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The paradoxes of Quinlan Terry - click opera
February 2010
 
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Tue, Jan. 8th, 2008 10:12 am
The paradoxes of Quinlan Terry

Skirmishes (perfectly civil and respectful ones befitting to the two elements of a mutually-defining binary) have broken out on Click Opera between the avant and retro factions recently. The other day I noted an odd "semantic drift" which sometimes happens here, a drift from "laboratory" to "conservatory". I start by talking about some kind of laboratory culture (Mike Meiré's Farm Kitchen Project, for instance), but the comments have drifted into a discussion of conservatories by the end of the day. If I blog about radical fashion, someone sooner or later asks me if I read conservative fashion blog The Sartorialist. If it's the philosophy of form, I'm asked my views on Alex Kerr or Christopher Alexander.



Now, in terms of cultural politics, these queries are the aesthetic equivalent of the questions political pollsters ask to find out how someone's likely to vote. They're good questions because they're hot buttons. A thumbs-up for Kunstler, Alexander, Kerr and The Sartorialist would represent a certain view of the universe which I'd characterize as conservative. So I tend to take these questions as "Are you a conservative yet?" Explaining, the other day, why I tend to back off from Alexander and The Sartorialist, I said that it was because they both seemed to propose the existence of a cosmic order -- justified by metaphysics of some kind -- which favoured some forms (the gentleman's suit, the "natural city") above others. These forms would usually be characterized as "classic" and "timeless" and "real" and "spiritual", as opposed, say, to "vogueish, modern, secular, facile, meretricious, plastic, trendy".



Nobody so far has asked me what I think of the architect Quinlan Terry, but he's an interesting case, a sort of extreme example of the retro-fogey tendency which holds the avant-trendy one in a neat binary opposition. Have a look at the building on the right above and tell me when it was built.

It's the Howard Building, Downing College, Cambridge University, and it was designed and built by Quinlan Terry in the mid-1980s. Most people, encountering this building without knowing its origins, would probably assume it was built in the late 18th or early 19th century. Now, I don't find it, in and of itself, an ugly or bad building. It's actually quite handsome. But I'm very much against the idea of making straight pastiches of old building styles -- it seems like a complete abrogation of the responsibility of the artist to say something relevant to the times. It's also letting down the future, which requires topicality and inventiveness from us, even just so it has something to revive and play around with in its turn. There's nothing more useless to the future than an age which just recycles a previous age and doesn't come up with its own distinctive style.

Presenting this conservative architect to its liberal readers, The Observer asked "In a world obsessed with modernism, could this classically-obsessed traditionalist be the ultimate rebel?" The story began with another paradox: "He is our most controversial architect - precisely because he is so uncontroversial." The trouble with these formulae is that they quickly become so semantically unstable they self-destruct.

In a world where to rebel is to conform, to conform is to rebel.

Quinlan Terry is so uncontroversial he's controversial.

Some people are so retro they're positively avant-garde.

To challenge perpetually is no longer challenging; the true challenge now would be to soothe and reassure.

If to conform is to rebel in a world where to rebel is to conform, then conforming and rebelling no longer have any meaning. The moment you start to rebel in that world, you conform. And yet the moment you start to conform, you rebel, so rebelling is actually rebelling again. And yet it's not, because to rebel is to conform. But that's to rebel, actually. And so on. It's like a dog chasing its own tail.



The Observer article confirms that Terry's classicism has a strong cosmological-metaphysical underpinning in the form of his Christian faith. But what I find really interesting is how this worldview which is supposed to be based on an inherent order in the universe was actually created dialectically through an Oedipal struggle with opponents who turn out to be Terry's own parents and teachers. This opposition is what makes him a "rebel", and yet the people he rebelled against to become the man he is today are, themselves, much bigger rebels than he is.

"His parents were typical Hampstead progressive types," Lynn Barber tells us. "Guardian readers, communists, they went to Moscow before the war," says Terry. "They were not atheists, but I think they were militantly agnostic. Another word for agnostic is ignoramus, but no one likes to use that word." His mother was an artist friendly with key Modernists like Barbara Hepworth and Walter Gropius. The Bauhaus, then, wasn't just a set of forms and principles in a textbook for the young Terry. It was Walter, sipping tea with Mummy in the drawing room.

