NABOKV-L post 0012139, Sat, 26 Nov 2005 14:27:10 -0800

Nabokov in unlikely contexts:
EDNOTE. For those who mentally grope for the VN source (as I did), it is the
story "Lance". Dillon probably borrowed the quote from an old interview with
"land artist" Roger Smithson who is mentioned in his text.

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Date: Fri, 11 Nov 2005 17:27:23 -0500
From: "Sandy P. Klein" <>
Subject: "The future," wrote Vladimir Nabokov, "is but the obsolete in
reverse." ...

[1] Futures imperfect
Financial Times - London,England,UK
By Brian Dillon.

>Published: November 11 2005 13:01 | Last updated: November 11 2005

“The future,” wrote Vladimir Nabokov, “is but the obsolete in
reverse.” From the Parthenon to Battersea Power Station, decay has a
powerful glamour, reminding us of our own brief interlude among the
living and the eons of rot yet to come. Everybody loves a ruin;
except, it seems, when the haggard structure is an architectural
spook from the recent past, in which instance we are more likely to
will its swift exorcism than to linger over its metaphysical import.
Consider the case of the notorious Gateshead car park, designed by
Owen Luder (whose practice was responsible for the Tricorn Centre in
Portsmouth, recently demolished but equally disreputable in its
time). The car park was completed in 1969 and famous as the
multi-storey summit from which Michael Caine flings a gangland rival
in the 1971 film Get Carter. That iconic moment has not saved the car
park from eking out its last years as an image of all that many would
like to forget about the architecture of the 1950s and 1960s, when
those who designed such massive concrete monoliths were happy to
label themselves “brutalists”.

Is such a building worth saving? A Channel 4 series, Demolition,
starting this Sunday, seems to suggest not. Luder’s great concrete
strata are among the architectural remains that the public have been
invited - in a reversal of the BBC’s Restoration - to vote into
oblivion. Early press coverage hinted that the winner - that is, the
loser - would actually be demolished: a pretty implausible
denouement, given planning laws that can keep a building such as
Luder’s hanging on for decades. Long enough, in fact, to attract a
new kind of attention, from contemporary artists.

There are those who see a building such as the Gateshead car park
not as a decaying leftover of postwar planning disasters, nor as a
valuable relic of our architectural heritage, but as the ghost of a
dream we used to share about the future. The artists Jane and Louise
Wilson have recently completed “Broken Time”, a film which intercuts
footage of last year’s Great North Run with shots of athletes
training in the car park’s ageing eyrie. The Wilsons’ camera treats
the building like a rusting space station; it orbits above the city,
chunks of its facade occasionally falling to earth.

Concrete decay is much better understood by today’s architects and
engineers than it was in the heyday of modernism, though much of the
scarring of buildings such as the Gateshead car park is the result of
neglect as much as any inherent weaknesses in the material. I have to
admit an odd affection for chunks of decaying concrete: on coastal
strolls, I have been known to ignore sea and sky (also, bemused
partner) in favour of some stray hulk of wartime bunker or subsiding
gun emplacement. I find the vocabulary of concrete decay (courtesy of
the website of the Concrete Society) strangely poetic: experts speak
alliteratively of sagging, staining and spalling. Surfaces show a
strange “efflorescence”: a flowering of white patches caused by “lime
bloom” or - even lovelier - “lime weep”. There is something mysterious
and attractive about the processes by which air, water, bacteria and
rusting reinforcement conspire to make concrete crack or erode.

A more practical perspective comes from Catherine Croft of
architectural charity The Twentieth Century Society, who suggests
reasons why we think of the concrete buildings of last century as
ageing badly. Most people, she says, are unable to accept that signs
of age or weather are as natural to concrete as they are to brick.
Modern architecture was supposed to be pristine, to describe clean
lines, to shine in the sun like the buildings of the great European
modernists. The result is that we see many buildings of the 1950s,
1960s and 1970s as already ruined, as having accelerated into the
past with shocking speed, urged on by grey weather and urban

It is one of the oddities of architectural history that many
mid-century buildings - especially the brutalist structures of the
1950s and 1960s, before concrete lost out to the pristine, soaring
energies of glass and steel - now look older than what came before
and since. Of course, attractively deceased buildings have long been
part of our cultural landscape: the gothic novel is predicated on the
romance of ruins; Wordsworth turned his view of the disintegrating
Tintern Abbey into an allegory of his lost youth; Coleridge wrote
unfinished verses that were virtually ruins in themselves. For
centuries, Europe seemed to have been seized by a fetish for decay:
from the painter Hubert Robert, who imagined the Louvre in ruins in
1796, to Albert Speer, who designed certain monuments of the Third
Reich with their future ruin in mind.

But what of the modern ruin? Have we reached a point where we can
look on the buildings of the late 20th century with nostalgia, or a
thrill of regret for their passing? The producers of Demolition,
presumably, are hoping that that time has not yet come. But Jane and
Louise Wilson’s treatment of the Gateshead car park is just the
latest in a series of films and videos in which they have explored
the voids left by the absconded dreams of planners and architects. In
the new town of Peterlee, they discovered the sorry, streaked remains
of the Apollo Pavilion, a sculpture-cum-building designed by the
artist Victor Pasmore in the late 1960s. This unloved amenity,
stranded in desolate parkland, is transformed by the swooping
perspective of the camera. An example of long-suppressed space-age
optimism is restored to life.

