Posted by: Gary Klaukka | May 7, 2009

On the buses

After moving from W3 to W2, I have become a bus commuter. For six months, I spent almost two hours every day traversing the Piccadilly line. My life became one big tube. After moving within range of the centre, I made the conscious decision to take the underground considerably less often. I prefer taking the bus because I get the feeling that I am actually living in a city, and not in a dark tunnel. Most often I take the 390 from Notting Hill Gate to Goodge Street. During this trip I see the picturesque edge of Hyde Park and the bustle of Oxford Street. As a seasonal sight, I get to see the progress being made on building a diagonal crossing across Oxford Circus. Most of all I like sitting in the front of the bus on the top deck and watching the city go by. It is very much like my very own slide show of London: constantly alive and changing.

Of course going on the buses is not always a trouble-free experience. This morning I was trying to travel from Notting Hill Gate to Westminster on the 148. The bus spent a conspicuously long time at Hyde Park Corner and all of a sudden the driver announced that the bus would be terminating at Victoria – short of its intended destination. This happens frustratingly often on London buses: I strongly suspect that when a bus is lagging behind from its intended schedule, the bus ‘control centre’ decides to turn the bus around earlier than at its terminus. Unfortunately this results in countless frustrated passengers not reaching their final destination. I ended up walking from Victoria to Westminster, which was more than doable, but deep down I was not entirely pleased that the bus had not taken me where it should have.

Should Transport for London change its policy on terminating buses along the route? Surely it would be more important to get passengers to their final destinations than keep the entire line’s schedules fully regulated?

On a bus in Marble Arch

On a bus in Marble Arch

Posted by: Gary Klaukka | April 19, 2009

Trellick Tower

As I have now moved to a slightly more central location in London, it is easier for me to do urban expeditions on foot. Today I took a stroll up Portobello Road and down Golborne Road. I was confronted with a view of a street lined with pastel-coloured terraced houses, and a massive modernist tower in front of me (see photo). It was, of course, Trellick Tower – a modernist block of flats designed by Ernő Goldfinger. 31 storeys high, it was built in 1972. Unfortunately to Mr Goldfinger, at the time, it was seen to demonstrate why modernist tower blocks were not the answer to London’s housing situation. As the enclosed photographs show, the service tower (which has the lift in it) only goes to every third floor. The original design did not include security at the front door, making the design open to abuse (there were reports of rapes, muggings and murders in the tower shortly after its opening). The tabloid press were quick to dub the complex the “Tower of Terror.”

The building has been improved days and is apparently particularly popular among arcitechts and other fans of modernist buildings. While it is mostly social housing, there is an increasing number of privately-owned flats in the building. Security in the building was improved in the 1990s with the introduction of CCTV and a concierge system. One must not forget that the views from the flats span across the entire of London.

Another of Goldfinger’s earlier designs was Balfron Tower, in Poplar. An expedition to East London can be expected within the next month.

As a meta-note, I feel compelled to say that I always feel slightly anxious going to areas just with my camera in hand to snap photos. Whilst I have never encountered any problems, I am always more alert than usual. At the end of today’s expedition, a group of youths shouted: “Hey, hey, estate agent! You in the jeans!” to me. I ended up not responding to them, but it gave me a picture of how some people may perceive my walking around taking photos of buildings!

Posted by: Gary Klaukka | April 11, 2009

Helpful suggestions

This week I received an invitation from British Airways to take part in a customer survey regarding a flight I had recently taken. This is naturally just my personal opinion, but I think the suggestion (on how not to answer the question) given to this question is somehow indicative of contemporary British society. Curiously enough, it got me thinking of all the ‘wrong’ answers I could give (alas, they shall remain unpublished).

A helpful suggestion

A helpful suggestion

Posted by: Gary Klaukka | April 1, 2009

Ballet on the Underground

On an average day, the tube is a remarkably unsociable environment. Passengers will go to great lengths to avoid having to interact with one another, even if they are having to stand inches away from each other. Usually people might say something to each other if they are in the way, the train has stopped for an unusually long time or if they are incomprehensibly inebriated.

