Basking in
urban decay

From Will Self to Iain Sinclair, psychogeographers’ criticism of the Olympics is riddled with anti-development prejudice.

The psychogeographers are colonising the Lea Valley, east London, in a way that the International Olympic Committee could only dream of doing. It began with Iain Sinclair’s book, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, published at the beginning of 2009. In the book, Sinclair conducts an interview with another self-proclaimed psychogeographer, Will Self, about the wedge of park land driven into the dirty north-east of London – we know it better as the Olympics site. Self was clearly not impressed: ‘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.’ Following the real contours of the land is more rewarding, more intuitive, Self contends, than imposing a new human order on top. 

Psychogeography is now very much a feature of the criticism of architecture. Still, it is worth remembering that the term was coined in the 1950s by the Situationists, a grouping of Paris-based radical intellectuals, as part of their strategy for imagining new architecture. The nineteenth-century poet Charles Baudelaire’s notion of the flâneur, a strolling, detached observer of society, certainly fed into the Situationists’ ideas. As did the interwar musings of the Surrealists, who introduced the idea of allowing the subconscious to control associations made during these perambulations.

Yet it was Guy Debord, the principal thinker among the Situationists, who loved to dream up terminology for the ephemeral. He defined psychogeography as ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’. Don’t be fooled by the quasi-scientific prose. Debord and his cohorts saw themselves revolting against the rigid, efficient ethos of Corbusian town planning. Psychogeography was posited 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’.

Yet although it was devised as a way of creating a new form of architecture, in which technology would play a great part in the postwar years, psychogeography now has a less utopian function: it is being used to criticise development per se. As the contemporary psychogeographer walks around an urban area today, taking in the detritus of an earlier period of industrial society, we get occasional glimpses of the author’s ideal world. And it is one which prioritises the primitive rather than the progressive. Sinclair, for one, refers to the ‘wilderness, wild orchards, allotments [and] back rivers’ of Hackney as ‘sites of unimproved imagination’.

There is a general antipathy to any kind of change in the Lea Valley among psychogeographers. Elsewhere, Self has written that the Olympic Delivery Authority ‘may make compulsory purchases, tarmac over the sports pitches, roust out the travellers’ 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’. In architecture, in the built environment, Self sees the hubris of mankind.

The Olympic Park’s architecture and planning is not beyond criticism, of course: planting a shopping centre at its entrance is problematic, largely because it will hamper crowd flows, but also because it shows it is essentially an inward-looking structure with no design applied to its exterior. I also think the failure to deliver on the architectural ambition of the aquatic centre for the Games is regrettable. (Although, as someone who lives in east London, I am looking forward to having the most beautiful local swimming pool in the world when the Olympics leaves town.) But there’s a strange misanthropy at work in the imaginations of the likes of Self and Sinclair. They seem to be wishing ruin on structures which have only just been built. Decay does come to all material form, but surely that’s all the more reason to tend to what exists and to build more.

In the work of contemporary psychogeographers, there is a failure to understand the nature of the material world. A crumbling building doesn’t simply represent the inevitable degradation of natural materials; it mocks the hubris of those that built it. In a recent essay in the New York Times, written in his best sub-Sinclairian style, China Miéville referred to the architecture of the Olympics as ‘Ozymandian skeletons’. The fact that two football clubs are using every single legal trick in the book to try to prise the stadium-to-be out of each other’s hands seems to have escaped Miéville’s attention.

Meanwhile, in Sinclair’s more recent work, Ghost Milk, he mounts a more explicit attack on what he calls ‘grand projects’, from the Trafford Centre in Manchester to the London Olympics. There is a certain irony to this assault. In the book, he attacks the Lea Valley Regional Park Act, a piece of legislation passed in the early 1960s that preserved a whole swath of land stretching between the Thames and the M25 for the recreation of the people of London. This seems rather sad. 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’s work would recognise this as the landscape that Sinclair, often very beautifully, evokes. Yet, unsurprisingly, he is resistant to the idea that the Lea Valley has been landscaped by man as much as any formal garden.

It is not just literature that has been influenced by psychogeography. Laura Oldfield Ford’s artwork - again frequently beautiful in the manner in which it captures liminal space - is not simply documentation. Like Sinclair, she believes urban masterplans cannot be imposed from above. There is another irony here. The Lettrists and Situationists in 1950s France objected, too, in a hysterical, frequently drunken manner to Corbusier-style city planning. But given her penchant for delapidated tower blocks and abandoned recreational spaces, Oldfield Ford herself seems to be mourning the demise of an era of Corbusier-style planning. Another irony is that these modernist postwar high-rises were themselves imposed by a competent bureaucracy of architects. The Situationists were attacking the very rigid set of structures that Oldfield Ford thinks of fondly as a product of the postwar welfare state. 

There is a real irony, too, in the fact that a structure such as the Olympic Stadium should arrive in the Lea Valley. The stadium professes to be an adaptable structure, in that it was intended to be demounted from seating 80,000 during Games time to 30,000 afterwards (although this is now in doubt). The twentieth-century version of adaptable architecture and the artistic strategy of psychogeography were born in the same womb, of course. The short but seminal text, Formulary for a New Urbanism, written by Ivan Chtcheglov, imagines not only the strategy of searching for the original conceptions of space in the ‘magical locales of fairytales 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.

There is lineage of sorts going back from the Olympic Stadium to the British architect Cedric Price, who, through his friendship with Alexander Trocchi, was influenced by the Situationists’ proposals for an adaptive architecture. Price in turn influenced Archigram, one of whose members, Peter Cook, was an adviser on the Olympic Stadium. This building is a long way from being a satisfying resolution to this project, and is the product of a wrongheaded brief to adapt downwards. But one of the things that I find beguiling about this slightly clumsy structure is that it stands as a wry riposte to the thinking that trashes it, and the development that surrounds it. 

Tim Abrahams is the author of The Stadium, published by Machine Books.

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