Category Archives: Walking

Prague’s Erogenous Zones

The exuberance of rococo nudity in Prague is stunning, in every sense of the term. Large well-endowed women stare down at you from facade after facade with only their stoney flesh to keep them warm:

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Not my favourite style, but it is carried out with such panache I could not help but be impressed, if only with its absurdity:

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I have never seen suggestively positioned, naked and possibly pregnant women used as supports for heavy masonry. The symbolism (or lack of it) fairly boggles the mind unlike the use of Atlas-type figures. They are wearing fish on their heads, however, so I suppose some symbolism is involved, as must also be the case for this guy with a chicken on his head (apologies he too is not nude, we’ll get to the men soon):

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Birds are almost as common as naked human beings, and sometimes they came together

IMG_8669With the rococo I simply shrug, though the scale and imagination was most impressive. Unsurprisingly you can only see so many naked women without ceasing to be aware of them or continue taking pictures. What was striking, however, was that this nudity continues on through the ages. There are some beautiful and extremely saucy art nouveau facades, different from anything I have seen before:

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And statues as well
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But the social realists have also gotten into the act — though a little more chastely:

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Modern sculpture is of course also represented:

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We also found a splendid sign, unique in everything but the nudity, which could equally well predate or postdate everything else pictured here:

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But it is not just the woman’s body that is celebrated, though the ladies far outnumber everyone else. This particular celebration has been painted so that it is camouflaged as much as possible, which is exactly what called my attention to it after such a surfeit of flaunting breasts over residential edifices:

IMG_9649I also loved this nonchalant (although well covered) pose on Prague’s famous Municipal House off of Namesti Republiky:

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Perhaps some of the most hilarious images are of men and their favourite bits — everyone’s favourite bits apparently:

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While at Ještěd Tower in Liberec there was a similar phenomenon, alien but very very male:

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More penii and grinning laughing tourists were to be found in front of the Kafka Museum:

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It was funny to later that same day run into this suspect statue up at the castle:

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Altogether there is one almighty celebration of the human body happening all over Prague. Next — the unfortunate result.

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Prague Entries (or, of knobs and knockers)

I’m often caught by small details, little things that I like to think almost no one else sees. Beautiful things, strange things, unlikely things. Those of us who see them are thus joined in this appreciation of the not-quite-hidden, the unique everyday, the unspectacular. Our lives contain more joy, or so I like to think. Maybe more of us than I think walk through the city awake and aware and reveling in these details. I myself do it surreptitiously when on the street alone, never able to rid myself of the ingrained dislike of making myself a target. Streets can be dangerous places.

Prague is the most dangerous of all, a city of details.

It is, of course, superficially and ridiculously gorgeous. But what I loved most about it is that this beauty goes all the way down to the minute; incredible craftsmanship abounds everywhere. Some of it was clearly put in service of evil — the ubiquitous cherub for example, to be explored in the next post — but damn. So much of it is of the beautiful and good. So this is a photo-essay of the beautiful doors of Prague. Because this is what they look like, even when we got onto the off-the-tourist-track streets walking down away past Florenc station. They’ve seen better days, but from the carved wood to the iron and grill work to the inlays and fixtures, they are so beautiful:

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They’ve made me think about doors. What they stand for as a statement about a building, about the people who made the building and live in the building. What it means to pass through them. I am used to beautiful doors on cathedrals, on monumental buildings, occasionally on government buildings. Doors you pass through only now and again. Or perhaps you never have enough status, or share the required beliefs, to pass through them. These are places where an entryway is meant to have greater meaning, a non every-day meaning. You walk through them and enter somewhere power sits, or God dwells. They separate outside from inside like any door, but this separation carries more weight than our front door, which most of us blast through without a thought, hurrying out into the world or back home. Of palaces and churches, differentiated spaces, Prague has a number. Their doors are finer than anything I’ve seen I think:

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IMG_9461Still, this rampant use of beauty on apartments? How lovely. Even our wealthy neighbourhoods are in no way comparable on the subject of doors, and my initial feeling is that this beauty stretches some class boundaries, if only due to decline.  Of course I confess, we did not stray all that far from the city center, and perhaps this gorgeous craftsmanship is not found quite everywhere, but in visiting Liberec and some of the small villages surrounding it was much the same — though like cherubs, I’ll have more to say on them later. Here, however, are some plainer doors.

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But after a while even I had almost a surfeit of doors, too many, too grand, too beautiful. Camera fatigue set in. I made an exception for the doors belonging to the house of the Capek brothers, where the amazing word ‘robot’ was coined in the writing of R.U.R.

