Thursday, 26 February 2015



His family tree goes as far back as the devotional statuary of domestic atriums in Babylon and Thebes, made of wood with flecks of azurite and gold leaf, figures that would take excursions across the Mediterranean on unsteady boats, to Carthage and Tripoli where they were sold or swapped for clay vessels, full of fermented fish or the colour purple.

At some point a notion coalesced around these forebears. A conceit in which each one of them was an ultimately doomed, but nonetheless worthy attempt in miniature to reflect one aspect of an impossibly pure ideal. It was 'Beauty' that his forebears never managed to encapsulate, but regardless of this failure they were all so very, very beautiful.

The first marble members of his family cast midsummer shadows in the great colonnades at Palmyra, Apamea and Leptis magna, before they were reproduced, like for like, multiplied endlessly, and spread across identical marble forums from Saguntum to Artaxata. They stood like mirrors reflecting the sun off their blinding whiteness, endless duplications of themselves in an ultimate homage to the skill of the stonemason’s hand, so much harder to achieve than the caprices of novelty.

After the fall, one of this innumerable number eventually found themselves a lone survivor, unearthed from a pile of rubble somewhere and propped up in a Vatican garden to be lauded, worshipped, studied and adored as if he himself were the direct personification of all that beauty could ever be, and had ever been. The sculptor’s duplicate was so perfect in its fate that it usurped all its predecessors from which it had once been reproduced.

Slowly at first, one souvenir at a time, he began to multiply. Smaller versions, bronze versions, porcelain versions, eventually plastic versions of him in all sizes and varying levels of verisimilitude started to appear, initially all around the city he had found himself in, and then later elsewhere, in other cities, in other countries, all over the world, in living rooms, mantelpieces, on coffee tables, desks, windowsills and display cabinets.

At some point a notion coalesced around this particular forebear. A conceit in which his burgeoning progeny were all ultimately futile, and fundamentally worthless attempts in miniature to capture the qualities embodied in his original, authentic form. But nobody explained this to him, nor to his children, and while they may not have been exactly him, they were still so very, very beautiful to all those people who bought them, to their children and their parents, and to him.


In photographs, black and white and colour and polaroid, Kodak and Fuji, and then digital bits and bytes the family grew into a nation. In colour, in photo albums, animated, through memes, on blogs, spread not only around the world’s living rooms but into every single person’s pocket, backlit, bright, photoshopped, zoomable, editable. In 3d. Poly-mesh surfaces which you could cut and stretch, and that were just like real marble. Apps in which you could make the nose bigger, bulk up the abs, rotate the head and then shoot it off to Amazon to print, for a package to arrive in three days with your very own idea of beauty in a little ball of bubble wrap. 

A notion soon formed that every single member of the family was worth as much as any other, as much as the ones who came before, and as much as the ones who would come after, and as much as those others who were printed, cast, carved, painted, rendered, and drawn at the same time. There was no such thing as an Ideal, and there never had been an Original. Beauty was simply the sum total of the pleasure experienced from all these innumerable items, and so the more of them there were, the more Beauty there was.

And so out they popped, fluorescent modified babies, in plastic and stone and metal and ceramic, each one slightly different, printed everywhere from Busan to Bilbao, and no longer trying to look as much as possible like that lonely statue in a Vatican garden. Each new object in fact trying to look as different as possible whilst still nonetheless containing the instantly recognisable trace of its origins.

Beauty increased exponentially, an unprecedented escalation of gorgeousness, and with every stage of explosive growth the prestige of their ancestors surged proportionately. The larger the family, the more collectively revered the progenitors. Gods don’t exist without believers, and the more believers there are, the greater the god, and so it is in the realm of objects.

It was at this point he woke up, proud heir to a lineage as august as any of the great aristocratic families. Pasquale. A bright, deep, luscious red. Electrically so. He is cold to the touch, and as someone comes over and flicks his side with a finger, he rings like a wine glass.


He is unique, this Pasquale, and new, so shiny, shiny new, and yet he is enriched by the depths of a past he has inherited and of the breadth of a present his kind have conquered, of features he sports which speak not only of a Renaissance Garden and its star attraction, but of a hundred thousand display cabinets, a million Instagram accounts, the marble remains of a hundred Roman cities, the precise hands of a Greek sculptor, the pages of five hundred years of artist’s sketchbooks, the molten metal of the bronze caster, the click of a Canon’s shutter, and the mechanical whining of a 3d-printer.

