Monday, 17 September 2007

the radiant city

i began this fledgling project hoping to investigate the project of modernity, interrogate my concerns and prejudices, and navigate a more productive route around the contemporary cultural landscape, released from my misconceptions. i suppose i should start by defining what exactly i might mean by ‘modernity', as the very term is hotly debated and divided. perhaps most commonly we know modernity as 'modernism', a distinctly 1920’s or 30’s image of streamlined architecture, bright young things experimenting and breaking with tradition in art, dress, town planning, literature, music. in this guise it marks a relatively short historical moment and has arguably been surpassed, overtaken or supplanted by postmodernism, its upstart offspring, with its pastiche ridden, ironic and totally irreverent attitudes to just about everything.
in a more general sense it is also used to refer to the continuous project of modernity since the renaissance, the enlightenment project itself, in which we are in many respects still living, though rather unsteady on its perch given the challenges of the post-moderns. my personal dilemma is that though very much a product of this modernity, i am attracted in turns by the former's rationality and optimism as well as to much so-called postmodern theory (especially, i confess, the rather more pessimistic variety). however i often find myself by inclination and learning yielding to more archaic times, leading my friends and acquaintances to mistakenly equate these admirations for one of a plethora of clichés, from which i am keen to disassociate myself. i am most certainly NOT a champion of 'chocolate box' preservationism nor do i romantically wish to return to life without sanitation or clean running water!
the most obvious cliché is leafy old england, the miss marple version of thatched cottages, cream teas, village fetes, and leafy lanes - john major's england of warm bitter, cricket pavilions and village greens….a picture box england of loveable eccentrics but a rather disturbing murder count!! this is the tourist board's heart of england, symbol of the national trust, and as foreign to me as the mass of tourists who pass through on luxury coaches and a flurry of long lens…this isn’t the complex palimpsest i mean – bluestockings are not all country girls you know, nor are they all landed gentry.

then there's the heritage ‘capitals’ of england, purposely frozen and artificially preserved in a particular ‘best’ moment in time, the one we have mooted the ‘peak’ of its history. in the uk this inevitably tends towards the classical or gothic, and we have several living historic theme parks, if you like, tourist honey pots, attracting visitors from all over the world, especially the u.s of a, keen to experience the classic english city; bath, york, chester, oxford and cambridge all restrict planning permission in a determined policy of preserving the paradox of their artificial authenticity.
or there are those spectacular ruined cities of pompeii and herculaneum, persepolis, monemvasium and knossos, magnificent remnants and remembrances of past glories and lost worlds. who couldn't fail to admire and be inspired by these incredible artefacts? of course, i'm not advocating that our contemporary cities should be all slapped with preservation orders; i'm not averse to new and exciting additions to our built environment. times move on and things change and this is inevitable, even desirable.
bluestockings weren't simply armchair intellectuals. they took extraordinary lengths to travel and explore, against all the odds and social conventions of their times - trekking long distances without the benefits of cheap airlines, discovering lost civilisations, excavating, recording and battling to preserve past and present ways of life, their memoirs and travel writings bringing their discoveries and adventures vividly home to the 'modern' world. much of this is not without controversy - gertrude bell's involvement in the creation of modern iraq casts a long shadow - but the fact remains that these somewhat eccentric women, these first flaneuses, opened our eyes to the beauty, grandeur and possibilities of worlds quite distinct from the european grand tour, quite different to the classical legacy of the roman empire.

no, the cities i mean are not chocolate box perfect images; not created from scratch to reflect the ambitions and vanities of a marketing brand; not built ad hoc without reflecting on the overall impact on the cityscape and its ecosystem; they are most definitely alive and kicking, with an affection and affinity for the potency and vitality of multiple histories and stories, cities that attempt to incorporate these stories into their contemporary environment. the cities i mean have architecture that is rich and varied, the best of the past inspiring and informing the architecture of today, not stifling their potential for future development; but where above all slapdash mediocrity is simply not an option.

these are the cities that i never tire of walking, where the marks of their past haven't been carelessly tossed out, like so much old rubbish or embarrassing blemish...

No comments: