Economic Downturns and Romantic Landscapes

Economic downturns are the coitus interruptus of major landscape and urban planning projects, but they bring unexpected benefits. In the 1970’s many of us lived rent free throughout central London in the empty properties the local authorities had bought up and then not had the money to redevelop.  During the 1980’s we gambolled through the derelict wastelands of a half-completed Isle of Dogs in landscapes stuck in a charming time warp between the abandoned Port of London and Canary Wharf. We took our girlfriends up to the forgotten terraces of the old Crystal Palace, where sphinxes emerged from clouds of flowering willowherb. All gone, these buildings and places, they are all designed spaces now, some of them very good indeed, all of them contributing once more to the wealth of the nation. But, what is it about abandoned or fallow projects, half completed places? Where does the romance go when we architects, engineers and landscape architects finally get the go ahead from our clients to finish them off? Perhaps it is just me, but these are the places that I remember the best and miss the most. The images show Lulu Island, created at enormous expense off the coast of Abu Dhabi. One day it will be bristling with residential tower blocks and all manner of designed parkland. For now it’s on hold. On the eastern side, the best views of Abu Dhabi City, on the western side a 5 km beach whose shade structures are one by one collapsing into the sand. Why do we have to wreck these places with finished projects?

26 thoughts on “Economic Downturns and Romantic Landscapes

  1. Tom Turner

    Lewis Mumford viewed times of economic recession as key moments when cities could take stock of where they had come from and where they want to go. They say creative descruction is at the heart of capitalism and so we should expect to find it at the heart of capitalist cities.
    Re Crystal Palace: nothing has changed! The great bust of Paxton is still glowering at the ghastly car park on the main axis and the soviet style sports center in the middle of the park. And, as always, a planning decision is awaited shortly. This time it is on a design by Peter Latz.
    I wonder if Lulu Island was named in honour of the Scots singer who is now 61. She does rock, pop, R&B and soul.AND she won a Eurovision song contest with a little charmer called “Boom Bang-a-Bang”. It all sounds perfect for a Gulf icon!

  2. Christine

    Are we talking here in the tradition of the early romantic landscape painters?
    [ ] Or is what is important the activity of romance itself? Which in keeping with the nature/nurture debate this article attributes to the genetic makeup of the male of the fruit fly species…
    [ ]Or is it a notion of a Romantic city? [ ]

  3. Tom Turner

    Perhaps ‘romance’ is a stage which proceeds fulfillment. Heinrich Wölfflin equated the distinction between baroque and romantic to that between ‘being and becoming’. Development sites are about the romance of ‘becoming’; completed projects are about the power and status of ‘being’.
    Since people with opportunities to make choices love romance, they move on from place to place and partner to partner and city plan to city plan. Can’t be helped!
    The top photograph has an Arabian Nights quality – as though a Jinn had taken the cork off the bottle and the city had wooshed out – waiting to disappear when spell currently affecting the region loses its magic. It would be interesting to find what might be a long-lasting camera position and then begin a sequence of photographs eg at yearly intervals.

  4. Lawrence Post author

    “The stage preceding fulfillment”: yes, this is exactly what I mean by “romantic”. The best romantic landscapes need to be reached by climbing over a fence, or going through a hole. In the case of Lulu one needs a boat to get there, although it is tantalisingly close to the city. A barrier or two does tend to keep the masses away, and a feeling of solitude is also of great importance for the romantic, especially in the heart of a big conurbation. Ruins and decay help, too.
    Lulu currently has everything that Abu Dhabi’s tourist authority could wish for: uniqueness, a desert ecostructure (albeit a constructed one), charm and a long, safe beach: it is therefore unfortunately certain that it will be built up until these characteristics are as far as possible obliterated. I am hoping for two more years of the current status.
    “Lulu” means “Pearl” in Arabic, currently an apt name.

  5. Tom Turner

    Good news that the desert ecostructure and swimming are valued. Outdoor bathing was always an important part of Indian culture but I guess it is new to the Gulf.
    Have you seen the Madinat Jumeirah Hotel in Dubai? It looks a bit itchy-kitchy, and I am worried that the badgirs contain mechanical plant, but the scheme does seem to have its virtues – and a dash of Arabian Nights romance. I don’t think badgirs are characteritic of Egypt or the Levant – and guess they are a Persian influence on the Gulf.

