Saturday, 25 August 2012


In Zurich, the European North meets the South. Here are the industrial elements, the newer brutalist structures alongside the angular yet elaborate gothic heritage, the heavy road and tram network, the high-rise offices. Also here, the sun-drenched lake, the winding steep cobbled streets, shuttered villa-like houses with balconies, the intricacy and luxury of a small town rather than gritty metropolis. The blend of geographical references (Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain) is reflected in the presence of an array of languages: German, Swiss German (which takes much from French), English, Italian even. Are they quite sure of their own identity, or is their identity the perfect combination of all of Western Europe, sitting as it does somewhat in the middle?

There is an ornate aesthetic and architectural heritage, tempered by a contemporary language of stripped back design and functional living. But through it all, remains colour. There is an abundance of bold colour in Zurich, from buildings of brightly different hues standing next to one other, to the artful notes of currency. This might lie in subtle contrast, however, to the apparent conservatism of the sporty, self-controlled, Swiss (I am told). But relaxed leisurely atmospheres are found, of course. One night I found myself in a small, leafy square surrounded by a rainbow of buildings, themselves with different coloured shutters, called 'Rosenhof'. Never have I admitted to myself liking 'restaurant spill-out', that term appropriated to death by practitioners of urban regeneration in England, which struggles of course to have a climate suitable to such a thing. There was a young Bossanova band playing on an incredibly balmy night, to a crowd of both restaurant goers and people lounging on stone steps with their own food and drink.  I suppose I'm trying to illustrate my point, albeit through recounting what must sound like a horrifically clichéd anecdote. On the other hand, the city centre around the train station and 'main' shopping streets, dominated by busy roads and large stores, feels industrial, and impersonal. 

Zurich is a city of water: a river, a lake, a canal, even imaginative and sculptural water fountains at most corners. Next to the water are countless places to enjoy it, whether swimming piers, bars, open-air cinemas, restaurants, sports courts; even in winter, I hear, the Swiss are greatly embracing of the outdoors and water's edge. A refreshing change to the critically under-utilised water resources in other cities (read: London).

Before this descends (ascends?) into a travel blog, I will call quits. Zurich is the best of a lot of European culture, in my opinion, not to mention landscape. But there are elements of the gritty romanticism of Paris it lacks, along with the enabling diverse expanse of London, or the charged atmosphere of Barcelona; elements which are somehow needed to feel as if you are part of a true city.

City Break

A quiet street, shop shutters drawn, barely anyone in sight. Lights off, doors locked.

No, this is not a sleepy ghost town; it's summer in Paris. Everyone makes it clear that the residents vacate the city of love in August, but it doesn't hit home until you see it; even friends of mine who have lived there for years still voice surprise at the annual - and mass - evacuation. It's eerie, and it's highly frustrating. The places I want to go are closed. Shops have handwritten notes in the window, announcing their 3 week break, and 'bonnes vacances!'

This accepted month of holiday from the metropolis, the Sunday of the year, the urban pause so widespread in Paris it feels like an institution - well I find it peculiar, but I also admire it profoundly. I cannot imagine a business shutting in London for a month because 'it's the holidays!' There's work to be done, surely. But because there seems to be some kind of pact in France, it's clearly feasible and businesses survive the break. It's quite a captivating thing, the city that goes on holiday. The normal stress is put aside, dissolved. Is it pretending work doesn't exist, though, or is this really how life, and business, should be conducted? Does living in a city require an annual block month's break away from it? Or is it simply that work cannot and should not be continual, that we need to remind ourselves of the bigger picture?

There is always a certain atmosphere associated with summer: of freedom. And this sort of freedom relates to the outdoors; an outdoors which is often stifling, polluted and short on green space in cities. This freedom to escape the continual urban affair and the work that necessarily goes with it is a beautiful antidote to the anxieties of the capitalist system, to the belief that money and business must always come first.

Cities are wonderful places but a break can never be a bad thing. A good city should facilitate, expand and diversify your life and your ambitions; it is a place to inhabit, not that inhibits. Cities are not machines and neither are we; so shut up shop and vacate the streets for a while. 

