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Ongoing observations

At around 6 am each morning the city workers can be seen in their multitudes coming out of the condensation-streaked glass cube of Blackfriars station, hurrying towards the monumental overground burrow of the city.

In spite of its solid appearance the city is surprisingly fluid in its structural assembly: with its many-times over reconfigured passages, staircases that lead into brick walls, doors and entrances that get perpetually blocked and reopened elsewhere, are all extremely well camouflaged. These ever renewable obstacles, this difficult terrain represent a giant monolithic puzzle, an uncertain (x) which the City workers have to solve each morning in order to get to their place of work.

Some buildings are like barricaded castles which can only be reached by directly scaling the walls and then, from the top of the building, may be entered through small openings in the roof or through ragged shards in the glass of its scarce upper floor windows, on the frames of which there are often balanced in hazardous fashion rotten wooden planks connecting the top floors of the adjacent office blocks. From the ground they look like spiders webs, thrown together by the builders in an off-hand, playfully sadistic gesture inasmuch as they usually lead up to even more perilous entry points.

Often the most obvious or easily detected entrances into the buildings are horrific traps set up by the builders as a joke or as a show of an ever-growing power, control and manipulation over the lives of the office workers.

But the workers do not lag behind the builders’ inspired constructions and compete favourably by showing considerable ingenuity and skill in resolving the obstacles, becoming more adept in their strategies to penetrate the ever renewing configuration of borders surrounding their workplaces. With great skill, the workers run quick and efficient tests on the surfaces of the newly erected borders, probing into the plaster with their homemade kits and specially-adapted tools for measuring the solidity of structures, for the detection of hollow areas or for discovering cracks which betray obscured entry points. Yesterday, I saw an old woman dressed in a neat gray suit with a surgical scalpel in her hand and a magnifying glass screwed to a metal head band carefully examining a newly plastered partition, checking every inch of it along the skirting-board. Soon she found a narrow seam in the board unsecured against a sizable hole through which the lady slipped with considerable agility. It occurred to me that, perhaps unwittingly, the city workers were undergoing some sort of training, the purpose of which was unknown to me but which displayed the characteristics and precision required for a military siege.

Another governing body - the city council - which is supposed to lead and manage the city building project, is in constant competition with its subordinates who undermine the power of the council over the elusive topography of the city. Having lost the battle to re-establish its former authority over the city and moreover, the total failure by council representatives to even enter these territories has resulted in the council being completely pushed out of the city centre and into its peripheries. The council’s attempts to gain control and establish leadership has become evident in a series of constructions on the immediate borders of the city. The most recent undertaking, which shows another attempt at reconciliation, (but which no doubt is seen as a begrudging offer of partnership,) is the construction of pathways connecting the outer areas to the main entrances of that ‘juddery, hollowed-out and patchy mound of concrete’* that comprises the city.

Appearing like a gross planning afterthought or incompetence on behalf of the council in an attempt to synchronise with the city’s architectural fluctuations, the newly constructed pathways are at best 3 days behind the work of the builders in blocking the entryways so that, by the time the work is completed according to the initial plan, the pavements inevitably become redundant. When the concrete fully sets over the pathways it gets smashed up to form the base for new pathways, which in turn become rubble, and so on.

But these failures and impotent gestures of the council have their own small hallmarks of triumph over the city. In spite of the fact that no one ever uses the pavements any longer, (as they fail on the basic principle that pathways are supposed to lead somewhere,) they are nevertheless often spoken of with a certain reverence, referred to as ‘the quicksand’. It is exactly this failure to lead ‘somewhere’ that they succeed in a completely new and different way, becoming autonomous passages, a sort of initiation rite. When unsuspecting new recruits of the city get trapped knee-high in the quickly setting concrete, they spend the night there at the mercy of the drunken gangs of receptionists that scout the city for their meals among the irregularly-shaped excavations.

* P. 219, Jim Broadband ‘ City plus’ (‘Garbage Press’, 2012)

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