The Subversive Spatiality of Pokémon Go

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Zubat on Hope Street. Image Source: Glasgow Live

I scroll down my Facebook timeline, and there is a photograph of a pavement – on a real street which I recognise – and on that pavement is a Pidgey. You know, the wee brownish flying thing from first generation Pokémon? I scroll down a bit more and folk have been out and about all over the place: there’s a Weedle on the gingham tablecloth in a cafe, a wee purple-grey Nidoran on a hay bale, a Magikarp bouncing around by the Kelvin. This is, if you haven’t guessed already, people sharing their spoils from Pokémon Go, an augmented reality game which allows you to catch Pokémon in the wild, a.k.a real life. There was a glorious month in the summer when you could go for a walk and see clusters of people milling around with their phones in the air, as if trying to channel some ethereal spirit that was wafting in the atmosphere. They were out catching Pokémon. All of a sudden, people were going for walks again, leaving the house and the cosy glow of the television to catch invisible beasties who lived in trees and parks, museums and street corners.

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Safari Zone Map from Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire. Image Source: PsyPoke

As a kid, I was an avid Pokémon fan. I missed the boat for Red and Blue but had Yellow, Ruby, Sapphire, Leaf Green for my Game Boy Colour and Advance and played them all to death. What I loved more than the battles was the wandering part. So much of your time is taken up pushing your way through long grass, cycling along seaside promenades, bobbing along the ocean, taking shortcuts through forests, crossing through dungeons, traversing the plains of mountains and deserts. You’re constantly interrupted by Pokémon encounters; so much so that often you double back in confusion, any instrumental pathway you’re trying to take disrupted by the screen switch to a battle. The towns often had such picturesque names as ‘Petalburg City’, ‘Sootopolis City’, ‘Lilycove City’ and ‘Mossdeep City’. Then there’s Meteor Falls, the Sunken Ship and Sky Pillar – these are just from Ruby/Sapphire alone. Yes, the game has a final purpose: you’re supposed to beat the gym leaders of every town and follow some convoluted let’s beat Team Rocket narrative, but often its trajectory is beautifully non-linear. You can explore, catch Pokémon in your own time, find side quests to achieve, people who need help. Acquire potions, level up your Pokémon, learn intriguing stories from local mythology.

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Screen Cap from Ruby/Sapphire. Image Source: WikiHow

There is an obsessiveness to Pokémon, a desire to always repeat. As much as possible, you find yourself returning to previous towns and locations, either to seek out more Pokémon known to appear in the area or simply to explore, to see what you’ve missed. Invariably, you do nothing new, and manage to enjoy that process of wandering again. You fight the same Pokémon, hoping they will flee but secretly enjoying taking them down in one shot with your level 40 team, where once you’d have to fight tooth and nail with a goddamn Zubat. To some extent, Pokémon is a rhizomatic game: once you get to a certain stage, the world is yours to explore and you can map out your own routes and lines of flight as you see fit, flying and sailing and seeking locations of your choosing. However, you are still governed with the impulse of narrative, which spurs you onto particular places: sometimes you can’t move on till you’ve beaten the gym leader of that town, for example. You can regress, but not progress. There’s that sort of macho narrative of levelling up which you’re impelled to follow. It’s only when you’ve completed the game that you can reap the rewards of complete exploring.

Pokémon Go changes that. By transferring Pokémon to real life, you are as free to explore its terrain as you are to wander the streets of your local town or city, or indeed the plains of the countryside. Real life is transformed by augmented reality, the imposition of Pokémon on material space. Creatures that only the player, holding up her phone, can see. This is already getting very Black Mirror, but wait. It’s a competitive game, yes, but there aren’t the drastic consequences of social exclusion and alienation experienced by many of Black Mirror’s tech addicts. There is a lovely playfulness to Pokémon Go which somehow has generally avoided becoming cutthroat competition. For a while, everyone was playing it. It was a form of camaraderie (folk would go out in packs to hunt for Pokémon, or indeed organise mass hunting expeditions via Facebook). More time was being spent on the Pokémon Go app than on Snapchat, Twitter and Whatsapp. I’d go into the kitchen at work and the chefs would gleefully show off their Pokédex; which was glorious, seeing all those familiar creatures again in this new and surprising context. And since chefs have hardly a moment’s time when they’re not in the same place, working 14 hour shifts at a time, I can only imagine the extent to which people in other walks of life played it.

