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Entries in urbanism (72)

Tuesday
Mar082016

métissage

Mark Dorrian and Adrian Hawker. Metis, On the Surface, Arkitektskolen Aarhus, Denmark, 2015

métis, from old French, mestis, from Latin mixticius, cognate of Spanish mestizo, Portuguese mestiço: the mixing of aboriginal peoples and Europeans.  In Canada métissage began with contact, centuries ago, emerging as ‘a distinctive socio-cultural heritage, a means of ethnic self-identification and a political and legal category’ (The Canadian Encyclopedia). 

It is a curse of postmodernism that everything can be metaphorical: the danger in delineating a Métis architecture is that the word ‘hybridity’ is inevitable.  But not here, with the capital M Métis: it is the architecture of a particular people, and yes it has hybrid characteristics, but not all hybridity in architecture is Métis.  

For On Site review 34: on writing, I mentioned a new book by Mark Dorrian, Writing on the Image. Architecture, the City and the Politics of Representation.   Circumstances meant I couldn’t do a proper review, however, Mark Dorrian and Adrian Hawker have a critical practice in Edinburgh called Metis meant to connect architectural teaching, research and practice.  Their word, metis, is from the Greek, rather than the Latin: Metis was the daughter of Oceanus, first wife of Zeus and mother of Athena.  The word metis combines wisdom with cunning, an Odysseus-like quality.  No connection with mixing, or métissage.
Metis's mandate is on their website: They focus ‘on the city and the complex ways in which it is imagined, inhabited, and representationally encoded. They seek to produce rich, multi-layered works that resist immediate consumption and that are instead gradually unfurled over time through interaction with them. Their approach is concerned with establishing a poetic but critical approach to the city that is sensitive to its cultural memory but is also articulated in relation to its possible futures.

In some ways this outlines what a métis architecture could be: taking the socio-cultural history of Métis building as fundamental to a Canadian architecture as cultural memory: a way of working that recognises encoded cultures through representation, and resignifies such cultures in a wise and cunning, complex and deep description of our various futures, whether urban, rural, individual or cooperative.

It is curious, this accidental coincidence of five letters, one with an accent aigule, that can begin to theorise a Métis architecture if you simply put them side by side and start to squeeze them together.  It is a kind of metissage in itself, a dadaist accident, that reveals so many new paths.

Monday
Mar162015

Resilient Cities

The introductory blurb about Resilient Cities outlines resilience in response to both climatological shock and systemic social problems.  Dandy.  I read on, I watch the videos – they are smooth, earnest, sophisticated; everyone dresses and speaks in the language of the boardroom.  Such groomed spokespeople.  

I find it something of a revelation to find that civic resilience is a project of 'partners from the private, public and NGO sectors'. It indicates that this is primarily an economic project that works on infrastructure and the delivery of services. This is big money. It gangs cities together to pool ideas and strategies: we can all learn from one another.  

There is not a small dose of TED-talk enthusiasm here: what can possibly be wrong with all of this?  Individuals shouldn't have to struggle on in isolation, always learning as they go, reinventing the wheel, cut off from advanced technological solutions; Resilient Cities is like a global think tank that all cities can access.  Forget culture and history, cities are machines that can be fixed.  Ultimately this is what it comes down to, these strategies for resilience. They are like strategies in war: always the same no matter who the antagonists, what the century, what the technology.

Two immediate questions: Vanuatu and Syria.  Aleppo, Damascus, Port Vila: not on the list of selected cities.  Montreal and Barcelona are however.  I think resilience is relative.  I worry when I am shown a diagram of what constitutes resilience.  Can't imagine that it is all so tidy and universal.  Shall think more about this.

Tuesday
Mar102015

Urbanistas: London

Zaha Hadid. Roca London Gallery, 2009-2011Roca, a Spanish bathroom fixtures corporation, is behind Roca London Gallery, designed by Zaha Hadid in 2011.  Based on the movement of water evidently, it is curvy white space and currently has an exhibition, Urbanistas, curated by Lucy Bullivant, showing the influential work of five architects, women, young and successful: Alison Brooks, Muf, AWP, J&L Gibbons and Irena Bauman.
 