Pasquale knows all of this. It is why he looks so serene.


This story refers to the Apollo Belvedere in the Vatican Museums, his predecessors, and his many replicas.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Rome Wasn't Built From Arrested Decay

^Quintus, Thaksin, Gaius and Alhasan

If you walk down any street in the centre of Rome you will hear any number of languages from all over the world. You will hear them at any time of day, all months of the year, in 2015 just as you would have heard them walking down the same street (or one underneath) in AD100, 1690 the 1880s or the 1950s. Us visitors course in and out of the city each and every day, week after week, in and out, surging down its streets, reaching into the tiniest of alleyways and the smallest, most reclusive of its church interiors, and back out again, pulling out of the side streets and back up the boulevards, and out to the railway station and the airports, draining the city of our presence just as a new surge replaces us almost before we have left, keeping the shops and the cafes and the museums ceaselessly flush with the bloom of our foreign pockets.

The world can’t get enough of Rome, and like the imported seeds of an exotic plant, bits of it, ideas about it, images of it are taken every day, away to innumerable other cities from Kampala to Kuala Lumpur, Paramaribo to Port-au-Prince, Bengaluru and Beirut, where they are spliced with local species and lovingly nurtured in tropical locales, until they blossom and breed and grow into their own unique varieties and subspecies that take root and proliferate and rapidly become as much a part of their new homes as anything that had been there before

But Rome loves the rest of the world as much as the rest of the world loves Rome.

In 1986 the first McDonalds opened next to the Spanish Steps, ostensibly to serve and be served by the rich alluvial flood of tourists which keep that part of town permanently submerged. However, instead of being inundated with Americans visiting from Atlanta Georgia, and Georgians visiting from Tblisi, the outlet was stormed, not figuratively but in a very real sense, by ecstatic city dwelling youths, frenzied by the prospect of consuming on their doorstep some of that outside world which itself had been so expertly consuming their city for the past two millennia.

^Shreebaldone Uno

“The opening was huge, so big that teenagers nearly stormed the restaurant, stopping traffic and causing havoc in the streets. To stop the mania, officials decreed that McDonald's would have to be closed at certain times until further notice” *1

The bright red background of the company’s corporate identity was a vivid, twinkling, shiny new red, a plastic television-red for a city of faded, eczematic, itching reds on buildings whose facades were uncomfortably peeling and crumbling, and fading into a flaky brown decay. The entrance was declared by triumphal arches which looked like two pairs of bananas, California reinventing a Roman tradition in its own healthy way, letters that were sunny like Los Angeles in a city of letters set in cold stone. Inside there were banquettes that were reflective yellow extrusions as curvy and bulbous as a Bernini, in which you could see yourself all yellow and radiant like your face was the inside of a gilded dome in the Vatican, only happier.

There is a conspiracy against this city to arrest its passage through time, to guard it from the intrusion of novelty. No new districts are currently built. No new buildings are allowed in the old districts. Botox is injected in various places by UNESCO and the heritage bodies to insure a static and reliable complexion to its historic rictus. But behind the preserved plaster facades and travertine walls the young of the city, while inescapably steeped in the baroque bed in which they were born, are nonetheless hungry, were hungry, and have always been hungry for more. Heritage becomes a burden, is sterile unless constantly revived, generation after generation, through its coupling with new and energising sources of foreign, alien influence. It has to be constantly, rigorously reinvented. This is instinctively understood by those who have been sustained by its immemorial age, and with a confidence obtainable only by those of impeccable origins, Romans unfailingly set out to acquire youthful brides for their aging metropolis.

^Shreebaldone Due

“Three dancers in red - Valentino red - floated like puppets on a string in front of the Colosseum. As their shadows flickered over the ancient stones, a giant balloon, celebrating Valentino's 45 fashion years, drifted by and a golden shower of fireworks exploded.” *2

A few shop fronts away from the McDonald’s is Valentino’s atelier, that great purveyor of Roman Red and Imperial White. In the 50s he had been drawn to the sequined salons of Paris, where he had assimilated into himself the glamorous lipstick of its couturiers and the imperial iciness of its high society. Upon his return to Italy he had fused the foremost in French fashion, with an abundantly italic ripeness, a hybrid of imported ideas and parochial flair that clothed a whole decade of Rome’s Dolce Vita, gave body to the cinematic worlds of an entire generation of Rome-obsessed directors, and came to be known as purely, essentially Roman, as much part of its platitudinal history as the senatorial toga, or the robes of a cardinal.

