Study seminar on ruins, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester

17 10 2012


Apocalypse Now: Thinking about Ruins and Radiation

Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester

Wednesday 28 November 2012, 2-5pm, free

A study session organised by me (Dr Paul Dobraszczyk) exploring contemporary perceptions of ruin that also engage with the current exhibition of works by Jane & Louise Wilson at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester.

To book a free place tel: 0161 275 7450 or call in at the reception desk at the Whitworth Art Gallery

Speakers and topics will include:

Jane & Louise Wilson (artists)

Chernobyl, Pripyat and the death of the city Dr Paul Dobraszczyk (University of Manchester)

Why ruins? Why now? Professor Tim Edensor (Manchester Metropolitan University)

Getting a grip on time slip: decay fetishism in an age of austerity Dr Bradley Garrett (University of Oxford)

On the psychoanalysis of ruins Dr Dylan Trigg (Husserl Archives, École Normale Supérieure)

Ruins and radiation Dr Jeff Hughes (University of Manchester)

Pripyat from the terrace of the former Pollissa hotel

Since 9/11, ruins have come to occupy a central place in visual culture: as images of the aftermath of acts of terrorism or the resulting war on terror; the ruin of the housing market after the recent financial crisis; or a post-apocalyptic obsession in cinema. This session will examine contemporary notions of ruin and ruination, engaging directly with an exhibition of photographs and films of the ruined Chernobyl site by Jane and Louise Wilson, and calling on a diverse range of ruin obsessives from the fields of philosophy, science, cultural geography, art, and architectural history. Signifiers of both civilisation and barbarism, creativity and destruction, ruins call into question the solid, the enduring and the permanent, representing as they do either the end of the old or the beginning of something new. We seek to learn from this challenge presented by ruins, whether they be created by the constructive but often brutal processes of modernisation, or their opposites – the forces of destruction, both natural and unnatural, real or imagined.

Abandoned funfair in Pripyat





Mass ornament: Parisian love padlocks

3 08 2012

Love padlocks on the Pont de l’Archevêché in Paris

On the extraordinary cast-iron extravaganza that is the Pont Alexander III in Paris are a group of padlocks attached to the legs of an ornamental crab. At the time I saw them, I thought they were isolated tokens of eternal love offered by daring tourists – small padlocks inscribed with hearts and the names of the enamoured couples. Only the next day, approaching the Pont de l’Archevêché, just south of Notre Dame, did I realise the full significance of these love padlocks. From a distance, the bridge sparkled and gleamed in the bright sunlight; only closer did I see that its simple lattice railing was covered in a multitude of padlocks, completely obscuring the structure behind. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of multi-coloured padlocks hung down in great bouquets of metal, many with coloured ribbons attached, overlooking that great emblem of Parisian romance, the cathedral of Notre Dame. Only a scattering of locks adorned the other side of the bridge, facing an altogether lesser symbolically-charged urban landscape.

Love padlocks on the Pont Alexander III in Paris

Only later that day did I discover that these Parisian love padlocks are part of a world-wide phenomenon, with the first appearing in cities in the early 2000s and now adorning a diverse range of urban structures, including Tower Bridge in London, Liverpool’s Albert Dock, the Hohenzollem Bridge in Cologne, the Ponte Milvio in Rome, the Butcher Bride in Ljubljana, and the ‘Mother-in-law’ bridge in Odessa. In all cases, lovers fix their locks to a fence, gate, bridge or similar public monument and, in an action symbolising their everlasting love, throw away the key. Despite periodic clampdowns by municipal authorities – many of Paris’s padlocks were removed in 2010 – there seems to be an unstoppable momentum behind these tokens of eternal passion.

Individual padlocks on the Pont de l’Archevêché

The unity of the mass on the Pont de l’Archevêché

It’s difficult to explain the sheer extent of this phenomenon; according to one source, the affixing of love padlocks in Rome can be attributed to the practice first being depicted in the novel I Want You (2006) by the Italian author Frederico Moccia; while those in Serbia can even be traced back before the Second World War. Whatever the explanation, the proliferation of these love padlocks clearly points to a growing need to express, in a concrete, public and collective form, the deepest desires of couples in their individual unions. I would argue that love padlocks create a form of mass urban ornament, at once highly subjective but also cooperative, forming an ornamental whole out of a multitude of basic components. So, on the Pont de l’Archevêché, the seeming chaos of the individual padlocks resolve themselves into a pattern when viewed from a distance;  some have even been spray-painted in different colours – presumably by a third party – to create a further sense of aesthetic unity.

