I Am A Camera is about places, often cities, discussed or evoked through words and images, or other formats like architecture, music, games, exhibitions and so on. The title is lifted from a Christopher Isherwood line: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” It comprises essays, notes, and portraits in words, but often photography too.
It’s one of four publications I’ve set up at Medium. Dark Matter & Trojan Horses focuses on strategic design principles and practice; A Chair in a Room is about designing interactions, experiences, and things; and But What Was The Question? concerns technology and the city. With each of them, I migrating choice posts from almost 20 years of cityofsound.com over to Medium, as well as writing new pieces here. Here’s a selection to get you started.
I’m often writing about writing, when it comes to places, such as hearing a favourite writer, Jonathan Raban, talking about his work, or thinking about the much-maligned (unfairly) genre of travel writing. There’s a selection here, filed under Books, which includes comics, or graphic novels if you must, as well as prose, such as Jason Lutes’s Berlin: City of Stones, or a short piece called “The city doesn’t need a sky”, about the manga The Pushman and Other Stories, by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, in 1969. See also a note about the film Unbreakable and comics, and two classics: The Bloody Streets of Paris and 5 Is the Perfect Number.
This focus on constructing and inhabiting narrative worlds also extends to films and games. Videogames in particular provide fertile ground for world-building (pieces collected here.) Grand Theft Auto III and IV were huge influences when I started writing about this in the mid-2000s, leading to pieces such as Modelling Urban Behaviour Amidst Networked Ultraviolence and another, Video game flâneur, speculating as to which city would you resurrect and visit with Rockstar’s city-making-machinery. See also ‘Watch Dogs’ and world creation.
The key piece here was Los Angeles: Grand Theft Reality, which described how I ended discovering places in the ‘real’ Los Angeles having previously played them as ‘San Andreas’, in Grand Theft Auto IV, or gazed at them in Collateral, or the incredible Los Angeles Plays Itself.
But film and television also, such as Scorsese’s Gangs Of New York, which is an exercise in world-building as much as narrative, or ‘Bleak House’, adapting Dickens and conveying London’s fog of inequality. David Peace’s novel The Damned United also vividly evokes a place, albeit Brian Clough’s 44 days in charge of Leeds United in 1974. Or Ian Nairn’s particular understanding of London, in ‘Nairn’s London’, by Ian Nairn (1966).
Or about how music scenes in cities conjure a place, or how music can be made about places, or how photography and music conjure narrative and meaning.
In retrospect, what I realise is a particularly important series continually addresses complex public places and spaces. These comprise ‘A walk in Schöneberg, Berlin’ on citizen-led streets, ‘The pool as piazza’ on the cultural importance of the public pool in Australia,’Old and New Finnish Grammar’ on understanding a country through its language, ‘Bullitt’, ‘Drive’ and walking the LA River, ‘Linked Hybrid by Steven Holl Architects, and designing for the occupation of space in contemporary Beijing’ on the promise and limits of conventional architecture in an unconventional place, and ‘Punching holes in Ciutat Vella’, about the city’s adaptive form.
There’s a couplet on two key Japanese houses, described “The quiet accumulation of urban elements rooted in daily life”: House NA, by Sou Fujimoto and Moriyama House, by Ryue Nishizawa. See also some brief photo-essays, an Evening walk in Shimbashi and Nihonbashi nighttime crew. Those Fujimoto and Nishizawa houses are quite the opposite of the wonderful self-built Segal system, at Walters Way in south London, yet the latter are equally interesting.
My time in the north often leads to a focus on buildings from these latitudes, such as Rovaniemi Library, Alvar Aalto, a building from 1966, visited in 2011, or discussing Aalto’s Finlandia, speculating as to whether he’d played a very smart trick on us all—or just got lucky. On a similarly Baltic/Nordic theme, see also the epic Linnahall, Tallinn, in 2011 or a visit to a more recent beguiling slab, Oslo Opera House. Or Moscow, the Narkomfin Building and the Melnikov House, from 2014, before it was renovated. Or the Brunswick Centre in London, after it was renovated. Or OMA/Cecil Balmond’s Serpentine Pavilion in 2006. Or Villa Müller, Prague, built in 1930 and visited in 2018.
