When a Sky Garden is nothing more than an empty promise

Last week, I visited the Sky Garden on top of a skyscraper in The City of London, on a mission to make up my own mind about the controversy surrounding this once reputed public park in the sky. Fortunately, I was able to book a place for the very next day, not exactly show-up-and-see, but better than the three day waiting times that other visitors have described. Registering online however is akin to booking a flight, not the only analogy to an airport experience that has been leveled by critics of the Sky Garden. I dutifully arrived in good time the next day and took a few photos at street level, pleasantly surprised to discover a green wall at the base of the building. ‘This looks promising’, I thought to myself. ‘Perhaps the Sky Garden has green credentials after all?’ Twenty Fenchurch Street is a 37-storey glass and steel tower just a floating cinder away from the former location of Thomas Farriner’s bakery, site of the Great Fire of London in 1666. Standing directly beneath, it appears to defy gravity, curving where all surrounding buildings have straight lines, top heavy where others retreat into a narrower profile. Starchitect Rafael Viñoly, may have attracted controversy for its so-called ‘death ray’ design but the building’s profile serves a very utilitarian purpose. Larger floor plates on higher floors attract higher rent yields from tenants willing to pay more per square foot for the views and enhanced prestige in the eyes of competitors and visiting clients. In recognition of this fact, it seems likely that Viñoly and developers, Land Securities and Canary Wharf Group, were only ever going to secure planning permission for such a design if they could appease public discontentment by providing them with access to the highest and widest floors of all. And so we are left with what has been referred to as a ‘bullying bulge’ by Oliver Wainwright, architect writing for The Guardian newspaper, or in other circles, as the eponymous ‘Walkie Talkie’ or even ‘Walkie Scorchie’.

© 2015 Climate Change Cafe

The distinctive curvature of the building is clearly visible

 

As I passed through the dedicated ground-level entrance to the Sky Garden, I was met by a doorman, who passed me to a greeter, who then directed me to a baggage machine and walk-through X-ray manned by two security guards. All very professional, if not airport like. Emerging from the lift on Level 35 into bright light, I found it hard not to be impressed by the cathedral-like vault that opened up before me with 360-degree views across all of London. It felt light and airy, open space above and around, freeing, despite the curving lines of white steel. I walked across the event space, past the Sky Pod bar, and out onto the open-air terrace facing directly south. The Shard, Western Europe’s tallest building stood straight ahead, the iconic Tower Bridge to the left, and the River Thames winding directly below. It was only as I returned inside the building that I noticed the gardens for the first time.

© 2015 Climate Change Cafe

Event space at Level 35 at the foot of the gardens

 

Two strips of ‘hillside’ vegetation extend either side of the main attraction, a giant glass box housing the Sky Garden’s brasserie and seafood grill restaurants. It may not be high on every visitors list but it’s clear from the pride of place afforded to it that the developers of 20 Fenchurch Street take a different view. There are perhaps two points on either ‘hillside’ that allow the visitor to leave the stairway and semi-immerse themselves in the greenery. But try as I might, I could not imagine myself lost in a jungle thicket, no matter how briefly. Cycads, palm trees and giant ferns predominate, as sprinklers on poles that could surely be disguised better, deliver a fine spray of mist at periodic intervals. Red Hot Pokers and Bird of Paradise flowers inject some much-needed colour on lower slopes and add a dose of ‘tropicality’ to the overall experience. But as Peter Rees former chief planner for the City of London, who originally approved the building, admitted: “I think calling it a sky garden is perhaps misleading. If people are expecting to visit it as an alternative to Kew, then they will be disappointed. ” At a rough guess, I estimate that one quarter of the total floor space in the Sky Garden is devoted to greenery.

© 2015 Climate Change Cafe

Stairway on the westside of sky garden

 

The most frustrating aspect of the development is that the Sky Garden could deliver so much more for a tiny fraction of the overall £239 million cost of the entire building. Even if you begrudgingly allow for the commercial necessity of two restaurants and a bar (in total there is room for four hundred diners at a time), so much of the remaining empty space still remains paved in tiles rather than covered in soil. Let’s not forget that the Sky Garden occupies three levels with the largest floor plates in the whole building and so it is staggering how little space is devoted to the ‘public’ gardens. A ten-metre wide platform juts out from the topmost restaurant, serving no real function other than to look down upon other visitors two levels below. Nobody is going to bother stopping here for any length of time since the latticework of the building impedes any view of the city. By now I was beginning to agree with Oliver Wainwright’s description: ‘It feels a lot like being in an airport terminal, jacked up in the air’ than the cathedral-like vault of my first impression. I can only imagine that the perspective from inside the seafood bar and grill is even more remote – a glass box within a glass shell. All of this space could have been a continuation of the landscaped gardens, a mountaintop plantation of sorts. The northern end of the Sky Garden similarly has a large empty tiled area that has no amenity of note other than a line of benches alongside a wall of glass. Even the main event space on the bottom level, dotted with dining tables, has plenty of room to accommodate a collection of large potted plants in between. At the very least, it would bring the vegetated slopes that bit closer and give visitors the illusion of being in a tropical garden as they sipped on their lattes.

