Strange Harvest
Architecture / Design / Art
StrangeHarvest is written and collated by Sam Jacob.

2000 Years of Non Stop Nostalgia. Or How Half Timbering Made Me Whole Again.

Piccadilly Circus has had an upgrade. A giant, curved, superbright and supersmooth TV screen has just been turned on. Wider than widescreen, it curves around the Regency architecture and disappears up Shaftesbury Avenue. It's bright and it moves and it's really big. It looks as thin as paper and just as light. It suddenly makes all the other lights of Piccadilly seem very old: The rotating billboard, low res RGB-bulbed LED screen, moving message board, even last years Jumbotron looks clunky bulky and jerky in the way only superseded technology can. But most of all the famous neon tableaux: Duller and slower than they ever seemed before. These are being dismantled piece by piece to make way for newer, brighter, more communicative and flexible technology.

Neon is designed to show a single beautiful image. Its fine glass tubes are heated and twisted into filigree patterns - a fragile 3D calligraphy pumped full of high pressure gas frazzled between electrodes. Retrospectively, Neon seems as stodgy as the carving on a Victorian town hall. Neon is original, unique sculpture. Tied to its narrative content like electrified Elgin Marbles: "Plug it in Pericles, lets see if it lights up!" Neon looks like architecture.

Piccadilly's screen is different - it can show anything in hi-res 24 frame/second realism - it can flit between live pictures from Mars, war, executions, hardcore porn ... it's all the same . Content has been released from the architectural hardware. It turns a frieze into a freeze frame, or a fast forward, a jump cut, a zoom, a pan ... all kinds of things that architecture doesn't yet have the vocabulary to describe.

This is change was commemorated when the first Jumbotron was installed at Piccadilly. The first clip it showed was a CGI animation of a giant Coca Cola neon sign. A ghostly goodbye to neon and a segway into the future where architecture isn't built by builders out of stuff, it's taped in a studio, edited on an Avid suite, and comes torrenting down a fat downpipe. It's architecture that says 'Aloha from Hawaii' via satellite.

The TV screen at Piccadilly Circus shows us a brand new kind of architecture. A leap enabled by high technology. The bigger, and more interesting challenge is understanding what it means for old fashioned, low-tech stuff. What happens when technology moves on? When it is superseded? Does technology drag us through history - from paint on the walls of a cave, to lumps of stone arranged in the landscape, to sculptures and carvings, frescos, bas reliefs, mosaics, textiles, to stained glass, to lightbulbs, to neon, to LEDs to Plasma gas? The CGI neon in Piccadilly Circus says something different. As it passes from function to symbol, it moves from technology to culture. From thing to image-of-thing.

In order to get to grips with architecture-as-culture rather than architecture-as-technology we need to engage with the idea of image. To be more specific, the part of an image which has meaning. To be less precise, it's architectures fear of what might be described - borrowing from the Old English 'wordhord' - as the 'image hoard'. The word-hoard is a mixture of myth and vocabulary, the gleaming treasure of history and culture in the form of beautifully polished and refined words handed down through generations. The Image Hoard is that great ever-growing pool of images, things, and places. Once distinct puddles, pooled neatly around separate cultures, now one great deep ocean. Everyday vernaculars caught in swirling currents, dragged into the undertow by globalised experiences.

An alternative description of the Image Hoard might also be 'The Pop Vernacular'. Pop in the sense of a collective, popular, shared, contemporary-folk. Vernacular in the way that it surrounds us. It is both a graveyard for the superseded and the spawning ground of unexpected futures. A cornucopia of architectural salvage. The Pop Vernacular draws on all of time and space. And despite its familiarity, it glows with optimism and freshness. Far from the end of history, it is the wellspring of the imminent future.

Washed up on the shores of this electric ocean: rustic bird boxes, ornate plastic plant pots, carriage lamps, gnomes, reconstituted stone statues, sliced pieces of log with house numbers branded into the surface. Regency desks with LCD vanity mirrors, hard drives in their drawers and keyboards tucked underneath. Horse brasses. Fiber optic Indian Restaurants, Plastic coated Chinese take aways. Pitched roofs, chimneys. Medieval garage doors.

The Pop Vernacular is everything you would never see inside a design magazine.

All classified under terms like Repro, Neo, or Knock Off. Without the need for authenticity, they are free to reinvent themselves.