Spray-painted padlocks on the Pont de l’Archevêché

The notion of these love padlocks as a mass ornament can be related to the work of the German theorist Siegfried Kracauer. Writing about Berlin in the 1920s, Kracauer argued that urban ornament can be seen as evidence of a counter-current to the rationalising and ordering tendencies of the modern metropolis, dominated by planners and other controlling forces. For Kracauer, ornament provides access to a different kind of city, one that gives free reign to the subjective world of the individual – a ‘field where civilisation’s process of repression has met resistance’. In this sense, personalised ornamental expressions in everyday life – making doodles, fashioning hairstyles, even cooking – are important signs of the individual’s contribution to the whole; they represent the ‘will to art’, implying the possibility of new relationships to space and city. I would argue that love padlocks are a significant contemporary instance of this ‘will to art’. They inscribe on the modern city – with its abstract circulations, regulated movements and absence of historical memory – a subjective piece of history, representing both a concrete  moment, a subjective memory and a utopian form of time, that is, in the everlasting and the eternal love that has been promised.





The language of the walls: Victorian posters

13 07 2012

1. Orlando Parry, ‘A London street scene’, 1834, watercolour

In 1855, James Dawson Burn’s book The Language of the Walls argued that reading posters could be revelatory: the mass of announcements on London’s walls display the roots of a new kind of language, that which underpinned the developing commodity culture of Victorian Britain. In the same way, Orlando Parry, the painter of A London Street Scene (1), shows posters as a new visual extravaganza to be admired. Here, St Paul’s Cathedral is literally shut out by this modern spectacle, the cornucopia of typefaces offering their own fascinating insight into the life of the city. Although the cliched cast of London social characters that fill the lower half of the painting ignore the bill-sticker pasting up his latest offering, Parry has clearly paid microscopic attention to the details of these curious objects – their typefaces accurately reflecting what would have been available to printers in the mid-1830s.

2. ‘The billstickers’ exhibition’, Punch, 29 May 1847, p. 226

Throughout the Victorian period, Punch featured many cartoons showing wall posters in London. Yet, unlike Parry, it mocked the supposed value of the spectacle they generated. In 1847, Punch drew attention to the daily ‘Bill-stickers’ exhibitions’ that could be seen almost anywhere in the city (2). With St Paul’s again obliterated by a makeshift wall of gigantic posters, Punch shows a respectable group of visitors come to see this impromptu exhibition. Here, everything is exaggerated, dictated by competition, and leading to an illegible mass of words and images. Such a spectacle reflected the quackery and puffery of advertisers, one that needed to be better regulated and controlled.

3. ‘The result of careless bill-posting’, Punch, 5 November 1898, p. 115

Yet, the accretions of posters on walls might also lead to the formation of new unintentional meanings. So ‘the result of careless bill-posting’ (3) in 1898 was an accidental joke – the bemused onlookers wondering if they really should try this strange specimen of exotic animal in their baths. Although Punch is probably only interested in the comic potential of such accidental juxtapositions, this image also hints at other concerns. As the cartoon graphically demonstrates, reading posters was not like reading books or newspapers – one had to be able to negotiate these random juxtapositions, to be able to read in a different way. This was a peculiarly modern form of perception, being able to decipher the new visual language of the commodity, one that was dictated by free competition. The result  – a kind of visual pandemonium – might confuse or delight in equal measure; despite their commercial basis, its very freedom that governs the arrangement of these posters might lead to new and unexpected meanings if we had the right perceptive tools to decipher them.

4. ‘Picturesque London – or, sky-signs of the times’, Punch, 6 September 1890, p. 119

In 1890, Punch pictured what it saw as the logical development of the city poster – a skyward development of advertising where the ‘swinging signs of ogre Trade’ invade ‘the smoke-veiled vaults of heaven’ (4). Here, gigantic letters float freely or on balloons, obscuring St Paul’s or even the sun, while outsized binoculars, gloves, hats, umbrellas and bottles soar to ‘monstrous heights’ above the city. With savage mockery, Punch uses this vision of future ‘sky-horrors’ to castigate the laissez-faire attitude towards posters and hoardings – a warning of what may result if advertisers are left unchecked. Yet, this is also a strangely prescient image – a kind of Heath-Robinson version of the skyward spectacle of Blade Runner (1982) or an anticipation of the sign-as-architecture that came to define the cityscape of Las Vegas. And was it this image that inspired Frank Gehry to commission Claes Oldenburg  and Coosje van Bruggen to build part of the Chiat/Day Building (1985-1991) as an enormous pair of binoculars – an iconic herald of the dissolution of modernism into a melting-pot of styles?





