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

Bring on the future: the joy (and pain) of demolitions

In 1929, the demolition of slums in an impoverished part of London known as “Little Hell” was a popular spectacle; 85 years later, a demolition of tower blocks in Glasgow will be part of the celebrations for the Commonwealth Games – but it faces a barrage of criticism. What lies behind the production of demolitions for public entertainment?

In 1929, the demolition of slums in Somers Town, an impoverished part of London behind Euston Station known as “Little Hell”, was turned into a spectacle. Huge, detailed models of the pests that infested the old housing – a cockroach, a rat, a flea and a bedbug – were made in cardboard and straw and piled up in a heap of rubble and half-demolished buildings, an audience gathered, the press were there to report on it and a retired general was brought in to set light to the pyre. The event provided a symbolic destruction of the houses and by extension the eradication of the area’s appalling living conditions, some of the worst in the capital at that time. Ben Campkin in his book Remaking London: Decline and Regeneration in Urban Culture describes it as a “physical, performative and visually impressive act”.

The old slums were replaced by bright new social housing developments by the local council and St Pancras House Improvement Society, a housing association run by middle-class activists. The publicity for the demolitions was seen as a way of heralding a new era of hope and regeneration. There is no hint in the reports of the day that the demolitions were seen as anything other than positive – no suggestion they were criticised as the actions of misguided do-gooders and money-grubbing developers, or regretted by people who had lost their homes and community.

Eighty-five years later, a new demolition-spectacle is being planned by a housing association. Again, an audience is being gathered to witness the event and press will be there to document it for a wider public. Again, a notorious housing estate – this time, the Red Road towers in Glasgow (pictured above). The plan is to blow up five of the remaining six Red Road tower blocks, with film of the explosions shown live on giant screens in Celtic Park for the opening of the Commonwealth Games on 23 July.

The reasoning for the spectacle is very much the same as that of the 1929 conflagration in Somers Town.  Quoted in the Guardian, David Zolkwer, artistic director for Glasgow 2014, said: “It’s a bold and confident statement that says ‘bring on the future’.”

But this time there has been a flood of protest.

From Scottish newspaper the Herald:

While organisers said the ­demolition, the brainchild of ­creative teams within the ­organising committee, will make an “unforgettable statement” about Glasgow’s history and future, destroying buildings that were once home to thousands to provide a spectacle has been described as crass and offensive by critics.

Signatories to the petition [against the spectacle] have described the idea as vulgar, callous, arrogant and ghastly. Nicola Page, who spent her childhood in Red Road, wrote: “The world is now invited to laugh at and applaud the final death of the home that so many will mourn.”

The petition states that the demolition should instead be carried out “with dignity” and that the current plan would send out a message to asylum seekers in the one remaining tower that “they are not human enough to deserve decent housing”.

Alison Irvine, author of a novel about the Red Road estate, described the spectacle as “crude, insensitive, blunt” and accused the Glasgow 2014 committee of “trampling over the memories of people”.

Writing in the Scotsman, Joyce McMillan suggested the context of the spectacle, as part of the Commonwealth Games celebrations, “seems as uneasy and tasteless as it is bold”. She points out some other reasons for the hostile reactions:

The embrace of old and disused industrial spaces during 1990 was essentially an act of creative reinvention, and of imaginative tribute to the past; the spaces themselves were often beautiful, with a terrific melancholy grandeur, and the work created there was often breathtakingly powerful.

The demolition of Red Road, by contrast, is an act of outright destruction, and a highly ambiguous one. The flats may have been notorious … their design and construction was certainly part of the long decline of paternalistic municipal socialism, a shameful triumph of theory, ideology and influence over grass-roots democracy and common sense.

… It seems both problematic and strange to ask people to stand and cheer the destruction of such a large area of social housing at a time when the nation is in desperate need of cheap, affordable homes, and difficult to trust that the same council which built the flats in the first place, and its offshoot housing company GHA, will automatically replace the flats with something better.

It’s a view that contrasts with that of the organisers. According to Eileen Gallagher, the chair of Glasgow 2014’s ceremonies committee: “By sharing the final moments of the Red Road flats with the world, it is proving it is a city that is proud of its history but doesn’t stand still.” Gallagher describes the demolition-spectacle as a “celebration” of Glaswegians’ “tenacity, their genuine warmth, their ambitions”.

