Thursday, 31 December 2009

Contemporary art and the end of celebrity

Published a piece on a new directions in contemporary art in this week's New Statesman. I argue that the energy in the art world is coming from non commericial, independent galleries, heralding a more intellectual approach in place of the indivdualistic, showman, celebrity figure. So, not a world away from the arguments in Ground Control.

Happy New Year!

Friday, 11 December 2009

Boris' 'Manifesto' to keep public space public

Surprised and pleased to see Boris Johnson call for public space to remain genuinely public. In his ‘Manifesto for Public Space’, which goes under the heading, ‘London’s Great Outdoors’, Boris writes that “there is a growing trend towards the private management of publicly accessible space” and that where this “corporatisation” occurs, “Londoners can feel themselves excluded from parts of their own city”. But he makes clear “this need not be the case” pointing to the Kings Cross development where it has been agreed that the local authority will retain control of the streets and public areas – ‘adopt’ the streets to use the jargon. He explicitly states: “This has established an important principle which should be negotiated in all similar schemes.”

The Mayor has considerable planning powers so this is a significant policy statement. The irony is that the Greater London Authority, Boris’ own office and the seat of democratically elected government in the capital, is in ‘More London’, the privately owned enclave at Tower Bridge, policed by the kind of private security that makes Londoners feel “excluded from parts of their own city”.

‘London’s Great Outdoors: A Manifesto for Public Space’, by Boris Johnson, can be found at:
The relevant paragraph is buried on page 8, but it is nonetheless there. Whether Boris ensures developers and London’s local authorities listen remains to be seen.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Alarm and fear

The Architecture Foundation launched the European Prize for Public Space this week, won this year by Barking Town Square, which is, I’m told, a rare of example of new genuinely public space. I haven’t yet been there so I can’t comment on what it’s like but it was good to hear Sarah Gaventa, director of CABE Space, talking of the importance of keeping streets and public places truly public. Mark Brearley, who as head of Design for London is arguably London's most influential designer, unfortunately didn’t agree. He claimed Sarah’s take – which referred to the arguments in ‘Ground Control’ - was ‘alarmist’. That's the point: it is alarming.

Alarm and fear were very much the order of the day, at ‘Maximum and Minimum’, a conference organised by Cambridge University’s architecture department yesterday. I was speaking in a session on ‘The anxious city’, with interesting contributions from architecture critic Penny Lewis, planning academic Jon Coaffee and Richard Williams author of ‘The anxious city’, from which our session took its name. Coaffee talked about that latest buzzword, ‘Resilience’ and how the idea of creating ‘Resilience’ in places – buildings, public places, communities – is becoming interchangeable with a defensive culture, breeding more fear. Lewis's talk, about fear coming from within, was an interesting counter.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

London Review of Books

Great review of Ground Control by Andrew Saint in this week's London Review of Books. You can read it here:

Monday, 9 November 2009

The psychology of walls

Just come from talking about the psychology of walls on the Jeremy Vine Show, broadcast from Berlin on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall. Well, Jeremy Vine was in Berlin, I was in London.
Why was I on? To give a different slant to the eye witness accounts and to talk about the psychology of fear which gives rise to walls. ‘Ground Control’ looks at the growing security – gates, walls, guards, CCTV - which accompanies our increasingly privatised cities, rather than the walls which are a physical reflection of geo political conflict. But issues of security, fear and identity are a critical part of any discussion about walls and their psychological impact on the people who live in their shadow.
The Berlin Wall was born out of Soviet fear of the West, to bolster the GDR and stop East Germans from leaving. We also talked about the ‘peace lines’ in Belfast, in Northern Ireland – the walls dividing loyalist and nationalist communities from each other – which have more than trebled in number since the peace process, as the fear between the two communities has failed to diminish. Walls have always been built for political reasons, from the Great Wall of China to the Israeli West Bank barrier and they are always a reflection of fear and a desire for security. Yet rather than bring security, they ramp up fear and insecurity. But they are the symbol, not the cause, of division and when larger forces shift walls can come down, as the Berlin Wall did.
Even so, people continue to have mixed feelings about the Berlin Wall and some are nostalgic for it, exemplified by films like 'Goodbye Lenin'. But it's not the wall itself they miss, as the East German guest on the show with me explained, but the life they had then, with its old certainties, jobs for life and slower pace. Walls are much more than a physical barrier, though they may be oppressive, they are also the symbols of a time.

Monday, 26 October 2009

The Bigger Picture

The New Economics Foundation ‘festival’, 'The Bigger Picture' this weekend lived up to its name, with literally thousands of people queuing for hours to get into the Bargehouse on the SouthBank, to the point that sessions transferred outside. I was speaking with Stacy Mitchell, American author of ‘Big Box Swindle’, in a session called ‘Tales of how it turned out right: How communities in the US fought back and won.’ Much of Ground Control is based on the premise that we have imported one divisive American policy towards the city after another so how is it that Stacy Mitchell was asked to speak about how it turned out right? To my surprise, a key theme which emerged while I was writing the book is just how much more engaged Americans are with what is happening to their cities. Stacy talked about how local business alliances of independent shops were successfully working against the ‘Walmart economy’ to change federal government planning policy. She also talked of the success of local campaigns such as ‘Keep Portland independent’ and ‘Keep Austin weird’. In contrast to UK trends, 400 new independent bookshops have opened in the US over the last five years. Although American trends towards private government, gated communities and high security are so much more advanced than ours in many ways their federal structure offers more opportunities to revive local democracy.

