Dream spaces: railway stations and the beyond

1 11 2012

The curving roof of York station’s train shed

From their beginning, railway stations were often perceived as having a dream-like quality. For some – particularly early travellers – the station was like a nightmare, particularly when seen at night, when the sight of steam locomotives seemed to emblematize the destructive or apocalyptic energies the railway seemed to have unleashed. Margaret Oliphant’s novel The House on the Moor (1861) was probably the first to actually use the word ‘phantasmagoria’ in relation to the railways, which she applied in describing the shifting spectacle created by a steam locomotive rushing through a country station at night. In later years, large iron train sheds became phantasmagoric for a number of reasons: for The Builder, ‘London Bridge recalls a nightmare or troublesome dream’ because of the ‘menacing girders’ of its enormous viaduct, ‘its impossible approaches, tortuous bridges, fearsome alley-ways, and cavernous entries'; while, for Filson Young, the light-filled train shed at Liverpool Street was counterbalanced by its ‘dark catacombs’ – hidden spaces that were full of the discarded remnants of hurried travel – ‘strange shadows, gigantic and discarded toys’ – where ‘you feel you have wandered into another age’.

Tunnel under the viaduct at London Bridge station

These nightmarish transformations of railway stations were generated by a long-standing anxiety about the loss of individual consciousness in the face of the railways, which transformed previously autonomous individuals into ‘atoms, pulsing, coalescing and dispersing across the network’, or ‘living parcels’ as John Ruskin had originally put it in 1848. In addition, Walter Benjamin has argued that the prevalence of dream imagery in relation to iron structures like railway stations was not merely a metaphorical transposition, but a material one, where collective dream imagery was actually inscribed in the spaces themselves.In this sense, the perception of iron train sheds as nightmarish temples, their wrought-iron arches as the vaults of caves, or their girders as menacing objects, transformed their presumed ‘solid’ materiality into one that dissolved the boundaries between the real and the imagined, creating new ornamental configurations of material, structure and atmosphere.

Caverns near Liverpool Street station

If some found the obliteration of individual consciousness perceived in railway stations as nightmarish, others embraced it as a stimulating dreams of a different sort that hinged on the individual’s linking with, what Henry James termed, a ‘larger way of looking at life’. Here, nighttime views of railway stations produced not nightmares but an ecstatic connection to a greater whole. So, George A. Wade, in his 1900 article on ‘famous railway stations’, described the ‘brilliant illumination’ of York’s train shed at night, which he viewed from the medieval walls of the city, watching ‘the grand curve of the rails through the station, with the northern expresses dashing towards Scotland’; while Paddington’s train shed became magical for The English Illustrated Magazine when seen at night, where the ‘innumerable coloured lights’ blurred the hard outlines of the iron structure, everything dissolving ‘in motion [and] rush, swish, and darkness’.

William Powell Frith, ‘The Railway Station’ (1862)

St Pancras Station, The Builder, 1916

Finally, when The Builder published its account of London’s railway stations in 1916, it also included a lithograph showing an up-to-date view of St Pancras’s vast train shed. If the article drew attention to the softening of the ‘utilitarian … ugliness‘ of London’s termini by ‘the machinations of soot, fog, gas coal, and company’, the illustration pictured something of this softening in its rendering of the vast iron-and-glass roof, one that does indeed make it appear to be dematerialised by the clouds of steam rising from the engines below. Updating William Powell Frith’s mid-Victorian panorama of Paddington station (1862), this lithograph simultaneously magnifies the train shed, which here fills almost the entire image, and softens its utilitarian aesthetic so that it appears to dissolve into the sky beyond the vast pointed arch. And unlike Frith’s carefully differentiated crowd, the travellers in this image are truly a ‘mass’ – that is, the crowd that had become synonymous of urban modernity, and rendered here as an almost solid undifferentiated block of black ink. In short, this image creates a new aesthetic out of St Pancras’s utilitarian iron, in effect a dematerialized ‘mass’ ornament that emerges out of the dissolution of conventional perceptions of iron’s material solidity.





Meta-ornament: railway tracks

4 10 2012

Tracks on the southern approach to Manchester from Stockport

According to Walter Benjamin, railway tracks had a ‘peculiar and unmistakeable dream world’ attached to them, one that, for early railway travellers, was related to their unprecedented straightness in the landscape, their geometric alignment, or in their wider convergence into networks. Early railway prints in the 1830s and 1840s (1) emphasized the sharp linearity of railway tracks, cutting through the landscape with unprecedented geometric precision; while contemporaneous travellers were transfixed by the seemingly infinite recession of parallel tracks.

1. T. T Bury’s view of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway over Chat Moss, 1830

 

                                2. 1898 film from the front of a train in Barnstable

As recorded by Edward Stanley in 1830, when he witnessed a locomotive approaching from the far distance, train tracks seemed to compress space and time and usher in a new form of perception; Stanley thought the parallel tracks made the engine seem to increase in size ‘beyond all limit’ as it came nearer, eventually ‘absorbing everything within its vortex’. A similar fascination came at the end of nineteenth century, when railway tracks formed some of the earliest subjects for film: that is, in the ‘phantom ride’ (2), a term used to mean a film that looks from the front of a moving railway engine along the tracks themselves. Here, the novel view of the camera (one that was seldom experienced in ordinary life) combined its ‘subjective’ view with an inaccessible position that laid bare, through an unwavering emphasis on the endless perspective of the parallel tracks, the disembodied consciousness of the railway journey.

