The Lucas Aerospace Plan and community architecture / Jack Common and a Newcastle urban derive / Historicism and Aestheticism / Bedzed, the Stern Report and a Thames Barge. The con of Eco capitalism seen as the final saviour of markets and humanity.
The following contains comments on The Lucas Aerospace Plan published elsewhere on the Revolt Against Plenty web. (Lucas Aerospace is now, of course, BAE defence systems). It was put together some time in the mid to late 1970s. It was a collaborative effort by three people and the aim eventually was to dig a little deeper and in particular go behind the scenes and statist razz-mattaz fostered by the so-called left and seek out the views of shop floor workers in Lucas Aerospace as well as imposing, rightly or wrongly some of our own. Above all we wished to puncture vanguardist illusions that were continually diverting mass struggle and leading it along false paths to nowhere. These few pages, like so much else that was valuable, never saw the light of day and it was only by chance that we recently came across this survivor from the trash can, folded up and covered in dust, seeing the experiment had been raised in a conference we went to on workers' control in Latin America. However its discovery, saved from the gnawing criticism of the mice, was extraordinarily timely for this experiment of near on thirty years ago is once more in the news and not only in Latin America. But the historical background could not be more different.
For a number of reasons we were never wholly for the Lucas Aerospace alternative plan nor were we ever wholly against it. This set us apart from, on the one hand, the naive enthusiasm of people like Hilary Wainwright (the idiot is still at it only this time promoting Porto Alegre illusions re Gordon Brown's community control initiatives) who co-authored a book on Lucas Aerospace that required a lot of reading between the lines to make the effort worthwhile, and, on the other hand, unsubtle, ultra leftist, blanket dismissals: For there can be no doubting that the Alternative Plan left a legacy that continues to absorb. We believed then, and still do, that ours was one of the few balanced approaches to this significant event in labour history. (Joao Bernardo's in Portugal was another).
The revival of interest in the Alternative Plan is due to a number of reasons. However two in particular stand out. The first concerns the decision to renew in the UK Trident's nuclear capabilities, the second the growth in 'sustainable' technologies that are presently undergoing an unprecedented degree of expansion and one set to continue into the indefinite future.
Should the Labour government plump for renewing Trident then jobs will be saved. If not then redundancies will run into 1000s. If jobs are then to be saved the only alternative will be to follow the biblical injunction and hammer swords into plough shares - exactly the situation the workers at Lucas Aerospace were faced with back in the mid to late 1970s. It is hardly surprising therefore that memory of that distant event has been reawakened particularly in Scotland because it is the Faslane site on the Clyde that will be most affected by layoffs. However the dormant collective memory has also been aided by the fact that breakaways are occurring in the Labour party in Scotland and, given that a system of proportional representation exists in the Scottish parliament, these parties are experiencing a considerable degree of electoral success, as are Scottish greens. This altogether more fluid situation as compared with what exists south of the border at Westminster means that it is okay to mention the Lucas Aerospace plan in Scotland's less policed political circles. Indeed for the first time in British political history situationist theory is edging through the post modern doors of Scotland 's theme park parliament building and was even faintly recognisable in Gordon Brown's banal speeches before he became PM of Gt Britain plc. None of these amounts to much and the most one can say it is preferable to the stifling conformity south of the border.
On top of the decision to renew Trident has come the embarrassing revelations of a slush fund to grease the palms of the Saudi royal family in order to secure armament contracts worth billions and billions, the bribes themselves by the arms giant BAE allegedly amounting to £5 billion. We shall never know for the enquiry by the serious fraud office was halted by the attorney general Lord Goldsmith, the very same person who had legitimated the dodgy dossier and declared the war in Iraq to be legal. So much for an independent judiciary - if anyone needed reminding not least the Middle East states Blair is lecturing on the need for a constitutional separation of powers. There is much talk in the highbrow media of a 'stench of corruption' as if the cash for peerages row alone wasn't enough. But little will happen because in contrast to the 1970s there is no mass movement, no tiger to ride to force through limited change in the political realm. Where once feet could be heard marching in the streets there is now only the silence of defeat. The Lucas Aerospace alternative plan unfolded against a background of momentous struggle. Without that major ingredient the plan was unlikely ever to have got beyond the drawing board stage. The fact that prototypes were produced - though only prototypes - required a loosening of the financial purse strings inconceivable in today's climate. Who paid for these prototypes to be made - Lucas, the Banks, the Labour Government - who? For at this stage they were a cost of production not saleable commodities and fear, the dream of a better life as well as the cooptation of class struggle all had their parts to play in equal measure. The Lucas alternative plan has to be seen in this context, a context we largely took for granted when writing our appraisal, never suspecting for one moment within ten years it would be all but over bar the shouting.
When Labour came to power in 1997 it promised it would implement an ethical foreign policy which amongst other things meant control of the arms trade for Britain is second only to America in terms of armaments production. However during the ten years Labour has been in power there has been a massive off shoring of manufacturing capacity and jobs until today where arms manufacturing counts for 40% of the total manufacture the rest being made up by pharmaceuticals. In fact overall one could say reactionary war on all fronts and drug taking on all fours just about defines Britain these days.
With the ending of the Cold War there came inevitably a drop in armaments production and a limited conversion to peace time use as happened after the end of World War Two though on nothing like the same scale. Crucially however the decision to switch production had come from the top down over, the workers themselves having no say in the changeover as by now the masses were being definitively expunged from history at least in the west and with it the very idea of class struggle as the motor of history. Factory occupations became a thing of the past as increasingly did the more traditional factory equipped for large scale production - though at the same time factory size in China was becoming the modern equivalent of the Great Wall stretching factory construction to an immensity never seriously rivalled in the west. In fact the counterpart of these mega factories in the west are the mega warehouses and superstores of a retailing sector increasingly dependant on imports and developed to their furthest extent in America with Britain not too far behind, though available land is a far bigger obstacle to further growth than in America.
Alternative technology has reflected the downsizing of the UK's industrial base. In comparison to the production runs envisaged by the Lucas Alternative Plan it is essentially small scale and if demand was to significantly increase then, short of an energy price rise which would make relocation prohibitively expensive, production would be switched to cheap labour economies elsewhere. Either that or succeed in suppressing industrial wages to the level they are in China and India, a juicy prospect the accession of east European states to the EU now makes possible. Much of the alternative technology sector is directed at the UK's single biggest appreciating asset - the home - a fact that immediately sets it apart from the more broadly based social aims of the Alternative Plan which even so had evolved alongside a housing boom (though about to go bust) and unprecedented levels of home ownership. Already the DIY chain B&Q is planning to stock miniature wind turbines that can be fitted to the ridge beam of roofs or chimney stacks and which will just about take the chill off the water when the hot tap is turned on. At the higher end of the market there are solar panels and combined heat and power units and before long the familiar double glazing sales pitch will be replaced by a triple glazing one in a bid to sell the mirage of carbon neutral homes when there is not even the remotest possibility of that in the near future, even in terms of basic heating and lighting - never mind the now well known fact that increased energy efficiency inevitably leads, under consumer capitalism, to increased energy use. The home, as an appreciating asset, fuels the credit mechanism which fuels consumption leading to yet more carbon emissions because energy is still mainly fossil fuel based.