Representing the nation: the Thames Embankment lamps

22 05 2012

1. Dolphin lamps on the Albert Embankment, London

The dolphin lamps lining the Thames embankments (1) in London have arguably become just as iconic symbols of the city as its more high-profile monuments, such as Big Ben, St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey. But how do commonplace objects like lamps gain such symbolic resonance?

Built in stages between 1862 and 1874 by the Metropolitan Board of Works, the Thames Embankment transformed London’s riverscape by reclaiming marshy land next to the river and constructing wide carriage- and foot-ways and a high granite retaining wall, stretching over three miles in total. After they had considered the question of lighting the embankment, the Board of Works took the unusual step of displaying proposed designs for lamp standards on the Victoria Embankment in March 1870, in order to gauge public opinion before selecting a final model; and the lamps were widely illustrated in the building and metropolitan press (2 & 3).

2. The Coalbrookdale lamps as seen in the Illustrated London News, 1870.

Central to the responses to the lamps was how they would be affected by mass repetition in cast iron; after all, many hundreds would be required to fill the three miles of the new riverfront. The Illustrated London News clearly favoured the lamp manufactured by the Coalbrookdale Company: an ornamental fantasia consisting of an altar-like support, surmounted by cornucopias, overflowing with ‘their gifts of plenty’, and the central lamp pillar entwined with the figures of two boys, exchanging a burning torch (2). This newspaper, and others, was impressed by this lavish ornamentation, the cornucopias symbolising the ‘rewards of British commercial industry, as displayed on the banks of the Thames’; the trident and caduceus in the adjacent panels, ‘the mercantile spirit and maritime enterprise of the nation’; the two boys symbolising the ‘energy of the nation’, one that was clearly derived from its industrial prowess.

3. Vuillamy’s dolphin lamp (left) and Bazalgette’s tripod (right) in the Illustrated London News, 1870.

In the event, the Coalbrookdale lamp was rejected in favour of the other two designs: a dolphin lamp designed by George Vulliamy, architect to the Board of Works; and a rather more restrained design by the engineer Joseph Bazalgette, comprising a base of bent lion’s legs and paws (3). As commentators argued, the aesthetic impact of both of these designs would benefit from repetition, as opposed to the Coalbrookdale example; in large numbers, Vulliamy’s dolphin lamps would create an ‘admirable effect’ from a distance (1); while Bazalgette’s tripod, because it was ‘well drawn, modelled and finished’,  ‘will certainly bear repetition better than either of the others’ (4). In addition, both of these designs were modelled on established precedents: Vulliamy’s entwined pairs of dolphins were adapted from the Fontana del Nettuno (1822-23) in the Piazza del Popolo in Rome; while Bazalgette’s came from the more general model of the classical tripod, usually employed in antique vases and candelabras.

4. Bazalgette’s lamps on the Chelsea Embankment.

When the Victoria Embankment was opened in 1868 it was celebrated in the press as directly comparable – even superior – to the engineering feats of ancient Rome and also as superior to similar developments in contemporary Paris, itself being remodelled and promoted as a new kind of imperial city. Thus, the new lamps on the embankments, modelled on Roman precedents but with their visual impact enhanced by insistent repetition, were perceived as enhancing London’s status as the preeminent imperial city ‘to which no other European capital presents a rival’.

5. One of Vulliamy’s Sphinx benches, installed on the Victoria Embankment in 1874.

The symbolic potency of Vulliamy’s lamps was significantly enhanced by the addition of further cast-iron street furniture in the late 1870s, to mark the opening of Cleopatra’s Needle, an Egyptian obelisk installed on the Victoria Embankment in 1878 after its tortuous four-year voyage from Egypt. In 1874, anticipating the arrival of the obelisk, Vulliamy designed benches that featured sphinx and camel-shaped armrests (5 & 6). This collection of street furniture extended the historicist concept of the obelisk, enhancing both its spatial reach and its overtly patriotic and imperial associations; the obelisk and its associated benches in effect reappropriated Napoleon’s imperial ambitions to Britain, with London’s new monument also vying for visual supremacy with an existing obelisk in the Place de la Concorde in Paris. Moreover, the older dolphin lamps also gained an enhanced status through the new Egyptian ornaments; their own imperial associations with Rome were now conjoined with those of Egypt and the implied succession of Britain over France as the pre-eminent imperial nation.

