“Tilting at windmills” exhibition explores visual impact of wind farms on landscape

“Tilting at windmills” exhibition showing at Other cafe & gallery, East London

I am relieved to say that the official opening of my “Tilting at windmills” exhibition at Other café & gallery in Dalston, East London last Thursday went rather well. Well-attended by fellow photographers, former classmates and curious locals, it proved that photography can be a powerful way of engaging the public in the debate on climate change, landscape and the environment. The gallery, with its exposed brick wall and low beams, created an intimate atmosphere, which allowed the images in the exhibition to really shine under the spotlights. Whilst the next-door lounge with its subdued lighting and quirky artwork provided an ideal spot to relax and discuss the exhibition over a glass of wine.

I was surprised by the overwhelming positive reaction expressed by visitors to the exhibition towards wind turbines in the landscape. This is most likely a reflection of the local demographic in Hackney where people are generally more liberal in outlook as well as being physically removed from the frontline of the landscape versus wind power debate. I hope to show the same exhibition in Norwich Arts Centre in Norfolk at the start of 2013. It will be interesting to gauge the reaction of locals in Norfolk to the same images. I expect that the topic will be rather more controversial and reflect the more polarizing nature of wind turbines in that part of the country.

I’ve also begun to view the images differently now that they are hanging together as a single body of work on the gallery walls. The images are displayed in pairs, which is emphasized by the captions and arrangement on the walls. I can now see a narrative flowing across these pairs from the bright sunlight of a crop-filled field to the closing twilight of an urban landscape. I have tried to convey the visual impact of wind power from both a practical standpoint, as directly experienced by a neighbour, and also as a more abstract idea through shadows and reflections. Changing seasons and changing light serve to emphasize that a landscape is ever evolving and this in turn influences how we perceive man-made structures embedded in that landscape. Understandably people were searching for their favourite image in terms of physical and emotional appeal. I am more interested in the public’s reaction to the entire body of work. I have tried to tell a story about the conflict between protecting landscape and building structures that provide clean energy. Some will embrace wind farms as a necessary addition to a modern landscape in the 21st century. Others will no doubt lament that scenes of rural life have been invaded by towering man-made structures.

Several people asked me why I chose the title “Tilting at windmills” for this exhibition besides the rather obvious mention of wind power. “Tilting at windmills” has entered the modern English lexicon as a figurative way to describe attacks on imaginary enemies, or to misguided courses of action based on romantic or idealistic justifications. To my mind, this expression encapsulates both sides of the debate – romantic notions towards the preservation of what is perceived by some as an idyllic rural landscape versus idealistic notions about the reality of man-made climate change as one of the greatest environmental threats facing the world.

The origins of “Tilting at windmills” go back to 1605 in a book by Miguel de Cervantes called Don Quixote, one of the greatest works of fiction ever published (certainly in the Spanish speaking world). I like the fact that more than 400 years later, the expression has new significance and a modern day relevance that could not have been foreseen.  It also neatly emphasizes just how long wind power has been a feature of the landscape. This conflict between Man and Nature is certainly not a modern day phenomenon. I also wanted to portray the long history of wind power in my images and fortunately, there were many opportunities to do just that since East Anglia has more windmills than any other part of the UK. The image of Herringfleet windmill in Suffolk dates from 1820, built to drain water from the surrounding marshland of the Broads, and now Grade II listed by English Heritage.

Windmills are not the only man-made features in the natural landscape that have come to be loved and admired. The Ribblehead railway Viaduct in North Yorkshire, England faced huge opposition due to impact on the landscape when constructed in the 1870s. A century later, people were campaigning against the closure of the same viaduct, which had become an integral feature of the landscape. I suspect that traditional windmills in this country have experienced a similar change of attitude with time. Does this imply that the outlook of future generations towards the visual impact of wind farms will be more favourable?

My own feelings towards wind turbines have changed since I started this project several months ago. Wind turbines were foreign to me before starting the project. I think that the physical distance between people and turbines is one reason why they can be viewed as “alien intruders” in the landscape. So it was quite exciting to get up close and personal with the turbines – to see just what huge structures they really are and to see how they connect with the land in which they are placed. They feel less intimidating to me now.

Landscape and wind power both need each other. As I’ve noted in a previous blog, our most precious landscapes deserve to be protected but equally we need to avoid climate change impacts that could destroy these landscapes through flooding or other extreme weather events. The Norfolk Broads, Britain’s largest protected wetland, stand to be inundated with saltwater that would destroy its unique freshwater ecosystem if sea levels rise from climate change. Assuming that onshore wind power is one of the most advanced, cost effective and scalable clean energy sources, is it not irresponsible to avoid building the structures that can protect against the source of future threats to the landscape? That is not to say that wind farms should be built on unique habitat. But land with suitable wind resource will still need to be freed up somewhere for development and this will most likely be situated in rural areas.

My intention has always been to leave the images open to interpretation and to present both sides of the debate. So pay a visit to the exhibition before it closes to make up your own mind…

Tilting at windmills” – an exhibition by Colin Cafferty is showing at Other café and gallery, 48 Balls Pond Road, Dalston, London N1 4AP from 14 September 2012 to 10 October 2012. Opening hours Mon-Fri 9.30am-7pm. Sat-Sun 9.30am-6pm  (closed Tuesdays). Entry free.

Can London find it’s own High Line?

