Thoughts on The View from the Train: Cities and Other Landscapes, by Patrick Keiller, Verso, 2013
Through his series of feature-length ‘Robinson’ films, Patrick Keiller has provided the gold standard for artists ‘subjectively’ interacting with the built environment for around the last 20 years since London went viral after a run at the ICA in 1994. Keiller had perfected an essayistic style of his own through a number of earlier shorts that juxtaposed a humour-tinged fictionalised voice-over against a sequence of static general views of landscapes. The essays in The View from the Train follow Keiller’s journey through film from 1980 to the most recent manifestation of his enigmatic character Robinson, charting the evolution of his practice and thinking. If you have watched his films, and in my case continuously re-watched, then it is impossible not to conflate the two. As you read, the fruity Shakespearean tones of Paul Scofield’s narration on his two best-known films, London and Robinson in Space, start to emanate from the page. But it soon becomes clear though, that Keiller’s voice is not so much the archly camp thesp but his friend and fellow flâneur Robinson, a more fastidious, intellectual character.
He embraced the Surrealists’ “feeling for nature” to be found in the street, the radical subjectivity of poeticising the world around you to bring about the changes that you desire to see.
In the introduction, which gives the book its title, Keiller writes about a project he embarked upon in 1977 documenting what he describes as “found architecture” in set of 35mm transparencies. These were buildings glimpsed on daily commutes that caught his eye but were not “the result of conventional architectural activity”. He goes on to describe how he linked similar projects by the Surrealists in 1920s Paris to his own work. This interest in the Surrealists reinvention of the urban realm into an imaginative space is a subject that he returns to throughout the book and one that appears to be close to the heart of his practice. He embraced the Surrealists’ “feeling for nature” to be found in the street, the radical subjectivity of poeticising the world around you to bring about the changes that you desire to see.
Not far into The View from the Train I started to even forget that Keiller is a film-maker, rather as he describes himself in one of the more scholarly essays, “as an architect diverted into making films”. He explains how he sought to “explore the spaces of films” and through capturing architecture on celluloid create new built environments without ever laying a single brick. Film as a medium he tells us, “might be thought at least as compelling as an actually existing architecture of heightened awareness – an ecstatic architecture”.
Although the prose style is lucid and thankfully largely free of academic jargon the thinking behind it is thorough and well researched. That this then manifested itself in films that achieved a degree of commercial success, escaping the arthouse ghetto to play in West End cinemas and screenings on Channel 4, is a further testament to his skill as both thinker and film-maker.
Keiller is often lumped into the psychogeography camp but here he reminds us that “the dérive is not an end in itself”, something often overlooked as urban walking has become synonymous with psychogeography as if it would merely be enough to go for a wander round the East End to shatter the Spectacle. He points out, “In London now, psychogeography leads not so much to avant-garde architecture as to gentrification”, and relates the way the Surrealists appropriated buildings and areas to the mechanics of modern property development as estate agents dream up new names and narratives for run-down districts to boost prices and draw in house-hunters looking for the new up-and-coming investment opportunity.
“In London now, psychogeography leads not so much to avant-garde architecture as to gentrification”
There is a gentle politics at work throughout difficult to locate on the contemporary Centre-right-Right spectrum, probably residing somewhere in the area vacated by the moderate rump of the Labour Party. The detailed analysis of UK Port Statistics that provided the theoretical spine of Robinson in Space makes fascinating and essential reading. The paradox of high unemployment vs. a healthy UK economic bank balance gets to the root of the problem of measuring success by focusing on GDP alone. And there are insightful analyses on the nature of inequality and even a Robinson-esque comment on the sexuality of Conservatism.
He consistently returns to a preoccupation with housing, particularly its dilapidated state. It was the subject of Keiller’s follow-up film to Robinson in Space, The Dilapidated Dwelling that comes across better in written form, for me, than it did on the screen. It demonstrates how the book is more than a companion piece to his films, the essays extending the scope of the “subjective transformation” of urban space achieved through the lens of a camera. Whereas Keiller states that his films “set out to criticize architectural space rather than simply depict it”, The View from the Train provides a detailed topography of the terrain on which his poetic realm is built.
Originally published in 3:Am magazine 21/12/13