Last edited 26 Oct 2017

Will Self interview

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Will Self is one of the UK's most prolific and high-profile writers, having authored over 20 books of fiction and journalism. Novels such as 'The Book of Dave' and 'Umbrella' have been met with critical acclaim, with the latter being shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize.

Self has also been a long-standing public commentator on urbanism and the built environment, having released 'Sore Sites' in 2000, a collection of his column pieces written for 'Building Design' magazine, and 'Psychogeography' in 2007, a collection documenting his long urban walks exploring the psychology of place.

Self's latest novel 'Phone' draws to a conclusion his epic and highly ambitious modernist trilogy, and could well be his finest work to date.

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Designing Buildings Wiki met with Self for a wide-ranging discussion that included the impact of new technologies on the contemporary built environment, architecture and the imagination, Grenfell Tower, squatting, the plight of Generation Rent, privately-owned public spaces, and much more. Not to mention, the building he'd most like to see demolished...


Designing Buildings Wiki (DBW):

In your modernist 'trilogy' which concludes with 'Phone', technological developments of the day are examined alongside new forms of mental illness. How do you think smartphones are influencing or changing our perceptions of the built environment?

Will Self (WS):

It seems to me that CAD/CAM designing, and in-built algorithms that produce renders, are in exact parallel with the way GPS navigation systems give you masses of location and no orientation; everything is pinpoint accurate but de-contextualised.

My argument is that you can't judge the city by old aesthetic criteria or by outmoded philosophies - whether it's Ebenezer Howard, Le Corbusier, City Beautiful, or whatever - it's going to be inadequate for what becoming. Having seen what's become, what you first notice is that the signature buildings - the Rogers', the Gehry's - look like nothing, they're overwhelmed by the parametrics that surround them.

When these strange parametric bodkins started to pop up round here [Nine Elms, South London], I tried to reserve judgement, as everyone should with the built environment, rather than be tediously conservative about it. But with this density of new builds, it is actually starting to make the city look pretty awful.

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DBW:

You’ve written that one of your main preoccupations as a surrealist writer was the conundrum presented by the very notion of scale - how has this fuelled your imagination?

WS:

Buildings for me are much more aesthetically powerful and emotive than two-dimensional images. I can be moved by a building in a way I'm seldom moved by a painting.

The built environment always presents itself as scale-able in some way, because of the intrinsic human perceptions of proportionality, and so on. What all these 'giant desk-toys' do is provide a far more banal approach to the idea of scale, which is that it all looks the same whether large or small.

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As Claude Levi-Strauss said, 'alterations in scale always sacrifice the sensible in favour of the intelligible'. Whether it's a map or a model, what do these giant desk-toys actually do, what do they make more intelligible? Surely only the non-human, or distorted human, source of their origin.

It's the loss of the human scale in the built environment that is most telling. The growth of Manhattan in the 1920s/30s wasn't the same loss because the way in which the buildings were scaled was still assuming the human unit. There's something about these new renders that chucks the human scale right out.


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DBW:

How do you think growing up in the Hampstead Garden Suburb affected your perception of the city and built environment?

WS:

In all sorts of ways. My adult perspective is that, as garden suburbs go, it's about the best in the world, some of the design is fantastic. Of course, I didn't perceive it that way as a kid; the suburb - particularly when I reached my teens - was hellishly dinky and confined. But it did serve me with a very pure understanding of what Ebenezer Howard's original vision of the garden city was.

It left me simultaneously with an appreciation of Howard's idea in design terms, how green and walk-able a place could be, but also with a profound contempt because Howard's model was about self-sustaining, self-financing, self-capitalising, self-employing municipalities. He comes out with this late-19th century attempt to reconcile emergent socialism and capital interests, and of course he manifestly failed to do that.

Indeed, in social, economic and political terms, all the bowdlerised Howardian suburbs you see all over Britain, and which are still being built (a new Barratt suburb will be just as Howardian as Letchworth or the Hampstead Garden Suburb), are a conspicuous failure. So it left me with an acute ambivalence about suburban development in that way.


DBW:

Do you think the problem is that architects seem to have become stereotyped as an Ayn Rand/Rourke-like hero character fulfilling their grand and ambitious visions, rather than as having a more utilitarian purpose for social good?