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Heavy, wooden, carved. Beautiful. But with this surfeit of doors I started focusing on other things, like the grilles:

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The faces:

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The details of the decoration:

IMG_9651 IMG_9571 IMG_9351I had read that some fine examples of Art Nouveau was to be found here as well, but I was in no way prepared for the splendour of it:

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IMG_9377This, which I’m not sure which style it fits into, but is understated yet stunning:

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I wasn’t prepared for any of it. I love the brightly painted red and green and blue doors of Dublin, and sometimes here in London or Bristol. But these doors of Prague are a different level. My favourite details? The handles. There is a joy in seeing such beautiful, functional things — more beautiful up the castle way, but uniformly gorgeous:

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And for last? This sculpture door that we found opposite the cubist House of the Black Madonna, with no explanation but I rather liked it just like that:

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A little more from Prague…

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Ještěd Tower, Liberec

I love it. I love it, and yet there is so little about it. We saw it shining on the mountain while looking out over the city, and of course, we had to go.

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It’s so brilliantly SF, half spaceship half future cityscape. You take a tram from the city up to the mountain, a funicular up to the base. Look at this amazing television tower/restaurant/hotel up close:

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There is a long blurb on the architect from penccil – a rather fascinating site of modern art and design and fashion (it allows you to create your own page on the site to show your own portfolio, you could get drawn in there for a while…)

The unique Jested tower, designed by architect Karel Hubacek, is a modernist architectural landmark of the Czech Republic. Combining television transmission tower and mountain hotel, it is a 94 meters tall rotational hyperboloid built on top ofJested mountain near Liberec in the Czech Republic, built between 1966 and 1973. Liberec (then called Reichenberg) was until the end of WW1 in 1918 part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and a traditional Austrian mountain hotel was perched on top of Jested (then called Jeschken) mountain. Karel Hubacek (23 February 1924 – 25 November 2011) graduated in 1943 and was then sent to forced labor in Nazi Germany, where he worked for the Askania Werke precision instrument factory in Berlin, which after allied bombings moved underground into salt mines south of Helmstedt, Germany. Askania produced the flight control systems for the V1 and V2 rockets and movie cameras which had been used in shooting the famous movie “Der Blaue Engel” with Marlene Dietrich. In 1945, he returned to Prague. In 1951, he got a job at the (then communist) regional institute for city planning in Liberec, where he worked until 1968, when he became a co-founding member of SIAL (Association of Engineers and Architects in Liberec). From 1994-1997 he was head of the Department of Architecture at the Faculty of Arts and Architecture at the Technical University in Liberec.

There are some wonderful photos — far better than what I managed as it was heaving with people on a sunny November holiday, though bitterly windy and cold. Still, I got a few:

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There is a martian as well! A particularly well-endowed one

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And the sun started setting and the world was just beautiful, you can see the shadow of our space building fall across Liberec:

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The hotel website (I do wish we had stayed there, the furniture, the fittings, everything looks amazing, but we didn’t) talks about this as a symbol of Liberec, and how wonderful? How wonderful to create this amazing building so playful with our dreams of the future, that could have been a simple ubiquitous television tower but instead becomes this amazing place. This is in some ways what the dream of socialism should have been, brilliant design, care, and attention to innovative detail to make something so functional also serve city residents as an escape from the city, a place to step out of the ordinary, to look out over the city and the countryside and think about the world’s form and your place in it. A place for everyone, though I don’t know if that’s how it worked when it was first built. But it felt like that while we there, full of both Czechs and tourist families, couples, young folks. It was lovely, but god, it was cold.

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Hyde Park Farm

It is hard to imagine this area — this border between Lambeth and Balham and Wandsworth — as nothing but fields and farms, even when standing on the edge of Tooting Bec Common on a gray day with a huddle of local residents already chatting happily about their neighbourhood and their memories. Long ago representative of the parishes would meet near here, under a great tree on Brixton Hill, to discuss regional matters. While not representatives of anything in particular, we are examples of inter-borough solidarity and here for a tour held as part of Lambeth Heritage Festival, led by John Rattray of the Balham society.

Part of what we now know as the common was known as Hyde Park Farm, bordered by other farms and would come to be specially known for the quality of its pigs. In 1587 the farm was sold to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and in honored London tradition, this can be seen in the street names of Emmanuel and Scholars Roads. They used it as an income stream, leasing it out to a succession of local farmers. As times changed the farm became less farm and more market garden, opening up much of the land to become sporting fields. When it was sold it was growing flowers — up for auction were 1,000 roses and 5,000 aspidistras (!). I knew of aspidistras through Orwell and Sayers, but a few of the younger (no one was at all young, I must confess) people had not heard of such things. The group agreed they were particularly Victorian. I am intrigued by the aspidistra, but moving on…

These grounds were the centre for baseball at the peak of its popularity in London. Baseball! That interesting fact was not followed up by our tour guide (being English and not very interested), so I have researched further and that will one day be a post in itself.  

thrale-house-00074-640There was only a scattering of mansions here alongside the farms, beginning in the 1770s. In looking something else up I discovered that this is near where Hester Thrale lived — so often visited by Doctor Johnson, her home a lively salon of wit and knowledge and probably no little pompousness. The housing built on the old farm site that we wandered through was begun in 1896 at the corner of Radbourne Road and Telferscot Road. The old topography is recorded here as well, the road named after Telfer’s Cottage which once stood here. Somewhere. We stood on the mound on the common’s corner, beneath which lies the old air raid shelter. An earlier tour had called forth an elder who had spent some time down in it during the war, but ours sadly did not.

