Friday, 21 August 2015

It’s only public space Here’s an unfortunate article by Oliver Wainwright in the Guardian, describing Preston’s 1960s bus station as ‘majestic’ and deriding a new alternative design. No, it’s not a spoof. Preston bus station is among the more unpleasant environments I’ve had to spend time in and I know I’m not alone in having had that experience. Through a link to one of Wainwright’s previous articles, I find a picture caption claiming that ‘Preston Bus Station is rightly recognised as one of the country’s most dramatic public buildings of its time.’ ‘Rightly recognised’? Well it may be among the most dramatic, given much of the architecture we had to put up with from those years, but it’s not healthy to go on about it. What we have here, I suspect, is another example of the Robin Hood Gardens phenomenon, where architects tell ordinary people that they have no taste. RHG was manifestly a disaster and a disgrace to civilisation, but architects were telling us to the death that it was some kind of masterpiece. There's a regrettable professional closed-ranks-refusal to accept that brutalism was a mistake. In a postscript on RHG I noted ‘What's most depressing about it though is that the louder the architects clamour, the less faith the rest of us can have that they will in future pay due account to what it's like to live there.’ It’s the old problem of architects seeing their output as objects defined by a mathematical aesthetic and not as occupied space that plays a part - often a huge part - in the everyday lives of people who (guess what?) can't afford penthouses and chauffeurs. People deserve public space that affords a sense of humanity. I don't understand why this is still such a problem. Image from
Tracing traces About a week ago I picked up information concerning two curiosities. First, that the five members of a family that I happen to know, readily share precise location data online and look at what each other is doing during the day, some of them separated geographically by many miles. Some people will find this odd because it sounds like sanctioned tagging. Secondly, I learned from Robert Macfarlane’s delightful book The Old Ways, of the existence of the Formby footprints. The prints, baked hard into soft mud where the beach is now, have emerged on the shore at Formby Point because of environmental conditions and we are told they are approximately 5,000 years old. Among numerous prints, human and animal, it is claimed that the parallel steps of a man and a woman can be made out clearly. (The pic, by Macfarlane himself, is on the Formby Footprints website). By coincidence I was in Formby for a couple of days last week, and spent time on the beach at low tide. The prints are hard to find – conditions change and, having been exposed, it seems they are unlikely to last long – but I saw several and yes, they are exciting to a closet anthropologist like me. I happened to speak to a woman who has lived for nearly fifty years within two miles of this extraordinary find, and who knew nothing about them, so I did not feel too ignorant in my belated learning. The next day in Liverpool, I couldn’t resist this shot of the upturned sole of a shoe that seemed to have been washed up on the dock just outside the Tate Gallery. Paul Carter in his challenging book Dark writing wrote that ‘Our world is composed of the traces of movement’. Carter was asking why so much of our cultures (he begins with cartography) represents the world as static, when our experience of it is mobile. And so I go back to thoughts of that family who have and welcome the capacity to examine each others’ traces constantly, using their smartphones. It seems like a form of voyeurism that, being approved - just as the revelation of ancient footprints on a beach, and seeking them out and gazing at them, is culturally approved - perhaps exemplifies a fundamental human curiosity for the traces of others. Does this echo themes of privacy, curtain-twitching and looking-out for others in the neighbourhood? We still have the instincts of hunters.

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