Bonnes vacances.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011


Recently I went to a talk entitled ‘Architecture and Happiness’ at LSE; I have to say I became quite excited at the prospect considering it plays so strongly into my interests expressed on this blog. The event did not, however, quite live up to my expectations; yet in that disappointment I reflected on what I thought of the statements asserted and below are some ideas on the topic that were playing around in my head.

The first speaker, a head of an urban think tank for London, bizarrely talked at great length about his rural summer house before making some last-minute sweeping statements regarding the topic: ‘architects are well-advised not to take happiness into account… it should not be an objective’. A little damning, perhaps, but it was explained somewhat by the conclusion both speakers reached that happiness cannot come if you aim too vigorously for it. To me this seems like… how can I put it? A cop out.

We can’t NOT take psychology into account when making a building or developing an area of the urban fabric just because happiness is an elusive philosophical concept. There have been countless examples of research into how environments – interior or exterior – affect our mood and have the potential to improve wellbeing and contentedness; in fact an entire field is quite clearly dedicated to it: environmental psychology. How far the architecture profession connects with such ideas is difficult to gauge. Although no one wants to veer too strongly towards environmental determinism, there should always be conceptions of how the plan and design are experienced in an emotional way: aesthetics, light, space, function – these all have clear impacts on an enjoyment of a space and clearly filter through to more general emotional wellbeing.

The second speaker, a conservative philosopher, widened the discussion by stating that if we are to aspire to happiness, it must be an ‘architecture of community’. This is an admirable vision, tapping into the current buzz of Big Society and community-oriented planning (neither of which, of course, should be undermined in theory). If we think of an ‘architecture of community’ in practice, it leads us to the idea of design encouraging interaction, which is certainly something to be aimed at, but also – as was the speaker’s angle – architectural configurations built for defined communities. This has indeed been attempted, in utopian communes throughout recent centuries in particular. It has also failed. Building a place so intent on integrating and serving a specific community can in the end just encourage separatism: communities parcelled off unto themselves, so focused on intra-mixing that inter-mixing is forgotten. Of course, this does not create a united and thriving city. Does an ‘architecture of community’ really exist then? Community cannot truly be willed by architecture, although there are spaces which can begin to facilitate it: communal playgrounds, town halls, unrestricted interior and exterior public realm. This is social space, however, and though architecture may sometimes contain it, it does not define it – community is encouraged by people and initiatives, not physical structures (I probably need to say here that architecture of course goes beyond ‘physical structures’, but opening this concept up would render any compact discussion of the topic impossible).

It seems clear that communities which exist, rarely do so because of architecture but because of (pre-existing) social ties. I live in a block of flats: I wouldn’t be able to recognise my neighbours in a line-up. Our communal hall space is empty, with desperately welcoming seats and a sofa hardly sat on. Before, I lived on a lovely non-thoroughfare street of terraced houses – and didn’t know a soul. But I speak only from my very particular situation. It could be that certain buildings encourage people to stop and talk and get to know their neighbours, thus encouraging a sense of community and in this discussion resultant happiness. It could be that creating defined architectural commune-like clusters does the same. It could also be that different people are variably inclined to interact or not interact or feel happy in particular places. So, an architecture of community is difficult if not impossible to prescribe. And though the interaction and friendship inherent in community may aid happiness, I wouldn't say that happiness should not be taken into account by architects purely because an architecture of community cannot be simply built. We need to think on a smaller scale, understand the human need for space, light, safety; architecture can provide and enhance this. For example, one could argue that the ‘space standards’ promoted by CABE are really a demonstration of aspiring to happiness through architecture.

From attempting – and faltering – to define an ‘architecture of happiness’, the speakers then turned to approaching the architecture of unhappiness to make things slightly clearer. It was agreed that architecture in defiance of surrounding urban values would constitute this. While the term ‘urban values’ could be taken to mean an overwhelming array of things, I do agree that to feel connected and integrated is vital, and facilitates what could be called a happy environment. Buildings and developments that do not respond sensitively to their locality (and I am not making a style argument here) are bound to unsettle and upset.

