3 02 2013
Paul Dobraszczyk, Cottonopolis, 2013, charcoal on watercolour and chalk and ink, 50x70cm

1. Paul Dobraszczyk, Cottonopolis, 2013, charcoal on watercolour and chalk and ink, 50x70cm

In this painting (1), I wanted to represent my recently-adopted home city: Manchester. Like all cities Manchester is, at least in part, defined by its textures: its surfaces and colours. And, for this city, that surface is brick and that colour is red. Yes, brick is used all over the country, being, perhaps, the most common building material, but here in Manchester it is somehow uniquely synonymous with the city as a whole: sodden and almost infernal on the frequent rainy days; warm, rich and earthy when the sun graces the sky. And if you look closely, Manchester’s seemingly monotonous brick is really a rich spectrum of red hues and subtle shapes: from the uneven hand-made bricks of its earliest warehouses (2) to the variegated patterns of its later flamboyant Victorian buildings (3).

2. The Merchant's Warehouse, Castlefield, 1820s

2. The Merchant’s Warehouse, Castlefield, 1820s

3. Warehouse on Princess Street, c.1870s.

3. Warehouse on Princess Street, c.1870s.

Fashioned from this omnipresent brick are Manchester’s buildings, particularly its industrial buildings from the days when the city was also known as ‘Cottonopolis’. World-centre of cotton textile production and marketing in the Victorian period, Manchester’s innumerable mills, warehouses and factories were once the defining visual motifs of industrialisation. For early-Victorian visitors to Manchester, like the German architect Karl Frederich Schinkel, the city’s mills that were concentrated in Ancoats presented ‘a dreadful and dismal impression’ of ‘monstrous shapeless buildings’ that Schinkel visualised in a kind of hurried fever in his 1826 sketchbook (4). Schinkel gave us the perennial Manchester motif (passed all the way down to Lowry): the massive utilitarian rhomboid dotted with innumerable but highly regularised windows; and the chimneys of course – a ‘forest’ of impossibly high ‘needles’, according to Schinkel, belching smoke incessantly into the skies over the city.

4. Schinkel's sketch of mills in Ancoats, 1826.

4. Schinkel’s sketch of mills in Ancoats, 1826.

Today, most of these industrial buildings and their chimneys are gone; or, if they remain, the smokestacks no longer smoke and the buildings are either half-ruined, empty or gentrified – ‘post-industrial’ in the literal sense of the word, frozen in an in-between state, no longer industrial but not yet something else. Yet, even this seemingly bygone industry is never ‘post’ – as we all know it’s simply been relocated elsewhere, out of sight, out of mind, halfway across the globe. Once, Manchester’s mills seemed to be literally taking over the world in a vast unregulated conglomeration, a kind of architecture that was dictated entirely by newly-industrialised capitalist production, one that threatened to reproduce itself in unending exact replicas across the face of the earth.

5. Old Mill, Ancoats, 1798-1801.

5. Old Mill, Ancoats, 1798-1801.

Yet, even in the blankness of Manchester’s surviving mills (5), I find a sense of honesty about industrial production that seems to have been covered over with what’s replaced it (the glass sheen of global finance). It’s as if the regular, repetitive windows on the surviving mills in Ancoats speak very precisely and transparently about the nature of capitalism itself; each window casts a light on the machine and its workers; each are identical cogs in a wheel; each are bound by the same brutal scientific rationale.

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.

Peak Hollows

5 03 2012

Paul Dobraszczyk, 'Peak Hollows', 2012, coloured paper and sequins.

Hollow between two gritstone boulders on Kinder Scout.

Man-made hollows carved into the gritstone on Stanage Edge. These hollows, each of which is numbered, were created as drinking troughs for the moorland grouse.

Circular hollow near Monk's Dale in the White Peak. These man-made hollows were created as drinking troughs for sheep.

Natural water-filled hollow formed in the gritstone on Kinder Scout.

Abandoned hollow above Monsal Dale in the White Peak.

Natural circular hollow in the gritstone on Derwent Edge

History at a glance

18 04 2011

‘Historical chart. Representing at one view the rise and progress of the principal states & empires of the known world’, c. 1780s. Designed by Adam Ferguson, copper engraving by A. Bell, hand coloured. 575 x 249 mm (Paul Dobraszczyk)

In the nineteenth century, historical charts, or chronologies, emerged as a popular method of showing comparative historical development; that is, by means of graphs or tables on which were plotted the development of different civilizations over time. In this case, time is represented on the vertical axis and read from top to bottom, while different-coloured bars on the horizontal axis represent various empires, which are labelled at the top of the page in twelve columns. The columns are in some cases further divided by means of colour alone: Britain into Scotland, Ireland and England; and Spain into Portugal. From top to bottom, the width of the areas of colour varies according to the geographical reach of each empire – for example, in the middle of the chart is a large area of pink, indicating the extent of the Roman Empire across many other countries.

