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Stills from 'Apodemy' by Katerina Athanasopoulou

Stills from ‘Apodemy’ by Katerina Athanasopoulou

Katerina Athanasopoulou’s animation film Apodemy was created in 2012 and it has a very impressive record so far. It won the international Lumen Prize for animation, it has been screened in many festivals and a lot of articles have been written about it. Its creator is Greek and I accidentally met her in the street, in London where we both live. We ended up chatting that whole evening but she told me nothing of her admirable achievements something which retrospectively I hugely appreciated. When she gave me her card to keep in touch I stumbled upon Apodemy and I was left truly speechless.

The reason for writing about this film now after all the press it has received already is partly that it will be screened in a few days at the University of Sussex for the ‘Chronicles of Crisis’ conference. The true reason is that it touched me deeply and I wanted to say something about it. After all it is very architectural.

Stills from 'Apodemy' by Katerina Athanasopoulou

Stills from ‘Apodemy’ by Katerina Athanasopoulou

Leaving aside for a minute the film’s artistic implications I wanted to discuss the architectural representation which is one of its main features. Currently most architectural practices in the world produce 3d drawings and animations. Usually the clients require them in order to understand better the buildings since physical scale-models are very expensive. Even though many young architects are very familiar with producing this sort of drawings and animations, what they come up with is not necessarily any good. In fact most 3d representations look wrong but they still seem to be a necessary evil. Apodemy is a shining example of quality and a glimpse of what good aesthetics in 3D CAD can actually look like. I cannot really put my finger on the particular details that make Apodemy beautiful compared to most architectural 3d renderings which (to say the least) are not very beautiful. Maybe it is the colour and texture palette or maybe it is the fact that this film was not produced by an architect and especially it was not meant to sell a building to a client.

Stills from 'Apodemy' by Katerina Athanasopoulou

Stills from ‘Apodemy’ by Katerina Athanasopoulou

Its atmosphere is dystopian and retro-futuristic. It could be placed in the past, the future; in a dream or a nightmare. This city is abandoned by anyone who has a head because even the birds which fly around the cage-vehicle in order to set it in motion, are just pairs of loosely feathered wings. Still, regardless of the absence of life, there is motion. Darkness and decadence are infused with a strange feeling of hope which is not at all obvious. The buildings rotate around themselves similarly to the way we (as architecture students) were warned that our buildings would after an earthquake if they had only one central column. Bare concrete slabs and columns emerge like plants from something which is not exactly earth, water or clouds but a combination of the three. The flyovers are broken at places and reminded me of cities that have endured natural catastrophes, or films that predict the end of the world.

Stills from 'Apodemy' by Katerina Athanasopoulou

Stills from ‘Apodemy’ by Katerina Athanasopoulou

I grew up with comic books and these images brought to my mind illustrated cities by Enki Bilal and Moebius that my imagination inhabited when I was younger. Watching Apodemy though, when the cage-car appeared there was no doubt in my mind that this was Athens, the city where I was born and grew up.

Left image: Bilal / Middle and right image Moebius (Jean Gireaud)

Left image: Bilal / Middle and right image Moebius (Jean Gireaud)

A concrete city, a modernist-architect’s dream, tragically claustrophobic but still promising. A city that wants to ´grow up´ and become Le Corbusier’s City of 10 thousand people. The cage is a yellow trolley bus, a weird means of public transport so intrinsic to my city of origin that it really could not be from anywhere else.

Le Corbusier's Contemporary City designed in 1922

Le Corbusier’s Contemporary City designed in 1922

This film touched me deeply because I am also an Athenian who chose to migrate years ago, not yet pressured by destroyed economies and global crises. I wanted to leave because I felt suffocated by something I cannot put words into but somehow is narrated in Apodemy. This film encompasses the wanderlust that brings people to new lands and it spoke to me in particular in my language, that of concrete and rust. However this is a work of art that speaks fluently about the dissociation of modern cities that both pregnant and empty urge us to travel to places that seem far away, but in reality exist inside our own selves.

Apodemy was created by Katerina Athanasopoulou with original music by Jon Opstad .

It was commissioned by Onassis Foundation for Visual Dialogues in 2012 and it was awarded the Lumen Prize for best fine art created digitally in 2013.

