An urbanist’s trip to Paris

I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been to Paris. In a world before budget airlines Paris nudged Bruges as first stop for Brits venturing onto the Continent. My first visit was in 1980, in a sponsored student hitch from Bristol. I also have evidence of a 1982 visit, part of a summer hitch round Europe, with photos from the top of Samaritaine looking towards La Défense and Sacré-Cœur. After that things went very German, but I was there again in 1992 with my mother, when we visited the Musée d’Orsay and Versailles, and went for a boat trip on the Seine past La Défense, at that time dominated by something angular and shiny. I can also come up with a couple of short stops in the 1980s, and I was there some time in the 1990s for a conference.

Never took to it – too French. So for our New Year 2017 trip we honed in on themes of interest rather than revisiting the tourist classics, in a three step urbanist’s Paris programme.

Step 1: local government nerdery

What is Paris, anyway? CityMetric’s Jon Elledge has engaged with this at length, with, obv, London as baseline. He reveals just how small the City of Lights actually is:

Paris - the maroon pimple in the very middle?

Paris – the maroon pimple in the very middle?

Paris ‘proper’, as in the area within the périphérique ring road, is only six miles across, smaller than inner London. Venturing beyond tourist hotspots quickly brings you to suburbs (and the too often notorious banlieues) with their own councils. This has an effect on development, take it from me, living just outside Copenhagen ‘proper’. The creation of the Metropole du Grand Paris in 2016, covering the city and its suburbs in an area bigger than Greater London, may “help to reintegrate the banlieues and make the city work better”.

It’s all about density and taut town planning. Paris is one of the densest cities in the western world, with an average of 21,500 people per km2 compared with London’s 5000. Dubbed a ‘horizontal city’ by UNESCO, it is emphatically low rise, high density, dominated by buildings of four to six storeys.

The satellite view of Paris displays a homogeneous mass, divided by laterals and diagonals, interspersed by the odd circle:

(image: Airbus Defence and Space)

This geometric layout is of course the result of Haussmann’s famed urban renewal programme, resulting in “broad, strictly linear streets, unbroken facades, roundabouts radiating avenues, uniform city lighting, uniform street furniture…rebuilt and outfitted with all those identical trees (mostly plane trees and chestnuts), benches and kiosks” (Edmund White).

The inauguration of the Boulevard Périphérique in 1973 created a further physical and mental boundary between Paris, and not-Paris. While restrictions on building height and a policy of facadism means that the city ‘proper’ has largely maintained its Haussmann era appearance, this “small, beautiful city is surrounded by all of the messy, lively and less-than-pristine stuff that it does not want to process” (source), socially segregated with a central ghetto for the rich. The less elegaic urbanist press notes that Paris may even be in decline, a ville muséewith anything edgy pushed to the fringes – and other than the odd grand projet, that’s where where the interesting stuff is to be found.

More critique:

  • “a spiral layout of arondissements self-replicating until they hit the périphérique“(Lauren Elkin)
  • “mostly characterised by architectural reticence and courteous homogeneity” (J Meades)
  • “everyone has said that it was marvellous for so long that mankind has taken itself in by its own flattery” (Ian Nairn in 1968, via Owen Hatherley)

All this goes some way to explain my issues with the place. As you wander down the interchangeable streets, past yet another lovely square, thing start to blur and fall out of time, an endless parade of cafés offering the same plats du jour and boulangeries giving birth to people hurrying home with a baguette…in some ways then, comforting compared with sterile Scandi, but ultimately unchallenging, lacking eccentricity and in places just too conformist.

And cars, cars, cars. If the empty post-nuclear holocaust feel of central Copenhagen is the way to go, Paris has a problem. Queuing to take a selfie at the Arc de Triomphe in wedged between four lanes of French drivers may be one explanation for Paris Syndrome.

Step 2: cultural connections

Paris 1928: a city that attracted people dreaming of a better world after World War 1. This was the year when the surrealists Magritte, Dalí and Buñuel brought their bizarre new vision to the people, and when émigré writers and musicians such as Ernest Hemingway and George Gershwin came looking for inspiration. 

Paris in 1928 was where black musicians and dancers like Josephine Baker found adulation, where Cole Porter took time off from partying to write Let’s Do It, and where radical architect Le Corbusier planned a modernist utopia that involved pulling down much of Paris itself.

It’s a bit like Vienna 1908, “when Freud waved cheerily from a tram at Schiele and the Second Vienna School sang a capella to delighted cafe-goers”. Among old friends we find Samuel Beckett, James Joyce (who arrived in 1920 at the invitation of Ezra Pound, supposedly for a week, but ended up living there until his death), Ernest Hemingway (whose posthumous Moveable feast has unexpectedly regained popularity – see Being Human 2016) and Peggy Guggenheim.

There’s also a clutch of Scandis and related, not least Rilke, whose only novel, The notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), is the narrative of a destitute young Danish poet wandering around Paris and hoping to write, plus a pair of Danish sculptors, Astrid Noack of Norrebro’s Atelier fame, in town between 1920-29, and Sonja Ferlov Mancoba (vid), member of CoBrA. Robert Jacobsen (more sculpture, CoBrA fringe) and Richard Mortensen (painter), who feature the sort of Danish names it’s impossible to differentiate, were both in Paris between 1947-69, and now have side-by-side streets named after them in Ørestad Syd. Update: Inger Christensen also stopped by.

The big beast though is polymath Asger Jorn (1914-73), in town briefly during 1936-37 and working with Le Corbusier on the Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux for the forthcoming World Exposition. Jorn contrasted Corb’s rationalist approach with the more ‘spontaneous’ ideas associated with the Danish and Scandinavian traditions, moving on to become a founder member of both CoBrA and the Situationist International.

Despite the above overflødighedshorn we confined ourselves to a quick peek at Walter Benjamin’s plaque before retracing parts of Simone de Beavoir’s regular stroll from Montparnasse to St-Germain-des-Prés.

The Boulevard du Montparnasse isn’t what it was, with le jazz hot and l’existentialism froid not much in evidence (source). Instead doormen prevent curious entry to cafés such as Le Select, La Coupole and La Rotonde, above which SdB was born. Both Le Dôme, where SdB edited Sartre’s Being and nothingness, and Café de Flore, where she wrote two essays, a novel and a play by the stove during WW2, were fully occupied by the sort of tourists who favour a full lunch.

You’ll find Les Deux Magots (Magots as in Chinese figurines…), an Existentialist haunt also favoured by Samuel Beckett which has awarded its own literary prize since 1933, next door to Louis Vuitton. We moved on, to a rather more successful turn around Perec’s place.

Where I get excited by a fleeting connection with Rachmaninoff in Gentofte, in Paris, as in London, there’s an endless web of connections to unpick – see 19 Quai Voltaire and the Café de la Mairie. Going a step further is Rue Watt, named after Scottish inventor James Watt and in its wrought iron incarnation featuring in a song, a film and two novels.

Rue Watt, redeveloped in 2005

Step 3:  building, buildings, buildings

Architecture for me starts with Art Deco. Paris’ Art Nouveau confections are like pralines, too rich for every day and cloying en masse. With the aim of escaping the false utopias of the culture industry we explored Cité U, founded in 1925 in a spirit of peace, unity and friendly cooperation, with 40 residences from around the world (top picks: Germany and the Netherlands).

