The Cake and The Couch.


Picture of the day.

Picture of the Day.


My Foreign Policy article ‘Scotch This Plan’ (see link at the end of this post) caused quite a fuss in the UK media this week – you might like to read it, as it’s about more than local questions. A few caveats: (1) it’s a polemic, so don’t expect balance; (2) likewise, it’s not based on a piece of  academic research; (3) FP were responsible for the headline and subheader, so it appears to emphasise the independence question more than it actually does; (4) despite all these things, the response was overwhelmingly positive at the local level. The city council (city hall) objected, needless to say, but they were in a minority. The broader questions concern how cities with historic legacies imagine their futures. On the narrower question of Edinburgh’s waterfront, there’s scope for a PhD thesis at least.

Here’s the article:

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The great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer who died on 5 December, was a character for sure. I met him in 2001 on a visit to Rio and Brasilia that a few years later led to a book and a few articles. A Carioca friend, a composer, put me in touch with Niemeyer and we secured an appointment at his Copacabana office. Driving downtown to the appointment I was paralysed with nerves, not helped by some mischievous advice from my friend’s brother-in-law on how to address the great man. ‘O senhor Niemeyer. Você e um Saco’ (Mr Niemeyer. You are a pain in the arse’). We arrived at a turquoise art deco block on the beachfront, went to the top floor, entered the office, and were shown to a desk adorned with a large black-and-white photograph of two young women lying on their backs, naked. A tiny, prune-like man in a crisp shirt greeted us – Oscar Niemeyer. Chainsmoking cigars throughout the meeting, he really was remarkably obliging. He showed us a funny animated film, in which he arrived in his saucer-shaped MAC building, as if from outer space. We talked about his latest work, jazz, his routine (beer, sketching the girls on the beach), Brasília. Brazil’s futuristic capital, inaugurated in 1960, was to be the centrepiece of my trip. I’d planned a week there. A week, Niemeyer laughed. I was mad. A day or two was enough.
The remark about Brasilia stayed with me though, because it revealed a distinctive, and curiously two-dimensional, attitude to architecture. Niemeyer’s buildings are well-known as photographs and as recently as 2001, photographs were as close as most of us were likely to get to experiencing them. Fortunately, they’re fantastically photogenic. The images of Brasília’s inauguration in April 1960 by Rene Burri and Marcel Gautherot are among the best, and most widely published images of modern architecture. Starkly dramatic, they signify, better than almost anything else, what it meant to be modern.
The reality is often something else. The pictures give no idea of their environmental performance, often hopelessly at odds with their surroundings. The cathedral, all glass in a city with one if the highest indices of sunshine in the world, is a furnace (a literal hell in summer, perhaps a joke – Niemeyer was an atheist). The ministry buildings, aligned perfectly so one face would be blasted by the heat in the morning, the other in the afternoon. Reality intrudes in terms of construction, too. The buildings of the capital are beautifully done, but elsewhere, most are not, Niemeyer’s pure forms invariably undermined by crude finish and poor (or non-existent) maintenance. Brazil’s cities are littered with these modern ruins. The 1996 Museu de Arte Contemporanea in Niteroi, is a case in point. Lauded by the world’s architectural press, it looks superb at a distance. Up close it’s all lumps and bodges, a primary school art class’s approximation of a flying saucer.
Niemeyer himself was well aware of such criticisms, but they meant nothing to him. This was less to do with his unassailable prestige, than an attitude. He genuinely didn’t feel any responsibility towards the buildings once built. He was an artist, first and foremost and as such, his job was to create new forms. You might as well criticise Surrealism for failing to care adequately for lobsters, or design good telephones. That attitude has saddled Brazil with some expensive architectural conservation problems – but it has also proved enormously influential. Libeskind, Gehry, Zaha Hadid and their followers have all carried forward the concept of architecture as icon-making, and that concept, in turn, powerfully informs architectural training the world over. It’s a problematical attitude as regards the future of architecture. But it has produced some spectacular, highly affecting images of modernity. Niemeyer had plenty of shortcomings as an architect, but as an image-maker, he was peerless. Remember him through the pictures of the work, not the work itself.


