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Wednesday, 6 April 2011

The New Ruins of Great Britain, John Davies, Jem Southam and Bristol's collapsing luxury flats

Owen Hatherley's book, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, is a strangely entertaining read. So often I don't know the places he is talking about, or the buildings he is referring to, but he somehow makes his visions clear - partly because it's a vision that is apparent to all who live in Britain today - the destruction of the urban landscape through the deliberately mediocre (see also this piece by Jay Merrick). It's a British version of The Geography of Nowhere, a laying of a baseline of comparison not in the 90s or the 80s but in those isolated pockets of time where planning took account of public space and public needs - indeed where the very idea of "public" had some kind of meaning that had not been eroded by the ideas of the market or the commercially competetive.

Amongst others, Hatherley looks at Southampton, Manchester (the worst offender in Hatherley's view), Milton Keynes, London, Newcastle, Glasgow, Sheffield and Liverpool. Sadly he does not look at Bristol where the balconies have almost been falling off residents' leaky harbourside prize-winning luxury flats
 I rode past the flats today on the harbour ferry - a ride through the bad and ugly of contemporary urban development in Britain.  However, Hatherley does  look a little  at the corruption that has been accompanying this redevelopment/destruction - corruption of both the institutionalised kind and the good old-fashioned backhander kind, but one gets the feeling that he is just scratching the surface with this and that more revelations will start appearing across the country, in every city, in the not-too-distant future - a kind of saved-up scandal-in-waiting because the only thing that can possibly justify some of the abysmal development in Blair's Britain is wodgeful of £50 notes stuffed into very hefty envelopes. Oh, and a level of incompetence that borders on the criminally insane. Or both. 
Hatherley also looks at Britain's great landscape photographers, John Davies, and describes
his British Landscapes as a book containing "...astounding photographs of usually derided, master-panned postwar landscapes - the chaos of intersections in Herbert Manzoni's Birmingham, the meticulously planned hillscape of J.L.Womersley's Sheffiedl - taken from the planner's vantage point. That is, from above, seemingly either from the top of a tower blolck (where the perspective is supposedly bleak and isolating) or an office block (where it is the perspective of the lord of all he surveys). These images combine a certain stillness with a barely suppressed charge of excitement."

And I suppose that is the mark of any great photography - it escapes the photography ghetto and becomes relevant to the wider world. In British landscape photography, John Davies and Jem Southam do this with a degree of finesse, Davies through his reading of the urban landscapes and the layers of architecture, planning and usage of the sites he photographs. Southam meanwhile does a similar thing with the semi-rural landscape, looking at how human and animal interaction creates architectural layers to the landscape.

Gerry Badger writes about Southam in Some Stories in Search of an Ending: 'Southam's is a deeply rooted art. "I need to attach myself to a place and return again and again to make work there," he says. It is necessary for him to have "knowledge" of a site before he can begin to impart that knowledge to his audience.

His repeated workings of a site result in a specialist knowledge of that ground, a feeling of kinship with it, a sensing of its spirit its past. It may be an overused phrase, but Jem Southam's work is essentially about the genus loci, the history of a place and its ghosts - those who once occupied the same territiories he now metaphorically occupies through his photographs.'

Which brings us right back to Owen Hatherley. Reading his book, one is infused with some kind of spirit of a place, of what it was and is as well as what it might have been or still could be. I think he writes of the genus loci of the places he visits, as Southam photographs them - and so even though I do not have the faintest clue of where or what he is talking about, I am still drawn into his writing, I am hypnotised into reading it.

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