Category Archives: London

London’s NeoColonial Skyline

The Guardian’s architecture writers have been fretting for a number of years over the “jumble” of highrise office towers that have gone up in close proximity to each other.  The Guardian provides a flash interactive view here, built on a 3D model of London created by Vertex and currently shown on their homepage.  The focus is on sightlines at ground level.  However, missing is a more direct social analysis of the buildings and gardens high aloft the ground as inaccessible, private vertical enclaves.  Even the blocking of solar access will one day come to be seen as a major gap in the reporting.

This “tortured heap of towers” seems to be exactly a continuation of the ad hoc quality of the development of London over centuries.  The unifying elements of brick, building height and the twisting streets, were most disturbed in the the modernist mid-century. This is both good and bad.

In the twenty-first century, the shift in height and use of glass as building cladding is the most obvious provocation, not that they jostle together in a tight group.  The domestication of brute forms through nicknaming buildings in the media, such as the gherkin or cheese-grater, is a relatively unique London phenomenon amongst megacities.   Cute names elide the identity of building owners and builders who are amongst the worlds “least environmentally friendly companies” according to the Guardian and major purchasers of land globally.  In as much as cute names obfuscate the extraction and destruction of resources in one place and the creation of profitable facilities and environments elsewhere, the architecture of highrise office developments could come to be seen as a symbol of neoliberal economic relations that have a neocolonial quality.  It would be nice to see this level of analysis which spells out some of the implication.

The popularity of this naming distracts from the unifying idea of a skyline, however.  The skyline could be thought of as a kind of 4th dimension not captured in the 3D flyover.  New York promoted the skyline of Manhattan but is still coming to terms with the destruction of the World Trade Centre and the filling back in of this cavity in the vista.  In this sense, the buildings do overshadow London, not only physically but in the virtual world of media and place-images.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Review: DON’T FORGET — Artists’ Remnants and Paper Scraps

DON’T FORGET — Artists’ Remnants and Paper Scraps

Curated by Arnaud Desjardin

Large Glass Gallery, London

16 Sept-13 Nov. 2015

 

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Click on image to view more images from exhibition on Large Glass Gallery’s website.

The current exhibition at Large Glass Gallery, London, features a unique collection of 20th century art avant-garde ephemera. Posters, invitations, announcements, memo cards and photographs remind us of the networks of relationships between generations of artists and between exhibitions, performances and even commercial work. “DON’T FORGET” reads a page from Richard Hamilton’s block of notes, signed by Marcel Duchamp, elevating the slip to the status of art and confusing the boundaries between oeuvre and ephemera. Assembled by Arnaud Desjardin from numerous collections, these mementos of Marcel Broodhaers, Eileen Gray, Sol Lewitt, Yves Klein, Volf Vostell and many others are re-presented in a fine catalogue and accompanying poster.

Image by Library Glass Gallery
Image by Library Glass Gallery

We live in a time when ephemera has gone digital in the form of tweets and posts. At “DON’T FORGET,” the signature wit of twentieth century art, such as Hamilton’s a large paintbrush embossed “Hamilton Perfection” and tagged “Happy New Year Rita + Richard” neatly reminds us of not only remnants but the physicality of artistic media up until now. At the same time, the intangibility of artistic gesture is not just in the performance but also in the relations set up by the artist between ideas, words, everyday gestures and places. Scraps and notes, like the unsorted contents of a desktop, are not displayed as mere scraps nor as ethnographic fragments of past events. While some works are clearly art—prints, preparatory sketching and grey literature—other items expose rather the frames and scaffoldings around art, including lists, left-overs and envelopes.

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Image by Author

The success of this exhibition is its ability to make us rethink the status of ephemera as art. Is this exhibition a history museum display, or is it an art show? Even the nostalgic will find that Desjardin’s show reveals art and the exhibitions themselves always were boundary objects. Looking back through the “Oculist Witness” of Large Glass Gallery, the geometric clarity of the twentieth century institutional definitions of art, collection, exhibition, curating, appear in a new perspective, in new relations to each other and to the artist and viewer. What is art? What are ephemera? What is exhibition? These are the enduring questions still confronting the new avant-garde.

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“The Oculist Witness” by Richard Hamilton

Large Glass Gallery 392 Caledonian Road London N1 1DN www.largeglass.co.uk

-Rob Shields (Univ. of Alberta)

 

Liveability and the Right to the City

 for the second year running, Australia’s political capital was named the best city in the world by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), a result that made northern hemisphere observers wonder if, down under, they were looking at the rankings upside down.

Canberra is a deathly place. It is a city conceived as a monument to the roundabout and the retail park, a bleak and relentless landscape of axial boulevards and manicured verges, dotted with puffed-up state buildings and gigantic shopping sheds.  (The Guardian 12 Dec. 2014)

“Liveability” and “liveable cities” do not have anything to do with the right the city, Lefebvre’s vision of cities as oeuvres or collective “works of art”.  The Guardian complains “The Economist Intelligence Unit puts Melbourne in first place, followed by Vienna, Vancouver, Toronto, Adelaide and Calgary. There is never any mention, on any list, of London or New York, Paris or Hong Kong. There are no liveable cities where you might actually want to live. ”  This is a common complaint, for liveability means public spaces that are in practice new, untroubled by historical memory, and often-times actually private property “lawns” and fountains in front of office towers, “lobbies without walls” as Oliver Wainwright sums up.

“Liveability” is a dream of an urban communion in the consumption of public spaces as a collective good.  Public sidewalks are privatised as outdoor cafe spaces to enhance the spectacle of enjoyment.  But the resulting urban environments are not platforms for self-expression, collective memory or political voices.  Contra apostles of “new urbanism”, bodies do not assemble here but pass through in a pedestrian transit vision of public space and social order or they pay to stay.   The architects protest that they are powerless, just following orders of capitalist owners.  But this total vision suits the paternal order that sets these bodies in motion, atomised and probably texting, at the feet of monumental buildings.  In Wainwright’s article, Gehl is quoted saying “It’s good for democracy if people can meet each other on the street.”  But people are discouraged from any collective encounter in these streets.  In this sense, is “liveability” totalitarian?

Totalitarian: Lacking rights to redeveloped urban spaces, has there not been a new enclosure of the urban commons?  Totalitarian: what sets limits or counterbalances a version of liveability that privileges a professional class of well-heeled “Bobos” that are “bohemian” only in their own eyes?  As consumption goes online and is thus increasingly individualised or enclosed in the “telephone booth-sociability” of online tweets and comments, these unpublic spaces become a key ritual site of belonging for inhabitants of the cities of OECD.  It confers on some the rights to these spaces and excludes others that are not “properly” active economically, bodies that do not comply, are disabled or disordered.

As consumption goes online and is thus increasingly individualised or enclosed in the “telephone booth-sociability” of online tweets and comments, these unpublic spaces become a key ritual site of belonging for inhabitants of the cities of OECD.  However, Occupy and the revolutions of the second decade of this century demonstrate that it is in the moments of political ferment when these spaces are occupied by people that there is a self-recognition by the public as a public and as citizens.

How about a liveability index based on the total number of park benches — ideally “sleepable” benches — the absence of loitering rules, and the number of public events and demonstrations held annually?

-Rob Shields, University of Alberta