Six Inches of Power _ Jeremy Till 2013

The third of May 1979 was a defining day for me, the moment when I finally threw off any attachment to my gilded public school and Oxbridge background. It was election night, when a fractured and fractious Labour Party succumbed to the inevitable Tory landslide. I was passing through my college common room, which was packed with young men (this was in the days of all-male colleges) baying at – and with – the television. Fuelled by cheap fizz, dressed in their jackets and Viyella shirts and slouched in battered leather chairs, they looked straight out of Conservative central casting. This was after all Peterhouse, Cambridge, the epicentre of Tory academic life, whose Fellows and Cleric were later to provide an intellectual and spiritual wash to Margaret Thatcher’s dirty politics. But nonetheless I was shocked by this sight of this pack of red-faced youths raising their voices in collective triumph, and so I placed myself in front of the television.“Which of you bastards voted for her?”, I shouted out. The roar that came back was clear in its unanimity. I fled the room to find better company, but can still see her, Thatcher, waving out of the television from some balcony, a seared vision of perfect triumph that was to fuel my anger over the coming dark years of her reign.

I am guessing that the balcony was on the front of Smith Square, then the headquarters of the Conservative Party. It was a setting we would become all too used to, with the repetition of wave, smile, hair, blue, absurd collars, Denis, that would torture us on what seemed like endless more election nights. And then the snatched pictures of her ascending a staircase inside to address the party faithful, again one guesses at Smith Square. A balcony and a staircase are all that remain from Smith Square in the collective memory; nothing to do with space, style, symbol and the other trappings of architecture, just small platforms on which to present the frippery of politics; the wave, smile, hair, blue, absurd collars, Denis. For anyone with a passing interest in the connection between politics and space, this apparent eradication of architecture in the presentation of politics at Smith Square may come as a surprise. Surely, at this nexus of political power, the headquarters of one of the two great UK political parties, one might expect architecture to be employed as part of the manifestation of power and symbolisation of political stances. However, as Lisa Barnard’s astonishing photographs show all too poignantly, Smith Square more or less erases the traditional qualities of architecture in the sense of function, stability and taste, or – to refer to the Vitruvian triad on which much of architecture is still based – commodity, firmness and delight. The photographs show an undignified assembly of thrown-together partitions, botched repairs and a complete lack of even the most basic aesthetic sensibility. They are like encountering a once dignified person who has descended to the gutter and comes back to confront one with their shabbiness, stains and smells. For a Tory basher, it would be all too easy to link such qualities with the shadier machinations of the party – “of course Smith Square is tawdry because it houses tawdry activities” – and find guilt by spatial association. But this is too direct a reading; look beyond the surface of the photographs and one finds an association between politics and space, but not in an immediately obvious manner.

The most obvious connection between politics and space is manifest in those buildings with the explicit purpose of political display and action: parliament buildings, town halls, council chambers. Take, for example, the typologies presented on the Ringstrasse in Vienna. A Greek revival temple for the Parliament building in a direct reference to Athens as the mother of democracy. A mock medieval pile for the Town Hall in a nod to the golden age of Flemish mercantile politics. Italian Renaissance, the apogee of artistic perfection, for the Opera. And of course, the Ringstrasse itself as the symbolic expression of the expansion of the Hapsburg empire. In all these, architecture is being used primarily for its representational effect – ‘this’ means ‘that’ – and only then for its spatial effect. This representational use of architecture in term of politics continues in the contemporary era, most vacuously in the oft-cited, and completely unsubstantiated, link between democracy and transparency, as if seeing politicians in action behind glass in some way makes them more accountable.

However, the symbolic duty of architecture to represent politics is knowingly eschewed by most contemporary political parties in their headquarters. One knows the names – Watergate, Walworth Road,  Millbank, Smith Square – but is hard pressed to put a picture to them.This is understandable: architecture is too permanent to represent the fleeting expediencies of contemporary politics, and therefore it should be no surprise that political parties disguise themselves in other spatial garb, most commonly that of anonymous corporate bureaucracy. So, in order to trace connections between politics and space in these photographs of Smith Square, we are going to have to look beyond the directly representational. Even the colour blue that washes across every image is so wretchedly applied that it undermines any value that one might attach to this traditional Tory virtue: true blue descends to B&Q blue.

