“It was as if the surface was holding everything together.”

In their exacting Germanic determination to be as faithful to the original as possible, his Berlin team were in danger of being more Miesian than Mies himself. The big surprise, for an architect renowned for his attention to detail, was quite how badly the building was made. “It was like opening the bonnet of a Mercedes and finding …” Chipperfield’s voice trails off and he gives a look of disgust. Walls that looked like solid oak were actually cobbled together from bits of plywood, the concrete under the granite slabs was shot to pieces, and when they took the ceilings down, the electrical and mechanical systems were a mess. “It was as if the surface was holding everything together.”

The curse of Mies van der Rohe: Berlin’s six-year, £120m fight to fix his dysfunctional, puddle-strewn gallery, Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian

I lived in Poland in the late ’90s and I remember finding out that the Rynek Starega Miasta in Warszawa – Warsaw’s old town market square – had been entirely rebuilt in replica after its destruction in World War II by the Luftwaffe.

The desire to return it to the way it was, to rebuild the accumulation of history it contained at the frozen moment when it was destroyed, was understandable. We will rebuild what was taken from us.

I’ve never been convinced that this approach is desirable. It is not a memorial. Instead it attempts to recover the past, and erase the moment of destruction. It is the consequence of a deep pain and loss. The urge is understandable, the implications strange and disturbing. An extreme form of reasoning might suggest it is an attempt to recreate the conditions that led to its destruction in the first place – a form of nihilism.

The more obvious interpretation is that it is an attempt to reset the clock, with the implication that a different possible decision is contained in the apparent reconstruction of the past. Ersatz buildings for an alternate future history.

Instead grinding against the actuality of historical consequences, creating a fracture between the recreated desire and the information in the world. Creating different consensus realities.

And I note that while the externals are subject to this law, it’s rare the internal engineering eschews the comfort and regulations of modern materials and design.

I was reminded of Rynek Starega Miasta in Warsaw by a recent visit to Berlin, and three different buildings, each grappling with the past in different ways.

Das Humboldtforum

A concrete building with windows, and the foliage of a tree, partially shown on the left. in the reflection of the windows, a telecommunications tower.
East façade of the Humboldt Forum with the Alexanderplatz Fernsehturm telecommunications tower reflected in the windows

The first is the Humboldt Forum, which presents two different façades to the world. The façade facing the street is in keeping with the baroque façades of the Enlightenment that give Unter den Linden its character, displeasing to my mind: wide and straight for the military, allowing parades of strength, rapid troop movement, minimising the possibility of ambush, baroque insitutions for the Arts and for the improvement of the people, down the sides: pure Enlightenment distilled.

The façade on the Spree is modernistic, plain, reflecting the design principles of the immediately preceding building that had occupied the site, the Palast der Republik .

Photograph taken from a boat, in the foreground is the boat rail, and the river. The picture is of an extremely regular, four-floor, concrete modernist facade of a building, bearing the words Humboldt Forum above the first floor. Partially visible on the right, is the other face of the building, with baroque window pediments and stylings.
The Humboldt Forum: two-faces

I have no love for the recreation of the baroque street façade, and the building itself is a compromise in the debate between two nostalgias, not one. However, it plays its tensions out in its external form.

Interlude – Memories of the Future: Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg “Willy Brandt”

Newly opened, but already memorable to me because of this @yorksranter post What if reality was more like software? Visit to a failed smart city, which starts with the words: I took these photos of Berlin’s forever-delayed airport terminal this summer. That was in 2017. Anyway it opened with superb timing in 2020.

Willy Brandt Airport – Terminal 1

It was very empty. I guess I was travelling at weird times. Also I was quick off the plane. Nice airport. All that wood and space and light.

Coming back, there was a long trek across tarmac past some continuing construction work to get to Terminal 2. Oh, and there were only water fountains in Terminal 1, not Terminal 2. I wandered down an empty corridor to an empty gate and filled it up from the toilet sink tap, as the airport staff had suggested.

Oh and the toilets look weirdly like locked restricted zones so some people were unsure whether they were open or not?

