26 August 2009

Following up my recent post on New York's High Line elevated urban park, it turns out that the shiny hotel overlooking it is inhabited by flashers. Exhibitionists cannot resist displaying themselves in the floor-to-ceiling windows to the busy park below - and, the Standard being quite a fashionable hotel, it seems to attract quite an attractive class of naked person, see pictures here in the Daily Mail.

This is exactly what I mean by the sexualised city: these practices of display and the gaze, and the importance of physical bodies in inhabiting urban space. Fuck any western preoccupation with subjectivity being some mental state!

22 August 2009

The City in High Heels - New Methods in Urban Studies

Men cannot understand the urban surface. Sadly they design most of it, but paths trodden in Converse allow no appreciation of the myriad textures and challenges of the different pavements in this City. Sturdy flat shoes stride onwards unimpeded, unthinking - let's trip this shit up.

I propose a high-heeled method for this exploration, this opening up of that which is in plain sight. As high as you can, please - 5" does nicely - as this walk must take on both altitude and danger. One needs to walk in something that makes the very practice of walking rather difficult. Perverse? But that is the point - to complicate walking in the richest social-science sense of 'to complicate': to make multireferential, contradictory, challenging. For this purpose Balenciaga's legendary high-heeled hiking boot would be ideal:

The first lesson of this methodology is fetishistic. We wish to expand the notion of the erotic from mere genital origin into the very fabric of the city itself. On an elementary level, the very concept of hiking boots with a 5" heel is perverse. Good. Then, to walk in such shoes lengthens the leg and forces a certain sashay into the hips. In such a heel the buttock is tightened, the body tautened; there is a physical awareness and an awareness of the eyes of others, especially the admiring glance from those gentlemen who have a kink for these things. One no longer merely walks but struts - the stroll becomes a passegiata, a promenade, and the role of pedestrian spaces for style and display and flirtation is brought to the fore. The possibility of an erotic encounter is trodden into the city with every step.

The second lesson of this methodology is about disability. To be sure in high heels one restricts oneself voluntarily, so it hardly offers meaningful insight into the urban experience of people with mobility problems. Nonetheless the pavement is transformed into a place of hazard - and the pedestrian now aware of the slightest irregularity. Gaps between paving slabs; tree roots; this particularly slipperty type of tarmac. Uneven paving slabs offering just enough of a step to trip you up. Uneven kerbs, sloping streets, metal gratings and un-flat manhole covers - even frequent changes of pavement surface or inexpertly patched tarmac become a problem. Give yourself a balance impediment, restrict your stride length, and suddenly such things as these become real obstacles - furthermore if you trip and fall it is not so easy to recover. Accessible distances become another issue, the long walks at Bank tube station exhausting in a way the Converse-clad cannot see. High heels offer a chance for empathy with those who find it hard to walk, and spotlight all the places where the pavement is exclusionary. High heels tell us what to change to make these public spaces really public for all.

Under this methodology all New York is hell - the city cannot mend a pavement for shit. In one particularly epic pothole a high-heeled friend did in fact fall and break her leg - transforming voluntary impediment into real disability for some months. This, you understand, is why it is important to wear stilettos rather than wedge heels: they'll snap in place of your fibia.

The final lesson of the high-heeled method is in texture: for this we must abandon the platform heel for something with a thinner sole. (But please not the ballet flat: these are not chic when terminating an English cankle.) The heel puts pressure on the ball of the foot and again focuses attention as to what's underneath. This intimate contact between sole and pavement allows hitherto unconsidered differentiation between different surface materials - the cool pleasures of smooth flagstones; the dozen genres of tarmac; dimpled concrete versus cobblestones. With practice one might locate oneself to the exact street within a handful of closed-eye steps - now that would be urban knowledge.

Yes, I would make every urban planning student walk in high heels for a semester - transvestite shops cater for all sizes no excuses. More navigable pavements would be a victory for disabled access, sure - but, shit, shouldn't urban designers pay some attention to the needs of high heel wearers as a fundamental principle? Stiletto-navigable streets inconvenience no-one, help many, and yet women's specific needs for urban space are inadequately sufficient. From another angle, Barbara Penner's work on the politics of public toilets makes a similar point - as she puts it:

" As one of the last openly sex-segregated spaces in Western cities, toilets fit the bill, allowing me to think about the ways in which the male-dominated professions of planning, engineering, and architecture fail to accommodate and even actively suppress female needs.

In the late nineteenth century, George Bernard Shaw, then heavily involved in local government, complained that the barrier of the “unmentionable” meant that women’s bodies were never visible at the political level. This silence about needs and provision, in turn, has historically had a real impact on women’s mobility, comfort, and sense of belonging in the modern city."

