It’s so easy to lose track of yourself. To find yourself morphing into a different type of person with whom you have little in common. Someone who doesn’t look – who doesn’t see the beautiful shapes in a ripped piece of wallpaper, or notice the startling effect of light and shadow cast on a busy pavement. You can very quickly become part of the melee who walk over them, heavy footsteps smashing the composition blindly. But that’s part of what I love about myself. Part of what makes me proud to be me. I notice these things. I find them more beautiful and interesting than most artworks in a gallery. The beauty of man-made nature. The stuff which is so natural to us it may as well be placed in the same category as trees and plants; concrete, tarmac, trains, windows, pavements and doors, shopfront reflections, burnt edges, peeling paint. They’re everywhere. The fact that others don’t notice them gives me a little rush, it makes me feel as if I’ve been treated to a personal glimpse of something. Like the children in the Narnia stories who see the portal to the other world, while others around them see nothing but a wall. My experience isn’t that dramatic of course but it has that same special feeling. It brings me joy. Sometimes I can stand at the edge of the tube platform and see so much beauty and art in form and shape that it makes my heart full. The other side of this coin is when I don’t see it. When my heart is sad and my eyes are down. When I look at the wall and see only degradation and the need for a paint job. I’ve been feeling like that recently and stopped seeing the beauty. But today I saw it again and it’s as stunning as ever.
Ok it’s been a while since I last shared my musings with you. A long while. Cue tearful streams of apology and remorse etc. Actually, no, none of that. It’s true I wish I’d managed to write sooner, I have missed it. But I’m sure you’ll forgive me when you hear my reason; for I am with sprog. Yes indeed, I can almost no longer see my feet and am starting to have major panics about pathetically inane things such as storage boxes. So when the opportunity came up to go on one final travelling adventure before it all kicks right off, it took me about hmm, a sip of decaf coffee to decide.
Our annual architect’s office outing is usually an atypical field trip combination of concentrated architectural appreciation and Christmas party debauchery. This year turned out a bit more restrained than usual (nothing to do with me being sober, I’m sure). The destination was Nantes, West France, about 2 hours outside of Paris and as it turned out, a very pleasant city with a good vibe. We arrived into Nantes station a tad frazzled around the edges, after relying pretty much solely on a hand fan for air on the Paris – Nantes connection. At least it wasn’t raining. No, it was actually around 26c, the fact that we’d travelled slightly southwards into France as well as West suddenly making itself blindingly apparent. After a brief wash and brush up, we headed across the beautiful Loire river toward our first appointment; the Ecole d’architecture (school of architecture) by Lacaton & Vassal. An impressive building built on a laudable concept, it has but few flaws, although these flaws do surround some fundamentals such as sufficient winter heating. But hey, the upsides outweigh all that, especially if you’re a visitor and not a student shivering in a parka in mid-Jan. The original design opportunity was put out to competition, an approach which has many negative aspects for designers (not least the generally outrageous amount of work required for free) but also has the potential to shoot a practice into the limelight and often results in a standout design for the client as competitors wring every last creative drop from their architects in order to stand out from the crowd. Lacaton & Vassal clearly did just that, submitting a response to the brief which fulfilled the criteria in 600m2 less area than allowed, leaving significant spaces free for them to propose the solution which makes this clever building what it is; an ambiguous play between public/private, inside/outside. The frame consists of a concrete shell held up by 10m spaced columns. Inserted into this is the steel inner, a simple construction technique allowing the building to be inherently adaptable to meet its requirements which may well change throughout its life; for example, new floors can be slotted in to create extra teaching space or more studios. In the meantime, the ‘spare’ floor area serves an important function, crafting external, public space which can be open to the street or closed off, using polycarbonate moveable walls on every level which unwrap the building and when open provide (on a summer’s day) what feels like exceptional outdoor workspaces, many with fabulous views across the river. The staff are clearly delighted with the results, judging by the impassioned tour given by the school’s comms manager. On the walk back, general agreement was shared about an innovative design with its heart in entirely the right place (despite a few technical hiccups); good design doesn’t always need the ‘frilly bits’, and giving a building the ‘wow’ factor often diverts essential budget from the basic premise of creating enlivening spaces.
