Tuesday, 21 June 2011

NEOutopia Project Introduction


One of the deepest conflicts immanent to space is that space as actually ‘experienced’ prohibits the expression of conflicts.  For conflicts to be voiced, they must first be perceived, and this without subscribing to representations of space as generally conceived.  A theory is therefore called for, one which would transcend representational space on the one hand and representations of space on the other, and which would be able properly to articulate contradictions (and in the first place the contradiction between these two aspects of representation).  Henri Lefebvre, 1974[i]

In his seminal text, The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre propounds a rich, dialectical argument which reveals the antagonisms, contradistinctions and problems of space.   In his reading, space is not a container of objects or entities; it is ‘a (social) product’ produced by, and consisting of social relations.[ii]  Space thus produced ‘serves as a tool of thought and action’, as ‘a means of control, and hence of domination…’[iii]  Ostensibly innocent, or ‘transparent’, it works to conceal the symbiotic relationship between space and state control and in, turn, forms a ‘trap’ for its largely unsuspecting inhabitants.

   Despite his disappointment with Western philosophy, which in his opinion, has failed to engage with the problem of space, Lefebvre believes ‘it is too late for destroying codes in the name of a critical theory.’[iv]  Writing in 1974, he instead “describe[s] their already completed destruction”[v] by revealing the codification of space through its separation into countless subvariant spheres - geographical, economic, demographic, sociological and so on….  In turn, Lefebvre simultaneously exposes the illusions of space, as well as ‘expressing its conflicts’.

   In an attempt to illustrate, or perhaps frustrate, his decidedly ambiguous ‘theory’, Lefebvre develops a conceptual triad consisting of three inter-related zones; spatial practices, representations of space and representational spaces.  Conceived in the conventions and limitations of our ‘daily reality (daily routine) and urban reality (the routes and networks which link up the places set aside for work, ‘private’ life and leisure)’[vi]; spatial practices are perhaps best understood as a pursuit of continuity or cohesion.  Despite the standardisation of social behaviour, and the dominance of capitalist ideology; there are, Lefebvre believes, opportunities for slippage as ‘the social and political (state) forces which engendered this space…seek, but fail, to master it completely’.[vii]  As such, the zones of representational space – ‘the space[s] of ‘inhabitants’, and ‘users’’[viii]; offer opportunities for difference from prevalent social conditions. 

   ‘Linked to the clandestine or underground side of social life, as also to art’, representational spaces ‘coexist, concord or interfere’[ix] with the images produced by representations of space which, in contrast, ‘are tied to the relations of production and to the ‘order’’.[x] Existing as buildings, artefacts or monuments, as well as discourse, speech and “verbalized forms”[xi]; representations of space are familiar and commonplace.  Perceived (or concealed) as a ‘culture’, they work to support the structure and definition of capitalism. 

   Inspired by Lefebvre’s rich and refreshingly contradictory propositions, NEOutopia is an archive which aims to reveal the problems of space with particular reference to urban regeneration and notions of ‘utopia’.  Serendipitously discovered by two university lecturers’ in 2031 it is an archive of collected fragments surrounding a proposed development plan created in 2011.  Consisting of a ‘Master Regeneration Plan’, a DVD of found film footage, as well as  marketing strategies, illustrative sketches and promotional imagery for NEOgate – a speculative development designed to accommodate London’s so-called ‘Creative Class’ – the fragments coalesce to create an intriguing, yet incomplete, ‘mapping’ of a speculative ‘neo-utopian’ space which, itself, was never completed.

   In addition these fragmented representations of space; the space of blueprints, zoning and bureaucratic proposals, the archive contains evidence of a community resistance group in Elephant & Castle which challenges the developers’ proposals. NEOgate Just Community in turn is a paradigm of representational space, which forms an interesting complement to a fictitious short story, entitled Estate Taken Over.  Inspired by the writings of Julio Cortázar, it follows a family who are forced from their home by an ‘unspecified noise’ which metaphorically references the ways in which urban regeneration processes upset and displace the representational space of ‘the lived’.

   As seen in Space Ltd’s ‘Master plan’, NEOgate is a deliberately disjointed and darkly entertaining synthesis of two developments in present-day London.  Appropriating elements of the respective visions for Richard Rogers’ NEO Bankside development and Elephant & Castle’s ‘Opportunity Area’, as outlined by the company Lend Lease in 2011, it provides a ‘dynamic’ vision of a neighbour hood fit for members the ‘Bohemian Bourgeoisie’ (‘Bobo’) community.  Satirically exposing the illusion of transparency – a process which encourages ‘a view of space as innocent, as free of traps or secret places’– as well as the antagonistic nature of space;[xii] the plan aims to ‘properly articulate contradictions’ by creating a fictitious, ‘neo-utopia’ which cannot be ‘actually experienced’.

   Inspired by Lefebvre’s proposition, or ‘call’ for a project which refuses to subscribe to ‘representations of space as generally conceived’, NEOutopia is a disjointed, yet strangely compelling ‘mapping’ of the problems of urban regeneration and the production of space.  Rather than trace the empirical problems of space, it aims to expose the limits of utopian, architectural remedies and the ‘proposed solutions of planners’ who, as Lefebvre suggests, fail to master the complex contortions and paradoxical properties of (social) space.