Le Corbusier may not have achieved a Haussmann-style remake of the city, however his UNESCO recognised Paris traces include Immeuble Molitor, an apartment building conforming to four of his five points of architecture. Corb’s last home is on the top floor, overlooking the Parc de Princes and a short stroll from Roland Garros.

We spent three nights on the edge of La Défense. Initiated in 1958 by a team of visionary architects as a modern business district for Paris, its first building is one of its most impressive.

CNIT (1958) with friends, boasting the world’s largest self-supporting concrete vaulted ceiling

Making a rather bigger statement is the Grande Arche from 1989, at the westernmost point of the Axe historique, connecting it physically and visually to the city. The architect, Johann Otto von Spreckelsen, who died two years before the inauguration, is also responsible for Hvidovre’s Sankt Nikolaj Kirke, on a rather different scale.

Some Defacto factoids:

  • Europe’s largest business district – 3.5 million m2 of offices over 560 hectares, with 25K residents and 180K daily workers, plus 8 million tourist visitors per year
  • also a recreational venue – renewal plan launched by President Sarkozy in 2007, classified as a tourist attraction in 2009
  • Europe’s largest shopping mall – CNIT has 36 outlets, while Les Quatre Temps houses 265 shops, 35 restaurants and 16 movie screens (180K m2, 40 million visitors per year)
  • 12 hectares of green spaces including Parc Diderot and a vineyard
  • 100+ buildings and towers (19 taller than 150m)
  • 60+ works of art by 50+ artists from 14 countries
  • downloads inc guides to architecture, artworks & history and stories | map & signage

With pedestrians and motorists strictly separated as advocated by Corb, it’s more Barbican than City. The central pedestrian promenade impresses, with some striking artworks, while less impressive are the individual skyscrapers, which lack the interest of those in London or Rotterdam. They work rather better as a group and at night.

La Défense from the ‘near’ end of the Esplanade

Some rather more exciting architecture can be found in the nearby grands ensembles of Courbevoie and Nanterre, both neighbouring communes half in, half out of La Défense.

Outside Paris ‘proper’ meaning less money for renovation has left Courbevoie’s concrete Charras, dating from around the same time as the first now glass and steel towers a few streets away, untouched since the 1960s. Both Les Damiers, four nearby Brutalist ziggurats, and Nanterre’s Cité Pablo Picasso (or Tours Nuages), consisting of 18 towers with a total of 1607 apartments, provide further provocations to a future forever just around the corner.

(For more grands ensembles see Laurent Kronental’s project, breathlessly covered by CNN | Dezeen | Gdn.)

Tours Nuages, a big snake and a glimpse of La Défense

More utopias…President Mitterand commissioned a slate of grand projets in a programme aimed at revitalising the city in 1982. Many of the projects were constructed on the working class eastern side of Paris, bringing a re-emphasis to the Seine, but the usual trinity of costs, over-runs and operational issues caused controversy. Mitterand’s eight buildings include the baffling Bibliothèque nationale, four glass buildings designed to resemble open books, and the Ministère de l’économie et des finances, a 70m long piece of PoMo not unlike a motorway tollgate (height restrictions precluded the construction of a tower).

Contemporary prestige projects, redeveloped as part of the Paris Rive Gauche (map & booklet; previously Seine Rive Gauche) initiative, include Les Docks, which couldn’t be more French, and Les Grand Moulins, which we managed to miss due to approaching the ‘back’ way.

An initiative commissioned in 1985 on 130 hectares of land previously owned by SNCF between the railway tracks of the Gare d’Austerlitz and the Seine, Paris Rive Gauche is the largest development project since Haussmann’s time. It accommodates approximately 15,000 residents, 50,000 employees, and 30,000 students and staff from the Paris Diderot University, with the Avenue de France a 40m broad artery.

We explored the Masséna district, made up of several neighbourhoods each coordinated by a different architect. Masséna Nord, launched in 1995, includes Les Grand Moulins, now part of the university, as well as some innovative housing based on coordinating architect Christian de Portzamparc‘s theory of the ‘open block’ (îlot ouvert), with free-standing blocks designed on principles of diversity and contrast. Here height regulations have been relaxed to allow buildings of 50m for residential purposes and 150m for non-residential purposes.

Rue Hélène Brion in Masséna – on-street parking and trees

Streetnaming here is delightful, focusing on important people of the 20th century, with a Rue Elsa Morante and a Thomas Mann school, a Rue Olivier Messiaen and a Rue René Goscinny (decorated with call-outs from his cartoon that have already become local attractions).

For more see my Paris Flickr album (130 photos) and developing map:

More Paris:

Walks and walking:

Too late! Blue Crow’s Brutalist Paris map, reviewed in AnOther’s Brutalist buildings to visit in Paris…the Promenade Plantée, Paris’ High Line (came first!)

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Budapest 1989 and 2015

In Dec/Jan 2014/15 we undertook a Hapsburg three capitals tour, spending Hogmanay in Bratislava and three days or so apiece in Budapest and Vienna. Having finally finished tagging my Budapest photos here are some brief highlights from that fabulous city.

I visited Budapest for a long weekend in spring 1989, although from my photos it looks more like 1969 (pic). My photo of Castle Hill by the Fisherman’s Bastion even shows cars running free.

We arrived by bus on New Year’s Day from Bratislava, leaving for Vienna on 5 January by the rather pricier train from a chilly Keleti Station, passing through the deserted border town of Hegyeshalom. That was January – things were rather different at the station later in the year.

There’s something very special about Budapest, it’s much more of an enigma than other central European cities. At New Year there were plenty of tourists and aggressive tourist touts – tourism is clearly a year-long affair. There’s a sense of an economic sleight of hand going on.

We took in three shiny new things. First up, the new M4 metro line (pic), which finally opened in March 2014 after first being mooted in the early 1970s. The city’s four metro lines offer a pleasing design tour, with the M1, the Millennium underground, continental Europe’s first underground line (pic), joined in the 1960s and 1970s by Soviet style lines of the wide vaulted, marble halled type. The M2, deSovietised with cladding and adverts, shows its origins in its granite floors and beige pillars (pic), while the M3 is “where modernity has gone to die” (Owen Hatherley, in Landscapes of Communism), with chrome plated columns and square lamps against black marble (pic).

Next up, Kossuth tér, Hungary’s parliament square, redeveloped in March 2014 with the aim of restoring the square’s pre-1944 appearance, and now with open spaces and lawns at the expense of trees (pic), asphalt replaced by decorative stone, a new bike path and a 33m flagpole; the parliament’s new visitor centre, tastefully situated underground with a cafe attached, is totally generic – switch souvenirs and you could be in London’s Houses of Parliament.

Finally, Várkert bazár, a series of buildings and gardens on the slopes below Buda Castle,  opened in 1883, damaged during WW2 and functioning as a youth park from 1961 to 1984 when it was finally closed down; re-opened August 2014, with a neo-rust escalator and Gormley style figures among the attractions (pic).

There’s lots of lovely writing about Budapest, not least Caught by the River’s Tale of two soups: Neil Sentance’s Goulash and Nick Bellorini’s Stone soup. Writing on ‘Hungarian confusions’ in 1985 (with the subtitle ‘An eighth part of paradise’) Hans Magnus Enzensberger described the city as “an example of that architectural megalomania which Budapest’s proud citizens called eclecticism”.