As the sun set, we topped our day off with a lift to the top of the Tour Bretagne, a 37 storey office skyscraper with a bar and observation deck at the top. The tower has been unpopular with locals due to it’s seeming blight on the traditional city landscape, kept generally low by the French building control system which is set by province and almost impossible to get around. It does, however, allow stunning views across the city, of which we managed to get a glimpse on Friday evening.
Day 2 began with my first ever blissfully hangover-free second morning on an office trip. Last time involved a necessary 10am vodka red bull to coax me back from the land of the dead (don’t ask), but this time I was up bright and early and ready to make the most of the hotel breakfasts I usually drunkenly snore through.
Ever heard of Les Machine? Or remember a huge mechanical elephant roaming the streets of London a few years ago? If not, get your Google on and check them out. Les machines are a collective of mechanics, engineers and artists who create fantastical creatures and structures from disused pieces of wood and metal. But far from tickling the aesthetic spot alone (although they are stunning), their creations move, make noise, carry passengers and in the case of the elephant, soak people like me with water, mid-selfie. Their technical ability and creative genius combines in a glorious perfect storm to produce pieces swathed in 19th century circus ambience; a productive and proactive use of the modern Steampunk style which amazes children and adults alike; genuine cross-generational entertainment through design. In one word, fabulous.
Aside from a quick lunch and the return wander to the station, thus ended our visit to the city of Nantes, a simulating, vibrant, and beautiful city which I wholly recommend you visit. We did stop at Paris on the way back, which although gorgeous and gay as expected, has somehow lost its mystery and so that glorious sense of secret discovery which comes from an unexpected find. There’s undoubtedly so much I didn’t see in two short days, and things at which I only managed to snatch glances as we passed whilst on our way to somewhere else. Another visit to Nantes calls I think, next time with baby in tow!
The animals. That’s how they spot me, the locals I mean. Stroking a feral cat which I am fully aware could riddle me with rabies in a blurred second of diseased saliva on teeth tips; they know I’m English and spot me a mile off, how could they not? But their sad, neglected little faces (the animals, I mean). Their mangy forms hobbling along towards an inadequate patch of ground shaded from the burning sun. It is a familiar and enduring sight of the which I will I never get used to seeing in other countries. But despite my very British show of pet empathy, on my first trip to the Greek ‘Athens Riviera’ in June of this year the fate of these multitudinous weary strays managed to distract me only momentarily from those extraordinary Athenian ruins of classical antiquity which tower over the city, abiding endlessly as lives begin, are lived and end all around them.
The Acropolis remains are overwhelmingly huge, dominating the city skyline in a way that I felt was more powerful than seeing them at close range. In some cases the sculpture is powerfully enigmatic, the guarding Caryatids evoking in me a childhood memory from the Neverending Story of those two stone oracles, their power and character fascinating me then at six as these beautiful, frightening forms do now at thirty. I inherited an interest in history from my mother, although my thirst for knowledge does not extend to the same reaches nor inhabit the same form as her – ie. sitting up late at night head buried in 3000 page epic overviews of Russian revolutions. My own curiosity takes far more of an immediate form; suffice it to say lengthy summaries of fact spattered with anomalous pellets of prose do not engage me for long, but I would still consider myself a history fan, shall we say. I chose my holidays mostly according to whether there are sites to visit nearby. I sketch the ruins and read the leaflets. So why do I always find myself questioning our obsession with preservation?
I suppose I’m playing devil’s advocate to an extent, but do find it disturbing how we actively remove significant objects and artefacts from the public reach, particularly those which were created with the proletariat in mind. It embodies the modern edict of look, but don’t touch. It’s a relatively new phenomenon (in the scale of the lives of these buildings) and one whose aspects I do understand in principle; vast increases in visitor numbers and so the inevitability of damage, the fact that to save these artifacts we have to stop direct visitor engagement at some point so why not now, the advances in technology meaning we can now see in more clarity the damage being inflicted etc. Ergo, we have to preserve these artefacts for the future. But do we? Is modern society a bit over obsessed with preservation and conservation, to the point at which we have almost become hoarders on a mass ideological scale?
