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Pleasure principles: on the homogenisation of the modern city

Canaletto ranelegh 1754

The commodification and proscription of urban intensity is a threat to the life of the city

In 1754, Canaletto painted the interior of the Rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens. The painting shows Georgian Londoners promenading in their finery, dwarfed by the cavernous scale of a new kind of space for public entertainment. Exquisitely ornamented and lit by a thousand ‘golden’ lamps, this vast Rococo rotunda – 150ft in diameter – might be described as the original pleasure dome. Arranged around its edges were booths or ‘supper boxes’ for dining, drinking, smoking and cavorting. Mozart, aged nine, once gave a recital on the orchestra stand. Patronised by pleasure seekers from all classes, it was a Georgian social condenser, with admission by ‘ticket rather than title’. 

Designed by William Jones, a surveyor to the East India Company, the suggestively mammarian dome of the Rotunda loomed over the surrounding pleasure gardens. Occupying a site in Chelsea, Ranelagh was established in 1742 as an upmarket rival to the more famous Vauxhall just across the Thames. At the time, Horace Walpole wrote: ‘It has totally beat Vauxhall … you can’t set your foot without treading on a Prince, or the Duke of Cumberland.’ Edward Gibbon thought it ‘the most convenient place for courtships of every kind’.

‘Patronised by pleasure seekers from all classes, the Rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens was a Georgian social condenser, with admission by ”ticket rather than title”’

The allure of Ranelagh and Vauxhall was contingent on a choreography of buildings, landscapes and atmospheres, which had the effect of suspending the quotidian and conjuring a compelling new form of experiential intensity. In this, promenades, sculptures, water features, illuminations, painted tableaux, fireworks and music offered a multi-sensual, al fresco entertainment that could be enjoyed on apparently equal terms by all visitors. In London, a city where public entertainment was hitherto often predicated on cruelty or violence, the pleasure garden provided a more congenial vehicle for the communal pursuit of leisure. 

Combining a park-like setting with a variety of sensorial experiences, the pleasure garden was at once an urban drawing room, dining room and playroom. ‘Anarchic, tumultuous, youthful, thrilling, kaleidoscopic and for most people, totally foreign to their day-to-day lives’, as David Coke and Alan Borg describe it in their architectural and social history of Vauxhall. Founded in 1661, Vauxhall was the first and most successful commercial pleasure garden in Europe, entertaining 10 million visitors in its pomp between 1740 and 1840. 

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The Grand Walk, Vauxhall Gardens, painted by Canaletto in 1751. Vauxhall’s tree-lined promenades were the setting for a choreography of experiences, from music to fireworks, calculated to encourage disinhibition and interaction. Image courtesy of Compton Verney, Warwickshire, UK/Bridgeman Images

The reinvention of Vauxhall from bawdy resort to a locus of respectable pleasure exemplified the emergence of a new public sphere. Rather than being castigated as a disreputable participant in popular leisure, the visitor to the pleasure garden was successfully reimagined as a polite spectator engaged in cultural edification. The pleasure garden formed part of a new republic of taste defined by commercial and public principles, as opposed to aristocratic and private prejudices. 

Both Vauxhall and Ranelagh attracted a heterogeneous public and the mix of social classes gave these locales a particular kind of intensity, catalysed by the outdoor setting which contrived to subvert the usual codes of social stratification and decorum. A network of paths encouraged perambulating and chance encounters, emboldening visitors to become part of a mobile, energised crowd. Cultural historians have also identified the gardens’ significance as stages for role-play and social inversion. Masquerades, formerly the exclusive preserve of the aristocracy, regularly featured among the entertainments, promiscuously mingling the classes. Clientele arrayed in masks and fancy dress were routinely depicted in engravings of the time. 

‘The allure of Ranelagh and Vauxhall was contingent on a choreography of buildings, landscapes and atmospheres, which had the effect of suspending the quotidian and conjuring a compelling new form of experiential intensity’

The gardens’ dependence on illusion went further, for deception and subterfuge were at the heart of their appeal. Innovative mechanical trickery at Vauxhall included lighting, trompe l’oeil paintings and artificial birdsong, all contrived to blur the boundary between artifice and reality. Beyond simple enjoyment, these fantasies also induced delicious tensions. In the mutable, furtive world of the pleasure garden, the identity of those present was often hidden, making them complicit in a complex and titillating gavotte of falsified appearances.  

Tempting though it is to be seduced by this licentious dissolution of difference, historian Penelope Corfield cautions against taking claims of social interaction too far. ‘Vauxhall neither sought nor managed to subvert class difference in any permanent ways,’ she argues. Nonetheless, it offered ‘a temporary common ground, with shared conviviality’ across an impressive strata of society, from royalty to gin-drinking ‘bunters’, historic slang for female thieves.

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The Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro forms an armature for the delirious intensity of the city’s Carnival. Photograph courtesy of Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty Images

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Generative sketch of the Sambadrome, a topographic megastructure cutting through the city, designed by Oscar Niemeyer in 1984. 

Yet as fashions and attitudes changed, this elaborately staged confection of ‘shared conviviality’ was destined not to endure. Ranelagh’s Rotunda closed in 1803 and was demolished two years later. The remains of the gardens now form part of the grounds of Chelsea Hospital, where the more sedate bacchanal of the Chelsea Flower Show is staged annually. Vauxhall survived until 1859, eventually succumbing to redevelopment, undone by its failure to appeal to the emerging Victorian middle classes. 