Later, Terry clashed with his Modernist teachers at the Architectural Association, again rebelling against people I would consider rebels. The Architectural Association is one of the places I feel at home in these days when I go back to Britain. There's a wonderful bookshop, a great cafe, interesting shows. The place is just filled with a spirit of adventurous experimentalism. When I was there in October my friends from Abake -- and James Goggin, who made my last two sleeves -- were showing in the ground floor exhibition space. Anyone attacking the spirit of the AA is basically not a friend of mine (unless it's some sort of "minor differences" grouch), just as anyone attacking egalitarian idealism or the Bauhaus is basically on the other side of the political divide. These attitudes are "rebellious" the same way it's "rebellious" for art critic Brian Sewell to advocate a return to figurative painting in a time dominated by post-Duchamp conceptualism, or for the Standard (Sewell's paper) to say that the ICA should shock and challenge its own liberal patrons rather than the standards of a wider cross-section of the British public. It's a rebellion against rebellion, a revolution against revolution, an Oedipal attack on the progressive.

"I thought that the world was not as I'd been brought up to believe," Terry told The Observer, explaining the rift with his parents and teachers. "They said it was getting better and better, but it was actually getting worse and worse. Because I'd never been taught about original sin and its hold on the whole human race, and how man in sin is displeasing to God, in a way I was totally protected from the Christian faith... We live in terrible times... I just think we're in decline really, in every way. The West in general, Britain in particular. Morally, I think we're in decline - look at the crime figures, the divorce rate." And so Terry, in his practice, returns to a Golden Age and justifies it with reference to Golden Sections and Golden Rules and God, the parent you can trust, the parent who isn't a communist or an aesthetic radical, and certainly isn't trendy.



In some ways I'm "on the same page" as Quinlan Terry -- just heading in the opposite direction, and for similarly Oedipal reasons. Terry works in Dedham, an unspoilt English village where my family also lived for a couple of years in the 70s. The Georgian Edinburgh flats I was brought up in would probably be very much to Terry's taste, as perhaps would my school, the neo-classical Edinburgh Academy. But these buildings were the perfect reason for me to fall in love with Tokyo, a city which actually felt like the present and the future rather than the past, and had a dynamism, a reckless modernity sorely lacking in conservative British places like Edinburgh and Dedham, no matter how well-proportioned or God-approved they might be.

At least, though, I recognize where Terry is coming from. I recognize that he's simply responded negatively to the progressivist radicalism and aesthetic Modernism I respond positively to. And perhaps he really has become a Christian and a conservative in a spirit of rebellion. It's just that he's chosen, as I see it, the wrong thing to rebel against: rebellion itself. In his quest for cosmic order, he's released a whole Pandora's Box of tail-chasing Oedipal paradoxes which, ironically, make the world considerably more unstable and chaotic. Back to the lab.

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realrealgone
realrealgone
realrealgone
Tue, Jan. 8th, 2008 09:43 am (UTC)

well said!


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lalelalea
lalelalea
lalelalea
Tue, Jan. 8th, 2008 10:33 am (UTC)
completely unrelated

rather unrelated message, but i am searching for a 2 room (separate rooms) flat in berlin starting the end of january... if you or anyone you know might have any suggestions ? lalelalea @ gmail dot com


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jan. 8th, 2008 11:26 am (UTC)

"There's nothing more useless to the future than an age which just recycles a previous age and doesn't come up with its own distinctive style."

Given that much of the history of architecture since the renaissance consists of variations on existing forms of classical or gothic architecture, that would lead you to conclude that nothing from then until the advent of modernism could be described as having a distinctive style. That might seem a little unlikely.

- K


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 8th, 2008 11:42 am (UTC)

There's a difference between creative revival and straight pastiche. The future will be able to find the 1980s in buildings like the AT&T Building (which refers to Modernism even as it subverts it, adding new PoMo decorative elements taboo in the Modernist period). It won't be able to find anything about the 1980s from Terry's Downing College building.

Does anyone mix up Victorian Gothic Revival with actual Gothic cathedrals? No, it's a series of references mixed with specific innovations unique to the Victorian period. Terry's stuff, though, brings almost nothing new to the table. There's a turning away from modernity, a disgust with the present. Which makes it all the more alarming that this "rebel" is Prince Charles' favourite architect, or that he remodelled the interior of 10 Downing Street.


