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Dead things.

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Valencia fell to the Nationalists in the last days of the war. Advancing from the north and west, the various armies of the fascists pushed through a beaten Republican force. Passing through the ancient city of Saguntum on the 29th of March, on the 30th troops entered Valencia. The British navy stood back as the Nationalists rounded up somewhere between 10 000 and 30 000 soldiers and civilians from the Alicante ports. By the end of the next day the war was over, and the decades of dictatorship had begun.

In 2006 Antony Beevor updated his estimates of the calamity of the time : 38 000 killed by the Red terror, 200 000 in Franco’s response. Estimates for the province of Valencia were around 3000 on each side.

You would learn none of this by visiting Valencia today – there are no memorials to the fallen, no understated monuments to a divisive conflict. But that’s not to say that Valencia isn’t a city at easy with death, that the Valencians don’t understand the inevitable. (Beyond the traditional Municipal Bulldeathring.)

Ghosting its way through the centre of the city is what used to be the river Turia. After a particularly unpleasant flood in the 50s it was exterminated. Banished from the city. It lives now only in the memories of the populace (also in some fields about 10 km south of town). It takes a special kind of “popular will” to remove the river from the middle of a city. A different kind of decision making process to replace it with giant corpses.

But this is what the good Burgueses of Valencia chose to do.

For example, this.

The Valencians claim it is a representation of a Lilli-prisoned Gulliver. A genuinely fascinating assertion given the (in) action of the British navy half a century earlier. It is, alas, unmistakeably, a dead swordsman. Possibly executed. Resolutely ex.

An oversize corpse for children to play inside.

Not a dead body.

Further down the ex-river is a more contemporary satire. A home-grown version. The Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias was to be Valencia’s beating cultural heart. Oddly, a heart is one of the few things the Cuidad doesn’t manage to contain an architectural representation of. They did manage an extracted eye. Two, in fact : one open, one closed. There are also some ribs and an assortment of what might be blood cells.

It is up to the reader to decide which body part this best describes.


The science museum is designed to look like a rotting whale carcass.


One thing they all are – apart from a grotesque representation of a society consuming itself – is empty. A ghost town, hidden inside a skeleton at the bottom of a dead river. The Turia has been dry since the 60s, but the city of arts and sciences is a product of the last decade. The more optimistic half of the last decade.

The Victorians (and also Albert Speer) were inclined to judge past civilisations on the quality of the ruins that they left. Think pyramids, think Haverhill. As such, both the Victorians and the Nazis wanted their buildings to not only look good for the living, but also for the not-yet-living. Famously John Soane went as far as to commission an image of his new Bank of England a millennium hence.

What to make of a city that built its ruins only ten years ago ?


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July 19, 2013 at 20:23

Memoried and real.

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Memorial (with cup of tea).

The last British-based member of the International Brigades died a
couple of days before Christmas

A big class of jolly Spanish children just sprinted past this on their way to the big wheel.

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December 27, 2012 at 15:57

The mouth of the river Effra.

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Engineering and science.

Alfred Drury’s bronzes on the downstream side of Vauxhall Bridge recognise the great pillars of the national culture : science (seen here), fine art, education and, er, local government.

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August 11, 2012 at 20:11

Posted in Science, Sculpture, Sunburn


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London is awash with the relics of Empire. Great statues and monuments commemorating great men and greater victories. But it is not always the British Empire. There is the occasional Roman Wall. And then a couple of minor road signs and a plaque, which are all that remain of the London outpost of the Hanseatic League.

The League was an empire of trade which ran northern European commerce, and so much of northern Europe itself, for more than a century. Its offices stretched from Kievan Rus and Riga in the east to London in the west, with a sphere of influence that took in Greenland and Colchester.

The westernmost point of empire.

The English tend to know little of their history (relative to other occupants of these islands), and that which they do know is often somewhat heroic. Tales of kings and queens and splendid isolation. Something about being on an island, perhaps. Possibly something to do with Shakespeare: Richard this, Henry that. But also something to do with the compromises required if a “national” history is to be taught. Among the under-reported events is the Anglo-Hanseatic war of 1470-4, where the Hanse dealt such a spanking to the English navy that Edward IV was forced to Utrecht to sign a treaty which locked England out of trade in the North and Baltic seas and, essentially, ceded a chunk of prime territory in the centre of London to a foreign power. (The treaty also granted the Hanse the right to build a warehouse in King’s Lynn. It’s still there today, though now resolutely the property of Norfolk County Council). Utrecht firmed up the arrangements in London where a Kontor in one form or other had existed for centuries.