I’ve spent whole days reading the wounds and splendours of the city of Budapest from its doors, walls, and nameplates. I think of it as an ambiguous, puzzling, dirty panorama. Every sign in this country seems to promise a secret to the flâneur from abroad and impresses upon him that he is condemned to remain an idiot, an illiterate…every house conceals a dream arcade out of Benjamin’s repertoire.

Compared with Copenhagen’s hyggelige Historicist buildings this stuff has a real edge, with a litany of jaw dropping buildings, from the Great Market Hall groaning with paprika souvenirs and the Gellert Baths, with that unmistakeable swimming pool smell, to the ‘Caterpillar House‘, aka the heart achingly stunning Párizsi Udvar (vid), and Ödön Lechner’s Museum of Applied Arts.

Newer buildings such as the National Theatre (Wikipedia) and Palace of Arts, part of the Millennium City Center under development on the fringes of the centre of Pest, provided contemporary context, as did the NowUs demonstration in front of the opera house on 2 January.

It being a tad parky we invested in a 24 hour ticket on our last day and proceeded to hop on/off the metro and tram until dinner time with the help of BKV’s itineraries, spotting the Xmas tram several times on the way. This leaves proper exploration of the city ring (now Nagykörút/Grand Boulevard but once the Lenin Ring) and UNESCO listed Andrássy út (see the Millennium Underground Walk; once Stalin Street, renamed the Avenue of Hungarian Youth in 1956, then People’s Republic Street until 1990) for a third, summertime, visit.

Below: classic Budapest, Párisi udvar (1913).

 

Channel crossing at the Hook of Holland

Update: Erich Reich’s The boy in the statue tells the story of the Kindertransport at first hand

On a chilly day at the end of April we took a train from platform 1 at Rotterdam’s super-shiny new station to the Hook of Holland. Our goal: Frank Meisler’s Kindertransport statue, Channel Crossing to Life, on Koningin Emmaboulevard. The statue, erected in 2011, is one of five memorials and commemorates the 10,000 Jewish children who crossed the Channel here during 1938–39.

Meisler’s other statues can be found in Berlin, Gdansk, Hamburg and London. They portray a group of five children, posing slightly differently each time. In the Hook they are joined by a sixth child looking out to sea – perhaps Frank himself.

Kindertransport statue, Hook of Holland

Our interest in the statues and their narrative started in September, when we spotted The Departure (2009) outside KFC by Gdańsk Główny station. We ticked off the London statue, The Arrival (2006), outside Liverpool Street Station in January. Update: The Final Parting (2015), on Dag Hammarskjöld Platz behind Hamburg’s Dammtor station, ticked off almost a year to the day after we saw our first Kindertransport statue. Just Berlin to go!

Inside Liverpool Street Station is a further Kindertransport memorial, Für Das Kind (2003) by Flor Kent, part of a second series of Kindertransport statues. This statue was originally displayed with a collection of objects now in the Imperial War Museum. Further statues in this series can be seen at Vienna Westbahnhof, Beth Shalom in Jerusalem and in Prague.

Monuments to displacement are quite commonplace – on our Dutch trip we also saw Jeff Wall’s Lost Luggage Depot (2001) on the quay in Rotterdam, while without trying I can come with three further examples: Rowan Gillespie’s Famine (1997) on Dublin’s waterfront, the Displaced Gdynian monument (2014) and Kristina (2000) on Amerikakaj in Copenhagen, where emigrant ships once sailed to the USA.

At the Hook it was too cold to do much more than look for the statue, but the town is worth a closer look. Situated at the mouth of the Nieuwe Waterweg canal and administratively part of Rotterdam, there are attractions on offer for both arriving Brits and for locals, branded under the slogan Get hoekt! The beach runs for 18km to Scheveningen, backed by sand dunes boasting foot and cycle paths and a naturist section. For military history buffs there’s Fort Hoek van Holland, a pre WW2 concrete fort tasked with protecting Rotterdam from invasion from the sea (surrendered to the Germans without firing a shot) and an Atlantic Wall Museum.

Ferries have run from eastern England to the Hook since 1893. The train chugs between its two railway stations which stand only 600m apart, the port station of Haven, with four platforms once used for regular international train services to Amsterdam, Germany and beyond, and the rather smaller Strand. From 2017 the stations will become part of Rotterdam’s extensive metro network.

Many have passed through. Patrick Leigh Fermor landed in the Hook at the start of his 1933 journey A time of gifts. Arriving in a taxi at London’s Tower Bridge on a rainy December afternoon, Paddy describes the scene:

I halted on the bridge just short of the first barbican and the driver indicated the flight of stone steps that descended to Irongate Wharf. We were down them in a moment; and beyond the cobbles and the bollards, with the Dutch tricolour beating damply from her poop and a ragged fan of smoke streaming over the river, the Stadthouder Willem rowed at anchor.

The steward serving dinner informs him that boats from the Zuider Zee had been unloading eels between London Bridge and the Tower since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

A couple of hours before dawn the Stadthouder Willem drops anchor in the Hook:

Snow covered everything and the flakes blew in a slant across the cones of the lamps and confused the glowing discs that spaced out the untrodden quay. I hadn’t known that Rotterdam was a few miles inland. I was still the only passenger in the train and this solitary entry, under cover of night and hushed by snow, completed the illusion that I was slipping into Rotterdam, and into Europe, through a secret door.

In his 2011/12 retread of Paddy’s journey Nick Hunt boards the Stena Hollandica, a “vessel the size of a small town”. And indeed ships of that scale can be seen ploughing across the Channel and down the canal to Rotterdam, watched over by the boy from the Kindertransport:

Kindertransport statue detail

Some Sofia highlights

So, after making some advance connections, what of Sofia, “on the frontier between Europe and Asia, a mélange of East and West, Orthodox and Ottoman, with a dash of communism thrown in” (Telegraph); “a chaotic melting pot of Euro, Russo and Ottoman culture” (Wanderlust)?

The city has a colourful and complicated history. Founded by the Romans as Ulpia Serdica in AD 29, it became a major regional capital under Constantine the Great. During the Middle Ages the city passed back and forth between the Bulgars and the Byzantines until the Ottomans captured it in 1382, holding on for nearly 500 years. In 1879 Sofia became the capital of newly independent Bulgaria, and a hectic period of building followed. The early 20th century saw two Balkan wars and a brace of abdicating kings, before the city was flattened during the Second World War and rebuilt under the Soviet model, following the pattern of compact old town encircled by a ring road and tower blocks, in this case overlooked by Mount Vitosha.

Sofia today has over 1.3 million inhabitants. For Eva Hoffman visiting in 1993 the city’s “ramshackle, neutral tenor” appealed: “the undemanding, modest size and scale or the teasing combination of Eastern European elements and strong, southern heat and light transports everything into a different modality…Sofia looks like a cross between a rather dilapidated provincial town in Eastern Europe and an equally dilapidated provincial town in Italy or Greece.” While its low built neighhourhoods have a “characteristic characterlessness” the faces are varied:

Tall, lean women with disctinctly Slavic features and a bony stylishness; men with very dark eyes and beards who look like models for Byzantine icons or covers of Harlequin romances; Orthodox priests in black, capacious robes; and Pomaks, or Bulgarian Muslims, in cowl-like head-dresses. The human brew seems thicker, more pungent here, as if created by a long-brewing history.

