PLEM 1909-1959

PLEM-Cover

Our dependance on energy has never been greater. While we may complain about the costs (financially and environmentally) electricity imposes upon us, the fact is that ready access to vast quantities of energy has transformed our lives to an unimaginable degree. Both as individuals and society we are addicted to the stuff. Without it, our technology is worthless junk. Similarly, the utopia promised by pundits of the digital revolution is dead in the water without a reliable supply of massive quantities of electrical power. It truly is one of the essential building blocks of life as we know it today.

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Like many other countries, electricity generation in the Netherlands first began at a local level with private companies competing amongst each other for business. But economies of scale meant that this could not last. Originally founded as the Limburg regional electricity company in 1909, the Provinciale Limburgse Elektriciteits-Maatschappij was a semi-state company based in Maastricht. PLEM retained it’s distinct identity until 1992 when it became part of Mega Limagas and later Essent. This book, simply titled PLEM 1909 – 1959, was published to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the company in that year. Overseen by Dick Elffers, and using a lot of top-quality Dutch photography talent of the time, this book is an excellent example of that particular country’s talent for combining various design elements to produce something greater than the sum of its parts. The various aspects of the design and more background about the individuals involved can be found on the excellent Bint Photobook site.

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So how do you visualise something invisible like electricity? Photography is great at showing tangible objects but once the subject matter becomes more vague and abstract then you need to come up with a new strategy. In terms of electricity, the obvious answer is to focus on the production and consumption sides (the power station and the person using the electricity). Unlike the invisible products of work today (e.g. data) large scale electricity generation requires imposing industrial structures and lots of machinery. This is visually impressive when recorded on camera. It is then a relatively straightforward process to contrast these images with photographs of the banal domesticity of the everyday user as they bask in the glow of the power generated far away.

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For a designer, how do you make your book stand out from the crowd? How do you show us something different about a subject that has been done many times before? Simultaneously, you also have to ensure that the people funding the book are happy with the final result. This can be a challenge when it comes to corporate publications as, usually, the people who sign off on the book are not particularly visually literate. So as a designer you have to bring them with you rather than suddenly present them with a final book which might not meet their expectations. The company will have it’s own agenda and reasons for producing a book of this nature which a designer must be aware of. As long as the agendas of both the designer and the company are compatible, then the project has a good chance of working out successfully. Otherwise there will be problems.

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Roughly about a third of the book is devoted towards the historical aspects of the company. There are the usual introductory texts by the corporate bigwigs extolling the virtues of the company and the great strides it has made over its fifty years of operation. As this is a company that prides itself on its roots in the local community, the positive impact they have had on the area is heavily emphasised in this introductory section. The book even starts with the Limburg anthem (Limburg mijn Vaderland) also composed in 1909. Electricty generated by PLEM is presented as being at the heart of all the great modernising strides the region has made since the early part of the century. Graphs and charts show the expansion of electricity production over those years while images of street lights demonstrate the tangible benefits of electricity for the people. Picturesque colour images of farms and the agricultural landscape are used to stoke both regional pride and also convince readers that modernisation would not pose a threat to their regional identity and the traditions they hold dear.

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This first section of the book appears in a muted colour palette – the archival images are stiff and static, heavily laden with serious looking groups of dignitaries. Dark suits and respectability predominate. This is the past. Once they become established, corporations, then as now, like to tell their foundation myths. These usually take the form of a small group of courageous visionaries, the struggle to be taken seriously, the overcoming of obstacles, the battling of challenges, the gradual growth of the company and it’s ultimate success as a leading player in the field. These stories are usually just that, stories. But they are used to get new employees to buy into the corporate culture of the organisation in order to try to make them feel as if they are part of something larger and that they too are helping to create history. These foundation myths also add a layer of gravitas and tradition to an organisation that makes them appear trustworthy.