In a long article in the Guardian, Bullivant explains just what defines their work.  It is a commitment to 'a public realm of social value' and this spins off into climate, weather and seasons, multiculturalism, the knitting together of infrastructures, nature and landscape – long term strategies that, as Bullivant points out, are the opposite of development quick turn-arounds.  In this article are statements from each architect: none talk about gender, rather they simply talk about their aims for architecture and urban design.  Landscape Urbanism hovers in the background.  Irena Bauman mentions the 'professional vanity and commercial growth as the primary drivers of [the architectural] business model' and explains how the work of Bauman Lyons presents an alternative, including only accepting work within two hours road travel from their studio, not going for awards, working a 4-day week, and collaborating on and co-producing work.  Collaborating.  

Women collaborate, and Bullivant indicates that as there are now more women in the profession they have a larger influence on it.  It has long been difficult to collaborate with a profession that valorises the Ayn Rand hero, and if this seems a cheap use of a cliché let's just say it is based on experience of a certain generation, thankfully now at career's end.  Liza Fior's sentence,  'We endeavour in all our projects to make spaces where more than one (fragile) thing can coexist at a time' indicates just how far the professional discourse with which these five architects are engaged has moved.  

Lucy Bullivant's essay – all that is available to me, in stead of the exhibition – is encouraging, rewarding and very inspiring.  I am heartened.

Malmo Quay, Newcastle: visualisation of a project by AWP, Featherstone Young Architects and Mikhail Riches Architects. © sbda

Thursday
Feb122015

slum tourism

Tourism Geographies: An International Journal of Tourism Space, Place and Environment Volume 14, Issue 2, 201.2 Special Issue:   Global Perspectives on Slum Tourism

Is this what it is, our interest in how barrios organise themselves and rebuild squatter settlements into self-directed, autonomous living environments?  Slum tourism?  

Is our interest in informal urbanism actually aestheticising of poverty as proposed by this issue of Tourism Geographies?  or do tourism geographers see everything as a species of tourism, which is, by nature, grounded in the 'gaze'?  The underlying premise of tourism is that there is an interface between two different kinds of people, usually one with more money than the other, one more mobile than the other, one more 'scientific' than the other.  Tourism as a form of coloniality.  

Despite having done a Phd in geography, this is one particular aspect of geography that I've always found problematic.  It attaches social conditions, ideology and political meaning to urban spatial conditions, usually deserved and valid, such as hierarchies of power in city planning trends. However, it does not allow any other determinants of form than the social, the ideological or the political.  As an architect, this meant that everything I'd ever done, studied and taught was considered completely naïve, mis-judged and really, really toxic.  Found this a bit hard.  We all live and work in social ideological and political contexts, but in the making of architecture these things are inadvertent and perhaps that is where we have been deaf and blind to our own position in society. With a modernist and early postmodernist education I was taught first that the ultimate goal of architecture was not the naked display of power but a better world for all people, and then later that everything had meaning and one had to look after the meanings that buildings radiated. Well, yes, this is a bit naïve.  

Of course there has always been slum tourism.  Slumming was probably around in the eighteenth century – that frisson somewhere between horror and delight in observing the depths of social despair.  Anyway, slum tourism is a whole issue of Tourism Geographies: An International Journal of Tourism Space, Place and Environment.  How embarrassing is that.  Nonetheless I find it difficult to think that all study of favelas, barrios and other informal settlements is at heart touristic.  The installation of outside escalators up the hillside barrios of Medellín has physically linked neighbourhoods previously at war.  That drug lords control the small plazas at the top and bottom of each escalator indicates that turf rules still hold, but an escalator is not an impenetrable wall, nor is it a dangerous path through dense housing, nor is it an armoured vehicle.  To find this device that reputedly unites communities is not touristic, rather it is a lesson probably humbly learnt. I don't know of one difficult topography in our cities with an escalator, and personally I don't care who thought of it first.

I think this is at the heart of the Uneven Growth project which is asking for collaboration from the megacities with dense and difficult housing conditions. In theory it could be an elitist project: planners picking and choosing what is 'interesting' about Mumbai; it also could be a chance to hear from community planners in Mumbai itself.  One never knows precisely the status, background, political position or colonised education of developing world voices: is what we are hearing authentic?  authentically postcolonial? an intelligent voice or a sycophantic fool?  How do we get a chance to ride with the rebel side and not be a tourist with it?

