Monthly Archives: June 2010

Batchelor Life in the Green Age

So what are the essentials of life for the modern batchelor in the Green Age? Is a good view to a natural setting a pre-requisite for happiness in habitation? Should he be provided with a balcony so that he can commune with the outdoors while still ensounced in his pad? Or does the modern batchelor still insist on his own patch of dirt? Perhaps a fast or all terrain vehicle would satisfy a desire to experience the outdoors…afterall what are weekends for?

Or in the Green Age has the batchelor become a totally urbanised creature? Is access to a good coffee shop, a waterfront promenade and urban night life the essential accessory for a good life?

Small harbours can become great cities. Great cities can be desertifed

Once upon a time there was a small harbour on the edge of a great desert. The people lived happily, worshiped Allah, caught fish and raided passing mariners. British galleons came to stop the piracy. Later, the infidels discovered oil and water lurking far beneath the desert sands – and pumped them up. The small harbour grew to be a great city. Allah made the people rich, but he disliked the western ways.
Then an oil well blew out in the Gulf of Mexico. It too was run by the British and it made the seas filthy. Everybody hated this. So the Americans, the Chinese the Europeans and the Australians (who foresaw a comparable fate) hurled resources into energy research. In the first decade of the 21st century the Americans had spent more money on pet food than on energy research. In the second decade, the money spent on energy research towered over that spent by Russia and America on Atom Bombs, Ballistic Missiles and Moon Landings. Europe decided that the Romans and been geographically correct, so they invited North Africa to join the EU and then carpeted half the Sahara Desert with solar cells. Solar energy became so cheap that 75% of the world’s oil wells were shut down.
The great city on the Arabian Gulf spent its last tourism and oil revenues on solar-powered desalination, but global warming had made the region so hot that no one wanted to be there, even in winter, and the fossil water resources were all gone. So the great city which had been a small port, called Dubai, was abandonned like the Roman towns in North Africa.
The last woman to leave was heard to say: ‘Sheik Yamani, peace be upon him, was right “The Stone Age did not come to an end because we had a lack of stones, and the oil age did not come to an end because we had a lack of oil”‘
The last man to leave turned out the lights and muttered: ‘Allah be praised, Allah be delighted, blessed be the name of Allah to all Eternity’.

Policy implications of desertification
So the question is: what should be done to prepare for desertification? My belief is that instead of beeing looted as it is vacated, which is the usual fate of abandonned cities, Dubai should be carefully buried in sand for the benefit of future archaeologists. As at Pompeii, everything should be left, including furnishings, computers, books, booze, gold taps and porno videos (if present). The strongest argument for this approach is safety. A near-empty city could be more dangerous than Afghanistan. To make the deserted desert city safe, I imagine the best policy would be to explode a perimeter ring of buildings and add in other debris (eg cars) to make a barrier which would cause blown sand to accumulate. Wind tunnel tests should be put in hand to see if there are any urban design and planning measures which could assist the accumulation. Previous work on coastal sand dune stabilization would be useful.

Image note: the left part of the image is from a NASA photograph of Dubai; the right part of the image is of Devonian sandstone laid down under desert conditions near the Equator and then moved to Scotland by continental drift. The ‘lumps’ are breccia which became incorporated in the sandstone at the lower horizon of the sedimenary deposition. In geological time, everything changes.

Another modernist housing estate in London bites the dust – the Ferrier Estate

After years of deliberation, they have begun pulling down the Ferrier Estate in Kidbrooke (London Borough of Greenwich). The estate looks decent, many of the external spaces are good and many of the residents were very happy living there. SO WHAT WENT WRONG?
See what the Ferrier Residents Action Group thinks. The London Evening Standard summarizes the situation as follows: “The Ferrier Estate is seen as one of London’s worst examples of Seventies planning, and its concrete towers were allowed to run down over three decades. Unemployment among its residents has been as high as 75 per cent. The estate was also plagued by crime and violence.” But unemployment, crime and violence (and drug-dealing) are not design problems and, as the Evening Standard‘s illustration shows, the morphology of the new housing is uncannily similar to the housing one can see being demolished (on the left side of the photograph).
I remember working on a number of projects like the Ferrier Estate during the 1970s and on one occasion the project team wanted to reduce the external works budget. I told them that ‘The oak trees on my drawings will be approaching maturity when they come to demolish your trashy little boxes’. On the evidence of the Ferrier Estate I might have added that ‘if you give me some money to spend on garden walls it might evey prolong their life’ (let’s hope they keep the good courtyards on the Ferrier Estate). If more musical, I should then have sung Pete Seeger’s Little Boxes:
Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes
Little boxes
Little boxes all the same
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same
Listen to Pete Seeger

The nicely treed courtyard in the photograph should have been (1) overlooked from the surrounding flats, as a traditional London Square would be (2) accessible to residents only (like the London squares around Ladbroke Grove). As presently managed, it should not be called a ‘yard’ or ‘garden’ – it is merely a public open space (POS) with no evident use. Bad management by Greenwich Council should not be used as an excuse for destroying the space.

