Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Loose Thoughts on Cambridge and Poplar

I had coffee with a friend of mine earlier in the week and at one point in the conversation we were speaking about architecture and, most particularly, the effect older buildings have on people as reminders of the scale of human existence compared to that of humanity or the built environment, the way buildings can act as markers of time.

This can be particularly striking in Cambridge. Entire cities, such as Auckland and Melbourne, have been built and filled with businesses and families from across the world in less than three hundred years; Australia has moved from being a continent of nomadic tribes to a penal colony to an agricultural society through a gold rush to today's country with a flag, with arguments over selling uranium to China, with opinion columns worried about immigration and urban sprawl, with airlines taking you to Asia in one flight and Europe in two... and through all this, even before Australasia was noticed by England, since 1441, my college has been arranging and rearranging buildings. While I've seen the chapel almost every day for the past five months, I continue to feel dizzy when I look at it, at plain buttresses toward the Eastern end alongside those toward the Western end, branded with roses and crowns against the posthumous wishes of Henry VI. In an architecture class a few days ago one of the academics at another college mentioned that in  discussions decisions were made on a grand scale: if something wasn't done now, it could be done instead in a hundred years.

These buildings seem to inject such urgency into everyday life; I'm constantly panicking about being unable to succeed in anything more than a temporary way and certainly many people at Cambridge seem to feel afraid they'll never match their own ambitions. But how can anyone really succeed when they're measuring themselves against buildings Turner painted? It feels somewhat depressing, in Cambridge, not to be made of stone. Nobody seems worried about their life in Cambridge, and I don't really seem to worry about my assignments; I worry instead about what comes after this, about finding a job, about the deterioration of paper and the lack of attention being paid to preserving digital files, about doing something spectacular, about not living to be eight hundred years old...

The point I was originally moving toward, though, is that I find my interest in these buildings is no greater than my interest in more recent buildings, the ones that society doesn't feel quite so intimidated by. I find it fascinating how suddenly tastes shift, that what is a Solution can be a Problem only forty years later, that places that are homes to people, buildings that shape modes of existence, are frames through which one sees the world, rooms in which one learns what life is, can mean very little to broader society, be disposable to governments.

On a pragmatic level, I comprehend the idea that not everything can stay, though the guidelines for what stays and goes don't make sense. I don't understand, though, the refusal to mourn architectural loss; for even if buildings are now derelict, seem 'ugly' to today's eyes or the eyes of those daydreaming of domes that take decades to build, surely these buildings meant something once, stood for something brilliant, once seemed to have so much potential? And the minds of those who arranged their possessions within them were shaped by these buildings, thoughts stacked neatly in corners or piled like dirty dishes in the sink...

I show visitors around college and I go to Evensong just for the opportunity to stare at the ceiling uninterrupted, but it is the concrete stairs of my block of flats from the sixties that I worry about falling down and it is on the third floor of that building that many of my memories have been forged; the wiry bed I lie on resonates with all the sentiments it has felt over the last five months and my cameras have been trained in our windowless hallway. It's all much more mine than the Chapel, which belongs to over five hundred years of students, fellows, chaplains, kings and queens, soldiers training for war. I've tried to find my block of flats beautiful, but I can't quite; yet one is changed by the rooms one inhabits...


Anyway, Robin Hood Gardens is a housing estate that is both beautiful and slated for demolition and these sorts of thoughts led me to plan a visit, wanting to see this exercise in constructing a community, idyllically named and yet poised overlooking the terrifying Blackwall Tunnel. Robin Hood Gardens was designed by Alison and Peter Smithson and completed in 1972. The Smithsons might be my favourite British architects, theoretical and ambitious, and Robin Hood Gardens was their biggest project. 

I woke up early and caught the train to London, the tube and then the DLR to Blackwall, where I looked out at Robin Hood Gardens and felt that the suburb itself was altogether too huge for me. Robin Hood Gardens, though, I liked almost instantly. It seemed a friendly enclave in the midst of anonymous urbanity. When I crossed the street and walked into the estate, past an empty basketball court, I found it quiet, despite the harsh traffic partitioned off simply by a concrete wall; the grass was entirely green and the incline of the central knoll was gentle, kind, the sort of hill children could roll down or skip up, punctuated by coloured turtles positioned beside the path to the top of the hill, and the place generally just felt so friendly. I wandered around, hoped I could follow somebody inside (but didn't succeed, unfortunately), looked upward, liked the detailing on the glass panels, looked at the lace kitchen curtains and grey satellite dishes, at belongings piled up on balconies, heard children laughing and dishes being washed and music that seemed to float from fifty years ago; Robin Hood Gardens had a sort of timelessness and felt happy, felt removed from the stress of consumerism and billboards and cities built more for cars than people.  