At the time the Alternative Plan was dreamt up no one thought to compare what was happening in Lucas Aerospace with the arrival of 'community housing' on the urban terrain like, for instance, the Byker Wall then nearing completion in Newcastle. This on paper was an attempt to reconstruct social housing from the ground up with future tenants having the deciding say in their design and construction. In retrospect there are now obvious parallels with what was happening in Lucas Aerospace that were far from evident at the time. Both had arisen out of separate but related struggles, the one located in the factory, the other originating in working class communities about to be levelled but obstinately resisting all efforts to 'decamp' them to high rise estates, a word then in favour amongst planners and evoking Nazi resettlement projects. In effect the latter struggle amounted to a rejection of post war planning and architecture and was a major factor in undermining, like never before, the professions of planner and architect but not enough to result in their abolition. Offspring of the steady rise from the mid 19th century onwards of state intervention into the free market and with no professional history prior to that event, no other profession remotely compares with that of the planner in this respect. From its origin in the 19th century the aim of planning has been to subordinate the market to that of use (like in 'land use planning') and this required above all an economically proactive state able to 'bend' the law of value. And if today planners are having to use words and expressions alien to the spirit of the town and country planning tradition it is because the planning process is increasingly been pushed to one side and the planner is having to reluctantly come to terms with, and choke on, the language of its free market political enemy. However in the 1960s and 1970s it was challenged by a far more suss and humanely grounded enemy; an independent tenants' movement that sought to translate planning's empty lexicon belonging to the fairy tale world of a an alternative political economy into a reality that transcended both the free market and its statist derivatives by insisting upon a genuine use value for the first time in the history of shelter under capitalism. Its vague longing was for housing by the people rather than for the people, the latter long since relegated to a council house statist conception. But then, just as it was about to break away from everything that had hitherto comprised social housing, the movement submitted to the social reformers of planning and architecture (like Ralph Erskine in Newcastle) and lost the initiative, even helping revitalize these now reviled professions. In fact the entire history of the community architecture movement culminating in Rod Hackney's (by now Prince Charles favourite architect) presidency of the ARIBA can be read as attempt to retrieve respect for the architect, beginning with the manipulation of grass roots movements that had done so much to fatally damage that respect and which the profession despite big names like Rogers, Foster, Ghery ' and even because of them ' has never been able to fully claw back. This division between base and 'superstructure' was also apparent in the Lucas Alternative Plan and we were not wrong to insist on the importance of this division in the piece we wrote in the late 1970s.
Today alternative technology and building are far closer together than they ever were in the late seventies and just supposing there was to be a re-run of the Alternative Plan, say in BAE in response to layoffs in the armaments firm, then we could expect to see a string of products directed toward energy saving in the home, shops, offices, public spaces and transport. Not that this is likely to happen but even if it did the social dimension that comes from widespread struggle would be absent. If it were there vital questions would be asked of these new inventions that would propel them beyond their immediate context. And the first question that would be asked is: 'OK, fair enough, but in the meantime we are confronted with this monster capitalism and without its abolition your energy saving inventions are no more than palliatives that are side-stepping the main issue'.
A necessary - and much needed digression - on Jack Common. A Geordie urban derive and the proposed Necastle commune of the late 1960s
One has only to compare the award winning BedZed 'zero energy development' at Wallington and visible from the carriage window as the train pulls into Hackbridge station on the London Victoria/ Sutton line with the likewise award winning Byker Wall in Newcastle for the difference to be obvious. Originally a Victorian working class area of densely built terraces Newcastle City Council in 1960 decided to redevelop the Byker area. Though much of the housing was in need of major repairs, most residents wanted to stay put in Byker, a resolve that grew stronger as the decade wore on. Come the late 1960s the residents knew for sure what lay in store for them and were more than ever determined not to swap their terraced slums for high rise anxiety, mod cons and atomised living. In 1968 the bard of Newcastle street life, Jack Common had died, his autobiographical book 'Kiddar's Luck' and 'The Freedom of the Streets' infusing these same mean terraced rows with joy and liberation, a message its residents were now really taking to heart. For sure, Common must have had a real impact on this rebellion though it's also one impossible to accurately calibrate, a factor which always makes individual contributions so tantalising and still so necessary. To crown it all major revolts at that time were massively impacting upon the urban terrain and the smell of burning hung in the air, which the Byker residents had also to be aware of.
We have often wondered if we also had influenced local reactions to redevelopment in some vague way. Fascinated as we were by the prospect of a radical seizure and transformation of the urban terrain, like happened in the Paris Commune of 1871, one of our band had produced a sticker proclaiming: 'Prepare now for the Newcastle Commune' which had been stuck on pubs and hoardings fringing the Byker area in Shieldfield and elsewhere around Newcastle. The main point however is that by now our increasingly articulate contempt for architects and planners knew no bounds, a view that had been growing since 1966 and with each passing year taking an ever more radical direction. Thoroughly disliking the slash and burn policies of contemporary official urban demolition, the delights of real destruction were a different matter and the necessary precondition for a new world with present day, or old, forms of construction arising from a changed, and constantly changing everyday life and, not the other way round as planners and architects have to believe. We only asked of these finks to commit professional suicide, which a visionary few did. It wasn't much to ask as we were doing the same as artists so we weren't being hypocritical in our demands. In a sense both us and the residents of Byker had arrived following different routes at similar conclusions but unfortunately at the time insufficiently appreciative and wary of each other to make a real difference, though if the subversive drift of the times had continued for certain some coming together would have happened. However the combined, though still separate impact certainly unsettled architects and though by no means enough, the Byker Wall was designed to halt any further radicalising dialogue in its tracks. So the residents of Byker were subtly discouraged from even daring to imagine anything more than the amelioration of the urban terrain.
In 1967/68 we had not read Common, or even heard of him, though there was a literary current in Tyneside that had, a current that we despised because it was literary (e.g. Sid Chaplin, Basil Bunting) and hence reactionary, as dense as a fog on the Tyne and unawares an apocalyptic vision of total change had been hatched right in their midst in Newcastle. When we did eventually get to read Common in the 1970s it came as a revelation. Though his background was sufficiently similar to ours - and also like that of many other sympathetic people we knew on Tyneside, including Colin Hutchinson who was chiefly responsible for producing Revolt against Plenty, the first of a number of reprints of Common's writings - he was able to begin to link up the region's hugely innovative railway, engineering traditions with a critique of art which, though not revolutionary to the same degree as ours, really only required tweaking. It is possible to edit some of his comments to make them sound more revolutionary than they in fact are.
In his collection of essays Freedom of the Streets (1938) he says 'Artistic revolutions are generally appeals from art to life'. In social revolutions the process is very similar' a point of view that still maintains a separation between art and life but open to being pushed that bit further. For basically that is all that it required, the working (and unemployed) stiff from Tyneside having a more radical artistic critique than any then current in Britain and one that evolved intuitively. Reflecting more coherent developments on the continent it left his sometime friend, George Orwell, standing. (Orwell denigrated surrealism as a bourgeois hoax and had no time for it.) Common, more open to the unconscious and perhaps less afraid of it and luckily shorn of that public school up-bringing that requires one always stays in control, objected to surrealism's individual appropriation of the unconscious as if it were a personal possession. As always his way of expressing it was inimical, for he also had a tendency to break-up on the reefs of the inexpressible, just like his mentor Shelley: 'The surrealists put their shirt on nightmare as a dark horse, but they take care to hang on to the cuff-links'. The clothing metaphor is very apt for what he was dimly anticipating here was the valorisation of the unconscious by capitalism and its consequent exhaustion as a fount of inspiration just in itself, a tendency that was not to achieve its utmost impact through advertising until well after World War Two. However, rather surprisingly Common did not make the link at all explicit and in fact his beloved Newcastle had by the 1960s, became the city outside of London most identified with absorbing art into advertising, with art taking the cue from advertising rather than the other way round. This capitulation to the commodity economy not only had the effect of devaluing art and the high minded nonsense that went with it but also had the unforeseen consequence of helping bring on a far wider ranging critique of the commodity economy that, come the beginning of 1967, was set to explode.
Not that Common was blind to the increase in advertising during the 1920s and 30s. In fact he speculated, long before the invention of lasers, on the possibility of using the moon as a screen on which to project adverts. He even had some thoughts on the eventual commercialisation of space. However though seemingly overlooking the conscription of the avant-garde into the selling of capitalism, had he not died in that watershed year 1968, our guess is that he would eventually have responded positively to such slogans as: 'Culture. Ugh, the one commodity that helps sells all the rest'.
We were also mightily impressed by his subversion of the audience/performance nexus when he argued that it was more instructive to stand behind the screen at the cinema and observe the audience than watch the film. There was more here than just the beginnings of a critique of audience passivity and its submission to cultural spectacle. We also much admired his account of an informal engineering brain-storming session he had witnessed as a young lad in his house, for it was not all that different from our own experiences. In his 'Right to get Drunk Strike' text he pays homage to the engineers he had personally known: 'You see they liked their work, they studied to know how to do it and long after they were out of their apprenticeship the most of them liked nothing better than to be given a ticklish job and find a way around it even when '..they lost money over it. Often I've sat as a lad listening to my uncles and his lads discussing points about their work'..they'd argue each illustrating his ideas with a stump of chalk and the front of the chimney piece for a blackboard. That's how British craftsmanship was taught in thousands of families. It's why bridges stay up and dams don't burst'..' We also knew this skill was primed for a break out, given half an opportunity, and that there was a mute Tatlin (the constructivist 'artist' at the time of the Russian revolution) lurking in many an engineer frustrated by the utilitarian conventions of the day. A number of examples spring to mind from our own childhood in the North East and West Yorks , so we are rather surprised Common did not follow up his superb vignette with something even more eye-popping.