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akabe
akabe
alin huma
Tue, Jan. 8th, 2008 01:16 pm (UTC)

it's exactly the logic you brilliantly use here that should have been used by your opponents to prove you wrong and conservative about japan back in the days of the culture wars.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 8th, 2008 02:07 pm (UTC)

You might be right, but spell out how that application of this argument would work?


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antisyzygy
antisyzygy
antisyzygy
Tue, Jan. 8th, 2008 01:29 pm (UTC)

My first thought: Isn't 'reactionary' the name for this sort of rebel?

And on that dialectic of conformity and rebellion: if there isn't a single coherent 'world' or thought-world, then the semantics are bound to become unstable. For some, modernism is still too daringly futuristic, while for other it looks outmoded.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jan. 8th, 2008 02:01 pm (UTC)

I think a conservative, by nature, cannot be conscious of why he values his kind of beauty. If he were conscious of its subjectivity, that would probably turn him into a progressive like yourself. So it's a little unfair to say "well, at least I recognize what's going on here."

The only thing I will ask is under what criteria are you making the judgment that the Howard building is "not an ugly or bad building"? Are you joining Terry and slipping back into "beauty is objective" mode? Or maybe you're saying, "it's not what the conservative authority of style would call ugly." Which would be kind of silly, since one point you make is that their authority is not valid in the absolute sense that they believe it to be.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 8th, 2008 02:18 pm (UTC)

Actually, I wasn't quite sure what to say about the Howard building. I suppose in some ways I do consider it both ugly and bad, because it's a building that bottles out of many of the responsibilities I think a creator has. It's easy on the eye, but its easiness -- the fact that it relies on pre-existing templates of "elegance" rather than trying to make new ones -- is morally craven.

I feel about Terry's work the same way I felt about the Charlotte Gainsbourg album put together by pasticheurs of her father's work. I described in Epigone Pop my reaction: "it sounds, immediately, great... No, wait, it sounds terrible because it sounds great. It sounds like a pastiche..." That's Terry too: his buildings look great because we're conditioned to think (well, I have been) that Georgian buildings are great. And yet they're terrible because of that. We wouldn't have a Gainsbourg to copy if Gainsbourg had just slavishly copied some departed master, and we wouldn't have a Robert Adam if he'd made exact replicas of someone working 200 years before him.

Terry talks a lot about the decline and decadence of the modern age, but his inability to innovate is much more decadent, and much more likely to provoke artistic decline and fall.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jan. 8th, 2008 03:32 pm (UTC)

How about this:

There is no way you can actually rebel now, because all rebellion is inevitably either ignored or absorbed into the mainstream.

So: Terry (unlike the pseudo-rebels) is at least being honest, he's giving (certain, conservative) people what they want, no high-falutin' strings attached.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 8th, 2008 05:05 pm (UTC)

I don't think you've thought the paradox through to its chaotic conclusion. If rebellion is mapped now totally to conformity, that doesn't mean that conformity has won, and that it's therefore "honest" to be a conformist. It would be just as logical to conclude that rebellion had won, that we were all rebels now, and that "honesty" would involve owning up to being a rebel. You would then call self-proclaimed conformists "pseudo-conformists".

But if conformity and rebellion were the same thing, both those conclusions would make no sense. How could there be any meaning in either "conformity" or "rebellion" if everyone was either a conformist or a rebel? The only thing to do, in this parallel world where conformity and rebellion are the same thing, would be to stop using -- or even thinking of -- the terms altogether. That's also impossible for us: a binary like "conformist / rebel" can't be unthunk once it done been thunk.


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cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
Tue, Jan. 8th, 2008 05:27 pm (UTC)

Momus, what would you do if you recieved a package with a giant pink marshmallow one day from someone unknown?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 8th, 2008 05:39 pm (UTC)

I would embark on the long, pink task of eating it.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jan. 8th, 2008 05:35 pm (UTC)
“I love your lack of tattoos. Where did you not get them done?"

“In a world where to rebel is to conform, to conform is to rebel.”

A similar proposal once came from Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian:

“Everyone takes drugs these days. It’s more interesting not to take drugs.”

I could respond to both statements as being:

1. Factually incorrect. Most people aren’t puffing crack at the bus stop. Most people aren’t having weekly orgies. Most people, across the board, don’t even own leather trousers.

2. Motivationally incorrect. Who will cross the street and say “I love your lack of tattoos. Where did you not get them done? How much did they not cost? Great post-design design! Controversial!”

