BRYONY QUINN is a writer, editor and lecturer based in the UK. bmbquinn[at]gmail.com. ABOUT BQ.

ALL PROJECTS —— [2015] OBLIQUE/OBLIKE is a collection of essays devoted to obliquity. Texts include: a speculative etymology, O-OB-OBLIKE, which reads into the conceptual, logical, textural and metaphorical potential of the word “oblique”; a contextual history of the forward slash, A TYPOGRAPHIC CHRONICLE OF STOPS AND STARTS; a series of fragment essays with photographs (HOW TO CROSS A SLOPE) that consider definitions of spatial and architectural inclination on the body; AERIAL OBLIQUITY, a text exploring perceptual shifts, impostor landscapes and the military units set-up for photographic interpretation at the start of the 20th century; a critical reading of Richard McGuire’s comic HERE and other narratives in art and literature that open windows (or tunnel out or fold or fling) the past into the future; and an extract from a slideshow of images and ideas — things that prop versus things that lean — designated as OBLIQUE OBJECTS. This project follows a general notion that lines of thought may not be perpendicular but that does not mean that they are random. [2015] ALBERTOPOLIS COMPANION is a book, website and series of podcasts that write around and over the South Kensington complex of Victorian institutes and museums that were built with the proceeds of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (an area colloquially known as Albertopolis). The essay, ALBERT-O-POLIS, draws a critical cross-section of the words facetious coining and usage. [2014] OF AND FOR TURNER CONTEMPORARY is a series of essays, an event and a website generated in collaboration between Margate’s Turner Contemporary museum, David Chipperfield Architects and the Critical Writing in Art & Design programme at the Royal College of Art. Prompted by the lines “On Margate sands/ I can connect/ Nothing with nothing” from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, GAPS is an essay that looks for architectural and figurative breaches in the museum and surrounding landscape. [2014] ROLLING HILLS, ROLLING RS makes use of the multiplicity of the word “cadence”, from vocal modulations to topographic undulations. This text appeared in CRITICAL WRITING IN ART & DESIGN masters programme at the RCA: a very short and very disappointed REVIEW OF MAGNIFICENT OBSESSIONS AT THE BARBICAN; THE BELLS OF LONDON ARE TIME MACHINES (which also appeared on Londonist.com); VIBES, PROPER TO MAKE ANY TONE — part-etymology and part-retrieval for the word “vibes” in cultural criticism, as per the likes of Samuel Pepys and Woody Allen. [2010–2015] OTHER BITS of published writing include AN INTERVIEW WITH NELLY BEN HAYOUN for issue one of NOWNESS on the occasion of Trevor Paglen launching THE LAST PICTURES into geostrationary orbit. And here are all the articles I ever wrote for IT’S NICE THAT.

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ALBERT-O-POLIS

Albertopolis: a facetious appellation given by the Londoners to the Kensington Gore district — so noted J.C. Hotten in his 1870 dictionary Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words. The original (somewhat glib) idea behind the word has largely been forgotten, as the word almost has itself, and it behaves now as a purely geographical noun. Today, Albertopolis is used without the stigma, simply served by the following definition in the Oxford English Dictionary as a colloquial — ‘orig. and chiefly Brit.’ — term:

An informal name for: the area of South Kensington in London that is home to various cultural and educational institutions including the Natural History Museum, the Royal Albert Hall , and the Royal College of Music.

Add to this list of institutes the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum, Royal Geographical Society, the English National Ballet and Royal Colleges and Schools of Art, Needlework, Mines, Naval Architecture and Organists and you have approximately half a square kilometre of Victorian knowledge, boxed-up and, for the most-part, bound by four main roads: Kensington Gore (North), Exhibition Road (East), Cromwell Road (South) and Queen’s Gate (West).

The Albert in Albertopolis refers, of course, to Queen Victoria’s Prince Consort: the man with the alabaster forehead, variously and previously known as Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (for the Saxon duchy in which he was born in 1819) and in full, Francis Albert Augustus Charles Emmanuel. Albert, without reading too much into it, replaced an Old English cognate Æþelbeorht which is itself an Old French form of the Germanic elements adal, meaning “noble”, and beraht, “bright, famous”. Our Albert was ordained by his wife, an announcement of which was published in an 1840 edition of the London Gazette, declaring that her “Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter” would henceforth, “upon all occasions whatsoever”, be styled and called “His ROYAL HIGHNESS”. Which was all to say, by no little ceremony, fuck off to their matrimonial sceptics in parliament.