In a more difficult realm of thought, it has often been proclaimed that beauty enhances happiness. There are architectural problems with this: I think the Trellick Tower is beautiful, but that does not mean I would necessarily be happy living in it. While I certainly feel calmer and happier in what I identify as a beautiful space or surrounded by beautiful buildings, this concept is clearly too subjective to use and one that I cannot even begin to explore. Perceived beauty in the built environment results from coordination with perceived beauty in the eye of the architect. Let’s not now get into so-called objective notions of pleasing symmetry/irregularity/novelty/proportion.

So, is the conclusion that you should be the architect of your own happiness? I think now more than ever we realise success lies in collaboration. Happiness is of course deeply personal and tied up with numerous uncontrollable factors – but it is also often facilitated by environmental experience. Speaking in terms of architecture and urbanism, it is high design quality – through, for example, sufficient space and natural light, and the facilitation of functional and social integration – that is potentially a key factor to achieving human satisfaction. But I’m not trying to define happiness; nor am I endorsing environmental determinism. I don’t believe there is an ‘architecture of happiness’. But I also don’t believe that the two concepts should be separately treated.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

memory space.

It is genuinely mind-boggling and entirely unsettling when you happen upon an empty site in the city and start wondering where you might be until it dawns on you that this is the space once occupied by a building that contained your rawest experience. I'm sure this sounds unnecessarily hyperbolic and indulgent but - and I divulge to make my point - I speak of the Middlesex Hospital on Mortimer Street, where I spent weeks at the age of 18, numb in a waiting room, waiting for my brother to die, or for a miracle to happen. Incredibly luckily it was the latter, but those harshly lit spaces, corridors, lifts, wards, windowpanes, the chapel; these were the built containers of his sickness, our sickness, suspended and ended time, numb tears.

This massive, red brick, monumental and endless building became my reluctant home. The spaces are etched in to my life; they stick to me like glue. Of course I never wanted to return there, but having it all removed without my knowledge, I feel as if reality and history have vanished - did it really happen if the place it occurred in no longer exists? I stumbled upon the new, empty, alien space and slowly realising where I was and what had been removed completely destabilised me. Its absence renders both the place and memory dream-like. It also feels as if the very ground has eaten up the walls and all their stories, consuming the bad and good until invisible. And now what? Another luxury block of flats I suppose?

I have always felt that spaces have characters, but in some kind of earthly impossibility, it is as if a space ceases to be - a black hole removes the very fabric of reality, just to replace it with a new space, for a new time.

But this is the city, and this is what happens. Always shifting, renewing, for better or worse.


22 July: Today, by chance, I opened a John Berger book I've had for 2 years, unread. I came across the following.

"To this human ambiguity of the visible one then has to add the visual experience of absence, whereby we no longer see what we saw. We face a disappearance. And a struggle ensues to prevent what has disappeared, what has become invisible, falling into the negation of the unseen, defying our existence."

Far more eloquent than me, John.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

SF: a small musing.

San Francisco is a city where I found myself using the word 'vibe'. I feel deeply embarrassed by this confession; it was out of character.

It may be because in many respects, the city was so alien to London living, particularly the way in which everything (allow me to generalise wildly) feels much more relaxed, as if the pace of life has slowed, the sharp edges of it softened by perpetual sunshine and the dominant stress of timetables and careers washed aside by more leisurely priorities.

This is not, of course, to suggest that San Francisco is not a centre of business and employment; but there exists a marked divide between its financial centre, echoing the advanced metropolitan form (albeit skewed by dramatic topography) of Chicago and New York, and the rest of the city, characterised by low-rise, iconically-beautiful wooden houses, unaltered hand-painted shop signs and ubiquitous technicolour murals. Art, like beauty, is welcomed in this city like few others.

So, it's California living: your peers drink beer and make music in the park, socialise every evening, have a resilient and optimistic demeanour and smoke a hell of a lot of drugs. Street life exists in a way it struggles to in British climes; the popularity of inventive street food initiatives are proof of this if nothing else.

The visual lack of creative destruction (as seen in original unaltered signage and the absence of postmodern/neomodern characterless 'regeneration' schemes), the liberal approach to street activity and decoration, and the striving for (albeit at times homogenous) architectural beauty gives rise to this air of relaxation, contentedness and ultimate liveability that so many cities could do well to emulate.

