Thursday, 20 March 2014

Watching me watching you

A group of workmen installing a camera high up on a pole at a traffic junction in East London, where it is presumably intended to monitor traffic offences, crime and civil unrest. It will of course also pick up images of everyone walking across the junction or hanging out on the street corner. The chap in the foreground isn't posing for a photo, he's approaching to ask why I'm pointing my mobile phone camera at them. Asking politely, as in not making threats and demanding I delete the snaps, but still somewhat aggressively. Which is more than a little ironic, if you think about it.
Actually though, a fixed camera is preferable to the alternative. There used to be a Smart camera car parked at the side of the road, blocking the cycle lane. CCTV cars are allowed to park on yellow lines but blocking a cycle lane during the rush hour is not a great idea, throwing cyclists out into the stream of traffic. That was annoying, but not as annoying as the sense of being watched.
A man in uniform sat in the car, watching. Not always the same man, one would drive off and another would take his place. Every time I walked past I felt watched, even though I knew they were there for traffic control, not random surveillance of the civilian population. They never made eye contact, but if they weren't looking up they could be looking at you on the screen. What a boring job, sitting in a car all day trying to look indifferent, cut off by locked doors and wound-up windows - of course you would watch the people and speculate about some of them. And what an unpopular job. Sometimes we would be treated to an appearance by the protest group that goes around following the spy cars on motorbikes, often wearing the notorious Guy Fawkes masks. They couldn't park but they would ride backwards and forwards across the junction, two to a bike, the pillion rider holding up a placard saying HIDDEN $CAMERA until the car gave up and drove away.
There's something particularly objectionable about the spy cars, the combination of camera and person watching from the safety of a car. Before the cars, sometimes a policeman stood in the same spot, mainly to enforce the no left turn sign, but that was entirely different. Who would object to a person standing in the street, not to make money but to deter antisocial behaviour, out there in the open where you could pass the time of day, ask directions or simply make eye contact, acknowledge each other's existence. Once I got stopped on that corner, turning left with toddlers strapped into their seats on the back seat of my clapped-out Montego, and the police officer was so reasonable about it I thought, he's right, and never did it again, police presence on the corner or not.
So, no more camera cars in this particular spot, and good riddance. The enforcement team is presumably watching a bank of monitors from some remote location, but at least you don't have to see them.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Scaffolding palace

In the industrial depths of Walthamstow, and those do still exist, you can find a baffling array of anonymous sheds, gleaming stainless steel structures of unknown usefulness, just two old factory chimneys (as far as I know) not to mention a thousand white vans. But the premises of M J Stapleton and Son, Scaffolding Contractors, are far from anonymous. Located across the road from the municipal dump (which is now a well-organised recycling centre) their huge enclosure is made entirely out of scaffolding poles and corrugated iron. Which makes perfect sense. The structure is picturesque, although you would not get away with this ramshackle approach in most places. The dump itself has a similar structure, purpose unknown - an open shed ten metres high, containing nothing more than a few old fridges. These pockets of industrial activity are not exactly attractive, but they give a sense of authenticity to the area, a sense that the place exists for a productive purpose beyond just being a place where people live, something that will be missed when the whole lot is pushed out by the ever-expanding demand for land for building blocks of flats.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Brick talk

This landed in my in-box, nestled deep within an unsolicited self-styled 'corporate report'. A certain pathos in the confrontation between the big confident man (check those muscles) and the shorter man with a servile expression. Especially when you read the word 'misformed' on his sweatshirt. Why isn't he wearing proper hi viz like a real workman? And why does that soft-focus brick in the foreground not match all the rest? It could be another caption competition...
With apologies to those being doubly exploited in this image

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

A splash of colour

The chaos that is Charing Cross Road, cut off from Tottenham Court Road by mega-construction work on the new Crossrail station, is temporarily made even worse by Foyles, which seems to have taken over the whole block. Scaffolding covers Foyles, at least I think it does, but most of it is something to do with Central St Martins Lofts who are presumably converting the old art college to disgustingly expensive apartments. The scaffolding does feature a rather nice mural by Rebecca Hendin, huge but not big enough to cover all the building works. Of course nobody paints a mural full size these days - it was probably done on her iMac - but there is plenty of detail. It's been there for ages apparently, but I just noticed it.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Mirror mirror

