This afternoon I grabbed my towel and headed for Schlachtensee — a lake in the south west of Berlin, surrounded by the vast Grunewald forest that stretches beyond the city limits.

It’s been just over ten years since I swam in this lake — the last time I was here, Germany were hosting the world cup, and I had a picnic on the lakeshore.  As I swim out through bands of warmer and cooler water, beyond the dappled shade provided by alder and poplar trees, I am alongside coots and great crested grebes bobbing about on the surface, making occasional dives into the muddy depths.  Large dragonflies skim across the water like turquoise jewels in the sunshine.  In the distance I can the see the bright green reed banks on the other side — my destination as I gradually leave the crowds behind.

In the early twentieth century speculative developers tried to grab the lakeside to build private villas and restrict public access.  Luckily a new city planner called Martin Wagner stopped this from happening in the 1920s as part of his inclusive vision for urban nature.  How many swimmers know that somebody had their future in mind nearly 100 years ago?  This is public space at its best!

Landscape as political transect

Tower Hamlets (32.5 % Leave  67.5 % Remain)

It is the afternoon of Saturday 25th June and my train draws out of London’s Liverpool Street Station amid a thunderstorm, heading east for Ipswich and Norwich. It is a grubby poorly upholstered train with many empty first class carriages whilst the rest of us are crammed into the other half of the train.

As the train leaves the station I can see a familiar mix of Victorian terraces interspersed with post-war social housing.

Newham (47.2 % Leave 52.8 % Remain)

The Olympic Park, Westfield shopping centre, and high-rise student accommodation.

Cranes, tents, and half-finished buildings in the rain.

Cemetery, pylons, overpass.

Car parks, transport depots, inter-war retail units.

Barking and Dagenham (62.4 % Leave 37.6 % Remain)

Petrol stations, big box Wickes store.

The train slows slightly but does not stop at Chadwell Heath station.

Semi-suburbia and standardized poor quality new build housing.

Havering (69.7 % Leave 30.3 % Remain)

Sports playing fields and multiplex cinema.

We pass through Romford and Gidea Park stations.

Pylons, undulating suburbia, copses.

We are now leaving the administrative boundary of London and entering Essex.

Brentwood (59.2 % Leave 40.8 % Remain)

Sewage works

We pass over the M25 orbital

Splash of green graffiti

Pipe sections by the railway tracks

Heaps of gravel, greenhouses.

Fields fringed with white flowering umbellifers.

Bird on a wire.

Isolated homestead near the tracks.

Muddy brook and country lane.

The white of willow leaves flashing in the sunshine against a dark grey thundery sky.

Chelmsford (52.8 % Leave 47.2 % Remain)

We draw into Chelmsford station, the tracks lined with buddleia, elder, and sycamore.

Spacey city

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.

Street scenes: Thomas Struth and the distillation of vision

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.

City of the Lord

On 20 December I spent a weekend in Leeds.  The city is the third largest in the UK (after London and Birmingham) but this agglomerative accolade is as much the outcome of cookie-cutter administrative boundaries than any geographical fact.  It is a regional centre for banking and retail, along with significant remnants of its once dominant role in manufacturing.  On the recommendation of a friend I decided to stay at the Queens Hotel, an eerie Art Deco building dating from 1937, because I had been given a small task to complete: to photograph the hotel ballroom.  The ballroom of the Queens Hotel has a distinctive place in the music culture of northern England — during the late 1970s many bands performed there— but what is the venue like now?  I finally set out to complete my task on the Sunday morning but immediately found that the pathway to the room was staffed by succession of stewards for the LIFE Church, a recently founded religious organization based in Bradford, with branches in Leeds, Belfast, and most recently Warsaw.  As an agnostic atheist I felt rather like an imposter edging my way ever closer to the room; as I neared the entrance someone tried to hug me, I was clearly entering an alien spiritual domain.  The room was filled with a glittering darkness of acoustic guitars and biblical incantations; an imaginary post-industrial nirvana far removed from the sound and fury of the past.

The park is the city: the New York High Line

Yesterday I had an opportunity to visit the much discussed High Line for the first time. Designed by James Corner Field Associates, Diller Scofidio and others, this new park has received extensive attention as a project that manifests significant aspects of “landscape urbanism” and the re-use of derelict spaces and structures. Under a clear blue sky I ascended the steps at the intersection of 14th Street and 10th Avenue and entered the park. The landscaped walkway serves as a kind of promenade, mostly for well-heeled Manhattanites and curious overseas visitors, and extends up to 30th Street where we abruptly encounter the more familiar post-industrial spaces of the city. Park signs indicate an extensive list of benefactors for the project along with draconian rules for park use. The vegetation itself is for the most part cordoned off with numerous signs to prevent human contact. I asked a warden what he thought about the park and he described it as a “work of genius”, adding that the entire space is not only closed off at night but also overlooked by CCTV. Unsurprisingly, there has been little damage or disruption from visitors, who comport themselves with care as if wandering through the atrium of a museum.

