Sunday, 16 October 2011

Elephant



I went to Elephant and Castle yesterday to see some friends and on the way I did a bit of documenting the shopping centre and surrounding area before it's all demolished next year. I thought I'd post them on here...






























Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Blackpool




I’ve wanted to visit Blackpool for about a year but had struggled to find anyone willing to come with me and, not being a lone wolf kind of guy, it wasn’t until my big brother agreed to go that I was finally able to see Fabulous Las Blackpool. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why I wanted to go, it stems from the notion of wanting to visit somewhere completely off the “alternative” radar, unlike Brighton or Brick Lane. I mean how cool do you sound if a friend rings you and you can say; “yeah, sorry I can’t, I’m in… Blackpool??”

My head was filled with romantic images of a desolate seaside town complete with fading ballrooms, peeling shop fronts and empty amusement arcades, all swathing in the smell of stale batter. In a perpetual cloud of drizzly gloom, a relic of the great British Summer, dissolving into the Irish Sea. Unfortunately my visions were severely hampered, as they so often are, by a lack or proper research. It turns out millions still visit Blackpool and, according to an unreliable source, has more hotel beds than the whole of Portugal. So with the combination of it being the hottest October on record, a big football match taking place and the illuminations kicking off, it was actually rather hard to find somewhere to stay.


We eventually managed to check into the Fairway Lodge, a typical Blackpool hotel nestled in the warren of B&Bs that run behind the promenade and only a saveloy’s throw from the tower. The hotel has a bit of Tardis thing going on, from the outside it only looks like a double fronted end of terrace, but inside there are staircases flying in every direction with bars and breakfast rooms and small corridors winding their way to even more suites. After dropping our bags off in our room somewhere deep in the bowels of the hotel, we headed down to the esplanade.


Walking down the high street we were flanked by platoons of uniformed stag nighters and hen partiers. The centre of the town was overrun with arguing families packed into cafes whilst rude staff shovelled cold tea and musty battered cod at them. However, it wasn’t until sunset that the magic truly began to happen. The illuminations, billed as the “Greatest Free Light Show on Earth”, manages to hit an offbeat lameness that I don’t think I’ve ever seen anywhere else. Despite being tacky, at least things like the Bellagio fountains or the Hong Kong laser show are technically challenging to compose. The illuminations are just millions of 70s Christmas decorations taped together. They’re not really a spectacle at all but a thinly veiled excuse so people can justify a trip to Blackpool to get pissed.



Not feeling 100% and with the seaside air not really helping I spent most of the evening being mesmerised by those 2p sliding arcade machines inside an amusement arcade perched on the end of a pier. The next morning I was well enough to partake in the ritual of the full English breakfast, flung at us across the dining room. Walking around the town on a damp Sunday morning I was able to grab a glimpse of the idealised Blackpool I had formed in my head. In retrospect, I think the future for the town is promising. Despite falling visitor numbers, it has an eccentricity that won’t fade and a hidden quirkiness that more and more people will start to notice, so in about 10 years Blackpool will also be too mainstream to be seen in, so it’s off to Skegness next!


Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Travel Maps


Now that I'm back I've had time to properly photograph some of my map booklets. There were 7 in total and were an invaluable, if expensive resource for the road trip.












Saturday, 17 September 2011

LA


There is no other choice but to submit to the all-out total metropolis of Los Angeles. It’s not surprising that countless artists, photographers and directors have treated LA not as a typical city but as a secondary artificial landscape. The folded up, spray-can-paint splattered concrete canvas of the urban terrain is a fertile playground of opportunity for people to investigate and exploit. The stretches of empty grey sidewalks and gridlocked 9-lane freeways are a test bed for architectural and artistic experiments; there seems to be free reign and an endless supply of blank wall or vacant lots to be used as proving grounds for any manner of creative undertaking.





The highlights and lowlights of this experimentation include the well-documented Case Study House program. Most are off limits to the public but fortunately the most successful one, #8 by Charles and Ray Eames, is easily accessible through appointment. The anomaly known as the Watts Towers which seem to twist up and tear through the concrete bedrock of the city are pretty much the only site worth visiting in most of South Central LA. Visiting the Bradbury Building and Ennis House shows how well Ridley Scott can use a bit of smoke and mirrors to create the post apocalyptic feel of Bladerunner

Past all the repetitive and over-used pop street art of East Los Angeles and up in the hills not too far from the Hollywood Sign is the sprawling Getty Centre, designed by Richard Meier. Whilst being efficient at holding and displaying its collection of 19th Century art, its white sterile design feels more like an industrial scale euthanasia clinic, very calming. Over in Downtown, The Caltrans HQ designed by Morphosis wins the “Worst Building of the Road Trip” award. The oversized street number doesn’t redeem the hideousness of its oppressive cliff like steel walls that bear down on pedestrians and makes Gehry’s Disney concert hall almost bearable.