Maybe… abandoned, unfinished, plague stricken, the airport left stranded like an oxbow lake when we decided reality should reset from the previous commit, uploaded in the stary rynek in old Warsaw town.

Nice airport though. Very light.

Waiting at Terminal 2

Die Neue Nationalgalerie

Die Neue Nationalgalerie

A history of its travails here. These all stem from the complete indifference of architect Mies van der Rohe to the function of the building he was designing, resulting in a building pathologically opposed to the successful display of art within its walls.

Even more impressive, David Chipperfield’s attempt to maximise the amount of Mies while still allowing it to function as an art gallery, with only partial success:

“You see so many Bauhaus buildings where the window frames have been remade twice as big to improve their thermal performance,” says Chipperfield. “We obviously couldn’t do that here.” The solution was to replace the single 16mm panes with two sheets of 12mm glass laminated together, made in China and each weighing 1.2 tonnes. The compromise was allowed, provided the upper gallery never shows paintings in summer or winter when the temperatures are too extreme. The ghost of Mies lives on.

The curse of Mies van der Rohe: Berlin’s six-year, £120m fight to fix his dysfunctional, puddle-strewn gallery, Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian

The attempts to invisibly engineer the architectural intent of Mies and the function of the building, despite money and intent, are in the end impossible to reconcile, so the only way to accommodate them has been to build a new gallery, more functionally accommodating to art, allowing the Neue Nationalgalerie to continue to function as a quixotic folly. Something has gone badly wrong here.

I quite liked it.

On the day I visited, the gallery itself was very difficult to access due to construction work on the new gallery, no art was visible above ground, it was all in boxes, with construction workers readying the interior for the new exhibition. It wasn’t even clear it was open.

This seemed entirely appropriate.

Die Neue Nationalgalerie
Die Neue Nationalgalerie
Die Neue Nationalgalerie, construction taking place inside, St Matthäus-Kirche reflected in the background

Interlude – Ghosts and Legal Entities on Potsdamer Platz

In 2001 I stood on a muddy barren bit of wasteland in Potsdamer Platz, from which Romany gypsies and other itinerant, displaced or precariously positioned people had just been evicted so that the bright new commercial and financial future buildings of Berlin could be established. Daimler, Sony, Beisheim, PwC, EY, KPMG. Writing that I am reminded of the opening chapters of Eric Vuillard’s The Order of the Day, as the titans of German industry and finance prepare to meet Hermann Göring:

There were twenty-four of them, near the dead trees on the bank: twenty-four overcoats in black, brown, or amber; twenty-four pairs of wool-padded shoulders; twenty-four three-piece suits, and the same number of pleated trousers with wide cuffs. The shadows entered the large vestibule of the palace of the President of the Assembly – though before long, there would be no more assembly, no more president, and eventually no more parliament. Only a heap of smoking rubble.

A company is a person whose blood rushes to the head. We call these legal entities. Their lives last much longer than ours.

Around the table were Gustav Krupp, Albert Vögler, Günther Quandt, Friedrich Flick, Ernst Tengelmann, Fritz Springorum, August Rosterg, Ernst Brandi, Karl Büren, Günther Heubel, Georg von Schnitzler, Hugo Stinnes Jr., Eduard Schulte, Ludwig von Winterfeld, Wolf-Dietrich von Witzleben, Wolfgang Reuter, August Diehn, Erich Fickler, Hans von Loewenstein zu Loewenstein, Ludwig Grauert, Kurt Schmitt, August von Finck, and Dr Stein. We’re at the nirvana of industry and finance.

Vuillard, Eric. The Order of the Day (pages 2, 6 & 10). Pan Macmillan. Kindle Edition

Gedächtniskirche

Just off the Ku’damm, down from KaDeWe (omg that foodhall), is the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche. The church tower was bombed out in 1943. German architect Egon Eiermann won a competition to build an entirely new construction. There were objections. So he ended up retaining the bombed tower, and built a new church to one side, a new bell tower on the other, with a separate chapel to the side and below it.

Gedächtniskirche – main church on the far left, original tower in the middle, bell tower surrounded by scaffolding, chapel behind. Fortifications around the Christmas Market being put up after the terrorist attack here in 2016.