Just around the Corner

The Architectural Association in describing ‘Landscape Urbanism’ says what Landscape it is not. It is NOT:

“…understood as a scenographic art, beautifying, greening or naturalising the city.”

And then what it IS;

“…scalar and temporal operations through which the urban is conceived and engaged with.”

Thus, Landscape Urbanism prioritises the phenomenological experience of the city, while distancing itself (perhaps defensively) from the visual aesthetic. Perhaps an ironcial realisation of this preference for the non-aesthetic is the prediction by James Corner of the disappearance of the city into the landscape. Perhaps this prophecy will be realised quite differently than the romantic post-industrial ruin?  Corner, typified by the high line project, focuses on the rehabilitation of the abandoned elements of the city and post-industrial landscape.Can landscape urbanism be artfully conceived? 

Perhaps the city of the future will afterall disappear under the advance of the landscape, but once again capture something of the beauty which is now itself abandoned by its favourite profession?

Theorising the possible

Whatever happened to beauty?

Modern art turned the viewer’s gaze inward to the inner world rather than outward to the external world. In doing so, modern artists prefiguring existential and phenomenological accounts of perception highlighting that art is not only seen, it is experienced.

In this first post of a series, with thanks to Tom for his comments and suggestions, I shall explore the work and artistic legacy of the Futurists.

At the turn of the twentieth century a young ecletic group of artists in a hurry collaborated under the banner of Futurism. The Futurists in particular grappled with the role of perception in artmarking.

They were concerned to portray the world as it is experienced and viewed, and perhaps more importantly as it could be, through a richer perceptual lens free of the constraints of the academie which had become ossified and rule bound.

The Futurists in their abstractions were concerned with expressing the emotional state of the artist rather than depicting nature. This interest in the emotional state of the artist/observer of life arose from in part from the sculpturer Boccioni insistence on the work of art as an essential manifestation of reality, an aspect of sensation, rather than as an activity of the spirit.

It is thought that the philosophy of Bergson was an important influence on the Futurists. Berguson espoused two types of knowledge objective and subjective. Objective knowledge is “conceptual knowledge directed towards the requirements of our practical life and lending itself to the analytical procedures of the natural sciences” while subjective knowledge “is a projection of our intimate self-awareness onto the external world.” Berguson termed this intuition.

Boccioni attempted to describe the proces of intuition the ‘terrible tension’ as he experienced it:

“the artist seeks to maintain himself continuously ‘in the inside of the object, to live its changeability and to grasp its unity.”

See article by Brian Petrie, ‘Boccioni and Bergson’.  The Burlington Magazine Vol 116, No 852, Modern Art 1908-25) pp140147.

It is possible to unpick this concern of the Futurists with close attention to the disappearance of beauty from the discourse of aesthetics. Arthur Coleman Danto in ‘The Abuse of Beauty’ believes beauty lost its descriptive power with the early Logical Positivists. Instead the word came to stand for an expression of overall admiration. He says:

“Beyond what could be dismissed as ‘its emotive meaning’, the idea of beauty appeared to be cognitively void – and that in part accounted for the vacuity of aesthetics as a discipline, which had banked so heavily on beauty as its central concept.” 

The Futurists in grappling with these concepts enriched our understanding both of artmaking and visual perception.

Modernist planning and design for Shanghai's urban landscape

How could the urban landscape design have been done better?

If you look carefully at the pavilion-ettes on top of some of the buildings, you can tell this is a Chinese city. But I see the photograph as an illustration of the way in which context-insensitive modernist design theory is laying waste the ancient cities of China. There a surviving patch of the old city form in the foreground and glitch of marching blocks in the background. It is easy to criticise – but given the available resources, how could things have been done better? As suburban Shanghai demonstrates beyond the realms of doubt, they could certainly be a lot worse! The simplest change is that the blocks should be substantially vegetated: on roofs, balconies and walls. Shanghai is a warm wet city and this would be an adaptation to the geographical context. This policy is being adopted in a wealthy and Chinese-influenced city: Singapore.

(image courtesy leonardo_bonnani)


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