31 May 2010

Holes in buildings: theories & practices

My urban theory reading group is getting into practice. A fortnight ago we joined the student occupation protesting cuts at Middlesex University and talked about Walter Benjamin, history and memory, 1968 and now. On Tuesday we engaged in a little more occupation of underused space - this time a mid-rise housing block standing empty awaiting demolition. Our reading: Eyal Weizman's Lethal Theory [PDF].

Lethal Theory explores Israeli Defence Force (IDF) tactics in Nablus, Palestine, April 2002. Palestinian resistance had barricaded all entrances to the old city and mined the roads, so the IDF gained access by "walking through walls" - that is, blasting holes in them and moving through the city using complex routes through Palestinians' homes, making the city not merely the site but the medium for urban warfare. This "microtactic" was conceived by the IDF's Operational Theory Research Institute in explicitly deleuzeandguattarian terms, such that the IDF would only defeat their enemy's classical, striated conception of space (ordered around roads, barricades, walls) through making the city 'smooth', borderless for their incursion.

We walked into the block of flats through an open door. Up the stairs. A few flats were still inhabited, more sealed tight with heavy metal doors and window coverings. A handful though were open - completely open, without any doors and windows, inhabited by only fresh air and pigeons, topographically - as we had passed through no boundaries or barriers, just a series of passageways - still outside. (This, when vigilante security and then the police showed up, was our defence.)

The flats were almost empty. An old exercise book dated 2002, a benefits letter from 2003. A coathanger, a piece of string with pegs still attached.

The space felt wrong, uncanny. A bath shouldn't be on top of a bedstead. Wallpaper in the next room flapped in the wind, and pigeons nested in the ceiling cavities. Very literally unheimlich. The gaps where electricity cables and pipes had been ripped out to make the place uninhabitable. Homes are bodies to me. I didn't like that.

That's why the doors and windows had been removed too, we realised - to keep squatters out. The stairs had gone too, but we climbed.

I don't want to draw a parallel with what Weizman wrote; in fact, I'm trying to resist it. This isn't war, it's just housing redevelopment. The meaning isn't the same, the meaning isn't the same at all. I don't think the two situations are commensurable.

And yet... Why is the visual symbolism so similar? How far do these similarities continue through the very structure of these spaces? Points of contact:

1. You've got the last few people living in the block and refusing to leave their homes despite the fact these are being made a wasteland. The effect on the outside of the building is violent, like missing teeth. It's a tactic of making a ruin in order to force people out (residents) and to make it impossible for them to stay securely (squatters).

2. This destruction of the "syntax of the city, ...the external doors, internal stairwells, and windows that constitute the order of buildings, this destruction that redefines inside and outside and refuses "to submit to the authority of conventional spatial boundaries and logic". (Weizman 2002: 53) This turning inside out seems a radical thing for power to do: "This was your home? That means nothing." Radical to do this topologically - the idea of home (in the Anglo-West) is predicated upon making a distinction between inside/outside in order to define private/public. It is a matter of borders and boundaries. The removal of windows and doors (the housing block) or walls (Nablus) makes these spaces merely a complex folding of outside space.

3. The intention of the building owners apparently "not to capture and hold ground" (2002: 56) but rather make it so permeable that no-one else can hold that space and turn it to their own uses or resist the development. These spaces windowless and breached do not even require IDF sensing technologies to "see through walls" - illicit occupants are visible from the street; these once-homes, formerly metaphorically Englishman castles, are now panoptical.

4. The developers are locking up some flats (thick green submarine doors, grey window sheaths) and opening out others - yet apparently for the same ends. (Why some flats get one treatment and others another, I'm unsure - but curious.) Similarly Weizman notes in an aside that, in their knocking-through, the IDF would still lock up Palestinian families in a single room and leave them there for days.

5. Difference: the IDF tactic is about letting Israeli soldiers pass through; the UK developer's tactic is about preventing squatters from staying. Nonetheless in both cases bulidings are not just the sites of these interventions but the very mediums, and the tactic is one of removal rather than addition - something counter to typical security thinking oriented around the encrustation of gates, locks, checkpoints, added barriers.

6. Power is enacted not just on space but on movement: enabling movement for the IDF; enforcing it for potential squatters to the housing block, for whom it is made impossible to stay.

