I’ve been photographing London for as long as I’ve had access to a camera. It’s always fascinated me for its shape-shifting architectural abilities. Are those threatening its appeal, now, though?
To me, the spectrum of “architectural” travel photography covers at least three stages, each equally interesting but attracting different types of creators and spectators :
Pascal Ollier tends to gratify us with marvelous posts following the first principle. His use of extreme angles and personal framing choices skilfully avoids what could be a boring education course. Dallas works in series that are both consistent in theme and aesthetics to produce a similarly enjoyable depiction of somewhere that goes beyond the mere documentary while still informing us about the location in a way that’s really grounded. Adrian achieves stunning results through portraits in the streets of Asian cities, in an intimate, nocturnal, style.
Philber, Nancee Rostad and Paul Perton, with aesthetics and approaches that couldn’t be more different, each fall in the third category, to my eyes. Each creates a very personal universe from subject matter that’s readily available to all.
I feel like my photographs fall in the middle, along with the work of such luminaries as Lad, John, Sean, Jean Claude, PaulB and others (please excuse me if I didn’t list your name here, my classification system is still fresh in my mind and I’m not able to place everyone very accurately. It doesn’t reflect on my enjoyment of your work 🙂 )
We see someting. That inspires a thought that directs our photographs along a very specific direction, while keeping it realistic.
At least, that’s me trying to propose a photo-related theory of everything, an undertaking that has never been met with much success in the past 😉 I have no doubt many Gödels will prove this trichotomy to be very incomplete. Heck, let me undermine my own shaky theory with the above photograph, which steers uncomfortably far from the “realistict” side of photography and towards the abstract and very personal. And those at the bottom of my post are distinctly close to category 1. But bear with me 😉
My point is only to provide some sort of mental frame of reference to explain my attraction to London, having visited and photographed it well over 100 times.
To put it pragmatically, London always bring something new, something that triggers that desire to shoot in series, like photographic pheromones floating in the air. Change, in a word, is what appeals to me so much.
Change is wonderful stimulation for someone curious about his immediate environment, yet too lazy to actively seek out new subjects when none pop out to grab you by the lens.
And change acts as a creative twofer. Not only does it provide fresh meat to stimulate the twitch, it also gets me into a mood to see old things in a new way, as above in a popular tube station. Something I would probably be incapable of, without that initial jumpstart.
On a more philosophical level, change also evokes entropy and complexity to me, two topics that have fascinated for as long as I’ve been introduced to them. London is my entropy-complexity heaven. How do I get out of this self-inflicted pickle and explain what the previous sentence can possibly mean, I now ask myself 😉 😉
Entropy is commonly associated with disorder. It should be associated with life.
Entropy sets the arrow of time in its single direction, and most systems do indeed tend towards a “greater disorder” under the effect of entropy. But entropy can also be imagined as a reservoir of creative energy. That’s not scientifically true. But “entropy reserves” are the fuel that complex systems build themselves from.
Consider our little planet, for instance. The sun sends us homogeneous rays of light. The upper atmosphere absorbs some of them and reflects others. Plants gorge on others still for their photosynthesis. The soil and water warm up, absorbing small-wavelength rays and then cool down slowly at night releasing higher-wavelength rays into the cosmos. Humans are now starting to use the sun’s energy directly through solar panels, which powers stuff that radiates electromagnetic frequencies all over the shop. It is all a lot more messy and disordered when the job’s done than when those perfectly aligned rays started their travel towards us. But, in doing so, that mess created life, created plants, created animals, created farms, created industry, created thought … created immense complexity. Disorder is just the waste byproduct.
Complexity thrives on pure energy and leaves a mess behind 😉 Creation stops when not usable energy differences exist, when everything has become homogeneous. When the sun is no longer able to provide us with this fuel, we will no longer be able to lift ourselves to greater heights of complexity anymore. It will all be downhill, from that distant day on. Cosmologically, we have time. But do we, as passing dwellers?