Pokémon Go is a strange way of making people notice their surroundings, particularly in the sense of urban space. Sure, most of the time their faces are glued to the maps on their phone screens, but in placing themselves in the world, they are forced to confront physical structures, obstacles, windows, private property and so on. It becomes even more of a game when you have to work out how to attain Pokémon in  elusive locations. I’ve heard stories about folk knocking on your door asking if they could come in because they’ve noticed you’ve got a rare Pokémon in your house. It sounds pretty sinister, but it shows the level of commitment the game inspires.

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Animal Crossing Town Map. Image Source: Neoseeker Forums

Think of it this way: why is it so addictive? Like Tinder, it’s a form of locative media which uses your GPS to determine who or what will appear in your surroundings. Pokémon Go also uses your phone clock, as different types of Pokémon appear at different times of day. I’m reminded here of one of my favourite games, Animal Crossing, where you could go fishing and bug-catching but what was out there was determined by the ‘real time’ of your Game Boy’s internal clock. It followed the real time of a 24 hour day, of the seasons and so on, so that in December there’d be snow and falling leaves in autumn. It was very beautiful and the real time aspect has an addictive quality. I think it’s because the game becomes less a form of escapism and more a parallel to reality, to everyday life. You know it’s reached that status when The Mirror runs a how-to guide, eh?

What’s so cool about Pokémon Go is how it adds meaning to real space. A school, town hall, park or pub becomes a Pokémon Gym and everyone wants to visit. I swear business at my work improved for a month as we quickly realised we were a Pokémon Gym and groups of sullen young adults would gather silently at bar tables, trying to battle other trainers at the gym and hoping to win Pokécoins. A guy I work with would heavily protest when he saw someone playing the game because he was currently gym champion and got surly at the prospect of newcomers taking his title. If I was late bringing someone a coffee, nervous they’d be grumpy with me, often they were so distracted by the game that they’d not even noticed the time. In a sense then, Pokémon Go transforms both time and space. Everything is flattened into a map, where flashing nodes indicating Pokémon are the symbols of desire, the objects of pursuit.

In a compelling, complex and challenging article on Facebook as a ‘desire-network’, Maria-Daniella Dick and Robbie McLaughlin argue that ‘Facebook effects a mutation in desire and thus in capitalism’, and in tandem with this, a ‘historical shift inn the relationship between psychoanalysis and capitalism’ (Dick and McLaughlin 2013). With Facebook, ‘desire remains impossible to satiate, but it is now without object’ (Dick and McLaughlin 2013). They suggest that Facebook is situated within the Lacanian Imaginary order (which constitutes the intrinsic narcissism through which the human subject constructs fantasy images of both herself and her object of desire). According to Lacan, desire (unlike need) is always unfulfilled; we are always moving towards a lack, the anxiety prompted by something lost (as in the child’s original sense of wholeness before discovering the fragmentation of her parts, the split between her body and world and mother, in the mirror). The Imaginary is that which we create to attempt to fill that fundamental gap, the fantasies of the ‘ideal ego’ which compensate for an originary loss. Facebook is basically the ultimate web of the Imaginary: all our time is spent scrawling through pictures and statuses and shared media which all in various ways represent fragments of the ideal selves we project online. Yet our browsing is ultimately without end, it is ceaselessly rhizomatic, decentralised; we end up on one place, a restaurant page or old friend’s profile, without really knowing how we got there. Our passage through the network is governed by algorithms which attempt to map our desires; algorithms which are self-sustained by users’ input data, the patterns of usage recorded with every click. While this may seem revolutionary, a democratic decentering of the system, Dick and McLaughlin are highly sceptical of Facebook’s subversive potential at the scale of the political.