It will be screened at the University of Sussex on the 30th of May 2014. Find more information here

Stills from 'Apodemy' by Katerina Athanasopoulou

Stills from ‘Apodemy’ by Katerina Athanasopoulou

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Left: Suzanne Hall during the lecture / Right Poster of the lecture

Left: Suzanne Hall during the lecture / Right Poster of the lecture

Suzanne Hall and her colleagues have been researching urban change and the ways that high streets express locally the global urbanisation phenomenon for a long time. The lecture she gave on June 5th was a presentation of her ongoing research for LSE’s Ordinary Streets program which focuses on Peckham’s Rye Lane. This particular high-street is a very interesting example considering it is characterised by an especially high degree of multiculturalism and multilingualism. Peckham’s densely woven fabric of uses and cultures is in fact an enhanced version of many London high streets. However looking at the maps indicating the nationalities of the people who live in London (projected during the lecture) one realises that certain immigrants end up in certain parts of the city. In other words the areas which are populated by people from the former British colonies or from countries of the developing world are not very often also inhabited by Americans, Australians or western Europeans.

All images take from the lecture's slide presentation

All images taken from the lecture’s slide presentation

Peckham is mostly populated by immigrants who are struggling to get by and are -quoting the lecturer- places delineated by ‘loose cohesion and prosaic public dimensions of ordinariness. Considering Peckham’s wealth in culture and its potential for development, home secretary Theresa May’s statement according to which ‘the wrong people should be stopped from coming into the UK’ is rather aggravating. Suzanne Hall’s work as a whole focuses on proving such statements wrong. One way of doing this is by studying multilingualism ‘as the ability to read the cultural and economic landscape of the city and translate it to products services and networks’, and to quote her again, ‘multilingualism should be explored as an urban capacity’. It is common knowledge that London is a highly unequal city but this research aims to study the potential that most deprived inner city areas have, instead of dismissing them.

All images take from the lecture's slide presentation

All images taken from the lecture’s slide presentation

 Getting down to facts and numbers I was surprised to find out that two thirds of Rye Lane’s shops are independent retailers, 30% of which have been there for 20 years. 61% of the traders speak 2-4 languages and 1/3 speak four or more. The whole room laughed out loud when it was mentioned that Rye lane is more language proficient than LSE itself. What I found truly fascinating was that 25% of the shops practice mutualism, which is basically subletting part of their shop to another trader. This practice maximizes the variety of products and services offered. Most importantly though, considering that some pay 150£ per square meter each week, the monthly rent adds up to 500£ per s.m. that is equivalent to retail rent for Knightsbridge which is in fact the highest in the world.

All images take from the lecture's slide presentation

All images taken from the lecture’s slide presentation

The question that was posed at this point was how come Peckham is in desperate need of “regeneration” and “tidying up” compared to Westfield that is seen as one of London’s ultimate success stories. Especially keeping in mind that Peckham houses 2100 businesses with 13.400 employees while Westfield counts 300 businesses which generate 8500 jobs. Not to mention that Westfield absorbed huge amounts of public capital for infrastructure while Rye Lane retailers are of course self-funded.

All images take from the lecture's slide presentation

All images taken from the lecture’s slide presentation

Examining the reasons why, many possible answers were given. The one that saddened me the most was extremely superficial and had to do with aesthetics. Rye Lane is neither tidy nor organised. Shops look nothing like Oxford Street and their untidiness has to do with them not looking English enough in order to be accepted by the general public.

It was also mentioned that Rye Lane has an underground grunge or cool side to it because due to relatively low rents for loft-like spaces, it houses a considerable number of artists’ studios. Many of Rye lane’s facets were outlined but one of the most important reasons for its potential not being recognised was that its rich cultural value is not visible.

All images take from the lecture's slide presentation

All images taken from the lecture’s slide presentation

Firstly because there is no dialogue between the inhabitants and the authorities to possibly negotiate any sort of help from the state. Secondly there is no dialogue between the inhabitants and traders themselves. In their struggle to survive they are too involved in individual profit or in their personal quests, to find ways to define themselves as a whole, organise a trade union and appoint representatives.

