A Walter Benjamin moment

We’re visiting Paris in the New Year. So this seems like an appropriate time to revisit Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), the touchstone for misplaced migrants and restless walkers, who as it happens also spent some time in Denmark.

Benjamin stayed at Skovsbostrand, Bertolt Brecht‘s house in Svendborg, in the summers of 1934, 1935, 1936 and 1938. In September 1938 he was in Copenhagen, where he obtained some transparencies from a “master tattoo artist”. On 18 September he visited the Brechts in Dragør. He also spent a weekend in Gedser, just across the Baltic from Germany, with Gretel Karplus (later Adorno), between 22-23 September 1934(?).

Like Brecht, Benjamin wasn’t taken with Denmark, finding the southern tip of Fyn “one of the most remote areas you can imagine”, with its “unexploited” nature and lack of links to the modern world a mixed blessing. The summers in Skovsbostrand were isolated and lonely, and drab compared to the likes of Ibiza. Maybe he got on better in Copenhagen.

Copenhagen’s arcades

Obviously every self respecting urban walker has to have a go at walking with Walter, so last year I launched my Copenhagen Arcades Project. First, an aside on arcades. The standard English translation for Walter’s passage, the word arcade evokes something grand, probably glazed, involving arches. Passage: not so much; think back passage, ginnel, jitty, wynd.

With a couple of exceptions Copenhagen’s arcades are definitely passages, or even smutveje (shortcuts), definitely not designed for lingering. Much of the city centre is made up of karréer, a (usually) five storey building complex encircling an inner courtyard, a space somewhere between public and private. This part of the cityscape is hidden from view, unvisited by the passer-by. A smutvej can open up this terrain.

Having said that, our first stop, August Bournonvilles Passage, is already an anomaly. Named in 2005 when the stretch was pedestrianised, this shortest of shortcuts is most notable for Stærekassen, a chunk of Art Deco built for Statsradiofoni (now part of DR) in 1931. Its mosaic roof portrays four cultural worthies, Hans Christian Andersen, Johannes V Jensen, Carl Nielsen and Adam Oehlenschläger, with the last also to be found as a statue just round the corner.

Walking past Nyhavn and up Bredgade brings us to Sankt Annæ Passage, between two of the city’s most fornemme (exclusive) streets. Opposite the eponymous plads, this passage is promising from the outside with a wrought iron sign, but disappoints within, mainly giving access to offices housed in the courtyards.

Sankt Annæ Passage

Emerging out of the far end of the passage brings us onto Store Kongensgade. A short stroll back towards the city’s main shopping drag of Strøget takes us to Pistolstræde. Glazed over in a recent refurbishment with smart signage, this web of backstreets is populated by shops and cafes mainly at the luxury end of the spectrum, and feels a tad self-conscious. How do these shops stay in business? There’s never anyone in them. (One answer: they move to the suburbs. Konditori Antoinette moved to Hvidovrevej, just down the road from us, in August, and feels a bit out of place.)

Finally, time for the real thing! Five blocks further down Strøget lies Jorcks Passage, as good as it gets. Built between 1893 and 1895 by Vilhelm Dahlerup, responsible for countless Historicist buildings in the city, this arcade is worthy of the name, housing a pleasingly eclectic range of premises as well as mini toddler statues in bays along the walls.

Jorcks Passage

Jorcks Passage

The buildings surrounding the arcade link back to our first smutvej, with DR broadcasting their first radio programmes from the premises in 1924, and forward to our last. KTAS (now TDC) opened their first telephone exchange here in 1896. It remained in operation for a scant 13 years, replaced by Telefonhuset at Nørregade 21. This lasted 5o years, from 1909 until 1959, before moving to Borups Allé 43. That building is still owned by TDC, although their current HQ is at Sydhavn.

Left behind is Sankt Petri Passage, allegedly offering public access through the karréer from Nørregade to Larslejsstræde, although it has always presented me nothing more than a massively closed wooden door.

What other options are on offer today for the city centre flâneur? In his Travels through Germany Michael Gorra “subjects the shopping arcades of contemporary German cities to the terms of Benjamin’s Arcade project”:

Most German cities have reconfigured their central shopping districts into pedestrian zones, in a way that makes the arcade seem merely an extension of the street itself, a space far less odd and magical than it had been for Benjamin, liminal only in the way it opens onto an underground parking garage.