While the likes of Facebook were integral in the organising of such glocalised (global/local) revolutionary events as the Arab Spring or the Occupy Movement, ultimately ‘[s]ocial networking completely embodies and facilitates these phenomena in which the masses are now able to organise efficiently but without being unified by a radical ideological alternative’ (Dick and McLaughlin 2013). The fragmentary pathways of Facebook map out the lines of insidious liberal democracy, and as engrained as they are in corporate culture (the corporation itself becoming the medium for mass communication) offer little opportunity for imagining visionary alternatives to liberal capitalism. Crucially, Facebook (with all its user-directed interfaces based on algorithms of taste and so on) perpetuates the myth of the liberal individual, who curates her profile, her tastes, conducts a life of many choices. As Dick and McLaughlin (2013) put it: ‘[t]he so-called 99% are already conditioned by a liberal democracy in which they have the self-identical sovereignty of an individualistic ideology that places the subject at the centre of the world’. To really offer a vision for an alternative future, we have to actually come up with a plan. Recognise that we are always-already networked individuals, whose subjectivities are hardly unique and instead constituted through structures of discourse and power, and use this in a positive way, to undermine the liberal justifications for free-market capitalism.

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Pokémon in Edinburgh. Image Source: Google

What does all this have to do with Pokémon Go? The thing is, Pokémon Go seems like innocent child’s play, but it’s bound up in the politics of space. It’s fundamentally structured by GPS software and urban space, and let’s face it, urban space is always ideological. Whether it’s homeless spikes, shiny new glass-fronted apartments built where Brutalist high-rises used to be, gated communities, the psychotic disarray of London’s property market, the genuine promotion of American Psycho-style yuppie-targeting ads or simply the denigration of social housing as ‘slum housing’, space and architecture is always somehow political. In a recent talk given at the University of Glasgow titled ‘Remembering the Future: The Politics of Space and Architecture’, Darran Anderson argued that the current failure of the Left is a failure to put forward a vision of the future that is compelling and actually positive; if we don’t act soon then someone else (i.e. Donald Trump and his cronies) will determine the future for us. One way Anderson proposes we can intervene in the social order is through architecture, by building sustainable forms of urban space, housing and energy production that take into account the fact that we are living in the Anthropocene. We need to accept the imminence of ecological disasters, which are indeed already happening. Oh how Trump hates those windfarms. We need to rethink our fantasy imagery of the city; it needs to become a network of playful imagination, of empowerment, rather than just passive defeat, or the kind of share-lite politics, browsing, blasé escapism and distraction offered by Facebook.

What is interesting about Pokémon Go is that it restores to some extent the object of desire, which Facebook, in its endless networks of people, places, photos and check-ins, displaces. ‘With Facebook’, Dick and McLaughlin (2013) argue, ‘people no longer live the present as present; it exists only insofar as it is exists to be recorded and later uploaded to Facebook’. This temporal displacement shifts with Pokemon Go, which insists on the present as present. Pokémon only appear for a limited amount of time so the imperative is to catch them in the game space of the now. The impulse of shopping or clubbing to buy buy buy or drink drink drink is gleefully interrupted by the appearance of Pokémon, who are quickly snapped up and snapped, shared online. The allure of ‘cool’ or the aura of dreamlike consumption attached to consumption-based social places is disrupted by the childlike logic of the game. And there’s nothing the companies can really do about it, since technically Pokémon isn’t intruding on reality, it’s only intruding on maps of reality. Now I’m thinking of that Jorge Luis Borges story, ‘On Exactitude in Science’ (1946), and getting very confused about reality itself. In the story, Borges imagines an empire where cartography has become so exact that its map of the empire must match in size and detail the empire itself—after which, what’s the difference between the map and the original? Do you need the map anymore, or can you use real space to map out real (map?) space?