The mirror glass office block on Euston Road is a rarity, a huge building completely covered with an impenetrable skin of mirrors, right down to pavement level, so perfectly reflective as to give no hint of what might be happening inside. It stands out from its surroundings, reflecting the other buildings and on occasion drenching them with reflected light. Yesterday the low morning sun was bouncing off the mirror surface and covering the green and white hospital opposite with strangely intense dappled brilliance. Later in the day it often has a similar effect at the bottom of Euston Tower, with everything in deep shade except where the reflection hits, picking out the buses in a luminous bright red. Crossing Euston Road at lunchtime, you can walk into a pocket of brightness and be suddenly dazzled. But at least the facade is flat - so there's no question of the buses bursting into flame.

The building itself is tall and bland, reflecting the dull grey of overcast days, or deep blue and fluffy white summer skies. Move a bit closer and you get reflected plane trees, overlaid with the actual trees that line the pavement, the whole thing neatly divided up into rectangular panels by shiny chrome glazing bars. The glass isn't perfectly flat so all the reflections are distorted, quite a pretty effect. Closer still, you walk past trying to resist the temptation to watch yourself in the mirrors, not knowing if someone inside will be thinking, what a dick... you can't tell. Reflective glass is usually two-way to some extent, but this is apparently one hundred percent one-way mirror. You walk past wondering what goes on inside, what possible reason there might be for such intense privacy. But it's just the architect's conceit, a fad for using the latest glass technology of the time to glitzy if tasteless effect.

Oddly, the strong impression of opacity diverts you from realising that the building is not really opaque. I must have passed the place hundreds of times, and imagined perhaps twenty companies inside, dingy corridors and grubby carpets, but completely failed to realise that you can see inside if the lights are on, vaguely. Especially after dark, the strips of window are lit up almost like any other office building. That does allow a dim view of typical cluttered offices - the dimness makes it seem claustrophobic.

Finally, on impulse, I walked in through the entrance doors, encouraged by the constant flow of people in and out. Like any office building, it has an open front entrance, a lobby and reception desk, so I walked in along with the lunchtime crowd and stood there trying not to look conspicuous. I needn't have worried. The building is entirely occupied by University College Hospital and heaving with activity. It’s evidently an enclosed world known only to those who work there. Comings and goings are controlled, loosely, from the front desk. But you can walk straight through to a rather good canteen, incongruously set in a glazed vault, a pastiche version of a Victorian arcade, all green metal, bricks and potted palms.

It's antisocial and dated, a typical expression of the crass commercial architecture of the late 1970s, but in its way also rather special.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Skateboard heaven

The end of the holiday season and rain every day, not all the time but consistently dull overcast weather, drizzle and heavy downpours and just the occasional burst of uplifting sunshine. For once I had a three-week break but gardening in the rain wasn't tempting and long cycling trips were out of the question, so drifting down to the South Bank was inevitable sooner or later. Just before new year's eve, I found myself down there for the third time in as many weeks. It's one of the few places in London where you can be indoors without buying a ticket or eating a meal, sit around in comfortable chairs and use the free wifi, look at things and quite likely drop in casually on some kind of unusual entertainment. There are controversial plans for a huge new extension there, and if nothing else it was an opportunity to look at the way the place is now and what might be lost or gained if the changes go ahead.

Apart from the depressing scrum outside the London Dungeon and only a modest queue for the Eye there wasn't much going on. Nothing on in the Clore ballroom and only a small exhibition of old protest posters upstairs at the Hayward. Outside was bit like a tawdry funfair after the crowds have left: bright yellow staircases bolted on to the wet concrete, a few set-piece attractions scattered around and sad dim fairy lights overhead. A few people were pedalling the two bicycle-powered snow domes but it was hard to see any effect to reward their exertions. The Gift Factory, a plywood shed painted to look like brickwork, was being dismantled - the tall factory chimney lying on the ground while the walls were taken down. Looking down from Hungerford foot bridge, muddy water churned past one of the oval concrete piers. On the flat top of the pier, dozens of unwanted skateboards were scatted around like an abandoned art installation, a sort of impromptu skateboard graveyard.

