Arcades of Paris (with Walter Benjamin)

On New Year’s Eve we stumbled across these two arcades in Paris (I’d love to say that this came as a shock as we’d been taking a stroll along Leytonstone High Road, but sadly nothing mystical was involved, we traveled on Eurostar).

I thought of Walter Benjamin and his Arcades Project, a book I confess I’ve only read snippets of, but is difficult to avoid if you have an interest in the life of cities – it is a grand work dreamt up in these very arcades.

Passage des Panoramas

From what I gather, he saw the arcades as the natural habitat of the urban wanderer, the drifter, the flaneur:
“The Parisians … have made Paris the holy city of the flaneur – ‘the landscape built of sheer life,’ as Hofmannsthal once put it”

Benjamin describes the experience of the urban drift, or what another dweller of Paris, Guy Debord, would recast as the psychogeographic derive (Debord would see the flaneur as a decadent figure rather than a revolutionary or a subversive – I’m not so sure myself)

“That anamnestic intoxication in which the flaneur goes about the city not only feeds on the sensory data taking shape before his eyes but can very well possess itself of abstract knowledge – indeed, of dead facts – as something experienced or lived through.”

“The innermost glowing cells of the city of light, the old dioramas, nested in the arcades, one of which today still bears the name Passage des Panoramas. It was, in the first moment, as though you had entered an aquarium. Along the wall of the great darkened hall, broken at intervals by narrow joints, it stretched like a ribbon of illuminated water behind glass.”
Difficult to imagine Westfield Stratford moving someone to produce such prose.

“Architecture as the most important testimony to latent ‘mythology.’ And the most important architecture of the nineteenth century is the arcade.”

Quotes from The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin
Reading on the video by Heidi Lapaine

Does London Exist?

the precincts of central London

Among the mountain of topographical books that I found in Hay last weekend the one that I bought was A Guide to the Structure of London (1972) by Maurice Ash. I was hooked by a glance at these amazing maps and the chapter titles:
1. In search of London’s identity  2. The skin of an onion?  3. The geography of conflict  4. Journeys and sojourns  5. A strategy for identifying London  6. Town trails

types of housing tenure, 1966

Ash opens by asking the question of whether London exists, “There is just one question to be asked before one begins a book on the structure of London: Does London exist?”
Due to the diversity between Deptford High Street and Hampstead Heath and lack of common interest he wonders if “the entity of London is a fiction”.

the central spaces of importance for conservation

I would love to imagine Ash in conversation with Patrick Keiller’s character  Robinson in a grubby formica-tabled worker’s cafe, or perhaps at Brent Cross Regional Shopping Centre. In Keiller’s film, London, Robinson posits that “the true identity of London is its absence, as a city it no longer exists … London was the first metropolis to disappear” (you can watch this part of the film here at 3.44)

plan for the South East, 1967

Ash suggests that we should think of London as a region rather than a city, a region that has consumed the Green Belt and moved beyond. He identifies this new area of London the “Outer Metropolitan Area (the OMA), which for statistical purposes at least is bow taken to extend from beyond the Green Belt to about 40 miles from the centre of London”.

strategic plan for the South East, 1970

The book ends with six journeys through London that illustrate the thesis within the book: walking circuits in South London around Elephant and Castle, inner East London from Stepney Green, and inner West London from Earl’s Court; and then wider sweeps by car north and south and the outer metropolitan areas.
I wonder what following the same journeys today would tell us about whether London actually exists or is merely a fiction?

maps reprinted by Ash from Research Paper SRI, September 1966

london

The Un(known) City

“Exploring the unknown city is a political act: a way of bringing to urban dwellers new resources for remapping the city. Nevertheless, the unknown might resist such attempts at disclosure. It could be that what is known about the city has been known all along.”
– Steve Pile, The Un(known) City … or, an Urban Geography of What Lies Buried below the Surface

london

Walking the Finsbury Forts

I stumbled across an article on the web the other day. Think I was looking for something on Old Merlin’s Cave Tavern and found this piece on the Architectural Association site that makes reference to a chain of Civil War defences that cut across the old borough of Finsbury:
“Waterfield Fort was at the top of St John’s Street, exactly where Spa Green Estate stands today, linked eastwards by trenches running along Sebastian Street to a huge fort at Mount Mills off the Goswell Road. Westwards, the lines cut to New River Head’s circular reservoir and on to Mount Pleasant, east of Black Mary’s Hole and another city dump. In between, a covered walkway was cut up the hill that is now Amwell Street, to Islington Pond, which would soon became the extant reservoir in Claremont Square.”