Since 1989 some streetnames have been “resuscitated from the pre-Communist pantheon” and now honour those previously denounced as “Fascists, Monarchists, Capitalists and Enemies of the People”. There are “rows of trees, green fields, pizzerias, shopping malls and children’s playgrounds” covering up “the stark childscape of mud and concrete” on Kapka Kassabova’s Street without a name (really, I could quote the whole thing).

Arriving in Sofia around lunchtime, after the first salad-with yoghurt-on-the-side of many (for a vegetarian the food is great if a bit one note – there’s only so much yoghurt and feta you can eat in a day), we contrived to spend the entire afternoon beyond the bottom end of the main drag of Boulevard Vitosha, exploring every nook and cranny of NDK, the 1981 National Palace of Culture, now housing a range of cultural agencies

Sofia's National Palace of Culture (1981)

Sofia’s National Palace of Culture (1981)

Kapka: “I spent many happy formative hours there, gaping at festival films and classical concerts”.

Proof positive of the difference history makes, NDK is full of memories, held in affection and still evolving…public space on the grand scale, with a dazzling use of materials, scale, narrative. The “gloriously long row of malfunctioning fountains” outside was under redevelopment, while the “giant grey wreck of a monument”, built in record time in 1981 to commemorate the 1300th anniversary of the First Bulgarian Empire, is a bit of a headscratcher. No winner was selected from a 2014 competition to replace it, but amid calls to reinstate parts of the 1934 Sofia Pantheon, destroyed by Allied bombing in 1944, it seems likely to be on the way out.

After all that the Soviet war memorial, built in 1954 but missing the Georgi Dimitrov mausoleum and spattered with graffiti, was a bit of a disappointment. Post 1989 the mausoleum was used for performances of Aida and 101 Dalmations, but in 1999 the government decided enough was enough and set out to blow it up, forgetting that the thing was built to withstand a nuclear attack. Rapidly becoming a running joke, it was eventually dismantled piece by piece, a pleasing metaphor for a period of history that just won’t go away.

Lenin has also been moved from his prime spot in the city centre, now occupied by a statue of Sophia dating from 2001, 24m of bling. Multiple Lenins can however be found in the Museum of Socialist Art, outside the city centre incongruously overlooked by a new mall. Opened in 2011 with EU funding, the museum boasts 77 statues from 1944-89 in a sculpture park, including plentiful examples of Georgi Dimitrov, accused of complicity in the Reichstag fire in 1933 and Bulgaria’s first Communist leader.

Museum of Socialist Art

Museum of Socialist Art

Places of worship abound, from Sveta Nedelya church at the top of Vitosha where 150 were killed in an attack on Boris III in 1925 to the Banya Bashi Mosque (1576) and the synagogue (1909; biggest in southeastern Europe and third biggest in Europe), the tiny but evocative 4th century St George’s Rotunda, the twin beasts of the 6th century St Sofia’s church and the Russian-built behemoth Aleksandâr Nevski Cathedral completed in 1912, honouring the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died in the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-78. We also popped into a Roman Catholic church, a Romanian church and St Nicholas’s Russian church (1914), took photos of a wedding and attended an X Factor style talent show in a 19th century theatre for good measure.

At every turn it seemed there was another neo/Byzantine pile, offering a place to linger. Other public spaces of note included the newly refurbished Mineral Baths (1913) next to the mosque, with hot mineral water on tap to the side, and Halite, the 1911 market hall. Like many buildings in the city it covers layers of history, housing some Roman remains in the basement. More intimate are Graf Ignatiev and Slaveykov squares in the heart of the old town.

The Largo, a Stalinist complex of government buildings, now blends in without attracting undue attention and is most notable for the Ruritarian uniformed guard outside the presidential palace. The former royal palace at Ploshtad Battenberg is now an art gallery. More problematic are the five floor TSUM (1956), Sofia’s answer to Moscow’s GUM, practically an empty shell, and the 1970s station, as in Bratislava in need of sensitive redevelopment. Modern architecture is arriving, not least in the shape of the 2006 Mall of Sofia, while the latest metro stations are stylishly done:

F Joliot-Curie metro station (2009)

F Joliot-Curie metro station (2009)

The pedestrianised Vitosha offers splendid views of the eponymous mountain, a 2290m high skiing spot only 15km from the city centre, tricky to photograph. To get a bit closer we took a bus and trolley bus ride to the 10th century Boyana church, decorated with 13th century frescoes, protected by Queen Eleonora, the second wife of Ferdinand I, and now by UNESCO, and the National History Museum, housed in a 1970s government residence and kicking off another marathon photo session:

National Museum of History

National Museum of History – should have bought that postcard!

The museum does its level best to explain Bulgaria’s complex history through a stonking range of exhibits, but which quite possibly raised more questions than it answered (Kapka and her classmates also struggled with History). The Royals are more than a little perplexing, with the owner of the patriotic shoes below, now Simeon Coburgotski, working as a business consultant in Madrid with a Spanish wife, having left Bulgaria clutching his mother’s hand in 1946. He returned in 1996, attracting little attention from the ‘socialist’ government, touring wineries and generally having a good time, before becoming prime minister from 2001-05.

patriotic shoes

Sofia is the sort of city I can imagine falling for in a big way, a magic place. And Bulgaria, criminally under-valued, is now one of ‘my’ countries. I can’t wait to go back.

My photos: Sofia April 2015National Palace of Culture | National History Museum

More: Vagabond (English monthly) | Sofia: the insider’s guide | In Your Pocket | Visit Sofia | Travel Bulgaria. Walks offered by Free Sofia Tour (see handy map). There’s also an efficient TIC in the underpass by the university.

2017 update: Adrian Yekkes on Bulgarian modernism

Making connections: Bulgaria

Today let’s revisit Bulgaria.

Last April we went on an extended city break to Sofia. Despite being an eastern Europe fan of many years standing I was embarrassingly ignorant of Bulgaria, the only country the other side of the Iron Curtain I hadn’t visited before.

This seems to be a recurrent problem. Kapka Kassabova (much more below) calls Bulgaria “a country without a face” in the western mind, the shortest chapter in the book beginning with “an edifying sentence about its unjust obscurity”. Helpfully, her poem The travel guide to the country of your birth helps visitors get up to speed.

