Friday, July 27, 2012

Notes on Reading: How Not to Build a Town

This is the prolegomena: I've been busy -- very busy, in fact. I find myself at the University of Reading, now more than halfway through a intensive Latin summer school. My mind is filled to the brim with cases, conjugations and declensions. The programme is entirely commendable, though demanding:  four hours of classes a day, backed up by four (recommended) hours of preparation and study. The campus is tolerable. Its architecture is, like so many universities of its kind, execrable and barely acceptable for the purposes of human habitation, let alone intellectual activity. But it is much improved by the natural surroundings -- an adorable lake, cheerful trees and birdsong in the mornings -- and the incoming summer. (Sunlight, as I've so often found, is a powerful disinfectant, cleansing even the most poisonous of places.) Others will have more to say: my investment in this university is not substantial enough. But my three weeks in Reading have given me some time and boozy evenings to crystallise my thoughts on towns, cities and the ways in which they are made -- and unmade. I share them with you here.

But first, a declaration of prejudice and partisanship. My aesthetics are conservative. I wouldn't go as far as Roger Scruton,* but I would go along pretty far. The central contention I endorse is simply this: beauty is an essential part of what art is; give that up and we can speak of clever ideas, startling 'originality', smart 'messages' and weak jokes (as most of modern art seems to me to be), but let us not say that what's on offer is 'art'. That's the way it is: prejudice helps one get out of bed, out of the door and on with the rest of what life demands. I've kept this prejudice under fairly severe review for a while, and have found it useful and (perhaps more importantly) pleasurable to sustain. I don't think anyone will be able to persuade me otherwise for the rest of this life.

Enough. Hwæt!, as the Anglo-Saxons would have said.   


Step out of Reading station, and one is greeted by an unholy cavalcade of buses and taxis. That is one clue to Reading and its problems. We're told, even by members of the borough council, that Reading is a transitional place. In other words everyone who comes to Reading, and you'll forgive my language here, is actively trying to flee. Visitors do not walk anywhere, except to the shopping centre, and then they flee. So the roads are not designed for walking: they are vast, monstrous creations, alienating pedestrians from the city, tunnelling into the city and draining it of life. This lack of permanence saps at civic life, it guts Reading's centre and leaves a horrible hollow in the middle of it. Reading, in the eyes of those who make excuses for its this embarrassing emptiness, is not so much a town as a sort of machine (goodness knows what -- a coin-sorter perhaps?), sucking people in and then very quickly spewing them out again. The idea of a resident of Reading has become a strange and contradictory one.

Once we accept this central axiom of Reading's existence -- as the town planners and councillors seem to have done -- then the rest of it follows. Of course we don't need a true civic centre. Instead, what we have is a huge, faceless and functional shopping centre, named (one can only imagine sarcastically) the Oracle. The true citizen (empowered by the possession of  πολιτεία or civitas) should react with the fury of Jesus confronted with the merchants in the house of his Father, because the temple of the state has been contaminated with commercialism. Despite what they tell us, not everything is on sale. But because everything is, and once you accept this principle, why should you deny other shops and commercial ventures space in the centre? So Reading's centre has all manner of unholy and profane commerce, but there is nothing civic.

Other things confirm this observation: that Reading is hollow, because those in power believe it ought to be anything more than functional. Herein lies the paradox of so-called 'functional' buildings: they are in fact the least functional, because they're so often hideous. And because they're hideous, no one wishes to be in them or around them. This is easily confirmed by a quick walk around the centre: huge office-blocks, shops and other 'functional' things are completely empty, for reasons that I suspect cannot be entirely blamed on a weak economy. It is because these buildings are ugly; it is more precisely because these buildings, taken together, do not make any sense at all. They clash and offend, they aspire to reflect no unified or complementary aesthetic, they mean nothing to those who inhabit and leave around them. Hence they will face rejection, decay and eventually, the wrecking ball. Then another similarly stranded building will take its place, and the wasteful cycle of destruction and production will continue, incessantly coupled with crises -- as Marx so penetratingly predicted.**

All of this would be unfair on the town of Reading, its denizens and its leaders. But Reading should be judged harshly: it has squandered its promise. For yet another indication of a place gone wrong is its failure to harmonise the advantages and beauty granted by Nature into its built environment. Take a walk around the back of Reading station, across and around Reading bridge, where the Thames flows. It could be truly stunning -- there is much promise in the waters and wildlife. Like so many other places in Berkshire -- Henley comes to mind -- Reading could have made good use of the Thames and its other river, the Kennet (a tributary of the Thames). Instead, the Thames is condemned to the back of the station, whilst the Kennet struggles to show itself at all, submerged by those huge roads that no one would ever wish to walk on. The true civic centre of Reading ought to be this natural heritage, complemented by the medieval heritage -- the ruined Abbey, along with the Forbury gardens. Nowadays, one is not even allowed into the ruins, presumably because the authorities cannot imagine visitors being possibly interested in a few bits of ruined stone. (If pressed, they'll probably cite 'health and safety'.) The ruins and the last remnants of this Abbey struggle to assert themselves against the sleek, soulless office blocks and commercial buildings. I'm frankly surprised they haven't pulled it all down. Because why bother? The fight for Reading's soul has been well and truly lost, and its fate was sealed a long time ago. We can only hope the rest of England, and indeed the rest of the world, does not go along with it.***


*I recommend all of Scruton, but particularly his history of modern philosophy, his exposition of Kant and his book on wine. There is a very amusing appendix in the latter on what wines to have with which philosopher. 
** For the conservative, Marx is invaluable. For Marx provides powerful tools to understand our modern predicament. Take the Olympics. The key question I pose to my readers is this: where is surplus value being generated in the Olympics, by whom, who is it doing the extraction, and how? That is another post.
*** 'What of your own home, Singapore?' you might ask, and you're entitled and right to do so. On the surface, Singapore seems hopelessly lost to the forces of commercialism and bad architecture. But this is not true. Visit our neighbourhoods and you'll find that the centres of life are not the glitzy playgrounds of the wealthy nor the innumerable shopping centres. You'll find people congregating in the coffeeshops and the hawker centres. There is hope yet, and one doesn't want to end up sounding like a Daily Mail columnist.