‘A Clockwork Jerusalem’: ‘New Jerusalems’ in Britain, from Blake to Brutalism

A Clockwork Jerusalem. Photo via Architectural Association.

Followers of Jerusalem-related news and trivia may remember that the British Pavilion at the 2014 Venice Biennale was called ‘A Clockwork Jerusalem’.

‘A Clockwork Jerusalem’ is now on display a little closer to home, for those of us in the UK. It will be at the Architectural Association Gallery in London until 6th June.

If London isn’t convenient, there is a video of the exhibition in Venice last year on Youtube. You can also view a lecture about the pavilion by one of its creators, Sam Jacobs, on the Architectural Association website.

The pavilion’s name refers to two well-known, and sharply contrasting, visions of Britain’s future: Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian classic A Clockwork Orange (1971), and William Blake’s poem, ‘Jerusalem’ (c. 1808).

Jerusalem has been invoked in depictions of imagined British and English futures before and since Blake wrote his famous work, so it is not immediately obvious that this is the version of ‘Britain/England as Jerusalem’ invoked in the title.

Our network member Lucy Underwood has discussed here the ambivalent meanings of the Jerusalem metaphor for English Catholics during the Reformation, while in a series of wide-ranging recent posts Laura Sangha examined the ways in which the idea of the ‘New Jerusalem’ has been repurposed by advocates of political change, from Reformation Protestants to the twentieth century.

Blake’s Preface to ‘Milton: a Poem’, where his poem ‘Jerusalem [And did those feet in ancient time] originally appeared. Wikimedia Commons.

Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, however, remains the touchstone for those invoking the city in imagining the future of England and Britain, and the Pavilion’s creators, Jacobs (FAT Architecture) and Wouter Vanstiphout (Crimson Architectural Historians), have specified it as their reference point. They include an image of Blake’s eye in the exhibition, looking down inscrutably on its central installation.

One of the ironies of the reception of Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ in England and Britain, which also makes it a productive starting point for an art exhibition, is that the poem’s politically confrontational message has often been lost in its transformation into a nationalist hymn and potential national anthem. As Sangha notes, this is further disguised by the rousing music to which the poem was set in 1916 by the composer Hubert Parry. The poem, Sangha points out, was intended by Blake as a ‘call to arms – not a celebration of what England is, but a vision of what it might be.’

There is perhaps no better evidence of this widespread tendency to read Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ as a glorification of the status quo than UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s backing of the hymn, in July 2012, as the national anthem for England’s sports teams.

This transparently populist remark, made in a speech to young Tory activists and presumably timed to coincide with the national fervour surrounding the London Olympics, which took place just weeks later, indicated Cameron’s interest in sport, underscoring his adherence to norms of masculinity, and countering critics who accuse the Eton and Oxford-educated politician of elitist detachment from ordinary life. At the same time, in its acknowledgement of a distinct ‘English’ identity outside of the Union, Cameron’s call was an appeal to the Conservative Party’s right, who have been typically sceptical of his ‘modernising’ impulses.

Crucially, by limiting his backing of Jerusalem as an anthem to sporting events only, Cameron carefully sidestepped the possibility of his call being interpreted as a criticism of Britain’s existing national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’, and, implicitly, of the Royal Family itself. This move is absolutely off-limits for English politicians, if not Welsh and Scottish ones, while the UK press and public continue to display a fanatical obsession with the Royals.

Prime Minister David Cameron, with daughter Florence, television presenter Jeremy Clarkson, Blur bassist-turned-cheese farmer Alex James, and unknown woman, pictured at James’ ‘Harvest’ Festival in 2011. Photo: The Standard.

Cameron’s enthusiasm for ‘Jerusalem’ is not surprising, given that echoes of the reading of Blake’s poem as a celebration of ‘traditional English (or British) values’ are clearly discernible in the wider nostalgic trends that have developed as a cultural counterpart to the mainstream rise of the Conservative movement in the UK over recent years. This is the topic for another blog post, but a number of thoughtful pieces have appeared online over the past few years on the links between the rehabilitation of the pastoral, ‘folk culture’, and the UK’s shift to the right.

‘A Clockwork Jerusalem’ seems to participate in another form of nostalgia, this time the currently trendy valorisation of the utopian projects of British postwar architects and town planners. The more interesting examples of this reevaluation can be found in Owen Hatherley’s writing, though the genre has spawned many lesser variants, and, of course, legions of Tumblrs (I am partial to the documentation of Sheffield, where I live, on she feld). Hatherley neatly summarises the appeal of these schemes today as a form of ‘nostalgia for the future’, a quote which also resonates with some of the uses to which imagined Jerusalems have been put (Jerusalem-born Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour’s adaptation of sci-fi tropes might be seen in the same vein).