There is almost something a tad Situationist about Pokémon Go. It offers no restrictions on movement, the way the Game Boy games do, according to a linear narrative. If you want that elusive Vulpix or Meowth, perhaps you will have to explore territories previously uncharted in your running app or Instagram places map. You might end up in the strange end of town. And what will you find when you get there? Traversing space this way leads to opportunities of surprise and discovery. The fact that so many people are posting photos of their Pokémon Go encounters online adds a new palimpsest of meaning to our understanding of place. The appearance of Pokémon disrupts the order of cities; it adds new points of desire to the map.  Sure, most gyms are in tourist hotspots, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to explore the more unseemly areas of town to catch ‘em all. In wandering out your comfort zone, you’re enacting a sort of De Certeauian ‘tactic’, resisting the signage and flows of capital which generally direct your movement in urban space (i.e. according to the circuit-like lure of the shops, the home or workplace). Ironically, you’re doing this at the inspiration of a global corporation (the folks who own the Pokémon Go app), but in this case, it doesn’t necessarily mean your actions and movements aren’t subversive. Nevertheless, the transgression of space according to augmented reality is unfortunately still bound by societal racism, highlighting the fact that we experience space differently according to who we are—despite its best intentions and possibilities, a game like Pokémon Go can hardly overthrow the prejudices of the Repressive State Apparatus…

Since Pokémon Go is based mostly on algorithms of mapped information, there is an element of chance which escapes the systems of data (could we call this glitch a Lacanian intrusion of the Real?). Pokémon crop up in controversial places. Since ghost Pokémon are attracted to graveyards and places of mourning (think: the original Lavender Town), they have been appearing in places like the Holocaust Memorial or Ground Zero. The incongruity of the playful critters in these places of silence and solemnity is startling and forces us to rethink our expectations of memorialising space. In a sense then, for better and worse, Pokémon Go has a reterritorialising impulse. Sure, you can report inappropriate places and instigate a process for removing them from the Pokémon Go map, but that initial appearance, based on some kind of algorithmic randomness, has already violated the implicit expectations of such places in terms of silent respect and mourning. There is in a sense an overflow of the gaming impulse, where the augmented reality becomes more distracting than reality itself (even when you are in such a compelling and startling location as the Holocaust Memorial…).

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Houses that crumble…Screen cap from Omer Fast’s 2015 adaptation of Remainder, starring Tom Sturridge. Source: Belfast Film Festival

Perhaps this is the danger then, of supplanting a fictional reality (the map) for the territory itself. I’m thinking of the protagonist in Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder (2005), whose response to trauma is to assemble a detailed map of a very specific retrieved memory, based in a house where there was a very specific synaesthetic symphony of liver-frying, cats on roofs, piano playing and motorbike clanging. Eventually this map is transferred to the ‘real’ as the protagonist recreates mimetically the details of this spatial memory. Yet pursuit of the real is addictive; the protagonist soon begins recreating more extreme and harrowing memories he’s encountered: traffic accidents, bank robberies. What intrudes, eventually, is the remainder: the real itself which spills out of the recreated event. As McKenzie Wark writes in the preface to McCarthy’s novel, ‘[t]he simulation is never perfect, always in excess of the thing itself. It always leaves a remainder. The most troubling remainder is himself [the protagonist]. He is a leftover God, a God as debris of creation’ (Wark 2015: xi).