All images take from the lecture's slide presentation

All images taken from the lecture’s slide presentation

In the short discussion that followed the presentation some questions were posed that gave Suzanne Hall the opportunity to clarify her conclusions. One was that London streets are almost equivalent to living organisms and have a great potential to redefine themselves. Another interesting fact is that 50% of high-streets as we know them today will be extinct in the future because of on-line shopping and large shopping centres. However their very existence apart from interesting and vibrant is very useful in drawing political conclusions on the way that societies are structured. Multiculturalism and multilingualism instead of a problem that makes communication and organisation difficult could actually be the only answer to the possible formation of a new commercial unit. What’s even more important is that this multicultural experiment could find ways to figure out the model of self-organisation that occupy movements have attempted world-wide but have not been able to sustain for more than a few weeks at a time. And this very self-organisational model could oppose and possibly counterbalance the rigid conservatism that seems to expand dangerously the last few decades.

All images take from the lecture's slide presentation

All images taken from the lecture’s slide presentation

Immigration is an unavoidable fact due to global socio-economic circumstances. Nevertheless it is also an anathema because people who are reluctant to accept change nurture and spread conservative or even crypto-nationalist ideas. Learning to accept multiculturalism and recognise its potential is truly creative contrary to gentrification that is sold as regeneration but actually destructs the urban environment by homogenising it. There are gentler ways to change cities for the better because ultimately (as eloquently put by Suzanne Hall) the first act of creativity is observation.

 Ordinary streets program website here

Download the lecture and the pdf for the slide presentation here

photo via LFA website find it here

This year’s London Festival of Architecture revolved around the theme ‘The Playful City” in an attempt to examine the Olympics’ effect. Checking the program it seemed that a debate aspiring to decide if ‘London needs to learn how to play’ was a must-attend event. However it was unclear to me from the beginning if by ‘London’ the organisers were referring to the city’s public spaces or the actual Londoners and if it was the latter how could the citizens’ playfulness be separated from the spaces they were supposed to play at. The political dimension of the subject was totally ignored by chairwoman Daisy Froud in her introduction. Instead she defined play as the process of ‘taking risks together’ adding that she was reintroduced to this concept after becoming a mother.

The speakers invited were Peter Murray, author, LFA’ s founding director, and former chairman of international consultancy Wordsearch, Peter Fleming professor of Work and Society at Queen Mary college and author of ‘Dead man working’ and Clive Dutton, Newham’s executive director for regeneration.

Peter Murray’s presentation. Images of pall mall game/2004 LFA/Londoners playing

Peter Murray was the first speaker and he started by stating that Londoners do not need to learn how to play. He attempted to be controversial suggesting that it is not accurate to examine playfulness in association with the Olympics because for the athletes sports are work. He also said that athletes are not really healthy as they put their bodies under tremendous stress and they have high mortality rates in relatively young age. Additionally, since the Olympic sponsors are junk food providers, this is what is mainly consumed at the games hence they are unhealthy for the visitors as well. That was already quite contradictory as this year’s London Festival of Architecture title ‘The Playful city’ was chosen exactly because of the Olympics. He explained that the LFA’s aim was not to reproduce the games in the streets of London but to make the city generally more playful. In the images projected while he spoke, random Londoners engaged in sports like pall mall and ping pong. He finished by showing a photo from 2004 LFA where turf was laid down on a London street and mentioned that people knew how to sit down and enjoy it by having a picnic.

Peter Fleming started his presentation by saying that being playful in London is not a psychological question but a sociological one and was more related to the neo-liberal favouritism towards privatisation of public places, than the Londoners’ ability to play. The increasingly authoritarian companies promote conservative ways of playing in order to satisfy people’s inherent need to play which is a fundamental need of humanity. By ‘conservative play’ he meant the childish games invented by fun-sunltants (consultants of fun employed by companies to entertain their over-worked employees). He added that a meaningful emancipatory way of playing springs from the joy of pure democracy and he used the Paris Commune as an historical example. This sort of care-freeness challenges and changes society and should be a civic norm, not the privilege of a very small elite. He concluded by posing the question:” Do we actually dare to play like that?”

Clive Dutton mainly presented statistics and numbers in order to show that Newham (Olympics’ host) was the loveliest, happiest and most playful area of London. Apparently this is proven by the fact that Newham has one of the highest birthrates in the country and the majority of its inhabitants are under 34. We additionally learned by Clive’s speech that London is playful, stimulating and exciting because it has 7.000 pubs 25.000 acres of parkland, 14.000.000 tourists per year and organised 10.000 street parties for the Queen’s diamond jubilee, consequently it does not need to learn how to play.

