About Richard J Williams

Professor of contemporary visual cultures and head of history of art at the University of Edinburgh, UK. Books on cities include 'The Anxious City' (Routledge, 2004), 'Brazil' (Reaktion 2009), 'Regenerating Culture and Society' (edited with Jonathan Harris, LUP 2010), and 'Sex and Buildings' (Reaktion, 2013). Writing a new book about Reyner Banham.

Peter Hall and Non-Plan

RICHARD J WILLIAMS

urlPeter Hall, who died last week aged 82 was a planner, but also one of the most lucid writers about cities in any language. I routinely give my humanities students his Cities of Tomorrow (1996), an encyclopaedic account of the twentieth century’s attempts to rethink cities from England’s industrial north, to Berlin, to Le Corbusier’s Paris, to 1960s Hong Kong, and countless places in between. Its key argument is that cities need to be thought of as dynamic regions, rather than collections of historic monuments. It was published too early to say much about China – but as an account of what has most preoccupied Western planners and architects, there is nothing better. Not only comprehensive, it’s a funny, humane book that shows planning, fundamentally, as a discipline of ideas.

Cities of Tomorrow also shows how impoverished our conversations about cities can be. In the humanities, academics (and students) tend…

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POSTCARD FROM GOOGLE

Impressions from a visit to Google HQ. There’s a larger project in the works, a book on the impact of the tech sector on urban form. More ijn due course.

RICHARD J WILLIAMS

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I recently spent a morning at Google headquarters (‘the Googleplex’) in Mountain View, Califonia, at the northern end of Silicon Valley. It was a Sunday, so eerily quiet. I had half a dozen leads from Edinburgh, itself a minor tech pole, and I’d written to all of them requesting a visit. As it turned out, so ineffable is the company, and its campus, I might as well have been requesting an audience with God. So I just went alone and unannounced.

The place was certainly a physical reality. As Wired journalist Andrew Blum points out in an entertaining new book, the internet is a material thing as much as an idea. Internet companies love you to believe in their insubstantiality, in their cloud-ness – but all that data has to be stored somewhere, and the work of managing it likewise.

It was an easy enough trip from SF…

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Niemeyer: the future is LUMPY

Short review of the evolving Caminho Niemeyer in Niteroi, Brazil. The key idea is the tension between the modernist form of the buildings, and the execution.

RICHARD J WILLIAMS

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I’m standing in the middle of the Caminho Nimeyer in Niteroí, just outside Rio de Janeiro. The Caminho is one of the architect’s last big projects, and remains unfinished. It’s a great concrete parade ground on the waterfront overlooking Rio, punctuated with (so far) three buildings that are unmistakably Niemeyer’s: a theatre with an undulating roof and angled walls; a small dome set at ground level, and a larger one with a serpentine ramp leading to an entrance above ground. All could have been built at any point since 1945. The theatre revisits the iconic chapel at Pampulha. The domes are Brasília. The ramps nod to the celebrated Museu de Arte Contemporânea a mile down the road. There are a couple of other less spectacular elements: a pretty gatehouse that could have been done by Richard Neutra in 30s Hollywood. And there’s a little information centre in black glass, a…

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Forbidden Pleasures

Edited extracts from a talk at UFSC, Brazil.

RICHARD J WILLIAMS

The following are extracts from a talk given at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina in Florianopolis, Brazil on 7 November 2013. 

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‘I mainly work on architecture and the experience of architecture. Increasingly I have been interested in the way the architecture of film and TV conditions the way we experience real buildings. So this talk is about the representation of architecture in two recent American TV series, Breaking Bad and Mad Men both of which have attracted huge interest from architects and designers in the English-speaking world, and in some ways, they represent some of the most imaginative architecture built in the last ten years or so – although they do not, as I say represent real buildings, but rather fantasies (…)

‘I was as surprised as anyone to find myself talking about TV. But as soon as I had discovered Mad Men (directed by Matthew Wiener, 2008 to…

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Trouble at t’Mall

RICHARD J WILLIAMS

IMG_0353Something’s up with cities, as recent articles in The Economist and the FT attest. In the rich world, for decades we’ve held the notion of cities as basket cases to be endured rather than enjoyed. Few really believed in regeneration, if pushed: tidying up old docks and factories was, most of us believed, a cosmetic exercise. Our future was inexorably suburban. That set of beliefs held true until about a decade ago, underlined by relentlessly gloomy demographics, nlot just for celebrated basket cases like Detroit (61% population loss), but otherwise wealthy and successful places like London (-25% from its peak). We read Joel Garreau on the exurbs and imagined, mostly with trepidation, a Californian future. Cities were what the  developing world did – they weren’t for us.

