The Regenerated City

In Karl Marx’s criticism of political economy, a commodity is any good or service transformed by the value of labour and offered as a product for general sale on the market. An exchangeable good. When contending the contemporary city, we must consider its structure as an arrangement of commodified space, as land that can be bought and sold. David Harvey (1935) explains that this process of buying and selling land is essential to the modern cities’ growth. Yet the attempt at improving the value of land often implicates antagonistic aspects such as the dismissal of existing uses and people and implementation of  new practices that encourage consumption. This evidence gives rise to the notion of privately owned public space as a strategy for urban regeneration.

As a result of the mid 1970s economic decline, vast decaying areas of the city previously settled by factories and docklands became part of colossal regeneration schemes funded by local authorities who sold land to private companies to ensure financial triumph. The archetype of this means is Canary Wharf, a major business district located in Tower Hamlets, east London. The images above demonstrate the space preceding and succeeding renewal plans which allowed unrestricted development of the docklands, formerly engaged in a strategic avenue for the shipping of goods. As academic and journalist Anna Minton discusses in her book ‘Ground Control’ (2011), “previously, the government and local councils ‘owned’ the city on behalf of us, the people. Now more and more of the city is owned by investors, and its central purpose is profit.” Money, money, money.

This measure has generated what is debated as the phenomenon of gentrification. The process by which increased property values are displacing lower income families (working class and unskilled households) and small businesses, making space for a middle class demographic. And although the gentrified city is seen as successful, prosperous and creative, once the original occupiers are entirely displaced from residential neighbourhoods, “the whole social character of the district is changed” (Glass, 1964). Thus who does regeneration truly benefit?

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Urban renewal and the invasion of the middle class has been perceived as an economic engine on one hand, yet a mechanism for control on the other. The original premise was that if areas of the cities were rehabilitated by bringing revenue, areas nearby would benefit too, in a ‘trickle down’ effect. The reality however, is that neighbourhoods are demolished, taking identity and authenticity down with them.

What I find most disquieting in respect to todays urban society, is the role culture plays within the city as a tool for authority. As urban sociologist Sharon Zukin (1995) argues, “culture is more and more the business of cities – the basis of their tourist attractions and their unique, competitive edge”. In an endeavour to contend tourism and investment, cities are increasingly striving to enhance their portrait as a hub of cultural innovation; trendy cafe’s, lavish restaurants, art galleries, selling images on a global scale. As the private sector takes command over public spaces, design is adopted as an implicit codex of inclusion and exclusion, getting rid of the undesirables. A measure to determine who belongs in certain spaces and who doesn’t. Zukin labels this incident as ‘pacification by cappuccino’, an ironic scenario in which urban environment is geared towards consumption of those who can afford consuming. And what happens to everyone else I wonder?

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The High Rise City | Sky Garden

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It’s in the nature of cities to change incessantly. And as individuals residing in the city, it is up to us to accept or reject change. London is presently in the midst of an unprecedented building boom, in backfire of the great recession. England’s capital endeavours to attract investment in order to give the illusion of tackling the housing shortage, irrespective of whether this benefits the elite society of the ordinary population.

In an attempt to fill the holes left by this stagnation, an unrivaled number of new towers are springing up across the city, emulating megacities such as Shanghai and obliterating London’s skyline. Most of the strategies employed by property developers are poorly conceived and inadequately designed, disenfranchising the capital’s population. An architect’s value lies in “the ability to reconcile complex and competing demands, draw attention to the public good, sustainable design and the ability to see things in the round” (Rowan, 2014). Yet these architectural monsters are a symbol of London’s fear of being left behind on the world stage. “All that is left is the idea of the icon: that if you make something look sufficiently unusual it will strike such awe in spectators that it will justify its existence” (Rowan, 2014).

A paradigm of this notion of human greed and narcissistic expression is the Walkie Talkie, located on Fenchurch Street and designed by world renowned architect Rafael Viñoly. Due to its peculiar design, characterized by larger floors as you move up the building, the tower has been described as a representation of avidity, mimicking increasing rental values. Alain De Botton voices his condemnation of the building’s developers in the video ‘The Ruin of London’, affirming they have “committed a major and lasting crime against beauty.”