HydePark5We paused at the corner, Cosy Corner, where the little shop has recreated the old sign that used to hang there. Many of the folks on the tour had lived in the area for decades, and remembered the two old women who had run the shop from before the war. The lovely kind you don’t see anymore whose lipstick always fought the limits of their lips. We walked down Radbourne Road. Along it developer Ernest Hayes-Dashwood set aside flats to be occupied rent-free by disabled veterans. Beautiful plaques commemorate this gift into perpetuity, even as the hip young professionals obstructed from their doorways by our tour demonstrated that not all of them are so occupied. I investigated that too, of the 150 units, 50 are leased on short-hold tenancies, and the income is used to maintain the rest of the properties. Sensible enough, more information and history can be found here.

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There is also a lovely school, some of which was sold off for quite beautiful luxury flats — of course now the school is overflowing and there are portable classrooms. It will be expanding to the north, where an old shed stands, once home to the local scout troop but now falling apart. This area was briefly a site of contention, when ‘Red Ted’ and his gang tried to get the whole thing knocked down to built a large tower of flats and the local residents organised to keep the school. It’s a beautiful school, I’m glad they did, though in general I’d be on the side of housing.

I know about Red Ted — and enjoyed the glee in resident voices as they said the words knowledgeably — but I had no idea Lambeth was a Tory borough until 1971, and in fact is where John Major got his start. Still less did I know that he oversaw housing and lived in an estate here. My mind reeling, I could hardly focus from them on. I do remember the handful of villas left built by Thomas Cubitt as part of the Clapham Park Development — on the grounds of Bleak Hall Farm.

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Note to self to look more into that…and into the importance that changing transportation had, as these homes were made less desirable as rail allowed the wealthy to move even further away. Or so the story goes. Also to investigate is Zennor Road, now an industrial estate but once apparently one of the area’s few slums.

A little shy and far from knowledgeable, I said very little, but enjoyed listening to everyone else reminisce about the neighbourhood, several of them as knowledgeable as our lovely and knowledgeable tour guide. It allowed for the creation of a more collective history, as we peeled off track to the left to see the last original iron gate in the area,

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heard about resident efforts to preserve the old buildings and stories passed down. New Park Road with its business and splendid diversity feels miles rather than minutes away from these Edwardian row houses and their inhabitants, but it was good to get to know them a little better, and to share their love of their piece of the city.

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The London Adventure or The Art of Wandering

The London AdventureA delightful book of meanderings, almost too meandering because there are some really brilliant things in here that deserve some deeper thought but the style of it almost carries you right past them. I know, I know, that the style of the book maybe reflects the art of wandering itself, stumbling over the unexpected, taking up the digressions, exploring the byways. But still. I wanted more places, more stories of places, more London. Still, there are some real gems about the city, how we experience it, where its wonder lies, speaking both as urbanist and as author. And just thoughts on being human in this world of toil. This is clearly someone who has known toil.

In this pleasant and retiring spot I was sitting not long ago, enjoying gin and that great luxury and blessing of idleness, concerning which so much cant and false doctrine have been preached. (6)

On writing:

Always, or almost always, I have had the horror of beginning a new book. I have burnt my fingers to the bone again and again in the last forty years and I dread the fire of literature (12).

On life:

It is possible, just dimly possible, that the real pattern and scheme of life is not in the least apparent on the outward surface of things, which is the world of common sense and rationalism, and reasoned deductions; but rather lurks, half hidden, only apparent in certain rare lights, and then only to the prepared eye; a secret pattern, an ornament which seems to have but little relation or none at all to the obvious scheme of the universe’. (21)

One of my favourite phrases of all time is now ‘amiable Conandoylery’ (27). It certainly takes him a while to describe the purpose of this book he is being paid to write — and this sense of literature as something for hire, something you must sell to live and feed your children is never absent here, anchoring his wonderings and wanderings. His dread as he sits ensconced in a comfortable pub that Spring has arrived and the book must be begun opens every chapter, humorously to be sure, but not entirely. But it is still on a subject he loves — rambling the city:

[the book] originated in old rambles around London, rambles that began in 1890 when I lived in Soho Street and began to stroll about Soho and to see that here was something very curious and impressive; this transmutation of late seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century social stolidity and even, in some cases, magnificence, into a wholly different order (30)

What he loves is not about tourist stops or antiquarian wonders but:

the general queerness; a piece, a tesserae, that fitted in very pleasantly with that hopeless 1860 terrace and that desolate 1900 shop, and the cabbages, and the raspberry plantations and, above all and before all, with the sense that I had never been that way before, that the scene to me was absolutely new and unknown as if the African Magician had suddenly set me down in the midst of Cathay, that I was as true an explorer as Columbus, as he who stood upon a peak in Darien. For if you think of it: the fact that the region which is to you so strange and unknown is familiar as daily bread and butter or—more likely—the lack of it to multitudes of your fellow men is of no significance on earth. (40)

There’s some interesting colonial stuff here, though I think it echoes in my own mind far different than in his for I cannot divorce colonial exploration from despair, conquest, slavery and death. I am hesitant to strip these away, but in Machen’s writing it seems to be simply the seed of wonder at what is new, and the acknowledgment that this lies alongside hunger and misery and want. Lightly done, but it is there.

