Tuesday, September 21, 2010

the urban picturesque

(Image; Allotment holders on Clapham Common, 1940. Via)

Our cities are growing. Growing, that is, in the horticultural sense. Recent years have seen a minor infestation of urban gardens and inner city allotments, typified by MUF's recently opened Dalston Barn (formerly Dalston Mill) and Union Street Urban Orchard on London's South Bank. What both these projects have in common, along with a certain ad-hoc, DIY charm, is a desire to invert urban/rural distinctions and bring aspects of the countryside into the city.

The gently anarchic quality of both - along with the concept of urban farming and guerrilla gardening generally - represents a curious fusion of contemporary concerns with deliberately rustic and antiquated imagery. An understandable suspicion of global agribusiness and a desire to find more sustainable methods of food production has manifested itself in re-enactments of street parties, village fetes and rural festivals.

Over the past few years there has been a general revival in the imagery of the 1940’s and '50’s. Cup cakes, coloured bunting and coal tar soap now pop up as luxury products at inner city Sunday markets and in faux-hardware shops*. Just as the intense restraint of a John Pawson interior ultimately speaks of wealth and luxury, the vogue for plain and simple pleasures reveals the nuances of well-healed gentrification. In the current context, posters exhorting war-time stoicism are as grimly ironic as a hereditary millionaire encouraging self-sacrifice and frugality.

But beyond the mend-and-make-do language of all this, it's also possible to see a kind of reverse-urbanism at work, a desire to remake the city into somewhere with the qualities of a rural village. I’ve written before about the strange inversion of contemporary consumer habits that results in people like my own village dwelling parents bemoaning the death of the local butcher whilst shopping at Tescos, while those self-same butchers pop up at the foodie markets of inner London.
The cultivation of inner city scraps of land as allotments and urban farms could be seen as simply another manifestation of this phenomena. But it also echoes the colonisation of inner city bomb sites as public allotments during the second world war and another poster campaign rallying cry: Dig For Victory.

(Image: Garden built out of a bomb crater, London, 1940's. Via)

Muf's urban farm sits within this strange constellation of ideas. For a start, it's in Dalston, probably the most ubiquitously fashionable suburb of London right now, positively overflowing with mustachioed hipsters and newly connected up via the East London Line. The barn itself slips into an odd shaped plot opposite the ELL’s Dalston Junction station, over which loom the new residential towers of Dalston Square. It is a deliberately open-ended structure, ambiguous in both form and use, but very beautifully made.

It's also not immediately obvious why it's referred to as a barn. Barns are interesting, but they don't often look like the one in Dalston. No one would see them as a building typology with inherently civic, or even public, qualities either. Real barns - that is ones with animals and farm machinery in them - are, effectively, light industrial sheds; part warehouse, part distribution centre and part factory. And yet here, curiously, one is used, albeit in a highly aesthetised form, to denote civic qualities.

Such a conflation of rural and urban typologies is intended as a gently surreal gesture obviously, one made more so by the presence of people tapping away on their ipads under the building's chunky timber awning. There are deliberate echoes too of Archigram and, in particular, David Green’s dream of architecture as a kind of bucolic, high-tech paradise, a networked countryside of hidden data cables and robot gardeners.

(Image: David Greene, Archigram: Log Plug)

But, why is the countryside being imported into the city at all? Does it represent an optimistic opening up of urban spaces to new uses? Or, conversely, does it represent a fantasy of the city disappearing or returning to nature? The concept of nature in Muf’s Dalston project is clearly different to that of the Victorian legacy of urban parks and green spaces. It suggests both use - a working landscape - and a creeping reclamation, a deliberate ambiguity between urbanity and rusticity that includes, at least on some level, a return to the cult of the ruin.

Ruins exert a strong, psychological pull, a reminder of death, decay, the ends of things. The allotment gardens of war-time London existed amongst literal ruins. Today’s versions exist in more ambiguous ruins, in the spaces between regeneration and redevelopment. Diller + Scofidio and Renfros’ Highline urban park in New York, touches many of these buttons too. In colonising a disused freight railway, the park represents both the erasure of industry by leisure and the reclamation of the city by nature. Intriguingly, Piet Oudolf - responsible for the planting on the High Lin - described the project as "...a reconnection with something lost", placing it firmly within the cult of the ruin.

