s Venetian drawings and paintings at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery before making another brief trip to London to see a couple more exhibitions, primarily Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian Art at the Tate Modern. The Russian avant-garde is another obsession of mine, and this was probably the only opportunity I’ll have to see an extensive collection of Malevich’s work. It was wonderful, and I’m still trying to think of how best to write about it. I also saw William Morris: Anarchy and Beauty at the National Portrait Gallery, a survey of Morris’ influence on the development of late 19th and early 20th century politics and design. I wrote up my thoughts on the exhibition in another New Escapologist piece, which I will post here in due course.

In November Kate went on what proved a transformational trip to Israel as part of a Church of Scotland mission to study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which she reflected on in several powerful blog posts. It isn’t possible to appreciate the true nature of the conflict unless you have seen what is happening at first hand. Despite having visited parts of Israel a few years ago I came back not quite knowing what or who to believe. Reading Kate’s posts I am now much clearer.

While she was away I spent most of my time writing a series of posts for a Scottish Labour website, trying, again, to make sense of my thoughts on the referendum: Labour’s down-to-earth radicalism, Socialism and/or social democracy, and The Radical Independence Campaign Conference 2014: A Labour view.

The writing continued into December, with a rather long review of a book about economic strategy appearing on the New Left Project website: Labour’s Alternative Economic Strategy, 40 years on. All in all it has been another rather political month, with my local MSP Sarah Boyack standing for the Scottish Labour leadership. I’ve developed considerable respect for Sarah over the past year, having had the opportunity to work with her during the No campaign, so I helped out a little with her campaign and wrote a post setting out reasons why she would have made a good leader. She didn’t win, and wasn’t expected to, but I still think that she would have been Labour’s best option.


And that was 2014. A busy year, certainly in the summer. And a year in which I have been unsettled, more restless than I’ve been for a very long time. I have hardly mentioned my day job at all in this review. I am still, officially, a professional web designer, as I’ve been for some 15 years now. And I worked on quite a few web projects over the course of the year. But I felt like I was fitting them in around everything else. Fort the first time design has felt no more than a job. I know that is how many people have always felt about their work: a utilitarian necessity to get out of the way before real life begins. But for me it is an unusual feeling: it has always been very important for me to see work as a vocation, as, so far as is possible, a channel for creative expression. But design now seems a peripheral interest. I don’t dislike it, but I have a strong sense that it is time to move on to something new. What the possibilities might be for a 40-something such as myself in today’s harsh economy I simply don’t know. It is a strange age to be, in career terms: I feel I’ve been working for a long time – more than 20 years – but so long as I stay in good health I have at least another 25 years of working life ahead.

All I know for sure is that I want to keep writing, paid or unpaid. Looking back on the year I can see that I wrote a lot. On design. On politics. On architecture. I just want to keep doing that. It certainly isn’t because I find writing easy. I write slowly, each sentence like the ploughing of a furrow. But the process by which words, ideas and images gradually take shape and come to form a logical structure is strange and fascinating. As I once read somewhere, the process is rather like going fishing, a case of waiting patiently for the appropriate words to arrive. The writer simply sits by the river of thought, endlessly patient, waiting for the line to twitch. Perhaps I will find a way of writing more quickly. Probably not. But I’ll keep scribbling, and see where it leads.


Re-reading the above I see I’ve written extensively about books and film. But music was as vitally important to me as ever during 2014. I should mention some highlights:

I should perhaps be worried that I listen to Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 8 more regularly than anything else. I can only say that it is music of such sadness as to be ultimately liberating: there are some moods in which I can scarcely tolerate anything else. I listen to a lot of Sibelius, always, but this year have found myself listening to Symphony No 5 more than ever. It wasn’t always my favourite piece – in the past I’ve listened to Symphonies 4, 6 and 7 more – but it seems to be becoming so. I also seem to be listening to the Siegfried Idyll more than I ever have.

My other favourite genre is electronica. This year I particularly enjoyed the debut album by Objekt, Flatland: raw retro-futurism. The same can be said of Evidence of Time Travel by John Foxx and Steve D’Agostino: try for example Impenetrable Inevitable. The glacial Changelings by Gazelle Twin has been on repeat play, as has Blanck Mass (by the artist of the same name), a beautiful ambient haze (see for example Sifted Gold). Aphex Twin’s jittering Syro – especially minipops 67 – was also appreciated, as was the gloriously daft Poison Lips by Vitalic.

I persist in attempting to programme computer music myself. Slow progress, but I am grimly determined to produce something worthwhile. Perhaps sometime in 2015.