Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The A to Z of Aberdeen - H is for Hyperreality

H is for Hyperreality.

One of our motivations for setting out on our psychogeographcal projects is to defamiliarise ourselves with the town which we’ve lived in for so many years. And so by coming at our urban landscape from this defamiliarised high angle of attack - with new eyes as it were - we hope to see things that we’ve simply dismissed or ignored before; we hope to see things as they really are, and so we hope to decrypt the events and messages encoded within the fabric of the town.

One of the things we’ve begun to notice - begun to percieve the shape of - is our collective condition of hyperreality in Aberdeen.

The notion of "hyperreality" is one which popped up in the late 20th century study of philosophy and sociology, notably expounded upon by French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard and Italian semiotician Umberto Eco. Hyperreality can be thought of as the way in which modern life can cause us to seek and experience satisfaction through a "simulated version of reality". A sort of reality by proxy - where the real world or experience has been replaced by a simulation at surface level only: a "real fake" which is thought of as "even better than the real thing". By finding (or believing to have found) satisfaction in simulation, the boundary between the "real" and the "fake" becomes blurred to the point where we cannot perceive the difference. The substitution of the simulacrum for the authentic article or experience is no longer noticed, and, indeed the substituted item (the simulation) is sometimes considered to be superior to that which it has replaced (the original). In this way the artifacts and experiences of our lives become authentic simulations, "real fakes"; "hyperreal".

We first noticed it in the replacement of our street-name signs which is happening at the moment.

This one is of original quality.
Click the pic to see a larger version and
appreciate the quality and lustre of the ceramic tiles.

Since the late 19th century Aberdeen has had a ceramic tile system of displaying street names. We’re not sure whether this system is unique, but it’s certainly unusual and is [has been?] of very high quality. The ceramic tiles literally have a lustrous depth to their burnished sheen. By their nature they are non-homologous; their slight variability lends them a character, substance and personality which speaks of a certain quality and integrity not only in the built environment of our town, but also in the attention to detail shown in its street furniture and in the offices of the civic functionaries who made it so. I remember as a small child my disappointment when, first taken on family outings to Glasgow or Edinburgh, noticing that their street signs weren’t as interesting neither as well-designed or executed as ours. Ever the street-furniture trainspotter!

But of course, nothing lasts forever, and recent harsh winters have damaged the signs; frost shatter.

Nothing will last forever.
In the past, if individual tiles were damaged, they were replaced. You can notice the replacements if you look very carefully.

The letter 'I' has been replaced. The tile, being newer, is slightly brighter.
We like this - we like the authentic quality of the repair.
We like the fact that nothing is hidden, there is no pretence, no artifice in the repar.

Thus we can read the history of ongoing maintenance; we can imagine the care and attention of the artisans making the tiles and of the tilers who installed them. We might imagine a storeroom with a wunderkammer of tiles, somewhere in the basement or attic of the Townhouse; all the letters of the alphabet, punctuation marks, ampersands and the fabulous pointy hand.

More recently, damaged street signs have been replaced in their entirity with printed plastic sheets, screwed roughly and visibly into rawlplugs.

New to the left.                Original to the Right.
Up close, the difference is clear to see.

Original quality.

Plastic, roughly screwed to the mortar.

All of this is quite distressing to those of us who care about quality, authenticity and integrity. But all the more distressing to us is the attempt at deception; the simulation, the misdirection and the complacent assumption that “it’ll do - nobody will notice the difference”. It makes us cringe with embarrassment for our town and its people that this assumption is, regrettably, correct. Unless you take the time to look and think about what you’re seeing; if you’re in a hurry, speeding past in your car, not taking the time to attempt to decode the urban environment, what it means and what it does to us by what we do to it, you just won’t notice this hyperreal simulacrum, this deceptive veneer. Like laminate flooring or a fake Rolex, this says so much more about us than we intend it to.

It is this willingness to accept artifice which most troubles us. This disinclination to see anything wrong when something hollow, something without depth and without character attempts to simulate something intrinsically better. It tells us a lot about the character of the people who live here that we are so easily deceived, so easy to please.

But, admittedly, a few street furniture artifacts don't add up to much, what else is there? What else is hyperreal? A while back, we posted about a new housing development at Kingswells and moaned at length about it’s hyperreal appearance. There are plenty more similar examples.

In Bill Brogden's splendid reference work Aberdeen: An Illustrated Architectural Guide, he writes of the West End houses of Aberdeen:
Characteristic of the West End are the northern streets. In Devonshire Road or Gladstone, Beaconsfield, Carlton and Desswood Places, only the materials distinguish them from their contemporaries elsewhere in Britain - typically two-storey buildings with canted bay windows to the side capped by its own roof and often ornamented with by wrought iron finial. The doorway is broad, often with an architrave window.
This understated beauty displays its original quality Whitehall Place.
Click the pic for a bigger version - enjoy the high quality of materials and detailing.
There's a lot of variety around this basic formula. But recently, the formula has been polluted and corrupted by developers who are mining the vein of housebuyers to whom this veneer of traditionality might appeal. New-build houses and apartments have been springing up on formerly vacant plots, back gardens and change-of-use sites all over the West End and Ferryhill. They have a wierdly jarring quality, there pretense at traditional respectability is betrayed by their weird out-of scale proportions, their ill-considered placement and their oddly mis-designed and mis-specified finishes. We call this 'Pencilneck Pastiche'. The four following pictures are of brand-new buildings, all of which are pretending to be something they are not.

