Strangeharvest is a collection of writing and projects about architecture and design. Strangeharvest is made by Sam Jacob.
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One in a Taxi

The vast expanse of blackly tarmaced London geography is already damp with the chill dew of tomorrows dawn. But I’m stuck in yesterday, in a cab office miles from home listening to Melody FM. “Some-mawh-things look mmm-bedder baby, a-just passin’ thruuu” sings Elton John.

Like Elton, Architecture loves the exotic. Without exoticism, Elton reverts like a post-midnight Cinderella into plain old Reg Dwight from Pinner. Likewise, architects turn back into ordinary folk with an above average collection of black polo necks. The beastly ego at the heart of the profession demands exotic morsels of glamour, power and wealth.

LA! Vegas! Berlin! (and currently) Shanghai! burst into the architectural imagination like star prizes on a game show. Architects jet off to immerse themselves in someone else's misery. That way, they avoid their own misery: the horribly un-utopian here and now.

It doesn’t get much less glamorous than a Mini Cab office during the festive season. It ranks alongside other Xmas miserabelia: An IT guy wearing flashing reindeer horns; Christmas cards from companies who have spent the preceding year fleecing you (lawyers, leasing companies etc.) Lack of glamour is just one of its un-architectural characteristics.

Cab Offices are one of those weak urban programmes that are sub-civic: Unlike City Hall, the art gallery, the power station or homes, nobody ever built a brand new cab office. They occupy little bits of left over architecture that no one else wants.

There has been a long relationship between modern architecture and cheap industrial buildings. Grain stores, factories and bunkers have all contributed to the Modernist canon. But those were honest, hardworking and moral buildings. A Minicab office interior isn’t moral. It’s low down and dirty.

This one is partially lined with ply panels. Though ‘lined’ is the kind of language you might use in a specification. It suggests some kind of design intent. More apt might be ‘encrusted’ with plywood. Scraps, scales, lumps, growths, and leftovers. A plasterboard wall runs at an awkward angle dividing the room into sub-rooms.

Normal architecture grows outwards as extensions. This is more like an “In-stension”: A building desperately cannibalising its own interior because there’s nowhere else for it to go. It feels perverse, like architecture malfunctioning: a cancerous tumour of planning and detailing.

It an environment that's so direct, so instant. Signage is scrawled in black marker pen onto the wall with the spontaneity of toilet door graffiti as and when it’s needed. It isn’t designed, it’s an accumulation of actions. Things, moved and fixed. A reminder that architecture is stuff piled up.

This all sets a bleak background for beautiful delicate Christmas decoration . Thin, shiny perforated foils glittering against a dull and dented background.

The decorations themselves are mysterious symbols, handed down through generations over thousands of years from pagan via christian to consumer. Their meanings and purposes submerged, subverted, hidden and hijacked till they fizz with cultural white noise: Ancient druid-magick fertility rights wired up to the mains.

Tinsel recalls strings of ivy only made sparkling, diffuse and unnatural, glistening like Bavarian icicles. Patterns echo baroque flourishes passed from church and to throwaway novelty.

Trees brought inside as though to tend and coax nature back to life from mid winters death. Decorated with spirit-angels, glowing with electric coloured magic. Fibre optic trees, white like space suits are artificial versions of nature that aspire to the supernatural. Imagine hillsides planted with colour cycling synthetic forests. Imagine birds nests lit in washes of magenta, cyan tinted rabbit warrens. What kind of electric fairy stories would emerge from this fake forest?

Taken as a whole, its both not enough and too much at the same time. Some freak accident of design history means that cab offices at christmas are the only places where the trajectories of bruitalism intersect with vectors emanating from the baroque. Extremes that meet with a junction of Blu Tack and Sellotape.

There are two kinds of design. One version wants to dematerialise. Think of those photographs of minimalist interiors that are slightly overexposed so that light bleeds into the frame. It’s as though otherworldly things are dissolving mass. The other kind of design overwhelms us with its abundant material presence. The first is Mies, the latter is Corb. Both kinds of design are actually a way of trying to understand what it really means to exist in the world.

Design turns thoughts into things. It transforms dreamy ideas that exist in your head into a real autonomous object. But often it doesn’t feel very real.

Instead, it often precipitates a feeling of authenticity anxiety. Authenticity anxiety is the sensation that makes your skin prickle uncomfortably when you are in the Conran shop. The quiet panic you feel distractedly flicking through a design magazine. It’s when design seems entirely dislocated from the world. Perhaps the strange appeal of the Cab Office and its festive decorations is that it’s both less than proper design and more than proper design. Kitsch and raw.

Posted by sam at November 25, 2004 11:38 AM
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