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Yesterday, I wrote about a quirky construction in Middlehaven: the only one of an intended set of five which was actually constructed. I visited it back in 2012, and had returned twelve years on to see how it was doing.

All of the above also apply to today’s post, which is about Anish Kapoor’s Temenos.

Twelve years ago, I called this massive artwork ‘soulless and bland’—which is very much how it felt on this visit, too. The demolition of the crane which previously stood behind it at least gives Temenos room to breathe, but it doesn’t really say much to me.

It was intended to be the first of five ‘Tees Valley Giants’, humongous sculptures spread between Middlesbrough, Stockton-on-Tees, Hartlepool, Redcar and Darlington. None of the others have been built, and it doesn’t feel like Temenos has become a local landmark in the way that was perhaps anticipated.

I wrote yesterday about the benefit of whimsy in life, and I think I actually prefer this much cheaper artwork nearby: a giant stick of rock.

This post was filed under: Art, Photos, Travel, , .

Back in the box

In 2012, I went for a look at Middlesbrough’s newly constructed Community in a Cube (CIAC), a bizarre residential building with startling architecture, including some houses perched on the roof. Seven years later, I went back to see how it had settled in. After 21 years of blogging, there are no new ideas left. So, five years after my last visit, I’ve been back again.

CIAC is in Middlehaven, the bit of Middlesbrough which surrounds the dock. The area had an ambitious masterplan by Will Alsop. In the initial phase, CIAC was intended to be one of five cuboidal residential blocks, each to be designed by a different architectural firm and employing ‘statement’ architecture. They were commonly referred to as the ‘sugar cubes’. Eventually, more cubes would be built, expanding the quirky residential provision. Here’s an idea of what it was supposed to look like, eventually:

When CIAC was constructed, as part of Middlehaven’s commitment to sustainability, it was built with a sustainable biomass boiler system to provide heating and hot water to the initial five residential blocks. But you can guess where this is going.

Only CIAC was built, and for a long while—including when I first visited—it felt a bit isolated and alien. Partly through familiarity, and partly through the limited development of Middlehaven, it feels more like it belongs these days.

When I visited five years ago, I commented on the issues that had arisen due to the flammable cladding that had been used in the building. This has led to the most visible change to the building’s appearance: the aspect shown at the top, with the geometric inset windows, has lost its cladding. I’m not sure whether there’s an intention to replace it, but I actually prefer the current appearance: the geometric shapes being formed through industrial steel feel a bit more in keeping with the area than the previous wooden effect.

Originally, the block was surrounded by naked streets: these have long since closed, replaced with traditional roads and footpaths. Some sections, like the one above, are now so overgrown that it’s quite difficult to pick out where the grass verge ends and the former street begins.

The traditional roads are perhaps not quite as well-connected with public transport as they might be. The juxtaposition of ‘no public services’ and ‘let’s journey together’ made me chuckle.

Back in 2012, I noted the unique appearance of the development’s marketing suite. One might have thought that this would be a temporary structure, but it is still going strong twelve years on, now occupied by a firm of commercial property consultants.

No-one has quite got around to updating the signage promoting the marketing suite, but the greenery is doing a good job of absorbing it.

In 2012, I said that CIAC wasn’t quite to my taste, but I’ve rather warmed to it over time. A bit of quirkiness goes a long way.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that there’s simply not enough out-and-out whimsy in life. The Middlehaven masterplan was stuffed full of whimsy, and it’s a shame that more of it didn’t come off.

There was much talk at the time of its initial unveiling—and even a bit of ribbing in The Guardian about the ‘Kerplunk hotel’—a proposed hotel which bore more than a passing resemblance to the children’s game.

I recently discovered that the scale model of the masterplan is on display in MIMA, and let me tell you, sugar-cube residential blocks and a Kerplunk hotel have nothing on my favourite proposed but unrealised project in Middlehaven.

Friends: the toaster on the right of this photograph of the masterplan, just across from Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium, was to be a theatre. Yes, we live in a world where a toaster-shaped theatre was proposed but never built. As Liz Truss might say: That. Is. A. Disgrace.

This post was filed under: Photos, Travel, , , , , .

We rage against the dying of the light

In the final seconds of BBC One’s Weekend News bulletin yesterday, Reeta Chakrabarti squeezed in an extra story in just 25 words:

Just before we go, President Biden has just tweeted that he intends to address the nation later this week, saying that it has been a great privilege to serve. We’ll bring you more at ten.

We know now, of course, that in the judgement of mere seconds, the team had perhaps overlooked the more significant message of Biden’s message: his decision to withdraw from his re-election campaign.

It’s not hard to see why: Biden’s statement refers only to standing down, without complete clarity on what from. It’s a letter that’s hard to parse on a scan-read, with the eyes of a nation watching.