3. Railway maps of England in 1850 (left) and Britain in 1900 (right)

If railway tracks suggested a new kind of machine aesthetic, defined by extreme linearity and a corresponding overturning of ‘natural’ perception, then the conglomeration of tracks into networks seemed to produce revolutionary new patterns – or ‘meta-ornament’ in the landscape. In its early decades, the new railways spread at a seemingly exponential rate across Britain, from just under 100 miles of track in 1830 to over 6,000 by 1850 (3; left), rising to 19,000 by 1900 (3; right). Yet, their growth was far from ordered, the consequence of unregulated competition among private railway companies, and for some, the resulting network was perceived as alarmingly chaotic. Punch pictured its own ‘Railway map of England’ in 1845 (4), at the height of railway speculation in that decade, with the English landscape of the near future enmeshed ‘in irons’, with no ordering principle to the layout. Left unregulated, the railway companies would, Punch argued, eventually create so many tracks that ‘we shall soon be unable to go anywhere without crossing the line’.

4. Punch’s ‘Railway map of England’, 1845

For others, the speed at which the railway network spread across the country was nothing short of miraculous: The Builder arguing in 1852 that the railways were ‘preparing the world for a wondrous future’ when they would unite the whole of humanity ‘as one great family’. Later, when a new railway was constructed between Buxton and Bakewell in 1876, The Builder argued that the iron tracks enhanced the picturesque landscape through which they passed by adding a ‘new element of what may be called the mental or moral picturesque’. In contrast to John Ruskin, who bitterly opposed the building of the new line, The Builder perceived ‘a kind of mystery’ in the track’s ‘windings and burrowings’ through the soft landscape which, taken as a whole, were strongly suggestive of the ‘bond of civilization that connects us’. If Ruskin lamented the railway’s tendency to obliterate beloved landscapes and their traditional cultural forms in its gigantic network of lines, The Builder had the opposite reaction: railway tracks became picturesque precisely because of their connectivity, that is, the way in which they created, through ‘the triumph of science’, new geographic and social networks that had a high moral purpose.





Arcadian dreams in Paris

4 09 2012

1. Galerie Vivienne

Entering any one of the seventeen surviving arcades in Paris is like stepping into an alternative world, one cut off from the noise and bustle of the metropolitan street – a space of stilled calm, filled with diffuse light filtered through the faded glass roofs above. Here, it’s possible to idle, contemplate and browse, removed as you are from the unending circulation of vehicles and onrushing people outside.

2. Dome in the Galerie Colbert

3. Shopfront in the Galerie Véro-Dodat

Arcades originated in Paris in the late-eighteenth century, emanating outwards (eventually to the whole world) from the Palais Royal, where, in 1786, a long wooden gallery lined with shops became the first covered passage of the modern era. Of course, any visitor outside Europe will know that the Islamic bazaar is much older – medieval in origin; yet, the first Paris arcades were different from bazaars in that they created a new physical environment for a fast-developing consumer culture. Rather than the brick and stone of Islamic bazaars, the arcades in Paris were some of the first buildings to use the new technologies of iron and glass in the construction of their roofs, as seen first in the Galerie Colbert (2; 1826) and Galerie Vivienne (1; 1827). During the nineteenth century, arcades would develop from narrow covered streets to monumental civic monuments, such as the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II in Milan (1865-77) or the GUM in Moscow (1888).

4. Ornamental clock and ceiling in the Galerie Vivienne

5. Sign in the Galerie de la Madeleine

Paris’s arcades became famous largely through the writings of one man: Walter Benjamin, a Jewish-German émigre who, in the 1930s, found in these spaces a ‘world in miniature’ – that is, a microcosm of urban capitalism. By the time Benjamin began reflecting on the arcades, they had largely sunk into dereliction, being superseded in popularity by the vast department stores likes Printemps (1881) and the Galeries Lafayette (1912). During time off from poring over books in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Benjamin would wander in the nearby arcades, finding in their poetic dereliction sites ripe for the kind of ‘profane illumination’ that he believed could shatter the shiny surface of commodity culture.

6. Reflections in the Passage des Panoramas

7. Toy shops in the Passage des Princes

If he were alive today, Benjamin would no doubt be perplexed to discover that he was in large part responsible for the preservation of many of Paris’s arcades. From the 1980s onwards, and coinciding with a great flowering in the reputation and influence of Benjamin, a large number of the city’s arcades have been renovated or restored. One of the most ornate – the Galerie Véro-Dodat (3; 1826) – still has its original richly-ornamented wooden shopfronts, cast-iron lamps, lyres, and genies sitting on cornucopias, chequerboard tiles, and painted ceilings; while the nearby restored Galerie Vivienne (4; 1827) has three different entrances and a sumptuous interior of mosaic flooring and other ornaments symbolising material success (laurel wreaths, sheaves of wheat and palm trees), wealth (horns of plenty), and trade (Caduceus of Mercury). Here, some of the original shops still survive, such as the Siroux bookshop, opened in 1828, from which I bought a small guide to the Paris arcades.