6. Camel bench on the Victoria Embankment, installed in 1874.

Not all critics were impressed by this overinflation of significance of the lamps: Percy Fitzgerald, writing in the Magazine of Art in 1880, argued that the lamps on the embankment were ‘too trifling in character to need such massive bases’ and, in a telling comparison, condemned Vulliamy’s ‘attenuated’ lamp posts in contrast to those found in Paris, which he regarded as ‘elegant’ objects. In Fitzgerald’s view, the magnification of the significance of the embankment lamps through their constructional forms did not match up with their aesthetic or symbolic ambition: in short, they were not worthy representations of the preeminent world city. The fact that they have since become iconic symbols of London suggests that this critic was misplaced in his opinions.





Ornament and memory

27 03 2012

Cast-iron capital, Skipton station, Yorkshire, 1880

‘All I remember of Pilsen, where we stopped for some time, said Austerlitz, is that I went out on the platform to photograph the capital of a cast-iron column which had touched some chord of recognition in me. What made me uneasy … was the idea that this cast-iron column, which with its scaly surface seemed almost to approach the nature of a living being, might remember me and was, if I may so put it, said Austerlitz, a witness to what I could no longer recollect for myself.’

For Austerlitz, the eponymous narrator of W. G. Sebald’s 2001 novel, the repressed memories of his traumatic childhood in Nazi Germany keep resurfacing in unexpected and disturbing contexts. These memories form the basis for the novel’s narrative structure – a kind of stream-of-consciousness text with no chapter or even paragraph breaks. But why might an ornamental cast-iron column in a provincial Czech railway station stir long-submerged memories?

Liverpool Street Station, London, 1875

Sebald, of course, doesn’t give an answer, but it’s something to do with the ‘puce-tinged encrustation’ on the iron capital which makes it seems almost alive and therefore conscious and capable of memory – of remembering Austerlitz when he was a child. A ridiculous idea, no doubt, but one that I find has strong resonances with radical notions of ornament developed by the German theorist Siegfried Kracauer just at the beginning of the rise of fascism in Germany in the early 1930s.

Paddington Station, London, 1852-55

Like other intellectuals of his generation (particularly Walter Benjamin), Kracauer was worried that the modernists’ banishment of ornament would lead to it returning in a ‘dislocated, unmediated’ form that could be utilised for the strengthening of totalitarian power – think the Nuremburg Rally or Nazi propaganda films. Yet, Kracauer also saw a radical potential in ornament. In his autobiographical novel Ginster (1928), the protagonist – an architect – challenges his own sense of alienation in modern Berlin with a developing notion of ornament – encompassing much more than conventional visual decoration and including accidental ornament (creating by the smudging of a window), schoolboy doodles, or the patterns in decaying walls. Kracauer’s broad notion of ornament allows the individual to ‘resubjectivize’ the increasingly objective and rationalised modern city by fixed visual images that mediate the present and the past, thus breaking down the distance between the individual and the whole.

York Station, 1877

It’s precisely this function of ornament that infuses Sebald’s Austerlitz with its narrative potency. Without him knowing it consciously, the cast-iron column in the railway station mediates present and past, partly because its visual appearance – covered in the encrustations of decay – provokes its appropriation as an object that is both present and bears witness to its history. And cast iron seems peculiarly suited to this kind of mediation. In countless railway stations, Victorian cast-iron ornament remains part of  structures that are at once powerfully present and also connected to a past, nebulous as that connection may be.

Preston station, 1880

From their inception in the 1830s, railway stations have functioned as potent symbols of modernity – the onward rush of technology – but also places of immense stillness – of waiting, where time past flows into time present. And, within these spaces, if one cares to stand and look, as Austerlitz did, the cast-iron ornament (especially if it’s rusted or stained) reminds us of these slippages in the sleek image of the modern. They are places where the whole is perceived – the milling crowds, the endless departures and arrivals of modern life – and, paradoxically, where we feel our individuality most strongly and the deep well of memories that we all carry.