© Climate Change Cafe 2015

Large open space directly under roof on Level 37

 

Aside from such cosmetic improvements, there are many missed opportunities that could elevate the Sky Garden to something more than just an empty brand name. The space could have an educational value – none of the plants are labeled by name, origin, habitat or medicinal use. Perhaps the gardens could even play a role in conservation by providing a home to endangered plant species. It could serve to promote awareness of environmental issues such as unsustainable oil palm cultivation in Indonesia and Malaysia. How much investment would be needed to install half a dozen or so interactive displays to inform people of sustainable agriculture or the devastating impact of our consumption patterns upon tropical rainforests? However, the uppermost floors of Twenty Fenchurch Street would serve a far more productive purpose if they separated their revenue generating hospitality side from the viewing platform and garden attraction. Ideally, the restaurants and bar would all sit below the gardens, which could then fully occupy the topmost level and largely be open to the elements. This green roof would then create real value for the entire building by absorbing rainwater, providing insulation, creating a habitat for wildlife, and helping to lower urban air temperatures by reducing the heat island effect. In fairness, the Sky Garden doesn’t make any claims to be a green roof, or to have any green credentials at all for that matter, but what a missed opportunity. Visitors would be freer to walk amongst the greenery and take in the cityscape below from sheltered viewing platforms along the sides. The potential role of such a green roof to educate the public would also be far more meaningful, as it would be a working model that demonstrates the importance of green infrastructure in an increasingly urbanized world. This would be a project worthy of earning the name ‘Sky Garden’.

© 2015 Climate Change Cafe

Gardener at work amongst cycads and ferns

 

The existing Sky Garden is first and foremost a space for dining and entertaining, then a viewing platform, and lastly a giant glass atrium housing the equivalent of a modest potted plant collection. Time and time again, I felt as if I was Jonah stuck inside the rib cage of a giant whale. The architecture of the building dominates just as much from the inside as it does at street level. The end result is a confusing experience where the visitor isn’t quite sure why he or she has ascended thirty-five stories in the first place. ‘Ah yes, to see the Sky Garden of course!’ It almost comes as an after thought. The gardens could never be described as a public park as originally promoted in the developer’s planning application. Let’s be honest with ourselves: London doesn’t really need an indoor park on the 35th floor of a building anyway. The real loss is the wasted potential to create an experience for the visiting public that showcases what it means for a building to be sustainable, by incorporating green infrastructure into parts of our cities that are often left redundant. You lure them up with the promise of a spectacular view and then you show them how their city can become a greener, healthier, more sustainable place to live in. Seeing that there is a penchant for attaching humorous names to prominent skyscrapers in London, I would like to propose that we rename the Sky Garden. Any suggestions?

All photos Copyright © 2015 Climate Change Cafe

 

People’s Climate March London 2014

An estimated 40,000 people gathered on the streets of London to march on the Houses of Parliament demanding action, not words, from our politicians in the UK. This demonstration of people power is part of the worldwide ‘People’s Climate March’ in the buildup to a UN Climate Change Summit in New York City on September 23rd. All photographs copyrighted © 2014 Climate Change Cafe.

 

Woodberry Down Fun Day 2013 – rebuilding communities

The Woodberry Down Estate in Manor House on the borders of Hackney and Haringey in North London is undergoing a massive 20 year regeneration, which involves demolishing almost 2,000 homes and replacing with more than 4,600 new properties for social rent, private and shared ownership.

London Sustainability Exchange (LSX) is working in partnership with Manor House Development Trust to deliver the Manor House PACT project, a three-year engagement, training and community-building programme of activities thanks to £1m from The Big Lottery Fund. The aim of the project is to build momentum and increase the resilience and capacity of local communities to take control of their own lives, their homes and their neighbourhood, and enable them to live more sustainably in the face of climate change.

FInd out more here – LSX – Manor House PACT

See how you can get involved – Volunteer with Manor House PACT

Climate Change and the River Thames

© Colin Cafferty 2013

Dr Becky Briant, climate change programme director at Birkbeck, University of London

 

Lifeblood of London

London is defined by its relationship to the physical landscape although it can sometimes be hard to see the wood for the trees in this urban jungle. Tower Bridge, the Houses of Parliament, the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf – none of these would form an iconic backdrop to the city without the mighty Thames flowing timelessly by. And so it was entirely fitting that Dr. Becky Briant, Programme Director for the MSc degree course in Climate Change Management at Birkbeck, decided to devote an entire lecture on the challenges to the future of the river and her citizens under climate change.

