Sunday, 15 August 2010

Sex, Sheffield and the politics of Brutalism

I've been reading Owen Hatherley's 'Militant Modernism' (from the excellent zero books), described on the back cover by Simon Reynolds - one of the music journalists I admired in my teenage years - as 'slim and shapely, ideas-packed and intensely-felt'. There are indeed lots of fascinating (and very political) ideas, including about post-war Brutalist architecture and social housing.

A key idea is that social democracy after 1945 found expression in new programmes of house building; particular styles of architecture - versions of continental interwar Modernism - came to be associated with these developments.

The 'cities in the skies' are one of the very few legacies of the 'municipal socialism' of the 1950s and 1960s. Styles like Brutalism were distinctively British mutations of the often radical and politically conscious European modernism of an earlier era.

The author seeks to reclaim and resuscitate much of this creative work - which has often been patronised, spurned or neglected - and also the impulses and aspirations behind it. As the blurb on the back aptly puts it, the book 'attempts to reclaim a revolutionary modernism against its absorption into the heritage industry and the aesthetics of the luxury flat'.

Here's a short section from the chapter titled 'The Brutishness of British Modernism':

'Brutalism was still in some definable relation to pop and the sexual revolution, or the 'permissive society' as it was more coyly described. One of the most admired early brutalist buildings was the Owen Luder Partnership's Eros House, a mixed-use concrete and glass arrangement of geometric conflicts, its name a reminder of the strangely lubricious tone that occasionally creeps into this aesthetic.     

The most remarkable testament to the sexuality of the Streets in the Sky is on Pulp's 1993 singles collection Intro. Therein a 10-minute fantasia called 'Sheffield: Sex City', in which every contour and line of the industrial city is filled with eroticism.

It begins with a deadpan Yorkshire voice (keyboardist Candida Doyle), reading out a Nancy Friday tale about an adolescent girl living in a block of flats, who would 'lie there mesmerised' as the entire tower seemed to come on heat.

Then, to a metronomic disco pulse, Jarvis Cocker recites a list of Sheffield suburbs with luridly sensual relish, then finds himself searching Sheffield for his love, driven to 'making love to every crack in the pavement'.

The whole ludicrous, astonishing construction eventually comes to a climax of utopian urbanist carnality, as 'everyone on Park Hill came in unison at 4.13am, and the whole block fell down'.

Also see Owen Hatherley's recent photo-essay on Sheffield architecture.


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