Tag Archive | Public Space

Narrative building blocks

Students of architecture and urban planning know all about “reading” buildings – how their design and utility are matters not just of bricks and mortar but of time, space, place and communities. For me, not being schooled in those theories, buildings are anyway a source of fascination. I love to take pictures of whatever notable architecture I stumble across, finding it as interesting to photograph as people. Looking through a lens, you get a sense of what a structure represents at the same time as you interpret it subjectively. A combination of physical, elemental, and human properties affect how a building and its surrounding spaces are created, adapted, imagined, and used; these embed it within real and fictional narratives, which metamorphosise and mutate over time.

Carefully composed – but mutable

There are countless examples in literature of buildings given a (usually symbolic) life of their own – Miss Havisham’s Satis House, Kafka’s Schloß, Henry James’s “Bly”, and (a personal favourite) Castle Dracula, to name a few. Certainly the deeper characters of buildings are most obvious in Gothic literature and in ghost stories, murder mysteries and historical novels, where the locations, often dripping with mediaevalism, are full of trapdoors, tunnels, mirrors, secret passages and crypts: clear metaphors for human behaviours, psychologies, and the mystical. In 1987, Will Eisner, author and illustrator of the first graphic novel, published “The Building”. Evocative black pen and ink drawings accompany a story about the life of a building in New York city, interwoven with the ghostly tales of 4 of its diverse inhabitants. In its foreword he writes:

After many years of living in a big city, one gradually develops a sense of wonder, because so much that happens there is unexplained and seems magical. When I was growing up in the turbulence of city life, it required only a surface alertness in order to deal with the welter of changes and experiences that sped by. There was little time to reflect on the rapid replacement of people and buildings. I took these things for granted. As I grew older and I accumulated memories, I came to feel more keenly about the disappearance of people and landmarks…I felt that, somehow, they had a kind of soul. I know now that these structures, barnacled with laughter and stained by tears, are more than lifeless edifices. It cannot be that having been part of life, they did not somehow absorb the radiation from human interaction. And I wonder what is left behind when a building is torn down.

In The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories , Edward Hollis details the histories of buildings that range from the Notre Dame de Paris and the Berlin Wall to Manchester’s very own Hulme Crescents (where apparently, “the prophecies of the future are fulfilled”). Sadly I can’t check out their London-inspired curves – the crescents, shoddily built, leaky, rife with cockroaches, mice, and crime were torn down in 1992, just 20 years after completion.

The wind blows through and weeds grow all around…

You might go down into the depths of a beautiful Roman Catholic or Norman Cathedral and be provided with reams of information about former inhabitants; in these spaces, the sense of history and meaning is palpable. But what about the more modest or easily overlooked spaces that fill so much of our environment, used and then forgotten? Everything we build or leave behind is full of stories and unknown memories.Wandering through the Old Quadrangle at Manchester University I was impressed with the buildings. Back home, I decided to photograph the little hut that sits in the over-grown back-garden. Probably nothing particularly interesting has ever happened in there; but for some reason its presence is one that I like, as I look out my bedroom window.

Parts of a Vision

A quick word while there is still time to see it about the fantastic House of Annie Lennox exhibition now on at the Lowry. On loan from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, exhibits include a wall full of gold and silver discs awarded to Annie both for her work with the Eurythmics and her solo releases; a variety of costumes she has worn over the years; beautiful and striking pictures that show how she works with photographers and costume designers to create a playfully bold array of “characters” or personas; and recordings of her never officially released “Butterfly Music” (instrumental), which you can listen to through headphones as you peer into little glass cases containing a selection of personal artefacts. There is also a room where you can sit and enjoy her typically unique music videos, and information about the AIDS-awareness campaigns she has supported ever since hearing Nelson Mandela speak to the press on Robben Island.

The entrance to Annie’s temporary Manchester “house”

Although Annie – one of Scotland and the world’s most successful and respected musicians – did perform at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert (just Google it if you didn’t hear about the Jubilee), going around the gallery was for me a welcome relief from the seemingly exponential growth of Union Jacks and fawning newspaper front pages about England’s beloved Monarch. Still, the BBC made sure that we couldn’t forget about her, with rolling footage displayed on a giant outdoor screen that stands proudly in the centre of what they call their “public realm” at Salford Quays.

The Queen watches over us all…

Another exhibition on at the Lowry right now is about the man after whom it is named – L.S. Lowry, famous for his “unromantic” and to many critics “amateurish” pictures of industrial Northern scenes, painted between the late 1920s and 1960s. Of course, the Lowry always show something from their permanent collection of his work, but the themes change every so often. This time the focus is on his paintings of figures – both depictions of the “unfortunate” and poor characters who could be glimpsed in areas of Lancashire and Salford at a time when government didn’t offer very much to people struggling to make ends meet, and of important figures in his life such as the mysterious “Ann” (real or fictitious? Nobody can be sure). Lowry is often associated with a certain stark realism, or with an ethic of social reform. Yet he himself said:

“I wanted to paint myself into what absorbed me […] Natural figures would have broken the spell of it, so I made my figures half unreal. Some critics have said that I turned my figures into puppets, as if my aim were to hint at the hard economic necessities that drove them. To say the truth, I was not thinking very much about the people. I did not care for them in the way a social reformer does. They are part of a private beauty that haunted me. I loved them and the houses in the same way: as part of a vision.”

I can’t help but imagine that the Queen and her family must look down from their balcony and also see a mass of half unreal figures. Parts of a vision that centres on their own sense of self-worth and family history rather than on the lives of the people themselves; and somehow when Annie Lennox speaks about her commitment to “good causes” I find it far more compelling than when Kate Middleton does.

Simple Sets and Shifting Sands

The number of concepts, terms, and associations that are relevant to my PhD research is vast. Sketching and diagramming can provide an excellent way to explore the logic of a project. Thinking about how best to present ideas and describe relationships can be very useful at the early stages of the process – long before you start analysing and making sense of your original, empirical data. With that in mind, I thought I would have fun creating a simple Venn diagram to illustrate the present state of our public, private and semi-private spheres. Well, one possible version of them anyway! For this one, I decided to mess about with the very handy graphics software at Creately.com. Please click to see it in all its roughly sketched glory! Because this blog isn’t self-hosted I can’t embed their nifty viewer, sadly.

This Venn is only tangentially related to my thesis. I hope to create various maps and models 3 years from now that will illustrate and explore the intersections between New Media, Academia, and Participatory Theories. What I have confirmed (to myself anyway) – by comparing this one to older work on the same topic – is that the nature of our public/private worlds have changed a lot in recent decades; not least as a result of new media, new technologies, and new types of political, social, and commercial activity.

Jürgen Habermas presented his ever popular (but sometimes contested) understanding of the Bourgeois 18th century public sphere with “The usual reservations concerning the simplification involved in such illustrations”. Very wise!

So this is Christmas…

…and while, sadly, War still isn’t over, at least I can report that the atmosphere at Manchester’s wonderful Christmas Markets, which opened this week, is one of peace, happiness, and genuine “good cheer”. Lots of food from around Western Europe; many flavours of delicious mulled wine; artisan glassware; sweets; wooden decorations; and tonight (for one night only) a fabulous vintage clothing and accessories fair, hosted in Manchester’s Town Hall.

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These markets are fantastic because without any pretension and without any slick PR campaign trying to guide people’s perceptions they draw a diverse crowd of people to enjoy an unusual and value-for-money combination of “commerce” (though somehow it doesn’t feel like it) and socialising in a makeshift market community.