Effects of climate change on the river

“We are living in what some analysts describe as a carbon military industrial complex”, she says rather ominously. Dr. Briant makes liberal use of graphs to support her case including various emissions scenarios that model the predicted outcome in terms of changes to weather patterns. “The evidence is pretty strong that we are causing the changes we’re seeing”. We’re currently on track for a 4°C rise in global temperatures by the end of the century. “There’s a certain amount of climate change that’s going to happen no matter what we do”, Dr. Briant adds.

So what lies in store for us? We can expect wetter winters where peak flow in the river could increase by 40% by 2080. Between 3-24 billion litres of freshwater already flows over Teddington Weir, the upper limit of the tidal Thames. London is particularly vulnerable to flooding due to impermeable surfaces, whether that be concrete or the clay-rich impermeable soil beneath our feet. We can also expect drier summers and more intense rainfall events, which will in turn affect water quality in the river. And then there is the whole issue of surface water on our many paved streets that the Drain London Forum is seeking to address in a sustainable way.

So what does the future hold in store for the Thames?

London is fortunate to have a vital piece of infrastructure in place that can protect the city from tidal flooding, the Thames Barrier. The lifetime of this key flood defence is predicted to expire in the 2070’s due to sea-level rise at which point a new barrier further downstream at Long Reach (or Tilbury) has been proposed. But already the barrier is having to be closed more frequently due to tidal surges. Lest we forget, 307 people died in the UK due to the floods in 1953, which prompted the construction of the barrier in the first place.

Professor Gerald Roberts, Head of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, remarked at the lecture’s end that he was “particularly struck by the image of London with so many rivers running through it”.  So next time, you’re out and about, keep an eye open for all those small creeks, tributaries and hidden rivers that feed the mighty Thames and remember that they could yet rise up in response to climate change. And so hopefully will we, the citizens of this great city, to take action before the cost is too great.

Useful links –

UK Climate Projections from DEFRA

Thames Estuary 2100 Plan

London Draft Climate Change Adaptation Strategy

Cleaner Air, Healthier Schools, Happier Children

Pupils at Tiverton Primary School proudly show their findings on air quality

Pupils at Tiverton Primary School proudly show their findings on air quality

More than 1,100 London schools, from nurseries to secondary schools, are near roads carrying 10,000 or more vehicles a day, which could be responsible for up to 30% of all new cases of asthma in children. How can we make the streets safer and more pleasant places for our children? Last Friday (May 17), I had the pleasure of accompanying London Sustainability Exchange (LSX) to Tiverton Primary School in North London as part of their “Bubble Day” outreach project on air quality. Bubble Day encouraged children to travel to school by sustainable means within a 1 km ‘bubble’ from the school, and allowed children to measure their own local air pollution using citizen science techniques. It was very encouraging to see how many students raised their hand to say they had come to school on foot or by public transport. Only two out of a class of thirty said that they arrived by car! On a separate note, it was also heartening to see how the kids in such a multi-ethnic and diverse school got on so well with each other.

Casting my mind back to when I was in primary school, I can remember going on Nature walks to the forest on the edge of my town in the west of Ireland. I have fond memories of collecting frogspawn and leaves, identifying birds and trees. We were reconnecting and learning a new-found respect for Nature but it wasn’t such a big deal when you lived in a small town surrounded by fields on all sides. The sea air that swept in from the Atlantic was sweet and pure; our lungs were fit and healthy. Inner city London is an altogether different world where education on air quality carries far greater significance and where children often don’t have a choice about whether their air is safe to breathe or not.

The staff at LSX were well organized under Ali Lin and delivered a thoughtful and effective programme of events that were equally fun and educational. The day’s activities included learning about how distribution of moths and lichen can indicate good or poor air quality; ‘seeing’ pollution using Ozone strips and sticky tape analysis, monitoring and mapping local travel methods to and from school, and making badges to share with others the importance of clean air in the local area. Travel surveys found that currently only 3% of pupils cycle to school, yet 60% wished they could. Additionally 95% of lichens observed by pupils are only found in polluted areas.

Young citizen scientists collecting data on the streets

Young citizen scientists collecting data on the streets

My own experience of citizen science has been an overwhelmingly positive one. I spent one week in Wytham Woods near Oxford in 2010 with the environmental NGO Earth Watch when I was employed at HSBC. Time was spent collecting data on moths (I didn’t realize there were so many different species) and measuring tree growth in the fragmented woodlands nearby. Not only did I learn a great deal about climate change impacts on native species, but it also brought people together from many different backgrounds and countries and all in a fun environment. Because the programme continued over several years assisted by many dozens of citizen scientists, more data was collected than could ever have been achieved by a team of dedicated researchers.