I'm not sure if I could really live in San Francisco, though. It is pleasant, yes, but it is a world of its own where the middle class revel in beer and zine-making (or home improvements and dog-walking) and the others are forgotten, avoided or (perhaps undeliberately) fetishised. Neverthless, there is something very seductive and powerful about its beauty. Walking through its streets gives me pleasure that is in all honesty intermittent on those of London.

Saturday, 12 February 2011


“The city as we imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps in statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture” (Jonathan Raban, Soft City, 1974).

It is clear Raban is affected deeply by the ideas of Situationism in his meditations on the city. The Situationist International, a group founded in 1957 and led by Guy Debord, argued for an urban realm ruled by the imaginative; they wanted to counter the increasing rationalisation and meaningless capitalist spectacle of city life. Their tools to chart and promote the emotive urban existence were the dérive (or ‘drift’) and psychogeography. Through both, they attempted to discover and articulate how the city and its districts affect us emotionally and the personal geographies we create for ourselves out of them. 

Focusing on these personal imaginative geographies, psychogeography set out to create maps that better represented the way we see cities. These described and promoted certain dérives, in which members of the group would explore the city by means of free association and chance, giving rise to unexpected meetings and meanings in the landscape. Their wanderings traversed what David Pinder (2005) calls the ‘emotional contours’ of the city. Debord’s best-known psychogeographical maps, Guide Psychogeographique de Paris and The Naked City (1956-7) were made through cutting up parts of traditional maps and reorganising them subjectively to describe journeys and selective significances of parts of the city.

This is a physical representation of an activity in which we all partake: cognitive mapping. How we see the city and its organisation is defined by the routes we take through it, the memories we associate with certain places and the myths we identify with unexplored areas; realities wholly unrepresented by traditional maps. Henri Lefebvre (1991) differentiates representational space, bound up with the symbolism of social life and lived experience, from representations of space, which are tied to production and order. We can never perceive the world in completely accurate terms – whether figures or maps. So if our cities are experienced through our mental comprehension and experience, so they will always be malleable to our distortion, subjectivities and associations. In this way, cognitive mapping is a way of coping with the immense amount of information the city offers us.

‘It is precisely because the city is too large and formless to be held in the mind as an imaginative whole that we make recourse to irrational short-cut and simplifications’ (Raban)

By any account, cities are overwhelming organisms to comprehend, let alone live in. In reaction to this bombardment with information and options, we choose elements of the city to create an identity and a reality of our own imagining. One theorist attuned to this overwhelming nature of the metropolis was Georg Simmel. His ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ (1903) talks of the ‘intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli’. Simmel states, however, that this has lead to a supersaturation in which city inhabitants can no longer respond to the plethora of stimuli, and consequently adopt a blasé, unemotional, rational attitude. It is clear, however – and only natural – that emotional engagement has not been dissolved in the city; as has been discussed, it is merely limited and defined to personal imaginations of identity. While we may admittedly emotionally invest less in the proliferation of events and strangers around us, this only serves to intensify our own individual experiences and associations; our own mental life.

Robert Park, leading member of the Chicago School, once said that the city is ‘a state of mind’. In the city especially – rather than the countryside – everything is concentrated, overwhelming, giving rise to a variety of thoughts and feelings. We focus on personal geographies and particular mythologies in order to make sense of it, while spaces and activities proliferate that make us feel anxious or hopeful.

What the Situationists aimed to do was reclaim the city in terms of imagination and emotion. While emotional realities and imaginative interpretations have not subsided, we could also realise their political potential in combatting increasingly regulated systems of metropolitan existence. Leonie Sandercock (2007) argues for a new kind of planning approach that embraces the imaginative realities of urban life: ‘we need to be more attuned to the city of spirit, the city of memory, and the city of desire: these are what animate life in cities’.
When we conceive of an experienced city, we think not of facts or figures, or official maps. We remember memories, moments, myths. Places evoke particular emotions and associations: we get a ‘sense’ for them. We conceive of the city as a subjectively connected agglomeration of experiences; whether home, work, favourite places or poignant reminders of love lost and found. Our maps are mental; as Raban articulates, ‘one man’s city is the sum of all the routes he takes through it, a spoor as unique as a fingerprint.’ 

