| Trinity Laban Conservatoire, Histories of the Body - London 2014

Wharf

 

For most of us, especially for businessmen, in whose eyes nature does not exist, unless it be in its strict utility relationship with their business interests, the fantastic reality of life becomes strangely blunted. [1]

 

To contextualise the ‘place of a businessman’ it is useful to provide an image of constructed capital; a charged globalised [2] locality and the resultant spaces it produces. Many images could be presented here as the capitalist omnipresent - however, in the examination of global cities it seems fitting to represent the financial bastion of the UK; Canary Wharf; a condensed series of corporate monuments standing, dominating their manicured in-between spaces; set into a grid in the heart of a contemporary Alpha city. I have undertaken a number of drift walks to and through Canary Wharf and taken a series of photographs in the observation of spatial phenomena that can be categorised as owning a uniform character. Twice I was told by private security guards to stop taking photographs in open spaces for reasons undisclosed. Walking around Canary Wharf is an outright determinism, ‘public space’ defined by Roselyn Deutsche as ‘promoting the survival and extension of democratic culture’ [3] is entirely absent and what is experienced is ‘dominated space’ (Deutsche), expropriated by the State/corporations from public use. A sign in an open and accessible space near the river in Canary Wharf states that: ‘Canary Wharf is Private Property. Management reserves the right to refuse admission or to request any person to leave, where it is reasonable to do so. Anyone creating a nuisance or disturbance or behaving in an unreasonable manner will be required to leave.’

 

Architecture affording shelter to any ‘undesirable’ has been eliminated. Beautifully crafted in a hyper-real arrangement of materials and principles, this Disney Land of capitalism represents a layering of replication most notably embodied in the envelopes of its buildings, copied and pasted from innumerable sources of existing simulation. It is a technocratic conglomeration of styles which portrays to the viewer a deception in materials; echoes of stone (stone veneer posing as solid stone), ‘brick-effect’ panelling, plastic panels dressed up to look like metal. Stainless steel planting beds shimmer in the light, neatly and defensively positioned along the boundaries of building footprints with arrangements of contained vegetation in strict rows and species. The superficial appearance of nature begins to seem as artificial as the glass, steel and concrete. Repeated modules and geometrical displays create a language robbery embodied in the surface treatment of enclosure. Here exists a countless layering of re-imaging on the surface, a phantasmal palimpsest and a ‘liquidation of all referentials’ [4]. Sterile space is order and purification as described by Le Corbusier in ‘Le Modulor’: The lines do no more than establish order and clarity on the level of geometrical equilibrium, achieving or claiming to achieve a veritable purification… measures enter into everything.[5]

 

Purity of the golden mean, the right angle, the logarithmic spiral all describe the thin strips of steel and clean plates of glass of the 1950’s corporate architecture that invaded Manhattan, such as the iconic Seagram building (1958) or Lever House (1952) and today seen in totality at Canary Wharf. The scale and repetition of the high-rise facade module alter the conditions of the urban language experienced by the streetwalker into a monoculture of capitalism, compressing the city user into submission.

 

Language is made not to be believed but to be obeyed, and to compel obedience.[6] The façade in Canary Wharf is impenetrable. It is a barrier where one is primarily kept on an external side and is often made up of opaque solid or reflective material. Canary Wharf Mall exists under the high-rise adjacent to the station of the same name. The Mall is a harsh, brightly lit subterranean environment of further glass, steel and advertisement panels, pulling the consumer into a relationship of walking through shops to reach exits. A similar experience worth mentioning is Stratford Westfield Mall; a huge monument to the consumer culture amplified by the hosting of the 2012 Olympics adjacent to it. This mall is designed in a series of huge sweeping curves over many levels so that the consumer does not see the end of the mall but rather loses focus on the destination and spends more time looking around, up and down. It reminds me of Giovanni Piranesi’s Carceri etchings of fictitious Roman prisons where numerous level changes and vantage points between vast staircases permitted a type of panoptical universal vision from all sides.

 

The attempt at providing open ‘public space’ with fountains, rows of recently planted trees and park benches adds to the sense that this is a space with no real place. It is part of a larger cycle of surplus and capitalist excess in a similar sense to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; showing clearly a light, airy high-rise world where the privileged few experience luxury, contrasted with the charred underworld of industry and the more numerously counted workers. To refer to Beatriz Colomina: there is ‘no political debate evident here’ – that would most certainly be viewed as behaving in an unreasonable manner. The spatial interpenetrations here at Canary Wharf dissolve a potent kind of capitalism on corporate private property. Recently there are film screenings and there are jazz festivals hosted here, perhaps an attempt to make it perceived as an accessible place; but there’s no doubt it is not the public that owns the open space at Canary Wharf.

 

Keef Winter

 

[1] Baudelaire, Charles, The Painter of Modern Life, Penguin Books, London, 2010, p.20.

[2] Roland Robertson defines globalization as ‘the compression of the world and the intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole’, Globalization, London, Sage Publishing, 1992, p.8.

[3] Deutsche, Roselyn, Evictions, MIT Press, Boston, 1996.[4] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, University of Michigan Press, 2006 (1st edition 1981), p.2.

[5] Le Corbusier, Le Modulor, Faber, Paris,1951, p. 34 & p. 168.

[6] Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, Continuum, London, 2004, p.84.

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