Primarily an office building, the Walkie Talkie is home to the UK’s tallest ‘public park’: the Sky Garden. Introducing the notion of privatisation of public space, this counterfeit ‘garden in the sky’ is emblematic of financial interest and hostility towards set typologies of public. Prior to visiting this space, I was struck by an interminable list of rules and regulations set forth following my reservation. ‘We may refuse admission or remove from the Sky Garden any person who chews gum inside the Sky Garden.’ And again ‘access may not be given to any visitor who has been convicted of a criminal offence which, in our opinion, is likely to affect the safety and enjoyment of other visitors.’ Simply by reading these scrupulous statements, it was immediately clear that behind the facade of a pristine space lies the force of private ownership and power. Although the ‘public park’ lures the audience with the vista over the city, high security checks, metal detectors and guards impart an obscure atmosphere of estrangement. The space is merely one of the many safe havens of wealthy developers which aim to attract foreign interest and attraction.

Implanted in London’s current crucial needs for new housing, architects of escalating prestige must remember their duty to the public good instead of wasting time and money in quirky giants like the Walkie Talkie. The city needs better planning in order to undergo a significant, conclusive transformation that disregards competition as world stage.

Big Bang Data | Implications for our future

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Selfies, Google searches, dating profiles. We now live in the Digital Age and the amount of data we are generating is growing at an alarming pace. Our online activity, beside that of businesses, has led to a massive outburst – a ‘Big Bang’ – of data. The sweeping shift in the volume, speed and variety of data being produced, combined with new techniques for storage and access are what give birth to this term.

Data today gives us new ways of doing things, reshaping our world: from scientific research to business strategy and social interaction, our data-driven society allows a potential of fairness, stability and efficiency. Yet it creates a tool for unprecedented mass surveillance and a threat to our privacy. We are endlessly producing and releasing data, whether passively as our lives are chronicled by cameras and card payments, or by actively engaging in social media. And where does this information go? Where do our text messages, Facebook posts and holiday snaps end up? The ways in which data is arranged, used and interpreted are often inexplicable or almost invisible to the public. As art critic Mark Hudson states in an article for the Telegraph, one might have “imagined it’s all out there in an ethereal cyber-space that will never become quite tangible.”

Big Bang Data, an exhibition held at Somerset House, explores issues surrounding the datafication of our world through the work of artists, designers and journalists. Envisaging data sets, from the global population of cats to migration patterns, the exhibit highlights the advantages and dangers of data in our modern day society, disclosing hidden truths and exploring the implications for our future.

Above are some of the exposed pieces which both fascinated and terrified me. On the left, artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s 3D portrait sculptures built from the examination of genetic material collected in public spaces. Working with the traces people inadvertently leave behind, such as gum and cigarette butts, the artist emphasises the potential for a culture of surveillance. With so little information, she is able to recreate a prototype of the person, determining traits such as skin colour and unique features. Not only did I find this work acutely gripping, it conjointly triggered the realisation of how much of our identity we leave lying around daily. On the right, Ingo Günther’s World Processor project. The artist has constructed over 1000 globes which visualise information at the time they were made: one maps refugee migration around the planet, another shows global prison populations and another demonstrates the bleak truth behind our global economy. A map of the worlds largest economies, 51 of which are actually. Worrying!

However data can also be a force for good – for us and for our society; we can use it as an engine for positive social, environmental and political change. Designers and activists can increment awareness of contended issues in impactful and immediate ways, through the creative communication of data. ‘Big Bang Data’ is a prime example of artists and designers taking the lead in the visualisation of patterns, trends and needs related to global debate. As a graphic design student, I felt visually drawn to many exhibited pieces, through colour and typography, yet how intensely did I interact with the content itself?

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Over the years we’ve cultivated a need to record everything we do, obsessively inspecting our “quantified selves”. Posting our every move on Facebook, calculating our footsteps on a pedometer, we are “changing how we do things, but often not what we do” asserts Alex Marshall in the article ‘Big Data, Big Questions’ by Metropolis Magazine. Smart technology is changing our relationship with how we do things and it’s making us lazy.

The idea of the ‘smart city’ lies at the root of big data trends, envisioning the integration of information and communication technology solutions as a means of managing a city’s values. The goal is to improve quality of life through technology so as to enhance the efficiency of services and meet the needs of the population. Usman Haque, a skeptic of the smart city criticises our longing gaze towards smart technology. He says: “we see the co-mingling of the terms ‘smart’ and ‘technology’, where the implication is that these newly designed artefacts have some capacity to perform better than humans alone”. We regard anything networked as desirable and efficient, yet what happens if technology fails?