Perhaps in 1929 London, the idea of demolition as a bold celebration, of saying “Bring on the future”, held no irony and provoked no cynicism. Indeed, the estates that replaced the filthy, pest-ridden slums of Somers Town were designed by idealistic (if paternalist) architects and social workers who thought carefully about residents’ needs. Eight decades on, Britain has had more than enough experience of housing developments put up cheaply and quickly, motivated by profit, and now we are sceptical of grand statements of intent.

And maybe in 1929, there were also people resisting change, mourning the end of an era and the destruction of their homes; it’s just that they didn’t have a voice.



UPDATE 13 April

The demolition of the Red Road flats as a spectacle for the Commonwealth Games has been scrapped for “safety reasons” after an online petition protesting against it attracted thousands of signatures. From the Guardian:

In a statement, the Glasgow 2014 chief executive, David Grevemberg, said: “The demolition of Red Road will now not feature as part of the opening ceremony.”

Grevemberg said the decision was taken after opinions were expressed that “change the safety and security context”.

I wonder whether the sheer scale of the spectacle planned was what tipped the balance of disapproval – the Glasgow Housing Association which owned the flats had claimed 1.5bn people around the world would be watching the collapse of the 30-storey blocks on TV. Behind the display were the same good intentions that motivated the Little Hell demolitions –  Grevemberg claimed the idea was to tell “the story of Glasgow’s social history and regeneration” and the housing association said the demolition would “serve as a respectful recognition and celebration of the role the Red Road flats have played in shaping the lives of thousands of city families”. But instead of respect and celebration, the protesters spoke of the act as disrespectful, “disuniting”, ruthless and insulting; in the contest of emotions, their anger has won the day, and presumably the demolitions will go ahead out of the spotlight.


Some links

• Florence Foster talks about growing up in Little Hell in the early 20th century

• Photos on Flickr of present-day Somers Town

• The demolition of part of Red Road flats in 2012 – video

• Short history of Red Road flats 

Transformations at Tesco: a walk round Stoke-on-Trent

Exploring refrains for uncertainly sacred spaces, or a report on walking as imaginative adventure

The other day I went for a walk in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent. It’s quite a long way to go just for a walk (about two and a half hours on the train) but there were at least two things that made it worthwhile: it was part of the events around AirSpace Gallery’s Walking Encyclopaedia exhibition which I wanted to see, and it was led by Phil Smith, artist/writer/performer and progenitor of Mythogeography, which is like psychogeography but also quite different (have a rummage in the capacious and inspiring website to find out more).

stoke abc

The walk, titled Refrains for Uncertainly Sacred Spaces, started at AirSpace, a warm and welcoming artist-run gallery whose Glen Stoker came with us on the walk armed with a video camera. The Walking Encyclopaedia exhibition, which includes Tim Knowles’ solo show, Paths of Variable Resistance, ends on 15th March but I hope it will be archived for future reference at the end rather than dispersed – it’s a dense and wide-ranging collection of documentation of “walking as a cultural practice” by contemporary artists, including artist books, leaflets, instructions, videos, photos etc. There’s also a blog to accompany it.

Before we set out, Phil introduced the walk by talking a little about his current interest in privacy and exposure, and also describing the afternoon as an experiment – so if things didn’t quite work that would also useful. There were about 20 of us – a strange and interesting mix of people, some of us shod for a cross-country hike (me) and others who knew or guessed it wouldn’t be quite so arduous. In fact, we never strayed very far from the gallery – the walk proved to be a detailed exploration of the “uncertainly sacred spaces” all around us, and a strenuous workout for the imagination rather than the leg muscles.

stoke chapel

Those spaces included a patch of wasteland that was once a cinema, the arches leading to Tesco’s car park, some peculiar flower beds seemingly modelled on an altar for human sacrifice, unmonumented plinths in a former graveyard, cryptic marks on a wall, a Methodist chapel suspended in aspic-dust halfway between ruin and restoration, and the empty stage of the Regent cinema. We also walked very slowly around the Richard Long exhibition in the Potteries Museum, trying to get in touch with the spirits of the architects behind the 1960s building, and we clustered into a pedestrian horse outside the horseshoe-shaped doorway of a legal chambers. Along the way we cast health and safety to the wind, climbing over hillocks and holes and broken floors and risking arrest (or drawing attention) by quietly looking for things to steal, committing tiny acts of arson or disguising ourselves in black masks (our own personal patches of darkness)…

stoke regency1

This was walking as an imaginative adventure, full of suggestions to look harder at the urban furniture we take for granted and invitations to create fictions for ourselves, whether projecting a memory of darkness onto an imagined blank screen or stealing words from a derelict space. Some parts worked better for me than others – I was quite shocked that I felt a deep resistance to the idea of desecrating a chapel with sneak-thiefery, even if it was a symbolic rather than a real crime. On the other hand, walking round with a secret piece of darkness in my pocket was deeply appealing and the idea of later using that darkness (a small patch of cloth) as a veil of privacy had resonances I’m still pondering. Geographically, we covered a very small patch of ground but that meant we had time to explore it in detail within the various fictional frames that Phil suggested and supported with small invented (or excavated) rituals. What was on offer was a different way of seeing and relating to the everyday, a way to access something hidden beneath the skin of the banal.