This new-build tenement is pretending (very badly) to be
a converted Victorian villa. This is doubly hyperreal.
Not only is the building attempting to simulate something
which it is not, but it is also attempting to simulate something which
itself has been subject to a change from its original purpose.

The squatness of the storeys is betrayed by the lack of fan-light above the door and oddly proportioned bay windows, themselves with a bizarre architrave detail.
No Chimneys!

Shallow bays with no architrave.
First storey different in height from ground storey.
Shallow gable.
Oddly canted bay roof betrays awkward proportions
of bay and overly steep pitch of main roof.
Plastic details simulating wrought/cast iron and lead!
Squat storeys cause out-of proportion bays.

The very worst aspect of these buildings is that, by their cut corners and half measures, by their lipservice to the past and by their pandering to the market for traditionally acceptable conformity they degrade the authentic qualities and details of those which they copy. This is regrettable. But all the more regrettable in our opinion is the loss of opportunity; capital has been sunk into the creation of these buildings, mortgages have been arranged and people work hard to pay them off. It is as if our era has no architectural style of its own of which we can be proud. Well, of course it does, and there are several high- and low- quality exceptions to what we've posted above. (We'll post pics in the future along with praise or brickbats as we see fit.) But for the moment we bemoan these pastiche buildings which lack the integrity and authenticity which should and could characterise our town. It did in the past, there's no real reason why it can't again today and in the future.

You see, when the Victorian and Edwardian era terraces and avenues of our town were laid out, the buildings which lined them were of cutting-edge style and quality. They exhibited both literal and metaphorical integrity. In our opinion, we should respect this heritage by building with our own era's cutting edge style and highest possible build quality and standard of finish. Those who have caused the creation of Pencilneck Pastiche in Aberdeen have misunderstood what it actually means to respect heritage. They have constructed buildings which sort-of resemble hundred-year-old buildings, and by doing so believe that this policy respects our high-quality heritage. It does not. Conversely and perhaps counter-intuitively, it serves to devalue that heritage through its low-quality facadism and simulation. This Pencilneck Pastiche lacks the authenticity and integrity which would better respect the heritage of our built environment.

It is not only in the built environment and street furniture where we can discern hyperreality. We can see a preoccupation with surface appearances to the exclusion of real substance in many aspects of Aberdonian life: from the client of the "aesthetic practitioner" who will conduct home visits for the discrete injection of botulinum toxin into your forehead in the comfort of your own home (the preferred euphamistic nomenclature "injectable products" being itself, hyperrealistic) to the young man who parks a Ferrari supercar outside his (albeit new, and itself, hyperreal) tenement apartment, all are concerned primarily with surface appearance.

It is this confusion between surface and substance which indicates our condition of hyperreality in Aberdeen. This quote from Wikipedia's entry on Hyperreality is illuminating:
Hyperreality is significant as a paradigm to explain current cultural conditions. Consumerism, because of its reliance on sign exchange value (e.g. brand X shows that one is fashionable, car Y indicates one's wealth), could be seen as a contributing factor in the creation of hyperreality or the hyperreal condition. Hyperreality tricks consciousness into detaching from any real emotional engagement, instead opting for artificial simulation, and endless reproductions of fundamentally empty appearance. Essentially, fulfillment or happiness is found through simulation and imitation of a transient simulacrum of reality, rather than any interaction with any "real" reality.
So, what is the 'real' reality which this Aberdonian hyperreality is screening us from? Why is it that we seek the comfort of a surface simulation of past glories, of traditionally-styled conformity, of a mediated experience even in the domestic sphere? What is Pencilneck Pastiche hiding? What do conspicuous displays of affluence conceal?

We will explore the possible answers to these questions in our next entry in 'The A to Z of Aberdeen'.

"I" will be for Insecurity.


Anonymous said...

The state of these tiled street signs is a real shame. Especially since their value has been established. If you look at the Aberdeen City Centre Development Framework (August 2010), attached as an appendix to Aberdeen City Council Report EPI/10/86 (7th Sept 2010 - available here http://committees.aberdeencity.gov.uk/mgConvert2PDF.aspx?ID=8833 ) you will see that these street signs are specifically highlighted as being something special :

"3.12 Signage and Street Letter Tiles
Signage and way-finding in the City Centre should capitalise on existing unique features, such as the used to name streets in the distinctive street letter tiles City. These individual fired clay tiles with white lettering on a black background do not occur elsewhere in Scotland and could form the basis of a unique signage strategy distinguishing Aberdeen from its competitors."

... but then this is Aberdeen and this same City Centre Development Framework talks about making the centre of Golden Square a mini-park and we know what happened there.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, something went wrong with my cut + paste in above post, the quoted part should read as follows :

"3.12 Signage and Street Letter Tiles

Signage and way-finding in the City Centre should capitalise on existing unique features, such as the distinctive street letter tiles used to name streets in the City. These individual fired clay tiles with white lettering on a black background do not occur elsewhere in Scotland and could form the basis of a unique signage strategy distinguishing Aberdeen from its competitors."

Key Stakeholder said...

Thanks for that, @rxpell.

"should", "could"

Shoulda coulda woulda

But the signs are just a, em, sign of something else.

Joe D said...

I'm guessing the plastic signs are considerably cheaper than individually made clay tiles. If the local tabloids found out that the council were spending the taxpayer's money on tiles, etc, etc...