Air pollution is a hot topic for London. The Mayor of London has faced down several threats of fines from EU regulators due to air pollution along major transport arteries in the city. The Congestion Zone charge has probably had the single biggest effect on driving down air pollution in London. Hybrid buses, that use a combination of an electric battery and diesel engines on certain routes, are also to be commended. However, there needs to be more incentives for people to use sustainable transport. The roll out of a network of electric car charging points has been too slow so far. Green infrastructure needs to be developed further – not just to provide green spaces for health and leisure but also to increase biodiversity and improve air quality. Green walls absorb particulate matter (PM10s) from the air and act as a natural filter that can improve quality of life for asthma sufferers and the like. Urban sustainability is one of the ongoing photo projects I’m working on and I hope to raise awareness of initiatives such as urban farming and green infrastructure through photography. We need to engage school children on such issues and I believe that photography is a powerful way of achieving this. With camera in hand, your sense of sight is sharpened many-fold and you find yourself wanting to share your vision of the world with others.

Green wall outside Edgware Road tube station

Green wall outside Edgware Road tube station

Improving air quality and reducing CO2 emissions go hand in hand. The threat to remove climate change from the curriculum is very real. Under new education guidelines by Michael Gove, UK Secretary of State for Education, climate change will be dropped from the National Curriculum for students under 14 (Michael Gove: Don’t scrap climate change education). There is also a chronic shortage of scientists and engineers that are needed to make the UK a world leader in technological innovation for the green sector. No doubt that lack of investment in our education system is one reason for this. Our schools need to form more partnerships with the private sector and in particular with NGOs such as LSX. We need interactive and fun activities both in and out of the classroom.  We owe it to our future generation if not to ourselves.

What can you do?

The Bubble Day activities are part of the LSX Cleaner Air for Manor House Schools project, part of a wider project called PACT, Prepare, Adapt, Connect and Thrive. Over the next three years, this project aims to promote simple and practical lifestyle changes, which prepare the Manor House community for challenges associated with climate change. PACT is also looking for local people interested in volunteering as PACT Champions. This is a great way to learn new skills and to learn about climate change. For volunteer opportunities, please contact Trish Disbrey at Volunteer Centre Hackney on 0207 2414443 or at Trish@vchackney.org

Chasing Ice proves that seeing really is believing

SA Agulhas passes through Tower Bridge in London on Dec 6, 2012 bound for an Antarctica expedition. “Seeing is Believing” is a a charity for avoidable blindness.

Chasing Ice – the very title appears to be a contradiction in terms. Ice is frozen water, frozen implies not moving, stuck in time and place. So how can you chase something that doesn’t move? This is the basic premise that veteran photographer James Balog and 28-year old film director, Jeff Orlowski set out to answer in the critically acclaimed documentary of the year, which previewed last night at the Curzon Soho in London. In the process, they have provided the most dramatic visual evidence of climate change in action captured to date.

Chasing Ice triumphs over audiences by virtue of its truly stunning cinematography. An iceberg equivalent in size to all of Lower Manhattan (except twice as tall as its tallest buildings) breaks away from Greenland’s Ilulissat glacier in the greatest such event ever captured on camera. The calving ice twists and turns in the water, rolling over to expose its underbelly, reminiscent of a whale breaching in the open ocean. Putting on a ballet performance to the sound of classical music, although there was no soundtrack, only the deep rumble of unimaginable natural forces, which deserved to have the volume cranked up to full. Edward Burlynsky’s images of industrial landscapes elicit the same uneasy response – a hypnotic attraction to the beauty in a scene of destruction and devastation. I found this unique footage to be eerily reminiscent of the 2011 tsunami in Japan in terms of the sheer scale of destruction, the similar displacement of huge volumes of seawater, and the unique footage captured. Although the impact on human populations is far more subtle, sea level rise due to climate change is a slow burner that could potentially displace more than 100 million people by the end of the century.

Undoubtedly, the greatest single success is Balog’s time-lapse photography, without which the movie would be meaningless. Time-lapse is a technique that speeds up a sequence of imperceptibly slow movements to give the impression of a continuous moving picture edited from footage captured over days, months and even years. Balog’s photo project, known as the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), comprises cameras set up in 27 remote sites from Greenland to Alaska that allow us to bear witness to the ice advancing ever so slightly in the depths of winter only to retreat in spectacular fashion. It’s hard to fathom how a technique that has been around for over a century has only now been applied to the movement of ice. Even other nature documentaries such as “The Private Life of Plants”, a series narrated by David Attenborough, used time-lapse as far back as 1995 when the connection between climate change and melting ice was already widely recognized. Nevertheless all credit to Balog for getting a team together to finally bring the project to life.

