Built Things Uncategorized


This city has a sky like no other.

People keep telling me this (I knew already, but I am very biased). They often tell me when they visit for the first time. “Big sky”, people say. They are quite right, and it is the sky that I remember most clearly from childhood. Two very particular visual memories in particular seem to dominate. A plain whitewash sky, a cloud layer so smooth that it seems like paper. Bright, and lacking any colour at all. Saturday sky, teatime sky.

And the other one, the dirty orange one. The same smooth surface but now lit up by cheap sodium streetlamps, each one with light that managed to be simultaneously warm and cold. Welcoming, and yet utterly comfortless. Perhaps I am old enough to remember the light of steel furnaces adding to the burnt tone of the clouds. I’m honestly not sure, but it would fit.

Out here, where this is, the moors and peaks form a jagged circle enclosing the lights. Thin ridges of colour stretch out desperately grabbing other towns across the night. That fact, always within reach; you can freeze, die of exposure out there on the hills, within sight of the town hall lights. Driving back at night, the orange glare was very, very reassuring, reflecting off the cooling towers and bridges. Brutalism as a fortress against everything that winter and politics aimed at us.

Always the clouds though, in memory! Why don’t I remember sunny blue skies? There must have been some, but the happiest pictures are of white skies and shining dark stonework running with water, glazed and mossy. This town is built around rain, and sometimes we get that balance wrong and the rivers come out to claim it back. I remember the last great flood, seeing the road tear open in front of me with the pressure of water below.

Listed as (c) David Dixon, labelled for reuse on Google. Not taken by me!

We used to build tunnels here. It’s in our instincts to do so. And it is the structure of the city that generates that, because there’s no great ancient mystical genetic bloodline here, just lots of people coming for work or art or because the climbing is good, or their old home is destroyed and burning. So they come into the rain, but generation on generation built tunnels and went underground. Mineshafts and secret escape routes in folklore, and sometimes folklore escapes into reality when they turn up a archway in the foundations of a new building.

The tunnels are always there, except they officially aren’t, which is a bit of a laugh because you can see them if you know where to look. Gargantuan Victorian drainage systems run in chambers underneath the city, and the entrances are right there, if you know what fence to look over, which culvert to follow, though if you do, you might well die. The air down there can be foul, and don’t forget about those irritable rivers that can change in an instant and sweep everything away again.

And that’s an official one, but there are legends too. Linking cellars and running to the old castle, for ridiculous distances. Everyone seems to know a story, though they are wearily explained as old sewers or bits of mining left over. But if you ask, people will tell you about the dark chamber with the archway that ran on under the city streets, and the ghost stories attached to it. You can ask me if you like, I was shown a hidden tunnel entrance deep below the city about twenty five years ago, and I’m sad to say I never explored further (I needed the job that I would have lost by doing so).

We built a huge network of tunnels in the late 60s and early 70s. They linked the shops; you could enter and leave through basements. The only one I’ve seen like it was in Kyoto, part of the station complex there in fact, but this was very different to the bright and regulated centre there. This one was all about hiding from the rain.

That’s where you went, avoiding the traffic and the damp. Concrete running wet and smeared with millions of dark wet footprints. In the centre, a huge dome open to the sky, to let everyone hurry under back into the tunnels, kiosks built into the walls, bright lights against dark patterns. Ask anyone of a certain age and listen to them talk about it like a long lost home, even though it smelled a bit and you could get murdered at night. Humans are strange like that.

When they built it, they cut through old tunnel routes. The people in the travel agents said that something walked through at night sometimes, following the path.

They filled the tunnels in. They blocked them up and if you wanted to stay out of the rain, you had to go to the mall out of town. Anyone you talk to about this will tell you that nothing was ever the same again. I hate useless nostalgia and the championing of the past just because it’s the past, but for once, this is true. The underground time was full of dreams and phantoms; there was a drive to make everything clean and understandable, to rationalise. It didn’t work, but the ghost stories died down. Perhaps that was the point.

Except people still tell you about things glimpsed underground. A forum post about looking over a security fence and seeing a thing like an underground station exposed by building work. Mentjon of rail lines running underneath a demolition site. A mysterious vault deep beneath the library building, itself covered in arcane symbols. Rumours of deep shelters and unknown systems.

We’re still tunnelling, into myth and stories. Loving the sound of the rain, and keeping dry.

Built Things

Desire paths

The city is a collage at best, one that contains so much material that I begin to find the very concept unsettling. Every interaction leaves a mark, on the micro (the scuffs on the side door to the car park) to the macro (demolishing a quarter of the city centre for reasons that seems a little opaque if we’re being charitable). Intentional or less so, if you begin to look at the details, they will confound you until you feel that you could contemplate and study a single paving slab and not run out of things to say about it, even thought you will inevitably run out of people prepared to pay attention to you.

