Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A BRUTAL WALK IN THE SUN

Now that I’m back in Los Angeles, I’ve been walking around looking for signs of Brutalist architecture.  There are certainly plenty of ugly buildings in L.A., some of them brutal with a small b, but I’m not sure how many classify as genuinely Brutalist in the grander sense.


The website for the Royal Institute of British Architects has a section labeled,  What to look for in a Brutalist building,” and goes on to list:
1. Rough unfinished surfaces
2. Unusual shapes
3. Heavy-looking materials
4. Massive forms
5. Small windows in relation to the other parts

No mention there of concrete, which surprised me: Brutalism supposedly got its name from Le Corbusier who spoke of “breton brut” – i.e. raw concrete, and L.A. certainly has concrete buildings.  Various local online pundits also offer lists of Brutalist buildings in L.A..  These vary considerably and include: The American Cement Building:



The La Brea Tar Pits Museum:



The Japanese American Cultural & Community Center:

 


Even Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House.



I’ve walked past, and around, and even inside, all of these at some time or another and I never thought they constituted Brutalism.  They all strike me as rather friendly buildings, but maybe Brutalism gets softened by the California sunshine, the blue skies, the palm trees.

However, I recently a walk I recently did from Hollywood to Larchmont Village (5 or 6 miles round trip) pitched up some examples that might get a person thinking about the real meaning of brutality in these matters.

This apartment block on Bronson Avenue certainly has heavy-looking materials
and strangely small windows in relation to the other parts; no unusual shapes though:


These buildings on Santa Monica Boulevard have no windows at all, but they do have mass, and certainly have heavy looking materials, although one of them is decorated with those elongated stars which would be unthinkable to Brutalist hardliners:



This carpet warehouse on Gower Street looks brutal as all getout, and I believe is made of concrete blocks:


 But I can see that you might argue these things are scarcely architecture at all, they’re just buildings, and not so much brutal but just crude.  However, just above Beverley Boulevard, on Larchmont Boulevard, is the Larchmont Medical Building, built by Welton Becket and Associates, “real” architects too be sure, completed in 1965.


Welton Becket was also responsible for the Capitol Building and the Theme Building at LAX – so not the most committed to Brutalism but I think this building fits the bill pretty well: big, concrete, blockish, the forms not so much unusual as uncompromising, but again rather friendlier than hardcore Brutalism.


I like it a lot. It’s also a place I’ve been to have root canal work, I seem to recall the main entrance lobby being tiled in blood red marble, but my memory made be failing me there.  I was expecting brutality in the dentist's chair, and it turned out to be considerably less brutal than you might imagine.  

Friday, April 21, 2017

WALKING ABSURDLY

It’s a very long time since I first read Albert Camus’s L’Etranger.  It remains the only book I’ve ever read from beginning to end in French:  and it was in a class at school.  Rereading it now I see there is some walking in it, after all Meursault is walking on the beach when he commits the murder. 



Surprisingly perhaps, there are a couple of sentences that I’ve remembered over the years.  They come towards the end of the book when Meursault is in prison. To save everybody’s blushes I’ll quote the Penguin Classics translation by Sandra Smith.
”I realized then that a man who had only lived a single day could easily live a hundred years in prison.  He would have enough memories to keep him from getting bored.”
I still think it’s a great couple of sentences, although now that I think about it I don’t believe that boredom per se would be the biggest problem I’d have in prison.





Anyway, arriving at that sentence again I find that it comes at the end of a longish paragraph in which Meursault does indeed try to find a cure for boredom.  “I finally stopped being bored altogether from the moment I learned how to remember.  Sometimes I started thinking about my bedroom and I would imagine starting at one end and walking around it in a circle while mentally listing all the things I passed.”


Well, knock me down with a feather: you (or at least I) can’t read this without being reminded of Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around My Room (Voyage autour de ma chamber - which I have not read in French), the hero of which does indeed walk around his room looking at his possessions, and then goes on voyages of memory, although of course in this case the objects are actually there there.



Did Camus read de Maistre?  I can’t find any hard evidence that he did - although Camus is not exactly an open book to me. But in the correspondence of Camus there’s this – a postcard from Camus to “JG”
“M. Jacob sent me my horoscope.  I am side by side with people as remarkable as Luther and Xavier de Maistre.”  Online sources in fact suggest they didn’t share anything like the same birthday, but I suppose “side by side” is open to interpretation..


It's not all that easy to find photographs of Camus walking, but there’s this: I think he’s rehearsing a play:




Tuesday, April 18, 2017

THE CANAL AND THE CARNAL

The issue before last of the London Review of Books contained a piece by Iain Sinclair, titled “The Last London.”


Iain isn’t happy about the current state of London, which comes as no great surprise: is anybody?  However, even walking alongs the canals of East London can be a source of distress.  He writes,  
        “Between Victoria Park, the first of the parks opened for the people, and Broadway Market, worlds collide. Two young mothers were texting and being yapped at by older kids, while the youngest child circled on her scooter. There’s a gentle slope down to the canal and the scooter picked up momentum, until the child disappeared over the edge, between two narrowboats, straight into the water. Fortunately, a morning cyclist was stepping ashore. He grabbed the child by the hair. All was well. A little further down the canal, where the path goes under a railway bridge, the mad pumping rush of the peloton swooped through – and a guy on one of those very thin-wheeled bikes was nudged into the soup. Right under, gasping and choking, still in the saddle. I helped to pull him out.”