In a way, Pokémon Go represents a God-like desire to reconfigure reality, to impose the Imaginary space of the simulated game upon the ‘game’ of ordinary existence. Is this a postmodern statement of irony, a pastiche of 1990s nostalgia in the age of the smartphone? Yes, and no. There’s something kind of modernist and sincere about it too, a sense of genuine interest in creating the Big Project, a utopian potential for gaming to bring people together. While Pokémon Go is partly about earning currency (Pokécoins) to buy more materials which help level up Pokémon or revive them during battle, its general impulse is towards exploration. Conquering, yes, to an extent; but mostly exploration. What happens when you’ve captured every Pidgey in your neighbourhood? You travel farther, maybe even beyond your hometown or city. Of course there comes a point where most of us get bored and stop playing, but there was a moment when the game genuinely seemed to interrupt reality in a way that felt genuinely liberating. The fact that so many people deemed it silly, a waste of time and completely illogical only highlights the ways in which the game resists the general instrumentalism of capitalism (i.e. every minute should be spent doing something useful, like finding ways of accumulating money and furthering one’s career). The time wasting aspect, the fact that so many people love its paean to repetition (you can walk the same route every day and still get different Pokémon appearing), is a queer sort of logic; it goes against capitalism’s futurity, the linear progression of temporality, in favour of a kind of maddening impulse of looping, overlapping desire. We accumulate the same Pokémon several times and this is part of the internal logic of the game, compelling us to traverse the various spaces again and again. It represents at once the immateriality of twenty-first capitalism (as based on flows of ‘invisible’ capital and immaterial goods, symbols of status) and the potential for subverting the logic of accumulation to one that is both bizarre and based on the ethics of play rather than success.

Sure, a great deal of the game might be about levelling up and being the best, but you can also play it with general disregard to those impulses. Collecting, in a sense, transforms the use-value of goods by placing them in a new circuit of information, taking them from the marketplace to the geeky world of the collector, whose interest in based on details and aesthetics, often more than financial worth. Just look at what happens when someone tries to make money off becoming a hire-out Pokémon Go trainer: they are threatened with being banned from the game, since it violates their code of ethics/terms of service. Play, rather than capital, is at the heart of the game’s map of trajectories. It brings people together – even adults – in a space of play. I’m not saying it’s changed the world by any means, and indeed it has its slightly absurd but very real dangers, as people blithely ignore the potential perils of the real landscape in pursuit of the desired (simulated) object, like Icarus flying too close to the sun…However, there’s something genuinely refreshing about how Pokémon Go forces us to reconfigure our sense of reality, space and the routing of our desires and movement. While world-views are shrinking and narrowing in post-Brexit times, Pokémon Go reminds us of the value of expanding our horizons and getting up to just go and wander, maybe aimlessly.

There will always be moral panics over deaths from selfie-taking, planking and cavorting in dangerous places, but will there be anything quite like Pokémon Go?

Bibliography
(other references are hyperlinked in the text)

Anderson, Darran, 2016. ‘Remembering the Future: The Politics of Space and Architecture’, Lilybank House Seminar Room, University of Glasgow, 15th November 2016.

De Certeau, Michel, 2011. The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press).

Dick, Maria-Daniella, and Robbie McLaughlin, 2013. ‘The Desire Network’, Theory Beyond the Codes, [Available at: http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=727] Accessed 21/11/16.

Wark, McKenzie, 2015. ‘Preface’, in Remainder by Tom McCarthy, (Richmond: Alma Books), pp. vii-xii.

On Brutalism

Photo by Subflux: https://www.flickr.com/photos/subflux
Photo by Subflux: https://www.flickr.com/photos/subflux

One of the first things you notice when you come to university in Glasgow is the building that passed you by on the open days: Boyd Orr. Orr…ore…or? With such connotations of alchemy, alternation and mechanical process – the extraction of mineral from rock – you’d be forgiven for thinking this building might have that rare quality of metallic extraction. The glint of some loveliness got from the mined core of the earth – or at least some relic of its crust. Boyd Orr himself, as Wikipedia tells me, was a Scottish teacher, doctor, biologist and politician, who also bagged himself the Nobel Peace Prize for work relating to wartime nutrition. Fitting, perhaps, that this man who dabbled in the arts of healthy eating would give his name to a building that some have found physically repulsive and ugly – if anything, unhealthy.