Thus in two quite separate contexts of power acting on people's homes there is a strangely similar visual lanaguage (holes in walls), and three critical strategic similarities: building as medium; a tactic of removal; and power over not only space but movement.

What does these similarities mean? That is my burning question, and one I still can't quite answer for myself. Still, the quotation below is food for thought:

...address not only the materiality of the wall, but its very essence. Activities whose operational means effect the 'un-walling of the wall' thus destabilise not only the legal and social order, but democracy itself. With the wall no longer physically or conceptually sacred or legally impenetrable, the functional spatial syntax that it created - the separation between inside and outside, private and public, collapses. The very order of the city relies on the fantasy of a wall as stable, solid, and fixed.
(Weizman 2002: 75)

While quite arguably true for Nablus it's clearly too much for North London; nonetheless the point about spatial syntax holds true, and I wonder if these strange empty flats do something to the order of the city too. It brings to mind the 'broken windows' theory of crime writ large - if supposedly supportive council housing has such gaping wounds facing the street, how exactly can we expect some Manor House 13-year-old to believe that the destruction of property is a crime?

1. Credit to Adrian @cunabula for the topology insight.
2. Next reading group Wednesday 9th June, northeast London somewhere. If you're reading this you're welcome - drop me a line.

11 May 2010

Save Middlesex Philosophy

Students have occupied Middlesex University’s Trent Park campus in protest of the closure of the philosophy department. This department and its Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP) is:

  • of international importance for the study of continental philosophy, and one of few such centres in the UK
  • the best research department at Middlesex, according to the last two RAEs, with 65% of its work of international importance and ranking a healthy 13/41 in the UK
  • flourishing, particularly at MA and PhD level, with 112 full-time equivalent students and applications up for next year
  • financially healthy, bringing in grant money and reaching the required 55% contribution to the central administration

It is not, however, a business department. Consequently the university plan to shut the philosophy department as a short-sighted piece of asset-stripping – taking its RAE money for the next 5+ years (around £1 million), and re-allocating its student quotas to business degrees which come with more funding per student. The outcry is international and eminent – from Badiou & Butler to Zizek – and with no clear-cut case for closure

What you can do:
  • Check out the campaign to Save Middlesex Philosophy at the site below, join the groups and pass on the message
  • Join 14,000 people in signing the petition against the department's closure
  • Write to the university management and governors (details here)
  • Join the occupation at the Trent Park campus: supporters are enormously welcome, and I can attest it’s a friendly environment. I'll be at the reading group tonight

Website: saveMDXphil.com
Twitter: @saveMDXphil
Hashtag: #saveMDXphil

Now the speculative urbanist bit:

I was up at the occupation on Sunday for the teach-in events the students had organised over the weekend – talks on the economic crisis, ‘thinking like a bastard’, and the concepts of time and remembrance in Walter Benjamin’s conception of politics, and the eruption of historical events in the now. (C.f. the Hornsey College of Art protests thirty years ago; the current student occupation at Middlesex is not a singular event.)

Then there was an organisation meeting. A few days into the occupation, activist fatigue was setting in. People had essay deadlines to meet and jobs to go to, and the questions became, “How many people can stay here tonight? How many people do we need to sustain the occupation?”

How about none.

Security are not being aggressive but rather very hands-off – they’re under orders from management not to get in the way. Word is that undercover police turned up last night – I mean, two West London factory workers who mysteriously wrote for a US radical journal who were a bit too neatly dressed and very eager to be given a tour of the occupied building – but police have been to Trent Park before and not taken any action; this is a very peaceful occupation making no damage or aggression, just disruption. Most importantly, people are freely coming and going; security isn’t counting anyone in or out; and there is no sense that individuals leaving the building equates to diminishing support or the protest ending.

Consequently it is not in fact numbers but the impression of numbers that keeps the building occupied – that, the locked doors, and the banners hanging from the windows. A handful of people coming and going could keep up the traffic. It’s easy enough to automate the turning on and off of music, films, lights. Playing the video recorded of previous teach-in sessions gives the aural impression of multiple people present having a conversation. In the middle of the night security expect the building to be quiet anyway.