The new church itself, concrete and impenetrable on the outside, provides a revelatory experience on the inside.

Interior of the new church building of the Gedächtniskirche

Not entirely voluntarily Eiermann separated out the experienced and the new, the memorial and the modern into four separate buildings, relieving the overall group of a need to absorb the contradictions and instead making them legible, capable of interacting with each other.

It was by far my favourite of the buildings I saw.

I don’t want to moralise though. There is no should in these matters, and I’d far rather these designs find their way through the messy paths of civic approval and compromise than someone come in and dictate how things should be done. And the debates around theoretical frameworks for reconstruction glancingly and clumsily knocked about here have been rehearsed more fully and in greater depth elsewhere. This is merely a travelogue.

We do learn something about a given culture and society from the decisions manifested in these buildings though.

Civic objections to the destruction of the past may overrule architect and artistic decision making, in order to enable political decision making and therefore funding. Civic opinion will divide between the progressive, the nostalgic, and of course the indifferent, but this will always result in an element of nostalgia, or perhaps more fairly the conservative or conservationist sentiment, expressing that long-term ‘partnership between the living, the dead and the unborn’1 from Roger Scruton’s gloss to Burke’s Preface to Reflections on the Revolution in France, in The Anthology of Prefaces ed. Alasdair Gray.. Regardless, such pragmatism will always mean an element of the nostalgic dragging at the contemporary in the commissioning of civic structures and reconstruction.

And yet.

The Neues Nationalgalerie shows that single-minded artistic intent can produce a building a modern building so immediately magnetic that will spend a lot of money and energy to repair something that doesn’t work properly to try and hide the fact it doesn’t work properly.

The Gedächtniskirche is, I think, better for the compromise, it’s monument to destruction becoming part of the literal vernacular with its popular name der hohle Zahn – the hollow tooth.

So.

My main takeaway? Berliners/Germans have spent a lot of money very recently on civic, artistic and cultural buildings and infrastructure.

Postscript: Civic Building and Marvel Civil War

On a river trip, we passed through strange, peaceful, utopian civic architecture, the structures in which post-war, liberal, federalised consensus would be managed. Lots of excellent canteens, I’m sure. They are very appealing in their sense of calm, the perfectly placid structures and colonnaded, ‘governing planet’ sci-fi angles and planes and sense of space.

When I got back home, tired, I thought I’d limber up for the new Black Panther film by watching Captain America: Civil War. And lo, what do I see but our emotionally confined + bantz superheroes smashing and crashing the fuck out of these buildings.

I don’t really trust the buildings really, go for bricolage, the bits in between, acquired, stuck on, undesigned, unfunded. You can see the centre from the margins, but you can’t see the margins from the centre.

Facts and Communications

The following section, from Erving Goffman’s essay On Face Work, understood in political terms, is a lot more helpful than explanations provided by those who generally appeal to facts as being a trump card (categorised as ‘appealing to the referee’, or ‘speaking to the manager’, something that gets generally attached to the FBPE crowd or liberal centrists by the left).

Facts are of the schoolboy’s world—they can be altered by diligent effort but they cannot be avoided. But what the person protects and defends and invests his feelings in is an idea about himself, and ideas are vulnerable not to facts and things but to communications. Communications belong to a less punitive scheme than do facts, for communications can be by-passed, withdrawn from, disbelieved, conveniently misunderstood, and tactfully conveyed. And even should the person misbehave and break the truce he has made with society, punishment need not be the consequence. If the offense is one that the offended persons can let go by without losing too much face, then they are likely to act forbearantly, telling themselves that they will get even with the offender in another way at another time, even though such an occasion may never arise and might not be exploited if it did. If the offense is great, the offended persons may withdraw from the encounter, or from future similar ones, allowing their with-drawal to be reinforced by the awe they may feel toward someone who breaks the ritual code. Or they may have the offender withdrawn, so that no further communication can occur. But since the offender can salvage a good deal of face from such operations, withdrawal is often not so much an informal punishment for an offense as it is merely a means of terminating it. Perhaps the main principle of the ritual order is not justice but face, and what any offender receives is not what he deserves but what will sustain for the moment the line to which he has committed himself, and through this the line to which he has committed the interaction.