My book, then, was to take all these things into account: the old, the shabby, the out of the way; and also the new and the red and the raw. But it was utterly to shun the familiar. For if you think of it, there is a London cognita and a London incognita(49)

He seeks the incognita, the overlooked. Finds the things that I too love:

I can look with a kind of pleasure on a very doorstep, on a doorstep approaching a shabby grey house of 1810 or thereabouts—if the stone be worn into a deep hollow by the feet of even a hundred years and a little over…The feet of the weary and hopeless, the glad and the exultant, the lustful and the pure have made that hollow; and most of those feet are now in the hollow of the grave: and that doorstep is to me sacramental, if not a sacrament, even though the neighbourhood round about Mount Pleasant is a very poor one. (48)

There is a section imagining the life of the reporter as a road, traveling through cities, opening up the countryside, ‘where there is no money but plenty of happiness’ (62). That old city/country divide. There is also, of course, a touch of the gothic here, a familiar strand running through so much literature of the city:

Strangeness which is the essence of beauty is the essence of truth, and the essence of the world. I have often felt that, when the ascent of a long hill brought me to the summit of an undiscovered height in London; and I looked down on a new land. (127)

I loved the idea that we must no longer seek wonder in castles and keeps, but in the everyday. Even then the sense of the madness of developers and real estate, the joy in the battered cottage amongst plate glass and brick shops, a hold out against profit. On this score there are some brilliant descriptions of Enfield being developed (35) to return to, perhaps after I’ve visited Enfield.

Why have I waited so long to read his fiction? It’s available, unlike this book, which was an amazing birthday present in the form of a first edition.

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South London Botanical Institute

Amazing that South London has a botanical institute, I had never heard of it until perusing the tours for Open House London — a pretty exciting weekend that I should have booked up far in advance. A brief description from the SLBI website:

indexFounded in 1910 by a keen botanist, Allan Octavian Hume (1829-1912), the aims of the Institute have remained almost unchanged in 100 years. Hume’s lasting contribution has been to provide an environment where those interested in plants, be they amateur or professional, may meet and develop their knowledge of plants.

It seemed to me quite quintessentially British, this place. The white middle classes thronged, generations of them — I suffered a little class anxiety but I am always made happy seeing grandparents out for the day with their grandchildren I confess. There was tea, and I had some quite nice cake that I took away wrapped up in a napkin that involved zucchini and cream cheese frosting. There was a lovely garden, despite the time of year, with an offering of a number of well marked flowers and herbs. My love of plants has never yet led me into an herbarium, but I discovered their massive collection of beautifully pressed plants, preserved for study in rows of custom built containers, and frozen now and again to ensure there are no insects feasting on them like aged cheddar. They also had a lovely library with the most wonderful books lining the walls, and treasures in these giant old herbals lying open on the table.

First, The Gardener’s Dictionary: containing the best and newest methods of cultivating and improving the kitchen, fruit, flower garden, and nursery, as also for performing the practical parts of agriculture, including the management of vineyards, with the methods of making and preserving wine, according to the present practice of the most skilful vignerons in the several wine countries in Europe, together with directions for propagating and improving, from real practice and experience, all sorts of timber trees .

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Put together by Phillip Miller, curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden, the first version was published in 1731. It was a foundational book in forming the knowledge, practice and taste of gardening, or so it is said by the wonderful University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, where you can see all of it .

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One of the other books was entirely London plants, a beautifully illustrated financial disaster: The Flora Londinensis [electronic resource] : or plates and descriptions of such plants as grow wild in the environs of London: with Their Places of Growth, and Times of Flowering; their several Names according to Linnaeus and other Authors: with A particular Description of each Plant in Latin and English. To which are Added, Their several Uses in Medicine, Agriculture, Rural Oeconomy, and other Arts. By William Curtis, Demonstrator of Botany to the Company of Apothecaries. Again, based in Chelsea.

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A wonderful description of the book and its publishing can be found here. The pictures are exquisite, as is the book.

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Financial disaster came because the book proved expensive to publish and not a big seller. The public was not interested in local flora, desiring pictures of the bizarre and the exotic instead.