WS:

It's inevitably bound up with the profession; the old adage is 'most artists think they're god, architects know they're god'.

I remember talking to Norman Foster in that weird Bond-lair room at the top of the Gherkin - with its Pantheon-style oculus of plain glass. At the time he was doing the dome on the Reichstag and the GLA building, and he told me he had a pilot's licence to fly himself from Berlin to London and vice versa if he needed to. That must have given him a really god-like perspective cruising from one grand project to another across Western Europe.

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Even if you say the architect should serve the community more, should be more grounded in the quotidian, there still remains something very god-like about the architect's role, so intimately connected to our being in the world, to Martin Heidegger's idea of what constitutes home - it just is a more powerful job in that sense than other jobs.


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DBW:

Critics might characterise the built environment of the 21st century as comprising buildings built with no intention of anybody actually using them, whether it's the 'invisibility' of Silicon Valley, vast data centres, or luxury high-rises with no one living in them.

Do you see this as something in lock-step with the socio-economic system of neoliberalism, or as something more profound and entrenched within society?

WS:

It's certainly connected with neoliberalism in the sense that place and space, the value of them in certain kinds of developed societies, exceeds the need to package them, unlike almost every other product.

If you think of architecture, under conditions of maximal neoliberalism, as simply the wrapping paper for space and place, then you don't really need to bother about the wrapping once things get to a certain value, there's no added value to the wrapping.

Again, it's to do with the privileging of location over orientation; the old saw-horse of whether a building is in a dialogue with its surroundings. In neoliberal conditions, where you have 'ultimate commodity fetishism', there's no need for any building to have a discussion with another building, it stands on its own value. And since its value exceeds its aesthetic or cultural load, it doesn't really matter what it looks like.

So I do think it's a function of extreme neoliberal conditions and I confidently expect it to blow up with the next crash to some extent.


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DBW:

In the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy you said that it was now impossible to view all these new high-rises amorally. Could you elaborate on that?

WS:

Architecture isn't like other art forms, it's necessarily a social art. There is something very strange about that particular idea of the cladding being chosen to cosmeticise old social housing buildings, and of it being a very bad option - it was not a good insulator as far as I understand, it was there more for modesty purposes.

Then you extrapolate from that to the other 'barcode facades' and the cladding on the luxury flats, and you think - what's that hiding? What it's hiding is a complete lack of dynamism or invention or originality in terms of the relationship between form and function. So we've already said, under conditions of maximal neoliberalism, form follows finance utterly - so that's what the cladding is hiding. And that's an ugly thing.

You can see there how de-aestheticised the environment is overall, it's no longer the result of any real meaningful aesthetic choice, and at that point it becomes clearly meaningful to talk about morally bad buildings.


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DBW:

Are you surprised by the lack of expressed anger or impetus being taken by Generation Rent on these issues?

WS:

Frankly I am, I think they should take the fight where it belongs - with the Baby Boomers. If I were young now, I would be explicitly political about youth, I don't see why not. Your parents' generation ruined the environment and your chances for some sort of stability in this kind of economic dispensation.

I don't think there's anything wrong with organising some kind of political campaign around the rights of younger people, why not?! Jeremy Corbyn and Labour are doing it a bit, but they daren't do it wholeheartedly.


DBW:

Why isn’t there some kind of mass squatting movement taking place, reclaiming all the empty space across London, especially when you consider the widespread squatting communities of the 70s/80s?

WS:

Thinking back to my own 20s squatting in London, I remember it was like this urban 'wiggle-room' that you could feel all the time. For a start, the city was depopulated, it had lost 1.5 million people between 1945 and 1965, so the city I grew up in felt quite empty.

To give one example, Old Street roundabout was surrounded by bomb-sites and abandoned warehouses! There was a sense of plenty of space, and the squats were part of that, these liminal spaces. But what can you do? The last loopholes in the law were closed about 2 years ago, and it's virtually impossible to squat anywhere now.

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DBW:

You’ve written in the past about privately-owned public spaces governed by rules that are largely kept secret. Can you see the tide turning at any point, or might we one day end up with all of London’s open-air spaces being privately owned?

