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Terrain Vague: assigning value to ambiguous space

46marseille 11

The body politic gaily riding roughshod over our built and natural environment needs to be reined in

If you keep going west down Foyle Hill from Shaftesbury you’ll come to Stock Gaylard, Pleck, and King’s Stag – marvellous names, the last of which occurs in Thomas Hardy’s even more marvellous ballad A Trampwoman’s Tragedy. Hardy died almost a century ago. His shade would happily recognise Foyle Hill, which is unchanged and unusual, not merely in that stasis but in the peculiarity of its disposition. It is a narrow unclassified road flanked by verges wider than it is. Verges that are hardly tended though not neglected. The Blackmore Vale is sumptuously rich pasture and land values are commensurately high. Yet here is land of manifestly undefined purpose, left uncultivated and ungrazed. To call land workshy is to submit to the pathetic fallacy, but such an adjective seems apt. There is a lazy ease here, just as there is in the hamlet name Pleck, which signifies not a village, not a hamlet but a ‘spot’, a place that hasn’t been got at, that no one has bothered to improve, that has not been subjected to the least regeneration. In France the convention is to call such non-places lieux-dits. For example, Lieu-dit Olivier. Even though the Oliviers are long gone and there isn’t even a trace of the house they lived in, the non-place is lent a vestige of identity, is relieved of total anonymity. Nonetheless, named or not (usually not), these places – edgelands or terrains vagues, spots – are too-readily written off as waste land, an epithet that suggests a failure to fulfil their destiny, find a proper role.

‘There are few endeavours as spendthrift of energy as construction. And few that are so thoughtlessly selfish. The inconvenience caused by building is inestimable’

They are habitually reckoned to be voids that are waiting, always waiting, to be something else, voids that are essentially worthless as they are. Who makes such a reckoning? The construction industry, of course, in its multitudinous guises – volume builders, architects, municipal vandals, hoddies and their kin, surveyors, developers, regeneration frauds, crane operatives, self-appointed gurus of urbanism, infrastructural freeloaders, estate agents, suppliers of hi-vis waistcoats, demolition wallahs, bankers, concrete technologists. All these people, disparate in their trades and tastes, with their often-conflicting interests, are united.

They are bound together in their dependence on a never-ending supply of land to enable them to ply those disparate trades – all of them, despite the claims of a lavish apparatus of mendacity called PR, are thoroughly unsustainable: there are few endeavours as spendthrift of energy as construction. And few that are so thoughtlessly selfish. The inconvenience caused by building is inestimable. Considerate Constructors is both an oxymoron and one of the worst jokes of the age. To the united trades, a redundant building is a job opportunity. The redundancy is liable, of course, to have been incorporated at birth. The inhabitants of Trollope’s Britannula in The Fixed Period were euthanised at the age of 67. Buildings are increasingly being taken to the vet before they’re half that span. They are expendable.

‘Listing is so important. But how do you list that which isn’t? Spots, bits, you know over there near the whatsit’

Which is why listing is so important, even if there is too often a bias towards buildings that are unlikely to be threatened. But how do you list that which isn’t? Spots, bits, you know over there near the whatsit. It’s akin to holding an atheistic service. A short cut on foot, which has worn a marked path between, say, a river bank and a car park and allows people to avoid the ‘official’ route on a metalled surface, is not readily classfied. The same goes for: the cindered alley that runs behind a terrace of Edwardian houses; an unmade, unadopted road that is an ad-hoc playground and ends at a stained chalk cliff, which can hardly support the beeches growing out of it – partially retained by an industrial brick wall designed to retain it that bulges ominously; a long outdoor flight of stairs cut into polished and skiddy chalk; a holloway that culminated in a labyrinthine Second World War bunker – these examples are all from within 100 yards of my childhood home. The stairs and the holloway are still extant.

When its architect, Arne Jacobsen, revisited St Catherine’s College, Oxford, some years after it was built, a group of students invited him to an exhibition of their art. Jacobsen was petulantly graceless when he saw it: he railed against the canvases and framed prints hung on the walls because they impaired the integrity of his creation. This is not atypical. Architects yearn for tidiness, order, even perfection. The Cité Radieuse in Marseille was intended to be the first of 18 blocks that would stretch from the suburb of Sainte-Anne to the sea. However, Le Corbusier treated it, as Piers Gough remarked, ‘as an Arts and Crafts building’. As a result it went hopelessly over budget. The remaining 17 were cancelled.

Architectural photographers also yearn for tidiness and perfection. Few of the tens of thousands of photographs of the most important domestic building of the last century show it in its context, which is far from a Corbusian utopia: he was among the very greatest of architects but he was a duff planner. The thing to ape was the work, not the arid megalomania of his ‘vision’ (global social housing passim). Less-deceptive or deceitful photographs would show the actuality rather than the ideal. The immediate surrounds include a scrubby length of baked earth where pétanque is played, a decrepit bungalow, a splendid bank of cacti, a tennis court, a squash club, a lane whose potholes are not the colloquial nids de poule but so large they are nids de vautour, a rat-run with ineffective gendarmes couchés, a sprawling supermarket buried in signage, three garages with different specialities … Nothing, then, of architectural merit. But that’s not the point. Humanity cannot live on a diet of masterpieces any more than it can live on shad roe and elvers.

‘A thousand homes but no schools, no crèches, no parks, no parking. Sheer genius’

Enter a hyper-cumulard, a pushy mayoral hopeful with six official posts at the point where the politics of France’s second city, urbanism and blind ambition collide in a car crash of conflicting interests. Madame Laure-Agnès Caradec recently presented a plan to, yes, regenerate the neighbourhood: a thousand homes but no schools, no crèches, no parks, no parking. Sheer genius. She has, in the past, been labelled a nimby (same word in French) for preventing development close to where she lives. That may or may not be the case. What is certain is that this project, announced without any consultation and which will involve numerous compulsory purchases, has been drawn up by inept architectural students whom one can only advise to find a different career. The UNESCO listing of Le Corbusier’s buildings is a block listing. If the Cité Radieuse is delisted then so will a dozen and a half of his other works across the globe. It comes down to Madame Caradec versus World Heritage, the bloated ambition of a political mediocrity up against a commendably effective instrument to protect sites that are vulnerable and, indeed, susceptible to the very threat that this one now faces. This is not what the globalism of the local is meant to mean.

This piece is featured in the AR May 2019 issue on Periphery – click here to purchase your copy today