Demolition of the day: Kingsland Road

In April 2014, Idel Hand demolished Kingsland Road giving the reason:

No longer shall the spoon gummers ape the interchangable code of cosumer conduct to make up for their lack of personality


Although his spelling is idiosyncratic, I understand just what he means.

the liquid city

A project that proposes to re-establish an “intimate and playful link” between Londoners and the Thames raises the idea of moving through the city via its waterways.

In August 2013, one of the participants in the Demolition Project, Annalisa, decided to drain the Thames and fill it with blue Mediterranean water. Now we find that others are planning to turn the river into a swimming pool, as discussed by Ian Steadman in the New Statesman, who notes that “semi-wild swimming is a very London thing” (he cites Hampstead Heath ponds, the Serpentine and Shadwell Basin as examples).

The Thames Baths Project proposes to “re-establish an intimate and playful link between Londoners and the historic lifeblood of the city”. Led by architects Studio Octopi and landscape architects JCLA, its supporters include the Architecture Foundation (the project was submitted as a proposal in the foundation’s London As It Could Be Now: New Visions for the Thames competition) and the Outdoor Swimming Society, Jenny Landreth, who blogs about her goal to swim in all of London’s pools, and Amy Sharrocks, whose work has included walks tracing London’s ancient rivers, swimming across the city via its pools, and collecting water donations.

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It strikes me that swimming is often overlooked as a way of exploring or relating to the city – yet all cities are patterned with watery places, from manufactured canals, pools, fountains and reservoirs, to natural rivers, lakes, estuaries and sea-coast. The Outdoor Swimming Society has a great map of wild swimming in the UK with a surprising number of sites in London, liberating swimmers from lanes, footbaths and chlorine. In central London, where the water is nasty and the currents can be fierce, it’s considered dangerous to take a dip and in 2012 the Port of London Authority banned swimming without prior permission, so it’s probably not such a good idea to try it out in the Thames just yet. Some alternatives are listed below.

A great thing about the Thames Baths Project is that its stated aim is to to restore the Thames as a genuinely accessible public space. As the project points out, it has become increasingly difficult to use the Thames as river traffic has increased, building work has blocked access to the riverside, sewage has increased and the quality of the water has declined. The Thames has a long history of being a focal point for utopian projects – from Willey Reveley’s 1796 plan to straighten it, to HR Newton’s 1861 proposal to build locks across it to halt the tidal flow – and this may be just the latest. But we can dream.

It would be nice to share experiences of liquid locomotion in the city, whether paddling in fountains or wading through the canals…


• The Thames Baths Project

• Swimming in Hampstead ponds and in the Serpentine

Demolition of the day: the Orbit

In August 2013, Richard Spence demolished the Orbit in Stratford because

It f*€king ugly.

Full title the ArcelorMittal Orbit, this metal sculpture in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park was due to open to the public next week. The admission price would have been £15, or £13 for local residents. According to its website, what you would have got for your money is:

Feel the ground disappear as you make the short journey by lift, 80m to the top viewing platform of the ArcelorMittal Orbit where you will experience a show-stopping panorama.

Instead, thanks to Richard Spence, we felt the Orbit disappear, clearing the landscape for a better view of the sky.

Destroying monuments part one: the dissolving city

Monuments are always more than decorative fragments of the urban scene. Here’s a public artwork that stirs up questions about their meaning, the transience of fame and “the bubble reputation” of those commemorated.

I found out the other day that Butcher Cumberland was still hanging round Cavendish Square. That’s not his official title – properly speaking, he’s called Written in Soap: a Plinth Project – but Butcher was the nickname of Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, who sits astride a horse in the middle of the square, just behind John Lewis. He’s an effective piece of public art by Korean artist Meekyoung Shin that raises all sorts of questions about the nature and purpose of monuments.

At first glance, Written in Soap is a standard equestrian statue. It looks like stone, it sits comfortably on a stone plinth and there is a little plaque telling you that it was erected in 1770. The thing is, although it was put up as a statue to the hero of the the 1746 battle of Culloden, it was taken down under a century later for political reasons, after the Duke of Cumberland had gained a shocking reputation for brutal killings and plunder (hence the nickname) and his hero status had become too tarnished to justify public memorialising. The plinth was bare until 2012, when a remarkably convincing imitation of the original was erected, in soap crafted to look exactly like weathered stone.

Written in Soap is designed to weather rather faster than stone, of course. The project was supposed to last a year, but it has worn better than expected – although the supporting metal armature is now sticking through the washed-away surface in several places – and in contrast to the original, public demand is apparently responsible for the decision to leave it in place.