Rather more prosaically, Bulgaria:

  • borders Romania and the Danube (a 472km stretch of the river forming the southern border of the old principality of Wallachia, dividing Mitteleuropa from the Balkans) to the north, the Black Sea (194km of beach) to the east, Greece and Turkey to the south, Serbia and Macedonia to the west
  • is shaped like “an animal hide spread out, with the head end looking to Europe and the rear end sitting at the Black Sea” (Kapka again)
  • was part of Ancient Thrace, which also spanned parts of modern Greece and Turkey; famous sons include Orpheus and Spartacus
  • had its own golden age from the late ninth to the late tenth centuries, when its territory included today’s Romania, Macedonia, parts of Serbia and Albania, half of Greece, and European Turkey down to Gallipoli and Constantinople; Tsar Simeon’s mission in life was to be crowned as a Byzantine-Bulgarian emperor
  • was occupied by the Ottomans for nearly 500 years after two catastrophic defeats (in 1018 and 1396)
  • was on the losing side in both world wars, sustaining the highest per capita casualty rate in 1914-18, then saving most of its Jewish population from deportation in 1944
  • received Russian assistance in the 1878 War of Liberation, leading later to a special relationship with the Soviet Union and a possibly apocryphal tale about an application to become the 16th republic of the USSR; planes from Sofia landed in the domestic terminal in Sheremetovo
  • in a case of bad timing, joined the European Union in 2007; EU membership, like democracy, was previously fetishised but is now mainly associated with economic decline
  • is the birthplace of the Cyrllic alphabet, called after Cyril, one half of monkish brothers Cyril and Methodius, and celebrated on World Cyrillic Alphabet Day
  • claims yogurt and produces 10% of the world’s rose oil

The Danube, Ruse and Elias Canetti

How do you starting making some connections to a country and a culture? Prior to our Hapsburg capitals trip I was able to dive head-first into my bookshelves, and this time I found more about Bulgaria than I had initially anticipated.

Most Danube related books tail off before they reach Bulgaria, the notable exceptions being Nick Thorpe’s jurney upstream and Nick Hunt reworking Patrick Leigh Fermor (Seven days of thunderstorms | East and south | Summer metropolis).

In a chapter in his 1986 Danube entitled ‘Doubtful cartography’ Claudio Magris reaches the Serbian border at Kladovo wondering where he is, with “geography getting vaguer and vaguer”, and maps marking places that don’t exist and not marking those which do – on that note Kladovo seems to share a border with Romania rather than Bulgaria. Only two bridges cross Bulgaria’s Danube border – the New Europe Bridge, a road and rail bridge between the cities of Vidin and Calafat, opened in 2013, while the 1954 doubledecker Danube Bridge, previously known as the Friendship Bridge, links the cities of Ruse and Giurgiu (see this 2003 blog post). At 2224 metres it was for a while the second longest bridge in Europe. Dwarfed now by The Bridge (the Øresund Link, 7845 metres, 2000) for starters, it retains the title of longest steel bridge in Europe. For completists, there is also a ferry which takes 10 minutes to cross the Danube from Silistra, the Roman Empire’s easternmost town in Europe, to Calarasi.

Jockeying for position with Czernowitz at the top of my places to visit list is now Ruse, the birthplace of Elias Canetti (on 25 July 1905), which Magris calls a “tiny reproduction of Vienna, with yellow ochre merchants houses and buildings laden with caryatids, the familiar atmosphere of hard working Mitteleuropa…the reassuring uniformity of the Danubian style”. The Romans built a fortress there in AD 70 to stand guard over the Danube, and while the town declined under the Byzantines and the Bulgarians it was restored and modernised by a Turkish governer, becoming the first station on the first railway line in the entire Ottoman empire in 1866, linking the Danube with the Black Sea at Varna. At independence Ruse was the largest and most prosperous city in Bulgaria, with the first bank in the country, known as Little Bucharest.

Canetti moved to Manchester in 1911, then in 1912 to Vienna and subsequently to Zurich, but the first 30 pages of The tongue set free (1997), his first volume of autobiography, are a paean to Ruse, then known as Ruschuk:

People of the most varied backgrounds lived there, on any one day you could hear seven or eight languages. Aside from the Bulgarians, who often came from the countryside, there were many Turks, who lived in their own neighbourhood, and next to it was the neighbourhood of the Sephardim, the Spanish Jews – our neighbourhood. There were Greeks, Albanians, Armenians, Gypsies. From the opposite side of the Danube came Rumanians…there were also Russians here and there.

Anything I susequently experienced had already happened in Ruschuk. There, the rest of the world was known as “Europe”, and if someone sailed up the Danube to Vienna [a four day journey], people said he was going to Europe. Europe began where the Turkish Empire had once ended.

Canetti’s parents were both schooled in Vienna, and the young Elias spent three summer vacations in parts of the old Austro-Hungarian monarchy: Carlsbad (now in the Czech Republic), Lake Worther (Austria) and Kronstadt (Siebenbürgen; now Brasov, Romania).  His parents conversed with each other in German, while the family vernacular was Ladino. Seven or eight languages were spoken in Ruse: “everyone understood something of each language. Only the little girls, who came from villages, spoke just Bulgarian and were therefore considered stupid.”

At the time of Magris’ visit Canetti’s house was divided into small apartments in a sort of crumbling limbo. Today it has been restored by the International Elias Canetti Society, who have produced the documentary film Ear Ohrenzeuge, “a unique walk through Elias Canetti’s childhood combined with selected excerpts (in Bulgarian and German) from his autobiographical books”.

Canetti calls Bulgaria the most unknown of the countries of the East, concluding thus:

Anyone who has seen…the spruce orderliness of Sofia and compares these with what obtains in cities or countries held up as paragons of civilisation is included to use the term ‘Balkan’ as a compliment, as others tend to employ the word ‘Scandinavian’.

Bulgaria after 1989

Eva Hoffman’s Exit into history (1993) echoes the feeling of unfamiliarity where we came in: Bulgaria is “beyond my preconceptions and prejudices…a few exotic echoes reverberate…the real site of Shakespeare’s Illyria, and also of ancient Thrace, the country of Orpheus; it’s the crossroads of Byzantine and Ottoman and Slav influences and of old trade routes…a country beyond the periphery; a remote place…self-contained and tucked away from the contemporary main drag”. Bulgarians make up for this with the “great, vertical density of their past…the cultural ‘sense of self’ which has accumulated over centuries…a sense of their own, independent sufficiency”, with the inferiority complex found in some other eastern European countries absent.

Bulgaria has an uneasy relationship with its neighbours due to the Balkan Wars and a number of territorial handovers more often than not involving Macedonia. (Magris on The Macedonian question: for a long time Bulgaria claimed Macedonia, both politically and ethnically. The question can be summed up in the story of the many named Mr Omeric/Omerov/Omerski – his original name, Omer, was Turkish). Relations with Yugoslavia were sour during the Soviet period, while her relationship with Romania “traditionally consisted of peering over the Danube to make sure the other is doing worse”.

It’s easy to lump ‘eastern Europe’ into one, but it was largely a Cold War construct. The Balkans, the space between Vienna and Istanbul, often viewed as provincial and peripheral, has a post-Ottoman legacy in common, almost post-colonial. All rather different from ‘central’ Europe, with whom the Balkan countries share a post-Soviet culture, although their histories of transition are different.

All of which brings us to emigre/expat/international Kapka Kassabova (@kapkaful), born and brought up in Sofia in the 1970s and 1980s, who left Bulgaria in 1992 for New Zealand, moving to Edinburgh in 2005. Her Street without a name: childhood and other misadventures in Bulgaria (2008; Amazonreview), a memoir cum travelogue, bookended our trip to Sofia. A two parter in two genres, and none the worse for it, the book combines “the irreverence of an expat and the curiosity of a visitor”.

Kapka has also written some thought provoking poetry, including the haunting line for rootless people everywhere:

Let me be a tourist in the city of my life.