Ice is by its very nature cold, inhospitable and unforgiving. It was always going to be a massive challenge to illicit an emotional reaction from the public towards what are essentially massive blocks of ice sliding into the water. There were no cuddly polar bears or dancing penguins on show, neither were there Inuit fishing communities nor Sami reindeer herders. As a consequence, this heaped pressure on Balog’s personal story to deliver with emotional impact whilst at the same time not detracting from the main narrative of the melting ice. A task that is equally as tricky as hiking across a crevasse-strewn ice field and one in which I’m not convinced this movie succeeded in living up to. The determination of Balog to overcome technical glitches, his repeated knee operations and spurning of medical advice, the glimpses of family life, somehow didn’t come together to instill one coherent emotional response in the viewer. It could be argued that since this is a movie about chasing ice and climate change, we should not be distracted by a personal story. But in my opinion, both should blend seamlessly with each element reinforcing the other in order for the movie to succeed as a whole.

Chasing Ice is the 28 year old director’s first foray into a full-length feature and I can’t help but wonder why the task wasn’t left to a more seasoned veteran. Whilst the cinematography is breathtaking, the editing was found rather wanting. The clever use of scale to help the audience comprehend the epic nature of the ice-scapes shown on the screen and the before/after shots were certainly commendable. However, scientific facts and figures felt imposed on the viewer and there was a lack of inventiveness in sharing climate change data through the more cutting edge infographics and animation that audiences have come to expect today. Similarly, footage of Balog’s lecture tour didn’t manage to create the buzz of excitement that should have left cinema audiences wanting to replicate for themselves once they left the theatre. Climate change is not a light topic and despite the stunning imagery and my deep admiration for Balog, it was hard not to feel somewhat dejected about the future of the ice and our Planet as a whole.

It is important to draw a distinction between what this movie is trying to achieve and its role in the broader debate on the need for action on climate change. To my mind, the greatest success of this movie is to clearly show climate change in action. Seeing is believing after all. Climate change is often described as an abstract issue that people find difficult to identify with. The main pollutant (CO2) is invisible, the timescales involved are difficult to appreciate in our fast-paced world, and competing factors make the direct link between cause and effect difficult to prove. Chasing Ice has come as close as it is possible to overcoming such obstacles. Balog has provided us with the proverbial smoking gun on climate change that hundreds of the world’s greatest scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have sought long and hard to find. Rigorous peer-reviewed scientific data is an absolute necessity but translating that message into one that can be understood by Joe Bloggs on the street requires visual proof that we can all relate to easily.  Many people will identify with James Balog’s steely determination (myself amongst them) to pursue and expose the truth about the rate of change to the great icescapes of the world. But as far as I’m concerned, Chasing Ice is not about to inspire the wider public to change their behaviour and actions to follow a more environmentally sustainable path – even though this is what we need. Behavioural change is notoriously difficult and I cannot think of a single other documentary movie that has had a global far-reaching impact on a social or environmental issue of the same scale as climate change. So my advice is not to expect or demand such a thing from this movie if you don’t want to be left disappointed.

Chasing Ice will no doubt be used by NGOs such as Greenpeace in future campaigns against oil exploration in the High Arctic. Balog and his Earth Vision Trust (EVT), which aims to provide the visual evidence that inspires a billion people to change their view of our impact on the natural environment, should deservedly achieve a higher profile. Crucially, EVT hopes to screen Chasing Ice to one million high school and college students – those who will make future decisions on, and will live with the consequences of climate change. One of the greatest challenges for the movie will be to move out of the art-house cinemas and into the mainstream theatres. The launch of a documentary on climate change is certainly timely with the Arctic summer ice shrinking to its lowest extent ever in 2012 and the threat of oil exploration in the Arctic greater than ever. American audiences are also likely to be more sympathetic to the storyline in light of the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Sandy and the extreme drought afflicting many states last summer. However, I would question the wisdom of a release date (currently showing in many US theatres and about to show in the UK) in the build up to the holiday season, when competition is fierce from Christmas features and Hollywood blockbusters such as Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”. Although perhaps this movie can reach a wider audience in the New Year on the basis that it succeeds in the smaller theatres now.