Urban statistics chart the actions we carry out in a city. But these actions speak of lived experiences; experiences grounded in subjective perspectives and emotions. Statistics and monographs do describe a reality; one that is a scientific tool for analysis and understanding. Our reality may be framed by this – i.e. wealth, location, schooling – but we do not naturally analyze these formal classifications; rather we deal with the hopes, anxieties or myths they play into, produce, supply or embody in a constantly shifting, personal mode of imaginative experience.

Both cities and their inhabitants change every day; the production of meaning and reality is never complete. We must go on what we know, and that is a life shaped by feeling and memory. As with the example of mental and psychogeographical maps, we chart our own city: the one that makes the most sense to us, taking the urban structure and moulding it into a place defined by subjective experience and imagination. This, as Raban would say, is our reality: our Soft City.

Thursday, 9 September 2010


London is my home, Paris was my home from last winter to summer, and New York is a city I have repeatedly visited. So what I say - in this and everyday conversation - is coloured by this perspective; I am no expert. This largely uninformed ramble is, essentially, a personal analysis of the experience of each city, specifically the psychological and aesthetic effect of the context and traces of history.

New York City lacks in history what London and Paris make up for in abundance. Yet equally, engagement with the architectural contemporary, which New York cannot help but display, is markedly lacking in central Paris. Its main high rises pushed out to the west, the city of Paris has as much a homogenous nineteenth-century traditional aesthetic as Manhattan has a modern one. London, meanwhile, in my opinion, displays an eclecticism that it is not celebrated enough for.

It is vital for a city to cater for the contemporary; architecture is an apt expression of this. But traces of history - cobbled streets, baroque churches and buildings whose functions have changed over time - are just as crucial to a well-rounded city in my view. They supply stories and intrigue. The presence of the past can imbue a place with a sense of importance - and, most importantly, what we tend to call character. Of course New York is not as old as London, but there is still an attitude in Manhattan that, closer to its eastern counterparts like Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur, insists on the new: perpetual regeneration to suit contemporary needs and wants. When I am in New York City, I am all too aware that there is incredibly high demand - and incredibly high supply. This reciprocity will keep increasing as the modern New Yorker expects more and better, more and better, always defining this in contemporary terms. Tell me one thing you cannot get in Manhattan, at any time, in any place. Is modern society progressively characterized by consumerism and convenience? Of course both these are vital to a thriving, successful city - both for its inhabitants and tourist industry - but we need something more. Or perhaps, less.

I find that there is limited mystery in Manhattan - even people will be incredibly forward and bluntly to the point (excuse the tautology), because there is no time (allowed) for ambiguities and questions: the city lives in a perpetual rush, in a drive for perfection - and if you, or a place, does not satisfy a set of particular needs, you will be discarded.

London, with its changing functions, urban myths, psychogeographical tradition, even ghost tours, has this alluring and exciting history - this mystery, which I believe adds a complex texture to the urban fabric; one that is needed for a full city, a city that keeps unveiling more aspects, more stories, more hidden places, the longer you live there.

Paris, meanwhile, my former home and city of my dreams, remains just that: more a city wrapped up in romanticism and idealization than a workable reality (banlieues non-withstanding). The place is a painting: the city views are predominantly beautiful, the streets still lined with nineteenth-century blocks and only a few steps away - conceptually - from the snow-globe town that is Venice. There is very little that is contemporary or even 'ugly' about central Paris (and when there is it feels unique or out of place - namely the Pompidou Centre and business district around Gare du Lyon). Paris is preserved; it is insistently traditional, not only architecturally but also in attitudes and norms. It is a concentrated hub and much of what is 'everyday', 'contemporary' and 'residential' happens in the banlieues, detached from the city proper (both physically by the boulevard périphérique, and conceptually) and widely thought of as architecturally uninspiring.

With history comes variety, and what is variety? I only wish there were a better cliché than the spice of life. However, while Paris and New York fall short for me on opposite counts, I still believe London has something to learn from them. La Ville-Lumière is eternally concerned with aesthetic beauty, in a way London perhaps forgets; meanwhile, the Big Apple undeniably generates an excitement that our city will never quite achieve. In its mix of old and new, London sets up a tough challenge for itself in terms of coherence; but as long as both are tended to with care, I believe my home can justifiably be called a pretty great city.

