“The picture they painted of British cities today … was indeed bleak”
I attended a brilliant talk at theBritish Library called “Journeys through Urban Britain”, chaired by Elaine Glaser, featuring Owen Hatherley, Laura Oldfield-Ford, and Owen Jones discussing the politics of our urban landscape. My terrible memory and my note taking on a scrap of paper doesn’t really do justice to the discussion – but I thought it might be worth throwing out some of the points that were made.
Hatherley and Oldfield-Ford both reflected on their wanderings, observations, and experiences of London and further afield, whilst Jones was on hand with statistics and a historical context with which to situate the changes in British cities. The picture they painted of British cities today, which are descriptive of the politics, was indeed bleak as more and more boundaries are erected, public space lost, and people forced out of their areas but there have been moments of hope, especially in the last couple of years. The speakers described the student movements, Occupy, and the ‘euphoria’ of the riots as examples of ways in which cities can be lived in and created differently.
Here are some interesting things that I learnt.
“There are too many people baking cupcakes” said Oldfield-Ford. Cupcakes are the apotheosis of neoliberalism right? They promote individualism with the emphasis on everyone having to have their own tiny, perfect little cake rather than people enjoying slices from a big cake. You just can’t share a cupcake as they are the size of one mouthful. Communal cake eating and enjoyment is destroyed by cupcakes as people become preoccupied with having the daintiest, fanciest cupcake they can get to outdo everyone else’s. They’re also slightly creepy as they seem to hark back to and celebrate women’s incarceration in the kitchen in the 1950s in the name of ‘retro’.
The opening song for the Shard was “fanfare for the common man”.
Owen Jones illustrated the inequality that is built into the Strata tower, in which there are separate lifts for social housing tenants at the bottom of the tower (so they don’t get the good views) and the rest of the tenants, reflects our unequal society.
The drift “an important strategy to see how flows of the city have been re-ordered – to see how we can re-configure the urban space”, said Laura Oldfield-Ford.
According to Owen Hatherley, walking around cities allows you to “see political processes at work…cracks are really obvious in British cities and that’s what my work brings out”. What do the Tories want? “It’s a project of destruction rather than construction”. Coin Street, a community trust housing development, is often held up (by the left?) as an example of how housing could be done, however, Hatherley points out that actually it’s not as pleasant as it seems. They have strict vetting process for who is allowed to enter their ‘community’.
Cities and work
Seeing cities as places other than places of work.
To do this – Owen Hatherley – need free time or a job that allows you to walk around the city.
The relationship between cities and work – ‘cities are giving us messages that we should work all the time, even when you’re relaxing having a coffee in Starbucks there’s a sign saying there is wi-fi’ – Elaine Glaser
Woolwich after the riots – there was a sign up saying ‘back to business’ as if to say “we won’t learn anything” said Owen Hatherley.
What does community mean? Laura Oldfield-Ford: “The broom brigade showed how nasty and vicious the word community can be”.
Unison’s new building on the Euston Road has social housing around the back of it, Hatherley would like to see unions getting more involved in housing.
“I think when Westfield shopping centre is looted and burnt out, it would make a good social centre”, stated Laura Oldfield-Ford.
If these disjointed notes have piqued your interest – I reckon it would be well worth checking out their books (in Laura Oldfield-Ford ‘s talk, she showed us drawings from her book and they were fantastic!) from your local library before the government tries to close it!
Owen Hatherley is the author of the acclaimed ‘Militant Modernism, a defence of the modernist movement’, ‘A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain’, and its follow up ‘A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys through Urban Britain’. He writes regularly on the political aesthetics of architecture, urbanism and popular culture, including Building Design,Frieze, the Guardian and the New Statesman.
Owen Jones is a writer and columnist for the Independent, who’s first book ‘Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class’ became one of the most discussed books of 2011, and has recently been updated to include the aftermath of the English riots.
Laura Oldfield Ford, artist and writer, has become well known for her politically active and poetic engagement with London. Part graphic novel, part artwork, her punk fanzine, now also in a book, ‘Savage Messiah’ records the beauty and anger at the city’s edges.
