30 January 2010

This is orc country...

Orc Country

The white hand of Saruman?

Or just a kid and a visceral statement, I Am Here. This Is My City. The ur-point of the graffiti tag, legible in any culture - fuck your matte black building site hoardings, here is the human element...

29 January 2010

Cities lectures at LSE, Spring 2010

One of my new year's resolutions: attend more of these! LSE's always good at big public lectures - perhaps not such high-profile urbanists in 2010 as in previous years, but with a clear environmental theme this year they're sure to be worthwhile. See you there?

Delivering a Low Carbon London
Date: Tuesday 2 February 2010
Time: 6.30-8pm
Venue: Hong Kong Theatre, Clement House
Speaker: Isabel Dedring

Isabel Dedring will discuss developing and implementing a vision for a low carbon London. She is environment adviser to the Mayor of London, and has also been director of the policy unit at Transport for London.

Sustainable Housing: how can we save 80 per cent of our energy use in existing homes?
Date: Tuesday 9 February 2010
Time: 6.30-8pm
Venue: New Theatre, East Building
Speaker: Professor Anne Power

This lecture addresses how we can drastically reduce energy consumption and consequent carbon emissions by considering existing buildings. Anne Power, professor of social policy, is head of LSE Housing and Communities, a research group in the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion.

Reading London (part of the LSE Literature Festival)
Date: Saturday 13 February 2010
Time: 1-2.30pm
Venue: Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building
Speakers: Professor Rosemary Ashton, Dan Cruickshank, Leo Hollis, Hans Ulrich Obrist

How do we attempt to understand the sprawling "modern Babylon" that is London, with its layers of social, political and cultural history? Can art, architecture and literature help us to 'read' this complex city?

Rosemary Ashton - prof. of English lit & Bloomsbury literary culture
Dan Cruickshank - architectural historian and television presenter
Leo Hollis - history of London, inc. The Phoenix: the men who made modern London
Hans Ulrich Obrist - director at the Serpentine Gallery

The City Solution: Climate change and transport design
Date: Monday 8 March 2010
Time: 6.30-8pm
Venue: Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building
Speaker: Janette Sadik-Kahn

Janette Sadik-Khan, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, has transformed the way New Yorkers think of sustainable transport and realised some dramatic and effective projects and policy changes in a brief period – including the part-pedestrianisation of Times Square. She will explain how creative public transport solutions can address the environmental impact of cities and improve the quality of urban life.
Part of the Urban Age: Cities and the Environment series

27 January 2010

Property porn - desire, self-loathing, and real estate

My Regent's Canal walk a while back was a beautiful but frustrating experience. For mile upon mile I passed the most desirable apartments: perfect geometry, perfect patina, perfect lifestyles on offer if you only had the key.

The key being, oooh, six hundred thousand or so? A cool million if you want a place in the Wenlock Building with its chinchilla fucking carpets... The waterfront warehouse: industrial chic in a calming canalside environment. The stresses of urban living soothed by that neighbouring touch of nature - drink your morning Gaggia-juice watching ducklings dabble past. Lateral space. Curving panoramic picture windows. High ceilings, light, and neighbours of a class worth networking with. What could possibly be nicer?

Such a lifestyle being even remotely attainable.

I do not even desire the highest end buildings (too luxury, not enough warehouse), but it struck me: this is pornography. Lusting after beauty made object, an object you cannot access in reality and yet long to own and possess. That dirty consumer indulgence of imaging where you'd put the grand piano, the cocktail cabinet, and the Andreas Gursky print, and the repeated daydreaming through particularly favoured scenarios. A fantasy life develops in which these things are yours and their lustre rubs off on to you; you become just that little bit more elegant, more urbane.

With a bacherlor/ette pad in this place, just imagine the sexual calibre of the affairs you would have...

'Property porn' is, appallingly, included in the Collins English Dictionary, which describes it as "a genre of escapist TV programmes, magazine features, etc showing desirable properties for sale, especially those in idyllic locations, or in need of renovation, or both."

It has its a Twitter account, @propertyporn.

There's even a book about it, Marjorie B. Garber's Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses, where she argues:

What do college students talk about with their roommates? Sex. Twenty years later, what do they talk about with their friends and associates? Real estate. And with the same gleam in the eyes. Real estate today has become a form of yuppie pornography.

But isn't this rather a softcore kind of porn, using the word only as a cheeky reference to having fantasies? Get us, aren't we liberal and naughty? Or hasn't online pornography also created (or facilitated) the sex addict, the dopamine junkie comprehensively scrambling his ability to find pleasure in real women and real sex through consuming this parade of hyperreal silicone and coffee-creamer cum shots? Porno-driven desire all too easily feeds a well of bitterness and frustration - the porn user's misogyny, a hatred for the gorgeous young things who make like they want him on screen – but in real life really don't.