  6. Lawrence Post author

    I have stayed in the Madinat Jumeirah Hotel and like many hotels here it is kitsch done at a very high level, offering a Walt Disney view of Arabian architecture. Like many Gulf hotels it is not especially cheap, but the “bang for your buck” is seven star. The badgirs are of course complete fakes, useless to pretend that anything but the most radical air conditioning would work in the UAE. Persian and Northern African design types are the usual candidates to be stylistically pillaged in this kind of development, but the whole concept of kitsch appears to be a western one, Arabic audiences – as well as the western tourists – greatly enjoy this kind of architecture.
    Outdoor bathing is still treated with a degree of suspicion but fully veiled women do swim next to their western sisters in micro bikinis without cultural fallout, the UAE is a country tolerant of its immigrant population (but this has limits: I cannot open your link because Flickr is blocked…).

  7. Tom Turner

    I think I would like it too! My favourite hotel in Cairo used to be the Manial Palace. I just don’t fancy a hotel which could be in any country in the world. In fact I have often asked people if they want architecture to be ‘everywhere the same’, because it is International Modern, and they always say no. The fact that so much is built like this is mysterious. It may be what many architects are taught in college but it is not what their clients want so how does it get built?
    Re Flickr in UAE: amazing.

  8. Tom Turner

    I have slept in a yurt in a desert – and found it far more interesting than luxury hotels. The only problems were the shortage of safe drinking water and my driver’s desire for lewd smalltalk in broken English supported by gestures. The yurt was romantic and the convesation wasn’t.

  9. Lawrence Post author

    Yurts and kitsch, both offer the possibility of romance. Many western architects are very suspicious of kitsch, it would completely ruin the reputation of for example a self-respecting design office in Germany to be involved in producing it and I greatly respect this kind of intellectual integrity. I rather guiltily enormously enjoyed my stay in the Madinat Jumeirah, my partner told me at a very early stage to stop banging on about film-set architecture and start relaxing. The problem in the Gulf is often in finding a context, and I guess that International Modern is one way of filling this difficult vacuum, kitsch another.

  10. Christine

    Yes it is possible to forget the architecture and enjoy the experience. Equally it is fantastic when the architecture contributes to or is the experience.

  11. Tom Turner

    Revisiting ancient forms, as with the classical orders, has a very respectable history. But it can of course be well done or badly done. It is only when badly done that I would use the term kitsch. When I see it well done I want more of it. The hero for me in this regard is Hassan Fathy.

  12. Lawrence Post author

    I take the view that historical reconstructivism is almost always kitsch. Revisting ancient forms is a convenient way of avoiding asking questions and providing answers pertaining to our built environment, questions on subjects such as the lifespan of a building, its affordability and sustainability, its response to changing demographics of working and living and its cultural and artistic reponse to the contemporary. Joyous, unashamed kitsch such as the Madinat Jumeirah Hotel is like a belly laugh joke at a dinner party, it certainly has its place in the scheme of things, more insidious is the kind of kitsch dressed as Architecture championed by the likes of Quinlan Terry. For those architects (and clients) who want neither to produce kitsch nor make their buildings relevant to any kind of debate there is always International Modernism.

  13. Christine

    Perhaps I would instinctively like to distinguish between any particular ‘style’ of work and the qualitative assessment of its merits.

    For example Pop Art

    [ ]

    cannot usefully be compared with Romanticism

    [ ]

    to determine which is the better art.

    However, it is possible to say that Andy Warhol is a leading exponent of Pop Art and John Constable a leading exponent of Romanticism.

  14. Tom Turner

    Lawrence, would you classify Roman, Romanesque, Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical architecture as kitsch? ( =df ‘a tasteless copy of an extant style’) Then one starts wondering if 99.9% of International Modern architecture classifies as kitschy copies of pioneer modernism!
    Christine, I know we all do it all the time, but isn’t there a parallel between making qualititative assessments of historic art and making moral judgments of historic societies. For example, should we judge the kings of the Old Testament by our standards and condemn them for polygamy? The President of South Africa came to the UK recently and was subject to criticism on account of his polygamy – which South African journalists defended as a traditional custom. As his name indicates, Jacob Zuma spans two cultures and two traditions.

  15. Lawrence Post author

    Tom, I think a lot dependends on the period in which the buildings are erected. The styles you mention were made culturally and intellectually relevant to their period and are still so developable, Venturi’s extension to the National Gallery being an example that springs to mind.
    For an artform to be successful, its author must have something to say and historical reconstructivism is often simply a means of seeming to provide this lacking content. But how much architecture can really be termed as art?

  16. Tom Turner

    I agree re the old ‘styles’, but what proportion of buildings should aspire to the status of art? I can’t help thinking of the all the traditional examples of ‘architecture without architects’ which we find so attractive. For mass housing and most offices wouldn’t it be better to develop a new ‘vernacular’ – and stick to it?

