Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Rebuilding streets in the sky

The planning application from developers Urban Splash is finally in for the redevelopment of Sheffield's (in)famous Park Hill estate, that highly visible and much loved/loathed monster of modernist architecture.

For the application, go here and search for ref 06/00848/OUT. For Urban Splash's eye-opening brochure, download this.

The listed complex is undoubtedly one of the most striking/terrifying examples of post-war high-rise idealism sunk into urban decay. Can it be rescued for the 21st century? In the short to medium term, if it gets enough money thrown at it, probably. It was a proud and sought-after place to live when it was first built, as were many high-rises - and as are many of the new generation of high-density 'urban living' type developments.

As the promotional bumf puts it:
Can it work second time around? Of course it can.
In many ways Park Hill is so modern. The flat plans are great, more generous than many developer’s modern boxes – they were built to Parker Morris standards so there is enough room to swing a cat and somewhere to park your Dyson.
The streets in the sky are great because not only do you get to know your neighbours but you might get to know your whole ‘street’ and we want to make great streets again.

(Interesting, by the way, that a Dyson has become a ubiquitous signifier for an aspirational lifestyle.)

But will it be more successful this time at building and maintaining enough of a community that it remains a desirable, thriving place? That'd be the real challenge, and one that's only met once the developers have made their money and moved on. I know from people who've bought into the new developments in Leeds, Manchester and elsewhere that there's little community to be found in these schemes - not least, I suspect, because the vast majority of flats are bought to let, meaning there's few permanent residents to long-lasting attachments, and that many flats are empty thanks to an over-developed, over-heated market. I don't know that the famous 'streets in the sky' layout will necessarily help that - I suspect the dominant factors here are socio-political rather than architectural.

It'll be fascinating to see how it all works out, but I hope I'll be excused if I don't pre-order my flat now.

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Friday, March 24, 2006

Mandelbrot's telescope

I'm currently rereading Benoit Mandelbrot's The (Mis)Behaviour of Markets, as preparation for an essay on the option-pricing implications of non-normal distributions of stock prices (ripping stuff, I assure you).

Mandelbrot's basic argument here is that stock price movements don't have the log-normal distribution assumed by the conventional theory underpinning the Black-Scholes-Merton option pricing formulae, but rather a power-law distribution, as the evidence appears to bear out. This means that much of modern finance theory is based on assumptions that are demonstrably wrong. As Mandelbrot (and/or his co-author Richard Hudson) puts in, an a passage I found rather endearing -

If this were astronomy, the argument would have ended long ago. Imagine observatories suddenly finding a new planet where, the standard theory says, none should be. And then another, and another and another. Astronomers, after checking their instruments, would not ignore the data; they would question their understanding of celestial mechanics and a new and fruitful episode in astronomy would dawn. But it does not work that way in economics, even though the equivalent of countless new planetary systems have been recorded.

Fair comment on the reluctance of economists to change their paradigms (although it does seem as though power-law distributions are now well established in the statistical finance field). But I do think he's being rather generous in his assessment of astronomers...

I interviewed Mandelbrot about his financial work a few years ago. He's probably the most egotistical person I've ever interviewed, but I guess he's entitled to be. And I'll always treasure his explanation of why his work is like a beautiful woman.

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Alsop's fall from grace

News in today's Guardian that architect and urban theorist Will Alsop has had to sell his practice. He blames increasing aversion to risk-taking among the commissioners of new buildings:
"Of all the countries in the world, the UK is the most risk-averse group of people there is. In North America we are doing very well and in the far east we are doing well. I want to work in the UK, it's my home. In London we are not being hired to design the office buildings we should because of a perception we are a risk and might not get planning permission. The Olympics is a good example [of the UK's risk aversion]. We are not putting our name forward because I don't think we are going to get anything there."

Alsop's best known in these parts for his various RDA-commissioned masterplans for urban regeneration - including a watery reinvention of the centre of Bradford, postmodern pods attached to the Piece Hall here in Halifax and, most famously, Barnsley reinvented on the lines of a Tuscan hill village. The general reaction to these was often less than entirely serious, a factor that Nick Johnson of Urban Splash blames for Alsop's fall from grace -
"He was being used by everybody to reinvent themselves and when it doesn't come off he falls victim to the unfair criticism that he can't deliver," said Johnson. "An idea like walling in Barnsley to reinforce its urbanity is a creative piece of thinking. It shouldn't be ridiculed. It's the work of a genius."

I always liked Alsop's ideas better than his actual architecture - even the Barnsley plan. As I wrote in a later piece for Yorkshire Business Insider -
The Tuscan village concept comes only in part from the town's elevated position on the eastern stretches of the Pennines - it's also inspired by the ideal of a compact walled town as the model for a sustainable community. Comedy aside, no one's really expecting a sudden outbreak of ramparts, frescoes and olive groves along Shambles Street.

His idea of a cross-Pennine SuperCity along the M62 belt was inspiring, and already is a reality to the extent that the motorway corridor allows people living along its length to work, shop and play at any other point along the axis (allowing for congestion round Leeds, of course).