Towards a new architecture blog.

I am concerned primarily with the urban experience and how we can enrich it. How do our physical surroundings in the city - its architectural and spatial formations - affect us psychologically as well as practically? One street can inspire; the other can depress. This is my personal take on what 'psychogeography' is, and I believe that research into how we are affected by the city's appearance and configuration can be harnessed into urban planning policies to create a more harmonious, exciting and satisfying city.

It is the scene against which our lives play out and the slight changes in environment can completely destabilise us or transform our mood. Why do we like a place? For its beauty, interest? I know that I want my city to be unified but varied; a complex web of old and new - and yet everything functioning successfully for the contemporary society. Beauty is important: we love Paris for its elegant dated buildings and leafy squares. Rest is equally vital: escaping the activity so integral to a thriving city's life. Traces of the past fascinate: buildings tell stories and offer a sense of established identity. Emphasising a sense of space and light precludes the threat of the physicality of urban oppression.

My eventual desire is to help ensure that London, my home, develops in the best possible way for its inhabitants. While new developments have to be carefully evaluated and integrated with their social and built context, we should continue to celebrate the old through renovation and restoration. Like the examples of community gardens, pop-up cinemas and unexpected art spaces, we should strive to transform disused spaces into pleasant, democratic and functional areas for members of the public. Impacts of land uses on the environment and communities must always be monitored; the character and health of a place is so often incredibly fragile.

We all experience the city in different ways; it can never be objective. We infuse physical place with memory, emotion, personal associations and tastes. None of us see or respond to our surroundings identically - and yet somehow we must agree on a way to develop, control and change them for everyone. Our own feelings differ depending on where we are in a city: various areas can have such unique atmospheres, making us feel relaxed, excited, anxious, depressed, irritated or fascinated.

For me - and we speak of London here, my home - I find the suburban north west immensely depressing. I did grow up there and perhaps that colours my view, but I associate it with so much industrial wasteland, not to mention vast residential areas with a marked void of cultural activities. A place that never fails to enchant me is the Barbican, one of my first ports of call when showing a newcomer to the city. Walking into the complex instantly transports you and the most accurate sensation I can articulate is one of being on the set of a science fiction film. Elevated and suspended walkways, seating areas submerged in the middle of lakes, soaring towers and an overwhelming brutalist structure of visually powerful long walkways and monumental piers. It is both a dominant part of the City of London and a world unto itself; an escape from the prevailing urban experience. The flashing signs and busy thoroughfare of Piccadilly Circus can excite and irritate in equal measure. Walking along the Regent's canal gives me a great sense of satisfaction and calm.

Of course we begin to realize that feelings in response to the built environment begin to combine with those provoked by human activity: we, afterall, are the reasons why a place might be busy, dirty, dangerous, or empty. There have, however, been arguments to suggest certain kinds of architecture or built communities engender specific types of behaviour, whether friendliness or hostility (read Charles Mercer's Living in Cities: Psychology and the Urban Environment). Take the high-rise blocks and the suburban neighbourhoods: while one person might argue the former encourages a lack of interaction - in the same way that Simmel sets out the isolating anonymity experienced in large groups of people (The Metropolis and Mental Life), another might suggest that hostility really begins to emerge in the suburban areas. Some feel happiest where others feel most suffocated.

Cities are man-made, but we need to allow them to involve and nurture nature. As alluring as indoor spaces and pastimes are - the internet, cinema, television - engaging with the natural environment has much greater power to improve your mental as well as physical health. We have resigned ourselves to a life where few of our senses are needed or stimulated. We built cities for a good reason: to bring us together and create activity. But it is vital not to lose touch of that other side of nature, escape, calm. It has to be easily accessible throughout the city, whether in the forms of parks, gardens, rivers, or canals. Of course we can only create more of the former two, but there remains much potential in the access to, and use of, the waterways.

Those responsible for developing the city have a most serious duty. They are affecting and shaping the lives of its inhabitants. Practical, functional, environmental, financial and even political concerns may always take centre stage when deciding how to develop areas, but my opinion is that the psychological impact must not be disregarded. How will the design of this building make someone feel? How will the use of this space impact the public emotionally? If you want a happy and functioning city, it is worth keeping in mind.