Wendy and I switched over to the news channels, and after minutes of slightly desperate filling, the airwaves were thick with discussion of the political consequences of the decision, with hot takes and commentary on who might replace him and what it may mean for an election that’s still months away.

Nobody seemed keen to take a step back. It’s not hard to imagine the sense of profound grief Biden must feel at this moment. This is surely a moment that marks a painful shift in the way Biden sees himself: judged irreversibly incapable by dint of age of doing something he’s done before.

As Peter Wehner wrote in The Atlantic last night:

Coming to terms with mortality is never easy. We rage against the dying of the light. Many elderly people face the painful moment of letting go, of losing independence and human agency, when they are told by family they have to give up the keys to the car; Biden was told by his party to give up the keys to the presidency.

It must cut deep; I hope he’s okay.

It’s funny, really, how little attention the news pays to the universal aspects of stories like this. How the immediate reaction focuses on predicting what might happen next, rather than on sitting with what’s just happened. How it refuses to dwell on the humanity, those moments of insufficiency most of us have faced and will continue to face in life.

The news runs away from the lessons of others’ experience, the things we might take and apply in our own lives. And that seems like a shame.

This post was filed under: Media, News and Comment, Politics, , , , , .

Global IT failure shows the problem with multimodal journalism

When The Times started publishing its ‘compact’ edition in 2003, initially alongside the broadsheet format, there was a lot of debate about the potential impact on its journalism. One concern its journalists wrote about publicly was that in a compact size, it becomes more tempting to ‘hang’ stories around photographs, which can pervert the way that stories are covered.

Two decades on, this feels a bit quaint: large numbers of journalists for most media outlets work in multiple formats, writing stories, taking photographs, and filming videos, for example. But it feels undeniable that this has changed the weight that is given to different aspects of stories.

For example, over the last few days, we’ve been subjected to a huge amount of news coverage about a widespread computer fault. A huge proportion of the coverage—the lede in most cases—has been the impact on air travel. Yet, there is no reasonable interpretation of this story in which air travel is the most significant angle. The effect on GP services, for example, will have affected far more people and almost certainly caused more harm—and the underlying technical issue, and the way it has affected so many system across many countries, is a much more interesting analytical story.

I posit that the reason for the heavy weighting towards air travel is the multimodal way in which journalists now operate. It’s very difficult to create images of the problems with GP systems, and even more so to illustrate IT problems, yet airports provide an immediately available endless supply of emotive imagery of huge queues. That imagery can be easily supported by information on flight cancellations that’s freely available on websites journalists can access from their desks.

The lede becomes what’s easy rather than what’s important. Images become more important than analysis. We’re all less well-informed as a result.

This post was filed under: Media, News and Comment.

On a scale of one to ten…

There’s a form I have to fill in at work every quarter, in which I’m invited to answer the question ‘How are you?’ with an integer. The instructions say that I ought to ‘rate how things are feeling 1-10’.

Anyone who knows me well enough will be unsurprised that I have a cut-and-paste paragraph that I shove in the box intended for an integer. It explains that I am declining to answer in the requested format because I cannot summarise how I feel in that form, and that I find the question inappropriate and mildly offensive.

Nobody has ever questioned my response.

I was reminded of that when I read this article by Elisabeth Rosenthal in The Atlantic. As a doctor, Rosenthal admits that she has asked many patients to rate their pain on a scale of zero to ten, but reflects on how useless this question is when asked to rate her own pain:

Pain is a squirrelly thing. It’s sometimes burning, sometimes drilling, sometimes a deep-in-the-muscles clenching ache. Mine can depend on my mood or how much attention I afford it, and can recede, nearly entirely, if I’m engrossed in a film or a task. Pain can also be disabling enough to cancel vacations, or so overwhelming that it leads people to opioid addiction. Even 10+ pain can be bearable when it’s endured for good reason, like giving birth to a child. But what’s the purpose of the pains I have now, the lingering effects of a head injury?

The article dives into the history and future of this kind of pain scale and was a great read: it’s well worth a few minutes of your time.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Health, , .

Ballyholme beach

This post was filed under: Photos, , .

The Old Town Hall

Middlesbrough’s Old Town Hall was built in 1846 on a prominent site in the town’s marketplace. It was—and is—a surprisingly small building for a Town Hall, and by the 1880s, a decision was taken to replace it with something more substantial, located closer to the developing passenger railway.

The part of town where the Old Town Hall became steadily less prominent over time, and by the 1950s it was filled with mainly slum housing, which was summarily demolished. A new housing estate, St Hilda’s, was put up in the 1970s, with the Old Town Hall repurposed as a community centre. The centre closed in 1996, and the Old Town Hall has stood empty ever since.