It was always a disappointment that his actual architectural work - all too easily caricatured as blobs on stilts, exemplified by his aborted design for Liverpool's fourth grace - was so unlovable and repetitive that it's little wonder that no one wanted to commission him to actually design buildings. Please, Will, stick to the theory.


Thursday, March 23, 2006

Mountain 7

Recommended reading (and listening) at the Mountain 7 blog, where the cultured man of mystery known there only as 'the poacher' has generously added this blog to their links column - under the 'Theory, Culture & Politics' heading, in the flattering company of Craig Murray, Frank Furedi, John Pilger and Strange Attractor.

Mountain 7 contains an intriguing mix of literature, philosophy, architecture and music (with its own mini radio feed too), often with a Ballardian tinge. A recent post titled Dancing to architecture gives a good flavour -
I seem to be uncovering sites exploring the abandoned and the disused more everyday. I wonder what this might mean. Two things spring to mind: the obvious being, that of course they've always been there and I'm just becoming aware of them (though discovery is always contingent, and not altogether chanceless); the other is a feeling that a more nebulous, but nevertheless perpetual, Romantic fascination with the gothic is coming to the surface, patches appearing beneath the skin. It's as if there is a dual movement away from the present: one towards a garish empty future, a celebrity-led obsession with restoration; the other that seeks refuge in the catacombs of the past (both figurative, and literal) as if that space, in all its crumbling derelict grandeur, is somehow more knowable, or more worthy. I'm not sure I buy my own ramblings here, but there is something in the ghosted secrecy of these places that appeals, and promises a kind of discovery and mystery that the bright gleam of the future denies us...
A consideration of music suitable for such environments follows, including a mention of the superb Canadian improvisational post-rock supergroup Set Fire to Flames.


Thursday, March 16, 2006

Enquirer inquiry

Interesting news about a new regional newspaper coming out of Manchester. The weekly North West Enquirer has announced the core members of its editorial team, including former Yorkshire Post editor Rachael Campey (sacked after a no-confidence vote by the journos working under her); and Bill Hall, previously the FT's man in the north. The Press Gazette first announced the launch back in December.

It's being published by Nick Jaspan and Bob Waterhouse, who I know back from the Newsco Insider days, and backed by the North West Equity Fund (one of the government-backed regional VC funds, about which I've written at length).

Jaspan and Waterhouse sold Newsco to RIM in late 1999. After RIM's acquisition by Johnson, the company floated in limbo for a while before completing its own MBO last year. As far as I know, they've not had much to do with it since. It seems a little odd then to find, while looking for more info on this brave new venture, that all the URLs that one might expect the new venture to occupy -,, etc - all seem to have been registered in February, a few days after the funding announcement, by Newsco Insider, and lead to a standard Insider Media Ltd page notable for its lack of reference to the new publication. It's possible, of course, that Insider is managing the Enquirer's online presence, though online operations have never been the strong point of the group. But it does rather suggest some skullduggery - a little opportunistic cyber-squatting on Insider's part, stemming from the fundamental error by the new business of not registering its URLs as soon as possible? If anyone involved would like to clarify the situation, I'd be fascinated to hear from them.


Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Reality sometimes overflows

A great philosophical quote from an unlikely source:
"No matter how rigorous our analysis and guidance, reality sometimes overflows the contours that we have defined for it."
- AXA Investment Managers, as reported in the Guardian's City Diary.

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Monday, March 13, 2006

Flying saucer flap

Extraordinary front page story in the Guardian today on the 'discovery' of a British Rail patent from the early 1970s for a nuclear-powered flying saucer. The Telegraph, Times, Independent and Sun also ran with the story, albeit in a less prominent position, while the BBC, Register and sundry other sources have picked up on it today.

It's extraordinary mainly because this really isn't news. This same patent, far from being suddenly 'discovered on the website of the European Patent Office by a student', received wide press coverage just a few years ago (I think as part of a Patents Office publicity push, or something similar - annoyingly, I can't find anything in the various archives). It's been in books. A simple google on 'flying saucer' and 'British Rail' turns up references, such as this one from UFO journal Magonia, going back to at least the mid-80s.

Presumably this is in the papers today because someone, somewhere, has put out an agency story or a press release - many of the stories feature the same quotes from people like Colin Pillinger. But are national newspaper journalists - even science specialists like the Guardian's Alok Jha - really too lazy, ignorant or short of time to do the smallest piece of background research? It's stuff like this that gives journos a bad name.

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Friday, March 10, 2006

The psychopathy of the new capitalism

I've recently been reading The Culture of the New Capitalism, the latest slim tome from sociologist Richard Sennett. It's based on lectures he gave at Yale in 2004, looking, as the blurb has it, at the major differences between earlier forms of industrial capitalism and the more global, more febrile, ever more mutable version of capitalism that is taking its place.