Though now obsolete, the pleasure garden forms part of a wider ‘typology of intensity’ that could be said to include fairgrounds, markets, pilgrimage sites, street carnivals, festival fields, nightclubs, protest marches and sports stadiums. All are characterised by periods of extreme use, embodying a specific ‘intensity in the moment’ based on sanctioning various forms of disinhibition and perpetuating an intensity of interaction. 

‘Both Vauxhall and Ranelagh attracted a heterogeneous public and the mix of social classes gave these locales a particular kind of intensity, catalysed by the outdoor setting which contrived to subvert the usual codes of social stratification and decorum’

Intensity itself is a slightly slippery quality. It tends to be associated with density, yet things that are dense are not necessarily intense, and vice versa. It also implies diversity of use, but most self-professed ‘mixed-use’ buildings are usually ploddingly dull calibrations of function and footfall. In its elusiveness, intensity resembles astrophysical dark energy, tantalisingly invisible, yet its effects are clearly perceptible. 

The notion of urban intensity was first identified by Jane Jacobs, whose gentrification theories now have much to answer for. It stressed the potential for endless random and unpredictable interactions between individuals and activities and is still seen as one of the main ‘conditions’ for urban complexity. As Jacobs postulated, urban intensity is not necessarily generated by large quantities – of people, buildings, uses, structures, jobs or streets. Instead, it emerges in the immanent, improvised interaction between subject and object in space and time. This performative approach highlights the ambiguous nature of physical elements and their potential to become parts of different networks according to everyday routines and time-specific circumstances. 

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Advertisement for The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which Jane Jacobs’ theories of urban intensity were first identified. Paradoxically, Jacobs’ ideas are now often invoked as a cover for ruthless gentrification

Historically, buildings and cities have acted as armatures of intensity that structure the public domain and shape the nature of human experience. As the Marxist geographer David Harvey notes, ‘It is perhaps more reasonable to regard the city as a complex, dynamic system in which spatial form and social process are in continuous interaction’. Out of this coalescence of space and society, individual subjectivity is conditioned by repeated encounters with the environment. 

Yet in the same way the assembly line dehumanises its operator by prescribing their movements, in many contemporary urban scenarios, despite appearing to be a freewheeling protagonist, the individual is, in fact, consigned to a preordained track. Experience itself has become subject to commodification, with modern cities becoming more homogenised in scale, function and potential. More disarmingly, this has been accompanied by a stealthy privatisation and reframing of the public realm, thereby dictating what kinds of activities and interactions are permissible in an increasingly contested and controlled terrain.

‘Historically, buildings and cities have acted as armatures of intensity that structure the public domain and shape the nature of human experience’

The effects of such civic sphincter-clenching are dismayingly apparent. Since 2007, London has lost 40 per cent of its live music venues and half of its nightclubs. Since 2001, it has also lost a quarter of its pubs. Priced out by rent hikes, stifled by regulations and cannibalised by developers, London’s modern pleasure gardens are under assault. The demands of capital allied to political gutlessness and the bland quiescence of architectural imagination have conspired to neuter the intensity and unpredictability of the city. London’s hollowing out and dialling down is especially emblematic of a pernicious, anti-social reductivism that sees the price of everything and the value of nothing.

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Proposal for Vauxhall’s latter-day ‘pleasure gardens’, complete with the looming, steroidal towers

Modern Vauxhall is a case in point. Little remains of its prodigious pleasure gardens, but over time, Vauxhall has evolved as a richly textured, socially and ethnically mixed milieu, with large tracts of social housing and a buoyant gay scene. Now, however, its riverfront around Nine Elms is currently being terraformed into a version of Dubai-on-Thames, with an array of steroidal towers emerging from site hoardings spouting the usual sales drivel about ‘vibrant lifestyles’ and ‘landmark addresses’. Aimed squarely at overseas investors, these banal grotesques suggest Vauxhall will become yet another gated ghost burb, eviscerated for profit, devoid of vitality and intensity, with a corrosive impact on its existing community.

‘Experience itself has become subject to commodification, with modern cities becoming more homogenised in scale, function and potential’

Vauxhall is not exceptional in this respect. The excruciating lobotomisation and social cleansing of London is slipping through unremarked, with the well-oiled forces of capital quick to subdue any opposition. Yet it calls into question what kind of city we want – what kind of intensity we want – and whether the power still exists to make it viable. ‘The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city’, writes David Harvey. ‘It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanisation. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.’ 

Had the Ranelagh Rotunda survived, it is interesting to speculate on its fate in early 21st-century London. Most likely it would have been ‘saved for the nation’ by heritage evangelists and then remodelled as high-end apartments with preposterous boutiques at street level. We can only impotently fantasise of its imagined lost future as a vast Rococo nightclub, pulsating with a glittering intensity that transcends space and time, plugged exultantly into the life of the city. Welcome to the pleasure dome. 

Lead image: Interior of the Rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens, painted by Canaletto in 1754.

This piece is featured in the AR’s May 2018 issue on Intensity – click here to purchase a copy.