Regaining a Place in the City of London

written for Third Year History and Theories at the Architectural Association, 2014

The City of London Corporation would not usually be associated with ideas of land or landscape, let alone land art, but its dense network of corporate tenants sit on the top most layer of an evolution in land occupation and control. Since its official inception in the London Charter of 1075 the City has been considered a “place” of exceptional conditions – a parcel of land existing inside and outside the development and political influence of Greater London. Part of what had grounded the independence of this land for so long were two rivers, the Fleet and Walbrook, which provided the commercial access necessary for it to develop as a major port city. The reciprocity between development of the commercial City and the natural flow of the rivers expressed an idea of the city that draws upon and is intertwined with the land more than simply utilizing its forces to advance economic activity but a “place” composed as a working landscape.

In the contemporary City we see the land paved many layers over and filled with the systems that connect the buildings with each other and the world. In the case of the rivers, they have long since been incorporated in the sewer infrastructure leaving no unwanted sign of natural flow to impede the day to day movement of people. And while it may not cause the average day trader to think twice, the City as we know it today could be considered a case for the reevaluation of the idea of the city according to a human connection with the land, questioning how the systemic growth of the architecture has served the development of its name rather than the “place”.

As an intersecting line of critique, the works of Robert Smithson and Olafur Eliasson offer an understanding of human sensory awareness to land and the relations between mechanical systems and natural phenomena. In terms of art their works both have repositioned the role of the viewer, challenging the tradition of architectural containment and seeking, in their respective ways, to bring a critical awareness of “place” that reconnects with the human senses. What could be said in relation to the City is that considering these perspectives on the use of land and natural phenomena might also challenge an urban form that has historically organized dense groups of productive people while at the same time playing into a kind of sensory repression. Above ground this has been built up by a thick outer layer of opaque institutional customs, while below, a more literal repression is carried out by the Victorian era sewer system; but both levels can be scrutinized for the way they mask natural flows in a similar way to the singular building system.

 

In 1833 Sir John Soane was overseeing the final stages of construction for the Bank of England, an architectural accomplishment that helped crystallize an aura of institutional power in the City of London Corporation. The Bank sits at the center of a community of institutions – other banks as well as the medieval livery companies – that have significantly influenced a control over the land, and thus the experiential environment. On the surface the architectural significance of this community does not exceeded that far beyond the expression of a social tradition and a façade of aesthetic rigidity. Regal brick and masonry detailing, the neo-classical columns and pediments of the Mansion House and Royal Exchange, medieval grandeur of the Guildhall, and the pallid corporate subtlety of the stock exchange building. But this rigidity still contributes a form of production that demands a highly controlled urban environment, and over time the forms of production enabled by this architecture have developed into a seamless blanket of efficiency that stretches across the entire Square Mile.

Well after the last traces of industrial production have moved beyond its boundaries, the idea of corporate production within the City still coincide with a notion of dissolution and waste when considered in relation to the land of the City – that is, through the infrastructural sewer systems that dispose of waste, physically and psychologically. Speaking in an interview in 1973 Robert Smithson suggests that, “we might build bigger and better cars but that’s going to mean bigger and better waste piles. So it might be that the actual outcome of all production, including art production, is some kind of waste, or obsolete system…”[1] Focusing on the fringe of consumption centers Smithson acts on the power of image and earth manipulation that “the ordinary person can understand…[appealing] directly to the personal senses.”[2] In large open spaces, working among the remnants of industrial facilities, this concept on waste is much more visible than within the confines of the City where manipulations are regular, in the form of buildings, and the waste is strategically contained.

Despite the high tech, high speed, highly connective environment that is projected from the impenetrably complex business organizations residing in the City, there is something of the working body and all its flowing organs that is inescapable in asserting the idea that there is an absence of “place” in the City, and it is the body in relation to the land that can be considered the object of production and waste in understanding how one might regain this perspective.