In Malled: 60 years of under cover shopping Will Self describes shopping centres as non-spaces, abolishing time and space (is a table outside a cafe in a mall inside or outside?). With a limited retail offering they are all the same, places where nothing happens by accident. The design ensures that you can only progress forward, slowly, encountering a series of fixed scenarios and then moving on.

Benjamin’s arcades were designed for shopping and strolling, places to see and be seen. For me Copenhagen’s central shopping district offers little room for flâneurie, celebrated for its early pedestrianisation but lacking the brio of the passeggiata. Likewise its malls lack allure, with Fields, once the largest shopping centre in Scandinavia, rising in a grey desert and neighbourhood centres built in the 1950s and 60s tending to the functional.

When I think ‘arcade’ I’m at Glasgow’s Argyle Street or Birmingham’s Great Western Arcade, and before you know it you are in a something shiny like Princes Square. So my arcade of choice is instead the heart-achingly stunning Párizsi Udvar in Budapest, currently in need of restoration and resembling rather more a cathedral.

Párizsi Udvar

The Arcades Project methodology

Benjamin started his research for what is known in English as The Arcades Project in 1927, before he moved to Paris in 1933. When he left in 1940 he entrusted the result, a vast compendium of notes and reflections assembled from a range of sources and arranged in 36 categories with multiple cross-references, to his friend Georges Bataille, then working at the Bibliothèque Nationale. What could Walter have done with a database package and a customised taxonomy?

Much has been postulated about this approach to writing, which Benjamin himself called ‘literary montage’. As “the strolling spectator who collects mental notes taken on leisurely city walks and transcribes them into written form…he does not just write about the flâneur but he writes as a flâneur” (source). Further, “to read Benjamin’s key work is in itself analogous to the practice of flâneurie” (source).

Certainly his methodology can bring some comfort to every writer of endless drafts (I’ve had this post in my drafts for more than a year) and random notetaker – to what extent is The Arcades Project Walter’s notebook? He himself expected his research to result in a small article, polished off in a couple of weeks, and did at least succeed in siphoning bits off into published essays. His exhaustive approach can perhaps also shed new light on issues of #curationism.

But still, his belief that you don’t properly understand something unless it passes bodily through you rings very true: if you are blocked, write out your work again, in a fair copy. In that process something will happen, new connections will surface as you quote yourself, a different person in time and space. It’s like going for a walk and seeing things more clearly.

Why Paris? 

From a 1929 essay, quoted by Edmund White in The flâneur (full quote):

The flâneur is the creation of Paris. The wonder is that it was not Rome. But perhaps in Rome even dreaming is forced to move along streets that are too well-paved…The great reminiscences, the historical frissons – these are all so much junk to the flâneur, who is happy to leave them to the tourist.

The flâneur is in search of experience, not knowledge. Most experience ends up interpreted as – and replaced by – knowledge, but for the flâneur the experience remains somehow pure, useless, raw…Practical Romans…show no curiosity about their city’s past…Parisians are the ones who wander their own city.

We’ll see how we get on.

Update, Jan 2017: as well as a draft on our trip to Paris I’m now embarking on Stuart Jeffries’ Grand Hotel Abyss, not least to follow up on WB’s Frankfurt years (my own: 1982-83) – he presented (and withdrew) his post-doctoral dissertation to the Germanistik department at the university in 1925…WestMarket, Copenhagen’s new food market, as essentially an arcade…

Primary Benjamin:

Secondary Benjamin:

Benjamin in Berlin: Berlin chronicle (review snippet) | Berlin childhood around 1900 | In search of WB’s BerlinA stroll through WB’s Berlin

After Benjamin:

Walk on: re-examining Jane Jacobs

Updates: new biog outon The Urbanist@owenhatherley on JJSlate on her cheerful hurly burly (cached) featuring JJ: the opera, with Robert Moses looking down from above and JJ looking at her feet…JJ: the film at CPH:DOX…also namechecked on Slate’s The quest to make the perfect place (cached) on New Urbanism and its attempts to recreate the small town in the city as an alternative to the typical suburb – sound familiar?