Park Hill children at the official opening, June 16 1961. Image by Peter Tuffrey, via she feld.

The failure of a large proportion of the British postwar housing schemes is a familiar narrative. Planners and architects sought to improve working class lives by constructing vast modernist housing estates featuring light and airy rooms and indoor plumbing, which seemed to promise a dramatic improvement on the old and neglected slums then inhabited by the urban poor. Brutalist structures such as the Hulme Crescents in Manchester, Thamesmead in London (where A Clockwork Orange was filmed), and the Scottish New Town of Cumbernauld were built, and celebrated with wild optimism as a ‘New Jerusalem’. Large scale models of these buildings feature in the exhibition.

The use of Jerusalem rhetoric to describe housing plans reflected a wider hopeful framing of the welfare state at this time, seen for instance in Clement Attlee’s call, in his Labour Leader’s Speech of 1950, for members to ‘go forward and fight in the spirit of William Blake.’ Ken Loach’s documentary Spirit of ’45 (2013) drew on nostalgia for Labour’s ‘New Jerusalem’ period in an attempt to revive the party’s ailing fortunes, while now former Labour leader Ed Miliband invoked the same golden era in speeches last year. As the General Election result this month decisively showed, these didn’t work. Something about this inflection of the ‘New Jerusalem’ is clearly no longer compelling for the British public.

The promised ameliorations of the postwar housing projects ultimately failed to materialise. By the 1980s, with high rates of crime, poverty, and drug use, estates had become a stigmatised emblem of social decay (see Lynsey Hanley’s Estates (2007) for a sympathetic history of a story usually narrated with a large dose of classism). Architectural flaws had become apparent in structures that were often built quickly with poor materials (the collapse of Ronan Point in 1968 is a notorious example), while planners’ love for concrete was never quite shared by a more cautious British public. The recent rehabilitation of Brutalist architecture remains an elite phenomenon, and buildings of this period regularly top lists of ‘Britain’s ugliest buildings’. Our own newly spruced-up Central Hall at the University of York, affectionately known as the ‘spaceship’, still divides opinion.

Many estates were subsequently demolished, like the Crescents. Those which survived, such as Park Hill in Sheffield, were often subjected to the perhaps more ignominious end of ‘regeneration’. In Park Hill, council tenants have been socially cleansed, and their homes turned over to young professionals willing to pay a high price for their own stylish piece of history (maybe this is the ‘New Jerusalem’ Cameron has in mind when he promotes the sale of publicly-owned housing).

In ‘A Clockwork Jerusalem’, the story of the estates becomes part of a longer narrative of British modernism, with Blake as the anchor. This takes in, as the blurb notes, ‘traditions of the romantic, sublime and pastoral, as well as interests in technology and science fiction’.

These influences are brought together in the pavilion’s central installation, a seven-metre-wide earth mound, with bright pink stairs on two sides that allow visitors to climb on top. The mound is surrounded by a 360-degree printed panorama. This, as you may notice, features an image of Blake’s eye framed within a stylised cog, which lines up above the mound’s flat summit, in place of a sun.

The mound. Image by James Taylor-Foster.

Jacobs describes the mound as a reference to what he sees as a recurring feature of British architecture:

The mound that we’ve constructed here is a mound which is every mound: the mound of neolithic Britain, the giant earthworks of Silbury Hill, part of the landscape of Stonehenge and Avebury and so on, but it’s also the mound of Arnold Circus in the Boundary Estate (London) – one of the world’s first social housing projects where the ruins of one of the most notorious slums were piled up to create the park. This was the centre for a new idea for how you might be able to house people in London, which is also linked to the famous mound at the centre of Robin Hood Gardens, the project by Alison and Peter Smithson, which is scheduled for demolition sometime in the very near future. In fact, some of the earth in the mound we’ve constructed here, comes from Robin Hood Gardens.

The symmetry of the mound, its relation to the panorama’s images, and its housing at the centre of an equally symmetrical Neoclassical building, reminded me of the masonic temples and esoteric religious imagery that feature in Alan Moore’s From Hell. Moore, of course, is a Blake acolyte himself, and also deals in his work with the intertwining of the modern, mystical and political (Matt Green, who taught me at Nottingham, has examined these themes in his comparative work on the two writers).

Rather appropriately, Moore has been working on an English Jerusalem epic of his own, set in his native Northampton (a city with other unexpected Jerusalem connections, as Laura Slater highlights elsewhere on this blog). Moore’s novel Jerusalem, clocking in at over a million words in draft form and currently undergoing (presumably extensive) editing, is due for publication in spring 2016.