So people needing a night of proper sleep at home doesn’t mean the occupation has to end. Whether three or thirty people stay over each night, they could not ‘hold the building’ should the police enter in force – this is a student occupation to protest the closure of the philosophy department rather than a more militant squatter attempt to seize the building long-term. So if people need to go elsewhere, why not. Come back in the morning and leave at night – treat protest as a day job. Or better yet, see how long the occupation can be sustained without any protestors present at all – just banners, sound coming from the first floor, and no statement of exit from the occupying group.

Without a philosophy department and without researchers of this calibre, Middlesex becomes a simulacrum of a university, a vocational training school concealing the absence of higher learning. A simulacrum of a protest concealing the absence of studnent protestors would thus seem apt.

26 April 2010


How to and how not to counterpose old & new architecture

This stands out as one of the nastiest mixings of old and new buildings I've ever seen. Take one historic facade (17th century?) on Gun Street, E1. Resentfully obey the letter of the listed building regulations, and do your damndest to flout the spirit of them. Knock down everything behind the facade and construct cheap-as-possible student housing in the kind of brick that'll be rotten in 40 years. Don't bother to align the windows, such that residents live in the dark and can only see three feet out on to the facade's concrete backing.

Meanwhile, in the background, a property developer constructs a new skyscraper according to formulae for maximising the floorplan at the lowest possible cost. The architects have no meaningful freedom, their only choice being how to whack on some "artfully asymmetric" cladding that enables the building to marketed as "designed" and "dynamic". In this way capital is over-leveraged, architecture constructed as a commodity, and lots more lovely capital (hopefully) accumulated.

In contrast, take this remarkably sympathetic use of materials for new-ish apartments on the River Lea near Bow. For once a block that was no-doubt marketed as having gritty urban-cool "warehouse" style actually has some dialogue with the dilapidated industrial buildings beside it. Ok, the form's nothing special. But just something in how the wood has weathered; the colour of the glass; the perforated steel balconies. Hemmed in on two sides by motorways (the A11 and A12), I can't promise that this is a genuinely functional, flourishing neighbourhood. When the old warehouses get knocked down for more new development, this fragile architectural sympathy between old and new will be lost. But for a few moments, on a sunny day in April...

13 April 2010

The streets speak: urban political broadcasts

Stoke Newington Road, just north of Shacklewell Lane.

High Road, near Seven Sisters underground station.

Original government poster available here, and below:

The ad agency's brief: "Redefining petty fiddlers as full-on benefit thieves." Or, 'scapegoating people trying to get by on an unlivable income as criminals.' Jobseeker's Allowance is all of £51.85 a week for someone my age. I'm counting the pennies living in this city on a graduate starting salary; damn right I'd be getting cash-in-hand work under the table if I had fifty quid a week for food/bills/my entire life. Wouldn't you?

East London charity Community Links says:

"From our experience giving advice to over 12,000 people each year in Newham, we know that almost all those defrauding the system do so out of need, not greed. They need a few hours work to tide them over – to pay a surprise bill, or replace the microwave. Declaring it to the Jobcentre would mean any earnings are deducted from benefits, leaving them with no extra money. Punishing these people is unfair, but also destructive – they need stepping stones to a job and higher income, not sanctions which push them further into poverty."

2008/09 figures from the DWP show total benefits expenditure of £136bn. Out of this, fraud amounted to 0.8% (£1.1bn) - which we might contextualise by noting that £0.8bn of total spend was made up of overpayments due to official error. In addition, £0.5bn was underpaid due to official error, so the magnitude of government mistakes (£1.3bn of Getting It Wrong) is in fact rather more than dole scroungers scrounged.

Just so we can understand the scapegoating of the bottom 10% of society in proper perspective, you understand. Advertising won't have any impact on serious fraudsters. It'll do a lovely job of deterring those in legitimate need from claiming money they have a right to, though, and a campaign focused on "hunting down" benefits "thieves" uses such lovely aggressive language to exacerbate middle class prejudices and promote social inequality. Mmmm...

26 March 2010

Co-create London: showing EnterPride with disused shops

I wrote last week about Co-Create London, a project using "co-creation" methods from advertising & market research to explore what people want to see happen in London - What would you do to make London a better place?.