Still, nutrition involves mining particles of food for their usefulness. Finding all the vitamins as a geologist might take ore from a rock. There is something abject about all this: wrenching nature inside out, textually taking apart her insides with the bland incisiveness of a knife (the linguistic thrills of science course-books). The molten loveliness of erosion, rocks, temporal process – we can reduce them to names and building blocks.  And so we have Boyd Orr, that building of much usefulness and much disgust. The beast of a building that somehow you find yourself in, day after day, traipsing up the stairs for lectures, waiting for someone to give you their jewels of information. You came here thinking you’d be living the Harry Potter high-life in the extravagantly gothic main building, chased by ghosts and granted with turret views. Instead, you end up four floors up in a building that sends its gross sneer across the otherwise lovely architectural landscape of the West End.

Source: theglasgowstory.com
Source: theglasgowstory.com

Whatever you might say about Boyd Orr – with its dirty-white panels, greying windows and greyer walls, with the greenish mould that creeps up its underside like seaweed on a rock and the ugly stark jut of its body against the surrounding skyline – you must say that it is a fine example of Brutalist architecture. The heyday of Brutalism was the period between 1950 to the mid-1970s, a reaction to the modernism of the early twentieth-century. Most examples of Brutalism tend to be found in governmental or institutional buildings (university libraries, shopping malls, high-rise housing), whilst corporate buildings have always favoured a more glassy, futurist chic. The thing that strikes you first about a Brutalist building is its sheer expression of, well, concrete. It hits you with the blunt materiality of a prison or fortress, and you know, it does take a while to get used to going inside. Sometimes it seems impossible that such a monolithic block is carved out inside with such things as canteens and toilets and classrooms. Part of its statuesque aura relates to its positioning: right on the corner of University Avenue and Byres Road, where the surrounding buildings are much smaller or indeed older (and prettier for that matter). There’s no getting away from this eyesore, this monument to an industrial modernity that seems now to be receding in the mise-en-abyme of contemporary metallic panelling, plexi-glass and plastic coating.

Edinburgh's Scottish Parliament Building. Photo by UncleBucko. https://www.flickr.com/photos/unclebucko
Edinburgh’s Scottish Parliament Building. Photo by UncleBucko. https://www.flickr.com/photos/unclebucko
Glasgow School of Art. Photo by gillfoto https://www.flickr.com/photos/gillfoto/
Glasgow School of Art. Photo by gillfoto https://www.flickr.com/photos/gillfoto/

Like the rest of Glasgow’s culture, its architecture is a tale of two cities. There’s the legacy of our colonial history, with flourishes of opulence on every corner; but there’s also the leftovers of 1970s ‘slum’ housing, the crumbling tenements where once upon a time (and, unfortunately, perhaps still today) a whole family would share a bedroom and washing was done at the ‘steamie’. In one street you might have a bizarre Art Deco number next to some crumbling sandstone tenements, or a gleaming new-build sprung up alongside Victorian houses with massive (single-glazed and listed) bay windows. There’s the black-and-white nostalgia of the Gorbals and then there’s the grandiose Park Circus, sat atop Kelvingrove Park looking out with picturesque views over the city. There’s the famous Carpet Factory, the Rennie Mackintosh Art School, the various churches, mosques and synagogues with their unique homage to Roman and Eastern styles. There’s the uncomfortable fact that much of Glasgow’s beautiful marmoreal and sandstone glory is built on the slave trade. We also have the bug-like SECC resting next to the Clyde as if we were in Sydney, the Royal Concert Hall that crowns the top of Buchanan Street, the new Hydro that more than anything resembles a UFO. It’s definitely a city of eclectic architecture. While we might not have the equivalent architectural (and indeed financial) notoriety of Edinburgh’s Scottish Parliament building (which in my family alone has been called ‘horrible’, ‘interesting’, ‘a waste of money’, ‘too modern’ and ‘more of an art gallery than a parliament’), we were in 1999 designated the UK City of Architecture and Design, beating the likes of London, Liverpool and of course, Edinburgh. You only have to reflect on the response to last year’s Art School fire to recognise how seriously we take our physical landscape and architectural heritage (even if it is often covered with ad posters and graffiti).