The ‘Clockwork Jerusalem’ pavilion presents a reminder of the many ways in which Jerusalem, and particularly the mission of recreating a New Jerusalem, has figured in narratives of British and English identity. Representations of Jerusalem are rewritten and repurposed to both serve and contest prevailing political arrangements, and are used by political and religious leaders, as well as architects, artists and visionaries. Versions of Jerusalem give us intellectual and ideological concepts to think with, but they also shape our physical environments, whether those are sixties tower blocks or Norman churches.

We might even say, to use an irresistible word, that the frequency with which iterations of Jerusalem reappear in our cultural life is about as regular as clockwork.

Hannah Boast

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Miniature Jerusalems

By Laura Slater

The ERC-funded SPECTRUM: Visual Translations of Jerusalem project documents and examines visual translations of Jerusalem across Europe, including such famous examples as the Temple Church in London or the Sacri Monti of Piedmont and Lombardy, but also a multitude of lesser known sites which have hitherto been studied only at a regional level. One well known English example of these monumental reproductions of Jerusalem is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Northampton, built in the early twelfth century by Simon de Senlis, the first Norman earl of Northampton and Huntingdon.

Round nave of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Northampton: Laura Slater

Round nave of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Northampton: Laura Slater

On a research trip to the town, however, I discovered that Northampton contains not one translation of Jerusalem, but two:

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Northampton Museum and Art Gallery: Laura Slater

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Northampton Museum and Art Gallery: Laura Slater

This model of the Holy Sepulchre is owned by the Hutton family and can be visited at Northampton Museum and Art Gallery. These miniature scale models record the appearance and architectural features of the Holy Sepulchre from the period of its 1555 restoration to the disastrous fire in 1808. They are now valuable sources for historians. The models were constructed in relation to the detailed plans and drawings of the Holy Sepulchre drawn up at the end of the sixteenth century by a Franciscan friar, Bernardino Amico. The practical execution of these models was not the responsibility of the Franciscans, but craftsmen in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The scale models were produced in relatively large numbers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: as souvenirs for pilgrims and grand tourists, and as elaborate diplomatic gifts for rulers.

Northampton Museum and Art Gallery: Laura Slater

Northampton Museum and Art Gallery: Laura Slater

Inlaid with ivory and mother of pearl, the Northampton model is made out of shittim or shittum wood – better known today as the acacia. The shittah tree, identified with either the acacia nilotica or more usually, the acacia tortilis, can be found across the Middle East, especially in Egypt and the Sinai peninsula. It is probably from here that our model’s materials were sourced. The use of shittim wood to make the Northampton Holy Sepulchre model was not simply a question of using cheap, locally available timber. Shittim is mentioned numerous times in the Bible. It is the material from which God commanded that the Ark of the Covenant and parts of the tabernacle, including altars and holy vessels, be made in Exodus 25-27. The connection back to the Old Testament, and the sense of continuity with a lost sacred object it might provide, helps us understand why these models were so treasured.

The models were designed like Lego bricks – they could be detached and rebuilt part by part, and each individual ‘brick’ was signed with letters or numbers. Every model came with a parchment scroll detailing what each letter or number signified. This might be a bell tower, a gate, a chapel, an altar, the site of a particular tomb, or a place where the Virgin Mary stood during the Passion. In this way, one could inspect every feature of the church, remembering and imagining Jerusalem exactly how one pleased and in as much detail as desired. Nor were such scale models restricted only to the Holy Sepulchre Church. There are also surviving models of the Grotto of the Nativity and the entire Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. In this view of the south transept facade of the church, still the main public entrance of the Holy Sepulchre, you can see the attention to detail in the model. Just as it still is today, the right hand side of the door has been blocked up. The building on the right, up the tiny staircase, is the medieval Chapel of the Franks, now the tenth station of the Via Dolorosa.

Northampton Museum and Art Gallery: Laura Slater

Northampton Museum and Art Gallery: Laura Slater

South transept facade of the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem. Source: Wikimedia Commons

South transept facade of the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem. Source: Wikimedia Commons

And on the other side of the miniature building is the Anastasis Rotunda, where the empty tomb chamber can be found.

Northampton Museum and Art Gallery: Laura Slater

Northampton Museum and Art Gallery: Laura Slater

England, Jerusalem and Catholicism

By Dr Lucy Underwood.