Liberated from their origins as local materials, skills, climate and traditions, recomposed and to reflect individuality. The Pop Vernacular is happy to work with all kinds of un-architectural languages: the cute, the nostalgic, the homely. It is plural and expansive, global and inclusive: an inverted International Style. It is additive, assemblage, collage. It is global, but refers to specific places. It is collective but displays individuality. The Pop Vernacular is one great big glowing Jungian vision.

It is nostalgic and traditional in a way that is coldly futuristic. It looks like hobby craft, but comes out of vast industrial complex production lines.

All of these contradictions make something entirely troubling yet numbingly comforting. It's a nostalgic vision whose subject matter is the here and now.

The Pop Vernacular shows us how far away we are from a Normal or Natural state. It's both alien and homely.

Modernist authenticity insisted on singular truth and honesty in a world so obviously incapable of either. More resonant is conflict and compromise. Sentiments of the only-just or the not-quite, are more recognisably contemporary.

In fact, the tactics of the Pop Vernacular are not so very different to those of the high culture avant guardists - warping, abstracting, inverting, slicing, and bending. High architecture does it with diagrams and metaphor - the Pop Vernacular does it with recognisable imagery. It bends and warps culture.

The Pop Vernacular has a context, but unlike the traditional definition of the vernacular, it isn't geography. Instead its context is a scenario combining all kinds of invisible attributes: interest rates, broadcast media, trading parameters, import duty, holidays, TV shows. Physically, its natural habitat are places with a whiff of the generic: DIY stores, garden centres, suburbs, Christmas decorations, dashboards, shop window decorations.

It is a compromise between history, backyard vernacular and commercial architecture that layers languages and meanings to create a sensation of possibility - all the while reaching for a synthesis of contemporary experience.

It is pluralistic: in its own way it can accommodate all kinds of different things. What is remarkable is not its aesthetic, but rather its attitude - its techniques, its directness, its economy, its willingness to change, to use new technologies.

The Pop Vernacular does not rely on abstract concepts, but on concrete images - images that carry a mass of tradition and association, shot through with the energy of novelty and technology.

It is an architecture of consumption. Made by picking and choosing, selecting and arranging, buying and collecting. The kind of thing that the Smithsons admired of the Eames. This kind of consumption has a romantic spirit, driven by daydreams. Products are the building blocks that construct private dreams.

It draws on familiar languages. Languages that jump across media: from book to film to toy to product, then back again.

It is the folk art of the information age. The visualisation of the emotional experiences and realisable dreams of a mass audience. It shows that populism can create complex, sophisticated and radical newness. One that addresses fundamental issues of class, politics, and identity, which uses languages that are readable and recognizable in ways that allow architecture to be progressive, radical, and liked.

The 'Pop' bit means something more than 'popular'. More that the sharp pop of a bubblegum bubble. It's the feeling of synapses connecting things that once were separate. Like the convergence of folk music and electricity that burnt through the guitar shrieks of Hendrix and Richards, the amplified yelps of Jagger, the white-boy-sings-black-folk of Elvis. Here is Col. Tom Parker on Elvis ""He sings Negro songs with a white voice which borrows in mood and emphasis from the country style, modified by popular music. It's a blend of all of them." Less altruistically, prior to discovering Elvis it's claimed he remarked, "If I could find a white man with the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars". Denise Scot Brown describes this convergence of cultures in Memphis: "on Beale Street, where urban met rural, Gospel met secular, folk met jazz and white met black, Blues poured out." Pop music she describes as a place where "low art met high art as the chic and the avant garde embraced what had been the music of the poor, the oppressed, the regional and the local."

And this evolving equation rolls down the years. In the Black Ark in Jamaica, Lee Perry combines folk with cosmic echoing infinity. In London, art schools brought vectors of rock and roll intersecting with radical French art theory. This strange potion of folk, high technology, distribution and consumption spans the globe like perfume atomized into clouds. There was a moment when it was impossible to escape Chers vocoded "I believe something inside me ..." echoing down Siberian mine shafts, the robot voiced plastic diva whispering across the vast Antarctic wasteland. Pop teeters on the brink between a unique moment bound up with a specific place and global hegemony.