Other urban peculiarities that inevitably occur in a city of 18 million people include the LA River, made famous by the race scene in Grease as well as many other movies, this wide concrete channel tears through the city and creates a very dystopic post industrial landscape. There is an abandoned zoo up in the hills with animal cages and habitats still intact that satisfied my hunger for derelict attractions. The refurbished Queen Mary sits uncomfortably between the oil refineries of Long Beach, the reason exactly why it’s here or why anyone would want to stay inside eludes me. Floating above the Staples Centre is the iconic Goodyear blimp filled with low-pressure helium so that it doesn’t deflate despite being shot at 50 times a day.

4 days is nowhere near enough time to do this mammoth city justice but our plane is waiting. So after 8652 miles, 21 States and about 45 cities, I’m sitting in the departure lounge of LAX writing this epilogue. I can’t say I’m particularly keen to leave the USA and its infectious opportunistic, ambitious mindset, its amiable people and the free Diet Coke refills, but I can’t imagine it’ll be very long before I’m back.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

California


Following our midnight drive through Death Valley, we awoke in the town of Lone Pine and found ourselves surrounded by the Sierra Nevada Mountain range including Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States. At the base of this mountain range lies the Alabama hills, a collection of ochre coloured Moore-esque rock formations that contrast with the snow peaked landscape backdrop.






We made our way up the valley, stopping off at the Owens Valley Radio Telescope facility. Similar to the VLA back in New Mexico, the facility consists of many moveable dishes that can be configured in several ways. The cover provided by the mountains on either side reduces wave interference from the nearby cities.  Further on is Yosemite, where kilometre high walls of rock rise from the valleys and waterfalls cascade from the mountaintops. A patina of sun-weathered stone has built up on the surface of the rock face, where the age and the history of the landscape can be read so easily.

After picking up our first speeding ticket we drove up past lake Tahoe and stopped off in Reno to visit the Landscape Futures exhibition at the Nevada museum of Art. The show includes a mechanical landscape representing the hydrological cycle and speculative proposals for bird sanctuaries sited on permafrost. We then crossed California to the large metropolitan area built around San Francisco Bay. A patina has formed on the clean grid structure of San Francisco as well. Areas of rich character such as Castro and China Town have been built up over many years and turn the city into a colourful hub that is a welcome break from the monotony of the cities of the Southwest. Highlights included seeing the skyline appear out of the fog as we arrived by crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and the de Young museum designed by Herzog de Meuron was another example of the cultural investment made by the city.




After a few days in SF we set off south on the final leg of our journey, down the Pacific Coastal Highway or route 1. 6 weeks after leaving the Atlantic and 8000 miles later, we finally set our eyes on the Pacific Ocean. Sites along the way include the Jamesburg Earth Station, the Vandenburg Air Force Base, the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power plant and lots of oil fields. After dipping in the ocean for a quick paddle we drove on, stopping for dinner in the very Californian city of Santa Barbara, before preparing to immerse ourselves in the urban endlessness of Los Angeles.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Las Vegas



As the skyline of the city rises up out of the horizon I feel a shot of excitement of a kind that I haven’t felt since we landed at JFK and saw Manhattan for the first time. You can’t go to Vegas if you’re going to try and take it seriously. It’s a city that is founded on people’s ignorance or reluctance to accept the inevitable (myself included). So don’t laugh too long at the tackiness of the midget Elvis’ or the fountains that dance to Celine Dion, because in the end they’ll have the last laugh. Your only real choice is to take a deep breath of the oxygen rich air that the casinos pump out in order to relax you, hit the strip and go with the flow. That way you might just get lucky, or if not, someone else will and then they’ll throw 100 $1 bills into the air outside the Venetian. (I got 3 dollars this way)

There’s not much point in trying to chronologically describe what we did, it’s just a blur of video poker, slots, roulette, blackjack, poker, all you can eat buffets and complimentary alcohol. Most of this occurred whilst sauntering from one climate controlled space to another, I don’t remember seeing the sun. Our base of operations was the Luxor, a giant hollowed out glass pyramid, which boasts both the brightest light in the world and the largest atrium. At $40 a night on a weekday, it’s cheaper to get a room here than at a Motel 6 on the outskirts of Cleveland. It’s a short walk from our room, down the Nesquik smelling corridor into the casino floor and then onto the strip.

