Friday, 24 December 2010

Neo-Bankside: a photographic encounter





As I entered the Tate Modern gallery the other day I passed by a series of advertising hoardings for a new luxury residential development entitled Neo-Bankside. These elaborate towers are to be situated next to the gallery’s new extension and are the latest stage in the relentless appropriation of London for the wealthy few. The computer generated images for these new apartments — designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + partners — seem to be beyond parody. The project represents a colossal misappropriation of resources at a time of intensifying housing shortages in London. Richard Rogers — the 2007 Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate — has been closely associated with recent debates over urban sustainability through his 1995 BBC Reith lectures “Cities for s small planet”, his role as chair of the UK Government’s Urban Task Force in 1998, and more recently as Chief Advisor on “architecture and urbanism” to the former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. With these impressive credentials it seems impossible to believe that this proposed development is an anomaly or a mistake: it rather reveals the hubris of contemporary architectural discourse as espoused by Rogers and some of his high-profile contemporaries. To build better cities we need better social policy. Design, however, through its subservience to the whim of clients is always likely to play a marginal role. Perhaps the re-fashioning of London's Banskide as "neo-Bankside" is best interpreted as an ironic nod to "neo-liberalism" and the likely colonization of these apartments by those with bonus-boosted salaries.

In praise of WikiLeaks

The internet has an uneasy relationship with more tightly controlled and commercialized dimensions to journalism, media and the “entertainment industry”. In much of the global South, for example, the internet has become a vital and accessible means of spreading information and fostering prospects for greater openness and democracy. What is routinely referred to as a matter of “national security” is often more a question of shame and embarrassment.

Though the term “corruption” is routinely levelled at poorer nations it is clear that richer nations and their corporate sponsors are complicit in many of the most-damaging examples of corruption and human rights abuses in Nigeria, Sudan and elsewhere. Revelations such as high-street banks laundering money from violent dictators should have already been in the public domain; the WikiLeaks saga has simply exposed the lack of effective investigative journalism. Long-standing campaigning journalists such as John Pilger are routinely dismissed as an anachronistic presence amid the slick professionalism of twenty-four hours “rolling news” but without Pilger and his brave colleagues all over the world we would simply not know what is really going on.

Journalists should not be in the service of the rich and powerful; they should seek to inform society about their misdeeds.

Bremen’s elephant





Near the centre of the northern German city of Bremen is a large elephant made of bricks. This imposing ten-metre high structure — designed by Fritz Behn — was completed in 1931 as a monument to the German colonies which then included Cameroon, Togo, Deutsch-Ostafrika [Tanzania], Deutsch-S├╝dwestafrika [Namibia] and several islands. For decades the “Reichskolonialehrendenkmal” stood as a powerful symbol of German colonial ambition that spanned both the Nazi era and the post-war period of reconstruction: an aesthetic continuity that stands in sharp contrast to the hurried erasure of the DDR.

In 1988, however, a metal sign was created next to the elephant by the youth wing of the Bremen metal workers union in support of the Anti-Apartheid movement. In 1990, with the celebration of Namibian independence from South Africa, the elephant itself was re-dedicated as the “Bremen anti colonial monument” thereby attempting to invert its historical meaning yet retaining the original design. And in 2009 a new monument was created next to the elephant to the victims of German genocide: between 1904 and 1908 over 70,00 of the Ovaherero, Nama and Damara peoples of Namibia were murdered followed by an intensified phase of racial segregation that pre-figured the development of Apartheid in South Africa. In contrast to the elephant the genocide memorial adopts a more abstract design reminiscent of land art or street installations: a horizontal array of simple elements such as rocks and stones in the place of vertical bombast.

This assemblage of memorials and plaques reveals that the German colonial presence in Africa was not a minor element in European history: we now know that many of the perpetrators of early twentieth-century violence in Namibia and elsewhere would go on to play a significant role in Nazi expansionism in Europe. In the place of the Herero were the Slavs and others to the east, where an envisioned settler landscape bore parallels with European sequestration of fertile lands in Africa. What is especially interesting about Bremen’s elephant is that it poses the possibility for changing the meaning of public monuments: it allows remnants of the past to become incorporated into new understandings of history. How many other elephants remain unnoticed or unchallenged in European towns and cities?

Monday, 29 November 2010

The magic of emptiness: reflections on a Berlin corner


Since the summer of 2004 I have got to know a corner of Berlin very well, where the Chausseestrasse, running north-south, meets the quieter Linienstrasse from the east. In 2004 this corner of Berlin, where the district of Mitte, the centre of the former east Berlin, meets “Red Wedding”, the traditional bastion of working-class Berlin and one of the poorest districts of West Berlin, was surrounded on three sides by “empty spaces” where the Berlin Wall had once been. The large plot to the east of the Chausseestrasse had become a vibrant meadow full of birds, butterflies and wild flowers, dominated by brilliant blue patches of Echium vulgare which goes by the extraordinary English name of Viper’s Bugloss (it is also known in German as Snake’s Head or Natternkopf). On the north side of the street a drab municipal park to the south an ecological paradise.

One summer evening I stumbled across an extraordinary moth that I didn’t recognize at all: I carefully took a photo and let it go. It turned out to be Cucullia fraudatrix, an eastern European species at the extreme west of its range in Berlin, that normally flies over dry grasslands. But is not only nature that fascinates me in these places: objects and fragments also become part of this spontaneous landscape where rusting pieces of metal appear perfectly placed as if in an urban sculpture garden.