The source of this particular example is the Encyclopaedia Britannica, whose second edition (1777-84) included this historical chart as a foldout plate. When the third edition of the encyclopaedia was published in 1797, the chart’s timeline was extended to 1800. The development of historical charts like this one was pioneered by Joseph Priestley in the eighteenth century, with his graphic method of presenting time as a line, and was later taken up by Major James Bell, who published the first edition of his A compendious view of universal history & literature in a series of tables in 1820. Bell’s charts were displayed at the Great Exhibition in 1851 in the form of a long roll, unfolded to give a sense of historical development ‘in one view’. The chart illustrated here was designed by Adam Ferguson (1723-1816), a prominent Scottish philosopher and historian, and published long before Bell came to dominate the field.

The sense of perceiving history as a totality, by means of comparative development of empires, developed from sixteenth-century historians such as Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609), who founded the study of chronology. Historical tables were probably used mainly in education, whether in schools or in the home of those who could afford such lavish publications. As educative tools, the ‘in one view’ format of the chart was designed to aid memory: organising historical data into spatial formations on the page was believed to imprint it on the memory of the reader/viewer much more effectively than words alone.

The labyrinth as sacred space

11 12 2010

Paul Dobraszczyk, Mausoleum, Meknès, 2010 (watercolour on chalk and gouache)

The mausoleum of Moulay Ismail is one of the only sacred buildings in Morocco that can be visited by non-Muslims. In the 17th century, Moulay Ismail elevated the city of Meknès to a imperial capital in his 55-year reign from 1672 and built a vast royal palace, enormous fortifications and monumental gates. He is generally considered to be one of the greatest figures in Moroccan history, despite his extreme despotism; his reign was marked by bloody campaigns of pacification, countless grisly deaths and the employment of tens of thousands of slaves to build his vast monuments in Meknès.

Dark space

Light space

By contrast, the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail is a remarkably peaceful series of spaces, divided into squares. On entering the building through a tiny door, one comes into a dark square room, intricately decorated but barely lit. Ascending a small flight of stairs, you enter into an unroofed space of light, covered in coloured square tiles that one sees in almost every significant Islamic building. Up another flight of stairs, you walk through an almost identical square room, completely bare apart from the mesmerising tiles covering the floor and part of the wall. Ascending more steps into an arcaded room, seemingly lighter again, one eventually enters the mausoleum itself – a square room filled with light, with all surfaces decorated with carving or tiles and, in the centre, a fountain ceaselessly playing its soft watery music.

Lighter space

Heavenly space

This mausoleum represents a simple use of a labyrinth as the guiding spatial principle. The visitor is gently led on a single route through the spaces in an ascending path to the heavens. In contrast to the secular commercial labyrinth of the medina of Fes, this is the sacred labyrinth that directs the pilgrim on a path to enlightenment: a spatial guide from earth to heaven. Its use predates the rise of the monotheistic religions, as indicated in these carvings in Cornwall, which date from the Bronze Age, or around 1500 B.C.E. As if linking continents and cultures across space and time, the carved labyrinth in this isolated Cornish valley is accompanied by contemporary offerings to the gods: words inscribed on slate and coloured fabric and trinkets hanging from the trees.

Bronze Age labyrinth in Rocky Valley, Cornwall

Offerings in the trees near the Bronze Age labyrinth

Vertical cities

15 09 2010


Underground/Overground, 2006, mixed media


Our mental pictures of cities are generally determined by maps – flat projections that suppose a viewpoint high in the air, completely removed from the chaos of the street. This gives rise to a horizontal picture of the city, where all spaces are arranged as if flattened out on a surface to be apprehended at a glance. This may be useful in navigating urban space – getting from A to B, or more likely A to Z,  but it conceals another view of the city, the vertical view. If we were to cut a section through a city like London, it’s vertical structure would be revealed – from the highest hills, church steeples, and office blocks, to the vast underground spaces of the Tube, sewers, utility tunnels and subways. Traversing a city like London often involves just as much vertical as horizontal movement. Yet picturing this in our minds is often very difficult, because we do not conceive vertical space very easily. As a consequence, our constant ups and downs in the city become blanked out, consigned to the drab world of commuting and only noticed when things go wrong. Yet, apprehending our vertical movement – perhaps, even mapping it – would undoubtedly lead to a richer understanding of the city and its complex web of spaces.