The Stalhof, on the bank of the Thames just west of London Bridge, controlled amongst other things the export of English cloth to much of Europe. It had its own currency, with merchants seconded from the major centres in Lübeck and Hamburg. But not many windows that faced outwards. “Rich German merchants” were targeted by Wat Tyler’s rebellion, and their presence was no more welcomed by the good Städtern of mediæval London.

Not cannon street.

The land under the steelyard was bought by the city in 1853 and turned into Cannon Street station, the site of the aforementioned plaque, and, aptly, right next to what is (I think) the last working wharf on the square mile. By then the great League was no more than a rump, subverted by rise of the Swedes and the Dutch and ultimately sunk by Bismarck. It was finally written out of history in 1862, but the memory persists (if only as a politicised ideal).

It is a bit of a shame that none of the Hanse architecture survives in London to rival the gables and conical spires that decorate Lübeck and Hamburg. But there is some historical resonance in a great trading empire parked in the square mile (even if the English once went to war against the free trade it offered) and it played its part in establishing modern London as the entrepôt that it remains today, if more for people than for goods and grain.

A working river.

There are loads of great histories of the Hanseatic League and its role in European history, though they are mostly in German – it isn’t a subject much covered in the English language. A friendly intro was written in 1891 by Helen Zimmern.

Written by alexconnor

June 6, 2012 at 01:41

The hyperbolic hotel.

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The primary television transmitter for northern parts of the Czech Republic was completed in 1968. It serves the city of Liberec, along with much of Bohemia, southern Germany and south west Poland. Uniquely for a mountain-top transmission tower, it is also a hotel. A hotel from another time.

Egg chairs.

Hotel Ještěd sits a kilometre above sea level, on the top of the highest peak of Ještěd-Kozákov Ridge. It is not, as you might imagine, built in the traditions of a medieval, turreted Bohemian castle. Ještěd is the height of middle-European 1960s luxury.

It is reachable by treacherous mountain road, a hike through an ancient forest, or, and this is preferable, its own dedicated cable car.


It stands proud, king of the mountain, and also of its own ski resort. Thirty metres across at its base, the tower rises as a circular hyperboloid.

It should feel like a lighthouse; it feels like a space station.


Unlike other mathematically-themed hotels, Ještěd isn’t very big. It has 12 proper rooms, with a further half-dozen ski-chalet bunks. The restaurant has nine tables. But mathematics can only take you so far. Ještěd is a triumph of design over all things. Built as a new summit to the mountain, the tower defeated nature long ago.

The interior is inch perfect, besting time and progress. From the egg chairs in the hallways to the banana splits in the restaurant, Ještěd lives and breathes 60s glamour. (Though I can’t imagine that the Liberec of 1973 was any more the Monaco of central Europe than it is today — the Manchester of Bohemia, the guidebook says.) There are drawbacks to perfection. The shape means that as the weather warms, chunks of ice fall from the top of the tower and clatter down the outside of the structure. The sound echoing through the minimalist rooms. The staff are, understandably, a little surly, shut away at the top of a mountain. Aside from the restaurant and some Czech TV, there isn’t much to do, at least for English speakers; this is very much a German beach. But, hyperbole to one side, what a beach.


Written by alexconnor

January 3, 2012 at 22:56

Things to do in Dublin when you’re done with meetings.

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Had a bit of ‘downtime’ in Dublin this morning, so had a quick wander round the Human+ exhibition on “augmented abilities and authored evolution” hidden at the back of Trinity College.

(Conditions not the best for phone photography.)

Conversational robots!
Talking robots!
Very polite, quite funny. Need to work on their timing. Video here.

Steampunk tamagotchi.
Steampunk tamagotchi
Now with new living microorganism.

Stelarc had a Bluetooth cell-cultivated ear implanted in his arm.
Extra ear
(It didn’t last long.)

The Euthanasia Roller Coaster (n.b. needs a friendlier, ‘carrousel’-like name), kills participants with prolonged exposure to extreme g-forces.

“Die with elegance and euphoria”.  Also screaming.

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June 15, 2011 at 19:53

The Workers.

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I used to live round the corner from this.


While what it is trying to convey might be obvious, that doesn’t make it any less an interesting thing to find stuck next to a busy shopping street in Harlesden.  

The rust and broken flag only add to the point.


The sculptor’s site says that it was meant for somewhere else.  I don’t think it would have nearly the same effect hidden away in the corner of an adventure playground.

Written by alexconnor

March 27, 2011 at 16:59

Posted in Sculpture

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