Wednesday, April 17, 2024


‘To perceive differences within the homogenous elements of the cultivated and inhabited urban landscape, I eschewed the common means of transportation, the automobile, and explored the entire area on foot … I closely engaged with people of different ages, occupations, social positions, and origins, I gathered oral narratives from people who seemed reliable and whom I encountered on my walks in different neighborhoods.’

These are the words of Anton Wagner, writing about his explorations of Los Angeles in the 1930s.


Until about three days ago I would have said I’d never heard of Anton Wagner.  He was a German geographer, who as a result of his LA explorations published a book in 1935, titled Los Angeles: Werden, Leben und Gestalt der Zweimillionenstadt in S├╝dkalifornien, only now translated into English as Los Angeles: The Development, Life, and Structure of the City of Two Million in Southern California.


I’ve only heard of Wagner now because I read about the book in the Los Angeles Review of Architecture, in a piece by Namik Mackic.  The book’s published by the Getty Research Institute and It costs 60 quid in paperback, so reviews are as close as I’m likely to get. It looks like this:


The publisher’s blurb says ‘Although widely reviewed upon its initial publication, his (Wagner’s) book was largely forgotten until reintroduced by architectural historian Reyner Banham in his 1971 classic Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies.’ This was news to me, and I like to think I know that book reasonably well.


So I dug out my copy, the Pelican edition, and there’s one citation for Anton Wagner in the index – page 230 - but when you look at that page his name doesn’t appear. Only by going to Banham’s last chapter titled ‘Towards A Drive-In Bibliography’ will you find a mention of Wagner, which reads in part, ‘The only comprehensive view of Los Angeles as a built environment … The result is one of the few works of urban exploration that comes within sight of Rasmussen’s London: the Unique City, ’ – a book I’m pretty sure I own a copy of, though I’m damned if I can find it at the moment.


Anton Wagner, it seems, was something of a photographer and the California Historical Society has digitised a large number of his photographs.  He doesn’t appear in any of the histories of photography I’ve consulted, so I don’t know what kind of methodology or indeed camera he used, but the pictures are terrific.  They show a city that’s occasionally familiar but mostly alien, a city coming into being. Many of the photographs take a broad, distant, sometimes god-like look at Los Angeles, long and broad views, very few of them taken from ground level.


Now, if you’re a walker in Los Angeles, as I was for 15 years or so, you tend to meet other walkers, but I’m not sure that Wagner did.  There are remarkably few people in the pictures, even fewer people you can easily identify as walkers, which make the few who appear all the more intriguing, such as these people you can just about make out walking in, or through, Pershing Square.

And this is my current favourite, a single walker crossing a very quiet street, behind him a metal silo that looks like the kind of thing Bernd and Hilla Becher would have fallen in love with.


The caption reads 'Looking north on South Andrews Place from south of West 62nd Street.' And thanks to Google we can see what it looks like now.  Still very quiet, in a different way, and not a single pedestrian in sight.

















ldest oil derricks, Mexican neighborhood








Wednesday, April 10, 2024


More often than not, when I look out of my front window into the suburban glories of Essex I see somebody walking their dog, sometimes two dogs. It’s often a slow process because indulgent dog owners stop so that their canine pals can have a good sniff at whatever it is dogs like to sniff.  And of course it’s made slower still if the owners have to pick up the poop excreted by the hound.  Personally that’s not my idea of a good walk but then I’m more of a cat person.


However, according to a story that appeared in the newspapers recently, there’s currently a trend for people to walk their cats on leads.  The Times headline read ‘Going walkies is cool for cats too as more peripatetic pets take the lead.’  They really worked hard on that one.


This trend doesn’t come as a complete surprise to me.  I once met the fellow in the picture below, named Steve, whose cat is named Boris the Bold:


And of course there’s good old Cary Grant with his:


The Times article did involve some discussion about whether or not it was cruel and unusual to walk a cat on a lead.   The RSPCA ‘warned that some cats may become frightened on leads.’ Implying of course that some may not.  


However, for me, the most surprising line in the article ran as follows, ‘a London-based cat behaviourist said that if it suited a cat’s temperament then walking them on a lead could be a great way to bond with a pet and allow them to get fresh air and explore safely.’  I had no idea there was any such thing as a cat behaviourist, but then I’m not that much of a cat person.  And I suppose the corollary of this behavourist wisdom is that if walking on a leash doesn’tsuit a cat’s temperament then he or she will let you know very quickly, possibly by clawing your eyes out.



Wednesday, April 3, 2024



When I first got back to England after 15 years or so living in Los Angeles, I rented a small flat in London and walked the streets noticing things, and sometimes taking photographs. For some of us, walking and noticing are inseparable: that’s what walking is for.

       And among the things I noticed and photographed in London were bollards.  Now these are surely not a uniquely British thing: it seems that people all over the world would want to use something or other to block streets and traffic, but London seemed to have more than I’d ever seen anywhere in the States, though it seems that the American usage generally refers to posts on the side of a river or wharf, the things that boats are tied up to.  I stand to be corrected on this.


After a while, having acclimatized to London and England, I sort of forgot about bollards – well, I didn’t really forget, I just got distracted by noticing other things - though not before the inamorata had given me the fine print seen beside me in this picture (thanks young Caroline).  It’s attributed to Matt Brown/Londonist, and the highlight of the print is the J.G. Bollard.


But lately I’ve been reading Edwin Heathcote’s On the Street: In-Between Architecture, a book about street furniture.  It’s full of great pictures, many taken by EH on his walking travels, along with photographs by some of the greats – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Leavitt, Robert Frank, Vivian Maier, Eugene Atget and others.