stoke boilerstoke obelisk

Thoughts on walking art

I have vague feelings of discomfort around the idea of walking as art, or as a “cultural practice”. For one thing, it seems extraordinarily pretentious to anyone not involved with the art world to label as art an activity as basic and commonplace as eating or urinating. But this is also something I find exciting – it has the capacity to tread that invisible line at the border of art and the everyday, to explore that line and perhaps to blur it.

It can be participatory, pleasurable and potentially open to everyone; or private, esoteric and difficult, available to only the initiated. Or anything between these two. It can be an ongoing project that anyone can pick up and practise for themselves, or a one-off, unrepeatable event only thoroughly experienced by the artist, with the audience allowed crumbs from the table – fragments of documentation or recollection held captive in a stark white gallery far from the action. Either way, it doesn’t easily produce something that can be collected by oligarchs or sold at Sotheby’s for headline-making sums.

Perhaps the obstacle is the label – is it possible to just think of this activity as walking? What is the distinction between undertaking an “art walk” and simply using one’s feet to get around or go for a hike or take an old-school guided tour? All of these walks can have varying degrees of structure and direction. I think the artist’s walk might tend to have the intention of affecting the participant or the audience in some way, whether by involving them in an unusual activity or shifting the way they perceive and process the world. This was certainly true of Phil Smith’s walk, at least for me.

But it can be quite a subtle distinction. Ben Waddington, talking about his current festival of guided tours in Birmingham, says “The Still Walking outlook is that everything around us is worth looking at, thinking about and talking about” – which seems to make that vital connection between walking as a popular pastime and the aims of types of participatory art – does there really have to be a big gap between walking art participant and someone who takes a country walk to look at the landscape or who goes on a tour to learn about the history of a place? But of course, framing a walk as art allows you to apply for a grant or use it as research material for a PhD, which is quite another matter; it can also alienate people who would otherwise engage with and enjoy the experience.

I don’t have a clear answer at the moment. Any comments would be appreciated.

Some links

• AirSpace Gallery

• Phil Smith’s Mythogeography site

• Still Walking festival

• Walk On “From Richard Long to Janet Cardiff – 40 years of art walking”, an exhibition at Mac arts centre in Birmingham until 30 March 2014

• The Richard Long exhibition has ended at Stoke but it will come to Burton Art Gallery and Museum in Devon from October


Approximately once a month you can potentially witness around 50-70 Russian-speaking people driving and running around London with torches in search for the codes. You might think they are just crazy (once, in the middle of the game when I was looking for a code, a policemen approached me asking calmly whether I was feeling ok) but in fact they are part of an exciting urban game called Encounter.

Approximately once a month you can potentially witness around 50-70 Russian-speaking people driving and running around London with torches in search for the codes written somewhere around the city. You might think they are just crazy (once, in the middle of the game when I was looking for a code, a policemen approached me asking calmly whether I was feeling ok) but in fact they are part of an exciting urban game called Encounter.


For some reason former Soviet Union countries have a rich tradition of urban games which involves solving tasks and riddles, often under time condition, around the city. From early teenage years we get used to playing various urban games and quests: Running City, Pathfinders, Night Watch and even a quest in the Moscow underground – Metrobooks. They have various formats but with the underlining idea of adrenaline, action, entertainment, fun, erudition and, most importantly, a chance to experience your usual urban environment in a totally different way; to view it through a different lens.


Why did it become so popular in the former Soviet territory? Of course Russians are famous for their extremity and adrenaline-seeking. But I would suggest another reason – there appeared a fruitful potential for playing with really extreme urban experiences after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A lot of original Encounter games would involve abandoned factories, underground tunnels, rooftops and high fences. One of the most well-known examples is when during one of the games the participants were actually caught by the police and, while they thought it was a complete game over for them, they found out that the code was actually written inside the cell they were put in on one of the bars so the policemen were part of the game! Of course such things could only be done in Russia.