Hellifield station, Yorkshire, 1880





The Vienna sewers

22 05 2011

1. The river Wien, Vienna

The prevailing image of Vienna is of a city of pleasure: the opera, waltzes, refined luxury etc. Yet, like all modern cities, it has an underside – real underground spaces that allow the city to function: from its bland yet smoothly efficient underground railway to its invisible system of sewers built at the end of the nineteenth century.

2. Scene from The Third Man (1949)

Vienna’s sewers transcend their everyday domain largely thanks to one defining representation: Carol Reed’s film The Third Man, made in 1949 and written by Graham Greene. Like all of Greene’s work, The Third Man explores human depths – unconscious motives, hidden political and personal treachery, and death – which are symbolised by, and return through, the ultra-rationalised spaces of the Vienna sewers just after the Second World War. It is here, in a celebrated sequence that the black marketer Harry Lime is cornered and finally shot by his one-time friend, Holly Martins (2). Throughout the film, the Vienna we know today is barely recognisable – here the city is battle-worn, barely more than a collection of ruins controlled by a disparate group of foreign occupiers.

3. Scenes from The Third Man projected on the sewer walls

Today, with the help of Vienna’s sewer authority, the Third Man tourist agency have cashed in on the film’s reputation and opened up – for paying visitors – the section of the city’s sewers that was actually used in the film. Descending the lotus-like manhole used by Harry Lime in his attempted escape, you enter the same murky world he inhabited. Here, montage from the film is literally projected onto the walls of the sewers (3), sounds from the film appear from unexpected crevices, and strategic lighting gives added drama to the spaces. It’s a themed excursion into the underworld that could be accused of hollowing out the originality of both film and sewer space.

4. Foul water meets clean water

5. Passages between the sewers

Yet, in reality, the raw brutalities of the sewers win out, with their grotesque stench, hostile spaces and foul rushing flows. In one space, chocolate-coloured water merges before one’s eyes into clean water in a mesmerising display of slowly-shifting eddies and whirlpools (4); in another, labyrinthine passages confuse in their topographical strangeness (5) (as they do so powerfully in the film); while, in the submerged river Wien – used by Lime to move swiftly and unnoticed between the city’s four occupied zones – is revealed as an astonishing, vaulted cavern, receding seemingly infinitely into the darkness (1 & 6). Here, with spectacularly appropriate lighting and ominous sounds, patches of graffiti can be made out along the walls of the tunnel: signs of the present-day successors of Harry Lime – those who yearn for freedom of movement and a brief respite from the oppressive rationality of the world above.

6. The river Wien under Vienna





Civic space? The Barton arcade, Manchester

1 04 2011

1: Barton arcade from St Anne's Square

Walter Benjamin recognized in the first arcades of Paris – built at the turn of the 19th century – the beginnings of iron construction that would culminate in the Crystal Palace building of 1851. Yet, arcades also looked backwards as well as forwards: for Benjamin, they were also still rooted in the luxury culture of the 18th century, private worlds that effectively sealed out the social mixing on the street in an artificial environment – a ‘world in miniature’. The early arcades were commercial speculations, built by a single or joint property owners, with the shops lining the arcade leased to individual traders. They were usually narrow spaces, the architectural potential of the iron and glass roofs subordinated to the dictates of economy.

2: Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan in The Builder, 25 April 1868

Yet, by the time the Barton arcade was constructed in Manchester in 1871 (1), everything had changed. In the second half of the 19th century, the rapidly-growing industrial cities of Britain embraced the arcade as an essential part of civic improvement. The precedent for this ‘public’ appropriation of the arcade was the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, opened in Milan in 1865 and influencing a British audience through the pages of The Builder (2). This monumental arcade was the result of international cooperation; it was financed by a British company, designed by an Italian architect and constructed by a French engineer. Consisting of two wide passages joining beneath an octagonal-based dome 106-ft high, this was an arcade on a colossal scale, richly decorated with frescoes and ornamental cast iron vaulting.

As a new civic space modelled on the Milan Galleria, Manchester’s Barton arcade exhibits its ‘public’ status through its decorative features. Wider than its earlier British counterparts and built on three-levels, the sense of light-filled space is dramatic on entering the arcade via a conventional stone-fronted building (3). The elaborate cresting within the barrel-vaulted glass roof, the lion heads cast onto the shop fronts (4), and the naturalistic foliage seen in the columns and panelling in the exterior of the arcade (5) all contribute to the newfound sense of iron being a material fit for symbolic treatment. Such symbolism was an essential element in Victorian civic architecture, especially in industrial cities like Manchester, whose urban identity was being reconstructed, through high-profile architectural projects, out of its former utilitarian image – a monotonous cityscape of chimneys, vast mills, factories and warehouses.

