Museum Without Walls

By Jonathan Meades

Jonathan Meades on places and the people that make them

Place - on no matter what scale - is one thing. Creation of place is quite another. That creation is accretive and continuous, it occurs across time.

It is liable to owe as much to serendipitous juxtapositions and, on the other hand, to malign interventions as it is to wilful design.

Again, the interests of those who use place - that’s every one of us - are not necessarily coincident with the interests of those who initially make place, those who set out the armature - upon which subsequent generations will impaste layers determined by utility, by successive technologies, by economic fluctuations, and by fashion. Never underestimate the power of fashion, of collective taste.

It is today fashionable to tear down 1960s buildings, the good as well as the mediocre, just as in the 60s themselves it was fashionable to tear down Victorian buildings - whose loss we now rue. The layers which survive the attentions of the demolition community will be amended by yet further generations or stripped away and then replaced.

Every place we ever make carries the germ of its future archaeological dissection. That is an inevitability. So making places or buildings which are provisional, which shout about the possibility of flexibility, which proclaim their willingness to incorporate change is redundant - and a sort of prospective vanity. They will change whether those initial makers like it or not, whether they make allowance for change or not.

There are also future wars, imponderable climatic shifts and unforeseeable accidents to take into account. Place can only be made for the present and even then the reaction of the user, the spectator, can confound or disappoint the maker’s expectations.
The only sort of place which allows the maker the satisfaction of knowing that it will mean what it is intended to mean is that which is pedagogic, a mental cage: the religious structure - which includes the arenas of totalitarian regimes and immense monuments that living gods erect to themselves. And these of course, after their thankfully brief period of utility, will be sacked, burnt, destroyed or employed by a contrary programme of mumbo jumbo - mosques become churches, churches become mosques, the Third Reich’s congress hall in Nuremberg became a pound for wrecked, stolen cars – strength through joyriding.

This user - a word that makes place sound like a drug, and so it is - suffers a discomfiting sensation otherwise unknown to him when he surveys Le Grand Bleu, the law courts in Bordeaux, the Millau viaduct - a swelling of base national pride which is otherwise alien or at least buried. This is obviously not what the Lords Rogers and Foster and plain Mister Alsop intended when they made these structures - which happened, through their sheer potency, to have made places. This, I assure you, was not what I intended either.
I was shocked by the way that my inner aesthete was subjugated by my inner lout who presumably wants to put HP Sauce on cassoulet, wrap himself in the flag of St George and bellow about Ingerlandland. It merely goes to show that place is never pure, never simple, never predictable even when place is new and yet unamended. Our compact with place is corrupted even before we set eyes on it.

It was always corrupted by expectation and anticipation, by the tales of men back from sea, by the promise of towers that reached to the clouds and the big rock candy mountain. It was increasingly corrupted by the democratisation of reproduction. Steel prints, oleographs, stevengraphs, photographs. By the democratisation of print and mass literacy.
Place is today invariably popularly mediated, the distant is familiar. There is nowhere in the world we can go without having experienced an ocular clue to it. And an aural clue: we have heard the language and the music. And a gustatory, olfactory clue: we have tasted the food, we have sniffed it - in Headingley or Redlands, Haringey or Sparkbrook. Well... a version of the food.

Today we all arrive, semi-prepared by the virtual and with unprecedentedly greedy access to the actual. This may not be the fate of our grandchildren.

We are very likely living in an era when the world has achieved maximum shrinkage, is smaller than it be for a long time to come.

The vanguards of the consequent insularity are already apparent, already domestically prescient: we are conscious of the depredations occasioned by promiscuous air travel and car travel; we know that much of the world which we still have the means to reach within hours comprises no-go states. We are not going to be getaway people forever. Escape may not be an option.
We are consequently rediscovering our back yard, we are beginning to cherish it, if only in faute de mieuxish way. The signs are there. They may be tiny but they are telling. The allotment movement is thriving. The English seaside resort is at last being seen as having the potential to be something other than linear trash. There is a now almost conventionalised literature of inward travel, of sentient response to the immediately local, rather fancifully styled psychogeography, which uncovers the latent exoticism of the everyday and the overlooked. This literature does what all literature does but without the encumbrances of plot and character. It invests place with mythology, with symbolism, with a kind of magic.