Valentino came to Rome from a Paris plundered by his hungry Italian eye, returning with his spoils to transform the bodies of his city, and in the same manner, perhaps even more so, there are thousands upon thousands of Romans now spread around the world, scouring and assimilating and consuming elsewhere with at least as much vigour and intensity as those who have always come to their city. From Cairo to Camden they are observing and absorbing, learning and acquiring the precious materials with which they will eventually return home and begin the perpetually necessary process of renewal which Rome must always undergo, being reimagined from within, using the excitement of things encountered without. 

There has been no building for some time, activity in general has been somewhat subdued and there is a glazed sheen of ennui to the pretty skyline here. But Romans keep returning, from all over, and each time any one of them arrives he brings with him strange seeds of potential newness that he unwittingly sows in her abundantly fertile soil. Super malls from Chongqing, skyscrapers from Astana, themed communities from Dubai, music from Accra and fashion from Lima, all curled up and desiccated, ready at the first glimmer of rain to sprout up all giddy and excited amongst the arches and the columns and the frozen facades.

^Quintus, Thaksin, Gaius and Alhasan, detail

Just as the city has always unexpectedly exploded in bouts of delirious creativity when global winds blow opportune showers its way, so it will again soon, and this time around its stockpile of imaginative reserves is an immense magma chamber, an infinitely dense mass of pressurised newness churning beneath the city, which is as vast as the wanderings of its inhabitants, and as colourful as the sum of all the pent up, frustrated desires of a city’s million excitable minds.

These past thirty years Heritage has acted as the plug to Rome’s volcano, which is bloated and burning, and it is about to burst.


*1 “The Unique Story of McDonald's Restaurants Entering the Italian Market

*2 “Valentino at 45: Painting the town in red” By Suzy Menkes

This post is dedicated to Renzo Campisi, a very great Roman

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Memory Palace

^Memory Palace rear facade

His parents had mandated at least one palace or villa and three churches a day. From the time he normally got up for school until the time he would usually be having dinner they marched from stone building to building, corridor of marble statues to other corridors of marble statues. Everything was old, dirty, stained and big, and nowhere was properly heated so he would hide as deeply as possible in his oversized puffer jacket, peering out from the duvet-like hood at cliffs of stone so big, and from streets so small, that he couldn’t see to the tops without pivoting from his waist to stare upwards.

The subway was all bright orange, but covered in layers of brownish gunk so that it was like he was worming his way through some sort of huge, rotting citrus fruit. There were old ladies hiding behind things in the street, abandoned phone booths and bus stops, who leered suddenly out at him as he passed by, looking for all the world like extras from Pirates of the Caribbean, almost comic with their bedraggled rags, bent backs, and theatrically shaking hands outstretched with wobbling canes. Whenever they were in a square and his mother was reading for them from the guide-book, Indian men would approach, offering him selfie-sticks, and as they crossed streets to get a better view of the front of one church or another they would have to squeeze between groups of young black men with lots of shitty colourful things in rows on wet, grimy tarpaulins spread out over the pavements.

^Memory Palace Front Facade

Discomfort was what he noticed most at the time. Interiors so big that they disappeared into darkness and which were even colder than outside, cafes in which he wasn’t allowed to sit down, streets that were more like obstacle courses or bomb sites strewn with cars and broken chunks of pavement, scooters scattered here and there, a total lack of his favourite fast food, and he couldn’t understand why they weren’t driving at all, in a car with heating, and why his phone didn’t work, and why nothing was clean, and why they couldn’t just go to a mall, for a bit, for a break.

It was only later that images of the various buildings he saw began to surface in his memory. What had riled him during his visit, that everything was so different to, so at odds with the comfortably shiny, quotidian newness of his surroundings back home, had in retrospect become an object of fascination. As he grew older, he began looking for qualities other than those offered by the acres and acres of air-conditioned, polished-stone floor and white plaster wall interiors that had provided the backdrop to his youth. That particular, miserable trip in which he had felt helplessly trapped for an impossibly long week, cold, shrunken and exhausted at the mercy of gargantuan, crumbling, multiplying old buildings, in the end proved to be a mental reserve of inspiration to which he found himself returning constantly.