The strip is composed from a framework of floor slab towers that have the most economical hotel room plan. Draped over this is an easily detachable themed fa├žade system and illuminated signage that can be removed and replaced in order to keep up to date with the ever-changing identity of Las Vegas. Below all these towers are the bunker-like labyrinthine casinos where, with no natural light or clocks, all perception of time is lost. To maximise foot traffic, an elaborate circulation system has been created linking everything together. Bridges, tunnels, trams, monorails, and travelators suck people from one den of iniquity and funnel them into the next. You can even take a rollercoaster, an inclinator (a diagonal elevator) or my personal favourite; the mythical spiral escalator in Caesars.








The constant cycle of construction and implosion in Vegas is crystallized in the Neon Graveyard Museum, a collection of old unwanted signs that once illuminated the strip. The now abandoned Sahara Casino, which is accessible through it’s liquidation sales program, is another legacy of a by-gone era. The no-longer illuminated palm tree park in front of the casino creates a very surreal experience, as though the desert has already begun to reclaim the land.

The fun can’t last forever; it’s time to go. But not before exchanging our beloved Prius at the Mccarran International Hertz, its wheels were getting dangerously worn. I wonder how far a forensic team could get at working out where we had driven, studying only the car and it’s contents. Trace amounts of cream cheese from a New York bagel; a ticket stub from a drive-in movie in Detroit; paintwork slightly damaged by the salty air from New Orleans; orange dust from monument valley found in the foot-wells. So now I’m writing this as we drive through Death Valley in our new Mitsubishi Spyder with the top down in the middle of the night. So I guess I won in the end, kind of.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The Wild West




New Mexico and Arizona feel in many ways like America’s backyard. The backyard of an eccentric amateur scientist whose half cooked experiments lie scattered around in the false hope of one day finishing them. The endless voids that make up most of this area are perfect for cordoning off and creating proving grounds for weapons testing or building giant interstellar radio-telescope facilities. Nestling between all of this is the greatest collection of natural phenomena that I can think of; we see just a snapshot of a constantly evolving landscape blistered and cut up by the processes of nature.

We spent the first night in Las Cruces, which, despite being New Mexico’s second City, was more just a collection of strip malls with fast food drive-thrus and Motels. Next-door is the White Sands Missile Range, which sits between two mountain spans and takes up a large central portion of New Mexico. As well as being the location of the first nuclear explosion, it also contains the White Sands National Monument, a small desert area of pure white sand dunes, set off by the deep blue skies.

We made a detour east so we could check out some of the oil fields near the town of Artesia. More impressive from Google Earth than from the ground, the autonomous oil pumpjacks majestically rock back and forth, gradually bringing oil to the surface whilst gas flares ignite and extinguish in the distant background. Driving through darkness further north and past the town of Roswell we came to the city of Albuquerque where we stayed for one night before we set off west again the next day.

Out in a large plateau in central western New Mexico sits the Very Large Array; a series of giant radio telescope dishes that crawl across the landscape and photograph distant celestial formations. When we visited the dishes had been deployed across a 9km stretch and so the impressive scale of the facility was somewhat diminished as they merged into the horizon. However, it was still fascinating that these structures can rip out ancient strands of radio waves from the ether and construct them into images of the universe.





We drove across the Apache Mountain range at sunset, not daring to take the dirt path up to the ghost town of Mogollon, and down toward the next stop, the incredible Pima Air & Space Museum over in Tucson, Arizona. An enormous collection of aircraft of all varieties is laid out from the SR 71 Blackbird to the Super Guppy. But if that isn’t enough, across the road is AMARG or as it’s more commonly known, the Boneyard. Billions of dollars worth of out of date military aircraft sit across thousands of acres of desert, held on to for safe keeping as a hoarder may keep newspapers that he knows he’ll never read. The highlight of the Boneyard is the 300 B-52s currently being broken up and cannibalised for parts to maintain those still in commission. The AMARG is a testament to the USA’s pioneering aviation legacy and serves as a relic to the excessive arms race fuelled by the Cold War.

Along the freeway sits Phoenix, the 6th largest city in the states, which spills out in every direction until it hits the mountains that surround it. The temperature hit a balmy 112 whilst we were there, enough to burn a hole in my iPod screen as it sat in the car. With little time to spend here, I spent most of it finding a Canon 70-200mm f4.0 USM Non-IS L Lens in preparation for the unique collection of natural wonders that sat to the north of us. As we drove up through Arizona the terrain quickly changed from a cactus strewn desert into canyons of fiery red rock. The old highway 89 winds up through the valleys, passing the ghost town of Jerome and up into the town of Sedona, a tourist resort city nestling in sunburnt red mesas. Further up the road is Grasshopper point, a freezing cold swimming hole that sits just near the Slide Rock state park.