In July 1581, in Oxfordshire, a government agent infiltrated a Catholic Mass said illegally by a Jesuit priest, Edmund Campion. According to George Elyot, the Jesuit preached a long sermon:

the effect of his text being, as I remember, That Christe wept over Ierusalem &c., And so applied the same to this our Countrie of England, for that the Pope his authoritie and doctrine did not so floorishe heere as the saide Campion desired…(1)

This vignette – coming via the hostile observer who then arrested the preacher – offers a rare glimpse of Catholic preaching in Elizabethan England, a phenomenon about which we know little more than its existence. And it tells us that the Catholic missionary’s central metaphor involved Jerusalem. What roads does this point to for exploring how Jerusalem was imagined in the Reformation era? How Jerusalem – which has been appropriated as a symbol by so many competing groups – might be used to express the interlacing of religious and national identity, when both were conflicted and could be seen as mutually exclusive? Campion imagined Jerusalem as England, appropriating to his own country the identity of the biblical Holy City. But the implications of this casting are ambivalent. Campion’s text – the designated gospel reading for that day – was Luke 19:41-47:

And when he drew near, seeing the city, he wept over it, saying: [42] If thou also hadst known, and that in this thy day, the things that are to thy peace; but now they are hidden from thy eyes. [43] For the days shall come upon thee, and thy enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and straiten thee on every side, [44] And beat thee flat to the ground, and thy children who are in thee: and they shall not leave in thee a stone upon a stone: because thou hast not known the time of thy visitation. [45] And entering into the temple, he began to cast out them that sold therein, and them that bought. Saying to them: It is written: My house is the house of prayer. But you have made it a den of thieves. [47] And he was teaching daily in the temple. And the chief priests and the scribes and the rulers of the people sought to destroy him: [48] And they found not what to do to him: for all the people were very attentive to hear him.

England is imagined as ‘faithless Israel’, rejecting the Messiah. Early modern Christian appropriations of Israel/Jerusalem tend to carry as much (or more) warning, even threat, as they do aspiration or endorsement: integral to their view of Jerusalem and the Jewish people was that their city was destroyed by the Romans in consequence of their rejection of Christ, which echoed their frequent rejections of earlier prophets. Imagining Jerusalem network member Beatrice Groves is exploring early modern depictions of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, and how they could function as warning: you too may be destroyed if you don’t live up to your role as God’s people. The Catholic Campion’s use of Luke 19 demonstrates that Protestants had no monopoly on this kind of imagery.

We have no information on the content of Campion’s sermon, beyond the comparison of Jerusalem’s rejection of Christ with England’s rejection of ‘the pope his authority and doctrine’, i.e. Catholicism. But there are various possibilities: the pope himself, perhaps, is imagined as Christ’s representative, mourning England’s self-destructive apostasy. Or perhaps the missionary priests – Campion and his colleagues – are linked to Christ, creating an opportunity to compare the executions of missionaries in England with the death of Christ.

How much ‘warning’ might Campion have invoked? Threat was not far away. The papacy had condemned Queen Elizabeth’s Protestant regime as illegitimate; religious wars were being fought in the Netherlands; European Catholic powers were beginning seriously to consider attack on England. The idea that England’s failure to return to Catholicism might put her in danger of destruction was no mere literary flourish. Campion probably did not refer specifically to the political context at Lyford on 11 July 1581; Elyot would have told us if he had. But, then, he hardly needed to.

Yet, from a Catholic point of view, the predictions of Luke 19 had already been fulfilled: England’s Catholic shrines had been destroyed, and English Catholics had been reduced to subjection. Was Campion preaching a retrospective repentance? Protestant persecution should be understood as the result of Catholic England’s inadequate holiness.

Campion’s invocation of this particular Jerusalem text also invokes a rhetoric of patriotism, at the same time as it castigates England. If Christ weeping for Jerusalem represents Catholic missionaries, their imagination of England as a ‘faithless Jerusalem’ becomes a sort of tragic patriotism, an attitude found in other Catholic texts dealing with England’s apostasy.

Elyot doesn’t tell us how Campion expounded any or all of these themes. But this vignette opens up many possibilities, which may be pursued through other texts, of how Jerusalem could be imaginatively appropriated and deployed to express the ambivalent interplay between religious and national identity.

(1) George Ellyot, A very true report of the apprehension and taking of that Arche Papist Edmond Campion the Pope his right hand, with three other lewd Iesuite priests, and divers other Laie people, most seditious persons of like sort (London, 1581), sig.B3

Imagining Jerusalem – reflections on our first workshop

Our first meeting as a network took place last month in York. We were really pleased to see our early hopes of making cross-period and interdisciplinary connections realised in some fascinating and thought-provoking conversations during the two days of the workshop, and hugely grateful to all the members who were able to make it, especially those who travelled long distances to join us.

I’ve tried to condense some themes from the workshop in the following post, but if you were at the workshop, please do comment with any further recurrent topics that you noticed. If you weren’t, we’d love to hear the ideas that you think we could explore in future.

We began the first day with 5-minute presentations from members on their interest in Jerusalem – an exercise that worked surprisingly well, with everyone keeping to time and offering some thought-provoking questions and ideas! This quick-fire conversation uncovered some interesting points of connection between different periods, geographical contexts and disciplines, and highlighted exciting new areas of research.

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