I believe that it will be Balog’s wider legacy that will have greatest impact in the longer term and that the Chasing Ice documentary is just one part of this. The best-case scenario to result from the movie is that it raises climate change back up the political agenda in the US. It should also be remembered that man-made climate change is still disputed by a surprisingly large proportion of the American populace. Civilian society, campaigners, and sympathetic lobbyists can use its visual evidence to shame politicians into taking action on climate change, such as by strengthening environmental legislation. A political solution is not the only approach nor is it necessarily the most effective, but perhaps it is the most realistic outcome that can be achieved by this documentary. Scientists have been criticized in the past for not communicating their story in a convincing fashion to the general public. Vested interests such as Big Oil have succeeded in spinning the argument and running rings around conventional scientific opinion in the minds of the public. We need more communicators of Balog’s ilk to sway public opinion towards believing in a cause and taking real action on climate change. Success is measured in terms of who tells not just the best story but also the most believable one. Photography is a powerful weapon in the hands of a skillful and visionary individual in search of the truth. James Balog is one such man.

Useful links –

http://chasingice.co.uk

http://www.jamesbalog.com

http://extremeicesurvey.org

Prix Pictet shows at Saatchi Gallery in London on the theme of “Power”

Entrance to the Prix Pictet 2012 at the Saatchi Gallery in London

This week I was fortunate to visit the fourth Prix Pictet at the impressive Saatchi Gallery just off the King’s Road in Chelsea, London. The Prix Pictet is possibly the highest profile award in photography for sustainability, if not the most financially rewarding. Sustainability takes a holistic view on the environmental, social and economic impacts of development – the so-called Triple Bottom Line as first referred to by John Elkington. One nagging doubt that followed me around the gallery is that it wasn’t always obvious exactly what aspect of sustainability was being portrayed in certain images belonging to the twelve shortlisted photographers.  Nevertheless it was a powerful and emotive body of work.

This year’s exhibition follows the theme of “Power” – a term that can be loosely interpreted in many ways, allowing flexibility and diversity amongst the entries. Initially, I mistook another exhibition at the gallery (the equally excellent “Out of Focus” exhibition) as the Prix Pictet when I was confronted by two of Mitch Epstein’s works that feature in his “American Power” photo series. I’m a huge fan of his ever since getting up close to the restrained beauty and horror of his Amos Coal Power Plant image displayed at the International Center for Photography in New York last summer.  I’m digressing somewhat, but in my opinion any of his images from this series surpass the entries that specifically address environmental concerns in this year’s Prix Pictet.

By my count, half of the short-listed entries addressed environmental concerns with the other half split between war reportage and social commentary. Particularly noteworthy were the images of Azerbaijani photographer Rena Effendi, who documented life in Chernobyl in her series entitled “Still Life in the Zone”. A clever pun on words that allows us to marvel at the fact that life still goes on in the aftermath of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, her style is reminiscent of an Old Master at work on a still-life painting. She captures the defiance that allows life to continue with a certain elegance and understatement that avoids the obvious temptation to dramatize events. At the other end of the scale, we have Philippe Chancel’s Fukushima portraying the devastation in the aftermath of Japan’s recent Tsunami. Ships and houses strewn at odd angles across the landscape like toys in a child’s playpen. It is particularly difficult to compete with the well-documented real-time amateur footage that we’ve all seen on TV and in my opinion; he hasn’t succeeded in adding any new perspective.

Daniel Beltra tackled another well-documented environmental disaster, namely the Gulf Oil spill of 2010. His vivid colours and patterns floating across the seascape were visually arresting but I’m unsure if they had the same gravitas and impact of Burtynsky’s images on the same theme, which recently showed at the Photographer’s Gallery in London. His work seemed strangely divorced from the reality of the devastating impact on wildlife and local fisher communities along the Gulf of Mexico. Other notable entries are the veteran Robert Adams, whose “Turning Black” series on deforestation in North-west USA could be summed up as stark, almost violent in its intensity. “Moments before the Flood” by Carl De Keyzer portrayed outdated flood defences in Europe highlighting our woeful attempts at climate change adaptation to sea-level rise. There certainly wasn’t much optimism for environmental issues in this year’s Prix Pictet. Joel Sternfeld shines a light on the abject disappointment etched across the faces of delegates at the UN Conference on Climate Change in Montreal, Canada in 2005. I wondered what the same faces captured at the most recent UNFCCC conference would show – an overpowering sense of disillusionment or perhaps complete indifference?

Mohamed Bourouissa (Peripherique) allows us to stand around idly with groups of young disillusioned men on the streets of suburban France. A threatening atmosphere looms over their heads, and ours.  An-My Le visited 29 Palms in the Californian desert – a proxy for the real war in Afghanistan – that helps reinforce the notion that perhaps Americans are also fighting a battle in their own backyard. Hers is a different perspective on modern warfare, more akin to the viewpoint of a 19th century war correspondent. An outsider in terms of subject matter, Jacqueline Hassink gives us a glimpse into the garish dining rooms and more restrained boardrooms of wealthy Arab women. Captions provide such vital statistics as personal net worth, leaving us to conclude that taste in interior design seems to be in inverse proportion to wealth.