Wednesday
Feb112015

Uneven growth: tactical urbanism

From the MoMA Uneven Growth website: 'Challenging assumed relationships between formal and informal, bottom-up and top-down urban development, the resulting design scenarios, developed over a 14-month initiative, consider how emergent forms of tactical urbanism can respond to alterations in the nature of public space, housing, mobility, the environment, and other major issues of near-future urbanization.'

Megacities, and the poverty within them, seem to outline a future of more concern than war, perhaps because slums have long been pathologised as behavioural sinks, a view that prevailed throughout the twentieth-century and is now being challenged. Turns out there is more humane urbanity in a barrio, stronger organisation and more design automony in barrio councils than in any OECD city.  Ideas are flowing from south to north, an indication that our complacent wealthy cities suffer a deficit of design intelligence.

in On Site review 32: weak systems Eduardo Aquino wrote about beaches as systems of human interaction found nowhere else: an egalitarian, non-judgemental field sitting between the city and the ocean where new and free relationships can form.  There is simply no equivalent condition in the contemporary northern city – parks haven't the same transitional spatiality. Aquino's archetypal beach is in Rio de Janeiro, and he cites Lina Bo Bardi's boardwalk in São Paulo; somehow our beaches don't seem to work this way.  Is it weather, where we are all clenched against the cold, even in summer?  — a defensiveness that infects all aspects of our lives and makes us uncharitable and rigid?  Perhaps I exaggerate, but the most exciting urban critiques and constructs are coming from the informal sectors of southern megacities where conventional urban planning, rooted in European urban culture, has never ventured.

Saturday
Jul262014

Harry Partch, Barstow, 1941-55

This is from the era that Buckminster Fuller was busy with his domes and Jeffrey Burland Lindsay was manning Fuller's Research Institute in Montreal – 1948-53.  It seems to me, because I am doing all this investigation into Lindsay, that this was a particularly exciting, open and boundless era for experimental work. 

And yet, when Lindsay moved from Montreal to Los Angeles in 1953, it looked like this:

The 200 block of South Main Street, Los Angeles, 1952Harry Partch lived in Los Angeles, and later in Petaluma where Jeffrey Lindsay did a sun shelter out of a shallow space frame section of a dome: a magical telstar sort of thing on a pole.  There is such a disjunction between the visionary structural work and musical experimentation of the time (this piece for example, and John Cage's 4'33 which was composed in 1952), and street culture, which appears to be still lodged in the Depression with desperate hitchhikers stuck in Barstow.

'Barstow', from The Wayward, for two voices, surrogate kithara, chromelodeon, diamond marimba & boo (1941-1955).  The spoken parts are 'eight hitchhiker inscriptions from a highway railing at Barstow, California'.

Part of the YouTube description: In late 1939, [Partch] went on a hitchhiking trip to take photos in the Southwestern deserts of California and Arizona. In the tough little Mojave Desert junction town of Barstow, California, in February 1941 while waiting for a lift, he noticed the following inscription on a highway railing:

It's January 26. I'm freezing.

Ed Fitzgerald. Age 19. Five feet, ten inches.

Black hair, brown eyes.

Going home to Boston, Massachusetts.

It's 4:00, and I'm hungry and broke.

I wish I was dead.

But today I am a man.

Monday
May122014

once strong, but now weak, systems

This video, Andy Merrifield outlining the basis for his book The New Urban Question, came by way of Rodrigo Barros, a Chilean architect currently training as a construction logistician for Médecins Sans Frontiers.  Barros did a brilliant piece for On Site review 31: mapping | photography on the 'rightness' of maps that centre on the United States and allow South America to drift off the global view.  His is the view from the South.
 
This particular view, after forty years of intense geopolitical theorising from Latin America, is his lens, and so he picks up on a certain theoretical vocabulary found in Merrifield's brief outline of just how Manuel Castells' explanation of urban social movements has been superseded by a new form of divisive capitalism.  

When states can no longer afford the social services they subsidised in the full flush of postwar capitalist development, their disinvestment in such things as health care and housing pushed such services into the private sector.  This gave rise to urban social movements which struggled to hold governments to their role as keepers of some sort of public faith.  Merrifield feels that the turn to mass privatisation in the 1980s and 90s obliviated urban social movements and that a new paradigm must be developed that returns public space to the public, public health to the public, public housing to the public, the public service to the public.  

