Follyville

Douglas Murphy’s examination of former mayor Boris Johnson’s botched projects and Iain Sinclair’s London lament chart a battle for the city’s soul

Architectural follies may be absurd but they are rarely meaningless. In famine-era Ireland, absurdist structures – for example, Conolly’s Folly (1740) – were built by those facing malnutrition so they could earn charitable assistance. Even the private stone pineapples and faux obelisks erected by the landed gentry across the UK reveal more than indulgence. Beauty and utility are of secondary concern. These were and remain articulations of power.

Conolly’s Folly. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons; Photograph: Ilja Klutman

Conolly’s Folly. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons; Photograph: Ilja Klutman

Conolly’s Folly. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons; Photograph: Ilja Klutman

Arriving at a time marked by both political turbulence and inertia, architecture critic Douglas Murphy’s Nincompoopolis (Repeater, 2017) and Iain Sinclair’s The Last London (Oneworld, 2017) are timely State of the Capital addresses. In contrast to Sinclair’s multi-directional roaming, Murphy focuses in on the calamitous legacy of Boris Johnson, through the vanity projects the former mayor left throughout the city. Murphy’s study is not a straightforward demolition job. It’s grounded by engaging self-effacing descriptions of signing on to the dole as a qualified architect, choosing the end carriages on the tube after the 7/7 bombings, ‘thinking the middle carriages were a more obvious target’, and watching the 2011 England riots take place outside his front door via live news footage. Murphy’s inside knowledge of the complexities of building and planning as well as his refreshing tendency to acknowledge Johnson’s successes as well as failures lend his more acerbic judgements credibility and impact.

Nevertheless Nincompoopolis is a litany of botched projects: the unintentionally-tropical ‘Roastmaster’ buses; Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit, built for the 2012 London Olympics, which is like a nervous breakdown captured in architecture; plans for the insufferably-twee, now shelved, Garden Bridge and the mountain-less Emirates Air Line cable car, in defiance of ‘transport that people might actually need’. The particularly damning aspects remain the costs, unaccountability and pointlessness of these schemes. ‘A large source of investment […] would be encouraged to put money into a project for which there was no real need […] topped up by the public purse, without any significant oversight.’

The ArcelorMittal Orbit. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; Photograph: Andy Wilkes

The ArcelorMittal Orbit. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; Photograph: Andy Wilkes

The ArcelorMittal Orbit. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; Photograph: Andy Wilkes

One common denominator is of course Johnson: ‘a stuttering, self-deprecating, eccentric toff, willing to sit there looking impishly bemused as everyone roared in laughter at his apparent lack of comprehension.’ It’s easy to smirk at the man, his ludicrous comparisons (Johnson once described the impromptu collaboration between Anish Kapoor and Carsten Höller involved in the Orbit as ‘like Bernini adorning the work of Michelangelo’) and the preposterous yet baleful branding of the capital as ‘Dubai on Thames’, but the joke’s evidently on us. Johnson’s buffoonery is an effective and canny armour. Hence the clown prince seems poised to lead this country.

Bumbling and ‘quintessentially half-informed’, Johnson is a slippery target. Murphy reminds us our P.G. Wodehousian chum had little problem outsourcing the flagellation of austerity onto less financially-secure citizens, while controversially continuing to write a Telegraph column worth GBP£250,000 a year – a salary he referred to as ‘chicken feed’. Yet it’s clear the problem lies with no single individual, however opportunistic. Murphy convincingly alludes to a system of institutionalized cronyism and entitlement – the prevalence of private school and Oxbridge backgrounds that extends from the House of Commons to leading professions and institutions, which the Social Mobility and Child Poverty commission in 2014 described as being akin to ‘social engineering’.

Boris Johnson. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; Photograph: Think London

Boris Johnson. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; Photograph: Think London

Boris Johnson. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; Photograph: Think London

London may be a 21st century metropolis but it is still set in a country where leadership largely depends on which private school you went to and what your father did for a living. Only in such a system could the likes of Eton-educated Johnson be portrayed as a scrappy underdog. The lack of relevant ideas and moral authority within the establishment seems a compelling argument for a largely-absent meritocracy.