The park, which opened in 2009, has been constructed along a disused section of elevated railway in Manhattan, and recreates aesthetic aspects to pioneer-stage vegetation through the re-planting of birch trees and other flora to produce a distinctive kind of ecological simulacrum of what occurred on the derelict structure before its extensive landscaping. In this instance, the “wasteland as artifice” becomes a cultural institution that serves to underpin real-estate speculation, and the boundary between private and public is reworked in the form of a “neo-pastoral” urban vision.1 As for the purported ecological saliency of the park — as evidenced by the inclusion of various environmental art works — it turns out that features such as the park benches are produced from tropical hardwoods that have wreaked environmental devastation elsewhere.2

The High Line marks a new phase in the production of metropolitan nature but also signals a degree of continuity with earlier approaches to park design such as Olmsted or Alphand. The modern park, in this context, is a designed fragment of nature that inscribes social and political power into the urban landscape. The High Line is an outward manifestation of the intensified gentrification of New York — it does not represent an alternative to contemporary urbanism but its green-tinged apotheosis.

Inside out: Vermeer, de Hooch and the interior landscape

I set off in the winter gloom yesterday to see a small exhibition of the seventeenth-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer and some his contemporaries at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Given that so few of Vermeer’s paintings still exist it was wonderful to see four in one go alongside a range of lesser known artists such as Gerard ter Borch and Nicolaes Maes, as well as more familiar works by Pieter de Hooch and Jan Steen. The exhibition entitled Vermeer’s women: secrets and silence focuses on the depiction of women in a series of interior settings engaged in various tasks ranging from household chores to more contemplative moments reading, writing or playing music. Many of these paintings — which deploy various strategies in achieving different level of realism — consist of frames within frames: windows, doorframes, picture frames, linked courtyards (as in de Hooch) and other elements that emphasize our immersion in an interior and largely private landscape of domesticity that is dominated by the presence of women.

Seeing these paintings gathered together it is interesting to consider whether Vermeer’s pre-eminence within seventeenth-century Dutch art has been simply a quirk of canon formation or a real reflection of his better work. With the partial exception of de Hooch this exhibition shows that Vermeer was way ahead of his contemporaries. The structure of his compositions is less cluttered and by tending towards abstraction Vermeer paradoxically emphasizes the faithfulness of his works to human perception since our eyes shift their focus within any given frame to emphasize certain elements over others: in this way what we actually see is as much a reflection of our mind as what is actually there before us. In works such as The lacemaker (c. 1670) and The music lesson (c. 1662-3) there is a use of variation in soft and sharp focus to directly emulate and at the same time subtly guide the human eye. His works also lack elements of whimsy or Arcadian motifs lurking in some of his contemporaries: the exterior view in Conelis de Disschop’s rather dreary Girl peeling apples (1667), for example, depicts not a Dutch town but what appears to be some ivy-clad Italianate ruins. Most significant of all, however, is Vermeer’s use of light, which is so effective and so meticulous that it reveals not just the shimmering beauty of everyday objects or the human figure deep in contemplation but also works as a deeper metaphor for human thought and creativity itself.

Engrenages [Spiral]

The French TV drama Engrenages — released as Spiral for English-speaking audiences — inhabits a terrain somewhere between the Baltimore depicted in the The Wire and the Copenhagen of Forbrydelsen [The Killing]. Set in contemporary Paris, Engrenages is based around a series of grisly crime investigations that evoke a dark archaeology of the city as a nest of corruption, deceit and violence. The pivotal character is undoubtedly the police captain Laure Berthaud, played superbly by Caroline Proust, who fearlessly pursues her opponents with a combination of recklessness and vulnerability. The “baddies” that we encounter are a truly remarkable menagerie of monsters, ranging from corrupt lawyers to various psychopathic murderers, who at times correspond to various pre-conceived stereotypes ranging from Arab hustlers to eastern European pimps. At a political level, therefore, the drama is not particularly incisive: unlike the multi-layered Baltimore of The Wire we never get a compelling sense of how Paris works as a city. Many of the characters are too one-dimensional for us to invest much emotionally in their respective fates and the lines of sexual and racial difference evoke little more than a claustrophobic ambience of danger and paranoia. Ironically, Engrenages owes too much to second-rate crime dramas and not enough to more experimental TV drama. For a city that is as much shaped by its post-colonial present as its imperial past the Paris of Engrenages seems somewhat limited in its scope.