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We now move on to images of the landscape transformed by electricity. Streetlights illuminate the picturesque buildings and streets of the region as the old and the modern harmoniously come together in order to produce a better future for all. Blocks of colour are used to produce a sense of energy and dynamism that was absent in the previous historical section of the book. Here, electricity poles run alongside roads bringing power to towns and villages.The metal skeletons of pylons loom above the camera lens as the viewer gazes skywards in awe to the immense power that courses through the cables above their heads.

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The quasi-religious symbolism continues in the next section of the book, which deals with the construction of the Masscentrale Power Station near Roermond. Built between 1951 and 1960, this “temple of energy” was PLEM’s greatest achievement to date and they were keen to show it off. The cult of technological progress that has dominated Western thought for at least two centuries finds expression in this imposing structure. Size matters and by emphasising the scale of the plant they are signifying just how important the company has become, as well as the awesome nature of the power harnessed by mankind. Unlike the historical section of the book, which consisted largely of the upper managers huddled around bits of new machinery looking dignified, the images in this section reflect the social changes of the time. Now it is workers and builders who dominate the photographs. Like many of the communist publications I have reviewed on this blog, much of the imagery has a distinctly heroic quality to it. Once more the use of blocks of colour with photographs adds a sense of energy and dynamism to the narrative. A vast new building emerges from the ground. Again, the images used emphasise the immensity of the project, designed to produce a sense of awe in the viewer as we gaze in wonder at this immense cathedral of power.

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Now we delve deep into the bowels of this vast structure. Images of pipework and circuit boards form geometrical patterns, abstract images of technological progress and power. Similarly, substations stand ready to convert and transmit this raw power on its journey to the final user. The overprinting of black and white images with blocks of colour again add vibrancy and interest to what would otherwise be relatively straightforward industrial images.

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The final section of the book brings it all back home with images of industrial equipment, trains and factories all powered by electricity, helping develop the industrial base of the region. A simple but effective message is sent: with electricty comes progress and a better life for all. Limburg’s happy future is assured. By repeatedly using blocks of colour, the book produces a sense of rhythm that assists the narrative flow and connects the various sections together.

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The late fifties was a time of hope. Postwar austerity and the all-consuming effort to rebuild the shattered lives and countries left in ruins had largely been completed. Optimism returned. Modern technologies promised new ways of living and working that would produce a better world. Clean and cheap electricity would fuel the labour saving devices that promised to consign everyday drudgery to the past. Colour and brightness has returned to life.

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Aircraft – Le Corbusier

Aircraft - Le Corbusier
Industrialisation defined the nineteenth century. Country after country first emulated and then surpassed the success of the British in developing sophisticated capitalist economies in which technological progress was hailed for transforming the world. But the carnage of the First World War destroyed the fundamental concepts that underlined this system; it completely shattered the idea that this form of social organisation was inevitably going to bring about a stable world. People suddenly realised that the same machines that had promised unstoppable progress could be used to kill on a scale unimaginable before then. So, industrial societies in the aftermath of this war faced two possible choices; one was an escapist return to an earlier pre-industrial epoch, epitomised by the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century(in which the bespoke and handmade was privileged). The other option was to somehow separate the grim realities and the negative consequences of industrialisation (war, pollution, urban poverty etc) from a belief in the inherent good of technology to produce a better future. In this view, the Great War could be regarded as an aberration, an unrepeatable period of collective madness when technological developments had been used for evil rather than for more noble purposes. Unsurprisingly, this was the path chosen. This seductively simple idea thoroughly permeated public discourse during the inter-war decades, influencing everything from art and architecture to politics and science, as traumatised societies attempted to escape the stifling structures of the past by constructing a New Age based upon rational principles derived from apparently objective scientific concepts.