The Pop Vernacular is different to Pop Architecture: it actually is popular, it's not about popularism. Just like in Pop Art, there is a confusion between being popular and being about popular taste. Pop arts coldness is wholly different to the warmth and enthusiasm of grass roots folk art. Here is Jeremy Deller: "Warhol said that pop art was about liking things, whereas for me Folk art is about loving things." And love, warmth and humanity are unlikely sensations for modern architects to be interested in. Rather architecture has wallowed like an adolescent in the shallow waters of alienation. From postmodernism, which in its loss of certainty ironically reworked the old moves without passion, to the dreary literalism of Decon, to the beaurocratic sci-fi of High Tech.

Folk art is a victory of poetry over taste. Of not wanting to be cool but trying to be human. It makes taste makers like Radiohead, Conran, or Chipperfield look like petty minded parochialists. Theirs are visions that expend their creative effort on exclusion - resulting in a vision that is more about what isn't right than what is right. Perhaps the best way to overcome the oppression of taste is to love more.
The Pop Vernacular pluralistically incorporates the incompatible by refusing to believe in opposites. By making lateral connections between distant things it generates a magnetic-like force that holds it all together and vibrates with possibility.

Think of the acres of suburban front garden. Each small individual plot tended, weeded, trimmed, edged, paved, mulched, clipped, planted, sown, painted, treated on weekends and public holidays. Between the scale of the individual and the scale of the city something weird happens: bypassing the municipal, evading regulation and beaurocrasy, free of professionals, these miniscule adjustments to the earths crust begin to form grand gestures, mile long skinny strings of parkland woven in intricate knots. They suggest a direct relationship between the scale of the individual and the city: that deadheading a rosebush is an urban act.

The Pop Vernacular is a kind of imaginative reality, a form of magic realism. It hangs like a misty daydream around the solid mass of architecture. Decorating the mantelpieces above 'Real Flame' gas fires where coals glow but never burn. Scattered over gardens where plastic flamingos gather around mini-ponds. Like the fairies at the bottom of an Edwardian garden, they may well be imaginary. But these are lucid dreams. Like William Blakes visions of golden Jerusalem as he walked through 18th century London, they feel mighty real.

Modernisms rejection of history meant architecture and urban planning that was abstract and without reference. In the hands of the state, it produced a kind of beaurocratic planning-architecture. Guy Debord describes post war French new towns as having a feeling that "nothing has ever happened, and nothing ever will". This description of town planning as a mixture of fate and ennui is echoed by a very different source. John Betjemans poem 'Slough' begs: "Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough, It isn't fit for humans now". Neatly precied as "Swarm over, Death!". Here he describes the citizens of new towns: "Its not their fault they often go/To Maidenhead/ And talk of sports and makes of cars/ In various bogus Tudor bars". (perhaps the same bars described by the character Tim in the BBC comedy 'The Office': "There's a sign in the toilet saying 'Don't get your Hampton Court'")

When Betjeman identifies 'Tudor', he means Mock Tudor. This 'bogus'-ness, lack of authenticity and proper history are just some of the ways Mock Tudor architecture has been described. But perhaps, it might just be that Benjamin fails to recognise the bogus applied fake history is actually a subversive intervention which tries to re-write Slough. Perhaps it's even a Situationist tactic designed to destroy the sensation of nothingness that Debord identified. It's a physical manifestation of a collective Blakian urban dream. Which just happens to take the form of a pub. Despite its everyday appearance, the pop vernacular is seamed with grand narratives. The following is the (or a) story of Mock Tudor (or Half Timbering). It's a story that demonstrates the dense gravitational pull of the Pop Vernacular.

Half Timbering was a vernacular construction technique that evolved in Germanic Saxony. It came to Britain with the Saxons in the 5th century BC as a mercenary army for the failing Roman occupation. By the 6th century the Saxons and other Germanic tribes controlled most of the lowlands and were expanding to the north and west.

Half Timbering is already cutting loose from being a vernacular building technology, and heading towards a role as a cultural symbol. Removed geographically from its origins but related to a sense of identity.

Celtic tradition mixes with Saxon culture. Forests had been home to the Celtic Druids. Tree spirits possessed magical properties. The Anglo-Saxon poem "The Dream of the Rood" is a meditation on the crucifixion of Christ. In it, the tree speaks: "I was cut down, roots on end .... I was raised up, as a rood ... I was wet with blood". This personification of material suggests symbolism and identity are deep within the technology of building.