Well, all that seems to have changed. The last set of population statistics for the UK were remarkable for what they said about…

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Zurich’s ‘Sex Boxes’

Short position piece for the UK’s Building Design magazine. The project deserves some serious attention from a UCS reader or two – rich, political, ambiguous, aesthetically complex. What better topic for cultural studies?

RICHARD J WILLIAMS

Article first published in Building Design, August 2013. For more on BD, and how to subscribe, go to http://www.bdonline.co.uk 

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There was much chortling this week at the opening of Zurich’s scheme for rehabilitating street prostitution via so-called “sex boxes”. Reported by the global media, the scheme is a practical approach to a real problem: street prostitution in the Sihlquai neighbourhood, which had reached uncontrollable proportions, with attendant problems of waste. Residents were used to finding prostitutes and clients using their gardens as public toilets.

The trial solution is neat. On a bit of railway land, 2km west of the city centre, social services have built a terrace of wooden drive-in huts. The design is superbly restrained Swiss-minimalist-modernist. Think Peter Zumthor with condoms.

It’s all very decently landscaped, and at night is lit up with an appealing red/green colour scheme. The cabins are open at one end, so there…

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Richard J Williams podcast interview with Times Higher

Follow link for 40 min. interview with Times Higher (UK) on the new book Sex and Buildings.  Much discussion of US urbanism, modernism, and LA architecture, as well as the relationship between sexual ethics and architecture. More broadly, it discusses how to write history while acknowledging a personal perspective.

http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/comment/podcasts/the-books-podcast-richard-williams-interview/2006728.article

‘Architects always seem pretty uncomfortable with feelings…’ Interview with Richard J Williams

Interview first published in Building Design (UK) in August 2013. The subject is the book ‘Sex and Buildings’, published by Reaktion on 15 August in the US

RICHARD J WILLIAMS

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Interview text first published in Building Design, August 2013

BD: What made you want to write a book about sex?

There is a quite an intellectual history to it, I suppose. The first piece I ever published on architecture (1996, I think) was about photography, and I was aware then that architecture could have rather bloodless quality. I had a fat file of quotations by architects complaining about “people” in photographs. Architectural photography has changed quite a lot since them but there’s still a general problem around the body, unless it’s highly abstracted.

I did some more thinking about the problem in 2004 in the book The Anxious City, which argued that the kind of civilised urban life we being offered by Richard Rogers et al was oddly desiccated. It seemed to cut out all the stuff that makes us human. I spent a lot of time in Brazil around…

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‘The History Man’, Revisited

RICHARD J WILLIAMS

20130715-190718.jpgMalcolm Bradbury’s novel The History Man was published in 1975 and made into a highly-regarded TV series in 1981 starring Anthony Sher. It concentrates on two days in the life of Howard Kirk, a radical sociologist at the fictional English university of Watermouth. Kirk is in many ways monstrous. A serial philanderer, professional troublemaker, he is the chief protagonist in four seductions and a campus riot, and is strongly implicated in two attempted suicides, the first a close colleague, the second his wife.

I first read the book in ’81, after watching the TV adaptation. Aged 14, a  lot of the subtlety went over my head. I didn’t understand the psychosexual dynamics of Kirk’s relationship with his embittered wife, Barbara, nor the academic satire, having yet to experience the delights of a departmental meeting, the focus of the second half of the book.

I did respond to Kirk, though, especially…

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Aeon magazine – can architecture improve our sex lives?

RICHARD J WILLIAMS

Aeon magazine have just published this piece on Sex and Buildings:

http://www.aeonmagazine.com/living-together/can-architecture-improve-our-sex-lives/

It summarises the book’s argument, but adds a little at the end on an alternative future. It argues for a ‘commune-lite’, in essence, not far of what Le Corbusier imagined in Marseilles in 1948, or Ricardo Bofill in Barcelona in ’77. Bofill’s ‘Walden Seven’ is one of my favourite buildings, whatever Robert Hughes said about it. A visionary place that also seems to work for its residents. Now if some friendly developer would like to do the same here…

Incidentally, the piece has a few snippy remarks about Morningside, as does a forthcoming feature by Teddy Jamieson in the Herald. I should say I still live there, and despite its maddening character, have no plans to move. My complaints are those of  someone who know – for better or worse – he’s in it for good.

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