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Postmodern city

I was sitting on the train in Clapham station, and had a moment of epiphany, not religious revelation but an urban realisation.



Photo by Danny Robinson. Wikimedia Commons

Steve Latham



I turned from the shopping centre to the south, and looking northwards, through the grey misty drizzle, I saw a series of towers, rising from the cityscape.

High rise blocks, like rocks outcropping from the grey urban sea. Or a Japanese Zen Garden, assorted rocks set in raked gravel, symbolising for meditation, islands in the swirl of worldly flux.

These residences we call ‘flats’, which other countries, more glamorously, in my opinion, refer to as ‘apartments’. We usually reserve that word for privately-owned accommodation, whereas ‘flats’ often means social, or affordable, rented housing.

I noticed too that the old 60s and 70s prefabricated section-built flats were now complemented by recent constructions of steel and glass.

This is the genuine postmodern city. Not super-profitable developments around the financial districts, but where the workers live.

And also not the frenzied building spree of East Asian cities. These are actually instances of alter-modernism; that is, they are ‘otherly’ modern, contrasting Europe’s example.

Still bulldozing older buildings, the heritage concern has not yet caught up with their ‘Communist-Capitalist’ rush toward materialistic progress.

Here the alter-modern city pushes through into the ultra-modern city, obliterating traces of the past. The European city, by contrast, as the first attempt at modernism, is also impure in its modernity.

However, retaining traces of the historical is also more authentically post-modern.

This is the heartland of the future, the co-existence of past, present and future in a unitary encounter.

Within the European city, the shiny and new combines with the grime and dirt of the modern, which is now ‘old’.

Ironically, the most popular new music genre is called ‘grime’, arising from the crime(to rhyme with grime)-ridden housing estates of South London.

Photo by John Salmon. Wikimedia Commons

For how do we conceptualise a periodisation based on being the most up-to-date, when it is no longer cutting edge? When what is ‘of the mode’, fashionable, is superseded by something else?

Here we see that, as in discussions about art theory, the idea of the ‘contemporary’ gains relevance: all we have is the multi-temporality of whatever is current, with no attempt at valorisation.

Amidst the new lies the old. Post-the-modern, into the set-alongside, older buildings subsist as ruins, or rather re-purposed shells for today’s usages.

Warehouses become flats, offices, and boutique stores – like the Coal Drop Yard development at Kings Cross.

Thus the ancient is cemented into the web of the present, much as Roman walls were incorporated into Mediaeval and Tudor mansions.

But the future also emerges, as a premonition, into the metropolitan fabric; albeit as a ghost, a spectre, a wraith. The invisible trans-national, cyber city provides another dimensional overlay to the multiplicities of the post-postmodern.

Not only are we linked to those physically contiguous with us, but also globally in a single movement of international connectedness.

The city becomes ethereal, dematerialised, vapour; reflecting the vision I saw on the train in Clapham.



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