Just yesterday there was an interview on CBC with the head of Canada Post whose former position was as the head of Pitney Bowes. There we are. Pitney Bowes is an American private mail and data service for businesses.  Under the Pitney Bowes model, Canadian mail is no longer a public service, it is a corporate business, thus the end of home delivery, the shocking price of stamps and the full support of our current neo-conservative Thatcher/Reaganite form of government. This gives me particular grief.  We are a non-profit publisher with a publications mail contract with Canada Post which gives us a discount on mailing On Site review, except for international mailings which tend never to arrive.  Or if they do arrive it has taken six months to get to, say, Denmark. In contrast, Valery Didion's Criticat is sent from France at a book rate, €2.95, which gets here in a week.  In return I send On Site back to them at publications rate which may or may not get there several months later, or I spend $18 to send it letter mail which gets there in a week.  

Somehow Canada as a wide, dispersed country only sees urban social movements of any consequence in Toronto and Montréal, especially Montréal, infrequently and now rarely, Toronto.  In the rest of the country there isn't the critical mass to act collectively from say, Alberta to Manitoba, so sparse is the population. CBC used to be the glue that held us together, its recent cuts have been lethal.  It is all one with the sacking of scientists, the gutting of census collection and analysis, the cutting free of wounded Canadian Forces from their pensions, cutbacks to universities: the private sector is supposed to be picking up the slack, but it isn't.  And the time is past, according to Merrifield, for Castells' urban social movements to have any influence at all.  In this country, we missed that phase altogether.  

Tuesday
Feb252014

Saskia Sassen: dense urbanised terrain – not a city

Uneven Growth, Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities. Part of a series, this one with Saskia Sassen, on the MoMAmultimedia site.

Saturday
Feb222014

failure to update: 20 February 2014

What is the point of Google satellite maps if they only present clean copies taken in the summer? Is there no satellite path near Independence Square/ Maidan Nezalezhnosti/ Майдан Незалежності in Kiev these days? 

Here is the structure of the square: divided in two by a main road. 

and here is the reality of Thursday, 20 February 2014:

or marginally closer to the ground:

Thursday
Jan302014

Gerhard Marx: Johannesburg, 2012

Gerhard Marx, Garden Carpet: Johannesburg [1], 2013. Plant material, tissue paper with acrylic ground on canvas board, 120 x 180cm Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa

Gerhard Marx, a South African artist, seems interested in the underpinnings of the commonplace, in this case the map of Johannesburg which becomes reinscribed with the surface materials of Johannesburg.  Not quite geology, more dirt, as if the gleaming towers and freeways of the modern city are just this: dirt, roots and grass, the map itself scratches on the ground.

Gerhard Marx, Garden Carpet: Johannesburg, detail. Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa

Monday
Jan132014

the air that I breathe – Abdulnasser Gharem: Flora and Fauna, 2007

Flora and Fauna by Abdulnasser Gharem from Installation Magazine on Vimeo.

I would say this tree had been pollarded, pleached and trimmed. 

Monday
Dec232013

Christmas, rough

Saul Leiter, Snow, 1960. Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York

should be accompanied by the Pogues:

Wednesday
Nov202013

Wayne Thiebaud: Dark Country City, 1988

Wayne Thiebaud. Dark Country City, 1988. Soft ground etching with aquatint and drypoint 21.9 x 32.2

There is something so geological about Thiebaud's view of the city: buildings and roads are like shards of rock, as vertiginous as cliff faces.  These are drawings where the x-axis has been multiplied by 10, the unbuilt landscape is mysterious — an enormous clamshell holding itself to itself, the road is both brave and intimate: a tremendously exciting place to live, as San Francisco is.  Thiebaud introduces a powerful scale with which to identify one's place in this city way beyond the vocabulary of urbanism.  The city is like a Krazy Kat mesa: a figure in the landscape that one lives up against.

Thursday
Sep192013

Lisbon: two projects:: Zuloark, Toran and Kular 

The Universal Declaration of Urban Rights

Zuloark (Spain)

Universal Declaration of Urban Rights, Zuloark, 2013

The introduction:  'Between 1986 and 2002, the Portuguese Association of Landscape Architects’ rules, codes, ethics and mission were designed, written and conducted from within the walls of the palace.