WS:

London will defy it eventually, the forces that will bust this freeze-dried city are going to be very powerful and disruptive ones. It'll have to be because it's vise-like at the moment, the way these economic tendencies, the commoditisation of space and place, are filling up the city and shutting it down.

It's like surveillance, which we would seem to care less about than any other country in the world. By the same token, I fear that people's argument is 'well, I don't notice the difference so why would it bother me..?'

What I try and do with the psychogeography course I teach at Brunel University is to disrupt that sense in younger people, teach them to smell the difference between a private-public space and a real public space, and start to actualise their subjectivity much more. Only techniques like that can really start to remove people from the 'man-machine matrix'.

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DBW:

So is the derive [walk without aim] something you would prescribe to the masses as a remedy for their increasing sense of disconnection from their urban surroundings?

WS:

Absolutely. Give me anyone for an hour or two and I can 'derive them' into a different perspective, I'm quite confident about that. It's remarkably simple to shake up and break the hidden ideology of the man-machine matrix. I'm not overstating it, I've never failed!

It's about claiming and reclaiming some of the background and semi-conscious data that you use in proper orientation. If you let your mind work you can find your way around quite easily actually.


DBW:

Earlier in 2017, you did a BBC Radio4 programme marking the 70th anniversary of the Town and Country Planning Act. Do you have any confidence that the ambition and optimism that influenced those regulations could be revitalised today for a new transformation of the built environment?

WS:

Not under existing conditions of globalisation because it's a game of 'grandmother's footsteps' - when she turns round you don't want to be the one that's moving because you'll be out of the game. So who's going to move first?

The principle of betterment was undermined within 10 years of 1947. So even if the will was there to create it initially, the will to sustain the idea or adapt it simply wasn't. From the point of view of global capital, any move back towards betterment would be perceived as the derogation of the free market, and capital would suck out of the City like nobody's business.


DBW:

What is your favourite fictional rendering of the built environment?

WS:

I very much like Alasdair Gray's 'Lanark', it's a magnificent rendition of the imaginary urban realm that is co-extensive with the Glasgow that Gray knew. A more modern version of that is China Mieville's 'London's Overthrow', which is written as a kid's book.

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Another is Stanislav Lem's 'Memoirs found in a Bathtub', which is all set inside the Pentagon after it has, in response to a preemptive attack by the Soviet Union, sunk down a massive shaft and travelled on a vast underground railway to somewhere under the rest of the States where it's become a self-enclosed castle-like bureaucracy. That's a very weird bit of writing about the built environment.


DBW:

Is there an architect or urban planner you most admire?

WS:

Unsurprisingly, I'm a fan of high-modernist and Brutalist architecture. Almost as much as Owen Hatherley, but without the socialistic nostalgia that he has for it. I was at the Cite Radieuse for the first time a few weeks ago and the beauty of the building actually made me weep.

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DBW:

What is your favourite building?

WS:

Midhowe Burial Chamber on the island of Rousay in Orkney, where I've gone for many years to write.

On Rousay, which is called 'Little Egypt' by archaeologists because it has the highest density of Neolithic remains of anywhere in the world, Midhowe is the piece de resistance - it's perhaps 50 m long, the central chamber goes up to 4 m high, with a beautifully corbelled internal chamber.

You can really get the feel of what the structure would have been like 5,000 years ago when it was built by people who had an average lifespan of 19 years. It captures what you often feel in cities, which is that humans are much closer to the social insects than they dare allow. In a building like Midhowe you really see it because you can't imagine there was any plan sustained over the multiple generations that built the structure.

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DBW:

Is there a building you’d most like to see demolished?

WS:

I might destroy St. George's Wharf, since I have to look at it every day, it's unbelievably vile. But I might save that and instead demolish Terry Farrell's MI6 Headquarters. Just for the hell of it, because it'd be a double-blow to the secret state and the awful built environment!

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DBW:

Building you’d most like to visit that you haven’t managed to yet?

WS:

I'd like to see to St. Petersburg in general, I'd like to see Peter the Great's city. But there's millions of buildings that I'd love to see.


You can purchase Will Self's latest book 'Phone' here.

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