The other British artist most conspicuously obsessed with the
remains of the last century is Tacita Dean. In “Sound Mirrors” (1999)
she filmed huge concrete listening devices - precursors of radar,
abandoned since the outbreak of the war in which they were meant to
serve - that have stood near Dungeness, on the Kent coast, since
1928. As they slump into the surrounding shingle, they conjure an
alternative future, as peculiar now as a sky full of airships or,
indeed, a Britain full of utopian tower blocks, exquisite machines
for living.

Dean’s most recent film is “Palast” (2004), shot in her adopted home
of Berlin. Its subject is the abandoned Palace of the Republic on
Schlossplatz (formerly Marx-Engels-Platz). One of the last edicts of
the GDR, in 1990, was to close this vast administrative and cultural
complex, after it was found to be riddled with asbestos. It has stood
empty ever since, the object of increasing controversy. Completed in
1976, it was built on the site of the original baroque City Palace: a
building doomed by bomb damage and later condemned as a monument to
Prussian imperialism. Now, it seems, it is to rise again; a replica
will replace the Palace of the Republic. But Dean’s film, which
catches the glass-clad building at sunset, reflecting golden
fragments of the old and new city around it, reminds us that this
grim modern ruin is as much part of Berlin’s heritage as any ersatz
copy of the ornate confection it replaced.

There are other, equally resonant, examples. For a short film shown
recently at London’s Beaconsfield gallery, the Swedish artist Carl
Michael von Hausswolff visited Hashima Island, not far from Nagasaki.
Hashima is the derelict relic of a century of coal mining: a
terrifying monolith of reinforced concrete that has almost entirely
obscured the original island. Until its abandonment in 1974, it is
said to have had the highest population density ever recorded
anywhere in the world. Close behind it in terms of claustrophobia and
the dense throng of historical spectres is photographer Donovan
Wylie’s recent work at the Maze Prison, near Belfast. But not all art
in this line is necessarily melancholic: the German artist Vera Lutter
has used a huge camera obscura to produce inspiring visions in
negative of Battersea Power Station, its dark grandeur looking more
than ever like Liverpool Cathedral, Giles Gilbert Scott’s other

This artistic scrutiny of derelict futurism is not especially new.
In the late 1960s, the land artist Robert Smithson took a tour of the
“monuments” of his native suburb of Passaic, New Jersey. Industrial
detritus, he wrote, was the contemporary equivalent of the ruins of
ancient Rome. Progress speeds up, but it also becomes entropic; it
leaves a chaos of dead things in its wake. Since the same decade, the
German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher have captured these husks
of modernity before they are blown away: an endless array of water
towers, grain silos and disused mine workings.

It suits these artists that the landscape should still be littered
with decommissioned futures. Reflecting on the work she and her
sister have produced about derelict modernism, Jane Wilson has said:
“We feel a responsibility to be articulate about it since it’s in the
collective memory.” Writer Iain Sinclair claims in his new book Edge
of the Orison that “decay is heritage too; we must learn to
appreciate it”. But is there a space (cultural or literal) in
contemporary Britain where this taste for corruption might be allowed
to flourish? Catherine Croft acknowledges that the art of modern ruins
is certainly “inspirational”, and that it has drawn attention to the
beauty of some maligned or forgotten structures; but it is, she says,
less than realistic when it comes to the long-term future of the
buildings in question. Whatever your opinion of Gateshead’s car park
(”Our view would be that it’s a very strong structure,” says Croft),
in the end what it needs is a practical purpose and a workable

Its detractors would argue that it needs a police cordon and some
high explosive. It is unlikely that many of the structures that have
intrigued artists will be preserved as ruins for the perverse
aesthetic pleasure of the few. Demolition or restoration awaits.
Ought we not, however, at least for the short while that they are
with us, celebrate the uncanny feeling that overcomes us among the
phantoms of the very recent past, the intense strangeness of knowing
that the lost future in front of us was imagined in our own
lifetimes? Modern ruins allow us to feel some historical humility, to
open for a moment a ragged hole in the fabric of our contemporary

If we cannot hang onto them, perhaps we can at least get some
inkling of the sublime from their destruction. Channel 4 insists that
Demolition will spark a sophisticated debate - the original impetus
came from George Ferguson, outgoing president of the Royal Institute
of British Architects - and not merely descend into a trashing of the
architecture of the last half century or so. But surely its whole
attraction comes from the prospect, or at least the dream, of seeing
official visions of the future implode into dust? In an echo of the
controversy in Berlin, the Scottish Parliament building has emerged
as one of the least popular in the country. I certainly would not
want to knock it down. But there is, as it happens, a whole other
avant-garde tradition of attacking buildings as an artistic act:
Gordon Matta-Clark used to cut holes in them, or literally cut them
in half. And as Dostoevsky put it in Notes From Underground: “Whether
it is good or bad, it is sometimes very pleasant, too, to smash

_“Broken Time”, Hatton Gallery, Newcastle (0191 222 6059), today.
Tacita Dean solo exhibition, Tate St Ives, Cornwall (01736 796226) to
January 15. Brian Dillon’s “In the Dark Room: A Journey in Memory” is
published by Penguin Ireland._



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