Goffman, Erving. Interaction Ritual (pp. 43–44). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Notes on Dublin Books 1: The Chester Beatty Library, MS 751

This important 13th century Samaritan Pentateuch – the first five books of the bible and the only books in the Samaritan canon – retains evidence of continual use over centuries including inscriptions by its owners in the 15th and 16th centuries.

This opening shows clear traces of kissing, an act reserved for especially sacred passages, such as the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20.1-17)

Exhibition note for Samaritan Pentateuch,
Abi Barakatah
1225, Palestine (historical region)
CBL Heb 751 at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

Logos: The word he utters, the truth that it contains…

They are not kissing the vellum – the animal skin stretched and scraped, depilated, and boiled of its fat. The needlemarks from the skin, stretched on its frame and scraped, are still visible.

They are not kissing the calligraphy, even though the scribe, Abi Barakatah, was one of the most famous and exquisite calligraphers of the 13th Century.

They are not kissing the words of J, E, P, or D. E in this case – Exodus 20. E, who got their initial because they used ‘El’ for God, and Were Not Concerned with Priestly Matters.

Nor are they kissing R – the Redactor, who filleted and assembled the sections of the Pentateuch with paste and cuttings.

These letters! What visions of politics and power in that distant time and land they conjure!

My thesis is that the redactors of Genesis and Numbers have one overriding concern, that is for the prospects of the priestly corporation which they belong to, and which includes their northern brethren in Samaria.

Mary Douglas, Jacob’s Tears: The Priestly Work of Reconciliation, OUP (2004)

Those sensitive, sensuous and reverent lips are touching and kissing the utterances of Moses, and by extension, for it is stated at the beginning of Exodus 20, God:

And God spake all these words, saying…

And yet they are kissing all. The route of transmission of those words to the reader is the route back for the kiss. Though a magician or theologian might say that the route of knowledge needn’t be the return route of divine intimacy.

When I kiss your lips, and we look at each other as if we could look at each other forever, at least until the next kiss, it is into that farthest, most intimate place we gaze. But it is also the lips we taste, and each other’s body that we hold so closely in that moment, and no other. And the smell of your hair, like grass.

The preservation of matter (or conservation of energy in other terms) and the transfer of information are always essential to get to the bottom of any subject or object or any thing that concerns us whatsoever*.

The connexion between the kissing of the page and God necessitates our entire field of humanities, and more besides.

In Eros and Magic in the Renaissance Ioan P Couliano covers the variety and intellectual history of Classical and Renaissance theories of love. How rays from the eyes communicate the image of the loved one via pneuma into the creation of a phantasm of the beloved, perceptible to the soul.

This leads him to quote 13th Century poet and inventor of the sonnet, Giacomo da Lentino:

HOW A WOMAN, WHO IS SO BIG, PENETRATES THE EYES, WHICH ARE SO SMALL

If we closely examine Bernard of Gordon’s long description of amor hereos, we observe that it deals with a phantasmic infection finding expression in the subject’s melancholic wasting away, except for the eyes. Why are the eyes excepted? Because the very image of the woman has entered the spirit through the eyes and, through the optic nerve, has been transmitted to the sensory spirit that forms common sense. Tranformed into phantasm, the obsessional image has invaded the territory of the three ventricles of the brain, inducing a disordered state of the reasoning faculty (virtus estimativa), which resides in the second cerebral cell. If the eyes do not partake of the organism’s general decay, it is because the spirit uses those corporeal apertures to try to reestablish contact with the object that was converted into the obsessing phantasm: the woman.

Ioan P Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, University of Chicago Press (1987)

Now, we can all laugh about this… but in that description is the recognition that any theory needs to account for the material transmission of information that leads to this object cathexis. And in that transmission are very deep matters indeed, much of science and psychology, and areas more generally that remain unfathomed and are still mysteries.