Lots about Jane Jacobs at the moment, “American-Canadian journalist, author, and activist best known for her influence on urban studies”. A Google doodle celebrated the 100th anniversary of her birth on 4 May with accompanying hashtag #jj100, there’s a six month New York based celebration, a year long effort in Toronto and a conference in Delft for starters, plus the annual walking weekend. Is Jane just the American (OK, Canadian) Gehl-like Good Thing you can’t argue with?

Jane Jacobs Google doodle

Happy Birthday to Jane from Google

Jane’s Walk (#janeswalk | @janeswalk | blog) offers a cornucopia of delights, including Jane’s Ten Big Ideas, a quick guide to Jane’s written work and a summary of walkability research. From coverage elsewhere, the Guardian ran two pieces, with Saskia Sassen on the day itself and a piece on Jane vs Robert Moses. US based Strong Towns has screeds of stuff. See also the Project for Public SpacesJane’s last vid and Treehugger on Jane at home. And what might JJ say about smart cities?

Slate, however, weighed in with Bulldoze Jane Jacobs, calling for a stop to the deification and a re-examination of her ideas, which have led to “nearly all-white, aesthetically suburban playground[s] for the rich”:

Governments…spend millions on implementing Jacobs’ recommendations—making streets more walkable, supporting new, local businesses, de-emphasizing cars—and nearly everywhere they do, gentrification and displacement follow.

Other less fashionable areas outside the downtown core are all too often left untouched.

So much so Copenhagen, with its swathes of almost identically tasteful apartment blocks shooting up all over, re-writing of Carlsberg’s cultural heritage and over-hyped ‘one size fits all’ lifestyle. Meanwhile its outer districts, and even more much of Greater Copenhagen’s five fingers, are seemingly left to their own devices.

My results from Curbed’s Jane Jacobs quiz:

Your neighborhood is a work in progress.

The sidewalk ballet (the dynamic unfolding of the city’s life, a form of art represented by interactions of neighbours, passers-by, children playing, shopkeepers) in your neighborhood could use a few more rehearsals. Some Jacobs-approved approaches may have taken root—there are a few newer buildings mixed in with the old, or your neighborhood’s avenues offer a mix of shops, restaurants, offices, and residential space—but the neighborhood still has long blocks, or large swaths of only housing or office buildings that leave it quiet for much of the day or evening.

So, back to the walking, an invaluable aid for those who find themselves adrift. Jane’s Walk in Copenhagen turned out to be a one-off (I know, I know…), but for 2016 we find diverse delights in Birmingham and Coventry, GhentLiverpool, London, Tokyo, Zagreb and Zurich, plus Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (all in Hebrew). With a special shout-out for Eugene Quinn’s Funk ORF! (Vienna).

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.

#CAFx2016: Copenhagen Architecture Festival

Copenhagen may not have a decent open house event but it does have probably the world’s biggest architecture-cum-film festival, on its third run-out this year (see post re 2014 and 2015). The Copenhagen Architecture Festival (aka CAFx; Twitter | Facebook | Instagram), took place from 10-20 March, still dominated by film but accompanied by debates, walks etc in 12 themes at more than 30 venues, with presences also in Aarhus (AAFx) and Aalborg (ALAFx).

Of the themes, Københavns Forvandlinger stuck out as by far the biggest – subdivide, guys! The most eye-catching events were sold out when I looked, but at least there was some hand-wringing around gentrificationCopenhagen vs the rest of Denmark also looked on point.

Providing further food for thought was Det urealiserede København, showcasing the 1960s proposal for a motorway round the Lakes, which has a certain perverse appeal in the face of the bucolic set of potential projects generally rolled out. 2015’s six best, which you could visit on a guided bike tour, included Cykelslangen, which surely opened in 2014 (and still makes me want to poke someone in the eye). But it’s not all about Copenhagenized and Copenhagen Dreaming – two housing projects, Brygge Blomsten and Sundholm Syd, were also recognised.

Film i s-toget meant that instead of TV 2 News the screens in the trains showed historical film clips, if only after midnight and at the weekend. More multi-media in the shape of three new audio walks, with one on (inevitably) Vesterbro bag facadenLyt til København offers short recordings made at random spots, while Ghettoblaster from young folk in Nørrebro probably does what it says on the tin. Part of a Lyd og rum theme, there was also a workshop on Havenlyd og byrum, the sounds of the lost harbour.