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The influence of Le Corbusier (the pseudonym adopted by Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) as the leading prophet of high-modernist urban planning and design cannot be underestimated. Nearly every country with pretentions to modernisation during the twentieth century dabbled, to differing degrees, with the alluring idea that it would be possible to reorder society through planned intervention in the built environment. While Le Corbusier was not alone in advancing these ideas, his charisma, drive and ego made him the best known and most influential of those who put forward such utopian schemes. At the core of the high-modernist architectural philosophy was the idea that through the use of rational, planned design it would be possible to influence human behaviour and so create a perfectly ordered and balanced world of peace and plenty (as outlined in Le Corbusier’s publications Toward an Architecture [1923] and The Radiant City [1935]). In the high-modernist view, the dark, squalid slums and overcrowded tenements of previous centuries, breeding grounds of disease, poverty and crime, were to be eliminated. A new era of progress and civilised order would be ushered in through the construction of new, rational cities based on universally applicable rules that would determine the precise requirements needed by each inhabitant. And just how were these cities to be built? The urban planners and politicians who had permitted the growth of unchecked urban squalor in the cities of old had been corrupted by vested interests and the grubby compromises of representative democracy. They obviously couldn’t be entrusted with such a task. No, this job required somebody new. This needed someone who was far above such tawdry concerns; it required a visionary genius who would act in the best interests of all. (The final sentences of the book state that: “Sometimes in the course of the centuries a man has sprung up here and there instinct with the power of genius, establishing the unity of his time. A man! The flock needs a shepherd.”)

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High-modernist ideas were based on the idea that you needed to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. As can be imagined, this particular view of how humanity should be improved tied in rather neatly with the various political movements, of both right and left, that sprang up in the 1930s. The difference between countries that wholeheartedly embraced high-modernist schemes and those that merely toyed with modernism on a smaller scale has less to do with ambition and a lot more to do with politics – an authoritarian regime is much more likely to indulge in grandiose re/construction projects than a system which has a greater degree of political accountability. It is certainly no surprise that Le Corbusier flirted with both the USSR and Nazi-backed Vichy France in his pursuit of an despotic patron who would be able to bulldoze all opposition to his centrally planned utopia. Interestingly, for all his enthusiasm, Chandigarh in India was the only city Le Corbusier actually managed to see built (even then he wasn’t the first choice – the sudden death of the primary architect Matthew Nowicki provided a sudden opening). Basically, the fundamental flaw with the high-modernist concept is that it is utterly disdainful of the very real cultural, social and human needs of those who actually have to live in these cities. This contempt lies at the heart of their failure.

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This brings us neatly to the book in question. First published in 1935 (my copy is a rather scruffy ex-library book of the 1988 Trefoil reprint), Aircraft was the first in a series published by The Studio under the New Vision banner. In this series, new technologies and ideas were presented to the reader through the combination of short texts and photographs (two other titles in the series looked at Locomotives and Photomicrography). Using images gleaned from a wide range of sources, this book is a celebration of flight, both as a clear demonstration of man’s mastery of the air and for providing a new perspective on the world. From this distance, when we have all become jaded with cheap and nasty airlines making us print out our own boarding cards and trying to flog us overpriced sandwiches, it’s hard to understand just how much of an adventure flight was in those early decades. At the time of publication, the Wright Brothers had made their first flight only 32 years previously. Given impetus by the Great War, powered flight had quickly advanced from the rickety, pioneering days to becoming a mode of travel by the 1930s that was both more reliable and accessible to the public at large (at least in the developed world). Interestingly, Leonardo da Vinci’s designs are featured in Le Corbusier’s narrative of progress – which can be read as an obvious attempt on his part to bask in the reflected glow of Renaissance genius. Thus aviation is presented as the inevitable pinnacle of human achievement and served as an unequivocal demonstration of how progress could be attained through wholeheartedly embracing new technologies and ideas. Here, photographs of aircraft in flight and abstract close-up images are used to celebrate form. The myriad shapes and types of sleek, gleaming aluminium aeroplanes that were at the pinnacle of 1930s design all serve to underline the rupture between the discredited legacy of the past and a New Age of progress.