Top photo Peter Fleming/middle and bottom photo Clive Dutton’s presentation

After the panel’s presentations, the audience contributed to the discussion with very interesting comments. An architecture school graduate suggested that cities are places where people come into contact with systems and negotiate social landscapes. He also said that since the 80’s law and order has increasingly been more oppressive, discouraging the inhabitants’ interaction with their environment. Additionally he mentioned that the ‘right to the city’ as it was introduced by the Situationists, has nothing to do with the ‘right’ to have a picnic on a patch of grass that has been temporarily installed somewhere. Meaningful play is about the evaluation and transformation of social relationships.

Someone else in the audience mentioned that playfulness is largely associated with youthfulness and that most people are actually terrified of playing.

A man shared his personal story of having played football at Hackney marshes every weekend for years and recently not been allowed to do so because of a BBC Olympics related event. Peter Murray turned this argument around by saying that he should not complain as he was allowed to play football all weekends except that particular one, which proves that London generally is a playful city.

Another man in the audience mentioned that he had recently spent 6 months in China and Londoners should not complain as freedom to play is much less in Shanghai.

Clive Dutton kept asking the audience ‘what would you do if you could sprinkle magic dust and change London in order to increase its playfulness’. Several people replied that they would undo the privatisations and remove some of the rules and regulations. Still Clive disregarded those comments and insisted that people were not replying his question with a valid proposal. He also sidetracked the discussion by reading a list of the 10 most miserable places to live in the US in order to make London look like paradise. The audience admittedly found that amusing.

Finally Peter Murray said that upsetting the counsellors at school or stealing apples from the orchard is an anti-authoritarian practice that is ultimately pleasurable. Contradicting himself once again he admitted that at times London is a difficult place to live in but that is where its beauty derives from. It is not clean, it is not Singapore, it has chewing gum on the side-walks and police in the streets and that at times he finds amusing to be chased by security guards when cycling through private places. When chairwoman Daisy Froud agreed with him adding that play would not be as fun if there were no restrictions, Peter Fleming intervened telling them they were playing a dangerous game as this argument could be pushed to extremes in order to justify any authoritarian neo-fashist society to which one should be ‘grateful’ to, for aspiring a sense of rebellion to the people. He concluded by saying that the magic dust that Clive kept referring to was the fact that Londoners are somehow still managing to have fun, regardless of the impossible neo-liberal system that increasingly deprives them of their rights and playfulness.

What I concluded from this debate was that it was similarly informative to the ‘Defence of the Public realm’ event but had a totally different feeling to it. It was more conservative and supportive of the statement that London is playful enough and does not need any alterations. Even the chairwoman did not do such a good job in being impartial, in my opinion she was rather biased in favour of the idea that London does not need to learn to be more playful . However a vote by raising hands was held in the end and the outcome showed that the audience believed the opposite.

The debate took place in the RIBA on the 26th of June 2012

Listen to the whole debate here

LFA 2012 program here

Defence of the Public Realm was an extremely interesting debate that took place on the 25thof June in Bishopsgate Institute as an event within London Festival of Architecture 2012. It was very informative as far as actual facts about public, semi-public and private ‘open’ spaces are concerned. However most importantly, it was a place where poetic justice was attributed. For an hour and a half logic was restored and it was rather obvious who was interested in the well-being of people and who was interested in profit, regardless of anyone’s well-being.

Photo by Grant Smith shown at Defence of the Public Realm. Find his website here

The event was organised and hosted by photographers Grant Smith, Jonathan Warren and Marc Vallée and the speakers were Marc Vallée, Mark Camley Director of operations at the Olympic Park, Anna Strongman co-manager of the King’s Cross ‘regeneration’ project on behalf of Argent Development, Anna Minton author of Ground Control and Olly Zanetti, free-lance journalist and pHd candidate.

To briefly present some of the key points of the speakers’ presentations Marc Vallée spoke of his interest in photographing places that have been designed and constructed in order to avert certain users from using them. Some examples are open air spaces where architectural ‘accessories’ have been installed so that skaters cannot skate or homeless people cannot lay down to sleep. Those spaces seem public but in fact are privately owned and are intended mainly for commercial use.