I wish they weren't demolishing it. It's really so beautiful; it feels so filled with hope, with the ability to bring out one's potential as a human being, to strip life down to the most basic forms of brilliance (perhaps gardens and community fall into this) and to do so elegantly. I really found Robin Hood Gardens to be graceful; so smooth and nicely proportioned, buildings holding the grass within them, one lower than the other to allow light, paths gently winding along the ground floor flats and beside the hill. 

I went after this to Balfron Tower, a few blocks away, walking past a barber's shop and a faded shopfront with green capitals reading 'MOSQUE' above the door. Balfron Tower is another housing estate, designed by Erno Goldfinger and built in 1965, recommended to me when I mentioned to a friend studying housing estates that I planned to visit Robin Hood Gardens. Balfron Tower was sort of sublime in the nineteenth century meaning of the term, harmony coexisting with fear. I can't really decide what I think of Balfron Tower, in large part because I was simply too scared to spend much time there, partially due to the fortress-like exterior, the bridge to the entrance which worried me with its lack of escape route, and partially due to the three intimidating men loitering beside a car, watching passers-by.

I went to the Lansbury Estate next, past a lot of scaffolding and signs reading "95% of Poplar HARCA residents feel safe in their homes," the development eerily suggesting a different sort of future for the buildings, reminding those walking down the streets of how quickly change can occur... given the current possibility that those living in Balfron Tower are to be forced out for refurbishment and may not be able to return, the constant presence of Poplar HARCA signs seemed a little scary, a little cinematic in the foreshadowing of urban tragedy, Canary Wharf's towering grey crystals staring from nearby, Barclay's and HSBC signs above Poplar's quiet streets and public squares - though perhaps I'm projecting my own narratives onto the neighbourhood, viewing it through that lens that likes beauty underscored by loss, transforming the friendliness and functionality of the Lansbury Estate into another essay on postmodernity and the sublime...

I don't know, anyway; I'm just trying to practice writing my thoughts down in a more public way than I'm used to...

I liked the Lansbury Estate, though it didn't feel as magical as Robin Hood Gardens (and I do believe that magic isn't just in the knowledge it's about to be destroyed). I liked the way flats were arranged overlooking Market Street, though I didn't like the metal roof over the market itself, which seemed to sort of cut the whole place apart. I liked that the lace curtains I'd seen everywhere were for sale in the market. The music, again, seemed piped from a distant time.

But Robin Hood Gardens was more idealistic - the centre of the Lansbury Estate community was the market rather than the garden, consumerism replacing contemplation as the meeting point - and I like idealism. Balfron Tower was something else entirely, a sort of community-as-fort. I don't know how I feel about Balfron Tower yet.

I walked through a park on East India Dock Road and there were people playing tennis. If you looked to one direction you could see the Lansbury Estate; looking to the other direction placed you almost underneath the buildings of Canary Wharf. I felt astounded by how close they were, how tangible the speed of time was when standing there; the pace of global change, the way cities consumer suburbs felt so rapid and so terrifying... though I don't know if my view's entirely valid, as it's so close and even now the city is only threatening to consume Poplar; it hasn't yet done so.

I walked past some old baths on returning to the DLR. They look entirely closed now, but I wonder what they were like when open, and if the interior is friendlier than the exterior, as it was a proud and aggressive building, growling at me as I looked at it. I looked it up in a cursory sort of way and found very little information, simply that there were plans to refurbish it. I'm still looking for more information, but should be studying.

I was meeting a friend at London Bridge after this, so I caught the DLR to Canary Wharf and then switched to the Tube. The change at Canary Wharf was a fitting end to the morning's Poplar excursion; emerging from the 1950s, the metal crêpe stand and heated mall, Tiffany & Co. opposite the entrance from the DLR, seemed a sort of strange joke in its dizzying contrast. 

Still, though, the weight of time is heavy when I look at these late twentieth and early twenty-first century buildings; while King's College Chapel has stood for over five hundred years, intimidating with its longevity, the speed of change in London intimidates in a different way, as life rushes hectically by and niches in which people lived are torn down, reminding you all the more of how hard it is, as a building or as a person, to really last any time at all, to put any real shape into the world.

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