3: Interior of the Barton arcade, Manchester (1871)

4: Ornamental iron shopfront in the Barton arcade

5: Detail of ornamental cast iron in the exterior of the Barton arcade

The Barton example initiated an arcade craze in Manchester: Victoria buildings (1874) included a vast galleried arcade, as did the Exchange buildings (1876) and a new arcade was constructed in Deansgate in 1899. None of these other examples survive but they are nevertheless testament to the power of the arcade as a symbol of civic status in Britain in the late-19th century. Similar arcade complexes were also built in other cities around the country, including Cardiff, Birmingham, Newcastle, Glasgow and Leeds. Together, they represented the transformation of Benjamin’s exclusive ‘world in miniature’ to a democratised covered space in the city accessible to all. Yet, despite the best intentions of their progenitors, arcades were always subject to the dictates of supply and demand; they all served commercial functions and were never financed by public money. As a result, their presumed ‘public’ status was in reality subsumed to ruthless economic dictates. The arcades in Manchester quickly fell victim to this schizophrenic status: at best, they were viewed as too spacious to function as indoor ‘streets'; at worst, as wasteful follies built solely on the basis of speculation that failed to attract either shopkeepers or customers.





Temples of convenience: cast-iron fountains and urinals

10 03 2011

1: Water fountain, Clifton Downs, Bristol, 1866

From the mid-1850s onwards, temperance societies in Britain actively promoted the building of water fountains in public places as a potent aid in their mission against drink. In the second half of the nineteenth century many hundreds of fountains were installed in villages, towns and cities across the country. Some were constructed in stone or marble, but many more were provided for (at a lower cost) by the large iron foundries that dominated the industrial landscape of Glasgow, particularly George Smith & Co, and Walter Macfarlane. These companies produced their own designs which embraced the religious and moral language of the temperance societies. In almost identical examples found in Preston, Wallingford, and Bristol (1), Macfarlane’s design for a water fountain exploits the decorative potential of cast iron with a host of elevating aquatic motifs including: a heron standing upon leaves in the bowl of the fountain and repeated in the dome above (2); salamanders crawling on the pillars beneath the bowl (3); and Biblical and moral inscriptions above (4). Winged lions – symbols of civic pride – surmount the corners of the canopy, which in a larger example in Darwen (5), become part of a tour-de-force of naturalistic display, featuring arabesques of leaves and flowers infilled with birds supporting a dome of intertwined garlanded wreaths.

2: Heron, water fountain, Shirehampton, Bristol, 1886

3: Salamander, water fountain, Wallingford, Oxon, 1885

4: Fountain canopy, Clifton Downs, Bristol, 1866

5: Fountain canopy, Whitehall Park, Darwen, 1906

These associations of natural abundance, water, civic pride and religion were interweaving aspects of Britain’s sanitary revolution in the second half of the nineteenth century. Casting fountains in iron provided a ready means of asserting these values in visual form throughout the country at a cost far lower than the commission of individual designs for each location. They also promoted the work of specialist ornamental founders like Macfarlane and the reputation of cast iron as a material suitable for decorative treatment. Such designs could be selected from a series of examples illustrated in Macfarlane’s increasingly lavish catalogues, issued from 1855 onwards.

6: Canopy inside the men's urinal in Mina Park, Bristol, 1886

7: Men's urinal in Mina Park, Bristol, 1886

Ornamental cast iron was also responsible for another piece of sanitary street furniture in the Victorian period: the urinal. Often located in urban parks in close proximity to water fountains, Victorian urinals (in both male and female versions) still survive in Bristol, Bath, Birmingham and London. Standing beneath the dome of the urinals in Mina Park, Bristol (6), one could be forgiven for imagining oneself to be in a strange wonderland, despite the overpowering stench and rusting surfaces. Manufactured by Macfarlane’s Glasgow rivals, George Smith & Co., these urinals adopt similar motifs to those of fountains, although with an emphasis on naturalistic flora rather than fauna (7). In one sense, this naturalism is suitable to the park environment in which the urinal is located; in another, it refers to the perceived elevating nature of sanitary improvement embodied in public urinals. To perform one’s necessity in this space is no mere vulgar bodily activity; it is, rather, an ennobled act, as much part of the natural as the ornament proclaims. As such it contrasts sharply with the more familiar toilet spaces in public places, characterised by their uniform white tiles and functionalist design, where the acceptability of the excreting body depends only upon its assimilation into a neutral environment devoid of symbolic meaning.