Heathcote is a great noticer and his noticing often overlaps with my own minor obsessions - public benches, discarded gloves, manhole covers, Thomassons, and as it happens, bollards. He confirms that bollards are indeed international and cites examples in Rome, Siena and Amsterdam, says that they’re ‘the ultimate symbol of defence and defiance’ and concludes that ‘the future is absolute bollards.’


Suddenly I started to find bollards interesting again. Even so I felt they were a big city thing, but finding myself in Mistley, a somewhat picturesque village on the Stour Estuary in Essex, though one with a maritime and light industrial element, they seemed to be everywhere.

And then, on Mistley Quay - which is a highly contested place – we can talk about it elsewhere – there were these bad boys:


A local information sign referred to them as bollards, ie the things that boats are tied up to as per the American usage. So much to learn, so much still to notice.



Saturday, March 23, 2024


 As I’ve said before, I accept that not everybody is as moved by and as interested in obelisks as I am.  But once you start looking for them they pop up all over the place – you’ll be walking along and boom – there it is, often in the least likely place.  


Let’s say, for example, one afternoon you’re ambling in Mistley in Essex, just up the road from where I live, and you see a garden containing a tall, green topiary obelisk, well you’re going to be impressed by that: but wait. 

Then you walk a little further up the street and you see that behind the live, growing obelisk there’s a wooden garden obelisk, as they’re called.  These aren’t really obelisks in any real sense – they're not made from one piece and they lack the all-important pyramidion –  but they’re still a good thing.


And then say, one night having been to a lecture by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan on the lost gardens of London, and you’re walking along the Albert Embankment between Lambeth and Vauxhall, and you see this thing tucked away behind a hoarding.  I took a picture, not sure what I was taking a photograph of.  A spot of Photoshopping helped a little, but only a little.

Some online research reveals that it’s standing tight beside the headquarters of the International Maritime Organisation: 

and further messing about with Google streetview indicates it’s actually in a car park.  

More than that I don’t know, but I’m inclined to think it must be some kind of ventilation duct, most likely for the Tube, like this one in honour of George Dance the Younger, who laid out the Finsbury Estate in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.

Frankly it seems to me that if you’re going to have a ventilation duct for a subterranean railway, then why wouldn’t you have it in the shape of an obelisk? 

And then, and I don’t want you to think my life is glamorous or colourful or anything, but last week I was given a personal tour of the Charles Jencks’ Cosmic House (currently under refurbishment).  My guide was Edwin Heathcote, who writes about architecture and design in the Financial Times, and is also ‘The Keeper of Meaning’ at the house – a job title that’s hard to improve on. (I get to call him Eddie).


And as we walked through the postmodern and indeed cosmic wonders of the house, there were obelisks galore, small ones, decorative objects, many of which if I understood Mr. Heathcote correctly, were bought by Jencks on souvenir stalls around the pyramids in Cairo. 


There was also this marvelous and unusual tableau, someone working at a computer while bracketed by obelisks.  I may have to find a way of doing that myself.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024


On Sunday I went on a guided walk led by my pal Jen Pedler, with Footprints of London, a walk based on Rose Macaulay’s book The World my Wilderness, following in the footsteps of the book’s heroine Barbary.  This is Jen keeping her anonymity:


The novel, published in 1950, is set in London shortly after the Second World War, mostly around the City of London where St Paul’s Cathedral remained intact after the Blitz even as much of the area around it was in ruins. Then the ruins became a wilderness, and in that wilderness a certain kind of life flourished.


Barbary is sent from France to London by her posh Bohemian mother Helen to study art at the Slade.  She paints and sells postcards of ruined London, and she meets various colourful and dodgy working class types. 


I’ve read critics who say that the name Barbary is supposed to raise questions about what is and isn’t barbarous, and I don’t doubt that’s true, but personally I thought of Barbary pirates, because there is something piratical and lawless about the characters in the novel, even if unlike the actual Barbary pirates they’re not slave traders.


At the centre of the novel is a bilingual pun.  In France during the war, Barbary and her stepbrother Raoul ran wild with members of the French Resistance – the Maquis.  But maquis also means scrubland or bush, therefore a kind of wilderness, leading mother Helen to think, as Jen pointed out, ‘The maquis is within us, we take our wilderness where we go.’


  And so we walked with our inner and outer wildernesses, seeing London ruins, some of which dated from long before the Second World War to at least Roman times, while all around them, and us, were new big shiny buildings including the sprawl of the Barbican estate. 


I’d have said that I knew the area at least somewhat but a lot of what we saw was new to me including the Physic Garden belonging to the Barber’s Company, which is on the site of the 13th bastion built by Emperor Hadrian in AD 122. In 1666 the garden acted as a kind of fire gap to stop the Great Fire spreading, and if I’m reading the Barber Surgeons’ website correctly, it was derelict from World War Two until 1987.


Rose Macaulay is best known in many quarters for the novel The Towers of Trebizond which I admit I haven’t read. I know her best for the book Pleasure of Ruins, a title I can never quite get right; I always think it should be Pleasures of Ruin, and I tend to put in a superfluous definite article or two. 


The version I like best is the edition with photographs by Canadian Roloff Beny.  He does have a few photographs of British ruins but none in London.


Our walk was a very fine walk, taking two hours or so, and of course serendipity always plays a part in these things.  I wasn’t entirely surprised to see a Nicholson, because they get everywhere


But I really wasn’t expecting Monkwell Square, a place I had in fact been to before, to be the scene of such hot, compelling obelisk action. OK, I accept that not everybody feels the same way about obelisks as I do.