Today I was on the District line, travelling from Westminster to Acton Town. I sat down next to an elderly gentleman who was wearing a suit and a trenchcoat (as was I). I decided to pass the time by reading today’s edition of the International Herald Tribune. As I reached the culture section, I noticed that the gentleman next to me was paying quite close attention to the paper. On the page was a substantially large article on the Danish ballet’s visit to New York. The gentleman piped up and asked me where the group was performing. I had to disappoint him by saying that they were not in London and that one would have to travel quite a distance to see them. He then started describing to me in detail why he liked ballet so much, and the conversation eventually turned to Soviet policy on culture and the arts. He told me that one of his regrets in life was being too young to go and see the Kirov ballet perform in Paris in the 1920s.

It is fascinating that even a short interaction with a stranger in this metropolis can make one feel so much richer in social and cultural terms!

Posted by: Gary Klaukka | March 15, 2009

En la ciudad de Sylvia (2007)

Seen at the British Film Institute on 15 March 2009
Directed by José Luis Guerín

In the City of Sylvia is an aesthetic experience. The film’s protagonist sets out to find a woman called Sylvia whom he had met years ago in Strasbourg. In practice this involves long, lingering shots of women sitting in cafés and bars. There is very little dialogue in the film, which only puts more emphasis on the film’s visual aspects.

We know very little about the protagonist. He draws sketches of people he sees and writes poetry. Perhaps the most important thing we know is that he was so captivated by Sylvia several years ago that he decided to travel again to Strasbourg in an attempt to find her. The film’s key scenes involve the protagonist following a woman he thinks is Sylvia around the streets of Strasbourg. Even though the protagonist seems like a harmless character, there is a subtle menacing element to the intensity with which he follows the woman. In a later scene she describes how she found this behaviour disturbing and that it is thoroughly unpleasant to be followed.

Guerín’s Strasbourg is one of female beauty. We are shown almost voyeuristic shots of women having conversations at a café without actually hearing what they are saying. While the protagonist is supposed to be searching for Sylvia, it seems that he is simply searching for any beautiful women.

Posted by: Gary Klaukka | March 9, 2009

Talking to people in the street

I engaged in an interesting sociological experiment yesterday. A friend of mine needed to conduct a survey for her academic course, and the way she decided to do this was by stopping people near Angel and ask them to fill out a short questionnaire. Now, I have to confess that whenever anyone with a clipboard tries to stop me in London, I start walking a bit faster and mumble something about being late for a meeting. I am absolutely confident that most clipboard people out there are doing these things for a good cause, but unfortunately if I stopped for everyone, I would never get anywhere. It was time for me to experience this from the perspective of the clipboard holder.

To sum up the experience: people are very difficult to stop. Most people seemed to be under the impression that I was selling something and hurried by and either did not say anything or mumbled something about being in a hurry (on a Sunday morning). The more creative reasons for not stopping included:

  • “I don’t have time. I’m burying my husband tomorrow.”
  • “Yap-yap-yap-yap-yap.” (It turned out the woman did not speak English)
  • “I’d love to but the pub’s just opened.” (Elderly gentlemen wearing suits. It was noon.)
  • “I can’t; I live in Croydon.”
  • “Only if you pay me for my time!”

Towards the end, things got a little better and I did manage to talk to about two dozen people. From a sociological perspective, it is a fascinating way to get to see a snapshot cross-cut of society, particularly when conducted in a city as diverse as London.

Posted by: Gary Klaukka | March 3, 2009

Springtime in London

Spring has finally sprung in London, and I thought I would quote Tennyson’s In Memoriam in honour of it. I’m aware of the fact that the piece has a distinct ring of the New Year in it, but I think that springtime definitely counts as a new beginning.

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Posted by: Gary Klaukka | March 2, 2009

Is it really your language?

In conversations, people have a tendency to claim ownership of their language: “In my language, there are articles / plenty of monosyllabic words / 500 words for snow.” What makes people identify so strongly with a language – so strongly that it seems to become a part of their core identity? Are some languages easier to relate to than others? What about bilingual or multilingual individuals?