This did sound a bit action-packed for a Sinclair drift, but I didn’t hold Sinclair personally responsible.   However, at least one reader sort of did.  A letter duly appeared in the subsequent issue of the LRB, from Giacinto Palmieri, London E2, who writes:
“Like Iain Sinclair, I too walk on the canal path between Victoria Park and Broadway Market, but in many years of doing so I’ve never seen anybody fall into the canal. Sinclair, on the other hand, reports witnessing two such episodes, apparently within a short interval of time. Correlation doesn’t entail causation, but I can’t help asking whether these incidents might be correlated with the presence of a psychogeographer wandering dreamily in search of evocative connections in the middle of the path.”
Psychogeography, it's always trouble.


      It’s hard to think of canals and east London without also thinking about Lee Rourke’s novel The Canal.  Walking seems to be start of all the troubles in that book. 
I simply awoke one morning and decided, rather than walk to work as normal I’d walk to the canal instead.”
The hero sees and experiences all sorts or horrible things canalside, although admittedly the worst of them happen when he stops walking and sits on a bench where he’s menaced by The Pack Crew, a very bad lot.  They throw somebody’s motor scooter into the water, assault his girlfriend, and also try to kill swans with a bow and arrow.  Yep, canals can be mythical places.



Here in Los Angeles I’m not sure we even have "real" canals.  They exist in Venice, but Venice isn’t really Los Angeles, and the canals aren't really canals.  Here’s something – definitely not a canal, could be an aqueduct, could be a concrete creek – in Culver City, which I thought was worth a picture:


Saturday, April 15, 2017

WALKING BRUTALLY


The first time I went to London I was 16 years old.  It was a long weekend, going down from Yorkshire with my parents and some family friends.  We were rubes.  We didn’t know what anything was and we didn’t even particularly know what we wanted to see.  We knew the names of some familiar places: Greenwich, Birdcage Walk, the Tower of London and we went to all of them.   We walked ourselves into the ground.  And somehow - I think we must have taken a boat ride along the Thames - we ended walking around the Southbank, including the Hayward Gallery, which I now realize had only been completed the previous year.  Below are some rather badly processed black and white pics I took on that visit.


I liked the Hayward, I think, because it seemed new and modern and different, though I certainly had no idea the architectural style was called Brutalism, whether old or new. 


My dad, on the other hand, was horrified.  He was a joiner, and by then a foreman for the council on various building sites around Sheffield.  He looked at the  finish of the Hayward, with the impressions of wood grain in the concrete, and what he saw was “shuttering,” familiar enough from his own work – wooden planks used to make a form that was filled with concrete, when you were making a foundation or a trench.  It was the kind of work you gave to joiners who turned up at the site and weren’t skilled enough to do anything else. 


The idea that you’d leave this visible on the outside of a finished building was just incomprehensible to him.  Of course he was also well aware of Sheffield’s Park Hill flats, another bit of Brutalism, and he found them pretty horrifying too.  He died long before they became fashionable and desirable, and he’d have found that incomprehensible too.



As you see from my photographs, there was an exhibition of Pop Art on at the Hayward when we were there – but I couldn’t tempt any of the others inside.


One way or another I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the years walking in and around the Hayward, going to exhibitions, working there briefly as a security guard.  And during a particularly grim period when I taught creative writing to fashion students (terrible in all the ways you’d imagine and in some you couldn’t even conceive of) I used to go walking there after work, in an attempt to decompress. Somewhere along the line I did realize, having read my Rayner Banham, that this was indeed an example of Brutalism, possibly even New Brutalism.


     When I first started living in London I also spent a certain amount of time in the Barbican, on the way to and from exhibitions, films, concerts, and so on.  But it was an odd thing, the Barbican felt far stranger, for more alien, than the Hayward.  It didn’t feel like the “real” London. 


I wonder if that has something to do with the fact that when you’re at the Hayward you can look out and see various familiar London sights – the river, St Paul’s, Tower Bridge.  Once you’re inside the Barbican (and finding your way in through that hideous fume-filled tunnel can be quite a challenge), it’s as though you’re in a separate, hermetic world.  You could be anywhere.


Well, we’re all fans of Brutalism these days and the Barbican is a place where a lot of people like to be.  So when I was in London last month, I went along there so see how it felt these days.  It felt fine.  And there were absolutely swarms of people wandering around taking pictures, including a whole art school class it seemed.  Of course they, by which I probably mean we, found plenty to photograph.  We all know what the beauty of Brutalism looks like.

And in many ways it’s a great place to walk, or at least drift.  Finding your way when you’re in a hurry can be a bit of a nightmare, but if nothing else, once you’ve penetrated the fortress you’re entirely protected from traffic.  This is a place for walkers not cars.


There’s something called the “High Walk” which takes you along the top level of the complex, and you walk along some fairly inscrutable corridors, and I dare say “pedways,” where you’re likely to be one of only a very few people.  It’s interesting and intriguing, and definitely photogenic, and filmic in a noirish kind of way but it’s not exactly friendly or comfortable.  We could argue about whether the experience is literally brutal, but it’s certainly bleak and maybe threatening. This looks like a location where bad things can happen.  You wouldn’t want to be walking up there alone at night, in the shadows, with all those echoing footsteps and blind corners. Or maybe you would.  In the daytime however it’s quite exhilarating.


My visit to London wasn’t meant to be a Brutalist vacation but somehow it turned into one.  I ended up spending a couple of nights staying in the St. Giles Hotel, on Tottenham Court Road.  


I’ve walked past it hundreds of times and never paid much attention to it,.  But now, looking through Brutalist eyes, it appeared to be some some kind of Brutalist masterpiece, taking up a whole block: huge, angular, solid but somehow sprightly.  The rooms are small but I think they all give views over London, views that are inevitably framed by concrete.  Who’d have it any other way?