A CLOCKWORK JERUSALEM Review
By Lionel Eid, AADipl2013
HTS Course Tutor
23 October 2014
Lecture Hall, Architectural Association
As the Royal Institute of British Architects laid out the red carpet and flutes of champagne for the 2014 Stirling Prize ceremony on Thursday night, the AA hosted Sam Jacob in what was a more intimate evening celebrating not the professional achievements of individual architects, but rather their collective endeavours in a shared, national project.
The lecture, titled A Clockwork Jerusalem, represented the homecoming of this year’s British Pavilion exhibition at the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale curated by FAT and Crimson Architectural Historians. In his capacity as meta-curator for the biennale, Rem Koolhaas invited all National Pavilions to engage with the theme Absorbing Modernity: 1914-2014 and consider the “process of the erasure of national characteristics in favour of the almost universal adoption of a single modern language in a single repertoire of typologies.”
Those familiar with the British psyche (and by extension its architecture) will know that these islands have always maintained a somewhat ambivalent relationship with modernity - particularly when it hails from overseas. The premise of Jacob’s talk was that, unlike some of its European counterparts, there simply was no adoption of a single language or repertoire in British architecture over the past century. Instead our built environment has been shaped by constant, almost subconscious oscillations between conflicting national tendencies.
In this sense A Clockwork Jerusalem - both as a title and as a project - attempts to describe this constant tug of war. ‘Clockwork’ is derived from Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian vision of a London modern in appearance yet barbaric in nature. 'Jerusalem' is invoked in the context of a William Blake poem contrasting the ‘dark satanic mills’ of the industrial revolution with the idea that England, having been visited by Jesus in ancient times, could be the site of a new Jerusalem; a heaven on earth.
[caption id="attachment_3548" align="alignnone" width="360"] Sam Jacob describes A Clockwork Jerusalem
Image credit: Eduardo Andreu Gonzalez[/caption]
Throughout the lecture, Sam Jacob carefully charted the unfolding of these dual narratives - the cautionary and the utopian, the futuristic and the retrograde, the technological and the mythical – in sequence of national milestones and unlikely artefacts.
From the Industrial Revolution to London’s blitzkrieg and slum clearance, the audience was asked to consider smog, earth and debris in light of Joseph Gandy’s elegant vision for the Bank of England as a future ruin or the fetishistic obsession with rustication, present in so much post-war British architecture. What in that dark, tragic rubble inspired so many to envisage utopia?
Re-visiting a number of Britain’s most iconic estates and New Towns with the aid of (sometimes haunting, sometimes hilarious) cinema, Jacob unpacked some of fundamental issues latent within this heroic period of modern planning.
Through the ultra-violence of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, we were made to wonder: how is it that the public sector, once a major agent which produced some of Britain’s most expressive architecture now employs so few architects and holds such little sway over the profession? In Dancing In the Ruins, haunting scenes of ecstasy-fuelled squat raves raised the question: could the social failure of the Hulme estate have helped re-establish an attractive post-industrial identity for Manchester? In Wired for Sound, Cliff Richard’s walkman allows him to compress space, time, architecture (and music), into a single exhilarating dimension – raising the question, what could be more sublime and/or modern than Milton Keynes shopping centre?
Whilst this kind of primary material may seem outwardly facetious to some, A Clockwork Jerusalem represents a refreshing and necessary look in the mirror towards the idiosyncrasies that define our version of modernism. Whether it is the concrete picturesque, the historico futurism, the electro pastoral or any other innate contradiction you seek to explore, I would recommend visiting the exhibition whilst the Biennale is still running (until November) or browsing its printed counterpart (available at the AA Bookshop).
For more information:
A Clockwork Jerusalem Lecture Video
The British Pavilion at the 14th Venice Architecture Biennale
Sam Jacob Studio
Crimson Architectural Historians
A Clockwork Jerusalem (British Council Design/ The Vinyl Factory, 2014)