Presented as an infrastructure for communal reasoning about the rights to the city and the rights of being a citizen, the intent of this project is to build a Universal Declaration of Urban Rights, aiming to reach a consensus about the methodologies that regulate the construction, legislation and use of public space. Every Tuesday at 19:00, there is a Parliamentary Session led by guest speakers, open to the public, that contributes to the making of one article. Based on a trial and error methodology, the declaration will evolve as the project develops, throughout the course of the exhibition, written in successive drafts, throughout the course of the exhibition.'

 

In Dreams I Walk With You

Noam Toran (US) & Onkar Kular (UK)

Noam Toran & Onkar Kular. Mário Castelhano, 1928 © Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal. On 31 January 1912, 620 anarcho-syndicalists were arrested in the then headquarters of the movement, located at Palácio Pombal. Expelled from the building at gunpoint, it was reported that the anarchists proudly sang “The International”, before being led away.The description:  'A theatrical piece inspired by the “Worker’s Theatre” of the early 20th century in Europe, whose remit was to depict the struggle of the working class with the aim of arousing social consciousness and collective action. The subject of the play focuses on the relationship between Mário Castelhano (1894–1940) and Manuel Rijo (1897–1974): railworkers, militant anarchists, and syndicalist organisers who shared most of their adult lives in exile or imprisonment. Set in a degree zero architecture, the prison cell, the piece depicts a series of daring 'escapes' in which the prisoners mentally construct varying utopias to imaginatively travel to.  The work is accessed in the form of a written script, facing a theatre set empty of actors. At once a commemoration of the humanist values of political anarchism and a reflection on the fragility of contemporary political culture, the work is a meditation on the inherent problems of, but necessity for, the desire and production of utopias.'

Wednesday
Sep182013

Frida Escobedo: the public stage

 

www.close-closer.com is the quite confusing but graphically beautiful website for the triennale.

The Lisbon Triennale is launched, its theme: When do we produce architecture?  Frida Escobeda, who we published a long long time ago, issue 13 perhaps, has set up the Praça da Figueira as a stage. 

The intro says: 'What happens if a real-life public stage, a civic stage, is suddenly unveiled in our cities? What would happen if we reframe the tamed reality of public space into a theatrical site of exchange were can collectively perform our aspirations? Would fiction become real life and vice versa?'

The program, New Publics, has scheduled a number of performances and acts on Frida's stage, a floating disc, above, including City Acts, below, described thus:

'City Acts are three long-term city initiatives that address the domestic, the social, and the public space. Developed similar to ethnographic projects, they frame consistent dialogue and fieldwork as the main motor to create diverse and dynamic civic spaces. The success of all three initiatives relies on community support, which demonstrates the power of people working together.'  

 

Ground Floor Act, 2013 © ARTÉRIA. This group is made up of Artéria (Portugal), Daniel Fernández Pascual (Spain) and Unipop (Portugal))The triennale runs from September 12-November 10, 2013. 

Monday
Apr292013

the Gruen effect: shopping centres

 

The Gruen Effect. Victor Gruen and the Shopping Mall (HD 4GB) from pooldoks on Vimeo.

 

d.talks showed this film last week and then invited some local speakers to discuss it in front of an audience, which they actually didn't, discuss it that is, but talked instead about Calgary shopping malls, where the Gruen effect is alive and well.  
Highlights: Calgary expects to develop 15 million square feet of shopping centre retail space, or 10 Chinook Centres, over the next decade.
Alone, of all of North American cities, Calgary has not experienced any effects from the economic downturn that started in 2008.  It exists in a bubble of prosperity and retail consumption has simply continued to increase.
Shopping centres compete to provide memorable experiences, such as a 5 minute snowfall every afternoon in December in a mall in Florida: magical, calming, unforgettable.  

The documentary discusses the irony of Victor Gruen's ambitions and plans: the original shopping centre was meant as a community centre in the suburbs (where there was by definition no centre) along the lines of central Vienna – an open mix of courts, parks, cafés, department stores and shops, plus services such as libraries and banks.  No cars, a safe environment, easy access.  Rapacious development interests gradually eroded the service side in favour of total retail space.  The filmmakers returned to Vienna, which like most European cities, has become tourist magnet in its downtown core: a panoply of brand names and luxury stores, street entertainers and more tourists.  City centres have become like shopping centres themselves, placeless, or rather everyplace.  