Photo by Susan Casey https://www.flickr.com/photos/susancasey/
The Gorbals, 1968. Photo by Susan Casey https://www.flickr.com/photos/susancasey/

Anyway, back to Brutalism. The key word related to its style, aside from concrete, is perhaps ‘function’. Stripped to its core elements, Brutalist architecture involves repeated ‘modular elements’ which are grouped together to form the whole. This is the raw fragmentation of modernism, here transformed into something with instrumental purpose, something solid that seeks to counteract the airy dissolution of modernity. ‘All that is solid melts into air’, Marx said. With Brutalism, the response is to make things as solid as possible. How ironic that Marx predicted a revolutionary dissolution of oppressive social structures, whilst the ‘proletariat’ in question remain literally trapped inside buildings which encase them in a physical manifestation of the very (metaphoric) solidity which binds them socially – the hard class structure, the poverty cycle and so on. And perhaps also ironic that some of these buildings were erected at a time when industrial labour was entering its decline in Britain and elsewhere, especially in Glasgow towards the end of the 1970s, as Thatcher came to power and that mineral source of wealth and opportunity (going back to ore of course) – mining – was dissolved from the national economy.

There is also the uncanniness of paradox attached to the fact that when one observes a Brutalist building, it is often difficult to discern its function due to the sheer vastness of its functionality. This relates back to what Edmund Burke in 1757 defined as ‘the sublime’:

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature […] is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.

Burke was talking about the sublime as it was caused by scenes of nature: mountains, chasms, forests that seem to stretch on forever. However, as urban landscapes increasingly eat into our countryside, it seems fitting that we might consider the vastness of their proportions – or indeed, their ugliness – a kind of sublime in themselves. What else do we feel than a kind of passionate ‘horror’ as we find ourselves faced for the first time with buildings like London’s Trellick Tower and Barbican Centre or India’s Palace of Assembly? All those pattern-like repetition of squares resembling a Kantian ‘mathematical sublime’, whereby an overflow of signifiers stretching out into tedious infinity bears the threat of all meanings, distinctions and associations collapsing into one long metonymic chain leading to nothing but more signifiers. It’s enough to give you a headache, and quite ironic that Boyd Orr is next to the equally hideous though somewhat-smaller Mathematics Building.

Trellick Tower. Photo by Martin Hearn https://www.flickr.com/photos/martinhearn/
Trellick Tower. Photo by Martin Hearn https://www.flickr.com/photos/martinhearn/

Central to Burke’s idea of the sublime is the notion of the pleasure associated with terror: as we gaze at something which overwhelms us, we find ourselves staring into the abyss of meaninglessness, on the sheer precipice where representation itself collapses. St. Augustine suggested that the ugly was that which embodied formlessness in its lack of beauty. This aesthetics of excess or hideous terror appears curiously inappropriate for a style of building whose very purpose was built on form as function. We might think of Frankenstein’s monster, whose ugliness stems not only from the fact that he is composed of the flesh of dead cadavers, but also his sheer pointlessness – the fact that he is a ‘blot upon the Earth’, as Mary Shelley has him lament. Might we consider the likes of Boyd Orr a horrible, monstrous ‘blot’ upon our sacred streets? Or is this more than a question of mere aesthetics?

As Romantic poets readdressed the Neoclassical distaste for the gross pointlessness mountains (favouring, as Alexander Pope’s Windsor Forest perhaps best exemplifies, a view of nature as ordered and harmonious) by fetishising the psychologically disruptive experience of the sublime (in the way that Coleridge, de Quincey et al also favoured the psychologically disruptive experiences of opium), today’s generation are raising Brutalism to idolised status rather than rejecting it as a mere eyesore. Sure, you will have the many students who moan about Boyd Orr’s appearance on their campus, but you will have an equal number of enthusiasts on the likes of Tumblr posting Brutalist architecture onto their blogroll, alongside your Banksys and softcore erotica and fan-fiction all that other Tumblr jazz. Stark black and white photographs record an almost antiquarian fascination with the aesthetics of these buildings and their value as some relic of a solid past we can’t quite get back to in our shiny era of crazy postmodern architecture.