Encounter, which was organised first in 2001 by a group of students in Minsk, Belarus, is played today by Russian communities in several European countries. The statistics says there are around 300 000 people playing Encounter in 11 countries. Of course it had to become a bit more mild as it had to adapt to the particular laws and context of each individual city. Only recently the London branch of Encounter (recently re-named into City Quest) has organised its first game for English-speakers, which went very successfully and inspired organisers to continue making games for Londoners. If you want to experience all I have been talking about above, I suggest you participate in one of the games. All information can be found here.

Sounds of the city

We often talk about the city in terms of what we see – think of sightseeing, tourist sights, eyesores; architecture that frames a vista or lets in the light or blocks the view. A sound walk offers a different type of urban encounter, one that radically shifts the way we perceive the world, away from what we see and towards what we hear.

I reckon most of us (if we’re sighted) tend to think of the city in visual terms, whether we’re aware of it or not. We talk about sightseeing, tourist sights, eyesores; buildings or landmarks that look ugly or beautiful or dull; architecture that frames a vista or lets in the light or overshadows its neighbours or blocks the view of other sights we want to see. Certainly that’s true for me – it’s just that I’m so used to taking it for granted that I don’t even consider other types of urban encounter.

I recently went on a sound walk through part of south-east London, led by artist John Wynne, that radically shifted this perspective. About a dozen of us gathered in the drizzle outside Island Gardens, the misleadingly exotic name of a DLR station at the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs. We’d been told the rules: no photographing, no sound-recording, no talking (unless absolutely necessary), try to stay more or less with the rest of the group. I’m not usually a fan of lots of rules, but it would soon become clear that these were necessary to the task of cracking open our comfort zones and showing us the city as a world of sound.

The initiation

John’s tactic to move our attention from sight to sound was a simple one: the group was split into pairs, with one in each pair wearing a blindfold and being guided by the other, who wore earplugs. After a time, we swapped roles. This was just the first part of the walk – after about 10 minutes we continued without blindfolds and earplugs – but for me it was very effective. To set off walking, relying on a partner I’d never met before to keep me away from collisions and trips, was a jolt. As I settled down and started trusting him, I became more aware of the sounds around me as well as the feel of the ground beneath my feet and the wind on my face. When I exchanged blindfold for earplugs, sound was transformed from something in the world outside myself into an interior pattern of muffled vibrations in my bones. By disorienting and defamiliarising, these artificial handicaps prepared us to listen.

The ritual initiation into the city-as-soundscape took place as we walked through the foot tunnel under the Thames – a site that was interesting acoustically, with its echoes and rumbles, as well as providing an almost-too-perfect symbolic crossing-over. Not that this was spelled out – I wouldn’t want to equate south London with the afterlife, and at the time some of us were just too glad to shed our blindfolds and unplug our ears to worry about the semiotics of river crossings – but it seems typical of the way the walk as a whole was thoughtfully structured to introduce us to sound as a sensory experience and an alternative approach to exploring the city.


After we emerged on the far bank of the river, we followed John through a hugely varied progression of sounds and soundscapes, full of elements that were random and spontaneous but felt carefully orchestrated. The crunch of feet on shingle, the museum-like peace of a tourist attraction on a rainy day, chatter amplified by the high ceilings of a grand hall, snatches of music mingling with heavy machinery, a jostling market, busy traffic, lorries on an industrial estate, construction work, the gush and rush of a small waterfall beneath a railway line… And an hour and a half later we reached a cafe for the after-walk conversation out of the rain.

A couple of people talked about how the sounds of the world came to seem hyper-real, like an exaggerated soundtrack to a film they were in – which was either disturbing or enjoyable, depending on your point of view. Part of the walk, in the market, had struck some people as being like a bad film filled with stereotypical market dialogue – showing that if you listen, you can hear people genuinely talking in clichés in real life.

Some found paradoxically that their other senses were heightened – touch, smell, even vision – once they started paying attention to hearing.

One felt that we were like ghosts because we were moving through the world in complete silence. This was most obvious at one point where we all stopped in a relatively busy courtyard to listen to the sound of music rehearsals in a nearby room – passersby were clearly freaked out by the sight of a dozen people standing still, unnaturally quiet, all listening intently.

We also discussed the difference between indoor and outdoor sounds – outside, you listen to particular sounds with little or no idea where they are coming from; inside a building, you listen to the space – the way the architecture shapes the sounds.