The reason has to be unemployment, for many of the Tyneside engineers he revered would then be on the dole and fit only for the scrap heap, their skills no longer in demand: 'We don't value what we've got here; we'll let it all go from us, rotting on the dole. Perhaps only Soviet Russia knows how important such a tradition is, for there it did not exist'. Though never a fan of Russia and lacking a theory of state capitalism until at least the 1950s and maybe right up to his death, Common keenly appreciated how new Russia's engineering traditions were, a newness that was sufficiently unformed to make room for the avant-garde ' that and a 'revolution' of course. More's the shame then Common never knew anything about the Russian avant-garde because he would have been quick to see in it the visionary rays that occasionally flashed across the shop floors of the North East's engineering factories and whose scintilla of sparks burnt deeper than the already 'deeply satisfying something in the steady running of the belts, the endless hum and clang, the low colours'. (Who else besides Common would have noticed these 'low colours', for this is not an artist's eye, rather that of a painter and decorator who has learnt to value themselves differently and see their job in a new light).
In 1968, the year that Common died, a superb reconstruction of Tatlin's glider was completed by Raf Fulcher in the art school of Newcastle University and was in 1969 displayed as part of the: 'Poetry must be made by all and not by one' exhibition which also contained montages of the surrealist plans for the transformation of Paris unfortunately done by myself. The exhibition organised by Ron Hunt, was subsequently given credit in Jappe's book on Guy Debord. The glider is now on permanent display in the Moderna Musset in Stockholm, but by a kind of ironical rights it should be honoured as the talisman of the reinvented Newcastle we have all come to know and loathe today. It is only now clear it marked the beginning of the end for Newcastle's world-renowned traditional engineering sector - the shipbuilding, the steam locomotives and functional bridge building which Common took such a pride in. As a lad he described in 'Kiddar's Luck' how he would linger at the end of Tynemouth pier (as we did) 'in the hope a really big ship would come in'. If she was Tyne built we swelled with communal pride and wished we were on her, going to rule far seas by the might of riveted steel and true craftsmanship.' Note, by the way, he says 'rule far seas' and not lands, for Common was really describing a victorious encounter with the elements and not the oppressed peoples' of the empire, a perspective that is more than half way toward disengaging engineering from capitalist social relations.
After completing his reconstruction of Tatlin's glider, Raf Fulcher went on to work for the open-air industrial museum at Beamish that was then being set up. Just south of Gateshead and no distance from Wylam where George Stephenson had made his legendary twin colliery engines 'Puffing Billy'and 'Wylam Dilly', this was the spot where Tyneside's industrial heritage was now destined for, anticipating the moment, over 30 years later, when the region would be increasingly given over to cultural display of one sort or another. Raf's skill at getting Tyneside's rusting industrial legacy to work once more had been honed by the task of reconstructing Tatlin's glider, a task he carried off to perfection. However he would not tinker for long on this industrial dowry heap and was captured in no time at all by the university-neutering machine where he has continued to rot to this day. This avant-garde Fred Dibnah potentially has so much to say - and yet he will be unable to break his vow of silence, like so many other people on Tyneside who were once witnesses to radical events. His comments on the fledgling industrial museum at Beamish and which set the pattern for countless other similar museums around the country, could be invaluable and assist in the cobbling together of a theory of industrial archaeology as counter revolutionary fashion that sought to reduce working class history to an innocuous totality of decorative tin boxes, coronation mugs, jam jars and interesting bits of machinery. Real history is thus replaced by a neutral aesthetic historicism essential to the pacific marketing of history through tourism. That Beamish museum also chimes with the increased valorisation for tourist purposes of Tyneside's roman past is no coincidence.
And it must have ceaselessly crossed Raf's mind that the general ambience that gave rise to the banal, throw-back clap trap 'art engineering' of sculptor Anthony Gormley's 'Angel of the North' and the much vaunted 'Eye Bridge' that spans the Tyne from Newcastle to the Baltic Exchange (a former flour mill and now the main rival to London's Tate Modern) incontestably has its origins in his 1968 unsung reconstruction of Tatlin's glider. Just as Tatlin's glider approximates to the form of a bird so the 'Eye Bridge is actually based on a human eye and 'blinks'. However even though the bridge does 'work', unlike the flightless glider, it will never rival the Tatlin original or even, for that matter, Raf's replica. What Tatlin was part off in Russia and Raf was part of in Newcastle will always count for far more than the piffling 'Angel of the North' (would that it blow down and become the 'Fallen Angel of the North') or the 'Eye Bridge' because they are essentially the products of a commodified art /life inspired counter insurgency that achieved, against all the odds, its most concentrated expression in Newcastle and that arose out of a defeated revolution. Raf does not wish to be reminded of this.
Since reconstructing Tatlin's Glider, Raf Fulcher went on to construct one artistic abomination after another. Among them are: 'Garden Front' 1997 for Jesmond metro station for the Nexus public art group; The Swirle Pavillion 1998, for a Community Tyne and Wear development company; A post-modernist Folly for the Quayside; Grizedale Forest sculpture, a Cumbria site specific installation 2000 and so. All of them play on the Icteric theme of the elements but frozen in time via Yves Klein together with early Icteric inspired land art and obviously carefully avoiding any revolutionary conclusions.
The philosophy of history becomes historicism the irretrievably past and can only be remembered; the marketing of historical memories not as a prelude to the present that helps understand the present, for that is forbidden. The proper understanding of history is no longer an aid to combativity, rather it is reduced to a museum of no relevance to the present and yet it is all about the present, reducing past history to domestic possessions to supercede modes of transport and former work places. It only sees value in the past but is about the present; it is a reactionary world view faithful to external trappings. A past totality reduced to an aesthetic.
In Newcastle, contemporary aestheticism has been collaged together neutralising all that was best about its past history, old as well as so explosively new. The miners who were once the backbone of the Ashington School of Painters have recently been awarded a big, new museum complex and the public street toilet 'netty' that in Westhoe produced one of the most celebrated and amusing 1930s 'folk art' Newcastle paintings, has been preserved as a sculptural memory openly acknowledged also as a Geordie tribute to Marcel Duchamp who played such a part in the fiery subversive movement that erupted in the city during the late 1960s. And as far as the Ashington miners are concerned, especially for those who derailed The Flying Scotsman north of Newcastle in revenge for the defeat of the 1926 General Strike, why their memory becomes that of a Fluxus-coloured anestheticised event like a replica of a Wolf Vostell happening of the 1960s where two pre-arranged steam locomotives careering at full speed crash into each other. After all, something dead, frozen in time, lost in a photograph ever after can be displayed on the walls of an art gallery like that of the Baltic Exchange. These things are now openly acknowledged as part of the deadly official "Newcastle-Gateshead drive to be Europe's alternative capital of culture". Ugh.
The contemporary magazine Transgression put out by some rather more enlightened teaching staff from the geography dept of Newcastle University, none the less cannot situate the demise of the derive and other innovative urban vanguardisms within the context of Newcastle. We need only note the quayside's "Hadrian's cycleway" meander sponsored by respectable moneyed bodies to instantly realise everything of meaning and importance has been evacuated as participants cycle there way through streets designed to death past forlorn, packaged references like the Swirle Pavilion and the junk, obelisk-like sculpture relating to the six senses called "The Blacksmiths Needle" with its passing nod to Tatlin's 'Monument to the 3rd International". Everything of value truly gone, lost, trashed and stolen....
