Arts Week 2017: Landscape and Power

Memory Wound by Jonas Dahlberg

Memory Wound by Jonas Dahlberg

Those of us who signed up to the Landscape and Power lecture during Birkbeck Arts Week 2017 would have seen an arresting image posted on the event flyer. In the talk in Room BO3 of 43 Gordon Square we learn that this image is computer generated. It is of a proposed memorial, entitled ‘Memory Wound’, to the victims of the mass murder by Anders Breivik on the island of Utoya, Norway which formed part of a discussion by Joel McKim (Birbeck) on memorials and landscape. Swati Chattopadhyay (University of California Santa Barbara) also spoke on the cultural landscape of British Colonialism in Bengal, India. David Haney (University of Kent) discussed architecture and German landscape history.

We see how humans have shaped their cultural and political identity by way of landscape in a journey that  took us around the globe and through time. Chattopadhyay’s presentation focused on architecture in Lucknow in the 1850s, in particular Dilkusha Palace. Dilkusha was built in the 1800s as a hunting lodge in an English Baroque style. In 1857 it was the scene of an Indian uprising against the British, a battle which is now considered a precursor in the campaign for Indian independence. The building was damaged in the siege and later abandoned by the British and left to decay. Later on though, the gardens were replanted and nurtured, and visited by British residents and tourists. Lucknow is known as the city of gardens. It’s well documented by Victorian novelist Edith Cuthell in her book ‘My garden in the City of Gardens’.

David Haney’s presentation looked at the Nazi cultural landscape, strengthening territory through earth–rooted monuments. Haney discussed Hitler’s decentralization of Nazi power away from Nuremberg by building Order Castles, such as Ordensburg Vogelsang built in 1936 in Eifel (North Rhine-Westphalia). Ordensburg Vogelsang was primarily a training ground for Hitler youth but was also visited by working people at the weekend for moral edification. This masculine composition, based on a medieval fortress, appeared to meld into the landscape, as if it was hewn from a rock face, emerging from the soil. In truth, a great deal of state of the art Nazi technology was used during its construction. The building has since been erased and is referred to as a Third Reich ruin.

Birbeck’s Joel McKim observed that, overall, contemporary memorial design has shifted from objects to memory spaces in the landscape. This shift has come with a secularisation of memorials, away from monuments stretching towards the heavens with celestial themes. He cited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, designed by architect Maya Lin which has an edge to the earth, an open side.

Fresh Kills (kills is the Dutch word for stream) on Staten Island, formerly a landfill site visible from outerspace, is being restored as a public park in memory of 9/11.  The attack on the World Trade Centre on 9/11 represented a direct attack on home soil, a violation of the national body. In this case this memorial must have a direct relationship to the landscape. The memorial at Fresh Kills is underway, but it’s expected to take at least 30 years before completion. Matters have been further complicated because Fresh Kills is where forensic teams are sorting through remains, including human debris, from 9/11.

In 2014, Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg’s artwork ‘Memory Wound’ was selected as the  memorial to the Utoya massacre, whereby a 3.5 metre slit is cleaved into the Sørbråten Peninsula, pointing towards Utoya . Memory Wound signifies a wound in the landscape, within nature itself in memory of the 77 people that were killed.  The memorial is sanctioned by the Norwegian government but has given rise to serious objections from the local artistic community and residents of Utoya because of its extreme nature. Survivors of the massacre and family members have mixed views towards the memorial.

The panel members were questioned about the growth of ‘trauma tourism’ and the ethics behind it during the Q and A that followed. They agreed these memorials should invoke a sense of respect for the deceased and for their suffering. At the end of this informative discussion it was highlighted that taking selfies around these memorials is entirely inappropriate.

Sonali Jayetileke is an alumna of Birkbeck’s Certificate of  Journalism, 2012 (www.fifthplinthwriters.co.uk)

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From the Abercrombie Plan to Abercrombie & Fitch: A cultural history of East London in an evening of films

This post was contributed by Andrew Whittaker, a local Forest Gate resident.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the latest in a series of workshops called “East London In Flux” organised by Fundamental Architectural Inclusion and Birkbeck, University of London. This was an evening of films, ranging from the postwar Abercrombie Plan to young people’ views on the Olympics, Westfield (hence the title) and their local area. The films from the 1940s were fascinating and I was surprised at how industrial London was, with rows of cranes at Tower Bridge to unload cargo ships into the warehouses lining the Thames. This was particular true in East London and the second film about West Ham described how washing hung out to dry was often made dirty again by the smoke coming either from the large factories in Stratford or the ships coming into harbour in the docks.

It was also interesting to see the changing culture of architecture over the last seventy years, from the centralised, technical-rational certainties of the 1940s through to the more fluid realities of the current day. In the first film, it was ironic to hear Abercrombie talk of his plans clearing away the ‘bad and ugly things’ of the past, when the modernist architecture of the 1960s is often regarded in a similar way. This was brought home in the Fundamental film ‘Watts the point’, which featured the demolition of a tower block in 2003 and the reactions of former tenants and local people. While such events are often viewed as a triumphant clearing away of the bad and ugly reminders of the sixties, the film captured the most complex feelings evoked in the ex-residents who had spent a significant proportion of their lives there.

One of the recurring themes of the evening was the changing nature of architecture and public involvement. We heard that there were extensive surveys done to gauge public reactions to the Abercrombie Plan in the 1940s, which was quite well-meaning and probably quite genuine. But this was public involvement done on the planners’ terms – they decided what questions to ask the public, which probably followed their own dilemmas and concerns, not those of the public.