Hume, the founder of the South London Botanical Institute, knew all about the ‘exotic’, having been a collector of flora and fauna in India for many years — as well as playing a prominent role in the Indian civil service, and having served in military actions during the rebellion of 1857. Despite the way it feels so rooted here in South London soil, this building and its collections are intertwined with notions and practices of Empire — even if in some ways a return to more familiar plants. The Open House London description is here, notes written by Judy Marshall, Council Member of the Institute in 2006. An extract:

His natural history collections from India were legendary, with the bird and animal collections being presented to the British Museum Natural History as it was then called. Back in England, with help from his friends, he immediately started collecting British plants. These collections form the nucleus of the Institute herbarium. He also designed the herbarium cabinets. The library was started with books owned by him. The garden was to be used partly to grow alien species missing from the herbarium. We do not know whether there was an original conservatory: the present one replaced the existing one, riddled with dry rot, in 1990. This was made possible with a grant from the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust. The Institute was cared for by resident curators.

It is interesting to speculate on why such a very distinguished and energetic man as Hume should have spent his final years, then aged over 80, pursuing such an unusual aim. According to the original Memorandum of Association, ‘The sole object for which the Institute is established is to promote, encourage and facilitate, amongst the residents of south London, the study of botany exclusively’.

I wonder what it meant to him to return to his own country, specialise in its own plants in a way that the explorations in service of empire demanded abroad. Hume’s history in India seems to be one of liberal action pushing democracy and improvement as far as the framework of empire would go, founding free schools and promoting agricultural improvements. Not radical enough to challenge the empire itself, he did enough to earn himself a demotion and eventual dismissal. So I like him. He also went on to help form the Indian National Congress…there are a number of interesting talks to be found on his role in India and his ornithological and botanical interests here. It somehow all came to rest in this place, on Norwood Road.

This is an interesting place to think through some of London’s connections to Empire, our natural love of, and curiosity about, the incredible world we live in, and how it can be structured and appropriated by imperialism and exploitation. The role of botany and cataloguing and scientific exploration in conquest as well as furthering human knowledge. The corresponding influence of a role as civil servant and political figure in the pursuit of natural history and collecting. The study of botany and the collection of plants are irrevocably tangled in these imperial histories, even when not as tied to such a career as that of Allen Octavian Hume. There is so much more to explore here, and there is a little more here.

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Invisible Vauxhall

I loved this tour by author Gabriel Gbadamosi, who was unprepared for his own popularity and expected 3 or 4 arrivals instead of the 15 or so. We trooped around the little park in a group more diverse racially, culturally, and in terms of age than I was expecting. I loved that. He is a storyteller, and I don’t want to steal his stories or recast them in my own voice, they are too good. I am looking forward to encountering many of them again in his book, which sits beside me now, though I have not yet had time to read it. Another day, another post.

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A taste though. We stood on a little hill in the new Vauxhall Gardens — a fraction of the site of the old Vauxhall Gardens, famous and infamous pleasure gardens of the 18th and early 19th centuries. I brought all kinds of knowledge of those along with me, having encountered them in my mother’s historical romances, in Dickens’ brilliant descriptions of their magic by night and their tawdriness by day — the days only revealed in a last ditch effort to maintain the gardens as profitable. I knew that Hogarth had painted the scenes and held a golden ticket. I thought back to the fairly fabulous Museum of London display that attempts to immerse you in this past with its fairy lights and sound recordings and murals of graceful ladies in their beautiful dresses. I believed them completely gone, covered up by the relentless creep of development. In fact, they were.

This piece of ground had been here and I had found it on an earlier attempt to discover Vauxhall for myself, but it was labeled as something else and not very appealing as a park space. I missed the presence of the farm all together, never connecting it to those pictures of my friend’s children amidst the animals, when I glanced in and passed it by. Redevelopment has now motivated the council to commemorate its past grandeur, but not the people who once lived there. Gbadamosi grew up in a row of houses once standing on that grassy knoll, one of them bought through toil and struggle by his father, occupied and loved by a host of Irish Nigerian children. Torn down as a plan of slum clearance by the council. He passed around a photograph showing his sister, a beautiful old car, a  neighbourhood that stood where we stood that to my American eyes was quite beautiful. There is nothing left to commemorate it, you would never know it had ever been there. I think so much about buildings, ruins, the ease with which our histories are erased when the buildings that have held us are gone. Words are all that are left. Pictures. Memories. Loss. On a lighter note, where will they put his blue plaque?

And so I felt at home on this tour, the memories of a poor childhood but a happy one, a culturally mixed and intermingled one, and the anger over a home lost and the understanding of how much more that meant than just the loss of four walls. I’ve been reading Marshall Berman lately too, and wonder if everyone who loses their home carries around with them that anger, that pervading sense of loss. I suppose we, the dispossessed, often have little ability to express these things in ways that can be widely heard, nor is it something you can casually drop in conversation.  It has shaped my life so much, and while it does not make me happy to find it in others, it makes me feel that I am part of a community. These are my people, because they can understand the way that this event (events in the plural I suppose now, in a way) rumbles on through my thinking, so fundamental to who I have become. There are more and more of us, victims of the slow violence of modern displacement for profit through clearances, foreclosures, evictions.