When the artist Alex Hartley built a geodesic dome out of scrap metal for his 2011 exhibition at Victoria Miro, he invoked Drop City, an iconic northern Colorado commune of the mid-1960s. Drop City achieved sudden fame in 1965 through the patronage of Buckminster Fuller. Patronage is perhaps too emphatic – Bucky gave the Droppers $500 because they wrote to him. But by 1967 it had become one of the nodes on an international freak network, spoken in the same breath as the UFO Club in London or Haight-Ashbury. It had its own festival (‘Joy’) in June 1967. Even the normally stuffy architecture journals hit on it, big time. Even if hardly anyone actually went, it was, no question, a place to be. For most, Bucky’s dome was best known as a scheme to seal Manhattan from the elements under a structure of truly Biblical proportions, Man’s final triumph over Nature.

Drop City was by contrast staggeringly crude, bodged from wooden props from a nearby mine, and the rooftops of wrecked cars. Salvaging the latter required an axe, a steady nerve, and enormous physical strength. Fortunately, the early Droppers had all three. The images of the complete camp become icons of the sixties scene, and their continuing power rests in the way they refuse time. The dome form connotes futurity, but these domes, the animals wandering about them, and the sheer bleakness of the landscape connote something from the far distant past. It could be far in the future after some apocalypse; or it could be the remnant of some sophisticated civilisation that remained incorrigibly off the grid.

That ambiguity is exactly the sort of thing that appeals to Alex Hartley – so he set about building a dome with his assistant Will, poring over what few fragments there were to say how one might be built. There were a few problems to work out. Preparing for the damp English climate, they inserted a modern weatherproof layer between the wood and the metal. The car tops were a more serious issue. Detroit 60’s metal yielded at last four panels per car, whereas European vehicles produced barely one; and the cutting technique of the original Droppers was beyond even Hartley. The result is remarkably fine however, rather better (I am certain) than the original. The panels fit beautifully and the interior is exceptionally snug. When they’d finished, Hartley lived in the dome for the duration of the exhibition, tending chickens (at least those that survived the predation of the local foxes) and fishing in the pond. When the show finished, Hartley fitted out the dome for use by Occupy London. It didn’t make it to St Paul’s in time, but it did end up in Finsbury Square where it functioned briefly as intended as a public meeting place – before being appropriated as a kind of party zone for the enactment of drug-and-booze-fuelled fantasies.

Removing the dome at the end of Occupy Finsbury, Hartley described it having reached a condition of unspeakable decay. A beanbag had exploded, producing what he described as ‘vomit lucky dip’, an astonishing amalgam of polystyrene beads, used needles, used condoms, a dildo, vomit and human faeces. In this, Hartley’s dome exactly parallels the story of Drop City. The commune’s early history is that of civilisation – a new form of citizenship with all the attendant rights and responsibilities, and a highly developed sexual morality paralleling that of the middle class world outside. After the ’67 Joy Festival, its leaders lost interest, and it quickly degenerated into a neo-Hobbesian state of nature.

The Dome’s back in Devon now, where it was originally made. It emerges from the mud, glistening gently in the sun. It looks fantastic. What happens now? Hartley himself isn’t sure. For planning purposes it’s a de facto yurt, which enables its continued existence, at least for the time being. But it’s much more than that. An imaginative space of the first order, there’s nowhere better to reflect on dreams of utopia. Put it in Parliament Square, I say.