3. While tattoos no longer suggest a hard case attitude or a soldierly love of danger, a lack of tattoos still symbolises a preference for neutrality. (In my experience a ‘badass’ ‘thrill-seeker’ dressed like a conservative preppie often has even more of a nasty streak – as if ‘rebelling’ for bitter, repressive reasons rather than expressive, entertaining reasons).

4. Surely we should be ‘over’ direct influence, either way, from our parents, family, school etc by age 30. Once we can identitify it, we control it.

5. Aesthetic choices aside, what does a ‘conformist’ upbringing mean ?

“My parents had orgies.” or “My dad cheated on my mom.”

“My parents didn’t have a TV” or “My parents always bought the latest TV.”

“My parents didn’t go to church.” Or “My parents insisted a spiritual dimension to my upbringing.”

“I danced on a ‘whitebread parabola of goodness’, a chain from God to Jesus to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Royal Family, the aristocracy, land-ownership and my parish. I believe in this ‘DNA of righteousness'.” Or “What taught me not to murder people was not Sunday School and the birch but being treated like a human being, imagination being fed, and a sense of care and love.”


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 8th, 2008 05:49 pm (UTC)
Re: “I love your lack of tattoos. Where did you not get them done?"

Ha ha, nice comment!

I think one of the things that marks our times is that whatever people do, they reach for a liberal-sounding rationalization for it. So we invade Iraq to "bring democracy". If we dumb something down it's "inclusiveness" and if we smarten it up it's in the name of "aspiration" or "not underestimating the audience". Every change is in and of itself good, and every change is "reform", even when it's undoing what someone else thought was reform (for instance, we "reform" the labour market by undoing the reforms which said people should work shorter hours).

If we want to conform and be conservative, we naturally have to portray this as rebellion and radicalism, because these are the only descriptors which seem good, progressive, dynamic. Not even the Conservative party wants to call themselves "conservative" now, because it basically means "backward and bad". I think it's basically just Roger Scruton and his sinister friends Kass and Bork who lay claim to the c-word now.


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The Omaba Code - (Anonymous) Expand
electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Tue, Jan. 8th, 2008 05:59 pm (UTC)

So what are you then, mod or a rocker avant or retro?

For myself:


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jan. 8th, 2008 07:51 pm (UTC)
Is this the most conservative song ever written?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vfyayWe6_oY

"We don't let our hair grow long and shaggy."

No sirree, Merle.


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eustaceplimsoll
Eustace Plimsoll
Tue, Jan. 8th, 2008 07:19 pm (UTC)
Everness

One thing does not exist: Oblivion. God saves the metal and saves the dross, and God's prophetic memory guards from loss the moons to come, and those of evenings gone. Everything is: the shadows in the glass which, in between the day's two twilights, we have scattered by the thousands, or will strew henceforward in the mirrors that we pass. And everything is part of that diverse crystalline memory, the universe; whoever wanders through its endless mazes hears door on door click shut behind their stride, and only from the sunset's farther side shall view at last the shape of Being and its splendor.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 8th, 2008 08:32 pm (UTC)
Re: Everness

All right, Gerard Manley Plimsoll!


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Jan. 8th, 2008 10:54 pm (UTC)

QT vs. the pomos: old money vs. new money. new money's always looking for something new and flash that might make it more new money: old money builds weighty walls around itself in tried and trusted materials, and lives off its interest.

while we're talking Terrys, how do you feel about Terry Farrell, and the question of giant plastic eggcups vs. portland marble griffins?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Jan. 8th, 2008 11:57 pm (UTC)

I think Terry Farrell's work is horrible -- especially the Charing Cross building and MI6 -- but I'm glad TV-AM got restored with its original colours and features. Of that type of PoMo 80s architecture, I much prefer Tschumi's Parc de la Villette in Paris.


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jenny_junkie
jenny_junkie
jenny_junkie
Wed, Jan. 9th, 2008 02:13 am (UTC)

This conformity vs. rebellion issue seems to be a false question. You're either being conformist or rebellious, there's no snake eating its tail here because the only kind of rebelliousness that comes from conformity is a superficial one. It's merely decorative. And being a conformist to spite rebelliousness is just a matter of recontextualizing old signs in order to give them NEW meaning.
If I'm wearing a spiked leather jacket because all my friends are doing it, then it's not rebelliousness at all. I'll be over it by the time I'm 20.


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