Elaine Glaser is a BBC producer and the author of Get Real: How to Tell it Like it is in a World of Illusions.
At the British Library, King’s Cross, Euston Road, London, was “Journeys through Urban Britain” on Friday, 13th July 2012.
The Highbury church that made the history of rock.
After few days of working from home and with sunshine weather, I decided to take a walk on New Highbury Park, Islington, London. Here buildings and part of the surrounding area are from the mid- nineteenth century, built in a typical Italianate style.
Strolling around I arrive to St. Augustine church, part of the Anglican Evangelical tradition of the Church of England. Members of the parish mirror the very mixed population of Highbury, counting at least 22 different nationalities. Notably activities include the children school, the Islington Choir, groups for exploring Christianity, praying, fare trading, campaigning against poverty and climate change.
Redevelopment has started so St. Augustine is closed. This particular edifice was built in 1869, in replacement of a temporary church first established in 1864. A parish was assigned to the church in 1871, taken from the ones of Christ Church and Saint Paul’s. The structure was restored in 1982. The church seats around 1,150 people. The building is made of brick with stone dressings, designed by Habershon and Brock in the Decorated style, typical of the Gothic Revival – or Victorian Gothic – architecture, practised in England in the second half of the nineteenth century.
But the most interesting part of the building is the peculiar church hall. Built in 1881, later on it will become a piece of the history of the music, hosting the very famous “Wessex Sound Studios” a recording venue for rock legends. Now, astonishingly, it has been transformed into homes.
In the 1960s, the Thompson family converted the church hall into a recording studio. They named it ‘Wessex’ because their previous recording studio was located in Bournemouth, in the Ancient English county of Wessex.
George Martin, the legendary producer of The Beatles, bought the studios in 1965 and make of it one of the hottest rock place of the history. Wessex lasted for 40 years and in Britain it was second only to Abbey Road studios for equipment and frequentation. In 1975, Chrysalis bought the studios and George Martin became a director of the company.
The list of music personalities who have worked at the Wessex Studios is amazing. Here the Sex Pistols recorded many of their albums, including the revolutionary ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ in 1977. The Clash recorded their celebrated – but never enough – ‘London Calling’ two years later. The Queen used the venue for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. For ‘We will rock you’ The Queen recorded the mighty ‘boom-boom-cha boom-boom-cha’ of the song making the whole staff of the studios jump on the pavement.
Additionally, worked here Rolling Stones, The Pretenders, King Crimson, Marianne Faithfull, XTC, King, Slade, Peter Townshend, Jesus and Mary Chain, John Cougar Mellencamp, Theatre of Hate, Kylie, Talk Talk, Nick Cave, REM, Motorhead, The Moody Blues, Dido, Coldplay, Elvis Costello, Bob Geldof, The Damned, The Stone Roses, The Specials, Enya, Nik Kershaw, Erasure, Judas Priest, Tina Turner, and David Bowie. The list could probably be longer if one just had enough time to make research.
But time passes by and in 2003 the building was sold to Neptune Group and later converted into a residential development. Today the place is known as “The Recording Studio” and it contains eight apartments and a townhouse. The website of the agent declares that The Recording Studio “might not make you a rock star – “but at least you can live like one”. Ironically, for a property here in a rock’ n’ roll location you need to have a lot of cash to meet the expenses.
Wessex Studios were famous for having the newest technologies of which the celebrated mixing desk ‘40 channel SSL 4048E console’ is still alive nowadays and used in a recording studio located in Llangennech, Carmarthenshire, in South Wales.
But this is not all. Another involving site is just nearby few steps further on. At the 124 Highbury Park, it is possible to find the house of David Gestetner, an Hungarian scientists who was the inventor of the Gestetner stencil duplicator, the first piece of office equipment that allowed production of numerous copies of documents quickly and inexpensively. Or better to say the ancestor of the photocopy machine. On 15th March 2011, Gestetner received a Blue Plaque on his home at 124 Highbury New Park.
Well, it is strange to go for a relaxing walk and find out the history of music, together with the one of the office equipment. Though it is now past, it’s always worth to amble and then go back home searching for the amazing history of this place on the internet.