Richard Williams’s forthcoming book ‘Sex and Buildings’ (Reaktion 2013) contains an extended account of Drop City. See


Today  (07/11/12) we made a visit to the original Maggie’s Centre, situated on the grounds of Edinburgh’s Western General hospital. Bult by Edinburgh-based Richard Murphy in 1994, in response to a brief provided by Maggie Jencks, it provides an informal drop-in centre for cancer sufferers, and their families, with therapeutic services, health advice, and a kitchen. Between us we knew three of the other Maggie’s: Glasgow, Kirkaldy and Dundee, and we talked to therapists who knew the rest. The architecture of the centres varies a good deal: this one a Victorian stable block as if built by Pippi Longstocking, Dundee (Frank Gehry) is a fairytale gingerbread house, Kircaldy (Zaha Hadid) a grounded stealth bomber. In the Edinburgh case, the starting point, the  Victorian block, has been opened out at ground level with a mezzanine inserted above, leading to alcoves at each end. An eccentric, but well-stocked library fills the central stair. There’s a tropical fish tank, a very good selection of art from the Jencks collection on the walls, and some impeccable Scandinavian modern furniture. Playful, domestic, and low-key, it is a striking contrast to Wilson and Womersley’s adjoining chemotherapy unit (1968), a neo-medieval fortress compete with arrow slits, designed to look as sinister as possible.

We visited the Edinburgh Maggie’s as a therapeutic space.  The design principles are simple and striking, as at all Maggies. THE DOOR. Here, as elsewhere, there’s no ceremony about the entrance, You just walk straight in to the main room, which because of all the glass at ground level is open to view from outside. They used to have a big wooden door, but got rid of it (‘intimidating’). Now it’s glass, like the rest of the adjoining wall. You’re outside, and then you’re in, with no waiting area or reception. The abruptness is slightly shocking, certainly by comparison with the surrounding hospital facilities which are as much facilities for waiting as they are for treatment.  THE TABLE.  The ground floor is open-plan, organised around a central kitchen. The key feature, here as elsewhere is a big table. It’s in some ways a old-fashioned device, suggestive of the semi-public realm of the country house kitchen, or (at the other end of the social scale) the factory canteen. More likely the former, thinking of Jencks. At any rate, it’s a means of allowing different modes of socialisation in the same place. It can be an extroverted, public, place, but as several staff told us, unprompted, it allows an introverted presence too. Some folks just sit there silently, just taking it in, thanking the others when they leave. Like any semi-public space, there are rights and responsibilities. You get given a cup of tea when you first go, then you have to make your own.  THE ALCOVE. Unlike other therapeutic spaces you’re part of a public organisation from the start, with up to seventy visitors per day who by and large see each other and are positively encouraged to socialise.  The are no consulting rooms, or even conventional rooms as such. Instead there are a range of alcoves or recesses which  can – and usually are  – closed with sliding doors during therapeutic sessions, which are, for the most part also scheduled.

A UTOPIAN SPACE. The centre does raise the intriguing possibility of a total therapeutic space, in which distinctions between clients and staff, public and private, work and non-work have been fully dissolved. In this utopian space, everyone, whoever they are, is both giving therapy and receiving it, in full public view, and the distinction between the therapeutic session (50 minutes) and the rest of ones life no longer makes any sense. There’s a curious shadow here of R. D. Laing’s Kingsley House experiment of 1965-70, in which Laing with a zeal that was becoming his trademark, set up a residential facility for schizophrenics and their clinical carers where professional distinctions were simply swept away. Maggie’s could not be more different in spirit, or aim. But it is a faintly utopian operation, redolent of possibilities beyond the immediate question of the care of cancer sufferers. From the perspective of therapy, it is staggeringly open. Most therapeutic spaces are fundamentally anti-social, designed in the belief that clients need to be kept apart from each other at all costs.  Maggie’s is the opposite.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY. We visited on Maggie’s sixteenth birthday, a day of balloons and events. As we were leaving, a Tai-Chi class was underway in the largest space, while by the door, a singer with a guitar ran through a convincing rendition of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’. In this context of life-threatening, and often terminal illness, the line ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ could have been excessively morbid. It wasn’t – in fact it seemed as cheerful as the architecture. If nothing else, that indicates just how different Maggie’s is compared to other kinds of therapeutic space.