There are analogous issues in the nature of metaphor, another form of transference, which we can see in complex form in a diary entry by Rilke:

I invented a new form of caress: placing a rose gently on a closed eye until its coolness can no longer be felt: only the gentle petal will continue to rest on the eyelid like sleep just before dawn.

Rilke’s Diaries, from this excellent essay by Marjorie Perloff Reading Gass Reading Rilke

As the heat is transfered to the imperceptible petal, so God’s breath and the kissing of the manuscript intermingle, and somewhere in there, between petal, eyelid and heat transference, among the mysteries still to be resolved, are the kisses I treasure.

This post can be read in conjunction with The Squalid Rag, on the destruction of meaning, or Three Ghost Stories for All Hallows E’en, on how ghosts may reach the reader.

*Question: when information is lost in communication as per Shannon etc where does it go? I realise this is the subject of entropy, but I am dumb, and don’t quite get what the equivalent of thermodynamic equilibrium for information would be)

**This reminds me that I must post on the collapsing of distribution chains in media flows

More Things Can Happen Than Will Happen

I have concluded that a lot of poor decision making and thinking happens because people do not understand the concept ‘more things can happen than will happen.’

They are people who claim they understand risk and probability, but nothing about how they go about things suggests that this is in fact the case.

It is a problem with men particularly. The specific way in which they do not get it is because they have a desire for events to prove them right, or to be ‘right’, in quite binary ways. Dogmatic statements, ex cathedra, and a rather moody, cynical or sceptical manner when it comes to other scenarios are a giveaway of this psychology.

[Later insert]: I meant to say that I think it is to do with the exertion of power and its importance to many men. I wonder if being right is less important than being able to impose ‘being right’ on others. That includes minimising or in some other way diminishing the occasions when an outcome differs from the prediction. It’s not just that forgetfulness of when you were wrong causes this, it’s also a useful personal and (projected by those in power onto an organisation) institutional method of maintaining your rightness. You can impose that forgetfulness on others, or make it costly for them to call it out.

There are other methods of preserving rightness that go along with this:

  • Constant caveating, so that you can always point out you were right really
  • Aggressive assertion of extremely binary views, but chaotically and varying from time to time, even within the sentence-memory of, say, a meeting

It’s extraordinarily psychologically and institutionally unhealthy.

This post in part prompted by a footnote to Helen deWitt’s excellent short story My Heart Belongs to Bertie.

I began reading obsessively about statistics and probability. Peter Bernstein’s Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk was one inspiration; he says: “The revolutionary idea that defines the boundary between modern times and the past is the mastery of risk: the notion that the future is more than a whim of the gods and that men and women are not passive before nature.” Analysis of probability seemed more compelling than ever for fiction; I spent endless hours grappling with R, a programming language with strength in statistical graphics.

R is open source, and it has come a long way since I first downloaded the DMG.

What hasn’t changed, I think, is the gap between people who see why understanding chance matters and people who just don’t get it—people who don’t see why this is crucial to the most basic questions of ethics. I have more glamorous plots in my portfolio than the primitive efforts on display in this story, but the philosophical issue was what I hoped to bring into the open.

DeWitt, Helen. Some Trick (pp. 41-42). New Directions

(I mentioned in the previous post my second happiest birthday, and in fact this specific story has a direct connection with my happiest birthday, in that it was published in an art gallery exhibition catalogue that I picked up visiting the deserted exhibition on my birthday. One of the exhibits was a stack of the catalogues. The story was one of the pieces in the catalogue.)

This sent me back to Peter Bernstein’s Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, which is a very good book, and which contains the sentence:

The Greeks understood that more things might happen in the future than actually will happen.

Bernstein, Peter L.. Against the Gods (p. 64). Wiley

The subject is in the news again with the imminent publication of William MacAskill’s What We Owe the Future and the general salience of effective altruism.

Institutions and Ideologies

On holiday, and re-reading the beginning of Roberto Mangabeira Unger’s The Self Awakened, full of enormously potent and clarifying observations, and often quite intellectually thrilling to read, so much so that it gets my ‘feels too good’ suspicion heuristic going.