20 05 2010

Alcazar, 2009, watercolour on chalk and ink

Seville’s Alcazar, although smaller and less coherent than the Alhambra in Granada, is a fascinating synthesis of Christian and Islamic architecture. Constructed from the tenth century onwards, the Alcazar has been expanded or reconstructed many times over the centuries and, today, it still functions as a royal palace. As with many buildings in Andalusia, the decoration is lavish and all-encompassing. Key to the Alcazar’s decorative impact is a constant play between surface and depth: in the tiles that adorn almost every surface making flat space seem deep; and in the interlocking geometric patterns in domes and ceilings that make depth seem flat. The result is a dynamic architecture that plays on the viewers’ perception, one that tells stories through space. Extraordinary to think that such an architecture was only ever meant to be have been experienced by a tiny elite. Its democratization through mass tourism has transformed – perhaps even redeemed – its basis in an extreme concentration of power.

Decorative tiles in the gardens of the Alcazar, Seville

Dome in the Palacio de Don Pedro, Alcazar, Seville


9 12 2009

Sunset over Evenes, 2007. Pencil and watercolour on chalk and ink

In August, in Narvik, Norway – well inside the article circle – the sunsets draw one out into a time that seems to come to a standstill. As the sun sinks, the oranges and reds grow as the blue above slowly recedes and darkens. A few stars emerge and then, imperceptibly, time begins to hover; for a few hours the colours are held in suspension before the day begins again.

Such events, where day and night time are held in soft tension in space, mirror the process of meditation, which tries to create – or rather to become aware of – just such a time and space within and beyond oneself.

Sunsets in temperate latitudes are more fleeting events, especially in the winter, when they are also often at their most dramatic. Here, the sun seems to vanish quickly, throwing out its intensity from beneath the horizon – a last gasp before the hostile night once again reasserts its dominance. Perhaps these sunsets, with seemingly opposing forces fighting it out, are more characteristic of our inner lives. And yet, the sun never really disappears at all; rather, it is us, rooted on the earth, who turn away from it.

Sunset on Otmoor, England, February 2008

Ladhar Bheinn

9 09 2009
Ladhar Bheinn, 2004, oil on canvas

Ladhar Bheinn, 2004, oil on canvas

The Knoydart area in Scotland exerts a fascination for walkers. Undisturbed by roads and virtually uninhabited, this rocky peninsula is only reached by boat (from Mallaig) or by foot. Walking in, after reaching the end of the longest single-track dead-end road in Britain, one enters a lush world of Caledonian pines, high bracken and fjord-like valleys. Rounding the headland before reaching the hut at Barrisdale, Ladhar Bheinn (Larven) comes into view – a great castellated semicircle rising high above Loch Hourn. Its remoteness lends a magical quality to this first view and in the subsequent days of walking and resting, I revisited it many times.

This scene indelibly prints itself on the memory, at once a place of openness and freedom and also a place enclosed, a circle of walls, a secret place. The hidden centre of the mountain offers a stable, still point around which turbulent forces coalesce: the unceasing movement of the sea, the rapid shifts in weather. Colours delineate the relationship between stillness and movement, between hidden centres and unseen continuities expanding out beyond the field of vision.

Ladhar Bheinn circle

Ladhar Bheinn circle


9 09 2009
Liathach, 2008, glitter, pen & watercolour on chalk and ink

Liathach, 2008, glitter, pen & watercolour on chalk and ink

Liathach – the grey one – is a mighty and imposing mountain in the Torridon region of Scotland. From all sides it appears impregnable, especially from the north, where a succession of rock buttresses tower above the surrounding moorland giving not a glint of access for the walker. Only by one unrelentingly steep path on the south side can the ordinary walker get to the ridge and, once there, must negotiate a series of rocky towers, a narrow ridge path and vertical drops on either side to reach the two main summits. Like its giant neighbour Bheinn Eighe, Liathach’s summits are topped by quartzite, a pale rock that glitters in the sun like snow.

A mountain is always perceived differently after it has been climbed. Before, it exerts a powerful hold, a beckoning that challenges and excites, perhaps for many weeks – even years – beforehand. Once climbed, restlessness gives way to reflection and the view from below is personalized, where ones own encounter with the mountain is now bound up with its larger being, no longer remote or impregnable. Climbing a mountain offers the opportunity to be part of a reality that exists undisturbed without us, one that irresistibly draws us into a world beyond ourselves.

Liathachs pinnacle ridge from the south

Liathach's pinnacle ridge from the south


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