For more on the Edinburgh Maggie’s Centre, and Maggie’s in general, go to

Alex Hartley, Finsbury Dome, 2011. Photo courtesy Alex Hartley

Occupy: camping or revolution? Like most things, I came to it late. I saw the London Finsbury Square occupation, and then, the Edinburgh St Andrews Square scene, and later still the Meadows iteration, when it moved on. I didn’t participate, investigate, or even photograph it at the time. It’s only now, a year later, I got around to reading about it properly, spurred by an excellent review of of Occupy-related writings by David Runciman in the LRB. Runciman’s argument revolves around the slogan, ‘We are the 99%’. Too simple, he thinks. A lot of that 99% are actually doing fine, making any substantive action unlikely. A more targeted campaign he thinks is needed; it’s too simplistic, too unfocused to have much chance of succeeding.

I’m inclined to agree. The convulsions of the post-2008 financial crisis were something to behold, but still nothing compared with the supposedly banal decade of the 1970s. If you grew up in Britain then, most weeks threatened apocalypse. It wasn’t just the three-day week and cooking by candlelight (1974), but the IMF bailout (1976), and unburied corpses in the street (1978-9); more seriously it was the ever-present threats of terrorism and nuclear annihilation. My home city of Manchester, was for most of the 1970s a filthy, dangerous slum. Almost every part of its public realm lay in runs, many of them relics of the Second World War.  Everything else was thick with graffiti.

My parents, if they did not actually believe the world was about to end, certainly acted as if they did. They bought a huge wreck of a Victorian house and set about turning it into a self-sufficient urban farm. They subscribed to Vole, Richard Boston’s strange ecological magazine. They took their children on regular pilgrimages to the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth. They talked darkly of Britain returning to an agrarian economy. They hinted we might grow up to be peasants. They instilled in us – without, I am sure, ever meaning to – a pervading sense of emergency. Everything was to be saved, and re-used, especially food on the basis ‘you never knew where your next meal is coming from.’ When travelling, we were to take no more luggage than each of us could carry, in case we had to run from some unspecified threat. And if I remember rightly, we were instructed that if anyone were to appear with in a room with a gun, we were to lie flat on the floor. These were the beliefs of otherwise well adjusted, happy, professionals, with seamless careers and pension records. Now if they thought the Seventies was one long emergency, what did others, with less security, think?

Anyway, all this clouds my view of Occupy. By comparison with my (possibly mis-remembered) seventies, today’s protestors inhabit a world of unparalleled wealth, opportunity, and order. You don’t have to be a right-wing nutjob to believe this; you just need to have been around the block a few more times than they have (the evolutionary psychologist Stephen Pinker agrees – see last year’s Better Angels of Our Nature). What Occupy points up, however, that credit cards and cheap food and flights don’t necessarily make for happy citizens, if a tiny number of those citizens appear to be able to circumvent the rules. It’s simply not fair, and when it goes wrong, as it did 2008, we all suffer. Noam Chomsky’s Occupy is particularly lucid on this, and the resultant anger, which is real enough. You have to feel pretty aggrieved, and pretty disenfranchised, to risk jail, and then risk it again through repeated actions. All this is winningly developed in Occupy! Scenes From an Occupied America, an impressionistic collage of first hand accounts of OWC and other ‘scenes’, interspersed with cartoons, photos and graphs (its low-fi production is a bonus too – nicely redolent of late-60s-early 70s conceptual art).

Where Occupy falls down however, at least in my limited understanding, is the lack of a programme. Runciman covers this well: if Occupy targeted youth unemployment, it might make a real, structural, difference. But the 99% coalition is too broad, too diffuse, and includes too many folks who are simply too comfortable. Inside Occupy too, the lack of programme is palpable. On pp. 65-6, Chomsky himself states he doesn’t think anyone has the authority to say what a future society might look like. ‘These things have to be worked out by people who are living and functioning in freedom and work out for themselves what kinds of societies and communities are appropriate for them,’ he says, weakly.

