Having written a short book analysing the architecture and urban plan of the Olympics, I’d like to address some of the other criticism about the Olympic development. I have taken issue with Iain Sinclair on this blog before, not just his new book Ghost Milk but also the older, much better book, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire. However, I’d like in the face of a widening interest in the unqualified acceptance of the term psychogeography elsewhere, widen this debate. For me the Olympic Park and the Lea Valley has become not just the site of a major development a but a place in which the conservative nature of what we take to be a radical criticism of architecture is being revealed.
To go back to Sinclair for a moment. In Hackney That Rose Red Empire he conducts an interview with another self-proclaimed psychogeographer, Will Self about the wedge of park land driven into the dirty north-east of London. After visiting the Olympics site, Self declares ‘this is an idea of America imposed on human topography that is so much older and more ancient, confused and anarchic. It has the air of imposture.’ It is a criticism derived from walking – an act that Self deems political – following the real contours of the land is more rewarding, more intuitive than imposing a new human order on top. Building, creating, doing, making: all the most positive aspects of human endeavour is here reduced by Self to the act of an imposition.
How can ‘psychogeography’ have come to this? At the recent Spatial Perspectives conference in Oxford, Henderson Downing, an expert on the writer, reminded us that Sinclair had seen the revolutionary potential of appropriating space in an open way at the 1967 Dialectics of Liberation which took place at the Roundhouse in Camden. Downing contrasted it with the building’s regular tenant Arnold Wesker’s Centre 42 – a collective that Reyner Banham described as “a cultural soup kitchen approach for the underprivileged”. Through an analysis of the Dialectics of Liberation, Downing suggests we can see that Sinclair didn’t just analyse what was happening through a spuriously scientific process of wandering and recording, but, focusing on the profession of psychiatry, proposed an alternative.
To look at how pyschogeography has boiled down to a straight literary rejection of human endeavour; as rejecting development as synonymous with both capitalism and a destruction of Nature, one needs to look further into the roots of this pseudo-science. It is of fundamental importance to remember that it was created in the 1950s, as part of a strategy for imagining new architecture. Of course it was picking up on earlier literary or philosophical strategies. In the mid-19th century, Baudelaire’s flaneur wandered the streets observing society with detachment. The surrealists introduced the idea of allowing the subconscious to control associations made during these perambulations. Walter Benjamin focused on the arcades of Paris as a text through which recent history could be deciphered.
Yet it was Debord who loved to dream up terminology for the ephemeral, and defined psychogeography as ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.’ This was about how the built environment was ordered not simply about writing its history. Debord and his cohorts gave psychogeography a quasi-scientific status in order to oppose Corbusian town planning. It was posited in one of the key early texts of the Situationists, A Formulary for a New Urbanism, by Ivan Chtcheglov , as a technique which would contribute to creating “a city of modifiable architectural complexes, their appearance changing totally or partially in accordance with the will of their inhabitants”.
Today, psychogeography no longer has a goal for aiding the right kind of architecture, but instead it used to criticise development per se. As the contemporary psychogeographer walks amidst the wreckage of industrial economy we only get occasional glimpses of the author’s ideal world. Sinclair for one refers to the ‘wilderness, wild orchards, allotments [and] back rivers’ of the area as ‘sites of unimproved imagination.’ To him the ad hoc creation of the Manor House alotments were to him a greater achievement than the planning and building of the park. Surely the artist Julian Perry hit the right note when he celebrated the organic impermanent nature of the alotments in his stunning Shed series. Their beauty derived from their fragility and the temporality.
There seems to be, at times, a general antipathy to any kind of change in the Lea Valley by psychogeographers. Elsewhere, Self has written that the Olympic Delivery Authority, ‘may make compulsory purchases, tarmac over the sports pitches, roust out the travelers’ encampments and tidy the urban detritus under their magic finance carpet, but very quickly it will all come tumbling back, the steely weeds of a city that has defied everything that god, men or even planners can throw at it.’ Self, the son of a planner, sees in architecture the hubris of mankind. There are some buildings I have seen where I would agree with him, but generally I love architecture because it frequently shows me mankind achieving its loftiest of ambitions.
There are certainly areas where I’d criticise the Olympic Park: planting a shopping centre at its entrance would be one of them, failing to deliver the architectural ambition of the Aquatic Centre would be another one.
Meanwhile in his more recent work Ghost Milk, Sinclair gives us a more explicit attack on what he calls the grand-projet specifically including the London Olympics. There is a certain irony to this. In the book he attacks the Lea Valley Regional Park Act, a piece of legislation passed in the early 1960s that preserved a whole swathe of land from the Thames to the M25 for the recreation of the people of London.
Yet there is a supreme irony to the way that Sinclair work, particularly in Ghost Milk, attacks the whole premise and function of planning and building. In the book he provides a stinging critique of the role of Lou Sherman the Mayor of Hackney in 1961. Sherman founded the Lea Valley Civic Trust, a body which created a plan for the very area in which the Olympic Stadium now sits; this 50 year old plan prioritised the needs of a working class that was now being afforded greater leisure time.