I never consciously noticed the absence of a statue when I used to walk through Cavendish Square, but I remember being shocked when I first registered its presence – a man on a horse had appeared from nowhere yet it looked as if it had been there for centuries. I would have been less disturbed to see a new building – sometimes central London can seem like one giant construction site – but a modest, unassuming monument slipping into place seemed like a much bigger deal, as if I had stepped into a parallel, subtly different world, like someone in a Philip K Dick story.

Written in Soap is a work with many layers. You can simply appreciate the skill in its making or enjoy the joke it makes around the nature of the material, which convincingly imitates stone in appearance while having the opposite qualities in terms of resilience, while perhaps “washing away” the Butcher’s war crimes along with his presence. Or you can see it as a commentary on the transience of fame and “the bubble reputation” (the Duke of Cumberland went from hero to villain within a century and, before his fatty resurrection, was largely forgotten, at least in England, although in Scotland the project stirred up some anger among nationalists), or as a work that engages with the meaning of monuments and their presence in the cityscape. At the very least, it made me look twice, which is more than many works of art achieve.

But, while Written in Soap certainly looks like a monument does it qualify as one, or is it a piece of public art. And is there a difference?

In his book Written in Stone, which was one of Meekyoung Shin’s inspirations, Sanford Levinson writes that “a public monument represents a kind of collective recognition – in short, legitimacy – for the memory deposited there”. A monument is always more than just a decorative fragment of the urban scene, it’s an argument in an ongoing debate over history – what monuments depict, who decides when and where to erect them, what values are embedded in them, are all important questions.

Yet London is overrun with public statues and few people really notice them. Apparently, there are so many monuments and memorials in a part of central London between Whitehall and St James’s that Westminster council has declared in a “monument saturation zone”. But how many of us really see them or know what they represent? Even in Trafalgar Square, the central spot in the capital for people to congregate in celebration or protest, there are three plinths that tend to be overlooked, although most know that Admiral Nelson is on top of the column in the middle and that the “fourth plinth” in the north-west corner is the site of a succession of new commissions. But whose statues are on the other three? (King George IV, Sir Henry Havelock and Sir Charles Napier if you’re interested – and I had to resort to Google to discover that the latter two were 19th-century army bigwigs who played important roles in Britain’s rule over India.) How long would it take for anyone to spot the difference if they were replaced overnight?

Perhaps this is a reflection of how relaxed Londoners – and maybe the English as a whole – feel about their identity – the Scots’ reaction to the resurrection of Butcher Cavendish shows this complacency isn’t universal in Britain. Or perhaps it’s to do with the fall from fashion of the “Great Man” view of history, or of figurative art in the west – certainly more recent monuments and memorials in London have tended to be non-figurative. Elsewhere, the survival and significance of statues has been a very different story.

Part two of this piece looks at the smashing up of monuments that refuse to gently dissolve in the rain, in countries where national identity is far hotter issue.

• Thanks to Jonathan Polkest for reminding me about Written in Soap: A Plinth Project. For more on the artwork and Meekyoung Shin, see the website and Facebook page


Demolition of the day: the Olympic Press Centre

In August 2013, Martin of Homerton demolished the Olympic Press Centre in Stratford in order to:

Return the land to common usage – allotments please.

Martin’s action will go someway to restoring the Manor Garden allotments that were controversially demolised in 2007 to make way for the 2012 Olympics site.

Demolition of the day: White City flyover

In June 2013, Frances demolished White City flyover because:

Under this flyover are is a load of temporary housing. So families are having to live with billions of cars flying above their heads the whole time… So getting rid of the flyover give them a bit of peace & quiet.

Demolition of the day: Archway tower and gyratory

In August 2013, Simon demolished Archway Tower and Gyratory because:

The tower is the highest in London and we look at it every day. And who wants an urban motorway roundabout by our shops/homes. What were they thinking in the 1970s

Demolition of the day: Oxford Street

In October 2013, Ursula demolished Oxford Street as a shopping centre and replaced it with a giant aquarium running the entire length. She summed up her actions:

Oxford St. –> Shit.
Aquarium instead

In a longer conversation, we talked about transforming people’s lives away from consumer society to the beauty and calm of watching marine life or perhaps swimming the from Tottenham Court Road to Marble Arch.

Subsequently, I discovered that in 1954 there had been a scheme to build glass-bottomed canals and swimming pools above the pedestrianised roads of Soho, but it came to nothing until Ursula’s imaginative intervention found the right place to realise this visionary transformation, in the neighbouring shopping street.