In the handful of place-centred events, an exhibition looked at DSB Byen, the area behind the central station, which we nosed about back in August 2014. The creative classes have now moved in, with a three part event from AMPD (Facebook), themselves based on Otto Busses Vej. Here’s the latest wheeze for the some of the area, involving IKEA and green roofs.

The Brønshøj council estate of Tingbjerg, designed by Steen Eiler Rasmussen in the 1950s, surely merited its own theme, like Aarhus’ Gellerup – so will get its own post shortly here.

Website critique: it’s very blue, and I wish things wouldn’t slide up and down when you hover over them. Then there’s a Mine Favoritter section, but no way of favouriting things. Would never have happened on my watch. On the plus side this year you can filter by type – see walks, including one on bikes, the gentrifying tracks of Nordre Fasanvej (involves games) and yup! Vesterbro.

Interestingly, the EN button takes you to an on-the-fly Google translation. Google as globish? As far as #some goes, it’s strictly PR in best exclamatory style! No attempts at coverage or recordings of the very interesting talks etc for those not able to attend. Instead there was Snapchat.

Ground control in Copenhagen

I’ve been catching up with some urbanist reading lately, starting with Lynsey Hanley’s Estates, moving onto Owen Hatherley’s Landscapes of Communism and back to earth with John Grindrod’s Concretopia.

Yesterday I polished off Anna Minton’s Ground control (2009 edition). Having worked as an infopro in urban development environments for most of my career it all feels rather like coming home, although some of the jargon has changed, and Ground control helped to fill in some of the gaps and answer some of the questions raised by our recent trip to London.

urbanist classics

my one note reading pile

What made me sit up though were the references to Denmark. To me central Copenhagen feels like the privatised public spaces described in the ‘Clean and safe’ chapter:

One of the problems the new ‘clean and safe’ parts of the city wrestle with is how to make places exciting. All too often they are strangely sterile, soulless and lacking in atmosphere, as the drive to create new places places little attention to real historic and cultural identity…

The contradiction is that while the managers of business districts want to create a ‘buzz’ and an atmosphere, they plan entertainment very carefully…the unexpected rarely happens…the growing micro-management of activities threatens to design out lingering and wandering around.

In Copenhagen the “authoritarianism and control” is innate, it doesn’t need to be imposed or enforced. Undesirable people (homeless, groups of youngsters, political protestors) and activities just don’t happen – or only when the Brøndby fans come to town. There is definitely the “feeling of an invisible hand directing what is going on”, with a chain of near identical public places “produced according to the same tick-box recipe”, changing and deadening the atmosphere and resulting in “participants who are unable to depart from the script”.

There’s a lot of idyllic Danery in the civil society section. In the chapter on fear of crime, ‘R/respect’, trust and happiness Minton discusses the role of strangers in cities in preserving the essence of civility and safety. Richard Senett (1977) described the city as the place “where strangers are likely to meet”, defining ‘civility’ as “treating others as strangers and forging a social bond based on that distance”. Jane Jacobs (1961) based her case on “natural surveillance”, built around the informal social controls of strangers, “eyes on the street”, resulting in an “almost unconscious network of voluntary controls enforced by people themselves”.

Hence the role of strangers determines levels of trust in places, a “trust between strangers which occurs naturally in healthy places and is still part of daily life to a far greater degree in countries like Denmark”. The use of the word ‘like’ seems crucial here, as this statement goes against widespread reportage by internationals and the concept of ‘negative politeness’ as a key Danish value, which on a bad day can verge on the passive aggressive.

Minton notes that trust and happiness are highest in Scandinavian countries “like Denmark”, where “stark, visible differences between social groups are also among the lowest”. Networks of likeminded people, rather than “places which promote the diversity of strangers”, increase trust and social capital: “The more diverse a community is, the less likely its inhabitants are to trust one anyone”. So there you have it. Danes “unconsciously trust each other and look out for each other” because they are all the same.

Plus there are downsides. “Life is no fun if it is perfectly safe…More importantly, when life becomes too safe, paradoxically we become more fearful and less trusting, as the natural human bonds which occur spontaneously between people are stifled”. An article in Politiken this weekend asked if Danes are addicted to tryghed (safety, security). It’s possible to see Denmark as a protected environment on a national scale, its own little homongenous enclave with an inwardly focused national discourse. To such as extent that there’s widespread surprise when ‘others’ comment on what they do – see the reaction to Steve Bell’s cartoon in The Guardian.

