Identity

Submitted for the London Festival of Architecture 2018

'If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.

Teresa May - the Conservative party conference October 2016

Globalisation is the process of creating an intensely interconnected world compressing our sense of time and space making the world feel smaller and distances shorter.(1) The city of London- like all major cities- attracts citizens from across the globe with its history of trade, culture and opportunity. Individual identity is often sacrificed for the identity of the city. Multi-layered as a matryoshka doll; identity becomes situational and stripped back to suit environment and present company. Like the flâneur in the arcades of 19th century Paris we inhabit the streets free from identity, free from a name and a history. As Herman Melville put it 'there are two places in the world where a men can most effectively disappear- the city of London and the south seas.' (2)

In the eighteenth century the English language became and still remains the global lingua franca- the language of everywhere and no-where.(3) We explored, colonised and exploited the globe, overlaying our identity upon foreign cultures, collecting the best bits to fill our museums, inspire our architecture and cultivate in our gardens. We claimed the world as our own, naming it in honoraria of the men who discovered it, immortalising them and the Empire. Our identity transcended place.

Colonial eclecticism produced the 'English Style' in landscape design- a greatest hits of global flora repackaged and exported to the world anew. Exotic imports provided variety and an antidote to the picturesque movement, the romantic and naturalistic style typified by Capability Brown. The new English Style was the world in miniature, a cosmopolitan garden of everywhere and nowhere. Identity - within garden or city- became both an utter illusion and a material reality. Something we treat as both nature and artifice. (4)

Introduced in 1758, the London Plane is now ubiquitous within the city's streets as the route master bus, black cab or red brick. Mass planting took place to mitigate the environmental effects of the industrial revolution. It survived tough conditions and became the tree of London- connecting streets, squares, parks and gardens irrespective of borough or post code. Identified by a patina of camouflage bark and Christmas bauble seed pods distributing pollen and allergic reactions to mark the height of summer.

The London Plane is a domesticated tree, a non-native of unknown origin and the chance hybrid of two introduced species; Platanus orientalis of Asia Minor and Platanus occidentalis from the America.(5) It's parents would never have met in the wild and is born of a truly cosmopolitan romance- a botanical orphan, a cultivar of the city and its streets. The London Plane may be far from it's origins but like so many citizens, is rooted in the city and has been adopted in name and claimed by London as its own. A symbol of nature and artifice, of London's dynamic identity over time. A citizen of nowhere and everywhere.

180212_LFA_Identity-plaintree.jpg


Platanus acerifolia also know as London Plane

Illustrations by S.R Badmin from Trees for Town and Country- Brenda Colvin

 
  1. Think like an Anthropologist- Matthew Engelle. Pelican Books 2017. p185 Inda and Rosaldo, 2002, p4

  2. The Piazza Tales and other prose pieces 1839-1860 - Herman Melville. Northwestern University Press 1987, p418

  3. Think like an Anthropologist- Matthew Engelle. Pelican Books 2017. p201

  4. ibid, p196

  5. Trees for Town and Country- Brenda Colvin, The Association for Planning and Regional Reconstruction, 1965, p45