Of course, I love this community of shared experience most when it also joins a fascination with history and some good politics. We heard about the mixing of the high and the low in the gardens, references to it in literature. In contrast, there was the industry along the bank of the Thames, the potteries and factories and Blake looking out his window upon Dark Satanic Mills. Vauxhall is also of course the new(ish) home of MI6 in the obvious and not so obvious places (for some lighthearted spy geography, much of it in South London, see this post from the Londonist), the site of new embassies — and of course that is where the Americans are coming to rest. The secret services undoubtedly make them feel safe, unlike the rest of us. Where we stood was also the location for the launching of the missile at MI6 by the IRA in September of 2000.

Two things that struck me most: the homeless folks and addicts that lived in the arches under the railway, who were allowed to use the Gbadmosi’s outside (!) toilet, often given food. His Irish Catholic mother said they were angels, tests of our charity, you should always help them. His Nigerian father said they were like the dead, and so you should always help them.

I pondered that, it has not left me. The mercifully brief presence of a young heckler already drunk on our morning walk showed that some other aspects of the past had not left us. I was almost glad to see it, it means those surviving on the edges, can by can or hit by hit, still have a place among us. That there may still exist some desire to deal with root causes rather than simply forcing our people suffering such problems into the outskirts and the shadows. Of course, imagining that our council has any desire to deal with root causes is a little idealistically indulgent.

The other thing is that as children who had not lived through WWII, to Gbadamosi and his siblings the word bomb site meant only an open space to play in. I am a bit fascinated by bomb sites, how they were incorporated into everyday life for so long, how they were gradually filled in — and you can see the filling. How they opened up opportunities to build social housing across the entire city — a promise of social quality that has since been renounced. The horror of Gravity’s Rainbow, pictures of flame and death and ruin, a mystique of wartime bravery and camaraderie. A common reaction I suppose, and I digress.

After leaving the park we walked down to see the old Doulton factory, pausing to look at the tiles and mosaics under the bridge on Salamanca Street. On the way we stopped at a highly secure building I’d always wondered about, and is apparently the headquarters of the firm specialising in transporting the world’s masterpieces of art. So cool. The old factory itself is stunning, I remember wandering past it for the first time and wondering how such a beautiful thing of craftsmanship was built. It too was bombed, but this piece of the facade thankfully preserved.

VauxhallVauxhall

There was so much more but I shall send you to Gbadamosi’s website to read essays and get his book, the multiwalks website and phone app to experience a much expanded tour for yourself — more on that when I get a chance to explore a little more.

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Southwark Cathedral Contradictions

I can’t quite grasp the relationship between the glorious monsters on the outside and the glorious light and space and soaring of the inside

And I still cannot quite comprehend how stone can take this character of massive weightlessness, how anything so heavy and solid can delicately soar and continually unfold into mystery

This narrow Norman arch has stood here here supporting the roof for 800 years. Of course, it was once a wood roof, probably very similar to that of Westminster Hall  with its capitals of strange creatures and frightening angels…perhaps resolving some of the contradictions, but raising others. I want to know their stories, but fear them to be long gone. And while I love stumbling across the green man, I do not buy much of the crap written about him. So it is all wonder and mystery, this combination of such immense human skill, love, and imagination

Southwark Cathedral stands at the lowest point of the Thames, the old ford and today’s Tower Bridge, for long the only entrance to the City of London. You can see the remains of the Roman road alongside the cathedral, along with a statue of an ancient hunter god. There has been a church here since at least 606 AD…

[And the priests and staff inside are incredibly friendly and informative without being overwhelmingly so. And the incredible Burough Market is immediately next door.]

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Legally Underground

I love being underground, I love dark, close places. And dark massive airy places of course. And while London is undergirded by miles of tunnels, bunkers, culverts, sewers, abandoned underground stations and etc, can you legally get into any of them?

No. But Graham and I did our best.

We started in the Cafe in the Crypt, St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields. A copy of American Colonial architecture, which is really just a variation on a copy of traditional English architecture…and they sell decent coffee and quite delicious currant buns in a warm, dry, well-lit brick vault that a self-respecting ghost would never be caught…in.

They have an art exhibit on now, Cartooning and Conflict, international takes on the situation in Palestine/Israel. Some of them were good, some of them ridiculously simplistic. Of course.

So coffeed and fed, we started on the quest for the (now underground) Tyburn river. On foot. And wandered past St. James Palace just as a marching band was scheduled to appear (!), line up in front of the palace, play, salute, and head out again. It made no sense at all, but the tourists did like it.

I just love the incredible feeling of being fortuitously in exactly the right place at the right time…even if it’s only to see a marching band. We passed Truefitt & Hill, London’s oldest barber shop established in 1805. They say that:

Men deserve the best in everything they do. If you are looking for the finest in men’s grooming, we are confident you will find Truefitt & Hill’s unmatched product quality and prestigious tradition extremely compelling.