Well, that’s not enough for me. It’s not enough because if you go back 40 years, there are any number of Occupy-like events that not only protest, but model new ways of living – and it is in the living that I understand value. Drop City (Colorado, 1966-9) is one I’ve lately written about, and it supplies the pattern-book for Alex Hartley’s dome, depicted above. But even my parents’ generation in post-industrial northern England had a plan, involving self-sufficiency, re-use, slow living, thick walls, small windows, anti-urbanism and lots of vegetables. Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire was, and probably still is, the global epicentre. In a strange way it is more of a vision than Occupy appear to have. I say ‘more’ because it is so easy to identify, and indeed, caricature (as many did). But the fact that it is so identifiable means, as I understand it, that it must have been real, lived, and in a peculiar way, popular. Occupy might happily embrace the 70s eco-vision – or not. It’s actually very hard to tell. Perhaps their tentativeness about vision is indicative of a desire to have it both ways, to protest the capitalist city but also  enjoy its comforts. At any rate, Occupy still looks to me like camping.


D. Runciman, ‘Stiffed’, London Review of Books (25 October 2012), pp. 7-9.

‘N. Chomsky, Occupy (London: Penguin Books

A. Taylor and K. Cessen, Occupy! Scenes From an Occupied America (London: Verso, 2011)


“CORSON” is a game for two players. Players must take the role of either the CUSTOMER or CORSON. The game is played in an old-fashioned hardware shop in Stockbridge, on the North side of Edinburgh. The play has competing objectives. If the player is the CUSTOMER, the objective is simply to buy any item from the shop. If the player takes the role of CORSON, the objective is to prevent the CUSTOMER from making a purchase. Detailed rules follow:

1. The CUSTOMER enters shop and requests an item of hardware normally found in such a shop. Nails, screws, bolts and tools are all typical requests. Toasters, vacuum cleaners and other domestic goods are also acceptable requests. For a request successfully fulfilled by CORSON, the CUSTOMER scores 1 point.

2. CORSON cannot refuse a request for an item he has in stock at the time of play. He may however immediately refuse any request for an item not described in sufficient detail. For example: a request for ‘a nail’ may be refused on the grounds of insufficient detail. Likewise, ‘a toaster’ if it does not specify colour, design etc.

3. CORSON may also legitimately refuse a request on the grounds that the particular item requested is ‘not for sale’, although this move is permitted only once per round.

4. After a failed request, the CUSTOMER is entitled to ask for one further item. The same rules apply.

5. If after two failed requests the customer has not succeeded, he must leave the shop at once. CORSON should smile enigmatically as the CUSTOMER leaves. CORSON scores 1 point. This outcome is of itself known as a ‘Corson’.

6. The ‘ladder’ rule. CORSON may choose to climb a ladder at any point to search for requested items. If CORSON deploys the ladder and fails to find the requested item, double points (2) are awarded. If as the resort of the use of the ladder, the CUSTOMER is successful, then double points are due to the CUSTOMER.

7. The ‘early closing’ rule. CORSON always closes on Wednesday afternoons and Sundays during which time the game may not be played. At any other time, CORSON is entitled once per game to close the shop in order to prevent a sale. No points are awarded to either party in this case.

8. The ‘Parrafin’ rule. The CUSTOMER is entitled, once per game, to ask for ‘parrafin’, an item which CORSON always has in stock. ‘Parrafin’ counts as a successful sale, but no points are awarded to either player in this case.

9. How long to play. The game is played on a weekly basis, over a decade. At the end of each decade, the CUSTOMER and CORSON add up the points scored. Whoever has the largest number of points wins. At this point, players traditionally switch roles.