The final chapter on possible solutions to the problems of the 21st city concludes with a section on reinventing the public, where Minton returns to Happy Danery: “many genuinely public places in towns and cities around southern and northern Europe, in [long list concluding with Scandinavia] are thriving. Families and groups of people stroll arm in arm taking the passeggiata, children run around and old people sit together on benches”.

I want to go on holiday with Anna! She cites – of course she does – Jan Gehl, “Danish urbanist and architect, credited with transforming Copenhagen” into a place where shopping is not the main reason for coming into the city. Apparently “four times as many people come into the centre of Copenhagen as did so in the past…simply to stroll around and take in the atmosphere”. This is a long way from my experience of the centre of the city, where over-designed and under-peopled asphalted public spaces are broken only by basketball pens and bike parking facilities. Plus pavement cafes, oh those pavement cafes…all this is why I as a rule I choose to wander in areas further afield, as yet untouched by the flattening hand of the ‘human scale’.

/rant

Update, 27 Feb: The Urbanist’s How do you create a healthy city episode offered more on this theme, with UCL’s Nick Tyler selecting Copenhagen as his example of a happy city. He redeemed himself somewhat by being more than a little troubled by “the cycling bit”, stating that “there are people who don’t cycle”, and that an unbalanced stress on cycling, with the potential for conflicting situations, could tip things out of balance. Cities need a whole variety of people – that’s where the vibrancy is. Quite. Plus a whole variety of scale, so the city doesn’t turn into Middle Earth.

Is it now taken as read that every city is travelling towards becoming a cycling city? It certainly is for The Urbanist’s next speaker, high heeled bike riding Bianca Hermansen of Cititek, who doesn’t choose to walk or use public transport. She’s in the nudging camp, favouring a context which “compels people to change their behaviour”, yikes, and preaching her message whenever she gets the chance. It’s all about lifestyle – and never mind anyone who doesn’t choose or aspire to that lifestyle. Luckily this segment only lasted four minutes.

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.

Writing about a city: Berlin

Berlin has a sort of Three Sisters resonance in my mind. I’m particularly envious of its international writing scene, with place writing and cultural heritage galore.

Readux Books has published six and a half little books/essays about Berlin –  four in its Berlin series and two in its Urban voids series. The half is Eliot Weinberger’s The wall, the city, and the world, a good chunk of which is set in Berlin.

While the books are beautifully designed and all, at $1.99 a snip I thought they would work well as ereading experiment. I’ve never been drawn to ebooks, with years of trying to scan needless PDFs leaving me a digital reading sceptic. As Julian Barnes says, “books look as if they contain knowledge, while e-readers look as if they contain information”, definitely a work thing. Having purchased five I was left wondering what the e/book format really added to these short pieces – take out the prelims etc and you have a rather different proposition.

The Berlin series

The four essays in the Berlin series portray the city in the 1910s, 1920s, 1990s and the present day. The two early works, Cities and city people: Berlin 1919 (excerpt), by critic and literary historian Arthur Eloesser and translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, and In Berlin: day and night in 1929 (excerpt), by Franz Hessel (“a Francophile intellectual who brought the concept of the flâneur to 1920s Berlin”) and translated by Readux’s Amanda DeMarco (update: Walking in Berlin, feel of their time, while the later two are rather more interesting.

Berlin TriptychBerlin triptych (excerpt), by David Wagner and translated by Katy Derbyshire, visits three Berlin locations in 1998/2000 and 2013: Friedrichstraße in the centre of the city, Schönhauser Allee in the east and Café M in the west. The text previously appeared in DW’s Mauer Park (2013; KD’s post), an update of his In Berlin (2001). For another excerpt see An ode to Mauerpark (translated by KD), and finally Welche Farbe hat Berlin (KD’s post), short pieces written between 2001 and 2011.

In May 2013, in one of her sadly missed Going Dutch with German writers series, KD and DW go for a walk, DW’s preferred mode of exploring the city. (KD: “The poor guy must get tired of going on walks with people who want to write about the experience, as he’s one of those great walker-writers everybody loves.”) This walk makes an appearance in Mauer Park, how fab.