I once knew an urban planner. I will be circumspect and not name the city in question. They co-ordinated the design of a gargantuan renewal project and specified a colour scheme that would be boldly visible from the air and for miles around, purely on the grounds that it was a colour strongly associated with a football team widely disliked in the immediate area. I only share this because (a) it amuses me terribly and (b) it illustrates the “macro intentional” approach to collaging the city.

What would “macro unintentional” be? Fire damage, perhaps, though in the city I’m writing in, flood is a more pressing issue. People have drowned in the streets here, and we’re three hours from the coast. Fire creates interesting new patterns in many ways (at the time and during the redevelopment) but flood tends to create a warier design based on caution and really wide gutters.

On the micro scale, we leave such patterns that I find it overwhelming my ASC tends to respond very positively to these, to the extent that I can easily become unable to function, lost in the joy of a vacant lot or an aged advertising hoarding, or the specific shade of grey carpet used in pharmacies; to a brain like mine, the world is filled with secret codes and spycraft messages.

I find myself instinctively following the desire paths in the park. A desire path is one created by the needs of a large number of pedestrians, rather than one planned and designed for their usage. Look for them cutting the corners of green spaces, running through corporate flower beds towards entrances, cutting across fields towards school gates. They are a map of the dreams and wishes of any culture, albeit one heavily focused on “I don’t want to walk all the way around there.”

It sounds like the set up for a ghost story, but it’s not; I followed a desire path in the park recently. Deeply worn, clearly still very much in use. Deeper grass either side, packed earth track. It seemed to lead nowhere at all. Just stopped; apparently it at a specific tree. One could jump to all kinds of wild conjectures.

Built Things

Perspex and Grey

The city in which I was born is famous for brutalist architecture. This is largely a consequence of having the living shite bombed out of it in wartime, combined with a distinct lack of cash immediately after. Even so, there was a frenzy of tearing down fancy old buildings and replacing them with a modernist dreamland.

I can kind of see why. I get a sense of a sort of compulsive desire to be rid of the past that had bred fascists and depressions, an urge to escape into a clean science fiction future. Clean? Oh yes. My city was caked in industrial pollution, so much so that locals could tell exactly which forge system had just been fired up by the type of smog currently ruining laundry day.

Killer smogs became Clean Air Acts, and slums became clearances. You can see the almost obsessive need to scrub reality clean, to replace blackened sandstone with immaculate grey. Elsewhere, you can read about the brutalist futures that sprang up across Britain at this time, the upright mazes, what went wrong, what could have gone so very right. The networks of urban tunnels, underpasses, either busy prototype malls in the city centre or strange, silent, deserted walkways, often out on the borders of the countryside, where the new estates merged inexplicably into farmland and ancient woods.

My time was long after this rush. My strongest impression from childhood is the emptiness of it all. Silent subways, pavements that looked as though they’d never been used, stretches of urban space simultaneously pristine and chaotic. The only way I can explain that concept is to consider the space in the centre of a large roundabout; traffic rages around constantly, but in the confines of the island itself, everything’s almost totally untouched. A little time capsule of the day whichever dual carriageway it is was finished, the ribbon cut, the plans locked away, the relentless driving starting. There were so many spaces that felt like this.

And I remember elderly relatives in tower blocks, quite happy to watch the world from a huge distance. In memory, these become impossibly tall, and the plains around them become impossibly wide, empty, sunstruck. My mind must have constructed this from a single visit, yet I can still picture the structure of it all so clearly.

Shapes of a castle, overlooking the hidden ruins of a castle.

In my school dining room, painted black, garish perspex shutters edge the corners. Science fiction halls, clearly striving for the future. Roundels cut out of dividing sections, like eating inside a structure, lit orange, purple, black. Somewhere between this fragment and the grey towers out on that nowhere plain, I feel like there’s something worth salvaging.

We all know what happened without funding, of course. We can chart the decay, the alleged collapse of those minicultures, though I say “alleged” because I’ve met many people who deny that the situations in postwar housing such as the Kelvin estate were ever as bad as they were painted by re-developers. That perspex dining room was torn down and then its replacement torn down a few years later, just to be sure. They built a Costa on the site. Which teenage me would have much preferred and still would, if I’m being quite honest. I like the Black Forest Chocolate.

I also like the idea of science fiction houses, of this mix that I’m playing around with the imagery of. Downstairs, I have a 1951 chiming clock and a strip of neon-style LED lighting, just as those sleek grey dream towers had their little rooms full of wartime photos and horsebrasses. We can take and collage as much as we like; keep that gaze looking forward in design, carry as much of the past as looks good and still works. I won’t mourn the loss of a decrepit school just because it made me feel like I was in Doctor Who or The Tomorrow People, but I might just steal a bit of the aesthetic, in design, in art.