The sorry tale is told here in spatial terms: yuppiedromes, housing shortages and empty towers for distant oligarchs; gentrification and social cleansing; beds in sheds and poor doors; heavy-handed police tactics of public demonstrations and the covert sale of public space; the demonization of council housing and the demolition of modernist estates. It is also told in human terms. Anything or anyone not offering the chance of profit is surplus to requirements; ‘no potential view, no possible opportunity for some kind of commercial “experience” is left unexploited.’ The Grenfell fire in June casts a terrible shadow back through a book that is a powerful analysis, lament and warning.

landscape_grenfell_flickr_chiraljon.jpg

Grenfell tower. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; Photograph: ChiralJon

Grenfell tower. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; Photograph: ChiralJon

It’s understandable yet unnerving then that London’s foremost, if slightly reluctant, psychogeographer Iain Sinclair strikes such a pessimistic view of a city he has long loved in The Last London. He bemoans a place disconnected from the rest of England but also itself. ‘London was everywhere, but it had lost its soul’.

For a long time, I skirted around the heady hyper-literate rush of Sinclair’s books. It seemed inarguable that Sinclair was the most exhaustive observer of the ground-level London of his time, from the M25-charting London Orbital (2002) to Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire (2008), and yet that inarguable quality stirred up arguments within me. Swept along as a teenager, I soon found I was not reading but drowning. There was something intoxicating about the momentum and almost-lysergic maximalism of Sinclair’s writing. Part of what I felt was a kind of Oedipal impulse; recognizing that the style he had mastered was infectious but also belonged to him. Returning to Sinclair’s work, I realised how wrong I’d been. Rather than becoming submerged in esoteric speedfreak-esque Beat prose, the clarity and poetry of his work came to life when read slowly. Every sentence mattered and illuminated overlooked corners. Sinclair is digressive with his formidable knowledge, pointing out many paths, but is also acutely self-aware and modest, acknowledging his ‘dubious projections’ when seeing Diogenes of Sinope or Buddha in a park-bench figure.

Mhairi Vari, Support for a Cloud, 2017, outdoor television aerial, wire coat-hangers, greenhouse/poly-tunnel repair tape, 3 pieces approx 150 x 75 x 65 cm each, installation view 2017. Courtesy: the artist and Domobaal gallery; Photograph: Nick Turpin

Mhairi Vari, Support for a Cloud, 2017, outdoor television aerial, wire coat-hangers, greenhouse/poly-tunnel repair tape, 3 pieces approx 150 x 75 x 65 cm each, installation view 2017. Courtesy: the artist and Domobaal gallery; Photograph: Nick Turpin

Mhairi Vari, Support for a Cloud, 2017, outdoor television aerial, wire coat-hangers, greenhouse/poly-tunnel repair tape, 3 pieces approx 150 x 75 x 65 cm each, installation view 2017. Courtesy: the artist and Domobaal gallery; Photograph: Nick Turpin

Throughout the book, it feels like Sinclair is writing an elegy for the city. The mood is regularly sullen with ‘vagrants sprawled in purgatorial exhaustion in tolerated hollows between station and traffic’. Yet the style remains incandescent with curiosity. He may be ‘on a quest for silence’ yet Sinclair cannot help but chart the human soundscape of the city along the way. The Last London reveals, especially in its oddly-moving final chapter, what Sinclair has been crucially doing all along. He has explored in order to experience, defend, record and expand that which always exists in peril in huge cities: creativity, empathy, the sovereignty of individuals and companionship.

Regent’s Canal. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; Photograph: alh1

Regent’s Canal. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; Photograph: alh1

Regent’s Canal. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; Photograph: alh1

Far from a monkish solitary walker, the humanity and generosity of Sinclair’s writing comes through via the people he meets and introduces us to, from the visual artist Effie Paleologou to the comic book master Alan Moore. He laments an underworld forced to exist below gaudy towers and follies, but perhaps it was ever thus. He has shown that London is not a singular entity, whether that’s a brand or a figurehead or even one period of time, but rather it consists of the lives of millions of people and that which supports or inhibits them. For this reason, London is inexhaustible, and the spirit is one not of defeat but a bruised yet vital hope. It is not a soul but perhaps a skin that has been shed. ‘Something different is surely emerging. It always does.’

Main image: The ArcelorMittal Orbit. Courtesy: Flickr, Creative Commons; Photograph: alh1

Darran Anderson is the author of Imaginary Cities (Influx Press, 2015). He tweets at @Oniropolis.

Most Read

In further news: Glasgow School of Art to be rebuilt; Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a Frank Gehry-designed restaurant
Highlights from Condo New York 2018 and Commonwealth and Council at 47 Canal: the summer shows to see
Knussen’s music laid out each component as ‘precarious, vulnerable, exposed’ – and his conducting similarly worked from...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018