^Memory Palace Rotation

He didn’t have specific recollections of individual places, he hadn’t been paying enough attention at the time to know what exactly he had seen and where, instead everything he had visited merged into one, becoming in his head a kind of super extended piece of indistinct architecture that incorporated into itself an almost limitless index of stone moments from all over the city and from all periods, haphazardly united only by the fact he had visited them, and that they had somehow managed to impress their forms deeply into his little shivering head.

The visit had been like being pinned to the sides of a giant centrifuge full of columns, porticoes, colonnades and entablatures, and upon returning to his experiences he set about introducing a sense of order to the thrown about jumble. He would allow himself to linger a while with each impression, with the memory of each niche, exedra, antechamber or clerestory, and he would allocate a grading to the strength of impact its form obtained from him, to the allure of its particular kind of strangeness. From his daydreaming contemplation and categorical meanderings through the full depth of what he had seen, the blurry, massive and disorderly edifice that had encompassed the time spent in the city began to obtain solidity, form, a sense of hierarchy.

^Memory Palace from above

At relatively regular intervals he would return to sets of discrete moments and reevaluate them, judging each from his new standpoint of having grown a bit older, having slightly different notions about things, and he would find that some would rise in his estimation, and others retreat, so that the edifice in his head would be reconfigured, with previously humble features expanding to become central conceits in the space of his mental composition. It was by this stage a recognisable place, a properly prodigious palace, an immense palazzo, a complex through which he could wander at will, whenever and wherever he wanted. It was constituted of every single detail he had managed to extract from his memories of those tiring days, as well as embellishments which he himself had added, refinements to shapes that were in retrospect perhaps a touch too severe or banal.

^Memory Palace Front

In some ways the palace had started out as a souvenir of his visit, one made of pure recollection, but in the intervening years it had grown into something far larger. Its corridors and the endless bays on its fa├žade and its courtyards had taken on a life of their own far beyond the city itself, or the trip that had originally inspired them. It incorporated into itself, into its forever reshuffling turrets and pediments and arches, something of all his experiences since that first trip. It was an architectural Chinese Whispers that had begun in the actual buildings visited, and had been passed progressively through all the various versions of himself as he transitioned from childhood to youth to adulthood, transforming each time as it was passed on, but also accumulating aspects of him, collecting the residue of his passage through time in the same way that the real buildings in the city he had travelled to long ago had accumulated grime, and dirt and stains from the passing of life around them.

He never revisited the city again. He was well aware of the yawning discrepancy between the fertile world he had cultivated in his imagination over the years, and the no doubt disappointing reality of the widely dispersed set of individually perhaps not stellar buildings out of which his world had initially evolved. Instead he endeavoured to create moments from his palace in whatever small way his career in a medium-sized commercial practice allowed him. Upon completion, prior to their being open to the public or clients, he would walk alone around his building, and for a few brief moments the private life of his daydreaming would become entirely coextensive with that of the world around him, and he would feel an enormous sense of calm.

^Memory Palace Rear Facade

Most of the office’s projects were redevelopments of the kind of malls and commercial complexes whose interior banality had led him to retreat back into his memories in the first place. Their era was up, and so they were being repurposed to any number of new uses. If you head to the outskirts of his hometown now, as many architecture students have found themselves doing in recent years, to the places where the malls used to be, you can find a quite remarkable collection of buildings, interiors, facades, and bits of buildings whose architectural form have absolutely no precedent in the area around them, and frankly seem to have no precedent whatsoever. His palace exists, in pieces, scattered around, not coherent and cohesive as it had existed in his head, but dispersed, piecemeal, like the way he had experienced those places back on the visit with his family in the first place.

The people of the town are rather proud of them, especially as they've become reason for a small degree of international attention, and some tourism. And so even after he has passed away, the memories he had used to build his own world have in turn become material for others to come and feed upon, take away, remember, reimagine and rebuild in their own fashion elsewhere, and so on, forever, everything transforming everything else endlessly through the vehicle of the human imagination, city to city, town to town, imagination to imagination.

^Memory Palace Rotation Zoom