London seems to be making greater use of creative entropy than all the other places I know put together. That manifests as change towards ever greater architectural variety and complexity, which has immense draw for me. The raw energy here, is obviously corporate finances. And the creative spark that converts this money into visual eye-candy is the wealth of architects who, over the past decades, have each been adding layer upon layer of new design to an existing canvas of architectural history, sometimes with absolute brilliance.
London is the city of cranes. For as long as I’ve known it, cranes have barred its skyline. The construction never stops, the transformation knows no week-ends.
Over visits spaced out by a few months, I’ve seen buildings emerge from old dock hangars, first as concrete pillars lined with metal frames, then as glass-panneled origami puzzles. My mind holds an incredible architectural timelapse that’s been a constant joy to photograph.
And nowhere is this more visually pleasing than where new meets old.
As I’ve written before, interfaces between different forces are where interesting stuff happens. Think about the wonderfully creative photographs of swirls of paint poured into water for a vivid example of the potential beauty of frontiers. Photography freezes those moments in time. And the most stunning ones often depict moments of highest complexity. But it you observe the mixing to its end, you are left with a uniformly coloured liquid with no swirls, nuances or shades. All energy is spent, the state of highest entropy has been reached – hence of lowest creative interest – and, unless someone provides the necessary energy to separate the two liquids and start over, this state will never change (well, it will probably evaporate 😉 )
That new-meets-old layering is what has made London so appealing to me for so many years.
In places such as Ledenhall Market, Liverpool Street Station and Spitafields market, this reaches wonderful climaxes of are-you-kidding-me-ness. In other places, the streaks of genius required to make this semi-blasphemous juxtaposition work is sorely missing, leaving the spectator with the mere sadness that something ancient was destroyed to make way for some uninspired modern replacement (mind you, who’s to say the old version wasn’t an ugly lump of bricks to begin with? 😉 )
Now, though, maybe it’s time the current architectural formula evolved or shifted to new climes?
For one thing, other cities are in desperate need of change, in my biased book of photography.
Paris, for one, clings to the past with such intensity that it’s at risk of becoming stale. There, I said it. Missile incoming. It’s true though. Paris has its glass skyscrapers. The place is called La Defense and, as illustrated by Philippe on numerous occasions, it can provide fertile ground for photographers. But remember Philippe is a category 3 photographer who maps his visual universe onto the details of wherever he happens to be, whereas I – as category 2 – require some external visual train of tough to click.
Besides, the geographical segregation between La Defense and old Paris could hardly be greater. They’re not even in the same train zone. The Tour Montparnasse provides a lonely attempt at modernism in a sea of (admittedly lovely) beige stone architecture from centuries ago. There is little visual contrast to be had in most areas.
It’s a cultural thing, and it’s not recent.
Look at this scene of sheer beauty, below, for example. Have ever seen anything more elegant anywhere? I was stunned to discover it, a few week ago, as one of the pavilions of the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle. Those buildings (maybe not made to last ?) were destroyed after the show ended because the Invalides, a building of greater historical significance but far less beauty, situated at the back of a vast expanse of grass providing all the visual interest of a suburban front lawn, lied behind them. Call me flabbergasted.
And Paris’ choice of renovation for the burnt-down roof of Notre Dame was predictably to rebuild it exactly as it was, using the exact same techniques. However interesting intellectually, the idea is also very revealing of this city’s great reluctance to change and risk taking. I feel a little crazy powder from London, applied intelligently, could spice things up and make the city less of an open air museum. I love museums, but sure don’t want to live in one.
But, mainly, my second reason for hoping that something will buck this glass building frenzy after it has been so good to me photographically, is that it no longer leaves room for much contrast itself. In places, it feels like it is taking over, rather than coexisting with older buildings. London, in short, is at risk of becoming stuck in an immobile past as well, and a past of far less interesting heritage than Paris, at that.