That's where I want to take this 'property porn' analogy. Fantasy-land is a dangerous place, and I want to ask what it does to us to be surrounded by beautiful architecture and beautiful lifestyles that we'll never, ever be able to afford to have.

I find myself half envious, half bitter towards that older generation (my parents) who benefitted from the Nineties and Noughties housing booms - those people who bought low, saw their equity multiply, made it impossible for my generation to buy - and, while they were at it, have us paying off their buy-to-let investments' mortgages with our rental payments. Lovely for them, of course, but this generational inequity (confined to the middle class, admittedly, but that's most of us these days) is no social good.

Through desiring these homes I cannot afford, it's also easy to start resenting my current work in social research. Ooh, an LSE 1st and I might be able to earn £25k in about ten years' time? Christ, what the hell made me pick anthropology when I could have done maths and been a banker! Each time I desire an apartment I can't imagine ever affording, my earning ability, my choices, my value to the (economic) world are measured - and found wanting. Doing something inexplicable in finance starts to look really very rational, if else so much of the city (its homes, its shops, its restaurants and pleasure) can never, ever be mine.

An article at Counterpunch comes to some similar thoughts:

How much was property porn responsible for the inflation of the bubble? Long before becoming chief executive of the housing charity Shelter, Adam Sampson did academic research on sexual pornography. He sees the two as having a similar impact:
"Pornography can make feelings and behaviours that are otherwise unacceptable seem normal. Property porn didn't invent the pastime of using houses to make money - but it gave it legitimacy."

Which is what is truly objectionable about property porn - it takes away the home, it takes away the love - and makes it a mere financial transaction.

26 January 2010


Leonard Street, EC2A.

This has also caught the eye of the Chaotic Semiotic, who posts the full text. The poem (if it wants to be seen as that?) is certainly worth a read, resonating like something somehow familiar, a "lesser-known Wilfred Owen". Yet after several reads I still can't untangle the mix of sentiment sympathetic to the military (if not to war) with Temple Ov Thee Psychick Youth spelling. Writing about finding a lost book, I called the city opaque. Here it goes further into the occult.

24 January 2010

Findings in the city: books, names, questions

It's been a good month for the city giving me gifts. My lover always finds playing cards, one a week or so, with which he reads an urban tarot. Me? I've had a knack for street clothes, gathering bedraggled pieces of fabric and taking them home to wash. Last winter this got me a good warm hoody at a time I was too unemployed to turn the heating on much, though the elbow-length black velvet gloves won out for chic alongside warmth. Various hats, a couple of things that went straight to charity shops... And of course this scavenging isn't karma-free, so those scarves I've lost on buses and jackets I've left on trains? Call it tit-for-tat.

But what brought me to blog was a History of the City of Gaza, or, at the time I came across it, an anonymous brown-bound hardcover on a wall in Holloway. A 1966 edition of a 1907 book by Martin A. Meyer, a genuine bona fide time capsule telling of a Gaza city so far from the one we know today - as the frontispiece shows:

"The city of Gaza has not had the glamour thrown around it which has brought so many cities on the coasts of the Mediterranean into great prominence. But ... The importance of the city of Gaza will be more and more emphasized as the eastern shores of the Mediterranean are opened up to the commerce of the world, and as the projected railroads bring the inner parts of hither Asia into direct connection with the sea.

"Hither Asia"! What a term. How different the geography of the world - the knowledge of the world - the world itself in 1907. Though, too, the eastern shores of the Mediterranean have indeed been opened up to the commerce of the world, and Gaza certainly has an importance today - an importance that might be said to have a kind of glamour (in leftist circles at least), an evocative power and meaning beyond the bare facts. So perhaps Meyer is not so irrelevant now as all that, and perhaps that's why the book's been republished in June 2009 and apparently reprinted already.

But the story, the story - I tell you all this for the inscription on the inner leaf: "Abeer Abuwarda, 10/2008, London". Suddenly my street find conceivably had an owner, if they'd lost the book rather than put it out on the street like so much broken furniture. Now I may be an opportunist but I'm no thief, so I googled to see if I could find this person to whom to return the book. Who'd I find? A London Met doctoral student working on Architecture of Resistance During the Gaza Blockade, and the "permanent temporiness" of Palestinian refugee camps (Khan Unis Camp below).

(Following the Gaza line of enquiry into permanent temporary settlements, do read the ever-interesting Eyal Weizman on Ariel Sharon, the architect/general for whom war is politics and politics is space-making. But back to the story:)

Small world, you might think, if I could find the book's former owner so easily, and if s/he's an architectural theory postgrad just down the road. But within this visibility is deeper anonymity - "Abeer Abuwarda" has no google trail other than this one page; is presumably not their 'public' name but a personal one for writing in books & this one piece of work; is not to be contacted for bookish purposes after all.

Thus the found object remains mute, its history (lost or discarded?) unclear, its rightful owner (Abeer or me?) unknowable. Whatever the marvels of internet search technology, the city remains opaque.