Beyond the purely symbolic, politics is manifested in space in two particular manners. First in the way that space becomes the by-product of political ideology and action, and second in the way that social (and hence political) relations are constructed spatially. In terms of the former, Owen Hatherley’s recent book, The New Ruins of Britain, is a coruscating account of how New Labour’s combination of laissez-faire capitalism and paternalistic homilies of an Urban Renaissance led to a new urban landscape of privatised spaces, shoddy developments and banal imprimaturs of what constitutes good taste. In terms of the latter, the personal politics of space, one has simply to look alertly at every instance of how the built environment modifies human behaviour and see architecture not merely as a vehicle for good taste and efficient function, but as the setting for charged social relations.

Barnard’s photographs of Smith Square provide fertile ground for uncovering these two spatio-political traits, but only if one sees them as accumulations of time and action, rather than the capturing of an instant. Architects generally abuse photography, employing it for its most reductive action, that of capturing the instant. It is an action that is fully controlled, framing the image, expunging unwanted presences, choosing to flatter the object under scrutiny. All of these serve to lift the building out of time, emphasising the static and denying the dynamic. As architectural history is relayed through these frozen vignettes, it is inevitable that it becomes a history obsessed with the narrative of aesthetics and technique, because these are the attributes displayed in the static. It is a history, and associated value system, that concomitantly suppresses the temporal, because time brings with it threats to the presumed sanctity of architectural ideals, most obviously the disruption of occupation and change, which serve to upset the architect’s best-laid plans. However, the stilled lives of photographs are a very fragile defence to what time inevitably brings to space. Those stacks of architectural monographs and journals are no more than a parallel universe of false hope, a sanctuary of architectural retreat for when the outside world gets just too messy.

But what happens if, instead of wielding a camera as a machine to capture the instant, you consciously set out to use photography to gather
traces of the past? Of the canonical photographs, Man Ray’s dust-laden image of Duchamp’s Large Glass does this as explicitly as any, and so
what one reads in it is not the object per se, but its history and fate. The 67 photographs of Smith Square do much the same. As with most architectural photographs they are empty of people, but unlike most architectural photographs they are full of life, or rather they are redolent with the past lives of people, who have unwittingly left traces of their occupation for others now to inspect.

The best way to approach these photographs is not for their instant aesthetic gratification, but as an anthropologist attempting to reconstruct the rituals and lives of a not-so-distant tribe, and to do so acutely alert to the nuances of space and power; of the relation of the physical to the social. It is in this spirit that I approach the images. Not to assert any certainty of the correctness of my interpretation but to enjoy the speculation as to how, and why, these charged spaces might have been occupied.

Let’s start with the overall effect. The tawdriness, the lack of care, the pervasive sense of sadness. Now, it might be argued that all empty buildings give off this stench of loss, but the feeling is overwhelming here. The Tories themselves called it ‘Chateau Despair’ – an indication of the air of misery that the building imparted. One looks hard for any redeeming features, any joy, or places where one could possibly retreat to for comfort, but find nothing. Just bodge laid on bodge, in an accumulation of disregard.

Of course such a reading is the product of my sensitive urban aesthete eyes. I am exactly the stereotype that the massed hoards of suburbanite Tories have been led to despise.

Design – pah! Expensive nicety.

Taste – phooey! A liberal conspiracy perpetuated by the Guardian colour supplement.

No – we are the COMMON SENSE PARTY, and if we need to do a bit of fixing and decorating, it makes common sense to just do it; a few carpet tiles from B&Q, a slap of paint which Graham from Estates had left over. Just as long as it is BLUE. Because we like BLUE. And if it doesn’t match, that is your problem, you…you…ARCHITECT.

“But what about the bit where there is missing paint?”

“Well, Graham’s stash ran out there, but no one noticed because we had a desk and big picture of IDS to cover it up.”

It is tempting to fill all the photographs with false narratives like this, and the real strength of the work is that they allow one so to do. They are empty enough to allow the imagination to fill them with time, but provide just enough clues to give those narratives some semblance of reality.

The word ‘Washington’ appearing against a galaxy of lost capital cities, a wire above disappearing to who knows where. The Oval Office? GOP Headquarters?

What is that wardrobe doing in the back of an office? Is it for the endless costume changes required of media politicians? Or is it one of the Smith Square cupboards that Michael Ancram, then Chairman of the Tory party, said “one would open and two people plotting would fall out”?