Cosmopolitan urbanism

Out of curiosity today I checked the etymology of the word “cosmopolitan” and found that it is of seventeenth-century French origin, derived from the Greek word kosmos meaning “world” and polites meaning “citizen”.   The word “cosmopolis”, which combines kosmos with polis (the Greek work for city), appears to have first been used in the nineteenth century. So the ideas of world, citizen and city come together through these words and appear to offer an alternative set of ideas to that of an urbanism determined by boundaries, distinctions and exclusions. An enlightened conception of urban citizenship can be conceived as a form of belonging or identification that lies in contradistinction to more narrowly defined notions of ethnic, religious or nationalist affiliation. But who are cities for? Has the progressive promise of the “open city” been captured by transnational elites? Can a liberal city also be a just city in both social and economic terms? A cocktail in a swanky neon-lit bar in downtown Bombay/Mumbai can cost more than the debt that may drive a farmer on the urban fringe to suicide.

The historian Mark Mazower argues that the rise of ethnically defined nation states in the twentieth century, combined with the rise of European fascism, led to the brutal reorganization of previously mixed cities such as Salonica (now Thessaloniki) in Greece. One of the calamitous side effects of Western intervention in Iraq was the destabilization of the mixed character of Baghdad and other cities as new forms of religiosity were unleashed.In Nigeria, for example, there are latent tensions between “generous urbanism”, and the absorption of economic migrants and refugees from elsewhere in Nigeria and West Africa, and underlying ethnic or religious tensions that can easily be exploited. It is striking, however, that in spite of everything, cities remain relatively safe havens from poverty or violence in comparison with their rural hinterlands. Yet under such intense and uncertain conditions, especially in the global South, it remains to be seen whether cosmopolitan urbanism can vie successfully with its intolerant alternatives.Just as cities can also serve as the fulcrum for progressive change they can also serve as citadels of injustice and repression.

Mark Mazower, Salonica. City of Ghosts. Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950 (Harper Collins, London, 2004).

To open a wasteland

The Spanish artist Lara Almarcegui has a wonderful photo entitled “To open a wasteland” that depicts some kids rushing into a patch of waste ground in Brussels. The sense of an urban enclosure being revoked is captured in the blurred movement of figures surging forward.

I think I first reflected on the presence of “enclosed” waste spaces in cities whilst writing about Lucien Freud’s Wasteground with Houses, Paddington (1970-2) which provides a view from the window of his West London studio. Freud depicts the rear elevation of shabby Victorian terraces, with their jumble of aerials and chimneypots, interspersed with an area of overgrown wasteland. So precise is his painting that we can identify many of the plants he observes.

From my office window at UCL in central London a few years ago I noticed a similar anomalous space that had developed spontaneously between other buildings. As I looked down one winter afternoon a fox sauntered past and in summer the honey-scented flowers of Buddleia davidii are visited by bees and butterflies. This summer I decided to pursue my curiosity further and arrange access to the site. After opening a metal gate I made my way up some slippery rubbish-strewn steps and entered a strange world of tangled vegetation. Accompanied by the artist Carolyn Deby and the botanist Nick Bertrand we surveyed the site, finding over thirty species of plants, including three kinds of oak trees. Nick’s expertise was inspirational as he pointed out different species that had colonized the site. A seemingly empty space was brimming with life.

What struck me immediately was that this space has become a kind of miniature urban forest with its own mix of plants from all over the world. Instead of looking down onto the site I was now looking up at the brutalist façade of the university building with leaves touching my face. For a moment I became aware of myself at another point in time gazing distractedly from my window just metres away.

This afternoon, however, I glanced towards the site and noticed that it has just been cleared, leaving an expanse of rubble with a few plants left where they could not be scraped away by heavy machinery. The cycle of entropy and ecological succession must begin anew amid the vagaries of urban development and yet another planning application.

Urban islands: Parc Henri-Matisse, Lille

A few days ago I emerged from Lille eurostar station and stepped into one of the most interesting parks in Europe. Completed in 1995 as part of the vast Euralille project, Parc Henri-Matisse combines an expansive open field with a raised island at its centre. The eight hectare park was designed by the French horticulturalist and landscape architect Gilles Clément, who has been at the forefront of recent attempts to include the spontaneous dynamics of nature in urban landscapes. Since the 1970s Clément has been studying the aesthetic and scientific characteristics of spontaneous ecological assemblages such as fallow land to explore how these “gardens in movement” might be incorporated into the design of parks and gardens. A key concept he has advanced is that of the “third landscape” which includes all those spaces that lie outside of cultivation or direct human use and are often important for the maintenance of biodiversity. In Parc Henri-Matisse the idea of the “third landscape” has been put into practice through the creation of an artificial island that will serve as a long-term refuge for urban biodiversity. Clément has named this structure Derborence Island after a fragment of primary forest in Switzerland that has survived virtually intact over thousands of years because of its remote location. Similarly, in Parc Henri-Matisse the central island has been made completely inaccessible like a vast sculpture or enigmatic monument. The oddity of this overgrown concrete block has not been without its critics, however, who have derided its presence as a form visual intrusion that is antithetical to conventional conceptions of public space.