Street pianos - performing the public

Play Me I'm Yours was an audacious public art project masterminded by Luke Jerram. The concept was simple and inspired: place 30 decorated pianos in public spaces around the city and leave them for people to play. Unlike the pre-booked pitches for buskers on the Tube, these were free-range pianos - displaying a rare amount of public trust one might contrast with Gormley's hyper-shielded plinth project. Pianos were left out with simply the trust that people would look after them and play fair; for a month these pianos were ours. The result: some truly extraordinary moments of beautiful musicianshp and/or spontaneous public singalongs.

Liverpool Street station:

Carnaby Street:

Cycling map heterotopia - radical geographies from Transport for London

Cycling geography is awesome. Yesterday a nice brown paper package dropped through the post: Local Cycling Guides from Transport for London. Maps! Now, maps on their own make me happy - it's geeky, but I love to see how everything connects up, and that passion isn't dimmed by however much critical cartography and Brian Harley I read on the power relations involved. Yet in that context these maps are particularly exciting. What they do is re-write the entire fucking road system.

Roads are what make my mental map of the City more than an atomistic collection of buildings and destinations. From the distinctive shapes of the Imax and the South Bank you glide over the river on Waterloo Bridge, swing round the Aldwych, progress up Kingsway past school and the coffee shops, then the Bloomsbury artery of Southampton Row turning into Woburn Place and the difficulties of crossing Euston Road... Maybe Hampstead Road up to Camden High Street past all the council highrises named after places in the Lake District, or up the strange nothingness of York Way with its empty railway sheds and redevelopment that still doesn't look like the architect's pictures... Roads are how I think of the city, and these main roads provide the arterial framework by which I can understand relative location and compass direction and distance.

What's fantastic about these cycling maps is that they upturn that hierarchy. Cycling on high-traffic main roads being scary and dangerous, they structure an alternative network of routeways on low-traffic back roads, utilising every bit of canal towpath and park and standalone bike lane in the capital. Despite studying my well-worn A to Z and knowing my neighbourhood well, I had thought that most journeys I'd need to take would involve these main roads: that they were the straight lines down to Old Street and Camden and Angel, and that backroad routes to these places would be twisty, torturous, too complex to remember.

No! On these cycling maps the major roads fade into the background of black and white, a network of blue and yellow routes drawn above show the sensible ways to go. Yellow roads have been recommended by cyclists as quiet, safe, good alternatives; blue routes may be on busier roads but are at least specifically signed for cyclists. Caledonian Road? Take Hemingford Road. Use Nevill Road to avoid busy Stoke Newington High Street. Highbury Fields and Drayton Park take you to Finsbury Park the safe way; here's a zigzagging (but signed) back route that gets me to Camden without either Holloway Road, Camden Road, or death.

I love it, and want to try it out - every route, every option. This is a new city opened up before me; let these alternatives harden themselves into my mind as my thighs harden into granite with all this practice. Who knew Transport for London made heterotopias? Because this is a heterotopia, I think - an inverting of the usual order of things; a utopian dream of roads for people not motors; a blend of real and imagined; blue and yellow lines of what should be drawn upon the grey map of what is.

17 August 2009

I Love Hoxton

Hoxton High Street, where else?

What If... void spaces could be greened?

There's a vacant patch of ground near my office. It's not large, an interstitial point behind some offices and next to a a low-rise council block, the post-war kind balcony walkways to the flats. 8x8 metres, let's say, the kind of space that's too small to develop and not big enough to bother about.

Instead, What If projects, an urban sustainability architecture practice, have got 70 half-tonne bags of soil and turned it into an allotment space for the local community. They say it's made the place "a beautiful oasis of green" - green yes, urban oasis yes, beautiful not so sure the plastic bags of soil are really that aesthetically appealing - even if they were commissioned to install the same thing for the opening of the Louis Vuitton store in Westfield shopping centre, see photo below. The latter being such a strange juxtaposition makes somehow the soil bags more appealing - they may be ugly but curation by Jeremy Deller, Turner Prize Winner 2004, makes them art? No, that's too hierarchical an attitude to take - but there's still a joy to be found in this disruption of pristine designer commercial space, even if the fact that it's there at the invitation of the shop itself makes it hardly radical.

This space is distinguished from a void by its big enigmatic white sign, showing only the OS grid reference, an arrow, and their web address. What If call this space Vacant Lot, and they've got more grow bags on another stretch of Chart Street, plus Plant Room on neighbouring East Road and a dozen more projects.