Filling in more gaps is journalist Dimiter Kenarov, whose From Black to Black looks at the Danube from a rather different perspective. See too his piece on Georgi Markov, more known in English for the umbrella incident than his writing, and interview on East-Central Europe Past and Present, well worth the time of the prospective visitor to Bulgaria.

Interesting times

In a 2010 survey, Bulgaria came out as the unhappiest country in the world relative to income per capita. I’ll take this with the same grain of salt as Denmark’s constant chart-busting performances – you really don’t get an impression of boundless Danish joy on a day to day basis, and the Bulgarians seemed chirpy enough in the spring sunshine. In other eye popping statistics, 40% of Bulgarians smoke, and they have a flat income tax rate of 10%. The 2015 World Happiness Report, released just before we left for Sofia, showed Bulgaria in 134th place out of the 158 countries surveyed, way below any other EU country as well as the Palestinian Territories (108) and Myanmar (129).

Georgi Gospodinov‘s novel The physics of sorrow (AsymptoteNew Yorker | Three Percent) came out in the UK last year, translated by Angela Rodel. Echoing the happiness surveys (and perhaps Ivan Vasov, who in Under the yoke (1889) wrote that “oppression has the privilege of making people happy…when the political arena is closed, society seeks consolation in the immediate good things of life)”, this feels like a good point to conclude my pre-trip research:

Gospodinov’s tuga [sorrow] is “a longing for something that hasn’t happened…a sudden realization that life is slipping away and that certain things will never happen to you, for a whole list of reasons—personal, geographical, political.

self portrait by Petar Dochev (1934-2005)

self portrait by Petar Dochev (1934-2005)

More:

London 2016

Thoughts from a recent trip to London, looking at building, buildings, buildings (more buildings on Flickr). What has changed in the last decade or so, and what does it all tell us about me, Copenhagen, London and life in 2016?

Sunday: Euston Road, Bloomsbury and Midtown

We started out by walking up Hampstead Road from the disused 1907 Euston tube station to Mornington Crescent, the first of many of Leslie Green‘s stations spotted in central London. Despite dying at the ridiculously young age of 33, Green’s impact on tube station design may well equal that of Charles Holden. Then entering ‘forgotten Camden’ (see Tom Bolton’s St Pancras trail) we took in the splendid 1960s St Aloysius RC Church before approaching the three monster stations on Euston Road.

A sort of 19th century Crossrail, the construction process involved in bringing the railways into London extended over the course of 30 years, displacing 30,000 people in the process. St Pancras International was a new one on me, completely renovated from 2001-07 to welcome Eurostar, and now as much shopping destination as station. A symphony in red and white by George Gilbert Scott from 1868, with the kitschy statue to end all kitschy statues in the gallery, its general over-the-topness is not for me.

Much better is King’s Cross, the gateway to the north, where I have taken many a train and met many a parent. It has also changed completely, a 2014 restoration opening up the concourse and revealing Lewis Cubitt’s beautifully simple building from 1852. In contrasting fortunes 1970s style Euston, originally built in classical style by William Cubitt in 1837 but demolished in 1962, is unchanged, with the Euston Arch still found only on pub signs.

Also shined up is the Brunswick Centre from 1972 , an unusual mixed use development with council housing in a ziggurat design alongside a commercial section. Now renamed The Brunswick with repetitive shopping, and still hosting the Renoir Cinema. Of the Bloomsbury squares and gardens we tarried most at Thomas Cubitt’s 1820s Tavistock Square, with its statue of Virginia Woolf set against Denys Lasdun’s 1977 Institute of Education. After that, Charles Holden’s Senate House (1937) seemed almost underwhelming.

Walking down Tottenham Court Road heralded the self-styled Midtown, centred round St Giles Circus and the iconic Centre Point (1966), currently under wraps. Tottenham Court Road tube is transformed, with 2010s style wide open spaces inside (Paolozzi’s 1984 mosaics either in store or in Edinburgh) and Crossrail damage outside. Renzo Piano’s Central St Giles (2010) sets the tone – time will tell how the refurbishment of New Commonwealth House (1939) will fit into this context.

With the rain showing no sign of slackening we then walked through the gloaming down New and Old Bond Streets to Piccadilly, with its splendidly Art Deco Waterstones in the former Simpsons (1936), before taking in Leicester Square and a sumptuous south Indian thali near Warren Street.

Tavistock Square

Virginia Woolf with Denys Lasdun’s 1977 Institute of Education behind

Monday: from Hampstead modernism to the Alexandra Road estate

Hampstead modernism day, starting in Belsize Park at the Lawn Road Flats (1934) then on to Ernö Goldfinger’s house (1938) on Willow Road facing Hampstead Heath. By all accounts a formidable figure and immortalised by Ian Fleming, the house is quite superb, a ‘reintrepretation’ of a Georgian terrace in brick and wood on a concrete foundation.

Up to Parliament Hill for a first look at London’s new skyline and an inspection of dog walking mores in this prime spot. In contrast to Denmark dogs almost entirely off leash – although up to four per person – and having a good time, interacting in an entirely stress free way. A proposed Dog Control Order on a lamp post emphasised there were no plans to force dog owners to put dogs on a lead on any part of the Heath, although they are not allowed in children’s play areas. Icing on the cake: ‘no cycling’ signs throughout.

After lunch we followed the rest of the Hampstead modernism trail, juggling a laptop and the London A-Z. Highlights: New House at 13 Arkwright Road (1939) with its blue porthole, the six houses at Frognal Close designed by Ernst Freud (1937), where a resident asked us if we were architects, and the multicoloured 66 Frognal (1938). Round the corner on Frognal Way, one of London’s most exclusive streets, is Maxwell Fry’s Sun House and Gracie Fields’ rather less titillating house (which she probably never lived in), both from 1934. On a mild Monday afternoon we encountered any number of east European au pairs with their charges as we walked down to Finchley Road to gawk at the prices in estate agents’ windows.

Leaping forward more than 40 years we finished the day at Neave Browne’s Alexandra Road Estate (1978), made up of 520 apartments in three long crescent shaped blocks and bounded on one side by the West Coast Main Line. The first post-war council housing estate to be listed, in 1994, Alexandra Road has had its problems but retains a pleasing green ambience akin to that of a traditional terrace, if not exactly Bath’s Royal Crescent. Looking at features such as staircases and balconies more closely the evolution of brutalism from modernism comes into focus.

Goldfinger's house (1938)

Goldfinger’s house (1938) in Hampstead

Tuesday: the Thames, London Bridge and Bankside

After mopping up some final West End sights time to go south of the river, with a brief jaunt to Vauxhall for the PoMo classic that is Terry Farrell’s MI6 building (1994) and the Vauxhall Tower (180m) on St George’s Wharf, the latter striking the same bum notes as the Strata Tower at Elephant & Castle, neither well designed nor in the right place.

Bypassing the South Bank on this occasion we re-emerged at the for me practically unrecognisable London Bridge, taking in St Olaf House on Tooley Street (1930) before catching Renzo Piano’s Shard (2012, at nearly 310m, the max allowed, the tallest building in the EU; £25 to visit). Then onward to Norman Foster’s bijou City Hall (2002) and More London, our first encounter with the privatised ‘public realm’.

