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-Südwestafrika [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?