The internalization of both corporate architecture and waste removal systems signifies a disconnection from the body – as a system for digestion and as a vessel for environmental experience – that manifests itself in the form of control over the land. J. M. Gandy’s depiction of the Bank as a romantic ruin is a counterpoint to this idea of control, where the institutional legacy of the Bank’s architecture comes as an image of it retuning to the land. “The building is shown midway between futuristic projection and past evocation,”[3] with all but the south-west corner wall broken down, with trees intruding from the frame edges and the ground falling away as if referencing the Acropolis. The overall image is tending toward an Arcadian return to nature, but more importantly it is through a kind of waste that we are transported through the otherwise impregnable building with a sense of how the architecture and the land are inseparable. Interestingly, he uses a bird’s-eye-view to achieve this human scale relation, perhaps signifying a return from the totality to the human where the meaning of the building is concerned. With this view on waste as an indicator of “place” it is possible to return to the idea of production and the body in addressing how the development of the sewer infrastructure manipulated the natural flows into a subterranean version of the above institutions.

 

Twenty-five years after Soane’s Bank was completed, another landmark project was helping to secure the City’s control over the land and all its natural forces. This was the intercepting sewer system, designed by Joseph Bazalgette to combat the mounting human waster pouring into the once open Fleet and Walbrook Rivers under the threat of a spreading cholera epidemic. In the summer of 1858, referred to as the year of the Great Stink, the Thames and its central tributaries were festering from a build up of human waste. This refuse had been replaced on the agricultural market by imported guano fertilizer and was now turning the main river murky and constricted the smaller rivers of any useful movement.[4] The severity of this situation actually broke a deadlock between proponents of water conservancy and land disposal that had been going on for some time before, but the urgent need for an updated sewerage infrastructure outweighed any further debate and sought the most economic solution. Bazalgette’s sewer project represented more than just an immediate response to local sanitation issues; the urban infrastructure project responded to the question of how London could continue to compete as an international city. Internally, the need to manage this increase in people directly altered the nature of how the City related to the land as the last remaining open rivulets were transformed into parts of the sewers. The City of London was now a continuous ground plane.

Bazalgette himself was satisfactorily secure with his civil engineering legacy, but the psychological implications of the waste removal have resulted in an adversity to the unwarranted appearance of natural flow. All building waste now conveniently disappears from sight and mind, all rain water and street muck flow quickly below ground before it builds up into an impassable puddle. The great age of Victorian infrastructure matched perfectly with the staunch architecture of the City above, and now with full authority of the ground any reference of “place” in the City was swiftly contained.

In his essay Pipeless Dreams Mark Wigley writes about this curious adversity toward flow and architecture. Considering the world of services that elevate our buildings from basic shelters into habitable environments he explains

A pipe can enter a room if concealed…but any visible tube is destined to be carefully veiled in its own architectural enclosure or replaced as an embarrassing vestige of a more primitive time…a huge effort is made so that the sound of movement within them cannot enter. No evidence of flow is allowed. No rustle, gurgle, whoosh, hum, shudder, click, or thud [5]

This observation holds true for the City in the same way as it does for an interior. What Bazalgette’s sewers did for the City, and still do, is to assure us the flow is taken care of; though we know it is there, we maintain a distance. In a way it relieves us of that sense of “place”, however unpleasant it could potentially be at times – it’s not that anyone wants open sewage on the street – it is about how much we are allowed to see, what is an acceptable amount of flow? For a building or for a city?

The body, again, is the focus of a criticism on the way the City has developed in terms of “place”. Relying solely on the influence of its institutions it becomes more important for the City to maintain its 340,000 strong workforce over the mere 9,000 residents.[6] The buildings become subdivisions of a larger system that must constantly attend to pockets of productive environments, and within each of these pockets the production waste reflects upon the human occupants in the most architectural moments throughout the whole City. Wigley relates an idea of the psycho-sexual drama in that moment when the body is closest to the pipe is saying

To sit on a toilet is literally to sit on a pipe. The pipe has widened itself to become a piece of furniture but remains unambiguously a pipe. The body literally occupies the pipe. More precisely, it is suspended within the pipe, hovering in a gap opened up in an otherwise continuous circuit of water flow, suspended in a space defined only by valves [7]

However silly it may make one feel, what Wigley describes here is, numerically, probably the closest physical moment most people have with architecture. Interestingly, Wigley elaborates how this moment is also very intimate, when we are probably the most honest with our bodies and how we actually exist within architecture. In the urban context of the City, in an environment so controlled and closed off, this pipe-body intimacy has yet to be seen. Considering the space of the street as a kind of in-between space where a person moves from their arrival point – inside another kind of pipe – to the destination and back again, the environment is, in fact, just an elaboration of the architecture, veiling the intestinal infrastructures that serve us.