They then do more theoretical work, such as Modesty Screened, looking at temporary inhabitable environments formed without formal architectural intervention. Again, their examples are super-local to me - e.g. the garden centre on Caledonian Road. They write:

In UK cities approx. 70% of urban space is residential and planning authorities positively encourage residential-use over other activities. By taking advantage of the slowness of the planning process, areas of the city (i.e. unused sites, disused infrastructure, empty parking garages) could be used temporarily in this way.

This model can be developed in two directions:

1. On a strategic level to encourage the temporary use of existing `unused‘ sites within cities. Activities within these sites can expand to encourage other uses for example: urban agriculture, educational facilities, office / workshop space, arts and entertainment, residential, etc.

2. At a programmatic scale this model can be developed to see how it could influence the spatial and programmatic design of new mixed-use urban developments.

More about this to follow, I hope - I'm really excited by it both theoretically and because, well, I too am an urban dweller without a garden, and I'd love a chance to get my hands dirty with such a practical activism/intervention.

15 August 2009

Learning to cycle / re-learning the City

I bought a bike this afternoon, the process having to be facilitated by a couple of mgs of valium because something about starting cycling in this City scares me that much. This makes it interesting; makes it something important to face up to and do.

Just the ride home from the bike shop opened up so many ideas - cycling will rewrite my urban experience. A few preliminary thoughts:

1. You go so fast. Three or four times as fast my usual walked 4mph and shit, I'm not used thinking at such speeds. Decision-making, navigating, keeping my eyes on everything I need to notice (cars traffic lights parked cars pedestrians holes in the road where the fuck i am) - this must be the source of my fear: the threat of overload in such a dangerous environment. Galloping on a horse - similar speeds, similar lack of crash protection - was at first frightening too; then it just became exhilarating. But there you've got the horse thinking about how to keep you out of trouble too - so perhaps my problems would be solved by a conscious (furry) bicycle?

2. You go so fast. This is going to make the City really small. I got back from Chalk Farm in what felt like 10 minutes, though it must have been longer - the concentration required puts you into a flow state where time is irrelevant. Yet that journey takes a good 45 minutes by bus, being an across-town orbital that doesn't mesh well with a largely radial system of bus routes. So now, fuck, is Chalk Farm close? Easy visits to my friend in Primrose Hill, Marine Ices, and that lovely vegetarian hippy cafe that kept feeding me free food? I'm going to be able to get to hitherto unknown places like Deptford, and the Lea Valley, and - fuck! - maybe the west. Correction: this is going to make my currently-frequented City really small, and enormously expand my perceptions of what's there and what's possible. Life beyond Zone 2 awaits.

3. This is going to require a phenomenal amount of navigational ability. I can usually look at a map once and memorise the route I need to walk - my recall of scale & direction & road names is good enough to absorb a mile or two's data in one go. But, going faster, a bicycle covers so many more streets. Futhermore, in the interests of not getting squashed I might like to stay off main roads where possible, requiring an even greater demand to remember labyrinthine back routes. Suddenly the Knowledge of this town's taxi drivers becomes something I too need to gain.

4. Cycling is also daunting because I apparently don't believe cars have people in - human-shaped amoral vegetables maybe, but not thinking caring people. Pedestrian life seems to have left me with the impression that it's my job to get out of their way, with no expectations that traffic will reciprocally try to avoid me. (After all, they're not going to be damaged by any close encounter.) So I carry this perception through to cycling, even though I am now a road user who should be a car's equal, someone to slow for and permit to turn and acknowledge right of way. I don't seem to understand that I am an equal, and cars should/will do these things for me; has pedestrianism left me with an inferiority complex? That says something about the hierarchical way in which our cities are currently designed/built - and perhaps makes a strong case in favour of those pavement-lowering, sign-removing, shared space reforms recently introduced along such roads as Kensington High Street.

13 August 2009

Ornamented spaces

Jewellery students had taken over this disused shop on Camden High Street to show some of their degree work, these fascinating fabric-wrapped constructions and organic clustered shapes. We stepped downstairs to find, suddenly, the same forms garlanding the basement as used for the necklaces on dispay above -- oh the striking equivalency this suggests between rooms and bodies: they are both containers we inhabit, the spaces in and through which we live.

12 August 2009

URBAN SURVIVAL! With Bear Grylls!!

The City is full of hazards. To keep you safe, here are some words of wisdom from macho SAS adventure man Bear Grylls (feel the testosterone fumes coming off his mere name) that I ripped out of a freebie paper [pdf version here]:

Bear, we're walking down Oxford Street on our way to buy some new pants when a giant savage poodle tries to maul us to death. What should we do to survive?