My impressions of the park in blazing May sunshine are that it is quite heavily used, especially by young people, couples and people on their own. The concrete island is surrounded on two sides by a semi-wild landscape of trees and small clearings, which provide a lush contrast with the more open formality of the grassy expanse to the south. The question whether the island really does serve a direct role in maintaining urban biodiversity is not yet certain and its purpose is perhaps more symbolic than ecological. If over time, however, a unique ecological assemblage really does emerge on top of this concrete plinth then perhaps the cultural and scientific aspects to the park’s design will begin to elide more closely. In fact, this may already be happening: just below the island I stumbled across a rare beetle, the bee-mimicking Trichius zonatus, that may conceivably be among those creatures whose urban presence is now being sustained by Derborence Island.

Soundscapes of late modernity

In his extraordinary book The soundscape: our sonic environment and the tuning of the world, first published in 1977, the Canadian writer and composer Murray Schafer exhorts us to listen more carefully to the world. He introduces an “acoustic ecology” that combines everything from history (the changing experience of sound) to physics (the properties of sound itself). His book is arranged very systematically with numerous diagrams as if to suggest that all aspects of sound can be brought within a framework of scientific logic. Central to his thesis is the claim that through understanding sound we can make better sense of human societies in all their complexity. More recently, the cultural theorist Stephen Connor has written of the “modern auditory I” to underline how sound connects with our sense of identity to produce “the sonic self”. Connor and other theorists show us how the presence of sound is constantly reconfiguring space and blurring boundaries.

At Cafe Oto in Dalston last Sunday I listened to a performance of electronic music featuring a series of leading musicians and sound artists: BJ Nilsen, Stephan Mathieu and the TSU duo of Jörg-Maria Zeeger and Robert Curgenven. TSU began with an unobtrusive hum that gradually built up to a frightening swell of sound that was at times simply deafening. I occasionally covered my ears and feared for my internal organs but convinced myself that extreme sound has its place in the pantheon of acoustic experience. Second on stage was BJ Nilsen who uses juxtapositions of music and ambient sound to create complex textures that often invoke very specific locales or fragments of memory. His material featured elements from his excellent album The invisible city that includes musical instruments combined with other sound sources such as amplified objects, bees and crows. Finally, Stephan Mathieu presented an intricate layering of harmonic landscapes. Using a combination of early instruments, obsolete technologies and freeform experimentation derived from abstract expressionism, Mathieu created an ethereal soundscape as different chord formations drifted in and out of focus. In contrasting ways all three performances explored the edges of contemporary sound and produced an experience that seemed an oddly appropriate cultural echo from east London to the prestigious Wigmore Hall north of Oxford Street where Beethoven, Shostakovich and Debussy were being played on the same evening. As I stepped out into the dusty street after the show I was immediately conscious of the noise of traffic, human voices and precisely the kind of complex soundscape that is incessantly around us.

From Forbrydelsen to Copenhagen

It’s strange to arrive in a city you already “know” yet have never visited. What brought me finally to Copenhagen this week, and to Denmark for the first time, was The Killing [Forbrydelsen], an extraordinary twenty-part TV drama which delves deep into the psyche of its main characters and is played out against a grey November skyline. Like the depiction of Baltimore in The Wire, the portrait of Copenhagen in The Killing explores many elements: the inner landscapes of grief, the spectre of racism, political chicanery, and above all, an emphasis on the complexity of human relationships.

On my first morning in Copenhagen I headed like many other visitors for Christiania, the alternative city within a city, that was established in a cluster of abandoned military buildings in 1971. This alternative community of 500-700 people — with its own decision-making structures — has had a turbulent relationship with the Danish state. A government decision to forcibly remove the settlement in 1975 was rescinded in 1976 following a wave of public sympathy. The commune has repeatedly struggled to prevent outsiders from using the site as a base for drug dealing: their semi-autonomous status being taken advantage of as a safe haven for crime. My first impressions of the rather shabby and commercialized cluster of shops and stalls by the main entrance is that this could be London’s Camden Lock Market. The “real” Christiania lies a further five minutes walk away where prettily decorated self-build homes and small gardens back onto the city’s canals. The urban sociologist Cecilie Juul tells me that the state is now trying to win their battle with Christiania by stealth: instead of taking the land by force they now propose to sell properties directly to their residents. Such a move undermines the possibility for shared ownership and will lead to a gradual “normalization” of property relations. As the original settlers from the 1970s die or move away the differences between this enclave and the rest of city will eventually fade away.

