Quick experimental watercolour foot sketch. 10 mins – blue, red, black and ochre
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.
Why haven’t I been to Bristol!?
I visited Bristol once for an interview at the university. This was years ago when I was still an academic researcher, searching for a highly sought after PhD place just before I had kids. Despite seeing little of the city I liked the feel of the place; it had a nice vibe and the people were friendly. I didn’t get the PhD place so never discovered more and was just left with that brief first impression.
Last year the teen started visiting Bristol. She too fell in love with its hippy vibe, its cool vintage shops, eclectic night life and variety of festival loving people. She fitted right in. I promised myself a return visit to see for myself exactly what it was she had fallen in love with, and as several of my ‘Green Man’ crew friends live there (one of whom just a couple of weeks away from…
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One of my favourite things about this idiosyncratic little Isle we call the UK is the quintessential seaside town. There are few other things which encapsulate so specifically the unique facets of the British psyche into one small microcosmic burst of sublime kitsch consumerism, freezing waters lapping on dirty beaches and cheap, melting ice cream cones (with a flake, of course). It’s fabulous. Tasteful is sometimes lovely; a middle-class cup of Earl Grey on a Victorian garden terrace in Cambridge can be all well and good, but really it has comparatively little soul. Stick me on Margate beach surrounded by gobby kids with parents no less refined, half-blinded by the reflections from the arcade frontages which prove that all which glitters is definitely not gold, and I’m in my element. I can’t help but assume you are all suspecting that I am a typical product of my upbringing in this respect. That I relish these, to some, distasteful scenes with glee because of their centrality to the 1980’s childhood of a working class Southerner. Correct. But it is not only this geographical circumstance of birth which causes me to grin as soon as my internal satnav senses I am within 10 miles of a sugared doughnut shack; British seasides truly are on their own merit singularly enjoyable.
Growing up in Dartford in the 80’s and 90’s, Margate was our closest beach and still a fairly thriving hive of domestic tourism at that point. We would plead with our parents to take us there, as yet uninterested in foreign climes or the lure of saccharine Disney marketing. The swingboats at Margate beach were the highlight of our summer. How tantalisingly simple life was then! As we got older, Dreamland, that disintegrating grandfather of theme parks, became the focus of our pubescent attentions. The lure of its death-defyingly ancient roller-coaster structures stoking the fire of our naive, thrill-seeking bellies. The what we considered subtle experimentation with the mating ritual, (which in hindsight consisted entirely of stalking a group of usually slightly older boys, acting as if we hadn’t noticed them and reaching the end of a whole day having never actually spoken to them) was played out around the grounds of Dreamland like groundhog day. We could get angsty conversational mileage from that kind of near-encounter for days.
Then one fateful day Dreamland surrendered to the inevitable and impending padlock of the health and safety regulators. A thousand teenagers loitered, bereft, with only the arcades for entertainment. But soon these began to wither away too, the effect of the 1960s emergence of cheap package holidays abroad becoming visible on the face of the town. Less families, less fun, less income; more unemployment, more pound shops, more crime. Seaside towns have always been particularly vulnerable to the effects of economic shift; their seasonal nature meaning winter is often as bleak as summer is bright. But there came upon British seafronts in that era a tidal wave of degradation, half-empty swingboats standing then as monuments to a lost age of contentedness.
Margate soon became known to those who hadn’t spent childhood days there as a bit of a dive, its slightly more well-to-do neighbour Ramsgate wringing the mileage out of its nouveau-riche marina facade and characterless wine bars, attempting to emulate the seafront harbours of its continental competitors. Margate stuck to its guns; sun, sea, sand and some truly great fish ‘n’ chips. As with so many other nearby towns it is now only just starting to see some semblance of a recovery. Interestingly, this regeneration is seemingly part of a pattern; a swathe of curious ‘cultural quarters’ beginning to emerge from the wind-battered frontages of these former summer holiday havens. Folkestone, Margate, Dungeness; all have been sprinkled with a relatively recent dusting of artistic and culturally important spectacle. Without further research I can only speculate as to why this might be, but educated guesswork would lead me to suggest the gradual migration of the middle classes from London might have had at least a partial impact. Commuter towns now reach even as far as the southern coast, much as a result of the bordering areas outside London observing a continuing rise in living costs. It’s obvious then (to some councils at least!) that you would try to appeal to the interests and expectations of London commuters; to put in the worthwhile effort and investment which might encourage them to stay in your culture-rich but comparatively affordable and close to home surroundings.
Down at Margate, the most visible and high-profile evidence of this artistic injection is the new Turner Contemporary, all classic Chipperfield wide and light exhibition spaces and orgasmic interspatial elements. But it may not hold this title for long; I hear on the grapevine a most exciting rumour. It seems grandfather time may rewind his clock for Margate and resurrect my childhood pleasure park, Dreamland, like an old but cocksure phoenix ready to swagger back into the consciousness of the town.
Of course the obvious artistic link to Margate is through someone who may well not agree with my sickly-sweet love for it; Mad Tracey from Margate, aka 90’s artworld darling and one of my personal favourites, Tracey Emin, her often biographical works shocking staunch upholders of the British taboo with graphic representations of the gritty side of life in the town during its decline. Or maybe she would? Without her difficult upbringing amidst the area’s grim social scene and degenerate male contingent would she ever have achieved such fame and fortune? Tracey Emin’s wistful recollections of the area in her artworks have greatly influenced how much I enjoy her work. Aside from respecting the brutal honesty of her cathartic subject-matters and refusal to bow to the mummified art establishment, I feel an affinity with her attachment to the town in which I spent countless fun-filled days circa 1989.
It seems almost bizarre to me that I will soon be showing 3 of my own photographs in one of the new art galleries in this town for which I hold such affection. Aside from the encouraging fact that these modern and exciting spaces now exist there at all, it’s interesting that artists from the South-East are coming to Margate to exhibit instead of heading into London and seems to me indicative of a gradual shift in collective focus onto non London-based art. It’s high time we began to look locally at the wealth of unrecognised and underdeveloped artistic talent on our doorstep, not solely in my hometown of Dartford and around Kent but further out and beyond. London art has been done to death, let the artistic era of the provinces commence!
A selection of my photographs will be shown, along with the work of some of my fellow Dartford Arts Network members (Kasia Kat Parker & David Houston), as part of an exhibition primarily featuring the paintings of Tunde Odelade at the Pie Factory Gallery in Margate. The exhibition runs from 8th May – 21st May and is free to visit. For directions and further information see their website and if you’re in the area on 10th May do come in and say hi – I’ll be there milling around from 10am – 6pm.