It was the disparagement promoted by these cynics that explains why the area came to be nicknamed for the Prince Consort and not, if it were intended as a genuine honour that might have been reasonably expected, as ‘Cole City’ for Henry Cole, the man who was instrumental in managing the construction of the area, later serving as director of the South Kensington Museum (what is now the V&A). Previous to Albert serving as the President of The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 — the landlords of Albertopolis to this day — he was not particularly liked. Much was said and done to ensure he received less in allowance and in title than spouses to monarchs before him, but after the fact (that is, the extraordinary success of the Great Exhibition, for which he was the most significant proponent), Albertopolis began to sound more bene- than malevolent.

From the ‘surplus’ (it is worth noting now that this sum was not considered ‘profit’) of £186,000 made by the Great Exhibition, the Commission purchased 86 acres of land south of the site of the then-styled ‘Crystal Palace’ in Hyde Park. The legacy championed by Albert and realised by Cole, would be the construction of buildings capable of supporting the Victorian apex of education in science and art, and of centres that would house the efforts and culture of both. Each institute would behave as an organ within a body of contemporary knowledge in all areas — museums, schools, schools in museums, museums in schools. And the era’s ardent (potentially misguided) taxonomy of learning ensured no vital function in this body politic interrupted the activity of the other. The suffix, -polis, could not better serve a microcosm of such industry. From the ancient Greek, a polis is a city-state, specifically, such a state considered in its ideal form.

The plosive polis epithet is much more curious than its literal meaning alone. Why not, for example, take the Latin word for city, urbs? ‘Alberturbs’. There are some witty comments to be made by men with muttonchops about the perturbing vision the Prince Consort had for the area (notably that it would not contain a church and that its institutions would provide godless instruction). Also in the 19th century are other instances of whole English cities that were given — and eventually shrugged-off — a polis: Middlesborough was ‘Ironopolis’ for its manufacturing of pig iron, and the centre for cotton-spinning, Manchester, was ‘Cottonopolis’. The assumption here is that whoever coined the Albertopolis moniker associated the area with the qualities of Albert — and that everyone would understand this to be an insult; that any activity or effort made there should be valued as if it were completed by Albert himself. Polis, in this sense, can also mean citizenship. So perhaps the real slight was not intended for the area or its buildings, but those Albert appreciators who would occupy it.

Though the simple reasoning might be that the Greek appellation was catchier than the Latin, it is worth considering it in the context of English-Greek relations at that time. In the first part of the 19th century, in the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire and before a national state of ‘Greece’ even existed, there was Philhellenism. Literally, the love of all things Greek — from philos, “dear one, friend”, and Hellen, “Greek” — the term applies to non-Greek and Greek patriots alike. Though the British involvement in the Greek War of Independence between 1821–1832 that toppled nearly 400 years of Ottoman rule was primarily of tactical, naval motivation, culturally it was a cause célèbre for all times. It even had its own English martyr of a sort. Probably the most famous advocate of Philhellenism, Lord Byron died in Greece after travelling to fight in the war (but not before he condemned his peer Lord Elgin for his acquisition of the Parthenon Marbles). Enthusiasm for the war was only exacerbated by Romanticism, a movement felt most acutely in the first half of the 1800s. It championed this new Greek kingdom in art, poetry, literature and theatre, invariably through an ancient prism; the Victorians consumed and subsumed Greek culture with abandon — not least in their appropriation of classical thinking to enact political and cultural anxieties.