For photo-essays from a warmer clime, see a slew of shots from Milano Centrale, or a catalogue of Queenslanders, the distinct vernacular housing architecture of Brisbane, or one of the first Joost Greenhouses in Melbourne 2009, or Robin Boyd’s wonderful Lyons House in Sydney. And all these pieces on architecture can be put in their place with a brief glance at More than “a mere building”: Sanford Kwinter on Pompidou/Beaubourg.
For pieces that cross over with Dark Matter and Trojan Horses themes, note one of the reviews of Ravintolapäivä (‘Restaurant Day’) in Helsinki, describing its edible urbanism and civic opportunism. Those observations triggered a key project, Open Kitchen, just as another of the key projects in my career was set up by publishing this earlier piece, on the State Library of Queensland, and libraries in general.
I’m gearing up for a piece on Australia’s bushfires, although it never seems an appropriate time to write the piece I feel like writing. It’s not that it’s ‘too soon’, as this will never end. Looking back, here’s a few from when I lived in Australia, writing portents of what was to come, and what is yet to come. Such as, how Australian cities were sprawling themselves into bushfire territory, and by analogy, a self-destructive pattern built into urban planning and exploited by fire, just as the Allied forces exploited the same in Dresden and Tokyo in World War II. It seems a ham-fisted and rather extreme analogy, yet the fires mean we are now, once again, in a world of such extremes.
The extreme air pollution and floods across eastern Australia also reminded me of being in the incredible dust storm that hit Sydney in 2008, as well as being in the once-in-a-century (no longer) flood in Brisbane in 2011, or just pondering the sheer heat of Australian cities like Sydney — and this ten years before it got the heat they are feeling now.
A different kind of threat hits different kinds of cities. Sheffield: architecture and morality, ruins and austerity, was written, and shot, on a brief ‘break-in’ to Park Hill under renovation, in 2011, and builds on an earlier piece, Sheffield and The North. I would end up working on the city centre strategy in Sheffield in 2017–18. These pieces are particularly poignant when I look back at them.
However, some pieces here are simply more enjoyable, wandering around places, reading about them, photographing them, thinking about them, and then writing about them. These include pieces on killing time in Darlinghurst, Sydney, the sound of snow clearing in Helsinki, understanding Helsinki in general, thinking about London through the prism of my son’s birth, walking around Geneva, enjoying communal food and life in Turin’s Festa, listening to the rain in Queensland night, watching people watching a ‘jumper’ at St. Giles, traversing Sydney’s anti-terrorist fence, wandering around Seattle, understanding Brisbane via its ghost tramlines, the Australian house or its flora and fauna, JG Ballard, Silent Running and the University of Queensland campus.
So here’s an initial selection from I am a camera. You can expect another newsletter in about a decade, or perhaps a far shorter newsletter once I have a few more pieces to share.
“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”
Dan Hill, Stockholm.
Selected links in this newsletter
- ‘Bullitt’, ‘Drive’ and walking the LA River
- Ravintolapäivä, edible urbanism and civic opportunism
- The pool as piazza
- Finlandia: the greatest architectural mistake ever made? Aalto’s benign errors
- A walk in Schöneberg, Berlin
- Old and New Finnish Grammar
- Happy Feelings at the Awakening of Finnish Spring, Summer and Autumn; Helsinki, Spirit Level Cities, Scarry Cities and Opaque Cities
- Linked Hybrid by Steven Holl Architects, and designing for the occupation of space in contemporary Beijing
- Los Angeles: Grand Theft Reality
- State Library of Queensland, Brisbane, Donovan Hill / Peddle Thorpe
- Life on Mars #duststorm
- The city as destructive system: Wildfires, Dresden and the case against urban sprawl
- Sheffield and The North
- The city is conceived of radial opposites
- In Every Dream Home A Heartache: The Great Australian Dream and its architecture
- Suspended at a junction in time: Australia, Silent Running, The Drowned World and the University of Queensland
- A birth in 13 places
- Punching holes in Ciutat Vella; adaptive urban form in Barcelona
- Moscow, the Narkomfin Building and the Melnikov House
- Tales of two cities imagined in music: ‘Metropolis Shanghai’ and ‘Chavez Ravine’
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