Eurostar platforms are visible in the mid-ground as a long glass structure supported by a lattice of blue steel

New York and the borough of Manhattan, in particular, is a high-rise city where the eye is constantly drawn above street level to gaze at gleaming towers and glittering lights. It is rather apt then that the latest addition to the city skyline should also rise above the heads of passing pedestrians. The High Line stretches along an abandoned rail freight line for almost 1.5 miles along Manhattan’s West Side. It is a creative response to the challenge of increasing urbanization and competition for precious land resource in our cities. The High Line is a prime example of industrial regeneration that has found new use for an outdated transport system by transforming it into a valuable piece of green infrastructure. 

However, the High Line is hardly a new concept. It is an idea “borrowed” from the French and effectively a modern day gift from France to the American people just as the Statue of Liberty was presented to the American nation in 1886. Opened in 1993, the Promenade Plantee is a 4.5km park along a 19th century railway viaduct in the 12th arrondissement. Although the High Line website does provide a cursory mention of the earlier Promenade Plantee in Paris, it has firmly rebranded the concept of an “urban linear park” with the Big Apple logo. Now all talk is about New York exporting another cultural icon that other cities are clambering to emulate in some shape or form. In this respect, the High Line has the potential to have an effect far greater than it’s 1.5-mile length.

Let’s not forget about our own urban linear parks in London. The superb 2km long Mile End Park in the East End comes complete with Ecology Centre, Art Pavilion and green bridge over the busy Mile End Road – combining educational, cultural, transport and leisure pursuits seamlessly. Or the 4.5-mile long Parkway Walk in North London – longer than either the High Line or Promenade Plantee. Opened in 1984, it follows the route of the London and North Eastern Railway line and now serves as London’s largest local nature reserve. On an even grander scale is the Lea Valley Park, which runs from Ware in Hertfordshire to Hackney Wick in East London although strictly speaking, only the section south of Enfield could probably be classed as an urban linear park. The length of a full marathon (26 miles), it will extend into the Olympic Park for a further 2 miles from mid 2013 as part of the new Queen Elizabeth II Park.

But that’s not to say that we should rest on our laurels. The Landscape Institute, Garden Museum and Mayor of London have recently launched “A High Line for London: Green infrastructure ideas competition for a new London landscape” to be judged by the founders of the High Line amongst others. The competition organizers make it clear that they are not seeking a replica but rather aim to capture the spirit of the High Line by engaging communities with green infrastructure. They also put forward a fine definition of green infrastructure, which pays homage to the need for adaptation to climate change –

Green infrastructure is the network of open and green spaces, including features like green roofs, designed and managed to provide benefits such as flood management, urban cooling, green transport links and ecological connectivity”.

Try as one might, there just isn’t a sizeable length of derelict land in Central London that could capture the imagination and compete on the same world stage as the High Line. The proposal does not need to use an abandoned railroad but presumably it should have an extensive linear form and be located in a high-density urban area. Otherwise what comparison can be made of the High Line at all? I’ve scoured the Internet and have come across several plans for East London in particular. SpaceHive, described as a “funding platform for neighbourhood improvement projects” is championing a green park at Limehouse Curve, a 120m long railway viaduct over Commercial Road. Even the Landscape Institute itself featured an article on their website back in early 2010 with plans for a 1.7 hectare elevated park on the Braithwaite Viaduct in Bishopsgate Goods Yard, Shoreditch. Neither is particularly exciting or radical in my opinion. If London is looking to make a statement and a lasting contribution to green infrastructure, it needs an iconic symbol in the same vein as the London Eye or the Millennium Dome. After all, this should be about raising the profile of green infrastructure.

So I thought to myself, where can I find a piece of disused infrastructure that can be “greened”? Perhaps even an elevated railway track similar to the High Line. Then I remembered some photos I had taken of the city skyline from the London Eye – the giant Ferris-like wheel next to the banks of the River Thames. My eye had been attracted by geometric forms and repeating patterns in the urban landscape beneath me – in particular the tented glass roofs of nearby Waterloo station. Growing from one side is an abandoned 400-metre long glass and steel vaulted structure that disappears behind buildings only to reappear further on.

The five platforms (numbers 20-24) of the former Eurostar terminal have been sitting idle since 13 November 2007 (when services moved to St. Pancras International) at an estimated cost of £1.2 million per year in security and maintenance. Plans are underway to open up Platform 20 to commuter trains in 2014 but that still leaves the bulk of the station unused 5 years after the departure of the last train. So why not develop this prime piece of abandoned real estate for the people of London? In terms of locations, it doesn’t come much more urban or grey concrete than this. The structure resembles a giant greenhouse and with modifications could serve a similar purpose. I’m not suggesting a tropical paradise like the Eden Project in Cornwall – it should showcase plant life native to Britain. Such a huge roof space lends itself to solar power and rainwater harvesting – in the hands of a progressive architectural firm, it could become a model of sustainability and green infrastructure for Central London. It is perfectly positioned to entice nearby tourists from the Southbank and London Eye and to host educational and cultural events. It could serve as a green and pleasant haven for stressed commuters in busy Waterloo station next-door. It could even act as a “therapeutic” route for pedestrians between the station and St. Thomas’s hospital near the west end of the tunnel.

The platforms are now in the ownership of BRB Residuary Ltd, which lies under the auspices of the Department of Transport. With the political will and backing of London’s charismatic Mayor, London could steal the green limelight back from New York. So come on Boris, get on your bike and make it happen!