This selective detour through nearly two hundred years of Tyneside history has been necessary to set the scene and now we are once more back at community architecture, the Byker Wall - and a critical omission in Common's work that needs some explaining. He touches on many other subjects but never specifically architecture or even building for that matter, though his last moments were spent on a building site in Newport Pagnell, dying of a heart attack there. And yet his 'right riveting read', Kiddar's Luck, is mainly about the terraced streets of Heaton and Byker, these very same streets that Newcastle City Council wanted to knock down and, come the late 60s, the residents were saying no to. To Common these streets were more like arteries, the living tissue of a bricks and mortar second skin that was being propelled through space and time. However it was the people who lived there that made it appear so and no one has expressed this communal arena, this 'gutter flow', better than Common: 'These people live on the street. Why there's such a good communal stir and warmth out on the pavements that it would be a queer kiddy that would sooner sit in doors than mix in it - even if the indoors was a palace --- no wonder that the moment he can toddle by himself he makes for the street door like a duck to the pond. Who wants a mother in a crowd like this? A kiddy in the street comes to know these street corners as intimately as he knows the furniture in his own home. Each of them in turn has been his playground. ------- This street is his own place'. Common also adds: 'The average working class house is a small and inconvenient place' and it was this domestic claustrophobia more than anything else, more even than the attraction of 'mod cons', that drove the working class into the bleak high rises of the New Jerusalems from the mid 1950s onwards. The housing legislation of the last half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th Century has largely been taken up with the question of improved space standards and the reinforcing of the nuclear family. Such comments as 'who wants a mother in a crowd like this' would have been utterly repellent to the proponents of these space ideals that reeked of entombment. These improved space standards would always turn into an even greater confinement (and family disintegration of the worst sort) and it was this the residents of Byker in the late 1960s were most opposed to - that and the loss of the freedom of the streets that went with it.
There is another little noticed aspect to this whole affair and which potentially had explosive repercussions. The representative apparatus of the working class was beginning to crumble throughout the developed world and in its place a more direct democracy was evolving. When the residents of Byker became convinced they could make a better job of housing than the local authority they were not only challenging professional roles they were also undermining local democracy and an on-going deference by local councillors to the bureaucratic apparatus in City Hall.
We know that to be true more than most. To our eternal shame we had an elder brother who besides teaching in the architecture school of Newcastle University also had his own private architectural practise, doing, on occasions, jobs for the council. Never tempted to vote anything but Labour he had come to despise his background as only the upwardly mobile working class can. Any scheme that was submitted to the council also had to be approved by the elected local councillors whom he derided as 'the pigeon fanciers' because they could be gulled into agreeing to anything by a few slick words. A few of these local councillors were corrupt for this was the era of Mr Newcastle, Dan Smith, the city boss who would later go to jail for accepting bribes. However the question of corruption is neither here nor there, for it was not a matter of the usurpation of direct democracy, for that was still only a dream on the horizon of the fledgling tenant insurgents like the awakening residents of Byker who were beginning to slough off their local representatives and all they stood for, or rather bowed down to, and to give notice that the revocable mandate must also extend to the actual reconstruction of the urban terrain. By giving the formula a pioneering new content this was a unique addition to it and one capable of rescuing it from the tedium of repetition because it raised many new questions requiring new answers of the sort the ultra left only rarely regard as valid if not actually mad.The people of Byker thus stood alone disarmed of a theory of a practical unitary urbanism they were groping towards and which the best theorists, like Vaneigem had only briefly sketched.
At this juncture Erskine and his mob of community architects step in and essentially derail the process, stopping it from reaching anything like its maximum potential. Our elder brother was disturbed by the revolts of the late sixties even modifying somewhat his attitude to architecture and the formerly despised 'pigeon fanciers'. He was employed in some minor capacity on the Byker Wall and though continuing to be down on strikes, particularly in the Tyne shipyards, he began to use his past to his advantage slapping down the naive, not very clued-in though could be venomous young snipers of the professional left, including feminists, and, if threatened, asking them (for example) if they had ever lived in a house without water or had to go down a dirt road to a pump to get it ' because he had. Although true, that sort of raw experience of deprivation was enough to silence most people, including these Young Turks though, of course, not us. In fact this architectural 'workerism' had become indispensable to the professions reconstruction for it was 'the workers' as tenants come the late 60s who were the real power behind the rejection of 'the modern movement' in architecture and not just some fancy stylistic revolt. Though our elders brothers' faith in the modern movement of Corb, Mies, Gropius etc was hardly shaken at all it was certainly not the case with community architects who by now were awakening up to its latent authoritarianism and the fact it had been favoured by the varying degrees of state capitalisms'. The modern movement like the rise of town planning has to be seen in the context of the rise of state capitalism.
Though more total perspectives were instantly denigrated and vilified, there were occasional touches that simply would not take place today like Erskine using a funeral parlour as his on-site office where residents waiting to be re-housed could drop in, consult the plans, make suggestions etc. This in itself implied a criticism of the remoteness of the usual architectural practise just as it proved to be a necessary cleansing operation if the role and prestige of the architect were ever to recover from the much needed roughing up. Alan Milburn, the former Health Secretary, was still writing about the Byker Wall development in an article in the Sunday Times in December 2006 but now the funeral parlour has become 'a corner shop'. Typically this mildly irreverent deviation from the norm must now be passed over in silence as though it never happened.
What was good about all this activity in its heyday - and we are the only people who can put it together - stills awaits its renewed encounter and realisation in a now monstrously alienated world teetering on the edge of complete collapse.
''And so to BedZEEEEEEEEEEd and the Stern Report
In contrast there is not the remotest hint of role crises in the very recent BedZed development, neither on behalf of the developers, wholly at ease with their market orientation, or by the architects. The development was the brainchild of Bio Regional Development Group, the Peabody Trust and the then little known architect Bill Dunster who is now groaning under the weight of official citations, the heaviest of all (and which could well prove to be his undoing) being the ambiguous backing given to the BedZed development by the Labour government following the publication of the Treasury's Stern Report. When the UK Solar Award described the project 'as perhaps the most influential of all housing this century' did they mean the century to come? Whatever the time frame there will be few if any similar projects that come anywhere near the impact the development is having and will continue to have.
Constructed for an unknown market, BedZed was an eco spec development (as the brochure says: 'Bio Regional takes a market led approach') comprising 100 homes, community facilities and workplaces for a further 100 whereas the Byker Wall was a continuation of post Second World War 'social' housing policies but one now threatened from without and within, caught between the twin pincer movements of a disgruntled clientele (an insurgent proletariat groping beyond the pitfalls of private v state capitalism toward genuinely revolutionary social solutions) and a resurgent belief in free markets (Selsdon man) as the social democratic consensus was torn up, the Byker Wall and community architecture in general being its most advanced expression.
In fact the subsequent career of Erskine was to reflect this move away from state sponsorship toward a private market that mixed entrepreneurship with a growing awareness of ecological issues especially the pressing matter of sustainable construction. Erskine's Millennium Village set for completion by 2000 on the Greenwich Peninsula and forming part of Sir Richard Rogers master plan which included the now notorious Millennium Dome had already anticipated by three years the BedZed development. The much-hyped selling points of the Millennium Village include a combined heat and power unit. Trumpeted as 'the first UK private housing development to inaugurate CPH' it is said to reduce energy consumption by 80% which is only 10% less than Bed Zed. There is also a water cycling system, storing rainwater to flush toilets which reduces water consumption by 30%. Moreover, 30% to 40% of wood and aluminium was recycled and the cedar for louvers, sun shades and rain screens was obtained from sustainable harvested sources. Turned into a hollow parody of its former self, the design also echoed that of the Byker Wall, paralleling the trajectory of installation art that, in many instances, particularly in Newcastle , had previously been a confused prelude to social revolution but has now become mainstream, an avant-garde buttress to the status quo and its main line of defence, no less. In Erskine's latter-day, haunted, design there is not even the pretence of sociability pace the Byker Wall. But come BedZed and 'behavioural modification' is very much the order of the day, especially the pious emphasis upon car pools, an individual choice involving residents' life styles and external to how the development was constructed and functions from the point of view of sustainability.
Whereas thirty five years ago the burning issue for ruling elites was how best to deflect social movements, the aim now is to inject an element of lost sociability ' though no more than that ' into living no matter how spurious on reflection it turns out to be. For instance it is exceedingly doubtful if the car pool is now anything other than a token gesture given the isolation of the BedZed development next to a former huge sewerage farm (and now wild life haven) across which in the distance can be glimpsed Croyden's huge shopping emporium.