10. Disputes, and further information. The long duration of the game makes accurate recording of play essential. A notebook for the purpose can be purchased from many retailers in the vicinity, but, it should be stressed, NOT from CORSON himself. Attempts to buy a notebook from CORSON cannot be counted as play. Disputes over play should be directed to The Adjudicator, Board of Corson, 30 Woodburn Terrace, Edinburgh EH10. The Board meets twice per year, and considers all reasonable requests. The Adjudicator also organises an annual Corson Ladder. Entrance to the Ladder is by invitation only, determined by the Board on 1 March each year.

The Guardian journalist Simon Hoggart has a priceless anecdote from this year’s Edinburgh Festival. At a concert at the city’s Usher Hall, the leader of his group conscientiously turns her mobile to silent, leaving a red LED glowing. At the end of the concert, as she gets up to leave, an Edinburgher turns to her and hisses: ‘your red light completely ruined the concert for me.’ For those of us who have to endure the city’s eccentricities year round, it’s a familiar story. Hoggart’s story was, in an unintentional way, pure Sennett: in a single story an index of some favourite problems: civility, etiquette, how we behave in public.

How we behave publicly with each other, and how specifically we co-operate is the subject of Sennett’s latest book Together, whose title is as much an aspiration as it is a description. It’s a subtle, touching, funny, clever book, perfect for discussion at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 13 August. In many ways it was a perfect audience for it: well-prepped, middle-class, highly observant – and like Sennett himself, delighting in the musical metaphors that run all the way through the book. Sennett’s love of music and art is obvious. He’s as comfortable in this setting as anyone could be, and as persuasive an advocate as any for what is left of the Enlightenment.

However Sennett’s background is more complex than that of most of the people in the room, and in particular, it involves long journeys in British and American systems of social class, a fact that routinely appears in the writing. Together is also more complex than it might first appear. There’s a lot of familiar Sennett here (civility, the public life, ritual etc) . In the mouths of politicians, ‘civility’ can be a platitude, terrible in its simplicity. Here’s it’s more complex, a system of mutually understood social rules that have to be learned, practised, and that are hard. Politeness, in the eighteenth century sense, is one such a model of civility, a set of mutually understood behavioural rules that facilitate co-operation. Civility has a price, though. All that restraint, from holding in one’s farts in public, to refraining from acting on sexual impulses, is extremely hard work, and has to be practised daily to be effective. Sennett’s recognition of the physical difficulty of civility is a subtle, but important point. There is nothing worse, in some ways, than the presumption of civility without the accompanying understanding that civility, through simple human frailty, cannot always be achieved. (in Simon Hoggart’s place, I would have resorted to violence for precisely this reason).

But in Sennett’s subtle imagination, civility does not automatically mean restraint. In an anecdote that both troubled and fascinated the Edinburgh audience, Sennett described a 70s Boston factory in the 1970s, where a shop floor foreman had to show anger periodically to garner respect: ‘bland, polite foremen were the greater goad.’ In this particular version of civility, the threat of violence was an integral part of the mutually understood system. It’s a highly suggestive idea that conflicts with the popular concept of civility as etiquette.

It is also – it goes without saying – a troubling idea that in the wrong hands amount could, and no doubt often did underwrite bullying. A different, less privileged audience, might have had things to say about this, as they might about the equally slippery notion of impersonality. Sennett’s long-held view is that we suffer an excess of intimacy in public life which of itself corrodes public-ness. (Another sociologist, Frank Furedi, has written of a widespread ‘therapy culture’ that prevents large-scale, and necessarily impersonal action). In the professional context of the university, I couldn’t agree more There is nothing that frustrates academic life so much as personalisation. I wonder, however, if the attractions of impersonality might lessen in a situation where (for the sake of argument) workers were hired on a daily basis, where, in other words, intimacy was structurally impossible.

The conversation was certainly developing in these directions when, the Book Festival being what it is, we had to stop, Sennett, I’m sure would have had some subtle and inventive answers to these questions. It was short performance, but a great one.  In the meantime, we await the last part of his Homo Faber trilogy, on the City.


Richard Sennett appeared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 13 August, 2012, chaired by Richard Williams. Sennettt’s book Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-Operation, is published by Allen Lane.