Museum without walls
Unbound, 352pp, HB, £18.99
A crowdfunded anthology of Jonathan Meades’ writing sets his TV documentaries in their rightful context, writes Will Wiles
First, declaration of interest. I am thanked at the back of Museum Without Walls. Along with several hundred others, my name appears on a list of subscribers to the book.
This anthology of writing by Jonathan Meades was published by Unbound — not just a new publishing house, but also a new way of publishing. It’s Kickstarter for books. An author sets up a project and potential readers pledge money to see it happen. When a target amount is reached, the book is produced. The more you pledge, the more you get — from an ebook to a signed hardback and an invite to the launch party.
It’s a bold and yet intuitive way to fund books at a time when the whole publishing business model is quaking to its foundations. Some of the risk is transferred from the publisher to the readers, and authors don’t have to go by an editor’s opinion of what will sell, they can pitch directly to readers for their advance. Where the idea falters is that the wisdom of crowds might end up closely resembling the wisdom of editors, favouring big names and sure things, and the outsider with the bizarre book idea might now have a whole new way to be ignored, whatever his or her genius.
Meades isn’t an outsider, though much of his success has come from standing defiantly apart from the mainstream of culture and opinion. He is best known for his television films, which are beautifully written, visually inventive and bracingly polemical by the standards of this timid era. These films are fairly consistent in subject, but it’s very hard to say what that subject is, exactly. Not architecture, though it features. Building, perhaps, or cultures of building, though that’s not quite it either. Food recurs. They are sometimes called “travel” programmes, but that’s just wrong.
Museum Without Walls brings out just what Meades’ steering interest really is: place, the museum without walls itself. Embossed into the cover of the book is the stirring motto “There is no such thing as a boring place”. Meades calls places “the greatest of free shows”. And place isn’t something made by architects. Making architects responsible for a sense of place, Meades says, is like asking Hamas to babysit a kibbutz. Architects do buildings. Place is what happens when the architect isn’t looking, in between the buildings, through accidents and inspired bricolage. It is in “layers of imperfection… the flesh that is attached to the architectural skeleton”. Naturally enough, many of the essays in Museum Without Walls concern places: Tunbridge Wells, Buenos Aires, Zaragoza, the north Kent coast. The scripts include “Jerry Building” and “Joe Building”, the unforgettable and brilliant studies of the buildings produced by Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia respectively, and one of the two excellent recent programmes on France.
The essays are literary, not ‘architecture writing’, to which they deliver several brutal kickings
Another uniting feature of Meades’ television films is his voice: deep, deadpan, delivered from behind the dark suit and dark glasses, characterised by an uncompromising, even prickly, rationalism, humanism and irreligion. Museum Without Walls is sonorous with this voice and reveals how much of it is in the writing rather than the delivery.
The voice is immensely learned, auto-didactic, and thankfully channelled through Rada and journalism rather than the RIBA and academia. The essays are literary, not “architecture writing”, to which they deliver several brutal kickings. Other targets for Meades’ lapidary scorn include most classicism (“the built equivalent of eezee-lisnin’”), the Prince of Wales, regeneration and our dominant present building style, pseudomodernism or “ghost-modernism”. In for praise are Vanbrugh, Ledoux, Le Corbusier’s roof terrace at the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, Rodney Gordon and Ricardo Legoretta. The taste, then, is for the muscular, the primal, the sensual. The school he favours is the school of talent.
Museum Without Walls has its flaws. As with any anthology spanning 20 years, there’s some recycling and duds. The script for “On the Brandwagon”, Meades’ brilliant surgical strike on the “Bilbao effect” and regeneration, is not included, but chunks of it turn up in three essays. One or two jokes make repeat appearances. As you’d imagine, “Surreal Film” just does not work on the page, and a long piece on Zaha Hadid mysteriously lacks the Meades voice, interviews perhaps not being his forte. But in general, to enjoy Meades on television will be to enjoy Museum Without Walls, and we now have an indispensable companion to one of the most original and valuable commentators on architecture working today. Fractionally thanks to me. You’re welcome.