While the more modern areas still leave us plenty of shapes and designs to play with, they don’t feel as rich or nurturing as the talented mix that some more central, and hybrid, parts of town exhibit.
The main culprit appears to be the obsession with glass. While glass coexists with concrete, metal, texture and colour, glass buildings still feel like a monoculture, an entropic maximum. In places such as Canary Wharf, the brilliant now coexists with the utterly depressing, as in La Defense, near Paris. Surely it’s time for an architectural red flag? Who and what will provide the energy to recharge and refresh the dominant culture?
Glass can be cool. I’ve seen it bent into amazing tunnels in aquariums (that’s not strictly speaking glass, but you get the idea). Most often, though, glass comes as flat, shiny rectangles repeated over huge surfaces. The pattern itself can be entertaining. But the end result still often feels dull, particularly when surrounded with other buildings using only a slight variation on the exact same formula.
To me, glass brings two problems. First, it doesn’t age. So the cloudscrapers made of it will probably look the same in 50 years as they do today. For their owners, that’s the point, I know. But, this apparent immobility does nothing to humanise the areas it dominates.
Who wants to live, age and die in a city that refuses to do the same? Life is a cycle and decay is every bit as important as growth. Ask musicians whether they’d enjoy playing instruments that don’t age, and produce notes that don’t decay … It feels to me like building with glass is disconnecting the building from its dwellers. Are the clients commissioning those buildings so afraid of death they can’t envision an artchitecture that can evolve?
And the second issue with glass (or flat, shiny, rectangular, metal panels, for that matter) is that it doesn’t appear to lend itself to original shapes very easily. It seems that we’re stuck with variously patterned rectangular shoe boxes for as long as this construction technique is dominant. None of this feels very organic or nurturing.
And it’s the combination of those two traits that is threatening the lovely balance that’s made London such a stimulating place to photograph for the past 30 years. When all that’s being built is flat, shiny and ageless, that lovely time-layering disappears completely and, with it, the feeling of being cocooned by elders. Now it’s just glass giants defying entropy in their refusal to die, not realising they were never really born in the first place, since they severely lack soul.
All’s not lost, yet. Even areas of London heavily dominated by this recipe still display some manner of originality and style. But how about we move on to something new and original, now ?
How about we reboot that mixing of styles that’s made London so unique?
Isn’t it time steel and glass retired their sore old bones to give way to something more organic, more fresh, more foreward-thinking and in line with the growing values of the time? Isn’t architecture at the intersection of technology and culture? Isn’t it time the steel and glass that leaned on wood and stone to shine brightly as a new guard, now became the background to some new trend? We’ve had our dose of perfectly aligned immortal buildings, can we have a healthy measure of life and disorder back, now, please?
Fact is, it’s happening. I see it in smaller scale developments.
While the more spectacular developments still cling to the CEO-friendly recipe, the design teams responsible for smaller buildings seem more at liberty to go haywire. I see bamboo, organic shapes, recycled stone, oddities everywhere, on paper at least. Could this be the early harbingers of a nascent trend, an avant-garde bent on bringing in a new wave of more human dwellings and offices? Will we soon be treated to a change of style and values so radical and powerful enough to send the great undying into their well deserved retirement, and bring back some of that novelty vibe that those elongated glass houses provided themselves, some decades ago?
I certainly hope so. And I hope that whoever is pushing this trend forward doesn’t feel the need to eclipse the past, but will blend in with it, as has so often been done before.
Many of my friends, particularly at uni, didn’t understand why I’d return to London over and over, when Tahiti and Waikiki beckoned. It’s simple. What London lacked in geographical travel, it more than made up for in time travel.
Maybe it’s just me. But, if it isn’t, I hope that those in charge of new developments keep in mind the glorious juxtaposition that’s so unique and do their best to add their own new layer of brilliance and human touch to it 🙂
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