I recently took the Berlin-Warszawa-Express and made my first visit to Warsaw. As soon as you leave Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof you are already in Poland: freshly cooked pierogies are immediately available in the restaurant car. The crowded car necessitated a nicely Hitchcockian juxtaposition of strangers: behind me I could hear an urgent discussion about the political situation in Belarus.
My hosts were mainly architects and urbanists who explained to me how post-socialist Warsaw has been characterized by a construction frenzy, especially on the urban fringe, so that the grey vistas of state socialism now jostle alongside a kind of neo-Disney palette of pink and orange. The sense of a postmodernist hangover is perhaps most directly evoked by Daniel’s Libeskind’s Złota 44—an immense edifice of luxury condominiums plonked right in the middle of the city.
One of the most characteristic features of Warsaw is the use of almost every available space for advertising: above all, during my visit, the ubiquitous presence of the actor Kevin Spacey to promote a mobile phone network. Spacey seemed to peer at you from all angles as if he formed part of some ill-defined political campaign. The powerful effect of an urban landscape dominated by billboards is reminiscent of the geographer Anton Wagner’s encounter with Los Angeles in the early 1930s. Wagner was fascinated by the garish landscapes produced by weak or uncertain planning regulations: a topography in which real spaces were hidden by a proliferation of imaginary ones.
Among the eighteen photographers featured in the recent show Constructing Worlds at the Barbican Centre in London I want to reflect for a moment on the work of the German artist Thomas Struth. Struth forms part of an influential circle of former students of Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Düsseldorf Academy where significant advances were made in the use of large format black and white photographs to record the scale and detail of urban and industrial landscapes.
One of Struth’s photograph stands out for me in particular, entitled Clinton Road, London (1977), which captures a wide-angle view of an empty London street, perhaps on a Sunday morning so as to be as unobtrusive as possible (save for a possible curtain twitch to the left). In a series of photos taken in the late 1970s in several cities—among them Brussels, Cologne, and New York—Struth sought to distil the essence of an entire city into a single image. In the case of London this is no easy task. Nevertheless, this street is instantly recognizable as an example of the type of turn of the century terrace housing that dominates many of London’s newly built suburbs of the late nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries. There is a studied ordinariness to this image that captures something of the enigma of London as a city.
Sometimes it takes an outsider to notice what is taken for granted. Like the Danish architect Steen Eiler Rasmussen achieved, with his marvellous book London: the unique city, first published in 1934, Struth has also managed in the field of photography with his carefully chosen location. That this image is a large format image, with all the skill and technical complexity that that entails, merely adds to its poignancy. And with the use of black-and-white rather than colour, the image seems to be both closer in time and yet simultaneously further away.
Feeling the glimmer of January sun this morning I recalled one of my most vivid memories of last year. On the morning of Saturday 29 March, at just after noon, I cycled past a favourite spot amid the woods and waterways of Spreewald, a biosphere reserve that lies about 100 kilometres south-east of central Berlin. As I passed the point where two canals meet, next to towering ash and poplar trees reaching up into the sky, an unmistakable butterfly swooped up into the air: a Camberwell Beauty, Nymphalis antiopa, which owes its English name to an early sighting in 1748, in what is now part of South London. I stopped my bike and frantically assembled my camera in time to take a bad shot of the butterfly sunning itself on the track some ten metres behind me before it took off over the trees. At least I had proof of having seen it but otherwise only a blurry likeness. I waited maybe an hour in the vain hope that it might reappear but there was a strange stillness in the March sunshine and nothing was to be seen.
The next day I approached the exact spot again, at precisely the same time, riding my bike quite slowly: to my delight I could see that the Camberwell Beauty was already there several metres ahead of me so I made another stealthy attempt to take a photograph. Again it soared upwards at my approach only to reappear a few minutes later further down the track, now being pursued by another Camberwell Beauty, flying even faster. The two butterflies took off together, spiralling around each other, higher and higher, way above the treetops, until they were a mere pair of specks in orbit silhouetted against the sky.
I stood by the track and waited patiently, camera in hand. About twenty minutes later I happened to glance to my left. A Camberwell Beauty sat sunning itself on a warm twig jutting out from dead vegetation, this time just a few metres away. I edged towards it and this time it did not fly away. Evidently the strange creature advancing towards it no longer seemed to present a threat; I had made a temporary connection with their world.