Cathedral of sewage: the Abbey Mills pumping station

18 12 2010

The Abbey Mills pumping station from the Greenway

The Abbey Mills Pumping Station (1865-68) was the last to be constructed in the first phase of London’s main drainage project in the 1860s, masterminded by the engineer Joseph Bazalgette. It was also architecturally the most extravagant and has come to be known as the ‘cathedral of sewage’. The style of the building has been variously described as Byzantine, Italian Medieval, Russian, Ruskinian Gothic and Moorish. The Builder commented in 1868 that the building ‘seemed to be an elegant structure in a swamp [which] might be taken for a mosque or Chinese temple’. The original twin ventilation chimneys (2), richly ornamented and standing 212 feet high, gave this building a prominence that has consistently attracted public attention, and today it still provides a focus for introducing the public to Bazalgette’s system.

2 Abbey Mills in 1868

The stylistic and decorative elements of Abbey Mills ‘dress up’ the engineering function and present it in symbolic terms: the underground spaces of the building are claustrophobic, dark and disorientating (3) while the second-storey gallery level is light, airy and filled with naturalistic decoration (4); the cruciform plan, cathedral-like doors and internal octagon suggest religious associations normally restricted to churches. Such design elements were employed in many contemporaneous Victorian industrial buildings, most notably markets, which were often built to a cruciform plan and with similar decorative central octagonal pavilions. The symbolic associations of these design features indicate that the architectural embellishment seen at both Crossness and Abbey Mills has a very different function from mere technological expediency.

3 Underground spaces at Abbey Mills

4 Interior ironwork from the upper gallery

The architect of Abbey Mills was Charles Driver, a specialist in the use of iron, and it is in the ornamental iron at Abbey Mills that we sense his desire to elevate the value of iron above its strictly utilitarian character. This was an attitude that went against the grain of architectural practise and theory in the 1860s, which, under the influence of the influential architectural critic John Ruskin, strove for truth to nature in architecture, rejecting the use of cast iron because it was a synthetic, artificial material. Iron was seen by Ruskin as not fit to express the noblest architectural ideas. Indeed, Ruskin viewed the use of cast iron as excluding a building from being true architecture; likewise, cast-iron ornament is condemned as ‘cold, clumsy, and vulgar’. But in the interior of Abbey Mills we see no such reservations; rather a reversal of Ruskin’s views: the profuse decorative cast-iron motifs, including roses, lilies and acanthus leaves (5) imitate nature so convincingly that iron here effectively appropriates the function of a natural and ‘noble’ material such as stone.

5 Cast-iron lilies in the upper gallery

Such ‘dressing up’ of iron, seen by most architectural historians as a kind of structural deceit, at Abbey Mills provides a symbolic embellishment of the building’s engineering function. For the Victorians, morality and architecture were inseparable and the morality of architecture was expressed through style and decoration. To Victorian architectural critics like Ruskin, the engineering function of this building would have possessed no moral meaning in itself precisely because it was divested of all such symbolism. Therefore, the moral value of Abbey Mills is communicated through its decorative and symbolic elements: the cruciform plan and cathedral-like doors use religious symbolism to elevate its meaning above mere utility; the exterior façades include features alluding to Gothic Venice – the apotheosis of nobility in architecture, according to Ruskin – while the interior use of decorative ironwork represents an attempt to both elevate iron as a noble constructive material and to give further symbolic meaning to the functional aspects of the building.

The spaces of the Abbey Mills Pumping Station, as the visible part and symbolic representation of a largely invisible system, are ones where old and new conceptions of sewer space collide: Bazalgette’s new rational understanding of sewers conflates with the architectural embellishments which use an older symbolic language to suggest the nobility of both sewers and the constructive material associated with them, namely iron. It remains a point of contention whether these new ideas really did successfully displace and transform the old conceptions of the wider public.