Its preferred, almost invariable subjects are edgelands where underfed horses freeze between interchanges and reservoirs, sewage outfalls, trails of rusty dereliction: but in its treatment of them it is within an ancient tradition of response to place, of reverence for place as the measure of our short life, and the trigger of nostalgia. Just as the pastoral poets of the 18th and early 19th centuries were nostalgic - for a wilder land not yet taken over by agriculture, not yet enclosed by the hedges that were perceived as industrial intruders. The London Dickens wrote of was a fantastical London of his childhood. Hardy’s Dorset was an invention based as much on local newspaper stories from before he was born as on his extreme sensitivity to the places around him once he had moved back there, to the house he designed: thank god that he designed nothing else.

I have to admit to a fondness for pitted former rolling stock dumped in fields and for abandoned filling stations. But man cannot live by oxidisation alone. It’s not a question of either atmospheric scrappiness or gleaming newbuild. It’s a question of both / and. It’s a question of the quality of the atmospheric scrappiness, the quality of the newbuild. Any place is better than the place which invites no response, which breeds indifference. The greatest offence in the creation of place is to attempt to avoid giving offence.

Without doubt the loudest, most widespread sign of our revived localism, our revived sensibility to place, is the manifestation of an appetite for that place called the inner city - which can be extended to include the inner town. And it is inevitable that our now-pristine inner cities of Corten – which is rebranded rust – of glass, of pigmented concrete, of buildings shaped like pyrites and of bars serving climatically appropriate Mediterranean food will in their turn become the subjects of nostalgic reverie and satirical derision.

It goes without saying that the 20th century in Britain and in North America - though not really in Scotland and certainly not in much of Europe - was the century of suburbia. The history of 20th century urbanism in this country is largely a history of a resistance to urbanism. And that resistance has not yet abated. We are constantly enjoined to believe that the future is sprawl and that we should, if not welcome it, then just lie back and accede to it.
That, very likely, is an old fashioned future. It is of course a projection of the present. There exists a tendency to move beyond the resigned acceptance of sprawl as an unavoidable fact of life towards, first, passive toleration - and thence to a celebratory sanctioning of it.

Now, I’m all for perversity. But this is above and beyond. It’s an alarmingly irresponsible route to pursue. The application of libertarian laissez-faire to the construction of new places or the alteration of old ones is grotesquely short-term. We should not believe in the sanctity of the free market when that market affects place. To do so is to legitimise a return to the deregulation of the 1930s and ribbon development, to an era before town and country planning legislation, before the establishment of the currently threatened greenbelt.

It is not cooling towers and wind turbines that desecrate this country’s landscape but pseudo-Victorian hutches and neo-vernacular closes stranded in infrastructural limbo. It may be ideologically attractive to a certain caste of mind to grant licence to a volume builders’ free-for-all but it will cause environmental mayhem of the most insipid kind. It guarantees a contaminated future. The lesson of the 20th century is surely very simple: it is - not to follow its example. But, rather, to consider the legacy of place that we bequeath.

The buildings, the streets, the squares, which can do no more than provide the mere armature of place, are not consumer goods. Yet the most cursory scrutiny of this country’s constructional practice suggests that they are in certain quarters regarded thus. The most cursory scrutiny of the magazines which reflect and flatter and special-plead on behalf of the professions and trades involved in construction suggests the same. My scrutiny of both happens to be far from cursory. Here’s a list of places: Beverley, Bilbao, Chatham, Christchurch, Hornsey, Hull, Leeds, Letchworth, Liverpool, Manchester, Paris, Salisbury, Sherborne, Southwark, Spurn Head, Stowe, Le Vesinet, Winchester.