A different angle

One thing that interested me was a double-defamiliarising that I glimpsed from time to time on the walk: not just switching my attention to sound, but a letting go of the compulsion to make meaning from it – to identify sounds as eg cars, footsteps, birdsong, wind in trees – and instead enjoying sounds as pure pattern, pitch and rhythm – as music, if you like. And we talked a little about how once we start listening to sound as music, we stop judging sounds as unpleasant, mechanistic, irritating etc – it’s all potentially interesting.

All of these ideas are interesting to explore further as a way of approaching the city from a different angle (argh, those visual metaphors are hard to escape!). And this is the sort of walk anyone can do – though it helps to take a friend, of course, if you are going to experiment with blindfold/eyes shut at the start. Although having said that, I felt lucky to have the chance to benefit from John Wynne’s expertise and his calm authority as a guide. One tip he gave us (familiar to anyone who’s done mindfulness meditation) was not to worry if our concentration flagged, but to just acknowledge that and bring our awareness gently back to listening.

There’s nothing obviously earth-shattering or agitprop about this sort of artistic activity (plenty of people would argue it isn’t art at all) but it attempts to wake us from our everyday sleepwalking through life, heighten our awareness of the world and shake us out of our habitual views and for me that makes it worth doing and worth talking about. Any views?

sound 1

>> The sound walk was co-ordinated by Tommy Ting, an associate artist at Open School East, a bunch of artists in east London who do all sorts of interesting stuff, including a lot that’s open to the public and free/cheap.

>> John Wynne’s website is full of information on his sound installations and his work with endangered indigenous languages.

Almost lost in the ancient future

Who needs actual historic buildings if we can fly through their reconstructions like a bird and see the layers of the past peeling away beneath us? Time-travelling through a couple of tourist attractions…

The other day I came across a new (or revived) walk that allows walkers to make a modern pilgrimage between Lichfield and Chichester. Called the Two Saints Way, it describes itself as both a new route and as having been “recreated” (it follows existing footpaths ) – it’s not entirely clear how that works – and it boasts a whole bullet-point list of “themes”, one of which seems to sum up the way the enterprise messes with the concept of time: “Journeying forward to the ancient future”.

I was sort of hoping this would involve a time-travelling immersive sci-fi/fantasy experience including aliens dressed as medieval monks (okay, yes, an episode of Doctor Who), but it seems to mean that the pilgrimage trail includes “high-tech interpretation panels” as well as virtual tours you can download to your mobile. And if you’re lucky, as those on inaugural pilgrimage were, you might be joined along the way by Saxon pilgrims from the Poor Cnights [sic] of St Chad re-enactment group (“They fitted in brilliantly and answered everyone’s questions about their get-up,” according to the walkers).  This is now on my list of things to do when the rain stops. The project cost £86,000 so those high-tech interpretation panels must be worth seeing.

There’s an exhibition on in London at the moment which sounds as if it’s doing its best to recreate the ancient future – or perhaps the futuristic ancient.  Almost Lost: London’s Buildings Loved and Loathed shows an alternative London in the form of digital reconstructions of proposed and rejected developments. You can see how Covent Garden would have looked if the sweeping 1968 demolition plans for the area had gone ahead, the result of a 1950s scheme for “a giant conservatory supporting tower blocks over Soho” and what Westminster might offer tourists if 1960s proposals to wipe out the Edwardian and Victorian buildings around Parliament Square had gone ahead.

Other digital animations show London developing over the years, with buildings and streets disappearing and others being constructed as you watch.

Of course there’s an agenda – it’s produced for English Heritage who are keen to demonstrate how awful the capital would look if conservationists hadn’t rushed in to save its historic buildings. The publicity for the exhibition vaunts its use of “the latest digital technology” including “Augmented Reality” on iPads and something called Pigeon-Sim, which allows you to take “an interactive flight through a 3D photorealistic model of the city”, getting a bird’s-eye view of all the historic buildings that have been saved for future generations.

So, what do we take from this? History = good; high-tech history = even better? Then again, who needs actual historic buildings and pilgrimages if we can fly through their reconstructions like a bird and see the layers of the past peeling away beneath us – not to mention all the futures that might have been? Did someone mention simulacra? Worth going on either or both of these outings to rub up against the contradictions and see if there’s something to learn, I reckon.

Almost Lost is at Wellington Arch until 2 Feb. You can walk the Two Saints Way at any time (weather permitting); some suggestions for planning an itinerary are here.

Debbie Kent