It is at this point where the shortlisted entries really raise their game. Starting with Edmund Clark, a UK photographer who gained privileged access to Guantanamo in his series, “If the Light goes out”. Although no prisoners or guards are shown in his work, the images are all the more menacing. They feel very different to the explicit photos to have come out of Abu Ghraib but feel almost as disturbing as it allows our imagination to run riot. Next stop is the dark heart of Africa as Guy Tillim’s “Congo Democratic” allows us to feel as if we are part of the seething crowds and palpable chaos that rule on the streets of this broken country. We get an artificial sense of security as we peer over the shoulders of a group of heavies protecting their leader at a political rally in a particularly arresting image.

And finally, we meet the work of Luc Delahaye, this year’s overall winner. If I were to have any gripe, it would be that it doesn’t feel like a comprehensive and defined set of images on sustainability, a fact that is underlined by the title “Various works: 2008-2011”. From ghostly power lines that appear as spiders’ webs in an early morning mist to a scrum of journalists and delegates at the OPEC headquarters, this feels like art meets documentary and comes away looking rather good. Another strikingly symbolic image in the series (but not on display) is clearly reminiscent of The Last Supper although it is in actuality a lunch at the World Economic Forum in Davos.  Would I agree that Delahaye is a worthy winner? Probably. Although, Guy Tillim, Edmund Clark and Rena Effendi are also close contenders. This year’s Prix Pictet underlines the many facets of power; both Natural and Man-made, inflicted and repulsed, overwhelming and understated. Powerful stuff indeed.

 

The Prix Pictet continues at the Saatchi Gallery in London until 28 October 2012. More information available at http://www.prixpictet.com

“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!

My images are just “the cuticle on the baby toe of an elephant” – Edward Burtynsky interview

Beachcomber on the Thames at low-tide near the Tate Modern in London

Last night I had the rare privilege of attending the screening of “Manufactured Landscapes” at the Tate Modern in London followed by a Q&A session with the renowned photographer Edward Burtynsky. The film, directed by Jennifer Baichwal, documents Burtynsky as he moves around China shooting large-scale environmental devastation and colossal development as Man expands his footprint on a scale never before witnessed on the planet. Sustainability is certainly on the back-foot.

The opening scene sets the tone as the camera moves along an impossibly long assembly line that, 8 minutes later, still hasn’t come to an end. No workers laughing or chatting, no radio playing in the background and no commentary from the film-maker. Just the sound of machines drilling, clanging and hissing in a display of pure joylessness but admirable productivity. If ever there was a single scene that summed up China’s reputation as ‘workshop of the world’, then this must be its best candidate.

I thoroughly recommend watching this film but let me cut to the chase. I’m most interested in the views of the great man himself as this was a rare opportunity to hear him talk candidly about his work so let me begin. In Burtynsky’s own words, “film has a phenomenal reach that I could never have done alone [but] still photography enters your consciousness differently to film and allows you to hold that thought in a different way”.

Francis Hodgson (writer on photography for the Financial Times) acted as chief interviewer with questions from the audience at the end. It was encouraging to know that there were like-minded individuals in the audience who posed many of the same questions that were running though my mind and which I touched upon in my earlier blog from a visit to The Photographer’s Gallery.

Burtynsky admitted that although he is a great admirer of Ansell Adams, he never photographed a landscape in the same way as the great master of light. I have previously classified him as an environmental photographer but it became clear to me that there is no easy label that one can attached to Burtynsky. In his own words, he describes himself as a “human systems photographer” rather than for example, a landscape photographer. An unusual feature of his work is that different audiences read different messages when they are confronted face-to-face by his large prints on a gallery wall. Hodgson put it to him that people may be struggling to get messages out of his images as a result. However, Burtynsky made it clear that “identifying culprits is not my way of working…right and wrong is too simplistic”.

The interviewer probed further to see if he was concerned about people using his pictures for ends other than his own. But the unflappable Burtynsky simply replied that he is “just putting his work out there…in a way that doesn’t polarize the argument”. Elaborating further, he explained that he wants to get industrialists in conversation (as well as environmentalists) and get everyone to the table to talk. This neatly leads me on to how on earth he manages to secure access to such incredibly sensitive landscapes, mines and factories that beg to remain hidden from the prying eyes of the world’s media. Burtynsky’s approach is honest, simple and effective. Go right to the top (of the organization) and put it to the CEO or whomever, that he is “building a compendium of human enterprise” at the start of the 21st century. Then open a page in one of his books and simply ask the question, “ do you want to be in the compendium or not?” No false pretenses, no hidden agenda and no stealth (my humble apologies for even suggesting!). Such privileged access would never be possible if he made an approach as an environmentalist.