At times I have called Finnish “my” language or “my native” language. Many Finns I know claim some sort of a special relationship with the language. I have heard people arguing that it is the only language in which they can truly express themselves, and that there is something unique and special about it. I am sceptical about these claims. I think that all languages are more or less unique, and that they do bear some sort of an imprint of the culture from which they emerge. However, I do not feel a special connection to the Finnish language. I am quite capable of expressing myself adequately in other languages as well.

The language I primarily use is English. I use it at work, at university and with the vast majority of my friends. I would estimate that I have approximately 10-15 conversations in Finnish every month, which does not amount to a lot. I have been known to make mistakes in Finnish (more than in English that is), and I feel considerably more comfortable talking about my life in Britain in English, as more than often it becomes very complicated to try to find the words to explain what I do in Finnish. As a result, I might argue that in my current life situation, English is “my” language. However, later on it might as easily be Finnish, Swedish or perhaps even German. My language varies. I am not monolingual; I am multilingual.

A particularly curious phenomenon in the English-speaking world is linguistic nativism. I have heard a number of Americans and British people saying that, in their opinion, everyone who moves to the US or the UK should speak “their” language. Unfortunately most of these people tend to have an extremely limited grasp of their (usually) only language. Might it not be reasonable to argue that these people do not have a language at all? I would argue that anyone unable to differentiate between “it’s” and “its” or “you’re” and “your” should avoid making critical comments about non-English speakers.

Posted by: Gary Klaukka | March 1, 2009

Le Corbusier at the Barbican

After having brunch in Islington today, I decided to see what the new Le Corbusier exhibition at the Barbican was all about. The exhibit is entitled the Art of Architecture and it draws connections between Le Corbusier’s architectural work and his other artistic productions. I found it fascinating to walk through the exhibit and see the evolution of Le Corbusier’s views, culminating in modernist, concrete skyscapers and utopian plans for a new centre of Paris (see below).

What struck me as interesting was the idea that one’s artistic output can be extremely varied. Some artists only choose to create paintings, for example, whereas Le Corbusier created drawings, paintings, sculptures and eventually buildings. This synthèse des arts could be said to be the pinnacle of artistic expression. Naturally people are skilled in different ways, so I would find it too restrictive to claim that the building is the ultimate form of art. However, with Le Corbusier, the building epitomised it all. The all-encompassing approach to designing buildings (down to the tapestries and symbols that appeared on them) is quite astonishing.

I have personally had qualms with the use of too much concrete in architecture, but the exhibit made quite a strong case for concrete. I don’t think that Le Corbusier could ever have achieved such plasticity in his buildings had he decided to use more traditional materials. At the risk of sounding clichéd: it’s not about concrete – it’s about what you do with it. Le Corbusier’s church in Saint Pierre de Firminy is a perfect example of concrete looking almost fluid (see below).

Even if you don’t really know who Le Corbusier is, I would highly recommend visiting the exhibit. Quite biographical in nature, it gives a broad view on the evolution of architecture in one man’s mind.

Le Corbusier's 1929 vision for the centre of Paris.

Le Corbusier's 1929 vision for the centre of Paris.

Le Corbusier's church in France

Le Corbusier's church in France

Le Corbusier – the Art of Architecture is on at the Barbican Centre from 19 February until 24 May 2009. £8 (£6 concessions).

Posted by: Gary Klaukka | February 25, 2009

Inspector Sands

A couple of years ago, when passing through Victoria station, I heard a recorded announcement calling for Inspector Sands. Although the announcement was clearly designed to be as inconspicuous as possible, it caught my attention because it didn’t quite make sense. I remember looking into this and discovering that it is in fact heard when a fire alarm is triggered at a station. According to some sources, most of these tend to be false alarms, so the announcement allows station staff to investigate whether there is a real fire before deciding whether evacuation is necessary.

From a sociological perspective I can imagine that there is quite a simple reason for using a coded announcement: avoiding mass panic. The underground is already a very crowded place, and having people lunging towards the exit all at the same time might create a dangerous situation. However, the Sands announcement is becoming more and more widely known, so one might argue that the code has lost its effectiveness.

Audio recording of the Inspector Sands announcement

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