The Crystal | A Sustainable Cities Initiative by Siemens

Siemens AG Open Their Sustainability Project The Crystal

Situated on Royal Victoria Dock in east London, The Crystal is home to the world’s largest exhibit on the future of cities. Setting a benchmark for sustainable building design, and exemplifying a global hub for debate on sustainable development, Siemens’ costly blueprint giant has achieved the highest sustainable building awards from two of the world’s leading accreditation bodies.

Operating Siemens technologies throughout the building to ensure the highest energy efficiency and CO2 standards are met, using solar power and ground source heat pumps to generate its own energy, the exhibition features interactive exhibits, films and animations, allowing visitors to explore a range of issues including urban planning, smart buildings, safety and security, mobility, energy and water.

Following an interminable journey to what seemed a remote kingdom, merely the hub of England’s capital, we were given an entry card which would enable us to interact with digital screens and initiate information, encouraging us to change the way we think about our cities, now and for future generations. Submerged in the core of capitalist venture, I wandered through the space, with no clear bearing, feeling a sense of emancipation and disorientation. The overwhelming supply of data and information -implemented to take visitors on a journey to a utopia thickly bankrolled by Siemens – hindered my experience of the space, inhibiting a profound contemplation of singular objects and exhibits.

I was most captivated by the ‘Forces of Change’ zone, dedicated to the analysis of how governments, corporations and individuals are taking action to answer three megatrends forging our globe: demographic change, urbanization and climate change. Informed by a widespread projection of images and data on a curved screen, the area highlighted major challenges to cities as global population continues to grow, imposing significant strains on healthcare, pensions and urban infrastructure. How can we answer burgeoning challenges through technology, political leadership and behaviour change in order to protect our environment?

The Future Life zone of the exhibit also secured my attention, showcasing realistic and possible scenarios of a future sustainable city. Featuring New York, London and Copenhagen, a video walks us through 24 hours in the life of the people who inhabit these prospective spaces, exploring how cities adapt to a growing population and questioning the notion of a flexible city which responds to the citizens needs. Technology enables us to live efficient lives in a blur between the real and the virtual, business and leisure. Within the visualised ‘sustainable city’, energy would be generated and stored by citizens, and traded at peak times. People could order shared e-cars and public transport would be used to transport goods overnight. Building facades would be able to trap CO2 and produce methanol for fuel. And as citizens sleep, “during the night, the city restocks, recharges and recycles”, ready for the next day. Though the video highlights the concern with individuals and community, in an attempt at bringing neighbours together, it seems controversial. With every need being met from your living room, how would this suggestion of integration and locality be encouraged?

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Monumental sculptures commissioned by Siemens and designed by Daniel Libeskind Studio, installed at the Piazza Italia, a central promenade of the EXPO fair, Milan.

Bearing in mind the solutions executed by Siemens reminded me of Expo 2015, a universal exposition held in Milan, Italy. My home city. Embracing technology, innovation, culture and creativity, the same German multinational conglomerate served as the strategic partner to Enel for conveying the intelligent grid technology that supplied the world’s fair with electricity. Siemens developed the energy management means for this smart grid, making it feasible to monitor and enhance power consumption for the whole Expo grounds from a computer screen. Combining art and technology, ranging from sustainable energy to intelligent infrastructure, Siemens illustrated trends of the future, just as the Crystal.

Back in east London, leaving the space, I observed the city’s skyline and the Emirates Air Line cable cars coming to a halt. It suddenly hit me that beyond the facade of beauty lies a bitter layer of evil. Wealth. Money. Implications that are often omitted in the investment for a better future.

What is a city?

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When prescribing a unanimous rationale for the city, the most common speculation is labelled by the number of its inhabitants. A city is the sum of its people. A large and durable human settlement which homes 300,000 beings or more. An urban colossus with complex systems of sanitation, housing and transportation empowered by local government. Yet what really makes a city a city? Is it merely numbers?

As Glaser (2011) states in his text ‘Triumph to the City’, “cities are the absence of physical space between people and companies. They are proximity, density, closeness. They enable us to work and play together, and their success depends on the demand for physical connection.” On a planet made up of vast volumes of space, we are increasingly choosing cities as our homes. More people are clustering closer and closer together, forging motors of innovation, centres of trade and prosperity. Cities are producing new thinking.