By 2010, however, these open spaces are in accelerated retreat: to the west of the Chausssstrasse a vast new office block is close to completion that will house the headquarters of the German security services. Next door, in pristine brick, is a new building belonging to the Berlin water works. Two normally hidden infrastructural arms of the state now lie side by side, like shiny mushrooms sprouting from their tangled mass of networks hidden from view. And the urban meadow on the east side of the street, that I had explored over several summers, is now fast disappearing: about one-third has become a petrol station and another third a parking lot.

Returning yesterday I could no longer see the meadow from the street. It is now surrounded by a high wooden fence: a moment of enclosure before its final and inevitable erasure. I took some photos as suspicious drivers entered the petrol station. Somewhat disheartened and trying to keep warm in sub-zero temperatures I crossed the street and noticed a wire fence next to wooden billboards. There was a small gap and I stepped through. A tangled mass of plants reached above head height and the ground was hard with frost. After taking a few paces I realized that this was just an “antechamber” to an extensive ribbon-like void space stretching hundreds of metres where the Wall had once been. It was like entering a series of rooms each more mysterious than the last. A discarded bottle lay among dead leaves and there were some occasional strips of red tape: people have been here.

Of course the word “void” is somewhat misleading: these spaces have become temporarily detached from the urban land market or their ownership remains shrouded in uncertainty. In other cases they are simply held by someone as speculative parcels of land until their value rises or they are vestiges of state disinvestment and the dismantling of the DDR. As this quarter of Berlin becomes more prosperous their presence becomes more anomalous. On re-entering the street there is another billboard I had not noticed before: the site is to be redeveloped into sixty luxury apartments. Computer generated images show faux Wilhelmine fa├žades — the favoured retro look for wealthy newcomers to Berlin — along with modern blocks little different from the latest developments in London, Buenos Aires or elsewhere.

On the other side of the street next to the petrol station is a small memorial to the Berlin Wall: a recent addition I had not noticed before. Some explanatory text in four languages (German, English, French and Russian) is encased in a discoloured plastic stand next to an inconspicuous metal inscription set in the pavement below. On the opposite corner stands a grey six-storey housing block — a typical example of working-class housing dating from the 1950s — where many apartments would have faced the Wall only metres away. This block was once a distant outpost of the island city of West Berlin and it now looks out on a landscape that has again been utterly transformed. The neatly printed names next the entrance are mostly a mix of German and Turkish names and there are battered fly-posters nearby advertising yoga classes and anti-fascist action.

When the DDR collapsed in 1989 there were brief hopes that an alternative and truly democratic German state might emerge but the remnants of East Germany were quickly subsumed within the capitalist behemoth of West Germany. In the hollow imprint of the absent DDR, however, a unique medley of spontaneous landscapes has emerged over the last twenty years that provide a poignant symbol of urban possibilities. They reveal a city within a city that is not stage-managed for greed or consumption but a myriad of quieter spaces awaiting their rediscovery.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Get Carter

Traveling from London to Newcastle by train the other day I decided to watch Get Carter where a London villain called Jack Carter, played by Michael Caine, goes in search of the truth about his brother's death. Directed by Mike Hodges, and released in 1971, this impressive British gangster film has a hard-edged realism, laced with wry dialogue, not unlike John Boorman's depiction of rage in Point Blank (1967) or Stephen Soderbergh's impressive "fish out of water" drama The Limey (1999). Whilst Point Blank and The Limey are both set in the shadows of Los Angeles, Get Carter takes place in the industrial city of Newcastle in north-east England. In the striking title sequence, set to Roy Budd's soundtrack, the three-hour train journey is compressed into three minutes as we pass through a succession of different landscapes in the gathering darkness. Newcastle is portrayed as a city where crime syndicates, opportunist urban developers and "new industries" of gambling and pornography permeate society like hyphal threads emerging out of the poverty and industrial decline. "It's all a question of design," notes an architect discussing a proposed restaurant at the top of the Trinity Centre Multi-Storey Car Park (designed by brutalist architect Rodney Gordon and demolished in 2010). In Get Carter we find two bleak worlds in uneasy juxtaposition: a decaying working-class city and a "new world" of concrete and corruption. At one level the film serves as a mordant critique of post-war optimism but even more striking after forty years (the film was made on location in 1970) is the oppressive sexual politics exemplified by Carter's killing of two women: one "by mistake" locked in the boot of a sinking car and the other to frame the man who killed his brother. The film's denouement takes place near Blackhall Colliery where spoil is tipped directly into the North Sea and our smug anti-hero is gunned down by a cliff top sniper. Get Carter remains a major milestone in British cinema and a brutal antidote to romanticized visions of the early 1970s. With its uncompromising screenplay and stark cinematography it remains one of the most important films in its genre.

Friday, 12 November 2010

The view from my window

I have been thinking a lot about the "view from the window" as a way of looking at landscape. The view from my study in Stoke Newington is in many ways a completely unremarkable London landscape: an expanse of rooftops with jumbles of chimney pots and aerials; a mix of nineteenth-century and more recent buildings in various states of disrepair; and various gardens ranging from bare earth where all living things have been expurgated to rich assemblages of species from all over the world. A fine sycamore tree that once stood in my field of vision has recently been hacked down so I now have an uninterrupted view of heating vents from the back of restaurants in nearby Church Street. In my small garden below my window the now dry teasel heads bob in the breeze and I can imagine that the many frogs sitting in my pond have not yet decided whether it is time to sink down into the mud and sleep until spring.