And who left those shoes behind?

Beyond these fanciful speculations that the photographs induce, one can also begin to uncover some of the spatial politics at play within the building. Nothing is as political (in the feminist sense – the personal is the political) as the manifestation of power within the spaces of the workplace. My clearest awareness of this was when I arrived at the University of Sheffield as a freshly appointed professor.

“We have a rule here. Four bays for a professor. Three bays for a reader. Two bays for a lecturer. We moved out two lecturers and knocked their rooms together to make yours.” So that was two disgruntled colleagues from the start.

Too often I have been confronted with angry academics protesting that the loss of their sole occupied office would in some way desecrate their scholarly status, tracing back as it does to a monk in a solitary medieval cell. Such individual niceties are not accommodated in the contemporary open-plan office, where personal space (and hence solace) can only be claimed by the introduction of family photographs and attachments that marginally increase the protection of the desk partitions. Only the bosses are granted their own space as a signal of their positions, but typically even these are behind glass (transparent = democratic, geddit?).

Smith Square is transitional between the closed and open office, a pretty fair reflection of the party at the time, between the old Tories and the modernised version they needed to become. In the scars left by moved partitions and in the shadows of mementoes, one can sense that a volatile set of power plays have been enacted. In the Large blue space, an incomplete enclosure gives some, but not enough, privacy; maybe for the leader of a research team who were marooned in the corridor-like space of the rest of the room, interns for whom little regard is paid to their spatial sensibility. In Double doors a hastily erected partition cuts across carpet tiles, providing enclosure for two grandees; the rooms beyond do not look much but at least the faux-wood doors and full privacy provides required dignity and status, a notch above that of other offices with their painted doors and glass partitions.

Throughout the photographs there is evidence of the negotiation and renegotiation of space, and with it political power, as allegiances and priorities mutated. All this is done with an apparent disregard as to the way that things look or of any sense of pleasure. As an architect who believes that the way that we live is related to what we live in, these miserable environments speak to me of miserable people; Chateau Despair indeed. They are not designed but simply delivered as sheer expediency, with no imagination. This chimes with the most devastating of all the put-downs of Margaret Thatcher, that of the former Labour Party leader, Michael Foot: “she has no imagination, and that means no compassion.” It is a world where the meticulous allocation of car-parking spaces assumes more importance than the quality of the places people spend time in.

Most poignant of all are the spaces where one knows that the defining 69 moments of power took place. The Lobby stairs, up which she came to
address the adoring faithful, is about the only place in the building where one can see the hand of a designer – well, at least an off-the-shelf designer – with the desultory application of a wavy painted cornice – blue, of course – and an unclassifiable iron balustrade that makes an effort but somehow gets it all wrong. No designer is apparent in Thatchers Wave Room. The photograph here shows that in fact my memory was wrong to place Thatcher on a balcony. It was just a neo-Georgian sash window inelegantly butting up to a false ceiling, and one can but wonder if she got a blue dress grubby pushing up against one of those radiators that always collect dust. What would the effect have been if we had seen the wave from this viewpoint, Thatcher’s back set against a wan net curtain held down by anti-bomb-blast weights? That moment of triumph would have been diminished by the everdayness of the setting, the sense of power challenged.

Finally, we find the broadcast Studio with its direct feeds to the various TV companies. Presumably it was from this shabby room, with its stretched hessian walls and stained carpet, that the daily press briefings went out during election campaigns. The only feature that designates the centrality of this congested place to the propagation of the political message is a small platform in the corner. So that the politician does not just step on the platform and turn round in an ungainly way, a small chunk is cut out of the corner; this choreographs in a very modest way a movement of step up, turn, step left, turn, step forward, so as to announce the arrival. At only six inches high, the platform is not really high enough to be useful in elevating the chosen spokeperson over the assembled journalists, but those six inches are essential as a residual signal of power.

And now, all this has been stripped out, to make way for new offices for the European Commission, the “Occupying Power” as the Europhobe Tory MEP Roger Helmer calls it. It is tempting to enact a similar examination on these new spaces, but I suspect it would descend into banalities about corporate bureaucracy (and I suspect that these could also be applied to the new Conservative Party headquarters in Millbank). But it is worth noting that in the conference room, where media presentations are made, there is no platform, not 6 inches, not even 15cm, because all vestiges of power must be removed from this new ‘collective’ political landscape.