Anyway, out last night having a – is it possible to get bad food in Cádiz? – very good meal, on my x glass of wine and was unable to get past the sentence (my italics) in this paragraph on ‘shrunken pragmatism’:

A further consequence of this position is to exclude the possibility that we might be able to transform the character of our relation to the social and cultural worlds we inhabit rather than just to change, little by little, the content of the arrangements and beliefs that comprise them. It is a mistaken view. Institutions and ideologies are not like natural objects, forcing themselves onto our consciousness with insistent force and reminding us that we have been born into a world that is not our own. They are nothing but frozen will and interrupted conflict.

Roberto Mangabeira Unger, The Self Awakened

Once again forcibly reminded just how frozen 12 years of economic stagnation has made the ideology of the political and mainstream epistemic space in the UK.

Improving Spanish Tempos

…and the fish i was buying when i bumped into toby jones

tuna with pimenton, garlic and lemon. plus some roasted peppers.

it fell apart when i took it out because a) i cooked it for slightly too long and b) the fish slice has gone completely awol. kin great tho.

reminds me of this lunch i had near trafalgar after the second nicest birthday i’ve ever had:

tuna and chips at a spanish restaurant near trafalgar

after a difficult and stressful morning here (atlas mountains in the background)

an empty golden beach, empty because too cold for the spanish at this time of year lol

and here

a beautiful breakfast veranda in the middle of nowhere (well, you could see the beautiful Vejer de la Frontera on a hilltop across the way), while having orange juice, jamon, cheese and coffee

Berberian Sound Studio

Repost of an old tumblr entry, prompted by exchanging some mild pleasantries with Toby Jones this morning at the local market.

berberian sound studio was the best film i’ve seen in years (and I like it even more this morning), because of

  1. its spatial and physical representation of sound to create a tangible psychic landscape within which the events of the film take place.
  2. the remarkable way which the film allows its sonic & psychical content to constitute the reasoning and plot of the film. yes, the clue’s in the title, but it still seems an artistically daring thing to do (the film is rather runic) and requiring exceptionally brilliant execution to
    work, which it gets.
  3. its mapping of the whole frigid anglican male v
    catholic kitsch schlock v genuine evil. i did half wonder whether the whole virginal and pure anglican male thing was slightly played out or in danger of being trite (wicker man, yes, but also wolf solent by john cowper powys, arthur machen’s earnest young post-victorian men, disorientated in fin de siecle aestheticism). But
    for several reasons this isn’t the case. Toby Jones is great, for a start, with his mole in wind in the willows features, also, the film avoids triteness by playing the role subtly, its only an element of the film, not the point. there’s also a scene… no, that’s another point. but there is that always interesting exploration of the
    strength of purity against corruption, and how
    puritanism itself is intensely corruptible, more so than more pragmatic spiritual states, which in fact, by being less corruptible, are more secure. just with regard to that point about ‘genuine evil’ by upping the tangibility of sound in the film, something to the appreciation of evil, itself intangible or difficult to capture. it’s as if the viewer’s radar has been readjusted to appreciate the taste of things in a film that would not normally be portrayable. there is a subtle sense of how madness comes creeping in on the back of evil, how they work together. i’ve since seen reviews which say that gilderoy goes ‘mad’, i think that’s an exceptionally simplistic approach to take to this film – it’s also taking a non- literal film very literally – nevertheless, madness, or rather mental unhingeing, plays its part.
  1. the documentary of box and leith hill. a brief and wonderful scene that played straight to my heart and mind. my heart, because it’s some of the countryside i love most (was it cobbett who said that dorking was reputed to have the sweetest air in england – before
    the M25 of course). my head, because of the way it located the battles going on in the sound studio and in gilderoy’s head in english pastoral – it was both a moment of sweet respite, and a representation of the malign or sinister pastoral of john cowper powys, machen, also john ireland – the dismembered rural, the something nasty in the woodshed, the rustic earth as inimical to human civility. so yes, this was pure catnip to me. maybe i’m overplaying it as a consequence, but this is a very associational film (brief memories or
    moments of reality flash up in gilderoy’s head,
    stimulated by momentary verbal or imagistic
    associations).
  2. it being, in my experience, a very accurate portrayal of how italians and english work together.