There does exist an equivalent of the toilet-object on the level of the City in the many access points, manholes, emergency taps, and gutters that populate the ground plane. Here we can see the contention between the desire for a seamless environment and the meticulously laid out system expanded across the whole Square Mile. Of course, in this context it is not likely to see these details given the same nervous attention of being masked by sleek design; they are far more utilitarian, but this is still a criteria to be met. They are flush with the ground, strong enough to withstand the elements, never bigger than they have to be and, most important of all, small enough to minimize a reverse flow in case of overflow. We would never think about coming in contact with them unless you work with them, yet on the city scale they conceal the same flows we tend to be so repulsed by in our buildings.

 

In her article on the practice of Robert Smithson and Olafur Eliasson, Anja Novak cites the philosopher Arnold Berleant who “maintains that our environment is not simply the physical world that surrounds us, but actually occurs in our perceptual and active involvement with the world.”[8] In relation to the City this understanding of environment could help in pointing out a kind of ambivalence that has accrued over time in this “non-place”. What might be considered an active involvement in the City is typically limited to direct and often short bursts of movement, while perception is arguably more often a trompe l’oeil of its illustrious social history. In advocating a resurgence of “place” in the City a return to natural land would only meet the same contained end as existing parks and squares. The new understanding of “place” picks up where the City meets the land, with a critical awareness of an environmental dependency on the systems.

The space of this critical awareness borrows heavily from the way that “Robert Smithson’s earthworks invite viewers to engage with their environment in a realm in-between the ‘real thing’ and its representations.”[9] What text, film and photographs enabled viewer to see for Smithson, a critical in-between space – with the infrastructure as the ‘real thing’ and the institutions as the representation – for the City could develop a closer connection with the ground to reposition the nature of the City according to the human scale. The awareness benefits as much from the comfort of natural feature as it does from the hard honesty that this may be a mechanical construction.

In his recreations of natural phenomena Olafur Eliasson has stated, “I need a machine…to create a phenomenon in order to have an experience.”[10] This statement is indicative of how there might be a reconciliation of human perception in the City and an advance in the reciprocity between the natural and mechanical. Eliasson has worked on installations both inside and outside the confines of architecture, but in both conditions he has used the idea of natural phenomena to expose an illusion, an uncritical awareness of the natural and mechanical elements involved. Novak writes that the

disclosure of the technical means that he employs to create a particular situation is part and parcel of the environmental awareness that Eliasson’s work allows for…this moment of disillusionment prevents the visitor from immersing themselves uncritically in the illusion created by the ‘machine’ and encourages them to reflect on both the conditions and consequences of their own experience [11]

This type of disillusionment coincides with a new idea of the City that responds to the historically opaque environment, and builds off the architectural and infrastructural containments to try and suggest a new way of experiencing the City. “Eliasson has repeatedly stressed the fact that our experiences of reality are cultural constructions.”[12] One need only attend the Lord Mayor’s Show on the 8th of November to understand how the culture of the institution has constructed a reality of the City that has done more for the aesthetic of a city than a human experience. To consider the City as a “place” there must be an intersection between the construct, the system containing the flow, and the person to invert the mediation of experience by an inanimate body of institutions offering a human response to the limitations of its architecture.

9-william logsdail- the ninth of november

William Logsdail “The Ninth of November” 1888

JM Gandy bank of england 1830

JM Gandy “The Bank of England” 1830

5

the institution and the ground

The institution and the ground

12

Accepted flows

Accepted flows

17

Receipt and access

Receipt and access

22

Utilitarian

Utilitarian

25

Existing in-between

Existing in-between

 

[1] Ingrid Commandeur and Trudy van Riemsdjik-Zandee, Robert Smithson: Art in Continual Movement, Introduction p. 11

[2] ibid. p. 16

[3] Eva Schumann-Bacia, John Soane and the Bank of England p. 50

[4] Urban Drainage, Charlotte Johnson, UCL ISR

[5] Mark Wigley, Pipeless Dreams – Volume 37 p. 22

[6] cityoflondon.gov.uk

[7] Mark Wigley, Pipeless Dreams – Volume 37 p. 22

[8] Anja Novak, Robert Smithson: Art in Continual Movement p. 21

[9] Anja Novak, Robert Smithson: Art in Continual Movement p. 22

[10] ibid. p. 25

[11] ibid. p. 25

[12] ibid. p. 26

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