Immediately following the publication of the Stern Report, the BedZed development hit the headlines making it famous overnight. Though advertised as a zero energy development this was patently untrue right from the start, the project using 70% less energy than typical housing of a similar size. Like the Millennium Village, the BedZed development also has a CHP unit this time run off wood chips supplied by the local council, though 'The Times' and 'Daily Telegraph' immediately picked on the fact that it was not currently working. However the ultimate aim of zero energy housing is to break the vicious circle of improved energy efficiency leading to an actual increase in energy consumed. Logically this must lead to a fundamental critique of consumerism, gadgetry, the market and capitalism but since when has logic proved decisive when dealing with fundamental capitalist irrationality? The recommendations of the Stern Report though couched in the language of markets and commissioned by the Treasury under the auspices of the Labour government were certainly too much for it and it was immediately contradicted by the Barker Report also sponsored by the Treasury into how best legislate the time-consuming current planning process out of existence and replace it with State diktat.
A former chief economist at the World Bank and now chief economic advisor to the treasury Stern's report is steeped in market language. Assessment of the economic impact of climate change is described as 'the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen'. In response to market failure he wants more of the same and the outcome of carrying on with business as usual is 'catastrophic' comparing it to the combined effect of the two world wars and the 1930s economic crash. Stern seeks to put a price on the on the cause and effect of climate change on the biosphere though his attempts to quantify failure ' 'the economics of genocide'- exceeds any possible assessment in value terms, a classic case of the quantative turning in to the qualitative. What price can one put on such a catastrophic event as the melting of the icecaps or the desertification of rain forests? Yet the overall language remains that of the economist who still lacks a critique of political economy and looks to economic remedies to save the day. Also it involves a criticism, which taken a stage further implies a critique of convenience, and consumer capitalism, which then at all cost must be stopped from ever probing too deeply. What the Stern report wanted and will get are at best half measures which will merely draw out the catastrophe but still not substantial enough to prevent. With nothing to say on green issues never mind the prospect for a green economy, the latter was heavily weighted in favour of the present 'growth agenda' euphemism for capitalism, Stern resigned from the Treasury following the publication of the Barker Report, the announcement of a new runway for Heathrow airport and the Chancellor's failure to impose green incentives or properly tax airlines in the autumn budget.
Stern's excruciating eco-friedmanism arising phoenix like from 'the greatest and widest ranging market failure ever seen' is no more than a determination to finally make markets work, greenery being the magic ingredient that will change capitalism forever into an equitable, responsible, sustainable, stable system. This forlorn hope flies in the face of humanity's accumulated experience of capitalism and the problem henceforth will be how to stop a growing concern with green issues from turning into a full blown critique of capitalism. The only way 'we can have our cake and eat it' - and which is how The Guardian described the report's bland conclusions implying both growth and greenery are still possible (and which obviously the smiling Blair gave his full endorsement to) is in future to massively up green propaganda and the quotient of greenwash. This was vividly illustrated when Ruth Kelly now, note well, Treasury secretary for homes and communities, visited the recently opened up birders' RSPB reserve at Rainham marshes in the Thames Gateway whilst a few miles away an industrially derelict site, described as 'England's rain forest' because of the remarkable diversity of its insect life, was about to be half concreted over. Uncritically acclaimed in the press and on TV, this visit marked a new low in cynical manipulation though on the surface it appeared all progress and light and quite without precedent for any government minister, certainly a Treasury minister. Henceforth it would make more sense to drop all mention of the corrupted word sustainability and in its place initiate a debate on the present alignment of finance capital and nature, for the Labour government intent on the destruction of the latter in the name of its conservation has just added the two together, the final total amounting to 'your money and your life'.
The Rainham Marshes PSPB reserve is located on the north side of the Thames estuary amid the critically important industrially derelict wasteland of the Thames Gateway, a massive housing venture of 250,000 new homes. 20 years ago the marshes were stagnant back water that regularly ignited because of all the inflammable waste that was regularly dumped there. That the RSPB in the meantime has been able to successfully reclaim this devastated wetland habitat only goes to show that landscape design is best left to conservationists or anyone else that has a feel for nature but no feel for landscape architects whose main purpose in life is to destroy landscape and nature.
However on the Ruth Kelly grace and favour occasion the RSPB reserve was being used for political ends in a way no other conservation body has so far been used. That the RSPB submitted without a murmur may turn out to be a factor of immense significance for the future of nature and politics. It was only to be expected a media personality like Bill Oddy would be invited to the opening. A more appealing figure than the head masterly David Attenborough, his garrulous nature buffoonery has won him a far bigger audience than his previous traditional role as a comic in The Goodies. Millions of viewers regularly switch on, at peak viewing times, to watch the BBC's 'Springwatch' and now 'Autumnwatch', the program becoming a kind of nature soap opera with more than a dash of Reality TV - viz the tension, with more than a hint of thwarted sexuality, between Oddy the Oldie and the program's other presenter, the former model Kate Humble. However the media scrum was not there for him (or her), rather it was there because of the presence of the Treasury Minister Ruth Kelly, the media having been alerted beforehand by the Treasury's publicity machine, the DCLG (Dept of Communications and Local Government).
For some time now it has been recognised in political circles the Thames Gateway was lacking in a 'coherent vision' and 'identity' (see Financial Times November 22nd 2006). In this age of brand names, the lower reaches of the Thames had no identifiable image to work on (unlike Newcastle , Sheffield or even Norwich ) that could be recast to launch the area into 'post modernity.' In line with Prescott`s stress upon housing, it had become City of London overspill, rather like Docklands before the building of Canary Wharf, only much more featureless, a colossal low density sprawl of Legoland redbrick with few rail links and wholly dependent on the car and out of town shopping centres. Of course the project from the very start had been described as sustainable, the description becoming patently threadbare as early as 2003 when it was recognised it was failing on every count other than looking sustainable and jumbo-rustic. The scarcity of water resources in the increasingly drought stricken south east only added to the growing barrage of criticism, there being no water recycling of any sort anywhere in the Thames Gateway - not to mention other failings like poor thermal insulation and the fact the eyesore was car mad and microwave, fridge freezer crazy.
Something had to be done to improve the rhetoric of sustainability and in the process create an identity for the area. The architect Sir Terry Farrell (who incidentally had been trained in Newcastle and had shared a little in the melting pot Newcastle was becoming from the early to late 1960s) had argued that the Thames Gateway should be a new kind of national park with linked parkland and green spaces along the Thames estuary. Previously, in his oversized fish tank 'The Deep' in Hull , Farrell had used the showcasing of the marine environment as a selling strategy and image booster for this somewhat overlooked city on the mouth of the Humber and still traumatised by the run down of its traditional industries - the docks, fishing fleet and the waterfront trades linked to them. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) had also been working on an identity project as part of attempts to rebrand the Gateway, believing the TG identity should encompass themes such as reconnecting with nature and the estuary through greener more sustainable communities.
Though a hollow, dictatorial pretence, nevertheless Farrell's idea of a 'National Park' smacked too much of the National Trust and a zero growth conservationist spirit and so the Treasury has sought to distance itself from Farrell's and CABE's recommendations wanting instead the name: 'Thames Estuary Parklands', a looser term which lent itself to developments such as industrial parks and the anti nature, sham of greenery that invariably lines their boulevards. Hence Ruth Kelly's surprising appearance at the opening of the RSPB reserve on Rainham marshes. She had also emphasised when opening the eco visitors centre that TG would in future become an 'exemplar for low and zero carbon development' thus stamping the formerly amorphous sprawl of the TG with a new conservationist identity and sustainable mission, Rainham Marshes becoming the symbol of its incorporation and coat of arms which should bear the legend, if it was honest: 'We Betray'. When Ruth Kelly mentioned 'low and zero carbon development' she must have had the BedZed development in mind, the Treasury's embrace likely to prove fatal to the project's legacy for it will now result in a rash of shoddy imitations that are a hollow mockery of sustainability. And provided it is able to sustain the pretence (the only sustainability that matters to finance capital) all these inferior developments will receive the Treasury's seal of approval.
How can we pretend to be doing something whilst not doing anything? This is the government's dilemma and this is why Ruth Kelly's visit was so important. Henceforth it is the advertising of nature and conservation that must do the hidden persuading, the green wash/brain wash that is going to become so integral to political survival and the survival of the state. Treasury greenery has to be the most cunning, treacherous greenery of all. When he was Chancellor, Brown brought Stern into the Treasury poaching him from the World Bank. In late 2006 he painted himself green publishing a booklet: 'The Green Shift (or should that be shifty?) Environmental policies to match a changing public climate'. It was funded by Britain's biggest green house gas generator EON, the German firm which owns Powergen - and also by Scottish power who went to court to demand that the European Commission give them more licenses to emit an extra 20m tons of carbon. From the title it must be clear that the government fears the changing public climate more than climate change.