Projects like the High Line and Dalston Barn could be seen then as a contemporary manifestation of the picturesque movement, the overlaying of an artfully staged naturalism on existing buildings. Picturesque landscapes like Stowe Gardens in the UK were reclamations too, informal clumps of trees and vegetation planted over the rigid axial routes of earlier Baroque gardens. Such fantasies were not confined to rural locations either, as Joseph Gandy’s highly ambiguous paintings of John Soane’s designs for the Bank of England attest. Visions of cities reclaimed are a staple of science-fiction too, of course, from J G Ballard’s Drowned World to the overgrown ruins of Washington DC at the end of Logan’s Run. These post-city visions serve to expose the hubris behind human civilisation and denote its underlying fragility. But the post-city is not only a science fiction fantasy. Contemporary Detroit stands as every urbanist’s favourite dystopian vision of the post-city returned to nature, a city where whole tracts of former houses lie in ruins, covered in weeds.

(Photo: James D Griffieoen, Feral Houses, The disappearing City)

The image of the city reclaimed by nature is both a fantasy and a nightmare. Its contemporary usage is a bizarre mix of pragmatic common sense and despair. There are interesting echoes in all this too of the work of Lebrecht Migge and Adolf Loos in the 1920’s Settlement movement, the re-housing of people displaced by the First World War. Migge’s eerily prescient 1918 Green Manifesto and his proposals for inner city cottages with allotment gardens are being re-discovered as offering plausible ideas for urban agriculture today.

(Image: Self-sufficient garden for one family, 1925. Lebrecht Migge. Photo from Adolf Loss: Works & Projects)

In a recent Evening Standard piece, Kieran Long intriguingly described the kind of ground up, small scale urbanism of Dalston Barn as an example of David Cameron’s Big Society made manifest. Appropriately, the project's economic viability balances on a mixture of local government funding, volunteer help and the benign tolerance of the nearby Sainsbury’s, who own the land.

The present government's enthusiasm for cutting back the state and (supposedly) replacing it with small-scale, local philanthropy can be read as revealing a preference for rural rather than urban values. The scrapping of Regional Spatial Strategies and the promotion of local empowerment in decision making, can likewise be seen as part of a sustained attack on coherent urban planning and civic minded design. Cameron's Big Society model is an essentially pre-modern and anti-urban one, reliant on assumptions of a fair and benevolent society existing beneath our present one.

Opposite Dalston Barn, there once stood Dalston Theatre, originally a cinema and later the Four Aces Nightclub. In the '90's the building played host to Labyrinth, a club devoted to the emerging jungle and drum and bass scene, before it closed for good and lapsed into decay, a genuine urban ruin. It is easy to see Dalston Barn in some ways as a replacement of sorts, an ambiguous new growth amongst the ruins of a previous civic urbanity.

(Image: Still from Logan's Run of the reflecting pool in Washington DC as a ruin.)

* As I've been gently reminded, FAT's bakery in Heals has a certain, Keep Calm and Carry On vibe, albeit mixed with Op-Art floor patterns and a certain degree of abstraction. Nonetheless, it can't be denied that it sells cup cakes.


London Archaeologist and the Windowless Consultant said...

A sweeping dislike of the urban seems to be a generally regrettable fantasist feature of British culture in general, uniting across political divides, and explaining, perhaps, the thick vein of Romantic landscape in English 'modernist' artists like Nash, Piper, Sutherland, even Moore. Surely the greatest example from the radical left of the joy of ruination is, though, by a man who's had more than a little impact not only on later novels and films, but also on the villagey vein of English town planning: William Morris' News From Nowhere. An interesting attempt at taping the ruins fantasies is to be found here: http://www.spoilheap.com/smallfinds/tag/where-london-stood/

London Archaeologist and the Windowless Consultant said...

And now I notice your blogroll title: News From Elsewhere!

Charles Holland said...

Thanks for comment....yes, rural romanticism is never far away....you can detect it in the YBA's too and of course in lots of British pop. Morris is a huge influence albeit a massively misunderstood one. Speaking of which I can recommend Rob Young's Electric Eden for drawing connections between Morris and a whole tradition or rural exploration in British pop and art.

And thanks for noting the reference!

Anonymous said...

great text, congratulations.

Sofia C.