"I was always told in my army days just to whip your shirt off, wrap it round your arm to protect it, offer it that, let it go for it and then jam your fingers together straight into both eyes. Then squeeze together into its brain, hold it there, and it will release you and die. You're safe."

We're ice skating on the frozen Serpentine and then - crack! - the ice breaks and we plunge into the freezing water. We don't want to die wearing ice skates, so what should we do?

"The first thiing is don't panic. You can die from the gasp reflex when the shock makes you breathe water into your lungs, so you need to control your panic. Turn around and look at where you fell in - you know the ice is good to get out from. Break the ice, then ease your weight up and wriggle like a seal, kicking hard and spreading your weight. When you get out you need to get warm, so take your clothes off and start doing press-ups."

We're on the London Eye and it's really hot - bloody global warming - but it gets stuck, the sun is baking through the capsule and the air conditioning is screwed. How do we stay cool?

"Have you got a window in there? ['Not sure,' we say.] Well, that's very hard. Dehydration is a real killer. I've been in deserts where it's so hot they say that, if you don't have any water or survival skills, you're dead in three hours. Smash a window, get a bit of airflow through and, if nobody is ever going to get you, you're going to have to climb down. I've often thought about climbing the London Eye. I've examined it - it looks quite straightforward."

Now there's a challenge for the City Project to live up to this weekend!

5 August 2009

The High Line park, NYC

City Project is just back from another great city: New York. The High Line park was opened in June, a much-publicised urban oasis on the site of a former rail line running up the West side from Gansevoort St to 20th. The regeneration had been kickstarted by the 2000 photoseries from Joel Sternfeld, showing the park abandoned, recolonised by nature, a beguiling secret space raised up above the city's awareness. It was beautiful. Now, designed within an inch of its life by James Corner Field operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, could the High Line retain any of this magic? My lover was not sure, and wrote to me about this... Then I went to see for myself.

He wrote:

I've just been up to the old elevated train line that was converted into a park. Near sunset, a rosy evening, lots of people on the streets, drifting out of gallery openings between 20th and 25th.

A park like that could have been a wild place, stolen from the city, but it was as sterile as an architect's drawing. Signs said "Keep it wild, keep to the path" - as if you can call anything wild when it grows in a sprinkler-irrigated patch of gravel that's not so much cultivated as curated.

At one point along the path the viaduct crossed the corner of a low building's roof. Broken chairs, old TV sets, statues with their heads replaced, hand-painted signs, hinted that the roof had once been a gateway to this place - what was now a public park had been someone's secret playground. I'm not sure the city's richer for the change.

Even landscape architects couldn't rob the place of all its character, though. There were views over the glass and steel of Chelsea, but more impressive were the points where the path passed through or under buildings. There was one that I found particularly striking - a high modernist grid of green glass and grey tiles, perched on tapering legs. As you know I'm not a fan of the international style, but there was something about the evening light on that smooth green surface that I found oddly moving. It seemed to call back half-formed memories from my early childhood - the wind on the sea, and something else I couldn't bring to the surface. On the way back to the subway all the greens and turquoises were peculiarly vivid. I bought a notebook to write this down for you before it faded.

You should go there when you're over, one early evening when the galleries are open - maybe write about it for the City Project.

My response:

I liked it. I'm not sure I have a defensible reason for liking the park as a concept, but certainly the planting was excellent. Fashionably loose, dominated by grasses and big drifts of colour without structure - all annuals that will die down in the winter, no shrubs - it reminded me strongly of another Chelsea: the Chelsea Flower Show, highlight of the British garden design calendar. The late summer prairie planting contrasted against the austere running lines of the concrete pathway and slick benches; the ecological design selecting the silver foliage and meadow plants that can handle the exposure and shallow soil and extremes of climate; the repetition of design elements and a limited number of different plant types - this is all very now, very chic. It's innovative to see this style escape the private garden for the public park, a space so long the domain of regemented beds of pansies and busy lizzies.

Its naturalness is to be sure a faux-naturalness, an aesthetic covertly overtly created - but the idea of the secret derelict nature reserve that was there before is surely too fantastical to be true (I never saw it, did you?) so what else can the High Line be now but fictive? The concept of a park on stilts, while a happy (hard-fought-for) accident, seems more like a borrowing from the Far East - Hong Kong, or Tokyo, where you don't walk consistently at ground level anywhere. It is designed for such an international audience (perhaps urban studies-educated visitors such as myself most of all!) rather than the utility of any local residents - park utility as in such civil functions as public gathering, grass and trees for those without gardens, space jogging and team sports and whiling away afternoons. No: instead it is surely a space in which to promenade one's small overpampered lapdog to attract another lapdog/metropolitan owner combo of appropriate sexuality; a purpose-designed space for showing off and dating? How utterly NY!