Calgary's downtown core is a three-storey, two and a half-block long shopping mall built in 1975, anchored at one end by the Bay and originally at the other by Eaton's, but now by Holt Renfrew in the next block.  TD-Scotia Centre is the heart of the +15 system which connects major buildings throughout the core at the second and third-floor levels.
The subtext of the Gruen Effect documentary was that the social ambitions of Gruen were sabotaged by a virulent capitalism that extracts maximum revenue from the retail environment.  And that public spaces in today's downtown cores are actually private forecourts to corporate entities that 'look' public, but actually aren't.  As in, one cannot photograph them, sit in them, etc.  This is all true of Calgary, which I expect was the motive behind d.talks showing the documentary.

The d.talks discussion, as always has been in this city, was dominated by the complaint about the lack of any sort of interesting scene for young urbanites, most of whom I expect grew up in a suburb somewhere.  The mall representatives, a manager and an architect, talked about how malls have become nicer, with lamps and leather chairs, more like home, and two young entrepreneurs with a very cool men's clothing shop spoke about the economic advantages of being in the informal non-mall retail sector where their shop becomes a destination for client/friends to spend some time.  

Informal is my term because it seems that is how retail seems to divide.  Independents vs brands, each with its own architecture and urban spatiality.  Shopping centres and malls: islands in a sea of parking, food fairs and an exhaustive itinerary of unsurprising chain stores.  Independents: street parking and bus lines, small shops, restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries and bookstores, a hinterland of streets and houses.  This 'independent' landscape is necessarily dispersed: each inner city neighbourhood now has a relatively hip but short main street down its centre, each with its own character.  Not every street has the same things, so they aren't like open air shopping centres as these informal retail streets aren't masterminded into a complete and balanced retail program.  They are intensely local, and there is the difference.  

Calgary, in its seemingly endless search for a character (which it confuses with its brand), looks for amenities to provide pleasant experiences, rather than recognising often awkward and stubborn independent ambition which doesn't try to be all things to all people, but is local and thus invested in the city.  

What is the proportion of informal to formal retail?  I asked, but it wasn't answered.  I expect it is very small.  Does size matter?  No, of course not, but there has to be a critical mass of both clients and entrepreneurs who value small independent venues, and support them.  It is a question whether Calgary, because it developed after the 1950s and is thus is constructed from fifty years of suburban models, has that critical mass.  If it does, they live in the pre-1950s inner city neighbourhoods and in the new downtown condos, but this is, relative to the whole city, a very small demographic.  Small, always present, and that actively discusses urban issues.

Sunday
Apr212013

The Smithsons on Housing, 1970

Robin Hood Gardens is being demolished, which is perhaps what spurred the posting of this 1970 BBC documentary of Peter and Alison Smithson talking about the design of Robin Hood Gardens, the conditions they found in Britain after the war, the lack of intelligent housing. It is filmed in classic Grierson style by B S Johnson with long slow pans of the project in construction interspersed with Alison and Peter talking about it: Alison with a strangely constructed accent — Alison from Doncaster in north-east England, who studied architecture in an era when no women studied architecture without a lot of trouble and yet, with the earnest Peter in a sparkly silver tie, can speak so passionately about the hopes and expectations of architecture while wearing a silver leather jacket.  I don't think we have any idea what her back story was.  

The documentary style with the slow pans: compared to today when no image is allowed to be seen for more than a second, preferably shorter, this was typical of the still, contemplative, postwar mise-en-scène of longueurs, of silences, of the populating of landscapes with people just outside the frame.  It is a style revisited by Patrick Keiller in London, 1994 the same slow suppressed anger.  The Smithsons On Housing is strangely elegiac considering it was made before Robin Hood Gardens was even finished.

Why did Robin Hood Gardens become redundant?  Society changed, moved on.  The housing Robin Hood Gardens replaced was a Victorian fabric of terraces: no front or back yards, back-to-back brick rows and shared privies, incapable of expansion or change, interspersed with temporary wartime housing and outmoded dockland infrastructure.  Robin Hood Gardens replaced fabric with an exceptional model: expandable, collective, much open space for children, all on the CIAM derivée: one lives up in the light and air and frees the ground plane for play.  This isn't fabric, although the people destined to live in it were the fabric of the working class.  By the late 1960s when the project was designed, that class was in violent transition; when Mrs Thatcher declared there was no such thing as society and arranged for the privatisation of council housing, projects such as Robin Hood Gardens – which relied on social solidarity, a shared understanding of values and one's place in life – became not only redundant, but an active hindrance to individualistic striving.  

