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Edward Denison: ‘Under lockdown people appeared to have a newfound interest in architecture’

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Using year-on-year photographs and pollution data, the Bartlett’s Dr Edward Denison explores the one silver lining to this pandemic: cleaner air

Producing the AJ involves a continuous schedule of commissioning photographers in order to bring the architects’ drawings and models and the text of the building studies vividly to life on the pages of the magazine.

Covid-19 has put a freeze on the regular rhythm of things, but we are still keen to feature the work of photographers and explore the function of photography in this time – from regular contributors to newcomers documenting the different facets of the built envornment during coronavirus.

Behind the lens today is the Bartlett’s Dr Edward Denison, who embarked on photographing London in lockdown but has supplemented each of the resulting images with pollution data from the time and place of the image, compared against equivalent data from the previous year.

Beyond the pessimistic scenes of absence was the presence of something more optimistic

The results report the unseen impact of lockdown in the air around us. Air pollution has plunged with an average reduction of 72% in Nitric Oxide (NO) recorded, -58% Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), -63% in Oxides of Nitrogen (NOX) and a 22% decrease in PM10 particulates (a common air pollutant made of very small particles found in dust and smoke).

Denison’s project argues that these ‘images of deserted London represent a crisis in a crisis – a relatively short term event of a pandemic in a much graver, longer and more significant crisis of the anthropocene.

It is telling that April this year, and indeed the whole of spring, were the sunniest in London since records began in 1929.’

Take, for example, his photo of the Thames from the Millenium Bridge; ‘the absence of river traffic and unseasonably warm and still weather transformed the usually choppy river into a mirror lake reflecting a sky silenced by the absence of air traffic.’ Have you ever seen the river look so tranquil?

How has coronavirus lockdown affected your work?

I set out to photograph London in lockdown as a way of responding to my current research on the anthropocene, which I am also pursuing with colleagues at The Bartlett as part of The Bartlett Declares initiative. One image a day for 14 days, accompanied by the weather and pollution data for the time the photograph was taken and for that exact time and place a year ago. The data is compelling.

With over 10,000 images to go through, it’ll take some time to process, but it’s a long term project. I have posted a small collection on the MAHUE instagram account [featured in image gallery]; human-made environments bereft of humans reveal absence, rendering the familiar unfamiliar, redefining urban experiences, and reframing our perceptions of the city with its empty streets, silent skies, still rivers, and shuttered doorways.

What lessons are there to learn from Covid-19?

These photographs are a record of historic urban environments at a historic moment in time. But more than documenting this current crisis, they are intended as evidence of a crisis in a crisis. In light of the planetary ecological crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic is a prescient reminder of our species’ impact on the earth and the change that is required – and possible – to avert future catastrophes.

Crisis in a Crisis by Dr Edward Denison

It started with racism. In January, as our Asian students began to be abused in public for wearing face masks, whispers reverberated around the school that the Bartlett’s Lunar New Year Party should be cancelled over the fear that, by some curious cultural association, it would propagate the virus.

By February, while the US President spoke incoherently about the ’Chinese Virus’ and the French media warned of a Yellow Alert (Alerte Jaune), racial abuse of Asian students intensified, with one Singaporean UCL student being brutally beaten in broad daylight on Oxford Street.

By March, while the need to lockdown was palpably obvious, the British Prime Minister continued to shake hands and the nation’s business and academic communities buried their heads in the sand. The awful price of procrastination is now visible in the dispassionate data behind the roll call of dead. 20,000 lives, we are told, could have been saved if lockdown had happened one week earlier.

By April, with the tardy lockdown in full swing, deserted streetscapes in the nation’s towns and cities became the unlikely subjects of doomsday imagery proliferating on social media. But beyond the pessimistic scenes of absence was the presence of something more optimistic. This novel version of the city seemed to possess an unfamiliar allure. People were using their daily exercise to explore this new urban landscape and, whisper it quietly, actually appeared to have a newfound interest in architecture and found delight in the city.

As lockdown endured through what turned out to be London’s sunniest April since records began in 1929, it became apparent that our cities were not merely more bearable, they were also cleaner. For a century, the car has dominated and devastated our cities, but this pandemic has offered us a rare and fleeting glimpse of life beyond this fatal attraction. An estimated 10 million less barrels of fuel per day have been burned on the world’s streets by traffic during the pandemic and the science proves it. Air pollution has plunged. So too have carcinogenic and virus-carrying particulates. So too have CO2 emissions. And none of this even touches on the associated benefits to space, play, noise, and safety.

But the car is just an example – one of many that Covid-19 has exposed to reveal profound inequalities and injustices that we tolerate in our cities and in society at large. It has reminded us of our dysfunctional relationship with nature and our place in and reliance on the natural world as the ultimate life support system. But if there is one silver-lining to this pandemic, it is the dispassionate way it has laid bare outmoded, inequitable and dysfunctional structures of power. Whether it is political dogma, racism, colonial legacies, unequal allocation of urban space, resource extraction, pollution or climate change, the virus has exposed the redundancy of the status quo and awakened calls for urgent, radical and positive change on a planetary scale. The stakes could not be higher. Our collective actions now will determine whether we return to business as usual and fail or give our planet a fighting chance by championing change.

Denison is associate professor of Architectural History and Theory and director of the MA Architecture and Historic Urban Environments (MAHUE) course at the Bartlett. His research is motivated by the notion of ‘otherness’, exploring non-canonical architectural histories and presenting new ways of seeing established subjects.

This work forms part of wider research conversations with colleagues at the Bartlett School of Architecture’s Ethical Architecture/Built Environment Research Network, which was established in 2019 in response to student demands for an architecture education aligned with the climate and ecological crises, and radical institutional and cultural change.

You can follow this project and the work of the MA Architecture and Historic Urban Environments (MAHUE) on their instagram.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • there are big differences between a reduction in flights and the associated haze in our skys, and a reduction in harmful street level dust (PM10) we have actually seen increases in a lto of the damaging pollution, and a lot more peopel walking right next to it. We need to be better at talkign abotu this as an industry and get away from generic terms

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