Monday, 2 March 2015

Vertical Regression, by Martin Kelly

Louis XVI had a famously juvenile sense of humour.

One of his favourite wheezes was to turn on the fountains at Versailles just as dignitaries were passing by them. The duly soaked noblesse would then be obliged to have a good laugh at the practical joke the regal wally had just played on them.

Knowing what happened to him, it was not without a little trepidation that I read the following paragraph in The Guardian of 18/02/15, in an article by Alex Andreou entitled, Anti-homeless spikes: Sleeping rough opened my eyes to the city’s barbed cruelty:

Pavement sprinklers have been installed by buildings as diverse as the famous Strand book store in New York, a fashion chain in Hamburg and government offices in Guangzhou. They spray the homeless intermittently, soaking them and their possessions. The assertion is clear: the public thoroughfare in front of a building belongs to the building’s occupant, even when it is not being used.

Plus ├ža change…

Mr. Andreou’s article is a fascinating critique of the concept of ‘defensive architecture’, a misnomer if ever there was one, for ‘anti-homeless spikes’ are just about the most aggressive feature a civilian architect can design into a project.

They are an interesting example of how human nature never changes. The bow-tied wannabe Vaubans who put features like these on to buildings use CAD (Computer Aided Design) software packages to do a job that the British Army did with bayonets, and the Vietcong with pen knives.

One thing that differentiates ‘defensive’ architects from the disciples of Ho Chi Minh is that the Vietcong never described the pungi stick as art.

There is a horrible sameness to all our public spaces now.

Not only are our shopping streets filled with the same chains (including the charity shops), it is virtually impossible to distinguish one new commercial building from another. The design of their exteriors is effortless; no effort seems to have spent on any of them.

They are all concrete and glass, and give the impression that they were not designed to be workplaces but fortresses; sharp-edged and constructed of impregnable material, with the plate glass enabling those inside to look out while preventing those outside from looking in.

In the study of universal history, such standardisation is a well-known indicator of a culture’s creative exhaustion. So far, so bad for us, but by itself it’s not something we can really learn any lessons from.

In an exhausted culture, that is perceived as being too much like hard work. However, there is another aspect of modern architecture which I find extremely disturbing – the return to the vertical.

I am not a fan of Renzo Piano’s Shard. I think it’s an ugly thing, a dagger stabbing the sky, the flatness of the tapering surfaces giving no rest to an eye in search of a feature to study, question or, God forbid, even admire.

It may not have been intended to be admired; it may have been intended to strike awe. One must swallow it in one go, like a spoonful of cod liver oil. 

Wikipedia describes it as ‘Neo-Futurist’, a description that makes perfect sense, looking as it does as if it has sprung fully formed from the rather warped mind of Filippo Marinetti.

It is a building that only a dedicated consumer could love; and it is the taste of those who consume the most that alarms me.

Architecture can, of course, be vertical for any number of reasons.

The slavish devotion of Glasgow, my city, to Le Corbusier left many former low rise, inner-city Glaswegians as marooned in tower-block reservations of asbestos and damp plasterboard as surely as any Cherokee in the reservation that awaited them at the end of the Trail of Tears.

Yet it is my belief that the megastructures of London and Dubai might be telling us another story, perhaps even sending us a message. If I am correct, the  it is not a very pleasant one.

One of the more well-known signs that a previously wild society is calming down is a change from vertical to horizontal construction.

In his wonderful The Scottish Nation, Sir Tom Devine very pithily called this the move from ‘the tower house to the country house’.

In Renaissance Europe 1480 – 1520, another great wee book, Sir John Rigby Hale made precisely the same point about the social changes that took place in late Renaissance Italy.

In such times and places, when you are important enough to live in a big house, it is a universal good that you feel sufficiently secure in your position that you do not also feel the need constantly to watch the horizon

The countryside is likely to be peaceful, meaning that the share of happiness of everyone in it is likely to be increasing, a medieval trickle down.

The return of megastructures to the world’s great cities suggests to me that those who occupy them do not feel secure in their positions.

What person or group who feels secure in their position would feel the need to barricade themselves in towers surrounded by earthworks, which is what ‘anti-homeless spikes’ really are?

It is insulting to call them ‘anti-homeless spikes’; a child who falls on them is as likely to be hurt as a homeless person who tries to lie on them.

It is more appropriate to call them anti-personnel devices; smarter, funkier and less messy than mantraps and depleted uranium cluster bombs, but anti-personnel devices nonetheless.

One should not really be surprised at the return of vertical construction around the world; less vertical construction than vertical regression, going up without growing up.

Wild societies were based on unregulated capitalism, for pillage is as unregulated a form of capitalism as it is possible to get.

The short two decades between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the banking collapse of 2008 were marked by often riotous celebration of unregulated capitalism, even while the growth of inequality and the widening gap between rich and poor, unregulated capitalism’s constant companions, became visible and then unmissable.

The megastructures could just be a statement by those who won the economic battles of those short two decades, that they are here to stay, that they are digging in, that the drawbridges are going up, and that the rest of us should keep out.

Who’s got the pitchforks?


  1. The Roi-Martyr comes out rather well from the comparison -- harmless childish pranks played on the nobility against a grimly technocratic war on the poor.

  2. The brutal and jagged shard is what the Chinese traditionally call a "poison arrow" and some Chinese people consider it to be having a negative effect on the local area.

    As for "anti-homeless spikes" and tramp soaking devices - I wonder how long it will take for the homeless to develop "anti-scrooge bricks" and send them flying through the windows of these abusive stores?