Photo by Tom Donald: https://www.flickr.com/photos/clearwood/
Photo by Tom Donald: https://www.flickr.com/photos/clearwood/

But is there an ethical problem underlying this fetishising of some Brutalist buildings? They are, after all, often the homes of many people living in relative poverty. Sometimes, these buildings are just down the road from areas of affluence and architectural extravagance. I don’t need to mention specific areas for you to think of places in Glasgow, because there are certainly many. It’s a problem related to the way that urban decay is appropriated as a kind of dark backdrop upon which a white, middle-class guy sorts his life out. There’s always been the ethnographer’s dilemma of how ethical it is making a living out of describing poor conditions without doing anything about it politically or practically. I suppose what I’m getting at though is that there’s something a bit more uncomfortable about using these buildings as ‘cool’ aestheticism, a mere viewing-spot on the blasé scroll of online photography. Still, I don’t think there are clear answers to this; and maybe it’s good to share images, because sharing raises awareness.  You just have to keep in mind the whole problem of ‘poverty porn’, and the notion that by glorifying certain buildings you are also glorifying a particular experience of poverty, however unintentional your actions.

Photo by  https://www.flickr.com/photos/22087304@N07/
The Red Road flats. Photo by <p&p> https://www.flickr.com/photos/22087304@N07/

Indeed, this perhaps is what made me so uncomfortable about last year’s plans to demolish the iconic Red Road tower blocks and transmit the demolition live as part of the Opening Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games. While it is of course good that the Games involved building new, much more accommodating and safer houses to replace these crumbling relics of Glasgow’s past, I don’t agree that it should’ve been broadcast to add a ‘bang’ to the Opening Ceremony. London gets magnificent fireworks for the Olympics, we get…glorified demolition? Destroying a symbol of poverty doesn’t destroy poverty itself, however easy it makes it look. Luckily, these controversial plans were scrapped in the end after much public opposition (which just shows again how much Glaswegians care about their physical environment and the social consciousness within it). Regeneration is underway with the Games’ legacy and of course it is a great thing, but there is no need to sanctimoniously erase history in front of the world to show that you’re doing it.

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This points to the whole issue of Brutalism’s somewhat brutal decline since the 1980s, especially in Britain. Vocalised distaste from public figures, the association with urban decay, problems with graffiti, cramped living conditions and its starkly cold, almost totalitarian appearance, all contributed to this decline. Another contribution to this decline perhaps came from British Literature’s concrete guru, J. G. Ballard, as his novel High Rise (1975) documents a dystopian, Lord of the Flies situation where the closed conditions of a high-rise building lead to a swift degeneration of the residents lives. The enclosed spatiality of place itself gives rise to a carnival of savagery and violence, where primitive desires are unleashed in this isolated environment. The opening line perhaps gives you a good indication of where Ballard is going with this novel: ‘Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.’ There is a strain of dark humour running through the text, as well as the shock value of its exposure of human nature placed in its urban limits. You get the sense that Ballard secretly revels in both the sheer surreal ugly inhumanity of it all, whilst critiquing the politics of urban planning that might one day lead to such a scenario.

Overall, I’m not sure where my position on Boyd Orr lies. There are days where I’m walking to uni along Highburgh Road and when Boyd Orr looms out of a cloudy winter sky my spirits sink like a puddle of snow slush. But there are times when you can’t help but notice the strange beauty of copper-coloured sunlight flashing upon its windows at dusk, as if a thousand eyes were staring out of those cold, impersonal walls. I think there’s value in preserving these buildings, not just because they possess a kind of chic urban sublime, but because they remind us of the ideals our society once held, even if they were misguided, flawed or impossible. I suppose I’d rather stare at the stark reality of an ugly monster, a decrepit Boyd Orr, than lose myself in the illusory surfaces of the glassy Wolfson Medical School, or the kitsch blue and green panels of the neo-Brutalist Fraser Building. I’d rather a chunk of dull glowing ore than a perfect rhinestone…

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The Fraser Building opposite Glasgow Uni Library