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Reintroduce bears to England: Avery Associates' Fragments of Wilderness City

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[THIS WEEK] Avery Associates’ new book is a welcome relfection on wild city spaces, writes James Pallister

As the days tick by to 27 July, and images of the Olympic Park looking ever-pristine continue to slip into our collective consciousness, it’s interesting to remember that one of the processes of the Olympic Endeavour was the wholesale cleaning of a large, contaminated brownfield site. Now the soil hospitals have gone and the pylons have been dismantled, their cables buried away and the muddy puddles replaced with new turf – its fresh, rectilinear sculpting perhaps just as unheimlich as the industrial verdure it supplanted – it’s interesting to re-read some of the literature from before the great clean-up.

In architect William Mann’s (of WWMA) 2005 essay, written pre-Olympic bid success, he borrowed Victor Hugo’s phrase ‘Bastard Countryside’ to describe the area adjacent to what is now the Olympic Park, as classic edge condition, colonised by both industry and nature. ‘To observe the city edge’, wrote Hugo, ‘is to observe an amphibian… somewhat ugly but bizarre, made up of two different natures’. There’s still plenty of this landscape around the Olympic Park, as there is outside many northern European cities.

The interplay between city and countryside is rich pickings for writers, architects and artists alike, particularly when they delve deeper than what is offered by this simple dichotomy. In Bryan Avery’s book of the same name, alongside pieces by Edwin Heathcote, Richard Weston, John Worthington, Matthew Teague and Joseph Rykwert, there’s a rather poetically-titled essay ‘Fragments of Wilderness City’, in which Avery argues for a new type of urban arrangement in which towns – ‘the real problem’ – are reconceived to contain the fragments of wilderness that humans seem to need.

Aside from the other chapters on civic space, workplace and climate, Avery’s sharp romp though the problems of the UK countryside, where the net worth of farming has sunk to half that of the ready-made sandwich industry, is worth the cover price. In his prognosis, the countryside should be dangerous, smelly and prone to quagmire: a road network should be separated into fast, limited access expressways and smaller, potholed types would require the skill formerly required of driving. And perhaps bears and wolves should be reintroduced to lowland England. As Avery says, ‘that would spice things up a little’.

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