  17. Tom Turner

    I agree re the old ‘styles’, but what proportion of buildings should aspire to the status of art? I can’t help thinking of the all the traditional examples of ‘architecture without architects’ which we find so attractive. For mass housing and most offices wouldn’t it be better to develop a new ‘vernacular’ – and stick to it? You could say that we have done this with International Modern architecture but the sustainability agenda renders much of this obsolete.

  18. Christine

    There are a number of issues here.

    1. Tom, I wonder how you will feel when the future generations look back on your work (as they will) and make assessments as to how wise and foreseeing you were? There are probably very few people in history who can withstand the judgment of history on their work, ie. Socrates, Michelangelo etc.

    Personally, if history looks back on my work at all I hope that future generations contextualise my work within the period (and culture) in which it was produced!

    2. Re: The Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery

    the point of convergence is:

    “Stylistically, the Wing is designed to connect to and reflect William Wilkins’ 1838 National Gallery building while maintaining its own identity as a work of contemporary architecture.
    It’s constructed of the same Portland limestone and observes the cornice
    height of the original. Elements from the Wilkins facade are replicated on
    the new building,….”

    while (the theory relating to) the point of divergence is:

    “The Sainsbury Wing contains a new and more generous entry that provides
    grade access to the entire National Gallery. This ground-level entrance is
    not only accessible to all people but, in contrast to the original structure,
    appears accessible — an important consideration as museums reach out
    to ever more diverse audiences.”

    3. What are the consequences of a designer aspiring to the status of art in their work?

  19. Tom Turner

    I generally agree that most actions have to be judged by the criteria of the period in which they occurred – and I think the Venturis did a far better job of the Sainsbury Wing than ABK. But I am not willing to judge the Spanish Inquisition by the standards of contemporary Spain: I think it was wrong.
    Re the status of art, in our own time, it has closer links with individuality than with ‘quality’ – which is problematic for the built environment.

  20. Christine

    Yes, I would agree with you about the Spanish Inquisition. However, if I was living in Spain during the years of the Inquisition would I have also come to this judgment? (I don’t know…and perhaps I would need a much deeper understanding of the historical context to come to any legitimate sense of this.) Perhaps like Corbusier I may have support Vichy France and then changed my mind?

    I also think the French Revolution was wrong…but in all probability there might be many today including French nationals who would disagree.

  21. Tom Turner

    Re the Inquisition – I hope that I would not have supported it! What’s more I have an idea that a great-great-etc grandfather of mine lived in the Netherlands when it was rulled by Spain – and left the country because of religious persecution. On the other issues I am much opposed to Vichy France but sympathetic to the Revolution (if not the subsequent imperialism). The underlying issue is moral relativism: are there any absolute values in ethics or art? The best answer I can give on a chilly Friday morning is ‘maybe’.

  22. Christine

    Yes many people have been effected by religious persecution and I believe this is wrong (both for and against belief). Perhaps the Inquisition, although guilty of persecution, was also about other things? [ ] The world in which the original Inquisition arose is so foreign to me that I lack the capacity to judge it. And perhaps it is only in understanding the first inquisition that you can understand the second one.

    However, clearly, as with the French Revolution, thought (which OK in itself) can lead to violent action (which is not good). I am not sure what the solution to this problem is.

    I think the difficulty lies in supposing that art is ‘ethical’ only. Art has both an ethical aspect and a sensory aspect – we respond to both aspects. And perhaps it is not unusual that we might confuse the response to one aspect with the response to the other.

    I do believe there are absolute values but I am also aware of the boundedness and ‘inescapability’ of ignorance (which can impact on both the ethical and sensory horizons of the judgment of a work.) In this sense the passage of time is a friend.

  23. DAN

    Having just read the initial post – I agree absolutely that the romance in a place is only multiplied by its inaccessibility or exclusiveness even.

    Areas around Deptford Creek that have been boarded up for the last few years sadly now starting to be developed have been and gone.

    However, the search goes on – places come and go – last summer the temporary/permenant installation on top of the Peckham multiplex cinema was a welcome highlight. An opportunity site for this one season event with fantastic views over London and a dodgy elevator ride up to the top… An inbetweener perhaps , not overdeveloped and for the summer only – was good fun

  24. Lawrence Post author

    Dan, South London was always one of the richest areas for what some call “derelict land”. I would love to see the photos, but Flickr is annoyingly blocked in my current place of residence.


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