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 ‘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.
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).
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.
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.