After a discussion forum last week, the initial results are out. Of dozens of ideas initially suggested by users on Co-Create London, the following three were developed into more comprehensive proposals:

  1. BeSpoke Lanes – Cycle Paths running alongside railway lines
  2. Enterpride – Turning disused properties & spaces into accessible cultural & retail hubs
  3. Swap Stories – A Book Swap System for London Underground

I understand these ideas will soon be presented for voting online, and the one receiving the most votes will be presented to Our Dear Leader Mr Johnson. More news as it comes…

Books, cycling and marginal urban spaces – could they have chosen three topics much closer to my heart?** I was talking about the latter last week with reference to existing projects such as Spacemakers’ Brixton Indoor Market, and it looks like Co-Create London has come up with something pretty similar:

London is full of disused and run-down spaces especially post-recession. Why not allow these spaces to be occupied by start-up businesses, artists, creative individuals and educational workshops?
Enterpride will facilitate the transaction between landlords willing to volunteer their property & Londoners wanting to use the space. Those occupying vacant spaces will have access to the property until they can afford to rent it, or an established business is willing to pay for the space. If users of the Enterpride scheme have their current space bought by an established company they will be assigned a new one. The only cost Enterpride occupants will have to pay are the business rates which are minimal.

The diagram from the co-creation session:

As mentioned, Spacemakers and other groups have laid a lot of the groundwork already, and already know how to build the necessary relationships with councils and landlords.

But of course that’s a massive opportunity if the Co-Create London team are willing to contact these other projects and get them involved too. A group response based on both the public voting & cocreation and the real, practical experience of already doing this could be a really strong pitch. Perhaps contributors to CoCreateLondon.com suggested this idea unawares of parallel developments like Spacemakers, but co-creation isn’t about ‘pure’ ideas or ownership or authorship, or anything so 20th century! I think it’s about mashing up every source of ideas and knowledge available, and in this case there’s a wealth of existing work out there.

I really hope the Co-Creation Hub are serious about making things happen, not just testing their methodology. (Fancy sharing who the “London experts” at last week’s seminar were, by the way?) Go on @cocreatelondon, say hello to @spacemkrs… Though I hope you're ahead of me and already fast friends!

** Actually yes: writing stories on the walls of abandoned urban spaces, although I can see how they might prefer to present more practical possibilities to the mayor…

16 March 2010

Co-creating London

What would you do to make London a better place?

That's the question being asked at Co-Create London, the first project from the Co-Creation Hub. Although various planning/social media/branding agencies are involved, Co-Create London isn't trying to sell anything. Instead the plan looks like:

  1. crowdsourcing suggestions for things that'd improve London
  2. the co-creation bit: a workshop with contributors, "London experts", and Co-Creation Hub team members to develop these suggestions into clear ideas
  3. pitching these ideas to City Hall and the mayor

My suggestion was for A system of rent stabilisation (like in New York). London's crazy house prices have pushed rents too high to cover landlords' mortgages, and I don't think it's a good thing. Young people are either pushed into moving in with their boy/girlfriends too quickly to save on rent, or otherwise have to live like students in shared housing until they're 38 (the average age of a first-time buyer without parental support). Rent controls and stabilisation could peg rents to tenants' incomes, stop landlords for demanding excessive increases each year (mine asked for nearly 10% this year, in this economic climate!), and keep central parts of the city vibrant by giving them a better social mix of people than just council tenants vs. the rich. Go on, give it a vote!

The most popular ideas are:
* free wi-fi hotspots in public spaces across town

* Open library-style book kiosks/ book swap system in Tube stations so Londoners are never without reading material on the underground!

* simply by put air conditioning on the tubes would improve life in London during the Summer 100%

* Oyster Card becomes Oyster London card - pay for anything in London up to the value of 20GBP

* Annual Open Labs Day...Similar to Open House Weekend, but celebrates our city's vast and under-appreciated science culture

Throughout an interesting mix of the practical, the imaginative, the speculative and the already occuring. The demand for practical changes is probably the strongest - free wifi, later tube opening hours, air conditioning on the underground - but I hope some of the more imaginative suggestions get developed & taken forward to the Mayor too.

I'm fascinated, though, by the various demands for vacant or abandoned spaces to be put to social/community uses - be these spaces empty land, or empty shops, or the tunnel walls in the underground. Some of these things are actually already taking place, such as Spacemakers Brixon Indoor Market project taking over empty shops, or the community gardens and allotments Landshare or What If projects are doing. How exciting to find that these projects capture something in the wider social imagination of the city; a suggestion that maybe the wider public good is more important than private property rights...