Anti-skateboarding devices on the Spitalfields Estate on Sunday 1 April 2012 in London, England. Photo by Marc Vallée, find his website here

Anna Strongman was there to support the developers who produce those commercial spaces and to quote her she “will not apologize for that” as “the owners have invested in them”. According to what she said, 40% of King’s Cross regeneration project is meant for public use and some of it will be adopted by local authority. However Granary Square will be privately managed by an estate team to their cost. She stated though that the management regime is not an arbitrary one and that the legislation that regulates public behaviour will be followed. She also mentioned that private developers ‘give’ to the public high standard spaces that were previously unused and in order to maintain their high standards matters of excessive drinking, public decency and proper protesting are constantly discussed and renegotiated.

Mark Camley spoke about the Olympic Park which aims to reflect the ethics of the Queen. His presentation was accompanied by many slides of CGI renderings and diagrams that supported the view that the Olympic Park is the ‘missing stitch’ in London’s fabric that will transform derelict and overgrown areas in order to ‘create wealth and reduce poverty’ by creating healthier environments.

Slides from Mark Camley’s presentation

Anna Minton spoke of large scale privatisation in London that basically creates segregated high security places. Referring specifically to the Olympics she said that initially they were meant to be funded by Land Lease (Australian developer) but because of the economic crisis and the bank bail-out, the company was unable to get the funds hence the development was financed only 2% by private companies while the rest of the budget was met by the public sector. Regardless of that, private companies currently manage the venture and will take advantage of the estates in the future. She also mentioned Boris Johnson’s manifesto (read here) according to which: “..this type of ‘corporatisation’ occurs, especially in the larger commercial developments and Londoners can feel excluded from part of their own city.”

Robin Priestley spoke of Space High-jackers actions in various occasions and their declaring themselves the London 2012 official protesters. Naturally this has already caused them considerable trouble as they have actually attempted to use the trademarked Olympic logo. Priestley very specifically stated that the group has no objection in people being interested in sports but their actions aim to show that the large multi-national corporations are using the Olympics in order to gain the maximum profit by controlling public spaces and imposing extreme security measures.

Finally, Olly Zanetti said that a good public space should include a great deal of ‘bad’ otherwise it only promotes segregation. He argued that people who are excluded from some areas, are also excluded from society itself. Being physically banned from public spaces by definition renders them unwanted in other areas of social life as well.

Following the presentations, the audience engaged in a very interesting discussion with the panel where it was mentioned among other things that  the exclusion of some users from private-commercial spaces promotes mainly the owners interests and ultimately only protects people from each other. Also that relying on CCTV makes people feeling less responsible for each other and that unfortunately public spaces are no atopia either as they are highly monitored and many restrictions apply to them as well.

What stayed with me the most was Robin Priestley’s story about a Space Hijackers action when they challenged a group of tipsy bankers in the City to a game of cricket (see photos and read more about it here). The square that hosted their game was private hence no such conduct was allowed there. Soon the police arrived and when the players where threatened, the high-jackers took a step back and let the bankers take on the fight with the police, stating that they had every right to play there as their office overlooked that open space and they deserved to use it as they wanted. The beauty of this story is its utter absurdity, when one realises that rules imposed on quasi-public places are rigid and random and truly only manage to protect people from relating to each other and the environment.

Robin Priestley during his presentation projected behind him Space hijackers website. Find it here

Many stories were heard on how protesting, photographing etc. are not allowed in half of London as it is private land by now something that unfortunately it is not known to most  Londoners, simply because the majority of private spaces are not signalled as such. In fact the people who have been labelled as vandals, trespassers and radicals are merely trying to inform the rest of us about the freedoms that we have been deprived of. Unfortunately this deprivation was achieved gradually in a concealed manipulative way. In fact some of the presentations were rather patronising and manipulative as well. For example, when Mark Camley said that the majority of people when presented with a blank piece of paper and asked what would they require from a park or a public space the only thing they can come up with are toilets and parking spots. Not that there is anything wrong with this request, still it was mentioned in a cynical and patronising tone, implying that people are ignorant like children hence the developers should do the planning for them.

Debates as this one are extremely valuable events because they provide a plane for discussion and disagreement, which should be facilitated and celebrated. After all most good ideas emerge as the synthesis of opposite views. However they are also valuable in reflecting painful truths that are meticulously concealed by those who have interests in doing so. What I am referring to is what Anna Minton mentioned in her closing argument, that public spaces are a reflection of our society and its structures and what is being demonstrated in the public spaces within contemporary cities and particularly London is that we are members of a society that increasingly promotes social exclusion.

Listen to the whole debate here

London Festival of Architecture 2012 program here

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