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But it is how the aeroplane has changed our perception of the world that is the real subject of this book. The aeroplane, according to Le Corbusier, has liberated mankind from the stifling, narrow point of view that is an inevitable feature of life at ground level. Now, freed from these shackles, we are able to soar high above the earth and, in so doing, look down upon the hellish urban environments we have created. The bird’s eye perspective has revealed what was once kept hidden from view. What Le Corbusier sees is the moral and physical poverty of a former era which he indicts as being the root cause of injustice and conflict. As he asserts in the introduction to the book, “Such are the great cities of the world, those of the nineteenth century, bustling, cruel, heartless, and money-grubbing.” Furthermore, “The city is ruthless to man. Cities are old, decayed, frightening, diseased. They are finished. Pre-Machine civilisation is finished.” Contrasting these images of cities with nature, Le Corbusier also proclaims that their failure is due to a fundamental lack of harmony in the way they grew up piecemeal over the years. But a plan devised by a genius (guess who?) would overcome these flaws and produce a rational urban environment that would be fully in balance with the natural and objectively scientific concepts discovered by man. But the aeroplane does more than just provide a bird’s eye view from which to contemplate the city below; for Le Corbusier, it creates a wholly new and modern conscience which will no longer tolerate the injustices of the past. Thus, new technology is used to discredit everything that has gone before and pave the way for the slate to be wiped clean. By piggy-backing on the widespread public enthusiasm for the new (in the form of aviation), combined with  photographic “proof”, in this book Le Corbusier is attempting to link his particular ideas about urban design with a broader popular mood for change.

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From the trauma of the First World War, which discredited the rigid aspirations of a society based upon nineteenth century values, a new-found optimism in the potential of new technology to create a better world emerged. The 1920s and 30s were defined by ideas and social movements that attempted to use apparently rational and objective principles in an attempt at social engineering, presented as a way of escaping the horrors of the recent past.  The aeroplane was the apex of modern achievement at the time and was held out as a shining example for those who wanted to believe in the future. Up in the air, the aeroplane reveals an old, decrepit urban world that is the root cause of all evils. It is also no coincidence that this perspective mirrors that of the high-modernist planner, who sees all and ceaselessly strives to better mankind as an omnipotent God-like substitute. For an architect salivating at the thought of wiping the urban slate clean and starting afresh (heedless of the direct human consequences) the aeroplane proved to be a very useful tool in pushing this own agenda. Progress is presented as inevitable and natural; an unstoppable force that only needs to be harnessed by someone of vision and genius for the betterment of all. Utopian phrases and comparisons with natural forms are repeatedly used by Le Corbusier in this attempt to impose his very narrow and simplified vision upon the world. As he clearly states in the book, “Cities with their misery, must be torn down. They must be largely destroyed and fresh cities built.”

But as we have discovered to our cost, such cities are the concrete fantasies of a sociopath.

 

Pastoral / Moscow Suburbs – Alexander Gronsky

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For any society facing a housing shortage the high rise tower block appears to offer the perfect solution. While differing in shape, size and form depending on architectural vision and national priorities, the basic pattern remains essentially the same. Mainly produced using uniform, system built construction methods that utilise pre-fabricated concrete panels, the components are then transported to the building site and slotted into place to form a series of identical concrete boxes. These are then usually stacked on top of each other to form the completed high rise building. As well as being cheap, easy to construct and maximising the use of scarce land in urban areas, such buildings have the added advantage of being modern and rational, two factors which appealed greatly to urban planners the world over in the second half of the twentieth century. In the Russian context, other factors that came into play. The sudden industrial development ushered in by Communist rule meant a huge increase in the urban population and a consequent demand for new housing, leading to cramped, shared communal living in crumbling mansions and other wholly unsuitable buildings. This situation was not helped by the destruction wrought by World War 2 which laid waste to many cities in the Western part of what was then the USSR. These factors combined to give a real impetus to the adoption of high-rise buildings as a quick-fix solution to all these problems.