History continues ...

The last Saxon King, Harold faced the Norman invasion. At Hastings, William defeated Harold. He was crowned in London on Christmas Day 1066.

England was now ruled by a French speaking king. The Norman Lords seized the assets of the Saxons. Norman architecture begins its transformation of England with the Tower of London, the first of a network of castle-strongholds. 21 years later, 100 had been built.

Saxon identity remains distinct through this era. Folk heroes like Robin Hood emerge as the scourge of Norman aristocrats. Like Robin Hood, the timber Saxon architecture was light, quick, and friendly in contrast to the cold heavy mass of the stone military State Norman buildings. Oppressed Saxon culture gains mythology and so do its buildings. Half Timbering is the architecture of the people: the tavern and the home.

Time passes. Eventually, Henry Tudor seizes the throne.

The Tudors forged a powerful new identity for England. Mythologised as one of the glorious eras of British history. Exploration, colonisation, victory in war, and growing world importance. Splitting from the Roman church, Shakespeare and Bacon, Drake and Raleigh. The rise of British sea power brought security, riches and glory.

Half Timbered architecture became known as Tudor. It became more extravagant and decorative, its graphic intensifying. Built with the very same skills that are providing England with her burgeoning sea power, these buildings celebrate the importance and skill of timber craftsmanship. Half Timbering is imbued with military technology. The relationship between military might and architectural statement is pretty clear through Tudorbethan architecture.

Sir Walter Scotts novel 'Ivanhoe', published in 1791 was an embellishment of the Robin Hood story, big on Saxon/Norman fighting. It leads to a fashion of reviving English vernaculars, re-mythologising stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood. This historicism is later theorised by Pugin and Ruskin, and bleeds into the Arts and Crafts movement. Arising in response to the Industrial Revolution, its ambition was to revive craftsmanship in the age of the machine. Politically, it was nascent socialism with anarchist tendencies.

Half Timbering is revived as an overtly historical style. It is used because it connects with cultural myths supporting their political position. Just like the appeal of Robin Hood to the Arts and Crafts movement: a band of men living in the forest away from civilization, robbing of the rich to give to the poor, in opposition to the control of the state and on the side of the people. Just like William Morris' rural based company of pseudo-mediaeval craftsmen.

Half Timbering is now used as a badge of allegiance - a decorative political statement.

Arts and Crafts drifts from its Christian Socialist origins into mainstream fashion. It becomes a decorative symbol of status not politics. The country houses designed by Lutyens feature Half Timbering as part of their picturesque montaging of historical styles.

These large, Tudorbethan, bespoke homes for the wealthy became the template for the inter-war building boom. Volume building interprets the pre-war, expensive Arts and Crafts villas. Building quick and cheap, coupled with a shortage of skilled labor leads to a shift in Half Timbering from structure to appliqué. Thin timber panels fixed to the exterior of the buildings that make patterns not limited by the demands of holding buildings up.

These houses represented a way of life. These miniaturised manor houses represented safe European homes after the mechanised horror of the 1st World War. Half Timbering still retained some of the progressive sentiment of Ebeneezer Howards Garden Cities. It became a mixture of optimism and fear, built on a budget. These metroland homes were a mass market version of the pre-war progressive and bohemian lifestyle.

Sometime around now, Mock Tudor becomes exported around the world. In part through Englands still large Empire, but also through the pages of magazines like Country Life. Movie stars build Half Timbered homes that lined Beverly Hills streets. Frank Lloyd Wright designed icing coloured Half Timbering with giant sized roofs in Chicagos Oak Park.

By now any vestige of a traditional notion half timbering as a vernacular building technique has been cast off. Liberated, globalised through media, it becomes an international style. Its connection is no longer with a tribe like the Saxons, a Royal Dynasty like the Tudors, a country, or an ideology.

In the same way, the stories that were once part of Half Timberings myth are remade: Douglas Fairbanks a black and white and silent Robin Hood, Errol Flynn a Technicolor outlaw. Later, Disney cast a cartoon fox Robin Hood. Kevin Costner plays a sullen PC romantic version and Sherwood Forest is stalked by denim clad, Fender strummin' minstrel Brian Adams. The folk story has less to do with Norman England and everything to do with Hollywood sensibilities. Like clouds of radioactive fallout, folk stories reach the jet stream and envelop the globe.