The power and tenacity that comes from human collaboration is key to civilisation’s progress. Cities are developing and urban density progressively provides a fine path from poverty to prosperity, with “the richest and poorest people in the world so often living cheek by jowl” (Glaser, 2011). Although this divide in society is often at the heart of social injustice and urban distress, is isn’t always bad. Urban poverty and the flow of less advantaged people into the city demonstrate urban strength rather than weakness. Though this flux makes urban areas increasingly dynamic, it increments disease, crime and congestion.

Yet diversity is indispensable to the growth of the city. As an Italian living in London, the truth of a multicultural society is lingering. The amalgamation of diverse cultures and ethnicities gives rise to a stimulating, inspiring hub of knowledge. London personifies creativity. Yet within this creativity, a substantial issue of authenticity exists. The loss of soul of some of the cities neighbourhoods.

Thus perhaps what molds the city is not its physical attributes, its buildings and its streets, but rather its people. Cities ARE people. Above all, “we must free ourselves from our tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete” (Glaser, 2011).

I remember…memory & line

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“I remember cave paintings. I remember human instincts of expression. I remember rituals, cults and prophecies. I remember our ancestors creating memory for us. I remember that “everything is a parliament of lines”. I remember entanglement. I remember metaphors. I remember infinitely variable lines; woven lines, invisible lines, unfolding lines of narrative. I remember the memory palace and its rooms. I remember maps. I remember directions. I remember traces.”

The end at laaast!

And after a stressful few weeks, here it is! Handed in and ready to be read! I must admit it’s been quite a struggle and not everything went according to plan, but I did it! I came across many difficulties, mainly because I looove making my life difficult, but I guess you learn from your mistakes right? No clue how to work InDesign, yet I decide to go with a dreadfully complicated mathematical layout…why not! But the days sat frantically tapping away at this keyboard- hoping in some magical guidance- are long gone (or at least for now). Time to relax and head back home to good food and much needed rest!

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Enjoy!! And please excuse the layout, don’t really speak codes and still trying to get the hang of this! Computers have never really been my forte, sorry if it hurts your eyes! It’s going in my New Year’s resolutions!

Disobedient Objects @ the V&A

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives. Our struggles are particular but we are not alone. ” Audre Lorde, 1982

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Disobedient Objects is an exhibition showcasing objects and symbols used for political activism, where activism is driven by the need to be heard, the need to voice protest, the need to speak the truth. Focusing on the period from the late 1970’s to more recent unresolved struggles, on display are arts of rebellion from all over the world; objects created not by commercial designers, but by ordinary people coming together in a common cause.

From woven banners, to mobile apps and video games, from defaced currencies to inflatable cubes, these objects are the products of conflict, suppression, inequality and injustice. The crude and rough qualities attributed to these items, and the notion of a DIY approach to making with limited resources, allow us to see a greater humanity beneath the protestors suppressed and angry voices.

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…”And now they wish to destroy me

The louder my voice the deeper they bury me

I SAID, THE LOUDER MY VOICE THE DEEPER THEY BURY ME!

Free all political prisoners, prisoners of war, prisoner of consciousness.”

A Defined Voice, Herman Wallace 

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It’s not about liking the objects. It’s not about the aesthetics at all. It’s about poignancy, its about strategy and the immediacy in communicating a struggle. Different struggles. And of course, for each individual, some of these struggles may prevail more than others due to cultural backgrounds, beliefs and values.  The ones I found most striking were the book block shields, which came about in Italy in 2011 with students protesting against severe budget cuts to education. The inflatable cobblestones (2012) hanging from the ceiling also immediately caught my attention; these props were strategically used against authorities as weapons during a general strike, subverting typical representations of protesters. Perhaps the most touching and powerful objects however, were the arpilleras textiles made by female chilean prisoners during the Pinochet dictatorship. These deceptively colourful images secretly depict scenes of violence and hardships, narrating the women’s stories and asking for help. It is fascinating to decode the hidden messages of these subversive textiles, and be able to see the struggles of the past.

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More than anything though, I found myself trapped within the museum’s truly radical approach to the curation of the show. Objects mounted in rough-edged chipboard displays seemed reflective of the object’s low-budget production techniques, the metal railings throughout the gallery seemed to create a space that echoes the barricades. Relevant.

Although the design of the exhibition space itself seemed to emulate the messages expressed by the protesters, I thought the presentation was raw and  crowded. The overall feeling of the interior space and the abundance of information was just too much.  Nonetheless, I thought much of the work was powerful, moving, and truly communicated an immediacy for change.

“You can’t change the world on your own” 

Check out this interview with the show’s co-curator Catherine Flood, on Disobedient Objects!