The skateboarders at least were carrying on as usual, casually executing undemanding jumps and studiously ignoring the audience, such as it was. It's perhaps the most authentic attraction on this stretch of Thames riverfront, apart from the river itself of course. Change is threatening the status quo, though. A small group displayed a placard reading SAVE THE SOUTH BANK and they were selling tee shirts with the same message. Save The South Bank From Relocation, Support Skateboarding, if you read the small text. The Southbank Centre has plans to develop the space and that will mean booting the skateboarders out.

Once upon a time, museums and art galleries didn't sell anything except a few postcards. Going back more than a few years, the QEH had a canteen-style cafe on the ground floor and a huge empty lobby: no bookshop, no restaurants, certainly no shops selling DVDs and designer junk. The Hayward was the same, a cafe on the ground floor where the bookshop is now, not a franchise but run by the gallery. I don't know what has changed to the extent that these places are now desperate to make money but that is certainly the case. Whatever the reasons, the Southbank Centre is hell-bent on expanding and they want more shops to help pay for that to become a reality. Nobody is saying, of course, how much of a difference a few lettable units is going to make. The place they have targeted for more shops is that skaters' paradise, the undercroft of the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

The undercroft is a sunken space with concrete walls, floor, ceiling, concrete ramps and steps, and distinctive mushroom-headed concrete columns, reflecting the brutalist aesthetic of the building above. It was not apparently designed for any useful purpose: it's just a left-over space that has been used for skateboarding and BMX riding since the 1970s. There is a sense of subversion about the place, with wall-to-wall graffiti (albeit neatly masked at the edges), no supervision, a complete absence of any kind of officially-provided facilities. It is very different from a purpose-made skate park, with none of the flowing curves you see in those places. That quality, the not-designed accidental suitability, is exactly what the skaters value. I haven't asked them, but their views are recorded at length on the Long Live Southbank and Save the South Bank websites. This place is the South Bank as far as they are concerned.

The protest is not particularly articulate, focusing as it does on the history of the place rather than its future value, and no doubt it will be over-ruled - even now that Boris Johnson has expressed support. The development proposals put income-generating retail space in this prime spot, inevitably, but a new skate park is also proposed to compensate for the loss of the present space. The skaters' campaign is in fact just the most visible part of wider arguments against the redevelopment proposal. The National Theatre has submitted a detailed statement of objection. The Twentieth Century Society thinks the sixties architecture should be preserved as it is: they commisioned an artist to make illustrations showing the huge glass extension dumped on top of the Albert hall, and another showing it resting on top of the Tower of London, to illustrate their point about cultural vandalism. Others think a huge insensitive addition on top of the Hayward is exactly in the spirit of the developer-driven culture of greed and appropriation that is rapidly changing large chunks of London.

On the face of it, moving the skate park is a reasonable proposition. As the official website puts it, if the Southbank Centre were commercial developers that would probably not happen: the skaters would just be told they have had a good run for free, but not any longer. They do recognise the cultural value and they are trying hard to make the change palatable. Unhelpfully, they are also reserving the right to use the new space for their own events, and perhaps going the wrong way about designing a new space.

The published design is not an unashamedly modern, state-of-the-art purpose-made park. Quite the opposite, it's designed to look accidental, like a bit of post-industrial wasteland that's been tastefully adapted as a skate park. The proposal is ultra-careful to get it right, using French architects who have done this sort of thing before, and even the architects themselves claim to be skaters. Some actual skateboarding persons have even been brought in as consultants. But somehow they have missed the point. Iain Borden, the professor of architecture at University College London, and the man in charge of organising the proposals, admits it would be preferable to keep the existing undercroft. It's an impossible brief, he says. We want a place that is great to skateboard in, but that doesn't look explicitly designed for skateboarding. The protesters refuse to discuss this option at all, and I think they are right. Bogus authenticity: no wonder support is thin on the ground.