Bypassing Flagstaff, the road led us to Meteor Crater, the site of a giant impact event that has been the source of much of our understanding about the collisions between planets and meteors. However, the extortionate entry price, lack lustre museum and lack of access to the actual crater somewhat detracted from the experience. Further north, we crossed the giant mesas of the Hopi reservation up into the Navajo Nation near Four Corners and over into Utah.

The entire Colorado plateau has been worn down by the gradual trickling of water and the effects of weathering until the landscape is strewn with unique formations of rock, sand and water. The sun picks out every hue in the dirt; blood reds, crimsons, deep oranges and scarlet; we’re basically on Mars. There is Ship Rock, a giant towering structure surrounded by nothing but plains. Valley of the Gods, a basin with a dirt loop you can drive around, allows you to become completely surrounded by giant cliffs and sit in an undulating surface of mesas and canyons.






Scenic Route 163 winds its way south before straightening out and off into the distance, beyond that stand the towering buttes of Monument valley. The image of the giant stacks of rock that shoot up from the desert floor is perhaps the most iconic of the Western American landscape. It’s strange to think that for millions of years this city of stone towers was just another part of the world’s surface, it’s exceptional nature ignored until the Native Americans first discovered it and settled here. Heading west once more there was just enough time to catch the sunset at a place called the Grand Canyon; it defines the act of being left speechless. After spending the best part of the next day looking around the Grand Canyon, one of the greatest natural phenomena in the world, we eventually left for Nevada, where perhaps one of the greatest man-made phenomena sits.


Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Texas



The scale of Texas can at times be disorientating, it’s easier to divide the day into distance rather than time. 200 miles to this place, 150 miles to the next and so on. It’s only once you can directly compare the size of the car against the vast expanses that stretch out in every distance that you get a proper sense for the epic scale of this country.

Shortly after leaving Louisiana, the corporate skyline of downtown Houston comes into focus. The now predictable format of high-rise cluster surrounded by sprawl that seems to be adopted by almost every American city is once again replicated here. Whilst the city clearly lacks any kind of genuine character, the mere arrogance and aggression that radiates off of the mirrored glass oil fortresses provides Houston with more than enough attitude to let you know you’ve arrived in Texas. After closely studying the schedule it became apparent there was just about enough time to squeeze in a 550 mile round trip detour to Dallas and Fort Worth.

The two brief stays in Houston and Dallas haven’t provided enough for me to make a fair comparison between the two, but from what I could see they are pretty similar, their freeway-encompassed downtowns could easily be mistaken for each other. We were in Dallas for one thing only; to once and for all solve the JFK assassination conspiracy, but without Jesse Ventura and June Sarpong on hand to help the trail quickly ran cold. We then traversed the Dallas-Fort Worth Metro-plex to see Tadao Ando’s Museum of Modern Art, which is probably one of the most translucent, and weightless concrete buildings I have ever visited.




We then megaloped down to Austin just in time to see the daily mass exodus at sunset of 1.5 million bats from below the Congress Avenue Bridge. After ribs in town we filled up on gas and supplies and headed west out into the desert. The terrain dries out into parched fields of dehydrated plants that rolls off into distant mountain ranges, time to whip out the Ennio Morricone playlist. We stopped off at Luckenbach which was billed to me as a “Ghost Town” but in fact was now a venue for hire that had a wedding going on and was far more lively than any of the cities we had visited.

We took the I-10 across the desert, taking full advantage of the 80 MPH limit and after about 450 miles finally pulled into Alpine, deep in South West Texas. The small town of Marfa lies about 20 miles down the road and is the random location of the Chinati Foundation, a series of exhibition halls filled with art by world famous artists, as well as several other artistic endeavours. The foundation provides 6 hour long tours of the work of Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. Fortunately for us we arrived too late to get on the list and chose instead to head to another ghost town of Shafter which was largely fenced off and somewhat disappointing. A border patrol checkpoint reminded us of how close Mexico is and of the astronomical amounts of violence that occurs only a few miles away.










On our way toward El Paso we stopped off at the most remote Prada Store in the world and then another slightly more rewarding ghost town next to a talc factory. As night fell and a fantastic sunset bled into the sky we slipped through El Paso trying not to look too suspicious as we drove around the federal facilities that make up the down town area, trying to find somewhere to eat. It wasn't long before we got out and headed north, crossing state lines and into New Mexico.


New Orleans



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