The author, Guy Mannes Abbott, makes the link between this system of fortifications that stretched eastwards through Shoreditch and Whitechapel to Wapping built to protect the fledgling English Revolution and the Utopian aspirations of the municipal architecture of Berthold Lubetkin built in the old London borough of Finsbury:
“The forts mark an area known for its spas and radical reformers and which, in the seventeenth century, Wenceslaus Hollar represented in a series of etchings showing extensive earthworks. They protected an area that would become the site of the largest and most ambitious plan ever for the social regeneration of London and which remains a paragon of what could be achieved with social housing. Spa Green, Bevin Court and Priory Green just north of Finsbury are all positive manifestations of a politically committed and revolutionarily ambitious approach to collective works, but – conscious of what there was to fight for – Tecton also produced a plan for an elaborate system of defences and network of communications with uncanny echoes of the Civil War forts.”

So after work in the fading light I headed off to see what traces remained. I approached the forts from the south, across the wobbly bridge and round St Pauls. The towers of the Barbican Estate stand like sentinels challenging the medieval monastic complex of the Charterhouse across Goswell Road. If we’re looking for the spirit of rebellion and utopianism it’s written here on the names of the blocks that make up the Barbican: Thomas More House, Milton Court, Defoe House, Cromwell Tower, Bunyan Court, Mountjoy House after a Huguenot refugee, Willoughby House after Catherine an upholder of the new Protestantism.

Progressing northwards through the concrete I feel a tangible sense of anticipation. Leading off either side Gee Street, Bastwick Street, Pear Tree Court, straight rows of unforgiving slab-like structures. This landscape gives little away. Draws you in then repels you.

The Old Ivy House marks the corner of Seward Street, the sort of pub you’d only go into if you were desperate for a pint. The estate over the road is a red-brick construction of towers and walkways. The gloomy entrance to Seward Street stinks of stale piss and grime. A street sign on the back of the pub heralds the site of Mount Mills, a significant point on the “Utopian enclosure”. The view is far from utopian, grubby backs of houses, iron fire escapes, air-con vents, a hexagonal building juts out unnaturally and the road curves around it. Opposite a new gleaming block of flats with glass-brick lift-shaft/ stairwell. Mount Mills is now a new-laid tarmac carpark. I look back to the pub and the trendy coffee bar (coffee@goswell road) from higher ground. The mound. What was also a plague pit, windmill, public laystall has given way to Mini Cooper, Audi, tall TV aerials, private parking.

Looking east along Lever Street there is a noticeable rise in the road roughly adjacent with Mount Mills, it drops the other side towards Central Street. On the other side of Goswell Lever Street becomes Percival Street which leads into Skinner Street where the old Merlin’s Cave Tavern stood. Mannes Abbott sees the story of the construction of these defences being fundamental to the English identity and the narrative of the island. What more potent national mythology than the Arthurian legends, commemorated in the same streets.

Sebastian Street is immediately darker, tree-lined. Modernist buildings of the City University becoming a row of Georgian townhouses. A contemporary source described a trench dyke running along here to St. John’s Fort. I pass through Northampton Square with its bandstand. Crows squawk, they would have feasted on the carrion tossed into the ditch.

I exit on Wyclif Street. Another reference to radicalism.

Kids in hoodies riding BMXs whiz across St John St. Spa Green Estate that occupied the site of Waterfield Fort commands the high ground that marks the final approach to the Angel tollgate. This was bandit country in those days, the Angel Tavern did a brisk trade with travellers wanting to avoid progressing through the open fields in the dark.

I can smell a wet muddy fragrance. Kids play noisily on the football/ basketball court. The block facing St John Street is Tunbridge House, probably a reference to New Tunbridge Wells which was another name for the Islington Spa pleasure grounds that were here in the C18th. Do the kids see this as the Utopia Lubetkin designed, or a ghetto? One 18 year old threw himself to his death from a ninth floor window of a council block down here last week.

It’s dark and I’m put off walking through the estate. Its defences still in operation. From Rosebery Avenue you can see how Spa Green rests in a hollow. The wave of the outside wall recalling a fortified line. The Thames Water HQ opposite seems to continue the wave motif on the other side of the road, two grand municipal buildings complementing each other except that one has been converted to house the well-healed rather than the socially excluded.

Punters from the Sadlers Wells spill out onto the pavement. Up Amwell Street and I try to imagine it as a covered walkway as described in the article. It’s echoes Elizabeth Gordon’s speculation that a tunnel ran from the base of Amwell Street into the heart of Penton Mound where Merlin lived in a cave.

I pass on a pint in Filthy McNasty’s as it’s too packed and noisy. Three rosy cheeked pleasure seekers announce “Here it is”, and for a second I think that they too are looking for St. John’s Fort. “Filthy McNasty’s, s’posed to be really good.” I get a bottle of Polish Lager from the cornershop instead.

You can read “rebel city” here: http://www.g-m-a.net/docs/c_forting.html