Letters From London

London Sprawling

The British capital is never empty, and only major television events can clear the streets. So why do movies and science fiction teem with vacant blocks? Does urbanism have room for emptiness anymore?

London is never empty. Even the annual May Bank Holiday, when people traditionally leave the city, shops shut, and the streets feel wide and airy, is a disappointment for the claustrophobe. I’m hoping for a city transformed from its usual schizophrenic self of snarling traffic, angsty crowds, and small moments of rapture into an urban idyll of broad, empty avenues and scattered lumps of lazy pedestrians. It doesn’t happen. The dip in traffic levels is perceptible, but hardly remarkable, and a few parking spaces have magically appeared where once there was barely space to squeeze between fenders. But the city is far from vacant.

Abandoned urbanism is part fantasy, part nightmare: an impossible dream that is now the preserve of advertising or cinema’s vision, dystopic or nostalgic. Modernity has made it near-impossible to experience the city as a truly empty space. Instead, we rely on false celluloid memories; the Swinging Sixties, when David Hemmings could swing his black Rolls Royce into any number of parking spots in the heart of fashionable Knightsbridge, or the Beatles could saunter across Abbey Road without having to keep a weather eye open for speeding cabs. Or the romantically scuffed early-morning streetscape, when only stragglers and milk floats are out and about, and our protagonist can saunter along litter-blown streets.

Only major distractions are able to clear streets, mostly unwelcome ones. Terrorist scares and Princesses’ funerals are two that spring to mind, and the latter only offered unfettered access to the streets to those who were less curious about urban emptiness than the need to share the national grief by staying inside to watch TV. More commonly, there are the road-sweeping properties of the international football match. This summer’s periods of temporary desolation will occur in direct correlation to the distance the England football team progresses in the World Cup tournament; for a blissful few hours a semi-final game can clear the streets of traffic, leaving the summer air quiet, punctuated only by the massed groans and cheers emanating from pubs and bars.

Take the people out of the city, and the variable moods that come with massed groups of humanity vanish as well. Car advertisers have long known the attraction of the mythical state of barren urban streets; advertising imagery suggests that the contemporary car interior cossets the driver to such an extent that pesky diversions—pedestrians, other traffic—are slickly swept away. It’s all trickery, of course, with crowds that can be digitally turned on and off, but we’re expected to swallow the premise—this car clears the streets. The collisions and combinations of empty space, with its expectation of activity, are denied. The cityscapes of Giorgio de Chirico thrived on empty space, plazas that stretched for miles with their slightly ungainly perspective, punctuated by blank buildings held up on colonnades of lonely arches, while strange, angular statues occupy pedestals.

Earlier in the week a colleague bounded into the office, all excited; he thinks he’s found a de Chirico sketch, bought in the weekend market on Portobello Road for just £150. De Chirico was a fabled forger, perhaps even more so than that other artistic mythmaker, Salvador Dali. In later life Giorgio would casually sign blank pieces of paper or even other people’s imitative sketches, making accurate catalogue of his vast oeuvre nearly impossible. I look at the blurry digital photo (see above) of the newly-acquired drawing; an empty plaza, a colonnade, a plinth. Its emptiness is perhaps two-fold, no value as well as no people. De Chirico’s vision conjures up hot sun on gravel and white walls, a million miles from London’s litter-strewn and pigeon-filled public spaces. It’s an alien culture that exerts a powerful draw. The word “piazza” is bandied about by British architects and town planners, as if the climate and culture of the Mediterranean can be semantically implanted. It’s a dream that’s kept artificially alive: the nearest we get to these imaginary cityscapes is the self-imposed emptiness that comes from London’s carelessly zoned city center; thronged during the week by commuters, abandoned on weekends, bereft of tourist attractions and family homes. The desultory roadblocks of the so-called “Ring of Steel,” bored policemen in fluorescent jackets, standing by ribbon slabs of truck-stopping concrete, look even more incongruous.

The contemporary city can never be truly idle. Even nighttime has lost its morbid fascination, with the sodium glow of streetlights banishing the darkest corners and a steady stream of activity, illicit or otherwise, animating the streets. London might not have a claim to be a true 24-hour city, but a sizeable proportion of its population appears to be nocturnal, stumbling from one destination to another, eating, clubbing, brawling. Passing through this sodium-hued tableau, on a bus or in a cab, one observes a thousand dramas, relationships emboldened or destroyed, people lost and found. It can be threatening, even overwhelming, and the reaction is almost always to get away quick, leaving the turmoil of the town center for the relative calm of the suburbs.