The south bank of the Thames is well laid out for walking, albeit with endless upscale shopping and drinking opportunities on this stretch. The outdated 1980s viewpoints with plaques detailing buildings on the north bank provide some sort of context for the changing skyline and an overview of architectural fashions – what will remain after a further 30 years?

Next, a short stop at Tate Modern, itself undergoing redevelopment with a monster extension due to open in June. The gallery has been open since 2000, but I remember it better as Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s power station hulk, in operation for a scant 30 years. GGS was also responsible for Battersea Power Station, still ‘under redevelopment’ after being decommissioned in 1983. The Oxo Tower just west of Tate Modern, originally built as a power station but rebuilt as an Art Deco cold store in 1929, has found a new role as Oxo Tower Wharf, with a full raft of shopping, eating, housing and cultural uses.

Then over Norman Foster’s Millennium Bridge, a bridge story to rival some of Copenhagen’s, to St Paul’s and Paternoster Square, then onwards to Aldgate, where we were stayed for the next three nights.

London skyline

City skyline from More London

Wednesday: the City and the Barbican

A tortured heap of towers? Foster+Partners’ Gherkin (2003, 180m), aka 30 St Mary Axe and previously the Swiss Re Building, on the site of the bombed in 1992 Baltic Exchange, was in situ the last time I visited London, but it’s Richard Seifert’s 1980 NatWest Tower, now Tower 42, I think of first.

In 2016 though there’s a whole City cluster away from St Paul’s sightlines – notably Richard Rogers’ Cheesegrater (1 Leadenhall; 2013, 225m), across the road from his 1986 Lloyds’ Building, as well as Rafael Vinoly’s infamous Walkie Talkie (2014, 160m; Britain’s most hated buildingstory | Carbuncle Cup) at 20 Fenchurch Street with its Sky Garden (from which you don’t have to look at the thing). Less written about or in your face is the Heron Tower (2011), at 230m the tallest building in the City. Which will last the longest?

What effect is all this having? See climate walk article for starters. Then there’s Crossrail, eliminating numerous blocks, and the general privatisation of public space. Bankrolled by oil money, derided as phallic symbols…but a successful city brand, judging by the number of tourist around in the first week of January. If you enjoy looking up, getting some perspectives on things, it feels well done –  at least if you don’t know what was there before.

On another note, the City is one square mile of prime walking country. Even if you are just popping out for your sandwich/ramen of choice, during office hours the streets are never quiet. Visit the City offers a visitor trail map (“one trail: hundreds of stories”), with a main trail and ‘side-tracks’ for London stories, culture, law and literature, skyscrapers and sculpture, and markets. Each square of the map is approx 400m, or about a five minute walk at a steady 3 mph pace, just feel the walking love…in addition there are 10 city walk leaflets, including a tree trail, and for locals a cornucopia of delights including short lunchtime walks for a quick heritage hit. Apparently Harry Potter tours are a thing, as were James Bond tours around the time of Skyfall, plus anti-capitalism tours such as Occupy London tackling inter alia public realm issues. It never stops…

After all that corporate excess on to old friend the Barbican (story) with its nods to culture (we tracked a lad carrying a tuba across the plaza and back over lunch) and upscale brutalist housing, and the gentrifying 1950s Golden Lane Estate

Gropius shopfront

shopfront designed by Walter Gropius in 1936, at 115 Cannon Street

Thursday: the Olympic Park, Poplar and the East End

The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park reopened in Easter 2014. In terms of legacy, without coming over all Twenty Twelve, it shows off a lot of current tropes.

It was rainy and pretty deserted when we visited as part of our packed east London programme, so no time to explore the The Olympic Walk from Sporting Tours of London, good wheeze that. While the revitalised park, “the same size as Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens combined”, seems focused on looking forward, a London 2012 trail guide does offer pointers to what happened where. Designed by the team behind New York’s High Line with waterways, woods and wildlife habitats created on the marshlands, there’s plenty to explore beyond the playgrounds and between the building sites, although this kind of designed experience hides rather than reveals.

The four interactive trails on offer include a guide to the 26 permanent artworks in the park. Biggest is the 114.5m high ArcelorMittal Orbit, Britain’s largest sculpture. You can climb it or abseil down it for £85 (£130 to upgrade to live vid), and a slide will be in action later in 2016. Also offers activities and events. Entry: £12, which feels a bit steep for a view of east London. Rather more pleasing are Ackroyd & Harvey’s 10 History Trees, placed at entry points to the park; in total 4300 trees have been planted in the area.

The Olympic Village, renamed the East Village, is the most developed quarter, a dead ringer for any of Copenhagen’s bland new areas. Scandi style, or just modern style? It certainly didn’t feel like London. Oliver Wainwright in July 2013: “making workable streets from tarmac wastes and weaving housing around velodromes is a difficult and expensive way of producing a good city”. A shopping centre and a new ‘international’ station doesn’t a place make – the arrival of West Ham may be what’s needed. Update: here’s Olly in August 2016.

From Stratford we took the DLR down to Poplar, formed as a district as long ago as 1855 and encompassing areas including Bow, Blackwall and the Isle of Dogs, but from 1965 part of Tower Hamlets. Two town halls remain, both listed: on Poplar High Street (1870) and the Art Deco style New Town Hall on Bow Road (1938), which we missed by turning the wrong way exiting the station.

Poplar plays a key role in the history of social housing in the UK. Between the wars the council built a total of 1500 homes in the area, including the Art Deco Holmsdale House (1938), complete with deck access. In 1951 the first phase of the Lansbury Estate (again; fab article; in 2017 the home of the V&A’s Lansbury Micro Museum) was chosen as the site of the Festival of Britain’s Exhibition of Live Architecture. Alongside is Chrisp Street Market, the first specially designed, covered and pedestrianised shopping centre in the UK with iconic bell tower by Frank Gibberd, from 2012 a Portas Pilot.

A further round of development took place in the 1960s and 1970s resulting in two ‘streets in the sky’ developments. First, the much written about Brownfield Estate, with fairly unobjectionable low rise punctuated by the cluster of Ernő Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower (again; 1967, 84m), accompanied by Carradale House and Glenkerry House, aka the rather more well behaved baby Balfron. Goldfinger and his family stayed in Balfron’s Flat 130 for a whole two months in 1968.

The decision to kick off redevelopment of this concrete monster was made as long ago as 2008, since when some flats have provided live-work accommodation for a posse of artists. Other tenants have gradually been ‘decanted’ elsewhere, with the block to be refurbished for sale on the open market. A certain amount of hooha was caused in October 2014 when the Goldfinger flat was done up Sixties style by the National Trust and opened to heritage fans for 10 days as part of Bow Arts’ Balfron Season. Still awaiting refurbishment it all felt pretty desolate with wind of Himalayan proportions – a major treat for concrete fans.

Nearby is the Smithsons’ Robin Hood Gardens (1972), “an urban solution to an impossible site” and perhaps rather too clever for its own good, due (again) to be pulled down soon – there were CPO notices hanging by the entrance. Expecting something on the scale of Sheffield’s Park Hill, the 214 flats actually felt full of potential, and rather more viable than the Balfron wind tunnel, but is seems it is not to be.