Ironically of course our consumer culture evidences quite the opposite, most of us are hesitantly complicit in the growth of plastic mountains and new landfill land masses. On the whole we generally attribute little value to objects. Not in the case of historical value though, this attribution transforming something from disposable to preservable. Uniqueness is often the main factor, or its rarity, but our desperation to ensure that the originals of these objects are not lost have led us to sometimes devalue them through corrupting their original public purpose and right to be used. Walking around the Acropolis was a perfect example of this; barred at every corner from experiencing the structures as they were meant to be experienced, I admit I felt cheated. Public structures built as open areas for the people, for the masses to participate in community gathering, now reduced to purely an externally aesthetic pursuit for all except a privileged few specialists. This restriction tarnishes it, sullies the beauty and purity of the architecture and essentially just isn’t fair. But far from this behaviour being unique to what is now ancient construction, we regularly apply it to new, modern creations. ‘Do not touch’ goes without saying in virtually every instance. In artistic terms it does in fact now seem to psychologically add value to something. To be told we can touch instinctively means so can everyone else and the thing is reduced to consumable as opposed to preservable.
I freely admit I do not have an opposing solution to the issues of why we do preserve and am here merely provoking consideration of a concept we all take very much for granted. You could indeed say that if we gave free reign access to works of art or historical artefacts they would be smashed and graffiti covered, but consider that many have been standing there for over 2000 years, significantly damaged primarily due to brutal wars and not local hoodlums, with do not touch rules only being implemented in the last 50 or so. Speculate on why we feel we need to preserve them in their perfected original form at all. Does not time decay and weather all things? With modern technology we persist in working against natural evolution, to stultify it and challenge its process of degeneration. In this case, to what end? Our ability to further our knowledge through them is limited and can be recorded with a variety of techniques, so why not allow the structures to become communal, as a vast amount of them were intended to be? Laying them open to potential damage is a worrying prospect, but to leave them as they are, alien and untouchable, may be even worse. Perhaps it’s time to allow the public to experience the key to why these structures are so amazing and despite what the brochures may want you to think, the answer isn’t in the gift shop.
When Cameron unveiled his Big Society idea in 2010 I thought it at best a vacuous PR stunt; an extension of the Putin-style photos of ‘friendly Dave in shorts cycling to work because he cares about the environment’. I’m only now beginning to grasp how much I underestimated the Machiavellian skills of the top tier and to see how this cleverly cynical ideology of free labour painted as community spirit is starting to permeate the consciousness of British society.
Spurred by a recent arts project part-funded by my local council, a movement has begun to grow in my declining home town. Dartford Arts Network, a dynamic creative forum for people wanting to get involved in local art projects, is now beginning to take off independently, a community reaction to the ‘cultural desert’ status of the town. Although the catalyst for the creation of this group, that piece of funding was the first nod to the arts I’ve seen bestowed by our council for a very long time, if ever. Let’s not forget that thanks to recent government policy hundreds of towns who were committed to the arts have found their essential funding budgets indiscriminately slashed; the arts predictably facing the chop first and considered dispensable, inconsequential, despite the fact that study upon study has shown engagement with the arts to be quantifiably beneficial to the wellbeing of both the individual and the community as a whole. An active attack from government in relation to arts and community has repeatedly stirred people across the country to take matters into their own hands; street parties, community events; art exhibitions. The ‘blitz spirit!’ the Daily Mail would cry, ‘we’re all in it together!’ But this sweetly served dose of fantasy leaves behind a decidedly unpalatable aftertaste.
There are tell-tale signs that the Big Society spoon-feeding is hitting the spot; in people’s comments stating that we don’t really need the council for this or that anymore as we can just do it ourselves, in the simpering and transparent mandate from above ‘Oh, but you do it so much better than we would’, in Poundland back to work schemes and Free Schools. Through a cleverly constructed confusion between community contribution and free labour, the proletariat are in danger of buying into the idea that it is up to us, not the state, to facilitate these aspects of our lives. As Unison said in 2010 “The government is simply washing its hands of providing decent public services and using volunteers as a cut-price alternative.”
It’s crucial that we as a community, as a country, insist on more. Not token gestures, but a sustained policy for the funding and promotion of the arts in the future remit of both the government and each local council. We cannot, and should not, do it all on our own. Communities must use these local arts initiatives to focus budget-makers on the impact it has on the high street and to evidence how they should be an influential part of town planning. Instead of endless private flats or more generic chain store retail, why not encourage independent designers and incorporate creative spaces? The arts are not a luxury for the rich or a pastime for the middle-class, but a rightful resource for all and integral to the very fabric of our daily life. Along with the rest of our valuable public services, fight for them before they disappear for good and whatever you do, don’t allow the bigwigs to pass the buck.