And looking in their window I believe them, almost makes me wish I were one

And so we wandered on. And in another blinding moment of fortuitosity, I mentioned we were looking for Davies Street and Graham realized we were on Davies Street, and so a moment of awed silence for such mad luck…

On Davies Street you can find Gray’s Antique Market, full of beautiful and very old things. But you actually want to turn the corner, head down the back for Gray’s Mews, because you head down into the basement there and you will find a section of the (famous) Tyburn River. Actually, I don’t think the river is famous, but the spot where they used to hang people certainly was. The river runs in culverts below London, until it arrives here, where it is neatly channeled and full of gold fish.

We couldn’t quite work out the mechanics of it, both of us thinking that the Tyburn river should be larger, dirtier, primeval. Possibly behind thick glass, certainly not staid and well-lit and mechanically aerated. But it was quite extraordinary all the same. And Gray’s Mews? Beautiful. You can see at the bottom the fabulous vintage clothing and jewelry store…quality gorgeousness, Chanel and proper furs and etc etc, long cigarette holders, old compacts that I could have conceivably afforded…it is the kind of place that is most dangerous, in that it has beautiful old things at the top of my price range (but still within it. Hence the danger.). Many other stores were shut up, sadly, like the shop below with the pair of dragon-bearing elephants that I truly desired:

It was a day of desire really, walking back down Bond Street we passed this store full of silver, and all of it beautiful

We were filled with a sense of satisfaction, of vague melancholy, of…thirst. So we stopped at the Iron Duke for a pint, a most satisfactory pub with a very interesting wall covering and scrumpy jack on tap:

From there we wound our way back down to a pub previously-spotted and tagged for a return. But once more on St. James we decided to wander into the cigar store, James J. Fox & Robert Lewis. And discovered that not only can you smoke a cigar inside (lit for you by use of a small, insanely impressive blow torch), but there is also a museum. In the basement! Underground once again, and happy because look at this:


And I discovered that, like Winston Churchill,

I am a [wo]man of simple tastes, easily satisfied with the best.

The Queen Mother had her account here as well…I like to think of her kicking back and smoking a fine cigar or two. This place is packed with phenomenal things, an old register you can flip through, Oscar Wilde’s account, fur covered cigar cases, Cigars that are two, maybe three feet long, a tin of “Potter’s Asthma Smoking Tobacco”, this letter to the company from Churchill once again:

Dear Sirs,

Confirming our telephone conversation, Sir Winston Churchill would be much obliged if you would send a box of 25 cigars of good quality, but not quite as good as the Romeo and Juliet, and of medium size, to his grandson for his birthday on October 10…

Highly recommended. Though we couldn’t afford cigars at the time. But we will be back, the humidor at the end of the room was extremely impressive. And I have never seen anything like this:

But I tore myself away.

So we found our way to the Red Lion, a small pub and the second oldest license in the West End. The oldest license? No one could say. That’s a quest for another day. But a good mix of people, Graham believes that many were masons, I accept their cover story of a funeral. The lad with the red trousers? Well, there’s no excuse for that sort of thing of course. And there were china plates lining the piece of wall between the wood paneling and the ceiling, I loved that. We had laid down the one pint per pub rule, this being an exploratory excursion, so we headed out. We passed the Golden Lion. Sadly closed. And then we found a second Red Lion. A slightly larger pub, with beveled and engraved mirrors

And as buns weren’t quite enough to support this kind of effort and quantity of drink we went in search of food. I hadn’t prepared an underground location for this, so we ended up with pizza. Probably the most delicious pizza I have ever eaten but we all know that’s because I was drunk. Drunk on the magic of London at night

From Soho we headed to embankment and a martini at the Buddha Bar. That was planned, the Buddha Bar is in the old tram tunnel you see, though of course you’d never know. We weren’t dressed for that kind of poshness of course, so most of the waitresses were rather dismissive and politely rude. Our waiter was awesome though, redeemed the whole place for me beyond any doubt.

And then still not quite ready to go home, we made a last stop, sort of underground once again, in the Coal Hole, “famous for coal-heavers and cartoonists”. Great little pub too, according to the menu (always a supreme source of local history), it was one of the last informal clubs of the Victorian era. Gillray and Rowlandson used to haunt this place! And I dearly hope they still do…Gilbert and Sullivan used to show up from time to time as well, but I’m not so fussed about them.

What a day, what a city, what a cousin. Joy.

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Thoughts on the Chicago Skyline

Downtown Chicago is all planes and angles, contrasts in brick and stone, glass and steel. It is full of amazing reflections in glass.

You see it at one level from the street, and another entirely from the El train, and from both it is visually spectacular. Your fingers itch for your camera, every step brings a shift in the lines, and changes the seen and the unseen.

I had half a day on Monday after a morning meeting, so I thought I’d do the Architectural Boat Tour, 90 minutes along the river and almost all the pictures a lustful heart could ask for…as the river goes round the loop and not through it.