Back of a napkin drawings

A napkin, covered in architectural drawings, purloined from the two young men sitting next to me in the Tinderbox coffee shop, Angel, once they had left. Much as they were complaining about the ridiculous design constraints on their various projects, I couldn't but envy the bubbling enthusiasm they had for their work.

Dead railways: London's underground mail shuttle

Mail trolleys have been speeding for 60 years
along a 23 mile long underground tube system.
The increased usage of the internet made the
most successful railway it_ be_n d_i___' _nd__r

On the pavement outside Central St Martin's art school, Theobalds Road, Holborn.

Mailrail.co.uk and Subterranea Britannica provide context for this pavement tickertape: it's referring to London's Post Office Railway, an automated train system that took post from Paddington sorting office to Whitechapel delivery office. The 23 miles the sticker mentions is apparently the total length of track on the six mile route; the 60 years to which it refers is obscure, as the railway operated from 1929 to 2003.

Then again, informative historical facts are not really why I collect urban interventions like these.

5 March 2010

Modernism in Cansado, Mauritania - 1966, Architectural Digest

In a hotel and "cultural embassy" in the former dockland quarter of Amsterdam, I found old copies of Architectural Digest magazine from 1966, back when modernism was still modern.

I remember being surpised in urbanism school just how 'developing world' modernism really was. Paris may have been Haussmannised, but high modernism only got the chance to realise its urban masterplans in the places where city development was still somehow new - and planning legislation in its infancy. An April 1966 copy of Architectural Digest offered an amazing case study of this: from Mauritanian desert, from nowhere, the construction of a new town, called Cansado.

The magazine described it like this:

"In 1952 Milferma, a mining company, was formed to exploit the rich iron deposits in the Kedia d'Idjil mountains near Fort Gouraud. The considerable yield, in the region of six million ton a year, posed transport and administrative problems. A railway was built from Fort Gouraud to Port Etienne, 636 kilometres away, from where the ore could be shipped to Europe. Port Etienne, a makeshift conglomeration of fishermen's huts and military installations was suitable neither as a port nor as a town for the staff administering the port and railhead. It was decided therefore to plan a new town, Cansado, in the neighbourhood."

"Planning started in 1957. Homes for 5000 were to be provided in the first instance, though an eventual population of 35,000 was envisaged. The peninsula on which the new town was to be built is neatly divided between the north-south frontier between the Rio de Oro (Spanish Sahara) and Mauritania, but the coastline available, overlooking the great Levrier bay, was in any case the most protected and suitable for development. The whole consists of a soft and porous sandstone. There is no arable earth. Winds tear across the sandstone and sand erosion presents a considerable problem. Neither the temperatures nor the humidity are excessive. Rainfall is low. Dry winds are liable to cause discomfort from three to five months of the year (at its worst in August and September)."

"The nature of the site, the varied human and social forces, all have greatly affected the form of the development. Houses are oriented north-south, with few openings on the north. Materials have been chosen for their low thermal transmission. Buildings have been kept low to protect and shelter the site. But it is the different ethnic and social background of the inhabitants that has most marked the character of the town. The inhabitants of a wide and distinct origin have different needs. The Arab workers, for instance, wanted houses that allowed all domestic activity to centre around a courtyard that was altogether private. The administrative staff placed more emphasis on the need for cross-ventilation and a view. The whole was thus divided into various quarters, each with its own centre, which was related to the main one which is to be extended when the town is enlarged at a later stage."

"Seven hundred and fifty houses together with churches, mosques, schools and shops were built between 1961 and 1963. The structural system was the same for all houses - load-bearing outer walls of a lightweight aggregate concrete, identical tie beams and cross-beams, enabling all elements to be prefabricated in a temporary factory."