This contrasted with the later films about young peoples’ views, which were more interesting and engaging. My two favourites were films about the ‘architecture crew’, a group of local young (13-19 years) who were interested in architecture and it’s contribution to their everyday environment. In the first film, they travelled to St Paul’s to learn more about London’s architectural past and in the second, they discussed how they had researched the history of Newham as a port and industrial area in the lead up to the Olympics. In both films, the passion, enthusiasm and curiosity of the young people came over as they learnt about the history of their city and developed a sense of ownership of the area where they lived. The films documented how they had found a voice and had been influential in major changes such as the Olympics and had obviously had a lot of fun on the way!

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East London In Flux II

This post was originally published on the blog Up Your Street.

The thing with most community engagement activities is that the people who put on the show couldn’t care less if you’re there or not. Sometimes the engagement exercises target seniors: When they don’t then the senior wannabee participant is more than invisible. This I have known for ages and corporate engagers be wise that many oldies are on your case.

East London in Flux presented by Fundamental Architectural Inclusion d.o.b. 2003 and Birkbeck, University of London is different to all of the above and valuable to the ethos of community engagement. It’s a programme delivered with passion. Its participants are encouraged to join in and given the confidence to do so. And the sandwiches are nutritious, full, tasty and textured.

Today the room in Birkbeck, University of London in the new Stratford E15  (aka USS hosted by community outreach officer Patrice Buddington) was bursting and a-buzzin’. We came from Stratford, Hackney, Forest Gate, Leyton, Romford, Mauritius and other places north of Watford. Imagine!

As for architecure, I can’t get over the fact that the Uni building is built on one of the meanest pot-holed car-parks of back in the day. Those days when the stealthiest of creeping car-park attendants would sneak out of the shadows: Those times when the parking machine swallowed pound coins then failed to deliver the ticket. Those were the days when you left the theatre production or pre Olympic and Paralympic Games 2012 pop-up workshops early so as not to fork out another load of coins.

The main attraction of this the first in a series of presentations and day-long workshops was the architect-guided walk around the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Laid on were electric scooters, wheelchairs and taxis for the less mobile. The sun shone too. The morning session was all about how architects used any available terrain to construct the Olympic cities. Hitler’s Games came out top in the we- did- it poll not only because the construction/ideological team used media to the hilt when the concept of media as a corporate entity was not invented yet. Even the athletes’ village was great….bungalows. Ooh! give me one.

The heart-warming bit is how junior school kiddies are involved through Architectural in learning through model-making and discussion their role in the Legacy of the London 2012 Games.

Twas brillig.

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If it looks like a dome, and you think it’s a dome, then it probably is a dome!

This post was contributed by Ruth Harriss, a student on Birkbeck’s MA History of Art.

“When it comes to domes, don’t define too carefully!” advised Professor Peter Draper, whose paper opened up the symposium Domes:  Past, Present and Future.  This proved to be excellent advice as what followed was a far-reaching, stimulating and wonderfully bizarre tour of the dome from its beginnings as a practical temporary shelter and grave marker, to its identification with futuristic engineering and the utopian metropolis. 

The topic inspired a diverse response and during the course of the afternoon the four speakers addressed the audience on aspects of religion, cosmology, urban renaissance, fictional structures, Victorian soap bubbles, biospheres, the V2 rocket, inflatable planetariums, a Neolithic camera obscura and dome sickness amongst many others!

My own studies and interest in architecture so far hasn’t led me to encounter the dome in all its complexities therefore Peter Draper’s introductory paper was, for me, a perfect start.  By charting the initial development of the dome in the West, Draper brought to the fore complex questions of typology and symbolism, pertinent to the practice of dome building throughout all periods and cultures.  Caspar Pearson continued with a critique of the dome as a potent cultural symbol of the Renaissance.  Epitomized by Fillipo Brunelleschi’s dome for of Santa Maria de Fiore (1461), the dome can be understood as a statement of progress and faith in human ability to remake and rebuild the world.  This powerful rhetoric is still used today and is manifest in the fictional architectural schemes impregnated in vivid ink on the Euro bank notes.  Yet Pearson questioned the possibility for architecture to embody cultural historical ideals in light of a new knowledge economy and suggested the collapse of the progress myth is evident in the catastrophic failure of the Millennium dome. 

Moving forward a few centuries we picked up again with the Cold War and the dome in the context of global war.  Primitive self-sufficiency and cutting edge science and technology converged in Barry Curtis’ unique exploration of the dome that had been inspired by Buckminster Fuller and his ‘Spaceship Earth’.  In what seemed to be one breath, Curtis raced from the turn of the century and the interfacial science of the humble soap bubble to the visionary design of the geodesic dome, and from the novels of Thomas Pynchon to the first glimpse of the earth seen as a dome-like body from outer space.  Curtis highlighted how utopian domes not only offered physical protection from a hostile future world but also a psychological escapism: the possibility to immerse one’s self in an artificial environment.  It was the latter that formed the basis of the final paper, delivered by Nick Lambert, who considered the dome and the development of fully interactive 3D environments.  In particular how early planetariums and the desire to experience virtual objects moving around us, has more recently resulted in the ‘full dome’ experience being considered an artistic medium in its own right.

My only thought for improvement upon the afternoon would have been an extended time for discussion at the end on the symposium as even in the brief time there were many interesting questions raised by the attendees. 

Needless to say I will look forward to the next event from the Architecture, Space and Society Network!

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