However it is equally obvious the Stern Report will provide a massive boost to the market in 'alternative' technologies, the hardware becoming mainstream affording the green entrepreneurs (Dunster, the BedZed architect, has patented a quack wind tunnel designed to increase updraft to roof mounted wind turbines) and consumers much smug self-satisfaction whilst evading the real question which social ecology poses but market ecology does not - that of the overthrow of capitalism. Visiting the BedZed development we became aware of the scope for green entrepreneurship - everything from the manufacturing of educational wall charts illustrating birds, such as The Guardian and The Independent produce as supplements, but now have become rolls of wallpaper, to lamp shades knowingly depicting Monarch butterflies, the designers obviously having dipped deeper than merely looking at colour plates of the butterfly. There were even bags of pellets composted from recycled materials to be used as fire wood displaying, amongst others, the Butterfly Conservation logo. Though not yet become a brand name the business potential is huge and who knows if bcuk might one day replace fcuk?
BedZed's heating system uses just 10% of the energy ordinary buildings of the same size would need and this is supplied by woodchips from trees provided by the council. When the chips are burnt they also generate some of BedZed's electricity. Cupboards in which hot water tanks sit are lined rather than the tank so people can use the cupboards to air clothes. The development takes some of the water from the roof and encourages people to use there cars as little as possible. Each flat has its own garden, densely packed like the inner city. Alternative technology is profoundly entrepreneurial in a way the Lucas Aerospace plan was not. In the latter, there was a considerable element that was against the market, replacing it with need though still preserving exchange. This was always the left social democratic contradiction. Dunster has patented a wind turbine a wind turbine mounted on an aerodynamic tower that he claims will raise wind speed between two and three times. It's a building for a nightmare future, a kind of ecofuturism, the greening of the Italian futurist architect Sant Elia, of concrete and high rise trees, concrete green jungles and so on.
And yet within the BedZed complex there was still a disarming friendliness about the place as if the staff that worked there were committed to its aims and needed all the help they could get. When asked if we had come by car we proudly said no and for the first time our reply was not greeted with shock horror as though not owning a car was a sure sign of social inferiority. Peering through the windows on the ground floor of Dunster's architectural practise we were surprised when the door opened and we were invited in to take a look around. Talking to the receptionist later we mentioned that we were sure we had seen a Marsh Harrier quartering the ground of the former sewerage works on the other side of the railway. Our guess turned out to be right for the receptionist would leave scraps of meat on the fence outside for the Harrier bringing the bird right into the heart of the BedZed development and near enough into Dunster's offices bringing on that happy time when vultures will tear every architectural practise to pieces. The Marsh Harrier is a rare bird and just in itself this observation was very memorable, perhaps even a contribution towards understanding the bird's ecology. But when combined with other things like discussing ventilation systems, wind turbines, combined heat and power units, car pools, four wheel drives, public transport, home ownership v rented accommodation etc some kind of totality is being posed although one that needs to be pushed much further as essentially this totality is ring fenced by capitalist paradigms.
Down with eco-business: A Thames ex-lighterman's barge and a hoped for eco-collectivity
We were much struck also by BedZed's grassed roofs and the fact that Canadian flea bane had taken root in some of them as they do on vacant lots everywhere. However these weeds were left untreated, as were the reclaimed floorboards, which were used as bed ends and thermal insulation, the screw heads though buried still visible. We were beguilingly reminded of a number of construction projects we have been engaged in over the last decade which we enjoyed doing but did not set much store by at the time, certainly not in terms of even remotely considering then as in any way prefiguring the future. An old barge we converted on the Thames just happened to be opposite one of Norman Foster's stepped high rises that was then going up on the opposite side of the Thames, some of the apartments sold before the foundations were laid and changing hands several times before being completed. We did not doubt then or now that what we did on the barge was way better than Foster's bit of steel and concrete slap across the river. Foster of course does not know this but he may still recall the day when one of our gang, en route to a builder's merchants, accidentally on purpose spilt a cup of coffee over him as he lay stretched out in a chair, taking his ease in one of Battersea's gentrified river front forecourts, saying: 'Oh look the arsehole who fucked over the waterfront'.
Some of the timber that we used on the barge had been taken from skips and were simply large pine tree trunks that had been squared off either by a machine or manually and would have held up house fronts in the days before steel joists started to be substituted for wood sometime during the 1880s. Had we not rescued these amazing bits of timber they would have ended up on a bonfire and by retrieving them we were acknowledging the chopping down of the world's great pine forests and honouring their memory. Each piece had its story to tell and in this increasingly standardised world we will never see the likes of these rough-hewn, one-offs again. But this was only part of the picture and though a vital part, the actual constructing was accompanied by a free wheeling looseness, which none the less worked and was integral to the design and execution.
An architect had drawn up a plan, which we immediately abandoned as impractical, and with no definite plan of our own, grew the design as it went along, not quite sure how it would work out. We took it in our stride though we were all at sea to begin with, not used to the sometimes extreme pitching and tossing caused by the wash from passing boats. And it took several days to find our sea legs and back on land as we tried to get to sleep at night the room would rock. We also rapidly learnt a spirit level for instance was of no damn use on a boat that was settling at an angle on a sand bank twice a day.
No single person could ever have pulled it off and looking back we all wonder how ever we had the balls to take the job on and, though competences were unevenly distributed, it would not be accurate to describe it as a division of labour. Things were just never that rigid. There was also an indispensable extra dimension to the whole thing and that was everyone engaged on the job had their eyes turned toward the future, knowing capitalism was simply unworkable. And though we concentrated on the job in hand and even took a pride in it, we were all conscious, to varying degrees, the job we were doing was fundamentally compromised by the fact it was not outside the social relationship engendered by capitalism. So inevitably we felt a distance from what we doing and therefore not an expression of what we really believed in or what we were capable of. The barge could only be an alienated product of our labour even though it outclassed everything currently being built on the Thames embankment - not least because we could not fully believe in what we were doing which could only be invested with real meaning in a post capitalist society. But in the meantime in the run up to that desired prospect what really matters is not just how a thing looks, the materials used and salvaged etc but the spirit in which it is done.
In future some of this vital ambience must eventually imbue projects that take the BedZed development as their starting point ' for there are bound to be many. Otherwise things will not urgently move in the subversive direction they have to. Yet clearly there was a gulf between the barge and the BedZed development - we being infinitely the more open-minded and clearer about the steps to be taken if the world is to be saved. The ethos behind BedZed development seeks to save the world without changing it, which means it is doomed from the kick off. On the other hand we were not innovating technically and the barge could have been more energy efficient with perhaps a double cavity layer of insulation wrap or a wind turbine with the necessary minimum of two metre blades mounted high up on a mast. The barge is fitted with an enormously expensive central heating system run off bottled gas and which replaced the briquette fired pithers system that successfully heated part of the lower deck but barely took the chill of the air elsewhere. In the winter the barge could be freezing cold and in summer just the opposite, the deck becoming almost too hot to touch but much cooler below where we had fitted a tongue and groove wooden ceiling with foil backed insulating wrap and a layer of red anti-oxidising paint in-between.
We certainly felt much closer to nature working on the barge than we had ever done on a building job before. It became important to know if the tide was coming in or going out and if we were going to spend all day being flung about. The souls of our feet registered the moment the barge lifted off and the moment it settled on the sand bank. The behaviour of the cormorants altered according to the ebb and flow and we would count the number of seconds they remained below the surface. The ferocity of the tides would vary according to the moon's position and on some evenings the ebb tide would roar and for the first time we all began to appreciate not only the immense gravitational influence of the moon but its capacity to influence psychological life which mariners must have been almost as open to as the inmates of asylums. During the night Canadian Geese would land on the tennis court sized roof and deck leaving their unmistakeable droppings behind for us to clean up in the morning. That is until the more aggressive Grey Lag Geese arrived and cleared them off, eating the young chicks. On our way to a builder's merchant one morning we counted 15 Herons on a moored barge similar to the one we were converting. We were also working on the boat on the day of the sun's eclipse. Sometime around midday the sky began to darken and a gaggle of Mallards that used to collect on the shingle beach beneath the stone pier began to roost, burying their beaks in their dorsal feathers. A crowd had assembled on the Thames embankment and broke out into applause at the height of the eclipse, some letting off fireworks. In 1928 the last time there had been a total eclipse people sank on their knees as the moon's shadow raced across the earth toward them. Now it had become spectacle, nature's ultimate stage show.