Half Timbering continues as a means of construction, but it also gains layers of meaning throughout the centuries. At each iteration it continues the story. Tacked onto the outside of Moes Bar in the Simpsons, painted pink in suburban London like a Jamie Ried collage, the framing of a Morris Traveller car, an option offered by developers in Chinese gated communities.

Half Timbering is like light from a distant star: incredibly old yet as it falls on our retina, bright and new. Half Timbering has been made repeatedly new through its different incarnations. Bristling with meanings which continue to peel away from geographic place, race and circumstance.

Of course, pastiche is an anathema to contemporary high architecture that is still wedded to the heroic modernist notion of the original. This wasn't always the case. The context of mock tudor came out of a proto revolutionary progressive socialism. It was used as a way to both revitalise the idea of craft and labour as well as serving as an icon for a different age, of alternative aspirations, of other ways of living. It used history polemically - as a way to invent a better future. Indeed, the origins of Mock Tudor are also those of modernism. If both were to trace their family trees back they would find they are both pale descendants of Pugin and Ruskin.

The Pop Vernacular is about identity. Like a mirror reflecting our own self image, it is a way we can look at the world and recognise ourselves. It assembles narrative, reflecting ways we create our own self-identities: constructing stories and narratives of who we are, where we come from and where we want to be. Sartre puts it like this: "A man is always a teller of stories, he lives surrounded by his own stories and those of other people, he sees everything that happens to him in terms of these stories and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it." This is to say that we are defined by our own internal narrative, constituted from our own self fictionalization. Barbara Kruger succinctly puts it with a picture of a baby at her mothers breast "We are obliged to steal language". Or as 18th century poet Edward Young puts it in "Conjectures on Original Composition" - "Born originals, how comes it to pass that we die copies?" Our internal narrative is not an accurate or realistic record, rather it is a way in which we can imagine ourselves engaging with the world around us. Modernism was obsessive about truth and honesty and unforgiving in its pursuit of authenticity. The Pop Vernacular is about myth, not truth. Its lack of cohesion is its structure, compromise is its strength, and its dream like image-logic is the way it connects to us.

The concept of the local and the vernacular in the face of globalisation is changing. Implicit in Marshal Mcluhans famous phrase 'the Global Village' is a tension between the vernacular and international. In a world where communication is almost instantaneous, capital can move with lightening quick speed around the world. It means the idea of proximity is changing. This means connections are made between places almost unimaginably distant: earth to mars, a cave in Afghanistan to the technological heart of capitalism. This also includes ideas. The potential proximity of ideas, images, of genres, of stories. All bundled down the same cables, carefully descrambled, split into data packets at one end, then reassembled at the other end. The possibility of distance is changed by the possibility of proximity. Just as near and far are no longer so far apart, the difference between high and low, left and right, have also been eroded.

Architects pursuit of the original, new, and different has ironically narrowed the possibilities of content within architecture because of its fascination with its own canon. Embracing cultures outside of its own offers myriad possibilities. Modernist architectures pursuit of the authentic, of truth and the purity though materials, and construction. This pursuit of singular truth might be both comforting and satisfying, but ignores the many other truths. Folk stories and myths have a convincing strength and power that academic history can't match. Maybe the right kind of ignorance can be a creative force.

Posted by anothersam at December 17, 2006 9:55 AM.

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Spray-on Snow

From the Baffler ...

One in a Taxi

The Queen Machine

The Knork

Venturi, Scott Brown and my love that dare not speak its name.

Polictical Placards

The Ketchup Conumdrum

Douglas Coupland: Design and Fiction

It's a Small World

Images de Parfums

Soft Carcass

Christopher Dresser at the V&A

Blow up Pub

Municipal Mummification

The Matt and Ron Show

Semi - detached

Half Timbered Van

Feltham Future

Favorite Things

Fugitives and Refugees' - Chuck Palahniuk

The Pop Vernacular

Design by Chefs

Just What is it That Makes Yesterdays Homes So Different, So Appealing?

Archigrams Pastoral Futurism

Sorry Mies

The Flaming Lips - Live.

Everything Counts - The Sound of Geography Collapsing.

Carlton Terrace Extension




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