But worse was to come: the 2000s brought the demolition of the St Hilda’s estate, leaving the Old Town Hall not only empty, but also abandoned in the middle of nowhere. These days, it’s on a sorry sight: I had to fight through the weeds to get to it. It feels as though it is being reclaimed by nature. There was something surprisingly soothing, natural and cathartic about the scene.

But it may yet have a future, as the surrounding area is redeveloped once again. The Council intends to reopen the Old Town Hall as a digital and creative hub, linking in with the nearby businesses in those sectors. The Council has already received £1m of funding to safeguard the building, and has applied to the National Lottery Heritage Fund for a further £3m. Here’s hoping.

This post was filed under: Photos, Travel, .

‘Walking’ by Erling Kagge

Last month, I enjoyed a series of reflections on silence by the Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge. Walking is the follow-up, published in 2020, in which Kagge shares reflections and observations about putting one foot in front of the other. He draws on all kinds of sources, from ancient philosophy, to his father’s death, to cutting-edge cockroach research.

Kagge’s overall message is that walking makes us human: the more one walks, the more human one becomes, and the more knowledge one absorbs about oneself and the world. He argues convincingly that if people walked more, the world would be a better place. And he suggests that walking is the ‘best medicine’, in terms of both physical and mental health.

Kagge also quotes an astonishing statistic, which I’ve since found comes from a 2016 survey, which says that 75% of 5-12 year olds in the UK spend less time outside each day than the average UK prisoner (one hour). I’m amazed that I’ve never come across that statistic before in my public health work.

I’m predisposed to like this book because I agree with most of its arguments. I was particularly struck by a passage in which Kagge discusses how our perception of time changes according to the speed of travel:

When you move fast to save time, time moves fast, too. I’m always struck by how little time you actually save by driving. When you walk, time stretches.

This rings true. I’m lucky enough to be able to walk to work each day, but on the rare occasions when my 45-minute stroll is compressed into a shorter bus or car journey, I feel like I have lost rather than gained time. The walk really does seem to stretch my experience of time. I think this applies beyond walking: Wendy and I recently reflected that a recent holiday was hampered by arriving too fast on a direct flight, rather than us having the luxury of slower travel.

I thoroughly enjoyed this short set of reflections, and I will recommend it to others.

This post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, .

I didn’t hear that coming

While I’m not at all into cars, I have a vague policy-level interest in electric vehicles. I think they present fascinating dilemmas.

We desperately need to rapidly reduce the burning of fossil fuels if the planet is to remain habitable, and it seems inevitable that the adoption of electric vehicles will be an important staging post on the journey to a less carbon-intensive future.

Yet, it’s not an easy transition: there are all sorts of complicated policy problems, from the need to more rapidly develop the charging infrastructure, to developing better ways of tackling battery fires, to working out how best to manage life-expired battery-powered vehicles.

From an emergency planning perspective, allowing a controlled burn of a battery-powered vehicle isn’t a great solution if the vehicle is a battery-powered ambulance parked outside a hospital, or one of an entire fleet of fire engines parked next to one another. Decommissioning cars containing batteries which have simply expired is one thing, but safely transporting and managing vehicles whose cells have been compromised in major road traffic accidents is quite another. And so on and so forth… electric vehicles present 99 big problems in the service of solving the biggest planetary problem of all.

I therefore particularly enjoyed this article in the New York Times by Dionne Searcey, which profiles the introduction of an electric school bus in a US town. The ripples from that particular pebble were far-reaching. The one which surprised me most was, perhaps, the simplest:

The bus was so quiet that Mr. Nielson could hear his metal straw rattle in its travel mug as he navigated the brick streets downtown. And when he pulled up to some bus stops, where were the kids?

It turned out that children had been accustomed to running outside when they heard the loud diesel engine come roaring down the street. The new bus was almost too quiet.

“I told parents that, hey, you’re going to have to start looking because I don’t like to honk. It’s generally rude,” he said.

It’s well worth reading the full thing.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Travel, , .

Separated by a common language

There are more guns than people in the USA. More than 100 US citizens are killed each day by gun violence, mostly poor young black men.

When ’black lives matter’ became a slogan, some complained that ‘all lives matter’. Of course they do, but seeing that as a counterargument to the original statement misunderstands the desperate cri du cœur for the poor young black men who are killed in massively disproportionate numbers.

The repudiation of political violence in the USA over the past 36 hours strikes me as similar. Of course political violence is abhorrent. But where is the force of anger, the outpouring of rage, the flood of statements condemning the gun violence that killed tens of young black men in the last 36 hours? How is it that US society condemns an old white man’s grazed ear with so much more fervour than the deaths of thousands of other citizens every week?

This post was filed under: News and Comment, , , .

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