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NEW SUBLIME


We have built monumental, dense, vertical cities, cities implicitly and perennially modern. What happens to them? What is happening to the great and heroic works of the twentieth century as we hustle ourselves into the twentyfirst? Now we are post-modern, truly post-modern; not in the fashionable sense; simply that we realise that 'the modern' (which we might have liked to believe was somehow definitive, immune from age) is old fashioned. The future is getting old, looking old; not fashionably retro; just plain old and scruffy.

Even on a humble, domestic level this is true. In Bombay or Cairo one has the initial impression of old, old buildings, so fusty and variegated, so much a palimpsest are their facades; but once one has visually stripped them of their festooned neon, tattered posters, aircon units, dangling cables, tacky fascias, lean-tos (all of which can be teased out, deconstructed semiologically by a sympathetic eye), you are almost shocked to discover merely a façade from the 1970's! And it all looked so immemorial, so antique!
This is the Picturesque, new version. We should learn to love the tawdry clutter of urban surfaces, of Desker Road in Singapore, of Streatham High Street, London, just as the eighteenth century Picturesque traveller loved the crumbling patina of castle and cottage.

Already new buildings are beginning to look semi organic (like the urban fantasies of Max Ernst in La Ville Entiere). And how much better they look, how much more interesting they are than the stark original visions of their architects. In Casablanca there are miles and miles of delapidating Art Deco blocks. Surely one of the most disregarded concentrations of building in the world? In Beijing the Southern West East axis of avenues (Qianmen Xidajie-Xuanwumen Dongdajie etc) are lined with quite exemplary Corbusian housing, miles of it. But they aren't clean and white, not any more; the are pock-marked, lived in, added to; and they stretch big distances and they are epically…. Picturesque? No, for Casablanca, for Beijing here we need the grander eighteenth century aesthetic category: the Sublime!

In Bombay I anxiously eye one of the few tall modern buildings, built no doubt too fast, too cheaply and for all its recentness I spy signs of its fate. The great flank of the building at a certain angle in the merciless sun is frankly uneven, stained. This is a shocking thing, for twentieth century architecture implicitly denies the aging process; its hubris is astonishing; for everything will turn old; and in our lifetime we will see old, even tumbledown skyscrapers. We will see, have already seen, demolition of skyscrapers and they will surpass in sheer sublime any of the visions of John Martin; and will furthermore, be real! On television there are programmes devoted to the demolition of large structures. Speer, when contemplating pictures or maquettes of the New Germania used to point out to Hitler the 'Ruinenwert' or 'ruin-potential' of mighty buildings, the Ruinenlust that would result, once that the thousand year Reich had run its course.

   
 

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