words Justin McGuirk
A partially ruined city peopled by living turds. No, not a destination on your holiday from hell but a satire of contemporary society and the dreams of social engineers.
Masterplanners are all, essentially, fantasists. In their more magnanimous moments they have given us England’s Garden Cities and New Towns, Chandigarh and Brasilia. But their visions of social progress, whether leafy and suburban or concrete and modernist, have never delivered their paper promise.
Looking at Paul Noble’s wall-sized drawings of his own fantasy city, Nobson Newtown, makes you think of planners like big kids playing with Lego or lost in a game of Sim City. Noble’s creation is even more infantile, and, although he has spent eight years rendering it in obsessive-compulsive detail, he hasn’t bothered dignifying it with human citizens. Instead, Nobson is inhabited by little turd-people – as if to say the more anal the planner, the more excremental the resulting society.
Noble’s grand project, selected sections of which are on show at the Whitechapel Gallery, comes with its own map and its own potted history, but you don’t need to get that involved. From your first sight of the town you already share the hawk-eye view of its creator. This is because the drawings are isometric – a non-perspectival style used by architects to keep every building, no matter how far away, to the same scale, so that they can level a totalitarian gaze on any part. But as the detail pulls you in, you see how the reality on the ground makes a mockery of the controlling plan.
In Mall, a temple-like structure with four phallic turrets sits in a gameboard landscape. Letter-like forms cantilever out of its facades. The letters, which are in Nobfont – a three-dimensional font derived from modernist architecture – read “shopping mall”. But the brickwork depicts the faecal citizens engaged in rather more obscene business than shopping: turd orgies, gangbangs, fantastical bestiality. Noble draws a garden of earthly delights and perversions that would make Hieronymus Bosch blush. However, Nobson’s phalluses and eggs and shit are the lifeblood of real cities, which are as much subject to the cycle of creation and decay as anything else.
As an allegory of consumer society, Mall becomes even more trenchant when you decipher the word “synagogue”. I doubt if this is even supposed to shock – just another old building “re-purposed” for the new religion.
In his parody of the ideal city, Noble is drawing on centuries of tradition. One thinks of Ettore Sottsass’ 1972 drawing series, The Planet as Festival, in which sexually suggestive buildings serve a society dedicated to physical pleasure. More explicitly, the mall appears to be derived from the 18th-century architect Claude-Nicholas Ledoux’s Temple of Memory, part of his plan for an ideal city in which buildings – such as a copulatorium – were overtly figurative to symbolise their function. This “architecture parlante” (talking architecture) is a notion that Noble has made literal with his structural alphabet.
Noble’s use of language as the actual fabric of the city is partly, I think, to slow the viewer down. The process of trying to decipher the words suggests that communication is inherently frustrating. In Nobson Central, the old town centre is a derelict zone of crumbling words (taken from Eliot’s The Wasteland) reminiscent of a carpet-bombed city, suggesting that communication has broken down and that the citizens – if we think of Mall – have regressed to a primitive state. In Ye Olde Ruin, a couplet from Omar Khayyam’s Ruba’iyat forms part of a Disney-esque cemetery. “One thing is certain and the rest is lies / the flower that once has blown forever dies.” Utopias are as vulnerable to ruin as the city fabric.
Technically, there is nothing special about Noble’s draftsmanship – it veers from the neutrality of computer graphics to the facile cartoonishness of a practised doodler – but as an undertaking Nobson Newtown is a work of Old Master-like ambition. While Noble’s commentary has the town designed by community consensus, that notion is no less delusional than the idea that one megalomaniac’s vision could take seed in real soil. Nobson is a painstaking demonstration of how futile it is to try and design out unhappiness, crime, deviancy and plain human nature.