Hodgson put forth the notion that not only was he photographing industrial landscapes but that his own process was also becoming industrialized now that he used the services of helicopters and teams of assistants etc. But Burtynsky made light of it, describing how he felt “liberated from gravity…if I need a bucket lift, then I just rent one”. Queue laughter from the audience.

Burtynsky duly addressed the sense of repulsion and attraction which his images engender and which I have personally felt and described in my earlier blog. He went on to explain that the psychological term is known as ‘cognitive dissonance’ – a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas, beliefs, values or emotions simultaneously. I found myself wanting to accuse him of glamourizing environmental destruction, of suggesting that pollution can be beautiful, of justifying Man’s recklessness towards the planet. But it became clear to me that Burtynsky is equally as concerned for the environment as I am (he took a clear swipe at climate change deniers at one point in his talk). He just recognizes that he can achieve far more by taking a perceived neutral stance and challenging audiences to question just how sustainably we are using the earth’s precious resources.

Burtynsky came across as a most eloquent interviewee, happy to talk about his work, softly spoken and provoking emotion without being emotional himself. He is also a humble man who describes his work as “the cuticle on the baby toe of an elephant”. He openly admits that a big story can’t be told in an easy way through a frame yet I know of no one else who gets as close as he can.

As the interview drew to a close and the audience filed out of the auditorium, I sneaked down to the front to seize the chance to meet the great man. In my mind, I was meeting a rock god after an amazing gig at a legendary music festival. Everyone else was queuing up to get his autograph but I just wanted to ask him for some words of wisdom that would inspire me. So what did he say? Well I think I’ve told you enough already……

The industrialisation of our landscape by Big Oil

Yesterday I went to The Photographers’ Gallery here in London to see Edward Burtynsky’s excellent exhibition entitled “Oil”. The gallery just reopened last month after an extensive refurbishment. They’ve made the most of what isn’t exactly an ideal space being situated in a relatively tall and narrow building. As I moved through the gallery, I overheard two ladies next to me as they looked at Burtynsky’s Highway No.  1 – a spaghetti junction of concrete, sweeping curves of grey in many shades, overlapping, twisting, jostling for space. “Isn’t that a nice piece of engineering?…incredible!” said the younger lady to the older one. I’m not sure that this is the primary reaction Burtynsky meant to elicit from his image but it is nonetheless a perfectly valid one. I couldn’t help but feel both in awe and despair as I stood transfixed, trying to figure where roads began and ended, unsure if this was a Highway to Hell or Heaven.

Other images in his collection are far easier to take a firm viewpoint on. Images of derelict oil fields in Baku, Azerbaijan for example. Pools of oil reflecting rusting rigs that stand sentry over an abandoned landscape. Perhaps most powerful of all were a series of aerial shots looking down on the scene of devastation across the Gulf of Mexico caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. A drilling platform on fire is lost in a thick glossy black sea shimmering in the sun (Oil spill No. 5) whilst elsewhere a submerged pipeline cuts through a sickly yellow sea – possibly due to an algal bloom related to the oil clean-up operation. Giant yellow tailings ponds surrounded by scorched brown earth with the chimney stacks of a refinery looming in the distance form the most striking image in his Alberta Oil Sands collective. The oil sands are a hugely controversial project in Canada – they have a far greater carbon footprint than conventional crude oil due to the extraction process and a devastating effect on the landscape of the boreal forest where they are mined.

I found myself constantly wondering about the logistics behind capturing such powerful images which were often taken from elevated angles (though not always from the sky)  and requiring access to highly sensitive (as well as remote) locations. The close-ups of hulking rusting ship carcasses picked over by impoverished labourers in the world’s largest “ship graveyard” at Chittagong, Bangladesh is an example of the latter. The recent BBC television series on the Indian Ocean could only get to within half a mile out at sea even though they were freely able to film in Mogadishu, Somalia (widely accepted as the most dangerous city on earth). Burtynsky strikes me as a man of patience, diplomacy, charm (and possibly stealth) having dedicated himself to the “Oil” project over 12 years. His images convey conflicting emotions in the viewer towards the industrialization of the natural landscape. Burtynsky somehow manages to create both tension and harmony between the man-made and Natural landscape in a single image. The dramatic sunset seen in Shipbreaking No. 13 may cast a soft light on the rusting behemoths in the foreground making them seem less threatening. But one can also imagine an alternative more serene scene of coastal mangrove swamp with abundant wildlife and perhaps local fisherfolk that may have existed 50 years previously. Beauty can certainly be found in the most unexpected of places…but only a rare few can portray as he eloquently describes “vast junk-pile cemeteries that house the detritus of our petroleum economy” with such grace time and time again.

Links-

The Photographer’s Gallery

Edward Burtynsky website