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Published by Contrasto in 2013, Gronsky’s book examines the edgelands on the periphery of Moscow, now a thriving 21st century mega-city of 11.5 million people fuelled by the proceeds of natural resource exploitation. Along with St Petersburg, Moscow is a magnet for all those who want to escape the narrow confines of rural Russia which perversely, for the world’s largest country, has led to a shortage of living space. Modernist architects with their dreams of architectural order, liked to produce clean, neat and rational spaces that (they assumed) would produce contented citizens. The reality was very different. Instead of producing utopia, this architectural form created alienation and despair with people cooped up in oppressive grey blocks, identical in all aspects. This theme was explored in the 1976 movie The Irony of Fate, a Soviet comedy in which the interchangeable nature of bland architecture is central to the plot: the main protagonist is unable to tell different cities apart because they look exactly the same. Even the street names and front door keys to different apartment blocks were standardised. Naturally, this architectural bleakness is exaggerated somewhat for the movie but it does reflect a deeper malaise about this form of architecture that is common throughout the world.

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A key aspect in the adoption of this architectural form was the assumption that this rational mode of living would be met with approval by those who dwelt within. However, the evidence is that people react against this imposed conformity at the first opportunity. The scruffy waste land surrounding these buildings becomes a playground where the cramped constraints of communal living can be rebelled against. In previous centuries the artistic representation of the pastoral landscape was an ideal, something to be envied by those living in the dark, polluted cities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Gronsky shows us a hybrid landscape in which these simplified binary categories no longer apply.  Here, amongst the scrawny vegetation and the rubbish, people come to escape the cares and worries of urban life. Through his use of an elevated vantage point and the distance between photographer and the subject Gronsky mirrors the eye of the planner surveying the scene around him. Only instead of the rational, ordered landscape envisaged by the architect, he shows us chaos. In many ways, his photographs are reminiscent somewhat of the artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder who also depicted everyday peasant life amongst the vernacular architecture of sixteenth century Holland. Of course, this visual strategy has also been adopted successfully by photographers since the 1970s, most notably by the New Topographics who explored a tired America on the cusp of industrial decline.

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Gronsky’s book does a masterful job in depicting this subversion of the modernist architectural ideal. Amongst the waste ground, bordered by smoking power stations, electricity pylons, motorways, railway tracks and building sites, overlooked by high-rise buildings, disorder and chaos reigns. Suffusing Gronsky’s images is an aura of melancholy; perhaps it’s something to do with the national temperament or the legacy of Russian literature which produces this air of viewing people that are trapped in living lives of quiet desperation. Beginning with the buildings themselves, Gronsky swiftly moves on to the surrounding waste land that is the focus of this book. Here, we see people interacting with a subdued and tattered natural environment; bored teenagers mooch about in the bushes, people go for a swim in a river into which a pipe discharges something that is probably quite nasty, others choose to have a picnic beside the railway tracks or sunbathe amongst the construction sites, two Moslems kneel in prayer, while a macho wanna-be shoots at bottles amongst the scrub. The seasons change; summer turns into winter and the sunbathers move away to be replaced by a snow filled landscape. Throughout, drinking sessions are held in the scrappy undergrowth and the empty bottles, plastic bags and broken chairs are dumped behind. The rusting carcasses of abandoned cars lie submerged beneath the wild nature that is in the process of consuming them. This is a scarred landscape. Everybody uses it but nobody takes any responsibility for it.

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Far from the utopia the architects and politicians promised us, we have been reduced to living in a hybrid state in which we are the inhabitants of a landscape damaged by pollution and tainted by the ceaseless demands of the construction industry, the vast profits of which grease the wheels of elite groups the world over. In real life, people are not the interchangeable, two-dimensional caricatures envisaged by the sociopathic visionaries or the ego-maniacs with the grand plan. Human nature is far too complex to regiment in this way. This landscape is the inevitable result of architectural and political decisions in which the needs of those who had to actually live in this space were completely ignored.

Gronsky - Moscow Pastoral