In Plato’s The Republic, the philosopher puts forward the notion of an ideal and just polis, built to support a quest for enlightenment and led by a philosopher king who would dedicate himself to upholding the values and philosophical productivity of the place. It is too much to assume Prince Albert was a PK — not even close, he was far too privileged to start — but the vision for the area is easily read in the lines of The Republic, “that more plentiful and better-quality goods are more easily produced if each person does one thing for which he is naturally suited, does it at the right time, and is released from having to do any of the others”, for example. Nowadays, the institutes work actively for productive, positive contamination among themselves. The motivation for a Great Exhibition from the off, and ultimately the construction of the institutional complex and education therein, was to showcase and compartmentalise the apogees of Victorian and Imperial endeavour in science and art and industry. Specialism idealism is not unique to Albertopolis, but it is telling that the archetype for such a collection of museums and colleges across the world is known as ‘The South Kensington Model’.

Despite the successful completion and popularity of the area, the term Albertopolis quickly fell into disuse, and it was more readily referred to by the local South Kensington tube station: by the 1920s the term was barely heard or seen in print. It enjoyed a brief revival in the 1960s as the wave of the Conservation Movement passed over the area — an effort that saved from demolition the extant Queen’s Tower of the old Imperial Institute. Those in favour of maintaining the Victorian complex for the appreciation of future generations were part of the Victorian Society; a group that understood architectural and artistic taste had a time stamp, and the ‘brutalist’, philistine mentality currently in destructive play might not be shared with their descendants. “History must not be written with bias”, wrote the secretary for the Society, John Betjeman. So it was a sincere, irony-free, retrieval made by conservationists that brought Albertopolis back in to our contemporary glossary.

Today, without the backstory, Albertopolis could be straight out of a comic book — a playground for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It barely sounds contemporary, though the concept for the whole area can still be interpreted as modern; as Albert himself said during a keynote address for her Magesty’s ministers, mayors, Royal Ambassadors, and Royal Commissioners if the Exhibition of 1851 a year before the exhibition opened: “… we are living at a period of most wonderful transition, which tends rapidly to accomplish that great end, to which, indeed, all history points — the realisation of the unity of mankind. […] The distances which separated the different nations and parts of the globe are rapidly vanishing before the achievements of modern invention, and we can traverse them with incredible ease […]. The knowledge acquired becomes at once the property of the community at large.”

Though the term was in use before the 1884 publication of what would become the OED, it was then, perhaps, still too glib to be recognised. And they were almost right, considering its wax and (until now) mostly wane of usage. It has since been antedated and the OED now cites its first appearance as an article in The Times in April 1860. The article discusses the relocation of certain British Museum exhibits: “The two propositions… are the extension of the Museum and the transference of the natural history collection to the rising suburb of Albertopolis, south of the Kensington-road”. The word itself was only entered and antedated with this and other usages of that period (including Hotten’s slang definition) for the third edition of the OED in 2012.

Why so recently? After 1870, the dictionary notes one (seemingly random) reference that hardly seems significant to reintroduce the word: a 1984 edition of Burlington Magazine in which the Royal College of Art is described as “that lumpen modern Schmuckstück in the crown of South Kensington’s Albertopolis”. An answer is not readily available other than to speculate that the relatively modern recognition may be in anticipation of its ultimate use in contemporary reference: a usage that will see Albertopolis defined with a trademark. The OED’s definition is geographical, but its coining was utterly opinionated and much less concrete. The name is casual currency in press releases these days — especially in reference to the recent redesign of Exhibition Road — and is never used ironically simply because it is the one colonial incubator in which the press departments of various institutes feel safe.

But now, at this very moment of writing, Albertopolis seems to have broken free of either definition and is floating somewhere over a building site in East London face-clawingly designated ‘Olympicopolis’ by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. This site, the Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park, will be occupied by an arm or a leg of the V&A, Sadler’s Wells and University College London. With a pointed reference, london.gov.uk proposes that the endeavour “takes its inspiration from the achievements of Prince Albert, who used the proceeds of the 1851 Great Exhibition to create ‘Albertopolis’”. So the name has become an adjective with brand values for a multicultural, trans-educational, hyphenated-and-happening area. The Mayor’s office and complicit institutes have decided to cash in whatever value there is left from the original scheme. Architectural Review (on its website in January 2015) has already predicted this new propagation will “fall short” of Victorian ideals — “Hung, Drawn and Culturally Quartered”, the headline reads. The message is clear. Boris thinks he is Albert. This particular project takes its ideals from Albertopolis, so should it not be dubbed a “facetious appellation” too? ‘Borisopolis’?