Sennett picks out several themes from his studies of a particular kind of cutting-edge, new-economy corporate culture, as found in high technology, global finance and new service firms of at least 3000 employees. The key idea is the different cultural environment in these new capitalist entities. Gone is the heirarchical nature of the old corporation which, for all its operational shortcomings, provided everyone involved with a definite sense of purpose and belonging. In its place comes an amorphous structure characterised by casualisation, delayering and nonlinear sequencing - what Sennett rather modishly calls the MP3 player model:
The MP3 machine can be programmed to play only a few bands from its repertoire; similarly, the flexible organisation can select and perform only a few of its many possible functions at any given time [...] Linear development is replaced by a mind-set willing to jump around.

The unintended effect of this, Sennett argues, is an increasing inequality between a small nucleus of core managers and executives (the CPU of the MP3, if you will) and the surrounding nebula of dissociated flexible workers suffering from increasing stress and anxiety. The corporation meanwhile loses the long-term views and institutional knowledge engendered by the old rigid structure.

Only a certain kind of person can prosper in these fragmented institutions, Sennett says:
the culture of the new capitalism demands an ideal self oriented to the short term, focused on potential ability rather than accomplishment, willing to discount or abandon past experience.

It seems only slightly mischevious to suggest that the ideal character traits for this new economy are not entirely dissimilar to what would usually be regarded as a psychopathic personality: a complete disregard for any sense of social obligation [...] lacking insight and any sense of responsibility or consequence [...] incapable of forming lasting relationships...

The idea will be rather familiar to anyone who's also read much JG Ballard - particularly his 2000 novel, Super-Cannes, in which the corporate elite of a vast ultra-modern business park indulge in carefully managed recreational violence and perversion as a natural part of their working lives.

That's not the only parallel. Sennett considers the 'specter of uselessness' haunting the professional middle class, who can no longer rely on securing a comfortable niche in the corporate entity. Compare with Ballard's Millennium People, where residents of a bourgeois London enclave stage a meaningless revolt against the erosion of their privileged position.

Sennett also ponders the political implications of this socio-economic insecurity in a consumerist culture: Do people shop for politicians in the way they shop at Wal-Mart? [...] The culture of the new capitalism is attunded to singular events, one-off transactions, interventions....
Ballard's latest novel - Kingdom Come, published this autumn - promises to ask whether consumerism can turn into fascism. Or, as his sociopathic psychiatrist in Super-Cannes had it: "The Adolf Hitlers and Pol Pots of the future won't walk out of the desert. They'll emerge from shopping malls and corporate business parks."

To be fair, I've very selectively quoted from Sennett here to support my own Ballard obsession - it's certainly not as mad as I might have made it sound, but it's still a provocative book that's well worth reading for anyone interested in how corporate culture affects the wider world.

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Angels, dragons and other beasts

Just up at Real Business's site is selected content from the March issue, including a feature I wrote for them on business angel investment. It's a look at the UK angel market, how entrepreneurs can access this valuable source of funding, and what they should expect when they line up to make their presentations. One of the main messages I got from the angels themselves is that it really doesn't bear much resemblance to the BBC's Dragons' Den programme (which, I must confess, I've never managed to watch). It's not that scary, honest.

This should be the first in a regular string of features for the mag's Doing Deals section. I'm currently working on a similar piece on early stage venture capital - the top line being that there really ain't a great deal of it available in the UK at present. I'm finding a few examples that show that it isn't all that bleak if your business is good enough, but it is an area where there's a definite gap of provision, especially if you're not a hardcore tech business (again, though, there are a few interesting exceptions). That'll be in the April issue of Real Business, along with a supplement on selling your business I worked on alongside the chaps at Cavendish Corporate Finance.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Cooling the towers

Just received good news from Channel 4's Big Art Project. Last year, they wanted nominations for the commissioning of some big public art project somewhere in Britain. Sheffield fanzine Go called for nominations for an artistic reinvention of the cooling towers which overshadow the M1 at the Tinsley Viaduct by Meadowhall.

It was the most popular nomination, and now it's on the final shortlist of six. They're filming tomorrow, Thursday 9th March, and want supporters of the project to assemble at the Meadowhall overspill carpark at 3pm.

I think it's a brilliant idea - the towers are the first or only glimpse of Sheffield for thousands of people a day, they're already a landmark, and with a bit of an imaginative overhaul they could become truly iconic.

As Go puts it:
Sheffield isn't a big city or a high rise city in the same way that Manchester or Birmingham are. It's a good place to be for different reasons. We don't need to ape those other cities. We have enough heritage and culture and ideas to forge our own identity. It's all here in front of us. If you want a city strategy, all you need to do is open your eyes.

Dead right. I've written plenty on the various regeneration projects run by Sheffield One and the like - there's been some improvements, but that's the attitude we needn if it's really going to matter.

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Where's my gazelle?

"As a young child I wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow ponge silk suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and they penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hasiesh and languidly caressing a pet gazelle."
- William Burroughs, from an unpublished essay in an archive now acquired by the New York Public Library.

I'm sure I used to think something similar too. Sad to say...

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