Somehow Robin Hood Gardens and the Smithson's earnest, thoughtful, intelligent analysis of what was needed in housing completely misinterpreted the times.  Typically it is architects who wanted the buildings listed and protected rather than condemned: a handsome place to live with all its trailing social idealism and visions of a collective understanding of deep history and place, of London's industrial past, of – above all – solidarity, a now deeply outmoded concept. 

The 5 acre site that had carried Robin Hood Gardens's 252 units in what had been the Poplar district, will be part of a larger 7.7ha (19 acre) Blackwall Reach development of 1575 units, double the density.  The demographic has changed, the regeneration of East London is in full flow: how many new reports did we see in the run-up to the Olympics from that extremely glitzy, high-end shopping mall with reporters saying 'this isn't the old east end' ? – dozens.  However the new schemes still show tower blocks, slab bars of housing, green parks between; the buildings will still be concrete, but now they look white, rather than concrete-coloured.   There is a homeowners association, thus there is a financial commitment by future occupants to Blackwall Reach: it will be a 30-year mortgage rather than a weekly rent.  Is this the significant difference?  Participation in a financial structure which has shown in the past few years to be so unsteady and insecure?  

Robin Hood Gardens could have been renovated, restored, divided into separate titles even, but its form is so embedded with a belief in the essential good of government and people, betrayed as soon as the building opened in 1972, that it has become a tragic glyph in a rather tougher economic text.

Monday
Apr152013

fuel stops

Paris curb gas pumpsA nice minimalism here, makes one wonder what all the fuss is about in our cities: the acres of asphalt, the huge signs, the added gimmickry. Gas pumps have always been tidy curb-side affairs in Paris, but perhaps we, here, will learn retrospectively from charging stations, which are the new equivalent.

San Francisco charging points

Friday
Mar222013

Denys Lasdun: modernism deeply dyed

Denys Lasdun. Royal College of Physicians, London, 1960

Lasdun felt his best building was the 1960 Royal College of Physicians, set into the Georgian terraces of Regent's Park, London.  We don't get this kind of outside space anymore, noir-ish, uncompromising, heroic: terraces for the dark life of the soul.  Instead, having looked at an archive of drawings over the last year of contemporary civic public space proposals, according to the renderings, we must all gaily trip through our cities in full colour, casual clothes, balloons flying, children laughing.  

The public spaces of modernism were adult spaces. They weren't spaces of power but of public access, and that was, given the history of European property ownership and display, a serious business.  History wasn't interesting – it had caused two ghastly wars and in the 1960s the tall capacious houses of Regent's Park were likely to either be offices or carved up into a dozen cheap bedsits.  The bones of the elegant curved terrace could be honoured, but not much else.  

Denys Lasdun's son, James, seen below in an excerpt from a talk at the New York Writers Institute in 2009, speaks about the fierceness of the modernist tenets he grew up with.  Ironically, especially when he says that postmodernism was anathema to Denys Lasdun, James has recently published a book, Give Me Everything You Have, on the ultimate postmodern crime: he has been cyber-stalked since 2006 by a student he once taught at NYU.

Friday
Mar152013


The opening image for Call the Midwife, a BBC drama about nursing at the beginning of the NHS.

The opening of Call the Midwife shows a liner at the end of the street, Saville Road, Silverton, East London.  

There is something so graphic about emigration here: this was the connection to the world, for all those people in East London, who were  completely despised until the 2012 Olympics made everyone realize that here was some prime real estate, cheap. This ship was probably going to Pier 21 in Halifax, below, also visible at the end of a number of streets, such is eighteenth century planning.  

1935: Pier 21, ocean liner, the Nova Scotian Hotel, the combined CNR and CPR railway station, all seen from Cornwallis Park. courtesy Nova Scotia Museums.This aerial, below, shows Pier 21, the Nova Scotian Hotel and the CP/CNR Station lines, angling in at the far right, a triumvirate of immigrant distribution.