8. Passage du Prado

9. Entrance to the Passage du Grand-Cerf

It might seem like Paris’s arcades have now become sites of nostalgia – museum pieces that have been cut off from the kind of historical reflection Benjamin practised in their spaces. It’s as if Benjamin himself has become just one commodity amongst others, as proclaimed by a barbershop sign in the Galerie de la Madeleine (5; 1847) which takes its name from the venerated writer. Yet, in exploring all seventeen surviving arcades today, one cannot help being stunned by their atmospheric richness and distinct yet indefinable sense of localised identity. So, on the one hand, the Galerie Vivienne exudes a sense of nostalgia for the personalised luxury commodity of yesteryear; on the other, the labyrinthine Passage du Panoramas (6; 1799 & 1834) stands almost empty, its enormous mirrors making this emptiness seem all the more melancholy. Meanwhile, the Passage des Princes (7; 1860) is immaculate, pristine and entirely filled with new toy shops, while the nearby Passage du Prado (8; 1925) is a smoke-filled haven for immigrant North-Africans, its rather severe Art Deco ironwork now framing a space more like an Islamic bazaar than a Parisian arcade. And opposite the airy, light-filled and bustling interior of the Passage du Grand-Cerf (9; 1828) is the dingy, empty Passage Bourg-l’Abbé (10; 1828), avoided by most and home to nothing but boarded-up shops, where an isolated image of a Mediterranean seascape daubed with a stroke of white paint raises many questions but answers none; a key, perhaps, to the elusive meaning of these spaces – one that must be teased out from their discarded objects.

10. Picture in the Passage Bourg-l’Abbé





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.





Cast iron’s hidden histories

22 09 2010

Bracket in Clifton arcade, Bristol

Bracket in a shelter on Clarence Esplanade, Portsmouth

Victorian decorative cast iron represents an important and relatively early example of mechanically reproduced design. Unlike wrought iron, which is hand-crafted, cast iron results from a mechanical process: a pattern is made in wood or metal and this is cast in a bed of sand to produce the finished product. This can then be reproduced endlessly, illustrated by the two examples shown here: identical brackets in Bristol and Portsmouth. They were made in Glasgow, at the Saracen Foundry of Walter Macfarlane.

We take for granted the fact that products we buy are mechanically reproduced: we expect them to be exactly the same as any other produced by the relevant company or brand. Yet, we buy certain objects – particularly clothes – to feel special, individual, set apart from others. This generates a contradiction, which is a fundamental aspect of consumer societies today. Yet, it began to take effect only in the nineteenth century. The rapid dissemination of ornamental cast iron represents an important instance of this and came under close scrutiny by critics. Some, like John Ruskin, despised it because they hated the very fact of industrial production, longing for an age when products were made by hand, with craftsmen indelibly linked to the things that they made. Decorative cast iron represented the separation of art and work, the work of the craftsman being replaced by a manufacturing process. Others regarded this as a positive development: mechanical reproduction democratised art by disseminating it to the many rather than the few.

These two examples – probably produced in the 1880s – represent a time when cast iron reached a height of ornamentalism. The fantastical design is typical of its time: at the base of the bracket a grotesque head merges with the sinuous tail of a dragon, wrapped around a sprig of foliage which fills the space inside the bracket. Here, decoration performs no ‘function’, other than to invest the bracket with elevated qualities then associated with ornament and hand-crafted works of art. In others words, this decoration suggests a designer, but this is undercut by the fact that the same design is seen in two places that cannot be easily connected. In fact, the brackets would have probably been acquired through the pages of a trade catalogue, in this case those of the iron founder Walter Macfarlane, based in Glasgow. In these catalogues, no designers are credited, the brackets being advertised as just one product among countless others. Yet, they are different , not as a result of design but rather of their context – the bracket in the Portsmouth shelter is weathered by time and the elements; that in the Bristol arcade is still pristine in its clearly-defined forms.

So, how can we interpret these objects? If Walter Benjamin has argued that mechanically-reproduced works of art lacked authenticity, a real presence in time and space, where do these objects stand? Well, to get anywhere, we have to ask questions not normally posed about works of art: who decided to acquire these objects and for what purpose? Who was involved in the manufacturing process and how did they interact? How were these objects perceived in their distinct environments? It seems to me that the question of context is crucial. Even though these objects were made in the same way and to the same design, their meaning is determined primarily by the places in which they appear; the function and use of a seaside shelter are very different from a shopping arcade. In this way, decorative cast iron can be understood as contributing to the making of different environments – worlds where intention and perception are of the utmost significance. It is in iron’s place in these worlds where its meaning is made.








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