To the west of the city centre there is an interesting park called Ørstedsparken: the varied and naturalistic topography is reminiscent of Alphand’s Buttes-Chaumont or “the ramble” of Olmsted and Vaux’s Central Park. At the centre of the park is a lake encircled by fine trees and statues of mythical figures. The Ørstedsparken is interesting because it marks a changed relationship between the state and gay men: the role of the police has changed from that of harassment or entrapment to the protection of park users from homophobic violence. This is interesting because it underlies the “right to the city” in an inclusive way that signals an enlarged conception of the public realm as a shared space that encompasses many different interests. If the Ørstedsparken really is a heterotopia for sexual subcultures, in the Foucauldian sense of radical difference and social experimentation, then does the state’s role in protecting the park as “a space of difference” suggest a more complex relationship between “inside” and “outside” in contemporary societies?

A short distance north of Copenhagen lies the Louisiana gallery and sculpture garden. Clearly in an “art mood” as I waited for my train in the city’s central station I noticed that some fluorescent lighting on the station platform resembled a Dan Flavin installation. Louisiana is just a few minutes walk from the small town of Humlebæk and enjoys a perfect location next to the sea. How beautiful to see all these sculptures outside, nestled among trees, and within earshot of the waves below; each small clearing in the park brings surprises, every detour something different. Works by Jean Arp, Louise Bourgeois, Henry Moore and many others are gathered together in this magnificent setting. To see sculpture in this way is a remarkable experience that plays on all our senses and where distinctions between architecture, landscape and sculpture melt away.

An urban transect: the Regent’s Canal, London

The Regent’s Canal cuts through London like an urban transect. Walking east from Islington through Hackney towards Stratford yesterday I encountered a succession of changes in buildings, landscapes and other spaces. The back gardens of grand Victorian terraces gradually give way to light-engineering factories, film studios, lock keepers’ cottages and other spaces that have now been converted into luxury dwellings. The proximity of water in the post-industrial metropolis has fostered an accelerated set of architectural and cultural transformations yet remnants of the past remain.

The thriving canal-boat community of the Kingsland Basin is now encircled by new developments and the roar of construction activity. A mixed, socially inclusive and low-income London is being displaced, “decanted” or driven out to create a new kind of city.

Large swathes of social housing next to the canal have been removed or await their elimination. The Haggerston Estate, due to be demolished, has a poignant art installation in place, depicting former residents in their windows. The project “I am here”, by Andrea Luka Zimmerman, Lasse Johansson and Tristan Fennell, was in part a response to the negative characterizations of tenants which served as a pretext to enable the “redevelopment” of the site and the capture of waterside settings for wealthier Londoners

La Vallée (Obscured by Clouds)

The British Film Institute recently screened a new print of Barbet Schroeder’s classic depiction of exploration and self discovery set in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. The film La Vallée (1972), also known as Obscured by Clouds, concerns a group of hippies who set out to discover a lost valley. The expression “obscured by clouds” refers to those areas that have never been cartographically surveyed since they are always blanketed in cloud.

Schroeder himself attended the BFI screening and referred to the film as “borderline, fiction, borderline documentary”. For Schroeder, what is interesting is not the final destination — which they never reach — but the journey itself as a symbol of dissolution for 1960s counter culture. He cited TS Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”. In La Vallée the idealistic travelers become confused and disoriented: some of them imagine that they have found an understanding with nature and pre-modern culture but this proves to be a touristic chimera that provokes dissent within the group.

My interest in this film is not purely coincidental. Whilst studying geography at university I was sitting in a pub — I think it was the Eagle in Cambridge city centre — and a colleague mentioned that there was to be a research expedition to Papua New Guinea but one of the team had to drop out due to ill health. Without a second thought I said I would go. Some ten weeks later I was tramping through cloud forest — a distinctive kind of rain forest to be found at higher altitudes — and I remember the strange stillness of the moss-covered trees. One morning, just after dawn, I emerged from my tent and the cloud had temporarily cleared: there was ridge after ridge of green forest stretching out to the horizon.

The thing that I remember most vividly about Papua New Guinea was not the landscape, however, but the violence. Having stayed a few days in one of the villages some of the women began to tell me how terrible their lives were: the constant threat of domestic violence, the risk of rape while washing clothes by the river, and the perpetual state-of-war between different communities. Having been steeped in neo-Marxian literature at the time I realized that capital can only provide a partial explanation: questions of gender are of parallel if not greater significance. For the final part of my journey I went on alone to visit the Trobriand Islands off the coast of New Guinea, which proved to be a very different world. This was a matrilineal society based largely around farming and fishing. The men often wore hibiscus flowers in their hair and the aura of imminent violence was absent. It seemed clear that human culture could develop in any number of possible directions and that there is nothing innate about gender relations at all.