Far from being the jumped-up town councillors that Sinclair describes in his book, Sherman, an ex-cabbie and Communist, together with his colleagues in Hackney, devised a plan to retain Lea Valley as a park for the benefit of those who lived by. The Civic Trust prepared a report in 1964, at a time when it was held that the forces of science and technology could be harnessed to galvanise the British economy and to determine the qualities of a future, leisured era. As Laurie Elks has recorded in Hackney History: “The normally conservation-minded Civic Trust – in an episode which it would perhaps rather forget – put itself briefly at the forefront of this futurist credo.”
The plan for the park said that it would “be a playground for Londoners against the background of London. This background – power stations, gas works, factories, railways, houses and flats – must be accepted and acknowledged in the landscape theme.” Anyone who has read Sinclair would recognise this as the landscape that Sinclair so beautifully evokes, although unsurprisingly he is resistant to the idea that the Lea Valley has been consciously landscaped, perhaps not as much as a formal garden might be but to the degree that it is governed by a singular aesthetic vision.
Despite also disagreeing with her rejection in its entirety of the Olympic development, I also really admire the work of the artist Laura Oldfield Ford who shares Sinclair’s love of the Lea Valley’s landscape. ‘I’ve always been drawn to Hackney Marshes, in a way these post-industrial ruins are being reclaimed by buddleia and convulvias and ivy,’ she says. Her work reflects that detail of interest. I remember seeing her exhibition at the Hales Gallery in London in 2009 which was full of passionately sketched documents of the area around the Olympics Park. I walked around the park with her and interviewed her. ‘I’m chronicling a drastically changing landscape that I feel is important to document,’ she says.
Oldfield Ford’s motive is not simply documentation however. Like Sinclair, she believes master plans cannot be imposed and felt that was the message she would give to the Olympic developers if they would listen. There is, of course, an irony here. The Lettrists and Situationists in 1950s France objected too in a hysterical, frequently drunken manner about city planning in the Corbusian fashion, whereas Oldfield Ford herself seems to be mourning its demise. Another irony is that the modernist post-war highrises were themselves imposed by a highly competent bureaucratic class of architects. The Situationists were attacking the very rigid imposed set of structures that the Lea Valley psychogeographers think of fondly.
There is a real irony too in the fact that a structure such as the Olympic Stadium which I write about in my book, The Stadium, should arrive in the Lea Valley. Adaptable architecture, as the Stadium professes to be and the artistic strategy of psychogeography were born in the same womb, of course. Chtcheglov imagines both the strategy of searching for the original conceptions of space in the “magical locales of fairy tales and surrealist writings: castles, endless walls, little forgotten bars, mammoth caverns, casino mirrors” but also an adaptive architecture which will endlessly relate and reinterpret this. The Olympic Stadium, as I explain, is a long way from being a satisfying resolution of this project. Indeed the Olympic Park could be seen as the demise of both strands of psychogeography; the critical and the propositional.
On a technical level, the Olympic Stadium albeit in a charming, amenable way – is a travesty of this tradition too. The designers had the opportunity to incorporate a technical means of making the stadium adaptable – moving stands on a hydraulic platform. They chose not to, for political reasons. The stadium’s mechano kit-of-parts aesthetic suggests it will adapt. It will but only if you consider spending £50million pounds on removing the upper tier of stands as ‘adapting’. The reason this plan was devised go to the heart of the dilemnas of the Olympic authority which wants to host a major world athletics event, and then exist in the East End of London at a scale more commensurate with its quotidian appeal. The fact that the stadium probably won’t be scaled downwards but will become a football stadium is a further blow to this strangely conservative vision of adaptability.
However, I would say that if one puts aside the stadium and reject Banham’s insistence that these structures should permit the intermingling of performer and audience, there is much in the Olympic Park to be impressed by. Wilkinson Eyre’s Basketball stadium is made entirely of rented parts, devised as a structure and as the culmination of an economic system by the architect Wilkinson Eyre. The shooting venue by Magma Architecture at Woolwich will be reused in Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games in 2014. I would suggest that the architectural aspect of psychogeography has proved to be more useful than its reductive literary aspect.
In many ways though all the psychogeographers totally miss the point. In an article in the New Statesman quoted by Henderson Downing in his evocative, perceptive paper, Banham suggests that Cedric Price’s Fun Palace is a singular unending adapting circulation route between performer and audience; a truly revolutionary proposition. What is even more pertinent to the Olympics is that he contrasts this with the then newly built Crystal Palace athletics stadium. What Banham doesn’t take credence of is that sport is both a professional and amateur mode of expression. We may not break down the literal barriers when we watch sport – we prefer to watch an elite group display their skills – but when we play the game in our space we are participating in a continuum of the same expression. Sport, its detractors always fail to realise, is a mode of self expression.
From its very inception there is a tension in psychogeography between its artistic and quasi-scientific function which its proponents tend to smile about and overlook.. They bolster their activity with the rhetoric of research, but then defend their product as an art. They address the built environment yet put aside the thorny issue that London needs to expand to provide housing for its current inhabitants and must do so within the given political and economic structure. Despite it being a fascinating and ideal means of navigating and artistically describing the way in which a city grows, it us ultimately resistant to it. Downing believes that Sinclair writing still contains a radical programme. I can’t see this and indeed without the Olympics to protest against, what will become of their increasingly conservative programme?