6 Visitors at Abbey Mills in 1868

On 30 July 1868, many of London’s dignitaries did see Abbey Mills when a sumptuous banquet was held at the site to mark the official opening of the entire sewer system north of the Thames (6). Visitors, who were each supplied with a copy of Bazalgette’s description of the building, marvelled at the lack of smell, the lightness of construction and the rich floral ornamentation, all of which suggested a true ennoblement of the sewer and its function.But such a sense of nobility depended on the effective concealment of the underground parts of the building where the sewage was pumped. In the almost identical ceremony that took place at Crossness on 4 April 1865, visitors also admired the beauty of the ornament and the ‘poetical’ qualities of the religious symbolism, but many also descended into the crypt-like space of part of the vast subterranean sewage reservoir (7). Despite the temporary exclusion of the sewage and the dazzling lighting, some visitors felt distinct unease at the thought of being in such close proximity to ‘the filthiest mess in Europe’ ready to ‘leap out like a black panther’ after the guests had left. It was in these underground spaces, close to the ‘ignoble’ sewage, that older associations were stimulated. The complete invisibility of these spaces at Abbey Mills perhaps closed down opportunities for such associations to emerge. However, such concealment by no means marks the demise of these older conceptions: rather, it has been contended that: ‘in mental life, nothing that has once taken shape can be lost … everything is somehow preserved and can be retrieved under the right circumstances’.

7 Visiting Crossness's underground sewage reservoir in 1865





The city as labyrinth: the medina of Fez

2 12 2010

The old city of Fez from above

Fes-el-Bali – the old city or medina of Fez in Morocco – is believed to be the world’s largest car-free urban area. Founded in the early 9th century, the medina covers only around a square mile, but contains over 9000 streets and around 150,000 residents. Virtually unchanged since the gigantic ramparts and seven monumental gates were built around it in the 16th century, the old city is a self-enclosed world, working to its own internal rhythms. Each small district within the city has its own public utilities – water fountains, mosques, baths – and the city’s streets are sharply delineated between the busy public shopping streets and the almost silent private streets of housing leading off to dead ends. Sandwiched between the endless lines of shops selling everything imaginable – from fabulous ornaments and sparkling textiles to fruit and vegetables and tourist tat – are oases of peace: richly decorated medersas built by the Merinids in the 14th century; mosque courtyards; elaborate medieval funduqs (inns for itinerant traders); and tree-filled courtyards of opulent Riyads – the traditional Moroccan home.

A private street in the medina

One of the medina's many public streets lined with shops

Not surprisingly, the medina of Fez presents problems to the first-time visitor, especially in navigating its tortuous geography. Here, the standard way of getting hold of new cities – seeing them from a high viewpoint – only serves to confuse, the streets disappearing in the extraordinary density of low-rise housing that only becomes apparent when above the city. On the ground, maps are virtually useless for the tourist as most of the streets are either unnamed or only given in Arabic script. At the very centre of the old city, conventional geography seems to stand on its head: covered streets lead around the enormous central mosque in a whirl of dense crowds and heavilly-laden donkeys, and the connecting side streets are so narrow and dark they seem to be underground.

Courtyard of a medersa in the medina

Narrow street passing from dark to light in the medina

In this place, one navigates initially by trial and error as if in a maze (getting lost, retracing one’s steps, discovering dead ends); then by remembering certain features that remind you to turn left or right; then by the gradients (down towards the centre of the city, up to get out). After a few days, certain streets begin to link up in the mind and a skeletal outline of the city is mentally constructed. Only with many weeks – even months – of exploration would the rest of the labyrinth slowly unfold itself and connect together.

For the tourist, navigating the medina of Fez inevitably brings you into contact with that peculiarly Moroccan character: the faux guide (false guide). Usually male youths, they lay in wait for tourists at strategic points in the old city (each seemingly having their own patch) and approach whenever there is a pause, hesitation or misdirected glance. After leading you to where you want to go they demand payment, usually much more than you wish to give. Most will try and divert you into a shop, presumably owned by a relative or even their employer. The only way to avoid being ensnared is to always know where you are going and thus Fes is ideal picking ground for these would-be-guides, preying on tourists’ most vulnerable weakness – their lack of environmental awareness. And so, in Fez, the tourist becomes like any other commodity being peddled in the souks, stripped of that special status that so characterises Islamic attitudes towards the ‘guest’.

Night in the medina

At night, when the shops close down and the touts go home, the medina quietens and takes on a new charm, one defined by private lives – boys kicking around a football, young girls walking with their mothers, groups of men gossiping in doorways, animals heard behind thick walls. This sharp disjunction between the public world of commerce – aggressive and male – and the private world of the family, is common to all cities, but particularly intense in a city like Fez, where the regular pulsations between these realms have been continuing unchanged for centuries.








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