Interstitial landscapes # 1

I have become increasingly interested in what might be termed “interstitial landscapes”. These include an array of “incidental spaces” or “accidental gardens” that are often ignored or overlooked. These spaces exhibit ecological assemblages or natural formations that have developed independently of “design” as conventionally conceived. Examples of “interstitial landscapes” might include empty lots, the sides of railway lines or even micro-niches such as walls or gutters. Since the late 1960s a number of artists have responded to these types of marginal spaces as a way of exploring the meaning of urban space in new ways. Since the 1950s urban ecologists, and especially botanists, have been studying “ruderal” sites characterized by adventitious plants and new landscape typologies. In a European context these sites were originally associated with catastrophic events such as the creation of “bomb sites” through aerial warfare but by the 1970s the effects of de-industrialization and demographic decline were also leaving their mark on urban landscapes.

Among the artists who have studied these marginal spaces Gordon Matta-Clark is especially interesting. In the early 1970s Matta-Clark became intrigued by New York City’s periodic auctions of so-called “gutterspace” comprising seemingly unusable fragments of land. He acquired 15 small sites as the basis for a project entitled “Fake estates” which involved taking photographs, along with the acquisition of deeds, surveys and other documentation to produce a detailed visual and cartographic compendium of marginality. Though never shown during his lifetime these photographs have occasionally been on public display such as the Queens Museum, New York, in 2005 and more recently as part of an excellent show at London’s Barbican (which also features two other pivotal figures from the 1970s New York cultural scene, Laurie Anderson and Trisha Brown).

Feeling inspired by seeing Matta-Clark’s works at the Barbican I wandered around my own neighbourhood in north London and took some photographs of anomalous spaces or “weeds” that had colonized the streets. I became conscious of the precarious balance between a certain kind of order reflected in maps, title deeds and other records of spatial structure and ownership, and a kind of largely unnoticed and ubiquitous disorder reflected in specks of rust, litter, plants, crumbling walls, peeling paint, broken tiles and other elements of everyday space. In particular I observed a precarious space that extends beyond clearly demarcated lines such as homes or shop fronts where the jumbled and increasingly vague responsibilities of municipal authorities, utility companies and others combine to produce a neglected zone. What does it mean to say that a space is unimportant? Or that a plant growing by the roadside is just a “weed” with no aesthetic or cultural value?

Where does the city end?

How do we know we have reached the edge of the city? Is it an aluminium sign? Is it a thinning out of buildings until there is little but woods and fields? Or is it an abrupt shift to small towns and villages dotted across the landscape? Perhaps it is really none of these things since the city, or at least “urbanization”, is now practically everywhere. In his book The urban revolution, first published in 1970, the French urbanist Henri Lefebvre makes a distinction between “city” and “urbanization”. “Society has become completely urbanized,” writes Lefebvre, “This urbanization is virtual today, but will become real in the future”. In the forty years since Lefebvre wrote these words the pace and scale of urban growth has accelerated along with the more ubiquitous dynamic of “urbanization”. The impetus towards “complete urbanization” can be conceived as a multi-faceted development that ranges from infrastructure networks to the spread of new ideas. The urban and the rural have become increasingly difficult to differentiate despite the powerful cultural resonance of this distinction. We can never really understand cities as simply “things in themselves” since they are manifestations of broader processes of change, connection and re-combination. Cities are just a particular form of urbanization.

Of time and the city

There is something mysterious about Terence Davies’s Liverpool from the outset: at the heart of this cinematic meditation on the city, released in 2008, lies a tension between urban change as a process that is brutal and unremitting and the persistence of memory as something that is delicate and filamentary. Memories become maps through places to which we can never return in a world that is changing all about us.

In Of time and the city Davies presents us with a wondrously idiosyncratic and elegiac journey that is filled with anger, joy and despair. Davies becomes the “angel of history” hovering over Liverpool, alternately caressing his troubled city or pouring scorn on the forces that have brought the city to its knees. The film is punctuated by quotes from poetry, literature and philosophy that are narrated to us by Davies with a sense of staccato urgency: poignant lines chosen from Chekhov, Engels, Joyce and others inform us that this is a serious film from the outset. This is not a film that panders to an existing audience but one that seeks to create a new one. Davies is not making a pitch to our touristic curiosity nor is he using the city in a narrowly didactic sense. This is a deeply personal mode of documentary film making that is imbued with a profound sense of emotional intimacy.

Like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel according to St. Matthew [Il Vangelo Secondo Mateo], released to general amazement in 1964, Davies uses music to sublime effect. Both Pasolini and Davies select music that through its apparent incongruity generates a powerful sense of authenticity and immediacy: faces, images and landscapes are dramatically transformed into far more than their mere physical presence as stones, bricks or flesh. In Of time and the city Davies furiously juxtaposes music and place to transcend the petty cruelties of organized religion or the grinding toil of working-class life. Decaying housing estates are set to Bacarisse; cranes and industrial architecture to Mahler.