For more David, see the interview on Deutsche Welle and listen to his episode as part of R4’s recent Reading Europe series (highlighting the “tourist streets” of the former East Berlin, marked by stands with postcards of romantic ruins and charming Modernist architecture; the seriousness of German literature, making translations especially from English popular; how Sebald’s emigrants are now being replaced by immigrants, which may mean that subject matter finally moves on from Die Wende). For more Katy as flâneuse see The shadowboxing woman, a site accompanying her 2011 translation of Inka Parei’s novel, with photos matched up with quotes.

The texts are perhaps rather too rooted in the place for non-Berliners, but the overall themes of transience and transformation, currently most often expressed as gentrification, explore how history makes the city anew:

[Mehringplatz] is a remnant of a time that felt over-zealously obliged to make everything new and do everything better. Each era gets the architecture it deserves: the circle is lined by a double row of residential bunkers.

Construction sites serve as a motif, with empty spaces and the gaps between buildings gradually filled in. What happens when these constructions start to be pulled down and replaced by something new? Will Berlin ever ‘find itself’ – is the city ever finished?

Actually we all miss something. Or it’s invented in retrospect. (source)

City of RumorIn City of rumor: the compulsion to write about Berlin (2013) “Gideon Lewis-Kraus struggles with the very act of putting anything about Berlin into words”. A fine entry in the expat writing canon!

Gideon Lewis-Kraus lived in Berlin for three years and City of rumor gives an account of his “shifting understanding” of the city, which finally took shape in the Berlin chapter of his first book, A sense of direction (2012), a travel memoir about pilgrimage and restlessness.

Katy Derbyshire has familiar issues:

A while ago I wrote about Anglophone visitors writing about Berlin and perpetuating a certain image of the place, those journalistic pieces citing budding microbrewery cultures and proclaiming that “nobody in Berlin” gets up before the afternoon. That’s a Berlin I have never really recognized. (source)

As it turned out she didn’t hate City of rumor at all: “it’s less an attempt to describe his version of Berlin than an exploration of his – and others’ – compulsion to do so”. We all see  a different Berlin and experience a place differently, even if some prefer a “fantasy life of a country”. It’s a question of ownership and home vs restlessness and exile.

The urban voids series

The urban voids series examines “the places that are marginal, ignored, vacant, or destroyed…walking their fraying edges, or probing the absences that lie at their centers”.

Suburban wonder: wandering the margins of Paris and A little guide to the 15th Arrondissement for the use of phantoms tackle Paris and are hence on my backburner of prejudice for now, while the third title is an English original, The idea of a river: walking out of Berlin (extract) by Paul Scraton, also to be found Under a grey sky and Elsewhere.

City SpacesCity spaces: filling in Berlin’s gaps, by Annett Gröschner and translated by Katy Derbyshire, “explores the lacunae at the heart of our city…the history of erasure, demolition and annihilation that has shaped the face of Berlin” with pieces taken from Parzelle Paradies (2008).

Pleasingly, AG can be found on t’Web described as Die Stadtführerin. Her other works include Mit der Linie 4 um die Welt (2012; Amazon; review | video), the result of riding bus/tram nr 4 to the end of the line in a series of cities (latest: Rotterdam), and two collaborations with photographer Arwed Messmer: The other view: the early Berlin Wall (2011) and Berlin, Fruchtstraße on March 27, 1952 (2012). Time to dust off my German reading skills. See also KD’s Going Dutch from December 2013 and Berlin: alienated city (trans: Katy Derbyshire; auf deutsch) in Slow Travel Berlin:

Gone are the coal trucks and the outside toilets, but also what fascinated me back then: the traces in and on the buildings, grown over each other in several layers, which told countless stories into which one could enter like Poe’s man in the crowd, wandering until one no longer knew were one was or how to get back. The traces have been obliterated, the old men and women with their memories as if swallowed up by the ground, all is the present…In some inner-city neighbourhoods, Berlin has already lost its diversity; the individualists all look the same.

So much for curated reading! The issues articulated and explored in the two series are just as valid in Copenhagen, if on a rather smaller and less striking scale. With a different mythology, Copenhagen seems to attract a different style of writing, an issue to explore further in 2016, along with an overdue return to Berlin.