Working out in the open my ears became attuned to a particular birdcall, which I rapidly identified as that of the Grey Wagtail. Ever since I have instantly thrilled to the call, noting that in 2006 I was hearing it well into late autumn when normally they should be making their way to N. Africa. We built an improvised bird table for them on the prow of the boat. The bird table had been bought from the RSPB and we had laid a pine tree trunk athwart the stern and stuck a broom handle through it attaching the table on the end of it and lashing the broom handle to the trunk with steel wire hawsers. Though back to front, instead of a mermaid we had a nature bowsprit. And like virtually everything else on the barge we had only a vague idea as what to do next and as much surprised by the end result as anybody. In the society of alienation this is as close to un-alienated labour as it's possible to get.
We also had set to work on another boat moored on a wharf near Battersea Power Station. This is not the place to go into the trial and tribulations of that particular job. However since the emphasis here has been on the peculiar closeness we felt with nature when working on the river bank, mention must be made of one particular incident. Getting off the bus in the morning we had noticed webs of caterpillars, which soon spread to the sycamores overhanging the embankment, denuding them within days. These turned out to be the caterpillars of the notorious Brown Tail moth, once more or less confined to Spain, and whose hairs break when even lightly touched, causing the body to erupt in a rash. Though the trees were some distance away, nevertheless some caterpillars were finding their way into the hull and soon we were all scratching. We were never sure how they got there ' perhaps they spun a silken thread from their tails and were carried by the wind into the boat's interior. On reflection the most important point about the incident is the way we had been confronted with two sets of unusual problems, one to do with a freak occurrence of nature (which set us thinking about climate change and the fact this moth had few natural predators in this country) the other to do with how we were going to squeeze as much space as possible out of the hull's wrought iron interior which meant bending large sheets of marine ply. We were determined to avoid at all cost the land lubber, cut and run approach of studding the boats hull out with up-rights and making square shaped 'house' rooms out of the interior, which to say the least, was wasteful of space and simply evaded the challenge of creating the sort of unusual living spaces former industrial barges are tailor made for.
This way of working and its openness to nature indeed its wide openness in many other respects and typical of construction sites where there is no overarching repressive authority, though no subcontracting, has to be the way of working if there is to be any future. We scrounged timber from far and wide even rescuing a shaped armrest from the embers of a fire up north and transporting it back to London in the boot of a National Express coach. This eventually ended up as part of the bathroom skylight and the catch on the gate at the top of the gangway leading to the floating pontoon. However this task of salvaging choice bits of timber was not done with an eye to business. The same cannot be said of the recycled timber used in the BedZed development, which will have been purchased from any number of builders' merchants now advertising reclaimed timber. For the recycling of waste material is set to become big business driven not just by necessity but by an increasingly anguished middle class that is beginning to wake up to the devastating consequences of reckless consumption but remains as remote as ever from taking up a genuinely revolutionary critique of consumer capitalism as part of a critique of capitalism per se. The favoured option, ethical consumption, is not even a half way house because it is about choice within capitalism not opposition to capitalism though it constantly risks turning into that.
We think it important to point out that the carbon footprint of the eight or so people involved in converting the barge over a period of time would have to be amongst the lowest in the 'highly advanced' world. Not one of us owned a car and we all used public transport when not cycling into work. One travelled to India by plane but the preferred option when travelling two and fro to Europe was by the Eurostar express. We did use electrical tools but an eco plumber who would sit in on the endless discussions ' and which were such a joy even when opposite opinions were expressed - frowned on this if carried to excess. The argument that they saved time and that we would price ourselves out of a job if we did not use them did not greatly impress him either. He even thought it would be a good idea to get rid of washing machines and go back to hand washing using a bar of carbolic soap, a wash board and a poss-tub. We were all old enough to just about remember this and did not relish the idea. Yet on reflection only one of us had a washing machine and even he preferred to hand rather than machine-wash his shirts. The fact that the plumber had a wacko side to him only added to the thrills and spills of the site. He had written an article in the plumbers' gazette entitled 'Plumbers and Madness' and of course we all said 'well he should know' whilst at the same time conceding he was making a more general, very valid, point, plumbers tending to be the most child like and off the wall of all building operatives. (We were once bystanders to a bit of mad hatter daftness that lasted a good hour between a plumber in his 40s and his young mate not yet twenty making pea shooters out of 18mm copper pipe to pop each other with in celebration of the fact not one of their 100s of joints leaked). 'Our' plumber was so salvage crazy he refused to renew the copper pipes that ran into the pithers stove and which had seen better days. Overtime they must have become blocked and one Xmas eve we were all racing to make the barge habitable including the plumber who was determined to get the pithers stove up and running. All appeared to be going well the pithers stove shedding a lovely warm glow around the lower deck when the time came to go home. Later on that night one of us received a somewhat conspiratorial, hushed phone call from the plumber. Apparently the stove had blown up and we all had visions of the boat rocketing to the moon.
Things go wrong and they have done at the BedZed development. The CHP unit has broken down and the ball race on the ventilating cowls has seized up and no longer turns as it should. This has been solved at Dunsters's Penryn development in Cornwall by adopting the ball race from the Ford Mondeo which can run over a quarter of a million miles. For sure this re-invention was an impressive way of detourning the consumer muck of present day gadgetry but wish it had been done within an anti-capitalist framework.
This gives a new slant to the fabled Mondeo Man that troubled middle England voters whose troubles will only get worse. It is also the kind of innovation that Dunster is likely to patent. Though touched with an inventive genius our fabled plumber will have no such luck because try as he might he is unable to act in a business like manner and always excellently fucks it. What's more he is only a plumber and not an architect, a fundamental 'trade' differential that in a country like Britain counts for everything and soon causes accusations of class prejudice to fly. Thus he invented a water conservation for St James hospital in Leeds, invited to do so by a middle management representative from Yorkshire Water he met in the fox holes dug to oppose the Newbury by-pass. The managers of the hospital were impressed by the water conservation scheme but typically then doubted that a mere plumber could have possibly invented such a scheme. To add insult to injury, they then became sceptical of his abilities to install the scheme and simply appropriated the scheme, possibly altering a few details here and there, knowing the plumber would be unlikely to go to law. The project was then handed over to a major building company and the plumber compensated with an interview on Yorkshire television and a free meal at Harvey Nichols new shopping emporium in Leeds, both of which he refused point blank saying in any case he loathed Harvey Nichols and would never dream of going into the store. What angered him the most was the banality of a meal at the UK 's premier snob store as somehow providing sufficient compensation. The guy pushed to the brink of violence by constant humiliation just to say contained himself'.
Though he was up to doing the job himself he felt he needed others on board to stop him, we suspect, from going off at tangent and becoming lost in detail the more the mad boffin succeeded in gaining complete possession of him. So he asked if we would be interested. However we knew him from old and we were well aware that a touch of genius was accompanied by a streak of madness that was not easy to live or work with. (He was also a twin and what he had to say on the subject of twins must be appended to the already vast literature on twins - in particular how twins are irresistibly drawn to the idea of revolution and apt to be more feral than other kids from an early age, their parents unable to maintain much of a grip on them for any length of time). We learnt he had already approached the former shipbuilding firm of Cammel Lairds on the Mersey with precise specifications for a water tank that would have to be transported over the Pennines on a large trailer accompanied by an escort. We knew he would have been quite capable of stopping the convoy on the M62 because a plant on the motorway verge had caught his eye, oblivious to the fact he was causing a tailback that stretched to Manchester . And he was uniquely able to absolve himself of all responsibility forever repeating 'no es mia culpa' when things began to go badly wrong.
His way of working had to be commended for he was constantly stepping outside the job to do other things on the whim of the moment. When working on the barge he would go out of his way to recycle the tea bags, emptying their contents on to the acidic, nutrient poor, soil of the pot plants on the deck that was continually being degraded by the salt sea spray. On other jobs he would point to trees right in the centre of London he had planted years previously back in the 1970s and 80s. One evening about to knock off work he went all pensive and wished he was going on to attend a post revolutionary meeting that was going to decide how best to flood the Notting Hill flyover and create an aerial waterway where once there had been a motorway. This was a pre-eminently practical suggestion, but his imagination was not always so luminously materialist and intent on seizing hold of lifeless things to put them to a new use. Once when working on the barge we were all much entertained by his conviction that the increase of Kestrel Hawks on motorway bank sides had to be due to their gorging on the bloody flesh of crash victims!