The structure of the day – and the Bargehouse - was that people wandered from one packed session to another. Oliver James, speaking with Stewart Wallis about the myth of progress, described the atmosphere as akin to a 60s protest. For the thousands who attended, the idea of a politically apathetic voting public couldn’t be further from the truth.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Stokescroft and Cabot Circus

Highlight of the week was my visit to Bristol, where I was shown round burgeoning artists quarter Stokescroft, before making my way down to the monolith that is Cabot Circus. Run by a collective, the ‘People’s Republic of Stokescroft’, the area is becoming an artdoor gallery, distinguished by beautifully hand painted street signs, murals and street art. Stencilling street names onto council signs is illegal but it is hard to see how this can be an offence. Chris Chalkely, a leading light in the ‘PRSC’, was a wholesaler in the potteries and he bought the old lithographs, setting up in a warehouse and creating a local industry, with handpainted china on sale in local shops.

Five minutes walk away, the concrete roundabout complex cuts through and provides a boundary line between Stokescroft, the old modernist shopping centre and Cabot Circus. This gleaming ‘mall without walls’ of private streets, CCTV and security guards was more reminiscent of an airport than a part of Bristol and reminded me exactly of the identikit anonymity of Liverpool One.

I was in Bristol to give a talk at the Arnolfini, with Carolyn Steel, author of Hungry City, a great book which shares many themes in common with Ground Control.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

CCTV gameshow

Just come from the Jeremy Vine Show where I was asked to talk about the latest crazy CCTV invention, which really is unbelievable. ‘Internet Eyes’, a new business which launched today, is to pass on live CCTV footage to members of the public who can win up to £1,000 a month if they spot crimes being committed.

Suspecting the police would find this as ridiculous and disturbing as I do, before I went on the show I called a police contact who used to run a CCTV network. “I can’t imagine any public body in their right minds would get involved in something like that. Transferring responsibility for policing to a game-show has to be a complete no-no,” he told me.

Public bodies are not involved in this, only businesses which are gullible enough to pay for the so-called service, creating a steady stream of income for the businessman behind the idea, apparently a former restaurant owner. While I was on the show it was clear that the idea was unravelling and it was almost universally panned by callers.

What I find most disturbing about the scheme, quite apart from the fact that anybody would actually sign up to it, is how it illustrates the link between the growing commercialisation of security and technology, which is an important theme in the book. It is also distasteful that this cross between reality TV and vigilantism is dressing itself up as civic responsibility. I can almost imagine late night cable TV channels interspersing CCTV footage with over-excited adverts about how ‘you too can win £1,000.’ Fortunately, I think privacy issues and questions over putting this type of footage in the public domain would restrict this. They may well fell this outfit too.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Cuddly pacifists...and local democracy

So, here’s the latest instalment of photographer Lee Garland’s removal from Manchester’s Spinningfields, by an abusive security guard. According to Crain’s, Manchester’s business magazine, Garland is described – and dismissed - as a “cuddly floppy fringed pacifist”. I suppose that’s called writing for your audience.

Crain’s writes: Lee Garland, a professional photographer and lecturer at The Manchester College, was on the wrong end of the rather over-zealous security team at Allied London's Spinningfields development the other day. Garland said he was quickly approached by a security person from Warrington-based Westgrove Security Services. “His first words to me were "Pack that up now and get the f**k off Allied London land'. He then grabbed my camera lens in an attempt to stop me photographing Spinningfields. What surprised me most was the thick air of aggression given out by the security guard.” The security man also asked Garland, a cuddly, floppy-fringed pacifist: “Have you always been a dickhead?”

My own visit to Manchester last week went much better, with Cathy Parker at the Institute of Place Management organising a very good debate. On the panel was Steve Shaw, from Local Works, which was behind the Sustainable Communities Act, an interesting, if unfinished, piece of legislation. The discussion about the pathetic state of local democracy, as a result of current mechanisms which exclude rather than apathy, is an area I want to do a lot more work on.

Thursday, 1 October 2009


Welcome to my blog! The book was published three months ago so I feel it’s well overdue. The idea is that it will provide a place to talk about the wide range of issues raised by Ground Control.

I thought I’d kick off with this email I received the other night from a photographer acquaintance called Lee Garland:
“I decided to come down to Spinningfields to take some photos this evening, and lasted 10mins before the security guard descended upon me. Some of his choicest phrases so far: (he's still standing in front of me) "pack that up NOW and **** off" and my personal favourite "have you always been a dickhead?" whilst he held his hand over my camera lens. What I find most ironic is the fact I'm standing outside of the Guardian's Manchester office!”

The spread of private security in privately owned places has been one of the themes which resonated most with people since the book came out. When I was interviewed about this on Broadcasting House Paddy O’Connell could not believe the way security guards ejected the BBC from the South Bank, as you can hear here.

Right now, I’m about to go and talk about the book to a community group in Walthamstow and tomorrow I’m off to Manchester, to talk to the ‘Institute of Place Management’ at Manchester Metropolitan University. It should be interesting as they’re a business school and I suspect some of the audience will vehemently disagree with my take on the private management of cities. I’ll blog and let you know.