Of course, it's not exactly a free public space or much of an opening for civil society. Has any park been such since the cruisers were kicked out of Russell Square and Tessa Jowell tried to deny Hyde Park to the war marchers? The normative nature of parkspace (no camping no barbeques no music get your public assembly licenced plz) is just a little more visible on the High Line, its very shape in its elongation forbidding any crowd gathering, its entrances so easily sealed off. Perhaps the private garden style design is telling here. This loose, natural planting is meticulously tended by gardeners wearing chic pastiche Chinese peasant hats as they labour on their knees in the relentless unshaded sunshine. It's very picturesque, even labour becoming an elegant spectacle. Do you think they have health insurance?

The High Line is absolutely a bastardisation of what was there before - but the whole of Chelsea is the self-same thing, a district playing at very high-end faux dilapidation with its warehouse art galleries and stripped-down designer clothes stores; it has got the park it deserves and maybe that is excellent site-appropriate design. We're in the wrong part of town to design a park for the poor, darling.

An ambiguous defence, I know. I instinctually liked it, and yet it is unquestionably a problematic space. But oh, such dilemmas are the meat of urban experience...

Peckham library (Will Alsop, 2000)

I stumbled across Peckham Library quite unexpectedly the other day. It won the Stirling prize in 2000, and high words are said about its social responsibility - thus an appropriate find when I was in the neighbourhood to explore a charity's work with the socially excluded. But does the building work, does it really change anything? I was unsure.

Undoubtedly it's interesting to look at, and for architecture (a discipline that does not convince me with its political convictions) this might be everything - instead of a mere fragment of the building's impact, a fraction of its function as an assemblage of space-movement-people-meaning in a specific socio-economic context. Some authoritative voice tells us that "Peckham Library is not an irreverent post-modern architectural joke. It is a very serious building with a strong social mission" - and then indicates that said social mission goes as far as some nice but hardly revolutionary sustainable cooling measures. Woo. Critical urban theory has apparently not made enough an impact on designers yet, even though they can buy the latest City journal on this very topic in Borders no fancy academic subscription required.

But despite my scepticism, some of Peckham Library's social misssion seems to be working. It's shown in the increased visits to the library, and Alsop's 'civism'
"where civic space is defined as a place where you can meet someone outside, name the place and know where to go"
would indeed seem to be boosted in Peckham: this is a memorable place, it puts Peckham on the map for the right reasons rather than shootings, and there is indeed outdoor seating for meeting people. Nonetheless, nine years on the public square is a little run down, weeds colonising the paving, repairs needed and not forthcoming. The regeneration the library was supposed to herald does not seem to have arrived - perhaps there have been repairs, but no change of mood, no boost in image - and the locality remains very isolated: even the buses take convoluted routes to get there. The highstreet was covered in litter; so much for reputed Anthony Gormley street art.

This regeneration has entailed £275m in investment; 2500 new homes; a £5m new library (which admittedly Gordon the postman thinks is "beautiful"). But if you want to put an end to the ghetto then stop locking the gates at night - this is what's wrong with many smaller-scale housing projects too: impeding porous movement between neighbouring areas creates a them/us mentality and stops deprived areas integrating into wider society. Peckham needs a tube station and the access to the wider London jobs market that would facilitate; without this the gates are locked and the whole neighbourhood is socially excluded. However lovely the access to knowledge it may promise, a pretty green library is fairly cosmetic.

Cities & Citizenship: a New Urban Agenda debate

An interesting upcoming event from the London Development Agency's New Urban Agenda on the intersection of urban life, urban design, and citizenship:

* What does it mean to be a citizen in the 21st century?
* What is the relationship between the way we design our city and our perception and experience of citizenship?
* Is it time to redefine Londoners' obligations, responsibilities and rights to improve the liveability of our city?
* Are we equipped to tackle the environmental and economic challenges we face?

These questions and more will be tackled in a debate on Cities and Citizenship which kicks off the LDA’s New Urban Agenda Debates. Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA will be in conversation with leading social entrepreneur Lord Mawson and pioneering writer and journalist Anna Minton, chaired by Ricky Burdett, Director of the Urban Age programme at the LSE.

The event will take place at 18:30 on Monday 21 September in the Great Room at the RSA, as part of the London Design Festival