This is a very partial list of where I have filmed this year in the hope of making sense - however oblique, however notional - of what makes place, how place make us, why place makers make or made the places they do, or did. It would be rash, not to say impertinent, to extract generalities from this topographical overload. But it would be a professional dereliction were I not to. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

When I talk about the elemental components of place being regarded as consumer goods what I intend to convey is a truism - obvious to everyone here but perhaps not so obvious to what was once described to me, with no irony, as the lay public - the truism that construction is an industry which is compelled to produce - not for the needs of clients, not for the needs of different gamuts of society, not for the needs of place, but to ensure its own survival. Construction is undertaken for the sake of construction, for self interest. The industry’s duty to itself – if duty is not too dignifying a word - is to keep manufacturing. There has to be a constant flow of product. And that product is qualitatively different to any other on earth. It demands space.

Space – space, anyway, in a small, overpopulated country - is evidently a finite resource. Yet there is a reluctance to recognise it as such. We acknowledge that fish and oil are running out but we continue blithely to exhaust the supply of space with piratical abandon.
And that abandon persistently results in unter-place, low grade place. Arriving in London from virtually anywhere in the developed world one is struck of course by the meanness and the grimness of the endless burbs - but also by the sheer profligacy of land-use. Overpopulation ought to occasion high density development. But that is far from the case. Britain’s lack of communality is surely linked to its wasteful tradition of low density, to its craving for horizontal spread, to the fact that each one of us requires a broader cordon sanitaire around us than the people of other European nations. We are much more sensitive than anyone to the infringement of our personal space in public places. The way we cringe and have the word sorry perpetually on our lips are expressions of the desire for separateness, of the desire to possess space rather than to share it.

Product – that’s to say built structures – is also quantitatively different. It cannot enjoy the diminution in size which afflicts many manufactured goods from cars to computers, because humans are not shrinking in size. Further there are ever more of us. The demands on space and the necessity for controlled husbandry of it increase in direct proportion to our numbers. And such control will not be exercised so long as the government’s advisory quangos are composed of members with a pecuniary interest in construction, so long as the executive of the day listens to well meaning volume builders whose responsibility is to their shareholders, creditors and, maybe, their employees. It’s hardly a case of the lunatics taking over the asylum - but quis custodiet and all that. I appreciate that I sound way behind the times. There no longer exists such a thing as a volume builder, anymore than there exists such a thing as comprehensive redevelopment. Today every volume builder is an urban regenerator - and that cleft discernible above the lowslung waistband of a pair of jeans is urban regenerator’s bum. We have rebranded. A new logo, a new name: Thames Gateway becomes Thames Parkway...this is the greatest of our national talents, the one we’re world leader in. PR, spin, the peddling of willingly accepted delusion. The Ingerlandland-is-going-to-win-the World Cup-syndrome is like a virus afflicting every area of our life.

We should not however allow the wall of delusion and hype to obscure what is actually being beneficially achieved - achieved for those not in the business of making place, that is. Nor to obscure the probable ramifications of those achievements. The urban regeneration or comprehensive redevelopment that we are witnessing today is the successor to the piecemeal, adhoc process that began in earnest thirty or more years ago, predominantly in London, with the reclamation of certain inner city slums by the young and arty bourgeoisie – the process that would be widely calumnised as gentrification. Why was it calumnised? Liberal self-hatred? Envy? It was the seed of an urban renaissance. It was both economically rooted - the house price differential was then skewed in the other direction – and culturally reactive to the magnet of the burbs that had lured immediately previous generations.