Davies reserves his real scorn for the British establishment in all their ineptitude and mean-spirited mediocrity. He exposes the flummery and sexual hypocrisy of organized religion with relish. He excoriates the monarchy and other archaic forms of gluttony that feast on the goodwill of ordinary folk. As we see newsreel footage of the royal marriage — “Betty and Phil with a thousand flunkeys” — and the gilded carriage passes through cheering crowds Davies reminds us that “Britain had some of the worst slums in Europe”. His droll disdain for the establishment is also extended to its would-be cultural assassins such as The Beatles who are rendered little more than a ghostly and ironic presence. Just as Joe Strummer rejected “phoney Beatlemania” back in 1977 Davies now derides the “fab four” as looking like “a firm of provincial solicitors” — “yeah, yeah, yeah” indeed.

As for post-war architecture Davies notes with acerbic understatement that “Municipal architecture, dispiriting at the best of times, but when combined with the British genius for creating the dismal, makes for a cityscape that is anything but elysian”. These would-be utopias had by the early 1970s become spaces of decline and emptiness scattered with broken glass and overlooked by boarded-up windows. Instead of utopia we got a city in a state of retraction and disorder. “We hoped for paradise; we got the anus mundi”. These new architectural forms were often poorly constructed and maintained, displaying but a faint echo of their exemplary prototypes in European cities and containing their own versions of built-in senescence to match the social and political neglect of their new occupants.

Liverpool has been the traumatized epicentre of Britain’s full-scale industrial decline since the 1960s with a greater population loss than almost any other British city. Unlike former industrial cities in Europe such as Hamburg or Milan, which have successfully rebuilt themselves, it is apparent that Liverpool’s contemporary renaissance is slender indeed: not a replenished civil society or newfound industrial acumen but a retail desert populated by gaggles of drunken figures tottering around beneath the glare of streetlights and security cameras.

The final tracking shots of gentrified docks and warehouses evoke a sense of placelessness: these waterside developments with their familiar “brandscapes” could be any one of a number re-fashioned industrial waterfronts from Baltimore to Buenos Aires. “As we grow older,” observes Davies, “the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated…and now I’m an alien in my own land”. We float with Davies across neon-lit landscapes or hover over boutiques and wine bars that were once factories or churches. At the close of the film we encounter Liverpool “gathered in at gloaming”, a myriad of strange illuminations in the failing light. What has Liverpool been? What have we been?

Beautiful and scathing in equal measure Of time and the city must surely rank as one of the best films about a British city that has ever been made. But the film is not simply about Liverpool: it is also a mordant response to the failures and disappointments of post-war Britain and a bittersweet exploration of the delicate connections between memory and place that anchor our sense of individual and collective identity amidst the tumult of historical change.

Bremen’s elephant

Near the centre of the northern German city of Bremen is a large elephant made of bricks. This imposing ten-metre high structure — designed by Fritz Behn — was completed in 1931 as a monument to the German colonies which then included Cameroon, Togo, Deutsch-Ostafrika [Tanzania], Deutsch-Südwestafrika [Namibia] and several islands. For decades the “Reichskolonialehrendenkmal” stood as a powerful symbol of German colonial ambition that spanned both the Nazi era and the post-war period of reconstruction: an aesthetic continuity that stands in sharp contrast to the hurried erasure of the DDR.

In 1988, however, a metal sign was created next to the elephant by the youth wing of the Bremen metal workers union in support of the Anti-Apartheid movement. In 1990, with the celebration of Namibian independence from South Africa, the elephant itself was re-dedicated as the “Bremen anti colonial monument” thereby attempting to invert its historical meaning yet retaining the original design. And in 2009 a new monument was created next to the elephant to the victims of German genocide: between 1904 and 1908 over 70,00 of the Ovaherero, Nama and Damara peoples of Namibia were murdered followed by an intensified phase of racial segregation that pre-figured the development of Apartheid in South Africa. In contrast to the elephant the genocide memorial adopts a more abstract design reminiscent of land art or street installations: a horizontal array of simple elements such as rocks and stones in the place of vertical bombast.

This assemblage of memorials and plaques reveals that the German colonial presence in Africa was not a minor element in European history: we now know that many of the perpetrators of early twentieth-century violence in Namibia and elsewhere would go on to play a significant role in Nazi expansionism in Europe. In the place of the Herero were the Slavs and others to the east, where an envisioned settler landscape bore parallels with European sequestration of fertile lands in Africa. What is especially interesting about Bremen’s elephant is that it poses the possibility for changing the meaning of public monuments: it allows remnants of the past to become incorporated into new understandings of history. How many other elephants remain unnoticed or unchallenged in European towns and cities?