Written from the fictive view point of two university lecturers, an online conversation discusses a found archive collated by some Visual Cultures students in 2011.  Some thirty years later, these erudite academics enter a dialogue that asks questions about 'utopia' and 'regeneration' as it is presented to them in this project. 
   Citing the ideas of philosophers and theorists such as Henri Lefebvre and Doreen Massey the correspondence speaks of ‘real space’, ‘blind fields’ and the problematic relationship between the producers and inhabitants of space.

'NEOgate Master Regeneration Plan'

   Central to the lecturers’ discussions of the archive, is the discovery of the ‘NEOgate Master Regeneration Plan’ completed in June 2011.  Space Ltd’s proposal for NEOgate - ‘a dynamic, mixed-use development purposely built to satisfy the social and cultural longings of London’s ‘Bohemian Bourgeoisie’’ - is outlined in a deliberately self-contradictory document which reveals the problems of space and urban regeneration.[xiii] 
   Significantly, the collected archival material also contains a copy of a proposal created by the development company Lend Lease in January of the previous year.  A comparison of these respective documents promptly reveals Space Ltd’s blatant plagiarism of Lend Lease’s plans to regenerate an ‘Opportunity Area’ in London’s Elephant & Castle (E&C).[xiv] 
   By appropriating the content, layout and phraseology of this bureaucratic document, Space Ltd’s faceless ‘property solution providers’ operate in a grey area between invention and intervention.  Fearlessly splicing the original document with paraphrased quotations from The Production of Space, the company’s ersatz proposal undercuts the rhetoric of regeneration by exposing the dialectical nature of space.

Found Film Footage
As revealed through a separate DVD of found film footage, Space Ltd’s vision for NEOgate was heavily inspired by architectural projects in present-day London.   Conflating footage of Richard Rogers’ NEO Bankside development with images of the steadily, dilapidating Heygate Estate, the film is an explorative visual essay which muses upon notions of utopia and ‘NEOutopia’.  Defying any straightforward narrative logic, the film’s disjointed fragments flit into and onto each other to create a fragmented ‘mapping of two complementary spaces that is enterable at any point. 

NEOGATE JUST COMMUNITY provides a voice for community members who have been evicted or dispersed by the processes of urban regeneration.  Based on real events taking place in reaction to the redevelopment of E&C’s Heygate Estate, the group’s strategy critiques the problems of Space Ltd’s vision for NEOgate through a process of negotiation.  By making suggestions for how the development of the area could benefit the community as a whole, NEOGATE JUST COMMUNITY call for democratic opportunities to participate in the creation and implementation of ‘master plan’ documents.  The problem, it seems, is that the utopian aspirations of Space Ltd serve to exclude and undermine the diversity of the pre-existent community.  Directed instead towards ‘Bobos’ and members of the ‘Creative Class’, the ‘right to the city’ emerges as an idea too often dismissed by profit orientated technocrats and capitalist ideologues.

Along with the physical evidence of a ‘failed’ utopia come the by-products of its existence and deterioration.  The Heygate Estate, being the subject of much recent debate, has inspired many to explore and document its plight.  Consequently, the archive reveals two contrasting voices.  Th first comes from the governing bodies who document the building, its inhabitants and social problems in cold, removed rhetoric.  The second is characterised by the efforts of residents researching and informing others about the fate of the space that, to them, represents a home; a place of stability and security.
From the point of view of the council, Heygate is an ‘Opportunity Area’; a void to be filled with emblems of urban regeneration to be sold as commodities.  Council documentation of the measures that have been taken to clear the site (thus installing the ‘potential for gentrification’) record the inhabitants being removed, or ‘decanted’.  For the ‘decanted’, these measures represent a removal of their right to the space; a catalyst in their transition from occupier to interloper.

Design and Media Strategy
Drawing on Lefebvre’s ideas of spatial dialectics and the production of space, NEOgate’s design and development plan was developed with the intent of meeting the desires of the “Bohemian Bourgeoisie”. Taking inspiration from fashionable districts in London, such as Shoreditch and Hoxton, it aimed to provide the ‘Creative Classe’ with an edgy, yet secure place to ‘live, work, create and discover’. Through the fabrication of a differential textural space and ‘artists’ milieu’ its aim was to create an urban utopia where residents’ desires could be created and realised.

[i] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, (first published 1974), Blackwell Publishing, USA, UK, Australia, 1991, p365
[ii]ibid., p26
[iii] ibid.
[iv] ibid.
[v] ibid.
[vi] ibid., p38
[vii] ibid., p26
[viii] ibid., p39
[ix] ibid., p41
[x] ibid., p33
[xi] Schmidd, C. in Goonewaedana, K., et al.,Space difference, everyday life, Great Britain, Routledge Ltd, 2008, p37
[xii] Lefebvre, H., op.cit., p28
[xiii] ‘NEOgate Master Regeneration Plan’, p5
[xiv] In July 2010, final planning approval for the Elephant and Castle regeneration was granted by Southwark Council.  In April 2011, demolition started on the Heygate Estate.  The remainder of the estate is not due to be demolished until 2015.

No comments:

Post a Comment