Fascinating round here, so close to 1990s Docklands and so clearly on the cusp of 2010s gentrification, with three hotspots on the London campaigns map and cycle superhighway CS3 passing through. More wandering took us to Bartlett Park with its eponymous Brookside style close, complete with two private land signs and a burnt out church.

As for the rest of the East End, despite having visited London countless times from birth and living there from 1987-93 I had no mental map at all, but can now vaguely place what were formerly merely names, known mainly from the Monopoly board, with any number of leads to follow up. Our final impression was the creeping approach of the City, with Commercial Street gradually crumbling away – our bus to the airport left from beside a hoarding surrounding the one remaining wall of the 1929 Fruit & Wool Exchange.

St Leonard's Road, Poplar

converted church and WW1 war memorial at St Leonard’s Road, Poplar

Our trip summed up: a reminder that humanity comes in lots of different shapes and sizes. People just getting on with their lives, without being channelled into an approved lifestyle. People meeting your eye and not looking away (and talking extremely loudly), creating interaction and even a sense of wellbeing. And trees make a city – everywhere should have a Tree Routes app.

Tidy uptight Copenhagen is in a different place on its gentrification journey, with hipsters largely confined to the city centre and few creatives spotted on Vestegnen thus far. Social housing has been rather better maintained than in the UK, and most new housing is going up on brownfield sites left by the collapse of the harbour and related industries, extending King Canute-like onto reclaimed land. But Amager looks like becoming the first front line, as Ørestad pushes its shiny face into the older neighbourhoods of Sundby and Tårnby (which at a pinch translates as Tower Hamlets), creating some awkward transitions.

And Denmark has a different sense of place, very much of the here and now, with style (aka design) winning over substance. Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that this focus on surface is because there are fewer layers left to unpeel? And that some of the attraction for expat Guardianistas and journos is just how these differences play out? Or is it all just another successful city branding strategy?

Reading: Brutalism:Online | Concretopia: John Grindrod’s book, blog & timeline | London’s: footpathstallest buildings | London Deco FlatsModernism in Metro-Land | Modernist BritainMunicipal Dreams | Museum of London: City & Docklands | Spitalfields Life | Walk London | Adrian Yekkes: East End Modernism & More Hampstead Modernism & London Art Deco part 1 | part 2 | part 3 | yet more. Also Homes of tomorrow, audio on Goldfinger’s “utopian drive to build for a better world”. 

Some East End walks: Alternative LondonBrick Lane and Spitalfields cultural trail | Jack the Ripper tours (at least 10) | The Missing Voice (Case Study B) (Whitechapel) | Memoryscape (inc Royal Docks, Victoria Park) | Soundmap (Brick Lane) | Tower Hamlets walks & trails | A walk through Spitalfields’ stories. See also Richard White’s social walk in QEOP (blog) in May 2015.

Finally, Nairn…two pub walks (London Review Bookshop | Caught by the River), plus Gillian Darley on the bus.

Goodnight, Vienna!

Oh, Vienna! Cultured up to its eyeballs, endless and various delights across the whole artistic spectrum. Enough for a lifetime, I should think. I paid my third visit in January 2015, this time with an architectural slant.

Vienna in a nutshell

Vienna in a nutshell (50 photos)

After WW2 Vienna became something of an outsized backwater, further east than both Prague and Berlin and cut off from much of its cultural hinterland by Cold War borders. But it’s definitely back, regularly one of the world’s most liveable cities.

Nicholas Fraser, writing in Continental drifts in 1997:

So much of what was beautiful, horrible or merely silly in our times originated here, and most of it was thrown away: Esperanto, pan-Germanism, Zionism, dental technology, consensual sado-masochism [to name a few]…

For we want memory in Europe, but not its evil or painful consequences. Knowing and not knowing…had become our ideal state, reflected in the absurd but pervasive conception of ‘heritage’, affixed to any site tasteful enough to accommodate paying visitors…Historical memory was replaced by the organised sentimentalism of Heritage Culture, [and] much of Europe was beginning to seem distinctly Austrian.

Duncan JD Smith in Hidden Europe in 2009:

The terrible destruction wrought on Vienna at the end of the Second World War has been seamlessly repaired; the city’s more obvious charms are once again purveyed to an endless stream of undemanding tourists: coffee houses, classical music, and the gilded trappings of the imperial court. It seems that the Viennese themselves and their visitors all prefer it this way.

What Elfriede Jelinek calls ‘the high culture lie’ is what keeps the tourists pouring in. 2015 saw the 150th anniversary of the Ringstrasse, the 5.3km long, 57m wide street which replaced the city walls in 1865 and changed the city forever. One of a kind, the Ring houses all the capital’s key buildings side by side on a single street, a living historical record. Let’s cross everything that it doesn’t get an out of scale Gehl treatment.

I did the Ring circuit mainly via the medium of statuary:

Mozart (more Ring)

Starting at Urania and working clockwise brings you in no short order to MAK, the museum of applied arts, with its superb sofas, offering a nicely timed Ways to modernism exhibition. The mastodons from around 9 o’clock onwards are not really to my taste – the Parliament (1883), the size of three football pitches, uses the same amount of electricity per day as that used to power a family home for seven months. But things pick up with the final building on the circuit, the Ringturm (1955), and the second ring boasts such delights as the Secession (homage) and the Wien Museum.

The Blue Danube may well disappoint, as the river proper lies well north of the city centre. In the 1930s the Donaukanal, the diverted stretch found in the city centre, was Vienna’s Riviera, and efforts are underway to recreate the walkway. For a more urban experience walking across the Reichsbrücke and over the Donauinsel, in our case in the teeth of a typically central European icy blast, takes you to the 1979 UNO City and Donau City, its contemporary neighbour.

Donau City

With countless international organisations and companies based in the city there’s a definite cosmopolitan feel which goes beyond the tourist hype. Vienna has a big city buzz and an extensive public transport network, making the most of that Teutonic triple of U/S bahn and trams.

Just as importantly, you can feel the walking love, even with snow on the ground. The tourist office offers the world’s best walking leaflet, with details of an extensive year round programme, guided and self-guided, in both German and English, while Vienna in three days includes two self-guided walks to ensure the confused don’t miss anything, plus sights outside the city centre and other basic bits and bobs.

The regularly updated listing of guided tours includes walks themed around The hare with amber eyes and The Third Man, while self-guided options include walks around the green belt and Haydn and Klimt walks. To top it off, 2015 was even Vienna Year of Walking (see Wien zu Fuß), culminating in the Walk21 conference in October, with over 600 delegates from 40 countries.

We wore out our copy of the modern architecture leaflet, produced in conjunction with Architekturzentrum Wien, whose portfolio includes an architectural scandals tour.  The Wien Architektur portal has updates on architecture related events in the city and an online tour planner. Highlights: Das rote Wien esp Karl Marx Hof, Ernst Mayr’s Hauptbücherei (2003). (See Jones the planner for a rather more comprehensive guide.)

We had a definite Hundertwasser moment, spending one hour in a driving snow at his municipal waste incineration plant. Impressive examples of adaptive reuse include the Wiener Gasometer. Sadly we missed Vienna’s famous flak towers. Of the six, one, Haus des Meeres, has been in use as an aquarium (with climbing wall attached), since 1957, while another is used by MAK for storage and is open on Sundays. One reason to go back!

the Spittelau district heating plant