The magic of emptiness: reflections on a Berlin corner

Since the summer of 2004 I have got to know a corner of Berlin very well, where the Chausseestrasse, running north-south, meets the quieter Linienstrasse from the east. In 2004 this corner of Berlin, where the district of Mitte, the centre of the former east Berlin, meets “Red Wedding”, the traditional bastion of working-class Berlin and one of the poorest districts of West Berlin, was surrounded on three sides by “empty spaces” where the Berlin Wall had once been. The large plot to the east of the Chausseestrasse had become a vibrant meadow full of birds, butterflies and wild flowers, dominated by brilliant blue patches of Echium vulgare which goes by the extraordinary English name of Viper’s Bugloss (it is also known in German as Snake’s Head or Natternkopf). On the north side of the street a drab municipal park to the south an ecological paradise.

One summer evening I stumbled across an extraordinary moth that I didn’t recognize at all: I carefully took a photo and let it go. It turned out to be Cucullia fraudatrix, an eastern European species at the extreme west of its range in Berlin, that normally flies over dry grasslands. But is not only nature that fascinates me in these places: objects and fragments also become part of this spontaneous landscape where rusting pieces of metal appear perfectly placed as if in an urban sculpture garden.

By 2010, however, these open spaces are in accelerated retreat: to the west of the Chausssstrasse a vast new office block is close to completion that will house the headquarters of the German security services. Next door, in pristine brick, is a new building belonging to the Berlin water works. Two normally hidden infrastructural arms of the state now lie side by side, like shiny mushrooms sprouting from their tangled mass of networks hidden from view. And the urban meadow on the east side of the street, that I had explored over several summers, is now fast disappearing: about one-third has become a petrol station and another third a parking lot.

Returning yesterday I could no longer see the meadow from the street. It is now surrounded by a high wooden fence: a moment of enclosure before its final and inevitable erasure. I took some photos as suspicious drivers entered the petrol station. Somewhat disheartened and trying to keep warm in sub-zero temperatures I crossed the street and noticed a wire fence next to wooden billboards. There was a small gap and I stepped through. A tangled mass of plants reached above head height and the ground was hard with frost. After taking a few paces I realized that this was just an “antechamber” to an extensive ribbon-like void space stretching hundreds of metres where the Wall had once been. It was like entering a series of rooms each more mysterious than the last. A discarded bottle lay among dead leaves and there were some occasional strips of red tape: people have been here.

Of course the word “void” is somewhat misleading: these spaces have become temporarily detached from the urban land market or their ownership remains shrouded in uncertainty. In other cases they are simply held by someone as speculative parcels of land until their value rises or they are vestiges of state disinvestment and the dismantling of the DDR. As this quarter of Berlin becomes more prosperous their presence becomes more anomalous. On re-entering the street there is another billboard I had not noticed before: the site is to be redeveloped into sixty luxury apartments. Computer generated images show faux Wilhelmine façades — the favoured retro look for wealthy newcomers to Berlin — along with modern blocks little different from the latest developments in London, Buenos Aires or elsewhere.

On the other side of the street next to the petrol station is a small memorial to the Berlin Wall: a recent addition I had not noticed before. Some explanatory text in four languages (German, English, French and Russian) is encased in a discoloured plastic stand next to an inconspicuous metal inscription set in the pavement below. On the opposite corner stands a grey six-storey housing block — a typical example of working-class housing dating from the 1950s — where many apartments would have faced the Wall only metres away. This block was once a distant outpost of the island city of West Berlin and it now looks out on a landscape that has again been utterly transformed. The neatly printed names next the entrance are mostly a mix of German and Turkish names and there are battered fly-posters nearby advertising yoga classes and anti-fascist action.

When the DDR collapsed in 1989 there were brief hopes that an alternative and truly democratic German state might emerge but the remnants of East Germany were quickly subsumed within the capitalist behemoth of West Germany. In the hollow imprint of the absent DDR, however, a unique medley of spontaneous landscapes has emerged over the last twenty years that provide a poignant symbol of urban possibilities. They reveal a city within a city that is not stage-managed for greed or consumption but a myriad of quieter spaces awaiting their rediscovery.

The view from my window

I have been thinking a lot about the “view from the window” as a way of looking at landscape. The view from my study in Stoke Newington is in many ways a completely unremarkable London landscape: an expanse of rooftops with jumbles of chimney pots and aerials; a mix of nineteenth-century and more recent buildings in various states of disrepair; and various gardens ranging from bare earth where all living things have been expurgated to rich assemblages of species from all over the world. A fine sycamore tree that once stood in my field of vision has recently been hacked down so I now have an uninterrupted view of heating vents from the back of restaurants in nearby Church Street. In my small garden below my window the now dry teasel heads bob in the breeze and I can imagine that the many frogs sitting in my pond have not yet decided whether it is time to sink down into the mud and sleep until spring.