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Urban villages or big city fantasies?

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The concept of the 'urban village', ubiquitous in discussions about urban design in London over the last 15 years, was given a slightly unfamiliar slant by Julian Stallabrass in his discussion of the 'urban pastoral' at the Photographers' Gallery last weekend.

Stallabrass draws the attention to the concern of many Young British Artists ('ybas') with a continuation of the pastoral tradition in nineteenth- century painting. He defines this as the depiction of 'simple pleasures for sophisticated viewers', or, the production of 'high forms of art containing low subject matter' - a packaging of fantasies about the 'innocent' and unfettered enjoyment of socially unregulated sex, alcohol and food in idyllic rural surroundings for urban viewers constrained by social status.

In the hands of the ybas and their cohorts, this tradition has been translated into a documentation of urban landscapes where the bucolic acquires a more disturbing aura of gritty social realism. Stallabrass cites the work of artists such as Keith Coventry, Rut Blees Luxemburg, Sophy Ricketts, or Gillian Wearing, which presents bleak scenes of city streets and post- war housing estates, where vandalism, crime, and alcohol and drug abuse are much in evidence.

Yet Stallabrass suggests there remains a certain Romantic motivation behind these images: the romance of a city, London, where 'bohemian types' can roam the streets in relative safety in pursuit of their artistic interests; the perverse pleasure experienced by gallery-goers on viewing images which confirm their own privileged identity through stark contrast; and, finally, a sort of existential romance surrounding the whole Modernist movement with which, in a curious way, these images enable middle-class viewers to engage.

Ironically, Modernist city-planning itself was predicated on a Romantic ideal of the pastoral, translated into urban terms. The ville radieuse model which inspired the redevelopment of the East End, for example, was intended to establish a network of self-contained communities served by their own shops, communal facilities, and open spaces. This fascination with the idea of a city of villages was simply transformed into an alternative language in the 1980s and 1990s.

The particular interest of British artists in a pastoral depiction of urban landscapes seems to parallel that of British architects and planners in the urban village model and, more recently, in exploring a 'faux rural' vernacular aesthetic in various forms. Yet the romanticism of village life is essentially a myth, now as much as in previous eras, and draws a veil over widespread poverty, lack of opportunity, and a corresponding dependence on destructive pleasures. As Stallabrass points out, there is virtually no 'positive cultural investment' in the countryside. His observations underline the importance of judging the city on its own merits.

Near and Elsewhere, an exhibition of landscape photography, runs at the Photographers' Gallery until 24 July.

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