What we are witnessing today is the second stage of that reclamation - gentrification through newbuild. Often visually impressive if somewhat homogenised newbuild: synthetic modernism or neo modernism or pastiche modernism or populist modernism or accessible modernism. Whatever you like to call it’s clear that there is a widespread taste for it. Especially among the affluent young - perhaps because they know nothing else. Private sector domestic building is achieving the level of quality that only the best public schemes achieved in the thirty years after the Second World War. And it will fare better because the self interest of owner occupiers is more entrenched than that of tenants. This is a way of suggesting that fate of place depends upon who uses and occupies place.

We’re deluding ourselves – again - if we pretend that income and the wherewithal to buy is not as much a determinant of place as the recipes that social engineering once proffered. A proprietorial ethos counts for as much as pedestrianisation, street furniture, lumps of sculpture, clever arborealism etcetera. That etcetera includes the services - shops, restaurants and so on which belong to the soufflé economy on which the oven door will one day be opened, the not very far-off day when foreclosure becomes a norm.

When we look at, say, the centre of Leeds or innermost Manchester – and here we have to acknowledge the part played by such promoters of regeneration as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness – we see another future - the future of English urbanism. A future which is both exhilarating and profoundly disturbing. It is a future which has mercifully shunned sprawl. Those cities and the other great formerly industrial cities, the virtual city-states of the north and midlands, are now competing with each other as they did in the mid to late 19th century, the era of mighty civic buildings and municipal pomp. Today it is not a question of who has the grandest town hall - it was always Leeds - but of who builds highest, who has the flashiest landmark, who has the most bridges by Calatrava or someone plagiarising Calatrava.

Those landmarks have certainly worked their magic: it is directly due to them that there are today no more drive-by shootings in Hulme, no more crackdens in Moss Side, no more bomb factories in Beeston. What we are actually witnessing is an abandonment of the North American model and an espousal of the French model. The embourgeoisement of the inner city combined with a dereliction in the matter of building social housing to replace that which was so carelessly sold off is effecting an economically enforced demographic shift. Social polarities are not going to disappear. The sites of income-defined ghettos are merely being exchanged. They’re swapping with each other. A new hierarchy of place is being created. The haves move inwards. The have-nots move, or are forced, outwards. There is a significant population who cannot afford the affordable. Privilege is centripetal. Want is centrifugal. It can be summed up like this – in the future, deprivation, crime and riots will be comfortably confined to outside the ring road.

That is the pessimistic, dystopian, despairing prospectus. It need not be the only one.

It is no coincidence that the urbanism that is most widely revered is that of the 18th and early 19th centuries when there existed an explicit enlightenment belief that place could promote happiness, a belief we have lost. The means by which such an ethos can begin to be regained are not complicated - but they are not vouchsafed either to place makers or to users. They demand governmental will. A will to create a new framework. A will - such as exists in Spain - to positively discriminate against chainstores: they are forbidden to open for as many hours as small retailers who are not subjected to the same rate burden as the behemoths.

The refurbishment of the Brunswick Centre in Bloomsbury is exemplary -architecturally exemplary. Urbanistically it is a disappointment because the quirky shops and galleries have been replaced by the same chains that we see everywhere else on this country’s corporately inhabited high streets.

It is possible to legislate for quality of life and for equitable prosperity. Four fifths of inward investment to Britain is to the southeast. The reason is simple. Our third world transport scares off the desire to invest elsewhere. Accessibility is a trigger of renewal: look at Marseille. We missed out on TGV: we are thus in a position to leapfrog a generation of technology and go straight to Maglev which would put Manchester within 20 minutes of Birmingham. Birmingham within half an hour of London: such a rebalancing would take the heat off the southeast. This of course sounds like infrastructural utopianism. At a micro-level just widening a pavement - and this country’s are notoriously narrow - is a device for returning civility to cities.

A notable proportion of the contenders for awards are places which owe their specialness to the very fact that they are controlled. They are, all of them, atypical. But what is atypical in one era can, if we learn from it, if we seek to emulate it, become typical in the next.

You know, tiny stream burgeons to become great river.

© Jonathan Meades, 2006

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