In the 50 years since it is hard to see how a town of 5,000 - let alone the proposed 35,000 - could prosper simply from a railhead, and a port. In this age of automation, where are the jobs? The trains running from Zouerat may perhaps be the longest in the world, but what that means is all that freight only requires one driver. Nonetheless, lafraque on Flickr shows that Cansardo's buildings are still gleaming white, and still apparently uninhabited:

There is another perspective on these places, you understand. First I found these words on the Wikipedia page for Zouérat, another modernist European oasis constructed at the other end of the rail line, in land. Perhaps they will be edited out by moderators seeking to preserve an objective tone. I want to keep them. Whoever wrote them - Mauritanian or not - I think they say something:

"Zouerat is born at the end of the 1950's from nothing, at the end of the Kedia's glacis. The raw materials is transported from Nouadhibou by trucks, on the same way than the future Mauritania railway. Its plan is clear and well ventilated. Three places are made for europeans workers, commanders and executives. All the europeans houses are air-conditionned and furnished.
A shanty town grows around and a wall is made to separate the two cities. It is called "mur de la honte" (wall of shame) by the zouerati. The lack of houses for the mauritanians workers has gone to build new flats between Zouerate and the Kediet.

The climate is dry (no mosquito), and the most displeasing is the sand wind.

In 1976, the polisario attacks. A lot of Europeans leave and do not comme back."

And now the Mauritanian coast is another kind of modern, a nodal point of another global trade not in mineral ores but in people. They are not only West Africans: The NY Times reported in 2008 of an Italian fishing trawler towed into Nouadhibou carrying 369 people trying to reach Europe who had come from a continent away: Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Burma, India and Pakistan.

"A new route has opened up", the UN say. From South East Asia migrants fly to Dubai or Abu Dhabi, and thence to Addis Ababa. Then Ethiopian Airlines to Bamako in Mali, Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, or Dakar in Senegal. Then to the ports: Nouadhibou, Conakry, Dakar, and the hope of the the porous points in the European border: the Canary islands; Ceuta & Melilla, Spanish enclaves in North Africa, now closely walled; the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Consequently the Global Detention Project note that:

"Mauritania operates one dedicated immigration detention centre in Nouadhibou, nicknamed “Guantanamito” by detainees, which has been sharply criticised for its poor conditions (USCRI 2009; Amnesty 2008a; CEAR 2008; WGAD 2008; Reuters 2006).
Spain’s involvement in establishing the detention centre has raised questions over which authority controls the facility. While the centre is officially managed by the Mauritanian National Security Service (NSS), it is not governed by any regulations applicable to detention centres in the country (Amnesty 2008a, p. 24). Rather, as stated by Mauritanian officials “clearly and emphatically” to a delegation from CEAR in October 2008, Mauritanian authorities perform their jobs at the express request of the Spanish government (ESW 2009).
The high number of migrants taken in on a monthly basis has led to severe overcrowding, as noted by several groups who visited in 2008 (Amnesty 2008a; CEAR 2008; WGAD 2008). According to Amnesty, in March 2008 there were 216 bunk beds spread throughout the former classrooms, although only three rooms were being used during their visit. The organization reported that during its visit “a group of 35 who had been expelled by Morocco were being held in a room measuring 8m by 5m, with bars at the windows, which contained 17 bunk beds” (Amnesty 2008a, p. 21)"

So. From high modernism, to a room of displaced people in disputed state space and 1 sq m per person.

8 February 2010

Dalston Junction station, East London line

Dalston Junction station, East London line

Bleak, isn't it. Modern, antiseptic, safety-first-handrailed to funnel us in and funnel us out more efficiently – quite accidentally a beautifully smooth edge to grind a skateboard on, but no doubt they’re developing facial-recognition CCTV that’ll call security as soon as that thought even crosses your mind.

Not exactly Stirling prize-nominated Westminster station – or the drama of Canary Wharf, or the Paolozzi mosaics at Tottenham Court Road… What happened, what changed? Westminster was barely a decade ago, and no doubt built by the same private finance initiative money. Is decent architecture is only for the elites – MPs in Westminster, bankers at Canary Wharf? I understand we weren’t going to get anything world-changing at dirty old Dalston Junction, but did it have to be quite as soulless as this?

There is a realism to it, perhaps we should commend that? That, as a commuter station, it faithfully reproduces the sucking grind of the daily haul into the office, the fluorescent-lit scan-in scan-out automation that would make you feel very small and anonymous if credit card-recharged Oyster travelcards and CCTV didn’t mean that TfL knows your every last personal detail. The station has no doubt been designed using some terribly clever traffic-flow simulation software that has lots of little blue dots going down to the platforms and little red dots coming back up… And it looks like the kind of space where you’ll feel like a little dot in a big system. That’s design integrity after a sort, right?

I’m sure they’ll add plenty of advertising by the time it’s finished – that’ll brighten the place up a treat.

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.