Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Crit: Metropole by Lewis Bush

This is a book you have to begin with a google search. What the hell, you ask yourself, does "Metropole" mean? You probably know that it refers to London if you've gone to the trouble of obtaining this book, but what does it mean? It means, it turns out, the "mother city", but actually the central country of an Empire. It refers in this case to England in general, and London in particular, but the word has also been applied to Portugal and probably other Imperial countries.

I should mention in passing that you can buy your own copy here: Metropole.

Lewis lives in London, and always has. He is unhappy with his country, as so many of his generation are, and not without reason. This book is (a part of) his response to that.

It's not a complicated book.

The first section, entitled "Metropole", is a series of black and white photographs of tall buildings, many under construction, taken at night. Well, let me back up. There is an opening photograph, before the section's title page, of a skyscraper at night shot through a window. One imagines a bedroom window. It's a strong open. One imagines the sleepless author, gazing sleepdumb at his home town, at what his home town has become. And then we proceed to learn what that is.

This section is quite long given its content, on purpose. It is supposed to feel overlong, stretched out. Full bleed two page-spreads of illuminated construction of large buildings. The pace picks up visually. Not all photos are of construction any more, some appear to be completed, occupied, but it becomes more difficult to discern. At first a few subtle "double exposures" appear, two variant photos layering atop one another. Motion blur is introduced, then mirroring, and more layering. There is at least one lull, but the general trend is more, faster, denser, wilder. By the end, the density of repetition is largely abstract. You recognize it, generally, as architecture, but in many ways it resembles some 1960s movie notion of a Computer Processing Core, you can practically imagine the voiceover about the Megaframe Computer.

Every sixth page the orange thread of the binding's sewing kind of pops out at you. More on this in the sequel.

The mad frenzy of buildings ends, and the second section, entitled "Developments" begins.

A single page of text appears, which expresses the author's position clearly, with perhaps a hint of poetry, just before the title page of "Developments", a kind of recapitulation of the opening window picture. The author is no longer dumb with sleep, but passionate, perhaps eloquent. The frenzied over-development, he says, is bad, driven by speculators and offshore money, and is going to lead to an economic crash. The frenzied present has been, as the upcoming crash will be, disastrous for the people who actually live in London.

This section is also bound in 6es, with the same orange thread. The paper changes to a cheaper, lighter feeling paper. The structure here is 4 full bleed two page photo spreads, followed by a another two page spread of text. Repeat the pattern 7 times. The 4 photo spreads are pixelated, one recognizes them quickly as photographs of a computer screen. A little less quickly, one recognizes them as adverts for buildings or developments. The anonymity and distribution of human figures in each picture displays that characteristic and yet completely artificial nonchalance of the architectural mockup. A quick check online finds any of the pictures almost immediately, as expected on some web site promoting the development in question. The text spread following each group of four provides a basic description of each of the advertised development projects. Development company, financing, a CEO, number and kind of units, whether and how much affordable housing has been mandated, and so on. Attached to each is a hundred words or so detailing the inevitable shenanigans behind each development's approval.

The story is always the same. Lies, chicanery, promises broken, regulations flouted, waivers granted by weak-willed politicians too in love with money to turn down the polite request of a man in a very expensive suit. Vast sums of money, and enormous profits, natch.

The buildings are uniformly staggeringly ugly.

If I have counted correctly, 28 separate development projects are covered, every one as nearly as I can tell started some time between 2001 and the present day. London's a big place but good lord that still seems like a lot, which is rather the point. One gets the idea that there are rather more, as well.

So there it is.

Does it work? Well, I think it does.

What I find most interesting here is that the whole thing relies of masses of material rather than individual... anything. There is nothing here that really invites deep inspection. The photos in the "Metropole" section do not reward inspection, they are to be flipped through fairly quickly, to create a sense of frenetic pace, and of the wheels falling off. The "Developments" section is more like an encyclopedia than a novel, it is fun to dip in and read this and that. It might be fun to look up a development you're familiar with. But it would be frankly a chore to read it start to finish. Again, it functions by sheer mass. You rapidly come to understand that London is simply a mass of development after development with the same terrible designs, the same failure to respect, well, anything, the same greed, the same disinterest in regulations, in people, in anything but building something and reaping the awards and the cash.

Whether you read 3 or 4 taken at random, whether you skim them all, or whether you take the plunge and closely read Every Single One, the impression you get will be the same.

I assume that this is by design, and that works very well indeed.

The orange thread. This book is "swiss bound" which is a phrase I cannot manage to recall when I see these things, and which means roughly "we forgot to glue the front cover" which seems terribly un-swiss to me, but I didn't name the thing. It makes the case of the book into something that is more obviously a container, a sort of box that wraps around the book, and there are no doubt cases where this works well. Here, I am unsure.

The book itself is very well made, it feels weighty, serious. It is, in its own somber way, a rather beautiful object. The raw, rear, edge of the text block is rather unbeautiful. It's not wilfully ugly, it's just the product of a binding machine, a product intended to be covered up.

This is probably intended as one or both of: a) revealing the seedy back side of things, which is sort of the book's point b) recapitulating the notion of construction. The orange thread is in fact safety orange, or a very close hue to same, and recalls safety tape, the vests, the helmets and the other highly visible notes of the construction site.

I get it, and it is semiotically functional here. But, it feels slight, it feels a bit silly. The book is fucking serious. This guy is pissed off, he's spent a lot of time digging around and writing and taking pictures and banging on them in photoshop. He's done some work here to make a point and I feel as if the orange thread and the exposed binding cheapen that effort to an extent.

Beyond that my criticisms are all of the form "I wish this book was something other than what it is"

Metropole is a cri de cœur, an impassioned complaint. Lewis has a point of view (thank God) and has expressed it. What I wish the book was, was a call to action. It is obvious, I suppose, that the natural corollaries to the book begin with relieving a large number of neoliberal and conservative elected officials of their governmental duties. Still, it would be nice to see that stated.

This book is, nearly, an effective piece of propaganda, it is, almost, a call to arms. It is arguably a demand for change, but it is not a template for change.

The problems of London are global problems. Land prices are spiraling upwards, and the regular working people are finding it incrementally more difficult year on year to find somewhere reasonable to live. Speculation and rampant development both obey and define a market that seems to be out of control. The sleepy college town of Bellingham, pop. 80,000 or so, is infested with neoliberal shitheads who are pretty sure that the route to affordable housing is to deregulate and hand tax breaks around. But you know, only to Green Developers. Or whatever.

"They'll stick a solar panel on the roof, so those snappy little condos starting at $800K or so are OK, right? And they contributed... hmm, hmm, calculate, calculate, hmm, um... some money to our affordable housing slush fund, so that's almost like solving the affordable housing problem, right? Right? Right?"

The trouble, really, is not that housing is too expensive. Nor is it that wages are too low. The trouble, really, is that the gap between these two is too large. The reason that it is too large is that this gap is, precisely, what the 1% of the most wealthy think of as their "rightful profits." The solution to the problem of housing affordability is to persuade these people to take a moderately smaller pound of flesh for their hard labor of, um, whatever it is that they do with their days.

Traditionally, this persuasion is accomplished by shooting a couple large batches of them, until either none of them are left or the remainder begin asking for suggestions as to how they can help.

Just sayin'.

The previous two paragraphs are a historical note not a call to arms, and should be read as a remark made in the voice of this blog's author, not by Lewis Bush whose opinion in this matter is completely unknown to me.

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