These imaginative flights of fancy coming from a person ill-adjusted to capitalist norms must make the general ambience of BedZed developments and their ilk definitely prosaic in comparison. They will not have the stories to relate, or experience to draw on, we have, or the insights or even ultimately the inventive capacity for they lack a far flung social imagination. Nothing of the conformist odour of the architectural practise clung to our off-beam building gang. The pity is we can't tell the entire truth about it either because, as an endangered species of builder, it would only make matter worse in this stifling climate of conservatism which it is essential to combat if remedial action against climate change is to be at all effective. Though between ourselves we often say 'most builders would not take this trouble' we would, on most counts, be judged 'irresponsible' though that's the last thing we are. But people who know this, and can say why, are as much under threat as we are. At the end of the day - and it is the end if there isn't an unprecedented world uprising of the exploited not too far off - our approach has to be understood and broadened, not whittled down to nothing which unfortunately seems to be the likeliest outcome - until such times as a catastrophe forces a rethink and by which time it may well be too late and what we once practised turned into an ugly travesty.
Community build and the Lucas Aerospace Plan arose out of a workers' movement that was beginning to push at the boundaries and, here and there, crash right through them. And we were right to feel distanced from them because they were also attempts to reign in that movement and divert it into constructive channels which, if they did not anticipate tendencies within capitalism that would become central to it ten years later, were certainly designed to stop the flood tide of revolt from turning into a revolution. We recently chanced on a writing pad filled with obsessive note taking on Lucas Aerospace. In order to relive the obsession we mentally went back 30 years recalling how we searched and searched for any mention of capitalism amongst the many utterances of its chief protagonist, Mike Cooley, wearily copying out his many comments on the man/machine interface as though that was the fundamental problem. In fact Cooley's technicist preoccupations have much in common with those of Dunster, the architect of the BedZed development who has even less to say about capitalism than Cooley. However there is one essential difference: though Dunster is not riding a wave or even making waves he is causing ripples to flow in the stagnant pool of conformity that is Britain today. And he knows, deep down, that it is not a matter of an either/or, 'architecture or revolution' as the abysmal Le Corbusier claimed, (adding 'revolution can be avoided') but both, the real problem being and, which Dunster and others will increasingly have to cope with, how to initiate change and yet stop it from becoming full blown revolutionary critique.
Notes within a thesis form: Deal or No Deal
Today the aim of BedZed developments cannot just be confined to the constructing of zero energy spaces. To a degree it demands a change in life styles in particular in carbon intensive life styles and has therefore to stimulate and encourage the desire for change and not stifle it as did the community architecture movement and the Lucas Aerospace venture of 30 years ago. But as it stands that change in life styles is little more than easy living and New Years' resolutions.
To build differently we have to live differently. If social ecology is ever to become more than a mere word it requires that people come together and act. And that is just not happening. The preferred option is to roll over and die and on this ground-zero passivity it is possible to erect a 'sustainable' Tower of Babel that must forever circle around the truth but never land on the ground. Only direct action will rip off the eco masks of the despoilers and expose them for the sham they are and in that sense today's climate of passivity is very different from the conditions that led to the Lucas Aerospace plan and the need to derail mass action.
The call amongst the greens has been for leadership for true statesmanship showing they have no critique whatsoever of the wages system, exchange, commodity exploitation, value, surplus value, the state; absolutely essential omissions that are bound to doom all their endeavours to complete failure. A report called 'High Stakes' published by the Institute of Public Policy and Research saw through the hollowness yet its remedies are equally as hollow adding there is on obvious political mechanism or program in existence that is going to do the political and technical job which is true though what is false is to believe there ever could be. The Ecologist in its Dec 2006/Jan 2007 issue sank to the abysmal level of calling for a green Winston Churchill, which Al Gore in his eco-market film 'An Inconvenient Truth' also plays lip service to!
The growing debate about the benefits of public transport is also awakening inveterate car users to the realisation they are missing out on a level of communality that can lift spirits. Can any car journey ever match the chance encounters of public transport, the odd balls or the illuminating snippets of conservation overheard on a bus or on a local train service? It moved one letter writer to advise ex-PM Blair to try sailing to the states then 'buy an old Chevrolet and share the driving with Cherie just as many of us have done.' However it is the last sentence that's the real clincher: 'You might even find yourselves with something genuinely interesting to relate at the end of the trip.' What this means is that the lives of politicians and celebrities are boring because devoid of real incidents their status and wealth precluding genuine contact.
Blair also insisted that science was the key to tackling global warming. What he may have had in mind are such barmy ideas as space sunshades which Mr. Gaia, James Lovelock, also supports, the earth goddess becoming totally reliant on this modern day techno-atlas for her continuing health. This sunshade would be 60,000 miles in length (!) would take 25 years to get into orbit and would cost £50 billion a year for the whole of its 50 years lifespan. It must be the ultimate flight of fancy and if this is what Blair means by science coming to the rescue then faith in a providential god who will step in at the last moment is every bit as rational.
Moreover the Blair's refused to give up long haul holiday flights rejecting the need to set a personal example on greenhouse gases by taking breaks closer to home. In an interview with Sky News he claimed that what he had previously called 'the world's greatest environmental challenge' did not require unreasonable sacrifices. He also unhesitatingly assumes that long haul holiday flights are the maximum embodiment of the pleasure principle, and not the painful, home from home, banal bore they have become to an increasing number of people looking for more fulfilling alternatives to the standardised holiday package ' hence the growth of pseudo alternatives like eco-tourism, a have your cake and eat it substitute for a truly decommoditised eco perambulation. More than ever we are all now prisoners of a flattened universe with nowhere to go. Any attempt to increase taxes on aviation fuel would Blair says 'end up actually putting people off the green agenda by saying that you must not have a good time any more and can't consume.' This time though Epicureanism is no longer an option because the situation is so serious that having a good time re traditional notions of what good times are supposed to be, irretrievably joins with the last dance of death. But, more practically what will be the bitter harvest of disillusionment that is their inevitable accompaniment, once the nonsensical notion of a sustainable capitalism fails? The only beneficiaries from the mass paralysis following failure will be a stupidity the like of which we've never seen and for that reason will find favour in government circles around the world; i.e. those who have the most to profit from absolute stupidity.
Typically middle class lifestyles are also challenged from an unexpected and to them painful source. Like it or not the carbon foot print of the shameless of this world are less than theirs and from this earth enhancing perspective live far more responsible lives. This unchallengeable fact is unpalatable to the eco middle classes brought up on a thirty-year-old diet of feckless workers and demonic council tenants. To think - after all these years - 'the workers' and the work shy are becoming once more the salt of the earth, to be respected rather than despised, emulated more than rejected. Such are the ironies of history - or rather the essence of dialectics. Quality dailies and the tabloids are increasingly saying the same thing ''the richest fuel global warming ' but the poorest suffer most from it'. The Democratic Republic of the Congo for instance produces virtually no carbon emissions and this includes the ecologically reinvented though utterly immiserated city of Kinshasa, a city of 6 million and therefore more of a warning of the breakdown to come than a model for the future.
How far can one push green lifestyles without the whole gathering a momentum and becoming a critique of capitalism? Can change come to mean more than ecological exhortations like the Independent's 2007 change your life posters? Can it forever stay mired in pious promises and hypocritical cant? Or will people eventually take to the streets unable to endure the culture of lies a moment longer? Monbiot though welcoming the Stern Report particularly his conclusion that it will cost far more attempting to live with climate change than taking remedial action amounting to one percent of global GDP a year does not like the fact 'the Stern review reduces the discussion about climate change to one about money.' Most of the costs of climate change are not measured in pounds and dollars but in the cost to human life.' BBC Focus; January 2007. Ah yes - but to go from here to the demand to change life aren't we back at 1968? And then we have to take note all over again of the positive achievements of the much denigrated workers' movement and bring the two together for the first time and for the most consequential battle ever to be fought.
(Plus some additions from Flaky Dave)