But I confess my extreme love for these great buildings piled one on top of the other sits miserably with my love of social and environmental justice. They are contradictions impossible to overcome. I wonder if perhaps I love them (and hate them) for their colossal and unbelievable arrogance, because it is combined with such extraordinary technical and engineering skill. I love the fact that we have figured out how to build such things, hurling metal and glass up to the sky. I suppose we never stopped to ask whether we should. And the wealth required to build such buildings…where does it come from? Chicago is as much a city of immense poverty as it is a city of beauty. And that is where you find the answer. My question is whether we could build such things without exploitation, and in a way that sits happily on the earth.

On the tour, the guide was full of information on architectural styles and the men who created them, the requirements of building something like the Sears tower, the Trump tower, and towers x, y, and z. Everything was entirely divorced from the city or the people who live in it with the exception of a single architect, Bertrand Goldberg. He designed Marina City, which I love.

I have always loved round buildings. But the guide explained that he also tried to design buildings to create community, to encourage contact between neighbors, to provide immediate access to life’s amenities. Another of his buildings is River City

These buildings are all mixed use, with stores, child care, and access to a marina beneath. The balconies  are close together to bring neighbors together. They have beautiful public spaces. He believed density was a good thing, for community, for creativity, for life.

And so I looked him up. And I’m not sure what I think of him, I certainly disagree with much of what he says, but he makes me think. He wrote this of Marina City:

More importantly, in the Marina City forms. I made it possible for people to participate in community formation. Both in the use of space and in the form of space I discovered that behavior can be influenced by the shape of space. The faceless anonymity of the corporate box which we had used for the buildings for our government, our health, our education, our business and our living, I discovered could be replaced more effectively by a new development of architectural structure and forms that supported its use by people. We could have both architecture and humanism just as we had begun to do 200 years before in the social revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries.

I love this recognition of the influence of space on the individual and community, and the revolutionary idea that architecture should be for the people and how they will live within it. That it affects how our society lives and grows. He’s not the only one of course, but one of the few. Yet it is a typical liberalism, looking backward to some better time, and only as worthy as it can be without questioning a terribly unjust world. He wrote another speech that offers an interesting reflection on the thoughts above called Rich is Right…exposing all of the contradictions involved in his thinking.

America is rich, America is right. Architects have always worked for the rich. We are now also working for the right.

Ah, if only that were true. Are the rich ever right? I don’t really think so. Our homeless population and slum housing certainly proves otherwise. But it is true that architects have always worked for the rich. I do like such frank admissions. But that leads to the conclusion that the 90% of Americans who are not rich just have to hope that those 10% of quixotic and self-absorbed rich people at some point get it right, no? That seems to require a lot of faith that history has never ever justified.

He goes on, extraordinarily enough, to quote Albert Speer, architect of Hitler. I read Speer’s autobiography some years ago and found it fascinating. He did not just build buildings, he created drama and spectacle, he cemented the image of ultimate power in the minds of the observer. Whenever you see Hitler speaking on a stage with the colossal architecture, the huge backdrops of red banners and striking black swastikas, the eagles, the torches… Speer designed all of that.

Albert Speer- Hitler’s state architect said: “We must learn to master technology and its potential by political means.” In contrast, modern architects of the 19th century all saw architecture as a reform mechanism for politics: that is, for helping solve social problems rooted in urban life and community needs, and for devising improved ways for people to work and learn and grow together.

It seems to me that my Chicago  boat tour proved Speer’s point, that architecture reflects the landscape of political power, and it has been mastered by the Trumps of the world. It is a skyline of corporations, not of government, ideals, or community spaces. Bertrand was alone there in thinking about these things, his buildings stand out because of it.

The tour takes you down the river again almost to the mouth of Lake Michigan. On your left is an urban renewal area. The words urban renewal hurt my soul, always. They usually mean the wholesale clearance of earlier communities, older buildings, of people of color and immigrants and all those who did not master power, who lived lives of poverty and hard work. My people. Urban renewal has been translated into a coastline full of high rise condos. On your right is another urban renewal area. It is also full of high rise condos. You can see down the coastline, more and more and more high rise condos. I didn’t particularly care to hear about the architects.

And they are busy building luxury residences for people who don’t exist. Home sales in Chicago’s metropolitan area are down 27.5% from April 2008, and unemployment is up to 10.1% according to the Illinois Association of Realtors. And they have somehow decided that these condos count as affordable housing and are asking for help:

David Hanna, president of the Chicago Association of REALTORS®. “The city of Chicago condominium sales numbers continue to reflect a critical need for governmental agencies to review the growing disparity in the ability to finance a condominium purchase in the city. This affordable housing will become unaffordable and unattainable to many qualified first-time homebuyers in the city of Chicago unless existing federal guidelines, which do not take into account nuances of the local market, are modified.”

If they did build affordable condos, I’m sure they wouldn’t be having quite so much trouble…I like to imagine what our cities would look like if they were built for all of the city’s people. Because, I do agree with this final quote from Bertrand Goldberg:

Are cities in our blood?

Are cities the natural forms of shelter which men build for themselves? Like the spider his web, or the oyster his shell? The answer to this is uncertain, but I believe it to be – yea.

I love the city.

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