An old episode of The Twilight Zone, “A Little Peace and Quiet,” found a frustrated housewife discovering a means of stopping time, freezing it so she could wander around the world in three-dimensional freeze-frame—liquids solidified in mid-air, animals in mid-snarl, cars on the freeway mere solid lumps of metal. The woman wanders down to the city center, watching people on pause as they go about their daily business, enjoying themselves, laughing, dancing, watering their gardens, whatever. And right there, in the city center, she looks up and sees it; a vast Soviet ICBM poised mere meters above American soil, a nanosecond away from impact and the beginning of the end of the world.

We have reached a stage where emptiness is no longer deemed a valid state of urbanism; perhaps it never was. Things have to happen, a state of perpetual motion has to exist to confirm a city’s status.

The static city has long been grist for science fiction, representing the hubristic conjunction of man’s achievements and his subsequent obliteration; the empty city either presages imminent catastrophe or its immediate aftermath. We should be careful what we wish for. The opening scenes of 28 Days Later, with the protagonist in empty London streets with just a tipped-over, burned-out Routemaster bus for company, give me a frisson of jealousy (the camera necessarily keeps the massed crowds of commuters just out of shot behind barriers, waiting impatiently with lattes and briefcases in hand for the scene to wrap so they can get to work). John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (1951) contains one of the original abandoned-city themes: A meteor shower renders almost all of humanity blind and imperilled by predatory, moving plants. The playground of an empty world inevitably has a fatal flipside.

Nowhere is this more evident than the series of photographs of Pripyat, the Ukrainian town built for the workers at the flagship Chernobyl nuclear power station. There is beauty in Pripyat’s rusting funfair and row upon row of empty slab blocks, but its tragedy is too dominant, too real, to be distracted by any misplaced romance. Power stations have always held a fascination for me, never more so than when they’ve failed or burned out. All three of London’s central stations have long been abandoned; Bankside to modern art; Lots Road, which once provided electricity to the London Underground, to an upscale housing development; and, largest of all, Battersea, to slow decay and a long-awaited £1 billion revitalization. Battersea stands in 38 derelict acres, dotted with little piles of rubble that are occasionally shifted around by a largely invisible workforce.

We have reached a stage where emptiness is no longer deemed a valid state of urbanism; perhaps it never was. Things have to happen, a state of perpetual motion has to exist to confirm a city’s status. The late Jane Jacobs advocated an organic approach to urbanism, one that preferred chance encounters to careful social engineering. In contrast, modern planning increasingly eschews real chance for pseudo-atmospherics. The computer-generated predictions of tomorrow’s gleaming urban delights throng with artificial street life, cut-and-pasted stock photos of watch-checking executives, smiling couples, and strutting supermodels, improbably stalking the gleaming surfaces of the new consumer city, as if were heretical to suggest that such high-traffic spaces could ever be empty of people.

The sight of a giant mechanical beast, a 40-foot girl, and a crash-landed spaceship, tarmac ripped and torn around its crater, lost a bit of its quasi-surrealist edge when surrounded by crowds, camera-phones, and toddlers held aloft.

For the past fortnight I watched from a passing train as tents were erected on the patchy, concrete waste ground around Battersea’s brick shell. Each morning’s pass brings fresh revelations, and slowly I see the outline of enormous pneumatic pachyderm being assembled and slowly winched into a standing position, a crane boom thrust ignominiously along the length of its trunk. It is the Sultan’s Elephant, a piece of complex street theater by Royal de Luxe about a mighty, time-travelling elephant. From such a distance it was hard to judge the creature’s scale, and it was only while browsing the many thousands of images of the event uploaded to Flickr that I realised the true size of the beast and its companion puppet.

Doubtless the Sultan’s Elephant’s spasmodic, lumbering, three-day progress was many months in the planning, but it was also admirably slack in its execution. The sight of a giant mechanical beast, a 40-foot girl, and a crash-landed spaceship, tarmac ripped and torn around its crater, lost a bit of its quasi-surrealist edge when surrounded by crowds, camera-phones, and toddlers held aloft, but the air of happy confusion celebrated a triumphant spectacle that’s all too absent from the contemporary life of the street. Royal de Luxe exploited the city as stage set, a natural series of arenas that a crowd could sweep through as if following a mystery play. Just as those narratives were designed to hook in the passersby and drag them along with the flow, so the elephant in the street was a welcome distraction, a giant disjunction that made us look again at our surroundings, appreciate chance and the inevitable inexplicability of cities.

Perhaps it is the lingering romanticism attached to urban emptiness that invigorates a crowd; the full city and the empty city are ultimately both unnatural states. But it is the empty city that continues to lurk in our culture, a place for the imagination, and more beside, to run wild.


TMN Contributing Writer Jonathan Bell lives in South London. He co-edits Things Magazine and likes to write about architecture. More by Jonathan Bell